Friday, August 3, 2012

Selling transit with Glamour or Value, or both

Ever since April of 2009, when Human Transit blogger Jarrett Walker posted a review of Darrin Nordahl's book My Kind of Transit, the transit world has been divided between the pragmatic Walkerists and the hedonistic Nordahlists. Or something like that. From what I can tell, Jarrett (who I've had a fair amount of email and blog contact with over the years) and Nordahl (who I've never been in contact with) are both nice guys. They like each other, and get along well despite their differences of opinion. They've each got new books out, and treat each other with the same respect in those books. The bottom line is that they both want to see more transit in the world. If only all disputes could be so civilized.

I'm not the first blogger to try and reconcile these two. Lloyd Alter goes and name-checks Vitruvius, summarizing the differences between Walker and Nordahl's philosophies as expressing the contrast between "commodity" and "delight." Tom Vanderbilt can't beat that, but he cites Charles Leadbeater on the difference between "system" and "empathy." I'll go one further: Jarrett and Nordahl are both right, and both wrong. And I'll bring in two experts to back me up: Michael Kemp and Virginia Postrel.

First, Kemp. In 1973 he pointed out that "given the initial decision to travel, transit riding will be higher when the relative prices of substitute modes are at their highest." What are those "substitute modes"? Walking, cycling, taxis and of course, private cars. The success of transit is dependent on the failure or cars. In fact, as I pointed out in 2008, of all the benefits advertised for transit, all but one come from getting people out of their cars. Jarrett and Nordahl both ignore that (possibly out of a desire to be taken seriously), but the result is a difficulty in maintaining perspective in transit discussions.

Now, Postrel. When people choose transit (as opposed to one of the substitute modes like cars), they don't just make the choice once. A person who has any transit available, and any car available, is faced with a choice between transit and driving over and over again. But there is not even one kind of choice between transit and car (or bike or walking). There are four kinds: Single Trips, Habits, Investments and Subsidies.

It is a very different kind of decision to take the bus, or the train, or the tram, or the cable car, or a private car, for one Single Trip than it is to choose to take one mode on a regular basis. If we take the bus once and it gets stuck in traffic, then we can take something else on the next Single Trip. But if we've made a habit of taking the bus, then it's harder to change. Investments are even harder: if someone buys a house in some desolate part of Lattingtown with no transit, that constrains their options. Subsidies are also different: because Andrew Cuomo decided to build a jumbo-sized Tappan Zee Bridge, and because Kate Slevin decided not to challenge him on the size of that bridge, a lot more people will find it easier to make Habits out of driving than if a jumbo-sized bridge is not built.

There are four factors that affect our mode decisions: Availability, Value, Amenities and Glamour. This is where Postrel comes in, because Glamour is her specialty. Glamour is when someone makes a decision based on a fantasy, usually some kind of escape fantasy. One great example she gave was a book called Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in That House. Of course life will not be perfect no matter what house you live in. But we all have these yearnings, some of us more than others.

It is essential to note that these factors affect the different kinds of decisions to differing degrees. Availability is of course the baseline, because you can't chose a mode at all if it's not Available. Glamour and Amenities count much more for Single Trips, while Value counts for Habits. Glamour also counts for Investments and Subsidies, like the magical house that just might be out in Lattingtown somewhere, or the bridge that will somehow make commuting by car to an office park in Purchase bearable.

That's why Jarrett and Nordahl are both right. Jarrett is talking about Habits, and of course the most important thing for Habits is Value. Nordahl is talking about Investments and Subsidies, and getting people to take that first Single Trip, and Glamour and Amenities are hugely important for those choices. They both agree on Availability, of course.

So if you're trying to get people to ride transit (which means getting them to choose transit over driving a car), who should you believe, Jarrett Walker or Darrin Nordahl? That entirely depends on what kind of decision you're trying to get people to make. If it's a Single Trip, go with Nordahl. If it's a Habit, go with Jarrett.

If it's an Investment or a Subsidy, it's more complicated. You need both, because Glamour will sell the apartment, but Value will keep them in it. Glamour will sell the subway line, but Value will keep people riding. Glamour without Value leads to abandonment as soon as the next glamorous project comes along. Value without Glamour will never sell, because there are tons of shallow people out there that are incapable of making an Investment or Subsidy decision on the basis of Value alone.

For transit in general, and specifically for the Investment and Subsidy decisions, we need a balance of Glamour and Value, of empathy and system, of delight and commodity, of Nordahl and Walker. And for God's sake, we need to keep in mind that transit doesn't exist in a vacuum, and at the end of the day the main reason we want more transit is to get people out of their cars.


BruceMcF said...

But, how are you going to write and sell a book with such a balanced approach? You need a silver bullet, despite the fact that solutions sold as silver bullets are never really silver bullet solutions in practice.

Anonymous said...

Interesting post, buty I disagree that either Darrin Nordahl or I "ignore" the fact that the entire context of the transit debate is about providing an alternative to the private car.

Indeed, Darrin's My Kind of Transit seems very focused on kinds of fun that are big and obvious -- amusement-park scale fun, to use his explicit comparison to Disneyland. The futuristic and nostalgic technologies that he praises play to notions of the good that are common in mass-media and thus in the lives of habitual motorists. They are his explicit audience.

I am less interested in that audience because I am more interested in people who are in the position to potentially find transit useful, but currently do not. These tend to be people who are in geographic and financial positions where transit can serve them well. Many are not habitual motorists or at least not so much attached to motoring as feeling stuck with it due to unawareness of their transit options, or those options lying just below the threshold of usefulness.

But I'm still trying to shift people from cars. Human Transit (book or blog) is full of suggestions that are about making transit more complementary with the other sustainable modes, and thus more competitive with the private car. For example, my suggestion that focus needs to shift from local-stop services to rapid-stop services is because local-stop services try to replace walking and thus run too slowly to compete with cars. By contrast, I want transit to complement walking by providing faster service that is worth riding longer distances to.

As for Postrel, I am fine being plotted along her axes as you do, but am a little uncomfortable with the Single Trip vs Habit tradeoff. Someone trying a Single Trip may be attracted by Glamour but I contend they'll be retained by Availability and Value -- or as I prefer to call it, Usefulness. The only time Glamour is of continuous long-term importance is (a) recreational and tourist trips, which will always be a small share of the whole and (b) for very high-end customers, in whom I'm not that interested because there are just not that many of them.

But I care very much about attracting riders for the Single Trip -- especially helping people feel that their service is useful for a range of purposes, not just certain trips they make habitually. And I think being a rational choice -- Usefulness, or what Postrel would call Availablility and Value -- is often sufficient to do that. Think of trips to sporting events, for example, where Value (compared to your alternatives) often seals the deal at parking-constrained venues.

I want transit to make people feel free, for either single trips or habitual ones. That means Glamour is great but not when you sacrifice Usefulness for it. And yes, it's all about competing with cars.

Jarrett Walker,

Cap'n Transit said...

Thanks for the comment, Jarrett! I would still like to see you and Nordahl each point out a planned or proposed road project that will undermine transit.

I want to clarify that dividing choices into Single Trips, Habits, Investments and Subsidies, and dividing factors into Availability, Value, Amenities and Glamour, is my contribution. All that Postrel contributes is a greater understanding of glamour. In fact, she claims that highways always pay for themselves.

Anonymous said...

Planned or proposed road projects that undermine transit include any that make driving easier or faster or cheaper in a corridor where attractive transit is either available or under development.

It hasn't occurred to me to point out one because most road projects do this. As a working consultant, too, I inevitably prefer to operate through positive messaging most of the time.

But I don't think I've shirked from this. There's a brief discussion of the basic road and pricing issue vis and vis transit in my book, in Chapter 11. I generally treat the point as too obvious to dwell on.

More indirectly, you could say that road projects undermine transit if they open an area for development in a form that is meant to be car-dependent. But I don't push that angle hard because I think we can achieve all our sustainability goals by focusing on transit in areas where the geography and culture indicate that transit can succeed.

BruceMcF said...

So, in other words, a purely utilitarian approach suffices if we adopt an extremely optimistic view of the population share in totally car-dependent settlement that is compatible with sustainability.

To hit more ambitious targets, we need an approach that will support a more ambitious target in terms of availability of auto-independent transport.

Cap'n Transit said...

Do you really think it's that obvious? Of the seven transit projects undermined by parallel road capacity increases that I pointed out last year, how many of them have people involved who are aware of the conflict?

I can name five transit projects in my area that are similarly undermined, and I'm sure you can name five in the PNW (including the WES Commuter Rail). Can you really say that everyone involved in those five is aware of the conflict?

I understand that you would prefer positive messaging. Who doesn't? Well, I guess cranky old farts like me. But do you at least include the effects of these competing projects in your ridership projections?

EngineerScotty said...


WES/OR217 is not a good example of a transit project being undermined by highway capacity improvements. OR217, an absurdly-functionally-obsolete freeway (interchanges on average every 1km, and some VERY short distances between) has received one minor upgrade recently--an additional northbound lane between the Canyon Road and US26 interchanges--all of which is north of the terminus of the WES line.

Some capacity improvements on I-5 south of Tigard are likely more problematic for WES--mainly an increase to 8 lanes between Tualatin and Wilsonville--but if these have reduced WES demand, it's probably in the noise.

Many MAX lines run parallel to freeways, but in all cases the freeway was there first. The only Portland freeway which has seen significant capacity increases over a significant length is US26, which has gone from 4 lanes to 6 since westside MAX opened; however, westside MAX remains a highly popular and well-used line. (And it only runs alongside the freeway for a very short stretch).

WES's main problem is that it's travelshed is too small, and the distance is too short, to be an effective commuter rail line. Other than the Wilsonville stop, it lies entirely within the TriMet service district; and it duplicates a well-ridden bus line (though offering faster, nicer service). It should have been a rapid transit line, not commuter rail.