Dissent of the Week

This one is really for everyone who saw my presentation “A Field Guide to Transit Quarrels,” rather than just looking at the slides here.  Frequent commenter Alon Levy accuses me of “devious” rhetoric.

Reading the notes, I think you’re using a devious rhetorical technique. You say you’re not going to prejudice in favor of any view, but then you associate your own views on transit with reason, and views that emphasize technology or direct service with emotion. The reality is much more complicated …

There’s some interesting back and forth between Alon, myself, and some others below Alon’ comment in the thread.

I’d like to hear in comments below if anyone got the same impression from my live presentation.  If you were there, please comment or email, and don’t forget to mention which city you saw me speak in.

9 Responses to Dissent of the Week

  1. Frank August 17, 2010 at 9:18 pm #

    I wasn’t there, but reading the slides I see what Alon’s talking about.
    I would say that the slides are curiously agnostic about human politics, which are often driven by heated and often irrational behavior. We have all this research coming out these days about behavioral economics and how irrational people are (see Predictably Irrational, Nudge, et. al.). It’s tough to make a plea for rationality without noting that humans are not rational.
    Transit planners may get to use reason and logic in their designs, but their options (funding, route choice, mode choice) are usually constrained by political reality. In a democracy, anyway.
    I see this presentation as primarily an attempt to use reason and logic to persuade people who are having a “transit argument,” in an attempt to move the political reality a bit to more favorable terrain. Secondarily, it seems to be arguing that transit agencies need to do a better job, primarily through information design — of presenting “transit geometry” in a way that humans can easily understand.

  2. Tom West August 18, 2010 at 6:18 am #

    There is subtle difference between emotional (“hot”) reasons and logical (“cold) ones:
    * Logic will tell why a project will fail
    * Emotion will tell you why a project will succeed

    Consider branching: emotions say branching is good (“I can get everywhere!”), but logic says why it will fail (“branching reduces frequency”).
    However, if we have a nice frequent bus that logic gievs no reason to fail, it may still run empty if the bus is *percieved* as bad. Perception is an emotional thing, and requires things like advertising to increase reidership.

  3. Danny August 18, 2010 at 9:42 am #

    I just feel like some of the laws aren’t as law-like as you portray them.
    For example:
    Branching does cut frequency in half, but only if the lines are operating at capacity. If operating below capacity, it can cut frequency by factors that range between 0 and 1.
    Density has a correlation with demand, and that correlation may be strong, but I don’t think that density is the most important driver of demand.
    It is entirely possible to build a 40 floor tower where single floor homes existed previously. And if 20 multi-floor car garages are built at the same time the density have increased but ridership doesn’t. I have experienced this living in a high density apartment complex in orange county, and I know for a fact that even though density increased about 20x, ridership of the local bus line wasn’t affected.
    While the correlation is strong, it still doesn’t belong in geometric law category…there are too many other factors that also influence demand.

  4. Ed August 18, 2010 at 9:52 am #

    I wasn’t there but I watched the whole Portland presentation on YouTube. To an extent I agree with Alon, and some of Jarrett’s cold ‘inescapable laws’ I’d tend push up into the warmer category. That’s ok, and I don’t think Jarrett is being devious, because I understand all of us, including Jarrett himself, sit at various places on this spectrum depending on the topic, as well as our individual backgrounds and experiences – even if we can’t always see it ourselves.

  5. Michael M. August 18, 2010 at 10:32 am #

    I saw your presentation in Portland and, no, I didn’t get the impression of bias that Alon talks about. I didn’t feel, as Alon says, that your word choice was inherently prejudiced, nor that you were stressing that culture and emotion don’t matter as much as geometry and physics.
    I should add that I’m not a professional in transportation or urban planning. I’m not really even an activist, more an interested bystander. So maybe I’m less sensitive to perceptions of bias than people who work in the field or come to these issues with preconceived or strongly held opinions.

  6. Kelly August 18, 2010 at 1:28 pm #

    Haha, I saw your presentation in Seattle and I think Alon missed the point. (I think you warned people that this might happen if you posted your slides, and it did.) You created a spectrum with blue on one end representing the logical side of things and red on the other end representing the creative/personal side of things, then told us that in transit planning it is important to take a little from both ends but try to find a happy medium somewhere in the middle. Technology falls on the red end of the spectrum; it is important to consider specific technologies, but also important not base a network or transit plan on one.
    Direct service was a separate issue that didn’t fall into the red/blue spectrum. You used direct service as an example of how thinking like a motorist or a highway planner can result in crappy transit. Branching was another example of this.
    You also talked about the fundamental attribution error, which I believe plays a large role in this dispute, but I don’t want to dive into that right now.

  7. Stuart Donovan August 18, 2010 at 2:40 pm #

    I tend to disagree with Alon. From my viewing of the Seattle presentation, I got the sense Jarrett was actually advocating for a balance between logic and vision, rather than eschewing either altogether.
    The comment on behavioural economics is interesting – it’s important to distinguish between “rational” and “predictable,” which I suspect is the key theme of Nudge’s text (although I have not read it so correct me if I’m wrong).
    Traditional economics tends to overplays the former, whereas behavioural economics tends to not impute as much logic to people’s decisions. For example, we know that people are particularly sensitive to “direct” costs, such as parking, rather than indirect costs, such as “time.”
    This is not rational, but it is predictable – that is, based on previous observations we can make reasonable inferences about how people (where I am referring to a collection of individuals, such as a community) will behave in response to different incentives.
    Indeed, using our understanding of past human behaviour to predict the future has its own internal logic, even if the behavioural patterns themselves are inexplicable.

  8. G-Man (Type-E) August 19, 2010 at 4:21 pm #

    I saw you in Seattle, and while you certainly present a strong case in favor of your own viewpoint, I didn’t get the impression that you were denigrating other viewpoints. If anything you seem to approach these sometimes heated discussions in a very methodical and reserved way. It is possible to have different, but equally compelling viewpoints resting on very different values foundations.
    Alon may be having some confusion with causation. He implies that you ascribe rationality to things that are in line with your viewpoint. But perhaps these positions have become your viewpoint because they are rational and you prefer that to emotional justifications.

  9. Carl August 21, 2010 at 8:25 am #

    My perception is that you have a mode bias toward bus and BRT, and that this comes out in your talk and writings. I don’t know if there is a professional reason for this (perhaps this is your expertise and source of consulting engagements.)
    These are the reasons that I feel you have a mode bias towards bus and BRT:
    1. You say that bus/BRT can be made “just like” rail – in vehicle appearance, fare payment, stations, exclusive right of way, etc. Embedded in that assertion is the fact that the typical features of rail are superior to the passenger comfort, which you don’t fully acknowledge. But even if all these improvements are made, it may close the gap but it is still not rail.
    2. You cite the lower cost of bus/BRT. The reason that bus/BRT is lower cost is that the investments aren’t being made to create the ride quality and reliability. The primary advantage of bus/BRT is to use existing roads and require less investment -> lower experience. It’s a valid trade-off for lower demand routes or if the resources can’t be gotten, but the lower cost comes with lower quality, not equivalence.
    3. You dismiss evidence that the riding public has a preference for rail and that rail on a given corridor (with enough latent demand) will attract 50%-100% more riders than bus service at the same frequency. (See http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Schienenbonus or the comments by the Munich transit planner on the Munich thread). You call this cultural or emotional, but if even riders make an emotional decision, the evidence is there that riders prefer rail and will ride rail in greater numbers.
    4. You dismiss the mode debate as political or emotional. If a corridor has traffic demand to support rail, the debate is often about whether to be cheap and under-invest in transit capacity (bus/BRT) vs. make the big investment in exclusive right of way and grade separation. The USA’s most successful BRT right of way, LA’s Orange Line, clearly should have been built as rail, which would give it higher capacity and lower operating costs.
    The mode question does matter – as a commitment to investment for capacity and reliability and ride quality, and really a region’s commitment to transit service. When you dismiss the mode question with assertions about equivalent features and lower costs, it ends up giving politicians the support to build lower quality.
    Buses are obviously the solution for lower demand areas and often radial service. There are valid reasons why every large city in the developed world has rail transit and is building/expdanding it.