Monday, December 31, 2012


The Ecos “Population Elf”

The Chittenden County Regional Planning Commission (CCRPC) in its “Ecos" regional plan wants County citizens to add the “Population Elf” to the Easter Bunny and Abominable Snowperson.  That’s right, even though the under- 18 population continued to decline 2000-2010 somehow the Population Elf elevates future population growth to double that for the last decade to over 2,000 yearly, and the CCRPC claims 35,000 population growth from 2015 through 2035.

Forget recent continuing decline in population increases in Vermont and the County decade by decade, and forget the pesky Census (it’s only a “government estimate” really) which suggests Vermont with practically no increase in the under 65 age group 2000-2030 while the over 65 age crowd more than doubles.  (Governor Douglas tended to side with Census and not the Population Elf on population data.)  And, of course, forget the under 1,300 average yearly County population increase 1990-2011, and under 1,000 yearly 2000-2011—again those pesky Census folks at work.  

Then there are those stubbon under-30 generation folks who increasingly refuse to get driver licenses—a drop of 20% at last count.  But the Population Elf will get after these young folks to get to their Chevrolet freedom and stop shifting to those 50 Chittenden County Transportation Authority (CCTA) Link commuter buses each workday.  Yes, about 50 commuters abandoning their cars yearly for the bus, perhaps to try to make their family budgets work.

Oh, Burlington citizens, just ignore the fact that all major approach streets from the burbs—Colchester Ave., Main St., the Northern Connector, Pine St., Shelburne St.—boast traffic declines of 8 to 29% since traffic peaked about 20-25 years ago in the late 1980s.  Believe the Population Elf and his twin, the Traffic Growth Elf, not the lying statistics! The Population Elf will get to work to change the accelerating downward trend in City car traffic after it stops the flood of commuters converting from car drivers to bus riders.  The Population Elf assures us transportation sector stops its cutting greenhouse gases, now about back to about 1990 (down 8% 2000-2010 statewide) and aiming at 1980s and even 1970s levels.

The CCRPC inherits the legacy of the former Metropolitan Planning Organization where the Vermont Digger nicely summarized, $40 million in design and planning funds went down the tubes on the Circumferential Highway.  Maybe with a little extra help the CCRPC Population Elf can revive this plan also.

Seriously, what we need at this point is a little honesty and integrity in regional and local planning.  Population and traffic numbers and projections need to be backed up with peer reviews of those with long term experience in the areas.  

In transportation policy and programming this means accepting the end of the car age and starting by plowing full speed ahead with commuter rail from the Burlington to Montpelier, St. Albans and Middlebury.  Finally, it means unclogging intersections for all users and that goal along with safety, the first priority, cannot be done without converting County intersections on a priority basis with roundabouts.  At the same time let’s revive the Burlington waterfront with a quality connection using light rail to the Marketplace, UVM and Fletcher Allen.  However, even with all this the Population Elf likely remains in the realm of myth, right where it began in Ecos.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012


...or why bus, commuter rail, and Amtrak grow and car travel stalls and slides backward
If economics historically gets tagged with being the “dismal science” then transportation economics deserves placemet as the muck at the bottom of the economic swamp. For a century transportation economics mostly remained deep inside the academic walls. Moving goods mostly addressed costs and efficiencies moving a carload of freight from factory to port to a destination whether that be a coal fired electric plant or after warehousing and braking the carload down, delivery by a firm like UPS to a customer on main street.
When dealing with moving people from place to place, transportation economics mostly examined large metropolitan areas for where to put the next subway stop, bus route, or airport hub. Household transport economics started and ended from the advent of the car with the household car—the numbers of car per household, annual growth in car travel, new holiday car travel records, how high could driver licensing percentage could go among the driving age population, highway crash statistics, etc.
But beginning about 1990 a shift began, a tectonic shift with more and more statistics showing a slowing—and now even a decline—in car travel. Statistics now show a drop of young people getting drives licenses in a 15 year study 1995-2010, and in Burlington, VT a sudden abandoning by about 500 commuters to and from the Queen City for the commuter “Link” services operated by the Chittenden Country Transportation Authority (CCTA). Oh, one more statistic—nationally the median household expenditure for transportation which reached as high as 19-20 percent at times dropped to 16.0 in 2008-2009, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Behind the tectonic shifts, there appear to be two extremely powerful economic forces which together determine the economics of the household at work. And, those two powerful economic forces tell us we have not seen anything yet on the drive by households to shed high cost driving for either public transportation or just not making certain trips altogether. Those two forces are: basic wages and the cost of housing. The best measure of a nation's income and trends comes in the “average manufacturing hourly wage” data. That average wage peaked about 1970 and since 1980 dipped slightly during the interim and now sits about the same level $19.14 (August 2012, average hourly manufacturing wage for “production and non-supervisory employees”). Simply, little has changed in the income of the typical worker in manufacturing in the U.S. in over three decades.
The second major factor affecting transportation for households is the cost of housing. Here the news gets even worse. From 1980 to 2009 in constant 2000 dollars, median rent (usually a two bedroom unit) increased from $376 to $689 monthly, 83%. So, no real increase in wages for three decades and housing cost rising over 80%. What do these have to do with transportation? Or with households cutting back with expensive local transportation represented by the car and its 50-cent-a-mile typical expense (the current reimbursement Federally approved rate)? Simply there is a very strong economic force in the decision making of households to minimize the joint cost of housing and transportation, the two areas that consume about half (49% for families in 2011) of the average households. So we have experienced three decades of flat manufacturing wages and during that time an 80% increase in housing costs as measured by the median rents. Finally, the periodic national travel survey reveals that from 2001 through 2009 for every age group travel by car declined with he largest decline in miles of travel, an average of 20%, came in the under-30 age group.

Where does that leave a household who for a long time experienced the pressures of rising housing costs and no wage increases—everything else being equal. Reducing housing costs represent a far more difficult short term possibility (long term too!) to change than transportation costs. When an opportunity to more than halve the cost of a necessary trip—getting to and from work, for example—it is no surprise why a commuter between Burlington and Montpelier chooses a Link commuter bus costing 10 cents a mile versus solo driving at 50 cents a mile—a daily saving of $32 based on the 80-mile roundtrip by Link service priced at $8 and $40 for the solo drive. Finally, with these two factors at work it comes as little surprise that the growth of outer suburbs of metropolitan areas over the past two decades suddenly ended and that in many metropolitan areas the long term decline in city centers ended an in many cases central cities gained population. The housing and transportation cost relationship fully explains these two metropolitan developments.
What's more there appears little change in the future of the increasing housing-transportation cost to the household—the household faces increased housing cost over and above inflation and car travel costs doing the same. Perhaps this relationship explains why when the Boston area transit agency increased fares on bus-subway-commuter rail services by 23% early this summer there was no drop in passenger numbers. The increase in public transit fares were insufficient for a typical household commuter or transit user to switch to an alternative, such as the car, and those who used transit were not “cruising” or taking public transport just to see the countryside, they were making mostly necessary trips to work, professional appointments, school, etc.
We can expect that there will be a continued abandoning of the car for necessary trips—and even for discretionary trips—if reasonably priced service alternatives are provided—right now that is really just about any public transit, including Amtrak, which generally enjoys high single digit and double digit growth each year.

Sunday, December 9, 2012


The following responds a reference by a Burlington Walk Bike Council to a U.K. paper advocating walking and bicycling for attaining better public health.  My response to that suggestion follows...

The better question is "what about the U.K. and North America."  The U.K., U.S. and Canada (more U.S. and Canada) record  far lower walk/bike rates, particularly in the bike department than typical European nations where walk/bike urban numbers often hit 20-30% while the U.S, and Canada remain bottom feeders at about 10% walk and 1% bicycle. 

As far as Burlington [VT] is concerned the Marketplace with its shared space intersections nears Nirvana territory. But "routes to the marketplace" reflect the kind of desperate conditions which make our non-Marketplace areas in the typical category of a a few hundred percent greater walk casualty rates and bicycle casualty rates per mile of travel compared to German and Netherlands as Rutgers Jean Pucher reported in an extensive paper devoted to the very subject you bring forward, health and walking and bicycling published in the American Journal of Public Health in 2003--it is a landmark study

Pucher did further work in this area showing incidence of obesity, diabetes, etc. versus proportion of walking and bicycling modes [in several nations] with the expected results.

Am J Public Health. 2010 Oct;100(10):1986-92. Epub 2010 Aug 19.

But the problem we face comes in great part--not that we do not have sidewalks in Burlington or some (but not enough) bikeways of various types--the problem lies in essentially unsafe intersections where signals kill, injure, DELAY, pollute and uglify.  Until we unplug the major intersections so that one, for example, cross arterials with little delay (think Battery, Main, Pearl, Winooski, North, etc.) then encouraging folks to walk amounts to choosing your poison. 

Roundabouts--probably because they traffic calm a block or two on all legs--have that peculiar feature that the more you build the safer they all become.  Anything but a roundabout on average generates about a 900% greater rate....[of] serious injuries and fatalities--like Sam Lapointe in January [walker killed at a signalized Burlington intersection].  To be an advocate for walking and health, you have to be an advocate for roundabouts along all urban walking corridors.  Of course, roundabouts bring major improvement in car occupant safety too--think of Karen Borneman at St. Paul and Main just two years ago now [young woman killed in a T-bone two-car crash at the intersection about 150 feet from  Burlington City Hall].

So the task is clear--prioritize the conversion of intersections to roundabouts so as to enable more walking and bicycling in a safe environment.