Monday, July 11, 2005

Misleading STPP stats on transportation costs

The Surface Transportation Policy Project recently released their new report along with a press release supposedly showing that sprawl and weak transit drive up transportation costs, and they rank Houston as the worst:
"Families in the Houston (TX) metropolitan area have the highest overall transportation expenditures at 20.9 percent." [of household income]
This abuse of statistics drives me nuts for two main reasons.
  1. It hides the costs of transit. They include all the car-related taxes in the cost of driving, which are built-in to registration fees and the cost of gas. Those taxes support roads, of course. But transit costs are paid out of federal, state, and local income and sales taxes, and are not included in their cost of transit for the end user. So, of course, transit looks like a bargain.
  2. They confuse voluntary spending with involuntary costs. Since Houston has such a low overall cost of living, especially housing, we have extra money left over to spend on more and nicer cars. That extra spending is a voluntary amenity -- not a "cost of basic transportation." The average Houston household chooses to spend $9,891/year on transportation, but they could also choose to spend a whole lot less if they drove around in used Honda Civics instead of shiny new full-size pickups and SUVs.
Mark Twain said it best: "There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics."

23 Comments:

At 1:05 PM, July 11, 2005, Anonymous RJ said...

Households all around the country can choose to pay a bit less for their fleet of cars - not just Houstonians. I don't think we are disproportionately overspending on our cars relative to all others. (It would be a shame if that was true). Rather, I think we spend so much on transportation because we drive so much, thanks to our sprawling development pattern. That means we have to replace our cars with greater frequency due to high mileage, so we are constantly making car payments instead of enjoying those payment-free years that others who drive less are able to count on.

What's amazing in the STPP report is how well Portland is doing. Their household expenditures on transportation are below such transit-heavy cities as NYC, DC, Boston, and Chicago. They outperform their neighbor Seattle by about 4%, and have us beat by almost 6%. Very impressive.

 
At 2:17 PM, July 11, 2005, Anonymous Tom Bazan said...

The fact that Houstonians can spend over $9,000 per year on private vehicles vs. forced public transit is due largely to the fact that we have sprawl. The sprawl allows significantly lower housings costs which allow Houstonians the discretionary income to direct towards SUV's instead of Yugos and/or being packed like a sardine on a stinking tram.

 
At 3:02 PM, July 11, 2005, Anonymous RJ said...

Bazan -

Without getting into debating the underpinnings of your sprawl argument, we aren't even doing as well as the other low-cost sprawl cities (Atlanta, DFW, Phoenix, Kansas City...).

I'd be curious where these suburbs full of Yugos are that you've mentioned... Belgrade? And forced public transit? That's weak.

 
At 5:04 PM, July 11, 2005, Blogger Owen said...

rj,

I'm not sure how having more discretionary spending on transportation means we aren't "doing as well" as other cities. The whole point of Tory's post was that this isn't a necessarily a negative at all. If people don't want to have a long commute, they don't have to have one. They can combine errands, buy cheaper cars, etc. Nobody is really forced into anything.

As for Portland, congestion there has been spiraling out of control for the past several years, and home prices have skyrocketed (their job market virtually collapsed in the late 90's as well -- for a while they had the highest unemployment rate of any large city in the nation). Suffice to say, that's not impressive at all. And if you included the capital costs of Portland's rail construction, as well as its operating costs, their trasportation stats would likely look far less impressive.

 
At 9:55 PM, July 11, 2005, Anonymous RJ said...

Owen -

I understand Tory's point, and he's correct in pointing out that STPP doesn't allow for voluntary overspending if you will on transportation. Thanks to our relatively low cost of living, we do enjoy a few extra dollars in our pockets, which is a real positive to life in Houston. But let's run some numbers: household with 80k annual income in Houston vs. St. Louis (which also has a pretty low cost of living). They spend 18.7% on transportation, we spend 20.9%, for a yearly difference of $1760. I really doubt we in Houston are voluntarily overspending anywhere close to that entire difference on transportation. We might choose an Accord instead of a Civic, but not a BMW instead of a Civic. My point is that it's more likely that because Houstonians have to drive so much further by design, we amass more miles per year, and thus have to replace our cars more frequently. That would account for more of the difference. But Tory is right to point out that STPP did not bother to explore these nuances, which makes their analysis weaker.

Regarding Portland, their average commute time in 2002 tied for 40th in the US and was about 15% less than Houston's. See http://www.census.gov/acs/www/Products/Ranking/2002/R04T160.htm So I don't think I'd call that out of control.

You mentioned their home prices... Portland's average home prices are considerably lower than any other major city in the pacific time zone (they're about equal to Minneapolis and Milwaukee, which is to say, not too pricey). See http://money.cnn.com/pf/features/lists/nar_4q/city.html#table So while their home prices have certainly escalated like those in many parts of the US, they are definitely very competitive by west coast standards.

You also mentioned their unemployment rate. Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows Portland's May 2005 unemployment rate to be 5.9% and ours to be 5.5%. Not sure why you brought that up, but them's the numbers. See http://www.bls.gov/news.release/metro.t01.htm Sure, they may have had one of the nation's highest unemployment rates a while back, but it wasn't so long ago that we did too. I do think though that we in Houston have become considerably more economically resilient in recent years than we had been in the past.

 
At 11:09 PM, July 11, 2005, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

The Portland and St. Louis metros are less than half the size of Houston, so you might naturally start with the assumption of lower transporation costs because jobs should be geographically closer to the average resident. And keep in mind that with a two-income household, it's not always possible to live close to both jobs. Somebody usually gets stuck with a long commute.

ACCRA 1Q05 cost of living data has Houston with the 3rd lowest transportation costs among major metros, and has Portland transportation as 12% more expensive than Houston and St. Louis 7% more expensive:

http://tinyurl.com/ad3wz

Portland also has overall cost of living 25% higher than Houston.

Don't miss the housing cost index on that page for CA and NY. Major ouch.

 
At 7:15 AM, July 12, 2005, Anonymous Tom Bazan said...

The primary reason Portland's housing costs are so much higher than Houston's is due Portland succumbing to many of the "Smart Growth" land use controls which force these costs to ratchet up.

Now that Litke is giving up his feifdom at Planning, maybe Houston can regain the momentum lost as a result of Whitmire's hiring of Donna Kristaponous and Robert Litke, in my view two Yankee carpetbaggers bent on strangling the spirit which truely made Houston a worl-class city long before the Danger Train.

 
At 8:14 AM, July 12, 2005, Anonymous RJ said...

Bazan -

RE: The primary reason Portland's housing costs are so much higher than Houston's is due Portland succumbing to many of the "Smart Growth" land use controls which force these costs to ratchet up...

If Portland's smart growth measures are such an accelerant of housing costs, then they would not be the least expensive major metro area on the west coast. But as I mentioned, their housing costs are in line with cities like Milwaukee, which I don't think anyone has accused of being too expensive. There's just a tendency for people to make Portland into a villian because they chose a different path.

 
At 8:21 AM, July 12, 2005, Blogger Owen said...

>>Regarding Portland, their average commute time in 2002 tied for 40th in the US and was about 15% less than Houston's. See http://www.census.gov/acs/www/Products/Ranking/2002/R04T160.htm So I don't think I'd call that out of control.<<

Yes, but their recent increases in commuting times have been astounding.

>>You also mentioned their unemployment rate. Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows Portland's May 2005 unemployment rate to be 5.9% and ours to be 5.5%. Not sure why you brought that up, but them's the numbers.<<

What I said was that Portland had the highest unemployment rate in the nation when the tech bubble burst. For a city their size, the cost of living is intolerably high, particularly with regards to housing costs. Congestion has gotten worse, and is -- again -- not good for a city that size. That caused their unemployment rate to spike when the recession hit. When it comes to the labor market, they just aren't competitive in hard times when companies start trimming the fat. They've forced urban development patterns designed to attract childless yuppies, while families go to the wayside. That was my intended observation.

 
At 8:51 AM, July 12, 2005, Anonymous RJ said...

Owen -

RE: Congestion... is -- again -- not good for a city that size.

Like I said, Portland is tied for 40th in average commute times. The Portland metro area (MSA) is ranked 28th in population based on the 2000 census. So actually, just the opposite of what you said is true. Their level of congestion is great for a city their size - it is well below their population ranking.

RE: For a city their size, the cost of living is intolerably high.

Not really. They compare quite well with the west coast. See the ACCRA link from Tory - with a baseline of 100, Portland's cost of living is only 111.3. Remember, to our Houston eyes, even Charlotte, Pittsburgh, and Atlanta seem expensive.

 
At 11:26 AM, July 12, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

rj, I would refer you to this link for more information about Portland's "New Urbanist" solutions to traffic and congestion issues. The results are not pretty.

http://reason.com/9901/fe.ro.densethinkers.shtml

 
At 12:53 PM, July 12, 2005, Blogger Owen said...

>>Like I said, Portland is tied for 40th in average commute times. The Portland metro area (MSA) is ranked 28th in population based on the 2000 census. So actually, just the opposite of what you said is true. Their level of congestion is great for a city their size - it is well below their population ranking.<<

Average commuting times are a measure of commutting speed, not the level of congestion on the roads. Los Angeles has far worse congestion than Houston, for example, but about the same average commuting time. The travel time index, on the other hand, does actually measure congestion (i.e., how much extra time it takes to make a trip during peak travel periods).

By this measure, Portland has the highest congestion of any city its size. It had the second-highest increase between 1982 and 2001 of any city besides Los Angeles. The facts are clear -- congestion is awful in Portland.

>>Not really. They compare quite well with the west coast. See the ACCRA link from Tory - with a baseline of 100, Portland's cost of living is only 111.3. Remember, to our Houston eyes, even Charlotte, Pittsburgh, and Atlanta seem expensive.<<

Seattle's housing market has a much better housing affordability index, even though Seattle is a larger city. Only southern California is worse. Even compared to West Coast cities, then, Portland is pretty bad, and the sheer increases in housing costs since the urban growth boundary was put in place are difficult to ignore.

Face it; Portland is no utopia. They have particular congestion problems and their housing market is needlessly expensive.

 
At 1:27 PM, July 12, 2005, Anonymous RJ said...

Owen -

RE: It had the second-highest increase between 1982 and 2001 of any city besides Los Angeles. The facts are clear...

Have a look at http://mobility.tamu.edu/ums/congestion_data/tables/national/table_5.pdf

Portland's 2003 travel time index is similar to Tampa, Sacramento, and Baltimore. Between 1982 and 2003, it is tied for 9th for overall increase (LA is number 1). After losing population between 1960 and 1980, Portland experienced rapid growth during the 80s and 90s, so an increase is quite expected. But the city also experienced quite a renaissance too, and is widely recognized for its achievements.

Portland's overall TTI actually was one of the few cities to show a decline between 2002 and 2003 (which is however slight enough to not really over-analyze). I wonder how the Portland naysayers reacted to the recent news that Portland's CO2 emissions are now actually lower than 1990 levels, even though they grew rapidly, thanks in part to their offering a more balanced set of transportation options. Portland is on track to become the first major US city to achieve the Kyoto standards.

 
At 1:39 PM, July 12, 2005, Anonymous RJ said...

oops, my TAMU link got cut off. Add the following after the tables part: /national/table_5.pdf

 
At 5:36 PM, July 12, 2005, Blogger Owen said...

>>Portland's overall TTI actually was one of the few cities to show a decline between 2002 and 2003 (which is however slight enough to not really over-analyze).<<

Of course they had a decline during that year! That was the period in which Portland had the highest unemployment rate of any major city in the US.

http://portlandmercury.com/2002-03-28/feature.html

They had less congestion that year because they had fewer people working; the recession impacted Portland far more than most other cities.

And even if you take on 02-03', Portland still ranks VERY high in its increase in the Travel Time Index. Houston was growing quickly during those years as well, and we rank 39th in terms of overall increase.

>> I wonder how the Portland naysayers reacted to the recent news that Portland's CO2 emissions are now actually lower than 1990 levels, even though they grew rapidly, thanks in part to their offering a more balanced set of transportation options. Portland is on track to become the first major US city to achieve the Kyoto standards.<<

I don't think their transportation options have much to do with it. 85.7% of Portlanders still drive, compared with 90.2% of Houstonians. 7% of Portlanders use transit, compared with 5.2% of Houstonians. These numbers really aren't that different.

 
At 10:05 PM, July 12, 2005, Anonymous RJ said...

Owen -

RE: I don't think their transportation options have much to do with it. 85.7% of Portlanders still drive, compared with 90.2% of Houstonians. 7% of Portlanders use transit, compared with 5.2% of Houstonians. These numbers really aren't that different.

A difference of 4.5 % in the size of your driving public is a big deal. If Mayor White achieved that through his transportation programs, we'd rename the city after him. Think about the difference between commuting during the summer in Houston when some people are on vacation vs. months like October when everyone is at work. It's a big difference, and that actual reduction in the number of drivers is probably not far from 5% or so. And not knowing your source, I can't tell whether that difference is in how people commute in general or whether they even drive at all.

And that still leaves 7.3% of Portlanders who are able to travel by means other than car or transit because they've been provided a meaningful alternative thanks to how the city is designed! They deserve the considerable recognition they get for this.

Again, having an average travel time to work of only 21.9 minutes considering all modes (and they do use all modes as you've illustrated) is impressive, and quite a bit lower than other similarly sized cities. The Portland bashers can wave their arms all they want about whether they think those 21.9 minutes are spent in congestion or completely free-flowing traffic conditions, or in a streetcar that they don't approve of, or on pedestrian-friendly sidewalks and streetscapes that offend their sense of how communities should be planned (or not)... but time is money and Portlanders on average have the luxury of spending less time commuting than those in peer cities.

 
At 11:03 PM, July 12, 2005, Blogger Owen said...

>> A difference of 4.5 % in the size of your driving public is a big deal. If Mayor White achieved that through his transportation programs, we'd rename the city after him. <<

Actually, it isn't a big deal, especially when you aren't investing much of anything in highway improvements. It also isn't a big deal when your actual mobility has suffered as a result. As I've shown, congestion in Portland has gotten substantially worse. Reducing auto usage shouldn't be a goal in and of itself, and no, Houstonians would not rename the city after Bill White for taking cars off the road at the expense of mobility.

But let's do a comparison, shall we? New Orleans, where I currently live, has a transit usage rate of 9.5%. 15.1% of New Orleanians don't drive. This is, by your measures, considerably better than Portland. However, transit in New Orleans is sub-par, and the weather makes walking or biking a trying experience. The best explanation, then, for why so few people commute via driving is that New Orleans is very, very poor, and driving costs money. Clearly automobile usage isn't everything. If it were, New Orleans would be a beacon in the south. As things are, it obviously isn't.

Lets do another comparison. According to Transact, Houston's highways are congested 33% of the time. Portland's are congestion 37% of the time. Houston ranks 26th in terms of its roadway congestion index. Portland ranks 9th. Clearly Portland's roads are more congested, and since Portland has decided against investing considerably in their roads, it will only get worse.

 
At 8:27 AM, July 13, 2005, Anonymous RJ said...

RE: Houston ranks 26th in terms of its roadway congestion index. Portland ranks 9th.

Incorrect. Using the 2003 TTI numbers from Texas A&M, Houston is tied for 6th. Interestingly, NYC has a lower TTI. Portland has the same value as the average for the 85 largest US metro areas.

RE: But let's do a comparison, shall we? New Orleans, where I currently live...

Portland's average commute is a full 2 minutes shorter than the commute in New Orleans (23.9 min for NOLA vs. 21.9 min for Portland).

 
At 3:52 PM, July 13, 2005, Blogger Owen said...

>>Incorrect. Using the 2003 TTI numbers from Texas A&M, Houston is tied for 6th. Interestingly, NYC has a lower TTI. Portland has the same value as the average for the 85 largest US metro areas.<<

I used the most recent numbers from Transact, which are more current.

>>Portland's average commute is a full 2 minutes shorter than the commute in New Orleans (23.9 min for NOLA vs. 21.9 min for Portland).<<

So? The roads are still far more congested in Portland, so to drive the same distance takes longer. Moreover, since New Orleans has a higher transit usage rate, commuting times are automatically going to be higher (waiting and walking virtually always takes extra time, even above and beyond congestion).

 
At 7:40 PM, July 13, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Since Houston has such a low overall cost of living, especially housing, we have extra money left over to spend on more and nicer cars"

Nicer cars? Has this been proven?

 
At 9:05 PM, July 13, 2005, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

It's just common sense: if you have more disposable income, you'll probably spend it on nicer cars, or maybe a used car for your teenager. Look around our freeways and it's pretty obvious. I also used to work near the ship channel near a low-income Latino neighborhood, and the houses may have been a little small and old, but the yards were filled with cars, including some very nice new full-size trucks.

 
At 10:53 AM, July 24, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

That is definitely NOT "common sense." Most of those Latinos probably have construction jobs that require the use of pickups.

 
At 9:17 PM, July 27, 2005, Anonymous RJ said...

Owen -

RE: the following exchange:
-------
me - >> A difference of 4.5 % in the size of your driving public is a big deal. If Mayor White achieved that through his transportation programs, we'd rename the city after him. <<

you - Actually, it isn't a big deal...
----
I offer the following quote from David Fleming of the MTA of Los Angeles: "If you can get 5 percent of the people who would otherwise drive a car and put them in public transit, you've solved a good deal of your public transportation problem," Fleming said.

source: http://apnews.myway.com/article/20050727/D8BJUVM00.html

 

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