Portland Columnist Calls for Abandonment of the WES Commuter Rail Line

Portland Tribune columnist (see "My View: WES is a Mess: Time to Pull the Plug") Bill MacKenzie took the occasion of a Tri-Met (transit agency for the Oregon side of the Portland, OR-WA metropolitan area) approval to purchase two used Budd Rail Diesel Cars (RDC) for the Wilsonville to Beaverton commuter rail line to call for its abandonment.Fconcl In addition to the $1.5 million purchase cost, $550,000 will be required for refurbishment. When then are ready for service, they will surely older than most Tri-Met employees, since the last Budd RDC's were built in the early 1960s.

He mocks the agency's general manager, Neil MacFarlane, who justified the purchase as necessary to accomodate future passenger growth: "Oh sure, plan for massive ridership growth,"MacKenzie scoffs. He continues, In early 2009, TriMet predicted WES would have 2,400 daily riders its first year of operations and 3,000 by 2020." In 2015, the line carried fewer than 1,900 riders each weekday, and its cost per boarding was more than four times that of buses (not counting capital costs).

He concluded that: "Even if WES reaches 3,000 average daily boardings, operating costs per boarding ride will remain much higher than for buses and MAX. The fact is, WES is a train wreck. It’s time to shut it down."

Expo Line Expansion Fails to Stem L.A. Transit Loss

The long awaited and highly touted Santa Monica extension brought an approximately 50 percent increase in ridership of the Los Angeles Expo light rail line between June 2016 and June 2015. The extension opened in mid May 2016. In its first full month of operation, June 2016, the line carried approximately 45,900 weekday boardings (Note), up from 30,600 in June 2015, according to Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) ridership statistics.

However MTA ridership continued to decline, with a 51,900 loss overall. Bus and rail services other than the Expo line experienced a reduction of 67,300 boardings (Figure).

Between June 2015 and June 2016, rail boardings rose 30,500, while bus boardings declined 82,400. In other words there was a loss of 2.7 bus riders for every new rail rider over the past year. Los Angeles transit riders have considerably lower median earnings than in the cities with higher ridership, and lower than the major metropolitan average (see the analysis by former Southern California Rapid Transit District Chief Financial Officer Tom Rubin and "Just How Much has Los Angeles Transit Ridership Fallen?" and ) here and here).

Note: A passenger is counted as a boarding each time a transit vehicle is entered. Thus, if more than one transit vehicle is required to make a trip, there can be multiple boardings between the trip origin and destination. Because the addition of rail services, as in Los Angeles, can result in forcing bus riders to transfer because their services can be truncated at rail stations, the use of boardings as an indicator of ridership can result in exaggeration, as the number of boardings per passenger trip is increased. This may have produced a decline of as much as 30 percent in actual passenger trips since 1985, as a number of rail lines have been opened in Los Angeles. 

How Demographics Explain the World

Demographics may not be destiny, but they do play a huge role in driving the fortunes of society and the economy. Sami Karam of Populyst joined me for a podcast on demographic trends around the world. The conversation ranged from the rise of China to the fall of Japan – and even why Occupy Wall Street failed to achieve lift-off.

Topics include:

  • 0:00 Introduction and overview of Sami Karam’s work
  • 2:20 Why Occupy Wall Street didn’t take off
  • 3:15 Demographics on the problems of the Japanese economy
  • 3:50 What does demographics tell us about the rise of China?
  • 7:49 What is the demographic future of Africa?
  • 12:45 How will declining European and booming African population interact?
  • 17:30 An overview of the Populyst Index
  • 21:32 Is the demographic dividend a Faustian bargain?

If the embed doesn’t display for you, click over to listen on Soundcloud.

Subscribe to podcast via iTunes | Soundcloud.

Compactness and Canadians

The May, 2016 New Geography feature, Are Compact Cities More Affordable? questioned whether the Vancouver region supplies evidence that Housing-Plus-Transportation (H+T) creates affordable living climates. Todd Litman responded with a critique; here's a partial response to Todd Litman’s comments, which are rich in assertions and advice but poor on science. Our full response can be viewed in the attached pdf. The central issue of whether there is evidence that the Vancouver Region as a whole offers the advantage of H+T affordability to its residents is bypassed. Hence, there is no research news.

Litman’s criticism centers on issues that undermine his thesis or on speculative data that would prove a point, if available, for example, bias in our data. Almost certainly, the data is “managed,” incomplete, erroneous and biased — but at the source: the Metro Vancouver report that advocates H+T affordability. A missed observation? The absence of figures on compactness makes it impossible to draw the sought-after correlation between affordability and density, the indispensable evidence for H+T. Yet the critique ventures to do exactly that.

Attempts to “prove” an association rest entirely on incidental observations of certain sub-regional districts based on personal “knowledge” of them without including density numbers, and by dismissing some as outliers or “special cases,” an unproductive attempt at science.

A track to demonstrate how alternative data could show that homeowners are not as well off as they seem leads to the unusual idea of limiting the sample to an improbable and undefinable set. Curiously, the source data is arbitrarily curtailed in a similar manner. Another missed observation?

Litman has previously cited as evidence the subject correlation for US metro-regions produced by scholars, a clear, scientific result. The sub-regional level correlation remains an open research task; incidental observations cannot fill that gap. New research windows open in our full response, which can be viewed in the attached pdf

The-Kind-of-Problem-Affordability-Is-Fanis-Grammanos.pdf643 KB

Which Countries Would Fit Inside of Texas?

Everyone knows that Texas is big. In the self-storage world, Texas would be a 10x30 storage unit, the biggest of the bunch. But many people (namely, Yankees and Europeans) may not realize just how massive the Lone Star State really is. How that at 261,231 square miles of land, Texas would be the 39th-largest country by land area in the world, coming in just behind Zambia and ahead of Myanmar. Since there are, give-or-take, roughly 200 countries in the world, that means that most of them are in fact smaller than Texas. In order to truly convey Texas's size, we came up with a zany hypothetical scenario: if Texas were a storage unit, what countries could fit inside?

Of course, using maps to illustrate size is a tricky matter, since most 2D map projections distort size in favor of shape. This includes the Mercator Projection used by Google Maps. Fortunately, we found, a tool which runs on top of Google Maps and accounts for these distortions, allowing for accurate size comparisons. Now you can see exactly how these countries would fit inside of your Texas storage unit.


A Working-Class Brexit

I woke up Friday morning to the news that my country decided that it no longer wants to be part of the European Union. With a large turnout of 72% of the eligible electorate, the vote went 51.9% in favour of leaving against 48.1% for remaining – 17.4 million against 16.1 million, in case you wondered. As a result, the clock has begun to tick down on 43 years of British EU membership, creating huge levels of uncertainty. This morning the pound sterling lost 10% of its value against the dollar – the biggest one day decline since 1985 – and a massive £200 billion was wiped off the stock market.

But what was behind this result, which seemed until the eve of poll to be heading towards remaining in the EU? Class was one of the biggest factors. Let me explain. Early analysis of the results shows that if you had a college degree or were young, you were more likely to vote to remain. Geographically, England and Wales voted for Brexit, except for London. Scotland, however, voted overwhelmingly to remain, opening up a very real prospect of another independence referendum and the disintegration of the UK. Many places in England and Wales outside London, often but not exclusively Labour Party traditional heartlands, were amongst the strongest supporters of leaving. This seems to have resulted from a cocktail of resentments against ‘them’, the ‘elite’, the ‘establishment’ or simply the ‘experts’. This resentment has been simmering in these Labour heartlands for decades and predates the banking crash of 2008. Resignation, despair, and political apathy have been present in many former industrial regions since the wholesale deindustrialisation of the British economy in the 1980s and 1990. The election of the Blair -led Labour administration of 1997 masked the anger felt in these areas as traditional labour supporters and their needs were often ignored, while traditional Labour supporters were used as voting fodder. Over the thirteen years of Labour power, that support ebbed away, first as a simple decline in votes, but gradually turning into active hostility to the Labour party. Many embraced the UK Independence Party (UKIP).

This opposition, so skillfully drawn on by the leave campaign, is in part a working class reaction not only to six years of austerity but also to a long and deep seated sense of injustice and marginalisation. Most of the remain side, which was a cross party grouping, didn’t seem to understand this before the referendum and, even more depressingly, doesn’t seem to understand it fully now. A stock characterisation of working-class people who intended to vote leave was to label them as unable understanding the issues, easily manipulated, or worse, racist ‘little Englanders’.

A number of commentators have understood the class resentment underlying the referendum. In his thoughtful video blogs preceding the vote, Guardian journalist John Harris travelled away from the ‘Westminster village’ to the more marginal, often over looked parts of the UK. What he observed was precisely this class demographic of voting intentions, people who were in effect members of what sociologist Guy Standing has called the precariat. Fellow Guardian columnist Ian Jack wrote a similarly powerfully reflective piece linking the working-class vote with deindustrialisation. Both Harris and Jack emphasize the point that for unskilled workers with only a secondary school education, three decades or more of neo-liberalism has left deep scars socially, politically, and culturally, with little hope or expectation that anything would change for the better. In avox pop radio interview the day before the referendum, a person stopped for their views simply said, ‘The working class is going to get screwed whether we stay or leave, so we might as well leave’.

This sense of ‘them’ versus ‘us’ was heightened by the long line of establishment figures from the world of politics, business, and finance who were trotted out to warn the voters that Brexit would mean Armageddon. Far from helping the remain side, these interventions from the likes of Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, Bank of England Governor Mark Carney, and even President Obama merely exaggerated the distance between working-class voters and those who wanted them to vote to remain. Speaking after the official result was announced, UKIP leader Nigel Farage explicitly used the language of class in his celebratory speech, saying that this was a vote of ‘Real people, ordinary people, decent people against the big merchant banks, big business and big politics’.

Many on the progressive left have seen this Brexit result coming and have linked it to a far wider set of issues than those of the immediate problems of the EU. In a video blog two days before polling, Owen Jones linked the marginalisation and alienation felt by many working-class voters and support for populists like Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, and other non-mainstream political movements in Europe. What this all points to is a real rejection of the hegemony of what veteran left-winger Tariq Ali has called the ‘extreme centre’ that has promoted globalisation and neo-liberalism. In the narrative of the extreme centre, there is no place for those left behind, damaged by the collapse of industries and forced to face the brunt of never ending austerity. Faced with what are viewed as out of touch elites telling an angry electorate that they must vote to remain, there is little wonder that many working-class people opted to vote out. It’s hard to predict what will happen next, over the short, medium, and long term. But one thing is clear: class will play a big role.

This piece first appeared at Working Class Perspectives.

Breaking News: End of the World Avoided (Brexit)

June 24, 2016 14:30 CDT

Thanks to modern technology, I have had the pleasure of spending nearly all of the last 18 hours with the United Kingdom's cable news network, Sky News, watching the election returns and aftermath [of the successful British European Union referendum (Brexit). Four weeks, the "Remain" campaign has been explaining that leaving the EU would result in huge economic and market disruption.

When, contrary to expectation, it became clear fairly early in the evening that Brexit would pass, there were frequent reminders of these predictions. The value of the pound sterling dropped from $1.50 to $1.32 as the votes continue to be counted and there was never the slightest indication of a turnaround.

When the markets opened, there were indeed losses. And, a number of the financial experts, political consultants and members of Parliament interviewed were quick to point out that the predictions were correct. For most of the day following the election, watching Sky News gave the impression that there had been a disastrous financial meltdown. However, now, more than 12 hours after the final declaration at Manchester City Hall, Sky News is beginning to suggest that the financial losses may have been modest.

The leading stock market index in London, the FTSE 100 experienced an 8.7 percent drop in early trading. However by the close of trading, the decline had fallen to only 3.15 percent, the largest drop in five months. Five months? Perhaps most amazingly, today's close was higher  by two percent than Monday's opening. The day's loss would have needed to be 75 percent higher to have been among the 10 worst in history. Yes, this was a big loss, but must have surely been disappointing to the analysts who were basking in their own exaggerations earlier in the day. By the end of the day, the pound had recovered to $1.37.

Nor did the London stocks do worse than those on the continent. French and German stock prices were down more than twice as much as the FTSE 100, as well as in Tokyo. Stocks in Spain and Italy were down four times as much.

Of course it is far too early to predict the economic impact of Brexit. But it was humorous watching the "spin doctors" whose narrative seemed to be "we told you so." I think there is much more to this than that SW1 is out of touch with the people, "SW1" is the postal code prefix for Parliament in Westminster and has the same connotation of separation from the people as "inside the beltway," as applied to Washington.

It may be that the insiders have lost credibility with too many voters. One former Labor consultant, who was as effective in missing the point as any other, poignantly suggested that perhaps too many of the voters had not participated in the post-recession recovery. Hear! Hear!

Six Nova Scotia Municipalities Reject Amalgamation

For years, some provincial governments in Canada have been either forcing municipal amalgamations or offering incentives for municipalities to merge. This has included municipalities from the largest (Toronto), which was forced into a merger over voter disapproval in 1998 in an advisory election to rural municipalities with fewer than 1,000 in Manitoba, forced to merge by the recently defeated provincial government.

A heated debate has ensued for decades over the issue. Those who believe amalgamations are beneficial claim that costs will drop along with taxes. They claim amalgamations reduce duplication of services. Those who believe that amalgamations tend to be harmful (in most situations, this writer), note that merging the cost structures and political cultures of even adjacent municipalities is likely to raise costs and taxes and note that the duplication of services claim ignores the fact that municipalities have exclusive service areas that preclude such a result.

Besides the disagreements over the quantitative evidence, the local opponents invariably rely on their own interest in keeping government close to home, not believing that bigger government routinely produces greater efficiencies.

The pressure to amalgamate continues in Canada. Recently, six Pictou County, Nova Scotia municipalities began to consider amalgamating. Two dropped out, but the remaining four took advantage of a provincial government program to study amalgamation and then place the question before voters.

The province offered $27 million for infrastructure costs, operating costs and transitional costs, in the event that the amalgamation took place. On May 28, the voters soundly rejected the amalgamation, by a nearly two to one margin. Residents in New Glasgow supported the amalgamation strongly, residents in Pictou narrowly defeated it, while residents of Stellarton and the municipality of Pictou County opposed the measure by three to one margins. According to The News, only four wards or districts approved the plan out of the 21 in the four municipalities. The Newsarticle includes a detailed chronology of the events leading up to the rejection.

According to CTV News, The Nova Scotia Utility and Review Board had projected the merger would produce annual savings of $500,000 annually, which pales by comparison to more than 50 times higher provincial offer of $27 million as an incentive to amalgamate. Further, as has been shown in Toronto and elsewhere, higher costs can result, even where substantial savings have been projected.


Problems in the Orange County Grand Jury Light Rail Report

Earlier this month (May 9, 2016) the Orange County (California) Grand Jury issued a report entitled: “Light Rail: Is Orange County on the Right Track,” which is on the Grand Jury website here. The report largely concludes that it is not and that there is a need for a light rail system in Orange County. On page 7, the 2016 Grand Jury report says: “No Grand Jury has reported on development of light rail systems in Orange County.”

In fact, there was a previous report, at:, which is a 1999 report of the Orange County Grand Jury entitled: “Orange County Transportation Authority and Light Rail Planning.” Both the 1999 and 2016 reports are on the Orange County Grand Jury website as of May 25, 2016. The 1999 report reached fundamentally different conclusions than the 2016 report. Obviously, the 2016 report makes no attempt to reconcile its findings or analysis with the 1999 report.

Inappropriate Density Comparison

There are additional problems with the 2016 Grand Jury Report. In making the case for light rail in Orange County, the 2016 Grand Jury put considerable emphasis on the fact that Orange County’s population density is higher than that of Los Angeles County. The reason for Orange County’s population density advantage is the fact that much of Los Angeles County is in the largely undevelopable Transverse Ranges (including the San Gabriel Mountains), with a considerable amount of rural (not urban) desert. The difference is that Orange County’s land area is approximately two-thirds urban, while Los Angeles County’s land area is about one-third urban. This renders the overall density comparison for urban transportation planning meaningless.

Indeed, the urban density of Los Angeles County is substantially higher than that of Orange County. According to the United States Census Bureau, the population density of the urban areas in Los Angeles County was 6,859 per square mile in 2010, well above Orange County’s 5,738. Los Angeles County’s densest census tract is nearly 2.5 times the density of any census tract in Orange County.

Transit is About Downtown

Even so, urban rail ridership bears little relationship to overall urban population density (otherwise the San Jose urban area would be a better environment for rail than the New York urban area). In 2010, San Jose’s density was about 5,820, while New York’s was 5,319 (Los Angeles was 6,999, including the most dense parts of Los Angeles and Orange County and part of San Bernardino County).

One of the most important keys to transit ridership is the concentration of work destinations in a dense central business district (CBD), to which nearly all high capacity and frequent transit services converge. In the United States, 55 percent of all transit commuting destinations are in the six largest municipalities (such as the city of New York or the city of San Francisco, as opposed to metropolitan areas) with the largest central business districts. This is dominated by New York with about 2,000,000 employees in its CBD. On the other hand, San Jose has one of the smallest central business districts of any major metropolitan area and a correspondingly smaller transit market share than the national average. Orange County, with an urban form far more like San Jose than New York or San Francisco, has little potential to materially increase transit ridership with light rail.

The record of new urban rail in the United States is less than stellar, evaluated on the most important metric. Generally, new urban rail has resulted in only minor increases in transit’s miniscule market share and in some cases there have been declines.

In the case of Los Angeles, on which the Grand Jury relies for its conclusion favoring light rail development, three one-half cent sales taxes and spending that has amounted to more than $16 billion on development of new rail lines. Yet, transit ridership has fallen, as reported in the Los Angeles Times (see: “Just How Much has Los Angeles Transit Ridership Fallen”). Former SCRTD (predecessor to the MTA) Chief Financial Officer Thomas A. Rubin has also suggested that the MTA ridership decline may be greater if adjusted for the increased number of transfers that have occurred in the bus-rail system compared to the previous bus system (For example, a person traveling from home to work who starts on a bus, transfers to rail and finished the trip on a bus, counts as three, not one).

Required Responses:

The Grand Jury report notes:

“The California Penal Code Section 933 requires the governing body of any public agency which the Grand Jury has reviewed, and about which it has issued a final report, to comment to the Presiding Judge of the Superior Court on the findings and recommendations pertaining to matters under the control of the governing body. Such comment shall be made no later than 90 days after the Grand Jury publishes its report (filed with the Clerk of the Court).”

This would apparently require a response by August 9, 2016

Permission Granted to Cite or Quote this Article or the Linked Documents

Any respondent is hereby granted permission to cite or quote from this article or the linked documents.

Honolulu Rail: It Just Keeps Getting Worse

There seems to be no end to the difficulties facing Honolulu’s urban rail project. In an editorial, Honolulu’s Civil Beat noted that federal officials fear the project cost may reach $8.1 billion, which is more than 50 percent above the “original estimate” of $5.2 billion. The cost blowout of nearly $3 billion would be far more than state consultants suggested in a 2010 report. That report, by the Infrastructure Management Group (IMG) in conjunction with the Land Use and Economic Management Group of CB Richard Ellis and Thomas A. Rubin estimated a “most likely scenario” in which the rail cost overrun would have been $909 million (Note).

This is, however, a particular concern to local citizens, since it has been suggested that no rail project has cost more in relation to its population base in US history. If the the project costs $8.1 billion, the IMG et al report estimate will have turned out to be far too conservative, less than one-third the overrun. At $2.9 billion this extra cost is nearly $3,000 for every man, woman and child in Honolulu. It is more than $8,500 per household.

The Civil Beat editorial is here.

Note: Thomas A. Rubin’s more recent analysis of rail and transit ridership in Los Angeles is here.