Category Archives: Transit and Transportation

Tales in Good Government

snowmelter-meltingWashington D.C. is sometimes proverbial for its poor governance. Scandals seem to plague the district as regularly as the August heat.

Other times, the local government just plain doesn’t work.

Take for example the District’s snowmelter. Sounds like it would be a big help clearing out those snow-clogged streets, doesn’t it? It would be, if it worked.

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NYC’s Metropolitan Transit Authority: The Customer Is Always Last

Toy MTA TrainNew York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority is broke. Back in May, Governor Paterson approved $2.1 billion in tax hikes to plug the authority’s $383 million hole, including, as the Manhattan Institute’s Nicole Gelinas notes, an ill-advised payroll tax in the middle of a deep recession. Predictably, revenues fell short. On top of this, the Governor agreed to $91 million in pay increases for top MTA officials. The MTA’s hole is now $400 million.

As if to hammer home that the MTA exists to serve its employees rather than its customers, a judge ruled this week that the state must pay the Transit Workers Union an 11 percent pay increase over the next few years.

The result: MTA will cut off service on the W and Z lines, reduce service on the G and M lines, and shrink 49 bus routes. Riders are guaranteed longer wait times, and cars will be packed. An MTA board member calls it “a failure of government.”

For some policy ideas, the MTA might review its history. Initially, NYC’s buses and and train services were private. Between 1932 and 1953, the city and the state acquired New York City’s transit systems. And since that time it has experienced frequent financial crises. In spite of years of subsidies, transit prices continue to rise. As Wendell Cox writes, New York transit remains immune to competitive pressure and instead relies on the deep pockets of taxpayers. By contrast, the Tokyo and Hong Kong transit systems get most of their revenues from rider fares.

While privatizing is a near-impossibility, Cox notes that competitive contracting might go a long way to lowering MTA’s runaway spending. The Transport for London bus system took this route and reduced costs per mile by 40 percent.

Serving Customers without a Metric for Success

California managed to pass a budget for fiscal year 2010 at the eleventh hour, but now the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports that the state faces a midyear projected shortfall of $1.1 billion.

Budget strife has recently led to cut backs in services and hours at state parks, after Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger cut over $14 million from the parks budget.

The parks department chose to cut hours rather than raising rates as it did last year in an effort to reduce budget shortfalls then.  In the Sacramento Bee, department spokesman Roy Stearns explains:

Parks leaders increased entrance and camping fees last year, and decided not to do it again, for fear of losing revenue if too many visitors stayed away.

State employees are attempting to choose the method to close their budget shortfalls that will bring the least pain to residents, but in truth, they do not know how to best serve their “customers.” Unlike firms who rely on profit and loss calculation to let them know if they are successfully serving consumers, government agencies can only make educated guesses about providing the optimal level of services to constituents at the right price.

Across the country, the Washington (DC) Metropolitan Area Transit Authority is facing a similar problem. The Metro and bus services are paid for by a combination of subsidies and rider fares, but setting the “optimal” ticket price and determining the agency’s budget are largely a matter of guesswork.

A WMATA report details the need for $11 billion in funding for fiscal years 2011-2020, ignoring that some of the budget could be covered by cost savings or changes in fare price.

If a private firm provided a transit or park system, it would have a profit incentive to determine the most efficient fare price and to pay for its services, but government agencies have no equivalent. Some services with public goods characteristics may simply not be provided by private firms, which is why many people advocate a government role in providing these services. However, as long as the public sector is offering such goods, we should acknowledge that there is not a good way of determining the appropriate level of provision, despite what lobbyists and politicians may tell us.

Can Tysons be Fixed?

Last week, Tyler Cowen wrote about planning issues in Northern Virginia on Marginal Revolution.  He compares Tysons Corner to Clarendon, demonstrating the importance of street layout in urban development. While the two areas are geographically close DC suburbs, they have very different atmospheres because Clarendon has successfully fostered pedestrian-friendly mixed use development, while Tysons has a lower residential density, fewer public transportation options, and roads that are much more difficult to traverse on foot.

Fairfax County planners are in the process of creating a redevelopment plan, promoted as a way to make the area more urban and less car-dependent. Cowen points out that simply providing incentives for higher residential density will not necessarily give Tyson’s the vibrant street life experienced in Clarendon:

The whole area is carved up by major roads, including three significant highways, one of which could be called massive.  Try crossing Rt. 123 at Tysons Corner or try crossing Rt.7. Even some of the “small” roads on this map are harder to cross than is the main Clarendon/Wilson thruway in Arlington.  It’s not just the roads and the overpasses; crossing or circumventing either major shopping center is a daunting experience.  Furthermore very little is laid out in a line and thus the presence of Metro stops (right now there aren’t any) would not cover the area nearly as well as they do in central Arlington.

Even for those not familiar with these Northern Virginia suburbs, Cowen’s description of Tysons probably conjures images of urban sprawl problems across the country. On his blog The Bellows, Ryan Avent responded to Cowen:

At any rate, it does seem odd that once again, we have a libertarian-ish figure cheering on the planners’ decision to artificially reduce density.

It has been widely asserted by writers such as Will Wilkinson that libertarians tend to support government incentives that favor roads and driving as opposed to public transit, even though both require taxing, spending, and distortions of the free market.  This larger issue may be a relevant point for debate in future developments. In existing suburbs, it remains true that existing traffic patterns that are not navigable on foot are difficult, or at any rate very costly, to redesign into bustling city neighborhoods.

For creating blocks that support high residential density and mixed use, Jane Jacobs recommends short blocks and small streets, similar to those witnessed in Clarendon, although it is easy to imagine that she would like to see much wider sidewalks even there. However, it is worth considering whether her policy recommendations would be feasible in a place like Tysons where land value is very high and the urban geography is already completely designed for transit by car.

Cowen recommends focusing on new, more urbanist developments in other parts of Northern Virginia that are currently less built up than Tysons, which may make more sense. Working within the municipal government confines that currently rule streets and zoning, cost benefit analysis must be relied upon instead of market signals.

Delaware’s Robber Barons

I recently drove across the Delaware Turnpike while traveling from Washington to New York.  It had been a while so I didn’t remember that the toll had risen to $4 in 2008 – this for a road 11 miles long. It amounts to 36 cents for eacdelaware-turnpikeh of those 11 miles.  This is ridiculous.

The other tolls I paid driving up Interstate 95 were $2.50 for the JFK Highway in Maryland and $9.05 for the full length of the New Jersey Turnpike. The Maryland highway is 50 miles, and I drove 122 miles in New Jersey, amounting to 5 cents and 7 cents per mile, respectively.

Other Northeast tolls are much like New Jersey and Maryland. Driving the full length of the Massachusetts turnpike covers 135 miles and costs $6.85, amounting to 5 cents per mile. The length of the New York Thruway is 376 miles, costing $17.50, also 5 cents per mile.  The $28.45 toll for driving the entire 358 miles of the Pennsylvania Turnpike comes to 8 cents per mile.

So how can Delaware get away with tolls 5 to 7 times higher than other nearby states in the Northeast?  It is said to be the highest toll per mile in the United States. It helps that the Delaware Turnpike feeds into the Delaware Memorial Bridge, one of the few ways of getting across the Delaware River. There are no good alternative routes if you are traveling up the east coast. Once on the New Jersey side of the river, by contrast, it is easy to take Interstate 295, a toll-free road which allows you to bypass at least half of the Turnpike.

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Are Bikes the Answer to Urban Traffic Congestion?

A South China Morning Post editorial suggests that if more Chinese urbanites used bicycles for their commutes, the severe traffic congestion in China’s cities could be eased. Currently, Guangdong is considering limitations on vehicle use to help reduce crowding on its streets.

Unlike mass transit and road construction that take time and money to construct, bicycles can offer an immediate respite from traffic for individuals. However, expecting government to create incentives for increased bike use may be unrealistic if they clash with car manufacturers and commuters:

Conflicting interests are difficult for any government to deal with. In the mainland’s case, it involves balancing a policy of using vehicle production to boost industrial growth with ensuring that cities are liveable and function properly. The car industry is the catalyst for a plethora of spin-off industries that boost job creation, meet consumer demand and lay the groundwork for export markets. But cities are where factories, offices and workers are located and they need to be efficient and safe.

While bicycle commutes in many cities can be faster than car commutes as observed in Birmingham, England, congested roads that are not well-designed for shared use of bicycles and automobiles often pose dangers to riders.

Vauban, Germany has instituted a unique, local solution to city transportation, creating a community where car parking is very expensive, and only available on the outskirts of town. CBS’s Jim Sciutto, in a Good Morning America segment, suggests that Vauban’s solution is representative of the “city of the future.”

The New York Times reports:

Vauban, home to 5,500 residents within a rectangular square mile, may be the most advanced experiment in low-car suburban life. But its basic precepts are being adopted around the world in attempts to make suburbs more compact and more accessible to public transportation, with less space for parking.

The article states that only 30 percent of Vauban’s residents own cars and suggests that many of them view this lifestyle as an improvement for their health and well-being. It remains to be seen whether this policy will be successfully adopted in other cities, but University of California-Davis Professor Jeff Loux suggests that this city’s policy could successfully be transferred to the United States, but adjusting to increased housing density would be a big change for many Americans.

Whether or not the Vauban policy is adopted by other cities remains to be seen, but it is an example of successful use in policy variation between cities. If increased bicycle were mandated or incentivized in Germany at the national level, it would be extremely costly with benefits accruing only to those who wanted to give up their cars for bicycles. Vauban was completed in 2006 after 20 years of planning, and all of its residents selected to live there with the knowledge of its policy environment; decreased car use was not forced upon any residents.

If any US communities opt to follow a model similar to Vauban’s, they should do it at the local level and follow their example of allowing residents the opportunity to live in car-free communities rather than implementing “the city of the future” from the top down.

Is Smart Growth the Way to Better Cities?

Anthony Flint of the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy wrote a Boston Globe op-ed explaining that cities are well placed to become increasingly important centers of population and commerce. This is due in part to the ongoing pattern of national urbanization and in part to the Obama administration’s emphasis on the importance of cities and sustainable development.

20071018-garden_city_detailSmart growth, a policy championed by some people within the environmentalist and urbanist movements, advocates goals such as improving public transportation, protecting the environment, creating affordable housing, and supporting economic development. These goals are hard to find fault with, but the question remains whether federal policy is an appropriate place to be promoting a specific type of urban development.

Flint cites Jane Jacobs as an important thinker in shaping the contemporary ideal of urban living with vibrant mixed-use development that invites pedestrian use. While this sort of development fits in with some “smart growth” objectives, Jacobs emphasized that land use needed to be determined using local knowledge rather than top down mandates. She fought these mandates at the municipal level, and one can only imagine how she would react to development direction from the newly created Office of Urban Affairs.

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Glaeser on High Speed Rail in Texas

Ed Glaeser concludes his four-part series on the long-mooted high-speed rail link between Houston and Dallas, looking at the effects such a link might have on centralization versus sprawl:

Over the last three weeks, I have tried to put together figures for a hypothetical high-speed rail line between Dallas and Houston. A link between Dallas and Houston is not one of the designated corridors, but a link between the country’s fourth and sixth largest metropolitan areas is not obviously less sensible than many of the proposed links.

[…]

These numbers suggest that costs will exceed benefits each year by $524 million if the rail line has 1.5 million customers, and by $401 million if the region’s rail demand has a huge rate of growth and attracts three million riders.

Glaeser concludes:

Despite the lack of any positive evidence linking centralization to high-speed rail, I certainly accept that there is a great deal of uncertainty. To give rail the benefit of the doubt, I’ll assume that high-speed rail will cause 100,000 households to switch from suburb to city in both Dallas and Houston. This change would create extra, annual environmental benefits of $29.7 million. These benefits would be real, but they would still do little to offset the $524 million or $401 million net annual loss discussed above.

Randall O’Toole weighs in on Glaeser’s series.

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Pricing Transit

In Boston, the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority is considering an increase in fares to raise revenues in order to maintain the profit levels that it saw last summer with steeply increasing gas prices.

In many cities around the world, funding for public transportation is an ongoing issue as different groups of people support varying levels of fare prices and public subsidy for transit systems. However, one mistake often made in this debate is that those supporting changes in fare prices ignore that changing the ticket cost will also change the level of ridership.

This fallacy has been avoided in Boston, where MBTA hired a consulting agency to estimate the effect that an increase in fare prices would have on revenue, acknowledging that more expensive tickets would lower the number of city residents taking buses and riding the T.  The Boston Globe reports:

Just one year after a record number of passengers flocked to the MBTA, the agency has come back to earth, as the price of gas has declined and the economy soured. And it can expect to lose another 5 percent of its riders if a proposed 19.5 percent fare hike is approved, according to a new state analysis.

This analysis acknowledges that as the price of Boston public transportation rises, people at the margin will substitute other means of transportation, reducing the number of riders. This may seem obvious to those commuters who realize that demand slopes downward, but oftentimes those involved in setting prices for public transportation do not acknowledge that changing fares leads to a movement along the demand curve for their service.

In Vancouver, for example, the TransLink system is facing budget shortfalls which it will likely address in part by raising fares.  As explained by the CBC:

The transit authority is looking to generate the additional funding needed through road user fees, a vehicle levy, tolls on bridges, increased fuel and parking taxes, and increased transit fares.

That plan would deliver hundreds of new buses, a third SeaBus, expansion of the existing Millennium and Expo SkyTrain lines, as well as construction of the long-awaited Evergreen rapid transit line to Burnaby and Coquitlam.

It is possible that this combination of price and service changes will increase revenues for TransLink, but this is far from certain without observing how customers respond to higher fares. It seems likely that increasing its services while potentially losing customers who substitute other means of transportation for the newly more expensive TransLink will be a profit losing strategy.

Vancouver policymakers have not considered that by lowering fees, maintaining their existing level of service, and increasing ridership, they could have perhaps balanced their budget without raising prices.

Tolls, Yes; Speed Bumps, No

speedbumpHow about letting local neighborhoods charge tolls on outside drivers for the use of their immediate streets?

It is now technologically fully feasible with EZ passes or other devices. This idea occurred to me as I was thinking about a recent controversy in Montgomery County, Maryland over neighborhood speed bumps (or “speed humps” as they are sometimes called).

Speed bumps in Montgomery County, like much of the rest of the country, have proliferated — now totaling 1,200, amounting to one bump per 2.2 miles of road. While many neighborhoods like them, they infuriate others. They also pose problems for fire and other emergency vehicles. In 1998, responding to rising complaints, Montgomery County initiated a new policy to make it more difficult to use speed bumps. Since then, 388 out of 653 proposed speed bumps have been approved.

In this case, a request for bumps was made by the Springfield Civic Association and involves a section of Cromwell Drive in Bethesda that has become popular with harried commuters. A vote of the 38 households directly involved would be required, and approval would require an affirmative 80 percent supermajority.

Other neighbors who live close by — but not directly on Cromwell Drive — are protesting.  They find speed bumps annoying and time consuming. Under Montgomery County policy, such adjoining neighbors can have a say only if they are “landlocked,” having no other way to reach their homes other than using Cromwell Drive.  Technically, 50 percent of landlocked neighbors must also approve but Montgomery County in practice almost always ignores this requirement. Continue reading