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Reason Foundation

Surface Transportation Innovations #12

Topics include: transit's actual effect on congestion, Deloitte's new report on road pricing, new data on sprawl and commuting, best toll truckway corridors, and other breaking news stories.

Robert Poole
November 1, 2003

In this issue:

TTI Report Fuels Transit vs. Highways Debate

The Texas Transportation's highly respected annual report on congestion and urban mobility, 2003 Urban Mobility Report, was released on the last day of September (see http://mobility.tamu.edu/ums/). All too predictably, the report documents new highs in congestion in America's 75 largest urban areas, by every one of a variety of measurements. The report provides a wealth of data useful to anyone interested in the complexities of, and possible solutions to, American's massive congestion problem.

As in previous years, the report looks at the degree to which adding highway capacity can reduce congestion, showing that those metro areas which have made the most successful efforts to do so have had the smallest increase in travel-time growth (Exhibit 17, p. 33). But it points out that only five of the 75 metro areas - Anchorage, Charleston, New Orleans, Pittsburgh, and Tampa - have been able to add capacity over an extended period of time. Political pressures and/or funding limitations have prevented such growth in all the others.

The most important change in this year's report is new analysis of the role of mass transit in addressing traffic congestion. Thanks to funding from the American Public Transportation Association, the report's data tables are now adjusted to estimate the degree to which a metro area's mass transit system reduces the extent of congestion. Basically, TTI measured the extent of actual congestion and then estimated a larger "base" level that would occur if the transit system ceased to exist. TTI concluded, "Overall, if these [transit] riders were not handled on public transportation systems, they would contribute an additional roadway delay of approximately one billion hours [per year] or 30 percent of total delay." Needless to say, these very positive findings were heavily publicized by APTA the day the TTI report was released.

Alas, that conclusion is a considerable exaggeration of transit's impact. Wendell Cox and Ron Utt pointed me to Chapter 14 ("The Importance of Public Transportation") of the Federal Highway Administration's latest biennial Conditions and Performance Report to see why (www.fhwa.dot.gov/policy/2002cpr/ch14.htm). If you go to Exhibit 14-2, you will see that data from the Federal Transit Administration's Transit Performance Monitoring System reveals that 68 percent of all transit users did not have access to a car at the time their transit trip was made. These people mostly either do not own a car or cannot drive. Therefore, if the transit system ceased to exist (per TTI's methodological assumption), most of them would not be on the road in their own car, adding to congestion. Perhaps only one-third of them would do so. Thus, instead of reducing potential traffic delay by 30 percent nationwide, mass transit more likely is responsible for 10 percent.

Now that is still important, and for people without access to cars (the so-called transit-dependent), mass transit can be essential for mobility. But when it comes to making policy decisions, we need to understand the contribution of each type of investment (ramp metering, incident management, signal timing, lane additions, transit additions) as accurately as possible. Fortunately, TTI says it plans to refine these new analytical techniques over the next few years as part of a research effort sponsored by TRB's National Cooperative Highway Research Program.


Comprehensive Report on Road Pricing Strategies

Deloitte Research has just released a major study on ways of using road pricing to address traffic congestion. Called Combating Gridlock: How Pricing Road Use Can Ease Congestion, it provides an in-depth assessment of London's 2003 area-pricing scheme, as well as up-to-date discussions of corridor pricing (e.g., California's 91 Express Lanes), national schemes (like Germany's forthcoming GPS-based tolling of all heavy trucks), and future integrated schemes (in which pricing would become the predominant means of paying for surface transportation).

This is one of the best overviews of the current state of the art of road pricing that I've seen. Not only is it comprehensive and up-to-date, it's well-written and a pleasure to read. I must confess that I'm friends with two of the three authors, Bill Eggers and Peter Samuel. Bill used to work for me at the Reason Public Policy Institute, eventually becoming head of our Privatization Center before moving to Texas to work for the State Comptroller. He's now in Washington, DC with Deloitte. Peter Samuel is a Reason adjunct scholar and author or co-author of a number of Reason policy studies. An economist by training, he's become one of America's best transportation journalists.

Both the report and its executive summary are available on-line, though you have to register to be able to download them. Go to www.dc.com to do that. The full report is www.dc.com/pdf/gridlock.pdf.


New Toll Roads Online Resource

Speaking of Peter Samuel, for most of this year I have sorely missed his Toll Roads Newsletter, to which I was a charter subscriber. Peter is an indefatigable researcher, and he never ceased to amaze me by ferreting out new toll projects I'd never heard of, both here in the United States and all over the world. But the cost and time involved in publishing the newsletter never matched the subscription revenues, so Peter pulled the plug early this year.

But the good news is he's been hard at work developing an on-line replacement, which has just gone live (at www.tollroadsnews.com). I've only had time to scan the site, but I'm pleased to report that it's chock full of news and information, much of which (despite my numerous other sources) I'd not seen before. Peter tells me there are 160 new articles for 2003 thus far, all written after the demise of the print version. There is also a comprehensive Archive of all previous articles from the print edition (from 1996 through 2002), all findable via a search engine.

For the moment, there is no "toll" to use the service, though one is being planned. So you can try out the system for free. Once the payment mechanism exists, previous subscribers to the print edition will be getting a password and free use of the system for the balance of their subscriptions, and others will be invited to pay.


Does Sprawl Lead to Longer Commutes?

The ongoing debate over suburban land use often seems like more of a shouting match than a real debate based on facts. There have been a lot of assertions about what "sprawl" does, but all too few facts. A new research paper in the online journal Planning and Markets addresses one aspect of this debate: does sprawl lead to longer or shorter commutes?

Prof. Randall Crane and Ph.D. candidate Daniel Chatman began by noting that increasing residential suburbanization could have two alternative effects on commuting behavior. Since jobs tend to follow housing to the suburbs, though with a time lag, sprawl could lead to shorter average commutes, in time and/or distance. Or, if job locations are relatively static or if two-worker households make the situation more complex, sprawl could lead to longer average commutes. Many advocates of "smart growth" assume the latter, but there is surprisingly little real data.

Crane and Chatman used two large data sets, one on workers and their commute distances from the American Housing Survey (Census Bureau data) and the other being county-level employment data by industrial sector from the Bureau of Economic Analysis. Overall, they find that "the more suburbanized is employment - that is, the more sprawl - the shorter the average commute." They find strong differences by industry, however. In the construction and wholesale fields, employment dispersal is associated with short commutes. But the opposite is true with the manufacturing and government sectors. The authors hypothesize that clustering may be more pronounced in those sectors, which could decouple their shift to suburban locations from shorter average commutes.

You can find this interesting paper, as well as the rest of Vol. 6, Issue 1 of Planning and Markets, at www-pam.usc.edu/.


Best Corridors for Toll Truckways Being Identified

I've had a number of questions recently about the status of ongoing Reason research to identify the most promising corridors for Toll Truckways (proposed new heavy-duty lanes to be added to selected long-haul Interstate routes to permit trucking companies to haul highly productive long-double and triple-trailer rigs). Peter Samuel and I have been crunching numbers for several months now, making use of a huge freight database graciously provided to us by Wilbur Smith Associates. We've developed selection criteria and used them (plus inputs from the trucking industry) to identify 20 potentially viable Interstate corridors. We've recently applied a quantitative scoring system that permitted us to rank-order these candidate corridors. Now, in the final step of the analysis, we are checking with state DOTs in the states through which our top-ranked routes would run to ascertain the degree of available right of way in each corridor. We're hoping to complete the analysis this month, the writing next month, have the work peer-reviewed, and publish it some time in January, as Congress returns to resume work on reauthorization. I'll keep you posted.


HOT Lanes Are Picking Up Steam

This really seems to be the year that HOT lanes are coming into their own. Ken Orski and I recently put together an overview of these developments, which Ken published in the latest issue of Innovation Briefs. I'm attaching a copy to this newsletter. (If it fails to come through, or you can't open it, let me know and I'll email it to you separately.)


Last Call for International Conference on Road Pricing

Now is your last chance to register for this very important conference in Miami, November 20th and 21st. It's being put on by TRB, OECD, Federal Highway Administration, and Florida DOT. The venue is the Sonesta Beach Hotel on Key Biscayne, just a short drive southeast of Miami International Airport. I've served on the Steering Committee that has planned this conference over the past year, and we've assembled just about everyone you'd want to hear on what's happening today in road pricing. You can register online, or at least check out the program, by going to the TRB's conference site. Hope to see you there.


Robert Poole is Searle Freedom Trust Transportation Fellow and Director of Transportation Policy


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