Gadget transit

Quick recommendation: My readers who are tempted to fall for the monorail siren song, as well as those who have been misled by neanderthal clap-trap about “choo-choo” trains being too old a technology should check out this excellent piece by Christof in Houston.

As I’ve commented in his forums, though, also be aware that these solutions are often pushed disingenuously by people who really want nothing to get done, because they don’t want the status quo to be threatened. In other words, whenever you read about monorail and especially PRT, be aware that a lot of the guys pushing this are doing so not because they actually want or expect it to ever get built, but precisely because they know it WON’T ever get built so they can protect transit funds which can later be diverted for suburban highways instead.

Frustration with simplistic market analysis

So I spend a lot of time on this blog which is a stunning waste of time, since the commenters are disproportionately the simplistic wing of the libertarian party, with a handful of SwiftBoat types trolling from the Republicans. A brou-ha-ha there completely unrelated to markets (for once) reminded me that I meant to write this article, so here you go.

I’ve always been interested in, but not really affiliated with, libertarianism. Unlike the leftists that most of the suburban Republicans at my last job think I’m one of, I believe in the market. When things don’t work out, I usually look for market distortions first, rather than simply believing that capitalism is evil or that the market doesn’t ‘work’. The market is a tool, like a really good computer; it produces optimal outcomes if it has very good information, but sometimes doesn’t do as well with inaccurate or incomplete data. Most ills in our society, I think, can be fixed by improving those inputs, rather than through more onerous regulation.

Personally, I find looking at the imperfections of markets a very interesting thing, and am disappointed at how often self-identified libertarians fall back into an eighth-grade “market didn’t do X therefore no demand for X” philosophy. Essentially, they either don’t believe in or haven’t even HEARD of externalities, network effects, the “race to the bottom”, etc.

This applies especially to the various smoking bans being passed all over the country. (Pretend I’m talking about restaurants here rather than bars; I’m uncomfortable with a total ban on smoking in bars, but was very happy to ban it in restaurants). Short summary: the market didn’t provide any non-smoking airlines before the government made them go non-smoking; in most cities non-smoking restaurants were trivial embarassments until smoking bans passed. The simplistic view is to say that people didn’t value (non-smoking) more than (eating-out-at-all) or (flying), and this is technically true. But is it useful when you’re staring down the barrel of a referendum that you’re about to lose? Probably not – which is when it would be helpful, I think, to study the issue and find out WHY so few businesses made the switch before being forced, even given apparent overwhelming customer preference.

And then there’s the ‘remedy’ – again, the simplistic view is to say ‘do nothing’, but the voters in that referendum are going to ‘do something’ for you if you keep messing around. For a brief time, Julian Sanchez at least was willing to explore alternative ways to, in DC, provide more non-smoking venues, but he’s in the minority among the “Ban the Ban” types. To me, using the government’s incentive power to encourage movement towards what appears to be a huge consumer preference anyways is a legitimate use of power – the market is a means to an end, not an end in and of itself. Why don’t more people think of “how can I encourage the market to solve this problem” instead of “oh well, the market doesn’t want it”?

In reference to Austin’s bar smoking ban, I’d much rather have used the market to gently push a greater portion of live music venues and other bars towards non-smoking and still have some smoking bars available for the portion of the population that wants to smoke and drink; but the ban-the-ban-ers weren’t willing to listen to the “hey, a hell of a lot of people want to see music and not breathe smoke; why isn’t the market providing any of these kinds of venues” arguments, so they got a full-on ban.

In other words, with reference to the bar ban in Austin, I’d be most satisfied if substantial chunks of real live music venues existed in BOTH smoking and non-smoking camps. I’m not happy that there will be essentially zero smoking bars; this is heavy-handed regulation. But to say that the only other alternative was the status quo, i.e., NO non-smoking music venues or bars, is basically handing the referendum a guaranteed victory.

Economists study this stuff; I would think that libertarians, who believe in the market, would want to do it as well. It remains a mystery to me why so few are interested in figuring this stuff out.

On The Smoking Ban

I’m for it on selfish grounds – I’ll get to go to more shows. I used to go to live music fairly frequently, but heavy smoke would occasionally chase me out. My wife’s more sensitive than I am, and we essentially stopped going (even before the baby changed our ratio of disposable to non-disposable income). People that tell you that there are a lot of non-smoking live music venues are being disingenuous – yes, there’s plenty of places like Central Market mostly booking third-class stuff, but if you want GOOD music, the only real non-smoking alternative for YEARS was the Cactus Cafe, and that only because UT prohibited smoking.

But there’s a very simple argument to cut through all the smoke:

We used to allow smoking in restaurants. Back in that day, even though most people didn’t smoke, essentially zero restaurants were non-smoking. Even those that had non-smoking sections weren’t separately ventilated, making them the kind of joke that you hear about the Peeing Section in the pool. A few fast-food chains banned smoking, but that was about it.
Why didn’t the restaurant business drift towards non-smoking on its own? (This is not a simple answer).

All over the country, it took governmental action to make non-smoking happen in restaurants. (It took governmental action to ban smoking on airplanes too, if you remember).

Those who reduce this issue to the simple libertarian “if you don’t want to go into a smoking bar, don’t; the market will provide you with a non-smoking bar” need to explain why that didn’t work for restaurants or airlines.

Short answer: it doesn’t work because of the “race to the bottom”. Any one bar which bans smoking is at a significant disadvantage to all the other bars on the street, since it’s playing by different rules. Unless the ratio of non-smokers to smokers is incredibly high (think like 20-1), the lost business from {smokers, parties with smokers, people want to see a particular band, […]} is going to kill them.

Short retort: But won’t that kill all bars then?

Short reretort: Of course not. Did it kill all restaurants? Did it kill all airlines? Setting common rules for businesses serving the public can, in fact, result in the market providing a better apparent outcome than it will on its own in cases like this. Remember, think “race to the bottom”. EVENTUALLY, the market will sort this out and provide a few more non-smoking venues, but EVENTUALLY we’ll all be dead of lung cancer.
“race to the bottom” comment stolen from various blogs includng this entry at Burnt Orange Report – search comments, this one (again in comments), and Hit And Run (in comments).

Cars’ FRR is often zero

Say you’re riding the #3 bus up Burnet Road. You pay 50 cents to get on the bus. That’s your “fare”. As it turns out, if you consider all the money taken in and all the money spent out by Capital Metro, and divide the difference equally per trip, it actually costs the taxpayers a couple of bucks for your ride. (The #3 bus, because ridership is high, ends up subsidizing some other routes, but we’re taking a simplistic view here). Your “farebox recovery ratio” is something like 20%.

Now say you’re driving your Ford Explorer down Lamar Blvd. As I’ve been recently discussing in the transportation funding topic, no gas tax money is spent on roads like this in Austin (basically major roads that don’t have a route shield on them).
Your “fare” for this trip is thus $0.00 (the road doesn’t have tollbooths, of course). In other words, the only cost you pay directly at the time (“user fee”) is the gas tax, but as noted, neither this road nor other major roads of this type in the city of Austin can be funded by gas tax dollars.

The cost of providing you with your rejuvenated driving surface was substantially more than zero (12.6 million dollars, including utility work), and all that cost was most recently paid by city of Austin taxpayers via property and sales taxes (bond election in ’98). And don’t fool yourself – most of the cost for projects like this isn’t for pedestrians, cyclists, or bus riders. We’d have a much smaller and much cheaper transportation network if nobody drove — the fact is that most of the money we spend on roads like this is directly attributable to people driving their cars, alone.

Your FRR on this trip is 0%. That’s right, a big fat zero. The only time Capital Metro gets this bad is on Ozone Action Days. So, libertarians, perhaps you shouldn’t throw stones from your suburban glass houses.

What about highways, you ask? Well, it’s true the majority of funds required to build state highways do, in fact, come from the gas tax. There are other, less direct, costs of these roadways which are borne by society at large, but even when considering just direct construction and maintenance cost, you still don’t get off claiming that you’re paying the bills. A substantial portion (largest line-items, as a matter of fact) of both the 1998 and 2000 bond elections for Austin and Travis County’s 2000 package were to pay “local contributions” towards right-of-way for new and expanded state highways. IE: even on a brand-new highway theoretically built with gas taxes, the property-owners and goods-buyers are still subsidizing you, whether they drive a lot, a little, or not at all.

Capital Metro, Empty Buses, and Farebox Recovery Ratio

The local asshats are at it again, slamming Capital Metro for supposedly running empty buses.
See here and here and here for reasons why suburbanites always think buses are empty (they’re wrong – most Capital Metro buses are carrying a substantial number of passengers).

As regards farebox recovery (in short, the amount of cost covered by passenger fare), the asshats are ‘right’ – Capital Metro’s number is low. As I used to keep telling them when they’d come for their quarterly report to our commission, if you run programs like the free rides on Ozone Action Days and the free rides for UT students at night (E-bus) and don’t account for them separately, you leave yourself open for getting hammered on an extremely low farebox recovery ratio. And by “account for them separately” I don’t mean “after the local libertarians get the media to claim you’re wasting your money”; I mean “go as far as transferring 10% of your funds to the Clean Air Force and them have them contract with you for the Ozone Action Day rides just like you do with UT for the UT Shuttle”.

Of course they didn’t listen. Capital Metro operates in the same center-city echo-chamber that most of the bicycle advocates I work with live in. My role on the UTC, while it lasted, was largely an effort to smash out of that box and get them to realize that there’s a world out there past the intersection of 183 and Mopac, and it’s got more voters in it every day.

By the way, the “farebox recovery ratio” for the private automobile is about as low as Capital Metro’s artificially low number given above. As the last few days have hopefully shown, especially as you get close to the center-city, most major roads aren’t paid for out of the gas tax (or tolls) – they’re paid for with bonds which have to be floated every few years by the city and county and are repaid with property and sales taxes. Ironically, much of the strongest opposition to the local toll road plan comes from the same group hammering Capital Metro here. Guess what, folks? A toll paid when you drive on a particular road brings you UP to the level that the transit passenger is ALREADY AT. Gas taxes don’t even come close to paying your bills.

Anti-toll people are communists

I find it hilarious that so many suburban conservatives are up in arms over the toll plan. These are the same people who attack all sorts of supposed creeping socialism and proclaim that the market should solve all of these problems – and yet when it comes to a problem that actually affects them, all of the sudden they go weak on the orthodoxy. Of particular note are their vehement attacks on mass transit – which, unlike roads, requires a direct user payment at time of service (no, folks, gas taxes don’t count – the analogue here is tolls).

The fact is that “free” roads (no, folks, gas taxes don’t pay anywhere near the full bills) share more with communism than with capitalism. The trick here is to remember how the two systems handle “scarcity” (demand exceeding supply).

If the demand for a good, let’s say, TVs, exceeds its supply, the “solution” in the Soviet Union was a combination of rationing and simple long lines. People in Soviet Russia might have had to pay very little for TVs, but they were quite often unavailable and when they were available, they had to wait a long time to get them. In other words, the way that supply and demand are balanced in a command economy like the one the Soviets had is by making people stand in very long lines.

In a capitalist economy, however, if the demand for a good outstrips its supply, the market solves this problem by raising the price of the good until supply matches demand (usually by demand dropping; sometimes by supply increasing as additional production becomes more profitable). The trick here is that the capitalist solution (higher prices) is unquestionably more efficient in the long-run since it allows people to make rational decisions based on cost. (Maybe they buy a cheaper kind of TV; maybe they use their old TVs longer; whatever).

Note that both of these equations hold even if 1/4 of the cost of producing TVs is borne by the government through taxes, even when they’re specific taxes on people who watch TV. This means that the double-taxation argument is not welcome here, in other words.

Now, apply this to road space, which is a “good” provided in this area for which demand drastically exceeds supply at certain times of day.

In Communist Texas, everybody pays for highways in one way or another. Some of the funding comes from the gas tax (which you pay even if you’re driving on a big city street like Braker Lane which doesn’t get any money from this tax – I’ll start indignantly calling this Triple Taxation someday). Some more funding comes from property and sales taxes (much more than people think). None of it comes from tolls.

How is the demand-supply imbalance handled in Communist Texas? By long lines (congestion).

How is it handled with the new toll plan? By requiring people to pay if they want to use facilities for which demand exceeds supply. While there are no initial plans to change the amount of the toll by the time of day, that could be done fairly easily (it’s already done on a couple of HOT facilities in other parts of the country). This also means that there’s at least a small economic benefit to carpooling (finally).

What this also means is that instead of letting people be stuck in line on existing “free” highways until we gather the hundreds of billions of dollars necessary to double and triple-deck everything so we can temporarily handle the demand for free roadway space, it would be a lot more efficient (again, from the capitalist perspective) to price even existing roadway space. And don’t cry double-taxation to me as I fail to get a dime back on my property or sales taxes being used for roadway and highway construction and maintenance on the days I ride my bike or walk.

So it ought to be very clear by now that if you support the current “free” highway regime over the far more capitalist “toll” highway plan, you have more in common with Communists than you do with free-marketers. Cognitive dissonance is alive and well in modern suburbia.

Jeff Ward, Fred (Gilliam?) and Commuter Rail

Yesterday’s Jeff Ward show which I caught about an hour of was a predictable frenzy of transit-bashing, with a cameo by Fred, a Capital Metro board member who I assume is Fred Gilliam.

Some easy softballs to whack which were pitched by both sides on that show:

  1. (from a caller) “The 986 express bus already takes about 50 minutes to get downtown, so why would we need a rail line?”. Answer: First of all, it takes a lot longer than 50 to get from Leander to downtown even in non-rush-times. The route the caller mentioned only runs at 6, 6:20, and 6:30 AM, by the way. According to the 986 schedule, in those severely off-peak times it takes 62 minutes to reach downtown.
    A more representative line, the 987, which doesn’t hit the inner park-and-rides either, takes 75 minutes to reach downtown (Guadalupe and 8th). The 983, which is the only route which has a departure time from Leander after 7:20ish, takes 85 minutes to reach downtown.

  2. (from Fred): (paraphrased): “Well, Jeff, you’re a genius for noting that people won’t walk 5 miles from the drop-off at the Convention Center to get to their job at the Capitol or UT, so we’ve designed this great distributor service which will run at very high frequencies and take you straight there”. This “high-frequency distributor” exists today; it’s called The Dillo, and it’s dog-slow.

From experience with other areas which have tried the approach of building a rail line where it happens to be convenient to lay tracks (or use existing tracks) and then distributing via shuttle buses, most people won’t be willing to take this transfer. In Tuesday’s posting I noted that the city is as skeptical as I am of Capital Metro’s idea that this won’t drastically hurt ridership.

For comparison, the 2000 light rail plan would have taken passengers from the same park-and-rides up in Leander and NW Austin, but it would have dropped UT passengers off at Guadalupe (without a transfer). It would have dropped state passengers off within a block of the Capitol (without a transfer). And it would have dropped downtown office workers off within a block of Congress Avenue (without a transfer).

This plan is nothing more than Capital Metro’s attempt to build what they think Mike Krusee will let them get away with. It serves only far suburban passengers, and it serves them poorly.
3. (from Jeff and others): (paraphrased): “people won’t leave their cars behind for transit, or they’d be doing it now”. Baloney. Cities which develop rail systems which are competitive (not even faster, just close) on time with the automobile and are reliable (same time every day) always siphon away a lot of car drivers. This has been the experience in Portland, Denver, Dallas, Houston, Salt Lake City, etc. Rail does things that buses can’t, namely, get out of traffic, and provide a comfortable ride. None of those cities were experiencing any success with getting people out of their cars with their bus systems (which were more extensive than ours), but all of them are now (with rail) delivering people to their jobs via transit who actually had the choice of driving and chose not to.

The problem is that this rail plan won’t do it. Capital Metro, again, is building what Mike Krusee will let them build rather than building what needs to be built.

Libertarians and Public Highways

Yesterday, local pseudo-libertarian Jeff Ward was speaking out on his show against the recently passed toll road plan. I’m not going to talk about whether the plan is good or bad (In my role on the Mostly Ignored Transportation Advisory Commission, I voted for it as a lesser of two evils myself with some amendments to handle some things I didn’t like), but about something which is increasingly common these days – that being Libertarians Who Love Them Some Good Old Fashioned Government Pork As Long As It’s In The Form Of Suburban Highways. (LWLTSGOFGPALAIITFOSH for short).
And just a minute ago, two winger-leaning cow orkers came over to get an education on toll roads. They also fall into this category.

So, one would assume that libertarians would be strongly in favor of toll roads. After all, gas taxes (and worse, property taxes) are a very blunt instrument. People pay who don’t even use the facilities that get the money (for instance, people who drive on major arterials in the city of Austin are usually not on roads that get any state gas tax money, which by state law can only go to state highways). The money isn’t even remotely related to the facility you’re on (drive on I-35 and you’re funding construction of Mopac North). And with our own dysfunctional funding scheme here in Austin, you pay (via property and sales taxes) for not only major arterials such as Lamar Blvd, but also for right-of-way for state highway expansions even if you don’t own a car.

So when I turned on the radio, I would logically have expected Jeff Ward, he of the “show me the business plan for transit” theory, to be strongly in favor of toll roads. After all, the funding is more directly related to the use (you use, you pay; you don’t use, you don’t pay). Ths is Libertarian 101.

You can guess, however, from where this is going that he doesn’t believe that way.

No, Jeff, like most self-identified libertarians I’ve met, loves our Socialist Highway System. Because, you see, he uses it every day, so it must be an example of Good Big Government. And he never gets to talk to any of the people who use Capital Metro every day, so that’s obviously Bad Big Government.

Those LWLTSGOFGPALAIITFOSHers love to complain that transit is bad because it gets most of its money out of a tax that most of us pay which is not related to our use (zero, some, or lots) of the system. They like to point out how little of the cost of one trip on the system is paid for at the time of boarding by the rider. Well, guess what, LWLTSGOFGPALAIITFOSHers? The same damn thing is true for road funding, at a much larger scale. I pay property taxes and sales taxes to Austin, which uses them to build and maintain most of its major arterials with no contribution from the gas tax. I get no rebate on the days I don’t drive. When I do drive, I drive most of my trips on those roads that Austin pays for; so my gas taxes go mainly out to the ‘burbs, where a much higher percentage of their major infrastructure receives gas-tax funding.

You know, I don’t like these roads being built either way. But I know damn well that having them built and having the people who chose to live out in the hinterlands pay some of the costs of their destructive choices is far superior than having them built and having us all pay out of generic gas taxes and property taxes and sales taxes. At least this way, when Joe Suburbia goes looking for houses, he’ll have to think of the cost of his choice.
I guess that makes me a better libertarian than Jeff Ward.

And please don’t talk to me about any of the following winger talking points on either side:

  1. We paid for them already. (No, you didn’t. Mostly, people in the urban core paid the bills for you).
  2. Double-taxation is wrong. (I don’t care. From an efficiency perspective – i.e. moving the most people for the least cost, you absolutely must use some form of congestion pricing, even if it’s the blunt instrument of tolls which don’t change by the time of day).
  3. You’re paving the Springs (Yes, but the other alternative was building these same roads as free roads, which would have been even worse as an incentive for sprawl over the aquifer).

Addendum

This morning I rode my bike to the bus stop at 38th and Medical Parkway (near Lamar). I boarded the 983 express bus, and paid a “toll” of $1.00 (actually 50c since I bought discount tickets a while back). I was “double-taxed” since I also pay for Capital Metro with my sales tax dollars. Oh, the humanity.

Why suburbanites think all buses are empty, Part One

I rode my bike to the bus stop at 38th and Medical Parkway this morning to get on the 983 “express” bus to work. 6 people, includng me, got on at this stop. There were 4 or 5 people already on the bus.

Several people disembarked at the Arboretum, and one other person disembarked with me at Balcones Woods. By the time it got up to the suburban park-and-ride, it was surely emptier than when I got on.

Actually, this bus isn’t a great example, since it is ‘deadheading’ for the most part – the primary traffic on these routes is inbound in the morning; they actually run some of the buses back straight up 183 without stopping to get back up to the big park-n-rides quicker. But it reminded me to write this article anyways, so there you go.

A better example is the #3 bus (Burnet). It has at least 30-40 stops in between its northern terminus loop around the Arboretum and downown (and then continues on down to Manchaca with probably another 40 stops). It runs very frequently (every 20 minutes). Well, that’s frequent for this town anyways.

Imagine this experiment: At each stop, exactly one person gets on the bus. All of them are headed either downtown or to UT.
If you drive past the bus at the Arboretum (its northernmost stop), how many people will you see on the bus? Exactly 0, until that one guy gets on.
If you drive past the bus at UT, how many people will you see on the bus? 30 or 40.

In fact, many of Capital Metro’s routes operate this way; it’s how transit is supposed to work. Although the disembarking model is unrealistically simple; some people do get off in between, and many stops have no pickups while others pick 5 or 6 up like mine this morning.

But the real lesson here is that suburbanites are stupid. While reading the example above, I’m betting you were offended at my lack of respect for your intelligence, yet, in fact, most people here nod their heads when some knuckle-dragging Fred Flintstone type like Gerald Daugherty’s ROAD bumcaps rant about empty buses.

You want to see full buses? Go to the end of the route, Einstien!
Also, get your ass on Lamar or Burnet – don’t expect to see a ton of buses on Mopac or I-35; I’m fairly certain Capital Metro found it difficult to convince people to run across the on-ramps to get to the bus stops.

Same logic applies to bicyclists too, by the way. Local libertarialoon Jeff Ward rants that he sees no cyclists when he drives around town, and again, the suburban knuckle-draggers can’t wait to grunt their affirmation. Ask him where he drives, though; he’s almost certainly going from his far suburban home to the KLBJ studio at I-35 and US 183. Probably using freeways the whole way, too. If you want to see cyclists, drive down Shoal Creek or Speedway or Duval, you morons.