Transportation Views

A couple of the Antiplanner’s faithful allies have presented recent research that is worth noting. First, Alan Pisarski, perhaps the nation’s leading expert on commuting trends, takes a look at highway use and the induced demand myth.

His first conclusion is that the recent halt in the growth of driving is due to the economy. Inflation-adjusted per capita incomes today are still below what they were in 2007, so it is natural to expect that driving would be lower. In 2013, however, auto purchases grew and he anticipates that miles of driving will soon start growing at least in pace with the population.

Second, Pisarski points out that new highways may result in more driving, but this is a positive benefit, not an argument for not building more roads. Highway “expansion improves and expands choice for both previous and new users,” he says. “Wouldn’t it be nice if transportation did not impede people from acting on their economic and social interests?”

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Why Do Transit Commuters Take Longer to Get to Work Than Drivers?

Nationwide, the average worker spends 24.7 minutes, each way, traveling to and from work. People who drive alone spend 24.4 minutes; people who carpool spend 28.0 minutes; people who walk take 11.9 minutes; and people who take transit take 48.7 minutes.

In other words, people who take transit spend almost exactly twice as much time en route as people who drive alone. Why? The simple answer is that transit is slower. But this flies in the face of the idea that people have a travel-time budget that limits the total amount of time they are willing to spend traveling each day (or week).

Is the travel-time budget idea wrong? Or do people who take transit have different travel-time budgets than people who drive? Or is the travel-time budget different if, when you are traveling, you can relax and read your iPad or do something else entertaining than if you have to face the work and stresses of driving?

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Protecting Prairie Dogs

A Utah district court has ruled that the Endangered Species Act has exceeded Congress’ authority to regulate private landowners. In a case involving the Utah prairie dog, which was listed as a threatened species in 1973, the court said that since prairie dogs were involved in interstate commerce, the federal government had no Constitutional authority to regulate them.

Ironically, the main threat to the Utah prairie dog before it was listed was none other than the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, which had the dual job of protecting endangered species and endangered pestiferous species. For decades, the Fish & Wildlife Service had poisoned prairie dogs throughout the West, saying they were bad for farmers and ranchers.

This poisoning continued even after the agency declared the black-footed ferret to be “the most endangered mammal in North America.” As it happens, black-footed ferrets get 99 percent of their food by eating prairie dogs, as well as make their homes in former prairie dog dens, but this didn’t stop the agency from poisoning prairie dogs.

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What Should Republicans Do?

Republicans have taken both houses of Congress and are eager to make changes. But they haven’t collectively decided what those changes should be. Here are some suggestions.

1. Learn from history.

At least since the Clinton administration, and to some degree for a couple of decades before that, this country has suffered from a consistent pattern. First, one party takes the White House and Congress. Thrilled with the taste of power, they overreach, provoking a backlash. As a result, the other party soon takes control of at least one house of Congress, leading to gridlock for the next several years.

Republicans should seek to avoid this scenario this time around. Instead of immediately trying to pass legislation that will please certain of their constituents, Republicans should think about how they can stay in power for more than a few years. That means an incremental approach to change, but each increment should be designed to make the next increment more, not less, politically feasible.

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Voters Reject Taxes

Light rail lost in Pinellas County (St. Petersburg), Florida by 62 to 38 percent. Light rail in Austin is going down by 58 to 42 percent. A transit tax in Polk County, Florida, is also losing.

Not all transportation taxes are losing. Voters in Alameda County (Oakland), California, approved a sales tax that will provide some money for roads but will mostly go to transit and bike/pedestrian paths. Clayton County, Georgia approved a sales tax to bring Atlanta transit into the county. But Maryland voters agreed to protect gas taxes and other highway funds from being diverted to other uses, while Wichita voters rejected a sales tax increase that would have funded a variety of things including transit.

The big news for transportation activists, however, was the strong rejection of light-rail ballot measures in Austin and Pinellas County. Opponents in Austin were better funded than those in Pinellas County, and even some rail supporters joined the opposition in Austin saying that the proposed route wasn’t the best place for a light-rail line. Opponents in Pinellas, meanwhile, had to overcome strong support from most local media and borderline-illegal campaigning in favor of rail by the transit agency and other government agencies. So it was a surprise to see that Pinellas voters rejected rail by an even larger margin than those in Austin.

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The Alternative to Light Rail

Someone recently asked the Antiplanner whether electric trolley buses or buses powered by compressed natural gas (CNG) were a good alternative to light rail. My initial response was, “why do we need any alternative other than ordinary buses?” But I decided to take a look at the data in the 2012 National Transit Database to be sure that was an appropriate answer.

Five cities–Boston, Dayton, Philadelphia, Seattle, and San Francisco–still operate electric trolley buses. Ten major transit agencies fuel their buses exclusively or almost exclusively with CNG. Only one major transit agency uses liquid natural gas, and one uses a combination of CNG and LNG. Finally, five major transit agencies fuel their buses exclusively or almost exclusively with biodiesel.

My calculations for energy efficiency in BTUs per passenger mile and for greenhouse gas emissions in grams of CO2 per passenger mile are shown in the table below. The calculations are based on standard factors for BTUs per gallon of fuel and pounds of CO2 per million BTUs of fuel. For comparison, I’ve included the average of all motor buses, light rail, cars, and the Toyota Prius. The last column in the table shows passenger miles per vehicle revenue mile, or the average number of occupants on board the vehicle. In the table, “Electricity” refers to buses powered by overhead trolley wires.

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Portlanders Unhappy with Portland

Debates over Portland-area rail transit and land-use issues typically pit city residents against the suburbs, with urbanites favoring more transit and land-use restrictions and suburbanites opposing them. But a recent poll by Portland’s city auditor reveals that even city of Portland residents are becoming increasingly disillusioned about Portland’s policies.

The complete survey is here. The same survey has been made for each of the last five years, and support for Portland’s land-use and transportation policies in particular has steadily eroded during that time.

The survey found that satisfaction with the city’s policies in general had fallen from 52 percent support in 2010 to 47 percent in 2014. Dissatisfaction was greatest with regard to transportation policies. Where 38 percent thought the city was doing okay on street maintenance in 2010, just 29 percent did in 2014. Where half of the city residents felt they could live with existing levels of traffic congestion in 2010, just 41 percent did in 2014.

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Liberals and Unaffordable Housing: Cause or Effect?

As the Antiplanner noted yesterday, the Washington Post has observed that unaffordable housing markets tend to be in liberal metropolitan areas while conservative metropolitan areas tend to be affordable. This is based on a comparison by Trulia economist Jed Kolko of housing prices (in dollars per square foot) vs. voting for Obama or Romney in the 2012 election.

Note that not all liberal metropolitan areas are expensive while not all inexpensive markets are conservative. But nearly all expensive markets are liberal and nearly all conservative markets are inexpensive. (The one exception, Orange County, California, is partly land-locked by other, more liberal communities.)

New Zealand economist Mish Shedlock asks if this is merely a correlation or does one factor cause the other? His weak conclusion is that “Union work rules, land availability, and building restrictions (or lack thereof) are all likely in play.” In fact, there is plenty of land available in all of the expensive regions; it is just rendered off limits to development by state or local land-use rules.

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Economic Principles for Planners, Part 2

Here’s a continuation of yesterday’s post with five more economic principles for planners. Today’s principles are a little more complicated than yesterday’s. To clarify, I am using the word “planners” as shorthand for “advocates of government infrastructure subsidies and regulation.”

6. There’s no such thing as a free lunch.

Planners would like you to believe that there is free money available to do the projects they propose. Sometimes they mean federal money (“it’s going to be wasted somewhere, so we might as well waste it here”), while other times they mean tax-increment financing (“if we didn’t subsidize the development, the taxes wouldn’t come in to pay for it”).

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Economic Principles for Planners, Part 1

Planners and economists often come to the exact opposite conclusions about various policy proposals. In too many cases, this seems to be because planners (which I define here as “advocates of government spending and regulation”) have a poor understanding of basic economics. To help them out, the Antiplanner has developed ten economic principles for planners. I’ll present five today and five tomorrow.

1. Capital costs are costs.

Too many planners want to ignore, or want other people to ignore, capital costs. Like a high-pressure car salesperson whose job is to get the customer to buy the most expensive car they can afford, they’ll say, “Pay no attention to the number of zeroes at the end of that number. You only have to pay the capital cost once, and then think of all the benefits you’ll get.” Why get a Chevrolet when you can get a Cadillac? Why get a Yaris when you can get a Lexus? Why improve bus service when you can build light rail?

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