Incentives matter, and if you ended subsidies for roads, people would drive less, Josh Barro notes — but not much less:
An end to road subsidies would raise gasoline prices by about 50 to 60 cents a gallon. Over the last decade, fuel prices rose much more sharply than that, which led to a modest reduction in vehicle-miles traveled, but there hasn’t been any sea change in our transportation practices.
That’s because the real culprit keeping Americans away from mass transit and inside cars isn’t subsidies; it’s planning and zoning. Cities impose barriers to density that limit the number of housing units and offices that can be located near buses and trains, which reduces mass-transit usage. These barriers also drive up property prices in areas near mass transit, penalizing transit-oriented living and encouraging people to live farther from urban cores, in areas where they have to drive. Meanwhile, cities often require builders to include a minimum number of parking spaces in new developments, depressing the market price of parking and further rewarding drivers.
A better approach would take advantage of the fact that proximity to transit increases property values. Cities should allow dense development, collect the property taxes that are generated, and use them to finance transit. Increased development also means more transit users and more fare revenues. But locals tend to oppose greater housing density; they also often demand parking minimums, since they don’t want to face too much competition for free on-street parking.
Costs for rail-transit construction in the United States are egregiously high compared with costs in Europe and Asia, he says:
Smart planning decisions, like the ones that Calgary made when planning its C-Train light-rail system, can help lower the cost of building new infrastructure.
Calgary’s in neither Europe nor Asia, and Barro doesn’t explain what those smart planning decisions were, either — but Wikipedia does:
Costs were controlled during construction and operation of the system by using relatively cheap, existing technology. A grade separated system was passed over in preference of a system without significant elevated or buried elements and the trains and stations selected were of the tried and tested, utilitarian variety (for example, vehicles are not air conditioned, storage yards are not automated and stations are in general concrete platforms with a modest shelter overhead). This allowed more track to be laid with the available funds and contrasts with the Edmonton Light Rail Transit which buried the portion of the system in downtown and under the University of Alberta, increasing costs. The C-Train uses a self service model of payment, reducing fare collection costs.
In 2001, the US General Accounting Office released a study of the cost-effectiveness of American light rail systems. Although not included in the report, Calgary had a capital cost of US$24.5 million per mile (year 2000 dollars), which would be the sixth lowest (Edmonton was given as US$41.7 million per mile). Because of its high ridership (then 188,000 boardings per weekday) the capital cost per passenger was $2,400 per daily passenger, by far the lowest of the 14 systems compared (had Edmonton been included it would have been the next most cost effective at $8,900 per weekday passenger, while the closest American system was Sacramento at $9,100 per weekday passenger). Operating costs are also low, in 2005, the C-Train cost CDN$163 per operating hour to operate. With an average of 600 boardings per hour, cost per LRT passenger is CDN$0.27, compared to $1.50 for bus passengers in Calgary.
Planning for the C-Train also played an important role. Although the light rail system was not chosen until 1976, the city had reserved transit corridors for some form of high capacity transport in the 1960s, and planning for the system was done when Calgary’s population was less than 500,000. The city reached an agreement with CP Rail to build most of the south line along their existing right-of-way. The lines and stations were placed to serve large residential areas and business districts and to serve existing and predicted travel patterns. Feeder bus stations were established.
The city chose not to build major freeways into the city centre, forcing commuters to use the train as their numbers increased but downtown street capacity did not. Similarly, the city limited the number of parking spaces in the downtown core, making it prohibitively expensive for many people to drive to downtown jobs, particularly as surface lots gave way to development. Downtown unreserved monthly parking is amongst the most expensive in North America, behind only Midtown and Downtown Manhattan for business districts. As a result, in 2007 45% of Calgary’s 120,000 downtown workers used Calgary Transit to get to work, with a long term goal of reaching that mark to 60% of downtown workers in the future.
Although not generally grade separated, the C-Train is able to operate at high speeds on much of its track by separating it from pedestrians with fences and concrete bollards. Trains are also given right of way at most road crossings outside of downtown. As a result, trains are able to operate at 80 km/h (50 mph) outside of downtown, and 40 km/h (25 mph) along the 7th Avenue corridor. 7th Avenue is a free fare zone, encouraging use for short hops through the city. The city achieves high capacity on the 7th Avenue transit corridor by staging the traffic lights, so that all the trains move forward in unison to the next station on the synchronized green lights, and load and unload passengers on the intervening red lights.