Journalism

Why the Media Fixation on “Transit is Failing” Stories?

Recently, I took issue with the Los Angeles Times for telling a  “ridership is falling” story, even as they published a chart that cast doubt on that claim.

Now here comes the same distortion in Silicon Valley’s San Jose Mercury News.  Look at the chart:

20160415_101955_SJM-VTA-0418-90_300

The chart title contradicts the chart.  The transit agency’s ridership has not been in any serious decline since 2005.  The truth is that it fell steeply from 2000 to 2005, and had a small drop in ’09-10 related to the financial crisis and related service cuts.  Otherwise, ridership has been tracking pretty well with population.

Now, here’s how the Mercury News spins it:

Staggering drop in VTA bus ridership may signal dramatic changes

Despite a Santa Clara Valley population and jobs boom, ridership on buses and light-rail trains has dropped a staggering 23 percent since 2001, forcing the Valley Transportation Authority to consider its biggest shake-up ever in transit service.

 The decline comes as new BART service into the South Bay is projected to spill 23,000 more transit riders into the VTA region next year.
As their own chart shows, ridership is down since 2000 but up since 2005.  The Mercury News is just playing the old arbitrary starting year game.  If you want to tell a story about ridership collapse, just pick a high starting year for your comparison.  If you want to tell a story about ridership soaring, pick a low starting year.  Both kinds of stories are bogus.

From this silliness, the article above spins vast webs of misinformation. Notice how you’re supposed to conclude …

  • … that VTA is in a crisis today.  No, VTA was in crisis 10-15 years ago, and had a bad year during the financial crisis, when everyone else did, too.
  • … that VTA is falling behind recent growth in population and jobs.  Again, just look at the chart!
  • … that VTA’s supposed crisis is some kind of failure to meet the opportunity presented  by the BART extension.  No: The BART extension is happening now, the “crisis” happened over a decade ago.
  • … that a ridership “crisis” is forcing VTA’s hand.  Yes, ridership is lower than we want it to be, but that’s not because of a “crisis.”  It’s because ambitions for public transit are rising as it becomes clear to more people that cars are incapable of serving the region’s growth.

When we look at this piece together with Laura Nelson’s recent Los Angeles Times piece, then, the only interesting question is this: Why are newspapers so desperate to tell “transit in crisis” stories?

Why is this story what everyone supposedly wants to hear? Why do we see this hysterical spin over and over, even when the very same article contains a chart telling a different story?

There’s no doubt that the San Jose / Silicon Valley transit system isn’t what citizens want it to be.  That’s why we’re working with the agency.  But the issue is not that these agencies are in crisis; it’s that citizens’ expectations of them are higher than they have been in the past.  Most transit staffers I know, including those at VTA, spend all their time looking for ways to meet those higher expectations.

But if you wonder why transit agencies can sometimes seem defensive, imagine how you would feel if everything you did was slammed in the media using simple distortions like the arbitrary starting year.  Would you remain cheerful, open-minded, and ready to take risks for a better world?

 

Chart: San Jose Mercury News, from a chart in our own Choices Report, which is downloadable at the bottom of this page.

For Reporters Disparaging Transit Projects, “Far” Isn’t Far

If you’ve ever wondered what well above and well below mean, as opposed to far above and far below, Dan Weikel and Ralph Vartebedian at the Los Angeles Times have quantified it for us, in an article about the California High Speed Rail project.

Rail officials also say the latest cost estimate for the entire 500-mile project has been reduced from $68 billion to $64 billion, well below the $98 billion projection from several years ago, but still far above initial estimates of less than $40 billion.

I’d always assumed that  far was further than well.  But no, by their math, well is $34 billion but far is as little as $24 billion.   Well is further than far.

So now, anytime someone uses far or its relatives to imply extremes — “the furthest corners of the earth” etc,, you can ask:  Sure, they may be the furthest, but are they the wellest?

Does the Ridership-Coverage Question Apply to Bikes?

For over a decade, I've been encouraging transit agencies to be clear about how they balance the contradictory goals of ridership (as many customers as possible for the fixed operating budget) or coverage (some transit service everywhere, responding to needs rather than to demand).  I lay out the tradeoff in the opening part of this explainer.  

Michael Anderson, the editor of the excellent blog Bike Portland, has a very thoughtful article exploring how, and whether, this paradigm applies to cycling infrastructure.  Disclosure: It would be fascinating even if they hadn't interviewed Michelle Poyourow, a bike-and-transit planner who's also a Senior Associate at our firm.  (Did you know, btw, that we're hiring?)

Really, if you care about cycling, read Michael's piece.  It's a great piece of writing, one that I'm still thinking about.

My interview on National Public Radio

Last week I was a guest on Here & Now, a nationally syndicated radio program produced by WBUR in Boston, talking with the show's Jeremy Hobson about the recently approved Houston METRO Transit System Reimagining, and how its lessons apply to other American cities.  The segment aired today, and is a nice summary of the project, quickly covering much of the material discussed here, here and here. Take a listen via the embed above, or head over to the Here & Now site to check it out.

beware bus route saviors at election time …

We don't make endorsements, but beware politicians' promises about individual bus routes.  

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Melbourne transit guru Daniel Bowen confirms that nobody is threatening  to cancel the 822.  The other team's plan involves removing some twists and turns on neighborhood streets, so that the route runs faster and is useful to more people.  As usual, that plan asks some people to walk further to a more useful service, as virtually any access-improving network design will do.    

Those changes are fair game for debate, but remember:  If you want to "save" every existing bus route exactly as it is, forever, then you're against almost any coherent plan and cost-effective plan to update and improve your transit network.  This and this, for example, would have been impossible!

Edmonton: what a great transit debate looks like

The Edmonton Journal's Elise Stolte has been doing an excellent series on the city's debate about the future of transit.  Unlike many transit debates, this one is about a real issue that affects the entire city: how to balance the ridership goals of transit with the competing coverage goals, where "coverage" means "respond to every neighborhood's social-service needs and/or sense of entitlement to transit even if the result is predictably low-ridership service."   This is the great inner conflict in transit planning: Do we respond to demand (ridership) or to needs and expectations (coverage)?

When I briefed the Edmonton City Council last year, as part of their Transit System Review, I encouraged the council to formulate a policy about how they would divide their transit budget between ridership goals vs. coverage goals.  This solves a fundamental problem in transit analysis today: too often, transit services are being criticized based on their failure to achieve a goal that is not the actual goal of the service.  

For example, almost all arguments about how unproductive North American bus service is are based on the false assumption that all bus services are trying to be productive.  Based on all the agencies I've worked with, only around 60-70% of bus services have ridership as a primary purpose.  (My test: "Is this service where it would be if ridership were the only goal of the agency?")

I may have invented this rigorous way of talking about transit's conflicting mandate.   I began developing it in a Spokane (Washington) project around 1997 and in projects in Bellingham and Reno a few years later.  My peer-reviewed paper on the methodology us here and the case for it is also in Chapter 10 of my book Human Transit.  Helping transit agencies think about this question has been a central part of most transit studies I've done since, including major projects in Houston, Columbus, Indianapolis, Salem (OR) etc. 

Nothing makes me happier than to hear elected officials debating an actual question whose answer, once they give it, will actually affect reality.  This is what's happening in Edmonton now.  So far,  articles in Elise Stolte's series have included

Soon, I'm sure, she'll cover some of the passionate arguments in favor of coverage services, which we heard from several City Councilors when I last briefed them on the issue.  

Throughout, the Journal's Elise Stolte has taken a tone of genuine curiousity ("So, will you help me think this through?") in an argument where there are no right or wrong positions, only different priorities and visions to be balanced.  Is your city having this conversation clearly?

 

If a carpenter can’t be a hammer opponent, then I can’t be a streetcar opponent

I’ll be leery of Toronto Star interviews in the future, because I explained my view carefully and that’s not how it came out:

Jarrett Walker and Rob Ford (see Rob Ford’s policard) don’t have much in common. One is an Oregon-based transit consultant, the other Toronto’s chief magistrate. One blogs avidly, the other disdains the media. Whereas Ford rails against the “war on the car,” Walker touts the virtues of buses.

But on one issue, at least, the policy wonk and the conservative politician agree: streetcars are overrated. Walker is decisively on one side of a new debate in the U.S., over whether the trendy form of rail transport springing up in American cities makes practical sense.

My actual view is too long for a soundbite but should not have been too long for an article.  My view is that streetcars mixed with private car traffic are overrated. I was very clear with the reporter that all of my critiques of the US streetcar revival movement are about streetcars in mixed traffic.  In the Toronto context, I specifically distinguished between the old downtown Toronto mixed traffic streetcars, which are nearly inoperable due to traffic impacts, and Toronto’s exclusive-lane light rail segments such as Spadina and St. Clair.  None of my concerns about streetcars apply to the latter.

Here’s the bottom line.  Streetcars are just a tool.  They can be used in smart ways and in stupid ways.  Asking a transit planner for an opinion about a transit technology is like asking a carpenter what his favorite tool is.  A good carpenter sees his tools as tools and chooses the right one for the task at hand.  He doesn’t use his screwdriver to pound nails just because he is a “screwdriver advocate” or “hammer opponent”.  Yet the Toronto Star  assumes that nobody involved in transit debates is as smart as your average competent carpenter.

To call me a streetcar advocate or opponent, you are imposing on me your own assumption that the bus-rail debate is the most important conversation about transit.  This is the Toronto Star’s assumption, but it’s not mine.  In fact, my work is about blowing up that assumption, and suggesting that instead of falling in love with vehicles, wires, and propulsion systems, we might consider falling in love with the freedom to get where you’re going.

the dangers of travel time comparisons

Revised in response to early comments. 

Are you sure you know which of your transportation options is fastest?  It depends on how you think about travel time.

A recent Boston Magazine article about the private bus service Bridj featured  typical "race" between two transit modes: the MBTA subway and Bridj, which provices luxury buses on fixed routes and schedules running only at times of peak commute demand.   The newspaper sent someone by each path at the same time.   The outcome of the race is supposed to be decisive:

Bridj1

 

Why is this not a fair race?  Well, it depends on when you start.  From the article:

The MBTA passenger arrived last, [sic] even though she had a head start and boarded the train six minutes prior to Bridj’s departure.

Why a six minute headstart?  Why not 10 or 20?  What headstart would be appropriate?  The headstart is your cue that there's something wrong with this methodology.  

What's really happening here is that a service that is available all the time — the subway — is being compared to one that's only available at a few special times — Bridj's specialized commuter buses.  Any "travel time race," with any headstart, is going to miss the real point of this comparison.

The notion of travel time seems so self-explanatory that most people miss how deeply misleading it is in discussing transit.   The imagined user is someone who happens to be going at the ideal moment for the preferred mode to succeed.  We talk about travel time this way because it's how motorists, cyclists, and pedestrians experience it: as something that begins at the moment you want to go.  

But that's not how transit travel time works, so the comparision implied by the term "transit travel time" is often a false one.  

When I teach transit planning and rhetoric, I encourage people to think of a weighted sense of travel time that includes average wait time, or more generally the difference between when you wanted to go and when you went.  A bus that's 10 minutes faster is of no use if gets you somewhere 30 minutes before you needed to be there [an 8:00 AM class or meeting, for example] because that's the only time it ran.  

Purveyors of low-frequency transit services, such as classical North American commuter rail, do this as well, bragging about how fast you can get from A to B without mentioning that this travel time is available only once a day.  

Unless you are sure that you will absolutely always travel at the same time each day, transit travel time figures have to be viewed with skepticism.  Whenever you hear about travel time, ask about frequency! 

race, racism, and transit planning

 

I should not have taken the phone call from LA Weekly.  As soon as the reporter said that he wanted to probe "why so few white people ride transit in LA", I should have said no, I will not give any more oxygen to the divisive and pointless conversation that the question is trying to encourage.  I had already given the factual answer to that question in my article on "bus stigma" in the Atlantic Citylab, and I should have simply referred the reporter, Chris Walker, there.

Still, there's nothing wrong with the LA Weekly article:

[Jarrett] Walker tells L.A. Weekly:

"There is no reason to believe that Angelenos are irrational about their transportation choices. … I believe a transportation system is reflective of its usefulness. The focus should be on making a more useful system. Do that, and [increased] diversity will be a side effect."

Walker argues that the way to get bigger ridership more reflective of Los Angeles is to increase density along L.A.'s transit lines: add special transit lanes for buses (as the city is currently creating on Wilshire Boulevard) and push for transit-oriented developments (TODs) that feature high-density buildings filled with offices and housing near the major transit routes.

But of course, this was too much for Breitbart News:

According to Jarrett Walker, a designer of transportation systems for a number of big cities, the Los Angeles bus system is designed in a way that offers better service to non-white Angelenos. No one uses the word racism, but the dog whistles in this clinical explanation will chill your spine:

But Jarrett Walker, who has designed transportation systems in multiple cities, says stigma and social standing are not what's keeping L.A.'s white folks in their cars.

In a blog post, he points out that white residents are more likely to live in low-density areas where bus service is not common or practical. Meanwhile, the population of the area served by Metro is well over 70 percent people of color, "which means that the number of white bus riders is not far off what we should expect."

What say we just stop with the word games, Los Angeles. 

 " And fancy language like "the number of white bus riders is not far off what we should expect" is just another way of screaming "honky."

What can one say?  Well, this:

This is transit planning consultant Jarrett Walker, author of the book Human Transit and the blog humantransit.org. The author of this post clearly knows nothing about my work, though he could have looked me up easily enough, and like many race-obsessed folks he seems to know nothing about the law of supply and demand, or the nature of how organizations succeed.

If anyone wants to understand my actual views on this matter, see the original article of mine: http://www.citylab.com/commute…

Like any organization that seeks any kind of success, including every private business, transit in LA tries to respond to the demand for its product. It does this by focusing on areas where the nature of development makes it easy for transit to succeed. It's a mathematical fact that transit is more useful in places where density is high, the local street network is well-connected, and where walking is easy. If white people in LA are more likely to live in areas that are not like this, transit is not being racist in not serving them.

You know what I love about LA? It's way less obsessed with race than its media is. I suspect most Angelenos would never have asked how many white people ride the bus, because it's not an interesting question. As a white person I couldn't care less, and most of the white people I know couldn't care less. LA's prosperity arises from people working together, and getting where they're going together. Racial resentments get in the way of that.

Conservatives need to chose between their commitment to ethnic resentments and their commitment to prosperity. In an age of global collaboration, you can't have both.

I can now imagine a horde of commenters saying:  "You're giving the merchants of hatred too much attention, Jarrett.  Breitbart News deserves to be ignored."  Yes, they do, but when ethnic hatemongering gets as much attention as Breitbart News does, there has to be a response on the record, and now there is.