Category Archives: News commentary

Is Transit Only Transit If It’s Expensive?

Wired magazine freaks out because the Tennessee senate supposedly passed a “mind-boggling ban on bus-rapid transit.” AutoblogGreen blames the legislation on the left’s favorite whipping boys, the Koch brothers because it was supported by Americans for Prosperity, a tax-watchdog group that has received funding from the Kochs.


Not only would Nashville’s bus-rapid transit consume up to three lanes of traffic and be given priority at traffic signals, the design of stations in the middle of a major arterial will create hazards for pedestrians.

In fact, the senate did not pass a bill to ban bus-rapid transit; it passed a bill to limit the dedication of existing lanes to buses. There is no reason why buses need their own dedicated lanes, at least in a mid-sized city such as Nashville. Kansas City has shown that bus-rapid transit in shared lanes can work perfectly well and attract as much as a 50 percent increase in riders.

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Repeating the Big Lies About Sprawl

Those crazy planners at Smart Growth America are at it again: issuing another report all about how urban sprawl is bad and people are better off living in compact communities. Most news reports take it for granted that sprawl is evil and something ought to be done about it. But the report does devote all of three out of 51 pages to repeating claims about how sprawl makes housing unaffordable, transportation expensive, people fat, and lives shorter.

Almost all of these claims cite another report written back in 2010. Most of the claims are readily dismissed for several reasons.

First, some of the claims are based on models the planners made of cities and how they affect people, not on real life. For example, claims that transportation is less expensive in compact areas are based on models, not actual measurements. (They also fail to account for the huge differences in subsidies between transit and driving.)

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The Inevitable Decline of Government

LaVonda Atkinson, the cost engineer for San Francisco Muni‘s $1.6 billion Central Subway project, has found so many problems with the project–and so little interest within Muni or the Federal Transit Administration in fixing those problems–that she has given hundreds of pages of budgetary and internal documents to the San Francisco Weekly. “Your article” about these documents “is going to get me fired,” she told the Weekly‘s reporter.


Politicians such as then-San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom (center) love to have their photos taken breaking ground or cutting ribbons, in this case for the Central Subway project.

As just one example, Muni told the San Francisco city controller that it spent $110 million on preliminary engineering, when it told the Federal Transit Administration that it spent only $70 million. The extra $40 million went into a slush fund for other stuff.

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Megaprojects Invite Corruption

FBI agents posed as transit-oriented developers willing to bribe the mayor of Charlotte to get his support for a streetcar line, light rail, and related projects. The now-ex-mayor Patrick Cannon gladly accepted bribes in exchange for lying to investors and pushing city planning agencies to fast track the developments. When on the city council, Cannon had opposed construction of a streetcar line, but mysteriously changed his vote when he became mayor.


Who did developers bribe to get this project completed?

The Antiplanner isn’t enthusiastic about police entrapments, but this case brings to light one of the seamier sides of rail transit. These projects cost so much that they make some sort of corruption, if only in the form of campaign contributions, mandatory. The FBI sting has to raise questions about other rail projects and developments, especially considering the current U.S. Secretary of Transportation was the mayor of Charlotte just prior to the one who was stung.

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The Transit Train Wreck

Investigators have concluded that the driver of the CTA train that crashed at O’Hare earlier this week slept through the stop. Moreover, she apparently had a record of falling asleep at work before. However, investigators also concluded that two back-up systems that should have stopped the train before it crashed even without a waking driver failed as well.


We’ve spent roughly $1 trillion since 1970 for not much return. Capital spending before 1990 is not available, but probably followed a trajectory similar to operating subsidies (i.e, operating costs minus fares). Click image to download a spreadsheet with these and other data mentioned in this post.

Meanwhile, the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) defends its claim that recent ridership statistics represent a genuine “shift in American travel behavior.” While it admits that per capita ridership has declined since 2008, it blames that on the recession. It prefers to go back to 1995, “because after that year, ridership increased due to the passage of the landmark ISTEA legislation and other surface transportation bills which increased funding for public transportation.” Effectively, APTA argues that people will ride transit if you subsidize them enough, and so therefore subsidies should be increased still further.

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Crash at O’Hare

Investigators have narrowed down the cause of Monday’s Chicago Transit Authority train crash at O’Hare Airport to either “operator fatigue” or a failure of the rail line’s automated safety systems. Neither explanation is very reassuring.

On one hand, taxpayers are paying more than $200 million a year to pay Chicago train and bus riders some of the highest wages in the nation, only (it is alleged) to have them fall asleep at the metaphorical wheel. On the other hand, the Chicago Transit Authority wants to spend $2-$4 billion “increasing the capacity” of some of its rail lines when it can’t afford to maintain the rail lines that it has now. Back in 2007, the agency said it needed more than $16 billion to bring its rail lines up to a state of good repair, and since then it hasn’t found more than a small fraction of that amount.

Many people from medium-sized urban areas who visit Chicago wonder why their city can’t have a rail system like that–a system that is deeply in debt, has a huge maintenance backlog, and is suffering from declining ridership. The truth is that rail transit doesn’t work anywhere in the United States except possibly Manhattan, and even there it is questionable.

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Hoodwinking Reporters

Nearly two weeks after the American Public Transportation Association issued its deceptive press release about 2013 transit ridership, some reporters are still being fooled. Just two days ago, for example, NPR did a story claiming commuters are “ditching cars for transit in record numbers.”

Ironically, NPR begins its story in Chicago, where (APTA data reveals) 2013 transit ridership declined by 2.7 percent from the year before. “Throughout the entire country, just about every public transportation system saw hikes in ridership,” the story incorrectly claims. In addition to Chicago, transit systems in Albuquerque, Atlanta, Austin, Baltimore, Boston, Charlotte, Dallas, Kansas City, Louisville, Memphis, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Portland, San Antonio, and Washington DC all lost riders in 2013. Don’t NPR reporters check their facts?

While reporters might be fooled, three urban planning professors writing in the Washington Post weren’t. “The association’s numbers are deceptive,” they say, and any claims that the nation is “moving away from driving” is “misguided optimism.” In fact, they continue, “transit is a small and stagnant part of the transportation system.”

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Eliminating the Carbon Emissions of 3 Million Cars

Indoor marijuana production uses 1 percent of U.S. electricity, enough to produce the carbon emissions of three million cars. Meanwhile, the federal government is working hard to eradicate marijuana production from national forests. Reports suggest that such production is harmful to wildlife.

So how about a win-win solution? First, legalize marijuana at both the state and federal levels. Second, let the Forest Service pick some national forest locations where marijuana cultivation won’t harm wildlife or other values, then collect royalties on that cultivation, with 25 percent being kept by the Forest Service and the rest going to the federal treasury. Marijuana users win. Wildlife wins. The Forest Service and federal taxpayers win. The climate wins, or at least carbon dioxide emissions are reduced. Who could object to that?

Of course, marijuana doesn’t have to be grown on national forest lands. People grow it there for the same reason they grow it indoors: it’s illegal and they hope for some secrecy. This nation has a billion acres of agricultural lands, only 400 million of which are used for growing crops. When marijuana is completely legalized, most will be grown outdoors on private farms just like any other crop. So if you want to blame marijuana smokers for contributing to climate change, blame the prohibitionists instead.

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Interpreting the Data

At nearly 10.7 billion trips, transit ridership in 2013 reached its highest level in 57 years, says the American Public Transportation Association. This increase shows that people are “saying we want these (transit) investments made,” APTA’s president, Michael Melaniphy, told USA Today. Needless to say, by “investments” he means building new rail transit lines.


Any century now, transit is bound to overtake driving. Source: Transit data from APTA, urban driving from the Federal Highway Administration, and urban population from the Census Bureau. Click image for a larger view.

However, a close look at the data shows something entirely different. It turns out that New York City subways alone were responsible for more than 92 percent of the increase in transit ridership. Nationally, ridership grew by 115 million trips; New York City subway ridership grew by 106 million trips. According to the New York Times, the growth in subway ridership resulted from “falling unemployment.”

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Taxing Commuters Living Abroad

Governing magazine has a great idea for cities that are hard up for cash: tax suburban commuters. After all, those leeches live outside the city but depend on the city to provide them with jobs. Thus, they should pay a tax for a privilege of working in the city.

Just to make sure they get people coming and going, cities like Detroit also want to tax reverse commuters. That is, they want suburban employers to deduct taxes from the pay of their employees who happen to live in Detroit.

These are both great ideas if the goal is to hasten the fiscal demise of the cities. After all, think how well the cities would be doing if all the employers in the cities moved to the suburbs. The cities wouldn’t have to pay to provide urban services to those employers, but they also wouldn’t collect any property or other taxes from the businesses. Would they be better or worse off? If you think they would be worse off losing those jobs, then a commuter tax is redundant since the city is better off having the jobs without the commuter tax. (The same rationale applies to a reverse commuter tax on city residents who work in the suburbs.)

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