Category Archives: Urban areas

No Streetcar for San Antonio

After being in office just one week, San Antonio’s new mayor, Ivy Taylor, proposed Monday that the city withdraw the $32 million it had promised to build a new $280 million, 5.9-mile streetcar line. Moreover, she persuaded Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, the region’s leading streetcar proponent, to join her in declaring the streetcar plan dead. Wolff has previously said that he is too busy waging a re-election campaign against a streetcar opponent to campaign in favor of the streetcar plan.


A planner’s fantasy of what a streetcar would look like near the Alamo in San Antonio.

The announcements come amid controversy over an initiative petition submitted by streetcar opponents asking that voters be allowed to approve or reject the plan in November. The city has tentatively rejected most of the signatures, saying they were improperly collected. The petitioners have a legal opinion saying the city is reading the law incorrectly. The new mayor may be hoping that, in announcing the plan is dead, the demand for a vote will go away. If the city rejects the petitions now and opponents go to court, the measure may have to go to voters in a later election.

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East Portland: Another Planning Failure

Planning of outer southeast Portland has failed so badly that even the planners are recommending that the city slow densification of the area. As reported in the Oregonian late last year, the city upzoned the area to much higher densities but failed to install basic urban services to support those densities. The result is just one more disaster in the model of urban planning called Portland.

Some background: In 1994, Metro, Portland’s regional planning agency, gave every city in the region a population target and told them to upzone neighborhoods to reach that target so they wouldn’t have to make large expansions of the region’s urban-growth boundary. Metro specifically targeted 36 neighborhoods for densification, including outer southeast Portland and the Portland suburb of Oak Grove.

At the time, the Antiplanner lived in Oak Grove, the only targeted neighborhood that successfully fought densification. In 1996, I met someone from outer southeast Portland whose neighborhood was not so lucky. The planners came to their neighborhood and proposed upzoning to as high as 65 housing units per acre. The residents strenuously objected, and after much haggling, the planners agreed to a modest amount of upzoning, but warned that if the neighborhood failed to add enough new housing, even more upzoning would take place later.

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Whose Rights?

Early this month, a Texas judge ruled that developers can proceed with the Ashby high-rise in Houston, but that they have to pay nearby residents $1.2 million for damaging their property values. Planning advocates say this makes the case for zoning, while zoning critics say the damage award will merely encourage NIMBYs.

Developers plan to proceed with construction even as they promise to appeal the damage award. The case has been in court for seven years, damaging Houston’s reputation as a place where developers can easily get permits and build for the market.

Planning advocates should be careful what they wish for. As residents of Vancouver, BC, Portland, Seattle, and the San Francisco Bay Area have learned, zoning can be used to impose high rises and other high-density developments on neighborhoods that didn’t want them just as easily as it can be used to prevent such developments.

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Herding the Poor

TransForm, a smart-growth group in Oakland, has analyzed California’s household travel survey data and made what it thinks is a fascinating discovery: poor people drive less than rich people. Moreover, poor people especially drive less than rich people if they live in a high-density development served by frequent transit.


Click image to download the executive summary of TransForm’s report.

According to TransForm’s report, poor households who live in transit-oriented developments (TODs) drive only half as much as poor households who live away from TODs, while rich households who live in TODs drive about two-thirds as much as rich households who don’t live near TODs (see figure 1 on page 7).

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That’ll Teach ‘Em

King County Metro is having a banner year in terms of sales tax revenues, collecting $32 million, or almost 7.5 percent, more than anticipated. But the agency still petulantly plans to eliminate 72 bus routes and reduce service on 84 other routes because voters rejected a tax increase a couple of weeks ago.

The unanticipated revenue could provide half the money the agency says it needs to maintain bus service. But rather than keep the buses running, it says it will put that extra revenue in a “rainy day fund.” “Isn’t Metro’s rainy day happening right now?” asks the Washington Policy Center. In addition to using those revenues to keep some of the buses running, the Policy Center suggests that Metro cut costs by, among other things, buying regular buses instead of expensive hybrid-electric buses.

“Diesel buses are dirtier and cost more to operate,” chides a Seattle blogger. But, as the Antiplanner has documented before, the tiny cost savings from using hybrid buses comes nowhere near repaying their operating costs. Transit agencies that buy hybrid buses are letting ego blind them to the reality that hybrid buses just aren’t very efficient.

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Portland Streets Continue to Deteriorate

Portland’s streets, bridges, sidewalks, and traffic signals are in desperate need of maintenance, reports the city’s Bureau of Transportation. Yet the city is putting its transportation dollars towards building more streetcar lines.


Bike-friendly city? A Portland cyclist is attended (and eventually hospitalized) after a crash resulting from incomplete paving around a storm drain. Flickr photo posted by Ralph Bodenner (who was also the injured cyclist).

Last year, the Bureau of Transportation reported that nearly half the city’s streets were in poor or very poor condition. Thanks to continued neglect, they have breached the 50 percent threshold: in 2013, 54 percent were poor or very poor, while the share in good or very good condition shrank from 30 to 26 percent (see page 32 of the above-linked report).

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Streetcars Pro and Con

Last week, the San Antonio Express News published a pair of op eds for and against construction of a downtown streetcar. In opposition was Representative Lamar Smith, whose congressional district includes parts of both San Antonio and Austin.

A streetcar, he wrote, would be expensive, impractical, and would “likely make congestion worse.” “There are better uses for the hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars now slated for streetcars,” Smith observed, adding that most residents of San Antonio seem to oppose it and should at least have the chance to vote on it.

Writing in support of the streetcar was planner Bill Barker of Imagine San Antonio, a smart-growth group. Barker was previously the Senior Management Analyst in the City of San Antonio‚Äôs Office of Sustainability. Barker’s argument in favor of the streetcar was simple: the people who oppose the streetcar are evil, so should be ignored.

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Seattle Votes Down Transit Tax

Voters in King County, Washington, soundly rejected a proposed tax increase that King County Metro said was needed to maintain bus service. With the failure of the ballot measure, the transit agency says it will have to make cut bus service by about a sixth.

King County was unable to persuade the Seattle Times to endorse the measure. Instead, the Times suggested that the agency was mismanaged, citing cushy union contracts and other excessive costs.

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Challenging the Poverty Plan

In late February, the Twin Cities Metropolitan Council issued its draft Thrive 2040 plan for public review. No one will be surprised to learn it is a standard smart-growth plan with lots of emphasis on transit, high-density housing in transit corridors, and reducing driving. Of course, this isn’t always obvious, as the plan uses euphemisms such as “affordable housing” when it means high-density housing and “orderly and efficient land use” when it means restricting development in rural areas.


Click image to download the 3.7-MB plan.

The Met Council calls it the Thrive plan because it wants to give the impression that, without government planning, the region will wither away and die. Of course, the Antiplanner believes the opposite is true, and that it would be more accurate to call it a poverty plan, since it will likely make housing unaffordable and require higher taxes, both of which will slow economic growth.

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Is Transit Only Transit If It’s Expensive?

Wired magazine freaks out because the Tennessee senate supposedly passed a “mind-boggling ban on bus-rapid transit.” AutoblogGreen blames the legislation on the left’s favorite whipping boys, the Koch brothers because it was supported by Americans for Prosperity, a tax-watchdog group that has received funding from the Kochs.


Not only would Nashville’s bus-rapid transit consume up to three lanes of traffic and be given priority at traffic signals, the design of stations in the middle of a major arterial will create hazards for pedestrians.

In fact, the senate did not pass a bill to ban bus-rapid transit; it passed a bill to limit the dedication of existing lanes to buses. There is no reason why buses need their own dedicated lanes, at least in a mid-sized city such as Nashville. Kansas City has shown that bus-rapid transit in shared lanes can work perfectly well and attract as much as a 50 percent increase in riders.

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