Thursday, October 22, 2009

How are we doing?

By now you've seen the Cycle images that I've made recently:

We've got our goals: access for all, health, safety, clean air and water, efficiency, and a better society. We have some ways of measuring the end results: incidence of asthma and other diseases, road deaths and injuries, amount of pollution, energy prices and various kinds of alienation. You can find some of these at Transportation for America's State Facts pages.

We don't have a great measure of access. We do have WalkScore, but that doesn't mention things that are a short train ride away. We have the census journey-to-work data that can tell us something about where people have long commutes, and is used by the Pratt Center to propose "BRT" routes (PDF), but they don't tell us about non-work trips like daycare or shopping.

We do have some measures of government priorities, like the transportation allowances granted to car companies vs. transit, the 80/20 funding split, and the relative tax benefit levels.

Unfortunately, the measures of government priorities don't often tell the whole story. For cars, the vast majority of operating costs are outsourced to the individual drivers, but this "time tax" is not counted. Most of the costs of manufacturing, maintaining, fueling, storing and insuring the vehicles are also outsourced, despite the subsidies I mentioned above, but these are not considered to be transportation taxes. Conversely, governments can often get much more "bang for the buck" from transit, pedestrian and cycling facilities, in terms of providing alternatives to private car ownership.

What I would really like to see, for every transportation and housing project, is an estimate for how it would be most likely to change the mode split in an area. How many riders will that widened bridge attract away from transit? How many people can be expected to buy cars once they move to a development that has 2,600 new parking spaces (PDF)? How many people who currently drive down Flatbush Avenue would take BRT instead?

I know it'd be an enormous task, but I'd like to see aggregate mode-split forecasts for policy decisions like the 80/20 funding split. How many people could be expected to switch to transit if we had a 50/50 funding split, and how would that affect transit system profitability? What about various potential gas tax levels? And how would those mode splits affect the indicators for our ultimate goals: health, safety, clean air and water, efficiency, and a better society?

I think this kind of thing is important to get it across to people that this isn't just abstract power games. Some people do stand to lose some things if transit advocates get what they want, but it may be possible to persuade them that the sacrifice is worth it. If we could say something like, "a 50/50 funding split could be expected to reduce asthma by x percent," it could really drive the point home.

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