US Federal Policy

Access across America!

  Levinson cover

There should be nothing amazing about a new report on how easy it is for Americans to get to work on transit, but there is.   Think about all the arguments we have about transit …

… and ask: Why do we try to discuss these things in the absence of good analysis of the most basic question of all:  Is transit useful?  Does it help people get places in at a time and cost that's a logical choice for them?  Such information is often hiding inside ridership models, but it's rarely revealed in a way that lets people see and discuss it.  Without that, it's hardly surprising that the American transit debate is so confused.   

Access across America: Transit 2014, from the University of Minnesota’s Accessibility Observatory, describes how easy it is to get to jobs in America’s major metro areas by way of transit plus walking.  (For very short trips, it shows what can be reached by walking alone.)   The authors are Andrew Owen and Professor David Levinson.  The report is meant to sit alongside similar studies for the other transportation modes.

So here’s Portland, say, shaded by the number of jobs that can be reached within 30 minutes from each point in the city:

Levinson pdx
The report also offers a ranking of how easy it is to get to jobs for the average residential location in all the major metros.  The ranking looks at where you can get to in a range of travel time budgets, from 10 minutes – basically a measure of walk access – to as much as 60 minutes.  Here's are the top 17:


As the travel time budget rises, the relevance of transit to economic opportunity becomes visible.   Los Angeles, with long access distances but extensive frequent transit, does poorly on 10-minute walkability but climbs in the rankings as you consider longer travel time budgets, thanks to its effective frequent transit grid.  Miami drifts in the other direction, signaling that compared to Los Angeles, transit there is adding relatively little to access to jobs beyond what’s achieved by walking alone.

Now here's what's amazing for a study pubished in 2014:  Owen and Levinson claim (p 6) that this study is unusual in properly accounting for frequency.  Many analysts approach transit from the point of view of the nine-to-five commuter, who was presumed to be largely insensitive to frequency because they have made an appointment with a particular scheduled trip that they take every day.   This sometimes feels right to bureaucrats and civic leaders, many of whom have such commutes themselves, but out there in the larger economy, more and more people work part time, or at irregular hours, or at times outside the standard commute peak.  Increasing numbers of people also value flexibility and spontaneity even in work trips — things that only a robust all-day frequency can provide.

Perusing these maps and rankings, my overwhelming reaction was “what if they’d analyzed it like this, or graphed it like that?”  A huge amount of insight is readily available out of this database if we query it differently.  For example:

  • Instead of ranking cities by the number of jobs reachable on transit in a given time, what if we ranked them by the percentage of jobs accessible?  The current rankings are still, predominantly, just a ranking by total volume of jobs.  Doing it in percentage terms will really pop out the winners in their size class, like Portland.
  • For the same reason, I really want to see Canadian cities ranked in this way.  They tend to have far more transit service per capita than comparable US ones, and higher ridership per capita as a result.  If this shows up in dramatically better economic opportunity and personal liberty, it could create a powerful contrast when cities compare themselves with similar ones across the border.
  • Why confine our attention to 7-9 AM, the classic morning commute peak?  There’s a good argument for starting there: it’s when the maximum number of people are trying to travel.  But the time-of-day dimension is essential to understanding the real lives of the majority of workers who are not peak commuters: those who work part time and in non-standard shifts, like almost everyone in retail, entertainment and manufacturing.
  • Let’s look at access to other things besides jobs.  All transportation studies overemphasize the journey to work because we have better data on it than on anything else.  But with the appropriate layer about locations, we can explore access to retail, access to food, access to education, even access to nightlife.   Regions may not have this data, but many cities do, and much of the interest in this tool will be at the municipal level.

Still, this is a great piece of work.  And Americans should pause over the core of this announcement:  Only now, in 2014, are we starting to study people’s ability to get where they’re going, and their opportunity to access all the opportunity that makes a great city.

How good are we at prediction?

Transportation planning is full of projections — a euphemism meaning predictions.  Generally, when we need a euphemism, it means we may be accommodating a bit of denial about something.

Predicting the future, at a time when so many things seem to be changing in nonlinear ways, is a pretty audacious thing to do.  There are  professions whose job it is to do this, and we pay them a lot to give us predictions that sound like facts.  I have the highest respect for them (all the more because what they do is nearly impossible) but only when they speak in ways that honor the limitations of their tools.

Good transportation planning does this.  at the very least, it talks about future scenarios rather than predictions, often carrying multiple scenarios of how the future could vary.  Scenarios are still predictions, though; they're just hedged predictions, where we place several bets in hope that one will be right. 

I will never forget the first time that I presented a proposed transit plan and was told:  "that's an interesting idea; we'll have to see how it performs."  The speaker didn't mean "let's implement it and see what happens."  He meant, "let's see what our predictive model says."  You know you're inside a silo when people talk about prediction algorithms as though they are the outcome, not just a prediction of the outcome that is only as good as the assumptions on which it's built.

What's more, we seem to be really bad at predicting curves, or even acknowledging them as they happen.


Something really important happened in the US around 2004, which experts call the "VMT Inflection."  Vehicle Miles Traveled in the US — the total volume of driving — departed from a linear growth path that it had followed for decades, and went flat.  Here's the same curve looking further back.  Around 2003, you could be forgiven for thinking that this steady slope was something we could count on. 

VMT rising

(At this point an ecologist or economist will point out that the VMT inflection shouldn't have been a surprise at all.  This graph looks like what a lot of systems do when their growth runs into a capacity or resource limit.  The VMT inflection is a crowdsourced signal that the single-occupant car is hitting a limit of that kind.)

So reality changed, but the Federal projections didn't.  Even as late as 2008, when the new horizontal path had been going for four years, Federal projections claimed that the growth in driving would immediately return to the previous fast-rising slope.  Again:


This isn't prediction or projection.  This is denial.  

All predictions rest on the assumption that the future is like the past.  Professional modelers assume their predictive algorithms are accurate if they accurately predict past or current events — a process called calibration.   This means that all such prediction rests on a bedrock idea that human behavior in the future, and the background conditions against which decisions are made, will all be pretty much unchanged, except for the variables that are under study.

In other words, as I like to say to Millennials:  the foundation of orthodox transportation planning is our certainty that when you're the same age as your parents are now, you'll behave exactly the way they do.

We describe historical periods as "dark" or "static" when that assumption is true.  Over the centuries of the European Middle Ages or Ancient Egypt, everyone acted like their parents did, so nothing ever seemed to change except accidents of war and the name of the king or pharaoh.  Our transportation modeling assumes that ours is such an age.

Historical progress arises from people making different choices than their parents did, and there seems to be a lot of this happening now.  

What we urgently need, in this business, are predictions that try to quantify how the future is not like the past; for example, by studying Millennial behavior and preferences and exploring what can reasonably be asserted about a world in which Millennials are in their 50s and are in the position to define what is normal, just as their parents and grandparents do today.

We already know that the future is curved.  (With rare exceptions like the growth of VMT from 1970 to 2004, the past has been curvy as well).   Millennials are not like their parents were at the same age.  There will be major unpredictable shocks.  There are many possible valid predictions for such a future.  The one that we can be sure is wrong is the straight line.  

My work on Abundant Access – part of the emerging world of accessibility studies — is precisely about providing a different way to talk about transportation outcomes that people can believe in and care about.  It means carefully distinguishing facts from predictions, and valuing things that people have always cared about — like getting places on time and having the freedom to go many places — from human tastes that change more rapidly — such as preferences and attitudes about transit technologies. It's a Socratic process of gently challenging assumptions.  Ultimately, it's part of the emerging science of resilience thinking, extending that ecological metaphor to human societies.  It posits that while the future can't be predicted there are still ways of acting rightly in the face of the range of likely possibilities.  

Imagine planning without projections.  What would that look like?  How would we begin?

Is USDOT about to stop the growth of commuter rail?

It's much too soon to panic, but I did send this inquiry to the US Federal Railroad Administration.

Dear FRA,

Your 4/9 press release says:  "WASHINGTON – The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) today announced its intention to issue a proposed rule requiring two-person train crews on crude oil trains and establishing minimum crew size standards for most main line freight and passenger rail operations."  The rest of the press release is about the safety risks of big oil trains, which gives the appearance that this reference to passenger rail was added at the last minute.
The language creates a reasonable suspicion you are about to ban one-person crews on urban commuter rail services regulated by the FRA, which usually fall within FRA's use of the term "passenger rail".  While the text is unclear about what "minimum crew size" standard it proposes for "passenger rail", it makes no sense that you would need to "establish minimum crew size standards" if the intended minimum were 1.  
Your release mentions later that the rule is expected to contain "appropriate exceptions."  It would be wise to give the transit and urban development worlds some assurance that you don't plan to shut down the possibility of one-person-crew urban transit — using FRA-regulated rail corridors — through this rule.  Such services — similar to existing commuter rail but with higher frequency and smaller vehicles — are one of the best hopes for cost-effective new rail transit in the US.

Thank you!

Jarrett Walker
Jarrett Walker + Associates
"Let's think about transit"


should u.s. federal transit spending aim to redistribute wealth? (guest post by alexis grant)

Alexis Grant holds an M. Sc in Speech and Language Processing from the University of Edinburgh and is an active transportation advocate in Portland, Oregon. She enjoys shaping and interpreting complex systems for the benefit of their users and riding her bike around Portland. You can find her on Twitter @lyspeth.

Should the goal of US Federal transit spending be
the redistribution of wealth?

The Transport Politic’s Yonah Freemark recently examined data from the 65 largest American metropolitan areas to
provide a deeper look at his assertion that local funding for transit
operations tends to depend on local income rather than on ‘need’, magnifying
“seriously inequitable outcomes”:

data demonstrate that increasing local and state transit operations spending is
closely correlated with metro area median household income.
This is not the case for federal aid, as minimal as it is. In addition, though
cities and states with more progressive electoral tendencies appear to be able
to increase local funding for transit operations, that contribution may be
significantly limited by the incomes of local inhabitants.

argues that this is problematic: “Since public transportation is a vital social
service, this has the perverse impact of providing the least support to the
regions that likely need it most."

When I
first read this line, I paused over “vital social service”, wondering whether
he meant “vital public service”, but the article as well as his prior coverage of
the topic
clear that he meant just what he said: here, transit is being depicted as a
social service provided to people who can’t afford other ways of getting

public transportation is an essential social service — almost as important to
our society as Medicare or Medicaid or Social Security (that is what we think,
right?) — then how is it fair for the people who live in the poorest
metropolitan areas to suffer from inadequate transportation services?

seems to be advocating here for addressing a perceived inequity that relates to
only one of the two common goals of transit: what Jarrett Walker calls the
Coverage Goal (Human Transit, Chapter 10).

Coverage Goal reflects the “social service objective” that Freemark is
appealing to, “meeting the needs of people who are especially reliant on
transit”, in this case primarily due to lack of wealth, or poverty. When aiming
for high coverage, agencies provide service broadly, including to those who may
be difficult to serve because of poor connectivity or low density but also need the service more.

The other
major goal, the Ridership Goal, reflects the desire to provide efficient and
effective service by serving the most people at the least cost. Services
oriented to the Ridership Goal focus on important
destinations and corridors
and may separate services or stops by larger distances to speed travel
and avoid overspending on overlapping service.

Walker discusses the Ridership-Coverage tradeoff mostly in the context of local
decision-making, the same idea can be applied to state or federal funding.  Federal funding can pursue an ideal of maximum
ridership; that would mean lots of money for big cities, where ridership
potential is high, and none for Wyoming. 
Or, it can focus on spreading out the resource, pursuing a Coverage
goal, based either on a political ideal of equity or, as Freemark proposes, an
explicitly redistributive view that spends more in poorer communities.

positions his work in contrast to academics and commentators profiled by Eric Jaffe
at The Atlantic
who argue “too many projects…are poorly designed or executed, in part because
of federal sway”. He pictures the redistributive power of the federal
government as a positive force necessary to overcome the inability of some
local governments to raise the amount of funds their areas ‘need’ to meet their
presumed Coverage goals. Yet his vision of how this would make for “better
projects” only asserts that it would be more fair.

left to their own devices, will restrict funding on transit operations based on
the income of their inhabitants, not based on need. It is not rational that the
state and local funding for transit in San Jose is more than six times higher
than that in Fresno, just 150 miles apart, much because of the latter’s
significantly lower household incomes and more Republican voting tendencies.
Fresno, after all, has more than double the poverty rate of San Jose and thus
has a significant transit-dependent population that is not being appropriately

dismiss the federal government’s role is to ignore its important redistributive
powers — its ability to transfer tax revenues from wealthier regions to poorer
ones to help contribute to a more just society.

and equity goals tend to be in tension
with ridership and mode-share goals
, and by focusing solely on the coverage side of the
equation, Freemark provides an incomplete picture of what the role of federal
funding could or should be. Do all communities have the same goals for their
transit systems, and do they want to serve the same populations? Should they?
An equally good argument can be made that limited federal dollars should be
spent on providing service that reaches the most people for the least amount of
money.  That, too, could be called fair.

In his
transit planning outreach, Walker “emphasize[s] how the geography of transit
generates choices among competing values, which is why citizens and their
elected officials ultimately need to make the decision.” What kind of transit
to fund, and how much money to devote to it, is not merely a question of the
availability of money, but also a value judgment, one that the local area has
to make for itself. A more conservative community’s funding choices may be in
part a reflection of their values, just as their voting behavior is.

funding for transit operations could provide a valuable resource for local
governments that would like to do more, but can’t afford to.  But Federal funding also relies on evidence
of local financial support or “match.”  Local
government must decide whether it would like to fund additional transit, and if
so, what the goal of that transit should be. In discussing the role of federal
funding, no one is well served by assuming all cities would make that decision
with the same goals in mind.


the build vs. maintain problem

A good article at Strong Towns highlights a structural problem with how the US does Federal infrastructure funding:

We can get money from Washington to build new infrastructure, but it is really difficult — if not impossible — to get money from Washington to maintain existing infrastructure.

The article explores the problem in the context of Minnesota bridges, noting that Federal funding is going forward for a bridge expected to serve 16,000 cars a day while Minnesota is unable to fund maintenance for existing bridges carrying 2.4m cars a day. 

One solution has been for the Federal funder to demand evidence of a maintenance funding commitment by the state/province, but such guarantees would need to be eternal, and eternal commitments are very hard to enforce.

Canadian and Australian readers who dream of a bigger central government role in infrastructure funding, this caution is for you!  Think hard about what you want to federalize.  If you're going to demand federal funding for infrastructure, you might want to demand life cycle maintenance funding instead of just building things that states and provinces can't afford to maintain.  Think, too, about this.

should transit agencies “retrench” to become “profitable”?

The University of Minnesota's David Levinson wrote a bracing article last week arguing for a new approach to how we decide what transit lines should exist.  In its emphasis on "not losing money," it may remind you of some of the broadsides of the anti-transit right, but Levinson is not one of that crowd, as far as I know. 

So I thought I'd quote the juiciest parts here, and provide some counterpoint.  Levinson and I use very different frames, but if you look beyond those, there's some agreement here.

Mass transit systems in the United States are collectively losing money hand over fist. Yet many individual routes (including bus routes) earn enough to pay their own operating (and even capital costs). But like bad mortgages contaminating the good, money-losing transit routes are bogging down the system.

This "profitability" or "breaking even" frame may alienate many on the left from the merit of Levinson's idea.  Currently, transit agencies are not trying to break even, so they are not failing if they don't.  If we propose a free-market view in which transit should be breaking even, well, I'd like to see this as well in a perfect world.  But that would be a world in which government isn't heavily subsidizing transit's competitor, the private car — not just through road expenditures but through such interventions as minimum parking requirements and petroleum-based foreign policy.  I would further suggest that current environmental crises argue for government to be biased away from the private car and toward modes that do less environmental harm, and that subsidies toward transit (i.e. accepting that transit "loses money") are one valid way of doing that. 

We can divide individual systems into three sets of routes:

Always be suspicious when a transit network is analyzed as though it were a pile of routes, because a good network is more than the sum of its parts.

1. Those routes break-even or profit financially (at a given fare). This is the "core".

These tend to be of two types:  commuter express routes that run only when they're very busy, and all-day high-frequency lines in dense urban cores with all-day demand.  In my work, I describe these services as having a "Ridership Goal" or "Productivity Goal." 

2. Those lines which are necessary for the core routes to break-even, and collectively help the set of routes break-even. These are the "feeders".

Levinson is acknowledging here that it's not actually possible to classify all lines cleanly, because in a well-designed transit network designed for anywhere-to-anywhere travel it is the network that yields ridership, not just individual services.  It appears Levinson wants to distinguish a set of lines as individually unprofitable but necessary for the overall profitability of a network — as opposed to the third category below.  OK, but this is the same as saying that there is no meaningful line-by-line measurement of "profitability" in an interdependent network; only the entire network (except for the weakest services discussed below) can be judged as profitable.  That's true in my experience. 

3. Those lines which lose money, and whose absence would not eliminate profitability on other routes. These money-losers are a welfare program. We might politely call them "equity" routes.

Many people don't want to talk about this category, but these routes exist in any network.  They tend to be circulator services in low-density areas — including rural areas — that provide lifeline access but have little or no potential to compete with the car.  You can identify them because they don't contribute substantially to the performance of the main network (though this is of course a matter of degree with no hard edge).  

If an hourly circulator carrying 5 boardings per hour connects with a major trunkline carrying 100 boardings per hour, and half the circulator's ridership makes a connection with the trunk, then at worst deleting the circulator (and losing all its ridership) would cost the trunk 2.5% of its 100 hourly boardings, which will barely be noticed.  If the service spent on the circulator were spent instead on even more frequency on the trunk, you might well make up the difference. 

On the other hand, if the trunk weren't there, the circulator would lose 50% of its boardings, probably a fatal blow.  So while connecting lines are always interdependent, some are so weak that the relationship might as well be viewed as a one-way dependence.

Levinson's right about all that, but since I don't share his "profitability" frame I can't share his derision about "welfare" or "equity."  In working with transit agencies, I try to educate about these "Coverage" routes, the equivalent of Levinson's third group.  I define these as "predictably low-ridership services motivated by goals other than ridership — goals generally including social service objectives, expectations of "equity" between different subareas of the region, and a generalized desire to cover the whole service area with some kind of service."  In my work, I encourage public transit authorities to make a conscious choice about how much of this service they want to operate, understanding that every dollar they spend on Coverage service is a dollar they can't spend on Ridership goals or related outcomes of mode share and fare revenue.

So given Levinson's "profitability" frame, here's his solution:

Mass (or public) transit agencies are transportation organizations first, not welfare organizations.  They should be considered public utilities rather than departments of government, which provide a useful service for a price to their users.

The conflct between Ridership and Coverage goals needs to be resolved by government.  This doesn't require removing transit authorities from government, as there are many needs (especially land use integration) that argue the opposite.  Even if transit operations were considered a "utility," policy and planning functions of transit very much need to be part of government, in my experience.   Many Australian states, for example, gave away too much policy and planning control to operating companies, and are now undergoing reforms to take this authority back.

My thesis is that the local transit systems should identify and propose to retrench to the financially sustainable system, and present local politicians with a choice.

If local politicians want additional "equity" services, they should be presented with a cost of subsidy per line, and then can collectively choose which lines to finance out of general revenue, as this is primarily a welfare rather than an transportation function. In other words, public transit organizations would present the public with a bill for these money-losing services (the subsidy required in order to at least break even on operating them (i.e. the difference between their revenue and their cost), and not be expected to pay for them out of operating revenue.

If the cost of those lines is deemed too expensive (i.e. the politicians are unwilling to pay for them with general revenue tax dollars), they should be canceled. Transit agencies would no longer be losing money, they would now be break-even or slightly profitable. They might even pay a dividend to their owners (the general public).

General revenue (the treasury) would of course now be losing money, we didn't pull money from thin air, but since this is a social welfare/redistribution function, that is perfectly appropriate. This would entirely change public and political perception of transit services. It might also result in fewer bad routes being funded, since it would be crystal clear where the subsidies lay.

Levinson's tone here is needlessly divisive in my view.  I prefer to work from a position of respect toward the users and defenders of low-ridership services, understanding that other valid public purposes are being served.  I also respect the notion that a community that pays into a transit system should expect some service in return; this "equity" impulse has nothing to do with "welfare." 

But Levinson is right that a choice must be made.  There really are two competing goals for transit:  Ridership (which leads to high mode share, sustainability outcomes, and "profitability") and Coverage (which provides social inclusion and equity benefits in low-density areas that a Ridership-based system wouldn't serve.)  These two goals lead network design in opposite directions.  So transit agencies should have guidance — from those who fund them — on how much to spend on one goal or the other. 

I agree with Levinson, too, that transit policy would be much clearer if we had budgets definitely allocated to the purpose of maximum ridership — with other budgets that funded the Coverage services. 

For more, see this paper of mine on the same topic, and Chapter 10 of my forthcoming book.

UPDATE:  Professor Levinson responds here.

transit and a shrinking u.s. government

The recent "deal" intended to cut the US Federal deficit looks like it can only lead to further cuts in Federal spending on almost everything. 

Cities, in general, require higher levels of infrastructure, and a range of other spending, than the country as a whole.  So the further Federal budget cutting to come is likely to mean further damage to essential services in cities, including public transit.  While a powerful cadre of urban economists and thinkers are ready to make the case that the city is essential to the economy of the nation, and the battle for continued Federal funding may well be won, cities and local governments, including transit agencies, should clearly be strategizing for the possibility of permanent decline in Federal investment.

It's important to separate, in all of our minds, two questions about urban services such as transit that often get confused:

  • Should urban services be subsidized by taxpayers to purchase their benefits to the whole community and economy?
  • At what level of government should this be done?

I have strong feelings about the first question but am quite agnostic about the second.  It's unavoidable, though, that if the Federal level of government decides to care less about cities, other levels of government will have to care more, and spend more.

The prospect of shifting responsibility from one level of government to another is understandably horrifying to anyone close to the task.  Voters must be convinced of the need to adapt to new realities with new funding.  Processes that have been working have to be changed.  Long-settled debates must be unsettled.  Most challenging is that the prospect casts doubt on the job security of the very people who have to make it work, though in general the job-security impact would be that Federal jobs would disappear and state-region-city jobs would have to grow. 

But you always have to separate thinking about the transition from thinking about the end state

Would it be a bad thing for each state, each city, and each urban region, to have its own debate about its own funding sources for transit, as it would for similar urban services that may see federal cuts?  The outcomes would vary from city to city and state to state.  Would that be bad?

Even within urban regions, is it a bad thing for different cities to want different levels of service, and to come forward with their own funding sources if they want more than higher levels of government, including their own regional transit agency, can offer? 

What would a US be like in which each city's transit network reflected its own resources and intentions, based on its own hard-won local consensus, in the face of declining Federal funding and therefore declining Federal influence? 

California and Texas would become even more different than they are now, as they charted this landscape guided by their very different values.  Urban outcomes in general would grow more diverse, as the choice became more stark between low-tax, low-infrastructure, low-service cities and others with higher taxes but a stronger foundation of infrastructure and essential services.  So we'd see, even more clearly, the result of that competition.

In other words, US urban policy would become more like that of Canada, a country where the Federal role in most urban matters is much smaller than in the US, but where cities, regional governments, and provinces are correspondingly freer to chart their own way, and pay for it.

It's easy to imagine that more conservative states would just let their cities die through underfunding, but that's certainly not happening in Alberta.  Canada's most conservative province, a natural resource powerhouse that draws comparison to Texas in its boom times, has remarkably good inner-city transit policy and a continuous stream of provincial investment.  Calgary's downtown commuter parking cost is about the same as San Francisco's and the result is extremely strong ridership on its bus and light rail system, at least for commutes, and support for a dense core. 

The transition to a more Canada-like Federal role would be hell.  Everyone involved is understandably horrified by the prospect, including me much of the time.  But if the Federal budget-slashers win, US cities and states will be on that course whether they like it or not.  Are we sure the eventual outcome would be a disaster?

Just thinking out loud here.  Discuss.

that influential texas “urban mobility report”

You know you're a transport geek when you find yourself at a 9 PM debate about how governments should measure "urban mobility."

The opportunity arose one night at the Congress for the New Urbanism conference in Madison last week.  Long after most urbanists had adjourned to the bars and restaurants, a small but sharp audience gathered to hear Tim Lomax of the Texas Transportation Institute (TTI) debate Joe Cortwright of CEOs for Cities.  Tim was there to defend TTI's influential Urban Mobility Report (UMR), an annual compendium of statistics that are widely used to define how US cities think about mobility problems and to benchmark these cities against each other.  Joe was there to attack TTI's methodology as biased against compact, sustainable cities. 

The technical core of the argument is simple.  TTI's Travel Time Index, one of their more quoted products, is a ratio of peak congested travel times by car against uncongested travel times by car.  In other words, travel times are said to be "worse" only if they get much longer in peak commute hours than they are midday

This ratio inevitably gives "better" scores to cities where normal uncongested travel times are pretty long — in other words, spread-out cities.  Here's the CEOs' critique of how the TTI compares Charlotte and Chicago:

Ceos vs tti
This index certainly looks hard to defend as any useful measure of travel time, even by car.  Two cities that expose the average motorist to near-identical amounts of congestion delay are being scored entirely based on how far people have to drive there, where "further" means "better" on the travel time index score.

In his rebuttal, Lomax emphasized that Institute doesn't stress its Travel Time Index as much as it used to.  He even offered a table showing the number of times his report mentioned the index in each successive year (plenty in the 90s, but way down in the late 00s.)  We were to conclude that critiquing the Travel Time Index is a 20th century battle.

The real problem, of course, is TTI's title, "Urban Mobility Report," for a document that's really mostly about congestion.  Only if you live in a very car-dependent city, or care only about car-dependent citizens, can you reduce mobility to congestion in that way.  A more truthfully titled "Urban Congestion Report" would raise no objection.

Lomax argued that his insititute is interested in the other modes and wants to be able to talk about them more effectively, and I'm sure that's true.  It's also true that nobody can be responsible for what journalists and editors choose to emphasize in reporting about their work.  It may well be that journalists continue to fixate on the Travel Time Index more than the Institute itself wants them to. 

But look at how the TTI's own website introduces its most recent study:

The 2010 Urban Mobility Report builds on previous Urban Mobility Reports with an improved methodology and expanded coverage of the nation's urban congestion problem and solutions. The links below provide information on long-term congestion trends, the most recent congestion comparisons and a description of many congestion improvement strategies. All of the statistics have been recalculated with the new method to provide a consistent picture of the congestion challenge. As with previous methodology improvements, readers, writers and analysts are cautioned against using congestion data from the 2009 Report. All of the measures, plus a few more, have been updated and included in this report.

Mobility is in the report title, but this entire leading paragraph is about congestion.  If you dig into TTI's full press release about its 2010 report, you also find that it's all about congestion except for this curious paragraph:

The congestion reduction benefits of two significant solutions are discussed—public transportation and roadway operations. Without public transportation services, travelers would have suffered an additional 785 million hours of delay and consumed 640 million more gallons of fuel—a savings of $19 billion in congestion costs. Roadway operational treatments save travelers 320 million hours of delay and 265 million gallons of fuel for a congestion cost savings of $8 billion.

The journalistic spin that TTI itself recommends is that non-car modes matter only if they reduce congestion, and that congestion remains the primary measure of urban mobility.

What's more, TTI's suggestion that public transit directly reduces congestion is actually quite fraught, and many transit experts, including myself, steer away from it.  Transit certainly creates alternatives to congestion for individuals, and the resulting benefit to individuals can be aggregated to describe society-wide improvements in both productive time and personal/family time.  But those calculations are much more clear and direct than any "transit benefit to congestion" overall.  That's because newly freed, high demand road space tends to induce new car trips. 

Most transit projects are not trying to reduce congestion, or not all by themselves.  If congestion reduction is your goal, you need a combination of transit and market-rate "decongestion" pricing for motorists.  For most advocates of transit in the context of compact sustainable cities, the goal is not to reduce congestion but to give citizens options to liberate themselves from it.

Could a real "Urban Mobility Report" have value?  Yes, but it would look totally different from TTI's, and it wouldn't be easy.  Creating mobility measures that work across all the modes — cars, walking, cycling, transit etc — is fiendlishly difficult.  I have some notions about how it might be done, but it would have to start with the right question.  If you're going to talk about true urban mobility, then surely you have to ask questions like:

  • How much of people's lives is lost to travel, where that travel has no positive value to them as personal time or recreation?  

Or perhaps even more powerfully:

  • What degree of freedom do people have to move about their city at will? 

Any methodology that focuses on the performance of a single mode — whether congestion on freeways, continuity of cycle networks, or reliability of transit — is not going to lead us that way.

Given the resources and credibility that TTI has, I really hope they move in this direction.  But it won't be easy.  If the TTI report continues to be about congestion, that's another choice, but in that case their "Urban Mobility Report" will be a report of declining relevance (and increasingly offensive title) as this urban century unrolls.

quotes of the week: ed glaeser

"Conservative" economist Ed Glaeser, author of The Triumph of the City, at today's Congress for the New Urbanism plenary:

De-federalizing [US] transportation policy would help transit compete more effectively with the automobile.

He's talking about the funding methodologies imposed by the US Federal Transit and Highway Administrations, which effectively (a) federalize the transit/highway tradeoff and (b) put possibly excessive weight on near-term ridership outcomes as opposed to personal mobility outcomes, not to mention impacts on urban form.

Would block-grants to states that allow each state to determine its own highway vs transit balance be a better structure?

u.s. “transit lovers unite”

A new campaign by the American Public Transporation Association:

Washington, DC –The American Public Transportation Association (APTA) and its more than 1,500 members are launching “I <3 Transit”(I heart transit), a mobile text campaign, to engage riders across the country  and demonstrate the importance of public transportation to individuals, communities and the nation.  The campaign, which starts this week,  allows participants to show their support for increased public transit funding by simply texting “transit” to 86677.

Each year 10.2 billion trips are taken on the nation’s public transportation systems.  Riders depend on their local transit provider for freedom, mobility and access.  By texting “transit” to 86677 public transit riders and enthusiasts alike can stand together in support of public transportation.  This simple action helps spread the message that Americans want public transportation as a travel option in their daily lives. 

Supporters can also follow the campaign on twitter at @ihearttransit.