Advocacy

postcard: al ain

A couple of weeks ago, I had the honor of joining a consulting team working on Bus Rapid Transit in Al Ain, United Arab Emirates.  Al Ain, pop. around 500k, is straight south of Dubai, inland, and it could not be more different.  While Dubai is a performance for the world, Al Ain is calm, satisfied and a bit inscrutable.  Expat workers abound, including plenty of professionals hired from the West, but this feels like a city for Emiratis.

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Built around a series of oases, Al Ain has been a crossroads and watering place for millennia.  Like most such places, it's a bit of a chokepoint, defined by the Omani border and the massif of Jebel Hafeet rising to the south.   

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What's here for a transit  blog?  This:

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"Grow a vision with public transport," with the obligatory child photo.  (Another shows an Emirati man in agal and ghutra gazing thoughtfully into the distance.)  Al Ain recently started up a bus system, and has a nice downtown station under construction.  As you'd expect in the Emirates, it's mostly used by low-income guest workers from surrounding countries.  Emiratis, who are a minority of the workforce, are mostly relatively wealthy and generally drive.  

But why, if that's today's reality, would a public transit system be unveiled with such modern and air-conditioned buses?  And why did they undertake this kind of marketing and imagery, designed to get Emiratis thinking about public transport and why it might be important for the city's and country's future?

Often, in the US, I encounter the attitude that buses are just for the poor and that therefore there's no point in spending more than the minimum on them.   Plenty of US cities have bus systems whose service and infrastructure still convey that attitude.  In these situations I'm always pointing out that transit dependence, like income, is a spectrum, that there are people everywhere along the spectrum, and that transit can therefore grow incrementally in relevance in response to modest, incremental investments.  Even poor people make choices, and those choices have consequen  This is, among other things, a reason to care about the quality of bus services, rather than just longing for trains.

That line should be a harder sell in the Emirates, a wealthy country where (a) decision-making is concentrated in an elite, (b) the middle class is far smaller and newer than in the US, and (c) the underclass consists of foreign "guest workers" who have little political influence.   But the Al Ain bus system, and its vision-heavy marketing and investment in look and feel, suggests they may grasp the idea better than many Americans do.   They are envisioning a future when a more diverse range of people will be motivated to use transit, as the car becomes less attractive or affordable for a host of converging reasons. 

 

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.

yes, great bus service can stimulate development!

Are you sure that rail "stimulates development" and that buses don't?  In a major report released today, the Institution for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP) attacks this assumption head-on.  

Per dollar of transit investment, and under similar conditions, Bus Rapid Transit
leverages more transit-oriented development investment than Light Rail Transit
or streetcars.

What really matters to transit-oriented development [TOD] outcomes?  According to the report, the #1 predictor is strong government support for redevelopment, while the #2 predictor is real estate market conditions.  The #3 predictor is the usefulness of the transit services — frequency, speed, and reliability as ensured by an exclusive right of way.  Using rail vs bus technologies does not appear to matter much at all.

While BRT is is having overwhelming success across the developing world, ITDP's argument is aimed at North America, so it rests on North American examples.  Cleveland's HealthLine, a practical urban BRT linking two of the city's strongest destinations, emerges as a great urban redevelopment success story as well as the overall highest-quality BRT service in the US.  Las Vegas, Ottawa,  Eugene, and Pittsburgh's eastern line all play key roles in the argument.  Las Vegas, whose busway is incomplete but is in exactly the right place to serve heavy demand, is one of the most interesting stories, where BRT is playing a key role in the remarkable pedestrianization of what used to be one of the most famous car-only landscapes in the world.  

There will be plenty of quarrel over the details.  But this report does represent a "coming out" for the very concept of bus-based transit oriented development.  For too long, the identification of "transit oriented development" (TOD) with rail has bordered on tautological: if there wasn't rail, it was less likely to be called a TOD, no matter how useful the bus service was.  In fact, almost everything that's been built in every North American inner city has been TOD in the sense that bus service — usually of high quantity if not high quality — has been intrinsic to the neighborhood's appeal and functioning.

This is not to say that I agree with ITDP's anti-rail view.  I support many exclusive-right-of-way light rail projects, and I am not anti-rail except to the extent that rail partisans insist on being anti-bus.  In most North American cities, if you're ideologically anti-bus, then you are hostile to most of your city's transit system, and to most of what transit can practically achieve in the near future at the scale of the whole city.  Great transit networks are those where all the modes work together to maximize everyone's liberty.  All claims for the hegemony of one mode over another are distractions from creating the most effective transit for a city as a whole.

But technology wars meet so many human needs that they will always be with us, and so given that it's best they be as balanced as possible.  Bravo to ITDP for having the courage to speak up about the redevelopment value of highly useful and liberating transit services, regardless of what's going on under the floor.

the geometric shapes of transit’s success

In my work for transit agencies, I'm always insisting that reports should not just explain how routes perform (typically in ridership per unit of cost) but also why.

Here's one partial example from an infographic developed by TransLink, the transit agency in Vancouver, Canada.   

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All other things being equal, long, straight routes perform better than short, squiggly and looping ones.  The reasons are obvious to most transit riders (and are laid out in detail in Chapters 4 and 14 of my book) but you'd be amazed how many well-intentioned people  haven't figured this out, and continue to advocate land use patterns that make effective transit impossible.  (Mantra:  It's not Transit-Oriented Development unless it's oriented toward transit that can succeed.)

Now, TransLink can use this in their explanation whenever someone demands that a route should squiggle to serve their interests. 

A core of my own practice is in developing ways to build understanding of the causes of transit's success, so if your transit agency is struggling to explain productivity, put them in touch with me!

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

“running transit like a business”: digging under the slogan

Now and then, the media (New York Times, Atlantic Cities) rediscovers Mark Aesch, the executive who turned around the performance of Rochester, New York's transit system, and even succeeded in lowering fares.  (Aesch now has his own firm promoting his consulting services, to the transit industry and beyond.)   Here's a sample of what Aesch did:

[The Rochester authority] has, for instance, reached agreements with the local public school district, colleges and private businesses to help subsidize its operations, warning in some cases that certain routes might be cut if ridership did not increase or a local business did not help cover the cost. In recent years, income from these agreements has equaled or exceeded the income from regular passenger fares.

On the one hand, bravo.   Aesch was ready to push back against the near-universal tendency of  government agencies to save money by dumping the costs of their own choices onto the transit authority.  

But at it's core, Aesch's work in Rochester expresses a value judgment that shouldn't be hidden behind puff-words like "creative" or wrapped in the mantra of "business":  Fundamentally, Aesch was willing to cut low-ridership services — or what I call coverage services.  And so, it seems, was his elected board.  

That's very unusual in North America, for democratic reasons.

Demands for coverage service — defined as service that is unjustifiable if ridership is the main goal — are powerful forces at most transit agencies.  Practically any American transit system could drastically improve its ridership by abandoning service to low-ridership areas and concentrating its service where ridership potential is high — which is what "running transit like a business" would mean.  Ridership goals also meet other goals important to many people, including maximum impact on reducing vehicle miles travelled, and maximum support (through high-intensity service) for the dense, walkable and attractive inner-urban redevelopment.

But coverage goals have powerful constituencies too, including outer-suburban areas that get little or no service when agencies pursue ridership goals, as well as people with severe needs — seniors, disabled, low-income, whose travel needs happen in places where high-ridership service is impossible.  

My approach to these issues as a consultant is never to brush aside coverage goals through a mantra like "run transit like a business," but rather to start by being clear exactly why most transit is not run like a business, and coverage goals, enforced by elected officials, are one major reason.  I then encourage communities and ultimately transit boards to form clear policies on how much of their budget they want to devote to coverage, so that the rest can be devoted to chasing ridership unequivocally.

Like many slogans, "running transit like a business" can sound like just good management, but it is actually a strongly ideological stance that values some transit outcomes (low subsidy, environmental benefits) over others (social service needs, equity for all parts of the region that pay taxes to it). 

If an elected board chooses that path, and understands what it's sacrificing, then fantastic: I'm ready to help "run transit like a business."  But if an elected board decides that transit needs to be pursuing goals other than ridership — as practically all of them in the US and Canada do — I'm equally ready to help with that.  Most of all, I recommend having a clear conversation about what goal the agency is pursuing with each part of its budget.  The key is to notice that these are different goals, that both reflect valid government purposes, and elected officials have to choose how to divide their resources, and staff effort, between these competing goals.  

(My professional approach to this issue is explained in Chapter 10 of my book Human Transit, and here).

Again, what's most impressive about Aesch is that even in a city where transit plays a minor role, he refused to let the transit agency be forced to subsidize the needs of other agencies without their financial participation.  Crucial, this required credibly threatening not to serve these agencies' needs.  Many transit agencies I've known in similar cities simply have not had the management culture — or elected board — that was ready to be that forceful. 

But simply cutting low-ridership services is a value judgment, not a technical decision.  It reflects a community's about the community's view about why it runs transit.  In an ideal democracy, making those decisions is not the task of managers or consultants.  It's what we pay elected officials for.  

how to (not) sound elitist when discussing transit

 

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This is not a balanced book review. While I will start with some general praise of this new book, I must focus on a few passages about public transit that are both misleading and potentially harmful.  I do this not to challenge these authors in particular, but because these mistakes are so common in urbanist writing and need to be called out wherever they appear.

Reid Ewing and Keith Bartholomew, both at the University of Utah, have a new large-format paperback offering a concise overview of the basics on Pedestrian and Transit-Oriented design.  If you want a good glossary of key urbanist concepts such as imageability and coherence, or you want a good and well-cited argument for local street connectivity, this is your book.  

Very usefully, the book is organized as a series of checklists:  Here are the features that you must have to be considered transit-oriented design, here are others that are desirable.  It's designed to be handy to the time-crunched developer or policy person.  In fact, it meets one of the most important standards for an influential book in our distracted age:  You can get most of the message by just looking at the pictures and reading the section headings.  

The writing is good, too, clear and with careful attention to explaining and demystefying concepts.  With one exception, I could recommend this as a good reference guide to the key concepts of pedestrian-oriented design.  

As a guide to transit-oriented design, however, it has a fatal flaw:  The authors make recommendations about transit that make sense from a design and development point of view but are nonsense to many experienced transit planners.  These recommendations will sound elitist and tone-deaf if you present them to your transit agency.  As always, I emphasize sound; I've talked with enough urbanist writers to know how good their intentions are; they are mostly genuinely surprised when their comments about transit backfire.  But it's not a hard mistake to avoid.  I am going to take apart a critical passage in the book not because it's typical — it's an unusual flaw in a good book — but because it illustrates a lingering problem with urbanist discussions of transit in general, one that I hope we are close to moving beyond.

Ewing and Bartholomew lead off their transit discussion with this tired old chestnut:

In the quest for efficiency, transit has become dull and utilitarian, part of the problem reather than the solution to today's lifeless streetscapes (Coppe 1991).  [p 82]

If this generalization is really about "today," then how is it bolstered by a 22-year old citation?  Obviously it's true to a degree, more in some cities than others,  but there has been transformative progress in the last two decades.  Fleet, facilities, and technology have been upgraded across the developed world, often with the input of great designers.  Do transit agencies get no credit for the evolution in the comfort, openness and access that have happened over the last generation?  

More fundamentally, this line conveys disinterest of the  nature of transit's success, a disinterest that is tragically common in urbanist professions.  The word efficiency is used as though all readers would agree it's a misguided goal.  But when working under any fixed budget as transit agencies do, efficiency is the same thing as abundance.  (When something called efficiency is genuinely destructive or unsustainable, it should be called false efficiency.  Freeways, fracking, and industrial farming may be less efficient than they look because of externalized negative impacts.  Questioning those things doesn't amount to questioning efficiency.)

As for the word utilitarian, it has a technical meaning in philosophy but here it's a dismissive word meaning useful.  Anything that scales to a vast network that's potentially useful to thousands or millions of people can be called utilitarian.  Great transit agencies wear this term as a badge of honor.  What's more they prove that usefulness is beautiful.

But the authors dig themselves deeper.  After showing us pictures of charming, distinctive bus shelters in two wealthy communities that can afford them, they write:

In some cases, transit operators might do better by putting fewer buses on the street at times of low demand, and diverting the money they save into bus stop amenities and fleet facelifts.

This, urbanist friends, crosses a bright red line called upward redistribution of wealth.  

This book appears at a time when many US transit agencies have been slashing transit service for the last five years, driving away legions of riders.  Portland, for example, has had its inner city grid network gutted — mostly cut to 20 minute frequencies at which the connections on which it relies are almost impossible — even though frequent transit service is a foundational element in the City of Portland's neighborhood development policies. 

Any "low-ridership" services that have survived all that carnage are serving popular and important non-ridership goals.  They are not going to be cut to build nicer bus shelters.  Doing so could also be illegal in the US if you're using Federal funds: US Title VI legislation (part of the 1964 Civil Rights Act) is designed to prevent exactly this kind of upward redistribution of the benefits resulting from public investment.  All US transit agencies that receive Federal funds must do extensive analysis to prove they are treating low-income and minority riders fairly in both service and infrastructure.

So if you follow this book's advice, and tell your transit agency they should cut service and force lower income riders to buy cars so you can pay for  nicer bus shelters, it doesn't matter how noble your intentions are.  You will sound elitist.  You will sound especially hostile to the burgeoning environmental justice agenda that is already embodied in civil rights legislation, and that has its own strong nexus with the ultimate outcomes that we call sustainability.  If you prevail in guiding the policy of your transit agency, that agency could be exposed to civil rights lawsuits as a result.  Do you really want this many enemies?

It doesn't help that in suggesting service cuts at "times [rather than places] of low demand," the authors are just repeating a common misconception.  Ridership at different times of day is interdependent, if only for the obvious reason that most transit trips are round trips.  If you cut service and thus reject a customer at one time of day, you'll likely lose their business in the other direction as well.  The most obvious "time of low demand," the late evening, is also a "guaranteed ride home," which means it affects the overall attractiveness of the product.  Finally, lower-income riders who form the bedrock on which transit grows are especially likely to be travelling in the evening; cut their service, force them to spend their scarce money on cars, and you've shoved them further into poverty.

A consistent pattern of all-day service (including "times of low demand") is a powerful tool for fostering lower vehicle ownership.  That's is why many transit agencies are now committing to a policy "Frequent Network" that guarantees service over a certain span regardless of trip-by-trip ridership.  (These policies, important in guiding true Transit-oriented Development at regionwide scale, deserved a mention.  Policies in the Portland and Vancouver BC regions could both have been cited.  Indeed, the book is silent on the urgent question of how to recognize a suitable site for TOD.)

I love distinctive transit shelters as much as anyone, but not if they are defined as an alternative to the sheer quantities of service that cities need and that ridership would reward.  (Canadian midsized cities, for example, generally have about twice the ridership per capita of similar US cities, not becuase their shelters are cuter but becuase they run about twice as much service per capita.)

Distinctive, adorable shelters can still come about in one of three entirely reasonable ways.  Either:

  1. they have been paid for by developers, or by neighboring landowners who will profit most directly from any uplift in land values, or
  2. they have been paid for by city governments as a form of beautifcation, or
  3. they are transit agency investments that are affordable and suitable for mass production, like the San Francisco shelters with the characteristic wave roofs.  

Developer-funding (also endorsed in the book) is often the purest nexus of all, but city funding is also a healthy trend.  City governments are much better placed than regional transit agencies to make investments that express civic identity and character.  Most US cities can also do improvement districts that focus the cost on the landowners who will most benefit.  Still, it's usually wealthier communities that can afford to do this, so it's deeply misleading to present these specialized shelters as realistic examples for cities in general, let alone to suggest that cash-strapped agencies should reject existing riders in order to pay for them.

It's hard to even criticize Ewing and Bartholomew for these howlers.  As long as I've been in the business, I've heard leading urbanists lecturing transit planners about how they should abandon their obsession with abundant service and focus on aesthetics instead.  As someone with serious credentials in the arts, my response is always that I understand the aesthetic values that the urbanist is describing, but that their recommendation is pointless until they own the consequences of the cuts they are implicitly proposing to fund these things. 

To be fair, transit agencies have been slow to engage urbanists in their own language, which requires staff with appropriate expertise.  This, however, has improved dramatically over the last decade.  Most leading transit agencies in major US cities have design and land use professionals on staff.  Working urban designers and architects are responding constructively to transit agency input, and respectful conversations between the fields are happening more than ever.  Most urban design and architecture professonals that I deal with are sensitive to real-world transit issues and open to learning about transit agency perspectives, so we can hope for a continued spread of insight on these issues.  

Indeed, Ewing's and Bartholomew's book shows how far the urbanist discourse has come in respecting transit and the diversity of its riders.  They speak mostly of "transit," avoiding rail vs. bus arguments, and their photos show buses as accepted parts of the urban landscape deserving of attention.   This is real progress, still controversial in some quarters.  It was partly in the context of this larger sensitivity that the passages quoted above were so shocking.

In the long run, urbanist thinkers who discuss transit must learn to respect transit network design and policy as a genuine expertise — something that's worth learning about before you comment on it.  Again, my own experience suggests that the practice is ahead of the literature in this regard.  This book — very useful on all subjects except transit policy — shows how far urbanists' respect for transit agencies has come since the early days of the New Urbanism, and how much — or perhaps how little — remains to be done.

portland: “opt-in” to comment on the future, despite biased questions!

If you live in the Portland metro region (Oregon side only), the regional government Metro wants you to be part of an online panel that comments on key issues facing the region.  It's called Opt-in, and you can read about it, and join it, here

When I tweeted about this yesterday, several people I respect commented that Opt-In sometimes asks wildly distorted and leading questions.  I can now verify that this is the case, based on a survey it asked me to take this morning which includes this appalling question (click to sharpen):

Optin screenshot
Two choices about transit and they're both about expanding rail.  Bus infrastructure and fleet are not mentioned even though buses are still the dominant mode in Portland and Bus Rapid Transit is a serious option in two rapid transit corridors now under study.   The designer of this question appears to be unfamiliar with Metro's own transit planning process, and is imposing their own biases on the survey.  That may be understandable in the early stages of a tool's develoment, when Metro's leadership may not be paying attention yet, but it should be unacceptable and if the tool thrives, it soon will be.

But is this a reason not to join?  No, it's the opposite.  Biased questions are a reason to use the little text feedback boxes to complain about biased questions, and to contact your Metro councilor if you feel strongly about them.  When Metro councilors will start getting letters about biased questions being asked in Metro's name, the problem will be righted quickly.  Just as boycotting elections is a bad way to get your views represented in government, boycotting survey tools is a bad way to get them to ask better questions!

Like all self-appointed panels, OptIn reaches a distorted sample of the population, but so does the massively inefficient and exhausting ritual that it could someday replace: the public meeting.  (The FAQs gently suggest this long-term prospect, though I'm sure we won't see the end of the public meeting soon.)  Public meetings still have value when they are organized as genuine conversations, such as interactive workshops that I'm often hired to run.  But if the purpose of a public meeting is for you to go and give a speech about why you're right and everyone else is wrong, well, we can all save carbon emissions and time out of our busy lives by doing that at home in our pyjamas. 

Need to smash the patriarchy or abolish the government?  I admit online surveys aren't very satisfying if you're massively angry and need something destroyed, and for that your options are still voting, peaceful demonstrations, and if necessary civil disobedience.  But online surveys are a great way to hear from a vast array of voters who are willing to communicate more thoughtfully and with less effort, and who tend to be shouted down or intimidated in public events.  Yes, there are issues about exclusion of low-resource groups and those with language and educational barriers, but Metro's surveys look pretty accessible to anyone with high-school literacy in English and they'd be easy enough to translate and supplement with spoken text.

Metro's currently asking its panel about its priorities for the future of transit in the region, and unlike the survey I mention above, it's a good and worthwhile survey that everyone should complete.  

Again, I wish the transit survey had the courage to ask about new funding sources.  The region's transit agency has cut over 15% of its service in the last decade, and is in ongong budget difficulty due to unfunded health and pension commitments made in wealthier times.  While it may gradually restore a basic functional network, it is nowhere close to offering the pace of service growth that would support the region's land use vision or its justify its green reputation.  But the questions the survey does ask, about your priorites for deploying what resources can be found, are mostly clear and reflect the realities of transit's geometry and costs.

If you don't enjoy public meetings, or have better things to do with your time, join Opt In, and if you're not in the Portland region, encourage your regional government to emulate it.  And if you find a biased question, comment about it!

countering the “empty buses” myth — with video!

The Pinellas County, Florida transit agency has done this video to help counter the impressions people get from seeing empty buses around the area.  Seeing empty buses often causes people to complain that the buses are too big, are obviously not needed, should be replaced with smaller ones, etc.   

Some viewers may be irritated by the "big number" rhetoric:  We hear the systemwide annual ridership over and over without any context for understanding it.  It's certainly not true that the system's 14m annual rides mean that buses aren't empty a lot of the time, as the video has already explained and justified.

But it's a very worthwhile effort, and transit agencies need do to these things. APTA or some other pro-transit entity could be commissioning them for all transit agencies to use, but home-grown ones will always have some advantage because so many people respond only to data from their own community.

Thanks to Michael Setty for the tip!

quote of the week: the mayor on those portland powerpoints

 

No planner from the city of Portland should be going to national conferences and bragging about how smart we are about urban planning in Portland until we have an actionable plan to make 122nd & Division a great  place. … We have a lot of work to do to make the hype about how livable Portland is true citywide.

— Newly inaugurated Portland Mayor Charlie Hales,
in an interview with Willamette Week.

Here's the intersection the Mayor is referring to:

122 Division
122 Division street view

Strong words.  I've sometimes felt exasperated by the some of "Perfect Portland PowerPoints" that I've seen at conferences all over the world.  Many of them show you pictures solely from downtown and the innermost neighborhoods, and give you the impression that every place worth going to is right on the Portland Streetcar.  They don't usually mention that repeated cuts to the city's once-excellent bus network are calling into question the viability of a no-car lifestyle over large parts of the city, and that much of the official wonderfulness of Portland isn't that evident in daily life in some of the outer parts of the city.  

But of course, planning PowerPoints about lots of cities are distorted in those ways.  And in fact, many cities have fairly ordinary looking suburban fabric like you see in this picture, and conflicts between the needs of such areas and those of a more glamorous and expensive inner city.  So I would be gentler than the Mayor on this point.  

Portland is far more flawed, contingent, lovable, ordinary, and fascinating than the some of the PowerPoint warriors will let on, but after all you've heard, you'll probably have to see it to believe it, or at least spend some time on Google.