John Naviaux, an undergraduate student at UC Irvine, compared the greenhouse gas benefits of getting people out of their cars and onto buses and found that, while it saved a little carbon dioxide, it wasn’t worth the huge subsidies required. As his faculty mentor, David Brownstone, comments, “there are no significant CO2 emissions benefits from moving a traveler from a personal automobile to an Orange County urban bus. This is a strong negative result since the Orange County bus fleet is among the cleanest in the world with almost all buses running on natural gas, and this shows that it will be difficult to reduce CO2 emissions in the U.S. by simply getting more people to use urban mass transit.”
The Antiplanner has the highest respect for Dr. Brownstone, but there may be a couple of problems with Naviaux’s paper. First, he counted all the subsidies to bus transit against the savings in greenhouse gas emissions. Transit advocates would be quick to point out that there are supposedly other benefits from transit, so greenhouse gas reductions are merely the icing on the proverbial cake.
Even if you don’t buy this argument–and the Antiplanner thinks the social benefits of transit are a lot smaller than many transit advocates claim–Naviaux compared the average emissions from cars with the average emissions from existing buses and the average subsidies from running those buses. But many conceivable bus improvements could significantly increase average bus occupancies at a very low marginal cost.
A new report from two pro-transit groups, the Frontier Group and the Transit Center, argues that allowing employers to deduct parking costs from their income when calculating their profits (and, thereby, their taxes) represents a $7 billion subsidy to driving. This subsidy, the report claims, adds significantly to highway congestion.
Baloney. First of all, just like providing office space to office workers and factory space to factory workers, providing parking is a cost of doing business. No one would argue that employers should charge their employees rent for the office or factory space they use. Why should employers charge for parking space?
Second, even if this were a subsidy, it has nothing to do with traffic congestion. The report claims that ending the tax break would reduce auto commuting by 2 percent. That’s probably high: just ending the tax break wouldn’t necessarily cause all employers to begin to charge for parking. But even if the number is accurate, the authors clearly don’t understand how congestion works.
Last week, the director of the Civil Rights Division for Denver’s Regional Transit District (RTD), Kenneth Hardin, was indicted for having allegedly “corruptly solicited and accepted money from a person intending to be influenced and rewarded in connection with RTD business.” While no further details were provided by the U.S. Attorney’s office in Denver, it is reasonable to speculate that Hardin is being accused of accepting a bribe to give a minority preference to a potential contractor that wasn’t really minority owned.
Federal regulations require transit agencies that receive federal funding “To ensure nondiscrimination in the award and administration of DOT-assisted contracts.” The best way to “ensure nondiscrimination,” the regulations go on to say, is to set aside a specific percentage of contracts for “disadvantaged business enterprises.” By definition, a “disadvantaged business” is one that is at least 51 percent owned by minorities, women, or other “individuals who are both socially and economically disadvantaged.”
In other words, and something that will not surprise anyone familiar with American civil rights laws, the rules require that agencies ensure nondiscrimination through discrimination. In RTD’s case, the agency is committed to making sure that at least 15 percent of its contracts go to disadvantaged businesses, and Hardin’s job was making sure that happened.
A couple of the Antiplanner’s faithful allies have presented recent research that is worth noting. First, Alan Pisarski, perhaps the nation’s leading expert on commuting trends, takes a look at highway use and the induced demand myth.
His first conclusion is that the recent halt in the growth of driving is due to the economy. Inflation-adjusted per capita incomes today are still below what they were in 2007, so it is natural to expect that driving would be lower. In 2013, however, auto purchases grew and he anticipates that miles of driving will soon start growing at least in pace with the population.
Second, Pisarski points out that new highways may result in more driving, but this is a positive benefit, not an argument for not building more roads. Highway “expansion improves and expands choice for both previous and new users,” he says. “Wouldn’t it be nice if transportation did not impede people from acting on their economic and social interests?”
Nationwide, the average worker spends 24.7 minutes, each way, traveling to and from work. People who drive alone spend 24.4 minutes; people who carpool spend 28.0 minutes; people who walk take 11.9 minutes; and people who take transit take 48.7 minutes.
In other words, people who take transit spend almost exactly twice as much time en route as people who drive alone. Why? The simple answer is that transit is slower. But this flies in the face of the idea that people have a travel-time budget that limits the total amount of time they are willing to spend traveling each day (or week).
Is the travel-time budget idea wrong? Or do people who take transit have different travel-time budgets than people who drive? Or is the travel-time budget different if, when you are traveling, you can relax and read your iPad or do something else entertaining than if you have to face the work and stresses of driving?
Someone recently asked the Antiplanner whether electric trolley buses or buses powered by compressed natural gas (CNG) were a good alternative to light rail. My initial response was, “why do we need any alternative other than ordinary buses?” But I decided to take a look at the data in the 2012 National Transit Database to be sure that was an appropriate answer.
Five cities–Boston, Dayton, Philadelphia, Seattle, and San Francisco–still operate electric trolley buses. Ten major transit agencies fuel their buses exclusively or almost exclusively with CNG. Only one major transit agency uses liquid natural gas, and one uses a combination of CNG and LNG. Finally, five major transit agencies fuel their buses exclusively or almost exclusively with biodiesel.
My calculations for energy efficiency in BTUs per passenger mile and for greenhouse gas emissions in grams of CO2 per passenger mile are shown in the table below. The calculations are based on standard factors for BTUs per gallon of fuel and pounds of CO2 per million BTUs of fuel. For comparison, I’ve included the average of all motor buses, light rail, cars, and the Toyota Prius. The last column in the table shows passenger miles per vehicle revenue mile, or the average number of occupants on board the vehicle. In the table, “Electricity” refers to buses powered by overhead trolley wires.
Something calling itself the “Accessibility Observatory” at the University of Minnesota has mapped transit accessibility for most of the nation’s 50 largest urban areas (Jacksonville, Memphis, Oklahoma City, and Richmond were left out for lack of transit data). Different colors on the maps show how many jobs are accessible from each point within 30 minutes by transit.
Click image to download report.
“At the highest levels,” gushes the report, “millions of jobs are accessible by transit within 30 minutes.” To be precise, millions of jobs are accessible by transit in Manhattan. In Chicago, the nation’s second-largest concentration of jobs, under a million jobs are accessible. San Francisco is under 750,000 jobs; Portland is under 500,000 jobs, and places like Tampa are under 250,000.
According to pro-rail transit Metro magazine, American cities face a dilemma: the demand for rail transit continues to grow, yet there is a scarcity of federal dollars to pay for it. Fortunately, writer Cliff Henke continues, cities have come up with innovative ways to get around this scarcity.
In fact, most of the things the article says are wrong or, at least, they indicate that cities have too much money, not a shortage. If it weren’t for this surfeit of funds, cities wouldn’t plan ridiculously expensive rail lines that, in most cases, do nothing for transit riders or transportation users in general. This is shown by all of the examples in his article.
The Overpriced Los Angeles Subway: The first example in the article is Los Angeles’ Westside Subway, which will be less than four miles long yet is expected to cost well over $2.8 billion, or more than $725 million per mile. This insane project is expected to attract just 7,700 new transit riders per day. That means the cost of getting one person out of their car for one trip on the subway will be $65. (I calculated this by amortizing the capital costs over 30 years at 2 percent interest, multiplying the daily new trips by 315, which is the average weekday trips per year on L.A.’s existing subway, and dividing annual new trips into the sum of the annual operating and annualized capital costs.)
Advancing its “regional transit equity” plan, the Twin Cities Metropolitan Council issued a press release last week announcing it has received a $3.26 million federal grant to build or “enhance” 140 bus shelters. This money is matched, on a one-to-four basis, with $815,000 of local funds, meaning each bus shelter will cost a whopping $29,000.
Meanwhile, the Met Council is twisting the arms of city officials to gain support for a $1.7-billion light-rail line extending from Minneapolis to Eden Prairie, which is probably the Twin Cities’ wealthiest suburb. Three (out of 13) members of the Minneapolis city council voted against the project, partly due to concerns over transit equity.
“If we think equity means maybe we might build some heated bus stops in north Minneapolis sometime in the future that we can’t promise or guarantee and we won’t tell you where they’ll be, then good for us for standing up for equity,” one of the councilors who voted “no” sarcastically stated.
Utah Transit Authority executives are overcompensated, the agency has underfunded its high rail maintenance costs, its bus service has suffered due to financial constraints, concludes the Utah State Legislative Auditor. Moreover, as reported in the Salt Lake Tribune, the agency’s fare structure makes the poor subsidize the rich, which the agency has signed cushy deals with developers that sometimes financially benefit agency board members.
Sounds like a typical rail transit agency. Naturally, the agency claims (in an appendix to the report) that it is innocent of any wrongdoing. However, it cannot deny that bus service (as measured by vehicle revenue miles) declined nearly 20 percent between 2009 and 2012, years in which the agency spent close to #1 billion on commuter trains that, as of 2012, were carrying fewer than 3,200 round trips per day.
The American Public Transit Association recently named Utah Transit the transit system of the year. But it’s clear from past awards that APTA admires agencies that are best able to con taxpayers out of their money, not ones that provide the best service to transit riders. UTA, which is proud of spending more per capita than any other transit agency, seems to have done a good job of conning taxpayers. Let’s hope audits like this one will open their eyes.