Category Archives: Transportation

Is Transit Only Transit If It’s Expensive?

Wired magazine freaks out because the Tennessee senate supposedly passed a “mind-boggling ban on bus-rapid transit.” AutoblogGreen blames the legislation on the left’s favorite whipping boys, the Koch brothers because it was supported by Americans for Prosperity, a tax-watchdog group that has received funding from the Kochs.


Not only would Nashville’s bus-rapid transit consume up to three lanes of traffic and be given priority at traffic signals, the design of stations in the middle of a major arterial will create hazards for pedestrians.

In fact, the senate did not pass a bill to ban bus-rapid transit; it passed a bill to limit the dedication of existing lanes to buses. There is no reason why buses need their own dedicated lanes, at least in a mid-sized city such as Nashville. Kansas City has shown that bus-rapid transit in shared lanes can work perfectly well and attract as much as a 50 percent increase in riders.

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Your Freedom Is Someone Else’s Hell

Yonah Freemark, a writer over at Atlantic Cities–which normally loves any transit boondoggle–somewhat sheepishly admits that light rail hasn’t lived up to all of its expectations. Despite its popularity among transit agencies seeking federal grants, light rail “neither rescued the center cities of their respective regions nor resulted in higher transit use.”

Not to worry, however; Atlantic Cities still hates automobiles, or at least individually owned automobiles. Another article by writer Robin Chase suggests that driverless cars will create a “world of hell” if people are allowed to own their own cars. Instead, driverless cars should be welcomed only if they are collectively owned and shared.

The hell that would result from individually owned driverless cars would happen because people would soon discover they could send their cars places without anyone in them. As Chase says, “If single-occupancy vehicles are the bane of our congested highways and cities right now, imagine the congestion when we pour in unfettered zero-occupancy vehicles.” Never mind the fact that driverless cars will greatly reduce congestion by tripling roadway capacities and avoid congestion by consulting on-line congestion reports.

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Arlington Votes Against a Streetcar

Streetcar skeptic John Vihstadt won a seat on the Arlington County (Virginia) board this week, the first Republican to do so in 15 years. One of the main issues in his campaign was the board’s plan to spend $250 million on a streetcar in this suburb of Washington, DC.

The election took place less than two weeks after the release of a consultant’s report that concluded a streetcar would dramatically boost economic development in the county (a claim disputed by the Antiplanner. Some people believe the report was timed to influence the election. If so, it didn’t work.

The election also took place after the unveiling of Arlington’s $1 million dollar bus stop that doesn’t even provide decent shelter from the elements. This served to raise voter awareness of the county’s free-spending ways when it comes to transit.

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So Much for TOD

Transit agencies are quick to claim that new rail transit lines generate all sorts of new developments, particularly so-called transit-oriented developments, meaning high-density, mixed-use housing. But an objective study of Minneapolis’ Hiawatha light-rail line from economists Sarah West and Needham Hurst found that “neither construction nor operation of the line appears to affect land use change relative to the time before construction.”

Unfortunately, the paper itself is behind a paywall, but it is summarized in this article from the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. An earlier version of the study is also available.

Hurst’s and West’s findings are obliquely affirmed by a recent article in the Journal of the American Planning Association that finds that people living in transit-oriented developments may drive a little less than other people, but it’s not because of the presence of rail transit. Instead, “Housing type and tenure, local and subregional density, bus service, and particularly off- and on-street parking availability, play a much more important role.” Another way of putting it is that people who choose to live in places with limited parking probably didn’t want to drive much anyway.

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Mono–Doh!

Loyal Antiplanner reader MSetty let me know about a Tennessee proposal to spend $200,000 studying the idea of building a monorail from Nashville to Murfreesboro. The irony is that the proposal comes from a tea party member of the state senate. Senator Bill Ketron is a social conservative, not a libertarian, but he should know better than to think that giving a government agency a bunch of money to do a study recommending whether to give that agency even more more money will lead to a reasonable outcome.

Take, for example, Florida’s Pinellas County transit authority, which has spent $800,000 on “public education” regarding a proposed $1.7 billion (but likely much more) light-rail line that will be on this November’s ballot. Critics question whether it is legal for the transit agency to use “taxpayer money to engage in political advocacy leading up to a referendum vote.” The agency, of course, says it isn’t advocating anything, just educating people.

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The Inevitable Decline of Government

LaVonda Atkinson, the cost engineer for San Francisco Muni‘s $1.6 billion Central Subway project, has found so many problems with the project–and so little interest within Muni or the Federal Transit Administration in fixing those problems–that she has given hundreds of pages of budgetary and internal documents to the San Francisco Weekly. “Your article” about these documents “is going to get me fired,” she told the Weekly‘s reporter.


Politicians such as then-San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom (center) love to have their photos taken breaking ground or cutting ribbons, in this case for the Central Subway project.

As just one example, Muni told the San Francisco city controller that it spent $110 million on preliminary engineering, when it told the Federal Transit Administration that it spent only $70 million. The extra $40 million went into a slush fund for other stuff.

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Megaprojects Invite Corruption

FBI agents posed as transit-oriented developers willing to bribe the mayor of Charlotte to get his support for a streetcar line, light rail, and related projects. The now-ex-mayor Patrick Cannon gladly accepted bribes in exchange for lying to investors and pushing city planning agencies to fast track the developments. When on the city council, Cannon had opposed construction of a streetcar line, but mysteriously changed his vote when he became mayor.


Who did developers bribe to get this project completed?

The Antiplanner isn’t enthusiastic about police entrapments, but this case brings to light one of the seamier sides of rail transit. These projects cost so much that they make some sort of corruption, if only in the form of campaign contributions, mandatory. The FBI sting has to raise questions about other rail projects and developments, especially considering the current U.S. Secretary of Transportation was the mayor of Charlotte just prior to the one who was stung.

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The Transit Train Wreck

Investigators have concluded that the driver of the CTA train that crashed at O’Hare earlier this week slept through the stop. Moreover, she apparently had a record of falling asleep at work before. However, investigators also concluded that two back-up systems that should have stopped the train before it crashed even without a waking driver failed as well.


We’ve spent roughly $1 trillion since 1970 for not much return. Capital spending before 1990 is not available, but probably followed a trajectory similar to operating subsidies (i.e, operating costs minus fares). Click image to download a spreadsheet with these and other data mentioned in this post.

Meanwhile, the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) defends its claim that recent ridership statistics represent a genuine “shift in American travel behavior.” While it admits that per capita ridership has declined since 2008, it blames that on the recession. It prefers to go back to 1995, “because after that year, ridership increased due to the passage of the landmark ISTEA legislation and other surface transportation bills which increased funding for public transportation.” Effectively, APTA argues that people will ride transit if you subsidize them enough, and so therefore subsidies should be increased still further.

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Crash at O’Hare

Investigators have narrowed down the cause of Monday’s Chicago Transit Authority train crash at O’Hare Airport to either “operator fatigue” or a failure of the rail line’s automated safety systems. Neither explanation is very reassuring.

On one hand, taxpayers are paying more than $200 million a year to pay Chicago train and bus riders some of the highest wages in the nation, only (it is alleged) to have them fall asleep at the metaphorical wheel. On the other hand, the Chicago Transit Authority wants to spend $2-$4 billion “increasing the capacity” of some of its rail lines when it can’t afford to maintain the rail lines that it has now. Back in 2007, the agency said it needed more than $16 billion to bring its rail lines up to a state of good repair, and since then it hasn’t found more than a small fraction of that amount.

Many people from medium-sized urban areas who visit Chicago wonder why their city can’t have a rail system like that–a system that is deeply in debt, has a huge maintenance backlog, and is suffering from declining ridership. The truth is that rail transit doesn’t work anywhere in the United States except possibly Manhattan, and even there it is questionable.

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Hoodwinking Reporters

Nearly two weeks after the American Public Transportation Association issued its deceptive press release about 2013 transit ridership, some reporters are still being fooled. Just two days ago, for example, NPR did a story claiming commuters are “ditching cars for transit in record numbers.”

Ironically, NPR begins its story in Chicago, where (APTA data reveals) 2013 transit ridership declined by 2.7 percent from the year before. “Throughout the entire country, just about every public transportation system saw hikes in ridership,” the story incorrectly claims. In addition to Chicago, transit systems in Albuquerque, Atlanta, Austin, Baltimore, Boston, Charlotte, Dallas, Kansas City, Louisville, Memphis, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Portland, San Antonio, and Washington DC all lost riders in 2013. Don’t NPR reporters check their facts?

While reporters might be fooled, three urban planning professors writing in the Washington Post weren’t. “The association’s numbers are deceptive,” they say, and any claims that the nation is “moving away from driving” is “misguided optimism.” In fact, they continue, “transit is a small and stagnant part of the transportation system.”

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