Bychance urbanism, Traffic Tranny and respecting organic human interaction

Attention conservation notice: People figure out what they need. Providing them with a cool environment/arena for liberty, choice, and self-expression can enable people to solve problems.

Can you design for spontaneity? Designers say yes, but then, they believe in design or else they wouldn’t be designers. My suspicion, not entirely informed, is that you can design to make interaction difficult, so that design that fosters interaction–rather than making anything happen, per se– is really a matter of removing barriers, putting out some chairs and some shade, and then–very contrary to American’s tendency to try to control everything–letting people do what they want. Some grouchy old misanthropes like me won’t interact. Others, like my jovial husband, will create a social space out of whatever is there. Beauty and interest would be a good idea because they feed the human soul, even if nobody stops driving or saves the planet as a result of a nice place.

My wonderful student Liana Elliot got me thinking about these issues with a story she sent me about New Orleans:

I have been enjoying time off New Orleans this summer and observed something yesterday I thought would amuse you. In class we talk a lot about what makes a community, how neighborhood characters are essential, and innovative solutions to problems are often the best route. This story seems like such a perfect illustration of this I thought it should pass it along.

The Hash House Harriers throw an event every year called the Red Dress Run to raise money for local non-profits. The event itself is more bar crawl than ‘run’ per se, but it has become such a success most people don’t even participate in the actual ‘run’ but just head to the quarter wearing a red dress to get in on the fun.

This year, I tagged along with a friend of mine, who is a veritable social butterfly among Lower Bourbon (a robust gay community). From the balconies of these Bourbon St. institutions, I witnessed a brief series of events which I think illustrates (perhaps demonstrates?) the intersection of community, urban planning and the place-making innovation that makes nice places to live.

Earlier in the day took a picture of the enormous crowd on ‘upper Bourbon’ which looked like a sea of red dresses in a hazy drunken afternoon stupor. Then I noticed in my picture there was a fire engine attempting to make it’s way through the crowd. During the day, none of these streets are closed to traffic, and it can be impossible to even cross Bourbon, let alone navigate an entire fire engine through a herd of people.


Later in the day, I was lucky enough to witness a local character known as Traffic Tranny in action. She mysteriously appeared in the intersection, donning a red dress (of course), bright orange nail polish, and well worn sensible pumps. With nothing more than a coaches whistle, Traffic Tranny began directing and orchestrating the flow of pedestrians, traffic, push carts, etc. The drunks are safe, cars can pass, and traffic actually flows across Bourbon.

No one pays Traffic Tranny. I’m not sure if she was ‘summoned’ to deal with the crowd or if there is a time of day or critical mass needed to engage her services. NOPD are deferent to her authority. She’s extraordinarily effective, everyone respects her hand gestures and screeching whistle. She will patiently pose for a photo, but has been known to bang on a hood or two if a driver challenges her directions (or stand on the roof of their car, I’ve heard). Hours later, the fire engine finally passed by us from wherever it had been parked all day.

I noticed the storyline while flipping through my pictures of the day and it immediately reminded me of class. What a perfect solution to a potentially dangerous intersection! She is the ‘eyes on the street,’ the character, part safety officer and part entertainer, the personality incarnate that makes us all love New Orleans so much.

Photo 4

That night I was at a friend’s birthday party, and ran into my old boss who is now a member of the City Council (not only is the Quarter in her jurisdiction, but she’s also been central to an attempt to clean up the taxicab business, and has been met with vitriolic animosity from the cab companies. So she’s been heavily involved in the foot traffic vs. car traffic debate which has been raging for awhile).

It dawned on my that my little anecdote sort of reinforced why I’m in school, away from home, incurring all this debt and dual degrees – because you can’t prescribe Traffic Tranny. There’s no public policy in the world that would be able to create this scene – it happened completely organically out of necessity (mother of invention).

This is one of those examples where policy can only support or surpress her, and urban planning could never have created this situation through design. From the perspective of a councilwoman (such as my boss), what would I do? Is there a legislative mechanism to support these characters without necessitating a special ‘zone’ with strict definitions and boundaries? How can we let de facto community rules operate without sacrificing public safety or resources?

Shortly after taking office, my boss was also central to a majorly controversial sudden-enforcement of a ban on live street music (outside of established music venues with permits), effectively shutting down beloved corner brass bands. The ordinance was seen as a racial matter (not unjustly), as the brass bands were typically young black men, and bar owners are usually white. Using the law to make a New Orleans cultural tradition illegal to protect business interests seemed insane.

Sure there’s a legitimate argument that can be made for enforcing the law and complying with noise ordinances and use of public space, but this seemed like an inappropriate use of a blanket-law which directly contrasted with the de facto ‘scene’ embraced by everyone but the few business owners and residents in the quarter. In the end, ‘exception’ zones were written into the ordinance so bands could play in popular spots. But they don’t really anymore, not like they used to, because brass bands are usually all young black men, and won’t play for fear of being harassed by police. This seems so contrary to what our entire city stands for – chiefly improvisational celebration, it made me wonder where policy fits into culture. If you can’t legislate Traffic Tranny, how do you support her?

That’s the point, isn’t it? What we do (or what I want to do), is find that delicate balance between regulation and freedom, where there is room and flexibility to let creative solutions be discovered, supporting those which work, and regulating just enough to maintain public safety.

This seemed like such a poignant illustration of what we are chasing after – the ‘American Dream’ of planners and policymakers – communities with soul, identity, creativity and ownership; where citizens mostly govern themselves, leaving cops to attend to less monitored corners or chase actual criminals, not harass the kids who stay out of trouble by learning to play the tuba.

Duranton and Turner on the fundamental law of traffic congestion in AER

This paper in AER is getting its kicking around the web from the transit fanboys and those outside the transport field who don’t get why managing congestion is treated as a goal for public transit. The commentariat is in umbrage: surely transit riders benefit from transit, yada, yada, and this result means nothing. Andrew Gelman gets a buy on his comments because he’s brilliant, I love his Bayes book, and I learn more from his blog than I learn from most books. Everybody else needs to chill.

The Duranton and Turner paper is significant for multiple reasons. First of all, transit fanboys have nobody to blame but themselves for the widely held perception that transit investment decreases congestion. It’s part of every “More rail, more rail, more rail” chant I’ve ever read in about 20+ years of professional life in transport planning. Why? Because if you didn’t promise those who don’t ride transit a benefit from the billions we spend on transit, they’d never hand over the billions to you. Outside of the few major transit markets in the US, transit riders themselves have never been a big enough constituency to hold their own in budget battles, which is one reason why they are at such a disadvantage in Federal budget talks.

Promising nonuser benefits has been the major marketing strategy of transit agencies for at least 40 years. Transit saves the air! It makes us skinny! It decreases congestion! And so on and so forth. Promises of this type, however, have the tendency to prompt empirically minded researchers like Matt Turner to get out their datasets and their instrumental variables and get all hypothesis testy on you.

Again: Gelman gets a buy because he readily admits he hasn’t been at the party for 20+ years, but it’s some serious gaslighting at this stage of the game, after transit advocates have spent decades schilling the investment based on nonuser benefits, to respond with “how silly those economists are! Transit provides mobility! Of course, that’s the benefit of transit!” Especially when ridership figures on many systems are so disappointing. That’s a pretty politically dangerous response for everybody who, unlike Gelman, doesn’t live in NYC because if we do cost-benefits on transit investment based on benefits to riders alone, we’d see a lot less investment. I assume that’s not what the fanboys want.

Anyway, so what’s interesting in the manuscript itself? Here’s the actual citation:

Duranton, Gilles, and Matthew A. Turner. 2011. “The Fundamental Law of Road Congestion: Evidence from US Cities.” American Economic Review, 101(6): 2616–52.

Here’s the abstract:

We investigate the effect of lane kilometers of roads on vehicle-kilometers traveled (VKT) in US cities. VKT increases proportionately to roadway lane kilometers for interstate highways and probably slightly less rapidly for other types of roads. The sources for this extra VKT are increases in driving by current residents, increases in commercial traffic, and migration. Increasing lane kilometers for one type of road diverts little traffic from other types of road. We find no evidence that the provision of public transportation affects VKT. We conclude that increased provision of roads or public transit is unlikely to relieve congestion. (JEL R41, R48)

So what? Anthony Downs (and other smart people) pointed out the theory of triple convergence quite some ago–that additional capacity on an unpriced system will erode until a congested re-occurs. In the absence of money prices, the only thing that disciplines demand on a facility are the time costs, and the time costs rise with…congestion. So one of the most misguided commenters asks: Where do all the extra drivers come from? The answer is easy:

a) population growth or
b) nowhere, since you don’t need additional bodies. You just need additional trips.

So if we provide a whole bunch of new supply, transit or otherwise, on a high-demand corridor, that supply will get used as the time costs are lower, and the out-of-pocket money costs of car ownership at that point are sunk and unrelated to trip time of day–until congestion starts in again. So if the congestion on the 405 clears up suddenly because we’ve provided commuter rail (I’ll just hold my breath until that happens), other drivers may opt on to the facility, or some of the drivers left may decide to sneak in a few more trips during the day.

There is a point when supply can become saturated: if you put a 50 lane road down in Des Moines, I doubt you’ll get gridlock. But that’s a flummery example. Nobody proposes such things.

Transit fanboys are reacting so strongly to the Duranton and Turner paper because for a very long time, people have argued Down’s triple convergence only in terms of highway supply. It was a rational for all those who said “You can’t build your way out of congestion” at the same time they argued for building more rail. The problem appears to be–and most people who understand economics have known this for awhile—that triple convergence holds regardless of whether the additional supply is highway or transit.

The problem that Duranton and Turner highlight concerns the highly counterfactual nature of most purported environmental benefits in public investment, not just transit. The promise that transit “clears the air” or “reduces congestion” or “reduces auto use!” contains an implicit caveat that few people acknowledge: transit is a cleaner mode than if we were to meet the additional travel demand with highway supply rather than transit supply. But it’s much snappier to say “Transit clears the air” than it is to say “Transit clears the air relative to what it would be had transit users driven cars.” These are benefits that occur from shifting future user behavior.

That’s why the California HSR advocates argue that their new $98 billion HSR investment is a bargain compared to the $127 billion of airport and highway expansion that nobody has actually proposed yet.

The point from Duranton and Turner: if your metro area has a problem with cars now—either related to congestion or to air quality—you are going to keep your problem, even if you build transit.

HOWEVER. And this is for the fanboys:

a) If you don’t have a problem yet with auto-related externalities, new transit supply may forestall those problems. Probably not forever, but you may buy yourself some time, and

b) Restated: if you already have a problem with auto-related externalities, new transit supply may help change the slope of how bad those problems get over time.