Reasons for proposing LRT that don’t induce me to make barfing noises in public

1. There’s a corridor where we’ve done everything we can to improve bus service, and there’s extra room for additional ROW so that LRT would provide additional capacity for future growth which isn’t expected to reach heavy rail levels;

2. There are multiple destinations we endeavor to tie together in order to unify it as a district, and there are intensive development plans, real plans, with financing and approvals, not just hot air;

3. There are developers or foundations with cash in hand committed to helping build and run the facility for at least 25 years.

We can squabble about the marginal benefit of each type of investment–and we will, since public value is always contested–but these strike me as sensible reasons for proposing LRT in mid-sized regions.

Why transit advocates should avoid the “what white people want” card

So I got plenty of blowback on yesterday’s post (and not from the gentle and insightful commenter here) about what a mean meany meanpants I am for not being nicer about the “need” for light rail as a means to coddle white transit riders who won’t use buses. I’m used to histrionics from sensitive wee flowers who want their casual racism unquestioned, let alone being unwilling to condone the All Things Rail All the Time thinking that dominates transit.

Here’s why people should never play the “what white people will ride” card, when advocating for any mode or service, ever.

1. White people already dominate urban policy, including transit policy, without any help from the rail fanboys acting as amplifiers. If there is one thing transportation policy in the US has not suffered from, it’s a failure to prioritize what white people want. So supposedly, white people want high levels of service, which means rail, if you believe you can’t serve passengers well with buses.(Which I don’t, but lots of people do.)

Unfortunately, an aversion to buses or low service quality doesn’t explain why many white people moved themselves, and continue to move themselves, into auto-oriented enclaves not served by rail or anything else. It does not explain why white people throughout the US have systematically voted for one property tax avoidance measure after another, thereby sealing off city governments’ most likely own-source revenues to support the operations and building of urban transit systems. Aversion to buses alone doesn’t explain why legislators in states across the US passed measures forbidding state gas taxes to be spent on anything other than roads. Then there are the enclaves that sue transit operators for putting stops and stations in their neighborhoods, regardless of whether it’s a bus stop or rail station. Then there is the fact that white people whine like a swarm of gnats at the mere mention of higher gas taxes, or vehicle registration fees, or tolls, or parking charges, thus squelching all the likely nonlocal alternatives to the property tax which can yield revenues with which to provide more transit.

Call me crazy, but I think these are the very last people we should spend transit resources on, let alone lavish them with premium services, since, short of actually deploying the US military against transit infrastructure, they couldn’t make it more obvious they don’t want anything to do with transit.

Substitute “transit” for “toast” in the conversation, and we have nailed what an apparently not insignificant group of white Americans have communicated through their revealed preferences–in land markets and politics: they want to be isolated from transit, and they don’t want to pay for it.

The opposite is true as well: when empowered white constituencies want rail, they usually get it via their influence in land markets and regional politics. Unless it’s rail to LAX which I believe may have incurred the wroth of a one-eyed Gypsy woman who also told off Lon Chaney,Jr.

So “what white people want” is already nicely represented among the power elite without transit people acting like white people’s preferences are special.

2. What white people will ride is the wrong question. The right question: what transit level of service is sufficiently good to attract the most customers?

There’s a big difference in framing between “let’s worry about what white people think is good enough for them” and “Our service should be so good that even fussy, time-sensitive, amenity-sensitive customers will demand it.” Think about it. I’m willing to entertain the latter as a service goal, by all means. The former? Racist.

3. Poor transit service quality is a legitimate reason not to take a bus. Refusing to take a bus, no matter how well it actually operates, because you associate buses with poor people or people of color, is odious. And it’s definitely not a reason we should spend one thin dime of public investment in modes you think are higher class.

Some US regions, like my own, are decades away from being able to serve neighborhoods without residents of those areas ever having to use a bus. Treating buses like an inherently second-class service in these environments means we undermine riders in those areas for a long time.

And if people really do refuse to ride buses no matter how good the bus service is, that sounds less like demanding good service and more like an ironclad excuse to keep your lazy ass in your car in perpetuity while pretending you’d be willing take transit, but only in some fantasy future when rail transit will be built over every square inch of a metropolitan region.* And catering to that nonsense is a way to always have a ready-made, ironclad rationale for arguing we should prioritize rail investment over every other transit goal.

And if we really believe that white people won’t take a bus because of their social biases (rather than service quality concerns), why would our response to that be “please, please, oh pretty please with sprinkles on top, let us use up precious resources to kowtow to your your morally repugnant, anti-social beliefs by gold-plating a small number of facilities for you, you poor dear fragile thing” instead of the way a civilized public should respond, which is: “Stop it.”

I get that things don’t work that way in majoritarian politics, but can’t we be a little more sensitive in transit towards our patrons of color than to say we should upscale some service areas with very expensive investments because that’s all white people will ride?

*If you refuse to ride a bus, but you are walking or biking or skateboarding or using your solar-powered jet pack, you are allowed to ignore me.

“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?

The end of gaslight politics? The Unruh Institute/LA Times Poll results

Here is the story from USC News.

Overall, 55 percent of California voters said they want another chance to weigh in on whether the state should borrow money for high-speed rail, agreeing with the statement that “the plan for the project has changed, the total costs have increased and there are doubts that high-speed rail can actually turn a profit.”

In contrast, 36 percent of voters said they should not be asked to go back to the ballot box, agreeing with the statement that “a new vote could halt any planned construction, and even though the plan has changed, the intent is the same, voters have already committed funding and the project will finish earlier than projected.”

I don’t know how you fix this mess. There are people in the state who really believe in the project and think the money will be found somewhere, and cost escalations don’t mean much to them. They don’t want to vote again because they got their way–barely–on the first vote.

But the first vote was based on a set of straight up lies to voters about how much the project was going to cost. The ballot box initiative claimed Californians were getting 520 km of high speed rail and the $10 billion was going to be a quarter or a third of the amount needed to get there.Read More »

bell hooks on writing about your own social class

You learn early on in the academy that, if you are from a working class or impoverished background, and you are white, you just don’t get to discuss social class. It’s hard telling where I learned it: when I first lived in the college dorms of young women from families who had, to me then, unbelievable status (parents who were lawyers, even teachers!), the subtle assurance they all had they deserved to be in college and would be able to stay there. Or perhaps it was the first time in my planning theory class in a PhD program when I said something about hunting as a means to provide food for poor rural families and the Harvard- and Berkeley-educated peers sneered about how “things are down on the farm”–complete with Tom Joad accent for effect.*

You’re just better off leaving behind what you came from and pretending to pass as somebody from elite classes. Why? Oh, the stupidity. In the US, coming from real poverty is shameful. Boring-ass bootstrap stories about how somebody came from what is, in reality, the lower middle class to become affluent or accomplished or famous–those are fine and sanctioned. Real poverty–the kind that involves dirt floors or no indoor plumbing reeks of the rural and the gutter. And nobody wants to hear it, let alone really confront the idea that real poverty has any meaning.

I’m reading bell hook’s Remembered Rapture right at the moment, and it’s moved me more than any of her previous writings, which is pretty amazing as her work has always been an influence. Here’s a quote from this morning:

While I have no regret, I am saddened that writers from poor and working-class background must still count the emotional costs should they dare to reveal that which the world would choose to leave unspoken, with no written account. We all know that there are times when counting the costs acts to silence and censor. Writers from working class backgrounds, women and men of color who have only recently found our way to the printed page (in the last twenty years) who do not choose to leave behind these worlds or make of them fodder for the entertainment of a prurient privileged class are continuously struggling to find ways to bridge gaps and maintain ties.

*I used to think that I hated planning theory. I now realize that I rather like planning theory and just rather disliked some of the people you find in planning theory classes in PhD programs. Especially since, as a chubby woman scholar with the rural Midwest, I was supposed to spend my time self-deprecating and reassuring all the males around me that they were, indeed, ever so much smarter than me–when, no, they weren’t. I fortunately had a compatriot, a terrific man from rural Canada, who was better at navigating the various egos than I was, but who kept me from thinking that I was completely crazy as he saw and recognized the casual classicism that surrounded us.

Tailgating and the downtown NFL stadium

blogdowntown has a story up about how AEG is planning to design away space for tailgating.

So I’m not sure how to think about this. On the one hand, there’s the idea that the entire space will be a controlled food court where you’re probably not going to be allowed to be unless you are buying, or where the pressures to buy are going to be high–another quasi public space in LA.

On the other hand, fires here have terrible consequences. And Brian Stowe. People can be jerks.

Why does Netflix assign “Of Interest To You” based on race?

Ok, I guess I watch “black people movies.” I use scare quotes because while I am pretty sure there are white people movies, as in, just about all of the movies made in the US, I wasn’t aware that “black people in movies” was a genre until I encountered Netflix.

I have a weakness for comedies, both romantic and otherwise. I don’t actually care what race the funny people are. I just like that they’d be funny. I recently watched a romantic comedy about a group of black friends who find love and hilarity in the city. You’d think this would be a cue to Netflix to suggest other comedies, both foreign and domestic.

Instead, it’s been a cue to their algorithm that I apparently want to watch movies about black people. I think it’s entirely possible that there is an audience of black moviegoers who would like to be able to go to a movie and empathize with the actor on-screen, which would mean that they would want to see people who look like them and share a culture. But does that preference to see black actors or black cinema transcend interest in story type? Like I get suggesting other romantic comedies with black actors similar to the one I watched, but I now have a boatload of thrillers featuring African Americans rather than other rom coms. Think of the material from Bollywood you could connect to somebody who has demonstrated an interest in romantic comedies.

Anybody know? Does the Netflix algorithm work based on what people have watched in clusters? I assume so.

(BTW, the movie is cute: it’s called Just Wright.)

(And yes, I know, you’re supposed to hate romantic movies because they are associated with women and emotions and yuck, everybody knows that women aren’t interesting and their stories are stupid and dumb and all. But I don’t hate women, so alas.)