Can Transit Survive the 21st Century?

I had the great pleasure of presenting a session a couple of weeks ago at the National Planning Conference in New York City, the annual planning conference put on by the American Planning Association.

Working with Shannon Greenwell at MassDOT and Patrick Sullivan at the Seaport Transportation Management Association, we put together a discussion asking the audacious and foolhardy question, what will transit look like in the year 2100? Is transit still going to be around? More importantly, should it?

It ended up being a pretty interesting discussion, with a lot of provocative ideas and a good deal of disagreement, which is exactly what we wanted. A transportation expert once said, “All traffic models are wrong, but some are useful.” That’s how we thought about this long-range planning session – we knew we were going to be wrong about our prognostications, but perhaps we could at least be useful.

Transit Barely Survived the 20th Century

The first point is that transit barely survived the 20th century. If you look at transit ridership in America, it peaked in the late 1940s and has been more or less stable, on a per capita basis, at much lower levels since then.

ridership
Source: APTA

At the same time that transit took a plunge, car use soared. Today, in any given area except for some of the largest cities, between 75% and 85% of all work trips are made via automobile.

Many urbanists have been rejoicing at a couple of trends since 2005. Per capita car use has been on the decline, and transit ridership has been going up (if you look at the blue line in the chart above, you can see that absolute ridership has been increasing).

But over the past year many transit agencies, including PVTA, have seen year-over-year declines in fixed-route bus service. At the same time, we are starting to see the trend in car use edge back up.

declinin ridership
A slide from the presentation. 

Our presentation explored three key uncertainties over the next century that are going to have an incredible impact on transportation, and the future of public transit:

  • Autonomous Vehicle Technology
  • Climate Change Policy
  • The Aging Population

These certainly aren’t the only three things that will impact our transit systems, but we focused in on them as playing an outsized role.

Autonomous Vehicle Technology

For those of you unfamiliar with Autonomous Vehicle Technology, it has the potential to change our lives, our cities, and our economy as much as automobiles did during the last century. Google, Uber, Tesla, Ford, and a lot of other firms are working on the technology to render drivers obsolete. The tech side could be complete by 2025.

av tech

This matters for transit a whole lot. A rule of thumb is that about 75% of the cost of operating a bus is paying the driver in the seat. If we didn’t have to do that anymore, then we could run buses anywhere, right?

Let’s take it a step further. Why run these buses all over the place when we can have small sedans or vans buzzing around, a la Lyft, just waiting for the next person to request a ride. Would rubber tire bus service become obsolete?

On the other hand, if we follow a private-ownership model, maybe people won’t mind traffic all that much if they get to read the paper or sleep or work on their way into town. Maybe traffic and air pollution and urban sprawl will get even worse because driving suddenly becomes “me” time or “productive” time. Would commuter rail service become obsolete?

Climate Change Policy

Another major trend in the future is climate change policy. Transit stands to benefit a lot if the US and/or the world gets serious about climate change. The energy needed to move transit, on a per capita basis, is a fraction of what it takes to move a person even in a very efficient compact car.

The wild card is whether we will ever get serious about climate change. In 2016, The Pew Center released a poll showing that about half of all Americans don’t think humans are the source of climate change – despite overwhelming scientific consensus to the contrary.

climate change

I won’t get into how depressing it is that half of my fellow citizens don’t accept climate change as something that we are causing. But the question becomes at what point, if any, will we actually get serious about climate change? And if the answer is “Never,” then will transit ever be able to compete with the ease and convenience of automobiles? Or self-driving automobiles?

Taking it a step further, it should be noted that in major cities subways are especially susceptible to sea level rise and storm surges. As climate change renders transit systems more and more unreliable (like we saw after super-storm Sandy), will we see riders abandon these systems? Will the subways that have served our cities for decades become unusable, and/or unused?

The Aging Population

Finally, the aging of the population is going to play a key role in what our transit system looks like in the future (full disclosure: this was my section, so I’ll do my best to not over-inflate its importance relative to the prior two).

I am 32 years old now; in one year, I will either be 32 years old – or dead. Those are my options; those are everyone’s options. So the average age of the population is relatively easy to forecast, using some assumptions about mortality rates. And Census Bureau has done that, showing that we’re going to increase from about 40 million people age 65 and over today, to about 80 million in 2050.

The wildcard is immigration. The Pew Research Center estimates that without immigrants, the US population will plateau at around 338 million people. Furthermore, non-native-born women are much more likely to have kids than native-born women, meaning that the 338 million Americans in a no-immigration scenario will also, on average, be pretty old.

immigration

This becomes important because older Americans are more likely to need door-to-door (paratransit) service (think those wheelchair accessible vans you see going around, “The RIDE” in Boston for example). This is due to dementia, vision loss, or any number of other impairments which make driving impossible. But as more people use paratransit service, the budget for regular “big bus” service dwindles.

As some communities become more and more dominated by senior citizens, could we imagine a transit system that only provides door-to-door service? And if the vehicles are self-driving, why not? Will big bus service even exist anymore?

Final Thoughts

I should finish by saying that I’m actually very optimistic about the future of transit. As Jarrett Walker has written about extensively in his blog and book, the simple geometry of cities and cars dictates that transit is a necessary attribute of density (just like transit depends on density, density too depends on transit). In our biggest cities, rail transit will probably never go away nor be replaceable. Cars, even self-driving cars, just take up too much space.

But on the other hand, this is an important discussion to have, especially for those places smaller than our biggest cities. In a very real sense, we as planners must be good stewards of public funding. Put bluntly, what if we build a commuter rail line that no one ever uses because they are in self-driving cars? We will have wasted millions of dollars that could have been better spent.

The discussion didn’t provide too many answers, but it did provide a lot of good questions. And if the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy taught us nothing, it’s that finding the right question can often be the more important than the answer.

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Poverty is Killing Hampden County

Hampden County is sick and losing years of life. Hampshire County is healthy and living long.   

That’s the conclusion of a recent county health rankings report released by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s County Health Rankings and Roadmaps project. Hampden County ranks dead last in the state for health outcomes (how healthy people are right now) and health factors (how healthy people can expect to be in the future).

health outcomes
Health Outcomes – Hampden County Ranked 14th
health factors
Health Factors – Hampden County Ranked 14th

I dove into the data and on the following measures Hampden County ranks last (asterisked) or second-to-last (typically behind Suffolk County):

  1. High school graduation rate
  2. Teen birth rate*
  3. Smoking rate*
  4. Years of potential life lost due to poor health*
  5. % reporting fair/poor health*
  6. Chlamydia rate*
  7. HIV prevalence rate
  8. % Diabetic*
  9. Income ratio, highest earners to lowest earners*
  10. % kids with free or reduced lunch
  11. % children in poverty

It’s especially striking in contrast to the health outcomes of Hampshire County, which ranked third for health factors, and fifth for health outcomes (out of 14 counties). What is Hampshire County doing right, and Hampden County doing wrong?

Hampshire_Hampden Counties health table

When I ran some correlations across all counties, I was struck by the relationship between poverty and negative health outcomes (insert the usual caveat that correlation is not causation). These are the following correlations for child poverty:

  • 0.83 for fair/poor overall health
  • 0.78 for teen birth rate
  • -0.88 for high school graduation rate
  • 0.90 for firearm fatalities rate

Also, Chlamydia rate, HIV prevalence, and infant low birth weight rate all also have strong correlations.

That’s bad news, because poverty is tough. Most of all for the families struggling through it, but also for the communities trying to solve the problems that come with it. Incomes have stagnated among the lowest earning households, and public programs haven’t been able to fill the gap. Cities are left with an incomplete tool set to address poverty – tinker with the school budget, or increase law enforcement, or offer incentives they can’t afford to redevelop blighted properties.

And I’m also reminded that the most common tool cities use, out of a lack of other good alternatives, is to just push out poverty (also known as displacement or gentrification). This is usually accomplished through zoning that restricts multifamily housing and mandates lot sizes that only the affluent can afford. In hot real estate markets, abandoned buildings are torn down and luxury condos are built in their place.

Poverty is a deeply cyclical problem, intertwined with race and racism, and I continue to be vexed by the limited things cities can do to lift its residents out of the cycle. Historically, state and federal government have taken the lead through welfare programs, Medicaid, food stamps, Section 8 and public housing, and Head Start, just to name a few. All of these programs have stagnated over recent years, and are threatened with being slashed in the near future.

The fact that Hampden County residents are going to live shorter, sicker lives than their neighbors in Hampshire County underscores the life and death urgency of figuring this out.

 

A Moment of Silence for Our 12 Lost Residents

The US Census Bureau just released 2016 population estimates for counties and metropolitan areas in the US. It’s no surprise that the Pioneer Valley has overall remained virtually unchanged, with a total population in Hampden, Hampshire and Franklin Counties of 700,665 people. That compares to an estimated population of 700,677 in 2015. That’s right – the Pioneer Valley lost 12 people last year. 

Population growth rate
Source: US Census Bureau 1-Year Estimates

This relatively stable population in the region is somewhat uneven across the three counties. Hampshire County (in green), which includes Amherst and Northampton, has shown consistent population growth year after year. Hampden County (in red), which includes Holyoke, Chicopee and Springfield, has had mostly positive population growth, except for 2016.

pioneer valley

But Franklin County – that’s the very sparsely populated county bordering Vermont that includes Greenfield – shows consistent population loss year after year since 2012. I’m not sure why, but I know that Franklin County has been hit hard by the opioid crisis, and the sparse population means that a lot of people end up commuting pretty far to get to work.

In general across the country, rust belt areas and rural places have been shedding population, while major cities and the suburbs surrounding them have been gaining. This trend is also playing out here in the Pioneer Valley. You can see in this map put together by the Census Bureau showing which counties people are migrating from/to.

migration map

Domestic migration is when people move from one county in the US to another county in the US – it is not reflective of international immigration, nor population increases from births. The big winners in domestic migration tend to be in the southeast and west, and especially Florida. Though it should be noted that Hampshire County does show a modest level of in-migration.

My two questions on this recent data release are this:

  1. Shouldn’t I be thankful that there isn’t a surge of people flocking here? I just today saw a post on Facebook about a friend in Portland, Oregon whose house is being flipped, and so she’s going to have to find another rental. And it’s virtually unheard of in a bar or restaurant to have to wait for a table or cocktail.
  2. How long will this stagnation continue? I look at environmental stressors, especially water availability in the southwest and coastal hazards from climate change, and see the Rust Belt as prime real estate over the next several decades.

Of course, only time will answer these questions. Until then, I’ll continue enjoying the relatively light traffic, easy access to open spaces, and the high quality friends and neighbors who have already seen the light and chosen to call the happy valley home.

Maps: Pro-Trump in the Pioneer Valley

Since the election results, there has been much discussion about a particular demographic: white males without a college degree. Specifically, the narrative has gone something like:

White men without a college degree have been left behind by the US government and its economy, and their decisive support of Donald Trump was their retribution for this injustice. 

I won’t get into all of the things I think are wrong about this analysis, though I will quote one of my favorite scholars at the Brookings Institute, Richard Reeves, who wrote:

In the long run, the only cure is for whites, and especially white men, to change their expectation that high status, along with a decent-paying job, will be delivered to them merely by virtue of their race and gender.

Furthermore, it is worth pointing out that when you look at a variety of outcomes broken down by race/ethnicity, whites are doing pretty well. If any group of Americans is being left behind, it is (still) African-Americans and Latinos. As John Hudak, another scholar at the Brookings Institute, points out:

The conversation around the “economically marginalized” has focused almost exclusively on white working class voters, and that is a travesty. There are many other Americans who are not traditionally grouped under the heading “white working class voters” who remain economically marginalized—and most of them voted for someone other than Donald Trump.

He goes on to use a variety of charts pointing out that, certainly, some white working class Americans have had a hard time in the 21st century economy – and that this is a bitter pill to swallow when the generation before had no problem making a good living as a lumberjack or welder. But Black and Latino Americans have a much harder time succeeding in today’s economy.

gs_20161115_figure-2-median-weekly-gender1
As a racial/ethnic group, Whites earn far more than Blacks or Latinos.

Regardless of whether it is justified, there have been subsequent analyses released showing the strong correlation between the share of non-college educated whites and the share of votes for Donald Trump in a given state. This made me kind of curious about how that played out here in the Pioneer Valley.

Divides in the Valley

Even though a lot of people think of the region as “The Happy Valley,” full of hippy-dippy liberals with degrees in Women’s Studies, there are definitely conservative areas. 

town-results

I was curious, though – does the prevailing narrative about disaffected white non-college educated men also hold true in our part of the state? So, of course, I went to the American Community Survey to answer that question.

(Warning: Here is where I go into some technical stuff about the analysis I did.) Unfortunately, there was no data at the town level showing proportions of white non-college educated men (at the town level, I could have gotten “white men” or “non-college educated men” but not combining all three). To filter at that level, I had to use an artificial geography that’s called a Public Use Microsample Area, or “PUMA.” This meant that unfortunately I couldn’t get results town-by-town, and the maps I produced might look funny. I swear it’s not my fault!

First, here are how the PUMAs in the Pioneer Valley voted:

trump-vote
“Sources” got cut off, but it was supposed to also list WBUR.

Interestingly, if PUMAs existed as real political units, Trump wouldn’t have won any of them in the Pioneer Valley. However, he still did petty well in the close-in suburbs to the east and west of Springfield. The region gets less pro-Trump the further north you get.

Now for the proportion of the PUMAs that are Non-College Educated White Men (NCEWM):

wmnce_pop

Looking at the map, the two PUMAS most strongly pro-Trump also had the highest NCEWM population. Springfield, right in the middle, had the lowest NCEWM population and also voted most decisively for Clinton.

In fact, running a simple correlation I find an R value of 0.74, which is pretty strong (though there aren’t enough observations to feel comfortable running a statistical test).

table
R = 0.74

So what does this mean?

First off, it means that just like in the rest of the country, the Pioneer Valley has its own political divisions, and that there is geographic clumping of differing political views. It also suggests that the same economic forces getting so much attention in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin are also at play here – our own Rust Belt in Hampden County.

This means that even in uber-liberal Massachusetts, there is still work to be done. Sharing the prosperity inside of 128 is essential to that effort. Otherwise we may find a rude awakening the morning after some election in the future, much as Ohio or Wisconsin did on November 9th.

Upcoming Presentation: The Predictable Disruption of an Aging Population

Next Thursday, I’m going to be presenting at MassDOT’s Moving Together conference on the impact of the aging population on transit operations. Moving Together is right up my alley, focusing on pedestrian, bicycle and transit transportation. I’m really looking forward to presenting this year, because I’ve attended it for years, been on the planning committee twice, and yet never been a presenter (though did moderate a session last year).

 

The Problem: Population Bulge and Exploding Demand

In case you didn’t know, there are two big generational cohorts in the country: Baby Boomers and kids of Baby Boomers (Millennials). These “population bulges” look like this:

population-pyramid
Massachusetts population pyramid projections. Source: UMass Donahue Institute, Long-term Population Projections for Massachusetts Regions and Municipalities

 

“Why does this matter to transit providers?”, you may ask. Well, it’s because there are two primary kinds of rubber-tire service provided by a transit agency:

  1. Fixed Route – This is the traditional bus service that most people know about. These are the big buses that travel a set route on a regular schedule.
  2. Demand Response (AKA paratransit, AKA van service) – This is service required by the federal government for people who can’t use regular fixed route buses due to a disability. It takes people door-to-door from their home to destination, and so is sort of like a taxi service. Some transit agencies (including PVTA) also provide this service for seniors.

As the Boomers get older, we are seeing an increase in demand for paratransit service. This isn’t surprising; we’ve been building suburban and exurban housing for fifty years that only works if you have access to a car. This has been called “Peter Pan Housing,” because it assumes you will never grow old.

 

pvta_van
PVTA fully accessible (paratransit) van. Source: Metro Magazine

 

Once people living in these auto-dependent homes can no longer drive due to macular degeneration, dementia, or mobility problems, van service may the only connection they have to doctors, shopping, and friends and family. And we are already seeing an aging population driving an explosion in demand. The Pioneer Valley Transit Authority (PVTA) saw a 21% increase in demand in 2016, putting enormous strain on the system. 

van-service-demand
Sorry for the acronym-laden chart; The important part is that PVTA van service for seniors (red line) has skyrocketed over the past year. Source: NTD

The central challenge is paying for the service. According to National Transit Database data, PVTA van service is 5 times more expensive than fixed route service on a per-trip basis (and other transit agencies are up to 10 times more expensive). This means that a surge in ridership is a profound financial strain; with 70 million Baby Boomers entering old age over the next 15 years, it could even be an existential challenge.

Some Solutions

My presentation covers strategies to cope with this surge in ridership. A few of them are:

  1. Coordination with other transportation providers – There is already a bunch of transportation service out on the road; just make sure that someone else can’t provide the trip before your transit agency sends the van out.
  2. Discounted/free fixed route trips – Since van service is so much more expensive than fixed route transit, a transit agency could provide the trip on fixed route for free still save a lot of money. 
  3. Housing Incentives – I don’t know if any transit agency is doing this, but as I mentioned above, housing patterns are a driver of this explosion in demand. An agency could easily spend upwards of $20,000 per year on a single passenger living in a hard-to-serve home in a suburban or rural area. What if the agency took that $20,000 and provided an incentive payment for that customer to relocate to an easier-to-serve location, or an assisted living facility with its own transportation? It could be a win-win for the customer (who would have better access to services) and the transit agency (which can devote savings to other transportation services).

Those are just three of a host of solutions I will be presenting. Also, I’ll be featuring a clip from the Golden Girls to drive home my point! I will be presenting from 2:30 – 4:00 in the Berkeley/Clarendon room at the conference – please swing by and check it out if you’re at the conference. And afterward is the happy hour hosted by Young Professionals in Transportation – Boston Chapter at MJ O’Connor’s. Hope to see you next week!

San Juan Knocking on Hampden County’s Door

Amid all the coverage of the presidential election, Brexit, multiple shootings, and the humanitarian crisis unfolding in Europe and Syria, another big story is unfolding in Puerto Rico. For those of you who need a brief reminder about the island and its relationship to the US:

Map

Puerto Rico came into “possession” of the United States as a product of the Spanish-American war, and also contributed to the legend of Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders (with his famous ride up San Juan Hill). Unlike Hawaii, which achieved statehood in 1959, Puerto Rico has remained a territory, even though a 2012 referendum showed residents supported initiating the statehood process. Congress has yet to act on the results of the referendum.

There are some advantages to being a territory of the United States instead of a state, including an advantageous personal income tax rate (zero, for many). However, one of the distinct disadvantages is that they are not allowed to declare bankruptcy like a state or municipality can. This leaves them with few options in terms of paying down their $70 billion debt.

How did the island of 3.4 million people accrue a debt of $70 billion? In short, it was access to easy credit and a tenaciously bad economy that created this economic nightmare (read this primer by the New York Times for more information, if you’re curious). And now we stand just weeks away from a major debt payment deadline of $2 billion. Without congressional action, it is unlikely the island will be able to make the payment and will default, which is bad news for everyone.

They’re Not Immigrants

Unsurprisingly, many Puerto Ricans are choosing to leave the island for greener pastures (I probably would, too). The island’s population has been declining for sometime now, from a high of 3.8 million in 2000 to about 3.4 million people today. That’s around 400,000 people who left the island, mostly for the mainland.

As a local blogger Rational Urbanism pointed out in a recent post, it’s worth remembering that Puerto Ricans are our fellow Americans – not immigrants. Just like Oklahoma farmers in the dust bowl, Puerto Ricans are leaving one part of the country for another in the hopes of a brighter future. And given the fact that the Pioneer Valley has such a large Puerto Rican population already, I have started to wonder if we’re going to see an even larger influx of Puerto Rican newcomers in the near future (especially if the debt crisis isn’t resolved).

PR_Per.png
Census Tract map showing percentage of the population with Puerto Rican origins. Source: 2013 American Community Survey

Assuming that is the trend, then Springfield and Holyoke should expect an increase in the percentage of residents with limited English proficiency, and probably an increase households that need supportive services like Section 8 vouchers, food stamps, heating assistance, etc.

If Congress continues to kick the can down the road on the Puerto Rican debt crisis, then it is local communities and, to a lesser extent, states that will have to pick up the slack in supporting those who abandon the island. In general, we can expect those with the least economic means to be the ones to pull up stake and move – just like the Irish 150 years before them. It would serve Hampden County well, and Springfield and Holyoke in particular, to anticipate this potential demographic surge and plan accordingly.

Springfield, The 5th Most “Normal” American Town

I just saw this article on one of my favorite blogs, FiveThirtyEight: ‘Normal America’ Is Not A Small Town Of White People. The gist of the article is that we usually think of Smallville, or Grover’s Corners, or some other predominantly white small town as the quintessentially American setting.

Think again.

America is increasingly diverse, and the most “normal” cities in America reflect that. Here’s the top 10 list that they put together.

most normal cities
Source: FiveThirtyEight

That’s right, Springfield, with its robust Hispanic population, is number 5 on that list. Hartford is number 3. It turns out I am living in a really “normal” part of the country.

This is especially important in the national political conversation for what it means to be “American.” During his candidacy, Ted Cruz mocked Donald Trump’s “New York Values,” implying that they were somehow different from “American values.” But as the list above shows, “normal” America is urban, diverse, and working class – something that describes much of New York quite well.

If the perception ever catches up to the reality, I look forward to national political candidates flocking here to the Pioneer Valley to show the median voter that they are just like everyone else – going to the Big E, checking out the Basketball Hall of Fame, and eating a big heap of mofongo.