Friday, November 16, 2012

Can transit save the environment? Not without riders

The latest Eric Morris Freakonomics post, which I hate, got picked by Stephen Dubner for Marketplace Radio's weekly Freakonomics segment. Kai Ryssdal's interview, and whoever wrote the Marketplace headline, trashed Morris's carefully constructed pox-on-both-houses framing and turned it into a standard Tom Rubin muddle-headed transit advocates attack.

As I said last week, the funniest thing is that Morris's general thrust is actually the main point that I've been hammering at for years. That said, given his earlier writing, I'm not sure that Morris didn't want all along to write a muddle-headed transit advocates attack, but then ditched it for the pox-on-both-houses frame. If his point was really that we should have congestion pricing, he sure buried it. So here's the article Eric Morris should have written - or at least what I would have written.

A major reason for supporting transit expansion is that increased transit use will draw people out of their cars and thus reduce pollution and help save the environment. That part is true, but we have to be very careful how we do this, because transit expansion will not automatically lead to increased transit use and decreased car use.

Increasing transit service without increasing its use can even be counterproductive: today in the United States, the average bus trip requires more energy than the average car trip, because the average bus only has about ten passengers. If the energy powering transit comes from a dirty source, like coal or diesel, it can compound the problem. Environmental advocates not only need to get more transit, but they need to make sure people ride it.

The key to this is realizing that if transit is going to get people out of their cars, they have to choose it over driving. When people choose to make a habit out of taking the bus or the train, it's because it provides a greater value than driving. When people choose to live in a place with convenient transit access instead of choosing to buy a car, it's because they want that transit-oriented lifestyle. Instead of just building transit, environmental advocates need to make it a greater value and a more attractive lifestyle. Here are five ways we can do that:

1. Stop building roads that compete with transit systems. Last year a faithful reader wrote a post about disappointingly low ridership on seven new commuter rail lines. For each of these lines I was able to find a parallel road expansion that had been built at roughly the same time, increasing the value of driving and keeping people in their cars.

2. Give transit its own right-of-way. Transit systems that operate in mixed traffic - buses and streetcars, typically - have very little advantage over driving. When transit can get through a bottleneck quicker than private cars, it offers greater value. The highest-ridership bus systems in the country all make use of a single high-capacity queue-jumper, the Lincoln Tunnel Exclusive Bus Lane.

3. Charge market prices for driving-related expenses. Those Lincoln Tunnel buses are all competing (and winning) against high tunnel tolls. There is no easy way to drive from New Jersey into Manhattan without paying the tolls. Similarly with heavily subsidized purchases of gas and parking. You'd be surprised at how much better the bus looks if you have to pay five dollars for an hour of parking.

4. Sunset your park-and-ride lots. Having people drive to the bus or train may bring down the "cost per new rider" numbers, but the longer people drive to transit, the more pollution they emit. They will also probably drive for most evening and weekend trips. It may be strategically appropriate to build a park-and-ride to get people riding the new line right away, but the plan should be to get rid of the park-and-rides as soon as possible.

5. Legalize true transit-oriented development. The best way to keep people from driving to the station is to make it so that they can live near the station and walk to all their daily shopping needs. Sadly, in most of the country it is illegal to build an apartment building with a supermarket on the ground floor a block from a train station. We need to change that.

Of these five principles, Morris focused on number 3, charging market prices. That makes sense, since Freakonomics is mostly about prices, but at least three of the other factors are also Freakonomics-worthy. Number 1, keeping the road supply down, and number 4, keeping the parking supply down, are central to economic theory. Market prices tend to be lower when supply is higher. Number 5, legalize transit-oriented development, fits with Steven Levitt's libertarian leanings. Number 2, giving transit its own right-of-way, is the only one that requires substantial state intervention.

The main reason you didn't see these factors on Freakonomics, I'm guessing, is because they're not condescending or snarky enough for them. Sorry, guys.


JDAntos said...

Great post, as usual. I have one quibble with this point though:

the average bus trip requires more energy than the average car trip, because the average bus only has about ten passengers.

This statement may be true on a passenger-mile basis, i.e. that it takes more energy to move 1 passenger 1 mile on bus than car. But in most cities, it is certainly not true on a per-trip basis, because bus and rail trips are shorter. See national statistics here (page 2 of this PDF). With the land use that transit helps enable, people simply travel fewer miles to meet their daily needs, so a per-mile comparison is apples to oranges.

Tal F said...

I agree that having park-and-ride essentially lowers transit usage on other occasions (as you say, people in cars tend to stay in cars), but you are also forgetting that building a park-and-ride allows the state to punt on building local transit connections, making it impossible to actually get rid of your car. In terms of the cost advantage of transit, saving on the leasing/insurance/maintenance costs of a car are just as important (if not more) than just the fuel for the marginal trip.

I know a 2-car family in NJ where 1 car is used exclusively to drive the 1.5-2 miles each way to a park-and-ride, and never at any other time. In fact, because they can't get rid of the 2nd car even if they do use transit, there is very little cost savings to using transit, and they would actually prefer to drive to work on days when traffic isn't as bad. Eliminating park-and-ride and replacing it with local bus service may substantially increase usage of the suburban rail.

Alon said...

With 10 passengers, the average US transit bus is about as energy-efficient as a late-model compact car. In case anyone cares.

But sure, driving is the best way to save the environment.

jazumah said...

Park & rides are the only way to sustainably serve low density areas. Punishing drivers is not a way to make drivers use is a way to kill all transit systems.

busplanner said...

Jazumah is dead on in his comment about low density areas.

Cap'n - your comments continue to indicate you do not understand how low density areas work. Note that I am not advocating building park/rides before development occurs; but, as a response to already existing development.

Consider this actual example:

Community A is an old colonial village 32 miles from central city. It has had public transit (a stagecoach route) to central city since colonial days. Currently, it has two transit routes to central city that go via different areas of a very large township B, an area that developed primarily after World War II. Township B also has two other routes (total four) serving yet other areas of this diverse and widespread area. During peak periods, all of the routes offer 15 minute or better frequency to central city and all of the routes are express over at least fifteen miles of the trip.

A problem has developed in Township B over a two mile stretch of Route 1. In this area, some people drive to the bus and park on side streets. Side street neighbors complain about the non-residents parking in front of their homes. The Township police do a survey. Ninety people are boarding the bus in this stretch in the AM peak. 45 are immediate area residents who walk to the bus. 45 are people who are Township residents; but who drive to a bus stop. Near one stop, there are 12 autos parked every day.

Because the local residents have made this a cause celebre, the police suggest eliminating all stops in this two mile stretch. The transit company suggests trying to find a local house of worship along the route to serve as a park-ride for these 45 patrons who apparently do not live near any of the four township routes and who could not support a route of their own.

If the park-ride at a house of worship can be established, the problem is solved and the use of public transit is maintained.

Cap'n Transit said...

Joel and Busplanner, I've addressed the issues you bring up. Stop repeating yourselves and condescending to me. I've lived in low-density areas for a good chunk of my life. I like to think I know a thing or two about them. Please consider the possibility that I may know more than you, and re-read my posts. Thanks.

George K said...

@busplanner: But then don't you end up screwing over the walk-up riders on that stretch of the route if you eliminate the stops there?

busplanner said...

@George K -

The effort to establish a park-ride for the persons using autos to access the bus stops is an effort to preserve the bus stops for the walk-ups.

The municipality controls bus stop locations and, in response to the few loud, vocal neighbors, proposed eliminating ALL of the bus stops on this two mile stretch.

Alon said...

Actual park-and-rides aren't built with walk-up riders at all. They're often built to replace stations in walkable areas (see Deer Park on the LIRR, and Westborough and Kingston on the MBTA). Other times, they are so pedestrian-hostile that even stations with plenty of nearby jobs at walking distance, such as Hicksville, have trivial transit usage as job centers.

jazumah said...

Cap'n, you don't have a solution for low density areas. Park and rides are the best you are going to get and they will not work if you aren't going to a congested area. It is not about being condescending. It is about reality. There are many people who move to low density areas specifically for that low density. Some of these places do not want sidewalks and transit-oriented development. They don't want to see the house next to them. My argument is that the gas tax and transit fares get raised to a level that zeroes out subsidies for both. This would make transit 40-50% cheaper naturally.

However, I am against killing off park and rides. Cars are a valid transportation option. Drivers are severely punished in the New York area and yet, the transportation system has had little expansion since 1968. Let everyone pay their way and the balance restores itself naturally.

jazumah said...

Tal, there is nothing wrong with a station car. Most agencies do not lose money on parking. They always lose money on station feeder shuttle buses.

Cap'n Transit said...

Guess what, Joel! You don't have a solution for low-density areas either. Just read some of the Strong Towns blog, and you'll find all the evidence you want that, without those subsidies, people wouldn't be able to live where they had to drive to everything.

busplanner said...

@Cap'n -

Until you can tell people where they must live or eliminate all of the subsidies to which you refer, you are going to have people who choose to live in areas which are hard to serve by transit due to low population density, narrow roads, and other impediments.

Thus, while in an ideal world park/rides are a bad idea, in the real world, the alternatives are worse.

People who cannot use public transit to get to work will drive all the way to work. And if that means driving into a central city from 25 miles out, that means adding to the already bad congestion and the waste of fuel that already occurs.

Get them to use public transit on their work commute and they (and their families) might use public transit when they want to go into the central city on weekends. Or, once they see public transit in action, they might let their teenaged children use local transit to get to a movie theater or bowling alley.

If park/rides are not purpose built but use existing parking lots (houses of worship, shopping centers where peak need is on the weekend or in the evening)then the transit routes where these park/rides are located can build frequency. And frequency attracts additional users, including those relocating to within walking or biking distance of the route in order to use it.

Maybe this sort of change is too glacial for you; but incremental change works.

My job was (I've retired) to build ridership. And much of the ridership growth I built clearly reduced VMTs. And I think that was a positive; even if park/rides were a small part of the equation.