Monthly Archives: March 2018

Not My Utopia

If Waymo and other manufacturers can get the bugs out, driverless cars promise many benefits including reduced congestion and pollution and increased speeds and safety. But anti-car people are upset because the utopia promised by self-driving cars is not the utopia they want, which is a city without, or at least fewer, cars.

A graphical op-ed published in the New York Times argues that cities should design streets for “people not cars,” as if cars don’t have people in them (or the people in them somehow don’t count). Only mass transit counts.

The op-ed distorts numerous facts and issues. For example, it starts out saying that streets in the early 1900s had pedestrians, bicycles, and wagons, and the result was “chaos. . . but it work[ed] because no single mode of transportation is privileged.” Whoever wrote this didn’t actually see those streets in the early 1900s, when New Yorkers complained at least as much about congestion as they do today, pedestrians stuck to the sidewalks (as they do today) because getting in the way of streetcars (which the op-ed doesn’t even mention) was dangerous and no one wanted to step in the pollution left by all the horses. Continue reading

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Will Spending More Money Save Transit?

Speaking of simplistic solutions to complex problems, Streetsblog has an article on how to save transit. Based on ridership numbers from thirty-five urban ares, the pro-transit site says the two keys to transit success are, first, to spend lots of money, and second, to spend it in the right places.

I wonder why no one ever thought of that before.

The article points out that only three urban areas saw an increase in transit ridership from 2016 to 2017: Seattle, Phoenix, and Houston (where ridership grew just 0.1 percent). The numbers in the article are somewhat different from the numbers the Antiplanner calculated from the National Transit Database, but I agree that the only significant growth was in Seattle and Phoenix. (My numbers show a 0.1 percent decline in Houston.) Continue reading

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Neat, Plausible, and Wrong

The Antiplanner is frequently reminded of H.L. Mencken’s statement that “there is always a well-known solution to every human problem: neat, plausible, and wrong.” Millennials, for example, blame baby boomers for ruining the world. Most of the mistakes that baby boomers made were in adopting simple and plausible but wrong solutions to complex problems. Now the millennials are promoting their own simplistic and wrong solutions to the problems created by the baby boomer’s errors.

For example, around 1970 people accurately pointed out that there were environmental problems with American lifestyles, including air pollution, water pollution, and loss of wildlife habitat. These were complex problems, and one of the simplistic solutions was to draw urban-growth boundaries around cities to protect wildlife from urban sprawl and reducing pollution by encouraging people to drive less. Growth boundaries didn’t solve any of those problems, but they created a lot of other problems, such as unaffordable housing, traffic congestion, and increased taxes.

Instead of abolishing the growth boundaries, millennials want to solve the problems the boundaries created using such techniques as rent control and regulations on landlords. Washington DC, for example, passed an ordinance giving tenants first right of refusal if a landlord decides to sell a dwelling. This has led to a “cottage industry of attorneys who use this law to prey on homeowners.” Continue reading

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Tempe Crash Shows We Need Driverless Cars

Shortly after the Uber driverless car killed Elaine Herzberg in Tempe, Arizona, the Tempe police announced that it wasn’t Uber’s fault. “It’s very clear it would have been difficult to avoid this collision in any kind of mode based on how she came from the shadows right into the roadway,” Tempe’s police chief told the San Francisco Chronicle. However, the Chronicle noted that “the police have not released the videos.”

Based on the police description of the accident, the Antiplanner’s analysis presumed that Herzberg had just stepped into the street from the left side (where people on the curb would be obscured by vegetation) and the car was in the left lane when it struck her. This would have given any driver almost no time to see and prevent the accident. But the release of the video above reveals that the car was in the right lane when it hit her, which has led to claims that the accident was in fact avoidable and the fault belongs to Uber’s technology. In particular, Waymo’s CEO, John Krafcik, stated, “We have a lot of confidence that our technology would be robust and would be able to handle situations like that one.” Continue reading

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So Much for the Tea Party

As most Antiplanner readers probably know, Congress last week decided to test whether the nation with the world’s dominant currency can borrow another trillion dollars or so without risking its economy. Before passage of the bill, the national debt was $21 trillion, and the bill will add at least $800 billion to that and probably more.

The good news is that the 2018 spending bill contains very few earmarks. The bad news is that it calls for so much spending that it didn’t really need any. For example, although it never names the Gateway project — Northeast Corridor improvements including new tunnels under the Hudson River which the Trump administration doesn’t want to fund — the bill includes more than $500 million that will probably go for that project.

Specifically, the bill spends $650 million on the Northeast Corridor, which is $292 million more than was authorized by previous Congressional law. Amtrak itself received $50 million more than was authorized. This includes $35.5 million to start service on new routes, such as New Orleans-Jacksonville, a route that stopped running when Hurricane Katrina hit much of its infrastructure. Continue reading

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A Monument to Optimism

“When you build a high-speed rail line,” says Washington governor Jay Inslee, “you are building a monument to optimism.” He is 100 percent correct except that he thinks that’s a reason to build it when in fact it is a reason not to build.

Inslee made the statement at a joint press conference with British Columbia premier John Horgan announcing that B.C. would contribute to the costs of a study of building a line from Seattle to Vancouver. Governor Inslee no doubt meant that spending money on high-speed rail represented optimism for the future of the Northwest. But what his statement really meant is that he is clueless about the extensive planning literature associating optimism bias with strategic misrepresentation, that is, lying.

The other half of Inslee’s phrase — monument — accurately describes the real purpose of high-speed rail. It’s not meant to be a mode of transport. Instead, it is a monument to the egos of politicians who get it built. Continue reading

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Graphing the Transit Apocalypse

The Washington Post has declared the continuing decline of urban transit ridership an emergency. The Post takes it for granted that the real purpose of cities is to maintain the transit industry and not the other way around. While it is clearly an emergency for those obsolete transit agencies, especially ones saddled with even more obsolete rail transit systems, it isn’t an emergency at all for cities and individual travelers who are finding faster, more convenient, and often less expensive ways of getting around.

And the decline continues. Nationwide transit ridership in January 2018 was 2.5 percent less than in January 2017, according to the latest National Transit Database numbers posted by the Federal Transit Administration (FTA). This drop was even more significant because January 2018 had one more work day in it than January 2017.

Supposedly, according to experts consulted by the Post, we have to maintain urban transit because it is more “space efficient” than other forms of travel. Yes, it is real space efficient to have 60-passenger buses that drive around with an average of 9 on board, or 150-passenger (some claim 200) light-rail cars that carry an average of fewer than 23 on board (the averages in 2016). If you drive alone in your six-passenger SUV, your car is carrying a higher percentage of its capacity than the average transit vehicle. Continue reading

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Charlotte Opens Light-Rail Extension

Last week, the Charlotte Area Transit System (CATS) opened a 9.3-mile extension to its light-rail system. The extension cost $1.1 billion, or about twice as much as the city’s first light-rail line, which was about the same length.

Back in 2002, CATS did a major investment study that estimated the light-rail line would cost about $370 million (about $485 million in today’s dollars). The study found that rail would cost 80 percent more to build and slightly more to operate than bus rapid transit, yet buses would attract about 60 percent more riders than rail.

So naturally, they chose to build rail. As near as I can tell, bus rapid transit was not given any further consideration despite its clear advantages. Continue reading

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Driverless Car Fatality in Arizona

A woman crossing a street in Tempe was struck and killed by an Uber autonomous car at 10 pm Sunday night. Although it is too soon to tell for certain, it appears that the accident could not have been prevented no matter who was in control of the car.

Scene of the accident. Scroll left to see the poorly designed pedestrian path that the woman was apparently using before crossing the street.

According to police, a woman pushing a bicycle laden with shopping bags stepped from the roadway median into 35-mile-per-hour traffic. The Uber vehicle, which had a back-up human driver behind the wheel, did not have time to even brake before it hit her. Continue reading

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Seattle Fails the Streetcar Intelligence Test

Streetcars are supposed to be the least-expensive form of rail transit, yet Seattle is spending $177 million building a 1.2-mile streetcar line. At $147.5 million a mile, that’s more expensive than many light-rail lines.

The 1.2-mile City Center Connector will connect the 1.3-mile South Lake Union Trolley and the 2.5-mile First Hill streetcar.

Moreover, the plan of the city (which is building the streetcar) appears to be overly optimistic about both ridership and operating costs. The city already has two streetcar lines, and the new one will connect the two. But since the two existing lines parallel each other, connecting them — creating a U-shaped route — doesn’t necessarily make them a lot more useful to riders. As shown in the map above, the connecting line will give riders more access to downtown, but no one except a few streetcar enthusiasts is going to want to ride from one end of the South Lake Union line to the other end of the First Hill line. Continue reading

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