Saturday, February 26, 2011

My favorite FAQ about the US Interstate System

Many of you may not visit the "Frequently Asked Questions" webpage of the US Interstate system, but you should. Let me know if you think people frequently ask these questions. I suspect there really are a small and devoted group of people who keep the FHWA busy with the following:

I-99 is out of sequence—what can be done about it?

Although State and Federal officials normally select Interstate route numbers, Congress made the choice of "99" for upgraded U.S. 220 in Pennsylvania. Section 322 of the National Highway System Designation Act of 1995 states that the specified section of U.S. 220 ". . . is designated as Interstate Route I-99." Therefore, only a statutory revision can change the number.

Friday, February 25, 2011

A note about the decline of St Louis' population

The US Census released some info about the continuing decline of St Louis, MO's population. Streetsblog blames sprawl, nextSTL likens the population decline to a bomb and worries that all the efforts to rebuild the city have failed, and New Geography mentions that the gentrification efforts haven't paid dividends. This is all potentially distressing for St Louis, but it may not be as alarming as initially feared. What matters is who is moving out, not how many.

Household and family size have been declining in St Louis for quite some time, as is the case many places. But much of the transit-oriented, "urban" lifestyle that the above posts mention is not a major positive influence on family location choices (things like school quality may have a larger influence). About 25% of the 2000 population was under 18, and new denser developments are not necessarily well suited for growing families. We don't know the age breakdown of the 2010 census yet, but it may be that a disproportionate share of the population loss was through youngsters. Potentially enough to off-set any gains of single adults.

We see this is many cities that are realizing revitalized downtowns. The new families moving in are substantially smaller than the families being replaced. New condos and other construction gets filled with more households but fewer people per unit than the city average. For instance, consider a family of four that was two parents and two teenagers in the suburbs in 2000. The kids grow up and move out and now each have an apartment in the city, plus the parents move to the hip area so they don't have to mow the lawn anymore. In 2010 this family would be three households, and they may all have bought new condos in a gentrifying area. Yet if they replaced one five person household the city has a net loss of population even though there are more households and a more active housing market.

I don't know to what extent this is happening in St Louis, and my initial guess is probably now that much, but after the past decade of urbanist development in pockets around the country we ought to be able to estimate some effects from shifting housing types. In the past decade St Louis has invested in transit and supportive developments. These investments will have localized effects, so we shouldn't yet jump to conclusions that these efforts have universally failed. There are likely some areas of St Louis much better off than they were ten years ago even while some are worse off.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Using parking meters to raise local revenue

via Streetsblog

Mayor Bloomberg proposes to raise parking meter rates again to raise revenue:
In Manhattan above 86th Street and in the other four boroughs, meter rates would rise from 75 cents an hour to one dollar, raising $13.8 million in 2012. In Manhattan below 86th Street, meter rates are already scheduled to go up from $2.50 per hour to $3.00, a change which will raise $10.4 million annually.

The Bloomberg administration has already tried once to enact the 25-cent meter hikes. However, led by transportation committee chair Jimmy Vacca, the City Council struck a deal last month to delay implementation of the increased meter rates in the boroughs and Upper Manhattan. They are expected to oppose the same rate hike now, setting up parking rates as one likely front in the coming budget battle between the mayor and the Council.

$13.8 million is only a fraction of the overall budget deficit, but it’s also real money. According to the Independent Budget Office [PDF], $10 million buys 158 new teachers, 956 Head Start slots, or 10 days of residential garbage disposal. If Christin Quinn and the City Council choose to fight over the parking hike, they’re not only prioritizing a discount for drivers over congestion relief, but over everything else that money could buy.

Read the whole post at Streetsblog, but anecdotally it seems that parking reform is being ushered in by lousy local finances. New York is not the only city turning meter money into real dollars. Perhaps the meter rates could be raised higher if the revenue was spent in the community where it was raised. No one will notice a few extra million in the city's coffers but lots of neighborhoods would notice a couple of hundred thousand of dollars of local investment that could be paid by parking revenue.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Credible commitment, transit planning and the obstacles of distrust

Transit agencies throughout the country--and likely throughout the world, but I don't follow those closely--are facing financial crisis. A non-trivial amount of the crisis is their own doing, but there are perverse incentives for construction and investment toward expensive systems that tend to go over budget and deliver fewer riders than promised.* In many cases as transit agencies build more rail systems they do so at the expense of bus operations. This has been established through lawsuits in New York City, Philadelphia and Los Angles, though the Supreme Court has established that such an investment strategy is legal.**

For these and other reasons, there is a lack of trust between the public and transit agencies. In New York, one survey by a local news station found a large degree of mistrust toward the MTA, and this attitude starts with the then-governor:
After Albany approved a rescue plan for the MTA earlier this month, Governor David Paterson declared his intention to clean house.

"The one thing that I learned through this process is that the public doesn't trust anything the MTA says," said Paterson.

The results of the latest NY1 poll* seem to back up the governor.

A combined 61 percent of those polled said they trust little or nothing the MTA says. Twenty four percent said they trust some, and just eight percent trust most of what the MTA says.

"Well, it seems to me a couple of years there was a surplus of money. Now suddenly there's trillions of dollars of debt that they're in, and I just don't trust what they think or say," said one New Yorker.

"They kind of echo the governor's sentiment in thinking that you can't believe a whole lot of what the MTA says," said NY1 pollster Mickey Blum.

In fact, much of the MTA's problems stem from billions of dollars of debt it was forced to take on because the state cut funding to the agency.

These quotes help demonstrate the complicated picture. No one trusts the MTA because the state takes their money. This is common and still happening.

Ultimately, these shenanigans with shifting money and poorly considered investment around are damaging to any transit agency's ability to plan. What happens is the public no longer believes that the agencies commitments are credible. Mike Manville and I have written about this phenomenon with regard to road pricing,*** and we believe it helps explain the public's rejection of new fees. It is not the only cause, obviously, but without trust that an agency will follow through there is no chance of gaining public support. The same principle applies to transit and the potential for new transit revenue streams and investment.

In the Twin Cities, distrust of the Metropolitan Council is hampering transit planning. The StarTribune reports:
The Twin Cities public transit system is "fraught with distrust" as feuding bureaucracies fail to set priorities in the best interests of the public, the Legislative Auditor reported Friday.

The unusually blunt report lays most of the blame on the Metropolitan Council, an appointed group that oversees regional transit, saying it "lacks adequate credibility and accountability."

While daily operations of the Twin Cities bus and rail transit are among the more efficient and reliable in the nation, Legislative Auditor Jim Nobles said, the bureaucracies have deprived the Twin Cities of a well-planned transit system.

"There is no agreed-upon way to determine which projects are best for the region," audit manager Judy Randall told a legislative commission that heard the findings. "There's widespread belief that the next transit way to be developed is the one that is ready next, or the one that has the most political capital behind it, not necessarily the one based on ridership projections."

And this is on the heels of a recent legal ruling that argues:
A federal judge on Thursday criticized planning for the Central Corridor light-rail line, saying it failed to consider all the interests of nearby St. Paul businesses, but he rejected a request from them and homeowners to halt the project.

U.S. District Judge Donovan Frank concluded that the Metropolitan Council and other transit planners were "deficient in ... consideration of lost business revenue as an adverse impact of the construction."

But Frank said the planners, residents and businesses should work together to resolve problems.

"At this stage, the Court concludes that the interest of the general public to keep this important project moving forward outweighs the harm to plaintiffs," he wrote.

Metropolitan Council Chairwoman Susan Haigh issued a statement saying she was "encouraged by the judge's decision ... the judge declined to delay the project."

A coalition of black businesses, nonprofit groups and residents sued Central Corridor light-rail line planners a year ago, claiming they had inadequately analyzed potential negative effects of the nearly $1 billion project. The suit also said measures to deal with those effects were insufficiently considered.

It named the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Federal Transit Administration as defendants, along with the Met Council.

Taken together, these and countless similar stories suggest that transit agencies are at risk of losing public support. In a time of financial crisis this is a potentially grave situation and will have a dramatic effect on transit agencies' ability to generate enough revenue to pay for operating costs of the systems they have and have planned. Credible commitment is a real concern that will be extremely difficult to solve.

*For cost and projection problems see "How common and how large are cost overruns in transport infrastructure projects?" BENT FLYVBJERG*, METTE K. SKAMRIS HOLM and SéREN L. BUHL, TRANSPORT REVIEWS, 2003, VOL. 23, NO. 1, pp. 71-88
**See "Fairness and the Fare" by Richard Briffault, Elliott Sclar and Walter Hook (1998) for details. If you can't find it let me know and I can arrange a copy for you.
***Forthcoming. Send a note if you want a copy of the working paper: "Credible Commitment and Congestion Priicing."

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Is jealously a reasonable justification for policy?

Should jealousy dictate policy? Talking Points Memo seems to suggest it should with their pro-rail "Jealous Yet America?" post. In a photo tour of high speed rail (HSR) trains around the world they ask if America is "jealous yet." There isn't much to say about phrasing transport policy debate like this, but we hear too often that we should build HSR because Europe is doing it or China is doing it and the US is in danger of getting left behind. I've never been sure of what we will be left behind, but I've seen it a number of places as the efficiency gap. Whatever that gap is it really depends on ridership and occupancy, plus you have to look at the types of trips made. In any event, I know Bambardier of Montreal is excited about the US proposal because actually they make high speed trains, unlike any US company. But I don't think the US HSR is sold as being good for Canadian jobs.

Obviously Talking Points Memo doesn't set policy, but reviewing their slideshow and recent articles and comments from transit advocates it is pretty easy to see hat many people think a valid reason to pursue policy is because some other country is doing it, and they are jealous. I think that's a pretty silly reason to pursue any policy, yet alone a HSR network that may cost as much as $500 billion or more. For a more reasonable discussion of the pros and cons of HSR, read the current posts at World Streets here and here.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

John Whitelegg on High Speed Rail

John Whitelegg of the University of York’s Stockholm Environment Institute has a piece in World Streets on high speed rail (HSR) where he explains the limitations of the technology for Britain. Everything he says about the UK experience applies to the US, except the US doesn't have broad political support across party lines. Even though Whitelegg ignores operating costs in this post, he brings up opportunity costs which are almost never discussed in the context of HSR though should be. He sums up my opposition to HSR in these quotes:
HSR is used by relatively wealthy, high income passengers and the £32 billion would represent a public investment from all tax payers (Note 1) aimed at encouraging wealthy individuals to travel to and from London more often and at a higher speed. This is not a good use of public funds and in any prioritisation exercise would come very low down the list and far below sorting out local travel in all cities, a world beating walking and cycling environment in every British city that can deliver the Freiburg results (Note 2) and inter-regional train improvements travel not involving a trip to London...

We have a question for all the citizens in the UK worried about pensions, energy bills, care for the elderly, school budgets, death and injury on the roads, respiratory disease associated with vehicle exhaust emissions and a future likely to involve severe risks associated with climate change and fuel price increases. Hands up all those in favour of providing a £32 billion subsidy from the tax payer for very rich people to travel very quickly to London quite a lot and then hands up all those who would like a safe, secure, high quality of life for everyone in every city using the same cash?

Read Whitelegg's post for additional explanations why the claimed environmental benefits are unlikely to come to pass and why travel time savings are a lousy policy goal.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Making zoning fun!

New York has distilled their 1,500-page zoning code into a brisk 168-page handbook. You can order it here for $35. The city hopes to give power to the people through the new publication:
Along with admirably lucid prose, the 168-page book contains cartoonlike illustrations of what each zoning designation allows, as well as images showing successful applications of the provisions.

Zoning designation R8A, for example, is illustrated by 459 West 18th Street, an angular black-and-white building by the Brooklyn architects Della Valle Bernheimer. And the designation R8X is illustrated by On Prospect Park, the Richard Meier-designed condominium building facing Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn. Ms. Burden said she went over every “line, every illustration, every photo,” adding, “I love this guidebook with a passion.”

But this is no coffee-table tour of the city’s architecture; it is meant, Ms. Burden said, to be a tool.

Ms. Burden said a property owner (or a potential one) could use the book (parts of which were adapted from a less extensive 2006 handbook) to determine what is allowed on a given lot.

Rachaele Raynoff, the spokeswoman for the department, said: “It won’t replace lawyers and architects. But even before you bring in professionals, you’ll already have an idea of what you can build.”

Conversely, if a neighbor is already building, the book will help show if rules are being followed. “It will make it much easier for communities to flag early if something looks wrong,” Ms. Burden said.

Beyond identifying uses for specific parcels, the book could help activists and residents shape their neighborhoods, Ms. Burden said. “You might flip through the book, see an illustration that appeals to you, and think, I’d like my neighborhood to look like that — and you’ll see that it’s R3A or R4A,” she said. “And you might go to the Planning Commission and ask for one of those designations.”

“Without the handbook,” she added, “you would never have known that in a million years.”

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Oh, Canada: Mobility Pricing Conference in Toronto

For those interested and not covered in two inches of ice, I will be speaking (twice!) at the Mobility Pricing Conference put on by Transport Futures in Toronto Thursday, February 3. I assume that NYC will no longer be covered in two inches of ice by the time my plane leaves.
Mobility Pricing Conference

Metropolitan Hotel, Toronto -- Thursday, February 3, 2011

With the successful completion of four Transport Futures Road Pricing Forums in just two years, over 30 international, national and provincial experts have joined more than 400 delegates to scrutinize the tolling issues that count: technology, public acceptance, leadership and land use planning – and we will ensure that the scrutiny continues. But since Transport Futures was founded to explore transportation demand management (TDM) and infrastructure funding from every angle, the Mobility Pricing Conference agenda expands our respectful dialogue to include public transit fares, parking fees and gas taxes.

International research and experience has demonstrated that, like road pricing, these fiscal measures can be set by government in order to modify driver behaviour, raise earmarked revenue for transportation infrastructure and assist in making bureaucracies more efficient, transparent and accountable to the public. These worthy objectives are not easy to achieve and lead to several difficult questions:

* Is the current tax generation system more equitable than paying for government services when they are consumed (as is considered normal when purchasing private goods and services)?
* Why do Canadians view user fees as inequitable or as a double tax – be it for transportation, health, education or other government services?
* How can parking fees, transit fares, gas taxes and road tolls be established to ensure equity and efficiency? How do they compare with other taxes that are not directly linked to transportation (e.g. regional sales taxes, income tax)?
* What role does politics play when setting mobility prices?

We will answer these questions -- and many more -- with the assistance of the following international and national experts:

* Dr. Lisa Schweitzer, School of Policy, Planning, & Development, University of Southern California
* Mr. Bruno Jacques, Transport Canada
* Dr. David King, Graduate School of Architecture, Planning & Preservation, Columbia University
* Dr. Keith Neuman, Environics Research Group Ltd.
* Dr. Roger von Haefen, Center for Environmental & Resource Economic Policy, North Carolina State University
* Professor Harry Kitchen, Department of Economics, Trent University
* Dr. Jeff Casello, School of Planning & Department of Civil Engineering, University of Waterloo
* Mr. Peter Mills, Perrin Thorau & Associates
* Mr. Ralph Bond, BA Consulting Group
* Dr. Brendon Hemily, Hemily & Associates

Don’t miss this valuable opportunity to learn what role user fees play in Ontario and how mobility pricing can drive transport efficiency, sustainability and social justice! Spaces are limited so be sure to register by January 31st to take advantage of our incredible regular rates!

Who should attend?

You'll want to attend the Mobility Pricing Conference if you work or have an interest in urban planning/development, transportation policy/planning/engineering, goods movement, transit, cycling/walking, energy, climate change, infrastructure, asset management, agriculture, tourism, engineering, law, health, social justice, taxation, business/trade, finance/economics, education, social marketing, politics and/or sustainability.
We look forward to seeing you at The Metropolitan Hotel on February 3rd!