Wednesday, October 30, 2013

A Rural Explanation for VMT Decline?

Vehicle miles traveled (VMT) have been declining in the US, Japan and Europe. There has been a lot of interest in what is causing the US shift, and much of the interest is in whether shifting demographic preferences have caused the decline, especially among young people. Less attention has been given to geographic differences, specifically urban and rural distinctions. The Brookings Institute made note of these distinction in their 2008 report The Road...Less Traveled. Yet it seems this distinction may deserve more attention than it is getting. The figure below shows the total VMT for the US plus for urban and rural travel up through the year 2011.

You can see the overall decline in VMT that starts in 2007 after the peak of over three trillion miles. The green line shows urban travel, which stopped increasing and leveled off, and the red is rural travel, which started to decline in 2002. At a glance it seems that much of the decline in overall VMT can be attributed to declines the rural road networks. This does not preclude demographic shifts, but people haven't been moving as much in the US and there hasn't been a dramatic rural to urban migration starting in 2002. Potentially some of the rural decline could be from land getting reclassified from rural to urban, but I don't expect this would be a big effect.

Here is a table that shows the data from the above figure along with the relative changes from peak VMT for rural and urban areas. Where rural VMT has dropped 13% from the 2002 peak, urban VMT has dropped less than one percent from the peak in 2007. That the relative share of VMT has increased in urban areas is just an artifact of the rural decline. Travel reductions are not evenly distributed.

Rural and Urban Vehicle Miles Traveled in US 2002-2011
Rural Urban Total  % Rural % of Rural Peak % Urban % of Urban Peak
1.1274 1.7281 2.856 39.48% 100.00% 60.52% 86.64%
1.0844 1.8058 2.890 37.52% 96.19% 62.48% 90.54%
1.0684 1.8964 2.965 36.04% 94.77% 63.96% 95.08%
1.0324 1.9757 3.008 34.32% 91.57% 65.68% 99.06%
1.0371 1.9772 3.014 34.41% 91.99% 65.59% 99.13%
1.0353 1.9945 3.030 34.17% 91.83% 65.83% 100.00%
0.990418 1.9831 2.974 33.31% 87.85% 66.69% 99.43%
0.98218 1.9746 2.957 33.22% 87.12% 66.78% 99.00%
0.984148   1.9824   2.967   33.17%   87.29%   66.83%   99.39%
Miles in trillions

The decline in rural VMT is partly because rural areas are associated with so much more travel than urban areas. States that have higher shares of urbanization has lower VMT per capita than the national average. Using data from the FHWA I calculated the correlation between the percent of the population that is urban and VMT per capita at -.58, which is a fairly strong association between increased urban population and lower VMT. 

Certainly there are changes afoot in the US economy and transportation. This post is not intended to make any dramatic claims about VMT declines. However, these data suggest that the bulk of decline is from rural reductions, not urban reductions. Of course, we need more research about this.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Can the US Get Value Capture Right?

Value capture is a promising financing mechanism where increases in property values associated with new transportation investment are used--or "captured"--to pay for the initial transport investments. (See here for links to reports that provide an overview of value capture mechanisms.)Value capture better ties together land development and transportation infrastructure and has been used successfully to build new transit systems, stations and lines around the world.  New York City, Kansas City, Chicago, Los Angeles, Dallas, Minneapolis and others have all pursued some type of value capture for transit and/or roads. Now the US DOT looks favorably at projects that use value capture when considering what to fund. Yet for all of it's promise the US experience offers mixed results, at best, and at worst is just another example of pernicious rent seeking and inadequate representation.

Here are three examples of value capture gone wrong that deserve further study:

Hudson Yards and the 7 Line Extension, NYC:
The city pushed forward with an extension of the 7 subway line to the west side of Manhattan. To expedite the process the city avoided federal funding and associated federal rules and regulations. Local funding was through a Tax Increment Finance (TIF) district managed by the Hudson Yards Investment Corp. Earlier this year the NYC IBO released a report that detailed how the TIF was not generating as much revenue as expected. This week it was reported that Related Companies will actually get a subsidy up to $328 million to build in the TIF district.  Subsidizing development is, of course, exactly the opposite of capturing increased property values.

Los Angeles Downtown Streetcar:
I wrote about this last month, but the residents of part of downtown voted to tax businesses based on their location to the streetcar. Having residents vote to raise specific taxes on targeted populations that can not vote (businesses in this case) raises questions of representative for me*, but even more problematic is that the streetcar project has changed for the worse as it is more expensive for less service. That's not what people voted for, and now, as with the NYC case above, the city will likely have to pick up the balance of the costs above and beyond any value capture mechanism.

Chicago's new Morgan/Lake CTA Station:
This station was paid for through a TIF and is credited, ex post, with reviving the neighborhood. Of course, the reason the station was planned there was that the neighborhood was already attracting lots of development. From CNT:
In 2002, the Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) investigated the feasibility of constructing a new infill station to boost train ridership and encourage economic growth along the Lake and South Side branches of the Green Line. Morgan Station, with its recent influx of residential and commercial development, was chosen as the optimal station location. The 2006 construction of the Pink Line, which will also be serviced by the new station, was also a consideration in the final decision.
It is great that investment follows demand. This a good way to build a great transit system. But it does call into question economic development claims, and a TIF in this situation may skim off property taxes that would otherwise have gone to the city's general fund. The TIF situation in Chicago is already nuts, though. Google is moving to the neighborhood, too, which is viewed as new development even though Google is already in Chicago in a nearby location. I will also note that even though Google considers transit access a plus, as mentioned here, they are moving from a neighborhood with about the same level transit access. What really improves with Google's new location is freeway access, as one of my students pointed out.

Ultimately, value capture is promising but also vulnerable to abuse (like all things). Before we start capturing value everywhere we need to design and enforce some safeguards to protect the public purpose. Value capture is not a panacea. For whatever reason, US cities and states are essentially incapable of writing decent and fair contracts. This is a generalization, but the US does privatization, contracting out and cost controls worse than most other countries with mature economies. I worry that value capture will end up added to this list of things the US can't get right.

*Also with regard to representation is that only 351 people voted in favor of the property tax to pay for the Kansas City streetcar. Direct democracy is no way to manage collective goods. We elect representatives for a reason--to represent. But this deserves much more space and time than I can supply here.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Long Beach Has Everything. So What's the Matter?

Last week I spent a few days in Long Beach, California at a conference focused on urban freight. Good stuff. I like Long Beach a lot, and always have. But as I was wandering around downtown I was struck by a couple of things. First, where was everybody? Whenever I travel I have to adjust my expectations for traffic and pedestrian activities far away from even my relatively quiet Manhattan neighborhood. Yet Long Beach was empty. I realize this was mid-week in early October, but it was striking, and leads to my second thought: Long Beach has everything. It's like SNL's Stefon was an urban planner for the city. As near as I can tell, Long Beach has at least one example of every major trend in planning over the past few decades:

Plus other trendy things like loft apartments and brew pubs. Yet while I walked around downtown there was hardly any action. Buses park overnight on the transit street (see GIF at top, which was taken at about 8pm on a Wednesday night at what should be a hot part of town). Street life was non-existent. An unusual amount of the retail space was occupied with fitness trainers, which suggests that there isn't much demand for the space overall. And for all of Long Beach's efforts they didn't even make California's Most Livable Cities list!

Chasing planning trends is no guarantee of success for a city. I'm sure everything Long Beach pursued was justified by someone in good faith. However, Long Beach performs somewhat worse than the region in terms of unemployment and other economic indicators. Whatever they have done hasn't been much of a success. All cities should be wary of trendy planning. Perhaps Long Beach can be a case study (this would be a good thesis if any students are reading). Of course, it is harder to predict what is trendy planning and unlikely to be transformative, though there is also a lot of research about the effectiveness of the types of planning efforts Long Beach pursued that gets ignored.