Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Do You Know What "Gentrification" Means?

A recent article at the Metro Trends blog, unfortunately, seems to have conflated youth with gentrification, and in the process even managed to confuse the meaning of the word "revitalization."

Their case, essentially, is that cities are attracting young, educated 20-35 year-olds -- people from the Millennial generation -- but maybe it's not as much as we all like to think. That's debatable, but then they go on to say that what is increasing by a lot is college-educated adults, as if that's some kind of revelation, and evidence that gentrification isn't happening as much as we all think.

It's hard to even explain how confused they are about what gentrification is without reproducing the whole article, so I recommend you take 3 minutes to read it. Because of how they rewrote the article after discovering a flaw in their data, it's hard to tease out their conclusion, but what does seem clear is that they're using in-migration of hipsters and young professionals, "gentrification," and "revitalization" as basically interchangeable terms.

So let's just clear things up. First, some good old Oxford English Dictionary definitions:

Gentrify: To renovate or convert (housing, esp. in an inner-city area) so that it conforms to middle-class taste; to render (an area) middle-class.

Gentry: (1) Rank by birth (usually, high birth; rarely in neutral sense); (2) People of gentle birth and breeding; the class to which they belong; in modern English use spec. the class immediately below the nobility.

To be a member of the gentry, in the archaic use of the word, is to be of high social ranking, but not quite among the elite of society. In the modern sense, to gentrify is to convert an area to a higher economic (and therefore social) class and character. The specific definition refers to a conversion to middle class tastes, but I think it's fair to say that the meaning of the word has evolved to include any such conversion: low to middle class, middle to upper class, whatever.

Notice that this says nothing about a person's age. Gentrification is about wealth and social class, not age. Whether the affluent person moving into San Francisco and displacing long-time, lower-income residents is 25 or 55 years old, that's still gentrification. (And to be clear, the new resident has every right to move where they like, if they can afford to do so -- it's government's responsibility to accommodate enough growth to provide new residents housing while limiting displacement.)

People talk so much about gentrification and Millennials that it seems they've started to mean the same thing to some people, and now even a completely benign word like "revitalization" is being demonized. If nothing else I think this just demonstrates how little people really understand about the connection between housing supply and demand, affordability, and demographics. If we can't even keep our buzz words straight we've got a long way to go toward finding a solution.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Why High-Speed Rail Isn't Less Cost-Effective Than Other Transit Investments (Part Two)


Last week UCLA published a working paper arguing that urban transportation projects were more cost-effective at reducing greenhouse gas emissions than high-speed rail (HSR). I posted a critique of that paper, focusing first on the benefits side of the ledger, showing that the authors had overstated the user savings of light rail, bus, and bicycle infrastructure projects while HSR's savings may have been undersold. This week, I'm going to look at costs.

I want to start this out by noting that the study's authors, Juan Matute and Mikhail Chester, Ph.D, seem to be focused on making a case for using the state's cap-and-trade revenues for what they view as worthy investments. That's fine, and there should be a debate about how those funds are spent, but the premises of that debate should be accurate. I don't think this working paper meets that requirement in its current form.

LA's Orange Line bus rapid transit and bicycle path, and Gold Line light rail services are all great projects, and we absolutely should invest in more bicycle paths, light rail, bus rapid transit, and pedestrian facilities. The error in the UCLA report is in the belief that these projects are in competition with HSR, which shouldn't be the case.

Now, onto the numbers.


CAPITAL AND OPERATING COSTS

The California High Speed Rail Authority's 2014 Draft Business Plan says the project should cost $54.9 billion in 2013 dollars to build up to Phase 1, which gets us from San Francisco to Los Angeles. If this estimate sounds low, it's because reports on the rail line often use year-of-expenditure numbers, but we're going to use 2013 dollars for capital, revenue, and costs to keep things simple and consistent. (The UCLA authors use this same 2014 draft business plan for their report, by the way.) The following table shows the projects estimated capital cost; the relevant number can be found in the last row of the "Cumulative Capital Cost (Billions 2013$) column:

Projected capital costs.
According to the UCLA study, $54 billion is the total high-speed rail project cost. That's wrong. The authors make the erroneous assumption that HSR will operate at a zero-profit level, apparently using an obscure table from page 55 of the 2014 business plan that shows a net operating cash flow of $165 million. For whatever reason, they seem to have interpreted this number as the total profit of the project for its entire lifecycle. I suspect it actually represents a single year's profit in an early year of the initial operating segment's active service, but it doesn't actually matter because we have much more detailed figures in this very same business plan.

First let's look at operating/maintenance costs and lifecycle costs. Here are the tables that summarize those costs:

Projected operating and maintenance costs.
Projected lifecycle costs.
There are low, medium, and high ridership scenarios, which effect these costs: more riders means higher operations, maintenance, and lifecycle costs (as well as higher revenues, which we'll get to). They only provided the annual O&M costs at five-year intervals, so I summed them up by averaging the costs at adjacent 5-year periods, then multiplying that average cost by 5 for every column except for 2060, which is the final year of the project's lifecycle. Here's an example:
O&M costs under the high ridership scenario are projected to be $403 million in 2025 and $920 million in 2030. Averaging those numbers gives us an annual cost of $661.5 million, for a total of $3.3075 billion over five years from 2025 to 2029. This isn't perfect but it's a close approximation, and revenues are summed in the same way so any error should be canceled out on the revenue side.
Lifecycle costs mostly consist of rolling stock replacement, so costs don't vary too much whether the trains are used frequently or not. They just get old after a while.

Here's a table I made of total operations, maintenance, and lifecycle costs through 2060:

 Scenario O&M Lifecycle Total costs 
 High ridership $34,394 $7,656 $42,050 
 Medium ridership $30,550 $7,029 $37,579 
 Low ridership $27,448 $6,376 $33,824 


REVENUES

Now, if the UCLA authors' assumption is correct, revenues should come out to about the same as costs. That's not the case, as you'll see below.

First, here's another table from the business plan. This one is projected farebox revenues under the three ridership scenarios:

Projected revenues.
This is just farebox revenue, i.e., the revenues from ticket sales. It doesn't include any ancillary income, such as advertising or food and beverage sales. According to the business plan, ancillary income can add anywhere between 2 and 30 percent to revenues above ticket sales. I'm going to assume that ancillary income adds 10 percent to revenues — with opportunities for transit-oriented development and the potential for high-profit services targeted at business travelers, I think this is fairly conservative. 

Revenues with and without this additional income can be found below:

 Scenario Farebox revenue Ancillary income Total revenue 
 High ridership $74,060 $7,406 $81,466 
 Medium ridership $57,886 $5,789 $63,675 
 Low ridership $43,633 $4,363 $47,996 


SUMMING UP

We've got a lot of numbers at this point, so lets put them all together. Here's capital, operating, maintenance, and lifecycle costs, plus revenue, all in the same table:

 Ridership Capital O&M / Lifecycle Revenue Net cost 
 High ridership ($54,900) ($42,050) $81,466 ($15,484) 
 Medium ridership ($54,900) ($37,579) $63,675 ($28,804) 
 Low ridership ($54,900) ($33,824) $47,996 ($40,727) 

So rather than a $54.9 billion total project cost, as the authors assert, the actual cost according to the CA HSR Business Plan projects that costs will range from $15 to $41 billion through 2060. That's still a huge amount of money, but consider the fact that this is a 520-mile mega-project, and that it's very likely that a portion of this project will be funded with federal assistance (not in the next few years, but this is a long-term project and politics shift rapidly) and/or private partnerships. Accounting for federal and private funding sources, it's entirely possible that the project could net a profit for the state of California in the long term, as well as boosting the regional economy and reducing greenhouse gas emissions statewide.

A study prepared by Parsons Brinckerhoff (and commissioned by the California High Speed Rail Authority) estimates that 4,200 new lane-miles of highway, 115 new airport gates, and 4 runways would need to be constructed to match the capacity of HSR, all at a cost of over $130 billion. This is bogus, frankly, since I don't think anyone believes we're ever going to construct an extra six lanes of freeway between LA and SF. It's quite clear that the vast majority of that highway capacity would never be built in the absence of HSR, though some of the airport expansion remains a distinct possibility. 

Despite this transparent attempt to justify the cost of high-speed rail, I think reasonable people can agree that some expansion of airports and highways will be necessary over the next 45 years to accommodate additional trips of 200-500 miles — unless we build high-speed rail. Is it so hard to imagine that the cost of highway and airport expansions wouldn't reach into the tens of billions over that time period? I, for one, would rather spend that on an emissions-free, displacement-lite transportation mode.

A vision of LA's Union Station in 2050, from Bustler.
Last, we should consider the timeline under consideration here: 2025-2060. Implicit in this study period is the assumption that once the ball drops and 2060 begins, the whole process starts anew. New rails, new trains, new legal bills, new tunneling, new acquisition costs, new everything. Did New York cave in all its subway tunnels after 35 years of operation and start from scratch? It's silly to take such a short-range view on such a monumental project.

There will certainly be significant replacement costs as infrastructure ages into disrepair, but consider the fact that right-of-way acquisition is expected to cost $12 billion, more than a fifth of HSR's total capital cost. That's something you only pay for once. Stations also won't have to be re-constructed, just renovated over time, which is probably accounted for in operations and maintenance anyway. Even track construction, which accounts for nearly half of the total project cost, will be cheaper the second time around. If tracks don't need to be fully replaced after 35 years of use, the costs will be even lower.

Assuming even the medium ridership scenario, if we extend the timeline of high-speed rail service into the year 2100 we easily achieve profits on operations and capital. And that's exactly the perspective we should be taking on this project — it's a long-term investment in California's future, not a short-term economic recovery effort. This is transportation for the long haul (ho ho!), and over the long haul it can be a money-maker that actually helps the state fund other important infrastructure projects, including urban transportation like light rail, bus service, and bicycle and pedestrian improvements. 

I don't think profitability should be the primary goal of HSR, but when you take into account the opportunities for federal and private funding, reduced highway and airport expansion costs, and a longer operations horizon, California high-speed rail has potential to make a lot of money for the state. That's something that urban transportation projects can't say, but that shouldn't be an argument against those forms of investment. Instead, it should be viewed as an argument for high-speed rail — the sooner it begins operation, the sooner it can start creating a funding stream for our state's various other infrastructure needs.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

How Car-Free is Your Neighborhood? Every Census Tract in the US, Mapped.

Screen capture of the car-free commute map for my current home, Los Angeles.
My NCAA bracket came to a close yesterday (curse you, Michigan State), so it's fitting that March Mapness come to a close as well.

I've been working over the past month on uploading census tract boundaries for every state in the US, and Washington DC, and creating some nifty maps to show what that boundary data can be used for. Now all those maps are complete, so I compiled them into one mega-map of all 72,000 census tracts in the United States, categorized by the share of commuters who get to work by foot, by bike, or by public transportation — anything that doesn't involve a car. The colors divide census tracts into those with less than a 5 percent car-free commute share, then 5 to 10 percent, 10 to 20 percent, and so on.

Keep in mind that this map is for commute data only, so trips other than for work and school are not included. Unfortunately, that's the best the American Community Survey can offer at this level of resolution. Hopefully in the future they begin to gather data on all trip types, not just commutes. In the mean time, commuting hours are when the largest numbers of people are on the road and congestion is at its worst, so knowing how people are getting to and from is still very useful. This kind of information can be used as a first step in deciding where to place bike share stations, where to prioritize bicycle lanes or pedestrian improvements, where bus-only lanes may be warranted, you name it. Where car-free commutes are less common, it can identify seed neighborhoods that lead their city in active or public transportation use and would benefit most from investment in these modes.

With all that in mind, here's the final product:



To see the map in a full screen, click here.

The purpose of this was to provide a resource, not just in the maps themselves, but in the census tract boundary data that underlies them. I hope that readers will make use of these data to create their own localized maps of whatever they can think of. Be creative! As the amount of data we collect increases, the number of things we can visualize in interesting, meaningful ways continues to grow.

This was also a learning experience, and I've become much more familiar with Google Fusion, the free app I used to create these maps. If you'd like some guidance on how to create maps of your own, feel free to email me with your questions.

The map itself is a resource, of course, and I encourage readers to share it broadly, however you like. No permission is required, but a link back to this post would be appreciated. Post it on your own blog, share it with your local public transit agency and active transportation advocacy organizations. Call your senators! Call your mother! She misses you.

The mode share data is also freely available, and it's easy to embed the maps wherever you like.

For those interested in embedding the map on your own site, you'll want to go here, click the tab that says "Map: Car-free Commutes, all US census tracts," pull down the tab that says "Publish," and copy from there. The embedded map will show whatever you're looking at when you hit "Publish" — in my case I was viewing Seattle, for example — so keep that in mind if you want to highlight a specific area.

  • Here's some more information you may find useful:This is the link to the full list of US census tract boundary data, which can be merged with any data you find that's got a census GEOID associated with it. (All Census/ACS tract-level data includes a GEOID.) 
  • And this is a brief tutorial on how to use Google's Fusion Tables. It's not the easiest thing to figure out right away, and the tutorial is a bit outdated, but compared to something like ArcGIS it's a breeze. The functionality isn't on the level of GIS, but you can do some pretty amazing things with very limited knowledge/expertise. 
  • Commute data was taken from the 2012 American Community Survey 5-year data set, which averages data collected from 2008 to 2012.
  • Census tract boundary data was taken from Census.gov, here, using the generalized (not detailed) boundaries.

Last, if there's anything you feel is missing, or questions you'd like cleared up, don't hesitate to email me. Enjoy!

UPDATE: I've added maps for public transit, bicycle, and walking commute mode shares. I didn't include those who work at home in the counts for the car-free mode share map, because they don't technically commute, but I made a map of that as well. All of them can be found below. Note that the scales vary, so while a purple census tract in the car-free commute map may represent 50-percent-or-higher mode share, for example, on the public transit map it represents only 30 percent or more.


Public Transit Mode Share:


Click here to view the full-sized public transit mode share map.


Walking Mode Share:


Click here to view the full-sized pedestrian mode share map.


Bicycle Mode Share:


Click here to view the full-sized pedestrian mode share map.


Work at home mode share:


Click here to view the full-sized pedestrian mode share map.

March Mapness: The Least Car-Dependent Neighborhoods in Hawaii and Alaska

March Mapness continues... and is coming to an end! These are the last two maps; all that's left is a map for the whole country.

Here's the car-free commute map for Hawaii and Alaska. This shows the percentage of residents in each census tract who get to work on foot, bike, or transit -- anything that doesn't involve a car.

I'm creating a map for each state and I've already uploaded census tract boundary files for the entire country, so others who are interested can (and should!) make their own maps showing whatever they'd like.



Here's a link to the full-sized map.

For those interested in embedding the map on their own site, you'll want to go here, click the tab that says "Hawaii-Alaska," pull down the tab that says "Publish," and copy from there. The embedded map will show whatever you're looking at when you hit "Publish" -- in my case I was viewing Honolulu, for example -- so keep that in mind if you want to highlight a specific area.

March Mapness: The Least Car-Dependent Neighborhoods in Oklahoma, Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, Arkansas, and Missouri

March Mapness continues.

Here's the car-free commute map for Oklahoma, Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, Arkansas, and Missouri. This shows the percentage of residents in each census tract who get to work on foot, bike, or transit -- anything that doesn't involve a car.

I'm creating a map for each state and I've already uploaded census tract boundary files for the entire country, so others who are interested can (and should!) make their own maps showing whatever they'd like.



Here's a link to the full-sized map.

For those interested in embedding the map on their own site, you'll want to go here, click the tab that says "Oklahoma-Iowa-Nebraska-Kansas-Arkansas-Missouri," pull down the tab that says "Publish," and copy from there. The embedded map will show whatever you're looking at when you hit "Publish" -- in my case I was viewing Kansas City, for example -- so keep that in mind if you want to highlight a specific area.

March Mapness: The Least Car-Dependent Neighborhoods in Kentucky and Tennessee

March Mapness continues.

Here's the car-free commute map for Kentucky and Tennessee. This shows the percentage of residents in each census tract who get to work on foot, bike, or transit -- anything that doesn't involve a car.

I'm creating a map for each state and I've already uploaded census tract boundary files for the entire country, so others who are interested can (and should!) make their own maps showing whatever they'd like.



Here's a link to the full-sized map.

For those interested in embedding the map on their own site, you'll want to go here, click the tab that says "Kentucky-Tennessee," pull down the tab that says "Publish," and copy from there. The embedded map will show whatever you're looking at when you hit "Publish" -- in my case I was viewing Louisville, for example -- so keep that in mind if you want to highlight a specific area.

March Mapness: The Least Car-Dependent Neighborhoods in Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana

Unlike my NCAA bracket, March Mapness continues.

Here's the car-free commute map for Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. This shows the percentage of residents in each census tract who get to work on foot, bike, or transit -- anything that doesn't involve a car.

I'll be creating a map for each state and uploading census tract boundary files so that others who are interested can make their own maps showing whatever they'd like. If you'd like your state's map up earlier rather than later, just let me know.



Here's a link to the full-sized map.

For those interested in embedding the map on their own site, you'll want to go here, click the tab that says "Georgia-South Carolina-Alabama-Mississippi-Louisiana," pull down the tab that says "Publish," and copy from there. The embedded map will show whatever you're looking at when you hit "Publish" -- in my case I was viewing Atlanta, for example -- so keep that in mind if you want to highlight a specific area.