Transit in Phoenix

A reader writes
Our AZ Senate candidate is very big on light rail and says in debates that it is a good option for our District – NW Phoenix. He thinks ‘commuter rail’ has been effective in Chicago and wants to make a case for light or commuter rail here.
From your perspective, are either methods successful in cities in the US? One measure of success is in terms of reducing some measurable amount of automobile traffic [probably 5% or more] or a different measure is in terms of public investment – such as making the system pay for itself after some period of initial investment.
Commuter and light rail are completely different beasts, like comparing taxis and buses, they both move people, but they move different numbers of people at different speeds for different distances.
Defining success in terms of reducing auto traffic is also a mistake, recalling the Onion headline Report: 98 Percent Of U.S. Commuters Favor Public Transportation For Others (November 29, 2000 | Issue 36•43)
We don’t define airplanes in how many rail passengers they take off the train, or the success of typewriters in how many word processing users avoid computers.
So there are a few measures we might consider. A private firm would ask: Do the marginal private benefits (profit) outweigh the marginal private costs? This is how transit projects were judged back in the day (the late 1800s and early 1900s) when they were private. By marginal we mean does the next dollar invested have benefits that outweigh the cost of one dollar.
Alternatively, does rail provide transportation for their users at a cost they pay for? The answer is clearly no in every US city.
As far as I know, passenger rail now only makes money in Hong Kong. It probably could break even with appropriate management in a few other cities (e.g. New York, London, Paris), but everywhere else it is heavily subsidized (100% of capital costs and two-thirds of operating costs is typical subsidy for rail transit in the US).
We might distinguish “does pay for” and “would be willing to pay for” and consider the notion of subsidies, but I doubt any system (outside New York and a few select routes elsewhere) could break even at their existing costs.
The public asks do the marginal social benefits (MSB) outweigh the marginal social costs. Marginal social benefits in theory might include non-user benefits like congestion reduction, pollution reduction, crash reduction, noise reduction, increased accessibility for non-users, and so on (to the extent these can be accurately measured and monetized) but MSB would primarily be comprised of user benefits (those accruing to the transit riders themselves). The marginal social costs (MSC) are the “private” costs of paying for the infrastructure and service, and any externalities that are created (delay during construction, pollution caused, crashes caused, delay to non-users during operation, etc.).
The monetization of some of these costs depends on personal values, value of time, value of life, value of health, value of quiet, and so on, though economists and engineers have assigned values to these (value of time =$10/hour, value of life =$3 million, …) based on individual choices when making real decisions.
However, we also need to consider the alternative use of resources, the opportunity cost. If we spend money on X we no longer have it to spend on Y. So even if X is good, Y might be better, and resources are scarce.
Again I believe the answer is no, the marginal social benefits seldom outweigh the marginal social costs in fixed-rail transit investments. I have not seen any benefit cost analysis that I believe that has a rail project with marginal social benefits exceeding marginal social costs.
Rail advocates then claim there are non-monetizable factors, civic pride or image, etc. I remain unconvinced.
Alternatively, they may suggest that the values of things are underestimated (e.g. economic development, land use changes), but usually this double-counts benefits that are in the analysis. (land values plus user time, e.g., by and large are representing the same thing, the reason land values are high is because the land is located in a place with better access (less time to more things)).
A final argument concerns environmental benefits. In general cars pollute more than electric trains (though this depends in large part where the electricity for your light rail comes from). But the value of this can be monetized w health expenses. (Or worse, diesel for your trains may be more damaging than auto emissions.) The cost of global warming is another matter which is highly speculative.
Phoenix’s current transit (bus + rail) work trip mode share is 1.9% according to the 2000 Census Transportation Planning Package data. To take 5% more cars off the road, transit mode share would need to be more than 7% (since some of those travelers would come out of carpools, walking, and biking, and non-work mode-share is less than work trip mode share). The problem is compounded by the idea of induced demand, by reducing congestion, some people who previously avoided traveling at peak times would now travel then again (for every 100 trips removed because of transit, maybe 50 or so would then be made, changing time of day or day of week, making longer trips, switching from carpool to drive alone, or switching from other routes, or making trips previously avoided).
The only large US Cities with a 7% or higher transit work trip mode share: New York, Chicago, Washington DC/Baltimore, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Boston. Large portions of these cities were built in the transit era and they have all had long-standing transit systems. Phoenix is not likely to quadruple transit usage without a very large investment (transit service as extensive or more than the cities identified above … I say more because the land use pattern in Phoenix is much less conducive to transit than the cities above) … unless there is a large external shock (e.g. very high gas prices, maybe on the order of $10 gallon).
Phoenix on the other hand has one of the highest carpool share in the US. This may be due to HOV network, but is more likely because of a high number of working class individuals who are sharing cars to get to work. Exploiting this predisposition to carpool seems more promising than trying to jump-start a new mode.
If you want to reduce congestion, you have to increase prices, ideally prices that are targeted by time of day and location, to give people the appropriate signals about the real cost of their travel. If you are unwilling to do this, your congestion is not bad enough.
– dml

Clash of Speeds

In the Tofflers’ new book “Revolutionary Wealth“, the discuss the “Clash of Speeds”, saying in an interview
“If you were a cop at the side of the road monitoring the speed of the cars going by, you would clock the car of business,which is always changing rapidly under competitive pressures,at 100miles per hour.But the car of education,which is supposedly preparing our young for the future,is only going 10mph.You cannot have a successful economy with that degree of de-synchronization. “
If education is going 10mph, one might posit surface transportation itself is going 1 mph. The networks we use are perhaps the slowest of institutions to change, the roads we use today are still where we put them a decade, a century, or a millenium (or two) ago. This slow pace of change is a two-way street. If you want to make rapid change, you will be frustrated, but if you want to make lasting change, you will be rewarded.

In praise of landmarks

Yesterday, Apple Computer announced a slew of new products, among them iTunes 7. A key feature of this piece of software is its new user interface, dubbed “CoverFlow”, discussed in this article: Wired News: New UI Showdown: Apple vs. TiVo. You do need to see it to fully understand it, and it is quite a slick way to navigate a music database.
Why am I talking about music databases and album art in a blog about transportation? I think cities are much like databases, and buildings like album covers. We navigate spatially and visually. Cities without redeeming art, architecture or natural landmarks are unpleasant. Not merely because they lack “charm” and the buildings are individually dull, but because of their collective undifferentiatedness, which creates difficulties for navigating (especially if they also lack some spatial regularity like a comprehensible grid network) and spatially locating oneself. Being lost (both not knowing where you are and not knowing either how you got there or how you will get to where you are going) brings a strong sense of unease that creates frustration if not hostility to the place you are lost at.
Cities need the equivalent of album art so that people can explore them. The nature of this art changes if you are walking, biking, taking transit, or driving, as you view it at different speeds and different resolutions.
Skylines have value, more than the simple value to the owner of the individual building. (In economic terms, they provide some positive externality, collectively exhibiting a network effect where the whole is larger than the sum of the individual parts. Measuring this is of course difficult.)
When I am driving around, and see the skyline in the distance from a particular angle, I instantly know what direction I am going. While some of these benefits may be obviated with in-vehicle navigation, the certainty of physical structure outweighs the digital outputs of a machine.
I recall as a freshman at Georgia Tech, taking a night course, leaving some classroom building for the first time out of a door different from where I entered and being completely turned around, until eventually I located the Coca-Cola headquarters building (just southwest of campus). While I still didn’t know exactly where I was, I could figure out where I was going.

Why People Don’t Use Mass Transit

An interesting article describing Why People Don’t Use Mass Transit. Of course, none of this is new to transportation professionals, but it is worth repeating as agencies consider spending more money on new transit infrastructure. Individuals have preferences, one of which is to save time, one is to be in comfort. When transit systems save time and are more comfortable they will attract “choice” passengers, those who can afford other modes, otherwise they will be left with “captive” passengers, those without better choices.
Transit works in some places, not in others. Cars work in some places, not in others. If we can match the modes to the environment, we will be successful.

A roundabout way to traffic safety

The city of Forest Lake, Minnesota is going to deploy a slew of roundabouts to control traffic, replacing traffic lights. This article describes the plan: St. Paul Pioneer Press | 09/09/2006 | Roundabout plan may get a trial spin
In most studies of the issue, roundabouts improve on safety and reduce delay compared with traffic signals. They have the advantage of minimizing conflict points at intersections, and help keep drivers moving, while slowing them down and making them more alert.
This wikipedia article describes roundabouts in more depth.
Unfortunately, traffic circles have given roundabouts a bad name, and becaues they are not so complicated, they are often not even taught in Traffic Engineering classes, so they are not given due placement in the traffic engineers toolbox.

Nobel Peace Prize Winner turns attention to road safety

In an op-ed published in today’s Washington Post: Peace On the Roads, Oscar Arias, President of Costa Rica and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize decries the lives lost on roads, particularly in the developing world. Clearly this is an under-appreciated problem, because it does not have the flash of a plane crash or terrorism, but we lose more people in the US each month to traffic crashes than we do each year (or decade) to terrorism. The toll in the developing world is much worse on a per-vehicle-km traveled basis, because roads are worse, drivers are worse (have less driver education), enforcement is worse, and vehicles are worse. While zero deaths is a long way off, 1.2 million per year can certainly be reduced.

Is anyone running this airline?

Northwest doesn’t need the flight attendants strike to have CHAOS.
The proposed flight attendents strike on Northwest Airlines aims to induce CHAOS on the aviation system by targetting specific flights (unknown to NWA or passengers in advance). Clearly NWA has problems on its own, this flight, which I will be on in four weeks, was diverted to Duluth (
NWA Flight 44 Passengers Feeling VERY Minnesota). Okay, so there were mechanical problems, that happens from time to time (not encouraging, but they did fire all of the mechanics last year).
But they did not ask (or allow) passengers to leave for 10 hours, first trying to fix the problem, but eventually realizing that the crews were on duty for too long. A little bit of foresight would be helpful (but then with foresight, they woudn’t be a bankrupt carrier).
This is not the first time NWA has held passengers prisoner. (1, 2 (9 hours) and here , 3 (28 hours) I myself was trapped on an NWA flight in summer of 2004, sitting on the runway for 3 hours, that due to weather at DCA (National), could not take off, and ultimately had to deplane passengers so it could take off on the shorter runway. (Just a few more people off the plane, and we can take off).
The pilot did buy alcohol for the passengers (alas, I don’t drink), and NWA did give me 1500 airmiles, but frankly, I would rather someone be able to plan 15 minutes in advance and not board planes that won’t be allowed to take off.

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by David Levinson

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