Monday, March 30, 2009

Calculating Social Justice

I love how the blogosphere works. Someone posts on an older story and makes it relevant again and it screams across the blogs like a meteor. Today STB posted on an older Intermodality post that got to Ryan which I imagine is where it got picked up by Markos of teh big Orange.

Kos' post also brought me to this post at A Future Oakland that put forward some fun stats that drive me crazy every time the social justice folks bring them up, which they do often. The issue I have is with the use of the National Transit database to compare subsidy across different mode types for the sole purpose of saying that one mode is better for poor or minority folks than others. Why they always want to pick this fight is beyond me and its a symptom of thier not being able to connect the different types of modes and thier function to regional job opportunty expansion for lower income job seekers. Check out this chart from Public Advocates dot org, a law firm devoted to social justice.

You can see that the chart doesn't discuss income levels but rather race, I imagine as a proxy for income levels? I'm also not sure what they mean by subsidy but I'm guessing its Capital funding+operating per rider? And as an issue, these lines all perform different services at different distances which affects the costs. No mention that BART and Caltrain riders pay higher fares than AC Transit riders. No mention that per passenger mile (a standard measure across modes), Caltrain and BART are far more efficient than AC Transit. There are a couple of reasons for this and AC's would be better compared to itself if it didn't include the less productive routes or $40 a trip paratransit but those are necessary services.

I want to believe in the social justice movement but they shoot themselves in the foot with dumb charts like this that don't tell me anything except that they don't understand transit operations or regional connectivity to jobs for lower income workers. If I were arguing on the social justice angle, I would start by saying that funding for road expansions is being wasted on suburbs that are leaching tax base and making people spend more of thier hard earned money on transportation. We also shouldn't be saying that AC is more efficient because thats false based on per passenger mile comparison and its operating type. Comparing AC to Caltrain per rider based on 20 mile trip versus a mile or two mile trip is rediculous and doesn't get us anywhere. Based on the 2007 NTD here are the comparisons for operating costs:

Caltrain is 27 cents per passenger mile.
BART is 34 cents per passenger mile
AC is $1.32 per passenger mile.

If we're going to look at capital and operating per passenger mile, it comes out to this in 2007:

BART: 50.9 cents per passenger mile
Caltrain: 60.3 cents per passenger mile
AC Tranist: $1.57 per passenger mile

Versus a Per Trip operations calculation:

AC Transit is $4.02
BART is $4.21
Caltrain is $7.28

What the argument should be is that expansion funding should stop going to stuff like ebart and expansion freeways and should start going to core expansion of AC Transit, Muni, BART, Caltrain Metro East etc. Put the transit where the riders are and it will be helpful for everyone to connect with job opportunities.

This culture war against rail that takes people to job centers in places like Concord and Walnut Creek needs to stop. Would it be more efficient to run buses? No. First that means more cars on the freeway because less people would be taking transit. It also means that more of downtown Oakland and San Franciso would be parking lots inducing less walking trips overall. But if we didn't look at regional transit systems, we would be allowing the bay area fiefdoms of transit to limit the job opportunities for low income workers. In Portland, the Max lines actually allow workers to reach a greater number of opportunities. This 2006 paper on economic development for the FTA by Strategic Economics shows an interesting chart below. But basically regional connectivity provides more opportunities for jobs that make it possible for upward mobility.

A preliminary analysis of transit ridership by industry and occupation in Portland, Oregon indicates that fixed guideway transit connects to more diverse employment opportunities than local bus. An Entropy Index was used to measure the diversity of incomes for occupations in industries with the highest percentage of transit ridership in the region. Entropy index scores are stated as a decimal and the lower the number, the more concentrated the occupational and income mix within that industry.

As Table 1 shows, industries with high percentages of bus ridership also tend to have low Entropy Index scores for an overall average of 0.54. For the most part, these were industries with a high percentage of low wage jobs. However, industries where workers use fixed guideway transit and/or bus and fixed guideway transit to get to work had a much greater diversity income diversity with an average index score of 0.89. This analysis demonstrates that fixed-guideway transit provides connectivity to jobs with different income opportunities, and possibly greater opportunities for advancement, while bus provides the best connectivity for workers in predominantly low-income industries with little opportunity for advancement.

If anything, the issue of expansion should point to the fact that suburban jurisdictions have too much power in how transportation funds are allocated. If it were equitable towards the core, services such as AC Transit would get more funding for more service, but it wouldn't make them more efficient in moving people. They are still a bus company.

This should tell you that MTC is shafting Oakland and San Francisco by not spending more on more efficient rail and metro type service for trunk lines that would serve hundreds of thousands of people. Compare the expansion of BART to San Jose versus a Geary Subway. A Geary Subway would cost around $3 billion and carry 100,000 riders easy the first day. The BART to San Jose line will not get anywhere close to that ridership number and cost a lot more money. These are the decisions that are being made based on regional politics rather than real expansion needs. The up front costs are more but the efficiency of operations leads to less cuts and better travel times for all riders in the core and connections beyond.

Just because people are poor or of a different race doesn't mean they deserve inferior or just one type of service. A network of service that serves different travel sheds is the best way to get people to thier jobs and open up the region for opportunity for all. The fight against the modes that take people further needs to be better thought out as a regional strategy for improving core service rather than pitting modes against each other, especially operations as efficient as BART or Caltrain. It's not very productive and the way the social justice movement is going now can only fail if they are going to bring data such as the chart above to the game.

Flame on...


Cavan said...

Just because someone's heart may be in the right place does not mean that they understand how infrastructure and economics interact.

This group who published that chart is clearly one of those cases. They do more harm than good for our nation's future.

Robert said...

You suggest that the important metric toward judging the social impact of transit subsidies is cost per mile. Since AC Transit riders take shorter trips than Caltrain riders, even using this metric it can be demonstrated that the subsidy per commute is higher.

The really important metric is cost per commute compared with fare per commute.

However, I do believe that such a discussion should be delayed. It is in the best interest of building walkable cities that work well with local buses and rail to get suburban commuters out of their cars in the city center and rebuild cities for people instead of cars.

Anonymous said...

The subsidy argument is not false, it is merely one facet of the crystal. As to trip length, BART riders are not all end to end users--I make maybe one trip east of Rockridge per year and the same on the Dublin line. Conversely, because the short trip fare is close to AC ($1.50 v $1.75) I often use BART from home (near Ashby) to EC, dntn Berkeley or Oakland. In the almost 40 yrs in my 'hood, I have seen AC continually shrink service while fares become ever higher and regressive(transfer surcharge/redlining of any area not a single bus ride).
As to BART ridership/fares/subsidy, If it were not for the concentrated urban usage filling the trains west of the hills, BART's pitiful ridership share in the sprawlburbs would be more obvious/.
The bottom line still is that MTC allocates money for highways and BARt first and if anything is left a pitttance for AC and Muni which betwen them triple BART ridership by head count.
Mileage shoul be looked at as a NEGATIVE when viewing BART because the fares are skewed to favor the longer distance rider.

PS lest somone misunderstand I love trains, always have preferred them to buses, BUT...

Nato said...

Individual auto and mass transit are mutually antagonistic. That is to say, rail etc. allows things to build up to where using a car in the region becomes frustrating or impossible, while making room for roads and parking pushes everything so far apart that using transit (or walking, or biking) becomes impractical. Okay, everyone already knew that.

I rehearse that reasoning because I think it is critical that rail's densifying effects in the long term are intense, while bus transit basically just mitigates the impact of autos. That's why I think rail expansion is most critical: it meshes with and amplifies efforts to, as Robert says, "rebuild cities for people instead of cars."

Pedestrianist said...

I don't think race is meant to be a proxy for income in the argument, it's an important factor in itself. Campaigns like this one point out that federal and state funding favors white communities over minority communities.

But I don't think that's incompatible with some of your other arguments. If AC was given the cash flow and funding reliability that BART or Caltrain has, it would be in a better position to improve its operational efficiency through necessary capital investments. The telegraph BRT line is a great example: if AC got BART money, it might be thinking about laying rail.

My point is, high per-passenger-mile operating cost doesn't justify cutting off subsidy, it calls for increasing subsidy. Starving AC Transit of money will very likely result in a more inefficient system as capital investment shrinks and network scale shrinks beyond a critical mass.

That said, at 1/5 the subsidy of Caltrain and less than half the subsidy of BART, why was AC Transit the first to get Translink up and running. And why is it the only thing crossing the water after midnight?

arcady said...

I saw an interesting statistic about the LA transit system once: 80% of bus riders didn't have a driver's license, while on rail, the number was something like 35%. LACMTA (and probably AC Transit) bus service is really only used by those who have no other choice, whereas rail can attract ridership even from those who could drive. On the other hand, I think the FTA's metric of judging a transit project by how many new trips it serves is fundamentally misguided and favors the suburbs. There's nothing wrong with improving the commutes of the urban bus riders.

Anonymous said...

AC gave up overnight transbay service for about a decade. the current service came as the result of a dedicated funding referndum after an unsucessful attempt to get BART to do so. The current version in fact attempts to mimic BART routes rather than the old system which was late night service on regular routes.
As to AC and Translink, yes it is in service, except for broken readers, lack of capability to use BART provided discount coupons, occasional local usage charged as transbay...

As to AC "choice riders" (driver's license holders), indeed the proportion particularly on evening local routes is higher, but both Transbay, and around the Cal campus where students AND staff can buy into very cheap passes, the ## are different. AC because they are perennialy starved for funds has so savaged neighborhood service that "choice" riders might either walk a mile to a bus stop or see a one hour headway.
A further note, BRT on Telegraph, is IMHO a dumb idea. The current Rapid works well. Evenings when the Rapid stops running, the local gets so little business -- 10 riders total including on/off between 17th St/B'way and Alcatraz Ave
yesterday evening circa 9PM, that curbing off two of four lanes seems a waste. The best thing for RIDERS of AC would be to force BART to honor AC passes as Muni does. No sane rider would use the 1R Rapid the entire distance from Bayfair to Berkeley given that BART connects the same points way faster, unless unable to afford the fare.

dto510 said...

Thank you for the very long response to my blog, though you conveniently ignored my main points. I only referenced the social justice argument in the context of attempting to explain to social-justice advocates focused on BART police that their energies may be better spent advocating for funding equity. While obviously there are inherent cost differences between different transit modes (though of course that's admitting that bus service is simply more cost-effective than rail service), BART's egregious subsidies are unjustifiable, and the result of an unrepresentative MTC who are accountable to nobody and weighted toward suburbs and rural counties in defiance of the principle of one man, one vote. Citing per-passenger-mile cost, the only metric by which BART comes out ahead of competing services, simply underscores the fact that BART promotes sprawl by providing transit service to far-flung suburbs at the expense of inner cities. It is unconscionable that AC Transit is being forced by the MTC to cut service while BART embarks on fantastically expensive expansions to nowhere (ie, Milpitas).

BruceMcF said...

In what insane alternative universe is the first chart part of a hissing match between different parts of the transport system?

If we are going to successfully navigate the next fifty years, we are going to have to abandon the "one size fits all" approach to transport and focus on providing a system made up of pieces that are efficient means of doing the tasks they are design for.

If we succeed in making it, then people will be used to thinking of vuses on the public right of way as being only for local transport, including accessing dedicated transport corridors for regional and inter-regional transport.

And idea that buses and trains are some kind of rivals will be something that will have to be explained in history class, as an odd confusion of people of the late 20th century.

Peter said...

Opponents make it a competition. Advocates understand that there is no one mode fits all, and each situation requires a different mode, whereas transit opponents just want buses everywhere so that they will fail.

But this chart isn't about mode. I think it's just a coincidence that the more subsidized systems are rail systems.

If you want to make this a mode argument, then make it be that rail was the wrong choice for such far flung exurbs and that buses should be used instead.

Daniel said...

Why does everyone oppose finishing the last rail gap around the bay area? I do find the need to go to San Jose from east bay every now and then and I'm tired of having to take the bus for the last part of it. It takes too long, longer in traffic and it takes too much planning to time everything. I'd visit down there more often if it were just more convenient. I know it's not the cheapest plan but sometimes the best ideas aren't the easiest on the wallet. Plus, I wouldn't say servicing a city of 60K+ is "going nowhere."

The voters of Santa Clara have spoken clearly. They want BART to reach the south bay. As do I.

dto510 said...

The problem with BART to San Jose is that there is an existing train line connecting the East Bay to San Jose - the Capitol Corridor (which shares stations with BART at Richmond and the Coliseum). It would much, much cheaper to upgrade that line than to build BART (also, it could be done in years rather than decades), but that doesn't fit the interests of the construction contractors and affiliated unions that lobby the MTC.

Santa Clara County citizens voted for a package of transit improvements, of which BART was a part. But shortly after the election, the VTA announced it was abandoning all the other improvements and only doing BART. That doesn't seem to be the will of the voters. Futhermore, Alameda County voters were sold BART to San Jose but now all they're getting is BART to Milpitas. Again, not what people voted for.

The reason rail is pitted against buses is because the MTC starves MUNI and AC Transit of funds in favor of BART (they also don't fund the Capitol Corridor adequately). If BART were content to operate in conjunction with other services, rather than duplicating them or stealing their operating funds, we could play nice. But BART is the definitely the bad guy here - they refuse to cooperate with regional fare schemes, to pull back expansions in favor of upgrading infrastructure, and they signficantly change voter-approved projects. And all that's without mentioning their police oversight committee is meeting in secret, violating the Brown Act.