Market Urbanism http://marketurbanism.com Urbanism for Capitalists | Capitalism for Urbanists Fri, 12 Dec 2014 18:51:00 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=4.0.1 On the Mixing of Incompatible Uses and Incumbencyhttp://marketurbanism.com/2014/12/09/on-the-mixing-of-incompatible-uses-and-incumbency/ http://marketurbanism.com/2014/12/09/on-the-mixing-of-incompatible-uses-and-incumbency/#comments Tue, 09 Dec 2014 18:01:10 +0000 http://marketurbanism.com/?p=4161 houses-pollution-nuclear-power-plants-industrial-plants-factory-_557745-47I noticed an interestingly ironic thing today.

The usual argument for the necessity of use-based zoning is that it protects homeowners in residential area from uses that would potentially create negative externalities – ie: smelting factory, garbage dump, or Sriracha factory.

Urban Economics teaches us that such an event happening is highly unlikely in today’s marketplace. (nevermind the fact that nuisance laws should resolve these disputes) The business owner who is looking for a site for a stinky business would be foolish to look in a residential area where land costs are significantly higher.

However, as Aaron Renn pointed out in the comments of my last post on Planned Manufacturing Districts, the inverse of this is happening in many cities as residential uses begin to outbid other uses in industrial areas:

I think part of the rationale in this is that once you allow residential into a manufacturing zone, the new residents will start issuing loud complaints about the byproducts of manufacturing: noise, smells, etc. I know owners of businesses in Chicago who have experienced just that. They’ve been there for decades but now are getting complaints from people who live in residential buildings that didn’t even exist when the manufacturer located there. This puts those businesses under a lot of pressure to leave as officials will almost always side with residents who vote rather than businesses who don’t get to.

It’s clear this is a more relevant defense of use-based zoning than the one we usually hear. Of course, I’d argue that segregating uses through zoning isn’t a just way to resolve these disputes, and my last post discusses some of the detrimental consequences for cities.

It seems ironic, because it inverts the usual argument in-favor of zoning.  Residents are choosing to move near established industrial firms, and PMDs are a tool used to defend incumbent industries from residents.  Despite it’s lack of economic soundness, zoning is typically rationalized through an emotional appeal to defend incumbent residents from dirty industry.

This doesn’t decisively refute use-based-zoning in itself.  In-fact, I’m afraid it may bolster the case, but it does help expose the appeal to emotions used to defend zoning.

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BART, Josefowitz, and Mass Transit in the Bayhttp://marketurbanism.com/2014/11/10/bart-josefowitz-and-mass-transit-in-the-bay/ http://marketurbanism.com/2014/11/10/bart-josefowitz-and-mass-transit-in-the-bay/#comments Mon, 10 Nov 2014 16:59:50 +0000 http://marketurbanism.com/?p=4141 Lake_Merritt_BART

Last week, Nick Josefowitz unseated a multi-decade incumbent for a spot on the BART board of directors. Normally I don’t pay too much attention to elections, but Mr. Josefowitz might actually have some good ideas.

For everyone outside the Bay Area, the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) system is a commuter rail line that constitutes the vital transportation link between the East Bay and San Francisco. On a typical weekday it provides 400,000 rides and that number is increasing as the regional economy continues to boom. Suffice it to say that BART is a big deal to a lot of people who rely on it every day (myself included).

While Josefowitz’s campaign website talks about cleaning up dirty stations and increasing late night train availability, I had the privilege of hearing him outline an interesting proposal during a private, small group discussion some months ago.

According to Josefowitz, BART sits on a substantial amount of real estate in the form of station parking lots. His proposal was to repurpose some of this space as high density housing. This would help with the region’s housing shortage and support BART ridership by clustering population around the system’s stations and the lost spots could be offset by building parking structures on the remaining lot space (many BART parking lots are ground level only as opposed to multi-level parking structures). This sounded a lot like Hong Kong’s integrated rail-property development approach which has proven to be an unqualified success, so my interest was definitely piqued.

As always, there’s plenty of which to be skeptical. The fact that the proposal was brought up in a private discussion, but isn’t listed on the campaign website may say something about where it falls in Josefowitz’s priorities. Also, it’s difficult to tell how effective the incoming director will be in pitching new ideas to the incumbent directors on the board. And finally, any plan to build housing on BART property will be sure to include some kind of “affordable” housing requirement, the beneficial effects of which remain questionable to say the least.

But, if Josefowitz is serious about the proposal and he manages to find support amongst the other members of the board, it could be a step in the right direction. More housing would be better than less in the supply constrained Bay Area and allowing for greater density around BART’s stations could contribute to a more sustainable regional transit system.

For the record, I did not vote in this election and this post does not equate to a political endorsement of any kind.

 

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Planned Manufacturing Districts: Planning the Life Out of Districtshttp://marketurbanism.com/2014/11/06/planned-manufacturing-districts/ http://marketurbanism.com/2014/11/06/planned-manufacturing-districts/#comments Thu, 06 Nov 2014 13:28:44 +0000 http://marketurbanism.com/?p=4027

Chicago’s Goose Island and surrounding Planned Manufacturing Districts

They are called different things in different cities, but they are similar in form and intent among the cities where they are found.  For simplicity’s sake, a Planned Manufacturing District (PMD), as they are called in Chicago, is an area of land, defined by zoning, that prohibits residential development and other specific uses with the intent of fostering manufacturing and blue-collar employment.

Proponent of PMDs purport to be champions of the middle-class or blue-collar workers, but fail to consider the unintended consequences of prohibiting alternative uses on that land.  At best, PMDs have little effect on changing land-use patterns where industrial is already the highest-and-best-use.  At worst, they have the long-run potential to distort the land use market, drive up the costs of housing, and prevent vibrant neighborhoods from emerging.

A Race to The Bottom

Before getting into it further, it is important to examine the economic decisions industrial firms make in comparison to other uses.  Earlier in the industrial revolution, industry was heavily reliant on access to resources.  Manufacturing and related firms were very sensitive to location.  The firms desired locations with easy access to ports, waterways, and later railways to transport raw materials coming in, and products going out.

However, the advent of the Interstate Highway System and ubiquitously socialized transportation network have made logistical costs negligible compared to other costs.  Where firms once competed for locations with access to logistical hubs and outbid other uses for land near waterways in cities, they now seek locations with the cheapest land where they can have a large, single-floor facility under one roof.  This means sizable subsidies must be combined with the artificially cheap land to attract and retain industrial employers on constrained urban sites.

Additionally, today’s economy is has become much more talent-based rather than resource based, and patterns have shifted accordingly.  In contrast to industrial, residential and office uses are still very sensitive to location.  In fact, residential preference for urban locations are increasing.  Likewise, most office and other commercial firms seek to locate where they can best attract talent or customers, or simply put, convenient to residential.  To the dismay of the politicians, blue collar jobs are destined to leave cities to seek cheaper land in less desirable locations.  We should expect industrial firms to prefer exurbs and sites close to negative externalities, such as near highways and airports where noise and air pollution drive out residential uses.  Efforts to stem the tide of these realities will surely incur dead-weight losses.

In a race to the bottom, prohibition of housing and other uses in PMDs drives the value of that land down to the point it can compete on price with the most undesirable suburban locations. That is, until a non-manufacturing use compatible with the wording of PMDs emerges to crowd out industrial.

We are are in an interesting time, and are witnessing the first cases where the long-term consequences of PMDs are beginning to emerge for us to witness.

Google and Chicago’s Fulton Market

Over the past two decades, Chicago’s West Loop has become one of the most desirable neighborhoods in the City.  Developers flocked to the neighborhood to take advantage of the neighborhood’s proximity to Chicago’s Loop, and abundance of underutilized warehouses waiting to be converted to hip lofts.  However, Fulton Market and meatpacking district on the northern part of the West Loop remained immune to the radical transformation.  Neighboring West Town, River West, and West Loop blossomed during the housing boom.  Was Fulton Market less desirable?  Far from it – meaningful redevelopment was forbidden.

As developers began converting West Loop buildings in the 90’s, the Randolph Fulton Market Merchants Association proposed the formation of the Kinzie Street Industrial Corridor.  The Association ultimately triumphed in their lobbying for the district, which formed a PMD to protect them from the encroachment of competing land uses.  They also won a Tax Increment Financing district to fund subsidies, and other programs aimed at enriching incumbent and new businesses in the area.

Then, along comes Google.  According to the wording of the PMD, “High Technology Office” is a permitted use in the Kinzie Street Industrial Corridor.  Google, in search of an office with large floor plates for its Chicago headquarters, chose to move into a former cold storage building in the Fulton Market that is being converted into office.

As a result of Google’s impending arrival, Fulton Market has attracted a flurry of speculative real estate investment as other technology firms, hotels, restaurants, and entertainment venues flock to the area.  Land prices have been driven up to extent that no matter how much the subsidy, Fulton Market is no longer an economically viable location for industry or manufacturing.  We should expect politicians to scramble to fight this over coming years, but extinction of Fulton Market industry is imminent.  Efforts to hamper market-forces, millions of dollars of wasted subsidies, and unnecessarily higher housing costs were sacrificed to achieve nothing of lasting value.

i3xnk4

Vibrancy Thwarted

Possibly the biggest victim of the vast prohibition on uses of land in Planned Manufacturing Districts are the neighborhoods in which they are located.  In her treatise, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs discusses the ingredients of what makes urban districts flourish or fail.  Jacobs makes the case that great urban districts typical have a diversity of primary uses, short blocks, diversity of the age of buildings, and sufficient concentration of people.  Districts aimed at preserving and fostering limited uses, such as PMDs, stand in the way of all of these factors necessary for the emergence of vibrant city life.

Most obviously, if residential and other uses are prohibited, a diversity of primary uses and sufficient concentration of people are impossible.  Since the optimal sites for today’s manufacturing and logistics firms are very large, single-story buildings, firms are likely to demolish older multi-story buildings otherwise desired by residential loft-lovers.  They are also prone to spread their facilities over several blocks, sometimes incorporation what was once a street into their property.

Clybourn Corridor, Elston Corridor and Goose Island PMDs

Inspired by Fulton Market’s sudden success, some developers have begun to set their sights on other well located PMDs.  These developers intend to snatch up the preserved land at artificially low prices and entice technology companies to come.  One such developer, South Street Capital intends to do just that in Goose Island, straddled between River North and Lincoln Park to the east, and River West and Wicker Park to the west.  Developers also have also been eyeing the nearby site of the former Finkl Steel Plant.

Ironically, it was Finkl who successfully lobbied for the formation of Chicago’s first PMD, the Clybourn Industrial Corridor.  In the debates leading to the formation of the PMD, light manufacturing firms and developers were opposed to protections.  Light manufacturing wanted to keep the option to sell their land to developers and move to the suburbs.  As reported by the Chicago Reader:

On the other side were a handful of industrial-property owners from the area and their battery of lawyers, who argued that Eisendrath was offering them protection they do not want. Someday they may want to move, they say, because their buildings are too small, old, or obsolete. And they want the right to sell to whomever they choose–builders of shopping malls, condos, town houses, it doesn’t matter–at the highest dollar the market will bear.

“I like doing business in Chicago,” says David Schopp, chairman of U.S. Sample Company, the second-largest manufacturing employer in the area. “But I don’t want to be restricted. I don’t think it’s government’s role to say who I can and cannot sell to.”

Now, it is Finkl who wishes for that option.

The southern part of Fulton Market, as much as zoning hampers it’s potential, should enjoy some vibrancy as adjacent uses spill over into the district. (further, we do expect the city to begin allowing more residential in it’s latest plans for the district)  However, without lifting the PMDs altogether, there is little reason to be optimistic about the Goose Island and Elston Corridor PMDs.  Unfortunately, development of the PMDs in line with current prohibitions will result in a large area devoid of residential uses and other essential ingredients needed to become vibrant districts.  The area currently lacks transit alternatives, so employees will get to work by car or bike, exasperating traffic on roads connecting Lincoln Park to the expressway. We cannot expect the area to be rescued by spillover from nearby residential areas, as the river acts as a border vacuum preventing interconnection and transit access is minimal.  Failure to remove the PMD before further development takes place will condemn the area to eternal dullness.

Chicago’s Goose Island, protected by PMDs

Other PMDs

There are a total of 15 PMDs in Chicago.  The PMDs mentioned above, in addition to the Chicago/Halstead PMD, are the PMDs that have successfully thwarted residential encroachment.  Because of their undesirable locations, the remaining PMDs are impotent at altering land use patterns.  Impotent PMDs only serve as a mechanism for politicians to pay lip service to manufacturing jobs, and window dressing that goes hand-in-hand with subsidies.

I often hear urbanists defend PMDs, repeating the Urban[ism] Legend that we need them to keep manufacturing jobs in the city.  We urbanists can do much to make these districts vibrant if we overcome our nostalgia for urban manufacturing and come to terms with how dangerous PMDs actually are.  Economically speaking, PMDs can only serve the purpose of keeping land prices low enough to compete with undesirable suburban locations for industry. PMDs nonetheless do little to overcome the enormous economic forces repelling industry out from desirable locations in cities.  At worst, PMDs permanently plan the life out of otherwise desirable areas in the long run after serving their purpose temporarily.  At best, PMDs are impotent to drive down land prices in already undesirable places any further than they already are.

At a time when housing affordability is a major issue affecting cities, one way to remove barriers to increased housing supply is to abandon our counter-productive nostalgia for urban manufacturing.  PMDs abolish urban vibrancy, and it’s time for cities to abolish PMDs before it’s too late.

See also:

2005 Study by the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee on the performance of the Clybourn Corridor PMDs

 

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The Status of Smart Growth Regulationhttp://marketurbanism.com/2014/10/24/the-status-of-smart-growth-regulation/ http://marketurbanism.com/2014/10/24/the-status-of-smart-growth-regulation/#comments Fri, 24 Oct 2014 17:57:27 +0000 http://marketurbanism.com/?p=4082

Image via Urban Milwaukee

Debates over land use policy often devolve into opponents arguing over how to interpret the same set of facts. For example, “market suburbanists” argue that because apartments in walkable neighborhoods tend to cost more per square foot than suburban single family homes, high densities make coastal cities expensive. Smart Growth advocates may look at the same data and argue that zoning rules that restrict the supply of high-density housing in desirable locations is what makes housing expensive.

In order to provide clarity to the debate on land use regulations, Mike Lewyn and Kip Jackson survey the zoning codes of the 24 cities with populations between 500,000 and 1,000,000 residents. In their new Mercatus Center study, they find that while some cities have in fact enacted the sorts of policies that market suburbanists fear — minimum density requirements and maximum parking rules — these regulations remain very rare relative to near-ubiquitous maximum density rules and minimum parking requirements.

Lewyn and Jackson list the mid-size cities that have adopted various types of Smart Growth regulations below. While a handful of cities have adopted the types of regulations they surveyed, every U.S. city in this sample has a maze of traditional zoning rules.

Lewyn Table

A perpetual challenge in studying the effects of both traditional and Smart Growth regulations is finding data. Municipal codes are all housed on unique websites with varying degrees of accessibility. The difficulty of achieving clear answers as to what causes high housing prices contributes to advocates of traditional zoning and Smart Growth to shout past one another.

While Smart Growth as a whole is maligned by some advocates of the free market, many Smart Growth tenets are actually deregulatory. Policy changes including upzoning, reducing parking requirements, and permitting mixed-use development are all steps toward laissez-faire land use relative to the status-quo, even though these policies are sometimes criticized by those who claim to support free markets. A clear analysis of whether and how cities are implementing Smart Growth allows us to evaluate whether Smart Growth as a whole is a step toward or away from the free market.

Lewyn and Jackson’s study shows that rather than embracing the deregulatory tenets of Smart Growth, regulators in some cities have layered Smart Growth rules on top of their traditional zoning rules, creating a complicated web of regulations. They explain:

Fort Worth imposes a variety of minimum parking requirements, adding simply that the “maximum number of parking spaces shall not exceed 125% of the minimum parking requirement.” For example, the city requires one parking space per bedroom for multifamily housing, which means the maximum parking requirement is 1.25 spaces per bedroom. Because the difference between Fort Worth’s minimum and maximum parking requirements is so small, it appears that almost all parking that is not prohibited is compulsory.

The authors show that while many Smart Growth objectives of such as permitting higher density, mixed-use neighborhoods could be achieved with deregulation, urban planners have instead chosen in some cases to replace traditional zoning rules with Smart Growth rules, in some cases requiring development that would have been prohibited under the traditional zoning regime. As Stephen has pointed out previously, some cities have gone from parking minimums directly to parking maximums without giving the market outcome a chance.

By assessing the legal environment in this sample of cities, Lewyn and Jackson have set the stage for empirical work on how Smart Growth rules are affecting prices. This empirical work is badly needed. Understanding the costs of both these new rules and traditional zoning rules is crucial for evaluating these policies, and these costs cannot be estimated without a clear understanding of which rules cities are putting on the books. This paper demonstrates that today Smart Growth policies are unusual relative to traditional zoning rules that restrict density. However Smart Growth is in some cases complicating the policy landscape rather than providing more freedom for developers to respond to consumer demand.

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How Hong Kong Pulls Off Transit Oriented Developmenthttp://marketurbanism.com/2014/10/23/how-hong-kong-pulls-off-transit-oriented-development/ http://marketurbanism.com/2014/10/23/how-hong-kong-pulls-off-transit-oriented-development/#comments Thu, 23 Oct 2014 13:56:52 +0000 http://marketurbanism.com/?p=4084 Integrating rail and property development is the cornerstone of the MTR’s success. In the U.S., coordination between transit authorities and developers tends to be mediocre at best. In Hong Kong, however, the MTR is both the transit authority as well as the property owner, and this makes all the difference.

Coordination Problem

Most attempts at transit-oriented development in the U.S. involve multi-party negotiations. The agency responsible for the transportation system haggles with different developers interested in undertaking projects along the line. Instead of implementing a unified plan, the transit agency has to negotiate specific agreements with each developer. And, because the priorities of the transit agency and the developers are never perfectly aligned, development agreements become subject to second-best compromises. Further, any disputes that arise once significant capital has been committed are costly to resolve.

This arrangement makes leveraging land values difficult as well. Developers frequently get tax breaks as an incentive to undertake projects. Whether abatements on property tax or straight-forward rate reductions, tax incentives typically preclude the use of land values to help fund transit. And, even without special incentives, major property owners who stand to benefit from proximity to a transit system have every reason to resist tax increases of any kind if there’s a chance of free-riding.

Kowloon_Station

The MTR, on the other hand, uses the integrated rail-property development  approach which combines the two roles of landlord and transit developer. The MTR owns the right-of-way as well as the surrounding properties. This removes the necessity of extended negotiations, having to settle for second best solutions, and the potential downside of disagreements partway through a project.

By combining the functions of landlord and transit developer, the MTR is also able to internalize land values. The rail line drives up the value of the MTR’s properties and that value covers the capital costs of the MTR’s rail lines.

Coase On Mass Trasnit

In 1937, the economist Ronald Coase asked why, if market exchange is such a good way to allocate resources, do firms even exist?

The short answer? Transaction costs.

Participating in a market comes with a price, and in some instances, the cost of participation is more than it’s worth. When transaction costs are too high, firms avoid them by internalizing specific functions and allocating resources at the discretion of management. This is not unlike the way in which socialist command economies deployed resources, albeit on a much smaller scale, and within an organization that’s actually responsive to external price information.

In many industries, falling transaction costs have brought about a wave of decentralization, supplanting the old paradigm of Fordist vertical integration. Younger companies now specialize in a narrower range of core competencies and outsource the rest. Apple, for example, is really a design firm that uses a global network of manufacturing and logistics partners to get its products into consumer hands.

In the case of transit development, however, transaction costs remain high. Technological innovation hasn’t made construction much less capital intensive or shortened time horizons for investment. This means that the costs of coordinating transit and property development mentioned above have remained persistent. What the integrated rail-property development model suggests in theory, and the MTR demonstrates in practice, is that a little centralization could bypass these costs entirely. To paraphrase Coase, there’s a price to pay for using prices; and in the case of transit development, that price may still be far too high.

Part 2 of 2 covering the policies and institutions behind mass transit in Hong Kong

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Why No One Drives to Work in Hong Konghttp://marketurbanism.com/2014/10/21/why-no-one-drives-to-work-in-hong-kong/ http://marketurbanism.com/2014/10/21/why-no-one-drives-to-work-in-hong-kong/#comments Tue, 21 Oct 2014 12:56:33 +0000 http://marketurbanism.com/?p=4060 Need to get 4 million people to the office every day? Hong Kong has you covered.

The Mass Transit Railway (MTR) is a rail system in the city of Hong Kong, currently managed by the Mass Transit Railway Corporation Limited (MTRL). The system opened in 1979 and now operates over 135 miles of track as well as more than 152 stations in Hong Kong. The average trip costs somewhere between .50 cents and $3 USD, and the system makes back 186% of its operational costs on fares alone.

Hong Kong Metro

Much of the system’s success can be attributed to urban density. Denser development means people live, work, and play in smaller geographic areas, meaning that more people are travelling between a fewer number of points. This is a huge plus for a fixed-route system like a railway. The MTR, however, hasn’t been a passive beneficiary of its environment.

The MTR owns real estate around each station in the system and integrates rail and property planning so that the development of one supports the development of the other.

Construction around each MTR station is incredibly dense, so it can put as many potential riders as close to a station as possible. Over 41% of the population in Hong Kong (2.78 million people) lives within a half-mile of a station. Additionally, the company’s real estate strategy emphasizes walkability; some residents of MTR owned properties can walk from their homes to a station entrance without ever even going outdoors. Clustering potential riders around each station–and making sure passengers have an easy time getting there–helps support high levels of ridership.

While fares cover the costs of operations, it’s really property development that pays for maintenance and expansion. The rail line, in turn, increases the property values of parcels adjacent to each station. This augments the land rents which are siphoned off to cover capital costs.

Ultimately, building effective mass transit is all about embedding the system within a friendly urban environment. High-density, mixed-use development is a must, but so is the ability to leverage land values as a means to finance capital investment and outlays.

Part 1 of 2 covering the policies and institutions behind mass transit in Hong Kong

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The importance of driverless trainshttp://marketurbanism.com/2014/09/24/the-importance-of-driverless-trains/ http://marketurbanism.com/2014/09/24/the-importance-of-driverless-trains/#comments Wed, 24 Sep 2014 20:52:19 +0000 http://marketurbanism.com/?p=4022 Vancouver's driverless Skytrain

Vancouver’s driverless Skytrain

As Honolulu is making progress on its driverless elevated rail system under construction, Washington, DC is finally beginning to return to computer operation on its red line after a 2009 crash brought an end to reliance on the computerized system. While the move in DC will facilitate smoother driving and braking, WMATA still relies on train operators in the cabs, forgoing the cost-saving opportunity that driverless systems provide. It’s difficult to overstate the importance of driverless trains in the effort to bring U.S. transit operations down to a reasonable price.

Driverless systems currently operate successfully in cities from Vancouver to Algiers, and the world’s most financially successful intracity transit systems in Hong Kong and Tokyo have embraced the technology. In spite of WMATA’s high profile accident that happened while the trains were computer-operated, a well-designed driverless system is actually safer than human operated one. Driverless systems offer a better ride quality, stay on time, and face a lower marginal cost of extending service hours.

Labor costs make up huge shares of U.S. transit systems. In DC, for example, personnel costs make up 70% of the agency’s operating budget. In 2010, WMATA spent $38 million on the salaries of 611 train operators, and this does not include their retirement and health benefits. In New York, personnel costs make up $8.5 billion of the agency’s $11.5 billion operating costs, and in Chicago labor takes up 73% of CTA’s operating expenses. Obviously not all transit workers jobs can be automated (all of these systems have more bus drivers than train operators) and some operating costs would rise under a driverless system. But taking steps toward reducing labor — that comes at a premium in high-cost-of-living cities where transit is most important — is crucial for reducing transit’s operating costs and making transit systems financially sustainable.

In all sorts of industries automation reduces the cost of goods and services, but transit systems face particularly high returns on automation because several institutional factors inflate their high personnel costs. As Stephen and Alon have explained, union work rules play a role in driving transit costs by requiring eight-hour shifts. Transit agencies face peak demand during the morning and evening rush hours. If transit agencies were run on a for-profit basis, they would staff more bus drivers and  train operators during these times of peak demand and fewer during the work day and night time. However, transit unions’ work rules make it impossible to staff according to demand.

In addition to the premium that transit agencies guarantee their employees through relatively high wages and union work rules, their pensions and benefits make up a large part of their employment costs, and these costs are not transparent. For example, BART, with its high profile strikes this summer, reports a $187 million unfunded pension liability. This means that future operating costs will have to rise to cover benefits accrued in the past. Transit agencies’ pension liabilities are based on their discount rate assumption with 7.5% or higher being typical. If these agencies’ pension funds fail to realize compound annual returns greater than or equal to their assumed discount rates, their pension liabilities will actually be higher than what they report.

A City Lab post posits that mainland cities are unlikely to follow Honolulu’s driverless lead because converting existing trains to driverless would be prohibitively costly. But a commenter on her post points out that the change to a driverless system would be a capital cost, typically covered by the federal government. What better use for the Federal Transit Administration’s Core Capacity dollars than making the transition to driverless trains in large systems? Moving to a driverless system could create a virtuous cycle better service increasing ridership, begetting further service improvements. While making the transition to a driverless system entails short-term political and financing challenges, maintaining bloated operating expenses year after year is an unacceptable outcome.

During BART’s infamous strikes over the summer, a San Francisco tech entrepreneur quipped“Get ‘em back to work, pay them whatever they want, and then figure out how to automate their jobs so this doesn’t happen again.” His sentiment may come off as cold-hearted, but transit agencies should have one mission: providing adequate transit service at a reasonable cost. Their mission should not be to provide well-paying jobs to workers who might not be able to earn such high wages and benefits in the private sector. While the transition to driverless would be difficult for transit workers and agencies, in the long-run the advantages of substituting relatively inexpensive capital for expensive labor are too high to ignore.

 

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Six Shooters and Bullet Trains: High Speed Rail in Texashttp://marketurbanism.com/2014/09/21/six-shooters-and-bullet-trains-high-speed-rail-in-texas/ http://marketurbanism.com/2014/09/21/six-shooters-and-bullet-trains-high-speed-rail-in-texas/#respond Mon, 22 Sep 2014 03:21:31 +0000 http://marketurbanism.com/?p=4005 California might have some competition in the race for high-speed rail.

Texas Central Railway wants to begin construction on a high-speed line from Dallas to Houston as early as 2017. The current plan is to go from downtown to downtown, with possibly one stop along the way in College Station. An environmental impact assessment is under way and the hope is to be operational by 2021.

Vancouver's driverless Sky Train

Vancouver’s driverless Sky Train

The company claims that the price per ticket will be competitive with airfare and that the run will take a mere 90 minutes. To give that some context, current travel time from Houston to Dallas by car is about 3.5 hours according to Google (but closer to 4.5 according to my prior experience).

While there’s a lot to be skeptical about here, the impact of connecting the nation’s 4th and 6th largest urban economies could be significant. If a high-speed line does get built and if it does manage to deliver on its specs (two major “ifs” already), it would be the equivalent of a magic portal…or a stargate…or a warp pipe…or a tesseract…or…well…the point being it would make the two places functionally much closer together, and that’s a big deal.

Cities become economically vibrant through agglomeration. Bringing people closer together lowers search costs for both employers and employees. It also increases the likelihood of “creative collisions”. What high-speed rail could do is combine the benefits of agglomeration that each of these two cities already enjoy.

And, as early in the day as it is, there’s already speculation that a line connecting Dallas and Houston would be a precursor to additional lines connecting all four of the state’s pillars of civilization: Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, and Austin. The unbridled optimist in me imagines high-speed rail as the embryonic bones of a future mega-city encompassing the entire Texas Triangle.

…but…I’m still skeptical.

Texas Central Railway is backed by private investors. It claims it can pull off the project without resorting to either government subsidies or land development. This means total reliance on fares to cover operational costs as well as recoup capital investment. To my knowledge, no mass transit system in the U.S. covers operational costs on fares, let alone operational and capital costs combined.

That said, it’s a cool project and I’d love to see my home state get a little more diverse in terms of transportation infrastructure, especially if it’s being paid for out of private pockets. And hopefully, if there’s a bait and switch, it’ll turn into a land play rather than politicking for subsidies. Combining transit and land development works pretty well in Hong Kong, so I wouldn’t mind seeing the same approach tried back home.

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