Category Archives: Transportation

2017: Year 1 of Driverless Cars

This year may be remembered as the year that driverless cars became real. This is because Waymo has officially started operating driverless cars, without back-up drivers, in a public ride-sharing service in several suburbs of Phoenix, Arizona.

Driverless cars are legal in most states so long as a licensed driver is at the wheel ready to take over if there is a problem the computer can’t handle. Without the back-up driver, they technically aren’t legal anywhere. But the governor of Arizona, Doug Ducey, has promoted a “rules-free environment” for driverless car experimentation.

This past year was also a record year for Amtrak. This puts the lie to transit-agency claims that low fuel prices are the main culprit behind recent ridership declines. An interviewer asked five transit executives what their most important challenges were and not one of them mentioned competition from ride-sharing companies. Like transit, Amtrak must compete with modes that benefit from low fuel prices, but so far it doesn’t have to deal with ride sharing. The fact that it is doing fine shows that ride sharing, not low fuel prices, are the most important source of transit woes. Continue reading

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2017: The Year in Transit

The year 2017 has been a nightmare for transit agencies across the nation. Transit carried fewer riders in the first ten months of 2017 than in the same months in 2016 in 46 of the nation’s 50 largest urban areas.

According to the latest data posted by the Federal Transit administration, the transit industry carried 1.4 percent more transit riders in October, 2017 than in the same month the year before. However, most of this growth was due to a 6.6 percent recovery of transit ridership in the New York urban area; subtract New York and national ridership fell by 2.3 percent.

After New York, the five largest urban areas–Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami, Philadelphia, and Dallas-Ft. Worth–all saw continued declines in ridership. Houston ridership grew by 8.1 percent, possibly indicating that Houston’s 2015 bus reforms are still paying off but perhaps also because so many automobiles were destroyed by Hurricane Harvey. Seattle ridership grew by 5.3 percent, Detroit’s by 6.4 percent, and small gains were also posted in the Washington, Boston, San Francisco, Portland, and a few other urban areas. But October ridership declined in 36 of the top 50 urban areas. Continue reading

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Why Railroads Are Dragging Their
Wheels on Positive Train Control

In 2008, Congress required that railroads install positive train control, which would automatically cause trains to slow or stop to prevent derailments or collisions, on all lines that carry passengers or hazardous materials by December 2015. That deadline is two years passed, yet–as last week’s accident revealed–still has not been met by most railroads.

The Washington train wreck was a special case. The rail line, improvements, passenger train, and upgrades were owned or done by four different government agencies. It seems particularly galling that neither Sound Transit, which owns the tracks and is spending billions on rail construction, nor the Washington State Department of Transportation, which received close to a billion dollars from the federal government to upgrade this particular line, bothered to install a working version of positive train control before inaugurating service on this route.

In general, however, the railroads have two very good reasons for not enthusiastically installing positive train control as Congress has demanded. First, the cost is high: the Federal Railroad Administration estimates it will cost as much as $24 billion, which is probably more than the annual capital budgets of all the private railroads in the country. Continue reading

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Portland’s Congestion Plans Are Working

Portland’s transportation policies are working. At least, they’re working if you think their goal is to increase congestion in order to encourage people to find alternatives to driving. At least, the increased-congestion part is working, but not many are finding alternatives to driving.

According to Waze, Portland has the fifth-most-miserable traffic in the United States. Waze is an app that asks its users to rate their driving experiences. Rather than just measure hours of delay, Waze’s driver satisfaction index is based on a variety of indicators including traffic, road quality, safety, driver services, and socio-economic factors such as the impact of gas prices on the cost of living.

Waze calculates the index for any area that has more than 20,000 Waze users, which means 246 metropolitan areas in 40 countries. Nationally, the U.S. is ranked number three after the Netherlands and France. In terms of congestion alone, the United States ranks number one (that is, has the least congestion). The Netherlands and France edge out the U.S. in overall scores because of their higher road quality and safety ratings. Continue reading

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Questions to Ask about Amtrak 501

The wreck of the 501–the Amtrak train that crashed near Seattle on Monday–is raising lots of questions about Amtrak operations, but they aren’t always the right ones. Here are some questions that should be asked and some of the Antiplanner’s preliminary answers. Answers from Amtrak (the operator), FRA (the funder), Sound Transit (the track owner), or WSDOT (the train owner) may differ.

1. Congress required passenger railroads to install positive train control (PTC) by the end of 2015. Why did the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) give money to the Washington Department of Transportation (WSDOT) for a new passenger rail line that would not open until after 2015 when the project didn’t guarantee funding for positive train control?

Answer: The Obama administration wanted to distribute high-speed rail funds to as many states as possible in order to build political backing for the program, so it couldn’t be bothered with positive train control. The tracks the train was on are owned by Sound Transit, which says it is installing PTC, but it won’t be finished until spring. Public releases of WSDOT’s application for funds for this train didn’t mention PTC. Continue reading

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A Horrible Way to Be Proven Right

Yesterday was not a proud day for the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT). The agency spent close to $800 million of federal funds on a so-called high-speed rail project between Seattle and Portland–only “so-called” because top speeds would be just 79 mph, which is conventional rail. Much of the money was spent upgrading existing tracks to give passenger trains a shorter (but less scenic) route through and around Tacoma.

As you probably know, the very first train to use this route derailed on an overpass over Interstate 5, blocking half the freeway and killing at least three, and probably more, passengers. It so happens that Mayor Don Anderson of Lakewood, Washington–about 10 miles north of the crash–warned WSDOT on December 5 that it was not taking safety seriously enough. “This project was never needed and endangers our citizens,” he declared.

To be fair, Mayor Anderson was worried that grade crossings in Lakewood were inadequately protected for 79-mph trains. But his comments more generally suggest that WSDOT was putting the goal of saving Seattle-Portland passengers ten minutes of time–increasing average speeds by just 2.7 mph–ahead of safety. Continue reading

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Mythbusting or Mythmaking?

The American Public Transportation Association (APTA) is circulating what claims to be a mythbusting report about recent declines in transit ridership. As it is based mostly on interviews with 35 transit CEOs, however, it does more mythmaking than mythbusting. Other than the interviews, its only real data analysis looks back at transit ridership since 1992.

Based on these ridership data, the report argues that the recent declines in ridership are merely some sort of natural cycle of declines and increases. Similar declines were seen after 1992, 2002, and 2007, all of which were followed by recoveries.

The interviews found that transit CEOs weren’t too worried about the declines. Of course, why should they be when most of their money comes from people other than transit riders? To the extent that they were worried, the CEOs blamed the declines mainly on low gas prices, while only three of the 35 CEOs considered ride sharing to be “a root cause of ridership decline.” In fact, the CEOs were more concerned about how the increased congestion caused by ride-sharing vehicles was slowing down transit buses and thereby indirectly discouraging ridership. Continue reading

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Dublin Learns the Joys of Streetcars

It cost $433 million for 3.66 miles, or $118 million a mile. It’s slower than walking, at least for some trips. It significantly increased street congestion and has had an especially “negative impact on other forms of public transport,” namely buses. What is it? Dublin’s new Cross-City Tram.


Note that the videographer had to speed up some scenes so people wouldn’t lose patience with watching the slow-moving tram.

Instead of being divided into three segments on four wheelsets, like many so-called modern streetcars in the states, the Dublin trams are seven segments on eight wheelsets. That means they can carry 358 people. It also means that, much of the time, they will run even emptier than American streetcars, since it is not easy to reduce the number of segments in a car for low-use periods. Continue reading

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Cycling Good and Bad

Canadian environmentalist Lawrence Solomon believes that cities have gone too far in promoting cycling. Taking lanes from cars and giving them to bicycles may be good for cyclists, but are a waste of space because the lanes end up moving far fewer people per hour than they did when they were open to cars. Writing in the Financial Post, Solomon quotes a member of Parliament saying that London’s cycle superhighways that I found convenient when touring England last year have done more damage to the city than “almost anything since the Blitz.”

Solomon has a history of opposing “policies that discriminate against the bicycle.” But that is quite different from supporting policies that discriminate against cars and trucks. By increasing traffic congestion, converting auto lanes to bicycle lanes increases pollution, which is especially harmful to cyclists.

I’ve reached the same conclusions and it’s refreshing to see I’m not the only one. I’ve always contended that bicycles and automobiles were compatible and there was no need to favor one over the other. Like Solomon, I object when I find traffic signals that respond to cars but ignore bicycles and to bridges and tunnels designed for autos with no room for bicycles. But I don’t believe that major thoroughfares should be reconstructed to favor a few cyclists over the vastly more numerous automobiles. Continue reading

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$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

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