Transportation microeconomics 101

Reformatted in August 2012 to fix some dead links and make it look slightly nicer. Keep in mind this was written back in 2005; I have changed no content beyond this first paragraph.

 

I talk about this enough that it might should be its own category.
Problem: Bozoes in government, in the media and elsewhere think about transportation at only the highest level – where you’re moving thousands of people around the city. This usually ends up producing plans which fail spectacularly at serving their intended constituents. Since this often boils down to money, I’ll call this “transportation macroeconomics” even though most of the people who do it aren’t thinking about economics. (Hint: they should be).
 
Solution: Transportation microeconomics. Whenever evaluating some transportation plan or change in economic conditions, take a couple of representative ‘use-cases’ and analyze the economics of their decision-making at their local (individual) level.
 
Example 1: Toll Roads. Local activist Roger Baker has been on my case on the austin-bikes email list for talking favorably about toll roads (as the least noxious of the two realistic possible outcomes – the other one being that all of those toll roads are built anyways, but as free roads). I’m going to be more favorable to him than he is to me, and construct an argument based on his stated motivations (he likes to accuse me of being a toll-loving road warrior). Roger’s point is, basically, that the toll roads won’t have enough traffic to pay off the bonds once the “oil peak” causes gasoline to get even more expensive than it is now. He’s definitely one of the SOS-bloc (don’t build these roads at all because they promote sprawl and hurt the aquifer) rather than the free-roads-bloc (“double taxation!”) best exemplified by Brewster McCracken and Gerald Daugherty, who will end up getting central Austin to pay for these roads via property and sales tax kick-ins.
 
So, is Roger right? Would expensive gasoline lead to an exodus from the suburbs and a default on the bonds which back the toll roads? Or am I right – that the traffic which today would fill the toll roads in a second isn’t going anywhere even as gasoline gets more expensive. Let’s look at a use-case.
 
Joe Suburban drives his Suburban on a 30-mile round-trip every day from western Travis County to his job in one of the southern suburban office parks. He gets roughly 15 mpg on this commute and pays $2.00/gallon for gas today. By some calculations, which include depreciation, he pays a hefty price for his commute even today, but I categorically reject the idea that suburbanites will reduce the number of vehicles they own (barring catastrophically high gas prices), so depreciation should not honestly be part of the cost equation. Using my handy depreciation-free cost estimator, Joe’s daily commute cost is $2.79 today (remember, no tolls yet). Is that enough to convince Joe to carpool? Not today it isn’t. Is it enough to convince him to use transit? Even at the discounted rate, the bus trip from the park-and-ride at 290/71 costs him probably an hour extra time per day, and still a buck ($1.79 savings at the cost of an hour). This assumes he even HAS a transit option, of course. Most suburbanites don’t.
Suppose gasoline DOUBLES in price – to $4.00 a gallon. Joe’s daily commute cost (with new tolls of, let’s say, $1.50/day) is now: $6.91/day. His “transit cost” is now $5.91 for an hour of time, assuming no rise in bus fares (unlikely). Still not very attractive, I hate to say.
 
All right, suppose gasoline TRIPLES in price – to $6.00 a gallon. Joe’s cost is $9.58/day. Transit option would save $8.58 a day at the price of an hour. I hate to break it to you, but most suburbanites would still drive at this cost. Bad news for Roger: $6.00/gallon gas is roughly equivalent to $160/barrel (working backwards from this logic which is admittedly crude). That’s quite a bit further down the “oil peak” road than most people think we’ll hit anytime ‘soon’. In other words, it will take such huge increases in the cost of gasoline to get suburbanites to stop driving to work alone that it’s not even a factor for the foreseeable future. Even then, one would assume that rather than abandoning their stake in the ‘burbs, some large percentage of suburban drivers would just get more fuel-efficient cars. At $6.00/gallon, driving a Toyota Prius, Joe Suburban’s daily commute cost drops back to 2.48 without tolls and 3.98 with. Oops.
 
See my previous article on my ‘week without a car’ — even for me, who is the only guy at my 60-person office who could possibly take the bus to work without transfers, it’s not cost-and-time-effective to use transit until gasoline is really REALLY expensive. It costs me about 30 extra minutes per day and saves me pocket change.
When does transit make sense? When the time penalty is minimal and/or the cost savings are comparatively large. Two obvious (much shorter) use-cases:
 

  1. If I worked downtown, I could take the #5 bus straight there at a time penalty of perhaps 5 minutes. This time penalty is so small as to be not worth counting, and I could actually get rid of a car, thus moving us into the realm of the traditional commute calculators – a huge economic win for the transit alternative. Unfortunately, the current economic regime penalizes businesses who locate downtown rather than in the ‘burbs (far higher property taxes) even though they generate far less demand on city services.
  2. Lucy Leander works at the University of Texas and has to pay roughly $5/day for parking. She lives close to a park-and-ride where she can pick up a good express bus to work which isn’t much slower than her car would be. Here’s her comparison. Even at $2/gallon, she saves $7.36 a day (without getting rid of a car) and only spends a few more minutes. Note that having to pay for parking makes this comparison far more favorable for transit.

So my lesson is: Major employers should be downtown (where transit can serve them), and parking shouldn’t be free. Until either one of these is fixed, however, you’re going to get nowhere with me by claiming that a plan is economically viable (or not) based on gasoline prices.
Unfortunately, current conventional wisdom is still that spreading jobs through the suburbs reduces average driving (absolutely false). The facts have an anti-suburban bias, I guess.

RIP, Joseph Henry Dahmus

My grandfather passed away in his sleep on Monday afternoon. Since I spent my first 9 years in State College and was one of the oldest grandchildren, I got to spend a lot of time with those grandparents as a kid, and will miss him tremendously. Even today I find my outlook on things shaped by what I observed at their house as a kid – the model he set by living close to work and walking to his office every day (even when retired) is what I end up trying to achieve in my own life (well into his 80s he was in better shape than most people I know today). Read the obituary for more on this extraordinary man.
A picture including four generations (Grandpa, my dad, me, and Ethan) from this July can be found here

Shoal Creek Report #2

Well, I ended up driving down Shoal Creek last night on the way home from work (from 2222 to 41st St.) due to a traffic jam, ironically right after reading a thread on the Allandale neighborhood group in which residents are grumbling about the project now that they’re seeing it ‘in action’.
This trip confirmed some things that I saw before, and conflicted with some things that residents of the street have previously said.

  1. I saw more cars parked this time
  2. I saw one vehicle turn into the ‘shared lane’ and drive down it for at least a block before turning right off Shoal Creek
  3. The apparent space between the white line and the parked car looks much smaller when I’m driving than it does when I’m biking, and it didn’t look big on my bike. Hopefully this will result in drivers being more patient when cyclists take the lane.
  4. I only passed one cyclist (going the opposite direction) during my drive. It’s not surprising that most motorists thus think conflicts with cyclists and parked cars are rare — for each motorist trip, there’s a very low chance of conflict; but for each cyclist trip, there’s a very high chance of conflict. (There’s ten or twenty drivers for each cyclist at a bare minimum – even though this road has a lot of cyclists, there’s still far more motorists).
  5. Most motorists I observed drifted over the white lines on turns. I don’t know how to solve this.

TOD isn’t going to help ASG

This weekend, the Statesman (link coming later if I can locate the story online, which so far is not happening) ran a story summarizing the current state of the TOD (transit-oriented development) ordinance(s) centering around the stations for the commuter rail line being built by Capital Metro in their ASG (All Systems Go) plan.
Summary:

  • Neighborhoods are against it in every case.
  • Up north, where there’s a ton of space around the station, neighborhoods mainly just want the area covered by the ordinance to shrink.
  • Down southeast, they want affordable housing targets which are going to be too onerous to be practical, AND they want reductions in height and density.
  • Nearly all mandates or requirements in the ordinance, other than affordable housing set-asides, have been watered down to suggestions and incentives.
  • Maximum height and density levels originally proposed around stations will likely be drastically reduced in the final ordinance.

Remember what I told you last month – unlike the light rail plan in 2000, this commuter rail line operates down right-of-way which runs through neighborhoods that don’t want any more density (and there’s not enough political will to do it against their wishes). And, of course, they don’t have (much) density now either. Compare to the Lamar/Guadalupe corridor, where neighborhoods that do irresponsibly fight density end up losing anyways — because there IS political will to stand fast and tell them that single-family-only low-density sprawl doesn’t belong in the central city. And, of course, substantially more density currently exists there than anywhere along the commuter rail corridor. Hyde Park and North University and West Campus already have the kind of density that TOD would bring to these commuter rail line neighborhoods.
So this rail line relies much more heavily on future development around stations to produce its intended passenger load than did the more traditional light rail line proposed in 2000 (that line had enough current residents within walking distance of stations to make the Feds very enthusiastic about its prospects – TOD would have just been an added bonus there).
Thus, the additional ridership generated by TOD is a critical piece of the ‘business case’ for this commuter rail line. Unfortunately, thanks to the Council basically rolling over and dying for these neighborhoods, there won’t be much TOD at all when the thing’s finally done. Capital Metro can only hope that the Feds ignore the technical wording of the ordinance which eventually passes and instead responds to the meaningless empty words promoting it. Unfortunately, the Feds have shown little willingness to get this deep on other projects around the country (meaning that they give money to projects that don’t merit it, and don’t give money to projects that do).

2000 Austin Bond Election Language

CATRANSCO summary of this package; city language follows below.
This election set aside $90 million for contributions from Austin for state highway projects.
(I’m excerpting these and saving because I don’t know how long the city will keep up these old pages).
The issuance of $150,000,000 tax-supported general obligation bonds to improve roadway intersections, acquire right-of-way, provide funds for highway and roadway construction, develop high occupancy vehicle lanes and related infrastructure, improve bicycle and pedestrian mobility infrastructure, construct related drainage facility improvements, and acquire land and other property interests for these projects; and the levy of a tax sufficient to pay the bonds.
If approved, the $150 million would be spent in three major categories:
€ To help accelerate major highway projects inside the City that are built by the State.
€ Capacity improvements on City roadways, including expanded lanes, improved intersections, and High Occupancy Vehicle lanes.
€ Pedestrian and bikeway projects.
The currently anticipated amount to be spent in each category is:
€ $90 million for matching grants.
€ $40 million for capacity improvements.
€ $20 million for pedestrian, bikeway and sidewalk projects.
The Austin City Council also established criteria about the expenditure of the bonds, should they be approved:
Unless the road is authorized by an election of the City of Austin or another jurisdiction and the spending is approved by the Austin City Council, the bond proceeds will not be used to fund matches for road infrastructure of right-of-way through:
€ The Drinking Water Protection Zone.
€ A City of Austin preserve.
€ A City of Austin destination park
For each proposed use of bond proceeds for a road project, City staff must make a recommendation on the proposed use through an analysis of:
€ The tax equity and social equity implications for City of Austin residents.
€ Impact of the proposed project on the Drinking Water Protection Zone.
€ Impact of the proposed project on increased mobility, decreased congestion and air quality.
€ Any alternatives to the proposed project that provide the same or better congestion relief with improved air quality.

1998 Austin Bond Election Language

(Original city language below; I wasn’t able to find a good summary anywhere).
There wasn’t any apparent donation to TXDOT for highways in this package; but it does show how expensive it is to maintain the city’s arterial network. Austin maintains a far higher percentage of its major arterial network than other localities in the area.
The issuance of $152,000,000 in tax supported General Obligation Bonds for improving traffic signal synchronization and control systems, acquiring and installing traffic signals, improving and reconstructing roads and streets, and constructing, reconstructing and improving drainage facilities related to roads and streets; and acquiring land and interests in land and property necessary to do so; and the levy of a tax sufficient to pay the bonds.
Several key transportation projects make up Proposition One.
The City of Austin periodically has the opportunity to apply for Federal and/or State funding to implement projects such as new roadways, road expansions, sidewalks and bicycle facilities. Approving Proposition One will provide required matching funds as well as funding for City-sponsored projects to improve and install sidewalks and bicycle facilities. This category also includes rights-of-way funding for mandated projects, including U.S. 183/290.
Street improvements that may be funded with approval of Proposition One include, but are not limited to: Loyola Lane from Johnny Morris Road to Decker Lane; Dittmar Road from South First Street to Manchaca Road; Manchaca Road from Matthews Lane to William Cannon Drive; Rutherford Lane from Interstate 35 to Cameron Road; South Congress Avenue; Barton Springs Road; and Dorsett Road. This proposition also would provide funding for the Great Streets program. This program includes projects to enhance the use and appearance of Austin’s streets and sidewalks, including landscaping, irrigation, pedestrian and other mobility improvements.
Additionally, funding is proposed to upgrade and enhance intersections by adding right turn lanes, left turn lanes or through lanes; adding sidewalks and/or bicycle lanes where appropriate; and generally improving traffic flow in the travel corridor as part of Transportation System Management.
Traffic signal system enhancement and the installation of new signals also would be funded through approval of Proposition One.
Finally, Proposition One would provide for a number of street reconstruction projects which may include, but are not limited to: Woodhollow Drive from Far West Boulevard to Spicewood Springs Road; 34th Street from Guadalupe Street to Funston Street; Enfield Road from MoPac Boulevard to Exposition Boulevard; Convict Hill Road from Kandy Drive to Wagon Train Road; and Cesar Chavez Street from IH-35 to Pleasant Valley Road. Some industrial-area streets that would be targeted for reconstruction include: Todd Lane from Burleson Road to St. Elmo Road East; St. Elmo Road from IH-35 to Nuckols Crossing; St. Elmo Road East from IH-35 to Congress Avenue South; Terry-O Lane from St. Elmo Road East (S) to St. Elmo Road East (N); Freidrich Lane from St. Elmo Road to Teri Road; Industrial Boulevard from St. Elmo Road East to Congress Avenue; roads throughout the Central Business District; and other roads citywide.