Category Archives: Transportation

Policy Implications of Autonomous Vehicles

Tomorrow, the Cato Institue will release a new paper on the policy implications of self-driving cars. Antiplanner readers can download a preview of the paper today.

In a nutshell, the paper argues that self-driving cars combined with car sharing will put public transit agencies out of business. The average cost of transit, including subsidies is $1 a passenger mile. Self-driving cars should cost far less than half of that. This means there will be no reason to continue to subsidize transit except in a few very dense areas such as New York City.

The paper also points out that most of the effects of self-driving cars can’t be predicted today, so Congress should give up on the idea of having states and metropolitan planning agencies write long-range transportation plans that we know will be wrong. Transportation agencies should solve today’s problems today and prepare for autonomous vehicles by keeping roads in good repair and following consistent sign standards.

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Facts vs. Insults and Innuendo

Rail transit is excessively expensive, inflexible, and incapable of moving as many people as buses. Yet when the Antiplanner points out these facts, rather than respond with factual arguments, rail supporters reply with insults and innuendo.

In Florida, for example, a Tampa Bay Times columnist named Daniel Ruth spent an entire column attacking my credibility apparently because someone paid me an honorarium of $500 to evaluate the St. Petersburg light-rail plan. Ruth did not make any factual arguments in favor of the plan; he merely contended that my opposition was a foregone conclusion and so should be ignored.

He even implied that I didn’t get paid enough for my conclusions to be credible. After all, the transit agency spent millions of dollars hiring consultants to write reports about the proposal, and those very reports were the sources of much of my information. Those same consultants are, of course, financially backing the election campaign in favor of light rail, and if voters approve, they stand to make tens if not hundreds of millions in profits. If the measure loses, neither I nor anyone at Cato will make a dime of profit. Yet somehow they are supposed to be more credible than I.

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More Light-Rail Critiques

Sorry about the light postings this week, but I’ve been pretty busy talking with people about light rail. Here is my presentation about light rail in Pinellas County (St. Petersburg), Florida, and here is my presentation about light rail in Austin, Texas.

These are large files–Pinellas is 18 MB, Austin is 24–and they don’t include the videos I used for those presentations. If you want the videos, which are self-driving cars, click here to download a 44-MB zip file with three videos that I used in both presentations.

Next week I go to Denver for the 2014 American Dream conference, so postings may be light then as well. The week after that I’ll be back in Minneapolis to debate Myron Orfield over land-use regulation and density. That should be fun.


Left-Wing Streetcar Skeptics Don’t Get It

More left-wing writers are expressing skepticism of the streetcars that have been infecting so many American cities. They aren’t anti-rail transit, they say, just anti-bad rail transit.

“Too many new streetcars are being deployed as economic engines first and mobility tools second (if at all)” says Atlantic writer Eric Jaffe. However, “if they run in dedicated lanes and with high frequencies as part of a wider network, they can perform quite well.” That all depends on how you define “perform.”

Streetcars have a huge disadvantage over almost all other transit: their extremely low capacities. Dedicated lanes or not, they can only move about 2,000 people per hour (about 100 people per streetcar about 20 times per hour). Combine this limited capacity with their high cost and streetcars are a huge waste compared with buses that can easily move 10,000 or more people per hour at a much lower cost.

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Cadillac vs. Mercedes

Cadillac has announced that in 2017 it will begin selling truly “hands-free” cars that can steer themselves and control their own speeds to avoid collisions. While other manufacturers, including Acura, Infiniti, and Mercedes, most manufacturers have simply provided lane keep assist, which warns drivers when they drift out of a lane.

The new thing in Cadillac announcement is the inclusion of vehicle-to-vehicle communications. The Antiplanner thinks building such systems into cars is unnecessary because they are already inherent in many smart-phone apps, and since consumers replace smart phones more frequently than cars, they will be assured of having the latest technology at all times.

Perhaps more significant is Daimler’s announcement that it has bought MyTaxi, a competitor of Uber. Mercedes obviously believes that car sharing and smart-phone apps will play an important role in the future of the cars it manufactures.


Green Line Claims First Fatality

Last Sunday, a pedestrian was struck and killed by the Twin Cities new Green light-rail line, which opened for operation in June. Shannon Buchanan was apparently crossing a pedestrian way over the tracks and was hit by a train going about 30 mph.

Though the train’s average speed is just 12.5 mph, at the point where the woman was hit it was going 30 mph. “She may have been wearing headphones,” said a transit agency official. Agencies typically claim that most accidents are the fault of the victims, as if putting a heavy, difficult-to-stop train in the same streets as pedestrians and autos is not the fault of the agency.

The FTA no longer includes fatality data in the National Transit Database, but the last time data were available, light rail was involved in about 12 fatalities per billion passenger miles carried while buses were involved in only about 4 fatalities per billion. Apparently, it’s a lot safer to get hit by a 50,000-pound bus than a 300,000-pound train.

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Making the Poor Subsidize the Rich

Utah Transit Authority executives are overcompensated, the agency has underfunded its high rail maintenance costs, its bus service has suffered due to financial constraints, concludes the Utah State Legislative Auditor. Moreover, as reported in the Salt Lake Tribune, the agency’s fare structure makes the poor subsidize the rich, which the agency has signed cushy deals with developers that sometimes financially benefit agency board members.

Sounds like a typical rail transit agency. Naturally, the agency claims (in an appendix to the report) that it is innocent of any wrongdoing. However, it cannot deny that bus service (as measured by vehicle revenue miles) declined nearly 20 percent between 2009 and 2012, years in which the agency spent close to #1 billion on commuter trains that, as of 2012, were carrying fewer than 3,200 round trips per day.

The American Public Transit Association recently named Utah Transit the transit system of the year. But it’s clear from past awards that APTA admires agencies that are best able to con taxpayers out of their money, not ones that provide the best service to transit riders. UTA, which is proud of spending more per capita than any other transit agency, seems to have done a good job of conning taxpayers. Let’s hope audits like this one will open their eyes.


No One’s Riding Light Rail, So Reduce Fares and Build More

Planners predicted that Norfolk’s Tide light-rail line, which opened in 2011 60 percent over budget and 16 months behind schedule, would stimulate economic development along its route. But little development is taking place, so the Virginian Pilot has come up with a grand idea: reduce fares by two thirds. That, the paper’s editorial writers guesstimate, should attract 1,000 more riders per day, which they hope will generate the development planners promised.

Looks fast, but the schedule indicates it takes 26 minutes to go 7 miles for an average speed of 16 mph.

There are a lot of problems with this proposal, not least of which is the fact that rail fares in Norfolk are already the second-lowest in the country, after Houston’s. Though the nominal fare is $1.50, which the Pilot proposes to cut to 50 cents, actual fares collected in 2012 averaged just 50 cents a ride, compared with 35 cents in Houston but $1.39 in Denver. The national average for low-capacity rail is 98 cents, while the average Hampton Roads bus rider pays 91 cents.

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Pinellas Transit in Trouble

The Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority (PSTA) has been illegally using FEMA money to illegally advertise in favor of a ballot measure to build light rail in St. Petersburg, Florida. Last week, the Federal Emergency Management Agency sent a letter demanding that PSTA return a $354,000 grant it received that was supposed to be used to ward of terror threats, but was used instead to advertise for light rail. FEMA warned that, even if PSTA returned the money (which it has), it would still be under investigation for criminal charges for misuse of federal funds.

The double use of the word “illegal” in the first sentence above refers to the fact that, not only did PSTA misuse the FEMA grant, it shouldn’t be spending any money at all promoting the light-rail ballot measure. In the 1990s, most rail transit ballot measures lost, but in the 2000s, more have won, mainly because transit agencies began using taxpayer dollars to promote the measures start with the Utah Transit Authority in 2000.

As a pro-rail web site notes of the Utah measure, a “key to success was that the agency had put great effort into maintaining a strong, positive public reputation prior to launching the campaign. TV ads were already regularly appearing reminding the public of the benefits of the service provided by UTA. When it came time to initiate the electoral campaign, early outreach efforts had already paved the way.”

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Another Inane Low-Capacity Rail Plan

Some people in Durham, NC, want to build a $1.4-billion, 17-mile light-rail line, and the region has been spending millions of dollars planning it. A quick review of the project’s alternatives analysis reveals that planners and consultants have done everything they can to bias the analysis towards rail.

A Durham transit bus in front of Durham’s $10 million downtown transit station.

The most important thing to note is that planners projected that either of two bus-rapid transit alternatives would attract more transit riders than light rail (p. 5-78) at little more than half the cost (p. 5-105). But the analysis nevertheless recommended in favor of light rail, partly because “public and agency support” supposedly favored rail over bus and partly because of rail’s “demonstrated” ability to promote compact development.

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