Category Archives: Transit

Noble lies and transit

Attention Conservation Notice: I may have just come up with a rationale for overly optimistic ridership and cost forecasts, and having sprouted horns and a tail, may need to go bathe in holy water or visit an exorcist. Crimony.

In the how-on-earth-did-the-argument-wind-up-here department, I am beavering away on Chapter 3 on public transit. It’s a tricky chapter because it doesn’t quite fit in with the rest of the book. The major thrust of the book concerns the virtues that urbanists should embrace in order to foster Jane Jacobs’ style urbanism. The transit chapter digresses a bit from that theme, as most of the chapter develops an argument for why cities as a political community have the duty to supply transit (I am then going on to write about whether people have a duty to take transit.) Through many twists and turns, I have come to the topic of bad transit forecasting and whether these might be covered under the rubric of the ‘noble lie’ in politics.

Plato, in Book III of the Republic, has Socrates verbally sparring with Glaucon, Plato’s brother. Glaucon, as we discover, is no slouch when it comes to debate. He also has the will to power, and Socrates often toys with Glaucon, talking about what extremes a society would have to go in order to achieve social harmony. The noble lie is no exception. There are two parts of the lie: the first lie concerns the idea that a society can be, somehow, autochthonous, without politics, or history, or established systems of relationships. That is the pseudoi. The second part is described as a myth, one that would need to be believed by all classes of workers in a utopian political community. Socrates’ myth consists of convincing the members of the polis that each is born with different metals at his core: the rulers infused with gold, their experts and helpers have silver, and the common men made of brass or iron. Leo Strauss noted that Socrates’ description of the ‘noble lie’ captures the idea that leadership is selective, and that society requires these types of myths about social order in order to achieve social cohesion.

Political theorist Kateri Carmola made a somewhat different argument I favor, largely because it ties into its interpretation the positions that Glaucon has taken in favor of seizing power and imposing justice, the context, and the dramatic gestures Socrates makes. It also ties in all those long digressions about genealogy that many take as simple eugenics, though they don’t hold together as simple eugenics because of the way Socrates keeps pointing out that fine breeding only leads to exceptional specimens every so often, and in some cases, leads to some real duds. Carmola’s approach also explains Plato’s focus on cosmogony: the focus on making and breeding is a metaphor for making society, from one generation to the next. Carmola also links the idea of the noble lie to Socrates’ reference to Cadmus and the House of Thebes, one of the most violent intergenerational myths available to him. In the case of the cosmogony, the tales of the origins contained in Hesiod contain a great deal of intergenerational violence and familial abuse. The preconditions of political and social life are bloody and unjust.

Carmola suggests that Plato uses the noble lie to smooth over, and yet highlight, the “incompatibility between historical reality and absolute justice.” (p. 51). The lie is a children’s story, in Socrates’ manner of educating children, that helps them transition to the necessity of a politically established conception of justice, and away from an individual, idealized right order of justice. It concerns the political act of founding, or transforming, a political community. The dialogue in Book III is a means for helping Glaucon, and those like him, to see the problems inherent in believing that justice may be imposed, even as one stretches out and seeks to influence the course of human affairs. Carmola’s paper is delightful, and I highly recommend it.

Applied to transit politics, the idea that public agencies like transit companies might engage in myth making in their future visioning comes out most strongly in Jonathan Richmond’s Transport of Delight: The Mythical Conception of Rail Transit in Los Angeles . Richmond traces the development of Los Angeles’s new rail construction, highlighting the manner of myth making that occurred between the region’s transit providers and the public it serves. Richmond is critical, not unlike Glaucon when he tells Socrates that he should be ashamed of such lies within a political community, deluding people with promises of something that isn’t simply because of the outcomes the vision offers. Plans and visions are in many ways, lies; leaders and the forecasters they employ can not guarantee all the outcomes. They can offer visions and paths, through a glass darkly as Paul warned us. What rail advocates throughout the 1980s, 1990s,2000s and today offered to Los Angeles is a vision of what isn’t–yet. Actualities may or may not follow; shouldn’t adult citizens be capable of understanding that in the dialogic, deliberative venue that is contemporary democracy? As Socrates helps Glaucon see in Book III to Book VII, there are no bright lines and transparent, easy-to-read boundaries in leading for justice. Is it really so wrong for mission-oriented public agencies, founded because somebody had a vision for what they might do, describe their visions in dream states on the one hand, and nightmare states on the other? The rest of us are not bound to subscribe unless we see ourselves as enthralled by ‘what the experts say’ about what cities should build and how–hardly true in planning now, if it ever was true (which I doubt; I think it was more to do with lack of constitutional protections for individuals vis-a-vis state decisions). If most of us know forecasts are diddled, and I think it’s fair to say that secret is out, and yet voters continue to vote for projects, anyway, it is probably fair to say that voters are voter for the grand vision and not the details.

Even if the lines are not bright, there is still a line, as Socrates’ use of the word “lie” indicates, between the poetic license of agencies and advocates seeking to lead through rainbows-and-sunshine visions and the propaganda and overreach of despots, not to mention the political penalties that ensue from such such disastrous-if-one-gets-caught misinformation as Obama’s reassurances about keeping your plan (no matter how crappy), reading lips about “no new taxes, and California’s High Speed Rail Agency strategic distortions of their cost estimates early on.

Carmola, Kateri. “Noble Lying: Justice and Intergenerational Tension in Plato’s “Republic”.” Political Theory 31, no. 1 (2003): doi:10.2307/3595658. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3595658

Richmond, Jonathan. Transport of Delight : The Mythical Conception of Rail Transit in Los Angeles. Akron, Ohio: University of Akron Press, 2005

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Eric Eidlin blogging on HSR and land use in Europe

Eric Eidlin is a friend of mine from back in the day at UCLA; he’s currently a community planner with FTA up in San Francisco. He is currently on a fellowship in Germany and France and he is writing his observations at The Urban Current. Here is one of my favorite entries so far, on Train Stations and the Tension between “place” and “node.”:

An issue that has come up frequently in my discussions with my French project contacts is how to balance the conflicting roles of train stations: how, on one hand, to design stations that serve as places through which large numbers of travelers can move through efficiently, while at the same time creating memorable and pleasant urban places where people want to spend their time. This is what planner geeks like me call the ‘tension between place and node.’

Go read.

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Transit, we love you, but you bring us down: service problems from a patron’s perspective

Peter Gordon and I were chatting at party yesterday about my difficulties writing an introductory chapter about public transit. Why the trouble? The topic has become so politicized that no matter what you say, somebody assumes something about your ideology before you are able to finish your thought. My goal in an introductory chapter, I think, is to help newcomers to the field get enough background to evaluate the debates on their own, not feed them my conclusions. It’s proved a tough chapter to structure.

So I was surfing around the webs to see what other people think the big debates are in public transit, and I happened upon this wonderful, refreshingly honest piece from a commuter over at the Size. As a fellow transit commuter, the writer over at the Size pretty much nailed the problems from a commuter’s vantage point–and it has nothing whatsoever to do with the normal advocacy about how transit saves the universe and is clean, convenient, and quick. In my experience, transit is seldom any of those things—but it is still often better than driving even from the standpoint of the individual decision-maker and her utility, without worrying about fighting climate change or obesity or any other social ill we’d like transit to fix for us (while we mostly ignore and underfund it).

Taken together, the sum total of her problems with transit make a go-to guide for what, if we could clean up our act as transit providers, would take transit from being useful but annoying to being useful and often pleasant. I’ll go point by point.

10. The bus didn’t see you and tried to (or did) just drive right past you. You’re wearing a long bright red coat, but somehow you’ve turned invisible momentarily. These things happen.

Passbys. RRRRrrr. Sometimes they are your fault–when you are embarking on a non routine trip, and you accidentally stand in the wrong spot (which wouldn’t happen if transit information were better, but even then, I routinely screw up), or sometimes they are the driver’s fault–i.e., she’s driving an express bus that doesn’t stop at that stop, but she doesn’t have her express number up, or she’s running cold and shortchanges a single patron waiting so that she can skip a stop and get back on time. Those things do happen; if drivers didn’t do stuff like that every so often, they’d get pretty far off schedule, and then everybody on the bus and everybody coming up is ill-served rather than just you.

In my ideal world, when a driver has to skip a stop to deal with the schedule, they should be able to blast that info so that the tripper behind him or her can give a dollar coupon or some such from the transit store or some sponsor to give to the standees at the stop. It’s small comfort, but it is an acknowledgement that the bus operator didn’t meet a service expectation. Also in my ideal world, that message from the operator would prompt a tweet or a text to passengers who subscribe to that line when the next bus is coming so that you can make an informed decision about whether to wait or whether to give up and cab it.

9. There is a delay due to slippery rail, mechanical failure, residual mechanical failure, disabled train, disabled bus, signal problem, medical emergency, weather related problem, residual delay, switch problem, heavy ridership, police investigation, traffic, weather related slip, heavy ridership, etc. My favorite of these delay reasons is “late train”. How can you describe the reason as the problem? Why is the train late? The train is late due to a late train. Okay, that clears things up.

Transit companies work pretty hard to stay on time, but failures do happen. Telling people that the train is late because it’s late isn’t helpful, and it feels like an insult to your intelligence to have this said in explanation. Transit workers should be better at saying “I’m sorry–I have no idea why it’s late, but I will check to see if I can find out when it’s coming.” Some transit providers tweet the information, which is marginally helpful. But in cases of very late service, transit companies should try to make it right by sending bus shuttles and offering next-month pass discount codes to people waiting past a certain threshold. I know it would decrease revenue, but when you are recovering as little from the farebox as transit providers generally do, losing a bit of revenue in favor of passenger goodwill might be worth the trade.

8. Someone has BO, too much perfume, permanent cigarette scent, and any other funk that you must now deal with.

Nothing to be done about that. Hell is other people.

7. You can’t get in the train. You’ve been waiting what feels like forever and need to get to your destination soon (or just would really like to). Oh, good. Here’s the next train. It opens. It’s full.

From a provider’s perspective, crush loads are sort of awesome. All that revenue, all those passengers, being served by one driver at a time. Super! But from a passenger’s perspective, this is nasty. Not much to do in the short term but try to run higher frequencies or larger trains, but you probably can’t do either because you’ve maxed out on platform space already (train size), or your roster isn’t big enough to support more peak hour operators, or you can’t add from your existing roster because you can’t split drivers’ shifts according to union rules, or paying split shifts is prohibitively expensive.

Another possibility is adding a private contractor to try to redirect some passengers to professional vanpool or bus services who will take agency passes during the peak. That’s expensive, too, and your unions don’t appreciate it.

6. People won’t wait for you to leave to train before they try to get on. They somehow are always surprised to see you there trying to exit. It’s not the second coming of Jesus, folks. You should expect every time a train comes that at least one person is going to be walking through the opening and off the train.

OMG–my biggest pet peeve, right along with the people at the airport in Zones 4-100 who feel the need to clutter up the space for boarding and make it hard for the rest of us in zones 1-3 to get on the airplane. Seriously people, the plane/train/bus leaves when it leaves, we’re all leaving at the same time. Stop it, would you?

I’m not sure there is a solution to this one, except in my ideal world the people who do that are poked with a cattle prod and made to wait until EVERY SINGLE PERSON HAS ALIGHTED HOW DO YOU LIKE THEM APPLES, MR IMPATIENTPANTS?

Any design solutions folks have noticed at station areas? Continue reading

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Why transit advocates should avoid the “what white people want” card

So I got plenty of blowback on yesterday’s post (and not from the gentle and insightful commenter here) about what a mean meany meanpants I am for not being nicer about the “need” for light rail as a means to coddle white transit riders who won’t use buses. I’m used to histrionics from sensitive wee flowers who want their casual racism unquestioned, let alone being unwilling to condone the All Things Rail All the Time thinking that dominates transit.

Here’s why people should never play the “what white people will ride” card, when advocating for any mode or service, ever.

1. White people already dominate urban policy, including transit policy, without any help from the rail fanboys acting as amplifiers. If there is one thing transportation policy in the US has not suffered from, it’s a failure to prioritize what white people want. So supposedly, white people want high levels of service, which means rail, if you believe you can’t serve passengers well with buses.(Which I don’t, but lots of people do.)

Unfortunately, an aversion to buses or low service quality doesn’t explain why many white people moved themselves, and continue to move themselves, into auto-oriented enclaves not served by rail or anything else. It does not explain why white people throughout the US have systematically voted for one property tax avoidance measure after another, thereby sealing off city governments’ most likely own-source revenues to support the operations and building of urban transit systems. Aversion to buses alone doesn’t explain why legislators in states across the US passed measures forbidding state gas taxes to be spent on anything other than roads. Then there are the enclaves that sue transit operators for putting stops and stations in their neighborhoods, regardless of whether it’s a bus stop or rail station. Then there is the fact that white people whine like a swarm of gnats at the mere mention of higher gas taxes, or vehicle registration fees, or tolls, or parking charges, thus squelching all the likely nonlocal alternatives to the property tax which can yield revenues with which to provide more transit.

Call me crazy, but I think these are the very last people we should spend transit resources on, let alone lavish them with premium services, since, short of actually deploying the US military against transit infrastructure, they couldn’t make it more obvious they don’t want anything to do with transit.

Substitute “transit” for “toast” in the conversation, and we have nailed what an apparently not insignificant group of white Americans have communicated through their revealed preferences–in land markets and politics: they want to be isolated from transit, and they don’t want to pay for it.

The opposite is true as well: when empowered white constituencies want rail, they usually get it via their influence in land markets and regional politics. Unless it’s rail to LAX which I believe may have incurred the wroth of a one-eyed Gypsy woman who also told off Lon Chaney,Jr.

So “what white people want” is already nicely represented among the power elite without transit people acting like white people’s preferences are special.

2. What white people will ride is the wrong question. The right question: what transit level of service is sufficiently good to attract the most customers?

There’s a big difference in framing between “let’s worry about what white people think is good enough for them” and “Our service should be so good that even fussy, time-sensitive, amenity-sensitive customers will demand it.” Think about it. I’m willing to entertain the latter as a service goal, by all means. The former? Racist.

3. Poor transit service quality is a legitimate reason not to take a bus. Refusing to take a bus, no matter how well it actually operates, because you associate buses with poor people or people of color, is odious. And it’s definitely not a reason we should spend one thin dime of public investment in modes you think are higher class.

Some US regions, like my own, are decades away from being able to serve neighborhoods without residents of those areas ever having to use a bus. Treating buses like an inherently second-class service in these environments means we undermine riders in those areas for a long time.

And if people really do refuse to ride buses no matter how good the bus service is, that sounds less like demanding good service and more like an ironclad excuse to keep your lazy ass in your car in perpetuity while pretending you’d be willing take transit, but only in some fantasy future when rail transit will be built over every square inch of a metropolitan region.* And catering to that nonsense is a way to always have a ready-made, ironclad rationale for arguing we should prioritize rail investment over every other transit goal.

And if we really believe that white people won’t take a bus because of their social biases (rather than service quality concerns), why would our response to that be “please, please, oh pretty please with sprinkles on top, let us use up precious resources to kowtow to your your morally repugnant, anti-social beliefs by gold-plating a small number of facilities for you, you poor dear fragile thing” instead of the way a civilized public should respond, which is: “Stop it.”

I get that things don’t work that way in majoritarian politics, but can’t we be a little more sensitive in transit towards our patrons of color than to say we should upscale some service areas with very expensive investments because that’s all white people will ride?

*If you refuse to ride a bus, but you are walking or biking or skateboarding or using your solar-powered jet pack, you are allowed to ignore me.

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“White people won’t ride the bus”, if true, is racism, not a rationale for light rail. Just saying.

I’ve heard “white people just won’t ride a bus” roughly a million times during my career. It’s conventional wisdom. I also hear it used for why we need more rail investment to attract choice riders out of their cars. “White people just won’t ride the bus.”

Since when does indulging racism serve as a justification for putting billions of taxpayer money into something?

Oh, yeah, since forever if our mortgage policies are any indicator.

Some of this may be code for the belief that light rail is always better service than buses, and you won’t get choice riders without better service. I’m a lifelong transit commuter, and I could care less about what is under the vehicle. I want service that comes every 5 minutes, no vomit on the seats, reasonable reliability of arrival time, and amenities at stops. All those things can be accomplished with light rail or buses, if there is a sufficient investment in the buses. Oh, no no no, rail people tell me. Rail is better because it has dedicated ROW. Oh, baloney. As we prove over and over in LA, if your rail is interacting with traffic signals, it’s going to be slow. And there is more than one way to get your own ROW: sure, building LRT is one way. Or having the political guts to just take away two lanes of car traffic for dedicated bus service is another way. Gulling people into giving you billions for the former so you can avoid have to annoy people with the latter is good politics, but it doesn’t make for inherently better transit.

And since white people apparently don’t ride the bus, we fling our resources at rail projects for white people, since improving bus service would just make life easier for all those brown people who are dumb enough to use buses, not like those clever and discriminating white people, and when has making life easier for brown people ever been a public priority in the US? So then since buses are ghetto, and that’s just that, there’s no point in working on them. Buses are more difficult to operate well, and doing so requires more political courage (see taking lanes away for cars), and if buses do run well, people might not vote for fantasy rail systems and they won’t give us any money for transit–so there’s really nobody who is going to advocate for putting the resources you need to run buses well into buses, except for things like the Bus Riders Union and we all know what those people are like. And so, quelle surprise, buses don’t run well. But that’s ok because white people won’t take the bus.

Rail and buses (and taxis) work together to create a *system*. A system matters. Modes are just tools for systems. The Tube may be the most obvious and capital intensive of London’s transit, as is the subway in Moscow. But both those cities also have comprehensive and frequent buses and ubiquitous taxis to help people with their last mile. And there’s a whole lot of white people on those buses.

The bus *versus* rail idiocy in the US undermines our service here and transit riders, particularly people of color, suffer from the racism that has defined our approach to different modes.

If we approached investing in our wardrobe way we talk about investing in modes, this is how the conversation would go:

Man, why buy shorts when you can buy pants? Pants are a-numero-uno. With pants, your whole leg is covered, as well as your privates. It’s premium. All the way, all the time. You never have to worry about how you look in a fancy restaurant. You’re covered. Totally. In pants. They are so much better. Yeah, they cost more, but they do so much more! All the time.

But what about shorts? Shorts are inexpensive, and they also cover your privates, and they are so comfy in hot weather by the beach.

NO WAY! With shorts, you can’t do everything you can in pants. Pants are inherently better! Investing in shorts would be a waste of money, since you can always still wear your pants on the beach, but you can’t wear shorts at a country club, now can you? Can you?

But what about those places where shorts are more convenient and comfortable? Like a basketball court.

Oh, screw those places! Those places are so marginal, nobody really needs to go there. Look, pants are all the rage with classy people. Here’s what we’ll do. We’ll concentrate development to direct people to go to places where their investment in fancy great pants makes sense, and get them to eschew those places where shorts might work better because we just don’t think shorts are worth investing in.

Yeah, that whole conversation is painfully stupid to listen to. But it’s the conversation about modes I’ve had to sit through for 20 years. No wonder I’m bitchy, right?

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NY Writers Coalition Offers an Opportunity on a Subway Car – NYTimes.com

I can not form words on how much I love:

NY Writers Coalition Offers an Opportunity on a Subway Car – NYTimes.com:

The man, Aaron Zimmerman, is the executive director of the NY Writers Coalition, and he and several volunteers were leading one of several free writing workshops that the coalition was holding throughout the city on Friday, including one in Coney Island and another aboard the Staten Island Ferry.

(Via www.nytimes.com)

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And November just got interesting again—Villargaigosa’s Measure R extension

So just when Santorum leaves and I’m faced with the possibility that reading about politics won’t be interesting enough to keep me away from doing real work (gasp! work!), LA’s mayor decides he’s going back to the ballot box to ask voters to make Measure R, a half-cent sales tax measure passed for 30 years back in 2008, permanent.

In Tony’s favor, it never hurts to ask, particularly when one is not running for re-election. For most US mayors who want to build more transit, the writing is on Belshazzar’s wall: we’re not likely to get a new transportation deal in DC at all before the November election. Unless something changes there–as in, we have a big, Goldwater-style doomsday for the GOP—if we get a deal after November it’s likely to be the Republicans’ deal. And they don’t want a federal infrastructure bank, and they don’t like sending money to California.

A couple journos called my Suburban Lair yesterday to talk about whether the Measure R extension has a chance of passing. I don’t think I gave them anything useful. Los Angeles County has had six or seven–I can’t remember–ballot box measures for sales taxes between 1975 and today, and three of them have passed: Prop A in 1980, Prop C in 1993, and Measure R in 2008. So based on the county’s history, it could go either way.

When Measure R was on the ballot, I spent time talking to both Democrats and Republicans about the measure, and among the Republicans, the fact that the measure would sunset seemed like a big deal to them. I can’t imagine they would be happy with the extension.

But if there is one thing that Mayor Tony’s crew knows how to do, it’s campaign. They are very good at it, and they got some key experience with Measure R, and they also have a pretty powerful network of businesses and nonprofits that threw their support behind the “Yes on Measure R” campaign–like most of the LA County museums. It seems likely that that coalition is still in place and readily activated for another initiative.

However, the continuation of the tax is a big deal, and the rationale–that they want to make sure they can borrow against the tax–has an assumption that will probably worry conservatives in the County: the fact that they aren’t comfortable borrowing against the tax that will sunset suggests that they know full well the tax as it is can’t support the existing project list without very, very low cost federal financing of the 30/10 plan. There are always cost over-runs, and it’s really really important that people not underestimate how expensive the subway to the sea is going to be. By releasing that sunset, the pressure to avoid cost over-runs goes away a bit. And that’s a problem for many conservative voters who see removing that constraint as a license to do what governments do: take on too much financial risk and manage projects poorly.

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The House Transport Bill is anti-federalist, not anti-transit

Transit advocates should thank gridlock the transport bill from the House is more symbolic than anything. It’s not going to go anywhere, not because the bill has no supporters, but because nothing is going anywhere in DC these days.

The bill a does a bunch of really unfortunate things, but the one that has the average urbanist’s undies in a twist is that the bill cuts transit, walking, biking projects off from the Highway Trust Fund, to fend for themselves in the general budgetary process at the federal level.

The whinge from the urban blogosphere is already deafening, however. HOW DARE those mean House Republicans hate wonderful transit? What’s wrong with them? They must represent suburbs.

What House Republicans are disputing in this Bill isn’t whether cities should have adorable little trolley trains and wonderful bikes lanes and capacious sidewalks. What they dispute: that the feds, and not cities themselves, should pay for them.

You know the transit fanboys around the blogosphere are writing the outraged posts now full of Richard Florida factoids about about how important cities are to America, and how cities generate 86 percent of economic value in the US, and how most Americans (80 percent) live in cities and how all that means Federal transport policy should be federal transit policy. We’re important, in sum!

However, anti-federalists see those exact same factoids as reasons that cities can afford to build their own damn transit.

But, but, but! Transit revitalizes local business and increases property values!

Then local businesses and land owners can pay for it with all the new value they get. Why should they get windfalls from federal sources?

But but but controls on local property taxes don’t allow that.

Then why should federal taxpayers pay to provide something that the locals who benefit from it most don’t want to pay for themselves?

But, but, but! Transit clears the air, helps clear up traffic congestion, and prevents climate change!

If urban drivers are causing congestion and polluting urban air, how does taxing rural drivers and taking their money for urban projects make sense? If California has a problem with too much driving, nothing keeps you from raising the state gas tax. Tax your own drivers and build your own transit.

And the circular argument goes on and on. Disagreement about whether the federal government has a role to play, and what that role should be, in the provision of urban goods can’t be reconciled with assertions about how great particular urban goods are.

LaHood hasn’t helped matters. LaHood hasn’t really understood the role he was chosen for; he seems to assume he is still running for office, and his typical MO is to play to his urban choir with blather like livability rather than go out of his way to help those not in his choir understand why projects for motorists should get the ax when motorists’ tax dollars keep the HTF afloat. His predecessors were able to progressively open the Fund to redistribution from motorists to other modes largely by doing the opposite of what he’s done: by not drawing attention to themselves or to their agendas.

I’ve always though the Secretary of Transportation should ideally be a rather boring job. But LaHood is a politician, not an agency guy, and he’s over-politicized his job by screaming as loudly as he can and stomping his way into the spotlight as often as he can, both around transit and high speed rail. In so doing, he’s thrown his agency into the tsunami of the deepest political divides in Washington.

In fairness, this bill has been a long time simmering. Republicans have never loved paying for transit out of the HTF, but LaHood’s bombastic, self-promotional, New Sheriff In Town style has thrown gasoline on the low simmering fire.

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Can a bankrupt city like Detroit (not) afford light rail?

Tom Jankowski, all around fabulous guy, and one of the leading lights at Wayne State’s Institute of Gerontology  passes along this story from the Detroit Free Press about the cancellation of Detroit’s Light Rail construction program.

There’s a lot to discuss in this story, and in some ways it epitomizes the contemporary debates we are having over high speed rail and a second stimulus.

1. I’m going to risk getting criticized for indulging in “Ruin Porn” because we have a lot to learn from this particular policy, and if there is another city more mischaracterized among snobby urbanists than my beloved Los Angeles, I’ve yet to see it. Before we go too far in, we can start by saying there’s a lot to Detroit besides population and employment decline.

But there is still population and employment decline, and that’s what gets us to the first fundamental question: what is the marginal productivity of relatively expensive capital investments in mobility in places where you are facing long-term population decline?

The optimistic side says that it’s exactly these types of investments that create transit miracles and rejuvenate places like Detroit. We can’t afford not to do it.

The pessimistic side says that every dollar we spend in declining places is a dollar chasing riders who will never materialize. Better to help them with some level of transit service, with buses, than throwing good money after bad. Target intense, expensive investment dollars in growing places, like San Diego and Portland.

I’m of camp 2, but that doesn’t mean I’m not sympathetic to camp 1. It’s just that I’d rather see investments in human capital, which is mobile, in places like Detroit at this point, so that if the gamble fails and decline continues, we haven’t created a very expensive ghost system. (i.e., places like Detroit strike me as exemplars of where people-based rather than place-based economic development interventions make more sense.)

2. The reason the Feds backed away here concerns the operating deficit that nobody local seems willing to fill. And Detroit, like any number of US cities, is trundling towards outright default–in four months. What I don’t understand is why there is money to operate buses, supposedly, but not the light rail. Drivers are drivers; they cost money. Management and maintenance cost money. While I think that the operating cost savings that light rail advocates have always claimed for light rail are overstated, it’s not like buses are free. I’m having trouble understanding where the money for bus operations comes from if it wasn’t there for light rail operations.

3. Howver, assuming the Feds are right, the operating deficit problem here is one of the dangers of letting cities become so fiscally fragile that they can not run basic services like transit even with with a large capital subsidy from Federal sources. And the problem captures one of the whipsaws for making land and property taxes so utterly verboten in urban politics. As the story suggests, there were businesses and philanthropists lined up to put money in the plan. Businesses and nonprofits (like museums) are willing to do so because rail can bring customers, giving them a nice boost–both in terms of customers and in terms of the relative value of their landholdings proximate to the facility.

Our allergy to land taxation means that although some businesses are willing to pony up to cover capital investment, few want to be on the hook forever for operations. For systems that run on a deficit, like most transit services, that means you need other funding sources. You have fares for part of operations, but if you can’t go to the city’s general fund, where do you go? Voters are not fond of approving taxes for operating funds; they like project lists in exchange for new local taxes. So the major value added of service accrues to real estate, but our ability to recapture that value back into the system is extremely limited by voter preferences.

What’s a place like Detroit supposed to do?

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Helvetica from the MIITPress blog

New York Subway signs, done pretty. Go look.

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