Category Archives: Mission

Economic Principles for Planners, Part 2

Here’s a continuation of yesterday’s post with five more economic principles for planners. Today’s principles are a little more complicated than yesterday’s. To clarify, I am using the word “planners” as shorthand for “advocates of government infrastructure subsidies and regulation.”

6. There’s no such thing as a free lunch.

Planners would like you to believe that there is free money available to do the projects they propose. Sometimes they mean federal money (“it’s going to be wasted somewhere, so we might as well waste it here”), while other times they mean tax-increment financing (“if we didn’t subsidize the development, the taxes wouldn’t come in to pay for it”).

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Economic Principles for Planners, Part 1

Planners and economists often come to the exact opposite conclusions about various policy proposals. In too many cases, this seems to be because planners (which I define here as “advocates of government spending and regulation”) have a poor understanding of basic economics. To help them out, the Antiplanner has developed ten economic principles for planners. I’ll present five today and five tomorrow.

1. Capital costs are costs.

Too many planners want to ignore, or want other people to ignore, capital costs. Like a high-pressure car salesperson whose job is to get the customer to buy the most expensive car they can afford, they’ll say, “Pay no attention to the number of zeroes at the end of that number. You only have to pay the capital cost once, and then think of all the benefits you’ll get.” Why get a Chevrolet when you can get a Cadillac? Why get a Yaris when you can get a Lexus? Why improve bus service when you can build light rail?

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American Dream Presentations

Of the more than 30 presentations given at the 2014 Preserving the American Dream conference in Denver this past weekend, 18 used PowerPoint shows, all of which are downloadable below. A complete agenda shows when each presentation was given.

PowerPoint Presentations

Session 1: Debate Over Tolls and Public/Private Partnerships

Robert Poole: The Case for Tolls and PPPs

Greg Cohen: The Case Against Tolls and PPPs

Session 2: Transportation

Christian Holter: Struggles and Successes of Private Transit in America

Session 2a: Transportation Issues

Alan Pisarski: Where Is VMT Going?

Marc Scribner: The Future of Automobility

Session 2b: Transportation Finance

Baruch Feigenbaum: The TIGER Program–Discretionary Grant or Political Tool?

Session 2c: Data Workshop

Wendell Cox: Urban Data (10 MB)

Session 3: Land-Use Issues

Wendell Cox: Britain’s Declining House Sizes (13 MB)

Session 3a: Sustainability vs. Freedom

Rick Harrison: Sustainable Suburban Development Can Defeat Social Engineering (108 MB)

Thomas Wambolt: Problems with TIF

Session 3b: Fighting Sustainability Plans

Mark Gotz: Fighting Southern Florida’s Seven-50 Plan (14.1 MB)

Video on slide 9 of Mark’s show (12 MB)

Peter Singleton: Fighting Plan Bay Area

Session 3c: How to Review Transportation Plans

Thomas Rubin: How to Review a Transit Plan (10.8 MB)

Randal O’Toole: How to Review a Regional Transportation Plan (19 MB)

Session 5b: Getting out the Message

Sharon Nassett: Stopping Wasteful Projects Through Citizen Advocacy

John Anthony: Shattering America’s Trance (2.0 MB)

Jim Karlock: How to Make YouTube Videos

Mimi Steel: Fighting a Plan After It Has Been Approved (5.1 MB)

Videos associated with Mimi Steel’s presentation (107 MB).

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Supplemental Papers

Marc Scribner on Regulation of Self-Driving Vehicles

Which Way for the Highway Trust Fund

Emily Goff on Bringing Transportation Decisions Closer to the People: Why States and Localities Should Have More Control

Tom Rubin on Strategy for Preparation of NEPA/CEQA Administrative Record

Selling the Northwest Passage, an article about a proposed third bridge across the Columbia River

Survey of St. Johns-Lombard about transportation issues

A Line in the Sand, an article about Sharon Nasset and the Columbia River Crossing

Interesting Data (Excel Files)

Most of the files below are from the 2012 American Community Survey, a Census Bureau survey of more than 3 million households. Some of the files for urbanized areas may not include data for smaller urban areas because the sample size wasn’t large enough for statistical accuracy.

How people with no cars get to work by urbanized area

How people with no cars get to work by state

How people get to work by income class by state

Median home price to median family income ratio by urbanized area

Median home price to median family income ratio by state

This spreadsheet is a summary of the 2012 National Transit Database, which includes data for nearly all transit agencies and modes in the nation. An Antiplanner post explains most of the rows and columns in the 1.8-MB spreadsheet.

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Light Rail and Streetcars

The Antiplanner (along with co-author Jeff Judson) has an op ed in the San Antonio Express News on what San Antonio should do now that it has given up on the streetcar. My presentation to the San Antonio Tea Party on a similar subject is available for download as a 35-MB PDF.

At least some people in San Antonio think the city should adopt a smart-growth plan to deal with the million people who are likely to move to the area in the next 30 years. But roughly a million people moved to the area in the last 30 years without dire consequences (except for the congestion that resulted from planners’ obsession with rail transit while they ignored efficient solutions such as traffic signal coordination), so it isn’t clear why a new plan is needed.

Here are the speaking events I know about for the next few days. First, this afternoon (Monday, September 8), from 4:30 to 6:30 pm, I’ll be speaking about the Pinellas light-rail plan at a public forum at the IRB Sushi Restaurant in Indian Rocks Beach, Florida.

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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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The Next Step in the Megabus Revolution

Megabus recently purchased new double-decker buses for its U.S. service for $700,000 apiece. On many routes over distances of 100 to 300 miles, Megabus and its imitators such as Bolt Bus are faster, more frequent, and less expensive to ride than Amtrak.


First-class Megabuses for overnight service. Click any photo for a larger view.

Meanwhile, in the U.K. (where Megabus originated), Megabus is taking the next step in bus service by providing a first-class, overnight service called Megabus Gold. In addition to the power ports and free WiFi that Megabus passengers have come to expect, the new buses have an on-board attendant serving free beverages and snacks.

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Streetcars Pro and Con

Last week, the San Antonio Express News published a pair of op eds for and against construction of a downtown streetcar. In opposition was Representative Lamar Smith, whose congressional district includes parts of both San Antonio and Austin.

A streetcar, he wrote, would be expensive, impractical, and would “likely make congestion worse.” “There are better uses for the hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars now slated for streetcars,” Smith observed, adding that most residents of San Antonio seem to oppose it and should at least have the chance to vote on it.

Writing in support of the streetcar was planner Bill Barker of Imagine San Antonio, a smart-growth group. Barker was previously the Senior Management Analyst in the City of San Antonio’s Office of Sustainability. Barker’s argument in favor of the streetcar was simple: the people who oppose the streetcar are evil, so should be ignored.

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Urban Planners Live in a Fantasy World

A few recent articles reveal just how out-of-touch with reality planning advocates are today. In the New York Times, architect Vishaan Chakrabarti claims that “millions of Americans [are] gravitating toward cities,” so we need to subsidize them with “subways, great schools, innovative work spaces, affordable housing and high-speed rail.”

Thousands? Maybe. Millions? Hardly. Relying on actual data, rather than wishful thinking, demographer Wendell Cox shows that, between 2000 and 2010, only about 206,000 people moved to within two miles of city centers in the nation’s 60-plus metropolitan areas of one million or more people. But the area just a little further out–two to seven miles from downtowns–lost 272,000 people, for a net change of minus 66,000. That doesn’t sound like millions are “gravitating” to the cities.

Another article in the New York Times advocates building a streetcar between Manhattan and Brooklyn. Here is the one city in America where high-capacity rail transit could possibly make sense (though it doesn’t today, probably because it is run by the government), and they want to build a super-low-capacity rail line!

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The Cost of Renewable Energy

Life is about trade-offs. Some people act as though solar and wind power are somehow free, but of course they aren’t–and the cost goes beyond just the dollar cost of erecting wind turbines or putting solar cells in the desert.


A yellow-rumped warbler singed by the reflecting mirrors of a solar power plant. Fish & Wildlife Service researchers say the area above solar mirrors can easily reach more than 400 degrees Celsius (750° F).

A study reported just a few months ago found that wind turbines kill between 140,000 and 328,000 birds per year. A more recent study from the Fish & Wildlife Service found hundreds of bird carcasses around three solar energy facilities in Southern California. The report added that, “The numbers of dead birds [found] are likely underrepresented, perhaps vastly so,” partly because birds carcasses attract more birds, creating a cycle of death.

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Streetcar Lobbyists

Lobbying for streetcars has become a “rare growth spot in an otherwise difficult business environment,” reports Politico. At least thirteen different lobbying firms are trying to help cities get federal money for building clunky, obsolete rail systems.

The article repeats the usual drivel about how streetcars revitalize neighborhoods and lead to billions of dollars of economic development. Since there’s absolutely no evidence of that outside of Portland, and the only redevelopment along Portland streetcar lines was supported by hundreds of millions of dollars in subsidies, all the Antiplanner can say is that a lot of cities are going to be surprised when nothing happens where they build streetcars unless they sneak in their own subsidies to developers.

Imagine how proud the streetcar lobbyists will be as city after city clogs up its streets with slow-moving vehicles that carry hardly any riders because they are slower than walking for most people and slower than bicycling for just about everyone. Yes, they’ll be able to tell their grandchildren, they are the ones responsible for saddling the cities with high taxes in order to pay to operate streetcars that cost twice as much to run as buses and to spend even more maintaining rail lines that were obsolete almost a hundred years before they were built.

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