Sunday, August 05, 2007

Transit vs. cars in NYC

Someone anonymously left an excellent pair of comments about NYC mobility on one of my Reason posts on why mobility matters to personal life from a couple weeks ago. It's so good I decided it deserved its own full-blown post for those who don't track comments (the substantial majority, I'm sure). It matches what I heard from my oldest stepdaughter, who just got back from a summer internship up there. She enjoyed the experience overall, but pointed out that most young people have been priced out of Manhattan for Brooklyn (where she lived), and getting around Brooklyn on transit is far harder since all the trains focus on going to Manhattan (and taxis are generally not available for hailing). Visiting friends or meeting up even just a mile or two away in Brooklyn can be quite the trek, evidently.

On to the comments:

"I live in the New York area. There has been no road capacity additions here of any consequence in 40 years and nothing is planned. Any propsal to increase capacity is shouted down as if it were a plot to store plutonium in childrens lunchboxes. Any plan that manages to accrue public support is litigated to death, which seems a rigged game of self-described environmental zealots engaging in a pre-determined conversation with their friends in the judiciary. The result is not a transit paradise -- the fact is that a transit ride to work in NYC is an exercise in living like a canned sardine for the duration of one's commute. Rather, we are enduring a little bit (or a lot) of misery every time we try to get somewhere. The NYC area is, beyond Manhattan, as dispersed as any in America. I have relatives in various suburbs of New York, and it is an exercise in frustration and wasted travel time to visit them. What public policy interest is served by keeping family members living apart separated by traffic is beyond my understanding. The leadership in this area has been conditioned into thinking car = bad, and the author of this blog is dead-on that this sentiment, drilled into our heads by the media and academic elites, is 180 degrees false.

The first thing a person does upon entering the middle class is acquire a car. It's true in China, in Europe and in Queens. The way in which a person wants to live his life requires a car whether transit is an alternative for some trips or not. I cannot take my three kids grocery shopping, then take the groceries with my kids while I drop off one child at a friend's house, and then unload my groceries, hit an ATM machine, pick up my dry-cleaning, head over to a friend's house, then pick up the child I dropped off earlier to take the four of us to a movie, all using transit. This is called "task bunching", and a car renders this possible. Trying to do 25% of what you can do with a car using a bus system and fixed rail -- no matter how comprehensive -- is simply impossible. Transit devotees should take a trip to Queens or Brooklyn and count how many people on a train or bus are actually (1) carrying something or (2) traveling with their children. Answer: not many (and their fellow passengers are grateful). The fact is that people in Queens and Brooklyn do grocery shop and travel with kids, and they generally do so by car. To give you guys in Houston an idea of what running errands on mass transit is like: it requires all the planning and patience currently required to travel by commercial aircraft, all to take your three kids to get lunch. It's about that much fun.

What we are devolving to in NYC is a situation where mobility is being reserved for the wealthy and connected, and mobility degrades over time for the rest of us. Transit has a definite place on a very high-density corridor, but it simply cannot serve as an all-purpose mobility solution. We need constant substantial road investment.

and then continued:
Transit makes sense for trips along a dense corridor terminating at a dense end point. It makes perfect sense that one would prefer transit, for example, from commuting at peak hours into midtown Manhattan from a spot along the mainline rail corridor in NJ. In fact, the density of Manhattan could not exist without fixed rail transit. That same system is virtually useless, however, for every other activity, apart from commuting, undertaken by the people who use it for commuting. The typical suburban rider uses the LIRR or NJ Transit exactly 10 times per week, to get to an from work, and then not at all. Note that these suburban commuters consist of a minority of those in their communities who commute to the dense end point, and not to dispersed suburban jobs, which is where the job growth has been in the NYC area since the 1950s. NYC historically had twice as many jobs as the entire state of NJ. Today that ratio is exactly reversed. I count myself a proponent of transit, but as a piece with vastly improved overall mobility, anchored by improved automobile capacity. It is extremely frustrated to watch road projects scuttled in suburban CT and NJ with the elitist trope: "transit is the future". Beyond a very narrow corridor for a very narrow range of trips, that is simply not the case. Transit has severe limitations that make it a tool for very limited circumstances, as important as those limited circumstances may be."

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29 Comments:

At 11:21 PM, August 05, 2007, Blogger Michael said...

Interesting, but I think Houston and NYC are coming at this from very different histories and present circumstances. Houston does not have a history of not building roads. Houston has a history of not building transit. Subway systems, monorails, commuter rails, etc. have been overlooked in this city for decades. Houston's "elite" are oil and gas people who have no problem with us driving cars. Houston drivers, meanwhile, pay an average of almost $10 K per capita on transit per annum, highest in the nation.

So, in our case, if anything, the history and present situation of favoring one mode of transit over the others is almost completely reversed. The question is not whether I-10 or 290 or 288 will get expanded. It is: when? and will commuter rail be an option? If we follow the advice of this New Yorker, we should agree that we should plan for both roads and commuter rail in these corridors. As he says, transit is a "vital" option, but should not be the only option.

Tory and others have argued for commuter rail to Galveston. And 290 corridor will apparently have space for commuter rail. But, I-10 has not budgeted for any space for rail.

 
At 2:28 AM, August 06, 2007, Anonymous Neal said...

Tory,

1) Regarding what this fellow said about entering the middle class and acquiring a car, I will point readers to the following academic study of vehicle ownership levels worldwide and income growth from 1960-2002. Of particular interest are the first 8 pages of this 32 page study. The income elasticity of demand for motor vehicles is positive all throughout the range of incomes, but there seems to be a near saturation point when incomes reach $40,000+ per year. Of particular interest is that income elasticities reach their highest levels when the incomes levels of a region or country reach the $5,000 - $15,000 per annum range:

http://tinyurl.com/2cgnf2

Ergo, what this gentleman noted is supported in the academic literature.

2) As skeptical as I am of transit, New York City is still the one place in America where transit breaks all the rules. Despite its financial stresses it causes on the City (City Journal noted recently that every time a rail line was ever constructed in the City, the City suffered financial duress), some 35 percent of all transit users and 65 percent of all rail trips taken in the United States are taken in the NYC area. Manhattan has 2,000,000 jobs packed in its 28 square miles.

Nonetheless, it would seem worrisome that the area has not seen any substantial new road building in 40 years.

2) It's been 10 years since I've been in New York City, but when I was in London earlier this year there were several occasions when I felt distinctly packed in while riding on the Tube. In general, I was starting to get really tired of riding it, especially when Tube lines were taken out of commission for the endless repairs needed to keep it going.

I did not have much trouble as a short time guest worker getting things done in London, but I wasn't a resident. I did meet with a guy one night who worked for the same company I did years ago and had also gone to China. He found my website and sent me an email. We met at a pub one night to shoot the bull and knock back some drinks while he showed me his photos of days gone by.

The short of it was that this guy now has a Philipino wife and three beautiful teenage daughters. He met me via riding the Tube, but told me he lives in a Jewish enclave of the City called Edgware (he and his wife are Catholic) and he normally drives around town. I asked him why? He said it was because paying for 5 Oyster Cards to ride on the tube every month was more expensive than owning a car. The short of it is that the Tube can be a good deal if you are a single person, but not if you have a family. The reason he took the Tube to meet me was that he would have had to pay the 8 pound congestion zone charge to enter the inner part of the City and he decided to save a few quid by buying a Tube ticket instead. He said it took him 40-45 minutes for him to meet me.

 
At 9:13 AM, August 06, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I have pointed out the flaws in the $10K statistic before here:
http://houstonstrategies.blogspot.com/2005/07/misleading-stpp-stats-on.html

Commuter rail corridor options are being preserved almost everywhere. They did not for I10, but they did for Westpark, parallel just a few miles south. They also have one planned for the Almeda corridor next to 288. But I'll restate my belief that, in general, they're a bad idea for Houston vs. buses/vans in express lanes. Christof, for the most part, seems to agree:
http://www.ctchouston.org/blogs/christof/2007/07/25/8-habits-of-highly-successful-commuter-rail-lines/

And thanks for the links, data, and anecdotes, Neal.

 
At 2:23 PM, August 06, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A recent article pointed out how New York City was losing out to London. Apparently, London is now what New York used to be. New York needs to be careful.

 
At 2:59 PM, August 06, 2007, Blogger Ian said...

Tory, I don't think you have debunked the $10k figure for local transportation costs at all. The "involuntary" vs "voluntary" argument is intriguing, but I'd like to point out that many "voluntary" costs actually aren't very voluntary. Yes, if everyone drove the smallest, shoddiest car they could find, the bare minimum for getting the job done, the annual figure would be much lower. But I've talked to many, many people who are *scared* to drive anything less than a hulking, expensive SUV. To them, the extra cost associated with owning the larger vehicle is by no means voluntary.

I believe most other costs ARE voluntary -- but should STILL be considered in the price of owning an automobile. I'm a staunch transit supporter, but I still own a car (largely because I have to). But because I *have* to spend the thousands of dollars associated with owning a car, I'm definitely going to put a couple more thousand into making sure it is something I'm proud of -- with a nice, smooth ride, powerful engine, and good sound system. As voluntary as all these expensive additions are, they should still be considered as part of the cost of owning an automobile because they are costs I wouldn't have to worry about if I rode an alternate form of transportation. After all, I don't care much about the engine on a light rail train being turbocharged, and the I-Pod I already own would go a long way towards replacing that sound system.

 
At 3:32 PM, August 06, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

There are plenty of small cars that do just fine in Houston, but even if people are fearful, they still could own a used SUV or pickup that's only depreciating a couple hundred dollars a month instead of a new one.

And even the cheapest new cars today have a fine engine, ride, and sound system. Certainly not the same as what you can get at $30K+, but perfectly adequate.

I, for example, drive a used '98 Acura 3.5RL that was a very expensive car in its day, but is still just fine now (sound, ABS, ride, acceleration, etc.), plenty large for safety on Houston freeways by just about anyone's measure, and it costs a heck of a lot less than $10K a year because depreciation has slowed down so much.

 
At 3:50 PM, August 06, 2007, Blogger Ian said...

Again, what matters is not what is actually voluntary, but instead what people consider voluntary. The whole point of this average is to give people an idea of what various modes of transportation would cost *them*. If they are driving new SUVs because they don't trust older vehicles, then that isn't a voluntary cost for them and their cost of car ownership would be on the high end of the scale. And I think a lot of people are on that end.

You can always pay a little more to get a little more. The cheapest cars might have systems that you consider adequate, but a lot of people may opt for the SE model over the cheapo model simply because they feel like they wouldn't be maximizing their investment if they didn't. Speaking from experience here.

 
At 7:25 PM, August 06, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

So, if I only feel safe and comfortable being driven around in a bulletproof limo with a bodyguard driver, that's an involuntary cost of transportation? Or if I only buy first class plane tickets because I don't like sitting that close to other people? That seems like a stretch to me.

The fact is, Houston has an extremely affordable cost of living, so people take their extra money and buy Cadillac Escalades with the big wheels, or tricked out high-dollar trucks and SUVs - not to mention plenty of Porsches, Mercedes, BMWs, Infinities, and Lexuses. That gets averaged in to the "cost of transportation" in Houston, and people jump to say it's unaffordable, which is absurd. You can get around fine for far less than that, and most people do, whether with a used car, or even a new Corolla, Matrix, or Civic, for just a few examples.

On top of that, we do have a frequent, comprehensive bus service grid if people don't want to spend that money on a car. The transit option is there, as long as you don't turn your nose up at "inferior buses." But most people don't choose it, because a car is a far better value to them for convenience, speed, and comfort.

 
At 10:41 PM, August 06, 2007, Anonymous Owen Courreges said...

michael,

Houston does not have a history of not building roads. Houston has a history of not building transit.

Nonesense. We don't have a history of not building transit; we've expanded bus service to the veritable hinterlands of Houston -- outside the city limits in far-lying suburbs.

What we haven't done is spent billions on rail when buses do just fine (and are far more cost-effective). To do otherwise would be the equivalent of building elevated freeways all the way to the outskirts when there isn't any pressing reason for doing so. Rail may have a place, but certainly not with Houston's density.

 
At 10:44 PM, August 06, 2007, Anonymous Owen Courreges said...

It's definitely silly to act as if all automobile expenses are involuntary per se. If a person wants *no more* than a comparable experience to transit, he can simply buy a cramped VW bug and carpool with six other people living in inconvenient locations. Then he can experience the sheer difficulty of having to map out a commute along transit lines along with thousands of other travellers.

 
At 10:28 AM, August 07, 2007, Blogger Michael said...

Owen,

I am tired of people saying Houston does not have the density for rail. Again, we are already building rail where it makes sense. And some even on this board who dare I say are opposed in general to rail have argued that even commuter rail makes sense in some cases.

In many places Houston does support the density for rail. And bus service is not necessarily more cost-effective than rail. A lot of people do not ride buses but do ride rail - this is well documented. I do think Houston's bus system is great - I just think we need continued investment in bus, rail, and roadways here. I do not think any form of this investment is "throwing money away". We are going to spend s projected $3 billion on expanding 290 shortly - does anyone feel this is "throwing money away"? Also, rail to Hobby and IAH just makes sense - it should be fast-tracked.

As for $10k for automobiles, whether the cost is voluntary or not, the point is, that in Houston, versus say Phoenix or many other cities with much the same transportation dynamics as Houston, the end cost for auto transportation is higher *on average* than anywhere else in the nation. Maybe that's because we have a lot of people who drive stretch limos, but I don't think so. It is also very difficult to break down "necessary" versus "voluntary" transportation expenses.

Overall, I still agree with Tory that Houston is a very affordable place to live. But back to the original post, and the original point of this article, auto transit is something the middle and upper class can afford, but it is not the most cost-effective means of transportation. As the author from NYC wrote, we should not favor one mode of transit at the expense of all others.

 
At 10:34 AM, August 07, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

> auto transit is something the middle and upper class can afford, but it is not the most cost-effective means of transportation

Actually, it might be, if you look at total costs rather than just what the end user pays:
http://houstonstrategies.blogspot.com/2007/04/economics-of-transit-vs-cars.html

 
At 1:15 PM, August 07, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wouldn't a better way of addressing lower class mobility be to work to reduce the cost of auto ownership? Building billion dollar light rail systems is a lousy way of assisting mobility for the poor. These systems, for all the cost, only provide transit on a narrow corridor and only when the train is running. Those of you who lament being "dependent" on your cars (presumably you also hate being "dependent" on your computers and refrigerators) should try living for a couple months dependent on mass transit. Really. Head out to NYC or central Chicago or some other transit-friendly place (you're dreaming if you think any other place in America will ever be as transit-freindly as those places are right now), and try commuting, running errands, having a life without using a car. Try it now in the heat, try it in January in the cold. I'd also encourage you to take a spin on the Dan Ryan Expressway on the southside of Chicago and the Cross Bronx Expressway, and see if you get a sense of whether your fellow motorists are generally upper class or middle class. Then ride Metro North in from Darien to Grand Central or Chatham to Penn Station and see if you can find a poor person on your bar car. Transit-oriented development is a nice amenity for relatively affluent, physically-fit, childless people. It works for them because they can best take advantage of an inflexible but relatively quick commuting method, they are not as adversely affected by the lack of flexibility and annoyance built into the loss of freedom that mass transit invariably requires. And (and this is key), because they also have access to cars! They can afford to pay for parking in garages and/or have money for ready access to taxis. I had a wealthy friend in Chicago who didn't own a car (not for any ideological reason -- she was just not keen on driving). She actually took a taxi to do her grocery shopping. Anyone who thinks rail is going to relace auto traffic really ought to check out who is incorporating transit into their lives and how they are doing so. You should also check into the socieconomic status and family size of transit users and see whether what they are doing is a realistic option for the bulk of the population. I think you'll see that the utility of transit is highly limited. Yes, you can socially engineer people into leaving their cars, but I think in doing so you are really diminishing quality of life and creating more stratification not less.

I often here people get down on Houston and compare it unfavorably to, say, Portland, OR. The fact is that Houston is nothing short of a machine, successfully integrating millions of new residents into the fabric of the U.S. economy. It's growth represents fulfillment of the American dream for quite a few people -- it's a city that has catapulted itself into the ranks of the largest cities by embracing growth. It strikes me that places like Portland do nothing more than fill a niche for people trying to prove a point. They are small, relatively stagnant and seem to do all they can to limit access to themselves.

 
At 3:44 PM, August 07, 2007, Anonymous Owen Courreges said...

michael,

Your arguments fly in the face of the facts. First of all, Houston is not "building rail where it works." The Main Street light rail line is horribly cost-ineffective compared with buses, BRT, and automobiles. Secondly, commuter rail is overwhelmingly even less cost effective than light rail.

Thirdly, it is comical to state that light rail is more cost-effective than buses because some people will ride rail but won't ride buses. First of all, that's a petty prejudice that shouldn't be the basis of public policy. The sentiment was the polar opposite in the 1930's and 40's, when streetcar lines were torn out in favor of "modern" buses. Secondly, since buses are more cost-effective, you can provide more expanded service with lower fares. I assure you, that attracts more riders than the "gee whiz" novelty effect and snobbery of a now-popular rail fetish.

Lastly, auto travel is very easy to afford (a cheap car with minimal insurance isn't much), and buses are better suited to pick up the slack for the poor (just read about the NAACP suing the City of Los Angeles for putting in rail while cutting bus lines for poor minorities -- these things do happen). What doesn't help anybody is worshipping rail for no apparent reason at all.

 
At 4:26 PM, August 07, 2007, Blogger Michael said...

Owen,

Your claim that the Main Street light rail line is a failure or not cost-effective is indicative of how desperate opponents of rail are.

This is happening across the country: one rail line gets put in, it proves to be very popular, cost effective, exceeds ridership expectations, the public votes for more of it, and the network is expanded. This is already happening here. The Main Street line was a great first choice as it goes to 2-3 very dense or potentially heavy traffic areas: downtown, med center, and reliant. It eliminated the need for buses on some of this line, and yes - it has had some problems. But overall I think this line is an overwhelming success, on the basis of which the Houston voters approved an additional 60 some-odd miles of rail.

Secondly, what people want to ride SHOULD be the basis of public policy. You argue as if light-rail is some exotic fancy - as if we have voted for private helicopter transit and space-shuttles, as opposed to a normal means of transit in the 21st century. The fact is, light-rail is highly cost effective, and the public wants it, which is why cities across the country are building these systems. Subways, maybe not on both counts, which is why we are NOT building subways.

Also, as to cost, maybe the cost of our road networks is a bit underestimated as evidenced by our aging infrastructure and the Minneapolis bridge collapse.

To anon, I have lived in cities with transit before. Occasionally, I would get a ride with a friend, or take a cab, but by and large I used the metro. To me, building billion dollar systems to get people around high-density areas is a worthy goal of a city that is going to have a metro population of around 8 million people by 2030. Not the only goal, but a worthy pursuit if we intend to remain a world-class city. Now, if we were in Tulsa, or El Paso, maybe I would agree with you. But we are the 4th largest city in the country and growing very rapidly. Cities far smaller than us have vastly superior light-rail networks already.

Thanks,
Mike

 
At 5:04 PM, August 07, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The question, I think, is what is the purpose of the rail line. If the purpose is to provide another mobility option on a highly dense corridor and is related to a plan of overall mobility enhancement, then I think the rail line is barking up the right tree. If the purpose is to make a city feel like it's finally reached the big leagues because it has a trolley, or to "get people out of their cars" on the assumption that doing so is inherently virtuous, then it's a waste of mooney and one that will take money from needed road projects. They have trolleys in the east now, too. There's a system in New Jersey called the River Line, which runs from roughly Trenton to Camden. It has to be the biggest waste of money (which is saying something in New Jersey) that I can imagine. I get the sense that it was something of a political sop to southern NJ. The ridership is anemic, it's a huge money loser and traffic in southern NJ is a nightmare. There is a second trolley service in NJ called Hudson-Bergen light rail. As a conceptual matter, this one actually makes some sense. It runs through very dense corridors, and because there is no north-south highway alignment in NJ east of the Turnpike, it is very difficult to move along the light rail's alignment by auto (this due to monumentally poor urban planning -- or rather monumentally successful anti-road litigation). This one has lots of riders. So if you're ever in NJ check it out. You'll find that you can get from downtown Jersey City, a mile and a half from Hoboken to Hoboken in less than half an hour (if you're lucky)! Of course, the trolley only runs along the far edge of Hoboken (and Jersey City, Bayonne, etc.), so getting anywhere within the towns along the alignment after disembarking from a trolley car will be a nice long walk (imagine doing your grocery shopping this way). Do you enjoy standing on your way to work? Perhaps after a long day in the office? Well, you're in luck! You get to stand all the way home on the light rail unless you get on at the first stop. And those guys at the Reason Foundation must be on to something because it really does appear that, for most of the riders, they are really riding a replacement to their bus. I think a road alternative would done a better job at weaving together the towns on the alignment, or perhaps a road alternative with an elevated trolley, but this system has evolved into a slow cattle car. Note, HBLR is brand new and is being expanded as we speak. It is a response to a real transportation issue, but I think it is, at best, an incomplete solution. It carries people, that's for sure (although a crowded 2 car trolley can only move a faction of a wide gauge 8 car subway train), but it seems that most are displaced bus riders without much choice in transit.

I'd counsel flexibility in transportation planning, but with a pro-auto bias. A lot of areas just haven't kept up with adequate road building. There was a time when politicians could add road capacity and in doing so win votes. In most places now it seems that one obtains power by blocking projects, or advocating highly expensive light rail plans that really don't move a lot of people.

 
At 9:13 AM, August 08, 2007, Blogger Ian said...

Anon -- It sounds like the "problem" you're describing isn't an inherent problem with New Jersey's light rail system, but rather a problem with managing it. I'm not familiar with the system beyond what you've described, but it sounds like they've reached capacity on their rail cars -- and should add more rail cars. That's the nice thing about transit; you can always easily and cheaply add capacity (unless you're living in a place like Seoul that is completely maxed out). Contrast that to highways, where expanding capacity is costly and destructive. How many billions of dollars must be wasted for companies located on the frontage of expanding highways to pick up and move to other locations? How many more billions are thrown away when prime real estate is paved over?

And Michael, I agree -- I think you really do have to take into account people's bias to rail when deciding on the form of transit (or, rather, because we live in a democracy, you simply let their biases shine when it's time to vote on bonds). But it's not simply a bias towards rail; it's also a bias against bus. . .and the "low-class" citizens that are stereotypically thought to be bus riders. I believe a significant sector of our population would be more willing to give transit a try and eventually use it to replace some of their auto trips if they had light rail nearby instead of a bus stop. And then they may be willing to give the bus a try, too. . .

And anyway, what's the alternative? I think we all agree on one thing: Houston is growing, and we're going to have to move millions of more people somehow. But how do we do it? Build more highways lanes? If so, where should we put them all? Should we pave through Montrose, the Heights, Eastwood? Some of our most beautiful, defining Houston neighborhoods?

The only way I could see a transportation system based only on highways working is if Tory's vision of a decentralized city panned out and we stopped trying to funnel everyone into a few business areas. But I don't think that's going to happen for the same reason I don't think telecommuting is ever going to replace real commuting: people like being around other people. It's good for the spirit, and it's good for business.

 
At 10:29 AM, August 08, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I think the city is still decentralizing jobs. Downtown, Uptown, and Greenway are all pretty static. Growing job centers are the Energy Corridor, Westchase, Sugar Land, and The Woodlands - all further out. One exception is the TMC, although even they are building all kinds of satellite hospitals in the burbs.

And, to clarify, telecommuting doesn't mean not interacting with people. It means not cramming on the roads during two rush hours of the day, but spending some time at home, some at the coffee shop, some in the main office, some in a satellite office (maybe shared with other people and companies), some at clients or partners, and even some while traveling on vacation (the new telework nomading lifestyle that's getting some publicity). Our mobility problems are during the rush hours, and if we can spread more of those trips throughout the day - as well as eliminating some of them altogether - we'll be in a lot better shape.

 
At 3:59 PM, August 08, 2007, Anonymous Owen Courreges said...

Mike,

Saying that light rail is cost-effective doesn't make it so.

First of all, there is nothing that light rail can do that buses can't do cheaper. Accordingly, light rail is cost-ineffective per se. Buse lines and BRT cost a fraction of what rail does, and they are perfectly capable of providing the same level of service.

Secondly, light rail has been shown to be cost-ineffective in study after study. Here's a couple of examples:

http://urbantransport.org/costcomp.pdf

http://urbantransport.org/fwy2lr.pdf

And here's a very comprehensive national study from MIT/Harvard researcher Jonathan Richmond from 1999:

http://the-tech.mit.edu/~richmond/professional/wholesys.pdf

The results in all of these are the same. There are better alternatives to rail, rail's high expenses do not produce substantial benefits, and those benefits which are produced could be achieved with fare adjustments, realignment of bus lines, etc.

All you have are assertions, while I have cold, hard facts. Trust me; there might be arguments in favor of rail, but they do not involve cost-effectiveness.

 
At 6:23 PM, August 08, 2007, Blogger Michael said...

Owen,

Saying that light-rail is not cost-effective also does not make it so. To seriously debate these studies would take more time and more knowledge than any of us has in this area.

However, if we want to get out our pocket calculators...

Here is one example of what you might find if you looked beyond your own sources: http://www.lightrailnow.org/myths/m_mythlog001.htm#STL_20070531

"St. Louis's "capital-intensive" LRT ends up costing approximately 16% less per passenger mile than the agency's supposedly "cheap" bus system."

Another quote from an article about Portland:

"In other words, the savings in transit operating cost over bus service ($345 million) almost equals the capital cost of the Yellow Line LRT project ($350 million). "

This is from:
http://www.lightrailnow.org/myths/m_pointlog2007q1.htm

Now, I will agree with you, that Houston has better bus service than most. We even have nice HOV lanes etc. for them on some routes. I am not arguing that we completely scrap our bus service. Even if we voted to start building commuter rail today, it would not be operational probably for a decade.

And I also agree that rail has other benefits, such as more people use it, passenger capacity (the equivalent of 6 highway lanes in one direction), environmental reasons, faster than buses if grade-separated, loading / unloading times, etc.

-Mike

 
At 7:17 PM, August 08, 2007, Anonymous Owen Courreges said...

michael,

Saying that light-rail is not cost-effective also does not make it so. To seriously debate these studies would take more time and more knowledge than any of us has in this area.

However, if we want to get out our pocket calculators...

Here is one example of what you might find if you looked beyond your own sources...


Hey, I have the time. This point is obvious if you look at efficiency over what you would prefer in a perfect world. I'm a big nostalgia buff, and I think rail is neat too; it's just clearly not cost-effective.

First of all, it is worth noting all your examples come from a light rail advocacy website. I'm not saying my citations are always from unbiased persons (they certainly aren't), but the ones I quoted are very well-credentialed researchers, particularly Jonathan Richmond. His research is damn near irrefutable on overall cost-effectiveness of light rail versus buses.

Secondly, I'm quite certain that your citations only involve operating costs. Capital costs are much, much higher for light rail across the board, and this is not an small concern. Putting out hundreds of millions, or even billions more at the outset is hard to overcome even if you do manage savings in operating costs.

Thirdly, the GAO did a study on operating costs about ten years ago, and found that by most measures, regular bus service beat light rail in terms of operating costs nationwide (express bus service beat both). Sorry, but citing random examples of alleged "savings" isn't nearly as compelling as the GAO's report.

Fourthly, It's arguable that with some lines there are reduced operating costs, but at the same time you have losses due to the fact that light rail takes up traffic lanes, rather than simply allowing buses to use traffic lanes along with vehicles. This is a major "cost" whether lightrailnow admits it or not.

I also agree that rail has other benefits, such as more people use it, passenger capacity (the equivalent of 6 highway lanes in one direction), environmental reasons, faster than buses if grade-separated, loading / unloading times, etc.

First, capacity isn't really an issue unless you absolutely *have* to cram passengers onto a single line. You can have high-capacity buses running parallel lines a couple of blocks away, for example, and actually provide better service by allowing people to choose which line is closer and quicker during peak hours in high-density areas. This is what was done in downtown with the trolleys, and it was considerably more convenient. Also, BRT has comparable capacity to rail, and it is more than sufficient for Houston's purposes.

Secondly, environmental reasons aren't considerable. You can use hybrid buses if you want to reduce bus pollution to minimal levels (which Metro does) and in any case, the amount of bus pollution per passenger is quite low to begin with. It isn't worth the added costs of rail for a slight environmental benefit. Also, since light rail tends to combine transit lines, it encourages more commuters to drive to stations (or simply stop using transit altogether), thereby offsetting some if not all environmental gains.

Thirdly, BRT is as fast as light rail if grade separated, and it's cheaper. Therefore, there's no advantage for rail there.

Fourthly, loading and unloading times are a concern, but only at major stations. Also, you can engineer BRT to load and unload from both sides the same as light rail. If you want grade-separated transit, there are simply no substantial advantages to BRT versus rail. Moreover, regular bus service is usually sufficient if lines are managed properly, and can be employed with far lower capital costs and generally lower operating costs.

 
At 9:04 PM, August 08, 2007, Blogger Michael said...

Owen,

"His research is damn near irrefutable..."

Right.

Behind any research paper on something like transportation are hundreds of assumptions, factors that aren't included in the statistics, etc. Furthermore, both sources you site - a 1999 paper and a decade-old GAO report, are hardly what I would call "current", when dealing with transit issues. Some of the light rail systems were not even in existence or were brand new at the time. Finally, my sources cite local examples where cost savings can be shown, are as recent as 2006, and they do include capital and operating costs. It is more appropriate for Houston to look at these similar cities and recent studies than dealing with 10 year old academic research papers. Why don't we see what was written in the 1970's while you are at it? Also, for one example of a cost that they may have missed - infrastructure upgrades, as we see in Minneapolis. If environmental costs are not appropriate for your conservative persuasion. Finally, as Tory has noted, the government is matching money to build these systems - so it makes sense from that perspective for us to apply for funding.

The rest of your rebuttal is essentially how to turn a bus into a train. Great - like I said, I favor BRT as well. I think there are some advantages to it. But light rail is still better than BRT - which is why the country is building light-rail systems overwhelmingly, not BRT.

Also, in Houston's case you have to be careful of discrimination issues and community concerns when Post Oak gets light-rail and the east and north side get a fancy bus. Looks like the east-end is getting the raw end of that deal.

Thanks,
Mike

 
At 9:29 PM, August 08, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Actually, Post Oak is going to be BRT. Maybe you meant the Universities LRT line, although it does cross through a diverse range of neighborhoods racially and economically going from Hilcroft to UH.

 
At 10:22 PM, August 08, 2007, Anonymous Owen Courreges said...

michael,

Behind any research paper on something like transportation are hundreds of assumptions, factors that aren't included in the statistics, etc. Furthermore, both sources you site - a 1999 paper and a decade-old GAO report, are hardly what I would call "current", when dealing with transit issues. Some of the light rail systems were not even in existence or were brand new at the time. Finally, my sources cite local examples where cost savings can be shown, are as recent as 2006, and they do include capital and operating costs. It is more appropriate for Houston to look at these similar cities and recent studies than dealing with 10 year old academic research papers. Why don't we see what was written in the 1970's while you are at it?

I'm sorry, but that response is really lame. The light rail phenomenon has been building for thirty years. There were dozens of well-established light rail lines in the mid-to-late 90's. Accordingly, *nationwide* studies done in the past 10 years are perfectly valid gauges of the cost-effectiveness and general success of rail.

Now, I could cite more recent data from Randal O'Toole and other similar anti-rail activists, but I decided it would be best to cite more credible, non think-tank sources to convince you. However, it's becoming apparent that you're something of a brick wall on this issue. Trying to act as if citing late 90's data is the equivalent of going back to the 1970's just goes to show eager you are to avoid facing the truth on this.

Moreover, I was incorrect as to the year of the GAO report. It was 2001 ; only six years ago.

But anyway, let's look at the stats you quoted individually...

"St. Louis's "capital-intensive" LRT ends up costing approximately 16% less per passenger mile than the agency's supposedly "cheap" bus system."

Per Passenger mile is only one measure of cost-effectiveness. The GAO used three: cost per vehicle revenue hour, cost per vehicle revenue mile (which I believe is the same as per passenger mile), and cost per passenger trip. They compared six cities on each measure. The results were "mixed," although the data clearly showed that BRT had lower operating costs in most of the cities by all measures.

The GAO particularly noted that operating costs varied considerably based upon where the line was situated, whether there were any unique costs (i.e. moving barriers daily), and so forth. What was clear, however, is that at best light rail is a wash compared with buses in terms of operating costs. There's no savings there.

"In other words, the savings in transit operating cost over bus service ($345 million) almost equals the capital cost of the Yellow Line LRT project ($350 million)."

Again, this doesn't consider the costs of taking away traffic lanes. Regular bus service allows cars to still use lanes, while simply adding buses to the mix. More importantly, the comparison isn't made with BRT's operating costs, which tend to be lower. Nor does it consider other measures of operating costs, which are also enlightening.

In any case, the analysis of lightrailnow is comically bad. You can't compare $350 million *now* to $345 million in savings over A whopping total of fifty years. For one thing, operating costs may well change and your calcualtions will be wayyyy off. Secondly, you have to discount the money because a dollar today could be worth ten in fifty years. I could point out further flaws, but I think you know just how fast and loose these people are playing with the numbers. They aren't even trying to control for the most obvious factors.

You see, this is why I cited a Harvard/MIT researcher and the GAO rather than an outfit like lightrailnow.

The rest of your rebuttal is essentially how to turn a bus into a train. Great - like I said, I favor BRT as well. I think there are some advantages to it. But light rail is still better than BRT - which is why the country is building light-rail systems overwhelmingly, not BRT.

No, light rail's capital costs are so outlandishly higher than BRT that BRT is the clear winner. Any advantages of rail, as I argued earlier, are minor at best, imagined at worst.

As for why cities are building light rail rather than BRT, I'd refer you back to my earlier "rail fetish" argument. Just remember that buses used to be the next big thing, and now they're old hat. Do you really want transit to be developed around fads? Billion dollar infrastructure based upon the fickle public? That's a recipe for disaster if I ever heard of one.

 
At 10:40 PM, August 08, 2007, Blogger Michael said...

The federal government is not building rail systems across the country as a "fad" development. As you state, it has been supported for the last 30-50 years. These systems are being built around the world. And approved by voters.

Further, your starts being from 2001 or 1999 means the studies and figures they are using are from the 90s or 80s. So this is a significantly long time ago. What is the cost of labor now versus then? What is the cost of repairing failing infrasture, and paving millions of miles of roads? My studies are using data from through 2006.

I am not really going to argue this anymore, because as I said, I am also in favor of BRT. I think anything to get us out of our cars is progress. But I think BRT is a poor-man's light-rail without many of the benefits. And to look at operating costs is really only one tiny part of this issue, and the only one you are choosing to look at. This is like if we looked at the energy debate and decide to invest all resources in "clean coal" because a guy from MIT said it might be cheaper. When there are hundreds of other factors at play - convenience, user preference, ridership, etc. Your arguments fail on these cases. As I've said before the voters have spoken in Houston and elsewhere. Operating costs is about the 99th most important issue to the voter.

 
At 7:45 AM, August 09, 2007, Anonymous Owen Courreges said...

michael,

The federal government is not building rail systems across the country as a "fad" development. As you state, it has been supported for the last 30-50 years. These systems are being built around the world. And approved by voters.

Eh... It's not the same as prior transit revolutions. When streetcars were big, every city had them. When buses took over, every city switched over. Light rail, on the other hand, has been adopted in many major cities, but not all, and generally make up a small percentage of transit ridership even in those cities. It's still more indicative of a fad to me; "boutique transit" if you will.

Further, your starts being from 2001 or 1999 means the studies and figures they are using are from the 90s or 80s. So this is a significantly long time ago. What is the cost of labor now versus then? What is the cost of repairing failing infrasture, and paving millions of miles of roads? My studies are using data from through 2006.

Again, this is really reaching. You cite two very lame stats from lightrailnow, and the only way you can boost them is by pointing out that some of their data is more recent by five or six years (the GAO data was from 1999). There was no earth-shift in light rail in the past 10 years and you know it.

I am not really going to argue this anymore, because as I said, I am also in favor of BRT. I think anything to get us out of our cars is progress. But I think BRT is a poor-man's light-rail without many of the benefits.

And this is something you've never really fully explained. BRT has virtually all the "benefits" of light rail, without the substantial capital costs and inherent inflexibility. After all, it's more difficult to tear up tracks when an alternative routing would be more efficient than it is to simply redirect BRT pathways.

Finally, calling BRT a "poor-man's light rail" is exactly the kind of emotional, non-objective attitude that causes tax dollars to be wasted. Transit should be about transporting people around efficiently; it isn't a fashion amenity.

When there are hundreds of other factors at play - convenience, user preference, ridership, etc. Your arguments fail on these cases.

Look at Jonathan Richmond's essay. BRT achieves similar ridership to light rail. As for convenience, there's no reason BRT should more more or less convenient than light rail. "User preference?" See my "fad" argument above. If there aren't any objective benefits, we shouldn't be spending billions more on transit based purely on public nostalgia for trains, particularly when the attitude has been the opposite during our history.

 
At 9:07 AM, August 09, 2007, Blogger Michael said...

Owen,

The primary benefit of light-rail versus BRT is that it can carry more riders (that old capacity thing), which is precisely why the east and north Houston lines will be converted to light rail should their ridership levels approach the main street line's ridership of 50,000 per day. That is the current plan, anyway.

Roadways, rail, and BRT all have their place. This was, I believe, the initial point of this article - that a city of Houston's size needs multiple solutions to transit - not just rail, not just roads, not just bus - and not just 2 out of three either, sorry. For significantly high density, even subway makes sense economically. Why? That old capacity thing again. Heavy rail can carry much more riders than light rail, cars, or buses.

But, lest we not forget, that if we want to focus just on "cost-efficiency", building out our highway system (especially after this current round of expansion is done) is about the least cost-effective thing we could do. Even in your article from Harvard they note that mass-transit efforts in St. Louis, San Diego, Houston, including bus, etc. have proven worth the cost and seen more ridership than they had predicted.

So, you tell me that between two biased articles you have and one MIT study, your mind is made up. This issue is case closed to you! Well, I say that is lame research! Everything I have ever seen before on this subject says that light rail and bus are in the same ballpark of cost, especially the types of bus you are talking about (not in the study) - expanded capacity, hydrogen powered, flexible boarding, etc. And don't even start with "well why can't you find it on the web right now for me, Mike?" Give me a break - I don't have that kind of time. I will leave that one to the Brookings Institute.

Anyway, I am done with this debate. We have beat a dead horse. But I think the proof is in the pudding - we are building roads, bus, and rail. Maybe someday even subway. If you don't like it, well, you can write some more articles on lonestartimes.

Thanks,
Mike

 
At 11:59 PM, October 18, 2007, Blogger Phil Ryan said...

Coming from a metropolitan area in which rail is a major form of transport (I'm from north-central suburban New Jersey, near Summit), I can say that rail is probably the most effective form of transport around, assuming that it's built in the proper location.

Now, we know that New York and its metropolis are vastly different than any other conurbation in the rest of the United States. Much of suburbia in the area can be attributed to rail.

New York City is probably the most brilliantly designed city in the country. Built on islands rather than in the middle of a plain, New York City requires that mass transport be used. Numerous reports have pointed to New York being the most energy efficient city when it comes to transport, the most likely city in the US to survive an oil crisis, and it is overwhelmingly the city with the most rail service.

The reason why New Jersey Transit works brilliantly and is one of the highest-used rail systems is that it is built on rail that was the precursor to the suburbs of New York City. Thus, rather than having the train come to the town, the town came to the train, if you get what I mean. Most suburban towns in northern and north-central New Jersey are easily walkable, European in planning, and very quaint, with a rail station in the middle of town. My home town, Chatham, has a train stop literally a block away from downtown. It's quite convenient, seeing as it takes at least an hour to get into New York; it takes about 35-45 minutes on a train.

Rail transport is very weird to establish, mainly because of the enormous capital investment required. However, if planned properly, it works much better in the long run because it has such high capacity and is able to serve a huge reach of people with higher efficiency than automotive transport could ever accomplish.

 
At 7:31 AM, October 19, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

While I agree that NYC's system works well, what made it so was that millions of *people and jobs* were already packed onto Manhattan in the pre-automotive era before the rail lines where built. What the rail lines allowed were for people to move out of jam packed tenements to the suburbs, while keeping the jobs on the island.

In a dispersed, car-based metropolis like Houston, where jobs are scattered everywhere, commuter rail makes little sense.

 

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