Racism, War, and the Environment

The Antiplanner grew up in the 1960s, when racism was rampant, we were fighting an undeclared and, many believed, immoral war on the other side of the world, and air pollution was so thick in American cities that visibility was often significantly reduced. By the time I was out of college in the mid-1970s, the war was over, racial discrimination seemed to be history, but the environment still appeared to be in trouble. I elected to spend my career working on environmental issues.


“My whole thing is that the world needs to wake the fuck up,” said 27-year-old Ferguson resident Darren Seals. “When a boy was just laying here dead, we didn’t get all this attention. Burn Quick Trip down and now everybody coming. That’s sending off the wrong message. We got to start valuing life more than we value material. It’s been more about the rioting than the boy being dead. His life is more valuable than any of that. It shouldn’t be money over everything. It should be life over everything.” Flickr photo by Youth Radio.

It turns out that was the easy choice. Today, air pollution is practically nil in all but a few major urban areas. Rivers and streams are also mostly cleaned up. At least 5 percent, and probably much more, of the land area of the United States is in a wilderness or other classification that will never be developed.

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Transit-Oriented Developments Not So Transit Oriented

The evidence continues to grow that so-called transit-oriented development (TOD) is more oriented to subsidies than it is to transit. A new GAO report found lots of places where rail transit failed to stimulate new development. In many if not most of the places it found TODs, “supportive zoning, planning, infrastructure investments, and tax incentives” played a major role in seeing them built.

Based on this, it is not surprising that a suburb along the Minneapolis-St. Cloud NorthStar commuter rail line has had to reduce density expectations in order to attract any development near a station on that line. Similarly, Denver RTD’s latest TOD update admits that one of the lessons RTD has learned is that “trains don’t create markets” (p. 4), and the update proceeds to outline many of the incentives RTD and local governments are providing to see TODs built.

So it is disappointing when The Economist, a magazine that usually does its homework, accepts without question transit agency claims that the Atlanta streetcar will lead business “to soar” for shops along its route. The magazine-that-calls-itself-a-newspaper considers the streetcar to be proof that “Americans are slowly warming to public transport,” when in fact all it proves is that American cities will take federal dollars for any crackpot scheme the feds are willing to fund, even if that scheme involves disrupting traffic and building housing that few people would live in unless it was subsidized.

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Increasing Outputs, Not Inputs

John Naviaux, an undergraduate student at UC Irvine, compared the greenhouse gas benefits of getting people out of their cars and onto buses and found that, while it saved a little carbon dioxide, it wasn’t worth the huge subsidies required. As his faculty mentor, David Brownstone, comments, “there are no significant CO2 emissions benefits from moving a traveler from a personal automobile to an Orange County urban bus. This is a strong negative result since the Orange County bus fleet is among the cleanest in the world with almost all buses running on natural gas, and this shows that it will be difficult to reduce CO2 emissions in the U.S. by simply getting more people to use urban mass transit.”

The Antiplanner has the highest respect for Dr. Brownstone, but there may be a couple of problems with Naviaux’s paper. First, he counted all the subsidies to bus transit against the savings in greenhouse gas emissions. Transit advocates would be quick to point out that there are supposedly other benefits from transit, so greenhouse gas reductions are merely the icing on the proverbial cake.

Even if you don’t buy this argument–and the Antiplanner thinks the social benefits of transit are a lot smaller than many transit advocates claim–Naviaux compared the average emissions from cars with the average emissions from existing buses and the average subsidies from running those buses. But many conceivable bus improvements could significantly increase average bus occupancies at a very low marginal cost.

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Skeptical about Streetcars? You’re a Racist!

Count on someone at the Washington Post to play the race card in the postmortems over the Arlington streetcar. “Lower-income, racially diverse South Arlington has been counting on the Columbia Pike and Crystal City streetcar projects to deliver a jolt of growth,” says Post columnist Robert McCartney. The county board’s decision to kill the streetcar will therefore “deepen” the “class and racial divisions” that afflict the county.

Yet the people who were against throwing close to $600 million down a couple of ratholes ($358 million for the Columbia Pike streetcar and $227 million for a Crystal City streetcar) aren’t racists. They were just unlike McCartney in their ability to see through the rhetoric and lies used to promote these boondoggles.

Compared with buses, streetcars are inferior in every way but one: they are slower, have fewer seats, add more to congestion, and when one breaks down they all have to come to a stop. The only thing that streetcars excel in is spending other peoples’ money. After seeing the county blow through nearly $1 million on a bus shelter that didn’t even shelter bus riders from the elements, voters were fed up with spending what was supposedly other peoples’ money.

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The So-Called Cost of Free Employee Parking

A new report from two pro-transit groups, the Frontier Group and the Transit Center, argues that allowing employers to deduct parking costs from their income when calculating their profits (and, thereby, their taxes) represents a $7 billion subsidy to driving. This subsidy, the report claims, adds significantly to highway congestion.

Baloney. First of all, just like providing office space to office workers and factory space to factory workers, providing parking is a cost of doing business. No one would argue that employers should charge their employees rent for the office or factory space they use. Why should employers charge for parking space?

Second, even if this were a subsidy, it has nothing to do with traffic congestion. The report claims that ending the tax break would reduce auto commuting by 2 percent. That’s probably high: just ending the tax break wouldn’t necessarily cause all employers to begin to charge for parking. But even if the number is accurate, the authors clearly don’t understand how congestion works.

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Columbia Pike Streetcar Cancelled

The county board for Arlington County, Virginia, has voted four-to-one to cancel all planning for a proposed $358 million, 7.7-mile streetcar line along Columbia Pike. This should also effectively shut down planning for a Crystal City streetcar that was projected to cost $227 million.

The decision came on the heels of board member John Vilstadt’s re-election with 56 percent of the vote. Despite being an incumbent, Vilstadt was running at a disadvantage as an independent in a strongly Democratic district. Streetcar supported had hoped that Vilstadt’s election in a special vote last spring was “a fluke.” Yet, by making the streetcar the centerpiece of his campaign, he was able to prevail against a strong Democratic challenger.

Local political experts predicted predicted that Vilstadt’s decisive victory would kill the momentum behind the streetcar. “There is no way” that board members who are up for re-election next year can win “if they’re running as pro-streetcar candidates,” said Ben Tribbett. Tribbett’s prediction has come true. At least three of the other Arlington board members could read the election returns and agreed with the board chair that “the only way to move forward together … is to discontinue the streetcar project.”

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Doubts About Self-Driving Cars

A new poll finds that nearly two out of three auto owners think self-driving cars are a dangerous idea. Slate writer Lee Gomes argues that self-driving cars may never happen. Both are wrong.

The pollsters don’t argue that self-driving cars actually are dangerous; only that “automakers will have to work to win over car shoppers who think some of the technology makes vehicles more dangerous.” But they really won’t; they just have to make the technology available to early adopters, and as those pioneers prove it to work, more people will want it.

Gomes’ argument is that Google’s self-driving car critically depends on accurate maps, and such maps are expensive and time-consuming to make. Moreover, Gomes adds, keeping the maps up to date with daily changes in routes, traffic signals, speed limits, and other factors will be nearly impossible.

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Too Many Goals

Last week, the director of the Civil Rights Division for Denver’s Regional Transit District (RTD), Kenneth Hardin, was indicted for having allegedly “corruptly solicited and accepted money from a person intending to be influenced and rewarded in connection with RTD business.” While no further details were provided by the U.S. Attorney’s office in Denver, it is reasonable to speculate that Hardin is being accused of accepting a bribe to give a minority preference to a potential contractor that wasn’t really minority owned.

Federal regulations require transit agencies that receive federal funding “To ensure nondiscrimination in the award and administration of DOT-assisted contracts.” The best way to “ensure nondiscrimination,” the regulations go on to say, is to set aside a specific percentage of contracts for “disadvantaged business enterprises.” By definition, a “disadvantaged business” is one that is at least 51 percent owned by minorities, women, or other “individuals who are both socially and economically disadvantaged.”

In other words, and something that will not surprise anyone familiar with American civil rights laws, the rules require that agencies ensure nondiscrimination through discrimination. In RTD’s case, the agency is committed to making sure that at least 15 percent of its contracts go to disadvantaged businesses, and Hardin’s job was making sure that happened.

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Linking Users and Producers

After last week’s election, the Antiplanner failed to note that Seattle voted strongly against another monorail boondoggle. More than 80 percent of Seattle voters agreed this would be a waste of money.

At the same time, nearly 60 percent of Seattle voters agreed to increase subsidies to bus service by raising sales taxes and imposing a $60 a year fee on auto owners. According to census data, 21 percent of Seattle commuters take transit to work. It seems surprising that many if not most of the people who drive to work would be willing to tax themselves to support transit, especially since what they are really doing is supporting light rail, to which the Puget Sound Regional Council allocates all the big bucks while bus transit gets cut.

Texas voters agreed to dedicate half of oil & gas severance taxes to road construction and maintenance. This is expected to generate about $1.7 billion a year.

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Bike Path: $85 Million Per Mile

Apparently, the Netherlands has run out of rooftops, as it is currently installing solar panels in bike paths. The cost for a pilot project is 3 million euros (about $3.7 million) for 70 meters (230 feet) of bike path. That’s equal to $85 million per mile.

The article doesn’t say, but the Antiplanner estimates from the photos that the path is four meters wide. That means it is costing more than $13,200 per square meter or about $1,225 per square foot.

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