Category Archives: Urban areas

Cincinnati Streetcars’ “Catastrophic Failures”

The Cincinnati streetcar–now known as the Cincinnati Bell Connector since Cincinnati Bell paid $3.4 million for naming rights–is barely six months old, and already is having problems. Four streetcars broke down in one day a few months ago.

Now the company that is contracted to operate the streetcar has warned that poor quality control by the railcar maker has resulted in “catastrophic failures” of three different major systems that cause regular breakdowns of the vehicles. Cincinnati Bell is upset enough to demand possibly illegal secret meetings with the city council over the streetcar’s problems.

Cincinnati once counted itself lucky that it didn’t order streetcars from United Streetcar, the short-lived company that made streetcars for Portland and Tucson, many of which suffered severe manufacturing defects. But it turns out the vehicles it ordered from a Spanish company named Construcciones y Auxiliar de Ferrocarriles (CAF), which were delivered 15 months late, weren’t much better.

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Portland Housing Stupidity Grows

Here’s an incredibly stupid idea to deal with Portland’s housing affordability problems: Multnomah County proposes to build tiny houses in people’s backyard. The people will get to keep the houses on the condition that they allow homeless people to live in them for five years.

That’s supposed to be an incentive. For five years, you have to share your yard with a homeless person who may be suffering from a variety of problems, after which you get to keep whatever is left of the tiny home. But as one Portland neighborhood activist points out, what homeless people need is healthcare and social work, not to be warehoused in someone else’s backyard.

I suspect homeowners are going to be wary of this offer because they will have little control who lives in their yard. Not only would the homeowners be required to maintain the tiny houses while the homeless person or people lived in them, Portland is making it increasing difficult for landlords to evict unwanted tenants.

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The Transit Industry Needs Structural Reform

Another transit agency is having financial problems. The San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit District is seeing ridership decline and both transit fares and sales tax revenues are falling short of expectations.

BART’s staff has given the board a laundry list of things it can do to make up the shortfall: raise fares, crack down on fare evaders, increase advertising revenue, increase parking fees, charge companies that send buses to pick up employees at BART stations, and automate trains to eliminate drivers. Even if they do all of these things, however, they “will not be able to address the deficit we are facing” without major service cutbacks, BART’s budget director told the board.

Another thing BART could do, but probably won’t, is hire more employees so it won’t have to pay so much overtime. Last November, Transparent California found that a BART janitor whose base pay was $57,000 a year actually earned $270,000 in 2015 with overtime and benefits. To get this, he supposedly worked 114 hours a week, which is more than 16 hours a day, every day of the year. But a local television station tracked this worker and found he was spending several hours a day hiding in a storage closet, while the stations he was supposed to keep clean remained filthy.

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Time to Shut the Money-Loser Down

According to its supporters, Orlando’s commuter-rail line, Sunrail, is a great success. They don’t really say what it is successful at, except that it offers inexpensive rides to students. So inexpensive, in fact, that the fares don’t even cover the cost of the ticket machines. Of course, that leads people to wonder why they even charge for tickets.

The answer, according to Sunrail officials, is that if the rides were free, it would be “wildly or even possibly too popular.” But just how popular is it, anyway? Answer: not hardly at all.

In 2015, according to the National Transit Database, the average number of weekday rides was 3,647. That means fewer than 1,825 round trips. On average, just 22 seats out of the 98 seats per railcar are filled, so I suspect they have room for a few more people if the rides were free.

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Transit Ridership Down? Blame Uber

New York City subways are becoming less reliable, with delays growing from 28,000 per month in 2012 to 70,000 in 2016. To fix the problems, MTA did a lot of maintenance work in 2016, mainly at night or on the weekends.

Ridership data for 2016 are now in, and they show that weekday ridership grew slightly but weekend ridership fell by 3 percent. So who do they blame? Uber. Isn’t it more likely that the decline was due to all the maintenance work done over the weekends?

Perhaps so, but it is still possible that Uber is having an impact. In 2015, New York subways carried an average of around 4.4 million trips on a typical weekend day, so a 3 percent decline is about 133,000. Based on an analysis by Todd Schneider, Uber and Lyft carried about 141,000 trips on January 9, 2016 and 270,000 trips on January 7, 2017 (both of which are Saturdays), an increase of about 129,000. Taxi ridership declined by about 32,000 in that time period, so it appears possible that Uber and Lyft may have captured up to 97,000 riders away from the subway, or about 73 percent of the subway’s weekend decline. We don’t know that all of those 97,000 people would have taken the subway, so the actual capture is probably less.

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New Light-Rail Line Opens in Denver

Today, Denver’s Regional Transit District is celebrating the opening of a new 10.5-mile light-rail line in Aurora, Denver’s largest suburb. Part of the only planned rail route in Denver that isn’t focused on downtown, the line–which holds the distinction of already having killed a pedestrian before it even opened–is supposed to allow people at the Denver Tech Center, a large employment center in south Denver, to get to the airport without going all the way downtown first.

The green dashed line, known as the R line, opens today. Click image for a larger view.

The problem with this idea is that light rail is s l o w. The new line will average 16.5 miles per hour. Getting from Belleview, one of the Tech Center stations, to the airport by rail transit will require a change of trains in Peoria. The R-line is expected to take 45 minutes to get from Belleview to Peoria, and the A-line takes another 21 minutes from Peoria to the airport. Add to that up to an hour of wait time–both trains operate on 15-minute headways during rush hour and every 30 minutes the rest of the day–and you have a trip that can’t compete with driving, which takes just 26 minutes from the Tech Center to the airport. Plus, the Tech Center is so large that many offices are not within easy walking distance of a light-rail stop.

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Metro GM: “In 2018, the Game’s Over”

The Antiplanner has been writing about Washington Metro’s downward spiral for nearly two years, but the end may be in sight. According to Metro’s general manager, Paul Wiedefeld, after 2018, “the game’s over.” Or, as Metro board chair Jack Evans says, if the problems aren’t solved by then, “the only option I see is to cut back on service enormously.”

That wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing. Census data indicate that, in 1970 before any Metro lines were built, 17.61 percent of DC-area commuters took transit to work–virtually all on buses. In 2015, between buses, Metro rail, and Maryland and Virginia commuter rail lines, transit’s share was 17.58 percent. In the years since 1970 in which the census has surveyed people (every decennial census and every year since 2005), the highest it has ever been was 17.70 percent in 2005. So going back to buses wouldn’t need to reduce transit ridership. Since bus riders don’t have to worry about broken rails or smoke in the tunnels, replacing trains with buses might even increase ridership.

All of the delays suffered by passengers so Metro can do maintenance hasn’t seemed to improve reliability. Just a few days ago, trains on three lines were delayed so much that one rider tweeted, “An hour and 45 min into my @wmata commute, I’m finally BACK WHERE I STARTED! Gave up and went home.”

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Free for a Limited Time Four More Years

Washington DC’s H Street streetcar has failed in just about every way possible. The 2.2-mile line cost $200 million, which is enough to build ten to twenty miles of four-lane freeway; it opened years behind schedule; and–despite being free “for a limited time”–it carries a paltry 2,400 people per weekday, which in a sane world wouldn’t be enough to sustain a bus line, much less a more-expensive streetcar. Now, the city has decided to extend that “limited time” for four more years out of a fear that charging a fare would turn away the few riders they now have. Officials were acutely aware that Atlanta’s streetcar patronage fell by nearly 50 percent when it started charging a dollar fare.

Despite these problems, the city is still considering extending the streetcar line. One of the arguments for doing so, in fact, is that if the line is long enough, they might actually attract enough patrons to charge a fare.

But isn’t the streetcar stimulating economic development? Hardly. H Street was revitalizing itself long before the streetcar opened. No doubt streetcar advocates will pat themselves on the back because a Whole Foods is opening on the streetcar line next month. But the company signed the lease to move in back in 2013, well before the streetcar opened. Some will say this was in anticipation of the streetcar, but I suspect the company, all of whose urban stores are located next to parking garages, was more motivated by the fact that its customers would have 199 underground parking spaces available for their use. As any commercial realtor knows, parking, not transit, drives retail.

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Getting It Right

The modern escalator was perfected 96 years ago, so when someone is spending $625 million a mile on light rail (which technology is only 80 years old), you’d think they’d at least get the escalators right. Instead, “escalator failures have become a part of the daily routine” at Seattle’s University light-rail station.

If the system were brand new, you might say they were getting the bugs out. If it were old, you might say it was wearing out. Instead, it is not quite a year old, having opened on March 19, 2016. Despite that, they don’t work. To make matters worse, they came with a one-year warranty, which has expired because installation was completed before the station opened for business.

Seattle recently voted to have some of the highest taxes in the nation going for transit. If they aren’t spending an appropriate share of this money on functioning escalators, it makes you wonder where it is going instead.

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Resisting Rail

San Antonio, notes Texas Public Radio, is “the largest city in the country without a rail system to move” its residents. As a result, the article implies, people are “stuck behind the wheel,” and the article’s headline asks, “Should San Antonio Reconsider Rail?”

Betteridge’s Law of Headlines, of course, suggests that “Any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no.” But more important, the article is guilty of the Politician’s Fallacy, which is: “1. We have to do something [in this case, about congestion]. 2. This [rail] is something. 3. We have to do this [build rail].”

Before jumping to any conclusions, San Antonians should ask how well rail is moving people in other cities. The first point to note is that, when TPR says that San Antonio is the largest city not to have rail, there are only six larger cities to consider. We don’t think of San Antonio is being the nation’s seventh-largest city, but it is true because Texas cities have strong annexations powers, so tend to be much larger than cities elsewhere. Houston, Dallas, and Austin are also among the nation’s eleven largest cities.

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