What role can the data politics at LA Metro play in worsening, or bettering, its trajectory?

I don’t have much to do with LA Metro for the most part, and it is because they are, simply, a closed shop and thus not generally worth engaging with as a researcher. I’ve had people reach out to me to be on this or that advisory board, which is nice and might have been a way for me to work my way into a more trusting relationship. However, those types of arrangements can also be a major, uncompensated time sink for academics, and I’ve always thought that spending time going to meetings at Metro were, in the minds of Metro staff, a one-way street for information from them to me.

It’s possible Metro staff just don’t like/trust me, which is understandable. Lots of people don’t, and the type of research I do (justice-related) could be potentially threatening, especially to an agency that spent years dealing with a civil rights consent decree.

That said, there are many, many transportation researchers in LA who are much nicer and less prone to whistle-blowing or simple lack of discretion than I am, and I don’t see them doing that much with Metro or Metro data, either.

I don’t blame them, per se. Dealing with the press in a major metropolitan media market is a giant headache, and agency staff can find themselves involved in both a personal and professional firestorm of criticism for things that they had little ability to influence.

However, that data and information hoarding has pretty big consequences for innovation and study. Yes, there are really brilliant people at Metro, and I’m sure they are doing some pretty cool analyses, but if they are, they are pretty quiet about it. Not engaging with researchers means you lock out people who spend their time on the cutting edge of all types of research, and that means yes, you control the information about your service, but it also means you don’t have independent voices attesting to fact that you are doing something well when you do do something well, nor do you benefit from new ideas they bring if they also find fault.

I briefly engaged with Metro via a Metrans project than Gen Giuliano put together, and it was one of the worst research experiences of my life.

It all culminated in a meeting with USC’s asshole lawyers that boiled down to LISA YOU MAY DO NOTHING WITH THE DATA WITHOUT METRO’S PERMISSION, NOT ONE KEYSTROKE DO YOU UNDERSTAND? One of the lawyers said to me that the entire point of the meeting was for them to impress upon me what the terms of the contract were, not for me to talk or ask questions. I left that meeting feeling like a criminal instead of a researcher. It’s like…um, this is a potentially transformative research project and….nobody, not the university, not the agency, nobody but me wanted it to be.

I bugged out of that project as quickly as I could, which, given that they didn’t actually want us to do any research that didn’t contribute to the agency’s propaganda, suited them and me, and I’ve never looked back. Since then, I’ve watched them screw over PhD students by running out the clock on data requests and other shenanigans that suggest they haven’t changed much.

For years I’ve wanted to do a little animation that illustrated passengers delivered via buses and trains that arrive at USC throughout the day to show how important transit is to the USC community. Can I make it? Nope. I probably could get the hourly passenger boarding & alighting data for buses if I pushed, I’m sure, but for the trains? Gad, bring up train patronage data and you’ll get abundant explanations about how those data just don’t exist because….because….because…um…

Now maybe weekday hourly averages by stop in my hands would be a disaster for the agency but I doubt it. Instead, such an animation would bring service to life and communicate something different about the incredibly difficult thing Metro has to do every day: deliver service in a built environment not oriented for transit. It’s advertising for all practical purposes.

All this secrecy was fine and functional in the Golden Era of Ballot Box Measures, where Metro’s bread was buttered readily by voters who could and would vote based on a vision. But after investing a lot, Metro now sits in the unhappy position of trying to show efficacy when passenger counts are falling. Metro could use some new perspectives, and it’s hard to get those when the default seems to be view data use among those outside the agency as a public relations threat. Maybe they are really better off keeping their data to themselves and a few contractors, but it’s hard for me to see how that contributes to a thriving conversation about what the service does among broad audiences.