Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The anti-transit shell game

Jarrett Walker brings this to our attention: Rupert MurdochLeonard Asper's National Post is trying to bring in the pageviews with a new "rethinking green" series. Recycling hurts the environment! Feed the world by growing fish in the desert! At first I thought it was just being contrarian to attract attention, like the Freakonomics guys, but then I realized that there's something more sinister at work.

Reversing climate change and cleaning up the mess we've made will require tremendous sacrifices, and for a democratic society to commit to sacrifices on that scale there has to be a clear understanding of the danger at hand, and a strong consensus about the best action to take. People like Leonard Asper and Wendell Cox are bent on preserving the advantages that their class has appropriated over the years, and they are willing to sacrifice the welfare of their grandchildren for this.

They are also willing to lie and cheat to do it, and they've realized that you don't need clarity or consensus to maintain the status quo. All you need is fear, uncertainty and doubt. If enough people say, "but I heard that recycling doesn't actually accomplish all that much," and "hydrogen-powered fish farms in Alberta will save us," then the consensus breaks down and Asper's buddies get to continue blasting the air conditioning as they drive their Escalades to the golf course in Scottsdale.

To break the pro-transit coalition among environmentalists, social justice activists, livable streets proponents and train buffs, Kevin Libin has a simple message, courtesy of Wendell Cox and Randal O'Toole: transit is less efficient than cars and pollutes more. Transit advocates like to tell you how much energy a full bus saves, and how much less carbon it spews into the atmosphere, but really they're living in a fantasy world. Nobody actually rides transit, so the buses pollute more per passenger than cars. Libin brings in some guy named Tom Rubin to deliver the solution: just relax and let the March of Technology make more fuel-efficient cars, and everything will be fine.

Nobody seems to disagree with O'Toole's numbers on the average efficiencies of transit systems, and I think every transit advocate should have a response to them. Commenters in the Streetsblog thread have made a number of important points: one near-empty bus can attract passengers who will also fill another bus (Hilary Kitasei, Jeff, Eric B and Librarian); it's important to look at the lifecycle energy use and pollution of each vehicle, not just while transporting people (Ben); and late night service gets drunk drivers off the road (Zach).

Jarrett's response is to point out that there are other reasons for transit: what he calls coverage services exist to "provide a little bit of service everywhere regardless of ridership, both to meet demands for 'equity' and to serve the needs of transit-dependent persons." His point, as I understand it, is that these coverage services account for the discrepancy between the potential efficiency of transit and its actual efficiency.

Libin actually addresses that in his article:
More roads, and more efficient roads, still won't address public transit's original, non-environmental purpose: providing mobility for citizens who lack their own. But where public transit is absent, or impractical, solutions for the small minority totally lacking other means have readily sprung up. Ridesharing applications for smart phones -- users enter their location and desired destination and a cost-conscious carpooler responds -- are already in wide use, Mr. Rubin says. Self-sustaining, small-scale private jitney systems have successfully operated for years in Atlantic City and Puerto Rico (all North America's early public transit systems were privately operated until they were nationalized). And with billions freed up from public transit funds, it appears entirely feasible to simply offer subsidized Prius taxis, or even car subsidies, to the small portion of the public entirely reliant on public mobility.

While taking exception to Libin's condescending frame - I don't "lack my own mobility" any more than some jerk who can't go farther than two blocks without being propelled by government-sponsored oil on government-sponsored roads - I agree with some of his potential strategies. Ridesharing and jitneys have a lot of potential, but as a supplement for transit, not a replacement. The subsidized taxis and cars are complete bullshit, just a way for Libin to gloat at the end, and not worth wasting electrons over.

In addition to Jarrett's response, I have another issue with Libin's argument, which is the matter of land use. It has been amply documented that city dwellers just use less energy than sprawled-out suburbanites. Libin pays lip service to this, but shows that he really doesn't get it:
But the thousands of delivery trucks, taxi drivers, emergency vehicles, service trucks, car-bound workers and buses mean even high-density cities will keep needing highways, ring roads, bridges and flyovers. Meanwhile the massive cost of overhauling cities is just more billions to address an automobile environmental problem that is already on the way to resolving itself -- money that might be better, and more effectively deployed toward other earth-friendly measures, such as reducing traffic congestion.

Well, it's not actually on the way to resolving itself, the overhaul will be done anyway, and transit-oriented lifestyles actually decrease the need for so many of the vehicles that Libin mentions. In addition, it's a feedback loop, one that works in both directions: if transit is better than cars, that encourages more people to use transit, and it becomes that much better.

But I've saved the main against Libin's (and Cox's, and O'Toole's, and Rubin's) argument for last. And that's the fact that this is just a shell game. These people are out to win at any cost, and if you start to win the climate change argument, they'll switch to efficiency. If you make headway in the efficiency argument they'll start talking about how we nasty elitists are trying to take away the True American Dream of living in a home so big you can't clean it by yourself. If you gain ground in the popular opinion argument, they switch back to emissions.

The only way you can win this is by keeping all the advantages of transit in mind:

Providing quality transit isn't just a matter of fairness to the poor, the young, the elderly and the disabled. Shifting people to transit isn't just a matter of clean air, energy efficiency and working towards a better society. It's also about making our streets safe for people of all ages to walk and play, about ending the carnage that kills thousands every year. Randal O'Toole may be able to show that transit is not living up to its potential in one or two of these goals, but he's just not going to be able to make the case that private cars are superior on all five counts.


Helen Bushnell said...

I want to make the point that the numbers that anti-transit activists come up with may simply be wrong.

Alon Levy said...

You don't need transit to provide fairness, and transit doesn't mean you'll have to provide fairness. The two most transit-oriented first world countries, Hong Kong and Singapore, are also the two least equal; New York has the highest inequality rate of all US states (followed mostly by Deep South states). And Iceland has no rail transit, but maintains low inequality; even its pollution level is low, because of renewable energy.

There are many good reasons to end road socialism, but fairness for all isn't one of them.

arcady said...

Fairness is not just about income inequality. The fairness that Cap'n Transit is talking about is more along the lines of equal access. After all, not everyone is physically capable of driving a car (whether due to youth, age, or disability). Should we exclude them from full participation in society just because of that? Excluding them on those grounds would be rather unfair.

Alon Levy said...

Equal access to transportation is an input variable, one that you'd expect would give you good output variables like low inequality, low long-term unemployment, and high income mobility. Unfortunately, it doesn't seem to correlate with any of the three.

I gave counterexamples for inequality in the previous comment. As for income mobility, consider that Canada and Australia rank together with the Scandinavian countries as the most socially mobile countries in the developed world, whereas France and Britain rank together with the US as some of the least socially mobile. And as for long-term unemployment, again compare France to Canada.

It's a serious issue, because other social issues, like equality in education, are strong correlates of inequality and income mobility.

Helen Bushnell said...

Again, just because someone says something, doesn't mean it is true.

For example, Hong Kong is not a country and it is not particularly stratified. I could however easily manipulate statistics to make it look like there is tremendous inequality there.

Iceland could have very good transit without any trains. Buses work very well sometimes.

arcady said...

Again, why with the economics? Is the distribution of income among the population and its change over time the only thing that matters? I suppose they have the benefit of being easily quantified and fairly easy to measure, with extensive statistics already collected. But really, isn't money, and income, and economic activity in general just a means to an end? Mind you, it's some fuzzy hard to quantify end along the lines of having a good life, but it's one that a transportation system can affect very directly without going through the intermediary of income and economics.

Alon Levy said...

The Gini index isn't manipulation; it's the standard way of computing inequality. Hong Kong ranks worst in the developed world there - you can look it up.

Iceland doesn't have much of a bus system. Reykjavik has local buses, but the primary form of transportation is cars. Again, look the statistics up - Iceland ranks third in the world in vehicles per capita.