Thursday, September 19, 2013


Some days things happen that deserve to be booed. Today is one of those days when there are just a lot of crappy policy decisions in the news. It's like rooting for Minnesota Vikings. You know the games will end badly, the public will get hosed, and there really isn't much you can do about it. So you boo.

This is what I am booing today:

Bill de Blasio, front runner to be New York City's next mayor, is beholden to the rent seeking yellow taxi medallion holders. Booo! If you can find a special interest group who deserve less sympathy than the yellow cab medallion holders, let's hear about it. The medallion system should be smashed, not protected, and the green taxis may well turn out to be one of the best transit service innovations that help people in the outer boroughs to happen in years. David Yassky has been a great TLC commissioner and should be applauded for trying to actually make the city work better.

In Edina, Minnesota the city is using eminent domain to take a property so they can build a parking lot. Booo!

Tom Pendergrast, the Chairman of the NY MTA was on NY1 yesterday and made the bold and depressing claim that the MTA will never be at the cutting edge of technology. It will always be right behind the cutting edge.  Booo! The MTA is large enough to move the technological cutting edge with regard to most any aspect of transit operations. I get that the MTA is risk averse, but someone has to think about what the MTA can be and should be rather than just trying to do the things it already does marginally better.

Taken together these, and other similar stories, are all a troublesome adherence to the status quo. Our transportation and land use systems are currently not working well, and we should encourage public leaders to try new things--even if they may fail. A commitment to inefficient taxi systems, favoring parking lots over existing businesses and committing one of the world's largest transit systems to being a follower are not encouraging signs. Booo!

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Los Angeles's Streetcar Project Doubled in Cost, Service Will Be Less than Promised

The LA Times has a story about new cost estimates for LA's downtown streetcar project. Originally estimated at $125 million, it will now cost about $250 million because of unaccounted costs of moving utilities and some other things. The story has many interesting and distressing tidbits that may have lessons for streetcar investment (and much transport investment).

First, the good people of California and specifically Los Angeles need to stop being lied to about projects they are expected to vote on. Proposition 1A, which voters passed to provide nearly $10 billion to the state's high speed rail project, promised voters a train that has unreasonable cost and service characteristics. The downtown LA streetcar used a popular vote to raise taxes on land* to pay for what was supposed to be half of the cost of the project. Now that vote represents one-quarter of the cost, and no one knows where the balance will come from. In the story Councilmember Huizar's office says they will "aggressively pursue" other federal grants. I hope somebody has a better idea than that.

I say that the people were lied to because moving utilities is a well-known major cost associated with downtown surface rail projects. Perhaps someone thought that the utility companies would just move the utilities out of their own volition, but this is unlikely as utility relocation is subject to lawsuits and has been a big deal for other downtown LA rail projects. I do hope there is a charitable explanation as to why utility relocation was left off the initial cost estimates.

Second, the use of propositions for these projects is straining the credibility of the public sector. Not only are costs double from initial estimates, but now service will be less than promised. From the story:
"We're not losing any sleep over these numbers," Jessica Wethington McLean, the executive director for Bringing Back Broadway, told officials. "They represent a 100% perfect solution, which is very unlikely."
She referred to the expectation that engineers will modify the plans to make them more efficient. That could involve reducing the number of streetcar stops or slightly shifting the tracks to dodge utility lines.
I'm pleased that advocates for the streetcar don't care how much it costs. Bully for them. But since service is now going to be reduced with fewer stations or less convenient track alignments mean that the benefits of the system are also reduced (if the benefits are not reduced because of these expected changes than the features to be eliminated should have never been considered). Whatever the benefit-cost ratio was before, it is much worse now. Somebody should have an inkling to reconsider the project based on new information about costs and benefits. If not, then why bother with all the studies, voting, etc.? And for $250 million for a couple of miles of surface rail shouldn't you get a 100% perfect solution? That's a lot of money for compromise.

*The land tax falls disproportionately on businesses and commercial properties, which did not get to vote for the proposition. There are larger issues of representation associated with the special taxing districts commonly used to pay for these streetcar projects that I won't get into here.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

About Pittsburgh's Jitneys

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has a nice story about Pittsburgh's jitneys in which my research with Eric Goldwyn (with assists from Annalisa Liberman and Cuthbert Onikute) is cited. I am quoted:

Realizing jitneys fill a transit gap, government agencies around the country have tried to regulate them but almost always fail. Jitneys service specific markets so when government agencies begin treating them like regular transportation providers -- requiring them to service designated routes, obtain licences and so on -- ridership decreases and so does interest by drivers.
Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco and Miami have all tried over the past few decades to create regulated jitney markets and failed, according to research by Columbia University's David King. He said Miami has had the most success largely by licensing its private van operators but then leaving them alone.
Cities are wrestling with regulating a new wave of Web services -- such as -- that coordinate shared rides over social media, while also studying how to rein in some old-fashioned jitneys and buses. In the greater New York area, calls have increased this summer for regulation of illicit "dollar bus" services after one struck and killed an infant July 30 in northern New Jersey.
"Taken together, what we have is a tremendous interest in what is a very old but very newly visible type of transit. The regulatory environment is unclear," said Mr. King, an assistant professor of urban planning.
"The regulatory calls you're hearing now are the same regulatory calls we've been hearing for a hundred years."
There are interesting things going on in Pittsburgh, as elsewhere.

Read more:

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

What Has Diminished the Utility of Driving?

Car ownership and usage has likely peaked in Western cities.  On a per person and per household basis miles driven are declined year over year, and this is not explained by a single factor. Most researchers examining these trends have focused on factors that increase the utility of non-auto modes such as transit to explain the decline in driving. Other researchers make shakier claims that smartphones are the culprit. But rather than looking at an increase in the utility of competing modes perhaps the proper way to view the decline in driving is that driving—and more importantly auto ownership—is not as valuable as it used to be. The utility of driving has diminished. Reasons for this include:

  •        Increased costs of auto ownership and usage
Cars and driving are simply more expensive than they used to be while wages have been stagnant for a broad swath of the workforce.

  •        Online shopping reduces the need to use a car for errands
Many trips once made by car are now made by truck. More importantly, online shopping makes it easier to live without a car making cars less valuable.
  •        Smaller households
Fewer people in each household reduce the amount of shuttling around.
  •        Higher risks associated with impaired driving
The risks and costs associated with impaired driving have increased substantially over the past 30 years. Driving to meet friends at a bar often means you have to figure out how to get your car home at the end of the night.
  •        More drivers on the road acting like jerks (road rage)
There have always been jerks on the road. But with more people on the road there are simply more jerks. A breakdown of social norms makes driving less fun. Here is a recent poll that finds that "The number of people who admit they feel “uncontrollable anger toward another driver” has doubled since 2005."
  •        Increased congestion
It simply takes longer to get places. Many errands and other tasks that used to be bundled as part of a journey are forgone.
  •        Autos are not improving as quickly as they once did
The marginal improvements in new cars are not enough to get people excited year after year. The difference between a 1970 model and 1980 model was great due to major technological shifts in the early 1970s. Overall cars improved rapidly year over year for decades. Yet now the new features on cars aren't as great as air bags, air conditioning, power windows, etc.
  • Cars are no longer DIY
As people keep their cars longer, any excitement about "new" things diminishes. In addition, cars are no longer something you buy and work on yourself so fewer people feel a connection to their machines. Cars are just something you drop off at the dealer every now and again for service.

What is not a likely explanation for the decline in driving and auto ownership are land use effects and the built environment. The reason that these are unlikely explanations is that driving apparently peaked at a time when there is no mass migration to new types of communities, and the trend toward less driving is a global phenomenon. Whatever the cause, the utility of driving has diminished within existing communities. The utility may have diminished in either absolute or relative terms.

A decline in the utility of driving helps explain why we aren’t seeing the reduction in miles (km) traveled show up elsewhere. The trips not taken have not been replaced. They are mostly just forgone. While it is true that transit trips have increased while driving has declined, the increase in transit usage doesn’t come close to matching the reduction in auto travel. 

So it may just be that driving is not as valuable as it used to be, and that policy decisions have not played a large role in this behavioral shift. A variety of substitution effects, economic effects and behavioral effects may have contributed to lower utility from driving.