Getting to Yes with YIMBY in LA, or my summer interviews

I picked a fight with Shane Phillips yesterday by pointing out that YIMBY advocacy really, really, really does require tediously repeating the same points about what they are trying to accomplish.I was faffing around and avoiding work because I know better than to discuss anything with YIMBY folks online because a) any doubt exhibited tends to get you treated like the urbanism equivalent of Newt Gingerich which is futile and boring, and b) YIMBY is a complicated thing, with lots of moving parts, and it’s hard to have those discussions with people you don’t know, on social media which is limiting, when you don’t know much time they’ve spent worrying about these issues and you risk talking over people and telling them stuff they already know, what their local development context is like, etc.

Shane rather wryly noted that every single blog post or op-ed had be 5,000 words in order to make sure one hits every nuance, and that it is irksome to have to deal with critiques that just because you haven’t mentioned X, that you don’t care about X–cheap shot critiques. I was told, firmly, that YIMBY folks are on the whole anti-displacement thing; it’s covered, it’s been covered. They got it.

From what I can tell in my interviews with anti-displacement advocates–roughly summarized–they’ve heard the arguments, they’ve read the blog posts…and they in general don’t buy that YIMBY advocacy has their concerns covered. There are some who do and who vocalize quite a bit of trust in the overall agenda. But the ones that do not have some credible reasons for holding out, and those are worth discussing.

One of my points in yesterday’s discussion was, simply, that the rhetorical or persuasive burden on YIMBY advocates is higher than it is on the NIMBY component (which is different than the anti-displacement side, btw). I stand by that statement for the simple reason that NIMBY have policy inertia on their side. They have existing zoning laws on their side; they have federal home ownership favoritism on their side. They have close to 70 years of zoning being mainstream practice, at least in the US. It’s not just or right, necessarily; it’s that any form of progressive reform always has to break free of the event horizon of the status quo. Those who want the status quo only have to maintain it.

Given that progressive reforms have happened and do happen, it’s not impossible. It just requires heavy lifting, and some of that heavy lifting is tediously having to repeat the same points on the policy agenda to anybody who doesn’t run away quickly enough.

I’ve been spending my summer working on interviews with anti-displacement advocates (if you are reading this, and I haven’t pestered you, and you have something you want to say, hit me up (lsschweitzer589@gmail.com), and it’s been enlightening. It caused me to back up and examine what premises you have to accept in order to arrive at a yes for YIMBY if you, yourself, don’t have a preference for urbanism. And it’s a pretty long persuasive journey.

I point out this problem not because I personally do not support the YIMBY argument (I do, as I share a preference for urbanism), but to illustrate how it relies on multiple premises—just about all of which can be credibly contested—about the consequences of zoning and infill that you have to accept into order to get to yes:

a) that zoning contributes to sprawl (probably the least contentious);

b) that sprawl’s environmental and social consequences are sufficiently important to require that existing neighborhoods, which people may enjoy as they currently are, allow infill, even at the risk of crowding and other problems that strangers bring, in order to prevent the consequences of more building on the suburban fringe;

c) that infill development actually can fix affordability or the other problems wrought by exclusion/zoning/sprawl rather than just displacing and potentially harming existing residents; that is, it is possible to accommodate as many new people (or more) in existing neighborhoods, closer to the city center, as it would have been to put them in new suburban developments on the fringe to address housing demand in urbanizing metro areas;

d) that doing so will result in more good than harm overall; and for various subgroups at any given time,

e) that doing so will result in more good than harm *to them personally* overall.

That’s what I mean when I say that there is a big rhetorical burden. There’s a lot here.

I doubt A is particularly difficult to accomplish, and yet, you have to know that part in order to accept that infill is necessary to sustainability; otherwise, why not just put all the new housing we say we need on the urban fringe? So that’s something that has to be communicated, even though I think it’s fair to stay that, among the progressive left, there is a consensus about sprawl reform. That’s not saying that sprawl reform has democratic consensus. Does it? It certainly has a consensus in the professions. Either way, it’s hard to say “we need to put stuff by you even if you don’t like it” if people don’t actually believe that “elsewhere” isn’t an option. Otherwise, “elsewhere”, including the fringe, sounds awesome.

Point (B) is where we probably lose a subset of the conservatives. When I bring this up with students, they launch into a lecture about climate change and The Most Important Thing We Can Do Is Stop Driving (no, from what I can tell the most important is to stop eating meat, but consuming petroleum-based fuels is a close second, so fine)…and that’s a fine argument…for your choir. For people who think rolling coal is funny and SUVs are the right thing to do for their family … welp, the environment is just going to have look out for itself, and golly we would live next to transit and all, but the school over here away from transit is so much better, and well, does it really improve a school by letting in lots and lots of new families? Not really, no, so let’s not. Point B and Point E can merge pretty quickly. We might not lose people there politically–they might believe the argument–but putting it into practice in their own lives may be another story.

Point (C) is an effectiveness and risk argument. Urban reformers are absolutely convinced they can change cities–and cities do change–but I think it’s fair to say that this portion of the argument is about plan risk, and the latter parts (D and E) have to do with internalizing the risks, and as always, who has to internalize the risks of change.

In looking at my interviews for Los Angeles, of which I don’t have enough yet, my interpretation is that the anti-displacement folks interpret Point C in a variety of ways. These are first-run transcriptions, so caveat emptor.

Example 1:

“I think some people mean well, but they don’t get it. They think they are going to reform Los Angeles, like nobody has ever tried that before. If what they want to do with these new developments is so damn great, then do it over there on the westside first. And, uh, no, that is not happening, is it? It never will happen. All this talk about how great LA will be…it’ll start, and it’ll end, with building on black folks. All the rest of these people just making a lot of noise to justify westside gentrification getting extended south.”

(Follow up question: What would convince you that the plans might work to make the region more affordable?) “Just what I said: if new housing is so important, start on the west side. Show how it works so great over there before coming here. Those people can afford higher rents. We can’t. If their kid gets crowded out of a classroom because of new kids, they can afford to send their kid to a tutor or a private school. We can’t. But we’re the ones that are going to wind up getting crowded. Everybody wants to live over there on the west side anyway. But it won’t happen. So it’s on us, like it always is, to lose what we have now, because that’s feasible. God, it just pisses me off, now that you got me talking. It’s not right to play with people’s lives unless you know what you are doing, and I don’t think these people know.”

(Follow up question: do you think they care about what happens to Inglewood, or they just don’t know?) “It doesn’t matter, the result is the same. You got the do-gooders, okay? They care, they just don’t get it. Then there are the people chasing stadium dollars, and they don’t care who they step on. Different people, same result.”

Example 2:

“…we got the LA Times over there telling us every day about how we need all this new housing. We need millions of units, tomorrow! Sure we do. This project they want right here, that’s a drop in the bucket of that need. That need ain’t ever going away.That need is the excuse they got themselves to price people like me out, and that excuse will never go away…not after this development, not after the next hundred. They can’t build enough fast enough, so people here now, they just going wind up living out the desert, and they are going to sit out there waiting for all these new developments are magic, you know, fixing all the housing problems even though the only place they are going to build is here, on us. No matter what planners think they are doing, they are screwing us over, and if you speak up, they don’t want to hear it.”

Example 3:

“….talk a good game, right? They talk. But when I try to get anybody to listen about what we here in the building want, it’s buh-bye. Eyes glazed over, back to talking about they want. (Emphasis in speech; follow-up question: what issues do you want to talk about?) “Rent control. You bring that up, all these pro-development types go wild! Nothing pulls that mask off faster. Rent control is the worst thing ever! Out comes the statistics! Professors, all of them, going to lecture all day about how bad*** rent control is.” (***”bad” is drawn out over several syllables.) Rent control is bad for everybody but the current renters, say all the professors. Well, genius, we are the current renters, and we would actually to like to benefit. How about that? How about we benefit? Nah, God and Jesus Christ forbid that somebody black ever get a dollar benefit out of anything.” (Emphasis in the original. Follow up question: you mentioned a mask earlier, the mask coming off. What mask do you mean?) “The mask that they give a shit what we want. If they did care, they’d work for what we want instead of just preaching about how what we want is bad. They want what they want, they just want us to get out of the way.”

All show variants of Point C, but the first two differ from the last in the motivations the speaker assigns to reformers and their ideas. The shared concern: that urban reform can’t accomplish the holy grail of just sustainability–inclusive urbanization via infill–and that residents will be the ones paying the price of that failure, even if the vision was well-intended. The third vocalizes disbelief regarding care, and a pragmatic answer–if you want people to go along, build in tangible protections up-front to defray the risks.

W.K.C. Guthrie on inconsistency in Aristotle

I’ve been going along on my Aristotle study during the summer, finishing up, finally, the W.K.C. Guthrie’s wonderful Aristotle: An Encounter, which is volume six in his magisterial study of Greek philosophy. It’s been a slog; Guthrie gives thorough grounding to Aristotle’s science and his metaphysics, and thus there was ample skimming and cherrypicking, I admit. Aristotle’s metaphysics is important, objectively3; fortunately, it’s not terribly important to understanding his philosophy of human life (the way it is for Plato), as metaphysics both confuses and bores me. I have now reached a point in my life where I just will never know if I don’t understand metaphysics because I’m not smart enough, or whether I don’t understand it because it bores me and I lack the self-discipline to not be bored, but for all practical purposes, those amount to the same result: I don’t get it.

Guthrie is a kindly companion in these travels. From page 343:

The inconsistency between this and the requirement that happiness can only be achieved in a complete life has been pointed out by others. At any rate Aristotle warned us. The Ethics is no work of scientific theory but a practical manual, a guide to living. As it cannot aim at consistency, for life itself is full of inconsistencies.

He follows this up with an excellent note:

Consistency is a feature of τὸ ἀκριβὲσ, οὐχ ἁκριπβὲς ὁμοίως ἐν ἀπασιν τοις λόγοις ἐπιζξτητέον**: noble and just action admit of much variety and irregularity. Matters of action and advantage have no stability.

**Those things which are identical, for reasons beyond their control. Aristotle means the things in nature that do not make choices for how to be.

I spent the better part of two years translating Thucydides because the challenge. I’ve spent the last two years with Aristotle trying to get used to him, warm up, make friends, and translating him, working hard at it, has been a revelation. Much of his warmth is lost in translating to English, while none of his less appealing statements go missing at all.

Schopenhauer on not reading

I have spent most of the summer reflecting on reading, how to do it, why to do it, and how to do it well. I had a nice challenge to that reflection come up in reading Schopenhauer:

The art of not reading is a very important one. It consists in not taking an interest in whatever may be engaging the attention of the general public at any particular time. When some political or ecclesiastical pamphlet, or novel, or poem is making a great commotion, you should remember that he who writes for fools always finds a large public. A precondition for reading good books is not reading bad ones: for life is short.

Essays and Aphorisms (1851), trans. R. J. Hollingdale (1970).

What is the right p and mc to use in evaluating transit operations? (Following up on a comment from @trnsprtst)

David Levinson, who probably is really the smartest urbanist (he’s really, genuinely smart, people) piped up on Facebook in response to my post about transit passes with waitaminute…shouldn’t we thinking in terms of average costs, and not marginal costs, since the marginal cost is often zero? It’s a very good point. He’s probably right. I wasn’t being particularly careful with how I used terms in the blog post, and even if he isn’t right or I wasn’t wrong (you’ll see why I hedge in a minute), he’s raised an important point I skipped in my discussion.

Cost curves in transit are not smooth. Once you make a decision to send out a vehicle, your cost of adding an additional passenger is low–I won’t agree to zero, but low–until you hit another meaningful margin (a term my old mentor Tom Pogue used) when you really do have to think about taking on sizable new capital investment, like expanding capacity for electricity generation–or in our case, another bus, another train car, or another entire train. These margins occur at both the variable costs and total cost levels: another vehicle means another driver, and the marginal cost depends on whether we’ve got a driver available we have to pay already (or not.) We also have marginal conditions to consider when thinking about adding new vehicles to the fleet (the total cost question).

My default thinking tends to center on those meaningful margins, not on the small increments in between. By using an average cost, Levinson spreads the costs of those big margins and small ones to get a more general picture of how much it costs to serve passengers. I think both ac and mc measures are useful, depending on the context, so the right mc or ac to use depends on what kind of operating decision you are going to make.

I tend to think about the big margins and big units simply because I don’t think it’s generally important to the agency how much a given passenger pays or costs; I think in terms of whole buses or whole trains–the costs per revenue hour, and the revenue per revenue hour. That’s where clarity comes on whether or not it’s possible to stay in the black running the service, even if you have to aggregate across all the lines you run to get to the meta question of “how much service is worth supplying?”

That said, I also am dubious of the idea that the marginal cost is nothing when adding to a vehicle that is below capacity. It’s a low cost, certainly, but even then the marginal cost is likely positive, for buses anyway. Crowded buses are an irritation not just because you are wedged in like a sardine, but because the more passengers, the more stops, and that time cost becomes considerable, both for the passenger and the agency. (The more stops a bus makes, the longer it takes to cycle through the route, the more buses we will probably need in order to make good on the posted headways).

Not much blogging here late, and not much content here, either. I’m tired. I worked myself into a bit of a state early in the summer, and now I think I need to rest. More when I feel better.

Is eliminating (transit) passes a good idea?

Transit passes, you. Get your mind out of the gutter.

I got into a Twitter discussion with the LA Times excellent* Laura Nelson (@laura_nelson ) and Twitter smarty Jordan Fraade (@schadenfraade) about the $100 bus pass at Metro, and that at today’s base fare, one needs 55 rides a month to pay off the $100 pass. Fellow Twitter smarty Henry Fung (@calwatch) noted that pass holders on average take 70, the implication for Metro being, I suppose that by allowing passes, they leave money on the table in terms of farebox recovery than if they eliminated passes. Several smarties chimed in to say there is support for getting rid of passes at Metro.

I just don’t know. If all y’all want too lecture me on the The Right Way To Charge, feel free. I think I’ve heard just about all the arguments before–I am Brian Taylor’s student, after all–and I’ve never really bought any of the arguments, even the good ones made by very smart people. But hey, maybe you’ll say the right thing in the right way and all the lights in the Schweitzer brain will finally turn on.

Farebox recovery for transit is a fraught number. I begin my class on public transit with the basic management problem: what if mc > p, or using normal people language, what if your cost to provide an additional unit of service is greater than the price you can charge your consumers to buy it? In the private sector, the answer is easy: either stop producing the good in favor of something more lucrative; or find a way to lower mc or raise p (by raising status, marketing, etc). That could be an answer for public management as well, but in goods like transit, it’s much, much harder to do those than privatization cheerleaders seem to think it is.

The question becomes: if you are losing money anyway, then how much is an acceptable amount to lose every time you send a bus out? It is a tough question to answer because transit is also widely considered a merit good. It cleans up air quality. Reduces traffic (a bit) and potential traffic mortalities. It can unify regions. Lots of lovely things. So on the one hand, it would be great if users covered the costs of their service. On the other hand, the rest of us are very, very keen that people use transit, so much so it seems unrealistic to be all like “hey, pay for all that yourself and in so doing, accomplish a bunch of social good for us while you are at it, mkayyyy?”

Then there’s “Merit goods are a liberal myth, and a service is worth supplying in the market, it will pay for itself.” I have colleagues who say this.

Moreover, failing to recover costs well enough might also be a sign of poor management, but it can also be a sign of a no-win public management situation, such as trying to run a transit agencies in a country with an anti-urban pro-individual consumption policy bias in its political economy, instead of robust concept of municipal socialism that fits policy to context.

While lots of people have lectures to hand out to one and all about how management and fare structures should happen, trying to figure out how much grace to allow management in a tough situation, how much public support ought to go to merit good consumption, and how much the users ideally ought to support their own service strikes me as very tough series of empirical and normative questions that I simply do not know how to answer.

Mixed in all that “I dunno” resides the question about the pass. It is an open question to me about whether pass holders will take those 70 trips a months if they are charged per trip. It’s a reverse causation question: do they take 70 trips a month because transit is just that useful to them, or because once they have purchased a pass, the marginal cost of an additional trip is zero–zippo–nada to them? It matters quite a bit because if it is the first instance, then pass holders–who are likely wealthier than those who pay fare-by-fare–are getting a discount that can and probably should go to putting revenues back into the system. If it is the latter, and people just purchase the option value of the pass and then go on to realize that option value more and less throughout their months, we may be losing rides and riders by trying to chase down every nickel and dime we can. Riders matter to us, politically and socially, and pricing even well-to-do people off the system is costly.

I don’t know which is which. And people who tell you they know based on surveys do not really know because surveys and people who claim they know how people will respond to price charges…

https://giphy.com/embed/bM7OeXic6YFGM

via GIPHY

yeah.

I do know that systems with expensive monthly passes and distance-based fares have better cost recovery than those who do not. But that’s another reverse causation problem. Do they have higher cost recovery because those are better management practices and like magic! Yay! They get to reap the rewards of managerial virtue, or do they get to engage in better management practices because they are in a better transit market/environment/political economy in the first place, with high demand and lots of employers who support transit commuting, etc?

I have been chastened by my own reaction to the Uber-Transit-Expensive-Pass thing. Prior to two years ago, I had been a pass holder in LA for 10 years. I routinely bought the monthly pass–the regional pass, when they had it–even though I never really used it to its full extent or got the full value. But I figured I was supporting metro, and I did like having the option value.

Then Metro raised its pass prices to $100, and USC decided to be antisocial and eliminate its support for alternative commuting (I’m reassured by People Who Know that absolutely NOBODY EVER used that program, and that it was VASTLY, VASTLY, HORRIFICALLY EXPENSIVE even though NOBODY USED IT (you know, like all subsidy programs that nobody uses).

I gave up on the pass then and it did affect my riding behavior, a lot. I’m shocked at how much. I still ride the train or the bus to work. That gets metro about $20 a month in fares during the school year, and during the summer…about $8. I used to buy the pass all summer. I just don’t use my office to write in the way some of my colleagues do; I work at home.

I used to go out with friends and just have one of them drop me at a Metro station–after all, I had the pass–but now I just fire up Lyft, or accept the ride home I’m always offered. I’m not that social any more, so my nights out can be counted on one hand. Even during the teaching portion of the year, I’m way ahead not buying passes at all.

Maybe Metro is better off not having to serve me, but I don’t think so.

And maybe I’m just weird. Maybe everybody else just pays the $100 and hasn’t changed at all.

Or not.

*I can never apply the adjective “excellent” without thinking of Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women, which is an excellent (see what I did there?) novel about the way society uses virtue to exploit women, which once prompted me to block somebody on Facebook for whining “That book is stupid. Why aren’t there any books about Excellent Men, huh? HUH? HUH? Social media is exhausting (and often tedious) enough without having to know that people you know have the same lack of self-awareness and capacity for critical thought as those who brought you Heterosexual Pride Day. That said, Laura Nelson is excellent and not in any pallid Barbara Pym sort of way, but in the badass Barbara Pym who wrote such clever satire sort of way.

Mary McCarthy’s the Group

The connections here were Slow Philosophy–Hannah Arendt–biopic about Hannah Arend–friendship between Arendt and novelist Mary McCarthy–McCarthy novel, The Group, checked out from the Los Angeles Public Library last week and utterly devoured even though there are a million other things, like writing and painting. I cracked it open and rolled my eyes: damnit, another novel about New England elites and their stupid problems they make for themselves by obsessed about status hierarchies, Oh, Golly, the family fortunes have waned and now our house on Cape Code must be sold…ask me to give a shit.

Um, McCarthy does ask that I give a shit, and she made me do so. Don’t get me wrong; this is, indeed, a send-up of all their snobberies and mores, but mixed up in there are genuine, fully-formed, beautifully observed characters that she had me caring about. If anybody wonders about what kinds of truths there are in novels, here. By looking depth from the perspective of these highly privileged young women, you see the way gender presses in on them, undermines their agency, and blames them. Highly recommended. Be patient with the first chapter; it takes awhile to see it all.

I did, however, want to share a quote, largely because it helps illustrate how reading comes together with the lived world so well. I sat down and read this novel in summer 2017, at exactly the same time the US Senate decided to deliberate Trumpcare. There are real problems with ACA, and what strike me as some obvious changes that need to happen, but the GOP bill is terrible. I’m not a health specialist, but this thing isn’t a health policy. It’s a tax bill, and it’s an object lesson in letting ideology get in the way of the realpolitik of governing.

The set-up: this chapter is from the point of a view of a young mother, Priss, who is frantic (like a lot of The Group, the Vassar girls), about doing things the Right Way, for her newborn son. Her husband, a pediatrician, who comes second in the “Men I’d Most Like to Throat Punch” ranking I kept throughout the novel, believes in SCIENCE, and he makes their baby, her body and her breastfeeding the grist for his various crackpot principles about child-rearing. The young mother is trapped in a web of modernism, and it’s heartbreaking to read. Dr. KnowsItAll knows, simply knows, that a newborn can be put effortlessly on a schedule (come on; babies gotta eat, they gotta sleep, they gotta poop. Fortunately they are cute while they do that. It’s their entire job for a long time.) if you just enforce the schedule ruthlessly enough. And babies must never be held or cuddled; they must be picked up only to be fed or changed. Cuddling a baby! Ridiculous! Soft!

So Priss sits alone in her room, isolated, listening to her hungry baby wail himself into exhaustion, doubting her every move, because of course her body and her own beliefs about how to handle the baby are wrong-wrong-wrongity-wrong-wrong.

Anybody who doesn’t immediately line up with her husband’s rigid claptrap–other doctors, nurses, and the young mother herself become the objects of contempt and blame for why the baby isn’t showing the behavioral outcomes he says are inevitable, if only. Those weak-minded nurses hold the baby when he isn’t looking. That senile old doctor allows the baby to have a supplementary bottle (the worst thing that could ever happen!)

Priss, mild and very sweet, reflects:

Up to now, this had not mattered; most men she knew were Republicans–it was part of being a man. But she did not like the thought of a Republican controlling the destiny of a tiny baby.

Indeed.

BTW, before anybody gets all shouty, you could tell the same story today with some hippy-dippy anti-vaxxer who puts their crank principles ahead of their child’s welfare. Plenty of people put their theories above humanity.