Saturday, May 23, 2009

Buying Brand New $23,000 Cars For Commuters in Phoenix is Cheaper Than Light Rail for $1.4B

The other day, Phoenix trumpeted that its daily light rail ridership had reached 37,000 boardings per weekday. Since most of those people have two boardings per day (one each direction) we can think of this as 18,500 people making a round trip each day.

Well, if we bought each of these folks a brand new Prius III for $23,000 it would cost us just over $425 million. This is WAY less than the $1.4 billion we pay to move them by rail instead. We could have bought every regular rider a Prius and still have a billion dollars left over! And, having a Prius, they would be able to commute and get good gas mileage anywhere they wanted to go in Phoenix, rather than just a maximum of 20 miles on just one line.


~Coyote Blog

36 Comments:

At 5/23/2009 9:32 AM, Blogger David Rotor said...

Mark,

Again I find myself disappointed by the quality of the data and analysis you've posted. I'm a regular reader and, in particular, I find the data and analysis you have been doing on housing issues to be very informative.

In this case I think the light rail vs buying a prius for every commuter to be worthy of good analysis supported by good data.

However suggesting that a valid comparison is the cost of purchasing cars vs the cost to build the light rail is laughably inaccurate. I'd like you to take on a real comparison of the life cycle costs, including of course the capital and maintenance cost for both types of road, tarmac and rail.

I'm no expert but a quick google scan shows that light rail advocates claim total cost of ownership for cars to be something like $1.40 per passenger mile, while light rail is something like $0.80.

These points of data come from industry lobby groups and I'm naturally suspicious, but frankly the quality of the research I read in 10 minutes blows the "multiply the purchase price of a prius by 18,500" right out of the water.

Cheers,

David Rotor

 
At 5/23/2009 11:02 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's not scientific, but as a resident of the San Francisco bay area, I can tell you that light rail sucks the life out of everything else. We pay more in bridge tolls, gas taxes, bus fares, parking fines and garage taxes, all to support "mass transit". Tax dollars are diverted to BART and MUNI that should be spent repairing and improving our roads and smaller bridges. As a result, there is a marked difference in the quality of our roads as compared to southern CA where they are not as enthralled with the mass transit concept.

 
At 5/23/2009 11:22 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

http://ti.org/antiplanner/?p=1342

 
At 5/23/2009 12:01 PM, Anonymous gettingrational said...

Let us assume that maybe 20,000 people ride the light rail everyday. Then, maybe, 20,000 cars are been removed and less traffic congestion. That might be a good outcome. This is probably not the situation Phoenix light rail has.

A lot or people are riding this system for free (not paying) and are not car drivers. Thus we have a situation where riders are subsidized and the traffic gets worse.

Look for additional funding to operate this system from the usual source -- the federal government.

 
At 5/23/2009 2:17 PM, Blogger Ironman said...

First, our favorite quote of all-time:

Economically speaking, of all the ways to transport people between cities, rail is perhaps the stupidest. Nowhere else do we see the confluence of extraordinarily high infrastructure costs (land, construction, equipment, facilities, etc.) and extraordinarily high operating costs (labor, maintenance, fuel, utilities, overhead, etc.) combine with extraordinarily low demand by commuters to produce such little tangible benefit.The same applies to transporting people within cities.

Speaking of the Prius vs light rail cost comparison, it's much more useful to compare the cost of the annual subsidies for operating light rail systems compared to the full ownership cost of buying Prius' for the poorest commuters, while even providing exceptionally generous subsidies for all other mass-transit commuters.

 
At 5/23/2009 3:30 PM, Blogger bobble said...

anon1102:>>as a resident of the San Francisco bay area, I can tell you that light rail sucks the life out of everything else. We pay more in bridge tolls, gas taxes, bus fares, parking fines and garage taxes, all to support "mass transit".<<

i have to agree with anon about the amount of subsidy that bay area mass transit consumes.

however, without mass transit some of the streets and hiways would come to a standstill (think bay bridge and approaches). the benefits to clearing cars off he roads is huge but can't be quantified easily.

 
At 5/23/2009 6:05 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Light rail will always require large subsidies because it is a solution looking for a problem. A quick review of the transit issues would reveal that individual consumers are not served by light rail. Their transit objectives are far too diverse to be met by light rail. Light rail is a solution to aggregate transit problems. That is, if we total the people who need to move in time and space and by the resources currently employed we find a ratio more attractive than the current solution. The major problems are that this is an aggregate solution which fails to account for the fact that they are going to specific places in space and time not abstract ones.

 
At 5/23/2009 7:04 PM, Blogger Robert Miller said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

 
At 5/23/2009 8:16 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

To amend:

"Public transportation is a huge money loser [IN PHOENIX]."

That is all.

 
At 5/23/2009 9:30 PM, Blogger Robert Miller said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

 
At 5/23/2009 9:34 PM, Blogger QT said...

One additional factor in this discussion is time.

Public transit requires more time to reach a destination than if the same trip was made by car. Some commuters will need to take 2 or more transfers and wait for connections. If one has to travel to several meetings, public transit is quite simply a non-starter.

Automobiles offer convenient, relatively low cost transportation that affords privacy and the ability to carry cargo. Society will likely always have public transit as a social good (ie. for low income residents or those who cannot operate a vehicle due to physical impairment) but it is doubtful that such services can become economic due to low ridership.

It is tempting to think that one could simply buy Priuses but there will still be patrons who could not operate a vehicle ie. a blind person.

 
At 5/23/2009 11:26 PM, Blogger bobble said...

robert miller:". . . I know that San Francisco MUNI, BART, Caltrain, AC Transit, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Milwaukee, Washington DC Metro, New York City MTA, Boston T, Chicago MTA and RTA, and Denver's RTD are all money losers . . .

I can't think of a single public transportation system which is operating in a surplus and has covered its capital costs."

i'm sure you're right.

but consider this, what do you think the roads would be like without mass transit? what would NYC be like without mass transit? what would the sf bay bridge look like at 7:45am on a tuesday without BART?

all of you would be grinding your teeth, stopped dead in traffic without mass transit.

 
At 5/24/2009 12:26 AM, Blogger QT said...

Bobble,

Alternatively, the transportation and parking infrastructure might be expanded to meet capacity. City politicians often underdesign to try to force residents to use public transit.

It is equally plausible that the internet may make cities less strategic compounding the hollowing out effect as businesses leave the city due to planning constraints, congestion and excessive property taxes.

 
At 5/24/2009 2:33 AM, Blogger Robert Miller said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

 
At 5/24/2009 3:19 AM, Blogger bobble said...

robert miller:"I wasn't here when BART was built, but my uncle was and he said that it was WAY over budget and WAY late in construction."

i was an IT contractor in private enterprise for 25 years. most every project i worked on was over budget. private enterprise has its own problems with estimates and actuality.

"They expect public transit to lose money because they want to subsidize fares for the sick, lame and lazy."

they are 1) trying to keep people out of their cars so that rich folk can drive their mercedes downtown and 2) trying to provide transportation to the little people that keep business running, but can't afford a car. think of it as a business subsidy. how would they get to work otherwise?

"Privatizing public transit would be the best way to ensure economically feasible transportation. With higher fares, bums couldn't afford to ride and old ladies would take only 1 trip to Chinatown a week instead of 5."

tho i had a car, i rode SF MUNI for many years. it worked just fine. actually, my son rides it daily now and is quite satisfied. i suppose if you don't want to rub shoulders with the hoi polli then it sucks for you. you obviously need to work a little harder and move up to the limo level.

i agree that the muni payscale is way out of whack. SF, in general has buckled under to the unions, it's a very serious problem. but it is not unique to mass transit.

 
At 5/24/2009 8:59 AM, Blogger QT said...

What happens when you offer to buy $23,000 cars for transit riders?

Wouldn't we expect to create demand? Wouldn't we expect people who do not need subsidization ending up with a publicly paid auto like Charles Rangel & his 4 NY subsidized apartments? How does one gain political consensus for redistributing income from taxpayers to buy capital assets for private individuals?

While highlighting the costs of public transit, isn't it fair to say that buying Priuses for communters is not really a realistic policy alternative? Suggesting a taxi fleet of Priuses with a grant for low income commuters might be more realistic.

 
At 5/24/2009 10:17 AM, Blogger Allen said...

David Rotor ---> You raise an excellent point. If you have a link for a study or two that you mention handy, it'd be great if you could post it. My suspicion is that they're using their usual Enron style accounting and not taking into account the up front costs. That is, they're not including that extra $750 million upfront to get that claimed lower "per mile" cost.

 
At 5/24/2009 10:45 AM, Anonymous John James O'Brien said...

Being based in Hong Kong where over 2.5 million people of all economic strata use the Mass Transit Rail system daily as only one of 5 or 6 public transit options extending across the territory and to the border, the reasons for lack of ridership in North America (generalizing) are obvious. Basically, there's (comparatively) NO mass transit!

If public transit was convenient, safe, pleasant, centrally planned (as opposed to politically driven) and tailored to the needs of the relevant population, I imagine that people would literally climb on board. It's not reasonable to expect the kind of coverage that even rural Hong Kong can afford, I suppose. And, the US would likely not tolerate the degree of central planning that Asia's capitalist hotbed enjoys, but the major challenge in achieving the benefits of mass transit systems is getting granular in planning and biting the bullet.

On a project in Victoria British Columbia, now, and I can assure you it is no Hong Kong. But...after seven years without need for a car, I'm giving it a go. And...the time benefit is obvious. I can get from home to downtown and into a meeting faster than driving, parking and walking to the location. Make it convenient, get people giving it a go, and the result may be a surprise. Here, I have been amazed at the sense of cohesive community among ethnically diverse transport riders--helpfulness to those with mobility problems, politeness to each other and to the driver. Only thing...they thing, they're clearly not used to seeing bespoke suits on a bus!

 
At 5/24/2009 10:47 AM, Blogger Allen said...

"but consider this, what do you think the roads would be like without mass transit? what would NYC be like without mass transit? what would the sf bay bridge look like at 7:45am on a tuesday without BART?

all of you would be grinding your teeth, stopped dead in traffic without mass transit." -- Bobble

You raise an excellent point. The key here is talking about mass transit, not just light rail. Resources put into a project light Phoenix's LRT are resources that weren't put into other options. For example, Phoenix could've built HOT lanes on the route that handled more trips (ie "ridership) and had money left over. Or that money simply could've been used to add capacity to the existing road system with non-HOT/HOV lanes.

One has to wonder if over the years the money that went into building and operating Bart had gone into other things, whether it's just beefed up bus service with dedicated lanes, or just beefing up the road network how bad the traffic would be. Maybe in the case of San Fran, BART was the best option. But for most of these projects in most locations, the best options for addressing congestion is adding to road capacity. It not only is less expensive but does much more to address congestion. An example of the this is the East Corridor on the Fastracks project in Denver. Despite the least expensive and also most effective option being to beef up I-70 and Pena Blvd, they're going with a $1.3 billion rail option that does the least out of all options studied to reduce congestion.

 
At 5/24/2009 10:49 AM, Blogger David said...

Commuter rail makes the most sense when it is either buried or elevated. In these cases, it creates additional traffic paths which do not compete for land with automobile traffic and business/residential use, and hence increases the overall trip capacity of the urban area. Kind of analogous to a multilayer circut board in electronics. If light rail runs on the surface, as it usually does, its only real vis-a-vis buses are (1)theoretically better energy efficiency because of rail and electrical propulsion efficiencies--only realized in practice if load factors are good, and (b)may be able to overcome the generally-awful image of bus travel.

Commuter rail on existing freight railroad tracks can be useful in some circumstances, but the freight-rail renaissance means that many routes are nearing capacity.

 
At 5/24/2009 2:23 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm glad economists don't run things.

There's a very simple reason "City politicians often underdesign to try to force residents to use public transit" (quoting, from above)...

It's because MUCH of the ridership, are those you do NOT want behind a wheel. The disabled. The elderly or otherwise poor-reflexed. Immigrants who can barely drive.

Add to that- the city worker of an essential department.. whose attendance can't rest on "freeway conditions". You all seem to be overlooking.. it takes ONE errant driver to ruin the day for several hundred thousand people.

Please try to balance your bean counting with real-world realities.

And for the love of God, enough with the oil addiction.

 
At 5/24/2009 5:12 PM, Blogger jacitti2 said...

I actually live in Phoenix and had the opportunity to vote against the Light Rail boondoggle, to no avail.

The saddest fact is that the light rail stops at all stop lights. When that is combined with the time loading and unloading, the service is as slow as rush hour traffic. The cars are shiny new, though, for now.

The system hopes to recover 20% of costs! What a deal.

It would have been far better to buy more buses which have just as much capability and the ability to change routes.

So, we have a system that is no better than a bus system at a huge cost. As the novelty wears off, the riders will desert the Light Rail just as they have the buses.

The Phoenix was a jam down by the liberal city political class. Phoenix will be paying for this mess for decades.

 
At 5/24/2009 6:47 PM, Blogger Robert Miller said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

 
At 5/24/2009 10:42 PM, Blogger QT said...

John,

Have to agree that Hong Kong has one of the best transit systems in the world. Having the entire bus/underground/rail system integrated so that the same pass works on all three systems...brilliant. Designing a train to the airport which travels under beneath the highway another fantastic idea.

As you say, the difference is the density of population although the distances to be covered are smaller. Hong Kong is very densely populated and urbanized but the base footprint of the skyscrapers is very small by U.S. standards. In North America, we are challenged by longer distances in contrast to say, Britain or France.

Robert,

Agree that the price should cover the cost and encourage usage. In Hong Kong, the fares are levied based upon the distance travelled using a debit style card. A fixed fare by contrast tends to penalize those who travel just one or two stops.

Funnily, no one has mentioned streetcars. These are possibly the most inefficient of transit vehicles as they are unable to manuever around obstacles such as a traffic accident.

 
At 5/25/2009 11:21 AM, Anonymous AMATI NONYMUS said...

"
$23,000 Cars For Commuters in Phoenix is Cheaper Than Light Rail for $1.4B
"

Breaking down the 1.4 * 10^9 dollars you then find that large part of the mix is the destruction of complex things above the proposed rail. There are physical structures, business good will, interruption of traffic between distant businesses, and the list goes on. By contrast the completion of such a project in the middle of a Wyoming cattle range will be a minute fraction of the present quote. Would you guess that there are thousands of cities in our enormous nation? Net worth of all those cities would overshadow the expense of building just one totally new metropolis within our most remote county of some centrally located state.

Start from a scratch into the hard soil. From the ground up you build first the trenches to become future tunnels for sewers, pipes, wiring, and trains. Then you build culverts, bridges, and foundations for buildings. Then highways and railways. Then secondary streets, landing strips, heliports, emergency services buildings, and continue until basic things are provided. Then sell land to entrepreneurs, private citizens, etc.

Entire project will be our biggest bargain since self-control.

Now that we have torn the &#!- out of Iraq, perhaps we should build our first bargain city within their country. That brand of kindness will create more Iraqian Stability than all the backwater troops in the jungle.

With bargain priced spiffy new light rail transport and bike sharing system, people of all ages can enjoy the outdoor freedom, exercise and natural beauty of their country.

Avant Guard Suggestions are quickly swept under the carpet, of course. But when the time comes to renovate the decay of inner city, or rebuild a bombed out crater,

Renovate Not
!

 
At 5/25/2009 4:47 PM, Blogger Bloggin' Brewskie said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

 
At 5/26/2009 10:12 AM, Blogger OBloodyHell said...

> Public transit requires more time to reach a destination than if the same trip was made by car. Some commuters will need to take 2 or more transfers and wait for connections. If one has to travel to several meetings, public transit is quite simply a non-starter.

Spot on, QT, I've noted here and elsewhere that, where I live (a mid-small college town, but, with a major university -- ca. 40k students local -- plus another large CC feeding into it -- ca 25k students -- it also has a hugely subsidized bus system), driving and walking to any destination, door-to-door, is typically 15-20 mins, 30-35 mins during rush hour. Contrast that with a bus trip, which will be not less than 30 mins invariably, and often as much as an hour, door-to-door.

Another component of mass transit FAIL is combination of trips -- I usually don't just go out to do one thing and go right home -- I usually go out and then make stops along the way and on the way home. The bus makes that difficult, highly impractical, and at best far less useful in time savings.

In the end, this is all subject to The Civilization Rule:
Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations one can do without thinking about them.

Mass transit increases the amount of thinking you have to do (What time does the bus get to this stop to pick me back up? how far will I have to walk from the bus line to the place I'm going? How bulky will my purchases be?) --- all of that places far more limits on your utilization of time, and, all around, represents a tremendous FAIL when it comes to the Civ Rule.

.

 
At 5/26/2009 10:33 AM, Blogger OBloodyHell said...

AMATI N:

There are several hidden presumptions to your idea:

1) That centralized planning works. That such planning will succeed in guessing properly as to the needed sizes of various infrastructure components in the face of actual demand and distribution of needs

2) That people will, indeed, flock to such a location. In real fact, the nature of industry has been such that a resource is identified, then an industry to utilize that resource is produced, then supporting industries build around that. Your proposition is basically "build it and they will come". Might work in the movies, but on a grand scale, a lot more iffy.

3) I know of one obvious case where what you suggest has worked, and that was with a ready-made industry set up to move in and give the place a reason to be -- the Brazilian government. Never been there, can't say how good an implementation that represents.

4) The only other vaguely similar example would be Disney World in Orlando, and, trust me, that shifted substantially from its original conceptualization back in the late 50s early 60s prior even to its opening in the early 70s.

Not saying the idea cannot work -- in fact, with much of today's industry based on knowledge work it's actually more workable, in this nation, than at any time or place in human history.

But your suggestion does rely very much in a faith in central planning. My own experience as a libertarian is that it's more likely a recipe for a huge waste of money -- the number of "build it and they will come" scenarios that fail vs. those that work -- even in location-flexible industries like entertainment -- is something like 99-1.

Building an entire city from scratch? Risky. Very risky. And incredibly dependent on the talents and abilities of the individuals who design it to get Key Things Right.

 
At 5/26/2009 10:42 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"I'd like you to take on a real comparison of the life cycle costs, including of course the capital and maintenance cost for both types of road, tarmac and rail."

I suspect that if you actually do that, the Prius and all its asociated costs still comes out ahead.

See Winston and Shirley for the analysis. Very few rail systems provide a net social benefit.


Anyway, the professor didn;t provide the analysis, just the quote.

Hydra

Hydra

 
At 5/26/2009 10:44 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"light rail advocates claim total cost of ownership for cars to be something like $1.40 per passenger mile, while light rail is something like $0.80."

Yes, but they assume ridership goals that are seldom met. The potential is that high, but in actual service they costs are higher and the benefits lower than usuallly claimed BY ADVOCATES.

Hydra

 
At 5/26/2009 10:45 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Let us assume that maybe 20,000 people ride the light rail everyday. Then, maybe, 20,000 cars are been removed and less traffic congestion. "

Actually it is nowhere near a one to one correlation: it is probably more like three light rail trips for every car trip eliminated.

People use light rail in addition to auto use, not in place of.

Hydra

 
At 5/26/2009 10:48 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"---but the major challenge in achieving the benefits of mass transit systems is getting granular in planning and biting the bullet."

No, the major callenge is building a place like Hong Kong, just so you can justify mass transit. Such density imposes many other costs which are not counted as subsidies to mass transit.

Hydra

 
At 5/26/2009 10:53 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

With a private auto, you are guaranteed a seat, and a seat belt.
Public transit simply cannot compete on any level basis.

The argument should not be for either or, the right question is what is the right mix? Winston and Shirley suggest the right mix is about 2% mass transit, and in the most populated areas, which is about what private enetrprise could support.



Hydra

 
At 5/27/2009 1:52 PM, Blogger Troy said...

I noticed lots of people commented on how mass transit doesn't make a profit but I doubt those same people hold roads and highways to the same standard and complain at what money-losers roads and highways are.

 
At 6/07/2009 9:10 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Some of the readers here have bagged on public transit in favor of pouring the funds into expanding highways & streets, putting up better parking structures, etc.... But consider dense urban areas that need transportation improvement the most; they are already dense...

Think of LA. How exactly might one propose to expand the 405 or the 10, which are running dead through über-dense areas? Mow down the housing there? Let's not even get into the social justice issues related to that. I know a little bit about the destruction caused by bulldozing straight through communities to construct Robert Moses' freeway system in New York, and that was decades ago. The problems (economic, political, etc.) associated with doing something like that now are unspeakable.

And if you throw out public transit altogether, imagine how many extra mostly-empty cars would be littering an already insanely crowded highway system. And some people do choose to ride public transit, for their own reasons. I can't think of why you would want to force those people out on the road and plug up the traffic even more. I'm sure we've all experience a drive that could take 15 minutes and takes more like an hour. Why make it worse?

Finally, it would be nice if a few of the above posters would be a little less elitist and think about the greater need. I agree with some of the others in saying that there are a lot of people who depend upon public transit--the elderly (nobody wants them on the road, especially with preexisting traffic and places to go), the disabled, people like the ones who prepare your food in fancy restaurants & McDonald's alike. The price tags on a lot of things would be higher if these hard-working, exploited laborers had no way to get to work.

So to remediate some of the problems you have all been bringing up, it might be somewhat more ideal, albeit difficult, to combine some of these elements. Maybe something like a rail system that parallels the major freeways with a tight bus system that connects the rails and runs into the city, as well as park-and-ride type lots/structures so you can get yourself to a station easily, then have a stress-free, quick ride down the freeway, say, from Long Beach to Hollywood.

 
At 6/08/2009 5:46 PM, Blogger Allen said...

"Think of LA. How exactly might one propose to expand the 405 or the 10, which are running dead through über-dense areas? Mow down the housing there? Let's not even get into the social justice issues related to that. I know a little bit about the destruction caused by bulldozing straight through communities to construct Robert Moses' freeway system in New York, and that was decades ago. The problems (economic, political, etc.) associated with doing something like that now are unspeakable."

That's correct, no matter what is done is an issue. Just keep in mind that adding double tracked LRT takes up as much space as 3 freeway lanes.

And considering a "successful" LRT project like MPLS' Hiawatha doesn't carry more than a lane to a lane and half worth of trips (and that's both ways!), not only is it less expensive to add the capacity via freeway but it'll handle more trips.

Of course that's assuming the expansion is done along the freeway. It could be done along an existing rail corridor. But that brings up issues with mixing freight and passengers. Or if it's an abandoned freight line, the problem often is development's already occured in a way that the line isn't going to attract as many passengers as it would've.

As far as googling the cost of ownership, the reason light rail advotacts can claim "$1.40" / mile is that most costs are not per mile. So in the process of trying to translate those costs into "per mile" they use a lot of Enron esque accounting.

 

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