People are driving less: Transportation agencies need to invest based on the data - Metropolitan Planning Council

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People are driving less: Transportation agencies need to invest based on the data

Thankfully early January's polar-vortex-like conditions didn’t result in the major Metra delays of January 2014, when thousands of Chicagoans were stranded as train switches froze in the frigid weather. And it was nothing compared to November’s Transitpocalypse when, due to safety precautions because of an extra alarm fire along the tracks on Sheffield Avenue, 300,000 people who commute on one of these routes from the north side to the Loop were stuck, workers were late to their jobs and productivity suffered.

These events demonstrate how important transit is to the Chicago region. In fact, more people than ever are choosing transit as their mode of travel. According to the American Public Transportation Association, in 2013 Americans took 10.7 billion trips on public transportation, the highest number in 57 years. And while vehicle miles traveled on roads went up 0.3 percent nationally, public transportation use in 2013 increased by 1.1 percent.

While vehicle miles traveled on roads went up 0.3 percent nationally, public transportation use in 2013 increased by 1.1 percent.

The story in Illinois suggests the same—with more than 2 million daily boardings on buses and trains operated by the region’s three major transit systems, Chicagoland has the second-most used system in the United States. In total, transit ridership has grown by over 80 million rides per year over the past decade. The growth in Chicago Transit Authority rail in particular is astonishing. Daily boardings were up 165,000 a day from 2008-2012, almost 33.4 million new rides a year. At the same time, over the past decade, the number of total miles driven in the region is down almost 3 billion.

Trends suggest the trajectory will continue, with a substantial drop in the number of 16- and 18-year-olds applying for their driver’s licenses, people forgoing vehicle ownership and baby boomers retiring—nationally, though the segment of the population 65 years and older has grown, its total vehicle miles traveled dropped by 10 percent and public transit use increased 40 percent from 2001 to 2009. Some agencies, such as the Illinois Tollway, have noticed; for the first time, the Tollway will accommodate transit options on the new I-90 corridor. 

So that’s great: more people riding transit, less people in gas guzzlers stuck in traffic. But:

  1. State and federal government continue to forecast that vehicle miles traveled will rise dramatically. This matters because those predictions dictate how transportation funding is spent, which can lead to investing in the wrong modes of travel. More on that >>
  2. The Chicago region already underinvests in transit compared to the rest of the country. More on that >>
  3. There are a few things we could do right now to address these issues. More on that >>

Long-term trends show people are driving less

Some argue that of course ridership is up, population grows every year and there are simply more people to ride transit. In fact, that's correct: The Chicago region’s population has grown, so it’s important to consider how it impacts growth in transit ridership and vehicle miles traveled. When factoring in population, since 2005, transit ridership in the Chicago region has outperformed vehicle miles traveled in every year except for one since 2005. In fact, when population is considered, vehicle miles traveled have declined nine out of the last 12 years. That’s pre- and post-recession data.

Taking employment growth into account, to truly show the recession’s impact, again, since 2005, vehicle miles traveled growth has fallen behind transit ridership growth every year except two and has declined seven of the past 12 years. 

Transit ridership growing despite land use policies

This growth is in spite of the fact that the transit system is disconnected from a large portion of the region’s population and jobs. As of 2010, a Metropolitan Planning Council analysis of Census data shows that only 22 percent of the regional population, or 1.98 million people, live within a half-mile of stations on a Chicago Transit Authority El line, Metra rail line or the future Ashland Avenue Bus Rapid Transit corridor. Only 8.5 percent, or about 770,000, live within a quarter mile of such stations. Just 32 percent of the region’s jobs are located within half a mile of a Chicago Transit Authority or Metra rail stop, and just 20.6 percent are within a quarter mile. That leaves more than two-thirds of the region’s employees without easy access to a fast or efficient transit line. Compare that to San Francisco where 41 percent of jobs are within a half-mile of rapid transit or 53 percent in New York. 

Despite this, transit ridership continues to grow in the region.

Job locations and access to transit in Chicagoland 

It’s obvious from these stats that people do want more and better transit service instead of being stuck in their cars, alone, in traffic. But transportation agencies, including the Ill. Dept. of Transportation, still predict vehicle miles traveled will increase. The latest state transportation plan reports that growth in annual vehicle miles traveled in Illinois has slowed over the past decade—dropping from 23 percent growth from 1990 to 2000, roughly equal to growth rates going back to the 1950s—to less than 3 percent in the 10 years between 2000 and 2010. Despite stating there are “attitudinal changes toward driving,” the agency still forecasts that previous vehicle miles travelled growth rates will return as the economy recovers and the state’s population increases (latest Census data shows Illinois population decreased again last year) predicting 23 percent growth again by 2040 (see chart 1 that suggests the opposite).

More than two-thirds of the region’s employees are without easy access to a fast or efficient transit line.

Because manuals used by city planners to determine how much traffic a new residential or commercial development will generate have not been updated to reflect these trends, we’ve vastly overestimated how much road capacity a new development will need. New research by Adam Millard-Ball of the University of California-Santa Cruz finds that the Trip Generation Manual from the Institute for Transportation Engineers, a common guide used across the country that tells traffic planners how many auto trips will be generated by new development, overestimated the number of trips in 2009 by as much as 55 percent. From 1990-2009 the number of annual trips the manual predicted would occur was 100 million more than actually did, resulting in unnecessary investments in roads that will never reach capacity.

Why it matters: Chicago, among the lowest-funded transit systems in the nation

“VMT [vehicle miles traveled] per licensed driver peaked in 2007 at 12,900 miles per year and decreased to 12,500 miles in 2012...since 2007, trends in U.S. travel have not followed the trends in economic indicators such as income and employment as closely...demographic, technological, social, and environmental factors also have shown the potential to affect travel.”—U.S. Energy Information Association

The Ill. Dept. of Transportation’s predictions dictate how the state spends transportation dollars—so if the department predicts people will drive more than they actually will, we’ll spend money on lots of unused roads.

Compared nationally, Chicago’s annual per capita funding for transit operations is about $250, lower than Philadelphia, Boston, Washington, San Francisco and New York. In fact, New York provides two times as much funding for transit operations per capita as Chicago (second city we are).

The Chicago region also hasn’t grown its funding in 25 years. Funding for the day to day transit operations in the Chicago region has increased by just 12 percent, inflation-adjusted, since 1991. In that same period, New York, Boston and Philadelphia had much bigger increases in operations funding over the period (33, 29 and 24 percent, respectively). So while more and more of the population choose transit, the Chicago region does not have the means to provide new services to accommodate that choice, let alone a growing population. 

No form of transportation pays for itself (not roads or planes), and transit is no different. Operations in every city are funded both by riders and through public resources. About 40 percent of Chicago Transit Authority, Metra and Pace funding comes from riders. That’s more than Philadelphia (37 percent), San Francisco (33 percent) and Boston (30 percent). The Chicago region’s sales tax for transit, which ranges from 1.25 percent in Cook County to 0.5 percent in the surrounding five counties, raises a substantial amount of local revenues for transit. Other regions, however, have a more diversified funding package. New York relies heavily on bridge and tunnel tolling, in addition to a payroll tax, to support its system. Most revenues generated from parking meters are allocated to transit in San Francisco. These diversified sources allow these metropolitan areas to improve frequency of services and expand capacity.

Our region also has a lot less capital funding that pays for new and major reconstruction, like the proposed but not funded Red and Purple Modernization. In fact, resources for transit capital funding in Chicago are about 25 percent less than 20 years ago, while the New York City and Philadelphia regions both devote about 50 percent more funding today to transit capital than they did twenty years ago. San Francisco devotes about 150 percent more funding on capital programs for its network than in 1991.

In 2015 the Chicago Transit Authority will remain one of the cheapest transit rides in the world. The agency recently released their 2015 budget proposal, which calls for no base fare hikes and again does not identify state funds to provide free and reduced-cost rides.

The path forward

  1. Raise revenues

The region’s transit agencies should work with local government to advocate for new, stable revenues dedicated for transit at the local and state level and work with the state legislature to dedicate state funds toward covering the unfunded mandate to provide free and reduced-cost rides. MPC is working with a broad coalition to advance sustainable revenue streams for transportation in the general assembly next year; all options are on the table. 

One such option is broadening the sales tax base. The state of Illinois’ sales tax base, (the types of goods and services taxed) has not been updated since the tax was first adopted in 1933, and it remains one of the narrowest sales tax bases in the country: Only 17 of 168 potential taxable services are included. Illinois’ sales tax base is narrower than all of its neighboring states, and it is the fourth narrowest in the country. By strategically broadening the tax to include personal services, Illinois could raise needed revenue. And because the services sector will grow more rapidly, the state could even reduce the rate and still generate more revenue in the long term. Gov. Rauner has proposed adding business services to the sales tax, which would generate an additional $2.5 to $3.5 billion annually for state and local government and transit. This assumes the overall rate remains the same.

  1. Promote transit-oriented development

The Chicago Transit Authority and Metra should focus on integrating planning for transit-oriented development into their transit projects and create a plan to develop the land they own but do not use. Transit-oriented development produces a virtuous cycle for the transit authority; the agency can sell land, thereby contributing revenues to its budget, and developers can build new housing and commercial space, which will attract more customers to the transit system.

MPC is working to revise local land use policies to orient them toward increased density in areas near transit, extend the TOD Ordinance passed by the City of Chicago in 2013 and develop financing tools to encourage transit-oriented development projects accessible to people with a variety of incomes. 

  1. New financing mechanisms

Because well planned transportation investments increase people’s access to desirable destinations, locations near these investments command higher land prices, benefiting land owners and developers. Cities such as San Francisco, Denver, Atlanta and New York use value capture mechanisms to finance new or existing transportation infrastructure, connecting the benefit of the infrastructure investment with the cost to provide it. MPC supports amending state law to allow a municipality to create a transit facility improvement area along a continuous transit route and direct a percentage of the increase in property tax revenues to build or extend transit capacity.

  1. Invest in upgrading the system

We know investment in the system drives ridership. Almost 7,000 more people a day ride the North Side segment of the Brown Line now than they did prior to the renovation in 2009. That’s almost 3 million more riders a year. Since last year, the new Green Line stop at Morgan Street, which opened in 2012, saw a 112 percent increase in weekday boardings. We know those are new riders to the system as the nearest stop, Clinton, has also realize a small increase in boardings over the past two years. 

The number of private-sector jobs in the Chicago Loop now stands at nearly 542,000, the highest since 1991, but not one more train can run on the North Side Red, Brown and Purple Line tracks unless the Chicago Transit Authority completes the Red and Purple Line Modernization that will entirely reconstruct the north section of the Red and Purple Lines, increasing capacity by 20 to 30 percent and decreasing travel times between Howard and Belmont by 35 percent. Not only will this investment benefit current riders, it will attract tens of thousands of new riders to the system every day, relieving congestion on the road and increasing real estate values along the line. That priority project needs funding to move forward.

After growing for many years, Chicago Transit Authority bus ridership is on the decline. One factor is because as revenues have gone down, service has been cut. With so little of the population within a half-mile of a rail station, bus service fills an important gap. For example, almost 20,000 people a day transfer from bus to rail at the 95th Street Red Line station alone. The Chicago Transit Authority should invest in increased bus service and continue optimizing its bus operations so as to reduce dwell times, increase speeds and reduce bunching, all of which could reduce bus operations costs. The transit authority should continue working with the Chicago Dept. of Transportation and the Regional Transportation Authority to implement bus priority measures on routes throughout the system, including off-board or pre-paid fare payments and transit signal priority. 

  1. Invest based on a rigorous cost benefit analysis

In Illinois, transportation spending is not tied by law to statewide goals or performance measures, nor are agencies required to coordinate to achieve the highest return on an investment. MPC is a strong advocate for a statewide, data-based approach that prioritizes the most effective, accountable and transparent investments that reduce hours spent in traffic and curb emissions, connect affordable homes and jobs, spur economic development and improve safety. A data-rich, outcomes-based approach to prioritizing infrastructure should use similar trend analysis to the one outlined in this article, to forecast demand and prioritize investments. Gov. Rauner’s transition report recommends the state use a rigorous cost-benefit analysis to select projects with the potential to drive economic development and deliver multiple benefits for cities and communities. Also promising is that newly appointed Ill. Dept. of Transportation Secretary Randy Blankenhorn is the former executive director of the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning. Under Blankenhorn's lead, that agency's approach to the Chicago region’s infrastructure through the GO TO 2040 plan included robust coordination and performance measures.

On the national front, in May 2014 the U.S. Dept. of Transportation released a report that suggested driving per capita will essentially remain flat in the future. This could be a foreshadowing of a long-awaited U.S. Dept. of Transportation 30-year transportation plan that Secretary Anthony Foxx said will be released in the next month.

The Chicago region’s transit service is a key economic engine for the region and the numbers are clear: People are choosing this option over driving. One hiccup and hundreds of thousands of workers can’t get to their jobs on time. While the polar vortex and Transitpocalypse are extreme examples, everyday slow zones, leaky station ceilings and switching problems all contribute to wasted money in lost time and productivity. Who wouldn’t be willing to pay a little extra for a fast, reliable system?

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