Despite a “growing population, a rebounding economy, growing total employment, and an aggressively argued hypothesis that the millennial generation is meaningfully different than their forefathers,” says transportation researcher Steven Polzin, “transit ridership has remained stubbornly modest.” That’s a generous view that takes into account slow ridership growth between 2012 and 2014 but ridership declines in 2015.
Polzin points to numerous factors that work against transit: lower fuel prices, increased auto sharing, increased cycling and walking, and diminishing returns on extensions of existing transit services. He also points out that, contrary to claims that Americans are substituting transit for driving in large numbers, recent data suggest that “the new normal for travel trends is looking more like the old normal.”
However, he misses a couple of key points. First, Polzin compares transit ridership over time with the population, concluding that per capita transit ridership “is a pretty straight horizontal line since about 1970.” In fact, he should have compared transit ridership with the urban population, as few rural residents are served by transit. Since the urban population is growing faster than the overall population, per capita urban transit ridership has declined by about 15 percent since 1970. This makes transit’s future appear even dimmer than Polzin suggests.
Immigration is a major issue in Europe just as it has been in the United States. In the U.S., there has been a fear that illegal immigrants would become criminals and/or live off of welfare programs, costing taxpayers’ money. Similar fears underlie European resistance to helping refugees from Syria and other Middle Eastern countries torn by war. There is also a a fear that, unlike previous waves of immigrants, those entering the United States or Europe today make little effort to assimilate, sticking with their own languages, cultures, and intolerances.
In the United States, these fears appear to be largely unfounded. Illegal immigrants are not eligible for many kinds of welfare, yet they pay well over $10 billion per year in federal income and social security taxes yet they will never be allowed to collect social security. Other than the fact that illegal immigration is a crime, immigrants commit far fewer crimes per capita than native-born Americans. Finally, Latino immigrants to the U.S. have been assimilating at least as fast if not faster than previous immigrants.
To the extent that illegal immigrants do end up using taxpayer-supported programs such as healthcare and some kinds of some kinds of welfare, this indicates there are problems with those programs, not with immigration itself. When Lyndon Johnson created many welfare programs in the 1960s, they were aimed at getting people out of poverty. When Richard Nixon became president, he dismantled those programs and replaced them with straight welfare. In other words, instead of helping people out of poverty, Nixon’s programs paid people to remain poor. That’s a problem that has only been partially corrected since then.
In the past week, the Antiplanner has visited Macedonia, Bosnia, Montenegro, and currently Romania. While I haven’t had time to sort through photos in detail, here are a few. I don’t pretend to be an expert on these countries based on my short visits, but I have learned quite a bit.
Many of the former communist nations received aid from the European Union and they have spent that money or local taxpayer money building roads and other infrastructure. Macedonia, however, has spent between 500 million and 750 million euros turning the center of its capital, Skopje, into a grand plaza surrounded by huge buildings reminiscent of Las Vegas. I was told that many of the buildings are shoddily constructed and probably won’t last a long time.
In a move that surprised no one, the staff of TriMet, Portland’s transit agency, wants to build light rail instead of bus-rapid transit between Portland and Sherwood. Since the Obama administration no longer requires transit agencies to do a rigorous alternatives analysis, this decision was based on subjective criteria and erroneous assumptions, yet will probably not be challenged by either TriMet’s board or the federal government that will have to pay for most of the line.
TriMet’s last light-rail line cost about $168 million per mile. This proposal is for an 11.5-mile line that will cost at least $2 billion, or $174 million per mile. Of course, that cost is likely to go up. By comparison, Portland’s first light-rail line cost only about $28 million per mile in today’s dollars.
A state auditor says TriMet, Portland’s transit agency, is falling behind on light-rail maintenance. TriMet’s general manager says that the agency’s pension and health-care obligations are so great that it will have to cut all transit service by 70 percent by 2025 to meet those obligations. So naturally, it makes perfect sense to talk about spending $2 billion that the agency doesn’t have on another low-capacity rail line.
The Antiplanner’s travels through the Balkans–yesterday, Skopje, Macedonia; today, Tuzla, Bosnia; tomorrow, Sarajevo–aren’t leaving much time for detailed posts. However, I happened to come across this video of a speech given by Lyndon Johnson 51 years ago that remains relevant today. Perhaps more than any other president, Johnson inspires mixed feelings as one of the best and in other ways one of the worst presidents we’ve ever had. But this speech shows him at his finest.
A few days before the speech, American television screens showed Selma, Alabama police beating up peaceful demonstrators who were seeking voting rights for blacks. Johnson was so angered by what he saw that he asked to address Congress and told them that he would submit a bill that would require all states to remove all barriers to letting blacks vote in all elections. He didn’t ask them to pass the bill; he told them it was their obligation to pass it. Many southern members of Congress sat in the audience looking disgruntled, and he merely stared them down in disgust.
Transit ridership in 2015 was 1.26 percent less than in 2014, with bus ridership falling by nearly 3 percent. But transit advocates wanted to lead with good news, so Progressive Railroading‘s coverage is headlined, “rail ridership increased as overall public transit use dipped 1.3 percent.”
Why did rail ridership increase? In the case of heavy rail (subways and elevateds), the answer is that New York is enjoying its “largest jobs boom ever,” so subway ridership there grew by 14 million annual rides. Heavy rail as a whole grew by only 9 million annual rides, so take away New York and nationwide subway/elevated ridership declined. Among the big losers in heavy rail were Baltimore (-11%), San Juan (-15%), Los Angeles (-5%), and Washington DC (-4%). Of course, rail supporters in most of those cities still want to build more train lines.
For light rail, the answer is that Minneapolis-St. Paul opened its new Green line. This boosted the region’s light-rail ridership by 7 million rides, without which nationwide light-rail ridership would have declined by 5 million annual trips. Among the biggest losers were Baltimore (-15%), Cleveland (-6z%), Los Angeles, and Sacramento (each -5%).
The capital of Bulgaria and the nation’s largest city, Sofia has 1.2 million people packed at a density of 6,900 people per square mile, which is nearly as dense as the densest urban area in the United States. The actual density is probably much higher as the developed area of the city is surrounded by a wide greenbelt of undeveloped land within the city limits. Whatever the density, it is achieved through lots of mid-rise (four to six stories) and high-rise (more than six stories) housing, most of which was built during the soviet era. Before that time, the city was nearly all low-rise (one to three stories) with a few mid-rise buildings in the city center.
This former single-family home is cute enough that someone built a Lego model of it. But the land it is on is too valuable to use it as a house today.
Many pre-war single-family homes are scattered throughout the city, but most of the ones near the city center have been turned into businesses. According to former Sofia resident Sonia Hirt, 47 percent of Bulgarians live in single-family detached homes. But too many in Sofia live in soviet-era high rises.
The Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro) wants voters to give it $120 billion over the next forty years so it can build more rail projects that are already obsolete. Among other projects, it proposes to build a nine-mile light-rail tunnel between west LA and the San Fernando Valley that it estimates will cost at least $8.5 billion, and probably much more. That’s a billion dollars a mile, which is neither a misprint nor an April Fool’s joke.
The plan, which will probably be on the November ballot, includes some new roads as well as trains. But Metro proposes to spend twice as much on new transit construction as on new road construction, plus lots more on transit operations. As little as 19 percent of the funds would be spent on highway projects.
In 2008, Metro persuaded voters to dedicate a half-cent sales tax to transit for 30 years, which is estimated to bring in $34 billion. Now it wants to double that tax and extend it to 2057, which is estimated to bring in $120 billion on top of the $34 billion it is already getting.
Los Angeles has some of the least-affordable housing in the world. In 2014, median home prices there were 7.5 times median family incomes, beating out San Francisco (7.0 times), Honolulu (6.9 times), San Jose (6.8 times) and New York (5.1 times).
Developing this orange grove will have no impact on orange prices, but could go far to helping make housing more affordable. Wikipedia photo by Ricraider.
So naturally, some people in Ventura County, just north of Los Angeles and part of the Los Angeles urban area, think it is vitally important to protect farms and open space, and they are seeking approval of a measure that would require a vote of the entire county before any land could be rezoned for development. Median home values in Ventura County were just 5.8 times median family incomes in 2014, more because of incomes, which are a third higher than Los Angeles County, than home prices, which are just 4 percent higher than LA County. The open-space measure will serve to make housing even more expensive while it protects a resource that is already abundant: open space.
The Antiplanner is heading today for London, followed by a rail trip to Sofia, Bulgaria. From there, I’ll participate in a Free-Market Road Show, giving lectures in thirteen cities in Greece, Turkey, and the Balkans. That will be followed by a short rail tour of Britain where I’ll try to learn first-hand how well that nation’s rail privatization has worked.
I’ll try to keep up postings on the Antiplanner, but I’ll be spending a lot of time en route and so may miss some days. If you are in southern Europe, I look forward to seeing you during this trip.