Category Archives: Why Planning Fails

Life-Cycle Budgeting? No, Thanks

Life-cycle budgeting is suddenly the latest transportation-planning fad. Even some free-market groups are promoting it as a way to save tax dollars.

The theory is that a life-cycle analysis will look ahead at all future costs, not just the initial cost, of transportation projects. At first glance, this sounds great. Most transportation fixed infrastructure needs to be replaced every 30 years or so, and rolling stock needs even more frequent replacements. Transit agencies tend to look ahead only 30 years, thereby pretending that such replacements are not needed.

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The Vision of the Urbanites

As the Antiplanner has traveled and visited people all over the country, I’ve noticed an interesting phenomenon. Though I’ve met thousands of suburban and rural residents who are very happy with their homes and lifestyles, I’ve never met one who thinks the power of government should be used to force others to live in the same lifestyle. Yet I’ve met lots of urban residents who openly admit that they believe their lifestyle is so perfect that government should force more if not most people to live in dense, “walkable” cities.

Do cities turn people into liberal fascists? Or do liberal fascists naturally congregate into cities, and if so, why?

A general description of the phenomenon I’ve observed can be found in Thomas Sowell’s 1995 book, The Vision of the Anointed. Sowell says that America’s liberal elites view themselves as smarter or more insightful than everyone else, and thus qualified to impose their ideas on everyone else. The process of doing so, says Sowell, follows four steps (p. 8):

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Urban Planning Dream or Nightmare?

In Best-Laid Plans, the Antiplanner argues that cities are too complicated to plan, so anyone who tries to plan them ends up following fads and focusing on one or two goals to the near-exclusion of all else. The current fad is to reduce per capita driving by increasing density and spending money on rail transit.

The logical end product of such narrow-minded planning is illustrated by a SimCity constructed by Vincent Ocasla, an architecture student from the Philippines. His goal was to build the densest possible SimCity, and the result is a landscape that is almost entirely covered by high-rise towers used for both residences and work. There are no streets and residents travel either on foot or by subway. There is little need for travel, however, as most residents live in the same tower in which they work.

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Federal Funding & Transportation Planning

Note: This is the second of a series of interblog debates between the Antiplanner and Charles Marohn of the Strong Towns Blog.

Should Congress require cities and states to do transportation planning in order to be eligible for federal transportation funds? Under current law, states and metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) are required to do two kinds of plans: long-range transportation plans that look ahead for about 20 years, and transportation-improvement plans (TIPs) that focus on projects that are going to be funded or partly funded in the next year or two.

The Antiplanner has always believed that short-term, mission-specific planning is a necessary part of any program or activity. We plan our days, school teachers plan their lessons, and highway departments plan road maintenance and bridge construction. So I don’t have a lot of objections to TIPs, though I think the legal requirement is unnecessary — it’s going to happen whether the law requires it or not.

But the Antiplanner has always objected to long-range planning. Two years ago, I sat down and read more than 70 long-range metropolitan transportation plans (and if you don’t think that was painful, try it sometime). I found that they all failed to do a good job of setting goals, developing alternative ways of meeting those goals, and fairly evaluating those alternatives.

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Federal Mistrust Funds

Yesterday, I received a “Social Security Statement,” which is supposed to look like some sort of pension statement — only it is not. A pension statement shows how much money workers put into their pensions, how much that money is earning in interest, and how much they can take out.

The Social Security Statement also showed how much I put into the social security and medicare funds — to be honest, not very much, because for most of my career I worked for nearly nothing. But it doesn’t tell how much interest “my” money is earning, because of course the money is all gone — Congress spent it on something else.

“In 2017 we will begin paying more in benefits than we collect in taxes,” says the statement. “Without changes, by 2041 the Social Security Trust Fund will be exhausted.” (Actually, the latest numbers say it will run out four years sooner.) But what is the Social Security Trust Fund? It is a big fat, $2.4 trilllion IOU from Congress, which expects to repay that IOU by borrowing from someone else, or raising taxes, after 2017.

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Here’s Why the Government Shouldn’t Play With Markets

Back in 2005, biofuels were all the rage, so some member of Congress came up with a great idea: give huge tax breaks to anyone who starts using a combination of Diesel and biofuels. That will help save petroleum and reduce greenhouse gases!

Eventually, paper manufacturers notice the law and so they begin mixing biofuels with Diesel fuels in making paper. Pretty soon they are collecting $8 billion in tax credits a year.

The only problem? Before this law was passed, they were using 100 percent biofuels. Now, thanks to a stupid law, we are paying them to waste Diesel.

I know what you are going to say: the law could have been written to specify tax break only for people or companies substituting biofuel for petroleum fuel. But it doesn’t matter; there are always unintended consequences and they usually, if not always, end up doing more harm than the intended good.

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Whatever Happened to Rational Planning?

Happy St. Patrick’s Day from the Antiplanner, whose ancestors were mostly Irish (with some Welsh thrown in). Some people try to find the pot at the end of the rainbow, but right now I am trying to find out what happened to the “rational” in rational planning.

It is the Antiplanner’s official position that long-range government planning cannot work no way no how. But it is a mark of how bankrupt the planning profession has become that many of its members never seem to bother to follow its standard planning system, which is known as the Rational Planning Model.

As defined by that noted authority, Wikipedia, the Rational Planning Model “is the process of realizing a problem, establishing and evaluating planning criteria, create alternatives, implementing alternatives, and monitoring progress of the alternatives.” This model, Wikipedia adds, “is central in the development of modern urban planning.”

If it is so central, then why do so few urban planners follow it? In particular, most plans that I have reviewed leave out step 3, “create alternatives.” They also leave out what should be step 4 (but which goes unmentioned by Wikipedia), evaluate alternatives. Which isn’t surprising if they don’t have any alternatives to evaluate.

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Polarization Poisons Public Policy

A few years ago, Al Franken wrote a “satire on the breakdown of civility in public discourse.” He called it, Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot. Franken’s point was that Limbaugh became popular by polarizing people. Franken made that point by writing as polarizing a book as possible.

We see this polarization in the current presidential campaign. Obama has become popular because he promises a way out of the polarization. Hillary’s response is to polarize Democratic voters against Obama, and it seems to have worked: two weeks ago, polls showed that Hillary supporters would vote for Obama if he became the nominee; after the Texas-Ohio primaries, polls showed her supporters to be more hostile of him.

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The Ship Is Sinking, So Stay the Course

In his 1989 book, The New Realities, Peter Drucker wrote,

Above all, any government activity almost at once becomes “moral.” No longer is it viewed as “economic,” as one alternative use of scarce resources of people and money. It becomes an “absolute.” It is in the nature of government activities that they come to be seen as symbols and sacred rather than as utilities and means to an end. The absence of results does not raise the question, Shouldn’t we rather do something different? Instead, it leads to a doubling of effort; it only indicates how strong the forces of evil are.

“Despite a focus on luring drivers out of their autos,” Sacramento transit mainly carries people who “do not have access to an auto.”
Flickr photo by paulkimo9.

I thought of this quote when reading Sacramento’s 2006 Metropolitan Transportation Plan. In a remarkably candid review of the region’s previous transportation plans, this document states:

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Democracy Is Overrated

Last month, a strange new ad appeared on your television sets.

In case you don’t have a fast connection, the following words roll up the screen over the image of a beauty pageant:

Why are we sitting watching I Wanna be the Galaxy’s Best Supernova Diva Star?
Dutifully phoning in our votes for the next big thing while we wait on our couches to die.
Continue in this so-called democracy and you just might stop thinking for yourself
That’s when you are officially dead.

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