Category Archives: Urban areas

Bringing the Danish Plan to the Front Range

In 1976, Boulder Colorado city councilor Paul Danish persuaded the rest of the council to pass a slow-growth ordinance that limited the growth of Boulder to 2 percent per year. Ever since then, it’s been called the Danish Plan. In 1995, the ordinance was modified to reduce growth to just 1 percent per year, and the city of Golden Colorado also passed a similar limit in 1995.

Now Denis Hayes, the Golden resident who persuaded the city pass that limit, wants to extend the benefits of slow growth to the entire Colorado Front Range. His ballot initiative 66, if approved, would limit growth in Adams, Arapahoe, Boulder, Broomfield, Denver, Douglas, El Paso, Jefferson, Larimer and Weld counties to 1 percent per year. After each city or county in the region has issued its quota of building permits in a given year, it would not be allowed to issue any more that year.

“Rapid growth raises the price of land and makes it hard for industry to move in,” says Hayes. “Amazon would be a lot more likely to settle here if we are controlling growth.” Continue reading

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You Can Build Your Way out of Congestion

Los Angeles is still the most congested urban area in the world, according to the latest INRIX traffic scorecard. However, what is more interesting is that congestion seems to be declining in several fast-growing cities in Texas, thanks to construction of new highways.

Dallas is twice as big as Seattle and Houston is three times as big. The Dallas and Houston urban areas are both growing nearly twice as fast as Seattle’s, but Seattle is concentrating its growth in the city while Dallas and Houston allow more people to settle in the suburbs. INRIX found that congestion was worse in Seattle than either Dallas or Houston, which was a direct result of Washington’s growth-management policies.

Moreover, while INRIX’s congestion index for Seattle — and most other cities — grew worse since last year’s scorecard, the congestion indices for Dallas, Houston, Austin, San Antonio, and El Paso all improved. That’s unusual in the United States, INRIX observes, but cities in Scotland and Germany have also managed to reduce congestion by building new facilities. Continue reading

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A City in Egypt

In a state of the city address last week, the mayor of Cupertino, Darcy Paul, said that the housing shortage in his city was “not dire” and recommended against approval of a planned mixed-use housing project to replace a former shopping mall called Vallco. Developers wanted to convert the 1.2-million-square-foot mall into 2,400 units of housing along with some retail and offices. Paul thought the retail and offices were fine, but opposed the housing.

Just how dire is Cupertino’s housing shortage? The median home value, according to Zillow, is $2.158 million. The median family income is $158,000. That’s a value-to-income ratio of 13.7. Palo Alto’s is higher ($3.01 million to $167,440 for a value-to-income ratio of 18), but I’d still say that Cupertino’s housing market is pretty dire considering that fifty years ago the value-to-income ratios in the Bay Area were less than 2.5.

Paul is being rightly criticized for his insensitivity to the housing problems faced by newcomers who earn $158,000 a year. But the truth is that almost everyone in Cupertino, Palo Alto, and the rest of Santa Clara County are suffering from a blind spot–more of a blind mountain–when it comes to housing issues. Continue reading

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Transit Losses From Poor People Buying Cars?

A new report from the UCLA Institute of Transportation Studies finds that the main cause of declining ridership in southern California is poor people buying cars. Between 1990 and 2000, when ridership was growing, the Los Angeles region grew by 1.8 million people but only 456,000 cars, or about one car per four people. Between 2000 and 2010, when ridership was shrinking, the region grew by 2.3 million people and gained 2.1 million cars, or nearly one car per new person.

There is certainly something to this, but other factors are probably more important than the report estimates. The report says that neither ride sharing nor changes in transit service and fares have played an important role, and I suspect these conclusions are wrong.

The report shows that transit trips per capita peaked in 2007 and have declined in most years since then. Certainly the decline before around 2012 or 2013 was not due to ride sharing. But the decline steepened after 2014, and I suspect much of that decline is due to ride sharing. Continue reading

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VTA’s Not-So-Smart People

Facing declining ridership and a $20 million annual deficit, San Jose’s Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) needs to be “right-sized,” says San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo. Liccardo was recently made chair of VTA’s board of directors, and in some recent remarks to the board, he offered some ominous warnings about the agency’s future.

Despite the fact that Silicon Valley is in a period of “unprecedented prosperity” and the region’s population is steadily growing, he noted, ridership is declining, the agency had to do some one-time only budgetary hocus-pocus to meet last year’s payroll, and it is facing $100 million of annual capital needs including replacement of worn-out rail cars.

The good news, he said, is VTA has “2,1000 smart people” who “have solutions.” Unfortunately, those solutions so far have proven not to work. In fact, some have worked so poorly that it is reasonable to question just how smart those people are. Continue reading

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Metro’s Unsurprising Derailment

Washington Metro officials pretended to be shocked when a Red Line train derailed due to a broken rail on Monday. In fact, the break should not and probably didn’t surprise any of them.

“It’s like, God, didn’t we do all of the fixing, the bad areas, SafeTrack?” rambled Metro’s board chair, Jack Evans. “All that stuff was intended to prevent stuff like this from happening.” Actually, Evans knows perfectly well that the SafeTrack work was superficial and the system still needs $15 billion to $25 billion of maintenance and rehabilitation work.

“This rail was manufactured in 1993, which may sound old but actually rail can last 40, 50 years,” said Metro general manager Paul Wiedefeld, “so it’s not particularly old in the railroad business.” Actually, it is. Continue reading

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Is Transit the Only Answer? Is It Even an Answer?

“Forget self-driving cars,” argues Rod Diridon, the former chair of one of the worst-managed transit agencies in the country. “Mass transit is the only answer to gridlock.” Writing in the San Jose Mercury-News, Diridon presents what he considers to be alarming statistics about job growth and then asserts that only huge subsidies to transit will allow those people to get to work.

“Well over 100,000 new primary jobs will be added to Silicon Valley in the next decade,” he estimates, and each primary job will be supported by seven to thirteen secondary jobs. Since Silicon Valley (which I equate to the San Jose urbanized area) only had 873,000 jobs in 2016, he is essentially predicting that jobs (and therefore population) will more than double in a decade. Considering that the region’s population has only been growing at about 1 percent per year, that’s impossible.

At no matter what rate the region is growing, transit–or at least the Santa Clara Valley Transit Authority (VTA) that Diridon once led–has proven itself incapable of dealing with this growth. Back in 2000, VTA carried 55.6 million transit riders. By 2016, the region’s population had grown 16 percent, yet ridership was down to 44.0 million. In the first ten months of 2017, ridership fell another 8.5 percent below the same period in 2016. As a result, annual transit trips per capita have fallen by more than a third since 2000. Continue reading

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Paying for a Tesla, Getting a Scion

The city of Portland has agreed to contribute $6 million towards the cost of a high-rise, mixed-use complex because the building is supposed to include 60 units of “affordable housing.” “That’s like paying for a Toyota and getting a Tesla in return,” Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler enthused.

No, Mr. Mayor. It’s more like paying for a Tesla and getting a Toyota. A very small Toyota, also known as a Scion.

The building in question is supposed to make innovative use of cross-laminated wood to form one of the tallest wooden buildings in America. Normally wood is not allowed for high rises due to fire danger, but the Oregon wood products industry has been trying to boost the use of this material and claims it has overcome the fire problem. The project developers, coincidentally called Project (technically, Project^, but pronounced “project”), are so enthused that they are willing to put up $1.2 million of their own money towards the $29 million structure. Continue reading

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Denver Mayor Demonstrates Insanity

As Albert Einstein didn’t say, “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting different results.” Someone points out that this is actually the definition of perserveration. Whatever you call it, Denver Mayor Michael Hancock is doing it.

“Shockingly, 73 percent of Denver commuters drive to and from work in cars by themselves,” says Mayor Hancock. So, he plans to serve the people by working to “dedicate more travel lanes as transit only and make bus service more accessible to everyone.”

Hancock is behind the times, as the share of Denver commuters who drive alone to work hasn’t been 73 percent since the early 2000s. According to census data, it was 71 percent in 2000, but grew to 74 percent in 2006 and was 76 percent in 2016. Continue reading

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Throwing Good Money After Bad

Publicly funded transit projects are not the only ones that overestimate ridership and underestimate costs. The casinos that own the Las Vegas Monorail, which started operating in 2004 and went bankrupt in 2010, wants to borrow $110 million to extend the line about 0.8 miles. That’s a lot of money for a system that carries less than 13,000 riders per day.

Flickr photo by James Cridland.

Serving the gaudy hotels on the Las Vegas Strip (which isn’t actually in Las Vegas), the existing monorail has been strategically positioned to give its patrons excellent views of parking lots, dumpsters, and service roads, which is one reason why it went bankrupt. It could increase patronage by going to the airport, but taxi and limo companies have lobbied hard against that (and even limos might be less expensive than unsubsidized rides on the monorail). Continue reading

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