Tag: transportation

MagLev: The Idea Whose Time Never Came

Superconducting magnetic levitation is the “next generation of transportation,” says a new rail advocacy group that calls itself The Northeast Maglev (TNEM). The group’s proposed New York-Washington maglev line has received attention from the Washington Post and Baltimore Sun. TNEM’s claims might have seemed valid 80 years ago, when maglev trains were first conceived, but today maglev is just one more superexpensive technology that can’t compete with what we already have.

Superconducting maglev train being tested in Japan. Wikimedia commons photo by Yosemite.

Maglev has all the defects of conventional high-speed rail with the added bonuses of higher costs and greater energy requirements. Unlike automobiles on roads, rails don’t go where you want to go when you want to go there. Compared with planes, even the fastest trains are slow, and modest improvements in airport security would do far more to speed travelers, at a far lower cost, than building expensive new rail infrastructure.

Hyperloop’s Real Problem

Most reviews of Elon Musk’s hyperloop plan focus on technical questions. Will it cost as little as he estimates? Could it move as fast as he projects? Could the system work at all?

None of these are the real problem with the hyperloop. The real problem is how an infrastructure-heavy, point-to-point system can possibly compete with personal vehicles that can go just about anywhere–the United States has more than 4 million miles of public roads–or with an airline system that requires very little infrastructure and can serve far more destinations than the hyperloop.

Musk promises the hyperloop will be fast. But fast is meaningless if it doesn’t go where you want to go. Musk estimates that people travel about 6 million trips a year between the San Francisco and Los Angeles urban areas, where he wants to build his first hyperloop line. But these urban areas are not points: they are huge, each covering thousands of square miles of land.

Airlines deal with these large areas through multiple airports. The Los Angeles area has five commercial airports and San Francisco has three. The hyperloop would only have one station in each region, making it inconvenient for the vast majority of people.

Moreover, airplanes from these airports can reach hundreds of other airports across the country and around the world. Even if Musk’s optimistic cost estimates are valid (and remember, the first cost estimate for California high-speed rail was about $10 billion, less than a tenth of the current estimate), the hyperloop would require billions of dollars spent on more infrastructure to add any new city.

Sprawl Does Not Reduce Economic Mobility

For the second time in a week, Paul Krugman has castigated urban sprawl. First, he blamed Detroit’s bankruptcy on “job sprawl,” when in fact many other factors are to blame and Krugman got his numbers wrong. Now he says Atlanta’s entrenched poverty is due to urban sprawl. “The city may just be too spread out,” he says, “so that job opportunities are literally out of reach for people stranded in the wrong neighborhoods.”

Krugman quotes the Equality of Opportunity Project, whose research found that one of many factors correlated with lower social mobility was “areas in which low income individuals were residentially segregated from middle income individuals.” But income segregation is very different from sprawl, and can take place in communities of any density. New York City, for example, has pretty high economic segregation.

Krugman adds that Atlanta’s sprawl “would make an effective public transportation system nearly impossible to operate even if politicians were willing to pay for it, which they aren’t.” He obviously doesn’t know the history of mass transit in Atlanta, which had a great transit system until regional leaders decided to build an expensive rail transit system. Since they aimed the rail lines at suburbanites and sacrificed bus service to inner-city neighborhoods to pay for rail construction, transit’s share of commuting has fallen by more than 60 percent and per capita transit ridership has fallen by more than two thirds.

Only 7 percent of Atlanta households lack a motor vehicle, and only 3.7 percent of Atlanta-area workers live in households that lack cars, which are both less than the national average. So jobs are not really out of reach to most people regardless of income. Krugman might argue that low-income people in Atlanta are forced to own cars because of sprawl, but for most people cars cost less and provide far better mobility than transit, so this is irrelevant.

The Equality of Opportunity Project found that economic mobility is low throughout the South (except Texas), not just in Atlanta. But the differences in the unit measured—the percentage of children in the bottom fifth of incomes who end up in the top fifth–are small, ranging from 4 percent in Atlanta to 11 percent in San Jose. Moreover, what differences there are appear to be unrelated to sprawl: Chicago, a fairly dense area, is almost as low as Atlanta, while Pittsburgh, a fairly low-density area, is almost as high as San Jose.

The study lists a lot of factors that seem to correlate with low economic mobility, but none of them are related to population density or sprawl. The most important factors appear to be tax rates, racial residential segregation, K-12 school quality, and the percentage of single-parent families. The South scores particularly high on racial residential segregation and low on K-12 schools, which together go much further toward explaining its relatively low economic mobility than urban sprawl.

Residential income segregation, which Krugman focuses on, is only one of several other factors mentioned by the study, and far from the most important one. Even if sprawl were one of the factors, the study itself notes that “all of the findings in this study are correlational and cannot be interpreted as causal effects.” By blaming low economic mobility on sprawl, Krugman is relying on fabricated evidence while ignoring the real problems.

As it happens, the Daily Beast has just published a report by Joel Kotkin and Wendell Cox on Aspirational Cities, which they describe as cities with economic growth and a high quality of life. The majority of cities on their list are in the South, where people are moving to take advantage of new economic opportunities.

It is sad that some local residents, who may be victims of historic racial segregation, poor schools, and one-parent families, aren’t able to take advantage of these opportunities. But these problems did not result from urban sprawl. On the other hand, the factors that Kotkin & Cox say provide a higher quality of life and economic growth–minimal land-use regulation, low traffic congestion, and high housing affordability–are in fact positively correlated with sprawl.

Why is Krugman suddenly pandering to the anti-sprawl community? Back in 2005, Krugman correctly identified anti-sprawl policies as the cause of the housing bubble. He must be aware of research showing that minority homeownership rates are higher in sprawling regions than compact ones (mainly because housing is more affordable in the former than the latter). All else being equal, including quality of schools and racial segregation, sprawling areas are likely to have more social mobility than more expensive, compact areas.

Infrastructure Is Not the Problem

The sudden collapse of a 58-year-old bridge across the Skagit River in Washington state has led to renewed calls to spend more money on American infrastructure. But if that spending comes out of tax dollars rather than user fees and is dedicated to replacing bridges, it will be seriously misplaced.

The usual media hysteria followed the collapse. “Thousands of bridges around the U.S. may be one freak accident or mistake away from collapse,” screamed CBS News. “If just one of [New York’s Tappan Zee Bridge’s] structural elements gives way, the whole bridge could fall and send” hundreds of cars “tumbling into the Hudson River,” warned Business Week.

About 18,000 highway bridges (less than 3 percent of the total) built in the 1950s and early 1960s have what is now considered to be a design flaw that makes them “fracture critical.” This means that at least one major element does not have redundent support, so if that element gives way, the entire bridge could collapse. The Skagit River Bridge failed when an oversized truck that should not have been on the bridge hit a cross beam that lacked redundent support. “This does not mean the bridge is inherently unsafe, only that there is a lack of redundancy in its design,” says the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO).

To listen to the hype, you would think that bridges are failing on almost a daily basis. But put this into perspective: In 2012, more than 34,000 people died in traffic accidents. Virtually none of them died due to a fracture-critical bridge failure. We can do lots of things to make highways safer and reduce that 34,000. A crash program to replace thousands of bridges isn’t one of them and is likely to divert funds away from programs that are far more important.

Many of the stories about America’s infrastructure focus on the number of “structurally deficient” bridges, which (says AASHTO) doesn’t mean the bridges are unsafe but only that they require “significant maintenance and repair to remain in service.” What the stories rarely mention is that in the last two decades the number of structurally deficient bridges has declined by 44 percent, from more than 118,000 in 1992 to fewer than 67,000 in 2012, even as the total number of highway bridges increased from 572,000 to 607,000. The number of fracture-critical bridges has declined from 22,000 in the last four years alone. In other words, the problem is going away without the help of a giant new federal program.

Highway user fees, including federal and state gas taxes and tolls, fund nearly all construction and maintenance of state highways and bridges. The Skagit River Bridge notwithstanding, these roads and bridges tend to be in better shape than those that are locally owned, which need about $30 billion a year from property, sales, or other local taxes. User fees work better than taxes because the fees give highway managers signals about where to spend the money.

Speaker of the House John Boehner wants to dedicate oil and gas royalties to highway infrastructure. But that’s the wrong source of money and it will almost certainly be spent in the wrong places as as much if not most spending will be on glitzy projects that glorify the elected officials who appropriate the money rather than where it is really needed. For example, one sector hungry for more “infrastructure spending” is the rail transit industry, which since 1982 has automatically received a large share of all new transportation dollars. Yet rail transit does virtually nothing to relieve congestion or make our highways safer. Moreover, transit suffers from its own infrastructure crisis, mainly because it is funded mostly out of tax dollars that get spent on glamorous new rail lines rather than user fees that would be spent on maintenance.

Recent highway safety data reveal a striking 20 percent decline in fatalities between 2007 and 2010. This decline was associated with a mere 2.2 percent decline in driving, suggesting that–in the absence of the recession–a 2.2 percent increase in highway capacity and other congestion relief could have produced a similar decline in fatalities. Of the 41,259 fatalities in 2007, 13 were due to a bridge failure; there have been virtually none since then.

In short, the key to sound infrastructure is funding that infrastructure out of user fees rather than tax dollars. Since that’s true, one way to improve highway safety would be to develop a new system of user fees that local governments can tap into so that local as well as state highway engineers receive sufficient funds and the appropriate signals about where to spend money.

Mobility Is Freedom, Not an Invasion of Privacy

Mobility is freedom, or at least an important part of it. Yet earlier this month challenges to expansions of that freedom came from, surprisingly, the Mises Institute of Canada, Reason magazine, and American Enterprise Institute. The issues are new automobile technologies, specifically self-driving cars and improved road pricing, and the challenges came from people who clearly don’t understand the technologies involved.

Self-driving cars, says Roger Toutant writing for the Mises Institute of Canada, will lead to “a national, state-operated, computer network that will be used to achieve an Orwellian level of vehicular control and information sharing. …The implications are ominous. In the future, private spheres will be invaded and all movements will be tracked.”

“Boot up a Google car,” agrees Greg Beato of Reason magazine, “and it’s not so easy to cut the connection with the online mothership.” If you get into a Google driverless car, “you immediately start sending great quantities of revealing information to a company that’s already hoarding every emoticon you’ve ever IMed.”

It is appropriate to question new technologies, but the answer is that’s not the way these cars work. None of the self-driving cars being developed by Volkswagen, Google, or other companies rely at all on central computers. Instead, all the computing power is built into each car.

Obama’s New Transportation Chief Wants Streetcars for Everyone

America’s transportation system will continue to grind to a halt under President Obama’s pick for transportation secretary, Anthony Foxx. Currently mayor of Charlotte, N.C., Foxx strongly supports streetcars and other obsolete forms of transit.

It is a measure of the glacial pace of America’s political system that Obama had nearly 16 months’ notice that current Secretary Ray LaHood planned to step down at the end of Obama’s first term, yet the president required another three months before finding a replacement. If the administration has anything to say about it, American travelers will move at the same glacial pace: the streetcars that Obama, LaHood, and Foxx want to fund are slower than most people can walk.

Transit advocates often point to Charlotte as an example of a successful lightrail line (more accurately described as a “low-capacity-rail line”). With success like this, I’d hate to see failure: the line cost more than twice the original projection; generates just $3 million in annual fares against more than $20 million in annual operations and maintenance costs; and collects of an average of just 77 cents per ride compared with nearly a dollar for other light-rail lines. Now Charlotte wants to extend the line even though a traffic analysis report predicts that the extension will dramatically increase traffic congestion in the corridor (see pp. 54-56).

Foxx believes rail transit “drives economic development,” says George Washington University Professor Christopher Leinberger approvingly. “The goal of any transportation system, especially rail transit, is not to move people,” Leinberger argues. “The goal is economic development at the stations.”

Anthony Foxx certainly believes that. “If we didn’t do streetcar,” he asked the Charlotte city council during a debate, “does anybody have an idea how we’re going to revitalize” downtown Charlotte?

Rail advocates claim that Charlotte’s low-capacity-rail line helped revitalize neighborhoods along the line. However, a study by transportation expert David Hartgen concluded that most of the billions of dollars of development that was planned along the line was never built. Of the developments that were built, most would have taken place without the line, Hartgen found, though not necessarily in exactly the same locations.

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: transportation spending generates true economic growth only if it results in lower-cost, faster, and/or more convenient movement of people and goods. Streetcars and low-capacity rail are more expensive, slower, and for all but a tiny number of people less convenient than the alternatives, whether buses or cars. Even if you reduce transit rider costs by subsidizing them to the hilt, someone has to pay the subsidies and that slows economic growth.

Foxx is blissfully unaware of this and we can expect him to continue LaHood’s policy of giving away as much money as possible for transit projects that are as expensive as possible and move few people while creating more congestion for everyone else.

An Unconstitutional Tax Bill in Virginia?

My long-ago colleague Norman Leahy, once a young research assistant at the Cato Institute, has an op-ed in the Washington Post today. I wonder where he got the idea that an act of the legislature is invalid just because it violates the state constitution.

Those praising the Virginia General Assembly’s transportation compromise may not realize that the bill runs afoul of the plain language in the state’s constitution.

Virginia’s constitution is clear that the General Assembly can impose only uniform taxes across the state for similar activities. But the bill that emerged from the House-Senate conference committee last weekend upsets the historic balance between localities and state government; it contains new provisions about taxation, some of which would effectively set up a two-tier system for residents in certain parts of the state. It’s difficult to see how some of these provisions could survive legal challenge….

As a constitutional matter, these local tax provisions could probably be struck down without affecting the rest of the legislation.

But few should know better than Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) that state legislators don’t have the power to impose a discriminatory local tax. He was the state’s attorney general when his office defended before the state Supreme Court the General Assembly’s previous attempt at a transportation tax package. The court rejected the argument.