Los Angeles

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.

los angeles cuts bus line that was useful parable

Almost a year ago, I told the story of Los Angeles line 305, a diagonal line that ran every 40 minutes zigzagging across the city's high frequency grid, between Watts and Beverly Hills.  The line was so infrequent, and the surrounding grid service so frequent, that if you just missed the 305 it was faster to take the frequent grid routes and transfer than to wait for the next 305. 

The 305 comes up often in my presentations because it's such a useful example of symbolic transit.  The purpose of the line was not to be useful to very many people, but rather to announce, as a matter of symbolism, that "we run from Watts to Beverly Hills"!  That's certainly how Jennifer Medina of the New York times described it, when it was first proposed to be cut in 2011.  The Times's graphic:

 

4bus-map-popup

The NYT headline of the time even claimed that cutting this line would "make a long bus commute longer," which was factually untrue if you count waiting time as part of travel time.

Well, a year later, LA Metro is finally cutting the 305.  Very few people will experience any loss of travel time as a result, but the system will be simpler, more frequent, and ultimately, more liberating for anyone who wants to get where they're going.  Of course, like such worthily deleted lines as San Francisco's 26-Valencia, the 305 will still be useful as a parable!

 

How urbanist visionaries can muck up transit

Architects and urban visionaries play an incredibly important role in a leadership-hungry culture.  They have to know a little bit about almost everything, which is hard to do.  But for some reason, certain segments of the profession have decided that the basic math and geometry of transit isn't one of those things they need to know, even when they present themselves as transit experts.

To see what I mean, I encourage you to watch this short video from Gensler Architects in Los Angeles.  It's a concise summary of all the crucial mistakes that you'll need to confront in much "visionary thinking" about transit.  (If Gensler takes down the video, read on.  I've inserted enough screenshots from it that you can follow.)

 

[NETWORK_LA transit from tam thien tran on Vimeo.]

The five most common "visionary" mistakes about transit, all on display in the video, are:

  • Disinterest in costs and efficiency.   Visionaries do need to set aside cost and efficiency for part of their brainstorming phase, because by doing so they might come upon an idea that's efficient and affordable in a completely new way.  But they don't have a coherent idea until they've brought those factors back in, at least at the level of order-of-magnitude reasonableness. Sadly, some urbanists scoff when I use the word efficiency, assuming that this means I've lost touch with human needs, aspirations, aesthetics and values.  In reality, efficiency means how much of those good things you can have in a world of limited resources.  Even in the arts, we speak often of the efficiency or economy with which an artist achieves an aesthetic effect.  (The Gensler video, for example, is efficient in displaying all five of these fallacies in only five minutes.)
  • Fixation on transit technologies as though they were the essential distinction between different  mobility outcomes.  For more on this, see here.
  • Confusion about scale.  In transit, if it doesn't scale, it doesn't matter.  Because visionary thinking often focuses first on a prototype – a tiny example of the hoped-for transformation — it often goes too far without thinking about scalability.  Sure, this cool idea works in one suburb or in one cool building, but that says very little about whether it would work in a whole city.  Gensler's particular error about scale is … 
  • Confusion about "flexibility," a dangerous slippery word.  Gensler imagines that a demand-responsive style of transit, in which you make a request on your phone and the transit system somehow deviates to meet your personal needs, is scalable to a vast, dense city where the transit system is already very crowded much of the time.  More on this below. 
  • Ignorance about what's already working, leading to premature demolition fantasies.  If you already hate buses, you won't have much interest in understanding why so many people use them.  Like many urbanist visionaries, Gensler doesn't appreciate the very high ridership and efficiency of the existing transit system across the core of Los Angeles. This allows them to jump to the conclusion that the system should be replaced instead of incrementally improved.  (Tip:  Prematurely dismissing the relevance of something that so many people clearly find useful is an excellent way to sound elitistregardless of the nobility of your intentions.)

So watch the Gensler video if you can, but you can also follow along via my screenshots and comments below.  You'll see these mistakes again and again in the urban visioning business.

0:27 Gensler states the question as "Get LA on transit HOW?"  No argument with the question.

03

0:51  Transit is divided into a set of vehicle types, and these types (light rail, metro, bus) are confused with "methods" of transport.  For more on the absurdity of treating bus/rail distinctions as primary, see here.

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0:53  "We have only these methods.  What if we added more?"  An interesting question to which transit experts (and economists, and engineers) have a very good answer.  The more competing systems you establish in the same market trying to do the same thing, the less well any of them will function, and the less investment any one of them will justify.

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0:56  They now begin to analyze vehicles in terms of distance, sustainability, flexibility.  What's missing?   Cost!  Efficiency!  Some things are just wildly expensive relative to what they deliver.  Darrin Nordahl has already been down this path, evaluating technologies by discussing only their supposed benefits.  That's not evaluation, it's either aesthetic rumination or marketing.  (Neither of those are bad things, but they have to be identified as what they are.)

07

1:20.  They talk about distances but their graphic is talking about speeds.  These are fair for personal modes but absurd generalizations for the transit modes. When your notion of "rail" conflates light rail, heavy metro rail subways, and 70 mile-long infrequent commuter rail, the word "rail" means nothing relevant about speed or travel distance, or any other transit outcome apart from capacity.  (Note that the earlier claim "we have only these methods" implies that these three kinds of rail are the same thing in every way that matters.) 

Likewise, if you think buses have an ideal distance, you're unclear on the role of local buses vs Bus Rapid Transit vs long-haul expresses, all of which are very successful in Los Angeles.  Gensler imposes a "technology first" frame on the data, thereby concealing almost everything that matters about how transit gets people where they're going.

In transit, the real speed distinctions within transit are usually not direct results of technology.  Speed is the result of how often you stop and what can get in your way.  See here.

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09.

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2:00.  Staggering incoherence in comparing input (bus service) to an unrelated output (total ridership including rail).  What's more, the numbers are misleading.  Per the 2011 APTA Fact Book, Los Angeles MTA has America's 3rd highest total boardings and 2nd highest total bus boardings.   In the context of its starved resources and the vagueness of public support for it, the Los Angeles bus system is working brilliantly.

2:26.  Here is Gensler's biggest mistake:

Gensler 1

Gensler 2

Which of these two networks would you rather travel on?

Gensler has mistaken metaphor for logic.  They think that "liberating" bus routes has something to do with liberating or enabling people.  The idea is barely explained and totally incoherent. 

Today, in our supposedly "inflexible" system, you'll find a bus going down a major boulevard with maybe 60 people on it.  Some of them want to go somewhere straight ahead, some want to go to somewhere ahead and to the left, some want to to somewhere ahead and to the right.  Fortunately, they are in a high frequency grid system, which will take all of them to their destination, either directly or via a connection to a north-south line, probably by a path similar to what they'd have followed if driving.  So this huge number of diverse people making diverse trips are all moving toward their destinations on a reasonably direct path.  This is the extraordinary power of the high-frequency grid.  So instead, Gensler proposes bus lines should twist and turn just because somebody with an iPhone wants them to?

Personal technology has great opportunity to better inform us about all transit services, and it can transform the convenience of transit at low-demand places and times, by influencing the operations of low-ridership, low-capacity services, such as demand-responsive buses and taxis. 

Quite possibly, personal apps will allow demand-responsive service to replace some low-demand fixed-route buses, which is fine with most transit planners.  Those low-ridership buses run mostly for social-service or "equity" reasons, and if there's a more efficient way to do that, I expect many transit experts would be all for it.  It would let them concentrate on the high-ridership, high-capacity services that can achieve a great deal of personal mobility and sustainability, very efficiently. 

Successful high-capacity frequent transit needs to take on more of the rigidity of subways, in order to spread the benefits of subways (which we can't afford everywhere) more widely.  That means it needs to be even more frequent, reliable, legible, permanent, and reinforced with infrastructure investment.  Fortunately, within limited resources, many transit agencies are now trying to do that.

The video is full of entirely laudable and familiar green ideas, but then we get to this …

  • 3:23  In Gensler's Los Angeles, every transit trip must be reserved.  Do you really want to have to make an appointment with a single vehicle and driver, because that's the only way to make any use of all the buses swarming around you on unpredictable paths?  Or might you prefer a simple frequent transit corridor where so many buses are coming all the time, in such a predictable pattern, that you can take any of them, and are thus almost guaranteed a vehicle soon even if one breaks down?

 

  • 4:20  "What if we had PERSONAL service?" they ask?  Well, the extreme of personal service would be low-ridership system in a tiny town, where the driver has time to learn everyone's name.  Is that what Los Angeles wants to be?   Or would you rather live in a city where you can get anywhere you want to go easily, starting right now, without making a reservation, and even with the option of spontaneously changing your path or destination, just like motorists do?  

To me as someone who values my personal freedom, flexibility, spontaneity, human dignity, and travel time, Gensler's Los Angeles would be a hell-world worse than Blade Runner.  Fortunately, it's also mathematically impossible.

We've blown up transit networks before, of course, and Gensler's vision should remind us of what was thought about cars vs. transit in the 1940s.  Like personal technology today, cars were just so wonderful for the individual that we just assumed the world could be made in their image.  (The technical term for this idea — that the world will bend to reflect my emotional needs and enthusiasms — is narcissism.)  So we made a deep investment in a car-and-highway technology that could not possibly scale to big cities.  Gensler proposes the same mistake:  Because our iPhones are so cool, they assume that the city, at every scale, can be reinvented around them.

For a more positive vision of the future of Los Angeles, one that begins by noticing the city's strengths and looking at how to build on them, see here and especially toward the end of an interview here.

 

los angeles: deleting some lines can be fair

The New York Times today bewails the loss of Los Angeles bus line 305, which soon will stop running diagonally across the city's grid, from Watts to Beverly Hills and Westwood. 

4bus-map-popup

NYT reporter Jennifer Medina assumes this is purely a victimization-of-the-poor story, starting with this observation:

The 305 was one of several lines created under the consent decree, and it is the only direct route from the city’s impoverished southern neighborhoods to its affluent West Side, where legions of janitors, nannies and maids work each day.

Sounds sad, and it's easy to fill an article with interviews with 305 riders who will experience the deletion as a hardship.  But as that paragraph should warn us, 305 was a symbolic service.  It cannot have been relevant to very many people, not even to many people in the targeted demographic ("janitors, nannies, maids" according to the NYT).  Why?  If you explore the route and schedule [ Download PDF ] and look at how the route fits into the larger network ("System map overview" here), you'll notice:

  • Line 305 is a diagonal shortcut across a high-frequency grid, where trips between anywhere and anywhere can usually be made on lines running every 15 minutes or better with some are far more frequent than that.  Meanwhile, the Line 305 frequency is every 40-60 minutes.  [PDF]  That means that the 305 is the fastest path between two points on the line only if it happens to be coming soon.  If you just miss one, there's another way to get there faster, via the much more frequent lines that flow north-south and east-west across this entire area. 
     
  • The 305's low frequency exposes its riders to the risks of waiting for a single bus: you're basically making an appointment with one driver who may not show up for a variety of reasons.  Routing the same trips via the high-frequency grid means much higher reliability, because the abundance of buses along a line means you are less dependent on any one of them.
     
  • Most important, the alleged target demographic — trips from the "poor south" to the "affluent west" for domestic workers — was mostly not served by the 305.  Both the "poor south" and the "affluent west" are enormous areas.  So no one bus line was ever going to connect all or even most of the "poor south" with all or even most of the "affluent west." 

These points, but especially the last, identify a public transit service as symbolic.  Symbolically, the 305 links the "poor south" and the "affluent west," and thus helps everyone feel good about having served domestic workers.  In fact, the 305 runs through a small part of the vast "poor south" and a small part of the vast "affluent west," but it's still useless for most of the people making that kind of trip, because both areas are so large that no one bus line, or even five, could link all of the likely origin-destination pairs between them.

(You could take other buses in each area and transfer to the 305, but the low frequency of the 305 makes this very risky.  Once you've accepted the need to connect, you might as well ride along the main grid and connect with a high-frequency line to take you where you're going.)

This problem is why frequency and connections were invented.  The governing principle of transit in these core parts of Los Angeles is the high-frequency grid, which allows everywhere-to-everywhere travel at high frequencies with at most one connection.  Yes, it may be sad that some domestic workers who are used to zero-transfer trips are now going to have a one-transfer trip, but that only means that 305 riders will have the same level of transit mobility that everyone else has, including most domestic workers.  It also means that Los Angeles transit will be treating all of this demographic equally, rather than arbitrarily preferring people whose path happens to lie along Line 305.

The other moral of this story is even simpler: If your mission is to serve a whole city or region, designing transit routes around any self-identified group of people is almost always a bad idea.  Most successful and attractive transit seeks maximum versatility, by serving the most diverse possible range of demographics, trip purposes, and origin-destination pairs.  You can make exceptions where a single demographic group produces sufficiently massive ridership, as in some commute markets.  But in general, the way people self-organize and self-identify politically is a bad guide to how to meet their transit needs efficiently.  Everyone can draw the perfect transit line just for their interest group, but such proposals tell you nothing about what a good transit system would look like.

Nobody should be happy about the severe cuts being imposed on many US transit agencies that urgently need to move in the opposite direction.  But as in San Francisco in 2009, cuts are sometimes an opportunity to delete services that have passionate, well-connected defenders, but that simply don't make sense if your goal is a complete network that people can use to go wherever they're going.

transit acceleration campaign goes national

For over a year now, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has been spearheading a "30/10" initiative, designed to accelerate the construction a range of urgently needed transit projects (mostly rail transit lines).  The key word is accelerate, not fund.  The projects are already funded, but on a 30-year timeline.  The 30/10 proposal would deliver the projects in 10 years.

The idea begins with Measure R, a 30-year sales tax increment approved by Los Angeles County voters in 2008 to fund a large package of rail transit improvements, including the Wilshire subway to the westside.  Villairagosa wants the Federal government to create a mechanism to bond this revenue so that it can be spent in one decade instead of three. 

Well, you can only get Congress interested if the same idea can be applied in many places, so predictably the Mayor and Metro are now presenting America Fast Forward, a national campaign to create a similar mechanism for any urban region that has already put funded projects in place.  Los Angeles Metro's blog Source covers it here, the Los Angeles Times's Tim Rutten opines here.  Here's a puffy PDF.

Because it relies on Federal financing rather than spending, and because the funding sources are local tax streams that are relatively stable, it's an approach that could potentially succeed even in lean times.

In a tweet, Cap'n Transit asked me:  Could it be used to build highways?  Yes, it looks like the same mechanism could be used, in theory, to fund any locally supported infrastructure.  I hope it will be constrained to transportation, and if it were constrained to voter-approved funding streams like Los Angeles's Measure R it could well usher in a new era of these measures, in which most voters could vote up or down on a set of plans knowing that if passed, all of them would be built and running in just ten years, soon enough to affect most voters' lives.

 

sydney, call los angeles

In the Sydney Morning Herald today, I wonder out loud if Australian cities can move forward on public transport given the lack of a mechanism for local initiatives or referenda.  Based on our work last year on Sydney's Independent Public Inquiry, I compare Sydney's stasis with the aggressive building program in Los Angeles, and note that for better or worse, California's tradition of direct popular votes on spending plans makes it possible to lock those plans in for decades, providing the security that the private sector needs to do its part.  In Australia, where spending on big infrastructure happens through regular state budgets, nobody can make a commitment beyond the next election cycle, and nobody dares ask the public for a major new funding source.  So the Australian debate always seems to be about which one or two projects will be built in the current generation, and which will be left for our grandchildren to build.  My article is here.

basics: expertise vs. activism

The planning professions work in a grey zone between expertise and activism, and managing these competing impulses is one of our hardest tasks.

As a transit planning consultant, I don’t worry much about being perceived as an advocate of transit in general.  Experts in any field are expected to believe in its importance.  But I do try to keep a little distance between my knowledge about transit and the impulse to say “You should do this.”  A good consultant must know how to marry his own knowledge to his client’s values, which may lead him to make different recommendations than he would do as a citizen, expressing his own values. Continue Reading →