DC Rail Still Unsafe

Washington Metro is shutting down parts of its rail system in succession so it can do maintenance work on them. Commuters appear to be adjusting to Metro’s slowdowns and shutdowns, but Metro employees haven’t.

Metro calls its maintenance program “SafeTrack,” but it appears to be anything but safe. In the course of one five-hour period yesterday, a Metro maintenance railcar derailed; a train carrying passengers collided with the mirror on the derailed railcar; and an empty train collided with a stationary train in a rail yard.

Fortunately, no one was hurt, but why was a revenue train allowed to use a track right next to the derailed railcar? Why did the railcar–whose job it was to secure rails to the ties–derail in the first place? Did the operator of the train in the rail yard fall asleep? All these events suggest that, while Metro may be spending money on maintenance, it still does not have the safety culture it needs to operate a public transportation system.

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Seven Cities Competing to Waste $40 Million

Electric cars! Robocars! Smart transit stations! Solar-powered buses! Free WiFi in transit corridors! These are some of the ideas proposed by seven cities that made the cut from 71 original applicants for President Obama’s “smart city” challenge. The Obama administration promises to give away $40 million to some lucky winner, with more likely in future years.

These are almost all stupid ideas that will do little to fix the real transportation problems in the cities that are applying for the funds. But the federal government has offered funds for these kinds of projects, so these kinds of projects is what cities will do.

Almost all of the applicants, for example, mentioned self-driving cars or robocars. But, as the Antiplanner has shown before, no new infrastructure is needed for the self-driving cars being developed by Google, Volvo, Volkswagen, Ford, and other companies to operate. All they really need is clear road stripes, consistent road signs and signals, smooth roads, and perhaps some standards for road construction detours. None of the applicants will do these things; instead, they will fritter away the federal funds on things that self-driving cars won’t need.

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The Ponderous Pace of Planning

Buffalo’s Main Street is coming back to life thanks to one simple change: the city has opened it up to cars after three decades of being a pedestrian mall. As a pedestrian mall, “it was like a ghost town,” says one business owner. Now that it is open to cars, “the difference on the street is like night and day.”

The surprise is not that opening the street to cars has revitalized the downtown area. The real surprise is that it took the city so long to learn its lesson. Businesses started closing almost as soon as the street was closed. By 2002, everyone knew the street closure, which was supposed to renew the area, was a failure. Yet it took more than a decade after that to open it up again.

The Antiplanner gets into the background of this story in Best-Laid Plans. In 1959, Kalamazoo, Michigan became the first city to try to create a downtown pedestrian mall by closing streets to cars. Over the next three decades, cities across the United States and Canada emulated this example by creating more than 200 pedestrian malls. But far from revitalizing downtowns, nearly all of them hastened their demise.

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Band-aids Won’t Make Housing Affordable

The city of Portland is considering new rules that will limit the size of new homes. This will supposedly make housing more affordable, but all it will do is limit the supply of homes that people want and make them less affordable.

The city of Denver is about to adopt new rules charging developers fees that will be used to build affordable housing. As if making new developments more expensive will make housing more affordable.

Voters in San Francisco just adopted a new ordinance allowing the city to require builders of 25 homes or more to dedicate a fourth of those homes to low-income renters or buyers. In the past, such “inclusionary zoning” rules only required that 15 to 20 percent of new homes be affordable. But if rules like this really worked, why not just require that all new homes be affordable?

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What Transit Can Do and What It Can’t Do

One of Captain Jack Sparrow’s famous sayings in the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie was, “The only rules that really matter are these: what a man can do and what a man can’t do.” The Antiplanner’s faithful ally, Tom Rubin, echoes these words in a recent presentation focusing on what transit can do and what transit can’t do. In particular, he says, transit can provide mobility for people who can’t or don’t want to drive, but it can’t relieve congestion, reduce transportation costs to taxpayers, save energy, reduce pollution, create real estate development, or stimulate the economy of a region.

Rubin used to be the chief financial officer for one of the largest transit agencies in the nation, so he knows what he’s talking about. He goes on to say that, when transit agencies try to do some of the things they can’t do, they end up doing poorer jobs of the things they can do.

Much of his presentation draws upon his 2013 study on the relationship between transit and congestion. One of the study’s findings was that increased transit use is associated with increased congestion. Rubin suggests this is partly because regions that spend more of their transportation dollars on transit end up more congested because transit is not a cost-effective solution to congestion.

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Gondola: Thy Name Is Boondoggle

As if we need any more evidence of profligate waste in the transit industry, Chicago, Austin, and other cities are considering aerial trams, also known as gondolas. Portland’s infamous aerial tram, which opened in 2006, cost 500 percent more than the original projection, carries a mere 3,200 round trips per day, and collects fares that cover just 22 percent of its operating costs. The economic development that was promised if Portland taxpayers helped build it went to Florida instead.

Given this terrible track record, it’s not surprising that other cities weren’t lining up to follow Portland’s example in building aerial trams. So what’s changed to get cities interested in them again? According to Bloomberg, it is lobbying by ski lift manufacturers. They’ve somehow managed to convince people in Austin that a tram will reduce congestion and people in Chicago that a tram will attract tourists, even though Portland’s tram has done neither.

Disneyland used to have an aerial tram, but Disney shut it down in the 1990s “citing its lack of popularity and the number of workers required to operate it.” Such factors tend to be ignored by transit agencies, which merely cut popular routes to pay for unpopular ones and draw upon tax dollars to pay workers.

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Commuter Rail Flops

The July issue of Trains magazine has a cover story and series of articles with lots of positive things to say about commuter rail and hardly a mention of the incredible amount of money some cities are spending to move a relative handful of people. “Commuter railroads shape urban life,” says one headline. “Utah’s FrontRunner is a Salt Lake City success story,” says another.

This is baloney. Consider Salt Lake City. Why is it a success? Because it “provides an alternative to Interstate 15 traffic jams.” Simply providing an alternative doesn’t mean anyone is actually using it.

Utah Transit spent $1.5 billion (in 2014 dollars) starting its commuter rail service between Provo, 44 miles to the south, and Ogden, 44 miles to the north. For all that money, it is carrying fewer than 9,000 round trips per weekday, and the Census Bureau says just one-half percent of commuters take commuter trains to work. Fares cover less than 15 percent of its operating costs, and an even smaller share of operations and maintenance costs. Instead of “providing an alternative” that fewer than 9,000 people will use, Utah should have spent the money improving traffic flows for everyone using I-15 and other area highways.

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An Accident Waiting to Happen?

Self-driving car technology is rapidly advancing. Tesla reports that its customers have driven more than 100 million miles with “autopilot,” which controls speed and steers the cars in traffic. The few accidents that it has reported quickly led to software upgrades to make sure similar accidents didn’t happen.

Volvo says its cars will have a similar autopilot technology next year, and promises fully self-driven cars–which it hopes will also be “fatality-free”–by 2020. It is about to begin conducting what it claims is the largest trial of self-driving cars to date; the tests will take place in China, England, and Sweden.

Uber is testing a self-driving car in Pittsburgh. The ride-sharing company just received a $3.5 billion infusion of cash from Saudi Arabia. Some people are unhappy that a country that won’t let women drive is investing in an American auto company, but maybe the Saudis see self-driving cars as a way to provide equal mobility for everyone.

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Baltimore Rats

Add the Baltimore subway to the list of rail transit lines that have deferred maintenance. The local transit union is complaining that the Maryland Transit Administration is neglecting the system and that it is now infested with rats. “It is a death trap down there,” said the union’s president.


The Baltimore Metro Subway in a Flickr photo by BeyondDC.

This is right on schedule, as the subway opened in 1984, just over thirty years ago. Baltimore’s first light-rail line opened in 1992. In 1982, before either of them were operating, Baltimore buses carried 122 million riders. In 2014, with a 15-mile subway and 30 miles of light rail, rail plus buses together barely carried 102 million riders. Maryland fills about 20 percent of the seats on both the subway and light rail, meaning it runs the emptiest heavy-rail trains and fourth-emptiest light-rail trains in the country.

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Saving the National Parks

It’s spring, which means it’s time for the annual spate of articles asking: Are we loving the national parks to death? Journalists have tediously asked this question for at least thirty years. One article from a few days ago suggests we limit the number of visitors into the parks, perhaps by allowing only the first so many hundred cars in each day. For example, Grand Teton has proposed allowing only 200 cars on a popular road at any given time.


A small crowd of people watch the Lion Geyser erupt in Yellowstone.

On one hand, national park visitation is up, which is actually a relief as a few years ago it appeared that people were losing interest in the parks. Between 1999 and 2003, visitation dropped precipitously from 287 million to 266 million visits per year. It didn’t reach the 1999 level again until 2014, then jumped to 307 million visits in 2015.

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