Sometimes I miss my home so much I can barely breathe

I am an economic migrant to the city, like lots of other people around the world. I grew up in very rural location in northeast Iowa, with rolling hills, farms, and small towns. My early life was spent on a working farm. This makes me pretty unusual among academics. But being a migrant, however, to the city from rural areas puts me in a big 20th and 21st century global cohort.

I’m thinking about this today because I had a convo with one of my undergrads yesterday about what he’s going to do when he finished at USC. He says most people from his home country stay in Los Angeles to work after they graduate. But he feels called home. He’s just not sure he can find a job there, and he wanted to toss ideas around with me about what’s possible. I told him the truth: the opportunities are in the cities, they are easier to find. If you want to stay home, you have to make the opportunities, they are harder to come by, but there are rewards to home. Further truth: this was the first time I told a student that I left my home to chase my career, and while I have been very, very fortunate, and I am happy, when I think of my home my breath catches in my chest and I can barely breathe I ache for it so much.

Reality bites. What I long for is no longer there; I never fit in my town (I never fit anywhere), and I love California and everything about its troubled progressivism, and I can’t stand the short-sighted, hard-hearted, dim-witted Republican twats that appear to have a stranglehold on the Iowa state GOP, rather than the genteel, hard-working, and careful-minded GOP I remember from my youth.

But I still hurt, and my beloved adopted home of California, as interesting as it is, and as good as it has been to me, isn’t the landscape that still calls to me from across the miles.

It is national poetry day today, and along with these thoughts, I got John Browder’s obituary this morning. John was one of my colleagues at Virginia Tech; he was very sweet to me when I was fresh out, and he shall be missed. All of this has got me thinking about Elizabeth Bishop’s One Art:

One Art
BY ELIZABETH BISHOP
The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

Elizabeth Bishop, “One Art” from The Complete Poems 1926-1979. Copyright © 1979, 1983 by Alice Helen Methfessel.

Go listen to WHIV-LP (@whivfm) Human Rights and Social Justice Radio

When Liana Elliott and fabulous partner MarkAlain Dery met me for dinner one night right before she graduated from our MPL program here at Price, they told me they were working on a radio project in New Orleans. I thought it was an interesting idea, but I didn’t quite get it and–I have to admit–I thought it was an idea they would try and let go. After all, MarkAlain is an infectious disease doctor, which is a demanding job, and Liana was going to be graduating and trying to build a career in public service in New Orleans. This, too, is a demanding job, especially when you are just starting out. Putting together a radio station is itself a really demanding job. How could they do it all?

BECAUSE THEY ARE SUPERHEROES THAT’S HOW. I should have realized. Liana was a star in a our planning program when she was here–of course she did all that and more. She recently talked about the station and her work with USC alumni magazine, and of course, everything she told me about that night when she was still a student is happening, and happening brilliantly. How do you manage 70 volunteers and hold down a high-profile public policy job? See superhero comment.

So I have been accused of humble-bragging and self-mythologizing on this blog (because God forbid a woman be proud of herself, that needs undermining, fo sure, and boy do some of y’all have a low standard for mythology if my rather prosaic practice background qualifies), this time out I AM STRAIGHT-UP BRAGGING Y’ALL because LOOK AT WHAT LIANA SAID about MEEEEEEE:

Lisa Schweitzer is one of my personal heroes. She is unapologetically smart, witty, insightful and genuinely caring. Dr. Schweitzer’s “Planning Theory” class remains one of the hardest classes I have ever taken, and one of my all-time favorites. I hope I grow up to be even just a fraction of her awesomeness.

IN YOUR FACE! IN YOUR FACE!!! Ha! Somebody fabulous thinks I’m fabulous, and if that’s not a big ego rush, I dunno what is.

Honestly, I can’t be one of her personal heroes because she’s one of *my* personal heroes! How can that be?

I can’t tell you how proud of I am to have been one of her teachers. Her whole cohort of MPL grads that year were great, and she was tops in *that* group, which was hard. And this wonderful update has me smiling. Of course, she did it all. What’s next? I can’t wait to find out.

She also notes that that David Sloane guy teaches a great community health class (for sure) and that TJ McCarthy is probably one of the most gifted instructors we have. She has good taste.

Tune into the radio, even if you don’t got time for all this self-congratulation.

Americans have a lousy record with free political speech, so stop blaming college students

So in the not-surprising-news of the day, a STEM guy does social science*, not particularly well, and it gets picked up by the media because it supposedly shows what everybody knows. Look, I’m sure the guy is brilliant, but honestly, social science is actually difficult, and designing and administering a valid survey is hell-to-the-yeah difficult (it is both time-consuming and usually expensive), and from what little the author divulges, this is not a valid survey. He also used hypotheticals, which takes a lot of prior validation and is generally discouraged in survey research unless you are going to be doing the survey interactively so that you can obtain information on what the subject imagines when they think about the hypothetical. In other words, this is not a great study, by an engineer who has a lot of opinions and virtually no peer-reviewed publications in social science or policy journals. His actual area of expertise sounds really fascinating, but he is not trained in political opinion nor does he really seem to know how to do a valid survey gauging political views.

Yet, Catherine Rampell the Washington Post calls his study on college students and their views about free speech “chilling.” Come on, people. He did a web survey. Rolls eyes. This is reason #1,211,339 why Americans need civics education, in order to understand our own history with regard to how rights have morphed and changed over time, and how very difficult good political science really is. From the Alien and Sedition Act to Donald Trump on Friday frothing that black NFL and NBA players taking a knee during the national anthem should be fired, Americans are not good at handling political difference or dissent, and there’s plenty of evidence that we never have been. “Ungrateful” seems to be the new “uppity” if I’m reading Trump and his cult’s social media correctly.

Dear friend and mentor Andy Sabl retweeted James Gibson’s actually good article from The American Journal of Political Science entitled “Intolerance and Political Repression in the United States: A Half Century after McCarthyism.” (Unfortunately, it’s behind a paywall.

Here’s a summary chart that gives you the basic findings:
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They didn’t ask about feminists or Jews (there are limits on how much you can ask and still get decent answers) but I’m already out on the “atheist” criteria alone.

*One of our PhD students at Virginia Tech sat in my office and said that he thinks people who don’t “learn the science first” never really understand it, but it’s easy for scientists to pick up the economics. I suggested, in a way that I though was rather gentle, that perhaps he was rather over-estimating his knowledge of economics if it had really been that easy to acquire. His response was to stalk out of my office in a bit of a fury and deny me the privilege of being on his PhD committee. I lived. But no doubt he continued on in the world feeling most, most confident in his grasp of a field that is not really hard at the beginning levels but very much so when you get to the advanced stages, unlike some other fields (like languages) where the beginning learning curve can be quite steep.

I, too, have a wide-ranging set of interests, but I feel like I am fair when I say “eh, I haven’t studied this much, but hey this is what I think, what do you think?”

I’m still playing with the Access in America data because I am obsessive

I’ve had students work with these data simply because I want to help them understand how important land use and transit strategies are to job accessibility and how hard the playing field is tilted towards people who can have and drive cars. This was my I spent far too much time yesterday making this graphic from the data reported in Access in America:

Plot Zoom and RStudio and MyWay

It’s so irritating because even in the best transit markets (New York) cars still give job seekers an edge. It would be awfully nice if we could maybe see how these numbers shift with new lines that open, when we get new TODs, etc.

@Curbed 101 ways to improve transportation in your city is a treasure trove of ideas and great links

I always try to support urban journalists whenever I can by linking and responding to requests for content because journalism has become such a cutthroat field because the field is so crowded, it’s hard starting out in any profession, and the combination of these three means that urban reporting faces an uphill battle even though a) there are some fantastic outlets like CityLab and Curbed out there, and b) cities are the most interesting subject ever ever ever. I especially try to help resource the big cohort of young women reporting to help bolster new voices into a field that has not changed as much as the city itself, and I’ve always liked Alissa Walker’s writing, in particular, even before she made me a famous bossladyshark by highlighting some of my grumpier feminist rants in her column.

So when Alissa asked me for an idea for this piece, I was happy to oblige even though it took me long time to think of what I might say; there are so many things I think we need to do. But I didn’t think twice about how the piece was going to end up–it was just a request.

It was a happy surprise to see just how nice the piece, Curbed 101 ways to improve transportation in your city, turned out. I think I caught a few duplicates here and there, but not many, and there are so many *great* ideas included. In addition, they just collected a ton of links to stories that illustrate the concepts they present. The piece is a treasure trove. I super-love the link they chose as an exemplar for my points about making bus stops a useful, everyday pleasure instead of the punishment zones they are in so many cities. And the picture of the bubba and the cargo bike melted my heart, which takes some doing as it teeny tiny and covered in tar.

Go read it!

Why rents are sticky downward even if there is some slack in the rental market

Angelenos who follow the market in LA were treated to a good story from KPCC this last week:
As DTLA vacancies rise, landlords increase breaks on rent, parking.

Thanks to a wave of market-rate rental construction, supply has outpaced demand downtown since 2014. The vacancy rate now hovers around 12 percent — the highest recorded by real estate research firm CoStar Group since 2000, compared to a citywide vacancy rate of about 4 percent.

Ok, when I say that we should focus on Downtown because redevelopment is easiest there, there is tons of extra capacity, there is a lot of underutilized land from South Park all the way to the second Blue Line, downtown has tons of job access–long before we run into rampaging opposition from single-family homeowners–LA-area YIMBIES give me a stern look, like a preacher rebuking sin, and say “It will take more than downtown to solve our housing crisis!”

That may well be, but DTLA still strikes me as a really good place to keep momentum going. Downtown LA has way, way better transit access to most of the rest of the region’s job centers than anywhere else save for maybe Hollywood. The only subcenter really hard to get to (and that’s only hard if you refuse to get on a bus) is the Westwood/Century city areas. With the Purple Line coming, there will be *great* access to those job centers coming soon. Politically and functionally, I would much, much rather advocate for more units in DTLA than deal with furious, empowered homeowners and (legitimately) terrified renters in other parts of LA, especially as I have no desire to try to defend “meh” projects like The Reef, or to treat that as a real YIMBY contribution the way DTLA actually is.

This article, though, shows one of the issues with believing that filtering happens quickly or excess supply eases the market (it should, it just takes time)–and it makes a pretty bad internal mistake in definitions:

The result has been thousands more luxury apartments than there are renters. Of the 21,000-plus market-rate rentals tallied in a recent report by the Downtown Center Business Improvement District, more than 2,000 are empty under the current vacancy rate.

CoStar senior market analyst Steve Basham said that in the last several years, landlords have been ramping up concessions to lure tenants. Of course, the savings are relative when the average rent for a one-bedroom runs around $2,500. Basham said the high rents are why apartments aren’t filling up faster.

“The stuff that’s being built right now is really targeting the very top of the renter’s pool,” Basham said. “The majority of the renters in L.A. are not going to be able to afford that.”

Now, up at the top of the story, they claimed all this slack occurred because of “market-rate housing construction.”

No. If your units are sitting empty, you aren’t building or offering at market-rates. You are at a price point above market-clearing rates, even in your segment of the market. And while they may be offering breaks on parking and rent, it’s a long ways down from $2500 to “affordability.”

Rents in this case will be sticky downwards for some time. You aren’t supposed to use the word “sticky” in a neoclassical world because as we (supposedly) know, Keynes was wrong about everything and Hayek was (supposedly) right, but I like the term and I think it’s a very good descriptor for why prices don’t adjust quickly, for a variety of reasons.

1. Information problems among both producers and consumers. Industry reports and forecasts like that reported in the story help producers figure out the lay of the land, but it’s really hard to know you’ve hit slack in the market until, collectively, landlords and builders have overbuilt/oversupplied a bit. It’s easy to see an inflection point in optimization graphed out; it’s hard to see it in the real world where you (and everybody else) is optimizing individually and watching everybody else and the market in your peripheral vision. You might think for awhile that you are alone in having some empty units, that you are just being unlucky in attracting people, or that your marketing is just missing the right eyeballs…until it becomes apparent that other people are in the same situation. Minimizing these information problems is a competitive advantage if you can do it.

It also can take renters awhile to get the message that rents in a particular area may be coming to within their range, or that a particular area is really desirable.

2. Gambles against loss-taking. When you pencilled out the project figuring $2500 rents and renters’/homeowners’ associations that could handle that rent and all the trimmings that are required to attract people at that income point, it’s a hard to pill to swallow that you are going to have to come down, and depending on how well-capitalized you are and how you read future markets, you may be willing to sit on some empty units for what you think is going to be “a bit” rather than lock yourself into year-long leases below what you pencilled. Since base rents, like salaries, may determine much about the income stream for the property over time, this gamble is not necessarily irrational.

3. Real potentials for loss-taking if renters are locked in and you have to offload the property. Many of these luxury units are predicated on pretty high maintenance bills for amenities, like swimming pools, that are really, hard to support with people who can’t afford premium rents. Lowering the average income of the residents is a great way to wind up with a bunch of renters that lead to lower levels of maintenance than you need, which can pretty quickly turn your nice, renovated building into a much less shiney version of itself, and by the way, if you want to buy the building, it’s going to come with a bunch of renters you will have to find a way to get rid of, or a bunch of maintainance headaches you will have to resolve with the renters you’ve got. It may be much, much smarter for a developer or owner to keep those units empty and attempt to sell the newly renovated building rather than go lower on their targeted renter profile.

4. Meanwhile, the land underneath the buildings is still appreciating a lovely rate due to urban productivity spillovers. And while that’s not as nice as having both speculative gains and streams of rental income, it does provide an asset cushion for you to hold out longer against lowering your rents. The same land speculation gains that we’re always yelling at homeowners occurs for everybody, not just single-family homeowners, and there are plenty of well-capitalized landowners who can just sit on relatively empty buildings (just like those dudes hanging onto parking lots) and still not lose the shirt entirely.

@alon_levy ‘s cost-per -vehicle-mile and cost-per-(vehicle?)-hour (or hour-hour) cost questions in UrbanLA and (relatively) small denominator problems

Alon Levy has a nice, question-posing article up at Urbanize.LA where he discusses the operating costs reported by major rail operators across the US and the EU. He has a legitimate question: why are operating costs in LA so high? We can partially attribute the higher costs to unionized labor, which shows up generally in cost-per-hour figures (See BART). Levy reports that the per-mile or per-kilometer figures, but it’s not clear exactly what the “per-hour” numbers are: I’m guessing this is vehicle-hours because that’s a good way to measure for cost allocation how much it costs to put service on the road.

This super-duper for me because we just went over cost allocation in my transit class, and I can show them this article to prove they are learning the cutting-edge, y’all!

The cost-per-vehicle-mile, for me, is most relevant internally to the agency itself as a managerial metric. You want to see where your money is going in terms of running your fleet. For buses, a manager might ask if we are spending a lot on tires per kilometer? If you are, you might be operating on crap roads (a big problem for LA Metro) or you might want to examine your supplier there, or maybe there needs to be a change in the maintenance practices or scheduling. Of course the public might want to scrutinize these figures, but it’s not really an answer to value-for-money questions that the public usually has. The NTD reports them because agencies look at how their peers are doing and ask questions from there.

I think a better measure for audiences external to the agencies is cost per passenger mile. The costs per vehicle mile you incur, in general, because you are operating vehicles across a distance, and you have to pay your operators, maintenance, etc regardless of whether you have any butts in seats or not. It’s a measure of cost-effectiveness; cost per passenger mile is a measure of system work or productivity. One of my big concerns for LA Metro is that the last time I ran estimates, they were having to spend more for each additional passenger-mile they were attracting (I will do that again and post some numbers here) and that’s not good. It may be attributable to their large capital improvements program, but bad capital investments can just put agencies on the hook for operating unproductive lines and large amounts of debt service. Any and all new rail supply is not always good news. (But it can be really hard to know in advance what is a good investment: nobody seemed all that excited about the Expo Line in the beginning of the planning stages, and now it’s everybody’s darling. As it should be. I love you, little train that takes me to work!)

Back to Alon’s numbers. This is a pretty difficult exercise that he’s undertaken here, simply because I don’t think you can really trust that the numbers have been reported to the sources in a consistent way. Budget documents vary quite a bit in how they are presented, and cost allocation practices internally vary as well with agency context.

I am suspicious of the European numbers because they are so much lower and relatively uniform. It may be a denominator question; perhaps they really are offering way more miles of service than US agencies are, but I don’t think so. I think it may have to do with how internal accounting practices allocate administrative costs in budgets and whether European agencies only report costs that vary by hour or whether they allocate out salaried employees. If they do not put salaried employees into the figure, that’s a pretty big difference because US agencies often do so. Accounting, even though accountants are as fiercely scientifical as economists, can be pretty subjective. Think about it this way: where do you allocate the costs for your route planning staff? Do you leave them out because they don’t actually wear and tear with vehicle service, but you do need them to provide service? Where should we charge Phil Washington’s salary? Where do charge the service contract out to the LA Sheriff’s office for security?

The cost allocation model I present to my students follows from Eric Bruun:

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This is a pretty simple cost allocation model, but it does the job. The point is that there are things that vary with distance, things that vary with hours, things that vary with both, and things that vary because you have to acquire and keep rolling stock (and a whole bunch of things, like landscaping and yard maintenance, security, etc etc). And your asset commitment.

You could, by way of policy, assign percentages of Phil Washington’s salary across all these categories because he’s responsible for the whole ship, but does that tell us about whether we are spending more on landscaping than we want?

By way of my guess, I think the commenters who have attributed LA’s larger numbers to frequencies are probably right. The lower service frequency, the smaller the denominator in calculating the unit coefficient, the bigger that coefficient will be. But I would need to grub around more with the data to be sure.