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.


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.

The walls without her in them

I’ve been struggling with renovating my house in West Adams/Crenshaw. I have owned and renovated multiple houses, in multiple locales, but all those I did by writing checks to people like contractors and interior designers. Andy and I want to do much of the work on this house ourselves, to do something with our hands, and to learn about it and ourselves in the process.

This doing for yourself is weird among our social group. When we first planted our garden, it had some setbacks, and it was what it was: a scrubby little thing. More than one affluent friend looked at the little plants and said–like somehow this isn’t bad manners–“you should have (insert landscaper name here) in to do your yard.” No, I shouldn’t. I’ve had so many beautiful gardens, big and small, in patio pots and in yards, that I know the essence of a beautiful garden is time. Every garden is a conversation between the gardener, the plants, the animals, and the space. You have to get to know them all. It’s better if you are polite and don’t go poisoning them, I think, or trying to be too controlling about what happens. We seem to have a nice equilibrium between the rats and the neighborhood cats and the possums and the raccoons, who come and use the garden at night while we keep the dogs in.

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A landscaper can come in and make a garden for you, but they can’t give you that conversation. You will own the garden, and you may enjoy it. But it won’t be yours in the same way mine is mine. I totally support landscapers and wish them all the business in the world. But not mine. Because I want to do it myself.

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Many years later, my garden is fascinating, and I routinely have people with their phones out photographing the garden and its butterflies. I won’t pretend I knew it would turn out this way; I didn’t. I just had faith that if we kept working with it, we would turn out nicely together.

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The same isn’t true of decorating interior spaces. There, I have no confidence. I rented and meandered for years. Andy and I lived a footloose life; it seemed always that I would just get the garden doing what it should do, and we’d have to leave it to the mercies to whoever came next. The inside of the house has never interested me as much as the outside. So decorating has always waited. Even in houses I’ve owned, I’ve just paid decorators and got what I got with the price I could afford to pay: lots of beige, lots of exhortations to leave the rooms empty, sniffing about bookshelves being “clutter.” These were all perfectly nice places where all the checkmarks were checked: clean lines; bare surfaces that never stayed bare between Andy and me, as we are always putting cats or books or shells or rocks or something on them; lots of Scandinavian light wood, nothing stored; and always the exhortations against clutter.

If you like your surfaces bare, then I’m all for you living in a bare space. But there is no objective reason why a taste for bare surfaces is better; it’s just associated with class and taste. Keeping things or collecting things suggests one might be poor enough to have to reuse things. Minimalism always strikes me as the decorator version of the aggressive thinness expected of wealthy women. And of course all the beiges. Endless paint samples of riffs on beige and off-white. Eggshell. It was all very appropriate and perfectly boring. There are some great decorators who do wonder with colors. I never really encountered any, and none I encountered gave me the confidence I needed to say yes to color, either.

And it was all designed help me fit in with the upper middle class academics I was surrounded by. I had spent years watching academics and the children of academics follow the lines of taste. Shopping trips where I would pick up something only to have a friend look up and down, curl her lip, and shake her head because of course, left to my own working class devices, I simply wouldn’t know how to dress the bod. (In reality, this was silly: I’m fat. Nothing “flatters” me except putting on whatever I like and giving zero f*cks whether anybody else likes it or not. When I do that, then everything flatters me. Come to think of it, that’s the style that works on everybody else, too. I was just too cowed when younger to call bullshit on all this head-shaking nonsense.)

Or another favorite: Me, holding up something I loved: “I love this!” Friend, looking up and down: “Well, it’s not my taste.” What the hell? Who cares? I said I like it. I didn’t say they liked it. Why would they think I’m asking their approval? Because…that’s what the culture of taste does. That’s how it operates. By claiming taste, you put self on top.

Yet another interaction:

Me: “I’m going to get a present for a friend.”
Mutual friend: “Uh, ehrm, that’s nice, but you know, that friend really has taste.” Implication: I don’t, and anything I get her will be the equivalent of the frageelay leg lamp from A Christmas Story.

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So, I stopped getting gifts for people other than wine and books. But wine mostly.

I’ve spend years listening to sniffs that something I liked was “kitchy” or some other class-loaded claptrap. And I listened. Even worse, I internalized. I internalized all that nonsense, accepted that my taste was terrible and theirs awesome. Then, even worse, I began teaching in programs with architects, who have supreme confidence in what is what, and how you, since you are notanarchitect, can’t possibly have any real taste or design sense.

Now I knew better than this. I’d read Pierre Bourdieu and his critiques of taste and distinction. He’s my favorite social theorist. I knew better than to let this stuff get in my head. But it got in anyway. (This would be a good time to plug my colleague’s new book: Elizabeth Currid-Halkett’s The Sum of Small Things, about new ways of signaling status and taste in urban contexts.)

On top of that was the house search, and everybody else’s house search. Howls of laughter at the former occupant’s taste and lives. “Can you believe they had yellow shag carpet?” And ” This was a great house, except it had awful green porcelain in the upstairs bath.” I participated. In my house hunt, I remember sneering at a crucifixion scene, painted using a stencil, in black in a white living room–huge–in an otherwise darling house in Expo Park. Even in this house, owned by Ms Pillow until she passed at 104, I’ve sneered at her baby blue and intense pink.

All this was the same nonsense. And all of it has led me to paralysis around just picking some stupid paint. At first I thought I would just paint everything white. But I did’t want everything white. And thus the house has sat for five years while Andy and I worked on the garden, and I dithered. And I sat here, hating Mrs. Pillow’s pink and blue.

I would use trial balloons on various people. “I really like this one thing”…only to be greeted with pursed lips and awkward looks. Never “OMG, that could be SO FUN depending on what you do with the rest of the room!” Never ever. Ever. Always sighs. Always.

And thus, more paralysis.

I’m not sure when my revelation happened, but I think it has been all my thinking for the book about Heidegger and dwelling. Yesterday, though, it occurred to me that of course, decoration seems garish without the person in it.

Along with that big crucifixion stencil, the house had evidence that a gay son or (more likely) grandson also lived there, along with probably his grandmother, if my deductions from the bedroom contents were accurate. There is a story there of people’s lives; you can imagine grandma and her strong Catholicism, and all the dogma laid aside for the sake of a grandson she loved more than doctrine. She existed/exists with that stenciled wall in an ecology of love and devotion that the rest of us understand only when we stop gazing and start seeing.

Of all the pictures of Ms. Pillow I saw, even when she was very elderly, she did herself up fine, with full make up and church hats. One of my favorite photos shows her in a leopard-print pantsuit with her hair picked all the way out in a big afro, wearing big gold-framed glasses, a huge gold lame belt, and the best smile. She had this incredible pink suit from the 1980s with huge mother-of-pearl buttons and sassy peplum. She liked her pink, and she put it all over–herself and her home. No mere human being could wear that pantsuit or that pink suit. They required Ms. Pillow. On a hanger, they would be grotesque. On her, they were transcendent. (Ms. Pillow’s heir was not related to her and didn’t take some of her pictures when he sold the house. I have not had the heart to throw them away in case somebody somewhere wants them.)

Without these women, of course the places they made seem wrong. Off-kilter. Garish. They themselves–their spirits and actions–were what made their choices, however tasteful or not by conventional standards, the right ones for them in that place and time. The rest of us don’t have to understand it, and our judgments, never really wanted and seldom solicited but gifted to one and all anyway, are irrelevant, the grist of our status hierarchies.

Screw this. Wear what makes you happy. Give all the gifts you want to. People can regift. Paint the whole room kelly green if you want to. Put glitter paint on your toenails. Get the pixie haircut even if it doesn’t “balance” your figure.

And the rest of you are on notice. You with your beige walls and your sheath dresses and $400 sunglasses that look just like $10 sunglasses, all that frippery you use, trying to make us believe you aren’t a wounded, mewling meatsack like the rest of us. I see you there, trying to hide from the world. You can try that weak-ass shit on me again, but I see you anyway, all you, and it’s beautiful.

Love and representation in planning

This post is all over the place. I promise you no resolution.

This morning I am thinking about Luce Irigaray. I have a wonderful PhD student in communications, Nick Busalacchi, who is working in epistemologies of place, and we had a nice if somewhat incoherent talk about Irigaray yesterday. I had the pleasure of discussing her ideas earlier in the day with Aubrey Hicks and David Sloane. My high school French teacher hated my guts–and I always have questions about the ethics of teachers displaying their contempt for students the way she did me–but having another language gave me the doorway to learning many other languages over time, and to be able to read thinkers like Irigaray in their original language–slowly. But then, perhaps that’s how they were meant to be read.

Nick and I started skylarking about where Heidegger ends and Nick’s thoughts begin, and we didn’t get that far because Nick is still working, but the conversation has stayed with me. Heidegger and Lefebvre both push against the reductive representations of space in the professions, but in the profession, representations are a necessity. Planning requires representations of place. You can’t talk or deliberate about a future of anything unless you have some handle on the thing as a thing–its borders, features, etc. Nonetheless, as Lefebvre pointed out, those representations are very very far from the place itself–what is missing concerns the humanity that enlivens the space and makes it real.

I myself have been thinking very much about the YIMBY tendency I see online to assume that everybody who doesn’t support their idea of the city are NIMBYs only interested in property values. The problem is that property values are mixed in with everything else about places and people, and people love places for many reasons besides their property values. I have a nice house in the Crenshaw area of Los Angeles. If Metro decides to go north with it, I will have a TOD right next to me, and that will actually probably raise my property values. (Rail is an amenity; I’ve yet to see an empirical study that finds anything else). That will get me yet another unearned increment of wealth on my home value. But it will change the place; I welcome it and am excited by those changes more than the potential increment in land value.

But what if they have to condemn my house to get the thing built? It’s not outside the realm of possibility. Then I will get some payout, grudgingly given. And I will see them subject to a bulldozer a garden I’ve spent 10 years growing–and a house that my husband and I have lovingly renovated–room-by-room, inch-by-inch, making mistakes and discoveries about ourselves at each step. Thinking about that bulldozer is a stab in the heart, not the pocketbook.

From the sky view surrounding important collective issues like “future housing” or “sustainability” or “regional plans”, my worries about my house and my garden seem as nothing. But they are much to me. Just as everybody’s home is much to them in ways impossible, really, to convey to others, particularly people who have measured out the place in parcels and believe they have justice and sustainability on their side.

This poverty in representation affects every part of this discussion. Just as it is hard to represent love for place as it is, it is also hard to represent what is missed when places become locked down by zoning, and thus, the poverty of the discussion. It’s comparatively easy to traduce somebody as believing that their asset values are more important than housing additional people; our vocabulary of the market and distributive justice readily enable such criticisms. It’s harder to convince people that the things they love can be better when shared with other people because sharing and love are not the language of planning and public policy.

Gas tax and per capital VMT and gasoline consumption, visualized multiple ways

I’ve been wondering about California’s gas tax increase, and where that puts us in terms of other states. The American Petroleum Institute has a nice way of calculating the effective tax in each state, plus the federal tax, but they don’t have the data for download. I am bloody-minded enough to just type it a spreadsheet from their report here. I got per capita VMT and per capita gasoline consumption data from RITA.

I’m looking at data for states here.

First off, just some distributions of the data: gas tax levels, gallons/person, and vehicle miles of travel / person.


Irritating bi-modality there I get rid of by binning differently, but that wouldn’t be honest, now would it?



This here 3-d scatterplot is ugly because of the overplotting, but you can really see the states that are outliers in all three variables:


Here’s a scatterplot matrix where you see how we are not choosing fuel efficiency (e.g., the trend between gas consumed and VMT per person. I logged all the variables to try to pull those outliers, but it only worked so much. I think there’s a slight negative relationship between tax and VMT. Again, fleet efficiency is a variable we are not seeing here, along with a bunch of other factors (consumer demographics, retail gas prices) so we wouldn’t expect to see straightforward relationships.


and some rankings, since you know you want ’em, even though they aren’t very informative–there really isn’t much variation save for those outliers. Here we can see the effects of urbanization. DC is small and entirely urbanized, for all practical purposes.

VMT Person

The subversive act of female judgment (Margarethe von Trotta’s Hannah Arendt)

I am reading Slow Philosophy right now by Michelle Boulos Walker, and I am enjoying it very much. My epistemology teacher was Sandra Harding, and my favorite part of the Symposium centered on Diotima, so I’ve always thought women and philosophy go together, just as a person outside the discipline who reads it as an instructive pleasure. But having my learned my lesson about how much people haaaaaaaaaaaate women with judgments (even more than they haaaaaaaaaaaaate women with opinions), it’s finally dawned on me why philosophy is particularly hard terrain for women, though it’s no picnic anywhere in the academy. It just seems to be a different terrain philosophy than in STEM or elsewhere, with privileged maleness providing a common framework between all of them.

In the first or second paragraph of Slow Philosophy, Walker describes the first scene in Margarethe Von Trotta’s biopic, Hannah Arendt. This description boosts my affection for Hannah Arendt even more, which I didn’t actually think was possible:

In a film about the philosopher Hannah Arendt by the German director Magarethe von Trotta, Arendt is pictured lying on a sofa, smoking. Nothing appears to be happening. Arendt, it seems, is thinking. The length of the scene is unusual when compared to the contemporary mainstream cinema: a cinema characterized by ‘activity’ and ‘action’, narrowly defined. What is it about this image that unsettles? Time passes–and it does so slowly. In fact, temporality and its unique relation with thinking is a theme von Trotta weaves throughout the entire film.

Based on this description, I was sufficiently intrigued to rent the movie, which I recommend highly. The movie covers the period when Arendt goes to cover the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem and her subsequent series in the New Yorker, which becomes her most controversial work: Eichmann in Jerusalem: A report on the Banality of Evil. This is one of my favorite books of all time: I first read it one summer in high school, and I have returned to it many times since, and I love many of the responses to it, especially Eichmann Before Jerusalem by Bettina Stagnath.

The movie follows the witch hunt that followed the publication of the piece, and there are so many disappointing scenes, where she loses friends over her unwillingness to portray Eichmann as a monster or to turn a blind eye to the trial’s discussion of Judenrate in eastern European cities. (Arendt could never do that; for her, political evil wasn’t about individual choices; it was about interweaving of human weakness and structure/context. Where some saw her blaming Jews for having a hand in their own destruction, Arendt was trying to point out that they couldn’t do otherwise given the context of power that set the terms of human action.)

There are many things to criticize about Arendt’s choice here: putting the work in the New Yorker, which is basically TED-Talk level of thought for all the many fine things it publishes, meant an audience neither trained as philosophers nor necessarily familiar with her masterpiece, On Totalitarianism, that would would have enabled people to be able to read her Eichmann thinking in the context of Arendt’s thought. It also meant a shorter format, which meant that the time philosophers use explaining their terms and being careful with language had to give way to William Shawn and the New Yorker standard for readability.

It’s also not clear to me that public intellectualizing about the Holocaust right at that moment was an ethical or productive use of a scholarly platform. I’m not sure: I can argue both ways, particularly now that so many live with the consequences of rigid Zionism. Jews were trying to build Israel with daunting barriers as it was without prominent Jews like Arendt suggesting they make bad governing decisions (everybody does), and Israel had already taken much criticism for nabbing Eichmann the way they did. (Though, we should note, other than some tut-tutting, nobody really cared Mossad violated extradition policy given that a) Eichmann deserved everything he had coming to him and b) Argentina was wrong to refuse to cooperate in the first place.)

We can totally understand why people reeling with pain did not want to hear implied criticisms of Jewish conduct or excuse-making for Eichmann. Some things just can’t be intellectualized. Just like there is never really any justice for wrongs on the scale of genocide (this does not mean we don’t try; it means we try all the harder, where recovery lies in the effort), there are some things we may never really understand no matter how smart we are. Some Jews understandably wanted a triumphant narrative about Israel and this trial, and Arendt could never write that for them. That wasn’t her. (As it is, to me the trial was good and important, judiciously conducted with clarity and purpose, but it also was what trials always are after unforgivable wrongs: messy and painful, with victims suffering again in the relating of the events, and man who, as Arendt saw too clearly, seemed a mismatch in capability for the suffering he ultimately caused, because he was stripped of the power provided by the modern bureaucratic state the Nazis formulated to their ends.)

Nonetheless, the movie shows plenty of male philosophers pitching fits and writers using her public comeuppance to build their own status and public profile (including a great scene where Arendt’s friend, the novelist Mary McCarthy (played beautifully by Janet McTeer), stomps *some dick into the dirt* when she finds some boy philosophers badmouthing Arendt–no fracks given). What I wrote up there? The boy philosophers, for all their lofty training, didn’t get to that even that minor level of sophistication in critiquing Arendt. Instead, they just huffed about her “arrogance.” How dare she? There is the justified pain of Zionists struggling with what they thought was her betrayal and then the simple status-seeking among philosophers who simply weren’t Arendt’s equal–and who knew it–and who opportunistically used the former to try to build themselves by dragging her.

Richard Brody, film critic for the New Yorker, hated von Trotta’s film, calling it ridiculous and offensive….carrying with the tradition of histrionic male reactions to women and thinking. There’s only so much you can accomplish in any biopic; film is not text, and there are limits as to what you can do. There are problems with the film, certainly; by the end, some of her male colleagues are little more than cartoon villains, but how much space do you give to their outrage when it’s actually pretty simple? von Trotta gives deserved time and space to the anger, resentment, and disappointment of friends who believed in the Zionist project, and that strikes me as far more important to highlight. Anybody who can’t see the difference among people who are shouting at Arendt isn’t listening to what von Trotta presented.

Just because von Trotta doesn’t show Arendt strangling kittens hardly makes the film a hagiography, as Brody calls it. Von Trotta shows one Jewish intellectual after another at the beginning of the film treating Arendt with warmth, respect, and in some instances, loving care. These decent people, who have both her best interests and the best interests of Jews at heart ask her, warn her, and reason with her about why she needs to be careful with her writing about Eichmann–including her very devoted spouse. She doesn’t heed them. That’s hardly the stuff of sainthood, regardless of whether you think her desire to cover Eichmann came from a desire for even more public attention or her own insatiable desire to understand and help others understand. You don’t have to scratch every itch, and you don’t have to publish everything you figure out for yourself. It’s just that Brody claims to be interested in the stuff of every day life, he misses its subtleties, let alone how those play out for women who think and write. He dismisses the lecture hall scene as “bombastic”…never thinking that any woman in that position faces, every time she walks into a room, the male gaze and pressure to shut up, be pretty, be pleasing, boost up others’ thought, not your own, and that after all she had been through, she was upset.

No, dear, fold your hands on your lap. Speak softly. Make others feel better about themselves. Don’t raise your voice, dear. Speak sweetly. Appear less than you are. Be less than you are

Stop thinking. We think for you. Start doing…for other people. Always serve, always always always.

If white women like me and Arendt get this message, the crap that women of color get has to be on a different order of magnitude: Go nurture. Do for me. Lying down and thinking? How dare you? There is work for others you must do. They are owed. You are obligated. Blah blah blah…

Then there is the very large question: would anybody have treated a male philosopher the way they did Arendt if he had raised the same questions she did. And, of course, a male actor shouting in front of a classroom…never bombastic. Forceful.

The weak part of the film blows right by Brody, in his weak efforts to critique Arendt’s book and the films all at once: von Trotta insists on showing us flashbacks to Arendt’s affair with Heidegger. I think these are utterly unnecessary, and except for some puerile fascination people have with academic affairs, it’s the least interesting aspect of Arendt’s life and thought. I suppose von Trotta might be saying that Arendt’s fierce intelligence found validation and encouragement in Heidegger’s exhortations to think no matter what modern society would have her do. I doubt it’s that deep, though, and I don’t read Heidegger’s take thinking that way anyway.

Brody concludes that the film doesn’t do Arendt justice, but what film really would? Nothing does, save for reading the entire oeuvre. Then reading it again. And again.

Walker doesn’t point this out, but I have to: the movie ends the way it began, which I love sooooooooooooooo much. The final scene shows Arendt, played by German actress Barbara Sukowa, once more lying on the couch smoking. Thinking. Judging. That ending made me smile.

I’ve had my own struggles thinking about the controversies I’ve created on this blog and in my publishing, and I’ve processed them here on the blog. My desire to be liked and accepted conflicts with my desire to understand cities in all their facets. Watching this film, warts and all, and reading Walker and her extensive read of Helene LeDoeuf’s work, helped me clarify my own feelings and come to a conclusion about my own relationship to internet trolls and all those who wish I’d be quiet, to listen to the boys. That conclusion is:

Go to hell. I’m thinking.

Interactive graphic of revenue sources for LA transit providers (and controls), flypaper effect, displacement effect

Here’s the pretty picture, or ugly picture, depending on how you feel about colors and cumulative bar charts.

Wednesday I posted some comparisons of transit revenue data from the NTD for big, regional agencies. I got some questions and comments, one being a comment from brilliant friend Shane Phillips, that LA Metro’s reliance on sales tax might not be as a bad as I suggested, granted that much of it is expended in capital improvements. I disputed this point, simply in that volatility can hurt your capital budgets, too, and I did raise the point that LA got much less from early Measure R implementation simply because it passed in the middle of the recession, and it took us awhile to climb out. During those months, we got much less take than forecasts suggested. It took us a good three years to get to forecast levels, and while Metro can use the funds, those early low months are painful–especially when R was set to sunset on us, and we got little out of the first two-three years.

Another concern came up about whose revenues I aggregated; I only did singleagencies. Brilliant friend Erik Griswald suggested that we should aggregate by geography rather than just agency. I don’t know about this. I see little evidence that different agencies within regions harmonize either service or budgets; agencies have separate budgets even if their service areas and spans overlap, and not all providers are full reporters for the NTD. Geography might be enlightening for things like comparing bases. You might compare total farebox take out of total travel base, for example for bus-only companies and rail-only companies in the same general area. But those are vastly different services with buses doing feeder work that rail services do for a smaller number of trips. Even then, though, agencies operate different service spans and coverage areas, which mean different revenue-mile and revenue-hour potential. Besides the conceptual problems, it’s also a mess given the way NTD reporting is done. You have to do the work to aggregate even by agency as they split by expenditure category and source. There is a lot of budget detail that agency aggregation hides; for instance, Miami Dade Transit gets general fund appropriations from both localities and the state. That’s really interesting information for budget nerds; it’s probably less interesting for people interested in transit just thinking where the money is coming from, which is what motivated me to start poking these data in the first place.

My own concern is a simple lack of confidence that I aggregated the categories properly. I think I did fine except for some chickenfeed categories, but nonetheless, I’d have to do a lot more checking work before I published these in a journal. I think I’d need a budget person to help sort it for sure.

Nonetheless, I figured I could do some with just LA providers, and it might be interesting. I know the providers a bit better here than anywhere else. I am still missing a bunch. I tried to get every agency that participates in TAP (I didn’t; some are under the “small operators” category, tho). It’s interesting but incomplete, with all the problems I figured I’d get once I tried to do this by geography. I’ve got the kitchen sink here institutionally and service wise, as well, including a paratransit provider for illustration (Access).

Sorry for the truncated names, but R has strong preferences about size, and for the locals who are most likely to be interested, the names should be obvious enough.

A better person would have completely consistent colors between yesterday and today, but I am a sad and sloppy coder and I didn’t save plot coding; I did the best I could. I did somewhat alter the small categories around “other” because with the tiny agencies, those become more important. Nobody here is reporting any toll revenue, so that category is gone, but I find that confusing. I checked the NTD stuff three times–I thought Metro got some revenue from HOT lanes. If they do, I don’t see it. Maybe it’s funneled through the state funds, and that’s where it shows up in the budget.

Also gone is the income tax category, we since don’t have any with these agencies, but oooooooo how I wish California would make that an opt-in option on income tax forms. It’s not the same as a big-base dedicated tax, but I think lots of people in California would be willing to chuck in $20 for transit voluntarily, and that could add up to a decent amount.

As to the “active capital investment program” suggestion Shane raised…that might be true with Metro, but many of these little, LA-area agencies do not strike me as having particularly active capital investment programs. I could be wrong, I suppose. They have to buy vehicles, and their real estate is as expensive as anybody else’s here. My suspicion, however, is that they rely on the sales tax because it’s there, and it essentially displaces other potential funding sources; you can, by comparison, see where other small providers in other states where sales taxes aren’t an option, they go with appropriations from general funds or some state fund. So my point doesn’t hold, either; appropriations can be even more of a white-knuckle ride in terms of stability than sales taxes, and you have the extra headache of dedicating lobbyist time to that in addition to policy measures.

The availability of sale tax revenue probably has enabled smaller cities to stabilize funding for transit and use their other local funds for other purposes. On balance, I’m guessing that is probably to the good. Probably. Sales taxes are easy for consumers to pay (the retailer has the cost of the compliance), have a nice big base, and tax foreigners living abroad (but visiting us) and resident noncitizens.

One counter, which I suspect Metro would make: because Los Angeles raises local funds with the sales tax, these agencies attract more Federal dollars–the flypaper effect. That can be true, too, but the Feds do not necessarily care what public finance tool you are using, as long as the money is there. So LA could go with market-rate parking charges and dedicate that to a fund, and as long as it went to a dedicated fund, that would work the same way for flypaper effects.

I’d need to do more work to be able to show anything solid about flypaper or displacement. This is only one year of funding, too, and it may just be that agencies that are seeing bigger lumps of money from the Feds had holdover ARRA funds or got lucky during one grant cycle.

Fun note: What do Metrolink and MARTA have in common? They would miss parking charges if those go away.

I’m reaaaaaaalllly sick of these data; I’ve scratched this particular itch, which is a passive aggressive way of noting that anybody who wants to see more should go play with the data themselves. 😊😊😊

Interactive transit revenue data, visualized in different ways via Plotly

This week I wanted to challenge myself to learn how to use Plotly, as those always look so nice. The other thing I wanted was to clear up some questions I had with WMTA’s budget numbers. They do a very nice job telling a visual story, but I was a little flummoxed by the absence of a full revenue chart. I also wanted to learn more about ImageMagick colors, so there’s that, too.

It’s very difficult to compare transit agency budgets; not all use zero-based budgeting and they are quite different in terms of their scope and service spans. NY Metro is so much bigger than everybody else; very few agencies cross state and county lines. But I picked five relatively large, inter-jurisdictional direct service providers. These data are all from the NTD.

This first chart is a bit weird, but stick with me. I wanted to see who was getting what from where, and how much. I was rather interested in looking at the raw budget numbers by revenue category as whole. I do like it, as it helps us see how important in the big transit picture each type of funding source is. We do tend to point out that fares do not cover costs, and yet this shows that fares are important, overall. They may be much less important in Los Angeles than sales taxes, but in other systems, fares are important. We can also see who is getting what from the Feds, at least this year, 2015.

This next one gets us to the proportions that I suspect most people care about, and the scratchy, uncomfortable feeling I have with the dependence that so many of our big transit agencies have on sales taxes. I get into a lot of trouble saying that I don’t love our transit sales tax measures. I get why LA people support them, but it’s hard for me to tolerate the whinging about small ridership gains when we don’t act more aggressively with gasoline taxes and tolls. There is really no reason why we shouldn’t be doing both tolls and a local option gasoline tax instead of sales tax after sales tax, other than the political difficulties of expecting drivers in LA to pay. If we can’t raise the costs of driving relative to taking transit, I think we are going to be frustrated by underperforming investments for a very long time.

And sales tax revenue is hella volatile and follows the business cycle, so that agencies relying on them for half their budget on sales taxes, like the LA Metro, get to have the floor fall out from under them every time there is a recession.

These are both public and in Plotly, so you can diddle with them, too. For those interested, these data went from Excel to R to Plotly with direct stream through R to the Plotly API.