Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Missing the Point...

Why spend the rest of your life caught up in other people's causes?

Would you go out and protest to support your local cable company?   What about your local bank?   Would you go and march for Dick Cheney's rights or to support Halliburton?    Of course not.   You might think these entities are not worth supporting.   But even if you felt neutral or positive about them, you'd realize that they are more than capable of taking care of themselves.   The Koch brothers don't need a kickstarter campaign.

My recent post about Zeppelins and Trollies is a case in point.   And perhaps it was a trap.   But several readers stepped right into it.   They exposed themselves as Zeppelin and/or Trolly "faithful" who have adopted a belief system that "if only" certain obsolete modes of transportation could be "brought back" we would be living in a heaven-on-earth.   By the way, the same goes for you train freaks.

Modes of transport should be evaluated on their Engineering principles, not romantic notions of days of yore.   Sadly, people and governments have often been caught up in the latter.  The last dying days of the transatlantic passenger ships were marked by excessive government subsidy, as every country - the US, France, Great Britain, and Italy, strove to build a ship that would be the "pride of the nation" and take the vaunted blue riband.   But these ships never made money or paid back their government subsidies.   Within a few years they were scrapped, sank, turned into (money-losing) museums, or left to rot at piers.  In retrospect, they should not have been built.   But people felt that national pride was at stake, and national pride - like any other emotional argument - causes an awful lot of trouble in this world.

And yes, the same could be said for the Concorde - built as a matter of pride by governments, rather than as practical business decision.  No commercial airline, worldwide, bought an example of it.   It finally "made money" toward the end of its career - but not enough to pay back what the taxpayers of England and France paid for the planes.   A lot of jet-setters had a marvelous time on the Concorde - thanks to the taxpayers.   And yes, there are romantic types who think the Concorde should not have been retired - that the airframes had "low hours" on them - as if traveling at Mach 2 isn't stressful.  But 30 years is a long time, and the Engineers made the right call in that regard.

Trains suffer from the same problem, particularly here in the USA where train buffs argue that we should go back to the era of passenger train travel and build high-speed "bullet" trains like in Japan and Europe.   The problem with this fantasy is reality.  Passenger trains service was a marginal business in the US even before World War II, and after the war, a money-losing one.   That is why AMTRAK was founded - to take over the bankrupt passenger rail business.   CSX makes money as a freight service, and some AMTRAK lines on popular (high population density) routes are profitable.   However, most hemorrhage cash, and the service is abominable, even on the better lines.  And the problem is not lack of government intervention, but because of it.  If AMTAK were privatized, the profitable lines could be spun off and make money (and offer better service) and the unprofitable lines closed.  But that isn't about to happen, sadly, and rail service will require huge government subsidies and taxpayer participation, in the near and far future - because of romantic notions that we should keep money-losing rail lines alive.

But what about Europe and Japan?   Well, I've been to both places and ridden the trains there, and they make AMTRAK look sick.   They even have private rail lines (like Virgin) that operate at a profit.  In Japan, even subway systems are privately owned.   Hmmmm.... private ownership.   Funny how that works "over there".

But in both Japan and Europe we saw the same thing - many more marginal lines are being closed, as more and more people, well, buy cars.   You can hate cars all you want, but chances are, you own one.   And even wishy-washy left-wing Liberals love their Volvos and Subarus, even as they profess to hate the internal combustion engine.  It's human nature, folks.  Get over it.  Just own up to it and plan accordingly.
And in case you've missed it, that is a major point of this blog - stop lying to yourself about your own behavior and impulses - and you will get ahead in life.
The second thing about Japan and Europe was that it was staggeringly expensive to travel by rail.  We took "Sir" Richard Branson's trains (having to change trains twice) from the airport to Cheshire, and it took us a couple of hours and cost about $150 - one way.   We could have rented a car for the week for that amount.   And the driving time, even with horrendous London traffic, would have been about a half-hour.   As you might expect, the trains were only about half-full. 

The vaunted "Chunnel" train was as crowded, noisy and uncomfortable as a crowded subway train during rush-hour.   If you ever take this train, shell out the money and go first class.   It is staggeringly expensive (as opposed to just merely expensive) but well worth it.

The third thing about trains is population density.   In Japan, trains work because the population density is about five times that in the US.   Owning a car in Japan is an expensive hassle (but most Japanese do it, anyway).   Funny thing, when we were there in the 1990s, they were building new freeways across the country.  Interesting, no?   But the same is true in Europe - higher population density makes trains more practical - and yes, they are building new freeways there as well.   People just love their cars, and there is not much we can do about it.

California, which was teetering near bankruptcy, is trying to build a high-speed rail system between Los Angeles and San Francisco.   A laudable goal, but the way they are going about it raises some questions - the costs per mile are staggering.  A measure to issue nearly $10 billion in bonds was barely passed by voters.  But even with some Federal funding, the remainder of the costs of the project ($50 Billion or more) remain unfunded.  Even if they proceed with the project, it may be 2033 or later before it is completed.   It may be a laudable goal, but isn't there a cheaper way to achieve this?  Maybe the existing train and tracks could be improved - at a far lower cost?  But that is the problem with a lot of these pie-in-the-sky projects.  They end up being gold-plated and never make financial sense.

Well, at least the folks in California haven't fallen for Mag-Lev like they have in Australia.

The trolly thing falls along similar lines.   One reader writes that when they put the trolly in his home town (which cost $100 million) it spurred a billion dollars worth of economic development!  So it was worth it, right?  This is one of those arguments which at first sounds like a real numbers argument that can't be refuted.   But ask yourself this - how can corollary economic development be tied to the trolly?   If the trolly was not put in, would the neighborhood not be gentrified or similar economic development not occur?  

And most importantly of all, who is coming up with this statistic?   Bingo - the trolly company.   They take all economic development along the trolly line and credit it to the trolly.   That new high-rise office building?  They wouldn't have built it without the trolly!  Right?  Maybe.   Maybe not.   But I think the Bureau of Specious Statistics is at work here again.  Did you know that for every Big Mac you eat, an acre of rainforest is ravaged?   Hey, you believed the bit about trollies causing billions of dollars in economic development, right?

And think about how much $100 million is - and how much the operating expenses of this trolly will cost the city down the road.   A city bus can cost as little as $300,000 to purchase.   For the cost of one trolly line, you could buy over 300 city buses - that hauls a lot of people!  And as I noted in my previous posting, if you don't like the buses you bought, when it comes replacement time, you can buy from brand X instead.  With a trolly, you are locked into a contract with Bombardier or some German company - likely for life.  and the maintenance costs of the overhead wires and rails will continue to escalate, over time.

And speaking of operating costs - buses are about 1/3 of that of a subway or light rail line (subway operating costs can actually be less than light rail!).   A bus costs about $125 an hour to operate.  For the $100 million cost of the light rail line, they could have afforded to buy and operate a fleet of ten buses, twenty-four hours a day, for ten years free of charge to the public.

Trollies are neat.  Trollies are cool.  But whether they make economic sense is another question - and one that should be answered by hard numbers that are not provided by the company that is selling the city a trolly system.

With regard to Zeppelins, another reader points out that Lockheed Martin is developing a lighter-than-air ship, and thus Zeppelin technology is coming back.  But as I pointed out, the product is really more of a prototype, and even Lockheed's own site talks about the project in terms of future tense.   As a former defense contractor myself, I can attest that the government spends a lot of money on pie-in-the-sky ideas.  That doesn't mean all of them are practical or are "coming soon" to a theater near you. (UPDATE:  This latest generation of "future Zeppelins" - both home and abroad - has indeed come to nothing.   But it does make for good cover art for a new issue of Popular Science or Popular Mechanics!)

The common denominator in all of these schemes is that a lot of people, particularly on the Left, believe that 'if only' we had these romantic forms of transportation "come back" then life would be ideal.  Should we have mass transit?   Or put more succinctly, should we have public transit?   You see, having a means of getting around is really necessary if you want to work or have a job, and poor folks often can't afford to drive in the big city.   And that is who uses public transit in most cities - the poor and middle-class.

When I lived in Washington, D.C., I rarely used the Metro system. Why? It was massively inconvenient to use, and mostly this was because it was run by the government.  The Metro board was so concerned about preserving the "award-winning architecture" of the system that they had all the escalators (and there were thousands of them) go right outdoors.  They got rained in and snowed in (and yea, they spread salt on the escalators when it snowed) and you can guess what happened.   They finally relented and put glass roofs over the escalators.   Pretty dumb, eh?  Wait, it gets worse.

Initially, the trains were not scheduled.  They ran like an elevator.  When the train arrived at the station, the doors would open, then close, and then drive on to the next station.   You had no idea when a train would arrive or leave.   And if you had to make a connection between trains, it was hit or miss.   In the evening, after rush hour, trains would be 15 to 30 minutes apart.  Miss a connection, and you have to wait a half-hour for the next train.

Worse yet, at the terminus, the buses were not coordinated with the trains, as the trains had no schedule.  So many a time, you'd be running down the steps of the Metro platform, watching the bus you wanted, drive away empty of all passengers, as the driver wanted to "make his schedule" and the 40 people running after his bus could just wait for the next one.

And at that time of the evening, the "next one" came an hour later.   Needless to say, I tried that stunt only once or twice.  Since I had free parking at work (and meter parking at school) it made more sense to drive.   It was only a 20-25 minute drive.  It could be a three hour metro ride.

And funny thing, too, my tenants, who rented my properties right next to a metro station drove as well.

The system worked great, if you lived next to a Metro stop and you worked next to a Metro stop - on the same line.   If you were not near the line, however, or had to transfer trains, the time involved was staggering.   For folks with no other choice, of course, that was their mode of transport.

But as a practical, convenient way of travel, well, it left a lot to be desired.

The problem is, there are some folks who think that we should be forced to take public transit.  They proposed limiting parking (or actually limited parking) to "force" people to take public transit.   Or they proposed taxing parking spaces to "make" people take public transit.   Sometimes these schemes actually backfired.

For example the Metro system limited parking at outlying stations, on the theory that it would "force" riders to take the bus to the station.   By 7:00 AM, the parking lots were full at the terminus stations.   People weren't "forced" to take the bus - they just drove instead.   Thankfully, that madness has ended as the Metro system wised up and built more parking at the stations (it is still tight, sadly).

Speaking of parking - if you really want to spur "economic development" of an area, provide more parking.   People won't go downtown to a restaurant or theater or whatever, if they can't find a place to park.   When it becomes too much of a hassle to park, people don't take public transit - they simply decide to go to other venues where there is a place to park.  Sadly, urban planners fail to realize this - and thus intentionally create parking shortages and then wonder why people don't show up.

Also, if you want to "revitalize" a neighborhood, getting rid of the crack dealers, the pimps, the drug pushers (and users) and homeless people goes a lot further to "gentrify" a neighborhood than a trolley.   People want to feel safe.  What form of transportation gets them there is less important (but in reality, everyone wants to drive their car, while "the other guy" takes public transit.  Human nature at work).

And the funny thing is, the folks who believe the most strongly in public transit - and think the government should "force" others to use it - often don't use it themselves.  "Well, I'm on the transit board and have to go to an important meeting, so of course I have to drive!   You, on the other hand, can ride!"

As I noted in another posting, I have a stinking hippie brother who drives from Boston to New York regularly in a gas-guzzling Chevy Yukon.   He'd take the train, of course, but he has important places to be, you understand and all.  Right?  Trains are for other people  The hypocrisy factor is off the charts.

Is there a technology on the horizon that could make a lot of these public transit projects obsolete in the next 10-20 years, much as the airlines made the transatlantic liners scrap metal?   Perhaps.

First, of course, is telecommuting.   It is not just a fad, it is a way of life.   Did I mention that I closed my office in Old Town, Alexandria, sold it all and now live on an island?   More and more people are telecommuting - even folks who work taking orders at McDonald's.  Someday, there will be a "Beltway Museum" in Washington, perhaps, as roadways are torn up to make parks.   Perhaps.  We'll see.   But people who have paper-pushing (keyboard pushing) jobs no longer need to leave home.  Or if they do, it is only for one or two days a week.   This, far more than trolleys or light rail, will cut down on the number of cars on the road.

Even for "casual" travel, the Internet cuts back on driving.   Given the cost of fuel and the cost of operating a car, it makes sense to order things online.  I can drive into town and back (20 miles roundtrip) and not find what I am looking for, because local merchants don't carry it in stock.   Or, I can order online, get free shipping and have exactly what I need in a matter of days.

I think as an overall trend, we will see people drive less in the next ten years.   Average annual driving has increased from 12,000 miles to 15,000 miles a year since the 1970's.   I think you will see this drop back to 12,000 miles, and perhaps go lower.   But then again, there are always idiots, usually the poor, who drive all over hell's half-acre no matter what.

Self-driving technology could be the other half of the equation.  This technology has been in development for over 40 years, and indeed, one of the first Patents I wrote, back in 1990, was for a self-driving car.   Since then, the technology has exploded.   And this technology promises to relieve traffic congestion.  Traffic congestion occurs when traffic density reaches a saturation point - and then a triggering event occurs - much as a saturated solution of sugar and water will precipitate if you tap the glass.  Once a driver brakes to look at a billboard, an accordion-effect occurs, and traffic slows, stops, and then starts again.   Instant traffic jam.

Removing humans from the equation would mean that existing roadways could handle 2-3 times the volume of traffic, without backups, or that they could handled existing traffic far more efficiently and quickly.  And of course, the third leg is hybrid and electric vehicles, which when combined with renewable resource electrical energy, would mean cutting air pollution by a factor of ten or more.

Perhaps in 20 years, we'll see yet another set of trolley tracks torn up.  We'll see.

But in the meantime, I'm not going to lose any sleep over the return of the Zeppelins or the Trolleys.

But for God's sake, please don't double my taxes to pay for your own personal transportation fantasies!