Monthly Archives: March 2017

History vs. Density in Portland

Portland’s urban-growth boundary has made housing less affordable, which is “pushing minorities out of their traditional neighborhoods to the edges of the region.” It is also leading some people to leapfrog to the next city: the two fastest-growing cities in Oregon are small cities about 10 miles away from Portland’s growth boundary.

Portland’s solution has been to increase density and the city has adopted numerous plans to squeeze more people into the city. But this is only going to make housing even more expensive.

One reason for that is that some neighborhoods have the political muscle to opt out of the city’s plans to impose infill development everywhere. Residents of the upper-middle-class Eastmoreland neighborhood, for example, have asked the National Park Service to list the neighborhood on a National Register of Historic Places. This will limit the amount of density that can be added to the area.

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Should Transit Fares Cover Operating Costs?

Maryland has long had a state law requiring transit systems to collect enough fares to cover at least 35 percent of their operating costs. While it is admirable to set a target, this particular target is disheartening for two reasons.

First, 35 percent is a pretty low goal. The 2015 National Transit Database lists 48 transit operations that cover between 100 and 200 percent of their costs, including New York ferries, the Hampton Jitney, several other bus lines, and a bunch of van pooling systems. No rail lines cover 100 percent of their operating costs, but BART covers 80 percent, Caltrains covers 72 percent, New York and DC subways cover 64 percent, and New York commuter trains cover 60 percent. On average, commuter bus and commuter rail systems earn half their operating costs. So 35 percent lacks ambition.

Even worse, most Maryland transit operations don’t come close to meeting the target. Maryland commuter trains cover 45 percent of their costs. But Baltimore’s light rail only covers 17 percent, and its heavy rail covers a pathetic 13 percent. Standard bus service also covers just 13 percent of its costs, though commuter buses come closer to the target, reaching 28 percent.

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Fixing the Endangered Species Act

Vermont law professor Pat Parenteau frets that “the Endangered Species Act is in jeopardy.” Though the law is “wildly popular,” says Parenteau, “hostile forces” in Washington want to kill it.

He admits that few species have successfully recovered enough to be delisted, but says that the threats to those species remain real. He also claims that “at least 227 species,” including the “whooping crane, bald eagle, American crocodile, peregrine falcon, gray wolf, and humpback whale” would have gone extinct without the act.

The Antiplanner doesn’t think the ESA did anything to recover those species. The bald eagle and peregrine falcon recovered because of the ban on DDT which happened before the law was passed. The grey wolf was never in danger, and it was transplanted back into Yellowstone and the West by popular demand, not because of the ESA. The American crocodile was saved by the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission, not the federal government. Pressure from anti-whaling groups protected the humpback whale, which was being hunted by people from other countries who weren’t under the jurisdiction of the Endangered Species Act.

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Cincinnati Streetcars’ “Catastrophic Failures”

The Cincinnati streetcar–now known as the Cincinnati Bell Connector since Cincinnati Bell paid $3.4 million for naming rights–is barely six months old, and already is having problems. Four streetcars broke down in one day a few months ago.

Now the company that is contracted to operate the streetcar has warned that poor quality control by the railcar maker has resulted in “catastrophic failures” of three different major systems that cause regular breakdowns of the vehicles. Cincinnati Bell is upset enough to demand possibly illegal secret meetings with the city council over the streetcar’s problems.

Cincinnati once counted itself lucky that it didn’t order streetcars from United Streetcar, the short-lived company that made streetcars for Portland and Tucson, many of which suffered severe manufacturing defects. But it turns out the vehicles it ordered from a Spanish company named Construcciones y Auxiliar de Ferrocarriles (CAF), which were delivered 15 months late, weren’t much better.

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Property Bubbles Down Under?

In an eerie echo of statements made before the collapse of American housing bubbles in 2006, leading Australian bankers claim that Australia is not suffering a housing bubble. Yet prices are unsustainably high and a collapse is inevitable, though when it will happen may be unpredictable.

Median home prices in Sydney are AU$795,000 (US$606,000). More Sydney suburbs have median prices over AU$2 million than under AU$600,000.

America’s 2008 financial crisis didn’t lead Australian housing prices to fall. In fact, prices in Sydney have grown 106 percent and in Melbourne 88 percent since then. Ominously, however, prices in Melbourne, which are nearly as great as in Sydney, are falling for the first time in four years.

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Backstabbing in the Self-Driving Car Industry

Bloomberg has a long article about Google’s lawsuit against Uber over self-driving car technology. In a nutshell, one of Google’s top engineers, Anthony Levandowski, left Google to start a new company called Otto that was then purchased by Uber for $700 million, and Google is accusing Levandowski of taking its company secrets with him and giving them to Uber.

The real story, though, is not over patent disputes but a debate in the industry over how to introduce the new technology to the market. This debate has to do with the distinction engineers are making between self-driving cars and driverless cars. Advocates of self-driving cars, meaning cars that can increasingly drive themselves but sometimes need humans to take over, argue that this stage is needed to collect as much information as possible to perfect the technology.

On the other hand are advocates of driverless cars, meaning cars that never need a human operator, who argue that not only is the self-driving phase not needed, but that it could be dangerous because a self-driving car may not be able to alert on-board humans that they need to take over in time for them to do so.

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Transit Ridership Down 2.3% in 2016

With little fanfare, the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) released its fourth quarter 2016 ridership report last week. When ridership goes up, the lobby group usually issues a big press release ballyhooing the importance of transit (and transit subsidies). But 2016 ridership fell, so there was no press release.

The report showed that light-rail ridership grew by 3.4 percent, probably because of the opening of new light-rail lines such as Seattle, where the opening of the University line increased ridership by 60 percent. In the past, light-rail ridership has grown with the addition of new lines, but the number of passengers per mile of light rail has fallen, indicating diminishing returns to new rail construction.

Commuter-rail ridership grew by 1.6 percent, mostly due to growth in New York City. Trolley bus ridership grew by 1.8 percent, almost all of which was in San Francisco. Demand-response (paratransit) grew by 0.7 percent.

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Did Nader Really Call Apple a Monopoly?

“Consumer advocate Ralph Nader, concerned about fake news prevalent on social media sites, believes Congress should weigh in with antitrust legislation targeting Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Apple,” reports the Washington Examiner. Say what? Just what do Microsoft and Apple have to do with so-called fake news? How are any of these companies monopolies? Is Ralph Nader getting senile or was he misquoted?

YouTube has a video of part of his comments that he gave at an event commemorating the passage of the Freedom of Information Act. It doesn’t show the whole event, but it appears that one of the other speakers or someone in the audience said something positive about the role of social media in mobilizing grassroots activism.

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Portland Housing Stupidity Grows

Here’s an incredibly stupid idea to deal with Portland’s housing affordability problems: Multnomah County proposes to build tiny houses in people’s backyard. The people will get to keep the houses on the condition that they allow homeless people to live in them for five years.

That’s supposed to be an incentive. For five years, you have to share your yard with a homeless person who may be suffering from a variety of problems, after which you get to keep whatever is left of the tiny home. But as one Portland neighborhood activist points out, what homeless people need is healthcare and social work, not to be warehoused in someone else’s backyard.

I suspect homeowners are going to be wary of this offer because they will have little control who lives in their yard. Not only would the homeowners be required to maintain the tiny houses while the homeless person or people lived in them, Portland is making it increasing difficult for landlords to evict unwanted tenants.

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Making Boulder Affordable

Boulder, Colorado is the least affordable city in America that is not in California, Hawaii, or the New York City urban area. Boulder’s unaffordability is directly due to a combination of land-use policies, including a greenbelt that is nine times larger than the city itself and limits on the number of building permits that the city can issue each year.

Click image to download this report. Click the link below to go to an executive summary of the report.

A new report published by Colorado’s Independence Institute argues that these land-use policies violate the Fair Housing Act and must be repealed. Thanks to these policies, the black population of Boulder is declining despite the fact that the city’s overall population is growing. Boulder also has one of the lowest homeownership rates of any city in the country, and it is especially low for blacks, who, more than whites, are increasingly forced to live in high-density, multifamily housing instead of single-family homes.

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