Why No One Drives to Work in Hong Kong

Need to get 4 million people to the office every day? Hong Kong has you covered.

The Mass Transit Railway (MTR) is a rail system in the city of Hong Kong, currently managed by the Mass Transit Railway Corporation Limited (MTRL). The system opened in 1979 and now operates over 135 miles of track as well as more than 152 stations in Hong Kong. The average trip costs somewhere between .50 cents and $3 USD, and the system makes back 186% of its operational costs on fares alone.

Hong Kong Metro

Much of the system’s success can be attributed to urban density. Denser development means people live, work, and play in smaller geographic areas, meaning that more people are travelling between a fewer number of points. This is a huge plus for a fixed-route system like a railway. The MTR, however, hasn’t been a passive beneficiary of its environment.

The MTR owns real estate around each station in the system and integrates rail and property planning so that the development of one supports the development of the other.

Construction around each MTR station is incredibly dense, so it can put as many potential riders as close to a station as possible. Over 41% of the population in Hong Kong (2.78 million people) lives within a half-mile of a station. Additionally, the company’s real estate strategy emphasizes walkability; some residents of MTR owned properties can walk from their homes to a station entrance without ever even going outdoors. Clustering potential riders around each station–and making sure passengers have an easy time getting there–helps support high levels of ridership.

While fares cover the costs of operations, it’s really property development that pays for maintenance and expansion. The rail line, in turn, increases the property values of parcels adjacent to each station. This augments the land rents which are siphoned off to cover capital costs.

Ultimately, building effective mass transit is all about embedding the system within a friendly urban environment. High-density, mixed-use development is a must, but so is the ability to leverage land values as a means to finance capital investment and outlays.

Part 1 of 2 covering the policies and institutions behind mass transit in Hong Kong

The importance of driverless trains

Vancouver's driverless Skytrain

Vancouver’s driverless Skytrain

As Honolulu is making progress on its driverless elevated rail system under construction, Washington, DC is finally beginning to return to computer operation on its red line after a 2009 crash brought an end to reliance on the computerized system. While the move in DC will facilitate smoother driving and braking, WMATA still relies on train operators in the cabs, forgoing the cost-saving opportunity that driverless systems provide. It’s difficult to overstate the importance of driverless trains in the effort to bring U.S. transit operations down to a reasonable price.

Driverless systems currently operate successfully in cities from Vancouver to Algiers, and the world’s most financially successful intracity transit systems in Hong Kong and Tokyo have embraced the technology. In spite of WMATA’s high profile accident that happened while the trains were computer-operated, a well-designed driverless system is actually safer than human operated one. Driverless systems offer a better ride quality, stay on time, and face a lower marginal cost of extending service hours.

Labor costs make up huge shares of U.S. transit systems. In DC, for example, personnel costs make up 70% of the agency’s operating budget. In 2010, WMATA spent $38 million on the salaries of 611 train operators, and this does not include their retirement and health benefits. In New York, personnel costs make up $8.5 billion of the agency’s $11.5 billion operating costs, and in Chicago labor takes up 73% of CTA’s operating expenses. Obviously not all transit workers jobs can be automated (all of these systems have more bus drivers than train operators) and some operating costs would rise under a driverless system. But taking steps toward reducing labor — that comes at a premium in high-cost-of-living cities where transit is most important — is crucial for reducing transit’s operating costs and making transit systems financially sustainable.

In all sorts of industries automation reduces the cost of goods and services, but transit systems face particularly high returns on automation because several institutional factors inflate their high personnel costs. As Stephen and Alon have explained, union work rules play a role in driving transit costs by requiring eight-hour shifts. Transit agencies face peak demand during the morning and evening rush hours. If transit agencies were run on a for-profit basis, they would staff more bus drivers and  train operators during these times of peak demand and fewer during the work day and night time. However, transit unions’ work rules make it impossible to staff according to demand.

In addition to the premium that transit agencies guarantee their employees through relatively high wages and union work rules, their pensions and benefits make up a large part of their employment costs, and these costs are not transparent. For example, BART, with its high profile strikes this summer, reports a $187 million unfunded pension liability. This means that future operating costs will have to rise to cover benefits accrued in the past. Transit agencies’ pension liabilities are based on their discount rate assumption with 7.5% or higher being typical. If these agencies’ pension funds fail to realize compound annual returns greater than or equal to their assumed discount rates, their pension liabilities will actually be higher than what they report.

A City Lab post posits that mainland cities are unlikely to follow Honolulu’s driverless lead because converting existing trains to driverless would be prohibitively costly. But a commenter on her post points out that the change to a driverless system would be a capital cost, typically covered by the federal government. What better use for the Federal Transit Administration’s Core Capacity dollars than making the transition to driverless trains in large systems? Moving to a driverless system could create a virtuous cycle better service increasing ridership, begetting further service improvements. While making the transition to a driverless system entails short-term political and financing challenges, maintaining bloated operating expenses year after year is an unacceptable outcome.

During BART’s infamous strikes over the summer, a San Francisco tech entrepreneur quipped“Get ‘em back to work, pay them whatever they want, and then figure out how to automate their jobs so this doesn’t happen again.” His sentiment may come off as cold-hearted, but transit agencies should have one mission: providing adequate transit service at a reasonable cost. Their mission should not be to provide well-paying jobs to workers who might not be able to earn such high wages and benefits in the private sector. While the transition to driverless would be difficult for transit workers and agencies, in the long-run the advantages of substituting relatively inexpensive capital for expensive labor are too high to ignore.

 

Culs de sac for safety?

"Evil cul-de-sac" flickr user rleong101

“Evil cul-de-sac” flickr user rleong101

At Cato At Liberty, Randall O’Toole provides a list of recommendations for reversing Rust Belt urban decline in response to a study on the topic from the Lincoln Land Institute. He focuses on policies to improve public service provision and deregulation, but he also makes a surprising recommendation that declining cities should “reduce crime by doing things like changing the gridded city streets that planners love into cul de sacs so that criminals have fewer escape routes.” This recommendation is surprising because it would require significant tax payer resources, a critique O’Toole holds against those from the Lincoln Land Institute. Short of building large barricades, it’s inconceivable how a city with an existing grid of streets would even go about turning its grid into culs de sac without extensive use of eminent domain and other disruptive policies.

O’Toole is correct that the grid owes its origins to authoritarian regimes and that today it’s embraced by city planners in the Smart Growth and New Urbanist schools. But while culs de sac may have originally appeared in organically developed networks of streets, today’s culs de sac promoted by traffic engineers are hardly a free market outcome. As Daniel Nairn has written, the public maintenance of what are essentially shared driveways “smacks of socialism in its most extreme form.”

Some studies have found that culs de sac experience less crime relative to nearby through streets, perhaps in part because they draw less traffic. However, it’s far from clear that a pattern of suburban streets makes a city safer than it would be would be with greater street connectivity. Some studies find that street connectivity correlates with greater social capital. O’Toole’s promotion of social engineering through culs de sac to create a localized drop in crime at the expense of a city’s residents’ social capital is not a clear win. If a pattern of culs de sac streets reduces a city’s social capital, it could increase overall crime rates.

O’Toole also makes a smart land use recommendation, suggesting that struggling Rust Belt cities can reduce regulation to foster development. He writes:

Reduce regulation, including zoning rules, so property owners can engage in urban renewal without government subsidies or top-down planning. Historic preservation ordinances may sound cool, but they are one of the biggest obstructions to private redevelopment.

It makes sense for cities like Detroit to reduce or eliminate their zoning and permitting requirements, allowing as many new businesses as possible to take advantage of the their inexpensive prices. Interestingly, this recommendation for deregulation in the Rust Belt directly contradicts his past writings on deregulatory upzoning in other cities. O’Toole’s native Portland has seen deregulation allowing denser development, and in this case he advocates preserving neighborhood character over allowing the market to drive development styles. I’m glad to see he’s changed his tune to support deregulation.

Urban Development in Charter Cities

In light of approval in Honduras for three new charter cities (REDs), much has been written recently on their potential to improve economic development. Economist Paul Romer makes a compelling case for the potential of charter cities, asserting that countries with institutions that impede economic growth can benefit by designating small areas with rules that permit free trade.

Despite the promise of REDs, designating new areas for urban economic zones may pose some challenges that haven’t been addressed elsewhere. Cities almost always grow through spontaneous orders in locations that emerge through human migration. Cities are a product of human action, not of human design. Older cities grew through their accessibility to trade and natural resources. More recently, towns have become cities as they have become centers for specific industries. This process happens not with top-down planning, but rather as the market process leads individuals to move to specific places, resulting in the urbanization patterns that we see. In the case of Honduras’ REDs, however, the locations were selected by the state.

Unlike the approved sites for REDs in Honduras, Hong Kong and Singapore (models of charter cities) were not greenfields before they became charter cities. Since becoming models of charter cities, both islands’ populations have exploded, but some level of development existed before British rule, and the British did not set out to create large cities. Rather than being planned, the success of these two islands was an accident, in which good institutions in fortunate locations have facilitated enormous economic growth. In contrast, all of the infrastructure and design for the REDs will be built from scratch, at first by one company, MKG, until other investors and individuals move to the city. In a sense, city construction may have to begin before there is demand for it. MKG has pledged $15 million to begin building infrastructure, a small amount in the scheme of city-building, but as of now it’s unclear where future investment will come from, and whether it will be centralized within a few large firms or dispersed.

Greenfield development for charter cities is absolutely key; otherwise, they would coerce people to adopt new rules, eliminating the choice and voluntarism that Paul Romer explains is essential for charter cities to succeed, not to mention potentially leading to violent conflicts. However one firm starting a city in a greenfield will face enormous knowledge problems in beginning to build a city from scratch. The magnitude of this challenge will depend on how much development is required of the few initial, large investors before attracting significant numbers of entrepreneurs. I don’t think either the investors or Paul Romer support top-down city design, but this is a necessary aspect of starting a new city in a government-designated location.

Some towns have been started with charters in greenfields previously, in the American colonies, for example, but none of these were founded with the intent of becoming large cities. Those that grew did so spontaneously because of their advantages over other cities. I don’t think that a state-selected greenfield location will prevent success in REDs or other charter cities, but I do think it bears acknowedgment that starting a city from the top down will create an added challenge. Assuming success, however, REDs will provide a fascinating case study in modern urban development under free markets. Here’s hoping the charter doesn’t include height limits or parking requirements.

TGIF Links

1. A reader from Vancouver wrote in to let Stephen and me know about a proposed policy to tax foreign investors at a higher rate than local property owners. Support for this policy is growing among residents, and with a mayoral election this Saturday, some are hoping to get candidates to endorse the policy now. Of course the higher tax rate would be done in the name of affordable housing for Vancouver natives. Hmm, with this one I’d say that the road to hell is paved with questionable intentions.

2. In other Vancouver news, recently upzoned parcels have sold for three times their previous value.

3. Two NYC taxi medallions sold for over $1 million each this week. On Marketplace, David Yassky, chairman of the city’s Taxi and Limousine Commission said that he believes the fundamentals are solid in the medallion market. When the supply of your commodity is rigidly fixed, you’re already halfway to strong fundamentals.

4. A University of Connecticut study finds that growth in the number of a city’s parking spots is inversely correlated with population growth rates.

5. Some have questioned whether the abismal state of American infrastructure is a fact or just something that everyone knows and repeats. Gizmodo points out that in the United States we have a road system that built with cheap initial construction but expensive and ongoing maintenance costs.

6. Roberta Brandes Gratz at The Atlantic Cities speculates that Jane Jacobs’ female perspective led her to be able to see the small-scale, bottom-up activities of cities more effectively than men, who tend to look at cities from the macro level. Not sure where this leaves Hayek.

New funding for roads in Georgia

The Georgia Department of Transportation recently approved $102 million in projects to improve the state’s infrastructure. The department gave the go ahead on these projects as the state is in the midst of a debate over a new proposed one percent sales tax to help fund infrastructure.

Highway supporters often argue that fuel taxes fund road construction and maintenance, but this is simply not the case, leading to the need for other dedicated transportation funding, like the Georgia sales tax. Improvements slated to benefit from the new fund include highways, bridges, and public transit. Metropolitan Planning Organization Coordinator Corey Hull said, “We … want them to know this is our only option right now. The state does not have a plan B for funding transportation and infrastructure.”

Clearly, the fuel tax is not meeting the funding requirements for the states’ drivers, so the funding is being drawn from the wider state population, including non-drivers. Currently, this may be a small distinction in Georgia, though, where only 2.7% of residents take public transportation to work. Like road improvements, public transportation projects in Georgia are funded by the broader tax base rather than the constituents that actually rely on the service.

Perhaps the number of Georgians who take public transportation to work will grow with the proposed expansions to Atlanta’s light rail. However, it’s hard to imagine that such marginal improvements to public transit will create meaningful change to transportation in a city like Atlanta, which was was largely designed around the highway system.

As a result of low demand for transit in Atlanta, the city hopes to cover only 20 percent of the operating costs of a new streetcar system with fares. Rail has many clear advantages over buses — these systems are typically faster and easier for riders to navigate. However, in a large, low-density city like Atlanta, geography simply does not allow many people to use a reasonably sized rail system. Without major reforms to density and parking regulations, Atlanta’s light rail is likely to largely run empty.

Rather than attempting to force a Smart Growth vision on their residents, Atlanta policy makers should take a step back and allow the market to guide transportation resources. In a city built around highways and cars, buses and bus rapid transit make much more sense for environmentally friendly, cost-saving public transit. They have a shot at paying for themselves, or at least necessitating fewer tax dollars than street cars, particularly if the state does not continue policies that subsidize driving. Light rail should not be built without the repeal of anti-density policies.

Before there were stimulus projects

In his new book, Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America, Richard White explores the financing of railroads in the American West and the political process behind it. In history books, this accomplishment is often looked on as a heroic feat of engineering and perseverance, but White offers a contrasting perspective of the abuse of tax dollars and manipulation of public opinion. I have not had a chance to read his book yet, but White offered a very interesting interview on Morning Edition. He explained:

Western railroads, particularly the transcontinental railroads, would not have been built without public subsidies, without the granting of land, and more important than that, loans from the federal government … because there is no business [in the West at that time], there is absolutely no reason to build [railroads] except for political reasons and the hope that business will come.

Unlike the railroads of the Northeast where Vanderbilt made his fortune, private financiers were uninterested in the West, where rails would not be making a foreseeable profit. If the expected benefits of an infrastructure project outweigh the expected costs, private financing will be available in the absence of public funding. Only when costs are expected to exceed benefits do infrastructure projects require subsidies. Historically, the argument that infrastructure is a public good that must be paid for by taxpayers has been proven false by private infrastructure projects ranging from highways to lighthouses, canals, and city streets.

The transcontinental railroad, the largest public works project of its time, marked a shift toward American policy of relying principally on federally funded infrastructure rather than on entrepreneurs to supply these goods. In the 20th century, the Federal Highway Act of course dwarfed the scale of the transcontinental railroad, and today publicly provided infrastructure is claimed to do everything from creating jobs to allowing for long run economic growth. Without a market mechanism to guide infrastructure construction, we are left with the clumsy political process to determine the amount and distribution of money spent on transportation.

Not Marshmallows, but a Really, REALLY Big Lollipop

In the last post, commenter AWP helped me realize that the marshmallow mountain analogy could be improved upon, since one person eating a marshmallow prevented another person from eating that same marshmallow.  But the road cannot be subdivided as simply.  Yes, a nit-picky implication of the vagueness of the term “good”, but I want to communicate as well as I can.

So, I plan to revise the article to use the analogy of a really, really big lollipop.  It’s a significant enough revision that I think it deserves mentioning.  Let me know if you think of a better analogy.

Government built the interstate highway system, they could build a BIGGER lollipop than this...