Category Archives: Urban areas

More Obsolete Than Ever

Bryan Mistele, the CEO of traffic tracker Inrix, argues in the Seattle Times that proposed new light-rail lines will be “obsolete before they are built.” Specifically, he says, automated, connected, electric, and shared vehicles–which he abbreviates as ACES–are already changing how people travel, and those changes are accelerating.

Sound Transit, Seattle’s regional rail transit agency, wants voters to approve a $54 billion ballot measure this November for more light rail. This, Mistele points out, is more than twice the cost of the Panama Canal expansion, yet isn’t likely to produce any significant benefits.

A rail advocate named Joe responds in the Seattle Weekly by calling self-driving cars “snake oil” similar to predictions in the 1950s that supposedly said everyone would be flying around in helicopters. Joe betrays ignorance about traffic, suggesting that a freeway that is congested with stop-and-go traffic could not possibly support any more cars even if they were self-driving. In fact, a road with stop-and-go traffic can move only half as many cars per hour as one with free-flowing traffic, and free-flowing traffic spaces cars six or seven car-lengths apart. Self-driving cars could easily beat that.

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Philadelphia Transit Troubles

Service on Philadelphia commuter trains has been interrupted due to serious defects found in Silverliner V cars, which are less than six years old. The cars were built by Hyundai, which had never built railcars for an American transit line before, and make up 30 percent of Philadelphia’s commuter-rail fleet.


Wikimedia Commons photo by John Corbett.

Last Friday, a SEPTA worker noticed one of the cars was leaning to one side. A close look revealed a 10-inch crack in one of the car’s wheel sets. Further inspection discovered similar cracks in 95 percent of the cars made by Hyundai. These have all been taken out of service, and the Southeast Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) has urged commuters to find another mode of travel for the foreseeable future.

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New York Subway: Success or Failure?

New York City subways have been in the news lately. A passenger thought they heard a gun, which lead to a stampede of people trying to get out of the Central Park North station in a case of what authorities called “mass hysteria.” Second, the Wall Street Journal reports that the number of reported gropings, public lewdness, and similar sexual offenses has gone up 50 percent in the last year. City police attribute this to more victims reporting crimes more than an actual increase in the crimes, but the Antiplanner is dubious about that.


Are New York subways really overcrowded? MTA claims that some subway lines are running at capacity.

These problems result, at least in part, from overcrowding. As the Antiplanner has noted before, transit ridership is declining in most cities, but continues to grow in New York due to increased jobs. This ridership growth, however, doesn’t come without cost, including more than a doubling of the number of delayed trains. Even if trains aren’t delayed, they might be so crowded that passengers have to wait for two or more full trains to go by before one arrives that has room for them to board.

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Ignoring the Reality of Growth Constraints

The young people who have moved to Portlandia like to eat out a lot, and as a result the Portland has more restaurants per capita than all but five other metropolitan areas in the country. However, the cost of eating out is rising because inexpensive restaurants are getting pushed out by more expensive ones that can afford to pay the rising rents required to stay in Portland.

This is just one more symptom of Portland’s growing affordability problem. In May, median home sale prices in the Portland area exceeded $350,000 for the first time. This is 4.8 times median family incomes, the worst Portland has yet seen. While sale prices might not perfectly reflect the entire housing market, they are probably pretty close, as Zillow estimates that the median value of Portland-area homes in April was $325,000.

Inexpensive restaurants aren’t the only thing that gets pushed out by rising land prices. Residents of a mobile home park in Northeast Portland are facing eviction as the owner wants to sell the land to a developer who will no doubt build dense, but much-more expensive, housing on the site. The residents are trying to raise $2 million to buy the park themselves, but this seems unlikely. At least four other mobile-home parks are also facing sale and redevelopment.

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DC Rail Still Unsafe

Washington Metro is shutting down parts of its rail system in succession so it can do maintenance work on them. Commuters appear to be adjusting to Metro’s slowdowns and shutdowns, but Metro employees haven’t.

Metro calls its maintenance program “SafeTrack,” but it appears to be anything but safe. In the course of one five-hour period yesterday, a Metro maintenance railcar derailed; a train carrying passengers collided with the mirror on the derailed railcar; and an empty train collided with a stationary train in a rail yard.

Fortunately, no one was hurt, but why was a revenue train allowed to use a track right next to the derailed railcar? Why did the railcar–whose job it was to secure rails to the ties–derail in the first place? Did the operator of the train in the rail yard fall asleep? All these events suggest that, while Metro may be spending money on maintenance, it still does not have the safety culture it needs to operate a public transportation system.

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Baltimore Rats

Add the Baltimore subway to the list of rail transit lines that have deferred maintenance. The local transit union is complaining that the Maryland Transit Administration is neglecting the system and that it is now infested with rats. “It is a death trap down there,” said the union’s president.


The Baltimore Metro Subway in a Flickr photo by BeyondDC.

This is right on schedule, as the subway opened in 1984, just over thirty years ago. Baltimore’s first light-rail line opened in 1992. In 1982, before either of them were operating, Baltimore buses carried 122 million riders. In 2014, with a 15-mile subway and 30 miles of light rail, rail plus buses together barely carried 102 million riders. Maryland fills about 20 percent of the seats on both the subway and light rail, meaning it runs the emptiest heavy-rail trains and fourth-emptiest light-rail trains in the country.

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Taking the A Line

Denver opened its rail line to the airport a few weeks ago, but it seems to have been rushed into operation. The Antiplanner took the train to Union Station on Wednesday and back on Thursday and fortunately allowed plenty of time because it was not very reliable.

The train is formally known as the University of Colorado A-Line, which is deceptive because it doesn’t actually go to the University of Colorado. Instead, the university paid $5 million for naming rights, which seems a strange thing for a public institution to do.

But then, deception is the name of the game for RTD’s new train. When I was on the airport subway to the terminal I heard a recorded announcement by Denver’s mayor, Michael Hancock, inviting people to take the A Line, which he said took “about 35 minutes to get to Union Station.” I happened to know that the train was scheduled to take 38 minutes, and mathematically, 38 is closer to “about 40” than “about 35.”

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Back in the Air Again

The Antiplanner will be in Littleton, Colorado tonight talking about housing issues. The event is open to the public and starts at 7 pm at the South Fellowship Church, 6560 South Broadway. If you are in the Denver area, I hope to see you there.

In the meantime, interesting news from Sacramento: the regional transit district is considering shutting down one of its light-rail lines for lack of ridership. As the Antiplanner noted two months ago, the agency has lost more than 26 percent of its transit riders in the past six years and has raised fares by 10 percent to make up for the lost revenue.

The light-rail line that it is considering shutting down is only 1.1 miles long–so it is more like a streetcar line–and it attracts just 400 riders per day. Despite this poor record, Sacramento still wants to build a 3.3-mile streetcar line.

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The Monster That Devoured Denver

The train that saved Denver? Give me a break! Politico‘s Colin Woodard claims that the effects of new rail transit lines on Denver “have been measurable and surprising.” In fact, his article is all hype with hardly a touch of reality.

Let’s start with same basic “measurable” numbers. In 1990, before Denver built its first light-rail line, the decennial census found that 4.74 percent of the region’s commuters took transit to work. By 2014, the region had four light-rail lines, and the American Community Survey found that the percentage of commuters taking transit to work was all the way up to 4.76 percent.

Yes, that’s a measurable 0.02 percent increase in transit’s share of commuting. If it is a surprise, it is only that it wasn’t a decrease.

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DC Metro Rail: Is More Money the Answer?

Remember how the Washington Metro Rail system shut down for an entire weekday on March 16 so the agency could inspect all of the rail insulators, and replace any that were worn out? This was supposed to be needed to prevent fires such as the one whose smoke killed a passenger in 2015.

It didn’t work. On May 5, passengers at the Federal Center Southwest station were treated to a huge fireball of sparks when another insulator caught fire. Moreover, says the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), Metro officials responded poorly to the fire, continuing to run trains on that track until a second fire started several hours later.

On May 6–coincidentally, the day after the latest fire–Metro announced its maintenance plan that calls for shutting down some segments for as long as seven days and single-tracking many more lines for weeks at a time, which will slow service on those routes. That’s not good enough for the FTA, which ordered the agency to rearrange the schedule to work on lines that the feds think are at the highest risk sooner than Metro planned.

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