Supply VS. Demand In Transportation Planning

There is often a lot of criticism over expensive transit projects that aren’t fully utilized when they are initially built. I’m not advocating transit projects to nowhere, but transportation projects shape growth. If we want to build more transit-oriented developments we need to start by building more transit.

Sometimes we buy too much of a good thing. For example you could buy too many fruits and vegetables and they could go bad before you have a chance to eat them. Fortunately infrastructure projects don’t go bad (although they do take money to operate and maintain). I cannot find many wasteful transportation projects that have been built – there are only a handful of airports that come to mind. Even projects that were initially heavily criticized for lower than expected initial ridership, such as BART, have turned the corner over time. Largely this is because of the transportation/land-use connection – if you build it they will come, sometimes it just takes awhile.

Critics will say that this fact ignores that there are trade offs between transit investment decisions. It is true that there are trade offs. However, we need to look at these trade offs over a longer period of time – not just a handful of years after a project opens. It takes time for developments to take shape, often times decades. Yet if these changes are to take shape we need to start think about shaping them now with proper, large scale investments in urban and regional rail.

Unfortunately, buses don’t have the same affect in shaping land-use decisions as rail does. (Trust me, I wish buses did, then transportation planning would be easy.) Rail isn’t just an efficient way to move people – it’s a monument: it says we are here to stay, you can rely on us. Developments inherently involve risk and the best way to attract developers is to minimize the downside risk. Often times this involves perception. Take for example a bank: banks are large stately buildings that convey stability, power, safety and above all that “we’re not going anywhere.” A developer wouldn’t take out a loan from someone dealing out of the side of his car because he could just take off. Likewise a developer won’t base his decision to develop on a bus line. A person might rent an apartment for a bus line, but developers want something more.

Still, critics will argue that the present state of affairs (in where transit is being cut but capital intensive projects are being fast tracked) is unjust. In Oakland, California for example transit ‘advocates’ are trying to stop an airport connector by claiming civil rights violations. I agree that the cuts that are being implemented in transit service are unjust. However, we need to focus our efforts on the lack of state and federal government funding in areas of need – not on areas where there is funding.

8 Responses to “Supply VS. Demand In Transportation Planning”

  1. 1 Pedestrianist September 5, 2009 at 12:33 pm

    I agree that we should overbuild new transit projects to take advantage of induced demand.

    The arguments going on now over the OAC and the Central Subway in SF are happening because both projects have some serious design flaws. It’s natural in those cases for even the most ardent transit advocates to say something like ‘this project as designed is not worth the cost.’

    That tends to become ‘the cost of this project is too high,’ which in turn becomes ‘we shouldn’t build this because it costs too much.’

    I cringe when I hear that progression because it just feeds into anti-transit hands. The highway lobby didn’t kill the Benicia bridge redo, which cost just as much as the CS and will serve a fraction of the number of people.

    We transit advocates ought to be thrilled that decision makers have decided to allocate so much money toward capital investment in rail in the Bay Area. Yes, the particular projects as defined are flawed, and could be better-designed. But our energy should be spent focusing on the redesign, not undermining support for the project as a whole.

    • 2 Switching Modes September 5, 2009 at 2:29 pm

      Pedestrianist: Thank you for your insightful comment. I agree with everything you say – we need to focus on promoting good ideas and not on trashing entire projects because there are some perceive flaws.

  2. 3 ian September 5, 2009 at 1:24 pm

    i’ll second that the OAC has severe design flaws. the fact that it is so much more expensive than it should be, both to build and for riders ($6 each way will definitely harm ridership), makes it pretty illogical. $6 each way on an automated train, or BRT that would be free for life (and I usually hate false claims about BRT). it’s an easy decision.

    in the same way, i think there were serious design flaws with the SFO extension to BART. yes, it provides a great transfer to BART, but for the same price (or much less), I would bet they could have just extended AirTrain to Millbrae (it’s not far at all), and then had BART and Caltrain all meet there. that would eliminate the *ridiculous* AirTrain to BART to BART to CalTrain transfer that you have to make to get to the peninsula from the Airport.

    With Warm Springs / San Jose, SFO, and the OAC in mind, the only conclusion that one can draw is that BART has very bad planning. The same could be said of MUNI, since it ignores the fact that its ridership calls for much more ambitious projects than the disputed central subway (we should really have a legitimate subway system, so that getting across the city doesn’t take the 45 minutes that it does, by rail, right now.)

    I strongly agree that the transit projects we undertake now will shape development, but when those projects are so flawed in their design, how do you redesign projects that are being blindly undertaken by agencies that don’t listen to the people? it leads us to development that doesn’t take full advantage of the transit it is built upon. too bad we don’t have strong, legitimate political support for *real* transit projects.

    • 4 Switching Modes September 5, 2009 at 3:19 pm

      ian: I agree that the projects you mentioned have flaws, but every project has flaws. The idea that there is only one right way to do things is flawed.

      The OAC
      The $6 fare seems high. However, I have taken the $3 airport connector and think that I would be happy to pay the extra $3 to take a nice people mover. I’m not a fan of BRT. I don’t think we need incremental improvements on transit investments. Instead we need investments that offer dramatic improvements. BRT just doesn’t deliver on those fronts. I know this is a contentious point, but it is, in the end, irrefutable.

      BART to SFO
      I’ve hear the argument of extending the people mover to Millbrae before and I think that it is an idea that would have been worth studying further. However I think that if it was studied some flaws would have come to light.

      First of all I don’t think that the SFO people mover could handle the capacity needs of BART, Caltrain and HSR passengers transferring between Millbrae MM and SFO.

      Secondly, I think there may have been logistical problems in running the SFO airport connector to Millbrae simply because of the way that system is laid out (ie. someone traveling counter clockwise on the system doesn’t want to go to the Millbrae multi-modal station when he is rushing to catch flight.

      Thirdly, while BART can handle the maintenance of the airport train at its’ existing facilities, I am doubtful that the SFO airport connector could handle such an extension without expanding their maintenance operations; that extension would involve approximately doubling the amount of track they have.

      Fourth of all, would the SFO people mover be that much better? I.e. would it really be possible to go directly from train to the appropriate terminal? For a lot of passengers, probably not unless they take a full tour of the airport… it could be a fairly long ride.

      This leads to my fifth point (which also ties into capacity issue), the SFO airport connector is meant to be used by standing passengers. When we begin to talk about 20 minute long ride times we begin to talk about adding seats, and that just isn’t possible on a small people mover.

      My sixth point is reliability: the SFO airport connector is pretty reliable, but in the event that it breaks one can just walk to the gate, or if they need assistance a golf cart can come and pick them up. That is, it’s acceptable for it to break on occasion (which is part why it so much cheaper than BART). It is unacceptable for a vital link between train and plane to break, that is there is no real alternative. Buses could be used, but that requires keeping a fleet of buses.

      My seventh point, and what was largely the point of my post, is induced demand. This also ties into the capacity issue again. In short, there is not the capacity on a people mover for the market share of transit to grow. As such, there isn’t the capacity to build new developments around Millbrae MM that would rely on connections to the airport.

      My eight point is that for people going to the new, very large International Terminal having to transfer between BART to the people mover would be inconvenient. Furthermore, the airport depends a lot on concession, I don’t think they would even want people to go straight to their gate, and people often arrive very early and don’t want that either.

      Finally, I think of Millbrae MM as part of a larger transit vision for the Peninsula. I think there will be a lot growth in that area, especially growth that is centered around the airport and the HSR station. Thus, the BART airport connector may one day run again and go beyond Millbrae. That’s really not possible with a people mover, and at the very least we should keep out options open.

      And, (this isn’t exactly a point, but an aside) do you really think that BART ended its’ network on Caltrain tracks and plans to end its’ SJ extension on Caltrain tracks? BART has big dreams. In fact the original BART proposal called for full loop around the Bay. I don’t think they’ve given up that dream.

      BART to SJ.
      You can knock the project on whatever grounds you want, but your reasoning that because BART has made other mistakes they will make more is flawed. BART works pretty well. Furthermore, BART has only had one real extension with an endpoint at a major destination (SFO). By going to SJ I think they have the talent and the experience on board to provide better planning and more accurate predictions than other agency.

      Finally, I think BART to SJ is a good idea, especially in light of HSR. SJ is the third largest city in California, yet transit there to the East Bay is horrible. Their freeway system is congested and expanding it makes little sense. This is a good proposal. Furthermore, how are we supposed to cram more people in the TB Tube at peak hours who are leaving the HSR station in SF to the East Bay? The answer is we can’t. A new tube is a long ways office. The SJ extension makes sense.

      Central Subway:
      I agree that SF needs a real subway system and 45 minutes from the Richmond to downtown on a crowded bus is ridiculous. I would much rather see all the projects I’ve supported above be scrapped if a real subway could be built in SF. However, I think Muni’s priorities are pretty solid. The central subway first, Geary next. Yes the platforms are too short. Yes a real subway would be better – I agree too much supply is better than too little.

      However, I strongly disagree that Muni should only be listening to what people want. That’s OK for buses, but for fixed guide way systems I think Muni needs to be a bit more visionary. That is, Muni needs to shape growth in San Francisco and not just respond to it.

      For example, is the Central Subway really about better transit to meet current needs? Yes and no. The real purpose of the project is to expand capacity to downtown from areas that are currently under developed, ie. Bay Shore, Hunters Point etc. These are the areas that have the most potential for growth in a post industrial economy, not the Richmond. I applaud San Francisco for realizing this and attempting to create viable, sustainable communities there.

      • 5 Tomtakt September 7, 2009 at 10:54 pm

        As far as SFO, building the BART extension was a great idea. They simply need to extend the Skytrain to the Millbrae station as well, especially once long distance trains start running.

        Düsseldorf has it, why not SF?

        And I’m not sure how anyone would calculate that the Skytrain travel time would be 20 minutes to Millbrae, considering the similar distance to the rental car facilities only takes 9 minutes.

        And actually, almost everyone arriving at the airport does want to go directly to their gate. The point of showing up early is to make sure there is plenty of time to check in and/or go through security. Only once inside of security are people generally ready to linger. Nevermind the logical problem in insisting that passengers of the International Terminal can’t possibly handle a transfer, while the rest of the passengers should be forced to move circuitously through the airport? International passengers only make up 26% of SFO’s users (not so “very large”). Or the fact that the People Mover would be built less reliably than BART? I’m fairly certain that reliability has nothing to do with the price disparity (try: SLOW, low-capacity, standardized design, no human operators). I would also bet that People Movers can handle a higher capacity than you might think simply by introducing more cars into the system.

        I certainly agree with you on some of your points–but you should perhaps think a little bit more critically about some of them.

      • 6 Switching Modes September 22, 2009 at 3:10 am

        My point wasn’t to say those points are for certain, but rather that a full study may point out some of those problems. I did however mention that I believe the idea does warrant a full study.

  3. 7 Dustin September 26, 2009 at 8:22 pm

    Good to see you back.

  4. 8 lyqwyd October 23, 2009 at 4:48 pm

    The problem with OAC is that it is an actively bad project. It makes no improvement over the existing system time-wise, costs way more for a ticket, will cost $500 million, but there are much cheaper systems that would actually improve service, and be able to lower the ticket price. There are much worthier projects that are being de-funded in order to pay for the OAC, or other projects that have not been planned where that money could be spent. The MTC is trying to take away money from the AC transit BRT system. Other projects that would be better than OAC include an infill station between Fritvale & Oakland Coliseum, Turnbacks for BART so not all trains need to go to the end of the line. Infill stations in San Francisco, capacity improvements for Embarcadero & Montgomery Station, Dumbarton rail bridge, grade separations for commuter rail. These projects would be actual improvements, rather than detrimental systems, and the list goes on and on. The OAC as currently proposed is one of the worst transit projects ever conceived.

    I would be fine with it if the original project had been feasible at the original cost, but it’s now gone up 4 times in cost, the infill station has been removed, and it will no longer connect directly to the terminal, all for a cost of $500 million.

    The other projects mentioned like Central Subway and BART to San Jose are very expensive, but do actually solve real problems. They do not deserved to be discussed in the same thread. They may have their issues, but they are orders of magnitude better than the travesty that is the OAC.

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