Rankings that matter: Which cities save the most time and money thanks to public transportation?

Every year the Texas Transportation Institute releases its Urban Mobility Report (aka congestion rankings) and it's rightly pilloried throughout the sustainable transportation media. The single-minded focus on what's good for drivers of private vehicles, and drivers of private vehicles only, leaves much to be desired, but there's a lot of good information in there if you do some digging. Inspired by this article from the Oregonian, which highlights the amount of time and money saved by commuters due to the congestion-reducing contribution of public transportation, I thought I'd see how other metro areas fared. (Portland came in 12th in the country for total savings, not bad for the 23rd-largest metro.)

Rather than just ranking by total savings, however, I decided to calculate savings per person, so that larger metros weren't gaining an unfair advantage. I divided the total savings by both population and by "commuter," a subset of the total population. Interestingly, while nearly every city's "commuter" population is about half that of the total population, according to TTI, the New York metro is a huge outlier with less than a third of its population being considered commuters. I suspect this might be the result of TTI not counting people who walk and bike as commuters, but I can't be sure.

So without further adieu, here are the rankings for the top 25:

RankUrban AreaPopulation (000) Commuters (000) Annual Congestion Cost Increase ($million) Money saved per person ($)Money saved per commuter ($)
1 New York-Newark NY-NJ-CT18,946 6,040 9,586.8 506 1,587
2 San Francisco-Oakland CA4,101 1,931 775.9 189 402
3 Boston MA-NH-RI4,320 1,979 809.4 187 409
4 Chicago IL-IN8,605 3,959 1,542.1 179 390
5 Washington DC-VA-MD4,613 2,011 711.0 154 354
6 Philadelphia PA-NJ-DE-MD5,381 2,406 654.9 122 272
7 Seattle WA3,286 1,659 366.5 112 221
8 Baltimore MD2,523 1,336 248.6 98.53 186
9 Portland OR-WA1,925 932 151.1 78.49 162
10 Salt Lake City UT1,027 538 79.6 77.51 148
11 Pittsburgh PA1,761 926 124.0 70 134
12 Denver-Aurora CO2,348 1,396 127.1 54.13 91
13 Atlanta GA4,360 2,135 232.2 53 109
14 Los Angeles-Long Beach-Santa Ana CA13,229 6,597 695.0 52.54 105
15 San Juan PR2,333 1,235 113.1 48 92
16 Miami FL5,482 2,875 248.8 45 87
17 San Diego CA3,121 1,528 136.0 43.58 89
18 Cleveland OH1,700 857 72.3 43 84
19 New Orleans LA1,065 525 40.3 37.84 77
20 Austin TX1,345 712 50.6 37.62 71
21 Spokane WA-ID383 201 13.4 34.99 67
22 El Paso TX-NM739 387 25.8 34.91 67
23 Houston TX4,129 2,274 144.1 35 63
24 Brownsville TX214 112 7.3 34.11 65
25 Hartford CT905 468 30.4 34 65

(Data from TTI's 2012 Urban Mobility Report.)

A few things stand out right away. First is the huge difference between the savings in the New York Metro compared to everywhere else--the savings are so large, in fact, that if you add the $9.6 billion congestion savings to the $5 billion in farebox revenue that MTA brought in in 2011 you exceed the agency's total budget of $12.6 billion by a full two billion dollars.

The next four metro areas, San Francisco, Boston, Chicago, and D.C. all group together in savings per person/commuter, and, not coincidentally, probably represent the four best transit networks in the country after New York. 

Los Angeles stands out for doing particularly poorly here given its population. They're notorious for being car-centric, although that seems to be changing under the leadership of Mayor Villaraigosa, but given the overall density of the metro area this is a bit perplexing. The LA metro is actually more dense on average than the NY metro, but perhaps the key is pockets of much greater density: the actual city of New York is more than three times as dense as that of LA, and those very dense regions are certainly accounting for a disproportionately high level transit use. Count that as yet another case for density--we get our money's worth when it comes to public transportation spending, both in mobility and savings. Still though, the city of LA is only about 35% less dense than Chicago and yet with five million more people it's got less than half the savings. LA clearly has a lot of catching up to do. If only Measure J had passed.

Bringing it back home: Seattle also gets a lot of flak for having a pretty wimpy transit system (also improving, but still far from ideal), but we can see here that we're getting good value from what we've got so far. As the 15th-largest metro in the country we rank 7th for money saved per person, putting us very cleanly near the top of the "second-tier" public transportation systems. With 1.8 cents out of every sales-taxed dollar spent in King county devoted to transit--besides fare revenue, this is the vast majority of metro funding--you'd have to spend over $12,000 a year to pay back the $221 every commuter saves thanks to the metro system.

All of these numbers, as with the report from which they're derived, should be taken with a grain of salt. At the same time, I think they do a good job of illustrating the value of public transportation in our daily lives. There's a whole range of environmental, health, and social benefits to a robust transit system, but for the most successful networks the economic case can be justification enough for continued investment.

Improving the downtown driving experience is impossible

Downtown Seattle--as with most central districts in most medium-to-large cities--can't expand its network of roads. Everything that isn't a building, a park, or a parking lot is already devoted to road space or pedestrian space, and even if you wanted to do so you couldn't take away enough sidewalk to provide an extra lane anywhere. On top of that, any congestion relief that new lanes added would quickly be eaten up by the incredible demand for driving to business district destinations; induced demand and the Tragedy of the Commons at work. So even if extra car lanes magically appeared, traffic would be no better off in the long run. You'd just have more cars.

You simply can't win with cars in dense areas: once a terrible-but-just-barely-acceptable level of congestion is reached, equilibrium sets in and the number of cars entering the district doesn't change much. Logistically it can't increase (there's no more room), and it won't decrease because the hassle of dealing with that equilibrium level of traffic is still a fair trade for many people compared with the conveniences of driving. Look at any large city and you see the same thing. Terrible traffic is a staple of big cities because downtowns contain far more destinations than there are roads to facilitate driving to them, and that's not going to change. We've accepted that dense cities are valuable economically, socially, environmentally, and culturally, and we need to accept that as long as this is true traffic will accompany it. The best thing we can do is to provide alternatives to driving that are actually appealing to the average person.

These facts regarding driving downtown are important because of how they contrast with transit use downtown: by dedicating more space to buses, streetcars, and light rail we are actually able to improve the quality of transit trips, something we can't achieve for cars. With the recent advent of bus rapid transit (BRT) in Seattle, we've seen very clearly the price we pay for our decision to force buses to share lanes with cars. That price, of course, is consistent congestion and delays that effectively negates the entire purpose of BRT. This is what we're seeing with the D Line traveling from Ballard to Downtown, and plenty of other popular lines--particularly those that travel along permanently-congested corridors like Denny, or just about any area in downtown.

And back to cars, just as increasing car lanes wouldn't improve traffic downtown, decreasing them wouldn't worsen it. Instead, it would change the equilibrium level of cars entering and leaving the central business district. It would change the congestion vs. convenience equation for enough people that transit ridership to and from downtown would increase and single-occupant vehicle driving would decrease, but traffic congestion in general would remain relatively unchanged. Except for transit riders! There are real gains that we can make on behalf of those who choose not to commute by car, or can't afford to. They're the only real gains available to us, and we should seize them.

We have three choices. First is to stick with the status quo, which no one really likes. It's not good for anyone. It sucks to drive in Seattle, and it sucks to take the bus. Our second option is to take away what few lanes are currently dedicated to transit and turn them over to cars, and to expand road space for cars wherever we can, however little space there may be for it. This won't improve things for current car commuters because of the reasons discussed above, and will leave transit users worse off. Third is to take some lanes (some lanes--a tiny minority of the total road space) away from cars in order to vastly improve the reliability and speed of some of the most vital transit lines in the city. Some car drivers will be forced to find another way to get into downtown during rush hour, yes, but quite a few will also be happy to start taking the bus with it's newly-improved service. And those who continue to drive won't notice much difference, because traffic can only get so bad and we're already there.

There's plenty of complaining in the news about cars being picked on, but I don't hear much constructive criticism about how things can actually be improved, whether it be for cars, transit users, or both. The status quo is untenable, and we can't devote any more space to cars. What else can we do? I choose option three.

What would Seattle look like if Metro fares weren't subsidized?

There are a lot of people out there who consider it a waste to use taxpayer money subsidizing transit fares in urban areas. Obviously I'm not one of them, and my response to those people is usually to note that if all those people drove instead traffic would be (even more) unbearable, pollution and oil dependence would increase, public health and safety would suffer, and more space dedicated to parking in apartment units would increase rents as well.

This usually leads to an argument about how if I want to save the world then it shouldn't be on the car drivers' dollar, to which I respond that the majority of Metro's operating budget comes from sales tax*, which everyone pays (and the lower your income the larger the proportion of your income paid as sales tax), followed by transit fares, then federal and state grants for the capital budget. The total spent on transit by King County Metro is about $1 billion per year. Certainly some money comes directly from those who drive, for example the 2-year $20 vehicle license fee in effect right now that the King County Council approved to mitigate a 17% cut in Metro service last year. There are other things too, higher up in the state budget. But most people who use the bus also own at least one car. So round and round we go, point-counterpoint.

Where your sales tax money is being spent (source: kingcounty.gov)

Where your sales tax money is being spent (source: kingcounty.gov)

Lately I've been asking the question: what do you propose we do instead? These people seem extremely averse to spending money on mass transit, but especially in light of our growing population and a lack of room for any more roads, I don't hear many alternatives being offered. I'm all for directing more money toward maintenance rather than endlessly expanding our infrastructure (and therefore our maintenance liabilities), but it's obvious that simply maintaining what we've got is a recipe for a steadily worsening transportation system as the population increases. I've yet to get a straight answer from anyone on what they'd actually prefer to see (as opposed to "no more trains!" and "no more war on cars!"), so feel free to let me know in the comments what your vision is for the transportation system if you don't support subsidizing mass transit.

As a thought experiment about public transportation subsidies, here's what I think it would look like if we started demanding that everyone pay the full, unsubsidized cost of their fares:

First off, Metro fares are currently about $2.50 (up a dollar since 2008) in Seattle. We've got a roughly 28% farebox recovery rate, meaning that we recoup 28% of our operating expenses in the form of user fees. If we wanted to increase that to 100% we'd have to charge about $9 per ride and that's making the inane assumption that increasing fares more than threefold will not reduce ridership. So, to get to and from work we're looking at $18, and assuming five work days a week we've got about $360 a month spent just on the work/school commute. Add another ten trips during the month for various errands and we're up to $450.

Many bus riders could afford this, but would they choose to? Given that the vast majority of mass transit users own cars anyway, the question now becomes whether gas + parking (car payment, licensing fees, and insurance already being paid for) adds up to $450 per month, and the answer is almost certainly "no." So everyone who owns a car starts using it for almost all of their trips, even if they used to prefer using the bus or train to get around most of the time.

For those who don't own cars, the decision is a bit more difficult. They have to decide whether the cost of a car payment, licensing fees, insurance, gas, and parking are a better deal than $450 a month in fares. Personally, I owned a 1995 Camry for five years that cost me $5,000 to purchase and about $2,000 in maintenance over it's lifetime, which adds up to about $120 per month for 60 months. Add $50 for liability insurance (if you're over 24 and have a clean driving record, at least), $50 or so for various fees, and $100 for gas (optimistically). We'll ignore parking for now, but I'll get to that later. That adds up to $320 per month, far under the cost of a month of busing and much more convenient, too. So many people who don't currently own cars also start driving them to get around everywhere.

Who's left after that? Basically the very poor, the young, and the very old. In other words, the transit system falls apart due to lack of a constituency and we don't actually have mass transit anymore. Everyone drives everywhere, and those who can't due to age, ability, or income are left to fend for themselves. Even if we limited transit subsidies to just these people, they don't make up a large enough share of the population to constitute a real transit system and many of them already struggle with $2.50 fares, so instead we'd end up with a bunch of incredibly inefficient routes serving a relatively small pool of people. In our quest to end transit subsidies we end up with a system with a farebox recovery rate that is probably closer to 5-10%, subsidized to an even greater degree than before. If efficiency was the goal here we've failed miserably.

And what about all the people already driving as their primary means of transportation? Needless to say, traffic and parking get much worse, particularly downtown where a large proportion of transit trips begin and end. Less of their money is going toward transit projects though, and more toward roads. This does almost nothing to improve traffic in Seattle since there's no room for more roads, but maybe existing roads are kept in a better state of repair. Maybe not though, since all of those cars take a toll on the road, and since congestion has increased everyone is spending more of their time on the pavement. Pollution worsens; people walk around less and sit in traffic more, both of which are bad for physical and mental health; and although the full 1.8 cents of sales tax** that is devoted to transit is no longer needed, those savings are almost certainly eaten away--and then some--by the extra gas wasted sitting in the worsened traffic.

More of this. Right on.

More of this. Right on.

To make matters worse for drivers, with more people now reliant on cars parking in central Seattle will become scarce. This means two things: first, metered street parking rates increase drastically in order to maintain their target of one open space per block; second, as paid parking lots and garages begin to fill up and supply is saturated, demand drives prices for private parking up too. Likewise for parking rates in apartments, driving up effective rents. New apartments and condos built in the city will start including more underground parking (an extremely expensive form of parking infrastructure), adding tens of thousands of dollars to the cost of each unit. This general phenomenon would likely recapitulate itself in every neighborhood center, driving up parking rates not just in downtown, Capitol Hill, and South Lake Union, but Fremont, Ballard, the University District, Wallingford, Queen Anne, Columbia City, Eastlake, etc.

This would be a terrible outcome for drivers, particularly those who preferred to take the bus but can no longer afford it, but it's bad for the economy too. There are already people who avoid traveling to Seattle because of the traffic and lack of cheap parking. (Personally, I hated Seattle before moving here because my only experiences involved driving around in it.) If the buses disappear you can count on that sentiment getting far stronger, and a lot of business that comes in from outside the city will quickly evaporate. That means less business for just about every type of service- or retail-based company in the city, and reduced tax revenue as a result. So all that money we're saving by not sending the entire 1.8 cents of sales tax toward transit? It's at least partially offset by the loss of sales tax revenue from non-Seattleites who now avoid Seattle when they can. That's to say nothing of Seattleites themselves, who are now spending more on gas (or in the case of former busers, transportation in general) and have less money to spend on food, drinks, entertainment, rent, electronics, bicycles, clothing, etc. Once again, this means less revenue for the city, and all those sales tax savings are chipped away even further.

Have I made myself clear? Subsidized public transportation is not a luxury in a large urbanized city: it's a necessity. I made a point of glossing over the moral implications of removing these subsidies not because it's unimportant--it's vitally important--but because the economic argument is sufficient unto itself. By dedicating 19% of our sales tax toward public transportation we ensure that Seattle is able to function as the cultural and economic center of our region. Non-automotive options for getting into, out of, and around the city are essential if we're to retain that position, and our investment in those options more than pays for itself by keeping more spending local, restraining housing costs, and allowing us to remain a viable destination for those who come to our city by car, either by choice or of necessity.

*Fun fact: One-quarter of the sales tax collected for Metro goes toward capital expenses. If the entire 1.8 cent sales tax was directed toward operating expenses, user fees + sales tax revenue would exceed the operating budget.

**The 1.8% sales tax dedicated to transit pays for both King County Metro and Sound Transit.