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Randal O'Toole

Randal O'Toole



Articles by Randal O'Toole

Yesterday’s Technology the Day After Tomorrow

February 14, 2019

The apparent death of California high-speed rail has led to a spate of stories asking, “What went wrong?” The answer to that question is a lot simpler than most people think: what went wrong is that the state even considered building the project in the first place.
Back in 1997, a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley named David Levinson – who has since gone on to do a lot of incredible work on transportation access – asked whether high-speed rail would cost more or less than flying or driving. The state had not yet made cost estimates, so Levinson estimated that the line from San Francisco to Los Angeles would cost about $10 billion. Based on that, he found that high-speed rail would be “significantly more costly than expanding existing air service” and also

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No, Passenger Trains Don’t Work in Europe & Asia Either

February 8, 2019

On January 23, the Wall Street Journal reviewed my recent book, Romance of the Rails, calling it an “exhaustively researched exploration of America’s passenger-rail story.” Naturally, this brought a response from a rail enthusiast named Benjamin Turon chiding me for “failing to point out how poorly and unimaginatively trains in the U.S. are run compared with innovative and efficient rail systems in Europe and East Asia.”
If Mr. Turon read the book, he would know that it devotes an entire chapter to looking at passenger service around the world. The sad truth is that passenger trains don’t work much better in Europe or Asia than they do in the United States.
Both Europe and east Asian countries are highly celebrated for building high-speed rail lines. But these efforts have to be

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Census Data Detail Transit’s Decline

September 19, 2018

Transit ridership has been declining now for four years, and the latest census data, released last week, reveal that the biggest declines are among the groups that you might least expect: young people and low-income people. These results come from the American Community Survey, a survey of more than 3 million households a year conducted by the Census Bureau. Here are some of the key findings revealed by the data.
Young People Are Deserting Transit
Those who subscribe to the popular belief that Millennials and other young people prefer to  transit over owning and driving a car were shocked last week when the Washington Post published an article indicating that “a Millennial exodus” was “behind [Washington] Metro’s diving ridership.” This was based on a study that found that, from 2016

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Commuting in 2017

September 14, 2018

The total number of American workers who usually commute by transit declined from 7.65 million in 2016 to 7.64 million in 2017. This continues a downward trend from 2015, when there were 7.76 million transit commuters. Meanwhile, the number of people who drove alone to work grew by nearly 2 million, from 114.77 million in 2016 to 116.74 million in 2017.
These figures are from table B08301 of the 2017 American Community Survey, which the Census Bureau posted on line on September 13. According to the table, the total number of workers in America grew from 150.4 million in 2016 to 152.8 million in 2017. Virtually all new workers drove to work, took a taxi-ride hailing service, or worked at home, as most other forms of commuting, including walking and bicycling as well as transit,

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Commuting in 2017

September 14, 2018

The total number of American workers who usually commute by transit declined from 7.65 million in 2016 to 7.64 million in 2017. This continues a downward trend from 2015, when there were 7.76 million transit commuters. Meanwhile, the number of people who drove alone to work grew by nearly 2 million, from 114.77 million in 2016 to 116.74 million in 2017.
These figures are from table B08301 of the 2017 American Community Survey, which the Census Bureau posted on line on September 13. According to the table, the total number of workers in America grew from 150.4 million in 2016 to 152.8 million in 2017. Virtually all new workers drove to work, took a taxi-ride hailing service, or worked at home, as most other forms of commuting, including walking and bicycling as well as transit,

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Commuting in 2017

September 14, 2018

The total number of American workers who usually commute by transit declined from 7.65 million in 2016 to 7.64 million in 2017. This continues a downward trend from 2015, when there were 7.76 million transit commuters. Meanwhile, the number of people who drove alone to work grew by nearly 2 million, from 114.77 million in 2016 to 116.74 million in 2017.
These figures are from table B08301 of the 2017 American Community Survey, which the Census Bureau posted on line on September 13. According to the table, the total number of workers in America grew from 150.4 million in 2016 to 152.8 million in 2017. Virtually all new workers drove to work, took a taxi-ride hailing service, or worked at home, as most other forms of commuting, including walking and bicycling as well as transit,

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Transit Industry Claims That Correlation Proves Causation

September 6, 2018

A new report from the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) comes out firmly in support of the belief that correlation proves causation. The report observes that traffic fatality rates are lower in urban areas with high rates of transit ridership, and claims that this proves “that modest increases in public transit mode share can provide disproportionally larger traffic safety benefits.”
Here is one of the charts that APTA claims proves that modest increases in transit ridership will reduce traffic fatalities. Note that, in urban areas with fewer than 25 annual transit trips per capita – which is the vast majority of them – the relationship between transit and traffic fatalities is virtually nil. You can click the image for a larger view or go to APTA’s document from which

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Rethinking America’s Highways

September 4, 2018

In 1985, Reason Foundation co-founder and then-president Robert Poole heard about a variable road pricing experiment in Hong Kong. In 1986, he learned that France and other European countries were offering private concessions to build toll roads. In 1987, he interviewed officials of Amtech, which had just invented electronic transponders that could be used for road tolling. He put these three ideas together in a pioneering 1988 paper suggesting that Los Angeles, the city with the worst congestion in America, could solve its traffic problems by adding private, variable-priced toll lanes to existing freeways.

Although Poole’s proposal has since been carried out successfully on a few freeways in southern California and elsewhere, it is nowhere near as ubiquitous as it ought to be given

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Demonizing Ride Hailing

August 10, 2018

Last week, a transportation consultant named Bruce Schaller published a report claiming that ride hailing was increasing traffic congestion. Since then, we’ve been innundated with wild claims Uber and Lyft were increasing traffic by 180 percent, and these claims are used to support arguments that that cities should tax companies like Uber and Lyft and use the revenues to compensate transit agencies for the riders lost to ride sharing.
Yet the congestion claims are completely inaccurate. Schaller concluded that, because well under half of ride-hailing trips would otherwise have used private automobiles, ride hailing put “2.8 new vehicle miles on the road for each mile of personal driving removed.” He went on to say that this is “an overall 180 percent increase in driving on city

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Transit Death Spiral Continues

August 8, 2018

Transit ridership has been dropping for four years and increased subsidies won’t fix the problem. Data released by the Federal Transit Administration yesterday show that nationwide ridership was 3.1 percent less in June 2018 than it had been in June 2017. Ridership fell for all major modes of transit, including commuter rail (-2.6%), heavy rail (-2.5%), light rail (-3.3%), and buses (-3.8%). 
June 2018 had one fewer work day than June 2017, which may account for part of the ridership decline. But ridership in the first six months of 2018 was 3.0 percent less than the same months of 2017, and again ridership declined for all major modes of transit.
As in previous months, I’ve posted an enhanced spreadsheet that has all of the raw monthly data from the FTA spreadsheet but includes

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Trump’s Proposed CAFE Standard

August 3, 2018

On August 2, the Department of Transportation and Environmental Protection Agency made a joint proposal to reform the corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards. Originally adopted in 1978, when new cars were required to average all of 18 miles per gallon, the standards were increased by the Obama administration to a target of 54.5 mpg by 2025. (This 54.5 is actually an idealized number; as a practical matter, the real target for 2025 is about 47 mpg.)
The new rule proposes to maintain the existing fuel economy standard, which rises to 37 mpg by 2020, and then freeze it at that level after that. By 2025, new automobiles meeting the Obama standard would be about 25 percent more fuel-efficient than under the Trump standard – though if fuel prices rise, consumers could end up buying

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May Transit Ridership Down 3.3 Percent

July 13, 2018

Nationwide transit ridership in May 2018 was 3.3 percent less than in the same month of 2017. May transit ridership fell in 36 of the nation’s 50 largest urban areas. Ridership in the first five months of 2018 was lower than the same months of 2017 in 41 of the 50 largest urban areas. Buses, light rail, heavy rail, and streetcars all lost riders. 
These numbers are from the Federal Transit Administration’s monthly data report. I’ve posted an enhanced spreadsheet that has annual totals in columns GY through HO, mode totals for major modes in rows 2123 through 2129, agency totals in rows 2120 through 3129, and urban area totals for the nation’s 200 largest urban areas in rows 3131 through 3330.
Declines in 2018 continue a trend that began in 2014. Year-on-year monthly ridership has

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Transit Death Watch: April Ridership Declines 2.3 Percent

June 7, 2018

Nationwide transit ridership continued its downward spiral with April 2018 falling 2.3 percent below the same month in 2017, according to data released yesterday by the Federal Transit Administration. Commuter-rail ridership grew by 3.5 percent, but light-rail, heavy-rail, hybrid rail, streetcar, and bus ridership all declined. The biggest decline was light rail at 5.5 percent.
April’s drop was smaller than the 5.9 percent year-over-year decline experienced in March because April 2018 had one more work day (21 vs. 20) than April 2017, while March 2018 had one less work day. As a result, 16 of the fifty largest urban areas saw transit ridership grow in April 2018, compared with just four in March. Considering that most transit ridership takes place on work days, anything less than a 5

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The Case for Neglecting Transit

May 21, 2018

The American Public Transportation Association (APTA) has just published a paper on the economic cost of failing to modernize transit, referring to the roughly $100 billion maintenance backlog built up by U.S. transit agencies, mostly for rail transit. In fact, a strong case can be made that—with the possible exception of New York—American cities shouldn’t restore deteriorating rail transit systems and instead should shut them down as they wear out and replace them with buses where demand for transit still exists.
APTA claims that not restoring older rail systems will reduce “business sales” by $57 billion a year and reduce gross national product by $30 billion a year over the next six years. Reaching this conclusion requires APTA to make all sorts of wild assumptions about transit.

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How Bad Does It Have to Be?

April 10, 2018

The transit industry loses $50 billion a year. It’s customer base is dwindling. Business in many regions has declined by 20 to 40 percent. Yet Bloomberg, one of the nation’s leading business publications, says, “The outlook for public transit isn’t all that bad.”
Sheesh. Just how bad does it have to be to be “that bad”?
According to Bloomberg columnist Noah Smith, light-rail and commuter-rail ridership “are at all-time highs.” Although his chart appears to show ridership increasing through 2017, according to the source of data in his chart, ridership reports from the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), both light rail and commuter rail declined in 2017 and light rail (which APTA equates with streetcars) was much higher before 1955 than it is today.
It is true that both

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Bad Urban Design to Blame for Driverless Car Fatality

March 21, 2018

The death of a pedestrian who was struck by an Uber autonomous car Sunday night has led to questions about whether driverless cars are safe. However, it appears that the accident could not have been prevented no matter who was in control of the car.

[embedded content]Scene of the accident. Scroll left to see the poorly designed pedestrian path that the woman was apparently using before crossing the street. 

According to police, a woman pushing a bicycle laden with shopping bags stepped from the roadway median into 35-mile-per-hour traffic. The Uber vehicle, which had a back-up human driver behind the wheel, did not have time to even brake before it hit her.

Transit agencies are in the habit of blaming the victims who are killed or injured when struck by light-rail trains. The

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Infrastructure We Don’t Need

February 21, 2018

Here’s the great thing about driverless cars: They will need no new infrastructure because the people designing them are making them work with existing infrastructure. All they ask is for cities and states to fill the potholes and do other basic maintenance.
Here’s another great thing about driverless cars: Most congestion results from slow human reflexes, and simulations show that congestion will significantly decline if as few as 5 percent of vehicles on the road are driverless. So, even if you don’t have a driverless car, you will benefit from others being driverless.
So why is Bexar County (San Antonio) Commissioner Kevin Wolff proposing to use federal infrastructure dollars to build new interstate highway lanes open only to driverless cars? On one hand, they don’t need special

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A Poster Child for Government Waste

February 20, 2018

The Maryland Transit Administration suddenly shut down the Baltimore Metro last week, forcing commuters and other riders to find alternatives with less than 24 hours’ notice. The state said an inspection had found unexpectedly excessive wear on the rails that could have caused a derailment, and it plans to keep the line closed for a month while it fixes the problem – and then to close it again this summer for further work.
The coincidence that the shut-down took place the same day the White House announced its infrastructure plan led the Washington Post to call the metro the latest poster child for the need for more infrastructure spending. In fact, it is a poster child for less infrastructure spending, as it should never have been built in the first place.
 Productivity of United

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Trump Plan Probably Won’t Repair Crumbling Infrastructure

February 12, 2018

The White House released President Trump’s infrastructure plan today, which calls for spending $200 billion federal dollars as seed money to stimulate a total of $1.5 trillion on “gleaming new infrastructure.” Almost lost in the dozens of pages of documents issued by the administration is that the reason why the federal government supposedly needs a new infrastructure program is that our existing infrastructure is crumbling, and the reason it is crumbling is that politicians would rather spend money on gleaming new projects than on maintaining the old ones.
The White House proposes several new funding programs. The administration could have dedicated one or more of these programs to maintenance and repair of worn-out infrastructure. Instead, all $200 billion can be spent on new

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State of the Union’s Infrastructure

January 31, 2018

Remember America’s crumbling infrastructure that supposedly needs trillions of dollars for maintenance and rehabilitation? President Trump doesn’t. Instead, the seven sentences in his State of the Union speech that focused on infrastructure talked about building “gleaming new” projects rather than fixing existing systems. 
The only news is that he is upping the ante from $1.0 trillion to “at least $1.5 trillion.” More disturbingly, other than mentioning an “infrastructure deficit” – which could just as easily be interpreted to mean a shortage of new infrastructure as a deficit in maintenance – Trump said nothing about fixing existing infrastructure. Instead, he wants to “build gleaming new roads, bridges, highways, railways, and waterways.”
Why? We have plenty of railways. Though the

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The Good and the Bad of Public-Private Partnerships

January 10, 2018

President Trump has reportedly expressed reservations about public-private partnerships, but White House economic advisor Gary Cohn is still enthusiastic about building the administration’s fabled infrastructure plan around them. Not everyone realizes, however, that there are two very distinct kinds of public-private partnerships, which I call the good kind and the bad kind. I’d like to believe that it is the bad kind that worries Trump while it is the good kind that encourages Cohn.
The good kind of public-private partnership is more formally known as a demand risk partnership. In this case, the public partner essentially gives the private partner a franchise to build a road or some other infrastructure. The private partner is allowed to collect tolls or other revenues from the

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Questions to Ask About Amtrak 501

December 20, 2017

The wreck of the 501–the Amtrak train that crashed near Seattle on Monday–is raising lots of questions about Amtrak operations, but they aren’t always the right ones. Here are some questions that should be asked and some of my preliminary answers. Answers from Amtrak (the operator), FRA (the funder), Sound Transit (the track owner), or WSDOT (the train owner) may differ.
1. Congress required passenger railroads to install positive train control (PTC) by the end of 2015. Why did the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) give money to the Washington Department of Transportation (WSDOT) for a new passenger rail line that would not open until after 2015 when the project didn’t guarantee funding for positive train control?
Answer: The Obama administration wanted to distribute high-speed

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A Horrible Way to Be Right

December 18, 2017

Today is not a proud day for the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT). The agency spent close to $800 million of federal funds on a so-called high-speed rail project between Seattle and Portland–only “so-called” because top speeds would be just 79 mph, which is conventional rail. Much of the money was spent upgrading existing tracks to give passenger trains a shorter (but less scenic) route through and around Tacoma.
As you probably know, the very first train to use this route derailed on an overpass over Interstate 5, blocking half the freeway and killing at least six people. To make matters worse, Mayor Don Anderson of Lakewood, Washington, about 10 miles north of the crash, warned WSDOT a few weeks ago that it was not taking safety seriously enough. “This project

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Who Stole What from Whom?

December 6, 2017

I visited the Patagonia web site looking for some Christmas presents yesterday and learned that “the president stole my land.” How horrible! So I looked into it and discovered that President Trump took federal land that was managed by a particular set of federal agencies under a particular set of restrictions and changed it into federal land managed by the very same federal agencies under a slightly different set of restrictions. Not to jump on Patagonia, whose clothing I’ve always enjoyed, but where’s the theft in that?
Of course, what Trump did was reverse changes by Presidents Clinton and Obama, who first imposed the slightly different set of restrictions in 1996 (Clinton for the Grand Staircase-Escalante) and 2016 (Obama for the Bears Ears). I can say with absolute certainty that,

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LaHood: Make Bus Riders Pay for DC Rail Fix

November 16, 2017

Washington Metro should raise bus fares and cut service as a part of a plan to restore its rail system to its former greatness, recommends a report by former Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood. The report hasn’t been released yet–in fact, it has apparently been sitting on the Virginia governor’s desk for several weeks–but the Washington Post obtained a copy just in time for the report to have no influence on Virginia’s recent election.
Parts of the report are predictable, such as a recommendation that Metro obtain a source of “dedicated funds,” meaning a tax dedicated to it so it won’t have to be responsive to local politicians. However, LaHood’s mandate was to come up with a specific funding source acceptable to regional political interests, and he failed to do so.
What was not

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Helping People Reach Jobs

November 15, 2017

What is the best way to help low-income people – a group that disproportionately includes blacks and Latinos – get access to jobs? That question is certainly not answered by a report from left-wing think tank Demos. The report is aptly titled To Move Is to Thrive, but its subtitle, “Public Transit and Economic Opportunity for People of Color,” gives away its real agenda: more subsidies to the transit industry.
Written by Algernon Austin, the author of America Is Not Post-Racial, the report observes that “people of color” are less likely to own cars and more likely to be transit-dependent than white people. But Austin ignores the obvious and best solution, which is to give low-income people (regardless of color) access to cars. Instead, his report promotes “transit-focused

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Reversible Lanes, Not Trains

September 18, 2017

In the days before Hurricane Irma made landfall in Florida, the state ordered 6.3 million people to leave their homes. As people in the rest of the nation watched videos and photos of bumper-to-bumper northbound traffic on Interstates 75 and 95, while the southbound lanes were nearly empty, most had one of two reactions. Some said, “If only Florida had large-scale passenger train service that could move those people out,” while others asked, “Why aren’t people allowed to drive north on the empty southbound lanes?” 
The aftermath of the storm has already opened a debate over what Florida should do to increase its resilience in the future: build more roads or build more rail lines. The right answer is neither: instead, state transportation departments in Florida and elsewhere need to

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The Economics of Amtrak

July 18, 2017

Amtrak’s co-CEO Wick Moorman has announced that the passenger railroad is thinking of offering a new service to compete with the airlines: economy seating that is crammed together as tightly as airline seats. This was immediately blasted by Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY), saying, “Amtrak should not throw out one of the best things about Amtrak and train travel — that is, you at least get a seat you can sit in and be comfortable.”
In fact, this idea makes no sense not because heavily subsidized train travelers somehow deserve more comfortable seats but because it would cost Amtrak more in lost revenues than it will save. Airlines fill 85 percent of their seats and on lots of flights they fill 100 percent. Amtrak fills only 51 percent of its seats, so cramming more seats into a railcar

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Trump’s Infrastructure Plan

May 31, 2017

Greater reliance on user fees, federal loans rather than grants, and corporatization are three keys to the Trump administration’s infrastructure initiative released as a part of its 2018 budget. The plan will “seek long-term reforms on how infrastructure projects are regulated, funded, delivered, and maintained,” says the six-page document. More federal funding “is not the solution,” the document says; instead, it is to “fix underlying incentives, procedures, and policies.”
In building the Interstate Highway System, the fact sheet observes, “the Federal Government played a key role” in collecting and distributing monies to “fund a project with a Federal purpose.” Since then, however, those user fees, mainly gas tax receipts, have been “inefficiently invested” in “non-federal

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The New York Times Is Wrong About Transit’s Effect on Urban Development

May 30, 2017

The New York Times has once again published a report claiming that transit hubs are a “growing lure for developers.” The Times published a similar story eight years ago, and I quickly showed that subsidies from tax-increment financing (TIF) and other government support, not transit, was what stimulated those developments.
So has anything changed since then? Nope. The first development described in the recent story by Times reporter Joe Gose is Assembly Row, in the Boston suburb of Somerville. Is it subsidized? Yes, with at least $25 million in TIF along with other state funds. Far from being “free money” as its advocates claim, TIF steals from school districts and other agencies that rely on property taxes to subsidize developers.
Then Gose mentions Chicago’s Fulton Market, downtown

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