The Great Transit Rip-Off

This article first appeared in The Orange County Register.

Over the past decade, there has been a growing fixation among planners and developers alike for a return to the last century’s monocentric cities served by large-scale train systems. And, to be sure, in a handful of older urban regions, mass transit continues to play an important — and even vital — role in getting commuters to downtown jobs. Overall, a remarkable 40 percent of all transit commuting in the United States takes place in the New York metropolitan area — and just six municipalities make up 55 percent of all transit commuting destinations.

But here’s an overlooked fact: Transit now serves about the same number of riders as it did in 1907, when the urban population was barely 15 percent of what it is today. Most urban regions, such as Southern California, are nothing like New York — and they never will be. Downtown Los Angeles may be a better place in which to hang out and eat than in the past, but it sorely lacks the magnetic appeal of a place like Manhattan, or even downtown San Francisco. Manhattan, the world’s second-largest employment center, represents a little more than 20 percent of the New York metropolitan area’s employment. In Los Angeles, by contrast, the downtown area employs just 2 percent.

Transit is failing in Southern California

As we demonstrate in a new report for Chapman University, our urban form does not work well for conventional mass transit. Too many people go to too many locales to work, and, as housing prices have surged, many have moved farther way, which makes trains less practical, given the lack of a dominant job center. But in its desire to emulate places like New York, Los Angeles has spent some $15 billion trying to evolve into what some East Coast enthusiasts call the “next great transit city.”

The rail lines have earned Mayor Eric Garcetti almost endless plaudits from places like the New York Times. Yet, since 1990, transit’s work trip market share has dropped from 5.6 percent to 5.1 percent. MTA system ridership stands at least 15 percent below 1985 levels, when there was only bus service, and the population of Los Angeles County was about 20 percent lower. In some places, like Orange County, the fall has been even more precipitous, down 30 percent since 2008. It is no surprise, then, that, according to a recent USC study, the new lines have done little or nothing to lessen congestion.

This experience is not limited to L.A. Most of the 19 metropolitan areas with new mass transit rail systems — including big cities like Atlanta, Houston, Dallas and even Portland, Ore. — have experienced a decline in transit market share since the systems began operations.

Read the entire piece at The Orange County Register.

Photo: Esirgen (Own work) CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

A New Way Forward on Trade and Immigration

This article first appeared in the The Orange County Register

President Donald Trump’s policy agenda may seem somewhat incoherent, but his underlying approach — developed, in large part, by now-departed chief strategist Steve Bannon — can be best summarized in one word: nationalism. Read more

Will Donald Trump Expose America’s Great Mass Transit Hoax?

This piece originally appeared on the Daily Beast.

Whatever you think of President Trump, his claims about the lousy condition of America’s basic infrastructure are widely accepted—even by resisting Democrats grinding their teeth on a L.A. freeway or waiting for a New York or D.C. train to arrive. His call for a trillion-dollar infrastructure plan may be his last best bet for finding bipartisan support.

The question is if he’s at all serious about the urgent need to fix the failing mass-transit systems we have, or if he’ll repeat what Washington’s done to get us in this mess, and offer funds that encourage cities to build shiny new systems few will actually ride even as the existing ones decay.

As we’ve demonstrated in a new paper for Chapman University (PDF), nowhere is the infrastructure deficit more obvious than in urban transit, which last year lost over 3.1 percent of its ridership, according to the American Public Transit Association (PDF). Despite the vast sums spent by the federal government on light rail, subways, and trolleys since 1970, most mass transit systems fail to meet the needs of commuters.

In many cases, as in New York and Washington, vast expenditures on new lines have occurred even as maintenance has been deferred, with overall service deteriorating. Many billions of dollars more have been spent in other cities on new rail systems that haven’t reduced the number of people driving to work.

How the Feds Failed Legacy Cities

Rail transit works best in what might be considered the “legacy cores.” Approximately 55 percent of America’s transit commuters have destinations in the urban cores (and many of those rides to the central business districts) of six older cities (not metropolitan areas)—New York, Washington, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, and San Francisco. New York, by itself, has a remarkable 56 percent of its jobs in its urban core.

Between 2006 and 2015, those six metropolitan areas captured 77 percent of the national increase in transit work trip destinations.

These cities were shaped when public transit held a virtual monopoly on both motorized and horse-drawn passenger transport within U.S. cities. Annual transit ridership peaked in the early 1920s, except for the period around the Second World War, the high-water mark for transit nationally. Between 1960 and 2015, transit’s work trip market share dropped more than 50 percent, from 12.1 percent to 5.2 percent. Until very recently, the demographic recovery of legacy cores, notably New York, drove a slight increase in transit share. But this progress is threatened by growing safety and reliability issues. Part of the problem stems from a decision by New York’s political elite, starting with Michael Bloomberg, to build a new, ultra-expensive line—the Second Avenue subway—while maintenance on other lines deteriorated. This decision reflects political realities including federal incentives for new systems, and the greater political rewards for building shiny new things.

The result is that service delays in New York have skyrocketed as antiquated signals break down, with breakdowns now twice as frequently as they were just five years ago. After decades of increases, ridership has declined while the extensive commuter rail system serving Manhattan from the suburbs (the nation’s largest) is experiencing its own substantial difficulties.

The picture is similar in Washington, D.C., where the U.S. secretary of Transportation went so far as to threaten a shutdown of the system due to fatal accidents, attributed to policies that prioritized system expansion over safety. D.C.’s transit ridership, growing for decades, has now declined as well.

The Real Train Robbery

Yet even as cities that depend on transit, such as New York, suffer from under-investment, Washington has poured billions into new rail system in cities created largely in the auto-dominated era. Among 19 metropolitan areas that have opened substantially new urban rail systems since 1980, the share of riders using mass transit remains below the national average while the share of those driving alone has increased.

Nowhere is the power of ideology and entrenched interests over the common good more evident than in Los Angeles, the pioneer for the multi-polar and highly dispersed post-1950 metropolis.

On the surface, L.A. provides the sunbelt’s best case for transit—it once had a robust transit system, is the densest urban area in the country, has a huge poverty population and ideal weather for waiting outside for the train. L.A. has been widely celebrated as “the next great transit city,” and The New York Times and others are continually celebrating its imminent conversion from a car culture to a train one. Some believers, like Los Angeles architectural critic Christopher Hawthorne, envision “a third Los Angeles” that will see the eclipse of the freeways, single family homes, and suburban neighborhoods.

Yet despite this Manhattan envy among its elites, L.A. simply does not follow the “model” of urbanist paragons such as New York, Chicago or San Francisco. Downtown Los Angeles is a relative economic pygmy, accounting for barely 2 percent of regional employment, less than a tenth of lower Manhattan’s share. Transit works best when most commuters are headed to a dominant core destination. The more scattered the destinations, the less likely trains can muster a decent commuter share. The entire Los Angeles MTA system carries fewer riders than New York’s Lexington Avenue line.

Money is not the issue. Since 1990, Los Angeles has opened seven new urban metro and light-rail lines and two exclusive busways at a cost of more than $15 billion. During this period, transit’s work trip market share has dropped from 5.6 percent from 5.1 percent in 2015. Ridership is at least 15 percent below 1985 levels, when there was only bus service and when Los Angeles County had about 20 percent fewer people. No surprise, then, that according to a recent USC study, the new lines have done little or nothing to lessen the area’s infamous congestion.

Rather than hop on the rails, more residents are addressing traffic woes by simply staying home. By 2015, more Los Angeles-area residents were working at home than were taking transit. Since 1990, the number of people working at home increased eight times as rapidly as the number of people using the transit system. The number of people driving increased even more rapidly.

This story is repeated in other sunbelt cities. In Houston, 3.2 of residents commuted to work in 2000, before the city’s $1.5 billion new light-rail system opened. In 2015, the share of commuters had dropped by a third, to 2.2 percent.

It’s Atlanta, though, that most fully epitomizes the futility of conventional transit spending. With the opening of MARTA in 1979, Atlanta built the third largest new metro system (fully grade separated rail) in the U.S. Since then, transit share has plummeted—from 6.8 percent in 1980 to 3.1 percent in 2015, 40 percent below the average national transit market share. Traffic congestion more than doubled over the same time span.

The most recent addition to Atlanta’s rail system is a central city streetcar line some locals have nicknamed it “a streetcar named undesirable” for its low ridership.

Even urban planning model Portland, which opened its MAX light rail system in 1986, has seen its transit market share drop from 7.9 percent in 1980 to 6.9 percent in 2015, only modestly above the national transit-riding average. The percentage of people working at home rose from 2.3 to 6.4 percent, at virtually no cost to the public treasury, compared to the more than $3 billion to build urban rail.

But the award for the country’s most absurd project should go to the Honolulu elevated rail line. In a metropolitan area of barely a million people, the attempt to build a 20-mile elevated train has increased in cost from $5 billion to an estimated $10 to $13 billion, with the feds chipping in $1.6 billion. The impact on state finances—for an estimated 1 percent drop in road traffic—so disturbed former Governor Ben Cayetano, a Democrat, that he’s publicly called on President Trump to cut future funding. The Honolulu Star-Advertiser recently referred to the elevated lines as an “epic fail on rail.”

The Future of Transit

Before President Trump or Congress tackle infrastructure, they should work to remove federal involvement in control of local transit spending. Some experts like David Levinson of the University of Minnesota, blame federal policy for distorting investment to new project that favor “ribbon-cuttings for politicians” while resulting in neglect for local operations.

In most of the country, simply put, localities would be better off not investing in new rail schemes. Americans seem generally happy with their overwhelmingly suburban lifestyle and their ability to reach places of employment faster than most of those in the high-income world can. Today, over 75 percent of jobs are in the suburbs and exurbs combined. Between 2010 and 2015, 81 percent of job growth was in the suburbs and exurbs. Similarly 85 percent of major metropolitan area residents live outside the urban core, in the suburbs and exurbs, where transit service is sparse.

This is not likely to change much in the near or even medium term. Rather than centralizing, the consulting firm Bain envisions evolution toward a “post-urban economy” that will be more localized and home-based. By 2025, it reports, more people could live “beyond the traditional commuting belt” than inside.

These realities suggest that rather than the “one size fits all” model, metropolitan areas should better customize their transportation spending to local needs. To achieve this, we need to jettison the quasi-religious affection for rail transit and explore in most of the country technologically enabled solutions such as telework, which is growing faster than any form of commuting, as well as rideshare technology. This is particularly true in suburbs, such as Dublin, California, which eliminated their local bus system in exchange for providing vouchers for Uber-like services for those unable to afford or drive cars.

Over the longer term, the autonomous car could make even more revolutionary impacts on both the urban form and transit. Automated car proponents claim that the cost of operations will be considerably below that of today’s cars. If that should be achieved, the autonomous car could be used to provide door-to-door mobility not only for the elderly and disabled, but also for people who currently cannot afford their own cars. Under any circumstances, this innovation seems certain to further weaken conventional transit outside the cities with legacy cores.

Ultimately it will take common sense, even more than just money, to fix our transit problems. In dispersed places like southern California, Dallas-Fort Worth, and Houston, the emphasis may be on using new technologies as well as private express bus service to connect their widely dispersed communities. Monies that go into rail transit, suggest urban analyst Aaron Renn, should be focused on maintaining and improving current service in cities where they make sense. As Renn puts it succinctly: “The priority should be: repairs to existing mission critical rail lines, and helping distressed communities.”

The current trend of wasting billions of dollars to serve a urban theology may be popular among planners, speculators and engineering firms. It hasn’t been particularly helpful to the people who need to get, in appropriate time and without too much stress, from one place to another.

This piece originally appeared on the Daily Beast.

Photo by Gage Skidmore, via Flickr, under CC License.

State Governments Are Oppressive, Too

Historically, the battle over the size and scale of government has been focused largely on “states’ rights.” This federalist notion also has been associated with many shameful things, such as slavery, Jim Crow laws and other abuses of personal freedom.

Yet, increasingly, the clearest threat to democracy and minority rights today comes not just from a surfeit of central power concentrated in Washington, D.C., but also from increased centralization of authority within states, and even regional agencies. Oppressive diktats from state capitals increasingly seek to limit local control over basic issues such as education, zoning, bathroom designations, guns and energy development.

This follows a historical trend over the past century. Ever since the Great Depression, and even before, governmental power has been shifting inexorably from the local governments to regional, state and, of course, federal jurisdictions. In 1910, the federal level accounted for 30.8 percent of all government spending, with state governments comprising 7.7 percent and the local level more than 61 percent. More than 100 years later, not only had the federal share exploded to nearly 60 percent, but, far less recognized, the state share had nearly doubled, while that of local governments has fallen to barely 25 percent, a nearly 60 percent drop. Much of what is done at the local level today is at the behest, and often with funding derived from, the statehouse or Washington.

Diversity vs. regimentation

This trend is particularly notable in the country’s two megastates: California and Texas. Each is increasingly controlled by ideological fanatics who see in their statehouse dominion an ideal chance to impose their agenda on dissenting communities. In California, Jerry Brown’s climate jihad is the rationale for employing “the coercive power of the central state,” in his own words, to gain control over virtually every aspect of planning and development.

In Texas, the impetus comes from the far right, which has been working to strip localities of their traditional ability to control their own affairs, which, as two Houston scholars recently pointed out, has been critical to that state’s success. These efforts cover a host of issues, from fracking and ride-sharing to transgender bathrooms, a topic which affects very few but has, absurdly, become the key issue for a legislative special session.

Just as Californians find themselves increasingly controlled by climate warriors and anti-suburban ideologues, diverse Texans in cities like Austin now must conform to the dictates of strident demands by a “liberty caucus” that eerily resembles their authoritarian doppelgangers in Sacramento.

In other cases, such as in North Carolina, social conservatives, like their Texan bedfellows, seek to circumscribe progressive policies in places like Raleigh or Charlotte. Businesses, in particular, are concerned that some bills, like the state’s transgender bathroom legislation, could lead to painful boycotts by corporations and event planners. Conversely, some blue-state policies, like high mandated minimum wages and policies restricting fossil fuels, hurt disproportionately poorer areas, like upstate New York and rural California, which have lost much of their political clout.

Read the entire piece in the Los Angeles Daily News.

Photo by LoneStarMike (Own work) [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

What’s the Future of Beleaguered Fossil Fuels?

This article first appeared in The Orange County Register.

Perhaps no economic issue — even trade — is as divisive as the energy industry. Once a standard driver of economic progress, the conventional energy industry has become increasingly vilified by the national media Read more

Why the Greens Lost and Trump Won

This piece originally appeared in the Daily Beast.

When President Trump pulled out of the Paris climate accords, embraced coal, and stacked his administration from people from fossil-fuel producing states, the environmental movement reacted with near-apocalyptic fear and fury. They would have been better off beginning to understand precisely why the country has become so indifferent to their cause, as evidenced by the victory not only of Trump but of unsympathetic Republicans at every level of government.

Yet there’s been little soul-searching among green activists and donors, or in the generally pliant media since November about how decades of exaggerated concerns—about peak oil, the “population bomb,” and even, a few decades back, global cooling—and demands for economic, social, and political sacrifices from the masses have damaged their movement.

The New Religion and the Next Autocracy

Not long ago, many greens still embraced pragmatic solutions—for example substituting abundant natural gas for coal—that have generated large reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. Rather than celebrate those demonstrable successes, many environmentalists began pushing for a total ban on the development of fossil fuels, including natural gas, irrespective of the costs or the impact on ordinary people.

James Lovelock, who coined the term “Gaia,” notes that the green movement has morphed into “a religion” sometimes marginally tethered to reality. Rather than engage in vigorous debate, they insist that the “science is settled” meaning not only what the challenges are but also the only acceptable solutions to them. There’s about as much openness about goals and methods within the green lobby today as there was questioning the existence of God in Medieval Europe. With the Judeo-Christian and Asian belief systems in decline, particularly among the young, environmentalism offers “science” as the basis of a new theology.

The believers at times seem more concerned in demonstrating their faith than in passing laws, winning elections or demonstrating results. So with Republicans controlling the federal government, greens are cheering Democratic state attorney generals’ long-shot legal cases against oil companies. The New York TimesThomas Friedman has talked about dismissing the disorder of democracy as not suited to meeting the environmental challenges we face, and replacing it with rulers like the “reasonably enlightened group of people” who run the Chinese dictatorship.

After Trump pulled the U.S. out of the Paris climate accord, China was praised, bizarrely, as the great green hope. The Middle Kingdom, though, is the world’s biggest and fastest grower emitter, generating coal energy at record levels. It won’t, under Paris, need to cut its emissions till 2030. Largely ignored is the fact that America, due largely to natural gas replacing coal, has been leading the world in GHG reductions.

Among many greens, and their supports, performance seems to mean less than proper genuflecting; the Paris accords, so beloved by the green establishment, will make little impact on the actual climate, as both rational skeptics like Bjorn Lomborg and true believers like NASA’s James Hanson agree. In this context, support for Paris represents the ultimate in “virtue signaling.” Ave Maria, Gaia.

The California Model

The cutting edge for green soft authoritarianism, and likely model after the inevitable collapse of the Trump regime, lies in California. On his recent trip with China, Brown fervently kowtowed to President Xi Jinping. Brown’s environmental obsessions also seems to have let loose his own inner authoritarian, as when he recently touted “the coercive power of the state.”

Coercion has its consequences. California has imposed, largely in the name of climate change, severe land use controls that have helped make the state among the most unaffordable in the nation, driving homeownership rates to the lowest levels since the 1940s, and leaving the Golden State with the nation’s highest poverty rate.

The biggest losers from Brown’s policies have been traditional blue collar, energy-intensive industries such as home building, manufacturing, and energy. Brown’s climate policies have boosted energy prices and made gas in oil-rich California about the most expensive in the nation. That doesn’t mean much to the affluent Tesla-driving living in the state’s more temperate coast, but it’s forced many poor and middle-class people in the state’s less temperate interior into “energy poverty,” according to one recent study.

That, too, fits the climatista’s agenda, which revolves around social engineering designed to shift people from predominately suburban environments to dense, urban and transit dependent ones. The state’s crowded freeway are not be expanded due to a mandated “road diet,” while local officials repeatedly seek to reduce lanes and “calm traffic” on what are already agonizing congested streets. In this shift, market forces and consumer preferences are rarely considered, one reason these policies have stimulated much local opposition—and not only from the state’s few remaining conservatives.

California’s greens ambitions even extend to eating habits. Brown has already assaulted the beef producers for their cattle’s flatulence. Regulators in the Bay Area and local environmental activists are proposing people shift to meatless meals. Green lobbyists have already convinced some Oakland school districts to take meat off the menu. OK with me, if I get the hamburger or taco-truck franchise next to school when the kids get out.

Sadly, many of these often socially harmful policies may do very little to address the problem associated with climate change. California’s draconian policies fail to actually do anything for the actual climate, given the state’s already low carbon footprint and the impact of people and firms moving to places where generally they expand their carbon footprint. Much of this has taken on the character of a passion play that shows how California is leading us to the green millennium.

Goodbye to the Family

An even bigger ambition of the green movement—reflecting concerns from its earliest days—has been to reduce the number of children, particularly in developed countries. Grist’s Lisa Hymas has suggested that it’s better to have babies in Bangladesh than America because they don’t end up creating as many emissions as their more fortunate counterparts. Hymas’ ideal is to have people become GINKs—green inclinations, no kids.

Many green activists argue that birth rates need to be driven down so warming will not “fry” the planet. Genial Bill Nye, science guy, has raised the idea of enforced limits on producing children in high-income countries. This seems odd since the U.S. already is experiencing record-low fertility rates, a phenomenon in almost all advanced economies, with some falling to as little as half the “replacement rate” needed to maintain the current population. In these countries, aging populations and shrinking workforces may mean government defaults over the coming decades.

The demographic shift, hailed and promoted by greens, is also creating a kind of post-familial politics. Like Jerry Brown himself, many European leaders—in France, Germany, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the Netherlands—are themselves childless. Their attitude, enshrined in a EU document as “no kids, no problem” represents a breathtaking shift in human affairs; it’s one thing to talk a good game about protecting the “next generation” in the collective abstract, another to experience being personally responsible for the future of another, initially helpless, human being.

Do As We Say, Not How We Live

The pressing need to change people’s lives seems intrinsic now to green theology. Without penance and penalties, after all, there is no redemption from original sin. In the process, it seems to matter little if we undermine the great achievements of our bourgeois economy—expanded homeownership, greater personal mobility, the ability to rise to a higher class—if it signals our commitment to achieve a more earth-friendly existence.

The left-wing theorist Jedidiah Purdy has noted that “mainstream environmentalism overemphasizes elite advocacy” at the expense of issues of economic equity, a weakness that both Trump and the GOP have exploited successfully, particularly in the Midwest, the South, and Intermountain West. Some greens object even to the idea of GDP growth at a time when most Americans are seeing their standard of living drop. No surprise then that the green agenda has yet to emerge from the basement of public priorities, which remain focused on such mundanities as better jobs, public safety, and decent housing.

To further alienate voters, many green scolds live far more lavishly than the people they are urging to cut back. Greens have won over a good portion of the corporate elite, many of whom see profit in the transformation as they reap subsidies for “green” energy, expensive and often ineffective transit and exorbitant high-density housing. Most notable are the tech oligarchs, clustered in ultra-green Seattle and the Bay Area, who depend on massive amounts of electricity to run their devices, but have reaped huge subsidies for green energy.

The tech oligarchs have little interest in family friendly suburbs, preferring the model of prolonged adolescence in largely childless places like college campuses and San Francisco. Oligarchs such as Mark Zuckerberg live in spacious and numerous houses, even while pressing policies that would push everyone without such a fortune to downsize. Richard Branson, another prominent green supporter, may not like working people’s SUVs, but he’s more than willing to sponsor climate change events on a remote Caribbean island reachable only by private plane. One does not even need to plumb the hypocrisy of Al Gore’s jet-setting luxurious lifestyle.

In the manner of Medieval indulgences these mega emissions-generators claim to pay for their carbon sins by activism, buying rain forests and other noble gestures. Hollywood, as usual, is particularly absurd, with people like Leonardo di Caprio flying in his private jet across country on a weekly basis. Living in Malibu, Avatar director James Cameron sees skeptics as “boneheads” who will have “to be answerable” for their dissidence, suggesting perhaps a shootout at high noon.

In the end, the greens and their wealthy bankrollers may find it difficult to prevail as long as their agenda makes people poorer, more subservient, and more miserable; this disconnect is, in part, why the awful Donald Trump is now in the White House. Making progress on climate change, and other environmental concerns, remains a critical priority, but it needs to explore ways humans, through ingenuity and innovation, can meet these challenges without undermining what’s left of our middle class and faded democratic virtue.

Listen to a related interview with Joel Kotkin on KABC.

Photo by Joe Flood, via Flickr, using CC License.

Why Socialism is Back

This article first appeared in Real Clear Politics

Even as Venezuela falls deeper into crisis, and the former Soviet bloc nations groan under its legacy, socialism is coming back, and in a big way. Its key supporters are not grizzled pensioners yearning for Marxist security, but a whole new generation, most of whom have little memory of socialist failure.

Read more

Amazon Eats Up Whole Foods as the New Masters of the Universe Plunder America

This article originally appeared at The Daily Beast.

“We must make our choice. We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.” —Justice Louis Brandeis

With his $13.7 billion acquisition of Whole Foods, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos has made clear his determination to dominate every facet of mass retailing, likely at the cost of massive layoffs in the $800 billion supermarket sector.

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Is America Now Second-Rate?

This article first appeared in The Orange County Register.

President Donald Trump’s recent renunciation of the Paris climate change accords has spurred “the international community” to pronounce America’s sudden exit from global leadership. Now you read in the media aspirations to look instead to Europe, Canada, or even China, to dominate the world. Some American intellectuals, viewing Trump, even wish we had lost our struggle for independence.

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California’s Descent to Socialism

Excerpt from an article that first appeared in the OC Register.

California is widely celebrated as the fount of technical, cultural and political innovation. Now we seem primed to outdo even ourselves, creating a new kind of socialism that, in the end, more resembles feudalism than social democracy. Read more