Slower Than Molasses in a Minnesota Winter

Remember the Twin Cities light-rail line that was supposed to average 17 mph but, after testing, was scheduled for just 13-3/4 mph? It turns out that, in actual operation, it averages less than 12.5 mph. That means it takes 53 minutes to go from downtown Minneapolis to downtown St. Paul, 36 percent longer than the 39 minutes originally promised and more than twice as long as the 26 minutes required by a bus.

A green line train near the University of Minnesota. Flickr photo by Michael Hicks.

What’s slowing the trains down? Traffic signals. Apparently, the city of St. Paul is reluctant to give the trains signal priority over all other traffic. “It is hard to rationalize a train with 300 people stopping at an intersection with no cross traffic,” says Metro Transit’s general manager. But it is also hard to rationalize giving the few people who ride the train priority over the thousands of people who use other modes of travel.

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Target the Planning Laws

An article in the Financial Times points out that about $10 trillion worth of wealth in the United States is phony, created by restrictive land-use laws that have pushed up the price of housing. Unfortunately, the article is behind a paywall, so most people won’t see it, but the author, Robin Harding, makes several good points.

First, these planning laws contribute to income inequality by making people who already own homes richer while making those who don’t poorer. Harding misses the nuance that, in cities like Portland that have subsidized multifamily housing, renters aren’t as ripped off as they are in the Bay Area, where NIMBY planning has limited all kinds of housing. But it remains true, even in Portland, that the land-use restrictions contribute to an income divide.

“Wealth of this kind is far more destructive than the alleged sins of the top 1 per cent,” says Harding. “It is wealth created not by improving our living standards but by making them worse.” Thanks to planning restrictions, the average size of home in Britain today is not only less than half the size of an American home, it is far smaller than the average before passage of the Town & Country Planning Act of 1947. This is the law that so many planners want to emulate in America.

Those who want to reduce income inequality by taxing the rich, concludes Harding, should take another tack. “If we want to make society fairer and more equal, just let people build.”


Portland or Portlandia?

As most Antiplanner readers know, Portlandia is a television comedy dedicated to making fun of the weird things that happen in Portland. The only problem is that (as actress Carrie Brownstone noted), “no matter how far out on a limb we went, we always ran into that person [in Portland] within two days.”

Such is the recent plan to rely on bicycles to rescue the city in the event of an earthquake or other natural disaster. “One of the bright, shining spots for Portland in a disaster like an earthquake is that we’re still going to get around,” a Portland disaster specialist told the Oregonian. “When roads are broken, when fuel supplies are cut, those kinds of things, you can bet that our city will still get around.”

On one hand, even the biggest cargo bikes will not be able to move the fire and rescue equipment needed to truly handle a natural disaster. On the other hand, even the worst earthquakes in modern times in the U.S. did not seriously impede the ability of motor vehicles to participate in rescue and recovery.

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Planning for the Unpredictable

How do you plan for the unpredictable? That’s the question facing the more than 400 metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) that have been tasked by Congress to write 20-year transportation plans for their regions. Self-driving cars will be on the market in the next ten years, are likely to become a dominant form of travel in twenty years, and most people think they will have huge but often unknowable transformative effects on our cities and urban areas. Yet not a single regional transportation plan has tried to account for, and few have even mentioned the possibility of, self-driving cars.

Instead, many of those plans propose obsolete technologies such as streetcars, light rail, and subways. These technologies made sense when they were invented a hundred or so years ago, but today they are just a waste of money. One reason why planners look to the past for solutions is that they can’t accurately foresee the future. So they pretend that, by building ancient modes of transportation, they will have the same effects on cities that they had when they were first introduced.

If the future is unpredictabie, self-driving cars make it doubly or quadruply so.

  • How long will it take before self-driving cars dominate the roads?
  • Will people who own self-driving cars change their residential locations because they won’t mind traveling twice as far to work?
  • Will employment centers move so they can take advantage of self-driving trucks and increased employee mobility?
  • Will car sharing reduce the demand for parking?
  • Will carpooling reduce VMT or will the increased number of people who can “drive” self-driving cars increase VMT?
  • Will people use their cars as “robotic assistants,” going out with zero occupants to pick up groceries, drop off laundry, or doing other tasks that don’t require lots of supervision?
  • Will self-driving cars reduce the need for more roads because they increase road capacities, or will the increase in driving offset this benefit?
  • Will self-driving cars provide the mythical “first and last miles” needed by transit riders, or will they completely replace urban transit?

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Wait Six Years to Buy Your Next Car

You’ll be able to buy a car that can drive itself under most conditions, with an option for override by a human driver, in 2020, according to the median estimate in a survey of 217 attendees of the 2014 Automated Vehicles Symposium. By 2030, the group estimated, you’ll be able to buy a car that is so fully automated it won’t even have the option for a human driver.

A demonstrator car with two Lidar laser sensors hanging on the front bumper, five radar sensors hiding behind the fenders, and two optical sensors with 360-degree fields of view on the roof. Click image for a larger view.

Though 2020 is just six years away, there remains a lot of debate over how the industry is going to get there. Most auto manufacturers are incrementalists, adding automated features such as adaptive cruise control, self-parking, and traffic-jam assist, two or three at a time. Google and some others in Silicon Valley, however, are more interested in producing highly or even fully automated cars as soon as possible.

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Autonomous Cars Yes, V2I No!

Yesterday, President Obama gave a speech in Virginia calling for mandatory installation of vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communications in all cars. By coincidence, the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) is holding its annual symposium on autonomous (that is, driverless) cars in California.

V2V allows vehicles to communicate with one another to allow them to avoid accidents, while V2I allows highway infrastructure (such as traffic signals) to communicate directly with motor vehicles. While Obama touts the safety benefits of these technologies, there are at least four reasons why they should not be mandatory.

First, V2V and V2I communications pose serious security risks for travelers and cities. With V2V communications, an automobile that suffers a fender-bender would communicate to all nearby vehicles that they ought to take a different route to avoid congestion.

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Back in the Air Again

The Antiplanner is attending a conference on driverless cars near San Francisco this week. The first session, on Monday afternoon, dealt with the process of developing standards and best practices.

In 2009, when I was writing Gridlock, my main recommendation was that someone should convene a working group to write such standards. I suggested that the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials lead the process, but I should have known that a better group would be the Society of Automotive Engineers. In any case, I’m glad it is getting done.

Today there will be a session on implications of driverless cars for regional planning. Since most regional planners seem stuck in the early twentieth century, it will be interesting to see what the presenters propose.


Facts versus Ideology

Debates over smart growth–sometimes known as new urbanism, compact cities, or sustainable urban planning, but always meaning higher urban densities and a higher share of people in multifamily housing–boil down to factual questions. But smart-growth supporters keep trying to twist the arguments into ideological issues.

The choice should be yours: suburbs, or . . .

For example, in response to my Minneapolis Star Tribune article about future housing demand, Thomas Fisher, the dean of the College of Design at the University of Minnesota, writes, “O’Toole, like many conservatives, equates low-density development with personal freedom.” In fact, I equate personal freedom with personal freedom.

. . . New Urbanism. Flickr photo by David Crummey.

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Why Plan Housing?

University of Minnesota planning professor Richard Bolan has responded to the Antiplanner’s critique of the Twin Cities’ Metropolitan Council’s plan to emphasize high-density housing and discourage large-lot single-family homes. My op ed pointed out that planner Arthur Nelson’s predictions that the demand for single-family homes was declining were based on oversimplified surveys that asked people questions like would they want to live in a “walkable community.”

A lot more factors are at work in people’s housing choices. “Given a choice between a 1,400-square-foot home on a tiny lot in a congested part of town for $375,000 and a 2,400-square-foot home on a large lot in a quiet suburb for $295,000,” my op ed said, “most people would prefer the larger home.” My point was the issues were too complicated for planners to be able to see what people would want 26 years in the future, and since homebuilders can adequately respond to changes in demand, there was no need for central planners to try to predict the unpredictable.

Bolan admits that he’s “not a supporter of Arthur C. Nelson’s report” on future housing demand. But Professor Bolan has his own reasons why central planners should try to determine people’s housing choices in the future: externalities.

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San Antonio Petition May Stop Streetcar

San Antonio streetcar opponents submitted a petition today to allow voters to decide whether the region’s transit agency, VIA, should spend $280 million on a 5.9-mile streetcar. They needed about 20,000 signatures, and submitted well over 26,000 of which they personally pre-verified nearly 24,000.

Streetcar skeptics hold a press conference on the steps of San Antonio’s city hall as they present signatures for a ballot measure requiring that voters approve any streetcars built in city streets or rights of way. Photo by Michael Dennis.

Unfortunately, this petition still has several hurdles to leap. First, the city is claiming that signature gatherers didn’t follow proper procedures; the petitioners claim they did, and that the procedures the city wants them to follow only apply to recall petitions. Second, even if the measure makes it to the ballot and is approved by voters, VIA argues that it won’t be bound by the results.