Category Archives: Urban areas

The Good-Weather Transportation System

Weather forecasters predict that Washington, DC will get as much as two feet of snow tonight through Sunday morning. Fortunately, Washington has Metrorail, an “all-weather” transportation system.


Some buses might get stuck, so we’ll shut the whole system down. Photo taken during 2009 snowstorm by Mr.TinDC.

Metro officials’ faith in their transit system in the face of bad weather is revealed by their decision to preemptively shut it down completely for the weekend. Though the big storm isn’t predicted to start until after 3 pm today, buses are running on limited schedules and will stop service completely at 5 pm, paratransit will shut down at 6 pm, and trains will run until 11 pm and not restart until Monday morning.

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Time to Reconsider

Portland’s first light-rail line turns 30 years old this year, which is about the expected lifespan of a rail line. Not by coincidence, the system was highly unreliable last year, being “plagued with delays and disruptions” and having terrible on-time performance.

The line between Portland and Gresham originally cost more than $200 million to build, which in today’s dollars is around twice that. It is likely it will cost roughly that amount of money to restore it to like-new condition.

But Portland has a choice. Instead of sinking a bunch of money into an already-obsolete transit system, it could scrap it and replace it with buses. Before building the rail line, the parallel freeway had HOV lanes; restoring those lanes (or turning them to HOT lanes) would give the buses an uncontested route to fallow. We know that the buses would be faster than the rail, because the rail line was slower than the buses it replaced.

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No, We Don’t Have to Sacrifice Neighborhoods to Save the Planet

Here’s a video of Portland City Commissioner Steve Novick saying the city needs to “sacrifice” its single-family neighborhoods in order to stop climate change. We’ve known that planners feel this way, but rarely do they say it in so many words.


From portland politic on Vimeo.

Previously, many Portland politicians have promised to preserve existing neighborhoods by keeping all high-density developments within a half mile of light-rail and other major transit lines. The unspoken truth was that nearly all single-family homes were within a half mile of a major bus corridor, and Portland wants to build so many rail lines that soon most homes would be within a half mile of one of those lines as well.

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Nice Work If You Can Get It (and Keep It)

Stephen Banta, the CEO of Phoenix’s Valley Metro transit agency, resigned in disgrace after revelations that taxpayers paid for him to fly first class around the world, stay in $600-per-night hotel rooms, and take elected officials out to expensive dinners trying to woo them into supporting light rail. After resigning, he then tried to rescind his resignation, apparently wanting to negotiate a better golden parachute.

This tactic apparently worked, as the Valley Metro board has agreed to pay him $265,000 if he leaves on January 4. That’s approximately his average annual pay.

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DC Streetcar Still Not Open for Business

Speaking of poorly managed governments, Washington, DC’s streetcar, which has been planned for at least nine years, won’t be carrying any revenue passengers in 2015. That’s news because, just a couple of months ago, the city promised that it would be in business by the end of this year.


The string of embarrassing accidents, fires, and other problems have proven so embarrassing that someone has rewritten the Simpson’s monorail song for the DC streetcar.

Despite all those years of planning, the streetcar continues to be accident-prone, partly because the streetcar route is too close to a parking strip and partly because streetcars, unlike buses, can’t swerve around poorly parked cars. When the streetcar hit a city police car that was parked over the white line, the city suspended the streetcar driver for five days without pay, but otherwise DDOT blames the motorists for improper parking. Of course, it wasn’t the motorists who decided to run inflexible, 30-ton vehicles down a busy street just inches from a parking strip.

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San Jose Proves BRT Can Be as Wasteful as Light Rail

San Jose’s Valley Transportation Authority–a perennial contender for the title of the nation’s worst-managed transit agency–is building a bus-rapid transit line, and it is proving as much of a disaster as some of its light-rail lines. It was supposed to open two months ago, but now appears that it won’t open until 2017. Torn-up streets are damaging businesses along the route, and VTA is having to pay them compensation, making the project far more expensive than expected.

The problems have gotten so bad that the chair of VTA’s board, Perry Woodward, has written a highly defensive op ed not to apologize to taxpayers but to argue that the damage done by this project to the local neighborhood has been more than made up for by all the good things VTA has done in the last twenty years.

What good things? Santa Clara County taxpayers voted to tax themselves to relieve congestion by building more roads, and they proved that you can, after all, build your way out of congestion: congestion levels declined for several years despite a rapid increase in local jobs. But then the county made the mistake of merging its congestion management authority with its transit agency, and pretty soon the transit agency stole all the congestion relief money to fund its expensive projects. The result has been some of the nation’s emptiest light-rail trains (an average of 18 passengers per car vs. a national average of 24) and rapidly rising congestion.

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Transit Down, Driving Up to Downtown Portland Jobs

The Portland Business Alliance’s latest survey of downtown Portland employers shows a massive decline in transit commuting and a massive increase increase in commuting by car to downtown jobs between 2013 and 2014. The 2013 survey found that about 44,800 downtown workers commuted by transit and 36,600 commuted by car; in 2014 transit declined to 38,600 while auto increased to nearly 46,400.

At least some of this shift is likely due to survey error. As the above chart shows, 2013 numbers showed a huge increase in transit commuting combined with a sharp decline in auto commuting, both deviating from trend lines from previous years. The Antiplanner didn’t find 2013’s numbers to be credible, and this year’s survey bears that out.

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The Art of the Deal

Over at Market Urbanism, economist Emily Washington argues that Washington, DC’s Silver Line was the result of a deal between property owners, urban planners, and Washington Metro (WMATA). The result was a new rail transit line that harmed just about everyone except those who were party to the deal.

Washington’s tale is correct in general, but my memory of it differs in the particulars. She is right that the main pressure for the Silver Line came from the owners and developers of Tysons Corner, who wanted to build more high-rise housing, hotels, retail, and office space. Fairfax County wouldn’t approve these plans because the area wasn’t served by adequate transportation.

Far from favoring the rail project, however, Fairfax County planners recognized that too few people would ride the rail line to support the proposed new developments. Though the planners questioned the new plans, they were overruled by the county supervisors.

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Water Planning, California Style

Thanks to the wonders of government planning, San Diego County residents have to pay more for water they are not allowed to use. California, as everyone knows, is suffering a drought, so the state legislature mandated water conservation statewide, whether it is needed or not.

San Diego is one place where it isn’t needed, as that county has 99 percent of its normal amount of water. Yet residents are still required by state law to “let their grass die.” The costs of providing water haven’t declined, so the reductions in water usage due to mandatory conservation measures have forced the county water authority to raise its rates to cover those costs.

But it gets worse. San Diego is about to get an overabundance of water that is more costly than ever as a new $1 billion desalination plant is about to open that will increase the county’s water supply by as much as 10 percent. The plant is privately financed, but was built only after the county signed a contract agreeing to buy water from the plant whether it needed it or not. The water authority expects to spend $114 million next year buying water that was previously costing it only $45 million. This has led it to increase in water rates yet again.

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The Price of Hipness: Cultural Disruption & Displacement

Educator and writer Michael Copperman has discovered that Portland’s hip scene has come at a price: young people moving to Portland from other parts of the country have gentrified North Portland, traditionally a heavily black neighborhood, and displaced blacks to the suburbs. “The number of people living in poverty in Portland’s suburbs shot up almost 100 percent between 2000 and 2011,” observes Copperman.

While such income and racial integration might be welcome, it has its costs as well. While the whites gentrifying North Portland neighborhoods enjoy food carts, boutique restaurants, and ethnic grocery stores, displaced blacks are not better off in the suburbs and in many cases are worse off, replacing the single-family homes they rented with cramped apartments.

“Suburban Portland, home to the most notorious white West Coast gangs, has in some hotspots become a turf war apartment complex by apartment complex, the traditional Crips and Bloods of urban Portland overlapping areas dominated by the European Kindred and affiliates, all battling to control lucrative sex trafficking operations off the I-5 Corridor,” says Copperman, a transition that is pretty much invisible to recently arrived Millennials.

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