So I’m thinking about the opposition to various transport infrastructure. On the right you have the anti-rail people who cry, “mass transit is a communist plot! You just want to horde us all into Agenda 21 housing blocks!” On the left you have the anti-road people saying “highways are just a sop to the oil industry and automakers! Adding more lanes just means a bigger traffic jam! We should remove highways, like [name of Western European city which actually has an extensive ring road/motorway network]!”
And what strikes me about all of these objections is that at their root lies a core difference in failure modes between trains and cars.
At low usage, both cars and trains are fast and comfortable. I’m in my car, seat reclined a bit, radio on, relaxing. Or I’m on a mostly empty subway car, sprawled out across the mustard yellow naughahyde, listening to the whine of the tunnel.
As usage increases, cars and highways fail in terms of speed. If I’m driving an Audi and encounter a traffic jam, I’m still in an Audi. I’ve still got leather seats and a good CD. I’m just not going anywhere.
On the other hand, as usage increases trains fail in terms of comfort. Last year we were headed to Baltimore and I happened upon the brilliant idea of stashing the car out off 695 and taking the light rail in. When we got to the platform there were a fair number of people wearing orange and black, and when the train pulled up it was obvious there was an O’s game that day. No seats were had, and we spent most of the entire train both ways packed in at crush load conditions. But it didn’t really take that much longer to get into the city. At the margin, adding passengers increases dwell times, but even in Tokyo the train is still going to do 80 or 110 or 130km/h once it departs.
So the question becomes, how should you price failure modes? And in this respect you have to consider how people react to differentially-priced comfort versus differentially-priced speed. One way to look at comfort is airlines. And if you look at airlines which provide slightly more comfort at a slightly higher price they’re doing horribly.
But if you look at speed, you’ll see that people value it immensely. Punching in a random Amtrak trip, I get this timetable:
Leaving Baltimore at 6:30pm, there is an Acela available for $191 and 2:15 of travel time. Alternately I could catch a Northeast Regional a bit later for $125 and 2:40 of travel time. Regionals are extremely comfortable – wide, cushy seats, lots of legroom – so that $66 differential is speed. If you compare the travel time difference of 25min that works out to $158 an hour. If you instead compare the arrival time difference of 45min that works out to $88 an hour. But either way that’s a lot of money.
Meanwhile, if you’re willing to take a later train you can grab the 9:28 for a mere $49. Since the 7:54 is the same exact train for $125, the $76 price differential is entirely time-related. And this is quite understandable. If you get into New York at 10:30pm you can make it to most of the clubs before they start hoppin’. If it’s after midnight before you pull into Penn Station, the only party left to go to is that underground rave with the invite you got from the e-mail list that requires you to check “I am not a member of law enforcement” before subscribing. But this club accessibility is still a function of travel time. If you’re willing to pay $76 to arrive in New York 96 minutes earlier, you value time at a minimum of $47.50 per hour.
Now you can reasonably argue that Northeast Corridor Amtrak riders are a higher-income, higher-educated group than the population as a whole. And you’d be right. But we also have ample evidence from highways. TTI did a report fairly recently where they looked at people who pay to use managed lanes even when the adjacent lanes are at free-flow. And what they found when they asked why was that, among other things, managed lane users were hedging against the mere possibility of downstream congestion in the general-purpose lanes.
Anecdotally, you also have the Hardy Airport Connector which charges a full dollar for you to avoid two or three traffic lights. That’s JFK/Greens, BW8 Feeder @ Hardy Feeder, and *possibly* JFK@BW8 Feeder, although I’ve never personally seen a queue of straight-through traffic that was long enough to prevent you from making a free right there. That’s about 40 cents a light. And if the average traffic light delays you by one minute, that’s about $24 an hour. Farther north you have the Addison Airport Toll Tunnel which costs 50 cents to avoid a detour of slightly more than one-half mile.
All of this tends to suggest that new urban road projects should be tolled and variably-priced.
When the Katy Freeway expansion was in full swing, a lot of people diverted to the Westpark, and that road saw stop-and-go congestion each way. During that time period HCTRA considered doubling the toll but backed off after there was a large public backlash. The most commonly-voiced concern I heard was something to the effect of “We just moved out to Cinco Ranch / Grand Mission / etc two years ago, and bought a house based on the lower toll rates. The higher tolls will kill us.” It’s not the strongest argument – the deed to your home doesn’t prohibit future toll increases – but adopting variable pricing from the get-go could remove the expectation that rates will stay relatively constant.
The most obvious place to do this would be whenever the gap is closed on the Fort Bend Parkway between Alt 90 and the Post Oak/Loop “Y.” Other new highways such as the “Lone Star Parkway” (roughly parallel to FM 529 from the Grand Parkway west) would also be good candidates.