BART, Josefowitz, and Mass Transit in the Bay

Lake_Merritt_BART

Last week, Nick Josefowitz unseated a multi-decade incumbent for a spot on the BART board of directors. Normally I don’t pay too much attention to elections, but Mr. Josefowitz might actually have some good ideas.

For everyone outside the Bay Area, the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) system is a commuter rail line that constitutes the vital transportation link between the East Bay and San Francisco. On a typical weekday it provides 400,000 rides and that number is increasing as the regional economy continues to boom. Suffice it to say that BART is a big deal to a lot of people who rely on it every day (myself included).

While Josefowitz’s campaign website talks about cleaning up dirty stations and increasing late night train availability, I had the privilege of hearing him outline an interesting proposal during a private, small group discussion some months ago.

According to Josefowitz, BART sits on a substantial amount of real estate in the form of station parking lots. His proposal was to repurpose some of this space as high density housing. This would help with the region’s housing shortage and support BART ridership by clustering population around the system’s stations and the lost spots could be offset by building parking structures on the remaining lot space (many BART parking lots are ground level only as opposed to multi-level parking structures). This sounded a lot like Hong Kong’s integrated rail-property development approach which has proven to be an unqualified success, so my interest was definitely piqued.

As always, there’s plenty of which to be skeptical. The fact that the proposal was brought up in a private discussion, but isn’t listed on the campaign website may say something about where it falls in Josefowitz’s priorities. Also, it’s difficult to tell how effective the incoming director will be in pitching new ideas to the incumbent directors on the board. And finally, any plan to build housing on BART property will be sure to include some kind of “affordable” housing requirement, the beneficial effects of which remain questionable to say the least.

But, if Josefowitz is serious about the proposal and he manages to find support amongst the other members of the board, it could be a step in the right direction. More housing would be better than less in the supply constrained Bay Area and allowing for greater density around BART’s stations could contribute to a more sustainable regional transit system.

For the record, I did not vote in this election and this post does not equate to a political endorsement of any kind.

 

How Hong Kong Pulls Off Transit Oriented Development

Integrating rail and property development is the cornerstone of the MTR’s success. In the U.S., coordination between transit authorities and developers tends to be mediocre at best. In Hong Kong, however, the MTR is both the transit authority as well as the property owner, and this makes all the difference.

Coordination Problem

Most attempts at transit-oriented development in the U.S. involve multi-party negotiations. The agency responsible for the transportation system haggles with different developers interested in undertaking projects along the line. Instead of implementing a unified plan, the transit agency has to negotiate specific agreements with each developer. And, because the priorities of the transit agency and the developers are never perfectly aligned, development agreements become subject to second-best compromises. Further, any disputes that arise once significant capital has been committed are costly to resolve.

This arrangement makes leveraging land values difficult as well. Developers frequently get tax breaks as an incentive to undertake projects. Whether abatements on property tax or straight-forward rate reductions, tax incentives typically preclude the use of land values to help fund transit. And, even without special incentives, major property owners who stand to benefit from proximity to a transit system have every reason to resist tax increases of any kind if there’s a chance of free-riding.

Kowloon_Station

The MTR, on the other hand, uses the integrated rail-property development  approach which combines the two roles of landlord and transit developer. The MTR owns the right-of-way as well as the surrounding properties. This removes the necessity of extended negotiations, having to settle for second best solutions, and the potential downside of disagreements partway through a project.

By combining the functions of landlord and transit developer, the MTR is also able to internalize land values. The rail line drives up the value of the MTR’s properties and that value covers the capital costs of the MTR’s rail lines.

Coase On Mass Trasnit

In 1937, the economist Ronald Coase asked why, if market exchange is such a good way to allocate resources, do firms even exist?

The short answer? Transaction costs.

Participating in a market comes with a price, and in some instances, the cost of participation is more than it’s worth. When transaction costs are too high, firms avoid them by internalizing specific functions and allocating resources at the discretion of management. This is not unlike the way in which socialist command economies deployed resources, albeit on a much smaller scale, and within an organization that’s actually responsive to external price information.

In many industries, falling transaction costs have brought about a wave of decentralization, supplanting the old paradigm of Fordist vertical integration. Younger companies now specialize in a narrower range of core competencies and outsource the rest. Apple, for example, is really a design firm that uses a global network of manufacturing and logistics partners to get its products into consumer hands.

In the case of transit development, however, transaction costs remain high. Technological innovation hasn’t made construction much less capital intensive or shortened time horizons for investment. This means that the costs of coordinating transit and property development mentioned above have remained persistent. What the integrated rail-property development model suggests in theory, and the MTR demonstrates in practice, is that a little centralization could bypass these costs entirely. To paraphrase Coase, there’s a price to pay for using prices; and in the case of transit development, that price may still be far too high.

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

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.

 

Six Shooters and Bullet Trains: High Speed Rail in Texas

California might have some competition in the race for high-speed rail.

Texas Central Railway wants to begin construction on a high-speed line from Dallas to Houston as early as 2017. The current plan is to go from downtown to downtown, with possibly one stop along the way in College Station. An environmental impact assessment is under way and the hope is to be operational by 2021.

Vancouver's driverless Sky Train

Vancouver’s driverless Sky Train

The company claims that the price per ticket will be competitive with airfare and that the run will take a mere 90 minutes. To give that some context, current travel time from Houston to Dallas by car is about 3.5 hours according to Google (but closer to 4.5 according to my prior experience).

While there’s a lot to be skeptical about here, the impact of connecting the nation’s 4th and 6th largest urban economies could be significant. If a high-speed line does get built and if it does manage to deliver on its specs (two major “ifs” already), it would be the equivalent of a magic portal…or a stargate…or a warp pipe…or a tesseract…or…well…the point being it would make the two places functionally much closer together, and that’s a big deal.

Cities become economically vibrant through agglomeration. Bringing people closer together lowers search costs for both employers and employees. It also increases the likelihood of “creative collisions”. What high-speed rail could do is combine the benefits of agglomeration that each of these two cities already enjoy.

And, as early in the day as it is, there’s already speculation that a line connecting Dallas and Houston would be a precursor to additional lines connecting all four of the state’s pillars of civilization: Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, and Austin. The unbridled optimist in me imagines high-speed rail as the embryonic bones of a future mega-city encompassing the entire Texas Triangle.

…but…I’m still skeptical.

Texas Central Railway is backed by private investors. It claims it can pull off the project without resorting to either government subsidies or land development. This means total reliance on fares to cover operational costs as well as recoup capital investment. To my knowledge, no mass transit system in the U.S. covers operational costs on fares, let alone operational and capital costs combined.

That said, it’s a cool project and I’d love to see my home state get a little more diverse in terms of transportation infrastructure, especially if it’s being paid for out of private pockets. And hopefully, if there’s a bait and switch, it’ll turn into a land play rather than politicking for subsidies. Combining transit and land development works pretty well in Hong Kong, so I wouldn’t mind seeing the same approach tried back home.

Urbanism without government

Asking, “But who will build the roads?” is a cliched response to proposals for a more libertarian political system. However, it leads to the interesting historical question of “Who has built the roads in anarchic societies?” Colonial America provides a few examples that answer this question. Perhaps the best known example of anarchism in American history was in Rhode Island, or “Rogue’s Island,” founded by Baptists fleeing Massachusetts. The stateless Baptists founded the cities of Portsmouth and Warwick.

Unlike the Baptists, William Penn didn’t intend to create an anarchic colony, but Pennsylvania was, in fact, without a government from 1684 to 1691 as evidenced by Penn’s failure to successfully levy any taxes during that time. It’s difficult to know much about street building from this time period in part because of how much time has passed and in part because, as Murray Rothbard writes, “The lack of recordkeeping in stateless societies — since only government officials seem to have the time, energy, and resources to devote to such activities — produce a tendency toward a governmental bias in the working methods of historians.” However, we do know that Philadelphia’s neighborhoods near the Delaware River were growing during this time.

One of the country’s oldest continually occupied streets is Philadelphia’s Elfreth’s Alley. It was dedicated in 1702, shortly after this period of complete anarchy and served  as a route to connect local merchants’ property with the already thriving Second Street. As the society dedicated to the alley’s preservation writes:

Elfreth’s Alley — popularly known as “Our nation’s oldest residential street” – dates back to the first days of the eighteenth century. Twenty years after William Penn founded Pennsylvania and established Philadelphia as its capital, the town had grown into a thriving, prosperous mercantile center on the banks of the Delaware River.

Philadelphians had abandoned Penn’s plan for a “greene countrie towne” and instead created a cityscape similar to what they remembered in England. Wharves stretched out into the river, welcoming ships from around the world. Shops, taverns, and homes crowded the area along the river. Philadelphians made and sold items essential to life in the New World and to the trade that was a part of their daily lives.

Two of these colonial craftsmen, blacksmiths John Gilbert and Arthur Wells, owned the land where Elfreth’s Alley now sits. In 1702, each man gave up a portion of his land to create an alleyway along their property line that connected their smithies near the river with Second Street, one block away. By that date, Second was a major north-south road, connecting Philadelphia with towns north and west of the city and the frontier beyond.

Photo by C. Ridgeway

Photo by C. Ridgeway

Gilbert and Wells donated their land both to benefit their businesses and to improve the city’s transportation network in keeping with the Quaker tradition of voluntarism. Their actions demonstrate the power of cooperation for mutual gain, but it’s also notable that streets built with donated land are likely to be narrow, as Elfreth’s Alley is. As the article explains that William Penn envisioned Pennsylvania as a “countrie towne,” but without the ability to raise any taxes needed to enforce his vision, he couldn’t prevent Pennsylvania residents from developing the sort of dense and mixed-use development that supported their growing industries in Philadelphia.

Victorian England provides another example of rapid urban growth under very limited government. Decades after the construction of Elfreth’s Alley, urban development absent any city planning, government infrastructure, or building codes swept across London and other English cities. Neighborhoods including the West End and Nottingham were developed during this period of hands-off government policy, relying on the private sector for providing all infrastructure, from streets to streetlights to drainage.

In both cases of laissez- faire urban development, we see very narrow streets, as landowners are making the trade between providing easements for accessibility and developing land for profit. Unlike colonial Philadelphia’s period of total anarchy, London had a system of Private Acts, which required developers to seek permission from Parliament to implement any significant land use changes. After development was in place, some neighborhoods used covenants to enforce upkeep of common goods such as lighting and even to enforce design standards for builders. In his chapter in The Voluntary CityStephen Davies explains that landowners did not place covenants on all land and that the stringency of covenants varied widely. Because covenants tended to increase both the quality and price of housing, this variation allowed builders to serve both low- and middle-income residents, depending on where they built:

Developers were able to tailor the extent of their providing “public goods” via covenant to the nature and scope of local demand, as well as account for other factors such as land and building costs. This is in marked contrast to the rigidity and fixity of state attempts to supply these goods through public planning, zoning laws, and the like. The flexibility also extended to the enforcement of covenants. Landlords and developers would often not enforce the building clause in a lease when demand for land was slack, as long as the rent was paid.

While colonial Philadelphia and Victorian London saw road building under different legal institutions, both cases demonstrate that urban infrastructure can be provided without government. Perhaps the free market would never create the interstate highway system, but it’s proven itself capable of facilitating the creation of charming, functional streets that endure centuries.

 

 

 

 

Potential for Voluntary Infrastructure

Last fall I visited Budapest and learned some interesting history of the city’s beautiful Chain Bridge. Before 1849, the small cities of Buda and Pest were connected by a temporary bridge that was only viable during warm months. In the winter, the bridge had to be taken down due to ice, making it impossible to cross the Danube between the two cities if the ice wasn’t solid enough to walk on. Count István Széchenyi, a Hungarian statesman who traveled extensively throughout Europe, made it his mission to secure financing for a bridge to improve economic growth opportunities and Budapest’s standing on the world stage. His experiences in rapidly modernizing cities like London taught Széchenyi the importance of mobility for economic growth.

JAI-HU01074

Legend has it that Széchenyi was motivated to build a bridge between Buda and Pest because ice on the Danube prevented him from getting to see his sick father before he died, but it’s unclear to me if this is an accurate history. The bridge was the realization of both a politician’s ambitions and a private financiers goal to profit from tolling the bridge and by increasing the value of his landholding in Pest. While the bridge lost money during its financier’s life, it ultimately began turning a profit in 1860. It’s impossible to understand Széchenyi’s motivations for securing the bridge centuries later, but it seems he was likely motivated by a combination of profit seeking, nationalistic pride, and philanthropy. The Chain Bridge joined a slew of other privately built bridges and other infrastructure around the world, built either by people who hoped to profit from providing transportation services or who sought to increase their land value by providing mobility.

While a voluntarily built bridge seems exceptional from today’s vantage point — when a public private partnership or contracted toll road management seems like the “free market” alternative to government built and managed infrastructure — this is because government policies have radically transformed infrastructure provision. As Adam has pointed out previously (along with David Levinson and others), transportation is a private good, not a public good that carries a strong rationale for government provision. History demonstrates that absent government provision and given a legal market that supports it, individuals and firms in the free market will provide infrastructure. While some argue that mobility has positive externalities, the presence of positive externalities doesn’t mean that a good should be provided by the government, or even subsidized. Beautiful architecture has positive externalities for the neighborhood around it and smaller positive externalities for passers by who enjoy it, but this doesn’t make it a good idea for the government to take over building design or for the government to subsidize property owners who choose good design.

The general growth of government beginning in the 19th century along with many discrete policy decisions have led to the decline of voluntary transportation infrastructure, but technological and economic changes should make non-government infrastructure more attainable than ever. Large corporations from Wal Mart to Apple have huge interests in ensuring that their products reach their consumers in a timely manner. It’s not difficult to imagine that corporations could play a large role in providing infrastructure in world without government crowd out. Given that private infrastructure prevailed in a time when making infrastructure excludable was more costly, technology today has only made voluntary infrastructure more attainable.

 

Car and Driver(less) Link List

1) A reader pointed out this post at Volokh Conspiracy arguing that personal cars give us freedom, citing the example of automobiles helping African Americans boycott segregated buses in the 1950s. Sasha Volokh writes:

Let’s think back to 1955, when African Americans stayed off segregated buses in Montgomery, Ala. During the year-long boycott, 325 private cars, some owned by African Americans, some by whites, some by churches, picked up people at 42 sites around the town.

I don’t think that it works to think of technologies as something that can increase our freedom, per se. While cars give some people greater freedom of mobility, for those who can’t drive or refuse to drive for whatever reason have worse freedom of mobility in cities that are built for automobiles. Rather government spending and regulations that favor one type of transportation over another impede the freedom of those who don’t prefer the favored mode. And in this case of cars presenting an alternative to segregated buses, Volokh explains that drivers picked up passengers at defined stops. They were using their cars to implement a voluntary community transit system, using cars beyond their purpose as personal automobiles.

2) Many people have written about the potential of driverless cars to enhance freedom of mobility and to improve automobile safety, but Meagan McArdle points out that car manufacturers will likely face greatly increased liability when driverless cars reach the roads. Do you think driverless cars are in our near future? I’m sold on their potential to cut back on parking in city centers.

3) My colleague Eileen Norcross writes at US News on Governor Bob McDonnell’s proposal to move to funding transportation with a sales tax rather than a gas tax in Virginia:

The governor is right to note that the gas tax suffers from multiple problems as a revenue source. As cars become more fuel-efficient and motorists choose to drive alternative fuel vehicles, the gas tax doesn’t go the same distance it once did. Also, Virginia hasn’t indexed the gas tax to inflation since 1986; otherwise the tax would be 36 cents per gallon by now.

However, switching from a user-based tax to a broader source of revenue for roads violates the principles of user-pays and transparency in taxation. The merit of the gas tax is that drivers pay for road improvements—at least in theory. In reality, the gas tax is a second-best option as a user-based source. Drivers don’t pay directly for their individual road use, as is the case with a toll-based system.

Also see the debate between Randall O’Tool and the Tax Foundation on this issue.

4) At New World Economics, Nathan Lewis applies Warren Buffett’s “Innovators, Imitators, and Idiots” theory of investment to real estate and suggests that new suburban greenfield development is in the “Idiots” stage as the patterns of new developments are no longer profitable:

1) New developments are too far from anything, and often imply commute times of an hour or more each way
2) Homes are too large for people to afford
3) Waaaay too much strip-mall type development, plus the realization that it is horrifically ugly
4) Land use patterns that are dominated by Non-Place (parking lots, roadways, and “green space” to make it all a little less hideous), i.e. “sprawl”