Debating mass transit: a format for discussing whether it is dead or can be revived

Even though I did not attend a recent debate in Washington D.C. between two mass transit commentators, I wish we could have more conversations like this one:

O’Toole opened with a whirlwind of statistical bullet points documenting the transit death spiral. He seized on the latest national transit ridership data, but his message was vintage O’Toole: Government funding of public buses, trains, light rail, and streetcars has failed and should stop. “I’m fundamentally pessimistic about the future of the transit industry,” O’Toole said. “Transit ridership has been declining steadily and it’s declining in all major urban areas, whether it’s rail or bus. I don’t see hope of recovery because the forces that are causing it to decline are not going away.”

Subsidies can’t overcome what shapes people’s preferences, O’Toole argued, and what people want is to live out in the suburbs and drive their cars. In recent years, transit ridership has really only grown in places where there’s been a dramatic boom in downtown jobs, such as Seattle…

For Walker, a consultant who works on improving transit systems in cities around the world, the narrative that O’Toole spins about declining transit ridership doesn’t frame the story quite right—it’s zoomed out too far. “A lot of what seems like an urban-rural culture war is actually just people at different densities understandably trying to solve the immediate problems of where they live. The national statistics are useless. [The decline of urban trips since 1976] is also a history of urban density, of course, because transit is a response to density.”..

Rather than directly rebutting each bullet point on O’Toole’s laundry list, Walker made a more values-based case, stressing that the big problems public transportation systems now face come down to just a few things: emissions, labor, and space. And those can be addressed with fleets of electric vehicles that are either large—think electric buses—or small e-boosted bikes and scooters. He’s optimistic about self-driving technology, but believes that their truly transformative deployment will be in city bus fleets, where they could dramatically trim labor costs.

It sounds like the debate accomplished two major tasks:

  1. Each side was able to put forth their arguments. One goes more with data. The other talks more about values. Both can explain what they think the problems are.
  2. The two sides had good conversation before, during, and after the debate. They found some common ground as well as points at which they still disagree.

Contrast this to two other public conversation options often employed by colleges as well as think tanks and other organizations interested in public conversations. It is common to have a single speaker present their book, article, or idea. There might be some back and forth with the audience afterward but the format generally assumes the one expert has the knowledge to share with the audience. In thirty to sixth minutes, the speaker can really get into their topic with some detail. A second option is the panel discussion where multiple people with insight to the issue talk in front of an audience. Each person might have a few minutes to share (this can’t go on too long or it becomes multiple mini-single person presentations) and there might be some robust discussion (though this can be difficult depending on the size of the panel and the temperament of the moderator and participants).

The debate seems like a better format to discuss difficult questions like the one these two debaters addressed. It works better if the two are skilled at presenting their sides and responding to others. The audience gets to hear two sides (better than the single talk but in less detail) and the conversation is only between two sides/perspectives (perhaps worse than the panel because some views will not be expressed but it is much easier to provide time for all participants).

And as for the result of such a debate? Perhaps the goal is less about winning and more about engaged listening, conversation, and trying to find a way forward between two people who might still disagree about important points.

When more technology leads to more traffic

Americans tend to assume technology will solve social problems but what if its use in vehicles leads to more traffic?

As Greater Boston creates more jobs and attracts more residents, car commutes have slowed to an excruciating pace. But while economists love congestion pricing — i.e., making people pay for the street space they use and the damage their cars inflict on the environment — it rankles Americans who’ve been raised to view driving alone as a human right. And in cities around the country, the advent of fully driverless cars, which could be many years away, has become an excuse for not building high-capacity transit networks. Autonomous vehicles, The New York Times reported this summer, became a major talking point in anti-transit campaigns in Indianapolis, Detroit, and Nashville.

Meanwhile, big names in the tech industry are portraying public transit as obsolete or worse. “It’s a pain in the ass. That’s why everyone doesn’t like it,” Tesla’s Elon Musk told a crowd last year, per an account in Wired. “And there’s, like, a bunch of random strangers, one of whom might be a serial killer. OK, great. And that’s why people like individualized transport that goes where you want when you want.”…

What autonomous vehicles won’t do is make traffic jams disappear. Someday, a driverless car could drop you off at work at 9 a.m. But what if, instead of parking itself in a private garage — which would cost money — it just circles the block until it picks you up at 5 p.m., because we refuse to charge motorists for the use of most streets?…

That’s all the more reason why Greater Boston can’t sit around waiting to see whether and how driverless cars will evolve. We’ll never squeeze enough cars into crowded spaces to get people where they need to go. In the end, no artificial-intelligence algorithm can change the laws of physics. Plan accordingly.

Adding more vehicles to the road leads to more traffic, even if it is easier to obtain those vehicles or the vehicles can drive themselves.

While this article calls for a long-term look at whether cities like Boston should prioritize mass transit or vehicles (and then act accordingly through means like congestion pricing or spending more money on mass transit), this is part of a bigger conversation: what if Americans will do whatever possible to keep up their ability to drive/ride in cars from their single-family homes to where they want to go? Even putting more money in mass transit can only do so much if density does not increase. And in a city like Boston that is already pretty dense, that could lead to some tough conversations about more affordable housing closer to jobs rather than relying on transportation to even out differences in where people live.

Photo reminders that railroads ran into the heart of Chicago into the mid-1900s

Chicago’s Loop today is associated with gleaming skyscrapers and the finance and banking industries. Here are some great photos that provide a reminder that Chicago’s rise and wealth depended on railroads that ran right to the center of the city: the south bank of the Chicago River as well at the lakefront (which is now Grant Park).

Historically, railroads helped make Chicago what it is. As detailed in Nature’s Metropolis, Chicago became the center for gathering commodities and goods from the fertile Midwest (corn, cattle, etc.) as well as distributing other goods back to the growing Midwest. This thriving trade helped prompt other businesses and industries to form, such as the development of commodity futures.

These railroads still matter tremendously in the Chicago region, even if they are less visible. There are still railyards in Chicago (such as near Midway Airport), just outside the city (such as near O’Hare Airport), and other ones a long ways away (such as the intermodal facilities in Joliet or New Rochelle which facilitate transferring materials between trains and trucks). The trains may block traffic but they help ensure Chicago remains a transportation center.

Why do children’s books spend so much time on infrastructure and construction yet there is little formal instruction on these topics later?

Yesterday, I walked to the nearest bank and watched some construction going on. The work appeared to involve digging underneath the side of a street, possibly to deal with a pipe or some kind of wire. I was struck that while many neighbors or drivers would find such a sight a nuisance, many kids would be fascinated.

Plenty of books for children involve infrastructure and construction. These books discuss vehicles, what is underground, and how items get from one place to another. The emphasis on big machines doing physical work and the mobility of it all seems attractive to kids. (I would guess much of this attraction is due to socialization.) But, if I think back to my schooling, we spend little time analyzing and discussing these basic systems that are essential to all of our lives: electricity and electrical lines, plumbing and sewers, Internet cables, roads and highways, pipelines, gas lines, railroads, trucking, waterways, airplanes and airports, and other crucial pieces of infrastructure. Why?

In many ways, it would not be hard to incorporate these topics into multiple subjects. The first example that came to mind would be a unit about railroads. These are essential for moving goods long distances. Various subjects could tackle aspects of the railroad. Plenty of history and geography to note. The natural sciences could discuss steam engines, coal, diesel engines, and how such heavy objects move. The humanities have a wealth of stories, poems, songs, and other works that involve railroads. Math could involve analyzing timetables or schedules. Language arts could involve writing promotional materials for railroads or describing particular historical events involving trains.

Without more formal instruction on infrastructure, American adults may not (1) think often about how we all need to contribute to maintaining and building infrastructure and (2) have a good understanding of how it all works (not just the infrastructure itself but also related industries and aspects of social life). In other words, a lack of attention paid to infrastructure in school and learning may just contribute to a public that does not want to address the infrastructure issues facing the nation today.

The consequences of self-driving cars as “rooms with wheels”

Thinking of autonomous vehicles as just another iteration of the car may not go far enough:

If you think of driverless cars as nothing more than cars without drivers, Burns says, you’re not seeing the full picture. These will be rooms with wheels. And that means their implications extend far beyond transportation—into retail, commerce, and even an expansive re-imagination of where Americans should live. Commuting an hour to work from the far suburbs isn’t such a drag when the autonomous pod comes with Netflix, email, and wi-fi.

What this might lead to is unclear:

In sum, self-driving cars have the potential to improve existing transportation technology in unambiguous ways, to expand the suburbs, and to create new economic opportunity for a variety of industries, from hotels to restaurants. But they might also change the character of our cities for the worse and strangle roads with cars in a way that ruins the urban experience for millions of people. What does this sound like? It sounds like the legacy of highways in America.

Given the love of cars among Americans plus the way social life is ordered around them, the implications could be wide-reaching.

But, the idea that cars could become rooms is intriguing. Americans like having private space. Hence, the ideal of the large single-family home in the suburbs. A few thoughts on cars as rooms:

  1. What kinds of rooms do they become? If primarily occupied during commuting, they could become work spaces. Of course, not everyone might want to work on the way to or the way home from work. Napping spaces? Outfitted with televisions and wifi?
  2. Does having a mobile room mean that homes do not have to be so large? The vehicle could become a mobile extension of the home. Members of the home could always escape to the vehicle, even if they are not going anywhere.
  3. Does a mobile room elevate vehicles to an even more important status symbol? If owners could customize their vehicle spaces to their tastes, the range of interiors could be impressive.

I would guess many Americans would like a mobile room.

Americans fight for the right to have cheap or free parking

One columnist uses a story of obtaining a parking ticket on vacation to argue Americans like cheap parking:

I finally paid my parking ticket last week, but only because my wife reminded me. The ticket arrived unbidden on my windshield while we were on vacation. I parked too long in what I should have recalled but didn’t was a one-hour zone. I had no defense and sought none. As one who tries to be a good citizen, I stuck the small manila envelope above the visor on the driver’s side of the car, planning to pay up as soon as possible … and immediately forgot its existence. We arrived home from vacation with the ticket still hidden above the visor…

Indeed, the fact that the city increased the fines by only $5 helps illustrate the uneasy relationship between drivers and urban planners. Planners hate cars; drivers love them. Drivers have more votes than planners, so parking stays cheap…

Which brings us back to my parking ticket. Nobody has more status and power than the state, so why didn’t I pay my ticket at once? Because the state’s status and power are not strongly signaled. The face value of the ticket was relatively low — $20 — and paying late increased the fine only by $5. Now imagine increasing both by a factor of 100. Were the fine $2,000 and the late fee $500, most of us would pay on time. As a matter of fact, we’d go out of our way never to be ticketed. We might even forego our beloved cars and turn to public transportation.

Except that we wouldn’t. We’d rise in revolt instead, demanding a return to cheap parking. We’d be wrong, but we’d win.

For many urbanists, the car is the antithesis of urban life. To have thriving street life, the sort of streetscape described by Jane Jacobs in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, people need to be walking rather than seeing places go by at 30 mph and above. Perhaps cars should be banned all together in some places. Reliance on the car ends up shifting resources to having wide and efficient roads rather than the traditional style and walkable neighborhoods New Urbanists tout. The sprawl of the suburbs is only possible because cars enable wealthier residents to leave the city and its residents behind for the night.

On the flip side, American love cars. Arguably, the suburbs are the prime illustration of a life built around and enabled by personal vehicles. The federal government largely funded interstates, allowing more workers to move to the suburbs. The new shopping malls of the postwar era included many indoor stores at once but also free parking. Communities, both suburban and urban, fought over whether to compete with the shopping malls with free street parking or continue to use parking meters. If owning a car is expensive enough, does the average user want to also have to pay for parking?

Outside of the densest areas in the United States, such as Manhattan where parking can go for a premium, parking will likely remain rather cheap. It would be interesting to see one or two cities really try to go after cheaper parking to push mass transit or other transportation options. Could places like Seattle or Austin get away with it? Maybe but even there many people in the region need a car. Perhaps significantly raising parking prices would have to go hand in hand with constructing and pushing transit options to truly change behaviors.

Argument: mass transit service comes before demand

A history of the decline of mass transit in the United States concludes with this claim: there must be transit service in order to generate demand.

The story of American transit didn’t have to turn out this way. Look again at Toronto. It’s much like American cities, with sprawling suburbs and a newer postwar subway system. But instead of relying on park-and-ride, Toronto chose to also provide frequent bus service to all of its new suburbs. (It also is nearly alone in North America in maintaining a well-used legacy streetcar network.) Even Toronto’s suburbanites are heavy transit users, thanks to the good service they enjoy.

Likewise, in Europe, even as urban areas expanded dramatically with the construction of suburbs and new towns, planners designed these communities in ways that made transit use still feasible, building many of them around train stations. When cities like Paris, London, and Berlin eliminated their streetcar networks, they replaced them with comparable bus service.

Service drives demand. When riders started to switch to the car in the early postwar years, American transit systems almost universally cut service to restore their financial viability. But this drove more people away, producing a vicious cycle until just about everybody who could drive, drove. In the fastest-growing areas, little or no transit was provided at all, because it was deemed to be not economically viable. Therefore, new suburbs had to be entirely auto-oriented. As poverty suburbanizes, and as more jobs are located in suburban areas, the inaccessibility of transit on a regional scale is becoming a crisis.

The only way to reverse the vicious cycle in the U.S. is by providing better service up front. The riders might not come on day one, but numerous examples, from cities like Phoenix and Seattle, have shown that better service will attract more riders. This can, in turn, produce a virtuous cycle where more riders justify further improved service—as well as providing a stronger political base of support.

I wonder how much infrastructure – largely paid for by taxpayers and serving the public – differs from other kinds of innovation. Sometimes, new products meet a clear demand. At other times, a new product generates new demand that people did not even know existed.

Furthermore, let’s say for the sake of argument that this claim is true: building more mass transit lines and options would eventually increase demand. Municipalities and governments would still be left with a tricky issue: is there enough will or enough resources to pay what can be massive costs up front with a promised payoff in the future? Long-term thinking is not necessary something Americans have done well in recent decades. (And this does not even include the possibility that the big investment might not pay off.)

Finally, another way to approach this is to start with smaller-scale projects, show people that they work, and then build up to a larger structure. In many American communities, this would mean starting with bus service since plenty of roads already exist. But, many Americans do not like buses. They may be more likely to take trains but these require a lot more work and money.