Austin had Greatest Loss of U.S. Transit Transit Ridership in 2016

March 4th, 2017

Austin Reflects Failed Transportation Strategy

by Jim Skaggs, Coalition For Sustainable Transportation, March 4, 2017

The transit ridership data below are from the Seattle PI based on their “analysis of Federal Transit Administration data, and include annual trips (not necessarily riders, but single trips) and the percent change from 2015.”

Austin continued its almost 20 year declining trend in transit ridership as it had the greatest loss of ridership from 2015 to 2016 among 29 major metropolitan areas in the U.S. Austin’s ridership decline was 11.9%. The Austin region also had the lowest transit ridership of these 29 regions at 28.9 million rides. Austin’s ridership decline was more than 4 times its total commuter rail ridership which also declined in 2016, about the same percentage as total transit ridership declined. This again questions Cap Metro’s wisdom in currently spending almost $100 million tax dollars to upgrade Austin’s rail transit to encourage increased ridership.

Only four of the 29 regions recorded an increase in transit ridership: Seattle, with a 4.1% increase had the largest increase of these four cities. Seattle has substantially improved its bus routes and extended its one rail line, the most expensive rail (dollars per mile) ever opened in the U.S. Houston had the second largest ridership increase with a gain of 2.3%. This increase is primarily due to a major restructuring of its bus system to provide better service. However, Houston’s total transit ridership is still about 15% below its ridership level almost 20 years ago while its population has increased almost 50%. The other two cities with transit increases were Detroit and Milwaukee. Detroit is slowly recovering from one of the greatest, large city declines in U.S. history.

Along with Austin, both Dallas and San Antonio experienced ridership declines. Dallas has spent billions of taxpayer dollars to implement the longest light rail system in the U.S. Considering the actual rider numbers instead of single trips (ridership), Dallas ridership has been essentially flat for the past 20 years while its population has increased more than 40%. San Antonio is the only major Texas city without a rail line. San Antonio’s all bus transit system is far more cost effective than the other three cities’ transit systems. San Antonio’s transit system is funded with a 1/2 penny sales tax versus full penny transit sales tax in the other three major cities. San Antonio has significantly more rides per capita than the other three major Texas cities. This is another very informing, factual message which Austin is ignoring in its transit plans for the future. This and the current and rapidly approaching transportation technology render a major portion of Austin’s and Cap Metro’s transportation planning as totally obsolete. Many hundreds of millions, and likely billions, of taxpayer dollars will be wasted if Austin and Cap Metro continue with their current transportation path. The Austin $720 million transportation bond package which voters approved in 2016 has a major focus on using street lanes for dedicated transit and bicycle lanes. This will waste hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to encourage transit and support a small fraction of transportation needs while reducing mobility for 99% of Austin’s daily trips on the roadways. The result: major increases in Central Austin congestion, closing of many small businesses and degradation of overall safety.

On the national transportation scene, The slight gain in the New York transit ridership of 0.4% is greater than the loss in the 25 metro regions with less ridership. Therefore, one who wishes to distort the message, can report national transit ridership is up a little in 2016. Unfortunately, Austin is doubling-down on presenting the message that it can increase transit ridership and reduce roadway congestion. This cannot be done and will only lead to more wasteful spending of tax dollars which will deplete the availability of funds necessary to achieve real, sustainable mobility increases. Result: continued and increasing roadway congestion which will further reduce the desirability for citizens to travel in central Austin.

Cap Metro does have an opportunity to improve its Austin area bus route system and slightly improve overall transit service to reduce the decline in ridership. However, Cap Metro’s current goal to increase transit ridership by an estimated 40% with an expanded commuter rail and improved bus system is only a shallow dream similar to their long history of failed attempts to increase transit ridership. There are far better ways to improve transportation than for Cap Metro and the City of Austin to spend the planned several hundred million tax dollars to encourage additional transit ridership. This will only degrade overall mobility and quality of life.

Austin Warning: Major U.S. Transit Systems Are Declining Rapidly

February 27th, 2017

COST Commentary: The following article discusses declining ridership on the Northern California “Bay Area Rapid Transit” (BART) commuter train system. BART, considered one of the nations more successful commuter systems, is experiencing declining ridership and escalating operating costs. Although the article is not comprehensive, it speculates ridership decline is the product of an “overcrowded, aging system.” A previous report attributed rider decline on BART’s San Francisco airport route to an increasing preference for services such as Uber. BART, is emblematic of a general decline in transit ridership and infrastructure aging throughout the U.S.

When launched in the 1970’s, Washington D.C.’s Metrorail, our Nations’ third largest transit system, was touted as a major advancement in rail commuter systems. The D.C. Metrorail is now in serious disrepair and has experienced numerous fatal accidents. The billions of dollars necessary for upgrades and replacement of worn-out elements have no funding mechanism and pose a crisis. They are experiencing declining ridership and considering major, long term, line closures for repairs and upgrades. The D.C. Metro is scrambling to introduce major cost and personnel reductions. Chicago, the second largest U.S. transit system, has similar system degradation issues; a result of age and lack of adequate maintenance.

These are indicative of rail transit experiences throughout the nation. The cycle is consistent in most cases: An oversold, questionable system, initiated by Federal grant, is then inadequately funded by taxpayers, particularly with regard to ongoing maintenance. A system degrading over years of use, with no reliable source for the billions of dollars needed to replace old, worn-out parts is a recipe for failure and great public expense. They illustrate rail systems are the least cost-effective methodology to serve transit needs in most instances. Austin citizens recognized this in their rejection of light rail in two major elections (2000 and 2014). Capital Metro’s Red Line MetroRail (commuter rail) exposes the impotence and exorbitant cost of rail transit in Austin and other similar cities. This Austin rail system is near the bottom in national rail ridership and each routine weekday rider is subsidized by taxpayers to the tune of about $18,000 annually. The Red Line cost 4 times its initial estimate to implement and almost 10 times the annual operating cost estimate provided to voters in 2004 (over $18/boarding). Even with this dismal record, Cap Metro is “doubling down” and investing almost $100 million in this failure; a total waste of taxpayer funds that should be applied to more effective transit projects.

These rail system failures have not deterred members of the Texas Senate and House in putting forth bills in this 2017 session to circumvent the voters voice in expanding rail in Austin. These huge, often borrowed, long term expenditures of tax dollars, deserve public approval. Imagine the billions of wasted public funds had Austin voters not rejected the rail schemes in the previous two elections. We must not allow them to silence the public’s voice with legislative trickery, particularly when it involves spending huge amounts of tax payer’s money. The previous rail proposals were promoted to “reduce traffic congestion”, a totally unfounded claim which continues to be proffered with no evidence.

Two-thirds of daily U.S. transit ridership exists in seven, high density, “pre-automobile” cities, with the remainder failing to offer meaningful, cost effective solutions. Ridership statistics in major Texas cities, reveal transit’s insignificant and declining overall contribution to congestion relief and “quality-of-life” mobility. The four major Texas cities have experienced a total 44% increase in population, as transit ridership has declined to less than that in 1999. This Ridership decline is likely to continue as new and rapidly approaching, technologies emerge.

Contrary to the current “Imagine Austin” development plan, higher central Austin population density will likely display the “paradox of intensification” and achieve the exact opposite of its advertised benefits. Higher density will result in greater congestion, reduced mobility, less safety and decreased quality-of-life. Imagine Austin will degrade downtown Austin as a desirable destination for all area citizens, harm affordability and reduce quality of life.

BART ridership slumps; board mulls service cuts, fare increases

By Erin Baldassari | |
February 24, 2017

OAKLAND ¬ Despite crush-loads of passengers during peak commute times, the number of people riding BART is actually falling, forcing the transit agency to begin tough conversations about how to make up for lost revenue.

After six years of growth, staff anticipated a similar increase in the number of riders during the 2016-2017 fiscal year, which began July 1. Instead, the agency is reporting that ridership through December was 5.2 percent below what it projected. Weekend trips took the hardest hit, coming in at 9 percent lower than projected, compared with 4.2 percent for weekday trips.

In January this year, for example, weekday trips were down a little more than 4 percent, and weekend trips were down slightly more than 2 percent, compared with the same month last year. Ridership figures vary month by month, but BART staff said they are seeing a decline in the total number of riders opting to take the trains.

Weekend ridership figures first fell below 2015 numbers in February last year, and weekday ridership started to fall in August, according to BART’s monthly ridership reports.

Coupled with higher-than-anticipated non-employee costs and sluggish sales tax revenue, staff said the agency is already facing a nearly $5 million deficit for the first half of the fiscal year, and expects its operating revenues will come in $15 million to $25 million below what it had budgeted. As staff looks to craft a budget for the coming fiscal year, the outlook is even more grim, with an operating shortfall of $25 million to $35 million.

Already, the agency has put a hiring freeze in place and asked each department to cut the amount of money it spends on consultants by 10 percent, said Carter Mau, the agency’s assistant general manager of administration and budgets. That might help BART fill the gap left in lost revenues, but going into next year, Mau said the board would have to consider other options to generate revenue or reduce costs.

He suggested increasing the base fare, or the minimum the agency charges customers to ride any distance, as well as reviewing the discounts it doles out to seniors, people with disabilities and youths. Another option the board could consider is cutting its 4 a.m. service and opening the system at 5 a.m. instead, or reducing service on some lines, he said.

For the most part, board directors asked staff to consider every other possible source of generating revenue or cutting expenses. At its annual workshop last month, board members said they would rather see efforts made to reduce fare evasion, allow companies to advertise more, implement automated trains, modify the daily parking fee or charge tech shuttles to park at stations.

Cutting service would set off a “horrible spiral,” said board President Rebecca Saltzman.

“Clearly, we will have to make some hard decisions this year,” she said. “Reducing our service would be a really big mistake. Our biggest driver of revenues is our fare revenues. If we reduce service, we will likely reduce riders, and we will have less fare revenue.”

But director Thomas Blalock urged his colleagues to consider every option, while others urged the agency to first find ways to cut costs.

“Let’s not throw any baby out with the bath waters,” he said.

Mau said staff would begin polling riders this spring to assess which options are most palatable for passengers.

It’s unclear what is driving the declines, but at a November board meeting, Paul Oversier, BART’s assistant general manager of operations, attributed the dip to an overcrowded and aging system.

“If you ride during rush-hour, it’s not a pleasant experience,” Oversier said. “There is just physically not a lot of room to accommodate any additional people. So, the question becomes, how many people are we driving off because they are not satisfied with the onboard environment they are experiencing?”

The move comes at a time when customer satisfaction with BART is at a 20-year low. Driving the dissatisfaction is the screeching noise of BART wheels grating against the tracks, the lack of available seats and constant breakdowns of elevators at stations, according to a BART survey.

The board recently agreed to tear out seats to increase capacity on its trains, with a particular focus on the transbay trains, which regularly pass up commuters at downtown Oakland and San Francisco stations during the rush-hour commute. Oversier also said riders should expect some relief when the agency’s new fleet begins rolling out, which will allow BART to run longer trains with roomier cars.

Erin Baldassari covers transportation. A North Bay native, Baldassari covered local news in the greater Boston area for four years before moving back to the Best Coast. She writes about everything roads, rails, and bridges in the East Bay.

Why Americans don’t ride transit: Too Slow, Limited Destinations, Expensive, Weak Security, Cities Not Built For It.

January 13th, 2017

COST Commentary: O’Toole’s five brief articles, below, certainly relate to Austin and the three other major Texas Cities/Regions. Total transit ridership in Austin is less today than 18 years ago while the region’s population has grown 66% during this period. With this trend, one would logically assume those in charge of Capital Metro and the City of Austin would adjust their thinking regarding the best way to address Austin’s reducing quality-of-life due to increasing congestion in the region. But no, Capital Metro and the City are doubling down on their failed transportation strategies over many years. The City is working diligently with a plan to spend many hundreds of millions of tax dollars to increase public transit, bike and shared vehicle ridership. Capital Metro is spending almost a hundred million dollars to upgrade their poor performing commuter rail with new track and vehicles which will allow more frequent train trips.

These transit and bike upgrades will actually result in increased congestion on the streets as plans will reduce capacities on numerous streets for the 99 plus percent of travelers who use motorized vehicles on streets. Several street corridors in the City’s $720 million bond package, last November, will replace car lanes with dedicated (totally or in peak hours) bus lanes. These follow the previous failed attempts to increase transit ridership with the expenditure of hundreds of millions of tax dollars on commuter rail, a number of Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) routes and express buses. Overall, the four major Texas cities have spent several billion dollars to increase transit ridership and the total result is that the sum of these four cities have less transit ridership today than in 1999, almost eighteen years ago.

While reducing road lanes in an already congested condition will exacerbate congestion, another vision in Austin’s “Imagine Austin” long range plan will also contribute to increasing congestion. This plan will significantly increase population density in Central Austin. This increased density will result in increased numbers of private vehicles, greater driving per square mile and increased congestion. It has been proven throughout the industrialized world that greater population density results in greater roadway congestion. Austin’s vision of reducing vehicle lanes and increasing population density on major central corridors will result in greater and growing congestion with less safety.

Austin’s $720 million bond has $488 million dedicated to central Austin roadway corridors. To complete all of these corridors, the City estimates a cost of more than $1.5 billion based on “concept” studies and little engineering design. This “concept” estimating typically results in the real costs being much higher. Since these costs are funded by long-term bonds, taxpayers are likely to pay much more than $3 billion over the term of the bonds. This will be a dreadful, inefficient use of taxpayer funds which will degrade Austin citizens’ quality-of-life by preventing Austin’s ability to fund far greater needs, including real congestion relief, over the next 20 years.

The major objective of today’s transit agencies is to “get people out of cars.” The objective should be to “provide mobility for those who do not have cars and have no alternative to public transit. These two objectives are diametrically opposed and require transit to be addressed and focused in very different parts of the community. There is not enough wealth in the region to support both objectives. In cities similar to Austin today, or 100 years from today, transit has not been demonstrated to result in major reductions in vehicle traffic on roadways. Attempting to achieve this objective, substantially reduces the ability to provide transit mobility to those with no other choice.

As we look to current and future innovation and technology, transit is projected to play a reduced role in mobility. Transit agencies have, in general, not demonstrated an ability to adapt to the changing demand and future trends. As discussed earlier, Austin and the total four largest Texas cities have spent billions of dollars to increase public transit and the results have been a resounding failure due to their lack of comprehension of current and future trends in mobility.

We must stop wasteful mobility spending and plan the future based on the obvious reality of today’s trends and the knowledge of future directions. This will require a very different leadership of Capital Metro and Austin transportation operations.

Reason #1 why most Americans don’t ride transit: It’s slow
By Randal O’Toole, January 8, 2017

(This is first in a series on why Americans don’t ride transit)

There’s a myth that Americans have some kind of irrational love affair with their cars, and they don’t ride transit because of that irrationality. In fact, there are very good reasons why autos provide well over 95 percent of mechanized travel in urban areas while transit provides less than two percent.

One of the most important reasons is that transit is slow.  Most transit is slower than driving, and a lot of transit is slower than cycling.  According to the American Public Transportation Association’s Public Transportation Fact Book, the average speed of rail transit is 21.5 miles per hour, while the average speed of bus transit is 14.1 mph (see page 7). So-called rapid transit, known to the Federal Transit Administration as heavy rail, averages just 21.1 mph, while light rail is 15.6 mph and streetcars are a pathetic 7.7 mph (see page 40).

Among forms of rail transit, commuter rail is fastest at 32.5 mph, while hybrid rail (a form of commuter rail) is 28.0 mph. But commuter rail typically operates only during rush hours, while hybrid rail exists only in special limited circumstances. Monorails and other automated guideways average 8.8 mph, which helps explain why monorails never became popular.

Commuters buses, averaging 26.0 mph, are the fastest form of bus transit, while ordinary buses are just 12.5 mph and trolley buses (which, like streetcars, tend to be limited to urban centers) are just 7.1 mph. So-called bus-rapid transit lines in this country average 10.5 mph, 2 mph less than ordinary buses, which suggests that most cities’ implementation of bus-rapid transit leaves a lot to be desired. The only really rapid transit is the form of transit that’s closest to cars: vanpools, which average more than 40 mph (see page 35 for bus and highway transit modes).

By comparison, the average speed of auto travel in most American cities is more than 30 mph. The slowest city is New York, at 17.6 mph, which helps explain why New York also has the highest rate of transit usage. The only others under 20 mph are San Francisco and Washington. At the other extreme, average speeds in Kansas City and Tulsa are more than 40 mph, probably because those cities, unlike so many others, haven’t actively tried to discourage driving in a doomed effort to get people to ride transit.

Taken as a whole, urban transit averages 14.1 mph, less than half the speed of driving in most cities (and slower than many cyclists). This doesn’t count the time spent getting to and from transit stops, waiting for transit vehicles, or transferring from one to another, all of which make transit even slower.

Randal O’Toole directs the Transportation Policy Center at the Independence Institute, a free market think tank in Denver.  A version of this article originally appeared in his blog,TheAntiplanner

Reason #2 why most Americans don’t ride transit: It doesn’t go where you want to go
By Randal O’Toole, January 10, 2017

(This is second in a series on why most American don’t ride transit.)

Most transit is oriented to downtown, a destination few people go to anymore. If you don’t want to go downtown, transit is practically useless.

This week, the Antiplanner is exploring the myth that Americans don’t ride transit because they have some kind of irrational love affair with their cars. In fact, there are very good reasons why autos provide well over 95 percent of mechanized travel in urban areas, and transit’s limited destinations is one of them.

The Portland urban area, for example, has around 15,000 miles of roads and streets. The region’s 80 miles of rail transit don’t begin to reach the number of destinations that can be reached by car. Adding the roughly 1,000 miles of bus routes helps, but still requires many people to walk long distances to and from transit stops.

Worse, almost all of the transit in the region, along with every other major urban area, is oriented to downtown.  If you don’t want to go downtown, transit is practically worthless. For example, the Sylvania campus of Portland Community College is about seven miles from Beaverton. But taking transit from one to the other requires a trip downtown and back, nearly tripling the number of miles of travel.

Transit systems started their downtown orientations in the late nineteenth century when almost all urban jobs were downtown. Today, however, only about 7.5 percent of urban jobs are still located in downtown areas. In the New York urban area, 22 percent of jobs are located in downtown Manhattan, another reason why transit ridership is high in that region. But elsewhere, the percentage is much smaller.

Transit planners try to compensate for this by designing transit systems that connect regional and town centers with the downtown areas. Such a policy might have made sense sixty years ago when most jobs that weren’t downtown were located in such centers. Today, however, less than 30 percent of urban jobs are located in either downtowns or regional and town centers.

For example, Denver is spending billions of dollars building a rail transit system that aims to connect all of the regional and town centers in the area. Yet, when it is done, planners predict that only 26 percent of the region’s jobs will be within one-half mile of a rail transit stop. (Of course, most of the people working those jobs won’t live within a half mile of a rail stop.)

The reason for the decline of regional and town centers is the growth of service jobs. In 1920, nearly 40 percent of all American jobs were in manufacturing, which tends to be concentrated, and there was just one-and-a-third service job for every manufacturing job. By 2010, there were ten service jobs for every manufacturing job, and those service jobs tend to be finely spread across the landscape.

As a result, transit just doesn’t work for most people. Making transit systems work for more people would require using more small-box transit: small buses, vans, and so forth. Instead, many transit agencies want to emphasize big-box transit: huge buses, railcars, and trains. This just shows how out of touch transit agency leaders are with the people they are supposed to serve.

Randal O’Toole directs the Transportation Policy Center at the Independence Institute, a free market think tank in Denver.  A version of this article originally appeared in his blog,TheAntiplanner.
Reason #3 Americans Don’t Ride Transit: It’s Expensive
By Randall O’Toole, AntiPlanner Blog, January 10,2017

(This is the third in a series on why most American don’t ride transit.)

The transit industry claims that transit saves people money. But the truth is that, for most people, it costs a lot less to drive than to ride transit.

Public transit is the most heavily subsidized form of transportation in the United States, with subsidies per passenger mile that are 50 to 100 times greater than subsidies to driving. But people who use transit are only dimly aware of the subsidies. Even without counting the subsidies, most people don’t ride transit partly because the alternatives, including driving, cost so much less.

The 2015 National Transit Database shows that people pay an average of 28 cents per passenger mile to ride transit. To compare this cost with driving, the American Public Transportation Association uses American Automobile Association calculations of the cost of driving, which show an average cost of about 57 cents a mile for medium-sized cars. So it seems like a no-brainer to conclude that transit saves money.

AAA, however, assumes that everyone buys cars when they are brand new, pays full financing charges, and then replaces their cars every five years. That may be the way some people buy cars, but most cars last far longer than five years. According to the latest data, the average age of cars on the road is 11.6 years, which means cars last an average of 23 years. The AAA numbers fail to account for 78 percent of a car’s lifespan, during which time monthly payments and finance charges may be irrelevant.

If you have a car, no matter how old it is, you only pay the variable cost whenever you drive it on any particular trip. According to the AAA data, that variable cost–fuel, maintenance, and tires–averages less than 15 cents a mile, and would be even lower if you had a more fuel-efficient car. So right there you are saving at least 13 cents a mile over transit.

If you don’t live alone, you probably often drive with a passenger. That cuts your cost per passenger mile in half. Transit makes no sense if you and one or more other people in your household regularly travel together.

If you don’t have a car and live alone, transit might cost less than buying a brand-new car. But what about buying a used car? If you spend, say, $5,000 on a used car instead of $25,000 on a new one, then your depreciation is less than $1,000 a year instead of the $3,759 calculated by AAA. Insurance on a used car costs a lot less than a new one. If you pay cash for it, you save the $683 in annual finance charges calculated by AAA. AAA also estimates taxes, license, and registration fees of $687 a year; in Oregon, which has no sales tax, it’s only about $40. But not everyone lives in Oregon.

Counting the higher number for taxes and fees, but lower numbers for insurance and depreciation, annual fixed costs might be around $2,500 a year. If you drive 15,000 miles a year, that’s less than 17 cents a mile. Add the fixed costs of 15 cents a mile and the cost of driving your car each mile is slightly more than the cost of riding transit. But you could have saved money by buying a more fuel-efficient car, an older model that costs less than $5,000, getting basic insurance instead of full comprehensive coverage, or any of a number of other ways. Most importantly, if you have a passenger in your car at least some of the time, the cost per passenger mile quickly drops below the cost of riding transit.

Bottom line: If you already have a car, the variable cost of taking your car on any particular trip will be far less than the cost of riding transit. If you don’t already have a car, it is easy to find ways to buy a car so that, even including the fixed costs, driving costs less than transit–which explains why 92 percent of American households have cars.

Many people buy their first car because they need it to do something that transit can’t do. But, once they own it, the variable cost of driving is so low that they use it on trips that could have been taken by transit. That’s the basic story of transit decline in the 20th century.

This doesn’t even consider the alternative of cycling, which costs less than either driving or transit, but in many cases is faster than taking transit (and sometimes faster than driving). Driving is still the mode of choice for the vast majority of Americans, but the low cost of cycling helps explain why the American Community Survey found that the number of people cycling to work grew by more than 21 percent between 2010 and 2015, but the number of people taking transit grew by less than 15 percent. Cycling and walking, not transit, are fast becoming the modes of choice for people without cars.
Reason #4 Most American’s Don’t Ride Transit: Lack of Privacy and Security
By Randal O’Toole, AntiPlanner Blog, January 11, 2017

(This is fourth in a series on why Americans don’t ride transit)

Compared with the aura of security offered by riding inside of an automobile, many people avoid transit because they feel vulnerable and threatened by other riders.

Crime, sexual harassment, and other invasions of privacy are common on metro systems throughout the world. Sexual harassment is especially bad on Tokyo subways, and a survey of 600 women transit riders in Paris found that 100 percent of them reported having been sexually harassed.

Such harassment often depends on the anonymity that comes with extreme crowding, but most American transit systems don’t get that crowded precisely because Americans won’t accept the invasions of personal space required for such crush conditions. Still, there are numerous complaints of sexual harassment on the New York City subway. Crime is rapidly rising on the DC Metro as well.

Crime, including thefts of smart phones, as well as violent crime, can be a big problem on light rail, partly because there is rarely anyone aboard to keep vehicles secure. Bus drivers presumably provide a modest deterrent to crime, but still there is the problem of bus-stop crime.

Some researchers argue that transit doesn’t really increase crime near transit stations. But for potential transit riders, perception trumps reality. A woman may only have to suffer one or two experiences with groping or other forms of sexual harassment before she decides to never ride transit again. A man who is beaten and robbed of his coat because the coat happened to match a particular gang’s colors is also going to avoid transit.

Some transit systems have designated women-only cars to protect women from harassment, but results have been mixed. Short of putting a guard on every bus and railcar, the issue of transit security cannot be easily solved.
Reason #5 Most Americans Don’t Ride Transit: Our Cities Aren’t Built for It
By Randal O’Toole, January 12, 2017

(This is fifth in a series on why Americans don’t ride transit)

Housing, jobs, and other destinations are so diffused throughout American urban areas that they don’t generate the large numbers of people moving from one point to another that mass transit systems need to work.

“Transit worked when American cities were denser,” is the mantra of today’s urban planners. “If we can increase their densities, transit will work again.” Reality is a lot more complicated, and that reality explains why transit can’t work in American urban areas even if their densities increase.

From about 1880 to 1913, transit and cities co-evolved thanks to new technologies that benefited both. The same steam engines that powered commuter and early rapid transit trains also powered downtown factories. The same Bessemer steel that made the rails that streetcars and urban trains rolled upon also provided the structural beams that allowed construction of skyscrapers. The same electric motors that moved electric streetcars also powered electric elevators that gave people quick access to the upper floors of those skyscrapers.

These technologies created monocentric cities by concentrating jobs in urban centers surrounded by residential areas that fed into the centers on transit. Never before in history had cities been like this, yet people today still imagine that cities ought to be monocentric, a myth that drives too much bad policy.

This was transit’s Golden Age, but it was far from perfect. Transit was too expensive for unskilled workers, so they had to live in high-density tenements located within walking distance of downtown factories. To make a profit, rapid transit and streetcar operators used just enough vehicles to carry people but not enough to give them breathing room, at least at rush hour. Many transit lines had been built from the profits of the real estate developments they accessed, and while fares covered operating costs they were insufficient to rehabilitate these lines as they wore out.

Urban and transit evolution parted ways in 1913, when Henry Ford built the first moving assembly line to make his Model Ts. Cheap cars were an obvious threat to transit, but a bigger threat was less visible: unlike steam-powered, belt-driven factories, moving assembly lines required lots of land, so factories moved to the suburbs. When the suburbs refused to be annexed to the cities, monocentric cities became polycentric urban areas.

At least through the 1970s, urban planners and central city officials pretended their cities were still monocentric, and they wrote numerous downtown plans, urban renewal plans, transit plans, commuter-tax plans, and other plans designed to maintain the preeminence of downtown. The construction of the San Francisco BART and Washington Metro systems were among these plans, but were as doomed to fail as all the others.

As both jobs and people left city centers after World War II, most major central cities began to lose population even as their suburbs grew. Since 1950, Buffalo, Cleveland, Detroit, Pittsburgh, and St. Louis have all lost more than half their populations. Cincinnati lost 41 percent; Baltimore 35 percent; Boston and Minneapolis 30 percent; Washington 29 percent; Chicago 25 percent; St. Paul 13 percent; San Francisco and Oakland, 12 percent. Except in New York, one of the few major central cities that had more people in 2000 than 1950, this decentralization greatly reduced transit’s effectiveness.

By the 1980s, planners began to realize that urban areas had become polycentric, and today polycentricity is a fundamental part of the New Urbanism. Too late: cities had changed again with the decline of manufacturing jobs and the growth of service jobs. In 1920, nearly 40 percent of all American jobs were manufacturing, and there was one-and-a-third service jobs per manufacturing job. Today, less than 10 percent of jobs are manufacturing, and there are ten service jobs for every manufacturing job.

Even if they weren’t in city centers, manufacturing jobs were at least concentrated. But service jobs in such fields as health care, education, wholesale and retail trade, and utilities, were diffused throughout urban areas. As noted in Reason #2, less than 30 percent of urban jobs today are located in downtowns or regional or town centers. Other things once concentrated in downtowns, such as shopping, churches, and theaters, also became diffused.

These trends had the least impact on New York, but even in the New York urban area (which includes suburbs in northern New Jersey, southwest Connecticut, and New York state), as opposed to the city itself, transit is pretty marginal. While transit carries 57 percent of New York City commuters to work, it carries just 14 percent of suburban New York commuters.

The diffusion of jobs and other destinations throughout an urban area returned cities to be more what they were like for thousands of years before the late nineteenth century. Simply increasing population densities, as regional governments in California, Oregon, and Washington have done, doesn’t help because those jobs and other destinations remain too diffuse for transit to work for any but a small minority of the population. These changes are not only irreversible, there is no reason why we should want to reverse them.

Seattle is a great model of what NOT to do, but Austin is trying hard to repeat Seattle failures.

August 22nd, 2016

COST Commentary: The Seattle Times op-ed, below, is by a former Seattle truck driver and reflects extraordinary common sense by a long term, daily user of Seattle roads. It is an interesting coincidence that Austin is trying hard to mimic mobility decisions made by Seattle over the past 25 years. One wonders if the fact that Austin’s current Transportation Director, who previously worked in Seattle’s Transportation Department, is a factor in Austin’s path to prioritize bicycles and transit to the detriment of the vast majority of citizens choosing road vehicles to provide the mobility they desire to meet their best quality-of-life, considering all factors which impact them. Supporting this is the fact that 99% of the daily passenger miles traveled in the Austin region are on roads.

The following quotes from the article below apply equally to Austin:

“As I sit in gridlocked traffic, looking at blocks and blocks of two-way turn lanes, bus-only lanes and dedicated bike lanes sitting nearly empty, I want to cry. Does no one else see the contradiction? The new road allocation is out of proportion. Individual solutions are good, but only if they don’t create a bigger problem.”

“I understand how various user groups like bicyclists would be excited about new bike lanes. But when dedicated, protected, signaled, blind-side-lane bike riding is codified, what’s the result? Gridlock. Is this really progress?”

“I am stunned at the selfishness and small mindedness of each interest group involved in the destruction of Seattle’s working street grid: bicyclists, pedestrian-safety experts, bus-route planners, streetcar-route designers and builders.”

Austin must “Wake Up,” recognize existing reality, and move to create real mobility solutions with the limited dollars available. The City Council’s, $720 million mobility bond, currently authorized for the November, 2016 election; is clearly a “smoke and mirrors” step which, in reality, provides a “blank check” to this and future city councils to spend the money in any why they wish, with zero accountability to improve mobility. It is a situation requiring total “trust” of this and several future city councils when none have previously earned this trust.

This, largest ever, transportation bond does not reduce congestion and constrains the ability of the City to address real congestion reduction projects.
This huge, so-called, mobility bond also stalls any possibility of dealing with priority needs, such as flood controls, which have decimated many families in the area due to years of City neglect. This proposed bond will spend more on sidewalks, bicycle lanes and mass transit corridors than on true congestion relief and priority city needs.
Soul-sucking traffic and the ‘fixes’ that make it worse

It truly distresses me when I watch the city I grew up in and love lose its soul. A slow agonizing death in plain view of the new elite.

By Mark Minerich, Seattle Times, August 18, 2016

Mark Minerich worked 30-plus years as a truck driver with Seattle Disposal, Rabanco, Allied Waste then Republic Disposal. He is a distressed citizen, imprisoned from time to time, he says, by Dexter Avenue North traffic.

AS a former professional truck driver who crisscrossed daily the roads and highways of Seattle for 30 years, I feel the “improvements” to our traffic grid have been an unmitigated disaster.

A crosstown trip that takes 15 minutes one day may take more than an hour the next. The blocks of gridlock have become so bad on both Dexter Avenue North and Westlake Avenue North that, in desperation, I have executed U-turns and gone miles out of my way to reach my destination. About half the time, my alternative routes are also jammed because of bottlenecks or other trumpeted traffic improvements.

The words that come to mind as I think about the city’s choices in traffic management are stupid, criminal and hubris — not in any particular order.
I find it mind-boggling that a city like Seattle, with the brainpower coefficient running off the charts, could make such a cascading series of poor transportation choices piggybacked on each other and then be surprised at the result — absolute gridlock.

A reasonable person would stop and say, “Wait a minute, this is not working, let’s recalibrate.”

So what is the Seattle Department of Transportation’s (SDOT) solution? A $930-million levy to “fix” things. Officials told us they had solutions to our traffic problems — they just needed more of our money. They played on Seattle’s traffic angst. Voters passed the levy last November and SDOT simply accelerated its previous planning that created the capacity-choking “fixes” in the first place.

Traffic flow is like water: You can cut it off or divert it, but it will go somewhere.”

As I sit in gridlocked traffic, looking at blocks and blocks of two-way turn lanes, bus-only lanes and dedicated bike lanes sitting nearly empty, I want to cry. Does no one else see the contradiction? The new road allocation is out of proportion. Individual solutions are good, but only if they don’t create a bigger problem.

Traffic flow is like water: You can cut it off or divert it, but it will go somewhere. This metaphor explains why maintaining a healthy grid of secondary roads also is critical. Like a river, when flow increases, it looks for smaller tributaries. SDOT’s master plan is not only choking the rivers, it is filling in the tributaries.

One of my main goals when I drove professionally was to keep moving — time was money. I often wondered if any traffic-policy wonks were sitting next to me in heavy traffic. I suspect not.

I understand how various user groups like bicyclists would be excited about new bike lanes. But when dedicated, protected, signaled, blind-side-lane bike riding is codified, what’s the result? Gridlock. Is this really progress?

I am stunned at the selfishness and small mindedness of each interest group involved in the destruction of Seattle’s working street grid: bicyclists, pedestrian-safety experts, bus-route planners, streetcar-route designers and builders.

I realize I am a dinosaur — a Northwest mossback. Someone who remembers mounted horse patrols, the Benson Waterfront Streetcar, Bobo and Ivar Haglund. I remember free parking and not having to think whether I can actually get to a city event that I would like to attend. Sometimes I just give up and stay home.

It truly distresses me when I watch the city I grew up in and love lose its soul. A slow, agonizing death in plain view of the new elite.

Greed, power mongering and hubris are desecrating Seattle. What can be done? I’ve tried in various small ways to make my concerns heard. I have tried to share my expertise on transportation, thinking that perhaps the new SDOT officials are just ignorant of past traffic patterns and really want to make things better. I was mostly rebuffed. I am the old guard. I need to get with it or get out of the way.

Maybe they are right. My heart, however, does not break any less as I hear the sucking noise of Seattle’s soul disappearing.

Is anybody listening?

Mark Minerich worked 30-plus years as a truck driver with Seattle Disposal, Rabanco, Allied Waste then Republic Disposal. He is a distressed citizen, imprisoned from time to time, he says, by Dexter Avenue North traffic.

Austin’s Commuter Rail Is A Monument To Government Waste

July 31st, 2016

COST Commentary: This posting uses the very appropriate title the Forbes’ article below was recently published with. COST was not directly involved but we certainly agree with it. The author did not communicate with COST but the article includes a ridership chart which is from a recent COST posting on this web site. Another recent COST posting, Don’t Waste Money Subsidizing Outdated, Ineffective Light Rail refers to a previous article by this author who is a Forbes contributor, traveling the country to write a book, came to Austin and reviewed MetroRail.

The Austin Statesman published an article by Ben Wear and the Austin Business Journal also published an article by Michael Theis highlighting this Forbes article.

This article’s capital costs for Metrorail are the standard Cap Metro deceptive, incomplete figures which are mush less than the actual costs and he did not have the data to comment on the fact that Cap Metro’s MetroRail annual operating costs started at about 5 times the cost promised voters in 2004 and are now more than double, and increasing rapidly, that high starting cost.

Cap Metro is spending more than $80 million to increase the frequency of MetroRail train trips. This will likely increase the taxpayer subsidies for each rider which is more than $20 per trip or $40 per day for a weekday round trip commuter. This is more than a $10,000 (including Capital depreciation) average yearly taxpayer subsidy for each daily round-trip commuter. They could drive or take a “ride-hailing” vehicle for less. As noted in the article below, the vast majority of these rail riders are commuting to and from work, as there are few riders other than “peak” hours. Most of these riders can be served more cost-effectively, with reduced trip times, using express buses, especially when the current MoPac, and the planned 183, toll lanes are completed to provide free express bus lanes.

The bottom line for this exorbitantly expensive, highly tax subsidized, transit mode is that its minuscule ridership provides no congestion reduction. Congestion is actually increased more than any relief and the high cost reduces the ability of Cap Metro to better serve Austin’s transit community.
As a foundation principle transit and transportation are very much different issues. Transit provides trivial help to the 99% of Austin’s daily passenger miles which are traveled on the roads. On the other hand, effective road systems can provide significant help to transit riders by reducing their travel time. On average, public transit riders take about twice as long for work commuting in the U.S. as private vehicle passengers on roads.

The recent tradition of public transit planners is to base transit on the primary objective of providing transportation alternatives which convince people to abandon private vehicles and use transit. This has failed in all cities similar to Austin, as has the related objective of coercing people to live in higher density to promote public transit. This misguided density emphasis has actually resulted is higher, less affordable housing costs. We must not base transportation and land use planning on self-serving or ideological ideals but on the decisions of the vast majority of free citizens who have considered all factors and decided the most effective way to serve their mobility needs and meet their quality-of-life objectives.

Coercing people to increase density is directly contradictory to reducing congestion. There is a simple relationship: the higher the people density, the greater the congestion on the roads and, generally, this produces higher housing costs.

There is a strong misconception in some people that roads are highly subsidized as public transit is. This is another myth: Subsidies to auto driving averaged 1.5 cents a passenger mile in 2014, up from a penny in earlier years due to Congress overspending the Highway Trust Fund and having to replenish it out of general funds. Subsidies to transit averaged 78 cents per passenger mile in 2014; 52 times the per mile subsidy for auto driving.

To better serve the greater-good of transit riders and private vehicle users, transit planning must be based on the primary objective of providing improved, cost-effective bus transit for the widest, reasonable population of citizens who have no other choice but transit. This objective must displace the current primary transit objectives in Austin. This objective cannot be achieved with ineffective, inflexible urban rail transit, the least cost-effective of current transit modes. Nor, can this objective be achieved with fixed guideway rail or bus transit. Fixed guideways are exorbitantly high cost and remove private vehicle lanes in limited space. This is contrary to people’s choices of transportation and will result in increased congestion, degrading central Austin mobility and citizens’ desirability. We are already witnessing this with Austin’s implementation of the ‘Envision Austin’ plan with its many misguided strategies.

There is another simple relationship: the greater the mobility, the greater the quality of life. To enhance overall road mobility and its very positive transit impact, road funding must be in reasonable proportion to road passenger miles traveled and not greatly less than proportionate funds for travel on transit, bicycles, or pedestrian accommodations.

Austin’s Commuter Rail Is A Monument To Government Waste
By Scott Beyer, July 29, 2016
Leander Station Photo
(The Leander station, which is the northernmost one along Austin’s MetroRail line, sports an empty platform and parking lot on a Saturday / all photos by Scott Beyer)

Austin, TX–Last Saturday morning, while stumbling upon an Austin rail station, I was able to imagine at micro level what it must be like to visit one of China’s ghost cities. I was in Leander, an Austin suburb that has the northernmost stop on the metro area’s commuter rail system, when I spotted a multi-acre station plopped across what was essentially a rural area. After parking in the empty lot, I got out and walked around, to find a clean, well-landscaped facility that had not one human in sight. The info center was locked, the train platforms were empty, and no trains arrived. There was even a computerized voice humming out service updates over the platform speakers, to an absent audience. In fairness, the station was closed that day until 4pm. But that just begged the question—why would a train station be closed all Saturday morning and afternoon in a major metro area? Meanwhile, the platform offered an unobstructed view of adjacent US-183, where, in the course of 10 minutes, dozens of cars passed by in each direction.

This stark contrast summarized the idiocy that has become rail transit policy in urban America. Many U.S. cities sprawled out after World War I, when automobiles became mainstream technology, and the government exacerbated these patterns in following decades through urban renewal, restrictive zoning, minimum parking requirements and road subsidies. A number of these cities—including Phoenix, Houston, Dallas, Portland, Los Angeles, Baltimore and Cleveland—tried reversing their past land use mistakes by building rail systems, which would supposedly concentrate development and bolster transit ridership. But closer analysis suggests this hasn’t worked, and anyone familiar with those cities understands why. They were built to accommodate private automobiles, meaning people can drive within them directly to and from their destinations. No one there with financial options is going to instead take rail transit that follows a fixed route, arrives every 15 minutes, and makes multiple stops–no matter how much of said transit is built. It hasn’t helped that these transit systems are run by monopolistic government agencies, meaning they suffer from misappropriations, delays, cost overruns and poorly planned routes, including trains that, in some cases, run well into the countryside before stopping in podunk towns. Unfortunately, Austin’s rail embodies all these problems, standing as perhaps America’s leading rail transit failure.

The desire for rail transit in Austin dates back to the 1970s, when the city’s fast growth spurred discussions among urbanists and environmentalists about possible mode changes. These hopes were squashed in 2000, when a ballot proposal that would have sent light rail up the well-trafficked Guadalupe Street was narrowly defeated. But rail proponents received their bone–kind of–a decade later, when Capitol Metro, the Austin public transit provider, opened MetroRail. The 32-mile line was built along existing freight tracks that began downtown, moved north through mostly residential neighborhoods, and into some commuter suburbs.

The project opened amid a storm of controversy, thanks to construction issues that escalated the final tab from $90 million to $148 million. In the opening months, the line received just 800 riders per weekday. This has since risen to 2,900 passenger trips per weekday, or about 1,500 riders, but that still is just .0007% of the metro population, which sits above 2 million. The line accounts for 2.6% of Austin’s transit ridership, while using 8.5% of the annual operating expenses for transit.

Each trip taken on the rail costs taxpayers dearly, according to data provided by Capitol Metro. In 2014, the rail line had an operating deficit of $12.6 million. The upfront capital costs of $140 million, when amortized at 2% over 30 years, creates an additional $6.2 million annual cost to taxpayers. Add these two sums up, and then divide them by the line’s number of annual unlinked trips—763,551—and the per-trip subsidy works out to $24.62. Another commentator estimated that this figure is $18, compared to $3 for every bus boarding. Jim Skaggs, the retired CEO of Tracor and a local rail skeptic, wrote on his blog that “each average daily, week-day, round trip rider is subsidized an average of about $10,000 per year.”

Even worse, this is actually hurting transit availability. MetroRail’s high capital costs depleted the agency’s reserves, leading, noted Skaggs, to service cuts on bus lines, which are widely considered a more cost-effective choice. This has reduced Austin’s overall transit ridership, just like in Texas’ other major cities (two of which also have rail transit systems). That is all the more amazing given these are some of America’s fastest-growing cities by population.
(credit to Coalition on Sustainable Transportation)

But one does not need numbers to observe, at street level, the system’s obvious failures. After happening upon the empty Leander station on Saturday, I ventured this week to other stations around downtown and the interior neighborhoods. Outside of morning and evening rush hour, they were either empty or almost empty of passengers, and were divorced from any of the city’s major job and population centers. The further north along the line I rode, the more obvious it became that this really was a train to nowhere–32 miles of expensive and dated rail infrastructure that had little to no passengers or surrounding development.

Downtown Station

(the picture above and below are, respectively, of the downtown station and the MLK, Jr. station, both around 7pm on a Wednesday)

MLK, Jr. Station

For these reasons, the line has even been critiqued by AURA, a pro-transit organization that was founded to call for a more transparent rail planning process. As one of the group’s board members, Susan Somers, wrote by Facebook messenger:

AURA is in favor of high ridership light rail that makes use of our best transit corridors. We’re not in favor of speculative, low-ridership lines that are intended to spur development…Currently, Cap Metro’s approach is to spend more money on the Red Line to make it more frequent and attract more riders. While that may initially seem like a noble goal, in fact the Red Line suffers from a fatal flaw: the route. AURA would prefer to see our limited Cap Metro dollars go into creating a high frequency bus network.

There have been further efforts to build rail transit in Austin, with various groups aiming for a new, more centrally-located line. In 2014, another $600 million rail proposal was floated before voters, and packaged with prospective road upgrades. But voters, clearly cold to the rail transit idea by then, defeated it by a 14 percentage point margin. There are similar attempts to get rail onto the ballot this year.

Perhaps one day rail transit will be practical in fast-growing, fast-densifying Austin, and it’s just a matter, as the proponents say, of having the right infrastructure along the right route. But a combination of academic analysis and basic observation still encourages skepticism. Data provided by the Federal Transit Administration shows that even the much-ballyhooed systems in Minneapolis, Portland, and Charlotte, while better-located and thus not as bad as Austin, are also funded by high per-trip subsidies. And this data doesn’t account for their capital costs, which for rail transit are far more expensive than for roads, tabbing in at $70 million per mile. At the same time, there are private transit solutions within the ridesharing and bus industries that are profitable, largely because, rather than imitating the fixed-route concept, they’ve tapped into the best things about cars, by offering flexibility and on-site demand. These innovations are bound to improve as driverless cars enter the mix, and Austin would be smart to encourage them, rather than banning them, as it recently did with Uber. But if Austin wants to keep its inter-urban and suburban transit stagnant, wasteful and under-performing, well, it has a formula for that too–build rail transit, and have the government run it.

Scott Beyer is traveling the U.S. to write a book about reviving U.S. cities through Market Urbanism. His work is found at

Don’t Waste Money Subsidizing Outdated, Ineffective Light Rail

July 24th, 2016

COST Commentary: the title of the article below is a terrific analogy. The short Forbes article and its referenced articles dispel many of the key myths regarding urban rail transit. The article summarizes the key attributes of the recent wave of U.S. light rail infatuations. The fallacies and contradictory characteristics of light rail promotions versus reality are well proven in many cities which have spend billions of dollars implementing light rail to discover what was already known, light rail is:


In addition, light rail increases tax burdens for all taxpayers to subsidize a minuscule portion of citizens riding rail. Rail is subsidized 5-10 times bus transit. Rail provides little benefit to the vast majority and degrades their overall quality-of-life.

The majority of Austin citizens recognize many of these rail shortcomings, as confirmed my a major defeat of rail in the November, 2014 election. However, a few long-time supporters cling to their obsolete ideas of the merits of rail and continue to be pursue activists’ strategies to pressure the City and Capital Metro to place rail before voters again. The evidence grows daily to support the fact that urban rail cannot provide a transit mode which will serve the greater-good of transit users or citizens’ mobility in general. One of our objectives is to provide an information source for citizens regarding rail myths and realities to support responsible decisions regarding the most effective overall, integrated mobility capability for the community. We would also like to support a stop to the continued wasteful spending of tax funds and focus on current and future rail planning. Rail detracts from addressing mobility issues with real solutions as demonstrated by Austin’s long history of inadequate mobility plans and actions resulting in increasing congestion.

Subsidizing Light Rail Is Like Subsidizing The Landline Telephone

by Scott Boyer, Contributor, May 24, 2016 in Forbes Magazine

What would happen if your city, in the name of progress, started giving poorer residents vouchers for landline telephones rather than smartphones? Or if, rather than stocking public libraries with computers, so that people could write emails, your city installed fax machines? You would consider these unnecessary expenditures on outdated technologies. Yet when it comes to public transit, many cities splurge on modes designed for a different time and place—namely light rail.

Rail transit, such as streetcars, widely spurred America’s urban growth during the industrial era, when automobiles hadn’t yet been invented, and settlement patterns were dense. There are still a handful of dense legacy cities—New York City, San Francisco, Boston, Chicago and Washington, DC—that wouldn’t function without passenger rail. But rail isn’t convenient or practical in sprawling cities, although many have built entire systems nonetheless.

The Dallas metro, where many of the main growth corridors are 20 or 30 miles apart, has the nation’s longest light rail system at 90 miles. The large desert known as Phoenix has a 26-mile line that largely runs past strip malls. Systems have been built in similarly-designed cities like Houston, Austin, Portland, Atlanta, Cleveland and St. Louis. Detroit, which suffers from just about every service failure imaginable, has nonetheless found the money—some of it federal—to build a streetcar along decrepit Woodward Avenue.

These projects have been championed by everyone from environmentalists, to urban density proponents, to business groups like the Chamber of Commerce, and for numerous reasons. Rail, it is thought, will get people out of cars and into transit; will spur infill growth; and will bring a “sense of place” to strategic corridors.

But it doesn’t seem to do any of this, a conclusion drawn by numerous analysts, most notably Randal O’Toole. For decades, he has written in books, blogs, and as a Cato Institute analyst about the fool’s errands of cities trying to reorient themselves around rail. They spend billions on building and maintaining systems, only to find that their cities largely function as they had before, via car use and fragmented development patterns.

For example, transit ridership rates don’t dramatically increase following rail construction, and sometimes they even decline. O’Toole believes the ridership declines result because rail strips funding from buses, which are cheaper and more flexible. As O’Toole notes about Los Angeles:

“The Southern California Rapid Transit District, ran buses for 92.6 million revenue miles in 1985. By 1995, to help pay for rail cost overruns, this had fallen to 78.9 million. Thanks to the court order in the NAACP case [to restore bus service in minority areas], this climbed back up to 92.9 million in 2006. But after the court order lapsed, it declined to 75.7 million in 2014. The riders gained on the multi-billion-dollar rail lines don’t come close to making up for this loss in bus service.”

Rail transit’s role as a catalyst for dense development is also highly questionable—some lines have seen little development go up around them, and experienced high vacancy rates in existing buildings. Others have enjoyed adjacent mid- and high-rise growth. But it’s hard to know, in the latter case, whether it was rail that spurred those developments, or some combination of government subsidies for developers, organic migration back into cities, land use deregulation to allow higher densities, or the construction of other nearby public amenities. San Antonio, for example, doesn’t have light rail, but in the last few years has extended its famed River Walk north and south of downtown. It is seeing more growth along that linear stretch of parkland than Houston (which also has a fast-growing core) has seen along practically every light rail stop.

And as I’ve noted while traveling cross-country, light rail lines haven’t proven to be particularly good place-makers. In the best-case scenarios, they are utilitarian pieces of infrastructure that present overheard wires, large concrete platforms, track entrapments for bicyclists, loud beeping noises, and grade-level crossing delays, making them about as charming as automobiles. In the worst-case scenarios—such as downtown Dallas’ West End—their platforms become gathering spots for loiterers and petty crooks. There have been countless cases, meanwhile, where cities have enhanced their streetscapes without rail.

Yet cities continue building light rail. Perhaps the worst aspect of such outdated infrastructure is that it gives planners a perceived silver-bullet answer—“build a monorail!”— rather than forcing them to really think about their cities’ mobility issues. They could be embracing new technologies–by bolstering their bus rapid transit networks using managed designated lanes; or by studying, subsidizing, or at very least allowing ridesharing platforms like Uber and Lyft; or by building better-timed streetlights, electronic congestion tolls, smart parking meters, and other modern traffic-flow solutions. Instead these officials, often backed by federal grants, are throwing money into a century-old transportation concept that is unfit for most U.S. cities. This is a lazy approach, and insofar as it perpetuates the congestion crisis, it undermines the urbanist cause, by making dense living less convenient. It’s time for transportation planners to emphasize the future over the past.

Scott Beyer is traveling the U.S. to write a book about reviving U.S. cities through Market Urbanism. His work is found

Light Rail is Obsolete and Ineffective in Addressing Austin’s Mobility Needs

July 16th, 2016

COST Commentary: The following posting was published to provide important observations, information and facts which are intended to address a recent flurry of public releases by the Central Austin Community Development Corporation (CACDC) and press coverage stimulated by these releases.

Most of those promoting rail are misguided by a lack of more detailed knowledge of the overall implications of rail transit in the context of today’s mobility needs, particularity considering current and rapidly advancing technology. Based on extensive experience, including two elections, we believe the vast majority of citizens who are provided key data and facts relative to rail transit will make decisions which enhance the overall greater-good of this great community and reject rail as ineffective, unaffordable and a major creator of congestion, degrading overall mobility. However, there are a small number of people who promote light rail from an ideological or self-interest perspective and do not place the greater-good of the community as a high priority. These folks often disregard facts and reality while presenting deceptive, distorted and unsupported views of rail transit.

Please see the COST posting at: for more details on Cap Metro’s continue significant decline in transit ridership during 2016.
Light Rail is Obsolete and Ineffective in Addressing Austin’s Mobility Needs
by Jim Skaggs, COST Web Site Posting, July 16, 2016

It is difficult to imagine anyone, with minimal evaluation, could suggest public transit, especially light rail, as an effective means to improve overall mobility and be a major contributor to relieving roadway congestion in Austin. The chart below is very revealing as to the daily mobility decisions made by citizens living in Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSAs) areas containing the largest Texas cities of Dallas, Houston, San Antonio and Austin; where more than one-half of all Texans live.
For the past 15 years, these four cities have poured many billions of taxpayer funds into buses and new light rail transit systems in an effort to increase transit ridership and reduce congestion. The dismal result is that there is less total public transit ridership today than there was in 1999 before any of these cities implemented significant light rail or commuter rail transit. Dallas is the only city with slightly more ridership today than 15 years ago. Dallas spent billions in tax funds to implement the longest light rail in the nation. Many of Dallas’ increased boardings (ridership) are due to transfers between bus and rail which do not increase overall individual full trips.

Dallas’ major rail expansion has resulted in canceling many bus routes, moving transit riders from cost-effective buses to much higher cost light rail. This means taxpayers pay significantly more to subsidize transit for the same number of one-way trips. Currently Dallas’ rail ridership is approaching 50% of the total with buses retaining a small lead. If just 10% of the rail and bus riders require one transfer for each of their two, going and returning, trips, it creates an approximately, additional 20,000 daily boardings. (Note: Every time a rider boards a bus or train, it counts as a boarding. For example: A single rider making one transfer going to and coming from work is recorded as 4 boardings (or riders) for the day. Transits agencies can only estimate the actual number of one-way transit trips. The chart above would reflect a much flatter graph for total Dallas transit ridership, the past 5 years, if it was based on total people using transit.

It is also revealing that Dallas, with it much larger light rail component, has the least cost-effective transit of the four cities and San Antonio, with buses only, is the most cost-effective.

A recent Article in D Magazine by Peter Simek contained the following regarding Dallas’ DART light rail:

“Light rail construction started in 1990 and continued steadily for 25 years, racing out along existing 19th-century rail right-of-ways to far-flung corners of the sprawling region. Today, with 90-plus miles of rail, the light rail system is the nation’s largest. It is also the nation’s most inefficient. In a peer-to-peer comparison study compiled by a Chicago-based transit agency, Dallas ranked at or near the bottom in terms of passenger trips, operating cost per mile, and fare recovery rate among 10 major U.S. cities. In terms of total miles ridden by passengers, the longest light rail system in the country came in dead last.”
Bold emphasis added.

This overall ridership decline of 5.6% has occurred in a period when all four of these Texas MSAs are among the fastest growing MSA populations in the U.S. The total population during this 15-year decline in transit ridership grew 44% as shown in the chart below. Austin’s MSA population increased 66% during this period, while its public transit ridership declined 9%.
4citiespopandridership (2)
Depressingly, for this same period, the cost per passenger mile for the average transit trip has grown much faster than inflation. Therefore, taxpayers’ in Austin are continuing to subsidize each transit rider’s trip on an increasing cost trend which is currently about 90%, including capital, of the real cost of the transit trip. Austin’s MetroRail is the least cost effective general transit mode, costing taxpayers more than 95% of each trip’s cost.

The Central Austin Community Development Corporation (CACDC) is the latest in a series of groups over the past 30 years which have promoted light rail. Each of these small groups has provided unsubstantiated, distorted and incorrect information regarding the cost, ridership and congestion impact of rail which has proven to be grossly understated in cost and over-stated in ridership. There is small probability this rail could be implemented for less than double their estimated cost and have more than one-half their CACDC’s estimated ridership. Their estimated ridership is more than 10 times the current Austin commuter rail ridership. And, the light rail would significantly increase congestion.

Comparing the ridership of this suggested CACDC rail line to the that of the nation’s heaviest used light rail in Boston is an absolute joke. The CACDC ridership estimate is based on the average weekday ridership of the light rail proposed in Austin’s 2000 election. This was hugely overstated based on major erroneous assumptions as proven with the passage of time.

Austin’s MetroRail commuter implementation cost at least three times the plan and its annual operating costs were more than 5 times Cap Metros pre-election promises in 2004.

CACDC has provided no discussion of the operating costs of the rail and of the required increased taxes to subsidize its actual small ridership. Taxpayers pay more than 90% of the cost of each riders trip on the current Austin MetroRail; meaning each average daily, week-day, round trip rider is subsidized an average of about $10,000 per year. This is more than 5 times the subsidy for bus riders which will be able to make the same trip from Leander in less time than the train when current roadway upgrades are completed.

All rail transit promotions have been accompanied by promises of reduced congestion which is specified as the number one negative community issue by the vast majority of local daily commuters. Rail promoters spend little time and thoughtful effort to address the congestion impact of rail transit. Austin’s 9.5 mile, $1.4 billion light rail plan, which was soundly defeated in the 2014 election, would have created the greatest, instant, continued major congestion increase in Austin’s history. All prior rail proposals would have resulted in major roadway congestion increases, degrading mobility for notably more people than it helped. Basically, public transit and roadway congestion are separate issues, except, improved roads, especially with managed lanes open to buses can significantly improve transit time.

Perhaps, the most damaging impact of wasteful spending on rail transit is that these funds could be allocated to alleviating real traffic congestion for the 99% of all passenger miles traveled daily on Austin roadways. In addition to eliminating wasteful spending, Austin’s outdated bus transit system must be restructured to better meet transit needs.

The greatest shortcoming in proposing 19th century rail technology for today’s mobility is a failure to recognize existing and rapidly advancing 21st century mobility technology. These current technologies will greatly render rail as obviously obsolete, unaffordable and ineffective to almost all citizens. With current and new technologies, we can expect transformational positive changes in mobility and land use which will improve the quality-of-life for all.

Austin’s long and abandoned road to implementing synchronized or “smart” traffic lights.

July 6th, 2016

COST Commentary: The recent KXAN article below addresses one of the most cost-effective ways to improve mobility, in cities similar to Austin, for all citizens. For the past 25 years, the City of Austin has advertised its objective to improve its signal lights’ timing/synchronization, with exiting technology, to upgrade the mobility of those using Austin’s roads. This is always one of the most cost effective ways to reduce citizens’ travel time and improve safety. However, many traffic lights and road intersections remain deficient in their timing and existing “smart” traffic light systems have not been implemented.

If one believed in conspiracy theories, you might conclude this ignoring of a foundation concept to improved mobility is purposeful and intended to discourage people from using private vehicles on the roads. This is consistent will numerous other transitions including conversion of one-way streets to two way and reducing car lanes in favor of wider sidewalks and protected bicycle lanes. All of these actions are increasing congestion and safety hazards resulting in discouraging citizens from driving in central Austin. And, guess what: The City’s actions are not resulting in more people entering the City center by riding public transit and bicycles.

Whatever the motivation in not effectively addressing Austin’s signal deficiencies, it is all part of Austin’s ineffective management of transportation programs and allocation of transportation funds to improve the overall mobility of citizens. Citizens continue to be constrained by City leadership and a transportation department which puts their perceived priorities ahead of citizens’ priorities. Elected officials and city employees do not seem to recognize they work for citizen taxpayers who pay their salaries and fund the mobility projects.

City reexamines worst traffic signals in Austin
By Kate Weidaw, KXAN, Published: July 6, 2016

AUSTIN – A recent study by the city of Austin’s Transportation Department reveals nearly 60-percent of drivers say they are unhappy with the timing of traffic signals.

As a result, the city has hired an engineer whose sole job is to reconfigure the timing of traffic lights so drivers can keep moving. But it can be a tricky job.

“Folks always say can’t you just change the signal timing,” said Jim Dale, Austin Transportation Department Assistant Director. “One of the things I like to say with that is: if you’re going to give someone more green time that means someone else is getting more red time. So there is that balance. Yes, I can give you more green time, but that may be at the expense of a side street.”

Each month the Transportation Department reports they receive more than one thousand requests for maintenance on lights. One problem is the significant boost in the number of cars on the road.

“A lot of folks when they’re driving during the peak periods, there are just too many cars on the road,” said Dale. “The signals cannot process that amount of traffic when everyone is trying to get to downtown or get their kids to school or to their jobs on time.”

As a result of the findings from this recent study city engineers have a goal of evaluating at least one-third of the signals each year. The city currently maintains about 950 traffic signals. Those wishing to request an engineer to look at the timing of a signal can call 311.

The intersection at Rustic Rock Drive and Spicewood Springs Road is partially blamed for the death of a 14-year-old boy was hit and killed in northwest Austin earlier this month. Walk Austin, a coalition of community advocates, says part of the issue was the flashing yellow lights at the intersection where the teen was killed.
“Drivers do not always yield the right of way, and it is imperative that we provide safe crossing opportunities for our most vulnerable populations during the most dangerous hours of the day on our most dangerous roadways,” stated Walk Austin in a letter sent to the city.

Austin’s Cap Metro Transit Agency: Rapidly Loosing Ridership in Rapidly Increasing Population

July 4th, 2016

COST Commentary: Ben Wear, reporter for the Austin American-Statesman, “hits the nail on the head” with the article below regarding Cap Metro’s declining transit ridership. The decline is much longer than discussed in this article and the decline is now accelerating. Cap Metro’s total transit ridership today is less than it was in 1999 while the Austin area has experienced the fastest growing population of any U.S. region, or among the fastest growing, for many years. The cost of transit ridership has grown much faster than inflation, resulting in an increasing burden on taxpayers to subsidize transit ridership. This taxpayer cost is part of the rapidly increasing unaffordability of the Austin region.

Austin area light rail plans have been based on UT/student ridership being about one-third of total transit and rail ridership. Today UT ridership is less than one-half of this and declining. Planners did not responsibly project the future by a wide margin as discussed in the article below. This is the normal story of a relatively young, rapidly growing city. The future geographic structure of Austin, the living locations of UT students and technology driven transportation alternatives are a few of the major considerations which were ignored, misunderstood or poorly projected by transit transportation planners. In addition, Cap Metro and Austin city leaders did not adequately study, understand and consider transportation implications which were obvious in numerous cities similar to Austin.

The dynamics of Austin being a rapidly changing city with declining transit use and of transportation alternatives being rapidly transformed by technology are both compelling reasons that any “fixed rail” or “fixed corridor” transit approach is totally ineffective and not cost-effective to serve the greater good of Austin area citizens’ mobility needs of the future.

Austin’s declining transit ridership, with less ridership today than in 1999, is not unique. It is occurring in similar forms in Texas cities of Dallas, Houston and San Antonio as well as other similar cities in the U.S. Houston has lost major transit ridership since 1999 (before light rail) and Dallas transit ridership is up very slightly (7.3%) after spending billions of taxpayer dollars to build the longest light rail system in the nation. Much of the slight ridership increase in Dallas is due to transfers between the light rail and buses. The number of individual one-way trips is an even smaller increase. San Antonio, with a bus only and most cost-effective transit system of all major Texas cities, has also lost 9.4% of its transit system ridership from 2011 through 2015 and now has less transit ridership than in 1999.

Dallas, Houston, San Antonio and Austin are among the fastest growing regional populations in the U.S. Future transportation plans must be responsibly evaluated and the most cost-effective alternatives chosen to meet the needs of citizens. Texas cities have a history of biased, self serving or incompetent transit and elected officials making mobility decisions which degrade the overall mobility of their communities. These officials seem to believe they know what is best for citizens and try to force fundamental changes in a large portion of people’s daily mobility decisions. This has not worked, and will not work, anywhere as people free to make decisions will make them in a way which best serves their needs and quality-of-life.

A major element to mobility failure in Austin has been the long habit of spending large, disproportionate shares of limited transportation funds to support mobility modes which are used by a minuscule portion of the citizens such as passenger rail systems and bicycles as well as poorly managed bus systems which are based on archaic, ineffective operational concepts. Citizens’ decisions in Austin, as in most similar cities, result in 98-99% of all daily passenger miles being traveled on roads and roads have received low funding priority in Austin for many years, as population has skyrocketed.

Austin’s allocation of transportation and transit funding, from all sources, requires a comprehensive review, evaluation and overhaul in order to meet citizens’ mobility and quality-of-life needs now and in the future. This process must be conducted by experienced, capable people and void of the ideological, political and biased motivations and decisions of the past.

Austin citizens should not support major transportation bond proposals without total transparency as to the detailed improvements projected for such bonds. At this point, the city has not released data which projects the improvements to be expected by committing to the proposed $720 million bond proposal for the November 2016 election.

Please see our later post with more details regarding declining transit in the four largest Texas cities.
Wear: Pondering Cap Metro’s ridership plunge
By Ben Wear – American-Statesman Staff, Posted: 12:00 a.m. Sunday, July 3, 2016

Capital Metro is hemorrhaging bus riders.

Average daily ridership has fallen more than 20 percent in the past four years, from almost 130,000 boardings a day in 2012 to about 102,000 a day this spring. And that most recent figure was down 4.2 percent from the previous spring, meaning the bleeding has not slowed down.

And lest anyone think that all those former bus riders have moved to MetroRail, the agency’s commuter line to Leander, it is generating about 650 more rides a day now than in 2012. That covers about 2 percent of the loss in bus boardings.

The obvious questions: Why the plunge, and what is Cap Metro trying to do about it? The “why” part, naturally, has a lot of tentacles.

At a Cap Metro board meeting last week, the popular theory was that, in effect, the agency’s customers have been moving away. This is the so-called suburbanization of poverty argument, the idea that as Austin housing has become more expensive — rents and home prices in gentrifying areas — people who might have used the bus rather than a car are instead now living in Pflugerville or Hutto or Bastrop.

And demographic data from the U.S. Census, as the Statesman has reported, have shown decreasing poverty levels in Austin and increasing poverty levels in some of the city’s suburbs.

One problem with this theory: If you move out into Sprawlville, almost by definition that means you already had a car, or have to get one now. So there’s a bit of a logic problem there.

Nonetheless, Capital Metro has been engaged over the past year or two in trying to chase at least some of those riders. The agency has a service area of cities and other jurisdictions that voted years ago to join the Cap Metro fold and therefore impose a 1 percent sales tax that goes directly to the transit agency’s coffers.

A town that is not a member of Cap Metro — such as Round Rock, Pflugerville, Hutto, Buda, Kyle or Cedar Park — is not eligible for bus or rail service. But Cap Metro can reach separate agreements with such cities in which some of the federal money now going to the agency would instead go directly to those cities for transit needs. Then, if elected officials in those areas agree to throw in more of their tax dollars, Cap Metro could extend some bus service to them.

The agency and several cities are planning for such service, said Todd Hemingson, Cap Metro’s vice president of strategic planning and development. However, Hemingson said, “in the big scheme of things, it’s a very small ridership contribution.”
No, that 28,000 loss of boardings has to do with far more than people moving.

More competition

First of all, the University of Texas shuttle system has lost 17,000 daily boardings, half of it ridership in those four years.

UT pays Cap Metro about $6.4 million a year to provide the rides, and that figure has not grown nearly enough over the past decade to keep up with inflation of the agency’s cost of running the buses. The result is that Cap Metro has been trimming the service — five routes have been eliminated since 2012, and others have had route or frequency changes.

Beyond that, West Campus has gone vertical and dense with high-rise residential buildings catering to students, putting more and more of them within walking distance of class.

But Cap Metro has been hit with other external forces and suffered at least one significant self-inflicted wound.

With gas prices at 10-year lows, particularly taking into account inflation, taking the car has become an ever more painless option. People who rushed to Cap Metro’s web page and then bus stops during 2008’s summer of $4-a-gallon gas now have returned to their cars. And with unemployment hovering around 3 percent locally, more people can afford to get a car in the first place. Fare hikes in 2014 and 2015 didn’t help, but the decline has continued into 2016.

And now there is an explosion of transportation options, particularly for the younger and often financially comfortable people moving into the core of the city. While some of them might have taken the bus in the past, since June of 2014 they have been able to use ride-hailing services, such as Uber or Lyft — or any of the replacement companies that have popped up after those industry leaders chose to leave in May. Car2go short-term rental cars are more prevalent now, as are B-cycle stations.

How much effect have any of those had, individually? Hemingson can’t say.

Fewer routes, fewer riders

Then there’s the rapid bus problem. Capital Metro in the spring of 2012 was getting more than 17,000 boardings a day from its three routes plying the North Lamar Boulevard/South Congress Avenue corridor running up the spine of the city. In January 2014, the agency canceled two of those routes and added the No. 801, a somewhat faster and somewhat more expensive alternative on roughly the same route.

It hasn’t gone well.

As of this spring, the old No. 1 slower service had 5,733 boardings a day. The No. 801 was 5,676, for a combined 11,409 boardings a day, down a third over four years. The cheaper service comes by less often, and the more expensive service has fewer stops. That is a bad combo.

The other rapid bus corridor, with the old No. 3 and the No. 803 rapid bus, has seen an extra 2,000 boardings a day because there is actually more service now. But taken together, the two corridors are off 4,000 rides daily.

One thing that has worked is a move a year ago to more frequent service on five other routes. Those routes have seen an 1,800-boardings-a-day increase in the past year, perhaps offering a road map for future changes.

The agency is paying attention to all this, Hemingson said, and has consultants working on a plan — a transfusion, if you will. We’ll see if the doctoring works.

Expert: Lack of Infrastructure Can Bust Austin – More Roads Are Needed

June 20th, 2016

COST Commentary: This article is a brief description of a well known national “expert’s” opinion regarding the conflict between Austin’s real need for improved mobility and reduced congestion, with upgraded and expanded roads; and, the City leaders’ primary focus on ways to get people out of cars. Daily passenger miles traveled in Central Texas are 99% on roads, including private, transit, shared, commercial, government, school, emergency, etc.

COST agrees completely with the article’s conclusion that more roads are needed. New and improved roads should be the highest priority for allocation of transportation funds. Austin’s current transportation direction will significantly increase area congestion and degrade the downtown central core as a desirable destination for the vast majority of citizens. The City leaders’ approach to reduce congestion by getting people out of cars has no model of success.

Importantly, all future transportation planning should consider the impact of new technologies such as self-driving vehicles, enhanced “ride hailing” services, smart signalization, ramp metering and others. These will render current approaches to land use, parking, road lane capacity, public transit and others to be outdated in many cases. For example, “fixed” rail transit will be even more outdated than it already is and overall public transit will be require revamping.

Mr. Boomtown: Austin needs more roads
by Michael Theis, Austin Business Journal, May 17, 2016

Professor and author Joel Kotkin, speaking, will be in San Marcos Thursday to deliver remarks at the Greater San Marcos Economic Outlook event hosted by the Greater San Marcos Partnership.

Joel Kotkin knows a boomtown when he sees one.

Kotkin, an urban studies fellow at Chapman University, has made a career for himself by trying to find out what does and does not make a city boom. Austin has been at or near the top of his annual list of America’s Next Boomtowns, published by Forbes magazine, for years now.

Thursday, he’ll be speaking at the 2016 Greater San Marcos Economic Outlook event in San Marcos, where growth along the Austin-San Antonio corridor has put immense development pressure on the area. Census numbers released in 2014 put San Marcos as the fastest-growing city in America in the fastest-growing county in America, Hays County.

“This tech corridor, this growth corridor, that has opened up between Austin and San Antonio has seen extreme job growth,” said Kotkin. “There is certainly an enormous amount of momentum in that part of Texas.”

Part of that, Kotkin said, is because cities in Texas can offer more bang for their residents’ bucks.

“If you look at coastal cities, you’re really going to have to accept a pretty significant downsizing in how much space you have, the ease of getting around, and you’re going to have to accept a much more limited set of options because the cost of living is so high,” said Kotkin. “The cities on the coast have become more exclusionary. The cities in Texas have become more inclusionary.”

But as Austin’s boom continues, many recognize it can’t last forever. So what makes boomtowns go bust?
Inadequate infrastructure is often the culprit, Kotkin said. In Austin — a city that cites traffic as its No. 1 threat — that usually manifests itself in the form of bad mobility options.

“Austin is obviously the big bottleneck” in the region, said Kotkin, who encourages more road investments in Austin. “I don’t know what fantasy world some of their leaders live in, but they think we can have a lot of growth and choke the roads.”

Austin city leaders, however, are focused largely on ways to get people out of cars. Telecommuting, flex schedules, denser development and an urban rail line are seen as the best ways to fight traffic by the majority at City Hall. The prevailing municipal mentality is that it’s too costly to build and maintain more roads — and the more roads that are built, the more cars will be attracted. The state, on the other hand, is taking the lead on major road projects in the area such as those in the works for MoPac Expressway and I-35.

Other boomtowns have fizzled due to a variety of problems. In the early 2000s, for instance, Las Vegas was the ultimate boomtown. But in the housing crisis it was quite vulnerable. Construction — simply building houses — was a huge driver for the Vegas economy.

“When that faded, those economies faded,” said Kotkin. “The boomtown of the 1950s was Detroit. We know what happened there. Silicon Valley has been through several boom and bust cycles.

“But what is interesting,” Kotkin added, “is since 2000, through the small recession and then the big recession, Texan cities have really outperformed other big cities around the country, both in terms of migration and in job growth.”

Michael Theis
Staff writer
Austin Business Journal

©2007 Coalition On Sustainable Transportation