Kudos to Houston Traffic from IBM

IBM has released its annual "Commuter Pain Index," which ranks traffic congestion in 20 metropolitan areas around the world. According to IBM, the Commuter Pain Index includes 10 issues: "1) commuting time, 2) time stuck in traffic, agreement that: 3) price of gas is already too high, 4) traffic has gotten worse, 5) start-stop traffic is a problem, 6) driving causes stress, 7) driving causes anger, 8) traffic affects work, 9) traffic so bad driving stopped, and 10) decided not to make trip due to traffic."

Each metropolitan area is given a score between 0 and 100, with the highest score indicating the worst traffic congestion (See Table).

IBM Commuter Pain Index: 2010
Metropolitan Areas Ranked by Worst Traffic Congestion
Rank Metropolitan Area Score (Worst to Best)
1 Beijing 99
1 Mexico City 99
3 Johannesburg 97
4 Moscow 84
5 Delhi 81
6 Sao Paulo 75
7 Milan 52
8 Buenos Aires 50
9 Madrid 48
10 London 36
10 Paris 36
12 Toronto 32
13 Amsterdam 25
13 Los Angeles 25
15 Berlin 24
16 Montreal 23
17 New York 19
18 Melbourne 17
18 Houston 17
20 Stockholm 15

Favorable Urban Planning Characteristics Associated with Intense Traffic Congestion: The worst traffic congestion was recorded in the developing world metropolitan areas of Beijing, Mexico City, Johannesburg, Moscow, Delhi and Sao Paulo. In many ways, these metropolitan areas exhibit characteristics most admired by current urban planning principles. Automobile ownership and per capita driving is low. Transit carries at least 40% of all travel in each of the metropolitan areas. Yet traffic is intense. This is due to another urban planning "success," objective, high population densities. Higher population densities are inevitably associated with greater traffic congestion (and more intense local air pollution), whether in the United States or internationally. All six of these metropolitan areas scored 75 or above, where a score of 100 would be the worst possible congestion.

The next five metropolitan areas have accomplished nearly as much from an urban planning perspective. Milan, Buenos Aires, Madrid, London and Paris all achieve more than 20% transit market shares, and their higher urban densities also lead to greater traffic congestion. Each scores between 35 and 52.

Traffic congestion is less in the next group, which includes Toronto, Los Angeles, Berlin, Amsterdam and Montreal. With the exception of Berlin, transit market shares are less, though the urban densities in all are above average US, Canadian and Australian levels. Amsterdam, the smallest metropolitan area among the 20, scores surprisingly poorly, since smaller urban areas are generally associated with lower levels of traffic congestion.

The Least Congested Metropolitan Areas: Four metropolitan areas scored under 20, achieving the most favorable traffic congestion ratings. New York scores 19, with its somewhat lower density (the New York urban density is less than that of San Jose). Even lower density Melbourne and Houston score 17, tying for the second best traffic conditions. Stockholm achieves the best traffic congestion score, at 15, despite its comparatively high density. Stockholm is probably aided by its modest size which is similar to that of Orlando (Florida).

The Houston Advantage: Perhaps the biggest surprise is Houston's favorable traffic congestion ranking.

  • Houston has the lowest urban density of the 20 metropolitan areas.
  • Houston has the lowest transit market share, by far, at only 1%.
  • Houston also has the highest per capita automobile use among the IBM metropolitan areas.

Yet Houston scored better than any metropolitan area on the list except for much smaller Stockholm. As late as 1985, Houston had the worst traffic congestion in the United States, according to the annual rankings of the Texas Transportation Institute. Public officials, perhaps none more than Texas Highway Commission Chair and later Mayor Bob Lanier led efforts to improve Houston's road capacity, despite explosive population growth. Their initiatives paid off. By 1998, Houston had improved to 16th in traffic congestion in the United States. The population growth has been incessant, so much so that Houston has added more new residents since 1985 than live in Stockholm and more than half as many as live in Melbourne. While Houston had slipped to 11th in traffic congestion by 2007, the recent opening of a widened Katy Freeway and other improvements should keep the traffic moving in Houston better than in virtually all of the world's other large metropolitan areas.

Photo: Freeway in Houston

University of California Report Calls Cambridge Systematics High-Speed Rail Ridership Forecast Unreliable

A just-released report by the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California-Berkeley finds that the ridership projections prepared by Cambridge Systematics (CS) for the California high speed rail system are "not reliable."

Authors Samer Madanat (director of ITS-Berkeley and a professor of civil and environmental engineering), Mark Hanson (UC-Berkeley professor of civil and environmental engineering) and David Brownstown (chair of the Economics Department at UC-Irvine) essentially reported that the projections had such large error margins that the system could either lose a lot of money or make a lot of money:

... the combination of problems in the development phase and subsequent changes made to model parameters in the validation phase implies that the forecasts of high speed rail demand-and hence of the profitability of the proposed high speed rail system-have very large error bounds. These bounds, which were not quantified by CS, may be large enough to include the possibility that the California HSR may achieve healthy profits and the possibility that it may incur significant revenue shortfalls.

Biased High Speed Rail Projections: Given the overwhelming history of upwardly biased ridership and revenue projections in major transport projects, it seems far more likely that reducing the margins of error would produce projections with much smaller ridership numbers and major financial losses. Major research by Oxford University professor Bent Flyvbjerg, Nils Bruzelius (a Swedish transport consultant) and Werner Rottenberg (University of Karlsruhe and former president of the World Conference on Transport Research) covering 80 years of infrastructure projects found routine over-estimation of ridership and revenue (Megaprojects and Risk: An Anatomy of Ambition). The evidence is so condemning that Dr. Flyvbjerg has referred to the planning processes for such projects as consisting of "strategic misrepresentation" and "lying" (his words) to advance projects that might not otherwise be implemented.

Broad Concern about the Reliability of California High Speed Rail Projections: The University of California report joins other reports that have questioning the veracity of the Cambridge Systematics projections. During the run-up to the 2008 statewide bond issue, the California Senate Transportation and Housing Committee, chaired by Senator Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach) indicated concerns. Illustrating continuing concerns, the committee commissioned the University of California study.

Doubts have been expressed by the California Legislative Analyst and the California State Auditor. The Reason Foundation Due Diligence Report, authored by Joseph Vranich and me in 2008 estimated the ridership projections to be at least 100% high (see High Speed Rail: Untimely Extravagance presented at the Heritage Foundation last week in Washington).

Investment Grade Projections Far Lower: The Cambridge Systematics ridership projections publicized that were used in the statewide bond election were more than 150% above the "investment grade" projections that had been produced by Charles Rivers Associates for the California High Speed Rail Authority a decade ago. Even "investment grade" projections can be high, as the recent bond default and bankruptcy of the Las Vegas Monorail indicates. In that case the "investment grade" ridership projections were 150% above the actual achieved average, nonetheless bond holders lost their investments. (Our 2000 report accurately projected the Monorail ridership).

Undermining GHG Emissions Reduction Claims: Meanwhile, the California high speed rail proposal has come under criticism with respect to its environmental claims. The high speed rail line has been promoted as a means for reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the state. Yet another recently released University of California report indicates that it could take as long as 71 years to save enough GHG emissions by attracting airline passengers and drivers to cancel out the emissions produced in constructing the project. More defensible ridership projections could lengthen this period considerably.

Response to Criticism: The body of the University of California high speed rail study is 10 pages, followed by approximately 40 pages of comments and response by Cambridge Systematics and a letter from the California High Speed Rail Authority requesting that the University of California authors to consider the comments. This review is performed by the University of California authors, as they reject virtually all Cambridge Systematics criticisms in the final four pages of the report.

Photograph: Cover of Megaprojects and Risk: An Anatomy of Ambition

Surprise, Frisco and Beaumont Among Fastest Growing

The Bureau of the Census has updated its city (municipality or local government area) population estimates for 2009. Predictably, anti-suburban interests saw more indication of the elusive (read non-existent) exodus from the suburbs to the central cities. One analyst even suggested that a "high quality" of life in one central city (Washington, DC) might have kept people from moving to the suburbs. In fact, since 2000, nearly 40,000 people (domestic migrants) have moved out of the city of Washington and in the last year, the city gained 4,500 residents while the suburbs gained 13,700.

In contrast, Buffalo News reporter Jack Ray looked at the data and noted that some cities in that metropolitan area were growing rather quickly, while others were losing population. Generally, he found that outer suburban communities were growing more quickly. Ray's analysis was reflective of trends around the nation.

There are nearly 20,000 incorporated cities, towns and villages in the United States. Population trends in these cities show that urban areas are growing most strongly on their suburban fringes or even in their exurbs. For example, two-thirds of the fastest growing 100 municipalities in the nation were suburbs or exurbs in the nation's major metropolitan areas (those with more than 1,000,000 population). The other third were all municipalities in smaller metropolitan areas or outside metropolitan areas.

The extent of this growth on the edge is illustrated by an examination of the nation's municipalities of 25,000 or greater population that grew more than 25% between 2000 and 2009.

  • Among the 89 municipalities that grew 50% or more, 59 were in major metropolitan areas and all were suburbs (nearly all near the urban fringe) or exurbs. The total population growth among these suburbs and exurbs was 2.2 million from 2000 to 2009, for an average growth rate of 91%. These major metropolitan suburbs and exurbs grew 1.8 million, while the municipalities outside the major metropolitan areas added 400,000.
  • Among the 119 municipalities that grew between 25% and 50%, 69 were in major metropolitan areas. This included 67 suburbs and exurbs. It also included 2 central cities, Raleigh (39%) and Atlanta (28%). These major metropolitan area suburbs and exurbs gained 1.7 million residents, while the two central cities gained a total of 200,000. The municipalities outside the major metropolitan areas grew 1,000,000.

Combined, the fastest growing suburbs and exurbs with more than 25,000 population grew more than 3.5 million, while the municipalities outside the major metropolitan areas grew 1.5 million, for a combined growth of more than 5.0 million. The smaller high growth municipalities (under 25,000), nearly 1,200 of them, both major metropolitan and outside, grew another 2.5 million.

The fastest growing municipalities, excluding the two central cities of Raleigh and Atlanta, accounted for nearly one-third of the nation’s growth between 2000 and 20009.

Most of the fast growing suburbs and exurbs have names that are simply not recognizable. Yet, a half-dozen added nearly as many or more new residents than all of the 20-plus central cities combined in the major metropolitan areas that do not have large swaths of suburbanization inside their borders. These include such places as Phoenix suburb, Surprise, Dallas-Fort Worth suburb Frisco and Riverside-San Bernardino suburb Beaumont.

In Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States, Kenneth Jackson noted that central Philadelphia began losing population in the early 19th century. The dispersion of America continues.

Photograph: Exurbs of New York: Pike County, Pennsylvania

Aspiring to The Russian Dream

Bloomberg Business Week reports that the Russian government wants to move urban residents from their "cramped" high rise apartments to new suburban developments. Single family houses would be built in joint ventures with private developers. Present plans are to develop 2.5 million acres of suburban homes. This is a very large program. At Los Angeles densities, this amount of land would be sufficient to house about 28,000,000 people, roughly double the present population of the Moscow urban area.

As occurred before in the United States, expanding suburban home ownership could generate a democratization of prosperity that brings far better living conditions to middle income households. Already, more affluent households have built European and American style detached houses outside Moscow's 8-lane ring road (see photograph).

Photograph: New detached housing, northern Moscow suburbs (Veshki).

Decentralized Growth and "Interstate" Highways in China

Andrew Batston of The Wall Street Journal writes of China's decentralization, with the growing employment in interior urban areas. Until the last decade, most of China's spectacular urban population and employment growth had occurred on the East Coast, especially in the world's largest megaregions of the Pearl River Delta (Hong Kong-Shenzhen-Dongguan-Guangzhou-Foshan-Jiangmin-Zhongshan-Zhuhai-Macao), the Yangtze Delta (Ningbo-Shaoxing-Hangzhou-Shanghai-Suzhou-Wuxi-Changzhou-Nangjing) and Beijing-Tianjin. Millions of migrant workers had traveled to the East Coast from the interior to take jobs paying far more than they could earn at home.

But that has changed. Industrial production and jobs have expanded substantially in the interior, making it possible for people to take jobs closer to home, in Chongqing, Chengdu, Xian, Changsha, Wuhan, Shenyang, Taiyuan and many more urban areas. This is a fortuitous development, because the mega-regions are already sufficiently populated and could have well grown far larger if the interior development had not taken place.

However, jobs have become more plentiful in the interior. China's growing US interstate standard expressway (freeway) system has been an important contributor to this development. Like the US system, there are no grade crossings and all roadways have at least two lanes of traffic in each direction.

Now, a number of interior urban areas are now within a day's truck drive of the East Coast ports and those that are not are within two days. According to China Daily, the 65,000 kilometers (over 40,000 miles) of the national expressway system is open. This does not include extensive provincially administered systems, such as in Beijing, where four full freeway ring roads are open and a fifth is at least half complete (Beijing has six ring roads, but the first is not a freeway). Shanghai has an extensive locally administered freeway system, as do some other urban areas.

By comparison, the US interstate system is approximately 46,000 miles (this excludes 1,000 miles of 2-lane interstate designated conventional highway in Alaska), and a total of 57,000 miles including non-interstate freeways. China is expected to displace the United States in freeway mileage by the end of the decade, when plans call for more than 60,000 miles.

Photograph: National Expressway Route G-040 near Taiyuan, Shanxi

Second Thoughts on the Condo Market

Mega-builder Larry Murren, whose company (MGM Mirage) opened the "largest privately funded construction project in U.S. history" told WSJ (the Wall Street Journal Magazine) that if he had to do it all over again, he would reconsider the condo-residential component of the project. “We would have built about half of those units” at the new $8.5 billion "City Center" development.

The less than stellar performance condominium sales in the project was reported by the Las Vegas Review Journal, which indicated that only 78 of the project's approximately 675 condominium units have sold. MGM Mirage is not alone in this plight. The Review Journal further notes that Las Vegas has a reports a 250 month or nearly 21 year supply of unsold condominium units. This means that some of today's unsold units could still be on the market for parents in a suburban Las Vegas house to move to when their newborn heads off to college. These numbers qualify Las Vegas for finals of the Condo Bust World Cup, against other strong competitors Miami and Dubai.

Murren credits a mixed-use symposium as the inspiration for City Center. Murren would not be the first developer to have been smitten by over-promotion of condominium market prospects. However the balance of Center City (shopping, entertainment, hotels and casinos) appears to be doing far better than the condominium element.

Second thoughts have been occuring to a number of additional central city condominium developers around the nation as the central city condominium market continues its meltdown. The most recent evidence comes with condo auctions in the cores of Baltimore, St. Petersburg and Boston.

In Baltimore, Pier Homes at Harborview has scheduled an auction of new units with minimum bids discounted from 55% to 75% below list prices. This means that the minimum bid, the Baltimore Sun indicates that only half of the units (completed two years ago) have been sold.

In St. Petersburg, units in the 36-story Signature Place condominium tower were auctioned last month, with average bid prices 50% off the previous list prices. The Boston Globe indicates that "another" condo/loft auction is to occur in that city on June 26, with minimum bid prices up to 60% off list.

The extraordinary risk of the central city condominium market was summarized by Larry Murphy, a Las Vegas real estate analyst: "It takes two to three years to build a high-rise project, and it can't be done in phases like a new-home subdivision. All of the units have to be built at once." He further noted that "Most of the units are sold within the first three months of completion. After that, sales drop off dramatically." These inherent complexities of the condominium market will not be solved by mixed use seminars.

Curbing Euro-Envy

Times are tough in the newspaper business. For example, The New York Times used to have a robust fact-checking department. Either the staff has been laid off or maybe they can't keep up with the errors, either of which could explain the op-ed piece "Europe Energized."

Hill's piece is classic cheerleading. He would have us believe that Europe has significantly reduced its reliance on oil, as its governments have enticed the citizenry out of cars and into mass transit and planes. Starting with the contention that Europe has the same standard of living as the United States, he indicates that Europe has made much greater progress in reducing energy use and carbon emissions.

In fact, Europe does not enjoy the same standard of living as the United States. In 2009, the gross domestic product (purchasing power parity) was approximately one-third less ($14,000 less). For most households in Europe and the United States, that is a not an inconsequential amount of money. One reason for Europe's lower rates of energy consumption is its historically lower income levels.

Hill claims substantial reductions in oil consumption relative to the United States. However, Europe has not sworn off oil. Indeed, according to International Energy Agency (IEA) data, Europe's oil consumption per capita dropped only marginally more than that of the United States between 1980 and 2006. Nor has Europe done a better job of becoming more energy efficient. Measured in tons of oil equivalence, the United States has reduced its per capita energy consumption more than Europe since 1980, again based upon IEA data. It is, of course, easier to reduce oil consumption with near static population growth.

EU data indicates that mass transit's market share in Europe has been declining for decades (like in the United States). Further, despite all the new high speed rail lines, cars and airplanes have accounted for the greatest travel increases. In 1995, airplanes carried a slightly smaller volume (passenger kilometers) than passenger railways, including high speed rail. By 2008, airlines were carrying 37% more passenger kilometers than rail, despite a huge expansion of high speed rail. Since 1995, at least 15 passenger kilometers have been traveled by car for every additional passenger kilometer traveled by rail, high speed or not. Meanwhile, Europe's truck dependent freight system is less fuel efficient than America's, which relies to a greater degree on freight railroads.

None of this is to suggest that Europe does not lead the United States in some fields. There is no question that cars get much better mileage in Europe. By 2020, new cars are scheduled to achieve more than 60 miles per gallon, which is near double the US expectation. Europe is leading the way in automobile fuel efficiency and is demonstrating the massive extent to which improved fuel efficiency can accomplish tough environmental goals.

Yet, curiously, no interest has been expressed by the Euro-Envious to implement European highway speed limits. Recently, Italy raised maximum speeds on some roads to 93 miles per hour, France, Austria, Denmark, Slovenia and others have 81 mile per hour limits and there are no speed limits on much of the German autobahn system. No US speed limits are this high.

Having happily lived both within the pre-1200 (AD) boundaries of Paris and the urban fringes of four major US urban areas, it seems that both sides of the Atlantic have their strengths and weaknesses. Detailing them requires getting the facts right.

Striking a Balance

As noted by Wendell Cox, commuting and congestion have a large economic cost. Time spent behind the wheel, slowed by traffic, is time that could otherwise be put to more productive economic pursuits. Commuting and congestion also have social costs. Every minute lost trapped in snarled traffic is time that might have been spent with family, friends, relaxing, or getting involved in community building activities. Commuting can also lead to elevated stress levels, with studies showing finding that “greater exposure to congestion is related to elevated psycho-physiological stress among automobile commuters.”

One proposed solution to the challenges presented by commuting and congestion is an enhanced embrace of telecommuting. Proponents argue that businesses looking to increase productivity, burnish their “green” credibility and reduce fuel use, and allow workers to strike a better balance between life and work should offer employees the option to work from home. Whatever the motivation, it does appear that there has been a rise in the adoption of telecommuting. According to varying estimates, somewhere between 20 and 35 million individuals telecommute occasionally. Numbers appear to be on the rise, with projections showing up to 63 million workers will be making use of some form of telecommuting by 2016.

As businesses increase their adoption of telecommuting, they may also want to provide workers with increased schedule flexibility. A recent study conducted by BYU finds that workers given the option to make use of telecommuting and flex-scheduling had a much higher “breaking point” at which family life and work begin to interfere with one another. According to the study, “for office workers on a regular schedule, the breaking point was 38 hours per week. Given a flexible schedule and the option to telecommute, employees were able to clock 57 hours per week before experiencing such conflict.” As the study points out, this added flexibility allows workers to potentially make use of the equivalent of an “Extra Day or Two” in each work week, adding to productivity. According to the lead researcher, E. Jeffery Hill, the use of flexible scheduling can also contribute to greater worker satisfaction and morale. In challenging economic times the promise of increased worker productivity, improved worker happiness, and potential cost savings realized through reduced office space and facilities should be an attractive spur to increased corporate adoption of telecommuting.

Dhaka's Dangerous Development

It has been a horrendous week in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh and the world's most dense urban area (104,000 population per square mile/40,000 per square kilometer). On Tuesday, a five story residential building collapsed, killing 23 people in the building and in other structures in the path of the collapse. Then, on Thursday evening, a fire started on the lower floors of an 8-story residential building in the old town section of Dhaka. By the time it was controlled, 117 people had died and 8 buildings had been destroyed (link to Daily Star photo).

Disastrous fires are an unfortunate fact of life in the hyper-dense informal settlements (shantytowns) that pervade large urban areas in developing countries. In April, 7,000 people were left homeless in a Manila shantytown fire (photo), while the homes of 4,000 families were destroyed in another Manila fire just three weeks later.

While Dhaka has no shortage of shantytowns, this was not a shantytown fire. The bigger risk is the sprawl of high rise buildings (5 stories to 20 or more), which are home to most of the people who do not live in shantytowns. The Daily Star now reports in an article entitled, "Filled-up, Full of Risk" that much of the land is "reclaimed" and "marshy" in Dhaka and not suitable for multi-story buildings. Recent heavy rains have made the situation worse, and at least three additional buildings have begun to tilt since Tuesday's collapse.

Dhaka is built on one of the most challenging sites for an urban area. It sits on one of the world's largest river deltas (the Ganges-Brahmaputra). The combined river course (called the Padma) is only miles to the west. Only 200 years ago, the Brahmaputra itself ran to the east of Dhaka and then changed course. This illustrates the instability of the riverine system, which completely surrounds the urban area with tributaries and river channels.

A map produced in the Daily Star, illustrates the problem. The red areas are considered safe for building multi-story buildings. Virtually all of these areas are now developed. However, large sections of high rise buildings have been developed outside the red areas (see photo), especially between Mirpur and Gulshan. Virtually all of the areas that can be developed are unsuitable for high rises. With a population expected to rise from the current 10 million to 16 million by 2025, Dhaka needs room to grow. It will not be easy.

Photo: Multi-story buildings between Mirpur and Gulshan

Urban Economies: The Cost of Wasted Time

Much has been written in recent years about the costs of congestion, with ground breaking research by academics such as Prud'homme & Chang-Wong and Hartgen & Fields showing that the more jobs that can be accessed in a particular period of time, the greater the economic output of a metropolitan area. Greater access to jobs not only improves economic growth, but it also opens greater opportunities for people and households to fulfill their aspirations for a better quality of living.

Congestion costs are principally the cost of wasted time, which the most recent Texas Transportation Institute (TTI) Annual Mobility Report places at $15.47 per hour. It is important to understand that much of this cost is not because the car is not moving. It is rather because time that could be used more productively is being consumed.

Steve Polzin of the University of South Florida has raised a related issue that has been virtually absent from urban planning discussions in a Planetizen blog entitled "The Cost of Slow Travel." Noting that transit travel time is considerably slower than auto travel times, Polzin broadly estimates that slower travel on transit costs the nation $44 billion, which is two-thirds the $66 billion. Polzin does not suggest that this is a final, "take to the bank" lost productivity number, but does suggest attention to the issue.

Such thinking is long overdue. Wasted time is wasted time. Most wasted time occurs with respect to travel during peak periods, when most people are commuting to or from work. The $66 billion in wasted time by automobile translates into $550 per commuter per year in the United States (Based upon 2007 commuting data from the American Community Survey). The cost of wasted time for transit is 12 times as high, at $6,500 per commuter, using Polzin's estimate. Of course, as Polzin is quick to point out, these are not final figures. However, they are a starting point for important (and perhaps "inconvenient") economic research that has been largely kept off the agenda up until now.