Jobs-housing balance, the animation featured on Citylab, and something Brian Taylor said years ago

The other day on Twitter, CityLab shared the very cool graphics on commuting from fellow data lover, Mark Evans (here is Evans’ original blog post; looks to be a very cool blog in general!)

I quipped on Twitter that these graphics are one reason I’ve never been sure that “jobs-housing balance” is necessarily a good planning goal. When I said this in my transit class last fall, my extremely bright students gave me grief about it, and I explained myself badly at that time, but I still have my doubts.

Those doubts were put there ages ago by Brian Taylor, one of my mentors at UCLA. UCLA’s PhD program treated my Master’s Degree in urban planning from the University of Iowa like it is was…inferior, as coastal people inevitably do, so they made me re-take a bunch of classes. It was snobbery; they made it clear that unlike my colleagues who had come from their own, Berkeley’s, or MIT’s hoity toity planning programs, I was hopelessly, hopelessly backwards. No, alas, I had spent my time jumping over clods of dirt, heehaw, and had not studied with some of the most accomplished faculty in the US who had happened to land at the UI. I didn’t have the power or the insight to be able to defend the dear old University of Iowa back then, but looking back, I was very fortunate to have gone there. My guess is that the University of Iowa still retains the quality that I experienced there, though most who taught me have moved, retired, or passed on.

So at UCLA, I had a problem: I had to take my PhD coursework hours, and I was also being expected to retake master’s classes that didn’t count towards advancing my PhD. I’d taken land use and transport classes before, but Brian made it clear he wanted me to take his transportation and land use class, and so I sucked it up and re-took the class with him. I am glad I did; I learned a lot.

I didn’t really learn all that much about that topic, though I did learn some new things. It was a beautifully designed class that Brian seemed born to teach. And from that I learned much about the craft of teaching, perhaps more than in just about any other class I have ever taken. Brian was nothing short of brilliant teaching that class. He loved the topic, he had studied it deeply and carefully for years, and that passion and knowledge came through with every class session. I learned so much about the craft of teaching in that semester that, while I don’t require my students to take classes from me (because I remember sweating the cost and time associated with classes that do not count towards completion), I do try to help them understand that their time spent as teaching assistants and graders should be time spent watching and learning what their mentors do in the classroom and how they do it.*

One day Taylor was talking about something I don’t think he’s ever written about: the conundrum of job-housing balance, and he made some comments that have always stuck with me: Regional rail systems do not benefit from jobs-housing balance. They are easier to design and operate if you have a jobs-housing imbalance. He made the point and moved on, but it’s always fascinated me as problem.

Jobs-housing balance is the idea that in a given part of the region, if you have a balance between housing and jobs, you can minimize harmful, long-distance commutes that, in the contemporary US, are likely to add vehicle miles of travel and, thus, harmful emissions and crash risks, etc.

The best paper I have ever read on jobs-housing balance came from the University of Michigan’s Jonathan Levine:

Levine, Jonathan. (1998) Rethinking Accessibility and Jobs-Housing Balance. Journal of the American Planning Association 64(2):133-149.

Where Levine finds that jobs-housing balance isn’t really all that useful as a travel demand management strategy, but it does help lower wage workers have better access to jobs. It’s a great paper–I am sorry it’s behind a paywall, and if JAPA ever runs a free or discounted special that includes it, I would promote it like crazy so you can read it.

There are some challenges, as Evy Blumenberg points out in her research: Just because there is a job nearby doesn’t mean that there is a job for you nearby. In theory, I have a church accessible by walking from my house, but it’s a Buddhist temple.

Yet when we look at this map of New York and DC, two cities renowned for their regional rail systems, that’s not what you see: You see a whole bunch of people going the same direction at roughly the same time. That’s the sort of scale you can achieve when you have one or two major job centers and a bunch of bedroom communities chock full of people with butts to put in the seats of your commute rail system and nowhere around their houses they can walk to for a job.

And what Evans showed in his commute graphics was exactly the sort of set up that enables a regional rail system to supply commuting mobility at scale, which is what rail is for. Now, Evans doesn’t have any distances on his maps, which makes it hard for people who are not familiar with the regions to interpret the maps. (This is a big problem comparing the Sacramento commute shed with the New York one; arguably, Sacramento and the Bay Area are one giant commute shed and we’d see multiple centers coming through if he did both cities in one animation. How splendid of me to make more work for him…) That would be a good animation, and you could probably see the subcenters way better than with DC/Alexandria/Arlington.

Granted Levine’s findings, this stuff gets us to some pretty thorny issues with regional rail. It isn’t, arguably the job of development to make sure regional transit providers have riders and operating funds, but those things do help if we want a regional rail system. Howling an objection that a regional rail system can still be very useful for nonword travel doesn’t help me out much, because while that’s true, a transit provider in general would like to have more business rather than less, and writing off the commuter market is a pretty big sacrifice to somebody who would like to collect fares.

This is all by way of saying that accessibility, particularly for people disadvantaged in urban housing markets, is not easily reconciled with the sort of land use patterns (achievable ones, not the highest of high density that we’d love to see but seldom do) that promote the passenger aggregation rail can use best use, and neither are mixed uses, necessarily.

BTW, this is not just me going on with my usual gripes about New Urbanism, but it does highlight some goal conflicts within transit-oriented development that keep me thinking.

*And BTW, I learned a lot from Brian, but I have learned subsequently that I’ll never be Brian in the classroom. We are just too different. That’s perhaps the most difficult part of becoming a scholar: trying to adopt the practices of people you admire. You have to experiment with the things that seem to work, and that experimentation takes a great deal of time, and quite a bit of failure, before you find which practices can work for you and which ones can’t, and how you can perhaps adapt or innovate around the ones that can’t. Brian is confident, extroverted, funny, and happy. I am dour, painfully shy, and…sometimes funny. And you can’t be as a scholar what you aren’t as a person.

Reasons for proposing LRT that don’t induce me to make barfing noises in public

1. There’s a corridor where we’ve done everything we can to improve bus service, and there’s extra room for additional ROW so that LRT would provide additional capacity for future growth which isn’t expected to reach heavy rail levels;

2. There are multiple destinations we endeavor to tie together in order to unify it as a district, and there are intensive development plans, real plans, with financing and approvals, not just hot air;

3. There are developers or foundations with cash in hand committed to helping build and run the facility for at least 25 years.

We can squabble about the marginal benefit of each type of investment–and we will, since public value is always contested–but these strike me as sensible reasons for proposing LRT in mid-sized regions.

A collection of HSR links from around the web

The LA Times features Rand’s Martin Wachs in this story, describing how the state of California is probably going to have to go it alone if it wants to build high speed rail. I told you so, California, four years ago! Here’s the money quote:

The project’s first phase would take the rail from downtown San Francisco to Anaheim for an estimated $43 billion, but outside groups put the cost at $65 billion or higher. The nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office said it could hit $67 billion. (A second phase would extend lines to Sacramento, Riverside and San Diego.)

It’s hard for me to grapple with the Dem’s attachment to this project. Maybe if Obama had started with this instead of health care, things would be different. But as it is, the national plan has all the markers of a sinking ship, and advocating for it when entitlement spending is going under the knife strikes me as rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic of social liberalism.

Gulliver’s column at the Economist this week argues against high speed rail investment simply because the country’s existing inter-city train system is doing a pretty good job. It’s a small country that doesn’t take long to traverse as it is.

My husband’s uncle, regular reader, sent me this link from the National Review, written by Michael Barone. Barone’s piece has the marks of the National Review, with private-sector, private-sector, Rah-Rah tone to it, but he does make an excellent point: that is, the private sector, who has yet to show up in any meaningful way to the High Speed Rail party other than construction companies willing to bid for government contracts. Instead, there is quite a bit of intercity transport provided via private bus companies:

The buses have bathrooms, AC power outlets, and free Wi-Fi. They’re not as fast as the much more expensive Acela train, but they tend to run on schedule.

Bus travel used to be decidedly downscale, with a clientele that scared off middle-class travelers. That’s because, back in the days of heavily regulated transportation, bus lines followed the passenger railroad model, with stations in central cities, routes with multiple stops, fares propped up by monopolies, and operators with no economic incentive to provide comfortable or pleasant service.

Chinatown and Megabus operators ditched this model for one that works for travelers for whom money is scarce and time plentiful. Who needs a station? Inter-city buses can occupy curb space briefly just as city buses do. Who needs multiple stops? You can make money on people who want to go from one specific location to another.

Now, the service is still a four-hour ride, and this is where I suspect that people will argue with Barone. His last statement comes here:

So the private sector provides cheap inter-city transportation while government struggles to waste $53 billion. Please remind me which is the wave of the future.

That’s a bit too pat, but still. Advocates will argue that the four-hour bus ride is just too long and we need nicer facilities. But we do have nicer facilities–the Acela train. I’m sympathetic to Barone’s point here because I think the rail-only advocates do tend to be one-eyed about their pet technology, when everyday travelers really don’t care about what under the vehicles (rail or wheels). They only really care about comfort, cleanliness, speed, frequency, and geographic coverage (limited to their preferred locations). Previously, those were better delivered with trains, but there are improvements possible with bus technology as well. Advocates say “cha! that’s not true.” But if we can get improvements in those dimensions without spending billions, why shouldn’t we do so? That still wouldn’t necessarily be a substitute for HSR along the corridor: your $20 Megabus passenger probably isn’t going to opt into HSR if they aren’t opting into the Acela now. But service quality improvements are still probably worth getting anywhere we can get them.

So what do you think? BTW, if the immediate response is “Oh, we’ll save the environment” more with HSR, not many reading The National Review are going to buy that argument.

Rail cost-benefit analysis

Peter Gordon, Robert Cervero, and I discuss the cost-benefit analysis of Los Angeles rail investment in this issue of Public Works Management and Policy.
Here are the citations

Peter Gordon and Paige Elise Kolesar. A Note on Rail Transit Cost-Benefit Analysis: Do Nonuser Benefits Make a Difference?
Public Works Management & Policy April 2011 16: 100-110, first published on March 24, 2011 doi:10.1177/1087724X10397380

Robert Cervero and Erick Guerra
To T or Not to T: A Ballpark Assessment of the Costs and Benefits of Urban Rail Transportation
Public Works Management & Policy April 2011 16: 111-128, first published on March 24, 2011 doi:10.1177/1087724X10397379


Lisa Schweitzer
Benefit-Cost Analysis of Rail Projects: A Commentary Public Works Management & Policy April 2011 16: 129-131, doi:10.1177/1087724X11401035

Here are first few paragraphs of my commentary.

The debate in this issue of PWMP reflects a hardy perennial in the transportation community. With some consistency, rail transit fails to meet benefit–cost criteria or ridership forecasts. Planners and transit advocates—often these are the same—respond that benefit-cost analysis is only a partial measure of a project’s worthiness. How, they ask, do you monetize the benefits of something like a trolley that reinvigorates a slumping downtown? Some of the things we could never imagine living without—like the Brooklyn Bridge—would probably have failed a benefit–cost test back in 1866
when the New York legislature authorized it. And now the bridge is an architectural icon in a region whose economic health has come to rely at least in part on the aesthetics of investments made more than a century ago.

As vocal as transit advocates have become in dismissing those who question rail investment based on benefit–cost evaluations, rail advocates have more than earned the suspicion that surrounds them. Promise after promise accompanies the push to get federal dollars for local rail transit projects: for example, transit cleans up the air (not so much); it clears up congestion (not even close); it makes us thin (even though study after study demonstrates transit’s minuscule effects on obesity). Whenever anyone points out that projects have not delivered on their promises, then comes the next flood of promises: Jobs, jobs, jobs! Climate change! Building social capital! Economic development! Retail revitalization! At some point, investments have to be accountable for the promises made on their behalf. Cervero and Guerra contend that the mobility benefits accrue to future generations—future riders. If so, that is an empirical claim we can and should test. Some systems over time will jump over the bar their advocates set for them while others are unlikely to do so.

Tony Judt and Bringing Back the Rails, with Clark Gable thrown in

Tony Judt passed away far too young, and he was a remarkable prose stylist. The New York Review of Books has been running a series of his last writings, and his latest essay calls us to Bring Back the Rails!

The photo they use to accompany the story pretty much says it all: Judt is nostalgic for the days of intercity rail, with it’s romantic, slower pace and perceived comforts. As a result, he’s a bit overly romantic even while he’s right about the basic theme: with the pain of security at modern airports, it’s impossible for romantic scenes of a cupid-lipped girl to lean languidly out of the window to blow kisses to her trenchcoated man. Judt’s writing is good, his sentiment is valid.

But he’s romanticizing the wrong industry. US railroads, even when they did offer intercity services, hardly seem to be great conveyers of romance. Pulling away from the station is one thing, but we don’t see this young woman after she’s slept for three days upright because she wasn’t wealthy enough to able to afford a sleeper. Nor do we see the relatively high costs of food on the train for passengers who didn’t manage to bring enough money with them–money, of course, was no object for 007 on the Orient Express on his way from Istanbul to Paris in his luxurious car.

Nor were railroads the bastion of public space that Judt romanticizes them as being. There was a big difference between intercity rail companies and New York City subways, which are actually publicly owned. The intercity US railroads helped bring about “Separate But Equal” into US law in 1982: regulated under the Separate Car Act, train companies refused to honor Ida Wells’ first class ticket (she didn’t want to sit in the smoking car, where black passengers were required to sit) or Mr. Plessy’s first-class ticket because he was a “free person of color.” Private company, public regulation—neither good for an authentic public.

By the time intercity passenger service evaporated in the US, train companies had had to be forced to provide it—they made their money then, as they do now, shipping commodities. So when deregulation came about, companies dumped their passenger service as quickly as they could: why put your rolling stock into less profitable services?

So if we are going to insist on intercity rail, let’s not bring back what was. Let’s reinvent.

As to using movies to inform your idea of passenger transportation pre-Interstate, there is one movie that has always struck me as being informative: Billy Wilder’s It Happened One Night with Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable. They have to make their way from Florida to New York with no money–and they spend part of their time on an intercity bus. Watching that bus dive in and out of dirt-road, flooded potholes might help contemporary people understand that paved highways didn’t just help suburbanites or vacuous car-dependent auto owner of today, nor was paving just a sinister military defense strategy: it was an opportunity to substantially improve intercity goods and passenger movement for people too poor to ship their farm goods on monopoly railways or to buy a rail ticket. The main story is about two people from different worlds who fall in love, but Wilder uses transportation to help us understand what different worlds looked like.

Judt is simply wrong about a whole bunch of things that he asserts in the essay, as though he couldn’t be bothered to actually read up on his topic. Railways didn’t make cities any more than any other technologies did–even though he is right in that some train stations are breathtaking architecture. Plenty of cities had million+ populations centuries before the first omnibus even, let alone rail. Commerce makes cities; culture makes cities. Rail moves people around–let’s keep it factual; if anything, rail helped up make suburbs rather than cities.

Edited: Richard Green reminds me that It Happened One Night was a Frank Capra film, not a Billy Wilder film. For some reason, I have a brain problem with this fact because I went out to IMDB to look up the director this morning, saw that it was Frank Capra, and I STILL WROTE Wilder. Distractions, distractions.

The Expo Line and Who is Overpaid in Transit Construction Contracts

Richard Green notes on his blog that:

A light rail line going by USC–the Exposition Line–has been under construction for some time now. For a considerable time, the site featured a sign that said the line would open in 2010. Now the estimates are that it will open some time in 2011 or 2012. At the same time, when I walk by the project, I can’t say that the workers building it show a great deal of, shall we say, urgency about getting the thing done.

At the same time, I don’t hear a lot of people who are upset about how far behind schedule the project is. Maybe this is because no one is planning to take the Expo Line. Maybe it is because peoople have such low expectations of LA Metro that they are not surprised, and therefore not outraged. Either way, it suggests a problem.

First off, it’s a bad idea to conclude anything about work effort based on what you observe by walking by. That’s like the people who judge professors by saying we “only teach two hours a week.” It’s not a valid sample, and it’s very had to evaluate other people’s work effort when you have never done the job yourself— and that’s particularly true of white collar workers passing judgment on blue collar workers engaged in dangerous and often tiring work–during a recession, no less, where anything that extends their work hours has direct implications for their family’s ability to eat and pay rent (unlike salaried work).

More to the point, Richard is mistaken when he concludes that people are not upset. The LA Weekly recently published a story called L.A.’s Light-Rail Fiasco which eviscerates the CEO of the Exposition Metro Line Construction Authority, Rick Thorpe, for salary and his conduct. Rick Thorpe is exactly the sort of transit guy who becomes a free agent and CEO: relentlessly self-promotional and confident, any previous successes get attributed to his leadership. So he picks up stakes, gets recruited away, commands an enormous salary, and builds a brand for himself that he delivers projects on time and on budget.

From the LA Weekly Story:

The reasons behind the fiasco are as numerous as they are complex. But at its core, it’s a simple story: Somebody had a clever new idea, and it backfired.

In this case, that somebody is Rick Thorpe, CEO of the Exposition Metro Line Construction Authority and one of the leading lights in light rail. He sold elected officials on a new type of contract, which he said would bring the project in cheaper and faster than it could be done by traditional means.

Colleagues from other transit agencies warned that the idea might not work. In the name of holding down costs, it could inadvertently create incentives that would drive costs up. But Thorpe pressed ahead anyway, and the elected officials charged with overseeing the line put their faith in his expertise.

Now, four years into the project, the results are plain.

“It just doesn’t work,” says Dan Peterson, an arbitrator with 50 years of experience in public works projects. “They’re trying to save 20 cents and it’s costing them $20 million.”

Thorpe and the MTA board argue that the contracting approach does, in fact, work. It is a process of negotiated design-build that, in Thorpe’s mind, prevented contractors from getting windfalls as they sometimes did under the design-bid-build process that has been industry go-to contracting process for a long time. However, the project where Thorpe’s innovation is supposedly working is not just behind schedule: it’s now 40 percent overbudget (to the tune of $260 million).

Now, you would think that Thorpe would know better than to be too fussy about contractors making money, based on this bit of info:

As CEO of the Expo Authority, Thorpe oversees a staff of 15 and earns a salary of $334,000. He makes more than the CEO of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, who is responsible for 8,000 employees.

Thorpe’s self-branding that captured this salary is one of the major flaws of leadership both in the public and in the private sector. Once shareholders or board members believe you are some kind of magician, and they will if you are fortunate and if you blow your horn hard enough, competence is no longer enough. And as anybody who has built anything or completed any public project knows: 1) given all the barriers and problems, it’s amazing that anything gets built, ever, let alone on time and on budget, and 2) nobody, no matter how smart, confident, or charismatic gets anything built all by themselves. It takes a team, and while teams need managing, it is really easy to overstate and overcompensate the contributions of management when things go right and to make excuses when things go toes up.

There is another side. Why shouldn’t public managers good at their jobs make more than doctors or other professionals? Thorpe is a CEO, after all, and this is a major project, and major projects are tremendously hard to deliver, and private-sector CEOs make much much more.

However, the management and incentive contradictions emerge quickly. If you are paid $300+K a year to run something, your desire to finish it on time–particularly when you still have a board that rushes to your defense and you are no longer a hungry young guy building your brand–is low. Unless there are bonuses in Thorpe’s contract for on-time performance, he has little reason to protect the project from delays at this point, given all many reasons why projects get delayed in construction and the halo surrounding him personally.

Moreover, if you make your money because you are such an excellent manager, there is also the desire to innovate practices that reinforce the need for *management* on this project and future projects.

And from the what the LA Weekly reports, this “make management work” approach is right at the center of the problem. Instead of hammering out the details of the contacts up front–as with traditional design-bid-build contacts–Thorpe’s “negotiated design-build” requires the agency to keep their hands in project management more so than under traditional design-build where they would have been managing the contracts primarily–instead of negotiating as they go along.

In the end, I’ve always argued that there is very little wrong with the design-bid-build process.The US built most of the Interstate system with the approach and most existing transit, water, sewer, and other infrastructure this way. Where Thorpe sees the potential for “windfalls”, I see an incentive for construction companies to keep costs down so that they can increase profits. In the hands of a competent agency contract manager keeping track of the as-builts and project specifications, you shouldn’t end up with a poor-quality project. Instead, you provide an incentive on the part of the construction companies to keep employees hopping and to strike hard bargains with suppliers in the hopes of getting in under budget so that you can walk away with that the built-in cushion. The bidding process keeps companies from building in too much of a cushion. Innovations here have almost always struck me as cases of fixing something that wasn’t broken–to the overall detriment.