Every weekend we dig into the archives. This post was originally published back in October 2009.
In my searching for interesting academic studies into transportation issues I came across an excellent analysis of the benefits of rail transportation by Todd Litman, a Canadian transport academic. It’s a very detailed study, running to around 60 pages long, and I certainly haven’t read the whole thing yet. However, there are some very important aspects of this study that offer a far broader and ultimately more comprehensive analysis of the costs and benefits of different transport systems than we are seeing in New Zealand at the moment. To start with, let’s look at the abstract for the research piece: Now while it’s obvious that cities with larger rail systems would have higher transit ridership, some of the other findings are of particular interesting – perhaps most importantly that the more developed a city’s rail system is the lower we find consumer expenditure on transportation and the less congestion that we see. That seems to indicate that it is quite true that investing in public transport (in this case rail) really does have significant benefit for those who remain on the roading system.
Let’s have a look at some of the findings this study came up with. I think of particular interest are the effects on traffic fatalities, consumer transportation expenditure, the portion of household budgets spent on transportation and the effect on the efficiency of the transit systems:
In some ways I think the “portion of household budgets devoted to transportation” is perhaps the most critical statistic here – that residents in cities with large rail systems spend about a fifth less on transportation than those in cities with smaller (or no) rail systems. I think that Auckland spends around 16% of its wealth on transportation – compared to many European or Japanese cities where people spend around 5-10% of their wealth on transport. That’s a huge difference for what seems to me as no real benefit in terms of it being easier to get around Auckland than it is to get around European or Japanese cities. In fact, it may well be even more difficult to get around Auckland – especially if you don’t have a car.
Another interesting statistic that has arisen from Mr Litman’s research relates to the effect of rail systems on congestion levels. This is outlined further in the diagram below: It is interesting to see that Los Angeles has twice the level of congestion per capita as New York City does. Overall, Los Angeles actually has a higher population density than New York (while NYC’s population density is extremely high in Manhatten, it’s much lower in the outer suburbs – while LA’s population density is relatively high throughout the metropolitan area) which to me disproves the theory that you need high population densities for public transport to work. I actually think that things work in the opposite direction more – a well developed rail system will lead to a more sustainable urban form.
Getting back to the analysis of the costs and benefits of rail transit, one of the common arguments against rail is that it sucks up subsidies, and is therefore inefficient at shifting people around when compared to roads that (at least in the case of state highways in NZ) apparently appear to cover their costs. Mr Litman debunks this theory of rail being not worth the cost: It is fascinating to see how the numbers stack up once we finally see a full and comprehensive analysis of the costs and benefits of public transportation. The above numbers clearly show that basing transportation priorities solely on the grounds of what needs an obvious subsidy and what doesn’t clearly ignores potentially massive wider aspects of transportation that seem to clearly tip the balance in favour of rail-based systems, as shown above. At the moment issues like “consumer cost savings”, “parking cost savings” and (to some extent at least) “traffic accident cost savings” are not really taken into account in the analysis of individual projects and – perhaps more importantly – in analysing the thrust of general transport policy.
If we really simplify things down to try to understand the most efficient way to provide transportation, a good way to analyse the average cost per passenger mile of different modes, and then compare them across different city sizes. Todd Litman’s research does just that, and comes up with some interesting results once you add in the costs of parking provision and roadway costs: I really do wish some of the transportation policymakers around New Zealand were doing this kind of work for Auckland, looking at the big picture and really working out the true costs of auto-dependency. It would be far more constructive than the narrow-minded thinking that seems to predominate at the moment.