Sunday, July 4, 2010

Values are personal, and also communal

A couple weeks ago, Engineer Scotty reworked his list of transit values, taking into account the four clusters I suggested: Availability, Value, Amenities and Glamour. In general I like his classification, but I have to disagree with him in a couple of areas.

In this post I'll deal with the notion of amenity as opposed to value. As I wrote in my original post, "This is where most of the individual variation comes in: one person's value is often another's amenity." Scotty takes the opposite position: "Value includes factors that any reasonable user might take into account, and aren't dependent on personal taste or preference. Important value-based factors include cost, timeliness, and safety."

Any salesperson will tell you that some factors matter a lot to some customers, and not at all to other customers. Wealthier people tend to be less sensitive to small variations in price (but they're not always). People who are retired, lazy or just generally more relaxed will care less about timeliness. Tough guys and tough women will care less about safety. To many of these people, low price, timeliness and safety may be amenities, not values. On the other hand, they may really care about onboard wifi, the daily bridge game, or whether they have to stand in the rain.

So why bother distinguishing between amenities and values? The distinction matters on the individual level, but also on the aggregate level, since different communities will value the same factor differently. It's commonly thought that people who live in small towns tend to hurry less than people in big cities.

Communities can also change their values over time. For example, a big selling point of cars used to be that you didn't have to walk as much. But now that people are getting obese, they're starting to reconsider. Weight Watchers dietitians recommend that car drivers who want to lose weight park far from their destinations, and transit riders get off the subway a stop early, to get in extra walking.

Being aware of these community values and how they vary and change helps us to better understand what will get people out of their cars. Of course, there are universal tendencies that lead people to place a lot of value on time and money, but they are not exceptionless. The answer is not to retreat into facile assumptions like "Atlantans really love driving," but to understand what it is they love about driving, and whether it's possible to provide that with transit. Assuming that everyone cares equally about timeliness, price and safety can lead to one-size-fits-all solutions that will not always work.


EngineerScotty said...

Mornin', Cap'n!

A better summary, I think, would be that the post was attempt to sort values into various levels of tangible-ness; and I agree it's a crude sort. Whether or not something is tangible is a different question than whether it is desirable, either to a community or to an individual--and the point of the followup post was, in part, to identify common ways in which preferences vary.

Now, whether or not tangible-ness is a good criterion on which to perform the sort--or whether or not the sorting (apart from considering any particular person or group) is even appropriate--is another matter. I posted (or conjured, if you prefer) the notion of a "reasonable user", based on criteria that may well look arbitrary from a from an empirical point of view.

Whether or not this is a reasonable thing to do (even as part of a first-order model only) is a good question to ask. I'm certainly not suggesting that the mythical "reasonable user" ought to be given preferential treatment in transit planning, or even that s/he is a significant part of the transit-using population.

OTOH, observing that "one person's amenitiy is another person's value"--while true, doesn't really tell you anything. What you and I consider "glamour" is likely also considered a "value" (i.e. important) by those who are glamour-driven. Many people who are class-conscious nonetheless won't admit that "the subway goes wherever I want, runs 24 hours a day, and is affordable--but, it's full of poor people, some of whom smell and talk with funny accents, so I stick to taxis". Instead such class-based objections are often couched in safety concerns. (Of course, there are also those who are quite open about the fact that they don't ride the subway solely because it's beneath them; generally, such people will express similarly haughty attitudes about pretty much everything else, too).

Perhaps, Cost, Safety, and Performance ought to be toplevel categories themselves, rather than lumped into a Value category that we're having trouble defining without begging the question. Each of the three subcategories have boundaries that are technically precise and don't depend on rider preference; it's only their aggregation into a larger grouping (and their isolation from other values that many consider important) that is difficult to defend.

BruceMcF said...

Much of the disagreement appears to be a semantic difference in the particular connotation of the teerm "value". From Cap'n Transit's prior post, "value" does not mean "anything valued by a passenger" ... for instance, "amenities" are tangible things that are valued by particular passengers, by their original definition.

Indeed, reading "Value" as "Valued By Somebody" eliminates the clusters, because that is something shared by Availability, Transport-Value, Amenity, and Glamor ... somebody values each, which is why each can impact on patronage.

What is it that the "Value" cluster is actually clustering? Cost:
(1) Monetary cost
(2) Time cost
(3) Cost of an accident ( x probability)

Now of course it is a cluster and not a single homogeneous value, so that different people may have both different priorities and different weights for different costs ... which is why this is a cluster analysis in the first place. But that is the heart of the cluster.

Cost, Availability, Amenity, Glamor.

Cap'n Transit said...

Thanks, Bruce. The fact that it's separate from "amenities" is more important than what it's called, but I still think that "value" is the best term.

My point is that potential transit users first figure out whether a service will take them where they want to go and back (Availability) and then whether it will be a better use of their time and money than other options (Value). The Amenities category is just for things that the person might think are nice, but that wouldn't ultimately influence their decision to use the service. And that's an individual decision.

EngineerScotty said...

Did some comments disappear? My original comment, along with whatever Bruce wrote, appears to be missing from the article...

BruceMcF said...

If Glamor is exclusive, Amenity is what's left over when its reproduced and therefore no longer exclusive enough to be glamorous.

Though if glamor is exclusive, then something is missing in the cluster, which is affinity. "This is stuff for people like us, its good when that kind of stuff gets provided" is a sensibility with a different shape than "This is stuff that is good for me, I like it when that kind of stuff gets supported". Somehow being selfish for a group of people is not considered as selfish as being selfish for yourself alone.