Sunday, December 27, 2015

Knowing you killed someone is not punishment

Advocates for safer streets have been pushing back against the use of "accident" to absolve drivers of responsibility for not killing or injuring other people. When drivers engage in behavior that demonstrates a callous indifference to human life - or even an unjustified faith in their own ability to avoid killing people - death is no accident, but a predictable consequence.

The next line of defense is commonly that the driver "has suffered enough," sometimes simply by witnessing a horrific death that (by implication) they were powerless to stop, or even by being forced to consider the possibility that their behavior or choices may have been connected to this death.

In circumstances where there is really no denying that the driver acted recklessly or irresponsibly, the claim is that this knowledge serves as a lesson. The driver now knows the consequences of reckless behavior or irresponsible choices, and will never do it again.

Many drivers flee the scene of the crash, because they believe they will be held responsible for it and do not want to face the consequences. (Some do it for a chance to sober up.) Reckless killer drivers who do this have compounded their crime of reckless driving with another, leaving the scene.

Unfortunately, some people are so upset by this effort to evade responsibility that if the driver is caught they treat that as the major crime. Conversely, they may be so relieved that a killer driver turns themself in, or chooses not to leave the scene, that they praise that and forget any reckless behavior.

This is all bullshit. We have laws specifying the penalties for killing someone with a car. They could use a little more tightening up in the evidence department, but they're pretty clear on the consequences.

To the best of my knowledge we do not say that reckless knife-wavers have "suffered enough" or that negligent builders have "learned their lesson." We do not praise incompetent gun handlers for not running away. We should not treat drivers any differently.

Actually, we also treat some incompetent gun handlers differently - we sometimes say they've "suffered enough" if they negligently kill their own children. In a post about this craziness, some guy named Greg Laden made an astute point:

Suggesting that the decision to hold someone responsible for an irresponsible act that has damaged another should be based on how the perpetrator of that act feels post hoc, extended more generally, means that the standard for punishment under the law is inverse to the severity of the crime. It is suggesting that the severity of the possible punishment be inverse to the seriousness of the crime because how bad one feels is proportionate to the severity of the crime.

Knowing you killed someone is not punishment. Realizing that they might still be alive if you had made different choices is not punishment. Staying at the scene is not accepting responsibility. Turning yourself in is not penance. As long as we continue to treat them as such, people will continue to die.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Our stratified transportation system

A lot of people are nervous about the possibility that privately-run electronic taxi-hailing systems like Uber and Lyft could take over functions that have recently been filled by government-run transit services. Others are disturbed by the sight of privately-run companies like Leap and Bridj marketing local bus services as luxury products. I share some of these concerns, and I've addressed them in previous posts.

What I don't share is the idea that any of these services will create a "two tier" or "stratified" system with one service for the rich and one for the poor. There's a simple reason for this: we already have one.

If you go to a small city like, say, Lancaster, Pennsylvania, you'll see our stratified system in action: the people on the buses are mostly poor and nonwhite, and everyone else is driving. Ride the bus in a city like Kingston, New York, where the received wisdom is that "everyone drives because you need a car to get around," and you'll see that there are still people who don't drive: the extremely poor and the mentally and physically disabled. Here in New York the majority rides the subways, but there is a stratum that drives everywhere, and pretty much runs the city.

The bus and rail strata are largely run by the government and paid with tax money, but some of the money comes from fares paid by passengers. In the strata where people drive, passengers often contribute the labor of driving themselves, and pay a lot of money for the vehicles, fuel, insurance and other costs, and also contribute to the construction and maintenance of road, bridge and parking infrastructure through taxes. But as has been shown time and again, they do not pay the entire cost of the system; a much larger share of general tax revenue goes to driving than to transit.

This stratified system can be very cruel to those in the bottom strata, and it generally gets worse the smaller the share of the population that takes transit. The poorer the average transit user is, the slower, dirtier, more crowded, less frequent and less reliable the transit.

Even here in New York, the driving classes are constantly blocking improvements to transit, whether it's another commuter rail track, extension of an el train, allowing bus pickups or dedicating a bus lane. So yes, I know firsthand how bad it is to have a stratified system with minimal investment in the lowest strata. And I can't see how Uber, Lyft, Chariot and Bridj could possibly make things any worse.

In fact, I see it the opposite way: that people who take these taxi and premium bus services are less likely to identify as drivers and more likely to take transit and support transit expansion. If they don't have cars to park, they're much less likely to go crazy over reallocating street space from parking to transit.

As I've written before, I'm not a libertarian, and I'm not even much of a capitalist. One of my goals is access for all to jobs, housing, shopping and services. I would be open to a state solution, a government monopoly on transportation with a single level of service. But to impose a government monopoly on transportation would require drastic state action. Use your transit quota well, comrade! The government would most definitely be coming for your cars. Who would be first up against the wall - Rory Lancman?

In any case, I'm trying to think of an area where our government provides a monopoly with a single level of service, and coming up blank. Housing, food, energy, school - there is usually some government service, but it always has substantial competition from the private sector. Even services that are nominally single-tier like identification, permitting and licensing have inequalities. If you can afford to pay a rush fee or an expediter, or if you just live in a wealthier area, your interactions with the government will be quicker and smoother.

It's not just our government, either. The most revolutionary, egalitarian governments ever have failed pathetically at imposing transportation equality, when they've even tried it. Even the Soviet Union had its Ladas for the Party officials.

Sadly, these people who bleat about "stratification" don't even have the vision to realize the amount of stratification between cars and transit or the guts to mention it, much less address it. They would never think about taking away cars or parking, or defunding roads. They'd rather make a big show of opposing inequality that doesn't exist than address inequality that exists.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Let a thousand Brooklyns bloom

As I said last year, what many people call "gentrification" in large American coastal cities is the result of the confluence of four or so different migrations. Cities have been drawing the Best and the Brightest and International Migrants for all of history, since the first trading post was set up where a trail crossed a river. They are not the main source of demand for urban real estate. Rents are rising because those two streams are joined by two other major streams, the Empty Nesters and the Small City Exiles.

The conformist Baby Boomers failed to make their utopia in the suburbs, and the back-to-the-landers failed to make their utopia in the country. Now they've got bad knees or bad eyesight or whatever, and if they care at all about any people, deer or trees on the road they'll do the right thing and buy a condo near their kids in the city where they can walk to shopping. Sucks if you wanted that apartment, twentysomethings.

Here's what I said about the Small City Exiles last year:

not the best or the brightest, or complete misfits, but they’re pretty bright, mildly kinky or noticeably nonconformist. Or maybe they can’t drive because they’re blind or epileptic, or they just don’t want to. Eighty years ago they’d have been pretty happy in Rochester or Knoxville or Omaha or San Luis Obispo: reasonably normal, functioning members of society, with enough peers to have a stimulating intellectual and artistic fellowship.

Today, those towns have hardly any jobs at all, especially within walking distance of downtown, shopping and services are sprawled out across the area, and transit between them is inconvenient. With this fragmentation, they can barely sustain a monthly open mike or an Indian restaurant, let alone a poetry slam or a regional Thai place. Our heroes – somewhat large fish in not-so-large ponds – see the grim desperation in the faces of their older neighbors and head to the bigger cities, where there are more opportunities, not just for jobs but for dinner after 8PM.

In that post, and in other recent posts, I've pointed out that the Empty Nesters and Small City Exiles don't need the big cities. They don't need a regional Thai restaurant. They were happy enough in the small cities, but there were no jobs and nowhere to walk. If we can fix those two problems they won't move to the big cities and drive up the prices.

If we make these small cities really attractive, many of the exiles will move back, and some will move to other small cities. What would it take? I'm not an expert on economic development, but I can think of a couple things that would help. First of all, they should be Strong Towns, keeping taxes low by focusing government spending on cost-effective, dense areas and avoiding spreading obligations out over huge distances.

It seems that a lot of our current economic growth is in high technology, and the places with most promise for tech are those that attract techie types, creative types and financial types (and people who are some combination) and allow them to mix and bounce ideas off each other. But I don't think you can declare a "Silicon Mangrove" in the middle of nowhere, upzone and automatically get tech jobs. It also seems that it helps for the city to be a physical port, connected to trade routes that make it easy for them to get materials and ship out products.

To my mind, the most promising small cities are those that are close to established centers like New York or San Francisco, so that staff members can spend a day in the city talking to potential collaborators and funders, and be home for dinner. Just as before the highway era, they can benefit from their proximity to the big port.

Some of these small cities are already coming back; you can tell because they're often called "the next Brooklyn." And where they are, people are already worried about displacement. It's important not to dismiss those displacement fears out of hand. Some towns have more vacancy than others. If rents are rising faster than wages, either the town should loosen zoning to allow more housing to be built in walkable areas, or we should work to boost opportunities in other towns.

Some people in those towns have expressed fear of their unique towns being swamped by a "monoculture," turning them all into clones of Brooklyn. I'm skeptical about these fears in general, but in small cities they're particularly unfounded. Beacon isn't Brooklyn, and neither is Rosendale; they've got way too much of their own personalities to become clones of Park Slope or Williamsburg. In particular, a lot of the people moving there are actually Small City Exiles who grew up in the area and tried to make it in the city.

I'll talk about what I think would help revive these cities in another post.