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How the deck gets stacked against urban living

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In the Silicon valley thread the other day, some commenters expressed a view that, while common, I think misdiagnoses the ills of our current situation with respect to housing. Newishlawyer:

As much as I am a supporter of dense living, it just seems to go against the American grain and the fact that the United States has a lot of damn space. Dense living is better for the environment and better for the American working and middle class. But something like half the U.S. (or more) wants single-family living.

When confronted with this view I pretty much always reach for Christopher Leinberger. According to his research, the American public, is roughly evenly divided between three groups–those who prefer dense, walkable environments, those who prefer autocentric suburban living, and those who don’t have a strong preference either way. Around 80% of the available housing stock is suburban, autocentric single family housing. Many millions of Americans live this way, at great expense to public health and the environment, despite an explicit desire to not to. I tend to focus a lot on the forces that prevent urban housing from being built, in particular, the pernicious, outsized political influence of incumbent property owners preserving the scarcity of urban living for their own selfish economic and aesthetic preferences. But the challenges to urban living extend well beyond that, as the chain of events in the last few years with Metro Transit demonstrate.

Through 2014, King County Metro avoids any serious cuts associated with the recession, despite serious revenue cuts, though spending down the rainy day fund, some emergency temporary funding, administrative cuts, and deferred maintenance and capital investment. By 2014 revenue has covered, but cuts appear to be necessary. A ballot measure to fund the gap through a .1% sales tax and MVET is hastily put together for an emergency Spring vote. It fails, but passes easily in Seattle. By November, the revenue forecasts have improved (along with a rule change allowing the agency to contribute less to rebuilding the rainy day fund). Meanwhile, a Seattle-only version of the failed initiative, which would fund Seattle’s purchase additional service hours, and increase service on Seattle-primary routes without the rest of the county’s permission, went to the ballot in November 2014. Last year I expressed some optimism about this model, on the grounds that it could allow us to retain the advantages of large, integrated agencies, while giving local communities the capacity to invest in greater service (and have some say in what that service looks like) without the costs, confusion, and inevitable competition/duplication of starting a competing local agency. (The Seattle-only version of Prop 1 passed easily, as did a huge, transit-centric transportation levy this year; between the two of them Seattle is making a major investment in more and better bus service it’s not clear the rest of the county is interested in making.)

News today about changes to Metro’s service revision guidelines dampens my enthusiasm. Background: one of the challenges of any transit agency that covers many jurisdictions is determining how to distribute service. The three most obvious principles here are fairness (the share of service an area gets is based on the amount that region pays through taxes to subsidize the agency), efficiency (put the buses where people use them most) or comprehensiveness (make sure as many people in the service area as possible have access to some route, even if infrequent).

How Metro has balanced those three principles would require several long and boring posts, but suffice it to say that at present the service allocation represents a mix of the three, and that the existing service revision guidelines, circa 2010, give slightly greater weight to efficiency, relative to the previous (ad hoc, highly political) approach to service revisions. Seattle Transit Blog has a characteristically detailed, wonky post on the service revision guideline changes. The upshot:

First, the shift of some (but not all) peak-only routes from the “serves Seattle core” category to the “suburban” category will tend to make those routes look more attractive in performance reporting, because thresholds for both top- and bottom-performing status are considerably higher in the current “serves Seattle core” and (almost certainly) new “urban” categories. Second, special peak-service protection will favor long, fast, but expensive-to-run peak express service from the farthest suburbs, which enjoys the greatest time and ridership advantages over local service — such as one-seat routes to Seattle from Duvall, North Bend, Black Diamond, Enumclaw, and Twin Lakes, all of which were fully or partly cut for low productivity under the current Service Guidelines. Finally, inclusion of park-and-rides as a ridership generator will result in higher target service levels on both peak and all-day routes that serve them, most of which are major suburban routes. The process behind the proposed changes helps to explain this tendency.

In short: the service revision guidelines enact a priority shift from relatively heavily used core Seattle routes to suburban locals and (especially) long distance peak commuter service.

This isn’t surprising, as the suburban and small town/rural parts of Metro’s service area are over-represented on the board, and they’re simply fighting for their interests. But the risk to the (high-performing, heavily used, high farebox-recovery*) core Seattle routes might be more palatable given that Seattle’s prop 1 funded service hours make Seattle seem flush with service, such that they can afford to give it up. To take Prop 1 money and use it to pay for non-Seattle routes would be flatly illegal, but to achieve the same allocation of service hours through a change to the service revision guidelines isn’t. If this has a significant impact on future service allocations, it’ll be in the direction of reducing frequency in Seattle, keeping the kind of frequency that might support car-free living out of reach, while subsidizing commuter bus service that makes autocentric (for all but commuting to work) sprawl more viable.

*Even when full, the long-distance peak commuter express buses from 20-30 miles out have terrible farebox recovery ratios, because of the massive amount of deadheading they require, and because virtually all riders are travelling 10X more miles than the average urban rider, while paying at most a 50 cent surcharge. The lack of a premium fare for these buses isn’t one of my five most urgent complaints about Metro, but it would probably crack the top 10.

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