Monthly Archives: June 2010

Honolulu’s Rail Plan

Yesterday, in response to the Antiplanner’s post about crony capitalism, Scrappy commented that Honolulu needs rail transit to “reduce our carbon footprint, save energy and get us off the maddening addiction to cars.” He added that, “the environmental community in Honolulu is strongly behind rail.”

I appreciate Scrappy’s comment and don’t want to discourage him from participating in this forum, but I find it sad that my former colleagues in the environmental movement have become so innumerate that they would support a turkey like the Honolulu elevated rail plan. The final environmental impact statement for that project is now available. Let’s see what it says about saving energy, carbon, and driving.

Start with energy. Table 4-21 of the FEIS says the project will save 396 million British thermal units (BTUs) of energy each day, or 144,540 million BTUs per year. Sounds great, except that page 4-206 says project construction will cost 7.48 trillion BTUs. That means it will take 52 years of savings to pay back the energy cost. Long before 52 years are up, huge energy investments will be needed to replace rail cars, worn out track, and other infrastructure. So there is likely no net energy savings.

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Hawaii – Land of Crony Capitalism

Wikipedia defines crony capitalism as an “allegedly capitalist economy in which success in business depends on close relationships between businesspeople and government officials.” Crony capitalism has sadly played an important role in state and, especially, local government for just about ever. But Hawaii suffers from a particularly strong case.

Hawaii’s history of crony capitalism dates back at least to the mid-1950s. Before then, the future state was run by an oligarchy consisting of the Big Five land-owning companies and a sixth company that was mainly involved in construction. The oligarchy ran the political, economic, and social system of the entire territory in a system that would be considered more feudal than crony capitalistic. Nearly all of the private land in the islands was owned by one of these companies or a relative handful of other families, companies, or trusts, leaving only about 3 percent of the state available for fee simple ownership by ordinary residents.

That began to change in 1954, when reform-oriented Democrats, bolstered by the votes of children of immigrant workers from Japan, China, and the Philippines, took control of the legislature for the first time in the territory’s history. Among other things, the Democrats promised land reform so that more land and opportunities would be available to the average person.

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LaHood Acts Like a Hood — Again

Not content to just threaten any airlines that might oppose heavy subsidies to high-speed rail aimed at putting their unsubsidized operations out of business, Secretary of Immobility Ray LaHood is now threatening railroads that are supposedly dragging their wheels in response to federal plans to run moderate-speed (up to 110 mph) trains on their freight lines. As previously noted here, three of the nation’s four largest railroads have stated that they do not believe that passenger trains can be safely run faster than 90 mph (79 mph in the case of one of the railroads) on the same tracks as freight trains.

Apparently, LaHood has been making “thinly veiled threats” to apply “punitive measures” to railroads that aren’t getting on board the 110 mph trains. Obama’s expectation was that the railroads would eagerly accept money to improve their tracks because the improvements would benefit the freight trains as well as passenger service. But the reality is that the typical freight car spends far more time standing still than in motion, so speeding a freight train from, say, 50 mph to 60 mph has almost no effect on the amount of time required to deliver payloads.

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The Antiplanner’s Library: Visiting Paradise

One of the Antiplanner’s co-speakers during a couple of events in Honolulu is David Callies, a law professor and author of two books on Hawaii land-use law: Regulating Paradise and Preserving Paradise. Hawaii passed the first statewide growth-management law in 1961, and still has about the strictest land-use laws in the nation. Not coincidentally, it also competes with California in having the nation’s least-affordable housing.

Regulating Paradise, a 1984 book that Callies is currently updating, shows that the 1961 law (sometimes called Act 187) is only one of several laws that have limited development of the state. Landowners in some parts of the state have to comply with as many as 30 different sets of regulations, from historic preservation to coastal zone management.

The original purpose of the 1961 law was to protect farmland. But Callies points out that this backfired. By limited urban development to about 5 percent of the Hawaiian Islands, the law made housing so expensive that farmers could not pay workers a living wage and compete with other tropical countries that grew similar crops. As a result, Hawaiian agriculture is in decline, and the only justification for the land-use law is to provide scenic views for upper-middle class urbanites.

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Back in the Air Again

The Antiplanner is spending the next week in Hawaii to talk with people about both transportation and land-use planning. On Friday from 9:30 am to 11:00 am, I’ll speak about transportation issues at the University of Hawaii, Holmes Hall 353, Honolulu.

On Tuesday, June 29, I’ll speak on land-use issues at a luncheon at 1132 Bishop Street, #306, Honolulu. Also on the agenda will be land-use law Professor David Callies and planning Professor Tom Dinell. The lunch is $25; if you would like to attend, call 808-285-8591 or email Linda by June 25.

Posting may be light for the next few days. I plan on bringing my BikeFriday and cycling around during my free time, including a three-day visit to the Big Island. Let me know if you are in Oahu or Hawaii and would like to join me for a ride.

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Clouding the Debate

Amid the conservatives blaming the oil spill on Obama and liberals blaming it on America’s auto addiction, journalist Robert Samuelson gets it right, noting that one of the most worrisome consequences of the Gulf oil spill is a “more muddled energy debate.” All the proposals to end oil consumption, such as one to convert the U.S. to 95 percent renewables by 2050, are mere “pipe dreams,” says Samuelson in a possibly unintentional pun.

Of course, some people think we should build huge wind farms. But winds are so unreliable that Britain is paying wind farms to stop generating electricity when the wind is blowing because the electrical grid can’t handle it. (Winds in many places blow harder at night when demand for electricity is lowest.)

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Are Suburbs Authentic?

Andrew Potter, who recently wrote a delightful book on what is “authentic,” has now come out in defense of the suburbs. Potter challenges James Kunstler’s view of the suburbs as having no “sense of place.”

“This is the sort of thing that could only be argued by someone who has either never visited a suburb, or is so enthralled by his own prejudices that black looks white, up looks down, and a thriving community appears to be nothing more than a barren wasteland,” says Potter. In fact, suburbs have “vibrant sociability on every street,” while the cities have devolved “into social and psychological wastelands, full of apartment buildings where people barely acknowledge one another in the elevator.” New Urbanists see cities as “a version of the ‘Sesame Street’ fantasy spun by Jane Jacobs,” but in fact Jacobs’ Greenwich Village “already disappearing by the time she turned it into an urban planner’s fetish dream.”

“The entire case against the suburbs,” says Potter, “is little more than lifestyle snobbery . . . revealing itself as a thinly veiled form of contempt for middle-class tastes and preferences.” While cities like Portland are “increasingly populated by the hip, the young, and the childless,” the reality is that these people are bringing “frankly suburban practices,” such as critical mass bike rides, into the city cores. This “importation of the habits and values of the suburban lifestyle” has actually helped revitalize the cities and is turning even New York City “into one giant homogeneous suburb.” While some may quarrel with that conclusion, Potter’s point is that too much of the debate about the suburbs has been based on phony esthetic ideals.

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Planning Student Proves Consultants Are a Waste of Money

Spending around $1,000, 20-year-old Daniel Jacobson, a Stanford University undergraduate student, has written a 140-page streetcar feasibility study for Oakland, California. The city of Oakland itself had already spent $300,000 on a streetcar study back in 2005, and planned to spend another $330,000 for further study this year.

Of course, the Jacobson’s study is filled with fabricated data, false assumptions, and phony calculations. But most readers will be too dazzled by the beautiful graphics to notice. Besides, any $300,000 professional feasibility study would contain the same fabricated data and calculations.

The biggest fabrication, of course, is the inevitable claim that building a streetcar will lead to economic redevelopment. There is not a chance in hell that spending $100 million or more on a 2-1/2-mile streetcar line would lead to any economic development, and even if it did, it would only be development that would have taken place somewhere in the Oakland area anyway. But any streetcar study is going to make this claim because that is the only way to justify spending tens of millions of dollars on a nineteenth-century technology that is slower, less flexible, and more dangerous to have on the streets than buses that cost far less.

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Urban Planners’ Employment Act

Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd has introduced a “Livable Communities Act” that promises more than $4 billion in federal grants to communities that promote smart-growth principles. The Senate held hearings on the bill last week, and a somewhat similar bill has been introduced in the House by Representative Albio Sires of New Jersey.

The Senate bill starts out with “findings” that repeat all the usual smart-growth crap that is mostly false and all highly debatable. Some of the findings imply that there is a growing demand for high-density, mixed-use housing. But if that is true, why does the federal government need to subsidize it?

The bill laments that “as much as 30 percent of current demand for housing is for housing in dense, walkable, mixed-use communities,” while “less than 2 percent of new housing is in this category.” Of course, that may be because many cities have a surplus of existing housing that fits this description, so they don’t need any new construction. (It may also be that “as much as 30 percent” is really more like “less than 20 percent.)

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Pretty Ridiculous Transit

After the Antiplanner started writing about driverless cars, I received a lot of emails congratulating me for jumping on the PRT bandwagon. I just had to roll my eyes, as I’ve argued since 2003 that driverless cars are the reason why PRT, short for personal rapid transit, will never happen.

First proposed in the 1970s (see these 1976 studies done for Minneapolis-St. Paul and Denver), PRT has attracted a fanatical following. Even though no PRT system has ever been built, they are convinced it is cheap, fast, convenient, energy efficient, and everything else that ordinary transit is not. If you believe everything you read on the web, you would think there are at least a dozen gigantic companies producing PRT lines, including Taxi 2000, ULTra, and many more.

ULTra actually built a 2.4-mile line connecting a parking lot with the terminal at Heathrow Airport. Including 18 vehicles capable of going 25 mph (a bit short of the 180 mph promised in the video), this line cost $41 million, or $17 million per mile. While it may save Heathrow the cost of bus drivers, this is hardly cheap considering freeways cost as little as $2.5 million per lane mile plus right of way (which probably isn’t included in the $41 million Heathrow cost).

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