Category Archives: Transportation

Buying a Self-Driving Car

BMW has announced that it will demonstrate a valet-parking car at the 2015 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas next month. This is more than a car that can parallel park by itself. Instead, it is a car that can cruise through a parking garage until it finds an empty space and park there until recalled on a smart phone (or smart watch), at which time it will drive itself to the car’s owner.


Official BMW photo of a car supposedly demonstrating self-parking capabilities. Click image for a larger view.

BMW hasn’t said yet when this feature might be available to actual car-buyers. Some suggest that it might be available on BMW 7-series cars in 2016, but that is only speculation.

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Time to Go on a Diet?

Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx wants you to go on a diet–a road diet. “A typical road diet takes a segment of four-lane undivided roadway and reconfigures it into three lanes with two through lanes and a center two-way left turn lane,” he says.

The theory behind a road diet is simple. From now on, order all of your clothes at least one full size too small for you. Pretty soon, you’ll be able to fit into those clothes.

Foxx argues that road diets can make roads safer and don’t reduce travel times despite a lower capacity. But do they really do that, or do they just force the traffic to go somewhere else, like the excess flesh that hangs out of someone’s too-tight clothes?

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Amtrak’s Questionable Numbers

Last week, Portland’s city auditor discovered that the city had been overstating streetcar ridership by 19 percent. It turns out that the Portland Streetcar isn’t the only government-sponsored transportation enterprise that has problems with simple arithmetic.

The January issue of Trains magazine reports that Amtrak has been overcounting its riders for years (the story, “Ridership down, revenue up,” isn’t available on line). It had to reduce its F.Y. 2014 ridership numbers by 705,000 because it actually started counting the number of people who ride its trains using “uncollectible multi-ride tickets” rather than just estimating them. That’s only about 2.3 percent of total 2014 ridership, but it meant that it had to show a decline from 2013 instead of the expected increase. (This is also noted in a footnote on page A-3.5 of Amtrak’s September, 2014, performance report.)

This 2.3 percent isn’t as drastic an overcount as 19 percent, but it spurred me to look at Amtrak’s historic numbers. When counting the number of trips people take on Amtrak each year, the railroad’s business has grown by nearly 40 percent since 1990. But when measured in passenger miles, the growth has been less than 10 percent. This means that the average length per trip has declined from 273 miles in 1990 (and a peak of 286 miles in 1993) to just 215 miles in 2014.

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A Streetcar Named Liar

Everything you’ve heard from the city of Portland about its streetcar lines is a lie. That seems to be the conclusion of the latest review of the operation by the city of Portland’s own city auditor.

Portland Streetcar, the private organization contracted to run the streetcar for the city, claims to have met the city’s on-time goals. The audit finds that it hasn’t. Portland Streetcar claims to have increased ridership by 500,000 riders in fiscal year 2014. The audit finds that that Portland Streetcar overstated ridership by 19 percent and actually ridership was 1.1 million trips less than claimed.

The auditor is also unimpressed by claims that the streetcar has generated billions of dollars worth of economic development. “Based on studies [Portland Bureau of Transportation] provided to us,” says the audit, “we conclude this research has yet to describe a causal relationship of how streetcars may affect economic development.” In other words, it’s just another fabrication.

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The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Falling Gas Prices

A left-coast writer named Mark Morford thinks that gas prices falling to $2 a gallon would be the worst thing to happen to America. After all, he says, the wrong people would profit: oil companies (why would oil companies profit from lower gas prices?), auto makers, and internet retailers like Amazon that offer free shipping.

If falling gas prices are the worst for America, then the best, Morford goes on to say, would be to raise gas taxes by $6 a gallon and dedicate all of the revenue to boondoggles “alternative energy and transport, environmental protections, our busted educational system, our multi-trillion debt.” After all, government has proven itself so capable of finding the most cost-effective solutions to any problem in the past, and there’s no better way to reduce the debt than to tax the economy to death.

Morford is right in line with progressives like Naomi Klein, who thinks climate change is a grand opportunity to make war on capitalism. Despite doubts cast by other leftists, Klein insists that “responding to climate change could be the catalyst for a positive social and economic transformation”–by which she means government control of transportation, housing, and just about everything else.

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High-Speed Rail from Dallas to Ft. Worth?

In the hierarchy of dumb projects, building a high-speed rail line to connect two cities that are just 32 miles a part would rank very high. Yet the Texas Department of Transportation and the Federal Railroad Administration are proposing just that: a line from Dallas to Ft. Worth. They are currently asking for comments on the scope of the environmental impact statement, due next Monday, December 15.

Not surprisingly, the biggest beneficiary of this project, so far, is Parsons Brinckerhoff, which seems to have its fingers in every ridiculous rail project in the country. One of the company’s employees is acting as “communications manager” for the project and delivering PowerPoint presentations about it to the public.

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Death to the Purple Money Eater

Maryland’s Governor-Elect Larry Hogan has promised to cancel the Purple Line, another low-capacity rail boondoggle that would cost taxpayers at least $2.4 billion to build and much more to operate and maintain. The initial projections for the line were that it would carry so few passengers that the Federal Transit Administration wouldn’t even fund it under the rules then in place. Obama has since changed those rules, but not to take any chances, Maryland’s current governor, Martin O’Malley, hired Parsons Brinckerhoff with the explicit goal of boosting ridership estimates to make it a fundable project.

The last time the Antiplanner looked at the Purple Line, the draft EIS (written by a team led by Parsons Brinckerhoff) was out and it projected the line would carry more than 36,000 trips each weekday in 2030. This is far more than the 23,000 trips per weekday carried by the average light-rail line in the country in 2012. Despite this optimistic projection, the DEIS revealed that the rail project would both increase congestion and use more energy than all the cars it took off the road (though to find the congestion result you had to read the accompanying traffic analysis technical report, pp. 4-1 and 4-2).

A few months after the Antiplanner made these points, Maryland published Parsons Brinckerhoff’s final EIS, which had an even more optimistic ridership projection: 46,000 riders per day in 2030, 28 percent more than in the draft. If measured by riders per station or per mile of rail line, only the light-rail systems in Boston and Los Angeles carry more riders than the FEIS projected for the purple line.

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Making War on User Fees

The Highway Trust Fund hasn’t worked, says a new report from the Eno Transportation Foundation, so Congress should consider getting rid of it and funding all transportation out of general funds. In other words, the transportation system is breaking down because it has become too politicized, so solve the problem by making transportation even more politicized.


Click image to download this 3.2-MB report.

Eno (which was founded by William Phelps Eno, who is known as the “father of traffic safety”) claims this report is the result of eighteen months work by its policy experts. They should have worked a little longer, as the report’s conclusions would only make things worse.

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Streetcar Troubles

The Washington Post has a story on Oregon’s United Streetcar company, which is supposedly geared up to manufacture 24 streetcars a year but has only managed to sell 18 and delivered all of them late. The story comes complete with photos of federal officials like Tim Geithner wearing ill-fitting sack suits like soviet commissars as they inspect the heavily subsidized factory.

For the Post, the story is not so much that the streetcars were delivered late, or that they were ineptly built, or that they cost $4 million while the Czech streetcars that they copied only cost $1.9 million. Although the article alludes to these problems, what appears to upset the Post the most is that giving millions of dollars in subsidies to an Oregon company that never built a transit vehicle in its life didn’t miraculously create a manufacturing powerhouse that is exporting streetcars all over the world. For some reason, other countries don’t want to pay twice as much for streetcars that are delivered late and fail to live up to promised specifications.

United Streetcar only managed to sell streetcars to three cities–Portland, Tucson, and Washington, DC–and they all signed contracts before the company developed its track record of late deliveries. Given that record, it isn’t surprising that other cities that are thinking about streetcars aren’t planning to buy Oregon.

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ARTIC Chill

Next week, Anaheim California will open the Anaheim Regional Transportation Intermodal Center, which is a grammatically contorted and glorified way of saying “Anaheim train and bus station.” A recent article suggests that some people think the station is an architectural monstrosity, but the real question that should have been debated is cost: was it really worth $185 million to build a train and bus station?


All this could be yours for a mere $2,784 per square foot. Click image for a larger view.

At 67,000 square feet. the station’s cost works out to an incredible $2,764 per square foot. Can you imagine any private firm spending that kind of money on a building to serve even the most profitable business, much less a money-losing one?

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