Monthly Archives: May 2010

The Antiplanner’s Library: Unplanning

Unplanning sounds like a book for the Antiplanner. But the title is deceptive. Author Charles Siegel is critical of the urban planners who, according to the myth, planned and designed the low-density suburbs that most Americans live in today. He supports the high-density, anti-automobile goals of most of today’s urban planners. He just wants to achieve those goals with top-down political action, not top-down planning.

Instead of building new roads, says Siegel, we should build more rail transit. Instead of building low-density suburbs, we should cluster development around rail stations. Instead of speed limits of 45 to 65 mph on urban arterials, he says we should limit speeds to 30 mph.

Like most New Urbanists, Siegel lives in a fantasy world in which people will behave the way he thinks they ought to behave instead of the way they do behave. Siegel presents a circa 1910 postcard of a streetcar suburb, saying “streetcar suburbs were greener, less congested, quieter, and safer for children than today’s automobile-oriented suburbs.”

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Don’t Let Your Senator Become a Committee Chair

Members of Congress take it for granted that they can do their states and districts a lot of good by ascending to the chairs of powerful committees. Indeed, a new study from the Harvard Business School finds that states receive 40 to 50 percent earmark spending when a senator from that state becomes chair of a major committee, while the increase for house chairs is about 20 percent.

At the same time, the researchers were surprised to find that a shift in chairs led to a significant decrease in corporate spending within a state. Companies reduced capital investments by 15 percent and also reduced research and development programs. These reductions continue so long as the senator or representative remains chair, and are only partially reversed when the senator or representative resigns. Both large and small firms reduce their spending, though the largest reductions were found in firms that are geographically concentrated (i.e., had a large share of their operations in a single state or district).

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Power for Future Mobility

The tragic explosion that killed 11 people and led to millions of gallons of oil spilling into the Gulf of Mexico has many people, even die-hard auto enthusiasts, arguing that we should undertake a crash program to find alternatives to petroleum to fuel our transportation system. While it is nice to fantasize that some sort of “race-to-the-moon” research program will uncover magically new energy sources and technologies, realistically it isn’t going to happen.

Here is how the world works. You use the cheap resources first. The income you make from using those resources allows you to build up wealth. When resources start getting more expensive, you don’t hardly notice because you are wealthy enough that the higher-cost resources actually require a smaller share of your income than the low-cost resources once did. Eventually, you find new technologies and substitute resources that would have seemed prohibitively expensive when you were starting out, but now their adaptation causes barely a hiccup in the economy.

Oil critics will argue that, when the environmental costs are counted, oil is more expensive than first thought. That may be. But instead of trying to pay those costs from the outset, we first became a wealthy society, thanks in part to cheap oil, and then applied some of that wealth to reducing air pollution and solving other environmental problems. As bad as the Gulf oil spill may be, I suspect BP will eventually cap the well (update: looks like it has already happened) and, no matter how many billions it may cost, largely restore the ecosystems and compensate those who were harmed. This may add a few cents per gallon to the world price for gasoline, but consumers will absorb that just like they absorbed the cost of catalytic converters and other technologies aimed at reducing air pollution.

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The Junk Science of Walkability

Sigh. Another day, another junk science paper from the smart-growth advocates. This time it is a paper titled Walking the Walk, which argues that the fact that housing prices are higher in so-called walkable neighborhoods proves that “consumers and housing markets attach a positive value to living within easy walking distance of shopping, services, schools and parks.”

In fact, all the paper proves is that the person who wrote it doesn’t understand basic economics. The report is junk science because it confuses cost with demand and presumes that correlation equals causation.

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Race to the Top

Sunday’s New York Times Magazine reported on the Obama administration’s Race-to-the-Top education program and how it is subverting the power of the teachers’ unions. The administration would do well to adopt a similar program for transportation in general and transit in particular.

As the late UC economist Charles Lave noted 16 years ago, there was a “large decline in the transit industry’s productivity” after 1964, when Congress began funding transit with federal dollars. Noting that inflation-adjusting operating costs per unit of output had nearly doubled, Lave commented that, “It’s uncommon to find such a rapid productivity decline in any industry.”

Transit productivity has continued to fall since 1985, when Lave’s data ended. According to historic data published by the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), inflation-adjusted operating expenses have grown by 70 percent since 1985, and the number of operating employees has grown by 48 percent, yet transit ridership has grown by only 17 percent. APTA does not report capital costs before 1992, but since that year capital expenses have grown by 131 percent, yet transit ridership (which was actually lower in 1992 than 1985) has grown by only 24 percent.

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Happy Memorial Photo Day

Update: Oops, I’m confused. Guess Memorial Day is next week. Oh well, enjoy the photos.

Today is a day when we are supposed to remember fallen heroes, but most people just consider it the first holiday of the summer. Instead of ranting about transit or land-use plannng, I thought I would show off a few photos from my own recent travels. Click any picture for a larger view.

Here is a stone arch bridge in New Hampshire, built entirely without mortar and dating back to before the Civil War.

Garden of the Gods in Colorado. This land was given to the city of Colorado Springs by the president of the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad.

Phoenix Mountain City Park in Phoenix, Arizona. This photo is actually a merger of nine different exposures.

Smith Rocks State Park in Oregon.

I hope you enjoy the day.

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FTA Chief Criticizes Rail Transit

In a speech in Boston early this week, FTA Administrator Peter Rogoff sounds like he is channeling Wendell Cox or another of the Antiplanner’s faithful allies.

“Supporters of public transit must be willing to share some simple truths that folks don’t want to hear,” said Rogoff. “One is this — Paint is cheap, rails systems are extremely expensive. Yes, transit riders often want to go by rail. But it turns out you can entice even diehard rail riders onto a bus, if you call it a ‘special’ bus and just paint it a different color than the rest of the fleet.” By coincidence, the Antiplanner made the same point on the same day as Rogoff’s speech.

Rogoff pointed out that America’s transit systems have $78 billion of deferred maintenance, the vast majority of which is for rail lines even though the majority of transit trips are by buses. His point is not simply that we aren’t maintaining rail lines, but that such maintenance is extremely expensive and rail supporters often deceptively ignore such costs when trying to sell new rail lines to the public. “if you can’t afford to operate the system you have,” Rogoff warns urban leaders, “why does it make sense for us to partner in your expansion?”

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Memories

In the past four months, the Antiplanner has visited 30 cities to speak about transportation and land-use issues. For those who like watching videos (a group that does not include the Antiplanner), here are some recordings of my presentations.

Bozeman, Montana presentation about land-use issues.

Brown University debate with James Howard Kunstler.

Las Vegas presentation about Gridlock (with part two, part three, part four, and part five).

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Can Government Pick Winners?

Robert Atkinson is an unusual liberal who does not support smart growth. In fact, he believes in automobility and in using market tools such as congestion pricing to reduce traffic congestion.

But he is still a liberal and as such he has much more faith in government than the Antiplanner. The Antiplanner believes government can only work if people watchdog it to keep in small and unintrusive. Atkinson believes government can and should pick winners. That, he explains, “means government identifying industries and technologies where the country needs to be competitive globally, (i.e. health IT, nanotechnology, green energy, biotech, robotics, broadband) and then developing and implementing policies to work with the private sector to ensure that we grow and retain high-end jobs at home in these key sectors.”

It may be possible, if you search hard enough, to find an example of a government successfully picking and promoting a winner. Atkinson specifically mentions “Internet, the web browser, the search engine, computer graphics, semiconductors, and a host of others.” One problem with these examples is that government did not pick any of these technologies with the aim of promoting the industries. Instead, it help develop these technologies because they were useful to government (mainly defense) agencies.

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Making a Virtue of Failure

The Antiplanner makes no secret of the fact that I love trains, especially passenger trains. Yet I know that passenger rail transportation is obsolete because it is expensive (compared with either autos or air), slow (compared with air and often with autos), and inconvenient (compared with autos). Unlike some people, I don’t believe taxpayers should subsidize my hobbies.

Despite this, rail advocates far and wide proclaim the virtues of high-speed rail and rail transit. Yet all too often, the virtues they claim are really faults in disguise.

One high-speed rail blogger, for example, criticizes the Antiplanner for endorsing an emerging technology that will significantly increase everyone’s mobility, not just those who have a driver’s license or who can afford to ride high-priced trains. Why dream about new technologies, the blogger says, when we can spend hundreds of billions on an obsolete technology instead?

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