Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Cost of Congestion vs Cost of Car Dependence

Below are two slides I put together last week.  I've had the foundation of them in the various presentations I've been giving, but they were still missing something.  They show the various transportation costs we incur per capita, simply to get around.

The above slide is exactly how it was and has been since I first included it.  The graph comes from Todd Litman of the Victoria Transportation Policy Institute.  He's showing that per capita, congestion doesn't really cost all that much.  Meanwhile, I wanted to address the boogieman various BUILD MORE HIGHWAY NOW neanderthals with hammers wield, stating Texas Transportation Institute's number that congestion costs the U.S. $120 billion a year in undue delays and what not.

Sounds costly...except that's cheap.  And we can do very little about it.  Particularly, thru more highway capacity.

So what I did was stack all of the various externalized costs related to car dependence such as personal injury, ownership/operation/maintenance of cars, subsidized free parking, etc etc.  I left the cost of building and maintaining roads as its own cost because we still need infrastructure.  Instead, the future of designing cities is about optimizing our infrastructure and our cities to function as efficient platforms of social and economic exchange.

However, that wasn't enough to show that car dependence costs the US 17x that of congestion.  The more important issue is to address what to do about it.  The answer is in the detail that very little can be done about the costs of congestion.  Whether a walkable, transit-friendly city or a car dependent city, these costs are remarkably flat.  And even if they're not, is there that much we can do about it?

Is it really worth the Federal Highway Administration spending $81 billion a year, just to notch the $120 billion in cost down fractionally?

The answer is no.  There is far more private savings to be gained from public dollar by reducing car dependence.

An example.  Houston is a lot like Dallas.  In Houston, 95% of trips are by car.  In Dallas, 96% of trips are by car.  In Houston, 14% of local GDP is spent on transportation.  Simply, getting around and participating in the economy.  In Copenhagen, which has been systematically and incrementally reducing the role and necessity of private automobile cost and usage since the 1960's, only spends 4% of GDP on transportation.

That is 10% of GDP that Houston (and presumably DFW) wastes simply in having an inefficient machine for social and economic exchange.  A poorly designed city.

Is Copenhagen's economy less active?  No.  Are people not moving around?  No.  There is still plenty of humm and whirr of a vibrant place.  However, they got people out of cars which were congesting, polluting, and ruining their beloved city.  There are now many more trips.  They're just smaller, shorter, and not in cars as much.  As Ian Lockwood told me over the phone last week, "if you can cut the average trip length in half, you cut the transportation load of the entire system in half."

Did they get people fully out of cars?  No.  56% of trips are still by car.  What they did was successfully design and adapt their transportation infrastructure over time, so that the real estate market favored good city building.

Did they force people out of cars?  No.  Quite the opposite actually.  They provided the freedom of choice.

  • Of multiple route choice so that you can adapt your trip to daily circumstances.  
  • Of mode, you can choose the optimal and most convenient mode of transport for your mood and needs.  Bikes, foot, transit, bus, or car.  All are convenient and accessible.
  • And of what to do with your dollars.  Instead of spending 20-30% of your after tax income on transportation, calculated in 2013 to be $9,000 per year per car on average across the country, you can now do anything else you like with that money while still having maximum mobility.  You can save it, invest it, pay for improved housing, start a business, etc.  

We just need to incrementally shift.  Starting with IH345.  We simply can't afford to wait around until 2040 because we were afraid to act.