Category Archives: Urban areas

Transit Today: Marketing Over Mobility

Denver’s Regional Transit District (RTD) won an award for its airport rail line. But the award was not for the line itself, which continues to suffer from technical failures more than a year after it opened, but for the agency’s marketing campaign for the train.

This is a sad commentary on the state of the nation’s transit industry: marketing is more important than mobility. Agencies have successfully marketed themselves as deserving of increased tax dollars (more than $50 billion in 2016), yet they are increasingly failing their supposed mission of improving urban mobility. RTD, for example, is under pressure to build and operate rail lines with low ridership (one carries just 1,600 a day), forcing it to cut bus routes that carry many more riders.

To discuss the future of transit in detail, next Wednesday the Antiplanner will be at the Cato Institute in Washington DC. Joining me on the platform will be Art Guzzetti, vice-president of policy with the American Public Transportation Association. While I will argue that transit’s decline is irreversible, Art–an intelligent man who previously worked for New Jersey Transit–will offer an alternative view. If you are in DC, please register and I hope to see you there. If you are not in DC, you can watch the event on livestream starting at 11 am ET.

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Taxing and Regulating the Competition

Here’s a difference between government-run businesses and private businesses: when private businesses face competition, they are forced to innovate to survive. When government-run businesses face competition, they can regulate or tax their competitors out of business.

Blackberry was once the dominant smart phone. Then came the iPhone, which reduced Blackberry subscribers from 85 million to 23 million in just 18 months. In 2016, Blackberry stopped designing phones. But that doesn’t mean it is out of business; instead, it is doing other things like designing driverless-car software.

Now consider the Chicago Transit Authority, which has lost riders in every year since 2012, partly if not mostly because of the growth of Uber and Lyft. Ridesharing has also reduced car rentals (which are taxed by the city) and downtown parking (which is taxes by the city). Although Uber and Lyft also pay taxes to the city, the city estimates it lost a net of $40 million in revenues (including transit fares and vehicle taxes) in 2016. So Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel wants to increase taxes on Uber and Lyft to make up the difference. Continue reading

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Rail Runner Runs Away with Taxpayers’ Money

Commuter rail on existing tracks sounds seductively attractive at first glance. You don’t have to buy right of way or build new rail lines; you merely have to make a few upgrades and buy some used commuter cars and locomotives and–voila!–you have a hip new rail transit line to attract Millennials to your urban area.

If politicians ever did more than take a first glance at these projects, they would realize that it never works out that way in practice. Costs are a lot higher than expected, and even if you only run a handful of commuter trains a day going a maximum of 40 miles per hour, the feds have added to your costs by requiring you to install the same positive train control systems designed to handle the hundreds of 110-mph trains per day that use the Northeast Corridor.

Worse, existing freight lines rarely go where people want to go, so ridership is often low and fares sometimes cover less than 10 percent of operating costs, and of course zero percent of capital costs. Orlando’s SunRail fares aren’t even enough to pay for the ticket machines, much less any of the costs of operating the trains themselves. Continue reading

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Portland’s Transit Experiment Has Failed

As in most other cities, Portland transit ridership is declining, and TriMet, Portland’s transit agency, promised to tell its board of directors why in last Wednesday night’s meeting. Before the meeting, one TriMet rider tweeted, “because it’s unreliable and unsafe. It’s not a mystery.” The “unsafe” part partly referred to last May’s murder of two people who were trying to defend a teenage girl from a bigot on a light-rail train.

The report to the board ignored the safety issue but listed all the other usual suspects: low gas prices; competition from Uber and Lyft; late buses due to traffic congestion. But then it added a new one: rising housing prices. Graphics on pages 21 and 22 of the board report (actually a PowerPoint show, so there’s no explanatory text) show a correlation between neighborhoods with the fastest rising housing prices and the biggest declines in transit ridership. TriMet staff apparently suspect that housing costs are forcing transit riders to move to lower-cost neighborhoods that are less accessible to transit.

It is interesting to note that two of the region’s policies for boosting transit — densification (which makes housing expensive) and congestification (which makes buses late) — are now suspected of hurting transit. Of course, no one at TriMet would ever suggest that these policies be reconsidered. Continue reading

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Detroit Streetcar Ridership Drops 40 Percent

Detroit’s streetcar was carrying about 5,000 trips a day when it was free, but ridership dropped “somewhat” after they began charging $1.50 for a three-hour pass. “We fully expected ridership to dip a little bit” when they began charging, said a spokesman for the group running the streetcar.

As it turns out, “somewhat” and “a little” means 40 percent, as the line has averaged just 3,000 trips a day since they began charging fares. Moreover, they aren’t really enforcing the fares, as they estimate that half the people who do ride aren’t paying, and fare enforcement–which is scheduled to begin soon–is likely to drop ridership that much more.

The streetcar goes down historic Woodward Avenue, which has supposedly seen $7 billion in gentrification since 2013. Naturally, the streetcar people take credit for that even though the streetcar only opened in May, 2017. Can anyone really believe that this redevelopment has nothing to do with the fact that the Detroit Economic Development Corporation has poured tens of millions of dollars of public money and tax-increment financing into the EightMile/Woodward Corridor Improvement Authority and similar projects?

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Honolulu Boondoggle Recovery Plan

The Honolulu Authority for Ridiculously-expensive Transit (HART) has submitted a recovery plan to the Federal Transit Administration seeking to release $1 billion in federal funds for the project. You know you are in trouble when you have to write a recovery plan for a project that isn’t even half built. Billions of dollars of cost overruns had led the FTA to question whether HART could even finish the rail line, much less operate it, and this plan seeks to answer those doubts.

The 20-mile rail line was originally projected to cost less than $3 billion, but now even HART admits that it will cost $8.2 billion ($9.0 billion including finance charges). For perspective, that’s considerably more than the projected cost of Denver’s 110-mile FasTracks program–a program that many think will never be completed because Denver Regional Transit District lacks the funds to extend one of the lines to Longmont. The Denver-Boulder area has more than three times as many people as the Honolulu urban area, so the per capita cost of Honolulu rail is several times greater.

To cover the cost overruns, Hawaii’s governor called a special session of the legislature. After rancorous debate, the legislature agreed to raise a variety of taxes to help fund the rail line. Most importantly, if you stay in a hotel in Hawaii–even if it is in Kaui, Maui, or the big island and you never visit Oahu–about 1 percent of your hotel cost will go to support the rail line, which is another good reason to try Airbnb. Continue reading

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Denver’s Immobility Plan

Denver’s Mayor Michael Hancock has issued what he calls a Mobility Plan. But if carried out, it will actually reduce the mobility of the residents of America’s nineteenth-largest city. Instead of doing anything to relieve congestion, the number one listed goal of the plan is to increase the share of commuters walking, cycling, or taking transit to work to 30 percent. Such a 146-percent increase over the current 12.2 percent is unattainable, so the plan ends up devoting most of the city’s transportation funds to forms of transportation that are either insignificant or obsolete.

Click image to download a 5.5-MB PDF of this plan.

The centerpiece of the Mayor’s plan is dedicated bus lanes on Colfax, Denver’s most important east-west street. Currently, buses carry about 22,000 people a day, more than any other corridor in Denver. But, as the Antiplanner noted recently, dedicated bus lanes can move than many people per hour, and even the 50,000 people per day that the city optimistically projects for Colfax isn’t enough to justify dedicating that much street space to buses. Continue reading

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LaHood to DC Metro Board: “You’re Fired!”

Washington DC’s Metro system has a multibillion-dollar maintenance backlog, declining ridership, and serious problems with labor unions. The systems problems are so bad that Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe asked former Secretary of Immobility Ray LaHood, one of the least credible people ever to hold that office, to lead a search for new funds for the agency.

Now LaHood has come out with his proposal. Has he found a billion dollars stuck in the seat cushions of Metro trains? Nope. Has he discovered a treasure map at the White House that leads to a city of gold? Nope. Has he found any money at all? None.

Instead, he proposes to replace Metro’s current sixteen-member board of directors with a “reform board” consisting of “five members who are solely responsible to the transit system, not the parochial interests of the local officials who would appoint them.” Continue reading

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This Is Why Cap-and-Trade Is Stupid

Despite the fact that Los Angeles voters agreed to spend $120 billion on light rail and related transportation projects last November, the region’s transit agency, Metro, says it has a $280 million shortfall in extending its Gold light-rail line 12.4 miles to Montclair. Cap-and-trade to the rescue! Members of the state legislature representing the area have proposed to use cap-and-trade funds to fill the gap.

The cap-and-trade or emissions trading system allows people to spend money buying the right to emit greenhouse gases, and the state uses that money to do things that reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The result is a more efficient allocation of resources than if the state were to simply order everyone to reduce emissions by an arbitrary amount.

So spending cap-and-trade revenues on light rail would make sense if light rail reduces greenhouse gas emissions. But does it? According to page 4.9-33 of the supplemental environmental impact report for the project, the line would actually increase emissions. But that’s okay, says the report, because “the project would contribute less than 0.00001% to the GHG burden for the planet.” Continue reading

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No to Las Vegas Light Rail

The Antiplanner is in San Antonio, the nation’s largest city not to have fallen for the rail-transit hoax. In fact, San Antonio is the epitome of a 21st-century city, since it does not pretend to have a huge downtown–only 6 percent of the region’s jobs are located in the downtown area.

Another 21st-century city, Las Vegas, has also escaped any publicly funded rail transit but some would like to change that. The Antiplanner commented on this proposal a couple of months ago, and the Las Vegas Review-Journal published a similar commentary yesterday. I hope that city can avoid the mistakes made by Denver, Phoenix, and Salt Lake.

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