Yesterday morning, just before my public lecture, I did an interview with Steve Kraske of the local public radio station KCUR. If you're interested, you can find it here!
The Edmonton Journal's Elise Stolte has been doing an excellent series on the city's debate about the future of transit. Unlike many transit debates, this one is about a real issue that affects the entire city: how to balance the ridership goals of transit with the competing coverage goals, where "coverage" means "respond to every neighborhood's social-service needs and/or sense of entitlement to transit even if the result is predictably low-ridership service." This is the great inner conflict in transit planning: Do we respond to demand (ridership) or to needs and expectations (coverage)?
When I briefed the Edmonton City Council last year, as part of their Transit System Review, I encouraged the council to formulate a policy about how they would divide their transit budget between ridership goals vs. coverage goals. This solves a fundamental problem in transit analysis today: too often, transit services are being criticized based on their failure to achieve a goal that is not the actual goal of the service.
For example, almost all arguments about how unproductive North American bus service is are based on the false assumption that all bus services are trying to be productive. Based on all the agencies I've worked with, only around 60-70% of bus services have ridership as a primary purpose. (My test: "Is this service where it would be if ridership were the only goal of the agency?")
I may have invented this rigorous way of talking about transit's conflicting mandate. I began developing it in a Spokane (Washington) project around 1997 and in projects in Bellingham and Reno a few years later. My peer-reviewed paper on the methodology us here and the case for it is also in Chapter 10 of my book Human Transit. Helping transit agencies think about this question has been a central part of most transit studies I've done since, including major projects in Houston, Columbus, Indianapolis, Salem (OR) etc.
Nothing makes me happier than to hear elected officials debating an actual question whose answer, once they give it, will actually affect reality. This is what's happening in Edmonton now. So far, articles in Elise Stolte's series have included
Soon, I'm sure, she'll cover some of the passionate arguments in favor of coverage services, which we heard from several City Councilors when I last briefed them on the issue.
Throughout, the Journal's Elise Stolte has taken a tone of genuine curiousity ("So, will you help me think this through?") in an argument where there are no right or wrong positions, only different priorities and visions to be balanced. Is your city having this conversation clearly?
I'll be leery of Toronto Star interviews in the future, because I explained my view carefully and that's not how it came out:
Jarrett Walker and Rob Ford (see Rob Ford’s policard) don’t have much in common. One is an Oregon-based transit consultant, the other Toronto’s chief magistrate. One blogs avidly, the other disdains the media. Whereas Ford rails against the “war on the car,” Walker touts the virtues of buses.
But on one issue, at least, the policy wonk and the conservative politician agree: streetcars are overrated. Walker is decisively on one side of a new debate in the U.S., over whether the trendy form of rail transport springing up in American cities makes practical sense.
My actual view is too long for a soundbite but should not have been too long for an article. My view is that streetcars mixed with private car traffic are overrated. I was very clear with the reporter that all of my critiques of the US streetcar revival movement are about streetcars in mixed traffic. In the Toronto context, I specifically distinguished between the old downtown Toronto mixed traffic streetcars, which are nearly inoperable due to traffic impacts, and Toronto's exclusive-lane light rail segments such as Spadina and St. Clair. None of my concerns about streetcars apply to the latter.
Here's the bottom line. Streetcars are just a tool. They can be used in smart ways and in stupid ways. Asking a transit planner for an opinion about a transit techology is like asking a carpenter what his favorite tool is. A good carpenter sees his tools as tools and chooses the right one for the task at hand. He doesn't use his screwdriver to pound nails just because he is a "screwdriver advocate" or "hammer opponent". Yet the Toronto Star assumes that nobody involved in transit debates is as smart as your average competent carpenter.
To call me a streetcar advocate or opponent, you are imposing on me your own assumption that the bus-rail debate is the most important conversation about transit. This is the Toronto Star's assumption, but it's not mine. In fact, my work is about blowing up that assumption, and suggesting that instead of falling in love with vehicles, wires, and propulsion systems, we might consider falling in love with the freedom to get where you're going.
Revised in response to early comments.
Are you sure you know which of your transportation options is fastest? It depends on how you think about travel time.
A recent Boston Magazine article about the private bus service Bridj featured typical "race" between two transit modes: the MBTA subway and Bridj, which provices luxury buses on fixed routes and schedules running only at times of peak commute demand. The newspaper sent someone by each path at the same time. The outcome of the race is supposed to be decisive:
Why is this not a fair race? Well, it depends on when you start. From the article:
The MBTA passenger arrived last, [sic] even though she had a head start and boarded the train six minutes prior to Bridj’s departure.
Why a six minute headstart? Why not 10 or 20? What headstart would be appropriate? The headstart is your cue that there's something wrong with this methodology.
What's really happening here is that a service that is available all the time -- the subway -- is being compared to one that's only available at a few special times -- Bridj's specialized commuter buses. Any "travel time race," with any headstart, is going to miss the real point of this comparison.
The notion of travel time seems so self-explanatory that most people miss how deeply misleading it is in discussing transit. The imagined user is someone who happens to be going at the ideal moment for the preferred mode to succeed. We talk about travel time this way because it's how motorists, cyclists, and pedestrians experience it: as something that begins at the moment you want to go.
But that's not how transit travel time works, so the comparision implied by the term "transit travel time" is often a false one.
When I teach transit planning and rhetoric, I encourage people to think of a weighted sense of travel time that includes average wait time, or more generally the difference between when you wanted to go and when you went. A bus that's 10 minutes faster is of no use if gets you somewhere 30 minutes before you needed to be there [an 8:00 AM class or meeting, for example] because that's the only time it ran.
Purveyors of low-frequency transit services, such as classical North American commuter rail, do this as well, bragging about how fast you can get from A to B without mentioning that this travel time is available only once a day.
Unless you are sure that you will absolutely always travel at the same time each day, transit travel time figures have to be viewed with skepticism. Whenever you hear about travel time, ask about frequency!
I should not have taken the phone call from LA Weekly. As soon as the reporter said that he wanted to probe "why so few white people ride transit in LA", I should have said no, I will not give any more oxygen to the divisive and pointless conversation that the question is trying to encourage. I had already given the factual answer to that question in my article on "bus stigma" in the Atlantic Citylab, and I should have simply referred the reporter, Chris Walker, there.
Still, there's nothing wrong with the LA Weekly article:
[Jarrett] Walker tells L.A. Weekly:
"There is no reason to believe that Angelenos are irrational about their transportation choices. ... I believe a transportation system is reflective of its usefulness. The focus should be on making a more useful system. Do that, and [increased] diversity will be a side effect."
Walker argues that the way to get bigger ridership more reflective of Los Angeles is to increase density along L.A.'s transit lines: add special transit lanes for buses (as the city is currently creating on Wilshire Boulevard) and push for transit-oriented developments (TODs) that feature high-density buildings filled with offices and housing near the major transit routes.
But of course, this was too much for Breitbart News:
According to Jarrett Walker, a designer of transportation systems for a number of big cities, the Los Angeles bus system is designed in a way that offers better service to non-white Angelenos. No one uses the word racism, but the dog whistles in this clinical explanation will chill your spine:
But Jarrett Walker, who has designed transportation systems in multiple cities, says stigma and social standing are not what's keeping L.A.'s white folks in their cars.
In a blog post, he points out that white residents are more likely to live in low-density areas where bus service is not common or practical. Meanwhile, the population of the area served by Metro is well over 70 percent people of color, "which means that the number of white bus riders is not far off what we should expect."
What say we just stop with the word games, Los Angeles.
" And fancy language like "the number of white bus riders is not far off what we should expect" is just another way of screaming "honky."
What can one say? Well, this:
This is transit planning consultant Jarrett Walker, author of the book Human Transit and the blog humantransit.org. The author of this post clearly knows nothing about my work, though he could have looked me up easily enough, and like many race-obsessed folks he seems to know nothing about the law of supply and demand, or the nature of how organizations succeed.
If anyone wants to understand my actual views on this matter, see the original article of mine: http://www.citylab.com/commute...
Like any organization that seeks any kind of success, including every private business, transit in LA tries to respond to the demand for its product. It does this by focusing on areas where the nature of development makes it easy for transit to succeed. It's a mathematical fact that transit is more useful in places where density is high, the local street network is well-connected, and where walking is easy. If white people in LA are more likely to live in areas that are not like this, transit is not being racist in not serving them.
You know what I love about LA? It's way less obsessed with race than its media is. I suspect most Angelenos would never have asked how many white people ride the bus, because it's not an interesting question. As a white person I couldn't care less, and most of the white people I know couldn't care less. LA's prosperity arises from people working together, and getting where they're going together. Racial resentments get in the way of that.
Conservatives need to chose between their commitment to ethnic resentments and their commitment to prosperity. In an age of global collaboration, you can't have both.
I can now imagine a horde of commenters saying: "You're giving the merchants of hatred too much attention, Jarrett. Breitbart News deserves to be ignored." Yes, they do, but when ethnic hatemongering gets as much attention as Breitbart News does, there has to be a response on the record, and now there is.
From a midwestern newspaper journalist's anonymous email to Andrew Sullivan:
When you see the metrics every day, and it’s clear that quick-hit crime stories or freak-show stories generate as many clicks as an investigative piece that took weeks to report, what rationale can there possibly be for doing the investigative work, the longer-form stories that actually help explain the workings of a community to the people who live there?
If you care about the quality of journalism, consider a policy of refusing to click on crime and freak-show news, no matter how much the headline arouses your curiosity. One advantage of online journalism is that when I refuse to click on those stories, that disinterest is recorded. Obviously I'm in the minority, but the conscious behavior of consumers is the only thing that moves corporations.
Portland Mayor Charlie Hales recently said that one of his biggest problems as mayor is the lack of credible local journalism, which has made it impossible to have a public conversation about issues that matter to the city and region. Would the great achievements of consensus in the past have been possible without our newspaper of record, the Oregonian, as a universally recognized forum for discsussing the issues of the day?
It's not just that the Oregonian has ceased to publish on paper, it's also that its website looks trashy and conveys the company's low self-esteem. Big O, before your name is utterly forgotten, wake up and realize that your marketing advisors are killing you. Fire whoever suggested that your website be called "Oregon Live" instead of "The Oregonian," and that it should look like the website of a cheap fly-by-night aggregator instead of like that of a newspaper. The credibility that comes from a long and respected history is the only thing legacy newspapers have as a competitive advantage, and the Oregonian is throwing that away.
When you really start thinking about this, it's hard to face how scary it could be. Sure, there are other ways of getting news, usually news pre-digested for those who share your political views. But there's no other way for the whole city to have a conversation. How can we do planning without that?
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 -- as reporting, not opinion [but see update at end of post]. 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 liberty 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, and the Globe must run a correction. 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 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 economy.
So 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 congestion in Vancouver were as horrible as TTI thinks, people wouldn't pay a fortune to live there. This is the free-market argument, and 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. 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.
POSTSCRIPT AND UPDATE: Globe and Mail Public Editor Sylvia Stead wrote to me:
Mr. Crowley’s article is his opinion. He is a managing director of a public policy think tank and is writing from his point of view. I agree that the article was not well marked as commentary and will take that up with the editors of the section.
The San Francisco Chronicle commissioned me to do a "big picture" op-ed piece for their Sunday Review, which appeared yesterday. It's here. The bit with the violins:
Our current generation of leaders grew up with cheap gas, "free" freeways, and abundant land for suburbia, with a concept of security formed by the Cold War. For Millennials, the issues are economic insecurity and climate change, and they're telling us, in every way they can, that they are not as interested in cars. They are getting driver's licenses later in life, and buying cars later, if at all. They are part of why the amount of driving in America rose steadily until 2004 and has been flat or declining since then. It's easy for older people to pretend that their kids are like they were at that age, but the Millennials are not like their parents. Their formative experience is different, and so are their priorities.
In 2040, the Millennials will sit in the power-seats of government and business. Sooner or later, the world, and the Bay Area, will be governed according to their priorities. So in the end, it comes back to one of the great human questions that every ruling generation has faced: Can you listen to your adult children, and honor the ways that they differ from you? Can you see the value in smoothing the path toward the world that they will rule? Or do you want only to slam on the brakes, protecting your own habits and assumptions?
It's not an easy question, but it's the real question of all long-range planning. How Bay Area residents answer it will decide the future of their region, and possibly the world.
When journalists reach for a word meaning "transit riders" or "constituents of transit" they often seize on the word commuter.
Definitions of to commute (in its transportation sense) vary a bit. Webster says it means "to travel back and forth regularly (as between a suburb and a city)." Some other definitions (e.g. Google) suggest that commuting is specifically about travel to work or (sometimes) school. The core meaning seems to be a trip made repeatedly, day after day.
But in practice, this meaning tends to slip into two other meanings. As with most slippery words, confusion between these meanings can exclude important possibilities from our thinking.
One the one hand, the meaning is often narrowed to "travel back and forth during the peak period or 'rush hour.'" This narrowing arises from the inevitable fact that most people engaged in policy conversations -- especially in government, business, and some academia -- have jobs that lead them to commute at these times. What's more, many people who are happy to be motorists often care about transit only during the peak period, when it might help with the problem of congestion. Reducing the meaning of commute to "rush hour commute" narrows the transportation problem to match these people's experience of it.
Of course, cities, and especially transit systems, are full of people traveling to and from work/school at other times, most obviously in the service sector (retail, restaurants) but also in complex lives that mix work, school, and other commitments. But these trips, even if made regularly, are quietly and subconsciously excluded from the category of commutes, when the term is used to mean only "rush hour commuter."
There's nothing wrong with talking about rush hour commute trips, of course. They're an important category that must be discussed, but I am always careful to call them peak commutes. The problem arises when commute can mean either the narrow category of peak trips or the larger category of all regularly repeated travel. That's the essence of a slippery word, and the danger is higher because this slip is exclusionary. When the word is used in a sense that is narrower than its definition, large numbers of people are being unconsciously excluded from the category it defines, and thus from our thinking about that category.
The word commute can also slip in the other direction, becoming broader than its literal meaning. It's common to see the word commute used as a one-word marker meaning "movement within cities." The excellent Atlantic Cities website, for example, uses "Commute" as the name of its section on urban movement in general. This, presumably, is also what the New York Times means when it refers to San Francisco's BART system as a "commuter train." BART runs frequently all day, all evening, and all weekend, serving many purposes other than the journey to work or school, so its effect on urban life is much broader than just its commuting role. When a word's meaning slips to a broader one, it can falsely signal that the broad category is actually no bigger than the narrow one -- in this case that all urban travel is just regular trips to work or school. This takes our eye off the remarkable diversity of urban travel demands, and the much more complex ways that movement is imbedded in all aspects of urban life.
So commute -- and the category word commuter -- refers technically to a regularly repeated trip, usually for work or school. But in journalism, and in the public conversation, it's constantly being either broadened to mean urban movement in general, or narrowed to mean "rush-hour commuter."
What can you do? Be careful. When you mean "regularly repeated trips," say commutes. When you mean "regularly repeated trips at rush hour", say peak commutes or rush hour commutes. When you mean "all travel at rush hour, regardless of purpose or regularity," say the peak or rush hour. When you mean "all urban mobility or access," speak of urban access or mobility.
Any linguist will tell you that the slippage in word meanings -- especially their tendency to slide to broader meanings or narrower ones -- is a normal feature of the evolution of language. I have no illusions that this process can be stopped. But when we're having public conversations, slippery word usages are the most common way that strong claims to hegemony or exclusion can hide inside reasonable-sounding statements -- often hiding even from the person speaking them. Learn to recognize slippery words (see my category Words, Unhelpful) and look for them, especially in journalism.
Yet another reason, by the way, to hire literature students!
Now and then I think of an aphorism that's so self evident that surely some guru must have said it by now. Perhaps someone did before 1990, but Google finds nothing for "cynicism is consent."
So I'll say it. Cynicism is consent.
I know I've just offended millions of proud cynics, but it's true. I deal all the time with the cynicism of activists and am sometimes accused of idealism when I complain about something.
As a consultant with 20 years under my belt in this business, I have also seen enough of "what really goes on behind closed doors" that if I wanted to be cynical, I'd be way more qualified than most folks to back it up.
Currently I'm having a small, polite dust-up with the Cincinnati Enquirer about a false headline on a story today. I don't link because by the time you read this, it will probably have been corrected. I'll post on that issue and its lessons soon.
When I tweeted about it, I got this tweet from a leading urbanist thinker whom I very much admire:
"You expect a headline writer to understand subtlety? Hah!"
To which my response is: Not unless I force them to.
I had the same problem with another Cincinnati publication, the website of the local ABC affiliate, a day earlier. Several people complained about a misleading headline on an article about my visit, and they changed it, fast.
I cannot begin to describe how much better public transit would be if people who feel cynical about it would complain constructively instead of languishing in the dead-end of cynicism. And yes, you have to do it over and over. Patiently.
As with many issues, public transit in America is neglected because of apathy, not opposition. The opponents are not the problem. The apathy of supporters is. And cynicism is a big part of that apathy.
Cynicism often dresses itself up as wisdom and worldliness.
But when you assume the worst instead of patiently, constructively pointing out error, you are consenting.
[Thomas Edison] has so far perfected his storage battery that it will live long enough to stand charges to carry a truck over fifty thousand miles. The perfected battery will pull twice the load of an ordinary truck, will have double the speed and only take up half the space. It will modify, to an extent hardly appreciated, the congestion of the down-town streets, for an electric truck equipped with the batteries will be half as long as today's unwieldy wagons. Being twice as fast, there will be only one eighth of the present congestion in the streets under the new system of speedy motor trucks.
From a fascinating article about Thomas Edison
in Success magazine, 1908, by Robert D. Heil.
The whole article is a delightful read!
This makes so many important points!
Obviously, stuff gets invented that changes things, but when technology claims to fix a physics problem, such as seems to underlie the challenge of mobile batteries, or a problem of supply and demand, like the role of induced demand in congestion, be skeptical.
Hat tip: @enf, (Eric Fischer)
I'm not sure if I should give this oxygen, but for the record: Randal O'Toole, the infamous anti-planning writer known for his blog The Antiplanner, has falsely implied that I agree with his critique of Los Angeles rail plans. Not so fast. If he'd read by blog, or my book, he'd know better.
Here's what he wrote today:
Portland transit expert Jarrett Walker argues that “we should stop talking about ‘bus stigma.’” In fact, he says, transit systems are designed by elites who rarely use transit at all, but who might be able to see themselves on a train. So they design expensive rail systems for themselves rather than planning transit systems for their real market, which is mostly people who want to travel as cost-effectively as possible and don’t really care whether they are on a bus or train.
This view is reinforced by the Los Angeles Bus Riders’ Union, and particularly by a report it published written by planner Ryan Snyder. Ryan calls L.A.’s rail system “one of the greatest wastes of taxpayer money in Los Angeles County history,” while he shows that regional transit ridership has grown “only when we have kept fares low and improved bus service,” two things that proved to be incompatible with rail construction.
So because I defended buses from the notion of "bus stigma", O'Toole assumes I'm a bus advocate and therefore a rail opponent. This is called a "false dichotomy," identical in logic to George W. Bush's claim that "either you're with us or you're with the terrorists."
(In a related move, he insists that you can't improve rail and buses at the same time, a claim directly disproven by the last decade in which LA Metro developed the Metro Rapid buses [and Orange and Silver Line busways] concurrent with rail extensions.)
In fact, I maintain and encourage a skeptical stance toward all technophilia -- that is, all emotional attachments to transit technologies that are unrelated to their utility as efficient and attractive means of public transport. To the extent that the Bus Riders Union is founded on the view that rail is some kind of adversary, while the bus is the unifying symbol of their cause, I view them with exactly the same skepticism that I would bring to the elite architect who implied that we don't need buses because she'd never ride one.
Some technology-fixated minds just can't imagine what it would be like to be agnostic about technology and to care instead about whether a service actually gets people where they're going efficiently. To put in terms that conservatives should respect -- I'm very interested in transit that efficiently expands people's freedom, and whatever technology best delivers that in each situation or corridor.
I'm also interested in how all kinds of transit fit together as networks, because this is essential if we're to offer a diverse range of travel options to each customers. Everyone who becomes emotionally invested in bus vs rail wars -- on either side -- closes themselves to the idea that different technologies can work together form a single network.
Like many pairs of polarized enemies, the Bus Riders Union and certain bus-hating elites both endorse the same fallacy. In this case, both seem to believe that the most important purpose of a transit technology is to signify class categories, and that the key feature of their favorite technology is that it serves their class and not the other's. Both experience cognitive dissonance when one suggests that maybe bus and rail are not enemies but complementary tools for different roles in a complete network designed for everyone, or that people of many classes and situations can mix happily on one transit vehicle, as happens in big cities all the time.
The idea that a city as vast and dense as Los Angeles can do everything with buses, no matter how much it grows, is absurd. Drivers are expensive, so rail is a logical investment where high vehicle capacity (ratio of passengers to drivers) is required.
The only way the conservative dream (shared by Gensler Architects) makes sense is if you smash the unions so that all bus drivers make minimum wage, preferably from low-overhead private operating companies. This is how transit works in much of the developing world, and the result is chaos, inefficient use of street space, and fairly appalling safety records. Most experts I know who've immigrated from such places were glad to trade that for the transit they find in North America, whatever its faults.
It is absurd, too, to continue claiming that the Los Angeles rail program is "elite." Go ride the Red Line to North Hollywood or the Blue Line through Watts and tell me if those services seem packed with "elites" to you. When I ride them, I see the same wonderful diversity that I see on the more useful bus services, weighted of course by the characteristics of the neighborhoods we're passing through.
There's no question that some LA rail projects can be criticized for having been built where right-of-way was available rather than where they were needed, though the more you understand the political process the more you sympathize with the difficulty of those decisions. But when self-identified bus-people attack rail, and self-identified rail people attack buses, they both sound like the lungs arguing with the heart. There's a larger purpose to transit, one that we achieve only by refusing to be drawn into technology wars, and demanding, instead, that everything work together.
How do you react when you read the following sentence?
In Los Angeles, 92 percent of bus riders are people of color.
This supposedly shocking fact is the starting point for Amanda Hess's confused and aggravating piece in the Atlantic today, which argues that somehow transit is failing because it's not attracting enough white people. "As minority ridership rises, the racial stigma against [buses] compounds," Hess writes. Sounds alarming! But who exactly is feeling this "stigma," apart from Ms. Hess, and how many of those people are there?
Read it again:
In Los Angeles, 92 percent of bus riders are people of color.
Now, how does your reaction change when I point out that in the 2010 census, just under 28% of the population of Los Angeles County is "non-Hispanic white," so over 70% can be called "people of color." Now what if I tell you that as always, transit is most concentrated in the denser parts of the county, where the demand and ridership are higher, and these areas happen to be even less "non-Hispanic white" than the county at large? (Exact figures can't be cited as this area corresponds to no government boundary.) So the bus system, weighted by where the service is concentrated, serves a population of whom much, much more than 70% could be described as "people of color".
Please don't treat these figures as too precise. The claim that "92% of Los Angeles bus riders are people of color" is impossible to fact-check because two of its key terms are ambiguous.
So to the extent we can track Hess's statistics here's what they say: Los Angeles bus ridership is mostly people of color because Los Angeles is mostly people of color.
But Hess wants the nonwhiteness of Los Angeles bus riders to be a problem, evidence that the transit agency -- at least on the bus side -- is somehow failing to reach out to white people.
Racism has sometimes had a role in the history of U.S. transit planning, and there's a Federal regulatory system, called Title VI, devoted to ensuring it doesn't happen again. But racist planning -- discriminatory service provision aimed to advantage or disadvantage any ethnic group -- is not only immoral but also a stupid business practice. Diversity is the very essence of successful transit services -- not just ethnic diversity but diversity of income, age, and trip purpose. Great transit lines succeed to the extent that many different kinds of people with different situations and purposes find them useful. As a planner, I want every line I design to be useful to the greatest possible range of people and purposes, because that ensures a resilient market that will continue even if parts of it drop out for some reason.
So why is it a problem that in massively diverse international cities we don't have "enough" white people on the bus?
I happen to be in Los Angeles at the moment, on a brief and busy trip. Tonight, after dark, I took a pleasant walk across downtown -- from Union Station to 7th & Flower -- pausing to note how safe I felt on streets and squares that were synonymous with crime and violence when I was a child. Few of the people I saw were white like me, but the folks relaxing and listening to music in Pershing Square seemed like citizens of a decent city capable of joy. (In a mean moment, I wanted to call my late grandmother and say: "Hi, Gramma! It's 10 PM and I'm in the middle of Pershing Square!" I wanted to see the look on her face, back in 1980 or so. She would probably have called the police and demanded they rescue me.)
Then I took the bus back to my Chinatown hotel, Metro Line 78, well after dark, and marveled at all the dimensions of the diversity. Some people looked poor, others seemed prosperous and confident, but a strong social contract was obvious. I read clues suggesting a huge range of professions, situations, life choices, and intentions. And if Amanda Hess hadn't been so insistent about it, the fact that I was the only white person on the bus wouldn't have occurred to me, and certainly not occurred to me as any kind of problem.
Yes, there are plenty of people, still, who feel more comfortable riding with people who look like them, in a vague way that encompasses both race and class signals. But how much does this desire influence service planning? How long should it? Questions worth debating, I suppose.
Among young people out in downtown Los Angeles at night I see mostly interracial groups of friends. I have no illusion that the whole city is like this, but it's striking nonetheless. About 18 years ago in the New Republic -- too old to be linkable -- I read a story about how "post-racial" young people in Los Angeles are, how they are used to cultural diversity and uninterested in racial divides. If any cultural observer could discern that then, how much truer it must be now.
Go ahead. Try riding one of the well-lit, air-conditioned buses of inner Los Angeles. It's not full of people just like you. But neither is the city, and that's the glory of it.
If your city is producing lousy outcomes with its bus services, are you sure it's because of the buses, or the drivers, or the sidewalks, or the degree of "transit oriented development", or that they're not streetcars? Maybe it's because the network structure is obsolete. A study team led by Gregory Thompson of Florida State looked at the success of Broward County Transit, which serves greater Fort Lauderdale. Apart from a few special enclaves, Fort Lauderdale is unlikely to be high on anyone's list of urbanist paradises. It has plenty of gridlock, plenty of pedestrian-hostile environments, and the usual abundance of oversized roads that seem only to generate more congestion.
Yet the hard-working if unappreciated Broward County Transit system is producing excellent outcomes through multidestinational design. Instead of running a radial system into a single downtown, they decentralized to serve many destinations, through a network of routes making easy connections with one another. Eric Jaffe tells the story today in Atlantic Cities.
The whole case for this kind of design is in my book Human Transit, esp Chapter 12 and 13, but Thompson has been making it for years. I'm impressed at how well it's working in not-especially-transit-friendly Florida metros. Tallahassee took the plunge last year.
Obviously this is an issue close to my heart. I came to consciousness as a transit planner during the decentralization of Portland's network in 1979-82, which created local pulse networks in each suburban area and culminated in the high-frequency grid that today covers most of the city. Almost every network design I've ever done has helped to improve the multi-destinational utility of transit networks of all sizes. Huge amounts of resistance have to be overcome. But if they're designed well, they work.
Finally, kudos to the folks at Atlantic Cities for coming back to this issue with one great story after another. I'm not sure I've ever seen a major media outlet build up this degree of internal understanding about the fundamentals of transit network design -- a topic that's easily forgotten while obsessing about how cool technologies are. Is any other American media outlet dealing with network planning issues so clearly? Certainly not the New York Times, which publishes one story after another in which well-meaning platitudes about social needs are proposed as ways to change the facts of geometry.
My fun faux-debate with Darrin Nordahl last night, sponsored by Town Hall and Transportation Choices, has been covered by both the Seattle Times and the online journal Publicola. Both summarize the question as something like: "Should transit be useful or fun?" Put that way, it's easy to say yes to both, but there really are some choices to be made, because often we're asked to sacrifice the useful for the fun. As I said in the debate, I support all of Darrin's recommendations for a more joyous transit experience, except where the abundance and usefulness of service must be sacrificed to achieve them.
Note to the broadcast media: I'm much more coherent when you book me after 8:00 AM.
Here's CBC-Calgary's interview with me on an evening drive show yesterday, in which I sound pretty coherent. I'm not sure I want to share a TV interview the previous day which began at 6:50 am, only 23 minutes after I woke up.
In Greater Greater Washington (GGW), Jenifer Joy Madden and Malcolm Kenton have written an excellent summary of my talk at APTA in Washington DC last week, which GGW also partly sponsored. It also includes this photo, which makes me look a bit like a preacher. (Click to enlarge, if you must.)
If you missed my talk(s), please read the article but also the comment thread, in which some people accuse me of "anti-rail bias" and others say everything I would say in response to that. This is gratifying to say the least. It's fun to be applauded, but it's far more fun to be understood.