Los Angeles TOD sketching project Sketch #3 Local Bus downtown #urbansketchers #UrbanSketchersLosAngeles

I am apparently being totally chickenshit about drawing cars, but the buses going by were quite cheerful. I seem to be one of few people who doesn’t mind the mess of dry materials; since I am not a tidy person anyway, I don’t really mind getting all covered in chalk.

I really love MTA’s little orange, silver, and white buses.

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Michael Manville’s Medium piece on congestion pricing and retheorizing the present in planning

Sorry for typos. It’s not as well-proofed as it should be, but school started, I’m busy, yada yada yada excuses for “I’m actually a terrible blogger.”

ICYMI, UCLA Luskin prof and friend Michael Manville has a nice piece up at Medium titled: “Is Congestion Pricing Unfair to the Poor?” It’s a very nice discussion, and like all Mike’s writing, well-reasoned and beautifully written. I have written about the equity effects of congestion pricing and, in particular, high-occupancy toll lanes, and it’s a tough subject to write about simply because people come to the discussion with many different conceptions of equity, and congestion pricing can be difficult for people to understand. Probably the most common misperception that I find comes from people thinking that they will wind up paying to sit in traffic, since they do not think government is competent to manage anything, let alone congestion.

I have some quibbles with Mike’s overall arguments, even though I obviously think congestion pricing is the proper way to ration driving during peak hours. (To be specific, congestion tolls with revenues to transit alternatives). The first one is the notion that

Moreover, free roads get congested, and congestion exacerbates vehicular air pollution. Vehicular pollution has been linked to health problems ranging from cancer to asthma to preterm birth, and it most affects people living near congested roads — who are disproportionally likely to have lower incomes. So poorer people are not just less likely to benefit from free roads, but more likely to suffer from them.

This statement in and of itself correct, but it doesn’t do to forget that yes, low-income people can and do benefit from streets. Impoverished people are unlikely to benefit from cars. Streets, by contrast, are among the most-multimodal things we have; they benefit from transit, which is easily exempted from charges, and biking, and nondrivers do benefit from economic activity that streets can generate even from driving. Whether they do so in excess in what they contend with in terms of cross-subsidies and crash risks is certainly debatable.

Mike was talking about “free streets” specifically. Pricing everyday activities like driving is likely to cause myriad economic effects; to the degree that we increase costs of travel–and shipping–we are likely to see not just the first-order effects of who originally pays a toll or a per-kilometer fee for road use and who eventually pays the toll. High-income professionals can easily pass such commuting costs onto employers or their own employees; if they have to pay with time, they can hire services to make up the difference. Lower income individuals have less ability to do that, and they are more likely to be at wage levels where their commuting costs wind up being their problem alone–they can’t or don’t see wage increases to deal with them. Similar issues come up with shipping; some items and shippers can pass operating cost changes onto consumers, and others can’t, with varying effects on low-income people from potentially labor loss to higher consumer prices.

Again, this is not say congestion pricing shouldn’t be done. It is by way of saying we should probably think more about how such ideas are implemented. We could, for example, refund the effects of higher commuting costs with higher earned income tax credits. Just, boom, give people a commuting allowance (and phase out the favorable tax treatment of parking).

The reason I wrote this blog post, however, has more to do with what Medium editors decided to call out of the essay: a quote about the status quo:

Is congestion pricing fair to the poor 100 Hours Medium

This is some Brian Taylor/Marty Wachs influence right here, I swear, because I remember Marty and Brian saying similar things to me when I was a student of Brian’s. It’s absolutely true, of course, but it’s also got some real problems as an argument for change, if we think about it.

How one feels about the status quo is one of the deep, ontological differences between progressives and conservatives. Progressives, conservatives grump, are always all for upsetting the status quo for some imaginary progress towards an imaginary end-state, which could just as easily make us worse off instead of better off because what we have now is fragile and worth preserving. Conservatives, progressive grump, never want anything to change because they are the ones benefitting from the status quo, which is not just fine, thank you. A bit overstated, but you get the idea. Sometimes I have to go with extremes to avoid having to write a dissertation about these things while still noting their influence on attitudes.

Planning tends to be a bit too much on the “let’s move ideas into practice” for my taste, which is probably more conservative on some dimensions than many of my colleagues in the field. It is a perfectly reasonable research finding to say “let things alone” or “no, this actually is not a better idea” even though those are disappointing findings for a profession whose job it is to intervene and innovate.

With congestion pricing, challenging the status quo on equity terms takes us only so far. Perhaps one of the most important lessons from public finance concerns how policies become embedded into decisions and practices over time. Many public finance experts, even really progressive ones, get antsy when you talk about throwing out the entire tax code and starting afresh. Why? Because, as they will note, people at all income levels have likely adjusted their behavior already to account for the code as it is. Diddling with it, let alone throwing it out, will introduce similar windfalls and losses as the policy in the first place, as well as transactions costs of changes.

This isn’t to say that the tax experts I’m hanging with reject all reform; they don’t. Most feel strongly that there are some things that need to change, but those changes have to be done thoughtfully.

Changing the status quo around unpriced freeways strikes me as very similar. The problem with freeways is that they never should have been free in the first place. We now have a fruit-of-the-poisoned-vine problem with them, in that the status quo represents a policy that never should have happened, that was a bad idea from the outset. Did policymakers just not imagine a world where our cities were going to get as big as they have, with the attendant congestion that those numbers bring when they are auto-oriented? That’d be my guess. But even so, people at all income levels have been optimizing their personal choices around this bad policy for about 60 years now. It’s built into urban form, as regrettable as we may find that now. Deeply impoverished people and the working poor now live in suburbs and drive, just like wealthy people in exclusive gated suburbs do, because the powers that be set things up this way, and if the rules of the game change, they will get hurt the hardest, for all the good that congestion pricing can and would do us all. Yes, on average drivers are more affluent than nondrivers, but averages do not feel the pinch of changes. Individuals do.

That means, essentially, that movement towards new pricing policies should always have careful transition policies built in. For example, the home mortgage interest deduction (HMDI) is not good public policy, but it’s widely used and at least some of the people that use it are not dripping in wealth. Taking it away in one fell swoop would wipeout value for existing homeowners, to the benefit of those seeking to buy because they would face lower entry prices. (HMDI almost certainly gets capitalized into the value of the land, at least partially, so that your home price reflects a roughly amortized estimate of its tax shelter value; it also likely alters interest rates, so that the windfall to new buyers/borrowers is probably attenuated.) What to do? Lower the deduction by a small percentage (quarter percent) each year until it is eliminated entirely. Those capitalization effects will still occur, but they won’t happen all at once, and people will have time to adjust (including mortgage lenders, who would be likely to face much more rapid repayment and some income loss.)

With congestion pricing, I think boosting transit on the corridor, and advertising the hell out of its speed and success, prior to pricing changes is probably the best way to transition, along with the EITC strategy I suggested earlier.It burdens governments with costs ahead of revenues, but it is government’s role to do that sort of pro-social investing. You can’t really phase in pricing, unless you do it on some days and not others, because weak pricing simply annoys people with paying AND sitting in traffic–the cynics’ predicted outcome.

No, the status quo is not fair, but it is what we know, to the degree that we know anything, and we know how to behave in it in ways that we prefer, that we think is to our advantage. That has some value, just as change does, and it behooves planning to think more about transitions from the present than we often do. Beginning states and end states are only part of the vision.

Some LA YIMBY reading from Manual Pastor, USC’s Program for Environmental and Regional Equity, and KCET

This series looks like it going to be very good. The first installment is here: Gentrification is About Power: What’s Community Got to Do With It.

What may seem curious is why this new version of land seizure and displacement is now happening with such ferocity in areas that were once disdained by those with more privilege. After all, much of the pattern of post-war suburbanization involved those with either wealth or racial advantage separating themselves from city neighborhoods that were denser and more diverse. “White flight” (and later middle-class flight as more economically successful minorities joined the exodus) generally meant that city centers would serve a daytime economic function even as immediately adjoining districts were considered undesirable by those who had other options.

For people who want to read more about Southern California’s racialized land development history, there are many, many options:

Hunt, Darnell M, and Ana-Christina Ramón. Black Los Angeles : American Dreams and Racial Realities. New York: New York University Press, 2010

Sanchez, George J, Charles Bergquist, and Ricardo Penaranda. Becoming Mexican American Ethnicity, Culture, and Identity in Chicano Los Angeles, 1900-1945. Cary: Oxford University Press, USA, 2014

Hise, Greg, and William Francis Deverell. Eden by Design : The 1930 Olmsted-Bartholomew Plan for the Los Angeles Region. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000

Fong, Timothy. The First Suburban Chinatown: The Remaking of Monterey Park, California.

McGirr, Lisa. Suburban Warriors : The Origins of the New American Right. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 2015

My updated Urban Planning and Social Policy syllabus

I’ve updated my syllabus. I’ve always struggled with this class because I feel like no matter what I do, I either short the urban planning part or the social policy part. I don’t know that I have figured it out this time, but I am excited about the topics and the skills I’ve settled on talking about. Students on the first day of class have a chance to add to the syllabus, and they can introduce cases throughout, so we always wind up doing more than whatever is laid out here.

Anyway, check it out, tell me what you think. I have some time to revise it.

Los Angeles TOD sketching project: Sketch #1 Wilshire & Vermont #urbansketchers #urbansketcherslosangeles

In the getting-self-outside-department, I’ve decided to do some sketching of LA train and bus station areas. I did Wilshire & Vermont yesterday. I will likely go back and do some more as there are nice bits to sketch all over that station.

In this sketch, I’m playing with shading and negative space. The building itself is very colorful, but I wanted to avoid dealing with that (where I get a little OCD and fixated), so I forced myself to go with one color, one pen. There is a very good picture of the station from LA magazine, shown here.

There were quite a few people and cars out, and I just got overwhelmed, so I didn’t include any. I think as the project unfolds, we will see how my confidence and skills improve with practice. It doesn’t matter how well I draw. It just matters that I do so.

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“Vehicle obstructing” aka “license to kill” bills list and their outcomes so far

Re: people have making excuses for the guy in Charlottesville who tried to commit a spree killing with his car. This brought up–rightly–the many bills that Republican representatives have introduced over the last year in response to Black Lives Matter protests.

I noticed that the list of states trying out zero liability for motorists who kill protestors on Twitter was incomplete. Thanks for Vets Against Trump (@commondefense) and Dean Gloster (@deangloster) for the starting list, though. I was thinking about doing some more research on this topic, so I thought I would gather up some notes to see if it’s worth working on. It looks like a lot of these die in committee, as they deserve to, so I don’t think I’ll go any further with it. Note, however, it’s passed the NC House. I always use this blog to share ideas and research notes, and so I thought others might be interested in what I found while I digging around. If you have more, holler at me, either on Twitter (@drschweitzer) or via email at lsschweitzer589@gmail.com.

These are not the full plate of anti-protest laws cropping up, which include increasing fines for trespass on infrastructure. I don’t see those as deliberate attempts to embolden the use of deadly weapons in the public sphere, like SYG, in the same way as zero-liability laws do for motorists. The US already has clear language about what constitutes accidents and what constitutes vehicular homicide; trespassing is already treated as a mitigating factor in assigning liability. These laws merely muddy the water and make it easier for people to cause harm without personal consequences.

Nonetheless some of these anti-protest laws are far-reaching, and you might want to check out the summary from the United Nations. They mostly increase fines for trespass and introduce the ability of the state to sue individual protestors.

Florida SB 1096 Sponsored by Sen. George B. Gainer.

(2) A motor vehicle operator who unintentionally causes
26 injury or death to a person who obstructs or interferes with the
27 regular flow of vehicular traffic in violation of subsection (1)
28 is not liable for such injury or death. In any action brought
29 pursuant to this section, a person accused of violating
30 subsection (1) or his or her representative has the burden of
31 proving that he or she did not violate subsection (1) or that
32 the injury or death was not unintentional.
33 Section 2. This act shall take effect

Failed in committee.

Indiana SB 285Sponsored by Republican Bruce Borders

Sec. 2. A responsible public official shall, not later than fifteen
1 (15) minutes after first learning that a mass traffic obstruction
2 exists in the official’s jurisdiction, dispatch all available law
3 enforcement officers to the mass traffic obstruction with directions
4 to use any means necessary to clear the roads of the persons
5 unlawfully obstructing vehicular traffic.

The “by any means necessary” business in there is troubling, even though this is not a zero liability law. This part was removed in later versions of the bill. It’s still in committee.

North Dakota HB 1203 Rep. Keith Kempenich (R)

Notwithstanding any other provision of law, a driver of a motor vehicle who
unintentionally causes injury or death to an individual obstructing vehicular traffic on a
public road, street, or highway is not guilty of an offense.

Defeated by majority vote.

This is…sigh:

Republican state Representative Keith Kempenich told local media that he sponsored the bill after his mother-in-law was caught in a protest while driving.

North Carolina HB 330 Sponsored by Rep. Richard Burr (R) and Rep. Chris Millis (R)

(a) A person driving an automobile who is exercising due care and injures another person who is participating in a protest or demonstration and is blocking traffic in a public
street or highway is immune from civil liability for the injury.
(b) A person shall not be immune from civil liability if the actions leading to the injury
were willful or wanton.
(c) Subsection (a) of this section shall not apply if the injured person participating in a
protest or demonstration was doing so with a valid permit allowing persons to protest or demonstrate on the public street or highway where the injury occurred.

Passed in House 68-47, referred to Senate in April.

Tennessee’s SB0944

Tennessee’s HB 668–Sponsored by Republican state Rep. Matthew Hill (R) and Rep Judd Matheny (R).

(a) A person driving an automobile who is exercising due care and injures
another person who is participating in a protest or demonstration and is blocking traffic in
a public right-of-way is immune from civil liability for such injury.
(b) A person shall not be immune from civil liability if the actions leading to the
injury were willful or wanton.

Failed in committee in both houses.

Texas HB250 sponsored by Rep. Pat Fallon (R) who is all over Twitter today wondering whether Heather Heyer, the young woman killed in Charlottesville, was on the street “illegally.” Pro tip: shut your BBQ-hole, Pat.

A person operating a motor vehicle who injures another person with the motor vehicle is not liable for the injury if, at the time of the injury:

(1) the person operating the motor vehicle was exercising due care; and

(2) the person injured was blocking traffic in a public right-of-way while participating in a protest or demonstration.

(b) This section does not affect a person’s liability for an
injury caused by grossly negligent conduct.

Referred to committee. Though it is worth noting it’s been through the wringer multiple times and he had to withdraw it before.

Michael Ondaatje on poetry in captivity

I am great fan of Ondaatje in general, and I am reading Running with the Family, his memoir of his family and experiences in Ceylon. It’s not a conventional memoir at all; it combines poetry, discussions of colonial histories, intermarriage, alcohalism, Protestantism, and the place itself. He’s such a marvelous writer that all these things live, vibrantly, on the page.

This paragraph caught my eye this morning:

When the government rounded up thousands of suspects during the Insurgency of 1971, the Vidyalankara campus of the University of Ceylon was turned into a prison camp. The police weeded out the guilty, trying to break their spirit. When the university opened again the returning students found hundreds of poems written on walls, ceilings, and in hidden corners of the campus. Quatrains and free verse about the struggle, tortures, the unbroken spirit, love of friends who had died for the cause. The students went around for days transcribing them into their notebooks before they covered with whitewash and lye.