socrates visits the u.s. federal transit administration


220px-DoricFTA staffer:  Welcome to Washington, Socrates!  The literature and philosophy students on our staff can’t stop talking about you, and suggested you could help us think something through. They told us you ask good questions.

Socrates.  I hope I can help.

FTA staffer:  So we invited you here because we are devising a new way to decide which transit projects are worthy of funding, anything from a little streetcar to a busway to a big subway line.

Socrates:  And when you deem that a transit project is good, do you mean that it has some intrinsic goodness in character – perhaps its pleasing color or shape – or do you mean that its goodness lies in providing some benefit to others?

F.  In the benefit, certainly.  It’s how to describe the benefit that gets us into trouble.  Our policy is to focus on mobility and accessibility benefits – basically, people getting where they’re going.  But it’s hard to translate that into a measure …

S.  You would have to define those terms first.

F.  Of course.  You see, for a while now we’ve been scoring the benefits of a transit project based on the amount of travel time it saves.  Basically it’s person-hours or person-minutes, one person saving one minute of travel time. 

S. You mean one person gets to his destination a minute sooner than he would without the project.  That’s a person-minute?

F.  Pretty much.  We prefer to count hours because minutes seem – I don’t know – petty, somehow.  But still, you know, people getting there sooner, it seemed like a good idea for years.

S.  Tell me: if Jim has $1000, and Dave has $100, and each is given another $100, you would say that the two have benefited equally?  Even though Jim's wealth has gone up just 10% while Dave's has doubled? 

F.  I don’t follow …

S.: Well, but you were counting minutes, right, not percentage savings?

F.:  Of course.

S.:  So one commuter from the rural fringe whose commute is cut from 80 to 70 minutes … that’s exactly as valuable as one inner city traveller whose trip is cut from 15 to 5 minutes?

F.: Well, yes … I’m beginning to see your meaning …

S:  Whereas if you’d thought in percentages …

F.  … we’d have valued the inner city trip more … do you mean? …

S.  Just asking.  Don’t people really perceive travel time changes as percentages?  I mean, who would feel their options to be more transformed, and be more likely to change their behavior as a result: someone who’s travel time was cut from 80 to 70 minutes or someone who’s travel time was cut from 15 to 5?  Wouldn’t the latter be the greater transformation, more likely to change behavior? 

F.  I see your point.  Of course it’s usually easier for a project to cut 80 to 70 …

S.  Of course, so that’s what you end up funding.  What’s the consequence of that?

F.  Well, we tend to score a lot of commuter rail and long-haul busways highly, but it’s harder to assign value to shorter-distance inner-city services like bus lanes, light rail, streetcars.

S.  Because shorter distance services save fewer minutes, though a higher percentage.

F.  And streetcars running in mixed traffic, of course … well, the dirty secret is that they usually don’t cut travel time at all, compared to an “enhanced bus” alternative.  They can even make it longer.

S.  What’s wrong with scoring streetcars low, then?

F.  Well, people are telling us that streetcars in mixed traffic are just intrinsically wonderful, so we should judge them differently.  They seem to encourage economic development, and yet they’re not as expensive to build as faster and more reliable transit systems, so cities see them as something that’s within reach.  Anyway, we have an economic development factor that tries to keep track of that, but it’s really hard to score based on what a bunch of city boosters and developers tell us about how cool a place will be in 10 years.  I mean, we wish them the best, but city boosters and developers are always saying that …

S.  Of course.  No neutral objective measure.  Whereas travel time …

F.  You’re right, travel time, for all its faults, was pretty easy to measure, and to calculate for a new project.

S.  But you’re abandoning it.  So what’s the new scheme?

F.  Ridership!  Who can argue with that?  We care now about how many people are going to ride the thing, especially those who aren’t riding now. 

S.  Is that a new idea?

F.  Well, it’s always mattered somewhat.  In my dad’s day we used to score mostly on “cost per new rider,” so then it was the overwhelming factor.  Then we were accused of not valuing the time of people who were already riding transit – you know – their travel time savings due to the project.  It didn’t count.

S.  So you abandoned that, but now you’re going back to it?

F.  Not exactly, but …

S.  How is the new measure different?

F.  We have some other factors, like service to transit dependents …

S.  But basically, the new measure is ridership?

F.  Right.

S.  And apart from your transit dependent clause, all riders are equally valuable?  Regardless of how far they ride?

F.  Basically. 

S.  So you’re now biased the other way?  Toward the inner city service, which many people ride, and away from the long-distance commute, which serves few people but many passenger-miles, and which will score highest on travel time savings (in minutes, not percentage) because the travel times are so long anyway? 

F.  Yes, but there are lots of arguments that this is the right bias now.  The whole point of sustainable urbanism is to limit sprawl and encourage more compact cities.  When we were mostly building commuter rail all the way to the rural fringe, we were encouraging the opposite.  In fact, I’ve met people who moved from an inner city condo to a two-acre horse farm solely because a new commuter rail line made it possible.

S.  Sounds like the right bias for you, then.  But tell me, isn’t the world changing pretty fast right now?  I caught up on some of your media in the time machine.  It sounds like costs of transportation are shifting rapidly and people in the know expect options to be much different in just a few decades.  In fact, fear about the rising cost and impact of transportation is part of why you want people to live closer together, right?

F.  Absolutely.

S.  Now, when you build something big and expensive like a rail line, you’re not doing it for the benefits tomorrow, right?  You’re doing it for benefits further into the future.

F.  Forty years at least.

S.  Forty years.  So if you’re judging the merit of a project based on ridership, that must mean you know what its ridership will be 40 years from now.  Do you have many studies from 40 years ago that correctly describe ridership today? 

F.  Well, so much can happen in 40 years, you really can’t predict …

S.  But if you expect forty years of value, shouldn’t you at least be looking at the middle of that window, say 20 years out? 

F.  Well, I suppose, but that’s really the outer edge of what anyone can predict.

S.  In any case, you don’t know about your project’s ridership the way you know about its travel time.  You can figure the travel time of a new service pretty exactly, but the ridership … that’s a prediction, right?

F.  Of course.

S.  So your new policy shifts your focus from a fact to a prediction.  Even as you admit that ridership prediction is often wrong on opening day, let alone 20 or 40 years out.

F.  But they always get the order of magnitude right!  And of course things happen that they couldn't have foreseen.  And you know, ridership prediction is always getting better.  Experts are always re-calibrating their models, bringing in new factors. 

S.  What are the calibrations based on?

F.  Well, it’s complicated, and kind of mysterious even to me.  But the basic idea is that they look at the predictive factors, like travel time and land use and user experience so forth, and find examples where similar factors have led to certain ridership outcomes.

S.  In the past.

F.  Well, of course in the past.  What else do we have?

S.  But you just agreed that your world is changing more and more rapidly, which means that a given year is less and less like a year a decade earlier.  Doesn’t that mean, logically, that the past is becoming less relevant?

F.  Well, we try to use the reasonably recent past.

S.  But you need a lot of data points, surely, to calibrate?  And if the world is changing faster, doesn’t that mean that the “reasonably recent past” is shrinking?  I mean, faster change means that conditions ten years in the future are much more different from the present than conditions ten years ago are.  So logically, you can’t look as far into the past as you used to, to calibrate your models.

F.  Well of course it fluctuates.  But over the long run, I see your point. 

S.  So aren’t you approaching a condition where you run out of past?  Reach a point where the only relevant examples are so recent that they’re only just past opening day, and there simply aren't enough data points in so brief a period?

F.  You’re right.  Logically it makes no sense at all.  But what else would we do?


S.  Well, what’s the purpose of public transit?

F.  Oh that’s easy.  Public transit delivers a range of benefits that all go toward building a stronger, healthier, and more just America.  It is the lifeblood and foundation of cities, which are the engines of the innovation that will keep our country strong and competitive.  Public transit serves the cause of environmental and social justice, helping low-income and minority participate in the life of the city, so that they can climb the ladder of success by their own hard work.  And of course, it’s all about jobs–-

S.  Wait.  That’s a lot of purposes!  How on earth would you measure all of those things?

F.  Well, public transit has lots of benefits!  That’s what makes it so essential to a strong, healthy, and just Amer–

S.  But I asked about purpose, not benefits.  My business, philosophy, has zillions of benefits.  You wouldn’t be here without it, and you certainly wouldn’t be thinking this clearly.  But philosophy’s purpose is not too hard to capture.  Maybe something like “understanding the fundamental nature of existence, and what this may imply for how people should live.”  We philosophers argue about the details, but we’re positively unanimous compared to all the ways you describe transit’s purpose.

F.  Well, we don’t really use the word purpose much.

S.  Tell me, what’s the purpose of the police?

F.  Well, law enforcement of course.

S.  But policing has lots of benefits!  Controlling crime is important for investment, and thus for prosperity.  It contributes directly to quality of life, maybe even to happiness.  And besides, police do good works for all kinds of community causes.  And if you didn’t have police, you wouldn’t have plots for many of the stories that your people find entertaining, from detective novels to forensic dramas!  And admit it, don’t ten year old boys find sirens exciting?

F.  Yes, policing does all those things.  But law enforcement, you know, that’s their real job, isn’t it?  They generate all those benefits simply by doing their job, which is law enforcement.

S.  Exactly.  So it’s not enough to talk about transit’s benefits.  You have to think about its purpose, or as you put it, it’s real job.

F.  Well, moving people …

S.  Anywhere?  Around in circles?  Is a Ferris wheel public transit?

F.  No, I mean to their destinations.  Except for tourists and recreational riders maybe.  They like to go in circles sometimes.

S.  So apart from tourists, transit is about people getting to where they’re going?

F.  Sure, that’s the thing transit does I guess.  And it does it in shared, scheduled vehicles instead of each one driving alone.

S.  Well, we could spend another hour getting down to a definition, but the first thing that comes to your mind is often, in the end, the most useful one.  “Moving people,” you said, “to their destinations.” 

F.  That sounds like a good start.

S.  The destination, of course, isn’t really just a place but an intention, right?  We want to get to work, to home, to school, to a recreation opportunity.

F.  Right.  That’s why cool people are talking about access now, not just mobility.  Mobility is how far you can move, but access is how much useful stuff you can get to quickly.  So transit also has this role of helping things to get built closer together, so that things you need aren’t as far away.  That’s called density, but it doesn’t work without transit, so transit helps to stimulate it.  So I guess that’s a purpose too.

S.  Is that separate purpose of transit?  Or just another benefit?  In other words, can you serve that purpose best just by making it really easy and fast for people to get where they’re going?

F.  Well, the developers and city boosters don’t think so.  They think we need a separate measure to capture the way transit might stimulate development, quite apart from its usefulness in getting you places.

S.  But developers are merchants, right?  They need people to buy their product.

F.  Of course.

S.  So let’s think about their customer.   If you’re deciding whether to live in a transit-oriented place, you’re going to care about the transit, right?  It has to be there.  It has to be good, right?

F.  Right.  That’s why transit effectively stimulates development.

S.  But what does that customer care about, really?  The ability to get where they’re going, right, since that’s transit’s purpose?

F.  Of course.

S.  So even the development output of transit, as you’re describing it, is ultimately about travel time.  How soon you get where you’re going – that’s travel time, right?   That’s the thing about transit that would attract people.

F.  Well yes, but there are so many other emotional factors that affect people’s choices, right?   People just like certain transit technologies, so they use them more.

S.  What, for example?

F.  Well, streetcars, you know, in mixed traffic.  Such a huge political movement.  No travel time benefits at all, really, but this huge emotional response.  Developers just love them, because their customers do.  We figure, by counting ridership, we properly include those factors.

S.  Suppose your Parks agency does some improvements to a park, builds some new attractions there, and as a result more people come.  Does that mean it’s something you should have funded?

F.  Well, no, I mean, we’re a transportation agency.

S.  That’s right.  In fact, I was reading your “Notice of Proposed Rule Making” in the time machine, and noticed it explicitly says that “mobility and accessibility are the primary benefits of transportation investments. 

F.  That’s right.

S.  So if a project is not delivering those benefits, that doesn’t mean it doesn't provide any benefits, right?  It just means it doesn't provide the benefits that your agency is responsible for delivering, so it's not your job to fund it.  It could still be funded by others, even other government agencies, the way a new statue in a park might be.

F.  Yes, this is the argument that we should value mixed-traffic streetcars exactly the way we value brick paving and planter boxes, as amenities whose purpose is to attract investment.  It makes sense, but somehow, because streetcars move, and people can ride them, people insist that we fund them as transit services, even though there's no mobility or access benefit compared to an "enhanced bus" option.

S.  Hmm.  But again, we’re talking about long-term investments, right?

F.  Certainly.

S.  So with your ridership metric, you must show that lots of people will be attracted to a streetcar when you open it, even in the absence of travel time savings, and you do that by effectively citing recent examples where streetcars replaced buses and ridership went up, even though the service wasn’t any faster than before.

F. Right.  That’s a nice example of the problem with judging projects on travel time.

S.  But in addition, because this is a long term investment, you must show that the emotional reaction that is causing this extra ridership is durable over the long term, don’t you?  That people will continue to have that preference for streetcars even when streetcars are no longer a novelty, and even as other technologies improve their ability to do the same things?

F.  Well, of course, nobody can know that.

S.  No, that would certainly be a prediction.  But are some predictions maybe more confident than others, purely on philosophical grounds?

F.  Well, that’s your department, Socrates.

S.  It’s not hard.  Your new evaluation system is based on ridership, and we’ve talked now about two causes of ridership.  One is various emotional attractions of a vehicle, like the streetcars you mentioned, but the other is travel time — ridership that is attracted because transit gets people where they’re going quickly.  Your models already weigh that, don’t they?  They already assume that travel time is a major indicator of ridership?      

F.  Absolutely, and on very solid grounds.  That’s always been true.

S.  Truer than you think maybe.  If I hire a – well, you might call it a pedicab – to get me across Athens, perhaps because I am late to meeting some friends there, I do it because I’m in a hurry, or more exactly, I want to be at my destination now, because my life is on hold until I do.  The young men who run with those carts go much faster than I can walk.  I get on with my life sooner, and so they get my ridership.

F.  So …

S.  So I can assure you that in my home era, 2500 years ago, people already care about travel time.  Certainly, a time that we consider fast would strike you as slow.  But we want to get to work on our tasks, which require being in certain places.  We want to get home to our families.  We want to see our friends and get a good seat at the theatre.  Our armies want to get to battlefields before their enemies do.  So usually, when we set out on those trips, it’s with a desire to be at the destination, to already be doing whatever we were going to do there.  Of course, sometimes we pause to smell the flowers, and enjoy the trip, and sometimes we walk around just for pleasure.  But most of the time, we need to get there.

F. … and because people have always cared about that, for many centuries, it would seem to have more predictive value!  If we have to predict, we should give more weight to factors that have governed ridership more consistently over longer spans of history … Is that what you’re saying?   

S.  So suppose the project you approve runs for 100 years, as much of your old transit infrastructure has already done …

F.  100 years … Well, I can’t begin to imagine what my great great great grandchildren are going to value when it comes to technology, or even what their choices will be.  But you’re right …  I’m on firmer ground guessing that they’ll want to get where they’re going, and soon.

S.  … which means …

F.  Travel time!  Damn you, Socrates!

S.  So why are you abandoning travel time again?


F.  Look, I think there’s a deeper problem with travel time.  It connects with people when they’re thinking about the trips they make, but it doesn’t connect to – well, city builders, you know?  Architects, developers, urban visionaries, and a lot of ordinary citizens who are excited by their ideas.  You even have academics and urban designers saying transit should be slower, to encourage people to not travel as far, as though we could ever do that kind of social engineering.  How can we keep talking about travel time in the face of all that?

S.  Well, then, what’s another way to describe it?

F.  Hmm. 

S.  What do people in your country value?   What motivates them?

F.  Too many things.  You have fresh eyes on it, Socrates, what do you think?

S.  We’re in Washington DC.  Look around, on the monuments.  Or turn on the radio, anywhere in this country it seems.

F.  Liberty, you mean.   Freedom. 

S.  People in most countries value freedom, but nobody talks about it as obsessively as Americans do.

F.  Well, of course.  It was a rallying cry of our revolution, and then of the fight against slavery, and certainly World War II.  Longing for freedom, and then more recently a desire to liberate others, drives so much of our history …

S.  Well, then, why don’t you base your evaluation method on freedom?

F.  You don't mean that freedom boils down to travel time, do you?  That would be a hard line to sell.

S.  But if people can get places faster …

F.  They can get to more places in a given amount of time, so they have more (snaps fingers) choices! 

(Pause.  S and F look at each other.)

S.  During that infernal time machine ride, I saw some footage of your southwestern cities, which seem to be fleeing from themselves across the desert.  And I noticed the same shop everywhere … a “convenience store” you call it.  They were advertising that customers had a choice of several flavors of something.  But their slogan was, “Americans love the freedom.”

F.  Yes, freedom of choice. 

S.  So faster travel means …

F.  Literally more stuff within reach.  So more choices.  And hence more freedom.  Not just choices of flavors or gas stations or convenience stores.  It means you have more choices of schools for your children, paths for your career.

S.  Those sound like important freedoms, freedoms that people fight for, as we did.

F.  Yes!!  (Pacing.)  You’d have to refine it.  But surely, if you can get where you’re going sooner, that means you can get to more places in a fixed amount of time.  More of the city is available to you – more jobs, friends, places to shop, unusual things that you value.  You can do more of whatever you want to do, which is part of being whoever you want to be.  Sheesh!  Now I sound like the Education Department!  But …  but this is transportation’s place in the same crusade, isn’t it?

S.  Even in my day, people leave small towns for the city, because there are more options there.  Freedom of choice, you’d call it.

F.  So … it’s not travel time, exactly.  It’s more like …  Yes!  I remember this funny little tool that created.  (Sitting at desk, typing urgently).  Here it is!  Look here … (rotates the monitor, triumphantly)

 GoogEarth walkscore

S.  A map of San Francisco.  And you have a Greek word for those blobs …

F.  “Isochrones,” yes!   We’d never say that word in public, of course, but those blobs show how much of your city you can get to on transit in a given amount of time, depending on where you are.  The idea was to help people see the transit mobility consequences of their choices about where to locate.  You' move the red pointer, and the blobs would show where you can get to quickly if you locate there.  But really … it’s a map of … freedom!

S.  So …

F.   So, what if our metric was:  How much does a project grow these blobs?  Reduce travel time, but specifically with the effect of bringing more choices into range for each person, so they have more freedom!  Not just the freedom to ride your horse in any direction on a ranch, but the freedom to make real choices, about friends, work, values that arise from the options presented by a city!

S.  Grow the blobs in any direction?

F.  Of course not, that would be the old model of mobility.   It would be about access.  Not just square miles of area you can get to, but the amount of stuff in them.  Something like “how many new choices – jobs, shopping, schools, houses of worship or philosophy, sports facilities, and so on, are brought within a given travel time of how many people, just because of this proposed project?” 

S.  One given travel time?  What will it be, 17 minutes? 

F.  (Laughs.)  Imagine getting consensus on that!  Several travel time thresholds of course.  As you pointed out, we care about cutting travel times from 20 to 10 minutes, at least as much as we care about cutting them from 80 to 70 … Or, wait, maybe we care more!  Is there a way to do this with percentages, as you suggested …?

S.  Lots of details to work out, but philosophically …

F.  This isn’t just philosophy, Socrates!  Even better, it’s rhetoric!  “FTA to score transit projects on liberation value!”   “President Obama puts freedom at the center of transportation policy!” 

S.  So why is your agency abandoning travel time as a criterion for selecting projects?

F.  (Sighs.  Collapses in his chair.)  I don’t know, Socrates.  It seemed like the thing to do.  I have to admit I was never comfortable, and I’d love to chase this idea of freedom as the ultimate measure.  But in the end, you know … people really, really love streetcars, even the really slow ones in mixed traffic, and this measure won’t score those very highly!  I mean … Would people really sacrifice streetcars for freedom?  In America?












58 Responses to socrates visits the u.s. federal transit administration

  1. CityBeautiful21 February 7, 2012 at 9:16 am #

    Bravo! Bravo! Bravo!
    Please envision this reader standing on a desk, laughing out loud and applauding wildly.
    I was even expecting to see:

    at the end. Entertaining, insightful, and on target.

  2. TransitDB February 7, 2012 at 9:36 am #

    Very enjoyable!

  3. Carter R February 7, 2012 at 9:53 am #

    I hope you’re planning to produce a film or theatrical version of this!

  4. Tom West February 7, 2012 at 9:58 am #

    My two big take-aways from this:
    1) Do not mix up ‘purpose’ and ‘benefits’. I would say the purpose is what it does, the benefit is why do it. (The purpose of teachers is to teach; the benefit is a skilled work-force).
    2) Transport projects should (generally) be measured in terms of the increased accessthey bring. However, this does nothing for projects which are about lowering costs (e.g. replacing 60 buses per hour with LRT every 5 minutes and the same travel time). It also doesn’t cover projects which are about making things ‘nicer’, rather than ‘quicker’. (E.g. instalilng bus shelters, improving quality of information, etc.)
    Also, I thought you wrote isochromes, not isochrones, which confused me for a while :-)

  5. Jarrett at February 7, 2012 at 12:03 pm #

    Tom. Re (2) Yes, replacing lots of buses with fewer LRT trains saves
    ops cost which can turn into more service. So that can definitely be
    a "freedom" improvement, so long as effective frequency is not cut too
    much. Jarrett

  6. BenK February 7, 2012 at 1:31 pm #

    Once transit is in place, people are free to move in a broader region. Freedom, is only a good thing if you trust the people who exercise it.
    For example, true freedom of speech empowers hate speech, pornography, and blog trolling. Freedom of association creates the KKK, the Black Panthers, and the ACLU. I’m inclined to think that freedom of movement also creates walled gardens away from commerce/industry, and ghettos for low income workers – who can now commute to the nice areas where they must work. I see this dichotomy in some inaccessible areas, where the local grocery baggers are the teens from the town, and in accessible areas, where the same job is held by people who couldn’t afford to live nearby.
    This question becomes clear on the 40-100 year time horizon; how will real estate and society adapt to the presence of transit? What will freedom look like then? Are there ways to constrain choices using transit? What of Robert Moses – social visionary (that is, he had a vision and implemented it) – practicing social engineering through transportation engineering? How effective can we be?

  7. Max Wyss February 7, 2012 at 1:47 pm #

    I love it…
    Potential for an audio production… or a movie.

  8. Alex B. February 7, 2012 at 2:13 pm #

    Love the post. Nothing like a little Socratic dialogue to clarify one’s thinking.
    One question for Socrates and the FTA staffer: doesn’t a metric of ‘ridership,’ even if riders are undifferentiated, inherently include some measure of travel times and accessibility?
    For example, if two competing projects have similar geographic scopes, number of stations, routes, etc – but one is a streetcar and the other is a subway, wouldn’t the mobility advantages of the subway line be reflected in the ridership projection as well?

  9. scott February 7, 2012 at 2:15 pm #

    Now, I must say that was highly entertaining. Well done.

  10. Laurence Aurbach February 7, 2012 at 2:33 pm #

    Very enjoyable dialogue, Jarret. I’m fully onboard with access to destinations as a purpose of public transit. But consider that there could be a complementary purpose, which is to improve the livability of the street for nontravelers. “Livability” is usually a very fuzzy term, but it could be precisely defined in terms of safety, noise, pollution, etc. See for example
    While I don’t think that streetcars in mixed traffic is a good way to improve livability, I also think that a too-narrow focus on accessibility can lead to negative livability outcomes. For instance, here’s David Levinson, a guru of transportation accessibility, arguing in favor of Minneapolis’s skyways.
    The skyways increase pedestrian accessibility from building to building, and they allow streets to be wider and faster, so accessibility by car is increased. If access is increased overall, then what’s not to like? The problem is the livability of downtown streets is mediocre, and skyways connecting indoor lobbies and malls aren’t really a satisfactory substitute for an active public realm. I can appreciate the cold-climate argument for skyways, but on the other hand many snowy cities enjoy an active street life in spite of (or sometimes because of) the snow.
    So, access to destinations is a primary purpose of transportation systems, yes — but tempered with concern for livability.

  11. Anon256 February 7, 2012 at 2:52 pm #

    But what if efficiency savings aren’t used to increase freedom but instead, say, to cut fares, or to add capacity on already-frequent lines to allow more passengers to sit, or to increase safety, shouldn’t those still count as improvements? Many cities’ taxi systems provide almost maximal freedom, and overcrowded, speeding third-world-style jitneys can provide a lot of freedom too, but most riders are only interested in freedom of movement when the cost is not too high and the comfort and safety are not too low. Indeed, it should be clear enough from politics that people are willing to give up some freedom in exchange for money, comfort or security.
    Another issue: Is it legitimate to build a hip new streetcar in order to gain political support for transit in order to increase government operational funding and use this to increase frequency and span on other lines, thereby increasing freedom? It seems like you can still justify nearly everything with this framework if you squint enough.

  12. Dominic Brown February 7, 2012 at 3:12 pm #

    This is outstanding. Socratic dialogue is one of my favourite rhetorical techniques, and you’ve used it here to superb effect. Very well done indeed.
    One thought. The relative pleasure of using one form of transit over another (especially streetcars over everything else) is more important to some people than to others. Specifically, tourists, people enjoying their day off, and retired folks with less-demanding schedules, are liable to value charm over speed, or at least make it a higher priority. In fact for some people, in some places, the streetcar itself is one of those amenities to which they want access—a destination, rather than a means of reaching a destination. I wonder if that time-to-access model could accommodate this—counting access to the streetcar itself as valuable? Just an idea; I have no idea how to estimate the proportion of users who might feel that way, or how to weight it.
    I’m thinking of a particular example. Vancouver has something like 100,000 people living on the downtown peninsula, and a major attraction nearby in Granville Island. No one goes to Granville Island because they’re in a hurry for anything—it’s always packed. They go there precisely because they want to linger over the bakery counter, the craft shop shelves, the art gallery walls. A streetcar line connecting the downtown peninsula with Granville Island would undoubtedly be popular, especially if it also linked Chinatown, Gastown, and Stanley Park—but no one would be in a hurry. The experience of travelling in comfort and quiet, between all these destinations, would itself be the amenity. That’s pretty hard to put into a travel-time model, but strikes me as too important to overlook.
    Then again, if I were allocating a transit agency’s limited funds, I might prefer a model that put GHG savings and sprawl prevention ahead of adding grace and elegance to downtown living. The latter is itself a factor in combatting sprawl, by attracting people downtown, but pretty indirect.
    Not to nit-pick, though. I like the overall idea of time-to-access as the main measure of a transit project. I guess I just want my streetcar.

  13. Ant6n February 7, 2012 at 3:36 pm #

    S: “If I hire a – well, you might call it a pedicab – to get me across Athens, perhaps because I am late to meeting some friends there, I do it because I’m in a hurry, or more exactly, I want to be at my destination now, because my life is on hold until I do.”
    So I thought that Socrates would hire that pedicab because then he doesn’t have to schlepp himself. It allows him to sit and be (relatively) comfortable, to enjoy the view. His life is exactly not on hold during his travels, because he can enjoy his time.
    If freedom is the main objective, then why don’t we just make sure that everybody has a car, and there are roads everywhere. It seems to me that your argument will lead to the idea that car culture is what F: should strive for.

  14. Alan Robinson February 7, 2012 at 3:59 pm #

    @ Laurence and Dominic
    Transit definitely has an impact on livability, sometimes positive and sometimes negative. But the transit agency and funding should be focused on moving people where they need to go. Stakeholders should assess the positive or negative livability impacts and either add their support for other objectives, or demand compensation and mitigation for negative impacts.

  15. Jonathan February 7, 2012 at 10:59 pm #

    @Ant6n – this is the old fifties view. ‘Highway Engineer: Cars give lots of high speed access everywhere (freedom) at the moment, and cars are getting cheaper and people wealthier, so we should build a lot of car-infrastructure so everyone can have these good results. In the meantime, people can use buses, and obviously we’ll have to build more infrastructure later, but we’d expect to be building something anyway’.
    S: But… when everyone has a car, will that not slow the speed (and therefore the size of these ‘circles’) down significantly? Also, when everyone drives to their destination, their destination will have to include a lot of parking, will they not?
    HE: Yes…
    S: And that means destinations will have to be spread out, so the circle you can draw will be more filled with parking than useful destinations? So we can see that this ‘automobile’ is not a good solution.
    HE: But people really love their cars.
    S: And are you sure that they (and their children) will continue to do so once the ‘freedom’ their car offers starts to reduce?

  16. Anon256 February 7, 2012 at 11:09 pm #

    @Jonathan: With enough resources, you could put the parking underground and build many-layered elevated toll-roads for the traffic. Then you’d maintain the freedom of cars, at great cost in terms of aesthetics, environment and users’ money. But the model of only caring about freedom ignores all of those.

  17. Ant6n February 8, 2012 at 7:26 am #

    I don’t really want to play devil’s advocate here, but many people would say that car culture is the pinnacle of freedom. And overall, if urban areas are sprawled enough, it does work.
    You say “when everyone has a car, will that not slow the speed” – But I see right now that in many places 80% or so of travels are done by car already. Basically everyone has a car anyway. would there be so much more congestion if it was actually a 100%?
    I am saying that from my point of view, public transit is a lot about efficiency. Efficiency in terms of energy, space utilisation and overall cost. That means that ridership is an incredibly important metric, the more people ride the less resources are used; and it also means that streetcars may be valuable because of their lower relative operating cost – and because they may entice people to use public transit. Faster speed is a way to entice people to use public transit, but it does not have to be the goal, it’s just one of the ways to get there.

  18. Zoltán February 8, 2012 at 8:07 am #

    While I believe people that people ought not to live lives that create the dystopian urban areas that you describe – simply because their actions impose costs upon people other than themselves, particularly those that can’t afford their lifestyle, I don’t think that transit is the best or the most morally obliged means of dealing with that.
    In fact, if you use transit to encourage the middle classes to live downtown, you can create problems for others in two ways:
    – Requiring people to live in the suburbs to find affordable rents;
    – Diverting operating subsidies, and the development of fast transit, away from those very suburbs.
    Far more nuanced policies are necessary to keep urban areas desirable and equitable, and that’s best left to people who know about urban policy, rather than just buses and trains.
    That said, the transit people talking to the urban policy people is very beneficial to a stated purpose of freedom through mobility. If, for example, as Helsinki you insist on development being near rail stations, people can live in an apartment near a rail station and have the freedom to get to those many potential destinations also near a rail station with great ease. In turn, the transit agency knows that mobility will be best improved by providing high frequency on those rail lines, and ensuring that other routes effectively connect with them.

  19. Zoltán February 8, 2012 at 8:14 am #

    As regards freedom through roads, If the question is the degree of freedom achieved for a certain unit of cost, then the high cost of building large roads, particularly in dense urban areas, means that large roads are unlikely to be the most cost-effective solution at any point.
    Furthermore, the more dependant an area is upon car travel, the less freedom is available to those without cars – maybe a bus once an hour to a single shopping centre, for example.

  20. Eric Doherty February 8, 2012 at 10:21 am #

    Well done!
    This is moving towards real world measurement of what Paul Mees refers to as the ‘Network Effect’. And a measure of freedom is likely to have more impact than a measure of ‘network effect enhancement’. Word choice does matter.
    Would be interesting to set this up with GIS analysis. For example, how would the competing subway vs surface rapid transit proposals in Toronto stack up?

  21. Jarrett at February 8, 2012 at 10:38 am #

    Eric. Quite sure that Transit City is more freedom than Mayor's
    subways, due to greater reach in dense areas, and more complete and
    connected network.

  22. Jeff Dubrule February 8, 2012 at 5:02 pm #

    A note on the value of streetcars… For me, a streetcar line implies a sense of permanence, commitment, and investment in this corridor by the transit agency.
    If you live somewhere with an easy bus stop, and the transit agency decides those hours would better used elsewhere, or budget cuts demand a sacrifice, all the transit agency has to do is redraw some maps and swap a couple of signs, and you have no more bus route.
    A streetcar has a physical presence in the rails, catenary, and barns, that cost good money to build. With modest maintenance, these will last for decades. Service hours are less likely to be cut, as the initial investment in the line demands that value be demonstrated.
    If I’m buying or building a home or opening a business, especially if that location would have insufficient access without either good transit or more parking, a streetcar means I will always have either a bunch of places I can easily get to, or a steady stream of customers.

  23. Jarrett February 8, 2012 at 6:29 pm #

    Your comment is a familiar talking point.
    But you need to think about how you’re associating streetcars with permanence. If you mean rails in the street actually guarantee or increase the likelihood of permanence, that view is roundly contradicted by the experience of the mid-20c, when lots of rails in the street were abandoned.
    Real permanence lies in the permanence of the market. If you’re in a line between a bunch of major transit destinations, with high densities, your service is probably permanent. At the very least, I’d wager a lot more on that permanence than on the permanence of every streetcar.

  24. Karl O February 8, 2012 at 8:45 pm #

    @Jeff King County Metro published a history of transit in the Ballard neighborhood of Seattle (formerly an independent city until 1907 when it was annexed by the City). The transit routes were mapped for the different periods. Quite honestly the period of streetcar operations represents the most volatility in route structure and frequency. It wasn’t until the electric trolleybuses replaced the streetcars that there was an equilibrium that lasted about 20 years. In the 60s when trolley wire was removed some changes took place but generally the network has been more stable since it was converted to rubber tire (c 1940) than the preceding 50 years.
    That permanence of course had nothing to do with the mode; it had nearly everything to do with the stability of the operators (and operating resources) and the urban form (supportive of the operating costs).
    Ditto to Jarrett’s comment above.

  25. Bossi February 9, 2012 at 9:28 am #

    I just finished reading The Republic a month or so ago… this is amazing!

  26. Anon256 February 9, 2012 at 10:00 am #

    It’s almost an unavoidable consequence of physics and biology that vehicles with fixed guideways (e.g. streetcars, even in mixed traffic) are (other factors constant) more comfortable than vehicles without (e.g. busses). At the current state of transit in the US, investing in improved comfort alone is probably not the best use of resources, but I don’t think this should count for nothing (as it seems to under the proposed ‘freedom’ model). Certainly there is some amount of travel time that people will sacrifice for some amount of comfort.

  27. Jarrett at February 9, 2012 at 12:24 pm #

    Bossi. The Republic isn't really Socrates! It's Plato putting his
    ideas into his mentor's mouth. For Socrates pure, see Crito or

  28. anonymouse February 9, 2012 at 3:07 pm #

    For me, a streetcar does give more freedom. When I’m traveling by streetcar, I can read a book. When I try to do that on a bus, I get motion sickness. So the streetcar gives me the freedom to use my travel time for something other than staring out the window, and all else being equal (which it never is), I’d still prefer the streetcar.

  29. Chris B February 9, 2012 at 4:52 pm #

    I can’t wait for Aquinas Visits the EPA!

  30. Bossi February 9, 2012 at 7:51 pm #

    Ahh yes, I’m quite aware it’s Plato :) But thanks the book tips: I’d never even thought to go straight to the root source! Both shall be added to my reading list.
    (also, thanks for coming to DC- great meeting you tonight!)

  31. EJ February 9, 2012 at 11:17 pm #

    You should visit San Diego. Now, downtown San Diego has come up quite a bit as a whole, but the downtown streets where the streetcar runs (chiefly C St and Park Blvd) are still pretty grotty – I mean, I guess there is some development, but headshops and dollar stores aren’t usually what’s meant by urban renewal. This is what happens when the streetcar has been around for 30 years and lost its novelty.

  32. kantor February 10, 2012 at 11:53 am #

    I’m european (Italian to be precise) and maybe I can offer some insight from a different perspective. I’ll start with two observations
    – it is true that in europe we differentiate less between busses and streetcars (or trams, how we call them)and it is also true that in many cases busses and trams share the same dedicated right of the way; but believe me, every single town in western europe is trying to go back to the streetcars and even cities that never had streetcar systems (like mine) are seriously considering this option
    – as far as the environment issue is concerned I would not put too much of my money on trolley busses; this solution was fairly popular in Italy in the fifties, since it was apparently cheaper using the electric infrastructure and dispensing with the tracks, that were perceived costly to maintain. This worked beautifully until it was time to replace the rolling stock; and this had to be done much earlier than everybody thought. In fact while streetcars, with proper maintenance, can run close to a hundred years (and some really do in Europe), everything that has a car-like structure and travels over bumpy roads is essentially a wreck in 20 to 25 years.
    Not only that, but trolley busses are more expensive than diesel busses, since of course there is less demand. So the cycle was
    streetcars to trolley busses to diesel busses; and now we are trying to go back to streetcars again…
    My last observation is more personal, i.e. not based on objective reality; in my humble opinion whoever thinks that we will be able to run a public transit system based on petroleum products 20 to 30 years from now is seriously deluding himself.

  33. Bradley Wentworth February 10, 2012 at 8:13 pm #

    Splendid post Jarrett! We need Socrates here in Toronto…
    But I have a tricky question for you regarding the comparison between buses and streetcars in mixed traffic. Streetcars cannot manoeuvre around obstacles and likewise block two lanes of traffic at stops. Spatially and geometrically this is often a problem for running good transit (and can play havoc with other vehicles), as you cogently point out. However, near where I live many streetcars run on narrow city streets where the majority of road users are pedestrians and include many cyclists.
    Streetcars slow down other vehicles – but in places where vulnerable road users predominate, is this a bad thing? Furthermore, in areas where trip modal share of cycling is say 20%+, streetcars and bikes can generally coexist pretty well. By comparison, the transit-bike leapfrogging game (ie, constant overtaking in traffic) with buses is a disaster where it happens, and simply put a Copenhagenized solution simply isn’t gonna happen here (in Copenhagen, as I understand it, bus passengers YIELD to cyclists and buses never enter cycle tracks!)

  34. Joseph E February 10, 2012 at 9:48 pm #

    “streetcars and bikes can generally coexist pretty well.”
    Bradley, bike advocates here in Portland would tend to disagree:
    I still thought streetcars in mixed traffic could be nice, until I moved to Portland and tried them out. As a method of transportation, the Portland streetcar is nearly useless. Before Portland builds any may streetcars, we need to get them out of traffic.

  35. TP February 11, 2012 at 8:24 am #

    If I make a transit improvement that does not improve accessibility (travel time is not decreased) but doubles ridership on an existing bus line, does that not make sense to fund? In addition, if that investment helps attract more development to the central area rather than to hard-to-serve suburban areas, does that not also make sense to fund? Isn’t this exactly what streetcars do? Did not the old criteria bias funding toward auto-dominant cities and encourage excessive park and ride construction on new rail lines at the expense of passenger facilities and bus improvements? Were not old cities at a competitive disadvantage because they are already transient-oriented and could have realized ridership (not accessibility) gains from new streetcar lines?

  36. Jarrett at February 11, 2012 at 8:26 am #

    TP.  Again, it depends on whether you're comfortable building long-term infrastructure based on what the market responds to today.  Maybe you should.  On the other hand, supporting the improvement of bus networks will do much more to get people where they're going, and if such networks were actually visible and easy to understand, who knows?

  37. kantor February 11, 2012 at 8:37 am #

    When you talk about permanence of streetcar systems or lack thereof, you assume implicitly that the systems were removed in the USA (and in many parts of Europe) for logical reasons (i.e. better transit).
    History does not seem to grant that; if you only look at the bright side it was a very very wrong management decision, if you want to peek into the dark side it was borderline criminal.
    Again, I might have a radical view (most europeans are radicals if you measure them by USA standards) but frankly I do not see in the future (and by future I mean 30 years, not 300) any transit system that is not bases on electric power. And even that won’t be easy to sustain.

  38. Jarrett at February 11, 2012 at 10:01 am #

    kantor.  No, I am making no assumption about the reasons that streetcars were removed, which were in fact partly rational, partly emotional, and partly nefarious.  I'm making a much simpler point:  History shows that rails in the street are not a good guarantor of permanence.

  39. kantor February 11, 2012 at 6:38 pm #

    I understand your point; but of course nothing is really a good guarantor of permanence of anything, since we do not know the future.
    But I realize that in a way this streetcar/bus duality is a false predicament; we will not be able to sustain a public transit system based on fossil fuels (or natural gas) 20 years from now. And while it is natural to run a streetcar system with electricity, I do not think that we will see many electric buses running around. And it is not far the time in which it will be much cheaper laying tracks than putting new asphalt on a road every couple of years.
    So I believe that this duality will be resolved by history that, of course, has mandates of its own and does not care much about our disagreements.

  40. Kenny February 11, 2012 at 7:11 pm #

    Nice dialog! I’m still not sure quite where it leaves us in the end though. You propose a measure that’s something like “number of choices in each time category (jobs, home, recreation, food, etc.) within a 17 (or whatever) minute travel time”. It’s not clear to me that person-minutes saved is that much better than total ridership in estimating this other measure.
    And of course, this measure leaves out frequency (except in terms of connection costs), which I know is something we all care about a lot.

  41. Jarrett at February 12, 2012 at 10:05 am #

    Kenny.  No, I'm talking about the total number of jobs/pop/activities etc with a fixed travel time, where travel time includes waiting, both at the origin and for connections.  So frequency is very definitely included!

  42. Bradley Wentworth February 12, 2012 at 5:24 pm #

    I took a look at those links and it seems the emphasis is on the tracks, which I agree are a hazard. There is little mention of the vehicles themselves and whether cyclists would prefer frequent curbside bus service.
    The curbside-lane design of the Portland Streetcar in that respect baffles me. Where are emegerncy vehicles supposed to stop? What about turning radius for future intersections? Utility access (most utilities are under the curb lane)? In Toronto there are no curbside streetcar lanes; in other words there is always a lane or half-lane (ie, a parking lane) between you and the streetcar. Sufficient, if not plenty, of room to pass and be passed in the bike-streetcar dance. This is simply not the case with buses. As someone who rides my bike for a living I’ve had ample opportunity for comparing the two modes on the same street (for example, when shuttle buses replace streetcars on a stretch of the route) and I much prefer riding with streetcars. I’ve fallen a few times from the tracks and know plenty of people who have too, but the nature of that accident type of accident has always been less serious than a collision with a vehicle.

  43. elo February 17, 2012 at 10:51 am #

    I have been thinking a lot over the past few weeks about the implications of the FTA notice of proposed rulemaking and enjoyed the thought process presented in this post. I’d like to clarify/correct a few tidbits that I found to be not quiiite correct as well as post a few comments.

    • The characterization of the current metric being travel time is a bit too much of a simplification. Rather, the FTA uses what they term user benefits which is the travel time difference summed across all users…so the metric inherently uses ridership already.
    • As it turns out, it is also difficult to forecast travel time benefits, especially for interdependent modes. While it may be easy to predict (note it is still not a “fact”) how much travel time a rail line takes in 20 to 40 years, it is extremely difficult to say how much time it would save compared to a bus line in the future that operates in traffic congestion. In order to do this you much first forecast the other traffic that the bus is operating alongside, how that traffic is effecting congestion, and make a bunch of assumptions about things like transit signal priority and other ITS improvements (as FTA right now wants you to evaluate a project compared to a TSM-only alternative). Eliminating the travel time component of the evaluation certainly removes a good portion of the uncertainty in my opinion.
    • I’d also like to defend the ridership prediction process (at least in concept). Like many things, there are both good and bad examples of ridership prediction models. As it turns out, one of the biggest reasons why ridership prediction models can fail to match expected results is that the land use (the absolute biggest predictor) didn’t change as expected; the region didn’t magically become more dense without actually policy sticks being used, etc.
    • Perhaps one of the most useful exercises that can be done with the above limitation in mind, is testing various possible outcomes (“If x, then probably y, if x-20, then probably z…”) to analyze the risk/variance.
    • Just FYI, the accessibility measure that you seem to be recommending (which I agree with and think of as one of my go-to metrics) is actually itself embedded in many ridership prediction models. A common mathematical formulation of this is called a “destination choice model log-sum” — a mouthful for any public-facing document, but an incredible useful metric


  44. voony February 22, 2012 at 12:24 am #

    Good didactic presentation.
    nice use of the “freedom” word (so American 😉
    on the french transit project I know, those isochrone are shared to the public: I think it is a good idea. A post capitalizing on this “freedom map” concept:

    freedom map with Broadway rapid transit (Vancouver)

  45. Nathanael Nerode March 1, 2012 at 1:33 pm #

    “S. But in addition, because this is a long term investment, you must show that the emotional reaction that is causing this extra ridership is durable over the long term, don’t you? That people will continue to have that preference for streetcars even when streetcars are no longer a novelty, and even as other technologies improve their ability to do the same things?
    F. Well, of course, nobody can know that.”
    WRONG! We have 150 years of evidence that people prefer streetcars to buses. Not kidding, 150 years. They preferred them to buses when they were introduced in the 19th century, they preferred them to buses when “bustitution” went in in the 30s-50s, they prefer them to buses now! All *three* sets of studies are available.
    LOSE. Please correct your Socratic dialogue. The FTA person points out:
    “F. We have 150 years of evidence. People will always prefer streetcars to buses.
    S. All right then. You are doing the right thing, I guess.”
    End of dialogue.
    Are you really bus-biased simply because you are IGNORANT? The “mode preference” numbers don’t just come from the present period, there are 150 years of them! I suggest you go back and study them.

  46. Nathanael Nerode March 1, 2012 at 1:35 pm #

    Els, who is smarter than you, wrote: “As it turns out, it is also difficult to forecast travel time benefits, especially for interdependent modes. While it may be easy to predict (note it is still not a “fact”) how much travel time a rail line takes in 20 to 40 years, it is extremely difficult to say how much time it would save compared to a bus line in the future that operates in traffic congestion. ”
    Which means, if you want *certainty* in your prediction, you should refuse to fund anything which is in mixed traffic. Did you get that conclusion? Well then.

  47. Nathanael Nerode March 1, 2012 at 1:38 pm #

    Kantor wrote:
    “And it is not far the time in which it will be much cheaper laying tracks than putting new asphalt on a road every couple of years.”
    Apparently asphalt prices are already rising, and it is indirectly due to peak oil. (In a fairly complicated way; apparently asphalt was produced using sour heavy crude, and now that is in demand for gasoline and diesel, reducing asphalt supply.)
    This surprised me, as I had thought that asphalt would be one of the last oil-based products to experience price rises (I was thinking of “byproduct asphalt”, and didn’t realize that large amounts of asphalt actually compete with gasoline for access to crude.)

  48. Susan Pantell March 8, 2012 at 9:52 am #

    “Something like ‘how many new choices – jobs, shopping, schools, houses of worship or philosophy, sports facilities, and so on, are brought within a given travel time of how many people, just because of this proposed project?’”
    If you think ridership is difficult to predict, how to you propose to predict this? The number of riders is a good proxy for this, which is what FTA claims, not that it is the best measure philosophically. There still is the valid concern that ridership is difficult to predict, especially in a rapidly changing environment.

  49. Jarrett at March 8, 2012 at 10:20 am #

    Susan.  An "aggregate access" measure such as I propose may be hard to calculate, but it's not a prediction!  Analysis may be hard, but it's easier than fortune-telling!

  50. Tomtakt March 9, 2012 at 10:07 am #

    On your last point, you are definitely correct. Just think of how many predictions have been complete busts because of the economic crisis and resulting glut in development. We have half-finished or ghost highways and I imagine at least some transit services that are completely underused, and who knows if the same types of development as originally predicted will ever materialize.
    I find it especially disconcerting to base a decision largely on predicted/expected land use changes when there are no land use controls in place to ensure that growth will actually be confined to development in the manner predicted or expected. Current automobile dependence, land use policies, and development practices seem to make it incredibly easy for development to completely sidestep any given area and move somewhere else in a region if the development economics shift slightly.

  51. Tomtakt March 9, 2012 at 11:13 am #

    Not being as accomplished a writer as you, I am not very familiar with the Socratic dialogue, but I have to say I found this FTA rendition quite impressive! It seems this must have taken a while to write (though I’m sure you enjoyed the exercise ^_^), as it seems to do a really good job of explaining quite a few complex problems related to transportation decision-making in a relatively straightforward and comprehensible way, so kudos.
    I think it is also so germane to the problems that I’ve witnessed in the transportation planning field in the U.S. Very few professionals seem capable of really identifying what the purpose and goal of a project is. This lack of clear thinking on the big picture of what a project is supposed to achieve makes it very difficult to have a clear and productive conversation about a project. As I learned as an engineering student, creative problem solving requires a solution-independent problem statement, which is either rare or drafted only after a solution has been chosen to some degree.
    The solution may have been chosen to the degree that a transit project is only looking at new capital infrastructure, rather than also looking at the rerouting of existing bus routes to complement that capital infrastructure. Or it may have been chosen to the degree that mobility improvements in a corridor/subregion are being considered but the only outcome of the planning process will be improvements to a predetermined highway segment because the planning initiative is project-based, managed by only a single jurisdictional agency, and therefore probably redundant and lacking in nuance and creativity.
    Even if a big picture goal is established, it’s mostly meaningless if the only solutions to a complex urban mobility issue are centered on modifications to a single facility. It would seem that at least basic guidance (a policy or set of principles) for each facility-level project would need to come from a broader, comprehensive planning process that was actually considering the whole system over time.
    It’s my impression that a lack of comprehensive planning efforts is often due to a “lack of resources” or the the desire to move things forward quickly. Rather ironically, I think it is also what contributes to greater controversy surrounding a proposed project. It’s not usually controversy about the need for some project, but rather controversy about the crappy solution that lacked the input of crucial stakeholders or creative thinking. And the real kicker is that dealing with controversy or trying to drive a controversial project forward may be the slowest and most resource-intensive activity for a transportation agency.
    To illustrate from my personal experience, I’ve followed developments on several major transportation projects near me. As I often end up doing, I may dream up several creative solutions to the stated “purpose and need” based mostly on what I saw living in Germany or have seen traveling around the U.S. and Europe. But upon further examination, I see no evidence that any such solutions were considered anywhere in the documented planning process or alternatives analysis for these projects.
    Even at public meetings for such projects, after taking the time to carefully explain ideas that to me seemed obvious solutions to consider, I may get an “oh, we hadn’t really thought about that, that’s an interesting idea.” However, it seems either the comment is forgotten or the project team has already spent too much time and effort in their initial (closed-door) analysis and planning work for the existing proposal and there’s no hope of turning back the federal-approval-seeking juggernaut without risking that no improvement will ever be made.
    I can only assume that rather than thinking of creative solutions, they have spent all their time worrying about which popular, but inappropriate “off-the-shelf” (and domestic) solution would cause the least (political, organizational, or other) headache/opposition, and could actually qualify for funding. Or else there is too much local political influence on technical decisions, or even simply too few qualified and creative people in charge of planning at transportation agencies. Really not sure why exactly…
    Getting back to the topic of this post, I find it interesting that the majority of the critical comments here seem to deal with what I would call the importance of local priorities.
    It is impossible to say that a single metric should be used in every case and will ensure a good project. As lovely as it would be, you can’t set up a perfect formula that makes your decision for you, there always has to be human judgement.
    As we also see so clearly in your post, transit affects so many different aspects of our urban and economic environment. Therefore, it makes sense that in a given region, there would be extra priorities related to transit that are given strong consideration or weight. If there is a need for economic development or a need for more visibility and popular sentiment for the transit system, then it may make sense to invest in a streetcar in mixed traffic. This could be a great decision for a given city. But as you so clearly point out, it’s important to make the distinction that it’s not accomplishing any mobility or access goals. Most of the extra riders attracted already enjoy access and mobility via car, bus, bike, or otherwise.
    This is why it’s so so so so important for a local agency, community, municipality, county, region, and/or state to lay out very clear, well-defined goals that are solution-independent and consensus-based for what they are trying to achieve with their transportation investments. It makes it then a lot easier to create guidelines and actionable recommendations, as well as to settle upon a set of criteria that will help in deciding on the best plans and projects.
    That, however, is what brings me to my major criticism of your post: there is a great irony in how Socrates is trying to help the feds come up with a better formula for selecting “the best projects.” These types of decisions shouldn’t be made at the federal level, period. The very existence of such criteria highly undermines the ability of a local area to develop such clear, well-defined goals that they can stick to because it jeopardizes their ability to fund the implementation of those goals unless they significantly alter their project proposals to conform to the federal formulas–which you’ve just demonstrated teeter precariously between the highly arbitrary and the absurdly complex and can never be fair to projects across different areas with highly differing circumstances and needs.
    I believe that if we had local agencies setting clear goals, making clear plans, and then identifying projects that would implement those plans, then the only criteria that the federal government would need is a demonstration of conformance with local goals and plans. The feds could spend less time in a smoke-filled room tearing their hearts out trying to decide if they’re funding the best projects, and instead they could start lending expertise to local partners, helping them set clear goals and helping them bring best practices–like a percentage-based travel-time/access/mobility metric–into how they evaluate their own plans and projects for meeting locally-defined goals.
    Unfortunately, I have not yet seen a major transportation entity in the U.S. that really has a clear mission/purpose that they are following, despite what they might like to believe or say. There’s so much smoke being blown everywhere because the people making the decisions don’t even know why they’re making the decisions they’re making.
    And, I think it’s really sad, wasteful, and highly undemocratic to make decisions about hundreds of millions or billions of dollars in transportation investment when nobody seems to have a clear idea of why we are doing it, beyond just a lot of scattered ideas about how it might benefit us.

  52. Susan Pantell March 12, 2012 at 8:17 am #

    “An “aggregate access” measure such as I propose may be hard to calculate, but it’s not a prediction! Analysis may be hard, but it’s easier than fortune-telling!”
    Then you are proposing to only evaluate access in the present, when you say in the above post that what is most important is the mobility/access provided in the long term. That would require predicting where the jobs, schools, shops, etc. will be in 20 years.

  53. Susan Pantell March 12, 2012 at 11:01 am #

    Taken directly from the NPRM:
    “FTA believes improvements to both access and mobility are key features of a good transit investment. FTA agrees a measure that defines accessibility instead of mobility might be a better representation of the kind of benefits transit projects are intended to produce. As noted, however, it has proven very difficult to measure. Although it is relatively easy to specify a measure such as number of jobs within a specified travel time of a single location, creating a broader corridor or regional measure including calculations to and from multiple locations is more difficult and complex. FTA believes a measure focusing on project ridership will indirectly address access improvements since more people will ride a project that has enhanced access to jobs or other important activity centers. Focusing on the way a transit project can enhance an individual’s ability to get places, rather than just travel faster, is a desirable outcome of the evaluation process. FTA intends to continue to explore how best to do so.”

  54. Jarrett at March 12, 2012 at 11:35 am #

    An aggregate access analysis would need to be done in both the present and the future, with the latter based on the current projections for future-year growth, based on the region's long range plans.  However, the latter is always fortune-telling to a degree, because while long range plans may be fixed the development market is unpredictable even in the near term, let alone 20 years out.   Meanwhile, the present is still important, becuase it's (a) the daily reality of the citizens who must support a project now, (b) the political reality of the political leaders who'll decide, and (c) the only thing that can be described factually, rather than as a prediction.
    So I do not apologize for being interested in the present, however dazzling or frightful the future may be.  A project should definitely be consistent with a long-term network plan that's been discussed and widely supported by the community (and especially by development leaders who'll make it happen.)  That's the best way to lock in "consistency with future goals."  But people in the present will decide!
    Great comment!

  55. Progressive Capitalist March 23, 2012 at 6:53 am #

    The freedom to access destinations depends heavily upon the pedestrian scale and orientation of one’s built environment. All transit customers are ultimately pedestrians, afterall. And that’s the development connection of transit’s purpose.
    Shall we travel faster through and past bland choices? Or can we hop on and off freely in the midst of vibrant, compact choices? Quality is harder to measure than quantity, but there’s no sense in saving time traveling between parking lots.

  56. Jarrett at March 23, 2012 at 5:01 pm #

    Progressive Capitalist.  You present a false choice, unless you are stipulating that only low-investment transit is worthwhile.  Subways, for example, deliver you at high speed into intimate pedestrian environments.  I have never heard a coherent argument for why pedestrian environments bemefit from transit that's so slow and unreliable that you might as well walk the whole way.  This seems to be a feeling rather than a reality.  

  57. Holly August 22, 2012 at 1:05 pm #

    I love this post, but I am not sure if I agree with the author’s conclusion. If everyone selected their travel mode based on travel time savings alone, then it follows that most people would choose transit, if faster, over private vehicles, which we know is not always the case in the US. Travel demand models include a variety of factors — fixed costs (e.g., cost of a vehicle) and variable costs (e.g., fare, fuel, parking), travel purpose (which can affect the value of time), special needs (e.g., number of family members traveling together, stroller needs, baggage, etc.)… Using stated and revealed preference data, modelers have shown again and again that travel time savings alone is not necessarily a good predictor of mode choice…

  58. BrianTH January 8, 2013 at 11:05 am #

    As an attack on prioritizing streetcar investment because they currently do a relatively good job capturing the public’s imagination, this isn’t a bad piece of rhetoric.
    As an attempt to discover the best way of evaluating and prioritizing possible transit projects, I agree with others above: it is pretty unconvincing.
    One main practical problem was briefly discussed above: it is not at all easy to predict where, in 20 or 40 years, destinations that people will want to access will be located. It is similarly not easy to predict where said people will want to be originating from. And to make this all even harder to predict, it is very likely the future locations of such possible origination and destination pairs will depend in part on what sort of transportation infrastructure we choose to fund in the present. So there is really no way to avoid taking into account other policy concerns, because only by referencing such policy concerns will you be able to resolve which overall future pattern of originations, destinations, and network connections you really want to achieve.
    In other words, you can’t really do transit policy in isolation from land-use policy (at a bare minimum–you probably also need to do it in conjunction with environmental, energy, and health policy as well, and maybe more areas).
    Speaking of which, as a person with perhaps too much familiarity with philosophical rhetoric, I immediately recognized the purpose/benefits distinction as the sort of device philosophical types introduce when they would rather not have to deal with the world as complicated as it truly is. In this particular case, it becomes a blanket rationalization for refusing to consider externalities (meaning benefits not immediately accruing to riders), refusing to consider intersections with other policy areas, and so on.
    But that is really no way to try to make transportation policy, precisely because in the real world, all those mere “benefits” will add up to very significant factors to consider over the projected lifespan of major transportation infrastructure projects, assuming you are at all rational about these matters. And so it is a false intellectual economy to restrict yourself to thinking about “purpose” (which I would recharacterize as thinking only about immediate benefits to riders), and defer thinking about “benefits” (which I would recharacterize as reintroducing the other categories of cognizable benefits you artificially bracketed away) to some ill-defined later stage. Because the public will rightly demand you think about more than just immediate rider benefits before deciding which projects to fund, and so dividing up the task of evaluating transit projects in this way is only going to make that task more difficult to carry to an acceptable conclusion.

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