Summer Internship and Commute

Count the modes of Southern California’s transportation palimpsest shown in the video below – cars, trucks, buses, light rail, subway, commuter rail, freight rail, helicopters…With this view from my office, it’s amazing I got any work done.

For most of the summer, I commuted to an internship at LA’s Union Station. I generally commuted from Orange County on Metrolink (accessing stations by a combination of bike, car, OCTA bus, and iShuttle). I also tried LADOT Commuter Express, Metro Local bus lines, and, on one morning, driving from the Westside. The figure below shows the routing of these trips and how often I made them.

I paid $258.75 for a Metrolink student monthly pass, or about $12.93 per weekday round trip over the month. The equivalent weekday round trip cost would be less if some of the pass’s other benefits (e.g. validity for most Southern California transit operators including Metro and OCTA, for weekend travel anywhere on Metrolink’s system, and for Amtrak between the station pairs on the pass) were taken into account. According to the National Transit Database, Metrolink’s operating cost per passenger mile is $0.42, or $34.13 for my 81.25 mile round trip weekday commute. This equates to a fare subsidy of approximately $21.20 per day. The subsidy would be higher for days on which I used the iShuttle or OCTA to access the station.

How does this compare to the cost of driving this 81 mile roundtrip commute? The cost of gas and maintenance for making this trip alone in a Honda Civic would be about $24.03 per day. That is, driving would have been twice as expensive, and I would have lost the productivity (or sleep) time I had on the train.

While they were definitely a big benefit to me personally, are the subsidies for Metrolink optimal more broadly? A draft report by Ian Parry (Resources for the Future) and Kenneth Small (UC Irvine) offers some guidance about the consideration of externalities such as air pollution, traffic congestion, and crashes.

  • Greenhouse gases – A Honda Civic would emit approximately 0.45 kg CO2e per mile, or 36.36 kg CO2e of greenhouse gases for the roundtrip commute. Using a cost of carbon suggested by the US Interagency Working Group on Social Cost of Carbon, $0.09 per kg CO2e results in a social cost borne by society of $3.27. In contrast, Metrolink’s diesel locomotives emit 0.18 kg CO2e per passenger mile, resulting in an externalized social cost of $1.36.
  • Air pollution – Parry and Small estimate that air pollution externalities (e.g. increased healthcare costs due to exposure to particulate matter and NOx) in the Los Angeles area are $0.07 per vehicle mile, resulting in a $5.66 externalized pollution cost for my roundtrip. Assuming that the ratio between a car trip’s greenhouse gas externality and Metrolink’s greenhouse gas externality equals the ratio between a car’s pollution externality and Metrolink’s externality, the externalized air pollution cost of Metrolink would be $2.36 for my roundtrip.
  • Congestion – Parry and Small estimate that during rush hour in Los Angeles, each car imposes a congestion externality on the cars behind it of $0.34 per mile, for a roundtrip externality of $27.47. An externalized crowding cost for Metrolink would be negligible, since seats were always available on the trains I rode. Even if demand increased beyond seating capacity, it is reasonable to assume that more trains would be added, decreasing wait times for other riders and resulting in an external benefit, rather than cost.
  • Crashes – The risk of injuring others in a car crash is estimated to be $0.03 per mile, which equals $2.42 for my roundtrip. The risk of Metrolink crashes is assumed to be negligible.

These externalities sum to $38.82 for driving this roundtrip, and $3.72 for riding Metrolink. Society, through the market’s failure to consider these externalities, essentially subsidizes a driver who makes this trip $38.82, while subsidizing a Metrolink student rider only $24.92 (the sum of the fare subsidy plus the externalities). To equalize these figures, society should be willing to subsidize Metrolink tickets by an additional $13.90. Put another way, if society were willing to bear the same amount of costs from Metrolink riders as from single occupancy vehicles, Metrolink student riders would pay a fare of negative $1 (i.e. be paid for making the trip)!

In this second-best way of economic thinking, it makes sense to pay people not to drive; the longer the car trip that is averted, the more pollution and these other externalities are reduced. This way of thinking, of privileging riders who have the choice to use a car instead, underlies Southern California’s transportation agencies’ willingness to expend sales tax revenues to subsidize suburban riders well upwards of $20 per day, but urban bus riders at only a fraction of that level. This setup is especially perverse given that suburban rail riders tend to be those who are already taking advantage of mortgage tax breaks and who have more mobility options than poorer urban residents who depend on transit.

Accepting single occupancy vehicles as the baseline leads to strange second-best pricing/subsidy outcomes. Instead, maybe what’s needed is a paradigm shift and a system whereby drivers pay more fully the costs they impose on society.


Bogotá’s bus rapid transit system has been touted as an example worldwide. Heavily promoted by the city’s former mayor, Enrique Peñalosa, it has been used as a model for systems I have explored in Guatemala City, Panama City, Dar es Salaam, Cape Town, and Johannesburg, among other places. And along with the rhetoric about BRT being a tool for building public space in cities comes an array of Colombian consulting firms and private bus operating companies. It was a fascinating experience for me finally to be at the source of the BRT craze last January, especially after my year studying BRT around the world.

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In January, I spent 24 hours in Medellín, Colombia, before an urban design workshop being held in Bogotá. While it wasn’t nearly enough time in the city, I was excited to explore some of the internationally-renowned public spaces and the new bus and metrocable transit lines.

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Buses of Santiago

After last week’s rant, now back to your regularly scheduled program.

An urban design and transportation engineering team from Santiago came up for a visit to MIT last week. Next fall, a joint MIT-PUC workshop will be focused on BRT corridor planning in the Boston area and for Transantiago. In anticipation, here are some photos from my visit to Santiago last summer:

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Valparaíso Metro

From a tour of Merval in July, 2012

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Buses of Ottawa

OC Transpo, the transit provider for Canada’s capital city, has a fleet of just over 1,000 buses.  The agency’s service area was home to just over 800,000 people in 2010, while average weekday boardings reached 384,000.  While the OC Transpo does provide limited diesel multiple unit (DMU) rail service, the majority of its riders use the Transitway bus network.  Inaugurated in 1983, this system of exclusive bus infrastructure speeds transit passengers from outlying suburban areas to downtown, with buses operating at their 56 mph speed limit along most of the route.   The Transitway has undergone continuous expansion, and now it handles 10,500 passengers per direction per hour in the morning peak.  But with buses passing in each direction every 20 seconds downtown, the downtown bus lanes are approaching saturation and will soon be replaced by an underground light rail link.

Pictures from a recent visit are below.  OC Transpo’s Flickr photostream also has an excellent collection of historical photos.

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Orange Line Update

Though the Orange Line is not grade separated from cross traffic, it does receive numerous priority treatments.

Six years after its opening, the Metro Orange Line in Los Angeles remains one of the few true BRT corridors in the United States. Right of way is almost entirely an exclusive busway, and buses receive well-enforced signal priority against cross traffic.

The 14 stations along the 14 mile route currently see approximately 24,000 weekday boardings. A second branch, from Canoga Station in the west north to Chatsworth, will be opening in June 2012. Though only one service currently operates along the route (serving all stops between Warner Center and North Hollywood), the extension will lead Metro to consider other services, such as north-south between Chatsworth and Warner Center. A limited-stop service to the North Hollywood Red Line station might also make sense, given that there are passing lanes at stations and peak headways, currently at 4 minutes, will be high enough to support such service after the extension opens. Though given Metro’s propensity for simplifying service patterns, like the elimination of Metro Rapid Express 920, this seems unlikely. Pictures from a January ride are included below, as is a Measure R construction update on the extension.

Jaime Lerner discusses Curitiba-style "Urban Acupuncture"

Jaime Lerner at the World Bank

Jaime Lerner at the World Bank

Former Mayor of Curitiba and Governor of Paraná Jaime Lerner gave the keynote address at Transforming Transportation 2012. He highlighted the use of “urban acupuncture” and “focal interventions,” used in conjunction with the planning process, to catalyze urban improvements. He also cautioned against unsuccessful and disorganized implementations of bus rapid transit, especially those that do not integrate well with the “concept of a city.” Highlights of his dynamic and comedic speech, and the complete set of slides he used, are both embedded below.