Friday, March 21, 2014

There Isn't a Surge in Transit Ridership

Mike Smart, Mike Manville and I wrote an op-ed in today's Washington Post.  The recent APTA ridership report claims that transit ridership is surging, and we argue that this is simply not true:
But the association’s numbers are deceptive, and this interpretation is wrong. We are strong supporters of public transportation, but misguided optimism about transit’s resurgence helps neither transit users nor the larger traveling public. Transit trips did rise between 2008 and 2013. But so did the U.S. population, from 304 million to 316 million, as did the total number of trips made. Simple division suggests that, if anything, transit use fell between 2008 and 2013, from about 35 trips per person annually to 34. Many numbers look impressive without denominators, but anyone who examines transit use as a rate — whether as trips per person or share of total travel — will find that transit is a small and stagnant part of the transportation system.
We argue:
So there is no national transit boom. Why does this matter? The U.S. transportation system is deeply troubled. The country has difficulty financing improvements to its aging infrastructure, and heavy reliance on driving creates congestion, increases carbon missions, pollutes our communities, and is a leading cause of injury and death. No one should pretend these problems are spontaneously solving themselves because Americans have decided en masse to ride transit instead of driving. 
Nor should we misdiagnose problems caused by too much driving as problems caused by too little transit. Building transit systems is not the same as having people ride them, and people riding transit more is not the same as people driving less (plenty of transit riders are people who used to walk). Additionally, transit is not the only viable alternative to using a car. The environment is helped when drivers switch to buses but also when drivers switch to bikes.
Do read the whole thing for a more complete argument. I actually find the recent transit ridership statistics deeply troubling and suggestive that transit might be losing core riders at the expense of system expansions. This, of course, needs additional research, but we should not think that our current approach to transit is working well. We should be outraged at how little actual effect the billions and billions and billions of dollars of investment have produced. We can and should do better with our public transit investment.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Can Move NY Overcome Credible Commitment Problems?

Eric Jaffe writes about Move NY* at the Atlantic Cities. In the piece he highlights some work that Mike Manville and I did on credible commitment:
Some transportation experts worry that a pricing plan won't even advance to the point of debating the economic and equity questions. Over the years some notable pricing plans — Hong Kong in the 1980s, Edinburgh in 2005 — failed to get off the ground because residents lacked faith in the funding agency to manage the new revenue. Scholars Michael Manville of Cornell and David King of Columbia call this the "credible commitment" problem of congestion pricing. A few years back, Manville and King interviewed 50-some officials in Los Angeles about road pricing. About a third explicitly said they would not support a congestion plan because they didn't trust state officials to redistribute the toll revenue as promised, the same share who feared that pricing might be unfair to the poor.

"What happens is, absent that trust, that sort of revenue promise doesn't necessarily lead to the kind of political support you might think," says Manville. "In some ways, what people were saying is it would never get far enough for pricing's regressivity to be a problem, because we would just never see this money." 
Considering the emphasis Move NY's plan places on revenue redistribution, not to mention the MTA's own mixed record of public promises, those findings give reason for pause. The way around the commitment problem, says Manville, is to stress the traffic benefits that a strong pricing plan will bring, as opposed to the revenue gains. Some believe the best way forward is to run a pilot project first, as officials did in Stockholm.

The Atlantic Cities piece nicely describes many of the problems and opportunities for the Move NY plan. Revenue distribution sounds good for assembling coalitions, but these opportunities are constrained by trust. Hopefully such concerns can be overcome.

In earlier work Mike, Donald Shoup and I looked at the politics of congestion pricing, short and ungated version available here.




*Just as a point of disclosure I have informally and infrequently consulted with Move NY on their plans.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Santiago and Transport Innovation

A couple of weeks ago I spent a few days in Santiago, Chile. This is a really underrated city that should be much higher on people’s lists to visit. The city is in the central valley of the country and is surrounded by mountains. The layout is fairly flat and easy to walk around. In some ways it reminds me of bits and pieces of California, which to my mind is a good thing. A couple of standout features include the La Vega Marquette, which is one of the “world’s best markets” according to a few travel guides. Another unique piece are the "cafes with legs" downtown that have servers dressed like they are going out to nightclubs. It’s quite a scene.

Beyond the regular cultural attractions as to why someone might go to Santiago, such as the castle in the middle of town, the city has a really interesting group of transportation policies that are of note. It even seems that Santiago has a willingness to experiment in ways that other cities haven’t.

In certain circles of which I may or may not run, Santiago is best known for their bus service experimentation where drivers were paid under one of two systems. They were either paid a fixed wage, or they were paid by the total number of passengers transported. This is innovation! It also may not be the best approach. According to this paper passenger dwell times decreased as bunching declined, but drivers drove much more aggressively and caused many more crashes. The lesson is that bus drivers should not be incentivized to pick up as many passengers as possible as this leads to inefficient and deadly competition. These compensation policies have changed.

I was extremely impressed with the downtown commercial area, which has converted (? I think converted but maybe they were always this way. In any event the paseos of Santiago are well known.) all streets to pedestrian streets. There are some cross-streets open to vehicle traffic. This is a great place to walk around. The cafes have standing tables where the street would be, there are other vendors and seemingly plenty of places to sit and linger. In my walking about (which was over 13 miles for the day, so I feel like I saw a nice slice of the city) I never was overwhelmed by curb cuts or space devoted to parking.  This may be a problem elsewhere in the city, but not where I was.

Santiago also has these awesome running man countdown clocks, which encourage RUNNING before time expires. Sort of like a video game. I watched cycle after cycle, but it does seem that you die if you don’t make it across the street in time.


I can’t say that the interior mall just off the centro was as successful. It was empty and prime space was occupied by a strip club, which was bad in the sense that it occupied lots of wall space that was just empty and had no windows—no free shows. A different outdoor mall north of the centro was a fairly typical upscale outdoor mall that you might find in the US, but had lots of bike parking in the interior:



There were lots of cyclists. Most were dressed like people but a surprisingly (to me) large share were dressed in the fancy bicycling outfits so common in the US.  I was staying in a relatively upscale area, so my observations may be skewed a bit, but overall lots of bikes, and mostly mountain bikes ridden by young adults and seemingly middle class folks. It is a very good city for biking.

Santiago takes their transit seriously now. A few years ago they reorganized the transit systems and built dedicated bus lanes through the center. See this post for details about the 2007 restructuring, which was major. The bus stops are impressive with lots of useful information and a meaningful presence on the street. The streets downtown have two dedicated lanes for buses and taxis, which is really how these things should be done.  






The freeways are tolled for free flow traffic. I was only on the freeways for my taxi rides to and from the airport, but I will attest that these trips were in free flow conditions. I don’t think there are any other cities that take this approach to the entire urban freeway network, and the fact that I didn’t know this before I went suggests that not enough people are looking to Santiago for research.

In parts of the city where the freeways run parallel to the river they have been covered with parks, which are then seamlessly integrated into the park system that runs along the river. The park along the river is great and good for running, cycling, walking or whatever. The have concerts, art installations and other good stuff there, too.

As a point of interest, here is the tallest building inLatin America. I stayed nearby.


So my advice is to go to Santiago.  It is a great city that really is at the forefront of many transport policies. I look forward to working with colleagues there about their transportation issues.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Lisa Schweitzer's Planning Ethics Syllabus

Michael Munger highlights a session in Lisa Schweitzer's Planning Ethics course that I really like: Kids Prefer Cheese: Wind-Fall Profits? Grand Game!



I thank Lisa for this as I will happily borrow her example for my Transport Economics and Finance course next fall. Planners need to pay attention to rent seeking, among other economic concepts, now more than ever.

Friday, February 14, 2014

My Curmudgeonly Take on Sneckdowns

Sneckdowns are a thing. First coined by Streetfilms’ Clarence Eckerson all the way back in 2006, now everybody is on the lookout. Some have called it the winter of the transportation nerd. The gist is that vehicle paths through the snow in streets show that vehicles don’t use the whole street for mobility most of the time. This is a clever idea presented as a collection of suggestive anecdotes. The popularity and fervor that people seem to be embracing the concept worries me that sneckdowns will lead to bad policy.

First off, however, this post is not meant to troll or anything of the sort.  I think roads are overbuilt and we damage our neighborhoods by designing for cars and trucks over people. That said, I have two main complaints about sneckdowns.
1)     To be unnecessarily jargon-y about it, sneckdowns are observational data for partial equilibrium models. Partial equilibrium is where your observed effect holds if all else is held constant. PE isn’t stable. Neither are sneckdowns because they reflect driver activity under unusual conditions, namely snow and ice. When it snows drivers behave differently than they do when conditions are ideal (hence not everything is equal). Drivers follow the tire tracks left before, for instance, and they drive slower and more cautiously. Such behavior is also true for pedestrians and cyclists! Everybody moves differently in slipperly conditions, then once desire paths are established they get followed. Here is a picture of a Harlem sidewalk after a snow but before it was cleared. You can clearly see that people follow previous footsteps. No one would argue this is evidence that the sidewalk is too wide:


Below is a picture of the Columbia campus, and most of the time people are walking all over the place, but since paths are established people use them. This does not mean that Columbia should get rid of all the space not currently used by people walking around, unless of course any new construction was for new Urban Planning faculty offices. Local roads are bigger than they need be, but sneckdown behaviors are caused by and reinforced by the weather and residual snow conditions.

2)     So my first point was really curmudgeonly, but my second point is my larger concern in that we shouldn’t argue about allocating space for modes by how much specific parts of infrastructure are used. That is an argument that bikes and pedestrians will lose. Arguing over perceived underutilized road space is what led to awful policies such as allowances for hybrids in carpool lanes, for instance.  If you observe a bus stop you might conclude that they are underused, too, as most of the time the stop is empty.  But that’s not an argument for getting rid of bus stops. Most sidewalks are underused, but that doesn’t mean we should get rid of sidewalks or make them narrower.

Sneckdowns are a clever way for looking at street space usage, but let’s not get carried away. While I think we should make pedestrians the primary focus of street and sidewalk design, arguing such a normative view from pseudo-empirical sneckdown claims will be a losing effort and may lead to even more stupid policy. There is a fine line between stupid and clever

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Atlanta's Snow Troubles: Are a Lack of Regionalism and Transit to Blame?

The Atlanta region was hit with a winter storm that covered the city in a few inches of snow and caused massive disruptions, congestion and essentially brought the region to a halt. This is unfortunate, and as many metro areas deal with a few inches of snow on a regular basis it seems that the situation in Atlanta should be avoidable. As a technical issue, sure, the technology exists to clear snow and train drivers. As a political and economic issue, the case is less clear.

There are many articles quick to blame automobility on Atlanta’s weather related troubles. Here is one, and another. Two themes stand out in these critiques. First, the Atlanta region doesn’t practice regionalism adequately, and second, because of a lack of regionalism there is inadequate transit. From the Politico piece:

If Atlanta, the region, wants to get serious about public safety, its mayors, county officials, and state officials will need to start practicing regionalism instead of paying lip service to it. And whether threatened by a dangerous pandemic, a major catastrophe, or just two inches of snow, we need to have ways to get around—and out of—the city other than by car.


Again, there are lots of regions that are fragmented politically and are auto dependent that deal with a few inches of snow on a regular basis. It is not obvious that these are the real problems here.  

Let’s say Atlanta suddenly discovers regionalism and builds lots of transit. What can be expected? Judging by other regions, probably a situation very similar to what has happened. A few rails lines at a cost of many billions of dollars will not do much to alleviate traffic. The existing transit (MARTA) was unable to maintain operations as it was. So is there anything Atlanta can do?

Consider all those pesky auto oriented metros around the country. What they have that Atlanta doesn’t are lots of snowplows with drivers, sand and salt, and plans in place to clear the roads. This is what is missing in Atlanta. From a CNN piece:
"I've been on the road for over 16 hours now. I've not seen anybody out," he said. "They've done nothing. I have seen literally hundreds of cars parked on the side of the road. I saw a lady carrying her kid in a blanket down the side of the road. I mean, people going the wrong way on major, major interstates. It's scary stuff."

This highlights the real trade off. How much should Atlanta pay for equipment they will rarely need? Also from CNN:
"We simply have never purchased the amount of equipment necessary," he said Wednesday. "Why would you in a city that gets one snow event every three years? Why would you buy 500 snowplows and salt trucks and have them sit around for 1,000 days, waiting for the next event?"

Is investing in such equipment a good deal? We can do a cost benefit analysis of this if we want, which I don’t want to right now. I will say that buying 500 snowplows and salt trucks is probably an investment of around $50 million. That is enough to keep Atlanta running in the occasional event of snow. It is also far cheaper than building new transit as a redundant system to manage the same snow events.


None of this is to say that transit in Atlanta is a bad investment. I’m sure that it is worthwhile. The point is that transit is not a cost effective or timely solution to the problems Atlanta faced this week. Even if Atlanta starts building transit now it will be a couple of decades before it makes much of a difference at a regional scale. There are far cheaper ways--such as owning plows and salt--that would have improved the lives for most people in the region rather than the small share who would have actually been able to take advantage of a hoped for transit system.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Getting the Dependent Variable Right: Trips versus Distance Traveled

There is no question that in the United States driving is declining, and that Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) have also declined in absolute and in per capita terms. There are questions as to why, however.  It’s important to understand why and how travel is declining, and we have decades of research that suggests that people consume travel in economically predictable ways by consuming more or less based on income. USPIRG and others are reluctant to view economic reasons as the main cause of the observed decline in distance traveled.  I don’t think distance is a particularly good dependent variable on which to analyze economic factors, though, as annualized distance traveled doesn’t really tell us anything about the economic value of travel. A better metric for understanding the economic factors associated with declining travel is trips, especially trips by purpose. What the data show is not just that people are driving fewer miles, they are also taking fewer trips. 

Personal travel has some economic characteristics that are especially relevant here. Personal travel is a normal good in that as income goes up people will consume more of it. This also means that as income declines people will consume less of it. Conversely, transit, certainly as practiced in the US, has many characteristics of an inferior good where demand declines as income goes up (remember I’m talking about inferior goods as an economic concept. This has nothing to do with the actual quality of transit service.). This is because people replace transit trips with auto trips (or walking trips in certain areas such as parts of Manhattan) as they can afford it.  Now, perhaps since there are lots of new rail systems that were designed specifically to attract people who would otherwise drive we shouldn’t view transit as an inferior good in all situations. I suspect this is true in some cases, but not in most.

The other economic characteristic of personal travel is that it is a derived demand, and distance traveled is a function of the trip demanded. This means that, by and large, people travel because of what they want to do at their destination: work, shop, eat, school, etc. Some of these destinations are close and some are far, but rarely do people decide how far to travel before they decide where to go. As economic conditions for individuals and households change, especially decline, they are likely to make fewer trips out of the home, which will lead to less distance traveled. This is especially true if the areas declining economically are sprawled metros. If trips are declining is sprawling areas then this will lead to unusually large distance traveled declines in surprising areas. 

An an example of the economic value of travel, if a person drives to get a hamburger the value of the trip (utility) is derived from eating the hamburger, not the distance the restaurant is from their house. If someone drives two miles for a hamburger the utility of the trip is nearly identical to driving one mile for the same hamburger, as the marginal cost of the additional mile is small. It certainly isn't the case that the two mile trip has twice the economic value as the one mile trip. 

A more accurate way of looking at the economic influences of personal travel is to look at trips, in part because personal travel is mostly non-work and non-commuting. Looking at data presented in Commuting in America III highlights some of the issues with trips. (The .pdf is secured so copying the tables is more time  consuming than I will take time to do here, but you can read the tables in the report.) Table 1-1 shows the relations between person trips and person miles of travel. Only 18% of distance traveled is due to commuting. Figure 1-2 shows the trips per capita by type for the past few decades (all data from NHTS/NPTS). The number of work trips is fairly stable at just over .5 per capita per day. Personal business and social trips are where the increase in travel happened, where these now consume over three trips person per day, which is about doubles from the late 1970s. The CiAIII report also shows that work trips have declined as a share of overall travel (by trip and total distance) substantially.  According to the 2009 NHTS average annual miles traveled getting to and from work have declined since their 1995 survey (Table 5 below and available at the link above.) The number of commute trips has declined in the same period, too, from 676 per person per year to 541. Moreover, the average distance traveled per trip (for all trips) increased slightly from 11.7 miles to 11.9 between 2001 and 2009.


Table 8 in the 2009 NHTS report shows person trips by household income, and it shows that as income increases the number of trips taken increases (trips as a normal good). Table 11 shows miles per trip type, and it shows that the total number of commute trips per person has declined along with miles traveled. In addition, all trip types have declined in number per day. Looking at Table 6, the average vehicle trip length is largely the same between 2001 and 2009. (Check the link for the tables as I don't want to make this post longer than it already is.) Taken all together, it seems likely that the decline in distance traveled is due to a decline in the number of trips taken. I argue that this is an important distinction when we think about policy.

If we think that people are doing all the travel that they used to but are now traveling shorter distances, then the natural policy response is to physically rearrange our cities. I suspect this is a reason that the VMT declines are so compelling to urbanists who prefer compact development, as their desired urban form happens to be useful policy in this case. Yet the decline is distance traveled is less associated with compact physical structure of cities and more associated with fewer trips taken. One way we know this is that metro areas were continuing to sprawl as distance declined.  If anything, the decline is distance traveled is associated with the suburbanization of employment, shopping, entertainment and recreation. There is evidence that this is the case. Ultimately, while some downtowns and town centers are doing very well at attracting new residents, the total number of people moving to these locations is fairly small (maybe a couple of hundred thousand across the country so far, and that’s a generous estimate) and not enough to offset the decline in distance driven. Nor are people substituting transit for driving in any great number. In some cases, it is absolutely happening, but most of the driving that is no longer happening cannot be reasonably substituted to transit.

If, instead, we consider that people are not traveling as far because they are not traveling as often, then we may be looking at behavioral responses to declining utility of travel. Why are people not taking trips they used to?

Here are some reasons, all of which have economic justifications related to the economic characteristics of personal travel mentioned above. These are also global conditions, which fit with observed declined in travel in developed countries around the world.
  •       Household structure has changed. People are putting off having kids, and kids are associated with a lot of travel.
  •        Families with children have fewer children. This is especially true for wealthier households.
  •        Young people are broke and unemployed with lousy job prospects.
  •        Cars are increasing in costs faster than inflation.
  •        Consumption trips are substituted for delivery.
  •        The relationship between workers and office/factory is changing.
  •        There is an upper limit constraint on how much travel people will consume in any day.


There are good reasons to believe that automobility hasreached “peak utility,” but this doesn’t necessarily mean that other modes will be the beneficiaries. It may just mean that people don’t travel as often.