The Five Myths About Suburbia and Our Car-Happy Culture

July 11th, 2017

COST Commentary: Below is an article by the same name as this COST posting. This article was written more than 10 years ago, but is still on of the the most comprehensive short articles regarding the fallacies still being projected regarding the these myths. The five myths have only been reinforced by increasing evidence in the U.S. and around the world. First below is an edited summary of the article by one of the publishers. Second is the full article and third is the relevant comment by a reader which describes the authors recommended “10 steps to congestion relief.

This posting relates to the previous posting: Austin &amp: Texas Transit & Mobility Policies Are Failing – New Solutions Needed

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FIVE MYTHS ABOUT SUBURBIA
February 1, 2007

Suburban sprawl and automobiles are rapidly acquiring a reputation as scourges of modern American society, say authors Ted Balaker and Sam Staley.
But of all the myths created by the anti-suburbs culture about sprawl and driving, a few deserve to be reconsidered:

• Americans are not addicted to driving, nor do Europeans have an enlightened culture about public transit — in the United States, automobiles account for about 88 percent of travel, in Europe, the figure is about 78 percent, and they are gaining on us.

• Public transit does not reduce traffic congestion; even if the nation’s transit system tripled in size and filled up with riders; according to Anthony Downs of the Brookings Institution, it would not notably reduce rush-hour congestion, primarily because transit would continue to account for only a small percentage of commuting trips.

Also:

• Air quality is getting much better, not worse; since 1970 the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports a dramatic decrease in every major pollutant it measures, although driving is increasing by 1 percent to 3 percent each year, average vehicle emissions are dropping about 10 percent annually.

• Most people already live in developed areas, so it’s easy to get the impression that humans are paving over America, yet only 5.4 percent of U.S. land is developed, further, while house size has increased between 1970 and 2000, the average lot size shrank from 14,000 square feet to 10,000.

• Driving less will not help combat global warming; even if we reach all Kyoto requirements; Tom M.L. Wigley, chief scientist at the U.S. Center for Atmospheric Research, calculates that the Earth would be only .07 degrees centigrade cooler by 2050.

Source: Ted Balaker and Sam Staley, “5 Myths About Suburbia and Our Car-Happy Culture,” Cantonrep.com, January 31, 2007.
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The Five Myths About Suburbia and Our Car-Happy Culture

By Ted Balaker and Sam Staley
This article was published In January-February 2007 by a number of media outlets including the Washington Post, the Dallas Morning News, The Fresno Bee, The Reason Foundation and others.

They don’t rate up there with cancer and al-Qaeda — at least not yet — but suburban sprawl and automobiles are rapidly acquiring a reputation as scourges of modern American society. Sprawl, goes the typical indictment, devours open space, exacerbates global warming and causes pollution, social alienation and even obesity. And cars are the evil co-conspirator — the driving force, so to speak, behind sprawl.
Yet the anti-suburbs culture has also fostered many myths about sprawl and driving, a few of which deserve to be reconsidered:

1.Americans are addicted to driving.

Actually, Americans aren’t addicted to their cars any more than office workers are addicted to their computers. Both items are merely tools that allow people to accomplish tasks faster and more conveniently. The New York metropolitan area is home to the nation’s most extensive transit system, yet even there it takes transit riders about twice as long as drivers to get to work.

In 1930, the interstate highway system and the rise of suburbia were still decades away, and yet car ownership was already widespread, with three in four households having an automobile. Look at any U.S. city and the car is the dominant mode of travel.

Some claim that Europeans have developed an enlightened alternative. Americans return from London and Paris and tell their friends that everyone gets around by transit. But tourists tend to confine themselves to the central cities. Europeans may enjoy top-notch transit and endure gasoline that costs $5 per gallon, but in fact they don’t drive much less than we do. In the United States, automobiles account for about 88 percent of travel. In Europe, the figure is about 78 percent. And Europeans are gaining on us.

The key factor that affects driving habits isn’t population density, public transit availability, gasoline taxes or even different attitudes. It’s wealth. Europe and the United States are relatively wealthy, but American incomes are 15 to 40 percent higher than those in Western Europe. And as nations such as China and India become wealthier, the portion of their populations that drive cars will grow.

2.Public transit can reduce traffic congestion.

Transit has been on the slide for well more than half a century. Even though spending on public transportation has ballooned to more than seven times its 1960s levels, the percentage of people who use it to get to work fell 63 percent from 1960 to 2000 and now stands at just under 5 percent nationwide. Transit is also decreasing in Europe, down to 16 percent in 2000.

Like auto use, suburbanization is driven by wealth. Workers once left the fields to find better lives in the cities. Today more and more have decided that they can do so in the suburbs. Indeed, commuters are now increasingly likely to travel from one suburb to another or embark upon “reverse” commutes (from the city to the suburbs). Also, most American commuters (52 percent) do not go directly to and from work but stop along the way to pick up kids, drop off dry cleaning, buy a latte or complete some other errand.

We have to be realistic about what transit can accomplish. Suppose we could not only reverse transit’s long slide but also triple the size of the nation’s transit system and fill it with riders. Transportation guru Anthony Downs of the Brookings Institution notes that this enormous feat would be “extremely costly” and, even if it could be done, would not “notably reduce” rush-hour congestion, primarily because transit would continue to account for only a small percentage of commuting trips.

But public transit still has an important role. Millions of Americans rely on it as a primary means of transportation. Transit agencies should focus on serving those who need transit the most: the poor and the handicapped. They should also seek out the niches where they can be most useful, such as express bus service for commuters and high-volume local routes.

Many officials say we should reconfigure the landscape — pack people in more tightly — to make it fit better with a transit-oriented lifestyle. But that would mean increasing density in existing developments by bulldozing the low-density neighborhoods that countless families call home. Single-family houses, malls and shops would have to make way for a stacked-up style of living that most don’t want. And even then the best-case scenario would be replicating New York, where only one in four commuters uses mass transit.
3.We can cut air pollution only if we stop driving.

Polls often show that Americans think that air quality is deteriorating. Yet air is getting much cleaner. We miss it because, while we see more people and more cars, we easily overlook the success of air-quality legislation and new technologies. In April 2004, the Environmental Protection Agency reported that 474 counties in 31 states violated the Clean Air Act. But that doesn’t mean that the air is dirtier. The widely publicized failing air-quality grades were a result of the EPA’s adoption of tougher standards.

Air quality has been improving for a long time. More stringent regulations and better technology have allowed us to achieve what was previously unthinkable: driving more and getting cleaner. Since 1970, driving — total vehicle miles traveled — has increased 155 percent, and yet the EPA reports a dramatic decrease in every major pollutant it measures. Although driving is increasing by 1 to 3 percent each year, average vehicle emissions are dropping about 10 percent annually. Pollution will wane even more as motorists continue to replace older, dirtier cars with newer, cleaner models.

4.We’re paving over America.

How much of the United States is developed? Twenty-five percent? Fifty? Seventy-five? How about 5.4 percent? That’s the Census Bureau’s figure. And even much of that is not exactly crowded: The bureau says that an area is “developed” when it has 30 or more people per square mile.

But most people do live in developed areas, so it’s easy to get the impression that humans have trampled nature. One need only take a cross-country flight and look down, however, to realize that our nation is mostly open space. And there are signs that Mother Nature is gaining ground. After furious tree chopping during America’s early years, forests have made a comeback. The U.S. Forest Service notes that the “total area of forests has been fairly stable since about 1920.” Agricultural innovations have a lot to do with this. Farmers can raise more on less land.

Yes, American houses are getting bigger. From 1970 to 2000, the average size ballooned from 1,500 square feet to 2,260. But this hardly means we’re gobbling up ever more land. U.S. homeowners are using land more efficiently. Between 1970 and 2000, the average lot size shrank from 14,000 square feet to 10,000.

In truth, housing in this country takes up less space than most people realize. If the nation were divided into four-person households and each household had an acre, everyone would fit in an area half the size of Texas. The United States is not coming anywhere close to becoming an “Asphalt Nation,” to use the title of a book by Jane Holtz Kay.

5.We can’t deal with global warming unless we stop driving.

What should be done about global warming? The Kyoto Protocol seeks to get the world to agree to burn less fossil fuel and emit less carbon dioxide, and much of that involves driving less. But even disregarding the treaty’s economic costs, Kyoto’s environmental impact would be slight. Tom M.L. Wigley, chief scientist at the U.S. Center for Atmospheric Research, calculates that even if every nation met its obligation to reduce greenhouse gas, the Earth would be only .07 degrees centigrade cooler by 2050.

Wigley favors a much more stringent plan than Kyoto, but such restrictions would severely restrict economic growth, particularly in the developing world. Nations such as China and India were excluded from the Kyoto Protocol; yet if we’re serious about reversing global warming by driving less, the developing world will have to be included.

The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change notes that during the 20th century the Earth’s temperature rose by 0.6 degrees centigrade and — depending on which of the many climate models turn out to be closest to reality — it expects the temperature to rise 1.4 to 5.8 degrees by 2100.

What does the IPCC think the effects of global warming may be? Flooding may increase. Infectious diseases may spread. Heat-related illness and death may increase. Yet as the IPCC notes repeatedly, the severity of such outcomes is enormously uncertain.

On the other hand, there’s great certainty regarding who would be hurt the most: poor people in developing nations, especially those who lack clean, piped water and are thus vulnerable to waterborne disease.

The IPCC points out that the quality of housing in those countries is important because simple measures such as adding screens to windows can help prevent diseases (including malaria, dengue and yellow fever) from entering homes. Fragile transportation systems can also frustrate disaster recovery efforts, as medical personnel are often unable to reach people trapped in flooded areas.

Two ways of dealing with global warming emerge. A more stringent version of Kyoto could be crafted to chase the unprecedented goal of trying to cool the atmosphere of the entire planet. Yet if such efforts resulted in lower economic growth, low-income populations in the United States and developing countries would be less able to protect themselves from the ill effects of extreme heat or other kinds of severe weather.

Alternatively, the focus could be on preventing the negative effects — the disease and death — that global warming might bring. Each year malaria kills 1 million to 3 million people, and one-third of the world’s population is infected with water- or soil-borne parasitic diseases. It may well be that dealing with global warming by building resilience against its possible effects is more productive — and more realistic — than trying to solve the problem by driving our automobiles less.

ted.balaker@reason.org
sam.staley@reason.org

Ted Balaker and Sam Staley are coauthors of “The Road More Traveled: Why the Congestion Crisis Matters More Than You Think, and What We Can Do About It” (Rowman & Littlefield).
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One relevant comment to this article was:
The article appeared in the Dallas Morning News last week. The article also included Balaker and Staley’s “10 steps to congestion relief”

1. Add lanes
2. Public-private partnerships and toll lanes
3. Traffic signal optimization
4. Creative construction (eg tunnels)
5. Freeway ramp metering
6. One-way streets
7. Incident Management
8. Telecommuting
9. Parking reform
10. Improving intersections and access roads

I think it is safe to say that the evidence, in the US and Europe, shows that investments in mass transit just don’t reduce traffic, so it does not appear on the list.

Austin & Texas Transit & Mobility Policies Are Failing – New Solutions Needed

July 2nd, 2017

COST Commentary: Below are three charts with convincing data as to the huge degradation and failure of public transit in Austin, Dallas, Houston and San Antonio, the four major Texas cities. This is consistent with other major U.S. city regions, similar to these Texas city regions. Note: The term city in this posting includes the Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) for each city.

Below the charts is a confirming article by Joel Kotkin published in The Autonomous Future magazine relating national trends which confirm COST Commentary below.

This story will be extended in the near future. We thought it important to post this important key information now.

The first chart displays the total bus and light rail ridership in each of the four major Texas regions. As shown, the total bus and light rail ridership in 2016 is less than in 1999, 17 years ago. This was prior to the introduction of significant light rail which mostly occurred in the second half of this chart, primarily in Dallas with the longest light rail system in the nation and in Houston with much less rail. Austin has a small commuter rail with insignificant ridership included in the Austin data. San Antonio remains the most cost-effective system and has no rail transit.

The total 8% reduction in transit ridership occurs during a period when the average growth of the population of these cities was 47%. Austin was the poorest performing city in that its ridership reduction is 16%, double the average of the four cities, and Austin’s population growth of 71% was significantly greater than the other cities.

The second chart depicts the population trend of the four cities over this same time period. Growth continues to be very consistent.

The third chart shows the total ridership and total population of the four cities during the period.

These data present very poor performance of the cost and effectiveness of the past and current approach to public transit and mobility in general. These cities have spent many billions of dollars to increase public transit ridership and have all failed at the great expense of all taxpayers. Public transit has declined as an adequate mobility alternative for those who have no alternative and it serves few who do have an alternative. The wasted expenditure of billions of dollars has also decreased available funds needed to address true mobility improvements for the vast majority including private, shared, public transit, commercial, emergency, school, government, etc. vehicles which provide mobility encompassing about 99% of daily passenger miles in these regions.

As an example of Austin’s misguided mobility approach, the City proposed a second light light rail in 2014 which was touted to remove 10,000 cars from the highways and cost $1.4 billion. Both of these estimates are highly optimistic, likely fewer cars removed and much higher rail costs. As a comparison: Three major, recent road improvements, including MoPac, 290 East and 183A, have a combined cost (in current dollars) about the same as this 9.5 mile, dual track (19 track miles) rail. However, these improved roads create approximately 135 new toll and non-toll road lane miles and greatly relieve traffic on parallel, major existing lanes of almost 160 miles. This significantly improves the daily transportation/mobility of more than 500,000 people whether they choose the toll road/lanes or the non-tolled lanes/roadways. The capacity of these new road lanes provides the ability to better serve more than 700,000 daily travelers in the future and will be much greater capacity for the approaching driverless vehicle era. This is cost-effective mobility, resulting in greater quality-of-life for most.

Following the voters defeat of light rail in 2014, the Austin City Council presented voters a $720 million, so called, transportation bond referendum in 2016. This referendum was one of the most deceptive and destructive referendums in history. The City’s distortions and deceptions resulted in voters passing this largest transportation bond in Austin’s history. While presented to improve mobility, it is highly likely to degrade mobility and increase congestion for a majority of those affected by the bond. More than one-half of the bond’s funds are for projects which have a negative impact on motor vehicles using the streets. Several vehicle lanes will be removed in favor of increased, wider bicycle lanes and dedicated bus lanes to serve Austin’s declining transit ridership. In addition there are bicycle and pedestrian trails, and sidewalks which are disproportionately higher costs compared to the number of bike riders and pedestrians using them. The answer for the self-serving few seems to be: If we build much more, the use will increase. Meanwhile, all taxpayers highly subsidize these, mostly, non-mobility projects while reducing their own mobility on the roads.

Contrary to Cap Metro and Austin City rhetoric, public transit and congestion are not strongly related. The number of people using transit is so small, and reducing for 20 years, that it has almost no impact on road congestion. However, better roads, including the use of toll roads and “managed” toll lanes will significantly improve public transit, providing improved mobility to those without alternatives and those who chose to use transit as an alternative.

We are proud of the key role COST played in the voters’ defeat of the two rail referendums in 2000 and 2014, saving taxpayers billions of wasted dollars on long outdated technology and preventing even greater congestion. These ill-advised rail proposals by Austin and Cap Metro leaders were not overall transit or mobility improvements. There are no cities in the nation, similar to Austin, which provide a success example for these outdated rail systems. Perhaps the greatest failing of our mobility planners is to propose these rail “mass transit” approaches and ignore the reality of rapidly advancing transportation/mobility technology. The Uber/Lyft revolution and the introduction of driverless vehicles, by Google and others, is predicted by almost all to further reduce the use of public transit and increase the capacity of current roadways.

One of the key positive aspects of the light rail defeats is that is it has forced Capital Metro to to focus more of its resources on improving bus transit to increase mobility for a greater portion of citizens needing this alternative. Time will reveal their success. Disappointingly, Cap Metro has ignored evaluating Cellular Mass Transit (CMT) conceptsas a major step in Transit Efficiency and Cost-Effectiveness. CMT is a locally developed bus transit concept over more than 20 years and based on several of the most successful transit approaches implemented throughout the world.

CMT concepts would utilize the existing bus system better using a customer demand driven approach rather than a scheduled route system. CMT combines buses with vans and taxis to serve the entire community with 10 minute maximum wait times and twice as fast trip times which offer the possibility to dramatically increase ridership, resulting in reducing taxpayer subsidies. It can be implemented for a fraction of the capital and operating costs taxpayers will pay for any Light Rail system and for Cap Metro’s current overall systems approach. The CMT concept deserves serious consideration as a replacement for major portions of Austin’s/Cap Metro’s public transit system.

Sadly, major segments of our misguided transportation leadership have continued to promote mobility approaches which are contrary to citizens’ needs as reflected in their daily mobility decisions. The current ‘Draft Austin Street Design Guide’ reflects this fundamental disconnect with citizens with an obvious, shallow “social engineering” objective. Page 9 states Downtown is a Special District and that: “The model hierarchy is pedestrian first, then bicycle and transit, then vehicles.” This fourth priority for vehicles will continue to degrade downtown as a desirable destination for citizens and will degrade the quality-of-life for most. The priority mobility needs for downtown should be safety, ease of access and available, affordable parking. This is a strong characteristic of the Domain which already exceeds downtown Austin as a thriving commercial center.

Austin’s current ‘Imagine Austin,’ ‘draft Street Design Guide,’ ‘Code Next draft,’ etc.’ require extensive re-evaluations to support the greater-good of the entire city and its citizens’ needs and rights to better quality-of-life.

Why is mobility vital? Because better mobility is directly related to better quality-of-life as it has been for thousands of years. Citizens need and deserve this recognition in the design and implementation of mobility infrastructure. They do not need the extension of a long era of ill-contrived, social engineering intended to change people’s habits and decisions regarding their quality-of-life needs, including mobility. Citizens are far better judges of their needs than inexperienced elected officials and their hired hands who have allowed our mobility to continue to degrade so significantly.

Chart-Ridership-2016
Chart Population 2016
Chart-Riders-Pop-2016

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The Autonomous Future Magazine

The proportion of the labor force working from home continues to grow.

The Shape of Work to Come 2017
By Joel Kotkin

Expanding mass-transit systems is a pillar of green and “new urbanist” thinking, but with few exceptions, the idea of ever-larger numbers of people commuting into an urban core ignores a major shift in the labor economy: more people are working from home.

True, in a handful of large metropolitan regions—what we might call “legacy cities”—trains and buses remain essential. This is particularly true of New York, which accounts for a remarkable 43 percent of the nation’s mass-transit commuters, and of other venerable cities, such as San Francisco, Washington, Boston, Philadelphia, and Chicago. Together, these metros account for 56 percent of all mass-transit commuting. But for most of the rest of the country, transit use—despite often-massive infrastructure investment—has either stagnated or declined. Among the 21 metropolitan areas that have opened substantially new urban-rail systems since 1970, mass transit’s share of work trips has declined, on average, from 5.3 percent to 5 percent. During the same period, the drive-alone share of work trips, notes demographer Wendell Cox, has risen from 71.9 percent to 76.1 percent.

Meantime, the proportion of the labor force working from home continues to grow. In 1980, 2.3 percent of workers performed their duties primarily at home; by 2015, this figure had doubled to 4.6 percent, only slightly behind the proportion of people who commute via mass transit. In legacy core–metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs), the number of people working from home is nearly half that of those commuting by transit. In the 47 MSAs without legacy cores, according to the American Community Survey, the number of people working from home was nearly 250 percent higher than people going to work on trains or buses.

The areas with the thickest presence of telecommuters—including cities such as Austin, Raleigh-Durham, San Diego, Denver, and Seattle—tend to have the greatest concentration of tech-related industries, which function well with off-site workers. In San Jose, the epicenter of the nation’s tech industry, 4.6 percent of people work from home, exceeding the 3.4 percent who take mass transit. Other telecommuting hot spots include college towns like Boulder, where over 11.6 percent of workers work from home, and Berkeley, where the share is 10.6 percent.

Leading telecommuting centers tend to be home to many well-educated, older, and wealthy residents. Communities such as San Clemente, Newport Beach, and Encinitas in Southern California, as well as Boca Raton in Florida, all have telecommuting shares over 10 percent. Perhaps older, well-connected people are more inclined to avoid miserable commutes, given the chance to do so. As the American population skews older, the economy will likely see more workers making such choices.

Another important demographic force contributing to the work-from-home inclination is Americans’ continuing move to lower-density cities, which usually lack effective transit, and to the suburbs and exurbs—where 81 percent of job growth occurred between 2010 and 2014. While most metropolitan regions can be called “polycentric,” they are actually better described as “dispersed,” with central business districts (CBDs) and suburban centers (subcenters) now accounting for only a minority of employment. By 2000, more than three-quarters of all employment in metropolitan areas with populations higher than 1 million was outside CBDs and subcenters.

Home-based work could be the logical extension of this dispersal—and modern technologies, from ride-sharing services to automated cars, will probably accelerate the trend. A recent report by the global consulting firm Bain suggested that greater decentralization is likely in the coming decades. A 2015 National League of Cities report observes that traditional nine-to-five jobs are on the decline and that many white-collar jobs will involve office-sharing and telecommuting in the future. The report also predicts that more workers will act as “contractors,” taking on multiple positions at once.

Some see these developments as ominous, but greens and urbanists shouldn’t: telecommuting will, among other things, reduce pollution. It may be that the shift to home-based work will prove the ultimate in mixed use—albeit for workers in their pajamas.
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Joel Kotkin is the presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University and executive director of the Center for Opportunity Urbanism.

Large Taxpayer Transit Subsidies Fail to Increase U.S. Ridership.

May 7th, 2017

COST Commentary: Austin area’s annual transit trips of about 17.4 million per person in the urban population is on the low end of regional trips in the U.S. Austin has well under one-half of the average trips/person in all U.S. Urban Areas which have a combined, near historical low, average annual transit trips of 41 per urban population in 2015.

The Austin Urban Area has been in a declining transit trip trend and is currently at an all-time low in transit trips per person and in actual total transit trips over the past 18 years. During this period the urban population has grown almost 50% and more than a billion tax dollars have been spent to increase transit ridership. Following implementation of the MetroRail ‘Red Line’ Commuter Rail, total transit ridership has continued to drop.

Dallas and Houston experiences are similar to Austin, but transit investment has been much higher in these two major Texas cities. They have spent many billions of tax dollars attempting to increase transit ridership including Dallas’ investment in the longest light rail system in the nation. Both cities have experienced declining transit ridership per urban area population and Houston experienced a major drop in total transit ridership when they implemented their first light rail line. Dallas has been essentially flat in transit ridership for many years while its population has grown significantly.

The article below was referenced by the ‘Georgia Public Policy Foundation’ with the following introductory paragraph:

Taken for a ride: Don’t buy the claims of record transit ridership, Randal O’Toole writes in NewGeography: “America’s urban population more than doubled between 1956 and 2014. Using the ridership number that really counts – trips per urban resident – 2014’s number was a near-record low of 41 trips per person.” Despite increasing, massive subsidies, the general ridership trend is downward. “To a large degree, this downward trend is because the subsidies have made transit agencies more responsive to politics than transit riders,” O’Toole points out.
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SUBSIDIES HAVEN’T INCREASED TRANSIT RIDERSHIP
by Randal OToole 05/03/2017 in NewGeography

In 2015, the American Public Transportation Association issued a press release whose headline claimed that transit ridership in 2014 achieved a new record. However, the story revealed that 2014 ridership was the highest since 1956. That’s no more a record than if it was the highest since 2013.

Chart for O'Toole Trips Article

The truth is that America’s urban population more than doubled between 1956 and 2014. Using the ridership number that really counts–trips per urban resident–2014’s number was a near-record low of 41 trips per person. The only time it was lower before 2014 was a few years in the mid-1990s, when ridership dropped to as low as 38 trips per person. The rate may fall to nearly that level in 2016.

When Congress passed the Urban Mass Transportation Act of 1964, Americans took an average of 62 transit trips per person. At that time, 82 percent of all transit systems were privately owned. Within a decade, nearly every major transit system and all but a handful of minor ones were “municipalized” and the subsidies began to flow. At first, the federal government provided only capital subsidies, but in 1974 it also provided operating subsidies.

By 1978, half of operating costs and, of course, all of the capital costs were subsidized. By the late 1980s, fares covered only a little more than a third of operating costs. With most money coming from taxpayers, transit agencies were more beholden to politicians than transit riders, and they became more interested in spending money to please political interests than in boosting transit ridership.

Since 1965, transit operating subsidies (adjusted for inflation to today’s dollars) total close to $800 billion. We don’t have accurate capital cost data from before 1992, but since then we’ve spent close to $400 billion on capital programs (which in the transit industry include maintenance), most of it on rail transit.

Thus, well over a trillion dollars in subsidies has resulted in transit ridership falling from 61 trips per urban resident in 1965 to 41 trips in 2015, and even less in 2016. The chart above shows that trips per urbanite have fluctuated since 1970, but those fluctuations are mainly in response to gasoline prices while the general trend is downward. To a large degree, this downward trend is because the subsidies have made transit agencies more responsive to politics than transit riders.

Advocates of industrial policy argue that government should pick growth industries and nurture them along to help maintain American preeminence in new technologies. Skeptics suggest that government is more likely to pick losers than winners. Transit is clearly one of those losers.

Most statistics in this post are from the American Public Transportation Association’s 2016 Public Transportation Fact Book data spreadsheet. Data for 2015 is from the National Transit Database. Urban population data are from the Census Bureau.
This piece first appeared on The Antiplanner
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Randal O’Toole is a senior fellow with the Cato Institute specializing in land use and transportation policy. He has written several books demonstrating the futility of government planning. Prior to working for Cato, he taught environmental economics at Yale, UC Berkeley, and Utah State University.

U.S. and Austin Transit Ridership Declined in 2016

April 12th, 2017

COST Commentary:The Austin region was a leader in the decline of transit ridership throughout the United States, from 2015 to 2016. Austin declined in both rail and bus transit ridership with a total drop of more than 7%, about three times the average national decrease. Austin has been on an almost 20 year declining ridership trend while population has increased approximately 70%. Austin transit ridership has declined faster in recent years. The article below has more detail regarding the U.S. ridership decline.

Cap Metro and the City of Austin seem to be avoiding any attempt to provide plausible explanations as why they continue to spend hugely disproportionate levels of taxpayer funds for current and long term transit infrastructure to serve a declining number of riders. This policy is clearly to the detriment of improving roadways for drivers of private vehicles as well as commercial, government, emergency and transit vehicles. This long-term mismatch between the spending of tax funds and the mobility needs of citizens, as expressed by their choices of transportation, continues to increase roadway congestion with resultant degrading of our citizens’ quality-of-life.

The $720 million transportation bond passed by Austin voters last year has about two-thirds earmarked for transit, bicycle and walking infrastructure. It was deceptively presented as roadway “congestion relief,” but, it will increase congestion on its several central Austin “corridor” roadways, and surrounding areas, as it reduces driving lanes/capacity and increases transit, biking and walking infrastructure. Only about 20% of the bond package is designated to improve mobility and reduce congestion on a small number of roadways.

It is discouraging that our elected officials, mostly inexperienced in the leadership roles they are in, loose site of the fact that they are elected to serve the greater good of the overall community and not their own perceptions, ideologies and self interests. Their job is too provide the most effective support for citizens’ choices which are intelligently made to provide their desired quality-of-life. Priorities for taxpayer mobility funds should be based on this user demand. Providing “alternative” transportation under the policy that “we need it all” is irresponsible and unsustainable. There is not enough tax money in the region to do this and not enough users of “alternative transportation” to support such policies. The major purpose of transit should be to provide cost-effective mobility to those who have no alternative. Unfortunately, too many misguided and inexperienced transit and elected officials follow a path of attempting to “social engineer” changes in peoples desires and decisions because they believe they know how people should live, better than the people themselves. Wrong!!

A number of postings related to this article were posted on this COST web site prior to his article., including:

Driving Vehicle Miles Are Increasing: Walking, Bicycling and Transit Are Not Replacing Driving

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

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

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

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

Austin’s Commuter Rail Is A Monument To Government Waste

Don’t Waste Money Subsidizing Outdated, Ineffective Light Rail

Light Rail is Obsolete and Ineffective in Addressing Austin’s Mobility Needs
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Transit Ridership Down 2.3% in 2016

By Randall O’Toole, Posted: 10 Apr 2017, newgeography

With little fanfare, the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) released its fourth quarter 2016 ridership report last week. When ridership goes up, the lobby group usually issues a big press release ballyhooing the importance of transit (and transit subsidies). But 2016 ridership fell, so there was no press release.

The report showed that light-rail ridership grew by 3.4 percent, probably because of the opening of new light-rail lines such as Seattle, where the opening of the University line increased ridership by 60 percent. In the past, light-rail ridership has grown with the addition of new lines, but the number of passengers per mile of light rail has fallen, indicating diminishing returns to new rail construction.

Commuter-rail ridership grew by 1.6 percent, mostly due to growth in New York City. Trolley bus ridership grew by 1.8 percent, almost all of which was in San Francisco. Demand-response (paratransit) grew by 0.7 percent.

The two most important modes, however, both declined: heavy rail fell by 1.6% and buses by 4.1 percent. Since these two modes together carry 86 percent of transit riders, their decline swamped the growth in other modes. “Other,” which includes ferries, monorails, and people movers, also fell by 0.2 percent.

In some cases, the decline in bus ridership more than made up for increases in rail ridership. Phoenix light-rail ridership grew by 10.6 percent, but for every light-rail rider gained, Phoenix transit lost nearly four bus riders. Los Angeles light-rail ridership grew by 8.7 percent, but for every light-rail rider gained, Los Angeles lost nearly six bus riders. Ridership on Nashville’s Music City Star grew by 2.6 percent, but the city lost more than 30 bus riders for every new rail rider. Denver opened a new rail line to the airport but lost more than 1-1/2 bus riders for every rail rider gained. Charlotte lost more than 15 bus riders per new rail rider, while Portland lost nearly 2 bus riders per new light-rail rider.

Other major rail systems couldn’t even record gains. Washington’s Metrorail fell by 10.4 percent; Atlanta fell by 4.7 percent; and the biggest shock of all, New York City subways fell by 0.8 percent. Heavy-rail ridership also feel in in Baltimore (-13.2%), Chicago (-1.3%), Miami (-3.8%), and Philadelphia (-4.5%), among other places.

Ridership on Boston’s aging subway lines fell by 0.2 percent. As in Washington, the Boston subway is experiencing maintenance problems, including smoke in the tunnels. MBTA has ordered new rail cars, one of which was put on display this week. As columnist Teresa Hanafin noted on Tuesday in the Boston Globe:

“Governor Charlie Baker and state transpo and T officials tour the new Orange Line trains at noon in Medford. The new cars are terrific: They come equipped with sneakers that riders can borrow when the trains break down and they have to walk to the next station, paperbacks to read during the daily delays, hair dryers so riders can help T workers warm up the tracks during cold weather, tasers to ward off gropers, vomit bags, nose plugs, hand sanitizer, and cheese vending machines so riders can feed the rats. Isn’t technology great?”

Light-rail ridership declined in, among other places, Buffalo (-6.1%), Cleveland (-4.7%), Dallas (-1.7%), Minneapolis (-0.2%), Philadelphia (-6.0%), Pittsburgh (-4.3%), St. Louis (-4.6%), and Sacramento (-3.5%). Commuter-rail ridership fell in Albuquerque (-7.7%), Austin (-3.5%), Dallas-Ft. Worth (-6.1%), Los Angeles (-4.3%), Maryland (-1.9%), Miami (-1.6%), Orlando (-8.5%), and Philadelphia (-5.9%), among other places.

Salt Lake City has been getting more federal transit funding per capita than any other urban area, but the region seems to be losing its bet on light rail and commuter rail. Except for paratransit, every mode of transit in the region declined. The same thing happened in Dallas-Ft. Worth, which has built more light rail than any region in the country. Transit in San Jose, home of one of the nation’s worst-managed transit agencies, took a real nosedive, losing 10.0 percent of light-rail riders and 8.5 percent of bus riders.

Chart for O'Toole Article-JPG2

APTA will no doubt blame these declines on low gasoline prices. Prices for regular gasoline in 2016 averaged $2.14, about 12 percent less than 2015’s $2.43. Prices in 2016 were also less variable, which might have given people more confidence in driving. Perhaps more important, per capita incomes grew by 3.5 percent, which probably contributed more to near-record auto sales than low gas prices (though the low fuel prices influenced people’s choices of what vehicles to buy).

The transit industry bills itself as providing necessary transportation for low-income riders and alternative transportation for choice riders. Whether because of low gas prices, rising incomes, or growing shared-car services, low-income commuters are buying cars and higher-income travelers are making a choice not to use transit. In the face of these choices, transit agencies that want to spend hundreds of millions or billions on fixed-guideway transit, either rail or dedicated bus lanes, are wasting peoples’ money.
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Randal O’Toole is a senior fellow with the Cato Institute specializing in land use and transportation policy. He has written several books demonstrating the futility of government planning. Prior to working for Cato, he taught environmental economics at Yale, UC Berkeley, and Utah State University.

Driving Vehicle Miles Are Increasing: Walking, Bicycling and Transit Are Not Replacing Driving

April 11th, 2017

COST Commentary: The article below addresses the myth that there is a behavioral change in younger people which indicates a shift away from car driving to increased walking, biking and transit. This behavioral change is promoted from time to time by anti-car factions as support for increasing walking, biking and transit infrastructure. However, in every case, the change is exaggerated and not supported by facts. The sad and true facts are that we in Austin are spending a far greater percentage of transportation funds on the minuscule contribution of walking, biking and transit than to the overwhelming chosen transportation choice of driving. This results in continuing increases to roadway congestion. At least 99% if our regions daily passenger miles are on the roads.

The Austin region has a 20 year trend of declining transit use during a period which experienced a 70% population growth. This is a very convincing “survey” of the choice of regional citizens. Yet, with this strong affirmation of citizens’ transportation preference, elected leaders of Austin have continued to focus a majority of transportation funds on declining modes, resulting in increasing congestion on roadways and decreasing the quality of life of the vast majority of citizens. This ill-advised policy is, and will continue, degrading the desirability of citizens to work in and travel to Central Austin.
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The Surprising Revival of Vehicle Miles of Travel
by Robert W. Poole, Jr., Director of Transportation Policy, Reason Foundation, Published in “Surface Transportation Innovations”, Issue 162, April 2017.

The Federal Highway Administration in late February released its latest Traffic Volume Trends report, finding that vehicle miles of travel (VMT) increased 2.9% in 2016, to a near-record 3.2 trillion miles. Even more surprising, VMT per capita continued the uptrend that began in 2014. The 2016 figure is 10,065 miles per capita, just a bit less than the all-time high of 10, 117 mi./person recorded in 2004. Eno Transportation Weekly’s Jeff Davis reported (Feb. 20, 2017) that growth in VMT/person over the last three years has averaged 1.7% per year, which exceeds the 13-year trend (1992-2004) of 1.3% per year.

These results call into question the widely discussed notion, popularized by anti-car groups like the Public Interest Research Group (PIRG), that fundamental behavioral changes were at work, with an attitudinal shift away from car culture, especially among Millennials, and a shift from driving to biking and walking. I questioned that hypothesis at the time, and a recent study in the Journal of the American Planning Association bears me out.

In “The Driving Downturn,” Michael Manville, David King, and Michael Smart compare the evidence for the “peak car” explanation for the decline in VMT and VMT per capita (2004-2013) with the “economic” explanation—that the sharply increased cost of fuel and the impact of the Great Recession on employment—largely accounted for the VMT changes. They summarize their findings as follows:

“We find substantial evidence for the economic explanation. During the downturn, the cost of driving rose while median incomes fell. . . . Mass driving requires a mass middle class, but economic gains accrued largely to the most affluent. We find less evidence for ‘peak car.’ If Americans voluntarily drove less, they would likely use other modes more. However, despite heavy investment in bicycle infrastructure and public transportation in the 2000s, demand remained flat while driving fell.”

Their paper goes into details on their analysis, which I’m omitting here. But several of their findings on “little evidence of mode shift” are worth noting.

• Walking: They reviewed data showing that between 2002 and 2013 the share of Americans who walk regularly did not increase. Moreover, over 60% of walking trips were for exercise, recreation, or dog walking, which are not substitutes for driving.

• Biking: Bike trips per capita peaked in the 1970s, and between 2001 and 2009, biking’s share of all trips increased marginally, from 0.9% to 1.0%. Sales of bikes dropped, from 67 per thousand people in 2005 to 57 per thousand in 2014. And because most are short, few bike trips can replace driving.

• Transit: The supply of transit, as measured by vehicle hours of service, has tripled since 1970, and that expansion continued during the driving downturn. But this did not result in much additional ridership. Americans took 0.65 transit trips per person per week in 2012, up from 0.64 in 2004. And those numbers are little different from earlier years: 0.64 in 2000, 0.68 in 1990, 0.72 in 1980, and 0.68 in 1970.

But the most important comparison is provided not by rates but by absolute trip numbers. Manville et al. report that between 2004 and 2013, while highway passenger miles of travel decreased by 561 million, transit PMT increased by just 9.6 million. As they note, “The increase in transit cannot explain the drop in driving, particularly since more than 4 million of the increased transit PMT occurred in New York.”

Despite what all of these numbers show, I continue to read articles and hear presentations by transportation planners who are stuck in the “peak car” frame of reference, implying that their job going forward is to devote more resources to transit, biking, and walking and less to roads and highways. The facts clearly argue against that hypothesis; there are no “alternative facts” that justify making such plans.

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.

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BART ridership slumps; board mulls service cuts, fare increases

By Erin Baldassari | ebaldassari@bayareanewsgroup.com |
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.
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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.
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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
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
TotalTransitRidershipC1999-2015
(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 BigCitySparkplug.com.


©2007 Coalition On Sustainable Transportation