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.

No Streetcar for San Antonio

After being in office just one week, San Antonio’s new mayor, Ivy Taylor, proposed Monday that the city withdraw the $32 million it had promised to build a new $280 million, 5.9-mile streetcar line. Moreover, she persuaded Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, the region’s leading streetcar proponent, to join her in declaring the streetcar plan dead. Wolff has previously said that he is too busy waging a re-election campaign against a streetcar opponent to campaign in favor of the streetcar plan.

A planner’s fantasy of what a streetcar would look like near the Alamo in San Antonio.

The announcements come amid controversy over an initiative petition submitted by streetcar opponents asking that voters be allowed to approve or reject the plan in November. The city has tentatively rejected most of the signatures, saying they were improperly collected. The petitioners have a legal opinion saying the city is reading the law incorrectly. The new mayor may be hoping that, in announcing the plan is dead, the demand for a vote will go away. If the city rejects the petitions now and opponents go to court, the measure may have to go to voters in a later election.

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Obsolete Rail Line Opens in Virginia

To great fanfare, the DC Silver Line opened from Tysons Center to East Falls Church, Virginia. Although the news reports mentioned the cost–nearly $47,000 per foot or more than $3,900 per inch–a lot of other things were left unsaid.

The Silver Line will displace trains on the Orange and Blue lines, which are already being used at capacity. Click for a larger view.

Facts such as:

  • The transit agency that will operate it, WMATA, wanted an affordable bus-rapid transit line;
  • The cost doubled after the decision was made to build it;
  • Silver Line trains will displace Orange and Blue line trains that are now running full;
  • WMATA can’t afford to maintain the system it has, much less one that is even bigger;

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Because Exclusive Bus Lanes Aren’t Expensive Enough

Los Angeles transit officials are eagerly contemplating the opportunity to spend money converting the Orange bus-rapid transit line into a light-rail line. To promote this idea, they are letting people know that light rail will be faster, more comfortable, and operate more frequently (so riders will be less likely to have to stand) than buses.

These lanes are exclusively dedicated to buses, but transit agency officials say they need to replace them with light rail because there is no room to run more than one bus every eight minutes.

Of course, all of these things are wrong. The current bus line averages 26 mph, about 4 mph faster than the average light-rail line. Buses can be just as comfortable as light rail, and when vehicles are full, a higher percentage of bus riders get to sit down (about two-thirds as opposed to less than half). As for frequencies, the current schedule of the Orange line calls for one bus every eight minutes at rush hour. Since the road is closed to all other traffic, somehow I think they could squeeze a few more in if they wanted to.

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Transit and Congestion

The Antiplanner was apparently exposed to a bad cold when traveling last week and didn’t feel up to writing a timely post for this morning. (Would I have avoided this if I had a driverless car to take me to San Francisco instead flying?)

However, someone emailed me in response to yesterday’s post asking if I was guilty of hyperbole when I said that, outside of New York, transit doesn’t “carry enough people to relieve much congestion.” So I prepared the above chart showing transit’s share of total travel (not just commuting) by urbanized areas. Only urbanized areas in which transit carries more than 2 percent of travel are shown.

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Who Needs Transit, Anyway?

Rail advocates often call the Antiplanner “anti-transit,” probably because it is easier to call people names than to answer rational arguments. I’ve always responded that I’m just against wasteful transit. But looking at the finances and ridership of transit systems around the country, it’s hard not to conclude that all government transit is wasteful transit.

Nationally, after adjusting for inflation, the APTA transit fact book shows that annual taxpayer subsidies to transit operations have grown from $1.6 billion in 1970 to $24.0 billion in 2012, yet per capita ridership among America’s urban residents has declined from 49 to 44 trips per year. A lot of that money ends up going to unionized transit workers, but the scary thing is that these workers have some of the best pension and health care plans in the world that are mostly unfunded–which means that transit subsidies will have to increase in the future even if no one rides it at all.

Capital and maintenance subsidies are nearly as great as operating subsidies, largely due to the industry’s fascination with costly rail transit. In 2012, while taxpayers spent $24 billion subsidizing transit operations, they also spent nearly $10 billion on maintenance, and more than $7 billion on capital improvements. In 2012, 25 percent of operating subsidies went to rail transit, but 56 percent of maintenance and 90 percent of capital improvements were spent on rails.

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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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