Monthly Archives: October 2017

The Rape of the Union Station Food Court

Washington DC’s Union Station used to have restaurant services that made “Meet me for lunch [or dinner] at Union Station” a common local saying. On the main floor were several high-toned restaurants. Downstairs, in a former baggage facility, was a food court that featured many locally grown fast-food services, including Indian, Japanese, Italian, and many other ethnic foods, plus a very nice local bakery.

Today, almost all of them are gone, replaced by chains such as Taco Bell and Chipotle’s. Union Station’s finest restaurant has been turned into a Shake Shack. A large part of the downstairs food court has been turned into a Walgreens.

Apparently, back in 2007 the station’s retail leases were taken over by a company called Ashkenazy Acquisitions. Ashhenazy must have decided that chain restaurants paid more than locals. The company ordered the local restaurants, which were regularly paying $16,000 to $20,000 a month to lease their spaces, to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars remodeling. Those that didn’t, which included most of them, were evicted. Continue reading


New Tool Maps Housing and Transportation

For those who like to look at maps rather than databases, the Lincoln Institute has released a handy new tool mapping the United States using all sorts of criteria. Among other things, the map can show every structurally deficient and functionally obsolete bridge, housing affordability, homeownership rates, conservation easements, and many other land-use and transportation factors.

The above map, for example, shows housing affordability, with darker colors representing more affordable. Though this is at the state level, you can zoom in and see it as close as the census tract level.

Continue reading


Living Without Cars

How many times a year does some twenty-something come up with what they think is the brilliant and innovative idea that, since they can live without a car, no one else should be allowed to have one either? The answer probably roughly corresponds to the number of twenty-somethings who think about transportation. I know I thought of that idea, at least with respect to downtown Portland, when I was a twenty-something.

The latest to come up with this idea is Treehugger writer Lloyd Alter, who teaches “sustainable design.” From his photo, he looks to be older the twenty-something, which means he should know better, but apparently doesn’t.

Alter’s argument is simple. A single-occupancy vehicle weighs something like 20 times as much as the occupant, and it is a waste of energy to move that much mass to move just one person. So therefore cars are a waste and should be banned. Continue reading


Dallas Light Rail a “Knife in Our Back”

A new report on transportation equity demonstrates that Dallas Area Rapid Transit’s zeal to build the largest light-rail system in America has harmed the city’s low-income population. While the report (really a PowerPoint show) itself is fairly mild in tone, the interpretation by Dallas Observer columnist Jim Schutze is anything but moderate.

DART light-rail lines, “built at costs in the billions, reach up into Carrollton, Plano and Rowlett — suburban areas that need light rail like they a ski lift,” says Schutze. Meanwhile, “DART does an appalling job of providing mass transit to inner-city, low-wage workers who need it.”

Schutze makes this out to be a debate between cities vs. suburbs, compact development vs. sprawl. But really, it is a question of what is the appropriate mission for transit agencies. Outside of those few urban areas with large downtowns–New York, Chicago, and a few others–most people don’t ride or need transit, so transit agencies have to come up with some rationale for continued subsidies. At one time, that rationale was that poor people needed mobility too. But now, most poor people have cars, so today the rationale is the need to get middle-class people out of their evil automobiles. Continue reading


The Damage Done by Federal Funding

Despite the fact that the Trump administration has said that will not sign more full-funding grant agreements for streetcar and light-rail projects, and there are no grant agreements for a Ft. Lauderdale streetcar, someone in the Department of Transportation gave Ft. Lauderdale nearly $61 million for the city’s inane streetcar project. When I asked DC transportation experts about it, the only answer I could get is that the department was “forced” to do so.

So now it is absolutely clear that transit capital grants are given out solely for political purposes, not because they make any economic or transportation sense. While the case could be once made that these projects went through some kind of screening process, today (thanks largely to rule changes made during the Obama administration) the only screening is a fill-in-the-blank checklist.

The good news is that Ft. Lauderdale opened the bids for the streetcar construction that was originally projected to cost $142 million, and it now appears the costs will be closer to $270 million. The bad news is that the city will now be desperate not to give up the $61 million from the feds and will find some way to build it anyway. Continue reading


Trip Report: The Empire Builder

Last April, the Antiplanner took Amtrak from Portland to Washington DC via the Coast Starlight to Sacramento, the California Zephyr to Chicago, and the Capital Limited to DC. I repeated the trip this past weekend, only taking the Empire Builder from Portland to Chicago.

I came away from last April’s trip thinking that Amtrak’s personnel were excellent, the equipment was well cared for but not spectacular, and the food was a couple of notches below Denny’s. The Empire Builder trip produced inconsistent results: the personnel were good but there were problems and the equipment was a need of a rehab (and was poorly designed in the first place). The food, however, was better and perhaps was only a very small notch below Denny’s.

Before Amtrak, railcar suppliers had made a science of developing seats that were comfortable to long-distance travelers. In 1945, a company called Heywood-Wakefield, working with the Association of American Railroads, gave Harvard University anthropologist E.A. Hooton funding to develop a comfortable seat. Hooton measured 3,867 people and proposed ideal measurements for seats that would support a wide range of people. Continue reading


The Coming Transit Apocalypse

Tomorrow, the Cato Institute will issue a new paper, The Coming Transit Apocalypse, predicting the end of public transit as we know it by 2030. Antiplanner readers can get a preview of this paper today by clicking on the image below.

Click image to download this paper.

Building on previous Antiplanner blog posts, the paper says the four horsemen of the transit apocalypse include:

  1. Low fuel prices;
  2. Ride-sharing services;
  3. Maintenance backlogs; and
  4. Unfunded pension and health-care liabilities.

Continue reading


Transit Today: Marketing Over Mobility

Denver’s Regional Transit District (RTD) won an award for its airport rail line. But the award was not for the line itself, which continues to suffer from technical failures more than a year after it opened, but for the agency’s marketing campaign for the train.

This is a sad commentary on the state of the nation’s transit industry: marketing is more important than mobility. Agencies have successfully marketed themselves as deserving of increased tax dollars (more than $50 billion in 2016), yet they are increasingly failing their supposed mission of improving urban mobility. RTD, for example, is under pressure to build and operate rail lines with low ridership (one carries just 1,600 a day), forcing it to cut bus routes that carry many more riders.

To discuss the future of transit in detail, next Wednesday the Antiplanner will be at the Cato Institute in Washington DC. Joining me on the platform will be Art Guzzetti, vice-president of policy with the American Public Transportation Association. While I will argue that transit’s decline is irreversible, Art–an intelligent man who previously worked for New Jersey Transit–will offer an alternative view. If you are in DC, please register and I hope to see you there. If you are not in DC, you can watch the event on livestream starting at 11 am ET.


2nd Quarter Home Price Indices

Someone just paid $1.1 million for a tear-down/fixer-upper in Mountain View, California. That’s not really news, as prices in Silicon Valley have been increasingly outrageous. What’s news is that they bought the house with the provisos that the existing owner will get to live there for seven years; the buyer didn’t get to see the interior of the home; and the buyer is required to make improvements before closing on the home. As the San Francisco Chronicle says, the new owner probably figures it will take seven years to get the permits to rebuild the house anyway.

The problem for the buyer is that the same forces that have made housing prices rise in Silicon Valley–namely the urban-growth boundaries adopted by San Mateo and Santa Clara counties–have also made prices more volatile. In other words, what goes up will come down. As shown in the chart above, San Jose prices today are already higher than they were at the peak of the 2006 housing bubble, indicating that another bubble is likely to deflate fairly soon. Continue reading


Taxing and Regulating the Competition

Here’s a difference between government-run businesses and private businesses: when private businesses face competition, they are forced to innovate to survive. When government-run businesses face competition, they can regulate or tax their competitors out of business.

Blackberry was once the dominant smart phone. Then came the iPhone, which reduced Blackberry subscribers from 85 million to 23 million in just 18 months. In 2016, Blackberry stopped designing phones. But that doesn’t mean it is out of business; instead, it is doing other things like designing driverless-car software.

Now consider the Chicago Transit Authority, which has lost riders in every year since 2012, partly if not mostly because of the growth of Uber and Lyft. Ridesharing has also reduced car rentals (which are taxed by the city) and downtown parking (which is taxes by the city). Although Uber and Lyft also pay taxes to the city, the city estimates it lost a net of $40 million in revenues (including transit fares and vehicle taxes) in 2016. So Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel wants to increase taxes on Uber and Lyft to make up the difference. Continue reading