Category Archives: Urban areas

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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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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$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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Tilting at Straw Men

So, your proposal to build light rail in Nashville has been slammed both locally and nationally. What do you do? Why, expand the proposal, increasing the expense from $5.2 to $5.6 billion.

You also defend your plan by setting up straw-men arguments against it and attacking those arguments rather than the valid criticisms of light rail. According to “transit skeptics,” says Nashville Mayor Megan Barry, “transit ridership has been declining for decades nationally, Nashville lacks the density for light rail and the rise autonomous vehicles is the answer for Nashville’s traffic.”

She responds that transit ridership has grown considerably since 1995. But, in fact, no one ever argued that transit ridership has been declining for decades. What they (or, in fact, I) argued was that per capita transit ridership has been declining for decades, which it has; that total transit ridership has been declining since 2014; and that the trends that are causing it to decline are not likely to change. Continue reading

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St. Louis Streetcar Broke Before It Begins

St. Louis has spent $51 million building a 2.1-mile streetcar line that may never run because the company hired to operate it is almost out of money. In 2015, St. Louis County gave $3 million to the Loop Trolley Company, which the company used to hire managers, drivers, and other employees to run the trolleys that were supposed to begin operation in spring, 2016.

However, the start of operations has been repeatedly delayed, most recently to mid-winter, 2018. Now the trolley company says it will be out of money before it can start, and it is demanding another $500,000 before a single streetcar turns a wheel in revenue service.

At the other end of the state, the Kansas City streetcar was supposed to have been a great success, carrying an average of 5,843 trips per day, but that’s because it is free. The Loop Trolley Company expects to charge $2 per two-hour period. That’s in the range of the Little Rock streetcar, which carried 153 trips per weekday in 2016, or the Tampa streetcar, which carried 645 trips per weekday. These two lines each cost taxpayers more than a million dollars a year to operate. Continue reading

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Affordable Is Not the Same as Affordability

Too much housing news is based on the failure to distinguish between affordable housing and housing affordability. Affordable housing is government-subsidized housing for low-income people. Housing affordability is the general level of housing prices relative to the general level of household or family incomes, often measured by dividing median home prices by median family incomes.

Areas where housing is affordable, such as Dallas or Raleigh, may still need some affordable housing for very poor people. But areas where housing is not affordable, such as Portland or San Francisco, will not solve their housing affordability problems by building more affordable housing. Despite this, politicians, reporters, and editors all promote more affordable housing to address housing affordability issues.

The San Jose Mercury News, for example, accuses Republicans of “sabotaging” the Bay Area’s affordable housing plans by cutting federal housing budgets. But the federal government didn’t impose urban-growth boundaries that have restricted development to 17 percent of the Bay Area, so why should federal taxpayers subsidize affordable housing that isn’t going to solve the region’s self-inflicted housing crisis? Continue reading

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