Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Has Mass Transit Finally Arrived? - Guest Blog by Emil Frankel

An online forum hosted by the National Journal magazine recently posed that question to a diverse group of transportation stakeholders, myself included, and I will share here the reponse I posted for them.

While the question of whether mass transit’s time has arrived is an interesting one, I think it is a component of a broader question: how can transportation best serve national goals and purposes like economic growth, environmental and energy sustainability, national connectivity, metropolitan accessibility, and safety? Improved transit can and should be an important component of transportation programs that serve those purposes – but objectivity is required to assess realistically how far transit can move us in the right direction.

Transit is well-suited to many situations, but not all. Improved transit in high-density areas can improve accessibility, reduce environmental and energy security damages, and foster economic growth in ways that simply adding more highways might not. At the same time, however, transit works best when used in conjunction with a program of policies, such as road pricing, that encourage system flexibility and incentivize transit usage. Transit capacity will meet the goals people want it to serve only if it is actually used. An approach that integrates the planning and prioritizing of road, rail, and transit programs is key to maximizing each mode’s performance towards national goals.

The long-running debate about how to allocate money between the various modes is out-of-date. If we are speaking about the federal role, we should be focused on funding that achieves outcomes tied to national goals, not in preferring one mode over another. Many people would agree that significant transit expansion in major metropolitan areas is likely to be a valuable tool in meeting national goals – but we also cannot ignore that improving the operations of existing highway and road networks might also play an important role. We need to understand trade-offs and to prioritize operations and projects within broad, cross-modal programs.

So before we jump to a conclusion about how to allocate funding - whether to give transit or highways more money - let’s ensure that we have a performance-based approach that can help us identify and prioritize programs that achieve national goals.

To that end, the Bipartisan Policy Center's National Transportation Policy Project, which I direct, is bringing new voices to the transportation debate and creating a dynamic and enduring framework for the next transportation authorization and beyond.

-Emil Frankel

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Obama's Department of Transportation (Possibly)

As President-Elect Obama names the key personnel in his new administration, one department he has yet to address is Transportation. The Washington Post recently profiled some of the people who may be up for the top job - including Jane Garvey, a member of the National Transportation Policy Project - and it is certainly a talented group. Regardless of who is appointed, however, they may face both the necessity and the opportunity to dramatically restructure how the Department is organized. The current DOT structure is divided by modes (e.g. highway, transit, aviation), when it really should be built around goals.

What does that mean exactly, and how would it change things? The leading example of such a departmental restructuring comes from the United Kingdom. Following the release of the Eddington Report, which we have mentioned in previous blogs, the UK set out to restructure its Department for Transport in a way that aligned with the report’s recommendations. For instance, the report presented five governance principles, two key ones we will mention here being:

  • 1.       The geographic scope of decision making should allow a whole journey approach – reflecting the economic and geographic reality of travel.
  • 2.       To ensure decision makers consider all modes and policy options, they need power or influence over all modes and policy options.

To incorporate these principles the UK switched from a modal structure, like the US currently has, to one centered on goals and places.

The key impact of this kind of restructuring is that it better aligns priorities, objectives, and process; it reduces inefficiency and sets up incentives for success. A restructuring would help clarify and consolidate the grant-making agencies within the DOT (like merging the highway and transit agencies into one) and the more regulatory-oriented agencies that deal with goals like safety.  If America is to renew its transportation system so that it can meet environmental, energy, and economic goals, the DOT should be organized around ends not means. The current divisions along modal lines foster destructive competition about how much money each mode gets instead of a focus on what those modes are trying to achieve in cooperation. The transportation system is just that, a system composed of many parts that should be working in coordination, and it’s time that the DOT’s organization properly recognized that fact.

-Daniel Lewis



Friday, December 5, 2008

The Cost of Gas and Transit

A recent article in the Los Angeles Times highlighted some signs that transit ridership is declining as gas prices fall. Although much of the ridership evidence is anecdotal at this point, given the roughly 50% drop in gas prices over the last few months a return to cars would not be unexpected. However, more data will need to be gathered (and numbers from recent months more fully analyzed) before any firm conclusions can be made about driving trends. Even then the implications may not be clear, because several questions cloud the situation.

The first x-factor is the weak economy. Economic growth or weakness has in the past correlated quite closely with vehicle miles travelled (VMT) - with growth increasing VMT and weakness hurting it -although vigorous debate still exists about which way the causation flows. In fact, recent events may yield some insight for this debate. For example, a year ago the economy was still fairly healthy and gas prices were rising sharply – two forces that should pull VMT in opposite directions. In recent months the economy has been hit hard, yet gas prices have also plummeted, once again creating forces that usually pull VMT in opposite directions. The data is not yet available to clearly assess how this is playing out, but it will be interesting to look at more closely in the near future.

The second x-factor is uncertainty about future gas prices. As we have discussed in past blogs, a decision between driving and transit can be made day-to-day, thus gas prices have an instant short-term impact on transit usage. But expectations of higher prices in the future may be continuing to shape longer term consumer decisions about vehicle purchases and the location of housing. If that is the case, a full rebound to previous VMT levels (per capita) may not occur, despite current cheap gas.

The LA Times article underlines the importance of having a flexible transportation system with multiple ways to get from point A to point B. But more than just current gas prices are at work in influencing transit usage today, and it would be a mistake to draw conclusions about the long-term health and viability of transit from recent anecdotal evidence. 

-Daniel Lewis