Category Archives: Transportation

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.


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.


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.


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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Irrelevance Across America

Something calling itself the “Accessibility Observatory” at the University of Minnesota has mapped transit accessibility for most of the nation’s 50 largest urban areas (Jacksonville, Memphis, Oklahoma City, and Richmond were left out for lack of transit data). Different colors on the maps show how many jobs are accessible from each point within 30 minutes by transit.

Click image to download report.

“At the highest levels,” gushes the report, “millions of jobs are accessible by transit within 30 minutes.” To be precise, millions of jobs are accessible by transit in Manhattan. In Chicago, the nation’s second-largest concentration of jobs, under a million jobs are accessible. San Francisco is under 750,000 jobs; Portland is under 500,000 jobs, and places like Tampa are under 250,000.

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The Death of the Auto Industry as We Know It?

Adam Jonas, head of auto research at Morgan Stanley, is predicting the end of the auto industry “as we know it.” Or, at least, that’s what Business Insider is reporting–Jonas’ actual article appears to be behind a paywall.

As near as the Antiplanner can tell, what Jonas is actually saying is that self-driving cars will completely change the auto industry, and industry analysts who fail to account for that change will lose out. The actual title of Jonas’ article is “Death of an Auto Analyst.”

According to the report, Jonas “sees a world in which everyone rents a car instead of owning one.” This means the industry will have to change from one that sells cars to consumers to one that sells cars to car-sharing firms that rent them to consumers. He may believe that this will change the dynamics of auto making such that, for example, style becomes less important than functionality.

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All Aboard Florida Goes Private

After going to the effort of writing an environmental impact statement in order to be eligible for a federal Railroad Rehabilitation and Improvement Financing loan, All Aboard Florida has suddenly switched tracks and says it wants a private activity bond instead. Private activity bonds are issued by cities or states, but the funds are given to private entities that are responsible for repaying them–for this reason, they are sometimes called conduit bonds.

Since they are issued by a government entity, they are tax exempt. Yet the private companies that get the funds range from American Airlines, which built new terminals at JFK and other airports, to Transurban, which built HOT lanes on Virginia’s I-495. The tax exemption allows bond issuers to pay lower interest rates, giving companies that receive such bonds an advantage over their competitors. The tax exemption is also controversial, as it effectively costs the federal government money.

All Aboard Florida, which is part of the Florida East Coast Railway, promises to build a moderately high-speed (110-125 mph) rail project without any subsidies. Yet it also wants government loans of one sort or another to do it. It has already issued $405 million in bonds paying a whopping 12 percent interest–which one critic notes puts them in junk bond territory–with the up-front expectation that the bonds will be repaid out of a much lower interest $1.6-billion loan that the company expects to get from the federal and/or state governments.

Given that President Obama supports high-speed rail and noted fiscal conservative Robert Poole, of the Reason Foundation, has specifically endorsed All Aboard Florida, why would the company suddenly switch from the planned RRIF loan to a private activity bond? The company’s press release emphasized that the new bonds wouldn’t pose any risk for taxpayers, suggesting that company was sensitive to local critics who claimed that the RRIF loan could leave taxpayers holding the bag when the company defaulted.

Another possibility is that the Federal Railroad Administration let the Florida company know that full funding of the proposed RRIF loan was unlikely. This would have been the largest RRIF loan in history and one of the few dedicated to passenger rail.

The Antiplanner remains suspicious that running sixteen trains a day in each direction between Miami and Orlando is not really a viable project. If it truly were viable, would Florida East Coast really need to get tax-subsidized loans to make it work? Why doesn’t it save itself the trouble and red tape that comes with federal or state support and simply go to the truly private bond market? I suspect the answer is that not enough private investors would have faith in the company’s ridership and fare projections to fully fund the project.