I'm interviewed in this morning's edition of the Washington Post Express, a morning commuter freebie. Curiously, columnist Vicki Hallett focused mostly on my "frequency is freedom" line.
I'm interviewed in this morning's edition of the Washington Post Express, a morning commuter freebie. Curiously, columnist Vicki Hallett focused mostly on my "frequency is freedom" line.
Today's unsigned piece in the Economist "Democracy in America" blog picks up on Tom Vanderbilt's Slate item reviewing my book. I'm certainly grateful for the publicity, though for the record, I do believe in pleasure!
But the Economist's writer ends his piece with a commonplace of old-inner-city thinking that can do real harm when taken outside those bounds:
Ultimately, what makes public transit work is massive redundancy: lots of different systems layered on top of each other, all running at high frequencies, providing you clear information on when the next one arrives. The world's best cities, New York, Paris, London, Hong Kong, Berlin, all do this pretty well. For cities that aspire to greatness, the road map doesn't seem so hard to follow.
"Lots of different systems layered on top of each other" begs the question of whether these systems are working together -- for example by encouraging connections from one to the other -- or simply duplicating each other. That is the distinction that matters.
Yes, if you're in "New York, Paris, London, Hong Kong and Berlin" you may perceive a layering of "redundant" services, but one of two very different things is happening:
Praising these super-dense cities for "massive redundancy" sends exactly the wrong message to less-dense and smaller cities. Tell them to plan for redundancy, when their markets are insufficiently developed, and they'll spread their resources out in tangles of overlapping services none of which are frequent or attractive enough to be worth waiting for. This is the lesson of inner Sydney, discussed in Chapter 12 of my book.
You need massive agglomeration for true redundancy to work. Without that, you dissipate service quality too much. This was a key failing of the privatization of the British bus industry, which gave private companies control over transit planning and prohibited them from working together to create rational connective networks, by declaring that to be collusion. The result was a generation of frustrated riders who had to let Jim's bus go by because they had a ticket for Joe's bus, even though the two bus lines together might add up to enough frequency to actually be useful. The last Labour government finally removed this prohibition on "collusion," allowing simple, obvious, and mutually beneficial plans to go forward, like this one in Oxford.
"Massive redundancy" may be fine if you're a megacity, though even there, its effectiveness may be a feature of the peak that doesn't translate to the rest of the day. Anywhere else, services need to work together as a network. Even in London, New York, Paris, Hong Kong and Berlin, that's really what's happening.
We have a small number of review copies of my book to send to journalists who (a) want to write a review and (b) are in the position to place a review in a major publication, online or paper. "Major" can mean a newspaper of record, a well-established free weekly, or a national/international publication dealing with transport or urbanism.
If you are in this position, or if you know who we should contact at your city's logical publication, please let me know, giving me name and contact details. If you're not sure that the publication would count as major, describe the circulation or hitrate. Use the email button under my photo (far right column) if you don't want to tell the world.
This Calgary Herald article by Tony Seskus deserves some kudos for taking the time to understand the transit planning problem, and educating readers about it. This, for example, is strikingly clear and accurate:
Peering at his map, [transit planning manager Neil] McKendrick finds transit routes that don't look like looped shoelaces. They look more like wobbly cursives penned with the wrong hand.
They are the result of circuitous streets and discontinuous roads in communities that often have limited or no connections to other communities. Some are the product of old neighbourhood planning where transit wasn't a focus. Others result from the city's topography.
The routes aren't just awkward. They often don't perform well on a costperpassenger basis because they don't serve enough people or aren't direct enough to attract riders. On that basis, it means the difference between the best-and worst-performing routes might be more than $6 per passenger in some cases.
Yesterday, twice in one day, I encountered major news articles in media I generally trust (the New York Times and the Atlantic) which described very old ideas as though they were innovations.
In the NYT (opinion section) Lisa Margonelli described basic small city bus network planning as though it were an innovative critique of big-city planning. (It's not, it's just different tools for a different problem.) She also seemed dazzled by the private minivans proliferating in New York -- a public transit model that's almost universal in the developing world. (Her piece was ignorant of several other important things too, and I hope I wasn't too harsh.)
Then, on the same day, a respected (by me) columnist at Atlantic Cities proclaimed the work of an academic who claimed to have just invented flexible-route or demand-responsive transit. This is an old idea, widely used in lower-ridership places around the developed world. Considerable academic work has been done on it for years, and I personally was desgining these services, and often ripping them out, almost 20 years ago.
(I'm not very sympathetic to Margonelli, because her rhetoric toward my profession is so hostile. When someone writes an article that displays ignorance of the field while hurling invective at everyone who works in it, they deserve some pushback. I feel guilty about calling out the Atlantic writer, though, because I'd probably have made the same mistake in his place, writing in an unfamiliar field and urged on by the claims of a published academic.)
So my question for discussion is: Should we care? Should it matter if someone claims to have invented an idea, if that helps a good idea spread? Am I just being a curmudgeon or killjoy to point these things out? Is there anything wrong with letting people have the idea that the great ideas were theirs?
Lisa Margonelli's opinion piece in today's New York Times, "Thinking Outside the Bus," is a must-read, and not just for its important stories about small-town public transit development and the private van initiatives in New York. It's also useful as an illustration of how people often imagine false links between unrelated ideas, and the role of emotive words and images in making these falsehoods seem real.
Everyone does this, so it's important to understand how it works. Journalists especially must understand how this works, if they want to go beyond quick "good and evil" stories and actually explain an issue fairly.
The article begins with the story of Pam Boucher, a carless woman in the small town of Brunswick, Maine who was stranded until the advent of a small, intimate bus system:
Now in a wheelchair, Boucher calls me from a bus stop, where she’s waiting with a friend. The bus has changed her life, she says, giving her independence, control over her time and the ability to socialize. “I take it at least once a day. Sometimes three times.” She meets friends on the bus, takes herself to her medical appointments, and goes shopping for groceries afterwards. A few months ago the bus extended its hours into the evening to accommodate more commuters; she can now shop for groceries in the evening if her day has been spent at medical appointments.
And this bit is important:
“Doug’s the driver. He’s really good to me. He’s knows my condition and that I sometimes forget where I am.”
Brunswick's local buses, in short, are geared to people with special needs, as small-town transit systems often are. The emphasis is on ensuring access for these people and providing them basic mobility in their community.
These systems are absolutely laudable. I've helped design several of them myself. But they are intrinsically inefficient, in terms of passengers service per unit of public cost, because the effort Doug takes in making sure Pam's needs are met requires a lot of Doug's time. Suppose that on average, he spent six minutes taking care of each customer's needs, counting the time he's driving. That would mean he'll never be able to serve more than 12 people per pay hour, which is very, very low by urban transit standards. Serving special needs is a good thing to do, but it requires lots of staff time per passenger, so it will always have a very high cost per passenger. Unless:
Unless you pay the drivers less. Margonelli's next story is about the emerging minibuses of New York, an important private sector initiative that's generating high frequencies of service on some streets using vans on fixed routes, where the van companies can quickly invent new routes as demand seems to require. The genius of these buses is that they tolerate lower ridership (mandated in fact by their small size) but they can do this because the drivers make much less than unionized transit agency labor. These vans may be innovative for New York but they're actually the normal way of doing business across most of the developing world, where low prevailing wages allow for high volumes of small-bus transit. These systems are often not organized in the way that developed-world public transit is; often they feel more like taxis with multiple passengers. But their sheer abundance, made possible by low wages, makes up for that deficit.
(There are intermediate models, by the way. Vancouver's transit agency runs small buses, the Community Shuttle, at 50% of the cost of running big buses. That lets the small buses be more abundant, reaching deeper into low-density hills than big buses could afford to do. This didn't require the private sector, just a negotiation with the union based on the obvious fact that driving a small bus with few passengers is an easier job than driving a big bus with many.)
So is Margonelli really a ferocious right-wing union-busting capitalist? No, she's just unclear on transit's basic geometry and economics. Note this strange move:
America’s famously car-dependent culture strands the Pam Bouchers among us: those too old, too young, or too sick to drive cars. Overall, only 5 percent of Americans use public transit to get to work and that number is somewhat distorted by the huge numbers of people in cities who commute by subway, train or bus. Outside of metropolitan areas, the number of Americans taking public transit falls to just 1.2 percent. With so few people on the bus, schedules become infrequent and inconvenient, and ridership drops further.
The "huge numbers of people in cities" are distorting the national transit data? Margonelli is clearly interested only in small town and rural transit, where she would like to raise that 1.2 percent figure. Personally, I'm all for small town and rural transit, but only because of my own social-democratic beliefs about an inclusive society; unless you want developing-world wage rates, it's definitely not an efficient way to raise nationwide mode share. That goal will be served only by focusing on places that transit can serve cost-effectively, carrying many people with few drivers. That means cities, and a few other dense transit-oriented places like university towns.
Margonelli wants to somehow tie the social-service imperative in small towns in rural areas to the national challenge of increasing ridership, but the "low hanging fruit" for huge ridership increases is in the cities. Our cities still have many places where the development pattern creates high potential demand for transit that isn't being well served. If we were engaged in a national struggle to increase the usage of transit overall, that's where the big wins are.
So let's come back to the issue of images and emotive words, and the way they help sustain confusion. One thing happening in this story is that the human interest in Pam Boucher makes the author think that solving Pam's problem is an efficient way to serve national ridership goals. This is just mathmatically false, becuase social service needs require lots of driver time per customer and the essence of efficient transit is minimizing driver time per customer. Neither objective is bad, but they're different objectives. If giving every customer five minutes of attention were the key to efficiency, corporations would still have human beings answering every customer's call.
But there are also three emotive words at work in this rhetoric. One is "bus" as used in the article's title, "Thinking outside the bus." The other two are in this passage:
Conventional wisdom says that the way to create or improve public transit is to invest billions to engineer rails, trains and buses. But the Brunswick Explorer [the new service that Pam Boucher uses] is one of many innovators that are seeing transit as more than an engineering problem and trying to build transit that meets the needs of its residents.
You see them: conventional wisdom and innovator. This tired good-and-evil frame is routinely stamped onto all kinds of journalism about sustainability issues. I wonder how many journalists could even write an article on these topics without using it.
Look at that word innovator or innovation. We hear it all the time. It means "having an idea that I personally haven't heard of before."
If don't know much about transit, many old and well-tried ideas will strike you as innovative. The Brunswick, Maine transit system is laudable, but this kind of problem-solving focused on senior-disabled needs has been going on for decades. It's a very localized, specialized process that's different in every town. It's beautiful to watch and be a part of. But the basic frame of the problem: the costs of service, the patterns of service that work in a small town, North American wage expectations, the opportunities for savings through communications and through merging existing operations -- all this has been worked on for decades and solutions like Brunswick's have been created in many places. Brunswick has tread a well-researched path; locally it's an innovation, but it's not more innovative than hundreds of similar systems. Again, the word innovation reflects the writer's ignorance about the field.
If transit professionals seem cold to "innovative" proposals, it may because they're stuck in the mud. But it may be because they know their field, have heard this proposal twenty times already, and understand the ways it works and doesn't work. They may also understand that the "innovation" meme is really a way to evade a real, hard question, such as the appropriate levels of wage for transit workers. Nobody wants to talk about that; it's much more fun to praise private-sector models like the Flatbush vans. But if you call those vans innovative, what you're really saying is: "I've never used public transit in the developing world, where this idea is routine, so it's new to me." (You're also saying: "Drastically lower driver wages are a great idea.")
Remember, in North America, most of what looks "efficient" and "innovative" about "private sector" transit is simply liberation from the negotiated wage rates that bind virtually all public transit operators. Transit costs are driven by the cost of labor, so if you make labor cheaper, many things are possible. Calling these services "innovative" is taking your eye off the ball, and needlessly slandering transit experts as purveyors conventional wisdom just because they've heard the idea before.
As for "bus" as an image of constrained thinking (in the title, "Thinking outside the bus"), it's understandable, though increasingly archaic. The crowded, constraining, poorly ventilated bus does feel like a box and thus as a good metaphor for mental imprisonment or "conventional wisdom". (Remember the film Speed, or the pilot of Six Feet Under? Both used a bus that was older than most buses on the road at the time, intentionally playing to a stereotype of buses as primitive.) Yet all the solutions Margonelli proposes are also vehicles on tires. "Bus" is a large and diverse category, which makes it useless for talking about what matters in transit. The word says nothing about speed, duration, frequency, and reliability, nor does it address labor cost, which determines how much of these things you can afford. "Think outside the bus" if you must, but as Margonelli's examples show, you're still likely to end up with one.
UPDATE: For further entertainment, see Eric Jaffe today in the Atlantic on the "entirely new transit concept flexible bus services," which have been around for decades. I personally was designing them (and sometimes ripping them out) almost 20 years ago.
The new US initiative to allow states to toll interstate freeways has to be good news, in the long run, for sustainable transport. The money will go for urgent repairs to those freeways, which is fine with me; the key benefit is to get drivers used to the notion of road tolling again, as it's likely impossible to achieve true decongestion pricing without something that looks like road tolls.
The initial legislation allows just three projects but they are obviously meant to demonstrate the idea and lead to wider rollout. Virginia, impressively, is proposing to toll parts of Interstate 95, probably the state's single most important artery.
At the opposite extreme, Arizona proposes to toll Interstate 15, and on that I have a question for journalists. The Los Angeles Times writes:
A proposed toll on a 30-mile stretch of Interstate 15 in Arizona is drawing opposition from neighboring Utah.
"If Arizona has been negligent in its maintenance of I-15, it should not try and foist its responsibility onto highway users or neighboring states who already pay into the system with their own tax dollars," Utah Gov. Gary R. Herbert said in a recent statement.
Arizona's Interstate 15 segment is later described as being "in the state's northwest corner," but why not state the obvious? It's not connected to the rest of the state, Arizona has no towns on it, and it's frankly a bit hard for Arizona to get to. It's the segment between Mesquite, Nevada and St. George, Utah in this image (click to sharpen):
So if a journalist can't print a map, they could at least clarify that virtually no Arizona residents use this highway, which would be enough to make the politics clear. Arizona's toll-road bid is the opposite in spirit of Virginia's, designed exclusively to soak out-of-state drivers. Given the road's location, and its irrelevance to most Arizonans, the positions of all sides are totally understandable. Would that really spoil the "conflict" that journalism supposedly needs?
Deep inside the Atlantic magazine's Cities section, an article on restructuring a bus network! The city is Tallahassee, and the redesign team included Samuel Scheib of StarMetro, who comments here now and then. The redesign took an all-radial system, reduced the number of lines but increased their length, and introduced some new non-downtown connection points and even some lines that don't go downtown at all.
Few journalists would consider the topic interesting, but the article by Emily Badger takes the lay reader through the issues, highlights the relationship to city-building concerns, and generally helps it make sense. I wish every journalist -- or even every New York Times reporter -- took this kind of care to understand a planning issue. Given how well Badger explains the issue, I wouldn't have minded if she'd also interviewed some riders who are personally inconvenienced by the change. But most journalists cover only the latter, as though their goal is to maximize rage rather than understanding.
This quote from Scheib was interesting:
“If you talk to a land-use planner, typically they would want you to keep ... service focused more on the downtown because they want more people to live downtown, in that dense environment. I’m all for that, I’m all for urbanization, I’m all for denser places,” Scheib said. “But the reality is that people need to get to work. And you’ve got to go where the jobs are."
I can assure you that this change won't damage downtown. I was hanging around Portland's TriMet in 1982 (in the indispensible role of teenage transit geek) when they totally restructured the inner city bus system, creating a grid pattern with many crosstowns that don't go downtown at all. Several of those crosstowns are now among Portland's most productive lines. But downtown Portland survived, to say the least.
Ever seen a human-interest news story profiling someone for doing more or less what you did?
That could have been my first reaction to the Seattle Times profile of transit planner Ted Day, but there's no time for envy. The main story is that a boy who stayed out of trouble at age 10 by collecting and memorizing bus schedules turned out to be a successful family man and transit planner. Like all such "different drummer" narratives, perhaps it will help a few parents embrace the unexpected transit-geekery of their children, and speed the coming-out of kids who hide bus schedule collections in their mattresses out of fear of parental or social disapproval.
Not every boy who studies bus schedules at age 10 turns out like Ted Day. One turned out like me. My fine collection of 1970s and 80s bus schedules from Portland and Los Angeles is still in a box somewhere. I especially recall the Portland "East Burnside" timetable (c. 1973) which predates the numbering of the lines and reveals the evasive maneuvers that this bus made for decades before the 1982 advent of Portland's frequent grid.
So congrats to Ted Day for his well-deserved rise to fame! The human-interest potential of transit planners' lives is just beginning to emerge into public consciousness. Has your newspaper profiled one lately? ;-)
In the Atlantic today, Richard Florida announces that:
This will not be breaking news to anyone who's worked in transit for more than 15 minutes.
Before we make policy based on regression analyses like this, we need to think about which of these factors are durable, and which are ephemeral. As a transit network planner I feel much more confident basing my designs on long-term stable things like density, rather than ephemeral things like what the current generation seems to want.
It is also important to caution against any suggestion that "class," creative or otherwise, should guide transit planning decisions. Such thinking tends to result in "symbolic transit." See my recent article on a textbook example of this:
More importantly: if "creative class" simply means "relatively educated and open-minded people who are more adaptable than average," then of course they are best suited to non-car modes. Any growing trend relies on early adoption, which by definition is done by more open-minded and adaptable people. So a claim that a transit renaissance is led by the "creative class" is almost a tautology.
The New York Times today bewails the loss of Los Angeles bus line 305, which soon will stop running diagonally across the city's grid, from Watts to Beverly Hills and Westwood.
NYT reporter Jennifer Medina assumes this is purely a victimization-of-the-poor story, starting with this observation:
The 305 was one of several lines created under the consent decree, and it is the only direct route from the city’s impoverished southern neighborhoods to its affluent West Side, where legions of janitors, nannies and maids work each day.
Sounds sad, and it's easy to fill an article with interviews with 305 riders who will experience the deletion as a hardship. But as that paragraph should warn us, 305 was a symbolic service. It cannot have been relevant to very many people, not even to many people in the targeted demographic ("janitors, nannies, maids" according to the NYT). Why? If you explore the route and schedule [ Download PDF ] and look at how the route fits into the larger network ("System map overview" here), you'll notice:
These points, but especially the last, identify a public transit service as symbolic. Symbolically, the 305 links the "poor south" and the "affluent west," and thus helps everyone feel good about having served domestic workers. In fact, the 305 runs through a small part of the vast "poor south" and a small part of the vast "affluent west," but it's still useless for most of the people making that kind of trip, because both areas are so large that no one bus line, or even five, could link all of the likely origin-destination pairs between them.
(You could take other buses in each area and transfer to the 305, but the low frequency of the 305 makes this very risky. Once you've accepted the need to connect, you might as well ride along the main grid and connect with a high-frequency line to take you where you're going.)
This problem is why frequency and connections were invented. The governing principle of transit in these core parts of Los Angeles is the high-frequency grid, which allows everywhere-to-everywhere travel at high frequencies with at most one connection. Yes, it may be sad that some domestic workers who are used to zero-transfer trips are now going to have a one-transfer trip, but that only means that 305 riders will have the same level of transit mobility that everyone else has, including most domestic workers. It also means that Los Angeles transit will be treating all of this demographic equally, rather than arbitrarily preferring people whose path happens to lie along Line 305.
The other moral of this story is even simpler: If your mission is to serve a whole city or region, designing transit routes around any self-identified group of people is almost always a bad idea. Most successful and attractive transit seeks maximum versatility, by serving the most diverse possible range of demographics, trip purposes, and origin-destination pairs. You can make exceptions where a single demographic group produces sufficiently massive ridership, as in some commute markets. But in general, the way people self-organize and self-identify politically is a bad guide to how to meet their transit needs efficiently. Everyone can draw the perfect transit line just for their interest group, but such proposals tell you nothing about what a good transit system would look like.
Nobody should be happy about the severe cuts being imposed on many US transit agencies that urgently need to move in the opposite direction. But as in San Francisco in 2009, cuts are sometimes an opportunity to delete services that have passionate, well-connected defenders, but that simply don't make sense if your goal is a complete network that people can use to go wherever they're going.
The British/Australian term "dead running" means "running out of service, unavailable for passengers." I like the term because it could be the title of a zombie movie. I look forward to seeing if it attracts hits.
The North American term is "deadheading," which may remind you of rock fans of a certain era. In both cases, the word "dead" is apt. It's a waste, a loss. It's unavoidable up to the point, but transit agencies are always trying to turn dead time into live, useful time.
The Brisbane Times has a piece by Marissa Calligeros announcing that '28 per cent of bus services are "dead running", where passengers are unable to board.' That's a confusing way of putting it. The reporter must mean that Brisbane buses are dead running 28% of the time.
That sounds like a lot, but "dead running" is the result of two different issues that need to be kept separate.
There's no way to understand Brisbane's "dead running" issue, or that of any other city, without separating these two causes. The Brisbane Times article talks only about the first, but the Brisbane bus system has a massive one-way peak due to its single dominant downtown and relatively lack of direct rail paths for much of the city. Can dead running be better addressed by a rigorous review of whether these one-way peak services can be combined, replaced by links to rail, or otherwise made more efficient? GIven the higher cost of dead running for one-way peaked service, could some of it be converted into two-way, all-day service at less expense than it would first appear?
That's an important question for any city. Details of driver costs vary, but in general, dead running is one of the main reasons that one-way express service (bus or rail) can be more expensive than it looks.
A polarizing summary of "facts" about a light rail debate in Waterloo, Ontario has popped up in an Atlantic item by Nicholas Jackson. After an introduction in which Jackson seems to confuse intercity high-speed rail and intra-city light rail, he invites us to admire a graphically rich presentation Waterloo light rail advocates. It's at the bottom of this post.
I cite this not to take a position on light rail transit (LRT) in Waterloo. (I'm certainly open to it, and am following with interest a similar project in similar-sized Victoria, BC.) I mean only to offer a useful illustration of the dangers of almost all "pro vs con" or "this vs that" or "with us or against us" framings of a question, in which all distinctions are reduced or distorted to fit the quarrel at hand.
Commenters are encouraged to nominate their favourite absurdities out of this piece, or to defend them. Mine are mostly (but not all) in the table partway down. Did you know light rail lines seem to cause high-tech companies to sprout decades before the line opens? Did you know that regionwide populations of Ottawa and Waterloo can be compared to city limits populations of other cities, as convenient? And what exactly can we learn from knowing the population of San Francisco in 1904, when they opened their first light rail line? Might the absence of cars in that year make the cases hard to compare?
This is well-intentioned, and perhaps in late stages of debate it's unavoidable. Again, my response to it is not a view about light rail but rather about the style of argument, which assumes (contrary to this) that rail-bus distinctions overwhelm all others, and explain so much of the arc of history.
UPDATE: This post isn't about the Waterloo light rail debate itself, but here are some sources on the subject:
When any US study or journalist refers to "metro areas," they probably mean this:
These are all photos of US Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSAs). Many, many national studies -- most recently the Brookings study on "transit and jobs in metropolitan America" -- mean "MSA" when they say "metro area."
MSAs, however, are aggregations of counties. They're the red patches on this map:
Counties come in all kinds of weird sizes, and are usually irrelevant to anyone's lived experience of a metro area. Eastern US counties are mostly small, so MSAs there are often credible. But western counties are often huge, so MSAs have to be huge too. Almost two-thirds of California's land area is a metro area by this defintion, including the "Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario MSA," which contains most of the Mojave Desert. Metro areas in America include the Grand Canyon, the Cascade wilderness areas east of Seattle and Portland, a big chunk of the Everglades, and the vast Voyageurs wilderness of northern Minnesota, accessible only by canoe or snowmobile.
So when the Brookings Institution, for example, declares that Riverside-San Bernardino is doing poorly on transit travel times to work, they're referring partly to travel times from Needles to Riverside, a distance of about 230 miles (370 km) over open desert. They're also implying that there ought to be intense transit service between the Riverside area and the Palm Springs area, even though locals largely experience these as two different metro areas. (Their centroids are 50 miles apart, the towns between are mostly semi-rural in nature, and if those facts don't convince you, there's also a 10,000-foot mountain in the way.) What matters to the MSA is that the two metro areas are in the same counties as Riverside-San Bernardino, so nothing else about their lived geography can possibly matter.
A deeper problem arises when all the demographic statistics of an MSA are declared to be features of a "metro area." Consider the Visalia-Porterville MSA, site of the top photo above. The MSA, identical to Tulare County, has a 2000 population of 368,000. All of these people are counted in MSA-based statistics about "metropolitan America," but only about half of them live in a city over 50,000. The other half live in much smaller towns and in rural areas. (The rural areas also have high labor needs, so they support semi-mobile populations, validly picked up by the census, that have no relationship to any city.) A fundamentally rural and small-town culture, indistinguishable from many other entirely rural counties, is being described as metropolitan whenever the Visalia-Porterville MSA is referenced as part of generalizations about "metropolitan America." This culture is not just small and easily dismissed statistical "noise." It's half of the population of the MSA.
This is one of those absurdities that we're trained to think of as eternal. Many weird and misleading boundaries (e.g. some counties, city limits etc) are going to persist even if they have no emotional or cultural meaning, simply because influential people are attached to them as a matter of self-interest. But how many people are really attached in this way to MSAs? And is it really impossible, with all the increasingly detailed information in the census, to describe metro areas in a more subtle and accurate way?
Even if we're stuck with them, is it really appropriate to keep saying "metro area" when you mean MSA? It's statistically convenient given how much data is organized by these crazy units. But are you really misleading people about what a metro area is?
In the sense that usually matters for urban policy, "metro area" means "the contiguous patch of lights that you can see at night from an airplane or satellite." You can approximate this with census blocks, as Mees and others do. Their technical definition is something like "any agglomeration of contiguous census blocks that all have a non-rural population or employment density." Census blocks are small enough that they can aggregate in a way that follows the geography, connecting what's really connected and separating what's really separate. Defining "metro area" in that way would finally mean what ordinary people mean by "metro area."
What's more, it would really cut down on bear attacks in "metropolitan America."
Well, how would you react if a major news magazine published definitive research on the "ten best fruits"?
Imagine it. The timeless standards (apple, orange, grape) are in the #3-5 positions. This confirms just enough of our long-standing assumptions to give the ranking system credibility. But the fast-surging pomegranate is now #1, the bratty little blueberry is #2, and more scandalous, some long-trusted fruits have crashed out of the top 10. Where did the banana (#21) go wrong?
The list would also contain some entries meant to surprise you. You're supposed to think: "Wow, the mushy little kiwifruit is now one of the ten best fruits? When did that happen? I'd better buy this magazine and get the details! Maybe the kiwifruit deserves another look!"
No, that would be silly, because almost anyone can see that "best fruit" is a meaningless term. You could do a list of the most popular fruits, the sweetest fruits, the most sustainably cultivated fruits, the best fruits for various kinds of nutrition, or the most important fruits for the Solomon Islands economy. But a list of the "ten best fruits" would be nonsense. We each have many different demands of a fruit, but those demands aren't all important in the same way at the same time. Most of us couldn't even form our own absolute definition of "best fruit," let alone try to get anyone to agree with it. In fact, we woudn't even try. The whole idea is obviously silly.
So why do we look twice at a list of top ten US transit systems? Why would a major magazine think we would care?
Well, the fruit analogy suggests that when it come to transit systems (or colleges) people either (a) assume that everyone's idea of a "good" transit system is the same or (b) just don't want to think about what they want from their transit system.
As in any business, journalists may think they're responding to their readers' desires, but they're also helping to forge those desires.
If ten-best lists are about something that's reasonably factual ("ten most reliable transit systems," "ten safest transit systems", "top ten in ridership per capita") then they can be useful. They can encourage excellence and help people reward that excellence with ridership and investment.
But when you tell your readers that certain transit systems are the "best," and don't explain your criteria very well, you signal that everyone must have the same sense of what's good. That encourages people to go into transit debates as bullies, assuming that if a transit agency doesn't deliver on their notion of the good, the agency must be incompetent or failing, so the only valid response is abuse. It encourages people not to notice that "failing to do what I want" is often a result of "doing what someone else wants."
In short, it encourages people to think like three-year-old children, for whom "my needs" are rich and glorious and self-evident to any reasonable person while "other people's needs" are vague and tedious abstractions. That, in turn, forces officials to act like parents managing their childrens' tantrums. And then we're offended when those officials can seem paternalistic?
In the last post, I noted a ranking of the "10 best US cities for transit" in U.S. News and World Report back in February, and some incoherence in how the ranking was explained. Since then, I've become even more disturbed by the rankings.
It turns out that Michael Andersen of Portland Afoot had done some research, or attempted to:
US News and World Report claims to have identified the 10 best US cities for public transit:
1. Portland, OR
3. New York
7. Los Angeles
9 (tie). Denver
9 (tie). Austin
All fine cities. The methodology:
The rankings take into account per capita spending on public transportation, number of safety incidents per million trips, and the number of trips taken per capita.
But then there was this:
Analysis of data from the Federal Transit Administration and APTA shows which cities are among the best in the country for public transportation. All of these cities' systems have unique features that set them apart. Portland's public transit provides riders with a variety of travel options, including buses, light rail, commuter rail, streetcars, and an aerial tram.
Aargh! Diversity of technologies says nothing whatever about travel options! And if Portlanders really did have the options of a bus, a light rail train, a commuter rail train, a streetcar, and an aerial tram all competing for the same trip, that would be a pretty silly network, wouldn't it?
UPDATE: Followup post is here!
There seems to be a flurry of new interest in congestion pricing, partly under the pressure of tight budgets almost everywhere. But journalists can muddy the waters by describing congestion pricing as either exploitative or punitive.
Last month, I was invited to contribute to a Sydney Morning Herald thinkpiece on the subject. My contribution, the second of four pieces here, emphasises that congestion pricing is not about paying for congestion, it's about paying to avoid congestion. The core point:
Suppose you announce that you'll give away free concert tickets to the first 500 people in a queue. You'll get a queue of 500 people. These people are paying time to save money.
Other people will just buy a ticket and avoid the queue. They're choosing to pay money to save time.
Today, we require all motorists to wait in the queue. When stuck in congestion, we are paying for the road space in time rather than in money.
Shouldn't we have a choice about this? Why are we required to save money, a renewable resource, by spending time, the least renewable resource of all?
Unfortunately, the Sydney Morning Herald framed the whole piece with the question, "Should motorists pay for the congestion they cause?" The implication is that congestion pricing is punitive, that some citizens believe that other citizens should be punished for their behavior. The question seems designed to sow misunderstanding and inflame rage. To their credit, none of the four expert responses -- even the one from the auto club opposing the congestion charge -- really took this bait.
So there's a problem with the terms congestion charge and congestion price. The terms sound like "paying for congestion," when the truth is the opposite, we're being invited to choose whether to spend money to avoid congestion. A more accurate term would be congestion avoidance price or even better, congestion avoidance option. But those are too many words.
Should we call it a decongestion price?
Real congestion pricing is about giving free and responsible adults a set of options that reflect the real-world geometry of cities. The core geometry problem is this:
Congestion pricing is a form of deregulation. It is the most libertarian concept imaginable.
There's another way to mess this up, and that's the term "congestion tax." Here's the New Zealand Herald:
Aucklanders may be levied to drive through increasingly congested streets in the absence of Government funding of the region's "strategic aspirations".
A paper released by Local Government Minister Rodney Hide before Auckland's first spatial plan due out in 11 days suggests raising revenue by charging motorists to drive around the Super City at peak times.
Hide makes clear that this isn't a congestion price intended to reduce congestion. It's just another tax, intended to raise revenue. So just to be clear: If it's congestion pricing, there are public transit (and bike-ped, and casual carpool) alternatives that enable people to get where they're going. The congestion price cordons on the CBDs of London and Singapore work because there's abundant public transit to those places, so relatively few people absolutely have to drive into them. The San Francisco Bay Bridge tolls have a congestion-pricing value because there's both abundant transit and casual carpool options for avoiding them.
If, on the other hand, you're in a place where there's no reasonable alternative to driving -- such as large parts of Auckland -- then anything that suppresses driving will suppress travel, and that means it will suppress economic activity. And if you're just taxing economic activity, then this is really no different from sales taxes, Goods and Services Taxes (GST), or income taxes. By taxing economic activity, you're suppressing something that government and society should be encouraging. That's not a libertarian idea; quite the opposite.
Cap'n Transit on the journalist's temptation to write "David vs Goliath" stories:
Behind an apparent David and Goliath story of Outraged Residents confronting the Heartless Bureaucrats may be a much uglier story. The Outraged Residents may actually be a few wealthy or upper-middle-class people protecting their privilege and convenience at the expense of the convenience - or often the safety and well-being - of much larger numbers of less fortunate people, and the Heartless Bureaucrats may actually be engaged in an emotionally draining struggle to protect these less fortunate people.
I expanded on this difficult issue here. Cap'n Transit frames this specifically as a class issue, but it doesn't have to be. In many cases the Heartless Bureaucrats are just balancing the needs of a number of conflicting parties, who would all rather yell about "the government" than do the hard work of talking and listening to each other.