Monthly Archives: February 2016

San Francisco Home Prices Are Far Out, Man

Last week, the Federal Housing Finance Agency released its quarterly home price indices for the fourth quarter of 2015, so we now have a 41-year time series for every state and many metropolitan areas. The numbers show that, even after adjusting for inflation, housing prices in the San Francisco Bay Area have exceeded prices during the peak of the housing bubble.

The data show that prices are also rising for some metro areas, such as Houston and Dallas, that didn’t bubble in the 2000s (see chart below). However, this increase is due to higher incomes in those areas; the home value-to-income ratios have remained about the same, while those for the metro areas in the above chart have increased from the post-bubble crash. Austin’s increase is partly caused by strict regulation in the city, though many of its suburbs remain affordable.

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Indianapolis BRT Plan Bad for the Environment

A new report published by Indiana Policy Review critiques the use of dedicated bus lanes and battery-powered buses in a proposed Indianapolis bus-rapid transit line (if this link is password-protected, the password is 3544). As described in the FTA’s annual New Starts/Small Starts report, the proposed Red Line would cost $96 million to start and $6 million per year to operate, but the report says nothing about how many riders the line would carry.

The critique of the plan points out that the county transit agency, IndyGo, plans to run buses on the dedicated bus lanes no more frequently than every five minutes, which means they would be empty more than 90 percent of the time. The auto and truck traffic they would displace would have carried far more people than the buses are projected to carry.

According to IndyGo, that projection is a little less than 11,000 riders per day, or about 4,200 more than currently take buses in the corridor. This large increase is projected due to the buses’ faster speeds, but those speeds will only average about 18 mph, compared with 13 mph with existing service. Since the Red Line buses won’t stop as frequently as ordinary buses, it is possible that they would average nearly 18 mph even without dedicated lanes, but IndyGo failed to consider that alternative.

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The Daily Disaster That Is DC MetroRail

A lot of Washington Post reporters must ride the Metro Rail system, as the paper has published several articles about the system’s decline in the last few days. First was the February 10 report that ridership had fallen to its lowest level since 2004. On February 12, the Post published a lengthy list of ideas for improving ridership solicited from ten experts.

Then came a February 19 report of “candid talk” by Metro’s new general manager, Paul Wiedefeld, and board chair Jack Evans about the system’s deterioration. “Somehow our reliability has fallen apart,” said Evans. By “somehow,” he means, “no one was willing to spend the money required to maintain the system.”

“The longer-term solution to that is obviously the 7000-cars,” said Wiedefeld, referring to Metro’s latest order of railcars (the original cars were the 1000-series, second were 2000s, etc.). Of course, new rail cars won’t fix the signals, the broken rails, the computer guidance system, or the smoke in the tunnels.

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Relieving Congestion Saves Lives

As the Antiplanner observed yesterday, driving increased by 3.5 percent in 2015. Along with that increase came an 8 percent increase in traffic fatalities, according to the National Safety Council.

Six years ago, data revealed that 2009 traffic fatalities had declined by nearly 10 percent from 2008, which itself had nearly 10 percent fewer fatalities than 2007. This dramatic change left many experts perplexed. Some credited safer cars, but the Antiplanner suggested that much of the decline had resulted from the recession-induced decline in driving: 2009 miles were nearly 1 percent less than 2008’s, which were nearly 2 percent less than 2007.

If a slight reduction in congestion due to less driving could result in such a large decrease in fatalities, then similarly a reduction in congestion due to increased roadway capacity or other congestion-reducing measures could similarly save lives. Conversely, the Antiplanner suggested, cities that deliberately allowed congestion to increase in order to get people to stop driving were killing people.

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UP Doesn’t Want to Play with LoneStar

Lone Star Rail is basically two guys who somehow managed to get the Texas legislature to give them the authority to plan a train from Austin to San Antonio. They they persuaded several cities along the route to give them money to write the plan. However, the plan was to use Union Pacific tracks, and the railroad has notified Lone Star that it isn’t interested.

Running a train on 80 miles or so of existing tracks would be more expensive than a bus, but not expensive compared with building new tracks. However, Union Pacific’s line is too busy running freight trains to accommodate passenger trains too. So Lone Star’s plan was to spend $2 billion or so building an entirely new line for UP trains so it could have the existing line all to itself. However, UP says in its letter, this appears to be “unattainable,” so it is no longer interested in wasting time on it.

Lone Star’s plan was to call this a commuter train–which is a stretch as few commuters travel 80 miles to work–and get New Starts funds for the project. With the possible exception of the Downeaster, I don’t know of any intercity passenger train that has gotten federal transit funds under the claim that it was a commuter train. So Union Pacific is probably correct in its assessment.

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CBO Endorses MBUF

The Congressional Budget Office has issued a report encouraging Congress to promote the use of mileage-based user fees to pay for roads. The current highway funding process is very inefficient, says the report. For example, urban roads are most heavily used and need the most maintenance, but most maintenance dollars are spent on rural roads.

Click image to download this 1.6-MB report.

The report offers three solutions to this problem: mileage-based user fees; allocating spending on the basis of benefits and costs; and linking spending to “appropriately chosen” performance measures. The report does not say so, but the problem with the second and third solutions is that assessments of benefits, costs, and performance measures by government agencies inevitably become political. Attempts to use either of these solutions at the state level have had, at best, mixed results and in fact mostly negative ones.

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The FTA Doesn’t Care How Many People Ride Your Small Starts Transit Project

When the Antiplanner published data about the Federal Transit Administration’s 2017 New Starts recommendations a few days ago, I assumed that projects that had no projections of future transit riders were still in the early planning stages. That may have been true for some, but at least for some there are no projections because the FTA doesn’t care how many people will ride the new transit lines that it funds.

When Congress created the New Starts program in 1991, it specified that funded projects must be cost-effective at improving transit and mobility. Initially, the FTA asked transit agencies to estimate the cost per new transit rider attracted by the projects. Later, it asked that they estimate the cost of saving travelers one hour of time through faster transit and congestion relief.

The Obama administration, however, discarded all of those measures and instead wrote a cost-effectiveness rule that essentially said, if you can measure the cost, your project is cost-effective. The FTA New Starts grant application form still requires agencies to calculate the cost per hour of time saved.

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Transit Facts and Biases

The American Public Transportation Association (APTA) has recently posted scanned versions of its annual Transit Fact Book dating back to 1942. While most of the data from these earlier versions has been transcribed to an Excel spreadsheet in the latest edition, it is still interesting to see how the organization’s priorities have changed.

The last honest fact book.

Once known as the American Transit Association, the organization was then headquartered in New York City, which made sense as New York is the nation’s largest transit market. Today, of course, it has adopted a confusingly broad name that seems to embrace modes of travel other than urban transit and has relocated to Washington DC, which makes sense as Washington is the nation’s largest source of public subsidies.

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Myths of Obesity and Millennials

Nine years ago, the Antiplanner called claims that suburbs caused obesity “junk science.” Research since then has validated that view.

For example, Health and Place journal is focused on “all aspects of health and health care in which place or location matters,” so might be presumed to have a slight bias for an assumption that place influences obesity. Yet it published a 2012 literature review of dozens of papers on the subject that concluded that most failed to account for self-selection bias, that is, that people who might be overweight prefer to live in the suburbs. Thus, any relationship they may have found between weight and suburbia “cannot provide strong support for causality.”

A paper published by MIT’s Center for Advanced Urbanism reviewed several other metastudies that reported “the inconclusive nature of the relation between urban form and public health.” The MIT paper was written specifically in rebuttal to a paper by people associated with the Congress for the New Urbanism, and chided the authors of that paper for failing to disclose their association with that group, “an organization known for certain urban biases linked to their design agendas.”

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Ending the Longest Job Interview in History

Last week, the Washington State Senate refused to confirm Lynn Peterson as state Secretary of Transportation, effectively firing her three years after she was nominated to the job by Governor Jay Inslee (and during which she served in the job). In effect, the Senate turned her down after a three-year interview period.

Peterson was a curious choice for the job as she was an Oregonian who had been a Clackamas County Commissioner. Her background also included working as a transportation planner for Portland’s Metro, transit planner for TriMet, and an advocate for 1000 Friends of Oregon. Given that resume, she clearly supports the “build-it-and-they-will-come” ideals of light rail and conversely, don’t-build-it-and-they-won’t-come opposition to highways. Just as Washington imported its 1990 land-use law from Oregon’s 1973 law, it made sense to import an anti-highway, pro-high-cost transit planner from Oregon to run Washington’s transportation department.

Of course, it only made sense if you believe those ideas, but from any realistic view they are nonsense. Portland and Seattle both suffer from housing affordability crises born out of the inane “density-reduces-driving” myth. Their ever-more-expensive light-rail and streetcar lines combined with subsidies to transit-oriented developments are bankrupting the cities. Failing to build new roads hasn’t led people to drive less; instead, traffic congestion (measured by hours of delay per commuter) has more than tripled in Portland and more than doubled in Seattle since 1982.

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