Self-driving cars could “make congestion dramatically worse,” warns a headline in the Atlantic‘s CityLab. Simulations show that, if just 25 percent of cars on the road are self-driving, the article says, there will be a lot more delays at intersections.
It’s not surprising that the transit crowd would want to try to discredit the idea of self-driving cars, but this is a particularly pathetic attempt. The CityLab article is based on a study that assumed that, for the sake of passenger comfort, self-driving cars would be programmed to accelerate and decelerate no faster than a light-rail or intercity train. Such slow acceleration, the study found, would increase the time it would take cars to get through stop lights.
The study was seemingly done by people who haven’t ever seen a self-driving car in real life, or maybe any car. There’s an obvious difference between cars and trains: people stand up and walk around in trains, so acceleration and deceleration has to be slow. So far, no one has designed a self-driving tall enough to stand in, so there’s no need to cripple the cars that way.
Last week, officials of the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) celebrated their successes over the past year. Their theme was that the state of MARTA was “good to great.” MARTA CEO Keith Parker expressed MARTA’s policies with the acronym SEAT: “Service, Economy, Arts, and Technology.”
A MARTA heavy-rail train. Wikimedia Commons photo by RTABus.
The truth is that MARTA is something of a paradox. On one hand, it has built a reasonably efficient 52-mile-long rail system: fares cover 40 percent of operating costs, which is much higher than the transit industry’s overall 25 percent; railcars carry an average of 26 passengers, which is more than Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, or Washington’s heavy-rail systems; and they consume less than 2,000 BTUs of energy per passenger mile, which is second only to New York City subways in terms of energy efficiency.
An anti-auto urbanist named Brad Meacham wrote a blog post that offers a typical “we-have-to-get-people-out-of-their-cars” diatribe. When Meacham’s post was picked up by a San Antonio on-line magazine, someone asked the Antiplanner to comment. While my response speaks for itself, I’d like to add a few comments here where I don’t have to worry so much about word limits.
Meacham’s case against cars stands on four legs:
- Congestion is only going to get worse
- The cost of driving is increasing
- Fiscal reality will force cuts to highway budgets
- People are hungry for community
The first claim is almost certainly false. As the Reason Foundation recently showed in the case of Denver, if an urban area truly wants to reduce congestion, it can do it and do it in a cost-effective manner. Reason’s plan for Denver would cost less than half as much as Denver planners are already planning to spend on transport, but because Reason’s spending is targeted on congestion-reduction rather than social engineering, it actually can relieve congestion.
The Oregonian is ending the year by listing Portland’s ten biggest transportation “lemons,” which is a family-friendly way of saying screw ups. Most of them were caused by various government agencies whose goals seem more oriented to reducing people’s mobility than enhancing it.
The lemons include: Continue reading
Next week, Anaheim California will open the Anaheim Regional Transportation Intermodal Center, which is a grammatically contorted and glorified way of saying “Anaheim train and bus station.” A recent article suggests that some people think the station is an architectural monstrosity, but the real question that should have been debated is cost: was it really worth $185 million to build a train and bus station?
All this could be yours for a mere $2,784 per square foot. Click image for a larger view.
At 67,000 square feet. the station’s cost works out to an incredible $2,764 per square foot. Can you imagine any private firm spending that kind of money on a building to serve even the most profitable business, much less a money-losing one?
John Naviaux, an undergraduate student at UC Irvine, compared the greenhouse gas benefits of getting people out of their cars and onto buses and found that, while it saved a little carbon dioxide, it wasn’t worth the huge subsidies required. As his faculty mentor, David Brownstone, comments, “there are no significant CO2 emissions benefits from moving a traveler from a personal automobile to an Orange County urban bus. This is a strong negative result since the Orange County bus fleet is among the cleanest in the world with almost all buses running on natural gas, and this shows that it will be difficult to reduce CO2 emissions in the U.S. by simply getting more people to use urban mass transit.”
The Antiplanner has the highest respect for Dr. Brownstone, but there may be a couple of problems with Naviaux’s paper. First, he counted all the subsidies to bus transit against the savings in greenhouse gas emissions. Transit advocates would be quick to point out that there are supposedly other benefits from transit, so greenhouse gas reductions are merely the icing on the proverbial cake.
Even if you don’t buy this argument–and the Antiplanner thinks the social benefits of transit are a lot smaller than many transit advocates claim–Naviaux compared the average emissions from cars with the average emissions from existing buses and the average subsidies from running those buses. But many conceivable bus improvements could significantly increase average bus occupancies at a very low marginal cost.
A new report from two pro-transit groups, the Frontier Group and the Transit Center, argues that allowing employers to deduct parking costs from their income when calculating their profits (and, thereby, their taxes) represents a $7 billion subsidy to driving. This subsidy, the report claims, adds significantly to highway congestion.
Baloney. First of all, just like providing office space to office workers and factory space to factory workers, providing parking is a cost of doing business. No one would argue that employers should charge their employees rent for the office or factory space they use. Why should employers charge for parking space?
Second, even if this were a subsidy, it has nothing to do with traffic congestion. The report claims that ending the tax break would reduce auto commuting by 2 percent. That’s probably high: just ending the tax break wouldn’t necessarily cause all employers to begin to charge for parking. But even if the number is accurate, the authors clearly don’t understand how congestion works.
Last week, the director of the Civil Rights Division for Denver’s Regional Transit District (RTD), Kenneth Hardin, was indicted for having allegedly “corruptly solicited and accepted money from a person intending to be influenced and rewarded in connection with RTD business.” While no further details were provided by the U.S. Attorney’s office in Denver, it is reasonable to speculate that Hardin is being accused of accepting a bribe to give a minority preference to a potential contractor that wasn’t really minority owned.
Federal regulations require transit agencies that receive federal funding “To ensure nondiscrimination in the award and administration of DOT-assisted contracts.” The best way to “ensure nondiscrimination,” the regulations go on to say, is to set aside a specific percentage of contracts for “disadvantaged business enterprises.” By definition, a “disadvantaged business” is one that is at least 51 percent owned by minorities, women, or other “individuals who are both socially and economically disadvantaged.”
In other words, and something that will not surprise anyone familiar with American civil rights laws, the rules require that agencies ensure nondiscrimination through discrimination. In RTD’s case, the agency is committed to making sure that at least 15 percent of its contracts go to disadvantaged businesses, and Hardin’s job was making sure that happened.
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?”
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?