Philosophy

Seattle: Before the Live Debate, the Written One (and an Imptertinent Question)

Login_logoSetting up for our panel discussion this Thursday night, the Seattle Times asked each of their panelists to answer some canned questions about the future of transportation.  The result is here.  I hope the contrasts will motivate you to come!  

Bravo to Bryan Mistele of INRIX (the traffic consultants to the notorious TTI Urban Mobility Report) for being willing to come into the densest part of Seattle and announce that (a) cars are our future and (b) light rail is a bad investment because of its ridership in the early years.  (Both claims presume the linearity of past trends and the irrelevance of land use changes in response to transit.)  But the courage is admirable: To say these things in the middle of Seattle would be like me pitching high-intensity transit networks at the Elks Hall of a small town in Nebraska.

Which raises a key point:

Notice, as you read this, how all high-level discussions, at regional levels or above, tend to presume that there is some answer to the "transit vs cars" question that is the same everywhere.  

In fact, the answer is radically different in different places, based on known built-environment factors and local politics that tend to track closely with those factors.  Some places are suited to cars and therefore defensive about cars.  Some places function only with transit, so they view transit as an existential issue.  All urban regions — and most states, provinces or countries — are going to have both kinds of places and everything in between.

So my question going in is this:  Why can't we let Seattle have the kind of transportation system it needs, and let low density and rural areas have the kind that they need?  Why do the differing needs of different communities require that we have a war between those communities, at all levels of government?

Rhetorical Annihilation in the Social Sciences

[This post is periodically updated as helpful comments roll in.]

Have you ever picked up an academic paper and read, right there in the abstract, that you don't exist?  

We're used to reading rhetoric that defines us as the enemy, which is different.  Rhetoric about the "war on cars" or "war on coal" posits an in-group of good people, including the author and presumed reader, and an out-group that is threatening to them.  This is exclusionary language in its obvious form, and it's hard to justify in academia.  

But academics can slide unconsciously into a more subtle kind of exclusionary rhetoric, especially in the social sciences — what I'll call (melodramatically perhaps) the rhetoric of annihilation.  Instead of defining a group of people as evil or threatening, this rhetoric just ignores their existence.   In this rhetoric, there is no talk of war, because only one side is visible.   The author's presumed expertise becomes a kind of campfire.  Gather around the author's assumptions and you will be warm, safe, and included; if you don't, we can't see you out there in the dark anyway, so you basically don't exist.

This is remarkably easy to do even in an academic paper.  Here are two vivid examples, one classically leftist, the other conservative.

From the left, a paper on "transit deserts".  You can go to the link, but I'm not naming the authors here because I have no desire to embarrass them by attracting searches on their names.  Their work has been peer-reviewed, which means that several arbiters of academic quality view it as an acceptable example of professional thinking today.  My point is about how pervasive and accepted this rhetoric is even as academic thought.

The abstract begins:

The term “transit desert” is a new concept that looks at the gap between level of transit service (supply) and needs of a particular population (demand).  These populations are often referred to as “transit dependent,” people that are too young, too old, or too poor or who are physically unable to drive. “Transit deserts” in this case are defined as areas that lack adequate public transit service given areas containing populations that are deemed transit-dependent. 

In just a few words, the authors have denied the existence of three very large groups of people.  These rhetorically annihilated groups are:

  • Anyone who analyzed the spatial relationship between transit service and needy populations before someone  invented the "new concept" of doing this.  This includes all professional transit planners over the age of 30, including past generations going back a century or more.  (Of course, the rhetorical annihilation of elders is such a routine part of being young — kids, we did it too at your age! — that it's hardly worth being offended by.)  
  • Anyone for whom demand does not mean mere need, but rather the meaning that is already routine in business and economics — something like a "buyer's willingness and ability to pay a price for a specific quantity of a good or service".  The paper's use of the word demand annihilates anyone coming from the perspectives of business or basic economics..  
  • Anyone who uses transit, wants transit to be useful to them, or wants the live in a city where even the rich ride transit, but who does not meet the specified qualifications to be called "transit dependent."  As made clear in the first sentence, these people's desire to use transit, or to build a city around transit, does not count to the authors as demand, because they do not meet the authors' standard for need.

A paper could make arguments against the point of view of these groups, but tbat's not done here.  Rather, the very possibility that such positions might exist is denied.

And of course, conservatives papers do this too.  Let's turn to a conservative-sounding paper, featured in Atlantic Citylab, for which you can also follow the link for the citation.  It's a little more careful but standard forms of annihilation appear soon enough.  The paper opens like this:

This article asks why public transportation’s political support in the United States is so much larger than its ridership.

Upon reading this, I scratched my head trying to imagine what it would be like to find this an interesting problem statement.  I don't mean to rhetorically annihilate the authors; I acknowledge their existence, but it it sounds like they don't talk with transit advocates or riders very much.   Those people would tell you that the answer is too obvious to need studying, as indeed it turns out to be:  

We … show that support for transit spending is correlated more with belief in its collective rather than private benefits—transit supporters are more likely to report broad concerns about traffic congestion and air pollution than to report wanting to use transit themselves.

Well, of course people vote for transit for reasons other than the narrowest kind of self-interest. People vote for transit because (a) it benefits people they care about, if not themselves, (b) it offers some solutions to real problems of urban mobility and (c) it helps foster cities that people want to live in, as demonstrated by the way land values are soaring in such places.  

But why is this a problem?  The authors conclude:

These findings suggest a collective action problem, since without riders transit cannot deliver collective benefits. But most transit spending supporters do not use transit, and demographics suggest they are unlikely to begin doing so; transit voters are wealthier and have more options than transit riders.

A collective action problem is a situation in which everyone would benefit if X were done, but nobody can justify doing X as a selfish cost/benefit calculation.  One fable explaining the problem imagines a group of mice who would all benefit if a marauding cat wore a bell, but none of whom finds it rational to the huge risks of climbing the cat's back to put the bell on.

What does it mean to assert that the transit ridership is a problem of this kind?  It implies …

  • … that transit users who do not vote do not exist.  The most explicit rhetorical annihilation in the paper is the assumption that the set of people who vote in the US (rarely more than 40% of the population and often less in local elections) largely contains the set of potential transit riders.  In reality, non-voters are so dominant in the population that their ridership may be a big contributor to transit's actual success, thus helping solve any "collective action problem".  Nor do they consider that many of these non-voters are friends or relatives or employees of voters, who may then understandably, even in a sense selfishly, vote in the interests of those people. 
  • ... that people who don't think they'll use transit are right about that.  In the biz, what people say they want to do, or would do, is called stated preference data, and it's known to be largely useless.  Humans are terrible at guessing what they'd do, or want to do, in a hypothetical future based on a situation, and set of options, that they can't imagine now.
  • ... that there is no gradual path to collective action, because demographic categories all have hard edges within which people are trapped.  This is the big one.  To posit a "collective action problem" the authors must assume that the level of wealth above which people are unlikely to use transit is rigid, even though it in reality it rises as transit grows more useful, and that it divides a population cleanly.   Everyone who is near the boundaries between demographic categories, or who chooses transit for reasons not predictable by their income, is annihilated here.

No argument appears in the paper for any of the assumptions above.  Limited discussion about ridership is based on what people tell the census about their commuting behavior; this casually annihilates all non-commute users of transit, including people who voted for it and love to use it on weekends, but have to drive to work because it's not useful for that purpose.

Finally, the collective action problem assumes that everyone is a bizarre character from classical economics known as homo economicus: someone who rationally computes and acts on self-interest that is defined only in the narrowest sense.  Among the many absurdities that follow from this are that in exactly the same circumstances, everyone would do the same thing, because we do not have diverse values, attractions, or personalities.

But in the real world, one mouse sometimes does put the bell on the cat.  Some of us will take ridiculous risks for the common good.  Some of us choose to be firefighters or police or soldiers or artists or social workers, all high-risk jobs that require courage but that enrich society if they succeed against all the odds.  Most of us don't take those risks, but we're all better off because some of us do.  Likewise, some fortunate people ride transit because they like it.  Some less fortunate ones prefer to spend their scarce income on a motorcycle.  

Everyone who acts in ways not predictable by their assigned demographic category is being annihilated here.  Human diversity, even human quirkiness is good for the collective, however hard it is for the social sciences to describe. 

What do these two papers have in common?  Between them, they annihilate almost everyone, including each other's in-groups.  

You could say that all this annihilation is an occupational hazard of the social sciences — or indeed that it's an inevitable feature of them.  The social sciences are in the business of talking about gigantic groups of people using reductive categories, and all categorization suppresses diversity.

But the hardness of category boundaries is one of the most fundamental and dangerous of human illusions, because it is coded deeply into common language and underlies all forms of prejudice.   So the social sciences are always playing with fire, always at risk of giving aid and comfort to polarizing, exclusionary styles of thought.  

This rhetoric of annihilation can lead to publication and approval, so long as an adequate ecosystem of reviewers and advisors has reasons (ideological or material) for sharing an assumption or at least not challenging it.  But once past that bar, these assumptions become "the literature," bounced around in the echo chamber of "expert" discourse.  Through the turning of generations, some of these assumptions do get overturned, if only as part of the inevitable process of the young annihilating their elders.  But much harm is done in the meantime.

Great academic work also requires thinking about all of the forces that determine the situation being studied, not just the one's academic discipline or in-group values, and honoring  descriptions of the issue from those points of view.   If they intend to influence policy, they make sure they understand the diverse experience of practitioners in the field, not just academics.  This is especially true if a paper intends to influence policy, rather than just participate in a discipline's private conversation. 

But meanwhile: Do you see a new academic paper, thick with footnotes and citations, as an immediate signifier of authority and wisdom?  Be careful.  To be welcomed around the campfire, you may have to consent to annihilation.

Quote of the week: on simplification (with notes on the adverb “sorta”)

When the physicist Richard Feynman found himself listening to a scientific talk in a field he didn't know well, he had a favorite question to ask the speaker: Can you give me a really simple example of what you're talking about?  If the speaker couldn't oblige, Feynman got suspicious, and rightly so.  Did this person really have something to say, or was this just fancy technical talk parading as scientific wisdom? … Simplification is not just for beginners."

Daniel C . Dennett
Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking

ContentIntuition Pumps is best book on philosophy that I've read in decades, and also an fun and engaging read.  Engineering makes no sense without science, and science makes no sense without a philosophy of science.  Dennett's great contribution is what I'd call a practical skepticism.  When I was in college, philosophy was receding into arid debates about pure logic.  (One of my advisors wrote papers with titles like "Is 'Not' Logical?")  I'd call that absolute skepticism, and while it's abstractly interesting in the way that chess is, it never emerges from its logical culdesacs to address any of the practical questions about how human beings, given what we are, should go about deciding what to believe.  

Dennett's work starts with a different standard embodied in his trademark adverb sorta.  Ideas don't have to be absolutely or abstractly or logically true in all frames of reference; they can be sorta true, which means valid enough to be reliable and useful, because what humans most urgently need are reliable and useful ideas.  Newton's physics is sorta true, and it's sorta correct to talk about trees solving problems through natural selection even though we know they don't have brains.  Free will is a philosophical problem in the world of abstract ideas, but Dennett argues it's not a real problem, because it doesn't matter to the actual decisions that we make in the context of what we sorta know.  

Sorta turns out to be a surprisingly rigorous term for getting us out of logical holes and out into the space where actual problems need solving.  This, and the practical skepticism it underpins, is worth the price and pleasure of this excellent book.

Does transit infrastructure cause ridership?

Does building a new transit line trigger ridership?  Does it even make sense to talk about the ridership of a piece of transit infrastructure?  

If you say yes, you're expressing an infrastructurist world-view that is common in transit investment discussions.  The right answer to the above questions, of course, is "No, but:

  • Infrastructure permits the operation of some kind of useful transit service, which consists of vehicles running with a certain speed, frequency, reliabilty, civility and a few other variables.
  • That service triggers ridership."

To the infrastructurist, this little term — "service" — is a mere pebble in a great torrent of causation that flows from infrastructure to ridership.  By contrast, service planners, and most transit riders that I've ever met, insist that service is the whole point of the infrastructure.

If you read the literature of infrastructure analysis, you  encounter the infrastructurist world view all the time, mostly in ways that's unconscious on the authors' part but still a source of confusion.  This afternoon I was browsing TCRP 167, "Making Effective Fixed-Guideway Transit Investments: Indicators of Success", which includes some really useful explorations of land use factors affecting the success of transit lines.  But when they talked about infrastructure features as causes of ridership, the report routinely delivered weirdness like this:

The percentage of the project’s alignment that is at grade proved to be a negative indicator of project-level ridership. At-grade projects may be more prevalent in places that are lower in density, while transit is more likely to be grade-separated in places with higher density or land value. Thus, this indicator may be reflective of density. It may also be true that at-grade systems are slower than grade-separated systems. At-grade status may reflect a bundle of operational characteristics such as speed, frequency, and reliability, although the analysis did not find that these factors individually had a statistically significant effect on ridership.  [TCRP 167, 1-17]

This careful talk about how a correlation "may" reflect density or "operational features" sounds vague and speculative when it's actually very easy to establish.  There is no shortage of evidence that:

  • High density reliably triggers ridership.
  • Areas of high density are less likely to have available surface rights of way.
  • Therefore, highest ridership segments tend to be grade-separated.

So this is a case where "A correlates with B" does not mean "A causes B" or "B causes A".  It means "A and B are both results of common cause C".  It's important to know that, because it means you won't get B simply by doing A, which is the way that claims of correlation are usually misunderstood by the media and general public.

Later in the paragraph, the authors again describe the obvious as a mystery:

At grade status may reflect a bundle of operational characteristics such as speed, frequency, and reliability …  

Yes, it certainly may, but rather than lumping all the at-grade rail projects together, they could have observed whether each one actually does.  

… although the analysis did not find that these factors [speed, frequency, and reliability] individually had a statistically significant effect on ridership

While this dataset of new infrastructure projects is too small and noisy to capture the relationship of speed, frequency, and reliability to ridership, the vastly larger dataset of the experience of  transit service knows these factors to be overwhelming.  What's more, we can describe the mechanism of the relationship, instead of just observing correlations:  Speed, frequency, and reliability are the main measures of whether you reach your destination on time.  Given this, the burden of proof should certainly be on those who suggest that ridership is possibly unrelated to whether a service is useful for that purpose.

Note the word choice:  To the infrastructurist, speed, frequency and reliability are dismissed as operational, whereas I would call them fundamental.   To the transit customer who wants to get where she's going, these "operational" variables are the ones that determine whether, or when, she'll get there.  It doesn't matter whether the line is at-grade or underground; it matters whether the service achieves a certain speed and reliability, and those design features are one small element in what determines that.  

I deliberately chose a TCRP example because the authors of specific passages are not identified, and I have no interest in picking on any particular author.  Rather, my point is that infrastructurism so pervasive; I hear it all the time in discussions of transit projects.  

I wonder, also, if infrastructurism is a motorist's error: In the world of roads, the infrastructure really is the cause of most of the outcomes; if you come from that world it's easy to miss how profoundly different transit is in this respect, and how different the mode of analysis must be to address transit fairly.

Whenever you hear someone talk about the ridership of a piece of infrastructure, remember: Transit infrastructure can't get people to their destinations.  Only transit service can.  So study the service, not just the infrastructure!

 

 

 

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.

Email of the week: on Robert Steuteville’s defense of slower-than-walking transit

I don't have time to respond to everything that gets published on transit, but Robert Steuteville's must-read piece today on the Congress for the New Urbanism blog, which explains why we should invest in transit that's slower than walking*, certainly deserves a response.   

Fortunately, sometimes an email does it for me.  From Marc Szarkowski:

Hi Jarrett,

Perhaps you've already noticed this piece and are already penning a response (even though several already exist on your blog!). It seems to be another example of the "urban designers are from Mars, transportation planners are from Venus" phenomenon you described some time ago.

I admire and respect Robert, and I think his "place mobility" concept is quite sensible. Indeed, one can argue that the first and most powerful rung on the transportation "efficiency" ladder is to ensure that destinations are within walking/bicycling distance wherever possible, obviating the need for cars and transit in the first place, in turn freeing up the latter two for long-distance travel. But after the "place mobility" concept, I think the article begins to fall apart.

It seems to me that it's easy to romanticize slow transit if you don't have to rely on it all the time. With all due respect, I get the impression that many "streetcar tourists" use transit only occasionally when visiting a new city, or perhaps to go to a ball game, but for little else. And I get it: if much of your day-to-day travel is characterized by routinized, featureless car trips between work, shopping, meetings, and whatnot, I can see the allure in taking a break to relax and 'go slow,' as it were.

But the romantic impulse towards slow transit wears away quickly if you have no choice but to rely on it all the time! I don't have a car, so I rely on buses that travelexcruciatingly slowly, wasting much of my time. (I have, for example, learned to pad an hour between meetings and appointments in different parts of town, simply because the mixed-traffic transit takes so long to get from A to B to C.) So, rather than viewing slow transit as an opportunity to unwind and watch the street life pass by, I see it as a precious-free-time-gobbler. 

love to be immersed in street life when I'm walking, but when I inevitably need to travel beyond walking distance, I want to get there quickly. Does this make me a so-called "speed freak?" If so, wouldn't all the urban designers out there praising slow transit for others - while they hurriedly shuttle from charrette to public input meeting to office to daycare in their cars – be "speed freaks" too? The reality is that most of us – walkers, bicyclists, drivers, and transit riders alike – are "speed freaks" most of the time, simply because we prefer minimizing travel time and dedicating our precious free time to friends and family.

And this gets back to "place mobility:" it is great when many daily necessities – the grocery store, the bank, the library, the elementary school – are within walking distance. But – and this perhaps reveals a conceptual flaw in New Urbanism – not every place can or should be a self-contained "village." As Jane Jacobs argued, the whole point of cities is to offer rich opportunity – opportunity that requires travel beyond whatever a "village" can offer: "Planning theory is committed to the ideal of supposedly cozy, inwardly-turned city neighborhoods. [But] city people aren't stuck with the provincialism of a neighborhood, and why should they be – isn't wide choice and rich opportunity the point of cities? (Death and Life, 115-116)."

For example, I may be fortunate enough to have a daycare center on my block, but perhaps I want to send my kids to a magnet or private school across town – a school better than my neighborhood school? So would my kids rather wake up at 5am to take a streetcar sitting in traffic to get to school, or wake up at 7am to take a faster subway or a bus on a bus lane? I may be fortunate enough to have a pharmacy on my block too, but what if the doctor I trust is across town? Would I rather take the whole day off from work to take a streetcar sitting in traffic and delayed by a poorly-parked car to get there, or could I take a half-day by taking the subway or the crosstown express bus? For better or worse, there will always be long-distance destinations, and I suspect transit riders will continue to prioritize speed for these trips.

As for the short, local trips made possible by "place mobility," I still wonder whether mixed-traffic streetcars are the best bang for the buck. Yes, they are a placemaking tool, but they're not the only (or the cheapest) one. If, as admitted in the article, mixed-traffic streetcars don't particularly offer useful transit, nor are they necessarily the only/best/cheapest placemaking tool, then I have to wonder if 30 years from now we'll look back on them as yet another expensive urban renewal fad. (American cities are still littered with half-dead "game changing" fads from the 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s.) We ultimately need rapid transit and "place mobility," but mixed-traffic streetcars are hardly a prerequisite for creating the latter.

So far I've hesitated voicing these opinions to fellow urbanists because I don't want to alienate any friends, but I'm increasingly skeptical of the streetcar fervor. Given that (A) mixed-traffic streetcars are simply slower and less-flexible than mixed-traffic buses, and (B) that the benefits that are packaged with properly-prioritized streetcars (dedicated lanes, signal priority, durable shelters, etc.) could just as easily be packaged with buses, I wonder if the streetcar fervor is an example of simple "technograndiosity." At the end of the day, I'd rather have ten bus lines reaching twenty useful places than one streetcar line reaching two useful places.

(Marc Szarkowski creates plans, models, diagrams, and illustrations of urban design, streetscape design, and planning proposals, and is a regular rider of Boston's, Philadelphia's, and Baltimore's transit systems.)

*Most new streetcars in the US have average scheduled speeds of 6-10 mph, a jogging or running speed for able-bodied adults.  However, actual travel time (compared to a private vehicle alternative) includes the average wait time.  Most US streetcars are not very frequent (usually in the 15-20 minute range) given the short trips that they serve, so it is the high wait time, combined with the very slow ride, that makes them slower than walking.  Again, this calculation describes the experience of an ordinary working person who needs to get places on time,  not the tourist or flaneur for whom delay is another form of delight

How good are we at prediction?

Transportation planning is full of projections — a euphemism meaning predictions.  Generally, when we need a euphemism, it means we may be accommodating a bit of denial about something.

Predicting the future, at a time when so many things seem to be changing in nonlinear ways, is a pretty audacious thing to do.  There are  professions whose job it is to do this, and we pay them a lot to give us predictions that sound like facts.  I have the highest respect for them (all the more because what they do is nearly impossible) but only when they speak in ways that honor the limitations of their tools.

Good transportation planning does this.  at the very least, it talks about future scenarios rather than predictions, often carrying multiple scenarios of how the future could vary.  Scenarios are still predictions, though; they're just hedged predictions, where we place several bets in hope that one will be right. 

I will never forget the first time that I presented a proposed transit plan and was told:  "that's an interesting idea; we'll have to see how it performs."  The speaker didn't mean "let's implement it and see what happens."  He meant, "let's see what our predictive model says."  You know you're inside a silo when people talk about prediction algorithms as though they are the outcome, not just a prediction of the outcome that is only as good as the assumptions on which it's built.

What's more, we seem to be really bad at predicting curves, or even acknowledging them as they happen.

Actual_projected

Something really important happened in the US around 2004, which experts call the "VMT Inflection."  Vehicle Miles Traveled in the US — the total volume of driving — departed from a linear growth path that it had followed for decades, and went flat.  Here's the same curve looking further back.  Around 2003, you could be forgiven for thinking that this steady slope was something we could count on. 

VMT rising

(At this point an ecologist or economist will point out that the VMT inflection shouldn't have been a surprise at all.  This graph looks like what a lot of systems do when their growth runs into a capacity or resource limit.  The VMT inflection is a crowdsourced signal that the single-occupant car is hitting a limit of that kind.)

So reality changed, but the Federal projections didn't.  Even as late as 2008, when the new horizontal path had been going for four years, Federal projections claimed that the growth in driving would immediately return to the previous fast-rising slope.  Again:

Actual_projected

This isn't prediction or projection.  This is denial.  

All predictions rest on the assumption that the future is like the past.  Professional modelers assume their predictive algorithms are accurate if they accurately predict past or current events — a process called calibration.   This means that all such prediction rests on a bedrock idea that human behavior in the future, and the background conditions against which decisions are made, will all be pretty much unchanged, except for the variables that are under study.

In other words, as I like to say to Millennials:  the foundation of orthodox transportation planning is our certainty that when you're the same age as your parents are now, you'll behave exactly the way they do.

We describe historical periods as "dark" or "static" when that assumption is true.  Over the centuries of the European Middle Ages or Ancient Egypt, everyone acted like their parents did, so nothing ever seemed to change except accidents of war and the name of the king or pharaoh.  Our transportation modeling assumes that ours is such an age.

Historical progress arises from people making different choices than their parents did, and there seems to be a lot of this happening now.  

What we urgently need, in this business, are predictions that try to quantify how the future is not like the past; for example, by studying Millennial behavior and preferences and exploring what can reasonably be asserted about a world in which Millennials are in their 50s and are in the position to define what is normal, just as their parents and grandparents do today.

We already know that the future is curved.  (With rare exceptions like the growth of VMT from 1970 to 2004, the past has been curvy as well).   Millennials are not like their parents were at the same age.  There will be major unpredictable shocks.  There are many possible valid predictions for such a future.  The one that we can be sure is wrong is the straight line.  

My work on Abundant Access – part of the emerging world of accessibility studies — is precisely about providing a different way to talk about transportation outcomes that people can believe in and care about.  It means carefully distinguishing facts from predictions, and valuing things that people have always cared about — like getting places on time and having the freedom to go many places — from human tastes that change more rapidly — such as preferences and attitudes about transit technologies. It's a Socratic process of gently challenging assumptions.  Ultimately, it's part of the emerging science of resilience thinking, extending that ecological metaphor to human societies.  It posits that while the future can't be predicted there are still ways of acting rightly in the face of the range of likely possibilities.  

Imagine planning without projections.  What would that look like?  How would we begin?

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.

time for an urbanist “tea party”? the citylab conversations

The "tea party" US House members who currently dominate the news are unlikely allies of urbanists.  But on one core idea, a band of urbanist thinkers are starting to echo a key idea of the radical right:   Big and active national government may not be the answer.

Images-5Last week, I was honored to be invited to Citylab, a two-day gathering in New York City sponsored by the Aspen Institutethe Atlantic magazine, and Bloomberg Philanthropies.  The event featured mayors and civic policy leaders from both North America and overseas as well as leading academics, journalists, and consultants.  

I expected the thrilling mix of new ideas, compelling stories, and quirky characters, but I got one thing I didn't expect:  A full-throated demand, from several surprising voices, for an urbanist revolt against the power of national governments.

Al Gore said it with his trademark fusion of bluntness and erudition: "The nation-state," he said, "is becoming disintermediated."  If you're not an academic at heart, that means: "National governments are becoming irrelevant to urban policy, and hence to the economy of an urban century."  

On cue, the New York Times published an op-ed on "The End of the Nation-State," about how cities are leaving nations behind.  Citylab also featured a terrific interview with political scientist Benjamin Barber, whose new book If Mayors Ruled the World argues for the irrelevance of nation-states in a world where cities are the real levers of economic power.  (According to Barber, the full title of his book should have been:  If Mayors Ruled the World: Why They Should and How They Already Do.)  When I spoke with Barber later, looking for nuance, he was full-throated in ridiculing the US Federal role in urbanism.   On this view, all the well-intentioned money that the Federal government doles out for urban goodies should be spent by cities as they see fit, or perhaps (gasp) never sent to Washington at all. 

Follow this logic and you might arrive at a radical urban Federalism, perhaps even one that could meet tea-party demands to "Abolish the IRS!"   Pay taxes to your city or state, and let them send a bit of it on to central government to do the few things that only a central government can do.  Push power downward to the scale where problems can be solved. 

You might even separate urban from rural governance in a way that enables both to thrive, each at its proper scale, replacing the eternal struggle between these necessary opposites that makes today's political discourse so inane.  The "size of government" debate is just a pointless and eternal struggle between urban and rural experience, both of which are right.  Living in cities means relying on government for many things that the rural resident provides for herself, so of course the attitude toward government is different.   But what's really logically different is the role of local government. Both urban and rural experience provide good reason to be suspicious of big-yet-distant national government, which can be as unresponsive to big-city mayors as it is to a Wyoming county official who just needs to get a bridge fixed.

At most of the urbanist and transportation conferences that I attend, though, any shrinking the national government role is met with horror.  And that's understandable.

In the US, the prevailing local response to declining federal spending is outrage and redoubled advocacy.  In Australia or Canada, two countries I work in extensively, working urbanists and infrastructure advocates seem to agree that of course there must be a bigger central government role in everything, with the US often cited as the model.  In the US itself, it's easy to see the current cuts in Federal spending as a disaster for urbanism and infrastructure.  It is, but it could also be something else: an invitation to governments that are closer to the people to have their own conversations that lead to local consensus about funding and solutions.

If mayors do end up ruling the world, it will be because the city, unlike the state or nation, is where citizenship is mostly deeply felt.   A nation's problems are abstract; if they show up in your life you're more likely to think of them as your community's or city's problems.  And that, in short, is why the city may be best positioned to actually build consensus around solving problems, including consensus about raising and spending money.  

And yet …

Before urbanists join the tea partiers in trying to shrink the national government, they have to grapple with the problem of inequality.  As sites of concentrated opportunity, cities are attracting the poor as well as the rich, and are thus becoming the place where inequality is most painfully evident.  But no mayor can be expected to solve a problem that exists on such a scale.

In small-c conservative terms, of course, the problem is not income inequality but rather the declining credibility of a "ladder of opportunity" that convinces everyone that reasonable effort will improve their circumstances.  One reason to care about transit, walking, and cycling — for many points on the income spectrum — is that transportation can form such a formidable barrier to opportunity.

All through Citylab, hands were wrung about inequality and the need to Do Something about it, against the backdrop of a New York City mayoral election that is mostly about this issue.  A rent control debate, featuring New York City Planning Director Amanda Burden and economist Paul Romer, found no middle ground on the question of whether city policy can usefully intervene to help low income people.  Income inequality appeared to be one issue where cities can do little by themselves.

When I asked sociologist Richard Florida about this in the North American context, he pointed me to an article proposing that the US create a Department of Cities.  He has good ideas about how to keep this from being just another bureaucracy, but if income inequality is the big issue that only national policy can address, it's not clear that it should be tagged as an urban issue at all.  Cities are not where the problems are.  Cities are just where people see their society's problems most intensely in daily life, because they get out of their cars.  

The great city in the wealthy parts of the world cannot just be an enclave of success.  It will deserve the self-government that the mayors seek only if it relentlessly inspires, supports, and gives back to its suburban and rural hinterland, creating its own "ladder of opportunity" for access to the riches of urban life.  Only a few people can afford Manhattan or San Francsico, so those cities' money and expertise must focus not just on themselves but on making life in more affordable places incrementally more humane.  Turning Newark into Manhattan would just make it unaffordable, so some of the urgency must lie in less photogenic intervention that works for each place's price-point.  It lies in providing safe places to walk and cycle, and  a safe way to cross the street at every bus stop, even in landscapes of drive-through everything that will be what many people can afford, and what some prefer.  

That's why I'm happy to be working not just in San Francisco but also in Houston, where affordability is a leading selling point.   It's why I'm suspicious of transit planning that defines an elite "choice rider" as the only important customer, including much of the transit-aestheticism that comes out of urbanist academia.  Where are the prestigious awards for the best affordable, scalable, but nonsexy intervention that made low-income inner-ring suburbia more safe and functional?  How do we build not just the shining city behind a moat (San Francisco, Manhattan, Singapore) but a chain of humane and functional places, at every price-point, that combine safety, civility and opportunity?

Where is the money in that?    If mayors ruled the world, I hope that would be obvious.  So let's hope they already do.

quote of the week: how not to “fossilize”

“To live sanely in Los
Angeles (or, I suppose, in any other large American city) you have to cultivate
the art of staying awake. You must learn to resist (firmly but not tensely) the
unceasing hypnotic suggestions of the radio, the billboards, the movies and the
newspapers; those demon voices which are forever whispering in your ear what
you should desire, what you should fear, what you should wear and eat and drink
and enjoy, what you should think and do and be. They have planned a life for
you – from the cradle to the grave and beyond – which it would be easy, fatally
easy, to accept. The least wandering of the attention, the least relaxation of
your awareness, and already the eyelids begin to droop, the eyes grow vacant,
the body starts to move in obedience to the hypnotist’s command. Wake up, wake
up – before you sign that seven-year contract, buy that house you don’t really
want, marry that girl you secretly despise. Don’t reach for the whisky, that
won’t help you. You’ve got to think, to discriminate, to exercise your own free
will and judgment. And you must do this, I repeat, without tension, quite
rationally and calmly. For if you give way to fury against the hypnotists, if
you smash the radio and tear the newspapers to shreds, you will only rush to the
other extreme and fossilize into defiant eccentricity.”

Christopher Isherwood, Exhumations.

 

Hat tip: Matt Sitman, The Dish