Trump Should Cancel New MPO Rules

One of the first things President Trump did when taking office was to block implementation of a reduction in mortgage insurance premiums that President Obama had ordered a few weeks before. Obama’s order would have reduced FHA insurance premiums by 0.25 percent of the value of the value of the loan. Since FHA’s fund balance is just 16 percent above the legal minimum, Obama’s order would have turned it from a solvent program to a money loser. By reversing Obama’s order, Trump was giving incoming HUD Secretary Ben Carson a chance to review it.

Another recent rule that Trump should cancel or postpone is a final rule on metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) that was issued on December 15. As the Antiplanner noted last October, this rule would force adjacent MPOs to either combine into one or coordinate together when writing plans. The assumption is that, if writing regional plans is good, writing super regional plans is even better.

The flaw in that assumption, of course, is the notion that writing regional plans is good. Regional planners necessarily have less information about their regions than local planners, who have less information than landowners. The idea that people with less information can do a better job of planning your property than you can do is one of the basic flaws in all government land-use planning.

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The Evils of Urban Containment

The Antiplanner is flying to the East Coast today to help some local activists fight a proposed urban-growth boundary. Coincidentally, the Antiplanner’s faithful ally, Wendell Cox, released his annual international survey of housing affordability today.

As the Antiplanner has done for American states and urban areas, Cox shows that, among international urban areas, there is a high correlation between urban containment policies–whether through growth boundaries, greenbelts, or other tools–and unaffordable housing. Simple supply and demand says that when you restrict supply in the face of rising demand, prices will go up–and that’s exactly what we see all over the world.

Cox supplements data he has gathered himself from eight countries (plus Hong Kong) with additional data for urban areas in China and Malaysia. With a little work, it should be possible to add urban areas in non-English-speaking Europe. Perhaps we can have this done in time for the 2018 survey.

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Interlude
Most Europeans Don’t Ride Transit Either

Contrary to popular belief, Europeans don’t ride transit a lot more than Americans. In fact, most rarely use transit.

Conventional wisdom holds that Americans drive cars while Europeans ride transit and intercity trains. In fact, while there are some differences in travel habits, differences in rail and bus travel are a lot smaller than most people believe.

In 2009, the European Union published a Panorama of Transport that compared passenger and freight transport between members of the European Union and several other countries, including Japan, Norway, Switzerland, and the United States. Page 100 shows 2006 data for the EU-27 (the 27 members of the European Union at that time) and the United States. For accuracy in the table below, I extended the data to more significant digits by dividing total passenger kilometers by 490.0 (for the EU-27) and 301.3 (for the US).

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Reason #8 Most Americans Don’t Ride Transit
Life Is Complicated

Transit works best going from point A to point B if you happen to be near point A and want to get to point B. Transit doesn’t work well for trip chaining, going from point A to point B via points C, D, and E. Because life is complicated and people don’t want to spend all their time traveling, trip chaining works best in an independent vehicle such as a car.

On your way to work, you might want to drop off your kids at school or daycare, drop off your suit at the laundry, and get a cup of coffee. On your way home, in addition to picking up the kids and laundry, you may want to go grocery shopping. This is called trip chaining, and it is a lot easier to do in a car than by transit. (Yes, there’s probably a Starbucks next to your transit stop, but your transit agency probably doesn’t allow you take beverages on board.)

Some analysts wonder whether people choose to drive because they want to trip chain or if they trip chain because they have cars. But this is the wrong question. The reality is, life is complicated, and cars do a better job of helping people deal with that complexity.

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Reason #7 Most Americans Don’t Ride Transit
It Doesn’t Carry Freight

Carrying large packages, suitcases, or shopping bags on transit is awkward at best and impossible at worst. Anyone who expects to travel with such cargo, even if only some of the time, will do best with a car.

In 2007, Ikea opened its first store in Portland. It is 280,000 square feet, has around a thousand parking spaces, and is near a light-rail station. How many people who plan to do more than just window shop do you imagine carry their purchases home on the light rail?

Drag right to see the Cascades light-rail station, which is much further from Ikea than any of the parking spaces.

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Reason #6 Most Americans Don’t Ride Transit
Transit Infrastructure Is Crumbling

Rather than maintain transit systems in a state of good repair, the transit industry has chosen to build more transit lines that it can’t afford to maintain. Transit riders respond to delays and dilapidated transit by finding other methods of travel.

The Department of Transportation’s latest assessment of the nation’s transit systems found an $89.8 billion maintenance backlog. Moreover, the backlog is growing by $1.6 billion a year, because rather than fix transit systems, transit agencies are building more.

To eliminate the backlog in 20 years, the report calculated, every single dollar now being spent on transit improvements must be transferred to maintenance and preservation. Alternatively, the industry must find at least $5.8 billion in new subsidies each year (see page Roman numeral L).

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Stuck in Place

Geographic mobility–the movement of people from place to place in response to changing job trends–had declined in the United States, which in turn contributes to the reduction in economic mobility. David Schleicher, a Yale University associate law professor, has written a paper arguing that this reduction is due to government regulations, including land-use regulations that make it expensive to move and occupational licensing that makes it expensive to enter new markets.

This is an important paper, partly because it gained the attention of media ranging from Slate to Reason Magazine, and partly because it documents in detail some things the Antiplanner has said for years.

In Best-Laid Plans, I wrote, “A researcher in England has found higher levels of unemployment among people who own their homes. But this is because Britain’s growth-management planning has made housing there the least affordable in the world. Such high-priced housing greatly increases the cost of moving and discourages people who own homes from relocating to a city with more jobs. To date, this effect is much weaker in the United States, but continued housing shortages could potentially reduce American mobility.”

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Reason #5 Most Americans Don’t Ride Transit
Our Cities Aren’t Built for It

Housing, jobs, and other destinations are so diffused throughout American urban areas that they don’t generate the large numbers of people moving from one point to another that mass transit systems need to work.

“Transit worked when American cities were denser,” is the mantra of today’s urban planners. “If we can increase their densities, transit will work again.” Reality is a lot more complicated, and that reality explains why transit can’t work in American urban areas even if their densities increase.

From about 1880 to 1913, transit and cities co-evolved thanks to new technologies that benefited both. The same steam engines that powered commuter and early rapid transit trains also powered downtown factories. The same Bessemer steel that made the rails that streetcars and urban trains rolled upon also provided the structural beams that allowed construction of skyscrapers. The same electric motors that moved electric streetcars also powered electric elevators that gave people quick access to the upper floors of those skyscrapers.

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Reason #4 Most American’s Don’t Ride Transit
Lack of Privacy and Security

Compared with the aura of security offered by riding inside of an automobile, many people avoid transit because they feel vulnerable and threatened by other riders.

Crime, sexual harassment, and other invasions of privacy are common on metro systems throughout the world. Sexual harassment is especially bad on Tokyo subways, and a survey of 600 women transit riders in Paris found that 100 percent of them reported having been sexually harassed.

Such harassment often depends on the anonymity that comes with extreme crowding, but most American transit systems don’t get that crowded precisely because Americans won’t accept the invasions of personal space required for such crush conditions. Still, there are numerous complaints of sexual harassment on the New York City subway. Crime is rapidly rising on the DC Metro as well.

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Reason #3 Americans Don’t Ride Transit
It’s Expensive

The transit industry claims that transit saves people money. But the truth is that, for most people, it costs a lot less to drive than to ride transit.

Public transit is the most heavily subsidized form of transportation in the United States, with subsidies per passenger mile that are 50 to 100 times greater than subsidies to driving. But people who use transit are only dimly aware of the subsidies. Even without counting the subsidies, most people don’t ride transit partly because the alternatives, including driving, cost so much less.

The 2015 National Transit Database shows that people pay an average of 28 cents per passenger mile to ride transit. To compare this cost with driving, the American Public Transportation Association uses American Automobile Association calculations of the cost of driving, which show an average cost of about 57 cents a mile for medium-sized cars. So it seems like a no-brainer to conclude that transit saves money.

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