Category Archives: Transportation

Trains Are Sometimes Crowded

British trains are sometimes crowded, especially around London. The Antiplanner was lucky to leave London in a nearly empty train, but other trains have been standing room only. I stood for nearly two hours on a train from Westbury to Newport the other day.

According to Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, overcrowding is evidence that the government should return the privatized trains to public operation. He rode a Virgin Rail train out of London and tweeted that he couldn’t find a seat.

In response, Richard Branson released videotapes showing that Corbyn had boarded the train and walked passed empty seats. Corbyn’s staff later said he wanted two empty seats so he could sit next to his wife. Of course, he could have reserved two seats next to each other in advance, but he didn’t do that. Probably he would rather be mad.

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Self-Driving Cars Edge Closer

People who remain skeptical of self-driving cars simply aren’t paying attention. The biggest news in the past week is that Ford’s chief executive, Mark Fields, has pledged that his company will have “fleets” of totally self-driving cars–with no steering wheels or pedals–in American cities by 2021.

His wording makes it appear that Ford will not only sell the cars to consumers, but offer Uber-like car-sharing services itself. To help it reach this goal, Ford recently purchased SAIPS, an Israeli company specializing in machine learning and sensing.

General Motors, meanwhile, spent $1 billion acquiring Cruise Automation, a company that the Antiplanner considered to be pretty fly-by-night. This company had promised to turn any 2012 or later Audi into a self-driving car for $10,000. I think all it really did was add adaptive cruise control and lane centering, so cars could drive themselves on freeways, but not on city streets, nor could they navigate from one place to another. Yet GM appears to have been impressed.

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National Cycle Route 2

Greetings from Frome (which rhymes with broom, not dome), Britain (which rhymes with ten, not plain). Last week the Antiplanner praised a “bicycle superhighway,” or what I would call a “bicycle boulevard,” that was set up in London. On Saturday, I got a taste of the rural version of this superhighway, but I was much less impressed.

The national cycle routes were set up by, or at least documented by, Sustrans (which presumably is short for “sustainable transportation”), a non-government (but partly government-funded) organization. On my ride from Brighton to Dover, I got to see and use some of National Cycle Route 3, one of more than 100 such routes in Britain.

Before describing the route, I have a bone to pick with Sustrans. The organization has a map of its routes on line, but it is made to not be easily copied, and is useless for detailed, on-the-ground directions. It sells paper maps, but as a cyclist, I don’t want to have to unfold a map everytime I come to a crossroads. It doesn’t make PDFs of its maps available, just paper. How sustainable is that?

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Cycle Superhighway 3

On my way from my Airbnb to Victoria Station I found Cycle Superhighway 3, which has become very popular since it opened five or six years ago. Mostly marked in blue with lanes that were sometimes a bit narrow, it seemed to use mainly local streets (often punctuated by overly large speed humps) or parts of very wide sidewalks along arterials or collectors. It didn’t seem to take lanes away from existing arterials or collectors.


One of the less-busy segments of Cycle Superhighway 3.

After determining a route, the main cost to the city was paint and putting in bicycle-friendly traffic signals. The “superhighway” took me from east London to the London Tower; from there, another route followed the Thames River. Although this route was dedicated exclusively to bicycles, it was also interrupted by annoyingly large speed humps.

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Forward into the Past Via VIA

The San Antonio urban area has about 1.9 million people today and, if it keeps growing at recent rates, will add 1.6 million more by 2040. VIA, the region’s transit agency, gets most of its money from a one-half-cent sales tax, so by 2040 it will get about 80 percent more tax revenues.


Click image to download this 40-MB PDF.

The agency is hungry for more, however, so it has written a long-range plan called Vision 2040. Actually, to call this a plan is generous; it is actually more of a sales brochure, as it doesn’t consider any alternatives, any impacts of the proposal, or any real information about costs. Instead, it merely says that it wants increased taxes to provide bus-rapid transit on exclusive bus lanes and possibly light rail–in other words, transit infrastructure that might have been useful a few decades ago, but certainly won’t be useful a few decades from now.

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Transit Versus Self-Driving Cars

Two years ago, the Antiplanner predicted that self-driving cars would put most transit agencies out of business. So it’s not surprising to see push-back against self-driving cars from transit supporters. What’s surprising is that it took so long.

Cities need more public transit, not Uber and self-driving cars,” says Kevin Cashman, a policy analyst with the progressive Center for Economic and Policy Research. “We don’t need self-driving cars — we need to ditch our vehicles entirely,” argues California writer Rebecca Solnit in the Guardian.

Cashman’s argument is that self-driving cars won’t be “affordable,” while public transit is. Excuse me? In 2014, American transit agencies spent $59 billion to move people 57 billion passenger miles (see page 106). That’s more than a dollar per passenger mile.

All spending on cars and driving, meanwhile, amounted to $1.1 billion (add lines 54, 57, and 116 of table 2.5.5). Highway subsidies in 2014 were about $45 billion (subtract gas tax diversions to transit and non-highway purposes from “other taxes and fees”). For that cost, Americans drove 2.7 trillion vehicle miles in light-duty vehicles. At an average occupancy of 1.67 people per vehicle (see table 16), that’s 4.5 trillion passenger miles, which works out to an average cost of 26 cents a passenger mile.

In other words, transit is only “affordable” because three-fourths of the cost is subsidized, while less than 4 percent of the cost of driving is subsidized. I’m in favor of ending both subsidies, but someone has to pay those costs; when adding them in, driving is four times more affordable than transit.

Cashman’s dependence on low-income people to make his case isn’t credible anymore, both because most low-income people have cars and most people riding transit today aren’t low-income. Cashman makes some valid points about Uber’s lack of profitability and its use of aggressive lobbying, but that doesn’t change the fact that self-driving cars are going to completely change urban landscapes.

Solnit’s argument is even more shallow. She rides transit, so therefore everyone else should too. Her argument would be only a little stronger if she didn’t admit that she herself has not yet “ditched her car entirely.” The reality is that transit only works for a few people, as suggested by the facts that Americans drove more than 1.9 trillion vehicle miles in urban areas in 2014 but rode transit only 57 billion passenger miles. At 1.67 people per vehicle, that means transit accounted for about 1.7 percent of motorized urban travel.

Back in 2014, after the Antiplanner predicted the doom of public transit, Human Transit writer Jarrett Walker wrote a more insightful, but still flawed, response. Really dense cities will still need transit, he argued. I don’t disagree with that; my paper admitted that transit would survive in New York City and perhaps Chicago and San Francisco.

But Walker went on to argue that “technology never changes geometric facts.” That’s a ridiculous statement, as we know very well that steam trains, streetcars, and automobiles all resulted in major changes to urban landscapes. Since Henry Ford’s first use of the moving assembly line to make automobiles, for example, virtually all urban centers in the developed world have seen major declines in density. Manhattan, for example, had more than 2.3 million people in 1910; by 2010, it was less than 1.6 million. Most other centers have seen even greater declines.

So the question is not, as Walker poses it, will self-driving cars replace transit in really dense urban centers? Instead, it is, what will happen to those dense urban centers once self-driving cars give people even more freedom to live and work somewhere else?

A breath of fresh air comes from Portland-area resident Bill Conerly, who writes in Forbes that “self-driving cars will eliminate premium pricing for transit-oriented development” by reducing congestion and the costs of travel. I’m not sure there is much premium pricing for transit-oriented development (if there were, Portland wouldn’t have needed to spend well over $1 billion subsidizing it), but Conerly’s point is the same as the Antiplanner’s: cities shouldn’t spend on transit and transit-oriented development under the assumption that transportation technologies will never change.

As the Antiplanner has said before, no one can accurately predict how self-driving cars will affect cities, thus any long-term plans are likely to be wrong. Instead of making such plans, cities should focus on solving today’s problems today. As Gandalph said in my favorite quote from Lord of the Ring, “it is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succour of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule.”

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DC Metro Spirals Into Chaos, Taking the Purple Line With It

Judge Richard Leon apparently invalidated Maryland’s Purple Line project just in time to prevent the Federal Transit Administration from giving the Maryland Transit Authority nearly a billion dollars for construction. Naturally, rail supporters are outraged by his decision.

The Washingtonian, for example, calls the decision “ridiculous” because it was based on declining Metro rail ridership and “the Purple Line will not be part of Metro.” But the article admits that 27 percent of the projected Purple Line riders will be transfers to or from Metro, so if Metro ridership declines, the Purple Line’s will as well.

The National Environmental Policy Act is supposed to be a procedural law, the Washingtonian complains, so why is Judge Leon allowing substantive issues such as ridership influence his decision? The author of this piece is obviously not an attorney and probably didn’t even read Judge Leon’s decision, or he would understand that getting the numbers right, as the judge demands, is procedural. He might also be able to read between the lines of the decision and see that Leon realizes this project is a turkey, and is using ridership as just the most obvious reason to overturn the decision to build the low-capacity rail line.

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Straddling Bus or Scam?

The New York Times, among others, has publicized a claimed test run of the “straddling bus,” aka “transit elevated bus” (TEB), that promises to relieve congestion by “floating” above regular traffic. In fact, it was less of a test drive than a publicity stunt, moving a vehicle at 6 miles per hour on a few hundred feet of test track, not on a real city street or highway.

Supposedly, the advantage of these 300-passenger behemoths (or 1,200 if four are hooked together) is that, unlike rail transit, they can be added to a city without building a lot of new infrastructure. But that’s a lie. The vehicles themselves run on tracks, and they weigh so much–upwards of 100 tons–that such tracks will be expensive to install. As Wired points out, it “is not a bus. . . it is a train.” (Technically, it is a railcar; it only becomes a train when two or more are hooked together, but you get the point.)

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Trump Doubles Down on Hillary

Last week, the Antiplanner compared the Republican Party platform, which promised to reduce wasteful transportation spending, with the Democratic platform, which promised a huge increase in infrastructure spending. Yesterday, Trump endorsed the Democratic side, promising to double whatever Hillary says she will spend. Since Hillary Clinton has called for about $275 billion worth of spending on infrastructure, Trump must want to spend more than $500 billion.

“We have many, many bridges that are in danger of falling,” said Trump. Not exactly. According to the Federal Highway Administration, in 2015 the United States (including Puerto Rico) had 58,791 “structurally deficient” bridges. But that doesn’t mean these bridges are in danger of falling. “Structurally deficient” means that the bridge has some defect that may require greater-than-normal maintenance or limit the amount of weight that can cross the bridge.

As near as I can tell, the last time a bridge fell because it was structurally deficient was 1989, shortly proceeded by one in 1987. Those collapses led to new rules and monitoring systems that have greatly reduced, if not eliminated, the problem.

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