Interactive graphic of revenue sources for LA transit providers (and controls), flypaper effect, displacement effect

Here’s the pretty picture, or ugly picture, depending on how you feel about colors and cumulative bar charts.

Wednesday I posted some comparisons of transit revenue data from the NTD for big, regional agencies. I got some questions and comments, one being a comment from brilliant friend Shane Phillips, that LA Metro’s reliance on sales tax might not be as a bad as I suggested, granted that much of it is expended in capital improvements. I disputed this point, simply in that volatility can hurt your capital budgets, too, and I did raise the point that LA got much less from early Measure R implementation simply because it passed in the middle of the recession, and it took us awhile to climb out. During those months, we got much less take than forecasts suggested. It took us a good three years to get to forecast levels, and while Metro can use the funds, those early low months are painful–especially when R was set to sunset on us, and we got little out of the first two-three years.

Another concern came up about whose revenues I aggregated; I only did singleagencies. Brilliant friend Erik Griswald suggested that we should aggregate by geography rather than just agency. I don’t know about this. I see little evidence that different agencies within regions harmonize either service or budgets; agencies have separate budgets even if their service areas and spans overlap, and not all providers are full reporters for the NTD. Geography might be enlightening for things like comparing bases. You might compare total farebox take out of total travel base, for example for bus-only companies and rail-only companies in the same general area. But those are vastly different services with buses doing feeder work that rail services do for a smaller number of trips. Even then, though, agencies operate different service spans and coverage areas, which mean different revenue-mile and revenue-hour potential. Besides the conceptual problems, it’s also a mess given the way NTD reporting is done. You have to do the work to aggregate even by agency as they split by expenditure category and source. There is a lot of budget detail that agency aggregation hides; for instance, Miami Dade Transit gets general fund appropriations from both localities and the state. That’s really interesting information for budget nerds; it’s probably less interesting for people interested in transit just thinking where the money is coming from, which is what motivated me to start poking these data in the first place.

My own concern is a simple lack of confidence that I aggregated the categories properly. I think I did fine except for some chickenfeed categories, but nonetheless, I’d have to do a lot more checking work before I published these in a journal. I think I’d need a budget person to help sort it for sure.

Nonetheless, I figured I could do some with just LA providers, and it might be interesting. I know the providers a bit better here than anywhere else. I am still missing a bunch. I tried to get every agency that participates in TAP (I didn’t; some are under the “small operators” category, tho). It’s interesting but incomplete, with all the problems I figured I’d get once I tried to do this by geography. I’ve got the kitchen sink here institutionally and service wise, as well, including a paratransit provider for illustration (Access).

Sorry for the truncated names, but R has strong preferences about size, and for the locals who are most likely to be interested, the names should be obvious enough.

A better person would have completely consistent colors between yesterday and today, but I am a sad and sloppy coder and I didn’t save plot coding; I did the best I could. I did somewhat alter the small categories around “other” because with the tiny agencies, those become more important. Nobody here is reporting any toll revenue, so that category is gone, but I find that confusing. I checked the NTD stuff three times–I thought Metro got some revenue from HOT lanes. If they do, I don’t see it. Maybe it’s funneled through the state funds, and that’s where it shows up in the budget.

Also gone is the income tax category, we since don’t have any with these agencies, but oooooooo how I wish California would make that an opt-in option on income tax forms. It’s not the same as a big-base dedicated tax, but I think lots of people in California would be willing to chuck in $20 for transit voluntarily, and that could add up to a decent amount.

As to the “active capital investment program” suggestion Shane raised…that might be true with Metro, but many of these little, LA-area agencies do not strike me as having particularly active capital investment programs. I could be wrong, I suppose. They have to buy vehicles, and their real estate is as expensive as anybody else’s here. My suspicion, however, is that they rely on the sales tax because it’s there, and it essentially displaces other potential funding sources; you can, by comparison, see where other small providers in other states where sales taxes aren’t an option, they go with appropriations from general funds or some state fund. So my point doesn’t hold, either; appropriations can be even more of a white-knuckle ride in terms of stability than sales taxes, and you have the extra headache of dedicating lobbyist time to that in addition to policy measures.

The availability of sale tax revenue probably has enabled smaller cities to stabilize funding for transit and use their other local funds for other purposes. On balance, I’m guessing that is probably to the good. Probably. Sales taxes are easy for consumers to pay (the retailer has the cost of the compliance), have a nice big base, and tax foreigners living abroad (but visiting us) and resident noncitizens.

One counter, which I suspect Metro would make: because Los Angeles raises local funds with the sales tax, these agencies attract more Federal dollars–the flypaper effect. That can be true, too, but the Feds do not necessarily care what public finance tool you are using, as long as the money is there. So LA could go with market-rate parking charges and dedicate that to a fund, and as long as it went to a dedicated fund, that would work the same way for flypaper effects.

I’d need to do more work to be able to show anything solid about flypaper or displacement. This is only one year of funding, too, and it may just be that agencies that are seeing bigger lumps of money from the Feds had holdover ARRA funds or got lucky during one grant cycle.

Fun note: What do Metrolink and MARTA have in common? They would miss parking charges if those go away.

I’m reaaaaaaalllly sick of these data; I’ve scratched this particular itch, which is a passive aggressive way of noting that anybody who wants to see more should go play with the data themselves. 😊😊😊

Interactive transit revenue data, visualized in different ways via Plotly

This week I wanted to challenge myself to learn how to use Plotly, as those always look so nice. The other thing I wanted was to clear up some questions I had with WMTA’s budget numbers. They do a very nice job telling a visual story, but I was a little flummoxed by the absence of a full revenue chart. I also wanted to learn more about ImageMagick colors, so there’s that, too.

It’s very difficult to compare transit agency budgets; not all use zero-based budgeting and they are quite different in terms of their scope and service spans. NY Metro is so much bigger than everybody else; very few agencies cross state and county lines. But I picked five relatively large, inter-jurisdictional direct service providers. These data are all from the NTD.

This first chart is a bit weird, but stick with me. I wanted to see who was getting what from where, and how much. I was rather interested in looking at the raw budget numbers by revenue category as whole. I do like it, as it helps us see how important in the big transit picture each type of funding source is. We do tend to point out that fares do not cover costs, and yet this shows that fares are important, overall. They may be much less important in Los Angeles than sales taxes, but in other systems, fares are important. We can also see who is getting what from the Feds, at least this year, 2015.

This next one gets us to the proportions that I suspect most people care about, and the scratchy, uncomfortable feeling I have with the dependence that so many of our big transit agencies have on sales taxes. I get into a lot of trouble saying that I don’t love our transit sales tax measures. I get why LA people support them, but it’s hard for me to tolerate the whinging about small ridership gains when we don’t act more aggressively with gasoline taxes and tolls. There is really no reason why we shouldn’t be doing both tolls and a local option gasoline tax instead of sales tax after sales tax, other than the political difficulties of expecting drivers in LA to pay. If we can’t raise the costs of driving relative to taking transit, I think we are going to be frustrated by underperforming investments for a very long time.

And sales tax revenue is hella volatile and follows the business cycle, so that agencies relying on them for half their budget on sales taxes, like the LA Metro, get to have the floor fall out from under them every time there is a recession.

These are both public and in Plotly, so you can diddle with them, too. For those interested, these data went from Excel to R to Plotly with direct stream through R to the Plotly API.

Visualizing LA Metro’s Ridership data, 2009 until 2016

Attention Conservation Notice: Here’s the animation I’ve been working on in order to understand the ridership changes at LA Metro, beware that the y-axes are all different, and that distorts the amount of variation going on. I did this mostly as timeline; YMMV.


The backstory:

About a week or so go while I was gardening, it occurred to me: if we various transit nerds were seeing the same trend we are seeing for the past few years with LA’s Metro ridership, only labeled for VMT instead, we’d be declaring that the market for vehicle travel was saturated.

Relax, I don’t think the transit market in LA is saturated. That was just me, getting grumpy with myself for being too lazy to examine my own biases.

But I sure would like to know what is going on. There are limits as to what you can explain with descriptive data analysis, but doing some critical visualizations put me a lot further along in my own understanding of what I think is going on, so that I thought I would share what I got.

Every so often, the Times reports on these numbers, and Laura Nelson wrote-up a nice story a day or so ago about bus ridership loss, and Sahra Sulaiman wrote up this depressing (but important) piece for Streetblog.

We’ve invested a lot of money recently in Los Angeles, and with capital investments at the scale we have undertaken, the last thing we want to do is put more money into obtaining fewer rides. Yes, I know, decades of neglect, yada yada, but we should be seeing nice, big jumps with early investments–diminishing returns should show up later.

Credible explanations: a) new rail supply is moving passengers from the bus to rail so that we are having fewer bus transfers and thus, lower counts; b) retirements and aging has prompted less commuting by transit as well as car (egads, let’s hope not as that is a demand effect); c) gasoline prices are low so that more people drive; d) the introduction of Uber and Lyft (then Zimride, thanks for the info Kendra Levine) into the LA travel market means that people handle the last mile problem (or the entire trip) with those services instead of buses; e) fare increases; f) reduced overall bus supply; g) the routes need to be reconfigured; h) bus transit is an inferior good*, so that we saw the highest possible usage during the worst of the recession, falling off as price-sensitive consumers at the lowest incomes leave the systems for other means; i) all that talk about fighting obesity and active transport hit home and more people started walking and biking; j) fare increases have forced bus riders to ride less.

It certainly looks like the UBER/higher fares/low gas prices combo are not helping, at least in the above timeline.

What did I miss? Single factor explanations are not likely here.

Then, there are various assertions that aren’t credible.

a) that “There’s actually more ridership, you just don’t understand how to use the numbers” directed at the Times’ Laura Nelson. Nah. As I demonstrate below, you can beat up on the numbers, and you’ll still have a trend. She’s reporting this correctly as far as I can tell even if transitlovers don’t like the framing being anything less than the Times’ usual, breathlessly supportive pro-development tone.

b) A hardy perennial: you’re using the wrong measure, that’s not fair! (Ridership counts are an incomplete measure of transit output–it takes more work to move 10 passengers 10 miles than it does to take 10 passengers 1 mile–but you need way better data than Metro is putting out there for the rest of us if you want to passenger-miles for the bus system, where the ridership loss is occurring. But I don’t buy this one. If that were the case, Metro would have an easy answer to the Times when the ridership story comes up. If anybody from metro wants me to diddle with better numbers, they know where I am at. Holler at me; I’m just here not getting my book done and having a midlife crisis.)

c) The averages do not capture peak ridership well, and our trains are doing that for us! That could be. But we don’t (or shouldn’t) build to peaks for any capital investment. Building to peak is one reason our auto infrastructure is so over-capitalized.

d) But, but, if you go back multiple decades when Los Angeles had fewer people, you would see that we have more rides, not fewer. Moving the end points around on analyses is certainly a way to manipulate what you see for trends. But that didn’t convince me either: of course we have more rides taken now than we did in 1970. But I still don’t see get why we’ve had the ups and downs we’ve had since 2009.

To create the graphic, I went to Metro’s Ridership statistics page and downloaded the data for all the years from 2009 to 2016. For the gas price data….eh, all I could find was a statewide average, but it should do well enough to indicate trends. These are data from the Energy Information Agency.

So all of these data have strong seasonality, and while you can see trends past the noise, it’s hard to figure out what is noise, and trend. I used a Fournier transform process to detect for seasonality, then decomposed each dataset into seasonality and trend. The data for the Metro 720 looks like this, where the top panel shows you the raw data, the second the seasonal variation, the third the deseasonalized trend, and the final panel the remainders.

Metro 720 Rapid Ridership, Jan 2009 to December 2016, Time Series Decomposition

I can show you a bunch of these, and they are all interesting, but here’s the bus and the rail overall. Rail, a strong upwards trend towards the end due to the Expo line and its extension, and buses, falling, long before the fare hikes in 2014 (but, I suspect, those fare hikes are not helping; the bus riders are going to be the most price sensitive customers due to their demographics).

Metro Rail Ridership, Jan 2009 to December 2016, Time Series Decomposition


Metro Bus Ridership, Jan 2009 to December 2016, Time Series Decomposition


Ok, yeah, let’s look at the red line. That’s a lot of ridership loss there I don’t understand:

Red Line Ridership, Jan 2009 to December 2016, Time Series Decomposition


Fuel prices Jan 2009 to December 2016, Time Series Decomposition


So here is a correlation matrix of the deseasonalized bus and rail ridership numbers plotted against gas prices. I could get fancy and start fitting the curve, but…it’s fairly clear that falling gas prices since 2012 track well with the ridership declines. But I do think we are seeing a rail supply effect here: rail patrons are less likely to be sensitive to fuel or fare prices than bus patrons, and we see that rail in general correlates positively with fuel prices, though not to the same degree as bus ridership. That’s kind of a weird result, but not really when you think that a big boost in ridership came from new supply, and supply to an area–downtown Santa Monica–where riders are going to be comparatively better off than the rest of the region.

There is evidence of reshuffling exiting patrons–it would be nice to have the Santa Monica Big Blue Bus data to compare–as bus and rail ridership are negatively correlated at around -.40. We know that there are times where rail and bus act as complimentary goods, and there are other times when they are substitutes. If this is evidence that some riders got moved from buses to trains…well, that’s not the wonderous “we solved traffic and air quality” victory lap we might want, but those folks are probably getting a more comfortable ride, and I’m ok with that.

Correlation Plot, Fuel Price and Ridership by Mode, 2009 to 2016


That said, it’s not all reshuffling. At the end of the time period, we have about 70,000 more rides on an average weekday on the rail system–and remember, that even with some pretty big losses on the Red line (whyyyyy?) and Green line. But we’ve lost nearly 280,000 rides on the bus side, so reshuffling isn’t the whole story, either.

So here’s the correlation matrix between the routes I examined.There are network spillover effects in action, generally, with connections between lines being weak in instances you would expect (gold line, Metro 720: they don’t really feed each other) and very strong in instances where lines intersect. Interestingly, both the Green and the 720 are parallel E-W routes, but with a lot of real estate in between. The Expo Line, which runs parallel to them both, perhaps became the the E-W route of choice, which might explain some of those losses. Maybe.

Correlation Plot, Routes by Ridership, 2009 to 2016


Falling gas prices and higher fares are probably not helping; lags in land use probably are not helping; Uber/Lyft are probably not helping; reshuffling is a potential explanation but not, really, a problem from my perspective.

Bah. I have a better handle on what is going on, but not a convincing story (at least not for me, not yet) for why. But the pictures are kind of cool.

*If you have ever attempted to lecture me about housing supply and demand on Twitter, but you yell and scream about this term, then go back to your micro 101 class. It’s a technical term that describes a good where consumption increases when incomes falls. I still love transit, but–again technically–the term applies empirically, so I use it.

Jobs-housing balance, the animation featured on Citylab, and something Brian Taylor said years ago

The other day on Twitter, CityLab shared the very cool graphics on commuting from fellow data lover, Mark Evans (here is Evans’ original blog post; looks to be a very cool blog in general!)

I quipped on Twitter that these graphics are one reason I’ve never been sure that “jobs-housing balance” is necessarily a good planning goal. When I said this in my transit class last fall, my extremely bright students gave me grief about it, and I explained myself badly at that time, but I still have my doubts.

Those doubts were put there ages ago by Brian Taylor, one of my mentors at UCLA. UCLA’s PhD program treated my Master’s Degree in urban planning from the University of Iowa like it is was…inferior, as coastal people inevitably do, so they made me re-take a bunch of classes. It was snobbery; they made it clear that unlike my colleagues who had come from their own, Berkeley’s, or MIT’s hoity toity planning programs, I was hopelessly, hopelessly backwards. No, alas, I had spent my time jumping over clods of dirt, heehaw, and had not studied with some of the most accomplished faculty in the US who had happened to land at the UI. I didn’t have the power or the insight to be able to defend the dear old University of Iowa back then, but looking back, I was very fortunate to have gone there. My guess is that the University of Iowa still retains the quality that I experienced there, though most who taught me have moved, retired, or passed on.

So at UCLA, I had a problem: I had to take my PhD coursework hours, and I was also being expected to retake master’s classes that didn’t count towards advancing my PhD. I’d taken land use and transport classes before, but Brian made it clear he wanted me to take his transportation and land use class, and so I sucked it up and re-took the class with him. I am glad I did; I learned a lot.

I didn’t really learn all that much about that topic, though I did learn some new things. It was a beautifully designed class that Brian seemed born to teach. And from that I learned much about the craft of teaching, perhaps more than in just about any other class I have ever taken. Brian was nothing short of brilliant teaching that class. He loved the topic, he had studied it deeply and carefully for years, and that passion and knowledge came through with every class session. I learned so much about the craft of teaching in that semester that, while I don’t require my students to take classes from me (because I remember sweating the cost and time associated with classes that do not count towards completion), I do try to help them understand that their time spent as teaching assistants and graders should be time spent watching and learning what their mentors do in the classroom and how they do it.*

One day Taylor was talking about something I don’t think he’s ever written about: the conundrum of job-housing balance, and he made some comments that have always stuck with me: Regional rail systems do not benefit from jobs-housing balance. They are easier to design and operate if you have a jobs-housing imbalance. He made the point and moved on, but it’s always fascinated me as problem.

Jobs-housing balance is the idea that in a given part of the region, if you have a balance between housing and jobs, you can minimize harmful, long-distance commutes that, in the contemporary US, are likely to add vehicle miles of travel and, thus, harmful emissions and crash risks, etc.

The best paper I have ever read on jobs-housing balance came from the University of Michigan’s Jonathan Levine:

Levine, Jonathan. (1998) Rethinking Accessibility and Jobs-Housing Balance. Journal of the American Planning Association 64(2):133-149.

Where Levine finds that jobs-housing balance isn’t really all that useful as a travel demand management strategy, but it does help lower wage workers have better access to jobs. It’s a great paper–I am sorry it’s behind a paywall, and if JAPA ever runs a free or discounted special that includes it, I would promote it like crazy so you can read it.

There are some challenges, as Evy Blumenberg points out in her research: Just because there is a job nearby doesn’t mean that there is a job for you nearby. In theory, I have a church accessible by walking from my house, but it’s a Buddhist temple.

Yet when we look at this map of New York and DC, two cities renowned for their regional rail systems, that’s not what you see: You see a whole bunch of people going the same direction at roughly the same time. That’s the sort of scale you can achieve when you have one or two major job centers and a bunch of bedroom communities chock full of people with butts to put in the seats of your commute rail system and nowhere around their houses they can walk to for a job.

And what Evans showed in his commute graphics was exactly the sort of set up that enables a regional rail system to supply commuting mobility at scale, which is what rail is for. Now, Evans doesn’t have any distances on his maps, which makes it hard for people who are not familiar with the regions to interpret the maps. (This is a big problem comparing the Sacramento commute shed with the New York one; arguably, Sacramento and the Bay Area are one giant commute shed and we’d see multiple centers coming through if he did both cities in one animation. How splendid of me to make more work for him…) That would be a good animation, and you could probably see the subcenters way better than with DC/Alexandria/Arlington.

Granted Levine’s findings, this stuff gets us to some pretty thorny issues with regional rail. It isn’t, arguably the job of development to make sure regional transit providers have riders and operating funds, but those things do help if we want a regional rail system. Howling an objection that a regional rail system can still be very useful for nonword travel doesn’t help me out much, because while that’s true, a transit provider in general would like to have more business rather than less, and writing off the commuter market is a pretty big sacrifice to somebody who would like to collect fares.

This is all by way of saying that accessibility, particularly for people disadvantaged in urban housing markets, is not easily reconciled with the sort of land use patterns (achievable ones, not the highest of high density that we’d love to see but seldom do) that promote the passenger aggregation rail can use best use, and neither are mixed uses, necessarily.

BTW, this is not just me going on with my usual gripes about New Urbanism, but it does highlight some goal conflicts within transit-oriented development that keep me thinking.

*And BTW, I learned a lot from Brian, but I have learned subsequently that I’ll never be Brian in the classroom. We are just too different. That’s perhaps the most difficult part of becoming a scholar: trying to adopt the practices of people you admire. You have to experiment with the things that seem to work, and that experimentation takes a great deal of time, and quite a bit of failure, before you find which practices can work for you and which ones can’t, and how you can perhaps adapt or innovate around the ones that can’t. Brian is confident, extroverted, funny, and happy. I am dour, painfully shy, and…sometimes funny. And you can’t be as a scholar what you aren’t as a person.

USC Transport Faculty respond to the LA Times Metro Ridership story

Metrans Transportation Institute asked a group of us to respond to the LA Times Ridership story, which you can find here.

Genevieve Giuliano is the Ferraro Chair in Effective Government at the Sol Price School of Public Policy at the University of Southern California, and Director of the METRANS Transportation Center writes about Placing the Numbers in Context:

While the Los Angeles Time’s interpretation of the study wasn’t incorrect, it targets LA Metro without providing context on what is happening in in other metropolitan regions. To really understand the study, we should first take a look at what was presented. Over the past few years, transit ridership has declined across the Southern California region. Some places have lost more ridership than others (Orange County, Santa Monica). It looks like LA Metro is in the middle of the pack, as we would expect for the largest agency in the region. If ridership is declining everywhere, there are systemic factors at work that are independent of any single transit agency’s policies. These factors may include changes in: 1) economic conditions, 2) work patterns; 3) population characteristics; 4) substitutes for transit.

Sandip Chakrabarti, Ph.D. is a Research Associate at the USC METRANS Transportation Center. His research focuses on the analysis of land use-transportation interactions, travel behavior, public transit planning and operations, multi-modal system performance measurement and monitoring, and impact analysis of new transportation investments. His entry is found here.

I did some quick number crunching, and it seems to me that Metro, the transit powerhouse of the Southern California region, has not made great decisions over the 2006-2014 period. See Figure 1 (top panel). Over the period, and in the group of the largest U.S. transit agencies in terms of their 2014 ridership (unlinked passenger trips or UPT), Metro has had one of the lowest increases in both UPT (as % – in fact a decrease) and in the number of boardings added (again, a decrease) per dollar spent in capital expenses. One can argue that Los Angeles is different and that it is far more challenging to plan for transit, and to attract and retain riders here. But the public can question, and Metro needs to have a good explanation. The 1995-2005 period, however, was different. See Figure 1 (bottom panel). In this period, just after most of the Metro rail network was built, Metro experienced a substantial increase in ridership and yield compared to its peers. Does that mean Metro is doing the right thing by building more rail in the region? I don’t think the answer is an easy “yes.” It’s all about building the right service in the right place at the right time.

James Moore is director of the Transportation Engineering program in the USC Astani Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, and Vice Dean for Academic Programs in the Viterbi School of Engineering. He writes Busways are a Better Alternative:

The LA Times article focuses some overdue media daylight on specious policy claims by MTA and others that rail lines are key to improving transportation services in Los Angeles. The MTA responded in the article with the standard agency smoke screen: Let us finish the system. They report that once they achieve a “complete buildout,” the rail system will perform. It won’t. We’ll spend billions more on rail at the expense of bus service, and continue to drive down transit ridership as we force riders off buses. No one currently with the agency will still be employed by the agency in the distant future the MTA is claiming to predict. None of the parties responsible for spending on rail transit will be standing before the public to be held accountable. They will be long retired, and not available to explain why the future they promised never materialized.

Marlon Boarnet is a renowned authority on urban economics, urban growth patterns, transportation, and regional science. He notes that the system management perspective gets us better planning:

But let’s not kid ourselves. Sales taxes are, if anything, an exercise in the politically practical and far from an effective transportation finance tool. We should be exploring mileage fees (ideally weighted based on fuel consumption or pollutants emitted from the vehicle) and congestion pricing. Seventy-five percent of all transportation funds spent in the greater L.A. area are from local (sub-state) tax sources. We need to aggressively move toward a transportation system that finances our investments fairly, by charging persons for the pollution and congestion that they create. While we are at it, let’s be sure to tax the new rideshare services, Uber, Lyft, and the like, based on mileage fees, with higher taxes for rideshare services that occur during congested time periods in congested locations. Use the revenues from well-crafted mileage fees to maintain and, as needed, expand our highways, fill potholes in the roads, expand bus service, and complete our rail system.

And then obviously I’m me. I write that Angelenos have to commit to the systems, and politicians have to show leadership: can read all of it here.

Metro also needs to do better in working with employers and with other institutions. For instance, Metro did absolutely nothing when USC discontinued its support for transit riders. Regardless of whether USC’s transit subsidy program attracted many riders, it was a signaling and leadership moment when USC axed its program. Metro’s leaders didn’t say “boo” in response. The LA DOT didn’t say “boo.” For all the prancing around our Mayor and other state Democrats do about alternative transportation, they did diddly to stand up to USC. When one of the region’s largest employers kicks transit support to the curb, agencies like Metro and the DOT, and our Mayor, need to show leadership, set the tone, and say “Hey, wait a minute. We know this program costs you money, but we’re trying to accomplish something here; we’re trying to build transit as a way of life in this city. Why are you bugging out on us?” That episode is so discouraging because it shows how much LA’s elected leadership wants to dig into taxpayers’ pockets at sales tax time to make sure the pretty trains get built, but how little real political capital our politicians wield in helping riders ride the pretty trains once they actually get built.

Why USC should support employee (and student) transit use based on both justice and self-interest

I’m a little rushed this morning, so forgive any typos.

So why, exactly, should USC support employee and student transit? As I grumpily posted the other day, the cost my monthly transit pass went from $36 to $100 over the last few years, and this last jump came because USC Transportation Services cancelled entirely its transit subsidy, and that’s what set me off. No subsidy is a bad idea.

This is bad corporate policy. It’s entirely understandable from a dollars and cents standpoint: USC does unit-based budgeting (meh), and as a result, Transportation Services gets rather stuck with these kinds of programs. If you have great big parking structures sitting half empty most of the day, you’d much, much rather direct people to use those, since you are stuck with them anyway, than be using the revenues from parking to subsidize transit use. This is why USC as a whole should step up and help Transportation Services run the program.

Why? There are both justice and self-interested reasons for doing so. One of my brilliant students on Twitter noted that the increase alone from $36 to $100 a month is about 5% of total monthly wages for somebody making minimum wage. It’s a big pay cut for a low-wage person who depends on transit.

Ok, yes, those workers do not necessarily need to buy a monthly pass, so they go back to paying the base fare. But paying per ride is more expensive per ride than having a pass, and the pass enables mobility for a whole bunch of other purposes besides work. Metro is pretty affordable when it comes to fares, but they are getting less so, and low-wage workers in Los Angeles–and USC has many of them— exist in a hard whipsaw between housing costs, car ownership costs, transit mobility costs, and stagnant wages.

As a university interested in community and sustainability, USC should be trying to make that easier, not harder.

People like me can well afford $100, and I would actually be willing to pay full freight (and a bit more) if it meant that USC offered discounted passes to employees making less than the regional median income.

The self-interested part: those great big, useless parking structures are a huge opportunity cost. They are parking structures on a campus where space is the coin of the realm and we could fill any dorm space or married student housing space, like, tomorrow, with high-value uses that generate real, actual rents.

Yes, we can charge for parking, but…what do you suppose has a higher return: housing on campus or parking on campus?

Blam! Unit-based budgeting again. Transportation services doesn’t get to develop housing. So…parking has no opportunity costs for them. But for USC, the opportunity costs are huge.

This is why most urban/downtown universities subsidize their transit commuters. If we keep you out of your car, we can scale back on the amount of precious campus space given over to less economically productive uses, like parking.

It is out of step with the practices of major urban universities throughout the US. NYU, for example, offers roughly 50 to 60 percent subsidy, depending on the system pass. Harvard’s subsidy in Boston is 50 percent . MIT has the same deal. Yale offers its faculty and employees $130 a month in transit pass. UCLA offers a FlashPass through Santa Monica BBB for $33 (a significant discount as that is per quarter rather than monthly!). Stanford offers Eco-Pricing at 50 percent subsidy. Berkeley, ditto.

I know, our parking gets full on football days, but look, nobody is going to stop going to Trojan football games just because they have to park one train stop away. Do you see what people pay for those tickets? There is puh-lenty of parking along the Expo Line. Tailgaters should be taking transit anyway.

It’s harder to say that USC should just brass up for undergraduate transit passes. But it would be so good for them and for us. It would be so super if we could negotiate a good rate with Metro and students were willing to assess themselves a fee for it. But students and parents are already so stretched, and that’s hard, but…if you get young people riding transit, it’s soooooooo good for them, and it’s very good for transit, and it can make them into lifelong supporters, if not lifelong patrons, of transit services.

Sustainability: If you are housing cars instead of housing people, you are doing it wrong.

David Levinson’s metro job accessibility report is out, and it’s vital for planners interested in transit

David Levinson has been working on accessibility for years, and his work is so important to those interested in public transit. He’s got two reports up we should be talking about right now. Here’s the link to the maps and the report for transit accessibility (2014), and here’s the link to auto accessibility. These are available from the Accessibility Observatory. There’s lots there to read because David and his research group are very productive, but here are some of the numbers that I have been playing with this morning:

Number of jobs accessible by car relative the number of accessible by transit by travel time (2014)

City 20 minutes 40 minutes
Boston 31.0 18.4
Chicago 36.4 19.6
Dallas 161.0 80.6
Portland 66.7 18.5
Los Angeles 96.1 39.6
New York 10.1 6.2
San Francisco 57.6 12.8
Washington, DC 38.9 10.2

All these are my calculations based on numbers I took from the two reports, so if they are messed up, I did it, not David. I typed this up before coffee.

This little exercise was eye-opening to me in several ways. First the no-brainer: We’ve always known that in US transit, there is New York and there is everybody else. That’s true here. Second, the 20 minute versus 40 minute distinction strikes me as being really important. For many cities thought to have good transit (San Francisco, Boston, Chicago), the competition enters in at the 40 minute mark, not the 20 minute mark. The rest of these numbers…oye. The Los Angeles numbers, oye. The Portland numbers, face palm.

I may spend the rest of the day in bed.

edited to add–David emailed me and said my original numbers were off…I found a bunch of typos. He’s going to have a proper report up in a month…so stay tuned for that. When I fixed the typos, the numbers got worse.

Seriously. Staying in bed. Do we have any ice cream?

David Levinson responds to my responses, and I respond some more

Ok, so while the World Cup is going on, David Levinson and I are arguing about transit policy, which proves two things: 1) transit policy is very complicated and people of genuine good will (and very similar academic training) are likely to disagree on some points even when they agree on many things, as I believe David and I do and 2) David and I are nerds. Nerds!

Anyhoozily, here are David’s responses

Ultimately, our differences are pretty small and come down to, I think, differences on how much weight we place on politics and how politics might influence the outcomes of Levinson’s prescription. I think politics influence how the prescriptions would be shaped in ways that are likely to blunt the possibilities Levinson lays out for transit companies as public utilities. So what, really? Politics always has that effect to some degree. As I have said throughout, Levinson’s short piece is really a huge contribution to transit policy that I hope policymakers take seriously.

Part 1. David Levinson’s CityLab discussion on transit: Regulated public utility model

It’s taken me awhile to get around to discussing David Levinson’s very nice contribution to the discussion of transit funding over at CityLab: How to Make Public Transit Sustainable Once and For All. There is a lot of solid good sense here, even if I don’t necessarily think all points are equally important or as straightforward as we might hope.

That said, he’s right. It’s time to stop talking about the transit funding crisis, like this is a momentary problem, and stabilize the financial structure of the service, for the good of the service and the people who need it.

I’m going to be discussing his ideas in a series of blog posts as I have too many things to say for just one.

Levinson argues for changing the institutional structure of transit agencies from what most regional providers are now–quangos–to a utility model, and that suggestion is, hands down, probably the most important suggestion Levinson makes. There is a lot recommend this idea. First of all, even though quangos are somewhat insulated from voters and politics, they still have play with budgetary politics, and those games are where lots of stupid enters into transit provision.

What does a utility get for us? Well, we have good exemplars of public utilities that do a pretty good job (some aren’t so good, but we can talk about why) matching capital investments to their markets. In transit, suburban districts get more transit than they probably should because they (usually) have disproportionate representation on county boards of supervisors (as in LA) or on metro boards. So all somebody like Gloria Molina (LA County Supervisor) needs to do to get her massively expensive rail project is trade her chits, and make alliances that threaten to block other projects (Measure R votes) to get things for her own districts. And boom! There we go, flinging transit money at projects that make no sense financially or operationally but all sorts of sense politically.

The utility model stops that to some degree. If the good folks, for example, in bedroom community R want transit service, they can contract with the utility provider for it. If other jurisdictions see a benefit to having service out there, they can contribute to the contract. Rather than demanding gold-plated service and getting everybody else to pay for it, the jurisdiction pays for what it wants. If it wants a $930 million train, then it pays for that level of service. Jurisdictions do that sort of thing all the time with things like sanitation services. Some places in Los Angeles have garbage and multiple types of recycling and compost, others just offer garbage collection, and all of them manage their own rates because they are billing the customers and handling the contracts.

That way, if a jurisdiction wants supply to a place where the market for it can’t support the service, the jurisdiction gets a bill from the utility so we can see just how much it costs to provide access via transit rather than other means. Levinson is a little too facile with his dismissal about equity concerns. I, too, was raised on the economists’ (very sensible) supposition that if we are worried about poor people we should give them money. But in the real world of American poverty, that isn’t how things go, and the question becomes, if we roll back public subsidies for services aimed at helping poor people get what they need AND exist in universe where Republicans won’t let us give them money, poor people just end up getting priced out of service.

That said, public utilities are way better at dealing with lifeline pricing than just about anybody else. No, it’s not perfect; many people do not know they can send a pay stub to their local utility and get lifeline pricing, but most utilities do allow it, and that matters. It’s a way of metering usage and sending a price signal, but within the context of a family’s real scope of affordability. So the utility can charge whatever rates it can to cover its capital and operations, and taxpayers can redistribute via lifeline prices so that the Dr. Levinsons and Dr. Schweitzers and Donald Trumps of this world can pay market rates, which we can easily do, and impoverished riders also get a price signal but still have access.

So where are the problems? Well, first, utilities have been most robust for services that are relevant to just about every household. It would be nice if that were true for transit, but it is not. Just about everybody in cities uses water, sewer, and electricity. Those utilities can bank on steady customer payments and long-term service even as households move in and out. Transit companies in most markets of the US can not. So as a potential utility investor, I’m not even considering investing in most transit markets; just give me a handful of lines in NYC, DC, Boston, etc., and I’m keeping my money for other, much less risky endeavors than transit where capital costs are high and I might end up with capital stock I can’t really pay for. It’s not clear to me that transit is an industry where, by virtue of the structure of the industry, there are real returns to scale (more on this in future posts). Levinson’s utility model here is most easily translatable for places where the voter-customer dichotomy in transit is already less of an issue.

The second problem concerns jurisdictions who want to opt out and their effect on other jurisdictions. This doesn’t happen with electricity or water except at the aggregate level (see San Diego and water wholesalers). So Beverly Hills decides it does not want transit service. But Beverly Hills is smack-dab in the middle of a region, and if it refuses service, what does that mean for transit service to the thousands of job destinations *in Bevery Hills*? For electricity or water, the consequence for employers there are immediate and severe. For transit, well, darn, let’s just all keep driving. I suppose we could put the rest of us in the position of paying Beverly Hillians to allow us to have transit there, but…oye.

Finally, service question differences in transit are a big deal, but they are not in other types of services once you reach a particular threshold. Americans who do not think that government works should go enjoy the electricity in many other parts of the world where you get electricity for only part of the day, etc. So I do not mean to suggest that there are no differences in electricity or water provision. But it seems to me you top out at service levels readily and you don’t really see a lot of innovation in the capital investment side once a basic level of service is reached. Americans are used to being able to drink their water from the tap and they are used to plugging in. And it’s not like my plug-ins or my volts are less nice than those delivered to somebody making 50x what I do.

Transit is not like that; many levels of service are possible, and relying on contracting by jurisdiction strikes me as a fast way to recreate the dramas, failures, inequalities and potentials of fiscal equalization across districts that we already see in education policy. The problems stay the same but shift around a little bit, with more incentive to invest in personnel rather than buildings. Rich districts have tons of options; poor districts don’t, and thus residents in poor districts get the short end of the stick. But it’s not like they don’t now. Wealthy areas with lots of voters get; impoverished areas with fewer voters (and lots of riders) get less, and they sometimes win based on ridership figures and appeals to social justice. All of those factors come back into play under contracting by district. Again, this problem is not necessarily a bug; allowing service differentiation and price discrimination across consumers could be a major innovation for transit at the same time it sets up some places for good access and other places for….not good access. Which we already have, so you can’t blame the suggestion for it.

#ReadUrbanandPlanningWomen2014 entry #14: Deike Peters

Deike Peters is assistant professor of environmental planning and practice at Soka University of America. I first encountered Deike when she very kindly taught a planning studio for us at USC. She has an interest in land development around stations, and she has worked extensively trying to understand the land use conflicts at high speed rail station areas. She co-edited a special issue of Built Environment on the topic, Volume 38 from 2012, Number 2. (As an aside Built Environment is one of those journals that doesn’t get the attention it should.)

This is the paper I’m reading:

Peters, D., with Novy, J. (2012) “Train Station Area Development Mega-Projects in Europe – Towards a Typology” Built Environment, 38:1, 12-30

In this manuscript, Peters and Novy draw a distinction between transit-oriented development (TOD) and train-station area development (TSAD) as they look at the land development resulting from European high speed rail projects, where TSAD is looking to develop an area broader than a general TOD. They discuss the possibilities for TSAD as part of sustainable development, where redevelopment generates higher quality, and more, pedestrian possibilities surrounding the station following changeover in land uses away from industrial use. (This strikes me as interesting; plenty of high speed rail companies are also hauling freight as well as passengers, so at least some of the station areas have to be in warehousing and distribution use. There’s really no reason, other than scale perhaps, that these uses can’t be integrated with pedestrian and other uses, though.) Right along with the intention for sustainable development also come the same same growth machine aspects that development in cities always have, but with a 21st century, neoliberal twist. Peters and Novy place the redevelopment project in the ongoing history of urban place competition. They look at the European projects:

Combing through a list of over 500 rail station sites in 437 cities, the sheer number TSAD projects already built or currently underway proved impressive. We identified 136 projects with investments of €100 million or more, including fifty-two with total investments of €500 million or more. Projects proliferated in cities of varying sizes across a whole range of nations, including countries with comparatively less developed rail networks such as Portugal or Bulgaria. Our inventory recorded both the highest number and the largest investments in Germany and Great Britain.

So they comb through and find the biggest. It’s not clear from the article why they choose the biggest, but I think it’s because those larger projects best mirror their concept of TSAD rather than TOD. From these, they derive four general types of TSAD types: strategic megaprojects, station renaissance projects, transport projects, and urban development projects.

Strategic megaprojects are those that are “big” and “bold”, though, as the authors point out, not necessarily beautiful. These draw on supra-regional rationales (often using “Europe” in project name to signal the elevation of this place within the hierarchy of places) and they usually involve a lot of money, an ambitious plan for multiple transport and land uses, and entail complex, multi-government governance agreements.

Station renaissance projects are just what they sound like: the chance to get an upgrade on existing, historic buildings by putting new services and amenities inside, drawing on the grand style architecture to enhance place experience in commerce.

Transport projects, too, are just what they sound like. They are designed to made an intermodal hub where the transport functions go first and the place functions take on a lower priority.

Urban development projects are the opposite: the main point seems to be to get in and do something with the land and the buildings, and the transport functions are coincident, but less a priority. These strike me as the HSR version of TOD, conducted on a larger scale.

The remainder of the discussion takes on emerging issues, and of those, I think the most interesting is just how large the projects are becoming–Peters refers to “Gigaprojects” and to community opposition that has arisen, particularly to the idea of local area development serving supra-regional interests, and the changes that opposition has enacted on building practices and development ideas.

This is a very nice discussion of the unfolding development of Europe’s HSR development; go read!