Tuesday, February 28, 2006

The reality of transit

A couple of recent articles on transit help to put it in context. It's important to move beyond the "transit is the holy grail" vs. "transit is worthless" debate. The first article is a New York Times profile of transit in LA and the incredible difficulty getting traction there despite enormous investments. LA is probably the most important city in the country for Houston to be watching for "lessons learned" because they are also a sprawling, car-based, suburban metro that has more than double our population and density, and they are way ahead of us on transit investments. Why would we not learn from their mistakes? People look to New York for a transit model, but more realistic for us would be to watch a city like LA try to make itself more "New York-like" and see where and how they succeed and fail.

It may come as a surprise that the Los Angeles area has one of the most extensive public transit systems in the country, with 73 miles of subway and light rail, 500 miles of commuter train lines and 2,670 buses covering 18,500 stops. The problem is that people live and work in pockets spread over an area larger than Rhode Island, and that going long distances on mass transit can mean long waits and frequent transfers that send public-transit newcomers rushing back to their cars.

A bunch of light rail, subway, commuter rail lines and now express buses added in the last 15 years has yielded mixed results, leaving officials scratching their heads over what more to do.


One recent night, Richard Close, president of the politically active Sherman Oaks Homeowners Association, warmly greeted Mayor Villaraigosa at a meeting of the group, listened to the mayor's standard exhortation to take public transit and then hours later in an interview declared his devotion to his car. ...

But, he added, "A large percentage of Los Angeles can't use public transit because we are so decentralized. Mass transit is part of the puzzle, but freeways and streets are the main method of transit, has been and probably always will be."

Transportation analysts by and large are not optimistic that the various mass transit proposals will bring anything more than isolated relief. Too often, the experts said, Los Angeles has bowed to political considerations rather than pursuing what works best for the money.

Unpopular but proven solutions like "congestion pricing"— assessing tolls for freeway use at the busiest times to make car travel more expensive — and pre-empting traffic signals for buses do not have the cachet, or provide the perks for the powerful construction industry and trade unions, that come with rail construction and freeway alterations, the analysts said.

"It often comes down to what is politically attractive," said Brian Taylor, director of the Institute for Transportation Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. "And that is often, 'Let's spend more on transit.' It is less invasive than adding highways, and you don't get the objection from environmentalists."

Nearly 7 percent of commuters in Los Angeles County — and closer to 5 percent if surrounding counties are included — use public transit to get to work, a number that stayed flat from 1990 to 2000, according to the census, despite the investment of some $8 billion in new transit lines. (In the New York metropolitan area, 25 percent of residents take public transit to work.)

Moving on to the second item, Reason's Out of Control blog does an excellent job with some excerpts that explain the relative magnitudes of transit and car travel and their growth rates - noting that even tiny percentage growth in car travel swamps out much larger percentage growth in transit - and brings potential expectations for transit down to earth.
A simple simulation model shows that if both types of travel start with their 2000 absolute levels, and transit usage increases 5.36 percent per year (its highest recent annual rate of gain) and highway travel gains only 1 percent per year, then the share of transit in total ground passenger miles would not reach 5 percent until 2036. Even if highway driving did not rise at all while transit did, transit would not reach 5 percent of all ground passenger miles until 2029. If transit usage rises at its actual compound annual growth rate from 1995 to 2000 (3.74 percent) and highway travel rises at its similar rate (2.27 percent), transit would not reach a 5 percent share until the next century.
One lesson? If you ever hear someone promising congestion relief from transit, ignore them. Moving the trips-needle around in the 2-5% range isn't going to do anything noticeable to traffic congestion. Now, transit alternatives to traffic congestion are perfectly legitimate, but the question is "do they provide a noticeable improvement/value-proposition (speed, convenience, cost) over driving? (or existing transit options)" If not, what's the point? Why would we expect them to attract riders? Too many people believe "well, it doesn't make sense for me and I'm not going to ride it, but everybody else will, which will leave the streets and freeways open for me." Needless to say, this logic is completely incorrect, not to mention financially dangerous to taxpayers. Only when people have a realistic understanding of what transit can - and cannot - reasonably achieve will we make the right choices.


At 10:26 PM, February 28, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

-- Moving the trips-needle around in the 2-5% range isn't going to do anything noticeable to traffic congestion --

5% is pretty darn good... think the difference between commutes in the summer when some folks are on vacation vs. a school month like October.

At 10:34 PM, February 28, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"a 5% reduction in traffic volumes on a congested highway (for example, from 2,000 to 1,900 vehicles per hour) may cause a 10-30% increase in average vehicle speeds (for example, increasing traffic speeds from 35 to 45 miles per hour). As a result, even relatively small changes in traffic volume or capacity on congested roads can provide relatively large reductions in traffic delay. Modeling by Deakin and Harvey (1998) indicate that a percentage reduction in urban vehicle mileage tends to produce about twice the percentage reduction in traffic congestion delays. "

source: http://www.vtpi.org/tdm/tdm96.htm

At 10:39 PM, February 28, 2006, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I think school months create a much, much larger swing than 5% in traffic - not from fewer people on vacation, but from parents dropping off and picking up their kids, or running them on errands or to activities after school. Evidently, kids no longer walk or ride the school bus like they did when we were kids.

On the second item: that is a more impressive improvement than I would expect, but note that that improvement is for a full 5%. In our case, we would be moving from around 2-3% of trips by transit towards 5% over 25+ years, for a 2-3% gain. That is excruciatingly little progress over a very, very long time.

At 9:52 AM, March 01, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you Tory for highlighting what I believe is a specious argument made by transit advocates - that transit will reduce congestion. Every time someone says that, it just about makes my blood boil. And I'm generally transit-supportive.

Short of a fuel price rise much, much more dramatic than we've seen recently (and even then car manufacturers may be able to innovate their way out of the problem), auto travel has certain qualities that most folks will find more appealing than transit. However, the big flaw in the automobile system is congestion. I believe this flaw is inherent and unavoidable - the only way congestion is reduced is by shrinking the economy, congestion pricing (and, to a much lesser extent, operational improvements like signal synchronization), off-peak commute times, and telecommuting.

Transit can and should provide an effective alternative to avoid congestion. But in order for it to be effective, it must be well-designed and provide fast, reliable service. Even more important - and what the NY Times article gets at - is that destinations must be transit-supportive (walkable) and have a "sensible" spatial arrangement in a region.

As most of us know, this means there are few opportunities in our region to use transit as a reasonable option for "choice" riders. Apart from Downtown and the Medical Center, you've got Uptown, Greenway, Greenspoint (maybe), The Woodlands Town Center, and Downtown Galveston / UTMB. Those are significant places, especially for employment. But the vast majority of employment (most notably office employment) growth is occurring in much more scattered locations essentially not serviceable by transit - and I don't believe that "local circulator service" can overcome this obstacle. Places like Westchase and Energy Corridor will have to have a major redevelopment / reconfiguration if transit is to be effective there.

To end this excessively long post, I think we must recognize that in the current Houston market, employers / office developers (so important to "choice" transit ridership) will continue to chase less congested highway frontage that offers convenient single-occupancy auto commutes to high-value employees, most of whom live on the outer metro fringe. Once a highway becomes irreversibly congested, well, you just get a new location on another highway that's probably further out from the center. Transit and walkability are irrelevant to such decisions.

At 8:41 PM, March 29, 2006, Blogger Justin said...

The big question... what happens when (yes, when, not if) gas prices hit $4.00 a gallon and everyone commuting from Brookshire and Conroe has to pay exorbitant amounts of money just to get to work? No one will be scoffing at walkability and transit as "irrelevant."
Besides that, if we're serious about libertarian ideas, then let the market make the decision without massive government interventions like rebuilding the Katy freeway to the tune of $2 billion, and let's just let everything sort itself out.

At 8:52 AM, March 30, 2006, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Gas makes up a relatively small portion of total car cost of ownership, so I don't think you'll see a massive change of behavior from $2.50 to $4 (if that happens), just like we didn't see much change from $1 to $2.50 - a much bigger increase in percentage terms.

Which is more libertarian: govt-created transit subsidized by sales taxes everyone pays (riders and non-riders), or roads paid for by gas taxes (actual users), or, better yet, Texas' new focus on toll roads paid for by the exact users of that road?


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