Friday, December 6, 2013

Getting the Dependent Variable Right: Trips versus Distance Traveled

There is no question that in the United States driving is declining, and that Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) have also declined in absolute and in per capita terms. There are questions as to why, however.  It’s important to understand why and how travel is declining, and we have decades of research that suggests that people consume travel in economically predictable ways by consuming more or less based on income. USPIRG and others are reluctant to view economic reasons as the main cause of the observed decline in distance traveled.  I don’t think distance is a particularly good dependent variable on which to analyze economic factors, though, as annualized distance traveled doesn’t really tell us anything about the economic value of travel. A better metric for understanding the economic factors associated with declining travel is trips, especially trips by purpose. What the data show is not just that people are driving fewer miles, they are also taking fewer trips. 

Personal travel has some economic characteristics that are especially relevant here. Personal travel is a normal good in that as income goes up people will consume more of it. This also means that as income declines people will consume less of it. Conversely, transit, certainly as practiced in the US, has many characteristics of an inferior good where demand declines as income goes up (remember I’m talking about inferior goods as an economic concept. This has nothing to do with the actual quality of transit service.). This is because people replace transit trips with auto trips (or walking trips in certain areas such as parts of Manhattan) as they can afford it.  Now, perhaps since there are lots of new rail systems that were designed specifically to attract people who would otherwise drive we shouldn’t view transit as an inferior good in all situations. I suspect this is true in some cases, but not in most.

The other economic characteristic of personal travel is that it is a derived demand, and distance traveled is a function of the trip demanded. This means that, by and large, people travel because of what they want to do at their destination: work, shop, eat, school, etc. Some of these destinations are close and some are far, but rarely do people decide how far to travel before they decide where to go. As economic conditions for individuals and households change, especially decline, they are likely to make fewer trips out of the home, which will lead to less distance traveled. This is especially true if the areas declining economically are sprawled metros. If trips are declining is sprawling areas then this will lead to unusually large distance traveled declines in surprising areas. 

An an example of the economic value of travel, if a person drives to get a hamburger the value of the trip (utility) is derived from eating the hamburger, not the distance the restaurant is from their house. If someone drives two miles for a hamburger the utility of the trip is nearly identical to driving one mile for the same hamburger, as the marginal cost of the additional mile is small. It certainly isn't the case that the two mile trip has twice the economic value as the one mile trip. 

A more accurate way of looking at the economic influences of personal travel is to look at trips, in part because personal travel is mostly non-work and non-commuting. Looking at data presented in Commuting in America III highlights some of the issues with trips. (The .pdf is secured so copying the tables is more time  consuming than I will take time to do here, but you can read the tables in the report.) Table 1-1 shows the relations between person trips and person miles of travel. Only 18% of distance traveled is due to commuting. Figure 1-2 shows the trips per capita by type for the past few decades (all data from NHTS/NPTS). The number of work trips is fairly stable at just over .5 per capita per day. Personal business and social trips are where the increase in travel happened, where these now consume over three trips person per day, which is about doubles from the late 1970s. The CiAIII report also shows that work trips have declined as a share of overall travel (by trip and total distance) substantially.  According to the 2009 NHTS average annual miles traveled getting to and from work have declined since their 1995 survey (Table 5 below and available at the link above.) The number of commute trips has declined in the same period, too, from 676 per person per year to 541. Moreover, the average distance traveled per trip (for all trips) increased slightly from 11.7 miles to 11.9 between 2001 and 2009.

Table 8 in the 2009 NHTS report shows person trips by household income, and it shows that as income increases the number of trips taken increases (trips as a normal good). Table 11 shows miles per trip type, and it shows that the total number of commute trips per person has declined along with miles traveled. In addition, all trip types have declined in number per day. Looking at Table 6, the average vehicle trip length is largely the same between 2001 and 2009. (Check the link for the tables as I don't want to make this post longer than it already is.) Taken all together, it seems likely that the decline in distance traveled is due to a decline in the number of trips taken. I argue that this is an important distinction when we think about policy.

If we think that people are doing all the travel that they used to but are now traveling shorter distances, then the natural policy response is to physically rearrange our cities. I suspect this is a reason that the VMT declines are so compelling to urbanists who prefer compact development, as their desired urban form happens to be useful policy in this case. Yet the decline is distance traveled is less associated with compact physical structure of cities and more associated with fewer trips taken. One way we know this is that metro areas were continuing to sprawl as distance declined.  If anything, the decline is distance traveled is associated with the suburbanization of employment, shopping, entertainment and recreation. There is evidence that this is the case. Ultimately, while some downtowns and town centers are doing very well at attracting new residents, the total number of people moving to these locations is fairly small (maybe a couple of hundred thousand across the country so far, and that’s a generous estimate) and not enough to offset the decline in distance driven. Nor are people substituting transit for driving in any great number. In some cases, it is absolutely happening, but most of the driving that is no longer happening cannot be reasonably substituted to transit.

If, instead, we consider that people are not traveling as far because they are not traveling as often, then we may be looking at behavioral responses to declining utility of travel. Why are people not taking trips they used to?

Here are some reasons, all of which have economic justifications related to the economic characteristics of personal travel mentioned above. These are also global conditions, which fit with observed declined in travel in developed countries around the world.
  •       Household structure has changed. People are putting off having kids, and kids are associated with a lot of travel.
  •        Families with children have fewer children. This is especially true for wealthier households.
  •        Young people are broke and unemployed with lousy job prospects.
  •        Cars are increasing in costs faster than inflation.
  •        Consumption trips are substituted for delivery.
  •        The relationship between workers and office/factory is changing.
  •        There is an upper limit constraint on how much travel people will consume in any day.

There are good reasons to believe that automobility hasreached “peak utility,” but this doesn’t necessarily mean that other modes will be the beneficiaries. It may just mean that people don’t travel as often.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Environmental Explanations for Urban Migration and Sprawl

The NY Times has a story about Chinese households moving away from the largest cities to smaller cities in part because of lousy air and water quality. This is no doubt happening, though data is scarce to  assess to what degree. This does highlight an explanation for urban spatial structure and sprawl in the United States that tends to be forgotten or ignored, which is the role of the environment. As an example of the state of the literature on sprawl, here is a link to a short piece by USC's Richard Green in which he identifies nine key causes of sprawl. I agree with all of these, but I also suspect that desire for clean air and water played a large role. The photo above is of Manhattan in 1966. If the air was still like that I doubt we'd have any $100 million penthouses as you wouldn't be able to see anything. Central cities used to be the center of industry, and that led to lousy local environments. Leafy suburbs were a solution to the dirty air and polluted waterways. Now that polluting industry has left central cities they are more desirable.

Cities in the 1940-1960s (and earlier, but I am thinking primarily of post-war sprawl here) were poisonous places. Toxic air was extremely common and manufacturing industries made things worse. For many reasons it was better and easier to move the people away from the pollution than move the pollution away from the people. It is reasonable to expect that one of the reasons that people did favor sprawling residential land development is precisely because of the known negative externalities associated with living near industry.

Another consequence of lousy air and water is that cities responded by strengthening their zoning codes and land use regulations separating uses. Consider that much (most? I'm not sure.) of the new residential development happening in central cities is happening on land that was rezoned away from industrial uses to residential uses. As an example, the eastern part of downtown Minneapolis was recently rezoned from industrial uses to residential (Update: to clarify, mixed uses are allowed, including residential.).  Links here. Downtown business interests desired that land remained zoned industrial for decades so that development would concentrate in a few skyscrapers, which is why the area is dotted with parking lots. Now that the zoning has changed development is occurring, in part because living downtown is no longer associated with polluted air and water. (As an aside, such development would likely have occurred after the rezoning regardless of a new football stadium, but I'm sure the stadium will get all the credit. The Metrodome didn't "create" any development because the zoning wouldn't allow it.)

So local zoning for industry was a reasonable reaction to major environmental problems of the time, but the regulations are outdated for today's economy. This will take time to fix. Perhaps all zoning should have a sunset clause where it expires after 30 years so the codes become more adaptable to economic conditions.

The main reason we have clean air and water is because of federal regulations installed under the Nixon administration, and a main reason we still sprawl is because of local regulatory responses to environmental externalities. But overall US cities, and cities around the world, were able to improve their environments so that people enjoyed them. From the standpoint of household preferences, it may be that clean air is preferred over any particular type of home. If true, this means that the observed preference for single family suburban homes may be misdiagnosed as the true household preference is (was) for clean air and water. Now that clean air and water are universal in the US, household preferences prioritize other aspects, such as housing type, amenity value, or other factors. There is little research on the role of environmental qualities for household preferences for suburban or urban living. I don't think the data exists to historically test this proposition for the US, but we can measure these effects in contemporary Chinese cities if we can collect the right data.

If it turns out that environmental factors are a non-trivial cause of sprawl, then federal environmental regulations may be effective pro-urban policies that complement other urban policies. In turn, the local responses of stricter zoning because of environmental pollution were ineffective and ultimately damaging to metropolitan spatial structure and sprawl, which work against other public interventions. Clean air and water are public goods that require global (or national) responses.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Should Voters Have Full Information When Voting on Transport Projects?

Voters are asked to vote on all kinds of transportation projects. In part this is because of declining federal support for projects, and local tax increases require voter approval. Elected officials are also hesitant to promote new taxes to fund projects without clear direction from the electorate. Usually new taxes for transport spending are passed. Yet there are many referendums on specific projects where taxes are proposed for particular investment. Without making any claims about the value of any of the individual projects, it is worth considering when projects violate the spirit and letter of the votes taken. I highlighted some examples pertaining to value capture previously, including the downtown Los Angeles streetcar, which may double in cost and provide less service than promised to voters. Califonia's high speed rail has also been criticized for not adhering to the specific systems and costs spelled out in the statewide 20008 referendum to raise a share of the cost of the project. See Lisa Schweitzer's piece in the LA Times for some details.

This isn't just a problem for transit projects, either, though maybe it is a problem that is worse in California because of a variety of populist legislative requirements. Here is another Golden State example. Today's LA Times reports that the 405 toll road project is in trouble politically. There are a few causes described:
At a meeting this month, crowds packed an Orange County Transportation Authority board meeting to denounce the lanes, which have been supported by Caltrans. City leaders expressed worry that the project would push traffic onto their streets, or that motorists traveling in the toll lanes would find it too difficult to pull off the highway and patronize local businesses.
The political shift over toll lanes has several causes. Some of Orange County's toll roads have struggled to attract drivers and each of the major corridors has been forced to refinance its debt to avoid possible default.
There has also been the sticker shock: Riding the 91 Express Lanes can cost nearly $10 each way at the most congested hours, an investment even for Lexus drivers. If the 405 toll lanes are built, the priciest one-way toll would cost $9.91.
As for the 405, much of the anger stems from what Orange County Supervisor John Moorlach called a "bit of a bait and switch." When voters approved a countywide half-cent sales tax, they were told funds would go toward adding one general purpose lane in each direction at a cost of $1.25 billion.
Instead, the proposal before the OCTA would add one free lane and one toll lane in each direction — but it would also convert an existing carpool lane in each direction into a second toll lane, with the added $220-million price tag paid through bond sales that in turn would be paid off by tolls.
So the project as implemented is not what the voters approved. It is substantially different, in fact. I have written about credible commitment as a barrier to road pricing before, but what is happening with these experiments in direct democracy are a bit different. Rather than voters opposing new taxes or fees because they don't believe the revenues will be used as promised the votes for specific projects are not held as binding. 

There are many problems associated with these types of direct democracy for allocating scarce resources. When voters vote on a project, be it rail, transit, roads, etc., they should have complete information. Since transportation infrastructure projects tend to go over budget frequently, which affects the scope of the projects, it is difficult for voters to accurately assess their support or opposition. Also problematic is the absence of recourse the voters have. By pushing tax and spending decisions to the ballot box elected officials insulate themselves from the severe problems that tend to arise. After all, it was the voters who approved the project, not Rep. So and So. 

Issues of representation, credibility and voter information have not been well examined in the context of local transport finance. As the federal role in transport finance is declining in the US, we need to figure out better ways of raising money for and spending on the infrastructure that we want and need. The experience in California is not encouraging for experiments in direct democracy for transport investment.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Welcome to the Future

This past week New York City auctioned 200 new taxi medallions for record prices. The high bid was about $2.5 million for a “minifleet” package, and the accessible medallions fetched record prices as well. These prices and the people who paid them send strong signals about what will happen with the taxi industry in New York. The rent seeking behaviors will continue, the regulators are captured by the industry they are supposed to regulate and taxi policy in the city is expected to remain at the status quo of constrained supply and unmet demand. I suspect that the boro taxi program will barely survive but not be expanded, and Uber and other ridesharing services are screwed. In short, what we have now for taxi services is pretty much all we get. I worry that most or all of our transport systems have similar constraints. Welcome to the future. 

So are we conscripted to a future just like the present? Can we solve pressing concerns?

Recently David Levinson write a nice post about what traffic might be like in 2030. It is a nice future scenario that is dramatically improved on current inefficient systems. I agree with much of it but am concerned that regulatory and labor constraints have cemented too many of our systems in place and the future will end up looking a lot like what we have now. Here are some areas of particular concern and in no particular order:
  • ·      Concession agreements are in place that are far longer than existing technologies will last. For instance, the Chicago parking meter concession requires that the city compensate the LLC for any loss of value to street parking during the course of the 75-year agreement. This means that even if cars and driving decline, Chicago may have to pay a penalty.  This affects Chicago’s incentives for reform.
  • ·      Labor contracts require too many people working jobs that should be automated, such as train drivers.  This limits new options and services. There will also be a persistent bias toward historical rush hour service even though rides demanded will spread out across nights and weekends. We will also likely replace all passenger cars with driverless cars before we get any driverless transit vehicles. 
  • ·      Taxi services are not regulated for the benefit of passengers, nor are the taxi industries all that interested in expanding services.  They prefer to protect their rent seeking. Taxi interests will block new entrants and ridesharing. This is especially problematic because of the nights and weekends issues raised above.
  • ·     Cities are branding themselves and this will reduce their economic competitiveness in the long run. Brooklyn, Portland, Austin and others all cultivate their identities at great expense and effort. This suggests that they will fiercely protect what they see as core features, including the built environment and transport technologies. Building restrictions and business preservation will become more restrictive over time, reducing the dynamics of city change.
  • ·      Municipal budgets are strained from obligations that do little to improve the lives of current and future residents. Pension obligations are of particular concern as it is extremely difficult to raise taxes to pay for salaries to retired people. These obligations do not have an easy policy answer but will limit future investment resources and flexibility to address currently unknown concerns.
  • ·      Much of the infrastructure expansion that has occurred over the past few decades (roads, transit, stadia, etc.) makes municipal budgets worse off in the long run. How cities and states decide to dismantle infrastructure is a crucial issue over the next few decades. As the public rarely has the option of exit deliberate decline will be slower than needed.
  • ·      Public investment in infrastructure is not currently aimed at or promoting the greater good. Business elites, downtown interests and others are capturing public spending on transit to serve private interests at the expense of riders. See the streetcar trend as an example. Cities, regions and the nation are not bound together by clear goals, so policy is directed to do something, anything, without a good sense as to what is supposed to be achieved. Again to the streetcars, if they are good for economic development then the budget spent on them should be judged against all other economic development uses of that money. Yet we never discuss opportunity costs like this. Infrastructure investment is pursued as an end unto itself. We tend to focus too much on physical changes (which are small in aggregate) at the expense of service changes that may have larger effects on travel and economic activity.

We are also in a prolonged period of sclerotic governance. While all levels of government have strong roles for ensuring access to opportunities, public safety and economic health, the process of governance is currently not up to the tasks. I see stronger forces protecting the status quo than pushing for reform (see the taxi industry as an example).

So traffic may decline but we may not be able to adjust our systems adequately to address the changes that occur. If our systems of governance work to maintain what we have then the future will look very much like the present.  So how might we re-orient our governance systems to meet future needs? I will return to this in a later post.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Cities Have Always Been Popular on TV

It is somewhat popular now for self-described urbanists to use clever references to pop culture to explain how cities became popular again. For instance, Jeff Speck writes in The Walkable City (p. 20):
"Born as the baby boom ended, I grew up watching three television shows almost daily: Gilligan's Island, The Brady Bunch,  and The Partridge Family. While Gilligan's Island may have had little to say about urbanism, the other two were extremely instructive. They idealized the mid-twentieth-century suburban standard of low-slung houses on leafy lots, surrounded by more of the same...[note: Speck does mention that the shows that were urban all dealt with crime. Then he continues.]...Now, contrast my experience growing up in the seventies with that of a child growing up in or around the nineties, watching Seinfeld, Friends, and, eventually Sex and the City..."
Speck is not alone using TV shows as a touchstone of particular eras. Nearly all of the "back to the city" proponents use some variant of these shows, especially Friends for some reason. These pop culture analogies are compelling, and in this case oddly wrong.

I'm not sure why young people moving to cities is now treated as a new thing*, but so some people say. Speck alludes to two different types of TV shows, though. One is focused on families and the other is focused on young, single adults. Now, as it has always been, family shows tend to be single family suburban and young, singles tend to be in dense urban areas. These general observations may be even more accurate now than they were decades ago.

Here is a link to 1980s popular shows, many of which started in the 1970s. Three's Company, for instance, was about young, single people. Set in Santa Monica, the three shared an apartment, walked to the Reagle Beagle and did not own a car (they tried to buy one to share in season 2 in 1977/78). This sounds urban! One Day at Time was a rare family show set in an apartment that was not New York. The Cosby Show was also as urban as you can get. Taxi romanticized New York at a time when it was very hard to do. Even Joanie and Chachi moved from relatively suburban Milwaukee to the big city of Chicago as soon as they could. There just wasn't an obvious shift in locations or depictions of cities that mirrors any actual changes in attitudes toward cities, and this is especially true for young, single adults.

I certainly don't know about all of the TV shows out there in the world, but I don't know of any that featured young, single people rocking the suburbs. It would be a really boring show! So enough with the Friends and Sex in the City analogy. It doesn't logically or factually work. (Now is when I would go yell at the kids to get off my lawn if I had one.)

*More on this some other day, but young people have always moved to more urban areas. There has never been a mass migration of new, single college grads moving to the suburbs to live by themselves.Young families have, of course, but not singles to any large degree. Young, single people have always favored urban living because young people want to be where the action is.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Nostalgia for Elevators

Streetcars are all the rage these days. Here is a recent story from NPR about the nostalgic value of the rail systems. In the story Timothy Borchers, executive director of Atlanta's streetcar project, states:
But supporters are banking streetcars will work. "It's what built cities originally and it's what's building cities again," says Borchers of the streetcar project.
This is not a unique sentiment surrounding streetcars. Obviously cities existed long before streetcars, so these comments just consider the modern, post-industrial city. Streetcars were part of a wealth of technological changes that occurred in part thanks to electrification. Another technological change was the invention of the elevator, and the elevator had a much more dramatic effect on cities and urban form. Streetcars and other surface transportation allowed for development across large areas of land, but no one built particularly tall buildings because people wouldn't walk up more than five or six floors. With the elevator, skyscrapers were built and very high density became possible. Cities can be dense and vibrant without streetcars, but they can't be dense and vibrant without elevators. Let's give credit where credit is due.

Elevators are under appreciated as a mode of transport, which really is how things ought to be. We appreciate elevators for their utility, not nostalgia or amorphous other benefits. The value of elevators, just like the value of any transport system, is derived from whether we can get where we want to go when we want to get there. We've even managed to eliminate the driver and fully automate them! If only everything could work so well.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

What is the Optimal Density for Trick-or-Treating?

Another Halloween has passed, and this was the first year my son went out trick-or-treating mostly on his own. He's five, so we could let him go free in our apartment building knowing he was safe, and there were lots of other kids doing the same. This is a benefit of density for getting candy--his haul was fantastic and he never had to cross a street (though we went to a neighboring building, too. This was supervised.). However, in high density trick-or-treating neighborhoods the entire event lasts about ten minutes, which is much too short. It really doesn't take long to go floor by floor scoring a small handful of candy at each door. In the span of a couple of hundred feet he hit nine apartments per floor! The kid has way more candy than we want him to, and he expended almost no effort to get it beyond dressing up. I think he even stopped at home in the middle to get a new candy bucket. He declared the event a success, perhaps even the best day of his life. It is certainly the best return on effort he's ever had, and he will be sorely disappointed if he thinks such returns are easy to replicate. The whole thing made me wonder what is the optimal residential density for trick-or-treating. It is perhaps less than Morningside Heights and greater than rural Idaho. I think kids should expend at least one candy bar worth of energy getting their loot.

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. 

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. 

Friday, August 16, 2013

I Walk A Lot, I Just Don't Walk Much

I live in Manhattan and walk just about everywhere I go. I walk to work, the grocery store, my son's day care, most errands, out to dinner, plus other regular and infrequent places I go. Since we (unnecessarily and counter-productively) label people by their transport modes, I am a Walker.

Now, my life isn't very exciting, but I do things sometimes. But while I walk a lot, I really don't walk much. Over the past week I have used the Moves app on my phone, which tracks distance covered, time spent traveling, steps taken, and other aspects of personal travel.  It's not perfectly accurate, but fairly close. It does not record my vertical transportation, mostly the stairs that I take. I probably walk up and down about 15-20 flights of stairs daily.  Here is a table describing how much I walked each day over the past week (the Friday is incomplete, but I won't be walking far to get home in a bit). So I average 2.2 miles of walking daily, though this is somewhat inflated by my activities last weekend. Saturday and Sunday featured not only my regular walks to and from my office on the Columbia campus, but walking to the D train to go to Yankee Stadium for a couple of baseball games. Monday, with the most walking, was a regular work day plus I met a friend for dinner in the Flatiron District. To get there I took the D train again, but south. Since it was a nice night I got off at Herald Square and walked down Broadway to about 20th. Then afterward I walked to 14th and 7th to get the 1 train home. These routes added a lot of extra walking and in no way represent the fastest or walking-minimized travel.

So what's the point? There are a couple from my anecdotes. First, it is really hard to walk great distances as part of normal daily activities. Even when people go out of their way to walk more, as I often do, it doesn't necessarily increase the distance traveled or calories burned that much. Because walking is slow, you just don't travel that far. Second, for planning, this means that density and mixing of uses is critical--as we well know--but also that weight related health benefits--e.g. calories burned--may be limited. The kicker is that the denser and more mixed the built environment is the less distance people will cover on foot. In my week described here I never walked enough to burn off a sweetened iced coffee, if I drank those. Here is a video of what 200 calories looks like, which is about the daily average calories I burned last week through my regular walking.

Walkable communities are sorely needed in our cities, but in the best walkable areas people don't walk all that far. We should plan for and encourage walkability because people like it, and we should be skeptical that a walkable built environment will do much for obesity, though there are other health benefits.