July 31, 2011
This is the debt ceiling edition of the Open Thread. Have at it!
Yonah Freemark, writing for the excellent blog The Transport Politic, has written several articles of late on the subject of austerity and transit. At the time of this writing, it appears that a debt deal is nearly worked out in Congress; however, the long-term political outlook is fuzzy (the 2012 elections are anybody's guess at this time--it's entirely plausible that President Obama could lose but the Democrats could retake the House, given the local approval ratings of pretty much the entire DC establishment). In the short term, there's a political stalemate which is focused somewhat on austerity, and lack of a consensus for further stimulus--either on the demand side (such as increased spending on infrastructure, as many Democrats support), or on the supply side (tax cuts for the rich, favored by the GOP). We'll set aside the question of how genuine calls for austerity from various political factions are.
At any rate, there's a good chance that the US may be in for a prolonged period of belt-tightening. Given that transportation infrastructure in the US has long been subsidized, including transit, how will this affect things?
The models of austerity
There are a couple of different austerity models which have been observed in the past century when major economic powers are faced with a significant withdrawal of capital. (In all cases, it is assumed that democratic political norms are preserved).
- Leftist austerity. The classical example of this was Great Britain after World War II. Bankrupted by the war and by the terms of American financial support as part of the Lend-Lease program, Britain suffered through a generation of stark austerity. The British responded by electing the then-socialist Labour Party under Clement Attlee in 1945, and the country abandoned most of its colonial possessions and its role as global hegemon. Socialist policy in London would more or less continue until the 1979 election of Margaret Thatcher. Were a liberal austerity program to be pursued, inflationary monetary policies would likely be a part, which would have the effect of reducing the effective value of the current debt--but which would also result in higher prices for foreign-made items, including oil. (Were the national politics to produce this result, which I doubt in the short term, we would likely also see passage of things like carbon taxes and other environmental measures, and likewise a reduction of US military commitments overseas).
This is probably the least likely outcome for the US, given the present political situation.
- Shared sacrifice. This is a model seemingly favored by President Obama, much to the consternation of ideologues in both political parties. In the "grand bargain" that Obama favors, the Bush tax cuts would be eliminated, along with some reductions in entitlements, in order to pay down the public debt. Monetary policy would likely continue to be conservative. [It sounds like we're getting the reductions in entitlements and defense with the recently-announced,but-not-yet-signed debt ceiling compromise; and if Obama keeps his promise to veto further extension of the 2000 Bush tax cuts, we may get the revenue side as well].
- The conservative approach. Many conservatives continue to support a supply-side approach, in which growth is encouraged by reducing the costs to capitalists, and debt reduction comes from reduction in entitlements (and likely in the living standards of public employees)--with long-term economic growth coming from a return of jobs to the US when labor costs are reduced. A conservative approach would also involve tight monetary policy. Many of the rising economic powerhouses have economies which resemble this, with a significant percentage of the population in poverty.
- All hell breaks loose. This is what might happen should the US default; with world financial markets thrown into turmoil, the dollar significantly devalued (and interest rates rising dramatically), and the potential for another serious recession, or even a depression. This would likely result in significant political turmoil; we'd be fortunate to see it crystallize into one of the three cases above. In other words, all bets are off. (Have a nice day).
All of the austerity models would result in reductions in the standard of living many Americans experience--with the big questions being how the pain is distributed and how much it hurts. In some cases, it might involve certain groups finding themselves in levels of poverty not seen since the Depression--an issue which I don't like glossing over, but which gets a bit off-topic for this blog. (If people are starving and there are no jobs available anywhere, and the political system is unwilling or unable to remedy that situation, then how one gets to work becomes completely irrelevant). More relevant to Portland Transport, though, is the question of how people and goods will get around in the United States of Austerity.
Depending on the austerity policies put in place, effects could include the following. I'm not taking a position on the desirability (or lack thereof) of any of these; merely noting that they might reasonably occur.
- A lower standard of living overall. A good indicator of "standard of living" is the disposable income, or amount of household budget spent on non-essentials--i.e on items other than things like food, housing, clothing, medical care, and (important for this discussion) transportation. A good indication of poverty is is a disposable income which goes negative, and forcing the poor to either borrow to pay for essentials (a risky proposition) or having to cope with lower-cost, lower-quality goods and services--which in many cases are inadequate. During lean economic times, decreases in wages lead decreases in prices; decreasing disposable incomes and pushing many families into a position where they have to economize. Brief downturns can often be weathered by depleting savings or temporarily relying on public assistance; but longer-term recessions often require structural changes in households--and downturns lasting a very long time will often cause structural changes in society. A period of austerity lasting a decade or more will have more lasting impacts on how people live.
- Higher prices for fuel, especially petroleum products. Most of the oil we use is imported; and a devalued dollar would make oil more expensive. A reduction in US military presence could affect the stability of oil shipments, and the continued rise of emerging economies such as China, who will have their own increasing needs for oil, will further increase prices. But even if oil didn't become more expensive, a lower standard of living would increase the percentage of the household budget paid for transportation--which would become an issue.
- Fewer funds for capital projects. In an austerity-focused economy, there would be less money available for infrastructure projects--or for anything other than debt service, for that matter. (I'm assuming a genuine period of austerity here, as oppose to a program of redirecting funds from the safety net to wealthy taxpayers while leaving the public debt untouched). While in theory that should produce fewer boondoggles and more quality projects, in practice I'm not so certain. How this would affect the transit/highway balance is a bigger question--were the first two factors to produce a greater demand for transit, it could result in transit projects and not highways receiving more funding (even Car and Driver magazine has seen the writing on the wall). On the other hand, we may also see a shift of funding from new construction to the less-politically-sexy-but-direly-needed maintenance backlog, which would favor road repair over rail.
- More migration to urban areas. One of the notable 21st century demographic trends in the US, and one which our fair city is a significant contributor to, is the rehabilitation of the city as a desirable place to live. For much of the latter half of the 20th century, cities were perceived as dirty and dangerous places, and many American cities became "donuts", with wealthy and upper-middle-class (and often white) people, living in the suburbs, and the poor (typically minorities) living in the inner city. The opposite pattern, with the wealthy living in or near the city center and the slums on the periphery, is more common in the rest of the world. But in the past decade, that trend has started to reverse--and increases in the cost of driving might accelerate a return to the cities, and the decline of those places that are dependent on the automobile. Were this trend to accelerate, it might go so far as to make upzoning and redevelopment of existing suburbs--something which is often today fought tooth and nail, in order to keep the poor out--attractive for the residents therein.
- Wage adjustments in the public sector. This section is above and beyond any reductions in wages to affect the broader economy. A generation ago, public sector and private sector compensation for non-professional jobs (roughly, those not requiring a college degree) of similar skill were comparable. Today, the bottom has dropped out on the private-sector labor economy, as outsourcing has eliminated many of the family-wage positions available to high school graduates, that used to undergird the economy. The public sector has been able, until recently, to stave off a similar fate, as many public jobs are service positions which cannot be outsourced, and public-sector collective bargaining is guided by different dynamics than that in the private sector. Much of the recent rise in unemployment, however, is due to public-sector workers losing their jobs--over a half million public employees have lost their jobs since Obama took office). Unfortunately for public employees, many a displaced factory worker seems to blame their troubles not on the billionaires who sent their jobs overseas, but on public-sector workers who have not (so far) suffered the same fate, and thus are seen as "overpaid". (By coincidence, I'm sure, it's the billionaires that own the major media outlets). Given the conditions in the labor market, public workers may well be "overpaid" in an economic sense, given the lack of equivalent deals outside of government. However, I prefer to think of the displaced factory worker who now works at WalMart selling the goods he no used to build, as "underpaid". Moral judgments aside, long term I expect private and public-sector wages to equalize--what equilibrium they reach depends on the austerity model chosen. Were I to guess, I would expect to see accelerated erosion in the wages and working standards of public employees.
- More people unable to afford cars. The combination of increased fuel costs and decreased overall disposable income will likely increase the number of households unable to afford an automobile, or cause wealthier households to cut back, perhaps to a single family car rather than one per driver. (And luxuries such as recreational automobiles for teenagers or "spare" cars kept for occasional use, probably will become rare in what remains of the middle class). Some households will shift to used cars instead of new or defer maintenance on their vehicles (which may increase pollution rather than decrease it) in order to hang on to their current standard of living, particularly if their neighborhood has no viable alternative; but many may shift to alternative transportation--both human-powered travel and public transit.
What will the effect of all of that be? I have no real idea, but here are some possibilities.
- We may see less federal involvement in local infrastructure products. In the status quo, the bulk of taxpayer dollars go to Washington, and a significant part thereof gets kicked back to state and local government in the form of grants--with the result that the projects that get built are those which Uncle Sam deems worthy of funding. If tax rates are lowered, and/or if more federal dollars are directed to debt service, and thus federal transportation grants are harder to come by; local governments may respond by raising their own revenues to pay for local projects. This may have significant advantages, as projects not funded by Washington are not subject to its byzantine regulations and conditions; the original Portland Streetcar and the MAX Red Line both eschewed federal funding, and were able to be done much more quickly than projects which needed to satisfy NEPA. Whether or not this is good or bad will depend on large part on the quality of local government; there are many parts of the country where a lack of federal oversight will result in more boondoggles and not less. (While I have my issues with the quality of governance in Oregon; we've got nothing on places like New Jersey or Louisiana when it comes to public corruption).
- Dismantling or relaxing regulatory regimes. While I'm not an ideological supporter of deregulation-for-its-own-sake, there are many regulatory regimes and standards presently on the books in the US which are outdated, or which serve more to protect incumbent interests rather than advance the commonweal. There's plenty more, in areas such as safety and design performance, which represent tradeoffs which might no longer affordable or practical in an austerity economy. The entirety of the Federal Railway Administration is a frequent target for critics, who (among other things) allege the agency pursues an outdated safety regime based on making railcars big and beefy, which is akin to improving highway safety by banning anything smaller than a Ford Expedition. When I travel overseas, I'm frequently amazed by urban highways in places like Hong Kong or Beijing which function quite well (most of the time) without the outrageously overbuilt design standards that bedevil US highway construction--standards which often require labyrinthine mazes of collector/distributor ramps, roadworks which both add cost and increase the urban footprint of the resulting roadway. (A big chunk of the CRC project is "improving" a stretch of I-5 to such standards, which has nothing to do with crossing the Columbia). A society forced by economy to make different trade-offs might well determine that maintaining an A level of service on a freeway during most of the day in a dense urban environment, is a luxury which can no longer be afforded.
- Repurposing of federally-funded infrastructure. There are plenty of laws and regulations on the books which limit the ability of local governments to repurpose infrastructure which was federally-funded. The ability of local authorities to toll Interstate highways, for example, is restricted--generally, tolls can be erected only to fund new construction, and congestion pricing programs on existing Interstates are verboten. The ability to convert travel lanes to another purpose (such as exclusive-transit lanes). If austerity results in fewer cars on the road, there might be support to abandon these restrictions.
- Increased private sector involvement in transit. Libertarians are fond of complaining about barriers to entry in the public transit market, suggesting that the state is oppressing the marketplace with burdensome regulations designed to exclude private-sector competition with state-run monopolies. For the most part, this is hogwash. Other than a few places like New York City, where privately-operated transit services exist in addition to the public providers, the reason that you don't see private operators in public transit is that transit doesn't make any money. (I'm excluding from this discussion the outsourcing of operations, where the operator does not incur revenue risk, which is already commonplace). However, if greater driving costs increase transit patronage, and operator wages go down--we may reach the point where public transit does become a lucrative business. (And driving down operator wages is frequently touted as an "advantage" of privatization, as private employers are far more immune to political pressure from unions than are public agencies). Whether that will be good or bad for riders depends on how well it is managed--Hong Kong's system where routes, fares, and schedules are set by the government and franchised to private operators, produces excellent results; other privatization schemes have been less successful.
- An end to the transit stigma. Right now, in much of the US (and to a lesser extent, in much of the English-speaking world), most people can afford cars, and so public transit carries with it the stigma of poverty. Thus, it has little political support and is often viewed as welfare; is often neglected (sometimes intentionally) in land-use planning, and in many places, only bare-bones service is offered--a vicious cycle that cements its second-class status. But if a greater share of the population needs transit for some or all of their travels, the stigma may vanish, and transit may be more widely viewed as a public good than as a social service.
Putting it together
In an earlier thread, I made a comment that transportation in a "post-Imperial America" might look like Curitiba, Brazil. While I was half-kidding there, and this article assumes that the US remains a significant power with far-reaching global influence, albeit a lower domestic standard of living for a while (hardly "post-Imperial"), if there is a long-term period of austerity, I suspect that we'll be looking at a significant shift of transportation mode share to the bus. The factors that led to the creation of Curitiba's acclaimed BRT network (widespread poverty at the time, and rather authoritarian government) probably won't come into play in the US. But in an austerity environment, the bus may well be a "winner", with greater expansions of both roads and rail "losers".
- As mentioned above, energy costs will rise and car use will drop.
- Limited funds for infrastructure will likely mean a drop in new project starts, with must funds going to maintenance and for projects made necessary by geography (such as bridges) as opposed to surface improvements.
- Loss of overseas purchasing power will further disadvantage rail; there is a thriving domestic bus manufacturing base, but the US's capability to produce DMUs and EMUs is limited.
- Reduction in wages for bus drivers will "solve" one of the main disadvantages of the bus--its higher per-passenger operating costs in busy corridors.
- An increase in BRT or other enhanced bus services (with infrastructure and service improvements designed to improve speed and reliability) is likely, particularly if less demand for driving (and reformed regulations) makes it easier to do the inexpensive-yet-effective way of installing BRT: removing auto travel lanes.
A rather cruder way of putting it is as follows: If standards of living in the US decline due to an austerity program, the US, over time, will start to resemble other countries with similar living standards--and therein, public transport is a key fact of life, rather than something which is overlooked and ignored. A few transit critics I can think of are fond of making the claim that countries who can afford it, prefer cars--pointing to rising automobile usage in places such as Europe and China as proof. While this analysis is highly superficial (a lot has to do with how old habitations and infrastructure are, as well as cultural factors which shouldn't be cited as universal fact, not to mention failing to control at all for service quality issues); it does have a kernel of truth to it--cars are what economists call a normal good pretty much anywhere, and transit an inferior good (a rather unfortunate economics term which says nothing abut quality) in much of the world.
As noted above, an economy-driven shift to greater transit use will probably occur over a long period of time, and involve quite a bit of social discomfort. Cities like Portland, with a halfway-decent transit system in place, land use laws which have more-or-less prevented the worst sorts of urban sprawl, and a road system which is less hopelessly overbuilt, will be able to weather the transition more than areas whose built environment is far more auto-oriented. The Portland metro's land-use planning, with its support for regional town centers, should help suburbs maintain their own economic vitality. Other parts of the country, however, may not be so fortunate.
Whatever the case, passengers are encouraged to hold on to the handlebars while the vehicle is in motion. We may be in for a bumpy ride.
July 29, 2011
At yesterday's CRC work session, which as Chris noted was intended to be about issuing a Land Use Final Order, instead got diverted to the subject of financing, and in particular, the subject of phasing the CRC project which was suggested last week by The Oregonian
Bottom line: The Metro council wasn't keen on the idea, as the project FEIS is about to be published--and it only includes one phasing option. In this phasing propsal, most of the project would be completed, including the entirety of the bridge itself, the Yellow Line extension to Clark College, and most of the interchange work on I-5 in the 'Couv. In phase 2 a few additional ramp improvements are built. Needless to say, this phasing would do little to improve the financial situation of the project.
Any other phasing proposals, it was pointed out, would require the FEIS to be modified, and likely cost many more years and dollars beyond the $130 million or so already spent on
public relationsanalysis and design. (When phased projects are built, federal regulations require that each phase have "independent utility", so that if succeeding phases are cancelled, the public isn't stuck with a white elephant, and so public officials don't go and do the least important parts first, knowing they are more likely to get the whole thing done than if they do the most important parts first. At least, in theory).
Given the present political situation in Washington, its somewhat understandable that local leaders seem eager to get a deal done, any deal, lest a mood of national austerity result in the money hose being shut off. (Of course, if there's a default, all bets may well be off). But as we're also finding in DC--while deadlines may result in deals getting done, they don't often result in good ones.
July 28, 2011
Also, the project is soliciting members for a Community Working Group.
July 27, 2011
Even as the financial plan for the Columbia River Crossing is being demonstrated to be a piece of swiss cheese, Metro is getting ready to give it's final major approval.
The so-call LUFO (Land Use Final Order) is Metro's sign-off to the land-use impacts of the project, and Metro is the sole deciding agency under a streamlined process that was created back in the '90s for the South-North light rail project.
But some critics think this is a reach. The legislation authorizing the streamlined approval process envisioned minor freeway changes associated with a light rail project. But Metro intends to put the entire CRC, including the bridge replacement and major interchange enhancements, under this provision.
Expect the lawyers and courts to get involved.
July 26, 2011
Last week we noted that Oregon State Treasurer Ted Wheeler agreed with the Washington State Treasurer that the toll revenue projections for the CRC were unrealistic.
Let's dig a little deeper into the report (PDF, 695K), as there are quite a few salient points:
- Traffic projections in the 2008 DEIS are based on a 2002 Metro employment forecast, so they are severely out of date.
- An "investment grade" traffic and toll revenue forecast prior to the initial sale of toll bonds is essential.
- Regardless of whether we issues "toll bonds" or "general obligation bonds", ODOT and the State General Fund are ultimately on the hook if toll revenues are insufficient to cover bond repayments.
- Overall, the Treasurer believes that a responsible forecast of toll revenues would be 15-25% lower that the current ODOT estimate.
- The project assumes that toll rates will increase 2.5% annually, but experience in the Puget Sound area has shown that it is politically difficult to increase tolls as quickly as planned.
- Between lower traffic volume and more slowly increasing toll rates, the Treasurer estimates there is a gap of $468 to $598 million in project funding.
- The Treasurer suggests several strategies to reduce the funding gap:
- Begin tolling before project completion - potentially worth up to $200 million.
- Use a Federal Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (TIFIA) loan instead of bonding to capitalize toll revenues. This would require congressional authorization but provide for lower interest rates (saving $194 to $238 million) and take the State General Fund off the hook.
- Begin tolling before project completion - potentially worth up to $200 million.
- The State "equity" contribution (the portion not funded by tolls) of $450 million would require a 1.5 cent increase in state-wide gas taxes to cover 25-year general obligation bonds. This must be enacted by the Legislature (and while the Treasurer does not point this out, would be subject to referendum).
- The Treasurer suggests that as an alternative, ODOT could issue 12-year "GARVEE" Bonds, but as I understand it these can only be repaid with future Federal funds, which I assume means committing Federal funds that would otherwise be used for other projects.
- Regardless of the toll financing mechanism, the CRC governance "must include a robust toll-setting mechanism to assure that all toll-related debt service is pad in full each year through toll revenues."
July 25, 2011
I'll be speaking about the Transit Appliance project this week at OSCON, the national Open Source Convention in our very own Oregon Convention Center.
If you happen to be going to the show, please drop in for my talk on Wednesday (July 27) at 11:30am in room F150!
July 24, 2011
Last week, we highlighted a recent report by the American Public Transit Association which claims that in Portland, an individual can save on average $859 per month--over $10k per year--if one holds a transit pass instead of owning an automobile. To be clear--this claimed savings requires not owning a car (or owning one less than there are drivers in a household); much of the savings include fixed costs that are incurred whenever you own a car, even if it is left in the garage. There were some questions about the automobile costs cited--while nearly $1000/month is a reasonable cost of ownership for a newly-purchased automobile of median value; it is easy to own and operate a vehicle in reasonable condition for far less money than that. On the other hand, at current fuel prices, the $88 charge for a transit pass is less than the cost of two tanks of gas.
Today, we look a bit more in detail on the economics of transit use vs automobile use, and how public policy might affect the equation going forward.
Fixed vs variable costs
When determining the cost of using (and having access to) a resource, it is useful to separate the costs into fixed costs (or access costs), which are incurred and must be paid simply to have access to the resource; and variable costs (or usage costs), which are incurred for incremental utilization of the resource. The combination of costs can range from entirely fixed to entirely variable.
In many cases, it is possible to arrange matters so that a different schedule of fixed and variable costs applies to a given resource. For example, you can choose a cell phone plan with unlimited minutes and a flat monthly fee (high fixed cost, low variable cost), or a plan with a lower monthly fee but which accrues per-minute charges (lower fixed cost, higher variable cost). You can choose to dine at the all-you-can-eat buffet (fixed cost for a meal), or go to a cafeteria and pay for your meal a la carte. And so on.
The ability to trade off fixed costs vs variable costs is an important consideration, for both parties to a transaction. For both sides, converting costs to fixed costs makes the supplier's revenue stream more predictable; a benefit which often is used to justify lower prices. Fixed costs also reduce the need to process incremental payments for incremental usage. On the other hand, fixed costs may encourage overconsumption of a resource, particularly if there isn't some other limit beside price involved--this is the justification phone companies give for recent moves to no longer offer unlimited data plans (whether you believe that is up to you). Important for this discussion, arrangements with high fixed costs reduce flexibility by encouraging lock-in. If A and B provide competing services; and you enter into arrangements where you pay a fixed price for free (or reduced-rate) consumption of A; this is a powerful disincentive to use B. Even if it might meet your needs under certain circumstances: You've already "paid for" A, so the rational choice is to use it.
And for many commuters, A stands for "automobile" and B stands for "bus". If you already have a car sitting in the driveway, all gassed up and ready to go, buying a transit pass on top of it frequently makes no economic sense. As we live in an auto-centric society, one of the things limiting the potential of transit is the fact that many of us already have cars at our disposal. Given that much of the cost of that car is "paid for", there is frequently little economic advantage for using transit, except for those trips where the marginal cost of driving is unusually high, either in dollars or in time. The daily commute is an example for many, particularly those living in the suburbs and working downtown.
Of course, if you already have a transit pass, and live in a dense urban environment where all the amenities you need can be reached by transit (or on foot), you may find you don't need a car. Low density land use patterns (the UGB nonwithstanding) don't make this an attractive option for many; but the economics of car ownership--which make occasional use of a car expensive--further make it difficult.
To see why, it is useful to examine the cost structures of both transit use and auto use. This article only discusses voluntary costs; general taxes needed to support both transit and the roads are excluded from this discussion. Also excluded are externalized costs such as pollution and congestion.
The cost structure of transit...
The cost structure of transit is pretty straightforward: You get on the bus, you need to pay the fare. In Portland, you can buy single-ride tickets for two bucks and change; you can buy a day pass for less than $5. A monthly pass is $88, and if you buy a year's worth you get one month free. (Prices are for all-zone adult fares). The monthly pass represents a significant savings over two single-ride tickets per day; so is a no-brainer for anyone using transit regularly, even if only for commuting to work and back.
Transit also has the advantage of cost predictability. If you hold a monthly pass, you know with high certainty what your ride is gonna cost each month--there aren't any (financial) surprises. If a bus breaks down, fixing it is on TriMet's tab; and TriMet supplies the elbow grease to get the job done.
The question of time is where the analysis gets interesting. Transit has the advantage that when you're a passenger and not a driver, you can do something productive with your time other than operating a motor vehicle. On the other hand, many journeys take longer on transit, and may involve the need to transfer between services, which can sometimes be unpleasant--particularly if the wait times are long and/or the transfer location is inadequately sheltered. In many parts of town, unfortunately, transit service is poor, and trips take significantly longer than they would by car. If you live in Tualatin or Happy Valley, for instance, TriMet is probably only an option if you are desperate--people who live in such places are auto-dependent.
There is one other important caveat to the low cost of transit claimed by APTA, however: it is per-person. If you have two or more adults (or older children) in a household who want to use transit, each will need a pass of their own. Young children can travel free with fare-paying parents. The costs associated with cars, on the other hand, do not vary with the number of passengers.
...and of driving
Costing models for automobile operation are far more complex. The APTA study uses a model published by the American Automobile Association, which includes the following. Fixed costs include depreciation, finance charges, insurance, licensing, and registration; variable costs include fuel, maintenance, and other consumables (most notably tires). The model doesn't make any mention of parking or tolls, or the cost of being pulled over by Johnny Law (for those motorists who make moving violations a habit). The costs appear to assume a new car, as noted above, and different price points are provided for different levels of usage. The model does not appear to include the time cost of driving--when you are behind the wheel, that is time lost from more productive or enlightening activities.
A quick note on how the model accounts for the purchase price of a car. Car purchases are capitalized in the model--the base purchase price of a car is not considered an expense per se; though finance charges are. Instead, the depreciation of the vehicle--the loss of value over time--is booked as an expense. Note that for cars in the consumer market, amortizing depreciation over time rather than over mileage is an appropriate treatment; personal autos lose most of their value simply by virtue of sitting around--the calendar is just as important as the odometer in determining a car's residual value.
Unlike with transit, where it is easy to jettison fixed costs and only incur variable costs simply by buying single-ride tickets rather than a pass; this is much harder to do with cars. If you don't have a car, you can't drive. Leasing a car is similar to owning one as far as fixed/variable costs go; automobile leases are typically structured to cover a fixed term for a fixed rate, with per-mileage charges only applying if a certain threshold is exceeded.
Other business arrangements for acquiring access to a car are considerably more expensive, and only make sense for occasional use. Traditional car rental services are generally time-based rather than mileage based (rates are per day or per week, with unlimited mileage); renting a car is often a high-friction transaction, and the car rental industry is infamous for lack of transparency, price discrimination, and creative ways to nickle and dime customers to death.
Car sharing services, such as Zipcar, offer more reasonable terms, including hourly rental, far less inconvenience, and none of the games and hassles that characterize the car rental industry (though some car rental firms, such as Hertz, are also getting into the car-sharing business). Zipcars can be rented on either a per-hour basis (about $7 per hour, depending on plan) or per day ($60-$65); and either rate includes gas, insurance, and maintenance. Car-sharing services are geared towards occasional users, however; it is generally not economical to use a Zipcar as a primary means of transportation.
Driving an automobile often involves other, unforeseen, costs and hassles--car repair being a major one. There's also the cost of time spent behind the wheel, which cannot be spent on other productive activities. On the other hand, in a country optimized for automobile travel, with low average densities and ample free parking, travel times by car are often a fraction of transit times, especially when the suburbs are involved. Automobiles also have the advantage of being able to carry passengers (and cargo) essentially for free; that said, many of the objections that environmentalists and others have to single-occupant vehicles don't apply (or apply less) to cars carrying multiple passengers. (A bus, after all, is essentially a car designed to hold 80 rather than five.)
Putting it together
Public transit has the advantage, generally, of being available at fare lower price points. As noted above, a single ride cost $2.35, and an annual pass is less than $1000; both of which are far cheaper than any comparable arrangements which can be made using cars. Unfortunately, the costs grow with household size, and several decades of car-friendly land-use policies have produced a suburban environment which is difficult to provide quality transit service to. Driving, on the other hand, has a high entry cost, but marginal costs per mile can be low for those who bite the bullet and decide to own one. Driving also makes more sense for larger families, and is further advantaged by the extensive network of roads, mandatory free parking, and other concessions to the automobile in our built environment.
Looking at the AAA costing model, it indicates that for a small sedan (a Toyota Corolla or similar), owning and driving it 10k miles will cost 58.6c per mile; at 15k miles, 45.1 c/mile, and at 20k miles, 38.1c/mile. Assuming a linear cost structure and doing the algebra, this works out to a fix cost of ownership of $4100 and a cost per mile of 17.6c. For a minivan, the numbers work out to 25.2c/mile, and a fixed cost of ownership of $5680. For a SUV, 27.8c per mile and $7040 of fixed costs. Figures for other car types (mid-size sedan, large sedan) are also presented--calculating their numbers is left as an exercise for the reader. Given that an annual transit pass is presently $968, for transit to make more economic sense (ignoring externalized costs and questions of time and convenience, as well as unaccounted-for costs such as parking and tolls) one would have to drive 5700 miles less if one owns a small sedan, ~3800 miles less for a minivan, or ~3500 miles less for a SUV. Assuming 250 workdays per year, that comes to 22.8 miles/day (total, not each way) for the sedan owner, 14.8 miles/day for the minivan, and 14 miles/day for the SUV.
Given all of that--the present mode split and demographics of transit and auto use aren't too surprising; the primary users of transit are the poor (who frequently cannot afford automobiles), and urban dwellers and downtown commuters (who incur higher costs, both financial and otherwise, for automobile use). Outside these three groups, its frequently easier to just go buy a car or two--and once you've done that, the natural and economic thing to do is to drive it everywhere.
But--as noted above--this analysis ignores the external costs of transportation. For transit, the (uncaptured) external costs are fairly low; but for driving, they are quite high--operation of two-ton machines to transport individuals around is a gross waste of energy, and a primary source of pollution. Sound public policy is that which attempts to rein in externalized costs--given that, what can be done about this state of affairs?
The usual exhortations to improve transit service and reform land-use laws to discourage sprawling, auto-centric development obviously apply, but are outside the scope of this article. Instead, we look at ways to further migrate transit to a fixed-cost basis, and move driving to a more variable-cost basis--and to capture externalized costs as well. Unfortunately, one of the biggest cost drivers--deprecation--is highly dependent on the behavior of the automobile resale market, and as long as motorists perceive older cars to be less valuable than newer ones with similar mileage, treating depreciation as a fixed cost is likely to remain the proper way of accounting.
Reasonable policy actions include:
- Family tickets/plans for transit. I'd like to see TriMet offer fares better geared towards families, particularly families travelling together. Right now, children under seven ride free with a fare-paying adult, and 7-17 year olds get a reduced rate. My recommendation? Bump up the free age to 10. Why 10? Because that's the age at which it is legal to leave a child at home unattended. (The law is a bit ambiguous for ages below 10; but a 10-year old is presumed to be able to attend to himself). Barring that, it might also be useful to offer other family discounts on passes for members of the same household. By encouraging families to use the system, TriMet not only encourages off-peak business, but also encourages the next generation of riders.
- Usage-based insurance, also known as "pay-as-you-drive". Traditional auto insurance policies offer liability insurance for a fixed term, typically six months, and charge premiums based on prior driving record. An obvious inefficiency is present in this arrangement, as risk is proportional to how much the car is driven; liability policies in particular impose no risk when a car is non-operational. By offering usage-based insurance, motorists can pay for the coverage they need. Usage-base policies can be based on simple odometer readings (or policies which are only good for a certain number of miles), all the way up to use of sophisticated devices which electronically monitor driver behavior, including time and distance driven. Portland Afoot has a good summary of the state of mileage-based insurance in Oregon; no company presently offers true mileage-based insurance, where you purchase insurance for a set number of miles rather than a set time (a company called MileMeter offers such a program in Texas). Three insurers which do offer substantial mileage-based insurance products are include Traveler's and Progressive, both of which supply motorists with onboard monitors to install in vehicles, and National General Assurance (formerly GMAC), which provides a similar service to OnStar customers. Progressive Insurance's "Snapshot Discount" program is probably the most well-known usage-based insurance product, although it is a bit limited in its scope> a monitoring device is installed in a vehicle for 30 days; drivers who drive less, avoid dangerous driving times (rush hour or late at night), and avoid sudden stops are eligible for up to a 30% discount off a standard policy.
- Mileage-based fees. Many of the taxes and fees paid to support the roads are either levied against everybody (such as local property taxes) or levied against motorists on a flat-rate basis. Registration fees are essentially de minimis in Oregon, and thus likely don't contribute significantly to mode choice; but in many state, registering an automobile is a significant expense--and these states generally either levy a fixed fee, possibly based on vehicle classification, or a "personal property tax" based on the value of the vehicle. Oregon is one of a handful of states to impose a weight-mile tax on trucking; but presently no state imposes any distance-based tax levies (other than fuel taxes) on personal automobiles. However, ODOT recently ran a pilot program to determine the technical feasibility of implementing and collecting a "road user fee" from motorists based on mileage--a fee which would replace the motor vehicle tax. (Portland Transport coverage of the project here and here). The pilot program only looked at technical issues, not at the politics or the policy of the matter and produced the following report.
This year, the Oregon House introduced HR 2328, to implement road usage fees. Unfortunately, the bill (which is making its way through the House and has not been taken up by the Senate) only covers electric or hybrid vehicles; not all vehicles, and is intended to "make up" for the fact that these vehicles don't "pay their fair share" of gas tax. A fee of $0.0156 per mile is currently proposed within the bill; owners of hybrids who also purchase gasoline (subject to gas tax) would be eligible for a gas tax refund. One other element of the bill which I dislike is a "buyout option"; high mileage drivers can elect to pay a flat rate of $300 (equivalent to 19231 miles) rather than pay the per-mile rate.
- Pollution fees to replace the flat DEQ testing charge. A road usage fee, properly implemented, could also replace/enhance the DEQ testing program as well. DEQ inspections carry a flat fee (levied on all non-exempt vehicles every two years); this fee is only intended to cover the costs of administering the program; not to capture the cost of vehicle pollution. A useful change might be to roll the cost of testing (and pollution charges) into a RUF, so that cars which are driven more pay more. While I'm on the subject, I'd expand the emissions categories of vehicles from "exempt", "pass", and "fail"--while vehicles which fail to meet minimum standards ought to be black-flagged as before; the "pass" range would be further divided into subranges, with vehicles that pollute more being levied higher fees. (Oh, I'd also end the ridiculous practice of exempting very old cars from the DEQ testing program program. If you like driving your beautifully-restored, cherry-red '52 Filthbelcher around town, with its carbeurated engine and lack of modern emissions equipment, you should pay for the pollution this causes. No need to subsidize the hobbies of auto enthusiasts).
- Peer-to-peer car sharing. While the praises of Zipcar is sung above, not everyone will find it a useful service. Another possibility is peer-to-peer carsharing, in which owners of automobiles can make their cars available for short-term rental by others. There are legal obstacles to this, but a bill (House Bill 3149) in the Oregon Legislature designed to enable such services by requiring auto insurance policies to "play nice" with carsharing programs was recently passed by the Oregon Senate by a wide margin. (A similar version was previously passed by the House; minor technical differences between the two bills must be ironed out before it can be sent to Governor Kitzhaber for his signature).
- Per-mile leasing. One other idea which might be useful is changes to the automobile leasing market. Leasing cars has long been trickier than leasing real estate, in no larger part because vehicles lose value a lot faster than land and buildings do. The current common structure of a vehicle lease (the "closed-ended lease")--with a fixed monthly rate and a fixed term, and a mileage threshold that the lessor must keep below or incur a penalty, came into being due to abuses prevalent with open-ended leases. Were auto dealers to offer mileage-based leases, with a larger component of the payment structure mileage-dependent (something more practical with modern technology); it might help bridge the gap between automobile ownership and car-sharing. OTOH, given the nature of the used car market--I can see why leasing companies wouldn't be interested in going along.
July 22, 2011
With the recent revelations by the Oregon and Washington state treasurers that yea verily, the funding for the Columbia River Crossing is not all there, and the amount of money available from tolls is not likely enough to pay the bridge's ginormous price tag--it is good to see the editorial board of the Oregonian acknowledging the elephant in the room. The folks at the state's paper of record do insist, of course, that a new bridge is still a necessity, but recognize that funding the current plan is a problem--depending on who you ask, there is a $500 million shortfall to be made up if the current design is to be built.
One possibility mentioned by the paper--one that hasn't, too my knowledge, been considered by the CRC project committee--is a phased approach: Build part of the project now, with available funding, and part of it later, when more money falls off the proverbial tree.
The obvious phasing would be to do the bridge itself, and the intermediate interchanges, first; and then do the other interchange rebuilds--mainly in Washington--second. With the single-bridge design, mode phasing (highway first than LRT, or vice versa) is probably not a useful option, and there's probably too much mistrust between the various political factions to arrange things in that fashion.
Some may protest that by doing that--doing the important part of the project first, and then the less-important part of the project second, that the less-important part of the project simply won't ever get done. Which, of course, is precisely the point. It would be an interesting and useful analysis to determine if Just The Bridge, sans interchange work, still meets project goals and cost-effectiveness criteria (and whether it would be a serviceable MOS)--and then, if the interchange rebuilds north of SR14 pencil out as a separate project. If it turns out that the bridge-only project substantially still meets the project goals, but the interchanges are a deadweight feature, then there's no real loss in not building them.
(The other advantage of a phased approach, at least for Oregon residents, is that phase 2 might become a Washington problem. Which makes sense; I don't see the Olympia lining up to assist Oregon with any improvements to I-5 in the Rose Quarter area, improvements already being considered, which would doubtless become more pressing without the present bottleneck in place).
July 21, 2011
Under the banner of "Alternative River Crossings" (ARC) the Third Bridge Now advocacy group is hosting two upcoming events to discuss alternatives to the current Columbia River Crossing design.
Both events are at the Clark County Service Building, 1300 Franklin St., Vancouver:
July 29th 5:30-7pm
Open house and chat with elected officials
July 30th 10am-8pm
Open House with presentations every half hour from noon-5pm
In order to make up the shortfall, the CRC project committee might consider "pre-tolling": Placing a toll on the existing interstate bridge, prior to the completion of the new one. Such a scheme might raise up to $200 million for the CRC's construction.
Of course, it might also make the whole project irrelevant...
July 20, 2011
Its not often that two bloggers here happen to write an article on roughly the same subject on the same night, but that has happened tonight. (I call your attention to Chris's article below). The Oregonian reported that the Eastside Streetcar line will be opening five months behind schedule--in November 2012--and with five vehicles rather than six (due to cost overruns on the vehicle). The apparent reason? Production problems at United Streetcar, the Clackamas County subsidiary of Oregon Iron Works who is tasked with supplying the project with rolling stock.
To those who followed the saga of WES, where TriMet expended quite a bit of money keeping Colorado Railcar in business long enough to deliver the DMUs (Diesel Multiple Units) for the project, this sounds like the second verse of a very bad tune. While OIW isn't in any danger of going out of business, from outward appearances the Portland transit user is being made to suffer delays and cost overruns due to federal procurement policy--a characterization that Chris appears to dispute.
The policy in question, of course, is Buy America.
The Buy America Act
The Buy America Act is part of the 1982 Surface Transportation Assistance Act, a 1982 law which requires that US suppliers be given preference in federally-funded transit projects. Exemptions to the requirements are often granted (all of the MAX vehicles in operation are built by either Bombardier or Siemens, both foreign corporations), and BAA doesn't apply to projects which do not receive federal funding. The original Streetcar line was not federally-funded, and thus was free to choose vehicles from Škoda, a Czech company, but the current project is required to purchase vehicles made in Clackamas.
The trouble is--until recently, there were zero domestic producers of self-propelled rail transit vehicles including streetcars and DMUs/EMUs. (There are domestic suppliers of standalone locomotives and unpowered coaches, but not of the vehicles typically found in mass transit applications). The US DOT considers jumpstarting a domestic streetcar manufacturing industry to be a priority, and thus is encouraging the development of domestically-produced streetcars, and United Streetcar is the domestic supplier of note.
Despite Oregon Iron Works experience building complex equipment, it is new to the streetcar business, and streetcars are complicated machines. And despite receiving the plans for the Škoda 10T, the vehicle presently used by Portland Streetcar, the vehicle's propulsion system has been a source of headaches--the original design from Škoda was found to be unsuitable, so a new system is being procured. Getting this all up and running is proving to be a challenge. At present time, one other US transit project, the Tuscon Modern Streetcar, is slated to use United Streetcar vehicles; construction on that line begins soon, and it is slated to open in 2013.
As noted in the introduction, Buy America requirements previously ensnared the WES project. Colorado Railcar was the only domestic company capable of (or interested in) supplying FRA-compliant DMUs, and so it was the vendor of choice. And we all know what happened there. US Railcar eventually bought out what was left of Colorado Railcar and continues to make similar DMUs available.
Is this a good idea?
Many transit advocates--particular those focused on transit outcomes, and less concerned with industrial policy, strongly dislike BAA. Foreign suppliers make perfectly good vehicles, after all--why should tax dollars be spent trying to rebuild a domestic streetcar industry? Other critics of BAA, not necessarily transit supporters, make accusations of protectionism (which BAA undoubtedly is) and political favoritism. Thus, a few questions for discussion:
- Is BAA itself a good idea? If so, should its scope be expanded to public works projects beyond transit?
- Should development of a domestic transit railcar industry be a priority for the United States?
- If using domestic suppliers causes cost overruns (or additional operating costs due to poor quality products, as WES often experiences), should the transit agency be required to "eat" these costs to receive Federal funding (effectively lessening Uncle Sam's contribution), or should the US pay for any cost increases which result from its industrial policy demands?
- Do you consider it likely that United Streetcar will someday become a key local manufacturer (and when), or is it likely to remain a niche supplier, one that only receives orders when the Feds twist someone's arm?
- Should light-rail vehicles be next?
The floor is open. To manage the twin articles, I am suggesting that comments on the Portland Streetcar itself be posted on Chris's article, and that this article's comments focus on the more general questions of Buy America posed above.
The story that the Streetcar Loop won't start operation until September of 2012 has been bouncing around the internet today like 'breaking news', but it's anything but.
Back on New Year's day I answered a question on this very blog with:
"The Streetcar Loop will likely open in late 2012. The arrival of the vehicles will be the gating factor."
And the notice to FTA that we wanted to peg September 2012 as the start of service occurred back in the spring. But apparently our friends at the O just noticed...
So what happened?
Well, first of all let me note that all aspects of the project other than the vehicles are on time and on budget.
I would also note that the opening date for every segment of the Streetcar that has involved new vehicles has been driven by the vehicle delivery. It's kind of axiomatic at this point. The only thing different is that because we're getting Federal funds we need to provide an opening date much earlier in the project lifecycle than did with the locally-funded legs that preceded this. And that earlier estimate turned out to be wrong.
You will recall that a few years ago, the Federal Government provided a grant via TriMet to help create a prototype American Streetcar vehicle and Oregon Ironworks was the winning bidder. That vehicle is an adaptation of a Skoda design that OIW licensed.
In the testing and certification process for that vehicle, it became clear that the Skoda propulsion system was having challenges meeting U.S. design and safety standards for passenger rail vehicles.
BTW - the propulsion system refers not to the motors and wheels that move the vehicle, but rather to the electronics that deliver power to those motors and control speed and do things like make sure the wheels don't move when the doors are open. It's a complicated piece of control electronics.
While this was an issue for the prototype, the greater concern for the City and the board of Portland Streetcar, Inc (on which I serve - the non-profit PSI builds and operates the streetcar system under contract to the City of Portland) was that the six vehicles on order for the Loop expansion were using the same Skoda propulsion system.
OIW proposed that they partner with Rockwell to develop an American-made propulsion system. While we welcome more domestic content in the vehicle, and in fact are pursuing a Rockwell system in the prototype vehicle, the Streetcar Board and City project managers felt it was too risky to rely on a new vendor (Rockwell makes lots of transportation electronics but had never done a Streetcar system before) for opening the Loop on time. We asked OIW to consider using the system from Elin, which is in the other ten vehicles in Portland's streetcar fleet.
You can imagine that this involved a negotiation. On the one hand, OIW was asking to change the spec for the vehicles already ordered - which would generally be their cost to absorb. But we were asking for a specific system that we knew and trusted - potentially a change order on our dime. The net result was that both parties ate some of the costs - and a delay was introduced into the schedule to switch propulsion systems.
The City of Tuscon, which has seven cars on order form OIW, also opted for the Elin propulsion system.
From my perspective as a non-profit board member, the overriding priority was to deliver a system to the public with safe and reliable vehicles, and to set an opening date that the public could rely on. And that's exactly where we're at today. Surprise.
Coverage from WWeek. We now have two State Treasurers raising serious concerns about the assumptions behind the Columbia River Crossing project. Can they sway the Governors who so far seem to have been undeterred by any reality?
July 19, 2011
Apparently, the answer is "no one knows."
The Oregonian's Jeff Manning digs into the consultants' reports and finds the interesting conclusion that:
"None of these models... was specifically developed for evaluating tolling applications, and therefore all of them lack to varying degree one or more of modeling features essential for road pricing analyses." .
Washington's State Treasurer Jim McIntire has also expressed concern:
For the CRC to pay that ever-increasing debt service, it is counting on significant traffic growth and escalating tolls. The CRC's initial plan called for increasing the toll 2.5 percent every year for the 30-year life of the bonds.
McIntire doesn't like this aspect of the plan either, saying that annual toll hikes may not be politically feasible.
"I would argue that it's a pipedream," McIntire said last week. "I think we need to be upfront with people. We need level debt service and level tolls."
Oregon State Treasurer Ted Wheeler is scheduled to brief Governor Kitzhaber tomorrow. I wonder what he'll be saying?
Apparently one thing the $130M in planning so far hasn't paid for is an investment grade toll analysis...
July 18, 2011
Today, TriMet opened two new bike-and-ride facilities, secure bike parking for customers who use bicycles to reach transit, at the Beaverton and Gresham transit centers.
The Beaverton facility is the largest so far in the TriMet system, with a capacity of 100 bicycles. Unlike the previous such facility at Sunset TC; the Beaverton facility does not need to compete with cars, as TriMet offers very limited parking at Beaverton TC; according to TriMet, 12% of MAX riders using the Beaverton station access it by bicycle.
The facilities consists of a covered, secure bike storage area, with amenities such as air pumps and bike repair stations for minor maintenance of two-wheelers. Access to the bike-and-rides does cost money, however; one must periodically buy a BikeLink card ($20) to use them; bike parking deducts from the card at a rate of $0.03 per hour, or about 30 cents per day.
Of course, the question that's worth asking: Why do bikers get to pay (even though its a tiny amount), but auto parking remains free along the line? Could it be that TriMet thinks the bike-riding crowd is less likely to abandon public transit (either riding bikes the whole way, or switching to cars) if presented with a fee?
Last week Oregon Department of Transportion Director Matt Garrett announced the creation of an "Active Transportation Section" within the department.
While some speculated that this might effectively be just window dressing, BikePortland appears to believe this could be a substantive shift in a positive direction.
What do you think?
July 15, 2011
A study reported in the Business Journal indicates that at $15, downtown daily parking is still pretty cheap when compared to other large cities. Likewise for the monthly rate of $185.
In related news, Streetsblog has a take on what I think is the same study, and notes how awesome the most expensive cities are. That makes Portland ... ? Not awesome?
July 14, 2011
Much attention has been paid to reductions in TriMet's security staff and the resulting increase in fare evasion. But according to Joseph Rose at The Oregonian, the busses are dirtier, too. Health experts indicate that bacteria levels on TriMet vehicles (particularly busses with cloth seats) are most likely not a health hazard, and the new busses on order for next year will have vinyl seats and thus have fewer places where nasties can hide.
Transportation for America has an action page to encourage the Senate to take a different path on the 6-year transportation re-authorization:
Late last week the House released the outline of their transportation bill, which would cut total transportation funding by one-third, kill the tiny slice of dedicated funding for safer walking and biking, slash transit funding and leave the repair of our crumbling roads and bridges to chance.
That is hardly a vision for the 21st century.
July 13, 2011
Updated: July 13
Steve Duin follows up with some choice perspectives.
Original Post: July 11
$130M so far. The spindoctoring is the most upsetting.
July 12, 2011
I had the pleasure/horror of serving as the lead negotiator for the neighborhood in the NW Portland Parking Plan in the early part of the last decade (and I wish more success to the folks who are trying again a decade later).
But one thing I got out of that process was an understanding of what was in the pipeline for parking technology. And one of the predicted developments has arrived, paying for your parking with a cell phone. Although, I'll confess that what I expected to see was a number that you would call, followed by punching in a code. My crystal ball was not sufficient to see 'apps' in our future...
July 9, 2011
There has been much written about Google, Inc's recently announced forays into autonomous vehicles, including the recent decision by the Legislature there to legalize operation of the vehicles. While Google's efforts are still in the experimental stage, they appear to represent a significant advance in the state of the art, and have inspired much discussion on What It All Means for urban mobility in the future.
Some transit critics see the autonomous vehicle, whether privately owned or operated as driverless taxis, as displacing public transit--Randall O'Toole was quick to predict that the technology would make rail transit obsolete. Others see it as providing transit an opportunity to expand its operations. While it's too soon to make any firm predictions, it's an interesting subject to discuss.
Railroads and automatic operation
In ground-based transportation, use of automated or centralized systems to assist with vehicle operation has long been most prevalent on the railroads. Trains, especially long freight trains, have long had a fundamental safety issue: the safe stopping distance frequently exceeds the driver's line of sight. This is true both because of the length and weight of many consists, and due to the low coefficient of friction between rails and wheel. Unlike road-based vehicles, which can more or less proceed safely based on local observation, trains cannot safely operate at speed in this manner.
The earliest way of preventing train collisions was a simple one: the timetable. In addition to the other benefits of scheduled service, railroad schedules ensured that no more than one train would be in the same section of track at a time. Other crude signalling mechanisms, such as explosive charges deposited on the rails, were employed to deal with breakdowns and such. Track reservation by timetable was highly unreliable--accidents were common--and inefficient.
As technology improved, mechanical and later electric wayside signals were developed to permit finer-grained mutual exclusion of train segments. As communication technologies improved, central monitoring of signalling (and centralized operation of switches) became commonplace. Many freight systems, and much of MAX, use a modern version of this approach known as Automatic Block Signalling. In addition, MAX trains are equipped with safety devices which will stop trains that attempt to proceed past a red signal, for example. (MAX FAQs is a great resource for those wondering about MAX signalling).
ABS has its limitations, however, and some railroads go further and deploy more advanced command and control technologies, which go by such names as Automatic Train Control (which replaces wayside signals with cab signalling, and the fixed blocks of ABS with continuously-moving blocks around trains) and Positive Train Control (think of it as automated air traffic control for railroads).
None of the above technologies replace the train engineer, however. A few transit systems have gone further and implemented various types of Automatic Train Operation, which takes over some or all of the duties of the driver. In systems such as the Washington Metro (which featured automatic operation until the 2009 accident that killed 9 people), ATO was used as a capacity-enhancement measure and only during rush hour; drivers are present on the trains at all times. Vancouver's SkyTrain, on the other hand is completely driverless; under normal circumstances there are no crew members aboard. SkyTrain vehicles even lack cabs; passengers may sit in the trains' nose should the choose.
Both the Metro and SkyTrain's ATO systems are limited in many fundamental ways, however. They lack the capability to detect obstacles (or potential obstacles) on the track, and thus require segregated rights-of-way. (Both use third-rail power, as well; making the tracks unsafe for trespassers even if no train is around). And neither is capable of autonomous operation--both require constant communication with the ATC system.
An important detail of the technology being developed by Google is that it is autonomous; Google's driverless cars do not require any special infrastructure outside the car, other than ubiquitous services such as GPS. Cameras and other sensors, backed by complex image processing, detect the location of the pavement, the presence of obstacles or other vehicles, traffic control devices, and such--the onboard control system functions much as a human driver would. More reliable interfaces are possible, such as car-to-car and car-to-signal communications, but these aren't required for operation--the autonomous cars can navigate ordinary roads.
Some have suggested that assuming the technology becomes widely available, that the importance of public transit (specifically, large vehicles like busses or trains designed to carry dozens or hundreds of passengers) will be diminished. To test that claim, it is useful to examine the disdvantages of cars (for passenger travel), and see how driverless operation will change things. Disadvantages of driving (both for motorists and for society) include:
- Driving itself is inconvenient. Some motorists are auto enthusiasts--they love driving, and working on, automobiles, and often purchase cars based on their "style" or on their handling and performance characteristics, rather than on more functional criteria. For most motorists, though, driving is a pain in the butt--a chore which is an often-ignored cost of car ownership. Who enjoys sitting in rush hour traffic with their foot riding the break? Who enjoys a twelve-hour drive to Sacramento? Who enjoys circling a block looking for parking? Also, there are some people who cannot (legally) drive, due to physical disability, lack of license, or revocation of the privilege by the law.
- Cars are dangerous. Automobile collisions kill tens of thousands of people every year in the United States, and injure thousands more. In most cases, driver error is to blame. In addition, automobile traffic, particularly high-volume or high-speed traffic, is detrimental to the pedestrian environment; highways, in particular, act like walls which pedestrians are unwise to cross.
- Cars are expensive. Owning or operating an automobile costs a lot of money--they are expensive to purchase, expensive to fuel, expensive to maintain, and expensive to insure. In some locales, they are also expensive to license, operate, and park. Likewise, arrangements by which one can use an automobile without owning are either expensive (car rental, taxis) or inconvenient (informal carpools).
- Cars consume a lot of space. A single-occupant vehicle (SOV) requires, on average, about 100 square feet of real estate (including some margin outside the vehicle's footprint) to carry around the person it contains. That's a 100-square-foot patch which must move down the streets at speed, while avoiding encroaching on any other 100-square-foot patch, and which must then be parked when not in use. This consumption of space is a major problem in dense urban areas; and a common solution--less density--makes things inconvenient by spreading everything out further, requiring cars (or other mechanized transport) for trips that might otherwise be easily accomplished on foot.
- Cars consume energy and produce pollution. Along with the area consumed by cars, they weigh a lot. A 150-pound commuter lugging around a 3000-pound automobile simply to get to work is a profound waste of energy. And given that most cars today are powered by internal combustion engines, this results in a lot of filth out of the tailpipe.
Well-used public transit addresses each of these issues. Transit passengers need not operate the vehicle; transit is operated by professional drivers, and some transit already is automatic (accidents still occur, but it is rare for transit passengers to be killed about a transit vehicle); transit rides are available at low cost (and a transit pass is far less than the annual cost of owning even a beater car); and well-used transit requires a lot less space and weight per passenger. (That said, walking or biking does even better than transit on these last two issues).
What about driverless cars?
- Driverless cars solve the "driving" problem completely--rather than driving to work, one simply rides to work, and can use the time for more productive pursuits than operating a motor vehicle.
- Assuming that the technology reaches its potential, driverless cars ought to be much safer than human-driven ones--for passengers, pedestrians, and other motorists. Computers have much faster reaction times than do humans. Computers don't get drunk or tired or have bad days. Computer control systems won't engage in antisocial or aggressive behavior (assuming proper programming), and don't suffer from the need to demonstrate their machismo behind the wheel. And computers can easily be programmed not to disregard traffic controls, in particular speed limits. While automatic vehicles won't eliminate accidents, automated cars should reduce this carnage. In addition, if and when driverless vehicles become commonplace, it may become practical to build lanes or roadways on which manual operation is restricted (commercial license holders only) or prohibited altogether--and maybe manual car operation itself might be greatly restricted, with only highly-trained professional drivers being permitted behind the wheel.
- Driverless cars probably won't reduce the expense of car ownership; and may increase it, depending on how much of a premium is charged for the control system. Insurance rates will likely go down for cars operated only in automatic mode, but other expenses are not likely to be greatly affected. However, driverless cars may make it far easier for persons to have access to cars without owning one. Taxis, presently, are notoriously expensive (and often hard to find), due to the need to pay the driver. (And taxi drivers, despite the high fares, generally earn a pittance). Driverless taxis, on the other hand, will likely become ubiquitous, and arrangements such as "share taxis" might become more practical. Driverless automobiles will also make other arrangements such as car rental and car-sharing more practical. The delivery problem (how to get the car from the garage to the user) will go away, as might concerns about liability and insurance (again, assuming that manual operation of shared cars is not permitted) which presently frustrate car rental. (That said, Hertz will still try and sell you worthless collision damage waivers...)
- Driverless cars will help greatly with the parking problem, even for unshared vehicles, simply by permitting parking to be relocated away from the home or jobsite. (Shared vehicles might not need to be parked at all, other than overnight). Rather than having distributed parking all over the place (with valuable street real estate consumed for on-street parking, and each business with a parking lot intended to handle their individual peak loads), parking could be centralized at an out-of-the-way location. When someone goes to work, they are dropped off at the office, then the car travels to a central garage for storage (having already reserved a parking space electronically); at the end of the day, the car is summoned, picks up the commuter, who then heads home. The effects of driverless cars on congestion are a bit less clear. If a roadway is reserved for driverless cars only, the carrying capacity of the road will increase significantly; and by solving the parking problem one also solves the circling-the-block-looking-for-parking problem. However, the need to travel to and from central garages might increase congestion, particularly if centralized parking is concentrated in a particular space.
- Addition of control systems shouldn't materially change the weight of vehicles; however fuel efficiency should improve for several reasons. Reduction of congestion and of aggressive driving habits (which often waste fuel) will improve fuel efficiency assuming no changes in the fleet; and anything that can be done to encourage carpooling will have a corresponding reduction in fuel consumption and pollution.
A more important advantage might be greater fleet specialization. Right now, many commuters get to work in large vehicles such as SUVs which are particularly inefficient at transporting single occupants (with minimal, if any, baggage) to and from locations on the improved street network. However, these commuters may have hobbies or other circumstances which require ownership of a large vehicle--and at that point, it's more cost-effective to drive the Expedition to work than it is to purchase an additional vehicle for the commute. By reducing the barriers to car-sharing, it may become more practical for more motorists to deploy appropriate vehicles for differing circumstances: a family could own a small, fuel-efficient (or electric) car for commuting, and then rent the gas-guzzling SUV for trips to the lake or other circumstances where the greater power, size, or clearance is needed.
How will this affect transit?
Many transit critics assume an auto-normalized environment--that the natural state of affairs is for low-density, auto-centric development, and that transit is only useful or effective for specific exceptions to the norm (high density, transport for the poor), often as a result of government interference. A common assumption is that people intensely dislike both high-density living, as well as travel in large communal vehicles--and that any way in which automatic cars can alleviate the problem with driving, will result in a mode shift away from transit back to the automobile.
For some people, this is certainly true--and I expect that certain applications of transit will become less prevalent. In particular, the express bus--which appeals to commuters who dislike driving in rush-hour traffic (though don't mind being stuck on it while riding a bus), and/or wish to avoid parking downtown, but prefer to user personal cars for trips other than the commute--may disappear. Most transit agencies won't consider this a great loss--express bus is an inefficient service to provide. (One concern might be a loss of political support for transit from suburbanites). Likewise, other arrangements may become practical for the frequently-empty social service routes through suburbia--again, a service which is inefficient to provide.
However, in dense urban areas, where stowing and parking a car is frequently expensive and difficult (regardless if manual or automatic), I don't expect automatic cars to displace transit, simply due to the space aspect. A collection of small cars, even all running on autopilot (and packed onto the roadway like sardines), simply lacks the people-moving capacity of a rapid transit line.
More importantly, autonomous operation will provide advantages to the transit system as well.
Autonomous vehicles can reduce or eliminate the "last mile" problem associated with transit. Rather than needing to build park-and-rides to attract suburbanites (who live in neighborhoods ill-suited to quality bus service) to rapid transit, one can simply ride to the train station, get on the train, and have the car return home (where it can then be used by other members of the family); and repeat the operation in reverse for the commute home. This not only reduces the need to consume real estate to store cars during the day, it can reduce the number of cars a household needs. (And easier carsharing can eliminate the temptation to have a "spare" car on hand in case one breaks down).
But the most important factor to consider is this: Transit vehicles may become autonomous as well.
Right now, the biggest expense for transit systems in the developed world is labor. TriMet's service levels are not presently limited by the amount of rolling stock or by the capacity of the infrastructure--the agency has plenty more busses and trains in its garages than it currently operates, especially at non-peak times. They're limited by the agency's ability to pay for drivers. If that factor is eliminated; we could easily have frequent service throughout the entire network, making transit a more realistic option for a larger number of people. (Obviously, this will require throwing hundreds of drivers out of work--a factor which should not be overlooked in these discussions).
Furthermore, and this should make the libertarians happy, autonomous transit may actually become a profitable enterprise rather than one which requires a public subsidy; with the result that private operators and not TriMet or C-TRAN run many (or even all) of the mass transit services in town.
The production and deployment of autonomous vehicles, including mass transit vehicles, may bring about significant changes to how transport is arranged. It may increase the number of SOV trips (albeit making them more efficient) by eliminating some of the disadvantages of driving and vehicle ownership; but at the same time it might actually reduce the size of the vehicle fleet. It may result in a shift away from inefficient transit services, and better service in the urban environments where transit thrives. It may even result in a fundamental shift of who provides transport services to the public.
My suspicion, however, is that widespread use of autonomous vehicles will be a net win for sustainability--even if fundamentally alters, or even eliminates, the current ways that public transport is provided. When couples with the pressure of rising energy prices, autonomous vehicles may shatter some currently-held assumptions that presently abound in middle-class American society, such as the belief that households need one car per driver; and it may make urban living more attractive and available as the size of the fleet is reduced. It may end up greatly reducing public transit as we know it today--perhaps limiting it to operation of high-capacity corridors which require extensive infrastructure. But speaking for myself--my interest is not in defending the turf of TriMet, or of any other particular agency. My interest is in providing efficient and sustainable mobility to the people, and in particular in alternatives to the SOV.
But my crystal ball is probably no more clear on this topic than that of anyone else.
July 8, 2011
Tomorrow, July 9 2011, the Oregon Electric Vehicle Association will be presenting Electric Vehicle Celebration Day 2011 at Pioneer Courthouse Square from 9:30 AM to 5:00 PM. The event is a "summer event that OEVA organizes to display our vehicles and educate the general public about EV benefits."
July 7, 2011
I suspect the White House may be regretting that they didn't put through a Transportation re-authorization bill two years ago when Jim Oberstar, the Democratic chair of the House Transportation Committee, pushed for it.
Today John Mica, the Republican chair of the same committee released a draft of the reauthorization bill that cuts spending by 35%, eliminates many specific programs (like Transportation Enhancements) that are friendly to non-auto modes and primarily directs the funds remaining to state DOTs (many of us would prefer a bias toward sending money directly to Metropolitan Planning Organizations).
Reaction was swift from Transportation for America:
We are particularly concerned at the proposal to eliminate dedicated funding that helps provide more safe options for walking and biking.and from House Democrats, including Oregon's Peter DeFazio:
While Chairman Mica indicated an intent to preserve the historic share of 20 percent for transit, the overall effect is a devastating cut that leaves us well short of the amount required to meet rising demand for transit service, especially in this time of severe fiscal constraints.
We need a transportation plan that puts Americans back to work, improves our crumbling infrastructure, and helps get our economy back on track. Today, the Republicans are offering a plan that slashes the budget for critical transportation and infrastructure spending in this county. Their proposal jeopardizes the safety of our traveling public, will cost us nearly 500,000 jobs, and puts us at an economic disadvantage with our competitor nations .... We need robust investment and this proposal does not measure up.
BikePortland notes that over the life of the bill, this would represent a reduction to Oregon of about $1 Billion.
Local observers of the Columbia River Crossing project took note that there is no dedicated category for projects of national significance. Project critic Joe Cortright notes:
It doesn't look like there's any chance of "new money" as part of reauthortization. That means, if Congress does earmark particular projects, it has the effect of cutting money that would otherwise flow to the states for transportation. This really puts the lie to the claim that CRC is going to get $400 million in earmarks without affecting any other revenue that would otherwise come to the state.
July 6, 2011
Listen to the show (mp3, 24.4MB)
The Bike Show welcomes guests John Gorham, Wake Gregg and Chris Smith, three people for whom cycling has helped transform their health. All three suffer from serious health issues that cycling treats or manages-- even with busy life/work schedules that challenge regular exercise. We discuss how they made the small daily changes that make big differences in their overall well being, and hear their advice on how to get started improving your health by using a bicycle.
According to the Columbian, Congresswoman Jaime Herrera Beutler doesn't feel she can advocate for Columbia River Crossing construction funding unless the vote for transit operating support is extended to the full C-TRAN service district.
July 5, 2011
I've been an advocate for "active transportation" - walking, biking and transit - since getting involved in public policy in Portland more than 15 years ago. But eight years ago when I was diagnosed with Type 2 Diabetes it became something more for me, a very important part of managing my health.
Tomorrow I'll be a guest on the KBOO Bike Show discussing this, along with several other people for whom cycling has had an important health impact.
11AM-Noon, Wednesday, July 6th
KBOO FM 90.7
Streamed live at KBOO.fm
Podcast here later that day
July 4, 2011
Talking with people for whom cycling has been an important contributor to their health.
11AM-Noon, Wednesday, July 6th
KBOO FM 90.7
Streamed live at KBOO.fm
Podcast here later that day
TriMet's frequent service network is an important element of the regional transportation system. But there's a larger network (which includes the frequent network) which offers a level of service lower than the FS network, but which is nonetheless a critical service gradient. I speak of seven-day service.
TriMet has generated (and received) a lot of publicity for its frequent service network. While TriMet's definition of "frequent" is lackluster by international standards (in many parts of the world, "frequent service" means "you can always see the next bus/train coming", not "every 15 minutes during rush hour"), having service that runs frequently enables the rider to simply show up and catch a bus, without having to worry (too much) about a schedule. TriMet's example helped inspire many other agencies (and transit activists unconnected with the agencies they patronize) to produce their own frequent service maps, highlighting the parts of the system which are convenient to use.
However, there's a lower standard of service, offered by many (but not all) TriMet lines, which is also important: seven-day-service. Many TriMet offerings aren't frequent, running only at half-hourly (or worse) headways, but at least run seven days of the week. Just as frequent service is an important service gradient in that it enables riders to throw away the timetable; seven-day service is important because they can throw away the calendar.
When an area is well-served by seven-day service, this makes car-free living practical, as residents will always have some access to transit, at least during daylight hours. In areas only served with a lesser standard of service--both weekday-only and six-day (no Sundays) service are commonplace in the region--there's at least one day of the week when people need another way to get around. While far less commerce occurs on Sundays than other days, it still occurs; and weekends are of particular importance for retail employers. Why is this important? Many retail jobs are lower-paying; and many retail workers are thus likely to be transit users. But if their job requires them to work weekends, it's too far to walk or bike, and the bus isn't running... this provides an incentive to go out and buy a car. And once that is done, there's little more incentive to use transit at all--much of the expense of car ownership is incurred even when the car sits in the garage.
As a result, ideally all lines providing primarily residential service ought to have seven-day service at a minimum.
There are a few exceptions, of course.
- Peak-hour commuter lines which are redundant with a regular-service seven-day line, such as the TriMet 99.
- Lines which primarily exist to serve an office park, factory, college, or other facility which is not open seven days a week.
- Commuter lines which, while not redundant with seven-day service, are targeted towards white-collar commuters with M-F schedules.
Beyond that, lines which don't run every day are limiting their potential ridership base.
Where are the seven-day lines?
To highlight the importance of seven-day service, we have created a seven-day service map. A thumbnail is below, here for a full-size map. It is an "integrated" map which includes both TriMet and C-TRAN routes. (Unfortunately, SMART offers no Sunday service anywhere in the system).
For those who prefer prose to pictures, here's a list of all the seven-day service routes, including the frequent service ones. Note that several frequent-service routes only offer frequent service over part of the line, with a lesser standard of service at the extremities.
TriMet's seven-day routes are:
- 4-Division/Fessenden. FS
- 6-MLK Jr. Boulevard. FS.
- 8-Jackson Park/NE 15th. FS. It would be rather useful if TriMet could extend this one to Delta Park to connect with the Yellow Line and C-TRAN, by the way.
- 9-Powell/Broadway. FS between downtown and I-205; 7-day service in NE Portland and E. of I-205.
- 12-Barbur/Sandy Blvd. FS between King City and Parkrose; 7-day service between Sherwood and King City and east of Parkrose.
- 14-Hawthorne. FS.
- 15-Belmont/NW 23rd. FS between NW 23rd and Gateway; branches west of NW 23rd.
- 17-Holgate/NW 21st, between downtown and 134th/Holgate. (No Sunday service to Sauvie Island).
- 31-King Rd, between Milwaukie and Clackamas Town Center (no Sunday service downtown)
- 33-McLoughlin. FS from Oregon City TC north; all-day non frequent service to Clackamas Community College.
- 44-Capitol Hwy/Mocks Crest
- 45-Garden Home, between Tigard and Multnomah Village (no Sunday service downtown)
- 54-Beaverton-Hillsdale Hwy FS east of Raleigh Hills (multiplex with 56). 7-day service to Beaverton.
- 56-Scholls Ferry Road. FS east of Raleigh Hills (multiplex with 54); 7-day service to Washington Square.
- 57-TV Hwy/Forest Grove. FS
- 58-Canyon Rd
- 62-Murray Bvld
- 70-12th Ave
- 71-60th/122nd Ave (by far the most oddly-shaped route in the system)
- 72-Killingsworth/82nd. FS
- 73-NE 33rd Ave
- 75-Lombard/39th (Cesar Chavez). FS.
- 78-Beaverton/Lake Oswego
- 79-Clackamas/Oregon City
- 80-Kane/Troutdale Rd
- 3-City Center.
- 4-Fourth Plain. FS.
- 7-Battle Ground
- 25-Fruit Valley and St. Johns
- 32-Hazel Dell & Evergreen/Andresen.
- 37-Highway 99 and Mill Plain. 20-minute headways.
- 78-78th Street
- 80-Vancouver Mall/Fischer's Landing
Corrections to the above table/map are of course welcome. I seldom visit Vancouver and and not very familiar with C-TRAN's system, so it is likely to contain errors in particular. Have a happy Fourth!
July 1, 2011
(Updated July 5th - Original version contained a typo. If you have embedded or posted a link to the original video, please update your links. Thank you.)
Just prior to yesterday's groundbreaking ceremony (video here) for the new transit bridge over the Willamette river, Rob Barnard, TriMet's director of the Portland-Milwaukie Light Rail Project, gave a presentation covering the bridge design and construction techniques. He also took a few questions from the audience. Rob's PowerPoint slides are integrated into this video, along with some additional footage and maps.
Well, we're now halfway through 2011, and so time for another open thread.
The big news is that on July 1, the official groundbreaking for the Portland-Milwaukie Light Rail project occurs; with construction already starting on the last day of June (Bob has the scoop) here, as does Joseph Rose at the Oregonian. In other business:
- PBOT considering adding parking meters to Grand and MLK. Local business owners predictably unhappy at removal of city-subsidized free parking.
- Metro has a new development project in East County.
- "I'm tired of all these [expletive] scorpions on this [expletive] plane!"
Bob should be back soon with more coverage of the MLR groundbreaking--but remember; anything which is on topic is fair game in the open thread. Have a happy and prosperous Fourth!