USC Transport Faculty respond to the LA Times Metro Ridership story

Metrans Transportation Institute asked a group of us to respond to the LA Times Ridership story, which you can find here.

Genevieve Giuliano is the Ferraro Chair in Effective Government at the Sol Price School of Public Policy at the University of Southern California, and Director of the METRANS Transportation Center writes about Placing the Numbers in Context:

While the Los Angeles Time’s interpretation of the study wasn’t incorrect, it targets LA Metro without providing context on what is happening in in other metropolitan regions. To really understand the study, we should first take a look at what was presented. Over the past few years, transit ridership has declined across the Southern California region. Some places have lost more ridership than others (Orange County, Santa Monica). It looks like LA Metro is in the middle of the pack, as we would expect for the largest agency in the region. If ridership is declining everywhere, there are systemic factors at work that are independent of any single transit agency’s policies. These factors may include changes in: 1) economic conditions, 2) work patterns; 3) population characteristics; 4) substitutes for transit.

Sandip Chakrabarti, Ph.D. is a Research Associate at the USC METRANS Transportation Center. His research focuses on the analysis of land use-transportation interactions, travel behavior, public transit planning and operations, multi-modal system performance measurement and monitoring, and impact analysis of new transportation investments. His entry is found here.

I did some quick number crunching, and it seems to me that Metro, the transit powerhouse of the Southern California region, has not made great decisions over the 2006-2014 period. See Figure 1 (top panel). Over the period, and in the group of the largest U.S. transit agencies in terms of their 2014 ridership (unlinked passenger trips or UPT), Metro has had one of the lowest increases in both UPT (as % – in fact a decrease) and in the number of boardings added (again, a decrease) per dollar spent in capital expenses. One can argue that Los Angeles is different and that it is far more challenging to plan for transit, and to attract and retain riders here. But the public can question, and Metro needs to have a good explanation. The 1995-2005 period, however, was different. See Figure 1 (bottom panel). In this period, just after most of the Metro rail network was built, Metro experienced a substantial increase in ridership and yield compared to its peers. Does that mean Metro is doing the right thing by building more rail in the region? I don’t think the answer is an easy “yes.” It’s all about building the right service in the right place at the right time.

James Moore is director of the Transportation Engineering program in the USC Astani Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, and Vice Dean for Academic Programs in the Viterbi School of Engineering. He writes Busways are a Better Alternative:

The LA Times article focuses some overdue media daylight on specious policy claims by MTA and others that rail lines are key to improving transportation services in Los Angeles. The MTA responded in the article with the standard agency smoke screen: Let us finish the system. They report that once they achieve a “complete buildout,” the rail system will perform. It won’t. We’ll spend billions more on rail at the expense of bus service, and continue to drive down transit ridership as we force riders off buses. No one currently with the agency will still be employed by the agency in the distant future the MTA is claiming to predict. None of the parties responsible for spending on rail transit will be standing before the public to be held accountable. They will be long retired, and not available to explain why the future they promised never materialized.

Marlon Boarnet is a renowned authority on urban economics, urban growth patterns, transportation, and regional science. He notes that the system management perspective gets us better planning:

But let’s not kid ourselves. Sales taxes are, if anything, an exercise in the politically practical and far from an effective transportation finance tool. We should be exploring mileage fees (ideally weighted based on fuel consumption or pollutants emitted from the vehicle) and congestion pricing. Seventy-five percent of all transportation funds spent in the greater L.A. area are from local (sub-state) tax sources. We need to aggressively move toward a transportation system that finances our investments fairly, by charging persons for the pollution and congestion that they create. While we are at it, let’s be sure to tax the new rideshare services, Uber, Lyft, and the like, based on mileage fees, with higher taxes for rideshare services that occur during congested time periods in congested locations. Use the revenues from well-crafted mileage fees to maintain and, as needed, expand our highways, fill potholes in the roads, expand bus service, and complete our rail system.

And then obviously I’m me. I write that Angelenos have to commit to the systems, and politicians have to show leadership: can read all of it here.

Metro also needs to do better in working with employers and with other institutions. For instance, Metro did absolutely nothing when USC discontinued its support for transit riders. Regardless of whether USC’s transit subsidy program attracted many riders, it was a signaling and leadership moment when USC axed its program. Metro’s leaders didn’t say “boo” in response. The LA DOT didn’t say “boo.” For all the prancing around our Mayor and other state Democrats do about alternative transportation, they did diddly to stand up to USC. When one of the region’s largest employers kicks transit support to the curb, agencies like Metro and the DOT, and our Mayor, need to show leadership, set the tone, and say “Hey, wait a minute. We know this program costs you money, but we’re trying to accomplish something here; we’re trying to build transit as a way of life in this city. Why are you bugging out on us?” That episode is so discouraging because it shows how much LA’s elected leadership wants to dig into taxpayers’ pockets at sales tax time to make sure the pretty trains get built, but how little real political capital our politicians wield in helping riders ride the pretty trains once they actually get built.

My students’ super visualizations of construction cost escalations on the Expo Line LRT in Los Angeles

I have my students examine Flyvbjerg’s Megaprojects work, and I ask them to do some of the legwork on a forensic budgeting exercise. This time out, we did the Expo Line Phase 1 LRT. It’s a difficult project, as the students have to do quite a bit of digging through board minutes and decisions. However, it’s useful because it allows us to really discuss the issues at hand: is it merely strategy to underestimate, over and over, the costs of projects?

In the case of the Expo Line, the project as delivered was quite a bit different than the project as envisioned. There were a lot of additions, and some of those additions were probably good ones. So here are some of my students’ visualizations.

The Cost of Doing Business Forensic budgeting forecasting By Justin Pascone Jewel Deguzman and Keegan McDonald

This cool, web-based, interactive one is by Justine Pascone, Keegan McDonald, and Jewel Deguzman. SO COOL.


Expo Line Assignment Visualization 2 pdf page 3 of 15

This graphic above is by Jinhao Mai, Daniel Bernstein, and Soma Senhat

Https blackboard usc edu courses 1 20153 ppd 599 51295 db 1414122 1 Expo Budget Analysis pdf

Above by: Justin Bleeker, Amauri Casarin, and James Hamilton

Https blackboard usc edu courses 1 20153 ppd 599 51295 db 1414314 1 ExpoLineBudget pdf


Https blackboard usc edu courses 1 20153 ppd 599 51295 db 1414314 1 ExpoLineBudget pdf

These bottom two are by Ben Frazier, Teppei Yoshida, and Emily Finkel. I really like that second one because it shows where the money came from. They had to work pretty hard digging that out.

And yeah, my USC Price and Viterbi students are the freaking shizzle, in case any employers are watching.

Why USC should support employee (and student) transit use based on both justice and self-interest

I’m a little rushed this morning, so forgive any typos.

So why, exactly, should USC support employee and student transit? As I grumpily posted the other day, the cost my monthly transit pass went from $36 to $100 over the last few years, and this last jump came because USC Transportation Services cancelled entirely its transit subsidy, and that’s what set me off. No subsidy is a bad idea.

This is bad corporate policy. It’s entirely understandable from a dollars and cents standpoint: USC does unit-based budgeting (meh), and as a result, Transportation Services gets rather stuck with these kinds of programs. If you have great big parking structures sitting half empty most of the day, you’d much, much rather direct people to use those, since you are stuck with them anyway, than be using the revenues from parking to subsidize transit use. This is why USC as a whole should step up and help Transportation Services run the program.

Why? There are both justice and self-interested reasons for doing so. One of my brilliant students on Twitter noted that the increase alone from $36 to $100 a month is about 5% of total monthly wages for somebody making minimum wage. It’s a big pay cut for a low-wage person who depends on transit.

Ok, yes, those workers do not necessarily need to buy a monthly pass, so they go back to paying the base fare. But paying per ride is more expensive per ride than having a pass, and the pass enables mobility for a whole bunch of other purposes besides work. Metro is pretty affordable when it comes to fares, but they are getting less so, and low-wage workers in Los Angeles–and USC has many of them— exist in a hard whipsaw between housing costs, car ownership costs, transit mobility costs, and stagnant wages.

As a university interested in community and sustainability, USC should be trying to make that easier, not harder.

People like me can well afford $100, and I would actually be willing to pay full freight (and a bit more) if it meant that USC offered discounted passes to employees making less than the regional median income.

The self-interested part: those great big, useless parking structures are a huge opportunity cost. They are parking structures on a campus where space is the coin of the realm and we could fill any dorm space or married student housing space, like, tomorrow, with high-value uses that generate real, actual rents.

Yes, we can charge for parking, but…what do you suppose has a higher return: housing on campus or parking on campus?

Blam! Unit-based budgeting again. Transportation services doesn’t get to develop housing. So…parking has no opportunity costs for them. But for USC, the opportunity costs are huge.

This is why most urban/downtown universities subsidize their transit commuters. If we keep you out of your car, we can scale back on the amount of precious campus space given over to less economically productive uses, like parking.

It is out of step with the practices of major urban universities throughout the US. NYU, for example, offers roughly 50 to 60 percent subsidy, depending on the system pass. Harvard’s subsidy in Boston is 50 percent . MIT has the same deal. Yale offers its faculty and employees $130 a month in transit pass. UCLA offers a FlashPass through Santa Monica BBB for $33 (a significant discount as that is per quarter rather than monthly!). Stanford offers Eco-Pricing at 50 percent subsidy. Berkeley, ditto.

I know, our parking gets full on football days, but look, nobody is going to stop going to Trojan football games just because they have to park one train stop away. Do you see what people pay for those tickets? There is puh-lenty of parking along the Expo Line. Tailgaters should be taking transit anyway.

It’s harder to say that USC should just brass up for undergraduate transit passes. But it would be so good for them and for us. It would be so super if we could negotiate a good rate with Metro and students were willing to assess themselves a fee for it. But students and parents are already so stretched, and that’s hard, but…if you get young people riding transit, it’s soooooooo good for them, and it’s very good for transit, and it can make them into lifelong supporters, if not lifelong patrons, of transit services.

Sustainability: If you are housing cars instead of housing people, you are doing it wrong.

USC just ended its transit subsidy program, and the cost of my bus pass went from $30 to $100

My employer, USC, decided to eliminate their alternative commuter program, and as a result, the cost of my pass is jumping to $100 a month from roughly $30, and I can’t justify that cost every month when I look at how often I commute to campus.

To say that I am disappointed in USC would be an understatement. We are either the largest or the 2nd largest employer in Los Angeles County, and we have an obligation to help lead the region to better, more sustainable solutions for mobility. Our alternative commuting program was a success; many of us used it.

It also won a host of awards, which USC continues to display on its website.

They responded to the deluge of emails they got in response to the decision by putting up this “bureaucratic blah blah blah” page which basically says:

“The elimination of the subsidy was carefully considered and compared with other available alternatives.”

Well, ok, what are those alternatives? I’m listening. Why are those alternatives not explained? Why were those alternative programs not in place before you stopped the transit program? What does the university get out of this deal? Oh, wait, Transportation Services gets to keep $$$$ from parking rather than spend them subsidizing transit use. The USC decentralized and draconian budget process bears part of this blame: I suspect that Transportation Services leadership saw the $$$ and saved itself staff rather than continue a program that is good for the university but not in the financial interests of Transportation Services.

I do understand, but it’s still incredibly bad policy. It makes USC look like jerks, and USC doesn’t need that kind of help.

The reason for the “blah blah” is that there are no alternatives: this is just a pay cut for anybody at USC who has a disability that prevents them from driving and the university’s lowest wage workers. The real alternative is: those who can drive will do so, and those who can’t will eat the pay cut.

There is nothing about this move that makes sense for any aspect of the University other than Transportation Services. It’s bad for the employees, and it’s embarrassment for USC as a whole whose leaders have talked endlessly–and I think they are sincere–about sustainability. But it’s typical, head-in-clouds, lofty sustainability without the pragmatic follow-up that programs like this provide, largely because few people actually understand how important transit is to economic justice and sustainability.

Being a transit and sustainability expert here is frustrating, to say the least.

USC’s Rachel Junken visualizes David Levinson’s Accessibility Lab data on employment accessibility

I toss out vague assignments to my master’s student and give them some data. This way, I see what they come up with–it’s often much better than if I had told them exactly what I wanted.

This is what Rachel Junken came up with:

Job accessibility junken

These data have always bugged me. We could quibble about how accessibility is being measured, but I don’t think we would alter the numbers very much. I think all of us have known for some time that job suburbanization has really changed the US employment landscape. After all, John Kain published his spatial mismatch material in the late 1960s. But I don’t know that we really really can see what that change has meant for US transit unless we really lay it out, region by region, the way Rachel does here. Even places with really quite good transit have real problems with employment accessibility.

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

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.