Sunday, July 22, 2007

Moving freight, bus vs. rail, and congestion vs. productivity

Some good stuff in Bob Poole's newest Surface Transportation Innovations newsletter over at the Reason Foundation.

First, he covers the limitations of freight rail to reduce urban truck traffic congestion. He discusses rail shuttles to get containers from ports past congested urban areas like LA (and maybe Houston?) to more remote, lower cost areas where they can be transferred to trucks and distribution centers. But ultimately he thinks toll truckways are a more effective solution, both practically and financially.

Second, he looks at some new data on bus vs. rail based on new lines in LA. He finds BRT far more cost-effective than LRT, but then notes that express bus service, without the dedicated guideway, can be nearly as fast, and far more cost effective, than even BRT. Cost per boarding is $7.54 for LRT, $3.79 for BRT, and $2.17 for express bus. Metro has wisely switched much of the core network from LRT to BRT, but maybe they could get even more payoffs from additional express arterial routes?

But the most interesting paragraph is one that backs up my claim from way-back that expensive commuter rail displaces affordable express HOV buses in painful ways:
In Denver, the Rocky Mountain News reported (Dec. 6, 2006) that commuters are complaining bitterly about the impact of the new T-REX light rail line on bus service. The RTD eliminated nonstop express bus service from suburban park & ride lots to downtown and the Tech Center, so as not to compete with T-REX. But "many commuters have complained that the need to transfer from buses to trains to buses again has added from 20 minutes to an hour—or more on bad weather days—to their one-way travel times. Some are going back to driving or forming car pools."
Houston has a great HOV bus network (although it could be even better, with improved service to non-downtown job centers). Do we really want to replace it with slower commuter rail and more time-consuming transfers?

Finally, I enjoyed the section on traffic congestion's impact on urban productivity, which includes results from a new study. Bottom line: making the investments to reduce congestion can pay off in higher urban productivity, and therefore pay.

Graham's results comport with economic theory and intuition, supporting the proposition "that urban road traffic congestion plays a significant role in ‘constraining' the benefits of agglomeration, and consequently, that it may serve to reduce achievable levels of urban productivity." Moreover, his estimates that include the effects of travel time and travel speed tend to find congestion impacts about 30% higher than traditional measures that rely primarily on more narrow distance-based measures.

In short, falling travel speeds and lengthening travel times means that businesses experience faster "diminishing returns", reaching a point of zero (or negative) productivity growth faster than those with higher travel speeds and lower travel times. The most pronounced effects were on productivity in the manufacturing, construction, hotels & catering, and IT sectors. Banking, finance & insurance, business services, and public services, traditional "CBD businesses", did not appear to be impacted as negatively.

Notably, Graham observes in his conclusion that the constraining impacts of traffic congestion on urban productivity tend to reduce densities in the most urbanized locations, promoting decentralization or, in more colloquial terms, sprawl.

I.e. when people are car-based, it doesn't make sense to try to force them all into the same downtown job center. Decentralization is a natural result to reduce congestion and improve mobility.

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At 11:30 PM, July 22, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...


1) When I took Barton Smith's Urban Economics course, he talked one day in class about the issue of freight being hauled around urban areas. He also came to the conclusion that hauling freight short distances within cities was a non-starter. Use freight rail for those 10,000 ton cargoes and let 'em run for a thousand miles. You can't beat rail for that type of work.

2) In terms of the post about commuter rail verses HOV / HOT buses, we should remind ourselves that we don't need to reinvent the wheel when it comes to mass transit. In other words, if you have public monies being used to provide transit service in a corridor or along a route one way, then try to avoid spending money a second time by replicating mass transit service using another mode. You are burdening yourself twice by doing so.

3) Transfers are absolute killers. In their book Urban Economics, Edwin Mills and Bruce Hamilton write that the econometric data indicate that waiting and transfer times are valued by people at a rate of 200-400 percent of their wage rates. It doesn't matter whether you are trying to go 6 miles by bus or 6,000 miles by jet. People really do not want to transfer if they can help it! In comparison, most people value their actual commute time at about 30-50 percent of their wage rates.

My jaw nearly dropped once I read those statements, but there are good reasons why people place such a steep premium to their transfer and wait times. Weather, fear of crime or unpleasant encounters, uncertainty regarding the operation of vehicles, the general hassle of having to transfer, having the feeling that you are not being productive, nor are you making further progress in trying to get to your final destination all play a role.

I stared subscribing to the Journal of Urban Economics a couple of months ago and have become a regular reader of the TRB website. Both sources cover a tremendous number of topics and are must reads for anyone interested in Cities and urban areas.

At 8:04 AM, July 23, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Neal: that transfer/wait time information is fascinating, and goes a long way towards explaining peoples' choices. Thanks.

At 9:28 AM, July 23, 2007, Blogger ian said...

Tory -- You've said in the past that you think commuter rail down the I-45 corridor to Galveston would make a lot of sense. Do you have the same concern that such a rail line would conflict with established HOV lane bus traffic?

At 10:38 AM, July 23, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Another note on commuter rail picked up from attending the US 290 corridor DEIS public hearing:

A separate Rail corridor will be created parallel to the current UPRR and HOT/Tollway lanes. I guess TxDOT and METRO are showing that commuter rail will not share tracks in this corridor with freight rail.

This is good and bad. Good because a dedicated ROW for the transit whenever it gets put into service is better than sharing tracks. Bad because the cost will escalate.

Unless METRO really forces it, I don't think the commuter rail will move forward until the HOT have been operating for several years.

At 11:02 AM, July 23, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Ian: of all the proposed lines, I think the Galveston line is the most viable because it has real destinations at both ends and in the middle, on both weekdays and weekends. In an ideal world, if they built it, they would still offer HOV express bus service to places like the med center and uptown. But I'm reasonably certain they would expect those people to transfer to the local network, which will make the commute times painfully long. The rail map will look nice, but ridership will be poor, especially when the Fairmont and I35 tollways get built to add southeast freeway capacity to I45S. Why ride transit for an hour when you can drive 30 minutes?

At 12:27 PM, July 24, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Denver's T-REX light rail does not back up your argument against commuter rail at all. Light rail is a multi-stop local option, whereas commuter rail is a limited stop, long haul option. Using one technology with a specific purpose to argue against an altogether different technology with an altogether different purpose proves nothing.

T-REX DOES prove that light rail should only be used in dense inner city areas, though. Commuter rail can still be viable for suburban transit.

At 4:09 PM, July 24, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

RedScare: first, I think they are running it like commuter rail with long distances between stops, like Dallas does with their light rail.

But the main point is that express point-to-point commuter bus service was replaced with single and double bus and rail transfers, greatly slowing the overall trip. That's a very valid problem no matter what kind of rail they use.

At 9:14 AM, July 25, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tory, I agree that T-REX is similar to DART. However, I believe that BOTH are trying to do too much by trying to combine short haul trips and long haul commuter trips on the same system. Neither you nor I would consider a METRO Park&Ride bus that stopped a dozen or more times on its way to downtown a thoughtful or efficient transit solution. T-REX and DART are doing exactly that with light rail.

Your concerns about cost of rail solutions are well founded and well explained. However, T-REX and DART are objectionable on efficiency grounds as well. That is a knock against solving 2 problems with one solution, not the inherent inefficiency of rail transit. There are other rail lines that may prove your point, but T-REX is not it.

At 10:37 AM, July 25, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Redscare: I absolutely agree with your points. I have written before about the problems of trying to have a single rail setup serve both local and commuter trips, as Dallas and Denver have done. But that is a separate issue from the one described here:

1) transit agency has direct and express bus routes
2) transit agency builds very expensive rail line
3) to maximize ridership on very expensive rail line (so as to show it was worth building in the first place), transit agency links as many bus routes as possible to it, turning previously direct routes into ones with transfers
4) overall system ridership drops, because people decided the extra time for the transfers is no longer worth it.

This story is about Denver, but the exact same thing happened in Houston with the light rail line, which is a good one with good ridership, but Metro's system ridership dropped noticeably after all the buses connected to it instead of continuing on their previous routes all the way through the city.

At 9:38 AM, July 31, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tory, I am a user of the TREX line that was just built. The regional bus unit that the line was supposed to replace was brought back into action just last May. Unfortunately, this comes at a cost: starting 8/19, Light-rail lines will be pared back.

Take it from me: it's not a bad system if you live in the Tech Center area and need to get from office park to office park. But as a vehicle for commuting to Downtown Denver, it's horrible; it takes up to 40 minutes to get from Union Station downtown to the southern end.


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