Category Archives: rail

Shifting money from roads to transit

via Streetsblog

In a well-intended attempt to try to get people to rethink the “jobs creation” logic of infrastructure spending, a new report from the Transportation Equity Network has released a report that talks about how shifting money from highways to transit—and, in particular, operations—would make more jobs.

The report then goes on to project the potential job creation of a 50% shift in present highway spending to transit for each of the 20 metropolitan areas. The shift would create 1,123,674 new transit jobs over five years, for a net increase of 180,150 jobs — all without a dollar of new spending.

link: More Transit = More Jobs: New Report

In some ways, this report exemplifies everything that is wrong about the transit dialog. Tons of good intention, but with so much hyperbole that nobody can credit their findings. Even Streetsblog people seem to reading with raised eyebrows, and you are not going to find a more sympathetic audience of people. Transit will, according to this argument, revive local economies. Another unrealistic expectation heaped upon my favorite, already overburdened mode.

So we’ll take money away from highway spending and use it for transit spending based on the jobs created? Not on mobility needs met or customers served….but jobs created. I understand that we are in a recession and “jobs created” is the political currency they want to draw on, but, people, honestly, I need passengers served in the benefits metric, at least tangentially, when we are talking about transit investment. Please?

However, I do respect that they are willing to shake up the “jobs jobs jobs” dialogue to some degree by pointing out that you can and would save jobs by helping agencies deal with their operating deficits. The unchallenged dialogue of “creating jobs” around transit is almost always around capital investment. So we’re building new things while we are cutting operations. It makes little sense. The TEN authors at least try to direct the “jobs jobs jobs” in a direction that it needs to go: asking why the goal of keeping CURRENT drivers and maintenance workers employed is less of a priority than shoveling money into construction to create jobs. Preservation rather than creation. It’s a good issue to take up.

Of course, those existing jobs in operations could also be saved, in theory, by cutting back on transit capital investment, too, just as easily as taking money away from highways, but I am assuming that isn’t quite what these authors want.

But, if operations is the comparison, then let’s get very honest and start opening the options: spending no money at all and given the tax back, putting transit against college stipends for foster kids, dental care for impoverished kids, etc, building local parks and any other of the dozens of worthy things we can do with public money.

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Prisons or High Speed Rail?

One of my favorite virtual colleagues, Joseph Cordes, sent me a link from Marginal Revolution this morning about why Tyler Cowen is still skeptical of High Speed Rail.

The arguments surrounding High Speed Rail are well-worn ones, and certainly I’ve talked about them enough here. Either you think the projects are worth the money, or you don’t.

I don’t, personally. I would love to have a system of high speed trains. I hate airplanes, all the more with all the security nonsense. I hate cars, too. Don’t get me wrong. But when cities are laying off fire fighters and teachers because Americans refuse to pay an extra few pennies of petrol tax or modernise property taxes, I just don’t know where the money is going to come from.

I’ve heard all the arguments, and nobody has at any point said anything that didn’t strike me as the equivalent of “we’re going to borrow the money from rainbow-colored unicorns from outer space.” Here’s a sample:

—Private companies are going to do it (if they were, they would have done so some time ago. The first thing US rail companies did with deregulation was dump their intercity passenger rail. Am the only one who remembers that? It’s not like we didn’t have HSR lobbies before that would have advocated for the subsidies needed. Ray LaHood is no kid.)

—The Feds will appropriate funds for it now that the war is “over” (What funds? We’re at a point where even *I* am worried about deficits and I have never particularly worried about deficits even when others were screaming about them. But you need a way out of deficits and I am not seeing one.)

—We’ll get the money by closing tax loopholes. (How do you think those loopholes happened? By accident? Which politically disempowered group is going to sit still while we effectively raise their taxes?)

—We’ll get the money by making drivers pay the full cost of their choices. (Great in theory, but if I can’t get a higher gas tax how in the heck am I going to get a VMT fee or some other corrective tax on driving? )

—We’ll decrease spending on auto infrastructure in favor of HSR. I think this is the one that the smart HSR advocates actually believe. Certainly, transit spending has consumed a larger and larger portion of the Highway Trust Fund (HTF). Everybody has their sites on federal money: people advocating for *walking* infrastructure think there should be Federal funding for it because I guess property owners are rather tired of paying for things that benefit them and the rest of us need to do it for them. How far do we think we can stretch traditional sources before we so dilute the fund that we get little out of it? At some point, HSR funds won’t be displacing highway spending; it will be displacing transit funds.

One of the comments over at MR has me wondering:

But one wonders – how much does America’s prison system cost? After all, European countries seem strangely unable to be as dedicated to locking away people at high expense. while seemingly being able to afford less than profitable HSR sytems.

link: Marginal Revolution: One reason why I’m still skeptical about high-speed rail

Yes, but in California’s budget crisis, prisons took their hit, too. And they will continue to take hits. We are are out of money, present and future, unless we do something different than we are on the revenue side.

The misperception out there is that governments waste money all the time on silly things like prisons. As a very sharp friend of mine pointed out: I’d rather have government spend money on HSR than defense spending. Sure, well, yeah, great. But we’re in a pickle there, too. Ending the war wasn’t just a moral and political imperative, it was also a financial imperative. We’re not in a position of shifting funds or even future revenue streams around. We’re in position where cutting back is the only way we’ll have any long-term budget stability whatsoever.

At some point, these kinds of arguments–that we can just forego prisons or wars in favor of HSR–hit the hard brick wall of our public financial crisis in the US. It’s not that we can easily trade funds back and forth: it’s that those funds, too, have dwindled. It’s like arguing over a bucket of water with a big leak in the bottom–when that water is all you’ve got to put out a forest fire.

I don’t like what I see, but I can’t help but see what I see.

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Bike sharing and job centers

Yonah Freemark writes:

But most American cities have no choice but to include their primary, monofunctional, business districts in their bike sharing plans simply because those business districts are in the center of the city. It will be interesting to watch Washington, D.C. and other cities attempt to cope with the problem of the unidirectional commute as their inhabitants get used to biking to and from work, but London’s experience makes clear what they’re likely to experience.

link: Can Bike Sharing Work in Cities With Monofunctional Job Centers? « The Transport Politic

So this is one of the bottom-line conundrums of the sustainable transport connection. Because in general, this sort of unidirectional commute is *perfect* for rail transit. You want to load up linear corridors. It’s just that you need need bikes and walking to fill up the spaces in-between transit stops.

So maybe one of the answers is that you create a subscription service that includes a transit and bike pass. You use the train for line-haul, you hop off and the same pass gets you a bike to share.

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David King on HSR and the Spanish Inquisition

David King is a fellow UCLA grad and now an assistant professor at Columbia university. It might be nice to divert some of my hate mail to him for awhile. King quotes one response to the UCB study on HSR:

“We need more media that actually talks about the huge advantages of high-speed rail. I’m sick and tired reading newspaper articles from people who haven’t even seen a high speed train in real life.”

link: Getting from here to there

The media should report on reports that validate what I already think! Because I don’t read to learn things or be challenged in any way! I read to make sure people see the truthy veracity of what I conclude by merely casting my eyes upon things.

Is this like seeing Jesus on the road to Damascus?

Dr. King has a nice commentary:

I have no idea what HSR systems around the world have to do with the proposed California system. The California system is projected to have more than nine million people go through the Anaheim station annually. That’s more travelers every year than currently go through Penn Station in New York City–which is the busiest station in the western hemisphere.

link: Getting from here to there

So by 2035, Anaheim will be more heavily trafficked than Penn Station is today. We could go to Disneyland.

Read the UCB study before you conclude that they’re bad, bad, bad people and should be put to the rack or other heinous tortures. The UCB authors are careful to note that CalHSR might be a worthy public investment even with operating deficits. See the UCLA study I highlighted yesterday: to get the environmental benefits, you need good ridership.

That’s not a rampaging criticism of HSR as a concept, people. The UCB study opens the door for the authority to start laying the groundwork for the operating subsidies HSR might very well need for serving some parts of the system or times of day the way small market airports do.

Instead, now, I think it’s going to be hard to go back on the loud statements that the investment is going to be revenue generating. The more the authority does that, the more I suspect they weaken their bargaining position with potential franchise agreements on service specifications: you’ve said no operating subsidies, and without them, I can’t do X, Y, and Z profitably. So it’s Q or nothing.

No matter how many temper tantrums we have or how many trains we look at in all our sheer brilliance, there’s no way to get nice accurate numbers here.

First, we do not yet know what the private sector participation is going to look like. If it looks like airline operations, then the fares will go up and down according to time of year and time of day pricing.

What if, for example, Southwest owned the concession between Los Angeles and San Francisco? If I were them, I’d totally try for that. What type of pricing would you use were you them? It would be different than if I were pricing as Cupcake, Inc, a competitor. I’d try to do so if I were Delta and I could leverage rail tickets out of Atlanta or United out of Chicago.

The HSR Authority itself has shifted the proposed fare number around quite a bit. So if the waters are muddier analytically than we’d like them to be, it’s not the fault of people trying to do research here.

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HSR’s energy/emissions promise and peril

A new study from UCLA’s department of civil and environmental engineering undertakes a life-cycle assessment for HSR. Their conclusion is what we always conclude:

The energy and emission intensities of each mode were normalized per passenger kilometer traveled by using high and low occupancies to illustrate the range in modal environmental performance at potential ridership levels. While high-speed rail has the potential to be the lowest energy consumer and greenhouse gas emitter, appropriate planning and continued investment would be needed to ensure sustained high occupancy. The time to environmental payback is discussed highlighting the ridership conditions where high-speed rail will or will not produce fewer environmental burdens than existing modes. Furthermore, environmental tradeoffs may occur. High-speed rail may lower energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions per trip but can create more SO2 emissions (given the current electricity mix) leading to environmental acidification and human health issues. The significance of life-cycle inventorying is discussed as well as the potential of increasing occupancy on mass transit modes.

link: Life-cycle assessment of high-speed rail: the case of California

Being the cleanest mode per passenger hinges on getting a critical mass of people using it. The timeframe for payback on emissions invested in the colossal investment: about 70 years. I won’t see it, but my students might.

UC Berkeley’s economics and engineering programs have also weighed in:

“We found that the model that the rail authority relied upon to create average ridership projections was flawed at key decision-making junctures,” said study principal investigator Samer Madanat, director of ITS Berkeley and UC Berkeley professor of civil and environmental engineering. “This means that the forecast of ridership is unlikely to be very close to the ridership that would actually materialize if the system were built. As such, it is not possible to predict whether the proposed high-speed rail system in California will experience healthy profits or severe revenue shortfalls.”

link: 07.01.2010 – California high-speed rail ridership forecast not reliable, study finds

More than that. We do not know whether the benefits we’ve ascribed to the investment will actually materialize.

Perhaps we will be fortunate and the forecast will under-predict? That would be a bit of a coup, as it doesn’t happen very often.

Peter Gordon and I had an online conversation about the nature of the inaccuracies we generally have in transportation forecasts, particularly for entirely new services like intercity HSR. It strikes me that one of the groups that does this well are the freight shippers. They don’t, in general, tell about how they analyze their markets.

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The only transit story anybody seems to have read

So I read bits of the LA Times just about everyday, and my spouse reads I swear every page. Most days, stories about public transit go largely unnoticed. However, last week the LA Times ran a story that no less than six people have mentioned to me:

Local: Blue Line cuts across L.A. County’s invisible boundaries

Sweet cracker sandwich. Go read it.

My conversations about this article go something like this.

Speaker: Did you see that article on the Blue Line?

Me: Yes, I did.

Speaker: My God. It’s a zoo. No wonder nobody rides. That’s why I don’t ride public transit.

Me: Well, most of the time it’s not like that. Lots of people do ride the Blue Line. It’s one of the most successful light rail lines in the country.

Speaker: Oh please. That train goes through the worst neighborhoods in LA. It’s a freak show. You don’t ride it enough.

Now, have this conversation six times.

THIS is why you don’t ride public transit? Go read the thing. Absolutely nothing terrible happens to anybody. Is this what scares people off the train:

Watch the agitated man with manicured nails and half his teeth rise from his seat and dance in the aisle. “People think I’m weak because I got me a cane. But I work out! I work out for a living!” He stops, bends at the waist and touches the back of his hand to the floor. “You know a 60-year-old man who can do this?”

link: Local: Blue Line cuts across L.A. County’s invisible boundaries

Or:

“I’ve seen all the greats,” a black man in his 50s says to a stranger sitting across from him, a white man in his 60s. ” Wilt Chamberlain. Lew Alcindor.” The conversation begins with basketball’s greats and careens on an improbable path: Careers, politics and travel. Wives, ex-wives and a Filipino mistress. Health problems, the CIA and Vietnam. Nixon in China and family in prison.

link: Local: Blue Line cuts across L.A. County’s invisible boundaries

Black people talking!!!!! To white people!!! ZOMIGOD!! PLEASE STOP THE TERROR.

If this is honestly why you don’t ride public transit, then shame on you. If you like your car, just say you like it and stop pretending that if we just fling enough billions at public transit, you’ll ride. City life and life on trains and buses entail some level of disorder, and I’m tired of listening to people act surprised that other people exist, they sometimes make noise and act weird, and some of them pee off the platform. Yeah, yucky. But hardly life threatening the way the freeways are.


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What’s regional about regional transport?

The Transport Politic has an essay up that argues:

Regional Transportation Authorities are not Necessarily the Solution to the Urban-Suburban Divide « The Transport Politic

He uses various regions as exemplars. This is a complicated topic for transportation because regional agencies, he’s right, get whipsawed between competing constituency demands. However, cities do, too.

The reasons these types of regional institutions emerge is that regions simply grow; employment and commuter sheds grow to encompass multiple jurisdictions, and as charitable as it would be for central city transit companies to serve extra-jurisdictional residential and job sites, they just can’t do it. So regional service is necessity for resource sharing and planning and for creating the sort of quality transit services are are actually useful to commuters: look at the massive area that the New York MTA now serves. But as, TP notes, all that is a lot easier said than done.

Also throwing a spanner in the regional works is the bottom line that it is easier to coordinate services across one regional institution…but there are diseconomies of scale in transit service as well, and these can be pretty bad.


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Environmental review and HSR in the northeast corridor

Rail stimulus funds to bypass Northeast – The Boston Globe

The tone of this article suggests that the Northeast is getting the shaft while California is getting a windfall when it comes to HSR money. While I would argue that HSR makes much more sense in the northeast than in California, the interesting part of this article is the whining about environmental review. It’s not like California hasn’t gone through its paces or paid its dues here: the state’s HSR commission has done its due diligence with regard to performing the EIRs and invested heavily in the documents. I can argue with the quality of the assumptions, but you can’t argue that California hasn’t put its money where its mouth is.

The bottom line: everybody loves environmental review until it comes to their own projects; and as a result, the policy and planning world has a love-hate relationship with environmental review. It holds up bad projects; it holds up good projects. But even good projects can be poorly implemented if the communities get bulldozed along the way. These agencies want to fast-track or bypass EIR, and it doesn’t look like FRA is going to give it to them. It will be interesting to see if John Kerry has the muscle and the will to force the issue. It would be very interesting to see EIR as a regulatory regime fall down because of the new, rampaging desire to build rail when it was constructed in part to slow down the rampaging impulse to build roads.


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Environmental review and HSR in the northeast corridor

Rail stimulus funds to bypass Northeast – The Boston Globe

The tone of this article suggests that the Northeast is getting the shaft while California is getting a windfall when it comes to HSR money. While I would argue that HSR makes much more sense in the northeast than in California, the interesting part of this article is the whining about environmental review. It’s not like California hasn’t gone through its paces or paid its dues here: the state’s HSR commission has done its due diligence with regard to performing the EIRs and invested heavily in the documents. I can argue with the quality of the assumptions, but you can’t argue that California hasn’t put its money where its mouth is.

The bottom line: everybody loves environmental review until it comes to their own projects. These agencies want to fast-track or bypass EIR, and it doesn’t look like FRA is going to give it to them. It will be interesting to see if John Kerry has the muscle and the will to force the issue. It would be very interesting to see EIR as a regulatory regime fall down because of the rampaging desire to build rail when it was constructed in part to slow down the rampaging impulse to build roads.


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Bus Economies of Scale: Hiro Iseki on the Problems of Regional Agencies

Hiro Iseki, out of the University of New Orleans, is one of the best people out there working in transportation research. I remember having long discussions in our office at UCLA about this subject. The resulting manuscript from his dissertation is utterly brilliant:

Iseki, H. 2008. “Economies of Scale in Bus Transit Service in the USA: How Does Cost Efficiency Vary by Agency Size and Level of Contracting?” Transportation Research Part A (42): 1086-1097.

From the abstract:

Past studies of economies of scale in transit have tended to treat the transit industry as aset of similar agencies that have the same cost structure, and have conducted an analysis for the entire range of agency size using a single regression function. This may have caused problems in the interpretation of analysis results because agencies of different sizes that may have different cost structures are treated as a homogeneous data set. In this paper, I examine the issues of economies of scale in the provision of fixed-route bus transit service in the USA, using level of contracting as a variable to classify agencies into three different size groups.


In this analysis, using a significantly larger pooled data set (compared to previous studies) constructed from the National Transit Database of the US Federal Transit Administration from 1992 to 2000, I found that agencies with different levels of contracting exhibit very different relationships between cost per vehicle hour and agency size. Applying the observed range of agency size, I also found diseconomies of scale for all agency sizes with all levels of contracting, even when I utilized a quadratic function for the regression equation.

While the analysis is limited since the model did not control for many other explanatory variables, the findings suggest that the level of contracting is possibly an important variable, among many attributes of transit systems, with which to classify agencies into different size groups, each of which has a different transit cost structure.

This brings up a bunch of issues for institutions like the Los Angeles or New York MTA. These integrated regional agencies are rather infamous for favoring the rail side of their operations anyway, sometimes based on arguments related to costs or service quality and at other times related to arguments based on simple prestige/racism (“white people don’t ride the bus”–how many time have you heard it?). Iseki’s finding show that the institutions, integrated at a regional scale, are set up to face an increasing cost structure for the bus side of their enterprise. The rationale for doing so has been to better coordinate service: in places like LA, no matter how much rail the MTA builds any time soon, the buses are going to be an important part of the transit network. The theory is that you would get better coordination between services within one agency than across agencies.

However, it may be that we would be better off with the regional rail agency and small bus companies for distribution. The bus company could be expected to coordinate to the rail schedule by virtue of municipal contract.


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