Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Gridlock on Transportation Policy?

Gov.-elect Tim Kaine has now held 10 town hall-styled meetings around the state to discuss the transportation crisis, but nothing resembling a consensus has emerged. That's the conclusion of Washington Post reporter Steven Ginsberg in an article filed today.

"Everyone agrees there's a problem. No one seems to agree what the solutions are, and these meetings haven't gotten us there," Ginsberg quotes Prince William Board of County Supervisors Chairman Sean T. Connaughton (R), as saying.

In all likelihood, the future Governor will default to the proposals he articulated in the fall during his campaign. Similarly, the state Senate, whose START task force has completed its four hearings, also failed to come to an agreement. Any bills bubbling up from Senate probably will reflect the thinking of those who write it, not necessarily the entire body. Meanwhile, the House is entertaining some interesting ideas on transportation, but the leadership is approaching the problem from a radically different perspective than the Senate.

2006 may be the year of transportation, but it's anybody's guess as to whether Virginia's political leadership can line up behind a coherent set of policies.


At 8:11 PM, Blogger too conservative said...

Great stuff.

At 10:00 PM, Blogger Ray Hyde said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 11:43 PM, Blogger Ray Hyde said...

Perhaps the most humbling lesson of 20th century land use and
transportation planning is how poorly we understand what it is exactly that we want to achieve. Concomitantly, we must also recognize the hubris of assuming that we could anticipate what we ourselves would want in future decades, and what our descendants would want in future generations.

To be sure, we have learned. We have learned that the axiom of
separating commercial and residential land uses is often inappropriate for nonindustrial land uses.... We have learned the limitations
of zoning as a mechanism to induce or restrain development .... And we have learned that 20-year predictions of highway traffic are usually too low, while those of transit demand are usually too high.

What we have not learned, however, is that our ability to anticipate what future generations will want is probably no better than that of previous generations of planners. Today’s emphasis on neotraditional or new urbanist communities, sustainable transportation, and other matters of great social moment will ebb, replaced by new problems and priorities.

The lesson is not to impose a social, environmental, or economic order on the land in perpetuity. Instead, it should be to strike a proper balance between serving our near-term wants and needs for comfort, security, and mobility while preserving maximal discretion for future generations to satisfy their wants and needs as they see fit. We are building the legacy systems of tomorrow.

We should be making them as easy to upgrade and replace as we reasonably can."

—Jonathan L. Gifford, George Mason University

"Everyone agrees there's a problem. No one seems to agree what the solutions are, and these meetings haven't gotten us there" - Sean Connaughton.


I couldn't agree more, and at this point I'm tempted to agree with EMR that we are simply too ignorant to understand the problem, let alone grasp the solutions. Gifford believes whatever “solutions” we cook up are only temporary. If everybody who went to those meetings took a shovel with them, they could have built some roads by now.

The example offered by Jay Baker was a classic case in point: "I wonder why there are so many miles of free roads and yet every passenger pays for every mile on Metro."

The fact is that the roads are not free, we all pay for them and we all pay for METRO as well. After you account for the external costs of autos and do the same for METRO, what you find is that auto drivers pay a higher percentage of their own costs than METRO or VRE riders. On a direct cost basis, it typically costs about twice as much per mile to drive as to use transit - and you travel just about twice as fast. ( based on Winston and Shirley, Brookings Institution, among others). If we can get past the rhetoric, we are all paying for this, and the only question is whether we are paying equitably and whether we have net benefit maximization.

"Sprawl is not inevitable. It is the result of homeowners’ desire to escape urban areas with higher crime rates, poor schools and streets, and small yards." - Bruce Douglas, Parsons Brinckerhoff

So there is an expert opinion of the cause of sprawl (absent any supporting data, I might add). Road construction is not the cause of sprawl. Cars are not the cause of sprawl. Conversely, despite what many people say, sprawl is not the cause of congestion.

Zahavi and other researchers have shown that the amount of time we spend traveling in urban, suburban, and rural areas is just about equal. No description of travel behavior or land use results in a variation of more than about 10%. The urban travel budget is about 68 minutes and the suburban budget is about 70 minutes. These measured and verified results contradict the common belief that residents of dense urban neighborhoods spend much less time traveling each day than do suburban dwellers. We also know for a fact that rural dwellers pay less for transportation than urban dwellers.
It is possible to travel farther in uncongested areas in the same amount of time. Since large numbers of people have moved out of congested areas, it should be no surprise that VMT has increased, but that does not mean that VMT is the cause of congestion, or of sprawl.

Our own desires are the cause of sprawl, as noted by Brinkerhoff, and we are selfish about it. Once we have it we want to defend our territory by imposing "impact fees" on those who come after us or "congestion fees" for the others we feel are in our way. We could, of course, remake the existing areas to meet our desires, but building new is less expensive, even when you throw in all that new infrastructure.

But if we are 92,000 homes short, and people want yards, then we are going to need more roads and more land to use for roads and yards. We can't put them all in one place.

We can't increase population 70% and increase roads 30% without causing the problems we have. If roads become more valuable than homes then we should be prepared to tear down homes and build roads, and we should be prepared to fully indemnify those whose homes we tear down. As Gifford notes, we should be willing to upgrade or replace a solution that no longer works. Too bad we hate change.

The automobile is not going away any more than the nuclear bomb is, so we need to learn to deal with it in the best possible manner, and that solution may change over time. We are going to hate that change as well, when it eventually comes.

Over at the Bacon's Rebellion Blog, EMR suggests there are only two solutions: move your home or move your job. That idea is just as ignorant as the idea that cars don't pay their own way (I know, they don't, but the imbalance is not as great as some would have us believe.)
For the average person the cost of moving a home can easily come to multiples of tens of thousands of dollars, more than enough to drive a modest car for a very long time. Then of course if you do move, there is the risk that your job will subsequently change or move, thus invalidating your investment. Even if EMR was remotely correct, relocating your home close to your job to reduce travel only accounts for about 20% of personal transportation, and less than 10% of total transportation. If that is all you are saving, compared to the cost of moving, you could stay put and drive for a very long time indeed.
As wrong as EMR's idea is, some people will choose that option, for valid reasons of their own. So if one percent of the population takes that option to reduce their travel by 20%, that's still a 0.2% reduction in travel.

It turns out that we don't have to decrease travel very much to decrease congestion a lot, theoretically. By that logic you wouldn't need to build many roads to reduce congestion a lot. By that logic only a few trains would eliminate congestion.

Yet we know that does not happen. All of those ideas have the same flaw. The demand for travel in some locations is higher than we can accommodate in any one place. Anything we do to relieve congestion just makes it possible for someone else to engage in their own selfish desires, and occupy the space we just "saved". You will recognize this as the argument that roads induce more travel, and the argument holds for ANY method used to reduce congestion that does not get at the root cause.

Congestion fees will make auto users pay a more equitable share of their costs. If they are high enough they will reduce congestion in that area to a manageable level. People still have desires to be met, so if the costs are too high in that area, they will eventually go somewhere else. No matter how "vibrant" their local area is, the probability that their desires can be met inside the radius reachable by car is greater than the probability that they can be met inside the radius of walking distance.
No amount of urban planning can change that fact. There are so many variables and so many desires that our current location will always be dysfunctional - that is why we invented travel.

Therefore, if we use congestion fees to reduce congestion, it will not be the same as reducing traffic, the traffic will go somewhere else. Reducing congestion is not the same as reducing traffic, and reducing traffic doesn’t necessarily reduce congestion.

For some people the cost of traveling to fulfill their desires is too high. They are either fortunate enough to have simple desires that can be met in walking distance, or they do without and satisfice. Not using an auto usually results in a lower standard of living. In fact, economists have seriously suggested that we provide cars to the poor as a means to get them out of poverty.
Nevertheless, it’s OK to use congestion fees to cause auto users to pay their full costs. But once you demand that people pay their full costs, then that demand should apply to transit riders as well. If that ever happens, transit will become profitable, but only in very localized areas, where the traffic density is highest. The overall result of and the result will be more auto use, not less, even if auto users pay their full costs. (Winston and Shirley, Brookings Institute)

The idea that rail can solve our transportation problems is a joke. Certainly anything with a fixed guideway cannot meet the demand for flexible planning noted by Gifford, and economists calculate whatever benefits rail generates is more than compensated for by the subsidies and enormous capital costs they require.

Despite all the rhetoric and nonsense that is spewed about its cause and associated waste, congestion is simply the result of too many people in the same place at the same time. They are there for a reason we can call desire. Relieving congestion means moving those people someplace else in space or time.

What that means is that you have to move those people, and that takes transportation. In order to motivate them to go elsewhere you may also have to move or replicate the focus of their desire.

The idea that you can relieve congestion by increasing density, or providing more transit is an idea that is as dumb as toast. All you have to do is look around to see this. There is no congestion in the forest, yet.

To relieve congestion, you need more equivalent opportunities to relieve desire in more places, so that everyone is not trying to go to the same place at the same time. That means you need more opportunities in different places, and more places means you need more land.

That is the "link" between land use and transportation. It is not all that hard, if you just think about it.

You don't need all the land, not by a long shot. EMR is right about that. But, as he points out, you will need a lot more if land is restricted to large lots. While density is not the cure for congestion, it is also possible to have too little density. This has the effect of spreading opportunities way too thin and requiring more travel than optimally necessary. Even then you have to allow for individual preferences, but congestion is unlikely under such circumstances.

Zoning was originally a way to prevent nuisances, but now it is a way to reserve land for future use, and to enable government to lower its cost of providing services, hence the requirement for large lots or even farms where farms are obviously uneconomic. In such a case, the government is renting the use of land where building is prohibited, at no cost to itself. So while we are on the kick of making people pay the full cost for what they get, we might as well have government pay for reserving land for future use or for the benefit of reducing its current cash flow.

If you want to have open space, you have to make it as profitable or as valuable as the alternate. By having government pay for what it gets in future planning options and current cash flow, such a plan would reduce the desire of landowners to sell to developers and create sprawl.

Bacon and EMR claim that a free market will result in more density. They are correct in this idea, so they should not be too surprised to learn that it applies to open space as well. Therefore, if you want to have open space you need to find a way to pay for it, otherwise you are just stealing. It is not very different from auto drivers or transit riders who don’t pay their full costs.

While we are at it, we might as well have developers pay the full costs of their activities, too. Now, if a developer pays for a road, he might well claim that he owns it, and he should have the right to collect tolls from those who think that people ought to pay for what they get. If he pays for a firehouse, he might claim he owns it, and want to collect rent.

As a private business he will probably build the most cost effective and durable road and maintain it well. Voila! Public private partnership, and free market enterprise, and as Bacon would say, "Free, no cost." By now, it should be clear that we would all wind up paying. Probably the difference in costs and distribution of payments wouldn’t be all that different than they are now.

Under this scenario, (developers pay the full cost) the government would rid itself of the cost of providing infrastructure, and it would have less need to pay for open space in order to allay or delay the costs of providing said infrastructure. The free market would then dictate that even rural land would become more densely used, at least until farm goods become scarce.

If somebody wanted to have open space for some other purpose, like drainage or Chesapeake Bay, or viewscape, they would be free to pay for what they get as well.

McSweeney was perturbed about both developers and activists. To me, the difference between developers and activists is that developers at least pay for part of what they get. Under this scenario they would pay 100% for what they get, and keep what they pay for, and conservationists would pay 100% for what they get, and keep it.

Developers would then be free to devise and build whatever desirous activity that comes to mind in order to attract traffic to their location. They might even build Yellowstone Park.

Oh, darn. I forgot. This was supposed to be about preventing traffic.

At 12:20 PM, Blogger Jim Bacon said...

Ray, If I understand you correctly, you don't believe in telling people where to live. People should enjoy a wide variety of choices. Let them live in hip, urban environments if they want, in leafy suburbs if they want, and on farms if they want. I totally agree.

What prevents people from living in the kind of places they want to live? The main barrier is local government zoning policy that segregates land uses and dictates everything from setbacks to lot sizes. Local government zoning policies have imposed a uniform "suburban" pattern of development on the landscape. Some people enjoy living in that kind of environment. Others don't but put up with it because they can't afford to live in a nice urban neighborhood or don't want to run a farm on the side.

The challenge is to persuade local governments to permit a wider array of development options. I don't claim that "New Urbanism" style development will solve all woes. But surely you'd agree that people should be allowed to live in "New Urbanism" style communities if they choose and are willing to pay.

The other fundamental principle is that people should pay the costs associated with their locational choices. If people want urban-style amenities while living on 50-acre lots in the boonies, that's fine -- as long as they are willing to pay the full cost. (Once they find out how expensive it is, they may find it preferable to live somewhere else.)

If you accept those core principles -- permitting a wider range of choice, and user pays -- I think that you'll find my way of thinking about transportation and land use is entirely consistent and practicable.


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