We Have a US East Coast Office!

scudderOur tiny firm is delighted to announce that we’ve hired our first East Coast senior planner and project manager.

He’s Scudder Wagg, a versatile transit planning consultant formerly with Michael Baker International.  Scudder has been embedded with us for a year, working on the Richmond Transit Network Plan, so he already knows everything we do better than we do ourselves.

He is based in Richmond for now but he expects to move up to the DC area to establish a full East Coast office.



Researchers! Why is US Transit Ridership Falling?

It’s now pretty clear that transit ridership is falling in many US cities.  Why?

I don’t know.  (Don’t trust any pundit who never says this.)

But journalists are asking me this and I need an answer.  Laura Bliss’s recent piece in Citylab really captures the problem.  It’s a smart read, but in short: Bliss interviewed a bunch of experts on this, including me, and she got lots of smart speculation, mostly grounded in anecdotes.  (“Pick a Culprit” was her sub-headline).

Everyone seems to agree on the same long list of culprits.

  • Ridehailing services like Lyft and Uber, especially to the extent that this industry may be undermining transit through unsustainable predatory pricing.
  • Stagnating or declining transit service.  Even transit agencies that are not shrinking are mostly declining in service/capita, as the population grows but they don’t have the resources to keep up.
  • Cheap driving.  Previous studies about the impact of cheap gas thought this relationship was mild, but those are less useful now, because gas is so cheap that we are off the scale of those studies’ analysis.
  • Fares static or rising as other options get cheaper.  To be clear: I’ve seen no cases where cutting fares triggered so much ridership that the agency broke even.  Transit agencies have very little room to more financially here.  But there may be correlations.  (Always check transfer penalties, too; they often matter more than base fare.)
  • Crisis situations in certain agencies.  Lots of transit agencies are in financial trouble, which creates trouble of all other kinds.  The travails of Washington DC’s subway get all the press, maybe because national journalists and policymakers experience it personally.  But many transit agencies are facing crises — especially deferred maintenance in older transit agencies.  And no, not all transit agencies are victims.  I see a lot of obsolete management and planning habits, in some agencies, that hold transit down.
  • Some shifts from transit to other non-single-occupant-car modes, which can be OK.  These may include ridesharing, improved cycling infrastructuregreater urban density (which is putting more trips within walking distance) and better pedestrian amenities. 

And I would add a couple of others to the list.

  • Bad data.  Do we even know how bad the problem is?  A few weeks back TransitCenter published a table purporting to compare 2015 and 2016 ridership at many US metros, showing drops in many agencies. But most transit agencies I talked to said the table was wrong, and instead admitted to problems in their own reporting and analysis.  Transit data is often a mess — as I’ll discuss in another post — though it’s improving fast.  Still, almost every data element is prone to methodological problems.
  • Noisy data.  Transit ridership is so volatile that it takes time to see long trends.  I’d conclude nothing from a one year drop; it’s only because we’re now seeing multi-year drops that I’m deciding this is real.  That makes me very late to the party but it’s the only way I can know I’m not chasing phantoms.  And it’s a huge pitfall for transportation journalists, whose deadlines require them to write stories before we can really know.

The problem is, we really don’t know the relative importance of these things, and neither does anyone else who’s speculating in the media.

Bottom line:  We need research!  Not the sort of formally peer reviewed research that will take a year to publish, but faster work by real transportation scholars that can report preliminary results in time to guide action.  I am not a transportation researcher, but there are plenty of them out there, and this is our moment of need.  Here are my research questions:

  • Which global causes seem to matter?  Straight regression analysis, once you get data you believe.  Probably the study will need to start with a small dataset of transit agencies, so that there’s time to talk with each agency and understand their unique data issues.
  • What’s happening to the quantity of transit?  If ridership is falling because service is falling, this isn’t a surprise.  If ridership is falling because service is getting slower — which means lower frequency and speed at the same cost — well, that wouldn’t be surprising either.
  • How does the decline correlate to types of service?  Is this fall happening in dense areas or just in car-based suburbs?   Is it happening on routes that are designed for high ridership, or only on those that are designed for coverage purposes (services retained because three sympathetic people need them rather than because the bus will be full).   Is it correlated to frequency or span changes? Heads up, local geeks!  A lot could be done looking at data for your own transit agency — route by route and even (where available) stop by stop, to analyze where in your metro the fall is really occurring.

One more note:  It’s easy to analyse this “bus vs rail,” because that’s how the National Transit Database is structured, but nobody knows if that’s the real distinction that matters.  As Laura Bliss’s piece notes, rail ridership and bus ridership are not trending any particular way relative to each other — a good hint that this is just the wrong place to look for an explanation.

I don’t pretend this is easy, but it’s needed.  Scholars!  Come to our rescue!

Update on Our Current Hiring

If you’re following our recent effort to hire entry level staff, please know that:

  • We received over 120 applications.
  • We made shortlisting decisions yesterday, creating a leading shortlist of 17 (8 top candidates and 9 runners up).  These are for what we expect will ultimately be two positions.  That’s less than 10% of applicants, so if you missed the cut, that doesn’t mean you’re a bad person or that we never want to speak with you again.
  • You should have heard by now if you are shortlisted or not.  Check your email.
  • These positions had very, very hard criteria about spatial analysis skill and experience.  Some very interesting people missed the shortlist because they didn’t excel in that.   Again, that doesn’t mean you don’t have a lot to offer.
  • Some applicants were not free to start on April 1 and these were not shortlisted.  If we end up having more positions with later starts we may return to this list.
  • Some applicants really wanted summer internships.  If we do these, we will put out a separate call in April.
  • For obvious reasons, I’m not in the position to respond to individual inquiries.  Reading 120 applications has been pretty overwhelming for our staff.  We have to catch up on other things for a while.

While we’re a little exhausted, we’re really grateful at the number of people who want to be involved in what we’re doing, and we hope we can grow a bit to include more of your talents in the future.

Planning Transit to a Suburban Stadium: An Example from Silicon Valley (Guest Post)

By Matthew Roth (Flickr: #NinersYodel 49ers Faithful-21) , via Wikimedia Commons.

By Matthew Roth (Flickr: #NinersYodel 49ers Faithful-21) , via Wikimedia Commons.

About the authors:  Michelle DeRobertis and Richard Lee are both transportation consultants and educators with 30-years’ experience, mainly in the San Francisco Bay Area. Michelle has a M.S. degree from UC-Berkeley and is currently completing a PhD at Università degli Studi di Brescia in Italy. Richard received his PhD in City Planning from UC Berkeley in 1995, taught transport planning in New Zealand in the late 1990s, and is now Director of Innovation and Sustainability at VRPA Technologies. Michelle co-founded the non-profit research and policy institute, and serves on its Board, as does Richard. Michelle can be reached at , Richard at  This post first appeared on the website.

In the wake of this year’s Super Bowl, the Institute of Transportation Engineers (ITE) Journal has published an article reviewing the transportation planning for the site of last year’s Super Bowl: the San Francisco 49ers new Levi’s stadium. After playing for over 60 years in one of the most transit-oriented cities in the United States, in 2014 the 49ers moved to this $1 billion facility 40 miles south in the highly-congested and car-oriented Silicon Valley.

The transportation planning for the new stadium was done primarily via an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) that used automobile level of service (LOS) as its only transportation performance metric. The EIR referred to two separate transportation management plans in the transit analysis, but neither addressed, for example, the needed capital and operational improvements for the light rail system to accommodate the forecasted demand, nor the responsibility for paying these costs.

Two years after its opening, there is some good news for transit: ridership is roughly double what was predicted. On the other hand, up to 10,000 people wait after games for light rail trains that hold 300.   Moreover, the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA), the main transit provider, is recovering only about a third of the cost of supplemental services to serve stadium events, despite the stadium being considered a “financial success” and parking fees that start at $40 per car.

Furthermore, while games are nominally sold out (as they were at their former home at Candlestick Park), actual attendance is down since the opening two seasons; the 49ers will not release the actual turnstile numbers, but some games have appeared only half full.   Both the team’s performance and the hassle getting there contribute to the no-show affect.

The San José Mercury News has published many articles about the financial impacts of the stadium to the City and the community, some conflicting. For example, this San Jose Mercury-News article says the stadium “has been a financial success”, but many other articles from this very same newspaper reported that VTA and taxpayers were left holding the bag for the millions of dollars it costs to provide extra transit service to the site. Moreover, the host City of Santa Clara is only concerned about its costs. VTA, as a separate authority , is left out of the financial discussions, a common failure in transportation policy throughout California and the US.

Major regional facilities such as this 80,000-seat stadium not only generate an enormous amount of travel, they influence a region’s form, development and transportation systems for decades. How can transportation professionals improve the scope and quality of their analysis and recommendations to better plan for such regional attractors? The article provides some answers, but we would be interested in hearing more ideas for improving future analyses and learning about other cases, especially ones where the planning was more proactive and the results more positive.

JOB! Our firm is hiring at entry level, but act fast!

We need to add two entry level staff to our team, on a fast timeline leading to an April 1 start.  Please share this widely with anyone you know who might be interested!

Jarrett Walker and Associates is a consulting firm that helps communities think about public transit planning issues, especially the design and redesign of bus networks. The firm was initially built around Jarrett Walker’s book Human Transit and his 25 years of experience in the field. Today, our professional staff of eight leads planning projects across North America, with a rapidly growing overseas practice including Europe, Russia, and Australia / New Zealand.

You can learn about us at our website and at jarrett’s blog For a sense of our basic approach to network design, see the introduction to Jarrett’s book Human Transit, which is on the blog and easily googled.

We are seeking 1-2 entry-level transit analysts based in Portland, Oregon. The position offers the potential to grow a career in transit planning. As a small firm, we can promote staff in response to skill and achievement, without waiting for a more senior position to become vacant. Everyone pitches in at many different levels, and there are many opportunities to learn on the job.

Duties include a wide range of data analysis and mapping tasks associated with public transit planning studies.

For this position, the following are requirements. Please respond only if you offer all of the following:

  • Bachelor’s or equivalent degree, or alternatively a minimum of two years professional experience in the skills listed below. (A directly relevant major is preferred but not essential.)
  • Fluency in spoken English and at least strong proficiency at writing.
  • Interest in public transit planning.
  • Experience in Excel analysis, including charts, evidenced in sample work.
  • Experience in spatial data analysis (GIS), evidenced in sample work.
  • Experience in mapping, evidenced in mapping samples that are clear, accurate, and visually appealing.
  • Ability to innovate and solve problems that arise in an analysis process.
  • Ability to explain analytic ideas clearly in writing.
  • References attesting to accuracy and efficiency in these critical tasks.
  • Availability to start fulltime work in Portland, Oregon no later than April 1, 2017.
  • Legal ability to work in the US.

The following are desirable but not essential. If you have any of the following, please emphasize them in your application.

  • Graduate degree in urban planning, transportation, or a related field.
  • Experience with analysis of public transit issues.
  • Proven ability to design clear and easy-to-understand infographics, charts, reports, or other static and/or interactive information visualizations.
  • The ability to describe issues from multiple points of view, including the perspectives of different professions.
  • Experience and comfort in public speaking.
  • Experience using a data analysis programming language (R, Python, etc)
  • Ability to develop interactive information displays and tools.
  • Experience in advanced database analysis. (Postgres/PostGIS, MySQL, etc)
  • Experience with our main analytic and design software: qGIS, Remix, Tableau, InDesign, Illustrator.
  • Expertise with transit-focused routing software, such as OpenTripPlanner.
  • Foreign language ability. Spanish and Russian are especially useful to us but all language skills are valued.
  • Experience working with minority and disadvantaged communities.
  • Experience describing issues from multiple points of view, including the perspectives of different types of people, and different professions.
  • Experience and comfort in public speaking.

Compensation and Benefits

Compensation will probably start in the range of $21-26/hour depending on experience, but raises of over 15% in the first year are routine for excellent work. Our benefits program includes empoyer-paid health, dental, and disability insurance, a free transit pass, paid sick leave (40 hrs/year), and paid time off (80 hrs/year).

How to Respond

To respond to this announcement, please send the following to . The absolute deadline is February 21, 2017, at 5 PM Pacific Standard Time, but submitting earlier is advantageous as we will be assessing applications as we receive them.

  • 1-page cover letter, explaining your interest in the position.
  • 1- or 2-page resume, describing your relevant experience and skills.
  • Three (3) samples of your work. This can include maps, graphics, charts or reports that you have created. Samples should be clear, accurate, easy to understand and visually appealing. At least one (1) sample should demonstrate your ability to carry out a complex spatial analysis.
  • Important:  Do not put important information in your email!  It will not stay with your application.  Make your pitch in the cover letter.

Hiring Schedule

Our need for staff is urgent so the hiring schedule is brisk:

  • February 7. Announcement.
  • February 21. Absolute deadline for submissions.
  • February 23. Shortlist and invitations to interview announced.
  • March 1. Interviews (in Portland or by Skype)
  • March 3. Final decision (successful candidate and two alternates).
  • March 10. Negotiations complete.
  • April 1. Job begins.


JWA follows an equal opportunity employment policy and employs personnel without regard to race, creed, color, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender expression, age, physical or mental ability, veteran status, military obligations, and marital status.

This policy also applies to internal promotions, training, opportunities for advancement, terminations, outside vendors, members and customers, service clients, use of contractors and consultants, and dealings with the general public.

Thank you!

Thank you for reviewing this listing.  As a matter of urgency, please share it with others who might be interested. We look forward to hearing from you.

How (Not) to Wreck Your Transit System: Downtown Business Edition

What do you think of these people? Photo by the (great) Bay Area public artist Todd Gilens.

What do you think of these people? Photo by the (great) Bay Area public artist Todd Gilens.

Downtown business leaders! I know how much many of you support transit, and I love working with you folks, but here’s a hazard you need to think about.

Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson has announced that new bus lanes that were designed into city’s main square will be closed to buses, thus choking the bus system’s circulation at its very heart.  Citylab has the story.  The local newspaper of record, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, has an editorial in favor of keeping buses out, citing three points:

*The square is far more popular than anticipated. …

*Keeping buses out has greatly enhanced the pedestrian experience. …

*In an age of terrorism, barring large vehicles from being able to drive into crowded public spaces also matters. Cleveland Public Safety Director Mike McGrath has pointed out that if Superior Avenue is kept open through Public Square, a “determined person” could use a truck or other vehicle to drive into crowds gathered there. …


Electric Retractable Bollard, SecureUSA.

(Terrorism is a distraction, of course.  The way to prevent someone from driving a heavy vehicle into a public square is to install retractable bollards, which drop for emergency vehicles and transit.  Fixed bollards are also used to define a transit path across a space, and protect the rest from vehicles.)

But really: Would city leaders be saying this if the service being banned were a streetcar/tram?  Of course not.  Streetcars supposedly attract people that the business community values.  So when I read this …

[City Councilor] Zack Reed, … as reported by Cleveland Scene’s Sam Allard, [suggested] that the mayor is in the pocket of downtown’s corporate interests who view transit riders as “low-lifes” and “thugs.”

… I have to say that sadly, from personal experience, this accusation against downtown business interests is sometimes (sometimes) true, and the blowback against it is understandable.

Business leaders: I know you really want a transit system that a more diverse group of people will use, but you can’t promote transit while insulting the people who use it now.  It doesn’t make sense. Nobody will choose to join a category of people, “transit riders,” that you’re marking as unimportant or even despised.

In the course of my transit planning work in several US cities, I’ve been quietly taken aside by a downtown business leader and told that of course those ugly buses have to be gotten off of the main street, and put out on some back street where the loading docks are.  And sadly, I have sometimes been told the same by advocates of public space, often credentialed New Urbanists, who insist that their aesthetic disapproval of the bus should outweigh people’s need for useful, reliable transit service.   Most of these latter group don’t really understand the impact of those comments, but I see the effects: remote, unsafe and/or inoperable bus facilities hidden from the public eye.

Now and then someone makes the class-segregation narrative explicit.  For example, in one US city where I worked years ago, a downtown business leader explained to me that “those people” waiting for buses on the main street were deterring customers from visiting businesses, and “making people feel unsafe.”  The candor was refreshing: the problem isn’t the buses. The problem is unwanted people who do not deserve to be respected by the design of the city — including, of course, many of the business community’s own employees.

This leader also assured me that women would never feel comfortable walking through these crowds — contrary to the view of professional women who were working with us on the project.  The stops in question did have a lot of people waiting at them.  Like any busy place they attracted the usual diversity of urban characters, including street preachers, small scale salesmen, and self-styled performing artists, and perhaps one or two petty criminals.  But people are rarely attacked in the middle of largely law-abiding crowds.

This problem actually had an easy solution.  Robust real-time information, available by text and voice as well as in smartphone apps, encourages people to come to the stop only a few minutes before their bus leaves. Bus stops have become noticeably less crowded in communities that have rolled these out, as you would expect.  That also means, business leaders, that people waiting for the bus have more time to patronize nearby businesses.

But too often, the business community’s solution is to move the buses onto a deserted street where nobody will see them, and also to “spread buses out” so that no stop would be as busy.  This “solves” a problem of the “feeling of safety” by creating a problem of actual safety.  Bus riders have to walk to an isolated street and wait in a place with fewer eyes to witness crimes against them.  And of course, the other effect is to make the transit system less attractive, so that fewer people with choices will use it.  Connecting from one bus to another, for example, would be harder to figure out and require longer walks.

Now, let’s honor the experience of downtown businesses dealing with this situation.  A crowded bus stop in front of your business can be disruptive, depending on the kind of business you’re in.   Transit agencies do what they can to manage these impacts, but in the long run, a bus stop is an essential piece of urban infrastructure.  There are types of business that do very well next to a bus stop: convenience stores, fast food, and other “quick visit” places.  Good business location decisions always consider infrastructure.  Over time, businesses that value bus stops should locate next to them, and those that don’t should locate further away.

But it’s also true, as any planner can tell you, that some businesses will blame government whenever business isn’t going well.  On a busy street, there’s always something around you that’s not as you’d like, and it’s easy to decide that this is the cause of your troubles.

Downtown business leaders, you have a critical role in shaping your transportation future.  The most critical decision you make is whether to risk letting downtown succeed as a city — a place where everyone has a right to be, and move, and be safe — as opposed to trying to replicate the controlled experience of a shopping mall, where unwanted people can be easily removed.

I know you care about your customers, and about their experience.  But there’s a reason prosperity is coming back to downtowns, and it’s not because all those unwanted people are being hidden away.  Come to my city, Portland (where, by the way, buses run on the most important main streets downtown).  In the publicity photos Portland looks shiny and clean, but the real downtown is full of characters.  A few are irritating, and many are unfortunate.  But very few are dangerous, and people who live here have figured that out.  You might prefer to avoid some people’s company, but then you wouldn’t have a city.  And judging from the cost of locating there, downtown Portland and places like it seem to be what people want.

Remember:  Your businesses are all trained in market segmentation, dividing the society into “your potential customers” and “not your potential customers.”  But as soon as you take that habit into the public realm, segmentation becomes segregation.  The ethics of business and the ethics of public space are not the same.

Have courage.  Welcome the buses and their passengers.  Not every business will thrive, but that’s capitalism.  In the long run, you’ll have a city where people want to be.

San Jose and Silicon Valley: A New Bus Network Proposed

We’ve been working for over a year with VTA, the transit agency of Santa Clara County, California, on a rethinking of their bus network.  After a long process that has included multiple alternatives and a round of public discussion about them, we’ve arrived at a recommended network.  The plan is meant to go in this fall, when a BART rapid transit extension opens into the county from the north, and when a rearranged operating plan for the light rail system is also planned.  If you live in the County, or use the system, please tell VTA what you think.  As always: if you like the plan, you should assume it won’t happen unless you tell the agency that you like it.

So here’s the system as it looks now.  (Look carefully at the legend. Right-click and open in a new window for more detail.)


And here is the proposed network:


Here’s why the plan looks as it does.

  • The plan before the public does not significantly increase the budget for bus operations.  That means existing service has been re-arranged, which is part of why difficult trade-offs are made.  County voters just passed Measure B, which has some additional funds for service, but those funds are not shown in the above plan.  The Board could decide to add some of these funds to create the final plan.
  • A goal of the plan is to shift the percentage of resources devoted to high ridership service from 70% to 85%.
  • That means that the amount of resources for low-ridership coverage services — services that exist because some people need or want them but which not many people ride — goes from 30% of the budget to 15%.  (For background on ridership-coverage trade-off, see here.)
  • So in round numbers, the amount of coverage service drops by half.  You see this in the many areas that have a blue or green line in the existing system but no all day service, and in some cases no service at all, in the proposed.
  • The policy to devote 85% of resources to high ridership service, and 15% to coverage service, is not something we recommended.  It was the result of an extensive public conversation about different paths the network could take.  In the spring we presented three alternative networks to the public, showing this range of possibilities, and the 85-15 policy is the result of that conversation.
  • Where coverage service has been eliminated, it is because of very low ridership, usually tied to low density or difficult geography (see here for the geometric principles involved).  The plan does not discriminate between different parts of the county in this regard.  Every city in the county has one or more coverage segments disappearing.
  • Everyone at the agency, and everyone on the the Board, knows that some people will be mad about the coverage service cuts.  If you are unhappy about this, please tell VTA that in your comments, but be civil, because civil comments are much more effective.  Don’t tell us that we’re idiots or monsters (we’re not) or that we don’t know that people will be affected (we do).   Understand that the service you are defending is very expensive per passenger for the taxpayer, because so few people ride it.  Cuts to that service are not an expression of an opinion about you.

With that, here are some cool things about the plan.

  • A much-expanded frequent grid.  Eastside San Jose has always had one but now the same principle is spread across most of San Jose and a few main lines in the western part of the county, where demand is lower but where there are concentrations of all day demand that could support a grid pattern.
  • A new Rapid Bus line, which means a line that runs every 15 minutes or better all day but makes widely spaced stops (up to 1 mile spacing).  This one runs from the new Berryessa BART station through downtown and out Stevens Creek to Cupertino, then north through downtown Sunnyvale to the Lockheed area.
  • Weekday hourly frequencies (green) are almost gone.  If a route runs at all, it runs at least every 30 minutes.
  • San Jose Airport gets a very different kind of service.  Currently it has just a shuttle to light rail and Caltrain.  This means you may be two connections away from most places you might be going.  In the new network, the airport is on a line that runs all the way across the county, including directly to BART.  That means fewer connections with your luggage.  Much of the county, and much of the BART system in the East Bay, is just one connection away.
  • Weekend service is especially improved.  Here are the frequencies for the weekend network:


Once again, this draft plan is the starting point. The final plan, based on your comments and on board direction, will be adopted in April, and implemented this fall.

Realtime Information: Facts or Predictions?

Among the cool things that Portland’s transit agency Tri-Met did during our record snowstorm is this:


Instead of telling us a prediction of when the bus will arrive, they told us the fact of how far away it is.  Predictions are not facts.

Free and conscious citizens should always value facts over predictions.  It doesn’t hurt to have both, but predictions without facts can be dangerous.  Humans always want more certainty about the future than the universe provides, so they tend to overvalue predictions, and even treat them as promises.

A rare citywide disruption puts all this in perspective, by highlighting something that is really always true.  The transit agency is in no position to promise when the bus will arrive.  Too many things out of their control might happen.  What they can do is tell you the facts and let you make your own judgment about what to do.

Three Lyft Rides in a Rare Snowstorm, and Musings on “Rate Your Driver”

Portland's transit mall five days after the snow fell.

Portland’s transit mall five days after the snow fell.

Portland’s epic snowstorm continues.  Five days after we got about 9 inches (30 cm) of snow, most streets are still coated with ice.  Again, this shouldn’t be judged by the standards of snowier cities; this kind of extended storm happens less than once a decade here.

In my last post I talked about my transit experience on the first day, when snow was still coming down hard.  Later that day, and twice the next day, I used Lyft– but since most Portland drivers work for both Uber and Lyft, I’m guessing an Uber experience would have been identical.

My three Lyft rides gave me five interesting data points:

  • A trip to my mother’s house in Portland’s hilly west side.  The driver showed up in a tiny car without snow tires or chains, and said he can’t climb hills.  To prevent discrimination against customers based on their destination, the companies don’t tell drivers the destination until after they accept the ride, so this guy was unable to say no to a destination that he couldn’t physically reach.  Likewise, I was unable to specify, when requesting a ride, that the driver needs chains or snow tires and probably 4-wheel-drive to get there.  That’s obviously a design flaw in Lyft’s systems.
  • A trip back from the same hilly area.  The driver showed up in a small car with no left rear view mirror.  He told me another car knocked the mirror off and drove away the previous night.  He plans to get it fixed, he said, but meanwhile he has to keep driving, so he just glances over his left shoulder now and then.
  • On the same ride: The driver told me he lives in Los Angeles but is in Portland for a few months for some reason.  He’d never driven in snow or ice before, and clearly didn’t understand the risks.  I had to explain that in these conditions, you allow even more room behind the car in front of you.  “But people will cut in!” he said.  “Yes,” I said, “but you won’t die.”
  • … but on an earlier trip back from the airport, the driver was a very recent immigrant from Ghana who had also never driven in snow before.  I was surprised to learn this, because his snow driving skills seemed perfect — which maybe just means he was quite properly terrified and being very careful.

How am I to “rate your driver” in some these cases? The Ghanaian guy gets 5 stars of course, but what of the other two?

Should I give a low grade to the a driver whose car is unsuited to these conditions, at least in the hilly part of town?  Obviously this is mostly a policy failure, but should I declare, from my perch of authority, that he should have had chains?

What about the driver who didn’t have a left rear view mirror?  Well, that’s plainly illegal and unsafe, but as I talked with him, I wondered if he could afford to not drive until he can get it fixed.  As it was, he was also the tailgater, so it was easy to rate him low, but what if he’d been a great driver otherwise?

As I think about this, and about how the “rate your driver” scores are processed, I realize that I pretty much have to give 5 stars for anything other than obvious rudeness (unexplainable by cultural difference) or reckless driving.  That’s because I can sense how much pressure these people are under, how few options they have, and how devastating even a 4-star rating can be.  For all I know, someone’s kids are going to starve if I tell a guy to quit driving until his mirror is fixed.  On the other hand, for all I know, he’s doing fine and is just risking his life and that of his passengers because he’s greedy.

Once you open that window into considering the real causes of problems, and the real impacts of ratings, it’s hard to close it.

This is an instance of a more general problem with all of the “how did we do?” surveys that fill my inbox every day.  They really want my opinion of front-line staff, but often I can see that my negative experience was a matter of management.  The obvious example is restaurant or hotel staff who are harried and unresponsive because the management has decided to have too few people on duty.  I’ve learned to be careful about this.  Unless I’m sure that the frontline person was entirely responsible for the outcome, the worst situations get five stars, plus maybe a little note that nobody will read.