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.

USC Transport Faculty respond to the LA Times Metro Ridership story

Metrans Transportation Institute asked a group of us to respond to the LA Times Ridership story, which you can find here.

Genevieve Giuliano is the Ferraro Chair in Effective Government at the Sol Price School of Public Policy at the University of Southern California, and Director of the METRANS Transportation Center writes about Placing the Numbers in Context:

While the Los Angeles Time’s interpretation of the study wasn’t incorrect, it targets LA Metro without providing context on what is happening in in other metropolitan regions. To really understand the study, we should first take a look at what was presented. Over the past few years, transit ridership has declined across the Southern California region. Some places have lost more ridership than others (Orange County, Santa Monica). It looks like LA Metro is in the middle of the pack, as we would expect for the largest agency in the region. If ridership is declining everywhere, there are systemic factors at work that are independent of any single transit agency’s policies. These factors may include changes in: 1) economic conditions, 2) work patterns; 3) population characteristics; 4) substitutes for transit.

Sandip Chakrabarti, Ph.D. is a Research Associate at the USC METRANS Transportation Center. His research focuses on the analysis of land use-transportation interactions, travel behavior, public transit planning and operations, multi-modal system performance measurement and monitoring, and impact analysis of new transportation investments. His entry is found here.

I did some quick number crunching, and it seems to me that Metro, the transit powerhouse of the Southern California region, has not made great decisions over the 2006-2014 period. See Figure 1 (top panel). Over the period, and in the group of the largest U.S. transit agencies in terms of their 2014 ridership (unlinked passenger trips or UPT), Metro has had one of the lowest increases in both UPT (as % – in fact a decrease) and in the number of boardings added (again, a decrease) per dollar spent in capital expenses. One can argue that Los Angeles is different and that it is far more challenging to plan for transit, and to attract and retain riders here. But the public can question, and Metro needs to have a good explanation. The 1995-2005 period, however, was different. See Figure 1 (bottom panel). In this period, just after most of the Metro rail network was built, Metro experienced a substantial increase in ridership and yield compared to its peers. Does that mean Metro is doing the right thing by building more rail in the region? I don’t think the answer is an easy “yes.” It’s all about building the right service in the right place at the right time.

James Moore is director of the Transportation Engineering program in the USC Astani Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, and Vice Dean for Academic Programs in the Viterbi School of Engineering. He writes Busways are a Better Alternative:

The LA Times article focuses some overdue media daylight on specious policy claims by MTA and others that rail lines are key to improving transportation services in Los Angeles. The MTA responded in the article with the standard agency smoke screen: Let us finish the system. They report that once they achieve a “complete buildout,” the rail system will perform. It won’t. We’ll spend billions more on rail at the expense of bus service, and continue to drive down transit ridership as we force riders off buses. No one currently with the agency will still be employed by the agency in the distant future the MTA is claiming to predict. None of the parties responsible for spending on rail transit will be standing before the public to be held accountable. They will be long retired, and not available to explain why the future they promised never materialized.

Marlon Boarnet is a renowned authority on urban economics, urban growth patterns, transportation, and regional science. He notes that the system management perspective gets us better planning:

But let’s not kid ourselves. Sales taxes are, if anything, an exercise in the politically practical and far from an effective transportation finance tool. We should be exploring mileage fees (ideally weighted based on fuel consumption or pollutants emitted from the vehicle) and congestion pricing. Seventy-five percent of all transportation funds spent in the greater L.A. area are from local (sub-state) tax sources. We need to aggressively move toward a transportation system that finances our investments fairly, by charging persons for the pollution and congestion that they create. While we are at it, let’s be sure to tax the new rideshare services, Uber, Lyft, and the like, based on mileage fees, with higher taxes for rideshare services that occur during congested time periods in congested locations. Use the revenues from well-crafted mileage fees to maintain and, as needed, expand our highways, fill potholes in the roads, expand bus service, and complete our rail system.

And then obviously I’m me. I write that Angelenos have to commit to the systems, and politicians have to show leadership: can read all of it here.

Metro also needs to do better in working with employers and with other institutions. For instance, Metro did absolutely nothing when USC discontinued its support for transit riders. Regardless of whether USC’s transit subsidy program attracted many riders, it was a signaling and leadership moment when USC axed its program. Metro’s leaders didn’t say “boo” in response. The LA DOT didn’t say “boo.” For all the prancing around our Mayor and other state Democrats do about alternative transportation, they did diddly to stand up to USC. When one of the region’s largest employers kicks transit support to the curb, agencies like Metro and the DOT, and our Mayor, need to show leadership, set the tone, and say “Hey, wait a minute. We know this program costs you money, but we’re trying to accomplish something here; we’re trying to build transit as a way of life in this city. Why are you bugging out on us?” That episode is so discouraging because it shows how much LA’s elected leadership wants to dig into taxpayers’ pockets at sales tax time to make sure the pretty trains get built, but how little real political capital our politicians wield in helping riders ride the pretty trains once they actually get built.

My students’ super visualizations of construction cost escalations on the Expo Line LRT in Los Angeles

I have my students examine Flyvbjerg’s Megaprojects work, and I ask them to do some of the legwork on a forensic budgeting exercise. This time out, we did the Expo Line Phase 1 LRT. It’s a difficult project, as the students have to do quite a bit of digging through board minutes and decisions. However, it’s useful because it allows us to really discuss the issues at hand: is it merely strategy to underestimate, over and over, the costs of projects?

In the case of the Expo Line, the project as delivered was quite a bit different than the project as envisioned. There were a lot of additions, and some of those additions were probably good ones. So here are some of my students’ visualizations.

The Cost of Doing Business Forensic budgeting forecasting By Justin Pascone Jewel Deguzman and Keegan McDonald

This cool, web-based, interactive one is by Justine Pascone, Keegan McDonald, and Jewel Deguzman. SO COOL.


Expo Line Assignment Visualization 2 pdf page 3 of 15

This graphic above is by Jinhao Mai, Daniel Bernstein, and Soma Senhat

Https blackboard usc edu courses 1 20153 ppd 599 51295 db 1414122 1 Expo Budget Analysis pdf

Above by: Justin Bleeker, Amauri Casarin, and James Hamilton

Https blackboard usc edu courses 1 20153 ppd 599 51295 db 1414314 1 ExpoLineBudget pdf


Https blackboard usc edu courses 1 20153 ppd 599 51295 db 1414314 1 ExpoLineBudget pdf

These bottom two are by Ben Frazier, Teppei Yoshida, and Emily Finkel. I really like that second one because it shows where the money came from. They had to work pretty hard digging that out.

And yeah, my USC Price and Viterbi students are the freaking shizzle, in case any employers are watching.

Why USC should support employee (and student) transit use based on both justice and self-interest

I’m a little rushed this morning, so forgive any typos.

So why, exactly, should USC support employee and student transit? As I grumpily posted the other day, the cost my monthly transit pass went from $36 to $100 over the last few years, and this last jump came because USC Transportation Services cancelled entirely its transit subsidy, and that’s what set me off. No subsidy is a bad idea.

This is bad corporate policy. It’s entirely understandable from a dollars and cents standpoint: USC does unit-based budgeting (meh), and as a result, Transportation Services gets rather stuck with these kinds of programs. If you have great big parking structures sitting half empty most of the day, you’d much, much rather direct people to use those, since you are stuck with them anyway, than be using the revenues from parking to subsidize transit use. This is why USC as a whole should step up and help Transportation Services run the program.

Why? There are both justice and self-interested reasons for doing so. One of my brilliant students on Twitter noted that the increase alone from $36 to $100 a month is about 5% of total monthly wages for somebody making minimum wage. It’s a big pay cut for a low-wage person who depends on transit.

Ok, yes, those workers do not necessarily need to buy a monthly pass, so they go back to paying the base fare. But paying per ride is more expensive per ride than having a pass, and the pass enables mobility for a whole bunch of other purposes besides work. Metro is pretty affordable when it comes to fares, but they are getting less so, and low-wage workers in Los Angeles–and USC has many of them— exist in a hard whipsaw between housing costs, car ownership costs, transit mobility costs, and stagnant wages.

As a university interested in community and sustainability, USC should be trying to make that easier, not harder.

People like me can well afford $100, and I would actually be willing to pay full freight (and a bit more) if it meant that USC offered discounted passes to employees making less than the regional median income.

The self-interested part: those great big, useless parking structures are a huge opportunity cost. They are parking structures on a campus where space is the coin of the realm and we could fill any dorm space or married student housing space, like, tomorrow, with high-value uses that generate real, actual rents.

Yes, we can charge for parking, but…what do you suppose has a higher return: housing on campus or parking on campus?

Blam! Unit-based budgeting again. Transportation services doesn’t get to develop housing. So…parking has no opportunity costs for them. But for USC, the opportunity costs are huge.

This is why most urban/downtown universities subsidize their transit commuters. If we keep you out of your car, we can scale back on the amount of precious campus space given over to less economically productive uses, like parking.

It is out of step with the practices of major urban universities throughout the US. NYU, for example, offers roughly 50 to 60 percent subsidy, depending on the system pass. Harvard’s subsidy in Boston is 50 percent . MIT has the same deal. Yale offers its faculty and employees $130 a month in transit pass. UCLA offers a FlashPass through Santa Monica BBB for $33 (a significant discount as that is per quarter rather than monthly!). Stanford offers Eco-Pricing at 50 percent subsidy. Berkeley, ditto.

I know, our parking gets full on football days, but look, nobody is going to stop going to Trojan football games just because they have to park one train stop away. Do you see what people pay for those tickets? There is puh-lenty of parking along the Expo Line. Tailgaters should be taking transit anyway.

It’s harder to say that USC should just brass up for undergraduate transit passes. But it would be so good for them and for us. It would be so super if we could negotiate a good rate with Metro and students were willing to assess themselves a fee for it. But students and parents are already so stretched, and that’s hard, but…if you get young people riding transit, it’s soooooooo good for them, and it’s very good for transit, and it can make them into lifelong supporters, if not lifelong patrons, of transit services.

Sustainability: If you are housing cars instead of housing people, you are doing it wrong.

USC just ended its transit subsidy program, and the cost of my bus pass went from $30 to $100

My employer, USC, decided to eliminate their alternative commuter program, and as a result, the cost of my pass is jumping to $100 a month from roughly $30, and I can’t justify that cost every month when I look at how often I commute to campus.

To say that I am disappointed in USC would be an understatement. We are either the largest or the 2nd largest employer in Los Angeles County, and we have an obligation to help lead the region to better, more sustainable solutions for mobility. Our alternative commuting program was a success; many of us used it.

It also won a host of awards, which USC continues to display on its website.

They responded to the deluge of emails they got in response to the decision by putting up this “bureaucratic blah blah blah” page which basically says:

“The elimination of the subsidy was carefully considered and compared with other available alternatives.”

Well, ok, what are those alternatives? I’m listening. Why are those alternatives not explained? Why were those alternative programs not in place before you stopped the transit program? What does the university get out of this deal? Oh, wait, Transportation Services gets to keep $$$$ from parking rather than spend them subsidizing transit use. The USC decentralized and draconian budget process bears part of this blame: I suspect that Transportation Services leadership saw the $$$ and saved itself staff rather than continue a program that is good for the university but not in the financial interests of Transportation Services.

I do understand, but it’s still incredibly bad policy. It makes USC look like jerks, and USC doesn’t need that kind of help.

The reason for the “blah blah” is that there are no alternatives: this is just a pay cut for anybody at USC who has a disability that prevents them from driving and the university’s lowest wage workers. The real alternative is: those who can drive will do so, and those who can’t will eat the pay cut.

There is nothing about this move that makes sense for any aspect of the University other than Transportation Services. It’s bad for the employees, and it’s embarrassment for USC as a whole whose leaders have talked endlessly–and I think they are sincere–about sustainability. But it’s typical, head-in-clouds, lofty sustainability without the pragmatic follow-up that programs like this provide, largely because few people actually understand how important transit is to economic justice and sustainability.

Being a transit and sustainability expert here is frustrating, to say the least.

USC’s Rachel Junken visualizes David Levinson’s Accessibility Lab data on employment accessibility

I toss out vague assignments to my master’s student and give them some data. This way, I see what they come up with–it’s often much better than if I had told them exactly what I wanted.

This is what Rachel Junken came up with:

Job accessibility junken

These data have always bugged me. We could quibble about how accessibility is being measured, but I don’t think we would alter the numbers very much. I think all of us have known for some time that job suburbanization has really changed the US employment landscape. After all, John Kain published his spatial mismatch material in the late 1960s. But I don’t know that we really really can see what that change has meant for US transit unless we really lay it out, region by region, the way Rachel does here. Even places with really quite good transit have real problems with employment accessibility.

David Levinson responds to my responses, and I respond some more

Ok, so while the World Cup is going on, David Levinson and I are arguing about transit policy, which proves two things: 1) transit policy is very complicated and people of genuine good will (and very similar academic training) are likely to disagree on some points even when they agree on many things, as I believe David and I do and 2) David and I are nerds. Nerds!

Anyhoozily, here are David’s responses

Ultimately, our differences are pretty small and come down to, I think, differences on how much weight we place on politics and how politics might influence the outcomes of Levinson’s prescription. I think politics influence how the prescriptions would be shaped in ways that are likely to blunt the possibilities Levinson lays out for transit companies as public utilities. So what, really? Politics always has that effect to some degree. As I have said throughout, Levinson’s short piece is really a huge contribution to transit policy that I hope policymakers take seriously.