The New York Times had an article recently arguing that the $11 billion Congress has spent on high-speed rail grants since 2009 has produced little visible results, mainly because most of it was spent on increasing the speeds of existing trains by two or three miles per hour rather than building new, true high-speed rail lines. This was followed by an editorial saying that “American lawmakers have not given high-speed rail the priority it deserves.” Population “growth will put an incredible strain on the nation’s highways and air-traffic system,” the editorial predicted, and high-speed rail would alleviate that strain.
In response, Forbes contributor Tim Worstall says, “The New York Times is wrong; there is no case for high-speed rail.” Worstall accepts the conventional wisdom that cars make sense for trips under 100 miles and planes make sense for trips of more than four hours, but in between there is a “sweet spot” in which rail makes sense. However, he continues, with the development of self-driving cars, that sweet spot disappears because the only advantage of trains is that riders can work or relax while on board, and since self-driving cars will allow people to do that too, there won’t be any need for high-speed trains.
Worstall is right about the New York Times being wrong, but he is wrong that there is a sweet spot today in which high-speed rail has an advantage over driving or flying. In claiming that such a sweet spot exists, Worstall is underestimating both the advantages of driving when and where you want to go and the excessively high costs of high-speed trains.
Ever since the British parliament passed the Town & Country Planning Act in 1947, housing in that nation has gotten less and less affordable. As a result, the average size of new homes today is only 925 square feet, down 44 percent from the average size in 1920. Meanwhile, the average size of new home in the United States in 2013 was 2,598 square feet, up 56 percent from 1,660 square feet forty years before.
Eric Pickles, Britain’s community secretary, blames the problem on “Labour policy, which decreed that at least 30 homes had to be built on every hectare of land” (about 12 per acre). But we know the problems go back well before the previous government, and the Tories had plenty of chances to reverse the policies in the Town & Country Planning Act.
Although the Daily Mail published this article just a few days ago, it is based on reports from the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) that go back to at least 2011. RIBA has started a campaign aimed at having the government set minimum requirements for space and light in new homes.
The Oregonian was writing metaphorically when it reported last Tuesday that Portland’s low-capacity trains were “knocked off track by expensive, deferred maintenance.” By Friday, it was no longer a metaphor, as a light-rail car derailed near downtown, shutting down much of the system for several hours.
Transit commuters complained that they were given no information about the shutdown and many waited in increasing frustration as stations became more and more crowded. To make matters worse, the elevator at the Hollywood station, about one station away from the derailment, stopped working as well.
As a “thank you for your patience,” TriMet has announced all rides on its low-capacity trains will be free today.
The Cato Institute has published a new paper on Greenlight Pinellas, or, as I prefer to call it, Red Ink Pinellas. As previously mentioned in the Antiplanner, this is a plan to spend $1.7 billion building a light-rail line from St. Petersburg to Clearwater, Florida and boost local bus service by 70 percent.
The paper reveals that the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority, which is pushing for light rail, has a poor track record of spending. From 1991 to 2005, it increased bus service by 46 percent but saw a 17 percent drop in passenger miles. Then the recession forced it to cut bus service by 5 percent, yet ridership grew by 9 percent. Given this history, boosting bus service is likely to result in a lot of empty buses. Meanwhile, the agency projects that so few people will ride its light rail that it will only need to run one-car trains.
When compared with bus-rapid transit, the cost of getting one person out of their car and onto the proposed light-rail line is projected to be $50. That means getting one person who currently commutes by car to switch to light rail would cost more than buying that person a new 5-series BMW every year, or a new Tesla class S every other year, for the next 30 years.
America has more than three million transportation workers, more than any other occupational group, and they are all about to lose their jobs to self-driving vehicles. They might fight it, says this video, but “the workers always lose; economics always wins.”
Fortunately, the creator of this video doesn’t understand economics (for example, it is not something that wins or loses). He equates humans with horses, saying that horses never expected that they would lose their jobs to motor vehicles, but as it turned out their population peaked in 1915 and has been declining ever since.
Here’s a story by the Oregonian‘s intrepid reporter, Joseph Rose that has it all: deferred maintenance, delayed trains, $950 million in unfunded retirement benefits, transit cuts and fare increases, secret pay raises to transit agency executives, an angry transit union, and a plan to move transit riders on buses around rail work that “basically imploded.”
Worn pavement and light-rail switch near Portland’s Lloyd Center. Photo from Max FAQs.
The Antiplanner has repeatedly harped on the fact that rail transit infrastructure basically lasts only 30 years and then must be replaced, often at greater expense (even after adjusting for inflation) than the original construction cost. Part of the cost is dealing with the interruptions in service that are almost inevitable when replacing rails, wires, and other fixed hardware.
After a soccer game last week in Santa Clara, California, people complained about lengthy waits to get a light-rail train home. The game attracted more than 48,000 fans, but only about 8,300 of them were able to take the light rail to and from the stadium–and it took 90 minutes to move that number away from the event.
“Mass Transportation,” a painting by Grif Teller used on the 1955 Pennsylvania Railroad calendar.
The sad thing is that transit agencies such as the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) have propagandized the wonders of light rail, calling it “high-capacity transit,” so that people actually believe it can do things like fill and empty a stadium with 68,000 seats. The reality is that light rail cannot come close to doing this, at least not without taking many hours. VTA should give up and rely on buses instead.
One of the conclusions of the Antiplanner’s recent paper on rapid buses was that regions that had fewer than 40,000 downtown jobs didn’t need rapid buses, much less light rail. Austin has about 72,000 downtown jobs, but rapid bus isn’t working well there either.
One reason can be found in census numbers, specifically table B08141 of the American Community Survey. For 2012, this table reports that just 2.2 percent of Austin workers live in households that lack access to an automobile, yet 28 percent of them drive alone to work and 12 percent carpool, while only 25 percent take transit to work. In other words, as I’ve noted for other urban areas, transit is just not relevant to most people.
In March of this year, Austin’s MetroRapid bus attracted nearly 6,500 trips per day. This declined to 5,900 in April and 5,300 in April, rising slightly to just under 5,500 in June.
I never met Sir Peter Hall, who died last week, but I feel like I’ve lost an old friend. His books helped guide me through the history of urban planning and its growing obsession with densification.
Cities in Civilization is his most-frequently mentioned book, mainly because its 1,129 pages made it such a formidable reference. Though I have two copies of that book, the book I really love is Cities of Tomorrow, which traced the history of the urban planning profession.
In it, Hall noted that the earliest urban planners were anarchists who sought to free the working class from their high-density hovels. But that changed when Le Corbusier, who Hall called “the Rasputin of the tale” of urban planning, proposed that all cities should consist solely of high-rises. Planners flocked to this idea, and after World War II, nations all over the world rebuilt their slums or bombed-out areas into high rises. Far from freeing the working class from density, planning became all about forcing the working class into density.
Kansas City voters rejected a plan to build an extensive streetcar system. The city already has plans to build a short “starter” line, and the mayor wanted to build more. But voters agreed that buses were cheaper and more sensible. This is the ninth time Kansas City voters have rejected rail transit.
Meanwhile, the Antiplanner has given several presentations in the Twin Cities about rail transit and associated land-use planning. These presentations can be downloaded, with a summary of my narration in the “notes” section, as either Zip files that include several short videos or smaller PowerPoint files that leave out the videos.
- Presentation to the SW Metro Tea Party: Zip file (111 MB) or PPT file (32 MB)
- Presentation to Daytons Bluff neighborhood: Zip file (82 MB) or PPT file (39 MB)
- Presentation to Metro North Chamber of Commerce: Zip file (98 MB) or PPT file (15 MB)