Repeating the Big Lies About Sprawl

Those crazy planners at Smart Growth America are at it again: issuing another report all about how urban sprawl is bad and people are better off living in compact communities. Most news reports take it for granted that sprawl is evil and something ought to be done about it. But the report does devote all of three out of 51 pages to repeating claims about how sprawl makes housing unaffordable, transportation expensive, people fat, and lives shorter.

Almost all of these claims cite another report written back in 2010. Most of the claims are readily dismissed for several reasons.

First, some of the claims are based on models the planners made of cities and how they affect people, not on real life. For example, claims that transportation is less expensive in compact areas are based on models, not actual measurements. (They also fail to account for the huge differences in subsidies between transit and driving.)

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Mono–Doh!

Loyal Antiplanner reader MSetty let me know about a Tennessee proposal to spend $200,000 studying the idea of building a monorail from Nashville to Murfreesboro. The irony is that the proposal comes from a tea party member of the state senate. Senator Bill Ketron is a social conservative, not a libertarian, but he should know better than to think that giving a government agency a bunch of money to do a study recommending whether to give that agency even more more money will lead to a reasonable outcome.

Take, for example, Florida’s Pinellas County transit authority, which has spent $800,000 on “public education” regarding a proposed $1.7 billion (but likely much more) light-rail line that will be on this November’s ballot. Critics question whether it is legal for the transit agency to use “taxpayer money to engage in political advocacy leading up to a referendum vote.” The agency, of course, says it isn’t advocating anything, just educating people.

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The Inevitable Decline of Government

LaVonda Atkinson, the cost engineer for San Francisco Muni‘s $1.6 billion Central Subway project, has found so many problems with the project–and so little interest within Muni or the Federal Transit Administration in fixing those problems–that she has given hundreds of pages of budgetary and internal documents to the San Francisco Weekly. “Your article” about these documents “is going to get me fired,” she told the Weekly‘s reporter.


Politicians such as then-San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom (center) love to have their photos taken breaking ground or cutting ribbons, in this case for the Central Subway project.

As just one example, Muni told the San Francisco city controller that it spent $110 million on preliminary engineering, when it told the Federal Transit Administration that it spent only $70 million. The extra $40 million went into a slush fund for other stuff.

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Measuring Downtowns

The Antiplanner’s faithful ally, Wendell Cox, has just released a new compilation of downtown job data. His data include the number of jobs in the nation’s 52 largest metropolitan areas (those with populations of more than a million people), the percentage of each region’s jobs that is downtown, and transit’s share of commuting to those downtown jobs. These numbers are based on the Census Bureau’s American Community Surveys for 2006-2008, so are mostly from before the recent recession.


Click image to download report.

One thing the data show is how New York is unlike any other metropolitan area in the country. New York is the only metro area that has more than a million jobs downtown, and it has just shy of two million. Number two is Chicago, which has just over 500,000. New York is the only metro area that has more than 15 percent of its jobs downtown, and it has 22 percent. New York is the only metro area in which transit carries more than 60 percent of downtown commuters; in fact, it’s 77 percent.

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Megaprojects Invite Corruption

FBI agents posed as transit-oriented developers willing to bribe the mayor of Charlotte to get his support for a streetcar line, light rail, and related projects. The now-ex-mayor Patrick Cannon gladly accepted bribes in exchange for lying to investors and pushing city planning agencies to fast track the developments. When on the city council, Cannon had opposed construction of a streetcar line, but mysteriously changed his vote when he became mayor.


Who did developers bribe to get this project completed?

The Antiplanner isn’t enthusiastic about police entrapments, but this case brings to light one of the seamier sides of rail transit. These projects cost so much that they make some sort of corruption, if only in the form of campaign contributions, mandatory. The FBI sting has to raise questions about other rail projects and developments, especially considering the current U.S. Secretary of Transportation was the mayor of Charlotte just prior to the one who was stung.

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The Transit Train Wreck

Investigators have concluded that the driver of the CTA train that crashed at O’Hare earlier this week slept through the stop. Moreover, she apparently had a record of falling asleep at work before. However, investigators also concluded that two back-up systems that should have stopped the train before it crashed even without a waking driver failed as well.


We’ve spent roughly $1 trillion since 1970 for not much return. Capital spending before 1990 is not available, but probably followed a trajectory similar to operating subsidies (i.e, operating costs minus fares). Click image to download a spreadsheet with these and other data mentioned in this post.

Meanwhile, the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) defends its claim that recent ridership statistics represent a genuine “shift in American travel behavior.” While it admits that per capita ridership has declined since 2008, it blames that on the recession. It prefers to go back to 1995, “because after that year, ridership increased due to the passage of the landmark ISTEA legislation and other surface transportation bills which increased funding for public transportation.” Effectively, APTA argues that people will ride transit if you subsidize them enough, and so therefore subsidies should be increased still further.

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Crash at O’Hare

Investigators have narrowed down the cause of Monday’s Chicago Transit Authority train crash at O’Hare Airport to either “operator fatigue” or a failure of the rail line’s automated safety systems. Neither explanation is very reassuring.

On one hand, taxpayers are paying more than $200 million a year to pay Chicago train and bus riders some of the highest wages in the nation, only (it is alleged) to have them fall asleep at the metaphorical wheel. On the other hand, the Chicago Transit Authority wants to spend $2-$4 billion “increasing the capacity” of some of its rail lines when it can’t afford to maintain the rail lines that it has now. Back in 2007, the agency said it needed more than $16 billion to bring its rail lines up to a state of good repair, and since then it hasn’t found more than a small fraction of that amount.

Many people from medium-sized urban areas who visit Chicago wonder why their city can’t have a rail system like that–a system that is deeply in debt, has a huge maintenance backlog, and is suffering from declining ridership. The truth is that rail transit doesn’t work anywhere in the United States except possibly Manhattan, and even there it is questionable.

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Hoodwinking Reporters

Nearly two weeks after the American Public Transportation Association issued its deceptive press release about 2013 transit ridership, some reporters are still being fooled. Just two days ago, for example, NPR did a story claiming commuters are “ditching cars for transit in record numbers.”

Ironically, NPR begins its story in Chicago, where (APTA data reveals) 2013 transit ridership declined by 2.7 percent from the year before. “Throughout the entire country, just about every public transportation system saw hikes in ridership,” the story incorrectly claims. In addition to Chicago, transit systems in Albuquerque, Atlanta, Austin, Baltimore, Boston, Charlotte, Dallas, Kansas City, Louisville, Memphis, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Portland, San Antonio, and Washington DC all lost riders in 2013. Don’t NPR reporters check their facts?

While reporters might be fooled, three urban planning professors writing in the Washington Post weren’t. “The association’s numbers are deceptive,” they say, and any claims that the nation is “moving away from driving” is “misguided optimism.” In fact, they continue, “transit is a small and stagnant part of the transportation system.”

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Who’s Counting the Costs?

Per capita incomes in Flint, Michigan, are only about half the national average, and poverty rates are three times the national average. So what does the city’s transit agency do? Why, spend $2.4 million for a $327,000 bus.


Zero emissions? Not really. Flickr photo by Earthworm.

Of course, this is a special bus: instead of being powered by Diesel fuel, it is powered by hydrogen fuel cells. And everyone knows that hydrogen power has zero emissions. The transit agency is so happy with the bus that it wants to order up to 30 more.

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Eliminating the Carbon Emissions of 3 Million Cars

Indoor marijuana production uses 1 percent of U.S. electricity, enough to produce the carbon emissions of three million cars. Meanwhile, the federal government is working hard to eradicate marijuana production from national forests. Reports suggest that such production is harmful to wildlife.

So how about a win-win solution? First, legalize marijuana at both the state and federal levels. Second, let the Forest Service pick some national forest locations where marijuana cultivation won’t harm wildlife or other values, then collect royalties on that cultivation, with 25 percent being kept by the Forest Service and the rest going to the federal treasury. Marijuana users win. Wildlife wins. The Forest Service and federal taxpayers win. The climate wins, or at least carbon dioxide emissions are reduced. Who could object to that?

Of course, marijuana doesn’t have to be grown on national forest lands. People grow it there for the same reason they grow it indoors: it’s illegal and they hope for some secrecy. This nation has a billion acres of agricultural lands, only 400 million of which are used for growing crops. When marijuana is completely legalized, most will be grown outdoors on private farms just like any other crop. So if you want to blame marijuana smokers for contributing to climate change, blame the prohibitionists instead.

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