Celebrate (Transportation) Diversity!

Todd Litman's picture

Every person is unique. Every day is unique. Every trip is unique. As a result, an efficient and equitable transportation system must be diverse, so people can choose the best option for each trip. For example, today you might prefer to walk or bicycle, but tomorrow find it best to use public transit or drive.

There are many aspects of transportation diversity (also called "transportation choice" or "transportation options"). It can include various modes (walking, cycling, ridesharing and public transit), pricing options (such as the ability to rent a vehicle by the hour, or pay for insurance by the mile), services (taxis, carsharing, bike rentals, store delivery, etc.), service quality (such as premium public transportation services, so travelers can choose to pay extra for additional amenities such as on-board refreshments and Wi-Fi), and locations (such as being able to find an affordable home in a transit-oriented neighborhood, not just in an automobile-dependent suburb).

One benefit of transportation diversity is what economists call this Option Value, which refers to the value that consumers place on having an option available, even if they do not currently use it. For example, many people value having public transit service in their community because they might need it in the future. A diverse transportation system is resilient, allowing people to respond efficiently to unexpected change. For example, a multi-modal transportation system (where people can walk, bicycle, ride public transportation as well drive) allows people to maintain mobility even if they are disabled and unable to drive, if fuel prices increase making automobile travel expensive, or if an accident prevents driving on a particular roadway.

The value of transportation diversity is reflected in many ways. Residents of communities with multi-modal transport systems tend to experience less traffic congestion, lower accident rates, spend a smaller portion of their household budget on transportation, exercise more and are less likely to be overweight than residents of automobile-dependent communities.

A recent study by the U.S. Congressional Budget Office, Effects of Gasoline Prices on Driving Behavior and Vehicle Markets measured consumer responses to rising fuel prices. It found that when fuel prices increase motorists reduce traffic speeds, purchase more fuel efficient vehicles, drive less, and if they have access to high quality alternatives, will shift modes. The researchers measured Southern California freeway traffic volumes. They found that vehicle trips declined on freeways that had parallel rail transit service and transit ridership on the corresponding rail systems increased by a commensurate amount, but no such traffic reductions were found on freeways that lack rail transit service. Overall, a 10% increase in fuel prices reduces fuel consumption by 0.6% in the short run and 4% over the long run.

Other studies find similar effects with regard to traffic congestion. Highways with parallel high quality, grade separated public transit service tend to experience less traffic congestion than highways that lack alternatives, because as congestion increases a portion of travelers shift mode, lowering the point of congestion equilibrium. Congestion never disappears (that would require road pricing), but it is significantly lower than what would otherwise occur.

Travelers who lack suitable options are trapped. They are forced into modes and destinations that do not really reflect their preferences. For example, if walking and cycling conditions are poor and public transit service is inferior, commuters will continue to drive even if traffic congestion is terrible and fuel prices surge, but if better options exist they can choose the combination that best meets their needs. This makes consumers better off overall.

This has important implications for all sorts of planning decisions. Over the last century we have developed an excellent roadway system that allows motorists to drive nearly everywhere with reasonable comfort and convenience, except under urban-peak conditions when they face congestion. It now makes sense to diversity our transport system so travelers have viable alternatives, particularly under urban-peak conditions. This will allow individuals to choose the option that best meets their needs for each trip.

This is not simply a debate between motorists and non-motorists. Drivers have every reason to support alternative modes because a more diversified transportation system reduces their traffic and parking congestion, accident risk, pollution exposure, and their need to chauffeur non-driving family and friends. It also offers options that they may eventually find useful.

Unfortunately, conventional planning ignores most benefits of transportation diversity. Conventional traffic models evaluate transport system efficiency based primarily on travel speeds, and so they assume that travel shifted from automobile to slower modes (such as walking, cycling and public transit) makes travelers worse off. This assumption is wrong. If consumers shift mode in response to a positive incentive, such as improved travel options or a financial reward such as parking cash out, they must be better off overall, taking into account all of their costs and benefits, or they wouldn't make the shift.

To their credit, many planning professionals and public officials support efforts to improve transportation system diversity much more than is justified by their own economic models. They know intuitively that there are significant benefits to a multi-modal transportation system which are difficult to measure. However, the do this despite rather than with the support of existing transportation models and evaluation tools.

In a typical community, 20-30% of the population has significant constraints on their ability to drive due to age, disability, low income or some other problem. It therefore makes sense that anybody involved in transportation decision-making (planners, city councilors, transportation agency executives) should be required to spend 20-30% of their days without being allowed to drive, so they can experience the transportation system from a non-drivers' perspective. Hopefully, that will help decision-makers understand the value of transportation diversity, and help them identify new ways to create a truly integrated transport system.

For more information see:

Todd Litman (2001), "You Can Get There From Here: Evaluating Transportation Choice," Transportation Research Record 1756, Transportation Research Board, pp. 32-41; at www.vtpi.org/choice.pdf.

K.H. Schaeffer and Elliot Sclar (1980), Access for All, Columbia University Press (New York).


Todd Litman is the executive director of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute.



Critical mass . . .

Great post, Todd. While I expect most transportation planners, etc. will not take your call to travel without driving seriously, I think it is really important.

I've been involved in transportation planning now for about eight years representing citizen interests in neighborhoods and lower air pollution. It has never been the full-time focus of my job, but I'd say I've been effective. While I've never found it convenient to ride the bus, walk, or bicycle on a daily basis, I would say that I've met the goal of using those modes at least 20-30% of the time over those eight years.

The accumulation of those experiences, and being aware of fellow travelers as well, has sensitized me to the real-world impact of the abstract concepts being discussed in power point presentations. I witnessed the partial failure of a bike lane program which I'd ascribe to many of the planners being more focused on maps than landscape.

And I'd say that there is a need for a "critical mass" of these experiences before a planner or public official "gets it" about how people actually make do with badly planned or built systems. And the consequences in terms of injuries, missed job opportunities, etc.

Furthermore, the lack of options can be a "cost" to some people. When transportation and land use planners select a single-mode (or limited mode) transportation vision for a region, that imposes a "cost" on people whose preference are not well served by that choice.

For example, when I bought a minivan for the family five years ago, there were virtually no wagons or vans on the market with decent fuel economy (in the US, that is). Now there are a few of these vehicles, not stunning fuel economy but decent. So we've now got "options."

Your post correctly points out that when gas prices go up, vehicle manufacturers gradually shift production to more efficient vehicles. But it takes time because customers value a wide range of "services" from their vehicle as you've pointed out elsewhere. Since manufacturers take time to learn the new "package" of features that will sell an efficient vehicle, the market isn't as efficient as, perhaps, consumer choices may be. (Slight irony intended.)

Michael Lewyn's picture

the irony of auto-dictatorship

I've always found out highly ironic that the commentators who claim to champion the diversity of the free market are also the ones who are the least interested in transportation diversity. In fact, auto-centric transportation policies are a lot like democratic socialism- both tend to favor the interests of a perceived majority [in the first case, drivers in their role as drivers; in the second case, the political majority] and to ignore conflicting interests.

As Milton Friedman wrote many years ago, one great virtue of the free market is that it provides unanimity without conformity. To the extent transportation policy involves public goods and political choices, it can never provide as wide a range of choices as, say, a free market in chocolate. But it seems to me that a pro-diversity transportation policy at least brings us a bit closer to that vision than does the policy of favoring speedy vehicle traffic at any cost.

Prof. Michael Lewyn
Florida Coastal School of Law
Jacksonville, FL

Free market advocates support transit that pays for itself

I've always found out highly ironic that the commentators who claim to champion the diversity of the free market are also the ones who are the least interested in transportation diversity.

Every free market advocate I've talked with is perfectly content to allow transportation diversity - as long as the users of the diverse modes pay for their transportation.

Highway users have long paid for their highways - chiefly through gasoline taxes, but also through tolls. However, as gasoline tax funds have been diverted to other uses, such as mass transit, schools (in Texas), and "deficit reduction", it has been increasingly difficult to fund the highways required to meet traffic demand.

Rail transit users never pay for the cost of their commute. In some modern cities, such as Dallas, their rides are 70 to 80 percent subsidized.

The problem with rail transit is that in today's world, it costs way too much to build to ever come close to recovering costs. Further, the capacity of light rail lines is so small that it can never build up the ridership to do so.

Rail transit users never pay

Rail transit users never pay for the cost of their commute. In some modern cities, such as Dallas, their rides are 70 to 80 percent subsidized.

The fact that free markets don't exist and thus can't solve anything aside,

who do you think likely pays for the local access roads=>collectors=>county roads in any jurisdiction you drive through? Correct! likely all taxpayers! Local access roads through many county roads have maintenance and some construction/repair that are subsidized. Paid out of the general fund or GO bonds or mill levies. Do libertarians refuse to drive on Interstates or live in houses built from promises of funding from the GI Bill? How do they avoid congestion or find large-lot SFD proximate to amenities, one wonders.



Free market hostility

Why such hostility toward "free markets", Dano? I think we all understand that many markets are not truly "free", but let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater. There is tremendous good and problem solving that comes from competitive, albeit imprefect, markets. Ever use an Ipod? Use clorox bleach wipes, an alarm clock, or a billion other items we could discuss? The market "solves" lots of problems even if they don't operate quite as perfectly as the Econ 101 supply/demand curve.

Relative to this discussion, one conclusion we could all make is that all forms of transportation are subsidized in this country (and that includes walking if it's done on a paved surface). So, instead of cursing the concept and existence of markets, why not embrace them and use it to "solve" some social goods. Let's start by eliminating subsidies for transportation and then start pricing externalities like pollution, congestion, etc. If we do this, we can begin to determine true costs of various modes and adapt new and old modes to find the most optimal set of travel alternatives. Land use patterns as well as travel modes will adapt, though I understand that would take many years to occur. But, subsidizing all travel modes and then arguing over which one is subsidized more won't seem to solve anything.

Neutral wordity.

Why such hostility toward "free markets", Dano

Nah, cp. I merely said they don't exist. Had I been hostile toward them about , I'd have included 3 or 4 of the typical words I use when trying to sound hostile.

Nonetheless, your proposed market solutions (not "free") are things I don't have a problem with. Will the high-powered beneficiaries of these subsidies allow them to be repealed? My money stays in my pocket.



Governments will continue to build roads and highways

Do you and Dano believe that property taxes voted by local residents for local road construction and maintenance are subsidies to commuters? that the roads built by communities for delivering food to supermarkets, allowing fire trucks to access all buildings, and allowing school buses to transport children are just subsidies to commuters? that the streets developers build in neighborhoods - paid for in the housing prices set by developers - are subsidies? Such "subsidies" will never be eliminated. Voters are going to choose to fund roads to their homes. That will be true whether they use the roads to travel to highways or to rail stations.

Highways - including those collector roads in suburbs which are generally state highways - are paid for with federal and state gasoline taxes and with tolls. Those gasoline taxes and tolls are user fees paid by those who use the highways. Voters - through their elected representatives - are going to continue the system of gasoline tax user fees.

Governments will continue to build infrastructure.

Such "subsidies" will never be eliminated. Voters are going to choose to fund roads to their homes. That will be true whether they use the roads to travel to highways or to rail stations.

I'm not sure why you'd mischaracterize my argument, Mr Pragmatist (commuters? pshaw).

Nonetheless, all taxpayer's funding that goes into the general fund goes out to pave, repave etc roadways in local jurisdictions in many places. Yes, gramma Violet who hasn't driven in years pays for roads she doesn't use. And across town, single mom Britney pays taxes because life safety may need access to Violet's house. And at the Interstate exit, the extra tax on Billy Ray's coffee and donut goes to pay for some furball he ain't never seen cuz he don't live there to walk to school.

Subsidies. Decry them. They are awful when applied to things we don't like. To be consistent, they should be awful too when applied to topics worthy of personal ardor. Oh, wait: things we like contribute to the common weal, common good, community, commons, civic good, civic life, thus voters vote for them. Huh.

What about things we don't like that contribute to the common weal? Sure, their subsidies should be discontinued. Water and sewer good - check. Happy motoring - check. Alternative transport that a small minority doesn't like but Violet may use because she can't drive - umbrage. Got it.



Yes, somewhat

I don't like the concept of funding roads with broader taxes. I prefer the use of true user fees. So, in your example about a developer building local streets with costs passed on to homeowners, that would be ok. But, local collectors and arterials could be funded through user fees/gas taxes.

You are both probably right that all modes will continue to be subsidized to some degree, but that doesn't mean I have to like it. Roads are primarily a private good, economically speaking, and thus, in my opinion, should be paid for by user fees. The same is true of mass transit.

Roads as a private good.

Looks like, cp, perhaps someone was reading this thread when they submitted the article from Governing today (Tuesday April 2nd).



Rail transit is ineffective in modern cities

Why do you guys keep pushing rail transit for dispersed cities despite clear evidence of its ineffectiveness?

The CBO study showed that a 50 cent increase in gasoline yielded a 0.7 percent decrease in the number of vehicle trips and a corresponding increase in adjacent rail transit ridership. That's a tiny rail ridership increase, and one which may not even be attributable to gasoline prices. Correlation does not prove causality.

Dallas and its suburbs have collected $5 billion in rail transit taxes over the past two decades. The light rail system constructed has a daily ridership of about 60,000, representing only 30,000 round trip riders each day. Although most of those riders may have used a personal vehicle absent rail transit, it is not clear that all would have. In fact, mass transit ridership has barely increased as former bus routes were replaced by outrageously expensive trains.

Even if every one of Dallas' 30,000 daily round trip rail commuters represents a vehicle moved off the freeway, that's still a tiny, tiny portion of all Dallas commuters. The Dallas-Fort Worth metro area has a population of over 6 million, and at least half of those are commuters.

$5 billion would have been better spent on an extensive bus transit system, using the highly underutilized HOV lanes already in place. The beauty of bus transit is that the vehicles can go anywhere, changing routes as demand inevitably shifts.

Why do planners continue to advocate ineffective rail transit for dispersed cities?

Todd Litman's picture

Rail Transit Is Quite Effective When Properly Measured

First, let me point out that I am a strong advocate of Bus Rapid Transit and other Bus Transit Improvements. I helped write the Bus Rapid Transit Planning Guide (www.itdp.org/index.php/microsite/brt_planning_guide), and have promoted BRT system development in many major cities around the world. I am particularly proud of our success in South Africa, where new BRT systems are being developed in the major cities in preparation for 2010 World Cup, which will provide a huge benefit to city and township residents into the future.

However, my support for BRT in no way conflicts with my support for high quality rail transit. Research by myself and others indicates that on major urban corridors, rail transit can be cost effective and provide greater total benefits than bus-based transit because it tends to attract more discretionary travelers (people who would otherwise drive) and it tends to do more to stimulate Transit Oriented Development, providing significant leverage effects on travel behavior.

Our research, published in the report Rail Transit In America: Comprehensive Evaluation of Benefits (www.vtpi.org/railben.pdf) indicates that residents of cities with high quality rail transit systems tend to own fewer cars, drive less, and rely more on alternative modes, and so have significantly lower per capita congestion costs, traffic fatality rates, consumer transportation costs, transportation energy consumption, and transportation pollution emissions. In addition, transit systems in such cities tend to have lower operating costs and higher cost recovery than in bus-oriented cities. These benefits are large in total, worth hundreds of dollars annually per capita according to standard valuation of congestion and accident costs, and so repay the incremental costs of rail transit systems.

It is possible that rail transit systems could achieve much of the same benefits if implemented with supportive land use policies, but on major corridors with high public transit traffic volumes, buses cause significant noise and air pollution, which discourages true Transit Oriented Development (that is, dense development adjacent to and above transit stations), while rail transit becomes relatively more cost effective due to lower operating costs.

Mr. Dewey raises various objections to rail transit that are addressed in my paper, Evaluating Rail Transit Criticism (www.vtpi.org/railcrit.pdf). He uses relatively new rail transit systems to “prove” that costs per rider are excessive (they decline significantly over time as the system expands and ridership grows), and evaluates rail transit as a portion of total regional ridership rather than as a portion of travel on the congested urban corridor it serves. On such corridors, rail transit often carries a significant share of peak-period travelers, and is generally cheaper than accommodating more automobile trips on the same corridor, taking into account incremental road, parking and vehicle travel costs.

Dewey argues that the CBO study indicates relatively small shifts from automobile to transit, but these are short-run effects. Long-run effects are generally two- to four-times greater, and are likely to increase much more if transit improvements are supported by other supportive policies, such as parking cash out, Pay-As-You-Drive vehicle pricing, and improved walkability around transit stops and stations.

Regardless of the relative merits of rail versus bus transit, my point concerning consumer sovereignty still stands. Only if travelers have viable transportation and land use options can they choose the combination that really meets their needs, and to the degree that a city fails to offer good alternatives to automobile travel and sprawl, consumers suffer.

Todd Alexander Litman
Victoria Transport Policy Institute
"Efficiency - Equity - Clarity"

Numbers Please

On such corridors, rail transit often carries a significant share of peak-period travelers, and is generally cheaper than accommodating more automobile trips on the same corridor, taking into account incremental road, parking and vehicle travel costs.

What do you mean "often," "generally cheaper," and "taking into account?"

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