Monthly Archives: July 2011

John Charles Responds to Sam Adams

Early this month, Portland broke ground on a hugely expensive light-rail bridge across the Willamette River, part of a $1.5 billion, 7.3-mile rail line to the Portland suburb of Milwaukie. This prompted faithful Antiplanner ally John Charles to write an article arguing that this is a “bridge to the last century.”

In response, Portland’s mayor, Sam Adams, wailed at a public meeting that “We’re under attack. Basic, impartial information is under attack” (click here for a 33-MB audio recording of the meeting; Adams’ comments are at 1:05:05, but the meeting is liberally littered with statements by public officials hostile to anyone who doesn’t share their utopian vision).

Adams called Charles’ article a “screed,” but what really raised Charles’ ire is the claim that Adams was on the side of “basic, impartial information.” So Charles replies with a barrage of “basic, impartial information” about the new light-rail line.

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Biketopia Is Mantopia

Cyclists want to spend millions of dollars out of highway user fees to build new bicycle infrastructure, including bike paths and lanes. But a recent survey by a bicycle advocacy group found that the most important reason women don’t bike is not lack of infrastructure, but because it is not convenient for them to do so. As a Seattle blogger points out, women spend twice as much time doing housework as men (including the time spent cleaning men’s cycling clothes), they are twice as likely to do trip chaining (combining multiple destinations in one trip), and they are twice as likely to take children with them on their trips. All these things make it unlikely that building a few bike paths will get lots more women on two wheels.

Meanwhile, in Gainesville Florida, a cyclist challenged the head of the local Republican Party to a bicycle vs. car race. The car won by 45 minutes–probably because the race was a stacked deck, requiring participants to wear business clothing, make multiple stops, and carry such things as groceries and a 2×4 (which proved to be impossible).

Of course, once cyclists get legislation passed forcing all businesses to have showers available, there won’t be any need to wear business clothing on cycle trips. (However, the time required to shower and change might have to be counted against the cyclist.)

Speaking of bike infrastructure, the Antiplanner was struck by a claim that Washington DC is bike-friendly because it has “56 miles of bike trails, 44 miles of bike lanes, 64 miles of signed bike routes, and thousands of bike racks.” Bike racks do not make a place bike-friendly (partly because they are usually poorly designed and there are generally plenty of posts around anyway). And 164 miles of bike routes is pathetic in a city that has 33 miles of freeways, more than 400 miles of arterials, more than 1,000 miles of collectors, and 1,500 miles of local streets.

Provided they don’t face too many stop signs, the Antiplanner likes the idea of signed bike routes (“bicycle boulevards”), which are usually on local streets, because the cost is low and they can be pretty safe without reducing the capacity of arterials and collectors for moving cars and trucks. But don’t brag that your city is bike-friendly when it is not: from my experience, the most important thing Washington can do is fill the potholes that prevent cyclists from safely using many of the city’s arterials and collectors.

When trying to improve bike safety, don’t forget that most bike-motor vehicle accidents happen at intersections. You can even get killed at an intersection by following the directions of traffic officers. This means taking lanes away from cars and giving them to bikes won’t help much; improving intersection designs alone should be sufficient to improve safety.


Senate Bill DOA

Continue spending money at current levels that are far greater than revenues. Drain the Highway Trust Fund. Make a few token changes in the law to make it look like you are doing something. Then revisit all the issues in just two years because you are too chicken to make the hard decisions today.

That’s pretty much the outline of a transportation reauthorization presented by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee late last week. Really, this plan is just like the one the committee presented last May, except the new one would expire in just two years instead of the usual six.

Ironically titled, “Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century” or MAP-21–since it only moves ahead two years and makes no progress on the debates over funding sources and spending restraints–the plan exists only as a three-page outline, not the thousands of pages that would make up an actual bill.

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Henry J. Is Spinning in His Grave

To find everything that is wrong with American transportation, you only need to look at the process for replacing the Interstate 5 crossing of the Columbia River. Planning for a new bridge or bridges between Portland and Vancouver began at least six years ago, and planners have so far spent well over $130 million without turning a single spade of dirt. The Antiplanner suspects planners are perfectly happy to spend as many highway dollars as possible on anything that doesn’t actually increase roadway capacity.

The current proposal calls for two double-deck bridges.

The bridge itself is expected to cost a little over $1 billion. But all the various government agencies that have jumped on the planning effort have managed to drive the cost up to $4 billion. A big part of this increase is the cost of light rail to Vancouver, including a special bridge or bridge deck for a rail line.

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The China Mystique Breaks Down

At least 35 people killed in a Chinese high-speed rail crash–caused by lightning? This doesn’t make any sense at all. Electric rail technology is more than a hundred years old; how could China’s trains not be safeguarded against this common phenomenon?

Plus, the second train ran into the first train simply because the first train was stopped on the tracks. Hasn’t China heard of positive train control? American railroads, which typically run freight trains at around 45 mph, are required by law to implement PTC by 2015. The Chinese trains in question reach top speeds of 155 mph, and should have had positive train control installed before turning a single wheel.

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American Know-How: Get Less for More

Three years ago, Oregon politicians managed to get an earmark for an Oregon company to manufacture streetcars. Now it turns out those streetcars are–surprise!–more expensive than anticipated as well as delayed by at least five months.

For the original price of six cars, the company will make just five. Not to worry, says company president Chandra Brown: “You’re not getting less. I actually think you’re getting more. You’re getting a lot better quality vehicle, and you’re getting all the ancillary benefits from it being done here.”

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Obamacare Pseudoscience

Last week, the Antiplanner noted in passing a study that found that making people live in “walkable neighborhood” won’t make them any healthier. Since then the Antiplanner has encountered another research paper that found that “the effects of density and block size on total walking and physical activity are modest to non-existent, if not contrapositive.” It seems that anyone who looks at the relationship between urban design and health, other than committed smart-growth advocates, finds that there is no relationship.

So it is disappointing, but not surprising, that President Obama’s recently released National Prevention Strategy–which resulted from the so-called Obamacare legislation–focuses on redesigning the built environment. The Active Living portion of the strategy calls for “community design and development that supports physical activity. Sidewalks, adequate lighting, and traffic slowing devices (e.g., modern roundabouts) improve the walkability of communities and promote physical activity. Increasing access to public transportation helps people maintain active lifestyles. People are also more likely to use active modes of transportation (e.g., walking, biking) for their daily activities when homes, workplaces, stores, schools, health care facilities, and other community services are located within close proximity and neighborhoods are perceived as safe.”

Although the Strategy includes footnotes for each of these claims, they only reference other publications recommending changes in the built environment–some of which were written by advocacy groups such as the Surface Transportation Policy Project–and not actual research showing that this is a worthwhile or cost-effective strategy. The Antiplanner is not an expert on health care, but if the rest of Obama’s health care package is as “scientific” as this, it appears we have turned our entire medical system to Lysenkoists. Next time you see a doctor, don’t be surprised if he or she gives you a prescription based on the latest fad (or campaign contribution) rather than the latest research.


Are Supertankers Worthwhile or Just PR?

Due to budget cuts, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection–CalFire for short–is canceling its contract for exclusive use of two DC-10 supertankers. These supertankers are “perhaps [the] most effective tool” the agency has for fighting fires, says the news story.

That’s not just an exaggeration, it is probably completely wrong. When the Antiplanner was in forestry school, some four decades ago, the fire management professors were openly scornful of aerial firefighting. “The agencies use aerial tankers only because the press demands it,” they said. “They need the video to show on TV.”

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House Votes to Take Back High-Speed Rail Funds

One more nail in the high-speed rail coffin: The House of Representatives voted to redirect $833 million from high-speed rail to Midwest flood relief. This is money that the Department of Transportation had awarded to Amtrak and Northeast Corridor states in May, but since Secretary Ray LaHood hasn’t actually signed the checks yet, Congress can take it back.

So now the race is on: New Jersey Senators Lautenberg and Menendez and Representative Rodney Frelinghausen want LaHood to release the funds before the Senate can vote on the House bill. If he does, Congress will have to look elsewhere for funds for flood relief. If the Senate passes the bill first, then the Northeast’s loss is the Midwest’s gain.

Either way, it is clear that high-speed rail is dead, at least as long as the House is run by Tea Party fiscal conservatives. Of course, there was a time when the president would have vetoed a bill for flood relief on the grounds that “I can find no warrant for such an appropriation in the Constitution; and I do not believe that the power and duty of the General Government ought to be extended to the relief of individual suffering which is in no manner properly related to the public service or benefit.”


Omaha’s Unlivable Plan

Three years ago, the Antiplanner reviewed the regional transportation plans for the nation’s 70 largest metropolitan areas and found that 40 of them had some form of “smart-growth,” anti-auto policies built in. One that did not was for Omaha.

Omaha planners are eager to rectify that situation. Perhaps in response to Ray LaHood’s direction that all metro areas incorporate “livability” into their next round of long-range plans (which are revised every five years), Omaha’s new plan, which is now being prepared, has an unhealthy dose of this inane idea.

So far, the planners are merely at the PowerPoint stage. The most offensive part of their presentation is page two of this show, which says they want to “manage congestion.”

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