Category Archives: Transportation

Why Transit Systems Are in Such Bad Shape

“Why are our transit systems faltering just as more people than ever want to use them?” asks Thomas Wright of the Regional Plan Association, which has advocated urban planning in the New York metropolitan area since 1922. His answer is that it has to do with “with the way our government institutions are structured.” He is right in general but wrong on the particulars.


New York City subway and elevated train fares cover more than 60 percent of operating costs, but no maintenance costs. Wikipedia commons photo by AEMoreira.

Transit, at least in the New York metropolitan area, did just fine, he says, until the 1950s, when “the federal government started building the interstate highway system, offering big subsidies to states to connect to it.” When that happened, “mass-transit operators struggled to compete with these roads and started going bankrupt.” They were unwillingly taken over by the government, which “merged the workings of mass transit and toll roads to provide cross subsidies.”

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Enfantasize Silicon Valley

The Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA), which some consider the nation’s worst-managed transit agency, has a new program called Envision Silicon Valley. Despite the grandiose title, the not-so-hidden agenda is to impose a sales tax for transit.


A nearly-empty VTA light-rail car in Sunnyvale.

Any vision of Silicon Valley that starts out with transit is the wrong one. Except to the taxpayers who have to pay for it and the motorists and pedestrians who have to dodge light-rail cars, transit is practically irrelevant in San Jose.

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A Matter of Perspective

It looks like 2015 will be another record year for driving in America. Of course, that’s not saying much as the total amount of driving has been pretty flat since 2007.

DrivingvTransit70-14

Transit advocates will be quick to point out that transit ridership has grown faster than driving. But actually, it depends entirely on which years you pick. Preliminary information suggests that urban driving grew faster than transit in 2014. Since 2004, transit grew faster than driving in about half the years, and overall transit ridership grew by 12 percent while miles of urban driving grew by only 6 percent.

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Austin-San Antonio Rail Insanity

Interstate 35 between San Antonio and Austin is congested, so obviously (to some people, at least) the solution is to run passenger trains between the two cities. Existing tracks are crowded with freight trains, so the Lone Star Rail District proposes to build a brand-new line for the freight trains and run passenger trains on the existing tracks. The total capital cost would be about $3 billion, up from just $0.6 billion in 2004 (which probably didn’t include the freight re-route).


Click image to download a PDF version of this map.

By coincidence, that was the projected capital cost for the proposed high-speed rail line between Tampa and Orlando (cancelled by Florida Governor Rick Scott), which are about the same 80-miles apart as Austin and San Antonio. But, despite the cost, Lone Star wouldn’t be a high-speed rail line. According to a 2004 feasibility study, trains would take about 90 minutes between the two cities, with two stops in between. While express trains with no stops would be a bit faster, cars driving at Texas speeds could still be faster.

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Portland Attracts the Creative Class by Increasing Congestion and Demolishing Neighborhoods

Joseph Rose, the Oregonian reporter who proved that streetcars are slower than walking, has left the paper’s transportation beat. So it took another Oregonian reporter, Andrew Theen, to make the brilliant discover that Portland highways really are at or above capacity.

Of course, that shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who lives in the Portland area. According to the Texas Transportation Institute’s latest urban mobility report, Portland has more congestion today (measured by hours of delay per auto commuter) than Los Angeles did 30 years ago, when LA was considered to be about the worst congested city in the world.

It’s no wonder, since Portland and Oregon have added virtually no new road capacity since the 1970s, when the region’s population was about half what it is today. Although officials complained to Theen that new capacity was too expensive, the region hasn’t hesitated to spend roughly $5 billion on light-rail lines that carry an insignificant share of the region’s traffic.

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New Tunnels Unnecessary

The Antiplanner spent part of yesterday in Washington DC stuck on a train while Metro was suffering yet another service disruption. I eventually got off and took a taxi, and soon after reaching daylight I received a call from a New Jersey reporter asking what I thought about a revised plan to build new tunnels under the Hudson River to supplement the North River Tunnels Amtrak and New Jersey Transit use today.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie killed the tunnel project in 2010 because he didn’t want New Jersey taxpayers to have to pay most of the cost including the inevitable cost overruns. Christie is perfectly happy to have the tunnel built so long as New York pays more of the cost. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo wants the federal government to pay the vast majority of the cost (it was already going to pay 51 percent) because, after all, this is interstate commerce. Now Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) has a grand plan to create a quasi-governmental corporation to build it, as we didn’t already have enough of those. The two governors claim to love this plan even though Schumer still doesn’t say where the money is going to come from.

The justification for building the project is completely unrealistic. As the Antiplanner’s faithful ally, Wendell Cox, noted when Christie first cancelled the project, Amtrak and New Jersey Transit predicted that Midtown Manhattan would soon gain 500,000 new jobs. That as many jobs as are inside the Chicago Loop and far more than any other downtown in America, and there is little evidence that Manhattan job numbers are growing that fast (and little reason why taxpayers outside of New York or New Jersey should subsidize that growth).

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The Continuing Meltdown of Washington Metro

The day after a derailment shut down the downtown Washington portions of the Blue, Orange, and Silver lines, a power outage shut down portions of the Silver and Orange lines in Fairfax County, Virginia. Without offering any solutions (other than spend more money), the Washington Post has helpfully listed some of Metro’s biggest meltdowns of the past few years.

These are only the biggest ones the Post happens to remember. According to table 16 of the data tables in the National Transit Database, Metro suffered more than 1,200 “major mechanical failures” in 2013, which is 16 failures per million passenger-car miles. That’s nearly twice the rate of other heavy-rail lines in the country; Atlanta and Baltimore are worse, while New York City lines are much better (yet still have many problems and San Francisco’s BART is much better.

According to one insider, most of the failures are train breakdowns, power supply problems, and cracked rails. The breakdowns are mainly in the 1000 series cars that date back to the 1970s, the 4000 series cars from the 1990s, and the 5000 series cars from the early 2000s. The 5000 series is so bad that the agency would like to get an exemption from the Federal Transit Administration to scrap them before they reach their full, 25-year lifespans, but it has no cars to replace them with. Washington Metro has purchased 7000-series cars, but doesn’t expect to have them all in service before 2020. The power-supply problems include smoke from burning insulators and power failures such as the one in Fairfax County. Metro is spending less than a billion dollars a year on capital replacement, which is probably less than half as much as it needs to spend to put its system in a state of good repair.

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DC Metro Shut Down by Derailment

Parts of the Blue, Orange, and Silver lines were shut down for eight-and-one-half hours after a train derailed before 6:00 in the morning at the Smithsonian stop near downtown Washington, DC. Although Metro hasn’t yet determined the cause of the derailment, it seems likely that the service interruption is due to poor maintenance, which has caused many other incidents. The accident also illustrates a fundamental problem with rail transit: when one train breaks down, an entire line–or, in this case, three lines–can be shut down.

Metro continued to run trains in the outer reaches of the system, but stations between Federal Center and McPherson Square–in other words, nearly all downtown stations on the Blue/Orange/Silver lines–were closed. The Red and Yellow/Green lines were unaffected, and Metro provided buses for passengers on the other lines needing to reach downtown.

By 2:30 pm, Metro had opened four of the six affected stations and ran trains on one track. Both tracks were in operation by midnight, and Metro hopes to have service completely restored this morning.

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Hacking Self-Driven Cars

Computer experts have figured out a way to hack a Jeep, allowing them to remotely control everything from music and windshield wipers to speed and brakes. This has led to a proposal for federal cyber-security legislation, while other people question what this means for self-driving cars.

The question of the cyber-security of automobiles is almost completely separate from self-driving cars. The self-driven cars developed by Google, Volkswagen, and other manufacturers rely on several kinds of sensors to direct their travel, including GPS, lasers, radar, infrared, and optical sensors. Of these, the only one that uses the radio spectrum is GPS, and since the cars use it only to determine a route, and not for minute-by-minute driving, I don’t think it could be vulnerable to a cyber attack.

Experts believe that hackers used Chrysler’s use of Sprint communications technologies in its cars aimed at providing auto buyers with an “in-vehicle communications system.” If so, then Sprint failed to build an adequate firewall between its communications and the car’s operating controls. Chrysler responded to the hack by recalling 1.4 million vehicles that have the Sprint system, presumably so it can somehow add such a firewall. According to Wired, the hackers that demonstrated the Sprint system’s vulnerability report that
Sprint has already fixed the problem by adding security to its telecommunications.

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Back in the Air Again

The Antiplanner was in Phoenix this week debating light rail with proponents of a ballot measure that would increase sales taxes in order to expand that city’s rail system. In addition to a public forum, a brief debate was televised and is available on video.

After the Antiplanner’s review of the existing light-rail line debunked claims that the line stimulated $7 billion in economic development, Valley Metro published a new paper claiming that it stimulated $8.2 billion in development. This $8.2 billion still includes projects that haven’t yet (and may never be) built. However, the new paper does not provide a complete list of the developments supposedly built because of the light rail, and the agency has been unresponsive to requests for such a list, but it is clear Valley Metro merely counted anything that happened to be built within a half mile of a light-rail station without asking whether those projects would have been built without the rail line.

In their campaign for the ballot measure, proponents claim the increased sales tax will provide money for repaving and improving streets. It is clear from the city’s transportation plan, however, that most if not all of the street money will be used to reduce the capacity of streets for cars in favor of more room for buses and bicycles (see exhibit A on page 18). Even if the city intended to improve streets, any light-rail cost overruns would quickly eat up most of the street money.

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