Suburbs Still the Dominant American Lifestyle

How many cities and regions are basing their land-use and transportation plans on the notion that most Millennials want to live in dense cities? Officials in those areas should read a new report from the Urban Land Institute. Among other things, the report says that three-quarters of Millennials in the nation’s 50 largest metropolitan areas live in the suburbs.

That’s not much less than the 79 percent of everyone in those metro areas who live in the suburbs. Moreover, 76 percent of minorities live in the suburbs, again not much different from the overall average. The Urban Land Institute has a history of promoting smart growth and other urban planning fads, so these conclusions aren’t based on any hidden agendas.

Most of the ULI report is spent dividing suburbs into one of five categories: high-end, middle-class, “economically challenged,” “greenfield lifestyle,” and “greenfield value.” Greenfield lifestyle refers to master-planned communities that include parks and other amenities while greenfield value tend to be ordinary subdivisions with fewer amenities. This kind of classification may be useful to realtors, but if urban planners attempt to use it, perhaps to “fix” the economically challenged areas, the result is likely to be a disaster.

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Is Congestion Deliberate?

According to the Texas Transportation Institute, the costs of congestion have quadrupled since 1982. The Antiplanner has often argued that cities have deliberately allowed congestion to increase in the erroneous belief that more congestion would lead people to stop driving and start riding transit or use other modes of travel. However, the evidence for this is merely anecdotal; it’s hard to imagine city officials admitting even in private memos that congestion was their goal.

An article in last Friday’s New York Post, however, makes the case that congestion is deliberate. “City officials have intentionally ground Midtown to a halt with the hidden purpose of making drivers so miserable that they leave their cars at home and turn to mass transit or bicycles,” reports the newspaper that was founded by Alexander Hamilton. The article specifically blames “today’s gridlock” on the “Bloomberg and de Blasio administrations.”

Sensational news, perhaps, but not necessarily persuasive. The article attributes this information to “high-level sources,” later saying it comes from “a former top NYPD official.” While the article offered specific examples of ways the city has increased congestion, including the conversion of auto lanes to bicycle lanes and restrictions on the ability of drivers to make turns at many intersections, it offers no documentation that these things were done specifically to make auto drivers miserable.

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Hyperloop None

When Elon Musk first proposed the hyperloop–a transportation tube between Los Angeles and San Francisco–the Antiplanner panned the idea saying that it would cost a lot more than Musk claimed, that passengers would be reluctant to be accelerated to high speeds in a windowless capsule, and that a point-to-point technology wouldn’t be able to compete with the door-to-door convenience of the automobile. Recently, New York magazine has published an article confirming the first point and possibly the second.

In “A Kink in the Hyperloop,” writer Benjamin Wallace recounts efforts by venture capitalists to put together a company called Hyperloop One that would build and operate the hyperloop. Most of the article deals with personal frictions between the various players, but a telling statement near the end of the article blows up the entire idea: “The projected cost-per-mile has gone from 6 percent to 60 percent of that of California High Speed Rail.”

Musk’s original cost projection for a San Francisco-to-Los Angeles line was $7.5 billion. If costs have increased ten times, the current projection must be $75 billion.

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Not All Infrastructure Is Created Equal

An op-ed in the New York Daily News argues that Trump’s infrastructure plan “will result in wasteful spending and do little to fix crumbling facilities or promote economic growth” unless it is properly targeted, and the best way to target is to spend only on infrastructure that can be built and maintained with user fees.

The country should also avoid building new infrastructure that will soon be obsolete. For example, Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) spent nearly half a billion dollars building the Airport Connector, a 3.2-mile elevated cable-car line to the Oakland Airport. BART expected to cover operating costs by charging people $6 to travel between the airport and the nearest BART station. Instead, it is losing money, and they are blaming Uber and Lyft. It was a dumb idea even if they did recover operating costs, but new technologies have made it even dumber still.

The Trump Administration needs to learn the Antiplanner’s Law of Transportation Infrastructure: Any transportation technology that requires new infrastructure is doomed to failure because it will be unable to compete against technologies using existing infrastructure such as the nation’s hundreds of commercial airports and millions of miles of highways.

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Meet the New Secretary of Transportation

In what may turn out to be his least controversial cabinet nomination, President-elect Trump has picked Elaine Chao as Secretary of Transportation. Chao was previously Secretary of Labor under George W. Bush and Deputy Secretary of Transportation under George H.W. Bush. She has also served as director of the Peace Corps and worked as a distinguished fellow for the Heritage Foundation.

Chao was born in Taiwan and when she was 8 years old her family emigrated to the United States, where her father ended up founding a major shipping company that owns a fleet of at least fifteen ships. She earned a degree in economics from Mount Holyoke College in 1975 and an MBA from Harvard Business School in 1979.

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America Has Enough Infrastructure

Many people in Washington are talking about infrastructure spending. Infrastructure is a bi-partisan issue, because every elected official is happy to spend other people’s money on projects that will get their names in the paper and contributions to their re-election campaigns.

George Will throws a dose of cold water on the party when he points out that it’s hard to spend money on infrastructure when we’ve thrown up so many roadblocks in the form of environmental reviews. But that’s not the real problem with infrastructure spending. The real problem is that we really don’t need any new infrastructure.

Most writers assume that government spending on infrastructure has a multiplier effect: that every dollar spent will generate more than a dollar of gross domestic product. That worked for early highway spending, which generated a huge amount of new travel and shipping that didn’t exist before. It won’t work for most infrastructure spending today.

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Back in the Air Again

The Antiplanner is flying to Washington DC today to participate in a forum on housing tomorrow, Should Urban Areas Grow Up or Grow Out to Keep Housing Affordable?. The forum will include a broad range of views including Gerrit Knaap of the National Center for Smart Growth Research and Emily Hamilton of the Mercatus Center.

If you plan to attend, please register at the above link. If you are unable to attend in person but would like to view the conference over the Internet, also use the above link to get the live stream.

The Antiplanner’s presentation will be based on a recent paper on The New Feudalism and additional data showing that increasing densities makes urban areas less affordable, not more.

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Happy Thanksgiving

The Antiplanner wishes everyone a Happy Thanksgiving, especially the non-elites who made a big difference in the recent election. When I was doing research for my 2012 book, American Nightmare, I realized that land-use regulation and many other things I had been seeing were best understood as a form of economic warfare on the working class. So I am thankful that, this month, the working class scored a point in that war, or in fact 290 of them.

We naturally hope it doesn’t turn out that we’ve been fooled again. One positive sign is President-elect Trump’s offer of HUD secretary to Ben Carson, who understands that the same policies that oppress the white working class harm blacks and Latinos as well.

In any case, I hope everyone else reading this has something to be thankful for as well. Best wishes to you all.

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Portland to Displaced Blacks:
Have We Got a Deal for You

By driving up land and housing prices, Portland’s urban-growth boundary has accelerated gentrification of low-income neighborhoods, displacing blacks, Latinos, and other families. As the Antiplanner has shown in a recent paper, the number of blacks in Portland actually declined between 2010 and 2014.

Portland promised to find affordable homes for displaced blacks, but for some reason those blacks aren’t too thrilled with the 387-square-foot condos the city has offered them. The city is making the condos available to families earning less than $47,000 a year, with priority given to people displaced by gentrification (which is often subsidized by the city’s urban-renewal agency).

Such people will be welcome to buy these condos for a mere $164,000, or nearly $425 a square foot. Such a deal, especially considering many of the displaced people were living in single-family homes several times the size of the condos, and that such homes in places without urban-growth boundaries would cost half of what the city wants for its “affordable” condos.

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Amtrak’s World-Class Losses

Amtrak issued its F.Y. 2016 unaudited financial results last week with a glowing press release that claimed a “new ridership record and lowest operating loss ever.” Noting that “ticket sales and other revenues” covered 94 percent of Amtrak’s operating costs, Amtrak media relations called this “a world-class performance for a passenger carrying railroad.” The reality is quite a bit more dismal.

Many new high-tech firms attract investors despite losing money, but a 45-year-old company operating an 80-year-old technology shouldn’t really brag about having its “lowest loss ever.” The “world-class performance” claim is based on the assumption that trains elsewhere lose money, which is far from true: most passenger trains in Britain and Japan make money, partly because they are at least semi-privatized.

Moreover, a close look at the unaudited report reveals that Amtrak left a lot of things out of its press release: passenger miles carried by Amtrak declined; ticket revenues declined; and the average length of trip taken by an Amtrak passenger declined. The main reasons for Amtrak’s positive results were an increase in state subsidies (which Amtrak counts as passenger revenue) and a decrease in fuel and other costs.

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