Portland Addresses Housing Crisis By Making Housing More Expensive

Portland housing prices are growing faster than almost anywhere in the nation. So the Portland city council has decided to address this problem by building 1,300 units of “affordable” housing, adding less than one-half percent to the city’s housing inventory.

How are they going to pay for this? By taxing new homes 1 percent of their value. Because new and existing homes are easily substitutable for one another, when the price of new homes goes up by 1 percent, the price of existing homes will also go up by 1 percent.

The problem is that politicians don’t understand the difference (or hope voters don’t understand the difference) between “affordable housing” and “housing affordability.” The former is something governments build to help people who are too poor to afford decent housing. The latter is the general level of housing prices relative to the general level of incomes. Building “affordable homes” addresses the first problem, but not the second–except in cases such as Portland where affordable housing makes housing less affordable.

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Ignorance and Bias About Self-Driving Cars

The National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) has issued a policy statement regarding self-driving cars that betrays ignorance about the technology and bias against cars in general. This summary boils down the policy statement to five recommendations, a few of which make sense but most of which do not.

First, NACTO wants to forbid the use of partially automated vehicles on city streets, allowing them only on limited access highways. “Such vehicles have been shown to encourage unsafe driving behavior, with drivers reading more, texting more, and generally being inattentive while the vehicle is in motion.” Maybe so, but the real question is: do partially automated vehicles increase safety even if drivers are less attentive? Since partial automation measures (such as adaptive cruise control, lane keeping, and collision avoidance) are aimed mainly at increasing safety, banning them without considering the safety implications is being deliberately ignorant.

Second, they advise cities to “rethink. . . currently planned expressway expansions” that could become “white elephants” when self-driving cars effectively increase road capacities. The Antiplanner has actually offered the same advice, suggesting that new highways be built only where populations are growing rapidly. But the Antiplanner urges that the same advice be applied to transit projects, which are far more likely to become white elephants than highways, yet the city officials remain mum on this subject.

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Columbus Wins $90 Million Burden

Columbus, Ohio won the competition for a $40 million “smart transportation” grant from the federal government (plus $10 million from Paul Allen). The city must match this with $90 million in local funds, so it is questionable who is the real winner: Columbus or the cities that applied but didn’t win.

Columbus’ application is somewhat vague. The specific things it proposes hardly seem worth $140 million, and many of them could be done by the private sector without any government prompting.

For example, the city proposes to create an app that would allow truck drivers to find the most congestion-free way to reach their destinations and another app to help tourists reach sporting events and other popular destinations. Don’t we already have such apps in Google maps? And if not, isn’t it likely that private developers can or will make such apps without huge government incentives?

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Class Consciousness

In a reversal of stereotypes, “Democrats have become a party of the wealthy” admits Fredrik deBoer in the Washington Post. Meanwhile, Republicans–much to the chagrin of some Republican “elites”–have become a party of the working class.

The Antiplanner was reminded of this when I saw a report saying that 29.4 percent of Americans were now “upper middle class,” which the report defines as having incomes of $100,000 or more for a family of three (or roughly $82,000 for a family of two, $115,000 for a family of four, etc.–see page 3 of the report). This highlights something the Antiplanner has said several times before: the real social divide in America is not between the 1 percent and the 99 percent, but between the 30 percent and the 70 percent. Specifically, about 30 percent of working-age Americans are “knowledge workers,” and generally have college degrees, while 70 percent do physical labor, and generally don’t have college degrees.

As the Antiplanner has previously noted, there is a lot of confusion about the term “middle class.” Surveys show that nine out of ten Americans consider themselves to be middle class, but in fact, six of them are wrong. Class is not distinguished by income, though it certainly influences income. The Antiplanner spent the first 20 years of my career earning a very low income, but I was college educated with college-educated parents and definitely had middle-class attitudes (never mind the fact that many of my peers scorned the “middle class” even as they formed a part of it).

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Honolulu Rail More Boondoggly Than Ever

The Federal Transit Administration’s latest estimates suggest that the Honolulu rail line now under construction could cost nearly $10.8 billion, or more than twice the $5.1 billion originally promised. That’s the “highest possible cost” calculated by its estimation process, while the “likely range” is $7.2 to $8.0 billion. However, two years ago, the highest possible cost was estimated to be $7.6 billion, which is right in the middle of today’s likely range.

Any of those numbers are drastic overruns. Typically, transit agency officials have denied there is an overrun. But now they are proposing to not build the last five miles of the rail line into downtown Honolulu. Since they started construction in middle of farm lands 20 miles from downtown, they would truly have a rail line going from nowhere to hardly anywhere.

Even if it doesn’t finish the line, the city has already purchased and may continue to purchase land in the downtown area for the rail line. This creates uncertainty among property owners. Even further uncertainty is generated by reports of shoddy construction. Meanwhile, the FTA has hinted it might withhold some of the federal government’s share of funding if the line isn’t completed.

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New York Subway: Success or Failure?

New York City subways have been in the news lately. A passenger thought they heard a gun, which lead to a stampede of people trying to get out of the Central Park North station in a case of what authorities called “mass hysteria.” Second, the Wall Street Journal reports that the number of reported gropings, public lewdness, and similar sexual offenses has gone up 50 percent in the last year. City police attribute this to more victims reporting crimes more than an actual increase in the crimes, but the Antiplanner is dubious about that.


Are New York subways really overcrowded? MTA claims that some subway lines are running at capacity.

These problems result, at least in part, from overcrowding. As the Antiplanner has noted before, transit ridership is declining in most cities, but continues to grow in New York due to increased jobs. This ridership growth, however, doesn’t come without cost, including more than a doubling of the number of delayed trains. Even if trains aren’t delayed, they might be so crowded that passengers have to wait for two or more full trains to go by before one arrives that has room for them to board.

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Self-Driving Cars to Make Housing Affordable

An article in the Wall Street Journal points out that self-driving cars will give more people access to housing that is affordable, particularly in urban areas where growth-management regulation has driving up housing costs. Unfortunately, that’s not the overt message in the article, which is instead headlined, “Driverless Cars to Fuel Suburban Sprawl,” as if that’s a bad thing.

You’d think that a writer for the Wall Street Journal would realize that sprawl is a good thing, but it gives people access to more affordable housing and less traffic congestion, and most importantly allows people to live in the way most people prefer: in a single-family home on a private lot. But this article by technology writer Christopher Mims seems to assume that everyone knows sprawl is bad, even though it doesn’t say why. In fact, the article reports, in a shocked tone, that “half of Americans live in, and are perfectly fine with, suburbs.”

Mims admits that no one really knows how self-driving cars will change the world. But he joins others in assuming that nearly everyone will give up owning a car and rely on car-sharing instead. After all, he and others point out, cars are actually used only 5 percent of the time–what a waste! Hey, Mr. Mims, the toilet in your house is probably used only about 5 percent of the time. Are you willing to share it with anyone who can download a smartphone app?

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High-Speed Lies

Here’s a rare example of a headline asking a question whose answer is “yes”: “Did bullet train officials ignore warning about need for taxpayer money?” Although the headline would have been more accurate if it had stated, “Bullet train officials cover up warning about need for taxpayer money.”

When the California High-Speed Rail Authority put the 2008 measure on the ballot for the state to build the line from Los Angeles to San Francisco, they claimed that the line would earn more than a billion dollars a year in operating profits (compare tables on pages 21 and 22), and that private investors would gladly invest around $7 billion in the project in order to get a share of those profits (figure 26).

As recently as two months ago, when asked at a legislative hearing if other high-speed rail operations earned “a substantial profit,” rail authority chair Dan Richard replied, “all of them, virtually all of them, make operating profit.” But Richard had to know that was a lie.

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Albuquerque BRT: More Harm Than Good

The Federal Transit Administration’s 2017 New Starts report recommends funding for 22 different bus-rapid transit projects in cities ranging from Lansing to New York. Many of these projects propose to convert existing street lanes to dedicated bus lanes, which the Antiplanner thinks is usually a waste. In particular, the Antiplanner has criticized such proposals in Albuquerque and Indianapolis.

Now a new report from a surprising source confirms the Antiplanner’s conclusions about Albuquerque’s proposal and provides a model that skeptical citizens can use in other cities. The report is by Gregory Rowangould, an assistant professor of civil engineering at the University of New Mexico whose research focuses on sustainable transportation. Rowangould formerly worked for the Natural Resources Defense Council and is a strong transit advocate. However, like the Antiplanner, he is very skeptical of Albuquerque’s proposal to convert two of the four-to-six lanes of Albuquerque’s Central Avenue to dedicated bus lanes.

In order to be eligible for federal funds for the project, the city hired Parsons Brinckerhoff to do a traffic study and HDR to do a travel demand analysis. The city’s grant application reported to the FTA that the proposed project would relieve congestion, significantly increase transit ridership, and in particular help low-income people. Rowangould’s review of the traffic and travel demand analyses found, however, that the opposite would be true: the project would severely increase congestion, it would do little for transit ridership, but it would especially hurt low-income transit riders.

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Anti-Gentrification: Another Misguided Solution

New York City politician Adriano Espaillat has proposed that the federal government create “anti-gentrification” zones “where vulnerable tenants could form cooperatives to purchase their apartment buildings away from predatory landlords [and a] ruthless market.” As a rule of thumb, any time a politician proposes a new government program to save people from the “ruthless market,” it is worth looking to see what other government programs are really causing the problem.

First of all, gentrification is a local problem, so why should the federal government get involved? Espaillat’s answer is “the federal level . . . is really where the money is.” The real answer is that Espaillat is running for Congress, so he has to propose a federal solution to get people to vote for him. Considering that the federal government is nearly $20 trillion in debt, the Antiplanner suggests that people should be skeptical of politicians who think the federal government is made of money.

Second, a lot of gentrification is driven by the “build up, not out” crowd, often using government subsidies to promote their visions. In New York City, for example, Mayor de Blasio wants to rezone low-income neighborhoods so that the city can tear down people’s mid-rise apartments and replace them with high-rise “affordable” housing. Too bad there isn’t some architectural critic to challenge this plan. Maybe they could write a book about it.

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