Pearl-grasping and the Reason Foundation’s Regional Mobility Plan for Southern California

It seems that the required response to the Reason Foundation’s Mobility Plan for Southern California is to grasp our pearls and get all sniffy about how bad it is, but folks, you gotta understand: I’ve been doing this a long time, and just about all plans with a strong point of view also usually have aspects that are politically, economically, or physically not very likely. I’ve sat through presentations about hovering pod cars and harvest-your-own locavore restaurants on high speed rail. Plans are supposed to have vision, and sometimes, vision shows us the impractical as well as the practical. The plan seems to have been authored by Baruch Feigenbaum. This is, on its face, odd: planners like me usually assume a plan is going to be produced not by single individuals, but via a process, and I am pretty sure that if I authored a plan on my own there would be some pretty outre parts to it, too. I don’t know Mr. Feigenbaum, btw, so I have neither animus nor affection.

Conceptually, I like how the plan addresses one, single issue with a cost-benefit perspective. I think the intellectual backlash on cost-benefit assessment has been well-deserved, but agencies have continued to use cost-benefit language, weakly and not very convincingly, because so many of the projects being schilled tout assumed benefits from climate change to obesity prevention. But here we have an explicit touting up of envisioned toll revenues and project costs. I have my problems with the assumptions on the cost side, but I usually do. At least when these are stated, and connected to a price that people would be expected to pay, we get some clarity on the balance sheet. Now, I do agree that cost-benefit isn’t everything, but it also should not be *discounted* when we look at making public investments simply because it might not make the rail projects we love so much look as shiny as we want them to look. If we don’t think about the balance sheet at least some, our investments are likely to disappoint.

I also think that we could be doing a bit more with express buses and BRT in southern California. I question the use of the BRT label for parts of the proposed network; I doubt we’d necessarily need BRT in the strictest sense on the freeway lengths where it is outlined, but I think the intent is simply to suggest the sort of dedicated lane suburban busways we find in Toronto. I’d actually like to see about a year’s serious experimentation with the idea before I got all “This is stupid” over it. Right now, people in those locations can either carpool, drive alone, or take Metrolink, and that’s not much of a choice set. Yes, Metro already has some of these ideas in their plans, but what of it? New plans always include things from existing plans if either the former or the latter are any good.

Further, southern California could do, in theory, a lot more with corridor management than it does. This plan emphasizes managed arterials, and by managed, we should think managed and priced. I am less sanguine about the prospect of pricing arterials than I am about pricing freeways. I’d like to see people get used freeway pricing first. The general theory is the same: replace unpredictable congestion costs with explicit prices as way to a) help people decide whether they value a trip enough to pay for it and b) generate revenue to pay for the system. I’m just a little worried that it’s much easier to Waze your way around arterials where you have to pay and get on streets not really designed for high traffic volumes, and while I have no sympathy for West siders pissed that they might have to deal in their backyards with traffic when they, themselves, drive constantly, displacing traffic from roads with higher design standards to lower design standards might present a safety loss. It might be, in theory, that the arterial was managed so well with prices (and other improvements) that it would take traffic off those streets onto the managed arterials because the value for money would be so good, but theory isn’t decisive here. It is an empirical question.

That said, the reason we do not have as much corridor management as I would like isn’t that local area professionals are not smart enough to see the advantages, but as usual, disparate jurisdictions and interests within those jurisdictions disagree on the ends for corridor management. For residents, the ends are to slow traffic down and get it to go elsewhere. That’s hardly a congestion solution. From a regional perspective, the idea is to increase throughput overall. And because those two are irreconcilable in one mode (the auto), we have…bike lanes, transit, and walking proposal galore that may, or may not, improve congestion.

Finally, I think the plan highlights points where the problems of auto congestion really are severe. We discuss the TTI report about overall levels of congestion every year, and we all sigh when LA comes out on top…and we all drive in the region all the time, and then go to places, like Washington DC, and then figure out that David Levinson is actually right: congestion is much worse in those regions than it really is on a day-to-day basis in Los Angeles. Yes, you get more delay in the aggregate when you cause 10 million people 10 minutes of delay than you do when you cause 1 million people 30 minutes of delay, but qualitatively, those are very different experiences. To wit, LA has some bad bottlenecks that generate quite significant delays as a part of the total, and we just physically are not going to get more out of the infrastructure that is there, even with better management, and in those places, the Reason plan puts in tunnels. Now, I don’t think these are feasible, but I also would point out: if you don’t like those, then what’s your idea? Those are places where, if this were a different plan produced by different people, the map would have little red links decrying these as “problem zones.” Treating those problem zones as problems strikes me as a useful idea, even when the alternative offered may not be, and even though we know these are problem areas already.

We could decide, as UCLA’s Brian Taylor has urged us, to just say that congestion isn’t a problem to solve, but a condition of urban life. I’m willing to go there to some degree, but my urban economist hat notes that if you really hate sprawl, those problem zones actually do represent a problem because they note areas where there are strong economic incentives to move activity to the other side of the bottleneck–maybe not in the next 10 years, but in the next 20 to 30.

I think a lot of pearl-grasping is just that the people who think of themselves as the legitimate commentators/experts on LA transport are pissed because their favorite thing, rail rail rail and more rail, isn’t a feature of this plan, and/or because they think Reason is trying to advocate for more freeways using pricing as cover and/or they themselves get a lot of political mileage out of the fact that the freeway system is hardly optimal. Yes, the plan includes new infrastructure, but the 710, for example, has been on every map everybody who doesn’t live in South Pass has produced for 50 years. I never hear this kind of flouncing around when some architect produces a Tokyo-style train map for LA that would cost so much money we would have no money left for anything else and would also be empty for large portions of the network because it puts the same amount of investment in places that have acre lots as in places where we have good, rail-supporting densities. Instead, these are greeted with rapturous sighs about how wonderful that would be because that’s an awesome vision. And I generally don’t mind, and even like those kinds of visions, too, even though I don’t tend to get poetic about them.

My point is, simply, that good ideas come from lots of places; sometimes good ideas are mixed all up with silly ones, even, and I guess I am disappointed in the response. Reason hardly needs me to speak up for it, but I would prefer we discuss rather than screech or belittle, even when presented with visions and concepts that run counter to our own.

Street vendors and safe streets

EPGNews has a story on a street vending study conducted in Boyle Heights by our SPPD students who were doing their academic capstone. The students, Josefina Campos, Jasmine Kim, and Lauren Yokomizo, did the work for the Los Angeles Urban Renewal Network. They did a great job.

The students conducted a street survey and a survey of brick-and-mortar vendors and street vendors. There are several illuminating parts of the story:

Yes, it reminds me of Mexico but it also reminds me of Europe where it is possible to buy falafel, crepes and other snack foods easily from street carts in plazas and on city streets,” wrote Chimatli Tellez, who identified herself as a fourth generation Angeleno and resident of Lincoln Heights. “It’s a global thing, not a third world thing.”

So the notion here is that multiple types of businesses build up a diversity of possibilities within an area–the center of mixed uses. But, the part that kills me here: the suggest that the Third World is somehow not attractive, but associating activities such as this with Europe makes them seem somewhat higher class. Third World=ghetto urban design, Europe=classy urban design. Even though Third World design is predominately European urban design, via colonialism.

.….Other stakeholders complained that obstructed sidewalks forced people onto the street, and that open flames are hazardous to the community. Besides unfair competition, other disadvantages identified in the study include: increased traffic and pedestrian congestion, reduced property values and reduced quality of life through pollution of public spaces.

Pollution of public spaces? From the smoke from open fires?

Here we have the trifecta, however, of why we often can’t change anything in cities and why the political economy of space within neighborhoods becomes exclusionary: congestion, property values, pollution. All that from street vendors?


Among the advantages of street vending identified by researchers, were: affordable products and services for low-income residents, income opportunities for immigrants and lower-income residents seeking employment, and increased foot traffic that contributes to “the revitalization of the community’s street life.”

“The revitalization of the community’s street life”, aka “congestion.”

Portland and Austin as congested small towns

HT to Getting From Here To There

I’ve always been troubled by the way the press reports TTI’s annual mobility report. The press generally hones in on one performance measure (aggregate delay) when TTI models a bunch of performance measures that seldom get any air time. Total hours of delay overemphasizes population at the expense of really looking at how much of the urban geography is actually congested most of the time. So Los Angeles is a high-population metro region, and if a whole lot of people experience relatively minor delays, the aggregate delay calculation can look bad when, in fact, the delay experienced by any given traveler can be pretty minor. It’s not that total delay is uninformative, it’s just that total delay is only one measure when we need multiple measures of system performance to figure out what is going on.

TomTom has released their list of the 20 most congested cities using data collected from their devices, and the maps are based on data they are collecting from their GPS devices. LA by these data is #2: Seattle is # 1. It’s helpful to measure congestion as a function of geographic or network coverage because that is the way drivers or transit riders actually experience it. It’s a performance measure of network saturation, albeit a rudimentary one.

So…with the caveats: We have to question the sampling validity of TomTom’s data–after all, we’re only using data on people who own TomTom’s devices. We also have to question their method of breaking up cities within the same region: Oakland is part of the Bay Area; Long Island is part of the New York metro; Alexandria, Fairfax, and DC are in the DC metro, etc. So counting those as separate cities doesn’t really make sense, and it affects the baseline of their percentage calculation.

But we should look at Portland and Austin in particular, as those are largely freestanding cities. Portland is ranked 19th, which is pretty low on the top 20, but it only has about 600,000 people and 20 percent of its roads are congested. Austin, Texas is 15th, with 25 percent of its roads congested at a population of a little under 800K. Now we need to think about this because Portland is routinely used as a model of development, and that includes density as a means of “fighting congestion.” This is internally inconsistent, and we can’t be doing this. If we are going to aim for density, we are also aiming for congestion.

It should interest us that four of top 20 cities are DC- area metros: Fairfax, Alexandria, Montgomery County and DC proper–are on the list, despite the region’s extensive provision of rail. Population and density increases–a change that planners are committed to–bring about congestion on all urban systems: streets, sidewalks, roads, etc.

My point? My point is that if the sustainable city has population density, it also probably has congestion once it gets good-sized. Most of the arguments for density in urban planning, other than the social ones, are economies of scale arguments: density means intensive use of shared space and services. That also means congestion once populations grow as space and service are usually capacity-constrained.

What’s the answer? We need to make peace with congestion–not the easiest answer to sit with.

Air quality, congestion, and pricing

One of my former students posted this story from the Wall Street Journal to Facebook yesterday. ARGH. Does the WSJ do no research in its reporting any more? So a time delay will shift drivers to transit but a charge for driving wouldn’t? Are WSJ reporters not required to understand basic econ anymore?

Congestion can be either good or bad for air quality depending on the geographic distribution of alternatives, the fleet, and the context into which the emissions enter. Congestion charging can in theory price trips onto the road under hypercongestion (the famous backward-bending demand curve), and thus may allow for greater VMT. But this is not true even in theory if the charging scheme is priced for VMT reduction or rationing rather than optimizing flow–those are different things, and the New York pricing plan was zone-based, so it most likely would have eliminated trips, not increased them! Higher throughput might affect emissions via flow optimization, but it is not apparent from either monitors or lab experiments that idling among a smaller number of cars/trips is objectively better for air quality than fast throughput from a larger number of cars/trips (and there may be a substitution effect in the traveling fleet that most people think is an air quality benefit; or there may be a freight effect which would not produce benefits [1]; we don’t know). Different types of emissions also vary with engine cycle, so it may be wash in total but a trade in emissions type.

Studies prior to the implementation of London’s cordon toll predicted fairly large reductions in emissions [2]. After the charge’s implementation, monitors throughout the metro area demonstrated statistically significant (though small in absolute terms) and progressively distributed improvements in pollutant concentrations [3,4]. Now, it’s not likely that we can attribute all of that change to the cordon toll, as accompanying the toll were rapid increases in bus supply (so much so that train trips also went down concurrently following the implementation of the cordon toll; I suspect that congested trains were traded for less-congested buses for short trips, particularly after the transit bombings in July of 2005).

Traffic calming, transit-oriented, density-based efforts in Paris—without the concomitant tolling efforts that London put down—have been found to increase emissions substantially, so New York may not be doing itself any favors with unpriced congestion [5]. Concentrations in some congested areas, like San Francisco, have not been improving as quickly as in other places. It may be that these simply reflect that when air quality is generally good in high-growth areas, reductions occur marginally more slowly than in places where concentrations are comparatively high. (IOW, it’s hard to improve on good.) However, it can also be that worsening congestion has caused higher emissions and that is being reflected in some regional monitors.

Some of the smartest transportation people in the world are at New York universities, but why would we actually CALL THEM to get some ideas for this WSJ peice? For most of these people, it wouldn’t even a long-distance phone call for the WSJ reporter. See? Look at this list! This is a dream team of people to ask rather than just talking out of your backside. BAD WSJ.

But then, as my friend Chris Redfearn once noted, discussions like this require people to keep more than one idea in their heads at once. If we are throwing around the “dubious” term, congestion on transit–and this exists virtually everywhere in the world that isn’t in the US–is most definitely NOT good for the environment: see Mexico City, see virtually every Asian city over 10 million people, and the many scooter engines on the road rather than transit trips.

[1] Marr, L. C. and R. A. Harley. 2002. Modeling the effect of weekday-weekend differences in motor vehicle
emissions on photochemical air pollution in central california. Environmental Science and Technology, 36:4099–4106.

[2] Beevers, SD, Carslaw DC. The impact of congestion charging on vehicle emissions in London. Atmospheric Environment. 2005 Jan ;39(1):1-5.

[3] Atkinson R, Barratt B, Armstrong B, Anderson H, Beevers S, Mudway I, et al. The impact of the Congestion Charging Scheme on ambient air pollution concentrations in London [Internet]. Atmospheric Environment. In Press, Accepted.

[4] C, Beevers S, Armstrong B, Kelly F, Wilkinson P. Air pollution and mortality benefits of the London Congestion Charge: spatial and socioeconomic inequalities. Occup Environ Med. 2008 Sep 1;65(9):620-627.

[5] Bouf D, Hensher DA. The dark side of making transit irresistible: The example of France. Transport Policy. 2007 Nov;14(6):523-532.

Congestion and the walking city

Paul Krugman notes on his blog that while he is favor of NYC’s move to turn Times Square into a walking only area, he’s not sure who the move is for, as “nobody goes there-it’s too crowded.”

Krugman references my favorite quote about congestion from Yogi Berra. As Brian Taylor pointed out in a very good paper in the Journal of the American Planning Association, Berra captured an essential conundrum from urban economics for urban planning newfound efforts to “contain sprawl.” That contradiction comes down to a) congestion is a sign of a successful place within cities (the “it’s too crowded” part), at the same time b) that same congestion and place intensity provides the demand for decentralization–the “nobody goes there” part.

This contradiction makes it difficult to deliver on the “congestion relief” promises that many people make on behalf of compact urbanization— one of the key elements of sustainable city ideas. Los Angeles may be everybody’s favorite whipping boy for auto congestion, but DC, New York, Boston and Chicago all have congestion both on the road and elsewhere: there’s never a seat any Starbuck’s off DuPont Circle, for example, and the sidewalks are uncomfortably crowded in New York at certain times of day. The Mexico City subway or the trains in Japan–or in most global cities other than LA—are simply jammed.

I’m not saying that auto congestion is the same for the environment as these other forms of congestion–it’s not–but as Taylor points out, places that we sustainable urbanists love–like New York–have pretty bad traffic congestion, and that traffic congestion is part of the place’s vibrancy and a measure of its success–not its failure.

Thus our sustainable cities of the future are likely to be crowded–very crowded if population growth continues. Most Americans, even those who live in New York, have no idea what real megacity crowding is like. The the demand for decentralization will grow stronger as we densify, even as we try to pack a whole bunch of amenities into our compact, walkable new developments, so long as there is income and wealth to support purchasing more space in a crowded world.

Taylor, Brian D. 2006. “Putting a Price on Mobility: Cars and Contradictions in Planning,” Longer View, Journal of the American Planning Association, 72(3): 279-284.