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.


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,

socrates visits the u.s. federal transit administration


220px-DoricFTA staffer:  Welcome to Washington, Socrates!  The literature and philosophy students on our staff can’t stop talking about you, and suggested you could help us think something through. They told us you ask good questions.

Socrates.  I hope I can help.

FTA staffer:  So we invited you here because we are devising a new way to decide which transit projects are worthy of funding, anything from a little streetcar to a busway to a big subway line.

Socrates:  And when you deem that a transit project is good, do you mean that it has some intrinsic goodness in character – perhaps its pleasing color or shape – or do you mean that its goodness lies in providing some benefit to others?

F.  In the benefit, certainly.  It’s how to describe the benefit that gets us into trouble.  Our policy is to focus on mobility and accessibility benefits – basically, people getting where they’re going.  But it’s hard to translate that into a measure …

S.  You would have to define those terms first.

F.  Of course.  You see, for a while now we’ve been scoring the benefits of a transit project based on the amount of travel time it saves.  Basically it’s person-hours or person-minutes, one person saving one minute of travel time. 

S. You mean one person gets to his destination a minute sooner than he would without the project.  That’s a person-minute?

F.  Pretty much.  We prefer to count hours because minutes seem – I don’t know – petty, somehow.  But still, you know, people getting there sooner, it seemed like a good idea for years.

S.  Tell me: if Jim has $1000, and Dave has $100, and each is given another $100, you would say that the two have benefited equally?  Even though Jim's wealth has gone up just 10% while Dave's has doubled? 

F.  I don’t follow …

S.: Well, but you were counting minutes, right, not percentage savings?

F.:  Of course.

S.:  So one commuter from the rural fringe whose commute is cut from 80 to 70 minutes … that’s exactly as valuable as one inner city traveller whose trip is cut from 15 to 5 minutes?

F.: Well, yes … I’m beginning to see your meaning …

S:  Whereas if you’d thought in percentages …

F.  … we’d have valued the inner city trip more … do you mean? …

S.  Just asking.  Don’t people really perceive travel time changes as percentages?  I mean, who would feel their options to be more transformed, and be more likely to change their behavior as a result: someone who’s travel time was cut from 80 to 70 minutes or someone who’s travel time was cut from 15 to 5?  Wouldn’t the latter be the greater transformation, more likely to change behavior? 

F.  I see your point.  Of course it’s usually easier for a project to cut 80 to 70 …

S.  Of course, so that’s what you end up funding.  What’s the consequence of that?

F.  Well, we tend to score a lot of commuter rail and long-haul busways highly, but it’s harder to assign value to shorter-distance inner-city services like bus lanes, light rail, streetcars.

S.  Because shorter distance services save fewer minutes, though a higher percentage.

F.  And streetcars running in mixed traffic, of course … well, the dirty secret is that they usually don’t cut travel time at all, compared to an “enhanced bus” alternative.  They can even make it longer.

S.  What’s wrong with scoring streetcars low, then?

F.  Well, people are telling us that streetcars in mixed traffic are just intrinsically wonderful, so we should judge them differently.  They seem to encourage economic development, and yet they’re not as expensive to build as faster and more reliable transit systems, so cities see them as something that’s within reach.  Anyway, we have an economic development factor that tries to keep track of that, but it’s really hard to score based on what a bunch of city boosters and developers tell us about how cool a place will be in 10 years.  I mean, we wish them the best, but city boosters and developers are always saying that …

S.  Of course.  No neutral objective measure.  Whereas travel time …

F.  You’re right, travel time, for all its faults, was pretty easy to measure, and to calculate for a new project.

S.  But you’re abandoning it.  So what’s the new scheme?

F.  Ridership!  Who can argue with that?  We care now about how many people are going to ride the thing, especially those who aren’t riding now. 

S.  Is that a new idea?

F.  Well, it’s always mattered somewhat.  In my dad’s day we used to score mostly on “cost per new rider,” so then it was the overwhelming factor.  Then we were accused of not valuing the time of people who were already riding transit – you know – their travel time savings due to the project.  It didn’t count.

S.  So you abandoned that, but now you’re going back to it?

F.  Not exactly, but …

S.  How is the new measure different?

F.  We have some other factors, like service to transit dependents …

S.  But basically, the new measure is ridership?

F.  Right.

S.  And apart from your transit dependent clause, all riders are equally valuable?  Regardless of how far they ride?

F.  Basically. 

S.  So you’re now biased the other way?  Toward the inner city service, which many people ride, and away from the long-distance commute, which serves few people but many passenger-miles, and which will score highest on travel time savings (in minutes, not percentage) because the travel times are so long anyway? 

F.  Yes, but there are lots of arguments that this is the right bias now.  The whole point of sustainable urbanism is to limit sprawl and encourage more compact cities.  When we were mostly building commuter rail all the way to the rural fringe, we were encouraging the opposite.  In fact, I’ve met people who moved from an inner city condo to a two-acre horse farm solely because a new commuter rail line made it possible.

S.  Sounds like the right bias for you, then.  But tell me, isn’t the world changing pretty fast right now?  I caught up on some of your media in the time machine.  It sounds like costs of transportation are shifting rapidly and people in the know expect options to be much different in just a few decades.  In fact, fear about the rising cost and impact of transportation is part of why you want people to live closer together, right?

F.  Absolutely.

S.  Now, when you build something big and expensive like a rail line, you’re not doing it for the benefits tomorrow, right?  You’re doing it for benefits further into the future.

F.  Forty years at least.

S.  Forty years.  So if you’re judging the merit of a project based on ridership, that must mean you know what its ridership will be 40 years from now.  Do you have many studies from 40 years ago that correctly describe ridership today? 

F.  Well, so much can happen in 40 years, you really can’t predict …

S.  But if you expect forty years of value, shouldn’t you at least be looking at the middle of that window, say 20 years out? 

F.  Well, I suppose, but that’s really the outer edge of what anyone can predict.

S.  In any case, you don’t know about your project’s ridership the way you know about its travel time.  You can figure the travel time of a new service pretty exactly, but the ridership … that’s a prediction, right?

F.  Of course.

S.  So your new policy shifts your focus from a fact to a prediction.  Even as you admit that ridership prediction is often wrong on opening day, let alone 20 or 40 years out.

F.  But they always get the order of magnitude right!  And of course things happen that they couldn't have foreseen.  And you know, ridership prediction is always getting better.  Experts are always re-calibrating their models, bringing in new factors. 

S.  What are the calibrations based on?

F.  Well, it’s complicated, and kind of mysterious even to me.  But the basic idea is that they look at the predictive factors, like travel time and land use and user experience so forth, and find examples where similar factors have led to certain ridership outcomes.

S.  In the past.

F.  Well, of course in the past.  What else do we have?

S.  But you just agreed that your world is changing more and more rapidly, which means that a given year is less and less like a year a decade earlier.  Doesn’t that mean, logically, that the past is becoming less relevant?

F.  Well, we try to use the reasonably recent past.

S.  But you need a lot of data points, surely, to calibrate?  And if the world is changing faster, doesn’t that mean that the “reasonably recent past” is shrinking?  I mean, faster change means that conditions ten years in the future are much more different from the present than conditions ten years ago are.  So logically, you can’t look as far into the past as you used to, to calibrate your models.

F.  Well of course it fluctuates.  But over the long run, I see your point. 

S.  So aren’t you approaching a condition where you run out of past?  Reach a point where the only relevant examples are so recent that they’re only just past opening day, and there simply aren't enough data points in so brief a period?

F.  You’re right.  Logically it makes no sense at all.  But what else would we do?


S.  Well, what’s the purpose of public transit?

F.  Oh that’s easy.  Public transit delivers a range of benefits that all go toward building a stronger, healthier, and more just America.  It is the lifeblood and foundation of cities, which are the engines of the innovation that will keep our country strong and competitive.  Public transit serves the cause of environmental and social justice, helping low-income and minority participate in the life of the city, so that they can climb the ladder of success by their own hard work.  And of course, it’s all about jobs–-

S.  Wait.  That’s a lot of purposes!  How on earth would you measure all of those things?

F.  Well, public transit has lots of benefits!  That’s what makes it so essential to a strong, healthy, and just Amer–

S.  But I asked about purpose, not benefits.  My business, philosophy, has zillions of benefits.  You wouldn’t be here without it, and you certainly wouldn’t be thinking this clearly.  But philosophy’s purpose is not too hard to capture.  Maybe something like “understanding the fundamental nature of existence, and what this may imply for how people should live.”  We philosophers argue about the details, but we’re positively unanimous compared to all the ways you describe transit’s purpose.

F.  Well, we don’t really use the word purpose much.

S.  Tell me, what’s the purpose of the police?

F.  Well, law enforcement of course.

S.  But policing has lots of benefits!  Controlling crime is important for investment, and thus for prosperity.  It contributes directly to quality of life, maybe even to happiness.  And besides, police do good works for all kinds of community causes.  And if you didn’t have police, you wouldn’t have plots for many of the stories that your people find entertaining, from detective novels to forensic dramas!  And admit it, don’t ten year old boys find sirens exciting?

F.  Yes, policing does all those things.  But law enforcement, you know, that’s their real job, isn’t it?  They generate all those benefits simply by doing their job, which is law enforcement.

S.  Exactly.  So it’s not enough to talk about transit’s benefits.  You have to think about its purpose, or as you put it, it’s real job.

F.  Well, moving people …

S.  Anywhere?  Around in circles?  Is a Ferris wheel public transit?

F.  No, I mean to their destinations.  Except for tourists and recreational riders maybe.  They like to go in circles sometimes.

S.  So apart from tourists, transit is about people getting to where they’re going?

F.  Sure, that’s the thing transit does I guess.  And it does it in shared, scheduled vehicles instead of each one driving alone.

S.  Well, we could spend another hour getting down to a definition, but the first thing that comes to your mind is often, in the end, the most useful one.  “Moving people,” you said, “to their destinations.” 

F.  That sounds like a good start.

S.  The destination, of course, isn’t really just a place but an intention, right?  We want to get to work, to home, to school, to a recreation opportunity.

F.  Right.  That’s why cool people are talking about access now, not just mobility.  Mobility is how far you can move, but access is how much useful stuff you can get to quickly.  So transit also has this role of helping things to get built closer together, so that things you need aren’t as far away.  That’s called density, but it doesn’t work without transit, so transit helps to stimulate it.  So I guess that’s a purpose too.

S.  Is that separate purpose of transit?  Or just another benefit?  In other words, can you serve that purpose best just by making it really easy and fast for people to get where they’re going?

F.  Well, the developers and city boosters don’t think so.  They think we need a separate measure to capture the way transit might stimulate development, quite apart from its usefulness in getting you places.

S.  But developers are merchants, right?  They need people to buy their product.

F.  Of course.

S.  So let’s think about their customer.   If you’re deciding whether to live in a transit-oriented place, you’re going to care about the transit, right?  It has to be there.  It has to be good, right?

F.  Right.  That’s why transit effectively stimulates development.

S.  But what does that customer care about, really?  The ability to get where they’re going, right, since that’s transit’s purpose?

F.  Of course.

S.  So even the development output of transit, as you’re describing it, is ultimately about travel time.  How soon you get where you’re going – that’s travel time, right?   That’s the thing about transit that would attract people.

F.  Well yes, but there are so many other emotional factors that affect people’s choices, right?   People just like certain transit technologies, so they use them more.

S.  What, for example?

F.  Well, streetcars, you know, in mixed traffic.  Such a huge political movement.  No travel time benefits at all, really, but this huge emotional response.  Developers just love them, because their customers do.  We figure, by counting ridership, we properly include those factors.

S.  Suppose your Parks agency does some improvements to a park, builds some new attractions there, and as a result more people come.  Does that mean it’s something you should have funded?

F.  Well, no, I mean, we’re a transportation agency.

S.  That’s right.  In fact, I was reading your “Notice of Proposed Rule Making” in the time machine, and noticed it explicitly says that “mobility and accessibility are the primary benefits of transportation investments. 

F.  That’s right.

S.  So if a project is not delivering those benefits, that doesn’t mean it doesn't provide any benefits, right?  It just means it doesn't provide the benefits that your agency is responsible for delivering, so it's not your job to fund it.  It could still be funded by others, even other government agencies, the way a new statue in a park might be.

F.  Yes, this is the argument that we should value mixed-traffic streetcars exactly the way we value brick paving and planter boxes, as amenities whose purpose is to attract investment.  It makes sense, but somehow, because streetcars move, and people can ride them, people insist that we fund them as transit services, even though there's no mobility or access benefit compared to an "enhanced bus" option.

S.  Hmm.  But again, we’re talking about long-term investments, right?

F.  Certainly.

S.  So with your ridership metric, you must show that lots of people will be attracted to a streetcar when you open it, even in the absence of travel time savings, and you do that by effectively citing recent examples where streetcars replaced buses and ridership went up, even though the service wasn’t any faster than before.

F. Right.  That’s a nice example of the problem with judging projects on travel time.

S.  But in addition, because this is a long term investment, you must show that the emotional reaction that is causing this extra ridership is durable over the long term, don’t you?  That people will continue to have that preference for streetcars even when streetcars are no longer a novelty, and even as other technologies improve their ability to do the same things?

F.  Well, of course, nobody can know that.

S.  No, that would certainly be a prediction.  But are some predictions maybe more confident than others, purely on philosophical grounds?

F.  Well, that’s your department, Socrates.

S.  It’s not hard.  Your new evaluation system is based on ridership, and we’ve talked now about two causes of ridership.  One is various emotional attractions of a vehicle, like the streetcars you mentioned, but the other is travel time — ridership that is attracted because transit gets people where they’re going quickly.  Your models already weigh that, don’t they?  They already assume that travel time is a major indicator of ridership?      

F.  Absolutely, and on very solid grounds.  That’s always been true.

S.  Truer than you think maybe.  If I hire a – well, you might call it a pedicab – to get me across Athens, perhaps because I am late to meeting some friends there, I do it because I’m in a hurry, or more exactly, I want to be at my destination now, because my life is on hold until I do.  The young men who run with those carts go much faster than I can walk.  I get on with my life sooner, and so they get my ridership.

F.  So …

S.  So I can assure you that in my home era, 2500 years ago, people already care about travel time.  Certainly, a time that we consider fast would strike you as slow.  But we want to get to work on our tasks, which require being in certain places.  We want to get home to our families.  We want to see our friends and get a good seat at the theatre.  Our armies want to get to battlefields before their enemies do.  So usually, when we set out on those trips, it’s with a desire to be at the destination, to already be doing whatever we were going to do there.  Of course, sometimes we pause to smell the flowers, and enjoy the trip, and sometimes we walk around just for pleasure.  But most of the time, we need to get there.

F. … and because people have always cared about that, for many centuries, it would seem to have more predictive value!  If we have to predict, we should give more weight to factors that have governed ridership more consistently over longer spans of history … Is that what you’re saying?   

S.  So suppose the project you approve runs for 100 years, as much of your old transit infrastructure has already done …

F.  100 years … Well, I can’t begin to imagine what my great great great grandchildren are going to value when it comes to technology, or even what their choices will be.  But you’re right …  I’m on firmer ground guessing that they’ll want to get where they’re going, and soon.

S.  … which means …

F.  Travel time!  Damn you, Socrates!

S.  So why are you abandoning travel time again?


F.  Look, I think there’s a deeper problem with travel time.  It connects with people when they’re thinking about the trips they make, but it doesn’t connect to – well, city builders, you know?  Architects, developers, urban visionaries, and a lot of ordinary citizens who are excited by their ideas.  You even have academics and urban designers saying transit should be slower, to encourage people to not travel as far, as though we could ever do that kind of social engineering.  How can we keep talking about travel time in the face of all that?

S.  Well, then, what’s another way to describe it?

F.  Hmm. 

S.  What do people in your country value?   What motivates them?

F.  Too many things.  You have fresh eyes on it, Socrates, what do you think?

S.  We’re in Washington DC.  Look around, on the monuments.  Or turn on the radio, anywhere in this country it seems.

F.  Liberty, you mean.   Freedom. 

S.  People in most countries value freedom, but nobody talks about it as obsessively as Americans do.

F.  Well, of course.  It was a rallying cry of our revolution, and then of the fight against slavery, and certainly World War II.  Longing for freedom, and then more recently a desire to liberate others, drives so much of our history …

S.  Well, then, why don’t you base your evaluation method on freedom?

F.  You don't mean that freedom boils down to travel time, do you?  That would be a hard line to sell.

S.  But if people can get places faster …

F.  They can get to more places in a given amount of time, so they have more (snaps fingers) choices! 

(Pause.  S and F look at each other.)

S.  During that infernal time machine ride, I saw some footage of your southwestern cities, which seem to be fleeing from themselves across the desert.  And I noticed the same shop everywhere … a “convenience store” you call it.  They were advertising that customers had a choice of several flavors of something.  But their slogan was, “Americans love the freedom.”

F.  Yes, freedom of choice. 

S.  So faster travel means …

F.  Literally more stuff within reach.  So more choices.  And hence more freedom.  Not just choices of flavors or gas stations or convenience stores.  It means you have more choices of schools for your children, paths for your career.

S.  Those sound like important freedoms, freedoms that people fight for, as we did.

F.  Yes!!  (Pacing.)  You’d have to refine it.  But surely, if you can get where you’re going sooner, that means you can get to more places in a fixed amount of time.  More of the city is available to you – more jobs, friends, places to shop, unusual things that you value.  You can do more of whatever you want to do, which is part of being whoever you want to be.  Sheesh!  Now I sound like the Education Department!  But …  but this is transportation’s place in the same crusade, isn’t it?

S.  Even in my day, people leave small towns for the city, because there are more options there.  Freedom of choice, you’d call it.

F.  So … it’s not travel time, exactly.  It’s more like …  Yes!  I remember this funny little tool that created.  (Sitting at desk, typing urgently).  Here it is!  Look here … (rotates the monitor, triumphantly)

 GoogEarth walkscore

S.  A map of San Francisco.  And you have a Greek word for those blobs …

F.  “Isochrones,” yes!   We’d never say that word in public, of course, but those blobs show how much of your city you can get to on transit in a given amount of time, depending on where you are.  The idea was to help people see the transit mobility consequences of their choices about where to locate.  You' move the red pointer, and the blobs would show where you can get to quickly if you locate there.  But really … it’s a map of … freedom!

S.  So …

F.   So, what if our metric was:  How much does a project grow these blobs?  Reduce travel time, but specifically with the effect of bringing more choices into range for each person, so they have more freedom!  Not just the freedom to ride your horse in any direction on a ranch, but the freedom to make real choices, about friends, work, values that arise from the options presented by a city!

S.  Grow the blobs in any direction?

F.  Of course not, that would be the old model of mobility.   It would be about access.  Not just square miles of area you can get to, but the amount of stuff in them.  Something like “how many new choices – jobs, shopping, schools, houses of worship or philosophy, sports facilities, and so on, are brought within a given travel time of how many people, just because of this proposed project?” 

S.  One given travel time?  What will it be, 17 minutes? 

F.  (Laughs.)  Imagine getting consensus on that!  Several travel time thresholds of course.  As you pointed out, we care about cutting travel times from 20 to 10 minutes, at least as much as we care about cutting them from 80 to 70 … Or, wait, maybe we care more!  Is there a way to do this with percentages, as you suggested …?

S.  Lots of details to work out, but philosophically …

F.  This isn’t just philosophy, Socrates!  Even better, it’s rhetoric!  “FTA to score transit projects on liberation value!”   “President Obama puts freedom at the center of transportation policy!” 

S.  So why is your agency abandoning travel time as a criterion for selecting projects?

F.  (Sighs.  Collapses in his chair.)  I don’t know, Socrates.  It seemed like the thing to do.  I have to admit I was never comfortable, and I’d love to chase this idea of freedom as the ultimate measure.  But in the end, you know … people really, really love streetcars, even the really slow ones in mixed traffic, and this measure won’t score those very highly!  I mean … Would people really sacrifice streetcars for freedom?  In America?