Honolulu Advertiser

SECOND OPINION  by Cliff Slater

October 11, 2005

Time is money for Honolulu’s commuters

The primary objection to the High-Occupancy/Toll lanes (HOT) option for Honolulu is the idea of people having to pay for highway use, which, in the minds of many, should be a free public utility.

An additional concern is that of equity; toll lane costs would fall more heavily on the less affluent.[1] So it should puzzle those who have these concerns to find that the HOT lanes in San Diego and Los Angeles are highly popular even with people who rarely use them.

Rather than commuters in the regular freeway’s slower traffic resenting those whizzing by on the toll lanes, a federal government survey found that non-users overwhelmingly approve of HOT lanes.[2] The reason is that these motorists know that the HOT lanes provide a reliable way to be on time for crucial appointments when needed. They also realize that the addition of HOT lanes relieves traffic on the  regular freeway.

A similar attitude prevails among our local residents who never use TheBus. Many of them will object to any suggestion of a cutback in bus service for the same reason. Their rationale is that they might need to use TheBus someday.[3]

The issue in both cases is that we all value reliability in transportation. Precisely how much we value it is a new field now being studied by economists.[4]

Another field that has been well researched is the allied one of how much commuters value their time spent traveling.[5] Economists do this by measuring how commuters choose between money savings costs and how much additional time they are willing to take in order to save that money.

For example, they measure the additional time taken by motorists choosing a longer route on an untolled highway in order to avoid paying the toll on a bridge. By knowing the motorists’ earnings, the toll savings, and the additional travel time, economists can calculate how much motorists’ value their time.

They can also gather data on those downtown Honolulu commuters who choose more distant, but less expensive, parking. These commuters save money on parking but spend a longer time to walking to work. Knowing  these factors and commuters’ earnings allows economists to calculate how commuters value their time.

We can also compare the time saved by those commuters who pay for higher-priced vanpools rather than the cheaper Express Buses and compare that to their earnings.

From the many studies on this subject economists have determined that when we are walking or waiting during our commute, we value our time at about what we earn. When we are sitting comfortably in a bus, train or auto we value our time at half of what we earn.

Value of time is a significant determinant of how commuters choose between the various commuting methods open to them. It is the second most important determinant next to commuters’ out of pocket costs for parking.

However, neither value of reliability nor value of time have been included in past computer models attempting to correctly forecast transit ridership. It may be the reason that every Honolulu bus ridership forecast for the past 20 years has greatly overstated the actual ridership.[6]

It will be interesting to see whether these values will be factored into the supposedly highly sophisticated computer model that will influence whether we get HOT lanes or rail transit.

Of course, were we to tie the pensions of elected officials to the accuracy of the upcoming transit projections, that would ensure that value of time and reliability was included and a lot more besides -- including comparing the actual results of rail ridership in similar communities.

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


[1] There seems to be no objection to the less affluent paying an additional highly regressive tax for a rail line.

[2] The survey showed that 66 percent of non-users approved of HOT lanes. Source: Federal Highways Department, Guide to HOT lane development, Chapter 4.

[3]  Obviously, commuters value reliability highly. If TheBus is sometimes three minutes early but is more often three minutes late then the unreliability of service means we are usually waiting around for six minutes for it. Another example: How much more do we value bus service that is consistently on time versus one that arrives plus or minus 15 minutes from the posted time?

We must allow that if some days our drive to work takes 30 minutes and on other days it takes 45 minutes, then if we must be on time for work, we can only rely on the commute taking the longer time. Thus time will be wasted on those days that we get to work early. On the other hand, if we are driving an old and troublesome junker it might well push us into commuting by TheBus if it is more reliable than the junker. The normal reliability of a well-maintained car will be a significant contribution to commuters preferring their cars.

While research is only beginning in the value of reliability, one conclusion already being drawn by researchers is that our actions show that we value reliability far greater than we think we do.

[4] Brownstone, David & Kenneth A. Small. Valuing Time and Reliability: Assessing the Evidence from Road Pricing Demonstrations. University of California at Irvine. June 18, 2003. http://www.uctc.net/papers/668.pdf

[5] There are innumerable studies of the subject. Some of the more valuable are:

Arnott, Richard & Kenneth Small. The Economics of Traffic Congestion. American Scientist 82 No. 5. September-October 1994. pp. 446-455.

Nelson, James R. The Value of Travel Time in Chase, Samuel B., Jr. Problems in Public Expenditure Analysis. The Brookings Institution. 1966. pp. 78-126. KW:

Moses, Leon N. and Harold F. Williamson, Jr. Value of Time, Choice of Mode, and the Subsidy Issue in Urban Transportation. Journal of Political Economy Vol. LXXI, No. 3. June 1963. pp. 247-64.