Category Archives: Transportation

Should Tolling Aim to Reduce Driving
or Increase Economic Opportunities?

Seattle’s mayor has announced a vague proposal to toll downtown streets in order to relieve congestion. While the Antiplanner supports congestion pricing, I oppose cordon pricing, which is more of a revenue-raising scheme than a congestion-reduction program, and it isn’t yet clear which of these two the mayor is proposing.

Tolling has a bad reputation in Seattle because stiff penalties on people who failed to pay bridge tolls were so oppressive that they put some people into bankruptcy. At the same time, a well-designed tolling system can be good for low-income people, in the same way that they are better off paying market prices for groceries rather than having food allocated by the government, which generally results in little or no food available at all.

The downtown congestion that the mayor wants to fix is a problem of the city’s own making. Thanks to a variety of subsidies and incentives, the number of jobs in greater downtown Seattle — which covers a little more than 10 percent of the city — grew by 30 percent to 262,000 between 2010 and 2017. Although only a quarter of downtown employers drive to work, that’s more than the number who drive to work in downtown Portland, where more than half the employees commute by auto but has only around 100,000 jobs. Continue reading


How Bad Is “That Bad”?

The transit industry loses $50 billion a year. It’s customer base is dwindling. Business in many regions has declined by 20 to 40 percent. Yet Bloomberg, one of the nation’s leading business publications, says, “The outlook for public transit isn’t all that bad.”

Sheesh. Just how bad does it have to be to be “that bad”?

According to Bloomfield columnist Noah Smith, light-rail and commuter-rail ridership “are at all-time highs,” by which he means highs for 1990 to 2017, the time period used in his charts. In fact, his chart doesn’t show it, but according to the source of data in his chart (American Public Transportation Association (APTA) ridership reports), both light rail and commuter rail declined in 2017 and light rail (which APTA equates with streetcars) was much higher before 1955 than it is today. Continue reading


Transit’s February Numbers

Nine out of the top ten and forty out of the top fifty urban areas saw transit ridership decline in February, 2018 compared with the previous February, according to the latest data posted by the Federal Transit Administration. That’s slightly worse than in January: When compared with 2017, ridership in Buffalo, Denver, and Portland had grown slightly in the first month of 2018 but shrank in the second, which is slightly offset by Providence ridership growing in February after having declined in January.

The other regions seeing ridership grow are Los Angeles, San Francisco-Oakland, Seattle, San Diego, Riverside-San Bernardino, Las Vegas, San Jose, Hartford, and Raleigh. However, all of these regions except Seattle saw ridership decline in 2017, so the growth trend may be short-lived.

The declines are much more spectacular than the growth. While Los Angeles ridership grew by just 0.6 percent, Chicago lost 5.6 percent of its riders. San Francisco-Oakland did better with 6.9 percent growth, but Dallas-Ft. Worth lost 14.3 percent. Ridership in Seattle, which has been the only major urban area with consistent growth, grew by just 1.8 percent, but Portland ridership declined by the same percentage. Houston, which supposedly benefitted from a restructured bus system, saw ridership fall by 5.0 percent. Continue reading


Does Light Rail Help the Working Class?

Weak transit hurts working class,” claims an article in the Portland Tribune. “Communities of color, lower-income communities and English language learners have moved farther from city centers due to rising rents, and into high-crash corridors,” reports the article. “These community members are injured and killed in pedestrian crashes at a higher rate than white, higher-income urbanites.”

What the article doesn’t say is that the reason why low-income people were pushed out of their rented, single-family homes near the city center is because Portland’s urban-growth boundary prevented the construction of affordable new single-family homes on the urban fringes. This forced middle-class families to buy single-family homes in the city, evicting the renters.

Those renters then moved into high-density transit-oriented developments built along Portland’s light-rail line. Since those developments tend to be built on busy streets, the streets are more dangerous to pedestrians than the local streets where their former single-family homes are located. Thus, Portland’s transit dreams are the cause, not the solution, to this problem. Continue reading


Austin’s Foolish Plan

Another transit agency whose ridership is plummeting has published a multi-billion-dollar plan to build light rail. Austin’s Capital Metro, whose light-rail proposals have twice been rejected by voters, has issued a draft system plan that calls for construction of three light-rail lines.

Naturally, the proposal is full of lies. First, they call it a “high-capacity transit” plan when light rail actually is low-capacity transit. Second, Capital Metro told its board that the plan would cost $6 billion to $8 billion when in fact their own projections indicated it would cost $10.5 billion. “It’s extremely early in the process, so these numbers are very preliminary,” a Capital Metro official said when asked why the agency used the lower numbers. But the reality is that costs go up, not down, as plans become more detailed.

On a percentage basis, Austin is one of the two or three fastest-growing major urban areas in the United States, growing faster than 7 percent per year since 2010. Of the top 50, only Raleigh is growing faster, though Charlotte is close. Yet this growth hasn’t resulted in growing transit ridership. Since 2010, ridership has dropped 12.5 percent, and since its 2013 peak, it has dropped 19.2 percent.

Light rail won’t help. Charlotte, which is also growing at 7 percent per year, has a light-rail line yet lost 21.5 percent of its riders since 2013. Charlotte opened a new light-rail extension last month. While it’s too soon to tell, early indications are that its ridership will be below expectations. Continue reading


Anatomy of a Transit Disaster

The Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA), San Jose’s transit agency, has been making a series of happy-talk advertisements about how transit is green, is faster than driving, and reduces congestion. Of course, it is none of those things: VTA uses about as much energy and producing as much greenhouse gases per passenger mile as the average SUV; VTA light-rail trains average less than 16 mph and its buses less than 12; and rather than reduce congestion it is increasing it as its poor service leads people to give up transit and drive instead.

The reality is that VTA’s transit and transportation planning has proven to be a disaster for Silicon Valley. In 2000, VTA buses and light-rail transit carried 55.6 million riders, or more than 36 trips per capita in the San Jose urban area. Ridership grew to 57.3 million in 2001. But then the dot-com crash hit, reducing jobs and ridership. Desperate to avoid defaulting on the huge loans it had taken out to build light rail, by 2005 VTA had cut bus service by more than 20 percent. Even though the number of jobs declined by only 9 percent, ridership fell by more than 30 percent. Continue reading


Cancel the Seattle Streetcar

It’s at least 80 percent over budget, as it was supposed to cost $110 million and is now expected to cost more than $200 million. Ridership is well short of expectations. And projections of operating costs are far greater than the original claims. So Seattle mayor Jenny Durkan has halted construction on an expansion of the city’s streetcar lines.

This is certainly a brave step considering the enormous pressures to distribute tax dollars to worthy potential campaign donors. Plus streetcar advocates warn that halting and then restarting construction could add even more millions to the cost.

But those things shouldn’t matter. “The City of Seattle has a critical obligation to spend taxpayer dollars wisely and an equal obligation to transparency,” says Mayor Durkan. And at this point, the wisest thing to do would be to cancel the streetcar completely. Continue reading


New Transit Data

The American Public Transportation Association (APTA) posted, then withdrew, its fourth quarter 2017 ridership report last week. The Antiplanner downloaded it during the brief time it was available and reposted it here. I’ll let you know if there are any changes when APTA posts it again.

APTA collects its own ridership data from transit agencies, including agencies in Canada and a few U.S. agencies not in FTA’s National Transit Database (NTD). But the U.S. data should be pretty similar to the NTD numbers. Annual NTD numbers are based on the fiscal years of individual agencies so won’t be exactly similar to APTA’s calendar year data. But NTD also posts monthly numbers that should be similar to APTA’s.

APTA’s 2017 numbers show a 2.9 percent decline in U.S. transit ridership from 2016, while transit in Canada declined by 0.95 percent. Every major mode of transit declined except demand response (paratransit) and “other” (which includes ferries, people movers, monorails, vanpools, and a few other types). Heavy rail fell by 2.1%; light rail by 0.8%; commuter rail by 0.2%; and bus by 4.3%. In previous years, light rail ridership has grown faster than other modes mainly due to the opening of new lines. Apparently, either no new lines opened in 2017 or the gains from those openings weren’t sufficient to offset losses elsewhere. Continue reading


Not My Utopia

If Waymo and other manufacturers can get the bugs out, driverless cars promise many benefits including reduced congestion and pollution and increased speeds and safety. But anti-car people are upset because the utopia promised by self-driving cars is not the utopia they want, which is a city without, or at least fewer, cars.

A graphical op-ed published in the New York Times argues that cities should design streets for “people not cars,” as if cars don’t have people in them (or the people in them somehow don’t count). Only mass transit counts.

The op-ed distorts numerous facts and issues. For example, it starts out saying that streets in the early 1900s had pedestrians, bicycles, and wagons, and the result was “chaos. . . but it work[ed] because no single mode of transportation is privileged.” Whoever wrote this didn’t actually see those streets in the early 1900s, when New Yorkers complained at least as much about congestion as they do today, pedestrians stuck to the sidewalks (as they do today) because getting in the way of streetcars (which the op-ed doesn’t even mention) was dangerous and no one wanted to step in the pollution left by all the horses. Continue reading


Will Spending More Money Save Transit?

Speaking of simplistic solutions to complex problems, Streetsblog has an article on how to save transit. Based on ridership numbers from thirty-five urban ares, the pro-transit site says the two keys to transit success are, first, to spend lots of money, and second, to spend it in the right places.

I wonder why no one ever thought of that before.

The article points out that only three urban areas saw an increase in transit ridership from 2016 to 2017: Seattle, Phoenix, and Houston (where ridership grew just 0.1 percent). The numbers in the article are somewhat different from the numbers the Antiplanner calculated from the National Transit Database, but I agree that the only significant growth was in Seattle and Phoenix. (My numbers show a 0.1 percent decline in Houston.) Continue reading