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?
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
“Wimps didn’t build California,” claims this pro-high-speed rail video. Instead, California was built by “people with grit”: people like Walt Disney, who hated subsidies so much that he paid extra to have Disneyland get its electrical power from a private company rather than the public power company that served Anaheim.
If you have trouble viewing this video here, see it on Youtube.
“People said the Golden Gate Bridge was impossible,” the video says. It turned out to be possible because it was paid for entirely out of user fees, unlike high-speed rail whose costs would come mainly from people who would never use it.
The Antiplanner has been asked to talk about “Utah’s Unified Transportation Plan: 2011-2040,” prepared by the Utah Department of Transportation, Utah Transit Authority, and metropolitan planning organizations for Logan, Orem, Salt Lake-Ogden, and St. George. While that’s an impressive title and seemingly an impressive line-up of planning organizations, this is not a plan at all. Instead, it is just a wish-list of projects that the agencies would like taxpayers to fund.
Rational planners are supposed to set goals, identify a broad range of alternative ways of meeting those goals, estimate the benefits and costs of each alternative, use that information to develop an alternative that provides the most cost-effective approach, and then monitor to make sure the plan is really working as expected. This so-called unified plan, however, has no alternatives, no estimates of benefits, no cost-effectiveness analysis, no monitoring of past plans, and no evidence that any of this sort of information was used in coming up with the list of projects that dominates the document.
On top of that, trying to write a unified plan for all state transportation facilities, regional transit systems, and metropolitan areas makes the task all the more difficult. Of course, each agency that contributed to this unified plan has written its own plan and this wish-list is merely a summation of those plans. But I strongly suspect the plans written by the agencies are just as bad.
Mother Jones frets that moving “poor people to the suburbs is bad for the environment.” After all, it’s pretty meaningless if all these millennials moving to desirable inner-city neighborhoods to live low-impact lifestyles are merely forcing poor people to move to the suburbs where they will have to waste energy by driving a lot and heating their large homes.
The solution, the magazine suggests, is eliminating urban zoning that limit heights and densities. “Why are all the buildings [in Washington DC] merely six or 10 stories tall? Why not 40, when the prices indicate that the demand is there?” After all, polls of poor people show that “They would rather live in the projects than in a shelter.”
How generous of Mother Jones to wish that all poor people could live in the projects! But did anyone ask the poor if they would rather live in three-bedroom, single-family homes than in the project? The Antiplanner is all in favor of ridding the cities of zoning, but zoning also must be eliminated from suburban and rural areas. That way people can choose how they want to live based on the real costs, not on the artificially inflated costs found in places like Washington DC.
Today is the 175th anniversary of the birth of James J. Hill, builder of the Great Northern Railway and one of the great entrepreneurs of the late 19th century. As a railfan, the Antiplanner likes Hill because the Great Northern has always been my favorite railroad. It is only a coincidence that Hill’s politics were pretty similar to mine.
Hill in 1915.
Wikipedia describes Hill as a Bourbon Democrat, meaning a classical liberal who supported free trade and opposed government subsidies and legislative efforts to protect corporations from competition. As I detail in an article that should soon be published by the Great Northern Railway Historical Society, Hill also believed that the federal government should stay out of conservation issues as it would likely do more harm than good.