Congestion Pricing

Is Ride-Hailing to Blame for Rising Congestion?

Throughout the past few years, the explosive growth of ride-hailing services such as Uber and Lyft have changed the landscape of urban transportation.  Proponents of ride-hailing have long argued that these services benefit cities by reducing the need for people to own their own cars and by encourage them to use other transportation options, ultimately reducing the total vehicle miles driven in cities.

Last week, a new report by Bruce Schaller suggests that these ride hailing services are in fact, adding to overall traffic on city streets, and risk making urban cores less desirable places to live. Notably, Schaller’s report finds that:

  • TNCs added 5.7 billion miles of driving in the nation’s nine largest metro areas at the same time that car ownership grew more rapidly than the population.
  • About 60 percent of TNC users in large, dense cities would have taken public transportation, walked, biked or not made the trip if TNCs had not been available for the trip, while 40 percent would have used their own car or a taxi.
  • TNCs are not generally competitive with personal autos on the core mode-choice drivers of speed, convenience or comfort. TNCs are used instead of personal autos mainly when parking is expensive or difficult to find and to avoid drinking and driving

Schaller points out that on balance, even shared rides, offered by Lyft Line and Uber Pool, add to traffic congestion.

Shared rides add to traffic because most users switch from non-auto modes. In addition, there is added mileage between trips as drivers wait for the next dispatch and then drive to a pickup location. Finally, even in a shared ride, some of the trip involves just one passenger (e.g., between the first and second pickup).

To many readers, Schaller’s report implies that Uber and Lyft are primarily to blame for the increasing traffic congestion and declining transit ridership in many US cities.  Citylab published a rebuttal to Schaller’s report, titled “If Your Car Is Stuck in Traffic, It’s Not Uber and Lyft’s Fault”.  The author, Robin Chase, founder of Zipcar, disputes the scale of ride-hailing’s impacts on traffic congestion in cities.  Chase writes:

[In major urban areas], taxis plus ride-hailing plus carsharing account for just 1.7 percent of miles travelled by urban dwellers, while travel by personal cars account for 86 percent.

Chase contends that traffic congestion is not a new problem in cities and that ride-hailing is no more responsible for it than the personal automobiles that still make up the majority of trips.

Special taxes, fees, and caps on ride-hailing vehicles are not the answer. My strong recommendation for cities is to make walking, biking and all shared modes of transit better and more attractive than driving alone—irrespective of the vehicle (personal car, taxi, or autonomous vehicle). Reallocate street space to reflect these goals. And start charging all vehicles for their contribution to emissions, congestion, and use of curbs.

On taxing or limiting all vehicles — called (de)congestion pricing — Chase is right on the theory and Schaller’s report doesn’t disagree.  From Schaller’s report:

Some analysts argue for a more holistic approach that includes charges on all vehicle travel including personal autos, TNCs, trucks and so forth, paired with large investments to improve public transit.  This is certainly an attractive vision for the future of cities and should continue to be pursued. But cordon pricing on the model of London and Stockholm has never gone very far in American cities. Vehicle mile charges have been tested in several states, but implementation seems even further from reach.

Yes, ideally, we would aim to charge every vehicle for precisely the space it takes up, for the noise it creates, and for the pollution it emits, and to vary all that by location and time-of-day. However, we have to start with what’s possible.

Ultimately, the most scarce resource in cities is physical space, so when we allow spatially-inefficient ride-hailing services to excessively grow in our densest, most urban streets, we risk strangling spatially efficient public transit and fueling a cycle of decline.  If we are to defend the ability to move in cities, we have to defend transit, and that means enacting achievable, tactical policies even as we work on building the coalitions needed for bigger change.  Reasonable taxes or limitations on TNCs are one such step.

Finally, these interventions should really be locally-focused, because like all urban transportation problems, this one is extremely localized.  Lyft wants us to think of them as feeders to transit, which is a fine idea.  But what is actually profitable to TNCs is to swarm in the densest parts of cities, increasing congestion and competing with good transit, and that’s where they do net harm.  Lyft and Uber knows where every car is at every moment, so it would be perfectly possible to develop cordon-based surcharges to focus any interventions on the actual problem.  Otherwise, it will be easy to say that by restricting TNCs in Manhattan we’re keeping someone in outer Queens from getting to the subway, which is not the point at all.

Christopher Yuen and Jarrett Walker

“Politics” Is Not a Political Actor

Anyone who believes in democracy should be appalled by the use of the word politics in this New York Times headline:

“Congestion Pricing Plan for Manhattan Ran Into Politics. Politics Won.”

Who is this “politics” that is capable of fighting battles, and winning or losing them?

Elected officials make decisions.  People who make decisions should take responsibility for those decisions.  This is why being an elected official is much less fun than it looks.

When we say that “politics” made a decision, we’re implying that the actual deciders aren’t responsible.  Some elected officials like it when we talk this way, because it helps them avoid responsibility for their choices.  But that’s not how a healthy democracy works, and if we accept that “politics” is a political actor, we are surrendering an important part of our right to democracy.





my letter to the globe and mail (update 1)

Sent just now to the Globe and Mail Public Editor, Sylvia Stead.  Beneath this I will post any reply I receive.

Ms Stead 

Thank you so much for your followup re the Crowley article [see yesterday's post, and Ms Stead's comment at the end].  As a professional consultant and author on public transit, I have one more thought.
Unknown-2The interesting journalistic question is "What degree of rhetorical exaggeration crosses a line into explicit falsehood, and requires a correction even for an opinion piece?"  I assume you'd agree that opinion pieces must still state accurate facts.  The New York Times runs corrections to its opinion pieces and columnists all the time, at least in its online version.
The issue is clearest in this paragraph of Crowley, which I believe warrants a correction:

Portland, Ore., has pursued road-skeptical policies similar to many major Canadian cities. The result is markedly worsened commuting times. According to the TTI, over the past 30 years Portland has gone from having the 47th worst congestion in the U.S. to the sixth worst.

 The second sentence not only untrue but the opposite of the truth.  Portland has among the best commuting times in the US.  As the third sentence reveals, when Crowley talks about "commuting times" he means "motorists' commuting times".  Portland's commuting times are relatively fast not just because lots of people walk, cycle, or take transit.  They're faster because people here tend to live closer to their jobs, the result of decades of careful land use planning that began with Oregon's 1972 laws limiting horizontal sprawl. 
Crowley's omission of that crucial word "motorists'" not only makes the sentence false, it reveals that a large part of the population simply does not exist to him.  People who do not commute by car do not count as commuters at all in this calculation.    
Does denying the existence of a large group of readers constitute a reasonable distortion for an opinion column?  Or is it just a falsehood?
(You can find my rebuttal of Crowley here.)
Regards, Jarrett Walker
UPDATE 1:  Globe and Mail's Sylvia Stead replies:
Yes thank you Mr. Walker. An opinion piece must be based on the facts so that a reader can come up with his/her own opinion. I will look into the points below and get back to you later this week.
More when I have it.

a glimpse into the road lobby’s echo chamber, and how to respond

Canada's leading newspaper has published an anti-transit rant, by Brian Lee Crowley of the "non-partisan" MacDonald-Laurier Institute.  It's based on the work of the Texas Transportation Institute, a leading source of studies that view cities from behind the wheel of a single-occupant car.  It's filtered via Wendell Cox, who's made a career of car-centered advocacy.

I analyzed TTI's work more patiently here, so I'll cut to the chase now.  TTI believes that traffic congestion is a valid measure of people's ability to access the resources of their city.  They do not measure actual travel times for all people, or the liberty and economic opportunity that a good urban transporation system offers.  They apply these things as factors to a degree, but their bottom line is road congestion.  

Specifically, their metric is the difference in travel times, by car, between travel time on congested roads and the same roads in a free-flow condition.   In other words, their baseline utopian condition is abundant free-flowing roads at all times of day.  (That condition is actually an economic impossibility in a city above a certain size with a healthy economy and no road pricing.)  

Once you insist on measuring congestion, and against that fantasy baseline, you can get absolutely everything backwards.  

Portland, Ore., has pursued road-skeptical policies similar to many major Canadian cities. The result is markedly worsened commuting times. According to the TTI, over the past 30 years Portland has gone from having the 47th worst congestion in the U.S. to the sixth worst.

"Markedly worse commuting times" is false.  If you count everybody's commuting time, Portland is ahead of most US metros.   As the next sentence reveals, it is only congestion that is worse.  Yes, like all dense cities, Portland has exactly as much congestion as it makes room for, but it has low overall commute times, mostly because its carefully mixed density allows many people to commute very short distances.   Remember, if you are measuring car congestion, Portland's transit riders and cyclists and the many people who can walk to work simply do not exist.  Crowley disses "congested" Vancouver for the same reason, even though Vancouver is the only Canadian metro where the long-term trend is toward shorter commute times, due to continued consolidation of housing and business around transit.  

So how should an activist respond to this kind of talk from the asphalt-and-petroleum echo chamber?

Everyone should know how to respond to articles like this, because we'll keep seeing them.  The comments on the article ("Wendell Cox is an idiot") are not encouraging.  Wendell Cox is not an idiot.  He is part of a reactionary process that accompanies every revolution, one that we'll hear more from.  He's a smart man who knows exactly what he's doing.

Take time to understand the point of view.  Many people's brains are so fused with their cars that to them, congestion really is the same thing as urban mobility or urban liberty.  To them, the TTI is right.  

So first you have to object by shining light on that premise.  TTI, and by extension Canada's leading newspaper, believes that certain people do not exist or do not matter — namely everyone who already travels by transit, bike, or foot,  and everyone who can imagine choosing not to drive in the face of real and attractive choices.  

But then, avoid the trap of casting these excluded people as an underclass.  Too many activists fall into that Marxist reading, and issue a call to arms on  behalf of "ordinary people."  They get through to people who already agree with them, but to the dominant business culture they look like an easily-dismissed-or-manipulated rabble.  Instead, read Edward Glaeser or Bruce Katz and understand that people who are investing in low-car "congested" cities are the leaders of the new information economy.  

A good retort to road-lobby claims that life is really better in Houston than in Vancouver is to check the cost of comparable housing.  If it were has hard to get around in Vancouver as TTI suggests, people wouldn't pay a fortune to live there.  Transit-rich cities are expensive, in part, because many people there can get around without being stuck in congestion.  High costs of living, in turn, are the market telling us to create more places just like that.  This is the free-market argument.  It is the only one that will break through to the business mind and start conveying that maybe there's something to all this transit-oriented investment.  

The TTI will last at least as long as the Tobacco Institute, and it will sound just as scientific in praise of its product-centered world view — in this case, a world in which only motorists count.  So you have to question the world view.  If an argument is based on a false remise, don't engage the argument, because in doing so you're accepting the premise.  Attack the premise.

why are americans driving less? better communication options!

Over the last 15 years, the Internet and mobile communications technologies have transformed the way Americans live and work. During that same period, growth in [motor] vehicle travel slowed and then stopped, with Americans today driving about as much on average as we did in 1996.

USPIRG has a new report out today, focused on how network technology has ushered in new possibilities for Americans’ personal mobility. Modern communications are beginning to alter the types of trips people need to make, as more and more people work remotely for at least a portion of their working hours. The mobile, high-speed, GPS devices that a majority now own are absolutely necessary to the cellphone trip planners and various -sharing systems that have spread to many US cities in recent years. 

This is one of the most compelling arguments for why we should expect America’s declining interest in cars to be permanent.  

The “decline of cars” story is a hard one to convey to the currently ruling generation (now in their 40s-70s).  Older folks too easily assume that Millennial disinterest in cars has something to do with being young and single and childless and maybe poor.  

We already knew that Americans are getting drivers licenses later and later in life — and this statistic ought to get attention because it’s comparing Millennial behavior to that of their parents at the same age.  

The strongest story, though, presents not just a trend but an explanation of it, and that’s what we have here.  Communications technology explains why the younger generation is finding cars less necessary (and why older people who are good at technological uptake are finding the same thing).  People still need to be together (see Yahoo’s recent decision to abolish telecommuting) but communication technology is replacing a lot of errands that the older generation is used to doing with cars.

Screen Shot 2013-10-01 at 10.41.47

USPIRG reviews a broad array of recent research on the topic, concluding:

By providing more
choices and flexibility for individuals to meet their transportation needs,
these new tools can make it convenient to adopt “carfree” and “car-light”

Households that reduce
the number of vehicles they own often dramatically reduce the number of miles
they drive. Because many of the costs of owning a car are perceived to be
fixed, vehicle owners perceive the cost of driving an additional mile to be
artificially low. New services such as carsharing shift the cost of driving
from fixed to per-mile costs, providing an incentive for users to drive less
and allowing many households to reduce their overall spending on

Information technologies make it easier to ensure seamless connections between various modes of transportation, expanding the number and types of trips that can be
completed effectively without a car.

The report also discusses mobile ticketing, perception of travel time, and each of the various sorts of sharing services, and provides a set of policy recommendations to respond to and build upon the potential of this technology. Read it yourself here.

the mobile battery problem solved, in 1908! (quote of the week)

[Thomas Edison] has so far perfected his storage battery that it will live long enough to stand charges to carry a truck over fifty thousand miles.  The perfected battery will pull twice the load of an ordinary truck, will have double the speed and only take up half the space.  It will modify, to an extent hardly appreciated, the congestion of the down-town streets, for an electric truck equipped with the batteries will be half as long as today's unwieldy wagons.  Being twice as fast, there will be only one eighth of the present congestion in the streets under the new system of speedy motor trucks.

From a fascinating article about Thomas Edison
in Success magazine, 1908, by Robert D. Heil.
The whole article is a delightful read!

This makes so many important points!

  • The technology that Edison "perfected" is something that we're still trying to invent over a century later.  Richard Gilbert and Anthony Perl argue that much humbler batteries are close to physically impossible.
  • A century ago, like today, everyone assumed that problems of geometry and economics could be solved by some sort of technology.  Nobody wanted to think about induced demand, the obvious idea that demand for a valuable commodity is affected by its avaialbility.  In a growing city especially, technologies that open up new space for traffic (via either road expansion or vehicle shrinkage) inevitably create more demand for that space, causing congestion to return to an unpleasantly high state sufficient to deter further travel by private vehicle.  This is why all forms of modelling that imply a fixed demand for car travel in some future year (the "traffic is like water" idea) are preposterous.  
  • If you wonder why I rarely hyperventilate about game-changing technologies on this blog, and tend to be skeptical about technological solutions, one reason is that technology doesn't change the laws of geometry and physics, nor does it transform the mathematical concept of scarcity that underlies the law of supply and demand — perhaps the only idea in economics that deserves to be called a "law".  No invention has ever changed these facts, and doing so is the closest thing to an impossibility that we can imagine.  
  • If you wonder why I am skeptical about transformative claims made for driverless taxis, well, one reason is that Edison is making the same claims about congestion reduction benefits, based on the same limited assessment of impact.
  • More generally, if you've been fortunate to have some training in literature or history, you have read a lot of stuff that sounds like this.  If you study the history of "this-technology-will-change-everything" rhetoric, all the way back to the Industrial Revolution, much of what we hear today from technology promoters sounds thoroughly familiar, just as Edison's claims here should sound familiar to those following the driverless car debate (on which I have an article in the works).  You learn that most great ideas come to nothing, or have quite different impacts from those promised, often because of problems of physics, math, or basic economics that any rational, non-hyperventilating person could have thought about at the time.  

Obviously, stuff gets invented that changes things, but when technology claims to fix a physics problem, such as seems to underlie the challenge of mobile batteries, or a problem of supply and demand, like the role of induced demand in congestion, be skeptical.  

Hat tip: @enf, (Eric Fischer)

help kill the term “congestion pricing” (and “congestion charge”)

I've argued before that congestion pricing (or charging) is a terrible term for anything that you want someone to support.  It literally implies "paying for congestion," so it belongs to that set of terms that suggest we should pay for something we hate, e.g death taxes and traffic fines.  

"Congestion pricing" also sounds punitive.  When the Sydney Morning Herald asked me to join a discussion of the topic a couple of years ago, they framed the question as: "Should motorists pay for the congestion the cause?"  This is a reasonable inference from the term congestion pricing, and yet a totally backward and schoolmarmish description of what congestion pricing buys. 

In short, congestion pricing (or charge) sounds like a term coined by its opposition.

I have argued before that the term should be decongestion pricing, because escape from congestion is what the price buys, from the user's point of view.  And it's the user who needs to be convinced that this is a purchase, not a tax.  Finally, it has to be framed in a way that doesn't imply that it's only for the rich.  People who like a class-conflict frame will never let go of the term "Lexus lanes," which is why I'd avoid vaguely upscale terms like "premium." 

In any case, over on Twitter, Eric Jaffe of the Atlantic Cities (@e_jaffe) is soliciting your suggestions.  (Or your votes for mine!)  Another idea that meets my goals — to describe this as a purchase rather than a tax or penalty, and to describe it from the user's point of view — is "road fares," by @larrylarry.  


for the holidays, a sentimental epilogue

For this sentimental season, I thought I'd post the first epilogue that I wrote for Human Transit.  It got mixed reviews.  Friends in architecture and urban policy loved it, while my friends from the literature world, who have a keen eye for literary truth, panned it with great affection.  Fortunately, my editor at Island was of the latter group, so the book came to have the epilogue it has, rather than this one.  (I also tried this as the basis of the epilogue, to similar reviews.)  

All that is for the best.  This thing is sentimental, as befits the season.  Read it when you want a sentimental read, as we all do now and then.  

If you don't know what I mean by "plumber," you'll figure it out from context.  (It means you haven't read the book!)

Happy holidays.  [And don't forget:  early bird registration for my Washington DC short course (1/17-18) closes 12/28.  Registration opens Wednesday for the Portland OR session on Feb 7-8.  Hope to see you there.]

What if we learned to listen to our plumber?  Suppose that every time we were confronted
with a hard choice between different things that we value – a choice that’s
geometrically unavoidable – we took a deep breath, and chose?  We would need to make these choices as
individuals, but also as communities, urban areas, and nations.  If we did, what might be possible by the
middle of this century?


Helen has just turned 75, but she’s lived many lives and
plans to live a few more.  Raised in a
mining town in the Australian tropics, she's worked all over the world as a
missionary and foreign aid worker.   She
married twice and raised three children, all of them as self-reliant as she
is.  When she was widowed in her
mid-sixties, she moved to a small island in Indonesia to start a new
school.  It was a struggle to convince
her to retire at 72, and come home to Australia.

She returned to a big house on a quarter-acre block in
Theodore, a distant suburb of the Australian capital, Canberra.  It was the house she’d grown up in, and she
assumed she’d live out her life there, just as her mother did.  But just after she turned 74, she nearly had
a bad accident while driving.  Looking
back on it, she realized that she couldn’t react fast enough anymore, and that
it was only a matter of luck that she hadn’t killed someone.

So she sold her car, and let her license expire.  Now, her house in Theodore was a prison.  To get anywhere, she faced a 500m walk to a
bus stop, and then a bus only every half hour, none in the evening.  

Back in 2015 her mother had dealt with the same problem, in
the same house.  For a decade her mother
wrote letters and went to meetings to complain about how far she had to walk
from her cul-de-sac house to a bus stop, how infrequently the buses ran, and
how unfair that was.  Whenever Helen
visited her mother in those days, she heard all about this campaign, its
frustrations and small victories.

As it happened, Helen had been dating a transit planner at
the time.  One night, over drinks, he
talked her through the geometry proving that her mother’s cause was hopeless.  He showed why very low-density
suburbs with lots of pedestrian barriers could never generate enough ridership to
support extensive transit service, even if the politicians were inclined to
favor them.  

The problem wasn’t the bus
company’s failure to innovate, as her mother claimed.  At one point he put it starkly: "If you want to know what quality of transit to expect, ask this question about your neighborhood: 'How far would transit have to go to serve 1000 people?'"  Of course, in the labyrinth of Theodore the answer was several kilometers, while in Canberra's inner city it was just a few blocks.The problem was sheer geometry.  It made sense.

So Helen looked at her options, and noticed that a place
called Ainslie Village had just been redeveloped as a retirement complex.  Formerly, it had been a cluster of temporary housing for the homeless located on a hillside cul-de-sac that precluded public transport.  Now, however, it would now extend down to a nearby main street, Limestone Avenue, and would include a mixture of towers and small cabin-like units.  The towers were cleverly
arranged so that people could use their elevators to climb the hillside to the
upper parts of the village, though of course many seniors preferred the exercise of
climbing the hill.

The frequent transit line in front of Ainslie Village was the direct link between the city and the airport.  Helen liked this feature.  She still wanted to go overseas a couple of
times a year, and to welcome visits from the friends she’d made all over the

But what also sold Helen on New Ainslie Village was the back
side, where it faced a nature reserve. 
She could walk just a few hundred meters and feel immersed in the native
woodland.  At night the kangaroos would come down around the village to
graze, just as they did in Theodore; Helen had always found tranquility in the patient curiosity with which kangaroos gaze at humans.

Helen seems to have achieved the dream that’s motivated so
much suburban development, the desire to be in the city and the country at the
same time.  But it wasn't just good
fortune.  It was her own willingness to
look at her choices, understand their consequences, and choose.

Mia, 35, lives with her two children and her mother in a
mobile home on the east edge of Las Vegas. 
She manages the housekeeping department for a hotel-casino, and after
saving for years, she finally put back enough money to buy a mobile home. 

She grew up just a mile from here.  Her mother lost her house to foreclosure in
the Crash of 2008 and had to move the family into a small apartment.  In 2010 their old car finally broke down for
good, and there was no money to replace it. 
So she and her mother walked to the bus stop most days, and those walks
are one of the most vivid memories of her childhood.

The stop for buses into the city was right outside her bedroom
window, but there was a long, high wall blocking the way, built by a
well-meaning developer who thought that even though they couldn’t afford a
detached home, they’d still appreciate the feeling of a “gated community.”  Thanks to the wall, she and her mother had to
walk for ¼ mile through the streets of their development, then through the
so-called “gate,” and then ¼ mile back along the fast boulevard to the bus

The boulevard was built for speed, so the lanes were wide
and the sidewalk was narrow.  Her mother
would try to talk with her as they walked, but every time a car flew past they
had to pause, their lives interrupted. 
Soon, Mia learned to hold her breath briefly in those moments, so she
wouldn’t get a lung full of exhaust. 
Even so, it was dusty and hot in the summer, while in winter rains
they’d be drenched by the mud kicked up by passing cars.  On this narrow sidewalk between the traffic
and the wall there was nowhere to escape it.

Of course, that got them only to the stop for buses to the
city.  Coming home, the bus would drop
them on the opposite side of the boulevard. 
There was no safe place to cross anywhere near the bus stop, so they
simply had to run for it.  Trying to dash
across the fast lanes, they felt like criminals, as though simply living their
lives was illegal.

So when Mia was able to buy her own mobile home, she looked
hard for one that would be better than that. 
Realtors still pointed her toward “gated communities” of mobile
homes.  Things had improved in these communities
since she was a child; some of them now had little mini-bus services that wound
their way through the twisting streets, so there was an alternative to walking
out to the fast boulevard.  A realtor
gave her a big pitch about how great these little buses were, with pictures of
the plush interior and the cute paint scheme, but she just asked to see the
timetable.  Sure enough, they were too
slow and infrequent to be useful to her. 
She needed to be close to a frequent
transit stop, and it had to be safe to cross the street right at the stop, so
that she could get to the stops on both sides. 

Obviously, she also wanted places she and her children could
walk to, not just the little playground of their mobile home park but also a
larger park nearby and a grocery store. 
She liked the location of the grocery store next to the bus stop, so
that she could buy fresh food for dinner on her commute home.  That’s why she chose this mobile home park
over a number of others.

She also made sure that the bus line is likely to be there
for a while.  She still remembers
hearing, as a child, that she couldn’t go to see her best friend on Sundays
anymore, because their Sunday bus service had been cut.  Fortunately, since then, the transit agency
has identified certain lines as its “core frequent network,” where they, and
the city governments, want to encourage the most intensive ridership.  That’s part of why her mobile home park, and
the grocery store at her bus stop, were built where they are.  The Las Vegas economy is still prone to big
crashes, so the transit system has to cut service now and then, but she knows
that while there are no guarantees in life, the service she relies on is likely
to survive, because so many people ride it.  

Mia’s life may never be as secure as she’d like, but she’s
found a place that she can afford, where her children can grow up safely
getting around on bicycles, and where her mobility feels as permanent and
reliable as anything can be in this fast-changing city of illusions.

Kurt, 45, loves his cars. 
He has two, both four-wheel drive, and his wife has another.  As a realtor, he likes his hybrid jeep for
getting around to the suburban homes he sells, but he also has a big, rough,
high-riding thing he calls Monster.  He
talks about it as though it were his dog, and he takes a rebellious pride in
its dreadful fuel-efficiency and 1990s styling. 
Monster is his best friend when he gets up into the Rockies, especially

Three years ago, Kurt took a year off work to build a house
with his wife and two teenage sons. It’s on an acre of pine trees on a gravel
road five miles from the nearest town, 40 miles from downtown Denver.  He feels a surge of pride every time he comes
home to it.  Now and then, his eye will
fall on a particular joint or beam and he’ll remember the day they set it in
place, and how good that felt.  Just as
important, he feels that the project solidified them as a family, and helped
his boys learn focus and discipline.

There’s no transit anywhere nearby, but he wouldn’t expect
there to be.  It was a hassle until his
boys got drivers licenses; they always needed rides to the nearest bus stop,
five miles away, or even to the nearest rapid transit station, 30 miles
away.  But as they turned 16, he bought
hybrid motorbikes for them.  Now they’re
fine on their own.

Kurt’s life is not as expensive as it looks, at least not as
measured in dollars.  Even with fuel at
$10/gallon, the hybrid jeep is an efficient way to get around.  His workday involves many short trips in
low-density suburbs (a market that transit could never serve well) so the
jeep’s fuel is just part of the cost of doing business.  He spends a fortune on fuel for his weekend
trips with Monster, but this is the family’s main recreational expense, and he’s
budgeted for it.  As for his house, it
would have been expensive to buy.  But by
building it himself, he saved at least as much as he lost in salary during the
year off.  So he feels he came out

Kurt hates the city. 
He drives his jeep into Denver now and then to visit his mother, who
lives in a tower downtown.  She loves it
there, but when they sit in the coffeeshop downstairs from her apartment, he’s
always a little on edge with all the random bustle of strangers.  He also hates parking there, all that
pointless circling in concrete parking structures.  His mother keeps telling him he could park at
a light rail station and take the train in. 
It doesn’t sound like fun to him, but his wife doesn’t mind doing
it.  Maybe he’ll try it sometime. 

But really, he’d rather be driving Monster into the Rockies,
with his boys, and some fishing rods, and the sky.


Helen, Mia, and Kurt are different people with different
goals, situations, and resources — but all are citizens of free democracies in
the mid-21st Century, societies built on the notion that adults
should make free choices and accept their consequences. 

Kurt doesn’t expect the approval of transit experts like me,
but I have no quarrel with him.  Like
Helen and Mia, Kurt chose his living situation with a full awareness of what it
would mean for transportation, as well as for other aspects of his family's
life.  His choice imposes some burdens on
the environment, but he pays prices – at the pump, certainly, but mostly in
inconvenience – that capture the cost of those burdens.  He has no reason to feel guilty about his

At times, as the 21st century unrolled, it seemed that
freedom without guilt was a dying dream. 
The crises bearing down on humanity seemed to be dragging everyone into
embittered dependence on strangers.  So
many problems needed complex solutions requiring lots of government action, while
big corporations perfected the art of evading responsibility for their behavior.  Perhaps most depressing, it was becoming
clear that no matter how free a citizen tried to be, how much responsibility
she took for her own life, you could still run numbers that showed she was
somehow subsidized, freeloading.  It made
everyone suspicious.

But that last insight was the way out.  Eventually, a critical mass of people
got  stopped getting angry when they were
told they were being subsidized, and started asking “okay, how much?” 

The movement started in transportation, in cities.  People started figuring out that by sitting
in traffic instead of getting where they were going, they were paying time to save money.  Why, they asked?  After all, money may not be abundant, but
it’s a renewable resource.  Time is the
least renewable resource of all.

So people started demanding the right to pay money to save time.  It started in the early 2000s with the London
and Singapore congestion charges, and gradually spread to the idea that parking
costs should rise and fall with demand, so that there would always be a free
space, and you’d never drive in circles forever looking for one.  On the freeways, high-occupancy toll (HOT)
lanes offered a faster ride at a higher price, calibrating the price carefully
so that the traffic in the lane never got so heavy as to obstruct the buses
using it.  Those buses were important,
because they ensured that everyone had the freedom to move quickly along the
highway, even if they didn’t want to pay the toll.

There was plenty of blowback.  Less wealthy people feared that they’d be left
with abandoned infrastructure, much as, in the late 20th century,
they had been left with substandard schools. 
Governments responded with market interventions to ensure that the
housing market responded to low-income needs, not just through subsidies but
also through good urban design.  For
example, Las Vegas did the work of “sprawl repair” so that Mia could find a house
she can afford that wouldn’t force her to depend on a car.  “Affordable housing” gave way to “affordable
living.”  Governments and lenders no
longer encourage poorer people to live in places where the housing is cheap
because mobility is poor, and where they’ll feel trapped into owning a car that
they can’t afford.  Instead, the whole
mix of housing and transportation costs is considered before a home is deemed

There were fights and compromises.  But over time, enough people realized that accurate
pricing was the only fair way to achieve both sustainability and freedom. 
So the price of scarce things was allowed to rise.  Fuel got more expensive as oil supplies
declined, which motivated the development of cleaner car technologies. 

Still, no innovation could change the scarcity of road space
in cities, because that was a geometry problem. 
Humanity had tried a supply-side solution, by building more sprawling
cities, and had found that this just doesn't work.  By building more road space they had just
motivated people to drive further.   Some
still imagined that we could escape into the third dimension, via flying cars,
but most people understood at once that it’s scary enough to have car accidents
on the roads, without worrying about them happening over your head.

Once all this became widely obvious, things changed
fast.  Work continued on big, expensive
rapid transit lines, but work began, urgently, on transit options that could be
developed faster and could spread quickly across big cities.  The Los Angeles Metro Rapid buses had been
one such experiment, and though they became overextended and had to be cut back
for a while, they helped usher in an era of innovation in street-running
transit options and were now considered essential features of the boulevards
that they plied.

Now, with more consensus, tools could be deployed to match
the scale of the problem.  Suddenly,
on-street transit lanes became common – in fact, they became the most reliable
way to travel in many parts of big cities. 
As more people cared about the quality of transit vehicles, those
vehicles got better.  Bus and light rail
technologies converged on a long, sleek, high capacity vehicle that could slide
efficiently along a transit lane, carrying people beyond their walking distance
without ever making them felt that they’d left the street. 

All this became possible, in part, because people started
measuring their own mobility, and making choices that would improve it.  With tools inspired by the and travel time maps from back in 2010, people began to see where
they could get to easily, and where they couldn’t, and if they couldn’t, they
asked why. 

As this happened, many people lost interest in symbols of
mobility, such as rails in the street that symbolize permanence and
airplane-like noses on streetcars that symbolize speed.  Instead, they began insisting that cities
spend transit money on creating actual mobility – projects that would reduce
their travel time to their jobs, their friends, and all the riches of the city.   Others continued to prefer to focus on the style,
feel, and sense of fun in a transit service. 
So there was a debate about those things, and compromises that suited
the culture of each community.

These clear and bracing debates transformed the housing
market, but not as much as some people feared. 
Density is rising along major transit lines, for people who want high
mobility, but away from those lines you can still get a little bungalow, or a
big house with a pool on a quarter-acre, or even a house like Kurt’s in the
woods, if you’re willing to accept the costs that come with each choice.  You can also get many things in between, like
the transit-friendly mobile home where Mia lives.  Mia is what some transportation textbooks
would call a captive rider, but she’s
shown that even if you’re poor, your choices matter.

At every stage in this process, communities had to work,
through government, on understanding their real choices.  Patiently, over and over, they were asked the
same kind of question: “Do you want more of this, or more of that?  You have to choose.”  Planning professionals started focusing on
making these “plumber’s questions” visible, so that everyone could see they
were unavoidable, instead of letting them hide inside other debates.  Elected officials began to accept that they
were paid to make these hard choices, after honest conversations with their

The conversations were hard. 
People wanted to hide from them. 
But they had to happen.  The
choices had to be made, so they were.  As
a result, Helen, Mia, and Kurt are all free to make their own choices, and to
bestow that same freedom on their children.

toll roads coming on?

The new US initiative to allow states to toll interstate freeways has to be good news, in the long run, for sustainable transport.  The money will go for urgent repairs to those freeways, which is fine with me; the key benefit is to get drivers used to the notion of road tolling again, as it's likely impossible to achieve true decongestion pricing without something that looks like road tolls. 

The initial legislation allows just three projects but they are obviously meant to demonstrate the idea and lead to wider rollout.  Virginia, impressively, is proposing to toll parts of Interstate 95, probably the state's single most important artery. 

At the opposite extreme, Arizona proposes to toll Interstate 15, and on that I have a question for journalists.  The Los Angeles Times writes:

A proposed toll on a 30-mile stretch of Interstate 15 in Arizona is drawing opposition from neighboring Utah.

"If Arizona has been negligent in its maintenance of I-15, it should not try and foist its responsibility onto highway users or neighboring states who already pay into the system with their own tax dollars," Utah Gov. Gary R. Herbert said in a recent statement.

Arizona's Interstate 15 segment is later described as being "in the state's northwest corner," but why not state the obvious?  It's not connected to the rest of the state, Arizona has no towns on it, and it's frankly a bit hard for Arizona to get to.  It's the segment between Mesquite, Nevada and St. George, Utah in this image (click to sharpen):

Az nv ut

So if a journalist can't print a map, they could at least clarify that virtually no Arizona residents use this highway, which would be enough to make the politics clear.  Arizona's toll-road bid is the opposite in spirit of Virginia's, designed exclusively to soak out-of-state drivers.  Given the road's location, and its irrelevance to most Arizonans, the positions of all sides are totally understandable.  Would that really spoil the "conflict" that journalism supposedly needs?



can we define “livable and lovable” cities?

That's the nice slogan from a new Phillips Corporation initiative praised today in the Atlantic by NRDC's Kaid Benfield.  The Phillips think tank suggests that we can gather all the qualities of a "livable and lovable" city into three virtues: 

  • Resilience, which replaces the more bureaucratic and depressing word sustainability, but means roughly the same thing.  Some great work has already been done on the concept of resilience.  There's already a Resilient Cities movement, and an excellent book on Resilience Thinking
  • Inclusiveness, which is about "social integration and cohesion," demonstrated for example in the lack of discrimination or social exclusion based on race, religion, age, and all the other usual categories.
  • Authenticity, which means "the ability to maintain the local character of the city," including "heritage, culture, and environment." 

Below is their graphic summary.  (The PDF [Download] is much sharper!)  Below that is a bit of affectionate heckling from me.


Personally, I have some practical discomfort with the framing of the Inclusiveness category because it is easily exaggerated into visions of a socialist paradise in which we have abolished competition.  When Philips says that "inhabitants should have equal opportunities to participate in the activities of the city," does that mean that when our city's team in the playoffs, we'll give out tickets by lottery rather than selling them, in order to avoid discriminating against the poor?  If we're talking only about nondiscrimination by extraneous demographic categories, fine.  But when you imply that you can neutralize the impact of differences in wealth, you lose so much of the politicial audience — at least in North America, Australia, and the UK — that you've probably lost the game.  This issue comes up often in transit, of course, notably whenever anyone suggests that in a capitalist economy, it's foolish not to use pricing to help citizens understand the intrinsic cost of things that they take for granted.  It's a tough one.

Note, also, the lingering contradictory message in their framing of resilience.  On the one hand, the train station signifies that resilient cities acknowledge their "interdependence" with other cities.  On the other hand, the emphasis on local farms and local energy generation suggests the opposite, that resilient cities aspire to greater and greater self-reliance.  This is philosophically interesting, especially because high volumes of international trade — including in food, which is the opposite of local self-reliance — are the most reliable mechanism that human society has found to prevent large-scale wars. 

I make both of these comments in the spirit of meditation.  I am not claiming to know how better to define inclusiveness or resilience.  Rather, I'm just marvelling at how difficult it is.