Journalism

quote of the week: the decline of local journalism

From a midwestern newspaper journalist's anonymous email to Andrew Sullivan:

When you see the metrics every day, and it’s clear that quick-hit crime stories or freak-show stories generate as many clicks as an investigative piece that took weeks to report, what rationale can there possibly be for doing the investigative work, the longer-form stories that actually help explain the workings of a community to the people who live there?

If you care about the quality of journalism, consider a policy of refusing to click on crime and freak-show news, no matter how much the headline arouses your curiosity.  One advantage of online journalism is that when I refuse to click on those stories, that disinterest is recorded.   Obviously I'm in the minority, but the conscious behavior of consumers is the only thing that moves corporations.  

Portland Mayor Charlie Hales recently said that one of his biggest problems as mayor is the lack of credible local journalism, which has made it impossible to have a public conversation about issues that matter to the city and region.   Would the great achievements of consensus in the past have been possible without our newspaper of record, the Oregonian, as a universally recognized forum for discsussing the issues of the day? 

It's not just that the Oregonian has ceased to publish on paper, it's also that its website looks trashy and conveys the company's low self-esteem.  Big O, before your name is utterly forgotten, wake up and realize that your marketing advisors are killing you.  Fire whoever suggested that your website be called "Oregon Live" instead of "The Oregonian," and that it should look like the website of a cheap fly-by-night aggregator instead of like that of a newspaper.  The credibility that comes from a long and respected history is the only thing legacy newspapers have as a competitive advantage, and the Oregonian is throwing that away.  

When you really start thinking about this, it's hard to face how scary it could be.  Sure, there are other ways of getting news, usually news pre-digested for those who share your political views.   But there's no other way for the whole city to have a conversation.  How can we do planning without that?

my letter to the globe and mail (update 1)

Sent just now to the Globe and Mail Public Editor, Sylvia Stead.  Beneath this I will post any reply I receive.

Ms Stead 

Thank you so much for your followup re the Crowley article [see yesterday's post, and Ms Stead's comment at the end].  As a professional consultant and author on public transit, I have one more thought.
 
Unknown-2The interesting journalistic question is "What degree of rhetorical exaggeration crosses a line into explicit falsehood, and requires a correction even for an opinion piece?"  I assume you'd agree that opinion pieces must still state accurate facts.  The New York Times runs corrections to its opinion pieces and columnists all the time, at least in its online version.
 
The issue is clearest in this paragraph of Crowley, which I believe warrants a correction:

Portland, Ore., has pursued road-skeptical policies similar to many major Canadian cities. The result is markedly worsened commuting times. According to the TTI, over the past 30 years Portland has gone from having the 47th worst congestion in the U.S. to the sixth worst.

 The second sentence not only untrue but the opposite of the truth.  Portland has among the best commuting times in the US.  As the third sentence reveals, when Crowley talks about "commuting times" he means "motorists' commuting times".  Portland's commuting times are relatively fast not just because lots of people walk, cycle, or take transit.  They're faster because people here tend to live closer to their jobs, the result of decades of careful land use planning that began with Oregon's 1972 laws limiting horizontal sprawl. 
 
Crowley's omission of that crucial word "motorists'" not only makes the sentence false, it reveals that a large part of the population simply does not exist to him.  People who do not commute by car do not count as commuters at all in this calculation.    
 
Does denying the existence of a large group of readers constitute a reasonable distortion for an opinion column?  Or is it just a falsehood?
 
(You can find my rebuttal of Crowley here.)
 
Regards, Jarrett Walker
 
UPDATE 1:  Globe and Mail's Sylvia Stead replies:
Yes thank you Mr. Walker. An opinion piece must be based on the facts so that a reader can come up with his/her own opinion. I will look into the points below and get back to you later this week.
More when I have it.
 

a glimpse into the road lobby’s echo chamber, and how to respond

Canada's leading newspaper has published an anti-transit rant, by Brian Lee Crowley of the "non-partisan" MacDonald-Laurier Institute.  It's based on the work of the Texas Transportation Institute, a leading source of studies that view cities from behind the wheel of a single-occupant car.  It's filtered via Wendell Cox, who's made a career of car-centered advocacy.

I analyzed TTI's work more patiently here, so I'll cut to the chase now.  TTI believes that traffic congestion is a valid measure of people's ability to access the resources of their city.  They do not measure actual travel times for all people, or the liberty and economic opportunity that a good urban transporation system offers.  They apply these things as factors to a degree, but their bottom line is road congestion.  

Specifically, their metric is the difference in travel times, by car, between travel time on congested roads and the same roads in a free-flow condition.   In other words, their baseline utopian condition is abundant free-flowing roads at all times of day.  (That condition is actually an economic impossibility in a city above a certain size with a healthy economy and no road pricing.)  

Once you insist on measuring congestion, and against that fantasy baseline, you can get absolutely everything backwards.  

Portland, Ore., has pursued road-skeptical policies similar to many major Canadian cities. The result is markedly worsened commuting times. According to the TTI, over the past 30 years Portland has gone from having the 47th worst congestion in the U.S. to the sixth worst.

"Markedly worse commuting times" is false.  If you count everybody's commuting time, Portland is ahead of most US metros.   As the next sentence reveals, it is only congestion that is worse.  Yes, like all dense cities, Portland has exactly as much congestion as it makes room for, but it has low overall commute times, mostly because its carefully mixed density allows many people to commute very short distances.   Remember, if you are measuring car congestion, Portland's transit riders and cyclists and the many people who can walk to work simply do not exist.  Crowley disses "congested" Vancouver for the same reason, even though Vancouver is the only Canadian metro where the long-term trend is toward shorter commute times, due to continued consolidation of housing and business around transit.  

So how should an activist respond to this kind of talk from the asphalt-and-petroleum echo chamber?

Everyone should know how to respond to articles like this, because we'll keep seeing them.  The comments on the article ("Wendell Cox is an idiot") are not encouraging.  Wendell Cox is not an idiot.  He is part of a reactionary process that accompanies every revolution, one that we'll hear more from.  He's a smart man who knows exactly what he's doing.

Take time to understand the point of view.  Many people's brains are so fused with their cars that to them, congestion really is the same thing as urban mobility or urban liberty.  To them, the TTI is right.  

So first you have to object by shining light on that premise.  TTI, and by extension Canada's leading newspaper, believes that certain people do not exist or do not matter — namely everyone who already travels by transit, bike, or foot,  and everyone who can imagine choosing not to drive in the face of real and attractive choices.  

But then, avoid the trap of casting these excluded people as an underclass.  Too many activists fall into that Marxist reading, and issue a call to arms on  behalf of "ordinary people."  They get through to people who already agree with them, but to the dominant business culture they look like an easily-dismissed-or-manipulated rabble.  Instead, read Edward Glaeser or Bruce Katz and understand that people who are investing in low-car "congested" cities are the leaders of the new information economy.  

A good retort to road-lobby claims that life is really better in Houston than in Vancouver is to check the cost of comparable housing.  If it were has hard to get around in Vancouver as TTI suggests, people wouldn't pay a fortune to live there.  Transit-rich cities are expensive, in part, because many people there can get around without being stuck in congestion.  High costs of living, in turn, are the market telling us to create more places just like that.  This is the free-market argument.  It is the only one that will break through to the business mind and start conveying that maybe there's something to all this transit-oriented investment.  

The TTI will last at least as long as the Tobacco Institute, and it will sound just as scientific in praise of its product-centered world view — in this case, a world in which only motorists count.  So you have to question the world view.  If an argument is based on a false remise, don't engage the argument, because in doing so you're accepting the premise.  Attack the premise.

san francisco: my piece in sunday’s chronicle

Unknown-2
The San Francisco Chronicle commissioned me to do a "big picture" op-ed piece for their Sunday Review, which appeared yesterday.  It's here.  The bit with the violins:

Our current generation of leaders grew up with cheap gas, "free" freeways, and abundant land for suburbia, with a concept of security formed by the Cold War. For Millennials, the issues are economic insecurity and climate change, and they're telling us, in every way they can, that they are not as interested in cars. They are getting driver's licenses later in life, and buying cars later, if at all. They are part of why the amount of driving in America rose steadily until 2004 and has been flat or declining since then. It's easy for older people to pretend that their kids are like they were at that age, but the Millennials are not like their parents. Their formative experience is different, and so are their priorities.

In 2040, the Millennials will sit in the power-seats of government and business. Sooner or later, the world, and the Bay Area, will be governed according to their priorities. So in the end, it comes back to one of the great human questions that every ruling generation has faced: Can you listen to your adult children, and honor the ways that they differ from you? Can you see the value in smoothing the path toward the world that they will rule? Or do you want only to slam on the brakes, protecting your own habits and assumptions?

It's not an easy question, but it's the real question of all long-range planning. How Bay Area residents answer it will decide the future of their region, and possibly the world.

 

slippery word watch: commute

When journalists reach for a word meaning "transit riders" or "constituents of transit" they often seize on the word commuter.  

Definitions of to commute (in its transportation sense) vary a bit.  Webster says it means  "to travel back and forth regularly (as between a suburb and a city)."  Some other definitions (e.g. Google) suggest that commuting  is specifically about travel to work or (sometimes) school.  The core meaning seems to be a trip made repeatedly, day after day.

But in practice, this meaning tends to slip into two other meanings.  As with most slippery words, confusion between these meanings can exclude important possibilities from our thinking.    

One the one hand, the meaning is often narrowed to "travel back and forth during the peak period or 'rush hour.'"  This narrowing arises from the inevitable fact that most people engaged in policy conversations — especially in government, business, and some academia — have jobs that lead them to commute at these times.  What's more, many people who are happy to be motorists often care about transit only during the peak period, when it might help with the problem of congestion. Reducing the meaning of commute to "rush hour commute" narrows the transportation problem to match these people's experience of it. 

Of course, cities, and especially transit systems, are full of people traveling to and from work/school at other times, most obviously in the service sector (retail, restaurants) but also in complex lives that mix work, school, and other commitments.  But these trips, even if made regularly, are quietly and subconsciously excluded from the category of commutes, when the term is used to mean only "rush hour commuter."

There's nothing wrong with talking about rush hour commute trips, of course.  They're an important category that must be discussed, but I am always careful to call them peak commutes. The problem arises when commute can mean either the narrow category of peak trips or the larger category of all regularly repeated travel.   That's the essence of a slippery word, and the danger is higher because this slip is exclusionary.  When the word is used in a sense that is narrower than its definition, large numbers of people are being unconsciously excluded from the category it defines, and thus from our thinking about that category.

The word commute can also slip in the other direction, becoming broader than its literal meaning.  It's common to see the word commute used as a one-word marker meaning "movement within cities."  The excellent Atlantic Cities website, for example, uses "Commute" as the name of its section on urban movement in general.  This, presumably, is also what the New York Times means when it refers to San Francisco's BART system as a "commuter train."  BART runs frequently all day, all evening, and all weekend, serving many purposes other than the journey to work or school, so its effect on urban life is much broader than just its commuting role.  When a word's meaning slips to a broader one, it can falsely signal that the broad category is actually no bigger than the narrow one — in this case that all urban travel is just regular trips to work or school.  This takes our eye off the remarkable diversity of urban travel demands, and the much more complex ways that movement is imbedded in all aspects of urban life.

So commute – and the category word commuter — refers technically to a regularly repeated trip, usually for work or school.  But in journalism, and in the public conversation, it's constantly being either broadened to mean urban movement in general, or narrowed to mean "rush-hour commuter."

What can you do?  Be careful.  When you mean "regularly repeated trips," say commutes.  When you mean "regularly repeated trips at rush hour", say peak commutes or rush hour commutes.  When you mean "all travel at rush hour, regardless of purpose or regularity," say the peak or rush hour.  When you mean "all urban mobility or access," speak of urban access or mobility.

Any linguist will tell you that the slippage in word meanings — especially their tendency to slide to broader meanings or narrower ones — is a normal feature of the evolution of language.  I have no illusions that this process can be stopped.  But when we're having public conversations, slippery word usages are the most common way that strong claims to hegemony or exclusion can hide inside reasonable-sounding statements — often hiding even from the person speaking them.  Learn to recognize slippery words (see my category Words, Unhelpful) and look for them, especially in journalism. 

Yet another reason, by the way, to hire literature students! 

Cynicism is Consent

Now and then I think of an aphorism that’s so self evident that surely some guru must have said it by now. Perhaps someone did before 1990, but Google finds nothing for “cynicism is consent.”

So I’ll say it.  Cynicism is consent.

Currently I’m having a small, polite dust-up with the Cincinnati Enquirer about a false headline on a story.  When I tweeted about it, I got this tweet from a leading urbanist thinker whom I very much admire:

“You expect a headline writer to understand subtlety? Hah!”

To which my response is:  Not unless I force them to.

I cannot begin to describe how much better public transit would be if people who feel cynical about it would complain constructively instead of languishing in the dead-end expressed by that tweet.  And yes, you have to do it over and over.  Patiently.

As a consultant with 20 years under my belt in this business, I have seen enough of “what really goes on behind closed doors” that if I wanted to express cynicism, I’d be way more qualified than most folks to back it up.  But you’ll notice I don’t.

As with many issues, public transit in America is neglected because of apathy, not opposition.  The opponents are not the problem.  The apathy of supporters is.  And cynicism is a big part of that apathy.

Cynicism often dresses itself up as wisdom and worldliness.  Often it sounds like the voice of older folks warning young ones against idealism.

But in the end, the cynic who presumes the worst is as useless as the pollyanna who presumes the best.  Because to assume either of those things means that there’s nothing for you to do, which means you are consenting.

the mobile battery problem solved, in 1908! (quote of the week)

[Thomas Edison] has so far perfected his storage battery that it will live long enough to stand charges to carry a truck over fifty thousand miles.  The perfected battery will pull twice the load of an ordinary truck, will have double the speed and only take up half the space.  It will modify, to an extent hardly appreciated, the congestion of the down-town streets, for an electric truck equipped with the batteries will be half as long as today's unwieldy wagons.  Being twice as fast, there will be only one eighth of the present congestion in the streets under the new system of speedy motor trucks.

From a fascinating article about Thomas Edison
in Success magazine, 1908, by Robert D. Heil.
The whole article is a delightful read!

This makes so many important points!

  • The technology that Edison "perfected" is something that we're still trying to invent over a century later.  Richard Gilbert and Anthony Perl argue that much humbler batteries are close to physically impossible.
  • A century ago, like today, everyone assumed that problems of geometry and economics could be solved by some sort of technology.  Nobody wanted to think about induced demand, the obvious idea that demand for a valuable commodity is affected by its avaialbility.  In a growing city especially, technologies that open up new space for traffic (via either road expansion or vehicle shrinkage) inevitably create more demand for that space, causing congestion to return to an unpleasantly high state sufficient to deter further travel by private vehicle.  This is why all forms of modelling that imply a fixed demand for car travel in some future year (the "traffic is like water" idea) are preposterous.  
  • If you wonder why I rarely hyperventilate about game-changing technologies on this blog, and tend to be skeptical about technological solutions, one reason is that technology doesn't change the laws of geometry and physics, nor does it transform the mathematical concept of scarcity that underlies the law of supply and demand — perhaps the only idea in economics that deserves to be called a "law".  No invention has ever changed these facts, and doing so is the closest thing to an impossibility that we can imagine.  
  • If you wonder why I am skeptical about transformative claims made for driverless taxis, well, one reason is that Edison is making the same claims about congestion reduction benefits, based on the same limited assessment of impact.
  • More generally, if you've been fortunate to have some training in literature or history, you have read a lot of stuff that sounds like this.  If you study the history of "this-technology-will-change-everything" rhetoric, all the way back to the Industrial Revolution, much of what we hear today from technology promoters sounds thoroughly familiar, just as Edison's claims here should sound familiar to those following the driverless car debate (on which I have an article in the works).  You learn that most great ideas come to nothing, or have quite different impacts from those promised, often because of problems of physics, math, or basic economics that any rational, non-hyperventilating person could have thought about at the time.  

Obviously, stuff gets invented that changes things, but when technology claims to fix a physics problem, such as seems to underlie the challenge of mobile batteries, or a problem of supply and demand, like the role of induced demand in congestion, be skeptical.  

Hat tip: @enf, (Eric Fischer)

a technophile wants my brain, and yours

I'm not sure if I should give this oxygen, but for the record: Randal O'Toole, the infamous anti-planning writer known for his blog The Antiplanner, has falsely implied that I agree with his critique of Los Angeles rail plans.  Not so fast.  If he'd read by blog, or my book, he'd know better.

Here's what he wrote today:

Portland transit expert Jarrett Walker argues that “we should stop talking about ‘bus stigma.’” In fact, he says, transit systems are designed by elites who rarely use transit at all, but who might be able to see themselves on a train. So they design expensive rail systems for themselves rather than planning transit systems for their real market, which is mostly people who want to travel as cost-effectively as possible and don’t really care whether they are on a bus or train.

This view is reinforced by the Los Angeles Bus Riders’ Union, and particularly by a report it published written by planner Ryan Snyder. Ryan calls L.A.’s rail system “one of the greatest wastes of taxpayer money in Los Angeles County history,” while he shows that regional transit ridership has grown “only when we have kept fares low and improved bus service,” two things that proved to be incompatible with rail construction.

So because I defended buses from the notion of "bus stigma", O'Toole assumes I'm a bus advocate and therefore a rail opponent.  This is called a "false dichotomy," identical in logic to George W. Bush's claim that "either you're with us or you're with the terrorists." 

(In a related move, he insists that you can't improve rail and buses at the same time, a claim directly disproven by the last decade in which LA Metro developed the Metro Rapid buses [and Orange and Silver Line busways] concurrent with rail extensions.) 

In fact, I maintain and encourage a skeptical stance toward all technophilia — that is, all emotional attachments to transit technologies that are unrelated to their utility as efficient and attractive means of public transport.  To the extent that the Bus Riders Union is founded on the view that rail is some kind of adversary, while the bus is the unifying symbol of their cause, I view them with exactly the same skepticism that I would bring to the elite architect who implied that we don't need buses because she'd never ride one. 

Some technology-fixated minds just can't imagine what it would be like to be agnostic about technology and to care instead about whether a service actually gets people where they're going efficiently.  To put in terms that conservatives should respect — I'm very interested in transit that efficiently expands people's freedom, and whatever technology best delivers that in each situation or corridor.

I'm also interested in how all kinds of transit fit together as networks, because this is essential if we're to offer a diverse range of travel options to each customers.  Everyone who becomes emotionally invested in bus vs rail wars — on either side — closes themselves to the idea that different technologies can work together form a single network. 

Like many pairs of polarized enemies, the Bus Riders Union and certain bus-hating elites both endorse the same fallacy.  In this case, both seem to believe that the most important purpose of a transit technology is to signify class categories, and that the key feature of their favorite technology is that it serves their class and not the other's.  Both experience cognitive dissonance when one suggests that maybe bus and rail are not enemies but complementary tools for different roles in a complete network designed for everyone, or that people of many classes and situations can mix happily on one transit vehicle, as happens in big cities all the time.

The idea that a city as vast and dense as Los Angeles can do everything with buses, no matter how much it grows, is absurd.  Drivers are expensive, so rail is a logical investment where high vehicle capacity (ratio of passengers to drivers) is required.

The only way the conservative dream (shared by Gensler Architects) makes sense is if you smash the unions so that all bus drivers make minimum wage, preferably from low-overhead private operating companies.  This is how transit works in much of the developing world, and the result is chaos, inefficient use of street space, and fairly appalling safety records.  Most experts I know who've immigrated from such places were glad to trade that for the transit they find in North America, whatever its faults.

It is absurd, too, to continue claiming that the Los Angeles rail program is "elite."  Go ride the Red Line to North Hollywood or the Blue Line through Watts and tell me if those services seem packed with "elites" to you.  When I ride them, I see the same wonderful diversity that I see on the more useful bus services, weighted of course by the characteristics of the neighborhoods we're passing through.

There's no question that some LA rail projects can be criticized for having been built where right-of-way was available rather than where they were needed, though the more you understand the political process the more you sympathize with the difficulty of those decisions.  But when self-identified bus-people attack rail, and self-identified rail people attack buses, they both sound like the lungs arguing with the heart.  There's a larger purpose to transit, one that we achieve only by refusing to be drawn into technology wars, and demanding, instead, that everything work together.

the atlantic wonders if transit is failing white people

How do you react when you read the following sentence?

In Los Angeles, 92 percent of bus riders are people of color. 

This supposedly shocking fact is the starting point for Amanda Hess's confused and aggravating piece in the Atlantic today, which argues that somehow transit is failing because it's not attracting enough white people.  "As minority ridership rises, the racial stigma against [buses] compounds," Hess writes.  Sounds alarming!  But who exactly is feeling this "stigma," apart from Ms. Hess, and how many of those people are there? 

Read it again:

In Los Angeles, 92 percent of bus riders are people of color.

Now, how does your reaction change when I point out that in the 2010 census, just under 28% of the population of Los Angeles County is "non-Hispanic white," so over 70% can be called "people of color."  Now what if I tell you that as always, transit is most concentrated in the denser parts of the county, where the demand and ridership are higher, and these areas happen to be even less "non-Hispanic white" than the county at large?  (Exact figures can't be cited as this area corresponds to no government boundary.)  So the bus system, weighted by where the service is concentrated, serves a population of whom much, much more than 70% could be described as "people of color".

Please don't treat these figures as too precise.  The claim that "92% of Los Angeles bus riders are people of color" is impossible to fact-check because two of its key terms are ambiguous. 

  • Does "Los Angeles" mean the City of Los Angeles or Los Angeles County?  They're both big but very different.  Remarkably, though, both are over 70% "people of color."
  • Likewise there are many definitions of "Los Angeles bus rider" depending on which transit agencies you include.  I suspect Hess got her figure by looking just at LA Metro, rather than the many suburban operators who are also part of the total Los Angeles bus network, but it's hard to know. 
  • And by the way, I'm assuming that "people of color" include what the Census calls "Hispanic whites," as it has every time I've heard the term. (To the Census, anyone of European ancestry, including from Spain centuries ago, is "white.")

So to the extent we can track Hess's statistics here's what they say:  Los Angeles bus ridership is mostly people of color because Los Angeles is mostly people of color. 

But Hess wants the nonwhiteness of Los Angeles bus riders to be a problem, evidence that the transit agency — at least on the bus side — is somehow failing to reach out to white people. 

Racism has sometimes had a role in the history of U.S. transit planning, and there's a Federal regulatory system, called Title VI, devoted to ensuring it doesn't happen again.  But racist planning — discriminatory service provision aimed to advantage or disadvantage any ethnic group — is not only immoral but also a stupid business practice.  Diversity is the very essence of successful transit services — not just ethnic diversity but diversity of income, age, and trip purpose.  Great transit lines succeed to the extent that many different kinds of people with different situations and purposes find them useful.  As a planner, I want every line I design to be useful to the greatest possible range of people and purposes, because that ensures a resilient market that will continue even if parts of it drop out for some reason.

So why is it a problem that in massively diverse international cities we don't have "enough" white people on the bus? 

I happen to be in Los Angeles at the moment, on a brief and busy trip.  Tonight, after dark, I took a pleasant walk across downtown — from Union Station to 7th & Flower — pausing to note how safe I felt on streets and squares that were synonymous with crime and violence when I was a child.  Few of the people I saw were white like me, but the folks relaxing and listening to music in Pershing Square seemed like citizens of a decent city capable of joy.  (In a mean moment, I wanted to call my late grandmother and say: "Hi, Gramma! It's 10 PM and I'm in the middle of Pershing Square!"  I wanted to see the look on her face, back in 1980 or so.  She would probably have called the police and demanded they rescue me.)

Then I took the bus back to my Chinatown hotel, Metro Line 78, well after dark, and marveled at all the dimensions of the diversity.  Some people looked poor, others seemed prosperous and confident, but a strong social contract was obvious.  I read clues suggesting a huge range of professions, situations, life choices, and intentions.  And if Amanda Hess hadn't been so insistent about it, the fact that I was the only white person on the bus wouldn't have occurred to me, and certainly not occurred to me as any kind of problem.

Yes, there are plenty of people, still, who feel more comfortable riding with people who look like them, in a vague way that encompasses both race and class signals. But how much does this desire influence service planning?  How long should it?  Questions worth debating, I suppose.

Among young people out in downtown Los Angeles at night I see mostly interracial groups of friends.  I have no illusion that the whole city is like this, but it's striking nonetheless.  About 18 years ago in the New Republic — too old to be linkable — I read a story about how "post-racial" young people in Los Angeles are, how they are used to cultural diversity and uninterested in racial divides.  If any cultural observer could discern that then, how much truer it must be now.

Go ahead.  Try riding one of the well-lit, air-conditioned buses of inner Los Angeles.  It's not full of people just like you.  But neither is the city, and that's the glory of it.