Category Archives: News commentary

RIP Tom Rapp

The Antiplanner was surfing the web on Saturday and happened to learn that Tom Rapp died last week of cancer. That may not mean anything to you and he didn’t have anything to do with the Antiplanner’s usual issues, but his music had a big influence on me.

“If you cannot be universal,” Rapp said about this thought-provoking song, “you should at least be ambiguous,” a statement that applies to a lot of his work.

Growing up in Portland, I often listened to a radio station called KVAN, which from 1967 to 1979 focused on “progressive rock.” Its owner was Catholic and the station also played a mass every evening, but she apparently didn’t care what its disk jockeys did the rest of the day. So they often played full albums of then-unknown artists such as Pink Floyd (I first heard A Saucerful of Secrets on KVAN), Jethro Tull, Bruce Springsteen, and many others. In 1969, I was fortunate to be listening when they played the full album of These Things Too by Pearls Before Swine. Most of the songs on the album were written by the group’s lead singer, Tom Rapp. Continue reading

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A Post-Racial Era?

Five years ago, on the fiftieth anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech, the Antiplanner noted that blacks had made a lot of political progress since then, but hadn’t made much economic progress. For example, black per capita incomes as a percent of white incomes had grown from 55 percent in 1963 to 58 percent in 2011, the last year for which data were available at the time I was writing. (According to tables B19301B and B19301H of the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, the actual percentage in 2011 was 56 percent.)

There have been some improvements in the last five years, but they are small. Black per capita incomes in 2016 — the last year for which numbers are available now and five years after the 2011 data I cited in 2013 — are 2 percent greater, as a share of of non-Hispanic white incomes (58 percent in 2016), than they were in 2011. According to tables B19013B and B19013H, black household incomes have grown from 60 percent to 61 percent of non-Hispanic white incomes. (The ratio is a little higher because black households have more people.)

Black wealth took a big hit in the Great Recession. Unlike incomes, this doesn’t appear to have improved since 2011. Continue reading

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Will Taxing X Make X More Affordable?

This week, Oregon voters are receiving their mail-in ballots for a special election whose purpose is to see just how stupid Oregon voters really are. The election is on a ballot measure whose supposed goal is to make health insurance more affordable. To reach this goal, the measure calls for taxing health insurance.

This is right in line with the policy, popular in Portland, of making housing more affordable by taxing housing. Let’s see how well that’s working. Oh, my; it doesn’t seem to be working at all.

I don’t want to influence any voters here with my use of the word “stupid.” Maybe you want to make health insurance more expensive by taxing it. But if you want to make it more affordable, Oregon’s ballot measure is the wrong way to go.

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Exurbanites Outnumber City Center Residents

An article of faith among urban planners is that people–especially Millennials and empty nesters–want to move to city centers. This belief is used to justify upzoning, subsidies to dense downtown housing developments, and restrictions on developments at the urban fringe.

Yet the Antiplanner’s faithful ally, demographer Wendell Cox, has repeatedly debunked this claim. His latest report shows that, not only are city centers not growing particularly fast, exurban populations–people with urban occupations living in essentially rural areas–are growing much faster and now outnumber city center populations by 3 million people.

Cox’s numbers might differ a little from other people’s because he doesn’t use political boundaries to distinguish cities from their suburbs. Instead, he relies on what he calls the “city sector model” that classifies land according to its history. Downtown is the really dense urban core (basically, the part with skyscrapers). The rest of the “city” is the area built before World War II. Areas built between 1945 and 1980 are the first-ring suburbs, while areas built after 1980 are the outer-ring suburbs. Populations in metropolitan areas outside the urbanized area (the area with more than 1,000 people per square mile) are exurbanites. Continue reading

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Kneel and Salute the Flag

A national anthem is but a song. A flag is a piece of cloth. Yet, like the wafer that turns into the body of Christ and the wine that turns into His blood, some transubstantiate these symbols into the idea of the United States as a country. Those who are not awed into submission by these symbols, they say, should be shunned by society and fired from their jobs.

Yet the United States of America is neither a religion nor a feudal aristocracy. Americans refuse to bow and scrape before monarchs, so why should we treat a song or a piece of cloth in ways that we don’t feel compelled to apply to human leaders?

The transubstantiation of a piece of cloth into the country is made explicit when we “pledge allegiance to the flag . . . and to the republic for which it stands.” Yet this pledge was written by a socialist who believed American children were too individualistic and needed to be instilled with a sense of collectivism. This makes it especially ironic that a political party that claims to believe in freedom insists on the pledge of allegiance and standing for the national anthem, while the more collectivist party accepts resistance to those traditions. Continue reading

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Reversible Lanes, Not Trains

Predictably, in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma, some people are saying that Florida would have been better off trying to evacuate people with passenger trains than over the highways. No one knows exactly how many people did evacuate south Florida, but after the state ordered 6.3 million people to leave their homes, photos of bumper-to-bumper cars on Interstates 75 and 95 became a staple of hurricane reporting.

Rail advocates like to claim that rail lines have much higher capacities for moving people than roads, but that’s simply not true. After the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, the Southern Pacific Railroad moved 300,000 people–free of charge–out of the city in what was probably the largest mass transit evacuation in American history. While impressive, it took the railroad five days to move all of those people. Even accounting for improvements in rail capacities in the last century, moving 6 million people out of south Florida by rail would take weeks, not the four days available between Florida’s first evacuation orders and the arrival of Hurricane Irma.

Certainly, the state of Florida could have done more to relieve congestion on major evacuation routes. As near as I can tell, the most it did was to allow vehicles to use the left shoulder lane on part of I-75 and part of I-4 (which isn’t even a north-south route), but not, so far as I can tell, on I-95. What the state should have done, since there was very little southbound traffic, was to open up all but one of the southbound lanes of I-75 and I-75 to northbound traffic. Continue reading

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Bike Share Programs: Why?

After less than a year of operation, Baltimore is shutting down its bike share program for a month because so many of its bikes were stolen or are heavily damaged. The program began last November with a 175 bikes–40 percent of which had electric boosters–available for rent from 20 different locations, soon increased to 200 bikes and 20 stations.

One cyclist spent a day recently visiting all 25 stations and found only four bikes available to potential renters. The city says the private partner that is running the operation is upgrading the locks to reduce theft. In the meantime, the city has two full-time employees tracking down the GPS-equipped bikes so that other people can repair them and put them back into service.

Baltimore is far from the first city to have problems with its bike-share program. Seattle’s is attracting only half as many riders as expected. Bike share programs in New York, San Francisco and many other cities have also had problems. Continue reading

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Zoning Wouldn’t Have Saved Houston

The rain hadn’t stopped falling before numerous commentators blamed Houston’s flooding on a lack of zoning. This is simply untrue.

First, flood-plain zoning focuses on “high-risk” areas, which by definition means areas in the 100-year floodplain. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac require that homes they mortgage be covered by flood insurance if they are in zone A or V, which means the 100-year floodplain.

But the Houston flooding resulting from tropical storm Harvey was a 1,000-year flood. That means neither zoning nor insurance would have made a difference for the homes outside the 100-year floodplain. At least half of all the homes damaged by Harvey flooding were in the “moderate-risk” zone in the 500-year floodplain but outside the 100-year floodplain, and more were in the low-risk area outside the 500-year floodplain. Continue reading

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Let the Property Owners Decide

The Houston flooding isn’t even over yet, and planners are already blaming it on urban sprawl. That’s absurd: if 30 to 50 inches of rain fell on New York City, Los Angeles, or anywhere else over a weekend, they would have flooded too.

The Antiplanner is not an expert on hydrology, but I do know a couple of basic principles. First, the way to minimize flooding is to minimize the percentage of each acre of land that is rendered impermeable by development. Second, high-density development leads to a higher percentage of land that is impermeable. This means that sprawl is a natural defense against flooding.

Planners would like you to believe that concentrating development on a smaller land base, even if that land is made mostly impermeable, is better because more land is left permeable. But all that does is concentrate the flooding in the developed area. Continue reading

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For Sale: Eclipse Glasses, Slightly Used

The Antiplanner’s eclipse was nearly smoke-free, thank you. In fact, I was in one of the best places in the nation to watch the eclipse, as we were also cloud-free.

Waiting for the eclipse near Camp Sherman.

Prior to the eclipse, many people were predicting chaos and even a “disaster nightmare.” “Officials are bracing for toilet shortages, cellular blackout zones and the potential for emergency service vehicles to be stuck in traffic.” Continue reading

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