Does transit get too little funding?

One of the common arguments I hear is that transit is underfunded. Now, this is a subjective question. For those who believe that having transit is absolutely vital to cities, no amount would be enough. So that’s not the point.

The other argument that I hear is that we spend too much on highways rather than transit. Again, subjective. There’s no way to suss this question easily enough for a blog post.

But we can take a look at what people seem to believe is a disparity in funding.

This is the graphic you are most likely to see when we discuss differences between highway and transit funding:

Ok, so of the total, highways get about 55 to 60 percent and transit gets 17 percent on average over the time period, but by the end of the time period, transit’s share has risen to about 20 percent and highways has gone to about 54 percent.

So that’s a pretty big difference in funding. But when you factor in the passenger miles served, the calculus changes. In the following graphic, I have assigned 100 percent of the spending on highways to passenger cars–a major overstatement, but it serves the point. It’s an overstatement because highways also serve trucks (a big deal), motorcycles and some transit (less of a big deal.)

My transit advocate friends will patronize me at this point and lecture me about how I’m not factoring in the external costs of the cars–and that’s true.

But I am not sure that external costs are relevant to expenditure fairness. Whether we factor in external costs or not is relevant to tax policy, for sure, but it’s probably not relevant to the budget equity arguments often made. It’s one thing to talk about optimum investment, which would require marginal social cost: it’s another to try to figure out if transit exists is “David” to auto’s “Goliath”.

Here, we’re trying to figure out if transit riders are getting the shaft. Are they getting the shaft (the transit advocate side)? Or are they rolling in dough they don’t need (the Reason foundation argument)?

This is one of the few times I actually might believe the apples and oranges arguments about comparing. Transit is in a building stage, but highways, for the most part, are in the maintenance phase. We could argue ourselves in circles: to reach investment parity, we’d need to double the transit numbers per passenger mile, etc, etc.

I just don’t know what I think. I need to fiddle with the numbers more.

All these data are from BTS, btw.

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Shweeeeeeeeeeeeeb!!! and the Virgin Mary, all in one blog post

HT to the Transportationist, David Levinson, and one of our wonderful undergraduates who came to talk to me about the human-powered podcars, Shweeb:

I’m not sure I approve of using the word “shweeb” as a verb unless you are actually German and you actually mean “float”, but I’ve never met a kitchen gadget that I didn’t love, and the shweeb appeals to me sort of in the same way as a pineapple corer or a griddle that sears the image of the Virgin Mary in your toast.

So here’s the questions/reservations:

a) I don’t believe for five seconds that this doesn’t require you to be in pretty good shape;

b) It’s going to subject to peaking problems just like podcar plans

c) However, it would keep bicyclists off the street and sidewalks, satisfying everybody

d) And it’s shweeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeb.

The Sprawl/No Sprawl-Productivity Connection (?!)

From Papers in Regional Science, a new paper shows the connection between lost labor productivity and sprawl. From the abstract:

This paper draws on urban agglomeration theories to empirically investigate the relationship between the economic performance of US metropolitan areas and their respective amounts of sprawl. To measure urban sprawl, we construct a distinctive measure that captures the distribution of population density and land-use within metropolitan areas. Using both ordinary least squares (OLS) and instrumental variables (IVs) approaches, we find that higher levels of urban sprawl are negatively associated with average labour productivity. This pattern holds even within given industries or within given occupational classifications.

link: Urban sprawl and productivity: Evidence from US metropolitan areas – Fallah – 2010 – Papers in Regional Science – Wiley Online Library

Here’s their sprawl measure:

It’s a relative measure: L% is the percentage of the regional population living in block groups with population densities lower than the US median, H % is the percentage of the metropolitan area living in block groups above the US median. The number is going to range between 0 and 1, with higher numbers meaning greater sprawl.

So the least sprawled regions wind up being the big metro areas, with some surprises:

Miami-Fort Lauderdale-Pompano-Beach, FL — 0.3405
Stockton (!!!) — 0.3394
CA Chicago-Naperville-Joliet, IL-IN-WI — 0.3329
El Paso, TX — 0.3315
San Diego-Carlsbad-San Marcos, CA –0.3176
Honolulu, HI — 0.3170
New Orleans-Metairie-Kenner, LA — 0.3104
Laredo, TX — 0.2620
New York-Northern New Jersey-Long-Island, NY-NJ-PA — 0.2479
San Francisco-Oakland-Fremont, CA — 0.2313
San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA — 0.2058
Los Angeles-Long Beach-Santa Ana, CA–0.1630

According to their measure, Los Angeles is the least sprawled metro region in the country, beating out New York and San Francisco.

This creates problems. Because Los Angeles IS what people worry about when they worry about sprawl.

The most sprawled:

Barnstable Town, MA–0.9497
Sebastian-Vero Beach, FL –0.9232
Punta Gorda, FL –0.9041
Panama City-Lynn Haven, FL –0.8868
Spartanburg, SC –0.8767
Pensacola-Ferry Pass-Brent, FL –0.8722
Burlington, NC–0.8657
Fayetteville, NC — 0.8560
Lakeland, FL — 0.8538
Chattanooga, TN-GA — 0.8478
Hickory-Lenoir-Morganton, NC — 0.8404
Fort Walton Beach-Crestview-Destin, FL — 0.8402

They find that the connection to labor productivity comes from the share of population who has a college degree. That is, the self-selection of college graduates in the denser regions. It’s hard telling what these findings really show; their data year is 1990, and the sprawl measure is blunt.

They play with different sprawl measures, and their findings are pretty robust.

So if they are right, what does this mean? I’m a wee bit worried about this finding, actually. It suggests that the connection between sprawl and labor productivity derives from residential self-selection into particular metropolitan regions–the big ones–rather than from anything related to physical aspects of urban form. They aren’t, for example, capturing any real inherent disadvantages from commutes on labor productivity, or loss of connectivity in the exchange of ideas. Instead, it’s a matter of correlation rather than causation: high-productivity laborers like urban amenities–Richard Florida’s arguments.

If that’s the case, the labor productivity nexus can change a lot if those taste preferences change.

Go read the full article:

Fallah, Belal, Mark Partridge, and M. Rose Olfert. “Urban Sprawl and Productivity:Evidence From US Metropolitan Areas.” Papers in Regional Science (2010).

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the MTA budget cuts and the need for long-term transit finance reforms

David King pretty much sums up how I feel on the cuts, except for one thing: I was surprised they weren’t worse. However, the MTA is a sharp outfit: if they have to, they’ll announce 4 percent this month, another 4 percent three months from now, and another 4 percent after that until they can meet their payroll. It’ll be…interesting…to see where we are a year from now.

There has to be long-term finance reform in transit, and no, the 30/10 doesn’t get us there. The 30/10, wonderful as it is, would enable us to build more stuff that, ultimately, we won’t be able to operate.

These cuts are going to get worse and worse, not just in LA, but everywhere, and eventually, those cuts are going to hit the train operations, too. Um, yeah. Without long-term finance reform, eventually we’re going to get to the point where the bus cuts that all the transit blogs treat as little more than a passing headline will be joined by rail service cuts.

New York is already there.

Train cutbacks might actually make people in the streets blogging and transit-advocating world actually care …maybe…about operations.

Then maybe they will spend as much time talking about the hardship that ensues from cutting services as they appear to want spend gossiping about which of their favorite celebrity transit advocates might work in Los Angeles to replace retirements.

Nah. Talking about transit’s operations problems–like getting back and forth to work in a world where services are getting cut–would be a distraction from treating transit like the jungle gym in the ultimate urban playground for twentysomethings raised on a steady diet of Friends rather than as a place where transit needs to work for people other than trust funders on pub crawls.

Whatever, right? Everybody knows operations are just a waste of money in transit. Building is where the professional and political payoff is. Advocacy for projects gets you in the position where you get to be part of the buzz. Who was the last bus operations drudge you saw featured on a transit blog, or given an high-profile award for their work?

So what to do–other than grow the hell up? I haven’t run any numbers yet, but it’s pretty clear that the Feds are not going to hand out candy for operating subsidies. Which means we are probably left with local funding sources. A place to begin thinking in terms of reform:

a) When we find new a dedicated source of funding–and we’ll have to–we’ll have to have the self-discipline NOT to promise to spend it on our addiction to building new transit projects.

New sources of funding = political nightmare. But some suggestions: Ratchet back on property tax insanity in California–ideally. So how about a 3-cent gas tax increase on local pumps? We can tell everybody we are solving congestion even though we aren’t. Sure, let’s have parking charges a la Don Shoup. But whatever funding it is, it’s not for geegaws or fripperies or extensions or new services in far-flung suburbs, at least not right now. It’s about keeping existing routes and frequencies.

With whatever funding victory may come, we can’t fall the into the political expedience trap of earmarking new funds for projects. We love to do that because taxpayers like to be able to point at a map and see what they think their money goes to.

We can’t keep indulging that. We have to start learning how to make the social marketing case for operations.

b) Create a dedicated pot for operations at the local and regional level, and expect to put money into that pot forever for transit as the municipal public service it is.

Nobody expects street sweeping to pay for itself; ditto police protection or libraries or snow clearance. Transit in cities should be treated the same way as those services. We don’t talk about “garbage collection subsidies.” It’s time to talk about funding services instead of obsessing about subsidies.

(And yeah, in case you can’t tell, I’m pissed.)

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Watching the maritime emissions controls change

The US EPA has been pursuing Emissions Control Areas with the International Maritime Organization (IMO). Currently, there is a 200 mile ECA for sulfur oxides, particulate matter, and nitrogen oxides. The EPA is looking to expand it:

The latest component of EPA’s coordinated strategy for addressing emissions from ocean-going vessels is a proposal, from August this year, to designate an Emission Control Area for the U.S. Caribbean. The United States submitted a proposal to IMO in advance of the September 2010 IMO meeting, requesting that waters around the coasts of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands be designated as an ECA. Other EPA programs to address harmful emissions in the U.S. include voluntary partnerships under EPA’s Clean Ports USA program and implementation of a Clean Air Act rulemaking that EPA finalized last December.

link: Air Emission Regulation Update

These are pretty significant gains for the EPA, as it allows for the control of emissions just offshore

The other good news:

For the latest Emission Control Area (ECA) initiative for the U.S. Caribbean, EPA estimates that the total costs of improving ship emissions from current performance to ECA standards while operating in the proposed ECA will be approximately $70 million in 2020. The costs to reduce a ton of NOx, SOx and PM are estimated at $500, $1,000 and $10,000, respectively.

link: Air Emission Regulation Update

That’s pretty low-hanging fruit in terms of new regulation or building programs.

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Railroads and emissions in southern California

Argh. I am writing a paper right now on how planners can and should win more often in public conflicts.

They could learn a lesson from the railroads. The LA Times reported a few days ago that, in order to avoid emissions regulation in southern California:

The lawsuit filed by the Assn. of American Railroads and the BNSF and Union Pacific railroad companies challenged restrictions imposed in 2005 and 2006 by the South Coast Air Quality Management District, which covers Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties.

link: Local agencies can’t limit train emissions, court rules –

This would be known as an end-run around the communities and the state and regional air quality management agencies.

So much for collaboration and win-win solutions.

This ruling in general worries me; I’ve fretted for some time about whether all sort of local air quality measures–likely to be more efficient for many sectors than federal regulations–were going to get hit with these types of challenges.

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