"Journey to work" mode share is a wretched way of assessing transit's relevance, and yet it's the one everyone uses. City Observatory is on it. Read the whole thing.
This. Is. So. Important.
We find that the size of the fixed-route bus system (measured as real per capita operating expenditures) is negatively related to employee turnover rates [for local employers]: An increase in bus systems’ per capita operating expenditures is associated with a decrease in employee turnover. Decreases in employee turnover represent cost savings to businesses by reducing the costs associated with training new workers and rebuilding firm-specific knowledge or better employee-employer matches. These results suggest that access to fixed-route bus transit should be a component of the economic development strategy for communities not only for the access to jobs that it provides low-income workers but also for the benefits accruing to businesses that hire these workers.
This also means that new employers need to read this before they choose their location!
I could wish that they had measured transit quantity using revenue hours rather than expenditures, because revenue hours are a better measure of service to the customer. But still, this is a big deal. Eric Jaffe also has the story at Citylab.
Jarrett,you write like a scholar, using you master's degrees to cleverly make readers feel sorry for Translink and vote yes, even if they are confused... you know the adage, "bullshit baffle brains", thats what you and your kind are doing... and how much are they paying you Jarrett?
there are many other ways that Translink can raise funding for transit and you bloody well know it... alternatively Translink should go public, make it competitive for private companies to run transit for the masses... look at BC Ferries, they run low on cheddar and they raise their rates, simple, you wanna ride, you pay...
like [Vancouver] Mayor Robinson who makes stupid promises he cant even come close to keeping, and big ones too, you know, the "end homeless" bullshit he's peddling... Robinson wants a freebie from all lowermainlanders in the form of 0.5% tax hike to pay for his Broadway subway that he's been promising for years! Hey, what about if Vancouver raises their own money to do the subway? or lobby the provincial govt for cheddar or lobby the Federal govt for cheddar!!
Im so glad i don't live in Vancouver where Robertson pretends he's the Mayor in...
and who's paying for the yes advertising eh? taxpayers? who else... that's so shameful and in the end will see what a waste of resources this has been... pissing away good money when there is no chance of winning this plebiscite!
Why didn't you talk about Mayor Corrigen eh? remember him? he's opposed to the tax hike with validity...
Ive voted NO, every one i know has done the same... the yes campaign hasn't a hope in hell to even come close and you know it Jarrett...
We frequently fail to recognise that our own personal preferences are in most cases just that. And too often in urbanist discussions, that means white hipster preferences.
As a result, we can end up doing a poor job of developing and selling pro-urban policies, even within the city.
Aaron Renn, "In Praise of Boring Cities," Guardian Cities, 1 October 2014.
Yes, Yes! Read the whole thing.
Note: This popular post is being continuously updated with useful links and comments. Come back and it may be improved!
In the United States, but occasionally in Canada too, voters are sometimes asked to decide whether to raise taxes to fund transit improvements. I'm often asked whether I support these things. I don't like telling people how to vote, but I can point out some predictable patterns in the arguments, and some universal facts about transit that you need to keep in mind.
1. In growing urban areas, transit needs grow faster than tax revenues.
This problem is mathematically inevitable.
As cities grow, and especially as they grow denser, the need for transit generally rises faster than population, at least in the range of densities that is common in North America. This is completely obvious if you think about it, and I stepped through it in more detail in Chapter 10 of Human Transit. In brief: Suppose a particular square mile of the city doubles in population. Transit demand would double because there are twice as many people for whom transit is competing. But independently of that, if density is higher, each person is likely to find transit more useful, because (a) density creates more disincentives to driving and car ownership while (b) density makes it easier for transit agencies to provide abundant and useful service. Those two separate impacts of density on transit, multiplied together, mean that transit demand is rising faster than population. Again, go to my book for a more extended and thorough argument.
However, existing revenue sources are usually growing, on average, no faster than population. The various tax streams that support transit have a range of differences, but they are not going to grow massively faster than the population is growing.
So if the city is growing denser, transit needs are growing faster than transit revenues. This is nobody's fault. It's a mathematical fact about the geometry of transit and density.
If transit and roads were thought about together, you would not see this exponential growth in total transportation spending, because as populations grow denser, they need fewer highway lanes per capita -- precisely because they're using transit, walking, and cycling so much more. But we usually don't think about those things together, unfortunately.
2. As transit demand grows, you sometimes need a major project.
As transit demand grows in a growing city, it hits crisis points where the current infrastructure is no longer adequate to serve the number of people who want to travel. Several major subway projects now in development are the result of transit's overwhelming success using buses. I'm thinking, for example, of Second Avenue in New York, Eglinton in Toronto, Wilshire in Los Angeles, Broadway in Vancouver, and Stockton-Columbus in San Francisco.
Broadway, for example, has local buses running alongside express buses, coming as often as every 3 minutes peak hours, and they are all packed. In that situation, you've done just about everything you can with buses, so the case for a rail project is pretty airtight. In all of the cases I mention, the rail project usually has to be a subway, because once an area is that dense, it is difficult to commandeer enough surface street space, and we tend to have strong aesthetic objections to elevated lines in these contexts.
These big projects require huge lumps of money. So as transit demand grows, its revenue needs don't just grow faster, they grow in a lumpier way, with big chunks of money needed at once.
3. Not all rail projects are about improving transit.
Note, however, that not all rail projects are intended to solve capacity problems and increase the mobility of large numbers of people. Some are designed to stimulate development. (Many do a mixture of both, but the degree of mixture matters because the reasons to support them are so different.) For example, a proposed transit line may connect major destinations, or it may head off into an area where few people live now, solely to trigger development that will put more people there in the future.
Stimulating urban development can be a very good thing, but when you see those arguments you may want to ask these things:
Again, these questions apply only to a big project whose evident purpose is predominantly to stimulate development, rather than to serve the city as it is.
4. Who is for and against? (But don't overreact!)
Everyone looks at this, and it's a big source of hysteria.
All tax measures will have opposition from the political right. In most US contexts, for example, you can write off anywhere from 25% to 40% of the vote if you are proposing taxes for anything at all.
You will also hear lots of dark tales about the supporters. Your proposed measure is probably supported by engineering firms, urban real estate interests, transit labor unions, and anyone else who's going to be personally enriched if the measure passes. This is normal and boring and should not affect your vote. Never vote no on a measure just because people are supporting it for partly selfish reasons. Those motives are in play in any campaign for anything.
Likewise, you should never vote one way or another because of how you feel about the campaign. Campaigns are thrown together quickly, work under immense time pressure, and usually make mistakes. The campaign will be over soon, but the effects of your vote will last much longer.
But here is one thing to watch for. You should be alarmed if there is a significant argument against the measure coming from people who usually support transit taxes. Opposition by environmentalist or progressive transportation policy groups should be a yellow flag. Unlike the political right, these people really want measures they can vote yes on, so if they're voting no there is probably something wrong.
I don't mean, of course, to give every self-proclaimed transit advocate a veto. As in any business, some of them are crackpots. But this opposition should be concerning. Notice it if it exists, or if it doesn't.
5. But the transit agency looks so wasteful ...
This is a tough one, because I can't promise it isn't true.
But be suspicious of what the anti-tax folks point out. Many things that look like waste make sense in another light. Your transit agency may also have tried something that didn't work out well -- they make mistakes, like anyone. They've probably spent money on things that are easy to ridicule from certain quarters, like public art or maybe driver restrooms that someone thinks are too grand, though often these are the result of complex agreements that help get a transit project built.
6. But the managers have such big salaries!
You'd better hope they do. These are complex jobs with appalling responsibilities. Many of the people in them could go to the private sector and make ten times as much. The best of them are in this business because they believe in it.
People expect transit executives to do impossible things every day -- like run buses on time in wildly variable congestion, or cut labor costs without setting off rebellion in the workforce, or run service wherever anyone feels entitled to it no matter what the cost. The political pressures on them are off the charts. Not every transit executive deserves that compensation, but in those cases the problem is usually the executive, not the compensation.
In any case, executive compensation is trivial in the context of transit agency budgets. It's the compensation and management of the whole labor force, especially bus and train drivers and mechanics, that determines how efficient the agency is, and how much service you'll have. I am not defending every executive perk or unnecessary management position; I've seen plenty of waste in my career. But cutting executive wages will not unlock much money for better service.
My own view is that transit executives -- indeed, all transit staffs -- should be paid very well and should face very high expectations, especially for clarity about what the real issues are. You have a right to clear and transparent communication from your transit agency that helps everyone understand the choices are facing your community, how they're being addressed, and what to do if you disagree.
Maybe your transit agency isn't like that. Maybe you're really mad at them.
Well, if you don't like the management of your water department, does that mean you don't need water?
Voting no on urgently needed things is a poor way to protest waste and inefficiency in government. Instead, get involved in fighting those issues. Send your elected officials a letter saying "Don't you dare read my vote for this as support for that!" Find other ways to keep up pressure if you think it's warranted. These communications always have more impact than most voters realize.
7. Will transit reduce congestion?
Advocates of car-dependence often object that transit doesn't reduce car congestion, and that car congestion is higher in transit-rich cities. To respond, see here. To understand the exclusionary attitudes behind the transit-doesn't-fix-congestion argument, see here.
8. If you're still confused, vote yes.
Why? Because most people do the opposite. They vote no if they don't understand, which is why it's hard to get anything done. If you vote yes, you're no more likely to be wrong than the no-voter is, and in a world where government often can't seem to do anything, you're voting for doing something. That sends an important signal in itself.
As a transit advocate, I've voted no on a couple of transit measures in my time, always with great regret as well as frustration. But usually, even if the plan contained something I object to, I've voted yes. Even a project that achieves its outcomes inefficiently usually achieves something. Even a project that's solely designed to trigger condos for the very rich will at least get more rich people into the inner city, where they will then start caring about transit and supporting the kinds of transit a rich and vibrant city really needs. And while the failure of a ballot measure may be because of public objections to how the money was to be spent, lazy journalists and elected officials often treats it as a no to transit itself, so it often takes years to get another measure going.
So if you're still confused, it comes down to this:
All the other confused people are voting no. So vote yes.
This image by Claes Tingvall needs to go viral.
I had many years living as a pedestrian in cities designed or managed for cars, including most big American cities in the least century, and I've never seen an image that better captured how that felt.
The bottomless void, in this metaphor, represents the essential unpredictability of the reckless or distracted motorist (there only needs to be one) combined with the destructive potential of their machine. The sidewalk is a narrow ledge on the edge of extreme danger. Crossing the street, even with a crosswalk, works when it works, but the rickety bridge perfectly captures the inherent risk; you're still relying on people to notice you even while they're texting, reading the newspaper, daydreaming, dozing off, flipping dials on the radio, trying to figure out the controls on their rental car, or doing any of other the things people do to handle the tedium of driving.
When we face this kind of danger in national parks, the government provides safety railings to keep us back from the precipice. We tolerate this level of danger only for well-warned hikers in deep wilderness, and for almost everyone who ventures into the city without a car.
We don't make endorsements, but beware politicians' promises about individual bus routes.
Melbourne transit guru Daniel Bowen confirms that nobody is threatening to cancel the 822. The other team's plan involves removing some twists and turns on neighborhood streets, so that the route runs faster and is useful to more people. As usual, that plan asks some people to walk further to a more useful service, as virtually any access-improving network design will do.
Those changes are fair game for debate, but remember: If you want to "save" every existing bus route exactly as it is, forever, then you're against almost any coherent plan and cost-effective plan to update and improve your transit network. This and this, for example, would have been impossible!
There should be nothing amazing about a new report on how easy it is for Americans to get to work on transit, but there is. Think about all the arguments we have about transit ...
... and ask: Why do we try to discuss these things in the absence of good analysis of the most basic question of all: Is transit useful? Does it help people get places in at a time and cost that's a logical choice for them? Such information is often hiding inside ridership models, but it's rarely revealed in a way that lets people see and discuss it. Without that, it's hardly surprising that the American transit debate is so confused.
Access across America: Transit 2014, from the University of Minnesota’s Accessibility Observatory, describes how easy it is to get to jobs in America’s major metro areas by way of transit plus walking. (For very short trips, it shows what can be reached by walking alone.) The authors are Andrew Owen and Professor David Levinson. The report is meant to sit alongside similar studies for the other transportation modes.
So here’s Portland, say, shaded by the number of jobs that can be reached within 30 minutes from each point in the city:
The report also offers a ranking of how easy it is to get to jobs for the average residential location in all the major metros. The ranking looks at where you can get to in a range of travel time budgets, from 10 minutes – basically a measure of walk access – to as much as 60 minutes. Here's are the top 17:
As the travel time budget rises, the relevance of transit to economic opportunity becomes visible. Los Angeles, with long access distances but extensive frequent transit, does poorly on 10-minute walkability but climbs in the rankings as you consider longer travel time budgets, thanks to its effective frequent transit grid. Miami drifts in the other direction, signaling that compared to Los Angeles, transit there is adding relatively little to access to jobs beyond what’s achieved by walking alone.
Now here's what's amazing for a study pubished in 2014: Owen and Levinson claim (p 6) that this study is unusual in properly accounting for frequency. Many analysts approach transit from the point of view of the nine-to-five commuter, who was presumed to be largely insensitive to frequency because they have made an appointment with a particular scheduled trip that they take every day. This sometimes feels right to bureaucrats and civic leaders, many of whom have such commutes themselves, but out there in the larger economy, more and more people work part time, or at irregular hours, or at times outside the standard commute peak. Increasing numbers of people also value flexibility and spontaneity even in work trips -- things that only a robust all-day frequency can provide.
Perusing these maps and rankings, my overwhelming reaction was “what if they’d analyzed it like this, or graphed it like that?” A huge amount of insight is readily available out of this database if we query it differently. For example:
Still, this is a great piece of work. And Americans should pause over the core of this announcement: Only now, in 2014, are we starting to study people’s ability to get where they’re going, and their opportunity to access all the opportunity that makes a great city.
In today's CityLab, Eric Jaffe expresses concern about the fact that support for public transit in many American cities is far exceeding its ridership.
Every transit advocate knows this timeless Onion headline: "98 Percent Of U.S. Commuters Favor Public Transportation For Others." But the underlying truth that makes this line so funny also makes it a little concerning: enthusiasm for public transportation far, far outweighs the actual use of it. Last week, for instance, the American Public Transportation Association reported that 74 percent of people support more mass transit spending. But only 5 percent of commuters travel by mass transit. This support, in other words, is largely for others.
This is entirely a good thing, given the state of transit in America today. If transit were only supported by its existing riders it would be in a death spiral, because most American transit isn't currently useful enough to penetrate a large part of the travel market.
The "support-usage gap," as Jaffe calls it, does not mean that Americans support transit just in hopes that others will use it. We don't need that psychological speculation because the real explanation is factual: For most Americans, in the context of their lives and locations and situations and priorities, the transit that exists today is not a rational choice. Many Americans who support transit but don't use it may be saying that they want transit to be an option, but that it currently isn't.
This is exactly what we should expect in a country with such low quantitites of transit per capita, and where the public consciousness about the need for transit is way ahead of the political process of funding and designing it. Canada, for example, has more than twice the transit service per capita, therefore more than twice the ridership per capita, therefore more of the population on transit. But the support for transit in urban populations is high in both countries. Support and usage are, and should be, unrelated. That's because people are thinking about what they want, not what they have.
In my experience as a consultant, the real problem with the support-usage gap is one of education. Working in Canada, I always notice that the public and stakeholder conversation about transit is just a little more informed than it is in the US. The common confusions (see Chapter 3 of my book) don't have as much impact on the discussion. That difference arises from the fact that a bigger share of the Canadian population has personal experience with transit. If you use transit regularly, there are some things about it that you'll just naturally understand better. If nothing else you won't fall into common motorists' errors like overvaluing speed and undervaluing frequency, or assuming that technology choice is more important than where a service goes, and how soon you'll get there.
But do you support transit but don't find it useful? That's great! Help us make it better! Welcome aboard!
Our friends at the Transit Center are supporting a new ioby project to crowd-source ideas about how to improve the experience of commuting. If you aren't familiar with ioby, they are basically a crowd-funding platform focused on small-scale neighborhood improvement projects. Have a look at the promo video for the project:
Similar to better-known sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo, ioby users are able to upload a project and create a funding goal which people who visit the page can contribute to. Examples of projects funded in this manner include community gardens, playgrounds, and environmental education programs, but now, ioby is offering a funding match up to $4000 for ideas related to transit. Have a look at the page for yourself here.
The guidelines for a project seem pretty open-ended:
1. Your project must do one of the following:a. Be a non-digital tool that improves the public transportation experience, orb. Focus on a single node within a transit system, but can be of any mode, i.e., a train station, a bus station, a bus shelter, subway or metro stop, bike share docking station, or parking lot, orc. Encourage the use of clean transportation, in other words, have less environmental and social negative impacts than a single occupancy private car. Some examples include transit, bicycling, bike share, rideshare, carpool, car share, or vanpool. We will consider modes and shared systems that aren’t identified here as long as they are less environmentally and socially harmful than a single-occupancy vehicle, ord. Be something else in this spirit of the shared public transportation experiences! Talk to us! We don’t know all the great ideas out there! (email@example.com)
On this blog, we focus to a great degree on what transit agencies can do to improve transportation outcomes in terms of network design and other aspects of the planning and operations of transit systems. But ioby's new project asks an interesting question: what small-scale, locally sourced ideas can people put into practice to make the transit experience more useful?
Share your thoughts in the comments below, or better yet, head over to ioby and get your idea funded!
Ever heard this line? A debate in Google's home town, Mountain View south of San Francisco, has turned up this response to an obvious idea of building more housing close to the city's business-park district, so that fewer people have to drive long distances to get there. No, some council candidates say, because there's not enough transit there.
Well, there's not enough transit there because there aren't enough people there, yet. Transit is easy to add in response to seriously transit-oriented development, but as long as you have a development pattern that is too low-density or single-use for transit, you've locked in lousy transit service as an outcome.
So whenever someone gives you this line as a reason to oppose a transit-friendly development, ask: "Well, what would it cost to provide good transit, and who should pay for that?"
Often, as in Mountain View, extremely frequent transit into the nearby transit hub can achieve plenty, and is not that expensive, because of the very short distances involved.
There are other situations where there's not enough transit because transit just isn't viable at any reasonable price, for an obvious geographic reason like remoteness from transit hubs or destinations.
But it's worth asking.
We need services like dial-a-ride mainly because our car-oriented transportation system often leaves disabled Americans — not to mention the poor, the elderly and those too young to drive — waiting by the side of the road.
Over and over again, we call on transit to compensate for the failures of cars. Need to get New Year’s Eve revelers home without killing each other on the roadways? Extend transit service hours, put more buses on the road, and make them free. How about getting large crowds of people to a festival or a big game without triggering gridlock? Provide shuttle buses or run extra trains.
These are smart choices. But there is a cost to correcting these failures, and in the crude accounting done by folks such as the Post op-ed writers, all of them wind up on the “transit” side of the ledger.
It’s a nifty trick, really. Design a transportation system that leaves a wide swath of the population unserved and tends to fail when you need it most (including pretty much every weekday morning and evening in most American cities). Call on transit to fill the gap, sometimes at great expense. Then tar transit as being the inefficient user of public funds.
-- Tony Dutzik, Senior Analyst, Frontier Group, in Streetsblog USA
Aussies and their neighbors: If you know someone who'd benefit from a more intuitive grasp of how public transit works, there's still space in our upcoming course offerings in Melbourne (March 27-28) and Brisbane (March 31-April 1).
Several public transit courses offered in Australia, but here's what's special about this one.
Levity aside, we designed this course to fill a gap in the training of most planning professionals. Few graduate programs teach public transport "from the inside," building an understanding of its unique opportunities and limitations through the experience of actually working with the tool. Still fewer hire teachers who are both seasoned practitioners and skilled in relating public transport to larger narratives that motivate people. If you care about public transport as part of your future city, invite your favourite land use planner to take this course! They'll come out much savvier about how to recognize development proposals that truly work with public transport, as distinct from those that are just giving it lip-service to "paint development green."
The antidotes to groupthink ..., I have found, are: one, leaders who are willing to question their own assumptions and surround themselves with strong critical thinkers who are willing to do the same, and, two, leaders who also have the willingness to seek out and listen carefully for the underlying interests (or even the kernel of a good idea) in the voices of the people initially perceived or expected to be on “the other side.” That mysterious blend of arrogance and humility is hard to find.
Sent just now to the Globe and Mail Public Editor, Sylvia Stead. Beneath this I will post any reply I receive.
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.
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.
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.
A dispute in Portland is bringing to light the age old question of whether fare cuts or service increases are the best way to "improve" transit. Both options improve ridership.
The high-level answer is pretty simple.
Cutting fares is good for lower-income people, while increasing service is good for almost everyone, including many low-income people.
But it's not as good for some low-income people, and that's the interesting nuance in this particular story.
OPAL, an environmental justice organization that claims to focus on the needs of low-income people, is demanding that Portland's transit agency, Tri-Met, institute a fare cut. The cut is specifically in the form of extending the period for which a cash fare is valid from two to three hours, an interesting issue that the Oregonian's Joseph Rose explores in a good article today. (The headline is offensive, but reporters don't write headlines.)
At the same time, Portland has a throughly inadequate level of midday service, by almost any standard. In the context of cities of Portland's size and age, Tri-Met practically invented the high-frequency grid that enables easy anywhere to anywhere travel in the city, but in 2009 it destroyed that convenience by cutting service to 17-20 minute frequencies. At those frequencies, the connections on which the grid relies are simply too time-wasting. Those cuts correlated with substantial ridership losses at the time.
OPAL's demand for a fare cut costing $2.6 million (about 2% of the agency's revenue) is, mathematically, also a demand that Tri-Met should not restore frequent service. This money (about 80 vehicle-hours of service per day) is more than enough to restore frequent all-day service on several major lines.
The rich irony of this proposal is that OPAL uses those service cuts to justify its proposed fare reduction. In Portland, the basic cash fare purchases a two-hour pass that enables the passenger to transfer one or two times. Because of the frequency cuts, transfers are now taking longer, and a few are taking too long for the two-hour pass. OPAL therefore wants the pass to be good for longer.
So OPAL's position is that because service has been cut, Tri-Met must mitigate the impact on low-income people instead of just fixing the problem.
In particular, OPAL wants a solution that benefits only people who are money-poor but time-rich, a category that tends to include the low-income retired, disabled, and underemployed. You must be both money-poor and time-rich to benefit from a system that reduces fares but wastes more and more of your time due to low frequencies and bad connections.
If, on the other hand, you are money-poor and time-poor -- working two jobs and taking a class and rushing to daycare -- you will benefit from a good network that saves you time as much as from one that saves you money. But that means you don't have time to go to meetings or be heard. We transit professionals see these busy low-income people on our systems and care about their needs, but we also know that we're not going to hear their voice as much from advocacy organizations, because they just don't have time to get involved.
The same is true, by the way, of the vast working middle class. In the transit business, we get lots of comments the money-poor-but-time-rich, who have time to get involved, and from the wealthy, who can hire others to represent them. We don't hear as much from the middle class or from the money-poor-and-time-poor, even though those groups dominate ridership. But hey, we understand! They're just too busy.
A couple of weeks ago, I had the honor of joining a consulting team working on Bus Rapid Transit in Al Ain, United Arab Emirates. Al Ain, pop. around 500k, is straight south of Dubai, inland, and it could not be more different. While Dubai is a performance for the world, Al Ain is calm, satisfied and a bit inscrutable. Expat workers abound, including plenty of professionals hired from the West, but this feels like a city for Emiratis.
Built around a series of oases, Al Ain has been a crossroads and watering place for millennia. Like most such places, it's a bit of a chokepoint, defined by the Omani border and the massif of Jebel Hafeet rising to the south.
What's here for a transit blog? This:
"Grow a vision with public transport," with the obligatory child photo. (Another shows an Emirati man in agal and ghutra gazing thoughtfully into the distance.) Al Ain recently started up a bus system, and has a nice downtown station under construction. As you'd expect in the Emirates, it's mostly used by low-income guest workers from surrounding countries. Emiratis, who are a minority of the workforce, are mostly relatively wealthy and generally drive.
But why, if that's today's reality, would a public transit system be unveiled with such modern and air-conditioned buses? And why did they undertake this kind of marketing and imagery, designed to get Emiratis thinking about public transport and why it might be important for the city's and country's future?
Often, in the US, I encounter the attitude that buses are just for the poor and that therefore there's no point in spending more than the minimum on them. Plenty of US cities have bus systems whose service and infrastructure still convey that attitude. In these situations I'm always pointing out that transit dependence, like income, is a spectrum, that there are people everywhere along the spectrum, and that transit can therefore grow incrementally in relevance in response to modest, incremental investments. Even poor people make choices, and those choices have consequen This is, among other things, a reason to care about the quality of bus services, rather than just longing for trains.
That line should be a harder sell in the Emirates, a wealthy country where (a) decision-making is concentrated in an elite, (b) the middle class is far smaller and newer than in the US, and (c) the underclass consists of foreign "guest workers" who have little political influence. But the Al Ain bus system, and its vision-heavy marketing and investment in look and feel, suggests they may grasp the idea better than many Americans do. They are envisioning a future when a more diverse range of people will be motivated to use transit, as the car becomes less attractive or affordable for a host of converging reasons.
The "tea party" US House members who currently dominate the news are unlikely allies of urbanists. But on one core idea, a band of urbanist thinkers are starting to echo a key idea of the radical right: Big and active national government may not be the answer.
Last week, I was honored to be invited to Citylab, a two-day gathering in New York City sponsored by the Aspen Institute, the Atlantic magazine, and Bloomberg Philanthropies. The event featured mayors and civic policy leaders from both North America and overseas as well as leading academics, journalists, and consultants.
I expected the thrilling mix of new ideas, compelling stories, and quirky characters, but I got one thing I didn't expect: A full-throated demand, from several surprising voices, for an urbanist revolt against the power of national governments.
Al Gore said it with his trademark fusion of bluntness and erudition: "The nation-state," he said, "is becoming disintermediated." If you're not an academic at heart, that means: "National governments are becoming irrelevant to urban policy, and hence to the economy of an urban century."
On cue, the New York Times published an op-ed on "The End of the Nation-State," about how cities are leaving nations behind. Citylab also featured a terrific interview with political scientist Benjamin Barber, whose new book If Mayors Ruled the World argues for the irrelevance of nation-states in a world where cities are the real levers of economic power. (According to Barber, the full title of his book should have been: If Mayors Ruled the World: Why They Should and How They Already Do.) When I spoke with Barber later, looking for nuance, he was full-throated in ridiculing the US Federal role in urbanism. On this view, all the well-intentioned money that the Federal government doles out for urban goodies should be spent by cities as they see fit, or perhaps (gasp) never sent to Washington at all.
Follow this logic and you might arrive at a radical urban Federalism, perhaps even one that could meet tea-party demands to "Abolish the IRS!" Pay taxes to your city or state, and let them send a bit of it on to central government to do the few things that only a central government can do. Push power downward to the scale where problems can be solved.
You might even separate urban from rural governance in a way that enables both to thrive, each at its proper scale, replacing the eternal struggle between these necessary opposites that makes today's political discourse so inane. The "size of government" debate is just a pointless and eternal struggle between urban and rural experience, both of which are right. Living in cities means relying on government for many things that the rural resident provides for herself, so of course the attitude toward government is different. But what's really logically different is the role of local government. Both urban and rural experience provide good reason to be suspicious of big-yet-distant national government, which can be as unresponsive to big-city mayors as it is to a Wyoming county official who just needs to get a bridge fixed.
At most of the urbanist and transportation conferences that I attend, though, any shrinking the national government role is met with horror. And that's understandable.
In the US, the prevailing local response to declining federal spending is outrage and redoubled advocacy. In Australia or Canada, two countries I work in extensively, working urbanists and infrastructure advocates seem to agree that of course there must be a bigger central government role in everything, with the US often cited as the model. In the US itself, it's easy to see the current cuts in Federal spending as a disaster for urbanism and infrastructure. It is, but it could also be something else: an invitation to governments that are closer to the people to have their own conversations that lead to local consensus about funding and solutions.
If mayors do end up ruling the world, it will be because the city, unlike the state or nation, is where citizenship is mostly deeply felt. A nation's problems are abstract; if they show up in your life you're more likely to think of them as your community's or city's problems. And that, in short, is why the city may be best positioned to actually build consensus around solving problems, including consensus about raising and spending money.
And yet ...
Before urbanists join the tea partiers in trying to shrink the national government, they have to grapple with the problem of inequality. As sites of concentrated opportunity, cities are attracting the poor as well as the rich, and are thus becoming the place where inequality is most painfully evident. But no mayor can be expected to solve a problem that exists on such a scale.
In small-c conservative terms, of course, the problem is not income inequality but rather the declining credibility of a "ladder of opportunity" that convinces everyone that reasonable effort will improve their circumstances. One reason to care about transit, walking, and cycling -- for many points on the income spectrum -- is that transportation can form such a formidable barrier to opportunity.
All through Citylab, hands were wrung about inequality and the need to Do Something about it, against the backdrop of a New York City mayoral election that is mostly about this issue. A rent control debate, featuring New York City Planning Director Amanda Burden and economist Paul Romer, found no middle ground on the question of whether city policy can usefully intervene to help low income people. Income inequality appeared to be one issue where cities can do little by themselves.
When I asked sociologist Richard Florida about this in the North American context, he pointed me to an article proposing that the US create a Department of Cities. He has good ideas about how to keep this from being just another bureaucracy, but if income inequality is the big issue that only national policy can address, it's not clear that it should be tagged as an urban issue at all. Cities are not where the problems are. Cities are just where people see their society's problems most intensely in daily life, because they get out of their cars.
The great city in the wealthy parts of the world cannot just be an enclave of success. It will deserve the self-government that the mayors seek only if it relentlessly inspires, supports, and gives back to its suburban and rural hinterland, creating its own "ladder of opportunity" for access to the riches of urban life. Only a few people can afford Manhattan or San Francsico, so those cities' money and expertise must focus not just on themselves but on making life in more affordable places incrementally more humane. Turning Newark into Manhattan would just make it unaffordable, so some of the urgency must lie in less photogenic intervention that works for each place's price-point. It lies in providing safe places to walk and cycle, and a safe way to cross the street at every bus stop, even in landscapes of drive-through everything that will be what many people can afford, and what some prefer.
That's why I'm happy to be working not just in San Francisco but also in Houston, where affordability is a leading selling point. It's why I'm suspicious of transit planning that defines an elite "choice rider" as the only important customer, including much of the transit-aestheticism that comes out of urbanist academia. Where are the prestigious awards for the best affordable, scalable, but nonsexy intervention that made low-income inner-ring suburbia more safe and functional? How do we build not just the shining city behind a moat (San Francisco, Manhattan, Singapore) but a chain of humane and functional places, at every price-point, that combine safety, civility and opportunity?
Where is the money in that? If mayors ruled the world, I hope that would be obvious. So let's hope they already do.
Are you sure that rail "stimulates development" and that buses don't? In a major report released today, the Institution for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP) attacks this assumption head-on.
Per dollar of transit investment, and under similar conditions, Bus Rapid Transit leverages more transit-oriented development investment than Light Rail Transit or streetcars.
What really matters to transit-oriented development [TOD] outcomes? According to the report, the #1 predictor is strong government support for redevelopment, while the #2 predictor is real estate market conditions. The #3 predictor is the usefulness of the transit services -- frequency, speed, and reliability as ensured by an exclusive right of way. Using rail vs bus technologies does not appear to matter much at all.
While BRT is is having overwhelming success across the developing world, ITDP's argument is aimed at North America, so it rests on North American examples. Cleveland's HealthLine, a practical urban BRT linking two of the city's strongest destinations, emerges as a great urban redevelopment success story as well as the overall highest-quality BRT service in the US. Las Vegas, Ottawa, Eugene, and Pittsburgh's eastern line all play key roles in the argument. Las Vegas, whose busway is incomplete but is in exactly the right place to serve heavy demand, is one of the most interesting stories, where BRT is playing a key role in the remarkable pedestrianization of what used to be one of the most famous car-only landscapes in the world.
There will be plenty of quarrel over the details. But this report does represent a "coming out" for the very concept of bus-based transit oriented development. For too long, the identification of "transit oriented development" (TOD) with rail has bordered on tautological: if there wasn't rail, it was less likely to be called a TOD, no matter how useful the bus service was. In fact, almost everything that's been built in every North American inner city has been TOD in the sense that bus service -- usually of high quantity if not high quality -- has been intrinsic to the neighborhood's appeal and functioning.
This is not to say that I agree with ITDP's anti-rail view. I support many exclusive-right-of-way light rail projects, and I am not anti-rail except to the extent that rail partisans insist on being anti-bus. In most North American cities, if you're ideologically anti-bus, then you are hostile to most of your city's transit system, and to most of what transit can practically achieve in the near future at the scale of the whole city. Great transit networks are those where all the modes work together to maximize everyone's liberty. All claims for the hegemony of one mode over another are distractions from creating the most effective transit for a city as a whole.
But technology wars meet so many human needs that they will always be with us, and so given that it's best they be as balanced as possible. Bravo to ITDP for having the courage to speak up about the redevelopment value of highly useful and liberating transit services, regardless of what's going on under the floor.