March 9th, 2014
COST Commentary: This was originally posted July 7, 2013 and was partially updated on March 9, 2014.
The last two short stories are partial updates to the previous stories and cover of the final close-down of the Columbia River project. They are summarized by the title of the first one: “Columbia River Crossing: ODOT (Oregon Department of Transportation) to pull plug, bridge project is dead” The tragic line in the story is: “The shutdown comes after more than a decade of planning and nearly $190 million worth of planning, engineering, financial and traffic forecasting and other work.” This massive waste of taxpayer funds could have been avoided with just a little common sense and leadership. The good news is that the waste of additional billions of dollars was avoided.
There is a major, very relevant lesson for Austin in this story: Austin wasted about the same amount of money in building the Red Line commuter rail not counting the loss of more than $12 million a year to operate the train. This has proven to be a very large waste of taxpayer funds. So far, Austin leadership has not indicated they understand this tragedy. The Mayor is pushing hard for an urban rail election in November 2014 which would result in the wasteful spending of billions of dollars on ineffective rail.
The following COST commentary was in the June posting.
There were, at least, two major victories for transportation, taxpayers and all citizens during the last week of June, 2013.
The articles and papers below address the second event which halted the continued wasteful spending of taxpayer funds for a joint Washington and Oregon state project to construct a new bridge across the Columbia River boundary between the states; including the expansion of Portland’s extensive light rail system to cross the river into Vancouver, Washington.
The two states have reportedly spent $170 million dollars on planning this misguided venture. It began in the mid 2000s as part of the response to address the problem of an old bridge which had become a congestion bottleneck; jeopardizing the major population growth and economic efficiency on both sides of the Columbia. This led to the involvement of transit officials and the ultimate, ill-advised decision to accommodate a light rail on the new bridge. Making light rail transit a higher priority than solving the bridge congestion problem resulted in many blunders including a major increase in project cost.
Portland has a long history of implementing high costs, ineffective, and unsustainable light rail, prompting Oregon to approve their “down payment” portion of the project, $450 million. Fortunately, Washington had some objective citizens and elected officials who were committed and worked hard to uncover the facts before the legislature committed its $450 million share. This “down payment” was based on a $3.4 billion finance plan (current dollars, not including interest). It was clear, when the truth was unveiled, that the costs would be much higher as experienced in almost every rail transit system. Based on the information revealed and more thorough analyses, Washington Legislatures did not approve the funding, in spite of the Washington Governor’s strong support of the project.
What are the lessons learned for Austin? Austin has lost focus on the priority of congestion relief, much as Oregon and Washington did. As in this Washington-Oregon project, Austin’s solution of an Urban Rail system is ineffective, will have no impact on congestion and its exorbitant costs will be a major burden for taxpayers while siphoning limited transportation funds from roadway projects which would reduce congestion and improve public transit with greater coverage and efficiency with lower costs. Wasteful spending on ineffective rail will also reduce the effectiveness of public transit by reducing funds available for the bus system which is the primary source of transit for those who need it and have no alternative; resulting in degradation of social equity.
The first memo below is from the head of the company which played a major role in uncovering the facts and truth of the Columbia River Crossing (CRS). This truth was filled with unsubstantiated, wasteful payments, costly blunders and no valid evidence or support the project would achieve its projections and promises. The second and third items below are media articles revealing key facts in his situation and they also clearly reflect the biases present in those whose self-interest and ideology is a priority over the facts and the best interests of all citizens. Ms Couch’s memo reflects the frequent truth in these projects: massive wasteful spending of taxpayer funds driven by nonobjective, self-serving citizens and political leaders.
Some suggested the project should not be stopped because so much money had been spent: As Ms Couch notes, this reflects a miserable situation which was allowed to escalate for years without objective checks and balances. Continuing would be a sad conclusion and much worse than the difficult decision made by courageous folks: to stop now. Unfortunately, similar cost escalations are occurring in Austin as Urban Rail planning continues to build momentum without objective checks and balances.
The second “victory” in late June also concerns the work by a few courageous, dedicated citizens to uncover the facts and reveal the truth about rail transit. This work of Georgetown, Texas citizens resulted in their city council rejecting, by a vote of 6-1, their continued financial support of the plan for an ill-advised commuter rail from Georgetown to San Antonio in central Texas. See: Rail Jumps The Track AGAIN!: Georgetown City Council Votes To End Participation In Lone Star Rail District
There are also three, recent, additional negative articles regarding rail transit projects at the following COST site: Rail Disasters Mounting: Tales of Three Cities
From: Tiffany Couch
Sent: Sun, Jun 30, 2013 12:14 am
Subject: My heartfelt gratitude to you
To my very dear friends and colleagues:
The governors of Oregon and Washington have indicated tonight that they will start moving to shut down the Columbia River Crossing office in Vancouver. This project is officially dead since Washington State Legislators chose to decline any future dollars towards this project. (the news article referenced here can also be seen below)
By far, this is the largest case we’ve worked. Tens of thousands of documents, hundreds (maybe thousands?) of hours; all with: an inordinate amount of public and professional scrutiny. Most times, that work was met with silence. Most of those with the decision making power chose to ignore rather than to act.
Most would think this would be a big “W” in our Win column. For the record, I see it differently. To me, the win is not whether we were right or wrong. The only win in all of this is the fact that we were able to be a conduit for the truth. We were able to scrutinize and then communicate complex financial information into a format for others to understand. From the public to the public officials that made the decisions; our work certainly shed light on many troubling issues.
In my personal opinion, I don’t see this as a win for Clark County or as an example of how government should work. I see this as a huge disappointment. A consequence of what happens when government doesn’t work as intended. Over $170 million was spent on a bridge project wrought with cost overruns, planning errors, and major design flaws. As a result, a project that could have helped this region; most importantly the people of Clark County, was never truly considered. As a result of this failure, many people will lose their jobs in the coming weeks as the CRC office is shut down. We will have to find a new course to hopefully find a bridge project (or 3!) that will help solve the transportation problems facing our community…problems that the CRC Project admitted it would not fix: congestion and freight mobility.
I do not believe for a moment that this bridge project was killed solely because of our work. I do, however, believe that our work led to legislators asking questions and seeking to understand the discrepancies we discovered. Those questions led to answers which confirmed many of the opinions set forth in our reports. Couple our findings with design and other errors by the CRC project office, legislators found themselves with no choice but the one they made.
Speaking of legislators – two stand out to me as the types of representatives we wish to have in our government. Senator Ann Rivers from the 18th Legislative District here in Clark/Cowltiz County and Senator Curtis King from Yakima, took the lead on this. They reviewed reports, attending meetings with me and CRC and Coast Guard officials. They asked questions and demanded answers. They took a lot of heat from the Governor, their own colleagues, and others who tried to convince them that this project was a “done deal” and that they should just get on board. They didn’t. They sought to find answers to the questions. When those answers revealed problems, they articulately communicated them to their colleagues. I cannot think of any other legislator I’ve had the pleasure of working with who I’ve seen work so hard on an issue. Not to “win” – but to find answers to get to the truth and then make informed decisions. Other legislators that have worked hard on this should not be discounted: Congresswoman Jaime Herrera Beutler; Representative Liz Pike; Representative Ed Orcutt to name a few.
There are numerous other experts who have provided contrary opinions: Economist Joe Cortright; John Charles, a Transportation Expert from the Cascade Policy Institute; and Kevin Peterson, a world renowned Transportation Design Architect. They, too, have suffered the same types of personal and professional attacks as I have. Yet their work stands on its own. More beacons of the truth.
And, then there are those who sacrificed personal time and talent all for this project. The volunteers and “grass roots” efforts that were there from beginning to end.
If you are receiving this message tonight it is with my heartfelt gratitude and thanks. You are the ones who read reports and offered excellent professional advice. You were the ones who prayed or sent good thoughts our way as reports were published. Others of you stood by and continued to be a friend or a business partner or a colleague even when it wasn’t the popular thing to do. Perhaps you did something as simple as sit next to me at Rotary or offered kind words of encouragement. You’ve no idea how much those simple acts were appreciated by me. I will never forget them.
Many in our community believe that, with the CRC “over,” so is Acuity Group! Sorry to disappoint! Acuity Group was strong before the CRC came through the door. Most of the time we had to fit in the CRC work as we had time; as we were generally handling anywhere from 12 to 18 cases at any given point over the last two years! Right now, we’re juggling cases from our region and beyond – with a big trip to Louisiana on the horizon and a great speaking gig in Indiana coming up in August. We are blessed beyond measure with great clients and interesting and fulfilling work.
Most importantly, I look forward to working in our community as it’s a wonderful place to live and work and raise a family!
Thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for your support and your wisdom.
With much love,
Tiffany R. Couch, CPA/CFF, CFE
ACUITY GROUP PLLC
Financial Investigation and Forensic Accounting
Washington lawmakers’ denial of funding ends project; governors pull plug
By Eric Florip, Columbian Staff Reporter Originally published June 29, 2013
The Columbia River Crossing is dead.
After intense political wrangling, tens of millions of taxpayer dollars spent, and a controversy that embroiled Clark County for the better part of a decade, the Washington Senate delivered the fatal blow to the beleaguered project Saturday. Lawmakers there turned back a last-ditch effort to push through a transportation revenue package that would have steered crucial funding to the CRC and other projects across the state. The full Legislature’s adjournment without approving that money left the planned Interstate 5 Bridge replacement with an aggressive schedule and a $3.4 billion finance plan ready to fall apart.
Instead, both states’ governors said Saturday that they’d pull the plug. The project’s downtown Vancouver office will begin shutting down. Its dozens of employees and consultants will land elsewhere. Funding that Oregon lawmakers had already committed will evaporate. And Clark County will move on to life after the CRC.
Gov. Jay Inslee will meet with Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber and transportation officials to decide next steps, said Inslee spokesman David Postman. But the assumption all along was that the project would fold if Washington lawmakers made no commitment this year, he said.
“We’re now looking at what that means and exactly how that’s going to proceed,” Postman said.
Kitzhaber confirmed the CRC’s demise in a statement expressing disappointment Saturday. The failure of Washington lawmakers doesn’t eliminate the safety and economic risks on the existing Interstate 5 Bridge connecting Vancouver and Portland, he said.
“But without the funds from Washington and adherence to the project budget and schedule, neither state can incur the further costs of delay,” Kitzhaber said. “Consequently, project managers have begun to close down the project.”
The development is a major political defeat for Inslee, Kitzhaber and other high-profile forces that had lobbied hard for the CRC in recent months. U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., was among those leading the charge. Then-U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood visited Olympia in the session to put additional pressure on lawmakers to act.
CRC planners had banked on Washington and Oregon to jointly contribute $900 million to the project’s $3.4 billion cost. Oregon lawmakers approved their state’s $450 million share this year. House Democrats in Olympia passed a $10 billion transportation revenue package and project list that would have committed another $450 million from Washington.
But Senate Republicans had long indicated they weren’t keen on the package, which included a 10½ cent increase to the state gas tax. Plenty of members singled out the many financial and logistical questions surrounding the CRC, which would have extended light rail into Vancouver and rebuilt freeway interchanges on both sides of the Columbia River.
Ultimately, the Senate didn’t act on either the transportation package or CRC funding before the final gavel dropped. After adjournment, a clearly frustrated Inslee laid blame squarely at the feet of the Senate’s Majority Coalition Caucus, made up of mostly Republicans. He called the result a “total failure.”
“Where have you been for the past six months? Has anyone here heard leadership from the Senate majority caucus?” Inslee said on live television. “I think not, and that’s very regrettable.”
He later added: “This was supposed to be a bipartisan majority. But it has turned into nothing but a roadblock to a transportation package.”
Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, expressed disappointment that senators received the House’s transportation package on what ended up being the 151st day of a 153-day legislative session. And Rivers noted that the House failed to pass a required bonding authority bill as part of the package.
It’s not clear the House even had the votes to pass the bonding authority bill, which would require a three-fifths majority. Earlier components of the transportation package scraped by on slim majorities, and only after an unsuccessful first attempt.
Rivers said Senate leaders plan to meet with constituents in the coming months to decide the best way to proceed with the state’s transportation needs, including the I-5 corridor. “Bring folks in on the front end instead of the back end,” she said.
As for the death of the CRC, “I take neither joy nor pleasure,” said Rivers, who opposed the CRC as planned. “It’s heartbreaking that it got as far as it did with such questionable results.”
The CRC had become a lightning rod of controversy in Clark County, particularly the light-rail component local leaders approved in 2008. Opponents also decried the CRC’s cost and plans to toll the new I-5 bridge, saying it put an undue financial burden on the Southwest Washington residents who account for the majority of traffic over the bridge.
Supporters called the CRC an essential fix for an aging bridge that’s an economic and safety liability. The twin spans of the I-5 bridge were built in 1917 and 1958. Both are considered “functionally obsolete” by state transportation officials.
The CRC had friends in high places, but it was a series of high-profile blunders that ultimately helped facilitate the project’s undoing. The CRC went through multiple bridge designs, multiple delays and multiple project directors over the years.
All of that led to perhaps the project’s most embarrassing misstep: designing a bridge too low. Planners initially drew up a fixed span with just 95 feet of clearance over the Columbia — a height roundly dismissed by the U.S. Coast Guard and others as inadequate for the navigation and economic needs of river users.
Planners scrambled to come up with a 116-foot-high design late last year and applied to the Coast Guard in January for a bridge permit — even as mitigation talks continued with upriver businesses that would have taken a financial hit due to the bridge design. Negotiations centered around how much the CRC would pay them as compensation.
“In the private sector, if this had happened, there would be no forgiveness of the companies that did this,” Rivers said of the CRC’s blunders.
Local players react
Local reaction to news of the CRC’s death varied. Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt, a strong supporter of the project, called the outcome “politics at its worst.”
“It’s hard to find diplomatic words to describe the disappointment at what is really the failure of leadership in the legislature — by some of our representatives — to invest in the future economy and safety of the roads and bridges in our state,” Leavitt said. “Of course, it’s not just the CRC project that comes to a halt, but all the other important projects around the state that other communities were hoping would be completed, addressing the challenges they face in their local economies.”
Leavitt continued: “Sadly, that’s politics. This is unfortunately a poster child of poor politics.”
Clark County Commissioner David Madore became a key voice galvanizing opposition to the CRC in the later stages of the debate. Reached late Saturday, Madore welcomed the news — and reiterated his call for a third bridge over the Columbia River at 192nd Avenue.
“Many people worked very hard to defend this community from being exploited, and we owe them a debt of gratitude,” he said. “Our state legislature, our senators and many local citizens that worked so hard and conducted themselves with honor are very thankful to see the outcome.”
If there’s one thing to learn from the CRC, Madore said, “it’s how not to build a bridge and force a project upon the community.”
It’s unclear what will become of the ongoing efforts surrounding the CRC. The Coast Guard is still reviewing the project’s bridge permit application, and CRC leaders had been engaged in mitigation talks with upriver business as recently as last week. C-Tran, a local partner in the project, has spent recent months discussing how to pay the local cost of operating light rail in Vancouver.
In all, the project spent more than $170 million in planning.
The Columbia River Crossing project office officially formed in 2005. Its leaders had hoped to begin construction in 2014.
Instead, it appears the project will disband in 2013 without turning a shovel.
Kitzhaber: Washington killed CRC project
Created on Saturday, 29 June 2013 11:00 |
by Jim Redden, Portland Tribune (http://portlandtribune.com/pt/9-news/155712-kitzhaber-washington-killed-crc-project )
Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber declared the Columbia River Crossing project dead Saturday evening following the 2013 Washington Legislature’s refusal to vote on a transportation funding package.
Although the 2013 Oregon Legislature committed $450 million to the project, Washington needed to commit a similar amount to secure the federal government’s share of the $3.4 billion cost to replace the Interstate 5 bridge between Oregon and Washington and make related freeway improvements.
Kitzhaber’s statement reads as follows:
“I am extremely disappointed that our legislative partners in the Washington State Senate failed to address the clear and present safety and economic need for this essential I-5 bridge. I have worked with three committed Washington governors on this project — starting with Governor Locke, then Governor Gregoire and now Governor Inslee — which makes the demise of the Columbia River Crossing without an up or down vote in the Senate even more disheartening. I want to thank Governor Inslee for his strong support and extraordinary effort to deliver Washington’s share of funding for the I-5 replacement bridge. The failure of the Senate to act does not eliminate the safety and economic risks to both our states, but without the funds from Washington and adherence to the project budget and schedule, neither state can incur the further costs of delay. Consequently, project managers have begun to close down the project.
“Governor Inslee and I will continue to work together, but our options will be different without Washington state’s financial partnership. Without bi-state funding, I have asked ODOT to review all of the work on the Oregon side of the project to determine if any stand-alone investments could be made to improve safety and reduce congestion on a smaller scale. That work will be subject for further
Columbia River Crossing: ODOT to pull plug, bridge project is dead
By Jeff Manning | firstname.lastname@example.org
March 07, 2014 at 5:55 PM
The Oregon Legislature, through its inaction, has apparently put the final stake in the heart of the Columbia River Crossing.
The Oregon Department of Transportation announced Friday it is closing the project’s offices, issuing cease-work orders to its many contractors and shutting the project down entirely by May 31.
The Oregon Legislature adjourned Friday having taken no action on the CRC other than a committee hearing. Oregon lawmakers lost their appetite for the project after the state of Washington pulled out as a co-funder last summer.
The shutdown comes after more than a decade of planning and nearly $190 million worth of planning, engineering, financial and traffic forecasting and other work.
It is an enormous victory for both environmental and urban planning groups from the left and conservative fiscal hawks from the right. This Green Tea Party, as they came to call themselves, attacked the project as a wasteful, bloated plan that was both bad for the environment and too risky for one state to bear alone.
It’s a stunning loss for Gov. John Kitzhaber, who continued to fight for the project until nearly the bitter end, and the mainline business and labor organizations that fought with him.
In the end, the boosters failed to convince the skeptics that the project would adequately address the I-5 crossing’s chronic congestion or that they could pull off the project without disastrous cost overruns or other problems.
“ODOT, WSDOT and TriMet will begin demobilizing agency staff,” ODOT said in an announcement issued late Friday. “We will issue stop work orders on consultant contracts on or before March 15, 2014. We will release consultant staff once they have archived and catalogued their work products.”
Subject: ODOT announces plans to close down Columbia River Crossing Project
Date: Fri, 07 Mar 2014 19:03:54 -0600
From: “Oregon Department of Transportation”
ODOT announces plans to close down Columbia River Crossing Project
CRC will shut down completely by May 31, 2014
The following is a statement issued this afternoon by ODOT Director Matthew Garrett:
“On March 7, the Oregon Legislature adjourned without reinstating construction funds for the CRC I-5 Bridge Replacement project. As identified in Governor Kitzhaber’s January 27, 2014 letter to legislative leadership, the project will begin the process of orderly archival and closeout. We have the fiduciary responsibility to close out the project in a systematic, retrievable manner in order to adequately preserve a decade of research, environmental reviews, community involvement, and detailed engineering work for potential future use. We will archive work products according to Oregon record retention requirements.
Expenditures will be reduced immediately; further design and deliverable development will not occur. The project will shut down completely by May 31, 2014.
Conclude Staff and Agency Agreements
ODOT, WSDOT and TriMet will begin demobilizing agency staff. Each agency will be responsible for necessary personnel actions.
We will issue stop work orders on consultant contracts on or before March 15, 2014, including instructions to record the current status of the work product and contract amendments to archive work products and conduct contract closeout. We will release consultant staff once they have archived and catalogued their work products.
In addition, the project has intergovernmental agreements in place with agencies such as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Multnomah County Drainage District. We will close out these agreements this month with formal stop work orders.
Archive and Catalogue Work Products
We will archive and catalogue all work products, past deliverables, and permit documentation in their current state. The following types of work products exist:
-Environmental documentation required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), including the Draft and Final Environmental Impact Statement(s), the federal Record of Decision and required re-evaluations.
-Financial analysis, including extensive documentation required by the Federal Transit Administration’s New Starts program, a transit operations and maintenance agreement, the investment grade analysis, and work products related to application for a federal TIFIA loan.
-Recent cost estimates for elements of the Oregon-led project and the project’s history of risk-based cost estimating.
-Geotechnical research and reports that have been informed by the drilled shaft and driven test pile program.
-The bodies of work that led to receipt of the U.S. Coast Guard General Bridge Permit and Section 401 water quality certification in Oregon and Washington. Work efforts required as part of the Section 404 flood and wetland and 408 navigation and levee impact permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers were underway and will be archived. Other permitting plans and work products will be catalogued.
-Draft design build procurement document for the River Crossing Bridges and Approaches
-Documentation and summary of the robust public involvement program, including comments, advisory group activities, outreach presentations and public information materials.
-Work efforts to support right of way plans and utility relocations. Development drafts of procurement documents, including those intended to guide construction of the Columbia River bridges.
The project occupies one floor of the Vancouver Center building. The lease is on a month-to-month basis, so there is no penalty for early termination. ODOT facilities will coordinate the retention of computers, phones, and furniture; ODOT fleet services will coordinate vehicle disposition.”
March 1st, 2014
COST Commentary: As shown in the article below, there is a strong continuing trend in the increase in percentage of people working at home. It is the fastest growing “commute to work” mode and has surpassed the use of public transit in many metro areas, including Austin’s metro area. ‘Work at home’ is approaching three times the use of public transit for work commuting in Austin and reduces much more than three times the number of commuter vehicles on the roads as many transit riders do not have a vehicle choice. Work at home is clearly the most cost effective mode to reduce commuting peak hour traffic.
Austin’s public transit is 5th in “commuting to work” mode behind drive alone, car pool, work at home and other (walk, bicycle, other). Almost has almost as many people walking to work as riding public transit. Even poor public transit performance with essentially a bus only system (less than 2% ride Austin’s only passenger train) Austin’s public transit system has been far more effective than Dallas’ which has several train routes. Both have meager ridership which is not growing; even though tax payer costs continue to grow.
As shown in the table below, Austin (2.3%) has more than 50% higher percentage of commuters using public transit than Dallas (1.5%), which has spent billions of tax dollars to implement the longest light rail system in the nation. Dallas also has 6.6% higher percentage of ‘drive alone’ commuters than Austin. Dallas’ billions spent on train transit have not reduced highway traffic and road congestion. Commuting is the greatest use of public transit in almost all cities.
The total public transit ridership in the four largest Texas metro areas (Dallas, Houston, San Antonio and Austin) has declined over the past dozen years while many billions of dollars have been spent to encourage public transit, primarily implementing trains. This actual transit decline is in spite of these four Texas regions being among the fastest growning metro areas in the nation.
The facts refute Austin Mayor Leffingwell’s recent speach in which the coined the term “rail or fail” for Austin. This is clearly an absurd statement as proven throughout the nation in many cities. The reverse is more accurate: city after city is finding the focus on rail transit to be a major burden on taxpayers with no benefit; it does not relieve congestion and degrades overall transit service for those who need it most and have no alternative.
The Mayor’s proposed initial rail route is less than 10 miles, going from a very low density area at the old Highlind Mall to another low density area on East Riverside Drive requiring a new bridge across Lady Bird Lake. This assures very low ridership and it will cost more than a billion dollars. The project depends on the U.S. government paying one-half of the cost. There is a low probability of this U.S. participation as the government faces severe financial difficulties. The greatest part of this disaster is that the Mayor calls this a starter line with the goal to spend many additional billions of taxpayer dollars to significantly expand from this initail route.
It is most interesting that Austin has discussed urban rail for almost 20 years since the founding of Capital Metro. In this time, numerous groups and organizations have evaluated numerous rail routes. In every case, the groups have arrived at different route conclusions. The proposed route has changed several times during just the past five years. Austin is one of the fastest growing metro areas in the nation ans not a single development is due to rail transit. It is a changing city with changing public transit needs. Rail is inflexible, ineffective and exorbantly expensive for all taxplayers, most of which will never ride the train. It is even more expensive to move it once installed.
Urban rail would be the worst decision in the history of Austin and would have the greatest negative impact on today’s citizens and future generations. It would be a major step in a continuing trend of actions to discourage Austin citizens from downtown trips. What does it take to convince City officials? There are no city role models they can point to and we already have a very negative local experience with Cap Metro’s Red Line commuter train which carries less than 2% of transit riders. It cost taxpayers about 5 times as much to subsidize riders on this train as it does on buses making the same trip.
LONE EAGLE’ CITIES: WHERE THE MOST PEOPLE WORK FROM HOME
by Joel Kotkin and Wendell Cox 02/27/2014
In an era of high unemployment and limited opportunity, more Americans are taking matters into their own hands and going to work for themselves out of their homes.
Normally small businesses have led the way during economic recoveries, but this time around they’re not creating many jobs. Instead much of the growth we are now seeing is in “lone eagle” businesses, to borrow a phrase from Phil Burgess, often operating out of the worker’s residence. This reverses the trend from 1960 to 1980, when there were steady reductions in the number of people who worked at home. Indeed, despite all the talk of increased mass transit usage, the percentage of Americans working at home has grown 1.5 times faster over the past decade; there are now more telecommuters than people who take mass transit to work in 38 out of the 52 U.S. metropolitan areas with more than 1,000,000 residents.
One clear driver of this trend is technology, particularly the growing ubiquity of high-speed Internet. A consultant in New York can now serve customers in Fargo, and vice versa, greatly expanding the range of places where people can live. This is particularly true for aging boomers, as well as younger workers having problems finding a full-time job in this tough economy.
Not surprisingly, of America’s 52 largest metro areas, the ones with the highest proportions of home-based workers are generally those with high-tech, information-based economies. Tops is San Diego, a major center for digital and biomedical businesses, where 6.6% of workers are based at home.
The next five metro areas, which have home worker concentrations ranging from 6.1% to 6.4%, all boast a high number of STEM workers and tech firms: Austin, Portland, Denver, Raleigh and San Francisco-Oakland. They all also have another thing in common: They tend to be popular destinations for millennials, who seem far more comfortable with unconventional work arrangements than older generations.
High real estate costs may be accelerating the trend in San Francisco, San Diego and Portland — if office space isn’t affordable, why not stay at home? All are also plagued by traffic congestion, most notably the Bay Area, which has among the longest commute times in the country. Rather than drive down snarled freeways, or take slow mass transit, individuals may do better working from home and heading into the traffic maelstrom only when absolutely necessary.
College Towns, Suburbs and Exurbs
Many metro areas, of course, are huge, and have many different kinds of geographies. But when we looked at the percentage of home-based workers in all municipalities with populations above 25,000, two types dominated the top of the table: college towns and tech-oriented exurbs. Boulder, Colo., for example, has the third highest proportion of people who work at home, at 11.6%, almost three times the national average. Other college towns with large proportions of telecommuters and one-person businesses include Berkeley, Calf. (tied for fifth, 10.6%), and Columbia, S.C. (12th, 9.9%), home to the University of South Carolina.
But the bulk of our leading work-at-home locales are tech-oriented suburbs or exurbs. These include several communities around the often traffic-clogged greater Atlanta area, including No. 2 John’s Creek (13.1%) and No. 6 Alpharetta (10.6%).
There are even more in the sprawl of Southern California. As many longtime Southland residents can attest, the best workday is one that does not involve either driving or taking transit. The top municipalities on our list in the region tend to be more affluent communities, including two suburbs of our top-ranked metro area, San Diego: Carlsbad (16th, 9.4%) and Encinitas (fourth, 10.7%).
The Codger Economy
Yet it would be a mistake to think cities with large home-based workforces are necessarily youthful ones. Nor are they all in large metropolitan areas. Although still slightly below the average for metropolitan areas, the pace of new telecommuter growth is now much faster outside the major metro areas.
More than 5 million Americans aged 55 or older run their own businesses or are otherwise self-employed, according to the Small Business Administration, and their numbers soared 52% from 2000 to 2007. As research from the Kauffmann Foundation suggests, many of these aging workers are not ready to hang up their work boots.
This entrepreneurial push could correlate with the movement of aging boomers to more rural communities, and sleepier outer suburbs. Contrary to the much-hyped notion of a “back to the city” movement among boomers, Census research suggests that if they move at all, most head further to the periphery. At the top of our list of communities over 25,000 is the coastal North Carolina city of Jacksonville, home to the Marine Corps’ Camp Lejeune and a good number of military retirees. A remarkable 13.8% of the people in this highly affordable, scenic community of 70,000 work out of their homes, roughly three times the national average. The median home price in Jacksonville: $141,000.
Other retirement hot spots with high telecommuter shares include Boca Raton, Fla. (9.8%), Scottsdale, Ariz. (9.8%), and Bend, Ore. (9.0%). These communities tend to attract well-educated boomers, many of whom have kept their business connections and work as consultants. In many cases, telecommuting allows people to continue their careers, but in an atmosphere of comfort, without the burden of commuting and, in many cases, sans the high income taxes of places like California and New York.
We can expect the wired economy to expand to other smaller communities. Already numerous smaller towns in the Midwest, such as Albert Lea, an hour and a half from Minneapolis, Brainerd, Minn., and Hastings Neb., all have home worker shares well above the national average. Many of the areas with the fastest growth in the number of self-employed people, notes EMSI is in small, somewhat isolated communities.
Many analysts who follow these trends expect stay-at-home workers to become more common in the future. According to research by Kate Lister and Tom Harnish of the Telework Research Network, the typical teleworker is a 49-year-old, college-educated, salaried, non-union employee in a management or professional role, earning $58,000 a year at a company with more than 100 employees.
This suggests that, as more workers enter their 50s, the telework population will expand further. These numbers will continue to be buttressed by both economic and social factors. The shift towards outsourcing by companies seems unlikely to slow in the years ahead, with more work going to subcontractors who can often work at home. At the same time more boomers, particularly those with skills and connections, will continue to move to places that offer more attractive lifestyles — a process that Joel Garreau has labeled “the Santa Fe-ization of the world,” which he links to people with enough money to have choices.
In the future, however, less well-heeled workers can also be expected to increasingly shift to affordable locales that appeal to them. This can be almost anywhere — a beach community, a rural hamlet, an exurb or even a dense urban location, as we can see by the geographic diversity in these rankings. As USC grad student Jeff Khau writes, this should encourage the development of wired coffee shops and casual restaurants in smaller communities and exurbs.
Finally, there are both familial and environmental reasons for this trend to expand. With more two-worker households, it has become more attractive to have at least one person working from home, part-time or full-time. And then there is the environmental desire to reduce carbon admissions. Compared to being forced to live in dense cities, or taking mass transit, the best way by far to reduce energy use – not to mention stress – is to not leave home at all.
Top Places Where Residents Work at Home
No. 1: Jacksonville, NC - 13.8%
No. 2. Johns Creek, GA - 13.1%
No. 3: Boulder, CO - 11.6%
No. 4: Encinitas, CA - 10.7%
No. 5 (tie): Berkeley, CA - 10.6%
No. 5 (tie): Alpharetta, GA -10.6%
No. 5 (tie): Santa Monica, CA -10.6%
No. 8: Frisco, TX - 10.2%
No. 9 (tie): San Clemente, CA - 10.1%
No. 9 (tie): Columbus, GA - 10.1%
No. 11: Bethesda CDP, MD - 10.0%
No. 12: Columbia, SC - 9.9%
No. 13 (tie): Boca Raton, FL - 9.8%
No. 13 (tie): Scottsdale, AZ - 9.8%
No. 15: Newport Beach, CA - 9.5%
Journey to Work Market Share by Mode (2012 ACS.1 & Year)
This story originally appeared at Forbes.com.
Joel Kotkin is executive editor of NewGeography.com and Distinguished Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University, and a member of the editorial board of the Orange County Register. He is author of The City: A Global History and The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050. His most recent study, The Rise of Postfamilialism, has been widely discussed and distributed internationally. He lives in Los Angeles, CA.
Wendell Cox is a Visiting Professor, Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers, Paris and the author of “War on the Dream: How Anti-Sprawl Policy Threatens the Quality of Life.
Photo by By Rae Allen, “My portable home office on the back deck”
December 10th, 2013
COST Commentary: There are numerous articles posted on this site regarding the continuing, huge under-estimating of Rail costs and major over-estimating of ridership. The items below from The Washington Post and the Georgia Public Policy Foundation are two, more recent reminders that almost no passenger rail systems are completed and operated even close to original estimates of costs and ridership resulting in significant financial stress and negative community impact.
When will we recognize the reality which extensive, nationwide experience continues to expose: Rail systems are very ineffective at best and often major operating and financial disasters? Directing massive, wasteful, rail spending to useful community needs will improve the quality of life for all and reduce already burdensome tax and fee levels which disproportionately impact lower income citizens. Redirecting this irresponsible spending can provide significant overall transportation and transit improvements while creating a more affordable Austin.
The Arlington board’s runaway streetcar
By William Vincent, Published: December 6, The Washington Post
Virginia is developing a fine tradition of squandering precious public-transit dollars. Rail in the Dulles corridor was originally estimated to cost around $1.5 billion but will end up close to $6 billion . The Tide line in Norfolk ballooned from around $200 million to nearly $320 million and is one of the poorest-performing light-rail systems in the country.
Arlington County is following in these footsteps. In 2006, the county board approved a $120 million streetcar for Columbia Pike. By 2010, despite the financial crisis and very low inflation, the price tag had skyrocketed beyond $250 million, which would have rendered the project ineligible for the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) Small Starts grant that the county intended to seek.
The county could have taken the escalating costs, and the threat of losing federal financing, as an invitation to consider alternatives to the streetcar. Instead, it made the streetcar appear to cost less than $250 million by shifting various streetcar components to other projects. For example, streetcar stations were moved into the county’s “Superstops” project, and most utility work was budgeted under “other projects either currently in construction, or proposed to be constructed prior to commencement of [the] Streetcar Project.”
While this shell game was underway, the planning and engineering firm AECOM was preparing an “alternatives analysis.” In theory, such analyses assess multiple transit options, helping officials choose the best one. But the board had already approved the streetcar years before, and AECOM has a longstanding and lucrative business relationship with the county. Last year, the AECOM study recommended the streetcar, even though it found that an enhanced bus system would carry virtually the same number of passengers, cost roughly one-fifth as much to build, and cost millions less to operate.
The county also released a return-on-investment study in June 2012. Unfortunately, that study was limited to the streetcar and did not evaluate the potential return-on-investment of other options. Would doing so have contradicted the county’s carefully constructed narrative in favor of the streetcar? Quite possibly. A recent study by the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy found that, dollar for dollar, bus rapid transit generally is a better investment than streetcars or light rail.
Once this paper trail was complete, the board approved the streetcar again and submitted its Small Starts grant application. It was promptly rejected, because the FTA found that the streetcar’s true cost could be as high as $400 million.
In a rational world, the county would reassess, especially in light of the barrage of negative attention surrounding the $1 million it spent on the first “Superstop.” But the board, with the exception of Libby Garvey, appears blind to the growing pile of red flags.
For example, the board approved an additional $1 million contract to AECOM for more streetcar planning. Most recently, the board awarded a contract to update its streetcar return-on-investment analysis. Although the contractor is now required to consider streetcar alternatives, County Board Chair Walter Tejada has declared that the streetcar will move forward regardless of the update’s conclusions. Moreover, the contract specifically states that the consultant will not be paid unless the county approves its work product. Given this veto power, the views of a majority of the board and the history of prebaked studies, I have a hunch the streetcar will come out smelling like a rose.
Citizens deserve honest, independent cost estimates and analyses. They also deserve elected officials who are capable of reevaluating when promises and expectations prove to be wildly off the mark. Until this happens, we will continue wasting public transit resources by spending too much and accomplishing too little.
The writer, an attorney and private transportation consultant, is a member of Arlingtonians for Sensible Transit. From 1994 to 1998, he served in the U.S. Transportation Department, including as director of the Office of Policy and Program Support in the Research and Special Programs Administration.
Published in the Georgia Public Policy Foundtion, Friday Facts, August 2, 2013
Off-track math: San Diego’s SPRINTER light rail system has turned 5. It serves 15 stations on a 22-mile route. According to Metro Magazine’s April 2013 edition, “The rail line has seen record-breaking ridership in recent months, with averages of over 10,000 passengers per weekday.” Record-breaking? According to a 2007 press release, “The SPRINTER is projected to transport more than 11,000 passengers per day at the end of the first year of service.” Meanwhile, the 12-train system resumed service in May 2013 after accelerated brake wear shut down the system for more than two months.
Other people’s money: The environmental impact statement for the Purple Line light rail proposed for Maryland suburbs predicts that the line will increase congestion, use more energy than the cars it takes off the road, and cost $22 million more per year to operate and maintain than a bus-rapid transit line. The federal government funded the project anyway. Source: American Dream Coalition
Less if by bus: A new study prepared for the American Bus Association Foundation, Taxpayers for Common Sense, and the Reason Foundation reveals lower consumer and taxpayer costs and reduced emissions associated with motorcoach travel as compared with Amtrak’s rail system. It found that motorcoach travel is either more effective or on par with Amtrak, but at a fraction of the cost and with little to no public subsidy. Source: Metro Express
November 18th, 2013
COST Commentary: The article below is one of the best written and most concise we have seen regarding the false promises of rail transit to provide efficient transportation and improve people’s economic prospects. Rail transit has all the major shortcomings discussed in the article below and is very outdated for most new applications.
This article’s author, Joel Kotkin, addresses several points specifically to the “Bay Area Plan” in California. The points are valid for any similar plan in the U.S., including Austin’s.
Perhaps the one very significant area not addressed in this article is the wave of glamorized impact of rail transit on development and tax revenue increases near stations. Many years of rail experience has essentially debunked modern rail’s original major impetuses: Reduced highway congestion, reduced air pollution and cost-effectiveness. As these advertised qualities have been discredited, many supporters have turned to “economic development” as the new leading support banner. There is a wealth of study and experience which verifies this to be a sham much as the other promoted benefits of rail transit, as discussed below.
The summary economic development “story” is somewhat straight forward. The vast majority of people do not move to an area because rail transit is available. They move to an area to find opportunity as usually demonstrated by the availability or promise of good jobs. If rail transit exists, a small number may choose to live near it. If there is no rail transit, they will live somewhere else. The bottom-line is that home building and new business, health, education, entertainment, etc. supporting new people will locate near customers and are not incremental development resulting in tax increases for the region due to the train. A train may influence a small number of people in their location choice. Therefore, incremental tax funding as proposed by Lone Star Rail on its “Investment Road Show” visits to all local communities is not additional money and sharing it with Lone Star Rail or any other such scheme, will only serve to increase citizens’ taxes to subsidize trains or reduce basic services provided by local governments.
It is troubling that Lone Star Rail District (Austin-San Antonio Commuter Rail) management is pleading for an agreement, with local Austin-San Antonio corridor governments, to share tax revenue increases within a half-mile of train stations with Lone Star on a 50/50 basis. Lone Star is not operating with transparency and has not revealed its detailed financial plan for the project including schedules, estimated capital costs, operating costs and ridership, with the proposed cost share for each local government entity. Lone Star basically wants a deal without revealing key elements of the plan. It is not surprising, many years and millions spent on the plan has not produced an acceptable roadmap with costs for such major elements as: 1) moving the Union Pacific Railroad to a new rail east of I-35, 2) determining the total capital cost and developed a viable plan to pay for it, 3) determining the operating costs and a viable plan to pay for it, 4) determining how much each local government entity would be required to subsidize the operations, 5) determining the fare for riders, 6) determining the cost-effectiveness and, therefore, sustainability of the rail line. Funding viability is paramount recognizing the 50% portion of rail funding, assumed to be coming from the Federal Government, is by no means assured. There are 10 times the, maybe, available Federal dollars being requested throughout the country.
There are no commuter trains in the U.S., similar to the Lone Star Rail, which are financially sound and Lone Star has not revealed a comparable model system of success which they hope to emulate.
These open project definitions and funding issues as well as numerous others, should have been addressed already and, certainly, prior to soliciting funding commitments from local governments, who must have high assurance of their required level of commitment. This is an extremely high risk rail venture with every indication of a very negative outcome. In all likelihood, it will take many years longer than being advertised and local governments could lose huge amounts of taxpayer funds requiring higher taxes or reduced basic city services while receiving miniscule, if any, benefit from this project.
Project Connect, a “committee” funded by Capital Metro, the City of Austin and the Lone Star Rail District just released a proposed route for Austin’s initial urban rail. More on this later. This route is different than all previously proposed rail routes, over many years. Each time a new group; Capital Metro, Austin City, citizen committees, Project Connect, political bodies, etc. have evaluated a route for the first urban rail, a different route is chosen. This is a flashing, red, warning light that Austin is an adolescent city and is continually changing. Rail is not flexible and is very expensive to move. It is clear, Austin should use very flexible cost-effective transit systems until its development patterns are more developed; prior to evaluating any form of expensive “fixed” transit. Based on continually developing experience, it is very unlikely, long outdated, rail technology will be chosen as the most cost-effective to meet the needs of our future transportation system.
The initial urban rail route, just recommenced by ‘Project Connect,’ seems to be very ill-advised. Its route is a short 4.5 miles north of the city center to the old Highland Mall area and 3 miles south to Riverside and Pleasant Valley road: Current discussions are to limit the first segment the northern portion for a “starter” segment which makes even less sense with wasteful spending of $500 million (about $100 million per mile) of taxpayer funds. This Billion Plus dollar system would serve a very small community of people in two areas which are still in their early development stages. This will assure anemic ridership, requiring huge tax subsidies, for a very long time and it will never be cost effective. It almost appears this route selection is based on an attempt to “fix” transit shortcomings of Cap Metro’s Red Line Commuter; primarily the Red Line does not provide convenient, direct access to UT and the major employment sections of downtown Austin, without transit transfers. This proposed urban rail route would connect to the Red line at Highland and bring riders through UT to downtown Austin. Urban rail is a very expensive transit, shuttle service, especially for the meager ridership of the Red Line.
The following COST posting contains Mayor Leffingwell’s lists of urban rail questions, established 2 ½ years ago, required to be answered prior to proceeding with rail. Also contained are a list of additional key questions by the Austin Chamber of Commerce and by COST.
Austin’s Urban Rail has Many Unanswered Questions
None of these key questions have been answered to this date. The election was previously planned, but not conducted, for 2008, 2010, 2011 and 2012, all with different routes and similar unanswered key questions.
This entire new urban plan needs a thorough evaluation of alternatives which could take two years. A 2014 election is not responsible as key questions cannot be adequately answered prior to city’s projected urban rail election, less than 12 months from now. Issues include: 1) the lack of firm cost estimates, 2) the lack of credible ridership estimates, 3) it will have zero impact on congestion, air pollution and economic development, 4) it is not an effective way to spend a Billion dollars of taxpayer funds, 5) there are no viable ways to fund this project and its operation without higher taxes, 6) it will degrade overall transportation by using a huge, disproportionate share of funds and starving more effective mobility solutions, 7) it will increase taxes or reduce basic city services, 8.) it will degrade social equity by having a disproportionate negative impact on low income citizens, and, many other issues noted in “unanswered questions,” above
A statement made about a new, proposed high speed rail in Japan certainly applies to Austin’s proposed urban and commuter rail lines: “If you seriously take a look at its high cost and low demand, you’ll find it makes no business sense,” said Reijiro Hashiyama, a visiting professor at Chiba University of Commerce (Japan), who has argued against the project for years. Proposed Austin trains do not “make business sense” and in the broader context: They do not serve the greater societal good of citizens and community.
We have added a few comments in brackets [ ] and italicized below to supplement the article.
Thinking Outside the Rails on Transit
by Joel Kotkin, 09/23/2013, newgeography.com
To many in the transit business – that is, people who seek to profit from the development and growth of buses, trains and streetcars – Southern California is often seen as a paradise lost, a former bastion of streetcar lines that crossed the region and sparked much of its early development. Today, billions are being spent to revive the region’s transit legacy.
Like many old ideas that attract fashionable support, this idea, on its surface, is appealing. Yet, in reality, the focus on mass transit, however fashionable, represents part of an expensive, largely misguided and likely doomed attempt to re-engineer the region away from its long-established dispersed, multipolar and auto-dependent form.
Traditional transit works best when a large number of commuters work in a central district easily accessible by trains or buses. New York and Washington, D.C., where up to 20 percent of the regional workforces labor downtown (the central business district), are ideal for transit. Even in those metropolitan areas, however, the auto is king. [The average downtown employment in major U.S. cities is under 10% of their regional work force. In Austin, this is slightly higher, about 14%, due to the State Capital and UT but it is not 30% which has been reported by Lone Star Rail and various train supporters in the area, as they wish to emphasize the larger work force to support rail.]
In contrast, less than 3 percent of Southern Californians work in downtown Los Angeles. Overall, despite all the money sunk into new rail lines around the country, Americans’ transit commuting is overwhelmingly concentrated in a few older “legacy” cities. Altogether, 55 percent of transit work trips are to six core cities: New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Boston and Washington, and 60 percent of those commutes are to downtown.
In contrast, in the Los Angeles-Orange County region, barely 6 percent of workers take transit, one-fifth the rate in New York. Yet we’re a bunch of committed strap-hangers compared with Phoenix, Atlanta, Charlotte, N.C., and Dallas-Fort Worth, where, despite surfeits of new trains and streetcars, 2 percent or less of commuters use public transit. Even in Portland, Ore., widely proclaimed the exemplar of new urbanism and transit investment, the percentage of commuters taking transit is less today than in 1980. Portland is now contemplating cutbacks that could eventually eliminate up to 70 percent of its transit service.
[Austin region’s transit work commuting is about the middle of U.S. regions, outside the six legacy cities mentioned above, at 2.3% of total commuting. This has declined over the past dozen years as it has throughout most of the nation. Commuting is the most extensive use of transit as overall transit in the Austin region is less than 1% of total passenger miles traveled. In Austin, public transit is the 5th highest commute mode behind: drive alone; carpool; work at home and other.]
Imposing Past on Future
This miserable record reflects how trains, a largely 19th century technology, have limited utility in a contemporary setting. Indeed, the only way to make it work, planners insist, is if the population is moved from their low-density neighborhoods to high-density “pack and stack” areas near transit stops, while suburban businesses are dragooned to denser downtown locations. This is the essence of the recently approved Bay Area Plan.
Although these kinds of strategies have never materially reduced automobile use – the Bay Area Plan itself says automobile use will still increase by 18 percent over 30 years – the bureaucratic logic here is almost Stalinesque in the scope of its social-engineering ambitions. As Bay Area journalist and plan advocate John Wildermuth puts it, people know they should take transit but don’t because it’s very inconvenient. But by forcing three quarters of new residents into dense housing, some with no parking, he reasons, it then will be “easier for them to either give up their cars or, at least, use them a lot less.”
Yet getting people to change their way of life, as many central planners have discovered, is not as easy as it seems. The highly dispersed San Jose-Silicon Valley area, the economic epicenter of the Bay Area and worldwide information technology, has a commute trip market share barely a third of major metropolitan area average. Building “one of the longest” light rail systems in the United States in 50 years has barely moved the percentage of transit commuters over the past three decades.
What the Bay Area Plan will probably accomplish is to boost housing prices ever further out of reach, both in urban areas and in the suburbs. With new single-family development effectively all but banned, prices of homes in the Bay Area already are again rising far faster than the national average and now are approaching two and half times higher, based on income, than in competitor regions such as Salt Lake City, Phoenix, Dallas-Fort Worth, Austin, Tex., Houston or Raleigh, N.C.
Greens and their allies in the high-density housing lobby long have suggested that “peak oil” and rising prices will inevitably drive suburbanites out their cars. But, clearly, recent advances in U.S. oil and natural gas production may have already made this moot. Transit activists increasingly have focused on climate change to justify massive spending on expanding transit and forcing recalcitrant suburbanites from their cars.
This logic is largely based on the notion that suburbanites must travel greater distances to work. Yet, a study by McKinsey & Co. and the Conference Board found that – largely because of the impact of higher energy standards for cars forecast by the Department of Energy – sufficient greenhouse gas emission reductions can be achieved without reducing driving or necessitate “a shift to denser urban housing.”
The fundamental limitations of transit in dispersed cities further weakens environmentalists’ claim. Ridership on some transit systems is so sparse that cars are more energy efficient. Then, there’s the oft-mistaken assumption that higher-density housing will reduce congestion and travel. But in multipolar areas like Southern California, traffic congestion and resultant pollution generally becomes worse with higher density.
There may be other, more technologically savvy ways to reduce emissions and energy use. People have cut automobile use the past three years but their reduced travel is not showing up so much in transit usage, but, rather, is driven by other factors such as unemployment and the high price of gasoline.
But, arguably the biggest reduction can be traced to the rise of telecommuting. Over the past decade, the country added some 1.7 million telecommuters, almost twice the much-ballyhooed increase of 900,000 transit riders. In Southern California, the number of home-based workers grew 35 percent, three times the increase for transit usage. By 2020, according to projections from demographer Wendell Cox, telecommuting should pass transit, both nationally and in this region, in total numbers.
What About the Poor?
Perhaps the most compelling argument for transit stems from serving those populations – the poor, students, minorities – who often lack access to a private car. Yet, for workers in newer cities, public transit often is not an effective alternative. Brookings Institution research indicates that less than 5 percent of the jobs in the Los Angeles and Riverside-San Bernardino areas are within reach of the average employee within 45 minutes, using transit. The figure is less than 10 percent in the San Jose metropolitan area, the same percentage as for cities nationwide. Moreover, 36 percent of entry-level jobs are completely inaccessible by public transit.
Not surprisingly, roughly three in four poorer workers use cars to get to work. Recent work by University of Southern California researcher Jeff Khau finds that car ownership is positively correlated with job opportunities; no such relationship can be proven with access to transit.
At the same time, we should look at more-flexible systems, notably, expanded bus and bus rapid transit, which work better in dispersed areas and are less costly. Most rail systems tend to cannibalize most of their riders from existing bus lines, which explains the small net increases in total transit ridership.
Transit too expensive
Costs matter, and will become more important as cities and counties face the looming threat of fiscal defaults. In this respect, rail systems essentially steal from other transit – notably, the buses used mostly by the poor – and from hard-pressed city and county general-fund budgets. Gov. Jerry Brown’s outrageously expensive high-speed rail, which will principally serve the affluent, takes this unfairness to an extreme.
Instead, we should push far more cost-effective ways to provide transportation options, including those from the private sector, such as the successful Megabus, which provides efficient, quicker and far-less expensive transport between cities than either existing rail or short-haul airline flights. [Megabus routes from Austin to San Antonio are much cheaper than the proposed train, just as comfortable and schedules are comparable..] USC’s Khau suggests the private sector also could enhance solutions for lower-income commuters through car loans and car-sharing services such as ZipCar and Lyft, a mobile app that links riders with drivers.
As we attempt to figure out ways to improve both the environment and people’s economic prospects, innovative 21st century solutions – from telecommuting to car-sharing – may prove more effective than relying on the 19th century technology of rail. We should not blindly follow transit ideology but focus on how to improve people’s mobility in ways other than the overpriced, inefficient and often far-less-equitable solutions being bandied about today.
Joel Kotkin is executive editor of NewGeography.com and Distinguished Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University, and a member of the editorial board of the Orange County Register. He is author of The City: A Global History and The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050. His most recent study, The Rise of Postfamilialism, has been widely discussed and distributed internationally. He lives in Los Angeles, CA.
This piece originally appeared at The Orange County Register.
November 13th, 2013
COST Commentary: The article below is filled with additional, data-rich confirmations of many, long-held COST positions relative to transportation and mobility. The article below by Wendell Cox is based on congestion study work conducted by the Texas Transportation Institute (TTI) covering U.S. urban areas over the past 30 years. TTI’s traffic congestion ratings were adopted internationally. INRIX, a Seattle based automobile navigation services company was first, providing virtually the same measure for urban areas in North America and Western Europe. More recently, ‘Tom Tom’, an Amsterdam based automobile navigation services company issued its ‘TomTom’ Traffic Index, providing the most comprehensive international coverage, adding Australia, South Africa and New Zealand.
These analytical, congestion studies and observations throughout the “Higher Income World” provide significant insights into the negative impacts of numerous Austin transportation and land planning policies and approaches which are justified with shallow, unsupported and incorrect, foundation assumptions. Among others, these include:
1. Myth: “There is no point in expanding roadways because they will only be filled up by new traffic.”
Reality: “In fact the TTI data, which measures at the comprehensive urban area level (and the only reliable level), says we can.”
We see an example of this in the Austin region. For many years, Austin did not improve its roadway system to meet the needs of its major growth in population. The TTI travel time index indicated increasing congestion over more than 20 years through 2005. Then, congestion began to decrease as a number of highway improvements were implemented including new roads, expanded roads and new intersections. Major improvements now in process on U.S. 290 East and lesser improvements being implemented on SH 71 East and 290 West will improve East-West traffic. The expansion of MoPac has begun and should provide critically needed relief in this congested north-south corridor. This region continues to grow and further roadway improvements, to “catch-up and keep pace with population, will be needed such as the I-35 expansions being discussed and numerous others.
2. Myth: Higher population density will reduce traffic congestion.
Reality: “The TomTom traffic congestion rankings are further indication of the association between higher population densities and more intense traffic congestion.” Throughout the U.S. and other higher income countries, higher density has a strong correlation with higher congestion. The driving per person may be slightly lower for higher density living, but the higher density of people overwhelms this slight reduction in per capita driving, resulting in greater driving per area and increased congestion.
It is interesting to note the TomTom congestion index ranks Austin as less congested than more extensive U.S. transit cities with bus and rail, including: Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, San Jose, Washington, New York, Portland, Boston, Chicago, Miami, Denver and Houston. Austin is also less congested than all of the major Canadian cities, except Calgary, with their major rail transit.
Following is the partial abstract from a paper referenced in the last paragraph of the paper below: “It is often assumed that lower density cities have longer average work trip travel times and greater traffic congestion than more compact cities. This paper summarizes available data with regard to the association between urban densities and work trip travel times as well as between urban densities and the intensity of traffic congestion. The analysis indicates that higher urban densities are associated with both longer work trip travel times and greater traffic congestion. Because greater access is associated with more favorable urban economic outcomes, a greater focus on access seems advisable.”
3. Myth: Sprawl (lower density living and employment) results in greater congestion.
Reality: “Residents of the United States also benefit because employment is more dispersed, which tends to result in less urban core related traffic congestion. Lower density and employment dispersion are instrumental in the more modest traffic congestion of the United States, including such large urban areas as Dallas-Fort Worth (the fastest growing high income world metropolitan area with more than 5,000,000 population), Houston, Miami and even roadway deficient Atlanta.”
The Austin region has experienced reductions in driving per person over many years as the population and employment have grown rapidly and become more dispersed. This is very contrary to the promotion of most ‘higher density’ and ‘increased transit’ advocates. However, the reality is reasonably simple. Work commuting is less than 20 % of total driving. So, even if some work commutes are longer, the other 80% of driving is reduced because dispersion of living results in dispersion of supporting business, recreation, health care, education, etc. Today, total regional driving increases can be closely related to population growth percentage. An additional and major plus to “dispersion” is it provides higher quality of life for most due to increased affordability of homes.
The actual data, created by free citizens’ choices and actions, would indicate public policies resulting in: 1) spending huge, disproportionate amounts of tax dollars on public transit, 2) regulating, promoting and incentivizing developers to build higher density, 3) creating obstacles which increase congestion and other constraints to discourage the convenience of automobile use, and, 4) implementing regulatory constraints to citizens’ choices of achieving their desired and deserved quality of life through “free” selection of affordable housing; are contrary to the greater good of the Austin region and will result in the degradation of citizens’ quality of life and Austin as a world-class city.
NEW ZEALAND HAS WORST TRAFFIC: INTERNATIONAL DATA
by Wendell Cox 11/13/2013 in newgeography.com
Three decades ago, the Texas Transportation Institute (TTI) at Texas A&M University began a ground-breaking project to quantify traffic congestion levels in the larger urban areas of the United States. The Urban Mobility Report project was begun under Tim Lomax and David Shrank, who have led the project over the first 30 annual editions. Perhaps the most important contribution of this work to the state of transportation knowledge is TTI’s “travel time index,” which measures the extent to which peak period traffic congestion as to travel times.
Of Highway Expansion and Maternity Wards
The TTI data has been invaluable. One important contribution has exposed a fallacious interpretation of the “induced traffic” effect, which holds that there is no point in expanding roadways because they will only be filled up by new traffic. As if more maternity wards would increase the birth rate, the argument goes that we “can’t build our way out of congestion.” In fact the TTI data, which measures at the comprehensive urban area level (and the only reliable level), says we can.
I recall a 1980s City Hall meeting with a Portland Commissioner, who admiringly cited Phoenix for not having built a Los Angeles style freeway system. I remarked that if there was anything worse than Los Angeles with its freeways, it would be Los Angeles without its freeways. Then, Phoenix was the 35th largest urban area in the nation, yet had the 10th worst traffic congestion. The situation soon was improved, after Phoenix voters authorized funding for the largest recent freeway expansion program and now Phoenix ranks 37th in traffic congestion, despite having more than doubled in population (now the 12th largest urban area).
The lesson repeated itself in traffic clogged Houston, which led Los Angeles in traffic congestion in three of the first four years of the Annual Mobility Report. Under the leadership of visionary Mayor Robert Lanier, freeway and arterial expansions were built, and Houston dropped to rank 10th in traffic congestion despite having since added more residents than live in Portland. Meanwhile, Portland, with its densification and anti-automobile policies has been vaulted from the 47th worst traffic congestion in 1985 to 6th worst in 2012, which is notable for the an urban area ranking on only 23rd in population.
Houston’s roadway expansions cleared the way for a Los Angeles run of 26 straight years as the nation’s most congested urban area, with little prospect of improvement.
The Travel Time Index Goes International
TTI’s traffic congestion ratings were adopted internationally. INRIX, a Seattle based automobile navigation services company was first, providing virtually the same measure for urban areas in North America and Western Europe. More recently, TomTom, an Amsterdam based automobile navigation services company issued its own TomTom Traffic Index, providing by far the most comprehensive international coverage, adding Australia, South Africa and New Zealand.
TomTom has just produced its results for the second quarter of 2013. Looking globally, Los Angeles does not look so bad; it didn’t even make the top 10 most congested, outpaced (or perhaps better: underpaced) by urban areas in Western Europe and Canada.
Higher Income World Urban Areas
TomTom produced data for 122 urban areas in the higher income United States, Western Europe, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. This included nearly all urban areas with more than 1,000,000 population, and some smaller. It might be expected that the “sprawl” of US urban areas, and their virtual universality of automobile ownership, as well as the paucity of transit ridership in most metropolitan areas would set the US to the nether world of worst traffic congestion. This is not so, and not by a long shot.
1. New Zealand: The trophy goes to, of all places, New Zealand (Figure 1). The average excess time spent in traffic in the three urban areas of New Zealand rated by Tom Tom was 31.3%. This means that the average trip that would take 30 minutes without congestion would take, on average, approximately 40 minutes in the three urban areas of New Zealand. This is stunning. New Zealand’s urban areas are very small. The largest, Auckland, has a population of approximately 1.3 million, which would rank it no higher than 25th in Western Europe, 35th in the United States and 4th in Canada and Australia. Christchurch and Wellington are among the smallest urban areas (less than 500,000 population) covered in the TomTom Traffic Index, but manage to rank among the 20 most congested (Figure 2). Christchurch has no freeways and Wellington’s are not long.
2. Australia: Second place is claimed by Australia. The average trip takes 27.5 percent longer in Australia because of traffic congestion. All five of Australia’s metropolitan areas with more than 1,000,000 population are among the 20 most congested urban areas in the higher income world. In the case of four urban areas (Sydney, Brisbane, Perth and Adelaide), every larger US urban area has less traffic congestion. Melbourne is the exception, but is still “punching well above its weight,” with worse traffic congestion than larger Chicago, Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, Toronto, Philadelphia, Miami, Atlanta, Washington, Riverside-San Bernardino and Boston.
3. Canada: Canada is the third most congested, with an excess travel time of 24.8 percent. Vancouver ranks as the third most congested urban area (36 percent excess travel time) in the higher income world, and has displaced Los Angeles as suffering the worst traffic congestion in North America. This is a notable accomplishment, since Los Angeles has more than five times the population, is more dense and only one-third as many of its commuters use transit to get to work. None of the other five largest urban areas in Canada (Toronto, Montréal, Ottawa, Edmonton and Calgary) is rated among the 20 most congested in the higher income world (Figure 3). Toronto is tied for 6th worst in North America with Washington (DC-VA-MD) and San Jose (Figure 4).
4. Western Europe: Fourth position in the congestion sweepstakes is occupied by Western Europe, where the excess travel time averages 22.2 percent. Marseille (France) and Palermo (Italy) are tied with the worst traffic congestion in the higher income world, with excess travel times of 40 percent. Excluding Christchurch and Wellington, Marseille and Palermo are among the smallest urban areas among the most congested 20, though their large and dense historic cores complicate travel patterns. Rome, Paris and Stockholm, all with strong transit commute shares, are tied with Vancouver for the second worst traffic congestion (36 percent excess travel time). Other Western European entries to the most congested 20 rankings are London, Nice and Lyon in France and Stuttgart, Hamburg and Berlin in Germany. Western Europe contributes only 11 of its 54 rated urban areas to the most congested 20 list (the most 20 most congested list includes 24 urban areas because of a five way tie for 19th).
Unlike New Zealand, Australia and Canada, Western Europe has representation in the 20 least congested urban areas (Figure 5), taking seven of the 22 positions (A three way tie at the top places increases the total to 22). The least congested urban area is Zaragoza in Spain (seven percent excess travel time), itself a small urban area of approximately 700,000, while similarly small Bern in Switzerland, Malaga in Spain and Malmo in Sweden are tied with four US urban areas in the second least congested position (10 percent excess travel time).
5. United States: The United States is the least congested in these rankings with an excess travel time of 18.3 percent. Even after losing its top North American ranking to Vancouver, Los Angeles continues to be the most congested urban area in the United States, with an excess travel time of 35 percent. San Francisco (32 percent), Seattle, and much smaller Honolulu (tied at 28 percent) are also in the most congested 20. Only four of the 53 rated US urban areas is in the most congested 20.
The US dominates the least congested 20 list, with 15 urban areas. Richmond, Kansas City, Cleveland and Indianapolis share the second least congested position with three Western European urban areas (10 percent excess travel time). Phoenix, which was formerly one of the most congested in the US, is also on the list, ranking as the 12th least congested in the higher income world and the 5th least congested urban area in North America.
Less Traffic Congestion: Lower Densities and Less Employment Concentration
The TomTom traffic congestion rankings are further indication of the association between higher population densities and more intense traffic congestion. But there is more to the story. Residents of the United States also benefit because employment is more dispersed, which tends to result in less urban core related traffic congestion. Lower density and employment dispersion are instrumental in the more modest traffic congestion of the United States, including such large urban areas as Dallas-Fort Worth (the fastest growing high income world metropolitan area with more than 5,000,000 population), Houston, Miami and even roadway deficient Atlanta.
Wendell Cox is a Visiting Professor, Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers, Paris and the author of “War on the Dream: How Anti-Sprawl Policy Threatens the Quality of Life.”
November 11th, 2013
Most of the recent flurry of reports suggesting changing trends and projecting reduced single vehicle driving are essentially dispelled by the recently released Census Bureau’s 2012 American Community Survey estimates. The seizing of short term trends by factions to support their preferred projections of long term changes is a regular occurrence and almost never substantiated.
Two COST postings regarding myth trends in reduced driving:
Baby Boomers Return to the City is a Myth.
Millennial Generation choices are not fundamental changes in America’s future driving and living.
As reported in the U.S. News article below, commuting trends were interrupted slightly by the recession, but, have returned to their former status and the “Drive Alone” commuting mode percentage is approaching its all-time high of 76% (counting “Worked at Home” people) in 2005. Austin’s ‘Drive Alone’ percentage is the same as the national average of 76%. Nationwide, ‘Drive Alone’ is 79.8% of those actually leaving home for work. In Austin, 81.2% of those leaving home for the work commute are single drivers.
This increasing “drive alone’ trend is further described is a recent article by Wendell Cox on newgeography.com: DRIVING ALONE DOMINATES 2007-2012 COMMUTING TREND
‘Worked at Home’ remains the fastest growing commute mode; its nationwide 4.4% has more than doubled since 1980. Excluding New York, ‘Worked at Home’ percentage has surpassed public transit commuting throughout the rest of the nation. U.S. public transit, total work commuting of 5%, is significantly influenced by the fact that 55 percent of all U.S. transit work trips are to six core cities: New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Boston and Washington, and 60 percent of those commutes are to downtown. Austin’s public transit use of 2.3% for work commuting is more consistent with the nation outside these six, older cities. Austin’s 2.3% commute use results in an overall transit use of less than 1% of the region’s passenger miles traveled.
In the Austin region, ‘Worked at Home’ has reached 6.4 % which is 45% higher than the total nation and is 2.8 times the use of Austin public transit for commuting. This means ‘Worked at Home’ has taken many times the number of commute vehicles off Austin’s roadways than has the spending of billions of tax dollars on public transit. The ‘Worked at Home’ group has a much greater impact on reducing ‘single driver’ vehicles because a large portion of this group has a vehicle, whereas, a large portion of public transit riders do not have access to a vehicle and cannot be single drivers. This work at home trend could, perhaps, benefit from public policy/investment which has proven ineffective relative to public transit.
Along with Austin’s very small transit use and many continuing years of decline in the overall use of public transit, these 2012 commuter mode data highlight the question: What cost-effective benefits do the citizens of Austin achieve by elected leaders continuing to massively and disproportionately allocate tax dollars to the small, transit portion of overall transportation which serves a declining number of so few citizens?
The current transit public policy will result in higher taxes for citizens and redirects a major portion of finite transportation dollars from citizens’ preferences, as the vast majority have demonstrated by their choices and actions. This results in degrading overall mobility with increasing congestion and reducing citizens’ quality of life. Perhaps more importantly, this reallocation of funds to exorbitantly expensive, ineffective rail transit degrades transit service for those who have no alternative by reducing bus service and increasing fares. This is not consistent with our commitment to social equity. In the longer run, this policy of creating greater downtown inconvenience will likely degrade central Austin as an attractive place for citizens to live, enjoy and work.
Other commute modes are largely unchanged nationwide, or have dropped in use: Carpooling has dropped more than 50% since 1980 to 9.7% of commuting in 2012. Public transit commuting has dropped just over 20% since 1980 to 5% of commuting in 2012. Austin carpooling of 11% is slightly above the national percentage in 2012 even though Austin has not encouraged carpooling with HOV or managed lanes.
Commuter’s find car-pooling and public transit modes are not as convenient and effective as private vehicles. It is this convenience in meeting individual needs which drives overall trends and not the often stated “love of the automobile.” Convenience, not love, is reflected in the use of modern “conveniences” including refrigerators, micro-waves, cell phones and many others.
One “bottom line” is: Austin could spend billions of dollars and if it achieved a, probably impossible, doubling, or even tripling, of transit ridership, it would have little impact on overall transportation. This level of increase in public transit has never been achieved in modern times. Meanwhile, this would starve the funding for the transportation system serving 96+% of the citizens’ trips.
Austin is near the national average for similar cities and very close to the average public transit commute percentage for both Dallas and Houston; even though Austin has spent substantially less than Dallas and Houston have spent for their high cost rail systems. After spending many billions of dollars to encourage transit ridership, the sum of Dallas and Houston transit ridership is much less today than it was a dozen years ago.
I have inserted the Austin region census data in the article below, italicized in parenthesis ( ). Also, shown in brackets [ ] are the actual census numbers which have been rounded by the articles author and clarifications for the reader’s benefit.
More Commuters Go It Alone
Americans Increasingly Go Solo or Work From Home; Carpooling Now Below 10%
By Neil Shah, Updated Nov. 4, 2013 6:51 p.m. ET, Wall Street Jolurnal, US News
American commuters prefer to go it alone—mostly by driving to the office, but increasingly by working from home.
Last year, about 76% [Actual 76.3%] (Austin region is %76%) of workers 16 years and older drove to work alone—just shy of the all-time peak of 77% in 2005, according to data from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. Driving alone dipped slightly during the recession, but it has been ticking back up as the economy revives.
Meanwhile, just about every other way of getting to work has either languished or declined. Carpooling has tanked—falling from about 20% in 1980, when gasoline prices were soaring from the oil shock of the late 1970s, to under 10% [Actual 9.7%] (Austin region is 11%) in 2012. Public transportation accounted for just over 6% of daily commutes in 1980 and is now 5% (Austin region is 2.3%). A category the Census calls “other means”—which includes biking—stands at 2% [1.8%] (Austin region is 2.2%), largely unchanged over the past decade. [“Worked at home” is 4.4 %, discussed below, and “Walking” at 2.8 % are the remaining segments.]
These commuting trends come despite efforts to get people to use public transportation or other alternatives. And a variety of forces are coming together to ensure that Americans continue to seek out lonely commutes—and the numbers could grow.
Tim Anson, 35 years old, an architect in Birmingham, Ala., is one of America’s solo commuters. He drives about 25 minutes to work—roughly the national average—from his home near downtown to an office park in a suburb south of the city.
He says he has no viable or appealing alternative. “Biking would be practically impossible,” he said. While he recently helped a colleague with car trouble get to work, he generally thinks carpooling means less freedom. “If you’re carpooling with someone, you find yourself on someone else’s schedule,” he said.
The only area of commuting that has seen clear growth is working from home—which has doubled to 4% [actual 4.4%] (Austin region is 6.6%), up from 2% in 1980. Technological advances are making it easier to work from home, sparking a debate among business executives, especially in tech centers, over the benefits of telecommuting. Yahoo Inc. Chief Executive Marissa Mayer created a stir earlier this year when she ended the firm’s work-from-home arrangements.
“It used to be, 30 years ago, to work from home, you had to take something like a 20% wage cut, all else equal. Now that wage cut has vanished,” said Nicholas Bloom, an economics professor at Stanford University.
James DeMichele, 33, a software developer in Austin, Texas, has worked from home for four years, and stays in touch with the office via Skype. He misses the “social aspect” of being in an office and says it’s useful to be face to face with colleagues when planning projects. But at other times, “being at home is really useful in terms of being productive,” he said.
And there’s another advantage: Mr. DeMichele and his wife had a daughter earlier this year. “Having the flexibility of being able to watch after her is really good, too,” Mr. DeMichele said.
The share of Americans driving to work has always been high—climbing steadily from roughly 64% in 1960, when the Census began tracking commuting—and various demographic forces could ensure that it stays high or even rises further.
More older Americans are working past retirement, which can mean more car commutes or work-from-home arrangements. And car use among lower-income Americans and minorities has generally been rising, according to Mark Mather of the Population Reference Bureau, a nonprofit demographic research group. For instance, the share of black U.S. workers driving to jobs hit 71% in 2010, up from 66% in 2000, census data show.
At the same time, work and home are, for many people, getting farther apart geographically. That trend makes cars, which offer more flexibility, more attractive to commuters. Plus, around 45% of American households have no access to public transportation.
To be sure, national and even state trends can mask changes in cities. Alabama’s share of solo drivers has risen from 83% in 2008 to over 85% in 2012—the highest in the country. Meanwhile, New York, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C., have seen decreases in their shares of workers driving alone, and increases in the use of mass transit, biking and working from home, census data show.
America’s commuting patterns are a politically sensitive issue due to rising concerns about the nation’s obesity rates and the environment. Mass transit, carpooling, biking and walking have been touted by advocates as ways to build civic camaraderie, make Americans healthier and preserve the environment.
But others say the nation’s love affair with cars—and the growing trend of home workers—simply reflects the changing way Americans work and live, from the rise of two-worker households in recent decades to the fact that attractive jobs, homes and schools are often farther away from each other rather than clustered together in old-style urban neighborhoods.
Many people “relish the time to be alone,” said Alan Pisarski, a transportation consultant and author of “Commuting in America,” a series of commuting studies for the Transportation Research Board, part of the National Research Council.
Workers, especially younger ones, increasingly mix their commuting modes—driving alone one day, but then taking the bus or biking the next, said Peter Varga, chairman of the American Public Transportation Association.
Tracy Sunderland, a professor in Boise, Idaho, recently got a bicycle and uses it to get to work sometimes. “I ride it to work when I can—not as much as I should,” she said. “Sometimes I’m prepping for class right until I have to be there.” More often, the 48-year-old relies on her 1997 Nissan Pathfinder, since the city’s buses run infrequently. Driving, she said, is generally more convenient. “Like a lot of Western cities, Boise sprawls.”
September 22nd, 2013
COST Commentary: Promoters support increased living density and rail transit with directly related and often the same reasoning. This article highlights many of the misleading and false justifications for increased density and rail transit. This web site addresses density and train transit from several additional perspectives which are related to health and happiness which are not emphasized in this article, including: increased congestion, increased housing costs, higher taxes, degraded overall transit, disproportionate negative impact on lower income citizens, decreased safety and others. Just click on ‘News Articles” and browse the titles.
Health, Happiness, and Density
by Tony Recsei 09/19/2013, newgeography.com
The proponents of currently fashionable planning doctrines favouring density promulgate a variety of baseless assertions to support their beliefs. These doctrines, which they group under the label of “Smart Growth”, claim, among other things, that from a health and sustainability perspective, the need to increase population densities is imperative.
With regard to health these high-density advocates have seized upon the obesity epidemic as a reason to advocate squeezing the population into high-density. This is based on a supposition that living in higher densities promotes greater physical activity and thus lower levels of obesity. They quote studies(1) that show associations between suburban living and higher weight with its adverse health implications. But the weight differences found are minor – in the region of 1 to 3 pounds. Nor do the studies show it is suburban living that has caused this.
The suburbs, after all, have been with us for 70 years and reached its mature development over 40 years ago. Obesity, on the other hand, is a much more recent (2) phenomenon and is primarily due to people eating too much (3) fattening food.
Less discussed, however, are other facets to human health and it is important to consider the results of research on the association with high-density living of mental illness, children’s health, respiratory dsease, heart attacks, cancer and human happiness.
A significant health issue relates to the scourge of Mental Illness. There is convincing evidence showing adverse mental health consequences from increasing density.
A monumental Swedish study (4) of over four million Swedes examined whether a high level of urbanisation (which correlates with density) is associated with an increased risk of developing psychosis and depression. Adjustments were made to cater for individual demographic and socio-economic characteristics. It was found that the rates for psychosis (such as the major brain disorder schizophrenia) were 70% greater for the denser areas. There was also a 16% greater risk of developing depression. The paper discusses various reasons for this finding but the conclusion states: “A high level of urbanisation is associated with increased risk of psychosis and depression”.
Another analysis, in the prestigious journal Nature (5), discusses urban neural social stress. It states that the incidence of schizophrenia is twice as high in cities. Brain area activity differences associated with urbanisation have been found. There is evidence of a dose-response relationship that probably reflects causation.
There are adverse mental (and other) health consequences resulting from an absence of green space. After allowing for demographic and socio-economic characteristics, a study (6) of three hundred and fifty thousand people in Holland found that the prevalence of depression and anxiety was significantly greater for those living in areas with only 10% green space in their surroundings compared to those with 90% green space.
High-density advocates seem most oblivious to the needs of children. Living in high-density restricts children’s physical activity, independent mobility and active play. Many studies find that child development, mental health and physical health are affected. They also find a likely association of high-rise living with behavioural problems.
An Australian study (7) of bringing up young children in apartments emphasizes resulting activities that are sedentary. It notes there is a lack of safe active play space outside the home – many parks and other public open spaces offer poor security. Frustrated young children falling(8) out of apartment windows can be a tragic consequence. Children enter school with poorly developed social and motor skills (9). Girls living in high-rise buildings are prone to increased levels of overweight and obesity (10).
A British study (11) found that 93% of children living in centrally located high-rise flats had behavioural problems and that this percentage was higher than for children living in lower density dwellings. Anti-social behaviour often results. An Austrian study (12) showed disturbances in classroom behaviour higher for children living in multiple-dwelling units compared to those living in lower densities.
There is also evidence of other potential health impacts on children living in higher density housing. These include short-sightedness (13) due to restricted length of vision, and diminished auditory discrimination (14) and reading ability due to exposure to noise.
Air pollution (15) increases with density. This results from higher traffic densities together with less volume of air being available for dilution and dispersion. Nitrogen oxides (16) in this pollution have adverse respiratory effects including airway inflammation in healthy people and increased respiratory symptoms in people with asthma. There is consistent evidence that proximity to busy roads, high traffic density and increased exposure to pollution are linked to a range of respiratory conditions. These can range from severe conditions (such as a higher incidence of death) to minor irritations. Moreover, these respiratory health impacts affect all age groups.
Several studies relate low birth weight to air pollution. A South Korean report (17), for example, found the pollutants carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, and total suspended particle concentrations in the first trimester of pregnancy pose significant risk factors for low birth weight.
Air pollution particulates (18) are associated with killing more people than traffic accidents (19). Pollutants such as those emitted by vehicles are significantly associated with an increase in the risk of heart attacks (20) and early death (21).
Cancer (22) is a major health scourge and a relationship between increased colon cancer, breast cancer and total cancer mortality with population density has been found.
There is an association between overall Human Happiness and density. Professor Cummins’ Australian Unity Wellbeing Index (23) reports that the happiest electorates have a lower population density. A United States study (24) finds the satisfaction of older adults living in higher density social housing reduces as building height increases and as the number of units increases. By contrast, in lower densities there are higher friendship scores, greater housing satisfaction, and more active participation. This does not apply only to single family houses: Residents of garden apartments have a greater sense of community (19) than residents of high-rise dwellings.
An example of misinformation on this issue can be found in R.D. Putnam’s famous book “Bowling Alone” (20). Putnam states that “suburbanisation, commuting and sprawl” have contributed to the decline in social engagement and social capital. However I have shown that data from charts in his book indicate quite the opposite (21):
Adapted from Figure 50, Putnam R D, Bowling Alone, Simon & Schuster, New York, 2000
This shows that involvement in these social activities are more common in the suburbs than in the denser centres of cities (and that they become more common as the community size and density decreases).
Community contentment relating to the density of surroundings is revealed by a study in New Zealand (22) that asked people if the type of area they would most prefer to live in is similar to the area they currently live in. The responses are shown in this table.
So 90% of rural residents would prefer an area similar to their current area but only 64% of central city dwellers would prefer an area similar to their current surroundings. It can be seen that satisfaction decreases as density increases.
Thus evidence from a variety of sources points to greater human happiness and better health in lower densities — the exact opposite of the theories of the advocates for “cramming” people into ever small places.
(Dr) Tony Recsei has a background in chemistry and is an environmental consultant. Since retiring he has taken an interest in community affairs and is president of the Save Our Suburbs community group which opposes over-development forced onto communities by the New South Wales State Government.
1. Direct web access in article.
2. Direct web access in article.
3. Direct web access in article.
4. Sundquist, K., Golin, F., Sundquist, J., Urbanisation and incidence of psychosis and depression, British Journal of Psychiatry (2004), 184, 293-298.
5. Lederborgen, F. et al. 2011. City living and urban upbringing affect neural social stress processing in humans. Nature 474, 489-501, 23 June 2011
6. Maas J, Verhej RA, de Vries S et al. J Epidemiol Community Health published online 15 Oct 2009
7. Randolph B. 2006. Children in the Compact City. Fairfield B, (Sydney) as a suburban case study, University of NSW, Paper Commissioned by the Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth, October 2006
8. Direct web access in article.
9. Randolph B. 2006. Children in the Compact City. Fairfield B, (Sydney) as a suburban case study, University of NSW, Paper Commissioned by the Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth, October 2006
10. Robertson-Wilson J., B. Giles-Corti. 2010. Walkabilility, neighbourhood design, and obesity. In: T. Townsen, S. Alvanides, A. Lake, editors. Obesogenic environments: complexities, perceptions and objective measures UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010
Lazarou C., D.B. Panagiotakos, G. Panayiotou, A.L. Matalas. 2008. Overweight and obesity in preadolescent children and their parents in Cyprus: prevalence and associated socio-demographic factors the CYKIDS study. Obes Rev 2008; 9(3):185-193
11. Evans G. W., P. Lercher, W.W. Kofler. 2002. Crowding and children’s mental health: the role of house type. J Environ Psychol 2002; 22(3):221-231
12. Ineichen B., D. Hooper. 1974. Wives’ mental health and children’s behaviour problems in contrasting residential areas. Soc Sci Med 1974; 8(6):369-374.
13. Ip J., K. Rose, I. Morgan, G. Burlutsky, P. Mitchell. 2008. Myopia and the urban environment: findings in a sample of 12-year-old Australian school children. Investigative Ophthalmology Vis Sci 2008; 49(9):3858-3863.
14. Lercher P., G.W. Evans, M. Meis, W.W. Kofler. 2002. Ambient neighbourhood noise and children’s mental health. Occup Environ Med 2002; 59(6):380-386
Cohen S., D.C. Glass, J.E. Singer. 1973. Apartment noise, auditory discrimination, and reading ability in children. J Exp Soc Psychol 1973; 9(5):407-422
15. Direct web access in article.
16. Direct web access in article.
17. Eun-Hee Ha, Yun-Chul Hong, Bo-Eun Lee, Bock-Hi Woo, J. Schwartz, D.C. Christiani. 2001
Is Air Pollution a Risk Factor for Low Birth Weight in Seoul? Epidemiology Vol. 12, No. 6 (Nov., 2001), pp. 643-648
18. USEPA, Air Quality Criteria for Particulate Matter. 2002. US EPA/600/P-99/002aC, April 2002, Third External Review Draft, Volume II, page 284.
19. for the number of traffic accidents see US Bureau of the Census, Statistical Abstracts of the United States, 1999 which gives the number of traffic accidents as 42,400
20. Mustafić, H. et al. 2012. Main Air Pollutants and Myocardial Infarction. Journal of American Medical Association 2012;307(7):713-721, 15 Feb 2012
21. Yim, F.H.S., S.R.H. Barrett. 2012. Public Health Impacts of Combustion Emissions in the United Kingdom. Environ. Sci. Technol., 2012, 46 (8), pp 4291–4296, 21 March 2012
22. Giles-Corti, B., K. Ryan, S. Foster. 2012. Increasing density in Australia: maximising the health benefits and minimising harm, Heart Foundation, March 2012, p8
23. Cummins R.A. 2006. Australian Unity Wellbeing Index. School of Psychology, Deakin University, 2006
24. Lawton M.P., L. Nahemow, J. Teaff. 1975. Housing characteristics and the well-being of elderly tenants in federally assisted housing. J Gerontol 1975; 30(5):601-607
25. Zaff J., A.S. Devlin. 1998. Sense of community in housing for the elderly. J Community Psychol 1998; 26(4):381-398.
26. Putnam R.D. 2000. Bowling Alone, Simon and Schuster, New York, 2000, p. 283
27 Recsei T. 2005. Pipe dreams: the shortcomings of ideologically based planning. People and Place, Vol. 13 no. 2, 2005, pp 77-78.
28. UMR Omnibus Results, UMR Research, Wellington, March 2009
September 11th, 2013
COST Commentary: As indicated in the article below which is supported by official US census data, the widespread reporting of a major movement of Baby Boomers to city urban cores is an unsupported myth. Austin, other cities and major organizations with biased, ideological agendas have been quick to report this myth to the point that it is almost viral.
This myth relates directly to transportation as a major portion of those who have embraced this myth are using it to justify a wave of recommended transportation actions, predominately increased urban rail transit.
Much to the chagrin of Austin elected officials and those supporting urban rail, overwhelming extensive evidence is compiling which indicates urban rail transit does not achieve its major stated purposes of reduced congestion and improved air quality. These are discussed in numerous articles posted on this site. This disappointment has driven many rail supporters to search for new, more subjective justifications for rail. These justifications include the myths of increased economic development and the changing priorities of various population segments such as this one concerning Baby Boomers.
An earlier COST site post addresses recent and widely promoted myths regarding changing behavior patterns: Millennial Generation choices are not fundamental changes in America’s future driving and living.
These myths are all false rationales for sweeping urban planning changes to higher densities and to urban rail, specifically, which has proven for many years and in many cities to be an ineffective transit mode which burdens taxpayers with higher taxes and no measurable benefit while also placing increased burdens on low income, transit dependent citizens by increasing fares and reducing transit’s backbone bus systems which a vast majority of transit dependent citizens ride and have no alternative.
Clearly, the cost-effective, sustainable transit solution is to provide more efficient bus transit through the use of Bus Rapid Transit and Express buses, maximizing the use of freeways, toll ways and managed lanes, while providing flexible, variable-sized, demand-response vehicles to serve a far greater segment of the population with more rapid service which provides access to a much greater percentage of the region. High cost, inflexible urban rail can never do this and is not sustainable.
We must maintain perspective and balance in the allocation of limited taxpayer transportation funds in order to most effectively serve the entire community. Transit is of vital importance as are many citizens’ services. However transit serves less than one percent of all passenger miles traveled in the region, is the fourth mode of ‘commuting to work’ behind private vehicles, car pools, work at home, and other. Commuting is the highest use of transit. Current planning to allocate almost 50% of the region’s transportation dollars to transit to support this miniscule portion of trips will result in major degradation of the entire transportation system. Roadways are used for 99 plus percent of all trips: transit, private vehicle (motorized and bicycle), commercial, emergency, etc. We must be more creative with cost-effective, sustainable transit solutions and we must prioritize effective roadways to serve the overwhelming share of all trips in the region. Urban rail fails to meet these challenges in many ways.
URBAN CORE BOOMER POPULATIONS DROP 1 MILLION 2000-2010
by Wendell Cox , newgeography.com, 09/11/2013
This may be a surprising headline to readers of The Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post, which reported virtually the opposite result in their August 19 editions.
The stories, “Hip, Urban, Middle-Aged: Baby boomers are moving into trendy urban neighborhoods, but young residents aren’t always thrilled,” by Nancy Keates in The Wall Street Journal and “With the kids gone, aging Baby Boomers opt for city life,” by Tara Barampour in the Washington Post reported on information from the real estate firm, Redfin (a link to the corrected Wall Street Journal story is below). Both stories reported virtually the same thing: that 1,000,000 baby boomers moved to within five miles of the city centers of the 50 largest cities between 2000 and 2010. Because these results appeared to be virtually the opposite of census results, I contacted both papers seeking corrections. [see correction notice below this article]
When pressed for more information, Redfin.com responded with a tweet indicating that: “We don’t have a link to share or published study; Redfin did a special analysis of Census data at reporters’ requests.”
In fact, the census data shows virtually opposite. Redfin’s method was not clear, so I queried the five mile radius within the main downtown areas of the 51 metropolitan areas with more than 1,000,000 population in 2010, shown below in the table and the figure.
Within the five mile radius of downtown, there was a net loss of nearly 1,000,000 baby boomers, or 2 percent of the 2000 population (ages 35 to 55 in 2000). There was also a loss of 800,000 in the suburbs, or 17 percent of the 2000 population. The continuing dispersion of the nation is indicated by the fact that there was a gain of nearly 450,000 in this cohort outside the major metropolitan areas. Overall, there was a net loss of 1.3 million, principally due to deaths.
To its credit, The Wall Street Journal issued a correction, as I would have expected. The incorrect reference to an increase of baby boomers in the urban cores was removed. To my surprise, not only did the Washington Post fail to make a correction, but they also ignored multiple requests to deal with the issue (though my emails received courteous computer generated acknowledgements).
With the ongoing repetition of the “return to the city from the suburbs” myth, it is important to draw conclusions from the data, not from impressions.
WALL STREET JOURNAL REPORTS REVERSE OF BOOMER MOVING TREND
by Wendell Cox , newgeography.com, 08/09/2013
An article by Nancy Keates in today’s The Wall Street Journal indicates that more than 1,000,000 baby boomers moved to within the downtowns of the 50 largest cities between 2000 and 2010. The article quoted Redfin.com as the source for the claim.
In fact, the authoritative source for such information is the United States Census. The Journal’s claim is at significant variance with Census data.
First of all, according to US Census Bureau data, the areas within 5 miles of the urban cores of the 51 metropolitan areas with more than 1,000,000 population lost 66,000 residents between 2000 and 2010 (See Flocking Elsewhere: The Downtown Growth Story). It is implausible for 1,000,000 boomers to have moved into areas that lost 66,000 residents (Figure).
Secondly rather than flock to the city, as the Journal insists, baby boomers continued to disperse away from core cities between 2000 and 2010, as is indicated by data from the two censuses. The share of boomers living in core cities declined 10 percent. This is the equivalent of a reduction of 1.2 million at the 2010 population level (Note). The share of the baby boomer population rose 0.5 percent in the suburbs, the equivalent of 175,000. Outside these major metropolitan areas, the share of baby boomers rose three percent, which is the equivalent of 1,050,000. All of the net increase in boomers , then, was in the suburbs or outside the major metropolitan areas, while all of the loss was in the core cities.
Among the 51 major metropolitan areas, only seven core cities gained baby boomers (See table at Demographia.). Among these seven, only two had larger percentage gains than the suburbs in the same metropolitan areas. One of these was Louisville, which accomplished the feat by a merger with Jefferson County. Louisville’s gain appears to have been simply the result of moving boundaries, not moving people.
Note: The age groups used are 35 to 55 in 2000 and 45 to 65 in 2010, which approximate the baby boomers. There was a decline in the number of baby boomers between 2000 and 2010 (largely due to deaths). The figures quoted in this article allocate the same percentage loss from this reduction to the 2000 baby boomer population for each core city and metropolitan area (the national rate).
September 11th, 2013
COST Commentary: The note below was originally sent to elected officials and other key individuals in the Austin region. It was published in the Austin Business Journal (ABJ) with a few minor modifications here to accommodate this format.
This note was motivated by a recent study by the City of Austin and the University of Texas which has been presented by many as support for rail based on the reported findings of major tax increases resulting from urban rail implementation. There is clearly some confusion here as the Statesman reported the City representative stated: “We deliberately did not try to make the connection that you need urban rail to attract growth,” Johns said to the council. “What we are saying is if you develop the urban growth, it will be channeled to this area because people will see they can save an $8,000 bump in their salary.”
The stated savings are not real savings but are a deceptive estimate of the cost to the rider of using transit instead of a car. It does not consider the real costs of transit which are overwhelming borne by taxpayers who are not riders and receive no measurable benefit. This estimate is also totally without consideration of the destination limits of transit, the excessive time for transit trips, the better jobs and higher salaries one achieves with private vehicles, the ability to better access affordable homes, lower cost goods, better medical care, better education and all of life’s offerings with private vehicles. This all leads to greatly enhanced quality of life through the cost-effective, flexible and broad reaching mobility of private vehicles versus the extreme limitations of transit.
The City study also does not consider the negative impact and additional burden which urban rail places on low income citizens who are dependent on transit and have no alternative. The wasteful spending of tax dollars on ineffective transit, such as urban rail, which is not cost effective, increases fares and reduces overall bus transit service making a mockery of social equity.
An important question is why did the city spend $3.7 million taxpayer dollars to provide questionable information which is of no value to anyone except those who wish to deceive and manipulate the public regarding the merits of urban rail.
The title of the article below was by ABJ and is very descriptive.
Urban rail failed in Portland and Austin faces same fate
by Jim Skaggs, Guest Contributor, September 6, 2013
The recently reported Austin study indicating huge tax revenue increases due to the economic impact of rail transit is a total fabrication without foundation.
Portland was an early implementer of modern urban rail in the l980’s. Leaders there promoted and projected major tax revenue benefits from economic development near train stations. This did not happen.
Many years, many cities, of urban rail failures to improve congestion and air quality have been generally accepted and many supporters have again turned to the more subjective ‘economic development’ “carrot” to lead rail promotion.
This site reveals some of the “reality” regarding rail transit’s negative impact on tax revenues in the city of Portland, “Mecca” of rail transit. The bottom line is: City tax incentives were eventually necessary to entice developments near train stations, resulting in reduced general fund, tax revenues. These tax incentives coupled with subsidizing of exorbitantly expensive rail transit results in significantly higher taxes for all citizens and degradation of basic city services.
The current Austin so-called “study” of rail’s economic impact is simply not valid based on substantial experience in many cities. If this study was knowingly incorrect, it is tragic. If it is a mistake, it reflects gross incompetence. The “study” was not objective and seems to be supporting pre-determined decisions and self-serving motivations without adequate checks and balances to provide the quality it deserves.
The city of Austin seems to have forgotten it paid for a study by Heimsath about 7 years ago which concluded the city could expect zero, net new property tax dollars from urban rail. See:
COST spent significant funds for a third-party expert, outside Austin, to reveal Heimsath’s true conclusions which were disguised by a poorly written report and misrepresented throughout the city as support for rail’s creation of additional property taxes. After COST’s revelation, the city stopped talking about the study. Heimsath’s conclusion that rail is a “zero sum game” regarding property taxes was far more accurate than the recent study’s projection of major tax revenue increases.
I urge the city to implement and maintain quality control of a process which will assure misleading distortions are not used in attempts to manipulate citizens and achieve objectives such as urban rail. This may be the most important decision in Austin’s history. Total objectivity and full transparency have never been more important to avoid the potential, broad reaching, negative impacts on all citizens for several generations.
The COST site contains many articles and commentaries regarding this and many other transportation subjects. Click on ‘News Articles’ and browse the many titles, especially more recent ones.
Jim Skaggs is director of the Coalition of Sustainable Transportation and the former CEO of Tracor.
August 25th, 2013
COST Commentary: Below this opening commentary are three in a long series of rare media articles containing critical rail transit messages for Austin. These summary articles are clear, direct, and accurate regarding the reality of rail transit and the massive misrepresentations and empty promises of rail transit promoters. They are even rarer being published in a “Chronicle” paper. I have never seen similar transportation articles in the Austin Chronicle with this level of analyses, objective coverage and honesty.
One can almost change the city’s name in the first article from Houston to Austin and the message is still very accurate. Even the estimated Houston rail cost of $1.2 billion when their citizens voted 10 years ago is close to Austin’s current $1.3 billion estimate for its planned urban rail. Houston’s current estimate of $3-4 billion is also much closer to the real cost of Austin’s system.
The bottom line is: Austin must urgently heed these message as its urban rail plan may be the most important decision in the City’s history. Austin leaders must step forward and put a stop to the current wasteful spending on planning and the potential further wasteful spending of billions of tax dollars for an ineffective urban rail which will substantially increase taxes and reduce quality of life with little or even negative impacts on transportation.
Below are seven major failings of urban rail. Not included is the failure of urban rail to enhance economic development. This is a recent major focus of some Austin rail supporters, but has not been highlighted in the Houston articles below and and is covered in several other postings to this site. Following this list is a recent Houston Chronical article, an article from June 2013 and an article from last November when Huston’s citizens voted to decline providing additional tax money to Houston Metro to continue increased spending for massive overruns on train routes they did not even vote for 10 years earlier. These articles and many others over the years highlight the failings of rail transit in Houston which rienforce the list below and provide a window into what Austin can expect if it stays on its current urban rail path.
1. Urban rail will cost many hundred million dollars, or billions, more than promised resulting in fewer transportation dollars to support far more effective transportation projects. Cap Metro’s commuter cost several times their promise to voters and citizens; resulting in higher fares as well as reduced and delayed bus service including more than 7 years delay in the initial Rapid Bus lines which will significantly improve transit service for ten times the riders of the commuter rail. This rapid bus will cost less than one-fourth to implement and less than one-tenth of the annual operating cost, per passenger, of the commuter. The total annual operating cost of the red line is 7 times that promised by Cap Metro.
Cap Metro promised the federal government would pay one-half of the cost of implementing the current commuter rail. The feds paid nothing as Cap Metro did not qualify. Now, Austin is depending on the feds to pay one-half of commuter rail. It is highly unlikely Austin’s rail qualifies and the feds are “broke,” with existing funding requests for many times the available money.
2. Urban rail will have unacceptable cost-effectiveness resulting in exorbitant taxpayer subsidies for each rider. Each daily, two-way commuter rail rider is subsidized $15,000 to $20,000 per year. There are many more less wasteful ways to use this tax money. Each rider could be provided a car and gas, but then, most of them already have a car.
3. Urban rail will increase congestion. The commuter also has a net negative impact on congestion. The commuter has not resulted in an increase in Austin area transit ridership and its crossing of numerous major streets delays roadway traffic. The latest ‘American Public Transit Association’ data indicates Austin lost approximately one million transit boardings, in the three months, from the first quarter of 2012 to the first quarter of 2013. At this rate, Cap Metro’s 2013 ridership will be near its lowest in more than 15 years, after spending billions to encourage transit ridership. The proposed urban rail will reduce automobile capacity on major central Austin streets and mingle with cars and people on streets, resulting in significant congestion increases.
4. Austin rail transit does not improve air quality. Cap Metro promised the commuter would be “environmentally friendly” but it resulted in a significant increase in air pollution. Every commuter rider could drive a car and the air pollution would be less. Likewise, urban rail will increase congestion and air pollution.
5. Austin rail transit substantially degrades social equity. The commuter rail essentially bankrupt Cap Metro resulting in degraded bus service and higher fares for the vast majority of transit riders who still use buses and have no alternative. The exorbitantly expensive commuter serves primarily those who have a choice and further burdens other transit riders, with no choice, to subsidize them. See the second King article below.
6. The commuter rail and planned urban rail do not materially increase the existing, poor transit access to regional jobs. Express and Rapid Bus transit on current and planned ‘toll ways’ and ‘managed lanes’ will provide much greater transit effectiveness than the commuter or urban rail. The hub and spoke concept of transit, designed to carry people from suburban/fringe city areas to the city’s central core, is outdated because the vast majority of new jobs are outside Central Austin, Transit needs to fully consider updated, cost effective concepts similar to the “demand-response” approach described in the “Cellular Mass Transit” (CMT) concept
7. Austin’s urban rail is proposed to have one of the largest percentages of its track on major central city streets than any city in the nation, significantly increasing safety hazards for pedestrians and vehicles. Large, heavy train cars on fixed rails cannot stop quickly and cannot swerve to avoid accidents.
There are many recent articles on COST’s web site which further address these issues. Please click on the site’s ‘News Articles’ and browse the titles.
Not mentioned in these Chronicle articles is the fact that Houston’s total, annual transit ridership was almost 100 million boardings per year prior to the introduction of light rail. In less than 10 years this ridership dropped more than 20% to less than 80 million per year. Initial light rail ridership was bolstered by Houston Metro terminating some 80 bus routes at rail stations, forcing riders to transfer to the light rail to complete their trips. This, in turn, discouraged overall transit ridership and Houston suffered one of the greatest transit rider declines of any major city in the nation.
King: It’s time to revisit plans for light rail in Houston
Bill King says with estimated costs for a rail system now at $3 billion to $4 billion, officials need to better explain the benefits of this model.
Bill King | August 7, 2013 | Updated: August 7, 2013 6:56pm
Sometimes it is really hard to kill a bad idea.
In 2003, after years of facing formidable opposition to building a grade-separated rail system, Metro proposed a compromise: a supposedly cheaper at-grade system. A skeptical business community signed on for a pilot system to test the concept, and our community narrowly approved the 2003 referendum, which included light rail as part of a comprehensive transit plan.
Lots have changed since 2003. First, the cost has soared. In 2003, Metro’s estimate for the entire system was $1.2 billion. Now we are talking $3 billion to $4 billion. That is something like $100 million per mile. To put that in some perspective, it’s like building a new Reliant Stadium about every three and a half miles.
Also, when the referendum was approved, the federal government was reimbursing roughly 80 percent of the cost of rail projects, which was a crucial part of the pitch to voters. Now, it is 50 percent, at best. On top of that, two of Metro’s five lines do not qualify for federal subsidies. So, in addition to the cost being several times what was originally projected, the amount local taxpayers will have to fork over has gone up by even more. Also since 2003, Metro has completed a number of studies on the at-grade system. The studies clearly show two things.
1 First, the at-grade system will not, let me repeat, will not reduce traffic congestion. In fact, around major intersections it will make traffic worse. Frankly, you do not need a traffic study to figure that out. Just think about a busy intersection like Post Oak and Westheimer, then, think about adding two trains going opposite directions through that intersection on top of the traffic that is already there. It does not take a traffic engineer to figure out what a disaster that is going to be.
2 Second, the at-grade system will not meaningfully increase transit ridership. Metro projections and the history of the Main Street Line suggest that light rail mostly moves pre-existing bus passengers to rail but brings few new riders to the system. There are many other ways to increase ridership at a fraction of the cost of an at-grade rail system. Reducing or even eliminating fares is the most obvious.
As sometimes is the case with a compromise solution, the at-grade system is the worst of all of the possible alternatives. In retrospect, probably the best alternative would have been for Metro to start building a grade-separated system in the 1980s and then add to it over the intervening years.
For the last several years, I have challenged anyone to publicly debate whether the benefit of the proposed at-grade system justified the costs. Predictably, there have been no takers.
The latest to be heard from in the light-rail saga is U.S. Rep. Ted Poe, R-Humble, who after consulting his friends on Facebook has concluded that Metro should go forward with this colossal boondoggle. But notwithstanding the goofy Facebook explanation, Poe has a point.
My guess would be that if a poll were run today, it would show a majority in favor of some kind of rail for Houston. From my conversations on this subject over the years, support for rail seems to be mostly based on the misguided notion that it will reduce traffic congestion. Given Houston’s low-population density that would be difficult with any configuration, but this at-grade rail system will most assuredly do nothing to reduce congestion.
So here is my proposition. Since the circumstances of constructing the proposed at-grade system have changed so dramatically since 2003, let’s have a new referendum. Let’s show the public exactly where the lines are going to be built. Let’s tell them exactly how many local tax dollars it is going to take. Let’s level with the 90 percent of the transit riders who use buses and tell them they will have crappy bus service forever because of the money the light rail will soak up. And let’s be sure to tell the voters that this $3 billion to $4 billion investment will not alleviate traffic congestion anyplace. Then if voters decide this is how they want to spend a few billion of their tax dollars, so be it.
But I will make two predictions. First, there will be no referendum and, second, no one will ever accept my challenge to debate the merits of this at-grade system for the simple reason it cannot stand the hard, cold, light of day. By the way, I hear Detroit, which has one 3-mile stretch of light rail is working hard to expand their system as well.
King’s column appears Thursday and Sunday. Email King at email@example.com and follow him at twitter.com/weking.
King: Buses provide backbone for mass transit system
Bill King says after ignoring it for years while developing light rail, Metro finally has begun to refocus on improving Houston’s bus service.
By Bill King | June 1, 2013 | Updated: June 1, 2013 3:19pm
In 2003, the Metropolitan Transit Authority approached the Greater Houston Partnership seeking its support for a referendum it wanted to put on the ballot that November to have the public authorize the construction of a light rail system.
Metro’s initial proposal was to spend $5 billion on six lines. Some of the partnership’s leadership at the time were concerned that such a significant investment in light rail would undermine the agency’s bus service on which so many Houstonians relied to get to work.
There was also a concern that Metro’s proposal did not include any commuter rail component to the suburbs that would have brought workers into downtown, the Medical Center and the Galleria.
As a result of these concerns, Metro agreed to scale back its investment in light rail to a maximum of $3 billion and to include in the referendum a commitment to expand bus service and begin studying commuter rail possibilities.
The one that was specifically mentioned was the extension of the Main Street Line down the U.S. 90 corridor to Fort Bend County. It was this compromise with the business community that ultimately became the notorious 2003 referendum.
The new board that was appointed by then-Mayor Bill White after his election interpreted the referendum as a “mandate” to build light rail. It paid little heed to the promises in the referendum language to expand bus service and begin studying commuter rail.
Instead, after 2003, Metro became obsessed with completing the light rail project notwithstanding that its costs spiraled astronomically out of control and traffic studies showed that it would make congestion worse any place it was constructed.
As a result, exactly what some at the partnership had feared occurred. Bus service was cut and the bus fleet reduced to help pay for light rail. Metro’s senior management also paid little attention to the bus service. In a completely tone-deaf move, Metro increased bus fares even as they were degrading service. As a result, bus ridership plummeted by more than 30 percent.
By the 2009 mayoral election, it had become apparent to any informed observer that Metro financially could not afford to finish the light rail project unless it stopped rebating 25 percent of the sales tax back to its members for street projects. But with the city of Houston, which receives the lion’s share of those rebates, being strapped by flagging revenue growth and mounting pension costs, there was no chance of that happening. So it was pretty clear by 2009 that, at best, Metro would be able to complete only three of the planned lines.
Nonetheless, due to the dynamics of Houston mayoral elections, all of the major candidates for mayor campaigned on completing the light rail project and the new board appointed by Mayor Annise Parker recommitted to completing the initial system.
But financial reality set in quickly and within the first year of the new regime, Metro was quietly shelving the University and Uptown lines. Because the North, East and Harrisburg lines were already federally funded and construction was under way, the new board had little choice but to see those through.
Now that the light rail agenda has pretty well played itself out, Metro has finally begun to refocus on its bus service. And well it should. Buses still carry the overwhelming majority of Metro’s passengers. And with Houston’s far-flung, low-density development, buses are infinitely more flexible and economical to move commuters.
Metro is looking at a number of options to increase bus ridership, including scheduling enhancements, better shelters and reduced fares for off peak trips. All good ideas. And there are many more changes Metro could make that would make bus travel a viable alternative.
It is a welcome development that Metro seems to be committed to a revival of its bus service. It is unfortunate that we wasted a decade and several billion dollars on building an at-grade system that will do very little to enhance transit in Houston.
We can only imagine how good our bus service might be today had Metro spent that decade and those billions on buses.
Buses may not have the cool factor that shiny trains do. But if you really want to move a lot of people and really provide an alternative to private car travel, buses are the answer. Plus, who needs a cool train when you are already the coolest city in America?
King: Metro vote means end of light rail project
Bill King says the outcome of the referendum should allow the local transit agency to focus on improving the bus service so many need.
By Bill King | November 7, 2012 | Updated: November 7, 2012 7:07pm
I come here not to praise Metro’s light rail project, but to bury it. Because the practical result of this week’s Metro referendum to extend payments to the city of Houston, Harris County and Metro’s other member cities is that finally, thank the Lord, this colossal boondoggle is dead. Metro will, of course, continue to pretend that the balance of the project can be built, but without the revenue stream that these payments represent, there is simply no money to continue to build the project. And for my part, good riddance.
There is an old saying that a camel is a horse designed by a committee. Metro’s light rail project from the beginning was a transit camel instead of a horse. It was the result of political compromises and community group think rather than any hard transit analysis. Metro’s own studies have consistently shown that this at-grade system would make traffic congestion worse everywhere it was built and make no meaningful contribution to improving air quality.
This was largely true because the studies have also projected it would only marginally increase transit ridership. For the most part, light rail systems do not attract new riders but instead merely move existing bus riders to the rail, and at an enormous cost. That certainly has been the experience with Houston’s ASDF
Metro likes to tout the Main Street Line’s ridership with a claim that it carries more riders per mile than any light rail in the country. That statistic is obviously derived by dividing the number of riders by the length of the line. When the denominator, i.e., the length of the line, is a small number, the result is naturally going to be high. Guess what. Metro’s Main Street Line is also one of the shortest in the country. So it is hardly surprising and totally meaningless that it carries more riders per mile than other lines.
The real measure of success should be how many new transit riders the Main Street Line has attracted compared to its cost. In 2007, I asked Metro how the ridership on the Main Street Line compared to the bus lines it replaced. At the time, there were about 28,000 boardings on the light rail system each day. Metro told me that was a 19 percent increase over the previous bus lines. In other words, Metro claimed that it had attracted about 6,000 new riders each day as a result of the rail line.
However, as of December 2011, the Main Street Line ridership had fallen to a little more than 25,000 daily riders, which is only a couple of thousand more than we had riding the buses in 2003. And of course, this marginal increase has come at an enormous cost. Just the construction cost of the Main Street Line was about $400 million. That is a cost of about $200,000 per new rider, not even counting the ongoing operating costs. The riders would have probably appreciated it more if we had just bought them a Bentley.