Building Highways, Cutting Transit

As you might have read, the FY18 state budget reduced funding for transit (resulting in service cuts) and cut the Springfield-to-Boston rail study entirely. Adding insult to injury, the legislature decided in the same budget to fund a study on building a new exit on the Mass. Pike somewhere between Westfield and Lee, probably around Blandford. As the MassLive article puts it, “[State Representative] Pignatelli argued that a turnpike exit could spark economic development in the hill towns, as well as provide convenience to residents who must currently travel to Lee or Westfield to access I-90.”

blandford exit
Proposed area for a new exit

Cutting funding to transit and rail while funding a study for a new highway exit is a terrible move by the commonwealth for the following reasons:

  1. Environmental Goals: It runs totally counter to well-established state goals. For example, MassDOT went through an intensive process to create a sustainability plan (“GreenDOT”) and established mode shift goals of tripling the amount of biking, walking and transit by 2030. Also, the state has passed legislation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 25% below 1990 levels by 2020, and 80% below 1990 levels by 2050. Adding a Mass. Pike exit promotes driving and undermines both goals. 
  2. Land Use Goals: Just like building the highways in the first place resulted in the suburban boom that dominates our metro areas, building this new exit in the Hill Towns is indeed going to “spark economic development.” Land values will go up near the exit, farmers will subdivide and develop new single-family housing, and businesses will follow that new growth into what was once green fields. This runs totally contrary to the land use program goals of the state, which seeks to encourage Smart Growth and Transit-Oriented Development. 

    suburban development
    Big box stores, chain restaurants, and post-war suburban housing around Mass. Pike Exit 7
  3. Economic Goals: The same processes that sucked the Springfield and Holyoke economies dry in the post-war period will still be at work today if an exit is built. When our “Gateway Cities” (smaller regional hubs like Springfield, Holyoke, Fitchburg, etc., that have struggled economically over the past few decades) are finally starting to see a turnaround, it makes no sense for the state to facilitate businesses locating into rural areas.
  4. Equity Goals: And perhaps the most egregious of all, this highway exit is going to overwhelmingly benefit relatively well-to-do white families living in the Hill Towns, while the cuts to transit service disproportionately impacts low-income people of color. This is counter to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, in addition to multiple programs run by the MassDOT Office of Diversity and Civil Rights.
Poverty map
Map of poverty in Hampden and Hampshire Counties by Block Group. Note the dark blue of Springfield and Holyoke, and the light blue of Blandford. 

The political argument for the exit is that it will better serve people who live in Blandford, Chester, Russell, etc. And that’s true, it will (at least those who drive). But the people who live in these communities moved there knowing that highway access is not very good. And while their convenience would probably increase, their private benefit is outweighed by the cost to the public.

Not only would the new exit promote more driving, more destruction of farmland and open space, and the relocation of business activity from Springfield to Blandford, but there is also the opportunity cost of building the exit – what else could that money have been used for? (I have a suggestion – fully funding PVTA.)

If the state and the region are serious about climate change, about downtown revitalization, about smart growth, then PVPC and MassDOT must make crystal clear in this legislatively mandated study that the project hurts the public and conflicts with myriad state policy goals.

They say that actions speak louder than words. Massachusetts has some excellent policies on the books regarding climate change, active living, equity, and urban revitalization. Building this new exit would show that those policies are nothing more than just words.

Are Goals to Reduce Car Use Racist?

A couple of weeks ago, I was at a public meeting regarding a project to totally redo Cabot St. in Holyoke, between Race St. and the Willamansett Bridge. This is a major commercial strip with a grocery store, liquor store, and pizza place along it, in addition to numerous apartment buildings. On-street parking lines both sides of the street, and there are no bike lanes.

cabot st
Cabot St looking north; Capri Pizza on the left, C-Town grocery store on the right. Source: Google Maps.

The presentation showed that bike lanes were not going to be added, but rather “bike-accommodating shoulders,” and in other parts just sharrows. They were even narrowing the sidewalks to create more width for these “bike-accommodating shoulders,” but didn’t remove any of the on-street parking.

My blood started to boil, because I had seen it happen too many times before. A roadway improvement project is developed, and bike facilities are left out or inadequately provided for. If we are going to have true Complete Streets, then we must include separated bicycle facilities – all but the most fearless bicyclists refuse to ride in anything that mixes with car traffic.

cabot st vision
An alternative vision for Cabot St: Parking on one side, buffered bike lanes, and plenty of width for sidewalks. Source: Streetmix.net

I suggested that we could just eliminate one side of on-street parking to accommodate wider sidewalks and two buffered bike lanes. When I suggested there might be enough off-street parking, I was really surprised at the push-back. The mostly Latino neighborhood residents spoke at length about the importance of parking, and how scarce parking is in the project area. I was told that in other projects in the neighborhood, a furor was sparked when it was suggested that we remove on-street parking.

I stood my ground. I noted that these are the neighborhoods in Holyoke that have the lowest rates of car ownership (between a third and half of all households own zero vehicles), that this is exactly where we need to be steadfast in implementing our Complete Streets Policy.

holyoke_no_vehicles
Number of households with zero cars. Source: 2014 5-year American Community Survey

I noted that this street is never going to be redone in our lifetimes once this project is complete, and whatever decisions we make today will stick around for decades. And, importantly, I noted that ample car parking is not in the recipe for truly great urban spaces, and Holyoke could be a great urban space.

I don’t think I captivated any hearts or minds with my pleas.

“VMT Reduction Goals are Racist”

I remembered a talk that I attended at a transportation conference some years ago (don’t remember which one, but I think it was TRB). There was a panel of experts arguing for and against VMT goals. For those unfamiliar, VMT stands for Vehicle Miles Traveled, and some states and cities have set goals for lowering the amount of driving as measured by VMT. Massachusetts has a goal of tripling biking, walking, and transit use by 2030, though not any explicit VMT reduction goal.

One of the panelists made a bold assertion against VMT reduction goals. He said something to the effect of, “We spent half a century building infrastructure that was too expensive for most minorities to use because they couldn’t afford a car. Now that minority car ownership is rising, we’re starting to tell people that, ‘Oh, no, actually, we need to drive less.’ VMT reduction goals are the very definition of racism!”

I was floored. There are so many negative impacts from the tremendous amount of driving we do as a society, ranging from 40,000 traffic fatalities per year, to feeding the obesity epidemic and asthma rates near highways, to contributing about a third of all greenhouse gas emissions. Less driving could only benefit humanity, couldn’t it? How in the world could it be racist?

Aspiring to Driving

I’m reminded of the conventional wisdom that poor people don’t like the idea of soaking the rich through taxes because they, too, could be rich some day (for a more nuanced article on that, see here). At the risk of making too broad an assumption, it makes sense that neighborhood residents at this meeting – even non-driving residents – would defend parking. After all, even if they don’t own a car, they sometimes get rides from people who do, and they hope to own a car as soon as possible.

So of course my pleas would fall on unreceptive ears. From my perspective, I grew up with cars as my primary means of transportation until I was about 18 years old. Cars are nothing special, taken for granted, and so it’s easy for me to eschew them. However, for a kid who grew up riding the bus and was “transportation poor” – always scrounging for a friend or relative to get her to places the bus didn’t go – a car could be an aspirational sign of having “made it” and a crucial part of a safety net.

Maybe some of these residents don’t drive, but they also don’t necessarily identify as “bicyclists” or “pedestrians.” Rather, I wonder if they think of themselves as people who are on foot or on bike until they get a car. And to hear some guy who they’ve never seen before say that not only do we not need more parking, but really they should just give up that goal of car ownership and keep biking and walking and using the bus even though it’s really inconvenient and maybe even embarrassing to boot… well, I can understand if that message might not resonate.

Balancing Fairness and the Public Good

So is it racist to try to reduce driving in a mostly minority neighborhood where residents put cultural and aspirational value on car ownership? Is it projecting my values onto a neighborhood that doesn’t share them? Is it fair?

I’m reminded of a common argument about international climate change agreements (I’m restraining myself from going into a long tirade about the US pulling out of the Paris Accord). Now that industrialized nations have been contributing to climate change for 150 years, we want developing nations to just cut out all the fossil fuel use pronto. We’ve done our polluting, now it’s your turn to pay the price for it.

In the end, though, as with climate change, we all pay the price for our love affair with the car. Hampden County is the least healthy county in Massachusetts, and lack of exercise is one of the reasons why. Economic development does not spring from ubiquitous parking, but rather a vibrant streetscape with pedestrians and businesses and greenery and mixed land uses. And Cabot Street has seen a number of crashes over the years, some of them fatal, some of them with pedestrians and some with bicyclists.

My hope is that as this project rolls forward, we can balance the public good with the values of the neighborhood residents. Ultimately, they must live with the project in a much more immediate way than I (however, I should note that I take Cabot Street every day on my bike trip to/from work). I’m hopeful that as the projects gels, we can find a solution that the neighborhood can embrace, while at the same time creates a vibrant public space conducive to healthy living and solid economic development.

 

**Author’s Note: I realize I’m diving into a lot of charged issues here, and welcome feedback!

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.

Commute Series: Unicorn Sighting

When I was in college, I was involved with a community bike project. I was one of a bunch of bike geeks who would get together and wrench on “Yellow Bikes,” which people could ride freely around campus and drop for the next person to use. There was no end to the one-upsmanship during those Saturdays trying to turn rusty piles of parts into working bikes.

One afternoon, there was a new guy working on an old heap, and he started talking about a mythical bike he saw once:

Yeah, man, it was amazing. It’s a reverse recumbent tricycle with a teardrop shell, and it can fly like the wind. You can get up to 30 mph on a flat straightaway pedaling that thing – but it totally dies when you try to climb with it. Still, it’s truly a magical machine.

The image caught my imagination. For a while I entertained the idea of building or buying such a bike, but that dream faded into momentary flights of fancy, and then dwindled into but a faint ember. Until last week. I spotted my unicorn.

If you watch the video above, you’ll see that this guy really flies! He even outpaced me with my electric assist bike – he was definitely doing 30 mph or even faster there for a minute.

Anyway, happy Bike Week! It’s a beautiful one, so don’t forget to hop on two (or three) wheels at least once while the sun is shining. You may even spot a most magical ride.

Bus Commute: Community of Strangers

 

In transportation professional speak, I’m what is called a “choice rider.” These are the folks using transit who have other options, and tend to be higher-income, white collar, white-skinned professionals. When I first heard that phrase, “choice rider,” I thought it was offensive – like a choice cut of meat. Like there was some intrinsic quality of these transit users that made them preferable to the rest of “those people” who are using transit.

Of course, the origin is more innocuous – it refers to people who “have a choice” about whether or not to use the bus. Hence, “choice rider.” 

I live in a one-car household, and my wife uses it about 95% of the time. We could get a second car for me to use, but haven’t yet done so. For me, being mostly car-free is definitely a choice. If I wanted to, I could choose to buy or lease a car of my own and drive to work, to go shopping, to get to the end of my driveway if I wanted to.

But since I care about the environment and like to exercise and am a cheapskate, I stay mostly car-free. And it’s hit that time of year (dark, snowy, icy) when riding my bike becomes more challenging than I want to deal with. So I’ve switched over to the bus for the time being.

Taking transit in a big city isn’t a big deal. Even where I lived in relatively suburban Belmont, most people working in Cambridge or Boston hopped on the 73 bus or used commuter rail to get into the city.

Mid-sized cities are a whole different story. Growing up in Lexington, Kentucky (population 308,000), I never took the bus even once. Going to school in Eugene, Oregon (MSA population: 357,000), I took the bus rapid transit system several times, but only ventured onto the rest of the bus system only once. Even when I was in college at Hampshire, I generally only used the buses between college campuses, which act more or less as a shuttle for students and faculty.

Using the bus to get from Holyoke to Springfield, then, was a fairly new experience for me compared to my prior transit use. The big reason goes back to what I mentioned earlier: there are comparatively few “choice riders” in Hampden County. According to the most recent PVTA rider survey, two-thirds of transit users do not have reliable access to other transportation. That squares with a map I put together showing the percentage of households in Holyoke with zero cars (in some spots, >50%).

choice-riders
Source: PVTA Comprehensive Service Analysis

holyoke_no_vehicles

In short, that means a lot of very poor people are using the transit system in Hampden County.

And there is a stigma to using the bus. There’s a sense that “those people” who ride the bus are using drugs, or drunk, or cussing loudly, or stinky, or doing any number of other objectionable things. And of course race/racism plays into it, too – even though Hampden county is three-quarters white, the bus ridership is overwhelmingly non-white.

Riding the Bus

As I have ridden the bus, the biggest surprise is the subtle sense of community that exists. I take the P21 Express from Holyoke to Springfield, which runs hourly. That means that I ride with basically the same people every day, and have the same driver on most days. In an unexpected way, I get to know them all just the tiniest bit. 

20161214_161549
Typical afternoon on the P21 Express. 

Like last year, there was the driver who, everyday before her shift, was on her phone talking with her daughter and going over spelling words. She had to be at work at an ungodly early hour, but still wanted to help her daughter study for apparently frequent spelling quizzes.

There was also the family who would take the express bus most days, with the father who had to be at least 6’ 6” tall and his two daughters. They were always late, rushing to the bus stop – but usually that same bus driver who practiced spelling with her daughter would stop mid-block and open the door for the huffing family. That sort of thing would never happen in Boston, the driver would just keep going. 

I remember last winter that there was the one other biker who would put his mountain bike on the bus alongside mine. He would come in from South Hadley, from a public housing apartment complex, and take the bus down to Springfield where he drove a truck for deliveries. The business owner worked him hard, it sounded like, because sometimes he would just barely make the last bus back to Holyoke. That made for a long 12-hour day, but keeping the job was one of the conditions of keeping his apartment.

On the bus I’ve heard the crescendo-ing arguments of lovers in the midst of a quarrel, one side of cell phone calls with child protective services, and more frantic pocket-searches for day passes and nickels and dimes than I care to remember. Most conversation snippets I catch have the same undercurrent of being broke, being oh-so broke.

And not once have I been  harassed, or thrown up on, or in any way felt threatened. Indeed, surrounded by families and familiar faces, it’s actually comforting being on the P21 E – in an unexpected way, I feel connected. 

Would it be faster to drive to work? Oh yeah. Would it be easier? In a lot of ways, yes. But taking the bus I get to exit my white-collar bubble for a few minutes a day and become part of a subtle, unconscious community of strangers.

New Analysis: Proximity to Bus Routes Raises Property Values

I just finished up a GIS course on Coursera, and for the capstone project I tried to answer the question, “Does being near a bus route make your home more or less valuable?” I could see it go either way – bus service is an amenity, and the value of that amenity should be reflected in the value of a home located nearby. On the other hand, bus service – especially outside of the Boston area – has a stigma to it (the result of classism, or racism, or both). So I could see property values actually being lower the closer they were to bus lines.

I did the analysis for properties served by Regional Transit Authorities (RTAs) because their boundaries are pretty set – the MBTA service area is a little mushier, with Commuter Rail service spanning all the way to Worcester. The analysis shows that in almost all parts of the state, having a home near a bus line raises the value of your property.

final_map
Legend shows impact of proximity to rubber tire transit per meter closer to a bus route. So a value of $20 would mean that for every meter closer to a bus route, a residential property would be $20/acre higher. 

What’s really exciting about this analysis is that it’s the first I’ve heard of which looks specifically at rubber tire bus service. Most other studies look at rail transit or bus rapid transit, generally finding positive impacts on property values. These studies are often used to justify investment in building rail or BRT facilities.

While rubber tire bus service doesn’t require the same level of capital outlay as other kinds of transit, it still requires investment and community support. I hope this analysis will help generate a little more excitement for bus routes and dispel some of the stigma.

For anyone interested in the details of how I did the analysis, you can read the report here. Without getting too technical, I used a linear regression model to control for variables like access to jobs, access to highways, crime rate, school quality, etc. This helped to isolate the impact of transit alone without these confounding variables.

If you have any questions or thoughts, please send them my way! You can direct message me on Twitter, @pricearmstrong.

Chicopee on the Road to a Bike/Ped Plan

As Winston Churchill once said of Russia, I feel about Chicopee: It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.

I bike through Chicopee every day, and even spend a fair amount of time going to businesses in the city, but I still don’t feel like I have a sense of the city. It is a community of contradictions: It is the second largest city in the Pioneer Valley, but routinely gets omitted when listing “major” cities in the area (usually it’s Springfield, Holyoke and Northampton that get mentions). It was settled in 1660 but is dominated by post-war suburban-style strip malls and ranch houses. It used to be one of the largest producers of bicycles in the country, but today boasts no bicycle facilities and few bicyclists. 

chicopee-population-density
Compared to Springfield and Holyoke, Chicopee doesn’t have the same pockets of very high population density that support biking, walking and transit. Source: 2015 American Community Survey

The best I can make of Chicopee is that is a city trying to distance itself from its past and blend into the panorama of sprawling Brady Bunch suburbs. An industrial city that was built by immigrants, most people today know it by the box stores lining Memorial Drive. Billing itself as “The Crossroads of New England” because of the numerous highways that crisscross the city, it seems like a place that you pass through going somewhere else. 

You can imagine my surprise, then, when I learned that a group of UMass graduate students was preparing a bicycle and pedestrian plan for the city. The city enlisted this group of Landscape Architecture and Regional Planning (LARP) students to develop a basic plan laying out key points of interest and connections via bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure. Kudos to the City Planning Department for this modest, but crucial, step forward.

The network they put together was ambitious and connected all parts of the city. They divided the city into three segments: Northeast, Northwest, and South, roughly divided up by highways. The network they constructed is a mix of on-road and off-road facilities, focusing on schools as key destinations.

20161207_094541
A shot of the proposed bike/ped path network. 

One of the things the plan doesn’t do is prioritize investments or provide any sort of implementation plan. That’s fine; that wasn’t the point of the plan. But the next step has to include thinking about where are bicycle and pedestrian improvements both most useful and easiest to implement.

I have three suggestions:

  1. First is that the Cabotville area should be focused on. This is the historic downtown area in Chicopee, and has multiple one-way streets crisscrossing the area. These could easily be reduced from two lanes to one, with buffered bike lanes added. Furthermore, traffic calming measures which improve the pedestrian and biking environment would be relatively easy.
  2. Next, I would suggest that the viaduct on Route 116 just north of the Chicopee River is terrible for biking and walking. Furthermore, it is supremely overbuilt for the amount of traffic it carries. Bike lanes would be extremely easy to add. (This is a personal one for me, because that route would be super-convenient for getting to work). 
  3. There will be a strong temptation to build bicycle and pedestrian facilities on roadways which are out of the way and little used, because it’s easy and non-controversial. That’s fine for maybe the first Complete Streets project, but they should move on quickly to places that people actually want to go to and that are conducive to biking and walking.

Again, I’m thankful to UMass LARP for putting together this initial vision for the City of Chicopee, and for the city staff who are interested in making the community more livable. As I said, Chicopee sometimes falls off people’s mental maps of the valley. Only by getting people out on the streets can a sense of place take hold, and turn Chicopee into a destination instead of merely a “crossroads.”

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!

Rail Options Suck, But I’m Not Sure They’re Worth Improving

Politicians in the Pioneer Valley really want more intercity rail coming through the region. At an MPO meeting that I wrote about several months back, Mayor Sarno of Springfield commented that building an east-west rail link to Boston would open up the city’s affordable housing stock to Boston, which has a housing affordability crisis. Meanwhile, north-south rail improvements would improve access to Hartford, New York City, and Montreal, better integrating Springfield into an interior northeastern route. These same sentiments were described more fully in a recently released report, Northern New England Intercity Rail Initiative (NNEIRI) Study

northern new england rail
Proposed NNEIRI route. Source: NNEIRI study.

And it’s true, right now rail options suck in the Pioneer Valley. We have the Lake Shore Limited, which goes east-west one time per day, and the Vermonter which goes north-south one time per day. Even though both these routes could serve commuters traveling between Worcester and Springfield, or Hartford and Springfield, the schedule makes them useless to anyone other than an intercity traveler.

Writing about rail transportation in Springfield, I am reminded of a few years ago when Chris Leinberger, a real estate expert, came to visit Springfield and provide thoughts about how to improve the economic performance of the city. A point he hit a couple of times was that we have got to build a streetcar; the city would be transformed by it. Score another endorsement for rail! 

What’s amazing to me is the persistent dedication people have to rail transportation, despite the fact that it has so many apparent disadvantages relative to rubber-tire service. In brief:

  1.  It is really expensive. The proposed track upgrades to connect Boston to New Haven via Springfield would be at least $554 million, not counting operating costs (see table below); this route would need to be subsidized at $145 per trip, which doesn’t include capital costs. As for streetcars, the most celebrated American streetcar in Portland, Oregon cost several hundred million dollars to construct and carried 3.9 million riders last year. Meanwhile, the top-of-the-line bus rapid transit line in Cleveland cost only $50 million,  and boasts 5 million trips per year
  2. Also, it’s really expensive. The cost of riding the train from Springfield to New York, for example, is $47 and takes 3.5 hours (depending on freight traffic). The cost of taking a bus is $27 and takes 3.5 hours (depending on highway traffic). So it gets you there no faster, though is nearly twice as expensive. 
  3. Did I mention that it’s expensive? It’s usually more expensive than we expect. Planning studies for rail projects tend to have ridership projections that are too high and capital cost estimates too low (also known as The Pickerell Effect). A good example is Albuquerque’s Rail Runner commuter rail, which has continued to underperform in ridership since it started service in 2007.
estimated costs table
Estimated costs of rail upgrades in New England. Source: NNEIRI Study.

The reality is that bus transportation, while not as efficient at moving people as rail, tends to be much more flexible and affordable. So why are elected officials stuck on rail? I have a few theories:

  1. It’s undeniably sexy. Even Ayn Rand made the main character of her celebration of fierce individualism and greed, Atlas Shrugged, a railroad tycoon. There’s something about the iron horse which connotes power, industry, and sophistication (while a bus brings up images of people coughing, yelling, and spilling Big Gulps on you).
  2. It’s expensive. Yes, I realize that I listed that as a drawback. But one person’s expense is another’s income. I wonder if the high price tag does not in fact invigorate elected officials to embrace rail because it will do what every elected official wants  – it will create jobs! Just this past week, Massachusetts mucky mucks were in Springfield to celebrate the completion of the factory that is going to manufacture new $2 million subway cars for the MBTA.
  3. It’s perceived to be an economic development engine, probably for two reasons. First, it attracts higher-income riders, and in so doing funnels these high-earners into a narrow corridor that businesses want to occupy. Second, it cements the route to a particular corridor, whereas bus routes could change at any point. Although, in the case of the DC streetcar, the economic development transformation took root well before the streetcar was finished – suggesting that we should just announce streetcars and then never actually build them. Hmm… developers might eventually catch on.

I guess I’ll close by pointing out that I’m not necessarily anti-rail. I would love to be able to hop on a high-speed train to get down to New York City in 90 minutes, or down to Washington in four hours. But I am a strong proponent of using tax dollars wisely. And for the most part, rail just doesn’t seem to pencil out when driving is so cheap and easy.

So who knows, maybe someday I’ll take one of the added trains on the Inland Route to get to Boston or New York City from Springfield. Honestly, I’d be happy to do so. Until then I’m content hopping a Peter Pan bus and working my crosswords as the road passes by my window. At $27, that’s not too bad.

Upcoming Presentation in Boston

presentation title

On Wednesday, I am going to be giving a presentation to the Boston Metropolitan Planning Organization’s (MPO) Regional Transportation Advisory Council (RTAC) alongside Shannon Greenwell from the MassDOT Office of Transportation Planning. This is an open meeting, and all are welcomed and encouraged to join. The agenda for the meeting is here, and details of the presentation are:

Title: “An Autonomous World: Planning the Future of Transit”
Date: Wednesday, August 10th
Time: 3:00 PM – 4:30 PM
Location: State Transportation Building Second Floor, Conference Room 4, 10 Park Plaza, Boston, MA

This presentation builds off of the original version we did at the 2015 Southern New England American Planning Association Conference. In it, we discuss the long-term implications of vehicle automation (AKA self-driving cars) on the transportation system, with a particular emphasis on how it could impact public transportation.

Some questions posed in the presentation:

  • Will we need more parking with automated vehicles, or less?
  • If trucks and buses become automated, what will happen to professional drivers?
  • Will there be a quick adoption of automated vehicles (think smartphones), or very slow (think hybrid-electric vehicles)?
  • What will it mean if high-income transit users start using Uber-type automated vehicles, while everyone else still uses the bus?

As a reminder as to what an MPO is, I wrote a blog post about them and why they’re pretty important to transportation wonks; the RTAC is an advisory body to the MPO. According to the Boston MPO website:

The Regional Transportation Advisory Council (Advisory Council) is an independent body that brings public viewpoints and advice on transportation planning to the Boston Region MPO. Its membership (pdf) (html) includes municipalities, professional organizations, transportation advocacy groups, neighboring MPOs, and state agencies.

I’m glad to be presenting this to the MPO Advisory Council; this is an important topic, and one that isn’t going away. It’s almost certain to be a transformative development, one that will probably only happen once in a generation. I know that my employer, the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority, is keenly aware of the technology developments going on – every transportation professional is well-served to do the same.