Monday, October 31, 2011

We can do this the sprawl way, or we can do this the TOD way

Recently I've been examining the decision-making process for "bus rapid transit" in the Tappan Zee corridor, in response to Stephen's insightful question, "Can someone explain to me how the hell an I-287/Tappan Zee BRT could cost ("as little as"!!) $1 billion?" I originally listed four parts to the answer: First, all new busways are vulnerable to the dreaded "empty lanes" attack, which (bonus post) can be part of a broader strategy. Second, you're trying to serve a sprawling population with transit, which is always expensive. Third, the transit proposals all include some part of the "full corridor" from Suffern to Port Chester, while the current road proposal only covers the bridge. Fourth, transit advocates didn't have - and never have had, in this country - the political will to formally propose true dirt-cheap BRT.

I've dealt with the first and third factors, so now on to the second. I want to lead with this quote from our State Transportation Commissioner, Joan "Smart Growth" McDonald, speaking to Kate Hinds of Transportation Nation:
Some of the transit issues, whether it’s BRT (bus rapid transit) or commuter rail, are very detailed issues that need to be resolved with localities, particularly in Rockland County. Where do you site bus rapid transit stations, where do you put parking, if you want to add another lane for bus rapid transit, that would entail property takings, and that will take two to three years to get there, and the costs are between two billion and four billion to build that.
Uh, wait. Parking? Adding another lane? This is smart growth?

The inherent nature of sprawl is that transportation is inefficient. It's even more inefficient for personal cars than for transit; we just notice the inefficiencies less with personal cars because that system outsources the responsibilities of driving, fueling and maintenance onto the vehicle owner - typically a single occupant and an amateur, with predictable results. But transit is inherently inefficient in sprawl.

There are two ways to handle this. The first is simply to go with the form of sprawl and cater to people who want to go from far-flung cul-de-sac tract house to far-flung office park to far-flung strip mall, wasting gas, driver time, and bus wear and tear on snaky little routes guaranteed to make passengers simultaneously nauseous and bored stiff. The second, smart growth way, is to foster Transit Oriented Development. This works by starving the sprawly cul-de-sacs, office parks and strip malls and feeding the denser, pedestrian-oriented mixed-use apartments, townhouses and loft buildings. By doing this you encourage people to move their homes and businesses into the denser developments.

With busways in particular, there is a sprawl way and a TOD way. The sprawl way is to run the buses in a physically separated center lane on a highway out of walking distance of anything you might want to go to, with park-and-ride stations, and to keep the sprawl-inducing 1950s zoning. The transit-oriented development way is to run the buses in a corridor that accommodates commercial and residential development within comfortable walking distance of stations, and to throw out the zoning so that people can build more dense walkable buildings. The prototypical bus rapid transit systems - Curitiba, Bogotá, Guangzhou - all work the transit-oriented development way.

The transit-oriented development way is physically cheap - all you need is a bunch of jersey barriers and maybe a signal priority system for the traffic lights - but it is politically very expensive because it involves (a) taking road space from cars and (b) allowing density and mixed-use, two things that are guaranteed to get crowds of baby boomers all steamed up. By contrast, the sprawl way is politically cheap but expensive to build. This is one reason that the transit-oriented development way was pioneered in authoritarian societies like 1970s Brazil and 2000s China.

In the I-287 corridor between Suffern and Port Chester, there is a highway that is out of walking distance of anything you might want to get to, and there is a parallel series of older roads that run right through downtown Suffern, Spring Valley, Nanuet, Nyack, Tarrytown, Elmsford, White Plains and Port Chester. We've got a campaign that specifically invokes Curitiba (PDF) and a project team that holds Transit Oriented Development Workshops. And now we've got a Transportation Commissioner with a reputation for supporting smart growth. So which way did they choose?

Yes, that's right, they chose the sprawl way (PDF). God help us all.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

The habits of successful busways

In response to Stephen's question about why "bus rapid transit" across the Tappan Zee Bridge was projected to cost "as little as one billion," I described the Empty Lanes attack and how sometimes it may even be part of a more nefarious plot. Tonight I'll explain how this led to only full-corridor BRT proposals, even while the road widening had a proposal just for the bridge.

The successful busways of the world fall into two categories. There are thick market busways, built in areas where there already is a thriving bus market, following the Magic Formula for Transit Ridership, and often earning a profit for the operators. Examples of this include Bogotá's Transmilenio, Guangzhou's Zhongshan Avenue line, and our own Lincoln Tunnel Exclusive Bus Lane and Bx12 Select Bus. Then there are former rail lines that are too narrow to fit more than a couple lanes of road, such as Pittsburgh's East and West Busways and Los Angeles's Orange Line.

Busways connecting sprawl with sprawl, without established bus markets and with heavy competition from government-subsidized roads, tend to have a hard time attracting passengers and fostering transit-oriented development. This 2002 post from Light Rail Progress cites Virginia's Shirley Busway and LA's Harbor Transitway as having lost riders, as well as former train lines like the Pittsburgh South Busway. At the very least they take a long time to build ridership, and are thus vulnerable to the Empty Lanes attack.

That makes it all the more mystifying why the Tri-State Transportation Campaign would push so hard for BRT across the Tappan Zee Bridge, and why they would happily throw the "prohibitively expensive" commuter rail option under the bus, so to speak. But it does explain why Tri-State pushed so hard for "full-corridor" BRT, from Suffern to Port Chester.

Nyack on the west shore of the Zee and Tarrytown on the east shore are both pretty small towns with high car ownership rates, and neither of them has enough residents or jobs to fill a busway between them when there are four parallel lanes of mixed traffic. Tarrytown has the Metro-North station where bus riders could transfer to Manhattan-bound trains, but even that isn't enough of an attractor. The buses could run in mixed traffic on both sides of the bridge, but that would limit their competitiveness with driving. Thus, transit advocates pushed for "full corridor BRT" to try to pick up as many Rockland residents and Westchester jobs as possible. And this, of course, added to the projected cost.

Given all this, the full corridor is pretty essential to the success of BRT. Without the full corridor you might as well not bother. In contrast, the highway widening plans put forth by the DOT were pretty clearly fantasy projects thrown in to make their bridge widening seem cheap by comparison. But because the bridge widening was only for the bridge, it also looked cheap by comparison to the BRT, and that's what allowed Commissioner MacDonald to reject BRT as not "financially feasible.”

Still, a billion dollars seems a lot for thirty miles of bus rapid transit, which we're constantly being told is "much cheaper than rail." So why aren't the proposals cheap?

Saturday, October 29, 2011

The HOV Bait-and-Switch

In my discussion of the Empty Lanes attack on busways and HOV lanes, I neglected to mention that it can be part of a larger, more nefarious strategy, the HOV Bait-and-Switch. The sequence of events is the same; it is only the motivation that is different.

In both cases, a road agency builds HOV lanes, but they are not filled immediately. Solo drivers complain about wasted space, and eventually someone makes the decision to open the HOV lanes to all vehicles. This can happen with busways too.

The politicians and bureaucrats who build and maintain the roads usually express some support for the HOV lanes or busways, but that support can evaporate pretty quickly in the face of the Empty Lanes attack. And that's made me wonder if in some cases they hadn't planned it all along.

As far as I know there's never been a smoking gun to show that a highway bureaucrat suggested HOV lanes or a busway. But you'll notice that highway bureaucrats almost never suggest turning an existing lane into an HOV lane or a busway. They always want to build a new one, and somehow that new lane is always on a stretch of highway that they wanted to widen not long before, but ran into opposition on environmental or fiscal grounds. HOV lanes and busways appeal to environmentalists and fiscal conservatives, and the Empty Lanes attack is so predictable that you really have to wonder.

The transit planners are all too familiar with this pattern. It's no wonder that they never want to just open a busway without ensuring there's demand for it from day one.

Friday, October 28, 2011

The Tappan Zee Bridge and the Empty Lanes Attack

A tweet may not be worth a thousand words, but a well-crafted tweet can be worth a few hundred at least. On Monday, Stephen Smith asked, "Can someone explain to me how the hell an I-287/Tappan Zee BRT could cost ("as little as"!!) $1 billion?" With those few words, Stephen put his finger on a major weak point in the "enveloping BRT" strategy practiced by transit advocates. There is no "cheap" option for transit among the alternatives that were considered for the Tappan Zee corridor in the last round of discussions. Every transit option adds at least a billion dollars to the cost. When nobody can even find five billion for "just the bridge" (with a little stealth widening thrown in, naturally), it's too tempting for our austerity-obsessed "car guy" governor to cut the transit completely.

So why are the transit proposals so expensive, especially compared with the car proposals? The answer is a combination of four interconnected factors. First, all new busways are vulnerable to the dreaded "empty lanes" attack. Second, you're trying to serve a sprawling population with transit, which is always expensive. Third, the transit proposals all include some part of the "full corridor" from Suffern to Port Chester, while the current road proposal only covers the bridge. Fourth, transit advocates didn't have - and never have had, in this country - the political will to formally propose true dirt-cheap BRT.

The "empty lanes" attack has probably been attempted on every busway and HOV lane in history. In part it stems from basic physics: vehicles traveling slower can fit closer together safely, but faster ones have to leave more stopping distance between themselves and the vehicle in front. If the bridge managers succeed in speeding up bus traffic, the bus drivers need to leave more space. Drivers stuck in nearby traffic see that space and clamor for the lanes to be opened to them.

If demand for the bus or HOV lanes is at maximum (for example, the Lincoln Tunnel XBL with its steady stream of buses flowing down into the tunnel), drivers can't really say anything. But if it's anything less - say for instance that the project is just getting started - the clamor will start immediately and just keep building until the bureaucrats give in and open the lane to all vehicles.

Note that the bridge itself was pretty empty when it first opened - but there was nothing anybody could do about that. Tearing down the bridge wouldn't bring the money back. So they made the best of it. That's the double standard that all busways and HOV lanes face.

The transit agency could always run a bunch of buses whether anyone's riding or not, but that just opens them up to the related "empty buses" attack, another perennial favorite.

A strong political leader or movement could protect the busways and say "fuck you, it takes time to build ridership, we're not letting you drive in the lane." So a new busway has to have strong political sponsorship, or else it has to have a certain amount of ridership from day one.

It would add almost nothing to the cost of the current proposal - a rounding error - to build a new bridge with three general-purpose lanes and a busway in each direction. But if the busway is not immediately full of buses, car advocates will hit fast and hard with the "empty lanes" attack. I don't see any political leaders ready to stand behind a half-empty busway. The staff at Tri-State knows this well, and I'm pretty sure that's why they didn't object to the "BRT" actually being high occupancy/toll lanes on the bride itself. They don't want an actual busway on the bridge until they know it'll be full enough to stave off the empty lanes attack. So how do you build that ridership? That's where the other three factors come in.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Tappan Zee Bridge: Money Pit, or Giving Tree?

I want to correct something that I wrote last week. I said, "even though the Thruway spends $30 million a year to maintain the bridge, and that number is rising every year, the tolls bring in $50 million." The tolls are still bringing in $50 million a year, but in 2009, according to Phil Ferguson, then the Finance Study Project Manager, "the bridge requires $130-150 million annually to operate and maintain, which is much more than it generates." Similar figures have been repeated in the media lately.

Given the number of times that we've heard about the high maintenance costs of the current bridge, a natural question is what the maintenance costs of the replacement bridge might be. Surprisingly - or perhaps not - this figure is a bit hard to come by. There's nothing in the scoping packet about it. The only figure I was able to find was on Page S3 of the Executive Summary of the Rehabilitation vs. Replacement analysis, where the "Present Value (150-year) Maintenance Cost" for a slightly larger bridge is estimated at $700 million. I'm not a finance expert and I haven't figured out how to get from that to estimated annual costs, but if we just divide the PV total by 150 years we get $4.67 million a year. Even if that doesn't include the cost of police, tolls, etc., it's still a lot lower than the $130 that's currently claimed, and the $20 million that the Authority paid for maintenance when the bridge was newer.

No wonder the Governor wants to replace it - and probably to spin it off as an independent authority, or even a separate for-profit corporation. The bridge is actually a huge drain on the Thruway budget, and part of the urgency comes from the desire to get out from under that burden. That said, it's really pretty rotten of Upstaters to take from the bridge when it was running a surplus and not want to chip in when it's running a deficit. It's like the Giving Tree or something.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Unreliable projections

The new Scoping Packet (PDF) put out by the Federal Highway Administration for the reconstruction of the Tappan Zee Bridge includes this cute little map, showing "projected" increases in thousands of residents (on top) and jobs (on the bottom). The implication is that these thousands of residents will need to get to the thousands of jobs, and they'll all want to drive, and they'll need the bridge to do it. These numbers all come from the New York Metropolitan Transportation Council, essentially an arm of the New York State Department of Transportation.

A similar argument was made in Figure 2 (from the Alternatives Analysis document that has since been scrubbed from the website), showing the average daily number of vehicles that have driven across the bridge for each year since the bridge was built in the 50s. It's a nice straight line, huh? So extending it, as the dashed line does, seems natural. This projected demand is an important part of the State DOT's argument for replacing the bridge. It's also an enticement for people to buy bonds to finance the bridge replacement: the higher the tolls, the more certain it is that the bondholders will be paid back. But why didn't the FHWA use that chart in the most recent Scoping Packet? Instead they used a chart that only went up to 2010 (Figure 3).

Why did they do that? Well, you might notice that the data for the past decade doesn't quite match projections. In fact, if we compare the actual volumes to the projections, as I do in Figure 4, we find that the projections haven't been very reliable.

The bridge traffic volume has actually been pretty stable over the past decade, in contrast to the dramatic increases that were predicted. There are two likely reasons for this. One is that the high gas prices in 2006-2007 discouraged people from driving, and the unemployment from the resulting recession took away the reason to drive from many west-of-Hudson residents.

However, the rate of increase in traffic volume was low even in the beginning of the decade. The other potential explanation is that the congestion on the bridge, and the high rate of crashes caused by the State squeezing an extra lane in, is a turn-off. Rather than deal with this, people will choose to get jobs elsewhere, or not even move to Rockland.

If the volume of traffic is self-limiting (and come on, really, why wouldn't it be?) then there is no urgent need to widen the bridge, or even to replace it. If the bridge capacity is reduced, people will either stop moving to Rockland, Orange and Bergen counties, or they'll move to someplace where they can catch the train to Hoboken.

Even if the new bridge is built, most scenarios call for the tolls to be doubled or even tripled, and many call for them to be indexed to inflation. That would serve to discourage use of the bridge. Furthermore, there is a chance that higher energy prices would limit driving. This could mean that the tolls never bring in enough revenue to pay off the bonds.

Monday, October 24, 2011

The future of Rockland, Bergen and Orange

One of the unpleasant possibilities to contemplate if the Tappan Zee Bridge gets rebuilt at double the width is a massive growth in sprawl. Right now, driving to Westchester every morning is a pain in the ass and getting worse every day. When the new bridge opens with its wide lanes and shoulders, traffic should move quickly, even with four lanes in each direction. If traffic gets backed up, you know that Cuomo would use one or both of the shoulders for an extra lane, even though he pretended he wouldn't. Tolls may be double, but they'll pay for a nice easy commute - until drivers get to I-287 at least.

With this easy commute, people will start buying houses in Orange, Bergen and Rockland again, and businesses will start moving offices back to Westchester. The money spent by all the construction workers in the immediate area will boost the economy, putting more people to work. "Homebuilders" will go back to work knocking down trees on the sides of Orange County hills to build more subdivisions. Big box stores will build more locations along Route 59, with nice big parking lots. Maybe the State will get excited at all the toll money coming in and widen the Thruway like it proposed in the study.

You and I may recoil in horror at that scenario - carnage! pollution! wasted oil! wasted space! obesity! bowling alone! But that's the happy motoring vision put forth by the task force under Governor Pataki and Commissioner Boardman in 2006, and continued right through to the present day under Andrew "car guy" Cuomo and Joan "smart growth" McDonald. A lot of it is based on the projections from the New York Metropolitan Transportation Council, like this one for traffic volume on the bridge.

The problem is that these projections are moronic. Sooner or later this will stop. As Kate Slevin predicts, even at fourteen lanes, the bridge will get congested. But before that, a lot of people will not be able to afford to pay ten dollars a day to cross the bridge on top of everything else. Gas prices will rise to five, six or seven dollars a gallon, and that will knock out a lot of other commuters on the bridge. If people can't drive to work, they will take transit, and if the transit continues to suck they will get jobs in the city where they can take the train or the bus in. If they can't do that they will move to someplace with more convenient transit. Others will stop moving to that part of the region, because it won't be a good deal any more.

When that happens, in order to function at all Bergen, Orange and Rockland will need to transition to a lifestyle oriented around transit and walking, which means living in town. How easy will that be, with a brand new five billion dollar bridge that nobody needs anymore, and all the sprawl it created? How easy would it be instead if we spent the money on transit, such as restoring passenger service on the West Shore Line?

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Do you want no tolls, or no tolls, or are you unsure?

So I got this campaign flyer legislative report from my Assemblymember, Marge Markey, in the mail the other day. It had a "what do you think" survey at the end. In general, I think these things are great. For example, I'm glad that Marge wants to know whether I think there should be more state oversight of the MTA:

As a matter of fact, not only do I think there should be more state oversight, I think there should be more accountability so that the State legislature can't cut the MTA's budget and then hold rallies against the MTA. So that's a good question. But now how about this one:

We all know that bridge and tunnel tolls are used to pay for all kinds of things beyond the maintenance of those bridges and tunnels. So using them only to maintain the bridges and tunnels means either saving them up (not always a bad idea) or reducing the tolls. Basically, the question boils down to: "Should tolls be rolled back, or should tolls be rolled back?" Then there's question 6:

Basically, the first option says that transit improvements should be funded by increased transit fares, not tolls. The second says that there should be no tolls. So the question is, "Do you want no tolls, or no tolls, or are you unsure?"

This is why I've long argued that it was a stupid idea to frame bridge tolls as paying for transit improvements. The obvious response is, "No, those transit users should pay for their own fucking improvements!" The fact is that we've already promised to reconstruct every single bridge on the BQE, including hundreds of thousands to replace the Kosciuszko, with no toll funding whatsoever. We've already done major reconstructions on most of the East River Bridges. Why are our transit improvements being held hostage to a bullshit artist like Marge Markey, while we use our income and sales tax dollars to write blank checks to repave every street in the city?

Oh yeah, and Marge Markey is a bullshit artist. Come on, Marge.

Paying for the new Tappan Zee

In an earlier post I mentioned Planet Money's story of how Governor Dewey built the Tappan Zee Bridge where it is so that he could use the toll money to pay for construction and maintenance of the Thruway all the way to Buffalo. I pointed out that the ongoing structural problems of the bridge have steadily increased the cost of maintenance, so that it eats up an ever-growing share of the revenue from the tolls, leaving less and less for the rest of the Thruway.

Given that, one weird thing about this project is that it would not only take the toll revenues away from the Thruway, but it would remove them from the funds available to maintain and administer the existing bridge. In 2008, the Preliminary Financial Studies assumed that the full $50 million annual toll revenue would be available to finance the reconstruction (page 7):

Directing additional tolls to this project will require careful legal and financial analysis of the resulting impact on the Thruway Authority, especially because current Tappan Zee tolls support the operation of the bridge and also subsidize the rest of the Thruway system.

In fact, one of the reasons that the project has been stalled for so long is that even if the tolls were doubled, they would only bring in $100 million a year, and if they were doubled and then indexed to inflation, they would still average $137 million a year over fifty years. If the State issues bonds against the tolls, because they we would have to pay interest, we could only get $1.3-2.4 billion up front to build the bridge. The Federal government was only expected to kick in a further $100 million a year, for a maximum of $2.6 billion.

So where does the rest come from? Well, we get a hint from this Journal-News article, which honestly leaves me scratching my head. Reporters Jorge Fitz-Gibbon and Ken Valenti quote several Experts, including Robert Poole of the Reason Foundation and Nancy Singer of the Federal Highway Administration. The remaining money, they say, would come from "investments from labor union pension funds and other nongovernment sources."

What's not clear to me is this: when the State borrows money by issuing bonds, they promise to pay it back with interest. They get the money up front, and the investors get the interest. In the case of the Tappan Zee, the interest is paid with toll revenues.

So why can't these pension funds and other investors just buy the toll bonds? Why do they want anything else? They're not going to give us money for nothing. What would they get out of it?

It's not spelled out in the Journal-News article, but Fitz-Gibbon and Valenti do mention the Goethals bridge replacement, where the plan is to pay the private investors extra interest. So I'm guessing the answer is that the State would promise to pay the investors back a certain amount above and beyond the toll revenues. That money, of course, would come from other revenue sources, like the sales tax or income tax we pay.

Oh, and how about the $20 million a year for the rest of the Thruway? Yeah, that'll either come from higher tolls in Woodbury or statewide, or else it'll come out of our tax dollars too. And that means one of two things. Either our taxes will go up, or in a few years some "brave" politician - maybe Cara Cuomo - will be forced to cut funding for education, Medicaid and transit, because "the state is in hard times."

Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Tappan Zee Bridge is a sprawl-generating machine

Whenever I see a wasteful road project, one of my first responses is to look for ways that the same trip could be made by rail. I tried to do that for the Tappan Zee Bridge. Going from Rockland or Orange to the city? We can dig the Gateway Tunnel. Going from New Jersey to New England? We can have the Cross-Harbor Rail Freight Tunnel, or we can reactivate the Poughkeepsie Bridge. Then I saw this chart, which has stumped me for months:
It illustrates the results of a survey done by the State Department of Transportation in April 2003, to determine the origins and destinations of eastbound auto and bus travelers crossing the Tappan Zee Bridge. In response to a question from Bbnet on a post from January, I dug up the survey summary, which says:
On an average weekday, 80,457 people cross the Tappan Zee Bridge in the eastbound direction. ... The majority of the person trips (65 percent) originate in Rockland and Orange counties, with 42 percent coming from southern Rockland County alone. The remaining person trips either begin in New Jersey (24 percent) or locations external to the study region (11 percent)...

In terms of where trips end, slightly more than half (51 percent) of all the eastbound person trips over the Tappan Zee Bridge terminate in Westchester County. Approximately 28 percent of the trips end in New York City (16 percent in the Bronx, 7 percent in Manhattan, and 5 percent in other areas of the City), which includes those person trips commuting on the Hudson Line from the Tarrytown Station. The remaining person trips terminate in Connecticut (10 percent), Long Island (3 percent), Putnam and Dutchess counties (1 percent), and in locations external to the New York metropolitan area1 (7 percent).
Hm, well it looks like the Gateway Tunnel, the Cross-Harbor Tunnel and the Poughkeepsie Bridge won't be much help to these people. 65% are coming from Rockland and Orange Counties, but if we add up Westchester, Putnam, Dutchess, the Bronx and Connecticut we get at least 78% of commuters who wouldn't be able to take advantage of those options. For those commutes, the only place you can really cross is at the Tappan Zee.

The liberating moment came when I realized that just because you can do something doesn't mean you should. We have a word for the style of residential development that's been built in Orange, Rockland and Bergen counties over the past fifty years. We have a word for the style of commercial development that's been built in Westchester and the north Bronx since 1960. That word is sprawl.

There are several reasons why sprawl is a dirty word among environmentalists, and they're listed at the top of this blog. Car-centered development pollutes the air, causing asthma and global warming. Incessant driving kills people, pets and wildlife. Sprawl wastes a tremendous amount of space, separating people from each other and causing obesity. Driving everywhere uses energy much faster than our planet gets it from the sun.

We see this in Orange, Rockland and Bergen counties, which have high crash fatality rates (33, 19 and 16 deaths per ten thousand inhabitants, respectively) and high rates of car travel per capita (12,682, 9,269 and 10,237).

The sprawl in Orange, Rockland and Bergen counties did not just appear. People built it because there were buyers, and those buyers came because they could drive to work. They could only drive to work because of the bridge. It's a sprawl-generating machine.

Reduce the capacity of the bridge, and you reduce the demand for sprawl. Tear down the bridge, and you eliminate a good chunk of the demand for sprawl.

Rebuild the bridge, on the other hand, and you continue that demand for sprawl. Widen it, or even just "bring it up to modern standards" so that people can drive fast, and you increase the demand.

Why are we doing this again?

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

How wide will the Tappan Zee Bridge be?

There's something confusing going on with the design of the Tappan Zee Bridge replacement. I looked into this issue specifically, because I was disturbed in 2008 when the State DOT decided, without any public discussion, that the bridge would be ten lanes wide, with two of the lanes being "HO/T" or high occupancy/toll lanes, which could be used by carpools or by solo drivers paying a higher toll.

This represented a significant increase in the car capacity of the bridge from the current seven lanes. In addition to adding a peak-direction lane and two off-peak ones, it would have widened the lanes from eleven feet to twelve or fourteen, increasing capacity by allowing drivers to go faster without increasing their risk of crashing.

This increased capacity would promote residential and job sprawl at both ends of the bridge, but this was never discussed. It was simply announced on page 21 of the Scoping Update that the bridge would be ten lanes, and none of the Alternatives included anything different.

The build alternatives 3, 4A, 4B, and 4C include a number of common elements. The fundamental differences between the alternatives are the transit modes. The common elements include the following: ... A River Crossing with two HOV lanes, eight general purpose lanes, shoulders and a full-length pedestrian/bicycle path linking Rockland and Westchester.

I've been poking around through the old study documents I can dig up, but I haven't yet found any evidence that there was ever any discussion of how many lanes to put on the replacement bridge.

I've seen estimates of the width of the current bridge that vary from 82 feet to 90 feet, but let's assume it's 82 feet. It contains seven lanes of traffic with no shoulders. That comes out to an average width of 11.7 feet per lane. Considering that one of the goals in the Scoping Packet is "Providing for standard, 12-foot traffic lanes," it would seem that the current bridge is not that far off. The biggest problem is that it doesn't have shoulders for anyone to stop in if they break down.

The Journal News and many other newspapers are reporting that the current plans for the bridge call for it to be eight lanes wide. The scoping document tells a slightly different story, though:

Minimum Width

NYSTA would maintain traffic flow across the Hudson River to the maximum extent feasible, even if one of the two bridge spans must be closed. To provide adequate capacity for such short-term traffic operations, a minimum of seven highway lanes would be needed across the river. In order to accommodate this service redundancy, the road deck would need a minimum width of 82 feet to provide for seven, temporary highway lanes in the event that one structure would be inoperable. This minimum dimension would be provided on both of the new spans to achieve this desired feature of the new crossing.

At present, bicycles and pedestrians are prohibited on the Tappan Zee Hudson River crossing although there are existing multi-use trails near the bridge on both sides of the river. To maximize the public investment in a new crossing, the New York State Department of Transportation (NYSDOT) and NYSTA would provide a shared-use
(bicycle/pedestrian) path across one of the spans of the replacement bridge. To meet current design standards for the path and to provide adequate separation from traffic lanes, the Replacement Bridge Alternative must provide a minimum of 12 feet of additional width for the shared-use path (including the path, barrier, and a safety buffer); however, 14 feet is currently planned.

To meet these operational requirements, the EIS will consider a Replacement Bridge Alternative with two spans. The span that includes a shared-use path would be 96 feet wide, and the span that does not include the shared-use path would be 82 feet wide.

If you're paying attention, you'll note that the new bridge will have two spans, each of which can carry the same amount of cars as the current bridge. That means that the bridge could conceivably carry fourteen lanes. What's up with that?

It's true that the Governor has been complaining about the "seven narrow lanes and no safety shoulders" under the current configuration. So we would imagine that the new bridge would have at least twelve-foot shoulders and fourteen-foot lanes, and we still get ten lanes.

Ten lanes might not be so bad, because two of them could be used for buses right away. It's possible, however, to squeeze twelve lanes onto the bridge and still have twelve-foot lanes and an eleven-foot shoulder on each side.

The main thing that I want to know is, what's to prevent the bridge from being used for fourteen lanes? Right now the Thruway Authority could dramatically decrease the number of crashes by reducing the number of lanes on the current bridge from six to seven, with either two six-foot shoulders or one twelve-foot one. They don't do that because the politicians on either side are insisting that car throughput is more important than safety. The current level of congestion, they say, demands seven lanes.

If the "eight-lane" replacement bridge fills up, as Kate Slevin predicts, there will be new demands to put another lane or two on it. If the bureaucrats couldn't say no to increasing this bridge to seven lanes, why would they say no to fourteen?

Monday, October 17, 2011

Salvaging the Tappan Zee studies

I've had a lot of criticism for the way the New York State Department of Transportation has led the Tappan Zee Bridge replacement project up to now, but one thing they deserve credit for is a decent website. There were tons of useful studies done, generating hundreds of pages of documentation. All that information was posted to the "TZB Site." Without it, I would have been dependent on secondhand reports from newspapers and blogs. I don't have time to go to all these meetings upstate.

Well, now Governor Cuomo has turned the project over to the Federal Highway Administration. They immediately took down all the documents and put up a completely new site with three whole documents.

All that information? You don't need it. Why would you? This is a new project. All the person-hours of research that went into those reports? All the money - your tax money - that paid for the research? Down the drain.

Of course, I feel that most of the information presented there was still relevant, and I intend to continue using it. Some of the files, particularly the HTML, is available through the Wayback Machine. Other stuff may be in the Google Cache still. Unfortunately, most of the information was in PDFs and images. I had a bunch saved to my hard drive, and I'll put them up as I need them. For example, today I uploaded the Preliminary Financial Studies Phase I Report. If I find other documents on my hard drive I'll put them up. If you have some of these documents, please post them and I'll link to them, or send them to me and I'll post them.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Tappan Zee Bridge is not indispensable

A key component of the PR drumbeat in favor of replacing the Tappan Zee Bridge has been the myth that the bridge is indispensable. We are led to believe it is a cornerstone of our regional economy. After all, it's the centerpiece of the Thruway bringing cars and trucks from the City upstate, and of Interstate 287 connecting New Jersey with New England.

If anything happened to the bridge, the myth goes, freight traffic up and down the East Coast would be paralyzed, and the city would be cut off from Albany, Buffalo and Montreal.

If you stop and think for even a moment, you realize that this is a crock. There are four crossings south of the Tappan Zee, and six between it and Albany. When I go upstate, the buses take the Lincoln Tunnel; when I go to Connecticut they take the Tunnel and the George Washington Bridge.

I was intrigued to discover that the original route for Interstate 87 ran over the Newburgh-Beacon Bridge and the present route of I-684 through eastern Westchester, and was only later shifted to the Tappan Zee Bridge. Cars and trucks going between Upstate and the city could just take that route. Much of the traffic from New Jersey to New England winds up on I-84 anyway; it could just take the Thruway north to Newburgh instead of I-684.

But Cap'n, you say, wouldn't that put too much of a burden on these parallel roads? The Cross-Bronx and the BQE are saturated at peak hours as it is!

They are, but I was talking more about drivers using the Beacon-Newburgh Bridge and the I-90 bridge to the north. And if the crossings to the south are saturated, people will use these bridges. There is room.

If there is a concern about freight movement, we should come up with a sustainable freight movement plan. The arrangement promoted by the road-builders would only increase our dependence on trucks and continue to hold the economy hostage to the sprawl machine. If we want to improve freight movement across the Hudson, we should spend the billions on the Cross-Harbor rail tunnel, not on road lanes that are wide open to any solo driving commuters.

The real danger from the Tappan Zee Bridge

Last month, Planet Money did a great report on the Tappan Zee Bridge. (For the short attention span crowd, here's the five-minute version.) David Kestenbaum noticed that the bridge was built in a really stupid place, at the widest point in the entire river, on soft ground far above the bedrock. I had kind of noticed that too, but I assumed that the people involved knew what they were doing. Ha!

When Kestenbaum started asking around he found out that no, by engineering criteria just about any other spot on the river was better for a bridge. The Tappan Zee Bridge was built where it was for political reasons.

Like most political fights, it was about power in the form of money. In this case it was the money from tolls. Essentially, the law that created the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey gave it a monopoly on the toll revenue from all bridges and tunnels that crossed between New York and New Jersey, within a 25-mile radius of the Statue of Liberty.

Governor Thomas Dewey (the one who didn't defeat Truman) wanted to build a big highway from the Bronx to Buffalo that would reunite the state. It would have to cross the Hudson at some point, and he figured that the excess toll revenue from that crossing could fund the construction of the rest of the highway - a highway now known as the Thomas E. Dewey Thruway.

If the State built the bridge too far north, it would not attract enough toll money to fund the highway. If they built it too far south, the Port Authority would get the money and spend it all on PATH trains and skyscrapers. The optimal place to put it according to the engineering criteria was right by Bear Mountain - but there was already a bridge there, not to mention a popular state park. So Dewey had it built just outside the Port Authority's territory.

Remember how I said "excess toll revenue"? That means the money left after the Thruway Authority sets aside funds for bridge maintenance. Well, the size of that "excess" is a matter of opinion, it turns out, if you look at the Thruway's "Budget Book." Toll revenues have always exceeded maintenance costs, but maintenance eats up a larger chunk every year.

Let's make something perfectly clear here: this is not going to be a repeat of the I-35W Bridge disaster in Minneapolis. Nobody thinks the bridge is going to fall down. It's not structurally deficient, it's "functionally obsolete." People whine about the crash rate, but just as with the BQE in Brooklyn, it would be a lot safer (and undergo less wear and tear) if the Thruway Authority wasn't trying to squeeze seven lanes of traffic onto a bridge where there's really only room for six.

The rising costs to maintain the bridge have meant that each year a smaller proportion of the tolls can be used to maintain and operate the rest of the sprawling system, and to pay the interest on the bonds that have been issued to fund projects up front. As with the Port Authority itself, the Thruway Authority has been used as a piggy bank for the State, taking on additional responsibilities like the untolled Cross-Westchester Expressway, the untolled Interstate 84 (returned to the State last year) and the Erie Canal, and allowing the State to close toll plazas, making sections of the Thruway in Albany and Buffalo free for local travel and making Syracuse jealous.

Now before doing a few calculations tonight, I've never heard the simple fact that even though the Thruway spends $30 million a year to maintain the bridge, and that number is rising every year, the tolls bring in $50 million. It's not the bridge budget that's in danger, it's the millions of toll dollars that get sent upstate and to Wall Street. Conceivably, the Thruway Authority could simply keep using the tolls to pay bridge maintenance, and the rest of the Thruway can go whistle. Maintaining a badly designed bridge in an ill-chosen location might not be the best use of the money, but building a new, wider bridge in the same place sure ain't.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Wealthy transit riders by county

Since the distribution of incomes seems to flatten out across a region - or at least, to reach a maximum of about 1 - it seems that the diversity happens at the county level. Accordingly, I tabulated a list of the counties with the highest ratios of transit incomes to driver incomes:

CountyDrove alone median earningsPublic transportation median earningsPublic Transportation earnings margin of errorTransit/ Drove Earnings RatioTransit - drove / error
St. Lawrence County, New York31,70672,13035,9642.271.12
Cherokee County, Georgia38,14085,40345,1182.231.05
Kane County, Illinois35,20275,13328,6792.131.39
Litchfield County, Connecticut41,54082,43128,0641.991.46
Stafford County, Virginia44,68686,93830,6861.951.38
DuPage County, Illinois40,47375,50011,4041.863.07
McHenry County, Illinois40,70675,00996671.843.55
Bristol County, Massachusetts36,89567,92213,4501.842.31
Spotsylvania County, Virginia40,72373,57212,0711.812.72
Ulster County, New York35,28960,74810,6581.722.39

There are some surprises here. What's going on in Saint Lawrence County, way up by the Canadian border? Is it something like we saw in Idaho Falls? I'm guessing that it's faculty commuting to SUNY Potsdam or Clarkson University. In any case, there are only 92 transit riders in the county, so maybe one of them can email me.

CountyWorkforcePublic TransportationPublic Transportation Mode ShareMean Drive TimeMean Transit TimeTransit / Drive time ratio
St. Lawrence County, New York44,683820.18%
Cherokee County, Georgia101,7954570.45%#N/A#N/A#N/A
Kane County, Illinois235,11471603.05%27.9802.873
Litchfield County, Connecticut95,15211371.19%27.361.52.257
Stafford County, Virginia65,29424203.71%#N/A#N/A#N/A
DuPage County, Illinois454,59830,2226.65%
McHenry County, Illinois149,92941152.74%32.882.32.513
Bristol County, Massachusetts248,43752822.13%25.566.32.603
Spotsylvania County, Virginia58,41418033.09%#N/A#N/A#N/A
Ulster County, New York81,87814041.71%#N/A#N/A#N/A

The case of Cherokee County, Georgia, is more straightforward. Just about all 457 of them pay $125 a month to ride an express bus into Atlanta several times a week. A massive HOV/BRT plan was shelved in 2009.

Litchfield County, Connecticut is the same as the Torrington Micropolitan Statistical Area discussed in my earlier post, and Ulster County, NY is the same as the Kingston μSA. The Illinois counties of Kane, DuPage and McHenry are all suburbs of Chicago reachable by Metra. Stafford and Spotsylvania counties in Virginia are southern suburbs of Washington, DC served by Virginia Railway Express, and Bristol County, Massachusetts is a suburb of Boston served by the MBTA commuter rail.

The 39 counties with an earnings ratio greater than 1 include suburbs of just about every metro area in the country: Fort Bend, TX (Houston, 1.71), Howard, MD (Baltimore, 1.69), Kitsap, WA (Seattle, 1.50), Chester, PA (Philadelphia, 1.39), Dakota, MN (Minneapolis-St. Paul, 1.28).

One other thing: of course you don't want your county to have too low an earnings ratio, because that means that all the poor people are being pushed onto transit. On the other hand, you don't want it too high either, because too many poor people driving means your local transit system sucks. A ratio of 1 is ideal; that's what you'd get if everyone took transit. Broadly speaking, it seems like there's an acceptable range from 0.698 (Multnomah County) to 1.25 (Bergen County), including those closest to 1, Norfolk County and Middlesex County, Massachusetts.

Monday, October 10, 2011

"Choice riders" will put up with all kinds of shit

There's a school of transit planning that divides passengers into "captive riders" and "choice riders." The captive riders are your stereotypical transit riders who are either incapable of driving or unable to afford cars. They're physically disabled, mentally disabled or poor. Often they're some combination of the three, and maybe even immigrants or visible minorities as well. Many people support government-funded transit as a form of charity, but like any form of charity there are people who feel it's a waste.

The "choice riders" are people who can drive and can afford cars, but choose to take transit instead. Many transit planners treat them like kings who must be pleased at all costs. They get big, cozy seats on their buses and trains, and parking at the station. Lots of parking. The thinking is that if they are displeased they will just drive instead.

There are a number of problems with this line of thinking. First of all, it glosses over the fact that not all transportation choices are equal. I've identified at least four kinds, which I call the Single Trip, Habits, Investments and Subsidies.

Second, there are also "carfree by choice" households that chose not to make Investments in cars, and thus are "captive riders" from a practical point of view. We are able-bodied, of sound mind, with driver's licenses, and could theoretically afford to buy and maintain a car, but we choose instead to go on European vacations, or pay off our debts, or do any number of other things with the money. We are everywhere, but we tend to be concentrated in walkable cities with good transit. This was the core of my critique of the Eric Morris post I linked to at the top of this post. In fairness to Morris, he was referring to data from a 2001 John Pucher article (PDF). Also in fairness to Morris, it was stupid of him to take an article based on nationwide data and try to apply it to New York City without even considering the possibility that there might be differences in distribution of riders and choices.

The biggest shortcoming of that approach is a limited understanding of the choices people make. We are not just choosing transit or no transit. We have goals, the main one being to get to work. We are choosing between transit and driving. The key is whether transit helps us accomplish their goals better than driving.

It's true that bad service, high fares, low frequency and long travel times will factor into someone's decision to drive instead of taking the train. But only if it makes transit a bigger hassle than driving. The NHTS data that Pucher and Renne cite, and the ACS data that I discussed this past week, show that even middle-class white people will sit on a bus for a long time. Why do they do that? Because driving is worse.

There are many ways that driving to Manhattan, or Stamford or White Plains, in the morning rush hour is a pain in the ass. Traffic on the inbound highways is often backed up for long distances, even on I-684. You can't read or write, or play video games, without putting yourself and everyone around you in more danger than you already do by just being behind the wheel. You can't relax, sleep or drink alcohol, even on the way home. When you get to the city, unless your job provides free parking you have to circle for a space - or more likely, pay for one. Really wealthy suburbanites can afford to rent a parking space, but most commuters have something else they'd rather do with the money.

The conventional wisdom says that "choice riders" won't put up with all these transit hassles. Well guess what? In the greater New York area they put up with them, because the other choice is worse.

I want to make sure you don't just dismiss this as, "This is New York, and other places are different." It's not just New York, it's also Bainbridge Island and Idaho Falls and Vallejo. It's anywhere that driving is difficult and/or expensive.

All these places may have some pre-existing feature that makes driving a pain. In New York it's the rivers and the density. In San Francisco it's the bay, and in Seattle it's the Puget Sound. In Idaho it's the desert and the nukes.

But what about other places that have natural obstacles? DC has the Potomac. Miami has bays. Los Angeles has mountains. Phoenix has the desert and Los Alamos has nukes. Why don't they have transit commuters from their wealthy exurbs?

Idaho is a weird case. Mostly, I think, it has to do with "trip-chaining." In a place that makes it easier to get just about anywhere by car than by transit, commuting by car makes it easier for the commuter to chain trips, so they can drop the kid off at school on the way to work, or pick up the dry cleaning on the way home. I don't think they have a school or a dry cleaner's in the middle of the desert on the way to the labs, so it makes sense to take the bus to the lab and back, and take care of the other errands separately. In Los Alamos, by contrast, most people live in town with the labs, but if they drive from Santa Fe they can stop in Pojoaque or Tesuque on the way.

Parking availability could have something to do with it, as Morris suggests. I wonder if the government limited the amount of parking available at the Idaho National Labs. In the other cases, it would be interesting to see if there's any correlation between the availability of parking in the various central business districts associated with these areas and the transit mode share among upper-class commuters. Certainly New York and San Francisco have limited parking available.

The answer also has something to do with freeway revolts. New York stopped Lomex, Westway and the Mid-Manhattan Expressway, and tore down the West Side Highway. San Francisco tore down the Embarcadero Freeway and part of the Central Freeway. Vashon Islanders stopped a bridge across the Puget Sound. These have made it harder to get to jobs by car - or avoided making it easier. In DC, Miami, Phoenix and LA, the approach seems to have been to build as many highways and parking lots as possible. It's no wonder that people drive.

Returning to the original point: the "choice riders" made their choice based on the relative value of transit as opposed to driving. Transit providers only have to bend over backwards to please the "choice riders" if someone is simultaneously making it easier for them to drive. And even then, at best they will only postpone the inevitable.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Travel time by Combined Statistical Area

One issue that came up in discussions of my previous post on "cities" (census-defined Metropolitan and Micropolitan Statistical Areas) where the income of the median transit rider is higher than that of the median driver is the fact that many of these MSAs area exurbs of larger cities. In fact, many of the MSAs in the top ten were part of the outer ring of New York City suburbs. I thought it would be interesting to look at Combined Statistical Areas instead: areas that the Census Bureau judges to be part of the same metropolis.

CSA NameDrove Alone Median EarningsPublic Transportation Median EarningsPublic Transportation Earnings Margin of ErrorTransit / Drove earnings ratioTransit - drove / error
Idaho Falls-Blackfoot, ID$25,081$60,962$8,0432.4314.461
Chicago-Naperville-Michigan City, IL-IN-WI$37,166$37,647$1,8241.0130.264
Ponce-Yauco-Coamo, PR$16,026$15,437$5,8640.9630.100
Boston-Worcester-Manchester, MA-RI-NH$41,704$40,073$1,4910.9611.094
Seattle-Tacoma-Olympia, WA$40,914$38,754$3,0920.9470.699
San Jose-San Francisco-Oakland, CA$46,062$41,737$1,2740.9063.395
Washington-Baltimore-Northern Virginia, DC-MD-VA-WV$48,826$42,261$1,6270.8664.035
Youngstown-Warren-East Liverpool, OH-PA$27,387$23,678$10,1530.8650.365
Portland-Lewiston-South Portland, ME$34,105$28,426$12,3400.8330.460
New York-Newark-Bridgeport, NY-NJ-CT-PA$44,837$37,305$3590.83220.981

There's Idaho Falls at the top again, and the Chicago CSA (which combines the Chicago MSA with Kankakee and Michigan City) coming in second. I still haven't figured out what's going on with Ponce. Then come the other big cities: Boston, San Francisco and Washington. New York as a whole (combining Torrington, Kingston, Poughkeepsie, Trenton and Bridgeport with the New York City, Nassau-Suffolk, New Haven, Newark and New Brunswick MSAs) drops to number 10 on the list. Some big US metro areas are missing from the top ten: Philadelphia has dropped to #19 and Houston is at #26. Los Angeles, Dallas and Atlanta are replaced by Seattle, Portland and Youngstown. Yes, in Youngstown, that infamously shrinking city with its nice clockface transit service and a frequency-based map (PDF), transit riders only make a few thousand dollars less than drivers. To be honest, I don't know what's going on there.

CSA NameTotal workforcePublic Transportation commutersCommute Mode ShareMean Drive TimeMean Transit TimeTransit / Drive time ratio
Idaho Falls-Blackfoot, ID76,4401,9232.52%18.2867.973.72
Chicago-Naperville-Michigan City, IL-IN-WI4,382,704480,19510.96%28.5348.611.70
Ponce-Yauco-Coamo, PR116,2081,1651.00%24.3133.421.37
Boston-Worcester-Manchester, MA-RI-NH3,677,685295,1908.03%26.2646.171.76
Seattle-Tacoma-Olympia, WA1,994,521148,2967.44%25.2645.681.81
San Jose-San Francisco-Oakland, CA3,458,438336,7019.74%25.1644.901.78
Washington-Baltimore-Northern Virginia, DC-MD-VA-WV4,375,136489,70511.19%30.6848.331.58
Youngstown-Warren-East Liverpool, OH-PA269,7001,2580.47%#N/A#N/A#N/A
Portland-Lewiston-South Portland, ME309,5972,1680.70%#N/A#N/A#N/A
New York-Newark-Bridgeport, NY-NJ-CT-PA10,076,4782,721,37227.01%27.7450.351.82

In all these cities, the travel time ratio is pretty similar: except for Idaho Falls and Ponce it's between 1.55 and 1.81. Seattle, San Francisco and New York have ferries. Boston and DC, in addition to the above three, have commuter rail. The mode share doesn't seem to affect either the earnings ratio or the time ratio.

The main thing I take away from this list is how close together these CSAs are, with the exception of Idaho Falls, and how low the earnings ratios are. That suggests that in an entire metropolis there are going to be pockets with a high percentage of poor transit riders lorded over by a small elite of drivers, and those will typically balance out the Torringtons and Bremertons of the area. But that doesn't mean that there's no inequality. Here's the bottom ten CSAs:

CSA NameDrove Alone Median EarningsTransit Median EarningsTransit Earnings Margin of ErrorTransit / Drove earnings ratioTransit - drove / error
Detroit-Warren-Flint, MI$36,068$14,263$25620.3958.511
Greensboro--Winston-Salem--High Point, NC$30,399$11,535$34420.3795.481
Syracuse-Auburn, NY$35,282$13,371$84190.3792.603
Lexington-Fayette--Frankfort--Richmond, KY$31,604$11,688$101590.3701.96
Little Rock-North Little Rock-Pine Bluff, AR$32,025$11,263$131570.3521.578
Birmingham-Hoover-Cullman, AL$32,383$11,222$47400.3474.464
Peoria-Canton, IL$35,221$12,168$33780.3456.824
Lafayette-Frankfort, IN$28,684$9249$33450.3225.81
Grand Rapids-Muskegon-Holland, MI$30,796$9634$28620.3137.394
Lansing-East Lansing-Owosso, MI$32,601$7685$33490.2367.44

Here we've got five Midwestern rust belt cities, four mountain Southern cities, and Syracuse. Drivers make three to four times what transit riders make. This is the more typical pattern that everyone expects.

CSA NameWorkforcePublic TransitCommute Mode ShareMean Drive TimeMean Transit TimeTransit / Drive time ratio
Detroit-Warren-Flint, MI2,112,80535,2871.67%25.644.81.75
Greensboro--Winston-Salem--High Point, NC69,310858130.84%#N/A#N/A#N/A
Syracuse-Auburn, NY332,90947201.42%#N/A#N/A#N/A
Lexington-Fayette--Frankfort--Richmond, KY319,22121660.68%#N/A#N/A#N/A
Little Rock-North Little Rock-Pine Bluff, AR392,47721590.55%#N/A#N/A#N/A
Birmingham-Hoover-Cullman, AL513,75026810.52%25.343.91.74
Peoria-Canton, IL182,53411460.63%20.736.21.75
Lafayette-Frankfort, IN108,59130122.77%#N/A#N/A#N/A
Grand Rapids-Muskegon-Holland, MI574,55863401.1%21.435.21.65
Lansing-East Lansing-Owosso, MI237,87048662.05%2230.71.4

None of these cities have rapid transit. Detroit has the People Mover and Little Rock has a heritage streetcar, but those don't actually go from homes to jobs. Syracuse used to have Ontrack, but that was shut down in 2007; ridership had been declining because it didn't go from homes to jobs.

I still can't figure out why there's so much inequality in Detroit, Syracuse, Lafayette and Lansing, but not in Youngstown. Maybe people driving to New Castle to get the bus to Pittsburgh? But in the 2005-2009 ACS, the mean drive time is 22 minutes and the mean transit time is 32 minutes. If anyone has an explanation, please tell me.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Background on the high-income transit riders

Eric Jaffe at the new Atlantic Cities blog picked up on my last post, and said some really nice things. Between him and a mention on the Streetsblog Network, I got a few useful questions.

1. Eric wonders about Torrington, Connecticut: "Cap'n Transit suggests it forms an outer ring of New York City; if that's the case, the commute should be longer than an hour, since it takes 45 minutes by bus to reach New Haven, which is still an hour and a half from New York on Metro North. Bus riders into Hartford may instead be the source the discrepancy."

There are a few things going on here. First of all, as Tim Evans commented on the Atlantic Cities post, Torrington is the city of 36,383 that lends its name to the Torrington Micropolitan Statistical Area, a census area that basically refers to Litchfield County. That means that we're talking about commuters from all over northwestern Connecticut, including people who live within a few miles of the Metro-North train stations at Danbury, Waterbury and Southeast. The ACS form (PDF) asks, "How did this person usually get to work LAST WEEK? If this person usually used more than one method of transportation during the trip, mark (X) the box of the one used for most of the distance." So if you drove 30 miles of a 61-mile commute, you would count it as a transit commute. Even if the 30 miles of driving took 45 minutes.

But if it takes two and a half hours to get from Waterbury to New York, and the Torrington μSA is a half hour from the Waterbury train station, including parking and padding, then how does the average commute time only come to 62 minutes? Well, there are probably quite a few people commuting to suburban job centers like Stamford, Hartford and White Plains. It may be people riding the bus that Eric mentions into Hartford, but I'd be surprised if that kind of demand-response service gets much use. If they're middle-class bus commuters to Hartford, they'd probably take the Bonanza, Peter Pan or Greyhound buses. They can also take Metro-North to some of the destinations.

2. In the comments to my own post, Rob Pitingolo asks, "Can you elaborate a bit on the methodology? Did you simply pull these numbers down from the American FactFinder? If so, can you please provide the table ID? Since the 2010 ACS microdata hasn't been released yet, I'm guessing that you used the tabular data, but would really like to confirm that this is the case."

Great question. Some of you have also asked to tweak the analysis in various ways, so let me tell you how I did it, and you can go right ahead and download your own data! First of all, here's my tabulation of the data, so you can pick it apart.

What I did was to download Table B08301 for the overall commute mode choices, B08121 for the earnings data, and B08136 for the aggregate travel time. I combined them into one Excel workbook and cross-referenced them using the Vlookup function. I calculated mean travel time by dividing aggregate travel time by the number of commuters, and I calculated the earnings and time ratios in a similarly straightforward way. I compared the absolute value of the difference in earnings to the margin of error in transit earnings as a check on the statistical significance of the sample.

So knock yourselves out! If you find something interesting, post a link in the comments here. I'm looking forward to seeing what you dig up.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

About those long transit commutes...

When people talk about long transit commutes, it's usually with an attitude of pity for the economically disadvantaged transit riders. But when I looked at the long commutes tallied in the 2010 American Community Survey, the second-longest commute, from Poughkeepsie, jumped out at me. You see, I've ridden that train many times. It's not bad. You can sleep on the train:

These are not the typical "long transit commuters" that are normally invoked in pity-oriented articles; they're well-dressed white professionals. So that got me wondering about the incomes of transit riders, and sure enough the American Community Survey has them. Here are nine metro areas where transit riders have higher incomes than drivers, and Ponce, Puerto Rico makes ten:

Metro AreaOverall median incomeDrove alone median incomePublic transportation median incomePublic transportation margin of errorPublic transportation/ drove alone ratioTransit- car/ error
Idaho Falls, ID $26,120$25,607$61,214$8,5222.344.17
Torrington, CT $41,136$41,540$82,431$28,0642.001.45
Kingston, NY $32,344$35,289$60,748$10,6581.872.38
Bremerton-Silverdale, WA $35,024$35,371$52,946$10,7651.5121.63
Poughkeepsie-Newburgh-Middletown, NY $38,048$41,462$56,351$7,7821.481.91
Vallejo-Fairfield, CA $38,774$39,717$49,184$16,6071.260.570
Trenton-Ewing, NJ $40,779$45,387$55,789$15,2431.360.682
Bridgeport-Stamford-Norwalk, CT $43,133$46,128$55,199$13,5561.280.669
Chicago-Joliet-Naperville, IL-IN-WI $35,973$37,297$37,657$1,8581.040.194
Ponce, PR $15,598$16,294$15,963$2,8591.020.116

So here we see that the median transit commuter in Idaho Falls made $61,214 in 2009, while the median single-occupant driver made only $25,607. Torrington, CT was more dramatic because the incomes were higher: transit commuters made $82,431 while drivers only made $41,540.

To get this list, I eliminated those cities where the ACS had no data for transit rider income or population, and those where the margin of error was more than 25% of the median transit rider's income. I have marked in pale red the metro areas where the difference in median income levels is below the margin of error for the transit riders. In those cases, the survey is not reliable enough to tell us whether there really is a difference in median income between the two groups, so we can treat them as basically equal incomes. Here are the population and commute time figures:

Metro AreaTotal workforcePublic transportation commuters Public transportation mode shareDrive timeTransit time
Idaho Falls, ID57,4421,6173%19.969
Torrington, CT95,1521,1371%27.361.5
Kingston, NY 81,8781,4042%#N/A#N/A
Bremerton-Silverdale, WA 113,5738,7428%2666.8
Poughkeepsie-Newburgh-Middletown, NY 304,73013,1964%30.581.4
Vallejo-Fairfield, CA 178,6314,3952%2869.1
Trenton-Ewing, NJ 169,88913,1588%24.267.4
Bridgeport-Stamford-Norwalk, CT 424,12235,3018%24.661.9
Chicago-Joliet-Naperville, IL-IN-WI 4,289,558479,37011%28.948.6
Ponce, PR 68,0079681%2432.5

There are no commute time figures for Kingston, but the commutes are roughly the same as Poughkeepsie-Newburgh-Middletown. These two areas, plus Torrington, Trenton, and Bridgeport-Stamford-Norwalk, form the outer ring of suburbs around New York City. In all these places the rich people are the ones who can get jobs in the city, and the lower-income ones have to work nearby. Some of the rich commute to the city by car, but many take comfortable commuter trains or buses. Local transit is pretty crappy, though, so the people who work locally have to drive - and in many cases spend a large chunk of their money on driving expenses. In Trenton and Stamford, there is enough high-paying "job sprawl" to bring the incomes of the drivers up.

When I first looked at this list, I was sure that Idaho Falls was an error. People making $60K a year, spending 69 minutes a day on a bus in Idaho? But it turns out that a major employer in the area is Idaho National Laboratory, which runs a fleet of comfortable motor coaches to bring people to work. Apparently there's not much of anywhere to live around the labs, so all these nuclear physicists live in Idaho Falls. Roughly a third of the 4,000-person staff takes advantage of the opportunity to travel with their colleagues on free buses rather than falling asleep on the desert roads by themselves. This has been working well for sixty years, but recently the lab decided to replace the local stops with park-and-rides, essentially forcing every worker to drive partway. They seem to be spinning it as an overall win-win, but it's forcing the individual workers to spend more time and money on fuel and emissions (and perhaps even buy a car that will get driven a few miles and then sit in a lot all day) to save the lab a little time and money.

Bremerton-Silverdale, as mentioned previously, covers the area across the Puget Sound from Seattle, and the commute basically involves a comfortable hour on the ferry. Vallejo-Fairfield is an exurb of San Francisco, with bus/BART and ferry connections, as well as buses to Sacramento. I haven't been able to figure out what's going on in Ponce, but the average transit trip is only nine minutes longer than the average drive.

In sum, we shouldn't feel too bad about some people with long transit commutes. Many of them are pretty well-off, and they get a chance to take a nap or play solitaire. Of course there are plenty of poor people with long transit commutes, often involving multiple buses. Those are people we should work to help.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

A new High Line for Chicago

Paris has the Promenade Plantée. New York has the High Line. Lebanon, New Hampshire has the Northern Trail. Soon Chicago will have its own world-class elevated park.

After the planned Bloomingdale Trail right-of-way was taken for a Kennedy Expressway spur, park advocates despaired. But then they realized that there were many more other elevated rail lines with the potential to become attractive public spaces.

Thus the idea for the Red Line was born. "I realized that we had an old set of train tracks running right up the center of the North Side," said Josh Branson, co-chair of Friends of the Red Line. "It has the potential to connect people from Rogers Park, Wrigleyville, Lincoln Park almost to the Near North."

Like the High Line in New York, Branson sees the Red Line as a catalyst for development. "In these tough economic times, you need every boost you can get," he enthused. "The commercial effects would radiate out from every access point. Imagine art galleries on Lincoln Avenue, or quirky restaurants along Clark Street. Chicago needs that growth to realize its potential as an urban center for the Midwest."

The Board of Aldermen is expected to approve the lease of the Red Line later this year, and the last trains will run some time next summer. Activists are raising funds for the the first phase, which will run from Howard Street to Devon Avenue, opening in 2015. Eventually, Chicagoans and visitors will be able to walk as far as North Avenue, and maybe some day to the loop.

City planners are enthusiastic about the line, which will be incorporated into the Green Chicago Vision 2040. Other elements of that plan include the transformation of Lake Shore Drive into Interstate 96, a "green road," where the weight of passing cars will generate enough electricity to light the "Cloud Gate" sculpture in Millenium Park, the installation of a solar powered parking garage in the old Union Station facility, and the redevelopment of Meigs Field as a "biodiesel-only" airport.