Category Archives: Transportation

Back in the Air Again

The Antiplanner is in Washington DC today to participate in a debate over the Purple light-rail line–or, as I like to call it, the Purple Money Eater. In conjunction with this debate, the Maryland Public Policy Institute will release a detailed critique of the proposed low-capacity transit line; Antiplanner readers can download a preview today.

Predictably, rail supporters are claiming that the supposedly evil Koch Brothers “dispatched” me to fight this rail project. In reality, I doubt that light rail is even on the Koch Brothers’ radar screen, since there is no light rail in Kansas (where they are headquartered) and no proposals for any as far as I know. (Could it be that’s not a coincidence?)

We’ll see what the rail supporters say tonight. If you are in the DC area, I hope to see you in Silver Spring at 7 pm.

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Will Apple Join the Self-Driving Car Race?

Apple is planning to put an electric car on the market by 2020. No, Apple is planning to build a self-driving car. No, it’s not. It would be stupid to do so.

Rumors about Apple, which has the highest market capitalization of any company in the world, are an industry in itself, so the rumor world was thrilled to learn that Apple had leased a modest Dodge Caravan and was driving it around Silicon Valley festooned with cameras, Lidar, and other devices.

Meanwhile, Apple has hired hundreds of auto engineers away from Tesla, General Motors, Ford, and other companies with the goal of putting as many as 1,000 of them to work on the so-called Apple Car. (Ironically, less than a month after being fined more than $100 million for agreeing not to poach employees from Google, Adobe, and Intel, Apple is being sued by battery maker A123 for allegedly poaching its experts.)

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Streetcars and Commuter Trains Are Hot

Ridership on Atlanta’s new streetcar is 18 percent below projections–and the projections assumed patrons would be charged a $1 fare, but (as of the date of the ridership numbers) the city was still offering free introductory rides. Meanwhile, operating costs have proven to be a mere 50 percent more than projected.

Washington, DC’s new streetcar hasn’t yet opened for business, but it has already proven to be hot–as in one of the streetcars being tested on H Street caught fire the other day. DC residents aren’t exactly looking forward to the streetcar, which is increasing traffic congestion and slowing bus service in the corridor. This is just one more example, locals note, of “corporate welfare and the edifice complex.”

Just outside of DC, a new report reveals that the Maryland Transit Administration has done a poor job of tracking consultant costs on the proposed Purple and Red lines. This doesn’t bode well for taxpayers if construction ever begins on these two lines, both of which are expected to cost more than $2 billion.

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Cities Want Federal Grants

Here’s another article claiming that the fact that cities are foolish enough to accept federal grants to build streetcars proves that “America has a renewed desire for streetcars.” The article then lists eleven streetcar projects–some of them under construction, others still in early planning phases–as evidence.

One of the projects is in Kansas City, where less than a year ago voters rejected a plan to expand the starter-system funded by the feds. Another city was Milwaukee, where voters have repeatedly rejected light rail, commuter trains, and other rail boondoggles. A third city was Cincinnati, where voters elected a mayor who promised to cancel the streetcar–but was unable to override the majority of the city council. Considering opposition to streetcars in Arlington, San Antonio, and other cities, there is hardly a groundswell of support for these obsolete systems.

The pro-streetcar article is on a website called FutureStructure, which is basically a rah-rah site for people interested in profiting off of government infrastructure spending. Many readers no doubt drooled over the 11 streetcar projects in the article whose average cost was $37 million per mile, ranging as high as $79 million in one case. Considering that it costs less than a quarter of that average to build a mile of four-lane urban freeway and that streetcars are slower than buses and have far lower capacities, these are insane amounts to spend–unless of course, you are the one profiting from government contracts.

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Farms vs. Transit in Hawai’i

Now that Honolulu’s insanely expensive, low-capacity rail line is under construction (and over budget), Oahu land-use advocates are upset that the city wants to rezone 1,289 acres of farms for residential development. At least some members of the city council claim to have been shocked to learn that just 17 percent of the island is still suitable for farming while 27 percent has been urbanized.

Sadly, efforts to protect farmlands in Hawai’i are something of a joke considering that Hawai’i’s land-use laws–the strictest in the nation–were supposedly passed to protect farmlands and yet in fact are responsible for destroying Hawai’i’s agricultural industry. The land-use laws made Hawai’ian housing so unaffordable that farmers can’t pay workers enough for them to be able to live there. As a result, the state has lost most of its pineapple, sugar cane, and other crop production to other Pacific islands such as Fiji.

Comparing a map of Oahu land-use designations with the route of the rail line reveals that the rail line will cross only a few tiny areas of land zoned for farming. In fact, a lot of the land around Kapolei that is zoned urban hasn’t yet been developed and could still be used for farming, but why bother if you can’t afford to grow crops?

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The Inequities of Federal Transit Funding

Federal funding for new rail transit lines has led to an inequitable distribution of funds among urban areas. This can be shown by downloading the historic time series data for capital funds from the National Transit Database. These numbers extend from 1991–which, coincidentally, is the year Congress created the New Starts program–to 2013.

Gross domestic product price deflators can be used to adjust all dollars to 2013 values. Finally, the National Transit Database’s historic time series for service data gives transit ridership for the same years. The time series show which urban area each transit agency primarily serves, so I added up the capital funds and ridership numbers by urban area.

The detailed results for 488 urban areas can be downloaded in this spreadsheet, while the basic results for the nation’s 50 largest urban areas are in the table below. Though there are a few surprises, the results mostly confirm my hypothesis that the best way for an urban area to get lots of federal transit funds is to build new rail lines.

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Light Rail Increasingly Dangerous

A pedestrian was killed by a light-rail train in Denver last Thursday, February 12. The very next day, another pedestrian was killed by a light-rail train in San Jose.

According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, 40 people were killed in light-rail accidents in 2012. This is the most since at least 1992 (the earliest year for which I have numbers available). While the numbers vary from year to year, in all the years since 1995, light-rail accidents killed 333 people.

A few days ago, the Antiplanner mentioned that auto accidents kill about 34,000 people a year. That sounds horrible, and it is, but unlike light-rail numbers, auto fatalities have been declining. More important, light rail carried just 26.7 billion passenger miles in all the years between 1995 and 2012. By comparison, highway vehicles traveled nearly 3 trillion vehicle miles in 2012 alone. At an average occupancy of 1.67 people per car (see page 33), that’s 5 trillion passenger miles.

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Winners Ride the Bus

One of the arguments for building expensive rail transit lines is that some people have a perception that only losers ride buses. Instead of lamenting that it does’t operate more rail lines, a transit agency in Denmark, Midttrafik, has a couple of advertisements presenting the bus as a superior mode of transportation.

The first ad is a couple of years old, having come out in September, 2012. It starts out with someone’s ear to the pavement–listening for the bus the way people purportedly listened to rails for the coming of a train. As people board the bus, rails are fleetingly visible in the foreground. The bus is shown doing “cool” things such as doughnuts in a parking lot.

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Forced to Drive?

Although the Antiplanner likes to keep up with the latest technologies, I’ve hesitated to use Twitter. As someone who finds it easier to write a 5,000-word policy paper than a 500-word op ed, the 140-character limit for tweets is painful to think about. But, in case you haven’t heard, I started tweeting last week under the name, of course, of @antiplanner.

So I received a tweet yesterday from the Antiplanner’s loyal opponent, Michael Setty, saying, “We improve the lives of Americans the less we force them to drive.” (Followed by, “And robocars won’t save us,” but I’ll focus on his first tweet here.)

Setty is paraphrasing Minnesota planner Charles Marohn who argues that transportation planners need to change the emphasis from increasing people’s mobility to reducing the amount we “force them to drive.” This is hardly new: the notion that some mysterious conspiracy has forced Americans to drive has underlain a lot of urban planning for the past several decades. It is pure baloney.

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Good-Bye, Ms Scott

Under fire from Massachusetts Governor Charles Baker for “unacceptable” interruptions in transit service, Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority’s general manager, Beverly Scott, has resigned from her post. The immediate cause of those service interruptions, of course, was Boston’s record fall of more than six feet of snow in the past two weeks alone.

The underlying cause of those interruptions, however, is the aging and decrepit nature of the transit system. Burdened by $5 billion in debt that demands $422 million in mortgage payments a year–a full 22 percent of the agency’s budget that ought to be going to maintain and rehabilitate the system–the T was simply ready to fail.

This failure can’t truly be blamed on general manager Scott, who has worked in Boston for little more than two years and before that was working for Atlanta’s transit system. Indeed, the blame belongs to politicians who agreed to borrow money to build rail transit extensions. Indeed, some of the blame could be put on Governor Baker himself, who helped develop the finance plan for Boston’s Big Dig.

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