Thursday, December 8, 2011

What Ever Happened to the People Mover? Or, How Federal Priorities Shape Local Transportation Investment

Eric Jaffe at The Atlantic Cities writes about the downtown people movers that were once seen as the future of urban transport. The link is here. From the story:
The "downtown people mover" is an automated, driverless transit car that most people, such as Lyle Lanley, would call a monorail. The monorail will end up an asterisk in the annals of urban transport, but there was a brief moment in history when it was the next great thing. In mid-1970s, at the peak of its potential, nearly 70 cities wrote the government expressing interest in building an automated transit system. In the end only three were completed.
The "peak of its potential" is a bit misleading, however. From later in the story:
 In the early 1970s, several airports embraced this type of technology. But cities didn't give it serious consideration. Congress was ticked, so it did what it often does when upset: issued another report [PDF]. This one urged the government to encourage urban automated transport projects through capital grants issued to suitable applicants. Sixty-eight cities replied with interest in this Downtown People Movers program, and 38 submitted full-blown proposals.
But the start of the Reagan administration brought with it a reduction in federal support for people movers, and in the end only three were completed: in Miami, Detroit, and Jacksonville.
The promise of federal money created the demand for 68 projects and 38 proposals at a time transit systems were suffering from disinvestment and rapidly declining ridership. The Detroit People Mover is now in danger of shutting down as it strains public budgets. The Miami service still operates, but overall people movers were examples of technological fetishes that favor specific modes rather than actual service improvements or improving transit service for users.

Technological fetishes are common, and too often federal dollars generate demand for technology rather than improved mobility and access. The U.S. is now going through a "streetcar revival." The US DOT claims that streetcars will lead to more mobility and more jobs. First the jobs:
One important benefit of America's streetcar revival is the return of domestic streetcar manufacturing and the jobs that industry will create.  The Tucson project, for example, has already ordered cars from theOregon Iron Works.  And Rockwell Automation, in Wisconsin, has engineered the first domestic streetcar propulsion technology in a generation.  Three other US companies have expressed interest in manufacturing girder rail for streetcar systems.  I think you'll agree that a new segment of American manufacturing is a very promising development.
I'm not wild about using transportation planning as industrial policy, but that's what is happening here. By justifying streetcars as a manufacturing issue we have to keep building streetcar systems to support the industry. Considering the precarious state of federal funding for transit, no one should count on permanent growth for this sector.  This Inhabitat post helps explain why we are going through a streetcar revival:
Urban greenies across the US may finally get what they desire — streetcar lines in their home cities. Due to a change in federal transportation policy under President Obama, 22 American cities are reportedly considering building or expanding streetcar lines. Not only would the streetcar construction help revitalize many American cities, it could promote greater adoption of public transit and decrease reliance on cars.
When Obama took office, the administration made it easier for cities to obtain federal funds in order to build or expand streetcar lines. This past February, the Department of Transportation gave grants to Tucson, Detroit, Dallas, New Orleans and Portland to create new streetcar lines. A total of 22 US cities are reportedly considering streetcars, including Los Angeles, Baltimore and Atlanta, among other towns. If the cities secure funding, construction could start within the next year or two.
 In the past few years the number of cities pursuing streetcars increased from one or two locally financed projects (including yet another Detroit project) to dozens because of federal preferences for the technology. The only reason there is a revival is because the US government is paying for it, not because transit riders are demanding it. Riders want better service to where they want and need to go and are much less concerned with the modal technology.

Going back to the US DOT post, there is this claim:
 Streetcars foster livability.  They connect urban destinations and spur redevelopment of urban spaces into walkable mixed use, high-density communities.  Transportation projects like streetcars spark America’s neighborhoods into become safer, healthier and more vibrant.  In fact, in several cities, streetcars are reviving some of the very same neighborhoods they once helped create. 
Transportation can't be all things to all people, and I say that as someone who really likes transportation and thinks everything has a transportation angle. I wish transit investment had magical properties to create jobs, revitalize US manufacturing, create high density communities and spark safer, healthier and vibrant neighborhoods. But it doesn't, at least not as a primary cause. (Does anyone else still consider that travel is largely derived demand? This characteristic of travel is ignored in the political fights over transport investment.) If transit investment was a magical as the US DOT says it is, then there is no reason that the US DOT needs to set priorities and provide funding*. If transportation and transit was as transformative as claimed, then cities and states should have no problem paying for new projects.  Ultimately, however, transportation investment (transit or otherwise) simply redistributes economic activity rather than create new economic activity**.

 But in the end, many of these streetcar projects will make traffic congestion and pollution worse by operating in mixed-traffic***, offer slow travel speeds (due to the congestion) and further strain transit agencies operating budgets and shift resources away from buses and other existing services. As for walkable, mixed-use, high-density communities, you don't need transit investment for those. Cities just have to change the zoning code (there are many ways to do this) and lenders have to finance the projects.

Federal funding can help overcoming status quo bias by offering other peoples money to finance new projects. But by attaching modal technologies to funding the US government only ensures that cities will apply for the favored technologies rather than making investments that make the most sense in a local context. People movers, commuter rail, light rail, streetcars, and maybe high speed rail have all had their time in the sun thanks to federal involvement. The Interstates were jammed through cities in part because of federal involvement. Even the reviled Robert Moses was after Interstates because of the federal money attached to them. (Remember, he couldn't toll the Interstates directly so they didn't increase the wealth of his fiefdom except through construction.)

Overall, federal involvement distorts transport investment in ways that should make auto enthusiasts and transit advocates queasy. I suspect that federal involvement in transport investment has peaked, but as long as federal dollars come with strings attached we will still pursue the latest incarnation of the people mover as preferences change. I really hope that the next trend isn't pod cars.

*For instance, if California high speed rail is as special as the promoters say it is then it would be irresponsible for California not to build it and there shouldn't be any need for any type of federal subsidy. You could just charge each of the expected 60 million California residents to pony up their contribution of $1,600 each to build the system, plus the cost of tickets.

** For instance, current practice in the UK for evaluating high speed rail is to assume the net effect on the real economy of high speed rail investment is zero. This reflects that activities will shift around the country but new activity will not likely materialize. The UK government assumes that transport investment only affects the the location, not scale or efficiency, of economic activity. See David Banister and Mark Thurstain-Goodwin (2010) "Quantification of the non-transport benefits resulting from rail investment," Journal of Transport Geography.  David Banister has written other articles and books about this issue.

**See Re´my Prud’homme, MartinKoning, and PierreKopp (2011) "Substituting a tramway to a bus line in Paris : Costs and benefits," Transport Policy 18, pp. 563-572. Not only did traffic get worse, CO2 emissions increased. The effects were not uniformly spread across the Paris region, however. Some areas improved, but the net effect was negative.

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