Thursday, March 14, 2013

Eric Goldwyn on the Limits of BRT

Bus Rapid Transit is great, and I largely support BRT efforts around the globe. But as Columbia University Urban Planning PhD candidate (and my co-author on other work) Eric Goldwyn argues at The Atlantic Cities, BRT is subject to technological fetishism just like other transport modes. Drawing on research he did in Cape Town he concludes:
BRT has great potential to revolutionize the image and efficacy of public transport in the 21st century, but officials need to show greater sensitivity to city-specific context rather than chasing a technological ideal. What worked in Bogota is not working in Cape Town. Public transportation riders will be better served when their public servants continuously monitor, revisit, and tweak these new systems.
In other BRT news, Streetsblog Chicago interviewed Walter Hook of ITDP about ITDP's BRT scoring system to hopefully correct some of the problems discussed by Eric Goldwyn.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Lisa Schweitzer on Decentralized Transport Funding

Eric Jaffe at the Atlantic Cities wrote a great piece on the opportunities and challenges of decentralizing transport finance. I am quoted:
"I'd expect under a decentralized system we'd see more variation across metropolitan areas," says planner David King of Columbia University. "We don't necessarily have shared needs, or homogenous needs across the country, when it comes to what we need for transportation."
King and others in the decentralization camp note that the federal government frequently gets transport policy wrong. Financial and housing incentives used during the interstate construction era led, in large part, to the sprawl that's crippling metropolitan areas today. There's widespread feeling that federal involvement in transportation has resulted in more roads and rails than America needs, with the prospect of free federal money encouraging questionable projects — such as the Detroit People Mover years ago, and some streetcar lines more recently — that might not have been built with local funding alone.
"Decentralization of transport finance is happening, and we shouldn't fear it," says King. "It may or may not be better than what we have, but the current system is not sufficiently wonderful that we should fight to make sure it remains."
One of the people who has influenced my thinking on decentralized transport finance is USC's Lisa Schweitzer, who wrote a nice piece in Planners Network a couple of years ago.  From her piece:
For those who would like to see U.S. transit systems expand, the push towards devolving infrastructure finance entirely to states and regions puts the battle for transit funding into familiar territory: the states already provide about $12 billion to transit in U.S. cities, and transit agencies currently spend quite a bit on lobbyists in state houses across the country. Nonetheless, states are in no better budgetary condition than the federal government. 
Such devolution to states and regions may radically alter urban transit funding in significant ways, not all negative. As it is, federal transit spending has been concentrated among a handful of states as transit is primarily an urban service. Given the nature of gas taxes, the federal gas tax could go away and the states where transit is an important issue could (in theory) immediately pass an increase in their state gas tax commensurate to the federal tax, and consumers would pay the exact same amount at the pump. Gasoline buyers in places like California and New York are net donors to other states due to the large amount taxpayers in these states chip in to the federal funds, which then go to pay for roads in other locations. If California or New York or the if the federal gas tax went away, states could increase their state gas tax commensurate to the federal tax, and consumers would pay the same at the pump. If California or New York or other donor states made up for the loss of federal support with higher state taxes, they might actually be better off  loss of federal support with higher state taxes and kept their receipts, their transit operators might actually be better off with devolution.
She then explains that this isn't a certainty--or even likely--and discusses implications for transit.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Local Priorities and Decentralized Transport Investment

If current US trends towards decentralized transportation finance and investment continue then we will also see a shift in spending priorities. For instance, cities are more likely to spend on quality of life improvements than the federal government will. This is because of local complaints to reduce externalities from noise, speeding and crashes on local streets. Yet a shift in spending priorities may or may not result in a more optimal transport system.

Bruno De Borger and Stef Proost just published a paper in Journal of Urban Economics where they examine social welfare effects of various local strategies. Here is the abstract:
This paper considers various policy measures that governments can use to reduce traffic externalities in cities. Unlike much of the available literature that emphasized congestion, we focus on measures that reduce pollution, noise and some accident risks. These measures include noise barriers, speed bumps, traffic lights, tolls, emission standards, low emission zones, and bypass capacity to guide traffic around the city center. Using a simple model that distinguishes local and through traffic, we study the optimal use of these instruments by an urban government that cares for the welfare of its residents, and we compare the results with those preferred by a federal authority that also takes into account the welfare of road users from outside the city. Our results include the following. First, compared to the federal social optimum, we show that the city government will over-invest in externality-reducing infrastructure whenever this infrastructure increases the generalized cost of through traffic. We can therefore expect an excessive number of speed bumps and traffic lights, but the right investment in noise barriers. Second, when implementing low emission zones, the urban government will set both the fee for non-compliance and the emission standard at a more stringent level than the federal government. Moreover, at sufficiently high levels of through traffic the urban government will prefer imposing a toll instead of implementing a low emission zone. Third, whatever the tolling instruments in place, the city will always underinvest in bypass capacity. Finally, if it can toll all roads but is forced to invest all bypass toll revenue in the bypass, it will never invest in bypass capacity. Although the paper focuses on non-congestion externalities, most insights also hold in the presence of congestion.
So the authors expect that cities will raise the cost of driving through capacity reduction, charge higher fees than the federal government would, discourage through travel and avoid investing in road expansion (in part to keep fees and tolls high). These are interesting claims, and I hope we are able to test these through natural experiments over the next few years. This model should be extended to include land uses, as well, which can help mitigate some of the increased cost of travel.