Category Archives: Urban areas

Does Las Vegas Need High-Cost, Low-Capacity Transit?

Las Vegas’ Regional Transportation Commission is considering the idea of building a light-rail subway under the Las Vegas strip. Unlike most roads, congestion on the strip does not happen during morning and afternoon rush hours but on weekends and evenings when tourists tire of gambling in their own hotels and decide to explore some of the other hotels on the strip.

The strip is already served by an expensive monorail that was privately funded by a firm that has since gone bankrupt. Plus there are numerous private and public buses that run up and down the strip.

Comments to this and other articles claim that the monorail failed because it didn’t go to the airport and because its route behind the hotels offers such pleasant scenery as blank walls and dumpsters. But the fact that hotels didn’t want to mar their public facades with an elevated train–and some hotels didn’t want the monorail at all because they didn’t want to encourage their guests to escape–explains some of the problems facing any potential rail line. Las Vegas has a thriving, for-profit airport shuttle system that avoids congestion by using back streets, so replacing that with a subsidized rail line is totally unnecessary.

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Defining Suburbs

Based on surveys asking people whether they thought the lived in urban, suburban, or rural ares, Trulia economist Jed Kolko has defined the borderline between urban and suburban as 2,213 households per square mile (slightly less than 3.5 per acre), while the line between suburban and rural is 102 households per square mile (about 1 household every 6.3 acres). Based on this, Kolko concluded that less than half of many cities are truly urban.

Specifically, as shown in an article in Slate, 100 percent of New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Detroit, Washington, Boston, and Baltimore are urban. But less than half of Phoenix, San Antonio, Indianapolis, Columbus, Fort Worth, Charlotte, El Paso, Louisville, and Tucson are more than 70 percent suburban. Only 3 percent of Seattle, but 43 percent of Portland, are suburban.

Kolko isn’t the first to define urban and suburban using demographic rather than political criteria. The Antiplanner’s faithful ally, Wendell Cox, did a similar analysis last year. Looking at urban areas rather than cities, he defined areas as pre-auto, early auto, late auto, and exurban. The pre-auto areas included all areas with a median home construction date before 1945, areas with more than 7,500 people per square mile, and areas where non-auto commute shares exceeded 20 percent. The early auto areas were those remaining areas with median home construction dates before 1979; late auto had median home construction dates after 1980; and exurban was all land in the metropolitan statistical area but outside the urbanized area.

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In Memoriam: the Fifth Amendment

The Antiplanner spoke in Spokane last Friday at the annual meeting of Spokane chapter of Citizens Alliance for Property Rights. The focus of my presentation was how cities have eroded the property rights protections of the Fifth Amendment in order to promote the density schemes of urban planners.

The Fifth Amendment, which says that government may not take private property for public use without due compensation, was once interpreted to mean that government cannot take private property for private use at all and must pay compensation when it takes it for public use. But over time it has come to be reinterpreted to mean that government can take property rights through regulation without compensation and it can take private property from one owner and give it to another private party with compensation.

Several Supreme Court decisions have led to this result, but three are probably the most important: The Euclid decision legalized zoning to prevent nuisances; the Penn Central decision approved takings of property rights through land-use regulation even when there was no danger of a nuisance; and the Kelo decision allowed cities to take peoples’ land by eminent domain to give to private developers even when the land wasn’t blighted. All of these rulings have one thing in common: the Court said that the cities involved could ignore the traditional interpretation of the Fifth Amendment because they had written an urban plan. No wonder urban planners have so much power: the Supreme Court has given any city that employs one a get-out-of-the-Fifth-Amendment-free card.

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Purple Line Decision Near

Maryland Governor Larry Hogan says the $150-million-per-mile cost of the proposed Purple light-rail line between Bethesda and New Carrollton is “not acceptable.” The Maryland Department of Transportation thinks that it can reduce the cost by 10 percent, but that probably isn’t enough, considering that Hogan wants it to be “dramatically lower.” Hogan promises to make a decision in the next month.

Before he does, the Antiplanner thinks he should know that, no matter how much the planners say it will cost, it always costs more. From that view, a 10 percent reduction probably means 30 percent more than the current projected cost.

Instead of building light rail, Maryland could just run buses. The Antiplanner estimates that a fleet of 70 buses could provide service every two minutes in each direction. If buses operated on this schedule during rush hours and at half that frequency during off-peak hours and on weekends and holidays, they could carry as many people as the 69,000 that light rail is optimistically projected to carry at a lower operating cost and for about 2 percent of the start-up cost of light rail. Would a 98 percent reduction in costs be dramatic enough for the governor?

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Paying for Rail Transit

Last week, San Antonio voters overwhelming approved of a measure forbidding the city’s transit agency from building any rail transit lines without voter approval. While that seems like a no brainer, opponents contended that it was unfair to single out rail transit for such a measure just because rail cost 50 to 100 times as much as bus transit.

Meanwhile, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan is still trying to decide whether to cancel the $2.5 billion Purple Line (not to mention Baltimore’s $3 billion Red Line). Rail supporters were disappointed that he cut tolls on bridges and toll roads, since they figured that any surplus tolls should have gone to their pet project.

Rail supporters are claiming that the evil Cato Institute is leading a major campaign to undermine their plans. In fact, with the exception of the Antiplanner and maybe one other person, no one at Cato has put much thought into the Purple Line, as they are working on such relatively trivial things as reducing conflict in the Mideast, improving health care, and keeping government from watching everything we do.

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Portland’s Housing Future

The Antiplanner spent yesterday in the Portland, visiting the neighborhood where I grew up and seeing the new homes springing up in people’s backyards, sideyards, frontyards, and just about anywhere where there is a little open space. Portland planners say that 55 percent of new homes built in the next two decades will be multifamily or single-family attached homes (row houses). If the single-family homes being built in my old neighborhood are good examples of the kind of single-family planners want for the remaining 45 percent, they won’t be any more attractive than the 55 percent.

Economist Bill Reid argues that Metro planners are greatly overestimating the desire for multifamily housing. Based on a survey published by Metro itself, Reid predicts that Metro’s plans will result in a shortfall of more than 40,000 single-family detached homes. Unfortunately, Reid’s study doesn’t seem to be available on line, but it is described in this Portland Tribune article.

Predictably, one of the comments on the Portland Tribune article lauds Metro and urban-growth boundaries for protecting Oregon from becoming like “overcrowded California.” In fact, these policies are deliberately designed to turn Portland into another overcrowded California urban area.

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It’s Going to Be a Bumpy Ride

Last December, Honolulu’s rail transit project was estimated to be $700 million over budget. Now they are saying it is closer to a billion. Never fear, however: the state legislature just agreed to extend a half-percent excise tax, which was supposed to expire in 2022, indefinitely for five years to pay for the rail and its cost overruns.


Due to many sinkholes and other soil problems, the elevated Honolulu rail line looks to be a bumpy ride.

The legislature was reluctant to do so, but was persuaded after heavy lobbying by Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell. Coincidentally, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser reports that rail contractors and subcontractors have donated well over half a million dollars to Caldwell’s political campaign funds. This doesn’t include sub-subcontractors, which are so numerous that even the transit agency doesn’t know how many there are, much less who they are. (The story is behind a paywall, but it says prime contractors and their principals and employees have given the mayor nearly $324,000 while subcontractors have given nearly $243,000.)

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The Cost of Regulation in San Diego

Last week, economists at the Fermanian Business & Economic Institute released a report estimating that government regulation increase San Diego housing prices–for both buyers and renters–by an average of about 40 percent. The report says that only 16 percent of San Diego County has been developed (the 2010 census says 18.5 percent), and almost all of the remaining land is off-limits to homebuilders. Yet, the report notes, a significant portion of that land “is geographically suitable for development.”

Although the land shortage is responsible for much of the regulatory cost, there are other costs as well. “The time involved in what is often a prolonged and complicated process . . . can add 15% or more to the price of a new house,” or more than a third of the total regulatory cost, says the report. This process can take 12 years or more before developers can start building a single home. Of course, the Antiplanner has argued that cities can only get away with imposing such an onerous process if they have shut off most vacant land from development through urban-growth boundaries and other regulatory tools.

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Spokane Rejects Transit Tax

Voters in the Spokane, Washington area appear to have rejected a proposed 50-percent increase in the sales tax used to support transit by a small margin this week. At the latest count, the vote was 50.5 percent against the tax and 49.5 percent in favor of it.

Click image to download the “public education” flyer distributed by Spokane’s transit agency.

A few hundred votes remain to be counted, but almost all of them would have to favor the tax to turn the election around. The measure lost despite the fact that the transit agency used taxpayer dollars to promote the measure with a one-sided “information mailer” distributed to voters. Tax proponents vowed to bring the tax back to the voters, saying that those who supported the tax did so with “a strong majority.”

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Lafayette Presentations

Lafayette, Louisiana would seem to be the last place in the world that you would expect to adopt a smart-growth plan. Yet the city adopted one recently and is now beginning to implement it by revising its zoning code. The Antiplanner believes that this code will make housing and other developments more expensive and slow the economic growth of Lafayette.

I suspect the problems can be traced to a decision made a couple of decades ago to consolidate the city and parish government. The argument at the time was that most people lived in one of six Lafayette cities and towns, and the few people scattered across the rural parts of the parish couldn’t afford to maintain the roads and other infrastructure. Consolidation was supposed to fix that.

Today, the roads are in worse shape than ever, both in the city and the parish, and congestion is a major local problem. When the parish asked for a tax increase to improve roads, the parish council at that time refused to guarantee that the money would actually be spent on roads, so the voters rejected the increase.

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