The Fishing Pier Problem in Public Transit Equity

Photo: Heditor6, Wikimedia Commons

Have you ever heard people say: “They got that transit improvement in their neighborhood!  We deserve to have one in our neighborhood!”

But does this demand always makes sense?

Imagine a city on a lake or ocean, where neighborhoods near the water tend to be wealthier than those inland.  Suppose the city has a plan to build several fishing piers, but all the proposed piers are in the wealthy neighborhoods on the waterfront.  Isn’t that unfair?

No, I think you’d say, because fishing piers only work if they’re on the water.  If you were concerned with equity, maybe you’d propose a program that helps inland people get to the waterfront fishing piers quickly.  But you wouldn’t support an inland elected official’s battle to get a fishing pier on dry land in their neighborhood, because it wouldn’t be useful for fishing.

In short, the point isn’t to equitably distribute fishing piers.  It’s to equitably distribute the ability to fish.

In the transit business, when a cool new thing is created somewhere, you always hear the rest of the city say: when do we get that cool thing?  You’ll hear this about everything, from subway lines to Bus Rapid Transit to little vans that come to your door.   Enormous amounts of money get spent trying to act on this principle.

The typical pattern goes like this:

  • Cool new transit thing x is introduced, and deployed in one or two places in the city where it makes sense.  (Let’s build a fishing pier on the waterfront!)
  • Other neighborhoods demand the same thing, often claiming it’s unjust or inequitable that they don’t have it.  (Why don’t our inland neighborhoods have fishing piers?)
  • Often the cool new thing is actually built in those other neighborhoods that demand it, but it doesn’t work well there, because the geography is wrong for it.  (A fishing pier is actually built inland, extending across a patch of grass, but nobody uses it.)

The marketing of cool new transit things can make this problem worse.  The more you put out the message that light rail or BRT or microtransit or “Metro Rapid” is cool and different and better than “ordinary” buses, the more mad people will be if their neighborhood just gets ordinary buses.  That leads to political pressure to bring the cool new thing to a place where it just doesn’t work very well, which in turn leads to the cool new thing failing, just as an inland fishing pier will fail.

You’ll get the best transit mobility if we use the tool that works with your geography, even if it’s different from what works in other places.

So perhaps it makes no sense to equitably distribute any cool transit thing.  It makes sense to equitably distribute the ability to go lots of places quickly on transit.

How would our transit debates be different if we did this?



13 Responses to The Fishing Pier Problem in Public Transit Equity

  1. Andy Nash February 24, 2020 at 11:13 pm #

    This is one of the reasons I think Zurich’s approach towards comprehensive public transport priority is so good. It’s not rolling out a BRT line on one corridor, it’s doing lots of little, inexpensive things all over. Which, of course, requires political courage, but that’s another story.

  2. Alon Levy February 25, 2020 at 9:43 am #

    I don’t think this is really what’s happening with transit, though. A more apt analogy is that there’s room for 15 fishing piers, the city pilots 2, and then the other 13 waterfront neighborhoods complain that they’re not getting piers, so the city spends money on little projects to buy them off and so the budget swells to that of 9 piers but only 2 piers are actually getting installed.

    • Jarrett February 26, 2020 at 1:19 pm #

      Making an analogy more complicated is not a refutation of the analogy!

    • RossB February 29, 2020 at 9:06 am #

      I think it is a great analogy for transit *in the U. S.*, and it is pretty easy to find examples all across the country. Here are examples for Seattle: It isn’t obvious what is being built, but here is a nice map of what the Seattle subway system will look like in thirty years: The scale isn’t obvious, nor is the population density of the various areas served. Here is a link to the latter:

      What becomes clear is that this is a huge, very very extensive mass transit system, with multiple stops by the freeway, and miles of expensive new track with huge distances between stations, even in the city. The general alignment does not match the population density, nor demand in general (employment or otherwise). It treats the new light rail system like it is special in and of itself — like an amusement park. Every community wants one, and you should just scatter them around (that way, it won’t be too far to drive to it).

      The end result will be what is common in the U. S.: infrequent trains outside of rush hour. There simply isn’t enough demand to run the trains every ten minutes in the middle of the day, let alone every five. Those riders would have been much better off with a major investment where it makes sense (in the urban core) and good bus service where it doesn’t.

      Speaking of bus service, that is an issue as well. King County runs the bus system for the Seattle area. They have a “BRT-ish” system called RapidRide. It has off board payment, special branding, etc. If you look at their RapidRide lines ( some are the most popular routes in the state. But others aren’t. The F Line, for example, carries around 6,000 people a day, which is less than a dozen regular (non-RapidRide) buses. Nor is it particularly frequent, running 15 minutes in the middle of the day (the same as many buses in the city). The special treatment seems designed specifically to please a suburban constituency. They have their fishing pier. They just don’t have any fish.

      Seattle is not special in this regard. Of course there are problems with cost. But even if you accept that American costs will always be what they are, the least you can do is build what makes sense to build. Build the fishing piers where there are fish.

  3. Danny February 26, 2020 at 9:50 am #

    I don’t buy the analogy or assumptions that are embedded within it. For one, fishing piers aren’t transportation, and historically speaking (pre-gentrification), they were also home to working class communities. So I doubt very much that any new fishing pier–as a first example of a cool new trinket–would be placed in those areas in the real world, until a different demographic with better ties to parks/leisure people in the city begins to move in and can make the case for an expensive pier to fish off of. Maybe I’m wrong, though–can someone offer some examples? And to the degree that piers might be transportation, they’d be infrastructure for something like ferry boats, which in places like NYC where they are used tend to be highly correlated with wealthy users–and costly services that detract from the transportation options of those mythical inland places away from the water that Walker’s analogy suggests are playing a ‘me too’ game.

    Further, the analogy assumes a blanket rationality in choices and decisions, that “[c]ool new transit thing x is introduced, and deployed in one or two places in the city where it makes sense.” Is that assumption true generally? My sense is no. I think what social equity people point out is the long history–most of which Walker would be unaware of locally due to his job dropping in and out of communities for shorter periods of time–where such trinkets went to those neighbors and neighborhoods that held community power…not to places where it made sense. And, of course, this leaves out the cost benefits of such things like a pier. Does the cost and completion eat into already-scarce resources that, history shows, will ultimately effect communities lying away from that seaside retreat with a new fishing pier.

    To use a real-world example, my city of Lexington, KY, is in the process of creating and/or finishing 2 trail systems that (mostly) employ dedicated lanes rather than cheap paint-on-a-road solutions (last decade’s cool new idea). What communities are getting this cool new thing of a safe trail system? The trails intersect nearby Main Street–a tourist but not a residential or even much of a business hub (though the businesses there are high-powered and wealthy)–and to the degree the trails go anywhere, they go to horse country to support our 1%er industry, on the way traveling by a proposed University of Kentucky “research park,” the occupants of which will also skew heavily wealthy. I could say the same thing for our other “new” trinket–scooters–which have also been located downtown and around UK (which is populated mainly by upper-income students).

    • RossB February 28, 2020 at 11:01 pm #

      “I don’t buy the analogy… For one, fishing piers aren’t transportation”

      You do understand what an analogy is, right?

  4. M1EK February 26, 2020 at 10:18 am #

    It’s a pretty big chutzpah moment to see Jarrett now (implicitly) downplaying BRT as overly promoted! I had to rub my eyes for a minute there.

    • Jarrett February 26, 2020 at 1:15 pm #

      Sigh. Will you ever figure out that I have no abstract opinions about any transit technology, and never have? What matters is what’s the right tool in a particular situation.

      • M1EK March 23, 2020 at 2:20 pm #

        I tend to believe an animal is a duck if it constantly walks and quacks like a duck, even if it insists it’s not a duck. Likewise with the BRT promotion.

  5. Jeff Wegerson February 29, 2020 at 9:53 am #

    Thanks for the new lens to look at transportation with.

    Looking at Chicago I see we had the shiny new BRT moment back some 8 years ago. We did the two pilots stage that Alon suggests is a potential reality. We also got the let’s even try for the full magilla version on Ashland Ave. And of course we all could think of at least a half dozen other good street candidates that your new lens suggests might make an appearance.

    So what has actually happened. One pilot still being in place probably indicates it is working and the other is a huge success. But wait a lot of folks think the downtown Loop Link isn’t an example of success but a failure. Well oops to the marketing department for over selling.

    The full version never happened and now the current mayor and the transit agency is getting on board the “hey how about just regular old fashioned dedicated bus lanes” thing. So that sounds like Alon’s 9 projects of disappointment. But …

    But actually it is just what Chicago needs desperately right now in the age of induced ride hail congestion. It is indeed very appropriate to immediate needs and immediate budgets.

    Especially the immediate needs of moving people quickly and expediently through the city.

    So lens works for me.

  6. david vartanoff March 1, 2020 at 12:19 pm #

    After testifying against the (now much shorter but more expensive) Oakland CA BRT project, the AC Transit Pres asked me, “David,don’t you think the East Bay deserves a marquee project?” Nearly 10 years later the project, which might open in April or May, will feature fancy stations, special buses, and essentially serve the same stops as the long discontinued “Ltd” and later “Rapid” on the same route. Unlike the “Rapid” which promised TSP, the BRT may actually both install and ACTIVATE such a system. All of this would be valuable except that both ends are at BART (the subway) stations, so the only real use should be getting from the rail stations to the blocks in between where the convenient local bus service will be abolished. The ringer here is that the subway and the bus systems compete for riders and subsidy funds so duplicate service is a goal, not a mistake.

    Perhaps a second pier only a short distance from the existing pier, but separate user fees?