How I became a princess at middle age, riding the bus

I take the 210 bus up Crenshaw when I get off the Expo Line on the afternoons when I don’t want to walk home. I usually walk the rest of the way, as it’s a bit of exercise. But some afternoons, when I am tired, I’ll take the bus. Depending on the time, there are three old men who ride the bus together and who talk about the old days in Crenshaw. I eavesdrop because they are always interesting, with their memories of the the 1960s jazz clubs and 1970s discos in Crenshaw, now loooooooong gone. They must have been something in the day, these men, because they are very handsome now, and none of them is going to see 75 again.

One of them calls me princess; at first I thought it was some harmless teasing. White people are not terribly numerous on buses in LA. Actually, except when I lived in west LA, I’m usually the only white person on the bus. It’s so common I seldom notice any more.

But the Crenshaw buses are different; instead of the usual constellation of Latinos, African Americans, and Asians that keep LA Metro in business, the Crenshaw buses serving the little stretch between Expo and Washington are full of seniors, and almost all of them are black. They make for raucous buses with lots of familiar conversation among people who are easy in each other’s company.

The first time he called me “Princess”, I shrugged and gave him an “Ok, work on me if you want, I can take it” grin and kept my iPhone earbuds in–the iPhone, the perfect piece of transit armor.

He wasn’t having the earbuds left in. He was going to get me listening to him, period. The second and third time he called me Princess, it became my bus name, and I learned to take my earbuds out as soon as I see he’s there in his spot right behind the driver. His name somehow became “Mister.” We talk about the city and politics in the five minute bus ride I have, and we always end our interaction the same way.

“How ya doin’, Princess?”

“I’m doing all right, I can’t complain.”

“Me neither. What do you think of Obama talking about gay marriage?”

“Oh, I figure it’s about time everybody let that go. People do what they do, I guess.”

“That they do, that they do.”

My stop.

“You be good, Mister.”

“I can’t be nothing else at my age.”

I have never really been anybody’s princess before. My social difficulties and my mother’s obsession with my weight/body prevented me from ever thinking of myself as anything other than “draft horse.” That carried to others and stopped anybody from treating me as something precious or fragile when I was little: I was too big and too strong and too independent to be anybody’s little anything, the way the other girls were. I did what anybody locked out of approval and acceptance does: I became an edgy badass who didn’t need anybody to treat me like I was precious, thankyouverymuch.

Now, I find that I rather enjoy being a princess.

Rail, power, Peter Coyote, and Bay Area HSR

Rail advocates love to write and say victim-y things about how cars have all the advantages. This is a bit like Donald Trump whining that Indians get all the breaks*. Rail development today is backed and pushed by extremely powerful coalitions of real estate and construction interests, just like highways were a generation ago. And rail coalitions have an additional ace–the coalition includes environmentalists.

The real second-class citizenry in transportation = bus riders. Followed by walkers and bicyclists. But bus riders are treated terribly, by the agencies who are meant to serve them as customers, politicians, and the electorate. People in LA love to complain about the Bus Riders’ Union, but without them, the bus riders who have supported LA’s transit for years would be treated like they matter not at all.

Rail advocates will argue that they want to serve bus riders better by giving them rail. It’s probably an argument that works better in theory than in practice. Rail and bus service have to work together and in tandem for good frequency, geographic coverage, and, ultimately, customer service. When you are focused entirely on building rail, and bus service operates as a mere hey-you, it’s not likely that anybody will take the time to harmonize the transfers and go to the considerable work it takes to serve bus riders well.

Where are the *transit* advocates? Is bus transit is second-class because of its inherent limits as a technology, or is it second class because everybody treats it that way?

Here is a movie of the Transbay Terminal redevelopment, narrated by Peter Coyote. The Transbay is meant to be the terminus of the the HSR for San Francisco. When was the last time a new bus line got a celebrity to narrate? Oh, the money that is going to be made here–and it will happen even without the HSR. You can build and sell anything you build on the peninsula.

I have no objections to making money. But.

I have a friend who bought her loft last year. She got $9,000 in tax credits for it. On a place she was going to buy anyway. That’s bad pubic policy. Just like it’s bad public policy to chuck money at projects like Transbay. Let the developers develop–don’t make them more miserable during the approvals process than necessary–but don’t hand them any public candy, either.

In the end, I doubt the HSR will get into Transbay. It will stop somewhere on the edge of the region and passengers will be expected to transfer to BART or Caltrain.

And that would be fine. The Bay Area has a lot invested in transit. So what if the transfer point to regional rail network occurs in a suburb rather than downtown?

Right now, the board is committed to getting HSR into Transbay. They will get sued a lot, incurring much higher costs than necessary, and then they will settle on a peripheral location.

*Trump once complained that Indian casinos in NY state had an easier time of it than his own casinos did, at least in terms of public approval. Oh, my, how Donald does understand why the caged bird sings. Idiot.

DIfferent City, Same Story

I am in Toronto talking about policy design, road design, and equity, and I opened the Toronto Globe and Mail yesterday to this story: Bus Service Cutbacks.

I asked a table of transit experts why we always seem to hear about transit operating subsidies but we seldom hear about water subsidies or garbage collection subsidies. Those all operate with subsidies for the most part. An interesting conversation ensued.

the MTA budget cuts and the need for long-term transit finance reforms

David King pretty much sums up how I feel on the cuts, except for one thing: I was surprised they weren’t worse. However, the MTA is a sharp outfit: if they have to, they’ll announce 4 percent this month, another 4 percent three months from now, and another 4 percent after that until they can meet their payroll. It’ll be…interesting…to see where we are a year from now.

There has to be long-term finance reform in transit, and no, the 30/10 doesn’t get us there. The 30/10, wonderful as it is, would enable us to build more stuff that, ultimately, we won’t be able to operate.

These cuts are going to get worse and worse, not just in LA, but everywhere, and eventually, those cuts are going to hit the train operations, too. Um, yeah. Without long-term finance reform, eventually we’re going to get to the point where the bus cuts that all the transit blogs treat as little more than a passing headline will be joined by rail service cuts.

New York is already there.

Train cutbacks might actually make people in the streets blogging and transit-advocating world actually care …maybe…about operations.

Then maybe they will spend as much time talking about the hardship that ensues from cutting services as they appear to want spend gossiping about which of their favorite celebrity transit advocates might work in Los Angeles to replace retirements.

Nah. Talking about transit’s operations problems–like getting back and forth to work in a world where services are getting cut–would be a distraction from treating transit like the jungle gym in the ultimate urban playground for twentysomethings raised on a steady diet of Friends rather than as a place where transit needs to work for people other than trust funders on pub crawls.

Whatever, right? Everybody knows operations are just a waste of money in transit. Building is where the professional and political payoff is. Advocacy for projects gets you in the position where you get to be part of the buzz. Who was the last bus operations drudge you saw featured on a transit blog, or given an high-profile award for their work?

So what to do–other than grow the hell up? I haven’t run any numbers yet, but it’s pretty clear that the Feds are not going to hand out candy for operating subsidies. Which means we are probably left with local funding sources. A place to begin thinking in terms of reform:

a) When we find new a dedicated source of funding–and we’ll have to–we’ll have to have the self-discipline NOT to promise to spend it on our addiction to building new transit projects.

New sources of funding = political nightmare. But some suggestions: Ratchet back on property tax insanity in California–ideally. So how about a 3-cent gas tax increase on local pumps? We can tell everybody we are solving congestion even though we aren’t. Sure, let’s have parking charges a la Don Shoup. But whatever funding it is, it’s not for geegaws or fripperies or extensions or new services in far-flung suburbs, at least not right now. It’s about keeping existing routes and frequencies.

With whatever funding victory may come, we can’t fall the into the political expedience trap of earmarking new funds for projects. We love to do that because taxpayers like to be able to point at a map and see what they think their money goes to.

We can’t keep indulging that. We have to start learning how to make the social marketing case for operations.

b) Create a dedicated pot for operations at the local and regional level, and expect to put money into that pot forever for transit as the municipal public service it is.

Nobody expects street sweeping to pay for itself; ditto police protection or libraries or snow clearance. Transit in cities should be treated the same way as those services. We don’t talk about “garbage collection subsidies.” It’s time to talk about funding services instead of obsessing about subsidies.

(And yeah, in case you can’t tell, I’m pissed.)

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Shifting money from roads to transit

via Streetsblog

In a well-intended attempt to try to get people to rethink the “jobs creation” logic of infrastructure spending, a new report from the Transportation Equity Network has released a report that talks about how shifting money from highways to transit—and, in particular, operations—would make more jobs.

The report then goes on to project the potential job creation of a 50% shift in present highway spending to transit for each of the 20 metropolitan areas. The shift would create 1,123,674 new transit jobs over five years, for a net increase of 180,150 jobs — all without a dollar of new spending.

link: More Transit = More Jobs: New Report

In some ways, this report exemplifies everything that is wrong about the transit dialog. Tons of good intention, but with so much hyperbole that nobody can credit their findings. Even Streetsblog people seem to reading with raised eyebrows, and you are not going to find a more sympathetic audience of people. Transit will, according to this argument, revive local economies. Another unrealistic expectation heaped upon my favorite, already overburdened mode.

So we’ll take money away from highway spending and use it for transit spending based on the jobs created? Not on mobility needs met or customers served….but jobs created. I understand that we are in a recession and “jobs created” is the political currency they want to draw on, but, people, honestly, I need passengers served in the benefits metric, at least tangentially, when we are talking about transit investment. Please?

However, I do respect that they are willing to shake up the “jobs jobs jobs” dialogue to some degree by pointing out that you can and would save jobs by helping agencies deal with their operating deficits. The unchallenged dialogue of “creating jobs” around transit is almost always around capital investment. So we’re building new things while we are cutting operations. It makes little sense. The TEN authors at least try to direct the “jobs jobs jobs” in a direction that it needs to go: asking why the goal of keeping CURRENT drivers and maintenance workers employed is less of a priority than shoveling money into construction to create jobs. Preservation rather than creation. It’s a good issue to take up.

Of course, those existing jobs in operations could also be saved, in theory, by cutting back on transit capital investment, too, just as easily as taking money away from highways, but I am assuming that isn’t quite what these authors want.

But, if operations is the comparison, then let’s get very honest and start opening the options: spending no money at all and given the tax back, putting transit against college stipends for foster kids, dental care for impoverished kids, etc, building local parks and any other of the dozens of worthy things we can do with public money.

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Pat Mokhtarian on telecommunications, travel and cars

Here’s some video where Dr. Mohktarian discusses the implications of her work for future transport in cities:

Patricia Mokhtarian – We still need handshakes.

Here is a selection of her work on the subject:

Mokhtarian, P.L., 1990. A typology of relationships between telecommunications and transportation. Transportation Research 24A (3), 231–242.

Mokhtarian, P.L., 1998. A synthetic approach to estimating the impacts of telecommuting on travel. Urban Studies 35 (2), 215–241.

Mokhtarian, P.L., 2000. Telecommunications and travel. In: Transportation in the New Millennium, Transportation Research Board, National Research Council, National Academy of Science, Washington, DC. Available from:here.

Mokhtarian, P.L., 2002. Telecommunications and travel: The case for complementarity. Journal of Industrial Ecology 6 (2), 43–57. Mokhtarian, P.L., Meenakshisundaram, R., 1999. Beyond tele-substitution: disaggregate longitudinal structural equations modeling of communication impacts. Transportation Research 7C (1), 33–52.

Mokhtarian, P.L., Salomon, I., 2002. Emerging travel patterns: Do telecommunications make a difference? In: Mahmassani, H.S. (Ed.), In
Perpetual Motion: Travel Behaviour Research Opportunities and Application Challenges. Pergamon Press/Elsevier, New York, pp. 143–182.

Mokhtarian, P.L., Handy, S.L., Salomon, I., 1995. Methodological issues in the estimation of the travel, energy, and air quality impacts of telecommuting. Transportation Research 29A (4), 283–302.

Choo, S. & Mokhtarian, P. L. (2007). Telecommunications and travel demand and supply: Aggregate structural equation models for the US. Transportation Research Part A, 41(1), 4-18.

When you are a young scholar, you get to meet people whose work you’ve admired for years and years. When I first read Pat Mokhtarian’s work on telecommuting, the lights went on–a lot like when I read Randy Crane’s and Marlon Boarnet’s work. These were policy and planning people who understood and applied economic thinking to cities. Just because you provide additional, alternative options to auto travel does not mean that auto usage in the aggregate will shrivel. It probably means more travel overall because now people have more ways of getting around. Yes, some substituting goes on for some individuals, but for public policy, but what actually matters is overall VMT reduction, and nothing about additional supply of alternative modes guarantees overall VMT reductions because nothing keeps people from simply consuming more of all types of mobility options. “Ooo! A wonderful train to work! I shall take that instead of drive!” Victory, we planners exclaim! But then suddenly your stay-at-home spouse has a car available during the day and starts to use it more. Or, the same decision-maker says “Ha! I take the train the work, and since I’m not annoyed by driving for my commute, I will take the car after work to visit my friends in the far-flung suburb when I would otherwise beg off.” Those may be utility-increasing, but they are not necessarily VMT-reducing scenarios. They may be congestion-dampening, however.

Mokhtarian is part of an absolutely amazing cluster of scholars at the University of California Davis doing research on transportation: Dan Sperling, Deb Niemeier, Michael Zhang, Mark DeLucchi, and Sue Handy.

What’s regional about regional transport?

The Transport Politic has an essay up that argues:

Regional Transportation Authorities are not Necessarily the Solution to the Urban-Suburban Divide « The Transport Politic

He uses various regions as exemplars. This is a complicated topic for transportation because regional agencies, he’s right, get whipsawed between competing constituency demands. However, cities do, too.

The reasons these types of regional institutions emerge is that regions simply grow; employment and commuter sheds grow to encompass multiple jurisdictions, and as charitable as it would be for central city transit companies to serve extra-jurisdictional residential and job sites, they just can’t do it. So regional service is necessity for resource sharing and planning and for creating the sort of quality transit services are are actually useful to commuters: look at the massive area that the New York MTA now serves. But as, TP notes, all that is a lot easier said than done.

Also throwing a spanner in the regional works is the bottom line that it is easier to coordinate services across one regional institution…but there are diseconomies of scale in transit service as well, and these can be pretty bad.

Bus Economies of Scale: Hiro Iseki on the Problems of Regional Agencies

Hiro Iseki, out of the University of New Orleans, is one of the best people out there working in transportation research. I remember having long discussions in our office at UCLA about this subject. The resulting manuscript from his dissertation is utterly brilliant:

Iseki, H. 2008. “Economies of Scale in Bus Transit Service in the USA: How Does Cost Efficiency Vary by Agency Size and Level of Contracting?” Transportation Research Part A (42): 1086-1097.

From the abstract:

Past studies of economies of scale in transit have tended to treat the transit industry as aset of similar agencies that have the same cost structure, and have conducted an analysis for the entire range of agency size using a single regression function. This may have caused problems in the interpretation of analysis results because agencies of different sizes that may have different cost structures are treated as a homogeneous data set. In this paper, I examine the issues of economies of scale in the provision of fixed-route bus transit service in the USA, using level of contracting as a variable to classify agencies into three different size groups.

In this analysis, using a significantly larger pooled data set (compared to previous studies) constructed from the National Transit Database of the US Federal Transit Administration from 1992 to 2000, I found that agencies with different levels of contracting exhibit very different relationships between cost per vehicle hour and agency size. Applying the observed range of agency size, I also found diseconomies of scale for all agency sizes with all levels of contracting, even when I utilized a quadratic function for the regression equation.

While the analysis is limited since the model did not control for many other explanatory variables, the findings suggest that the level of contracting is possibly an important variable, among many attributes of transit systems, with which to classify agencies into different size groups, each of which has a different transit cost structure.

This brings up a bunch of issues for institutions like the Los Angeles or New York MTA. These integrated regional agencies are rather infamous for favoring the rail side of their operations anyway, sometimes based on arguments related to costs or service quality and at other times related to arguments based on simple prestige/racism (“white people don’t ride the bus”–how many time have you heard it?). Iseki’s finding show that the institutions, integrated at a regional scale, are set up to face an increasing cost structure for the bus side of their enterprise. The rationale for doing so has been to better coordinate service: in places like LA, no matter how much rail the MTA builds any time soon, the buses are going to be an important part of the transit network. The theory is that you would get better coordination between services within one agency than across agencies.

However, it may be that we would be better off with the regional rail agency and small bus companies for distribution. The bus company could be expected to coordinate to the rail schedule by virtue of municipal contract.