There’s a Car in Your Future

An anti-auto urbanist named Brad Meacham wrote a blog post that offers a typical “we-have-to-get-people-out-of-their-cars” diatribe. When Meacham’s post was picked up by a San Antonio on-line magazine, someone asked the Antiplanner to comment. While my response speaks for itself, I’d like to add a few comments here where I don’t have to worry so much about word limits.

Meacham’s case against cars stands on four legs:

  1. Congestion is only going to get worse
  2. The cost of driving is increasing
  3. Fiscal reality will force cuts to highway budgets
  4. People are hungry for community

The first claim is almost certainly false. As the Reason Foundation recently showed in the case of Denver, if an urban area truly wants to reduce congestion, it can do it and do it in a cost-effective manner. Reason’s plan for Denver would cost less than half as much as Denver planners are already planning to spend on transport, but because Reason’s spending is targeted on congestion-reduction rather than social engineering, it actually can relieve congestion.

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Back in the Air Again

The Antiplanner was in Austin yesterday speaking at a Texas Public Policy Foundation conference for Texas legislators. I gave two presentations, both of which are available for download.

First, I talked about how Texas can keep the “Texas miracle” going by protecting property rights (8-MB PowerPoint show). I made three recommendations:

  1. Don’t give counties the authority to regulate land uses. Texas may be the only state that doesn’t allow counties to zone, and this keeps city zoning from being too restrictive because developers can simply avoid city rules by developing outside of the cities.
  2. Relax the financial requirements for municipal utility districts. Municipal utility districts allow developers to borrow funds to install infrastructure and then charge homebuyers and other property owners a fee for 30 years to repay the bonds. After the financial crisis, the Texas legislature required developers to put up more of their own funds for infrastructure, leading to a significant increase in housing prices. I argued that the risk of defaults was worth it to keep housing affordable.
  3. Retain city authority to annex land without the permission of the residents being annexed. Most debates over urban sprawl are really debates over who gets to collect taxes. In states where cities have a hard time annexing land, they use other tools, such as urban-growth boundaries, to limit land development. While annexations without voter permission are controversial, the alternative is worse. However, Texas cities are also allowed to have control over certain “extraterritorial” lands outside their city limits. This does not seem to be needed to keep housing affordable and eliminating that control would relieve many of the debates over annexation.

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California Pretends to Start Building High-Speed Rail

With great fanfare, Jerry “Moonbeam” Brown and a host of other politicians signed a rail in Fresno as a symbolic gesture toward starting construction of California’s high-speed rail project. But, despite what they say, California can’t afford to build it, and the plan they can’t afford won’t really be high-speed rail all the way from Los Angeles to San Francisco anyway.

Recall that back in 1994, California estimated that this high-speed rail line would cost less than $10 billion (about $15 billion in today’s dollars). At that price, experts at the University of California calculated, taking the train from Los Angeles to San Francisco would cost almost twice as much as flying and more than driving.

By 2008, when the measure reached the voters, the project’s estimated cost had grown to $33 billion in 2008 dollars (about $36 billion in today’s dollars). Soon after voters approved it, the cost quickly zoomed to $65 billion in 2010 dollars (about $71 billion in today’s dollars).

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Consumer Automotive Show

Self-driving automobiles “stole the show” at this week’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Mercedes Benz received the most press initially by introducing a self-driving concept car that also happens to be hydrogen powered (at least in concept).


Seats in the Mercedes F015 rotate to face each other when no human driver is needed. Mercedes Benz photo.

“Anyone who focuses solely on the technology has not yet grasped how autonomous driving will change our society,” said Mercedes head Dieter Zetsche. “The car is growing beyond its role as a mere means of transport, and will ultimately become a mobile living space.”

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The City of Rules

The City of Roses is also sometimes called the City of Trees. Look down on Portland from Council Crest, Mount Tabor, or Rocky Butte and, except for downtown, much of it looks more like a forest than a city. But 165 years of history as a forested city is not good enough for the city council, which just passed a 100-page tree ordinance that regulates what people can do with trees on their own land with even stricter rules for trees in their front yards that happen to be partly or wholly on city right-of-way.


Portland from Mount Tabor. Flickr photo by Patrick Michael McLeod.

Under the rules, if a tree on your property is greater than 12 inches in diameter, you can’t cut it down without a permit and a promise to plant a new tree. If you have a tree of any size on your property that happens to be in one of six overlay zones, then you can’t cut it down without a permit and a promise to plant a new tree. If you want to cut a “street tree”–a tree of any size on your front berm, the land that is technically in the street right of way even though you are legally obligated to landscape it–you can’t cut it without a permit and a promise to plant a new one.

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Cost Overrun; Revenue Shortfall

To almost no one’s surprise, the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation (HART) has announced that the rail project it is building will cost at least 10 to 15 percent more than estimated, while the revenues from the general excise tax that is supposed to pay for the project are, so far, $41 million less than expected.

A 10 to 15 percent cost overrun isn’t large as rail projects go, but this is an expensive, $5.2-billion project to start with, so 10 to 15 percent is $500 million to $780 million. HART officials blame the cost increase partly on the lawsuits that, unfortunately, failed to stop this waste of money, but even they say that the delays only increased costs by $190 million. Since the project isn’t even supposed to be completed until 2019, there is plenty of time for overruns to mount up to be far greater than projected today.

Rather than make the sensible move and simply cancel the project, the city is debating how to pay for the overruns. One idea is to divert to rail $200 million in federal money that is now being spent on Honolulu buses. Another idea is to extend the excise tax, which was supposed to expire in 2022, for a much longer period of time. Either way, they would take money that would have been spent on something productive and devote it to a complete boondoggle.

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Happy New Year

The Antiplanner got to spend the end of 2014 cleaning up this web site when the server suddenly shut it down for having malware. While it turns out the offending files had been there undetected for nearly three years, and no one in the industry had even discovered the malware until about a month ago, the server company felt it was enough of an emergency to shut down all my web sites without any notification.

When I contacted them, they sent me a list of malware files, which I deleted in about an hour. They then took nearly 24 more hours before re-enabling the site. This is annoying, but it seems to be standard practice in the server industry. In any case, we’re back on line for 2015.

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The Growing Inanity of California High-Speed Rail

Los Angeles Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne–who claims to be an “unabashed supporter” of high-speed rail–reviews Anaheim’s new train station and finds it “oddly antiseptic.” Hawthorne doesn’t care that taxpayers spent $2,764 per square foot for what is essentially a big glass tent. He is a little disturbed that the design is so dysfunctional that train passengers “exit onto an uncovered platform, take the elevator or stairs [up] to a pedestrian bridge, and then enter the building at its highest interior level” only to have to go back down again to get to ground level.

What really bothers Hawthorne is that the building is “empty of context and obvious character,” and–most devastating of all–“placeless” meaning it would be “equally at home in Tacoma, Wash., or St. Louis.” The architects, he thinks, should have adapted regional forms, similar to the way L.A. Union Station used the Spanish Mission style.

While Hawthorne’s critique is pretty negative, it is also naive. He thinks that reducing “California’s reliance on the automobile is going to require architectural as well as infrastructural leaps of faith.” Sorry, even the most perfect architectural design won’t overcome rail’s inherent disadvantages over the convenience of cars and the low cost of flying.

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