Wed, 16 Aug 2017 03:35:31 +0000 en-US hourly 1 ADC Asks Congress to Reformulate New Starts Mon, 26 Jan 2015 19:05:43 +0000 Continue reading ]]> ADC has joined with eighteen other national and state think tanks in asking Congress to reform the New Starts program that funds most new rail projects. ADC offered three arguments against the current process:
  • New Starts effectively gives cities and transit agencies incentives to propose the most expensive projects they can in order to get the most federal money.
  • As a discretionary fund (meaning the money is spent at the discretion of the president), New Starts is also political, giving the president power that Congress shouldn’t grant.
  • Finally, New Starts is inequitable, leading a few states and urban areas to get far more money per capita than the rest of the country.

In the last major transportation bill in 2012, Congress converted other discretionary funds, including the bus and bus facilities fund, ferry and ferry facilities fund, and congestion mitigation/air quality fund, to formula funds, meaning they are given to states and metropolitan areas based on such factors as population. ADC has asked Congress to turn New Starts into a similar formula fund, preferably one based on the user fees transit agencies earn from their customers. This would give agencies incentives to operate more for transit riders than for rail contractors.

In support of these ideas, ADC sent a letter to Pennsylvania Representative Bill Shuster, who chairs the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee. A nearly identical letter was sent to Oklahoma Senator Jim Inhofe, chair of the Senate Environment & Public Works Committee. A third letter was sent to Missouri Representative Sam Graves, chair of the House Highways & Transit Subcommittee. Finally, a letter was sent to Louisiana Senator David Vitter, chair of the Senate Transportation & Infrastructure Subcommittee.

No actual legislation has been written and ADC’s letter merely serves as a policy recommendation for the future. If you would like to support this policy, you can download a generic version of the letter which you can rewrite to send to your senators and representatives.

ADC’s letter cites three reports to support its policy recommendation. First is a Reason Foundation report showing that discretionary funds are highly politicized. This is supported by a GAO report that shows these discretionary funds are often inefficiently used. Finally, a Cato Institute report found that New Starts funds give cities and transit agencies incentives to waste money, putting a heavy burden on taxpayers.

The $1.5 Billion Light-Rail Boondoggle Thu, 22 Jan 2015 21:43:36 +0000 Continue reading ]]> What would you do with $1.5 billion?

Thanks to the Cascade Policy Institute for preparing this video demonstrating the absurdly high cost of light rail.

Fall Newsletter Tue, 02 Dec 2014 22:29:29 +0000 Continue reading ]]> Thanks to hard work by ADC members, voters rejected light-rail projects in Austin, Texas and Pinellas County (St. Petersburg), Florida. Activists also halted streetcar projects in Arlington, Virginia and San Antonio, Texas.

This is the top story in ADC’s latest newsletter. Get all the details and other stories as well by downloading it now.

2014 American Dream Conference Mon, 22 Sep 2014 04:34:22 +0000 Continue reading ]]> These files were presented at the 2014 Preserving the American Dream conference in Denver on September 19-21. A complete agenda shows when each presentation was given.

PowerPoint Presentations

Session 1: Debate Over Tolls and Public/Private Partnerships

Robert Poole: The Case for Tolls and PPPs

Greg Cohen: The Case Against Tolls and PPPs

Session 2: Transportation

Christian Holter: Struggles and Successes of Private Transit in America

Session 2a: Transportation Issues

Alan Pisarski: Where Is VMT Going?

Marc Scribner: The Future of Automobility

Session 2b: Transportation Finance

Baruch Feigenbaum: The TIGER Program–Discretionary Grant or Political Tool?

Session 2c: Data Workshop

Wendell Cox: Urban Data (10 MB)

Session 3: Land-Use Issues

Wendell Cox: Britain’s Declining House Sizes (13 MB)

Session 3a: Sustainability vs. Freedom

Rick Harrison: Sustainable Suburban Development Can Defeat Social Engineering (108 MB)

Thomas Wambolt: Problems with TIF

Session 3b: Fighting Sustainability Plans

Mark Gotz: Fighting Southern Florida’s Seven-50 Plan (14.1 MB)

Video on slide 9 of Mark’s show (12 MB)

Peter Singleton: Fighting Plan Bay Area

Session 3c: How to Review Transportation Plans

Thomas Rubin: How to Review a Transit Plan (10.8 MB)

Randal O’Toole: How to Review a Regional Transportation Plan (19 MB)

Session 5b: Getting out the Message

Sharon Nassett: Stopping Wasteful Projects Through Citizen Advocacy

John Anthony: Shattering America’s Trance (2.0 MB)

Jim Karlock: How to Make YouTube Videos

Mimi Steel: Fighting a Plan After It Has Been Approved (5.1 MB)

Videos associated with Mimi Steel’s presentation (107 MB).

Size not shown for files smaller than 2 megabytes.

Supplemental Papers

Marc Scribner on Regulation of Self-Driving Vehicles

Which Way for the Highway Trust Fund

Emily Goff on Bringing Transportation Decisions Closer to the People: Why States and Localities Should Have More Control

Tom Rubin on Strategy for Preparation of NEPA/CEQA Administrative Record

Selling the Northwest Passage, an article about a proposed third bridge across the Columbia River

Survey of St. Johns-Lombard about transportation issues

A Line in the Sand, an article about Sharon Nasset and the Columbia River Crossing

Interesting Data (Excel Files)

Most of the files below are from the 2012 American Community Survey, a Census Bureau survey of more than 3 million households. Some of the files for urbanized areas may not include data for smaller urban areas because the sample size wasn’t large enough for statistical accuracy.

How people with no cars get to work by urbanized area

How people with no cars get to work by state

How people get to work by income class by state

Median home price to median family income ratio by urbanized area

Median home price to median family income ratio by state

This spreadsheet is a summary of the 2012 National Transit Database, which includes data for nearly all transit agencies and modes in the nation. An Antiplanner post explains most of the rows and columns in the 1.8-MB spreadsheet.

Because Exclusive Bus Lanes Aren’t Expensive Enough Mon, 28 Jul 2014 04:00:24 +0000 Continue reading ]]> Los Angeles transit officials are eagerly contemplating the opportunity to spend money converting the Orange bus-rapid transit line into a light-rail line. To promote this idea, they are letting people know that light rail will be faster, more comfortable, and operate more frequently (so riders will be less likely to have to stand) than buses.

These lanes are exclusively dedicated to buses, but transit agency officials say they need to replace them with rail because there is no room to run more than one bus every eight minutes.

Of course, all of these things are wrong. The current bus line averages 26 mph, about 4 mph faster than the average light-rail line. Buses can be just as comfortable as light rail, and when vehicles are full, a higher percentage of bus riders get to sit down (about two-thirds as opposed to less than half). As for frequencies, the current schedule of the Orange line calls for one bus every eight minutes at rush hour. Since the road is closed to all other traffic, somehow I think they could squeeze a few more in if they wanted to.

That the line is a bus line at all is due to a curious law passed in 1991 forbidding the use of rail in the corridor, which had been used by Pacific Electric streetcars until 1952. So Metro built an exclusive bus corridor at a cost of $18 million a mile–$22 million in today’s money. That law was repealed a few weeks ago, allowing L.A. Metro officials to think about spending more money in the corridor.

Years ago, a researcher named Jonathan Richmond interviewed Los Angeles public officials and discovered a disconnect between their views of light rail and reality. The interviews would go something like this:

“Why do you support light rail?”

“Because it is so fast, people are sure to want to ride it.”

“You know it will only go 22 miles per hour.”

“Really? I thought it would be faster than that.”

“Yes, and many light-rail lines are even slower than that. So, now why do you support light rail?”

“Because it is so fast.”

The same disconnect continues today. After a collision between a bus and a car at an intersection, officials slowed down the buses, and one state senator warned that the bus line was “unsafe at any speed.” But trains will be able to go faster because being hit by a 300,000-pound train is so much safer than being hit by a 50,000-pound bus.

“With as many as 40,000 new jobs expected” in the area, officials say, “a light-rail system that could handle up to 60,000 riders a day is needed.” Because a bus line couldn’t possibly move that many people per day, could it?

Buses, in fact, have a clear capacity advantage over light rail. For example, Metro could rebuild platforms at each station to handle four buses at a time. Each bus could stop at each station for up to a minute unloading and loading passengers. Then the line could move four buses per minute, each capable of hold 100 people, for a total of 24,000 people per hour. By comparison, three-car light-rail trains, each car hold 150 passengers, can safely operate no more frequently than every three minutes, thus moving about 9,000 people per hour.

Moreover, buses have at least two other huge advantages over rail. First, without reducing the number of other buses, express buses could be added that skip some of the stops along the route. Because light-rail lines have no passing tracks, they have no options for express rail.

Second, when reaching the end of the exclusive bus lanes, the buses can continue on city streets, reaching more neighborhoods and job centers. Trains have to stop when the reach the end of rails, forcing people to transfer.

Los Angeles’ fixation with rail reminds me of Cordelia Chase, the Valley girl who was Buffy’s in-school nemesis in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In an early episode, we overhear Cordelia tell her friends, “When I go shopping, I have to have the most expensive thing. Not because it’s expensive, but because it costs more.”

This attitude has many causes, but it is reinforced by the fact that spending more money creates more opportunities for contractors to earn profits and generates more political favors. But spending more on rail also means spending less on something else. Since rail has no inherent advantage over bus, and many disadvantages, a decision to convert the Orange line to light rail would reveal a callous disregard for both the facts and for taxpayers’ interests.

Who Uses Transit? Fri, 25 Jul 2014 04:00:39 +0000 Continue reading ]]> Rail advocates often call me “anti-transit,” probably because it is easier to call people names than to answer rational arguments. I’ve always responded that I’m just against wasteful transit. But looking at the finances and ridership of transit systems around the country, it’s hard not to conclude that all government transit is wasteful transit.

Nationally, after adjusting for inflation, the APTA transit fact book shows that annual taxpayer subsidies to transit operations have grown from $1.6 billion in 1970 to $24.0 billion in 2012, yet per capita ridership among America’s urban residents has declined from 49 to 44 trips per year. A lot of that money ends up going to unionized transit workers, but the scary thing is that these workers have some of the best pension and health care plans in the world that are mostly unfunded–which means that transit subsidies will have to increase in the future even if no one rides it at all.

Capital and maintenance subsidies are nearly as great as operating subsidies, largely due to the industry’s fascination with costly rail transit. In 2012, while taxpayers spent $24 billion subsidizing transit operations, they also spent nearly $10 billion on maintenance, and more than $7 billion on capital improvements. In 2012, 25 percent of operating subsidies went to rail transit, but 56 percent of maintenance and 90 percent of capital improvements were spent on rails.

Who, other than rail contractors, union members, and other transit agency employees, is enjoying the benefits of all of these subsidies? To answer this question, I went to the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey page and downloaded table B08519, which shows how people get to work by income class, for states and metropolitan areas.

Nationwide, the data reveal, 5.0 percent of workers take transit to work. For low-income workers–those making less than $25,000 a year–the share is only slightly higher, at 5.9 percent. The shares are lower for other income classes except for people earning $75,000 a year or more, 6.1 percent of whom take transit to work. Where just under 1.2 million people who earn less than $10,000 take transit, more than 1.3 million people who earn more than $75,000 take transit.

About half of those high-earning transit commuters live in the New York metropolitan area. But this isn’t too surprising, as 40 percent of all American transit commuters live in the New York metro area. The high-income workers who take the most advantage of transit subsidies, relative to their low-income counterparts, seem to be mainly in the suburbs of New York, Chicago, Seattle, Washington DC, and–curiously–Idaho Falls.

Even in most places where low-income transit riders outnumber those who earn more than $75,000 a year, transit usage is not heavily weighted to the poor. In the Portland metro area, about 8.5 percent of low-income workers take transit to work compared with 6.1 percent of all workers. In the San Francisco Bay Area, it is 18.5 percent vs. 16.1 percent. In Tampa-St. Petersburg, it is 2.6 percent vs. 1.2 percent.

I’ve recently looked at data for Pinellas County, Florida, whose transit agency wants to build a $1.5 billion light-rail line. The county has more than 400,000 workers, but only 6,000 take transit to work. Of 14,000 commuters who live in households with no vehicle, 41 percent drive alone (presumably in borrowed or employer-supplied vehicles), 12.5 percent carpool, and just 15 percent take transit to work.

This is not particularly unusual. In nearly 75 percent of the nation’s 315 largest urban areas, more commuters who live in households that lack a vehicle nevertheless drive alone to work than take transit. Nationwide, 21 percent of commuters who lack an automobile drive alone to work, but in some urban areas it is much higher: 51 percent in Riverside-San Bernardino, 42 percent in Raleigh, 40 percent in Kansas City and San Jose, 39 percent in San Diego, 36 percent in Indianapolis, and 31 percent in Tampa-St. Petersburg to name a few.

Most people believe we originally decided to have government take over transit to help low-income people who were transit-dependent. In fact, Congress first passed the Urban Mass Transit Act of 1964 to rescue commuter trains in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, and San Francisco, whose private operators wanted to terminate service. In other words, transit was really a subsidy to big-city downtown property owners, not low-income workers.

Even if you want to help low-income workers, there doesn’t seem to be many many left who are truly dependent on transit anymore. Between high rates of auto ownership even among low-income people, the growing use of shared rides, and the soon-to-arrive self-driving car, there doesn’t seem to be much use for transit anymore.

I’ve noted before that urban planning professor David King worries that transit is “not living up to its social contract” of providing “the social benefits of mobility for non-drivers.” This view is affirmed by my friend Wendell Cox in New Geography, not to mention this graph comparing subsidies to different Bay Area transit systems and the race of the patrons of each of those systems.

One reason transit agencies no longer worry about low-income people who lack automobiles is that there aren’t very many of them left. Most non-vehicle households may be that way by choice, not by circumstance. After all, more than 20 percent of no-vehicle households are in New York, a state that has only 6 percent of the nation’s population.

Unfortunately, the census tables don’t show vehicle ownership by income, but even to the extent that some low-income households lack cars, it would cost a lot less to give each one a car than to continue subsidizing transit at the rate we do. Considering that less than 5 percent of the households in many states lack autos, I estimate that no more, and probably far less, than 5 million low-income households are without a motor vehicle. Less than two years’ worth of transit subsidies could buy Nissan Versas or similar cars for all of those people.

So transit isn’t for low-income people anymore. We also know that transit isn’t particularly green: except in New York and a few other big cities, transit uses a lot more energy and emits a lot more pollution, per passenger mile, than driving. Nor, outside of New York, does transit carry enough people to relieve much congestion, especially when you consider that the real congestion problem is poorly priced roads, a problem that isn’t solved by providing transit alternatives.

All of which leads me to conclude that there is no sound reason for giving $41 billion in subsidies to transit each year. Transit has become nothing more than a source of political favors to unions, downtown property owners, and rail contractors. As self-driving cars will soon begin to provide mobility for the disabled and those too young or old to drive, it is time for regional planning agencies to stop building obsolete rail transit lines and start thining about phasing out public transit subsidies over the next two decades.

Planning for the Unpredictable Fri, 18 Jul 2014 08:27:57 +0000 Continue reading ]]> How do you plan for the unpredictable? That’s the question facing the more than 400 metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) that have been tasked by Congress to write 20-year transportation plans for their regions. Self-driving cars will be on the market in the next ten years, are likely to become a dominant form of travel in twenty years, and most people think they will have huge but often unknowable transformative effects on our cities and urban areas. Yet not a single regional transportation plan has tried to account for, and few have even mentioned the possibility of, self-driving cars.

Instead, many of those plans propose obsolete technologies such as streetcars, light rail, and subways. These technologies made sense when they were invented a hundred or so years ago, but today they are just a waste of money. One reason why planners look to the past for solutions is that they can’t accurately foresee the future. So they pretend that, by building ancient modes of transportation, they will have the same effects on cities that they had when they were first introduced.

If the future is unpredictabie, self-driving cars make it doubly or quadruply so.

  • How long will it take before self-driving cars dominate the roads?
  • Will people who own self-driving cars change their residential locations because they won’t mind traveling twice as far to work?
  • Will employment centers move so they can take advantage of self-driving trucks and increased employee mobility?
  • Will car sharing reduce the demand for parking?
  • Will miles of driving decline due to increased carpooling or will it go up due to the increased number of people who can “drive” self-driving cars?
  • Will people use their cars as “robotic assistants,” going out with zero occupants to pick up groceries, drop off laundry, or doing other tasks that don’t require lots of supervision?
  • Will self-driving cars reduce the need for more roads because they increase road capacities, or will the increase in driving offset this benefit?
  • Will self-driving cars provide the mythical “first and last miles” needed by transit riders, or will they completely replace urban transit?

Planners from the MPOs in Seattle and Atlanta asked participants at the recent Autonomous Vehicle Symposium to help them incorporate self-driving cars in their regional transportation models. Yet the consensus was that no one has any idea about the answers to these questions. The only prediction that people could come close to agreeing upon was that self-driving cars will increase miles of driving as people take advantage of greater mobility more than they increase carpooling.

Self-driving cars are not a black swan amidst the flock of knowns about urban planning; they are a whole flock of black swans any one of which could completely sink even the most accurate predictions about all the others.

Some of the planners believed they could make guesses about the effects of self-driving cars and use them to make “sensitivity runs” to estimate the possible magnitude of the effects of self-driving cars on cities. But even if they made such runs, they would have no idea which runs will come close to reality.

“There are no models in planning practices that can predict the emergence of new modes and forms of mobility,” admitted one planner. “Our models haven’t even got the Internet yet. They haven’t got the cell phone. They’re not going to have autonomous cars.” Another agreed: “ITS [intelligent transportation systems] is 25 years old, but our models still don’t account for it.”

We are about to introduce a new technology that will completely transform our society in unpredictable ways, and many of those transformations will start changing travel behaviors and land-use patterns well before 20 years are up. The fact that the plans are revised every five years doesn’t help since many of these plans include costly investments in projects that take decades to complete. Even if new information reveals that those investments are no longer appropriate, once begun the political pressure to complete the projects will likely be too great for future officials to resist.

This means it is not enough to simply rewrite transportation planning models. Instead, we need to rewrite the entire process of urban planning.

  1. Instead of writing 20-year plans that pretend to know what a city will need in the distant future, planners should only write short-term plans that solve today’s problems without foreclosing options for the future;
  2. Planning processes should be streamlined so that it no longer takes ten or more years to plan, design, and build facilities that, a few decades ago, were built in a couple of years;
  3. Urban areas should avoid infrastructure projects that take decades to build and would make sense only if people completely changed their lifestyles;
  4. Instead, new transportation facilities should be generic in the sense that they can be used by a wide variety of modes and easily adopted for whatever modes become dominant in the future.

If some of these suggestions sound familiar, it is because I have made them before (particularly in The Best-Laid Plans). The future is unpredictable even without self-driving cars, and I’ve had little faith in the ability of long-range plans to cope with those unpredictabilities. But now even the planners are willing to admit that they can’t cope with the unpredictable effects of this new technology. I hope that at least some of them are willing to tell that to Congress, which created the requirement for 20-year plans, that it needs to change the rules.

Facts versus Ideology Mon, 14 Jul 2014 04:00:23 +0000 Continue reading ]]> Debates over smart growth–sometimes known as new urbanism, compact cities, or sustainable urban planning, but always meaning higher urban densities and a higher share of people in multifamily housing–boil down to factual questions. But smart-growth supporters keep trying to twist the arguments into ideological issues.

The choice should be yours: suburbs, or . . .

For example, in response to my Minneapolis Star Tribune article about future housing demand, Thomas Fisher, the dean of the College of Design at the University of Minnesota, writes, “O’Toole, like many conservatives, equates low-density development with personal freedom.” In fact, I equate personal freedom with personal freedom.

. . . New Urbanism. Flickr photo by David Crummey.

Fisher adds, “we [meaning government] should promote density where it makes sense and prohibit it where it doesn’t”; in other words, restrict personal freedom whenever planners’ ideas of what “makes sense” differ from yours. Why? As long as people pay the costs of their choices, they should be allowed to choose high or low densities without interference from planners like Fisher.

Another writer who makes this ideological is Daily Caller contributor Matt Lewis, who believes that conservatives should endorse new urbanism. His weird logic is conservatives want people to love their country, high-density neighborhoods are prettier than low-density suburbs, and people who don’t have pretty places to live will stop loving their country. Nevermind that more than a century of suburbanization hasn’t caused people to stop loving their country; the truth is there are many beautiful suburbs and many ugly new urban developments.

Lewis adds, “Nobody I know is suggesting that big government–or the U.N.!–ought to mandate or impose these sorts of development policies.” He apparently doesn’t know many urban planners, and certainly none in Denver, Portland, San Francisco, Seattle, the Twin Cities, or other metropolitan areas where big government in the form of regional planning agencies (though not the U.N.) are doing just that. If new urbanism were simply a matter of personal choice, no one would criticize it.

The real issues are factual, not ideological.

Fact #1: Contrary to University of Utah planning professor Arthur Nelson, most people everywhere prefer low-density housing as soon as they have transport that is faster than walking. While a minority does prefer higher densities, the market will provide both as long as there is demand for them.

Fact #2: Contrary to Matt Lewis, American suburbanization did not result from a “post-World War II push for sprawl” coming from “the tax code, zoning, a federally financed highway system, and so on.” Suburbanization began before the Civil War when steam trains could move people faster than walking speed. Most American families abandoned transit and bought cars long before interstate highways–which, by the way, more than paid for themselves with the gas taxes collected from the people who drove on them. Nor did the tax code promote sprawl: Australians build bigger houses with higher homeownership rates in suburbs just as dispersed as America’s without a mortgage interest deduction.

Fact #3: Contrary to Thomas Fisher, low-density housing costs less, not more, than high-density. Without urban-growth boundaries or other artificial restraints, there is almost no urban area in America short of land for housing. Multifamily housing costs more to build, per square foot, than single-family, and compact development is expensive because the planners tend to locate it in areas with the highest land prices. The relative prices in my article–$375,000 for a 1,400-square-foot home in a New Urban neighborhood vs. $295,000 for a 2,400-square-foot home on a large suburban lot–are typical for many smart-growth cities: compare these eastside Portland condos with these single-family homes in a nearby Portland suburb.

Fact #4: Contrary to Fisher, the so-called costs of sprawl are nowhere near as high as the costs of density. Rutgers University’s Costs of Sprawl 2000 estimates that urban services to low-density development cost about $11,000 more per house than services to high-density development. This is trivial compared with the tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars added to home prices in regions whose policies promote compact development.

Fact #5: Contrary to University of Minnesota planning professor Richard Bolan, the best way to reduce externalities such as pollution and greenhouse gases is to treat the source, not try to change people’s lifestyles. For example, since 1970, pollution controls reduced total air pollution from cars by more than 80 percent, while efforts to entice people out of their cars and onto transit reduced pollution by 0 percent.

Fact #6: Contrary to Lewis, suburbs are not sterile, boring places. Suburbanites have a strong sense of community and are actually more likely to engage in community affairs than city dwellers.

Fact #7: Smart growth doesn’t even work. It doesn’t reduce driving: After taking self-selection into account, its effects on driving are “too small to be useful.” It doesn’t save money or energy: multifamily housing not only costs more, it uses more energy per square foot than single-family, while transit costs more and uses as much or more energy per passenger mile as driving. When planners say smart growth saves energy, what they mean is you’ll live in a smaller house and have less mobility.

Fact #8: If we end all subsidies and land-use regulation, I’ll happily accept whatever housing and transport outcomes result from people expressing their personal preferences. Too many planners want to control population densities and transport choices through prescriptive land-use regulation and huge subsidies to their preferred forms of transportation and housing.

These planners think only government can know what is truly right for other people. Even if you believe that, government failure is worse than market failure and results in subsidies to special interest groups for projects that produce negligible social or environmental benefits.

If urban planners have a role to play, it is to ensure people pay the costs of their choices. Instead, it is planners, rather than economists such as myself, who have become ideological, insisting density is the solution to all problems despite the preferences of 80 percent of Americans for low-density lifestyles.

Bus Shelters for the Poor, Trains for the Rich Wed, 09 Jul 2014 04:00:30 +0000 Continue reading ]]> Low-income residents of the Twin Cities can rest easy, as planners at the Metropolitan Council, the area’s regional planning agency, are proposing a regional transit equity plan. According to the Metropolitan Council’s press release, this equity plan consists of:
  1. Building 75 bus shelters and rebuilding 75 existing shelters “in areas of racially concentrated poverty”; and
  2. “Strengthen[ing] the transit service framework serving racially concentrated areas of poverty” by building bus-rapid transit and light-rail lines to the region’s wealthy suburbs.

The blue line, the yellow line to St. Cloud, and the green line between the Minneapolis interchange and St. Paul Union Depot are open; the next priority is the green line from the interchange and Eden Prairie.

Bus shelters for the poor, light rail for the rich: that sounds equitable! Of course, the poor will be allowed to ride those light-rail trains (for example, if they travel to the suburbs to work as servants), but for the most part, the light rail is for the middle class.

As with most American urban areas, Twin Cities poverty is concentrated in the core cities. Minneapolis and St. Paul have less than a quarter of the region’s population but more than half of the poor and more than 60 percent of the poor blacks. On average, 23 percent of residents of Minneapolis and St. Paul are in poverty, compared with just 7 percent of their suburbs.

The Twin Cities’ first light-rail line went to Bloomington, where less than 10 percent of people are considered poor. The next light-rail line connected Minneapolis and St. Paul, but it goes from downtown to downtown through the University of Minnesota and a neighborhood that planners hope to convert into a mixed-use, New Urban community complete with creative-class yuppies, fancy restaurants, and organic supermarkets.

The next line to be built would go to Eden Prairie, with 9 percent poverty and mean per capita incomes that are eight times the $6,000-per-person poverty threshold for a family of four. Census data indicate that 1,100 poor blacks live in Eden Prairie compared with 48,000 in Minneapolis and St. Paul.

After that will be lines to Lakeland and Lakeville, which have 4 percent poverty rates, mean per capita incomes six times the poverty threshold, and just 340 poor blacks. All the other proposed lines on the map go to suburbs with low poverty rates and high incomes.

Perhaps the only one that comes close to serving many low-income people is the proposed line going northwest from Minneapolis to an area unnamed on the map but which is actually Brooklyn Park. Brooklyn Park’s poverty rate is 11.5 percent including 3,200 poor blacks–more than any other suburb that would be served by the proposed rail or BRT lines but less than 7 percent as many as live in Minneapolis and St. Paul.

According to the 2012 American Community Survey, 13 percent of Twin Cities commuters whose incomes are below the poverty level take transit to work, while 61 percent drive alone and 14 percent carpool. Only 3 percent of Twin Cities workers live in households with no cars, and 39 percent of those drive to work (most of them driving alone, presumably in borrowed cars) compared with 37 percent taking transit. Transit clearly isn’t working for low-income people today, and it’s hard to see how a few bus shelters plus trains to the suburbs will help.

Many if not most Twin Cities suburbs are already served by express buses that are probably faster than the light-rail lines the council wants to build. On the other hand, inner-city neighborhoods tend to be served by local buses that stop frequently and therefore have low average speeds.

Let’s say bus service to the suburbs averages 20 mph and light rail can increase this average to 24 mph. By comparison, bus service in inner cities averages 10 mph and improvements can increase this to 12 mph. Which would save people the most time? Increasing speeds from 20 to 24 mph would cut one-half minute off the time it takes to go one mile, but increasing speeds from 10 to 12 mph would cut a full minute off the time to go a mile. What this means is that, to really improve transit service, transit agencies should concentrate on increasing the speeds of their slowest transit services, not ones that are already fast.

If the Metropolitan Council truly wanted to help low-income people, it would concentrate on improving bus service rather than building light-rail to the suburbs. But the council is apparently more interested in getting federal funds for rail transit than helping the poor. By calling this “transit equity,” it hopes that no one notices how inequitable it actually is.

Ignoring the Law of Supply and Demand Sat, 28 Jun 2014 04:00:24 +0000 Continue reading ]]> The Twin Cities Metropolitan Council is currently writing the Thrive Plan, which–like so many other urban plans today–aims to cram most new development into high-density transit centers. To justify this policy, the council naturally hired Arthur Nelson, the University of Utah urban planning professor who has predicted that the U.S. will soon have 22 million surplus single-family homes on large lots.

Click image to download a copy of the report.

“Demand for attached and multifamily housing in the Twin Cities will continue to grow,” trumpets the Met Council’s press release about Nelson’s report on Twin Cities housing. That, of course, is what the Met Council wanted Nelson to “prove,” which is why they hired him. However, his report can’t really justify the Met Council’s plans.

Nelson’s report predicts “a shifting mix of housing products demand for the next 30 years” such that the share of single-family homes on medium and large lots will decline from 37 percent to 26 percent; while homes on small lots will increase from 25 to 33 percent; and townhouses and multifamily will increase from 38 to 41 percent. Based on this, he says, “to meet housing demand by type in 2040 all new residential units will need to be attached options (apartment, townhouse, condominium) or small-lot detached homes.”

That sounds dramatic at first. But even if you believe his numbers, most of the change is from medium and large lot to small lot, not from single-family to multifamily, as the Met Council’s press release claims. Multifamily growing from 38 percent to 41 percent is not that big of an increase, and one that could easily be attributed to measurement error.

In fact, there are a lot of potential sources of measurement error in Nelson’s report. Most of the report is based on his interpretation of realtor surveys of people’s housing preferences in which lots of people said they wanted to live in “walkable neighborhoods.” Of course, if you ask people, “Would you like to live in a neighborhood where you can walk to shops?” a lot of people will say yes. But if you ask, “Would you prefer spending $400,000 on a 1,000-square-foot condo or $200,000 on a 2,000-square-foot home on a large lot?” few people would pick the condo.

Nelson thinks housing demand is changing because of “sweeping demographic changes” including an aging population, increasing numbers of ethnic minorities, and declining numbers of households with children. Yet, as shown by other studies, his assumption that these groups will necessarily prefer apartments, townhouses, or houses on small lots is not well grounded.

For one thing, he repeatedly uses the word “demand” but apparently does not know what this word means. Demand is not a point, like 619,000 Twin Cities households (the number he predicts will want to live in attached homes in 2040). Demand is a relationship between price and quantity, and prices never enter into Nelson’s analysis.

One reason why Nelson may not understand demand is that he seems to be arithmetically challenged in the first place. Page 26 of the report admits that “in the near term, 2020, demand for more homes on larger lots may still seem robust. The overall demand for such lots will increase by about 25,000 between 2010 and 2030—nearly 1,000 units annually.” Whatever you make of this “demand analysis,” 25,000 divided by 20 years is 1,250, not “nearly 1,000.”

A second problem is that the big change that Nelson predicts–a decline in the share of homes on medium and large lots from 37 percent to 26 percent–isn’t carefully measured by most of the surveys Nelson cites. Page 28 of the report notes that, in the surveys that do distinguish between lot size, a “small lot” is a quarter acre or less. Yet when many urban planners talk about small lots in walkable neighborhoods, they typically mean 25’x50′ lots, nearly nine of which would fit on a quarter acre. Do the people who answer vague questions about their housing preferences really understand this difference?

A third problem is that a lot of the data cited in the report has one source: Arthur C. Nelson. The report includes ten figures and thirteen tables, five of each of which say, “Source: Arthur C. Nelson.” The citations don’t even say, “Arthur C. Nelson, [year],” which would allow readers to pick out which of the ten papers in the reference section by Arthur C. Nelson the tables or figures are from. This makes the report even less persuasive than it already is.

Perhaps the most important self-citation in Nelson’s reference section is a 2006 article in the Journal of the American Planning Association where Nelson first predicted the future surplus of single-family homes. The article issued a clarion call to planners to lead the way to prevent this by forcing builders to focus on apartments instead. The Journal was honest enough to attach a critique by University of North Carolina planning professor Emil Malizia that pointed out that Nelson’s predictions were based on unreliable surveys whose results could have been “heavily influenced by the data collection method.”

In sum, Nelson predict fairly small changes in housing preferences, especially between multifamily and single-family, and those predicted changes are based on specious data. Yet based on those predictions, the Metropolitan Council wants to make large changes in the Twin Cities’ housing mix, mainly a large increase in multifamily along its various rail lines. (Did I mention that the Met Council also wants to increase taxes so it can build more rail transit, which in 2012 carried all of 0.3 percent of Twin Cities commuters to work?)

The real question is: Just why should the Metropolitan Council, which was created solely to parcel out federal transportation dollars to cities and counties in the region, have anything to do with determining future housing supplies anyway? As Malizia pointed out in his critique of Nelson’s 2006 paper, if people’s preferences change, and housing is left to the market, the market will respond to those changes.

Not satisfied with that, the Metropolitan Council wants to dictate future housing choices by restricting low-density housing and subsidizing high-density housing near rail stations. These policies will make all housing less affordable which (perhaps deliberately) will make the council’s prediction of an increasing desire for multifamily housing a self-fulfilling prophecy.