The Dangers of Elite Projection

Elite projection is the belief, among relatively fortunate and influential people, that what those people find convenient or attractive is good for the society as a whole.  Once you learn to recognize this simple mistake, you see it everywhere.  It is perhaps the single most comprehensive barrier to prosperous, just, and liberating cities.

This is not a call to bash elites.  I am making no claim about the proper distribution of wealth and opportunity, or about anyone’s entitlement to influence. But I am pointing out a mistake that elites are constantly at risk of making.  The mistake is to forget that elites are always a minority, and that planning a city or transport network around the preferences of a minority routinely yields an outcome that doesn’t work for the majority.  Even the elite minority won’t like the result in the end.

Long ago, when I was presenting a proposed transit plan to the Board of Directors of a suburban transit agency in California, one board member — representing the wealthiest city in the area — leaned forward, cleared his throat, and said:

Now, Mister Walker.  If we adopt this plan of yours, will that make me leave my BMW in the driveway?

The answer, of course, is no.  But to suggest that this question is a valid test of a transit plan is an extreme example of elite projection.  As a multi-millionaire, this man belongs to a tiny minority, so it makes no sense to design a transit system around his personal tastes.  Successful transit is mass transit, and there is no mass to be achieved by pursuing him as a customer.  Perhaps he could be attracted by a service to his door featuring on-board wine bar and massage service, but few other people would consider that good value for their more limited dollars.  Let the for-profit sector give him that luxury, and ensure he pays for its impacts.

Now and then, of course, investment that benefits elites justifies itself as serving the common good.  Expediting the lives of business executives, for example, will supposedly attract investment to your community.  A specialized transit project will supposedly stimulate upscale housing development that will add to the tax base, even if you could never afford to live there. I am not seeking to open debate on those claims.  To the extent that these arguments were right, elite projection would not be the right term.  Most elite projection, however, makes no such claims.  It’s simply an unconscious habit of assuming that your tastes are a good guide to what everyone will value.

In challenging elite projection, I am being utterly unreasonable. I am calling upon elites to meet a superhuman standard.  Almost everyone refers to their own experience when discussing policy.  Who doesn’t want their experience to be acknowledged? But in a society where elites have disproportionate power, the superhuman task of resisting elite projection must be their work.  And since I’m one of these elites — not at all in wealth but certainly in education and other kinds of good fortune — it’s sometimes my work as well.  Like all attempts to be better people, it’s utterly exhausting and we’ll never get it right. That means the critique of elite projection can’t just take the form of rage. It also has to be empathic and forgiving.

Still, elite projection is perhaps the primary barrier to the efficient, just, and liberating city.  The city has this special feature: It functions for anyone only if it functions for almost everyone.  You can say this about society in general, but only in the city is this fact so brutally obvious as to be unavoidable.

Traffic congestion, to take the obvious example, is the result of everyone’s choices in response to everyone’s situation.  Even the elites are mostly stuck in it. No satisfying solution has been found to protect elites from this problem, and it’s not for want of trying.  The only real solution to congestion is to solve it for everyone, and to do that you have to look at it from everyone’s perspective, not just from the fortunate perspective.

The ongoing disparagement of bus service in urban America has elite projection at its foundation.  Large fixed-route buses are the only form of transit that can quickly scale to an entire city while using scarce urban space with extreme efficiency.   Yet many urban elites assume (subtly or overtly) that bus service doesn’t matter because it’s not useful to them personally.

During my 25-year career I’ve watched fortunate urban leaders — mostly very well-intentioned — search endlessly for a transit idea that will allow them to neglect buses.  One could point to some American streetcars-stuck-in-traffic, “redevelopment tools” which sometimes had no discernible transportation value   There are the adorable ferries with tiny markets, and the overspecialized airport trains.  Now, the same mistake powers the endless vague promises of tech disruption in transit, especially the mathematically absurd notion that transit that comes to your door when you call it will scale to the entire population of a dense city.  (Serious experts have largely abandoned this claim, but it is out there in the discourse, undermining support for transit that actually works.)

None of these ideas made any geometric sense as a way to liberate everyone in a dense city, but they appealed to elite tastes, dazzled public attention, and therefore helped to defer investment in the transit that vast numbers of urban people would find useful and liberating. This neglect causes transit to deteriorate, yielding outcomes that further justify the neglect.

Again, we can’t challenge elite projection in others until we forgive it in ourselves.  Almost everyone reading this is part of some kind of elite.  But the more powerful you are, the more urgent this work is.  We must all ask ourselves: “Would this idea work for me if I were in a typical citizen’s situation, instead of my fortunate situation?”  Because if not, it won’t work for the city, and in the end that means it won’t even work for you.

 

58 Responses to The Dangers of Elite Projection

  1. Alan July 31, 2017 at 9:08 am #

    Jarrett notes: “We must all ask ourselves: “Would this idea work for me if I were in a typical citizen’s situation, instead of my fortunate situation?” ”

    Good advice – but at it’s broadest, doesn’t it argue *against* significantly increasing investments in mass transit systems in most areas? After all, the *typical* citizen in the U.S. is using private passenger cars for their transportation, and aren’t using transit. It’s not even close. Once you get outside the very densest metros, transit mode share is very very low.

    In the U.S. at least, the atypical “fortunate situation” is living in the handful of metros (and the portions of those metros) that are dense enough that geometric capacity limits are relevant to transportation planning. If you live in one of those few area, you might engage in some elite projection that your surroundings are what the typical citizen experiences. But most U.S. residents don’t live in such high-density areas. They live in areas where geometric constraints are small enough that private passenger cars are, and will be, the more efficient mode of transport.

    • Jarrett Walker July 31, 2017 at 2:09 pm #

      Alan. I don’t necessarily mean that we ask people what they want and give it to them. Many people want things that don’t scale if everyone uses them, like cars in cities. But we must analyze for an outcome that’s liberating to everyone, not just to the elites.

      • Alan August 1, 2017 at 6:28 am #

        But that’s the point I was making. In the U.S., most people *don’t* live in cities where car usage doesn’t scale. Most people in the U.S. live in single family detached housing in lower-density metros where transit mode share is in the low single-digits and everyone is already using cars. The *minority* situation – the “elite” perspective – is living in a high-density area of a high-density metro where cars don’t scale up.

        It’s not a question of what people want, but what transport is most efficient to meet their needs. Outside of a handful of high-density metros, that is going to be passenger car transportation – not transit. The “elite projection” is to try to design transportation systems that meet the living situation of a small minority of U.S. citizens (ie. transit in dense urban areas), rather than systems that are “liberating to everyone” (ie. passenger car transportation in *not-dense* cities).

        • Shane Phillips August 1, 2017 at 8:48 am #

          Alan, that depends on what you mean by “efficient.” From a time efficiency perspective, you’re absolutely right. By other measures, not so much.

          But your argument seems contrived since Jarrett Walker’s work seems to be mainly in larger cities, helping them to improve/redesign their transit networks. Of course he’s going to focus on those areas, and most of his readers are likely coming from those same types of places (otherwise, why would they be reading this blog?). This whole line of debate seems like a distraction bordering on trolling. I don’t understand what point you’re trying to make by pretending that this blog post is written for the benefit of elites in low density suburbs.

          • Alan August 1, 2017 at 9:34 am #

            Shane, the point I’m trying to make is that I think there’s a very similar type of myopia in the “geometric” objection to technological disruption to transit. There’s a significant difference between *larger* cities (like Houston, where Jarrett recently assisted in redesigning the bus network, but is still fairly low density) and *denser* cities. There are very few cities in the U.S. where car usage cannot scale to cover the entire city. But the post continues to claim that geometric limitations will prevent technological disruption of transit…even though that is only the case in a few “elite” metros. [N.B. – even then, the absence of “carmageddon” resulting from double-digit drops in DC transit ridership might make us revisit whether even a few of these elite cities couldn’t still function with vastly smaller transit systems.]

            The post correctly notes that it is difficult to overcome the tendency to generalize one’s own condition as being the norm, and recognizes that this is something that he himself faces. So I wanted to point out that a similar “elite projection” underlies the objection to technological disruption to transit. Not “elite” in the sense of class or status in society, but elite in the sense of having a degree of population/workplace density that is *not* representative of the typical U.S. city.

            I believe (though I could be wrong) that Jarrett’s positions are intended to embrace more cities than just NY, DC, SF, Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Seattle. If so, I think they suffer from the same exact problem he attributes to the wealthy suburbanite in this post – failure to recognize that *most* people aren’t in that situation, and that a transportation system has to work for all *those* people, not just people coming from that minority perspective.

          • Jarrett August 1, 2017 at 8:06 pm #

            Alan

            A lot of US metros contain core areas where density is too high for on-demand to handle the demand in available street space — or at least not without devoting more traffic lanes to vehicles than those cities want to do. Many suburban cities plan to grow denser, so that while they may get by on cars now that won’t work in the future.

            While NY or SF is an obvious extreme case — and I go to them when I’m trying to make the point seem obvious — you’re right that I think fixed route transit is needed far beyond those.

            But if I were saying that every low density suburb should have fixed route service, I’d be guilty of urban-elite projection. I don’t say that, though. In fact, a lot of my work is about helping agencies see that if ridership is their goal, they need to focus big-vehicle service on the areas that need and reward it — the denser parts of the city.

          • Alan August 3, 2017 at 5:41 am #

            Jarrett, while it is true that there are metros with *some* areas that are fairly dense, most of those metros’ population will be in areas that *aren’t* dense. So again, we’re looking at the same principle you attribute to elite projection. If the individual in your anecdote didn’t have a BMW in his driveway, but instead a Camry or a Civic, we’re not talking about “elite” projection any more – we’re talking about a very reasonable objection that most areas of most metros aren’t dense enough that transit is *necessary*. While the physical characteristics of the CBD and urban core may not lend themselves to lots of passenger cars, the physical characteristics *everywhere else* don’t lend themselves to transit – and most people (not just the elites) are in the latter areas.

            Which is why I find your geometric argument against on-demand transport unpersuasive. In a small handful of metros (like NYC, SF, etc.), there is no physical way to accommodate passenger car on-demand transit. In nearly every other metro, transit is so small a mode share today that it will be relatively simple to replace with on-demand transport *if* that new mode is cost-effective. I share your skepticism about cost-effectiveness unless/until there is low-cost autonomy. But if that comes to pass, it’s going to demolish transit systems almost everywhere in the country, absent that small handful of metros. And again, the absence of carmageddon in DC with a double-digit drop in transit ridership raises the possibility that even those super-dense metros might have more capacity to shift away from transit than we might suspect.

          • Richard Bullington August 3, 2017 at 8:02 am #

            Alan,

            So you’re prophesying that “autonomy” will “demolish transit systems almost everywhere in the country”, and that’s because the poor who can’t afford cars now will be able to afford $100K autonomous vehicles?

            Or because you’re an Uber stockholder and are praying that the $13 billion lasts until RoboCars are unleashed on society?

          • Alan August 3, 2017 at 8:18 am #

            Richard, I’m predicting neither (and I don’t think Uber will be the company that brings autonomy to mass-market automobiles, but rather a software company or existing automaker or both).

            I’m simply saying that *if* we reach the point where autonomous passenger cars become cheap enough to provide cost-competitive on-demand transport service (ie. they are far cheaper than $100K), then the geometric issues that Jarrett raises will not protect transit systems from that competition in most of the country. I think his argument suffers from the same “projection” that he describes above: the idea that since transit is convenient and attractive for the small minority who use it, it is beneficial for society as a whole. Transit is convenient and attractive for certain very high-density metros, but most of our society doesn’t fit that development pattern and is going to be more conveniently and attractively served by on-demand transport *if* if it ends up being cheap enough.

        • Laurence Aurbach August 3, 2017 at 9:00 am #

          One survey about transit by HNTB found that “83 percent of Americans have some type of public transportation option available where they live or work; 71 percent of those have used it at some point; and 51 percent have opted to use public transportation instead of driving in the past 12 months.” The survey included taxis and ride-hailing in the definition of transit.

          Another analysis by the Transit Center looked at transit access in 28 cities. It found that “The U.S. is often thought of as having a select few “transit cities”—roughly, those in the northeast, on the west coast, and Chicago. But AllTransit shows that more urban Americans live near transit than than this stereotype might suggest. In every one of the cities analyzed, a majority of the population lives within walking distance of a bus or rail stop.”

          The Transit Center analysis goes on to say, “Despite these encouraging statistics, most of the transit described above is of poor quality—that is to say, it isn’t frequent enough to be a reliable option transportation option.”

          From the standpoint of density, about one-third of Americans, or about 94 million people, lives in neighborhoods with sufficient density for regular bus service. Of course, not all of those neighborhoods are properly located for bus service, but regardless, the number of places where transit can function is much more than a handful. And as urban infill and walkable development continue, more places are becoming more suitable for transit service.

          So the issues are not so much about density and transit access. They are more about service quality and the travel choices people make based on that.

    • Dave August 1, 2017 at 6:28 am #

      According to the Washington Post, a third of US residents live in the 10 largest metropolitan areas, all of which are “dense enough that geometric capacity limits are relevant to transportation planning.” https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2014/03/27/metropolitan-areas-are-now-fueling-virtually-all-of-americas-population-growth/?utm_term=.c26b2ae88970

      And according to CityLab, half of US residents live in the 48 largest metropolitan areas, some part of which I imagine is “dense enough that geometric capacity limits are relevant to transportation planning” since many of them existed before the car took over as Americans’ preferred way of getting around urban areas. https://www.citylab.com/equity/2012/03/us-urban-population-what-does-urban-really-mean/1589/

      So I don’t know that it’s that “atypical” for US citizens to be living in a place that could support transit, if transit received as much subsidy and government encouragement as cars do (free roads, free parking spaces, low gas taxes, etc.). You can see it in Canada, which has urban areas developed as sprawly as in the US, but Canadian transit networks tend to be much more robust (higher frequency and more coverage area) and thus suburban and urban Canadians ride transit more than their American equivalents at all income levels.

    • Laurence Aurbach August 1, 2017 at 6:58 am #

      One survey about transit found that “83 percent of Americans have some type of public transportation option available where they live or work; 71 percent of those have used it at some point; and 51 percent have opted to use public transportation instead of driving in the past 12 months.” The survey included taxis and ride-hailing in the definition of transit.

      http://www.hntb.com/Newsroom/News-Releases/Americans-recognize-benefits-of-public-transportat

      Another analysis looked at transit access in 28 cities and found that “The U.S. is often thought of as having a select few “transit cities”—roughly, those in the northeast, on the west coast, and Chicago. But AllTransit shows that more urban Americans live near transit than than this stereotype might suggest. In every one of the cities analyzed, a majority of the population lives within walking distance of a bus or rail stop.”

      The analysis goes on to say, “Despite these encouraging statistics, most of the transit described above is of poor quality—that is to say, it isn’t frequent enough to be a reliable option transportation option.”

      http://transitcenter.org/2016/06/09/who-lives-near-frequent-transit/

      From the standpoint of density, about one-third of Americans, or about 94 million people, lives in neighborhoods with sufficient density for regular bus service. Of course, not all of those neighborhoods are properly located for bus service, but regardless, the number of places where transit can function is much more than a handful. And as urban infill and walkable development continue, more places are becoming more suitable for transit service.

      So the issues are not so much about density and transit access. They are more about service quality and the travel choices people make based on that.

  2. Dorian July 31, 2017 at 12:53 pm #

    I totally agree with this post. I’ve heard from many drivers that they like transit and everybody needs to get out of their cars because it “feels” right. I find this very confusing. Many of the people I talk to have been to Europe or Asia and taken the high speed rail there, or taken the ferry around or whatever it may be, it “feels” wrong to me to think this way because it is not productive and does not take function (what!?) into account. The world does not revolve around these people, but many people often act like it does. This is most frustrating to me for things like the Level of Service metric which people use as a measure of car congestion at road intersections which measures average delay per vehicle, which is this same type of thinking. I mean, who would ever think about measuring road congestion, or passenger throughput when those are the exact things you are trying to solve? To me, the big takeaway is that this sort of thinking that Jarrett describes above is just an excuse to ignore the problems that we face as a society by hiding in our shells, and of course if we ignore a problem it will get worse, that’s just life.

  3. Max Power August 1, 2017 at 6:15 am #

    Could not help but think of this:
    http://www.theonion.com/article/report-98-percent-of-us-commuters-favor-public-tra-1434
    “Report: 98 Percent Of U.S. Commuters Favor Public Transportation For Others”

  4. Andrew August 1, 2017 at 2:07 pm #

    Very intresting, this is something you should take into consideration when writing urbanism propaganda. The educated minority (not the wealthy majority) are often urbanists, since they themselves tend to like living in dense cities. On the other hand, in the silent majority most people like living in low-dense areas.

    • Steve August 2, 2017 at 10:25 am #

      “in the silent majority most people like living in low-dense areas.”

      I disagree with this statement. It’s not that most people like living in low density areas, it’s that most people don’t have any choice but to live in in low density areas. Think of your own city, if you were looking for a place to live where would you find the greatest amount of available choices? Most likely in low density areas. And why is that? Because that is what builders build. And why do they build low density? Because of attitudes and assumptions like yours “I’ll build low density because that’s what people demand” when actually people live in low density because that’s all that’s available. In the meantime what high density is available is out of most people’s price range because the demand far exceeds the supply. Classic supply and demand for high density and a self fulfilling prophecy for low density.

  5. William Wickwire August 1, 2017 at 2:34 pm #

    I think this post would argue that people should be riding scooters like they do in Ho Chi Minh City and elsewhere in the world. They are small, you can get a whole family on one, and they come as electrics so they won’t belch fumes, even though there is debate about whether batteries actually pollute the planet less (between mining of precious metals, production methods, and disposal of old batteries).

    I’m being a bit of a devil’s advocate here, but I would say that an “elite” in the context used by this author could be anything or anyone that you aren’t. Don’t you think that, in the end, people do what they find best for their individual situation, that nobody else but them can understand as well as they do?

    I would take the argument AGAINST my last sentence from the standpoint that people may NOT do that if they are ignorant of alternatives, and they are scared to try new things. Examples of the latter could include media reports of muggings on the bikeways, late and untrackable buses, incomprehensible timetables and so forth.

    So.

    I argue in favor of pushing the most efficient alternatives for the situations at hand, and making public transportation reliable and safe. There is no bus or bikeway that is as trustworthy as my car.

    • Jarrett August 1, 2017 at 8:10 pm #

      This post isn’t arguing that most people should do anything. It’s about making sure that an idea works for a large enough share of the population to succeed, and that it’s a logical use of common resources such as scarce street space. Elite projection tends to lead away from that kind of thinking.

  6. M1EK August 2, 2017 at 7:13 am #

    Urban buses without their own lane attract a declining share of people who can possibly afford other options as traffic increases – because traffic has an even worse effect on a bus’s speed and reliability than it does on a private car. This means in an area with increasing traffic, you should urgently be seeking dedicated ROW for transit, and operating costs should not be ignored, meaning you should be pushing for light rail on your busiest corridors.

    I think Jarrett’s blind spot about light rail (train in its own lane) is another case of elite projection – in this case, the elites he works with are transit agencies that desperately want to be told that buses can actually be as good as a train if they want it bad enough.

    • Dorian August 2, 2017 at 11:59 am #

      I’m sure you’re aware of this, but Jarrett has spoken about the differences between modes and how a dedicated lane for a bus is perfectly suitable because it offers the same mobility as dedicated right of way light rail, generally at a reduced price for road alignments, where the pavement already exists.

      • M1EK August 6, 2017 at 10:45 am #

        I am aware, and I am positing that the argument about BRT is fundamentally dishonest, because we all know how BRT ends up in this country, and it’s why #brtcreep is a popular hashtag on twitter.

        • Novacek August 7, 2017 at 6:09 am #

          Popular? <20 tweets in the past year(by 5 people) isn't popular. Quit trying to make it a thing.

    • Novacek August 7, 2017 at 6:25 am #

      “Urban buses without their own lane attract a declining share of people who can possibly afford other options as traffic increases – because traffic has an even worse effect on a bus’s speed and reliability than it does on a private car. This means in an area with increasing traffic, you should urgently be seeking dedicated ROW for transit, ”

      Agree 100%.

      “and operating costs should not be ignored, meaning you should be pushing for light rail on your busiest corridors.”

      And here’s where you lose it, due to your biases.

      In a huge number of cases, operating costs for light rail will be significantly more than for buses*. Heck, that was the case for the Austin rail plan _you were pushing_.

      Light rail _can_ make sense as a mode choice. Either directly or for long term planning. And in the later case, you may be willing to pay higher operating costs to get it. But that’s a tradeoff that should be made with open eyes, not by blindly asserting the (false) claim that rail operating costs are always lower.

      *For a variety of reasons. Some of which are inherent, and some of which are a product of the US’s insane regulatory environment.

      To even approach an operating cost win, you need to have a passenger volume and demand that overwhelms the bus capacity (and bear in mind, that with bendy buses and two level buses, that capacity can be very high) AND not have it be better overall to increase frequency anyway.

      So yes, operating costs for light rail every 10 minutes might be lower than buses every 3. But buses every 3 has a significant frequency advantage, and you might never have enough demand for light rail every 3.

  7. Doug August 2, 2017 at 7:32 am #

    Jarrett, thanks very much for this post. I don’t work in transportation, I’m in Arctic oil and gas, but your caution against “elite projection” is very much a wake-up call for how folks in my business should work with Aboriginal communities, particularly when we try to develop the “benefits” such communities might gain from resource development on or near their traditional lands.
    Are they our idea of benefits? Or those of the people?

    Your post will open a few eyes.

    Doug

  8. Mark Tirpak @tirpakma August 2, 2017 at 9:48 am #

    Houston has come along way with public transit in recent years thanks to Walker’s work but the apparent failure to improve airport connections (Hobby – HOU or George Bush – IAH) keeps me and likely others out of Houston. Meanwhile, strong and affordable airport connections in Dallas (rail and bus) are moving folks to Dallas, including simply to use the airports.

    In Texas, we don’t have reliable regional rail (Amtrak kind of runs daily) but downtown to downtown connections can be strong and highly affordable with private regional bus (Megabus and Greyhound but noting new luxury operator VonLane). I can vouch for many travelers using Megabus from San Antonio and Austin to Dallas to transfer to flights (via rail and bus) and save considerably and avoid the hassle of a connecting flight. I can’t say the same about Austin and San Antonio to Houston – that for me seems to always result in at least a $50 cab ride from a downtown bus station to an airport. The 200+ mile journey to downtown Houston by private bus? About $10.

    Looking at local bus routings to Houston Hobby from Houston Greyhound or Megabus – about 11 miles – I get nervous that there’s a transfer at McKinney and San Jacinto. I’d walk the downtown mile to that stop to avoid the bus transfer, but what are the odds that the walking route is well sign posted or the stop marked clearly as an airport route? Noting that the ‘direct’ bus (40) takes an hour after the mile walk and that bus runs only every 30 minutes?

    The route to IAH from downtown looks more promising (the 102 bus), but once again, that downtown bus stop (on St Joseph at Main or Travis Street at Jefferson) and lack of signage – plus an hour journey for a bus that only runs every 30 minutes and travels 22 mainly expressway miles.

    There’s nothing ‘elite’ about wanting solid / less ‘scary’ (signage, countdown clock, off board fare option etc) airport connections from downtown transit hubs, as his examples above suggest but which Walker doesn’t seem to have delivered with his work in Houston.

    I get his arguments about not blowing the budget on express airport service as well as looking to and supporting the private sector to deliver better airport options (why a Megabus stop at MIA and a train between MIA and FLL but nothing similar in Texas?). But Houston — the recent work there seems to fail the points Walker has made about how to link airports with existing transit options including regional bus. It also fails to note how stronger airport connections from downtown can support more frugal or just lower income travelers and visitors to cities. To suggest air travel is elite is to have not been in a U.S. airport recently.

    • M1EK August 2, 2017 at 10:27 am #

      It’s hard to think of a better (if inadvertend) example of elite projection than rating cities by how their transit to/from the airport works.

      • Bruce Nourish August 2, 2017 at 2:08 pm #

        +1000.

      • Max Wyss August 7, 2017 at 7:29 am #

        Transit to the airport should not mean “passenger”. it should mean “people working there”. Its usefulness for “passenger” is a (most welcome) side effect…

        • Novacek August 7, 2017 at 11:42 am #

          To the extent that an airport can be a large employment center, and be viable for transit in the same way as any other employment center, great.

          However, there are often (not always) a lot of headwinds to such.

          1. Airports are frequently non-central, and may be located in the middle of surburbia.

          2. Regardless of where they’re located, there’s often a large “dead zone” for jobs/ridership around them, due to the physical size of the airport.

          3. Due to the non-central location (and hence lower land values), airports frequently offer abundant free parking for their employees.

          4. Airport employee demand may be in non-traditional hours (such as very early in the morning or otherwise outside of rush hour). This may both complicate efforts to integrate airport service with the rest of the network and also reduce the _perceived_ benefit of transit in comparison to roads.

          • Alon Levy August 7, 2017 at 2:17 pm #

            Point 4 makes airport buses stronger, not weaker. If airport workers are mostly traveling at 4-6 am, then that’s a good use for buses that would otherwise be lying idle. It also means buses would be faster, since there’s no car traffic reducing highway speeds.

          • Novacek August 8, 2017 at 5:37 am #

            “otherwise lying idle” =/= free. You still have to pay the drivers (and find drivers willing to work the way early shift), pay for fuel, pay for maintenance, pay for depreciation. The route still has to be a viable route and have ridership (or you have to be willing to run an unproductive route for coverage/lifeline purposes).

            And there’s no guarantee it would be viable. If the highways are open and there’s free parking, there’s few incentives for people to ride.

            And how do those workers get to that 4-6 AM airport route? They don’t all live directly along it. To support the airport as an employment center you basically have to operate your _entire_ transit network early in the morning.

    • h st ll August 6, 2017 at 7:50 am #

      His bus redesign in Houston was a big failure, ridership has decreased since the re design

  9. AnonymousGuyFromCanada August 2, 2017 at 10:05 am #

    One of the challenges is that nearly everyone who gets the education to achieve one of these professional positions (transportation engineer, transit planner) find themselves with a fairly nice salary, and the means to establish themselves in an upper middle class neighbourhood.

    My colleagues in the public sector and the private sector almost all live in the far-flung suburbs, far away from the people who depend on transit the most. Those who do take transit to work generally benefit from quick express service to downtown, and they therefore don’t even get the chance to experience what it’s like to use transit for more than just a work commute every day. Not only that, they rarely interact with people who don’t live the same way as them.

    It’s very difficult to put yourself in another person’s shoes when your lives are lived miles and miles apart.

  10. Ruediger Herold August 2, 2017 at 1:43 pm #

    Sorry, not everything is related directly to this topic!
    1.
    If you know someone who is – mentally or physically – fit for work but unfit for steering a car, this person is probably the best one you can get to explain to you how your local / municipal bus network works. (They might make the same mistakes as ‘normal’ people when suggesting improvements to it).
    2.
    The non-disabled are ‘required’ to having a car – and if not, at least wanting one.
    3.
    (a phone call for a job interview after time and date have been fixed:)
    “No, no, you don’t have to tell me at what sign to turn right and where to turn left to get a good parking spot. Just tell me the name of the next bus stop and I’ll find out the rest on the internet or looking at the city map.”
    (One can hear on the other end of the line the lower jaw dropping down loudlessly.)
    4.
    “Oh, you’re going to Latvia. How interesting… How long is your flight?”
    “About 27 hours, …”
    “What?!”
    “… that is, by ferry. [It takes me less than one hour to get to the port by bus. To get to the airport by train would take me less than two hours. As a don’t have a car and booked in advance it’s a lot cheaper than flying and the ship is designed mainly for lorry drivers so there’s almost always a bed in a cabin left…]”
    5.
    Jarrett (and someone else) has pointed out in an earlier post that espacially airports are problematic for a transit network. First of all, they need very large areas; a runway needs minimum 2 km and be straight! Tunnelling a runway is costly, bridging is, well, … Small airports have only a couple of departures and arrivals a day (or even less) and a plane will transport maximum 189 passengers. That’s only two or three municipal busses. So, if you got 1,000 $ (or €) for a holiday you might probably want to afford 50 $/€ or less for a taxi..
    6.
    Maybe Jarrett has already done that: There are desirable destinations that are spacious or always at the edge or in cul-de-sacs and thus costly. List incomplete: airports, ports, beaches, swimming pools, stadiums, large industrial plants, large leisure areas that are very walkable on the inside…

    • el_slapper August 3, 2017 at 3:54 am #

      For Airports and beaches, Montpellier immediatly comes to mind. For reaching the airport, you need to stop from the tramway in “Place de l’Europe” or “Boirargues”, and end up with a bus shuttle whose frequency is, errrm, not excellent. For the beaches, Tram stop 25 minutes by foot before them, and buses are unfriendly to finish, so many people end up walking anyways.

  11. Colin August 2, 2017 at 3:44 pm #

    Jarrett – Very good points, and a strong reminder to service planners and transportation officials to ensure they have a good idea of who their current customers are, and who their most likely new customers could be. Understanding transit market segmentation and the customer needs in each segment is a critical step that many agencies seem to neglect. Elite projection is behind much of this.

    However, I’d like to push back on two points:

    First, you state:
    “Large fixed-route buses are the only form of transit that can quickly scale to an entire city while still using scarce urban space with extreme efficiency.”

    Yes, but there is a limit to the number of people that large fixed-route buses can serve due to the inherent constraints of service planning. In other words, given a geography and land use pattern, some non-trivial number of people will not be effectively served by a bus. The more sprawling the geography, the less agglomeration inherent in the land use, and the more diffuse the O-D matrix, the more challenging it will be to build a bus network that can serve each marginal increment of the population. At that point, why not seek to use a form of transit that is less efficient than a bus, but more efficient than a SOV? Namely, an IT-enabled, dynamically routed multi-passenger vehicle i.e. “tech disruption”. Especially if use of such a solution is compared to the likely alternative – not a bus, but an SOV? My point is it should not have to be a binary choice, and the baseline for diverging from that binary should be “can you do better than an SOV?” not “can you do better than a bus?”.

    Second, while elite perception is a real problem that absolutely needs to be questioned and faced in every policy and service decision made, there is also the opposite problem. That is to say that we design service for a rider base that we paint with far too broad a brush, rather than acknowledging that there are a range of market segments, and that each will have different needs that need to be met as a condition of use. We all as readers of this blog realize that all riders are “choice” riders, even if their own personal cost benefit may vary when making those choices. If you’re going to grow your market cap – that is to say ridership – to a degree, you have to meet people where they are based on their needs by making the service as easy as possible to use compared to the default, which in many cases is an SOV, and increasingly in urban areas, a TNC.

    Meeting customers where they are doesn’t mean picking up your friend at his door and offering on-board wine and massages. But it does mean that certain people who may be willing to *RIDE* a bus may *NOT* be willing to learn a bus schedule, deal with long trip times and multiple transfers, wait for 20+ minutes to get picked up, and/or walk long distances to and from the route. And the coverage vs. frequency dilemma means that we can’t solve for their problems affordably.

    So if we can design a solution that is less efficient than a bus, yet more efficient than an SOV, and can gain additional travel market share where a bus won’t (and potentially bring new customers into the transit ecosystem) what’s wrong with that decision?

    • Sailor Boy August 3, 2017 at 7:03 pm #

      “So if we can design a solution that is less efficient than a bus, yet more efficient than an SOV, and can gain additional travel market share where a bus won’t (and potentially bring new customers into the transit ecosystem) what’s wrong with that decision?”

      There is no such system that can cover an entire city. Therefore autonomous cars won’t replace all transit.

      The system would be to use autonomous cars to get people to transit stations on busy corridors and then have people board transit. This is exactly what we see with Uber (which is as cheap as driverless will be because drivers lose money when you factor in the cost of running the car). Autonomous cars can help replace coverage routes, not ridership ones

      • Qantas 94 Heavy August 3, 2017 at 11:36 pm #

        I don’t think either of you are exactly wrong here.

        I think the point Colin is trying to make here is that they *can* cover cities that are very sparse that don’t have enough density for “proper” transit in the first place. Practically speaking, pretty much every route in such a place would a coverage route.

        What autonomous vehicles do in general (both cars and buses) is shift the goalposts, but the fundamental idea of having transit capacity matching a city’s size remains the same.

        That is to say: as a place becomes more populated, the optimum vehicle size increases. This would look something like:

        – Small town: no transit, private cars only (anyone who can’t drive asks a friend)
        – Larger town: community van (pick up these people and bring them to town)
        – Small city: basic fixed route transit

        Now with autonomous vehicles, we don’t have the labour costs, which means the optimum vehicle size will go down. So perhaps what we’d see instead would be:

        – Small town: no transit, private cars only
        – Larger town: autonomous taxis
        – Small city: autonomous shared vans

        So do autonomous vehicles raise the threshold for a viable transit system? Most likely. At the same times, they won’t replace all transit either, and certainly not in big cities (imagine Hong Kong or Tokyo without high capacity transit).

        • Dorian August 5, 2017 at 1:55 pm #

          I think self driving vehicles would actually increase the size of transit that can be justified by travel demand. Because the difference in price between providing a service with a larger vehicle and a smaller vehicle would shrink, and the overall price would shrink, we could pay for more fixed route, standard bus service.

  12. Darren August 2, 2017 at 8:31 pm #

    Definitely agree with the “elite projection” concept and that decision makers/planners have a responsibility to look through the lens of others as much as possible.

    But one challenge much transit faces is a mismatch between the geography of transit demand and the geography of transit funding sources. Los Angeles is a case in point: a sizable chunk of transit funding is from sales tax, which comes from all over the county, primarily from people living in suburbs with incomes and land uses that have very low transit demand. However, the county’s transit demand is located in a much smaller footprint in denser parts of the region. This creates a conflict in which transit dollars would be best spent (from a riders served per dollar perspective) in a limited area of the county, but you have people in the rest of the county who want something in return for the money they pay.

    An example is how LA Metro extended the Gold Line light rail into the suburban San Gabriel valley while Vermont Avenue, the second busiest transit corridor in the county, *might* get bus rapid transit in another 8 years or so.

  13. Bryan Myrick August 3, 2017 at 1:49 pm #

    The concern of whether or not a regional transit/transportation strategy will make it increasingly difficult to use a personal vehicle for transportation is not an elite concern. I have to admit that I couldn’t get past that in the opening of this piece. Many construction workers are just as inconveniencing by planning that deprioritizes congestion relief for personal vehicles as a tech CEO, perhaps more so because their schedule permits less flexibility in most cases. Families seeking a normal life for their children — little league practices, dance classes, non-hurried meals together during daylight hours — these aren’t elite concerns either. In fact, I would say that the consistency with which transportation planners overlook these concerns is the real example of elite projection.

    • Sailor Boy August 3, 2017 at 7:05 pm #

      “I have to admit that I couldn’t get past that in the opening of this piece. ”

      Don’t worry, you didn’t need to. The rest of your comment made it obvious.

    • Federico August 8, 2017 at 8:16 am #

      “Families seeking a normal life for their children”
      My parents took me to everywhere in bus or walking when I was a child and that didn’t traumatized me. More stressfull was seeing my father-in-law return home after an hour stuck in traffic because there was no good transit options

  14. Al M August 5, 2017 at 5:47 am #

    Me thinks that there is a wee bit of revolutionary thinking inside Mr Walker. It so wants to come out from under its establishment foundation.

    True revolutionaries are shunned by the establishment which wields 100% control of our society with its cash and strangle hold on power.

    Maybe some day Mr Walker will use all the influence and knowledge he has gained over the course of his career and become a true revolution in the area of public transportation

    I hope it happens before our society totally collapses, which it appears to be occurring at the speed of a runaway train

    • Jarrett August 7, 2017 at 8:26 am #

      Al M, you misunderstand me in exactly the way that Hillary Clinton was misunderstood. Just because I know how to work within the “system” doesn’t mean my goals are modest or compromised. And by the standards of people who can work within the system, I’m pretty outspoken.

  15. Federico August 5, 2017 at 12:08 pm #

    Today we were discussing something related to this topic with some friends. In wendsday’s night a probike group put ilegal signs in every downtown intersection indicating that cars and similar vehicles should keep 1.5m away from bikes. This probike group is compossed of upper class citizens and the vast majority of them does cycling as a recreational activity and the rest because it’s a sustainable thing. Its ultimate goal is to get every street or avenue to have a bike lane.

    First of all, by law only the municipality has the right to put signs in the street, also, there is only a couple of rules in all our laws about the circulation of bikes in the street and their interaction with other vehicles and can be summarize into this: “all bikes should drive 0,5m away from the right side of the right lane and other vehicles can’t run over them and should use helmet and lights”. Needless to say the vast majority of bikers don’t follow this rules, even the ones in this probikes groups.

    While their idea is not inherently bad, they do not take into account the rest of the street users. Our metropolitan area is composed of 9 cities in a radius of 13 to 15 km and public transport is regulated by each city when the lines do not cross the border and by the provincial state when they do. There is no free connection so when you need to take two or three buses to get to your destination you have to pay 2 or 3 times the price. This makes the motorcycle and car competitive with the bus if you need to go anywhere outside downtown and therefore main arteries are full of traffic. These arteries usually have three lanes in a 9m width, one for parking and two for circulation, so the implementation of a bike lane of 1.20m would require the elimination of one of these other lanes. This in turn would lead to a much greater congestion, which would cause more delay in the buses and therefore more people would move in motorcycle or automobile. Bicycle can not serve at this time as a daily means of transportation for the working class because distances are large (in the order of 10km), the climate is rainy, very hot in summer and cold in winter and there is a strong and almost constant slope so you arrive all sweaty and tired to work (for now and here an electric bicycle is expensive and unreliable, even more than a Chinese motorcycle). That way a bike lane would be only useful for the elite and only during the practice of their recreational activity of choice because congestion would affect them too when they should use their expensive German cars to commute to work

    • Sailor Boy August 5, 2017 at 11:36 pm #

      ““all bikes should drive 0,5m away from the right side of the right lane and other vehicles can’t run over them and should use helmet and lights”.”

      Your city actually recommends that cyclists ride dangerously close to the kerb?

      Jesus, I forget how lucky I am to live in a country that at least pretends to value the lives of people who choose to cycle.

      • Federico August 6, 2017 at 10:57 am #

        I thought that would be misunderstood after I post it. We count from right to left: parking lane, right lane and left lane. Parking lanes are usually 2.5m wide so you must ride 1m away from most pick-ups and 1.3m from cars

        • Sailor Boy August 7, 2017 at 3:09 pm #

          No, I understood. 0.5m from the right side of the lane is too close to the side and 1 m is too close to pick ups.

          Cyclists should ride at least the opening door width plus some tolerance for comfort away from parked vehicles so that they do not need to swerve when someone illegally opens a door into their path. Cyclists should ride at least a metre from the kerb to avoid drainage features and people rapidly leaving the sidewalk (pedestrians or motorists). Where the lane is so narrow that a driver has to leave the lane to safely pass when the cyclist is in this position, the cyclist should ride in the centre of the lane, or in the left side wheel track.

          Your city recommends that cyclists put themselves in danger out of spite.

          • Federico August 8, 2017 at 7:59 am #

            After some mental calculations that did not satisfy me I grabbed the bicycle and went out to measure streets. It turns out that the parking lane is not 2.5m wide but 3m wide. That happens to me for not thinking critically, if the streets are 9m to 10m wide the lanes could not be 2.5m. In smaller widths parking is prohibited so that cyclists and motorcyclists can circulate through this 2 to 2.5m space or in extreme cases is reduced to two 3+ meter lanes (one for detention and one for circulation). In a worst case scenario (a RAM truck, there must be 5 in the whole city) the edge of the handlebar is about 20cm from the open door but tipically there is more than 50cm.
            I agree with you that when the car should leave the lane to safely pass the cyclist, the cyclist should should ride in the centre of the lane. The drainage features extends no more than 20cm from the crub so I don’t see a problem there.

  16. Brian August 8, 2017 at 7:15 am #

    Is nobody going to take the side of the elites here? Elites are elites because they actually do have more education and knowledge than other people. If we left everything up to the majority, we’d have the most backward- and inward-looking systems imaginable. At least the elites have traveled and seen the way people do it in other places. It’s the job of the elites to be ahead of the majority. I make no apology for saying that their opinions matter more.

    • Jarrett August 8, 2017 at 12:09 pm #

      Brian. Read my piece again. Elites do have a role in seeing the big picture of what’s good for everyone. The problem is only when they lose track of that, and talk (often unconsciously) only about what’s good for themselves.

    • EJ August 8, 2017 at 2:27 pm #

      Dude did you read past the first paragraph? This has nothing to do with your precious social status. The issue is that elites sometimes make judgements about transit depending on whether it benefits them, rather than its overall social and economic utility.

  17. Fernando Centeno August 10, 2017 at 9:42 am #

    Another outcome which doesn’t work for the majority is the assumption that all economic growth, greatly facilitated & subsidized by the “majority” taxpayer, leading to greater density, is a net positive good. Instead, this leads to greater & faster tax rates, fees, taxes, and gentrification, thank you very much.

    In addition to elite projection, let’s look at the assumptions which are the basis for a city’s economic public policies, carried out in the name of “economic development”, which is nothing more than the Chamber of Commerce model, who advocate for business development growth, paid for by the tax dollar. Here, the problem is that “urban” planners work hand-in-glove with the commercial real estate community to build, build, build, and from these financial gains, the development community of lawyers, bankers, architects, marketers, designers, and the Chamber crowd financially support the politicians who favor their “economic growth” model.

    Instead, we need a socioeconomic paradigm, who measure success in human capital terms, rather than in business development/activity terms. But I don’t know anyone interested in this approach, which is advocated by CED planners, practitioners who focus on quality of life & standards of living outcomes, in real terms.

  18. MB August 12, 2017 at 6:51 am #

    What I find most concerning from many of these comments, is the continued talk about how large swaths of suburban America are not transit supportive or deserving of transit, because of housing types, incomes, etc.
    That is a kind of “elite planner projection” that should also not be made.

    For a transit network to fully be an alternative to the automobile, and improve the lives of everyone in a region, both rich and poor, transit must be a viable option for everyone, including people with a BMW in the driveway.

    A transit system should be serving both the needs of low income riders and rich riders. And when both are served well, the system is better for everyone, and there is more political and community support for transit.

    I am reading too much of the same old American attitude in these comments, that transit is just for poor people and a few high density areas. That is no way to build public transit up and make it a true travel option for most Americans.

    Cities in other countries cater transit to everyone, rich, poor, urban, suburban, rural. And their ridership numbers and public support are much stronger than in the USA.

    In Toronto, studies have shown high income and low income riders both use transit with small variations in usage rates. And both suburban and inner city residents of all incomes use transit. This is because the transit system has worked to provide a service everyone finds attractive and valuable.

    This is why the subdivision my grandparents used to live in, which is lined with $3 and $4 million dollar homes on large lots, has a bus service every 20 – 30 minutes, 7 days a week on their local road. And a 10 minute of better service a 10 minute walk away on the major road. People use it, and fought to save it during budget cuts 15 years ago. Should these people not be worthy of transit, because they have BMWs in their driveways?

    Planners should be working to make transit great for everyone!

    • Jarrett Walker August 14, 2017 at 8:29 am #

      MB. I’m sorry that you think this is an attitude, but it isn’t. It’s math. Efficient transit doesn’t work everywhere, so cities must choose between high ridership and “going everywhere for everyone.” I laid out the math here: http://humantransit.org/2015/07/mega-explainer-the-ridership-recipe.html

      • MB August 14, 2017 at 1:20 pm #

        There are plenty of cities around the world that provide good transit to everyone, including in lower density areas, and to rich areas. In fact, it is these cities, where transit is actually a viable alternative to the automobile, that transit actually carries a substantial percentage of trips, not just to the downtown areas, but also in suburban areas as well.

        This is clearly written about in Transport for Suburbia. A must read book on my planners have to stop making excuses for poor transit service.

        My main message is that planners have to work at building a transit system everyone finds attractive, including those with options.

        For example: My friend’s father lives in one of the most affluent areas of the city we live in. Despite massive homes, very high incomes, and tons of high end cars in the driveways; you will be hard pressed to ride a bus through the neighborhood and not see people getting on and off at bus stops in the neighborhood, and walking to their multi million dollar homes.
        Why are they taking the bus? Not because a planner told them he/she is not worried about if the transit system serves them. They are taking it, because the transit agency provides an attractive transit service to everyone. In this case, the area gets a bus every 15 minutes or better during most time periods.

        I understand telling someone a specific project may not be designed to benefit their area. But transit planners should be working to make transit an attractive service for everyone. That is the only way transit will really get high ridership and high modal share.

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