The proposed electrification of the San Jose-to-San Francisco commuter-rail line, which the Antiplanner briefly mentioned last week, looks to become a bellwether for Trump transportation secretary Elaine Chao. On one side are California Republicans who don’t want to see dollars going to the high-speed rail boondoggle. On the other side are rail proponents who think that any money spent on trains is a good thing.
Currently, the rail line is powered by “aging, smoke-spewing, diesel-powered locomotives,” the New York Times objectively reports. Are those similar to the aging, smoke-spewing, diesel-powered locomotives that power most Amtrak trains outside the Northeast Corridor? Or the aging, smoke-spewing, diesel-powered locomotives that power America’s freight trains that, rail supporters love to report, are hundreds of times more energy efficient than trucks?
The Times tries to make it appear ironic that cutting-edge Silicon Valley engineers are forced to rely on primitive technologies. Yet electric trains are actually older than diesel. Electrification dates back to the nineteenth century and the Pennsylvania Railroad first electrified some of its lines more than 100 years ago. The first Diesel locomotive was made just over 90 years ago and the first really important Diesel, the FT–the one that convinced the railroads to switch from steam–was made less than 80 years ago.
Airbnb was founded in 2008, but didn’t really start growing until 2010. San Francisco housing has been unaffordable at least since 1979, when median home prices in the San Francisco-Oakland urban area were four times median family incomes. By 2006, two years before Airbnb’s founding, they were nearly nine times family incomes.
Median Bay Area home prices are now down to seven times median family incomes. So naturally, local activists blame Airbnb for high housing prices. That’s just as dumb as blaming affordability problems on Google and other tech buses.
San Francisco Bay Area housing was affordable in 1969, when median home prices were just a little more than twice median family incomes. What happened between 1969 and 1979? Not Airbnb. Not Google. What happened was that Marin, San Mateo, Alameda, Contra Costa, and Santa Clara counties all adopted urban-growth boundaries that included little or no vacant land for growth.
As if it were jealous of all of the attention that has been focused on the DC Metrorail system, the San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system is having its own maintenance problems. Its railcars are old and need to be replaced; last week a series of mysterious power surges disrupted trains; and the agency recently admitted that many of the security cameras on its trains are either fake or broken.
In response to these problems, BART sent out a series of less-than-apologetic tweets to its customers listing a variety of excuses for its failings. “Planners in 1996 had no way of predicting the tech boom – track redundancy, new tunnels & transbay tubes are decades-long projects,” says one. “BART was built to transport far fewer people, and much of our system has reached the end of its useful life. This is our reality,” adds another.
The agency is apparently arguing that it needs more money, but it’s really making the case against a rail transit technology that can’t quickly respond to changes in demand because it is too expensive and time-consuming to expand. For example, instead of doing basic maintenance or expanding capacity where it was needed, BART–like the Washington Metro–decided to build new lines that aren’t needed and that will only add to its long-term maintenance woes.
Someone has calculated that it would be less expensive for San Francisco workers to rent a two-bedroom apartment in Las Vegas and commute by air than to rent a one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco. They reasoned that a one-bedroom in San Francisco is about $3,100 a month while a two-bedroom in Las Vegas is about $1,000 a month, and four-day-a-week airfares would be about $1,100 a month. Even with local transport, Las Vegas is less expensive than San Francisco.
While most responses focus on the quality of life in Las Vegas vs. San Francisco, the point is that the latter is so terribly overpriced that some software engineers are actually living out of their cars.
The smart-growth mantra is “build up, not out,” but that’s clearly not working out. Between 2000 and 2010, the area of land in the San Francisco-Oakland urbanized area grew by zilch (in fact, according to the Census Bureau, it declined by 0.6%), and developers only managed to build 14 percent more units of housing. Meanwhile, Las Vegas-area developers built 52 percent more housing units as developed land expanded by 46 percent.
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.
According to the 2013 American Community Survey, San Francisco has 381,000 housing units. The San Francisco Chronicle has found that about 350 of them are used as full-time vacation rentals through Airbnb. This, says the paper, “bolster[s] claims by activists that the service removes scarce housing from the city’s limited inventory.”
Supporters of Airbnb held a rally last October to persuade the city to legalize the service. Flickr photo by Kevin Krejci.
Since they live in one of the least affordable housing markets in the country, San Francisco residents are understandably sensitive to housing affordability. However, they are quick to blame high housing costs on everything but the real culprit. If it’s not Airbnb, it’s the Google, Apple, and Facebook buses taking people to work in Silicon Valley.
LaVonda Atkinson, the cost engineer for San Francisco Muni‘s $1.6 billion Central Subway project, has found so many problems with the project–and so little interest within Muni or the Federal Transit Administration in fixing those problems–that she has given hundreds of pages of budgetary and internal documents to the San Francisco Weekly. “Your article” about these documents “is going to get me fired,” she told the Weekly‘s reporter.
Politicians such as then-San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom (center) love to have their photos taken breaking ground or cutting ribbons, in this case for the Central Subway project.
As just one example, Muni told the San Francisco city controller that it spent $110 million on preliminary engineering, when it told the Federal Transit Administration that it spent only $70 million. The extra $40 million went into a slush fund for other stuff.
One of the more ridiculous debates going on this month is the protests over Google and other companies providing commuter bus services for their employees in the San Francisco Bay Area. No one ever comments on how much better it is for the environment that people are taking buses to work instead of driving. No one ever comments on how the fact that at least 18,000 people take private buses to work is a devastating indicator of the failure of the region’s expensive transit system.
Protesters object to “illegal use of public infrastructure,” referring to private buses stopping at public bus stops. But the real issue is revealed by the “Stop Displacement Now” sign. Click for a larger view. Flickr photo by C.J. Martin.
Instead, the debate is about gentrification. The protesters fear that high-paid Silicon Valley employees are driving up the cost of housing in San Francisco by buying homes currently being rented, evicting the renters, and moving in.
A team of graphics artists has attempted to map the private buses that carry workers from San Francisco to Silicon Valley, reports the Wall Street Journal. At least six employers–Apple, ebay, Electronic Arts, Facebook, Google, and Yahoo–offer such services, but they are very secretive about where they go and how many people they carry.
Click image for a larger view.
The artists who developed the map estimate that these private buses carry about a third as many people as CalTrains commuter trains between San Francisco and San Jose. CalTrains cost taxpayers more than $110 million a year, but Silicon Valley firms obviously don’t believe they adequately serve their employees, probably because the rails don’t go near their campuses. Google alone has more than 100 buses in its fleet, about as many as serve the entire fixed-route system in the city of Stockton.
The San Francisco Chronicle is aghast that new 140-seat ferry boats between South San Francisco and Oakland/Alameda are filling an average of just 20 of their seats (scroll down to “On the line”). The service, which cost $42 million to start up, was expensive enough at projected ridership rates, but actual ridership so far is just a third of those projections. Even before such low ridership was known, the paper opined that the ferry service may not be “prudent.”
It’s too bad Bay Area papers don’t put their analytical skills to work on other transit systems. If the ferries are just one-seventh (14.3 percent) full, how full are other transit lines?
According to the 2010 National Transit Database (summary Excel file here), San Jose’s light-rail line is pathetic at 11.1 percent (one-ninth full). San Francisco Muni’s light rail is not much better at 11.6 percent. By comparison, the BART system is doing relatively well, operating at a healthy (?) 15.3 percent of capacity.