Solving Lakeville’s Problems: A Modest Transit Proposal

This post is the third in a series covering my hometown, a typical third-ring suburb; Lakeville, MN. I suggest reading parts I (the problems) and II (land use, walking, and biking recommendations) first.

My last post talked about loosening Lakeville’s zoning code across the board, allowing neighborhoods to accept more people of different incomes and life places, while also making it possible for people to walk and bike to neighborhood-scale commercial uses. I outlined a few things the city can do to make walking and biking year-round safer and more accessible. I wrote those first because I believe they’re the easiest, cheapest, and most effective ways to improve neighborhoods for all in a short timeframe.

That said, I’m not going to pretend residents will always be able to walk from a residential neighborhood to a job 2 miles away. Or that biking from downtown Lakeville to Crystal Lake will be a reasonable option 365 days a year. It does rain and snow here, and sometimes the temperatures are too cold to take kids out for a bike ride (even if people make a bigger deal about our weather and seasonal infrastructure than they should).

Minneapolis recently hosted the Winter Cycling Congress. It can be done!

Like our central cities, transit is the final key to extending mobility to people of all ages, incomes, and abilities for the entire year. It makes living car-lite possible, it allows neighborhoods to add residents without requiring expensive street/road widening, and (along with bicycling) allows for cheaper parking-lite housing to be developed.

So I’m going to say it: Lakeville, like many outer suburbs, should operate a transit network that links neighborhoods and job centers within its borders while connecting to the larger region. Before I go into how, let me talk about…

Local Precedent

Did you know Lakeville already runs a local transit system? You see it every day, shuttling thousands of residents about the city.

LakevilleSchoolBus
No metaphor intended, seriously.

Busing kids to and fro every day (well, for 9 months) costs taxpayers nearly $6 million dollars a year to operate, and almost none of those costs are borne by users directly. This is especially true when you consider 80% of the school district’s general fund (which funds the transportation contract) comes from the State of Minnesota. That number, by the way, is larger than the share of Metro Transit’s operating budget covered by state funds, which totals ~60% when you include MVST and general fund dollars.

Some things to remember. These kids don’t feel demeaned by having to share a bus seat with someone else. These kids are capable of walking more than the distance from the living room to the garage, then waiting in all sorts of weather for a bus to pick them up. They’re capable of figuring out which bus to board in the afternoon, and even where to go for after-school daycare. This suburb that prioritizes cars is clearly okay with running noisy, diesel buses up and down city streets to pick up humans. Finally, barely anyone questions whether this costly service is a waste of the taxpayer dollar.

You just do it. You fund it because you know there are people who can’t reasonably drop their kids off at school in the morning or be available to pick them up in the early afternoon. You know that there are people who aren’t old enough or can’t afford car ownership who need to get around to a legitimate daily destination. You do it because you know, deep down, that having 500 people waiting to pick their kid up at each elementary school would be a traffic nightmare and transit is a solution to inescapable geometry problems, even in spread-out suburbs.

A Lakeville Transit System

I’m not going to pretend that my proposal is 100% fleshed out, that there aren’t other potentially good routes, or that the number and placement of stops isn’t too many or few. I can’t give anyone a modeled daily ridership estimate because I wasn’t paid six-figures for a study.

can tell you that I tried to connect major population, shopping, job, and school destinations across the city. I tried to follow a grid that gives flexibility for riders by offering a single transfer between bus routes to get around. I tried to connect these to planned regional transit routes to extend the local system’s utility. I tried to keep stations infrequent to maintain decent operating speed (lowering trip times). Those were my goals. Here’s the system:

This system focuses on connecting downtown Lakeville and the Argonne shopping area to each other as well as surrounding neighborhoods (I’ll talk more about this in my final post), as well as industrial/warehouse jobs in the Air Lake district. Buses would run at 15 minute headways (4 buses per hour) all day from 6 AM til 10 PM, every day of the week. If you don’t ride buses often, this may or may not sound like an infrequent schedule. But I assure you, it’s better than most bus routes in (far denser) Minneapolis and St Paul. Take a look at Metro Transit’s high-frequency network, which is defined as 15 minute or better headways from 6AM-7PM on weekdays. So this would be a pretty damn good local transit network, all things considered.

I’m assuming the Orange Line will eventually be extended from the Burnsville Parkway station to the Burnsville Center and then down to Lakeville. I’d prefer a stop at the Argonne shopping area in addition to the Kenrick Ave Park & Ride. I also assume the Red Line will be extended down Cedar Ave. This is why all three local bus routes converge at Argonne and then the P&R, and two of them connect with the Red Line – providing all-day flexibility in extending job access via a transfer to the Orange Line. There’s an extension of the Green Line (L1) on every other bus into downtown Farmington, linking the two downtowns and a decent chunk of each population.

Based on bus frequency and estimated operating speeds, I calculate this network would need 10 buses to meet service requirements with a spare. I also estimate an annual operating cost of $6-7 million based on Metro Transit operating expenses per revenue hour. Every stop (there are only 39!) should get a heated shelter. Period. At $30,000 per heated shelter, this is roughly $1.2 million up-front capital cost, or equivalent to a third of a mile of a new suburban 4-lane road. Seems like a good deal. I’d strongly recommend putting a couple small bike racks at each station to make biking to the bus a reasonable option for folks outside the walk-shed.

I’d also recommend using real urban transport vehicles (low floor for accessible entry), and savings could be had by buying smaller buses rather than the full-sized ones Metro Transit uses. This reduces noise, road wear/tear, and (most importantly) capital/operating costs. It’s a very common practice. At roughly $150,000 each, all 10 could be purchased for ~$1.5 million, and will likely last 10-12 years.

Example of a small urban bus.

You may not believe that a system like this would have utility for many Lakeville residents. Like I said, I can’t put forward a ridership model. However, I do know that a good chunk of Lakeville’s jobs are served by by transit lines:

via Cenus OnTheMap tool, 2013 data

In fact, of the 14,150 jobs within Lakeville’s borders, just shy of 10,000 (70%!) are within a 1/3 mile radius of the stations I proposed:

And, while the OnTheMap tool doesn’t give us total population (it only focuses on number of workers and jobs), we know that over 10,300 workers who live in Lakeville (but whose job may be anywhere), 35% of the ~29,600 total, live within that same 1/3 mile radius of each station:

Over 1,000 workers both live and work within these service areas. Today. That’s 1,000 people driving to and from their job every day that could ditch their car (or second car) in favor of a combination of biking and busing. How many additional people and jobs could move to Lakeville over the next 30 years with a system like this? How many kids could ride this system to school, allowing the school bus contract to be slowly reduced? How many people currently riding the bus to the (free) Kenrick Park & Ride (with an $8.7 million construction cost) or other express bus station could choose to just hop the bus from the nearest station instead? It’s not crazy to think a local transit system could achieve 5-10% mode share in Lakeville in just a short time.

Finally, the thing I’m sure every suburban driver cares about, farebox recovery. At just 1,000 daily riders, this bus network would only recover 7% of its operating cost at typical Metro Transit fares. Of course, no one in Lakeville is questioning what percent of their road maintenance and reconstruction budget comes from the gas tax, motor vehicle sales tax, and registration fees, so I’m not sure why farebox recovery matters. In this case, it’s so low (with likely no crowding), that I’d propose just making it free. Yes, you read that right. It’s really not that radical of an idea, especially for smaller towns. Call me when Lakeville starts charging for on-street parking before complaining about a free bus system.

So there you have it. At an initial cost for shelters and buses of maybe $3 million and an ongoing annual operating cost of $6-7 million, Lakeville could connect almost all its commercial destinations and a significant chunk of its residents. You’re already spending nearly $6 million on school buses, Lakeville. Why not do the same for everyone else?

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Solving Lakeville’s Problems: Land Use and Walking/Biking

In my last post I gave an honest assessment of the failings of Lakeville, MN – my hometown. Zoning and other restrictions keep housing options limited and expensive, which has perverse impacts for the city’s racial makeup. The car-first (or car-only) mentality in infrastructure design creates places that are unsafe (even for driving), impractical for walking and biking as transportation (vs. leisure), and aside from peak hour express buses are completely ignored by transit. Lakeville simply isn’t a welcoming place to people of all incomes, preferred housing styles, disabilities, and races.

I’m going to prescribe a laundry list of policy and infrastructure solutions to these problems, focusing on general land use and transportation issues in this post. Make no mistake, I’m aware they won’t always be politically easy or free from growing pains, to say nothing of the impact to the city’s budget. But, if you’re reading this Mr. Mayor, know that they’re the right thing to do from a social, environmental, racial, and fiscal perspective in the long-haul.

Reform the Zoning Code

Simply put, Lakeville’s zoning code is far too restrictive. It prevents all sorts of low-cost housing and neighborhood-serving retail from being built, both in new subdivisions as well as in existing ones.

Lakeville Zoning
Basically, Rs-2, RS-3, RS-4, and R-A (aka future RS-3) as far as the eye can see

While MN home builders fought (and won!) a laughable sideshow against sprinklers in 4,500 sqft mansions, everyone generally accepts other regulations that drive up costs. In general, Lakeville should relax single-family zone requirements; here’s what I’d propose:

  • Reduce minimum lot sizes. Don’t believe this affects new home prices? Ask the builders! When minimum lot sizes start at 10,000 square feet (~quarter acre), it becomes more and more difficult to defray land, street, and utility costs developers must spread across each housing unit. It also prevents existing owners from subdividing their lot. Don’t be afraid of stack and pack; there are some truly gorgeous single family neighborhoods across the country with lots ranging from 3,000 to 5,000 square feet. I’d at least start there. If you don’t believe there’s demand for 1,000-1,500 square foot homes on small lots in Lakeville, there are 5 mobile home parks within the city’s borders I’d like to show you. People at this income level deserve to be integrated in other family neighborhoods if they wish to.
  • Allow existing homes to add Accessory Dwelling Units (attached or detached), and convert structures to duplexes or triplexes. Aside from potential additions, this allows the addition of a family or two on a lot with almost no visual impact from the street. It also gives current owners financial flexibility as their family structure changes and ages – a basement apartment may be all a retired couple needs, with a family paying $1,500 a month for the rest of the house to help make retirement bills.

    KidsNotCaring
    Kids playing and not caring there’s a duplex next door. Should they? Should you?
  • Remove your maximum occupancy requirements, currently limited to 4 or fewer unrelated persons. All it serves to do is limit the type of people who could potentially share or co-rent a home, many of which in Lakeville sport more than enough rooms to house a few small families or 5+ unrelated individuals.
  • Ease restrictions on commercial uses. In Germany, “General Residential” districts allow commercial uses that serve the daily needs of residents and guests by-right – things like small restaurants, bread shops, hair salons, small hotels, etc. Most US cities are more restrictive, but older neighborhoods typically have small-scale commercial buildings scattered throughout neighborhoods, sometimes with a level of housing above.
    BjLz3M1CcAAzPII
    Small-scale commercial on a mixed-use street in Portland, OR

    This provides the opportunity for live-work opportunities for would-be small business owners that can’t afford the rents of a full commercial space in one of the few strip malls in town. The ordinance could be structured similarly to Germany’s to prevent massive traffic issues by providing the existing neighborhood an amenity it may be lacking but at a scale not designed for a regional or city-wide draw.

There are other reforms to suggest. Front and side-yard setbacks are generally too large, parking minimums for residential and commercial aren’t based on anything scientific and waste resources like crazy. It’s not crazy to suggest allowing more than a triplex in an RS-2 zone considering mixed densities would be great for affordability. But we’ll stop there for now.

Redesign Streets as You Rebuild Them

With the earliest subdivisions across the city dating back to the mid-70s, Lakeville going to embark on a never-ending cycle of road reconstruction as streets reach the end of their 30-40 year useful life. I can’t say with 100% certainty, but property taxes and assessments will almost definitely go up to help pay for these capital projects, as the initial street costs were baked into subdivision mortgages. I hear people are concerned about rising taxes. In addition to the land use reforms above (which add to the tax base without adding miles of street or pipes), there are steps to mitigate the cost of street replacement.

This is also a huge opportunity to calm residential streets and add bike/walk connections, allowing kids and adults to safely get around neighborhoods without a car. Some targeted suggestions:

  • Narrow residential streets from curb-to-curb during inevitable reconstruction. 99% of Lakeville’s neighborhoods don’t need 30-32′ wide streets (some are pushing 40′ wide!). No, the once-in-a-decade conflict between neighboring grad parties doesn’t justify the space for parking on both sides. One-sided parking will do just fine, and even then it’ll be a vacant moonscape 360 days a year. With 9-10 foot lane widths and a 7-8′ parking area on one side, the city would save 3-5% on pavement, and the result would be slower streets. Who among you have never complained about someone driving too fast down your street?
  • Build a sidewalk on at least one side of the street at entrance points to neighborhoods. Consider extending them into the neighborhood for half a mile or more. Require residents to shovel them to maintain accessibility in the winter. In doing so, children will have safe routes to schools and people with disabilities will have accessible routes in your communities.
  • Build strategic pedestrian and bike through-ways in neighborhood interiors to cut down on travel distances. An extra half mile in a car through curved neighborhood streets isn’t much of a deal breaker, but it’s a challenge if trying to get to a major arterial by foot. Focus on connecting major commercial areas and schools first.
  • Improve pedestrian crossing points between lights on major collector roads. You know the ones I’m talking about. 175th, 185th, Ipava, Dodd, Kenwood Trail, Highview, etc. Lights and stop signs are few and far between, with average speeds often approaching 50 mph or more. If people are to cross these roads, you’ll need some combination of narrowed widths, actually marking crosswalks, and overhead activated beacons.
  • Complete a network of off-street bike paths. Fortunately, Lakeville has many multi-use paths (MUPs) connecting the city:
    LakevilleBikeNetwork_Update-02
    Blue is off-street paths, yellow is sidewalks.

    I highlighted in orange where the city should target additional paths. It shouldn’t be difficult considering how generous the existing right of way is on collectors and arterials. As streets are reconstructed, treatments at driveways and intersections should follow off-street best practices. And of course, the city should commit to plowing a critical grid in the winter.

These reforms form the base for making walking and biking within neighborhoods, to commercial areas, and even across the city for transportation.

Invest In and Require Affordable Housing

All the land use reforms in the world simply won’t be enough to build new housing at prices affordable to roughly the bottom two income quintiles. Maybe that’s a stretch, there are options I didn’t explore above.

Regardless, Lakeville needs to be more proactive and involved in affordable housing, at least until we rationalize our complicated housing subsidies at all levels of government. In the meantime, policy and funding options include inclusionary zoning, publicly-built housing, and city-funded housing tax credits and operating subsidies. As always, there are other options, but right now Lakeville isn’t doing any of them.

While Dakota County offers or administers many programs, there’s nothing stopping Lakeville from funding things on its own. Given Lakeville’s relative wealth and the desirability of living in the city, there’s no excuse not to get involved.

My final post in this series will offer a potential transit infrastructure and focusing efforts on three key areas of town to maximize the reforms to zoning, transportation, and affordable housing.

Lakeville Needs Fixing

I spend a lot of time on streets.mn focusing on issues in Minneapolis, sometimes St Paul, and even region- or state-wide topics. For the most, part, it’s either hyperlocal discussions about a particular project or policy, or generic discussions about infrastructure costs or housing or policy.

I came across this tweet and the ensuing back and forth via my brother-in-law:

It should come as no surprise, but a pro-compact development, deregulated land use, and bike/walk/bus person like myself saw all sorts of red flags in the “forest for the trees” category of identifying root causes of suburban affordability and thus proposed solutions. But I’ve been meaning to write a post on my hometown for a while now, and this was a good catalyst.

I grew up in Lakeville, MN, a suburb about 25-30 miles and a river crossing from the downtowns of Minneapolis or St Paul. It’s got a decent early 1900s downtown and has at least a part of 3 recreational lakes inside its borders (including one I lived on growing up). It’s got all the things third/fourth-ring suburbs are known for in this country – good schools, cheap developable farmland, free parking, and land uses separated with surgical precision. In 2009, I purchased my first house on the back of heavy government subsidies in a mid-80s subdivision.

MyFirstHouse
Quarter-acre split-level dream ca. March, 2009

I still visit regularly as my parents and sister/brother-in-law own homes in Lakeville, so I’m aware of general comings and goings. But I don’t really have a dog in the local policy fight other than how Lakeville fits into our extremely large but sparsely populated region.

Please don’t take the words I’m going to write too harshly because Lakeville was a fine place to grow up with great people (many of whom I’m still friends with). Believe me when I say this post has no hint of smug urbanity judging a suburban lifestyle choice, but here it is:

Lakeville, like many affluent suburbs, has many serious problems and needs to be fixed.

Housing and Transportation Costs

Housing and transportation comprise anywhere from 40 to 60 percent of most American household pre-tax annual income. As the top two buckets of spending for most households, they’re both the best way to better low- and middle-income household lives, but also the easiest way to price a huge chunk of our population out of entire cities.

Considering suburbs are touted as the solution to housing affordability owing to pro-forma structures built on cheap farmland, Lakeville has almost no low-income and relatively few lower-middle class households compared to Minneapolis and the Minneapolis-St Paul metropolitan area:

**All data sources are ACS 2014 5-year estimates unless otherwise noted
**All data sources are ACS 2014 5-year estimates unless otherwise noted

I’ll spend more time talking about zoning codes in my solutions follow-up, but current restrictions on lot sizes and home style really limit the type of housing available. If you want to rent or buy a home in Lakeville, your options are severely limited to detached single family homes:

Housing Units by Structure Type
Still pleeeeeeenty of single family homes in Minneapolis

…with the end result being more homes at prices out of reach of middle-class households:

Home Values

…with few options to rent for those who can’t afford to obtain a mortgage (or don’t want to or can’t afford to maintain a home themselves):

Rent_vs_Own

What few renters exist in Lakeville struggle affording the rent at the low and middle ranges of the income ladder, with a lower share of them paying less than 30% of gross income on rent in these two income ranges:

Gross Rent Percent Income_Low IncomeGross Rent Percent Income_Mid Income

What few zoning districts the city does allow multi-family construction in are often placed against an interstate or major road – out of sight and mind for single family dwellers. It’s also exactly the type of place most people don’t want to live and will never be leveraged into a walkable or bikeable place. This is a good segue to Lakeville’s transportation issues…

While people could theoretically access work, shopping, school, and other daily needs without a car in Lakeville, practically this isn’t possible. Large home lots, separated housing and commercial uses, and giant parking drive up typical trip distances to the point where biking or walking aren’t practical. And local transit simply doesn’t exist. Compound that with a high-speed arterial grid with few safe crossing points and an incomplete sidewalk network and you basically require every resident to own a car to get around town.

Unlike some inner-ring suburbs, Lakeville also lacks a strong job base to make living near where you work (lowering average trip distances) tough. Less than 13% of working Lakeville residents commute to a job inside Lakeville. In Minneapolis, that figure is over 44%. Lakeville has a job:resident ratio of 0.22, while Minneapolis’ ratio is closer to 1, at 0.76. Put another way, Lakeville is designed as a city where people live to commute somewhere else, almost always by car.

Commute Mode Shares
Keep in mind, Census commute mode shares under-count walking and bicycling trips.

This has serious cost implications for an average household. I discussed this in theory here and here, finding that a middle class suburban family driving to suburban job centers paying $2.50/gallon pays upwards of $3,000 more a year on total transportation costs. If you bump up travel distances and gas prices, the gap widens considerably.

This is supported by research as well; the Housing + Transportation Affordability Index finds households owning more cars and driving longer distances spend more of their income on transportation. When compared to Minneapolis (a city where many people still drive!), Lakeville residents spend between 4 and 7% more on transportation, with the average household spending 5% more:

Their methodology estimates the average Lakeville household spends about $4,000 more a year than a Minneapolis equivalent. Arguments that increasing the gas tax would hurt typical suburban families fall flat in my opinion when you factor how much each family is spending just to own and operate multiple cars in the first place.

To be sure, we must be careful when using cost as a percent of household income for both housing and transportation; residual income is a better (but not widely used) metric. But outcomes matter, and right now Lakeville is primarily a city for wealthy homeowners who can afford a car and are legally and physically able to operate it.

Finally, Lakeville (along with many other suburbs) isn’t doing its part in adding affordable housing. Between 2011 and 2013, literally zero affordable units were built in Lakeville, despite a continued boom in market-rate housing. City planning staff only sees “non-profits or civic-minded developers” as the routes to adding new affordable units, ignoring multiple paths the city could take to directly fund or require by policy affordable units as the city grows.

Back to the mayor’s point about suburban homelessness – if Lakeville had the type of housing and transportation infrastructure in place to meet a wider range of incomes, perhaps families who fall into hard times wouldn’t be forced out of their homes or cities. Shelters and food shelves are good, but they’re not addressing the key underlying problem that is zero housing or transportation flexibility for families in the first place.

Race Matters

I’ll keep this section short. Largely for reasons stated above in the housing and transportation affordability section, Lakeville is a city almost completely devoid of racial diversity:

Racial Breakdown

In this county, even in this progressive, economically successful region, being black likely means being poor. A long history of racist housing policies, white flight, job sprawl, and bundling education quality with housing has severely limited opportunities and wealth creation for many people of color. How many black families in Minneapolis or St Paul or even other suburbs with lagging school districts would jump at the opportunity to live in Lakeville if they could afford it?

We can disagree on the impact that segregating oneself in basically every facet of your daily life from different races has on our ability to empathize with others, or its relationship to Lakeville’s history of racial issues. And I’m not saying Lakeville is going to solve America’s racial issues on its own. But when less than 2% of your population is black, in a region with 8% black residents, people should at least admit that there’s an underlying problem.

Safety

I’ve written about this before, but car-dependent suburbs like Lakeville, especially ones that interface with developing rural areas with high-speed roads, are extremely dangerous. Especially for young drivers; Lakeville is in a stuck pattern of teenagers dying with regular frequency. It’s easy to shrug these deaths and injuries off as a result of people driving drunk or speeding or texting while driving. But this is human nature; getting distracted, driving at unsafe speeds dictated by street or road designs, to drive home after drinking because the ample free parking at bars and no alternative modes leads to predictable outcomes.

SafetyComparisonDeathRate_1

I’m not saying Minneapolis in its current state is a model of traffic safety. As you can see, our streets are still built in such a way that pedestrians and cyclists become the victims, even as drivers have a much lower fatality rate. We’re working on it. But in general, more compact cities with calm streets with a variety of modes to choose from are far safer than suburbs designed like Lakeville.

Summing Up

I care deeply about our region and cities within it remaining affordable, equitable places to live. I want families of all backgrounds to have access to good education and job opportunities, as well as recreational and cultural amenities. I don’t think someone should have to live and work in a select few neighborhoods of our core cities to make transit and biking a viable option for getting to work or other daily needs.

If you’ve made it this far and don’t think any of the things I’ve outlined above are problems that need solving, great! You saved yourself reading another blog post. If you’re wondering how to even start tackling some of these problems, tune in next time.

Update and Sensitivity Analysis

First, an update to yesterday’s post. I made the mistake of making insurance costs monthly rather than annual in several of the scenarios. Here’s what that looks like without changing any other variables:

Transportation_Costs_Compare_Updated

The savings bump up, at best a middle class suburban family with short suburban commutes still pays about $1,500 more a year than an equivalent urban family with urban commutes with one car. A lower income family saves nearly $3,000 a year if they can ditch the second car. I should note that a suburban family who can ditch a second car and have both working adults bike/walk to work but isn’t burdened by transit, parking, or Car2Go costs would save over $4,000 a year. Find me a family of four making $50k (pre-tax) who wouldn’t kill for that cash.

Now, for some sensitivity analysis. I purposely picked a low gas price at $2.50/gal, which we haven’t really had consistently in the recent past and probably shouldn’t expect to looking forward. I also picked fairly low commute mileage for suburban folks. The idea that abundant, cheap (single family detached) housing can be had out on the urban fringe means longer commutes than 10-12 miles. Let’s say a suburb-to-downtown commute is more like 20 miles and a suburb-to-suburb commute is more like 17. Neither of these are particularly crazy scenarios.

Transportation_Costs_Compare_LongerDrives

An urban middle class family now saves $1,800 a year compared to a full-on suburban one, nearly $4,000 a year compared to a suburban family with one downtown worker, and a lower-income family makes it to $4,000/year savings without even ditching transit or car share. Now, if gas were to jump back up to $4 per gallon (via market pricing and/or a hike in the gas tax to cover a fraction of societal costs borne by driving, yet still well below our European first-world country peer gas prices):

Transportation_Costs_Compare_LongerDrives_4gal

Again, savings are more pronounced. If anything, this is simply an argument that living in a walkable, bikeable area with decent transit is a great way to insulate yourself from energy price swings. When gas is cheap, a one-car household can drive every now and again at little penalty. If gas prices rise, just hop on the bike or bus.

We also see how much gas prices and long driving distances really hurt low income families here. A family making around $50,000 a year and living out in a third or fourth ring suburb spends over 20% of their pre-tax income on transportation if they drive 15-20 miles per working adult. Yikes. This is a problem. As I said in the last post, if we want to encourage suburban living for lower income families to access better schools and jobs, we damn well better allow them to live close to their jobs, build sidewalks and bike infrastructure, and maybe even run some halfway decent local transit lines.

None of this is earth-shattering math. I’m just a little sick of the both sides of the transportation cost argument, the truth is somewhere in the middle.

How Much Does Going Car-Lite Really Save a Family?

In my first post, I talked in general about going car-free or car-lite. I didn’t really get into any specifics about what it costs, mostly because our family was fairly new to it at the time. We ditched our second car in early September of 2014 (though I hadn’t driven it more than a couple times since having moved to our home in Minneapolis back in June). So now it’s been over a year, and I wanted to see what the results were.

For background, we have 1 young kid in daycare. One of us (usually my wife) drops him off and picks up him on the way to/from work. She works in downtown Minneapolis (~4 miles from home), I work downtown St Paul (~12 miles from home). I mostly did a single transfer bus trip or biked to a bus in downtown Minneapolis. My wife mostly took the bus to daycare then walked or bused the remaining mile. Sometimes we were lazy and drove or took Car2Go (something I need to get better at in particular since my laziness came with a hefty price each time). I went and tallied all our gas, parking, car-share, and bike costs starting October 2014 through September 2015. Here’s what we spent:

HouseholdMobilityCosts

Of course, this ignores things like maintenance, upkeep, depreciation, insurance, and registration taxes. It also leaves out the several road trips we took to Iowa, and one to Duluth to give a clearer picture of what we spent on regular mobility. Parking includes the daily rate I paid at the ramp on random days plus any meters around town (something you’re bound to pay when living in a city).

More importantly, I wanted to know how that compares to living in alternate universes where we both still have jobs and a kid but live and/or work in different locations. I envisioned 6 scenarios in addition to our current one. Right now, we own a two-year old Honda Odyssey. It was expensive. But we knew it would likely be a single household vehicle racking up very few miles (and therefore likely lasting us a long time) and we were comfortable with that. The other scenarios fall into 2 buckets:

Bucket 1 – Moderate-to-high income family

  • Scenario 0: Exact same living/travel patterns as today, but assuming we bought a less expensive used van instead for around $18,000
  • Scenario 1: Living in our home, but both owning a vehicle and driving to work in respective downtowns. Second car is a mid-range junker (something like an $8,500 car with about 100,000 miles on it already)
  • Scenario 2: Suburban living, somewhere 10-12 miles from downtown (Bloomington, for example), one commute to downtown, one commute to suburban job about 10 miles away (same cars as Scenario 1)
  • Scenario 3: Suburban living, both commute to suburban job (same cars as Scenarios 1 & 2)

Bucket 2 – Lower income family

  • Scenario 4: Exact same living/commuting patterns as today, but assuming we bought an even cheaper van at $13,500 and I was less lazy about the random Car2Go usage and avoided paying to park as much as possible
  • Scenario 5: Suburban living, both commute to suburban job, same van as above but the second car is even cheaper at $4,500

I made assumptions on things like insurance, taxes/tabs, and maintenance (oil, windshield wiper blades, etc), upkeep (larger things like tires, periodic repairs, etc). “Weekly mileage” is a random guess for trips above and beyond commuting. I ignored finance charges in all cases and depreciated the cars assuming they’re kept for 150,000 miles but no longer than 12 years. And I put gas at a relatively low $2.50/gallon just for fun. Check out the results:

Transportation_Costs_Compare

This really flies in the face of the typical urbanist mantra that going car-lite can save a family thousands upon thousands of dollars. Most families aren’t buying two brand-new vehicles at $30,000 each and selling them every 6 years. I laid out a much more practical scenario which I believe represents the lives of many suburban families – one or no commutes to downtown (where parking is expensive) with the remaining commutes to a somewhat close suburb.

As you can tell, a middle-income family buying a typical bucket of vehicles probably only spends $6-8,000 total on daily transportation. Even still, a similar family living closer in like my wife and I saves almost $1,000 a year by taking the bus, biking, and walking for many trips. A lower-income family with two workers in the core city saves over $2,000 a year relative to their suburban counterparts driving to jobs offering free parking. That’s no small change for a family who is likely struggling to make ends meet.

Here’s the problem: I really don’t think most middle class families will see living in a (likely) smaller house (especially if it shares walls) and riding a bus to work every day to save $1-2k a year on transportation a very good tradeoff. That’s assuming either adult even works downtown. My wife and I love where we live. We can walk or bike as transportation to destinations, we’re centrally located to all the jobs in the metro, and truly enjoy the urban neighborhood we live in. I love that i get exercise as part of my daily life, and that my alma mater’s home football games are within biking distance of my house. That’s not for everyone, I get that.

But those numbers would shift quite a bit if we charged drivers for carbon and other pollutants, tolled freeways during busier times, raised the gas tax, and revealed other costs borne by cars that aren’t today. Conversely, this is an argument for making both suburbs and core cities more walkable and bikeable, with stronger job and destination density along with fewer housing regulations ensuring adequate housing across all price points.

The Type of Roads We’re Building

I’ve spent a good chunk of time on streets.mn lambasting the GOP for their transportation rhetoric and policy proposals. We’re still in the thick of our 2015 legislative session, and transportation is obviously a huge part of the debate. So I want to spend just a little bit more time evaluating what both parties seem eager to propose with new spending (the DFL plan is, well, quite a bit more nuanced than the GOP one).

While the Dayton/DFL proposal (I’ll just lump them together since they’re nigh indistinguishable at this point) has a lot of maintenance built-in, there’s still a good amount of new lane miles to be had – roughly $2 billion of the $6 billion total increase over the next 10 years. I take issue with this, as even the fairly long decade planning horizon misses sure increases in liabilities beyond 2025 as roads built since 1980 come due for replacement (and, believe me, we built a LOT).

I wanted to get an anecdotal sense of how new roads perform. Another test case for future blog posts if you will (since people are sick of reading about the Stillwater Bridge, I guess). I figured the link of US-212 from Eden Prairie to Carver is as good as any, mostly because I’m familiar with its design since I worked right nearby for 7 years, starting right around the time the freeway opened.

This 12 mile section of new freeway replaced “old 212” (Flying Cloud Drive) at a cost of $238m, and opened in 2008. On the surface, it seems like a huge win. A Mills Fleet Farm, suburban peak-hour transit operations, a McDonald’s/Kwik-Trip-focused TOD, and some serious future-proofing of congestion:

Double left turn lanes on a 212 bridge
Double left turn lanes! Really!

Sarcasm aside, I’m sure all the typical reasons were there to grade-separate this and add tons of capacity: goods hauling efficiency, congestion, future demand, etc. The exact same poster-child reasons we’ll hear to justify system expansions with that $2bn extra over the next decade, from both sides of the aisle (assuming the GOP figures out where to get the funds).

We’re almost 7 years into its operation, and we know how many cars travel on it every day (from definitely credible sources) by segment:

212_Segments

Pretty crazy that in Carver, MN about 12,600 folks are driving it and just 12 miles later it bumps up to 54,000 cars.

So let’s calculate revenues collected on that road from users. Knowing the distances of each segment, we can surmise that on an average weekday, about 397,000 miles are driven on this 12 mile stretch. Bear with me for some more assumptions:

  • Average vehicle fuel efficiency: 20 mpg (ignoring diesel vehicles)
  • People take 78% as many weekend trips as weekday
  • MN gas tax is $0.287/gal and the Federal is $0.184/gal (ignoring diesel)

Annual gas tax receipts come to $3.2m. But car owners also pay license fees and the motor vehicle (purchase user fee) sales tax. Prorating those at the same ratio as the total MN collection rate for all 3 (basically, applying a fair share of MVST and license fees paid by 212 drivers to this road), we come to $5.9m in 2013.

How about US-212’s costs? Well, the construction costs were $238m. Again, some assumptions:

That brings a total cost for years 0-20 to $19.5m in current dollars. For those keeping score at home, we’re talking transit-level subsidies for this stretch of new road – a 31% fare recovery. Almost identical to what Metro Transit buses recover. That doesn’t make it okay just because transit is there – I’m on record supporting the type of reforms to make transit more financially sustainable.

We haven’t even begun to talk the local share for all the bridges and roads that support 212, impacts to downstream roads and subsequent capacity expansion costs, or cost burden on the Met Council for low-return sewer investments serving the nearly 20,000 commuters using the stretch daily just from Carver to Eden Prairie. It doesn’t include the expensive park and rides exurban commuters use to avoid the congestion of their own making. Nor are we including externalities.

Of course, the road’s useful life is almost assuredly longer than 20 years, and the bond payments will drop off (assuming we’re not spending millions on capacity expansion in 2028). I drove it recently to a friend’s house and it’s clearly still in good condition 7 years on. I’m not sure how to appropriately extend those costs over a 40-50 year useful life timeframe. My guess is the cost recovery would still be bad, sub-50%.

Maybe this road really does help trucks get in to the cities for convenient connections to other states or our markets. Maybe exurban commuters really do value the travel time savings. If these things are true, they should be willing to pay for the time and cost savings. We had a prime opportunity to build MnPass readers above all lanes when the highway was constructed. Why didn’t we? Probably for the same reason people hate the idea of simply keeping the gas tax.

The GOP and DFL both need to be cognizant that this is what we’re going to get for our money if we keep expanding the system.

What Metric Should We Use For Vehicle Safety?

Okay, specifically when comparing transportation modes. It gets way too complicated when you try to include everything, as the end of my last post shows.

Today, I am specifically inspired by Randal O’Toole’s latest post denigrating light rail transit because it’s unsafe for pedestrians. I don’t take issue with the discussion because I’m a rail fan (truthfully, I’m not, I almost always push bus before rail)., but because of the way Mr. O’Toole presents the safety numbers.

Incidents Per Passenger Mile or Per Passenger Trip?

Oftentimes you will see safety numbers presented per mile (or km) driven. This is fine when comparing between countries, and it gives an idea of how good or bad our drivers and roads are by normalizing total distance traveled.

However, when comparing different modes to one another, it’s common to see another layer added: per passenger mile. The logic is that some modes carry more passengers per vehicles than others, and so it’s a fair comparison to normalize for the bus carrying 40 people that hits a bicyclist vs a car carrying 1 driver who does the same. Those 40 people are each going somewhere, traveling some miles, so the risk rate (to both the occupant and non-occupants, ie pedestrians and cyclists) should be equally compared.

Ultimately, what really matters is the big picture: how many people die or are injured in transportation-related incidents per inhabitant. It tells us how our land-use/transportation combination is doing at keeping us safe. In that regard, we know we’re doing very poorly:

RoadFatalityRatePopulation2012
Source

But that view (even at a state-level) is far too big picture when talking different modes, as Mr. O’Toole is so eager to do.

Ultimately, a per-passenger mile metric fails the sniff test (despite its broad-usage). Look at the general formula and see if you can tell why:

WrongFormula

Cheat sheet answer: increasing the denominator automatically makes the safety rating better without reducing the number of fatalities. Mr. O’Toole’s whole post was focusing on non-occupant safety, so let me give a visual example. Let’s say I’m a pedestrian walking along Lake Street in the LynLake area. A person making a 1 mile trip in their car hits me halfway through its journey and I die:

1_Mile_Trip_Crash

Now, let’s rewind this (very sad) story, and a different person making a 2 mile trip by car hits me 1.5 miles into their journey:

2_Mile_Trip_Crash

Once again, let’s think bigger, and a person drove into LynLake from Richfield, hitting me 5.5 miles into their 6 mile desired journey:

6_Mile_Trip_Crash

Here’s the thing. As a non-occupant, it doesn’t matter how far that car traveled or intended to travel. All that matters is that I’m dead. Another statistic. All that matters is that driver walked out their front door with the intention of making the trip from A to B. They made a modal choice. They could have biked, or walked, taken transit, or driven. Yes, some modes would have taken a lot longer, but we’re not talking about accessibility vs mobility right now, we’re talking about safety.

Now, multiply this by the millions of trips taken every day. Some are short, some are long, some are on buses, some on light rail, some in cars. Those modes have different numbers of passengers in each vehicle. But what matters is that each vehicle has a number of people making individual trips. To understand how compact vs distant land uses and their associated safety impacts with people taking longer and longer trips by auto, we should compare incident rates per passenger mile to the rate per passenger trip.

Evaluating those modes’ deadliness relative to how many people they’re moving from A to B (regardless of how far A & B are apart) is the important statistic. Otherwise we could just convince everyone to drive 100 miles for every trip (bump that denominator up!), not lower the pedestrian fatality total, and look like we’re all of a sudden 10x safer than we currently are (2009 average car trip length is 9.7 miles). It’s misleading, almost intentionally in favor of automobiles.

Using numbers taken from a mixed-bag of sources*, here is what that looks like:

Fatality_Rates_Mode_TripvMile

Takeaways:

  • Occupant death rates for transit of all modes is clearly much lower than driving, whether taken as per-mile or per-trip.
  • Drivers of cars kill far fewer non-occupants per mile driven or trip taken. No doubt about it.
  • LRT is especially dangerous for pedestrians, no matter how you slice it.
  • The total safety gaps between cars and transit widen (or, narrow for LRT) when passenger-trips are used as the metric.
  • Random stat: 2/3 of heavy rail and 1/3 of LRT non-occupant deaths are suicides – a lot of people intentionally walk/jump in front of trains.

A similar trend is observed when comparing injuries by mode:

Injury_Rates_Mode_TripvMile

Cars look roughly the same as every other mode per passenger mile, but are clearly more dangerous than transit. The ratio of occupant:non-occupant injuries for transit is much closer to passenger cars than deaths (meaning, trains and buses kill due to their weight/inertia when a car-ped/bike crash may have meant the person walked away).

Takeaway

Mr. O’Toole advocates for mobility over accessibility, and is willing to let drivers & their vehicle occupants take their lives into their own hands to achieve longer distances traveled. This is a losing strategy from a safety perspective – vehicle occupant death and injury rates per trip are higher in cars than any transit mode, by a fairly wide margin too. Again, it doesn’t matter if my grocery store is 1 or 4 miles away, but only if I die or are injured making that trip.

From a non-occupant standpoint, his argument has merit no matter how you look at it for light rail transit. Pedestrians are more likely to die per passenger trip or mile by a light rail vehicle than the vast number of cars on the road. Urbanists need to be aware of this – we shouldn’t accept the high number of pedestrian fatalities from car crashes, nor should we for transit. More grade separation in heavily-trafficked pedestrian areas, better station design, etc are all important in reducing total fatalities.

But from a metrics standpoint, we should start moving toward a per-trip method rather than per-passenger mile. This informs our land-use decisions from a safety standpoint much better than per-passenger mile.

*Sources:

2011 Transit Passenger Miles, Fatalities, & Injuries by Mode taken from NTD data
2011 Occupant Fatalities/Injuries, Non-Occupant Fatalities/Injuries by Vehicle Involved, Miles Traveled by Vehicle Type
Vehicle Occupancy & Trips Taken for Passenger-Trips and Passenger Mile Calculations