Monthly Archives: February 2018

Let’s Start Scrapping Streetcars

Good news: Washington DC is thinking of scrapping its streetcars, which have been in service for just two years and whose ridership is still so poor — about 3,000 weekday riders — that the city is afraid to start charging fares.

Bad news: City officials are only thinking of scrapping the streetcars and not the tracks; instead, they wants to replace the streetcars with brand-new ones because it’s so hard to get spare parts for the ones they have. Each new 30-seat streetcar would cost roughly ten times as much as a 40-seat bus, but cost is no object when you are playing with other people’s money.

The modern streetcar craze, which was only partly fueled by federal funding (Portland, Tacoma, and Washington purchased their first streetcars without federal support), provides a lesson for the writers of Trump’s infrastructure plan. They hope that giving local, not federal, politicians the authority of where to spend money would result in better decisions. In fact, local politicians are just as willing to waste money on gleaming new urban monuments as federal ones. Continue reading


Ride-Hailing a Positive, Not a Negative

A new study from Boston has been heralded as “proof” that ride-hailing systems such as Uber and Lyft are making congestion worse. Indeed, the survey of 944 people using these services found that “over 15 percent of ride-hailing trips are adding cars to the region’s roadways during the morning or afternoon rush hours.” However, the study doesn’t estimate exactly how many cars are added, and it might be fairly small compared to the total that are already there.

In fact, the study’s other conclusions are far more interesting, some of them unintentionally. About 42 percent of the 944 people surveyed said that, if ride-hailing were not available, they would have taken transit. Since a previous survey in California found that only a third of ride-hailers would have taken transit, this latest survey suggests that ride hailing is having an even bigger impact on transit that previously thought.

The study also found that only 12 percent out of that 42 percent of people who otherwise would have taken transit were traveling during rush hours. Thus, more than two-thirds of ride-hailing takes place during non-rush hours and isn’t contributing to congestion. Continue reading


What $1.2 Million Buys

If any country in the world should be less concerned about urban sprawl than the United States, it is Australia. Its population density of about 8.3 people per square mile is less than even Canada’s. Yet, thanks to the efforts of some urban planners obsessed with getting people out of their automobiles, most of Australia’s major cities have urban-growth limits the severely constrain development.

This 1,840-square-foot, four bedroom home in Sydney, which the real estate listing describes as “complete overhaul needed,” recently sold for more than AU$1.5 million, or US$1.2 million.

Last week, an article in The Guardian showed the result: homes in Sydney that you wouldn’t want to let your dog enter, much less your family, for sale for more than a million dollars. To be fair, a million Australian dollars is only $784,000 U.S., but still that’s more than most can afford. Judging from the photos, you could find houses in Texas for under $100,000 that are better than $1.2 million homes in Sydney.

Here is the interior of the above US$1.2-million home.

“We didn’t touch anything,” said one of the photographers who was taking pictures for the real estate company. “It was just too hazardous.” “All attendees are required to sign a waiver prior to entry,” a real estate ad announced. “No entry to anyone aged under 16. No open toe shoes to be worn.” Continue reading


Gentrification and Housing Affordability

An opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times this week repeats the argument that gentrification is reducing transit ridership. The Antiplanner was not persuaded by this when the claim was presented in the Eastsider last fall, but it and Senate Bill 827 raise another issue: what does gentrification do to housing affordability?

A standard theory of housing is that people who can afford to do so buy new homes and older homes trickle down to lower-income people. But this assumes that the older homes aren’t torn down to make way for the new. In regions with urban-growth boundaries, most new homes can be built only by sacrificing old ones — gentrification. This process is further encouraged by cities like Portland and Los Angeles that subsidize developers to build transit-oriented developments along rail transit lines.

People who already own homes aren’t hurt by this; in fact, their home values rise. But gentrification can price renters out of their housing and leave them with no comparably priced housing to go to. Continue reading


The Difference Between Class & Income

Business Insider is stunned by the notion that Silicon Valley residents who earn $400,000 a year consider themselves middle class. Yet they are; the only reason Business Insider doesn’t think so is that neither it nor Palo Alto Online — the source of Business Insider‘s data — understands the difference between class and income.

According to the Pew Research Center, “middle class” includes families of four that earn $48,000 and $144,000. But that’s not middle class; that’s middle income. While classes and incomes can be correlated, they are not the same. Social classes include upper, middle, and lower, but most of lower being working class.

The working class includes people who earn incomes through manual labor and who generally do not have college degrees. But some of them may earn a lot of money, such as the Long Island Railroad conductor who earned $239,000 in 2009. Continue reading


Just the Infrastructure We Don’t Need

Here’s the great thing about driverless cars: They will need no new infrastructure because the people designing them are making them work with existing infrastructure. All they ask is for cities and states to fill the potholes and do other basic maintenance.

Here’s another great thing about driverless cars: Most congestion results from slow human reflexes, and simulations show that congestion will significantly decline if as few as 5 percent of vehicles on the road are driverless. So, even if you don’t have a driverless car, you will benefit from others being driverless.

So what the heck is Bexar County (San Antonio) Commissioner Kevin Wolff thinking when he proposes that the county use federal infrastructure dollars to build new interstate highway lanes open only to driverless cars? On one hand, they don’t need special lanes. On the other hand, separating them from other traffic eliminates the congestion relief benefits they can provide. Continue reading


A Poster Child for Government Waste

The Maryland Transit Administration suddenly shut down the Baltimore Metro last week, forcing commuters and other riders to find alternatives with less than 24 hours notice. The state said an inspection had found unexpectedly excessive wear on the rails that could have caused a derailment, and it plans to keep the line closed for a month while it fixes the problem — and then to close it again this summer for further work.

Productivity of United States Metro Systems
Thousands of Trips Per Year

New York Subway3,2115,6991.64
NY-NJ Path2,0496,7941.60
Los Angeles1,3492,8757.82
San Juan3225139.17
Staten Island2713912.34
“Subsidies” equal operations & maintenance divided by fares. Source: 2016 National Transit Database.

The coincidence that the shut-down took place the same day the White House announced its infrastructure plan led the Washington Post to call the metro the latest poster child for the need for more infrastructure spending. In fact, it is a poster child for less infrastructure spending, as it should never have been built in the first place. Continue reading


RIP Tom Rapp

The Antiplanner was surfing the web on Saturday and happened to learn that Tom Rapp died last week of cancer. That may not mean anything to you and he didn’t have anything to do with the Antiplanner’s usual issues, but his music had a big influence on me.

“If you cannot be universal,” Rapp said about this thought-provoking song, “you should at least be ambiguous,” a statement that applies to a lot of his work.

Growing up in Portland, I often listened to a radio station called KVAN, which from 1967 to 1979 focused on “progressive rock.” Its owner was Catholic and the station also played a mass every evening, but she apparently didn’t care what its disk jockeys did the rest of the day. So they often played full albums of then-unknown artists such as Pink Floyd (I first heard A Saucerful of Secrets on KVAN), Jethro Tull, Bruce Springsteen, and many others. In 1969, I was fortunate to be listening when they played the full album of These Things Too by Pearls Before Swine. Most of the songs on the album were written by the group’s lead singer, Tom Rapp. Continue reading


Will Density Make Housing Affordable?

California left-wingers who want to densify cities to make them affordable are getting some push-back from other left-wingers who think density will push low-income people out of neighborhoods. A proposed bill to eliminate zoning in transit-rich areas in order to allow developers to build high-density housing would, say opponents, displace low-income families from neighborhoods with high rental rates in favor of high-income whites who can afford to pay for high-rise housing.

The opponents aren’t wrong. On one hand, increasing housing supply would seem to make housing more affordable. But affordable for whom? With housing prices in some California cities averaging more than $1,000 per square foot, building high-density housing that costs $400 to $500 a square foot would allow people who can afford that to find a place to live. But hardly anyone can afford that.

The problem is that high-density housing–that is, mid-rise and high-rise housing–costs 50 to 68 percent more, per square foot, to build than low-density housing. If California really wants to build housing that is affordable to low-income people, it needs to build more low-density housing. To build that, it needs to open up land that has been off-limits to development because it is outside of urban-growth boundaries. Continue reading


Capital Metro to Try, Try Again

Having lost two light-rail ballot measures at the polls, and having built a semi-commuter-rail line that flopped, you’d think Austin’s Capital Metro would have learned its lesson. But no, twice as much to start, as originally projected, now costs nearly ten times as much per vehicle mile as Austin commuter buses, yet still only carries around 1,400 round trips a day. As the Antiplanner never tires of saying, it would have cost less to give every daily round-trip rider a new Toyota Prius every year than to run this.

On top of this, Capital Metro has lost 19 percent of its transit riders since 2012. Capital Metro hasn’t significantly cut either bus or rail service, so most of the lost riders were probably taken by ride sharing. Continue reading