Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Can we afford a county-wide transit system?

In a recent comment about the county-wide transit idea, "EOS" wrote to the Ann Arbor Chronicle (2009-11-03) saying, "the rest of the county doesn't want and can’t afford AATA". Deliberations at both Ypsilanti City and Township's governing boards indicate that we want AATA, but believe we can't afford it.

That may be because we don't know how much our cars cost us compared with public transit. Knowing that good transit is a good investment, I set out to calculate what a county-wide transit system would save. I'm considering the ability of households to save money by giving up one automobile, assuming they own more than one.

Using data from the Census Bureau, we find 134,187 households in Washtenaw County, and projecting from figures on page 28 of the WATS 2007 Transit Plan, we can estimate there are 22,706 families with zero or one car. These households may not be able to reduce their auto-related costs significantly, even with improved transit, so we'll remove them from consideration.

That leaves 112,980 households that could reduce their number of cars if we had good, county-wide transit. How much would they save each year? Based on car ownership costs and gas prices surveyed by AAA on November 9, 2009, APTA estimates the nation-wide average saving is $9,190 annualized for households giving up one automobile and using transit.

Supposing every household that could, would give up one car and use transit. The theoretical savings for Washtenaw County would be 1,038,286,200, though of course that is unrealistic. Instead, let's suppose 20% of multi-vehicle households decided to get along with one less. The resulting county-wide savings would be $207,657,240.

Suppose we were to offer residents to split these savings between them and county-wide transit, with 75% of that remaining in the households, and 25% going to fund transit. That would leave the residents with $155,742,930, and give the agency $51,914,310: 181% of AATA's 2009 budget. Could that amount fund high-quality, county-wide transit?

The cost per household would be $386.88, while the household savings would be $1,160.64: a 300% return on investment.

How can we afford not to do that?

OK, I know there are quite a few people who would dispute this on several grounds. I'll have a go at playing devil's advocate, then answering their points:

  1. Your estimate is based on everybody paying the tax, but only 25% of tax-payers using transit. Why should the non-users subsidize the users?
    Answer a: Non-users benefit by roads relieved of 20% of their congestion. It costs far more to expand the road system, both in dollars and in environmental damage; plus in many places there simply is no more land to build roads on. If the county's population grows (and it is growing), congestion will grow worse with no practical way to build our way out of it.
    Answer b: There is always a well-documented increase in business investment in areas offer good transit. Thus, investing in transit increases the tax-base, reducing the burden on individual tax-payers.
    Answer c: Even those who don't use transit regularly will be able to use it occasionally, for example, when their car is in the shop or to send their kids to soccer practice. The better the transit system, the more convenient it will be to meet those needs.
  2. Buses are not as efficient as they're cracked up to be, because they spend so much of their time driving around nearly empty.
    Answer a: Most bus efficiency figures are based on cost per passenger-mile, which takes into account the high and low times.
    Answer b: A serious effort is being made to get rail transit for Washtenaw County. Rail is even more efficient than bus, because of energy savings from steel wheels on steel rails, and because one operator can handle a vehicle that carries far more passengers.
    Answer c: When automobile efficiency is calculated, the cost of parking spaces should also be included, but often isn't. Each car requires roughly three parking spaces: one for home, one for work, and one for shopping, school, or entertainment. In addition to the construction and maintenance costs of each parking space, there is significant environmental impact due to the impermeable surface creating dangerous storm runoff, and because large parking lots force businesses to be farther from each other and from the street, increasing travel time, expense, and discouraging walking.
  3. That's a lot of savings! Aren't they going to come from other, established areas of spending, and hurt local businesses?
    Answer a: Some would come come from local business such as gas stations, car dealers, and maintenance shops, yes. But consider the increased employment in transit operation and maintenance.
    Answer b: A great deal of the cost of driving an automobile leaves the local area already, including finance charges (in many cases) and most of the cost of gasoline. With lower energy use per passenger mile, transit costs return a higher percentage to the local economy.
    Answer c: According to AAA, 23% of the average cost of automobile ownership is depreciation - the cost of a new car spread over its useful lifetime. Economists tell us the rapid depreciation of autos makes them a poor investment. That's true even in Michigan, when you consider that a relatively small percentage of autos that drive in Michigan are actually assembled here, and that their parts come from all over the world anyway. Using the savings figures I estimated, $155.7 million could be invested or spent in other ways that boost the local economy.
  4. All these figures are based on estimates. As far as I'm concerned, they're a crock.
    Answer a: Yes, they're estimates. Every business venture, before making an investment, makes similar estimates based on currently available figures, with a lot of assumptions thrown in. I've tried to make the figures and assumptions clear so you can reach your own conclusions. Please do so in a responsible manner.
    Answer b: This took me - an amateur - a few hours to figure and write up. We do need more accurate estimates, so more time and expertise is needed. That's probably why AATA wants to hire a consultant to prepare a proposal for county-wide service.

How Much do we Support Other Countries?

I've often wondered how much of my gasoline expense is going to support other countries, especially ones that don't agree with us or are hostile. I looked up some figures, made some calculations, and came up with this:


of my gas money goes to other countries this year. That compares with $72.73 in Federal highway tax, $104.35 in Michigan highway tax, and $83.79 in Michigan sales tax. That's a total of $260.87 in taxes to my own governments, only 39.1% of what I send overseas.

Curious? Concerned? Read on...

Suppose you own a mid-size sedan and drive it a moderate 15,000 miles each year - an average car driven an average distance. According to AAA, 11% of your cost is for fuel. They estimate a national average cost of $8,106 for car ownership and operation in that case, so the cost of gas for a year is $1,581.

Michigan's Attorney General (Republican Mike Cox) has posted a Web page giving the breakdown of the cost of a gallon of gas. It's based on the June 5, 2009 average cost of $2.89 per gallon of self-serve regular. Based on that breakdown, we pay 4.6% in Federal highway tax, 6.6% in State road tax, and 5.3% in state sales tax (which is less than 6% because the state doesn't tax the highway taxes). That's 17% in taxes, $260.87 annually for our average case.

Since the Attorney General's information lists only the wholesale price of gas, we have to dig deeper to find out how much of what we pay goes to the cost of refining crude oil, and how much is for the crude itself. I went to a U.S. Department of Energy page that gives a rough idea of that breakdown. Of the 2008 average retail price (the most recent), 69% was the cost of crude oil ($1,058.96 in our average case), and 7% was refining and profits ($199.51). Of course, that's as volatile as the the cost of crude, so we can use it only to get a general idea of where our money goes.

OK, so how much of our crude oil comes from other countries? According to another Department of Energy table, the U.S. imported 63.0% of its oil (2.9 billion barrels) through the end of August, 2009 (the latest figures available). So of our yearly gasoline payments, $391.93 goes for U.S. crude, and $667.03 goes overseas.

The sources of imported oil are listed by country in an on-line table. Now comes the fun part. I divided the source countries into three groups by their political stance toward the United States:

  • Friends (including our two biggest sources, Canada and Mexico):
    1.9 billion barrels imported, 40.8% of an average gallon of gas, costing the average motorist $436.06 yearly;
  • Questionables (such as Saudi Arabia, our fourth-largest supplier, which is politically aligned with the U.S. but has a repressive government and holds values very much at odds with ours):
    7.4 million barrels imported, 15.8% of our gallon, adding up to $167.48 yearly; and
  • Non-Friends (such as Venezuela, our third-largest source of oil - and the country where I was born! - whose leader Hugo Chavez campaigns actively to discredit and undermine the U.S.):
    sending us 3.0 million barrels, 6.4% of each gallon, costing us $67.50 this year.

Let me emphasize, this categorization of countries is solely mine, based on my news sources. If you'd like details, just ask.

It's of some concern that 22.2% of our gas money to enrich countries that are either questionable friends or outright unfriendly. That amounts to $234.97 we're paying each year in "taxes" that benefit shaky friends and unfriendly governments. And there's not a thing we can do about it.

Except one: reduce our dependence on imported oil.


We can wait for more efficient, non-petroleum-dependent cars to come out. May they come soon - and may they be affordable!

But in the meantime, there are tried-and-true ways for all of us: take public transit, walk, or ride a bike.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

An Incident in New York

For the last few months, I've been pondering a little incident in New York City. It was Memorial Day Weekend, and I was playing host to Felix, a friend from Mexico who had never been to the US. I'm not in the least a New York City guy, but this is my country. Felix had hosted me at his modest home in Oaxaca State, and now he was attending a United Nations conference of indigenous peoples, so I felt privileged to go to New York (by train, of course!) and show him around a little.

We had walked up Fifth Avenue, past imposing buildings, classic churches, and crowds of weekend tourists, to Central Park. I had been looking forward to sharing the park with Felix, but after ten minutes or so, he asked to go back to the streets. "I have plenty of trees where I live; I didn't come to New York to see more of them," he said. Of course, like any good host, I acceded to my guest's wishes and headed with him to the nearest park exit.

Felix and I had a good visit, and we both enjoyed the scenes of the city. We rode the A train all the way to Far Rockaway and basked briefly on the boardwalk by the sea. But his remark about the trees stuck in my mind like a bit of fiber caught between my teeth, and it wasn't until this morning that I was able to work it out in the shower (where my best thoughts often come!).

Felix grew up and lives on a rugged mountainside, cloaked in majestic trees. Right outside his family's front door are a coffee tree and a cacao tree. The scene is spectacular, uplifting, inspiring. Making a living there is tough, and they're isolated by lack of transportation and rains that turn the hillside into a slick mud-slope. Felix had to carry 50-kilo bags of cement on his back up the hill to build his house. I can understand why he doesn't totally "appreciate" the beauty of his spectacular mountainside retreat, and enjoyed seeing what it was like to live in a place where streets are level and well paved.

But I still felt disappointed that he hadn't spent more time in Central Park. It was certainly logical that he didn't want to "see more trees", and I couldn't understand why I felt let down.

Today's "shower insight" was this: you can't truly understand a city if you don't see - and appreciate - the parks along with the "concrete canyons". This is particularly true of New York City, where Frederick Law Olmsted began his career in park design, and with it brought the concept of green spaces into the heart of American urban design. In so many ways, Central Park is the "heart" of New York City, without which the totality of the city can't be appreciated. I feel the same way about Seattle, the loveliness of whose Freeway Park comes to mind often when I think of that city.

To me, the skyscrapers of a city are impressive and the trees are beautiful, but it's the sight high-rise buildings through the trees that brings me a true sense of awe. The contrast of the natural with the man-made is what expresses the full humanity of the city. Each without the other is insufficient for our needs. Humanity cannot reach it fullest potential living in a forest, beautiful as it may seem. Nor can it attain the heights of its capacity in a "concrete jungle".

I guess that's what I wanted Felix to see. I'm just sorry it took me so long to express it.

PS - I've decided not to blog more from the Moving Minds conference. There's another day-and-a-half, and some of the topics, like transportation security, are beyond my scope. I'm sure a few more good ideas are will to pop out, but I'm also sure the majority have surfaced. Now, on to action!

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Moving Minds 2

There were a lot of ideas bounding around in the Michigan League today, but many ideas recurred or were expressed in different ways. Here's my take on them:

  • Coordination between modes of transport is essential, and there are many creative things we can do at points where modes intersect. People need to be informed where the intersections are, and what they can do at each one. In fact, looking at these nodes of intersection is a creative way to leverage scarce resources.
  • Sharing resources is another universal need. The waste of having millions of automobiles spending most of their time taking up parking spaces calls for lots of creative thought. The Zip Car model is one solution; the "slug line" (flexible carpooling, mentioned in last night's blog) is another.
  • Lack of information about public transportation is one of the biggest barriers to its use in the USA. There are many electronic solutions to dynamic information, like bus or train arrival times, but good signage and paper maps are the most reliable for static information like route maps. Electronic trip directions have a lot of potential, but in many cases haven't been perfected yet.
  • Culture and psychology are significant barriers. Presenting a positive vision of the future is the best way to inspire people and get them to participate in change; fear (of climate change or terrorism, for instance) produces only short-term gains, followed by long-term resistance to change. An example that came up many times was GM's Futurama, a vision of a future where cars and highways brought freedom and the good life. Futurama was presented at the 1939 Worlds Fair in New York, and inspired the generation that created the Interstate Highway System.
  • Psychologist Clotaire Rapaille identifies automobiles in the US as symbols of freedom, identity, and sex - extremely powerful forces in our lives. There is no way, IMHO, that public transportation can replace automobile's link to the identity and sexuality of many Americans, but I believe significant numbers of Americans now see cars being as much burdens as they are passports to freedom.
  • The needs of the developing world are similar to those of the developed world, but the solutions are not. An information-intensive system is very appropriate for places where smart-phones and computers are a small fraction of the average person's annual wage. A simpler, less costly system is necessary in places where that's not true, or where literacy rates are low.

Monday, November 9, 2009

MOVING MINDS: the next transportation infrastructure

Moving Minds is the theme of this year's SMART conference at the University of Michigan (UMich). SMART is "Sustainable Mobility & Accessibility Research & Transformation", a project of CARSS, the Center for Advancing Research and Solutions for Society at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. I'll be passing along the highlights of the conference for you, day by day.

New Mobility Primer Salon: Pecha Kucha style

This was our first session. What's Pecha Kucha? It turns out it's the Japanese expression for "yackety-yak" or "yadda-yadda". The idea is to present a creative idea through a short, image-intensive presentation. (PowerPoint on steriods?) The limit here was 5 minutes. Of course, this won't make much sense without seeing the images, but I hope this will give you an idea what to look into more... I'll revisit this and add links to all the presentations SMART makes available on the Web.

What floated to the surface of this intense session? With so much being presented, everybody will have picked up something different. Here's what floated my way:

Changes in population and energy availability make for an extremely complex mobility problem, or rather, series of problems. There are no magic bullets (though there may be "magic buses"!). Rather, the solution lies in a combination of ingenuity and telecummunications, taking into account the needs of the diverse humans who need access to jobs, food, and entertainment.

Want to sample tidbits? OK, here goes...

We seem to expect super-technical advances to solve our problems, but... Climate change, water availability, ecosystem health, population size, poverty prevenence, and urbanization are the mega-forces to confront. Interactions are complex, but climate change is the major driver. Climate refugees move to urban areas (slums) around the world, and all are poor, if not desperate.

ENERGY FOR TRANSPORTATION: Sue Nichols UMich Phoenix Memorial Lab.
Nothing is simple! What you love one minute, the next minute seems to have a lot of problems (the "Britney Spears effect" LOL!). Energy solutions need to be wholistic. Human nature resists change, and we get NIMBY, BANANA, and NOPE attitudes.

ACCESSIBILITY: Jonathan Levin, UMich Department of Urban and Regional Planning
Stats on who drives most shows per capita is related to population density. The purpose of transportaiton is not movement, but access. Accessibility = meeting our needs through mobility, proximity, or connectivity. Rather than measure vehicle miles traveled, a better measure of urban transportation is a rather complex formula encompassing distance and destinations such as jobs, entertainment, and life necessities.

SOCIAL JUSTICE AND TRANSPORTATION: Joe Grengs, UMich Department of Urban and Regional Planning
Social injustice: anything that holds back a person from reaching their full potential. People who live without cars in our auto-oriented world are largely invisible to us. What to do? Change land development patterns; measure accessibility. We need to see cities as made up of multiple worlds - not all from a dominant-group perspecive.

NEW MOBILITY AND INCLUSIVE GOVERNANCE: August Mathias, Advisor, National Confederation of Municipalities of Brazil
When government doesn't provide needs, people will take it into their own hands. the planning process should involve the people for whom the planning is being done, changing to a flexible, innovative, decentralized decision making process

TRANSIT-ORIENTED DEVELOPMENT: Deena Fox, Architect, Rossetti of Detroit
What is TOD? Walkability, connectivity, diverse and dense mix of uses, diversity of housing types oand price points; quality architecture, sustainable communities with good access to transit. Transit drives real esate development, producing a dynamic, memorable environment.

Mr. Polk was very impressed by Spain's commitment to high speed rail. They have invested $116B in HSR, or 1.5% of their GDP. An interesting fact: 0.1% of greenhouse gasses in Europe are emitted by trains, 3% by airlines, and 15% by road trafic.

BIKESTATION: Andrea White-Kjoss, Mobis Transportation
BikeStation provides sustainable "last mile"transportation linked to transit - bike parking, changing, showers, repair for bikes; e-accessible. Thirty bikes can park in the space of 1 car at their Washington DC Union Station site. "...not what it provides, but what it makes possible" - Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, about the DC BikeStation.

500,000 TONS: Robin Chase, ZipCar
There are 325,000 members of ZipCar, using only 6,500 cars. Each normal (non-Zip) car requires 3 parking spaces (work, home, leisure), while a ZipCar requires only one. Robin estimates there is a 93% reduction in automobile usage (emissions, fuel use, parking...) among ZipCar members, 40% of whom do not own a car, due to change in driving habits. Paying for the car by the hour encourages more efficient habits, resulting in saving 500,000 tons of carbon emissions.

their goal is to "make it easier and more rewarding for people to share rides." In the San Fransicso Bay area and the DC area, there are informal ridesharing systems known in DC as "slug lines". People line up in designated places, like the BART station in Berkeley, and are picked up by people with cars who can save time and money crossing Bay Bridge into San Francisco. Paul observed 116 carpools being formed in 1 hour in Berkeley. 9,000 people in Bay Area use flexible carpooling each day. In DC "Slug Lines", 2,000 riders per day get to the Pentagon. Trip Convergence is setting up a new project in Seattle, aiming for more efficient organization.

AUTONOMY: Jeffrey Adik, Intraduce, on personal transportation and goods movement.
This hyper-slick presentation pushed automatic vehicles. Lots of graphs of several mentions of the Department of Defense were thrown at the audience, but not much of a coherent or realistic program.

Goods movement is our teacher especially in Japan and Germany. Supply chain efficiencies; moving less stuff less far; reducing the impact of trips by using last-mile bike and foot couriers.

TDM AND TECHNOLOGY: Alan Huynh, University of Southern California, Urban Planning major
TDM = Transportaiton Demand Management, encouraging people to use alternative modes of transportation rather than build more highways. Alan spoke of the convergence of social media like Facebook, mobile technology, and Web 2.0 making transportation more personal; there are no cookie-cutter solutions, and it necessary to be sensitive to the culture of a region. But using technology can help bypass the mires of bureaucracy.

MAGIC BUS TECHNOLOGY PLATFORM: Adrian Fontino, Shepherd Intelligent Systems
Shepherd (SIS) is a spin-off of UMich; their system has been running 4 years on UM buses, now tracking AATA Route 6 (my route!!). They're working to solve what extensive research (and commonse sense) say are the toughest problems in getting people to feel comfortable using public transportation: Navigating unfamiliar cities; never know "when the damn bus will come!"; can't find the best way to travel from point A to point B via public transportation. Solution: great SIS algorithms for predicting bus arrival times!

EXCESS CAPACITY: Robin Chase reprise
ZipCar does for cars what hotels do for beds. Add open platform Web technology, and we'll get something like CouchSurfing for transportation! We need open devices, open data, open networks, engaging the common man.

GET DOWNTOWN: Nancy Shore, Ann Arbor Get Downtown
New Mobility hub network - people are what drive transportation; we need to help them integrate their transportation. Where do transportation modes intersect? (Parking, bus, bike storage, etc.) Those are hubs, and should be marked on maps along with bus stops.

THE PERSONAL VEHICLE: Dan Sturges, Intrago
Last-mile mobility, hybrid of personal vehicle and transit. 80% of people have trouble getting to a transit stop. Dan has designed several "Neighborhood vehicles"; A related venture, ItMoves, is working to provide a "mobility bundle" to help people get where they need to go by transit.

Lack of knowledge on the part of the public is frustrating. How do you multiply the benefit of transit? Raj proposes a quick checklist to engage designers in multi-modal transportation and prevent the many specialists from overlooking essential details unfamiliar to them.

This is a proposed standardized way to organize and retrieve mobility information, that can be utilized within applications.

Challenge: we spend a lot of effort building a product, but the user connection is often left as an afterthought. Usability guarantees the success. Enter, USER-CENTERED DESIGN, balancing needs of users, business, and technology. (This has been applied to lots of products, and we need to apply it to mobility design.) BTW, Ilona checked Google Maps, as we all do, to find the meeting venue: 100 Washtenaw Ave., Ann Arbor, MI. Try it - Google will take you to Ypsilanti instead!

HUMAN CENTERED DESIGN: Barbara Knecht, Institute for Human Centered Design, Boston
Meet the 21st century human for whom we are designing new mobility systems. Social sustainability! Not all humans are created equal, and as medical advances make a productive life for people who formerly would not have lived, we need to design mobility systems to meet their needs.

Rather than talk about the Kab Shuttle enterprise, Andrew delivered a sales pitch for investment in Africa. Not too credible in certain respects, but perhaps some South Africans are desperate to get non-Chinese investment?