“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?

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)

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.

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.

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?

The discussion on elders in transport continues

Ed Stevens made such a great comment that I wanted to highlight it:

My own parents retired in place. They paid off the home where my 3 brothers and I were raised. While they might not necessarily still need a 5 bedroom home in there 70′s they also have no desire to move. They were also able to come up with new uses for some of the space. My childhood bedroom was converted into an office. Another of my brothers childhood bedroom was converted into the craft/computer room. The other two boys childhood bedrooms became guest bedrooms. When I ask them why they stay they say they know and like their neighbors. If they moved somewhere else they would need to make new friends and my mom fears that as they have get older that might be difficult. For similar reasons my parents don’t want to attend a different church or find new places to shop. While the current furniture is dated, it matches the house that also hasn’t been updated significantly from the 1970′s. Lastly the large house provides plenty of room for the kids and grandchildren to sleep when we go to visit them.

There is a great deal of wisdom in this comment. There comes a point in your life when you do wish to stay put–for a variety of perfectly understandable reasons.