Wednesday, March 31, 2010

If buses were burgers

I've compared transit to meat before; today I'd like you to think of a bus ride as a hamburger. In the past, these ground-up mixtures were considered low class, in part because they were used to disguise undesirable cuts of meat. A hamburger was meat, which put it ahead of plain bread or beans, but it was the cheapest kind of meat available.

Because it was inexpensive and eaten by the working class, a hamburger was thought of as inherently inferior to just about anything else. Hamburgers were served at fast-food joints and diners. Some middle-class bars offered decent burgers, but they were still not high class. The idea that anyone would choose a hamburger over anything else was ludicrous. in an attempt to escape this pigeonhole, restaurants rebranded hamburgers as "Salisbury steak," but not too many people bought it.

Around the year 2000 that started to change. Some gourmet chefs set aside conventional wisdom and realized that you could make a hamburger with prime cuts of meat from well-fed cows and it would taste good. According to Time magazine, the first high-class burger was made by Sang Yoon in Santa Monica, but the fad took off the following year here in New York when Daniel Boulud sold a sandwich with ground sirloin stuffed with braised short ribs, foie gras and truffles for $27. That was followed in 2004 by Danny Meyer's Shake Shack in Madison Square, which attracted long lines of well-dressed professionals, and in 2006 by Laurent Tourondel's $62 Kobe beef burger. Nowadays there's hardly a high-class restaurant in the US that doesn't have some kind of fancy burger on the menu, and the trend does not seem to be fading yet.

So why is your Cap'n spending so much time talking about hamburgers? Mmm... burgers. Ahem! The point is that when burgers were low-class food, they were often made cheaply. When low-quality meat was thrown together by people who didn't care, the result was pretty crappy. A lot of people assumed that the form of the dish had something to do with its quality, and they couldn't imagine a burger made with good cuts of meat, let alone Kobe beef or truffles.

It is the same with transit. In many parts of the US, transit is used by poor people, and it's done on the cheap, with inconvenient routes and schedules, undependable service, bad-tempered drivers, hard plastic seats, no room for bags, infrequent cleanings, surly staff, drafty or nonexistent bus shelters and long maintenance cycles. That's the crappy burger that you get at an institutional cafeteria. Greyhound is the kind of burger you get at a highway rest stop. Chinatown buses are like cheap Chinese takeout: unsatisfying and unpredictable.

The New York City buses that are (nowadays) generally well-maintained, frequent and clean are kind of like a burger at a good diner. Free public buses in college towns like Amherst and Chapel Hill are dining hall burgers. The commuter lines running new buses with wifi to New Jersey and Upstate are pub burgers. Bolt Bus is Wendy's and Megabus is Five Guys. The Hampton Luxury Liner and the Limoliner are Father's Office or the Shake Shack.

What would the DB Burger look like? Maybe something like the Argentine double-decker cama suite service that includes a meal and champagne. The Kobe burger? I'll leave that to your imagination.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Zoning, sprawl and experience

Last week there was an interesting exchange in the Washington pundit blogs about zoning and sprawl. It started with James Howard Kunstler giving the most appropriate response to an invitation to debate Randal O'Toole on a show hosted by John Stossel on Fox News: "Please tell Stoessel he can kiss my ass." O'Toole repeated the standard O'Toole/Cox/Kotkin line that "Americans, like people all over the world, prefer to live in single-family homes and like to have a little land they can call their own for gardening, entertainment, and play areas." Matt Yglesias responded with some bullet points:
  • Throughout America there are many regulations that restrict the density of the built environment.
  • Were it not for these restrictions, people would build more densely.
  • Were the built environment more densely built, the metro areas would be less sprawling.
Over at Mother Jones, Kevin Drum wrote, "It’s not zoning per se that causes sprawl, it’s the fact that lots of registered voters actively want sprawl and have successfully demanded rules that keep density at bay." Drum goes on to ask,

So here's a serious question: outside of a big city core, has anyone ever successfully built a walkable, high-density suburb? Not a village or a small town. I mean something really dense and walkable: a place where sidewalks are busy, mass transit is good, and there are plenty of high-rise apartment buildings. I know the New Urbanist folks talk about this a lot, but do any actually exist? Educate me, peeps.

Drum's question was picked up by someone called Polis on the Sustainable Cities Collective. There were a few takers, including commenters on the Sustainable Cities Collective blog who nominated suburbs of Philadelphia, Portland and San Diego, and several Beltway bloggers (including Greg Sanders and Ryan Avent) who point to various DC suburbs. No reaction from Drum or Polis yet.

This is related to my previous post about how many transit advocates are ill-informed about life without cars. Here we have liberal smart growth "peeps" who are ill-informed about dense, walkable suburbs, but they are at least open to the possibilities, and eager to be educated.

Drum's question actually shows that a lot of urban history is being forgotten. Most "urban cores" started out as bedroom communities. Greenwich Village, Brooklyn Heights, Long Island City and the Bronx were suburbs once. Hudson County, the part of New Jersey across the river from Manhattan, includes the four densest towns in the US, according to the 2000 census: Guttenberg, West New York, Union City and Hoboken. I've long thought that New York should just annex Hudson County as the fifth borough and be done with it.

If those are too "urban core" for you, consider these "streetcar suburbs" of Westchester County, all of whom have high-rise apartments walking distance from a commuter rail station, downtown shops and a supermarket: Scarsdale, where Garth Road is lined with seven- to ten-story luxury co-ops; Bronxville; the Fleetwood neighborhood of Mount Vernon; New Rochelle; Larchmont; and many more.

Oh, and for Jarrett, these Westchester suburbs all have twice-hourly trains to Grand Central Station six days a week, and hourly service on Sundays.

Most of these buildings were built years ago, between 1920 and 1960; for more recent dense suburb-building, see the claims for various DC suburbs. New Rochelle has also seen some recent high-rise transit-oriented development.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Seeing is believing

I'm very flattered that Jarrett chose my post on the supposed convenience of cars for his quote of the week. And I appreciate that a number of people took the time to share their thoughts in the comments about the potential convenience of various modes of transportation. But I was actually quite shocked at how ill-informed many of the commenters were about life without cars, and how comfortable they seemed to be pontificating about it. I mean, this is the Internet, but still, they're transit advocates!

Jeffrey J. Early from Juneau argued that cars are better at "point-to-point" travel. WS seems convinced that transit can't take hikers to the Columbia Gorge. Ron and CroMagnon argue that cars are better at carrying things. Watson "suspect[s] that even in Manhattan taxis are faster than buses or the subway for the majority of trips outside rush hour." Anonymouse, Rhywun, Alon and I rebutted some of their points, but some seemed unconvinced.

The point of my previous posts wasn't that all modes are equally efficient at all tasks. They obviously aren't. My point is that you can't consider the vehicle without considering the infrastructure, and since most of the infrastructure is publicly financed, then you get into talking about relative subsidies. Some of the commenters acknowledge this, while still seeming to miss the point. Watson conceded that "cars aren't much use without roads." CroMagnon says, "if your destination is near some type of road." Jeffrey cautions, "unless you completely rebuild the city itself." Well, that is the point. If there are no roads, if we rebuild the city so that everything's within walking distance, then walking or trains would be more convenient.

The inability of the commenters to seriously entertain the possibility of alternate infrastructures was pretty amazing. Jeffrey J. Early says he lives in New York without a car now, and he's probably seen the Stuyvesant Town/Peter Cooper Village complex, where a population slightly larger than Juneau's lives in an area 1/26,345 the size. There might be some Stuy Town residents who are crazy enough to drive from one side of the complex to another to visit a friend or go shopping, but the vast majority will just walk.

WS and Watson have probably never been to the Cinque Terre in Italy, which were connected to other towns by boat and then rail long before any roads were paved. There, walking is the only real way to get from one part of a town to another, and the quickest way to get from one town to another, or to Genoa, is by train. If you want to transport something heavy you use a donkey, or maybe a wheelbarrow, or a boat. WS dismissed my example of the mountains near New York City and their numerous transit-accessible hiking trailheads, but I've been told that much of the Alps is quite easily accessible by train and cable car. Even in Albuquerque you can take a bus to some trailheads.

Watson, CroMagnon and Ron have clearly never lived in a place like New York, because they don't understand how "cargo" works. Ron doesn't have time to wait around for groceries to be delivered, and I agree. Honestly that's one of the reasons I've never bothered with FreshDirect. But lots of other people seem to have no problem, and often FreshDirect just leaves the food outside their apartment doors. Many people in New York have doormen (another part of the infrastructure), who can accept packages at all hours of the day. At many supermarkets, if you have food delivered you don't need to wait around for it, because the guy from the supermarket will walk back to your apartment with you pushing the shopping cart.

Ron likes to do one big shopping trip every week or two. But I'll bet he's never felt the luxury of living above a supermarket. You can go shopping every day, and it takes five minutes: grab some fruit, milk, cereal, dinner and tuna fish, check out and you're done. The best part about it is that you can decide what you're going to eat for dinner ten minutes before you start cooking, and the ingredients are always fresh. That beats a freezer full of Hungry Mans in my book. And you never have to carry more than ten pounds of food.

Getting big items like furniture or building supplies is a bit more difficult, but it can be done. You can take it in a taxi - even call a minivan taxi - or rent a handtruck from Home Depot. But you get it done, and it isn't that hard. It's a lot easier than having to go buy new tires or brakes or whatever for your car, and happens about as often (depending on your wealth, your taste in furniture, and the age and make of your car).

Given the right infrastructure, it really is more convenient to do everything on foot or by transit. Just because you can't imagine it doesn't mean that it's not true.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The supposed independence of cars

In the comments to my last post, Streetsblog commenter Ian Bicking stopped by to play the role of apologist for Joel Kotkin. I'd like to focus on one particular thing that Ian said in Kotkin's defense:
There are real desires (for home ownership, for the independence of a car) that are widely expressed in our country.

"The independence of a car" is as much an illusion as "the convenience of a car." Let me start by saying that there are very few people who are able to travel completely independently. It's possible that some lone sailor, kayaker or desert trekker may be independent of any current infrastructure, but they're probably at least relying on some map or lore that was put together by others before.

I have to say that when I've driven, I don't feel particularly independent crawling along in crosstown traffic. I'm hemmed in, I can't go anywhere, I can't even park! The same thing with actually parking the damn thing once I get wherever I'm going. How independent am I if I can't even get out of the vehicle until I find a free space to leave it? And once I get out, what if I feel tired or somebody offers me a ride home? Sorry, I've got this two-ton thing and I can't leave it here overnight. How is that independent?

Drivers bitch and moan if the government takes too long to fix a pothole. What would they do if the government had never laid out, graded and paved the road in the first place? If there were no police to deter bandits or enforce some rules of safety, however minimal? No subsidies to vehicle manufacturers or energy producers? They are completely dependent on the system.

So when they say "independence," independence from what? People will usually say transit routes and schedules, or else from the confines of what's available within walking distance. And if they feel confined by their location or by the structure of the transit system, then I don't blame them for wanting to be independent of it.

If we look at it that way, "independence" is merely a means to an end. What they want is access, and their neighborhood and their transit system are not giving them enough of it. Having a car connects them to a parallel system that gives them that access they want.

On the other hand, it's possible, through development, to give people that same access by putting the things they need within walking distance. Through proper transit infrastructure funding and development, it's possible to give them access. For example, you could extend the hours, frequency and reach of the transit system. That's pretty much what we have here in New York, and it works very well. Most people get by just fine without a car.

In sum, there is no such thing as "the independence of a car." There's just the expanded access that can sometimes be achieved through cars, but it can often be achieved in other ways as well.

Monday, March 22, 2010

What's driving Joel Kotkin?

A common reaction that transit advocates have to Joel Kotkin - and also to the arguments by Wendell Cox and friends that use liberal language - is bewilderment. How can you call me elitist? I'm fighting for transit, which helps poor people! I'm not part of the elite, I take the subway and ride a bicycle!

It's really tricky to figure out what people's real motives are, and certainly Kotkin benefits from his name-calling in classic troll fashion. Liberals buy his books and link to his blog posts as they howl in protest. Conservatives love him for turning liberal arguments against their creators. He gets funding and attention. As long as you can put up with the hate, what's not to like?

So I could be completely wrong, but Kotkin's outrage feels real to me somehow. I think at some point he came up with this idea that it was really liberals who were oppressing the poor with their urbanism, and it felt like some giant insight into the human condition. I, Joel Kotkin, will save the poor and the middle class! I will speak truth to power! I will show everyone who the real villains are! So he stuck with it, and now it's his life. Even if he ever figures out it's a load of horseshit, what's he going to do? Nope, he'll die happy knowing that he spent his life fighting for the little guy.

Despite the torrent of words that Kotkin has unleashed over the years, his argument is fairly simple: the American poor and middle class want houses and cars, and they want wealth and status. This will make them happy. Houses and cars mmhmmm wealth and status. Urbanists want to keep them from getting houses and cars. Therefore, urbanists are keeping the poor and middle class from their wealth and status! They're standing between the people and their happiness!

The main weak point in Kotkin's argument is the part where I wrote "mmhmmm." What is the relationship between houses and cars, wealth and status, and happiness? Well, houses and cars can act as symbols of wealth and status. They can be obtained using some combination of wealth and status, and in turn they can be used to obtain greater wealth and status. Houses and cars can make people happy, and so can wealth and prosperity.

Note that all those sentences contain the word "can." "Can" isn't the same as "always," and it isn't the same as "need." A dumpy house is not a status symbol, and a crappy car isn't a symbol of wealth. You don't have to spend your money on a house, and not everyone uses their status to obtain a car. You can get wealthy without a car, and many people achieve high status living in apartments. Most importantly, you can be happy without having a house or a car, or even being wealthy or important. Many people are.

In Kotkin's worldview, cars, houses, status, wealth and happiness are all more or less the same thing. He really seems to be incapable of distinguishing between a thing and a symbol of that thing. He acknowledges that some "elites" voluntarily give up their cars and houses and live in cities, but that is always after they've achieved status, wealth and happiness through cars and houses. The idea that you could ever become wealthy or influential while living in an apartment and taking the subway is beyond his comprehension. Because of this, anything which makes it harder for people to buy houses or drive amounts to blocking their route to prosperity. We've gotten out of the cellar, and we're pulling the ladder up with us. That perfectly good set of stairs over there? It doesn't exist.

If you try to explain that to Kotkin and friends, the response is that you, the elitist, think you know what's best for these people. But they want houses and cars, and who are you to tell them they can't have them? Of course, if you asked people whether they would prefer to be rich and riding the subway, or poor and driving a '92 Civic, they would probably choose to be rich. Same thing if you gave them the choice to be famous and powerful and live in a condo or be lonely and downtrodden in Valley Stream. By the way, if anyone's done a poll like this, please let me know!

And of course, if you try to tell them that the world can't support ten billion people living in McMansions and shopping at Target, even if they all drive Nissan Leafs, the response is a torrent of bad science, amounting to arguments that it would be so much worse for the environment if everyone rode in empty buses to condo towers with heated garages. That it would be bad for the environment if everyone took transit because nobody would take transit. I can't even imagine what kind of dreck Kotkin would come up with if you forced him to consider the fact that status is relative, or that material goods don't buy happiness.

Whatever the content, the tone borders on infantile rage, and this is really what lies at the heart of the arguments made by Kotkin and Cox, and Randal O'Toole and Sam Staley: I want it all, I want it now, and I'm going to have it, and by god, anybody who tries to tell me I can't is just a big ... Euro-American! Ooo!

Infantile rage is only one ingredient in the mix, though. A large part of Kotkin's success comes from playing to other people's infantile rage. Do you know there are people who want to keep you from moving to the suburbs? They even want to keep your kids from driving. That's right, they want to keep you down! Why? Because they're elitists, of course. They got theirs, and they want it all for themselves. None for you! But we won't let them win, will we? We'll stop their evil plans to confine us to the cities! We'll yank the money from their toy trains! And then there'll be big houses and cars for everyone!

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Why do we care about Joel Kotkin?

In my last post I introduced Joel Kotkin, self-appointed Defender of Suburbia against the Urban Elites, and gave you a taste of some of the misinformation he spreads. I linked to critiques of him by the Most Senior Fellow, by Yonah Freemark, and most recently by Jarrett Walker. To this I would like to add the DC Streetsblog crew and DMI John.

So why do all these people get so worked up over the hyperventilations of an architecture professor in the San Fernando Valley? Why is your Cap'n spending two posts (and more) on this guy? It's because Kotkin speaks the language of the left. Many pundits argue against transit in right-wing terms: conformity, progress, low taxes, property rights. When Patrick McHenry mocks cycling as "a 19th century solution," liberals tune him out as just another wingnut. John McCain's stance against Amtrak helped me and others to think of him less as a "maverick" and more as simply a reactionary. That said, it's nice that we have people continuing in the tradition of Paul Weyrich, countering these attacks and promoting transit in conservative terms. And of course people like Adron Hall in libertarian terms.

In contrast to McHenry and McCain, Kotkin speaks of oppression and social justice. In fact, in a great takedown five years ago, Jeremy Reff pointed out Kotkin's frequent use of Marxist terminology. Kotkin and Cox also throw a bit of environmental disinformation in there, drawing disproportionate attention to the pollution caused by reducing road space allocated to cars. When one academic liberal hears another academic liberal talk about the elites (he used to call us "Euro-Americans") imposing their plans on the common folk, they take notice, and it absolves them of guilt for driving their Subaru wagon to the transition workshop.

A significant portion of the support for transit comes from car-dependent liberals who are prepared to sacrifice their own short-term interests for issues of social justice and pollution reduction. Someone like Kotkin doesn't even need to refute these arguments, only to introduce enough fear, uncertainty and doubt to make these people question whether their sacrifice is working.

There are also quite a few conservatives who think in terms of standing up for the little guy against the elitists; this is a common refrain here in Queens. Because of this, it is important for transit advocates to be familiar with Kotkin's arguments and prepared to rebut them point for point. This will allow us to confront new versions of the arguments as they pop up in our local media. I therefore encourage all transit advocates to subscribe to Kotkin's RSS feed and respond to any anti-transit argument you see. Do it until you've had enough practice that you can do it in your sleep. If you let me know, I'll link to it.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

What Joel Kotkin says

It's an interesting coincidence that Jarrett wrote a post debunking an article by Joel Kotkin just as I was preparing this one.

Photo of Joel KotkinPhoto:

Over the past several years, Kotkin has released a flood of books, articles, editorials and blog posts hammering away at the same theme: most Americans want to live in big houses with lawns, and drive cars everywhere they go. He sees New Urbanists and transit advocates as enemies of this "American dream," bent on imposing our own visions of utopia in place of the will of the people. He is not alone in this; while he may be the most eloquent and respected apologist for sprawl, his arguments are echoed in editorials, blog posts and community board discussions across the country.

Some transit advocates have objected to Kotkin's portrayal of them, insisting that they are not anti-car, they just want choices. Others, seeing themselves as champions of social justice and the poor, react with bewilderment at Kotkin's accusations of elitism. But in a narrow sense he is right and they are wrong: it is impossible to be an effective transit advocate (or urbanist) without being anti-car, and this does put us in conflict with the ambitions of most Americans.

The flaw in Kotkin's argument is that it is impossible for any sane adult who understands the issues to not be in conflict with the American Dream. It's just not sustainable for everyone to live in a five-bedroom house on three acres and drive air-conditioned SUVs to office parks and big-box stores.

Yet somehow Kotkin seems to believe that in fifty years there will not only be enough suburbs for the entire current suburban population but also for most of the urban population as well, plus another hundred million. The only explanation I can give for this is wishful thinking. For his transportation analysis Kotkin relies on the work of Wendell Cox, an anti-transit, pro-sprawl crusader whose work has been pretty thoroughly debunked. Kotkin's assertions based on this have been refuted as well, by Yonah Freemark. Plus, of course, Jarrett's recent post that I linked to above.

I'll have another post soon explaining why I care about Kotkin, and why you should too.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

More on choices and rationality

I think my response to Jarrett and Michael D about the "fundamental attribution error" was a little too scattered and ranty. While I was gratified to see that several of the commenters were "with the Cap'n on this," I was disappointed that Michael's response, particularly, and also the comment of one Michael J, simply acted like I didn't understand the concept.

Let me set the record straight, then. I do understand it quite well by this point. The idea is that people have a tendency to think that others are making choices based on "disposition," when in fact they are making them based on "situation." Both Michael D and Michael J argue that this isn't about irrationality, but when one person says that another chooses to drive based on their disposition, they are essentially saying that if the other were making a rational decision based on their situation, they would take transit. But they don't, so they must be irrational.

Jarrett clearly highlights Michael's post to warn people against assuming that others are irrational: "The point is to critique the widespread assumption that 'my' decisions are totally rational while 'their' decisions are cultural." The root of the question is whether transit advocates should assume that car advocates are behaving irrationally.

From my point of view, it doesn't actually matter what you assume, but as a general rule the polite thing to do is assume that everyone else is acting rationally. What I think is important is not to stick too closely to that assumption. As I wrote in my previous post, everyone has a mix of rationality and irrationality in them, and in fact every single decision is probably based on both rational and irrational factors. So sure, go ahead and assume that they're acting rationally, but be prepared to deal with the possibility that they're not.

Let me give an example of irrationality in this regard: parking minima in Flushing. There is a new residential development planned for the site of an ugly municipal parking lot in downtown Flushing. It would include an underground garage with more parking than is currently provided by the lot, but that's not enough for local business leaders. "There should be at least a parking spot per family or per unit," Terence Park, president of the Our Flushing Political Coalition, told the Times Ledger. "Mathematically we need more than 2,000 spaces ... people who live in Flushing want cars." There is this entrenched belief that people will own cars whether or not there is space for them, and that if the space is not provided they will park in other places. It has been well demonstrated that providing parking encourages people to own and use cars, but this is largely ignored by these business and community leaders. This line of thinking is not completely rational or completely irrational; it is somewhere in between.

So let's move on to a third Michael, the famous M1EK, who wrote in the comments to Jarrett's post:
Cap'n, I think it may be more helpful to view the choices in aggregate - each individual may have some irrational inputs into their decision, but those largely cancel each other out in the aggregate (just like they do in economics - the market itself is, while not completely rational, pretty much more rational than we give it credit for; so is the "transit market").

That thought did occur to me too. But it's still a little surprising to hear "the market" described as rational in 2010! Sometimes it does all wash out in the long run, but in the meantime you're stuck with 2000 shares of worthless stock in - or your metro region is stuck with the FDR Drive. Sometimes it doesn't wash out in the long run; I encourage you all to read Jared Diamond's Collapse for examples of aggregate irrationality that brought down whole societies.

Finally, Jarrett points to the notion of "car culture" as an example of the "fundamental attribution error": "When we say that Americans drive because they're a car culture, we imply that that the choice of most Americans to drive isn't a rational one, in light of each person's situation, and therefore requires a cultural explanation."

I can't speak for others, but I personally am not saying this when I refer to "car culture." I'm referring to a complex pattern of things: literature, art and advertising that glamorize and romanticize driving; the tendency to choose to drive instead of take transit in situations where both are equally convenient; the widespread assumption that "everyone" drives; the preference for "roads and bridges" projects that encourage driving at the expense of transit, walking and other modes of transportation; the consequent restriction of choice that guides people to drive; and the generations who grow up not even conceiving of walking as a transportation option, let alone transit, which in turn leads to glamorization, the tendency to choose to drive, etc.

In other words, as I wrote before, the situations that make driving the rational choice are often the result of irrational choices. It's a cycle, a feedback loop. You can't talk about the egg without talking about the chicken, and also about laying and hatching.

Fundamental errors

Tonight, Jarrett links to a post by Michael D about something called "the fundamental attribution error." I know that this is one of those bits of jargon that, no matter how many times I read a definition, I'm going to say, "which one is that again?" Because I think there are all kinds of attribution errors, and people are going to differ about which one is fundamental.

This particular fundamental attribution error involves people thinking that they themselves are acting rationally based on their circumstances, but that others are acting based on "personality" or "disposition." Michael and Jarrett claim (on a completely anecdotal basis, I might add!) that transit advocates and driving advocates each believe that they are making rational decisions, but the transit advocates think that people drive because of "the car culture," and driving advocates think that people ride the bus because they're "some kind of environmentalists."

Sometimes when I wander into somebody else's field of science I'm just dumbfounded by the things they argue over. Reading the maze of Wikipedia articles on social psychology, I feel like Gulliver with the Little-Endians and Big-Endians: you can break your eggs in the middle, you know!

There's more than one false dichotomy involved in this notion of a "fundamental attribution error." First of all, there's more to irrationality than personality and disposition! There's a whole host of cognitive biases. I think it's pretty nutty (and I'm talking about the social psychologists who came up with this idea, not about Jarrett and Michael) to ignore cognitive biases even as you're accusing people of cognitive bias. Right?

Secondly, nobody is purely rational (not even Mr. Spock) and nobody is purely irrational. Everyone's got a mix of the two, and in fact I would argue that no single decision is perfectly rational or perfectly irrational. Maybe you can map out a flawless decision process using symbolic logic, but who's to say that the decision wasn't influenced just as much by a car commercial they saw on TV? On the other hand, even if someone is clearly following some cultural norm, who's to say that they're not also making a well-though-out choice? And why is being "some kind of environmentalist" an irrational aspect of disposition or personality, instead of a rational choice, anyway?

In the realm of transportation specifically, you can argue that people make rational decisions based on their situations, but you could also imagine two people in the exact same situation who make different decisions. How many of us have had the experience of a co-worker who lives nearby but drives to work, while we take transit? Sometimes they have different priorities. Sometimes they're irrational. Sometimes we're irrational.

Jarrett and Michael also don't acknowledge that situations can be the result of choices - not just of government policies, but of individual decisions. Why did one person choose to live in a sprawly subdivision and another in a walkable neighborhood? Why did one choose to work in an office park and another downtown? Those decisions also have the same mix of rational and irrational that all human decisions have.

Jarrett claims that this is "the most important blog post you'll read this year," because "It's about a conceptual error that lies at the root of a lot of bad transit planning decisions." While it is certainly important to be aware of this post, I think it's no more important than the post that will spell out all the irrationality involved in transportation choices, and how transit planning can deal with that irrationality properly.

Also, guys, before you go claiming that this error is so widespread, it would be nice if we had some actual data about its prevalence. A single real-world example would be nice, too. Thanks!

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Brilliant but lazy

The key thing to know about the word "but" is that it really matters whether a given phrase comes before the "but" or after it. For example, "brilliant but lazy" means something quite different from "lazy but brilliant." You can do this with a number of adjective pairs, like "attractive but dishonest" and "unhealthy but delicious."

The order reflects the judgment of the person speaking. If they think a woman is lazy but brilliant they're going to hire her, but if they think she's brilliant but lazy they're not. The term that comes after the "but" is always the more important criterion that leads to the final judgment. Similarly, if someone thinks a man is attractive but dishonest they're going to avoid being in a relationship with him, and if they think a dish of food is unhealthy but delicious they're going to eat it anyway.

There are other expressions that have basically the same function, and here we get to the topic of bridge tolls and the State Senate. For example, here is Senator Bill Perkins (79.8% of households car-free):
Bill Perkins of Manhattan has indicated support of Silver's plan but noted, "We have to proceed with caution, and maybe some refining."

Support but caution means that if something comes up he doesn't like, it's a no-go. Contrast this with Senator Duane (77.7% car-free):
State Sen. Thomas Duane supported the Ravitch report, though he was concerned that placing booths on the East River bridges might cause vehicles to back up into Brooklyn as drivers wait to pay a toll. Aside from that concern, he supported the plan and funding the MTA.

That "though" is like a "but," except it works backwards. The thing before the "though" is the conclusion. "Aside from" is like a "but" in that the last element is the deciding factor, but it comes before both elements. So Duane is saying tolls might cause backups but he supported the report. He has that concern but he supports funding the MTA.

These are important because they tell us where the speaker's priorities lie, and what conclusion they expect to reach. Of course the wise thing for politicians to do is acknowledge the concerns of all their constituents, but the "but" tells us how important those concerns are relative to each other. For Perkins, it's support but caution. For Duane, it's concerns but support.

So why is the guy representing the least car-dependent district in the State Senate, and probably the least car-dependent district of that size in the country, placing concerns ahead of support?

Monday, March 8, 2010

The best bang for the subsidy buck

In a recent post, I wrote that we would expect transit patronage to expand if:

(a) transit is more efficient at providing access for subsidies than roads are
(b) people patronize systems depending on the access that they provide
(c) subsidies are distributed based on usage

Here's an example from another domain. The Wii, with its rotation-sensing technology, is more efficient at providing entertainment than the XBox 360 (and the Sony Playstations 2 and 3). People buy game consoles based on the entertainment they provide. (c) is not necessary because we're talking about the private sector. The result is an increase in the market share of the Wii at the expense of the other consoles (NPD data adapted from the Video Game Sales Wiki):

In transportation, with regard to (a), there are a number of factors. In a spread-out rural area with 90% car ownership, a million dollars spent on a new road might well get more people to work/shopping/soccer practice/school than spending that same million on buses and people to run them. But I think in New York City, a dense city where drivers are in the minority, a million dollars spent on transit will go a lot further than a million spent on roads.

So I think assumption (a) is sound. Do people patronize transportation systems based solely on access? Are subsidies based solely on patronage ... of transit systems?

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Do voters take transit?

In my post on mode shift, I made a comment that transit "funding doesn't always go to the mode favored by the majority. Look at the congestion pricing debate if you don't believe me."

Alon Levy challenged the assumption underlying my statement:
I'm willing to believe that the majority of New York City voters own cars, and even drive them to work. The city has a car-free majority, but I'd venture a guess that this majority is disproportionately immigrant and poor, and hence not likely to vote.

It's a good question, and it got me thinking about how you could test this. I checked the American Community Survey, and they have citizenship and poverty data cross-referenced with means of transportation to work.

BoroughPercent of workers taking transit to workPercent of citizen workers taking transit to workPercent of workers above 150% of the poverty level taking transit to work
The Bronx56 %54 %54 %
Brooklyn60 %59 %60 %
Manhattan57 %57 %57 %
Queens51 %47 %50 %
Staten Island32 %30 %31 %
New York City55 %53 %54 %

If you look at non-citizens and the poor, they're both significantly more likely to take transit to work, but since they're relatively small minorities, they don't affect the overall totals more than a few percentage points - and the spread tends to get bigger the sprawlier the area.

So the only boroughs where transit riders are a minority of non-poor citizens take transit are Queens and Staten Island. In the other three boroughs, and overall, transit riders are a majority. Even in Queens and Staten Island, though, I didn't look into how many of the non-transit riders were actually driving as opposed to walking, biking, taking taxis or telecommuting.

It's possible that the ACS is not very accurate for these communities, and if anyone knows about that, please post it in the comments.

Of course, when you get beyond citizens to voters, and beyond voters to campaign contributors and people who are likely to bring others out to vote for a candidate, then things start to look different...

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

What you can do instead

Recently I've seen a number of blogs and emails addressed to transit advocates, urging us to attend the hearings that the MTA will be holding on the proposed service cuts, layoffs and elimination of student metrocards. In case you are tempted to follow the advice of these leaders, let me quote a leader from long, long ago:

It's a trap!

What could possibly be gained from going? If these cuts are due to corruption and mismanagement by the MTA, how will showing up at a meeting change that? The MTA board is appointed by the mayor and the governor, and the board members' main goals are to please the person who appointed them so that they continue to get favors in the future. They know you're not going to complain to the Mayor or the Governor about their actions. If you were, you'd be doing it instead of wasting your time at that meeting. So your ranting about wastefraudandabuse is going to be completely ignored.

With the current executives, pleasing them includes actually running the agency well and passing a balanced budget. That means that they're not going to increase overall spending without a way to increase revenue. If increasing spending is off the table, then all the MTA Board can do is decide to cut the Y88 bus instead of the Z35. Or to cut bus service instead of station agents. Or raise fares instead of cutting services. If you've got a strong argument on one of these issues, then by all means go, and they'll probably listen to you because it's something that they actually have control over.

If, on the other hand, you want to see overall MTA spending increase, then the last people you want to be telling are the MTA board members. They have no control over it! It's the city, the state and the federal government. Why not take the time to sit down and write a nice letter to your State Senator about why they should support bridge tolls? If you were planning on going with a group, just throw a letter-writing party at your local cafe!

Maybe you think writing a nice letter is too lame for this kind of crisis. You're mad as hell! Well, why not go pay your Assemblymember a visit and tell them how you feel about the Assembly failing to pass congestion pricing in 2008? If you're really hankering for confrontation, you can show up to one of their "Save the T22" rallies with signs saying "Save the T22 ... with congestion pricing!"

I got an email today from an advocacy organization encouraging me to show up because the press is there, and elected officials often use these hearings for grandstanding. "This is a chance to call them out, and hold them accountable," says the email. Yeah, you could do that, and it's probably the best thing you could do at one of these hearings. But you know what these things are like? You'll be sitting in a stuffy room for hours listening to misinformed community board members and lying elected officials spouting nonsense. Eventually your turn will come, and maybe a few people will listen to you, but most of the elected officials and reporters will have gone home. If you do get interviewed, the next day you'll find the video online and your twenty seconds will be totally overshadowed by six morons.

If you want to call your elected officials out, then pay them a visit or write them a letter. If you want to hold them accountable before the press, then just keep your eye out for the next rally and show up wearing something that really makes them look foolish. You'll get lots of press!

In general I think the calm, conciliatory approach works most of the time, but at some point legislators need to know that if they stiff transit enough times, transit advocates will make them look really bad. If transit advocates are incapable of doing that, well then we've already lost, haven't we?

Monday, March 1, 2010

The mechanics of mode shift

I've discussed how transit use can be a feedback loop. Like any product, if people use it and like it they'll buy more, and tell their friends. This drives up demand, which can allow the provider to raise fares and finance expansion. Public transit operators, with their social missions, often have difficulty raising fares, but high demand can provide political support for more subsidies, allowing expansion of the system.

The feedback loop can also operate to the detriment of transit. If people use and like the highways, they'll support highway subsidies instead of transit subsidies, and it's the highway system that will expand.

This has the potential to work in transit's favor, since it's more efficient at providing access to what people need, even though the cost of labor in driving is borne by the traveler. If we assume that the subsidy dollars are divided up in proportion to population, this actually benefits transit users because they get more bang for the buck.

Let's say that in the year 2000 there are 99 drivers and 1 transit user (the famous "bus with just one rider"). They each pay $10 in taxes, of which $990 is spent on roads and $10 on transit. But if each transit dollar is twice as efficient as a road dollar, that's like spending $980 on roads and $20 on transit. That means that transit improves, and let's say that in 2001 one of the 99 drivers decides to switch to transit. So the next year there will be $980 for roads and $20 for transit. But that $20 is worth $40, which attracts another two former drivers.

Eventually it reaches the tipping point, and soon enough there's just one lonely driver!

You may object to the assumptions, but the math is sound. As long as (a) subsidies are distributed based on usage, (b) transit is more efficient at providing access than roads are, and (c) people patronize systems depending on the access that they provide. This is true whether transit is twice as efficient at providing access or 101% as efficient, as long as it's more efficient.

Now, obviously we haven't seen these kind of numbers. That means that either the shift is starting very slowly, or one of the three assumptions is inaccurate.