More on transportation

In the last post we looked at the basic cause of highway traffic, but it’s worth mentioning that there is a converse to this: rail transportation. We have highways all across the country because driving automobiles is popular among Americans, and roads are heavily subsidized by the federal government and thus within the ability of most states to produce. This also means that they tend to get used heavily, causing traffic, accidents, and other headaches.

On the other hand, rail transportation often suffers from a lack of demand (i.e. passengers). It would be a mistake to say (although we hear this often) that Americans have some inherent affinity for gas guzzling SUV’s and hate taking the train. See the post on revealed preferences for why this is inaccurate–without market pricing of these alternatives, we can’t say which is really preferred. What we can say is that, given current transportation infrastructure and population distribution, rail transportation is often inefficient for lots of people. Would I take rail more often if I could? Yes. But “if I could” means having rail lines to the places I like to go. As nice as this would be, rail transportation is only efficient if it goes to the places that lots of people like to go.

Which brings us to another example in Northern California. There has been hubbub for a while about extending BART train directly to the Oakland Airport instead of having to hop off and take a shuttle. While it is a bit of a hassle to make the changeover, I’m not sure that it’s worth $484 million. Nor would I be willing to pay the full price of the rail trip from the current BART stop to the airport if the full cost (over $11) were passed on to me as a consumer. The reason that this is popular with consumers is that the full cost is not passed on to them. There’s nothing particularly wrong with this arrangement–I plan on taking BART at least a few times when I’m in the Bay Area next which–but it’s important to think realistically about costs.

What I really wanted to get to with this post was not the Oakland Airport expansion, but BART’s other end, in the East Bay. This post touches on my earlier point about rail transportation having to go where lots of people want it to go: developers who support BART expansion are arguing about its proposed route. Given the agreements in place, keeping BART along its current 580 route would lead to about 2,500 more units of home construction than taking it into downtown Livermore. However, there are no real “destinations” in Livermore right on 580, so people would have to switch over to vehicles. This really wouldn’t be any different from the Dublin/Pleasanton stop but it’s worth pointing out. Taking BART into downtown Livermore would offer at least a few walkable destinations (I was told last summer that First Street is enjoying a “renaissance”) but even then there isn’t much density in the heart of Livermore. For this route to be efficient you either need more construction of homes so that this becomes a viable option for those who commute westward, or it needs to go where people currently work, which is the laboratories.

This has gotten a bit long-winded and meandering so I should stop. The basic takeaway is that rail suffers from the opposite problem as highways: low demand relative to supply. Proponents of rail point the finger at automobile/highway subsidies for this, and they may be right, but this is the current reality.

I’d welcome comments from anybody who actually pays taxes in California, knows something more about transportation policy, or has a few minutes to humor me with their thoughts.

5 thoughts on “More on transportation

  1. To me, it seems (at least in Texas) that the demand for rail is there, but the current product supplied does not match the product demanded. For instance, currently, the Austin area has one rail line, which is only useful for those wishing to get from Cedar Park and north Austin to downtown between the hours of about 6a-6p. I recall the situation in Houston as something similar (few choices regarding location and hours of operation). In your words, there are no rails to places “lots of people like to go.”

    Ridership here has increased tremendously and more rail stations and extended hours are in the works. It seems to me that people would love to take the rails. Who can blame them? Road traffic here is horrendous and there are accidents constantly. If the product being supplied were right, it is my belief that demand would be huge.

    So for those of us who have a high priority of avoiding daily traffic jams, we sell a car in exchange for a premium rent/mortgage payment, enabling us to walk or bike. For the rest, traffic is a way of life until the supply is there.

    Caveat: There are plenty of people who will drop dead before giving up their car(s).

    Another interesting case is NYC, where seemingly no supply of roads/rail/buses could meet the demand.

    • I think the point in your second-to-last paragraph is a great one: that there is more to the cost/benefit calculation than just money. Time is a very precious resource and living closer to things costs more in money but conserves time.

      The issue of quality that you raise is also important: I’ve heard but can’t verify that BART has the oldest passenger cars in the US.

      Thanks for commenting–engineers always bring a useful perspective to these discussions. I had no idea that Austin had rail.

  2. If BART was placed on 580 at Isabel, it would be within 1/2 mile of a very large community college, business park, and housing. If BART continued to Greenville, it would be placed within 1/2 mile of planned innovation center and be close to the perimeter of the Livermore/Sandia National Lab (this is a secured area & provides own shuttle svc.) The other advantage of Greenville is that it connects to ACE (another commuter train). The proposed downtown BART is 3x more expensive due to tunneling, will cause increase congestion as people drive through town to station, & while downtown is pleasant there is no major employer located there. BART has also previously passed the increase cost of tunneling to city residents. For BART to receive federal funding, there is a TOD policy in place which does require high density housing in a 1/2 distance from station. Suggest that you read Cervero at UC Berkley for policies on TOD.

    • J, thanks for pointing out a number of relevant facts. I worked at Livermore last summer and had forgotten about shuttle service that was available from 580. I can’t speculate whether BART service to within a half mile would make Las Positas a more attractive option or not. The post that I linked to was merely pointing out that developers have their own incentives for wanting to keep BART on 580, which doesn’t discredit their points but should be public information. If you have more to say on this topic you’re welcome to do a guest post.

  3. Pingback: Transportation as an information problem | You Study Politics, Right?

Comments are closed.