Policy Implications of Autonomous Vehicles

Tomorrow, the Cato Institue will release a new paper on the policy implications of self-driving cars. Antiplanner readers can download a preview of the paper today.

In a nutshell, the paper argues that self-driving cars combined with car sharing will put public transit agencies out of business. The average cost of transit, including subsidies is $1 a passenger mile. Self-driving cars should cost far less than half of that. This means there will be no reason to continue to subsidize transit except in a few very dense areas such as New York City.

The paper also points out that most of the effects of self-driving cars can’t be predicted today, so Congress should give up on the idea of having states and metropolitan planning agencies write long-range transportation plans that we know will be wrong. Transportation agencies should solve today’s problems today and prepare for autonomous vehicles by keeping roads in good repair and following consistent sign standards.

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What Happened to Progressives?

“Fifty years ago this month, Berkeley was the epicenter of the Free Speech Movement,” intones Robert Reich. “Now, Berkeley is moving against Big Soda” by imposing a one-cent-per-ounce tax on sugary drinks.

Naturally, Reich fails to see the irony that a city known for freedom is now attempting to take away people’s freedom. Of course, a one-cent-per-ounce tax doesn’t really take away freedom to enjoy sugary drinks. Nor does quadrupling the price of housing take away freedom to live in a single-family home. The whole point is to reserve these privileges for the wealthy, who no doubt are considered refined enough to appreciate the homes and drinks they consume.

The same people who supported free speech are those who support taxing behaviors they don’t approve. They don’t believe the government should have the right to censor what we say, but they do believe the government should have the right to censor what we consume or where we live. I hope some cultural anthropologist has studied how the Progressives managed to transition from suspecting government to loving it.


Facts vs. Insults and Innuendo

Rail transit is excessively expensive, inflexible, and incapable of moving as many people as buses. Yet when the Antiplanner points out these facts, rather than respond with factual arguments, rail supporters reply with insults and innuendo.

In Florida, for example, a Tampa Bay Times columnist named Daniel Ruth spent an entire column attacking my credibility apparently because someone paid me an honorarium of $500 to evaluate the St. Petersburg light-rail plan. Ruth did not make any factual arguments in favor of the plan; he merely contended that my opposition was a foregone conclusion and so should be ignored.

He even implied that I didn’t get paid enough for my conclusions to be credible. After all, the transit agency spent millions of dollars hiring consultants to write reports about the proposal, and those very reports were the sources of much of my information. Those same consultants are, of course, financially backing the election campaign in favor of light rail, and if voters approve, they stand to make tens if not hundreds of millions in profits. If the measure loses, neither I nor anyone at Cato will make a dime of profit. Yet somehow they are supposed to be more credible than I.

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More Light-Rail Critiques

Sorry about the light postings this week, but I’ve been pretty busy talking with people about light rail. Here is my presentation about light rail in Pinellas County (St. Petersburg), Florida, and here is my presentation about light rail in Austin, Texas.

These are large files–Pinellas is 18 MB, Austin is 24–and they don’t include the videos I used for those presentations. If you want the videos, which are self-driving cars, click here to download a 44-MB zip file with three videos that I used in both presentations.

Next week I go to Denver for the 2014 American Dream conference, so postings may be light then as well. The week after that I’ll be back in Minneapolis to debate Myron Orfield over land-use regulation and density. That should be fun.


Left-Wing Streetcar Skeptics Don’t Get It

More left-wing writers are expressing skepticism of the streetcars that have been infecting so many American cities. They aren’t anti-rail transit, they say, just anti-bad rail transit.

“Too many new streetcars are being deployed as economic engines first and mobility tools second (if at all)” says Atlantic writer Eric Jaffe. However, “if they run in dedicated lanes and with high frequencies as part of a wider network, they can perform quite well.” That all depends on how you define “perform.”

Streetcars have a huge disadvantage over almost all other transit: their extremely low capacities. Dedicated lanes or not, they can only move about 2,000 people per hour (about 100 people per streetcar about 20 times per hour). Combine this limited capacity with their high cost and streetcars are a huge waste compared with buses that can easily move 10,000 or more people per hour at a much lower cost.

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Cadillac vs. Mercedes

Cadillac has announced that in 2017 it will begin selling truly “hands-free” cars that can steer themselves and control their own speeds to avoid collisions. While other manufacturers, including Acura, Infiniti, and Mercedes, most manufacturers have simply provided lane keep assist, which warns drivers when they drift out of a lane.

The new thing in Cadillac announcement is the inclusion of vehicle-to-vehicle communications. The Antiplanner thinks building such systems into cars is unnecessary because they are already inherent in many smart-phone apps, and since consumers replace smart phones more frequently than cars, they will be assured of having the latest technology at all times.

Perhaps more significant is Daimler’s announcement that it has bought MyTaxi, a competitor of Uber. Mercedes obviously believes that car sharing and smart-phone apps will play an important role in the future of the cars it manufactures.


Light Rail and Streetcars

The Antiplanner (along with co-author Jeff Judson) has an op ed in the San Antonio Express News on what San Antonio should do now that it has given up on the streetcar. My presentation to the San Antonio Tea Party on a similar subject is available for download as a 35-MB PDF.

At least some people in San Antonio think the city should adopt a smart-growth plan to deal with the million people who are likely to move to the area in the next 30 years. But roughly a million people moved to the area in the last 30 years without dire consequences (except for the congestion that resulted from planners’ obsession with rail transit while they ignored efficient solutions such as traffic signal coordination), so it isn’t clear why a new plan is needed.

Here are the speaking events I know about for the next few days. First, this afternoon (Monday, September 8), from 4:30 to 6:30 pm, I’ll be speaking about the Pinellas light-rail plan at a public forum at the IRB Sushi Restaurant in Indian Rocks Beach, Florida.

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Green Line Claims First Fatality

Last Sunday, a pedestrian was struck and killed by the Twin Cities new Green light-rail line, which opened for operation in June. Shannon Buchanan was apparently crossing a pedestrian way over the tracks and was hit by a train going about 30 mph.

Though the train’s average speed is just 12.5 mph, at the point where the woman was hit it was going 30 mph. “She may have been wearing headphones,” said a transit agency official. Agencies typically claim that most accidents are the fault of the victims, as if putting a heavy, difficult-to-stop train in the same streets as pedestrians and autos is not the fault of the agency.

The FTA no longer includes fatality data in the National Transit Database, but the last time data were available, light rail was involved in about 12 fatalities per billion passenger miles carried while buses were involved in only about 4 fatalities per billion. Apparently, it’s a lot safer to get hit by a 50,000-pound bus than a 300,000-pound train.

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Back in the Air Again

The Antiplanner is flying to San Antonio today for the first leg of a three-city trip to talk about smart growth and rail transit. Early next week will find me in St. Petersburg, followed by three days in Austin.

Tomorrow–Thursday, September 4–I’ll be speaking to the San Antonio Tea Party about what the city should do now that it has decided not to build the streetcar. The meeting is from 6 pm to 8 pm at the Old San Francisco Steakhouse, 10223 Sahara Drive.

I’ll try to post St. Petersburg and Austin meetings here soon.


Affordable Housing Is a Symptom of Sound Urban Policy

Paul Krugman argues that housing costs, not taxes, are what is drawing people to Georgia and Texas and away from California and New York. He’s partly right, but he’s mostly wrong.

What he fails to see is that the same impulse that attempts to control land uses in California, making housing expensive, also makes unduly regulates California businesses and boosts taxes to make California undesirable. The same impulse the attempts to control rents in New York City also leads to nanny-state rules and excessive bureaucracy that makes that city undesirable to many businesses.

Contrary to what Krugman says, housing prices in California and New York are high not because they’ve run out of land. California especially has plenty of land available while a good share of the New York and Connecticut counties bordering New York City are rural open space. Nor are prices high because cities won’t allow higher densities: if California cities didn’t have urban-growth boundaries, few people would want to live in higher densities.

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