Washington DC’s H Street streetcar ran down a police car last week. But, as the Washington Post headline notes, it’s “still not carrying passengers.”
Still in the testing stage a year after construction was supposedly complete. Wikimedia photo by Michael J.
The District Department of Transportation began testing the streetcar about a year ago, and the result was so many accidents that the DC council seriously considered scrapping the whole thing. Instead, it asked for an expert peer review by the American Public Transportation Association (APTA). Since APTA has never met a rail transit project it didn’t like, the review’s conclusion was pretty much predetermined.
Portland and San Francisco are not the only urban areas with housing affordability problems. Where the 2013 ratio of median home prices to median family incomes was 7.0 in San Francisco-Oakland and 3.8 in Portland, it was a wallet-busting 9.6 in Auckland, New Zealand.
In response, Chris Parker, the Chief Economist for the Auckland city council, has published a report that correctly identifies the problem as “excessive planning constraints” and a “limiting supply of greenfield land.” Unfortunately, his timid recommendation is that the city seek to reduce the value-to-income ratio to 5.0.
That’s like the Federal Reserve setting an inflation target of 50 percent. A 50 percent rate of inflation sounds pretty good compared with Zimbabwe’s peak inflation of 79.6 billion percent, but as a way of life, 50 percent inflation is still pretty awful.
Eight years ago, the Antiplanner argued that San Jose’s Valley Transportation Authority was the nation’s worst managed transit agency, a title endorsed by San Jose Mercury writer Mike Rosenberg and transit expert Tom Rubin.
However, since then it appears that the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA or just Metro) has managed to capture this coveted title away from San Jose’s VTA. Here are just a few of Metro’s recent problems:
- Metro’s numerous service problems include a derailment in August that resulted from a flaw in the rails that Metro had detected weeks previously but failed to fix;
- Metro spent hundreds of millions of dollars on a new fare system but now expects to scrap it for lack of interest on the part of transit riders;
- One of Metro’s power transformers near the Stadium/Armory station recently caught fire and was damaged so badly that Metro expects to have most trains simply skip that station stop for the next several weeks to months;
- Metro’s fleet of serviceable cars has run so low that it rarely operates the eight-car trains for which the system was designed even during rush hours when all the cars are packed full;
- WMATA’s most recent general manager, Richard Sarles, retired last January and the agency still hasn’t found a replacement, largely due to its own ineptitude;
- Riders are so disgusted with the system that both bus and rail ridership declined in 2014 according to the American Public Transportation Association’s ridership report;
Metro was so unsafe in 2012 that Congress gave the Federal Transit Administration extra authority to oversee its operations;
- That hasn’t fixed the problems, so now the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) wants Congress to transfer oversight to the Federal Railroad Administration, which supposedly has stricter rules.
Housing has once again become a big issue in many cities. No wonder: as the spreadsheet posted last week by the Antiplanner shows, non-inflation-adjusted prices in many urban areas have reached or exceeded what they were at the peak of the housing bubble last decade.
Portland prices have reached the point where a home will go on the market and sell in a few days for significantly more than the asking price because so many people bid on it. More controversially, Portland and Seattle builders are buying homes, replacing them with several skinny homes, townhomes, or condos.
Last week, the Antiplanner posted a spreadsheet with metropolitan area home price indices and graphs. To complete the set, here is a similar spreadsheet for state. One difference is that the graph only shows inflation-adjusted indices, which are more useful anyway.
To graph different states, simply enter the two-letter abbreviation of up to six states (in caps) in cells BH167 through BM167. If you have autocalculation turned on, the graph should update automatically. If you want to change the years shown in the chart, click on the chart to select it, then scroll down to see the years selected (currently cells BG248 through BM329). Drag the upper right corner up or down to change the beginning year and the bottom right corner up to change the ending year. I hope you find these data useful.
You may want to sit down for this, but it is finally becoming obvious to everyone that the Maryland Department of Transportation and its consultants overestimated ridership on the proposed Purple light-rail line. Even the pro-Purple Line Washington Post is skeptical of the numbers. Of course, this is only after Governor Hogan appears to have signed off on the line.
As the Antiplanner pointed out in a review of the proposed low-capacity rail line, the projected first-year ridership of 58,800 people per weekday is more than any single light-rail line outside of Los Angeles and Boston–and rail lines in those cities serve centers with far more jobs than are found on the entire Purple Line. The line that is most comparable to the 16-mile Purple Line is New Jersey’s 17-mile Hudson-Bergen line, which serves an area whose population density is four times greater and has far more jobs than that along the Purple Line, yet the Hudson-Bergen line carries just 44,000 riders per weekday (p. 9). The Antiplanner also pointed out that light-rail planners almost always overestimate ridership, and Maryland in particular has a poor track record with its lines in Baltimore (p. 8).
Hogan’s Secretary of Transportation, Peter Rahn, apparently didn’t read the Antiplanner’s report, as he told the Post that he was “comfortable” with the numbers because “the FTA was involved, and they were acceptable to them.” Of course, the FTA rarely questions any numbers given to them by transit agencies. What Rahn was really doing, of course, was shifting the blame to someone else for not doing the job he should have done.
After the Antiplanner posted recent housing data on Wednesday, a reader asked for home price trends. These data are available for states and metropolitan areas from the Federal Housing Finance Agency. For some purposes, I prefer urbanized areas instead of metropolitan areas, for numbers like these the differences will be small.
Naturally, the FHFA’s raw data are not easy to visualize, so I’ve supplemented the agency’s metropolitan area data with a spreadsheet that automatically makes charts showing price indices in up to six urban areas. For example, the above chart shows indices for six areas with minimal land-use regulation.
In 1960, 12.1 percent of American workers went to work by transit, which was then largely privately owned. Despite (or because of) public takeover of almost every transit system in the country, transit’s share steadily declined to 4.7 percent in 2000. Then, in 2010, it crept up to 4.9 percent. The 2014 American Community Survey found that it has increased still further to 5.2 percent.
Since 2000, the increase in transit’s share has come at the expense of carpooling, which fell from 12.6 percent to 9.2 percent in 2014. Biking and walking also fell slightly from 3.4 to 3.3 percent. Driving alone, however, grew from 73.2 to 76.5 percent. So the increase in transit’s share did not translate to a reduction in the number of cars on the road. Indeed, using census carpool data and assuming that “5- or 6-person carpools” have an average of 5.5 people and “7-or-more-person carpools” have 7 people, there were 104.2 million cars commuting to work in 2000, 110.8 million in 2010, and 117.6 million in 2014.
One intriguing table (B08141) shows commuting data by the number of cars in the household. Nationally, about 4.5 percent of workers live in households with no cars. Of these, about 41.5 percent took transit to work, 20.4 percent drove alone, and 11.3 percent carpooled.
The Census Bureau released data from the 2014 American Community Survey last week, including estimates for how people get to work, how expensive housing is, and how much money people earn. I’ll get to commuting data later this week, but today I’ll look at home prices and incomes. The 2014 American Community Survey is based on reports from more than 2.3 million households.
I’ve downloaded the tables showing median home values (B25077) and median family incomes (B19113) for states, urbanized areas, and the nation as a whole. To save you time, I’ve combined them into two spreadsheets: one showing both values and incomes for urban areas, and one for states and the nation.
Median home value divide by median family income is a standard measure of housing affordability, which has become an important issue again in Portland, San Francisco, and other cities. A value-to-income ratio of less than 3 is fairly affordable, as someone with a median income can buy a median home and pay off the mortgage in less than 20 years. Ratios above 3.5 are becoming unaffordable and above 5 are quite unaffordable.
The Environmental Protection Agency says Volkswagen programmed the emissions control systems on 482,000 cars it sold in the U.S. to work only when they were being tested by air quality regulators. Included are Diesel versions of the Jetta, Golf, Passat, Beetle, and Audi A3 sold between 2009 and 2015. When they weren’t being tested, the cars got better fuel mileage but spewed nearly 40 times more nitrogen oxides into the air. (There’s no reports that other pollutants increased.) Far from denying the accusation, Volkswagen has apologized and halted sales of the offending cars.
Volkswagen (which also makes Audi, Bentley, Bugatti, Lamborghini, Porsche, and several other brands that are not sold in the U.S.) had hopes of dramatically increasing its market share in the United States. But this news is a black mark on the company, both from a public relations view and a penalty view, as fines could be as high as $18 billion. As one industry observer says, “this is a disaster of monumental proportions” for the company, whose share price has fallen more than 20 percent since the EPA announcement.
While the Antiplanner has admired Volkswagen for its pioneering work with self-driving cars, the truly sad part is that this may perpetuate American resistance to Diesel power. Based on research by MIT scientists, it is likely that three simple technologies will allow auto manufacturers to cost-effectively meet Obama’s 54.5 mpg target by 2025: streamlining, use of aluminum in place of steel (carbon does even better but is far more costly), and Diesel engines, which are popular in Europe but not so well regarded here. While Diesels aren’t absolutely critical to meeting the fuel-economy targets, they are more cost-effective than most alternatives.