Author Archives: The Antiplanner

About The Antiplanner

The Antiplanner is an economist with forty years of experience critiquing public land, urban, transportation, and other government plans.

Milwaukee Streetcar Debate Continues

Supporters of a Milwaukee streetcar boondoggle are chiding a city alderman for expressing the fear that streetcar passengers could be vulnerable to crime. Apparently, opponents of progressive ideas like streetcars aren’t supposed to use real facts when making the case against those ideas.

The Bureau of Transportation Statistics reports crime by transit mode. When those numbers are compared with passenger miles by transit mode, it turns out that light-rail riders are far more likely to be victims of crime than bus riders. Light-rail riders are three times as likely to be raped or sexually assaulted, twice as likely to suffer aggravated assault, and five times as likely to be robbed as bus riders. Yet anyone who points this out is apparently “fear mongering.” Streetcars aren’t exactly the same as light rail, but they share one feature that buses don’t have: the driver is often in a separate compartment from the passengers, so can’t do as good a job monitoring passenger behavior.

On the other hand, the Wisconsin Reporter reveals the “incestuous relationships” among streetcar supporters, all connected together by a PR firm called Meuller Communications. All this really points out is that streetcars involve lots of money and lots of people want to get in on the action. Contrary to some, the Koch Brothers don’t stand to make a dime if streetcar lines are not built, but many other people and companies stand to make millions if they are built. For this reason alone, Milwaukeeans should be wary of any claims made for streetcars.

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Transit Idiocy

Self-driving cars could “make congestion dramatically worse,” warns a headline in the Atlantic‘s CityLab. Simulations show that, if just 25 percent of cars on the road are self-driving, the article says, there will be a lot more delays at intersections.

It’s not surprising that the transit crowd would want to try to discredit the idea of self-driving cars, but this is a particularly pathetic attempt. The CityLab article is based on a study that assumed that, for the sake of passenger comfort, self-driving cars would be programmed to accelerate and decelerate no faster than a light-rail or intercity train. Such slow acceleration, the study found, would increase the time it would take cars to get through stop lights.

The study was seemingly done by people who haven’t ever seen a self-driving car in real life, or maybe any car. There’s an obvious difference between cars and trains: people stand up and walk around in trains, so acceleration and deceleration has to be slow. So far, no one has designed a self-driving tall enough to stand in, so there’s no need to cripple the cars that way.

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Someone Teach Him the Laws of Supply & Demand

With its “vibrant mix of residential, retail, commercial and green space,” Arlington County, Virginia is exactly where a lot of Millennials in the Washington DC area would like to live–at least according to one such Millennial named Harrison Godfrey. However, many can’t, as the median home price is $550,000, which is far more than two professionals who each earn $50,000 a year can afford.

Godfrey has apparently never taken an economics class. At just 26 square miles (compared with an average of 450 miles for the rest of Virginia’s 94 counties), Arlington County is in reality a small city. According to the 2010 census, it is 100 percent urbanized with a population density of 8,000 people per square mile.

By comparison, the urbanized portion of Montgomery County, Maryland is just 3,500 people per square mile. In other words, there really isn’t any more room to build in Arlington County, at least not without displacing a lot of people who live there now–which would probably mean some of the ethnic minorities that help make the county “vibrant.”

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The Ideal Communist Climate-Friendly City

To stop climate change, Al Gore wants to spend a mere $90 trillion rebuilding all of the world’s cities so that everyone is living in such high-density neighborhoods that they don’t need cars. While a few curmudgeonly types might think that $90 trillion sounds like a lot of money, it really isn’t, say Gore and former Mexico president Filipe Calderon. After all, the world is probably going to spend the $90 trillion on something in the next few years anyway, so what’s wrong with spending it on this?


Gore wants to rebuild this dumb-growth city into. . .

Gore made the proposal at an economics conference in Davos, Switzerland attended by billionaires who fly in on private jets so they can tell other people they need to get used to consuming less. Of course, neither Gore nor the other millionaires and billionaires at the conference expect to be stuck living in a high-density apartment any time soon.

this smart-growth city (illustrations by Alain Bertaud).

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Rail Troubles

The latest news from Hawai’i is that the Honululu Authority for Rapid Transportation (HART) lied to the city council when it told them the city’s rail project was $500 million to $700 million over budget. It turns out it’s really $910 million over budget. HART was just hoping to cover up $210 million of the deficit by quietly transferring bus money to the rail project.

Meanwhile, as fiscal conservative Larry Hogan is sworn in as governor of Maryland, rail advocates are doing a full-court press about how the state really needs to build the Purple Line, a light-rail line from the mighty city of New Carrollton (population: 12,000) to the city census-defined place of Bethesda (population: 63,000), passing through the census-defined place of Silver Spring (population: 77,000) on the way. The trains are expected to trundle between these suburbs at the breath-taking speed of not-quite 15.5 miles per hour, somehow attracting 69,000 daily riders along the way.

As shown earlier this week, the Maryland Department of Transportation has solid track record of overestimating light- and heavy-rail ridership by at least 100 percent. If it is built, the Purple Line is likely to be no exception. New Jersey’s Hudson-Bergen line, which serves neighborhoods whose population densities are four times greater than those along the Purple Line and regional centers with far more jobs than suburban DC, carried just 44,000 riders per weekday in 2012. The Purple Line is not likely to be less than that.

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Keeping Austin Weird

With Austin’s light-rail ballot measure going down in flames last November due to its high costs, rail transit advocates have conceded defeat, folded up their tents, and gone home. Ha, ha, just kidding; actually, now they are talking about subways.

Although someone prepared this map of an Austin subway system more as a joke than anything else, it has been used in news reports about proposals to build subways in the Texas capital.

“What do most major popular cities that continue to grow and be vibrant have in common?” asks Tom Meredith, former CEO of Dell Computer, which is headquartered in Austin. His answer? “Subways.”

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Transit Ridership Overestimates

Following up on yesterday’s list of cost overruns, today the Antiplanner looks at ridership overestimates. The sample of projects today is slightly different, as several of yesterday’s projects are excluded for a lack of data while several projects are added that were excluded yesterday because they involved reconstruction of existing rail lines.

The table below shows that early ridership estimates average about 70 percent greater than the actual ridership of the project. Estimates for projects completed in the 2000s were slightly worse than estimates for projects completed in the 1980s. Estimates for 2010s projects were better, but the sample size is small.

The numbers in the table represent average weekday ridership. Most of these data are based on projections for the first year of operation, but some projects didn’t make estimates for that year so the DOT relied on estimates for a later year and tried to adjust the numbers based on the rate of growth in ridership. In two cases (marked with *) the projected year was 2010, so I used actual 2010 ridership. In a case marked **, the projected year was 2015, so I projected that year based on the growth rate through 2012.

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Rail Transit Cost Overruns

Rail transit projects typically cost about 40 to 50 percent more than projected, with some projects costing double the original projections and very few costing less than 20 percent more than the projections. The table below shows the projected and actual costs of 56 rail projects (and four bus projects). Most of the data are from a series of Department of Transportation reports, the first of which came out in 1990 (23.5 MB), with updates in 2003 (17.2 MB), 2007 (3.7 MB), 2008 (0.3 MB), 2011 (0.7 MB), 2012 (0.1 MB), and 2013 (0.8 MB).

I added five projects to those listed in these reports. One, the Los Angeles Blue Line, is documented in a 2006 paper by researchers at Northeastern University. All of the numbers in the paper are identical to the numbers in the 2007 DOT report except that the paper also has the Blue Line while the DOT report does not. I presume the methodologies are identical and that the 52 rail projects in the DOT reports and the Northeastern University paper are a representative sample, as the FTA would be unlikely to deliberately bias the sample to projects that went over cost by more than the average.

The other four projects I added were completed since 2009, the date of the last project studied in the DOT papers. I based the data for these projects on FTA New Starts reports and other official documentation. My selection of projects may not be as representative a cross-section of projects completed in that time period as I only picked projects I know about and these may tend to go over cost by more than the average.

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Abolish the Gas Tax?

Last month, the Eno Center for Transportation proposed to abolish the gas tax, and the Antiplanner panned the idea. This week, the Wall Street Journal proposes abolish the gas tax, and the Antiplanner thinks it may be right.

The difference is that Eno wanted to replace the gas tax with federal transportation spending out of general funds in a deliberate effort to make transportation even more politicized than it is today. The Journal, on the other hand, wants to de-politicize highway spending.

The problem is that the Journal never actually says what it proposes to do instead of the gas tax. Reading between the lines, what the Journal is really proposing is to abolish the federal gas tax, while letting states fund highways out of gas taxes, tolls, mileage-based user fees, or whatever fees work best in each state. Too bad it didn’t bother to make the case for that, or even explain it.

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Big Brother Wants to Watch You Drive

In 2008, the Washington legislature passed a law mandating a 50 percent reduction in per capita driving by 2050. California and Oregon have similar but somewhat less draconian laws or regulations.

The Obama administration wants to mandate that all new cars come equipped with vehicle-to-infrastructure communications, so the car can send signals to and receive messages from street lights and other infrastructure.

Now the California Air Resources Board is considering regulations requiring that all new cars monitor their owners’ driving habits, including, among other things, how many miles they drive, how much fuel they use, and how much pollution or greenhouse gases they emit.

Put these all together and you have a system in which the government will not only know where your vehicle is at all times, but can turn off your vehicle if it decides you are driving too much or driving in a way that emits too many grams of carbon dioxide or is otherwise offensive to some bureaucratic imperative.

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