Streetcar, Streetcar, Lurching Along

Washington, DC has started a $221,000 advertising campaign to promote the H Street streetcar, which began operation earlier this year. This includes a radio jingle, “Streetcar, streetcar, cruising along/streetcar, streetcar, singing a song.”

The definition of cruising includes, “To travel at a constant speed,” which hardly applies to streetcars. Cruising is also innuendo for “looking for a sexual partner,” but somehow I doubt DC singles will be attracted to someone because they are riding a free (but expensive) 7-mph streetcar.

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Zoning Isn’t the Problem

Lengthy permitting processes are responsible for housing affordability problems in many cities, reports the Washington Post. Of course, I’ve been saying this for nearly two decades, but it doesn’t become true until it is reported in one of our newspapers of record.

While the Post is right about the problem with permitting, the article gets a lot of other things wrong. “Land is obviously part of the problem,” says the article. “San Francisco and Boston, hemmed in by water, have only so much of it left to build on.” Um, not really. The San Francisco Bay Area has built on less than 18 percent of the land available. Just 53 percent of the Massachusetts counties in the Boston metropolitan area have been urbanized, and that doesn’t count parts of the metro area in New Hampshire and Rhode Island. Why do people think that water on one side means they can’t expand in the other three directions?

The article never mentions urban-growth boundaries or other artificial constraints on urban expansion. Instead, it says “critics” have “blamed zoning laws.” In fact, zoning by itself isn’t the issue. Houston doesn’t have zoning, while Dallas does, yet both are growing rapidly and about equally affordable. Instead, the problem is urban containment.

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A Plank Worth Supporting

The current administration’s transportation department “subordinates civil engineering to social engineering as it pursues an exclusively urban vision of dense housing and government transit,” notes page 5 of the 2016 Republican Party Platform. For example, the administration’s “ill-named Livability Initiative is meant to ‘coerce people out of their cars.'”

In contrast, Republicans pledge “to remove from the Highway Trust Fund programs that should not be the business of the federal government,” including mass transit, “bike share programs, sidewalks, recreational trails, landscaping, and historical renovations.” The platform notes that more than 20 percent of federal highway revenues go to mass transit, yet transit is “an inherently local affair that serves only a small portion of the population, concentrated in six big cities.” (Really, six big urban areas, namely New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington, San Francisco-Oakland, and Boston, where two-thirds of transit rides take place.)

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The Arrogance of the Elite

America needs less democracy to avoid tyranny, says Andrew Sullivan in New York magazine. America “suffers from too much democracy,” agrees Richard Cohen in the Washington Post.

Anyone who supports Donald Trump is a traitor, writes Charles Pierce in Esquire. James Traub in Foreign Policy calls Trump and Brexit supporters “ignorance masses” and says it’s time for the “elites to rise up” against them, or at least to “un-delude them,” perhaps in re-education camps.

These elites act like crybabies who don’t get their way. They use bad names for anyone who disagrees with them. They say they know best and anyone who disagrees must not (as Traub puts it) “believe in reason, expertise, and the lessons of history.”

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More Obsolete Than Ever

Bryan Mistele, the CEO of traffic tracker Inrix, argues in the Seattle Times that proposed new light-rail lines will be “obsolete before they are built.” Specifically, he says, automated, connected, electric, and shared vehicles–which he abbreviates as ACES–are already changing how people travel, and those changes are accelerating.

Sound Transit, Seattle’s regional rail transit agency, wants voters to approve a $54 billion ballot measure this November for more light rail. This, Mistele points out, is more than twice the cost of the Panama Canal expansion, yet isn’t likely to produce any significant benefits.

A rail advocate named Joe responds in the Seattle Weekly by calling self-driving cars “snake oil” similar to predictions in the 1950s that supposedly said everyone would be flying around in helicopters. Joe betrays ignorance about traffic, suggesting that a freeway that is congested with stop-and-go traffic could not possibly support any more cars even if they were self-driving. In fact, a road with stop-and-go traffic can move only half as many cars per hour as one with free-flowing traffic, and free-flowing traffic spaces cars six or seven car-lengths apart. Self-driving cars could easily beat that.

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Back in the Air Again

The Antiplanner is in San Francisco today to speak about housing affordability and land use regulation at the Free Market Road Show. If you are in the area, the event will be from 5:30 pm to 8:30 pm at the Infinity Club, 333 Main Street. I hope to see you there.

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The Politicization of Data

A few weeks ago, the Antiplanner reported on a questionable change in transportation data published by the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. An even more questionable change can be found in table VM-1 of Highway Statistics, an annual report published by the Federal Highway Administration.

Before 2009, Highway Statistics regularly appeared months before the Federal Transit Administration published its annual National Transit Database for the same year. There may have been good reasons for that: the highway data depended on reports from the 50 states and District of Columbia, while the transit data depended on data from nearly 700 transit agencies (as of 2008; more than 850 today). Collecting, reviewing, and collating all that data no doubt took a lot of time.

After Obama took office, a funny thing happened: the highway data started coming out after the transit data. In some cases, not just months, but years after. For example, the on-line 2009 Highway Statistics is still missing some minor tables, and one of the most important tables about highway finance, HF-10, is still missing from the 2011 edition.

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Time to Stop Long-Range Planning

The Department of Transportation is inviting comments on a proposed change in the rules for metropolitan transportation planning. Under the current rules, every metropolitan planning organization (MPO) must write a long-range (20 years) transportation plan and update it every five years, as well as a short-range transportation improvement plan that lists that projects the organization expects to fund in its region.

Some urbanized areas, however, have multiple metropolitan planning organizations. For example, Miami, Ft. Lauderdale, and West Palm Beach each have their own metropolitan planning organizations even though (since 2000) they are in the same urbanized area. The proposed rule would require the MPOs to submit a single long-range transportation plan for the entire urbanized area.

On one hand, the purpose of MPOs in the first place is to save the federal government from having to review thousands of grant proposals from the thousands of different cities and counties that make up the nation’s urban areas. Thus, this represents a streamlining from the federal government’s point of view since it reduces the number of grant proposals it will have to deal with.

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Don’t Count on Shared Mobility

The OECD has published a fairly realistic report about the effects of self-driving cars on urban transportation. However, the report contains some implicit assumptions that may not come true.

“Single-occupancy car use generates individual and collective benefits,” admits the report, “but these are eroded and, in some cases, obviated by environmental impacts, loss of transport system efficiency due to congestion, social inequity and exclusion, as well as road crashes and strong dependence on fossil fuels.” Except for congestion, however, most of these problems are exaggerated and even congestion is technically easy (but politically difficult) to solve with congestion pricing.

“Typically, the response to the negative impacts of car-dominated transport systems,” continues the report, “has been to promote public transport.” But this “comes at a heavy cost,” and despite many cities paying that cost, “public transport continues to lose market share to private vehicles in most developed economies.”

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