Ryan Avent

Ryan Avent is a freelance economics writer living in Washington, D.C. He blogs at ryanavent.com, and at The Economist's Free Exchange.

The Transit Authority: Stimulus miss

Bills for highways, no change for transit

Think all news is bad news during this epic recession of ours? Think again -- over the past three months, real wages have increased 23 percent, an enormous gain. At a crucial period for many working families, paychecks are going a lot farther than they did back in the summer. The explanation is simple: wages are flat, prices are down. The labor market operates on a bit of a lag, so while the recession affected oil demand and prices very quickly, layoffs and falling wages are emerging more slowly. Eventually, the weak economy will catch up to workers (those who still have jobs), and spending power will decline. But this is important to remember given the trends of the past decade. When economies are growing, oil prices rise. This means that even while wages are growing, it's difficult for consumer spending power to keep up, unless we reduce the intensity of oil in our economy. How can we do this? Easy -- cut commuting times, reduce driving, reduce congestion, green intercity travel and green freight shipping (so that rising oil prices don't feed through to prices for other goods, including food). This, of course, is the logic behind a push for greener infrastructure. Better transit and rail systems boost productivity -- by improving movement of goods and people -- which increases wages. They also reduce the petroleum intensity of the economy. In a boom period, you then have rising wages that aren't much eroded by rising energy costs. And that means a richer and greener society. Barack Obama understands this; at least, that's what we've been led to believe by his speeches. Many Congressional leaders understand it too. And it is therefore very disappointing to see the contents of the new American Recovery and Reinvestment Act -- also known as the stimulus bill. As has been widely reported, roughly $30 billion of the proposed infrastructure spending will go to highways, while only $10 billion is allocated toward transit and rail.

Urban doubt-fitter

What Obama's picks signal for urban policy

Who are President Obama's key urban policy advisers? What do his pickes for Housing and Urban Development and Transportation say about an Obama urban policy?

The Transit Authority: A study in Charlotte

Funding transit to reshape the Sunbelt

The city of Phoenix celebrated the dawning of the new year by beginning normal, paying service on its shiny new light rail line. The current 20-mile segment runs from north of central Phoenix through the city, past Sky Harbor airport, and into Tempe and Mesa. If current plans are realized, an extension to the line will be completed by 2012, and a full(ish) network will begin to take shape over the following decade. The light rail line is part of a wave of transit construction that's bringing transit systems to a new generation of booming cities. These emergent metropolises often went through crucial development phases at a time when the highway was king. Compared to older cities in the Northeast and Midwest, the amount of space devoted to dense, gridded development in such places is quite small indeed, and it has long been unclear whether transit could work in these cities, built for the car. A dreadful chicken and egg problem seems to exist. Few neighborhoods are currently dense enough to support transit, so opponents argue that systems won't draw riders. And because opponents can make this argument and systems often die on the drawing board, these cities never have the opportunity to catalyze denser, transit-oriented growth.  

Ray, it ain't so

Will Ray LaHood be our next transportation secretary?

People are saying that Ray LaHood, a downstate Illinois Republican representative, may get the nod for DOT. So far, the things mentioned as being in his favor are — friendship with the president-elect and his chief of staff, some pro-Amtrak votes, experience managing big projects as a member of the Appropriations committee (?), and his Republican-ness, for some reason. This makes no sense at all to me. As I see it, then, there are three possibilities: Obama doesn’t intend the DOT secretary to do the heavy lifting on his transportation policies, Obama doesn’t really care about transportation, and It isn’t …

How things changed

The transportation story at the heart of a history-making crisis

There’s a remarkable graph that has starred in blog posts and news stories with some regularity over the past year. It shows vehicle miles traveled in America over the last quarter century or so. For most of the period, the line rockets upward, straight and true, preparing to blast off the page. But then the strangest thing happens. In 2004, it starts to level off. And in 2008, it begins to decline. The tale behind that line grows in significance by the day. That rocket-ride upward corresponds fairly directly to the economic story that has culminated in the current crisis. …

Connect the dots

For stronger cities, build better connections

Infrastructure is a dull business. The guy talking about pipes and wires is not generally the life of the party (to my chagrin). But infrastructure is all the rage these days, with economists calling for broad stimulus, and Barack Obama’s transition team planning big investments in the American economy. The excitement seems to be catching. Even staid legislators are feeling energized by the new push to rebuild America. Last week, Senators John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Arlen Specter (R-Penn.) introduced the High-Speed Rail for America Act, a bill that would authorize $23 billion in bond sales to fund rail infrastructure generally, …

November train

How investing in transit could save Obama’s butt

Nov. 4 was a good day for public transit. Ballot measures around the country performed well — the state of California even approving a first-in-the-nation plan to create a true high-speed, inter-city rail system. Increased Democratic majorities in the House and Senate will likely clear the way for infrastructure investment with a pronounced lean toward green, equitable transit. And President-elect Obama seems inclined to lead the Congress in that direction. (If nothing else, the replacement of a distinctly anti-transit administration will lead to a much-needed shakeup of the federal transportation bureaucracy, especially the Federal Transit Administration.) Recent dip aside, oil …

In search of an urban plan

How design must change in a warming, oil-scarce world

This week I was able to attend a conference on urban planning hosted by the Penn Institute for Urban Research and the Rockefeller Foundation. Fifty years ago, the same entities had put together another urban conference, at which gathered names like Jane Jacobs and Lewis Mumford, intellectuals who shaped the design world’s thinking about cities at a time when many urban places were facing crisis. Those thinkers faced a world in which the city no longer seemed necessary, and where planners were increasingly tearing downtowns limb from limb to make them safe for the coming car-tropolis. Now, of course, the …

Plan B minus

Some disappointments in Obama’s new energy proposal

Joe Romm isn’t off the wagon in calling Barack Obama’s latest energy policy outline [PDF], “easily the best energy plan ever put forward by a nominee of either party,” particularly given its release during a general campaign targeted at purple state voters. All the same, I found the plan to be … a little meh. There are good things in there to be sure. I’m particularly happy that climate change features prominently and that he remains committed to cap-and-trade. The goodness of other proposals depends upon exactly how they’d be implemented. And the whole thing suffers from kitchen sinkism, which …