Monday, January 10, 2022

Can Houston avoid LA's mobility disaster?

This week we have another excellent guest post from Oscar Slotboom.
Over the past 20 years, Los Angeles County has drastically curtailed highway improvements and poured massive resources into expanding public transit, mostly costly rail lines. The result: disaster.
Tory has mentioned L.A.'s fiasco, including this 2019 WSJ article detailing plummeting ridership and this scathing 2018 report.
Why should we be concerned about the folly in Los Angeles? Because there are voices in Houston, including the majority on Harris County Commissioners Court, who want to bring Los Angeles-style transportation planning to Houston.
Let's take a close look at the disastrous results for Los Angeles, and we'll see why we need to stick with Houston's longstanding emphasis on highway improvements.
High Taxes in L.A. Provide Poor and Worsening Results
LA Metro's program is paid for with a 2% sales tax. The base sales tax rate in Los Angeles County is 9.5%, with many cities having a rate of 10.25%. This compares to Houston's 1% Metro sales tax with an overall rate of 8.25%.
California localities can raise funds for transportation projects with 4 funding mechanisms for the 2% sales tax, and L.A. uses 95% of the $22.7 billion funding for transit, as shown in the pie chart adapted from the official page at LA Metro. Other regions put more toward roads and highways, for example, pro-mobility Orange County uses Measure M to help finance a $2.1 billion project on a section of the 405.
Currently, there is only one major highway project in progress in Los Angeles County, the Caltrans-managed CA 71 freeway upgrade in Pomona, 25 miles east of downtown L.A. Most other projects listed on the Catrans site are complete, or are mainly maintenance work.
Declining Public Transit Ridership
LA Metro public transit ridership peaked in 2013 and was in steady decline through 2019 (pre-Covid), down 21.9% in this period of strong economic growth. Bus ridership has been in a steady downward trend, down 24.9% between 2009 (the earliest data on the LA metro site) and 2019. Data source is the official LA Metro ridership page, which shows plots if you click the Details button.
Looking at the chart, we can see that rail ridership was on a plateau from 2013 to 2017, but was in decline in 2018 and 2019. This is a pattern that occurs in many cities. Resources are poured into expensive rail lines which have small increments of increased ridership, but losses in bus ridership often due to service neglect are much greater than the rail increase.
Houston Metro performed much better than LA Metro in the pre-Covid period. Houston lost more ridership than LA due to the great recession in 2008, but from 2012 to 2019 Houston Metro showed increasing or steady ridership while LA was in steady decline. Houston Metro's strong performance is almost certainly due to the bus service improvements launched in 2015, since the new rail lines opened in 2013 and 2015 have low ridership. (Houston's ratio in 2020 is much better than L.A. since Houston's fiscal year was affected by Covid only 6 months.)
Of course, Covid-19 caused transit ridership to collapse everywhere. The chart below shows the impact on LA Metro over the last 30 months. We can see that bus ridership is recovering more quickly than rail ridership, with bus down 24% compared to 2019 and rail ridership still down 39%. If there's any glimmer of good news for L.A., it's that ridership is recovering from Covid faster than most places, as national ridership is still down around 46% as of October.
L.A.'s Transit Emphasis Provides No Reduction in Traffic Congestion
As we compare congestion in L.A., Houston and DFW, we need to consider population growth. We would expect congestion to increase in regions with strong population growth. Houston's metro area population grew 21.8% since 2010 and Dallas-Fort Worth grew 20.4%.
Los Angeles County population grew 1.5% since 2010, but has shrunk 1.35% since its 2016 peak. If public transit improvements reduce traffic, we would expect substantial traffic reduction in L.A., especially considering the stagnant population.
TTI data for the 2014-2019 period show no reduction in traffic in Los Angeles. Fast-growing Houston and DFW both show a slight downward trend in the travel time index, with Houston showing the best reduction and DFW having the lowest congestion. Houston and DFW have focused on highway and toll road improvements, and DFW has built a leading managed-lanes network.
TTI data for delay per auto commuter shows Houston and Dallas performing better than L.A. from 2009 to 2019 (based on absolute increase), with Los Angeles increasing 23 hours to 119, Houston increasing 22 hours to 76, and top performer DFW increasing 16 hours to 65.
TomTom data, readily available only for 2017-2020, show no pre-Covid traffic reduction in Los Angeles. Los Angeles (42% congested), Houston (24% congested) and DFW (19% congested) are all shown as flat in 2017-2019, but Houston and DFW are at much lower levels than L.A., with DFW the top performer.
Sales tax increases in Los Angeles were sold to the public with promises of reduced traffic congestion. L.A.'s transit-focused planning was not delivering any traffic congestion reduction prior to Covid. Highway-focused Houston and DFW are accommodating high population and economic growth with steady or declining congestion, with congestion levels much lower than L.A.
Houston Should Stay on the Path to Mobility Success
To summarize, Los Angeles has high taxes, massive spending on rail lines, steadily decreasing transit ridership prior to the Covid ridership collapse, and no pre-Covid reduction in traffic congestion. In recent years, the region's population is declining as people move elsewhere. This is definitely a policy disaster.
We know what fails: Los Angeles-style transportation planning. We know what works: longstanding transportation policies in Houston and DFW emphasizing road improvements. This means we should
  • Continue to focus on road and highway improvements
  • Recognize DFW's leading performance and its successful managed lanes, and plan for a future managed lanes network that will accommodate transit, ridesharing, and technologies of the future.
  • For public transit, avoid costly rail expansions and focus on affordable, flexible and adaptable bus service, including bus rapid transit instead of rail. We can be glad that Houston Metro's $7.5 billion MetroNext plan learns from the Los Angeles disaster, and focuses mostly on expanded bus service.

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At 8:21 PM, January 10, 2022, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nice post, Tory

At 11:32 PM, January 10, 2022, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Thanks! All credit to Oscar. He does an amazing job with his posts.

At 3:58 PM, January 11, 2022, Blogger VeracityID said...

Devastating critique. One would think that if the Harris County Judges read this they would reconsider their maladaptive plans. IF they read it. How are we making sure they and other key influencers do? Finally, Be honest: is his last name really Slotboom?

At 4:25 PM, January 11, 2022, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Agreed! I would hope this would find it's way to them, but logic or real-world outcomes don't often influence politics, as we all know. I do hope some of my readership forwards this along (I know it has already been forwarded to one commissioner, and I hope others will do the same). And yep, that is a heck of a cool last name - you can confirm it at his website linked on his name.

At 4:15 PM, January 14, 2022, Blogger Neil Strickland said...

It's very confusing to see charts of delay per commuter, alongside overall congestion levels, without any chart of overall lane-miles per commuter and without any chart of lane-miles per square mile. It's like you're hearing me having trouble finding on-street parking for my four cars in Montrose so you advise me on the clear virtues of building four car garages, not having noticed that my townhome is only two cars wide.

At 1:33 PM, January 15, 2022, Blogger Max Concrete said...

@Neil Strickland: The main point of the traffic congestion charts is to show that LA's public transit emphasis is not resulting in better traffic congestion performance than Houston or DFW. LA's performance trend is similar or slightly worse than Houston, and of course LA has much higher congestion overall, which should make it easier to show improvement.

Traffic congestion computation is somewhat of an art, since the results are influenced by many input parameters and data sources for cities can vary. This results in scatter from year to year. Some plots on the TTI site are smoothed and/or averaged, including the commuter delay plots which I copied directly from TTI. For the Travel Time Index, I used values in the PDF reports at the link in the post, which are not smoothed.

At 11:04 PM, January 21, 2022, Blogger Neil Strickland said...

But why compare entire ten-county regions to one county that is not its whole MSA?

At 5:26 PM, January 22, 2022, Blogger George Rogers said...

The Houston urban area doesn't even include the Woodlands, which hurts Houston compared to Dallas. One reason why Houston does worse than DFW and other cities with modern freeway networks. Is that houston is wierdly chopped up into Houston, Conroe, Texas City, and Baytown urban areas. Which should be one urban area due to sprawl.

At 5:27 PM, January 22, 2022, Blogger George Rogers said...

This comment has been removed by the author.


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