Archive | May, 2011

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.

What Brookings Has to Say About Portland’s Transit Equity

A recent Brookings Institute report puts Portland at the 12th best transit city in the U.S. This has gotten a lot of local media play because it contrasts with a recent popular media publication that put us first (more than a few of us were skeptical about that, if happy to accept the accolade).

But more interesting is that Brookings measures some interesting things. For example, nationally 30% of jobs in major metros were found to be accessible by transit within 90 minutes (thanks to Portland Afoot for that pointer).

Portland’s profile shows that we do better – about 40% of jobs.

But some of the other data in the profile is also very interesting. On all three measures: coverage, frequency and access, Portland does better by low-income neighborhoods than it does for high-income neighborhoods. This essentially confirms the core conclusion of our own Transit Equity analysis based on Transit Score.

Not of course that we shouldn’t strive to do better on all measures.

Apparently, Driveways Matter

OTREC is pleased to welcome Jim Gattis, a professor of civil engineering at the University of Arkansas, to give a special seminar at Portland State University on Tuesday, May 17th at 3pm. (Learn more about Dr. Gattis and his upcoming visit to OSU and PSU from OTREC’s news story.)

What: Free seminar/webinar, “Driveway Design: Lessons from an NCHRP Project”
When: Tuesday, May 17th, 3pm
Who: Dr. Jim Gattis, University of Arkansas
Where: Portland State Engineering Building (1930 SW 4th Ave), Room 315 (“ITS Lab”)
Webcast: mms:// or stream 2 (requires windows media player)

Presentation Abstract:

When roadway designers mention driveways, they are usually referring to the area of the driveway near its connection with the main roadway. The design of these driveway connections may seem rather insignificant in the overall scheme of things. However, past studies have reported that between 10 and 20% of all urban roadway collisions are related to driveways. Along urban arterial roadways, research has shown that the frequency of driveways affects both the crash rates and traffic flow quality. Clearly, the design of driveways can affect safety, mobility, and trip quality.

During the NCHRP 15-35 research project, the research team synthesized findings from previous studies and conducted new field research to provide a basis for the recently-published Guide for the Geometric Design of Driveways. This presentation explains some of these findings that have a practical application for roadway design engineers.

Introducing your Oregon Transportation Commission

A few months ago, Portland Transport did an article on the TriMet board of directors, the not-very-conspicuous septet which oversee Oregon’s largest transit agency, and to whom GM Neil McFarlane reports. Today, we turn to arguably five of the most powerful transportation officials in the state, the Oregon Transportation Commission. Bike Portland did a similar article in 2009, but many of the faces on the commission have changed since then, so it’s time for a refresher.

So who are the Oregon Transportation Commission (OTC), and what exactly do they do?
Who are the OTC?

According to the commission’s website:

The Oregon Transportation Commission establishes state transportation policy. The commission also guides the planning, development and management of a statewide integrated transportation network that provides efficient access, is safe, and enhances Oregon’s economy and livability. The commission meets monthly to oversee Department of Transportation activities relating to highways, public transportation, rail, transportation safety, motor carrier transportation, and drivers and motor vehicles.

The governor appoints five commissioners, ensuring that different geographic regions of the state are represented. One member must live east of the Cascade Range; no more than three can belong to one political party.

The commission is defined by law in ORS 184.612-613:

184.612 Oregon Transportation Commission; confirmation; qualifications; term; compensation and expenses. (1) There is established the Oregon Transportation Commission consisting of five members appointed by the Governor, subject to confirmation by the Senate pursuant to section 4, Article III, Oregon Constitution. The Governor shall appoint members of the commission in compliance with all of the following:
(a) Members shall be appointed with consideration of the different geographic regions of the state with one member being a resident of the area east of the Cascade Range.
(b) Not more than three members shall belong to one political party. Party affiliation shall be determined by the appropriate entry on official election registration cards.
(2) The term of office of each member is four years. Before the expiration of the term of a member, the Governor shall appoint a successor whose term begins on July 1 next following. A member is eligible for reappointment. In case of a vacancy for any cause, the Governor shall appoint a person to fill the office for the unexpired term.
(3) A member of the commission is entitled to compensation and expenses as provided by ORS 292.495. [1973 c.249 §3; 1981 c.545 §3; 1983 c.428 §1]

184.613 Officers; quorum; meetings; effect of vacancy; seal. (1) The Governor shall appoint one of the commissioners as chairperson, and another as vice chairperson. The chairperson and vice chairperson shall have such terms, duties and powers as the Oregon Transportation Commission determines are necessary for the performance of such offices.
(2) A majority of the members of the commission constitutes a quorum for the transaction of business.
(3) The commission shall meet at least once a month, at a time and place determined by the commission. The commission shall also meet at such other times and places as are specified by the call of the chairperson or of a majority of the commission.
(4) No vacancy shall impair the right of the remaining commissioners to exercise all the powers of the commission, except that three members of the commission must agree in the selection, vacation or abandonment of state highways, and in case the commissioners are unable to agree the Governor shall have the right to vote as a member of the commission.
(5) The commission may provide an official seal. [1973 c.249 §§4,9; 1979 c.293 §1]

Unlike the TriMet board of directors, whose members serve at the Governor’s pleasure and may be fired, transportation commissioners once duly appointed are entitled to serve out their terms.

The current commission

Currently, four of the five seats on the Commission are filled. Official biographies of the commissioners can be found here. The chair of the commission is Gail Achterman, who has a background in environmental law and economics. Her term ends in 2012; she has served three terms on the commission already. The vice-chair is Michael Nelson, who has a professional career in real estate, and has previously served in the Oregon Legislature (from north-central Oregon). Nelson’s term expires this June. The third commissioner is David Lohman, an attorney with a public policy background. Lohman’s term is up in 2013. Finally, Mary Olson is an accountant who runs a financial services firm, and who until recently also served as a commissioner for the Port of Portland. Her term expires in 2013. The fifth commissioner was Alan Brown, a tire dealer who previously served in the legislature and chaired the House Committee on Transportation, as well as previously serving on the Port of Newport board of commissioners; Brown resigned his commission in March and a replacement has not yet been named.

Is this the right mix?

The Oregon Transportation Commission is important because they essentially oversee ODOT–the Oregon Department of Transportation. While the ODOT Director is a gubernatorial appointee (one who serves at the governor’s pleasure), his/her duties are limited to an administrative role–major policy decisions are the responsibility of the Commission. The commission is designed (with staggered terms, the requirement for at least one Central/Easteron Oregon representative, and limits on political party membership) to be somewhat resistant to partisan politics.

One thing that isn’t required, however, is knowledge about land use or transportation. Some of the current commisioners have practical experience in land use and transportation (beyond serving on other boards or commissions), but several of them do not. Some of the professional backgrounds currently or previously on the commission could suggest a bias towards automobile-based transport and/or low-density land uses.

Governor Kitzhaber has the opportunity to appoint two new members to the commission in the next several months, as Vice-Chair Nelson’s term expires next month, and one seat is vacant. Nelson is a Democrat, and Brown was a Republican, so at least one of the new appointees cannot be from the Democratic Party (and the state legislature would probably not approve any minor-party candidates–tempting as it might be to circumnavigate the bipartisan requirement by nominating a Green, for instance). Who–or what kind of candidate–should be appointed to fill these two posts?

At the Crux of Transportation and Land Use

So here’s a paradox. In Portland we attempt to build Transit-oriented Development near Light Rail stations. But the LRT corridors often parallel freeways (both because that’s where the demand is, and because we often find right-of-way we can use next to freeways).

As a result, these developments are often near freeway interchanges. But the “Transportation Planning Rule” (TPR for short) often restricts our ability to build near interchanges, in an attempt to protect the capacity of freeways for longer trips. The TRP does not do a good job of recognizing that a lot of the demand for travel will be accommodated by transit.

According to this note from our Eugene correspondent, Rob Zako (via the OTRAN list), it appears that the Land Conservation and Development Commissions and Oregon Transportation Commission may be getting ready to tackle this:

Dear OTRAN friends,

Another important round of changes is statewide transportation policy is getting underway. The following information is taken from the report referenced below.

The Land Conservation and Development Commission (LCDC) and the Oregon Transportation Commission (OTC) established a joint subcommittee in response to concerns from local governments and others, and a recognition that existing rules and plans are having unintended consequences. Specifically, the interaction of Section 0060 of the Transportation Planning Rule (TPR) with the mobility standards in the Oregon Highway Plan (OHP) can complicate the local process to balance multiple objectives. These objectives include economic development, compact urban development and the need for additional transportation infrastructure to keep highways functioning, which brings benefits to the state overall and especially to traded?sector business activity. The discussion about balancing, clarifying and streamlining TPR 0060 and OHP mobility standards was organized around three questions:

(1) Whether to initiate formal rulemaking on OAR 660-012-0060 and/or whether to request that the OTC consider amending related provisions of the Oregon Highway Plan.

The committee recommends that LCDC initiate rulemaking on TPR 0060 (OAR 66?12?0060). The committee recommends that OTC initiate amendments to the mobility standards in the OHP and associated guidance documents (e.g. OHP Mobility Standard Guidelines).

(2) What are the highest priority issues that should be addressed?

The committee recommends that the topics listed below be included in the scope for an initial phase (approximately 6 months) of amendments. Including a topic on the list does not indicate that the committee has reached a conclusion on the merits of any specific proposed amendment, but rather that the committee believes it is an important and potentially fruitful topic to pursue. The topics are divided into two categories based on whether it would be primarily addressed through the TPR or through the OHP; however, many topics will involve both TPR and OHP.

A. TPR Amendments
A1. Exempt rezonings consistent with comprehensive plan map designations
A2. Practical mitigation for economic development projects
A3. Exempt upzonings in urban centers
A4. Address traffic at time of urban growth boundary (UGB) expansion
A5. Technical clarifications: transportation system plan (TSP) update and multiple planning periods

B. OHP Amendments & Guidance Documents
B1. Exempt proposals with small increase in traffic
B2. Use average trip generation, not reasonable worst case
B3. Streamline alternate mobility standard development
B4. Corridor or area mobility standards
B5. Standardize a policy framework for considering measures other than volume to capacity ratios (v/c)

(3) How should the process be structured to recognize the joint authority of LCDC and OTC concerning these issues?

The committee recommends that these two lists be addressed in parallel coordinated processes with several check?in points, including further meetings of the committee. Draft amendments would go to the respective bodies for formal hearings with a target date of December 2011.

In particular, LCDC will need to appoint a rulemaking advisory committee (RAC) consisting of 12-15 members representing a wide range of interests including:

* City planners (a variety of sizes and regions)
* County planners
* Metropolitan planning organizations
* Developers
* Consultants
* Freight
* Advocacy organizations
* Citizen Involvement Advisory Committee (CIAC)
* Small business representative (especially important for the fiscal impact statement)
* State agencies: DLCD, ODOT, Business Oregon

The RAC would be chaired by an LCDC commissioner. The RAC would meet monthly to prepare draft amendments and to review the fiscal impact statement.

For more info, see: