Not Just Economists

A few months ago, the Antiplanner listed more than a half-dozen papers by economists showing that growth constraints make housing less affordable. Yet many planners still deny that relaxing those constraints will make housing more affordable.

Now a paper by law professor Michael Lewyn makes exactly the same point, and responds directly to arguments made by advocates of growth constraints. Lewyn is far from a free marketeer, having written articles about controlling sprawl, encouraging walkability, and supporting infill development. But he apparently puts affordability above the fuzzy environmental goals of smart-growth planning.

Lewyn’s paper uses different terms than I would use, blaming land-use regulation on NIMBYs instead of urban containment. I think that NIMBYism is a result, not a cause, of the kind of comprehensive planning that leads to unaffordable housing. But that’s merely a quibble; the significance of Lewyn’s paper is that more people–and not just economists–realize that urban containment is a morally unacceptable policy.

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The Who-Gets-to-Decide Crisis

“There is now a consensus that the United States should substantially raise its level of infrastructure investment,” writes former treasury secretary Lawrence Summers in the Washington Post. Correction: There is now a consensus among two presidential candidates that the United States should increase infrastructure spending. That’s far from a broad consensus.

“America’s infrastructure crisis is really a maintenance crisis,” says the left-leaning CityLab. The “infrastructure crisis is about socialism,” says the conservative Heritage Foundation. “There is no widespread crisis of crumbling infrastructure,” says libertarian Cato Institute. “The infrastructure crisis . . . isn’t,” agrees the Reason Foundation.

As Charles Marohn, who classifies himself as a traditional conservative, says, the idea that there is an infrastructure crisis is promoted by an “infrastructure cult” led by the American Society of Civil Engineers. As John Oliver noted, relying on them to decide whether there is enough infrastructure spending is like asking a golden retriever if enough tennis balls are being thrown.

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Asking the Right Questions About Infrastructure

“The American economy is a growth Ponzi scheme where we try to . . . generate a short-term illusion of wealth by having our cities, neighborhoods and families take on enormous long term liabilities,” says Strong Towns founder Charles Marohn in an interesting article about the so-called infrastructure crisis. What he calls the “Infrastructure Cult” leads the nation to go deeply into debt building more and more infrastructure without ever asking “why do these investments not generate enough productivity — enough real return — to be sustained?”

Marohn and the Antiplanner have had our differences in the past. Marohn thinks the suburbs are dead. He thinks most urban arterials, which he derisively calls “stroads,” should be designed downwards in ways that will vastly reduce mobility.

When addressing an issue such as infrastructure, it is important to ask the right questions. So far as I’ve quoted above, Marohn has done so. However, I fear he will miss one important question, which is: How should we measure whether particular infrastructure investments generate enough productivity to be worthwhile?

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Amtrak’s Gold-Plated Trains

Amtrak’s plan to use most of the $2.45 billion “loan” it received from the Department of Transportation to buy new high-speed trains for the Northeast Corridor has come under fire from, of all people, a high-speed rail advocate named Alon Levy. The new trains will cost about $9 million per car, which Levy points out is nearly twice as much as France is paying for Eurostar train cars. The reason for the high cost is that the new trains can go more than 200 mph and tilt on curves more than any previous trains.

Levy is a transportation writer who takes a highly mathematical approach to reviewing proposals and who says he is for “good transit” but against boondoggles. He says the problem with the expensive new trains is that Amtrak tracks can’t support trains that are as fast as they can go, and in order to support such fast trains, they would have to reduce curvature so much that they wouldn’t need to tilt as much as the new trains. Levy argues that Amtrak should have spent less on the trains and more on the infrastructure needed to boost speeds. As another high-speed rail advocate put it, “They need to speed up the slow bits first, which isn’t something you do by blowing money on trains.”

Amtrak hopes that Democrats will sweep Congress this November and give it the $290 billion it wants to rebuild the Northeast Corridor to higher speeds. But, as Levy points out in other articles, Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor plans are far more expensive than they need to be.

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DC Metro’s Accelerating Decline

Washington Metro Rail ridership in the second quarter of 2016 (the fourth quarter of Metro’s fiscal year) declined a whopping 11 percent. The drop in ridership started before major service disruptions in order to do track maintenance began in June: ridership in May, for example, was 9 percent lower on weekdays and 20 percent lower on weekends than in 2015.

Bus ridership for the quarter was 6 percent lower than in 2015. For all of F.Y. 2016, rail ridership was 7 percent lower and bus ridership 4 percent lower than in F.Y. 2015.

Metro officials offered several explanations for the decline, including lower gas prices, loss of public confidence in the system’s reliability and safety, and the early blooming of cherry blossoms that normally attracts many tourists. But ridership has declined in every year since 2012, suggesting that at least some of the decline is irreversible.

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More on Housing and Inequality

NPR tells the story of the impact of the 2008 financial crisis on black middle-class families: on average, they lost a much larger share of their wealth than whites. But NPR fails to relate this to land-use regulation that is promoted by whites who consider themselves “progressives.”

Similarly, a Trulia analysis of differences in housing prices among cities lamely credits the differences to “a lack of housing construction” in some regions, without suggesting why those regions aren’t building housing. Trulia also suggests that these trends are leading to “regional inequality” without mentioning inequality among individuals.

These issues are largely corrected in a new paper by Joel Kotkin, who makes it clear that “progressive policies” such as urban-growth boundaries are causing the high housing prices in some regions and, in turn, growing income inequality. Kotkin points to MIT economist Matthew Rognlie’s research showing that housing is the principle cause of growing inequality in both the United States and Europe.

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The Land of Skinny Roads and Skinny Houses

Much of England and Wales reminds me of the Willamette Valley where I grew up: rolling hills covered with forests, farms, and cities. But Britain’s infrastructure would look completely out of place in most of the United States, being dominated by narrow roads and small houses. As an example of skinny roads, here’s a car parked in a small hamlet in Norfolk.


Parking in what Americans would consider the middle of the road, completely blocking one lane of traffic, is considered completely normal in Britain.

Because there is no parking strip and no shoulders, the car is blocking one entire lane, turning the two-lane road into a single-lane road. This is not unusual; auto drivers do this all the time everywhere from busy roads in resort areas to big cities. Parking appears to be first-come, first-served, so if someone parks on the north side of a street, no one will park on the south side (which would completely block the road) of that part of the street, but they might park on the south side a few car lengths away. The Antiplanner has already complained about the country’s narrow roads; the rest of today’s post will focus on housing.

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Rail Transit’s Endless Hunger for Money

In 2008, Santa Clara County voters approved a sales tax increase to build a BART line to San Jose. But cost overruns have forced the county’s Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) to go back to the voters for yet another tax increase. To make it more attractive, it says only a quarter of the tax increase will go to BART while the rest will be used for highways, bikeways, and some transit projects.

As described in the San Jose Mercury-News, the list of projects looks balanced: $1.5 billion for BART, $1.2 billion for street repairs, $1.85 billion for highways, $1.0 billion for CalTrains, $500 million for “transit for vulnerable and underserved populations,” and $250 million for pedestrian and bikeway improvements. A closer look at the measure, however, reveals that it is anything but balanced.

The $1.2 billion for “street repairs” is actually going to go for “complete streets” programs, which means taking away street capacity from cars and giving it to transit, bikes, and pedestrians. A significant chunk of the $1.85 billion for highways will actually go to constructing bus-rapid transit lanes, and some may even go for a new light-rail line. Motor vehicle users will be lucky to see any projects that actually relieve traffic congestion.

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Between a Rock and a Hard Place

The Federal Transit Administration has informed Honolulu Area Rapid Transit (HART) that it will not help cover cost overruns associated with the agency’s 20-mile rail line. The project was originally supposed to cost about $5.1 billion, which was already ridiculously expensive, but now is projected to cost at least $8 billion and possibly as much as $11 billion.

The FTA has a long-standing policy that it won’t help cover cost overruns (a policy that is sometimes overturned by Congress). But in this case, the FTA has added a new twist. In light of the cost overruns, HART has proposed to build just part of the project, leaving uncompleted the five miles of the line that would have attracted the most riders. But the FTA says that, in that case, it won’t be giving HART $1.55 billion that the agency is counting on. That means HART won’t even be able to complete the part of the project that it planned.

HART says it is examining its alternatives and hopes to have a viable proposal before FTA by the end of the year. But it probably isn’t looking closely at the most reasonable alternative, which is to completely abandon the project. While it has already sunk several billion into it, abandoning it would save taxpayers billions more in construction costs not to mention an estimated $126 million a year in operating costs. Since the city of Honolulu spends less than $185 million per year operating about 100 bus routes, $125 million is a phenomenal amount of money to spend on just one rail route.

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Partners or Competitors?

Two weeks ago, the Denver suburb of Centennial announced it would subsidize transit riders to use Uber or Lyft to or from their transit stop from or to their origin or final destination. By solving the “last-mile” problem, they hope that this will make transit more attractive to Centennial residents.

A couple of days later, the Livermore Amador Valley Transit Authority announced it would do the same for transit riders in Dublin and other nearby suburbs of San Francisco-Oakland.

Through such agreements, ride-sharing services are trying to persuade transit supporters that they aren’t competitors, but potential partners with transit agencies. Some of them are buying it, while others are more skeptical. The Antiplanner thinks this is just a transition phase before the complete elimination of transit in all but a few cities.

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