Back in the Air Again

The Antiplanner is in London today, starting a 16-day tour of Britain. Professionally, I’ll be looking at rail privatization and land-use issues. Personally, I hope to enjoy some cycling.

I should have wifi most days, so at least I’ll be able to post some photos of where I’ve been. I hope everyone has a wonderful time for the rest of the summer.

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The Democrats’ Fair Housing Plan

Vice presidential candidate Tim Kaine’s outline of Hillary Clinton’s housing plan focused on racial discrimination. While that’s an important issue, it isn’t really at the heart of Clinton’s housing plan. In fact, it isn’t even mentioned in Clinton’s platform.

Instead, the heart of the plan is huge subsidies to middle-class homebuyers aimed at increasing homeownership. Clinton proposes to give anyone who earns less than a region’s median income up to $10,000 to help with a downpayment on a house.

There are several problems with this idea. First, Clinton doesn’t restrict the grants to first-time homebuyers, so it is likely that the program won’t significantly increase homeownership. Second, the median family income in a dozen urban areas, from Boulder to San Jose, is more than $100,000 a year, so a lot of well-off people would qualify free federal money. Third, the $10,000 would only be given to people who can match it with their own savings, and since nearly half of all Americans don’t even have $400 to spare, not much of Clinton’s promise will reach low-income people.

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Transit Versus Self-Driving Cars

Two years ago, the Antiplanner predicted that self-driving cars would put most transit agencies out of business. So it’s not surprising to see push-back against self-driving cars from transit supporters. What’s surprising is that it took so long.

Cities need more public transit, not Uber and self-driving cars,” says Kevin Cashman, a policy analyst with the progressive Center for Economic and Policy Research. “We don’t need self-driving cars — we need to ditch our vehicles entirely,” argues California writer Rebecca Solnit in the Guardian.

Cashman’s argument is that self-driving cars won’t be “affordable,” while public transit is. Excuse me? In 2014, American transit agencies spent $59 billion to move people 57 billion passenger miles (see page 106). That’s more than a dollar per passenger mile.

All spending on cars and driving, meanwhile, amounted to $1.1 billion (add lines 54, 57, and 116 of table 2.5.5). Highway subsidies in 2014 were about $45 billion (subtract gas tax diversions to transit and non-highway purposes from “other taxes and fees”). For that cost, Americans drove 2.7 trillion vehicle miles in light-duty vehicles. At an average occupancy of 1.67 people per vehicle (see table 16), that’s 4.5 trillion passenger miles, which works out to an average cost of 26 cents a passenger mile.

In other words, transit is only “affordable” because three-fourths of the cost is subsidized, while less than 4 percent of the cost of driving is subsidized. I’m in favor of ending both subsidies, but someone has to pay those costs; when adding them in, driving is four times more affordable than transit.

Cashman’s dependence on low-income people to make his case isn’t credible anymore, both because most low-income people have cars and most people riding transit today aren’t low-income. Cashman makes some valid points about Uber’s lack of profitability and its use of aggressive lobbying, but that doesn’t change the fact that self-driving cars are going to completely change urban landscapes.

Solnit’s argument is even more shallow. She rides transit, so therefore everyone else should too. Her argument would be only a little stronger if she didn’t admit that she herself has not yet “ditched her car entirely.” The reality is that transit only works for a few people, as suggested by the facts that Americans drove more than 1.9 trillion vehicle miles in urban areas in 2014 but rode transit only 57 billion passenger miles. At 1.67 people per vehicle, that means transit accounted for about 1.7 percent of motorized urban travel.

Back in 2014, after the Antiplanner predicted the doom of public transit, Human Transit writer Jarrett Walker wrote a more insightful, but still flawed, response. Really dense cities will still need transit, he argued. I don’t disagree with that; my paper admitted that transit would survive in New York City and perhaps Chicago and San Francisco.

But Walker went on to argue that “technology never changes geometric facts.” That’s a ridiculous statement, as we know very well that steam trains, streetcars, and automobiles all resulted in major changes to urban landscapes. Since Henry Ford’s first use of the moving assembly line to make automobiles, for example, virtually all urban centers in the developed world have seen major declines in density. Manhattan, for example, had more than 2.3 million people in 1910; by 2010, it was less than 1.6 million. Most other centers have seen even greater declines.

So the question is not, as Walker poses it, will self-driving cars replace transit in really dense urban centers? Instead, it is, what will happen to those dense urban centers once self-driving cars give people even more freedom to live and work somewhere else?

A breath of fresh air comes from Portland-area resident Bill Conerly, who writes in Forbes that “self-driving cars will eliminate premium pricing for transit-oriented development” by reducing congestion and the costs of travel. I’m not sure there is much premium pricing for transit-oriented development (if there were, Portland wouldn’t have needed to spend well over $1 billion subsidizing it), but Conerly’s point is the same as the Antiplanner’s: cities shouldn’t spend on transit and transit-oriented development under the assumption that transportation technologies will never change.

As the Antiplanner has said before, no one can accurately predict how self-driving cars will affect cities, thus any long-term plans are likely to be wrong. Instead of making such plans, cities should focus on solving today’s problems today. As Gandalph said in my favorite quote from Lord of the Ring, “it is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succour of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule.”

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Fire Out of Control

A lengthy report in the Seattle Times reveals just how out of control the Forest Service’s fire program has become. Rather than a subprogram aimed at protecting the national forests and adjacent lands from fire damage, fire has become the agency’s main driver and raison d’être.

According to the Times, to control a fire in the Lake Chelan National Recreation Area, the agency cut hundreds of acres of old-growth trees to form a ten-mile long fire line. As it turned out, the fire was put out by rain long before it reached the fire line, but the agency continued to cut the fire line even after it began to rain. Fisheries biologists and other resource specialists within the agency protested the cutting to no avail.

“One of the problems with fire fighting is a mentality completely takes hold that pretty much you are going to double down on things just simply because you want to protect your rear,” forest ecologist Jerry Franklin told the Times. “It is very characteristic, they just freak out. Basically in a sense it’s war. And you don’t worry a whole lot about side effects. It is what’s called collateral damage.”

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Don’t Blame Housing Affordability Problems on the Free Market

Miami is one of many places where housing prices have reached crisis levels, and the Miami Herald editorial board blames the problem on the free market. Only government intervention in the form of subsidized low-income housing will fix it, says an August 3 editorial.

Wrong. Government caused the problem in the first place. No matter what the cause, subsidized housing for a few low-income people will not solve it, except for those lucky few.

Despite being one of the fastest-growing states in the nation, Florida housing remained affordable up through 2000. Miami was generally the state’s least-affordable housing market, probably because an influx of immigrants kept median incomes down. But from 1959 through 1999, median home prices remained between two and three times median family incomes.

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DC Metro Spirals Into Chaos, Taking the Purple Line With It

Judge Richard Leon apparently invalidated Maryland’s Purple Line project just in time to prevent the Federal Transit Administration from giving the Maryland Transit Authority nearly a billion dollars for construction. Naturally, rail supporters are outraged by his decision.

The Washingtonian, for example, calls the decision “ridiculous” because it was based on declining Metro rail ridership and “the Purple Line will not be part of Metro.” But the article admits that 27 percent of the projected Purple Line riders will be transfers to or from Metro, so if Metro ridership declines, the Purple Line’s will as well.

The National Environmental Policy Act is supposed to be a procedural law, the Washingtonian complains, so why is Judge Leon allowing substantive issues such as ridership influence his decision? The author of this piece is obviously not an attorney and probably didn’t even read Judge Leon’s decision, or he would understand that getting the numbers right, as the judge demands, is procedural. He might also be able to read between the lines of the decision and see that Leon realizes this project is a turkey, and is using ridership as just the most obvious reason to overturn the decision to build the low-capacity rail line.

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Straddling Bus or Scam?

The New York Times, among others, has publicized a claimed test run of the “straddling bus,” aka “transit elevated bus” (TEB), that promises to relieve congestion by “floating” above regular traffic. In fact, it was less of a test drive than a publicity stunt, moving a vehicle at 6 miles per hour on a few hundred feet of test track, not on a real city street or highway.

Supposedly, the advantage of these 300-passenger behemoths (or 1,200 if four are hooked together) is that, unlike rail transit, they can be added to a city without building a lot of new infrastructure. But that’s a lie. The vehicles themselves run on tracks, and they weigh so much–upwards of 100 tons–that such tracks will be expensive to install. As Wired points out, it “is not a bus. . . it is a train.” (Technically, it is a railcar; it only becomes a train when two or more are hooked together, but you get the point.)

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Trump Doubles Down on Hillary

Last week, the Antiplanner compared the Republican Party platform, which promised to reduce wasteful transportation spending, with the Democratic platform, which promised a huge increase in infrastructure spending. Yesterday, Trump endorsed the Democratic side, promising to double whatever Hillary says she will spend. Since Hillary Clinton has called for about $275 billion worth of spending on infrastructure, Trump must want to spend more than $500 billion.

“We have many, many bridges that are in danger of falling,” said Trump. Not exactly. According to the Federal Highway Administration, in 2015 the United States (including Puerto Rico) had 58,791 “structurally deficient” bridges. But that doesn’t mean these bridges are in danger of falling. “Structurally deficient” means that the bridge has some defect that may require greater-than-normal maintenance or limit the amount of weight that can cross the bridge.

As near as I can tell, the last time a bridge fell because it was structurally deficient was 1989, shortly proceeded by one in 1987. Those collapses led to new rules and monitoring systems that have greatly reduced, if not eliminated, the problem.

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Purple Line Opponents Win in Court

A federal judge has vacated the decision to build the Purple light-rail line in suburban Washington, DC, effectively delaying and possibly halting the project. Judge Richard Leon’s decision said that “recent revelations regarding the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s ridership and safety concerns” had persuaded him that projected ridership numbers for the Purple Line were overly optimistic.

Some Purple Line stations were planned next to Metro Rail stations and projections for light-rail ridership depended partly on the continued growth of Metro Rail ridership. But, largely due to safety issues, Metro Rail ridership has declined every year since 2009, noted Judge Leon, and this meant that the Purple Line ridership numbers, which were calculated in 2009, would probably be lower as well.

“WMATA and the FTA’s cavalier attitude toward these recent developments raises troubling concerns about their competence as stewards of nearly a billion dollars of the federal taxpayers’ funds,” wrote the judge. The Purple Line would be built and operated by the Maryland Transit Authority, not WMATA, but, the Judge Leon noted, this doesn’t mean that declining Metro ridership wouldn’t have an impact on Purple Line ridership.

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