General

Portland: Hiring Nice People

IMG_3584A thing to like about Portland’s transit agency TriMet:  They don’t hire commercial drivers and train them to be friendly.  They hire friendly people and train them to drive a bus.

Los Peligros de la Proyección del Elitismo

(A Spanish version of my article “The Dangers of Elite Projection,” translated by Rodrigo García.)

La Proyección del Elitismo es la creencia entre las personas relativamente influyentes y privilegiadas de que aquello que éstas encuentran conveniente o atractivo es bueno para la sociedad en general. Una vez que se aprenda a reconocer este error común, es fácil verlo por todos lados. Es probablemente la barrera más importante para la creación de ciudades prósperas, justas y liberadoras.

Este no es un llamado a atacar a las élites. Tampoco es una declaración sobre la correcta distribución de riqueza y oportunidad o el derecho de una persona a influenciar el discurso público. La intención es señalar un error que las élites constantemente suelen cometer. Ese error es olvidar que las élites son siempre minoría y que, comúnmente, planear una ciudad o una red de transporte a partir de sus gustos y preferencias resulta en un proyecto que no es funcional para la mayoría. De hecho, ni siquiera la élite minoritaria gusta del resultado final.

Hace un tiempo, cuando estaba presentando una propuesta de transporte público ante la Junta de Directores de una agencia de transporte público de un suburbio californiano, uno de los miembros, que representaba a la ciudad más adinerada del área, se acercó, aclaró su garganta y dijo:

Ahora bien, Señor Walker. Si adoptamos su plan, ¿eso hará que deje mi BMW en el garage?

Por supuesto que la respuesta es no. Pero pensar que esa es una pregunta adecuada para evaluar un sistema de transporte público es un claro ejemplo de la proyección del elitismo. Un multimillonario como este señor pertenece a una pequeña minoría, por lo que no tiene ningún sentido diseñar un sistema de transporte público con base en sus gustos y preferencias. Un transporte público exitoso es un transporte público masivo y no tiene sentido buscar la masificación a través de la atracción de usuarios como él. Quizá él se sentiría atraído a un servicio que lo dejara en la puerta de su casa, le ofreciera un masaje y una copa de vino pero muchas personas preferirían un servicio más congruente con un presupuesto limitado. Así que dejemos que el sector privado les provea ese lujo y asegurémonos que los usuarios paguen por sus impactos.

Por supuesto que no es nuevo que se justifique la inversión que beneficia a las élites como una inversión que sirve al bien común. Por ejemplo, mejorar la vida de los ejecutivos de negocios supuestamente atraerá inversiones a la comunidad. Un proyecto de transporte público especializado supuestamente atraerá la construcción de vivienda de lujo que a su vez incrementará la recaudación. Quizá algunos elementos de estos argumentos son correctos y el término Proyección del Elitismo no es el adecuado. Sin embargo, la mayoría de las proyecciones elitistas no tienen un razonamiento detrás. Es únicamente el hábito inconsciente de asumir que los gustos de uno son un buen reflejo de lo que todas las personas valoran.

Al retar la Proyección del Elitismo estoy siendo completamente razonable. Casi todas las personas se refieren a su propia experiencia al discutir políticas públicas. ¿A quién no le gusta que su experiencia personal sea tomada en cuenta? Pero en una sociedad donde las élites tienen un poder desproporcionado, la tarea súper-humana de resistir su proyección debe estar dentro de las mismas élites. Y yo al ser parte de esas élites – no soy millonario, pero ciertamente tengo educación y privilegios – es mi trabajo también. Como en cualquier intento de ser una mejor persona, es una tarea cansada y nunca estaremos en lo correcto el 100 por ciento de las ocasiones. Por lo tanto, la crítica a la Proyección del Elitismo no puede únicamente desencadenar en ira y enojo. También tiene que ser un proceso empático e indulgente.

De cualquier forma, la Proyección del Elitismo es quizá la primera barrera para lograr ciudades eficientes, justas y liberadoras. La ciudad tiene una característica especial: Funciona para todos solo si funciona para casi todos. Lo mismo puede argumentarse de la sociedad en general, pero sólo en las ciudades esta característica es tan evidente como inevitable.

El tráfico, para usar el ejemplo más obvio, es el resultado de las elecciones de todos en respuesta a la situación de todos. Hasta las élites están atoradas en el tráfico. Hasta hoy, no se ha encontrado solución para liberar a las élites del tráfico y no es porque no se haya intentado. La única solución para el tráfico es solucionarlo para todos y todas y para hacer eso es necesario verlo desde la perspectiva de todos y todas, no sólo desde la de los más privilegiados.

El existente menosprecio al servicio de autobús en las ciudades de Estados Unidos tiene un problema fundamental de Proyección del Elitismo. La única forma en la que el transporte público puede expandirse rápidamente y utilizar con extrema eficiencia el espacio urbano limitado de una ciudad es con autobuses espaciosos que siguen rutas fijas. Pero las élites creen que los autobuses y el servicio que proveen no importan ya que personalmente no es útil para ellos ni ellas.

Durante mis 25 años de carrera he presenciado a líderes urbanos privilegiados – la mayoría con buenas intenciones – buscar exhaustivamente la solución para el transporte público que les permita olvidarse de los autobuses. Ese mismo error alimenta la vaga promesa de la disrupción tecnológica en el transporte público, especialmente la absurda noción matemática de que en zonas urbanas y densas el transporte público llegará hasta tu puerta al llamarlo. (Expertos y expertas serias han abandonado esta idea, pero por desgracia aún se mantiene, minando el apoyo y noción sobre el funcionamiento real del transporte público.)

Ninguna de estas ideas tienen sentido geométrico y por lo tanto no funcionarán para liberar y proveer acceso y movilidad en zonas urbanas y densas. Sin embargo, son ideas atractivas para las élites, atraen la atención del público en general y por lo mismo ayudar a aplazar la inversión tan necesaria en transporte público que millones de personas encontrarían útil y liberadora. Este descuido causa deterioro en el transporte público, generando resultados y decisiones que justifican un mayor descuido y deterioro.

De nuevo, no podemos retar la Proyección del Elitismo hasta que hagamos un examen de conciencia personal. Casi todas las personas que leerán este artículo forman parte de alguna élite. Pero mientras más poder se ostente, más urgente e importante es esta tarea. Debemos preguntarnos: “¿Esta idea funcionaría para mí si estuviera en una situación típica en vez de la posición privilegiada en la que me encuentro?” Ya que si la respuesta es no, tampoco funcionará para la ciudad, lo que significa que al final tampoco funcionará para ti.

(El traductor Rodrigo Garcia es un urbanista especializado en transporte activo y participación comunitaria. Puedes contactarlo en twitter o en su correo electrónico roresendiz@gmail.com)

 

Should I come to SXSW?

If you’re not a techie, SXSW is South by Southwest, one of the leading summits of the tech “disruptors,” held every year in sxswAustin.

A proposed panel on New Mobility and the Future of Design would include:

  • Gabe Klein, Founder of CityFi and former director of the Depts. of Transportation in Washington DC and Chicago.
  • Jeff Wood, who runs the fine urban news outlet The Overhead Wire.
  • Ben Holland, Sr Associate at Rocky Mountain Institute.
  • … and me!

By the standards of tech conferences, this panel would be heavy on people with experience in transit agencies and government, which could be help counterbalance some of the prevailing instincts in the tech industry.

Anyway, there’s a place you can vote for this panel.  It requires a login, which many of my tech-savvy readers already have.  Feel free to state your view.

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.

 

Can You Tour a Bus Network Redesign?

In my email today:

I am visiting Houston in a couple of weeks.  …  I was wondering: are there any particular routes that would be interesting to ride as an example?

Yes, I led the design process for the new Houston bus network, implemented in August 2015.  Buses now run in simpler, straighter, more useful paths, and often at much higher frequencies.  People can get to more places more quickly than ever before.  The high-frequency network went from this …

houston frequent before

to this …

houston frequent after

But I don’t know how I would direct a tourist to experience this — the way it’s so easy to tour a piece of transit technology. You can ride one of the redesigned bus routes, but you won’t notice it’s redesigned unless you try to travel through the system for many purposes.  You can ride a cool bus, and take pictures of it, but then you’ve toured another piece of technology, not the network.

You’d have to live in the city, and use the bus to go lots of places, in order to experience the thing that we designed, which is the sheer ease of getting to many places more quickly.

At best, you could tour information and wayfinding systems.  If you stand at a bus stop, how obvious is the network and its usefulness?  This is a kind of tourism that I encourage, and that I always engage in.  But the wayfinding is not the network.  Many transit networks are much better than you’d guess from their public information, signage, etc.

Here is yet another example of why cities often look at improving their bus networks only after they’ve tried everything else.  There’s nothing to tour, nothing a visitor can see in an hour that would give them a sense of it.

I’m curious if anyone else has encountered ways to make bus network redesign an object of tourism.  Because among urbanist opinion leaders, tourism is a huge part of how ideas are transmitted, and valued.

The Pleasure of Riding Failing Transit

The New York Times has a great parable about the largely empty ferries plying the Hudson River, and the massively crowded trains that the money could have been spent on.  I was reminded of Leap, the failed elite bus in San Francisco, whose marketing images always emphasized how you have room to spread out.  Here was one of their videos:

Note that the bus in this video is never more than half full.

Images that sell you a transit service by emphasizing how empty it is are advertising either (a) an failing service or (b) a service targeted at elites, one that should have very high fares.  The few passengers on the bus must pay for transporting the empty seats all around them.

And not many people are actually willing to pay that.  So instead they are subsidized, either by taxpayers (US $95 per customer round trip in the case of the ferry) or by venture capital, which sooner or later runs out.

But the goal of this marketing, as always, is to encourage elites to mistake what is nice for them with what works for the city.  Because when public transit is really working effective to foster a functional city, you can’t expect to be surrounded by empty seats.

Moscow: Speaking at Strelka Institute

IMG_2910

I’m in Moscow again, following up on our work a year ago that redesigned the bus network in the core of the city.  Thursday night, 6 July, I’ll be speaking at the Strelka Institute, a prestigious institution focused on the issues facing Russian cities.  I’ll speak in English with simultaneous translation into Russian.  Details here!

 

Google’s “Grand Central of the West”

Google and Apple continue to be a story of contrasts, and their latest development moves are no exception.  As Apple completes a new inward-looking space-age fortress in a largely transit-hostile location, Google is planning a huge campus right at Diridon station on the west edge of downtown San Jose, with up to 20,000 employees.

google sj

Google has its eye on the middle of this area in downtown San Jose, California. Note Diridon Stn on the left, LRT line running through, and existing fine street grid. Most of downtown San Jose is just off the map to the right.  Lots of frequent bus service too!

Under current plans, Diridon station will eventually have frequent rapid transit up both sides of the bay (Caltrain on the west to San Francisco, BART on the east side to Oakland and Berkeley).  It’s also a major hub in the local transit network (which we take pride in helping to design).  It is clearly on its way to being the most transit-accessible location in the southern half of the Bay Area.

Google’s current Silicon Valley situation is, frankly, a mess.

google in mv

Google’s self-inflicted transportation mess, Mountain View and Sunnyvale, California.

The company occupies a collection of office parks gathered around various sides of the obstacle of Moffett Field, a military and NASA installation.  This obstacle creates a chokepoint where east-west traffic is all forced down to the 101 freeway, increasing congestion there.  So traveling between Google sites, even over a distance of a mile or two, can be a pain, regardless of whether you drive or take a Google shuttle.

Google’s current locations on the north edge of the valley also form part of the Great Silicon Valley Jobs-Housing Imbalance — jobs are mostly in the north and residents in the south — which creates unmanageable south-north congestion.  And of course Google must also run a huge fleet of buses to bring staff from San Francisco, where many of them want to live.

Many newer startups — like Twitter, Uber, Lyft, Salesforce — have decided that to attract urban talent they have to move into San Francisco — great for transit and walkability, great for their top talent who live there, not so great for lower level employees who can’t afford to live within 20 miles of their job in one of the most expensive cities in the world.

Meanwhile, San Jose has just been sitting there, right adjacent to Silicon Valley, with a historic downtown that has great bones but could use more investment.  Inner San Jose is a pleasant, walkable, historic city that non-elite techies can afford to live in, and that still offers good transit access to the rest of the Bay Area.  Adobe, to its credit, is already there.

So bravo.  I hope this is opens the floodgates to more employers relocating in the most transit-oriented place in Silicon Valley.

Providence’s Downtown Connector: A Streetcar Transformed into Useful Transit

providence-enhanced-transit-corridor

Source: Greater City Providence, www.gcpvd.org

In the US, streetcars mixed with traffic are popular with developers and some urbanists. But when it comes to actually getting you where you’re going, a bus can do anything a streetcar can do, and it can go around many obstacles (accidents, poorly parked cars, etc.) that shut down a streetcar line.  US streetcar starter lines also tend to be very short, forcing people to make connections to reach most destinations.

Last year, Rhode Island leaders decided that the streetcar wasn’t the right answer for downtown Providence.  Instead, they redirected their federal funding for a streetcar into a bus-based project in the same place.  The Downtown Transit Connector will run through the center of the city, from the medical center in the south to the train station (also a major development node) in the north.   Its buses will come every 4-5 minutes, more frequently than any modern US streetcar. Frequency is critical in downtown circulation; we experience waiting time as a percentage of travel time, so we need extremely high frequency if we’re going only a mile or so.

This is not just a streetcar run with buses.  It’s more powerful, because the buses running along this path, forming the high frequency, will continue onto other routes across the city.  The genius of the project, then, is that it solves two urgent downtown problems at once.  It provides the attractive and legible very-frequent spine that makes so many American urbanists want streetcars, but it also solves the problem of getting major bus line through downtown, so that the whole city benefits.

It’s an excellent project with relevance to many US downtowns. I encourage you to follow its progress.