If We Spend Less, We Can Have More

Over at Greater Greater Washington, urban analyst John Ricco has had a mind-shattering revelation: if we spent less on transit, we could have more transit. He notes that the United States spends far more on transit projects than other countries, though he adds that, “No one’s really sure why.”

Actually, his revelation isn’t quite as mind-shattering as I presented it. Instead, what he realized is, “If we lowered transit construction costs, we could build more transit.” Apparently, he is one of those people who thinks transit is only transit if it is built.

The Antiplanner would go further and say, “if we stopped wasting money building transit, we could have more transit.” While Ricco is correct that transit construction costs are bloated, even the least-expensive rail transit is going to be more expensive than running buses on roads and streets shared with other vehicles. We’re spending $100 million or more per mile building light rail, but even if it cost only $10 million per mile, buying and running buses would still cost far less.

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Are We Approaching Peak Transit?

“Billions spent, but fewer people are using public transportation,” declares the Los Angeles Times. The headline might have been more accurate if it read, “Billions spent, so therefore fewer are using public transit,” as the billions were spent on the wrong things.

The L.A. Times article focuses on Los Angeles’ Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro), though the same story could be written for many other cities. In Los Angeles, ridership peaked in 1985, fell to 1995, then grew again, and now is falling again. Unmentioned in the story, 1985 is just before Los Angeles transit shifted emphasis from providing low-cost bus service to building expensive rail lines, while 1995 is just before an NAACP lawsuit led to a court order to restore bus service lost since 1985 for ten years.

The situation is actually worse than the numbers shown in the article, which are “unlinked trips.” If you take a bus, then transfer to another bus or train, you’ve taken two unlinked trips. Before building rail, more people could get to their destinations in one bus trip; after building rail, many bus lines were rerouted to funnel people to the rail lines. According to California transit expert Tom Rubin, survey data indicate that there were an average of 1.66 unlinked trips per trip in 1985, while today the average is closer to 2.20. That means today’s unlinked trip numbers must be reduced by nearly 25 percent to fairly compare them with 1985 numbers.

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Building a Self-Driving Car in Your Garage

You can build a self-driving car in your garage–if you are a computer genius. George Hotz, a 26-year-old computer whiz who was the first person to unlock the iPhone when he was just 17 and later reverse engineered a PlayStation, has built a self-driving car. Though it has cost him about $50,000, most of which went for the car itself, his real goal is to design a hardware/software system that will turn any recent car into a self-driving car for very little money.

As described in the video above, rather than write a computer program with a zillion rules for driving, his method has been to teach his car how to drive by using other drivers as examples. Most self-driving cars use millions of lines of code; his uses just 2,000.

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How Do You Define “Feasible”?

States and regions all over the country are developing plans for high-speed or conventional-speed intercity passenger trains. One of the first steps in writing such plans is the “feasibility study.” But the people writing these studies have a curious definition of “feasible.”


Click image to download this business plan. Click here to download technical memoranda behind the plan.

Louisiana Governor John Edwards doesn’t even understand the definition of “light rail.” He asked Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx yesterday for federal funding for light rail between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. Or maybe he asked for money for commuter rail; it’s hard to know from the media reports. But Edwards is on the record saying he will do everything he can “to make sure that as soon as possible we can pursue light rail” between the two cities, which are about 80 miles apart on Interstate 10.

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Washington Metro Surrenders

New York City was harder hit by snowstorm Jonas than Washington, getting 27 inches of snow compared with 18 or 19 inches in Washington. Yet New York’s subways kept running and commuter trains and buses operated for as long as they could, while Washington Metro shut down its system before the storm got serious.


This is what it takes to shut down Metro subways. Flickr photo taken Sunday morning after the storm by Ted Eyten.

Sunday morning, New York sprang back to life while Washington remained shut down. By this morning, the vast majority of the New York system, including most commuter-rail lines, almost the entire subway system, and some buses will be operating. Washington, meanwhile, will operate the subway portions of its rail lines and just 22 out of 325 bus lines.

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The Good-Weather Transportation System

Weather forecasters predict that Washington, DC will get as much as two feet of snow tonight through Sunday morning. Fortunately, Washington has Metrorail, an “all-weather” transportation system.


Some buses might get stuck, so we’ll shut the whole system down. Photo taken during 2009 snowstorm by Mr.TinDC.

Metro officials’ faith in their transit system in the face of bad weather is revealed by their decision to preemptively shut it down completely for the weekend. Though the big storm isn’t predicted to start until after 3 pm today, buses are running on limited schedules and will stop service completely at 5 pm, paratransit will shut down at 6 pm, and trains will run until 11 pm and not restart until Monday morning.

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The Next Recession

Many signs indicate that the economy is headed into another recession. The stock market is dropping. China’s growth is slowing. The Baltic Dry Index is at its lowest level in history, which means there is less international trade. Many predict that housing prices are about to collapse again.

While progressives such as Naomi Klein blame capitalism for these problems, the reality is that our current economic doldrums are the fault of too much government. As investment analyst Lacy Hunt points out, all of the economic tinkering since the 2008 crash has failed to spur the economy.

Some of it has done more harm than good. Remember when Chrysler and General Motors were taken over by the government to prevent them from going bankrupt–and then the government immediately forced them into bankruptcy? In a normal corporate reorganization, bond holders have first claim on the assets of the company. But the Obama Administration zeroed out Chrysler’s bonds in favor of its labor unions. That meant automakers would have to pay a premium for any future bond sales. Inconsistent government policies make investments risky and drive investors to less productive areas of the economy.

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It’s the Old Folks Fault

Usually, The Economist lives up to its name in analyzing important issues. But it misses the point in its latest article on housing affordability. The article notes that the British government has set a target of building enough homes so that real housing prices rise only 1 percent faster than inflation.

That’s an idiotic target. First, why should housing prices rise faster than inflation at all? In a market unhampered by government regulation, housing prices will rise and fall with incomes, and rising incomes lead to higher prices because people buy bigger or more luxurious homes, not because homes themselves rise in price faster than inflation.

Second, the idea that government planning can control housing prices is as bad as the idea that government should plan housing in the first place. The government’s plan is to relax some housing regulation, which is good, and to subsidize new homes, which just transfers the burden from one group of people to another. What the government should do is get out of the way entirely.

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Don’t Blame Inequality on the Rich

Paul Krugman asks, “Is vast inequality necessary?” His answer is that some inequality is “inevitable,” but “the rich don’t have to be as rich as they are.”

But maybe the problem isn’t the rich are too rich. Maybe the problem is the poor aren’t rich enough. Like Bernie Sanders, who accuses Trump of being a demagogue and then spends most of his speeches lambasting the wealthy, Krugman wants to blame the wealthy for being rich. But the wealthy aren’t the ones who put policies in place that keep the poor oppressed.

The Antiplanner recently met Alan Graham, who helps homeless people in Austin. He says the homeless have too many health problems to make good employees, but they are very entrepreneurial. But the only entrepreneurial activity they are legally allowed to engage in is begging, because the courts have ruled that begging is a First Amendment right. Anything else they would like to do, even just open a lemonade stand, requires fees they can’t afford and permits from a bureaucracy they can’t understand. These rules were made by middle-class bureaucrats and progressive elected officials, not the wealthy.

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It Won’t Do Any Good, But Let’s Do It Anyway

Oregon has a plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by forcing electric companies to stop burning coal and to get half their energy from renewable resources. It sounds like a great plan, but like so many government plans, it has a few flaws.

First, it won’t reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Second, it will increase energy prices, thus reducing the viability of Oregon’s economy.

At least, that’s the conclusion of Oregon’s Public Utility Commission, the three-member board that is supposed to regulate electric utilities. The only problem is that the commission was never consulted about the energy plan, suggesting that the state is listening only to groups who are already true believers.

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