Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Feds start to get rational on bus vs. rail transit

Sometimes, Houston's obsession with matching other "world class" cities works out pretty well - like Discovery Green and our stadiums - but sometimes it doesn't serve us so well, like our insistence on having a rail transit financial disaster because all of the other important cities have had one. Even the Feds are having second thoughts about emphasizing rail over much more cost-effective buses:
The urban transit community was buzzing last month after a remarkable speech by Federal Transit Administrator Peter Rogoff on May 18th at the National Summit on the Future of Transit, in Boston. Pointing not only to the fiscal crunch facing all levels of government but also to the dire condition of transit agencies, Rogoff said it was time for everyone in transportation to face facts. The seven largest rail transit operators have a deferred maintenance backlog of $50 billion, with another $28 billion racked up by the smaller systems. And 29% of all transit assets are in poor or marginal condition. Yet at this very time at least 80 urban areas are seeking federal funds for new rail transit. “At times like these,” he told the audience, “it’s more important than ever to have the courage to ask a hard question: if you can’t afford to operate the system you have, why does it make sense for us to partner in your expansion? If you can’t afford your current footprint, does expanding that underfunded footprint really expand the President’s goals . . . in any sustainable way?” 
So Rogoff reminded his listeners about the virtues of buses, which provide the majority of all transit trips (but account for only one-quarter of the deferred maintenance). “A little honesty about the differences between bus and rail can have some profound effects,” he said. Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) would be wiser than rail “for a lot more communities than are currently considering it. Some communities might be tempted to pay the extra cost of shiny new rails now. But they need to be mindful of the costs they are teeing up for future generations.” 
“One [simple truth] is this—paint is cheap, rail systems are extremely expensive. Yes, transit riders often want to go by rail. But it turns out you can entice even diehard rail riders onto a bus, if you call it a ‘special’ bus and just paint it a different color than the rest of the fleet.” In addition, once you have the special buses, consider busways: “Take that paint can and paint a designated bus lane on the street system. Throw in signal preemption, and you can move a lot of people at very little cost compared to rail.”
(hat tip to Josh)
Sounds like an absolutely excellent replacement for most of our planned $100+ million per mile light rail line extensions.

Buses are also better than rail for long-distance commuter express transit, but even better than buses in many cases are vanpools, as this article from Seattle argues:
Vanpools are cheaper, more flexible, and more efficient than any other intercity transit mode. King County's public vanpool program alone carries more riders than Sound Transit's entire Sounder Commuter Rail, and for $1 billion less.

When accounting for ridership and distance traveled, vanpools cost between three and five times less to operate than light rail, buses or commuter rail. In the seven years between 2000 and 2007, the six vanpool agencies in the Puget Sound area spent $50 million on capital infrastructure. This is 18 times less than the same six bus agencies, 12 times less than Sound Transit’s Express bus system and 20 times less than the Sounder Commuter Rail.

It costs about 20 cents per passenger mile to build and operate the vanpool program in the Puget Sound region. Compare this to other intercity transit modes like express buses or rail. Sound Transit Express buses cost about $1.70 per passenger mile and Sounder Commuter Rail costs a whopping $5.39 per passenger mile.

And vanpool users pay for most of their own service. In 2007, King County Metro had the highest farebox recovery rate in the region, collecting 83 percent of operating expenses from vanpool passengers.

This is in stark contrast to what users pay to ride buses, commuter rail, and light rail. Farebox recovery rates for these transit modes are about 20 percent of operating costs, while taxpayers pay the remaining 80 percent.

Between 2002 and 2007, the public paid about $1.26 for every vanpool trip made in the Puget Sound region. In comparison, the public paid $5.13 in operating costs for every passenger trip on Sound Transit buses and $10.66 in operating costs for every passenger trip made on the Sounder Commuter Rail.
Instead of building expensive, fixed-route intercity transit systems that relatively few people use; instead of reducing personal mobility by limiting how much people drive; and instead of artificially forcing people to live and work in dense urban centers, vanpools offer a more cost-effective choice to connect the suburbs with transit, preserve people's freedom of mobility and help the environment by reducing the number of cars on the road.

Yes - they're not sexy, but vanpools are incredibly efficient and effective, especially with HOV/HOT lane network. My only issues with vanpools are that they are often cramped, don't have wifi, and are hard to do productive work in. We need a slightly different vehicle with roomier individual seats, wifi, and laptop trays, kind of like this:
Now that would be a comfortable, affordable, productive, fast, direct commute that would effectively connect all of our suburbs to all of our many different job centers.

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Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Media love for Houston, rail, Chicago, city vs. suburbs, and more

Another stack of smaller misc items, including a lot of love for Houston from the media:
"Texas powers past the tough times on the strength of its economy — top-ranked in our "Economy" category four years in a row. The Texas economy is the 15th largest in the world, according to government figures; larger, for example, than that of all the Scandinavian nations combined. The Lone Star State is home to 64 Fortune 500 companies, more than any other state, in a wide variety of industries. So while the state's last win in 2008 came with oil at a record $145 a barrel — a natural tailwind for the largest industry in Texas — the state managed to do even better this year despite the fact that oil is trading at roughly half that price.
Texas has also managed to avoid the worst of the real estate crisis, according to reporter Ashanti Blaize of KXAS-TV."
As Wikipedia points out, when planned in 2000, Charlotte’s light-rail line was supposed to cost $225 million. The final cost turned out to be $467 million. Even after adjusting for inflation, that’s close to a 100 percent cost overrun. (Actually, considering inflation from 2000 to 2007, that’s about a 75 percent cost overrun.)
In 2008, the Charlotte Area Transit System (CATS) reported less than 12,000 average weekday trips on its light-rail line. The Houston and Hudson-Bergen light-rail lines, both about the same length, each carried more than 40,000 weekday riders (and can hardly be considered successes) (Tory: I disagree on the Houston Main St line not being a success).
Given the high capital costs plus nearly $10 million in annual operating costs, the annualized cost of Charlotte’s light-rail works out to more than $3.60 per passenger mile (compared with less than $1 for a typical bus and less than $0.25 for driving, including highway subsidies which, in North Carolina, average less than half a penny per passenger mile). Of course, most of that $3.60 is subsidized; transit users paid an average of just $0.12 per passenger mile to ride it, leaving a subsidy of nearly $3.50 per passenger mile. That also works out to a subsidy of more than $20 per ride (!!), making Charlotte more expensive than almost any light-rail system outside of Buffalo and San Jose.

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Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Spring 2Q10 Highlights

It's time for the Spring 2Q10 quarterly highlights post (which I forgot to do last week).  These posts have been chosen with a particular focus on significant ideas I'd like to see kept alive for discussion and action, and they're mainly targeted at new readers who want to get caught up with a quick overview of the Houston Strategies landscape. I also like to track what I think of as "reference posts" that sum up a particular topic or argument.

Don't forget we offer an email option for the roughly twice/week posts - see the Google Groups subscription signup box in the right sidebar. An RSS feed link (Atom) (or RSS 2.0) is also available. As always, thanks for your readership.

And from Winter 1Q10:




And don't forget the highlights from the first few years. For what it's worth, I think the best ideas are found there, often in the first year (I had a lot "stored up" before I started blogging). 

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

IBM kudos to Houston for minimizing commuter pain

IBM has released its annual Commuter Pain Index (press release), and despite what you might expect, Houston ranked remarkably well, scoring 17 out of 100, the second-lowest in the index behind Stockholm.  In his analysis, Wendell Cox has some nice things to say about Houston:
The Houston Advantage: Perhaps the biggest surprise is Houston's favorable traffic congestion ranking.
  • Houston has the lowest urban density of the 20 metropolitan areas.
  • Houston has the lowest transit market share, by far, at only 1%.
  • Houston also has the highest per capita automobile use among the IBM metropolitan areas.
Yet Houston scored better than any metropolitan area on the list except for much smaller Stockholm. As late as 1985, Houston had the worst traffic congestion in the United States, according to the annual rankings of the Texas Transportation Institute. Public officials, perhaps none more than Texas Highway Commission Chair and later Mayor Bob Lanier led efforts to improve Houston's road capacity, despite explosive population growth. Their initiatives paid off. By 1998, Houston had improved to 16th in traffic congestion in the United States. The population growth has been incessant, so much so that Houston has added more new residents since 1985 than live in Stockholm and more than half as many as live in Melbourne. While Houston had slipped to 11th in traffic congestion by 2007, the recent opening of a widened Katy Freeway and other improvements should keep the traffic moving in Houston better than in virtually all of the world's other large metropolitan areas.
It's easy to overlook how easy it is to get around this massive city (outside of rush hour, of course) compared to most other major world metros.  It really is remarkable.  I'm still in awe every time I drive on the new Katy Freeway.  Keeping up this performance is another good reason to push forward with the 290 expansion plans, including the parallel Hempstead Tollway (are you listening, HCTRA?).

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