Thursday, October 11, 2018

A loaded and fraught calculus

From US Census Bureau: Americans' commute times increased; transit ridership dropped by Katie Pyzyk.
An increasingly common refrain is being voiced again with the release of new governmental data sets: American workers’ commutes are getting longer. Plus, fewer commuters are using public transit for the trips.

Those insights come from a portion of the 2017 data recently released in the U.S. Census Bureau’s annual American Community Survey. The survey breaks down data in a variety of categories — including commute times and modes of transportation — for each individual community across the country in addition to providing nationwide data.

The average American’s one-way commute time ticked up slightly from 26.6 minutes in 2016 to 26.9 minutes last year. That might seem small, but it adds up to an extra 2.5 hours spent in traffic over a year’s time.


When considering the way most people traveled to work, it’s not entirely surprising that commute times increased. The lion’s share of U.S. workers — 85.3% — drove to work in 2017, with 76.4% driving alone and 8.9% carpooling. Most of the increase in drivers is from people driving alone, an increase of just under 2 million people, compared with only 27,000 more carpoolers than the previous year.


Along with the increase in the number of people driving comes a dip in the number of commuters using public transportation. In 2017, 7.6 million people took public transportation, a loss of nearly 12,000 commuters. All major transit modes experienced decreases, with the exception of subways and railroads, which added about 65,000 and 13,000 commuters, respectively.

Alternative modes of commuting also took a hit. The number of people cycling to work slipped by about 3%, or 27,000 commuters, and those walking to work dropped by 32,000. Still, at 4.05 million, the number of people walking to work exceeds even the most-used public transit, buses, by about half a million people.

A noteworthy shift from 2017 and 2016 commuting data is the 5% increase in people who are not considered commuters because they work from home. The number of telecommuters — 8 million — now exceeds the total number commuting via all forms of public transportation — 7.6 million.
The decline in bicycling has been going on since 2014. From Commuting by Bicycle is – down? by Dave Mabe.
This makes it even more striking that the number of people commuting by bike in the US has steadily decreased since 2014. This is over a time period where the total US workforce has steadily increased, so in percentage terms the cycling numbers are even worse than the chart above appears (down from a peak in 2014 of 0.62% to 0.55% in 2017).
Mabe explores a number of possible explanations for the decline but comes to no conclusion.

As a board member of one of our City's neighborhood associations, I have just been through the grueling experience of Master Planning, an exercise that, per the City's prescribed procedures, ensures that the residents' actual objectives won't get identified, that alternative solutions won't be explored, and that anything recommended will only be within the City's narrow suite of interests.

The City wants neighborhood associations to focus primarily, to the exclusion of almost all else, on traffic infrastructure. So we did so, in an effort to calm flows, reduce throughput, and improve safety in a neighborhood rich with children and the elderly.

I did much research on the existing state of play in terms of traffic calming strategies as well on the profile of commuting. There is much information available and very little that is useful. For example, the Federal Highway Administration has some excellent research on the cost of various traffic calming strategies (roundabouts, chokepoints, hawk signals, pedestrian crossings, etc.) but little on their effectiveness. Which didn't ultimately matter because any single intervention turns out to have virtually no impact on traffic volume, safety, speed, or congestion. It is the combination of individual interventions which make a difference but there is vanishingly small holistic research on intervention combinations.

Did you know that the accident rates for crossing a street at random versus using a cross-walk are the same? Apparently it is a moral hazard issue. Pedestrians, when using a cross-walk, inappropriately relax their situational awareness in a fashion that puts them at greater danger, even though drivers are being more cautious at the cross walks. Likewise, people crossing in the middle of the street are far more careful because they know drivers aren't expecting them. The net impact is that there are just as many accidents at crosswalks as there are for random crossers but for different reasons.

But back to the main point. What struck me was just how small a role was played by public transport despite decades of capital subsidies and operational subsidies. Public transport works in some select places where there is high density, high cost of living and high incomes. But in the US, many, many of the shiny public transport systems built in the past forty years have failed. Ridership is falling.

Similarly with bicycling. It is very rare for more than 1% of the population to rely on bicycles to get to work. Indeed, more people walk to work than bicycle.

Why? I could not find good answers. I think it goes beyond the tropes of a love affair with cars or cars being a symbol of freedom etc. Cars are expensive. If there were good alternatives, people would use them. The problem is that there aren't good alternatives. Every alternative, for most people, most the time, takes longer, has higher variability in arrival times and costs more than cars. Vehicular commute times might be pushing thirty minutes but that is still far faster and a better use of time than waiting for buses and trains on a public transit trip which might take 60-90 minutes.

Which means that the real kicker is that we are too rich for slow, dirty, less reliable public transit service to be an acceptable alternative. The problem is not that being rich makes it relatively cheaper to own a car, though that is true.

I think the heart of the issue is time value. When I am poor, only earning $10.00 an hour, it is a burden to take public transport which consumes three hours of my day for a roundtrip. But it saves me the cost of car operation and maintenance. I am sacrificing hours to reduce operating expense.

However, if I make $100 an hour, then the time value of money becomes much starker. I can take a car and waste an hour on a roundtrip commute or I can take public transportation and waste three hours. The net is that I am losing $200 a day by taking public transit.

Obviously I am using numbers at the margin and there are all sorts of other variables in play, but I suspect that is the heart of the issue. We are rich enough for commuting to be an economic decision and in all but a few circumstances, cars beat public transportation.

If that is true, then how much of fixed road space to sacrifice to make room for additional bike lanes for the 0.5% who commute by car becomes a loaded and fraught calculus.

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