Prediction: 95% of 2030 Travel by Self-Driving Cars

“By 2030,” says a new report from a group that calls itself RethinkX, “95% of U.S. passenger miles traveled will be served by on-demand autonomous electric vehicles owned by fleets, not individuals.” The Antiplanner is more optimistic about the rapid growth of self-driving cars than most, but RethinkX’s prediction is more dramatic than anything the Antiplanner has said.

As recognized in this more moderate report from UC Davis, RethinkX’s statement is really three predictions in one: first, about self-driving cars; second, about what powers those cars; and third, about who owns those cars. I think 95 percent by 2030 is optimistic for any one of these predictions, much less all of them.

First, the decision about what powers cars is completely, 100 percent independent of the decision about whether humans or computers drive cars. So long as the United States gets most of its electricity from fossil fuels, even natural gas, the environmental benefits from converting to electric cars is negligible, especially since we can make gasoline-powered cars more fuel-efficient. Continue reading

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Is Your Transportation Project a Boondoggle?

Tony Dutzik, writing for the progressive Frontier Group, offers a ten ways of recognizing whether a highway project is a boondoggle. A few of his ideas are valid: a highway widening project aimed simply at creating a continuous four-lane road even when there is no demand for four lanes seems silly. But most of his suggestions are wrong: for example, he thinks that, if environmentalists have delayed a project long enough, that proves it shouldn’t be built, when in fact all it proves is that our current planning process allows people to indefinitely delay projects for little or no reason.

In response, I’d like to offer my own list of ten ways to determine whether a transportation project is a boondoggle. His list focused on highways, though some of his suggestions (“It is sold as needed for economic development”) are valid for transit. Although my list starts out with transit projects, it eventually applies to all types of transportation projects.

1. It’s a streetcar. Streetcar technology is 130 years old and has since been replaced by less expensive, more flexible buses. Streetcars being built today are no faster and are far more expensive than the ones built 130 years ago. All new streetcar projects and rehabilitations of existing streetcar lines are boondoggles. Continue reading

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Reason #8 to Stop Subsidizing Transit
It Only Moves People

Many urban areas spend 25 to 50 percent of their transportation funds on transit systems that carry only 1 or 2 percent of passenger travel. Transit advocates eagerly plan rail lines, dedicated bus lanes, and other forms of intensive transit services in the hope of getting another 1 or 2 percent of people out of their cars. As bad as this is, they inevitably forget about the other component of transportation: freight.

Transit carries a respectable number of people in the New York urban area, a visible number in a few others, but an almost irrelevant number in most. Transit’s share is less than 1 percent in virtually all U.S. urban areas not on this list.

If people are the heart of any city, freight is the life blood. Without freight movements, people starve, hospitals run out of medical supplies, construction companies can’t get materials to job sites, traders can’t get their goods to market, and manufacturers can’t get the raw materials they need. Continue reading

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The Sausage Gets Made

Fiscal year 2017 is more than half over and Congress has finally passed a spending bill for the year. This has led to endless debates over whether Trump won, the Democrats won, or anybody won. However, Trump proposed a “budget blueprint” for fiscal year 2018 that said little about 2017, while this spending bill is for 2017, so it would be premature to say that Trump won or lost.

Among other things, the budget blueprint called for halting funding to transit capital projects (“New Starts”) other than projects that have already received full-funding grant agreements (or, in the case of small starts, small starts grant agreements). In other words, any project on this list that is not marked “FFGA” or “SSGA” in the fourth column would not be funded under Trump’s budget. Continue reading

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Reason #7 to Stop Subsidizing Transit:
Subsidies Destroy Worker Productivity

The triumph of American industry has come from increasing productivity, particularly worker productivity. Since local governments took over private transit companies, however, worker productivity in the transit industry has collapsed.

As the figure above shows, transit companies in the 1950s carried about 60,000 transit riders per worker each year. As of 1960, just 12 of the nation’s hundred largest cities had taken over their transit systems. But after passage of the Urban Mass Transportation Act of 1964, cities quickly municipalized transit. By 1980, only New Orleans and Greensboro, NC, still had private transit and the number of riders carried per transit worker had fallen 25 percent. It continued to fall until stabilizing at around 27,000 trips per worker in the late 1990s. Continue reading

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The Economic Impact of Not Digging Holes

The American Public Transit Association (APTA) has a new report on the economic impact of President Trump’s proposal to stop wasting federal dollars on digging holes and filling them up. Actually, the report is about Trump’s proposal to stop wasting federal dollars building streetcars, light rail and other local rail transit projects, but the two have almost exactly the same effect.

The APTA report says that digging holes and filling them up would provide about 500,000 jobs (though it really means job-years, that is, 500,000 jobs for one year). Since APTA says it would take ten years to dig and fill the holes that Trump wants to stop funding, that’s 50,000 jobs a year.

However, nobody wants a job digging holes and filling them up. What they want is income. Since there is no market for refilled holes, the only source of income for digging and filling holes is tax dollars. So what APTA really wants Congress to do is take money away from workers and then give it back to them and call it jobs. That’s not very productive. Continue reading

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Reason #6 to Stop Subsidizing Transit:
Private Transit Works

Until 1964, most transit in America was private. In that year, Congress responded to a “commuter crisis” that was limited to commuter rail in just four urban areas by offering federal subsidies to every transit mode and public transit agency in the country, leading to the rapid buy-out of almost all private transit. Yet there are still many examples of private transit today.

Flickr photo by Sean Davis

One of the most important is New York Waterway, which offers ferry service between New Jersey and Manhattan. Ferry service had disappeared with the opening of bridges and tunnels, but congestion led the owner of a trucking company, Arthur Imperatore, to test a ferry operation in 1986. It quickly expanded to numerous routes and offers its passengers bus service from its Manhattan terminals to various parts of the city at no extra charge. Continue reading

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Reason #5 to Stop Subsidizing Transit:
Negligible Social & Environmental Benefits

Public transit helps the poor, saves energy, and cleans the air, right? Not really. Transit is a subsidy to the wealthy as much as it is to the poor, and it really isn’t any greener than driving.

Some low-income people ride transit, but the people most likely to use transit to get to work are those who earn $75,000 and up. According to table B08119 of the Census Bureau’s 2015 American Community Survey, 6.6 percent of people who earn $75,000 and up take transit to work, as opposed to just 6.2 percent of people who earn $15,000 or less.

Nor is transit particularly green, at least, not according to the Department of Energy’s Transportation Energy Data Book. The average car uses about 3,100 BTUs per passenger mile while the average SUV uses about 3,500. By comparison, transit buses and light rail average about 3,800. While heavy rail averages just 2,150 BTUs per passenger mile, that is heavily weight by New York City. Outside of New York, the only heavy-rail lines more energy efficient than cars are in San Francisco and Atlanta. By operating mainly during rush hours, commuter rail does okay at 2,700 BTUs, but many commuter lines, including those in Dallas, Minneapolis, Nashville, and Philadelphia, are worse than driving. Continue reading

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Only the Government

Only the government would complain when the number of customers using one of its services grows. At least, that’s the case with an article about the increase in freight traffic as UPS, FedEx, and other shipping companies make more deliveries due to on-line sales. Supposedly, a “siege of delivery trucks is threatening to choke cities with traffic.” If roads were properly priced, of course, this wouldn’t be a problem–but if they were properly priced, the transit lobby wouldn’t be able to steal $16 billion a year from highway user fees.

In a statement sometimes attributed to Will Rogers but whose true author is unknown, someone said, “the solution to congestion is for government to make cars and business to build the roads.” Whoever said this understood that government tends to create shortages of things that people want, while private businesses tend to create plenty.

Speaking of private businesses, Waymo–the new name for the spin-off company developing Google’s self-driving cars–is inviting residents of the Phoenix metropolitan area to apply to be among 500 “early riders.” The company will loan 500 self-driving Chrysler Pacifica minivans to families to try out. Apparently, this is on top of cars that have already been loaned to 100 families in the area.

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Reason #4 to Stop Subsidizing Transit
Cities Need Low Taxes More Than Transit

Transit advocates like to claim that transit is somehow crucial to urban vitality, even in cities where only a few people use it. The reality is that lower taxes play a bigger role in urban growth–and spending more on transit means higher taxes.

Transit almost certainly is crucial to New York City, where 58 percent of commuters take transit to work. It also is important in Washington, DC (40%), San Francisco (37%), Boston (34%), Philadelphia and Chicago (28% each). It is somewhat important in Baltimore, Hartford, Pittsburgh, and Seattle (all about 18%-19%). These numbers apply to the cities; transit is far less important in most of their suburbs. There are only a few more cities in which transit has a double-digit share of commuters: Buffalo, Honolulu, and Minneapolis (14%), Portland (13%), Atlanta, Cleveland, and Los Angeles (12%), and St. Louis (11%), but these percentages are hardly crucial.

These numbers are for commuting, but transit’s share of other travel is much smaller. New York is the only urban area in which transit carries more than 10 percent of urban passenger travel; in fact, it was 11.5% in 2014. San Francisco-Oakland is a distant second at 7.6%. No other area comes close: Honolulu is 4.4%, Washington 3.9%, Chicago 3.8%, Seattle 3.3%, and Boston 3.1%. Every other urban area is under 3 percent. Such small percentages are hardly crucial to the future of those regions.

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