Monthly Archives: December 2017

2017: Year 1 of Driverless Cars

This year may be remembered as the year that driverless cars became real. This is because Waymo has officially started operating driverless cars, without back-up drivers, in a public ride-sharing service in several suburbs of Phoenix, Arizona.

Driverless cars are legal in most states so long as a licensed driver is at the wheel ready to take over if there is a problem the computer can’t handle. Without the back-up driver, they technically aren’t legal anywhere. But the governor of Arizona, Doug Ducey, has promoted a “rules-free environment” for driverless car experimentation.

This past year was also a record year for Amtrak. This puts the lie to transit-agency claims that low fuel prices are the main culprit behind recent ridership declines. An interviewer asked five transit executives what their most important challenges were and not one of them mentioned competition from ride-sharing companies. Like transit, Amtrak must compete with modes that benefit from low fuel prices, but so far it doesn’t have to deal with ride sharing. The fact that it is doing fine shows that ride sharing, not low fuel prices, are the most important source of transit woes. Continue reading


2017: The Year on Fire

Amazingly, a large wildfire is still burning in California as the year nears its end. Supposedly the largest California wildfire in recorded history, the Thomas fire has burned nearly 300,000 acres and more than 1,000 homes and other structures.

A firefighter looks at the Thomas Fire on Christmas day.

While the Thomas fire is not quite 100 percent contained, any additional acres it burns will not much change the year’s total of 9.6 million acres burned, which is almost 50 percent more than the previous ten-year average of 6.5 million acres. The extent of burning in California (more than 1.2 million acres) and the Pacific Northwest (more than 1.0 million acres) fueled controversies over public land management in general. Continue reading


2017: The Year in Transit

The year 2017 has been a nightmare for transit agencies across the nation. Transit carried fewer riders in the first ten months of 2017 than in the same months in 2016 in 46 of the nation’s 50 largest urban areas.

According to the latest data posted by the Federal Transit administration, the transit industry carried 1.4 percent more transit riders in October, 2017 than in the same month the year before. However, most of this growth was due to a 6.6 percent recovery of transit ridership in the New York urban area; subtract New York and national ridership fell by 2.3 percent.

After New York, the five largest urban areas–Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami, Philadelphia, and Dallas-Ft. Worth–all saw continued declines in ridership. Houston ridership grew by 8.1 percent, possibly indicating that Houston’s 2015 bus reforms are still paying off but perhaps also because so many automobiles were destroyed by Hurricane Harvey. Seattle ridership grew by 5.3 percent, Detroit’s by 6.4 percent, and small gains were also posted in the Washington, Boston, San Francisco, Portland, and a few other urban areas. But October ridership declined in 36 of the top 50 urban areas. Continue reading


Why Railroads Are Dragging Their
Wheels on Positive Train Control

In 2008, Congress required that railroads install positive train control, which would automatically cause trains to slow or stop to prevent derailments or collisions, on all lines that carry passengers or hazardous materials by December 2015. That deadline is two years passed, yet–as last week’s accident revealed–still has not been met by most railroads.

The Washington train wreck was a special case. The rail line, improvements, passenger train, and upgrades were owned or done by four different government agencies. It seems particularly galling that neither Sound Transit, which owns the tracks and is spending billions on rail construction, nor the Washington State Department of Transportation, which received close to a billion dollars from the federal government to upgrade this particular line, bothered to install a working version of positive train control before inaugurating service on this route.

In general, however, the railroads have two very good reasons for not enthusiastically installing positive train control as Congress has demanded. First, the cost is high: the Federal Railroad Administration estimates it will cost as much as $24 billion, which is probably more than the annual capital budgets of all the private railroads in the country. Continue reading


A Conservative Ecofascist

The left-leaning Guardian introduces us to someone who claims to be a conservative environmentalist, Sir Roger Scruton, author of How to Think Seriously about the Planet: The Case for Environmental Conservatism. Scruton worries that the global economy is not sustainable because so many things are heavily subsidized. At the same time, he recognizes that environmentalism today has “became a wholly owned subsidiary of the statist left,” becoming an “ism” as bad as socialism and Marxism.

“They come with massive, worldwide plans for a new form of government that will control our souls and will replace the old, inadequate ways of compromise,” Scruton argues. “It’s essentially the same mindset as imposed communism on the Russians and the Eastern Europeans and the Chinese. To me, that involves a complete misunderstanding of what our relation to the natural world really is and should be, because it’s a desire to control rather than to adapt.”

So far so good. However, he also rejects libertarianism, saying conservatives should not “advocate economic freedom at all costs, but recognize the costs of economic freedom.” In particular, he fears suburban sprawl, corporate farming, and global trade. Continue reading


Portland’s Congestion Plans Are Working

Portland’s transportation policies are working. At least, they’re working if you think their goal is to increase congestion in order to encourage people to find alternatives to driving. At least, the increased-congestion part is working, but not many are finding alternatives to driving.

According to Waze, Portland has the fifth-most-miserable traffic in the United States. Waze is an app that asks its users to rate their driving experiences. Rather than just measure hours of delay, Waze’s driver satisfaction index is based on a variety of indicators including traffic, road quality, safety, driver services, and socio-economic factors such as the impact of gas prices on the cost of living.

Waze calculates the index for any area that has more than 20,000 Waze users, which means 246 metropolitan areas in 40 countries. Nationally, the U.S. is ranked number three after the Netherlands and France. In terms of congestion alone, the United States ranks number one (that is, has the least congestion). The Netherlands and France edge out the U.S. in overall scores because of their higher road quality and safety ratings. Continue reading


Questions to Ask about Amtrak 501

The wreck of the 501–the Amtrak train that crashed near Seattle on Monday–is raising lots of questions about Amtrak operations, but they aren’t always the right ones. Here are some questions that should be asked and some of the Antiplanner’s preliminary answers. Answers from Amtrak (the operator), FRA (the funder), Sound Transit (the track owner), or WSDOT (the train owner) may differ.

1. Congress required passenger railroads to install positive train control (PTC) by the end of 2015. Why did the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) give money to the Washington Department of Transportation (WSDOT) for a new passenger rail line that would not open until after 2015 when the project didn’t guarantee funding for positive train control?

Answer: The Obama administration wanted to distribute high-speed rail funds to as many states as possible in order to build political backing for the program, so it couldn’t be bothered with positive train control. The tracks the train was on are owned by Sound Transit, which says it is installing PTC, but it won’t be finished until spring. Public releases of WSDOT’s application for funds for this train didn’t mention PTC. Continue reading


A Horrible Way to Be Proven Right

Yesterday was not a proud day for the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT). The agency spent close to $800 million of federal funds on a so-called high-speed rail project between Seattle and Portland–only “so-called” because top speeds would be just 79 mph, which is conventional rail. Much of the money was spent upgrading existing tracks to give passenger trains a shorter (but less scenic) route through and around Tacoma.

As you probably know, the very first train to use this route derailed on an overpass over Interstate 5, blocking half the freeway and killing at least three, and probably more, passengers. It so happens that Mayor Don Anderson of Lakewood, Washington–about 10 miles north of the crash–warned WSDOT on December 5 that it was not taking safety seriously enough. “This project was never needed and endangers our citizens,” he declared.

To be fair, Mayor Anderson was worried that grade crossings in Lakewood were inadequately protected for 79-mph trains. But his comments more generally suggest that WSDOT was putting the goal of saving Seattle-Portland passengers ten minutes of time–increasing average speeds by just 2.7 mph–ahead of safety. Continue reading


Mythbusting or Mythmaking?

The American Public Transportation Association (APTA) is circulating what claims to be a mythbusting report about recent declines in transit ridership. As it is based mostly on interviews with 35 transit CEOs, however, it does more mythmaking than mythbusting. Other than the interviews, its only real data analysis looks back at transit ridership since 1992.

Based on these ridership data, the report argues that the recent declines in ridership are merely some sort of natural cycle of declines and increases. Similar declines were seen after 1992, 2002, and 2007, all of which were followed by recoveries.

The interviews found that transit CEOs weren’t too worried about the declines. Of course, why should they be when most of their money comes from people other than transit riders? To the extent that they were worried, the CEOs blamed the declines mainly on low gas prices, while only three of the 35 CEOs considered ride sharing to be “a root cause of ridership decline.” In fact, the CEOs were more concerned about how the increased congestion caused by ride-sharing vehicles was slowing down transit buses and thereby indirectly discouraging ridership. Continue reading