Anybody who gives out the advice to “read first thing in the morning” has more self-control than I do

I’ve been trying this for a bit, and people, in general, are right. So right. There is a big quality-of-life difference when you wake up and read a book than if you wake up and read the dumb ol’ Internet, especially during the era of nonstop Trump coverage.

However, it also means I sometimes wind up reading all day because some books are really, really just that good.

I’ve pointed out elsewhere that reading is a big part of the scholar’s job. But there’s reading-reading, and there’s mucking-around reading, and while it’s hard to tell the difference sometimes, it’s pretty clear that I can muck with the best of them.


It’s good to be well-right. Right? Never mind. I’m reading.

In which I have a question about supply effects in segmented markets in Fischel’s Homevoter Hypothesis

I think all William Fischel’s work is brilliant–all of it, in addition to Homevoter, so I am so jealous most of the time– and recent empirical work from very good researchers like Vicki Been help establish the case that YIMBY advocates like to cite: home voters have a vested interest in housing scarcity because it increases the financial returns to owner-occupied housing. (I have some design quibbles with the Been study that maybe I’ll take up next week for anybody who wants to delve deeply into empirical nerdiganism. Just because you have quibbles doesn’t mean the study is wrong, btw.)

Scarcity rents are pretty easy to understand: people need housing, you restrict what they can have in a given location, and the prices stay high. In other words, it’s not just housing units getting manufactured. It’s housing units in specific locations.

Here’s the question: what effect does single-family housing becoming a luxury good have on the ability to garner scarcity rents? My brilliant colleagues Chris Redfearn and Elizabeth Currid-Halkett got me interested in high-status locations.

Units are obviously not all created equal, and markets are segmented. In most locations where scarcity rents are a worry, we are not really building any supply of new, single-family housing. We might be supplying luxury condos at competitive price points, but we’re not really building a lot of new, single-family housing, if any. In that instance, it’s entirely possible that single family housing in specific locations become part of the luxury market so that the addition of new condos may not have much price effect on single-family homes. In other words, in highly desirable locations, there are some buyers who are indifferent between a $750,000 condo and a $750,000 house so that the single-family home does not carry a premium. Those are location-oriented buyers. But since there aren’t going to be any more single-family homes supplied in that location, and there are probably buyers in segments of the market that do, very much, prefer a single-family home in that location over a condo, then it’s likely that supplying condos really does not exert much price effect at all over single family homes in a given location if there is a sufficient amount of demand for single-family housing.

IOW, lots of very expensive condos in Monaco, but do those really impact the returns to the mansions?

Now, if new supply opens up, there is probably some effect if places are seen are “less exclusive” somehow than they were before, and the very real issue that places can become less enjoyable if they are shared across bigger groups of people. (Don’t shoot the messenger, but I haven’t really noticed any super-rich people arguing for higher densities in Montecito.)

I really doubt that single-family homes in places with real amenities or other locational advantages really have much chance of lower value or even significantly dampened returns simply because of increased condo supply. It’s one thing to make sure *nobody else* can live in Santa Monica, but all single-family homeowners there really need to do in order to get their scarcity rents is to stop more single-family housing. And nobody is advocating for more single-family housing. Of course, there are individual problems, such as losing a view, because of building, but that’s different than new supply.

Connecting the dots on Getting to Yes on YIMBY (and more preliminary nuggets)

So I had to go through the “You’re a bastard” gamut with the last YIMBY post, as always, with the charge that I am just “concern trolling” and engaging in “performative wokeness” because “I’m raising concerns without answering them.”

First of all my wokeness or unwokeness. Either the ideas have merit, or they don’t. Just because somebody is supposedly “woke” doesn’t mean they can’t learn more to deal with white ignorance about race and how it works. I don’t want to be ignorant so when people tell me that racism affects them and how, I listen, think about what they have to say, and try to find ways to fix it my own interactions, institutions, and work. Does that make me woke? Unwoke? Who knows? I generally categorize it under “trying not to be an ignorant asshole.”

Second of all, stop co-opting the term “concern trolling” because you think your political agenda is so fragile it will collapse like a little glass ornament, never to be heard of again, if subjected to criticism or scrutiny. If what you want is worth pursuing, it won’t evaporate because somebody questions or criticizes it, unless you want YIMBY to be a cult. I frankly think such nonsense makes people look weak, like they want to be part of a cult instead of engage in the public reason that gathers support because the ideas are better than others.

Third, I was told that yimby people do not “need my academic study” because they know NIMBY “from the street” and having it screamed in their faces. Oh, please. I’ve been a planner in various roles for over 25 years. YIMBY did not invent NIMBY; it was the other way around. I had somebody leave me a death threat on my car over my advocating for a *freaking bus stop* in their neighborhood. A BUS STOP. Sweet cracker sandwich. I’ve heard it *all*, I swear, from people throwing tantrums about a new apartment complex to people throwing tantrums about not getting the same-sized speed bump as another neighborhood (IT WAS THE SAME SIZE, PEOPLE, IT JUST LOOKED DIFFERENT) to having a city manager pitch a fit because I noted that snow removal in the black neighborhoods of city X were done long after the snow removal in white neighborhoods (THIS ISN’T COMMUNIST RUSSIA YA KNOW). I have been hearing this crap since a lot of y’all were in diapers.

My age and my experience do not mean I know everything. It just means I got plenty of street cred in dealing with people angry about urban issues, and you ain’t the only sailor on the Pequod, Starbuck. Sometimes people are angry for petty, stupid, and selfish reasons (I AM LOOKING AT YOU BUS STOP WHINERS), but sometimes they have cause–legitimate reasons to be angry or afraid about what is going on, or what has happened before. Failing to take those people seriously is planning malpractice.

My work on NIMBYism and neighborhood opposition comes from the following premise: there is a significant moral difference between

(a) “I’m scared I’m going to lose my housing” in an environment where there is abundant evidence the speaker could, actually, lose their shelter and

(b) “This project will obstruct my viewwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwww.”

If you can’t grok or respect that difference, then you’re reading the wrong blog.

Since I am a scholar, there are actual rules that guide my inquiry about neighborhood opposition instead of allowing me the luxury of concluding that anybody who doesn’t think the way I do is just an evil selfish bastard. Reviewers tend to notice such assumptions and treat them unkindly.

Let me connect some dots. I didn’t craft “answers to the concerns” because I thought the answers were blindingly, screamingly obvious People aren’t being shy here or coy about what they see as their interests. They usually aren’t.

If you look at the first two examples…there’s quite a bit there, but the major point is: new development won’t work to stabilize rents. And the second one is: why herein this location?

That second one is pretty complicated, so I’ll hold off on that. But the first one? That’s “Your plan won’t work for me.” What to do?

Show them real-world examples of when new projects and concerted efforts to build housing did work to stabilize rental costs, and how in doing that, it didn’t necessarily screw people like them over.

This rhetorical method is pretty common. When people claim that “gun control won’t work”, there are myriad countries whose gun control/gun violence situation suggest strongly otherwise, and we can cite those examples.

Counter-examples are not magic bullets for convincing people. They can hold out despite your good priors, certainly, as in the gun control case, with the response that “that place is not here.” You can’t convince everybody.

But my interviews so far have got a portfolio of scary stories about people getting displaced despite the building and construction they see around LA. I have heard more stories about friends/neighbors/family members/people from their church rent increases and people moving to Lancaster and Moreno Valley than I can count.

They are short on stories about how the new development helped everybody, and people got to stay if they wanted to do.

In terms of political communication, this is a hard narrative to disrupt with statistics or visions. 1) the stories are coming from people they know, actual people, and that is always a big deal (for all of us) when it comes to forming beliefs and how strongly those beliefs are held 2) There are cranes and construction everywhere right now in LA, and these folks haven’t seen any difference in their rental costs or their housing vulnerability, so their experiences, which are also powerful in shaping beliefs, are also not really validating the “Let us build more and things will get better for you” idea.

YIMBY advocacy rests, in part, on the idea that there is a housing shortage. My doubtful interviews are so on board that train. They just don’t think that the pro-development advocates, in whatever shape they come in, have the right answer for them, in their specific location, right now They cite Silverlake, Echo Park, Culver City, Hollywood, Koreatown. What can YIMBY hopefuls in LA cite?

Pasadena might be a pretty good counter to the litany of stories about displacement; My impression is they’ve done a pretty good job of leveraging their Gold Line stations. But Pasadena might seem too ritzy and exclusive to begin with. Long Beach, perhaps. Did we see rents go up slower there than elsewhere?

Is there a blog that lays out “Success stories” instead of statistics? That would be a good blog. It best not rely on “LOoooooooOOOOoook we got a massive mixed-use development with a Sephora and $22-a-seat-theater and NINE WHOLE AFFORDABLE UNITS. Yay, us.”

Success for my interviewees I think probably looks more like: look, neighbor Q added 900 units and rents have stabilized, and four years later it’s still majority Black/Latino. I know full well what a tall order that is.

In the third example, let me quote, again:

…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.


Come on. Dude’s worried about rents, and he thinks people don’t care and talk down to him, full stop. It will not surprise anybody, probably, that elsewhere in the interview he called somebody an “Uncle Tom for developers.”

Now based on the rest of the interview, I think this particular informant isn’t really talking about rent control so much as he is talking about stabilization and community benefits agreements because he voiced worries about specific buildings in Inglewood and Hawthorne rather than entire neighborhoods, per se. (LA already has a rent stabilization ordinance; Inglewood and neighboring Hawthorne do not.)

We could also probably just write people some checks. There is so much money on the table for the stadium deal in LA that we could just make some renters’ lottery dreams come true and there’d still be plenty for the forces of capitalism to do its thing. We’ve done it with airport expansions. Anybody who doesn’t think this is a valid idea needs to go back and read their Coase.

Dots connected yet?

The other things that are interesting to me about the people I am interviewing:

a) cultural changes in the neighborhood rank pretty far down in what they list among their concerns. Anti-d people in these interviews can be taken at their word: they are worried about losing their homes. That strikes me as important because culture is always featured in academic studies of neighborhood change. I have interpretations of this, but I haven’t thought them through yet.

b) the anti-d people in general do not question the sprawl reform aspects of the YIMBY idea. That is, I’ve had nobody (yet) say “why can’t they build more the Valley or the IE?”

C) there’s more variation in age among my respondents so far (12) on YIMBY acceptance and anti-d people than online complaining about Boomers suggests.
It may very well be that the “No, never, NIMBY” (Thanks to Gary Kavanaugh (@GaryRidesBikes ) for that term) are mostly fusty old homeowners whining about parking.

But that age profile is not really the case with the anti-d interview subjects I’ve had so far. I’ve expected my younger respondents to be more accepting, more likely to use language that YIMBY has supplied to the conversation about urbanism and development. That hasn’t been true for the younger respondents. If anything, my younger respondents are using more militant phrasing, portraying their neighborhoods as under seige and the like, and framing their opposition in more derogatory language. My somewhat older respondents have been less likely to discuss pro-development people in angry terms, but somewhat more fearful in describing what they think will happen.

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 (, 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…



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.