The 60-Year Line

Whenever we build a piece of large-scale infrastructure, we should be thinking about the markets it serves today, and the market it serves over its lifetime. We are often building lines that aim to promote development. That is, they are serving non-places in the hope they become places. The evidence on this is mixed. Sometimes lines successfully promote development, sometimes they don’t. If the lines were privately built (as in times of yore), this would be much less of public policy question, as the public is not bearing the monetary risk. That is not to say there are no policy questions, the line-builder wants right-of-way, and that often requires eminent domain powers.

However the lines are now publicly built, so the public is bearing the risk so that the privately owned lands might appreciate in value, and the public might get a small share of that increment. Usually we don’t employ value capture. General tax revenues are not nearly enough to justify the line, since lines are expensive now — all the good lines, the low-hanging fruit, have been built, and most development is a transfer from one place to another.

The risk is the capital outlay will not be recovered from future revenue (from users, or non-users).

In contrast, building lines where people actually are, where demand currently exists, presents much lower risk in revenue projections.

Lines typically last upwards of 60 years with a given technology. We certainly cannot predict 60 years into the future. 60 years ago was before both the Shinkansen and the Interstate Highway System. Predictions from 60 years ago about today were not terribly accurate. Sixty years is longer than a Kondratieff Cycle.

Will today’s places have any activity in 60 years? A good test of that is whether the place had activity 60 years ago. Look at the map of 60 years ago. Where was the activity? Where is it today? The intersection of those two maps show places with proven longevity. There are no guarantees those places will have activity in 60 years of course (“past performance is no guarantee of future results”), but they are more likely to because there is an underlying cause for the stability of the place. That is, there was a cause for that place to develop in the first place (e.g. a useful waterfall, a port, or a junction between intercity rail lines), and the positive feedback structure between transportation, accessibility, and land use actively worked to reinforce the strength of that place.

Value Capture Flowchart
Value Capture Flowchart

Applying that to the Twin Cities, the best prediction you can make is that there will be strong demand between Downtown Minneapolis and Downtown St. Paul. We currently serve that corridor with interstate highway and transit.

Applying that again to the Twin Cities, the newest places (if we can call them that) outside the beltway are making claims for long-term investments of resources fixing them into the urban system without the evidence of long-term stability (See e.g. the SW LRT to a park and ride lot on Mitchell Road, or Highway 212, or the Bottineau Line to a cornfield, or Highway 610). It is certainly possible those destinations will become significant demand generators, but it is far from certain. If a private firm wanted to bear the risk of those prospective developments not working out, more power to them. But the public is asked to do this, while perfectly good markets go unserved or underserved for lack of capital.

Summary of Civic Caucus Interview and Responses

As noted previously, I was interviewed by the Minnesota Civic Caucus. In addition to the interview, there are responses to the interview now available, from many different folks, including Margaret Donahoe of the MoveMN lobby. Well worth reading to see the various perspectives on transportation.
David Levinson interview of August 7, 2014

 

Overview:  Minnesota does not need new transportation projects in order to be competitive, according to David Levinson of the University of Minnesota. There are some bottlenecks that could be addressed, he says, but the primary problem is that we’ve been spending too much on new capital projects and not enough on operating and maintaining the existing system of federal, state and local highways and roads.

 

User-fee revenues for highways, mainly gas-tax revenues, have been declining in recent years because of fewer trips, more fuel-efficient cars and political resistance at both the federal and state levels to raising the gas tax, he says. Also, a large share of federal Highway Trust Fund revenues have been diverted to pay for transit capital projects, although transit serves only about two percent of all trips nationally.

 

Levinson discusses a broad range of actions he believes will successfully address these transportation issues.

For the complete interview summary see: Levinson interview

For individual responses to interview see: responses to Levinson

 

Met Council board not big transit riders, survey finds | startribune

Eric Roper at the Strib riffs on my dogfooding article and does a local study: Met Council board not big transit riders, survey finds

“We should ask whether members of the council have sufficient expertise about transit … to be managing a transit system. Do they understand the problems at a deep level?” said University of Minnesota professor David Levinson, who researches transportation systems and has written about the need for transit decisionmakers to commute on their own product.

Levinson, the professor, compared the low transit usage by the Met Council to the board of Apple not using computers. He has frequently criticized the lack of information at most Twin Cities bus stops when compared to other cities, including route numbers, destinations, frequency and maps.

“Having that experience of being lost on the transit system is probably a useful experience for [council members] to have to understand why their system isn’t as attractive as it should be, why it’s not as popular as they hope it would be,” Levinson said.

Prison vs. Airport

Prisons and Airports are both among the most secure places we have on earth, protected by guards, so that their residents (inmates, passengers) don’t mix with everyone else.

The Transportation Experience: Second Edition (Garrison and Levinson 2014)
US Domestic Enplanments: Source The Transportation Experience: Second Edition (Garrison and Levinson 2014)

The core difference is that the prison is isolated so that the bad guys stay in, while the airport is isolated so that the bad guys stay out. To get into the airport, you must demonstrate you are safe, while to get into prison, you must be proven to be unsafe.

US Incarceration Timeline, from wikipedia
US Incarceration Timeline, from wikipedia

In the US prison populations and airport passengers have both increased over the decades, though seem to have leveled off in the past few years, such that we are perhaps at both “peak aviation” and “peak prison”.

Perhaps isolation is not the key to safety.

 

 

 

NCITE/ITSO Joint Meeting: October 22: BRT at Metro Transit

The NCITE October Section Meeting will be held on Wednesday, October 22nd at the University of Minnesota – Coffman Memorial Union in the Mississippi Room (3rd Floor). It will be a joint luncheon with the U of M Interdisciplinary Transportation Student Organization (ITSO).

Katie Roth and Christina Morrison from Metro Transit will be speaking on upcoming Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) projects and studies. This meeting is a great opportunity for members and students to meet and build networks, and learn how an emerging network of BRT lines will improve connectivity and mobility throughout the Twin Cities region. Coffman Union is well served by the Green Line and multiple bus routes.  Parking garages are also available nearby.

 

Place:          University of Minnesota – Coffman Memorial Union

Mississippi Room (3rd Floor)

300 Washington Avenue SE

Minneapolis, MN 55455

Phone (612) 624-INFO (4636)

Directions and Parking Options

 

Time:            

11:30 a.m. – Noon Registration

Noon – 12:30 p.m. Lunch

12:30 – 1:30 p.m. Business Meeting and Presentation

 

Registration: Please click the following link to register or RSVP for the event before 10/20:

http://events.constantcontact.com/register/event?llr=bbewsnpab&oeidk=a07e9z62r8necb8893a

 

Cost: $20 members and guests ($5 students).  Webinar access is available at no charge.

 

The Transportation Experience: Second Edition, is available on Apple iBooks

The Transportation Experience: Second Edition, is now available on iBooks, as well as  Oxford University Press,  Amazon, and Barnes and Noble

The Transportation Experience: Second Edition by William L. Garrison and David M. Levinson
The Transportation Experience: Second Edition by William L. Garrison and David M. Levinson

 

The Transportation Experience: Policy, Planning, and Deployment

William L. Garrison & David M. Levinson

 

Description

The Transportation Experience explores the historical evolution of transportation modes and technologies. The book traces how systems are innovated, planned and adapted, deployed and expanded, and reach maturity, where they may either be maintained in a polished obsolesce often propped up by subsidies, be displaced by competitors, or be reorganized and renewed. An array of examples supports the idea that modern policies are built from past experiences. William Garrison and David Levinson assert that the planning (and control) of nonlinear, unstable processes is today’s central transportation problem, and that this is universal and true of all modes. Modes are similar, in that they all have a triad structure of network, vehicles, and operations; but this framework counters conventional wisdom. Most think of each mode as having a unique history and status, and each is regarded as the private playground of experts and agencies holding unique knowledge, operating in isolated silos. However, this book argues that while modes have an appearance of uniqueness, the same patterns repeat: systems policies, structures, and behaviors are a generic design on varying modal cloth. In the end, the illusion of uniqueness proves to be myopic. While it is true that knowledge has accumulated from past experiences, the heavy hand of these experiences places boundaries on current knowledge; especially on the ways professionals define problems and think about processes. The Transportation Experience provides perspective for the collections of models and techniques that are the essence of transportation science, and also expands the boundaries of current knowledge of the field.

“It’s a success”

There are no more common words to hear shortly after the opening of a new rail project in the United States than “It’s a success”. The forecast of the declaration of success is far more accurate the forecast of ridership or costs.

For instance, Metrorail (WMATA) claims:

Metro: Silver Line ridership remains strong

Metro today provided updated Silver Line ridership information showing that, less than two months after opening, the new line is already performing at 60 percent of its projected ridership for the end of the first full year of service. As of last week, an average of 15,000 riders are entering the system at the five new Silver Line stations on weekdays for a combined 30,000 trips to or from the new stations.

In the planning process, Silver Line ridership was projected to reach 25,000 boardings at the five new stations after one full year of service.

Metro estimates that the Silver Line is currently adding approximately 6,000 new riders — making roughly 12,000 trips — to the Metrorail system each weekday. The balance, approximately 9,000 riders, are primarily former Orange Line riders who have switched to the Silver Line.

Some outlets have used the word “success” to describe the line, as has Secretary Foxx. Certainly it is still early, and maybe the Silver Line will exceed first year forecasts, or final year forecasts, or even have benefits in excess of costs, or somehow reduce inequity in the Washington region, or lead to economic development, or any number of other objectives hoisted on transit lines. It is arguably successful from a project delivery perspective, in that it was delivered, and opened for service, but that seems a narrow way to think about success.

In contrast, another new start, Metro Transit’s Green Line, has done a bit better, even with all sorts of traffic signal timing issues. It too is heralded as a success, with ridership exceeding forecast year ridership about 3 months in.  While many of its riders were transfers from existing bus services, it clearly is serving more new people for less money than the Silver Line.

Which is more successful? Which is a better investment? Time will tell, and I will leave that to the reader’s judgment.

I have two hypotheses as to why these words are so common.

First, it may be that all projects are successful. For this hypothesis to hold, we would need to see enormous transit market share across the country after several decades of more than 20% of all transportation funding going to transit (figure 2, but also this). Sadly the evidence suggests otherwise.

Alternatively, it may be that the appearance of success is important, independent of the actual facts on the ground. Calling “success” aligns you with “Team Rail” and rewards your supporters. The illusion of success is critical to obtain future funds. No one wants to give money to an agency that actively (if honestly) claims “It’s a failure” or “It’s a disappointment”, or “We’re still perfecting it,” or even “It’s a hobby“.

I hold this latter explanation as more likely. This is not to say there are no successes in urban rail transit. There are many. Starting in 1863 with the  London Underground, rail transit globally had an extraordinarily good run for 60 years. In the US, it sort of petered out after that for the next 50 years or so, though in other countries, rail transit has continued at various levels of strengths.

Some of the lines in the past 40 years have been more successful than others, all depending on your definition of success. (For instance, a list of LRT systems by ridership per mile is here.) The best systems remain the ones built in the early 20th century, with only LA’s Metro Rail breaking the top 5 in riders per mile (and DC’s MetroRail coming 6th).  Yet as far as I can tell, all new systems have been declared successful by somebody (even the relatively low ridership per mile lines like Tampa’s TECO line, or Charlotte’s Lynx). Some are even pre-declared, like The Tide in Hampton Roads.

I find it hard to see billions being spent on the Silver Line so far to add 6000 riders (12000 trips)  as an unqualified success, (I would find it hard to see meeting these low forecasts as a success either). This is more $ per passenger than many commuter rail lines spend, which few outside the agencies themselves are calling successes (the advocates of course do use that exact word).

If spending $2B added zero or negative riders, that would be truly surprising, indicative of active destruction of money. I will just state there were plausible alternative uses of the funds that would have improved society in other ways. Every expenditure has an opportunity cost.

Do not believe or repeat the press releases of agencies and advocates uncritically.

 

 

a blog about Networks and Places

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