Thursday, June 23, 2011

Transit Benefits Non-Riders

Don't believe me? Fine. Check it out here.

How Transit Benefits People Who Do Not Ride It: A Conservative Inquiry
By Paul M. Weyrich and William S. Lind

I'm going to reproduce the introduction here, because I'm as pleased as punch by it. It's by "The Honorable Robert F. Bennett United States Senator, State of Utah".

Do you use public transportation?  Of course you do.  Even if you live out in thecountry, you use public transportation when you drive to the city. 
“No, I don’t,” you reply.  “I drive all the way into the city.  I don’t change from my carto a train or bus.” 
That may be true, but you still use transit to help you get around.  How?  If it weren’t for public transportation, there would be thousands more cars on the road.  You would spend hours more driving in or out of the city, because congestion would be far worsethan it already is.  So even if you don’t ride public transit, you still use it, and it is still working for you

I was pleased and honored to be asked to write the foreword to  this interesting and innovative study by Paul Weyrich and Bill  Lind.  Like them, I am a pro-transitconservative.  I see public transportation as part of the infrastructure, no different from water lines and highways and services such  as the police and the fire department.  If infrastructure is inadequate, everybody suffers.
Here, Paul and Bill explain exactly how transit benefits people  who do not ride it. Reducing traffic congestion for people who  drive is just one way.  As you will read here, there are many more. 
Why is it important that people who do not ride transit understand that it benefits them? Because too often, when a transit measure is on the ballot, they vote against it.  They think, “Why should I vote for this?  It won’t do me any good.” They are wrong.  When they vote no, they are hurting themselves.  That transit issue onthe ballot will often benefit them, in the ways this study describes. 
Democracy depends on informed voters,  and this study will help voters understand public transportation in a new way.  I hope it is widely read and discussed.  I certainly intend to help distribute it in my state, and I will urge my colleagues in the Senate to dothe same.  I congratulate the Free Congress Foundation on once again producing thekind of cutting-edge work for which it is so well known. 
According the WFRC Travel Demand Model, the TRAX carries about a free-way lane's worth of traffic. Many bikers proudly wear a 'One Less Car' tag. Perhaps a train could wear a "1780 Less Cars" tag.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

UTA Update

Courtesy of the Utah Transportation Report:

Mid-Jordan, West Valley TRAX lines open in August

SALT LAKE—On Aug. 7, UTA will open the Mid-Jordan and West Valley TRAX lines. The Mid-Jordan line will travel from South Jordan to the University of Utah and replace the existing University line. The West Valley line will travel from West Valley City to downtown Salt Lake City. These new lines also bring many changes to UTA's bus system.

To prepare for the rail openings and to explore what UTA's riders wanted in the bus system UTA conducted an extensive outreach effort that included an online survey, a telephone survey and a series of open houses last fall. Using the information gathered during that effort, UTA planners developed two service proposals, which were put out for review and comment during a public comment period in March 2011. UTA received more than 900 comments on the proposals and based on those comments UTA has created a final service plan. The final plan addresses more than 60 percent of the comments received while still meeting UTA's goals. It is estimated ridership under the new plan will increase by 6 percent. UTA prides itself on listening to its riders and making changes where possible to meet both their needs and the budget concerns of the agency.

Examples of changes adopted due to comments are:
  • Most Sunday service will remain
  • Convert all Fast Bus routes to express routes with the exception of route 307, which will convert to local service.
This will allow some routes proposed for elimination to keep some trips.
  • Route 454 from Grantsville will retain one A.M. and P.M. trip (it previously had two and was proposed to be eliminated)
  • Make routing changes to some routes to provide better coverage to affected areas
  • Create several new flex routes to provide better coverage to affected areas
  • Maintain some service on several routes that were proposed to be cancelled
  • Operate the light rail lines as proposed
  • July 7—Online schedules and trip planning available
  • Mid July—Printed schedules available
  • Aug. 7—New rail lines open and bus changes begin
 I had to look up what UTA defined a 'Fast' bus as. Apparently, it just means limited stops, so that the 320 just ran the same route as the 220, with fewer stops. I seem to recall the 320 was a 'commuter' bus - five buses in the morning, five buses at night.

The 307 converting to local service.

I was started to learn their is a 207 bus. But it only runs from 5300 TRAX to 10000 South TRAX, along 7th East. I can't say I care for the 'TRAX to TRAX' route buses--Probably faster to get off at the nearest TRAX (64th, 72nd, 78th, 90th, 94th) station and walk 10 blocks east. Confusing, the 307 route runs a totally different route than the 207, despite the similarity in numbers. I'm glad to hear about the conversion to local service--it will be nice to have a local bus along 7th east.

The 'Express bus' seems to be UTA's 'Commuter Bus'. 5 buses in the morning, five buses at night, limited stops. (Which begs the question why the 'Fast Bus' distinction existed at all.)

Date for TRAX open moved up against--now August 7th, down from 17th.  

Seems UTA also intends to provide a lot more of their 'coverage' service using Flex Buses, rather than scheduled service. I'd call that an improvement. But that's an issue for its own post.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Silver Line BRT

This is what Class I BRT (Bus Rapid Transit) looks like.

  • Dedicated Right of Way
  • Concrete Roadbase (Smoother rider).
  • Limited Access/No Intersections
  • Electrified Bus
  • Articulated bus
  • Substantial Stations
  • Off-board fair collection
  • Multi-door boarding

Sunday, June 19, 2011

LEED and Developers

LEED refers to "Leadership in Environmental Efficiency in Design". It's a certification program run by the US Green Building Council, as a way to 'brand' sustainability, using a ratings system to establish how sustainable a building has been.

Various Federal agencies, State and local governments have supported sustainable building practices directly. Not just by endorsing LEED, but also by mandating that their own structures be LEED certified--a trend which appears to be spreading. Some places in California have also induced private developers to prefer LEED--in one case by having a separate queue for development review for LEED projects.

Developers are equivocal. While their is a growing recognition that LEED certified buildings do deliver in terms of lower construction costs and lower energy operating costs, LEED is regarded as complicated and time consuming. From developers, I hear: "It takes too long to certify a building--the approval process necessary to get a sticker is not worth the additional time it takes to do the development." In addition, receiving LEED certification required rigorous documentation of source materials and disposal options, resulting in additional cost an uncertainty.

LEED certification is controlled by the U.S. Green Building Council. While a non-profit, there are accusations that the cost of obtaining materials necessary to obtain and maintain certification are too high, and that the process of getting a building certified is tied up in development.

Perhaps city planners LEED certified, so they can check a building, rather than having a certified official at the LEED agency doing so. That would put the burden for development approval on local government. Planning and permitting would need to be able to evaluate LEED as well as compliance with building code, fire code, and zoning code, as well as assessing development impact fees. This seems possible-cities already use uniform national codes for evaluating traffic impacts, fire and structural safety. Most of planner labor (and stress) comes from local, highly specific issues regarding the zoning code. Applying an accepted national standard such as LEED seems plausible.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Gallivan Center

For those in the know, Gallivan Center in Salt Lake City (the location of the highly successful Twilight Conference series) was closed two years ago, for reconstruction. Specifically, the north lawn was converted to the large structure on the right of the picture. Looks like the ice-skating rink is being removed (no great loss) as well as the semi-covered Pavilion that obstructed the view of the stage. Hopefully, the elevated 'bridge' that helped divide the block into a series of inter-penetrating plazas, rather than a single awkward field.

They've added a permanent concrete pad directly in front of the stage (where the concert wrecked the lawn). It looks like the aviary to the east of the stage has been removed, and a new covered plaza added to the north of where it used to be. The north-south axiality has been really strongly reinforced, adding a huge glowing pillar as a  terminus at the South End. They've kept the central sun-dial rock+pillar, although most of the other elements of the sun-dial seem to have been sacrificed to axiality.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Understanding Land Developers

Successful businesses are built on the premise of repeating economically profitable processes. Take inputs, add value, sell the outputs. Land Development is a business. The input is 'raw land', 'development' is the value added process, and the output is the *varied types* of building modern society demands. The issue of 'varied types' is key to understanding developers. To a developer, a development is a 'product'. Different developers make different types of products--some do housing developments, some commercial office, industrial, some retail. A few do highly specialized types--museums, student housing, etc.  Regardless, each is regarded as a high-risk, high-margin business with high labor costs, high capital costs, and high financing costs. Getting any specific development project to 'pencil out' so that it is worth attempting, an then actually getting a project built, and then sold (or leased out) is an ongoing struggle. The fewer complications along the way, the better.

Repeating an economic process is made simpler, if your inputs, your process, and your outputs are as similar as possible. In development, none are easy--no two parcels are ever the same, you'll never face the same regulatory environment twice, and the market demand may collapse by the time you get done building it.

Why Mixed-Use Development (MXD) is so hard to do: Low volume. For a developer, it's not worth the time and the trouble to develop the expertise needed for a type of development that you are only going to develop once or twice. Developers conceptualize MXD differently than planners. To planners, it is how all new development should be. To a developer, it's a confusing set of new requirements to be negotiated with the city. When volumes for an economic activity are low, the activity tends to become centralized into a few places where the necessary expertise can be gathered. For MXD, this is more difficult. There are wildly different regulatory and development requirements from jurisdiction to jurisdiction and state to state. 

Monday, June 13, 2011

Sustainable Development

In a class on sustainable development for real estate majors. "How do we do sustainable development?" First, we must get to the root of "What is sustainable?" (Awkwardly, growth is the opposite of sustainability, and America has a political ideology *built* on growth, and the promise of future growth).  I'm leery of the question "What is sustainable", because 'steady state sustainability' is a global issue, while development is a local issue.

'Using less' is not a theme that is going to resound with most Utahns--Envision Utah has gained ground beating the drum of 'efficiency', and promoting a sense of intergenerational sustainability ("Our children and grandchildren").

I think that their is a general understanding that to be MORE sustainable, we need to make better use of our resources. What that specifically MEANS is a very big question. It's a little confusing because it's not just a matter of traditional environmentalism--that the earth is worth saving on it's own merits--but that 'green' actions are a matter of enlightened self-interest (and inter-generational self interest).

So, what are we going to run out of?
Land? Water? Air? Roads?

No shortage of land in Utah. Not for development, not for open space. And even if we did pave it, we'd still have the National Parks/Forests/Monuments nearby. Water? Not yet. Water is funny. Looking at multi-century trends, Utah is very wet right now. Looking at the past five decades, we're not doing too badly. We have a couple of bad years where the reservoirs start to run dry, then we have a couple of good years and they fill up. Air? We're not running out of air, but we are running out of clean air. Living in a valley, most Utahns suffer when inversions trap cold, dirty air between the mountains under some warm air, so that is something that is present. Roads...we can always build more roads. And I think this is where Envision Utah does well. They start to stick a price tag on the COST of just 'build more'.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Kids and Walking

Sitting in class, looking at an analysis that shows large households in mixed use developments generate more trips than smaller households, contrary to some expectations (not my own). I grew up in a suburb, and I was driven everywhere. While there are no stores within a half mile, there are a lot of retail destinations within a mile, including a regional mall. My neighborhood was bordered to the east and the south by five lane arterial roads (106th South and State Street). Crossing the street was extremely dangerous. Thinking back, I cannot recall EVER crossing these streets as an elementary school student (with or without parents).

I didn't start traveling alone until junior high. Almost all of which was along an abandoned railroad corridor, a canal path, and a residential street. I regularly crossed two arterial streets. Both had center turn lanes far from curb-cuts, and one was at a railroad crossing. Had those not existed...I may not have walked anywhere at all.

I'd hypothesize that more kids means more driving. Teenagers (especially in places with graduated licenses) are the primary suburban pedestrians. Anyone old enough to both have a license and a car drives. Suburban transit is commuter-centric: Long distance, peak-hour buses.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Two Trillion Dollars

"The nation will need to invest an estimated $2 trillion just to rebuild deteriorating networks and more money to expand or at least maintain infrastructure that encompasses roads and bridges as well as water lines, sewage treatment plants, and dams."

—From the Urban Land Institute report on Infrastructure
(Courtesy of the Utah Transportation Report

It feels like the United States has gotten old, and become a 'developed nation' like western Europe. A lot of the East Coast was already that way (creaky infrastructure, high taxes) but now California seems to be making the transition. Texas, the new 'young buck', doesn't have the liabilities of old infrastructure, and so doesn't get it. Funny how certain things are scale indeterminant--states follow the exact pattern of cities in a metropolitan area.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Equity and Taxes

American's making over 200K a year pay 60% of the total income tax dollars.
This strike many as unfair. Never mind that the difference in tax rates used to be much, much more substantial.

However, there are certain equity issues that have emerged that are causing serious unrest. In the last 40 years, income growth has not kept pace with GDP growth, and has barely kept pace with inflation.

So what's the deal? If the poor aren't getting the money, and the wealthy are being taxed to death, what is going on?
It appears that it's an enforcement issue. (A matter of 'creative accounting', if you will). The really wealthy aren't paying taxes, and so the tax rate has to go up for everyone else to make the difference. The higher the rate goes, the more incentive there is for people who can afford an accountant to indulge in 'creative accounting'. It's not a new problem. European nations with high tax rates (France, Britain, Italy) are famous  for their tax cheats. Some people owe millions in back taxes.

The solution lies not in more regulation, but in more enforcement. And in measures to make enforcement simpler--a simpler tax code, with fewer deductions and exemptions.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Housing Bubble Goes On

Never trust a trade industry publication. The National Association of Realtors is cooking the books again. The graph below LOOKS great--time to buy a house! But wait... what are they using? Ah. Not median income (as any sensible person would), but 'per capita disposable income'. Per capita disposable income is an average, and like all averages, is prone to distortion due to large outliers.
Given that the distribution of income in the United States follows a log distribution, can begin to understand how the presence of a few thousand millionaires begins to skew the numbers. 

The reality shows that it will be a couple more years. Political Calculations had a good graphic on it: 
The housing bubble will finally be deflated when that blue segmented line meets the dashed green line. But that may be a while. Housing prices are sticky, there has been some massive Federal intervention, and there is a huge 'shadow inventory' of bank owned homes that aren't even on the market yet. 

But have hope--the crisis part of things is over. Prices are showing a 'steady' oscillation pattern, and the inflation adjusted housing price should meet the trend line within a couple of years. 

But an undershoot remains a very real possibility. The years 1997 to 2000 seems to have been a 'reversion to mean' period, followed by the frantic escalation between 2000 and which point the 'teaser' rates on ARM mortgages began to reset, and mortgage defaults began, coming to fullness only in 2008. Historic undershoots of the trend line look to have been in the 8-10% range, and it's not impossible we might see that again. Still, it's been almost two decades since we've seen that much amplitude in the oscillation of housing prices. 

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Peak VMT?

The Melbourne Urbanist has a pretty great graphic:

The post discusses 'peak travel', the idea that the industrialized world has hit a peak, and gross Vehicle Miles Traveled  (VMT) will never be as high as they were in mid-2007. Gas prices are frequently mooted as the cause, which seems plausible.

But what struck me was less then decline in per capita miles traveled then the decline in Per Capita GPD. Historically, there has been a strong correlation between vehicle miles driven and economic growth, but the exact causal relationship has always been fuzzy--do richer countries drive more, or is more driving required for greater economic activity? (The latter is a favorite argument of the road lobby).

But gas prices are high, additional credit constrained, and American consumers are broke. I theorize that the price of gas has disrupted the American economic engine in unanticipated ways. It's not just businesses that are suffering from high gas prices, but employees. The Journey to Work is typically the farthest Americans travel in a week, and thus the one that uses the most gas. When gas was cheap, it made sense to live far from your job, where housing was cheap. The time-cost was high, but time is cheaper than gas.

With the housing market frozen, moving is much more difficult, so 'home' is fixed, and workers have to choose from jobs that are close enough that they can afford to drive there. And thus we have lingering long-term employment.