basics: expertise vs. activism

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

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

Often, I use this blog and its comments to refine my own thinking about transit in the abstract.  This is part of how I cultivate my own expertise, but it is easy to mistake what I say for activism.  When I say, for example, that some of the widespread claims about the superiority of rail over buses are cultural feedback effects, I’m not thinking like an activist or advocate; I’m thinking theoretically, like a philosopher.  To me, this is a crucial skill for a consultant who’s going to have to marry his client’s values with his own expertise.

Philosophical or scientific training attunes you to the difference between prescription (telling people what they should do) and description (describing reality as it appears to be).  In their purest form, prescription is the job of ethics, while description the job of science and metaphysics.  A great deal of human speech, especially political speech, is a mixture of description and prescription, often one pretending to be the other.

In the planning world, prescription is the job of citizens, leaders, and advocates, while description is the work of professional experts like me.  Obviously, this has to be a conversation.  The expert has to ask the community to clarify its values based on the actual tradeoffs presented by reality, and the community has to respond.  And as that goes on, both sides need to be clear about their roles, and respect the role of the other.

Partly because of my science and philosophy training, I tend to police the prescription-description boundary in my own thinking, and dwell in the space of pure description more than many people do — certainly more than most activists do.  A lot of regular readers of HT share that training and that inclination, and some don’t.

For a critique of the futility of living your whole life in this descriptive mode, watching and describing the world but never doing anything, see Shakespeare’s Hamlet.  But the opposite is also futile.  An ethical system devoid of curiosity about objective reality devolves into pure egotism, such as that of the tyrants currently falling across the Middle East.  Tyrants — whether they lead a nation or an office clique — are people who sift reality and see only what suits their ethical narrative (which, at that point, is really an egotistical narrative) and who forge echo chambers of people who help each other do that.  At the core of the tyrant’s stance is a childlike egotistical wail: “Why doesn’t everyone do as I say?  I see so clearly what needs to be done!”

And yes, everyone has an inner tyrant, including me.  I try to describe that tendency in myself, so that while it will always be in the room of my mind it’s not usually able to set the room on fire.  In fact, that’s exactly why I’m so careful about not letting my descriptive thinking turn too quickly into prescriptions.

Streetcars, for example.  Nowhere in this blog have I said that cities shouldn’t build streetcars if they are sure that they want streetcars.  Some streetcar advocates hear me saying that because they are dividing the world into pro-streetcar and anti-streetcar camps, and I’ve said things about streetcars that don’t sound like enthusiastic advocacy.  I’ve made some descriptive observations about problems raised by the American streetcar revival movement, and I’ve also noticed situations in which streetcars are inferior to buses in their ability to actually get you where you’re going, like this one:

Car blocking streetcars
I would like people to know about these issues so that they make better decisions about what to advocate and why.  That doesn’t mean I want them to decide not to build streetcars, but it may mean, for example, that in deciding whether to support a streetcar, you might need to care about whether it will be in mixed traffic.  It may also mean being very clear, when you’re advocating a streetcar, that you’re not getting anything faster or more reliable than a bus can be.  Again, I say this not because I think cities should or shouldn’t be building streetcars, but because you shouldn’t be deluded about what you’re buying, and what purposes it will really serve.

I have vivid memories of San Francisco Transportation Authority meetings in the early 1990s when the Third Street light rail was under debate.  Activists from the neighborhood had turned out in droves to support the line, but when you actually listened to their testimony, some were talking about “we need rapid transit,” while others were saying “we need rail to stop in every block where it will strengthen our businesses.”  I knew, as an expert, that while this whole crowd appeared to be on the same side of the issue at hand, half of them were not going to get what they thought they were advocating.  They were not going to get a project that served their values.

I may also point out that if you think purely about “extending your rail network” as though your bus network is irrelevant, you can do serious damage to your existing transit system.  For example, in a high-frequency grid, if you break one line of the grid into three consecutive pieces because you want rail in the middle but buses on the extremeties, you may suddenly force many new connections to a degree that could quite possibly will reduce the overall level of mobility in the city.   That thought is relevant, for example, to several cities’ streetcar plans, and to the Crenshaw light rail line in Los Angeles, and to the Gold Coast light rail line (at least its first phase) in Australia.

And yet, sometimes I do sound like an advocate — about transit in general, about protecting transit from traffic, and about congestion pricing.  Am I just falling off the wagon when I say those things?

Well, all scientists (by which I mean broadly “people who try to describe without prescribing”) have this problem.  Sometimes the scientific work of description discovers that something needs to be done if we want to survive and prosper:  Banning DDT, addressing carbon emissions, correcting perverse pricing signals, even building a transit line.  If you’ve followed any of the conversation around climate change, you know how uncomfortable trained scientists can be when they’re required to speak prescriptively.  Their credibility (not just to their profession but also to themselves) has depended precisely on not doing that.  It’s like telling a recovering alcoholic that after all the disciplined work of recovery he’s done, the future of humanity now requires that he start drinking again, just a little.

All I can say is that I feel that discomfort and try to manage it, by marking, as clearly as I can, when I’m prescribing and when I’m describing.  And there are also issues (like climate change) where, quite frankly, practically all experts seem to know what needs to be done to achieve the outcomes that everyone seems to want.  I feel that way about congestion pricing.  It’s just not that hard to explain, to a reasonable person who’s familiar with the idea of supply and demand, that as a motorist you are going to pay for scarce road space in either time or money, and that it’s not unreasonable for some people to choose to spend money to save time.

I do what I can to distinguish between description and prescription when I’m writing.  But frankly, we all need to do the same work when listening.  If your first contact with transit politics is in the context of a fight about whether or not to build a particular rail line, you’re going to hear prescriptive voices on both sides, citing data that’s been selected to match their point of view.  You’re also going to hear descriptive voices treated as prescriptive — which is how some streetcar advocates perceive my comments about streetcars.  One of the most basic disciplines that you can cultivate, as an advocate or leader, is to try to hear descriptive information as descriptive.  This may require you to consciously suppress or bracket the emotional reaction you have, as an advocate, when you first hear it.

Really, none of what I’ve written about streetcars is about streetcars, except insofar as the American streetcar revival movement is a excellent example of a descriptive point that seems important to me.  The point is that “it’s possible to spend a lot of money on transit lines that don’t improve anyone’s mobility.”  I’m not saying you shouldn’t do that.  I am saying that before you that, you should understand this point, so that you’re sure that the line you support does what you want it to do.

That’s what responsible experts do: they help you implement your values.

38 Responses to basics: expertise vs. activism

  1. MU February 21, 2011 at 4:12 pm #

    I think your points about molding your comments to your audience especially make sense in a field as complex as transportation planning. While certain modes, layouts, etc. may be “best”, it seems that they often require other elements to be present in order to function as they should. If the plan you’re advocating is not likely to have other critical pieces implemented due to financial, political, or cultural reasons, it may be that an alternative will actually perform better because of the environment it will operate in.
    Of course, I don’t think it’s always good advice for actual advocates to depart from sometimes simplified explanations and approaches. To be effective, you have to have a powerful and digestible message. Accounting for all the various variables and considerations is the planner’s job. The advocate has the luxury of pursuing simpler targets in service of the mission of pushing overall policy in the “right” direction, even if what they are advocating is only step one.

  2. ant6n February 21, 2011 at 4:59 pm #

    But when you talk about mobility, rather than ridership (which I’d think is a more useful indicator of success of transit); and then you show the above image and praise buses ability to move around obstacles (rather than complaining about not allocating streetcars their own lane); some people will feel there is bias there…

  3. Zoltán February 21, 2011 at 5:25 pm #

    @ant6n I think that all modes should have their own lane. But if they don’t, because the city won’t allocate that space that way, then the comparison between buses that don’t and streetcars that don’t seems perfectly valid.

  4. BBnet3000 February 21, 2011 at 5:28 pm #

    @ant6n, even with its own lane, cars can still get stuck in front of a streetcar at junctions. Only completely separation would avoid it.
    Not being able to get around problems is also a limitation of trolleybuses.
    Anyway, both ridership and mobility are important, in varying degrees to various parties. For this reason, along with other factors, is why most places do not have a transit system based on one technology.
    To return to the topic of a previous post, im tempted to combine two categories to describe the ridership benefits of streetcars: “Intrinsic Cultural Feedback Effect”.

  5. Jarrett at February 21, 2011 at 5:32 pm #

    Anton.  Thanks.  Yes, I do think it's interesting to quantify mobility, because I think doing so will help some people clarify their values.  And I defer to nobody in my support for transit lanes, in cases where (a) the city has said clearly that they value person-throughput rather than vehicle-throughput (which has to be  <i>their</i> decision) and (b) they are clearly the way to maximize person-throughput.  I just don't see why that has anything to do with transit technology.  And yes, if you lose that battle for an exclusive lane, and you value mobility, streetcars have a disadvantage.  If you don't value mobility, that's fine.  : )

  6. In Brisbane February 21, 2011 at 5:41 pm #

    Exactly the same thing can happen on BRT busway systems.
    I think someone was knocked down at the intersection, but not 100% sure… anyway, on the “flexibility” of buses…

  7. Zoltán February 21, 2011 at 5:42 pm #

    @ant6n Also, re: mobility vs. ridership:
    In the UK, where buses are completely deregulated, and revenue maximisation is the aim, you see a focus towards ridership rather than mobility.
    What I tend to observe is mobility being very poor. Firstly, because the most obviously profitable markets tend to be radial routes into downtown, and other journeys tend to take a very long time because they involve travelling via downtown. Secondly, because services tend not to be well integrated with longer distance services (trains for the most part).
    This is alright when you have a lot of non-car owners that depend upon transit, because they will take those inconvenient trips, and build their lives around where transit goes, and will pay whatever fares are charged for it. People will go to work on the bus, and go to the shops by bus, but they might be going to a different job somewhere else, or a different shop somewhere else, if they had the chance.
    Is that a good way for a transit system to work? I’d say it isn’t. But it does achieve good ridership levels.
    I wouldn’t dismiss ridership as a measure – it’s important and there’s a big problem if your investment isn’t growing it. But multiple measures, not just ridership, with an understanding of what they mean and what they don’t tell you, should be used to assess a transit system.

  8. Jonathon February 21, 2011 at 6:41 pm #

    very interesting that this photo was taken during one of very few times when the extremely frequent (1-2 minute headway) 510 streetcar line was diverted off of its entirely private right of way onto nearby Bathurst street with its own frequent 511 route. Opportunistic much?

  9. In Brisbane February 21, 2011 at 7:15 pm #

    I think Jarrett is just trying to illustrate a general principle here, a drawback if you like, of fixed rail technology; he could have chosen another example.
    510 Spadina is very frequent- to do that with buses you would probably need arcticulated buses and more of them. And remember, you get a tram or LRT when “you need a really big bus”.
    It does come down to values though. I’ve shown a picture (see link) where the same thing is happening on the Brisbane Busway where buses are piling up. And I think as a general rule of thumb, the closer BRT imitates Rail, the closer the benefits (and drawbacks) of rail are approached.
    Both these occurrences are moderately rare so whether they are acceptable or not comes down to values and whether they are such a big deal. Maybe the trams needs to come with bullbars (joke) 😉
    You get what you pay for.

  10. ant6n February 21, 2011 at 8:29 pm #

    re monility vs ridership
    I wouldn’t dismiss mobility, I just think it’s a tad bit more important. From my point of view it’s better to have slower service with a lot of ridership rather than a faster service with little ridership. I also agree that creating whole transit networks that only exist along few corridors during few times because there’s a good operating budget to ridership ratio is a bad idea. This for example can be seen for North American Commuter Rails. But it is also true that in many of these corridors, ridership would be much higher if the service would be better, but it would have lower ridership per operating cost – so I think absolute ridership is important.
    re streetcars
    I would tend to agree that if you cannot give your streetcars its own lane, then a bus may be able to provide better service, in some instances. Bus’ capital costs are certainly lower. Once you give Streetcars their own right of way, I feel that the technology is very competitive compared to BRT.
    But regarding the picture; when it comes to streetcars without their own right of way, I’d say giving it it’s own lane is the solution, not turning it into a bus service. And if the city doesn’t wanna give up car lanes, then I would recommended to give up car lanes.
    Of course I am not the actual consultant. 😉
    @Jonathan: I was wondering about the 510 Spadina label/streetcar running dichotomy as well.

  11. Colin Stewart February 22, 2011 at 5:03 am #

    Jarrett — I appreciate that you’re not afraid to wade into these sorts of philosophical discussions. Keep at it.

  12. Robert Wightman February 22, 2011 at 6:10 am #

    The 510 Spadina car is running up Bathurst St., 1 km west, because the TTC was replacing special work on Spadina. Spadina is one of the few lines I know that has better base service than rush hour; 2:21 am rush, 1:53 base and 2:00 pm rush. Sunday midday service is just over 2:00 minutes.
    With a few exceptions, most of Toronto’s street car lines run on narrow streets, 2 lanes in each direction. Buses on these street actually operate slower because they try to pull to the curb (kerb). They often leave their rear end out and block all the street anyways. Street cars do not try to pull in and out, load and accelerate faster and provide faster service, except when some idiot has a minor accident and won’t move his vehicle off the tracks.
    Even if many of the supposed benefits of streetcars are cultural effects, the fact is that the people who ride them prefer them to buses. It is the people who drive behind them who don’t like them. If more people will ride street cars than buses then that is a positive benefit for street cars, even if the choice is not always logical.
    Keep up the good work and keep attacking sacred cows so everyone is forced to re-evaluate their own prejudices. I don’t always agree with you but I always look forward to your comments as they make me think.

  13. M1EK February 22, 2011 at 7:19 am #

    If you would be equally vigorous in your defense of how much better rail is when it DOES have its own lane, most of us would have no issue with you, Jarrett, but it seems like you protest too much when you claim to be unbiased yet ignore those tremendous advantages on the other side.

  14. Alan Robinson February 22, 2011 at 9:52 am #

    One of the secrets of effective advocacy is having the audience discover the idea as their own instead of having the idea dictated to them. (This is also an essential part of good fiction.) It is the reader who derives the prescription from your expertise.
    By this mechanism, you are a most definitely an effective advocate against the widespread installation of streetcars. The facts you present lead people to conclude that the streetcars are not the solution to transit that they hope for.
    You are also a fair advocate, by insisting that the considerations you present are not unique to the debate. For most if not all of the times you have shown that streetcars do not improve mobility over busses, you have stated that this is not the only criterion on which to base a decision on whether to build a streetcar or not. I would suggest that all readers interested in this debate to go back, read, and evaluate Patrick Condon’s guest post to understand another important side of the debate.
    There are many other considerations, beyond the two I’ve mentioned here, that all of us need to be evaluate for a given project. Personally, I’m of the opinion that mobility is the most important consideration for most transit, although ride quality also ranks high.

  15. Anne February 22, 2011 at 11:16 am #

    Another wonderful article, Jarret.
    Ah, why am I not surprised that this is a Toronto TTC picture?
    I once read a post that stated Toronto has a “milk-run mentality” (with the exception of our subways which appear to be an entirely different internal dept.), meaning that our urban and transit planners l-o-v-e to build slow pokey transit. But this article reminds me that our transit planners are equally comfortable ‘engineering’ exactly the type of situation illustrated by the picture above. They appear to be advocates, not experts. Prescription at its worst.
    My first exposure to transit planning and urban planning (which I was dismayed to discover are largely unrelated in my fair city) was when I discovered the powers that be were in process of “planning” a huge streetcar barn on the waterfront in my local ward – (with a stunning lack of democratic process and transparency btw). I’m in IT system design, audit and governance, so initially thought – naively – that any initial issues would be ironed out via adherence to whatever version of best practice planning frameworks apply to transit infrastructure projects. Turns out, at least in this application, there are none.
    But here’s the thing: when this project goes through, 2/3’s of Toronto’s streetcars will come from a 6 block radius in the City’s SE corner ***via MILES of SPOC (single-point-of-failure) track, through one of the busiest intersections in the City, and then deadheaded along the most heavily congested streetcar line in the city***. See pgs 3&7 of the Councillor’s presentation to the Finance and TTC commission: (This, needless to say, is only one of a myriad of issues around this project – only a few of which are touched on in this presentation.) That one little grey car will eventually have the ability to severely disrupt rush hour transit throughout much of the City. Alternate access track? Apparently not important, since it wasn’t included in the plans and costing which were used to select this spot over many others.
    Now, putting my audit hat on, the VERY FIRST THING you look for is that SPOC on any critical component of a system’s infrastructure – particularly when that SPOC has a higher than average possibility of failure. It’s a big red “Major” finding (a fail in audit terms). The public raised this issue as one of many concerns. The TTC engineers – not so important to them it seems.
    The TTC held very controversial public “consultation” meetings where the public were looking for “description”, but were instead given “prescription” – and very biased and misleading prescription at that:–residents-voice-anger-over-lrv-storage-facility-done-deal
    I was, frankly, shocked at the lack of any kind of neutral dispassionate thinking (let alone planning) used by the TTC, and the utter lack of consideration re: how their plans impact the community, transit in general, and the city as a whole (the location of the proposed barn is in a very heavily used tourist and recreation area). I’ve since taken to observing other transit planning projects, and it’s been my observation that the majority of the public are initially looking for dispassionate description of the variables so that they can make informed educated decisions &/or suggestions, but are generally met with biased prescription based on someone’s interests (and that someone isn’t the public). For some reason I can’t yet explain, we seem to get into this odd type of mentality when we’re considering streetcars in this city. I think they’ve reached a status similar to India’s sacred monkeys: they’ve become a horrible nuisance but no-one’s allowed to touch them just because they’ve become sacred. Planners appear to put pins in maps for odd reasons that they can’t adequately explain to the public, and use prescription to push the plans through.
    On another note: I extend my sympathies to any of the Kiwi readers here re: your recent earthquake in Christchurch.

  16. Anne February 22, 2011 at 11:30 am #

    Correction: in my post above that should read SPOF (single point of failure), not SPOC (single point of contention).

  17. TransitPlannerMunich February 22, 2011 at 12:50 pm #

    Well, what can I say…
    1. The tram in Munich (and also most other German networks) is sharing a significant part of its network with cars. That does not stop the system from being quite fast and reliable (usually 80% of all trams leaving a stop on time – meaning punctual or delayed with less than 2 minutes), due to prioritisation at traffic lights and an average distance between the stops of about 400 meters. Still the system is extremely popular, with a ridership of 95 million per year (still rising) on a network of 75 km lenght. There are 80 vehicles in operation during peak hour, so that every tram is transporting over 1 million passengers per year.
    And, sorry Jarrett, this photo is so…such a pro bus activism photo…
    Here is my answer, take this, Jarrett:
    2. Bus systems imitating a tram are not much cheaper. A BRT system like the TransMilenio in Bogota cost 10 to 28 million dollars per kilometer. I was really shocked when I read this, cause in a really expensive city (definitely not third world) like Munich a new tram line is built for 15 million dollars per kilometer. A bus in daily operation is here usually replaced after 10 to 12 years. A tram vehicle can be used for 35 to 45 years.
    3. If you show me a western bus system generating a ridership that is usually reached by rail systems it would be more impressive. A system with a ridership indicating not only students and poor people are using it…

  18. Anne February 22, 2011 at 2:54 pm #

    That is an impressive video. However, stepping away from advocacy back into description, it would be helpful to have an impartial measurement of the frequency &/or impact of both situations in any particular region.
    Stepping back into advocacy, bus incidents happen from time to time (you might even say somewhat frequently) in Toronto:
    But streetcar lineups happen daily.
    And I can’t, for the life of me, understand how on earth it is that, when passengers complain and say that this is no way to design or run a transit system, we are accused of being either anti-streetcar or pro-bus (or pro-subway in our neck of the woods). It seems to me that the measurements of service quality should be up there for all to see regardless of mode. That way each transit mode (if we even need to have a discussion about mode which, in my opinion, should always be secondary) can speak for itself.

  19. In Brisbane February 22, 2011 at 3:28 pm #

    This doesn’t seem like an argument against streetcars; It seems more of an argument to place them into Class B ROW (seperated lane) and give them signal priority.
    What solution are you proposing? Is it ripping them up and replacing them with bus?

  20. Jarrett at February 22, 2011 at 3:31 pm #

    @In Brisbane.  That's exactly my point in this post.  Descriptive thinking doesn't propose anything, yet it is a valid and necessary mode of thought.  Jarrett

  21. anonymouse February 22, 2011 at 5:04 pm #

    Really, it seems more like an argument against TTC’s incompetent management of streetcar operations. From what I’ve heard, they’re not very good at managing headways, and if streetcars (or buses) leave the terminal in pairs, they’re not going to magically get un-bunched. And, the photos of streetcars are no different of those photos of a bus jam on the streets of Ottawa.
    Jarrett, I think to some extent you’re falling into the trap of comparing the actual operations of actual streetcars against the ideal operations of an idealized bus system “done right”. which I’m not convinced will be achievable in the real world. Still, it very much needs to be said that streetcars are not some kind of magic solution that will automatically save your city or transit system from economic ruin.

  22. Rob February 23, 2011 at 7:56 am #

    I think the main point suggests that one needs to be aware of the line between the technical (which needs to challenge faith) and the political (which seems more faith-based than ever). Policymakers and advocates can follow their gut and their faith, and the public will have wants and desires that may not be rational – and don’t have to be. Technical people, on the other hand, need to be able to help sort out facts from fiction, and their own prejudices from what they know to be true professionally.
    BUT, I think there is a place for advocacy within the technical profession. I think part of the job is to be a voice for the customer’s interests and outcomes, especially since so many of the arguments over transit treat the customer as a byproduct. Especially at the political level, the distribution of capital projects is a lot more fun and interesting to elected officials (who often don’t set foot on transit and know few people who do) than the boring details of moving gritty buses and trains around.
    I also think there’s a place for advocating the *idea* that a goal of transit design is to apply each mode where it will be most effective. Mode warriors can’t resist an opportunity to join an ideological war over which mode is best and why those who disagree with them are biased or living in a fantasy world. But in real life, each mode has functions it performs best at and conditions needed to succeed. As much fun as it is to fight about, it’s all about the implementation details and what you can afford.

  23. M1EK February 23, 2011 at 11:30 am #

    Rob, that’s fine, but it sure appears that a lot of people in the business are telling transit agencies what they desperately want to hear – that, for instance, buses can do as much as rail can do. That’s an argument which needs to be had above board and not just handwaved away as “cultural feedback”.

  24. EngineerScotty February 23, 2011 at 12:32 pm #

    Why would a transit agency “want to hear” a blanket statement concerning bus vs rail (whether your example, or the opposite, which many other agencies also “want to hear”)?
    In many cases, the problem lies there–with decision makers (and others, including activists) who already know what they want to build, and want the planners and engineers and consultants to validate the political decision. Happens all the time in business as well as politics–and no amount of technical expertise will trump bad management.
    Time for a fair bit of cynicism.
    Unfortunately, in many cases the constraints which need to be justified are not imposed by the decision-maker (especially in political systems where much of the authority is distributed), but imposed by outside actors, who may be engaging in self-aggrandizement or rent-seeking at the expense of transit outcomes, but whose participation is needed for the project to get done. And in many cases, such folks don’t want their fingerprints on the planning documents–you won’t ever see an Environmental Impact Statement explicitly stating that bus wasn’t considered for project X because developer Y would withdraw his support for the project causing his ally councilman Z to vote no; or conversely that governor W is a teabagger who considers rail transit to be a Soviet plot and thus BRT was the only rapid transit option to advance out of the DEIS phase in order to avoid a veto. These sorts of political decisions are made in the backroom, off the record, and then often justified on an ex post factor basis when the stench gets too bad. I can think of numerous examples of this phenomenon in Portland.
    Reputable consultants ought not take work that involves declaring that night is day, in an attempt to paper over a blatantly bad political decision. However, in situations like just described, there is plenty of work for reputable consultants to help transit agencies to make the best of a bad situation–if the political realities of a situation require that agency
    A implement a transit network using only mixed-traffic streetcar, and that other modes are off the table, a good consultant will help them design the best streetcar system that lies within their budget.
    At the risk of misquoting Jarrett, who has a sterling reputation in my book, sometimes this is what “help[ing] you implement your values” really means. Often times the “values” in question aren’t the values of the riders, the community, or the sponsoring agency, but those of the powerbrokers who ultimately control the fate of the project in question, and who may have little actual interest in improving mobility.

  25. Rob February 23, 2011 at 1:03 pm #

    I don’t agree that “buses can do as much as rail can do.” There are things rail can do that buses cannot, and visa versa. There are situations where one is clearly superior to the other, and visa versa. My point is that it’s pointless and counterproductive to argue about the inherent superiority of one more over another – the point is to apply them where they make sense, (and of course not to apply them when they are just a more expensive way to provide the same function).

  26. EngineerScotty February 23, 2011 at 1:26 pm #

    Arguments over mode choices are often arguments over values. Residents of downtrodden urban areas, and the activists who represent them, frequently will advocate bus over rail for the underlying reason that they may perceive rail as a threat–in many cases, deployment of rail represents a (re)allocation of transit dollars away from their communities and into wealthier suburbs and/or budding Pearl Districts. Similar socioeconomic concerns frequently drive blind rail advocacy. Obviously, this has nothing to do with intrinsic differences between the technology, but in how they are frequently deployed, a cultural fact.
    Any time someone makes a blanket statement concerning one mode or the other, one that isn’t entirely grounded in the actual limits of the technology, chances are their real beef is elsewhere.

  27. Rob February 23, 2011 at 10:32 pm #

    A good point.

  28. M1EK February 24, 2011 at 8:29 am #

    “Why would a transit agency “want to hear” a blanket statement concerning bus vs rail ”
    Because buses are cheaper. And they desperately want to convince themselves they can get all (or almost all) of the benefits of rail without spending that money.

  29. Alon Levy February 24, 2011 at 12:28 pm #

    Buses are cheaper to buy and build, and more expensive to operate; therefore, the feds pay less of the cost.

  30. M1EK February 25, 2011 at 7:58 am #

    Operating costs, unfortunately, rarely seem to be part of the discussion when talking about bus versus rail.

  31. Anne February 25, 2011 at 8:35 am #

    @EngineerScotty “Why would a transit agency “want to hear” a blanket statement concerning bus vs rail …
    Thank you for that entire post, which is the best description I’ve read to date of what may have been (probably was) going on behind the scenes of the transit project I was discussing above.
    Thinking along those lines puts a number of things in better focus. I’d read an allegation in a local newspaper, that at the time I dismissed out of hand as rumour-mongering and paranoia, that our former local councillor (and transit commissioner) was considering taking a run for mayor, and that the oh-so-quiet ‘approval’ of siting this facility in her ward was a tradeoff to get support from a very powerful union. Reading your comment, that scenario now sounds more plausible than I had originally thought. Whether or not that was true, there were enough allegations of questionable practices (and this particular issue wasn’t on anyone’s radar at that point) that she went down in spectacular defeat. But we are, unfortunately, left with the legacy. I think your point:
    Often times the “values” in question aren’t the values of the riders, the community, or the sponsoring agency, but those of the powerbrokers who ultimately control the fate of the project in question, and who may have little actual interest in improving mobility.
    is particularly relevant. During the community consultation where we went through the obvious pretense of reviewing several possible sites it was glaringly obvious that there were better sites than this available (and even better options that weren’t on the table), and the very valid questions from the packed room of citizens were responded to with, what seemed to me at least, bizarrely illogical logic. At the time I had a feeling of discomfort and sympathy for some of the presenters who didn’t appear comfortable presenting their slides or answering questions. I doubt they were the ones with, as you say “their fingerprints on the planning documents” but were merely the bagmen left to take the heat with the public.
    I too have often seen this type of thing in business, but never to this degree.
    In my opinion we get into this type of trouble when our basic goals and objectives are poorly defined – a recipe for disaster in IT projects & I can’t see why transit projects would be any different.
    But getting back to what I think is your main point, the discussion of impartial expertise vs. activism as described by Jarret is largely irrelevant (or at least premature) when faced with this type of situation, which is all too common in transit planning, and which requires its own particular mix of expertise and advocacy in order to “make the best of a bad situation”. Have I understood you correctly?
    I particularly appreciated your statement “Reputable consultants ought not take work that involves declaring that night is day, in an attempt to paper over a blatantly bad political decision. However, in situations like just described, there is plenty of work for reputable consultants to help transit agencies to make the best of a bad situation”.
    So, do you have any tips for the naive public to use to sort out whether or not they are speaking to “reputable consultants”? And if the answer is yes, how to advocate for them? And what to do about it if the answer is “No”?

  32. EngineerScotty February 25, 2011 at 11:11 am #

    Obviously, I’m speaking generally, and without reference to the situation in Toronto–a city whose politics I don’t know all that much about. That said, I question Mayor Ford’s commitment to mobility just as much as you seem to question the management of TTC; his opposition to the streetcar system seems driven more by ideology than anything else. And his “war on the car” rhetoric makes it clear he considers public transit second-class. There are many ways TTC streetcars can be improved, getting rid of them altogether is not one of them.
    That said… a few ideas on how to identify when a project or project component is being motivated by non-mobility-related factors. Living within budget constraints I don’t consider a problem (obviously), even if the funding constraints are overly stingy (this is a legitimate part of the political function.). Someprojects or elements thereof do have that white elephant feel, OTOH, which is what I’m concerned with. (Generally, the public doesn’t speak directly with consultants, so I’m generalizing your question to include any sort of public outreach or communication).
    * Overly constrained initial project requirements. It’s useful to distinguish here bona-fide requirements from design/implementation details, the latter of which ought to flow from the former. But sometimes, elements which ought to be details are set forth in the requirements without adequate explanation of why this should be so. Sometimes these requirements aren’t stated explicitly, but still are constrained enough that only the solution preferred by the powerbroker can meet them. A notorious Portland example of this would be the Columbia River Crossing which had its “purpose and need” set by the Oregon and Washington state DOTs such that anything other than a mega-freeway-bridge is essentially precluded.
    * Bizarre decision criteria which may not match the stated goals of the project. For example, publicly identifying a project as “rapid transit”, then de-emphasizing performance criteria, or basing decisions on highly speculative future estimates. Many Portlanders will no doubt suspect I’m speaking of the Lake Oswego-Portland Transit Project, and they would be right–the likely project Locally Preferred Alternative is designated “rapid streetcar”, but has significant mixed traffic sections, and is actually slower than the (local service) bus line it would replace.
    * Speaking of the “LO Streetcar”, another clue is the presence of strawman alternatives in the DEIS (Draft Environmental Impact Statement) or equivalent planning/analysis document. By “strawman alternatives”, I mean proposed alternatives which are obviously bad, and included only to satisfy process requirements that multiple alternatives be studied in depth.
    * The counterpart to the strawman alternative(s), of course, are viable project alternatives rejected early in the planning phase, often due to being “out of scope” (see the first item concerning overly restrictive requirements), or on the basis of vague or overly-picky technical factors. Look for signs that point to “this would work, but we really don’t want to (or can’t) consider it, so we’ll dispose of it as quickly as we can”.
    * Projects that appear “out of the blue”, rather than the result of organic planning activities, or which are done “out of sequence” compared to their apparent priority. May represent a unique opportunity (such a project eligible for funding that isn’t available for other projects)–or someone with his thumb on the scale.
    * “Economic development” being touted as an advantage is a frequent red flag. It is always touted, of course, as politicians love to boast of bringing home the bacon, but if “economic development” is the main reason for doing a project–and especially if the “development” in question refers mainly to the project’s construction effort itself and not to post-project activities the work will enable–a good response is to ask if there are any places to deploy the “economic development” that will have better post-project outcomes. Spending money on projects and employing hardhats is often a good thing (especially if the money comes from outside the region), but it’s nice if the labor and materials go to something that’s useful. Paying someone to dig ditches and refill them can be considered “economic development” but doesn’t produce something useful; better to pay people to build useful things.
    It should be noted that even compromised projects are often better than nothing. Many transportation advocates love to hate BART for instance, and there are lots of things wrong with the system (use of non-standard-gauge rolling stock, use of rapid transit technology to implement what is essentially commuter rail); but it’s an undeniably important part of the Bay Area transit fabric.
    And even otherwise good projects can have bad elements. Portland’s Westside MAX line (the Blue and Red lines west of downtown) is generally heralded as a widely successful project, but it has a few warts, the biggest of them being the King Street Station, which essentially stops outside the front door of an athletic club frequented by Portland’s rich and powerful, and at the foot of a street serving a wealthy neighborhood. The PGE Park station, serving a major sporting venue, is literally a block away, but planners were made clear (behind close doors, of course) that a precondition for building the line, was a station in that particular spot–otherwise the line would not get built. As blemishes go, this is minor, it probably adds only a minute or so to the average trip to serve this station–but there it is, a virtual monument to the power of the purse.

  33. Rob February 25, 2011 at 8:04 pm #

    OK, slightly off topic, but I need to respond to the “light rail has lower operating costs” comment. Light rail sometimes requires fewer operators, depending on operating rules. But light rail requires another set of employees to operate and maintain the right of way, and usually a separate group of management employees to supervise the modal system. In many cases the reduction in vehicle operators is more than made up for by the increased cost of station-based staff and track maintenance crews. For buses, highway agencies or local jurisdictions absorb those costs.

  34. Alon Levy February 25, 2011 at 9:30 pm #

    Rob, my comment about LRT vs. bus operating costs is purely empirical. On the NTD there are precise figures for US networks, and rail almost invariably has lower operating costs than buses, both per passenger and per passenger-km, take your pick. It’s also true elsewhere: Calgary reports a factor-of-6 difference in favor of LRT.

  35. anonymouse February 26, 2011 at 4:10 pm #

    One interesting attribute of electric traction is that the costs of maintenance of diesel-engined rolling stock (whether buses or trains) are actually higher than the costs of maintaining an electrification system plus electric rolling stock, at least above a fairly reasonable baseline service level. I know electrification is a net win on maintenance costs for 5 tph peak hour commuter rail service and something like a 10 minute headway bus line.

  36. Eric Doherty February 28, 2011 at 11:43 am #

    @anonymouse “electrification is a net win on maintenance costs for 5 tph peak hour commuter rail service and something like a 10 minute headway bus line.”
    I would love to get some hard figures on this – with a time period so it can be indexed to the cost of oil. The US data I have shows good cost factors per passenger boarding for trolley buses (not so much per mile), but I don’t have numbers on headways.

  37. anonymouse February 28, 2011 at 9:54 pm #

    @Eric: this has absolutely nothing to do with the cost of oil versus electricity, it’s purely labor cost savings. It’s a bit counterintuitive: by having infrastructure to maintain in addition to the vehicles, you’d expect to have to spend more money, but in this case, it can actually save money on maintenance. Fuel costs are an entirely separate matter, though also generally a net win for electrification.

  38. anonymouse February 28, 2011 at 9:55 pm #

    And for what it’s worth, my sources are the Caltrain electrification study (mid-2000s) and the LA RTD trolleybus study from the early 90s, both of which showed that maintenance costs for electrification would be lower.