David King, Mike Manville, and Mike Smart tell the truth about transit in the WashPo

I’m in a grouchy mood this morning because of a (really wonderful) piece in the WashPo from David King (Columbia), Mike Manville (Cornell) and Mike Smart (Rutgers.) It talks about the how the transit ridership numbers from last week are not particularly good news because they demonstrate the same trend we’ve had for years: declining productivity even as rider numbers limp upwards.

Federal policy change that we should enact right this second: You don’t get a penny of transit money until you have upzoned around station areas and have development approvals in place. Period. Not a penny.


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#ReadUrbanandPlanningWomen2014 entry #5 Regional Subcenters with Gen Giuliano

So this an unabashed fangirl post about one of my favorite people, Gen Giuliano, who is a dear friend and the Margaret and John Ferraro Chair in Effective Local Government here at USC. The summary statistics on Dr. Giulano make the case: she has over 100 peer- reviewed articles on various aspects of transportation research. Her total citation count is over 1,000. She has been the principal investigator on over $21 million in external research and funding on transportation, particularly on the analysis of the freight policy and planning. She was selected to give the Thomas B. Deen Distinguished Lectureship by the Transportation Research Board in 2007. In 2006, she was awarded the W.N. Car Distinguished Service Award, coming off her term as the head of the Transportation Research Board.

As accomplished as she is, it is a bit strange to begin the discussion with her dissertation, but I am going to. With her dissertation, Giuliano set out to establish the important features of public transit as an industry by answering a key question: are there measurable economies of scale in transit provision by mode? The answer from the dissertation suggests that bus service, in particular, does not exhibit economies of scale or scope for the organization running services. While at the route level, larger vehicles can provide cost savings to organizations, additional routes, additional vehicles, and additional service types can serve to raise the cost per passenger served. This dissertation, written over two decades ago, presaged some of the most pressing issues in the transit industry today as operators grapple with their operating costs vis-à-vis service demand. She began her research career addressing the most important questions in her field, and she has continued to do so.

In addition to questions of finance and industrial organization in transit, Professor Giuliano’s other significant contributions illuminated the fields of mode choice and travel demand. Her most oft-cited contribution, which appeared in Regional Science and Urban Economics in 1991, demonstrated the role that employment subcenters have on shaping travel demand in US regions. Perhaps more importantly, the same research shows that, while rigorously defining employment clusters in the urban geography can explain employment destination for commute travel, nearly a third of all employment occurred in places outside of the major job centers their analysis. She wrote this piece with the wonderful Ken Small at UC Irvine.

Variously called “job sprawl” research or “polycentricity” research, Professor Giuliano’s contribution here disproved the jobs-housing assumptions that transportation researchers made—and it significantly challenged monocentric city models in urban economics at the same time. No wonder this manuscript, and its follow up in Urban Studies, have been cited in total over 700 times. Her most recent work is focused on using cutting-edge methods such as electronic data collection to begin getting real-time information on origins, destinations, and modes.

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#ReadUrbanandPlanningWomen2014 entry #4: Jenny Schuetz and transit-oriented commercial development

Professor Jenny Schuetz is one of my favorite colleagues here at USC. She’s in the real estate group, and her work focuses on urban economic geography. She gave a seminar Wednesday for Metrans on work she has done on the commercial real estate effects of transit investment. You can see a draft of her paper, entitled Do Rail Stations Encourage Neighborhood Retail Activity, here. Jenny’s contributions to the literature are careful empirical analyses of urban economic theories of location. Her contributions stand out because she works incredibly hard to get the detailed data that she needs in order to answer questions well. Data on the commercial real estate sector can be hard to get, and planners tend to pin pretty high hopes on transit’s transformative power while not systematically testing their claims.

The question tested here are straightforward: Does new transit investment prompt more retail activity within a buffer of the station area?

But just because it’s a straightforward question does not mean getting a good answer is easy. Why not? Because like just about all aspects of urban research where we’d like to see cause and effect, there are many possible explanations for why we might see an effect if we do, in fact, see an effect. If I do a great job with route planning, for example, it’s likely that I’m targeting places that are already growing. So investment there may simply be a continuation of the existing trend. We need to see some change in the trajectory, and that’s hard. For places in decline, we have to show that, post-investment, there’s some slower decline or turnaround. And that’s hard to show when you are just looking at data at one point in time and noting that land values are higher near rail stations. That’s good, but it’s not the sort of evidence we need to be able to say that the investment was a game changer.

Jenny contends with this problem by looking at the conditions from 1992 to 2009 both case and control areas surrounding train stations in four California cities: San Francisco/San Jose, Los Angeles, Sacramento, and San Diego. Her controls are tracks outside the normally accepted walking area around stations. If trains are really making a difference in retail, you should see higher performance in the tracks within the station capture area than for those outside. Granted, this is an arbitrary boundary, but the research shows that the capture area commonly used around transit stations is pretty sound. There are so many weirdos like me who will walk 2 miles to a station. (What else am I going to do for exercise? A nightclub?)

Anyway, the resulting model includes some information about the station characteristics, locational metrics (station density, proximity to highway, distance to CBD (a combo of variables I very much like)), and some local population statistics we would normally associate retail attraction. (Retailers like areas with moneyed folk in them.) Her dependent variable is retail employees per square mile and she’s got about 500 station areas in the study.

She finds no statistical difference between rail-accessible land compared to the controls in San Francisco and San Diego; in Los Angeles and Sacramento, she does a find a significant difference, but negative: that is, rail-accessible areas lost retail employment compared to controls, save for suburban station areas. Rail development seems to offering suburban locations a chance to get more retail in two of the cities.

I do have some questions, since this is a draft paper. One question just concerns the dependent variable as a measure; retail employment. I’ve been skylarking (skylarking = thinking unencumbered by either theory or data) about changes in the retail sector over that time period, and its possible that there is something going on with the type of retailer that gets attracted to station-areas. Planners have great faith in local small businesses, and I’m sure that, when aggregated, they create a lot of employment. But it’s entirely possible that you might see new small businesses start of up in a station area (whee!) but on the whole, those employ fewer people in the retail sector than a big box located off a highway. Or there might be something technological going on, where employment in the retail sector is systematically declining, and those places without investment have what retail they have and those linger for awhile, but those new opportunities for retail don’t really blossom particularly fast around new commercial land supply around train stations.

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It’s time for a faculty meeting

Weird Science Remake

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03/14/2014 · 06:12

This strikes me as a pretty damn good way to measure research impact

While he was in prison, Mr. White read book, a book that reminded him of childhood dreams:

I hope someday he writes about his own adventures, too.

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Talking about the 2014 Presidential Budget and David Camp’s Tax proposal with the planners

We have a webinar through APA up. Go watch it here.

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#ReadUrbanandPlanningWomen2014 entry #4: Faranak Miraftab

Faranak Miraftab is a full professor in the Department of Urban & Regional Planning at the University of Illinois. I do not know if I have had the pleasure of meeting of Dr. Miraftab; I do not think so. But I have always very much enjoyed her work, and today I am going to be talking about a recent entry into her very fine record of scholarship found here. I am reading:

Miraftab, F. “Colonial Present: Legacies of the Past in Contemporary Urban Practices in Cape Town, South Africa.” Journal of Planning History. 11(4) 283-307.

The assumption guiding most western understandings of South Africa and its apartheid and post-apartheid regimes concern this idea that neoliberal urban strategies originated in the global north and became applied everywhere else, including post-Apartheid South Africa. Miraftab challenges this idea in Cape Town, where the roots of neoliberal forms of urban development are much deeper. Colonial forms of urban exclusion and control, developed much earlier, created a convenient spatial, zonal logic upon which subsequent waves of power and control become applied to Cape Town’s settlement patterns.

Her history begins roughy at 1840, two years after slavery was abolished the city. The queen paid slave owners for property loss with the decision to abolish the practice, and flush with cash, those large landowners contributed to the fast development of Cape Town’s historic core, and that this historic core remained the focal point for higher levels of services. The second boom comes in 1869 with the discovery of diamonds, which prompted big infrastructure developments, including the port and inland roadways, that positioned Cape Town to benefit from the diamond trade and its supporting industries.

With the increase in wealth and controversies over controlling Cape Town, landowners set themselves up with a sweetheart voting rights law: they allocated votes according to the value of their property: If you had land valued in excess of 1,000 pounds, you got three votes rather than one or two. This strategy predictably created a lock on municipal resources, so that members of the three-vote set were able to add value to their land by adding amenities on the public dime.

Municipal Commissioners during this period looked to Europe for models of urbanization, and those were dominated by narratives around sanitation and hygiene. In Cape Town, those came with a twist. The “Clean Party” was a group of predominately merchant class business owners with UK backgrounds; the “Dirty Party” were landlords and other landed proprietors, mostly Afrikaners and Malay. The creation of sanitation dialogues connected the mercantile class to global capital in ways that didn’t favor the other groups as those became fodder for improvements implemented by large construction firms. The other groups didn’t oppose districting for sanitation; they simply wanted the districts to cover more of Cape Town outside of the mercantile areas. But the assignment of “clean” and “dirty” to particular ethnicities, with UK colonial on top, and what spatial zones they may occupy, continued through racial segregation of Apartheid. Narratives of dirt and disease framed itinerant and often impoverished African and Chinese laborers as health risks, and provided the intellectual rationale for segregating by race.

The clever part of this paper is the comparison across time. Miraftab stops at when Apartheid begins to loom, and then takes up the history again after the regime changes. After Apartheid, urban commercial interests again moved to create special districts; this time out, they are Commercial Investment Districts. Boom! More concentrated public investment, more millions to be made by selected real estate elites…and more exclusionary behavior enacted via securitization of those districts. Race and class structures of exclusion, all enacted without the legal support of the Apartheid rules. There is nothing new under the sun, as my beloved colleague, Martin Krieger, notes.

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Public intellectuals and pastry cooks

So Nicolas Kristoff wrote a piece for the NYT entitled Professors, We Need You. The piece set off a lot of reactions from academics, which have ranged from takedowns to critiques. The column is pretty easy to pick apart because it claims to refute anti-intellectualism at the same it reinforces the same lazy tropes always leveled at intellectuals, thereby echoing and reaffirming the status quo of anti-intellectualism: nobody listens to professors, and it’s all the professor’s own fault for clinging to outmoded thinking (secluded monks in an academy) incoherent writing, except for the anointed few like Jill Lepore (because, you know, there’s no competition in writing for the New Yorker and we could all do it if we just tried.) And all those communist lefties in the academy. They are a problem. Economists are ok, though, because the Republicans like them.

As Erik Voeten points out, public intellectuals are actually here, and many of us do work very hard to make our work and our fields accessible to people outside of our field, including voters. Just because Kristof isn’t bothering to read us, it’s not as though we don’t exist.

Moreover, the “blame the academics” approach willfully ignores an important point that Easily Distracted made: it’s not easy for anybody to be heard, let alone heard correctly, in today’s political world :

Kristof might ask–using himself as a test–what exactly is dependent upon this input that he thinks is lacking. If what he means by accessibility is “I want professors who agree with what I already think, and I want them to say so clearly”, that’s very different than saying, “There’s something I don’t understand, something I can’t do, something beyond my knowledge”. The former is just hunting for a few more bits of costume jewelry to burnish the finery of the powerful. The latter would be a welcome invitation, but given that it starts with humility, don’t hold your breath.

Indeed. Why are economists such elevated darlings in the political economy? Because they are really that much more rigorous and objective than a philosopher or historian? Or is it because they promise the powerful access to even more magic beans?

There’s also the fact, as Corey Rubin points out over Crooked Timber, that Kristof’s examples of “good public intellectuals” are two very, very privileged women, Jill Lepore and Ann Slaughter, who come from the most exalted spheres of the academy–Princeton and Harvard. The platform from which they are approaching the media with their material is one helluvalot different than most academics who, by the very numbers, have transformed into a predominantly temporary workforce teaching four to five classes a semester for low pay. These are not the conditions by which people glide into the same level of influence as the Jill Lepores of this world.

Finally, there are exceptional journalists with whom it is a pleasure to talk to. Then there are dolts who, if you ask them to keep two ideas, let alone ideas in tension, in their head at once, their eyes glaze over. Which brings us back to the point from Easily Distracted: if you don’t want complexity, and all you want is a solutions factory from the academy, there are plenty of academics and “independent researchers” who will bludgeon you with their simplistic solutions to schill themselves as celebrities to sell their books. We could probably, in fact, use less, rather than more, of that. Urban decline? Forget the messy and complicated problem of racism, schools, and policing. Lemme tell ya about the magic of bike lanes! That’s the fix you need! And that’s the fix you want because it’s tangible and requires you to change not all if you don’t feel like it. (And remember, I think bike lanes are awesomesauce. By all means. I’ll even the buy the green paint. But Los Angeles strikes me as a city that is teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, and while I’m sure bike lanes do improve many wonderful things, it’s the not the thin of the wedge there.)

Urban problems, just like most social problems, are unpleasantly complicated and take entirely too much time to explain, let alone address. And not many people seem to really want to hear it. Boil it down. Make it easy. Make it something fixable in three easy steps that don’t require me to pay money, change the way I think, or suggest that me and people like me aren’t wonderful in every way. The problem is fat people and Republicans (or Democrats, depending your Sacred Outlook.)

As Socrates would put it, be a pastry cook.

And that’s the major reason I get impatient with myself and the opportunities of public intellectualism. It’s the basic problem presented in Plato’s Gorgias. Sophists were public intellectuals. Throughout the course of the dialogue, it becomes more and more apparent that Callicles loves the demos, both out of genuine patriotism, but also because he loves fame. He loves the attention of playing to crowd. And playing to the crowd has limits in terms of knowledge creation. It rewards rhetorical trickery of the type that Polus engages in (vivid, emotional, polemic) and in tames intellects, like that of Callicles, because he dare not risk saying something unpopular.

It also has me recalling my Thucycides, which I have been rereading in my spare time. I haven’t read Thucydides since high school, and cracking it open again after reading Josiah Ober’s wonderful discussion in Political Dissent in Democratic Athens has me thinking about the role pretty speech and fame-seeking had in fragmenting the Athenian polis after Pericles.

Nor does it help that ambitious universities want to score the big name who can engage with media on media’s own terms. There are better and worse outlets, and understanding that landscape is yet another communication problem for the contemporary academic to solve, along with the 50+ complicated people who show up twice a week to (I hope) engage with the learning community that academics are meant to foster. The for-profit media is a tough place; the nonprofit media can be a backwater and a choir. You do the math as to what that means for academics with complicated ideas.

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#ReadUrbanandPlanningWomen2014 entry #3: Smita Srinivas

Smita Srinivas is an assistant (for now, I think) professor at the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation at Columbia. My topic today is her wonderful book, which I believe was her dissertation project, Market Menagerie.

The motivating question for the book concerns how nations like India, which have flourished economically by moving into new health services and pharmaceutical markets, can move some of that growth into greater health access among impoverished local residents. The research is meticulous, and the subject matter is important to social welfare and social justice. By the end, Srinivas manages to connect the market and institutional themes to urban and regional planning in ways that help enlighten a new approach that guides health and development away from the silos of western planning.

The first chapters of the manuscript start the reader off by helping us understand development as occurring within the complex interplay between markets, states, and institutions. This backdrop then enables a discussion about the evolution of health systems from local health services delivery systems to one in which the nation-state becomes an important player, but only along selected dimensions. The chapters covering the period from 1950 to 1970 discuss federal social policy evolution after independence; the subsequent chapters on the 1970s through the 1980s highlight the private industrial contributions to modernizing medicine within the country. Subsequent to these changes, political upheaval in India allowed for the re-emergence of nonmarket institutions, such as unions, in trying to capture more of the benefits of economic growth for a broader based of Indians.

The late 1980s saw a shift towards globalization. Srinivas refers to this time period as the “second market” environment, where India’s pharma industries began to respond to trade liberalism and regulatory harmonization by entering into global markets. That shift meant an expansion of industrial capacity into markets intended almost exclusively for export.. As Srinivas notes in a key chapter relating the history surrounding vaccines, the result was “health for some” as vaccine manufacturers in India lost out to other producers in the global market, and Indian venture capital found ready markets for other innovations, largely focused on exports that yielded greater returns even as Indian children went without vaccination.

The third market environment for India is one where the industries become both adaptable and flexible in responding to developing niche markets, and where the state has played a tremendous role in providing opportunities for innovation via learning and research.

The final chapters of the book place the ideas in a global, comparative context. I disagree a bit with Srinivas’ read of Polyani in these chapters, but that is a minor point. The latter chapters bridge policy across global, national, and community scales of health services in multiple contexts. I will use the chapter “Health Technologies in Comparative Global Perspective” in my graduate classes in Urban Social Policy and Planning. There are some problems with cohesion in this chapter, but it contains so many interesting and useful points that I think its problems come down to simply having a lot of ideas. I wish more books had this problem.

In particular, there is a comment that made me run out of my office to share it with my colleagues:

An analyst of today’ s mixed economies has no excuse for minimizing the state’s roles by pointing to past errors of centralized socialism. (p. 183)


The final chapter contains another nice contribution, one that I will likely assign in my planning theory class, on cities as mediating sites for health, health access, and health services, and the role of practical utopians in trying to forge a theory of healthy development within international cities.

Go read.

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Trains as writer’s garrets

Come to think of it, I got a goodly bit of my dissertation writing on the train between here and San Luis Obispso. Jessica Gross writes about her experience as a writer on Amtrack. Really, why not? I love the idea.

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