Research Rest-Stop | How does the public feel about higher taxes for transportation?

The transportation funding crisis has recently made the news (see here and here), although it is not a recent phenomenon.  For the past several decades, revenues from both the state and federal gas taxes have declined in relation to inflation, while transportation infrastructure continues to age and major upgrades become increasingly pressing (MTI, 2014). Faced with failing infrastructure, governments are forced to seek new means of funding transportation. The question is how?

The Mineta Transportation Institute (MTI), based in San Jose,  recently published research investigating public support for increased taxes to fund transportation. Researchers surveyed the public’s reaction to three tax scenarios: (1) raising the federal gas tax rate, (2) creating a new mileage tax, and (3) creating a new federal sales tax. They surveyed 1,503 randomly chosen individuals nationwide in spring 2014 to test public support for the three tax options.

In general, the researchers found that a majority of people would support higher taxes for transportation. There are, however, some conditions. Respondents favored a gas tax increase over all other options, but only if they believed that revenues would be used for projects related to transportation maintenance, safety, and improvements such as upgrading to a newer technology. A gas tax to fund transportation improvements with environmental benefits, such as addressing local air pollution and global warming, was also well supported. When a gas tax increase was proposed without a clear purpose or with implications to driver’s annual costs explicitly cited in the survey questionnaire, researchers saw support for the tax decrease. In addition, a phased tax increase received more support than a one-time increase when no other information about tax purposes was provided to survey respondents.

MTI researchers found that in response to a proposed mileage tax, respondents much preferred variable rates tied to a vehicle’s pollution level over a flat-rate. In fact, a flat rate mileage tax was the least supported option of all. Interestingly, support for a new federal sales tax fell in the middle.


The Mineta researchers also investigated whether certain characteristics made individuals more likely to support higher transportation taxes.  They found that people who use transit and consider transportation as a key priority are more likely to support higher transportation taxes.


The study also suggests that the demographic subgroups most likely to support higher transportation taxes are Asians/Asian-Americans and blacks/African-Americans, registered Democratic voters, youths (18 to 24 years).

Additionally, the research explored public opinion on three options, shown below, for funding expansions and improvements specifically to public transit.


Research revealed that not all respondents were familiar with how transit is funded. In fact, only half of them were aware that fares do not cover the full costs of running public transit.

During the five years that MTI has been conducting this annual survey, it has found that support levels have not changed much. Public support for transportation taxes has generally risen slightly, with the largest boost in support for a variable-rate mileage tax.

Key implications of the study are that the basic concept of a gas tax increase or a mileage tax is not popular, but that modifying tax structures and linking taxes to safety and environment benefits can increase support. MTI highlights the fact that respondents of the youngest age group (18-24 year old) were much more supportive of any transportation tax option. They suggest that if this is reflective of a generational shift, rather than views at different life-stages, increased taxes for transportation could receive more public support in the future.

MTI’s questionnaire asked about support for tax proposals described in only general terms. Therefore, the results cannot indicate support for or against any specific proposal that may be put forward to fund transportation. The research instead indicates the public’s likely preferences and patterns of support vary in relation to how new taxes are both structured and how their benefits are described and “framed” in public debate. For more details about the research findings, visit here.


The Urban Street Design Guide: a guidebook for complete streets nationwide

In recent years, cities have been leading innovators in shaping complete streets that accommodate the needs of pedestrians, transit vehicles, bicyclists, freight and motorists, all while considering the businesses and residents located along the street.  The Urban Street Design Guide (USDG) is a new compilation of the design concepts and the lessons learned in the complete streets movement.  Published back in September by the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO), the handbook offers detailed guidance on all sorts of complete street retrofits, such as reimagining the urban boulevard, installing a raised intersection, or tightening a turning radius.  It also advises on how to use limited resources to make improvements through incremental, interim progress.

An Urban Street Design Guide illustration of an interim public plaza. (Credit:

The USDG is grounded in the philosophy that streets in cities and town are not merely for conveying traffic but are also public spaces that should be safe, sustainable, economically beneficial, and enhance the quality of life.  Roadway design in the U.S. has traditionally been oriented toward moving lots of cars safely, quickly, and over long distances. However, urban areas also need walking, transit, bicycles, and freight to maximize the efficiency of their transportation system.  The USDG is the first comprehensive national guidebook to emphasize city street design as a unique practice with its own set of design goals, parameters, and tools.  NACTO believes that this guidance will help allay the political and legal concerns over trying out new roadway design standards.

As a founding organizer of NACTO, Philadelphia has been a key part of the complete streets conversation.  The city’s 2012 complete streets ordinance led to the development of the Philadelphia Complete Streets Design Handbook, a document that communicates design guidance for engineers, architects, and planners and helps communities understand the tools available for creating better streets.  Today, development proposals and roadway projects that meet certain thresholds are required to fill out a Complete Streets Checklist demonstrating consideration and compliance with complete streets guidance in Philadelphia.  Find out more at the Streets Department Complete Streets website.

Urban Street Design Guide before-and-after example of a “Slow Zone” street. (Credit:

Designing a Comfortable and Convenient Subway Car (No Middle Seats!)

If you’re a regular bus, trolley, or el rider, you probably know of the best places to stand or the most coveted seats in a transit vehicle. You might favor a seat with a window or that spot by the door knowing that you can jump off first at your stop. Your choice may even depending on whether you’re hopping on for a few stops or settling in for a cross-town ride.

Some service planners at New York City Transit Authority and the Metro-North Railroad set out to document and measure how people sit, stand, and circulate on New York City subway trains. As they mention in a current working paper, the interior layouts of their trains haven’t changed much in decades, and a redesign would have the potential to get more use out of limited space and make customers more comfortable.

What did these planners discover? Their most striking observation was that people really do not like “middle” seats—nobody wants to sit between two strangers without any physical separation. Riders frequently choose to stand rather than take an open “middle” seat. Such seats were more attractive, though, if poles or partitions split up a long row of seats into discrete pairs, effectively equipping every seat with a separator on at least one side.

They also found that when standing, passengers overwhelmingly prefer holding on to vertical poles rather than overhead bars or hanging straps. Passengers liked to congregate near the doors and only move in to the aisles as a last resort.


In this illustration from the study, layout (a) depicts a typical existing subway car, as viewed from above (the blue areas are seats). Layouts (b) and (c) are two recommendations developed by the authors that provide the same number of seats but eliminate the dreaded “middle” ones by strategically positioning separators. They also rearrange the doors so that they no longer face each other, creating a more open feel that encourages passengers to move further into all available standing areas.

The results of this study will potentially be applied to future generations of subway cars in New York City, but more research would help to confirm that these findings can extend to other cities and other types of vehicles. Bus and light-rail trains, for example, often only allow boarding at the front door to collect fares, which probably results in a different pattern of standing room and seat selection.  Varying travel distances and degrees of congestion among different markets would also influence local customer preferences.

The Broad Street Subway uses both transverse and longitudinal seats. (Image from

The Broad Street Subway uses both transverse and longitudinal seats. (Image from

Philadelphia is served by three heavy-rail lines with vehicles similar to those examined in the study. On the Market-Frankford and PATCO Lines, transverse seating provides more places to sit but less overall passenger capacity compared to a longitudinal layout. The Broad Street Line uses a mixed longitudinal and transverse seating plan.

The Federal Transit Administration estimates the useful life of a heavy-rail vehicle at 25 years, with many actually used for longer, so design decisions are made in advance of an entire generation of riders. Transit agencies have limited means to respond to changing trends, such as the 14% increase in SEPTA system ridership since 2006. Facing similar growth, Chicago decided to transition from transverse to longitudinal seating in their new vehicle purchases, while Boston has removed seats entirely from a few subway cars.

We want to hear from you: Would you rather have a better chance of finding a seat or have the room to quickly get on and off the train? How would you design a future generation of heavy rail vehicles?

Measuring the Impact of Public Transportation Access and Funding Decisions on Public Health

Public transportation operators must frequently make decisions on how to much service to run, where to run it, what amenities to offer, and how to set fares.  In a time of limited budgets, these decisions usually involve difficult trade-offs.  Alameda County, home to Oakland, California, has had transit service cuts and fare increases in recent years, so the Alameda County Public Health Department (ACPHD) wanted to study how these decisions impact public health.  ACPHD believes that documenting these impacts will encourage local leaders to give them serious consideration when setting budgets and developing service plans.

Over the past year, ACPHD partnered with several other agencies and non-profits to conduct surveys and focus groups asking local bus riders about their health circumstances, access to work, activities, and appointments, and the effects of service cuts and fare increases on their daily lives.  Beyond asking directly about access to health care, healthy foods, or recreation, ACPHD investigated other key factors that help a person stay healthy.  For example, after recent cuts to bus services, 28% of those interviewed reported a major increase in commute time of 30 minutes or more, and another 19% reported a similar lengthening of the time it takes to get to school.  Long commutes have been linked to increased stress and less time for sleep and exercise.  They can also limit the number of hours a person can work, reducing the ability to afford basic needs for maintaining good health.  For some riders, fare increases also meant less spending on food, social activities, and health care visits, all factors important for good health.

Many residents in Alameda County do not have access to a car, and prior studies had shown that lower-income people and people of color in their region rely heavily on bus services in particular.  These groups also face higher health burdens and live in areas with fewer health-promoting resources.  Philadelphia is similar to Alameda County in that over 35% of Philadelphia households do not have any vehicles available, and only half of workers travel to work by car, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.  Both of these measures indicate that our residents share many of the concerns about quality bus service as those examined by Alameda County.

However, SEPTA faces a $38 million deficit in the operating budget for the coming fiscal year, expected to grow to $160 million by 2018.  Additionally, an economic analysis of SEPTA published last month highlights just a $304 million capital budget available in 2013 for a capital needs backlog of $4.7 billion.  This illustrates the difficult decision-making context SEPTA must navigate to provide public mobility while maintaining affordable fares and constrained budgets.  Looking west at the Pittsburgh Port Authority, similar budget shortfalls required a 35% service cut in early 2011, scaled back to 15% only after an emergency fund transfer.  Another budget gap was looming in 2012, threatening to raise fares while eliminating 46 bus routes and ending most other service at 10 p.m.  While the cuts were later temporarily delayed with emergency funding, these actions would have seriously reduced the access to jobs, social connection, and affordability of basic needs that ACPHD identified as factors for maintaining public health.

The farmers’ market at the Frankford Transportation Center in Northeast Philadelphia will reopen for the 2013 season in just a few weeks. Image courtesy of

Still, SEPTA has managed to support some of the public health goals identified by the ACPHD such as protecting job access by operating overnight service on key bus routes that accommodate non-traditional hours.  It has also partnered with organizations to host farmers markets at major SEPTA hubs including the Olney and Frankford Transportation Centers, increasing access to fresh produce options that are accessible without a car.  An additional 38 farmers’ markets can be found at or near other SEPTA stations and routes.

The Food Trust, which organizes many of these markets, has additional information on Philadelphia farmer’s markets:

Could Grocery Delivery be More Efficient Than a Trip to the Store?

Most research and investment toward improving transportation in cities has traditionally addressed the commute to and from work.  However, less than 20% of our everyday travel is work-related, while the rest are for shopping, social, and personal purposes.  Efforts to make transportation more sustainable and equitable will benefit from more research into these other travel patterns.  Today, we look at the rise of online shopping and ask whether getting fresh groceries delivered to your home could be more efficient than a trip to the store.

A new study published this month suggests that not only is grocery delivery a time-saver, but you can also feel good about saving energy and fossil-fuel emissions—maybe.  Erica Wygonik and Anne Goodchild, two researchers at the University of Washington, examined the difference between everyone driving to the grocery store and a system where everyone gets their groceries delivered instead, using the Seattle area as a case study.  They found total miles traveled by vehicles would be 83% lower with a delivery system, and carbon dioxide emissions would be cut almost in half.  These large savings are possible because the groceries are sharing a ride instead of traveling individually, even though delivery trucks are not as fuel efficient as personal vehicles. “Shared-use vehicle transportation services provide for the movement of passengers and goods and may offer opportunities for reducing the environmental footprint of these activities when compared to individuals using personal vehicles,” write the authors.

Online grocer Peapod truck at the Museum of Art (image courtesy of

Grocery delivery truck at the Museum of Art (image courtesy of

This is one of the first studies of its kind done in the United States, but can these findings be applied here in Philadelphia?  Many city dwellers finding this headline were probably thinking, “How is it possible that delivery could be greener than my walk or bike ride to the store?”  In fact, in this city, many residents already have additional options for getting to and from a store other than driving a personal vehicle.  Replacing a walking, bicycle, or public transportation trip to the store with delivery, then, will unlikely have the same savings.  Although this study did not account for such trips, the authors do note that grocery trips not involving a private car should be accounted for in further research.

These findings highlight the need to manage and accommodate deliveries and freight within urban areas.  Here in Philadelphia, being a delivery driver on busy Walnut Street in CenterCity or tiny Third Street in OldCity means competing with many users for limited space.  How could we best fit loading space into a complete street that provides safe sidewalks, driving and bicycle lanes, and parking?

To learn more about how Philadelphia is incorporating a complete streets policy accommodating all users into planning and programming, visit the Philadelphia Complete Streets Design Handbook website.

Reducing Auto Dependency

This letter came into MOTU not too long ago:

Hey MOTU, I thought you might find this interesting.

My parents moved from Narberth to San Francisco last week. They took with them three cars (2 low-rise sports cars, which make 0 sense in SF and 1 Mini Cooper). They are renting an apartment in Dog Patch for the next year. Their plan is to buy a condo in the city as soon as possible.

I spoke to my mother 1 day after the cars arrived in SF and she announced that they will probably sell one of them, if not two, in the next year. Why?

“The new construction we’re interested in doesn’t have enough parking. There’s some sort of city ordinance against too much parking. I guess they want us to use public transport.”

My dad has been taking public transport to work everyday (“It’s much more convenient!”) and they’ve been walking almost everywhere.

These are two people who until very recently drove everywhere (even within Narberth). They had 4 cars 2 months ago; now they are thinking of going to one or two! If San Francisco had made things easier for their car-ways, they never would have thought of changing.

Yay! City ordinance and a little planning!

Take Care,

A San Francisco Muni Trolley Bus

A San Francisco Muni Trolley Bus

This letter brings up an interesting issue in urban transportation planning.  Suburban and exurban areas are planned to separate origins and destinations, such as home and work, or home and shopping centers.  This spacing means that transportation is easier to do with a private automobile than it is to do by walking, bicycling or transit.  This eventually creates a cycle of automobile dependency, where people need to have cars to meet their daily needs, and then more space is needed to make automobile ownership more convenient (such as free parking and expanded freeways).

Todd Litman, of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute explored the implications of automobile dependency in a 2002 paper and re-examined the issue in a 2010 paper.  He argues that by focusing on multi-modal transportation and increasing density, it is possible for cities to alleviate the automobile dependency.  This is what is happening in San Francisco, by discouraging drive-alone automobile use, and encouraging public transit use, expanding pedestrian facilities and adding bike lanes, city residents are less likely to be reliant on their cars, but can still keep one automobile to maintain multiple transportation options.

Cities like Philadelphia are already in a good position to help reduce automobile dependency, by expanding the bicycle network, making it safer for pedestrians, and improving transit Philadelphian’s are able to live happily with one fewer automobile.

Want to more about Auto Dependency?

Accessibility, Mobility, and Automobile Dependency

Evaluating Transportation Economic Development Impacts

Do people bike in the rain?

A common argument against investing in bicycling infrastructure is that as soon as it starts to rain, there are no bicyclists on the street.  This argument makes intuitive sense – if the weather is not pleasant, most people are not willing to brave the elements in order to get to work.  But how much of a difference does the weather make?

A bicyclist commutes in the rain. (Photo courtesy of

A bicyclist commutes in the rain. (Photo courtesy of

Previous studies have looked at the level bicycle ridership in different types of weather and have found varied results, for instance a study from San Francisco showed that rain did not deter bicycling, while an Australian study showed specific weather conditions, like rain, heavy winds, and extreme temperature did have a significant impact.

Most recently, a study examined the impact of weather conditions on WashingtonDC’s bikeshare system.  The study used Capital Bike Share’s publicly available ridership data and compared it with hourly weather data to determine a relationship between bike share use and rainfall, snow, hot and cold temperatures, humidity, and windspeed.

Bikeshare ridership alters with changes in the weather, but not as much as one might think.

Bikeshare ridership alters with changes in the weather, but not as much as one might think.

The results showed that weather events, like rain or snow does significantly deter recreational users from using bikeshare, but these events deterred registered users less, where just over 50% of trips will still occur.  This means that a bike share rider who uses Capital Bikeshre as part of his or her commute to work is still likely (although not guaranteed) to use bikeshare, even if it is raining.  Furthermore, the results showed that if it raining, commuters are more likely to use public transit or to ride a bike to transit stations, if there is adverse weather.

As Philadelphia continues to gear up for a new citywide bikeshare service it is important know how outside conditions will affect bike ridership, especially between casual users and regular riders.  Additionally, it is important to recognize that bikeshare can compliment transit use when it’s raining.  So, even though there will be fewer bicyclists on the road, there are still bikes on the street when it’s raining.

Read the full article here:

The Impact of Weather Conditions on Capital Bikeshare Trips

Does Bike Share Make Bicycling More Popular?

A neighborhood BIXI Station in Montreal. (Photo Courtesy

A neighborhood BIXI Station in Montreal.
(Photo Courtesy

When comparing bicycling to driving, there are many benefits to bicycling.  These include health benefits through active transportation, environmental benefits through reduced emissions, and traffic benefits through fewer automobiles on city streets.  However, many people are hesitant to try biking to work, resulting in a small portion of people that ride bicycles regularly.

Bike share represents an opportunity for people to test out bicycling in the city, but there is concern that it will only be used by people who already regularly ride bikes.  As bike share becomes a reality for Philadelphia, it’s important to know whether or not a Bike Share program will actually increase the number of bicyclists in the city.

A recent study examines the ridership levels Montreal’s BIXI Bike Share program over the course of its two-year implementation.  Specifically, the researches investigated whether bike share would affect the number of people that ride bicycles.  Researchers tracked usage among residents at the launch of the program, at the end of its first season, and at the end of its second season.


The likelihood of bicycle riding has increased in neighborhoods with Bike Share Stations. (Graph Courtesy of The Atlantic Cities)

The results showed that Montreal residents who lived near a BIXI station were not only more likely to ride a bike compared to everyone, but they were also more likely to ride a bike at the end of the second season.  In short, this means that bike share will increase the likelihood of bike riding and not only serve existing cyclists.

The Philadelphia Bike Share program is set for 2014 and if the current bike share trends continue, it is expected to increase active and healthy transportation in the city.  So far, bike share stations will be placed throughout Center City and West Philly, where bicycling is most popular.  Where do you plan on going with Philly’s Bike Share?

Want to know more?

The Full Report: Impact Evaluation of Public Bicycle Share Program on Cycling

The Atlantic Cities: If you Build Bike Share, Riders will Come

What Streets do Bicyclists Take?

Check out this great map that Jon Sinker from the Philadelphia Department of Health put together showing the number of bicyclists and pedestrians that move through the city.


This interactive map shows not only the number of bicyclists or pedestrians who pass by a specific point in the city, but also Philadelphia’s bike lane network and the locations of bike racks.

Take a closer look and see which streets are most used by bicyclists and pedestrians.  Streets with bike lanes, such as Pine, Spruce, and 22nd, are those most used by bicyclists, while the streets closest to City Hall appear to be the most popular with pedestrians.

The data was collected by the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission and they and the City are able to use this map to identify locations where active transportation is most prevalent. In addition to this, the map idenfities those areas in Philadelphia that are well used by pedestrians and bicyclists and could receive more investment.

Which streets in Philadelphia do you walk or bike on?

Be sure to explore some of The City of Philadelphia’s other great maps.

New Census Data Describes How Philadelphia Commutes

The US Census recently released new data around transportation and how people commute to and from work.  The Philadelphia Inquirer looked at this newly released census data and found that approximately 253,000 people commute into Philadelphia everyday!  The Philadelphia Inquirer article also describes that 147,000 Philadelphians commute out to the suburbs.  This means that 106,000 more commuters are coming into Philadelphia than leaving.

The Census also released the following graphic to further describe the transportation story here in Philadelphia:


The United Census Census Bureau’s graphic about how Philadelphia commutes —

This data highlights that Philadelphians have a 24% longer commute than the national average, with the average Philadelphians traveling 31.1 minutes.

This data also highlights that Philadelphians are much more likely to travel by a variety of modes.  76.4% of the nation commutes to work by driving alone, only 50% of Philadelphians drove alone.  In addition to this, Philadelphians are much more likely to commut to work by public transportation and bicycle than the national average.  In fact, Philadelphians are 5x more likely to commute by public transportation and 2x more likely to commute by bicycle than the average worker in the US!

Curious about how different parts of Philadelphia commute to work?  Check out our most recent Tidbit Tuesday Series on the topic by looking at the following blog posts:

  1. Who commutes to work by car? —
  2. Who commutes to work by public transit? —
  3. Who commutes to work by walking and biking? —
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