Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Reason on Why Mobility Matters to Personal Life (Part 1 of 2)

I really like the new Reason Foundation report by Ted Balaker on "Why Mobility Matters to Personal Life" - a product of The Galvin Project to End Congestion. It makes a great case for investing aggressively in congestion reduction and added capacity, including some backing up our assertions in Opportunity Urbanism. I highly recommend reading the whole thing, but I'm going to put my favorite excerpts here over the next couple of posts (and even those are too long - I liked it that much).

He starts with a discussion of opportunity circles, which are pretty much the exact same thing as my opportunity zones from Opportunity Urbanism.
The average person can walk about four miles per hour, but cars can easily travel on arterial streets at 30 miles per hour. It’s a substantial increase in speed, but the impact may be even greater than it seems. A person who walks for an hour has access to 50 square miles, but someone who drives at 30 miles per hour for 60 minutes has access to 2,827 square miles. In other words, the driver’s opportunity circle is more than 56 times as large as the walker’s. And when conditions permit, motorists may drive much faster on highways, thus expanding opportunity circles even more.
But what about opportunity circles for transit?
Other factors, from transfers from one bus or train to another to time spent walking to the transit stop, make a slow transit trip even slower. Even though transit commutes typically cover shorter distances, it takes the average American transit user about twice as long to get to work as the average car commuter. This holds true in some unexpected places. For many New Yorkers transit offers the fastest way to get to work, but, on average, transit commutes take much longer than auto commutes even in the New York metro area. Indeed New York’s transit commuters endure the longest commutes in the nation (52 minutes each way vs. 28 minutes for solo driving). Transit commuting takes much longer than driving in many other areas with celebrated transit systems (see table).
You can check out the table of about a half-dozen cities yourself on pg.3
Motorists enjoy additional advantages that push many people toward cars and away from transit. Travelers can reach relatively few destinations directly by transit, but motorists can go from (almost) anywhere to (almost) anywhere. Transit service frequency varies according to schedules, but motorists can travel whenever they like. Their travels are not as restrained by fatigue as are walkers and transit users who trek to and from transit stops. Simple conveniences, like trunk-space, make it easier to carry things and additional seating makes it easier to transport small children, the elderly, and handicapped. The enclosed space of a car can also spare travelers from the rain, snow, heat and humidity. And although driving brings its own risks, many people feel safer traveling at night or through unfamiliar areas within the confines of a car.
That's probably the best short summary I've ever seen on why people continue to overwhelmingly choose cars despite gigantic investments in transit.

He then documents our growing congestion problem:
The future looks bleaker still. Congestion in Los Angeles is legendary, but if officials continue to respond to the mobility crisis with a shrug, many more areas will succumb to LA-style gridlock. By 2030 11 additional urban areas (Chicago, Washington D.C., San Francisco, Atlanta, Miami, Denver, Seattle, Las Vegas, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Baltimore, Portland) will suffer through traffic conditions as bad as or worse than present-day Los Angeles.
Thank you H-GAC, CoH, HCTRA, and TxDoT for keeping us off that list.

And the costs of that congestion?
Businesses think it wise to follow all these potential workers to the suburbs, even though a suburban environment is not inherently superior for many of them. Many businesses, families, and singles would love to stay in the city and draw on all the energy offered by agglomeration economies, but they are forced out by a variety of urban headaches, including degraded mobility.

Too many elected leaders find comfort in misleading tales of urban renaissance and too many assume that our great cities can thrive even as mobility degrades. But improving mobility is essential to ensuring our urban centers’ long-term survival, and if we ignore the mobility crisis our cities will wither.

Not only are talented and energetic people increasingly choosing suburbia over city life, but sluggish urban life is also draining some of the talent and energy that remain. As travel becomes more difficult, fewer interactions take place. Vibrant competition has traditionally ensured that city dwellers enjoy the best of the best, but when mobility degrades, a city functions less like a grand urban space and more like a collection of isolated communities. Instead of traversing several neighborhoods to patronize the best establishments, denizens are more apt to resign themselves to whatever’s nearby. First-rate establishments find it more difficult to attract customers and second-rate operations realize that, with less competition, they face less pressure to improve. Residents are often stuck with fewer choices, higher prices, and inferior service.

Downtown cultural institutions fret about traffic-weary would-be patrons steering clear of music, dance, and theater events.
Congestion also robs us of opportunities in more subtle ways. For example, it decreases our job opportunities. Instead of landing a more distant, but higher-paying and more fulfilling job, those living in the midst of gridlock are more likely to stick with the jobs they already have.
It also exacts a cost on our love lives.
All across the nation, Cupid’s arrow is getting stuck in traffic. Although Westchester County is geographically close to Manhattan, because travel is such a hassle, New York City singles often tag Westchesterites as “geographically undesirable.” Thousands of Atlanta-area Match.com subscribers will not date anyone who lives more than 10 miles away. Atlanta spans nearly 2,000 square miles, but immobility limits these love seekers to a tiny corner of the metropolitan area.

Washington, D.C. might be worst of all. According to Match.com, singles there are most likely to care about how far they travel for love. Elizabeth Reed refused to travel more than five miles for a date. “In D.C.,” she says, “five miles is the longest five miles you’ve ever traveled.”
Elizabeth mentally “strikes out certain nights to go into the city” and when asked how it would affect her life if congestion magically vanished, she pauses. It’s a surprisingly hard question because she’s “gotten so used to not doing things.”
Certainly, traffic is no excuse for living a dull life, but it’s clear that congestion does have a dulling effect.
We'll continue with part 2 on Thursday.

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At 6:32 PM, July 24, 2007, Blogger Mr. Kimberly said...

The one thing not covered in your post were the the geographic restrictions that some cities suffer.

A trip to Houston made it very clear how much easier it was to traverse a flat city with a gridded street layout than Atlanta's hilly and convoluted road system.

That being said, other cities with similar issues have overcome them.

At 9:26 PM, July 24, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I do not feel that rail lines are substitutes for our cars. We must invest in the best possible road system. This will help maintain our quality of life. Alot of other cities have starting singing kumbaya with the rail lines, but the truth is hitting them now. Lets not make the same mistake. That being said SOME rail lines might work on a LIMITED scale between certain high value destinations.

At 8:38 AM, July 25, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Transportation spending 2002 Congressional Budget

Transit - $6 billion
Highways - $32 billion

Maybe this is why highways appear to provide better services. They receive 5 times more than transit.

At 8:55 AM, July 25, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Houston ranks third in park acres per 1,000 residents. Our score is above the national average. That means we can continue to pave over green space with more highways and still be at least average. I am calling TXDOT today to tell them there is plenty of green space available and ask why it hasn't been paved yet. Because as we all know, more concrete equals less congestion.

Top 10 cities in Houston's density category in park acres per 1,000 residents:

1. Raleigh, N.C., 35.6

2. San Diego, 35.6

3. Houston, 27.2

4. Phoenix, Ariz., 26.0

5. Portland, Ore., 24.8

6. Omaha, Neb., 22.4

7. Cincinnati, Ohio, 20.4

8. Columbus, Ohio, 18.0

9. Dallas, 17.9

10. Milwaukee-Milwaukee County, 16.3


At 8:57 AM, July 25, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Yet, when you consider that roads cover 98% of trips vs. 2% for transit, the spending seems very skewed too much in favor of transit.

One also should ask why the federal government is subsidizing local transit? They should stick to the interstate highway system for interstate commerce (their original purpose). Inside cities, they should cover the cost of the basic 4 lanes - anything extra should be picked up by cities or states.

At 9:15 AM, July 25, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

They cover 98% of road trips because they have all the infrastructure funding. The ratio would be reversed if the financing was reversed, but it's not. It's laughable to suggest that roads are the best alternative, they are only the best alternative because that is where the investment has been made. The best part is that the investment was not made in highways and roads because they were deemed the best most efficient transportation alternative, but because there was money to be made there and lots of it.
If all money and resources are thrown at one mode of transportation why would one expect that any other mode would be feasible. The supporters of continued highway/road building beating up on rail and other transportation alternatives, is the equivalent of a spoiled BMW driving rich kid making fun of a poor kid's Dodge Dart. It's sad. It's not a level playing field and it never will be. Transit will continue to be the step-child.

I love this quote from the report, "The bigger your
opportunity circle, the more jobs you can get to..." I guess you will need more jobs to pay for the gas to get to the jobs. A vicious cycle like the road and highway building. It's an enjoyable read, as far as entertaining, not informative or enlightening. A report from a libertarian think tank is hard to take too seriously.

At 9:40 AM, July 25, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I suppose that chart on page 3 should be filed under the heading of "Utterly Useless Data", given that it lumps the entire country into one neat little graph. We all would agree that transportation is very local and very personal. Even so, some interesting conclusion can be drawn that are opposite of Tory's suggestions. One, light rail is on average 23% FASTER than local bus service, suggesting that light rail does have usefulness as a transit solution. Two, commuter rail is virtually identical to autos in speed, suggesting that commuter rail is a viable alternative as a transit option.

My frustration with all of these studies, and with the highway only lobby is the insistence that ONLY time matters. It is not that simple, as not everyone places the same value on time. Indeed, Tory's love of HOT lanes suggests that, as the cost to use them rises, the number of people willing to pay the toll drops. I fail to understand why economic factors are the lynchpin of HOT lanes, yet completely ignored in transit.

Some of the biggest reasons that New Yorkers tolerate the long commutes include the stress that driving presents, the cost of parking, and the obstacles to finding a parking space near their workplace. While the question of why a New Yorker would tolerate a longer transit commute over a shorter drive screams from the page, the report ignores it, instead seemingly suggesting that New York transit riders are stupid for taking the extra 23 minutes to get to work.

I wonder what the drive time would be if New York transit riders wised up and started driving?

At 9:45 AM, July 25, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh, and the love life anecdote is flat out stupid. Even though I live in the Heights, and never encounter congestion when I travel on reverse commutes to The Woodlands, I would think long and hard before I would ever drive 30 miles to date a girl there. It aint the congestion, it's the distance.

At 10:45 AM, July 25, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Anon: Well, it is worth noting that roads have been the fundamental backbone of human transportation ever since the tribes settled down and became civilization as we know it. Transit was an anomalous blip of the late 19th and 20th centuries. The road network is not optional - everything must be connected by a road to receive freight, ambulance, police, fire trucks, and even the original construction vehicles - but transit is optional. There is no human settlement on the planet not connected by roads (well, ok, maybe a few tribes in the Amazon and Africa... but they don't use much transit either).

At 10:53 AM, July 25, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

-BRT can achieve light rail speeds at lower cost
-commuter rail may match average speeds, but only goes in a single line. A car goes anywhere, without transfers
-transit cost more per passenger mile than cars. see post from a few months ago.
-New Yorkers tolerate long transit commutes to be in capital of the planet. That does not mean people and employers will tolerate the same thing in parking-plentiful Houston.
-dating: it's not congestion, it's time. Yes, it takes a long time to drive to the Woodlands, but imagine if you had to take transit? People basically have a time-budget for dating, and in most cities, cars will get you twice as far in that time as transit - unless they have inadequate road infrastructure and are congested, which is exactly the point of the article.

At 12:29 PM, July 25, 2007, Blogger Michael said...


"Transit was an anamolous blip of the 19th and 20th centuries"??

Projects in transit around the world continue, from bullet trains to local subways being built from scratch, including in Amsterdam.

Aside from your point that a fire-truck can take a road, and can probably not board a metro train, I fail to see much difference between roads and train tracks. They are both means of transit, meant to move people around. We should be investing or considering both approaches, where they make sense. Maybe Houston is not the best candidate for some types of transit right now, but the idea that train tracks are inherently flawed or inherently cost more than roads/cars is not believable to me.

Also, on costs per trip, how was this figured? I go about 30 miles a day for work purposes, which at IRS rates of 50 cents per mile is about $15, or $7.50 per trip. And this doesn't include environmental costs, the cost of building the road network that I use every day (which I am paying for), insurance, etc. If you factor in the cost of maintaining the road network that I am using, let alone environmental factors, and others, it is probably at least $10 per one-way trip to work/home for me, or $20 per day. Adding in my insurance costs, it is probably close to $22-$23 per day that is somehow coming out of my pocket, whether in fuel, depreciation, tax funds for highway construction, insurance, etc. A metro pass doesn't sound so bad at those rates. Or a comprehensive metro system including transit.


At 12:52 PM, July 25, 2007, Blogger ian said...

What's with all the links to Reason recently? Reason is like a loud rock concert -- it can sound damn good, but it's bad for you in the long run. Unless you wear earplugs.

At 1:03 PM, July 25, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Europe is often held as a model for transit whether within individual cities, regional, or continent wide.

But the real truth is that Europe has shifted heavily to highway construction to move freight. Most if not all these roads are tolled, but the movement to utilized vehicular transit for goods is a major change.

China and India are moving in this direction too. They realize that an efficient road network is critical to move freight around.

Transit has a place as long as there is a demand, but as long as people prefer to drive the road will be king. (and don't quote that majority voted the METRO funding for rail as a demand, many commuters look as rail as a way to have everyone else travel so they can freely drive with lest congestion)

At 1:19 PM, July 25, 2007, Blogger ian said...

"(and don't quote that majority voted the METRO funding for rail as a demand, many commuters look as rail as a way to have everyone else travel so they can freely drive with lest congestion) "

OKAY, how many times do I have to hear this without something to back it up? Because frankly, it conflicts with my experiences. People that I've talked to seem to feel *good* that there is light rail, *good* that we're making some progress away from the status quo. Nobody that I've ever met said they voted for light rail simply because they believed it would clear up congestion. Nope, most people I've talked to wish Houston was different in some way or another, and they see light rail as a step in the right direction. They might not be able to directly benefit from it -- yet -- because their houses and their jobs are flung about so widely, but they would like the infrastructure in place so that SOMEDAY they can walk, bike, and take transit.

I could be wrong, but so far, I feel like I have at LEAST as much evidence to back up this hypothesis as that pessimistic alternative hypothesis. Let's go out and take some surveys, ask people to list their reasons for voting, and THEN draw some conclusions. Until then, I'm going to give my fellow Houstonians the benefit of the doubt. . .

At 2:10 PM, July 25, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Michael: see here for the calculations (and follow the links through)

My point is that the road network is not optional. Every city has a road network. And it mostly privatizes the cost of transportation, because the individual citizen must purchase a vehicle and maintain it (a good thing that encourages economy). Transit is a secondary, optional network, paid for almost exclusively by government (farebox covers less than 20% of costs). In general, we as a society still tax subsidize it for the transit-dependent, and we do it with very affordable buses on top of the road network we already paid for.

At the end of the day, this is why our government spends the majority of its transportation resources on roads, and, frankly, that makes sense.

At 5:45 PM, July 25, 2007, Blogger Michael said...

Some other interesting statistics showing light rail to be cheaper than buses in most cities, and comparable to the $.22 for cars per passenger mile, even though in Houston I think a lot of us are paying closer to the IRS $.50 per passenger mile + additional costs as I mentioned before, since we are driving alone (scroll to the bottom):


At 5:56 PM, July 25, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Yes, those stats focus purely on operating costs, and don't include amortization of the billions in capital costs to build the thing, which essentially has to be re-spent rebuilding it every 20-30 years - which is why the Chicago, DC, and NYC transit systems are facing a maintenance crisis. The numbers I linked to do amortize the capital costs.

At 7:33 PM, July 25, 2007, Blogger TransitPlanner said...

There are two logical problems with opportunity circle concept. 1. Auto oriented land use ends up spacing things farther and farther apart. 2. Since auto oriented land use creates poly-centric cities your the map becomes a sea of overlapping rings. In other words your neighborhood becomes something standing in the way of another person getting from his or her center to points on the ring of their circle.

At 8:43 PM, July 25, 2007, Blogger Michael said...

I still don't think I've seen an apples-to-apples comparison of costs.

Furthermore, I don't see any proof of a crisis in Chicago, New York, or DC. In fact, these cities are busy extending their service to new areas. DC is building a line out to Dulles, St. Louis is extending their system into the Galleria area, etc. etc.. Plus, rebuilding costs would seem to apply equally to highways. There is a lot more land area, and thousands of miles of roadways, potholes, etc, that must be maintained on a daily basis. I understand you are just quoting figures you have gotten from elsewhere that claim to take this into account, but I seriously doubt it.

As to kjb434's point about people preferring to drive, and not using the successful metro vote as a point to counter that. Sorry, but no way! The fact that voters here approved metro is a loud and clear support of transit.

At 9:19 PM, July 25, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Marco: true, but opp circles are based on time, not distance - and cars maximize what's available within a given trip time.

Michael: there have been a number of articles on the problems of deferred maintenance in those transit systems, most recently a big NYT piece on the constant breakdowns in Chicago. None of the systems has the money they need to do the necessary reconstruction as everything ages.

Yes, highways also have to be rebuilt, but that was also built into the numbers, I believe. And it's a lot less expensive to just pay for asphalt - and let private citizens and businesses buy the cars and trucks and fuel that runs on them - vs. transit, where tracks, vehicles, energy/fuel, and even driving labor (buses or trains) all have to be purchased by govt.

At 10:26 PM, July 25, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Don't forget that cars and transit are seperate areas. Transit in the form of busses and trains can not replace automobility.

At 10:07 AM, July 26, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Christof Spieler has posted a great and thorough rundown of commuter rail at the www.ctchouston.org website.

At 10:08 AM, July 26, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Oh, it's in his Intermodality Blog as the latest entry.

Tory, you may want to link to it.

At 1:27 PM, July 26, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Thanks for the heads up, kjb. It is a great post, and I will link to & discuss it in a future post, but here's the link now for those who are interested:


At 4:18 PM, July 26, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...


As usual, Christof is more sensible than some rail boosters, but still tends to point to examples of rail "successes" that are anything but (i.e. D.C. Metro). Caltrain is a prime example; it cost a fortune to build, and the per passenger subsidy is staggering (about twice BART's, which is saying something).

Commuter rail is rarely a good idea, and probably shouldn't be considered much outside of a few of the old urban strongholds of the north. Contrary to what Christof thinks, commuter rail has failed in California. I'm glad he recognizes that it wouldn't work here.

At 6:42 PM, July 26, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why does the federal government spend 20% of its transportation dollars on transit? Because some of us still like to go places without having to get into a car.

Imagine if we all accepted the logic of "opportunity mobility." The whole country now lives in tract home subdivisions and drives every place they go, whether it's to the store, to a restaurant, to the library, or even to the park. Just as we're all patting ourselves on the back on how many places we can get to in an hour, suddenly we realize that there's no place we can get to without having to drive, sit in traffic, find a parking spot, etc.

And then the whole thing crumbles. This is the new urbanist movement in a nutshell.

At 7:19 PM, July 26, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Again, I would say that transit clearly should be local dollars, not federal - just like local streets and bus transit is paid for locally. Even most highways are state. Federal only makes sense for interstate transportation.

I think most people are pretty happy with cars, but some would like to walk on some trips, so some new urbanist islands are popping up - and that's fine - but I'd note that all of them make pains to accommodate cars because they are so woven into our society at this point.


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