Rhetorical Annihilation in the Social Sciences

[This post is periodically updated as helpful comments roll in.]

Have you ever picked up an academic paper and read, right there in the abstract, that you don't exist?  

We're used to reading rhetoric that defines us as the enemy, which is different.  Rhetoric about the "war on cars" or "war on coal" posits an in-group of good people, including the author and presumed reader, and an out-group that is threatening to them.  This is exclusionary language in its obvious form, and it's hard to justify in academia.  

But academics can slide unconsciously into a more subtle kind of exclusionary rhetoric, especially in the social sciences — what I'll call (melodramatically perhaps) the rhetoric of annihilation.  Instead of defining a group of people as evil or threatening, this rhetoric just ignores their existence.   In this rhetoric, there is no talk of war, because only one side is visible.   The author's presumed expertise becomes a kind of campfire.  Gather around the author's assumptions and you will be warm, safe, and included; if you don't, we can't see you out there in the dark anyway, so you basically don't exist.

This is remarkably easy to do even in an academic paper.  Here are two vivid examples, one classically leftist, the other conservative.

From the left, a paper on "transit deserts".  You can go to the link, but I'm not naming the authors here because I have no desire to embarrass them by attracting searches on their names.  Their work has been peer-reviewed, which means that several arbiters of academic quality view it as an acceptable example of professional thinking today.  My point is about how pervasive and accepted this rhetoric is even as academic thought.

The abstract begins:

The term “transit desert” is a new concept that looks at the gap between level of transit service (supply) and needs of a particular population (demand).  These populations are often referred to as “transit dependent,” people that are too young, too old, or too poor or who are physically unable to drive. “Transit deserts” in this case are defined as areas that lack adequate public transit service given areas containing populations that are deemed transit-dependent. 

In just a few words, the authors have denied the existence of three very large groups of people.  These rhetorically annihilated groups are:

  • Anyone who analyzed the spatial relationship between transit service and needy populations before someone  invented the "new concept" of doing this.  This includes all professional transit planners over the age of 30, including past generations going back a century or more.  (Of course, the rhetorical annihilation of elders is such a routine part of being young — kids, we did it too at your age! — that it's hardly worth being offended by.)  
  • Anyone for whom demand does not mean mere need, but rather the meaning that is already routine in business and economics — something like a "buyer's willingness and ability to pay a price for a specific quantity of a good or service".  The paper's use of the word demand annihilates anyone coming from the perspectives of business or basic economics..  
  • Anyone who uses transit, wants transit to be useful to them, or wants the live in a city where even the rich ride transit, but who does not meet the specified qualifications to be called "transit dependent."  As made clear in the first sentence, these people's desire to use transit, or to build a city around transit, does not count to the authors as demand, because they do not meet the authors' standard for need.

A paper could make arguments against the point of view of these groups, but tbat's not done here.  Rather, the very possibility that such positions might exist is denied.

And of course, conservatives papers do this too.  Let's turn to a conservative-sounding paper, featured in Atlantic Citylab, for which you can also follow the link for the citation.  It's a little more careful but standard forms of annihilation appear soon enough.  The paper opens like this:

This article asks why public transportation’s political support in the United States is so much larger than its ridership.

Upon reading this, I scratched my head trying to imagine what it would be like to find this an interesting problem statement.  I don't mean to rhetorically annihilate the authors; I acknowledge their existence, but it it sounds like they don't talk with transit advocates or riders very much.   Those people would tell you that the answer is too obvious to need studying, as indeed it turns out to be:  

We … show that support for transit spending is correlated more with belief in its collective rather than private benefits—transit supporters are more likely to report broad concerns about traffic congestion and air pollution than to report wanting to use transit themselves.

Well, of course people vote for transit for reasons other than the narrowest kind of self-interest. People vote for transit because (a) it benefits people they care about, if not themselves, (b) it offers some solutions to real problems of urban mobility and (c) it helps foster cities that people want to live in, as demonstrated by the way land values are soaring in such places.  

But why is this a problem?  The authors conclude:

These findings suggest a collective action problem, since without riders transit cannot deliver collective benefits. But most transit spending supporters do not use transit, and demographics suggest they are unlikely to begin doing so; transit voters are wealthier and have more options than transit riders.

A collective action problem is a situation in which everyone would benefit if X were done, but nobody can justify doing X as a selfish cost/benefit calculation.  One fable explaining the problem imagines a group of mice who would all benefit if a marauding cat wore a bell, but none of whom finds it rational to the huge risks of climbing the cat's back to put the bell on.

What does it mean to assert that the transit ridership is a problem of this kind?  It implies …

  • … that transit users who do not vote do not exist.  The most explicit rhetorical annihilation in the paper is the assumption that the set of people who vote in the US (rarely more than 40% of the population and often less in local elections) largely contains the set of potential transit riders.  In reality, non-voters are so dominant in the population that their ridership may be a big contributor to transit's actual success, thus helping solve any "collective action problem".  Nor do they consider that many of these non-voters are friends or relatives or employees of voters, who may then understandably, even in a sense selfishly, vote in the interests of those people. 
  • ... that people who don't think they'll use transit are right about that.  In the biz, what people say they want to do, or would do, is called stated preference data, and it's known to be largely useless.  Humans are terrible at guessing what they'd do, or want to do, in a hypothetical future based on a situation, and set of options, that they can't imagine now.
  • ... that there is no gradual path to collective action, because demographic categories all have hard edges within which people are trapped.  This is the big one.  To posit a "collective action problem" the authors must assume that the level of wealth above which people are unlikely to use transit is rigid, even though it in reality it rises as transit grows more useful, and that it divides a population cleanly.   Everyone who is near the boundaries between demographic categories, or who chooses transit for reasons not predictable by their income, is annihilated here.

No argument appears in the paper for any of the assumptions above.  Limited discussion about ridership is based on what people tell the census about their commuting behavior; this casually annihilates all non-commute users of transit, including people who voted for it and love to use it on weekends, but have to drive to work because it's not useful for that purpose.

Finally, the collective action problem assumes that everyone is a bizarre character from classical economics known as homo economicus: someone who rationally computes and acts on self-interest that is defined only in the narrowest sense.  Among the many absurdities that follow from this are that in exactly the same circumstances, everyone would do the same thing, because we do not have diverse values, attractions, or personalities.

But in the real world, one mouse sometimes does put the bell on the cat.  Some of us will take ridiculous risks for the common good.  Some of us choose to be firefighters or police or soldiers or artists or social workers, all high-risk jobs that require courage but that enrich society if they succeed against all the odds.  Most of us don't take those risks, but we're all better off because some of us do.  Likewise, some fortunate people ride transit because they like it.  Some less fortunate ones prefer to spend their scarce income on a motorcycle.  

Everyone who acts in ways not predictable by their assigned demographic category is being annihilated here.  Human diversity, even human quirkiness is good for the collective, however hard it is for the social sciences to describe. 

What do these two papers have in common?  Between them, they annihilate almost everyone, including each other's in-groups.  

You could say that all this annihilation is an occupational hazard of the social sciences — or indeed that it's an inevitable feature of them.  The social sciences are in the business of talking about gigantic groups of people using reductive categories, and all categorization suppresses diversity.

But the hardness of category boundaries is one of the most fundamental and dangerous of human illusions, because it is coded deeply into common language and underlies all forms of prejudice.   So the social sciences are always playing with fire, always at risk of giving aid and comfort to polarizing, exclusionary styles of thought.  

This rhetoric of annihilation can lead to publication and approval, so long as an adequate ecosystem of reviewers and advisors has reasons (ideological or material) for sharing an assumption or at least not challenging it.  But once past that bar, these assumptions become "the literature," bounced around in the echo chamber of "expert" discourse.  Through the turning of generations, some of these assumptions do get overturned, if only as part of the inevitable process of the young annihilating their elders.  But much harm is done in the meantime.

Great academic work also requires thinking about all of the forces that determine the situation being studied, not just the one's academic discipline or in-group values, and honoring  descriptions of the issue from those points of view.   If they intend to influence policy, they make sure they understand the diverse experience of practitioners in the field, not just academics.  This is especially true if a paper intends to influence policy, rather than just participate in a discipline's private conversation. 

But meanwhile: Do you see a new academic paper, thick with footnotes and citations, as an immediate signifier of authority and wisdom?  Be careful.  To be welcomed around the campfire, you may have to consent to annihilation.

How good are we at prediction?

Transportation planning is full of projections — a euphemism meaning predictions.  Generally, when we need a euphemism, it means we may be accommodating a bit of denial about something.

Predicting the future, at a time when so many things seem to be changing in nonlinear ways, is a pretty audacious thing to do.  There are  professions whose job it is to do this, and we pay them a lot to give us predictions that sound like facts.  I have the highest respect for them (all the more because what they do is nearly impossible) but only when they speak in ways that honor the limitations of their tools.

Good transportation planning does this.  at the very least, it talks about future scenarios rather than predictions, often carrying multiple scenarios of how the future could vary.  Scenarios are still predictions, though; they're just hedged predictions, where we place several bets in hope that one will be right. 

I will never forget the first time that I presented a proposed transit plan and was told:  "that's an interesting idea; we'll have to see how it performs."  The speaker didn't mean "let's implement it and see what happens."  He meant, "let's see what our predictive model says."  You know you're inside a silo when people talk about prediction algorithms as though they are the outcome, not just a prediction of the outcome that is only as good as the assumptions on which it's built.

What's more, we seem to be really bad at predicting curves, or even acknowledging them as they happen.


Something really important happened in the US around 2004, which experts call the "VMT Inflection."  Vehicle Miles Traveled in the US — the total volume of driving — departed from a linear growth path that it had followed for decades, and went flat.  Here's the same curve looking further back.  Around 2003, you could be forgiven for thinking that this steady slope was something we could count on. 

VMT rising

(At this point an ecologist or economist will point out that the VMT inflection shouldn't have been a surprise at all.  This graph looks like what a lot of systems do when their growth runs into a capacity or resource limit.  The VMT inflection is a crowdsourced signal that the single-occupant car is hitting a limit of that kind.)

So reality changed, but the Federal projections didn't.  Even as late as 2008, when the new horizontal path had been going for four years, Federal projections claimed that the growth in driving would immediately return to the previous fast-rising slope.  Again:


This isn't prediction or projection.  This is denial.  

All predictions rest on the assumption that the future is like the past.  Professional modelers assume their predictive algorithms are accurate if they accurately predict past or current events — a process called calibration.   This means that all such prediction rests on a bedrock idea that human behavior in the future, and the background conditions against which decisions are made, will all be pretty much unchanged, except for the variables that are under study.

In other words, as I like to say to Millennials:  the foundation of orthodox transportation planning is our certainty that when you're the same age as your parents are now, you'll behave exactly the way they do.

We describe historical periods as "dark" or "static" when that assumption is true.  Over the centuries of the European Middle Ages or Ancient Egypt, everyone acted like their parents did, so nothing ever seemed to change except accidents of war and the name of the king or pharaoh.  Our transportation modeling assumes that ours is such an age.

Historical progress arises from people making different choices than their parents did, and there seems to be a lot of this happening now.  

What we urgently need, in this business, are predictions that try to quantify how the future is not like the past; for example, by studying Millennial behavior and preferences and exploring what can reasonably be asserted about a world in which Millennials are in their 50s and are in the position to define what is normal, just as their parents and grandparents do today.

We already know that the future is curved.  (With rare exceptions like the growth of VMT from 1970 to 2004, the past has been curvy as well).   Millennials are not like their parents were at the same age.  There will be major unpredictable shocks.  There are many possible valid predictions for such a future.  The one that we can be sure is wrong is the straight line.  

My work on Abundant Access – part of the emerging world of accessibility studies — is precisely about providing a different way to talk about transportation outcomes that people can believe in and care about.  It means carefully distinguishing facts from predictions, and valuing things that people have always cared about — like getting places on time and having the freedom to go many places — from human tastes that change more rapidly — such as preferences and attitudes about transit technologies. It's a Socratic process of gently challenging assumptions.  Ultimately, it's part of the emerging science of resilience thinking, extending that ecological metaphor to human societies.  It posits that while the future can't be predicted there are still ways of acting rightly in the face of the range of likely possibilities.  

Imagine planning without projections.  What would that look like?  How would we begin?

resolution: find more dimensions

Here's a new year's resolution that would help everyone in transit and sustainable urbanism.  

        Now and then, I will step outside of the binarisms that energize me.  

Or perhaps more simply, 

        I will find and explore more dimensions.

This is not vague spiritualist babble.  Here's what I mean.  

A binary conflict (or binarism, or dualism) is simply a pair of opposites that engender strong feels of attraction or repulsion toward one end or the other:    Capitalism vs socialism.  Competitive vs collaborative.  The underclass vs the overlords.  Labor vs. management.  Car-centered thinking vs. sustainable transport options.  Buses vs. trains.

If you have a strong attraction to one of these poles over the other, then whatever the conflict is, it's really "us vs them".  And that engenders excitement.  If the "us vs them" binarism did not fundamentally animate us to action and joy and devotion, nobody would care about sports.  

Here's why I'm thinking about this:


This blog normally putters along around 2000 pageviews per day, more when I post more often, lower in the holidays.  Now and then, though,  I take on some piece of journalism that expresses ignorance about the whole project of creating viable alternatives to the private car.  I did that on December 29, making an example of Brian Lee Crowley's anti-transit rant, and of the Globe and Mail for publishing it without fact-checking and without marking it as opinion.

(As I wrote that last sentence, my pulse went up a bit.  That's part of my point.  Bear with me.)

I didn't promote this post more than any other, but Twitter exploded with retweets and and favoriting, driving traffic to be blog.  Troops briefly rallied to my side.  Why?  I had stepped into a known position in an already-mapped binary conflict between people who believe in sustainable transportation options and people who advocate car-centered thinking.1  So it was easy.  It drove traffic.  It was fun watching all that approval pile up.

But remember when George W. Bush said "you're either with us or you're with the terrorists"?  If you think of that spatially, he was saying: "the universe consists of only one dimension, and along that dimension there are two poles with nothing in the middle."  These are the two foundational assertions of the polarizer who invests in binary conflict as a way of life:

  • All meaningful points of view are on the line between A and B.

… and then, as it heats up …

  • There is not even a spectrum of options between A and B.  There are only the extremes.

Polarization is both claustrophobic and deafening.  If you're stuck in the binarism of "sustainable transport vs car-dependence" to the point that you can't hear someone who's thinking "liberty vs control," you're trapped.  It's no better than being stuck in "labor vs management" or "poor vs rich".  Critical thinking, the kind that makes us smarter, is multi-dimensional.  It may try on a binarism, see how it works, even advocate it as practically useful for certain purposes.  But it knows how to consider other binarisms, try them on, and it knows that they're all approximations of what really matters.  

The catch, of course, is that action requires some loss of awareness.  

Watch a cat.  Cats have an awake and scanning state where they are aware of a three dimensional environment.  But then they get interested in something: food, prey.  As the cat's pulse rises, its focus narrows, and at the end, when it's ready to pounce, its world is virtually one-dimensional and polarized:  me and the thing I want.  

Briefly losing awareness of multiple dimensions seems almost inseparable from action.  (I explored this idea more here, when I argued that considers every possible perspective in detail is never an action plan.)

Binary conflict rallies the troops.  Binary conflict raises hell.  But it's the opposite of critical thinking; it's one-dimensional, claustrophobic.  There's nothing wrong with it, but we have to be able to move back and forth between binary conflict and broader, more open thinking.  Ultimately, we have to be able to choose to do it, consciously.  

In the moments between the bouts of us vs. them conflict, step into another dimension.  It's still hard for me too, so it's my resolution for 2014.  Feel free to join me.  



although the absence of widely accepted terms for either of these positions suggests a certain space inside the binarism, perhaps other dimensions waiting to be released.  You could also argue that my specific suggestions in that post were in the spirit of this one, though I'm not sure that's why it was so popular.  

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

can green thinking value straight lines?

As people who value the durability of human civilization celebrate Earth Day, here's a question they might think about.

Ecological thinking values localness, smallness, and natural processes.  It talks about place, community, and the Earth as a unit.  These things are all naturally circular.  Everywhere in sustainability thinking is the image of the circle: the cycles of ecological process, the cycles of generations, the natural cycles of the earth at many scales.  

So today, if you want to make any activity look durable and ecologically sound, even "cool," you draw a circular diagram of it.

US Forest Service

But the circle is much more than a diagram of natural process.  The circle is also closure, embrace, inward-lookingness.   It is the essence of all the concentric units by which we define "home": our families, our households, and our "community" at whatever scales we choose to identify it.  What all those things have in common is that we want a boundary between "inside" and "outside."  The circle — which has the feature of enclosing the largest possible area within the smallest possible boundary — is the natural image.  

Thus, in the lexicon of Australian Aboriginal art, famous for its extraordinary powers of emotive abstraction, a circle means place.


Yala Yala Gibbs Tjungurrayi, Kuninka (Western Quoli) Dreaming at Kaakaratintja, 1987.

…which is why Aboriginal art so often reminds us of maps, where the same is often true.  Whatever a place is in reality, our minds think of it as enclosed,  bounded in the most efficient possible way, a circle.   

So, in the absence of a strong planning ideology or natural barriers, ancient and medieval cities tend to be more or less round.


… because in addition to minimizing circumference, and hence the cost of fortification, a circle minimizes the average distance between two points within itself.

It is natural that today's green thinking, obsessed with restoring communities and cycles, thinks in circles.  The stable circular cycle is the model of success.  The successful community feels enclosing in the way that the successful family does.  It hugs you, and nothing is more circular than an embrace.

The green movement, and especially efforts at durable urbanism, knows how to talk about circles of many scales: concentric circles, overlapping circles, all kinds of circularity and enclosure.  Even the notion of downshifting technologically, to simpler systems maintanable by smaller units of organization, evokes circles.  It's intriguing that in the iconography of tech, the circle has come to mean off, while the straight line means on.

So my question is simple.

  • Can those who value a civilization based on durability,  community, and harmony with natural processes achieve those goals — at any scale — while insisting on circularity as the core metaphor for all forms of success?

… because to do so is to define the straight line as the enemy. 

Durable urbanism, and ecological thinking in general, has many enemies that are shaped like straight lines, or at least as paths that will never close into cycles.  Climate change, peak oil, war, exploitation, and pollution are not cyclical, at least not at a scale that's relevant to human life.  We see them instead as linear processes colliding with larger limits that are themselves linear, shaped like walls: competing armies, starvation, the fixed limits of the earth. 

This is the story of my career:  Transportation planners — including those of us who value the goal of a more durable civilization — are in the business of trying to convince circle-lovers of the value of straight lines.  This, I've come to believe, is the core of why the conversation is difficult, and why so many people in the urbanist and placemaking professions have trouble reconciling themselves to transport needs, or even claim dominion over them.   

Because face it: Transportation is about straight lines.  It begins with the desire to be somewhere other then where you are, in order to do something you want to do, and the basic shape of that human desire is a line from where you are to where you need to be.  

So the history of transportation, since the industrial revolution, has been about circular communities and places feeling attacked by the straight lines that any useful form transportation must draw.  In the 1850s, Henry David Thoreau recognized the community-piercing and place-destroying role of railroads as clearly as Jane Jacobs did of freeways a century later.  The transportation technology didn't matter: what mattered was that something that had to be linear was piercing something that's naturally round: the place, at any scale.

And so, today, we have an urbanist discourse that is all about somehow taming the straight line, bending it into a circle.  A long strain of urbanism, epitomized by Darrin Nordahl's work, imagines that transit planning could be based on the tourist experience, even though tourist travel is unlike destination-motivated in this exact respect:  The tourist's desire really is a circle: the loop shape of the tour.  But all other transport is motivated straight-line desires, the need to be there so that we can do something.  

So is the circle always the image of goodness for the ecological way of thought?  And is the straight line always evil?

Again, becuase it encloses maximum area in a the shortest possible boundary, the circle is the logical shape of fortification.   Our subconscious need for fortification, around our households and communities, remains with us in the form of NIMBYism – a deeply-felt revulsion at almost any change that arises from outside, whether it's urbanists rezoning your neighborhood or transport planners proposing a rail line.  NIMBYism is the walled medieval city repelling all forms of attack.  To view your community as a circle is to emphasize its separation from its context.  To view it as a point where lines converge is to emphasize its relatedness.  

Can we ever treasure a process of resonance and symbosis between the circle and the path, as Aboriginal art does?  Can we experience all circularity as deepened and made richer through its dialogue with the linear?


Uta Uta Tjangala, Untitled (Jupiter Well to Tjukula), Art Gallery of New South Wales

In other words:  Can the green movement — in its ecological as well as urbanist dimensions — ever welcome into its circular models the unapologetic straight line of real transportation? 

You can imagine the line curving eventually, as all lines do, but locally we need lines to be straight, to get us from here to there.  Will that always feel like a violation of green principles?  Or is there a path to welcoming it into a durable world?

a leading bureaucrat on the need to take more risks

Here's a very worthwhile three minutes of Washington DC Planning Director Harriet Tregoning on risk-taking and failure.  Her discussion of Capital Bikeshare, which failed in its first incarnation and succeeded in its second, is an incisive challenge to the bureaucratic mind, and it's directly related to transit improvements.  

Whenever we try to improve transit systems, we often find — especially in network redesign — that a whole lot of big changes have to be made at once.  What's more, they're irreversible.  Network redesigns are so big and impactful that you can't just "try" them and undo them if they don't work.  By the time you've done them, the previous status quo is irrecoverable.

So they're big risks.  And most people — especially most groups of people working together such as Boards and committees — don't like to take risks.  The deliberation process in government often seems designed to shrink every initiative, so that all strong transformative moves shrivel into hesitant "demonstration projects," if they survive at all.

Tregoning's story here is basically that the first bikeshare system failed because it was too small, too hesitant, while the second one succeeded because it was far bigger, bolder, riskier.  Many of the government cultures I've known would have decided, based on the first round, never to try bikeshare again.  It took courage to say that maybe the lesson was that some things just can't be done as tiny demonstration projects.  You have to build the courage to actually do them, at the natural scale at which they start to work.

Transit network redesign is exactly like that.  It's hard to do in hesitant, reversible phases, because it's all so interconnected, and because a network doesn't start to work until it's all there.  

Thanks to Melanie Starkey of the esteemed Urban Land Institute for pointing me to this! 

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.

“Uncaptive Rider”: Download my Chat with Colin Marshall …

If you’d be interested in the sound of my voice, ruminating broadly about transit and cities in the serenity of my own livingroom, there’s now quite a good podcast by Colin Marshall in the Notebook on Cities and Culture series.  You can download an mp3 from Colin’s site here, or get it from iTunes here.

Colin’s a brilliant interviewer, asking great and often surprising questions.  He draws me out on my own living arrangements, my complex relationships with Portland and with Los Angeles, some notes on my global transit travels, and finally onto really substantive topics about what transit is and how it relates to the larger question of what cities are.  It’s all feels very public-radio …

Colin’s whole series of downloadable podcasts looks like it’s worth a look, as he’s put me in some impressive company …

quote of the week: the quiet ones

From Tim Kreider's New York Times piece on the Amtrak quiet car, and the challenge of advocating quiet.

It’s impossible to be heard when your whole position is quiet now that all public discourse has become a shouting match. Being an advocate of quiet in our society is as quixotic and ridiculous as being an advocate of beauty or human life or any other unmonetizable commodity.

Read the whole thing.

Personal note:  I have a slight hearing problem called hyperacusis which means that I hear some high-pitched sounds, especially sudden ones, as louder and more painful than others perceive.  Kreider helps me understand why this little "disability", which prevents me from enjoying noisy social environments and thus has a self-isolating effect, will never carry any "rights" in the Americans with Disabilites Act sense. Nor am I sure that it should.

transit as a city’s bloodstream: the video

Watch this video, and maybe you'll grasp the beauty of a great transit network, a beauty that has nothing to do with the technology it runs, but everything to do with the real life of a city and the feedom of its people.  Public transit vehicles moving around Greater Vancouver, an entire day compressed into 2.5 minutes.

The original is here.  It's by STLTransit, who has done a number of other cities.

Long ago I posted another of these, for Auckland, New Zealand.  It uses endearing tadpoles instead of white dots.  It's also interesting because Auckland's is not a single unified network, as Vancouver's is, (although we're working on it!).  You can see the difference if you watch closely, using the tips below.

So many people see public transit only as a vehicle on the street, or a thing they're waiting for.  But when you watch this video of a well-designed unified transit network, you can see that it's a gigantic interconnected organism.  And like all organisms, it's made up of complex but rhythmic motion.

Like your heart and lungs, the network effect of transit is quiet, ignorable, and yet the foundation of everything.   The network is one being, moving to a beat.  It's made of connections,  little sparks of energy that you must imagine whenever two dots touch, as the dots hand off to one another like relay runners.  For example, as you watch the video, watch this spot, especially toward the middle of the day:

Vanc tadpoles note phibbs

That's Phibbs Exchange, an example of strong pulse scheduling. At a langorous pace (representing a pulse every half hour or even every hour) you'll see many white dots gather themselves into a single bright dot, shine brightly for a moment, then "pulse" outward again.  What's happening is that many buses that run infrequently are converging on a point and sitting together briefly, so that people can transfer from any bus to any other.



I'm not sure I'll ever convey to my non-transit friends that regardless of what you think of buses, a pulse is a beautiful thing to watch.  Phibbs is more spread out than I like, and I photographed it at a quiet time of day, but in an ideal one, like the ones in downtown Eugene, you see this gradual gathering of energy to a climax, then a release.  Gradually the buses arrive, until finally they're all there.  You see signs on the buses announcing different parts of the city, all the places you could go right now, from here.  The drivers get off the bus briefly, chat with customers, point them to the right service.  People meet by chance.  It happens many times a day and yet there's always this sense of event: here, at this moment, you have service to all these different places, ready to go right now.  Enjoy the banquet of choices, select your bus, and let's go.  In a moment it's over, the buses all gone, the place quiet or even deserted, like a field after a storm has passed.  And in half an hour or an hour it will happen again.

And it's not a random thing, like a storm, but part of a huge intentional network that (in Vancouver's case) is designed.  This pulse is one of the network's many continuous, reliable heartbeats.  It's one big organism, made of unconscious rhythmic motion and circulation as all organisms are.  It's inseparable from the life of the city it serves.  And you're part of it.