Category Archives: Transportation

$34.50 Toll for 10 Miles

Virginia introduced tolls to high-occupancy lanes on Interstate 66 in suburban Washington DC, and the tolls the first day reached $34.50 for a ten-mile drive. Some people think this is excessive.

What the articles may not reveal is that the high-occupancy lanes offer toll-free travel for any vehicle with two or more people. Most high-occupancy/toll (HOT) lanes only give a free ride to vehicles with three or more people. So what has happened on I-66 is that the two-or-more vehicles are pretty much filling up the lane. With room for only a handful of single-occupancy vehicles, the tolls are set high to keep the lane from getting congested.

Having gone to the expense of installing toll-collection equipment, Virginia should have changed the toll-free rides to three passengers and up. As it is, the high tolls are giving bad publicity to the idea of HOT lanes. Of course, no one has to pay the toll as there are free lanes available, though they are more congested. If all lanes were tolled, as the Antiplanner prefers, the tolls would be much lower and all of the lanes would be free of congestion. Continue reading


The Continuing Transit Apocalypse

The Utah Transit Authority (UTA) has come up with a creative explanation for why its ridership is dropping. It seems Salt Lake police have started something called Operation Rio Grande aimed at arresting drug dealers and other criminals near downtown Salt Lake. Many of those drug dealers were apparently regular light-rail users, so their incarceration has significantly reduced UTA ridership. Or so UTA says.

UTA hopes to gain new riders once the system appears to be safer. But it is forecasting “stagnant” ridership for the next year, which may actually be optimistic.

Meanwhile, reporters in Hawaii have noticed a drastic decline in ridership on Honolulu’s bus system, which on a per-capita basis is one of the most popular in the nation. Local transit officials profess to believe that bus ridership will recover when the city’s rail line opens. That’s pretty unlikely, however, both because they don’t even have funding to complete the rail line and because bus ridership has dropped when new rail lines opened in nearly every other city. Continue reading


Another Nail in Transit’s Coffin

A light-rail train in Minneapolis derailed last week, forcing Metro Transit to bus riders around the train for several hours. The Phoenix light rail is suffering from major problems due to homeless people, leading the agency to try to force people off the trains.

But the biggest hit against transit is the me-too movement that encourages women to speak out against sexual harassment and other sex crimes. “The me-too movement is a public transportation issue,” says Washington Post writer Martine Powers. “If you’re a woman who rides public transportation, you’re almost guaranteed to experience the kinds of demeaning or threatening encounters that fit squarely within the bounds of the #MeToo conversation.”

The good news is that women are more likely to report such assaults than they were a few years ago. Powers notes that reports of sexual harassment on the Washington Metro system are up 65 percent in 2017 over 2016. Similarly, reports of sex crimes on the New York City subway have gone up 50 percent in the last three years. We can hope that these increases are because women are more willing to speak out and not because harassment is actually increasing. Continue reading


Death by Cell Phone App

The Antiplanner has previously noted the frightening increase in highway fatalities in the last few years and suggested it might be related to growing traffic congestion. An alternative view is presented in a new paper by researchers at Purdue University titled “Death by Pokémon Go.” The paper found that the release of the Pokémon Go game led to a “disproportionate increase in vehicular crashes and . . . fatalities in the vicinity of locations, called Poke?Stops, where users can play the game while driving.”

After mysteriously collapsing by 25 percent between 2005 and 2010–the biggest five-year decline in 60 years–the number of fatalities remained roughly constant at around 32,500 for five years. But between 2014 and 2016, they grew by 15 percent, or nearly 4,800 deaths. While one computer game isn’t responsible for all 4,800 deaths, the study suggests that the growth of cell phone apps–from 800 iPhone apps in 2008 to more than 2 million today–and related distracted driving could be responsible for much of the increase.

Comparing 2016 fatalities with those from 2005 shows a 14 percent decline overall. However, the decline for occupants of motor vehicles is much larger, while non-occupant fatalities actually increased. Continue reading


The Worst Reason for Subsidizing Amtrak

There are a lot of bad reasons for subsidizing Amtrak: it provides a vital service to small towns (how vital can it be when only a handful of people get on or off the train in any of those towns each day?); it saves energy (extending the tax credit to the Prius and other low-mpg vehicles would save more energy for less money); it relieves congestion (how congestion is there between Wolf Point and Glasgow, Montana?). But the worst reason was laid out a couple of days ago in a New York Times op-ed: Amtrak’s dining car will heal our political divisions.

On a 9,000-mile trip on six Amtrak trains, songwriter Gabriel Kahane learned that, when you eat in the dining car, you are often seated with other riders. Where most of our digital world “finds us sorting ourselves neatly into cultural and ideological silos,” the dining car “acts, by some numinous, unseen force, as a kind of industrial-strength social lubricant.”

In other words, he met people whose politics were very different from his–“abhorrent, dangerous, and destructive”–and discovered they were still human beings. “That ability to connect across an ideological divide seemed predicated on the fact that we were quite literally breaking bread together.” This made him “wonder if the train might be a salve for our national wound, bringing us into intimate conversation with unlikely interlocutors, and allowing us to see each other as human rather than as mere containers for ideology.” Continue reading


2016 Highway Statistics Posted

The Federal Highway Administration has started publishing its 2016 Highway Statistics, including the latest data on highway miles, miles of driving, and road conditions. Most financial data are not yet available nor are driving data broken down by urban areas, but these should appear soon.

The data show that the number of bridges considered “structurally deficient” declined by nearly 5 percent from 58,791 in 2015 to 56,007 in 2016, continuing a trend that goes back to at least 1990, when 137,865 were considered deficient. The last American highway bridge to collapse due to a maintenance failure was Tennessee’s Hatchie River Bridge in 1989. I suspect that failure led the Federal Highway Administration to increase its monitoring of bridge conditions to encourage states to keep them maintained.

The new data also show that pavements in 2016 were slightly less rough than in 2015. The improvement was not uniform, however. The data indicate that pavements in Arkansas were much rougher in 2016 than in 2015, and the difference was so great that I suspect either a data error or someone in Arkansas was misreporting the data before 2016. Continue reading


Tilting at Straw Men

So, your proposal to build light rail in Nashville has been slammed both locally and nationally. What do you do? Why, expand the proposal, increasing the expense from $5.2 to $5.6 billion.

You also defend your plan by setting up straw-men arguments against it and attacking those arguments rather than the valid criticisms of light rail. According to “transit skeptics,” says Nashville Mayor Megan Barry, “transit ridership has been declining for decades nationally, Nashville lacks the density for light rail and the rise autonomous vehicles is the answer for Nashville’s traffic.”

She responds that transit ridership has grown considerably since 1995. But, in fact, no one ever argued that transit ridership has been declining for decades. What they (or, in fact, I) argued was that per capita transit ridership has been declining for decades, which it has; that total transit ridership has been declining since 2014; and that the trends that are causing it to decline are not likely to change. Continue reading


Amtrak: Big Nuisance or Vital Service?

Amtrak faces many of the same problems as urban transit: low gas prices, crumbling infrastructure, late trains, and declining service (Amtrak provided about 0.4 percent fewer seat-miles in 2017 than in 2016). Yet even as transit ridership is dropping, Amtrak ridership grew by 1.5 percent in F.Y. 2017. Moreover, ridership is growing in all three of Amtrak’s divisions: the Northeast Corridor, state-supported day trains, and long-distance trains.

Amtrak’s 2017 ridership growth was about twice the nation’s population growth, indicating per capita ridership is also growing. A lot of the new riders must have taken short trips, however, as passenger miles only grew by about a third of a percent.

Still, it is easy to overestimate the significance of Amtrak’s growth. Usage of many forms of transportation are growing. Domestic airline travel, for example, carries a hundred times as many passenger miles as Amtrak and is growing by 4 to 5 percent per year. Automobiles carry Americans 500 to 600 times as many passenger miles a Amtrak, and rural driving (the kind that competes with Amtrak) grew by 1.7 percent so far in 2017. Continue reading


Why Does Everything Take So Damn Long?

The collective stupidity of politicians and transportation agencies can be breathtaking. As of 2015, Boston’s transit system had a $7.3 billion maintenance backlog. But, instead of fixing it, the MBTA has been busy planning — and planning — and planning — a new rail line it won’t be able to maintain, the Green Line extension to Medford, Massachusetts.

Planning began, in fact, before 2005, which is the date of the project’s major investment study, which projected that it would cost $390 million. There’s been a little cost escalation since then: it is now up to $2.3 billion. That money could have done a lot to reduce the maintenance backlog.

Did I mention that the new line uses the right of way of an existing commuter rail line? Even with free right of way, it will cost $621 million a mile. And that doesn’t count all of the tens of millions spent on planning for more than a dozen years. Continue reading


Making Both Autos and Highways Safer

New York Times columnist David Leonhardt writes that “America is now an outlier on driving deaths.” He is partly right and partly wrong.

He is right that auto fatality rates per billion vehicle miles in the United States are a little higher than in many other countries and that highway safety has grown in other countries faster than in the U.S. But this is because roads elsewhere were far more dangerous than they have been in the United States for a long time. The reality is that other countries have caught up with the U.S., not that the U.S. has fallen behind.

For example, according to data published by the OECD, in 1990 Austria suffered 32 deaths per billion vehicle kilometers compared with just 13 in the U.S. By 2014, Austria’s fatalities had fallen to 5.4, while the U.S. had fallen to 6.7. Yes, Austria’s had fallen more but only because they were so bad in the first place. Continue reading