New federal survey offers vital clues to good transit policy
Written by Michael Lewis on September 19, 2017
A bonanza of new data about Miami-Dade residents can be a goldmine for policymakers who use reality rather than assumptions to plan the future.
Whether it’s trying to speed commutes, viewing the impacts of foreign immigration, planning housing development or bidding to lure the massive second headquarters of Amazon, the reality of our situation trumps wishful thinking every time.
And last week the federal government pulled aside the curtain to reveal a new reality, the 2016 US Census Bureau American Community Survey of social, economic and housing information that, carefully selected and read, offers broad hints about what we can and should do in business and government.
Applying just a slice of that data to transportation, for example, we find key factors that should enter our thinking as we seek to develop a six-leg transit network to speed mobility in Miami-Dade.
One enlightening fact is that the dreaded morning rush hour that seems to ensnare every worker in Miami-Dade does no such thing. While the morning commute can indeed be horrible, the 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. rush hour in fact affects fewer than half of all Miami-Dade workers. Only 47% of them arrive on the job in that span.
Another 33% of us get to work somewhere between 9 a.m. and midnight, the survey shows, and fully 20% of us arrive on the job between midnight and 7 a.m.
This shows us, for example, that about 10% of all Miami-Dade workers arrive while our Metrorail and Metromover systems are out of service to save money. If we expect to cultivate a working population that gets out of cars and into a rail system to get around, 10% are left out from the start.
And when we talk about trying to flatten and lengthen rush hour to even out auto traffic flows, we should be aware that Miamians are already arriving at work at every hour – 3% between midnight and 5 a.m., 2.6% from 5 to 5:30 a.m., 2.6% from 5:30 to 6, 4.8% from 6 to 6:30 a.m. and so on.
The feds even know how we got to work at each hour. The same 3% slice who commuted to work from midnight to 5 a.m. went by car, truck or van, either alone or carpooling, but only 2.1% of public transit riders got to work in that span – probably because they had no rail choice at those hours.
It should be no great surprise that the average Miami-Dade worker’s one-way commute takes more than half an hour – a mean 33.2 minutes, the census bureau found, meaning the average worker is commuting well over an hour a day.
In fact, 14.8% of us work more than an hour from home – making more than two hours of commuting daily – and only 4.3% of us are 10 minutes from home or less.
It’s more surprising that so many Miami-Dade workers have access to a personal vehicle despite income levels that don’t support car ownership – perhaps a testament to our love for cars or a stronger indication that with weak mass transit we require cars, whether or not they are actually affordable.
The survey found that only 4.1% of us had no personal vehicle access, 23.7% had access to one car, 42% to two cars and 30.2% to three or more.
As for being able to afford all those cars, consider this: nearly 41% of all Miami-Dade workers over the prior year earned less than $25,000, with 19.8% earning less than $15,000. Think how high a percentage of income must go to owning a car and keeping it running. Only 14.1% of county workers earned $75,000 or more. The median was $30,419.
Put that all together and you can understand how Miami-Dade residents say they go to work each day: 85.3% via car, truck or van; a pitifully low 5.3% in public transportation; 2.1% on foot; 0.5% by bicycle, and 1.3% via taxi or motorcycle. And the rest: 5.5% work at home, a higher percentage than all the public transit commuters.
If we want to get cars off the road, one good policy may be to get more of us into the same car, truck or van: 76.2% of all workers commute alone in a vehicle, 6.7% go in a two-person carpool, 1.5% in a three-person carpool and 0.8% in a carpool of four or more.
Suppose we could add 5.3% of all workers to carpools or get more crowded vehicles – pooling three people instead of two, for example. That would remove from roads cars equal to all of our mass transit commuters – like doubling mass transit commuter use. It would cost a whole lot less than the $6 billion plan for six new transit corridors.
Think too about this: mass transit legs planned for Miami-Dade won’t meet the needs of the 6.8% of our workers with jobs outside of the county. New transit that only goes to the county line won’t get them there.
As for how far they go, we know from the survey that fewer than a quarter of our 1,357,768 workers over age 16 – 23.2% – work in the municipality where they live. Very few of the other 76.8% are candidates to walk or cycle to work, no matter how nice the sidewalks or bike paths.
Numbers don’t change behavior, but they sure help to sketch reality and the barriers and opportunities for change. Growing carpooling by two-thirds, for example, would have an impact greater than doubling mass transit commuting.
During reconstruction of the 826-836 interchange the state paid people to carpool. Impact was light but real. Would raising the bounty and offering it all over the county for all carpooling change behavior and open up roadways – plus cut billions off the bill for mass transit?
Could rebates for use of new-generation mega-buses have the same impact?
Maybe the new federal data cornucopia holds the answers for transit, and perhaps for other puzzles like housing needs.
One thing for sure: we ignore the newly available facts to our own policy peril.