Population Growth and Regional Traffic

Yesterday’s Oregonian had a good front page story on traffic, capturing the essence of the issues facing this region and others: roads filling up as population and rates of car ownership increase along with the decline of major national investment in new transportation infrastructure.

Whether you think these trends are “good” or “bad” the key to smart, sustainable decisions is recognizing that this is the new reality. People will continue to move to large urban areas, mostly on the two coasts (the southern coast shouldn’t be so attractive one hopes after two devastating hurricanes). Most transportation tax revenues will go to maintaining an aging system rather than building new.

As Mr. Dylan said, “The times they are a’changing.” Our responsibility is to see these changes clearly and be willing to decide to do things differently in response. The goals remain the same: getting people, jobs and stuff together efficiently and safely–its the means that must change.

Currently, work is underway to update the Oregon Transportation Plan, being led by Oregon Transportation Commission member, Gail Achterman. A broad steering committee, with support from an array of technical experts, has been working for over a year transforming what is mainly a departmental workplan into a strategic plan for the state, laying out threats and opportunities for enhancing the economy and protecting our quality of life focusing on the issue of transportation. The full Commission will hear and refer the draft OTP out to the public for comment in November.

A key conclusion of this work is that we need to pay much more attention to how our transportation system, especially roads, is used to maximize our huge investment. A main promoter of this idea is Duncan Wyse, representing the Oregon Business Council.

In a refreshing change from the common theme of government failure coming from many in the business community, Mr. Wyse has pushed the very business-like idea of wringing more out of what we already have before buying more, very expensive facilities. In a strange confluence of interests, we have libertarians like John Charles of the Cascade Policy Institute, business interests and environmentalists calling for tolling roads as a way to increase efficiency and save money.

Are we at that tipping point? Will $3 a gallon gas, anti-tax and anti-sprawl attitudes and good business sense combine to give us a new paradigm for transportation? Stay tuned.

25 responses to “Population Growth and Regional Traffic”

  1. This seems very timely when combined with the report that was presented at TPAC forecasting 1.1M new people in the region by 2030.

    Even with tremendous gains in mode-share for alternative modes I’m not sure we can accomodate current rates of mobility for that many new people! It seems to me that we have to pay even more attention to our land use strategy and create a region in which all of us can lead our lives with fewer total miles of travel each day, regardless of which mode we use.

    I was mildly encourages to see that average daily miles per person had been reduced in the last few years. Some of that may be due to recent higher unemployment, but I’d like to think some of it can be attributed to our land use planning.

  2. When will we get to the point that we recognize that we need to open the transportation business to other providers? Trimet does not provide many of those living in the metro area with much in the way of services. We need to look at allowing other companies an opportunity to provide the public with transit services. RAZ, Blue Star, Greyline and many other companies offer fine deluxe accomodations for their customers. We have shuttle services to the airport for the flying class. BUT WE HAVE POOR, or NO SERVICES (emphasis intended)in the inner city low income neighborhoods, for the disabled, during off peak hours and connecting suburbs. Yet it remains virtually impossible to open a transportation business whether you are a part-timer or a corporation wishing to try your hand at offering such services. RAZ, Blue Star and any other company or individual that wishes should be allowed to enter the local market and compete. Many of the companies have skills both in customer services as well as running a business that might just prove to be a market leader. New ideas and innovations are being throttled to death by regulations and low income people are suffering and the taxpayers are picking up the burden.
    Many of the same people who are thrilled by thevalue of the “open source network” in computing
    seem to close their minds to the value of openess in the transportation business.

  3. Most of the decline in avearage daily miles is probably a natural result of increased congestion. As trips take longer, people choose to travel shorter distances whether to work, shop or for recreation. And, of course, some people walk, bike or use transit as alternatives as well.

    When we add capacity we restore those longer trips. That is not entirely without benefits. Shorter trips mean a smaller market for any business at a specific location. They can attract customers from a smaller area and they can hire people from a smaller area. It also means people have fewer choices.

    Providing for longer trips allows businesses to serve a larger market and gives people more choices for jobs, shopping and services.

    The problem is that there is rarely any real discussion of these actual benefits of new capacity because the phony claims for economic growth and easing congestion make the costs of new capacity sound far more attractive.

  4. The Need for Bus Service Expansion

    Improving and expanding the bus system is the quickest and most cost-effective way to keep traffic congestion in check.

    In the past 20 years, freeway traffic has doubled and TriMet has built an effective light rail system that carries 100,000 trips a day, but regrettably, has allowed it’s bus system to stagnate with only a 5% increase in service which has yielded only a 14% increase in ridership.

    As the Metro Area has grown, many regional travel corridors are now heavily congested with traffic but enjoy no transit service. Unfortunately, according to its’ 2005 Transit Investment Plan, TriMet has no intention to provide this service in the foreseeable future.

  5. Michael, I’m not aware of anyone beating down the door to offer transportation services and being denied the ability to do so. Do you have examples? I suspect the issue is actually that most service needs to be subsidized, particularly when targeted at a lower income population.

    And of course, TriMet provides LIFT service for the disabled.

  6. Chris, I do not have the city taxi cab regualtions in hand, but they are somewhere around here and they do limit the number of cabs that operate in the city. Those that do have permits must, as I recall, operate city wide. Last time a company was added to the system I believe that more than one wanted in.
    Jitneys were outlawed in Portand about 1915 when they began to compete with the streetcar system. As I recall the Prez of the firm that held the franchise to run the streetcar system, a man named Griffith, came out from Pittsburgh to argue the case in the press to outlaw them. More information can be obtained from two journals.
    See “The Jitneys” Journal of Law and Economics 15 (1972): p 293-325 and “The Streetcar: Shaper of American Cities” Traffic Quarterly 21 (1967): 569.
    These articles give us some history of the bias against competition and what happened across America in the early part of the last century.
    There certainly were more people wanting to get into the market as providers when the Airport shuttle service was open, or the “towncar” business was less regulated.
    As for the use by low income people lots of them spend more today on their own cars because they have no other choice. In doing so they spend much more than the 15% average that Mr. Burkholder
    mentioned in his op-ed piece. In fact many spend as much as 40% of their income on transportation.
    They might need to spend a lot less if the market was open and given history could do so without a subsidy.
    As to Trimet’s disabled service: unless the rules have recently changed, you have to notify them 24 hours in advance. When I needed to get to the hospital the other day in a rush they would not have done me any good in that case. Relating to this I do believe the Oregon Health Plan pays Trimet about $10 million a year for transit services, a number that might be reduced and put to better use if there were more providers. Especially ones with innovative ideas.

  7. The problem with most public transit is that it really only works as a monopoly enterprise. You need interconnections, bus shelters, etc. If you allow private companies to choose only the most profitable routes you quickly have great bus service on Hawthorne to downtown Portland and even less service to most of the rest of the region. Of course the result is that even the use of the Hawthorne lines drop since there are fewer destinations.

    The Cascade Policy Institute talks a lot about jitneys and competition, but when they start actually dealing with the details of the system they simply shift to giving companies a monopoly on street corners where they can pick up customers. So customers still have no choice unless they are willing and able to walk further to a competitors stop.

    If you let everyone pick up at every corner you end up having buses racing one another to pick up customers first. If someone sets a schedule and publicizes it, a competitor will simply come by three minutes ahead of them and take all the customers.

  8. Mr. Williams writes: “The problem with most public transit is that it really only works as a monopoly enterprise.”
    And you have studies to support this comment?
    Atlantic City New Jersey has had jitneys runnning since the early part of the last decade. Today there are about 200 on the streets running 24/7 for a fare comprable to Trimet’s and they are private and unsubsidized.
    For awhile, due to a legislative error, the market was open on south Florida and quite a number worked there. New York City has had grey taxis and jitneys running illegally for years. Though the law may have recently made some legal.
    Detriot has had a number of private people working in poorer neighborhoods offering illegal transportation services to others again, for years. Seems to work well in some places.
    Jane Jacobs has suggested that the U.S. needs to adopt this type of service.
    It is available in many other coutries.
    And the world’s best transportatition system is in Curitiba, Brazil and it consist of ten companies. They are private and unsubsidized and offer transportation to about threequarters of the daily commuters, or roughly 1.5 million people.
    It appears to me that in the U.S., including Portland, we are afraid to innovate when it comes to transit. That the lack of innovation leads to high cost, poor service, especially to low income people, and a host of other problem.
    It is time to open the market at booth ends of the spectrum and allow innovation to flow.

  9. Ross Williams is correct. It costs a lot of money to build and operate a transit system, and therefore, it makes sense to help it get as much riders as possible. In fact, it is just like the water, sewer, cable TV, telephone and other services.

    If a competitor could selectively replace some TriMet bus runs, wouldn’t they take the ones that might just generate a profit for TriMet (or at least make the system as a whole look better financially)? If so, doesn’t this result in less money for lesser-used routes?

    Would the private services run instead of TriMet trips (vs. competing with them)? Can Jitneys and the like fully replace bus service? If not, doesn’t that only lead to the bus service needing higher subsidies because of less riders?

    What would a private operator sacrifice in order to make money? Pay? Safety?

    Oh, and I don’t know about Portland, but in West Salem, the competitor came 5 mins earlier:

    “When Oregon Motor Stages determined to take over an independent, suburban loop route which was operated by Dwight Wyatt during the late ‘40s they ran a bus five minutes ahead of the existing bus and forced it out of business.”

    The bottom line is that we have set up a car culture, and as a result there are not enough riders to go around to have more than one provider. Look at the Big Pipe–at least partly needed because of road runoff but no part of it paid with road user fees. Look at Washington County’s Major Streets Transportation Investment Plan, where property taxes are used to widen roads, which seems to discourage transit ridership. Look at new schools and other subsidies that encourage low-density development.

    And just which inner-city neighborhoods have a lack of service?

  10. So which jurisdiction is it that prohibits jitneys? I’d like to read the code. I suspect there are opportunity to use new modes of communication (cell phones, text messages, etc.) to make jitneys work more efficiently.

  11. Michael, if TriMet were to provide more service to areas you are talking about, how many people would ride it? Yes, there are some bus trips that aren’t well used and pretty subsidized, but even TriMet realizes that they have to draw the line somewhere. Even their ideal Frequent Service line wouldn’t come every 15 mins at 11 PM.

  12. On the tolls issues; there isn’t another way to do what needs to be done in Portland and down the I5 Corridor (road and rail), since Oregon is tapped out trying to keep schools open and the lower incomes families in good health.

    At some point, we will need to support the coastal highways through tolling them and also US26 and Sanitam Pass Highway to central Oregon. Certain segments (summit passes) of both ranges will be tolled is what I would predict. Basically, a Barlow Trail in the 21st Century.

    My personnel hope is we use the capital (toll fees) for maintenance to the system and for upgrades to certain critical economic “hot spot” roads and rails and also for High Speed Rail along the I5 Corridor (then later to the east). At some point, getting from the Washington border to the California border will not be cheap by car or could become impossible if rationing is mandated.

    My prediction is for North/South high speed rail service to become very cost-efficent and East/West air service to continue for many years since any high speed rail service would first go to Los Angeles from the East.

    And if oil costs continue their slow, unavoidable rise (or even permanent rationing) then we have to start planning for a time when long distance travel is not by the family SUV.

    I would like us to stay connected to our neighbors that share our common goals (sorry Idaho, you don’t like thinking progressively ;-) ).

    Ray Whitford

  13. The problem with tolls is that none of them will actually cover the cost of a new facility. The current gas tax does not even cover the maintenance costs of existing facilities. So any new capacity is essentially being paid for with deferred maintenance on the rest of the system.

    I’m not sure that toll roads will even recover the long term maintenance cost they create, but they will certainly not pay for the total construction costs. So building toll roads will require additional deferred maintenance on the rest of the system.

  14. I suspect the issue is actually that most service needs to be subsidized, particularly when targeted at a lower income population.

    “Most” meaning public transportation? Tri-Met is heavily subsidized. They only charge $1.80 to ride, but their costs are nearly $11 per rider, each trip. They say they move 100,000 people per day? Thats a whole lot of tax money that could be used for roads. Seems like a loser for the taxpayers to me.

    And what does the population’s income have to do with it? Everyone pays the same to ride.

  15. The issue with income level is that if the price point for non-subsidized profitable services is north of $5.00 how many low income people can afford that?

    It seems to me that the key to keeping jitney costs low is good information, so that passengers can be efficiently organized into trips going in the direction.

  16. Trimet had $331 million dollar budget in 2004 with a ridership of 91 million. That is less than $4 per trip. For many employers who pay the Trimet tax there are real benefits from having their employees able to use transit. This is one of the reasons that locations with good access to transit, such as downtown Portland, are much more expensive.

  17. People aren’t moving to urban areas; they are moving to the suburban rings. We need to encourage decentralization of our business districts and “reverse” commuting patterns, and make sure those are efficient. We need to stop focusing our development solely on the central city and encourage retail and business development outside of the city core.

  18. “People aren’t moving to urban areas; they are moving to the suburban rings.”

    I don’t know what you base this on. Housing in Portland gets more expensive the closer you get to downtown. The same house in Gresham, Beaverton or Vancouver can cost two or three times as much in the inner city neighborhoods in Portland. If people are moving to the suburban ring its because its cheaper, not because it is more desirable.

    There is a lot of work being done to develop business outside of downtown Portland. That is what all the talk of regional and town centers is about.

    The problem is that when you start talking about the transportation system, the suburban system continues to be focused on moving people long distances rather than giving better access to those regional centers. Take a look at the plans for Highway 217. Highway 217 runs through two regional centers (Beaverton and Washington Square) and connects to a town center (Tigard). Yet the plans for improvements are all focused on traffic going past these centers rather than giving better access for those trying to get into and out of the centers. There was even talk about reducing access so that the traffic on the highway will flow better.

  19. Maybe we need a new paradigm altogether: reduced government controls; privitization.

    Not of our bus or light rail systems, but what is popular in other cities: low-cost ‘minivan taxis’ that operate illegally in other countries and provide low-cost transportation. They could be licensed here and be allowed to run predefined routes through the city, operating, essentially, as mini-buses. We could even setup

    I think its a sad thing that we regulate everything out of existence, including competition and innovation. This, to me, seems like an interesting – and cheap – way of getting people to carpool into work. Any comments on this?

  20. I am not convinced that government regulation has anything to do with the absence of the kind of service you suggest. I think the market simply wouldn’t support it. Where it does support it, such as hotels to the airport, the service is there.

  21. Those of you interested in a city with actual working jitneys may wish to check out the following site http://jitney.bigstep.com/aboutus.html.
    It is about Atlantic City’s jitney assoc. and has rate, (there cheaper than Trimet) and some history. Yes they are private an unsubsidized.
    And Chris I am not a lawyer, but my reading of the Portland code on the for-hire transportation business suggest to me that Portland makes it illegal to own such a service here and of course they are illegal in most American cities.

  22. I had the impression from aomewhere that the jitney operations in Atlantic City were financed in part by local hotels and casinos. So while there is no government subsidy, they are not covering their costs from fares either. There are probably other tourist areas like Atlantic City where similar “jitney” services operate. I don’t know that makes it a workable model for a large city’s transportation systems.

  23. Ross I rode the jitneys in Atlantic City long before the Casinos where there, or much of anything else.

  24. Ross writess: If people are moving to the suburban ring its because its cheaper, not because it is more desirable.

    You are presuming without any evidence that people would choose the same house in a dense urban setting and in a decentralized suburban setting. It seems to me that 50 years of American migration patterns contradicts that claim.

    More importantly, how can you possibly separate the two? Housing is more desirable exactly BECAUSE it is cheaper. The same $250,000 in Gresham buys you 2400 sq ft, a larger lot, and more convenient shopping and everyday driving.

    But I think we generally agree on regional centers, but I don’t agree that the Portland area is doing a lot in this area. Most of the major intiatives are all targeted at close in urban dwellers.

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