Todd Litman, a productive writer and thinker in transportation and transit, responds to Steve Polzin’s entry about how we focus on highway congestion delays but seldom on transit delays, The Cost of Slow Travel.
Unfortunately, the response misses the point and an opportunity to think strategically about transit and service. Instead, it’s misdirected advocacy. I’ve been watching this dynamic happen time and time again for years now. Somebody raises a criticism of transit, and the advocacy army responds and responds and responds and responds–only without addressing the original problem. And as a result, we have lots of political interest and investment in transit, but decreasing productivity from that investment. Which just makes transit the target for more criticism. This is one of the reasons that when loudmouth comments get made on this blog, I take the time to respond back. No matter how much thought policing we do around transit, we won’t get as many passengers as we could unless the service improves.
Polzin’s article wasn’t an indictment of transit quality of service, at least not entirely. It legitimately called attention to how level of service and aggregate delays on highways get to be the subject of a high-profile report every year–from TTI–while transit service quality gaps get ignored–except by the people struggling to use it. That high-profile report? It gets used as a rationale for proposals from highway investment, investments in signal timing, intelligent highways, intelligent vehicles, information systems and–yes, transit as well. In transportation, “needs assessments” are generally all about demonstrating service quality problems. “Heavens! So many people use our highways/bikeways/streetcars/shuttles that we need more! Our service is poor compared to elsewhere. We need more dollars, please.”
So pointing out the length of transit commutes in time is not necessarily somebody being a meanypants who doesn’t support transit the way he or she should. Instead, it’s a realistic appraisal of one aspect of mobility service quality, period.
Yes, service quality. People tend to like to separate travel time and service quality based on the arguments, like Litman uses, that the time in transit or walking is more pleasurable and productive than being in a car. But they are only right for people whose preferences align with theirs. For other segments of the mobility market, they are wrong. Moreover, it’s wrong to assume that these are the only things being traded: yeah, you hate to drive and you’d be happier not driving, but the extra half an hour that transit takes you means a half an hour you’re not with your kids, cooking, drinking wine with your spouse at home, watching the game, or any number of things you can’t do on transit, either. So yeah, I’d prefer to get the exercise walking than driving, but I prefer to spend the time cooking so that my kids aren’t sitting around hungry after school more than I prefer the exercise. Some people weight that in the opposite direction. I suspect that if there is a 10 minute difference between transit and driving, transit wins just about every time. But a half-hour difference? When do we begin to lose people? That’s the question. The next question is: can we close that gap in service without going bankrupt?
Transit advocates and car users can trade assertions about service quality for the rest of eternity and it won’t help us figure out the social welfare problem of mobility provision in cities. Transit advocates tell me that they much prefer the jolly, wonderful time they have on transit. When I ride transit, which is a lot, I mostly just listen to my iPod and try not to get barfed on. It is never the best of part my day, and it is sometimes the worst part of my day. My suspicion is that most drivers feel the same way. Most days it is fine, other days it sucks.
Transit advocates tell me about the inhumane hours and hours of despair that people in cars endure. People who use their cars to commute from Orange County to Los Angeles tell me about how they use the time to listen to books on tape and it’s not so bad. New Urbanists tell me that walking in the city is the best part of their day. I’m not sure: on the way to the post office this morning, I had an aggressive panhandler shriek “GIVE ME A QUARTER, BITCH” in my face as he burst from an alley, startling me so much that my heart palpitated for a good 10 minutes afterwards. I’m no pansy, but I’m betting my day has better parts than that. Maybe this doesn’t happen in Seaside.
The point is that preferences are largely unknowable except to people doing the preferring. We can argue that the auto’s dominance is a revealed preference and that’s that. We can and do argue that transit isn’t supplied ubiquitously enough to argue that auto usage does not represent a revealed preference, but rather a choice made under mobility supply constraints. It’s impossible to tell because we can’t conduct controlled experiments and there are too many endogenous factors. Who is to say that people with genuine preferences for particular types of urban lifestyles aren’t self-selecting at the regional level? That the preferences are not revealed soley by neighborhood choices and mode choices made within regions but–as I strongly suspect–people who love love love the type of urbanism that Litman and others advocate select into places likes New York and Portland and San Francisco?
The Slow Cities idea is directed, particularly, at changing people’s preferences, not arguing that transit is objectively time competitive. So transit takes you longer. So what? You are saving the planet. You are not driving. Isn’t that nice? Don’t you feel relaxed not rushing?
We can also argue forever about the regional productivity numbers for either highways or transit, no matter how many scientifical-looking graphics Litman or anybody else shows me. Honest researchers admit we have little real understanding about whether, at this stage of the game in American development, investments in mobility infrastructure* drive labor productivity or whether productivity drives investment (remember my needs assessment statement). Yes, we have theories that argue the former and the latter. And empirical testing once again becomes Herculean because we don’t have controls.
In the end, if transit commutes are longer, they will not be competitive with other modes for those whose preferences run towards time savings over not driving. If we’re willing to bet that group is a small part of the market instead of a big part of the market, that’s one thing. I’m not willing to take that bet. I’d rather take seriously the issue of why transit commutes are longer to see if modifying operations can edge into that share of the mobility market.
*Save for airport and freight investments. There we have reasonable data.