Category Archives: Urban areas

More Lies in Light Rail

Phoenix voters will decide next month whether to extend the current transit sales tax (set to expire in 2020) through 2050 and increase it by 75 percent (from 0.4 percent to 0.7 percent). This would supposedly be enough to fund at least three more light-rail lines plus several bus-rapid transit lines.


According to Valley Metro, this beautiful vacant lot across the street from a light-rail station is Escala on Camelback, a mixed-use development with 160 condos and 15,000 square feet of retail space that was supposed to be completed in Fall, 2010. It remains vacant today.

The big argument from rail advocates is that Phoenix’s first light-rail line, which opened in December, 2008, generated $7 billion in economic development. Not so much. A new report from the Arizona Free Enterprise Club shows that the light rail generated very little, if any, new development.

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So Much for Low-Capacity Rail

When Orlando decided to fund and operate a commuter train, many residents probably thought they could take the train to major events. Orlando expects to attract 120,000 people to its fireworks show this July 4th, but none of them will take the train to the site.

We’ve all heard the claim that a rail line can move as many people as an eight- (or sometimes ten-) lane freeway. Not so much. Orlando’s billion-dollar commuter-rail line carries less than 2,000 people to work each weekday morning and home in the evenings. (Amortized over 30 years at 3 percent, it would have cost less to buy every single daily round-trip rider a new Prius every year for the next 30 years.)

The train doesn’t normally operate on weekends, though it has done so for smaller special events in the past. But this Fourth of July it won’t, says the city, because of “total train capacity, safety and security, hours of operation, pedestrian wayfinding and transport operations between the downtown stations and Lake Eola, and funding availability.”

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TOD Coming to Pittsburgh

Yet another example of light rail spurring economic development comes from Pittsburgh, where the Port of Allegheny County has approved $12.5 million in public subsidies for a $42.5 million transit-oriented development. Since the development will include 152 apartments and 15,000 square feet of retail space, that’s a subsidy of more than $82,000 per apartment. The subsidies will also help pay for a 541-space parking garage.

Don’t be impressed by 15,000 square feet of retail space: that’s about the size of a new Trader Joe’s. The average Trader Joe’s is about 12,000 square feet, but the newer ones are bigger. Of course, if they actually attract a Trader Joe’s, they might be able to fill the apartments, but the fact that Pittsburgh has one of the most affordable housing markets in the country probably means there is little demand for stack-and-pack living.

So once again it is proven that light rail doesn’t stimulate economic development; it merely stimulates subsidies for economic development. Pittsburgh officials complain that “transit-oriented development is very difficult in Pennsylvania” because “there is no dedicated funding source” that can be used to subsidize it. So why are they bothering? Apparently just because they want to follow the latest fad.

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DC MetroRail Still Dangerous

Accidents on the Washington MetroRail system killed 17 people between 2005 and 2010. Although there have been only three fatalities since the end of 2010, a new Federal Transit Administration report warns that the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) remains lax about safety and numerous dangerous situations remain.


Several people died in a 2009 collision when one of the system’s original cars “telescoped” into another. The National Transportation Safety Board ordered WMATA to replace those older cars, but it is still running them. Wikimedia Commons photo by the NTSB.

Most media attention has been given to FTA’s findings regarding WMATA’s rail control center. The control room is understaffed, says the report, and what staff members they have are poorly trained and frequently distracted by cell phone calls, muzak, and other things unrelated to their work. The report hints that some accidents that WMATA has previously blamed on train operators may actually have been the fault of train controllers, whose actions were rarely questioned.

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Streetcar Entitlements

The response of Sacramento streetcar advocates to voter rejection of their pet project reminds me of a little boy who has a temper tantrum when he doesn’t get the expensive Christmas present he wants. Like the little boy, it apparently never occurs to the streetcar crowd that the extraordinarily high cost of their scheme was too much for taxpayers to support. Instead, they act like they are entitled to the streetcar, and anyone who doesn’t want to help pay for something they will never use is just a grinch.

Building a streetcar requires tearing up perfectly good pavement that can be used by cars, trucks, and buses and inserting tracks. The cost of one mile of streetcar line can be more than the cost of a mile of a suburban four-lane freeway, yet the streetcar will never move more than 2 or 3 percent as many passenger miles per day as that freeway.

The streetcars themselves have fewer seats than a standard, 40-foot bus, yet cost nearly ten times as much and occupy more street space and so contribute more to congestion. Analysts predicted that a proposed streetcar in Anaheim would reduce the capacity of the streets to move cars by four times as much as the number of cars it would take off the road.

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Oops–We Forgot About the Operating Costs

The city and state officials who promoted construction of Honolulu’s rail transit line now admit that they don’t know how they are going to pay for the cost of operating that line. Between 2019, when the first part of the line is expected to open for business, and 2031, those costs are expected to be $1.7 billion, or about $140 million per year. In 2011, the annual operating cost was estimated to be $126 million a year.

Honolulu has about a hundred bus routes, which cost about $183 million to operate in 2013, or less than $2 million per route. The rail line will therefore cost about 70 times as much to operate as the average bus route.

Officials project that rail fares will cover less than a third of operating costs, but that’s probably optimistic. They are predicting 116,000 daily riders in 2030, which works out to about 5,800 riders per mile. That’s more than the number of riders per mile carried by the Chicago Transit Authority, Atlanta’s MARTA, or the San Francisco BART system–and considerably more than carried by heavy-rail lines in Baltimore, Cleveland, and Miami.

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Sacramento Voters Reject Streetcar

Sacramento wants to build a streetcar, and since everyone knows that streetcars increase property values, the city asked property owners to agree to pay a tax to help pay for it. Under California law, two-thirds of voters must agree, but the city must have believed that everyone loves streetcars so much that they would overwhelmingly agree to pay the tax.

Not so much. In fact, they couldn’t even get half to support it. The final vote count was something like 48 percent in favor.

Not to worry. Even though a nineteenth-century technology makes no sense in a twenty-first-century city; even though the people don’t want to pay for it; even though it has so far taken ten years to plan something that was obsolete a hundred years ago and certainly can’t respond to the almost daily changes in tastes, technologies, and travel patterns we experience today; they’re going to try to find a way to build it anyway. “We’ll look for other sources of funds,” said one city councillor. “We’re really committed to keep the project on track.” In other words, committed to stupidity.

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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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