Travelogue

Interstate 405 is crossed by numerous bridges as it circles halfway around downtown Portland, and none of those bridges are estimated to be capable of withstanding a severe earthquake. Rather than update the bridges, Portland is going to spend $5.9 million building a bike-pedestrian bridge across the freeway that can survive a 9.0 earthquake. After all, Portland is the city that plans to use bicycles to rescue people after an earthquake, so it is important that bicycle overpasses be able to withstand such quakes.


The East Cliff Railway in Hastings is, at 78 degrees, the steepest inclined railway currently operating in Britain.

I could write about this in more detail, but instead I hope to entertain you with some of my favorite photos from my trip to Britain. That trip is now half-way done as I write, so I’ll probably have a second installment of photos in early September.

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A Mere $54 Billion for Light Rail

Seattle’s regional transit agency, Sound Transit, wants voters to approve a tax increase so it can spend another $54 billion on new light-rail lines. The agency’s first light-rail line went 86 percent over its original projections, but the agency assures the public that it has realized that voters are so innumerate that it no longer needs to low-ball the cost estimates in order to get tax increases approved.

To promote its plan, the agency has hired Peter “Paint Is Cheaper Than Rails” Rogoff to run the agency and get federal grants. Rogoff argued in 2010 that buses can attract as many riders as trains, and that “Bus Rapid Transit is a fine fit for a lot more communities than are seriously considering it.” Of course, he must believe that rail makes more sense than buses for Seattle, or he wouldn’t have taken this $298,000 per year job (a $118,000 increase over his previous job), right?

Seattle’s first light-rail line cost $3.1 billion in 1995 dollars, or $4.8 billion in today’s dollars for about 20 miles, for an average cost of $240 million a mile. According to the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, out of nearly 1.6 million commuters, a respectable 160,000 took the bus to work in the Seattle urban area in 2014 but fewer than 3,000 took light rail while another 7,500 took commuter rail or streetcars to work. It’s possible that some survey respondents were confused and marked streetcar or commuter rail when they meant light rail, but it is still an insignificant number.

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Trains Are Sometimes Crowded

British trains are sometimes crowded, especially around London. The Antiplanner was lucky to leave London in a nearly empty train, but other trains have been standing room only. I stood for nearly two hours on a train from Westbury to Newport the other day.

According to Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, overcrowding is evidence that the government should return the privatized trains to public operation. He rode a Virgin Rail train out of London and tweeted that he couldn’t find a seat.

In response, Richard Branson released videotapes showing that Corbyn had boarded the train and walked past empty seats. Corbyn’s staff later said he wanted two empty seats so he could sit next to his wife. Of course, he could have reserved two seats next to each other in advance, but he didn’t do that. Probably he would rather be mad.

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Self-Driving Cars Edge Closer

People who remain skeptical of self-driving cars simply aren’t paying attention. The biggest news in the past week is that Ford’s chief executive, Mark Fields, has pledged that his company will have “fleets” of totally self-driving cars–with no steering wheels or pedals–in American cities by 2021.

His wording makes it appear that Ford will not only sell the cars to consumers, but offer Uber-like car-sharing services itself. To help it reach this goal, Ford recently purchased SAIPS, an Israeli company specializing in machine learning and sensing.

General Motors, meanwhile, spent $1 billion acquiring Cruise Automation, a company that the Antiplanner considered to be pretty fly-by-night. This company had promised to turn any 2012 or later Audi into a self-driving car for $10,000. I think all it really did was add adaptive cruise control and lane centering, so cars could drive themselves on freeways, but not on city streets, nor could they navigate from one place to another. Yet GM appears to have been impressed.

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National Cycle Route 2

Greetings from Frome (which rhymes with broom, not dome), Britain (which rhymes with ten, not plain). Last week the Antiplanner praised a “bicycle superhighway,” or what I would call a “bicycle boulevard,” that was set up in London. On Saturday, I got a taste of the rural version of this superhighway, but I was much less impressed.

The national cycle routes were set up by, or at least documented by, Sustrans (which presumably is short for “sustainable transportation”), a non-government (but partly government-funded) organization. On my ride from Brighton to Dover, I got to see and use some of National Cycle Route 3, one of more than 100 such routes in Britain.

Before describing the route, I have a bone to pick with Sustrans. The organization has a map of its routes on line, but it is made to not be easily copied, and is useless for detailed, on-the-ground directions. It sells paper maps, but as a cyclist, I don’t want to have to unfold a map everytime I come to a crossroads. It doesn’t make PDFs of its maps available, just paper. How sustainable is that?

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Cycle Superhighway 3

On my way from my Airbnb to Victoria Station I found Cycle Superhighway 3, which has become very popular since it opened five or six years ago. Mostly marked in blue with lanes that were sometimes a bit narrow, it seemed to use mainly local streets (often punctuated by overly large speed humps) or parts of very wide sidewalks along arterials or collectors. It didn’t seem to take lanes away from existing arterials or collectors.


One of the less-busy segments of Cycle Superhighway 3.

After determining a route, the main cost to the city was paint and putting in bicycle-friendly traffic signals. The “superhighway” took me from east London to the London Tower; from there, another route followed the Thames River. Although this route was dedicated exclusively to bicycles, it was also interrupted by annoyingly large speed humps.

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Forward into the Past Via VIA

The San Antonio urban area has about 1.9 million people today and, if it keeps growing at recent rates, will add 1.6 million more by 2040. VIA, the region’s transit agency, gets most of its money from a one-half-cent sales tax, so by 2040 it will get about 80 percent more tax revenues.


Click image to download this 40-MB PDF.

The agency is hungry for more, however, so it has written a long-range plan called Vision 2040. Actually, to call this a plan is generous; it is actually more of a sales brochure, as it doesn’t consider any alternatives, any impacts of the proposal, or any real information about costs. Instead, it merely says that it wants increased taxes to provide bus-rapid transit on exclusive bus lanes and possibly light rail–in other words, transit infrastructure that might have been useful a few decades ago, but certainly won’t be useful a few decades from now.

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Back in the Air Again

The Antiplanner is in London today, starting a 16-day tour of Britain. Professionally, I’ll be looking at rail privatization and land-use issues. Personally, I hope to enjoy some cycling.

I should have wifi most days, so at least I’ll be able to post some photos of where I’ve been. I hope everyone has a wonderful time for the rest of the summer.

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The Democrats’ Fair Housing Plan

Vice presidential candidate Tim Kaine’s outline of Hillary Clinton’s housing plan focused on racial discrimination. While that’s an important issue, it isn’t really at the heart of Clinton’s housing plan. In fact, it isn’t even mentioned in Clinton’s platform.

Instead, the heart of the plan is huge subsidies to middle-class homebuyers aimed at increasing homeownership. Clinton proposes to give anyone who earns less than a region’s median income up to $10,000 to help with a downpayment on a house.

There are several problems with this idea. First, Clinton doesn’t restrict the grants to first-time homebuyers, so it is likely that the program won’t significantly increase homeownership. Second, the median family income in a dozen urban areas, from Boulder to San Jose, is more than $100,000 a year, so a lot of well-off people would qualify free federal money. Third, the $10,000 would only be given to people who can match it with their own savings, and since nearly half of all Americans don’t even have $400 to spare, not much of Clinton’s promise will reach low-income people.

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Transit Versus Self-Driving Cars

Two years ago, the Antiplanner predicted that self-driving cars would put most transit agencies out of business. So it’s not surprising to see push-back against self-driving cars from transit supporters. What’s surprising is that it took so long.

Cities need more public transit, not Uber and self-driving cars,” says Kevin Cashman, a policy analyst with the progressive Center for Economic and Policy Research. “We don’t need self-driving cars — we need to ditch our vehicles entirely,” argues California writer Rebecca Solnit in the Guardian.

Cashman’s argument is that self-driving cars won’t be “affordable,” while public transit is. Excuse me? In 2014, American transit agencies spent $59 billion to move people 57 billion passenger miles (see page 106). That’s more than a dollar per passenger mile.

All spending on cars and driving, meanwhile, amounted to $1.1 billion (add lines 54, 57, and 116 of table 2.5.5). Highway subsidies in 2014 were about $45 billion (subtract gas tax diversions to transit and non-highway purposes from “other taxes and fees”). For that cost, Americans drove 2.7 trillion vehicle miles in light-duty vehicles. At an average occupancy of 1.67 people per vehicle (see table 16), that’s 4.5 trillion passenger miles, which works out to an average cost of 26 cents a passenger mile.

In other words, transit is only “affordable” because three-fourths of the cost is subsidized, while less than 4 percent of the cost of driving is subsidized. I’m in favor of ending both subsidies, but someone has to pay those costs; when adding them in, driving is four times more affordable than transit.

Cashman’s dependence on low-income people to make his case isn’t credible anymore, both because most low-income people have cars and most people riding transit today aren’t low-income. Cashman makes some valid points about Uber’s lack of profitability and its use of aggressive lobbying, but that doesn’t change the fact that self-driving cars are going to completely change urban landscapes.

Solnit’s argument is even more shallow. She rides transit, so therefore everyone else should too. Her argument would be only a little stronger if she didn’t admit that she herself has not yet “ditched her car entirely.” The reality is that transit only works for a few people, as suggested by the facts that Americans drove more than 1.9 trillion vehicle miles in urban areas in 2014 but rode transit only 57 billion passenger miles. At 1.67 people per vehicle, that means transit accounted for about 1.7 percent of motorized urban travel.

Back in 2014, after the Antiplanner predicted the doom of public transit, Human Transit writer Jarrett Walker wrote a more insightful, but still flawed, response. Really dense cities will still need transit, he argued. I don’t disagree with that; my paper admitted that transit would survive in New York City and perhaps Chicago and San Francisco.

But Walker went on to argue that “technology never changes geometric facts.” That’s a ridiculous statement, as we know very well that steam trains, streetcars, and automobiles all resulted in major changes to urban landscapes. Since Henry Ford’s first use of the moving assembly line to make automobiles, for example, virtually all urban centers in the developed world have seen major declines in density. Manhattan, for example, had more than 2.3 million people in 1910; by 2010, it was less than 1.6 million. Most other centers have seen even greater declines.

So the question is not, as Walker poses it, will self-driving cars replace transit in really dense urban centers? Instead, it is, what will happen to those dense urban centers once self-driving cars give people even more freedom to live and work somewhere else?

A breath of fresh air comes from Portland-area resident Bill Conerly, who writes in Forbes that “self-driving cars will eliminate premium pricing for transit-oriented development” by reducing congestion and the costs of travel. I’m not sure there is much premium pricing for transit-oriented development (if there were, Portland wouldn’t have needed to spend well over $1 billion subsidizing it), but Conerly’s point is the same as the Antiplanner’s: cities shouldn’t spend on transit and transit-oriented development under the assumption that transportation technologies will never change.

As the Antiplanner has said before, no one can accurately predict how self-driving cars will affect cities, thus any long-term plans are likely to be wrong. Instead of making such plans, cities should focus on solving today’s problems today. As Gandalph said in my favorite quote from Lord of the Ring, “it is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succour of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule.”

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