Posts tagged ‘bus’

DC Elites Say: Get Your Car Out of My Way

via the Anti-planner:

Washington DC has proposed an anti-auto transportation plan that is ironically called “MoveDC” when its real goal is to reduce the mobility of DC residents. The plan calls for reducing auto commuting from 54 percent to no more than 25 percent of all workers in the district, while favoring transit, cycling, and walking.

This strikes me as just incredibly elitist.   There is no way the politicians and lobbyists who are writing this stuff are going to by cycling and walking or even riding a bus.  They are going to drive (or be driven).  This is about getting the hoi palloi off the roads and out of their damn way.

As Randal O'Toole points out, congestion pricing, if done correctly, could actually improve capacity, but he is skeptical it will be done correctly.

About those "Rising Transit Use" Numbers

From Randal O'Tooole

The American Public Transportation Association (APTA) argues that a 0.7 percent increase in annual transit ridership in 2013 is proof that Americans want more “investments” in transit–by which the group means more federal funding. However, a close look at the actual data reveals something entirely different.

It turns out that all of the increase in transit ridership took place in New York City. New York City subway and bus ridership grew by 120 million trips in 2013; nationally, transit ridership grew by just 115 million trips. Add in New York commuter trains (Long Island Railroad and Metro North) and New York City transit ridership grew by 123 million trips, which means transit in the rest of the nation declined by 8 million trips. As the New York Timesobserves, the growth in New York City transit ridership resulted from “falling unemployment,” not major capital improvements.

Meanwhile, light-rail and bus ridership both declined in Portland, which is often considered the model for new transit investments. Light-rail ridership grew in Dallas by about 300,000 trips, but bus ridership declined by 1.7 million trips. Charlotte light rail gained 27,000 new rides in 2013, but Charlotte buses lost 476,000 rides. Declines in bus ridership offset part or all of the gains in rail ridership in Chicago, Denver, Salt Lake City, and other cities. Rail ridership declined in Albuquerque, Baltimore, Minneapolis, Sacramento, and on the San Francisco BART system, among other places.

It looks like Chris Christie was doing his part to increase transit ridership in New York.

By the way, the phenomenon of small increases in light rail use offset by large drops in bus ridership is extremely common, almost ubiquitous.  Cities build flashy prestige rail projects that cost orders of magnitude more to build and operate than bus service, and are much less flexible when the economy and commuting patterns change.  Over time, bus service has to be cut to pay the bills for light rail.  But since a given amount of money spent on buses tends to carry more than 10x the passenger miles than the same amount spent on light rail, total ridership drops even while spending rises.  That is what is going on here.

Light rail is all about politician prestige, civic pride, and crony favoritism for a few developers with land along the route.  It is not about transit sanity.

Marginal Economics Fail

How much more carbon does filling a marginal open seat on a bus produce vs. filling a marginal open seat on an airplane.  My guess is the answer rounds to zero even with a lot of decimal places.

Story here.

One Thing I Got Wrong About Obamacare

For several years I have feared that my high-deductible health insurance would be illegal.  I am a big believer in high deductible insurance.  First, it is real insurance, requiring that I pay day-to-day expenses but protecting me from catastrophic bill.  Second, it improves the health care system by providing incentives for consumers to actually price-shop services.

Well, I was wrong.  In fact, most people see to be getting higher deductibles than they want.

My only excuse is that the Obama Administration has acted for three years as if they hated high-deductible health coverage and were planning to make it go away.  Kathleen Sebelius has said on a number of occasions that it is not "real insurance" (she believes that insurance should actually be pre-paid medical care).  Seriously, here is an example of what she was saying:

At a White House briefing Tuesday, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said some of what passes for health insurance today is so skimpy it can't be compared to the comprehensive coverage available under the law. "Some of these folks have very high catastrophic plans that don't pay for anything unless you get hit by a bus," she said. "They're really mortgage protection, not health insurance."

She is saying this all while the policies being prepared for the exchange were exactly the kind of coverage she was speaking out against.  And she had to know -- I cannot believe a former state insurance commissioner was not looking at what policies were being prepared for the exchange.  After all, her organization made the last minute decision to hide policy pricing from the public (e.g. deleted the window shopping functionality) and this almost certainly was in response to seeing the policies being prepared for the exchange and realizing the pricing and features were not going to make people happy.

By the way, there is a certain schizophrenia here that is entirely political:  These new policies have a $10,000 deductible, but they pay 100% for condoms?    They may well be creating a combination of catastrophic insurance and pre-paid medical care that has the worst of both approaches.

Politicians lie.  But what is it about this administration that lies in ways that are inevitably going to be discovered, in just a few months?  Can they really be so focused on getting through each individual news cycle that this kind of behavior makes sense?

The Public Rail Spending Game

Kevin Drum has a very good, succinct description of how the rail (light rail, high speed rail, commuter rail) spending game works, in the context of California High Speed Rail (HSR)

As near as I can tell, the HSR authority's plan all along has been to simply ignore the law and spend the bond money on a few initial miles of track. Once that was done, no one would ever have the guts to halt the project because it would already have $9 billion sunk into it. So one way or another, the legislature would keep it on a funding drip.

It's a time-tested strategy, and it might have worked if not for a meddling judge.

Here is a great example of this from Chicago, where all they could afford at first was a single station.

I applaud Drum for opposing this boondoggle, but if he really understands this so well, I wonder why he seldom demonstrates any skepticism about other rail and mass transit projects.

Rail projects, particularly light rail projects that are being constructed or proposed in nearly every major city, are a classic example of a nominally Progressive policy that ends up hurting all the people Progressives want to help.

Bus-based mass transit is an intelligent way to help lower income people have more urban mobility.  Buses are relatively cheap and they are supremely flexible (ie they can switch routes easily).  Such urban bus systems, which like any government run function often have their problems and scandals, never-the-less can be reasonably held up as a Progressive victory.

But middle and upper class people, for whatever reason, don't like buses.  But they do like trains.  And so cities, under middle class pressure, have shifted their mass transit investment to trains.  The problem is that trains are horrendously expensive.    The first 20-mile leg of Phoenix light rail cost over $1.4 billion, which amounts to about $70,000 per daily round-trip rider.  Trains are also inflexible.  You can't shift routes and you can't sell them-- they have to follow fixed routes, which tend to match middle class commuting routes.

Because the trains are so expensive to operate, cities that adopt them quickly start cutting back on bus service to feed money to the rail beast.  As a result, even transit poster-boy cities like Portland have seen the ridership share of mass transit fall, for the simple reason that rail greatly increases the cost per rider and there is not an infinite amount of money available to transit.

 

Liberal Douchebag vs. Liberal Douchebag: Google Employees Invade San Francisco

This is an article a reader described as being from the "screw them all" category, and I am inclined to agree.  There are many funny bits in the piece, but I particularly liked the San Francisco lefties arguing that these new Google millionaires should act more like the Rockefellers and the Vanderbilts.  LOL for sure.

Incredibly, no one asks the obvious question -- why is home supply in San Francisco treated as zero sum, such that a Google millionaire moving in by necessity kicks some  poor people out.  The reason is that no place in the country does more than San Francisco and the Bay Area to make it impossible to build new housing.  San Francisco has some unique geographic constraints but you don't hear people complaining about this in Houston (which is in fact a much larger city).  In fact, I am trying to imagine Houston complaining about too many rich people moving in.  I just can't seem to focus that image in my head.

Actually, the article does very briefly consider the supply side of the equation, but of course no one mentions government development and zoning restrictions -- its the fault of capitalist speculators!  My reader highlights this paragraph:

Though he doesn’t much care for the start-up douchebags, Redmond blames not individual tech workers for the current crisis, but property speculators and the lawmakers who have let them take advantage of their precious commodity: space. “If we had a major earthquake in San Francisco, the water mains all broke, and some guy showed up with a water truck and started selling water for $10 a gallon, people would be pissed,” he says. “That guy would be ridden out of town; he’d be attacked with sticks and pitchforks. But that’s what the real estate people are doing right now – and they’re getting away with it.”

Memo to speculators:  If I have lost all access to water and am dying of thirst, you are welcome to come to my house and sell water to me for $100 a gallon.  I promise no pitchforks at my house.

PS-  One thing I did not know is that tech companies seem to be running large private bus systems

The Google buses, which often stop in spaces supposedly reserved for public transport, are a particular point of contention. This growing fleet of unmarked luxury coaches carries some 14,000 people on their 35-mile trip from the city to Silicon Valley and back. Since the search giant introduced the buses a decade ago, Facebook, Apple, eBay and almost 40 other companies have followed suit. Each new route quickly becomes a corridor of hip clothing stores and restaurants.

This is an interesting exercise in privatization.  For riders, it certainly would be nice to have routes custom designed to match your needs (ie exactly from your origin to your destination without changing trains or busses), something that is often an issue with public transport networks.  Als0- and this is going to sound awful but it is from many public surveys and not my own point of view - these private bus networks get around the social mixing issue that turns a lot of middle class riders off on bus systems.

This is obviously expensive but I understand why some companies do it.  As someone wrote a while back, no one in their right mind would put Silicon Valley in California today if it were not already there.  It is absurdly expensive to do business in CA and it is expensive to live there as an employee.  However, tech companies have found that  a certain good called "access to San Francisco" is quite valuable to the types of young smart employees they want to hire and can overcome these negatives.  So the bus system is a way for companies to better provide this good.  The irony of the article is that as so many tech companies are selling this good (ie access to San Francisco) they may be changing the character of San Francisco in a way that makes the good less valuable over time.

Thoughts on Online Reviews, Suburban Express, and Dennis Toeppen

Apparently Dennis Toeppen likes to sue the customers of his bus company Suburban Express  (here, and previously here) with as many as 125 suits just this year in small claims court, many aimed at stifling customer criticism of the company.

This is just incredible to me.  Last year we served about 2 million customers in the parks we operate (I am guessing that is a few more than Mr. Toeppen serves).  Over the last 10 years we have served about 17 million customers.  Do you know how many I have sued?  Zero.  Do you know how many I considered suing even for a microsecond?  Zero.  Unless a customer is 6 months late on a payment that equals a measurable percentage of annual revenues, you don't sue your customers.

I know online reviews can be a mixed bag, and some people's mental state or unreasonable expectations simply do not allow them to be fair.  Get over it -- take your ego out of the equation.  For God sakes, Casablanca has 39 1-star reviews  (I always thought John Scalzi had a healthy way of dealing with this, publishing his one-star Amazon reviews on his blog from time to time.)

We get negative review from time to time.  The vast majority, while perhaps overwrought from what some might feel was a small slight, have a core of truth.  We treat all these reviews at face value, we try to track down the customers to find out more about their experience, we give out refunds and gift certificates, and then we fix things.  Our biggest problem is that we hire what seem to be perfectly normal people who turn out to be arrogant and overly-officious when dealing with customers.  This tends to come out in the form of an irritating predilection to over-enforce every trivial rule until customers' vacations are ruined.  In other words, they seem to act like Mr. Toeppen and his employees.  Negative customer comments are a treasure, as I can't be in every campground every minute of the day, and these comments are often the canary in the coal mine, letting me know we have an employee or process or training problem.

Yes, in a few circumstances we get flat out dishonest comments.  One ex-employee was so upset at being terminated that he posed as a customer, posting fake reviews about how we employed a sexual predator in some campground.  Several review sites we work with, knowing that I don't make a habit of trying to take down negative reviews, were willing to take this one down once explained.  The other sites that by policy do not take down reviews allowed me to post a comment under the review, wherein I explained the situation, and gave my office phone number and email for anyone to call if they had any concerns about the campground either before or after the visit.

Spying on the Press

Well, the silver lining of this story is that the press, who until now have generally yawned at libertarian concerns about warrantless searches and national security letters, particularly since that power has been held by a Democrat rather than a Republican, will now likely go nuts.

You have probably seen it by now, but here is the basic story

The Justice Department secretly obtained two months of telephone records of reporters and editors for The Associated Press in what the news cooperative's top executive called a "massive and unprecedented intrusion" into how news organizations gather the news.

The records obtained by the Justice Department listed incoming and outgoing calls, and the duration of each call, for the work and personal phone numbers of individual reporters, general AP office numbers in New York, Washington and Hartford, Conn., and the main number for AP reporters in the House of Representatives press gallery, according to attorneys for the AP.

In all, the government seized those records for more than 20 separate telephone lines assigned to AP and its journalists in April and May of 2012. The exact number of journalists who used the phone lines during that period is unknown but more than 100 journalists work in the offices whose phone records were targeted on a wide array of stories about government and other matters.

The AP believes this is an investigation into sources of a story on May 7, 2012 about a foiled terror attack.  This bit was interesting to me for two reasons:

The May 7, 2012, AP story that disclosed details of the CIA operation in Yemen to stop an airliner bomb plot occurred around the one-year anniversary of the May 2, 2011, killing of Osama bin Laden.

The plot was significant because the White House had told the public it had "no credible information that terrorist organizations, including al-Qaida, are plotting attacks in the U.S. to coincide with the (May 2) anniversary of bin Laden's death."

The AP delayed reporting the story at the request of government officials who said it would jeopardize national security. Once government officials said those concerns were allayed, the AP disclosed the plot because officials said it no longer endangered national security. The Obama administration, however, continued to request that the story be held until the administration could make an official announcement.

First, it seems to fit in with the White House cover-up over Benghazi, in the sense that it is another example of the Administration trying to downplay, in fact hide, acts of organized terrorism.  I have criticized the Administration for throwing free speech under the bus in its Benghazi response, but I must say their reasons for doing so were never that clear to me.  This story seems to create a pattern of almost irrational White House sensitivity to any admission of terrorist threats to the US.

Second, note from the last sentence that the White House is bending over backwards to investigate the AP basically for stealing its thunder before a press conference.  Wow.  Well if that were suddenly illegal, just about everyone in DC would be in jail.

Update:  Some thoughts from Glenn Greenwald

how media reactions to civil liberties assaults are shaped almost entirely by who the victims are. For years, the Obama administration has been engaged in pervasive spying on American Muslim communities and dissident groups. It demanded a reform-free renewal of the Patriot Act and the Fisa Amendments Act of 2008, both of which codify immense powers of warrantless eavesdropping, including ones that can be used against journalists. It has prosecuted double the number of whistleblowers under espionage statutes as all previous administrations combined, threatened to criminalize WikiLeaks, and abused Bradley Manning to the point that a formal UN investigation denounced his treatment as "cruel and inhuman".

But, with a few noble exceptions, most major media outlets said little about any of this, except in those cases when they supported it. It took a direct and blatant attack on them for them to really get worked up, denounce these assaults, and acknowledge this administration's true character. That is redolent of how the general public reacted with rage over privacy invasions only when new TSA airport searches targeted not just Muslims but themselves: what they perceive as "regular Americans". Or how former Democratic Rep. Jane Harman -- once the most vocal defender of Bush's vast warrantless eavesdropping programs -- suddenly began sounding like a shrill and outraged privacy advocate once it was revealed that her own conversations with Aipac representatives were recorded by the government.

My Problem With Benghazi...

... was not the crisis management but Obama's throwing free speech under the bus.

I can live with poor crisis management.  I have been a part of enough to understand that things are different in real time than they look when monday-morning quarterbacking the events.  In particular, it can be very hard to get reliable data.  Sure, the correct data is all likely there, and when folks look back on events, that data will be very visible and folks will argue that better choices should have been made.

A great example of this is when historians sort through data to say that FDR missed (or purposely ignored, if you are of that revisionist school) clear evidence of the Japaneses surprise attack on Pearl Harbor.  Sure, the correct clues stand out like flashing lights to the historian, but to the contemporary they were buried in 10,000 ostensibly promising false leads.

In real time, good data is mixed in with a lot of bad data, and it takes some time -- or a unique individual -- to cut through the fog.  Clearly neither Obama nor Clinton were this individual, but we should not be surprised as our selection process for politicians is not really configured to find such a person, except by accident.

No, the problem I have with Benghazi is that when push came to political shove, the President threw free expression under the bus to protect himself.  I am a sort of city on the hill isolationist, who prefers as much as possible for the US to have influence overseas by setting a positive example spread through open communications and free trade.  In this model, there is nothing more important for a US President to do than to support and explain the values of individual liberty, such as free expression, to the world.

Instead, it is increasingly clear he blamed some Youtube video, an exercise in free expression, for the tragedy.  And not just in the first confused days, but five days later when he put Susan Rice on TV to parrot this narrative.  And when the Feds sent a team to arrest and imprison the video maker.  And days after the Rice interviews when Hillary parroted the same message at the funeral, and days after that when Obama spoke to the UN, mentioning the video 6 or 7 times.    Obama took to his bully pulpit and railed against free speech in front of a group of authoritarians who love to hear that message, and whose efforts to stifle speech have historically only been slowed by America's example and pressure.

Phoenix Spent $1.4 Billion To Cannibalize Buses

I have written many times about my problems with Phoenix light rail -- examples are here and here.  We paid $1.4 billion in initial capital costs, plus tens of millions a year in operating losses that must be subsidized by taxpayers, for a line that carries a tiny tiny percentage of Phoenix commuters.  Capital costs equate to something like $75,000 per daily round trip rider  -- If we had simply bought every daily rider a Prius, we would have save a billion dollars.

But, as with most things the government does, it is worse than I thought.  Over the last several years, I have been treating these daily light rail riders as if they are incremental users of the area's transit system.  In fact, they are not, by Valley Metro's (our regional transit authority) own numbers.  Here is the key chart, from their web site.

ridership report chart graphic

Compare 2009 to 2012.  Between those years, light rail ridership increased by just a hair under 8 million.  In the same time period, bus ridership fell by just a hair over 8 million.  So all new light rail ridership is just cannibalizing buses.  We have spent $1.4 billion dollars to shift people to a far more expensive transit platform, which does not offer any faster service along its route (the light rail has to fight through traffic lights on the surface streets same as buses).

This is a pattern seen in most cities that adopt light rail.  Over time, total ridership is flat or falls despite rising rail ridership, because rail is so expensive that it's operation forces transit authorities to cut back on bus service to balance their budgets.  Since the cost per rider is so much higher for light rail than buses, a dollar shifted from buses to light rail results in a net reduction in ridership.

Postscript:  Looking at the chart, light rail has achieved something that Valley Metro has not seen in decades -- a three year period with a decline in total ridership.  Sure, I know there was a recession, but going into the recession the Valley Metro folks were arguing that a poor economy and rising gas prices should boost their ridership.

 

 

Crazy Rail Transit Capital Costs

I don't know what it is about rail transit advocates, but for some reason they seem to believe that capital costs of rail construction are somehow irrelevant.  There is no other way to explain this (thanks to a reader for the link):

A new rail station that opens next Wednesday in Ramsey could give the Northstar Commuter line the ridership boost it needs for an eventual extension to St. Cloud, an Anoka County official says.

But even as a ribbon-cutting ceremony Thursday heralded the arrival of the seventh station along the line, others have questioned the cost: about $13 million, or an average of roughly $130,000 for each of the 100 new daily round-trip riders the station is expected to attract. Some also wonder whether the new station will merely siphon riders from the two stations on either side of it.

But apparently the rail authority thinks the skeptics are being too pessimistic.  They expect it to be MUCH better:

Anoka County Commissioner Matt Look, a former Ramsey council member, predicted the new station will exceed the 100 daily round trips that Northstar officials hope it will generate. With a bus line being discontinued because of the station's arrival, and a 230-unit apartment complex going up near the site, Look said the station could increase Northstar's overall ridership by 25 percent. Based on current figures, that would be a rise of about 600 rides per day.

So the station's greatest supporter is optimistically expecting 300 daily round trip riders per day.  That makes the cost of the station per round-trip daily rider "only" $43,000.    Or approximately enough to buy every rider a new Prius and still save about half the costs.

The New Deal and Black Ghettoization

I have been watching the old PBS documentary series (in that Ken Burns style but I don't think by Ken Burns) and found this an interesting story of government policy fail that I had never heard much about.  Much like segregated train and bus service, racial redlining that is commonly blamed on private enterprise in fact began as government policy

Government policies began in the 1930s with the New Deal's Federal Mortgage and Loans Program. The government, along with banks and insurance programs, undertook a policy to lower the value of urban housing in order to create a market for the single-family residences they built outside the city.

The Home Owners' Loan Corporation, a federal government initiative established during the early years of the New Deal went into Brooklyn and mapped the population of all 66 neighborhoods in the Borough, block by block, noting on their maps the location of the residence of every black, Latino, Jewish, Italian, Irish, and Polish family they could find. Then they assigned ratings to each neighborhood based on its ethnic makeup. They distributed the demographic maps to banks and held the banks to a certain standard when loaning money for homes and rental. If the ratings went down, the value of housing property went down.

From the perspective of a white city dweller, nothing that you had done personally had altered the value of your home, and your neighborhood had not changed either. The decline in your property's value came simply because, unless the people who wanted to move to your neighborhood were black, the banks would no longer lend people the money needed to move there. And, because of this government initiative, the more black people moved into your neighborhood, the more the value of your property fell.

The Home Owners' Loan Corporation finished their work in the 1940s. In the 1930s when it started, black Brooklynites were the least physically segregated group in the borough. By 1950 they were the most segregated group; all were concentrated in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, which became the largest black ghetto in the United States. After the Home Owners Loan Corp began working with local banks in Brooklyn, it worked with them in Manhattan, the Bronx, and Queens.

The state also got involved in redlining. (Initially, redlining literally meant the physical process of drawing on maps red lines through neighborhoods that were to be refused loans and insurance policies based on income or race. Redlining has come to mean, more generally, refusing to serve a particular neighborhood because of income or race.) State officials created their own map of Brooklyn. They too mapped out the city block by block. But this time they looked for only black and Latino individuals.

The academics interviewed in the series argued that nearly every black ghetto in the country was created in the 1930's by this program.

What is a Green Job?

Turns out the guy who gasses up a school bus has a green job.

When Bureau of Labor Statistics Acting Commissioner John Galvin balked on what qualifies as a green job under the agency definition, Issa responded, “Just answer the question.”

“Does someone who sweeps the floor at a company that makes solar panels -- is that a green job?” Issa asked.

“Yes,” replied Galvin, who also acknowledged that a bike-repair shop clerk, a hybrid-bus driver, any school bus driver and “the guy who puts gas in a school bus” are all defined as green jobs.

He also acknowledged that an oil lobbyist, if his work is related to environmental issues, would also have a green job.

It gets better.  Apparently, when I worked at the Exxon refinery in Baytown, TX, I had a green job:

The Bureau of Labor Statistics states a green job is either: a business that produces goods or provide services that benefit the environment or conserve natural resources, or a job in which a worker's duties involve making their establishment's production processes more environmentally friendly or use fewer natural resources

I have never encountered an industrial engineering job anywhere that was not concerned with having their processes use fewer natural resources.

I would argue the greenest of jobs are held by oil and other commodity speculators and traders.  They ensure that prices at all times accurately match our current understanding of the scarcity of each resource.  Without these accurate pricing signals, all efforts to properly invest to use more or fewer of these materials would be impossible.  Just look at the "success" of investments like Solyndra that were made irregardless of these market pricing signals.

Try To Spot Who Has Been Left Out

Here is Kevin Drum, where he quotes from an Op/Ed about a new Southern California "Regional Transportation Plan/Sustainable Communities Strategy"

The plan includes expansion of housing near public transit by 60%....and projections of more than 4 million new jobs — with public transit within half a mile of most of them. Amanda Eaken of the Natural Resources Defense Council praised it as "the strongest transportation plan" in the history of "car-loving Southern California."

.... SCAG's new plan is born of the realization that as a region, we have to grow up, not out. That doesn't mean Hong Kong skyscrapers in Whittier and Redlands. It does mean more apartments near light-rail stations and more vibrant mixed-use areas like the ones in downtown Pasadena, Ventura and Brea. It doesn't mean wresting the car keys from suburban commuters. It does mean making jobs and housing accessible via foot, bike, bus and rail.

Here is his comment on this:

In theory, a plan like this should have almost unanimous support. Developers like it because they can put up denser buildings. Environmentalists like it because it's more sustainable. Urbanists like it because it creates more walkable communities. City governments like it because it creates a stronger tax base.

There's really only one constituency that doesn't like it much: every single person who already lives in these communities and hates the idea of dense, high-rise construction near their homes. So there's going to be fireworks. It'll be interesting to see how the NIMBY bloc gets bought off.

Can you spot which group of people whose  preferences have been left out?   He considers the preferences of planners, developers, environmentalists, urbanists, and current community residents.  That's everyone, right?

Yeah, except for the freaking people who are moving in and actually shopping for a home.  Apparently if you are looking for a place to live in California, everyone except for you has a say in what living choices you will find.  Want a suburban home on an acre of land -- you are out of luck (unless you get an existing one that is grandfathered in, but those are really, really expensive because they are what everyone really wants but no one in power in California will allow to be built).  Your chosen lifestyle has not been approved by your betters.

 

Save A Worker by Keeping Him Unemployed

Here is a portion of Kevin Drum's argument against lowering the minimum wage to stimulate employment

Is this really what we've come to? That we should provide a (probably very small) boost to the job market by allowing businesses to hire people for $9,500 per year instead of $14,500? Seriously? I mean, this is the ultimate safety net program, aimed squarely at working people at the very bottom of the income ladder. If we're willing to throw them under the bus, who aren't we willing to throw under the bus?

Part of the problem is that Drum is absolutely convinced that our intuition (and, oh, 200 years of experience) that demand curves slope downward is flawed in the case of low-skill labor.  He has read the two studies out of a zillion that, contrary to all the others, suggests that minimum wage increases may not affect employment and has convinced himself that these are the last word in the science.    As an employer who has laid people off and made larger and larger investments in automation with each successive minimum wage increase, I will continue to trust my intuition that higher minimum wages makes hiring less desirable.

I will say, though, that there are a number of reasons why a change in the minimum wage may have a smaller overall effect nowadays than one might expect.  That is because the minimum wage vastly understates the cost of taking on an unskilled worker.  Even with a lower minimum wage, these government costs will remain:

  • Soon, the employer will have to pay for the employees health care, a very expensive proposition
  • Workers comp and other labor taxes add as much as 20% to the cost of labor
  • In states like California, bad employees have an increasing number of avenues to prevent employers from firing them, from appeal to an ADA law stretched out of recognition to any number of other legal presumptions that employers have to just live with hiring mistakes

Hiring employees used to be a joyous occasion.  Now I cringe and wonder what kind of liabilities I am taking on.

But back to Drum's statement, how sick is it that allowing people off the dole to actually get a job is called "throwing them under the bus?" Drum, for someone so fired up to make decisions based on academic work, sure is willing to put on blinders to all the academic work that actually characterizes who works for minimum wage and how long they stay on it.  He who argues against making policy based on flawed intuition is operating here entirely from a flawed perception of who minimum wage workers are.  He seems to want to picture families of eight supported for decades by someone trapped in the same minimum wage job, for whom a raise only comes when Congress grants it, but that is simply not the reality.

Just as one metric, for example, the percentage of all wage and salaried workers making minimum wage or less fell from 8.8% in 1980 to 1.7% in 2008.  In fact, the actual absolute number of people making the minimum wage fell by over 2/3 during these years.    I would argue that this number is probably too low.  A dynamic labor market needs to bring people in at the bottom, and raising the minimum wage makes this harder, and so traps people into unemployment.  In fact, the number of unemployed in this country is at least 6 times larger than the number of minimum wage workers.

If we dropped the minimum wage, only a fraction of the 2 million or so who make the minimum wage would see their wages go down, but lets assume a quarter of them would.  We are therefore trying to prop up wages for 500,000 but at the same time creating barriers for 13.9 million people who are unemployed and are looking for work.  And it is low-skilled workers who we are most particularly throwing under the bus by keeping minimum wages high.

The Elite Hatred of Buses

Several times in the past I have posited that folks in power simply hate buses.  How else to explain light rail and high speed rail projects that are both substantially more expensive and substantially less flexible than buses.  Some of the reasons for this include:

  • Politicians like rail better because it is sexier.  Period.   They are trying to spend taxpayer money to support their own re-election talking points.
  • Unions and city workers like rail because it is more expensive.  More money gets spent, either creating more union jobs or giving transit leaders bigger budgets which translate into higher salaries and more prestige for themselves.  And the lack of flexibility is good for them because it makes their job immune to budget cutting.  Just too many sunk costs.
  • Middle and upper-middle class folks in the public have a deep disdain for buses, which they associate with poverty and blue collar labor.  Riding buses hurts their self image, even if the service is no worse than trains.  Rail is the Louis Vuitton handbag of transit.

In Phoenix, light rail requires a subsidy of $3.82 center per mile (that is the government spending above and beyond the fare), which is nearly 10x what we spend on buses.  And light rail uses more energy per passenger mile here than driving.

Anyway, this story from Iowa seems to support my point -- the government is proposing to spend tens of millions of dollars to create a rail service that is slower and more costly than existing private bus service.

The latest in lunacy in high-speed rail lunacy: at Joel Kotkin’s newgeography.com Wendell Cox reports that the U.S. Transportation Department is dangling money before the government of Iowa seeking matching funds from the state for a high-speed rail line from Iowa City to Chicago. The “high-speed” trains would average 45 miles per hour and take five hours to reach Chicago from Iowa City. One might wonder how big the market for this service is, since Iowa City and Johnson County have only 130,882 people; add in adjoining Linn County (Cedar Rapids) and you’re only up to 342,108—not really enough, one would think, to supply enough riders to cover operating costs much less construction costs.

Oh, one other thing. Cox reports that there is already luxury bus service, with plus for laptops and wireless Internet, from Iowa City to Chicago. It’s part of a larger trend for private companies to offer convenient and inexpensive bus service. A one-way ticket on the bus costs $18, compared to a likely train fare of more than $50. And the bus takes only three hours and 50 minutes to get from Iowa City to Chicago. That’s one hour and 10 minutes faster than the “high-speed” train.

City Planning, Light Rail and White People

I have argued for a long time that the shift of city transit departments from buses to a love affair with light rail has been a disaster.  Rail is so much more expensive per passenger mile, and so inflexible, that it generally forces a shrinkage in the total number of riders at the same time that budgets explode (example article here).

There are a lot of explanations for this phenomenon.  Part of it is incentives - heads of agencies with rail get paid more than bus-only agencies, and unions love the higher-paying rail jobs that never go away (part of the flexibility issues with rail).  Part of the explanation is cultural - rail is now hip and edgy and allegedly green and modern.  Buses are so last century.

And part of it is social/racial.  White upper middle class yuppies wouldn't be caught dead on buses.   They like trains better, particularly when they are successful in running rail routes through middle class commuting routes.  If the cost of this forces cut backs on buses that run where the poor need to go, oh well.

So, I ask you, what city in America is most famous as a model for urban planning and light rail?  Portland.  So it is interesting to see what effect this planning and transit strategy has had on the population.  I have already written here before that Portland bus service has been gutted in favor of rail, such that total ridership in the city has dropped despite spending a lot more transit dollars.  These maps from the Portland Oregonian show another effect -- shifting transit dollars to modes favored by rich white people has... caused Portland to be increasingly white.  What a surprise.  Via the anti-Planner

Light Rail and Sustainability

Let me offer up a definition of sustainability that I think most environmentalists and progressives would accept:

We are acting in a sustainable manner if we are achieving our goals in a way that does not hamper the ability of other people in the world, or of future generations, to achieve their goals.

Most environmentalists and progressives would call light rail lines in US cities a "sustainable" technology because of its notional impact on fuel use and CO2 output (yeah, I know, but we are not going to address those assumptions today).

Let me present one fact, from Federal Transit Administration's 2009 survey of public transit authorities, whose data is linked in various ways here.  Or you can download the summary spreadsheet here.  For all US light rail systems in total:

User fares paid per passenger-mile:           $0.18

Total cost per passenger-mile:                     $2.22

Taxpayer subsidy per passenger-mile:       $2.04

Since I live in Phoenix and the Phoenix light rail system seems to get particular praise as a "success" from light rail supporters, here are the Phoenix light rail numbers;

User fares paid per passenger-mile:          $0.07

Total cost per passenger-mile:                     $3.89

Taxpayer subsidy per passenger-mile:       $3.82

So there, folks, is your sustainable technology.  As I have written before about sustainability, "I do not think that word means what you think it means."

Nationwide, non-users of light rail pay for 92% of its costs.   In Phoenix, non-users pay for 98% of the costs.  Taking the Phoenix system as an example, resources are drained from literally millions of people so that 17,000 or so people can ride it round trip each day.   Using resources from millions of people, and building up debts that will last into the next generation, to support the transit of just a few people, seems to be the antithesis of sustainability.

If there is any common denominator among progressives, it is that they have little respect for how individuals spend their money.  So they might be unmoved by the loss of resources from so many.  So lets just look narrowly at transit, which I presume the do care about.

Before Valley Metro operated a light rail system in Phoenix, they also operated a bus transit system.  This system still requires a subsidy, but it is much lower than the light rail subsidy.  In 2009, the bus subsidy was $0.74 per passenger-mile.  This means that for the same amount of taxpayer funds, Valley Metro can provide 1.0 passenger-mile by train or 5.2 by bus ($3.82/$0.74).   I can guarantee that cities building light rail are not having their budgets quintupled.  So the result is that, as light rail gets built, total transit ridership falls in most cities as rail costs crowd out existing bus services.

Update: Most light rail articles in our local papers, which have been mindless boosters of the system, generally consist of asking riders if they like the system, who inevitably answer "yes!"  This is somehow a proof the system is great.  Well, duh.  I too am likely to be happy with a service where I only pay 2% of the costs.

Update #2:  Last year, there were about 3.2 trillion passenger miles driven by urban drivers in cars in the US.  My point about light rail is that we can barely afford it for just a few people, given that we spent $1.3 billion to build a rail line for about 17,000 daily round trip riders in Phoenix.  If it were truly a sustainable technology, it could be applied to all commuters.  But at a national average taxpayer subsidy per light rail passenger mile of about $2, this means that to roll light rail out to everyone would cost $6.4 trillion a year, almost half our annual GDP.  If it required the subsidy rates we have in Phoenix per passenger-mile, such a system would cost over $12 trillion  year.  In fact, the numbers would likely be even higher in reality, because light rail in most cities is almost certainly built on the highest populated corridors with the most bang for the buck (though some of the diminishing returns would be offset by network effects).

Arrogance of the State

I know this is just a trivial example, but somehow it seems to be representative for me of a larger class of legislation - yield to the state!

In 2009, Colorado legislators passed the Yield to Bus Law to help transit agencies that were finding that the inability of buses to get quickly back into the traffic flow after a stop was hurting their on-time performance.

Steamboat Springs Transit helped push for the law after it had to add time to routes to stay on schedule because too often its buses were boxed in by traffic at stops, said Philo Shelton, director of Steamboat's public works department, which runs the 24-bus transit operation....

The hope is that motorists will get in the habit of yielding, thereby minimizing the need for enforcement of the law, officials say.  (via the antiplanner)

That does seem to be the point - produce citizens that are in the habit of yielding to the state.   Because we all know that having the state's bus full of empty seats stay on schedule is far more important than the schedule of all the little people around it.  When government schedules don't work, what do they do?  Change the schedules?  No!  Change the behavior of the citizenry so the schedules can be made to work.  Nothing wrong with the schedules - its all you folks who are broken.

Spiderman Musical Review (Turn Off the Dark)

OK, I saw the Spiderman musical (still in pre-production) on Broadway last week.  I thought I would share some thoughts about the show.  Note that I like musicals and have been to a bunch but I am by no means an expert.

The show began with an unforced error, which seemed really dumb given the bad press the show has been getting (mixed reviews combined with some very high-profile accidents).  I showed up 20 minutes early and found a line for the Will Call (not ticket purchase, but simply ticket pickup) that went down the entire long block.  It took me 40 minutes just to pick up my tickets.  The show started late, but I still missed the first number, and a LOT of people were behind me.

The show was sold out on a Wednesday night.  I don't know if this is a measure of its popularity or the new Nascar, waiting for an accident aspect of the show.  A friend of mine said he went the week before and the show had three long halts  (there is a lot of technical stuff going on in the flying -- the stops feel exactly like when the ride stops at DisneyWorld).  We had only two very short ones.

The staging is amazing.  Actors fly all around the stage, and more impressively, soar and fight above the audience, frequently landing on the railings of the balconies.  The stage itself is well done - they do a nice job creating the illusion of great height when scenes take place on the top of buildings.

The dancing is fun, in a high energy way.  Often it is more tumbling and gymnastics than dancing, but entertaining.

The plot in the first half is solid - the classic spiderman origin myth -- if you have seen the recent movie you have got it.

For me, the wheels really came off the bus in the second half.  The villain is Arachne -- not some super villain with an appropriate name, but the actual Arachne from greek mythology that Athena turned into a spider.  Arachne is a combination scorned lover, unkillable super-villain, and source of redemption and has these sort of spider minions around her.  This whole plot angle did not work at all for me.

Why the problem?  Well, they killed off the first villain in the first act.  So, without even being a sequel, they created the sequel problem in the second Act -- how do you top the first villain?  And like many sequels, it became over the top and incoherent.

OK, and now for the final problem:  The music was entirely forgettable.  There were no musical themes that helped unify the show (as someone like Andrew Lloyd Weber does).  There were just a bunch of unrelated songs  (I suppose there could have been a reprise, but the music being reprised was so forgettable that I forgot it).  The music established the right moods -- dark or heroic or romantic, but it was just wallpaper behind the actors.

I would not have had trouble with it if Bono and Edge had, being new to musical theater, tried to do something really different and failed.  But they simply cranked out a bunch of utterly bland show tunes.  A couple were OK at the time, but I sure wasn't whistling them on the way out.  In contrast, I saw Chorus Line 30 years ago and still can sing bits of several songs.

Weird Fact: Dr. Normon Osborn (who in the show is not only Green Goblin but also the creator of the mutant spider that gives Spiderman his powers) looks exactly like Madam Hooch in the Harry Potter movies.  As Green Goblin he looks more like a green Gene Simmons.

Mass Transit and Energy Use

The Anti-Planner argues that mass transit will never be energy efficient, mainly because it is virtually impossible to improve occupancy.  The arguments for transit saving money all tend to include the line "will be efficient when occupancies increase" but he shows pretty clearly why that is probably not going to happen.

Also note pages 2-15 and 2-16 of this report.  Compare the trends of auto and airline energy intensity with rail and bus.  While cars and planes have decreased their energy use per passenger mile by quite a bit, rail has been flat and buses have been getting worse.  In fact, auto transit became more energy efficient than buses twenty years ago and continues to get better.   Airline travel has become nearly as energy efficient as Amtrak.

Light Rail Killing Another Bus System

As predicted by skeptics of light rail, like myself, the Phoenix light rail system is starting to kill bus service.  This is a familiar pattern -- in most cities that have added rail, from LA to Portland, total transit ridership has fallen as light rail systems have been built.  That is because rail is so expensive, and its costs are mostly fixed (ie bond payments for construction costs) and absolutely inflexible (ie you can't shift routes).  Since rail costs far more, even orders of magnitude more, per rider than buses, this means that even with modest increases in total transit budgets, total ridership falls when capacity is being shifted to much higher cost rail.  Bus service is inevitably cut, because even if you close rail lines, the costs remain.

So here we are, in Phoenix.  The article is mainly about the regional transit coalition falling apart, which I have no opinion or interest in, but you can see what is going on anyway.

A bad economy has meant that building a regional bus system in the Valley is no longer a regional endeavor.

A half-cent sales tax was supposed to be the magic bullet that paid for transit and roads. But as tax revenues continue to shrink, cuts to the plan have become inevitable.

Avondale leaders say the toll includes the decimation of future West Valley bus routes and the end of the regionalism that Proposition 400 promised....

Paul Hodgins, capital-programming manager for Valley Metro, which operates the transit system,said every region took a 25 percent cut in transit dollars.

Here is what is going on, though the article only sort of alludes tangentially to this way down in the last 2 paragraphs.  Half of the transit dollars in the sales tax increase went to rail, and half to buses.  The rail money is almost all for debt service on capital spending which has already occurred.  This money has to be spent or the local authorities will default on their bonds.  The other half was for bus operations.

Now, there is a 25% cut in the sales tax dollars from this sales tax increase.  The half that went to rail can't be touched.  So the 25% cut results in a 0% cut in rail and a 50% cut in buses.  Further, since bus service carries a lot more passenger trips per dollar spent than rail, this 25% cut will end up affecting well over 50% of the total ridership that benefited from the sales tax funds.

It is clear from the article that folks probably understand this, but no one from the AZ Republic to the transit agencies are yet ready to admit it.  Expect the proposed solution to be in the form of more taxes rather than a rethinking of transit strategy.  Rail is an albatross, and I wonder how often it has to drive failures like this before people start recognizing it as such.

More Italy

After several more days and locations (Florence, Cinqueterre via Portovenere) I am left with one question:  Why is it that even supposedly elegant European hotels charging many hundreds of Euros a night for a room are oblivious to the quality of their beds?  I am getting tired of paying tons of cash for rooms with bed linens whose quality is measured in "grit" rather than "threadcount."  The beds are uncomfortable and the pillows are awful.   The blankets are sick polyester jokes that Motel 6 would be embarrassed to offer.  For the price of just one night's room rent I could go to IKEA and outfit the rooms better.  It's not like I am some spoiled princess-and-the-pea sleeper -- I stay in a lot of cheap hotels and I tent camp, for god sakes.  My camping equipment is more comfortable than these beds.  I routinely stay in $70 hotels in the US and never get beds or linens this bad.  Do they not care, or is this what Europeans all sleep on at home?

OK, rant over.  Florence was as great as it always is.  There is way too much stuff to do there ever to get bored, all within just a few minutes walking.   Unlike past visits, we entirely skipped the Uffizi and hit a lot of historic buildings we had missed before (e.g. Medici Palace).  I enjoyed it but if you are on your first visit, the Uffizi is a must.  Also saw a bit of above-average engineering, like this:

Seriously, I wonder if I could have -- without a)  any kind of materials strength data base; b) no structural steel or modern concrete; c) no CAD facility -- designed and built such a thing in the 1400s, even with the Pantheon as a go-by to copy.  Really remarkable.

In Florence, there is a famous bridge called the Ponte Vecchio which is actually covered in buildings:

You can't tell from this picture, but the bridge (open only to pedestrian traffic) is lined with at least 40 jewelry stores.  Seriously, each storefront has bout 6 feet of space, and every one had a window with zillions of gold trinkets.  It got me thinking about the paradox of choice.  It's not hard to buy into the economic theory that too much choice may inhibit purchase while walking along this bridge, though I am told most of these folks do very well (I have never bought into the paradox of choice as social theory -- the one that says people would be happier with fewer choices.  If this were true, we would all be emigrating to North Korea).

Speaking of pedestrian streets, one important takeaway from Italy has been that one should never assume a road is too narrow, even if it is no wider than your pantry door, for a vehicle to come racing through any second.  The other day I was in a really narrow alley I thought was foot-traffic-only when a bus(!) came screaming down the lane like a piston through a cylinder.  Only a well-located doorway got me out of the way, and even then the bus's mirror clipped my arm.

The last few days we have been staying at the port town of Portovenere on the Italian Riviera.

The town itself is attractive with a fair amount to explore for its size.  I experimented some with night photography from my room

I have some other exposures that I want to try with HDR software to try to bring out a bit more of the buildings.   The town was kind of fun on a Saturday night -- in addition to a couple of rowdy weddings, there were also a lot of BIG boats that came in for dinner in the evening.  Very nice (except for my bed).

Portovenere is a convenient gateway to the Cinqueterre, five absurdly picturesque downs laid down in about 1100 AD by Walt Disney to attract American tourists.  You may have not heard their names, but you have likely seen one or all of them the last time you were at an art fair in one of the photo exhibits -- here is one example (though they had the patience to wait for a time of day where the lighting was better, presumably in the early morning).

More than the towns, I enjoyed the walking trail in between, which is an attraction in and of itself.  It winds through wilderness and vineyards along the coast.  All through the vineyards I kept seeing what looked like a guide rail for some sort of gear-driven device.  The rail wound up and down the hills and through the vineyards.  I had assumed that it was some sort of irrigation system where the sprinkler moved along the rail (though I could not figure out how the water supply would work).  Then I found this absolutely awesome piece of steampunk-style tech:

It is hard to tell, but its a little one-person monorail that rides on the rail and pulls a couple of carts behind the "engine."  This is why I could not find any roads or really many trails in the vineyards -- they use these cool things to move about, do maintenance, and bring in the crop presumably.  And the rail does not run on the ground, but 4-5 feet in the air, so one can see over all the vines and brush.  Totally awesome.  And not a seatbelt to be found on it, which made me love it all the more.   I loved it so much, here is another shot head-on (sorry it is overexposed, I don't have the energy to edit it right now).

One Lab Left Out

Glen Reynolds linked this gallery of 30 awesome college labs.  My favorite at Princeton was our Junior year mechanical engineering course which was basically interfacing micro computers to mechanical devices  (which was a non-trivial task in 1983).  There were two one-semester courses.  The first was mostly software, and involved programming an s-100 bus computer in assembly language to do various things, like control an elevator.  My final project was a put one of the first sonic rangefinders from a Polaroid camera on a stepper motor and built a radar that painted a blocky view of its surroundings on a computer monitor.

But the really cool part for me was the second semester, when it was software + hardware.  We had to build a complete electronics and mechanical package to perform an automated function on ... a very large n-scale model railroad.  Well, readers of my blog will know that model railroading is my hobby anyway.  My team built a coal loading facility where the train was stepped forward one car at a time and a hopper filled each successive car to the right level with coal (or actually little black pellets).  We had sensors to be able to handle certain problems the professor might throw at us, like a car that was already full, cars of different sizes and lengths, etc.  That lab with the big model railroad was easily my favorite.

In retrospect, I almost miss programming in assembler code, trying to cram the code into 4K EPROMS, etching my own circuit boards....  Almost.   Now my only use for circuit boards is to shear them into strips to act as railroad ties when I hand-solder track work and my only use for etchant is weathering scale sheet metal to make it naturally rusty.  Pictures of the latter in a few weeks.

Blaming Private Companies for Government Procurement Errors

The blaming of private companies for government procurement errors is one I deal with frequently at my privatization blog.  This seems to be a particularly egregious example:

Maricopa County officials can't sue the Sheriff's Office for buying a $465,000 bus without their approval, so now they want to sue the bus company.

Precisely why Motor Coach Industries would be sued over the internal squabble remains unclear.

The county has maintained in this months-long bus battle that Sheriff Arpaio's office bought the vehicle with Jail Enhancement funds, when it should have used a typical county procurement process.

From the bus company's point of view, though, the Sheriff's Office was a customer with cash. For the county to demand a full refund, without so much as a deduction for the depreciation, seems like a raw deal for MCI.

Cari Gerchick, spokeswoman for the county, says text of the lawsuit won't be released until after the Board of Supervisors votes on it at Monday's meeting. She could not provide the legal justification for the expected lawsuit, beyond saying that MCI "should have known" the MCSO had not followed the county's procurement process.

Get that?  The company should have known that our County's chief law enforcement officer was not following the law.  This is obviously an absurd contention, but further the company had two geographic disadvantages:  1.  Not being from AZ, they don't know just how unethical our sheriff really is; and 2.  Being from Chicago, even if they had recognized unethical behavior, they would have assumed it was perfectly legal