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.

Transit/transport event in Michigan you can follow on Twitter….

I got the following email this morning from Matt Bach with the Michigan Municipal League:

I wanted to let you know about a special Twitter talk event the Michigan Municipal League and our affiliate organization, Let’s Save Michigan, are hosting at our Lansing office at noon Tuesday, Sept. 13. A press release about it is attached. The event is about the future of transit in Michigan and we have some pretty heavy hitters speaking, including: Robert Puentes, Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution; Chris Kolb, Executive Director, Michigan Environmental Council; Rory Neuner, Project Coordinator, Transportation for Michigan (Trans4M); and Rich Studley, President and CEO, Michigan Chamber of Commerce. Also our CEO Dan Gilmartin will be there. Follow along at noon Tuesday (use the hashtag #mitransvision or by following @letssavemich or @mmleague on Twitter).

We think this is a pretty newsworthy and timely event with the rumors that the governor is going to deliver his message on Michigan transportation in October. We hope this event gets his attention and he and his staff prepare the transportation message. The highly controversial topic of a new bridge between Michigan and Canada may even be discussed.

We would love it if you wrote about this event (pre and post) on your blog and if you’re on Twitter, Tweet about it and follow along Tuesday at noon.

In addition, I should mention that several Michigan legislators and members of their staff plan to attend. If you want more details let me know.


Matt Bach
Director, Communications
Ph: 734-669-6317 I Fax: 734-662-8083
C: 810-874-1073
Twitter: @mattbach; @mmleague
Facebook:; /mmleague
New blog by League CEO Dan Gilmartin:
1675 Green Road, Ann Arbor MI 48105

Nice use of Twitter communication, and good luck with your event! (Even though you had the poor judgment to invite that Puentes guy instead of me… (Just kidding!)).

Freewaves and art on the bus

Last Saturday, my posse (ok, I don’t really have a posse, but work with me here) and I attended Video on the Loose, an exhibit of video art from Los Angeles’ Freewaves, a community-based organization in Los Angeles that tries to produce images in the public sphere from a variety of sources and artists and which is celebrating its 20th year in existence.

A new, very exciting, partnered project of theirs has just received funding:

Freewaves, Echo Park Film Center, Public Matters Group and UCLA REMAP receive $100,000 grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation for MetroVoice, an initiative to involve youth in writing and producing videos and TV screen text banners. The geo-coded messages will be transmitted on 2200 LA Metro buses, and explore aspects of the young participants’ families and neighborhoods.


My two companions were a bit mystified by the social significance of putting art on the bus. For those of us who have been in the transit business for awhile, the transgressive and social aspects to putting art on the bus, made by local artists, is probably pretty apparent. Public art tours on transit tend to focus on rail transit, with its higher socio-eonomic profile, riders, and audiences. Plenty of Los Angelenos are engaging with at LA-area TODs, dripping with design and art, without setting a foot on either the bus or the train, if the ridership numbers are believable. Putting art on the bus suggests engaging with those riders too often taken for granted by transit companies. Having it be art about the communities that the buses are traversing connects mobility with place; communities are no longer merely pass-throughs in the process of mobility.

It’s a very cool idea, and I’m looking forward to seeing how it works out.

Freewaves has produced a book and a dvd well worth investing in, see here.

Todd Litman responds to Steve Polzin on valuing time on transit

Valuing The Precious Hours Of Our Lives | Planetizen

Todd Litman, a productive writer and thinker in transportation and transit, responds to Steve Polzin’s entry about how we focus on highway congestion delays but seldom on transit delays, The Cost of Slow Travel.

Unfortunately, the response misses the point and an opportunity to think strategically about transit and service. Instead, it’s misdirected advocacy. I’ve been watching this dynamic happen time and time again for years now. Somebody raises a criticism of transit, and the advocacy army responds and responds and responds and responds–only without addressing the original problem. And as a result, we have lots of political interest and investment in transit, but decreasing productivity from that investment. Which just makes transit the target for more criticism. This is one of the reasons that when loudmouth comments get made on this blog, I take the time to respond back. No matter how much thought policing we do around transit, we won’t get as many passengers as we could unless the service improves.

Polzin’s article wasn’t an indictment of transit quality of service, at least not entirely. It legitimately called attention to how level of service and aggregate delays on highways get to be the subject of a high-profile report every year–from TTI–while transit service quality gaps get ignored–except by the people struggling to use it. That high-profile report? It gets used as a rationale for proposals from highway investment, investments in signal timing, intelligent highways, intelligent vehicles, information systems and–yes, transit as well. In transportation, “needs assessments” are generally all about demonstrating service quality problems. “Heavens! So many people use our highways/bikeways/streetcars/shuttles that we need more! Our service is poor compared to elsewhere. We need more dollars, please.”

So pointing out the length of transit commutes in time is not necessarily somebody being a meanypants who doesn’t support transit the way he or she should. Instead, it’s a realistic appraisal of one aspect of mobility service quality, period.

Yes, service quality. People tend to like to separate travel time and service quality based on the arguments, like Litman uses, that the time in transit or walking is more pleasurable and productive than being in a car. But they are only right for people whose preferences align with theirs. For other segments of the mobility market, they are wrong. Moreover, it’s wrong to assume that these are the only things being traded: yeah, you hate to drive and you’d be happier not driving, but the extra half an hour that transit takes you means a half an hour you’re not with your kids, cooking, drinking wine with your spouse at home, watching the game, or any number of things you can’t do on transit, either. So yeah, I’d prefer to get the exercise walking than driving, but I prefer to spend the time cooking so that my kids aren’t sitting around hungry after school more than I prefer the exercise. Some people weight that in the opposite direction. I suspect that if there is a 10 minute difference between transit and driving, transit wins just about every time. But a half-hour difference? When do we begin to lose people? That’s the question. The next question is: can we close that gap in service without going bankrupt?

Transit advocates and car users can trade assertions about service quality for the rest of eternity and it won’t help us figure out the social welfare problem of mobility provision in cities. Transit advocates tell me that they much prefer the jolly, wonderful time they have on transit. When I ride transit, which is a lot, I mostly just listen to my iPod and try not to get barfed on. It is never the best of part my day, and it is sometimes the worst part of my day. My suspicion is that most drivers feel the same way. Most days it is fine, other days it sucks.

Transit advocates tell me about the inhumane hours and hours of despair that people in cars endure. People who use their cars to commute from Orange County to Los Angeles tell me about how they use the time to listen to books on tape and it’s not so bad. New Urbanists tell me that walking in the city is the best part of their day. I’m not sure: on the way to the post office this morning, I had an aggressive panhandler shriek “GIVE ME A QUARTER, BITCH” in my face as he burst from an alley, startling me so much that my heart palpitated for a good 10 minutes afterwards. I’m no pansy, but I’m betting my day has better parts than that. Maybe this doesn’t happen in Seaside.

The point is that preferences are largely unknowable except to people doing the preferring. We can argue that the auto’s dominance is a revealed preference and that’s that. We can and do argue that transit isn’t supplied ubiquitously enough to argue that auto usage does not represent a revealed preference, but rather a choice made under mobility supply constraints. It’s impossible to tell because we can’t conduct controlled experiments and there are too many endogenous factors. Who is to say that people with genuine preferences for particular types of urban lifestyles aren’t self-selecting at the regional level? That the preferences are not revealed soley by neighborhood choices and mode choices made within regions but–as I strongly suspect–people who love love love the type of urbanism that Litman and others advocate select into places likes New York and Portland and San Francisco?

The Slow Cities idea is directed, particularly, at changing people’s preferences, not arguing that transit is objectively time competitive. So transit takes you longer. So what? You are saving the planet. You are not driving. Isn’t that nice? Don’t you feel relaxed not rushing?

We can also argue forever about the regional productivity numbers for either highways or transit, no matter how many scientifical-looking graphics Litman or anybody else shows me. Honest researchers admit we have little real understanding about whether, at this stage of the game in American development, investments in mobility infrastructure* drive labor productivity or whether productivity drives investment (remember my needs assessment statement). Yes, we have theories that argue the former and the latter. And empirical testing once again becomes Herculean because we don’t have controls.

In the end, if transit commutes are longer, they will not be competitive with other modes for those whose preferences run towards time savings over not driving. If we’re willing to bet that group is a small part of the market instead of a big part of the market, that’s one thing. I’m not willing to take that bet. I’d rather take seriously the issue of why transit commutes are longer to see if modifying operations can edge into that share of the mobility market.

*Save for airport and freight investments. There we have reasonable data.

Transit emissions and the importance of ridership

Streetsblog Capitol Hill highlighted a very nice FTA report that tracks urban transit emissions. A pdf of this report appears here.

As I have ranted before here, we have to know ridership in order to make claims about emissions benefits. This graphic, taken from the report, does a good job of showing us this effect. We’d be better off filling up cars on the road than we are running underutilized trains. Now, this is a much different story if we are getting people to use the trains. This is why a reasonable accuracy in ridership forecasts matters. I’m not asking for perfection; I’m asking for an honest assessment of how many people we’re building something for so that we can fairly assess what we are doing here.

The other possible way of changing this figure would be to change the feedstock of the energy sources for all of the vehicles. Cleaning up electricity generation would change the emissions per passenger mile.

Of Numbers, Trains, and Dumas

I am reading a wonderful book on the Riemann Hypothesis by Karl Sabbagh. I found this really inventive–and hypnotic–video on YouTube on the significance of the Reimann Zeta Function and the subsequent hypothesis:

Other than the magnificence of the spiral functions, Sabbagh describes the importance that waiting in train stations and walking around has had on mathematics:

In August 2000, Louis de Branges* was waiting for a train at the small station of Gif-sur-Yvette, about fifty kilometers from Paris. While he was waiting, he sat and thought about proving the Riemann Hypothesis.

and again:

Enrico Bombieri, too, has had the experience of thinking intensively about a problem and then, unexpectedly and without warning, finding a solution. This time an Italian railway station features in the story.

I do not understand most people’s impatience with transit. It can be annoying to be facing a meeting or class start time when the bus isn’t coming, but those times of sitting on the street and watching the world go by are among my best thinking moments, when I am not in my office, and when my mobile is in my purse and can’t be heard. I don’t care that it would take me 10 minutes to drive to USC from my place, and I usually leave an hour before I need to be there if I go by bus. It’s usually a pretty good hour. But then, I don’t have children, work on my own time, and generally have a tolerant spouse who is used to my arsy varsy, meandering manners. And it’s not hours on the train or the bus; it’s minutes longer than driving would be.

A friend of mine is reading Dumas for the first time, which is just making froth with envy. Those first days of reading Dumas–exquisite–falling in love with Porthos for the first time. I eventually went back to my high-school language, French, so that I could read Dumas untranslated. When my friend told me she was reading The Man in the Iron Mask, I was thinking that trains played heavily into my thinking at one point, too. It was waiting at the Alexander Dumas Metro station in Paris in August of 1999 that I decided to apply to PhD programs rather than keep scrambling away at freelance consulting. I can’t believe that’s over 10 years ago now. Time flies.

*de Branges is reknowned for proving the Bieberbach Conjecture

UCLA Transit Photo Project seeks volunteers

Researchers at the UCLA Institute of Transportation Studies are currently recruiting participants for a study of the transit riding experience. This project asks participants to take pictures as they travel on public transit in the greater Los Angeles area. They will be able to create travelogues by uploading the photos to a website and adding written commentary. We will then analyze this information in order to better understand transit from the perspective of people using it.

If you would like to participate in this study, you would need to:

· Live in the greater Los Angeles area

· Have access to transit (bus, streetcar, or subway)

· Have access to a digital camera, smartphone, or camera phone for photo collection

· Have photo upload capabilities (e.g., computer with internet access, cell phone with 3G access)

· Make two roundtrips or four one-way trips on public transit during May and June 2010

· Collect at least 10 photos (and up to 25 photos) per trip

For more information about this project, please see the Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) below.

If you are interested in participating in this project, please go to this website and complete a short survey:

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Do I need to ride transit regularly to participate in this project?

No, we are looking for a range of participants – from people who use transit frequently to those who use it rarely or never.

How many times do I need to ride transit?

We would like participants to document four individual trip segments – in other words, two roundtrips or four one-way trips. You could also make one roundtrip and two one-way trips.

What do you mean by a “trip”?

For this project, your trip on transit should be considered your door-to-door trip and not just your time on vehicles. Therefore, your trip may include travel to and from stops or stations, wait times, and, if you make one or more stops between your origin and destination, other activities that occur while you are not on a bus or train.

What kinds of public transit routes should I pick for this project? Should I ride a route familiar to me?

While taxis and shuttles technically are considered public transit, we would like you to focus on bus or rail routes for this project. You can pick any transit route on any system (Metro, Big Blue Bus, Culver CityBus, Long Beach Transit, etc.) in the greater Los Angeles area. You choose the starting and ending locations of your trip. You can ride a route that you know well or use often, or you can choose one you do not know. Or, you can make trips on a combination of familiar and unfamiliar routes. Please contact us if you have any questions about the routes you are considering.

How many pictures should I take?

We would like you to choose and upload at least 10 photographs per trip. You will be able to upload up to 25 photos. You might find it easier to take a number of pictures and later select a set that you believe capture your transit experience.

What should I be using to take photos?

You can collect your photos using a digital camera, a camera phone, or a smartphone. We anticipate that many people will use camera phones or smartphones for this project.

What kinds of things should I be photographing?

What you decide to photograph during your transit trip is up to you. You should consider that the final set of 10 to 25 photographs will represent your experience – both routine and unusual – on transit. The elements of a transit trip that are important to one person may be less so for another person. You might also find that different things are significant to you on different trips or even on various parts of the same trip.

What should I bring with me other than my camera or cell phone?

We recommend that you take some notes on your trips to help you remember important aspects of your journey. When you upload your set of photos, you can use these notes to add captions or longer descriptions about the photos (e.g., where you were located, what was happening, how you felt at that moment). In addition, we’ll ask you for information about your trip, including where and when your trip started and ended, the route number, the trip purpose, and whether you made any transfers or stops. You may find it helpful to write this information down while you are traveling.

Is it okay to take pictures on transit?

We all know that cell phones and digital cameras have become part of our daily existence. In particular, cell phones are commonplace in public places where people use them to talk, to take pictures, and to record videos. In many ways, we’ve become very desensitized to people using cell phones around us all the time. We do not anticipate your photo gathering activities for this project will be much different than what you likely do regularly with your cell phone or camera. However, we encourage you to avoid any situations where you feel uncomfortable or at risk, where your activities might make other people around you feel uncomfortable or at risk, or where there is direct confrontation or hostile behavior.

Who are the researchers conducting this study?

Camille N.Y. Fink (MA) and Brian D. Taylor (PhD) from the UCLA Department of Urban Planning are conducting this project with a grant from the University of California Transportation Center (UCTC).

Who should I contact if I have additional questions?

Please contact us at if you have any questions.

The Transport Politic on the 30/10 Plan

I haven’t commented on LA Mayor Antonio Villagairosa’s 30/10 plan, which has been to go to the Federal government to ask for an up-front loan to fast track (see what I did there?) the rail projects currently programmed for 30 years into 10 years of construction. The revenue from Measure R, a local option sales tax, would then be used to retire the debt. This is an infrastructure banking strategy, and we don’t yet have that type of setup in the US. Perhaps its time that we did. I haven’t commented on it largely because I can’t see much to object to; the voters have already approved Measure R and the lines are decided (for better or worse). The Transport Politic calls this one right: it’s an innovative financing plan more than anything else:

How Feasible is Antonio Villaraigosa’s 30/10 Gambit for Los Angeles Transit? « The Transport Politic

Should the rest of the country go for it? I think so. The major risks associated with the plan are cost overruns, which basically just mean LA will end up with less rail than envisioned, and that risk is always there with project development. This upfront financing probably lessens that risk. As an innovative financing tool, this may be one of the most important steps forward in funding regional transit services rather than relying on lukewarm federalist arguments that transit in LA is such a worthy good that senators from Iowa and Nebraska and North Dakota should want to see federal dollars going towards it. These types of local self-help financing tools, then, mean that the regional transit agency could tap into LA’s enormous tax base directly rather than having to deal with the crap-shoot of trying to get the feds to pay for local projects. There’s a lot to recommend this strategy both practically and theoretically.