Honolulu Advertiser

SECOND OPINION  by Cliff Slater

August 29, 2005

City's rail analysis must reflect reality

Since the incredible expansion of suburbs after World War II, we have radically changed our means of getting to work. Not only getting there, but also what we do on the way there — and on the way back. We take our children to school, go for exercise, or go shopping and we no longer shop downtown.

Nor do we shop at the small local store, but in supermarkets, and lately, the big box stores such as Costco, which are even more distant.

As we move from town to the distant suburbs we find that bus service is now every hour instead of every few minutes, and so we use it less.

In addition, our time is more valuable than it used to be. Accordingly, it plays a bigger role in the decision about how we commute.

It is not that we are in love with our automobiles; it is that we value our time more.

These factors are the reasons why the percentage of commuters using public transportation has declined both in Hawaii and on the Mainland every decade since the U.S. Census began measuring it in 1960.

We must bear this is mind as the City undertakes the Alternatives Analysis, which is to determine whether we go for rail or HOT lanes, the high occupancy tollway option that gives priority to buses and vanpools.

For each of these alternatives the city must forecast transit ridership and effects on traffic congestion. However, potential errors in forecasting ridership[i] will be the single most important element of the formal Alternatives Analysis.

Earlier this year the prestigious American Planning Association Journal published the results of a comprehensive worldwide study of 210 transportation infrastructure projects in 14 countries with total costs of $59 billion.[ii] The study found that “for 9 out of 10 rail projects, passenger forecasts are overestimated; the average over estimation is 106%.”  They added, “Our data also show that forecasts have not become more accurate over the 30-year period studied, despite claims to the contrary by forecasters.”[iii]

In analyzing the reasons for overestimating ridership they say, [iv] “Forecasts here become part of the political rhetoric aimed at showing voters that something is being done—or will be done—about the problems at hand. In such cases it may be difficult for forecasters and planners to argue for more realistic forecasts, because politicians may use forecasts to show political intent, not the most likely outcome.”[v]

The city has projected ridership for their various past transit projects and, at the same time, and using the same model, forecast for what is called “no-build,” that being the anticipated ridership if the City was to do nothing beyond already planned road improvements and merely expanded the bus system.

The HART rail plan,[vi] the Hali 2000 study, and the 1992 rail study[vii] all forecast bus ridership to be between 85 and 100 million annually. All dramatically overestimated ridership, which today is less than 70 million.[viii]

The real significance is that since the city’s computer models were grossly in error forecasting the “no-build” bus option, then the same models would have produced similar errors in the rail transit forecasts and are likely to do so again.

There have been two major defects in all of the City’s earlier forecasts for new transit projects. First, has been the lack of comparison with other metro areas that have already built rail, to review what they have experienced and reconcile the differences between their actual results and our forecast.

The second defect has been the lack of backcasting. That is, using today’s computer models and the data from earlier studies to try to forecast today’s actual ridership. If the City’s models cannot do it accurately, they should seek ones that do.

As an example of the difficulties the city faces, consider that of the five metropolitan areas that built rail between 1990 and 2000 -- Los Angeles, St. Louis, Denver, Dallas, and Salt Lake City – at the end of the period only one showed an increase in the percentage of commuters using transit of any kind – Denver from 4.0 to 4.3 percent.

Even more discouraging for rail proponents is that these five places experienced 860,000 new commuters driving to work while only 22,000 more commuters used transit resulting in a further decline in the percentage using transit – and increased traffic congestion.

In short, if the city does not instruct the consultant to do the Alternatives Analysis using comparables or backcasting, or some similar safeguards, you will know it is “same old, same old.”

Cliff Slater is a regular columnist whose footnoted columns are at www.lava.net

Kain, J. F. (1990). Deception in Dallas: Strategic misrepresentation in rail transit promotion and evaluation. Journal of the American Planning Association, 56(2), 184–196.

Wachs, M. (1989). When planners lie with numbers. Journal of the American Planning Association, 55(4), 476–479.

Wachs, M. (1990). Ethics and advocacy in forecasting for public policy. Business and Professional Ethics Journal, 9(1–2), 141–157.

Pickrell, D. H. (1990). Urban rail transit projects: Forecast versus actual ridership and cost. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Transportation.

Pickrell, D. H. (1992). A desire named streetcar: Fantasy and fact in rail transit planning. Journal of the American Planning Association, 58(2), 158–176.

[ii] “This article presents results from the first statistically significant study of traffic forecasts in transportation infrastructure projects. The sample used is the largest of its kind, covering 210 projects in 14 nations worth U.S.$59 billion. The study shows with very high statistical signifi- cance that forecasters generally do a poor job of estimating the demand for transportation infrastructure projects. For 9 out of 10 rail projects, passenger forecasts are overestimated; the average overestimation is 106%. For half of all road projects, the difference between actual and forecasted traffic is more than ±20%. The result is substantial financial risks, which are typically ignored or downplayed by planners and decision makers to the detriment of social and economic welfare.

Our data also show that forecasts have not become more accurate over the 30-year period studied, despite claims to the contrary by forecasters. The causes of inaccuracy in forecasts are different for rail and road projects, with political causes playing a larger role for rail than for road. The cure is transparency, accountability, and new forecasting methods. The challenge is to change the governance structures for forecasting and project development.

Our article shows how planners may help achieve this.

Bent Flyvbjerg is a professor of planning at Aalborg University, Denmark. He is founder and director of the university’s research program on large-scale infrastructure planning. His latest books are Megaprojects and Risk (Cambridge University Press, 2003, with Nils Bruzelius and Werner Rothengatter), Making Social Science Matter (Cambridge University Press, 2001), and Rationality and Power (University of Chicago Press, 1998). Mette K. Skamris Holm is a former assistant professor of planning at Aalborg University.

She now works as a planner with Aalborg Municipality. Søren L. Buhl is an associate professor of mathematics at Aalborg University. He is associate statistician with the university’s research program on large-scale infrastructure planning.”

Journal of the American Planning Association, Vol. 71, No. 2, Spring 2005.

[iii] APA, v. 71. P. 1.

[iv] APA, v. 71. P. 8.

[v] This meshes perfectly with Winston Churchill’s adage that, “Political skill is the ability of foretell what is going to happen tomorrow, next week, next month and next year. And to have the ability afterwards to explain why it didn't happen."    

[vi] Transit Coalition for Honolulu. The Hart Book. 1981.

[vii] 1992 Final Environment Impact Statement. 4-10.7

[viii] The last time bus ridership was this low was in 1977 with 66.6 million riders yet only 350 buses. Today, we have 525 buses, up 50 percent from 1977, yet ridership is down from then.