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.

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.

Atlas Shrugged trailer and Trains that Go Zoom

So I don’t how many people have read Ayn Rand–I have, and I took them very seriously in high school. Though I have to say, I read them with the same spirit with which I watched Guiding Light (alas, gone!) and Dynasty (also, unfortunately, gone.)

But apparently, somebody has decided to make a movie about John Galt and the shiny train that goes zoooooom. We are supposed to love his objectivism and the frail worshipfulness of the radiantly beautiful Woman Who Understands Galt.

The comments around the interwebs are amazing. MAN owes society NOTHING but the honest pursuit of HIMSELF. Okkkkkkkey. Apparently, we are still in the moment of trying to deal with our neoliberal hangover that we need to flail ourselves into relearning love for market and freedom stories like Rand’s.

There’s lots of stomping around, lots of luxury. High drama! “I will destroy you!”

All I can keep thinking when I watch the trailer is:

Will Frodo and John Galt get to Mount Doom in time to destroy the One Ring? Or will Alexis Carrington Dexter Rowan Colby pull them into the faux-villa pool before they can cross Mordor?

Google Image Result for http images huffingtonpost com 2009 09 18 0226091130 M catfight dynasty 450 jpg


One might ask Ayn why, if the train is such a hotsy-totsy, envy-generating vision, we moochers and freeloaders and average-heads have to keep paying for general revenue bonds to get these money-makers built.

And then there’s just the fact that metal can be used for, oh, I dunno, lots of other stuff that…aren’t trains…and why such a purposeful and ruthless business dude would get so invested in making sure his metals get sold to a particular project.

But, hey, I never got shoulder pads, stirrup pants, or Huey Lewis and The News, either.

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 MTA budget cuts and the need for long-term transit finance reforms

David King pretty much sums up how I feel on the cuts, except for one thing: I was surprised they weren’t worse. However, the MTA is a sharp outfit: if they have to, they’ll announce 4 percent this month, another 4 percent three months from now, and another 4 percent after that until they can meet their payroll. It’ll be…interesting…to see where we are a year from now.

There has to be long-term finance reform in transit, and no, the 30/10 doesn’t get us there. The 30/10, wonderful as it is, would enable us to build more stuff that, ultimately, we won’t be able to operate.

These cuts are going to get worse and worse, not just in LA, but everywhere, and eventually, those cuts are going to hit the train operations, too. Um, yeah. Without long-term finance reform, eventually we’re going to get to the point where the bus cuts that all the transit blogs treat as little more than a passing headline will be joined by rail service cuts.

New York is already there.

Train cutbacks might actually make people in the streets blogging and transit-advocating world actually care …maybe…about operations.

Then maybe they will spend as much time talking about the hardship that ensues from cutting services as they appear to want spend gossiping about which of their favorite celebrity transit advocates might work in Los Angeles to replace retirements.

Nah. Talking about transit’s operations problems–like getting back and forth to work in a world where services are getting cut–would be a distraction from treating transit like the jungle gym in the ultimate urban playground for twentysomethings raised on a steady diet of Friends rather than as a place where transit needs to work for people other than trust funders on pub crawls.

Whatever, right? Everybody knows operations are just a waste of money in transit. Building is where the professional and political payoff is. Advocacy for projects gets you in the position where you get to be part of the buzz. Who was the last bus operations drudge you saw featured on a transit blog, or given an high-profile award for their work?

So what to do–other than grow the hell up? I haven’t run any numbers yet, but it’s pretty clear that the Feds are not going to hand out candy for operating subsidies. Which means we are probably left with local funding sources. A place to begin thinking in terms of reform:

a) When we find new a dedicated source of funding–and we’ll have to–we’ll have to have the self-discipline NOT to promise to spend it on our addiction to building new transit projects.

New sources of funding = political nightmare. But some suggestions: Ratchet back on property tax insanity in California–ideally. So how about a 3-cent gas tax increase on local pumps? We can tell everybody we are solving congestion even though we aren’t. Sure, let’s have parking charges a la Don Shoup. But whatever funding it is, it’s not for geegaws or fripperies or extensions or new services in far-flung suburbs, at least not right now. It’s about keeping existing routes and frequencies.

With whatever funding victory may come, we can’t fall the into the political expedience trap of earmarking new funds for projects. We love to do that because taxpayers like to be able to point at a map and see what they think their money goes to.

We can’t keep indulging that. We have to start learning how to make the social marketing case for operations.

b) Create a dedicated pot for operations at the local and regional level, and expect to put money into that pot forever for transit as the municipal public service it is.

Nobody expects street sweeping to pay for itself; ditto police protection or libraries or snow clearance. Transit in cities should be treated the same way as those services. We don’t talk about “garbage collection subsidies.” It’s time to talk about funding services instead of obsessing about subsidies.

(And yeah, in case you can’t tell, I’m pissed.)

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Railroads and emissions in southern California

Argh. I am writing a paper right now on how planners can and should win more often in public conflicts.

They could learn a lesson from the railroads. The LA Times reported a few days ago that, in order to avoid emissions regulation in southern California:

The lawsuit filed by the Assn. of American Railroads and the BNSF and Union Pacific railroad companies challenged restrictions imposed in 2005 and 2006 by the South Coast Air Quality Management District, which covers Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties.

link: Local agencies can’t limit train emissions, court rules –

This would be known as an end-run around the communities and the state and regional air quality management agencies.

So much for collaboration and win-win solutions.

This ruling in general worries me; I’ve fretted for some time about whether all sort of local air quality measures–likely to be more efficient for many sectors than federal regulations–were going to get hit with these types of challenges.

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