Friday, December 29, 2023

The 2022 farebox numbers

Agency	Fare Revenues per Total Operating Expense (Recovery Ratio)
Port Imperial Ferry Corporation, dba: NY Waterway	1.43
Hyannis Harbor Tours, Inc.	1.41
Bay State LLC, dba: Bay State Cruise Company	1.35
Trans-Bridge Lines, Inc.	1.33
Chattanooga Area Regional Transportation Authority	1.31
Hampton Jitney, Inc.	1.2
Seldovia Village Tribe	1
Peter Pan Bus Lines	1
Golden Crescent Regional Planning Commission	1
Community Transit, Inc.	0.96
Chatham Area Transit Authority	0.93
Jalbert Leasing, Inc. , dba: C&J Bus Lines	0.92
A&C Bus Corporation & Montgomery & Westside Owners Association	0.83
Academy Lines, Inc.	0.78
SeaStreak, LLC	0.77
Chemehuevi Indian Tribe	0.75
Orange-Newark-Elizabeth, Inc.	0.71
University of California, Davis, dba: ASUCD-Unitrans	0.69
Chicago Water Taxi (Wendella)	0.67
Olympia Trails Bus Company, Inc.	0.66
Hudson Transit Lines, Inc.	0.63
Monsey New Square Trails Corporation	0.63

I remembered the National Transit Database a bit earlier this year, so here are the top hitters for 2022, and we can see the ridership recovery already. The four companies earning a profit from 2021 (Bay State, Trans-Bridge, Hampton Jitney and Hyannis Harbor) are joined by New York Waterway and the Chattanooga incline. Broadway Bus dropped from breaking even to earning just 23 cents on the dollar, and Peter Pan buses and the Seldovia Village Tribe ferries claimed to be breaking even. The Golden Crescent also claimed to be breaking even, but I think they're either lying or clueless or both.

It's not too surprising that the ferries did well in 2022: you can usually isolate from other riders on the upper deck. The New York Waterway ferries run every twenty minutes year round, charge $9 a ride and have gotten a lot of takers every time I've ridden them. They also load and unload passengers a lot more efficiently than the East River ferries operated by Hornblower.

Most of the Lincoln Tunnel buses are back over 50% farebox revenue, including Coachusa-owned Community Transit, Olympia Trails and ShortLine, so we'll see if they continue to improve. Red and Tan is only at 27%, which is probably why they still haven't brought back weekend service, but honestly I don't think they'll earn back those customers without losing money on the weekends for a few months.

Again, this just points to the foolishness of the Federal government and transit advocates. If the Feds had bailed out private transit companies the way they bailed out the airlines in 2020 and 2021, we'd be seeing a lot more people on the bus in New Jersey and the Hudson Valley.

The NTD now offers the ability to sort and filter in place, so you can sort and filter the data right in place, and even share a URL with your sorted and filtered data!

Thursday, December 28, 2023

Ten things to remember about public and private transportation

MAYOR MCCLELLAN, THE RAPID TRANSIT COMMISSIONERS, AND OTHER GUESTS OF THE CHIEF CONTRACTOR, JOHN B. McDONALD, STARTING ON FIRST INSPECTION TOUR OF THE SUBWAY, JULY 19, 1904

With a bunch of articles in the news recently about private intercity bus service, it's important to keep in mind several points:

  1. No transportation is completely private. Whether it's land, vehicles, fuel, air, research, wayfinding, public safety or search and rescue: you didn't build that.
  2. No transportation is completely public. Even in the strictest Communist states there have always been markets where people sell transportation without state control. In the United States, every government transportation agency buys goods and services from private vendors, and many contract their operations to private companies. Somebody, somewhere, is making a buck, and there's nothing you can do to stop it.
  3. Greedy, lazy people are everywhere. There's nothing about public ownership that guarantees good service.
  4. Most public transit used to be profitable. Most of the "public" transit systems around the world between 1850 and 1950 were built and operated by private companies, with large government subsidies. Some are still profitable today.
  5. Most roads and parking lots in the United States are socialist. And they're destroying the planet.
  6. Automakers and airlines are regularly bailed out by the government. Pundits and politicians only complain about bailouts and subsidies if they think they're going to the "wrong" people. Which ones they complain about usually tells you a lot about the pundits and politicians.
  7. It's all one big system. Whether publicly or privately owned or operated, public transit competes with publicly subsidized roads, airports, parking and personal cars.
  8. Private operators can take payment through larger fare systems. It takes a bit of planning, but it can be done.
  9. Transportation policy can't solve race, sex or class prejudice by itself. You may eradicate racism from buses, but as long as racism exists, racists will find a way to use transportation to oppress people.
  10. Trip cost is just one factor. For some people it's the biggest factor. For most, it comes after other criteria like trip time, safety, comfort and reliability.

Wednesday, August 9, 2023

Land trusts, co-ops and imperfect representation

Last month the New York Times ran an article by Claire Fahy about community land trusts. I've been hearing more about them lately: there's a group calling itself the Western Queens Community Land Trust that shows up to events, and my City Council member regularly indicates support for them. Several of the people I follow on social media also express support for them.

I've already explained one reason community land trusts are a bad idea: they assign benefits to people based on where they are. The intent is to grant people benefits as compensation for hardship, past (oppressive urban highways and drug laws, and yes I know that these things are not really in the past), or present/future (cheap roads, communication and energy in the country). Despite this intent, the benefits regularly go to people who don't need or deserve them, such as recent arrivals and wealthy vacationers. The benefits also fail to go to people who do need and deserve them, because they've left the area, because they are not part of the legally defined group, or because there aren't enough benefits to go around.

But even if you ignore the fact that it's not really fair to distribute benefits to people based on where they currently live, there's another problem: the trust part. Community land trusts don't have a mechanism to ensure that those benefits are reliably and evenly distributed to the people who live in their declared territory. The trusts are currently constituted as private nonprofit corporations, and I am not aware of any mechanism for governance, proposed or possible, that could make them genuinely representative. We're just supposed to trust them.

Fahy says "The concept of a community land trust began in 1969" and talks about a recent increase in the use of community land trusts in urban areas. That's probably true, but the concept of a nonprofit organization owning property and leasing it out to individuals and families is much older. And in fact, Fahy mentions that the concept was directly copied from the Moshavim model of settler colonialism in Israel, which is a dubious distinction.

Here in New York we have nonprofit housing developers like the Phipps Houses that have been renting at below-market prices for generations. We've also had housing cooperatives since the 1880s at least, and they don't live up to the lofty rhetoric of "community" we hear from some proponents.

I've lived in two different housing coops. One suffered from underinvestment stemming from an effort to keep rents affordable; another suffered from corruption by the officials who were responsible for running the property, and managed to get away with tens of thousands of dollars.

From what I've heard, these are relatively minor concerns in the grand scheme of what can go wrong with a housing coop. The condominium models used around the country and around the world are similar. Among the more extreme risks are the collapse of the Champlain Towers in Florida in 2021. Some have argued that the disinvestment we saw in Champlain Towers is a flaw in the condominium model.

Beyond the risk of corruption is a more general vagueness about governance. Who decides what the land trust should invest in? Which new properties should it buy? How much housing should it build, or allow to be built? What criteria should it use for who it sells/lends to? Should it develop and lease commercial properties, community facilities, parking? If it earns profits, what happens to those profits?

Who chooses the people that make those decisions? Are they appointed by elected officials? Are they elected at the bottom of the ballot, overshadowed by candidates for President, Mayor or Congress? Or in low-turnout off-year elections? Or are they elected by the membership of the Land Trust - and who gets to be a member? Are they even just a self-perpetuating board of directors? Where is the trust there?

Since they live in the midst of housing co-ops and nonprofit housing, you'd think the people who are promoting community land trusts here in New York City would acknowledge the existence of those models, compare the community land trust model to those models, and have some argument about why community land trusts are preferable, but I haven't seen anything like that. You might also think they'd acknowledge the problems of governance and function that have affected co-ops and nonprofits. Nope.

Community land trusts are also promoted as a way to combat the housing crisis. Fahy says, "The primary model in New York creates rental units," but they don't really create any units. They simply buy property and rent it out.

The trusts have the power to reduce displacement by keeping rents low and resisting pressure to sell, but I haven't seen a discussion of how that would address the core problem of housing: there isn't enough of it in places where people want to live. They're not any more capable of creating new housing than any other organization; in fact, they may impede it. This is no solution for the vast numbers of people who don't already own housing.

In sum, community land trusts are likely to serve the wrong people, and may not even successfully represent those people, or function competently at all. They are promoted as a solution to the housing crisis, but even if they function perfectly they're no better at creating new housing than any other organizational model, and likely worse.

Why are we still talking about them?

Sunday, January 22, 2023

The 2021 farebox numbers

screenshot of the list of 24 organizations with the highest farebox recovery ratios in 2021

Alexander asked on Twitter about the series of posts I did on farebox recovery ratios reported to the United States National Transit Database from 2007 through 2010. The Federal Transit Administration has continued to publish the NTD every year; I just got a little tired of compiling the data, and engagement kind of went down. But let's take a look and see how things are these days!

The Database for each year used to be published in December of the following year, so 2021 is now the most recent year available. The data used to be in Table 26, but the FTA staff is no longer numbering the tables, so now it's in the Metrics table. I've imported the 2021 Metrics table into Google Sheets for your convenience.

Since we're looking at traditional transit providers, the first thing to do is filter out the contract providers (any TOS but DO) and the demand response and vanpool providers (Mode of DR and VP). That leaves us with 22 transit providers.

The first thing I noticed is how many more ferry operators are reporting. In 2010 we had New York Waterway and BillyBey, but in 2021 we have eight: Bay State (Boston to Provincetown), Hyannis Harbor (also Cape Cod), Seldovia Village (connects Homer, Alaska to a Native village with no competing roads), New York Waterway, Chicago Water Taxi, Chatham Area Transit (connecting downtown Savannah to the Convention Center), SeaStreak (connects New York with bedroom and resort towns in New Jersey and Massachusetts) and the Chemehuevi Indian Tribe (connects one end of London Bridge to a casino across Lake Havasu).

In 2010 we had the University of Georgia; in 2021 we have the University of Arkansas and the University of California at Davis. Those don't really count because they're paid for up front by student fees. The Chattanooga inclined plane also broke even in 2021.

A couple of items were flagged by the FTA staff as "Questionable," including the claim by the Golden Crescent Regional Planning Commission that its bus service brings in $9.26 per trip in fares, when their website says they only charge $1.50. They didn't flag the Developmental Services of Northwest Kansas's claim that they earn $16 per trip in fares while only charging $3, but I find that questionable myself. Similarly with Iredell County Area Transportation Services' report of $7.75 per trip contrasts with their website's $1-3 fare. I'm guessing both of those are clerical errors.

That leaves nine bus companies, all in the New York area, making more than a 50% farebox recovery ratio in 2021, which you may remember was a difficult year for transit agencies: Trans-Bridge, Hampton Jitney, Broadway Bus, Olympia Trails, Peter Pan, Orange-Newark-Elizabeth, Monsey New Square Trails, Community Transit, A&C Bus/Montgomery and Westside, and Adirondack Transit.

To answer Alexander's question: there are six bus companies on this list that use the Lincoln Tunnel Exclusive Bus Lane: Trans-Bridge, Olympia Trails (the CoachUSA subsidiary serving Newark Airport from Manhattan), Peter Pan, Monsey New Square Trails (a commuter service focused on Hasidic Jews), Community Transit (a CoachUSA subsidiary serving East and West Orange and Livingston, NJ from the Port Authority) and Adirondack Transit. Of the buses making more than 75% farebox recovery ratio in 2010, some had gone out of business before the adoption of work-from-home arrangements when doctors began discovering COVID-19 cases in March, like Frank Martz Trailways.

Most of the companies missing from the short list were just losing a lot of money. Suburban Transit, the CoachUSA subsidiary serving New Brunswick area, made a 22% farebox recovery ratio in 2021. DeCamp made 21%, and Rockland Coaches, the CoachUSA subsidiary formerly doing business as Red and Tan Lines, made 19%. This is a useful lesson, because the management of these companies took a very conservative approach, canceling all service for months and leading restoration with peak-direction rush-hour service. Rockland has still not restored full-day or weekend service. In contrast, Trans-Bridge, Olympia Trails, Peter Pan, Monsey and Adirondack all run service middays, reverse-peak and weekends.

It wasn't flagged as "Questionable," but I find it questionable that Broadway Bus was able to run eight buses for $13.97 an hour total. If I'm not mistaken, Broadway Bus and A&C may have gone out of business since 2021. With three routes in Newark I don't quite understand how Orange-Newark-Elizabeth (a CoachUSA subsidiary) makes an 81% farebox recovery ratio.

The big success story in this list, of course, is Hampton Jitney, which made a 13% profit in 2021. The Hamptons were infamous as the destination for a number of wealthy people who (with no good reason) "fled the city." They did, of course, have to come back at least temporarily, and while they may be willing to drive out there, spending hours on the Long Island Expressway is a different story. So those who can't afford helicopters take the train or the bus.

Saturday, September 11, 2021

People bought COVID cars for access to recreation

Recently I wrote about the people who claimed to be "fleeing" the disease-ridden cities, but in actuality were in no more danger from COVID-19 in their urban apartments than in the exurban houses they moved to. I noted that there are probably less people "fleeing" the cities than there seem to be, as they tend to be well-connected and overrepresented in the media. They have added a lot to our greenhouse gas emissions on a per capita basis, but the damage they've done to our climate is probably more in having disrupted the return to walkable urban living that's been going on for the past twenty years or so.

Another group that has done damage is the people who stayed in the city (most of the time) but bought cars. This includes influential journalists like Baltimore resident and Earther staff writer Dharna Noor and New York Times City Hall bureau chief and former transit reporter Emma Fitzsimmons.

As with the people who "fled," there are probably nowhere near as many of these car buyers as you would think from the stories in the media. There was a surge of car purchases in the late spring of 2020, but this may simply be purchases that people would have made earlier but couldn't because of lockdown.

Those of us who care about the climate, or carnage, or energy waste, or inequality, should regard every vehicle purchase as a policy failure. In particular, those purchases that have happened in response to the COVID-19 pandemic point to a vulnerability in our strategy to reduce car travel. It is worth our time to examine what motivated people to buy cars and drive.

I would love to see a rigorous market survey, and if you know of any, please pass them on to me. In the absence of anything like that I'm going by what I've read in the news and on Twitter. Yes, Twitter isn't real life, and neither is the news, but this is to a large extent about the way we think about cars and transit, and how that affects our plans for the future.

Let's start with what these people didn't buy cars for: daily activities. I'm sure there are people - health care and food service workers - who bought cars to shorten their commutes, but I don't hear a lot about them. Everyone had access to basic daily shopping - as much as any of us. There were lines at some stores, but nobody went hungry because their local supermarket was closed.

When people give reasons for buying cars, what do you hear? Noor wrote eloquently about her experience, and what she says echoes what I heard from other people - those who bought cars during the pandemic, and those who already had them. Yes, her partner's work needs was what it took to outweigh everything she knew about the downside of cars, but here's what the car did for her:

I was no longer comfortable with my regular regional train rides to see my family members living outside the city. And during quarantine, living near the spots I frequented like the public library and my favorite local punk bar no longer seemed like a plus. I longed instead to be able to easily head to the H Mart about 10 miles (16 kilometers) west to mask up and buy bok choy or visit the big parks outside the city for hikes, but it was proving difficult to figure out how to do so.

What do you hear over and over again from drivers? What do you see on Facebook and Instagram? Recreation and shopping. People driving to parks and beaches. Driving to specialty stores, bulk clubs, ethnic restaurants. Driving to meet friends and visit relatives. Driving to hotels and AirBnbs.

As case counts dropped and capitalists started talking about "reopening" as early as the summer of 2020, people started using their cars for more daily tasks like commuting to work and bringing kids to camp and school. But to the extent the car boom of 2020 was a real thing, it wasn't driven by work and school trips.

In 2020, people bought cars for recreation. They may not have bought that many, but it was and is a public relations disaster for transit. And it was completely avoidable, both in the short term and the long term. We need to learn the lessons from that and avoid it in the future.

Sunday, August 22, 2021

The people who had no reason to leave the city

If you read some accounts of the COVID-19 pandemic, you'll come across the idea that people "fled the cities" en masse - that the cities were seething pits of disease and death, that everyone who could leave did, and that they were justified in doing so. I'm really sick of hearing this, because it's largely false, and it's interfered with our ability to respond effectively to climate change, resource depletion, carnage and social injustice.

When I discussed this on Twitter, a few people raised important caveats. Shabazz Stuart noted that anyone who was living in an unsafe situation was justified in getting away from it. In particular, low income Black, Latinx and Asian people tend to live in crowded apartments and houses where they can't distance from people who might carry the disease.

Jake Saltzman pointed out that some people who might be white and relatively privileged still had an economic-related health incentive to leave the city. Many people who could work remotely but didn't have housemates they could trust were better off moving in with family outside the city, or finding a cheaper place where they could have room to themselves.

The people I'm focusing on here are the people in situations like mine or better. Every member of my family has a room to work remotely, and every family member or couple has their own bedroom. The working adults have steady, remote work. Our neighbors are generally conscientious and cooperative.

The crazy thing about this past year is that I live in one of the hardest-hit zip codes in the country, but I only knew a couple of people who died of COVID-19, and they were relatively low-income acquaintances who weren't white. Several of my friends had the disease, but fortunately they all survived. At this point I have seen no data that suggests that people with the privilege to work remotely and live in a place where everyone has their own room were in any greater danger in the city than in the country or the suburbs. We need to put that myth to bed.

Last Spring we were swimming in a sea of misinformation. President Trump was flailing around for anything that would minimize the effect of the pandemic on his wealth and power, from denial to misdirection to scapegoating. Epidemiologists, nationalists and economic elitists were stuck in ideological traps that to this day make them downplay the need for masks, quarantines and ventilation.

All this misinformation created a knowledge vacuum, which was filled with the simplistic reasoning and prejudices that people have used throughout history when confronted with plagues: attack the people who already have the disease, attack the weak, run away from the places where people have the disease, run away from crowds and poor people.

Some of us pointed this out at the time. We noted that none of the science supported the idea that there was any safety to be gained for well-off white people with their own apartments and bedrooms by relocating to the suburbs or the country. That just disappeared into the sea of misinformation.

At this point we don't really know the impact of this migration, but I can make some guesses. Let's imagine a family with two adults and two kids living in an apartment in Manhattan. And for comparison's sake let's say they own a car. Now let's say this family rents a house in the hills outside of Stone Ridge, NY.

Let's imagine that this family is the most obnoxious car-driving Manhattanites possible. They insist that the only way to get their kids to their private schools is by driving, so it only makes sense that one parent drive to work after dropping the kids off. They spend every weekend driving to Costco, to the Alley Pond Environmental Center, to day and overnight trips in the Poconos and the Hamptons.

Even this family would at least double their driving if they moved to Stone Ridge. All the little trips that they did on foot in Manhattan - to the corner deli, to the cafe, to the park for daily walks, runs and playground fun - would require a car.

They might replace the playground trips with recreation in the backyard and the woods, but to replicate the social interaction that kids get in a neighborhood playground requires coordinating with other parents to drive kids to the same backyard. Even with town Facebook groups this is not easy, especially for newcomers.

Similarly, our hypothetical family might find a house that's walking distance from one restaurant or shop, or a small cluster of shops at best, but it wouldn't be walking distance from any others. It probably wouldn't be walking distance from a bus or train to the city.

If they're lucky (and willing to spend a lot), they might get a house with places to walk in the woods, on the property attached to the house or on adjacent public or private land, or maybe on nice quiet roads. If they're unlucky they'll be stuck on a small plot off a busy road with no shoulders and have to drive somewhere just to take a walk.

All these things add up to a dramatic increase in driving, even for our family that was already driving much more than the average Manhattan household. They had one car, they might buy or lease another car so that both adults could drive to different places, even if they're working from home.

Now imagine a family that previously had no car. They went from a lifestyle that was exclusively transit and walking, with maybe the occasional taxi trip, to one that requires driving everywhere.

Some people have gone for a more moderate increase in car use, moving to towns like New Paltz or Beacon where they can get to some shops and restaurants and the city without driving, but use a car for other shopping and socializing. But even though that's less of an increase it's not tiny.

This is an explosion in the vehicle miles traveled by our hypothetical families, and it's bad for all the reasons why cars are bad: pollution, especially global warming; waste of land, fuel and other resources; carnage. But in the aggregate how much of an increase are we talking about? If we're only going by anecdote it would be huge. Last year the papers and blogs were full of stories of people "fleeing" the city, and this year there's a bunch of stories about how the housing markets upstate have gone crazy.

It's important not to read too much into these stories. Just as it only takes a small number of cars to tip Manhattan's crowded streets into gridlock, it only takes a small number of wealthy buyers and renters to overwhelm the heavily-zoned housing stock of Ulster County. And it only takes a small number of influential people doing something to give the impression that "everybody's" doing it.

As I've written before, there are also limits to how much damage people can do to the region and the climate in a short timeframe. We're already seeing stories about people who tried "fleeing" and discovered that driving sucks and the country can be boring.

The real damage may be to the Cycle. This is where we really make a difference in transportation. The vicious cycle in transportation over the twentieth century involved people moving housing, jobs and shopping further apart, buying cars to drive between them, then lobbying for roads and parking to make driving easier. The easier it is to drive, the more people will buy cars and lobby to make driving easier.

For the past few decades, at least here in New York City, the Cycle has been running the opposite way, in the virtuous direction. People have been selling their cars, moving to the city and demanding better transit and sidewalks, and telling everyone how great it is. The movement to the suburbs has slowed.

My biggest concern about these "flight to the country" stories (in combination with the "contaminated city" stories) is the extent to which they've shifted the narrative and pushed the Cycle more in the vicious direction. Already we've heard our incoming Governor point to the "flight to the country" as a reason to "reexamine" implementing the congestion pricing law that was passed a few years ago.

I don't think this will last. I think rural living is unsustainable for people who aren't actively involved in rural activities, and people will eventually move back to the city. My fear is that the "flight to the country" narrative will cost us precious years or even decades where we exacerbate global warming and make the planet less habitable for our grandchildren.

So everybody, please stop repeating myths about the city being safer. And please stop acting like the wealthy, influential people who left the city are representative of the general population, or of any trend. And do what you can to stop subsidizing wasteful sprawl.

Sunday, July 4, 2021

Cities don't think

I listen to a few podcasts that cover issues of land use and transportation, and they tend to be heavy with urban planners. I also follow some urban planners on Twitter. I've recommended them regularly and I wouldn't follow them or listen to them if I didn't find their views valuable on the whole, but occasionally there are indications that the worldview shared by urban planners has some shortcomings. One thing I've picked up on lately is the omnipresent anthropomorphizing of cities.

I say urban planners here, but they're not the only ones who do it. I've noticed it to some degree from historians, political scientists, economists, as well as journalists and laypeople.

On these podcasts and in these tweets, cities aren't just places where people live, or organizations governing those people. Cities want things, or maybe they don't want them. In the words of the hosts and guests, cities can be happy about things, or dislike them. Most of all, cities think.

Now, there actually are theories that the complex systems of cities are not just similar to the complex systems underlying human thoughts and emotions, but functionally equivalent to them. Some people believe that cities actually do want and dislike and understand.

In general I don't think the people I listen to in these podcasts actually believe that cities can think or feel. I think sometimes they mean that the inhabitants of a city undertake a collective decision-making process and come to a consensus about a course of action. Sometimes they're referring to a scientific opinion poll. Sometimes they mean that the elected mayor or city council believes or feels a certain way.

Sometimes they just mean that a city transportation commissioner believes something, or a transit authority CEO feels something. Sometimes it's lower-level planners or bureaucrats. Sometimes it's a single politician, or just a particularly influential pundit or celebrity, or a group that holds a rally or sends its members to speak at a public meeting.

This is a very common kind of ambiguity, and normally it's not a problem. But problems can arise, particularly when it comes to collective decision making, collective responsibility and finality.

Urban planners - and historians, political scientists, economists, journalists and most laypeople - all know, at least on some level, that collective decision making is a messy process. The same people who will tweet "City X doesn't want a train," are the same ones who will tweet a screenshot of a mixed opinion poll from City Y on zoning height limits the next day. People who say "City Z chose mixed use" will also cover a referendum from City W on bus funding.

So why do people on these podcasts and blogs keep saying things like "City V doesn't want to fund transit?" Well, it's easier than remembering which person from City V said something negative about transit funding, whether that person was a citywide elected official, a civil servant, a local representative, a representative of a membership organization, a self-appointed "community leader" or just some random crank.

It's also easier than remembering how the speaker heard about how City X supposedly feels. Referendum? City Council vote? Press release? Public testimony? Facebook comment? Some taxi driver's rant?

There's also a universal tendency for people to anthropomorphize collectivities, substances and even abstract entities: water finds its level, nature abhors a vacuum, information wants to be free.

But this shorthand of attributing thoughts and feelings to cities runs a lot of risks. It can paper over all kinds of failures in collective decision making. It can misrepresent the thoughts and feelings of powerful elites as the desires of all residents. It can enable loud, privileged voices to pre-empt debate by proclaiming a consensus that does not exist, or by declaring a matter settled when it should be re-examined. It can even prompt a backlash against people in a given city, including people who were excluded from any kind of say in what their city was supposed to have felt or thought or believed.

For the past several years I've been trying to avoid claiming that cities (or states or countries or peoples) want or think anything. Instead, I've taken the time to examine why I am tempted to make such a claim, whether there has been any collective decision made, who has actually made the decision and how democratic the process has been. And I talk about that.

This takes more time, but for me it's been invaluable to spend that time thinking about these issues. And I really can't think of anything better to spend my time on, as someone who cares about where public money goes and what government employees do, than contemplating how people come together (or not) to respond to challenges and set priorities for their governments.

I hope you'll join me! Next time you're tempted to say something like "City Y doesn't want new housing," please stop, take a minute and think about what you mean by that.