Monday, November 13, 2017

Two on energy subsidies

The WSJ has two good and related opeds on energy and transport subsidies recently, Randall O'Toole on Last Stop on the Light-Rail Gravy Train and Lee Ohanian and  Ted Temzelides write on energy and transport subsidies

Last month, Nashville Mayor Megan Berry announced a $5.2 billion proposal that involves building 26 miles of light rail and digging an expensive tunnel under the city’s downtown. Voters will be asked in May to approve a half-cent sales tax increase plus additions to hotel, car rental and business excise taxes to pay for the project.
Just in time for self-driving Ubers to arrive.

I love trains. But we have to admit practicalities. One transportation economist summed all there is to know about transit with "Bus Good. Train Bad." (With a few exceptions, such as Manhattan.)  And light rail, worse. Trains are expensive, and once built, immobile. If people want to go somewhere else, tough. Rolling stock lasts around 50 years, meaning they bake in technical obsolescence. Trains carry far fewer people per lane-mile than busses. And a fleet of self-driving Ubers linked by computer will be able to use bus lanes.

Actually, even buses are more and more questionable. As I wait for the interminable lights on El Camino to cross to Stanford (on bicycle), I have taken to counting passengers on the well-subsidized bus line. The modal number is zero.

As Randy has pointed out elsewhere, the main beneficiaries of light rail are suburban largely white commuters with a nostalgia thing for trains. The main people paying for it are inner city minorities who don't get bus service anymore.
To pay for new light-rail lines that opened in 2012 and 2016, Los Angeles cut bus service. The city lost nearly four bus riders for every additional rail rider.
Congestion got you down? Real time tolling, adjusted minute by minute, will either cure traffic congestion forever, or will bail out indebted local governments with massive revenues, or both. Or, let people live somewhere near where they work!

Lee and Ted consider the transition from horse to auto and truck,
‘In 50 years, every street in London will be buried under 9 feet of manure.” With this 1894 prediction, the London Times warned that the era’s primary source of transportation energy—the horse—would soon create an environmental crisis. ...
The enormous demand for a cleaner and more efficient source of energy led to remarkable innovations in the internal combustion engine. By 1920 horses in cities had been almost entirely replaced by affordable autos and trucks...
And to be honest, horse manure replaced by auto exhaust -- but as bad as auto exhaust is, it's a lot better than horse manure.
Suppose governments in the 1890s, desperate to replace the horse, had jumped on the first available alternative, the steam engine. Heavy subsidies would have produced more steam engines and more research on steam technology. This would only have waylaid the development of the far superior internal combustion engine. 

Source: Obtainium works
(Actually, the government did subsidize railroads a good deal, and perhaps by doing so did stall the development of the truck.)

More than horse manure, I love the image of an alternate reality steampunk America...At left a cool  steampunk RV. (Image source)

Which brings us back, I'm afraid to the main force behind rail subsidies, which Randall has pointed out before: Nostalgia. Nostalgia for what seems like a simpler age. I understand that too. I love trains. But that doesn't make them practical, especially at billions of dollars per mile.

If we're doing nostalgia, how about doing it full time -- high speed stagecoach lines? Bring back the horse! It's all renewable!'


  1. Blame California environmentalists. They use fuel more inefficiently than most any other group with their light rails and nearly empty steel cars being pulled around for no reason.

    If you ask the environmentalists why they do this, they answer correctly, 'Too stupid to do life cycle analysis'. So they can only work from a drawings with paint by the numbers, solving the CO2 pollution was never part of their plan, include Jerry Brown in the accusation.

  2. "a fleet of self-driving Ubers"

    Don't believe the hype. The problem is far harder than you think. There are no flying cars even though they were predicted long ago. There won't be "self-driving cars" for a very long time, if ever.

    However, you can see driverless cars all over the country now. Just look at the number of human beings behind the steering wheels of automobiles who are doing everything other than driving.

    1. Amen.

      As good as the idea of a self-driving cars may be, nobody alive today will see the idea fully realised across the entire vehicle fleet.

      Consider the ire of the average human driver stuck behind the uber-cautious computer at an intersection. You don't have to be an expert econ to see the incentive for people in a hurry to take control from the computer to get to their destination faster.

      In the real world, the computer will always finish last.

  3. I rode the subway all the time when I lived in Boston. It was great. Why? Because it was underground, i.e. grade-separated, for the most part. Street-level light rail is a traffic hazard and a pedestrian hazard. Rail is useful because the routes are reliable. Sunk costs mean that transit authorities don't change routes with no warning in search of more ridership. This means that development follows rail routes, not vice versa. It means that real estate values are predictable, leading to denser development, which is good for the environment. Grade-separated routes lead to more on-time performance, which increases ridership. If you need to get to a meeting or event on time, you're not going to ride some transit that has to fight with unpredictable street-level traffic jams.

    Diesel buses can't go underground. Electric buses on fixed guideways are a cheap alternative to expensive rail infrastructure, and driverless technology is here already - no need to wait for Uber's utopian promises. Lots of airports have driverless transit, on both steel and rubber wheels. What do airport authorities know about their economics that city authorities don't?

    1. I would not want to live in a city that was governed the same way an airport is. But if I were looking for a city which was governed in a way that is analogous to the way an airport authority governs I would start in Cuba.

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  5. Two years ago Houston completed two light rail expansions at a cost of $1.6 billion. I think the Feds paid for around half. At current ridership levels and assuming ZERO operating costs, the project will "pay out" in a little over 400 years. The wealth destruction is incredible.

  6. Obtanium Works deserves credit for the steampunk RV -

  7. As I recall, there is a planning literature paper on this topic with the most awesome title "A Desire named streetcar" - just google it....classic.

  8. As I recall, there is a related classic planning paper entitled " A Desire Named Streetcar" - amazing - look it up.


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