“New” ways of evaluating transit benefits?

Federal Transit Administration – Obama Administration Proposes Major Public Transportation Policy Shift to Highlight Livability

A quote:

“Our new policy for selecting major transit projects will work to promote livability rather than hinder it,” said Secretary LaHood. “We want to base our decisions on how much transit helps the environment, how much it improves development opportunities and how it makes our communities better places to live.”

I’m just going to say it: I think this is not good news for public transit. The Transport Politic is more hopeful.

Every single transit grant proposal I have reviewed or written in the last 18 years (yes, I’m old, shut up) of being in this business has already been justified through major claims about environmental benefits, usually inflated, and economic development benefits, usually inflated, through new jobs. It doesn’t even really bother me (that much) that costs and benefits are fudged. If everybody fudges numbers and claims and we all know numbers and claims are fudged, it’s bad but it’s not that bad. In the culture of fudging, there are rules, too.


Given that we’ve had these rationales for transit for about 50 years, I doubt very much that LaHood’s move will mean much difference at all in the actual Federal budgetary allocations between highways and transit. They’d still have to get higher funding for transit past a legislative body disproportionately influenced by rural interests.

Instead, this move, if it changes anything, may preclude people from doing ex ante analyses of ridership benefits–which, whatever, people can still count. And it may prioritize projects that include a lot of joint station-area development. Again, however, people already do that; we live in a world where everybody wants urban design and street development but where nobody wants to pay for them.

Instead, I think LaHood’s rationales have the potential to siphon transit money away from high-ridership locations and projects (which can demonstrate higher benefits without smoke and mirrors, and whose high ridership mean that station-area improvements benefit more people) in favor of projects in small cities that have no real environmental problems and that aren’t growing much or serving many passengers–all because a nimble grant writer managed to be convincing that a joint development TOD in places like Buffalo would make its population-leaking downtown “livable.”)

Again, I have nothing against weighing in urban benefits. But I do have something against standards that make it even easier than it is in the political realm to spread already scarce transit money to projects that are not likely to yield a reasonable body of riders. Riders! Remember them? You don’t get environmental benefits from transit unless it actually gets riders, unless you value the station-area improvements no matter how few riders we serve. Is that what they are saying here? If so, how much of the bill for streetscape upgrades are property owners and city boosters going to try to saddle Federal transit proposals with?

I know. I am no fun. My students tell me this every day.

Woo Woo Elinor Ostrom!

Elinor Ostrom has been awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics along with Oliver Williamson.

Dr. Ostrom is the first female recipient of the prize, and perhaps even more exciting, is an institutional scholar who studied the commons. She’s an absolute giant in the field of environmental governance. It’s an inspired choice, one that suggests the committee is beginning to recognize the importance of interdisciplinary work and ideas on economics.
Beyond that, she’s a super nice lady.

This has been the first time I have smiled in weeks! We’re all supposed to pretend we’re all equal now, or else all the guys around me will start citing Lifetime Network and how tough they have it, but the academic world is highly male-dominated even though our professions–civil engineering, urban planning–have changed. I have dozens of great male role models around me, and I appreciate them all. But I have only a handful of women. Maybe the scarcity shouldn’t make a difference, but it does. Research and writing are lonely endeavors, and I can’t even begin to describe how isolating and alienating the tenure process is. You need to be able to know that people like you can succeed in the game. At least I have always needed that.

So why is Ostrom’s work so important to cities? I’m glad you asked. Central to Ostrom’s work are exemplars where “commons” are governed successfully (and less so) among users. Garret Hardin, an influential ecologist who passed away in 2003, first brought the commons to our attention through a paper in Science, whereby he noted that rational individuals have an incentive to over-use the commons in the absence of clearly defined property rights [1]. Ostrom’s work studied the role of institutions and agreements in adjudicating the usage of the commons, so that destruction of common pool resources was not inevitable nor necessarily the purview of individual property rights alone, though I would argue many of the factors she highlighted in her work amount to the creation of jointly held property rights [2]. In other words, her work addresses the fundamental question of the city: that is, how do we get along together, how do we make decisions–good ones–about the shared goods (and environments) that affect large groups of people where property rights are perhaps fuzzy.

Marginal Revolution has a discussion up. The comments leave quite a bit to be desired as they smell of sour grapes, but as with men and Lifetime movies, it’s not often that I get to hear economists, the veritable jewels within the crown of the social sciences and usually all-too-confident in their entitlement to act as consultants to power, fret about whether their status is slipping. IT’S ONE PRIZE, PEOPLE, CHILLAX WOULD YA?

**My apologies to Oliver Williamson, but he’s a bit of a no-brainer here and I suspect his reputation can withstand being given short shrift in an obscure planner’s blog.

[1] Hardin, G. (1968). Tragedy of the Commons. Science, 162, 1243-1248.

[2] Ostrom, E. (1990). Governing the commons: The evolution of institutions for collective action. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Center for Sustainable Cities and other environmental resources at USC

When I recruit PhD students, I often to have to listen to them lecture me about how USC’s program “isn’t centered on the environment” or “social justice” but is, rather, a “libertarian” school. This is very bad thinking. It’s based, I suspect, on a reaction to some of our luminary senior faculty–Peter Gordon, Harry Richardson, and Jim Moore–and challenges they raised to the dominant thinking in urban planning about urban density. Peter Gordon’s edited volume, the Voluntary City, with David Beito and Alexender Tabarrak, lays out their worldview and ideas nicely.

By contrast, some of our other luminaries–like Tridib Banerjee, Dowell Myers, and David Sloane–have spent years building up a planning program that does draw on collective visions of social life, including the social contract in Myers’ book, Immigrants and Boomers.

Besides the real diversity of thought at USC, it’s just plain bad thinking to assume that libertarians do not value the environment or social justice; there are libertarian greens and libertarian theorists of social justice. Diversity of thought, thinking about problems from many perspectives–these have always been to me the key to opening new avenues for research. Libertarians may not be terribly supportive of government-sponsored planning, but many planning functions and tasks occur in the “third sector”–that of nonprofits and nongovernmental organizations–anyway.

There are lot people studying the environment at USC, and they are doing rather amazing things. The Viterbi School of Engineering has launched a new Megacities research program which promises to be very interesting and transformative. The USC Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies is housed in the College of Arts and Sciences, focused on both science and policy evaluation of ecosystems, including Catalina Island. The Loker HydroCarbon Research Institute is focused on understanding and transforming human usage of hydrocarbons, including oil, natural gas, and coal. In addition, USC’s Energy Institute has created a large, campus-wide umbrella for the study of cutting-edge energy technologies, issues, and policies. The Metrans Transportation Institute has sponsored a lot of research on the environment and is one of the world leaders in examining the environmental effects of freight transport. The Bedrosian Center has sponsored public events and projects surrounding key environmental issues, including the study of mega-regions.

I’m feeling fortunate in that I am getting to be a part of two new, extremely exciting things happening at USC. First off, the Center for Sustainable Cities–one of the reasons I came to USC–is moving to the School of Policy, Planning and Development where I am faculty. The Center has built up an important presence in both the science and the policy aspects of urban environmentalism. It means that our school will be engaging two new research faculty. Josh Newell studies lifecycle costs associated with a wide variety of industries. Hillary Bradbury studies organizational change and corporate adoption of green policies and practices.

These two will join the many SPPD scholars who do work on urban and regional environments:

Adam Rose
Catie Burke
Richard Callahan, who was just appointed to advise the California Environmental Protection Agency
Liz Falletta
Bill Fulton
Gen Giuliano*, director of the Metrans Transportation Institute;
Eric Heikkila
LaVonna Lewis
Dan Mazmanian , Director of the Bedrosian Center
David Sloane
Mark Pisano
Leonard Mitchell, Director of the Center for Economic Development
Elizabeth Currid
Raphael Bostic, who is currently serving the Obama administration in Housing and Urban Development;
Gary Painter;
Richard Green, Director of the Lusk Center;
Shui Yan Tang;
Chris Redfearn;
David Sloane ;
Tridib Banerjee;
Dowell Myers
and then there’s me.

Did I forget anybody? I hope not

The Program for Environmental and Regional Equity, associated with top-flight researcher Manual Pastor, will move out of the CSC and become a freestanding program in its own right. It’s a neat program, too, and if you are interested in environmental and regional justice, you may want to sign up for their newsletter. There are always really interesting research reports coming from that center.

The second major campus-wide change has been the possibility of contributing to a new, campus-wide multi-disciplinary program on Spatial Science. This is a very promising set of ideas that might allow for those who do spatial work–both computational and conceptual–to come together in one wheelhouse.

Very exciting stuff!

*I can’t for the life of me get rid of this underlining in the HTML code. So while Gen is really really special, she’s not supposed to be underlined.