Thursday, March 5, 2020

More talking points they don't want to talk about

As we posted here recently, the MPO has a set of talking points that ripple through their Long Range Transportation Plan, to the transit and urban activist, and into our political and business leadership.

A set of recurring talking points reverberate around our poor transit in Tampa Bay. It's holding us back, we need to invest more in transit, transit riders can't get to jobs, blah blah blah.

What does the data show?


A lot they don't want to talk ... or listen ... about.

Starting with some more of Hillsborough MPO Executive Director Beth Alden's talking points on transit, many of which we've heard regurgitated over and over.
One of the questions you might ask is, is there good reason to consider a major increase in transit funding? 
There was an article three years ago, Feb. 16, 2017 in the Tpa Bay Times, on, sadly, Tampa Bay having one of the worst public transit systems in America. I would have updated the statistics if I thought we’d made progress since then.
  • Out of the country’s 30 largest metro areas, the region ranks 29th in four of six common ways the federal government measures public transit coverage and usage. The other two ways, it ranks dead last. Meanwhile the region is 17th in population. 
  • Tampa Bay’s transit system reaches the same number of jobs as transit systems in places like Boise, Idaho, or Chattanooga, Tenn. — except our population is five times as large. 
  • This is because… Tampa Bay spends far less on transit each year than any other major metro area. 
  • Spending per capita is half of San Antonio’s, a third of Denver’s and a quarter of Pittsburgh’s. At $57 per person, it’s comparable to Sheboygan, Wisc., and Macon, Ga. 
  • Tampa Bay’s transit annual operating budget is on par with Bridgeport, Conn., and Buffalo, N.Y., each of which have 1.5 million fewer people in their metro area. 
  • Denver, Pittsburgh and Baltimore are similar population sizes to Tampa Bay and they spend twice as much as we do on bus alone, not including their rail systems. 
  • The under-investment is present in both Hillsborough and Pinellas. In Hillsborough specifically, HART spends $60 million less per year than the transit agency in Detroit, though they serve similar size populations. 
  • Is this just because we’re more sprawled out? Actually a University of Utah study found that 11 other metro areas all rank worse than Tampa Bay for sprawl metrics — and all have transit networks that rank above Tampa Bay’s. These include Minneapolis, Pittsburgh, Dallas, Phoenix and Louisville, Ky.
We can always count on  the Tampa Bay Times to invent some random comparisons with places most of us don't want to be to make Tampa Bay look bad. If we could only be more like Buffalo or Detroit. But for this analysis, we'll assume the Times is largely correct. We certainly don't think our transit systems around here are anything to brag about.

But are these citations really meaningful? How do we stack up in other more meaningful metrics to our peer cities? Are we really that much worse off due to our lack of investment in transit? Will Tampa Bay change significantly if only we had more transit?

First, in all those cities cited above, the people have chosen to drive as their preferred mode of transportation ... by far. The only city in the country that is transit centric is New York, which accounts for about 40% of all transit ridership in the USA. All this data is available at the American Community Survey. Reviewing and crunching the data, which we've done in the past (here and here), is an exercise left to the reader.

Why should more of us take transit?

Unsurprisingly, the data shows it's faster to drive in Tampa Bay.

Transit times average over 15 minutes longer than driving in Tampa Bay.
Source: Calculated from ACS tables B08136 and B08301
As we confirmed in  the past, transit is slower than driving. Everywhere.

Average commute times: Driving vs. Public transportation
A better comparison than the Times article dredged up by Beth Alden is to compare Tampa Bay to cities more like us. The Tampa Bay Partnership 2019 Regional Competitiveness Report identifies 19 other US cities they benchmarked against.
Tampa Bay Partnership 2019 Regional Competitiveness Report comparison cities
To be transparent, Tampa Bay did not benchmark well in the TBP report on transit. That's us right there on the bottom of the charts.
Tampa Bay Partnership 2019 Regional Competitiveness Report transit comparisons
But from a regional economic viewpoint, are transit ridership and vehicle revenue miles as meaningful as access to jobs? If so, if we spend more money on transit, will it help to provide access to more jobs?

Additional comparison data is available at the University of Minnesota Accessibility Observatory, which states they are "the nation's leading resource for the research and application of accessibility-based transportation system evaluation. Accessibility, which examines both land use and transportation systems, measures how many destinations, such as jobs, can be reached in a given time."

Specifically, the Observatory has a series of reports ranking accessibility to jobs in major U.S. cities by auto, transit, biking and walking. We dove into the auto and transit reports and did a little additional comparison with some of the TBP comparison cities, particularly those we are often directly compared with regarding their transit initiatives, spending and success stories.

There are some results perhaps the MPO, TBP, and others would rather not talk about.
Source data from University of Minnesota Accessibility Observatory

According to the Observatory, currently there are 1,227,356 jobs in Tampa Bay. 34.3% are accessible by auto in 30 minutes or less, and 0.6% of jobs are accessible by transit in 30 minutes or less. 108.3% of jobs are accessible in a one hour commute, compared to 4.7% via transit.

Sounds pretty bad for the Tampa Bay area transit.

What about Charlotte? They've spent billions enhancing their transit. Surely they must be much better.
Source data from University of Minnesota Accessibility Observatory
It turns out Charlotte is not that much different than Tampa Bay. Over 50 times as many jobs are accessible in 30 minutes driving than riding transit.

What about Phoenix? Again highly and regularly touted as a model for their "success" with light rail.
Source data from University of Minnesota Accessibility Observatory
It turns out that Phoenix, despite spending billions on enhancing transit, over 80 times as many jobs are accessible in 30 minutes of driving compared to transit. Not something we should be aiming for.

We can do further comparisons with our peer cities that have more heavily invested in transit. The data varies slightly, but story is the same. Even in transit nirvana Portland, Oregon. They really have not moved the needle when it comes to providing enhanced access to jobs via transit.

I'm sure you've not heard this fact.

Do you think they want you to know?

Alden also mentioned the Tampa Bay Partnership emphasis on transit.
The Tampa Bay Partnership recently updated its Regional Scorecard report. Not only did they find that Tampa Bay ranks last among their peer cities in transit availability for the third year in a row. But they also compared transit availability with three indicators of inclusive economic growth: poverty rate, economic mobility, and income inequality. They found that increasing transit availability has a measurable positive effect on all three of those indicators.
BOOC Commissioner Overman invited the USF researchers to present some of their findings and contributions to the Tampa Bay Partnership 2019 Regional Competitiveness Report during the February 5, 2020 Hillsborough BOCC meeting. Below is that portion clipped from YouTube. The transit discussion starts around 2:38:00 or so, after some more general economic driver discussion.

The USF researchers try to make the case that transit vehicle revenue miles is a key driver for economic vitality and mobility. From the TBP transit comparison charts above, TBP states:
This figure [transit vehicle revenue miles (VRM) per capita] indicates the availability of public transit, the supply of which is both an input to and output of the demand for transit in a community. As an equity issue, the supply of transit affects access to jobs, healthcare, parental participation in school events and a host of other activities.
All we need to do is invest more in transit and all will be great. We showed above the access to jobs is questionable among our peer cities.

Diving even deeper into the data, the Tampa Bay Partnership also commissioned a companion piece to their competitiveness report, the  E-Insights Report. It is a multi-dimensional quantitative assessment of the performance of the Tampa Bay region along different dimensions of “inclusive economic growth” - the economic growth that is distributed fairly across society and creates opportunities for all.

The E-Insights report further elaborates the case for transit VRM per capita impact on economic vitality. They cite Raleigh Durham on page 37 as a specific case where this invest has paid off.

Tampa Bay E-Insights Report, page 37
Note at the top the statement that "Raleigh-Durham's rank has risen from No. 18 to No. 10 over the last decade" in their competitive positioning along with the accompanying charts.

Yet Raleigh's transit ridership has been fairly stable, increasingly slightly recently, while Tampa Bay's is definitely trending downward, with a recent uptick (mostly due to the now free TECO Line Streetcar), as the chart below illustrates.
Source: National Transit Database
Perhaps the large college student population helps Raleigh, with NC State, Duke, and UNC all nearby. Regardless, Raleigh's transit use is about 1/3 of Tampa Bay's. But the Raleigh ridership trend appears minimal compared to its VRM per capita increase from around 10 to over 16 in the last decade.

But another couple of rather interesting charts shows that Raleigh is very car centric, even compared to Tampa Bay.
Source data from University of Minnesota Accessibility Observatory

Raleigh drivers access 81.3% of jobs in a 30 minute drive, compared to 0.7% of jobs riding transit. Driving provides access to 116 times more jobs in 30 minute compared to transit in Raleigh.
Source data from University of Minnesota Accessibility Observatory
Again, the 60 minute drive confirms the Raleigh area is very car centric, and not a transit hot spot, as only 5.9 percent of jobs are accessible in an hour riding transit. In an hour drive around Raleigh, one has access to 77% more jobs beyond those identified in the Raleigh area!

Billions of dollars in transit investments do not appear to have provided much help to get transit riders to jobs in Charlotte or Phoenix. They really are not any better off than Tampa Bay. If anything, they are even more car dependent than Tampa Bay!

Yet there is much more to economic vitality than transit and vehicle revenue miles.

Diving further into the TBP report, several cities with higher VRM per capita had lower job growth rates than Tampa Bay:
  • Minneapolis - St. Paul
  • Atlanta
  • Baltimore
  • San Diego
  • South Florida
  • San Antonio
  • St. Louis
Minneapolis, Baltimore, San Diego and San Antonio are all over the magic measure of 20 transit VRM per capita that the USF researchers suggested in the E-Insights Report as a goal for Hillsborough County, yet these locales are lagging on job growth.

Tampa Bay does tend towards the low end on the average wage, but there are many other contributors to that besides transit VRM per capita. Demographics, little manufacturing and industrial base, few Fortune 500 HQs, service industry base, housing affordability, more retirees, to name a few, are bigger contributors to lower wages. Each of the comparison cities is different on many dimensions, as well as tax and regulatory regimes, which are also proven economic vitality factors.

Yet Tampa Bay's business establishment rate and household net worth are well into upper half compared to our peer cities, and well above US average.

We could go one. Our economy is a mixed bag. But transit VRM is a very minor influence in our overall economy.

We are not averse to improving transit for the mobility challenged that need it most. However, we are not convinced this is a major economic leverage point. The rest of the data does not support the premise.

Given the poor accessibility to jobs via transit in Tampa Bay as well as our peer cities, it looks like someone has not looked at all the data or is making up a talking point.

Keep this in mind so we don't end up like other areas that have invested billions in transit but have little real benefits to the vast majority of their residents.

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