The plight of the auto-dependent motorist

A discussion of the “auto dependent” and “choice” motorists.

In many public transit circles, a distinction is made between “choice” and “dependent” or (“captive”) riders–the latter being those users of transit who don’t have other options (particularly the automobile) at their disposal, and the former being those who do. This dichotomy is often criticized, for various reasons, including:

  • Its a false dichotomy which does not accurately characterize the complexities of choices available to people. Many people find transit more suitable for some trips and driving for others (and walking for others still), and act accordingly. In addition, there is the matter of the “transit dependent by choice”–those who have the ability (financial and legal) to drive but choose not to own a car, and thus are at the mercy of the local transit authority–are they “choice riders” or not?
  • It may encourage inequitable behavior by transit agencies, such as neglecting the needs of dependent riders rather than treating them like valued customers. At a minimum, there is tremendous pressure for transit agencies to focus on attracting new riders, which can lead them to take their existing ones for granted.
  • It promotes “auto-normative” thinking and the “desperate or dedicated theory”, framing public transit as a manifestly inferior solution–something which is only selected either as a mode of last resort, or one which represents an altruistic sacrifice of some sort on the part of the user. Of course, many public transit offerings are demonstrably inferior to driving (from the point of view of the user)–but in some areas the reverse is true.

And with the last bullet in mind, it is useful (as an intellectual exercise, if nothing else) to invert the usual assumptions—thus this article is about the “two types of motorists”: auto-dependent ones, and choice drivers.

The plight of auto-dependency

A dependent driver is one for whom there are no reliable travel options other than the automobile–i.e. one who does not reasonable access to public transit and is forced to drive (or ride in) an automobile to get anywhere, particularly for longer distances for which walking is impractical. A choice driver, on the other hand, is one who has good access to transit, but drives anyway. (There are also the auto-dependent-by-choice; those who could afford to live in transit-friendly places like the Pearl, but instead choose to live in transit-hostile neighborhoods, like, say, Cooper Mountain).

Many of the transit critics who read this blog probably are scoffing right about now, and consider this whole discussion preposterous. Even some transit supporters probably are having a good chuckle right now, and wondering to themselves if there might be medications I forgot to take. And–such auto-normative thinking can be forgiven; especially in the United States. The US has spent the better part of a century promoting the automobile–culturally, economically, and politically–that driving a car is ingrained into most Americans’ thinking. And for the linguistically inclined, the word “automobile” contains the Greek stem “auto”, meaning self–a prefix also found in other words like “autonomous”, “autodidact”, and “automatic”. To many, having a car means independence, not dependence–it means being able to travel at a time that suits you, rather than at a time that suits the transit agency.

Independent of what?

However, this notion of automotive independence is dependent on a whole lot of things. It’s dependent on a massive network of paved roads connecting the vast majority of developed places in the land, as well as quite a few undeveloped locations as well. Without this network of pavement, many types of automobiles would be impractical, as would high-speed travel. It depends, likewise, on a massive fuel distribution infrastructure that provides cheap gas at convenient locations–pipelines and shipping terminals, military force to defend these, refineries, fuel trucks, and gas stations. Were this not there, modern gasoline-powered equipment simply would not run. (Other power sources may still be tractable). And it depends on the existence of other automotive industries–auto parts, towing services, and repair shops, most notably. During the early history of the automobile, it was commonly expected that those who could drive cars should also know how to fix them; it wasn’t until a critical mass of automobiles were on the road that professional auto repair became a lucrative industry. (In some parts of the world, this is still the case).

Automobile independence also assumes that one can drive. There are many people who cannot–due to age, physical disability, or having the privilege revoked by society.

That said, the US has, in the vast majority of the country, the necessary infrastructure to make driving convenient. We’ve got the millions of miles of paved roads, the gas stations and pipelines and refineries and fleet of tanker trucks. We’ve got car dealerships and repair shops in every town, and the world’s biggest military. And we’ve got an aggressive lobby that makes sure none of this is threatened.

The economics of getting places

The economics of transit vs the economics of auto ownership also play a part. Driving a car has several barriers to entry: You have to be able to afford the up-front capital costs to buy one (or qualify for financing)–even clunkers aren’t cheap–and you have to be able to license and insure yourself (or else break the law). Many of the costs associated with automobile use are fixed–if you have a car, you pay for insurance, license fees, taxes, and a good part of the depreciation regardless of whether you drive it or not. Car-sharing services can mitigate the expense somewhat, but not completely. Transit, on the other hand, has a very low barrier to entry for users–you only pay for what you use; and most systems provide volume discounts to frequent riders of some sort or another. Thus, its a lot easier to be priced out of car ownership than it is to be priced off the bus. Unless, there is no bus.

That was now. This is later

With all that said, there are very good reasons to be concerned about maintaining the automobile infrastructure into the future; and very good reasons why auto dependence is a problem for the poor today.

The Portland area has, over the years, seen a shift in poverty from inner-city neighborhoods to neighborhoods further flung out. It wasn’t that long ago that inner neighborhoods like Albina had bad reputations (partially due to legitimate crime and poverty statistics, partially due to racist attitudes)–nowadays, the poor are more likely to be found in places like Rockwood, Aloha, King City, or south of Lents. Close-in real estate is generally expensive in Portland. And the denser parts of town are where the best transit service is. Rockwood and other parts of SE are reasonably well-served by transit (with MAX lines and parallel frequent service lines); but some of the poor neighborhoods in Washington and Clackamas Countys are not. And looking beyond the region–quite a bit of poverty to be found in the country is in rural areas, where transit (even of the bare-bones variety) simply does not exist. In many of these places, people are truly auto-dependent–there is no other option.

And if you’re poor, owning an automobile is an expensive proposition. A 2003 study by the Surfact Transportation Policy Project found that on average, Americans spend 20% of the household budget on transportation; a figure that for the poor, balloons to over 40%. And this was nearly a decade ago, well before the days of $4/gallon gas. The study also found that a major contributor to transportation expense was sprawl–denser cities had lower transportation costs that sprawled-out ones. A report in California found that poor families who drove spent 19% of their budget on transportation, whereas poor families which used transit only spent 2% of their budgets on transportation. And a recent report based on data released by the Oil Price Information Service shows that fuel costs are approaching 9% of the average household budget.

If you live in area without transit service, this is like an additional tax, and a regressive one at that.

Obviously, active transportation (walking, biking, etc.) is another alternative. Most of us can walk, and many who can’t afford automobiles can afford bicycles (which do not need fueling). But the areas in which one is most likely to find auto-dependency, are frequently areas which are inhospitable to pedestrians and cyclists: rural communities with narrow roads and no sidewalks; suburbs where the distance from the home to even the most basic services is measured in miles; and places with busy and dangerous highways. In some parts of the country, there remains political and cultural resistance to active transport–bikers (other than children), in particular, are perceived as weirdos who have no business being on the roads. In many auto-dependent neighborhoods, one finds a double-whammy: no transit, and biking/walking are simply not resonable alternatives. (The transit-dependent are more likely to have good human-powered options available).

And my fear is–things are going to get worse. A big reason I’m a transit supporter is not because I’m hostile to cars (I do drive; though my household is a low-mileage one); but because I’m terrified that sooner or later, the US is going to get the stool kicked out from underneath it. Not by domestic policies demanded by the local green crowd; but by continually rising oil prices (as production gets more difficult, and emerging powers such as China and Brazil start to drive more and increase their thirst for oil), and a decaying infrastructure that we seem to have more and more trouble maintaining. And that’s ignoring the environmental consequences of fossil fuels. The nation is dependent on cheap oil, and my suspicion is that this dependency will come back to bite us hard.

For those of us who live in areas with good quality transit, the transition will be painful (oil prices affect all sectors of the economy, not just personal transport), but the pain will be mitigated. But for the unfortunate auto-dependent motorists, it will be quite a shock.

And then this post won’t seem so ridiculous after all.

10 Comments

10 Responses to The plight of the auto-dependent motorist

  1. R A Fontes
    May 18, 2011 at 9:21 am Link

    Sorry — it’s broken record time again.

    1. We’re replacing transportation with communication. Both capital and ops costs are several orders of magnitude cheaper and travel time is zilch. It’s not that transportation needs will be eliminated; it’s that we’re greatly reducing the number of “essential” trips and finding more efficient ways of providing those.

    2. Autonomous vehicles are on the very near horizon and will almost certainly have an incredibly enormous impact on transportation patterns including, specifically, the need for and types of public transit. Google would not be lobbying the Nevada legislature for the right to operate them unless the company feels ready to take that all important next step.

    3. There is no law – natural or human – that says we have to power vehicles with petroleum based fuels. There is an effective long-term ceiling on fuel costs because of the availability of substitutes. Yes, market perturbations spike oil prices, but the potential development of ethanol, methanol, natural gas, hydrogen fuel cell, battery/supercapacitor, etc., all serve to keep oil producers from jacking up prices beyond a certain point over the long haul lest we walk (bike?) away from petroleum entirely.

    In a place far away and long ago — it was called the USA and it was before the first Arab oil embargo — it used to be that GDP was directly linked to energy consumption. Then we found that through efficiency, conservation, and productivity, we could grow our economy at a faster rate than our growth in energy consumption. We still can.

    We will eliminate our petroleum dependence. The questions are: how quickly and how smoothly will the transition go?

  2. EngineerScotty
    May 18, 2011 at 12:43 pm Link

    RA,

    You raise good points. A couple of comments, though.

    1) Transportation won’t be completely replaced with communication–physical goods will still need to be moved, and there are many jobs which require someone physically present to perform them. In addition, the sort of jobs for which telecommuting is an option tend to be the higher-paying knowledge jobs–the sort of jobs which many of the poor do (picking crops, flipping burgers, cleaning toilets) are things that can’t be done remotely with current technology. Thus, there is a further disparate impact on low-income workers.

    2) How autonomous vehicles will impact everything is an interesting question. The key benefit is if autonomous vehicles can improve fuel efficiency by avoiding traffic jams. Of course (and Al will not like to hear this)–what if TriMet could deploy autonomous busses that didn’t need a driver? Driverless metros in places like Vancouver already permit round-the-clock high-frequency operation (as opposed to the 15-minute headways found on MAX)–if TriMet could expand bus frequency in a similar fashion, what would the impact of that be?

    3) Agreed. And any improvement in automotive fuel technology applies to transit as well. The prospect of non-corn biodiesel (which doesn’t require diversion of foodcrops) is a key thing to watch, as are improvements in battery technology.

    Of course, deployment of new technology FTMP will require replacing the vehicle fleet. We have electric cars today, after all, but it’s generally not the poor driving them.

  3. R A Fontes
    May 18, 2011 at 5:18 pm Link

    Scotty,

    I agree with everything you point out in point #1 but just believe that we haven’t begun to come close to the endpoint of substitution of communication for transportation.

    Just three advantages of autonomous “taxis” or “Zip cars”: a much lowered need for parking, particularly in high-density areas, the potential for dirt-cheap door-to-door transportation-on-demand for folks who do not own or are unable to operate a motor vehicle, and built-in mechanisms for congestion pricing.

    The public transit model generally can require the rider to somehow get to a transit stop at least a few minutes before a scheduled departure, or to wait long periods before the first available transit, to waste time at many stops between origin and destination, to transfer between transit vehicles, to share the trip with unvetted strangers at a relatively low level of security, and to arrive at the closest stop to the destination well before necessary even with frequent service. People wouldn’t have to put up with any of that with autonomous “taxis” which could operate at unsubsidized pricing highly competitive with what subsidized transit operators could hope to offer for most services.

    I believe that the long term future looks bleak for most transit operators in all but the largest markets. TriMet’s particular problem is its current continuing investment in federally subsidized, expensive, slow to moderate speed fixed-guideway projects which must be operated for decades if the agency is to avoid repayment penalties. Bus-only and long established fixed-guideway operators might be able to contract or change operational models relatively quickly and painlessly.

    If, however, autonomous “taxis” are legally barred from competing with transit then the operational cost structure among transit vehicles could turn on its head with buses potentially being able to offer lower cost per boarding ride than rail.

    That would be interesting.

  4. Joseph E
    May 18, 2011 at 10:15 pm Link

    A driverless taxi is basically PRT (personal rapid transit) without a guideway.

    First of all, let me ignore the big problem of getting autonomous vehicles to drive in residential and commercial neighborhoods without killing anyone. Let’s assume it works.

    Well, driverless taxis still have the basic problem of PRT and regular personal vehicles (cars): lousy capacity and large space requirements.

    If you want everyone to have a “taxi” within 1 minute, say, you will need to have tons of vehicles in residential neighborhoods at the start of rush hour, and most of them will head to worksites (like downtown) all at once. So, you’ll get a traffic jam, just like today, if everyone switches from transit. Driverless taxis will take up just as much space on the freeways and roads.

    But consider if instead of buying 1 million autonomous cars, you buy 10,000 driverless buses, and given them bus-only lanes all over town. Now you can have a bus come by every minute at rush hour, and the nearest bus line will only be 2 to 4 blocks from any place in town. And since the buses are automated, they can run all night. If oil gets too expensive, we can put up trolley wire (like Seattle) and run the buses on electricity. Since each bus could hold 40 people or more (unlike your “taxis”), traffic won’t be a problem except on the busiest routes (where we can build rail instead).

    Of course, buses can be driven by drivers, so we could have this sort of system today, with the political will to take away street space from cars (parked or moving) and give more room to transit, and with fair congestion pricing.

  5. EngineerScotty
    May 18, 2011 at 10:46 pm Link

    Hypothetical driverless taxis do mitigate the parking problem somewhat–they do not need to be stored close to a commuter’s jobsite. Instead, they can serve other clients, or if nothing else, go park somewhere where space is less of an issue. But as Joseph notes, they don’t solve the congestion problem; particularly if they are operating in mixed traffic with human-operated cars and trucks. And they only help with fuel economy inasmuch as the control system can avoid inefficient driving practices and mitigate congestion.

    That said, it’s unclear just what the state of Google’s art is. Google is the best damn artificial intelligence company on the planet, so I suspect they are further along than many university research projects in autonomous vehicles, but there are lots of hurdles that probably need to be met before this sort of vehicle gets into production.

    Driverless vehicles may face legal and political hurdles from entrenched interests–but I doubt transit agencies will be among them. For one thing, few if any US transit agencies have that sort of power or clout–if they did, they’d be pursuing (and implementing) policies against human-driven automobiles today (things far more onerous than the occasional bus lane or congestion pricing program). The choice of Nevada for driverless autos is interesting–that state has a rather powerful taxi driver lobby, particularly in Vegas–it has been reported that the reason the Las Vegas Monorail doesn’t reach the airport is due to opposition from taxi drivers not wanting to lose fares.

  6. R A Fontes
    May 19, 2011 at 7:05 am Link

    After the 5:18 post, it dawned that the appropriate phrase was “autonomous jitney”. The idea is for relatively small vehicles – say something like minivans with variable pricing. During peak commutes, fares would be outrageously high for a customer who insisted on a long SOV trip from city center to an exurb. Those who would be willing to share the ride with other customers would find a steeply downwardly graded fare schedule probably going to a we’ll-pay-you situation for the first borders who get off last in a full vehicle. So there would be strong incentives to minimize empty seats during peak periods.

    A fully occupied seven-seat 15′ minivan wouldn’t be as efficient as a full bus, but it would eliminate six SOV’s, and that’s not bad. Such a vehicle should be able to make at least two, probably three, and possibly even four trips during a two-hour peak-commute potentially taking up to a couple dozen vehicles off the road net and eliminating the need for up to 28 parking spaces just for day shift commuters. Again, not bad, and this doesn’t consider off-peak trips.

    It would not make economic sense to provide a lot of jitneys which would only be used at peak commutes; most of the fleet would have to be in use at other times. TriMet provides 18% of its rides during the 2-hour peak evening commute and another 13% in the 2-hour peak morning commute leaving 69% during all other hours.

    TriMet figures that its 40 foot buses have effective capacities of 51 passengers. So it would take about seven fully loaded seven-passenger jitney trips to equal one fully loaded bus trip – not a positive. However, the jitney trips would be much faster with fewer stops, little or no street blocking to service stops, instant turnarounds, and would spread over the entire road network and not just predetermined routes. Passenger loads would be grouped by origin and destination much more tightly than transit vehicles. Instead of one or two passengers getting on or off every few hundred feet during an entire run, they would effectively have express services going from one pickup area to a surprisingly tight destination area. Six, five, or possibly just four jitneys would be able to make those seven trips. We’d need maybe 3000 jitneys to replace TriMet’s roughly 600 peak hour buses.

    Even so, it would still be a step backwards in terms of congestion relief unless there was at least a compensating shift from SOV’s to shared jitneys. Just one jitney full of otherwise SOV drivers would do it for a fully occupied bus.

    We wouldn’t need a million jitneys. I’d guess somewhere in the range of 10 to 30 thousand would probably saturate the current Portland metro market providing 200 to 600 thousand peak evening commute rides and one to four million rides each weekday along with less than one-minute response times outside of peak. The big advantage outside of peak compared with buses would be that jitneys would remained parked until summoned, using very little energy.

    None of this will happen until people are convinced that the vehicles are safe. Current drivers kill 100 people a day and it might make page 12. One autonomous jitney hits a dog and CNN will show the pictures all over the world every 10 minutes for days. Autonomous jitneys will have to go through a lot of hoops that were never applied to the current fleet.

  7. Eliza Harris
    May 19, 2011 at 8:20 am Link

    Thanks for writing about automobile dependence! So relevant to my experience in the Southeast.

    Of course it is complex. I would argue someone is a choice driver if they choose to live in an auto-dependent suburb in a metro where there are transit/bike/walk-oriented housing options available. Perhaps you could judge it based on whether people’s jobs are located in an auto-dependent location since they are likely to have less choice in where they live than where they work.

    Reconnecting America just forwarded an article on job sprawl which would be relevant to that discussion: http://www.tnr.com/blog/the-avenue/88618/sprawling-jobs-tough-task-transit

  8. Ron Swaren
    May 19, 2011 at 10:25 am Link

    per RA Fontes comment:
    I just saw an article a few days ago about how African cities have been developing a highly efficient, flexible private transportation system—largely because the government are ineffective, anyway, to provide it. I don’t think they delved into how safe these private efforts were—-Would you have to carry your machete with you at all times? But I guess if people are happy with it……

    And if you’re poor, owning an automobile is an expensive proposition.

    While such studies as you cite can provide some insight I would be skeptical of drawing too many absolute conclusions from them. Dollar and cent figures—-even when they are exact—- are not necessarily the best way to measure people’s overall happiness.

    Well, my dad’s solution was generally to buy a three year old Rambler! This also made me deplore our current seat belt laws—–We always had to buckle up our ahead-of-their-time-Rambler-seat- belts—-and I still do on the highway, but really don’t fear a deadly crash at 25 m.p.h.
    In more recent years the economy car of choice (possibly lowest operating cost)has seemed to be the Toyota Corolla. If people “in poverty” spend too much perhaps it is on too much bling.

    When one cites studies it is hard to know if you are comparing apples to apples. Someone living in a ghetto area may know someone who fixes cars on the side at a cheap price, whereas if you live in the Pearl you may take your Beemer only to the dealer. Which person is spending a higher gross amount on the vehicle?

    I think the general trend is for people to choose to drive less and explore other options. What the long term consequences will be are yet to be determined: Will a large number of bicyclists suffer debilitating repetitive motion injuries or other accidents due to their exposure to natural hazards? Will people who start walking a lot experience leg and foot problems causing them to eventually have to change their habits? I’m not arguing that autos don’t have their downside—something like 50,000 killed per year plus who knows how many permanently injured. We just don’t have clear information yet on the long term effects of other choices.
    Car sharing would be one way for the auto-dependent to be somewhat less so. Right?

    I think all modes of transportation are going to be challenging to pay for. Consumer demand should result in more economical autos—and thus less fuel tax. As I have posted before the major automakers have the technology to produce 80 mpg cars right now. It requires the willingness from them and cooperation from environmental agencies. And now the politicians are talking about how to raise more revenue. How about studying some ways to prolong the road surface instead, or more efficient ways to produce it in the first place?

    Final note: I would like see a discussion on how to mitigate the high costs of urban living. With the proliferation of tall multifamily structures one has little choice but to be locked into a consumer relationship with the builder. So if the costs is $500 per square foot to live there, there doesn’t seem to be much you can do about it.

  9. Dave Thomson
    May 20, 2011 at 4:04 pm Link

    Replacing transportation with communication has an even greater impact on transportation in the US than mentioned in the original response; any job that can be done remotely is typically off-shored to somewhere like India, Mexico, or Argentina (and yes, I know off-shoring to Mexico doesn’t make geographic sense, but there you go).

  10. Michael, Portland Afoot
    May 30, 2011 at 1:54 pm Link

    Very clever, Scotty.

    Your output can be hard to keep up with! Enjoying doing so today.

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