Category Archives: Urban areas

What Does San Antonio Deserve?

Another famous H.L. Mencken quote is, “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.” The Antiplanner was reminded of this by a headline on the San Antonio Express-News editorial page declaring that San Antonio needs “a transit plan the city deserves.” According to the editorial writer, that plan involves a “rapid transit” system that will “entice people out of their vehicles,” “connect all parts of San Antonio,” and “truly free people from traffic.”

The editorial board must not think very highly of San Antonio. It apparently believes that San Antonio residents deserve to pay billions of dollars in taxes to build an expensive transit system that will be regularly used by less than 5 percent of the people. It also believes they deserve the huge traffic congestion that will accompany construction as well as the lies, cost overruns, and ridership shortfalls that are almost invariably associated with transit megaprojects.

It is also possible that the editorial board simply doesn’t know what it is writing about. For one thing, it seems to think that “rapid transit” means fast transportation. According to the American Public Transportation Association’s Transit Fact Book, rapid rail transit (also known as heavy rail) averages just 20 mph while rapid bus averages less than 11 mph. The average speed of auto driving in San Antonio is 33 mph, so rapid transit is not likely to persuade many to stop driving. Continue reading

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Anatomy of a Transit Disaster

The Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA), San Jose’s transit agency, has been making a series of happy-talk advertisements about how transit is green, is faster than driving, and reduces congestion. Of course, it is none of those things: VTA uses about as much energy and producing as much greenhouse gases per passenger mile as the average SUV; VTA light-rail trains average less than 16 mph and its buses less than 12; and rather than reduce congestion it is increasing it as its poor service leads people to give up transit and drive instead.

The reality is that VTA’s transit and transportation planning has proven to be a disaster for Silicon Valley. In 2000, VTA buses and light-rail transit carried 55.6 million riders, or more than 36 trips per capita in the San Jose urban area. Ridership grew to 57.3 million in 2001. But then the dot-com crash hit, reducing jobs and ridership. Desperate to avoid defaulting on the huge loans it had taken out to build light rail, by 2005 VTA had cut bus service by more than 20 percent. Even though the number of jobs declined by only 9 percent, ridership fell by more than 30 percent. Continue reading

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Seattle Fails the Streetcar Intelligence Test

Streetcars are supposed to be the least-expensive form of rail transit, yet Seattle is spending $177 million building a 1.2-mile streetcar line. At $147.5 million a mile, that’s more expensive than many light-rail lines.

The 1.2-mile City Center Connector will connect the 1.3-mile South Lake Union Trolley and the 2.5-mile First Hill streetcar.

Moreover, the plan of the city (which is building the streetcar) appears to be overly optimistic about both ridership and operating costs. The city already has two streetcar lines, and the new one will connect the two. But since the two existing lines parallel each other, connecting them — creating a U-shaped route — doesn’t necessarily make them a lot more useful to riders. As shown in the map above, the connecting line will give riders more access to downtown, but no one except a few streetcar enthusiasts is going to want to ride from one end of the South Lake Union line to the other end of the First Hill line. Continue reading

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NIMBYism Not the Real Problem

The California legislature is getting some push back on S.B. 827, which proposes to eliminate zoning in most of San Francisco, Oakland, and other “transit-rich” cities. So legislators have announced a new proposal, A.B. 2923, which would allow the Bay Area Rapid Transit District (BART) to build whatever it wants on land it owns, most of which is presumably near BART stations.

Home sweet $2 million home. Photo from Google streetview.

There’s no doubt that Bay Area housing is too expensive. An 848-square-foot home in Sunnyvale just sold for $2 million (a $550,000 premium over the asking price), or $2,358 per square foot. Increasing numbers of people are buying homes sight unseen. For some, commuting from Bend, Oregon is a viable option because the cost of flying is less than the cost of housing in the Bay Area. Continue reading

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Utah Legislature to Utah Transit Administration:
Stop Wasting Money. Here’s More

Utah politicians are proud of all of the light-rail and commuter-rail lines that the Utah Transit Authority (UTA) has managed to build. But to do so, UTA has built up $2 billion of debt, and 30 percent of its revenues must go to service that debt. This greatly reduces its ability to improve transit to serve a growing area.

Now the state legislature has found a solution to this problem: Abolish UTA. Or, to be precise, replace it with a new entity that has a new governing body, new taxing authority, and restrictions on how it can spend its money.

Unfortunately, merely replacing UTA’s fifteen-member board with a three-member commission won’t solve the real problem: the agency has always gone for the high-cost solution to any problem. For example, as of the end of 2016 it has spend $2 billion (in 2016 dollars) constructing a commuter-rail system that barely carries 8,000 roundtrips per weekday. This is almost unimaginably wasteful, except it just a matter of course for the transit industry. Continue reading

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Let’s Start Scrapping Streetcars

Good news: Washington DC is thinking of scrapping its streetcars, which have been in service for just two years and whose ridership is still so poor — about 3,000 weekday riders — that the city is afraid to start charging fares.

Bad news: City officials are only thinking of scrapping the streetcars and not the tracks; instead, they wants to replace the streetcars with brand-new ones because it’s so hard to get spare parts for the ones they have. Each new 30-seat streetcar would cost roughly ten times as much as a 40-seat bus, but cost is no object when you are playing with other people’s money.

The modern streetcar craze, which was only partly fueled by federal funding (Portland, Tacoma, and Washington purchased their first streetcars without federal support), provides a lesson for the writers of Trump’s infrastructure plan. They hope that giving local, not federal, politicians the authority of where to spend money would result in better decisions. In fact, local politicians are just as willing to waste money on gleaming new urban monuments as federal ones. Continue reading

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What $1.2 Million Buys

If any country in the world should be less concerned about urban sprawl than the United States, it is Australia. Its population density of about 8.3 people per square mile is less than even Canada’s. Yet, thanks to the efforts of some urban planners obsessed with getting people out of their automobiles, most of Australia’s major cities have urban-growth limits the severely constrain development.

This 1,840-square-foot, four bedroom home in Sydney, which the real estate listing describes as “complete overhaul needed,” recently sold for more than AU$1.5 million, or US$1.2 million.

Last week, an article in The Guardian showed the result: homes in Sydney that you wouldn’t want to let your dog enter, much less your family, for sale for more than a million dollars. To be fair, a million Australian dollars is only $784,000 U.S., but still that’s more than most can afford. Judging from the photos, you could find houses in Texas for under $100,000 that are better than $1.2 million homes in Sydney.

Here is the interior of the above US$1.2-million home.

“We didn’t touch anything,” said one of the photographers who was taking pictures for the real estate company. “It was just too hazardous.” “All attendees are required to sign a waiver prior to entry,” a real estate ad announced. “No entry to anyone aged under 16. No open toe shoes to be worn.” Continue reading

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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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