Friday, October 25, 2019

Tampa Bay Commuting Follies

Recently the Tampa Bay Times business writer Graham Brink published an article lamenting the increasing commute times in the area.
You’re not going crazy if you feel like your trip to work keeps getting longer. 
Ten years ago, about 1 in 7 Tampa Bay area workers spent more than 45 minutes commuting to work. Now it’s approaching 1 in 5, according to U.S. Census data released last week.
Typical morning commute in Tampa
What is going on with commutes? Did Brink address any of the issues with transportation across Tampa Bay?

Most of the data Brink cites is from the most recent 2018 American Community Survey. There are multiple report and data in the scope of the survey which are available here. The primary data Brink references is the Commuting (Journey to Work) and Place of Work data.

He hits several data points extracted directly from the ACS survey.
Pity the 117,000 Tampa Bay workers who spend at least an hour getting to work and then have to do it again going home.
 Is derived from this table.
Most travel by car or truck — alone. Solo vehicle commutes are by far the most popular way to get to work, accounting for nearly 4 out of 5 trips in the Tampa Bay area.
Is in this table.

And so on. Brink keeps it true to the data, with a little editorializing here and there. Please take some time to review the ACS Survey data. Plenty of interesting information out there that will otherwise hardly be seen.

Here is breakdown how Tampa Bay area commuters get to work (from this table):
  • 87.9% drive
  • 78.9% drive alone
  • 9.0% carpool
  • 1.3% take public transportation
  • 1.4% walk
  • 0.5% bike
  • 1.6% taxi, motorcycle
  • 7.3% work at home
  • 2.6% have no vehicle available
  • 97.4% have 1 or more vehicles available
More people walk than take transit. Bicycling is a rounding error when it comes to commuting. The big winner is working at home. Transit use is minimal, and is down from 1.6% in 2010.

From this table we find the mean commute time to work of 27.6 minutes in 2018, up from 25.5 minutes in 2010.

As noted here, Tampa Bay population has increased dramatically over the years, while our roads and other infrastructure has lagged behind. This has resulted in more congestion and longer commutes (easier and cheaper to build new housing further out), which is picked up in the 2018 ACS Survey data. If we don't invest in our growing infrastructure needs, things will get backed up. No surprise there.

Brink concludes:
As Tampa Bay’s population swells, encouraging more people to work from home will be one way to mitigate traffic congestion. Even so, it’s a good bet that many workers will spend more time commuting.
That's true.

Are there other alternatives?

Brink hints at transit.
Tampa Bay stands out for treating public transit like an afterthought. Nationwide, about 5 percent of commuters use public transit. Here, it’s 1.3 percent.
What if we could become an average C student and get up to 5% when it comes to transit?

The ACS data shows that currently 18,994 use transit in Tampa Bay at our current 1.3% run rate. If we bump that up to 5%, that would be about 73,053 commuters on transit, or an increase of about 54,000 new transit riders (which is about how many vehicles travel on Fowler Ave daily). But 1,264,820 currently drive to work. Even if all 54,000 new transit riders transitioned from driving, that would still leave over 1.2 million drivers, mostly driving solo, on the roads. This does not include the expected population growth of 1 million new residents in the Tampa Bay area in the next 25 years or so, the vast majority of whom will still be driving.

If we can't keep up with roads, the odds are we won't keep up with transit, especially when we "treat public transit like an afterthought."

But will transit riders reduce their commute time?

First we need to determine the average commute time for transit riders, then compare that to driving. This requires some simple math some the ACS data.
Transit times average over 15 minutes longer than driving in Tampa Bay.
Source: Calculated from ACS tables B08136 and B08301
It takes over 15 minutes longer to commute via transit than driving in Tampa Bay. This is actually better than many municipalities, but that's not saying much. If you want to reduce commute times, transit is not the answer.

This is not surprising, as even municipalities with "better" transit than Tampa Bay have longer commute times via transit.
For New York metro residents who take public transportation, a door-to-door commute averages about 51 minutes. That’s much longer than the 29 minutes typically spent by those who drive alone. Similar discrepancies exist around Los Angeles, where despite the region’s traffic woes, drivers arrive at work an average of 22 minutes faster than public transportation riders. In nearly every metro area, driving to work remains far quicker than using a bus or train, taking less than half as long in some places.
[Emphasis mine]

This chart shows the difference in several metro areas.
Average commute times: Driving vs. Public transportation
Transit will not offer any relief, as it really has not helped reduce commute times over driving anywhere else in the U.S., so it most certainly will not help in Tampa Bay.

What to do?

Hillsborough County passed the All for Transportation 1 cent sales tax to solve their problems. Initial plans are rolling in. Will those plans help? They include:
  • $34.9 million to develop and construct enhanced crosswalks, bike paths, sidewalks and other features along 32 streets throughout the county. This is part of the “complete streets” initiative — a nationwide effort to make roads safer for cars, bikes and pedestrians. In Tampa, the largest amounts would be spent on Twiggs Street, 22nd Street and New Tampa Boulevard.
This won't help, as there are so few pedestrians and bicyclists compared to drivers, and even transit riders, and they already have the shortest commute times. We'll take on the "complete streets" and "safety" issues on another day (which we've addressed before).
  • $7.4 million to design plans for a more modern Tampa streetcar and extend it to Palm Avenue — and to study additional expansion to Seminole Heights or other locations.
This is a waste of money. Again, few riders, which are not even paying any fares for the streetcar, and transit takes longer than driving or biking or walking.
  • $4.8 million to resurface roads in five neighborhoods: North Bon Air, North Tampa, Terrace Park, University Square and West Shore Palms.
Basic maintenance. You are paying a 30 year sales tax to maintain what you got?
  • $8.2 million to rehabilitate the Brorein and Cass street bridges.
Again, more maintenance that should have been planned with existing revenues.
  • $5.5 million to restore bus routes that the county’s transit agency cut two years ago. The money also would increase frequency on routes along Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd, 22nd Street, 30th Street, Columbus Drive, in South County and between Westshore and the University of South Florida.
Transit won't help with reducing commute times. Besides, these routes had low ridership before, so that won't change.
  • $41.2 million to buy 66 electric and compressed natural gas buses and 10 vans for the county’s transit agency.
May reduce the greenhouse gas emissions for HART, which are worse than driving. But will do nothing to reduce commute times.
  • $29.3 million to develop changes to 25 intersections throughout the county, including adding and lengthening turn lanes, constructing medians, syncing traffic signals, and adding options for bikes and pedestrians. Intersections include Bloomingdale Avenue and Pearson Road, Habana and Sligh avenues, Lumsden and Valrico roads, and County Road 39 and Lithia Pinecrest Road.
This can help, depending on the details on the plans.
  • $19.8 million to develop plans for additional lanes to Gibsonton Drive, Lutz Lake Fern Road, Orient Road and Sligh Avenue.
This can help a little in those ares, as these roads are over capacity today, butt they are not even arterial roads.

But the "experts" have already decided it's a great plan.
“This is very transformative,” Tampa’s Director of Transportation Jean Duncan told the committee, which was created to help guide how the tax is spent. “This is just the first year of the 30-year tax. If you can imagine 30 years from now, it’s going to be like the Jetsons. It’s going to be wonderful.”
Great. I'll finally get my flying car and jetpack.

There you have it. 8 projects. Maybe 2 of the projects will help reduce some localized congestion and reduce commute times. The rest wont help a bit. And the experts love it.

The facts are transit use is declining, as it takes too long. Many transit riders shift from transit as their economic prospects improve. Transit in Tampa Bay is way behind the curve regardless. It is a decade or two away, even with the All for Transportation tax, from any impact, which will be minimal based on the early plans. Especially given the forecasted population increase of more than 1 million new residents in the area, the vast majority of whom will be driving. The urban density crowd still has not figured out where those people are going to live, so new master plans with higher density to "live, work and play" in walkable communities is just a fantasy.

That just leaves us with driving cars and roads. Referring to the "typical morning commute in Tampa" map above, it is clear that roads are jammed county wide. Localized transit and streetcars will offer no relief. Only systematic county-wide plans improving the primary mode of transportation - cars on roads - will improve commutes.

The new residents will be new drivers. If we don't invest aggressively in the road infrastructure throughout the area, it will be massive gridlock before we know it. Sure, we can't pave over everything, but we have more room than we have time to make many needed improvements.

Otherwise, just sit back in more and more traffic and wait for the misery.

Or take transit to understand how much worse it can get.


  1. The data is clear and compelling. Most people want the flexibility and control that driving in their own vehicle provides.The sad reality is that the majority are being forced to pay for a transit system (rail/bus) that they will never, or rarely, use.