Philosophy

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

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.

a leading bureaucrat on the need to take more risks

Here's a very worthwhile three minutes of Washington DC Planning Director Harriet Tregoning on risk-taking and failure.  Her discussion of Capital Bikeshare, which failed in its first incarnation and succeeded in its second, is an incisive challenge to the bureaucratic mind, and it's directly related to transit improvements.  

Whenever we try to improve transit systems, we often find — especially in network redesign — that a whole lot of big changes have to be made at once.  What's more, they're irreversible.  Network redesigns are so big and impactful that you can't just "try" them and undo them if they don't work.  By the time you've done them, the previous status quo is irrecoverable.

So they're big risks.  And most people — especially most groups of people working together such as Boards and committees — don't like to take risks.  The deliberation process in government often seems designed to shrink every initiative, so that all strong transformative moves shrivel into hesitant "demonstration projects," if they survive at all.

Tregoning's story here is basically that the first bikeshare system failed because it was too small, too hesitant, while the second one succeeded because it was far bigger, bolder, riskier.  Many of the government cultures I've known would have decided, based on the first round, never to try bikeshare again.  It took courage to say that maybe the lesson was that some things just can't be done as tiny demonstration projects.  You have to build the courage to actually do them, at the natural scale at which they start to work.

Transit network redesign is exactly like that.  It's hard to do in hesitant, reversible phases, because it's all so interconnected, and because a network doesn't start to work until it's all there.  

Thanks to Melanie Starkey of the esteemed Urban Land Institute for pointing me to this! 

quote of the week: governor brown on etymology

In Latin, Brown said, “eco” means house. As an example, “economy” means “rules of the house.”  “Logos” means “lord, god, or the deep principles or patterns of nature.” So “ecology is more fundamental than economics. Economics sits within ecology. Not the other way around." 

— from an interview with California Governor Jerry Brown
in the American Society for Landscape Architects blog, "The Dirt"

We need more elected officials conversant in etymology. If you don't know what's going on inside your words, you can't predict what they'll do behind your back.

the photo that explains almost everything (updated!)

You've seen photos like this. A large group of people, with images comparing the amount of precious urban space they take depending on the mode of transport they use.  This new one is by Australia's Cycling Promotion Fund.

CanberraTransportPhoto_x3_3600px

This photo makes at least three important points, two of them probably not intended.  In this one image you can see that:

  • Bike racks on buses (and most other transit) can never be more than a niche market

The rack on the bus in pic #1 carries two bikes, which is great for those two people.  But if all the bikes in pic #2 try to get onto the bus in pic #1, we have a geometric impossibility.  Bike racks are already as large as they can be if the driver is still to be far enough forward to drive safely.  A non-folding bike inside a transit vehicle takes the space of several passengers, so could fairly be accommodated only at several times the fare.  In the ideal sustainable future, you will have to park your bike at the station, or return your rental bike, just as Europeans do.  If transit does accommodate your bike, you really should pay a fare premium that reflects the rough number of passenger spaces displaced, or the supply/demand ratio for 2-3 bike racks vs 20 people wanting to use them.

 Dreamers along these lines may well be right about many suburban areas, where demand is sparse and the land use pattern precludes efficient transit.  But when all the people in this picture want to travel, driverless cars may take less space than the cars shown here, but they will still take far more space than a bus would.  The scarcity of space per person is part of the very definition of a city, as distinct from suburbia or rural area, so the efficiency with which transport options use that space will always be the paramount issue.  

(Of course, this very thought experiment presumes that we will actually achieve, and culturally accept, driverless cars that require very little space between them, in which the prevention of ghastly accidents — especially with pedestrians and bikes who may appear with zero warning and minimal stopping distance — is achieved through the absolute infallibility of human-designed hardware and software.)

To make the same point more generally:

  • In cities, urban space is the ultimate currency.  

We spend too much time talking about what things cost in dollars and not enough about what they cost in space.  That, of course, is because urban space is perversely priced to encourage inefficient uses of it and discourage efficient ones.  If you're going to claim to be able to visualize how technology will change the world of 2040 — as the techno-futurists claim to do — you should also visualize what a political system ruled by people now under 40 would look like.  These people are much less emotionally attached to cars, care about environmental outcomes much more, and value urban space much more than their parents do.  Given that the revolution in urban pricing has already begun (see the London and Singapore congestion charges, and the San Francisco and Auckland dynamic parking systems), isn't it foolish to assume that today's assumptions about how we apportion urban space will still rule your techno-utopia?

UPDATE:  A reader points out one other key point, which is that

  • the photo understates the space requirements of bikes compared to the other two.  

Once you put these three systems in motion, the cars and bus will need more space in one dimension — forward and back.  However, in motion, the mass of bikes will expand in two dimensions, it will need to be both longer and wider for all the bikes to move safely.  This could have been rectified in the photo by consciously spacing the bikes to a distance where riders would feel comfortable at a brisk cycling speed that ensures not only stopping distance but also space for passing.  Masses of cyclists on a recreational ride may all agree to ride in tight formation at the same speed, but in daily life cycling infrastructure must accommodate the the fact that people in a cycling crowd will have different desires and intentions around speed, which affects lateral spacing and stopping distance.

urban designers are from mars, transit planners are from venus

Just got home from the Congress for the New Urbanism Transportation Summit, which is trying to formulate transportation policy and advice from a New Urbanist point of view.

Over the last decade, the CNU has made great efforts to form a coherent view on transportation.  The organization's core has always been an architecture and urban design perspective that is very much about placemaking, and only secondarily about movement.  Much New Urbanism is about slowing everything down in urban environments, and while the goal of increased urban density means that ultimately travel distances are shorter, slower movement can also mean reducing people's ability to get where they're going.  For example, much of the idea that transit should be slower (e.g. Patrick Condon, Darrin Nordahl) has roots in early CNU thinking.  This in turn can feed the perception (unfair but not totally unfounded) that the pastel people in a New Urbanist rendering are more a hermetic cult of utopians than free actors in a complex society who need to get to meetings on time.

Initially, transportation — specifically highway engineering — was CNU's number one enemy, and this conflict still generates some of the best drama.  The summit this year featured a conversation between an AASHTO representative — representing the view of State Departments of Transportation — and a New Urbanist transport consultant, in which common ground was sought but lines in the sand were clearly drawn on both sides.  

So the CNU's efforts at leadership in transportation policy are a very important move.  Groups at the conference worked on issues such as cycling, functional street classification (sexier than it sounds), and the conversation of highways to boulevards.  I was in the group dealing with transit networks.

We spent much of our time thinking about the mutual incomprehension that plagues the relationship between urban designers and transit planners.  This issue is at the climax of my book Human Transit, where I look at famous examples of cases where supposedly transit-oriented developments were located in places where efficient and attractive public transit was geometrically impossible.  

Phil Erickson, of Community Design + Architecture, made two of the best points:

  • Both sides of this incomprehension engage the other too late in the process.  As a transit consultant, I can certainly attest that I'm always hired too late to fix a development's transit problems, which were usually locked in at the stage of site selection or conceptual design.  I suppose you could say that transit agencies engage development too late, though ultimately it's the responsibility of a planning process to decide when to invite input from whom.
  • Both sides assume that the other is more flexible than it is.  As a transit planner, I often suggest some adjustment to a development that would make transit vastly more effective, and am told that's not possible.  On the other hand, it's routine for a developer to assume that this bus line can just make a deviation to serve a development, without considering either operating cost or the effect on other customers trying to ride through that point.  Placemakers' demands that transit be slowed down on a certain segment raise the same issues: operating cost and reduction of a transit line's usefulness for through travel.

In the same "Mars/Venus" spirit, here are a couple of other reasons that this relationship is so hard:

  • We are literally working in different dimensions:  Urban design is mostly about places.  Transit planning is about corridors and networks.  Transit planning can do little at a single site; transit functions only when you think of a whole long corridor — made up of many places and situations — as a unit, and even better when you think of networks comprised of corridors and interchanges.  One place where urban design and placemaking can work together with transit planning is at the level of the whole-city network, which is why integrated regional planning of land use and major transit corridors is such a crucial task, one that few North American urban areas even try to do.
  • We live in different timescales.  Urban design is about something that will be built and completed.  Transit planning is about eternal operations. Transit planners may seem distracted by the love of building something too, but ultimately, it's all about service, which means operations. So the two sides tend to talk past each other about costs in particular.  The urban designer and developer are watching one-time capital cost, but the transit planner cares about eternal operating cost.  Developers often throw a little one-time money at a transit service, e.g offering to subsidize the first five years of operation, but the wise transit agency knows that sooner or later, the developer will be gone and this service will become their financial problem, especially if it's a service that they can see is unlikely to perform well.  

It was fascinating to watch this discussion, and to be a part of it.  Many more useful things were said, and I may pick up on a few of them in future posts.  Meanwhile, the first step toward overcoming a divide is to really understand why it is so pervasive, and that requires both sides to think about their deep assumptions, and why different assumptions follow from the nature of the other party's work.

A followup, based on comments on this post, is here.

“shockingly neutral”: my first sort-of negative review!

WalkerCover-r06 croppedAn intriguing take on Human Transit from Josh Stephens at the California Planning and Development Report concludes with this striking thought:

Much of Walker's technical discussions aren't any more riveting than they sound. And yet, it is, on the whole, … a surprisingly un-tedious exercise in armchair planning. Walker loves and believes in public transit, but his awareness of the costs and tradeoffs render him a shockingly neutral advocate (if such a thing is possible). On the one hand, Walker is trying to encourage stakeholders to advocate for better transit systems. But if you read him closely, you might end up with mental gridlock (while actual gridlock grows all the worse).

I can accept being nonriveting — this isn't Stephen King — and am happy to settle for "un-tedious."  Otherwise, I treat this critique as a badge of honor.  To me as a consultant, few epithets are finer than 'shockingly neutral.'  Yes, my book is about helping you and your community think about the real choices that you face.  And yes, to make those choices, you in your armchair (and your community in the real transit planning process) must think about what you want, and sometimes about which of two things you want is more important. 

I'm sorry if that gives some people "mental gridlock", but functional human beings and communities do this all the time.  Everyone understands the process of budgeting when money is at stake.  Transit simply requires the similar kind of hard-tradeoff thinking in some other dimensions, including street-space, service priorities, etc.  My book also makes budgeting decisions around transit much easier, because it helps everyone understand exactly what they are buying or sacrificing.

Once, years ago, I was working with a community's elected officials to help them reach a consensus on how they want to balance the competing goals of lifeline coverage vs higher ridership.  (The former goal produces a little bit of service everywhere and the latter produces a high-intensity network only when demand is high. See Chapter 10.)  We were having a contentious public meeting on exactly this subject, with the electeds debating each other and the public inserting a range of useful testimony.  The electeds were going to have to vote. 

We took a break, I went to the men's room, and suddenly one of the electeds was at the adjacent urinal.  He whispered: "Hey Jarrett, I know you don't want to say anything out there, but really, what do you think we should do?"

As a citizen I'd have an answer based on my values, but I wasn't a citizen here.  I was here to help a community make its own decision. So my private answer was the same as a public one.  "No!  This is not a technical question. You have to balance your priorities between two things that you value, just like you do when you're budgeting.  This is a chance to express your values, so asking me to tell you what to do is like asking me to tell you who you are."

Obviously, once you've chosen what you want, your consultant will start telling you what's required to deliver that outcome, and in that mode the consultant may sound like an advocate.  But that only happens once the client — you, your community, your electeds — have stated their desires clearly in an understanding of the tradeoffs they imply.

Sorry.  Life's full of hard choices, for people and for their communities.  If it gives you mental gridlock, put down the book or step out of the meeting.  Breathe fresh air, study a flower, or look at the stars.  But sooner or later, you'll decide, or others will do it for you.

quote of the week: the reappearing desert

How little has changed since the 1830s!  From Tocqueville's Democracy in America, published in 1835:

Sometimes the progress of man is so rapid that the desert reappears behind him. The woods stoop to give him a passage, and spring up again when he has passed. It is not uncommon in crossing the new States of the West to meet with deserted dwellings in the midst of the wilds; the traveller frequently discovers the vestiges of a log house in the most solitary retreats, which bear witness to the power, and no less to the inconstancy of man. In these abandoned fields, and over these ruins of a day, the primeval forest soon scatters a fresh vegetation, the beasts resume the haunts which were once their own, and Nature covers the traces of man's path with branches and with flowers, which obliterate his evanescent track. 

Extended passage here, all equally relevant to urban planning.  Hat tip: Ta-nehisi Coates, the Atlantic.  

Photo: Tyson Jerry, NevadaCounty.com