Monthly Archives: September 2009

Urban Planners Caused the Housing Bubble

Tomorrow, the Cato Institute publishes a report titled “How Urban Planners Caused the Housing Bubble.” Faithful readers of the Antiplanner can download a preview copy today.

This report will probably not change the minds of any Antiplanner readers, but there are still lots of people who think that the United States as a whole suffered a housing bubble in the last several years. As the report shows, there were clear bubbles in fewer than 20 states, most of which had some form of growth-management planning (see table 1 on pp. 12 and 13).

Those who claim the bubble was caused by low interest rates, easy credit, or similar national causes have to explain why fast-growing states like Georgia, North Carolina, and Texas did not have a bubble. Remarkably, according to data published by the Federal Housing Finance Agency, housing prices never declined in such major (and relatively unregulated) metropolitan areas as Houston and Dallas. If there was a national housing bubble caused by the Federal Reserve Bank or some other central authority, this could hardly be the case.

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Back in the Air Again

The Antiplanner is in St. Louis today on behalf of the Show-Me Institute to talk with people about high-speed rail. Tomorrow I’ll be in Springfield, Illinois, doing the same for the Illinois Policy Institute.

Before someone asks why free-market think tanks hate trains, the answer is: we don’t. In fact, many of us love trains. What we hate are subsidies. We oppose subsidies to highways, subsidies to transit agencies, subsidies to airlines, and subsidies to Amtrak. No one happens to be proposing to spend $102 billion dollars (and possibly as much as $1 trillion) of general taxpayer funds on highways, but they are proposing to do so on high-speed rail. So today we focus on high-speed rail.

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Odes to City Planners

David Byrne, whose claim to expertise in urban economics is that he visited lots of cities as a member of a rock and roll band, has written a book about bicycling. To publicize it, he wrote an article for the Wall Street Journal about what makes a city livable.

I might find his opinions credible if they weren’t simply a rehash of New Urbanism. Tellingly, he commits the ultimate blunder of the neophyte would-be urban planner: he disses Los Angeles for not having “sufficient density.”

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Time to Stop Forest Planning

Six former chiefs of the Forest Service met in Missoula, Montana recently, and at least some of them agreed that forest planning is a waste of time. “Analysis paralysis,” Dale Bosworth called it, repeating a term the Bush appointee had coined first applied to planning when he was chief. “Just pouring more and more money into planning doesn’t seem to be getting us any further down the road,” said Jack Ward Thomas, who was chief in the early Clinton years.

Many in the Forest Service agree. Yet, as a top Forest Service official recently told the Antiplanner, the Obama administration plans to rewrite the rules for forest planning — something that every administration has done since Jimmy Carter. Such rewrites merely make more work for the national forests, which have to go back and redo work to make it comply with the new rules.

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The Antiplanner’s Library: Ideal City & Compact City

I once wrote an article about Halle Neustadt a high-density, soviet-built city in East Germany that some urban planners once rated “the most sustainable city in the world.” As the article pointed out, it was only “sustainable” (that is, people didn’t drive much) before German reunification. Soon after the Berlin Wall fell and the country reunified, Halle Neustadt residents went out and bought cars, and soon after that about a third of them moved out to low-density suburbs. Today, many of Halle Neustadt’s high rises have been demolished.

My article pointed out that Halle Neustadt was based on urban planning ideals of the era as described in a book titled The Ideal Communist City. Much of the rhetoric in this book sounded very familiar: suburbs were evil, driving was evil, and government-imposed density was the solution. In a conclusion that drives smart-growth advocates nuts, I showed that the only significant differences between smart growth and the ideal communist city were that the former emphasizes mid-rise apartments of varying sizes while the latter emphasizes high-rise apartments that would be considered tiny by American standards.

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BART Megalomania

BART, the rail transit agency that consumes at least a plurality, if not most, of San Francisco Bay Area transportation dollars, wants to build an expensive rail connection to the Oakland Airport. The existing BART line stops 3.2 miles from the airport and air travelers can take the AirBART bus for $3. But BART wants to spent more than $500 million — at least $160 million per mile — building a rail connection directly to the airport, and then charge $6 for the ride. This would not be a BART line but an airport-style people mover.

The line was originally supposed to cost just $130 million and have stops serving local neighborhoods. But the higher-cost line now being planned would have no stops between the BART station and the airport. The San Francisco Examiner describes the line as “megalomania for sexy (but almost useless) transit construction projects.”

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Dubai’s Gold-Plated Metro Rail

Dubai, one of the fastest-growing cities in the world, opened its fully automated metro system this month. The opening was accompanied by an announcement that the cost of building it had increased a mere 80 percent from the original projections. The city says the higher cost was because they added to the line (by less than 5 percent) and redesigned the stations after signing contracts with builders.

The heavy-rail line will not only be the first metro rail system to be fully automated, it will be the first in the world to have multiple classes. Each five-car train will have one “gold” or first-class car, at least one car for women and children, and the remaining cars for “silver” or economy-class passengers. The trains will also offer free WiFi. Since Dubai’s population is 85 percent foreign workers and 15 percent locals or wealthy emigrants, the gold-class cars will probably be relatively empty much of the time. At least those oil sheiks who forego their Maybachs won’t have to rub shoulders with the servant class.

The cost of the initial red and green lines will average about $130 million per mile, which is typical for U.S. heavy-rail construction. Dubai plans to build two more lines by 2020, which will double the length and, no doubt, the cost of the system. The city expects to subsidize operations, which means it will never recover the construction costs out of fares. To help pay for it, they are selling naming rights to the train stations.

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The Antiplanner’s Library: Traffic

The Antiplanner finally picked up a copy of Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), a popular book by journalist Tom Vanderbilt (whose web site, How We Drive, seems to be down at the moment). Vanderbilt interviewed numerous people (including several of the Antiplanner’s friends) to learn about the psychology and physics of driving.

Vanderbilt explains that the word “traffic” doesn’t mean “congestion” but simply “movement.” Appropriately, the book focuses at least as much on safety as on congestion. Vanderbilt is an entertaining writer who manages to present a balanced view of many controversial issues.

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$6 Billion Down the Drain

Nine years ago, the DC metro area proposed a bus-rapid transit line to Dulles Airport that would cost $300 million to start up and $38 million a year to operate. An alternative proposal to build a $3 billion rail line to the airport was deemed far too expensive.

Tysons Corner — not dense enough yet.

Meanwhile, developers and property owners at Tysons Corner, midway between DC and Dulles, applied to Fairfax County for permission to significantly expand the commercial and retail developments in what is already one of the largest edge cities in the metro area. With 46 million square feet of office space, Virginia’s largest shopping mall, and around 100,000 jobs, some might think that Tysons was developed enough, but landowners wanted to double the development. There was one obstacle in their way: The county said that the region’s transportation facilities were inadequate to serve the expansion.

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Customer-Driven Transportation

The Antiplanner joined Alan Pisarski (Commuting in America) and Gabriel Roth (Street Smart) in giving presentations at the Cato Institute on Tuesday, September 15. It was an honor to be with two such distinguished speakers; Pisarski practically invented the business of transportation data collection and Roth was one the world’s first modern proponents of road privatization.

All three presentations can be downloaded: Alan Pisarski‘s is 2.3 MB; Gabriel Roth‘s is 180 KB; and the Antiplanner‘s graphics-laden presentation is 12.8 MB (including a movie of Ray LaHood promising to coerce Americans out of their cars). If you don’t have PowerPoint, you can download this free PowerPoint viewer from Microsoft (Mac version).

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