Components of Highway Funding Shortfalls

I forget where, but I recently heard another story about highway funding that specifically mentioned declining vehicle miles traveled (VMT) and increasing fuel efficiency as causing reductions in gas tax revenues. The impact of inflation on the purchasing power of gas tax revenues was mentioned only in passing (to note that the federal gas tax has not been increased since 1993).

The VMT and fuel efficiency trends are real, but are they the main show? Well, we have data! So here’s a look at trying to tease out the impacts of decreasing VMT, increasing fuel efficiency, and inflation on transportation funding at the federal level.

Warning: all of the calculations here are very rough. There are many variables involved that are beyond the scope of this post. A detailed study would probably be a good project for a grad student somewhere. As it is, take the results here as indicative of the order of magnitude of impacts.

Detailed methodology is explained at the bottom of the post.

The federal gas tax was last raised in 1993, to 18.4 cents per gallon. Since that time, inflation has eroded the purchasing power of the gas tax (i.e. the same amount of money now buys less roads). In addition, in recent years there has been a notable increase in fuel efficiency, and a stagnation of VMT. Because people are driving more fuel efficient vehicles, and driving them fewer miles, the amount of gas used is going down, and so are fuel revenues.

To figure out the impact of each factor, we need to look at data trends over the last 20 years and pose some reasonable counterfactuals. For data, I pulled VMT from the St Louis Fed’s FRED service, inflation from the BLS Inflation Calculator, and fuel efficiency from the EPA’s Fuel Economy Trends Report. For counterfactuals, I looked at the following scenarios:

  • VMT growing at a constant 2.33%/year, the approximate rate at which it grew from 1993 to 2005.
  • Gas tax being adjusted annually to account for inflation.
  • Vehicle fuel efficiency held constant at 1993 level.
  • Combination of all three factors.

Trends since 1993 are shown in the following graph:

yearly revenue loss

Logically, the loss of purchasing power due to inflation has an immediate and increasing effect, tempered by slower inflation in recent years. The emergence of VMT and fuel efficiency as significant factors in revenue losses is relatively recent, within the last 5 years.

The next graph shows cumulative losses to transportation funding since 1993:

cumulative revenue loss

The reason to look at cumulative losses is that transportation funding is usually authorized as multi-year bills, and surpluses (or deficits) to the highway trust fund roll over from year to year. The loss of purchasing power due to inflation dominates; change in VMT trends only recently emerges as a relatively minor factor. Changes in fuel efficiency have had basically zero effect on the long-term solvency of the fund, as recent gains in fuel efficiency have just barely offset losses in fuel efficiency in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

While these are only order of magnitude results, they show pretty clearly that inflation has been the most important factor. It is beyond the scope of this post to argue if additional federal transportation funding is needed, but if it is, raising the gas tax is the easiest and most effective way to do it. (Note that theoretically, declining revenues due to declining VMT isn’t even a problem in the first place, since less driving means less roads are needed. And due to climate change, trends that result in higher fuel efficiency and lower VMT are net positives for society.)

So why so much talk about declining VMT and fuel efficiency? Wild guesses: first, it’s a convenient narrative if you want to replace the gas tax with a VMT tax and/or tolls. Second, it makes the problem seem more complicated, which creates the opportunity for Serious People™ to opine. And lastly, it provides a scrap of cover to incompetent politicians who would look like dunces if everyone realized that the problem could be solved by a 25-word piece of legislation raising the tax and indexing it to inflation.


A detailed assessment of the impact of inflation, VMT, and fuel efficiency trends on gas tax revenues is beyond the scope of this post, which is intended to determine orders of magnitude. Data was processed as follows.

VMT data was pulled from the St Louis Federal Reserve Bank’s FRED service. I used the January data point for the moving 12-month average for each year from 1993 to 2014. VMT trends started changing in 2005, so I calculated the annual rate of change from 1993 to 2005 as about 2.33%, then projected a VMT trend from 1993 to 2014 at that rate. The impact of VMT trends was calculated as a function of the difference between actual VMT and “implied VMT” calculated at 2.33% growth per year.

Inflation data was pulled from the BLS’s CPI calculator. I calculated the tax rate for each year from 1994 to 2014 that would yield the same purchasing power as 18.4 cents in 1993. The impact of inflation was calculated as the difference between revenue that would have been collected if the tax had been adjusted for inflation every year and revenue that was collected at 18.4 cents per gallon. This methodology probably systematically underestimates the impact of inflation, since costs of construction materials increased more quickly than general CPI between 2000 and 2007.

Fuel efficiency data was pulled from the EPA’s Fuel Economy Trends Report. This data provides fuel efficiency for vehicles by model year, not for the actual composition of the US vehicle fleet. Therefore, it can’t be used directly because that would overestimate the impact – model year 2014 cars are more efficient, but most cars on the road are older. I generated a crude fleet MPG by summing the product of model year fuel efficiencies and an approximation of vehicle fleet composition by age.

I then calculated assumed revenue amounts for each year as follows (where T = tax rate):

  • Actual revenue for each year: R = T(VMT/MPG).
  • Implied revenue assuming VMT continued to grow at 2.33%, and the gas tax was adjusted yearly for inflation, and no gains in fuel efficiency: S =T’ (VMT’/MPG’).
  • Implied revenue assuming actual VMT trends, but gas tax adjusted yearly for inflation and no gains in fuel efficiency: W = T’(VMT/MPG’)
  • Implied revenue assuming the actual gas tax (i.e. unchanged), but VMT continued to grow at 2.33% and no gains in fuel efficiency: X = T(VMT’/MPG’)
  • Implied revenue assuming actual gains in fuel efficiency, but VMT continued to grow at 2.33% and gas tax adjusted yearly for inflation: Y = T’(VMT’/MPG)

As a point of reference, the world’s finest information source says that the federal gas tax raised $25b in 2006. The methodology here generates an estimate of $27.4b. Good enough.

The revenue losses due to each factor were then calculated as the difference between the theoretical revenue with all historic trends (S) and the theoretical revenue with actual trends for each factor (W, X, Y):

  • Total revenue loss = S – R
  • Revenue loss from VMT trends = S – W
  • Revenue loss from inflation = S – X
  • Revenue loss from fuel efficiency = S – Y

Note that the total revenue loss does not equal the sum of the components, i.e. (S-R) ≠(S-W) + (S-X) + (S-Y). This is because the factors are not independent. For example, if fuel efficiency goes up, the revenue lost from a decline in VMT will go down, because the missing VMT represents a smaller amount of gas. This is why the three factor lines on the graphs do not sum to the total.

Downtown LA is Responsible for 20% of Housing Built Since 1999, and That’s Terrible News

Shane Phillips has a post over at Better Institutions looking at the proportion of housing built in LA since 1999 that’s located downtown. He calculates it to be about 20%, based on state data and a Downtown Center Business Improvement District Report. The report is generous in its definition of downtown, including Skid Row and the Fashion, Arts, & Industrial Districts, and stretching well into Westlake and Chinatown. Nevertheless, by any standard the amount of development in downtown is impressive. About 20,000 units have been built in the last 15 years, with another 20,000 in the pipeline for the next 5-10 years.

A pro-growth stance from the city has resulted in mid-rise buildings and towers popping up all over the place on top of former parking lots, putting the land to much more productive use. Meanwhile, the adaptive reuse ordinance (ARO) has allowed once-vacant historic office buildings to find new live as apartments, condos, and hotels. Michael Manville writes in UCTC Access that the ARO alone was responsible for 6,500 units of housing in the historic core between 1999 and 2008.

All of this is good. Turning parking lots into higher value land uses is good; putting abandoned buildings back to use is good. The neighborhoods around downtown are in danger of being victims of its success when it comes to gentrification, but more on that later.

So what’s the problem? The problem is that percentages have numerators and denominators. And in this case, the downtown boom is making the numerator bigger, but a severe lack of housing production citywide has made the denominator much smaller. In fact, based on the same state data, all of LA County added about 215,000 housing units between 1999 and 2014. In other words, in a county of 10 million people, a neighborhood of just 50,000 has been responsible for over 9% of new residential construction.

In short, the problem is that other neighborhoods across LA have not seen nearly as much growth. As Shane correctly points out, one neighborhood can do only so much. Read the USC Casden Multifamily Forecast and you’ll see neighborhood after neighborhood with almost no new inventory added from 2009 to 2013. East LA, Alhambra, Montebello, & Pico Rivera, zero. El Segundo, Hermosa Beach, & Redondo Beach, zero. Granada Hills, Northridge, & Reseda, zero. Paramount, Downey, Bellflower, & Norwalk, zero. The list goes on and on.

Housing prices are largely determined regionally, which makes it impossible for one neighborhood to upzone its way out of price increases. If you’re near desirable neighborhood XYZ that has very little new construction, it doesn’t matter what you do, eventually you’ll be “XYZ-adjacent” and it’s game over. On the Westside, you have to wonder how long places like Palms and Pico-Robertson can last with demand radiating east and south from Santa Monica and Venice, despite Palms being relatively friendly to new construction.

Even in cities with a strong traditional form like NYC, with a huge CBD dominating regional employment, concentrating all housing development near the core is a mistake. New York YIMBY recently chronicled the woes of NYC’s small builders, who have been driven out of business by downzoning in the outer boroughs. That has resulted in a decrease in the amount of market-rate housing being built for middle income earners, making the city’s affordability problems worse.

In a city like LA, with highly decentralized employment, concentrating housing development in the core makes no sense at all. The hottest office markets in LA are on the Westside, where the tech industry is concentrated in Santa Monica and Venice. Growth in that market has spread south to Playa Vista and the Howard Hughes Center. Century City office developers hope to capitalize on it as well, while others in commercial real estate expect growth to continue moving south to El Segundo. Whatever the reasons, the office market in Downtown LA remains weak, with plenty of vacancy and virtually no new construction.

The lack of a corresponding residential boom on the Westside exacerbates existing imbalances. The pull of Westside employment long ago made the “reverse” commute direction on the 10 freeway the peak direction (traffic is worse going away from downtown in the morning, and towards it in the afternoon). It would not be surprising at all if the peak travel direction on the Expo Line and Westside Subway ends up following a similar pattern.

Beyond the local issues of the Westside, there are job centers scattered all over LA County. Employment growth is not going to be concentrated in downtown, so why should housing growth? Distributed housing growth spreads out the impacts as well as the benefits, and helps prevent gentrification and development from flooding into a localized area.

Why Is Downtown Booming?

To be sure, Downtown LA has become a desirable place to live. It’s walkable, has good access to freeways and transit, and offers an increasingly diverse mix of restaurants, bars, and retail. It’s centrally located, making it (relatively) easy to live there and commute to the Westside, Hollywood, and parts of the San Fernando and San Gabriel Valleys. The architecture, especially the historic office and hotel buildings, is unparalleled in the region. That explains the demand side.

The supply side is explained by the factors mentioned before – the adaptive reuse ordinance and a strong (sometimes, maybe a little too strong) pro-growth stance from the city. As Manville writes, the conversions of historic buildings would have been impossible without the ARO, so it’s worth recapping the significant relaxation of land use regulations that the ARO provides:

  • No restriction on density based on lot size (though minimum apartment sizes apply)
  • Existing non-conforming FAR, setbacks, and heights do not require a variance
  • No new parking spaces required (existing parking must be maintained, but is not required to be bundled with dwelling units)
  • Automatic “by-right” entitlement for rental units in commercial or R5 zoning in buildings constructed before 1974
  • No environmental clearance for projects constructed “by-right”

This allows adaptive reuse projects to avoid almost all the NIMBY bugaboos, and deprives opponents of the leverage provided by the need to obtain discretionary approvals. It also allows projects to avoid the need to build expensive parking; as Manville writes, many developers have chosen to provide none or to offer it off-site.

The city has also facilitated growth downtown by other means, for example, selling the air rights above the convention center.

Why Are Other Neighborhoods Not Growing?

For most of the city, though, development doesn’t come so easy. Increasing demand has not been met by a boom in supply. Most neighborhoods don’t have a large supply of parking lots or vacant buildings to be redeveloped, and the city has been very reluctant to try to buck NIMBYism in the R1 zoned single-family residential (SFR) neighborhoods.

As a case study, consider the draft rezoning plans being developed for the five Expo Line Phase 2 stations that are within the City of LA (Culver City, Palms, Expo/Westwood, Expo/Sepulveda, and Expo/Bundy).

At Expo/Bundy and Expo/Sepulveda, there are significant amounts of land currently zoned M2 (light industrial). The plans propose maintaining some of that zoning, while converting other areas to new industrial zones including “New Industry”, “Hybrid Industrial (Max 30% Residential)”, and “Hybrid Industrial (Min 30% Job-Generating)”. The “industrial” classification is a little deceiving, since it allows office, R&D, media, and technology developments. Nevertheless, the New Industry zone precludes residential development entirely and only permits retail and restaurants as ancillary uses, and this is the most prevalent new zone. At Sepulveda, only two blocks are zoned Hybrid Industrial (Max 30% Residential), while at Bundy, four blocks are given that designation and three are given Hybrid Industrial (Min 30% Job-Generating). At Expo/Sepulveda, R1 zoning less than 0.25 miles from the station will remain. To the city’s credit, at Expo/Bundy planners did at least propose upzoning the R1 properties between the Expo Line and Pico, as potential options on the base plan.

At Expo/Westwood, almost the entire 0.25-mile radius around the station is currently zoned R1, even on the arterials (Overland and Westwood). The plans goal is to “preserve character of existing SFR neighborhoods”  and that’s what we’ll get, because all the R1 zoning is proposed to remain. The plan calls for upzoning a few R2 properties to R3, a largely symbolic gesture because that only increases density from 2 du/lot to 6 du/lot (assuming 5,000 SF lots). The lone bright spot for development is an upzoning of Pico between Sepulveda and Westwood to RAS4 (12 units per 5,000 SF lot with ground floor retail), but this amounts to only small portions of nine blocks fronting Pico.

The Palms plan might appear to be better, because it rezones Venice Blvd and Motor Av for a new “Mixed-Use (Min 20% Job-Generating)” zone with FAR of 2.0-3.6. However, Venice and Motor are currently zoned C2, which under the current zoning scheme already allows purely residential projects at R4 density. The Mixed-Use (Min 20% Job-Generating) zone therefore reduces some flexibility by requiring a commercial component. The small-scale residential and commercial developments that line Motor today couldn’t be built under that zone.

At Culver City, it’s more of the same industrial zoning, with three large blocks directly across Venice zoned New Industry and one further west, currently the site of a commercial plaza, for Hybrid Industrial (Max 30% Residential).

The plan also calls for current parking requirements to apply, except in “limited circumstances”.

The limited zoning changes produce the results you’d expect. The Spring 2014 outreach presentation projects that the plan will allow the construction of 4,422 new housing units by 2035, satisfying market demand of 3,800 to 6,400 units. So while downtown booms, under this plan, the Expo Line corridor won’t, because you can’t build a ton of housing if your zoning doesn’t allow for it. On the demand side, I submit that it is simply beyond belief that there will only be demand for 6,400 housing units within walking distance of those five transit stops in the next 20 years.


The downtown boom is great for LA, and it shows that when we want to, we can be pro-growth and get a lot of development built. But when growth is restricted across so much of the rest of the city, there will still be pressure on regional housing prices, and gentrification will continue. Downtown’s growth is remarkable, but we still need to figure out how to increase housing production elsewhere, so that the city can make space for all Angelenos, current and future.

Transit Costs: OCS Edition

Last weekend, I tweeted a few photos of Expo Line Phase 2 overhead contact system (OCS) construction. The OCS is part of the traction electrification system (TES) that provides electricity to trains, and includes the poles, cantilevers, wires, and associated hardware that you see along the track. The other part of the TES is the traction power system (TPS) which consists of electrical substations along the tracks, the cables that connect the substations to the OCS, and the rails, which serve as the negative return.

In this post, we’ll explore some OCS choices that can impact the cost of a light rail project. The OCS is something you have to build, and it’s not going to be the thing that breaks the bank. Nevertheless, a million here, a million there is still real money, right? In the same way that Jarrett Walker describes the choices between frequency and coverage, I’m going to take the soft approach and tell you that none of these options are really wrong, but you need to have an honest and open discussion about the cost implications. A good engineer should provide the owner with an understanding of the options available and the implications of each, and faithfully execute the design as efficiently as possible, but the ultimate design direction is made by the owner.

The discussion here is geared towards DC electrification, which is used for most light rail systems. Intercity rail is electrified with AC; the concepts are the same, but the greater working clearances required for higher voltages will result in some different decisions (e.g. side poles instead of center poles).

System Type and Height: Normal Profile Simple Catenary, Low Profile Simple Catenary, or Single Wire?

Simple catenary refers to the system you see on most of the Expo Line, Blue Line, Gold Line, and Green Lines. This system has two wires, called the messenger wire and contact wire. The messenger wire is the upper wire and is more visibly parabola-shaped than the contact wire, which, as the name suggests, is the wire the train’s pantograph touches. The system height refers to the vertical distance between the messenger wire and the contact wire at the poles.

A normal profile simple catenary system might have a system height of 4’. This lets you maximize the distance between poles (the span length) based on other factors like wind loading and track curvature, without worrying about maintaining separation between the messenger wire and the contact wire. So why aren’t all systems normal profile simple catenary? Because people have decided they’re visually unappealing.

A normal profile simple catenary system takes up a lot of your field of vision and has long hangers connecting the messenger wire to the contact wire. To reduce the visual impact, you can use low profile simple catenary. This has a lower system height – say 2’. This reduces the visual impact of the wires, but because the messenger wire and contact wire start out closer at the poles, they’ll get close to each other sooner, and you can’t space the poles as far apart.

Thank goodness the OCS doesn’t block too much of the view of the LADWP power lines on the other side of the tracks, right?

As an example of pole spacing, here’s a straightaway on normal profile OCS on the Blue Line with poles at 180’, and one on the Green Line with poles at 220’. Meanwhile, the straightaways on the Expo Line’s low profile OCS max out at about 140’.

The main impact here as far as cost goes is that you need more poles, and pole foundations. As you can see, the comparison between the Green Line and Expo Line suggests a low profile system will need three poles for every two poles on normal profile system. That’s too high, because curves will still need closer pole spacing, as will special track work like crossovers. Nevertheless, using a low profile system can result in a considerable increase in OCS costs. The engineer should be able to give a rough idea of the impact of changing the system height for the project. The owner must decide if it’s worth the cost.

Finally, there is the single wire system. This is often the most preferred system by politicians and city boosters because it results in the fewest wires in the sky.

Naturally, single wire is also often the most expensive. The pole spacing is reduced because without the messenger wire, you need more supports to keep the contact wire on an acceptable profile. However, the hidden costs of single wire systems are worse. With only one wire in the air carrying current, there is not enough ampacity (ability to carry electricity) in the system. To avoid the need for additional substations, power must be supplied to the contact wire at shorter intervals, and this is done with electrical feeders in underground duct banks. This can add significant costs.

Single wire systems are most suitable for low speed services in touristy areas, which is why you often see them for streetcars. They’re also suitable for tunnels and other places with constrained vertical clearances, where the cost of feeder cables and additional supports is less than the cost of increasing the vertical clearance to accommodate a simple catenary system.

Poles: Wide-Flange, Tubular, or Ornamental?

This is again strictly an aesthetic decision. Wide-flange poles are, as the name suggests, wide-flange steel beams, the kind you can practically order off the shelf. That makes them cheap, because you just say you need so many W this by that members of lengths X, Y, and Z. They’re also very utilitarian and you rarely see them in urban contexts. Here they are in action on the Northeast Corridor, where it would be hard for anything to outdo the New Haven’s old rusty trusses with outside utility overbuild.

Tubular poles (or tapered tubular poles) are a little bit more pleasing to the eye, probably because they tend to look like the poles used on old systems. They’re a little more expensive, but not terribly: this Central Corridor document suggests that the costs to go from wide-flange to tubular poles for 5 miles of ROW was just $1m. Of course, if you have chosen a low-profile simple catenary, you’ll have more poles, and the cost will be greater.

Ornamental poles will cost you quite a bit more, like any custom design. Here are a couple examples, one in Australia and one in St Petersburg (the Leningrad one, not the one that had a Madame Tussaud Wax Museum from 1963 to 1989).

A couple of final points: wood poles are always an option; I’m not aware of any modern system that’s using them but they are cheap. Of course, they’ll probably wear out faster than steel poles. The built-up truss style poles you see on older systems are labor-intensive to manufacture, and standard wide-flange steel beams are widely available. If material costs for steel go up, maybe pre-fabricated truss poles like these ones in Australia will be more cost-effective. (The source page for that photo has other good photos of wide-flange poles too.)

Mixed Metals

Another potential costs savings in OCS design is using aluminum for the messenger wire instead of copper. Aluminum has a lower ampacity, which means you have to use a slightly larger gauge wire, but this is more than offset by the cheaper cost of aluminum. Aluminum conductors are sometimes used in building construction to save money; for example, the Staples Center used aluminum feeder cables. On the other hand, this paper (registration required) recommends the use of copper to avoid the need to connect different metals electrically, which can create a galvanic couple. This page from the Indian Railways Fan Club says that Indian Rail tried aluminum contact wires but this was unsuccessful due to oxidation and mechanical failures. I’m not sure why they tried aluminum for the contact wire; copper is definitely the way to go there.

My knowledge here is very limited, but I’ve heard that there are places outside the US that use aluminum for the messenger wire and copper for the contact wire. Certainly, this is an option worth considering if the price of copper stays as high as it has since it surged before the 2008 financial crisis.


The OCS is just a cost of doing business, and it’s usually not a large portion of the total costs. The big overruns come from unnecessary project elements, labor inefficiencies, differing site conditions and associated delays, change orders, and so on. But, while the cost of a house is mostly determined by the size of the house, a lot of little extravagances with the finishes can noticeably drive up the costs too. Do you really need marble floors in the bathroom?

As an engineer, I usually come down on the side of cost efficiency. If it was up to me, you’d get nothing but standard wide-flange poles and normal profile simple catenary. No one’s life is going to be measurably worse from having to look at those poles with two wires, and no one’s life is going to be measurably better by getting to look at an ornamental pole with one wire – certainly not in comparison to having or lacking access to good transit. At least, that’s my opinion. If your city decides it’s better to have fancier looking things, that’s your collective choice. Just have an open and honest discussion about the costs.

Metrolink Ridership Update – June 2014

Note: the graphs in the previous Metrolink ridership update post contained a data entry error on my part. The trends and conclusions are the same; however, please do not use or compare with that data.

I’m updating my look at Metrolink ridership every three months, as they update ridership data published on their website. Here’s the breakdown of data by stations.


Here’s the update of the rolling 12-month averages, broken down by line.Ventura-20140901 AV-20140901 BG-20140901 SB-20140901 Riverside-20140901 91-20140901 OC-20140901 91OC-20140901 AC-20140901

These numbers are bad any way you look at it. The lines that had been performing decently well and even gaining ridership (Orange County, Orange County – Inland Empire, and 91 Lines) have slipped a little recently. The lines that were already struggling (Riverside, San Bernardino, Antelope Valley, and Ventura Lines) have gotten worse, if anything.

Here’s a look at the top 10 and bottom 10 stations for ridership gained (or lost) over the period from June 2010 to June 2014 (all based on rolling 12-month averages).

abstop-20140901 absbottom-20140901

Since June 2010, 42 of the 54 stations (excluding LA Union Station) have lost ridership. Twelve stations have lost more than 20% of their ridership in the last 4 years. With the exception of Pomona Downtown, every station that’s gained ridership is either in Orange County or on the 91/OC-IE Lines.

The drop in ridership is troubling, as is the seeming lack of concern about it. I haven’t seen it mentioned in the media. I don’t know the cause, though the steady stream of equipment failures and missed trains that you read about in the @MetrolinkDiary Twitter feed can’t be helping – the first step to running any transit service is to run reliably. If the region is going to invest more money in regional rail, we need to understand what’s going wrong, and how the service can be improved to better serve riders.

Capacity 101

Another sidebar to an upcoming post on Sepulveda Pass (soon, I promise!).

Revised based on some input from Paul Druce (@ReasonRail) and Alon Levy (@alon_levy).

You often hear opponents of rail transit like Randal O’Toole making preposterous claims about the capacity of bus lanes, like saying they can move over 100,000 passengers (pax) per hour. So here’s a short reference guide to the capacity of different types of infrastructure. We’re going to look at one lane or track in one direction.

Freeway lane (passenger cars): the capacity of a freeway lane is about 2,400 passenger cars per lane per hour (pcplph). Assuming an occupancy of 1.5 people per vehicle, that’s 3,600 pax/hr. If you assume that the cars are full, with 4 people per vehicle, and that driverless cars will allow headways of 1 second, that’s 3,600 pcplph and 14,400 pax/hr. As Alon points out below, a realistic occupancy for commuting is about 1.2 people per vehicle, or 2,880 pax/hr. I’m being a little generous with 2,400 pcplph too, the point being that even with generous assumptions, bus and rail have higher capacity.

Exclusive guideway (bus): a 60-foot articulated bus has a standing load of about 90 people and a crush load of about 120 people. If you assume one minute headways, that’s 5,400 pax/hr standing load and 7,200 pax/hr crush load. If you assume 20 second headways (or maybe more realistically, a three bus platoon every 1 minute) that’s 16,200 pax/hr standing load and 21,600 pax/hr crush load. This is a pretty aggressive assumption for bus operations, and labor costs would be high, but it might be doable with an exclusive ROW and good dispatching.

Exclusive guideway (light rail transit – LRT): LACMTA’s design criteria specify a full load of 164 people and a crush load of 218 people for a light rail vehicle. A reasonable assumption for minimum headway on LRT is about 2 minutes, or 30 trains per hour (tph). Metro specifies a design headway of 100 seconds and an operational headway of 2.5 minutes. With CBTC, 2 minute headways are easily achievable. For three-car trains, like LACMTA runs, that’s 14,760 pax/hr full load and 19,620 pax/hr crush load. Go with four-car trains, and that bumps you up to 19,680 pax/hr full load and 26,160 pax/hr crush load. If you could drive headways down to 90 seconds (about what the slightly dysfunctional MBTA Green Line runs), you could get 40 tph for 26,240 pax/hr full load and 34,880 pax/hr crush load.

Exclusive guideway (heavy rail – metro): LACMTA’s design criteria specify a full load of 180 people and a crush load of 301 people for a heavy rail vehicle. Headway assumptions are the same as for LRT. For six-car trains at two minute headways, that’s 32,400 pax/hr full load and 54,180 pax/hr crush load. For a ten-car train at two minute headways, 54,000 pax/hr full load and 90,300 pax/hr crush load. Get it down to 1.5 minute headways and it’s 72,000 pax/hr full load and 120,400 pax/hr crush load.

Here’s a summary table.


Note that even at this level, we’re not playing fair between rail, bus, and auto. Rail capacity is effectively limited by the signaling system and other regulations like NFPA 130. Bus and passenger car capacity is limited by station capacity. Berthing a train every two minutes is a breeze. Berthing a bus every 15-20 seconds is very difficult, even with long platforms. Berthing a passenger car every 1.0-1.5 seconds is impossible.

So how do people like O’Toole get outlandish capacities like 110,000 pax/hr for bus, while claiming rail has capacity below 10,000 pax/hr? Easy, posit a bus system that doesn’t actually work, and cleverly sandbag rail.

On the bus side, O’Toole assumes a capacity of 1,100 buses per hour or about one every 3 seconds. That works great as long as no one ever has to stop. You could only operate a bus lane at that volume if it was just a trunk that many bus routes used between their origins and destinations, much the same as how cars use a freeway. Think about it: if you were running 1,100 buses per hour on the 405 and 1,110 buses per hour on the 10, you could never hope to have transfers between the lines. You couldn’t operate transit lines, only point to point services, or lines with no stops or transfers between them on the trunk.

On the rail side, O’Toole assumes 3 minute headways, versus our 2 minute headways. What’s a minute among friends? Well, going from 3 minutes to 2 minutes increases capacity by 50%. If you run with CBTC and get 1.5 minute headways, that’s twice as much capacity as O’Toole calculates. In other words, when headways are low, small differences in headway make a big difference in capacity.

At high passenger volumes, rail is still the best option, offering lower operating costs and better reliability. It’s easier to run trains at 2 minute headways than buses every 15 seconds. For lower passenger volumes, bus is often fine, but remember that, as Jarrett Walker says, the most important things is the quality of the ROW. Few cities need to move as many people as the Lexington Av subway in New York. Start with a high quality ROW, then pick the mode that’s the best combination of cost effectiveness, compatibility with existing systems, and accommodation for future growth.

Municipal Consolidation

Municipal consolidation, or regionalism, frequently comes up in discussions of cities and their relationship with suburbs. This is especially true in places where there is a stark racial and/or economic wealth divide between the city and its suburbs, with Detroit being the classic example. Recently, with the protests in Ferguson, MO in response to police gunning down an unarmed black teenager, the New York Times published an op-ed calling for municipal consolidation in St Louis County.

Consolidation can offer many benefits for urban policy, but I don’t know if it would help the situation in Ferguson, because policy always has technical and political aspects.


From a technical perspective, we should just organize government at the most efficient level for the service to be provided. For example, a flood control district would logically be set up with political boundaries corresponding to the limits of the drainage basin. An irrigation district would logically be set up to govern the territory to be irrigated with a certain allotment of water. A bus service district would logically be set up to serve the denser part of a metro region.

Institutions like this exist, if imperfectly. The Imperial Irrigation District gets a fixed amount of water every year, and they manage allocations within the entire Imperial Valley. Each county in southern California is a flood control district; this means that they have to work together with drainages that cross county lines like the Santa Ana River, but it seems to work pretty well. For example, the Seven Oaks Dam is in San Bernardino County, but Orange County funded most of the local share, because it’s downstream and stands to gain from controlling floods.

In California, many cities contract out some of their city services. Maywood, for example, contracts out everything – police and fire to the county sheriff and county fire department, ambulance service to a private contractor, and schools as part of the LA Unified School District (LAUSD). Other cities contract out just a few things. Bell uses county fire and LAUSD, but maintains its own police force. Service districts often don’t follow city boundaries, as is the case with LA County’s Sanitation Districts. And for some of its sanitation districts, like District 4 (Beverly Hills), the county uses the City of LA for wastewater treatment. This setup lets cities and county entities arrange things however makes sense, without regard for city boundaries.

(Really, the only reasons I see to have a city in California are (1) local control over land use and (2) it provides a way for rich school districts to avoid having to contribute funding to poor school districts. Both of these things result in undesirable outcomes, so land use and school funding should probably be organized at a higher level of government, but that’s an issue for another time.)

With something like bus service, you can sort of feel out the right scale. For example, LA Metro provides bus services throughout much of LA County, but on the Westside, Culver City and Santa Monica operate their own bus services. As a result, services on the Westside aren’t as efficient as they could be. It makes no sense for there to be no continuous service on Bundy/Centinela, Westwood/Overland, and Jefferson. Meanwhile, Culver City is responsible for running the north-south service on Sepulveda, despite the majority of the route being in Los Angeles. Likewise, Santa Monica runs the north-south service on Lincoln all the way to the airport, and Big Blue Bus Route 12 never even comes close to entering the city. Big Blue Bus still doesn’t have real-time data, and while you can transfer from Metro buses for free, you can’t transfer from Culver City buses.

This outcome is not because the folks at Metro, Culver CityBus, and Big Blue Bus don’t try to provide quality transit services – they do! The issue is that they work under a structure that puts too much emphasis at the local scale, at the expense of the regional scale.

On the other hand, there’s no benefit to going to the next level up and integrating LA Metro bus services with, say, Bakersfield. There’s no need for the state to get involved in local bus service; in fact, you could argue there’s no real need for the local bus agency to get involved at the regional rail level other than to coordinate schedules. For example, Metrolink is operated by a joint powers agency that receives funding and planning input from all of the counties it serves; that separation insulates local bus service provided by the county. San Bernardino County can extend commuter rail to downtown SB, and Riverside County can extend service to Perris, but LA County bus riders won’t be on the hook for issues with those projects.

When one transportation agency’s scope extends beyond the logical boundaries, you often end up with questionable planning. For example, the MBTA operates local bus, express bus, rail transit, and commuter rail services in Boston. The political power of the suburbs has resulted in major expansions to commuter rail over the last couple decades, while rapid transit projects in the core have languished.

Another possible benefit of consolidation is that larger political entities draw more media scrutiny. Everyone knows the president, and most people know their federal representatives. If you’re reading this, you probably know the mayor of Los Angeles, and you might even know the CEO of LA Metro. However, unless you live in Culver City, you probably don’t know the mayor, let alone any city councilors or the people in charge of Culver CityBus. I live four blocks from Culver City, and I don’t know any of them! While media attention doesn’t guarantee a lack of corruption, it at least increases the odds that someone is trying to investigate it.

Political Realities

None of this really matters, though, if the people running the agencies are acting in bad faith.

It’s no coincidence that things like sanitation districts and flood control districts are the best examples of effectively working optimized service areas. Even if you really hate black people, it’s hard discriminate in the provision of sewer services or flood control at a fine enough scale or in a way that doesn’t impact the entire city (though obviously, New Orleans managed to do so in a blunt way with flood control, and even in the case of sewers, low-income and minority communities can face discrimination at the neighborhood level). You can’t deny sewer service to one house without causing problems for the surrounding houses. The Seven Oaks Dam is going to protect everyone in Orange County from floods, no matter what race.

However, for many services, the potential to discriminate exists within the agency’s service area. For example, a public school in a rich neighborhood and a public school in a poor neighborhood might be in the same school district, but the rich school will often systematically get better teachers, more resources, etc. Consolidation does not ensure fair distribution of resources.

In fact, in the context of discrimination, regional consolidation can make things worse, even if it makes technical sense. For years, urbanists bemoaned the lack of a regional transit agency in Detroit. The feds finally forced the issue, and in late 2012, the state created such an agency. The Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG) was charged with administration during the transition, and promptly used its power to reduce Detroit’s transit funding by 22%. When the problem is a desire to avoid treating some people fairly, technical solutions are helpless. There are no apolitical technical policies.

Police services are effectively administered at two levels: the neighborhood level and the individual level. At the neighborhood level, there is the relationship between the police force, the community, and the city at large – the resources provided to the police and the community, how they see each other, and so on. At the individual level, there is the way that individuals on the police force and individuals in the community interact every time they encounter each other. There’s no level of municipal consolidation that changes those interactions. Small city police forces, like Ferguson, end up with the same problems as large city police forces, like NYPD and LAPD. In other words, there’s no technical solution that ends up with Mike Brown not getting shot.

LACMTA Rail Ridership Update – July 2014

Another three months have passed, so it’s time for another look at LACMTA rail ridership. Here’s the last three years of raw data, and the rolling 12-month average for weekday boardings.

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For weekday ridership, Blue Line ridership picked up a little from lows earlier this year, but the Green Line slipped a little. The Gold Line more or less held steady.

After a couple years of solid ridership gains, the Red Line has dropped off quite a bit in 2014. This might be due to the fare gate locking program resulting in fewer scofflaw riders.

Weekend ridership largely reflected the same trends as weekday ridership, with the exception of the Gold Line, which has seen considerable weekend ridership growth over the last 9 months or so. This may be due to the more frequent weekend service that Metro started running in 2013.

The star is the Expo Line again. After leveling off in the second half of 2013, weekday Expo Line ridership resumed its climb in the first half of 2014. In terms of boardings per route mile, the Expo Line, in its third year of operations, is now at about 90% of the utilization of the Blue Line – 3,603 boardings per mile for Expo, and 3,978 for Blue. The Expo Line achieves greater boardings per mile than any other modern LRT system in the country, and hit that level of ridership in less than year.

wkdy-bpm-12mo-201407 rawdata-bpm-201407

It seems possible that when Expo Phase 2 opens, the Expo Line will become LA’s most productive LRT line by boardings per mile. And of course, Regional Connector is only going to strengthen the LRT network’s appeal.