All Aboard for Urban Renovation?

 

As President Trump crafts his strategy to continue his “promises made, promises kept” grand political strategy, he likely will advance an urban renewal initiative, aimed at key communities the Democratic Party relies upon for electoral success. In addition to assessing such an initiative on its political and moral worth, we should also be very careful about its bias toward bureaucrats or citizens. In Drug Dealing: Not a Victimless Crime, a story of a murder and a car driven into a Subway restaurant, I raised the issue of unintended consequences of urban planning. The would-be masters of the metropolis tell us that light rail makes, encourages development, makes people movement better, and improves communities. Yet, they do not talk about the government induced destruction of businesses, movement of vagrants and drug addicts, and associated harm to communities. I have seen both sides in the Valley of the Sun, prompting cautionary contemplation.

Preliminaries: Money and Style

Three years ago, Doug Watt wrote here about the way in which federal government subsidies distort local government thinking about the costs of light rail. Of course, the local government can spend itself into financial trouble chasing federal matching dollars. If you spend $1 billion in local tax dollars to get $1 billion in federal grants, you are still needing to show at least $1 billion in increased local public wealth. Not just any increase, mind you, but an increase that can be shown to have only happened because of the public spending. Otherwise, critics can fairly claim the city fathers squandered precious tax dollars that could have better spent on other things, including putting them back in working folk’s pockets.

Beyond the basic return on investment question, why lock the dollars into steel rails, instead of the flexibility of a bus system, which can serve both the route contemplated for trains, really updated trolleys, and new routes, as populations and businesses shift locally and regionally? The positive answer is that trains are supposed to be higher class, cooler, than buses. It is argued that these trains are likely to attract riders, as Rachel Lu explained in Can Buses Ever Be Cool?

However, rideshare apps are cooler, and college kids are zipping around now on electric scooters, paying for their use per ride. The newest, coolest light rail quickly gets a bit worn internally, and the stops get grungy, like bus stops. So, claims of coolness and attracting the younger demographics are suspect.

Renovating or Destroying business?

In promoting light rail, local boosters tell us that it contributes to economic redevelopment, renovating depressed or vacant areas. Recently, the Arizona Republic promoted light rail, citing a series of claims about new development and redevelopment.

“Just go down the line from Mesa to Dunlap and 19th Avenue in Phoenix, and it’s clear light rail has stimulated investment and redevelopment,” said developer and planner Lorenzo Perez of Venue Projects, which built the Newton and Central Market near Camelback Road and Central Avenue.

“Light rail shows how Phoenix, a young city, has matured and evolved,” he said. “It’s been a game changer for many of the neighborhoods it runs through.”

Likewise, the Chamber of Commerce made positive claims about light rail’s economic effects:

[…] With wider access to the greater metropolitan area, employees and future employees will have more transportation options.

[…] The continued expansion of the light rail alleviates traffic congestion and creates efficient transportation for all Phoenix commuters.

Development of the light rail will also continue to positively impact the environment. […]

The extension of the Phoenix light rail into South Central Phoenix provides new transportation opportunities for commuters and job hunters throughout the Valley.

Notice, however, that there is no explanation of why buses, the other form of mass public transportation, do not provide the same benefits. Further, the linear area defined by the rail line started with the heart of three cities, so why would we not expect them to grow without the train line? At least the Arizona Republic gave some voice to family businesses who expected to be harmed or destroyed by the light rail project.

Celia Contreras owns a window-tinting shop that abuts Central Avenue. She lives in a small house connected to her business.

In front of the store is a fading sign that reads “Window Tinting Since 1995” and a new banner that says “SOUTH PHOENIX 4 LANES OR NO TRAIN” with a photo of a crossed-out light-rail train.

[…]

Contreras worries that the plan, which calls for taking away two lanes of traffic, will lead to a congested Central Avenue. When drivers realize this, she said, they’ll take different routes and no longer frequent the shops along Central Avenue.

Owners of restaurants, retail stores, mortuaries and several other types of businesses have shared similar concerns with the Phoenix City Council.

Contreras said she believes the city wants the small businesses along Central Avenue to fail so the owners will sell the land to investors who will put in apartments and condos like the ones around the light rail in other areas.

Contreras’ concerns are confirmed by what I saw as the light rail was extended through downtown Mesa. For many months, local businesses were almost locked away from customers by construction and road restrictions. Healthy businesses suffered and struggling businesses were shuttered.

The harm done by the city governments is grudgingly acknowledged by symbolic and limited public promotion of local business, urging people who bother to look at the Valley Metro website to “shop local:”

In order to keep motorists off the tracks, curbs are built on both sides. Running right down the middle of major existing roads, the rail line cuts off access to businesses. If you are driving along and see a sign across the street, you cannot get into a middle turn lane and enter the business parking lot. Instead, you must go to the next intersection, make a U-turn, and come back. Perhaps you will, but why bother, if you are not really determined to visit that particular business at that time?

Moving People or Problems?

Light rail proponents claim it reduces road congestion, increases mobility for employees, and meets Millennial transportation desires. Critics claim light rail does little to reduce congestion, has low usage, and is more important to local politicians than to the people they claim to serve. In addition, light rail, without a passenger-driver interaction, may act as a conveyor belt for drug addicts and homeless people, who dodge fares.

All public transportation schemes are claimed to reduce road congestion, moving large numbers of people without the footprint of individual vehicles. I witnessed this on evenings when I took the light rail home from Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport. The original section of tracks terminated in the east at free park and ride lots, and had stops within easy walking distance of both Arizona State University basketball and football arenas, and Diamondback and Phoenix Suns venues in downtown Phoenix. On game nights, the train cars were standing room only, full of people wearing team colors. You knew who won based on the volume: quiet cars meant a loss, boisterous passengers meant a win.

Catch the train to the airport on a weekday morning, and you see university students and employees, along with some airport employees, board from apartment clusters and bus transportation nodes. The same holds true later in the day for the afternoon commute. Surely this confirms the master planners’ wisdom.

But, wait a minute, weren’t there buses running the same route? Indeed, a simple scan of the route and stops reveals bus stops. Further, there are both local and express bus routes. So, any claim that the trains are vital to reducing congestion and improving mobility requires an explanation of why we should replace compressed natural gas-powered buses with electric powered trains. Yet, the best argument for this is “coolness” or the image of buses as lower status. That argument just cannot be openly stated by light rail boosters in local government and the chamber of commerce.

Outside of the peak hours and days, trains roll along mostly empty. Further, without a station barrier system and ticket-only entry, people are incentivized to jump on board, then duck the transit security patrols, exiting as they enter. The limited route, and time lost waiting for the next train, dictates a very low ticket price, which makes light rail less economically viable. True, applying wraps to train cars, turning them into rolling billboards, helps defray costs, but trains do not pay their own way, at least directly.

Lack of positive passenger control, through a gated, ticketed admission system, attracts people who have nowhere else to be, who nod off, and who are drifting from encampment to encampment like the hobos of old. Emergency medical services and police are a common sight around Valley Metro light rail stations, with people in various forms of medical distress or legal trouble.

Light rail lives up to its advocates’ people moving claims in limited circumstances. There are persistent problems that were never openly acknowledged, debated, and mitigated in the process of planning and funding the system. The financial problem of fare-dodging was recognized but discounted as unavoidable if the system was to be rider friendly and attractive. The second order effect, facilitating vagrancy and drug abuse, was not acknowledged or mitigated. Openly acknowledging all the risks and openly debating mitigation strategies would have called the positive narrative into question, making passage of planners’ visions more difficult.

Helping or Harming Communities?

Beyond businesses and commuters, light rail was sold as an anchor, an infrastructure base piece, in improving communities along the route. Part of the benefit to communities was to be job growth, claimed to be dependent upon a set of railroad tracks. Another benefit was supposed to be growth in new multi-unit housing, apartments, and condominiums, as part of a metropolitan lifestyle facilitated by jobs and public transportation. On the other hand, older low-income or fixed income communities, like small businesses, face destruction, not by the free market but by government decision. So, is light rail truly responsible or necessary for improving economically marginal communities?

Traveling along portions of the Valley Metro light rail system, near Arizona State University’s main campus in Tempe, Arizona, you can see the rapid growth of apartment complexes. This supports light rail advocates’ claims. On the other hand, look at the explosion in pay-per-ride bicycles, followed by electric scooters, and you see the claimed target audience choosing freedom of movement. Consider that buses run on the same roads. Then, get to the fundamental problem: growth based on the peak of the education bubble.

The education bubble is beyond this immediate discussion, but planners, politicians, and voters should be acutely aware of the parallels between the housing bubble of a decade ago and today’s college education bubble. If student loans and debt are unsustainable, then so are university budgets and growth of direct and indirect college employment and business. To the extent that light rail is designed to further the growth around a perpetually growing college economy, it is contributing to a large, long term problem, while urban planning advocates cheer.

Move beyond the area close to the university, go beyond related housing growth, and consider the claims about urban housing renovation. The Arizona Republic story cited figures about the construction of low-income housing. This sounds like a good thing, improving living conditions for some of the poor. Yet, the same article documented the loss of small trailer parks, in which people had lived for many years. So, is this really a case of “broken window” economic thinking?

The “broken window” economic claim is distinct from the “broken window” theory of policing. The idea is that if someone smashes a window, that causes spending on a new window, gives work to a glass installer, and generates the creation of new windows. Yet, critics say, the money spent on the smashed window was diverted from other planned or possible uses by a destructive act, so this is not really positive for the economy. A window was replaced instead of a new sign being created to grow business, for example.

Is light rail “breaking windows” and then being credited with window replacement? The dirty little secret, as with destruction of businesses, may be that this is the desired effect of the urban planners’ master plan. It may be that the control and conformity of communities to a supposedly enlightened and progressive vision is part of the real point, masked to some degree.

Consider light rail as an example, a set of case studies, to carefully study. What lessons can be learned to prevent or mitigate destruction in the pursuit of urban renovation? At a minimum, the vision and the reality point to a need for loud, insistent, healthy skepticism about politicians’ and experts claims for large public projects and programs.

Published in Group Writing
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There are 37 comments.

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  1. Contributor
    Clifford A. Brown Post author

    Urban renovation, creative destruction, or boondoggle?


    This conversation is part of our Group Writing Series under January’s theme: Renovation. There are plenty of dates still available. Have a great home renovation story? Maybe with photos? Have a terrible home renovation story? How about furniture, or an instrument, a plane, a train or an automobile? Are you your renovation project, or someone else’s? Do you have criticism or praise for some public renovation, accomplished or desperately needed? Are you a big fan, or not so much, of home renovation shows? Unleash your inner fan or critic. We have some wonderful photo essays on Ricochet; perhaps you have a story with before and after photos, or reflections on the current state of a long project. The possibilities are endless! Why not start a conversation? Our schedule and sign-up sheet awaits.

    The February 2019 Theme Writing: How Do You Make That? Is up. Thanks for the great suggestions. I’ll likely use some of the others in March and April.

    • #1
    • January 27, 2019, at 6:32 PM PDT
    • Like
  2. Contributor

    Light rail works great here, was built economically, opened three years ago and has been packed since opening day. Everyone in town, even the ones who didn’t want it built, likes it now. Our experience has been nothing like yours. Why? Could be lots of reasons. This city is probably more densely populated than yours. Buses get stuck in our famous traffic jams. Driving here rarely involves those open Pacific coastal roads you see in the car ads. 

    Each bus requires a driver (so far). They are labor intensive rather than capital intensive. As for the construction mess, road building is no joy either. Trains accelerate smoother, much faster, and much quieter. They don’t stop at lights. 

    They don’t make sense for every community. It sounds like yours doesn’t need it. Every town doesn’t need a train, any more than every home needs an elevator. Other cities have the opposite problem; light rail doesn’t carry the “numbers” that a heavy rail subway can. 

     

    • #2
    • January 27, 2019, at 6:59 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  3. Member

    Bus Rapid Transit is a joke, too.

    Ours still isn’t running.

    • #3
    • January 27, 2019, at 7:15 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  4. Coolidge

    Buses made light rail/trolleys obsolete in the 1930s. Still true. There is a bit of chicken-and-egg problem with development and public transportation, but that is fixed with *urban planning* and zoning for the future. In Europe and some coastal locations, there is enough density for intercity rail. But self-driving cars makes it all obsolete in 10 years.

    • #4
    • January 27, 2019, at 7:27 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  5. Member

    Clifford A. Brown: As President Trump crafts his strategy to continue his “promises made, promises kept” grand political strategy, he likely will advance an urban renewal initiative, aimed at key communities the Democratic Party relies upon for electoral success.

    It’s interesting to think that a Republican President could single-handedly defang Democrats’ monopoly on major cities through depriority of federal regulations. But even with a semi-friendly legislature, I don’t see it. Mayors don’t need federal money or rules to ruin their cities and train constituents to be hatemongering dependents and busybodies. 

    Repeal federal entitlements and Civil Rights legislation. Then we will talk. 

    • #5
    • January 27, 2019, at 8:15 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  6. Inactive

    I lived in Portland, Or. back in the seventies and eighties and the bus system was great. I could travel to all the suburbs with one transfer, usually, and they were clean, ran on time, and inexpensive. Then our mayor got drafted as Carter’s Sec. of Transportation. Next city I lived in the buses ran so poorly sometimes the same number bus came three in a row one after the other. They were dirty, boom-boxes, convoluted routes, multiple transfers through rough neighborhoods to go halfway across town. I got a car.

    • #6
    • January 27, 2019, at 8:43 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  7. Inactive

    Clifford A. Brown: However, ride share apps are cooler, and college kids are zipping around now on electric scooters, paying for their use per ride.

    I’m old. Just give me a four-banger hover pack and year’s supply of CO2 credits and I’m fine. The only problem is the tourists bumping into you in mid-air and not saying excuse me.

    • #7
    • January 27, 2019, at 9:23 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  8. Lincoln

    Early light rail (trolleys) and heavy rail (subways and commuter lines) were running lines out into undeveloped areas — there’s this shot of the elevated section of New York’s first subway line in the far northern area of Manhattan in 1906. Only thing missing is cows on the side of the road:

    Modern light rail (or subways) don’t work that way — they may add more development into an area if the line is successful, but they’re stretching out into areas where the highway and street networks already in place have determined zoning for housing, retail, commercial and industrial buildings.

    So where people live who use the light rail versus where they work, shop, eat out or go to entertainment all have to be factored into where the routes run. Cities and states building them aren’t creating lines to take people from downtown to areas with minimal development, they’re taking people from areas already so developed it’s stressing the highway system into downtown. Which is why the most useful systems tend to parallel the existing highway networks to better attract riders who already have commuting patterns based on those highways, where the station areas can be zoned up for additional development. Lines that do their own thing and don’t accept they’re subsidiaries of the highway grid don’t work as well, because they’re not serving the existing populations best.

    • #8
    • January 27, 2019, at 9:44 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  9. Member

    Gary McVey (View Comment):
    Light rail works great here, was built economically, opened three years ago and has been packed since opening day. Everyone in town, even the ones who didn’t want it built, likes it now. Our experience has been nothing like yours. Why? Could be lots of reasons. This city is probably more densely populated than yours. Buses get stuck in our famous traffic jams.

    In my town, the urban planners who put in light rail were too stupid, incompetent, or corrupt (or any combination thereof) to build a light rail connection to the principal airport, stopping a couple of miles short. My town is the poster child for urban sprawl, which is another way of saying “low density.” For that reason, it is poorly matched to rail transit and perhaps to public transit generally. The Red Cars served their purpose back in the day, the day before automobiles that is.

    When people have a choice, they still choose cars in spite of our famous traffic jams. Indeed, the increasingly awful traffic is proof that people are making exactly this choice. If public transit were so great, the freeways would be empty, right?

    If memory serves, our two towns have a lot in common, by which I mean they’re the same town. Turns out there’s more than one perspective on how well light rail is working.

    • #9
    • January 27, 2019, at 10:50 PM PDT
    • 4 likes
  10. Member

    DonG (View Comment):

    Buses made light rail/trolleys obsolete in the 1930s. Still true. There is a bit of chicken-and-egg problem with development and public transportation, but that is fixed with *urban planning* and zoning for the future. In Europe and some coastal locations, there is enough density for intercity rail. But self-driving cars makes it all obsolete in 10 years.

    All correct except the very last part. Ten years is not enough time for self-driving cars to be ubiquitous. The technology is far less advanced than proponents would have you believe. Their safety record is far worse than human drivers. Bad as human drivers are, it will take years of road testing to prove that self-driving cars are no worse than humans. Add to that the security issues associated with connected vehicles (part of the Internet of Things) and you have a long time horizon.

    Self-driving cars are like AI: always just around the corner. Not surprising, really, since the current model for making self-driving cars work is to make the AI better. I’m afraid we’ll have to muddle along for a bit longer.

    • #10
    • January 27, 2019, at 11:11 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  11. Inactive

    drlorentz (View Comment):
    The technology is far less advanced than proponents would have you believe.

    I know people with IQs of 85 who have driven all their lives with nothing more than a fender bender or two. How smart can an AI algorithm be if it tries to drive under a tractor-trailer decapitating its driver, runs over a woman walking her bike across the street at night, and accelerates into bridge abutments, killing the driver and then setting itself on fire in an agony of self-reproach?

    • #11
    • January 27, 2019, at 11:18 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  12. Member

    I’ve dealt with mass transit everywhere from Manhattan to sprawling suburbia, and the only time it really works well is with Manhattan level density. This is why dreams of mass transit are frequently paired with the Agenda 21 program, which is designed to force localities to require all new housing be high-density housing. Unfortunately, what the planners consider high-density (meaning that there’s no need for park and ride; you’ll just walk to the train station), will leave you walking miles per day just for transportation, on top of whatever other walking you do. I lived in such a planned community, and the shortest walk anywhere (train station or drug store) was a quarter mile each way, which doesn’t sound like a lot until you have to do it rain or shine, hot or cold, in sickness or in health, every single time you go out the door. Any place else is even farther.

    Between that, and waiting for elevators in high-rise buildings, it’s a huge time suck.

    • #12
    • January 27, 2019, at 11:44 PM PDT
    • 9 likes
  13. Thatcher

    dnewlander (View Comment):

    Bus Rapid Transit is a joke, too.

    Ours still isn’t running.

    Since I still have friends and family in Albuquerque, I return often. Central Av. is the major thoroughfare in the city, the only street that runs from the east to the west city limits. For the past three years, they’ve torn up one of the iconic features of the city, often creating incredible traffic jams. I’ve observed that several of the small businesses that were on Central when I was a cop are gone. Well, now the construction is “finished,” but no busses are running. There is, however, a central bus lane that you apparently get fined for using, incomprehensible traffic signals, and bus stops in the middle of the street. I noticed that the regular busses were not using those and asked my daughter about it. She told me that the new busses have doors on the right and the stops in the street are incompatible with regular busses.

    Then, I came back home to Austin. Our super-duper rail line cost several hundred million dollars, frequently breaks down, has killed several people and has reduced traffic congestion approximately 0%. The last time I got stopped at a crossing, there were people held up waiting for the train to pass than there were in the train.

    • #13
    • January 27, 2019, at 11:53 PM PDT
    • 5 likes
  14. Thatcher

    DonG (View Comment):

    Buses made light rail/trolleys obsolete in the 1930s. Still true. There is a bit of chicken-and-egg problem with development and public transportation, but that is fixed with *urban planning* and zoning for the future. In Europe and some coastal locations, there is enough density for intercity rail. But self-driving cars makes it all obsolete in 10 years.

    I think Uber and Lyft are making it obsolete now.

    • #14
    • January 27, 2019, at 11:56 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  15. Lincoln

    JosePluma (View Comment):

    dnewlander (View Comment):

    Bus Rapid Transit is a joke, too.

    Ours still isn’t running.

    Since I still have friends and family in Albuquerque, I return often. Central Av. is the major thoroughfare in the city, the only street that runs from the east to the west city limits. For the past three years, they’ve torn up one of the iconic features of the city, often creating incredible traffic jams. I’ve observed that several of the small businesses that were on Central when I was a cop are gone. Well, now the construction is “finished,” but no busses are running. There is, however, a central bus lane that you apparently get fined for using, incomprehensible traffic signals, and bus stops in the middle of the street. I noticed that the regular busses were not using those and asked my daughter about it. She told me that the new busses have doors on the right and the stops in the street are incompatible with regular busses.

    Then, I came back home to Austin. Our super-duper rail line cost several hundred million dollars, frequently breaks down, has killed several people and has reduced traffic congestion approximately 0%. The last time I got stopped at a crossing, there were people held up waiting for the train to pass than there were in the train.

    Austin’s the perfect example of screwing up light rail by actually doing it on the cheap — the north end does cover the already developing U.S. 183 corridor at Cedar Park and Leander, but the existing rail line they used then loops around the east side of the city and doesn’t come back to where the population is until it reaches downtown, so it’s useless for serving the main population corridor in-between, because the growth in north Austin wasn’t along the old railroad track.

    • #15
    • January 28, 2019, at 5:35 AM PDT
    • 1 like
  16. Member

    IMHO, light rail can make sense in cities that already have decommissioned rail lines.

    Up here in the Great White North, light rail was sold to the citizens of Ottawa on that basis. There was already an old rail line with one end really close to downtown, the other end really close to the airport, and a university, a major office complex, and a mall complex along the route. Putting a light commuter train on that line made sense. It represented a really efficient short cut through the city that no bus route could really match.

    Problem #1: They never actually built the short spur line that was needed to get it all the way to the airport, so you still need to transfer to a bus for the last couple of kilometres (or, more likely, you’ll just take a taxi or uber for the entire journey).

    Problem #2: Since the 1960s nearly all the other decommissioned rail lines around town have already been torn up and converted to bike paths, parkways for cars, and/or dedicated Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) lanes.

    So, now that the city is hooked on the idea of light rail, they’ve blown oodles of money since then digging a rail tunnel under downtown and laying new tracks along the dedicated BRT lanes (but not the bike paths or the parkways). To expand the light rail network even further, they’ll have to lay new tracks down along routes that are currently parks, roads, paths, homes, etc.

    Never should have dug up all those old rail lines in the first place, is what I’m sayin’.

    • #16
    • January 28, 2019, at 8:44 AM PDT
    • 4 likes
  17. Member

    JosePluma (View Comment):

    dnewlander (View Comment):

    Bus Rapid Transit is a joke, too.

    Ours still isn’t running.

    Since I still have friends and family in Albuquerque, I return often. Central Av. is the major thoroughfare in the city, the only street that runs from the east to the west city limits. For the past three years, they’ve torn up one of the iconic features of the city, often creating incredible traffic jams. I’ve observed that several of the small businesses that were on Central when I was a cop are gone. Well, now the construction is “finished,” but no busses are running. There is, however, a central bus lane that you apparently get fined for using, incomprehensible traffic signals, and bus stops in the middle of the street. I noticed that the regular busses were not using those and asked my daughter about it. She told me that the new busses have doors on the right and the stops in the street are incompatible with regular busses.

    Then, I came back home to Austin. Our super-duper rail line cost several hundred million dollars, frequently breaks down, has killed several people and has reduced traffic congestion approximately 0%. The last time I got stopped at a crossing, there were people held up waiting for the train to pass than there were in the train.

    I don’t know how much you’ve heard about the joke electric buses the previous supposedly-conservative mayor planned to run on the route (that, coincidentally, was supposed to run from Coors to Tramway, but ended up only covering Coors to Louisiana; a route that is already covered by two separate bus types, and at least ten different bus routes–those buses aren’t scheduled for any drop in service and will coincide with the ART buses to block all traffic, since the ART buses run in the middle of the street)…

    Anyway, they didn’t have half the range “promised” by the company, even without taking into account that they were running riderless and without the heat or a/c on, so we “returned” the few that had been delivered, and we’re now waiting… wait for it… two more years for natural gas buses.

    I stand by my prediction that we will never have a single paying passenger on an ART bus, and that–like most American “mass transit” projects–the whole thing was simply a giveaway to the construction companies.

    • #17
    • January 28, 2019, at 12:01 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  18. Contributor

    As you can tell from comment #2, I’m more-or-less in opposition to the thrust of the OP, but I credit Clifford for a fine article. He lays out many of the arguments well, but mostly makes a point I agree with: If you don’t need it, don’t build it. We needed it, we built it, and we’re getting our money’s worth. 

    • #18
    • January 28, 2019, at 12:28 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  19. Contributor
    Clifford A. Brown Post author

    JosePluma (View Comment):

    DonG (View Comment):

    Buses made light rail/trolleys obsolete in the 1930s. Still true. There is a bit of chicken-and-egg problem with development and public transportation, but that is fixed with *urban planning* and zoning for the future. In Europe and some coastal locations, there is enough density for intercity rail. But self-driving cars makes it all obsolete in 10 years.

    I think Uber and Lyft are making it obsolete now.

    Likely, along with pay-per-ride bicycles and electric scooters for shorter trips.

    • #19
    • January 28, 2019, at 12:59 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  20. Contributor

    We were rackless scooter/bike rental pioneers out here, and that is how most younger people get to the new train. Dr. Lorentz is right, of course, when he says there’s more than one perspective. Mine is, I don’t know many people who drive to downtown L.A. now that we have the Expo Line. It doesn’t roam all over the city, but only along a dense corridor.

    Driverless cars will help with some stuff, but not other glaringly obvious ones. Los Angeles magazine had an excited article about the technology–forty years ago. The skeptical point then and now was, what happens when everyone is rolling along two feet away from each other at eighty miles an hour and someone’s radar goes down? All the driverless car does here is (supposedly) increase density on existing roads. If the tech works. Which is, so far, untried and unproven. 

    Here’s the problem with Lyft and Uber as a city solution: They’re great for picking you up from a bar at 11 pm. What happens when 600,000 people have to get to work at roughly the same time? And leave at the same time? The system can’t scale that way. Of course, if you work at home, as many people can nowadays, great. If the jobs are scattered all over your county, trains can’t help you much.

    But most places were built around train scale before they were highway scale; one reason why many “new” projects follow roads is because the roads were built next to the tracks. That’s why much of L.A.’s light rail network was built cheap; we had the ancient roadbeds and hadn’t done anything with most of them. 

    • #20
    • January 28, 2019, at 1:46 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  21. Member

    Gary McVey (View Comment):
    Here’s the problem with Lyft and Uber as a city solution: They’re great for picking you up from a bar at 11 pm. What happens when 600,000 people have to get to work at roughly the same time? And leave at the same time? The system can’t scale that way.

    The other problem is cost. It’s still cheaper to own your vehicle than to take Lyft or Uber. But the peak problem is the most serious and it’s not fixable. It also leaves the traffic problem intact. The same goes for Zipcar and its ilk as a solution.

    Gary McVey (View Comment):
    Of course, if you work at home, as many people can nowadays, great.

    This might be a more realistic hope to alleviate commuting problems. Not everyone can do it and some bosses hate it because they can’t keep a close watch on their minions. The latter problem solves itself as the old guys die off. Paraphrasing Max Planck, telecommuting advances one funeral at a time.

    • #21
    • January 28, 2019, at 3:36 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  22. Coolidge

    drlorentz (View Comment):
    All correct except the very last part. Ten years is not enough time for self-driving cars to be ubiquitous. The technology is far less advanced than proponents would have you believe. Their safety record is far worse than human drivers. Bad as human drivers are, it will take years of road testing to prove that self-driving cars are no worse than humans. Add to that the security issues associated with connected vehicles (part of the Internet of Things) and you have a long time horizon.

    But public transportation by self-driving cars does not require a general purpose solution. It only requires cars be able to navigate fixed routes. That is *much* *much* easier. The cars will not be owned by riders, but a service. For example, while Tesla has cameras and LIDAR and such for self-driving, Cadillac has a database of roads with shape, topography and speeds that provides a pre-programmed experience. The special case also allows a city to augment roads with electronic navigation aids. That the cars are service instead of a purchase means that there is no wait for people to replace their old cars, it will just come into being. This is the business that Uber and Tesla are trying to stay in business long enough to evolve into. 

    • #22
    • January 28, 2019, at 3:39 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  23. Member

    DonG (View Comment):
    But public transportation by self-driving cars does not require a general purpose solution.

    That’s the wrong comparison. Automating public buses just delivers the same crappy public transit we have now, but without human drivers. The apples to apples comparison is door-to-door transport, as a car does now. That solution does require a full-on autonomous vehicle that doesn’t crash or run people over. 

    • #23
    • January 28, 2019, at 4:41 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  24. Coolidge

    Flicker (View Comment):

    drlorentz (View Comment):
    The technology is far less advanced than proponents would have you believe.

    I know people with IQs of 85 who have driven all their lives with nothing more than a fender bender or two. How smart can an AI algorithm be if it tries to drive under a tractor-trailer decapitating its driver, runs over a woman walking her bike across the street at night, and accelerates into bridge abutments, killing the driver and then setting itself on fire in an agony of self-reproach?

    To say nothing of corner cases in AI that make objective sense to a human but not to a an algorithm. Say, having to choose between saving an adult life or a baby’s. I might write something more detailed on this problem since it’s of interest to me but suffice it to say that I would warn against the expectation that self-driving cars will replace human-driven autos any time soon. 

    • #24
    • January 28, 2019, at 4:48 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  25. Lincoln

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    Here’s the problem with Lyft and Uber as a city solution: They’re great for picking you up from a bar at 11 pm. What happens when 600,000 people have to get to work at roughly the same time? And leave at the same time? The system can’t scale that way. Of course, if you work at home, as many people can nowadays, great. If the jobs are scattered all over your county, trains can’t help you much.

    But most places were built around train scale before they were highway scale; one reason why many “new” projects follow roads is because the roads were built next to the tracks. That’s why much of L.A.’s light rail network was built cheap; we had the ancient roadbeds and hadn’t done anything with most of them.

    That was the problem they had about five years ago in New York on New Year’s Eve. Uber and Lyft’s pricing plan was based on supply-and-demand, in that the more people wanted a driver at the same time the more the ride would cost. So when it came to a little after midnight and everyone in Midtown with their app wanted to go home, customers found their rides were costing in the $500 range. Since then, the companies have put a cap on their ‘surge pricing’ if for no other reason than the awful PR they got from the debacle, but the problem still holds when you have a situation where a lot of people are trying to leave one place at the same time. That’s where mass transit or having your own transportation parked nearby suddenly doesn’t seem like a bad idea.

    • #25
    • January 28, 2019, at 5:17 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  26. Contributor

    One of the whole political/social points of the past two years should be the fact that maintaining jobs in manufacturing, energy, and processing are important to the health of the country, even if they don’t directly seem to improve the lives of people at the top. Bluntly, not every job of the present or future can be done using the Wifi at Starbucks, or while wearing slippers at home. Unless you are waay out in the middle of nowhere, if your enterprise depends on 4000 people showing up each shift, you’ll probably become interested in transit of some kind. Shuttle buses to outlying parking lots only works up to a certain size. 

    I’m not worried about urban hipsters getting their way; in cities like NYC you can already get anywhere. In cities like SF and DC, rail transit is mostly high speed commuter rail in and out of town fast, without much claim of getting you around the city by themselves. Cleveland has a fairly popular mix of light rail and subway. 

    • #26
    • January 28, 2019, at 5:43 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  27. Contributor
    Clifford A. Brown Post author

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    As you can tell from comment #2, I’m more-or-less in opposition to the thrust of the OP, but I credit Clifford for a fine article. He lays out many of the arguments well, but mostly makes a point I agree with: If you don’t need it, don’t build it. We needed it, we built it, and we’re getting our money’s worth.

    I think the comments on both sides reinforce my cautionary point. Have all the effects really been thought through or is it a boondoggle and a desire by city fathers to be seen as sophisticated, all up to date?

    • #27
    • January 28, 2019, at 6:11 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  28. Lincoln

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    I’m not worried about urban hipsters getting their way; in cities like NYC you can already get anywhere. In cities like SF and DC, rail transit is mostly high speed commuter rail in and out of town fast, without much claim of getting you around the city by themselves. Cleveland has a fairly popular mix of light rail and subway.

    When D.C. opened the Silver Line towards Dulles Airport (it’s supposed to get there next year), they were able to squeeze it into the existing hub system by cutting trains on the Blue Line, which made sense, because the Blue Line took a nonsensical route from L’Enfant Plaza to the Pentagon, by way of Rosslyn and Foggy Bottom. If you were going, say, to Metro Center, it was faster to take a Yellow Line train from the Pentagon to L’Enfant and then transfer to a Virginia-bound Blue or Orange Line train, than it was to take a Maryland-bound Blue Line train to Metro Center. But if you’re living in Alexandria and a year or so from now need to get to Dulles, you don’t have to go all the way into downtown Washington to get there, since the Blue and Silver lines connect up at Rosalyn.

    That’s the problem with a lot of mass transit systems — they all were designed with the idea that everyone wants to go downtown, but since they’re being built after the highway systems are in place, they fail to take into account not everyone wants to go downtown, and are sometimes traveling from one developed inner suburb to another. Mass transit does zero for someone trying to get from Bethesda to Falls Church, because they’re not going all the way down to Metro Center to change trains. You need lines connecting those outer zones, but lines like that are too costly for heavy rail in most cases, and often already too developed to make it easy to put light rail in.

    • #28
    • January 28, 2019, at 6:20 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  29. Member

    Gary McVey (View Comment):
    Bluntly, not every job of the present or future can be done using the Wifi at Starbucks, or while wearing slippers at home.

    Turns out that even a 10% change in traffic reduces freeway congestion a lot because there’s a nonlinear relationship between traffic density and flow speed. That’s why traffic can be flowing at high speed but slow to a crawl if a few more cars join the flow. It’s also why flow control on on-ramps works. We don’t need every job to turn into telecommuting, just a fraction of them to alleviate congestion.

    If the choice is between waiting in the cold, rain, sweltering heat, or snow for a bus or tram with standing room only versus sitting in your air-conditioned, comfortable car, the car wins every time. In Southern California, the weather is your friend most of the time but I’ve spent plenty of time standing on street corners in Chicago and Boston waiting for public transit. It sucks. And that does not account for smelly drunks, crazies, and other assorted losers who share subway car or bus with you.

    My wife used to take an “express” commuter bus downtown. It took longer than driving and it required adapting her schedule to the bus’s. It’s hard for public transit to compete with transportation that’s portal-to-portal and on-demand. There’s a reason economists refer to public transit as an inferior good.

    • #29
    • January 28, 2019, at 10:37 PM PDT
    • 4 likes
  30. Lincoln

    drlorentz (View Comment):

    Gary McVey (View Comment):
    Bluntly, not every job of the present or future can be done using the Wifi at Starbucks, or while wearing slippers at home.

    Turns out that even a 10% change in traffic reduces freeway congestion a lot because there’s a nonlinear relationship between traffic density and flow speed. That’s why traffic can be flowing at high speed but slow to a crawl if a few more cars join the flow. It’s also why flow control on on-ramps works. We don’t need every job to turn into telecommuting, just a fraction of them to alleviate congestion.

    If the choice is between waiting in the cold, rain, sweltering heat, or snow for a bus or tram with standing room only versus sitting in your air-conditioned, comfortable car, the car wins every time. In Southern California, the weather is your friend most of the time but I’ve spent plenty of time standing on street corners in Chicago and Boston waiting for public transit. It sucks. And that does not account for smelly drunks, crazies, and other assorted losers who share subway car or bus with you.

    My wife used to take an “express” commuter bus downtown. It took longer than driving and it required adapting her schedule to the bus’s. It’s hard for public transit to compete with transportation that’s portal-to-portal and on-demand. There’s a reason economists refer to public transit as an inferior good.

    GPS tracking has made that less of a PITA, at least as far as the waiting outside part, as a lot of systems now allow you to see on your computer or phone how close a bus is to arriving at your stop, so you can time your arrival there better (here’s the MTA Bus Time app for the M-15 line on First and Second avenues in Manhattan, which was my particular tormentor years ago, since no bus would show up for 15, 20 or even 30 minutes, then 12 at a time would arrive).

    • #30
    • January 29, 2019, at 2:22 AM PDT
    • 4 likes
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