Affordable Is Not the Same as Affordability

Too much housing news is based on the failure to distinguish between affordable housing and housing affordability. Affordable housing is government-subsidized housing for low-income people. Housing affordability is the general level of housing prices relative to the general level of household or family incomes, often measured by dividing median home prices by median family incomes.

Areas where housing is affordable, such as Dallas or Raleigh, may still need some affordable housing for very poor people. But areas where housing is not affordable, such as Portland or San Francisco, will not solve their housing affordability problems by building more affordable housing. Despite this, politicians, reporters, and editors all promote more affordable housing to address housing affordability issues.

The San Jose Mercury News, for example, accuses Republicans of “sabotaging” the Bay Area’s affordable housing plans by cutting federal housing budgets. But the federal government didn’t impose urban-growth boundaries that have restricted development to 17 percent of the Bay Area, so why should federal taxpayers subsidize affordable housing that isn’t going to solve the region’s self-inflicted housing crisis? Continue reading

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Helping Low-Income People Reach Jobs

What is the best way to help low-income people — a group that disproportionately includes blacks and Latinos — get access to jobs? That question is certainly not answered by a report from left-wing think tank Demos. The report is aptly titled To Move Is to Thrive, but its subtitle, “Public Transit and Economic Opportunity for People of Color,” gives away its real agenda: more subsidies to the transit industry.

Written by Algernon Austin, the author of America Is Not Post-Racial, the report observes that “people of color” are less likely to own cars and more likely to be transit-dependent than white people. But Austin ignores the obvious and best solution, which is to give low-income people (regardless of color) access to cars. Instead, his report promotes “transit-focused infrastructure projects” into minority neighborhoods.

Since 1970, this nation has spent hundreds of billions of dollars on transit infrastructure projects. These projects have been disproportionately directed towards middle-class neighborhoods because middle-class people are the ones who pay for them through their taxes and the ones whose political support is needed to build them. Continue reading

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Speed Bumps on the Road to Driverless Cars

A company called Navya introduced a driverless bus in Las Vegas, and within two hours it was involved in a traffic accident. A semi-truck was backing up and grazed the fender of the driverless bus. All the blame was placed on the truck driver, but you have to wonder if a human driver would have avoided the accident by backing out of the way.

Meanwhile, Waymo has been demonstrating its driverless technology, and is even running its cars on public roads without a back-up driver at the wheel (there is a back-up driver in the back seat, but that’s an inconvenient location if they needed to take over). One writer describe’s Waymo’s technology as “so good, it’s boring,” noting that it can deal with pedestrians, cyclists, and even squirrels running in front of the cars.

But a top Waymo engineer frets that bicycle riders are so unpredictable that they may need electronically connect to driverless cars to protect themselves. While such connections may be nothing more than a smart phone app, some gram-counting cyclists may resist carrying any extra weight. Continue reading

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LaHood’s DC Rx: Raise Bus Fares, Cut Service

Washington Metro should raise bus fares and cut service as a part of a plan to restore its rail system to its former greatness, recommends a report by former Secretary of Immobility Ray LaHood. The report hasn’t been released yet–in fact, it has apparently been sitting on the Virginia governor’s desk for several weeks–but the Washington Post obtained a copy just in time for the report to have no influence on Virginia’s recent election.

Parts of the report are predictable, such as a recommendation that Metro obtain a source of “dedicated funds,” meaning a tax dedicated to it so it won’t have to be responsive to local politicians. However, LaHood’s mandate was to come up with a specific funding source acceptable to regional political interests, and he failed to do so.

What was not predicted was a finding that Metro “offers more [vehicle-hours of] service per rider than other large transit agencies.” Based on this finding, LaHood recommended cutting back service. The report notes that service levels were “average when compared to peers” until the opening of the Silver Line led to increased service hours coinciding with a decline in ridership. Continue reading

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Last Stop on the Light-Rail Gravy Train

Transit ridership is declining nationwide, yet the mayors of Nashville and San Antonio want to build multi-billion-dollar light-rail projects, notes a commentary in the Wall Street Journal. It’s behind a paywall and I might have reprinted it here, but I signed a four-page agreement that the Journal would have exclusive rights to it for 30 days.

However, the article’s subheadline, which I didn’t write, sums it up perfectly: “Mayors want new lines that won’t be ready for a decade,” observed the headline writer. “Commuters will be in driverless cars by then.”

Within the 800 words allowed for an ordinary op-ed, there wasn’t room for a lot of other points:

  • the cost overruns;
  • the ridership overestimates;
  • the implicit racism in spending billions to attract a few white people out of their cars while cutting bus service to minority neighborhoods;
  • the way almost any transit that operates in or crosses streets adds more to congestion than it takes cars off the road;
  • the fact that most rail lines have been built mainly to get “free” federal money; and
  • the fact that Nashville’s only rail transit today, the Music City Star, still carries only about 550 daily round trips, and it would have been less expensive to give every one of those daily round-trip riders a new Toyota Prius every other year for as long as they operate the train.

Continue reading

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How Do You Define “Feasible”?

Democratic Party hopes to retake Congress soon have been buoyed by this week’s election. Whether it is in 2018, 2020, or later, whenever they eventually regain control, federal funding for high-speed rail and other infrastructure projects will likely be back on the table. Since the sole criterion for funding such projects in 2009 was whether they had completed an environmental impact statement, numerous states are currently working on or have recently completed such statements.

An example of the Texas Department of Transportation, which just announced that its final environmental impact statement showed that a high-speed rail line from Dallas to San Antonio was “feasible.” A conventional rail line from Oklahoma City to Dallas and a higher-speed line from San Antonio to Monterrey, Mexico were also considered feasible. This is good news for rail buffs, as it means Texas is eligible for federal funding to do more detailed studies.

Before you buy your tickets for a high-speed ride from Dallas to San Antonio, it is worth asking what the state means by “feasible.” According to table 3-4 of the alternatives analysis, the Oklahoma City-Dallas segment would cost $650 million to start up, none of which would ever be recovered from fares. In fact, fares would only cover 27 percent of operating costs. That’s feasible? Continue reading

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Losing Sight of the Real Goal

Responding to the devastating decline in transit ridership, many interest groups are desperate to “save transit” from competitors and budget cuts. Transit agencies want to save transit. Transit unions want to save transit. Urban planners want to save transit. Transit advocacy groups want to save transit.

The only people who don’t want to save transit, it appears, are the travelers who for the past ninety years or so have increasingly found alternatives to transit that are faster, safer, cheaper, and more convenient. All of which suggests that those who want to save transit have lost sight of the real goal, which is–or ought to be–to provide cost-effective mobility for everyone.

The thing is, transit lost that battle decades ago. Though transit groups love to claim that transit saves people money, it is actually the most expensive form of travel in the United States by far. Moving a passenger one mile by transit cost (after all subsidies are counted) $1.17 in 2016. This was more than four times as much as driving, which cost just 24 cents per passenger mile. Continue reading

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Transit’s Accelerating Decline

Nationwide transit ridership in September, 2017, was 4.6 percent less than in the same month in 2016. That compares to a 3.5 percent drop in August and a 2.8 percent drop in July. Transit ridership for the first nine months of 2017 was 3.0 percent less than the same months in 2016.

These numbers are from the latest monthly data (8.3-MB) from the National Transit Database. As usual, the Antiplanner has enhanced this file (7.9-MB) by adding columns showing annual totals and rows showing totals by transit agency (starting at row 2100) and for the largest 200 urbanized areas (starting at row 3100).

A few months ago, Streetsblog observed that cities such as Houston and Seattle that had redesigned their bus routes (generally by replacing a hub-and-spoke system with a grid system) seemed to be exempt from the decline in transit ridership. That’s no longer the case, as Houston’s ridership declined by 4.3 percent in September and is down by 1.5 percent for the year to date. Continue reading

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The Next Insane Idea: The 30-Minute City

The prime minister of Australia, Malcolm Turnbull, has come up with an idea that will no doubt soon invade the United States. He calls it the “30-minute city,” the idea being that everyone will be able to get to work, school, and “anywhere we need to be” within 30 minutes.

Instead of relieving congestion so people can travel further within 30 minutes, however, Turnbull wants to completely rebuild urban areas, relocating jobs and people so they will be less than 30 minutes apart even if congested. Essentially, he wants to promote polycentric cities in which most jobs are located in a few urban and suburban centers.

Following Turnbull’s plan, for example, Sydney is proposing to become a “metropolis of three cities,” meaning three major job centers. Three? Los Angeles has more than 100 job centers. You’d have to get down to urban areas of under 500,000 people (Sydney has 5 million) to find ones in the United States with only three job centers. Continue reading

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Washington Metro, Meet the Titanic

Plagued by years of deferred maintenance, the Washington Metro system will have to undergo severe cuts in service if new funding isn’t found. General manager Paul Wiedefeld is asking Maryland, Virginia, and DC to increase their F.Y. 2019 contributions to Metro by $165 million, which is more than 10 percent of what they are giving in 2018. But Wiedefeld’s hopes for a “dedicated fund,” meaning a sales tax paid by all the regions’ residents, have been dashed by Maryland’s governor, who says there is no chance of that happening before 2019.

Ridership reports indicate that rush-hour ridership has recovered since Metro ended the “safe tracks” maintenance program that delayed many trains, but off-peak ridership has not. Moreover, the rush-hour recovery has been to 2015 levels, which themselves were 4 percent lower than the system’s peak in 2008. Weekday ridership in FY 2017 was 18 percent less than in 2008.

Since a large part of this decline is due to competition from Uber, Lyft, and similar services, some are beginning to doubt whether a full recovery will ever be possible. Metro board member David Horner notes that financial reports to the board repeatedly use the phrase “unsustainable operating model,” and he suggests that the rail system may be obsolete. Wiedefeld’s efforts remind Horner of “the expression about deck chairs on the Titanic.” Continue reading

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