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Paying the parkers

[ 82 ] April 20, 2016 |

At some point, I’ll inevitably put up a long, boring, anguished, conflicted post about the draft proposal for Sound Transit III, an expansion of mass transit in the Puget Sound that will go before voters this fall. I’m reluctant to do so now, because I’m careening wildly between “don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good” and “this is horseshit for the following 17 reasons” and while I’ll probably eventually land close to the former, I’m not there yet.

In the meantime, the estimable Zach Shaner has a good write-up on the provision of parking in the package. Many of the details will be of little interest to those outside the region, but here’s the nut:

The Sound Transit 3 Draft Plan includes a lot of parking. Just how much? The agency plans to build 9,700 new stalls (8,300 net) in 16 new parking garages and two new surface lots. The total cost is $661m in 2014 dollars, or a staggering $80,000 per space. Taken in aggregate, each commuter using these new stalls could park every day for 50 years, and Sound Transit would pay them $4.38 for the privilege (and that’s on top of the capital costs of their bus or train ride, of course). If 2041 ridership attains its expected 500,000 per day and each of those 8,300 new stalls were filled daily, that’s just 1.6% of the system’s users.

I’ve written against Park and Rides here before, and I think Shaner and I are on the same page more or less. He sums up the case against them:

Parking adjacent to transit directly reduces all other means of access, reduces affordable housing potential, necessitates hostile adjacent land uses, increases transit operating costs, reinforces residential auto dependency, and (when unpriced) represents an exorbitant subsidy that the relatively wealthy enjoy at the expense of others’ access.

To that I would add that it induces greater rates of megacommuting, so the image of the P&R serving the local community; those who live outside the walkshed but near (say, 1-4 miles) from the station, thus reducing aggregate miles driven and total emissions, appears to be wrong.

Shaner offers two plausible rebuttals to the case against them (a third, that they might be needed to attract enough voters to pass the package, is presumably assumed.)

First, a social justice argument in light of the suburbanization of poverty. This is clear enough, and given that the housing shortage and attendant lack of affordable housing in the city is likely to get worse rather than better, can’t be ignored. I’d rather take that money and channel it into building more affordable housing in transit rich areas of the city, but that’s perfect/enemy/good thinking. Depending on the specific locations, this will have to enter my calculus and temper the vehemence of my anti-park and ride views. The other rebuttal is interesting, although I’m not initially persuaded:

The second argument stipulates that as a transitional land use easily torn down later, Park & Rides facilitate lifestyle change while car-dependent locales await the retrofits necessary to make them succeed without cars. Whether you think that’s true largely depends on your time horizon, and on the relative value you place on access for a few today versus access for far more people later.

It depends not just on time horizons, I’d contend, but also on how much you fear the awesome power of status-quo bias in land use policy; namely, the users of the parking managing to stave off land use changes long after it was even arguably a sensible land use choice. Retaining strict single family zoning rules in areas within a few miles of downtown Seattle is, from an environmental, planning, or affordable housing perspective, demonstrably insane and grossly inefficient, yet it stubbornly persists. Does anyone envision those massive Eastside BART parking lots being turned into affordable housing anytime soon? Can anyone seriously make the case the need for affordable housing isn’t more urgent than the need for subsidized parking in the Bay area? Perhaps I’m overly pessimistic; the movement to reduce or remove parking minimums in cities has been more successful than I would have imagined possible a decade ago. But I’m still skeptical.


Profiles in Courage: Jay Inslee

[ 36 ] April 3, 2016 |

Jay Inslee, who campaigned against charter schools in his run for Governor in 2012, had the opportunity to prevent this drain on public schools. What did he do?

Gov. Jay Inslee took action on more than 150 bills this week, but not a measure to that aims to preserve the state’s system of charter schools.

On Sunday, the bill will become law anyway.

The measure, Senate Bill 6194, looks to solve constitutional issues with the state’s voter-approved charter-school law, which the Washington State Supreme Court struck down in September.

Inslee faced a deadline of 11:59 p.m. Saturday (April 2) to either sign the bill, veto it or let it become law without his signature.

On Friday, he announced he had chosen the latter and the law will take effect Sunday.

In a letter explaining his decision, Inslee said he remains concerned about whether there will be adequate public oversight of charter schools, but said he doesn’t want to see the schools shut down.

It’s the procedural/political game he’s trying to play that really annoys me. If he made the case that the people had spoken (The bill is a legal fix for a charter school amendment that passed in 2012 but was ruled unconstitutional) and want this passed, and he’s not going to stand in the way and signed the damn thing, or if he determined he needs to do this to win re-election, I wouldn’t support his decision but I could, on some level, respect it. But trying to have it both ways with a procedural gimmick that does nothing is insulting and worthless. Inslee has also spent much of the last three years scolding the legislature for not fully funding public schools to comply with the McCleary ruling; it’s difficult to see why anyone should take him seriously if he continues to pretend to shed crocodile tears about how the legislature won’t properly fund public schools.

It’s very difficult to see how a Democrat could lose the Governor’s office in Washington in a presidential year that isn’t a Republican wave. I have a feeling Inslee’s going to make it annoyingly interesting.

Skyping with Rousseau

[ 28 ] March 31, 2016 |

Normally I try to keep in mind that one’s dreams are almost always boring to other people, but this one I think may be an exception. Not your average teaching stress/anxiety dream.

In my dream last night, the latest technological innovation was the capacity to skype with deceased persons from the afterlife. This valuable innovation comes at a very high cost; a single skype session costs a huge amount of money. Despite this cost, I petition and ultimately persuade my employer to cover the costs of a skype session with one of the canonical figures whose work I teach in my history of political theory class. I leave the choice up to students, using single transferable votes, but Rousseau is the clear winner. As I begin the process of the paperwork to arrange for the skype session, I learn from the Dean’s office that the funding has been pulled. There was evidently some concern that bring in a man who so willingly and callously discarded his own children, and spent his life prevaricating and offering various excuses and justifications, was perhaps not fully in line with our Catholic and Marianist values. I was mildly annoyed, but my students were well and truly outraged. In response to what they understood to be an affront to their academic freedom, they organized a series of in person and on-line protests, making “Dayton bans Rousseau” the viral outrage of the moment. At the moment that I woke up, I was preparing to be a guest on Morning Joe to discuss the controversy, a prospect I was really dreading. Once I was over the initial confusion of waking up mid-dream, I was mostly just relieved I wouldn’t have to go on Morning Joe.


[ 32 ] March 31, 2016 |

Today in appalling innovations in abortion law:

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert just signed a law that will require doctors to ignore best medical practice and give some women unnecessary anesthesia for abortions. This is the first time any state has tried this, even during a veritable boom of creative anti-abortion lawmaking at the state level.

The idea behind SB 234, or the Protecting Unborn Children Amendments, is to prevent a fetus from feeling pain during an abortion at 20 weeks or more. It requires a doctor performing an abortion at this stage to “administer an anesthetic or analgesic to eliminate or alleviate organic pain to the unborn child.”

The problem? Thorough reviews of medical evidence reject the idea that fetuses can actually feel pain at 20 weeks. They don’t fully develop the proper neurological structures to feel pain until later, around 29 to 30 weeks in the third trimester.

The bigger problem? There’s really no such thing as “fetal anesthesia” in standard medical practice. And the law doesn’t specify how doctors are supposed to make it happen.

“I’ve emailed the governor and asked him to tell me what to do, because I don’t know what to do,” Dr. Leah Torres, an OB-GYN and abortion provider in Utah, told Vox. “It’s like saying, ‘Take someone’s widget out using standard medical practice.’ I don’t know what that means.”

Elizabeth Nash, a policy analyst at the Guttmacher Institute, told CNN that the law could amount to a “de facto” ban on abortions at 20 weeks or later, because no doctor would give a patient anesthesia who doesn’t need it.

And banning abortion after 20 weeks is exactly what Utah lawmakers were trying to do in the first place, the Salt Lake Tribune reports. The bill’s sponsor, Republican Sen. Curt Bramble, initially proposed a total ban on abortion after 20 weeks but changed it after he was told the ban would be unconstitutional.

The headline for the story suggests Utah doctors are “dumbfounded” by the new law. Perhaps they are, but if they’ve been paying attention they shouldn’t be. What’s going on here should be fairly obvious, especially in light of Donald Trump’s gaffe (and uncharacteristically speedy and thorough walkback). They understand it’d be a political disaster for them if they tried to use the criminal justice system to punish women who seek abortions, but that doesn’t mean they have to give up on punishment altogether. Punishment comes in many forms. The story here isn’t “Utah Republicans have false beliefs which lead to bad, unnecessary law,” it’s one, or both, of the following: “Utah Republicans looking for backdoor ways to enact unconstitutional abortion bans”/”Utah Republicans use doctors as a tool to administer an extra-judicial punishment.”

Kids today

[ 204 ] March 21, 2016 |

Justin Weinberg does a fine job of taking apart a particularly egregious example of the “these kids today” jeremiad from Ron Srigley, identifying virtually all the common tropes deployed in lazy declinist narratives in one short article:

Professors, you were not normal. You weren’t normal back when you were an undergraduate, and you aren’t normal now. Even back then, you cared about stuff (yes I’ll say “stuff”) that most of your fellow students didn’t even ever think about, and now that you’ve spent so much time studying that stuff, writing about that stuff, credentializing yourself in that stuff, and attempting to stake out status in virtue of your command of that stuff, you care about it so much more. But still—just like back when you were a student—most people, including your students now, don’t care about that stuff. This is not new.

So, please don’t write any opinion piece of the “declinist” variety—the kind that complains that things are worse than they used to be—that cites as an example of the phenomena that students just don’t care anymore. For what such an essay really tells us is how unhappy you are that the world has not changed.

A few additional musings.

1. Two of the big changes in college undergraduate degrees in the last half-century:

First, while my industry prefers the positive spin (opportunities to pursue higher education have opened up to a much greater portion of society!), another way to look at it is that a college degree has become a much more important, perhaps necessary, credential for a middle class life.

Second, I’ll leave the precise math to Paul, but college degrees have become considerably more costly than they used to be, particularly in relation to the earnings and resources of many of the people who, understandably, now feel they have little choice but to pay it.

These changes did not occur simultaneously; the first predated the second by roughly a few decades. It was in that intermediate window that many, perhaps most, of today’s college faculty members earned their undergraduate degrees. At risk of succumbing to a bit of the unreliable nostalgia Weinberg rightly warns against, I do feel like there was a bit more of the “I love learning and I’m just here to learn” mentality (it probably is a false distinction; as a person like that I’m sure I sought out and surrounded myself with like-minded people) that makes our jobs so much more pleasant. In that intermediate moment, certainly kinds of optimism and idealism about academia had a plausibility to them that just doesn’t make sense in 2016. If you’ve failed to update your idealism in light of the second change, and judge your students against your anachronistic optimism, that’s your failing, not theirs. Millions of people are now in effect being told “You have to buy this and it’s much more expensive than it used to be.” People in that situation should be expected to ask some hard questions about what they’re buying.

2. I don’t want to directly accuse Srigley of this, knowing nothing about him beyond his bad column, but I really do think there’s a real dimension of egotism and pining for lost hierarchies involved in this particular whine. Most faculty members aren’t so clueless about their students that they actually think it’s particularly likely to have the same kind of love of learning and intellectual pursuit that they do. So what they really want, I suspect, is more convincing performances of that; a kind of ritual affirming the status-ambitions of someone who enjoys going to work every day and playing the brilliant professor. This is an ugly desire, but particularly so in light of (1) above.

3. Srigley doesn’t use the term, so this is a bit of a tangent, but this reminds me a bit of why I get annoyed by lazy “everything I don’t like goes together” style of complaining about changes in university/higher education under the banner of “the neoliberalization of the university.”* I take it that insofar as neoliberal has a clear meaning it implies the application of market-oriented logics, incentives, behaviors, and such to institutions and social structures that historically operated on some alternative, or market-oriented actors descending upon those institutions and altering them for their own purposes. This actually does capture a significant part of what’s gone wrong in higher education; the destructive rise of a self-dealing vampiric upper management class with no allegiance to some of the institutions longstanding values and mission fits well within this narrative, for example. But subsuming “students acting more like consumers” (if there is even a meaningful change here, which I’m not conceding) doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me. With the caveat that they won’t always do it well and shouldn’t automatically get everything they want, that students are trying to figure out what they want from this and having the courage to voice it should be expected and, frankly, welcomed. There are a lot of aspects of higher education worthy of criticism; overreliance on the metanarrative of ‘neoliberalization’ runs the danger of obscuring our efforts to do so, while affirming some of our less well-earned priors.

h/t John Protevi.

* As he is wont to do, Freddie provides the reductio: anti-racist student protesters who are Doing It Wrong are cast as agents of neoliberalism.


[ 44 ] March 19, 2016 |

Strongtowns has been on a roll lately:

Nice piece on Trader Joe’s parking lots, and the illusions/delusions caused by widespread “free” parking. Few people would actually say “Shoppers who don’t drive to this store are already subsidizing those who do, but not nearly enough” and think they’re being reasonable, but when you complain about the small size and/or lack of room to maneuver in their parking lots, that’s essentially what you’re saying.

If you care about drunk driving, you should care quite a bit about the ways in which land use policy increases the likelihood and inevitability of it. If I were the king of the world, I’d eliminate parking minimums across the board immediately, but legally mandating sizeable parking lots for bars is a special kind of stupid.

The primary culprit for the profound and tragic shortage of housing in walkable urban neighborhoods (which is in spite of, not because of, consumer preferences) is local government but it turns out the Feds are contributing to the problem as well.

On the horrors of the suburbanization of poverty in Florida.

Trump-inspired classism

[ 130 ] March 14, 2016 |

Watching the horrifying rise of Donald Trump is, among other things, discombobulating; anyone attacking something as morally bankrupt as the establishment Republican party in 2016 is, no matter how awful, going to land some blows that you can’t help but appreciate in spite of yourself. The case that the Republican party has been setting themselves up for something like this for decades has been made well by a number of people in the center and on the left. But I don’t think I’ve seen a more perfect distillation of the case for why the Republican party richly deserves what Trump is doing to them than Kevin Williamson’s new column in the National Review. It’s behind a paywall, but here’s a taste:

If you spend time in hardscrabble, white upstate New York, or eastern Kentucky, or my own native West Texas, and you take an honest look at the welfare dependency, the drug and alcohol addiction, the family anarchy — which is to say, the whelping of human children with all the respect and wisdom of a stray dog — you will come to an awful realization. It wasn’t Beijing. It wasn’t even Washington, as bad as Washington can be. It wasn’t immigrants from Mexico, excessive and problematic as our current immigration levels are. It wasn’t any of that.

Nothing happened to them. There wasn’t some awful disaster. There wasn’t a war or a famine or a plague or a foreign occupation. Even the economic changes of the past few decades do very little to explain the dysfunction and negligence — and the incomprehensible malice — of poor white America. So the gypsum business in Garbutt ain’t what it used to be. There is more to life in the 21st century than wallboard and cheap sentimentality about how the Man closed the factories down.

The truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities is that they deserve to die. Economically, they are negative assets. Morally, they are indefensible. Forget all your cheap theatrical Bruce Springsteen crap. Forget your sanctimony about struggling Rust Belt factory towns and your conspiracy theories about the wily Orientals stealing our jobs. Forget your goddamned gypsum, and, if he has a problem with that, forget Ed Burke, too. The white American underclass is in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles. Donald Trump’s speeches make them feel good. So does OxyContin.

There’s little doubt in my mind many Republican elites and opinion leaders have long felt a kind of seething contempt for the people whose votes they can’t rule without. It’s also indicative of just how shallow and cynical elite Republican gestures of white racial solidarity can be. Since the dumping of the Derb Williamson has flirted with the “how openly racist can you be and still write for NR” line as much as any of their current stable of regular writers, but when white voters step out of line and vote wrong, they’re subject to what appears to be a distinctly similar level of contempt. (His racism shapes the particular nature of the contempt–when writing about the failure of Detroit, he’s happy to blame progressivism/liberal elites, seeing the black citizens of Detroit as primarily victims. Poor white people are granted enough agency to be to blame for their own economic circumstances.)

The prospect of a Trump-inspired re-alignment is, rightly, terrifying. That the process inspires the Williamson’s of the world to tell us what they really think is happy consequence of it. For on thing, these voters deserve to know the depth of the contempt the politicians they support have for them, and that’s true independent of what they decide to do with that information.

“the constitution does not apply”

[ 96 ] March 4, 2016 |

The background to this story, in a nutshell, is that Seattle has, for a variety of reasons (including an affordable housing crisis driven by an acute and largely self-inflicted housing shortage) seen an increase in homelessness recently, and this has caused some residents of wealthy, white North Seattle neighborhoods to lose their collective minds to such a degree that the normally cautious, measured Mayor observed, correctly, that they’ve “worked themselves into a paranoid hysteria.”

The next step, for some Magnolia homeowners, was apparently to hire a private security firm to patrol their streets. The results, reported by Erica C. Barnett here, are not surprising:

According to Harris’ account, he was sitting in the car before his shift at the local 76 station, where he’s a longtime employee. (He also works at the Spirit of Magnolia liquor store across the street). Here’s what Harris, whom I reached during his afternoon shift at the 76 station yesterday, says happened next: The security guard approached him and demanded to know what he was doing parked on the street. (Harris says he was parked in a legal, public parking spot with no time limitations). Harris rolled his window up and refused to respond. At that point, Harris says, the security guard opened his door and demanded that Harris get out of the car.

After initially refusing, Harris says, he got out, walked over to the guard’s Hummer, and asked if he could videotape the conversation. He says Toomey told him “Yes.” When he turned on his camera, though, Harris says the security guard slapped the phone out of his hands hard enough to send it under the Hummer, where he knelt to retrieve it. At that point, he says, the guard began pepper-spraying him in the face and chasing him to his car, where Harris says he pinned him up against the door. After Toomey sprayed him again–in Harris’ account, telling him, “You’re going to jail!” Harris continued to confront him, demanding that he call EMS to treat his injuries. Harris says the guard slapped police-style metal handcuffs on him before telling Harris he would “lie to the police and tell them I assaulted him.” When officers arrived, they took statements from both Harris and Toomey, and ultimately decided to let Toomey go.

Harris says he was unable to recover his phone, which he says disappeared from the place it had fallen next to the Hummer. “I think he took it” to make sure no videotaped evidence existed, Harris says.

I’m sure, if they can find it in their busy schedule to comment on the behavior of their hired goons, they’ll insist this isn’t what they intended at all. But let’s look at how the “Magnolia Patrol Association” sells their choice to hire private security firms:

2. The police cannot stop anyone to ask if they live on property, what they are doing, etc. This is a violation of a person’s Constitutional Rights which could open the police or property owner up for a civil suit. The police are not allowed to speak to anyone unless they have a reasonable suspicion that a crime may be afoot. Further, they must be able to articulate this suspicion in clear language. Private security can interact with anyone at any time. Because they do not represent the Government and the Constitution does not apply to private security.

5. Off duty police are expensive. You can have two security officers for almost the same price of one off duty policeman. This means more manpower keeping your property or venue safe for less money.

They’re actually bragging, in a public document, about how they’re hiring constitutionally unconstrained security at bargain-basement prices. Understandably, concern about incipient fascism tend to focus on the Trump phenomenon of late; perhaps we should broaden our range of vision.

Institutional Reputations and Democratic Theory

[ 85 ] February 26, 2016 |

In the discussion thread for Scott’s post on elitist approaches to Supreme Court qualifications, Denverite explains his position a bit more. Why favor elitism? His answer has a kind of soft Straussian/Platonic noble lie flavor. It’s important that the public hold the court in high regard, because

Because it frequently will have to issue countermajoritarian pronouncements, and the more it’s seen as a politically unaccountable political body, the greater the risk that those pronouncements will be disregarded.

In response to the obvious critique here, he accounts for his attraction to this view thusly:

With respect to the political point, I see where you’re coming from, but I guess I just disagree. LGBT couples are getting married in places like Alabama and Texas, despite overwhelming local opposition, because of the reputation of the Court as an impartial institution. My guess is that the second it is seen as a sort of Super-Senate with the absolute power of veto, it will lose the institutional authority. I think that would be a bad thing.

Let’s break this down into a series of concrete premises:

Premise #1: Elitist accounts of what it means to be qualified for the Supreme Court enhance the court’s perceived legitimacy.

Premise #2: High levels of default legitimacy for the Supreme Court is desirable.

Premise #3: (#2) is accurate because the Supreme Court sometimes makes salutory decisions, and when it does it’s a good thing that they’re understood as procedurally legitimate amongst the broader public.

When spelled out thusly, a flaw becomes fairly obvious. The same could be said of all manner of institutions, but rarely is. The low opinion the public holds of the current Republican congress doesn’t worry my inner Democratic theorist, because, well, given the current occupants they richly deserve it. Similarly such worries don’t seem to be commonplace about, say, executive orders, or bureaucratic agency autonomy, or the executive branch generally.

And, donning my democratic theorist hat, this is as it should be. Democratic political systems are made up of institutional choices and arrangements that have strengths and weaknesses, and value that depends a great deal on who is occupying them at the moment. Legitimacy is an open, ongoing question. (Perhaps the Senate might have been a legitimate institutional choice in 1789; that tells us little about its value and democratic valence today.)

On the narrow issue of would it be better if the perception of court legitimacy led people to respect same sex marriages who wouldn’t otherwise be inclined to do so, that is indeed a good thing. On the other hand: if an overriding belief in the legitimacy of the supreme court led us to believe there’s nothing whatosever wrong with racially motivated voter suppression, that would very much not be a good thing. If a compelling argument is to be made for the democratic value of a high degree of legitimacy granted to the court, regardless of the actual content of their decisions, it seems pretty clear that it can’t be made by cherry-picking their best decisions.

As an aside, Denverite is in prestigious legal-elite company in making this argument; it’s advanced by Cass Sunstein as part of his defense of ‘minimalism’ as a guiding judicial philosophy for the supreme court–a court that open adopts minimalism will, he asserts, be seen as more legitimate, which is obviously a good thing. Scott should probably be writing this post, because in chapter four of our book manuscript he devotes several scathing paragraphs critiquing Sunstein’s undefended assumption.

[SL]: For those who can’t wait for our book, a version of my BLISTERING (not really) critique of Sunstein can be found here.

If Republicans say mean things about Hillary Clinton, will she have the psychological resources to survive?

[ 586 ] February 21, 2016 |

clinton benghazi
Those who find it useful and/or desirable to believe that Bernie Sanders holds an electability advantage in the general relative to Hillary Clinton have a wide array of strategies available to them. Some of those strategies have the advantage of being plausible, or being grounded in something in the general vicinity of empirical evidence. Other strategies are coated in a silky, luxurious sauce of rank sexism. I expect few readers will be surprised to learn which category Doug Henwood chooses.

The streetcar renaissance and the flaws of technology-first planning

[ 137 ] February 19, 2016 |

SLU Streetcar at Pacific Place Station 03

I hinted at my general skepticism about the modern streetcar movement in the BQX post, and there were some (admittedly half-hearted) pushback, so let me spell out the case a little more clearly.

This is not skepticism about the technology per se. Streetcars are trams are not an inherently useless form of public transit/urban mobility, as many cities in Europe and elsewhere clearly demonstrate. The argument is this: in the built, economic, and political environments of 21st century American cities, streetcars do not offer mobility, speed or reliability improvements over buses, while costing an order of magnitude more. Most of the time, in order to get the kind of speed, mobility, and reliability improvements worthy of significant financial investment, grade separation is necessary. If grade separation isn’t in the cards, transit resources should be on improving existing at-grade service–there is no transit agency in the country where there aren’t plenty of efficiencies and improvements currently being left on the table. One touted advantage of streetcars over buses is capacity–depending on how you measure it they have a 50-100% greater capacity than buses. No 21st century streetcar system built in the United States is remotely close to having the kind of demand where that capacity advantage would be relevant. (The F-Market in San Francisco might be an exception, but of course their use of historic/heritage rolling stock leaves some of the potential capacity advantages on the table. And, of course, as Walker notes in the post linked below, that demand is in part because of some infrastructure improvements that have nothing to do with streetcar technology.)

Jarrett Walker’s 2009 post on the subject has not been proven wrong by the last seven years of streetcar developments. Walker:

Streetcars that replace bus lines are not a mobility or access improvement. If you replace a bus with a streetcar on the same route, and make no other improvements, nobody will be able to get anywhere any faster than they could before. This makes streetcars quite different from most of the other transit investments being discussed today.

Where a streetcar is faster or more reliable than the bus route it replaced, this is because other improvements were made at the same time — improvements that could just as well have been made for the bus route. These improvements may have been politically packaged as part of the streetcar project, but they were logically independent, so their benefits are not really benefits of the streetcar as compared to the bus.
Once we have set aside the idea that streetcars are faster than buses, it appears the remaining pro-streetcar arguments appeal to the notion that the bus as we see it today is all the bus will ever be. But buses are changing fast; if you don’t believe me, go ride the oldest and newest bus in your own city’s fleet. The evolution of the bus, moreover, is being driven largely by demands that it better emulate the rail experience, particularly for the purpose of Bus Rapid Transit operations that consciously simulate rail. A lot of work is going into creating bus services that can do many things that we currently associate only with rail, such as:

* low floors completely level with the platform.
* reduced noise.
* off-board fare collection so that buses board and alight at all doors.
* seating configurations that emphasize fewer seats and higher standing capacity (standing is widely accepted for the fairly short trips we’re discussing here).
* wider doors for fast boarding and alighting.
* signal priority systems.
* guidance technologies that enable buses to dock precisely with platforms for level boarding without much of a gap, sufficient for wheelchair boardings.
* major infrastructure investments, including architecturally substantial stations and sometimes painted lanes, that create the “legibility” that is supposedly offered only by tracks in the street.
* aggressive research toward new propulsion systems that can be powered from within the vehicle, eliminating the need for either diesel engines or an overhead electric power source.

I’m not saying that the bus will ever be a perfect replica of the streetcar. It won’t. But they key fact is that buses are not just improving, they’re improving in the direction of emulating rail. This should suggest that the difference between bus and rail, as perceived by ordinary people who don’t know which features are intrinsic, is going to diminish over time, as it has been doing for the past two decades. Doesn’t this suggest that while the short-term urban-development advantage of streetcars is undeniable, the long-term advantage may be much less? Big capital spending has to make sense for the long term. Speed and reliability are eternal values; I’m quite confident that in 2050, people will still choose a faster service over a slower one. I’m not sure that in 2050, people will choose an electric vehicle on rails over an electric/hydrogen/whatever vehicle of the same size and shape, with many of the same characteristics, running on tires. Are you?

Even here in boring old Dayton, the gap in ride quality, comfort and appearance between the oldest and newest buses in the fleet is considerable. The argument now often turns to the brute fact of mode-bias; namely, that some riders simply won’t ride buses, but will ride rail, and we should cater to them. This is true, although the modest ridership figures for slow, mixed traffic streetcars hardly support the view that they are legion. (And, of course, when buses do everything right, they can attract new and choice riders–See LA’s Orange Line, which has twice the ridership of Portland’s ‘successful’ streetcar lines.) I like Walker’s approach to the mode bias problem:

Many commenters propose that a widespread disinterest or disapproval of buses will remain a cultural absolute, and on this point I really do disagree. We are living in a time of epochal changes in the culture of transportation, increasingly forced upon us by a changing calculus about what works and what we can afford. I have seen monumental changes of attitude in the nearly three decades that I have watched these issues. For that reason, I instinctively give more weight to values that have proven themselves stable over centuries — such as the need to save travel time and money — than to the negative associations that may have gathered around buses, in some cities but not others, just in the last half-century. When people face a stark choice between retaining their prejudices or saving time/money, prejudices can change pretty fast.

I think we can group very close to all the people who won’t ride the bus but will ride rail of comparable quality into two groups: foamers and classists. The foamers are people who think trains are neat, and ride them accordingly.* The classists think buses and the people who ride them are gross, dirty, etc, and don’t want to be associated with, or in close proximity to them. There’s another group of people–and I tend to agree with Walker that in the long-term this group is going to be a great deal larger than the other two–people who don’t ride transit because of inadequate speed, frequency, or reliability of the service. Insofar as we’re going to spend limited public resources attempting to attract some group of potential transit riders, the case for aiming for the people who want higher quality service seems a great deal stronger than subsidizing hobbyists or indulging in cultural/class/racial biases associated with anti-bus attitudes.

In short, modern streetcar fetishism is a classic example of technology first thinking:

But as a transit planner, I’ve learned to question sweeping claims on behalf of any technology, including a lot of bus technologies. Transit planners are trained to ask a different question: “First, what are we trying to do? Second, what’s the best tool to do it?” I love seeing a house built, so I respect the role of hammers. But if you fall in love with the hammer rather than the house, you’ll just go around looking for nails to pound, and that’s not the way to build the best possible house.

As Walker notes, Seattle’s effort to build high-speed, high capacity transit on the city’s Western edge from Ballard to West Seattle is a classic example of the failure of technology-first thinking. When it became clear the fetishized technology (in this case, a monorail) could not deliver the quality for cost they needed it to, quality was put on the chopping block rather than questioning the technology. When confronted with a substandard product, voters, predictably and wisely, killed the project. Streetcar projects that fail to deliver on a variety of quality metrics survive because of lower stakes and consensus elite support, but they’re making the same mistake.

*NB: I am one of these people.


[ 149 ] February 18, 2016 |

An unfortunate trend in urban politics is that a lot of politicians who are generally and transit and zoning/land-use policy are also inclined to succumb to the allure of that wasteful fad of 21st century urban development, the urban streetcar. Unfortunately for New York, De Blasio is one of them:

Today Mayor de Blasio rolled out the full court press for his Brooklyn-Queens Streetcar proposal, known as BQX. A story in the Times compared the street-running BQX to Jersey’s Hudson-Bergen Light Rail, which runs mostly on exclusive rail rights-of-way. The City Hall press shop sent out waves of endorsements from various elected officials, advocates, business executives, developers, and civic honchos. The morning culminated with a press conference in Red Hook where the mayor made his case for the project.

The big takeaway is that City Hall has lined up a lot of people to endorse BQX. Specifics about the project itself remain in short supply. We don’t know a whole lot more about the streetcar than we did before, and I remain skeptical that the project will be successful. It still seems likely to be a highly-subsidized, low ridership route for the reasons Streetsblog and others listed earlier this month.

The alignment doesn’t create good connections to the subway, a free transfer to MTA services seems unlikely, the right-of-way will probably have significant stretches where cars will slow down and occasionally block trains, there are higher priorities throughout the city and better ways to serve people along the waterfront, and the financing mechanism depends on the streetcar spurring development in areas that are already booming.

It’s hard to imagine a compelling narrative to justify the route choice here, which avoids dense, high-ridership locations in both burroughs in favor of the waterfront. One might theoretically hold out hope for better transit-prioritizing choices along the route, producing something better than the dismal speeds riders of the new urban streetcars can usually expect. But De Blasio is already signalling how foolish that would be:

To guarantee the streetcar can travel unimpeded, many streets along the route would have to either be stripped of parking or go entirely car-free. Claiming all that street space for transit would be thrilling — but will it happen? At the press event, the mayor said the city will “be sensitive” to the loss of parking along the route.

More here, here and here. Investing 2.5 billion in improving Brooklyn-to-Queens transit is an absolutely fantastic idea in the abstract; it’s among the more urgent needs for New York’s public transportation network. But this is just awful.

Making things worse: On the one hand, De Blasio is selling the routing as a win for social justice, providing better transit access to under-served, less wealthy neighborhoods like East Red Hook. Which is, potentially true. However: he’s go no answer for the question of whether free subway transfers will be provided, which is important if this is to be a useful service for low income riders. Furthermore, he’s promising to pay for this out increased property tax revenue from an increase in land value along the route. If this optimism about the effect of a streetcar on property values is warranted, will it do the poorer residents of Red Hook much good if it contributes to pricing them out of their neighborhood?

And finally there’s his effort to boost plausible ridership estimates by selling this as a kind of mobile tourist trap (“A lot of people are going to take this just to take this”). While I don’t think it’s a particularly good justification for spending scarce transportation infrastructure funds on inefficient streetcars, I can at least sort of sympathize with mayors from places like Tuscon, Oklahoma City, Cincinnati and Milwaukee offering up this kind of justification. From the Mayor of New York City, it’s a remarkable thing to hear.

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