california topples a tyrant

Stalin_21748cIs "reduced congestion" a positive environmental impact in cities?  Is it good for the environment to have endless lanes of free-flowing traffic everywhere?

It's a bizarre claim when you look at how prosperous, sustainable, and livable high-congestion cities are.  (They tend to be places where you don't have to commute so far, by example, and their overall emissions tend to be  lower.)

Yet until now, all California transit infrastructure has had to conform to an analysis process that treats traffic congestion as a threat to the environment.  A metric called Level of Service — congestion experienced by motorists, basically — could not be made worse by an infrastructure project, even one whose purpose was to reduce the impact of congestion on the economy, by providing alternatives to driving. 

Thanks to a state bill nearing approval, this provision of the California Environmental Quality Act — which has caused years of delay and cost-escalation on transit and bicycle projects — will no longer apply to urban transportation projects or to much transit oriented development.  Eric Jaffe's long article today from the barricades of this revolution is a great read.  Key quote:

Level of service was a child of the Interstate Highway era. The LOS concept was introduced in the 1965 Highway Capacity Manual, at the very moment in American history when concrete ribbons were being tied across the country, and quickly accepted as the standard measure of roadway performance. LOS is expressed as a letter grade, A through F, based on how much delay vehicles experience; a slow intersection scores worse on LOS than one where traffic zips through. Planners and traffic engineers use the metric as a barometer of congestion all over the United States.

In California, LOS has an especially high-profile. As the primary arbiter of traffic impacts under CEQA—adopted in 1970 by Governor Ronald Reagan—the metric not only determines the fate of many transportation and development projects, but has the awkward role of promoting car use within a law designed to protect the environment. "We have one section of CEQA saying we've got to reduce greenhouse gas emissions," says transportation consultant Jeffrey Tumlin of Nelson\Nygaard, "and another section of CEQA saying we need to accommodate unlimited driving."

Level of Service is an example of rhetoric that we all have to learn to challenge: the effort to hide strong value judgments inside language that sounds objective or technical.   A key move is to rely on terms that sound vague, neutral, and boring ("Level of Service") to describe something that's actually expressing a strong ideology — in this case, asserting the superiority of some street users over others.    If the Level of Service Index had been called, say, the "Free Flow of Cars Index" it would have been much clearer who was being excluded by it, and how blatantly it contradicted many other widely-shared goals for California's cities.

Tip:  If a term sounds vague, neutral, and boring, demand a precise definition.  Confused words imprison our minds.   You'll be called a geek for caring about something as boring as "Level of Service," but in the end, you may help topple a tyrant. 

Photo: Children with toppled statue of Stalin.   The Times.

the dangers of travel time comparisons

Revised in response to early comments. 

Are you sure you know which of your transportation options is fastest?  It depends on how you think about travel time.

A recent Boston Magazine article about the private bus service Bridj featured  typical "race" between two transit modes: the MBTA subway and Bridj, which provices luxury buses on fixed routes and schedules running only at times of peak commute demand.   The newspaper sent someone by each path at the same time.   The outcome of the race is supposed to be decisive:



Why is this not a fair race?  Well, it depends on when you start.  From the article:

The MBTA passenger arrived last, [sic] even though she had a head start and boarded the train six minutes prior to Bridj’s departure.

Why a six minute headstart?  Why not 10 or 20?  What headstart would be appropriate?  The headstart is your cue that there's something wrong with this methodology.  

What's really happening here is that a service that is available all the time — the subway — is being compared to one that's only available at a few special times — Bridj's specialized commuter buses.  Any "travel time race," with any headstart, is going to miss the real point of this comparison.

The notion of travel time seems so self-explanatory that most people miss how deeply misleading it is in discussing transit.   The imagined user is someone who happens to be going at the ideal moment for the preferred mode to succeed.  We talk about travel time this way because it's how motorists, cyclists, and pedestrians experience it: as something that begins at the moment you want to go.  

But that's not how transit travel time works, so the comparision implied by the term "transit travel time" is often a false one.  

When I teach transit planning and rhetoric, I encourage people to think of a weighted sense of travel time that includes average wait time, or more generally the difference between when you wanted to go and when you went.  A bus that's 10 minutes faster is of no use if gets you somewhere 30 minutes before you needed to be there [an 8:00 AM class or meeting, for example] because that's the only time it ran.  

Purveyors of low-frequency transit services, such as classical North American commuter rail, do this as well, bragging about how fast you can get from A to B without mentioning that this travel time is available only once a day.  

Unless you are sure that you will absolutely always travel at the same time each day, transit travel time figures have to be viewed with skepticism.  Whenever you hear about travel time, ask about frequency! 

word wars: urbanism, urban

The Atlantic Cities staff have done a nice year-end piece on Ten Urbanist Buzzwords to Rethink in 2014.  In the next few days I'll do quick posts on them all.  

Amusingly, the Atlantic's title for its  Ten Urbanist Buzzwords to Rethink in 2014 uses one of the ten words it's questioning, a good sign of how hard buzzwords are to unwind.  But they took on that problem as #1:

Urbanism: At first glance, this word might seem utilitarian: urban is a perfectly fine word, and-ism, meaning a "distinctive practice, system, or philosophy, typically a political ideology or an artistic movement," a frequently helpful English language suffix. But this particular combination never fails to makes me cringe when I hear it spoken aloud. Not only does it imply that there exists some universally accepted ideology of the best way to construct, organize, and manage any given urban area, it's frequently misapplied as a term for the study of urban issues (shouldn't that be urbanology?) or the basic interaction of people and things within an urban environment. Deploying this word should be undertaken with extreme caution, and always with the understanding that it almost never carries real meaning.  -Sommer Mathis

Like the Atlantic Cities crowd, I use urbanist routinely to mean "people who care about sustainable cities and the livability of dense cities in particular. "   I haven't found another good word for this, and on reflection, I think urbanism deserves a vigorous defense.   

Here are three questions to ask about a word, if you're suspicious of it:

  • Is it trying too hard to please me?  (Or: Is it trying to sell me something?)  
  • Does it say what it means? 
  • Is it easily misunderstood?  (Ask especially, "what opposites does it suggest?")

Sometimes we have no choice but to use a word that fails on some of these points, but if we want to help people think, we should resist those that fail on most or all (see "Smart Growth".)  

As Mathis concedes, Urbanism seems to approximate its meaning fairly well, and it seems to be referring more than selling or flattering us.  What's more, it's a word worth fighting for because urban is a word with fighting for, and the fight is on between two definitions of that word:

  1. As including the suburbs, i.e. "the opposite of rural."  This meaning shows up in the term urban area and in numerous social-science and statistical categories.  It's also implied by the term urban sprawl.    This meaning, I will suggest, is not helpful and a source of confusion.  It could even be called hegemonic or imperialist in a sense I'll outline below.
  2. As distinct from suburban, as well as from rural.  This sense of urban refers to the generally pre-war dense and walkable parts of cities.  Urbanism, to the extent it's about both promoting those places and fostering similar new places, tracks this meaning, and needs to insist on this meaning.1  The history of the word suburban — whose Latin roots imply separation from the urban — is also on the side of this meaning.

Why be  dogmatic on this point?  Does a dull bureaucratic term like urban area really constitute  threat to the thriving walkable inner cities?  Yes, for this reason:  It prevents people who care about dense, gridded, walkable, usually pre-war parts of big cities from saying what they mean.  It prevents me, in many reports, from saying urban and forces me to find ways to say "dense, gridded, walkable, usually pre-war parts of big cities" over and over.  

This is not a two-way street.  Insisting on the second meaning does not make it impossible to discuss the first, "urban area" meaning.  There is still a perfectly good word for that:  metropolitan, metro area, etc..  Talk about metro areas, metro area mobility, and there's no problem.  

As anyone who's explored the language dimension of civil rights history can tell you, dominant cultures routinely co-opt and corrupt the words that the minority needs to think about itself and its situation.   

 Not suprisingly, the Texas Transportation Institute, whose "Urban Mobility Report" is a study of inconvenience to motorists, uses urban in the first, imperialist sense: as referring to an entire metro area and denying us the language to talk about dense and walkable areas as something different from suburbs.  But again, if we concede that meaning, what word is left to mean "dense, gridded, walkable, usually pre-war parts of cities"? 

City, as you've noticed, experiences similar tension, as any patch of development, at any density, can decide to call itself a city.  Ultimately, it's the same battle, because in practical language urban has become the adjectival form of the noun city.  So it is the same struggle.

That's why I like urbanist.  It's not just saying what it means, it's helping to fight for the word urban, without which people who care about walkable cities simply can't talk about them, and be understood.

1African-American uses of the word urban, as in "urban music" and "National Urban League," also deserve credit for holding this original sense of urban.  There are likely other threads I'm not thinking of.


quote of the week: ursula le guin on technical writing

In poetry, by and large, one syllable out of every two or three has a beat on it: Tum ta Tum ta ta Tum Tum ta, and so on. . . .

In narrative prose, that ratio goes down to one beat in two to four: ta Tum tatty Tum ta Tum tatatty, and so on. . . .

In discursive and technical writing the ratio of unstressed syllables goes higher; textbook prose tends to hobble along clogged by a superfluity of egregiously unnecessary and understressed polysyllables.

Ursula K. Le Guin,
"Rhythmic Pattern in The Lord of the Rings"
The Wave of the Mind  (Boston: Shambhala 2004)
[ellipses sic. paragraph breaks added]

Yet another reason to hire literature students!

agora, em português!


I wouldn't have expected this, but the first foreign language into which my work is being translated is Portuguese!  Not my book yet, but select passages from this blog will be showing up as a "column" of mine called "Transporte Humano" on Rua da
, which contains a mix of articles mostly on health, economics, and transport policy.  The editor, Gustavo M.S. Martins Coelho, is a medical doctor himself.  He is based in Oporto and writes mostly for a Portuguese audience, but I hope my "columns" will get attention in Brazil, where the issues are so massive and consequential for the world.


“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.  

slippery word watch: commute

When journalists reach for a word meaning "transit riders" or "constituents of transit" they often seize on the word commuter.  

Definitions of to commute (in its transportation sense) vary a bit.  Webster says it means  "to travel back and forth regularly (as between a suburb and a city)."  Some other definitions (e.g. Google) suggest that commuting  is specifically about travel to work or (sometimes) school.  The core meaning seems to be a trip made repeatedly, day after day.

But in practice, this meaning tends to slip into two other meanings.  As with most slippery words, confusion between these meanings can exclude important possibilities from our thinking.    

One the one hand, the meaning is often narrowed to "travel back and forth during the peak period or 'rush hour.'"  This narrowing arises from the inevitable fact that most people engaged in policy conversations — especially in government, business, and some academia — have jobs that lead them to commute at these times.  What's more, many people who are happy to be motorists often care about transit only during the peak period, when it might help with the problem of congestion. Reducing the meaning of commute to "rush hour commute" narrows the transportation problem to match these people's experience of it. 

Of course, cities, and especially transit systems, are full of people traveling to and from work/school at other times, most obviously in the service sector (retail, restaurants) but also in complex lives that mix work, school, and other commitments.  But these trips, even if made regularly, are quietly and subconsciously excluded from the category of commutes, when the term is used to mean only "rush hour commuter."

There's nothing wrong with talking about rush hour commute trips, of course.  They're an important category that must be discussed, but I am always careful to call them peak commutes. The problem arises when commute can mean either the narrow category of peak trips or the larger category of all regularly repeated travel.   That's the essence of a slippery word, and the danger is higher because this slip is exclusionary.  When the word is used in a sense that is narrower than its definition, large numbers of people are being unconsciously excluded from the category it defines, and thus from our thinking about that category.

The word commute can also slip in the other direction, becoming broader than its literal meaning.  It's common to see the word commute used as a one-word marker meaning "movement within cities."  The excellent Atlantic Cities website, for example, uses "Commute" as the name of its section on urban movement in general.  This, presumably, is also what the New York Times means when it refers to San Francisco's BART system as a "commuter train."  BART runs frequently all day, all evening, and all weekend, serving many purposes other than the journey to work or school, so its effect on urban life is much broader than just its commuting role.  When a word's meaning slips to a broader one, it can falsely signal that the broad category is actually no bigger than the narrow one — in this case that all urban travel is just regular trips to work or school.  This takes our eye off the remarkable diversity of urban travel demands, and the much more complex ways that movement is imbedded in all aspects of urban life.

So commute – and the category word commuter — refers technically to a regularly repeated trip, usually for work or school.  But in journalism, and in the public conversation, it's constantly being either broadened to mean urban movement in general, or narrowed to mean "rush-hour commuter."

What can you do?  Be careful.  When you mean "regularly repeated trips," say commutes.  When you mean "regularly repeated trips at rush hour", say peak commutes or rush hour commutes.  When you mean "all travel at rush hour, regardless of purpose or regularity," say the peak or rush hour.  When you mean "all urban mobility or access," speak of urban access or mobility.

Any linguist will tell you that the slippage in word meanings — especially their tendency to slide to broader meanings or narrower ones — is a normal feature of the evolution of language.  I have no illusions that this process can be stopped.  But when we're having public conversations, slippery word usages are the most common way that strong claims to hegemony or exclusion can hide inside reasonable-sounding statements — often hiding even from the person speaking them.  Learn to recognize slippery words (see my category Words, Unhelpful) and look for them, especially in journalism. 

Yet another reason, by the way, to hire literature students! 

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.  


driverless cars and the limitations of the “complete imagined future”

Note:  This old post is still useful whenever you see a "driverless cars will change everything" story, (this one, for example) and especially a "driverless cars will be the end of transit" story.  Abstract: The two fallacies to watch for in these stories are (a) the "complete imagined future" mode, which denies the problems associated with evolving the future condition instead of just jumping to it, and (b) the assumption, universal in techno-marketing but always untrue in the real world, that when the whizbang new thing appears, everything else will still be the same; i.e. that none if the whizbang thing's imagined competitors will also have transformed themselves.  This latter assumption can also be called the "everyone but me is a dinosaur" trope.

Richard Gilbert, co-author of a book that I've praised called Transport Revolutions, has a Globe and Mail series arguing for how driverless cars will change everything.  I will give this series a more thorough read, but just want to call out one key rhetorical move that needs to be noticed in all these discussions.  It's in the beginning of Part 4, "Why driverless cars will trump transit rivals."

With widespread use of driverless cars – mostly as autonomous taxicabs (ATs) – there could be more vehicles on the road because ATs will substitute for most, and perhaps eventually all, private automobile use as well as much use of buses and other conventional transit. 

This, and much of the discussion around driverless cars, is in the complete imagined future mode.  Gilbert describes a world in which the driverless cars are already the dominant mode, and where our cities, infrastructure, and cultural expectations have already been reorganized around their potential and needs.  

Some complete imagined futures are not necessarily achievable, because the future must be evolved.  In fact, the evolution of organisms is a fairly apt metaphor for how cities and infrastructure change.  As in evolution, each incremental state in the transformation to the new reality must itself be a viable system. We can think of lots of wonderful futures that would be internally consistent but for which there is no credible path from here to there.  

Driverless cars remind me a bit of the "wheeled animal" question in evolution.  No animals have evolved with wheels, despite the splendid advantages that wheels might confer on open ground.  That's because there's no credible intermediate state where some part of an animal has mutated something vaguely wheel-like that incrementally improves its locomotion to the point of conferring an advantage.  Wheels (and axles) have to exist completely before they are useful at all, which is why wheeled animals, if they existed, would be an argument for "intelligent design."

I will begin to take driverless cars seriously when I see credible narratives about all the intermediate states of their evolution, and how each will be an improvement that is both technically and culturally embraced.  How will driverless and conventional cars mix in roads where the needs of conventional cars still dominate the politics of road design?  How will they come to triumph in this situation?  How does the driverless taxi business model work before the taxis are abundant?  Some of the questions seem menial but really are profound: When a driverless car is at fault in the accident, to what human being does that fault attach?  The programmer?  What degree of perfection is needed for software that will be trusted to protect not just the passengers, but everyone on the street who is involuntarily in the presence of such a machine? 

Here's a practical example:  In Part 3, Gilbert tells us that with narrower driverless cars, "three vehicles will fit across two lanes."  Presumably lanes will someday be restriped to match this reality, but when you do that, how do existing-width cars adapt?  If you could fit two driverless cars into one existing lane, you could imagine driverless cars fitting into existing lanes side by side, so that the street could gradually evolve from, say, two wide lanes to four narrow ones.  But converting two lanes to three narrow ones is much trickier.  I'd like to see how each stage in the evolution is supposed to work, both technically and culturally.

That's one reason that I seem unable to join the driverless car bandwagon just yet.  The other is that claims for driverless taxis replacing transit amount to imaging a completed new technology out-competing an existing unimproved technology — as though that would actually happen.  

Sure, driverless taxis might replace many lower-ridership bus lines, but wouldn't buses become driverless at the same time?  In such a future, wouldn't any fair pricing make these driverless buses much cheaper to use where volumes are high?  Wouldn't there be a future of shared vehicles of various sizes, many engaged in what we would recognize as public transit?  As with all things PRT, I notice a frequent slipperiness in explanations of it; I'm not sure, at each moment, whether we're talking about something that prevents you from having to ride with strangers (the core pitch of "Personal" rapid transit) as opposed to just a more efficient means of providing public transit, i.e. a service that welcomes the need to ride with strangers as the key to its efficient use of both money and space. 

quote of the week: governor brown on etymology

In Latin, Brown said, “eco” means house. As an example, “economy” means “rules of the house.”  “Logos” means “lord, god, or the deep principles or patterns of nature.” So “ecology is more fundamental than economics. Economics sits within ecology. Not the other way around." 

— from an interview with California Governor Jerry Brown
in the American Society for Landscape Architects blog, "The Dirt"

We need more elected officials conversant in etymology. If you don't know what's going on inside your words, you can't predict what they'll do behind your back.