Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Manhattanization isn't a thing; your city has plenty of room to grow comfortably

Sorry to readers that I haven't been writing over the past month or so; wrapping up my time at USC while working has proven more time-consuming than I'd like. I did manage to put together an interesting post at my work blog, however, and I wanted to share it here too.

I won't get into the details here—visit the Urban One site for the full story—but I'll tease it with this chart, showing the current population of a number of U.S. cities, in addition to the population if those cities grew to the same density as Manhattan (70,000 people per square mile), and how many times more people would need to live in each city to get there:

The full post—again, find that here—has another chart showing how many years it would take for these cities to fully Manhattanize. (Hint: for most cities its at least a few centuries, longer than the entire history of our country.) It also has a map comparing population growth to physical expansion, because not all cities are growing by increasing density. Instead, places like Phoenix and Austin are mainly growing through annexation, with density relatively unchanged.

There's a lot of interesting facts to be pulled from the data, so check it out and let me know what you think! And feel free to share the charts and map as you like (with attribution, of course)!

Monday, February 16, 2015

Seattle's Sound Transit Hostage Situation

Joe Fain giving himself a high-five after stealing money
from the Seattle region to fund wasteful highway projects
in rural and suburban Washington.
Talk like this pretty much sends me into a frothing rage:
"In order to get, you got to give. There’s a recognition that Sound Transit 3 is very important to our Democratic colleagues, just like finishing some of these incredibly important mega-projects are important to some of the commuters in our districts. So we’re comfortable giving the voters in the ST area an opportunity to vote on whether they want to increase their transit service as part of this larger statewide package."
That's from State Senator Joe Fain (R-Auburn), making the point that the largely Democratic three-county region under Sound Transit's auspices has to do some horse-trading to get the funding they desire. That's politics.

And frankly, that'd all be well and good if we were actually getting anything. In truth, all we get is the right to tax ourselves to build what we need, at no cost to anyone outside the three-county area. What we give is our actual money—billions and billions of dollars—shipped out to the far corners of the state to fund their low-productivity, high-liability highway projects. They'll let us spend our own money on what we want, but only if they get a cut. Somehow they're able to support this with a straight face, as though they're doing us a favor.

The Puget Sound region already subsidizes most of the Republican-dominated areas of the state, and it's ironically the "local control" conservatives that are holding that control hostage to the needs of their own constituents' gas-powered fiscal profligacy.

The best part? They didn't even give us the full taxing authority we asked for. You can count on us getting it eventually—as long as we pitch in a little more of our own money to buy them some fancy new rural interchanges and extra highway lanes.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Why Uber and Lyft Wouldn't Have Succeeded If They'd Tried to Follow the Law

If you can fly a school bus in space, why can't
you drive it from Oakland to San Francisco?
Over at Pacific Standard there's a really interesting story about Night School, a San Francisco-based company that tried to improve evening transportation in the region by making use of school buses during after-school hours. It sounds like a great idea: on the one hand we'd be making more efficient use of our infrastructure and equipment, and on the other hand we'd be making life easier on people who want (or need) to get around without a car. And who knows, maybe the extra revenue for the school bus operator would have meant cheaper lease rates for school districts, too.

But as it turns out, we'll never know because the California Public Utilities Commission decided to step in and make life a living hell for the hopeful business owners. After trying to push their way through the bureaucratic morass for nearly a year, the founders threw in the towel and abandoned their innovative business idea. Call it a transportation own-goal on the part of California government.

As I read this, I kept thinking that this is exactly why Uber and Lyft probably wouldn't have been successful if they'd waited to work things out with the myriad regulatory regimes that might claim some authority over their operations. They'd have probably ended up in a similar position to Night School, beating their head against the wall for a few months or years, all the while giving regulators the time they need to prepare effective roadblocks to the new service model. Some people might dislike the way these businesses went about establishing themselves, but I suspect that most of them would prefer a little lawlessness to continued reliance on the old model of traditional taxi service. (And make no mistake, we'd still be stuck with 1980s-era taxi service if e-hailing companies hadn't entered the market.)

Although there are plenty of forward-looking governmental organizations out there, most are not looking to shake things up, especially groups like public utilities commissions which have little to gain personally from things like new transportation services. Uber and Lyft were successful because they built their support base first, by providing a service that consumers found useful and a source of income for a lot of drivers — then they leveraged that support to secure regulatory and political cover. Night School tried to address the regulatory issues up front, and they found that without a proven base of support, the utilities commission had little incentive to work with them in an accommodating, expedient manner. And here we are.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

About 50 Percent of Major Roads Don't Even Produce Enough Revenue to Cover Maintenance

The High-Five Interchange in Dallas, TX.
By my estimation, most people in this country think that gas taxes and other vehicle-related user fees cover the cost of building and maintaining our nation's roadways. Those people are wrong, unfortunately, to the great detriment of our national transportation policy. The belief that roads are self-supporting is a big part of the reason that we continue to build new capacity even as our roadways deteriorate, and fail to invest in more cost-effective and efficient forms of transportation such as: literally everything else.

The Center for American Progress has a new report out that takes a close look at exactly how wrong this self-sufficiency argument is, and what share of our nation's major roadways are bringing in less money than they cost to maintain. What they find is that, for the most heavily traveled roads (interstates and principal arterials), at least 48 percent don't even bring in enough revenue to cover basic maintenance. In urban areas with populations over one million, that number jumps to 64 percent. And that's just maintenance -- if you're asking how many get enough drivers to pay off initial construction and maintenance, you can probably expect much larger numbers.
The "Loss" row shows the number of miles in each geographic area where interstates and principal arterials are bringing in less revenue than it takes to maintain them. The number that are able to pay for maintenance and up-front construction costs are probably even lower. Screenshot from CAP report.
There are several reasons this is probably a drastic under-estimate of the number of roads that can't cover basic repair costs. For one, this report assumes a cost inflation rate of just one-percent per year for the next 30 years, which is low even by the most conservative estimates. If the real inflation rate of construction work is closer to 3 or 4 percent, which is not an unrealistic expectation, the share of underfunded roads probably increases to around 60 or 70 percent.

The report also only looks at a small number of the total roads in the U.S. It makes the point that because interstates and principal arterial roads tend to get a disproportionate share of total vehicle miles driven (and therefore generate a disproportionate amount of gas tax revenue), local and other lower-trafficked roads are probably in even worse financial shape. A lot of roadway degradation is due to factors other than driving, like weather, so these roads still require ongoing maintenance, even if traffic is relatively light. With less users, and therefore revenue, than the already-underwater major roadways, governments are likely filling gaps with other funds for the large majority of local roads.

Total vehicle-miles traveled in the U.S. flat, and per-capita VMT on the decline, so this is unlikely to change any time soon, particularly if we can't increase the gas tax at the local and federal levels. For states that begin taking into account the externalities of driving, such as carbon emissions and other forms of pollution, health and safety impacts, and opportunity costs relative to more productive uses of land, the calculus will undoubtedly come out even less favorable to roads.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Housing Preference Doesn't Matter When You Can't Afford to Live Where You Prefer

Living in the suburbs vs the city isn't as simple as choosing which you prefer and moving there.
The Reason Foundation's Robert Poole has brought up the issue of housing choice in a transportation news update last week, arguing, yet again, that the media is exaggerating the Millennial preference for urban housing. His evidence includes an analysis by the notoriously biased (and regularly debunked) Wendell Cox in addition to data from a mysterious survey that I can't even track down, but since some people take these guys seriously, I'll take a little time to address the logical fallacy underlying their arguments: namely, that where people currently live is the best measure of where people actually prefer to live.

The way Mr. Poole sees things, because more Millennials live in suburban housing today than did 15 years ago, suburban housing is clearly their preferred housing type. There are a few problems with this view, and the most important is that it ignores the reality of prices and affordability — Millennials (and others) may prefer to live in urban communities, but if they can't afford to do so, their preferences are largely irrelevant.

And because the age group he's looking at is young and at the beginning their careers, many Millennials are especially sensitive to price beyond a relatively low threshold. In quite a few of the most thriving U.S. cities, housing in the urban core is affordable to only a very small subset of under-30 residents: those that earn much more than the average 20-something, and those that are willing to pile into small units with multiple roommates. The remainder of the Millennial cohort, many of whom might prefer a downtown loft to a suburban garden-style apartment or shared single-family home, if they could afford it, are not so much expressing their highest preference as being driven by the necessity to find a place they can afford. Price is a far better measure of the demand for urban housing, and it's price that explains why Millennials are so often unable to afford living in the city. Any assessment of preference that doesn't consider affordability is inherently flawed.

A site adjacent to Beacon Hill Station in Seattle left vacant
due to poor planning following a major light rail investment.
Another important consideration is whether the housing that's built corresponds to the housing that's most desired. A big part of the problem is that, despite strong demand for more walkable, urban housing, that's not the type of housing being built: I estimate a shortage of at least 8 million walkable housing units in the U.S., a deficit that will take decades to cure at current multifamily construction rates.

This again comes back to affordability, as well as regulation: It's much easier and much cheaper to build low-density housing in areas where demand isn't quite as high, land costs are considerably lower, and regulations that limit development tend to be much more lax. Most people will settle for suburban housing when they can't afford the urban housing they prefer, so these non-ideal units still get snapped up. But that's not an expression of preference for suburban housing, that's an expression of preference for not being homeless.

I don't mean for this to be an excuse for the flawed system of development that typifies most coastal cities. Matthew Yglesias writes that housing affordability is Blue America's greatest failing, and I agree. This is simply an acknowledgement that people need a place to live, and when it's illegal or fiscally impractical to build homes for them in one place, developers will build those homes somewhere else — to the detriment of our overall quality of life, health, safety, and environment.

Poole, an unabashedly pro-oil, pro-car advocate, concludes his post lamenting the "wishful thinking" of urban planners who build extensive transit infrastructure even as people continue to choose suburban, car-dependent lifestyles. He's correct that urban planners and other city leaders have fallen prey to wishful thinking, but not in the way he implies. Their failing is in thinking that transit investments alone would create the multimodal, sustainable communities we seek — particularly when those investments continue to defer to cars at the expense of transit users.

Many cities, Los Angeles and Seattle included, have committed to massive expenditures on new bus and rail infrastructure, but few have been nearly so bold in regard to housing development. This has worked out nicely for the relatively few residents that are able to secure income-restricted housing near transit, those that can afford units in the small number of new transit-oriented developments, and especially for those that owned property near stations before they were built. For most everyone else the impact has been sadly limited, and it should be no surprise that as Millennials begin to form their own households, they're choosing to live where new homes are actually being built.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

California Cap-and-Trade Drives Up Gas Prices... By About 3 Cents... Maybe...

California's cap-and-trade program now covers gasoline, and — surprise! — it looks like the doomsayers were wrong. State Republican lawmakers (and even some Democrats) recently tried to delay or exempt gas from the cap-and-trade program, arguing that California residents can't afford more expensive fuel, but they couldn't have picked a worse time for the fight: the update to the law took effect on January 1st, after a six-month period in which national prices took a 50 percent nose dive. This chart sums up the new tax's impact nicely:

Fear the tail!
Since the new year, prices have gone up by about 3 cents. Ahhh!!! This compares favorably to apocalyptic predictions from the California Driver's Alliance, which claimed that prices would increase from 16 to 76 cents a gallon. Actual experts have estimated that the cap-and-trade program will increase gas costs by about $0.10 per gallon in the long run, and it's still very early, so we'll see.

As an admitted amateur in the field of gas price prediction (though with a much better record than several former presidential nominees), I'm not going to pull a Reason and pretend that three days is enough time to fully adjust to this new reality. At the very least, though, it's reasonable to assume that the carbon tax is responsible for the small bump over the past few days.

...Right?

Well, I got a little curious and looked at the same chart for some other states, it turns out that California's not the only state with a slight bump since the new year. Here are a few other states (and D.C.) with similar increases:

Oklahoma
Washington State
New York
Washington, D.C.
There were also many states whose gas prices continued to slide since the 1st of the month, and even more where prices held steady, so none of this is to say that the cap-and-trade program won't result in persistently higher prices, even if the impact is slight. Maybe it just means we shouldn't jump to conclusions too quickly. Gasoline is still essential for many, many Americans, and if oil companies want to pass along the increased cost to consumers there's very little to stop them — that is, until more viable alternatives to driving are available. 

It's also important to remember that, while driving remains non-negotiable for millions of Californians today, the proceeds of the cap-and-trade program are primarily dedicated to funding projects that reduce the need for car dependence and decrease carbon emissions in the process. More than half of revenues — which are expected to reach at least $3 billion annually — will be spent on clean, energy-efficient transportation and sustainable, affordable housing. Over time, the fortunes of far fewer residents will be tethered to the price of gas; by then, hopefully, I can start sharing charts about improving environmental quality rather than a three-cent bump in gas prices.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Maybe Uber Should Just Provide Its Own Insurance to Drivers


One of the criticisms of Uber and other ridesharing companies has been that part of the reason they've been so successful is that they've foisted the cost of insurance onto drivers. Insurance companies don't like it when you use your car as for-hire transportation unless you're insured to do so, and that insurance is considerably more expensive. As a result, many drivers have been driving with inadequate insurance, which puts both their passengers and themselves at risk. The "insurance gap" — the time between when a driver logs into Uber and when they actually are dispatched to a customer — has been especially problematic.

Part of the problem is that, thus far, there aren't really hybrid insurance policies that account for drivers who use their cars for-hire some times, and for personal use during other times. This is being worked out to some degree, at least in California and perhaps elsewhere, but it seems like a relatively simple solution would be for Uber to just offer the insurance product themselves. The market isn't supplying them with what they need, so maybe it's time to live up to their innovative name and fill the gap themselves.

Perhaps this is too much of a diversification of interests for Uber, but compared to all the other issues facing Uber right now, this seems like a relatively easy fix. They've already got many of the essential parts in place. For one, no one knows better than them how often their drivers are getting into accidents, so setting their premiums should be fairly simple. They also have direct access to the data on how many hours of the week their drivers are on the job, so the hybrid rate can be perfectly calibrated, individually, to the number of hours of regular driving versus for-hire driving. They can ensure that their drivers are always fully insured by having the premiums deducted from their drivers' paychecks. Last, and perhaps most importantly, Uber is so large that they probably have enough drivers to pool their risk safely.

Uber's too big at this point to be acting like the brash upstart. It's solved some serious problems for urban residents like myself, for which I'm extremely grateful, but it's time to grow up and start addressing some of the problems it's created as well. If Uber's really interested in having their employees and passengers fully covered and "In Good Hands™," as it were, and if the market isn't providing the coverage necessary to ensure that peace of mind, Uber should just go it on its own. With a recent valuation at $40 billion they can certainly afford it, and they could even earn a small additional profit in the process. Their public image is in tatters right now, and if this will help put them on better terms with their critics, it's probably worth the headache.