Wednesday, August 20, 2014

How Much Money Do You Really Save Switching to Transit?

The American Public Transportation Association released their August transit savings report, which means my social media feeds are swamped with claims that people can save large sums of money every year if they just switched to transit from owning a car. These reports are issued regularly, and I'm always surprised that they get some people so excited each time they are released. Could it be true that the average individual will save $10,064 per year if they just get rid of their car and switch to transit? That's the claim this month.

There are three ways to look at the $10,064 per year difference. First, people are really dumb and don't realize that they are just throwing that amount of money away each year. Second, the value that people get from owning a car is worth more than $10,064 more than transit annually so they are happy to pay it. Third, the APTA numbers are wrong. I don't think the first explanation is true. If it is, then what does it mean for transit policy that $10,000 per year in cash isn't enough to get people to switch? The second is plausible but will have strong income effects. The third option is probably the best one.

APTA uses the AAA guidelines for estimating auto costs. The key aspects of the AAA estimates that distort the APTA calculations are that AAA assumes a purchase of a new car for financing and depreciation, with five year terms for loan repayment and depreciation, and that the driver averages 15,000 miles per year. These are not realistic assumptions.

If you drive 15,000 miles per year you are covering a lot of ground and almost certainly doing most of it on highways. Average annual VMT in the US is now about 9,300 and has been declining since the mid-2000s. Just as a matter of practicality, it is nearly impossible to substitute a lifestyle with 15,000 annual miles driven with one where transit is used for all trips. To do so would require relocating home, work, shopping, etc. Someone who can switch from driving to transit is someone who doesn't drive much. Let's say that if you average 6,000 miles per year (estimate based on 2/3 of US average, and the average local transit trip being under five miles) you are a good candidate for getting rid of your car. Then assume (using data from page 6 of this report) that AAA's per mile operating costs of 16.3 cents the operating costs are $978 per year. Add the cost of a brand new sedan of $4,516 per year and the cost of a new car, including financing and depreciation, is $5,494, or about $460 per month. This is still higher than transit by quite a bit, but it is a lot lower than APTA claims.

It is certainly possible to own and operate a car for less than $5,500 per year, but even if that is the baseline number. For local transit you will spend $75-115 per month on an unlimited pass. If the pass is $90, then cash savings per month are $370, or $4,440 per year. This is still substantial even if still overstated. But it is far less than $10,000. It is not unreasonable to think that people value the speed and accessibility autos provide at more than $4,440 per year. They may even want more transit options but at present are acting completely rationally by not using transit.

So bully for APTA for getting people excited about transit savings with their reports, and these are advocacy reports that should be treated as such. I just wish they would no longer be reported as matters of fact. If we are to believe APTA's numbers we should ask what is so terrible about transit that people are willing to pay so much to avoid it. Transit is, of course, mostly not terrible. We know that if transit represents good value people will take it. For most people most of the time it does not represent better value than driving, however.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Who Should Pay for Social Fares?

King County Metro announced a low income fare policy last week. Here is a press release. While laudable, why is it the transit agency's responsibility to pay the $8 million or so annually? This situation is something I discussed a bit in the Atlantic's CityLab, where I noted that transit agencies are  forced to be social services but without just compensation. Here is what I wrote about services, though it can be applied to fare policy:
Of course, lifeline transit services exist because somebody wanted them and people need them. Transit agencies are expected to pay for these services that serve a social purpose but that strain operating budgets.

This is from the King County press release:
"Rising housing costs are leading many families to locate in lower-cost locations that may be farther away from where they work," said Mike Heinisch, executive director of South King Council of Human Services. "Providing a low-income fare is one way we can help keep the region more affordable for working families and ensure equal access to economic opportunity." 
"As a social service agency, we work with people who are in dire need of affordable public transportation to get to training classes, meet with case managers, find and get to jobs and health care appointments, as well as other important appointments," said Mahnaz Kourourian Eshetu, executive director of Refugee Women's Alliance. "The efforts of our County Executive and County staff to make the discounted transit fare widely available to people who need it the most is admirable and will have a positive effect on the County's economy while creating stronger communities. It was an honor to serve on this task force."

"King County is one of the first regions in the nation to put a low-income fare in place, helping to make sure that our bus service really is serving the whole community," said Alison Eisinger, director of Seattle-King County Coalition on Homelessness. "We can be very proud that we are putting our values into practice in this way, by taking a big step that will help advance greater equity and access to opportunity. Thousands of people, and our community as a whole, will benefit from this progressive policy."
So Human Services, the Refugee Women's Alliance and the Coalition on Homelessness are all part of a coalition supporting low fares for certain groups. While I agree that all of these groups deserve affordable travel, I don't see why these benefits should be paid directly from the transit budget. These should be paid by someone--probably King County--to the transit agency, and I realize these are somewhat one and the same.

King County has asked voters to raise taxes to pay for transit services many times over the past decade, and they expect many service cuts coming up. Expecting the transit provider to also provide social services is not sustainable unless someone directly pays for those social services. The public has a social obligation to provide access to opportunities, but this doesn't mean the mass transit operators should pay for social programs.

There are many alternatives, but the Paris compensatory indemnity program is one place to start.

Monday, August 18, 2014

How Much Walking Should You Do in a Walkable Neighborhood?

Walkability is a current planning trend that has implications for public health, traffic, land use planning, zoning, parks and pretty much everything we like about cities. All else equal, cities should favor more walkability over less walkability. Too often planners and urbanists narrowly define walkability as the ability to walk to places where they like to spend money*, and we should think more broadly about what walkable means for all types of folks, but in most cases more walking is better than less walking.

Say you live in a walkable community where you can do most of your errands on foot. How much might you walk on any given day? How much should you walk? Paul Krugman weighed in on this question on his blog. He notes that he walks about 15,000 steps per day, and this is "fairly easy to do." Since most people take about 2,000 steps per mile, he's covering about 7.5 miles daily. This is hard to do!

I posit that if you are walking 7.5 miles daily to go about your business you are not in a walkable community. Mabe farmers and ranchers cover that kind of ground, but at that distance your daily activities are too spread out for easy walking. That distance covered daily is getting close to the hunter-gather period where humans walked 3,000-4,000 miles annually.

An realistic pace for walking is about three miles per hour. This means that 7.5 miles is about 2.5 hours of travel per day, not including subway, bus, taxi, etc. It is certainly doable, but not simply by going about your business. You have to want to do it, and be able to afford to do it. Walking is a leisure good if your income is high enough. You can buy more enjoyable and slower travel and work a bit less. Most people don't have this option, however.

But how much walking is the right amount for a walkable community? I'm not sure, but one place to start is with established travel time budgets of around 90 minutes of total travel per day. This suggests walking about 4.5 miles daily, which is less than the doctor recommended 10,000 steps.  I'm not sure this is right or wrong (it is probably too high as carrying things while walking or traveling with children limits how far and how fast you can go), but a good place to start when evaluating walkable communities. People should be able to take care of their daily business by walking less than five miles per day.  If you use transit and live and work within 1/2 mile of your stops, then your commute includes two miles of walking. As the average person takes less than four trips per day total (Table 3 in this summary of NHTS data, and I realize that national data may not accurately reflect trip totals for denser areas) it seems unlikely that a couple more trips will lead to a few more miles, unless your destination are really far apart.

In sum, to make a community walkable it must have lots of things close together. The closer together these things are, the fewer miles traveled it takes to get to them. So the most walkable places are those where people can access the most while walking the least. If you are walking 2.5 miles per day for all of your activities--which is about what I average about forty blocks north of where Paul Krugman lives (somewhere on the Upper West Side as I understand)--then walking places is easy.

Since each mile is associated with about 100 calories burned, we should also temper our expectations that the marginal increase in walking will offset the increase in calories recently seen. Five miles daily is not enough to offset fancy coffee drinks, sports drinks or even eating out a couple of times per week.

So walking is good and we should encourage more of it through design, mixed uses and street redesign. We should also keep in mind that too much walking suggests that our communities are not actually that walkable and people walk a lot because they can. To be truly walkable people should be able to reach all of their destinations without walking far. Ultimately, however, if we really want people to walk more the best thing to do is get everybody a dog.

*Central Park is one of the best places in Manhattan to walk, but for the most part you just walk about and enjoy your company, the trees, turtles, an occasional bird, etc. Central Park is not a great place to walk because you want to have lunch at the Boathouse. Fancy people take a shuttle there.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

This Week in Dope Smoking and Transport

It is a big week for responsible transportation choices for dope smokers. First, medicinal marijuana patients sued the city of San Diego for zoning regulations that forced them to drive really far to reach the dispensaries:
Medical marijuana smokers in San Diego say the city has forced their pot shops to locate in remote areas and that means the drives to and from will increase air pollution — and ultimately, harm their lungs.
Then, in San Francisco of all places, Eaze is being scrutinized for delivering pot in under 20 minutes. Here is a story. A snippet:
As The Chronicle reported recently, there's a new San Francisco startup called Eaze that bills itself as the "Uber of pot" because it allows medical marijuana patients to use their smartphones to order pot and have it delivered by people driving their own vehicles. No word yet on whether there will be big fluffy green marijuana leaves on the cars' grilles to identify them.
I am pretty sure these are the first two legitimate dope related transport issues that do not involve impaired driving or smuggling.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Who Blames Roger Rabbit?

Mixed traffic streetcars are all the rage right now. Just in the past week Tuscon, Arizona started operations and Washington, D.C. started training for new lines. Dozens of other cities are planning or proposing similar systems. These are almost all bad projects because the trains operate in mixed traffic. The D.C. system, while on it's first day, highlights some of the problems:
On a day when the District wanted to show how four streetcars operating together for the first time on H Street Northeast would blend with the usual traffic flow, the system encountered the kinds of problems that have raised questions about whether streetcars will be able to efficiently move people once passenger service begins this year.
Starting at the intersection of H and 3rd Streets Northeast, the first streetcar, piloted by D.C. native Saundra Harrison, lurched into traffic on its fixed track shortly after 10 a.m. 
“Today I guess there are just more people watching,” said an excited Harrison, who has been operating the streetcars on the isolated Anacostia test track.

Her excitement was short-lived. She maneuvered the hulking red and gray vehicle just a few blocks before she had to stop. A fire truck and ambulance were blocking the tracks in the heart of the H Street commercial district, tending to an injured pedestrian.
 Of course keeping a clear lane is a matter of enforcement, but I'm starting to think that Roger Rabbit is to blame for such blind support for mixed traffic streetcars, and that's a shame.

Who Framed Roger Rabbit? was a movie that helped popularize the myth that there was a grand conspiracy, masterminded by General Motors, to demolish the streetcar systems of the U.S., in particular the Red Cars (error fixed) in Los Angeles. This conspiracy myth has been popularized for decades. It is not true. It follows that if the main reason streetcars disappeared is because of nefarious action on the part of an auto company, then simply building new streetcar systems will help regain what was lost. This if/then scenario assumes away operational deficiencies that are the true reason streetcars failed. Which leads to today's mixed traffic systems.

If the dominant narrative about the decline of streetcars focused on operational problems (including not enough fare revenue to support maintenance) I doubt there would be the enthusiasm for mixed traffic streetcars we see today, and perhaps we could focus on more important public investment for transit. We should blame Roger Rabbit.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Are There National Transportation Priorities?

The Associated Press surveyed Americans about what they think of various taxing and spending plans for transportation. An excerpt from the piece:
Six in 10 people surveyed said the cost of good highways, railroads and airports is justified by their benefits. Among those who drive places multiple times per week, 62 percent say the benefits outweigh the costs. Among those who drive less than once a week or not at all, 55 percent say the costs are worthwhile.
Yet a majority of Americans bristle at the most commonly proposed ideas from public officials and industry. For example, 58 percent oppose raising federal gasoline taxes to fund transportation projects such as the repair, replacement or expansion of roads and bridges. Only 14 percent support an increase. And by a better than 2-to-1 margin, Americans oppose having private companies pay for the construction of new roads and bridges in exchange for the right to charge tolls. Moving to a usage tax based on how many miles a vehicle drives also draws more opposition than support — 40 percent oppose it, while 20 percent support it.
Joshua Shrank notes:
"Congress is actually reflecting what people want," said Joshua Schank, president and CEO of the Eno Center for Transportation, a transportation think tank. "People want to have a federal (transportation) program and they don't want to pay for it."
I agree that people want things and don't want to pay for them, but how do we reconcile the national attitudes with the broad local support for higher taxes for transportation projects? Here is a City Lab piece about local support for transit, and here is a Mineta Transportation Institute research project that highlights some of the factors affecting local support.

One way to think about national support for higher taxes to pay for transport is that the nation is large a diverse. If you run with particular crowds you get the notion that we, as a country, agree that transit is great, roads are the future, everybody loves bike lanes, there is no better use of money than high speed rail, we should start by fixing the stuff we have before we build anything new, etc. In truth we, as a country, don't agree on much when it comes to transportation. Transit investment is great in certain places. So are roads. We should fix the infrastructure we have first, but we should also shrink our transport networks (road and rail alike).

What we don't have in the United States is a clear national need for lots of new spending on passenger travel. Lots of transit investment is based on local economic development rather than transportation improvements, hence the new and weird "transit is supposed to be slow" defense. We don't want the federal government spending transport money on football stadiums, so I don't know why we want federal money spent on transit  just to prop up private real estate values. Lots of roads are being built simply because that's how things are done when the money flows. There isn't a national or local need for a lot of new facilities, though this obviously depends on what and where.

Transportation projects actually have a very good track record of generating local support for new taxes and spending. Partly this is because the projects reflect local preferences, to which local politicians really are responsive. We should consider that one reason, if not the main reason, national transport policy is so uncertain is that there simply aren't any truly national priorities that can build necessary coalitions of support. However, we do have lots of very important local priorities.