Portland Attracts the Creative Class by Increasing Congestion and Demolishing Neighborhoods

Joseph Rose, the Oregonian reporter who proved that streetcars are slower than walking, has left the paper’s transportation beat. So it took another Oregonian reporter, Andrew Theen, to make the brilliant discover that Portland highways really are at or above capacity.

Of course, that shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who lives in the Portland area. According to the Texas Transportation Institute’s latest urban mobility report, Portland has more congestion today (measured by hours of delay per auto commuter) than Los Angeles did 30 years ago, when LA was considered to be about the worst congested city in the world.

It’s no wonder, since Portland and Oregon have added virtually no new road capacity since the 1970s, when the region’s population was about half what it is today. Although officials complained to Theen that new capacity was too expensive, the region hasn’t hesitated to spend roughly $5 billion on light-rail lines that carry an insignificant share of the region’s traffic.

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Fire Budgets and Climate

It’s fire season again, which means we are once again treated to stories about how the Forest Service is running out of money and about how it all must be due to climate change. Both of these claims overlook fundamental points about fire policy and firefighting.


As of August 16, the BLM had spent $2.2 million controlling the 88,000-acre Cornet Fire on the Vale District in Oregon. The Forest Service had spent two-and-one-half times that much on a fire that was just 515 acres in size. BLM photo.

The Forest Service frets that rapidly rising firefighting costs are hurting the budgets of other Forest Service programs. However, as the Antiplanner has pointed out before, Forest Service firefighting costs have risen rapidly mainly because they can: the agency has a virtual blank check to spend on fire. As a result, the agency spends far more fighting fires than Department of the Interior agencies, which have never had a blank check.

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New Tunnels Unnecessary

The Antiplanner spent part of yesterday in Washington DC stuck on a train while Metro was suffering yet another service disruption. I eventually got off and took a taxi, and soon after reaching daylight I received a call from a New Jersey reporter asking what I thought about a revised plan to build new tunnels under the Hudson River to supplement the North River Tunnels Amtrak and New Jersey Transit use today.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie killed the tunnel project in 2010 because he didn’t want New Jersey taxpayers to have to pay most of the cost including the inevitable cost overruns. Christie is perfectly happy to have the tunnel built so long as New York pays more of the cost. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo wants the federal government to pay the vast majority of the cost (it was already going to pay 51 percent) because, after all, this is interstate commerce. Now Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) has a grand plan to create a quasi-governmental corporation to build it, as we didn’t already have enough of those. The two governors claim to love this plan even though Schumer still doesn’t say where the money is going to come from.

The justification for building the project is completely unrealistic. As the Antiplanner’s faithful ally, Wendell Cox, noted when Christie first cancelled the project, Amtrak and New Jersey Transit predicted that Midtown Manhattan would soon gain 500,000 new jobs. That as many jobs as are inside the Chicago Loop and far more than any other downtown in America, and there is little evidence that Manhattan job numbers are growing that fast (and little reason why taxpayers outside of New York or New Jersey should subsidize that growth).

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The Continuing Meltdown of Washington Metro

The day after a derailment shut down the downtown Washington portions of the Blue, Orange, and Silver lines, a power outage shut down portions of the Silver and Orange lines in Fairfax County, Virginia. Without offering any solutions (other than spend more money), the Washington Post has helpfully listed some of Metro’s biggest meltdowns of the past few years.

These are only the biggest ones the Post happens to remember. According to table 16 of the data tables in the National Transit Database, Metro suffered more than 1,200 “major mechanical failures” in 2013, which is 16 failures per million passenger-car miles. That’s nearly twice the rate of other heavy-rail lines in the country; Atlanta and Baltimore are worse, while New York City lines are much better (yet still have many problems and San Francisco’s BART is much better.

According to one insider, most of the failures are train breakdowns, power supply problems, and cracked rails. The breakdowns are mainly in the 1000 series cars that date back to the 1970s, the 4000 series cars from the 1990s, and the 5000 series cars from the early 2000s. The 5000 series is so bad that the agency would like to get an exemption from the Federal Transit Administration to scrap them before they reach their full, 25-year lifespans, but it has no cars to replace them with. Washington Metro has purchased 7000-series cars, but doesn’t expect to have them all in service before 2020. The power-supply problems include smoke from burning insulators and power failures such as the one in Fairfax County. Metro is spending less than a billion dollars a year on capital replacement, which is probably less than half as much as it needs to spend to put its system in a state of good repair.

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The Millennial Dream

A new survey from Trulia confirms similar surveys in the past: Millennial housing preferences really aren’t much different from those of previous generations. Contrary to claims that most Millennials want to live in inner-city multifamily housing, nearly 90 percent of Millennials aspire to buy a single-family home. Moreover, the vast majority hoping to live in suburbs or small towns, while only 8 percent say they want to live in a central city.

The myth that Millennials want to live in cities is so pervasive that one news report claimed that the results of this survey contradict the “reality” that people are moving to the cities. In fact, as Wendell Cox has shown, central city population growth was slower in the 2000s than the 1990s, for both Millennials and the population in general. Meanwhile, suburbs and small towns continue to grow faster than center cities, even among 20-29 year olds.

While the populations of core neighborhoods in and near downtowns are growing when measured on a percentage basis, this is mainly because these populations were so low in the first place. The 1950s and 1960s saw most major cities evict residents from their downtowns as a part of the urban renewal process, which was the urban planning fad of that era. Now, the same urban renewal tools–tax-increment financing, eminent domain, and other gifts to developers–are used to bring people back to downtowns, which is today’s urban planning fad. While planners have proven that “if you subsidize it, they will come,” this isn’t evidence of a huge and permanent change in housing tastes.

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DC Metro Shut Down by Derailment

Parts of the Blue, Orange, and Silver lines were shut down for eight-and-one-half hours after a train derailed before 6:00 in the morning at the Smithsonian stop near downtown Washington, DC. Although Metro hasn’t yet determined the cause of the derailment, it seems likely that the service interruption is due to poor maintenance, which has caused many other incidents. The accident also illustrates a fundamental problem with rail transit: when one train breaks down, an entire line–or, in this case, three lines–can be shut down.

Metro continued to run trains in the outer reaches of the system, but stations between Federal Center and McPherson Square–in other words, nearly all downtown stations on the Blue/Orange/Silver lines–were closed. The Red and Yellow/Green lines were unaffected, and Metro provided buses for passengers on the other lines needing to reach downtown.

By 2:30 pm, Metro had opened four of the six affected stations and ran trains on one track. Both tracks were in operation by midnight, and Metro hopes to have service completely restored this morning.

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Hacking Self-Driven Cars

Computer experts have figured out a way to hack a Jeep, allowing them to remotely control everything from music and windshield wipers to speed and brakes. This has led to a proposal for federal cyber-security legislation, while other people question what this means for self-driving cars.

The question of the cyber-security of automobiles is almost completely separate from self-driving cars. The self-driven cars developed by Google, Volkswagen, and other manufacturers rely on several kinds of sensors to direct their travel, including GPS, lasers, radar, infrared, and optical sensors. Of these, the only one that uses the radio spectrum is GPS, and since the cars use it only to determine a route, and not for minute-by-minute driving, I don’t think it could be vulnerable to a cyber attack.

Experts believe that hackers used Chrysler’s use of Sprint communications technologies in its cars aimed at providing auto buyers with an “in-vehicle communications system.” If so, then Sprint failed to build an adequate firewall between its communications and the car’s operating controls. Chrysler responded to the hack by recalling 1.4 million vehicles that have the Sprint system, presumably so it can somehow add such a firewall. According to Wired, the hackers that demonstrated the Sprint system’s vulnerability report that
Sprint has already fixed the problem by adding security to its telecommunications.

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Back in the Air Again

The Antiplanner was in Phoenix this week debating light rail with proponents of a ballot measure that would increase sales taxes in order to expand that city’s rail system. In addition to a public forum, a brief debate was televised and is available on video.

After the Antiplanner’s review of the existing light-rail line debunked claims that the line stimulated $7 billion in economic development, Valley Metro published a new paper claiming that it stimulated $8.2 billion in development. This $8.2 billion still includes projects that haven’t yet (and may never be) built. However, the new paper does not provide a complete list of the developments supposedly built because of the light rail, and the agency has been unresponsive to requests for such a list, but it is clear Valley Metro merely counted anything that happened to be built within a half mile of a light-rail station without asking whether those projects would have been built without the rail line.

In their campaign for the ballot measure, proponents claim the increased sales tax will provide money for repaving and improving streets. It is clear from the city’s transportation plan, however, that most if not all of the street money will be used to reduce the capacity of streets for cars in favor of more room for buses and bicycles (see exhibit A on page 18). Even if the city intended to improve streets, any light-rail cost overruns would quickly eat up most of the street money.

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More Gridlock Than Ever

Yesterday, the Senate passed a six-year transportation bill that increases spending on highways and transit but only provides three years of funding for that increase. As the Washington Post commented, “only by Washington’s low standards could anyone confuse the Senate’s plan with ‘good government.'”

Meanwhile, House majority leader Kevin McCarthy says the House will ignore the Senate bill in favor of its own five-month extension to the existing transportation law. Since the existing law expires at the end of this week, the two houses are playing a game of chicken to see which one will swerve course first and approve the other house’s bill.

As the Antiplanner noted a couple of weeks ago, the source of the gridlock is Congress’ decision ten years ago to change the Highway Trust Fund from a pay-as-you-go system to one reliant on deficit spending. This led to three factions: one, mostly liberal Democrats, wants to end deficits by raising the gas tax; a second, mostly conservative Republicans, wants to end deficits by reducing spending; and the third, which includes people from both sides of the aisle, wants to keep spending without raising gas taxes.

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The Antiplanner’s Law of Housing Affordability

Growth management not only makes housing more expensive, it makes housing prices more volatile. So, even though the American economy isn’t exactly booming, growth in some parts of the country is sending housing prices upwards, and housing affordability has become a battlecry in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle, Portland, and many other cities.

Unfortunately, it is usually the battlecry of advocates of the wrong policies. San Francisco’s affordability crisis has led to a blame game, with some blaming high housing costs on anti-development progressives (which is partly true) while other say they are solely due to due to demand, not supply (which is completely wrong). Proposed solutions include increased rent controls and inclusionary zoning, both of which would make housing less affordable in the long run.

In Seattle, someone noticed that developers were tearing down $400,000 bungalows in order to build three $600,000 condos and came to the wrong-headed conclusion that housing could be made more affordable by saving the bungalows. Yes, $400,000 is less than $600,000, but if you don’t increase the supply of houses, overall affordability will decline.

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