Category Archives: Transportation

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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H Is for Headache

Visitors to Washington, DC’s gentrifying H Street NE have a new obstacle to contend with: the streetcar that the city began testing on September 24. According to one source, these tests began “right on schedule,” but in fact, says another source, they only began after “months of delays and missed deadlines.” “Years of delay” would be more accurate, as the city actually bought the streetcars in 2006, and they’ve been sitting in storage since 2007 as the city contended with debates over routes and the aesthetics and legalities of overhead wires.


A pedestrian tests the ability of the streetcar to stop quickly.

The tests quickly led to reports that the streetcars would significantly increase congestion in the corridor. “Buses are facing significant delays behind the streetcars,” says the report, and the buses carry eight times as many people per day as is projected for the streetcar (and even more passenger miles as bus trips are longer). Of course, autos are also delayed, but who cares about them? They’re evil.

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How Many Lives Will Self-Driving Cars Save?

Self-driving car advocates often note that more than 90 percent of serious accidents result from driver error, and thus estimate that autonomous cars will reduce fatalities by 90 percent. Indeed, in 2008 a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) study of crashes between July 2005 and December 2007 found that 5,096 were caused by driver error, while just 130 were caused by vehicle failure and 135 were caused by the weather.

After some adjustments, NHTSA concluded that 93 percent of accidents can be attributed to driver error. So it seems reasonable to conclude that self-driving cars will save more than 31,000 lives per year (i.e., about 93 percent of the 33,560 fatalities suffered in 2012).

Not so fast, says a group called the Casualty Actuarial Society. It took a close look at NHTSA’s 2008 study and found that “49% of accidents contain at least one limiting factor that could disable [autonomous vehicle] technology or reduce its effectiveness.” That means self-driving cars will only reduce fatalities by about half, not 90 percent. While 16,000 lives saved per year is nothing to complain about, there’s a big difference between 16,000 and 31,000.

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Not Much of a Comeback

CNN breathlessly reports that, in a “surprising comeback” over the past 10 to 15 years, “passenger rail has seen a resurgence in ridership.” The article is accompanied by 14 beautiful photographs of passenger trains, nearly all either tourist trains or trains in other countries and none of Amtrak, the near-monopoly provider of intercity passenger rail in the country (rectified with the photo below).


In September, 2010, Amtrak’s Empire Builder crosses Two Medicine Bridge near Glacier National Park in Montana. Photo by the Antiplanner; click image for a larger view.

Among the few hard facts contained in the CNN article is that, in its 2013 fiscal year, Amtrak carried a record number of passengers, nearly 31.6 million. Let’s see what that really means.

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Frequent Buses Yes; Dedicated Lanes No

In an op-ed in the Albuquerque Journal, the Antiplanner argues that transit agencies in medium-sized cities such as Albuquerque should experiment with “bus-rapid transit lite”–meaning increasing bus frequencies, reducing the number of stops so as to speed schedules, and prepayment of fares to speed loading of passengers. But dedicating traffic lanes to buses and giving them signal priority will harm far more people than it will benefit and shouldn’t be done.


Click image for a larger view of this Albuquerque rapid ride articulated bus. Wikimedia Commons photo by PerryPlanet.

The op-ed also mentions that the large, articulated buses often used for bus-rapid transit may be the wrong choice. In fact, these buses are about the least cost-effective, in terms of dollars per seat, of any buses available. They take a huge amount of space on the street, are difficult to maneuver, and slow to accelerate. Transit agencies that think they have enough demand to justify large buses such as these should consider instead running smaller buses more frequently. Transit riders are known to be frequency sensitive, but they aren’t particularly sensitive to the size of the vehicle they ride in.

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How to Hoodwink the Public

Two years ago, Virginia Beach put a measure on the ballot to extend the Norfolk light rail (which stops at the border between the two cities) into Virginia Beach. All of the advertising for the measure said “Vote Yes to Study Light Rail.” But the actual measure read, “Should the City Council adopt an ordinance approving the use of all reasonable efforts to support the financing and development of The Tide light rail into Virginia Beach?” That’s a lot different than a study.

The measure passed. But it is entirely possible that voters would have been less enthused if they had known that the Norfolk light rail ended up carrying 58 percent fewer riders than projected in its first year. In any case, the Antiplanner’s presentation arguing that light rail makes no sense for Virginia Beach can now be downloaded. It’s a 33-megabyte PDF that includes my narrative in the notes but doesn’t include any of the videos.

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Autonomous Vehicle Presentation

The Antiplanner’s presentation on autonomous vehicles, mass transit, and long-range transportation planning is now available for download. It’s about 20 MB.

Tonight (October 16), at 7 pm, the Antiplanner will speak about the Tide light rail in the Virginia Beach Central Public Library Auditorium. (The event was originally to take place elsewhere but the location has changed at the last minute.) If you are in the Hampton Roads area, I hope to see you there.

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More Rail Fail

Two more rail transit lines are following in the tracks of so many others that have failed to live up to planners’ promises. First, Orlando’s SunRail commuter train is “losing riders at an increasing pace.” The project, which cost a billion dollars and was built partly to persuade the federal government that Florida was serious about supporting an Orlando-Tampa high-speed rail line, has lost 27 percent of its riders since it opened.


SunRail Fail. Flickr photo by Buddahbless.

Second, Seattle’s seven-year-old South Lake Union Transit (SLUT) streetcar has continually failed to attracted the predicted number of riders. Both the SLUT and SunRail were counting on rider fares to help pay operating costs; the SLUT’s shortfall has required repeated bailouts of the line.

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Living in a Fantasy World

Here’s more evidence that rail transit advocates–in this case, streetcar supporters–are totally delusional: proponents of a 7.4-mile Columbia Pike streetcar in Arlington, Virginia, estimate that the streetcar line will carry 42,800 people per day in 2035. That’s nearly 5,800 daily boardings per mile of streetcar line, which is more than twice as great than the most heavily used streetcar lines in the country. It is even greater than all but one light-rail line and only 20 percent less than the Washington MetroRail system.

According to the 2012 National Transit Database, the most heavily used lines that the Federal Transit Administration currently defines as streetcars are in Philadelphia, which carried nearly 85,000 people per weekday (see the service spreadsheet for weekday trips and the fixed guideway spreadsheet for directional route miles–divide directional route miles by 2 to get route miles). But there are 108 route miles of such lines for an average of just 780 boardings per mile. The streetcar line that attracted the most passengers per mile in 2012 was in Portland (probably because it was nearly free), and it attracted 2,670 weekday riders per mile–less than half of the projection for the Arlington streetcar.

“The Columbia Pike corridor currently has the highest transit ridership within the Commonwealth for a corridor without fixed guideway service,” say streetcar supporters. They think the “high-capacity” streetcar will handle this ridership and attract even more riders. But not even most light-rail lines, whose capacities are several times greater than streetcars, attract 5,000 riders per day.

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