Today I took a stab at writing a holiday letter and discovered that, right at this moment, I can’t figure out how to cheer up transit advocates, or people who work in local government, or anyone else who loves cities. Since consultants like me are expected to exude at least some degree of optimism, this is more of a problem for me than it is for the average person.
Why? At the Federal level in the US, powerful forces, especially in the Senate, are happy to watch local governments implode in budgetary crisis, weakening the only level of government that citizens can influence. Particular hostility seems to be directed at transit agencies associated with big cities. In an absurdity that only Federal policy could create, high ridership in the big agencies before the Covid disaster is exactly why they are in such trouble now. New York, Washington, Boston and possibly others are looking at service cuts that will simply devastate those cities, undermining essential workers and destroying the access to opportunity without which an equitable economic recovery is impossible. Smaller agencies are in better shape at the moment, but if there isn’t a new funding package soon we’ll see devastating cuts across the US.
Tomorrow or next week, I will express optimism again and encourage constructive action. But I know that the journey to any authentic optimism goes through the anger rather than around it. So today I feel the need to state, for the record, that I’m absolutely furious: about what’s happening to transit in the US, and about many larger things of which that’s just an example.
Again, working consultants like me aren’t supposed to say this in public, and if I were at an earlier stage of my career I wouldn’t dare.
Please remember that when you deal with public servants or consultants at this time, and they don’t seem to be reacting in the way you think they should, that they are probably furious too, but are in roles where they can’t express that. In addition to being furious about all the things that you’re furious about, they have also been through a period of unprecedented assault on their professions. Because they did the long, hard work of learning about a topic so that they can help people deal with it, most have been slandered and a few have been threatened physically. So when you see these people managing their own emotions to keep working constructively, consider expressing some gratitude and admiration for that.
When I am in a room with some citizens trying to solve a problem together, we can’t get much done if everyone is just expressing anger in every moment. But even if we park it at the door in order to do our work, we shouldn’t deny it. In almost every meeting, I wish I could say: “I know how furious you are about all the injustice and cruelty and oppression and destructive behavior that surrounds us, in addition to your fears for yourself, your family, and your community. I’m angry too.” Maybe it’s my work to figure out how to say that, even to diverse audiences who may be angry about different things.
There will be many places where it’s not safe to talk this way. But I know I speak for many calm-seeming professionals when I say: I’m absolutely furious, and I hope you are too.
I’d be furious too. In the beginning of the pandemic we didn’t really know how this thing was spreading so some extreme reaction was warranted while we all figured out what was going on. But after a month or two — and certainly now, nearly a year later — it was obvious that riding transit is actually not very risky if everyone wears a mask, doesn’t talk, and a couple of windows on the bus or train are cracked 6 inches to promote airflow. As far as I know, there have been zero cases of COVID spread on transit here in Japan, despite that trains and buses are packed more densely than anywhere else in the world. I’m sure there is similar evidence in Taiwan and South Korea. All of the overreactions the in the US and Europe could have been prevented if people just wear masks everywhere all the time and keep spaces ventilated — it really is that simple.
(I’m sure some will blame Trump, but to that I say: Look at California which is run by Democrats. It’s not a COVID success story, and they have some of the wackiest non-evidence based rules about what you can and can’t do. Wanna take your kids to an outdoor playground because they’re going crazy from being cooped up? Too bad, even though there’s no evidence that COVID spreads outdoors in non-crowded conditions.)
I was scared shitless in the beginning because I thought Japan was going to get hit the hardest due to crowded living and working conditions, but it never really happened and the explanation can’t be the government response, because it was completely bungled. There was only a shutdown for about 4 weeks in May and the government was super reluctant to test people for COVID until early summer. Since June almost everything has been open, including workplaces, schools, and restaurants — the vast majority of workers are at the office and generally only western companies like Google and Microsoft are doing telework. Yet still, on a per-capita basis, there have been no huge outbreaks and most have happened at medical facilities, private parties, and night clubs — not random people catching it at the supermarket, or kids spreading it at school, or even at bars.
The only difference between here and everywhere else, as far as I can see, is nearly 100% mask wearing everywhere all the time (people even wear them outside when they’re not near anyone else). And I have a theory that it’s not spreading even in bars because they’re all so small and well-ventilated, due to the fact that smoking is still allowed here and most kitchens are open there’s always high air circulation and no customer is ever very far from it (and there are only 10 customer capacity, not 50).
You made me had a look at transit in France. frequences have been slightly reduced in Montpellier (from every 13 minutes to every 15 minutes), but the time coverage did stay the same. Paris didn’t have many changes as well.
The biggest town led by the conservatives, Toulouse, keeps 85% of its traffic, cutting off all service after 22h00 – a service that was nearly unused in times of quarantine. It’s not as bad as the USA, by far, but still a problem : the very few workers needing to go back home after 22h00 might prove essential to the local economy. Note also that on economic terms, Toulouse, home of Airbus, if the town that suffers the most of the pandemics in France, by far. Which may also explain harsher measures.
Overall, I can’t notice such a public transit demolition, as the USA seem to suffer. There are unfortunate glitches here or there, but nothing massive. And not many differences between socialists & conservatives.
The problem is that the Senate is run by Republicans, but nearly all regular transit riders are Democrats.
“The problem is that the Senate is run by Republicans, but [they believe that] nearly all regular transit riders are Democrats.”
Fixed that for you. There are plenty of republicans riding the subway in New York, or Light Rail in Houston, or a bus in the centre of nowhere, Idaho. But wealthy people chauffeured everywhere find it easy to punch down on transit riders, knowing it won’t change how any large portion of people vote.
Intuitively, I would expect that if you were to poll everybody on a bus or train how they plan to vote, you would get a a much higher Democratic vote share than you would over the general population in the area for which the transit vehicle operates. Part of that is due to population density, which correlates strongly with both transit effectiveness and the Democratic vote share (the micro areas immediately adjacent to major transit hubs are often to be bluer than the broader county or precinct, just from increased density). Part of that is due to demographics (the transit-riding population would over-represent young people, women and minorities). But, even controlling for all that, I think you’d still see a difference. Republican dogma makes anyone who relies on any government-funded service out to be losers, so you’d a greater share of Republicans to prioritize cars and Ubers in their budget, to avoid feeling like losers.
I haven’t seen any rigorous studies to measure the correlation between transit riding and partisanship (controlling for all the other factors) and I’m sure conducting one would be difficult. The vast majority of Republicans live in areas with little or no transit to ride, even if somebody there wanted to; what little transit does exist in red areas is going to have very little in the way of ridership, making it difficult to gather enough of a sample size to draw statistically meaningful conclusions. What transit-riding Republicans do exist are likely to be riding in an extremely blue area (e.g. New York City) and might not be willing to admit to a pollster that they voted for Trump while onboard a train filled with Democrats.
Anecdotally, the stigma of transit riding seems to be much less of a thing when one is traveling on vacation – especially when visiting a city outside the U.S. I have personally met people who would never ride transit in their home city, but talked about riding the Paris Metro in their trip to France.
While I wish we had more support for public transit in government it looks like there is also a generational shift backwards in public attitudes. Talking about pre-COVID transit is akin to when our ancestors talked about prewar society. We need a major overhaul in how we rebuild, this is a time for a Green New Deal.
This is from the UK, but it is probably even worse in the US:
During this summer of PDX protests for #BLM and transport justice I was followed all over town this summer by the police, phone hacked and my apartment was broken into. Nothing stolen. Hmmmm?
There are forces at the federal level and locals who have censured and silenced me inside of Portland’s activism scene. Some of us have already been axed from professional opportunities because we spoke up and didn’t stop. But we did get SB 1601 cracked open the State Highway fund for public transit operations. Your welcome. I was hammering Salem while the protests continued.
The emotions: anger and furious kept me going until tear gas assaulted my internal being. TMI but the tear gas is HORRIBLE for female cycles. I only did clean up downtown and the tear gas wrecked my system. It doesn’t just go away.
It’s not just OK, it’s the only rational response!
Federal policy has certainly led to absurdities, as it often does, but why is your ire directed at the Senate?
Curious how you’d respond to Strong Towns’ line of criticism. Given the financial markets have been healthy since the summer, so the cost of State debt vs Federal debt is so small it should be irrelevant in the face of catastrophic service costs, I don’t have much sympathy for the leaders of our great America cities whose best response is “the buck stops somewhere else.”
In Seattle, I’m watching King County plan for drastic service cuts but is also finding $100MM to bail out the WSCC, which I feel perfectly encapsulates the point that non-Federal money can be found if there is a political will.
“Federal policy has certainly led to absurdities, as it often does, but why is your ire directed at the Senate?”
Because, umm, they are the ones most responsible for this mess? I mean sure, you can get angry at the ghost of Reagan (curse you and your New Federalism) but that’s like being pissed off at Rutherford B. Hayes for ending reconstruction. Unfortunately, the United States Senate, without a doubt, are the ones that are screwing things up *now*. If only a few of them bolted from the extreme anti-urban, anti-environmental mindset, then this problem could be solved very quickly. Trump is a demagogue, but at this point, he has all but checked out, and will take credit for anything that passes, even if goes against the very foundation of modern Republican dogma. Case in point — the Cares Act, which was far to the left of anything Obama or Bill Clinton ever passed, for it actually gave people money, just for being an American citizen, unless you happened to be rich. Senate Republicans are responsible for this mess, plain and simple.
A more optimistic perspective: Here in King County WA, the highest rates of COVID- positive people are not in Seattle but in suburbs. Why? Apparently, transmission is happening when small groups assemble in a confined space. The densest parts of Seattle actually have lower rates than less dense parts of the county.
I theorize that somewhat denser living reduces the psychological need to ease the isolation. My neighbors stroll down the street, talk to friends at a safe distance, and conveniently connect with the world at a safe distance. I see those that must drive everywhere putting themselves at riskier behaviors as they feel like they must do something to ease their isolation.
Just look at how rampant the virus is in rural areas these days. Something powerful in their life is compelling risky congregate behaviors — even though they live in much lower density areas. Keep in mind that the standard suburban model is intertwined with dense working conditions so that workers want retreat time — and as more work from home, the value of retreating begins to feel more like a problem than a solution.
Sure it’s been a tough year for transit. Ridership is way down. Drivers are in fear of catching the virus. Governments are stretched in many other areas. However, I believe that a sense of normalcy will return as more of us are vaccinated.
Once we get through this horrible time, I think a case for a walkable “village” has a bright future as a way to more conveniently rebalance our needs between socialization and retreating — especially if more of us will be working from home.
I share the anger. It is difficult to organize my specific objections. Let’s just say that emotionally, I would not be sad to see mass die off of the 1% and their lackeys.
You are angry over the effects of an epidemic that has killed 311,000 people, and your solution is to kill more than 3.2 MILLION people? (1% of the country “plus their lackeys”). Even if this is only an emotional response, it is not productive, or healthy, or moral. All of us should be sad if something caused the deaths of that many people.
A very large segment of the covid deaths have been among the “Dalits” of the US. Much like the AIDS epidemic, when it was “only those people” efforts to control.prevent, ultimately cure were slow in coming.
(It took Reagan losing a fellow actor to realize AIDS could kill people he cared about)
So, perhaps you can explain the morality of management refusing to provide adequate PPE for front line works, the McConnell attempt to exempt these oligarchs from responsibility for the victims of their malfeasance, and refusal to enact desperately needed economic relief. I can’t.
In my view, forcing employees to work without adequate safety protection (which includes refusal to pay sick leave so one can self quarantine) is right up there with the opioid pushing pharmaceutical companies. I believe both behaviors are negligent homicide at a minimum, really premeditated murder morally even if not legally.
This nation has a huge “justice and fairness” deficit that needs to be erased.
PS to Jarrett. I spent well over an hour trying to decide how to answer. I will not object if you moderate out the thread.