Topic: Energy and Environment

Who Is Transit for?

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.

Inventions to Eagerly Await

Humans are progress seekers. Those with an entrepreneurial drive use their intellect to invent novel solutions to our problems. Sometimes, their solutions alleviate widespread suffering and let us live better than kings of centuries past. Thomson Reuters released just such a list of welfare-enhancing inventions to expect by 2025:

Dementia, Alzheimer’s, cancer drug-induced deaths, and Type I diabetes should afflict far fewer individuals by 2025. See below that cancer–one of the most common causes of death in several countries–is already on the decline (with a graph made on HumanProgress.org):

Molehill of Antarctic Ice Becomes a Mountain

Global Science Report is a feature from the Center for the Study of Science, where we highlight one or two important new items in the scientific literature or the popular media. For broader and more technical perspectives, consult our monthly “Current Wisdom.


In science,…novelty emerges only with difficulty, manifested by resistance, against a background provided by expectation. Initially, only the anticipated and usual are experienced even under circumstances where the anomaly is later to be observed.

–Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962)

One of global warming’s “novelties” is that satellite measurements show the extent of ice surrounding Antarctica is growing significantly, something not anticipated by our vaunted climate models.

Thomas Kuhn would predict “resistance”, and today we see yet another verification of how stubborn science can be in the face of results don’t comport with the reigning  paradigm.  The paradigm, in this case, is that our climate models are always right and any counterfactuals are because something is wrong with the data, rather than with the predictions.

“Resistance” means that peer-reviewers aren’t likely to find much wrong with papers that support the paradigm (and that they will find a lot wrong with ones that don’t).  Further, the editors of scientific journals will behave the same, curiously avoiding obvious questions.

Perhaps as fine an example as there is of this process appeared June 21 in the journal The Cryosphere, which is published by the European Geosciences Union.  It is a paper called  “A spurious jump in the satellite record:  has Antarctic sea ice expansion been overestimated?”, by Ian Eisenman (Scripps Institution) and two coauthors.

As shown in our figure, the increase in Antarctic ice extent has been quite impressive, especially since approximately 2000.

Not so fast.  Eisenman et al. write that “much of the expansion [of Antarctic ice] may be a spurious artifact of an error in the processing of satellite observations” [emphasis added].

Wow, that would be really something, knocking down one of the glaring anomalies in global climate, and adding credence to the models.  Eisenman et al. note

In recent years there has been substantial interest in the trend in Antarctic sea ice extent…primarly due to the observed asymmetry between increasing ice extent in the Antarctic and rapidly diminishing ice extent in the Arctic (e.g. Cavalieri et al., 1997) and the inability of current models to capture this (e.g. Eisenman et al, 2011).

No doubt working from the premise that the observed increase in Antarctic ice just can’t be right, Eisenman et al. would appear to have finally verified that hypothesis.

Until you look at the numbers.

Then you are left questioning the review process—at all levels—relating to this work.

The key finding is that there was a processing error in the data.  Microwave sensors that are used to estimate ice extent (and also lower atmospheric temperature) wear out in the harsh environment of space, and new satellites are launched with fresh equipment.  But each one doesn’t send data with the exact same statistical properties, so a succeeding sensor is “calibrated” by comparison with an existing one.

Eisenman et al. found that there was a change in the intercalibration between instruments in December, 1991 when the data were reprocessed in 2007.  Apparently this wasn’t immediately obvious because there is so much “noise” in the data.

Indeed, Eisenman et al have located the needle in this haystack, showing the step-change between the two data sets:

Please take a look at the y-axis.  You will see that the value of the “step” change is about 0.2 times 106 square kilometers, or 200,000 square kilometers.

Wow, that’s a lot!  After all, Eisenman et al. tell us that this shift explains “much” of the increase in Antarctic sea ice.

Hopefully readers caught on before going this far.  If the reason that the shift was undetected is because the data is so noisy, how important can it be?  Now, have a look at the overall ice extent, shown in our first figure.

The y-axis is in millions of square kilometers.  The change since the turn of the century is about 1.3 million square kilometers, a mountain of ice  The step change is about 200,000, a molehill.   That doesn’t sound like “much” to us.

But, hey, if you don’t look too close—and we are sure are greener friends (or the reviewers) won’t (or didn’t)—you might believe that everything is ok with the reigning, model-based paradigm.  In fact there’s “much” that is wrong with it.

As Kuhn wrote, “Only the anticipated and usual are experienced even under circumstances where the anomaly is later to be observed.”

Planning for the Unpredictable

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 10 years, are likely to become a dominant form of travel in 20 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. Those 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 unpredictable, self-driving cars make it doubly or quadruply so. Consider these unknowns:

  • 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 employers move so they can take advantage of self-driving trucks and increased employee mobility?
  • Will car-sharing reduce the demand for parking?
  • Will carpooling reduce the amount of vehicle miles traveled (VMT), or will the increased number of people who can “drive” self-driving cars increase VMT?
  • Will people use their cars as “robotic assistants,” going out with zero occupants to pick up groceries, drop off laundry, or do other tasks that don’t require much 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?

Smart Growth Facts vs. Ideology

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.

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.

… New Urbanism. Flickr photo by David Crummey.

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.

Influencing Climate Policy on the Back of a Lame Horse

Global Science Report is a feature from the Center for the Study of Science, where we highlight one or two important new items in the scientific literature or the popular media. For broader and more technical perspectives, consult our monthly “Current Wisdom.”

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While we hate to beat a dead horse, despite our best efforts, it’s apparently still alive and kicking.

It is a horse called “Global Warmed Causes Cold Winters and Therefore We Should Regulate Carbon Dioxide Emissions” and proudly jockeyed by White House science adviser John Holdren. (It is rumored that the horse was sired by “Comply or Die,” the winner of the 2008 Grand National Steeplechase and a favorite among the global warming alarmist crowd.)

Previously, on several occasions, we have pointed out that  Holdren’s view that greenhouse gas-induced climate changes lead to more frequent cold outbreaks (as espoused in this YouTube video produced by the White House during last winter’s frigid cold) is a (dwindling) minority viewpoint. Leading researchers on the topic have made a special point of declaring that the hypothesis is rather unlikely. 

In recent months, new research, in part inspired by last winter’s “polar vortex” excursion southward into the eastern United States,  and the White House-spurred speculation that it was caused by anthropogenic climate change, has hit the scientific press. In each case,  new research has found little evidence in support of Holdren’s contention and a rather lot of evidence to the contrary.

In fact, so much evidence has built up against Holdren that the good folks over at the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) filed a formal request for correction with the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy under what’s known as the federal Data Quality Act.

Ignoring the Law of Supply and Demand

A recent report from Fannie Mae finds that baby boomers are not leaving their comfortable suburban homes for lively inner-city communities with walkable streets. As a news article about the report observes, this challenges the “conventional wisdom that ‘empty nester’ baby boomers would eventually downsize from the homes where they raised families, flocking instead to apartments or condos.”

Rather than conventional wisdom, it would be more accurate to say that this notion was wishful thinking among urban planners who believe more Americans should be packed into high-density “compact cities” where they will get around by foot, bicycle, or transit rather than by automobile. In contrast, demographers have known that populations of virtually all age groups, whether millennials or empty nesters, are growing faster in the suburbs and exurbs than in the cities. After all, the baby boomers’ parents overwhelmingly preferred to “age in place” rather than move when their children left home; why should baby boomers be any different?

Despite this, regional planning agencies all over the country are writing plans that presume America will need no more single-family homes, especially on large lots, and instead will need lots of apartments, condos, or townhouses. Many of these plans effectively zone away the possibility of new single-family homes on large lots while they subsidize construction of high-density housing. For example, the San Francisco Metropolitan Transportation Commission’s Plan Bay Area mandates that 80 percent of all new housing be in high-density urban centers.

To justify these plans, the planning agencies often hire Arthur C. Nelson, the University of Utah urban planning professor who in 2006 predicted that the U.S. will soon have 22 million surplus single-family homes on large lots. Nelson wrote a 2011 report predicting that the Bay Area, which has one of the most acute housing shortages in America today, would have a surplus of nearly 572,000 single-family homes by 2040; Plan Bay Area relied heavily on this report to justify its strict land-use policies.