Monthly Archives: October 2009

The Importance of Cars; The Irrelevance of Transit

A new study published by the Cascade Policy Institute provides more evidence that the automobile is a key part of the nation’s economy. Though some may scoff that libertarian Cascade Policy is merely a part of some “right-wing conspiracy,” the study’s author, Randall Pozdena, is one Oregon’s most respected economists.

People in wealthy economies drive more; people who drive more live in wealthier economies. “What causes what?” asks Pozdena; do wealthier people drive more or does more driving make people wealthier? Based on his own research and a review of the literature, the answer, he finds, is “bidirectional causality”; that is, “VMT and the economy ’cause’ each other.”

Because of this, he concludes dryly, “policy interventions that reduce VMT will have an effect on the economy.” In particular, he means, reducing VMT will have a negative effect on the economy.

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Corporatizing Transit

Apple Computer has agreed to spend nearly $4 million fixing up a run-down subway station and bus turnaround lane next to a planned Apple Store in Chicago. Given the precarious state of the Chicago Transit Authority’s finances — the agency is something like $16 billion behind in its rail maintenance — this may be the answer to the transit system’s needs.

Soon to be the Apple Subway Stop.

In exchange for its $4 million, Apple not only gets a nicer neighborhood for its store, it gets first right of refusal for naming rights to the subway station “if the CTA later decides to offer those rights.” In other words, Apple will have to pay even more to call it the Apple subway station.

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The 2008 Transit Data Are Here!

The Antiplanner is a data junkie. When the Federal Transit Administration publishes each year’s National Transit Database, I feel like running down the street like Steve Martin in The Jerk: “The 2008 Transit Database is here! And I’m in it!” (I did, after all, ride the Washington Metro more than a few times in 2008.)

As in previous years, the 2008 database comes in two very different formats: the database and the data tables. Both are self-extracting exe files (if, like the Antiplanner, you have a Macintosh, you may need a special program such as File Juicer to extract the data). Each has more-or-less the same data, but the data tables are easier to read while the database is easier to manipulate in an Excel spreadsheet.

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The Definition of Failure: Houston’s Light Rail

At one of the Antiplanner’s presentations in Houston, a member of the audience representing the Citizens’ Transportation Coalition propsed that Houston’s light rail was a success. I asked how he defined “success,” and his answer seemed to indicate that the fact that it carried lots of riders made it a success.

Wikipedia says Houston’s light rail carries the second-most passengers per route mile of any light-rail line in the country. But many of these trips are short — the average trip is 2.4 miles compared with a national light-rail average of 4.6. Also, Houston’s light-rail line is in the inner city and does not yet reach suburbs where ridership will be light. When measured on a passenger-miles per route mile basis, Houston’s is eighth highest, with Los Angeles’ light rail carrying more than 50 percent more passenger miles per mile.

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U.S. High-Speed Rail Network

When Obama endorsed the Federal Railroad Administration‘s 8,600-mile high-speed rail plan, the Antiplanner predicted that rail advocates would not be satisfied with such a small system. For one thing, the FRA system reached only 33 states. For another, as a system of unconnected corridors it failed to connect such key cities as New York and Chicago or Chicago and the West Coast. Although self-proclaimed high-speed rail “experts” say that high-speed rail only makes sense in 300- to 600-mile corridors, the Antiplanner argued that politics would lead Congress to insist that lines be built across the country.

Sure enough, a group calling itself the U.S. High Speed Rail Association has proposed a 17,000-mile network that connects both coasts and appears to reach 43 — possibly 44 (West Virginia is unclear) — states. The route map includes lines from Chicago to Seattle and San Francisco (via St. Louis, Kansas City, and Denver) and Dallas to Los Angeles (via Albuquerque, Phoenix, and San Diego).

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Can FasTracks Be Killed?

Denver’s FasTracks rail plan gets deeper and deeper into trouble. The fragile coalition of municipal officials supporting the plan has been threatened by a new proposal that would give some lines priority over others. No one seems to think that voters will ever approve the tax increase RTD, Denver’s transit agency, says it needs to the complete system.

The Denver Post published another article questioning whether commuter rail makes sense, following up a previous article questioning light rail. “Besides being pricey to install,” says the Post, rail lines “are pricey to maintain, and other alternatives exist that would clear clogged roadways (and the air) at least as effectively,” namely buses. So “we think RTD ought to return to the drawing board.”

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$4.6 Billion for 5.2 MPH

I’ve been too busy in Texas to read Illinois’ application for high-speed rail (110-mph) between Chicago and St. Louis (52 MB PDF). But I understand it proposes to spend $4.6 billion (up from an original estimate of about $500 million) to increase average speeds on this route from 51.6 mph to 56.8 mph.

The plan also proposes to increase frequencies from three to eight trains per day each way. However, it projects that this 166 percent increase in service will produce just a 26 percent increase in ridership. That’s not real encouraging.

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Do TODs Increase Transit Usage?

The Oregonian reports that residents of Orenco — a transit-oriented development built on prime farm land miles from Portland — mostly drive to work rather than use the light-rail line that is located close to their homes. In fact, according to a survey by Lewis & Clark University sociologist Bruce Podobnik, a higher percentage of commuters in a typical low-density suburb take transit to work than commuters from Orenco.

Podobnik did find that more Orencons walk to work and shopping than residents of other Portland-area neighborhoods. A higher percentage of Orencons also found that there was “more community” in Orenco than residents of other neighborhoods — though anyone living in a community that was widely touted as a national model would come to feel a sense of community.

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Travels with the Antiplanner 3: Sumpter Valley Railroad

As noted yesterday, the Antiplanner is in San Antonio today. But before leaving Oregon, I visited the Sumpter Valley Railroad for the fall photographer’s special. The Sumpter Valley Railroad once carried gold and timber between Prairie City and Baker, Oregon, but shut down in 1947. With help from the Union Pacific, local enthusiasts rebuilt a few miles of it in the 1970s and began tourist operations in 1976.

Sunrise in McEwen. Click for a larger photo.

The group operates two steam locomotives, the Sumpter Valley 19 and the Eccles Lumber Company 3. Eccles Lumber was a logging railroad that fed into the Sumpter Valley Railroads; both were founded by David Eccles, an Ogden entrepreneur, in the late nineteenth century. After the railroads shut down, the 3 was used as a stationary boiler by Boise Cascade, while the 19 went to the White Pass and Yukon, which later donated it back to the restoration group.

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Back in the Air Again

The Antiplanner is flying to Texas today for a busy week of conferences and speeches. My presentations will vary but all will at least touch on a variety of recent transportation and land-use issues including housing affordability, rail transit, and curbing greenhouse gas emissions.

Tomorrow, I’ll join faithful allies Wendell Cox and Sam Staley in speaking to the Home Ownership and Land Affordability Coalition tomorrow. The event will take place at the San Antonio Country Club from 11:45 to 2:00 pm. My particular talk will focus on problems with Portland’s smart-growth policies. If you would like to attend, contact Jeff Judson at 210-822-1292 or email jeff@jeffjudson.com.

On Wednesday, Wendell, Sam, and I will be joined by Ron Utt and Texas Commissioner of Agriculture Todd Staples in speaking at an afternoon conference sponsored by Houstonians for Responsible Growth. My talk will focus on free-market alternatives to smart growth. If you are in Houston, please register for the conference.

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