Identity crisis

Part of my not doing advocacy anymore was a desire to understand why I didn’t want to do it anymore, to understand how my relationship to riding had changed from a time when advocacy felt like an essential part of my choice to ride.

I had a sudden flash of insight this week while I was thinking about how I’m both not interested in becoming a regular automobile driver and not especially interested in riding my bike more right now, even for fun. I ride my bike a fair amount, not as much as I used to, or as much as a lot of people I know (and sometimes it is fun, and sometimes I do it because it’s fun), but I’ve always been pretty multimodal and recently I’ve been injured and then lazy, so I didn’t think of that as exactly being relevant.

As I thought about how I conduct my life, though, it occurred to me that what actually happened is that I’ve become an ordinary Portlander where bikes are concerned. Lots of my friends who don’t do any transportation advocacy ride their bikes around town; some commute on them and some don’t, but they use them to go to the store, the park, friends’ houses, etc. They enjoy Sunday Parkways and Pedalpalooza. Most of them differ from me in that they own cars and drive them occasionally, but our day to day choices aren’t so different. And my friends aren’t unique in that, of course. They’re also ordinary Portlanders that way.

It works because Portland’s a pretty good place to ride a bike. Not great, not awful. And it’s a pretty frustrating city to ride transit in if you’re not going on a single direct train/bus, so when people think about traveling “not by car”, they don’t think transit unless they think “one line”. It takes 40+ minutes to get ~3 miles from SE 39th and Hawthorne to NE 15th and Broadway on Trimet at 6pm. It takes ~25 on a bike and you can go on your own schedule. So, transit’s not always convenient, you think riding a bike is fine and maybe fun and definitely cheap, but you’re no road warrior — still, oftentimes you can feel comfortable riding where you need to go.

That’s where I am, right now.

Whither advocacy? Whither Portland’s bike progress?

There’s no guaranteed path from where I am to particularly caring about whether it ever gets better to ride a bike here. It’s okay right now for me, because I’m already riding. And if you’re like me, it’s okay for you, too. Maybe you’d like to ride a bit more, wish there was a better connection somewhere, or the commute was less hairy, but is it important enough for you to devote your very precious spare time to? For most people, the answer is just straight up no, or rarely — they care maybe at the level of the old Portland Afoot: 10 minutes a month, at most. Their choice to ride is mainly about what they’re doing right now because it makes sense or is enjoyable.

For maybe a few people, you could potentially interest them in advocacy. How? Bike fun can be a path to advocacy (per anomalily) because you want to have more fun on a bike, and it shows you possibilities. So can wanting to do simple utilitarian bicycling more safely, and so can many other things, like thinking about global warming or wishing your child could ride a bike to school. So we’ve answered whence the interest.

But whence the motivation? I’d argue that in order to interest someone in action, you have to provide them with actions they can take that will be effective in returning them the benefits that they want.

Currently, if someone asked me what they should do to begin being an effective advocate for improved bicycling conditions in Portland, the best I could possibly do is a few generic pieces of advice:

  1. Join the BTA and get on their mailing list and read the stuff they send you.
  2. Read BikePortland.org and get familiar with city transportation resources like 823-SAFE .
  3. Stick with things that catch your personal interest.
  4. Start small and local, go big as you get more familiar with what’s going on already.

If someone asked “Will this make Portland a much better place to ride? Will I get convenient, direct routes to my destinations where I can ride comfortably away from auto traffic? Will I make it possible for my kids to feel comfortable riding alone outside the neighborhood? Will I get new trails for recreational riding or fast off-street commuting? Will I be able to ride in the bike lane or not, as I choose?” I wouldn’t be able to tell them yes because I honestly have no idea. That stuff doesn’t seem to be happening right now. If all they need is a small fix, I know we can do that. I’ve gotten potholes patched, lanes repainted, and signals retimed (thank you Peter!). I’ve taught people more about their bikes and helped them learn to navigate their neighborhood by bike. If all they want is some symbolic progress to point to, I think we can supply that, too: I might have helped get an unfunded plan we aren’t implementing passed (uh, great?), as well as a few maybe-useful laws in Salem (via the BTA’s efforts). The streetcar tracks suck a little less (not a lot less) thanks to AROW. And I know other people who helped me achieve some of these things and have similar achievements to count as their own.

These are all good things, but have I, have we, made a substantive difference? Can we actually move forward meaningfully by these inches? I don’t know. There are many people of good faith involved in the effort to do so, but what I see right now is not effective change: it’s progress at the speed of caterpillar, thanks to political deadlock, bureaucratic cowardice, and a complete failure of messaging. (Say what you will about PR and marketing people, they know how to stay on message about an issue, something neither PBOT nor the BTA seems to know.) If someone asked me whether they could accomplish something big by getting involved, I couldn’t really say yes, I know things you could do that would help to transform bicycling in Portland from Just OK to Actually, Great. Because I tried all the things you’re supposed to try, and it didn’t do much.

If you think I’m wrong, and there are things people who just want to invest some time and see results can do, that is awesome, please call the BTA, because I hear they want people who aren’t angry to apply some citizen pressure.

Myself, I’m just going to stay in the normal Portland zone for a while. Call me when we get serious about improving things again. I’ll be there.

 

What comes out of the spaces

Sit quietly for now and cease your relentless participation. Watch what happens. The birds do not crash dead out of the sky in mid-flight, after all. The trees do not wither and die, the rivers do not run red with blood.

—Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat, Pray, Love

Space. Quiet?

Yesterday I wrote the first sentence from this quote on a yellow sticky note and put it on my mirror, to express the relationship I’ve been trying to have with advocacy for a few months now. Since it’s been a few months, I can see the results that are promised. The trees have not withered and died; people are doing much the same thing that they’ve been doing, and doing it well, without me. I’m happy about that. (Mostly. I’m a little disappointed, as control freaks are wont to be when they discover that surprise, they were never in charge.)

But my internal dialogue has failed to quiet itself, and sometimes has failed to not burst out into external dialogue, mainly in the form of being angry about the 20s Bikeway project (about which more in the second half) and in occasionally retweeting insightful things other people say, or posting one of the oh only six different things I’ve written in the past few months in a Facebook comment. Yeah, I’ve written six blog posts about advocacy topics in the last two and a half months. I always said I was going to continue writing in my blog, and mostly I’ve stuck by my resolution not to call attention to that content. If that counts as being quiet, though, it’s a very loud kind of quiet.

Still, it’s a quiet without the noise of meetings, blog posts, weekly emails, and even social events where I would normally vent my steam and debate my ideas and take inputs from other advocates. The amount of space that’s afforded should perhaps not be underrated. I’ve managed to slow down enough to learn the valuable lesson that my participation is optional for the community, and to start to shape some idea of what I can actually contribute, at this point in my life. One thing I know is that I am no longer a cheerleader and an understander and an obliger for the current system. Those people do a great service of celebrating routine institutional accomplishments, encouraging the tentative, and taking the moderate position. I did that happily for six years, and increasingly resentfully for the last year or so, but I can’t even with it anymore.

The System.

If I am nothing else I am a tireless student of systems and asker of questions. And when a system is sufficiently stacked against you, one rational response (not the only one) is to attempt change on the system itself, instead of attempting change within it. Portland’s spent many years with a huge core of its transportation advocates within the system — applying pressure to it to get the outcomes they wanted, but fundamentally working within the existing power structures to make that happen. And it’s done a ton of good. When the power structure is heading the right way, leveraging it makes sense. Some people are still outside the system being radical, but they look pretty extreme when power seems to be headed the right way anyway.

When the system stops heading the right way, as Portland’s has, the first response is questions and confusions and rumblings of frustration. I’m good at questions. “Why isn’t this happening?” “Why does this keep going sideways at the last minute?” I’ve been asking myself these questions, and though I wasn’t the first, I think maybe I have some answers now too.

You hear a lot about the city resting on its laurels. I think there’s some truth in that, but it’s not very interesting as a reason. If it were the reason, the problem would be easy to solve: demonstrate that the laurels acquired are insufficient to meet the ostensible goal (let’s pretend here that the city government accepts its goal of 25% bike modeshare by 2030) and move on. Clearly that isn’t happening, so let’s stop wasting time pretending this is the reason. This is a smokescreen for the real reason, which is political.

At present Portland city government in the transportation and planning areas (I’m not an expert on other areas), at both the political and policy levels, seems to me to be captured (in the sense of regulatory capture) by business associations, businesses, and neighborhood associations. Also, to a lesser extent, by the ire (real or projected) of residents with enough time to spend to vent their ire at politicians and show up at midday meetings to voice their opinions. Process is structured to privilege these stakeholders’ opinions above others (let’s say, people trying to get somewhere via their mode of choice), and process is also structured to be conveniently amorphous enough that if these stakeholders’ needs are threatened, the city can easily ignore whatever else might have been planned and do whatever those people want. If anyone in Portland’s city government wants to deny this, please feel free to try. I think it will be hilarious to listen to, at a minimum, and might reveal some interesting contours of the problem.

Add to that another oft-cited problem that I think is a real contributor: the current lack of low-hanging fruit. Portland is an okay place to ride a bike. It’s not a great one. I think that’s clear to anyone who’s actually spent any time riding a bike here. There’s some really nice stuff, a lot of mediocre stuff, and some downright crappy stuff (or absence of stuff). Getting from bad to okay wasn’t all that easy, and in the past there were actual people in city government who made hard decisions and did a lot of policy evangelism and political maneuvering to make some of that happen. But a lot of what was done was the easier stuff. And a lot of the harder stuff never got done. Talk to anyone about parking removal and eventually you scratch the story of Knott. One of the most lightly-traveled, lightly-parked collectors in the system, home to almost no businesses, yet parking removal was still a complete failure because of resident ire. I don’t even know what year this happened in, but it was pre-1996, since it’s mentioned in the ’96 master plan. So, the stuff to which there wasn’t much opposition got done, the stuff to which there was some opposition either had its advocates in city government, or never got done at all.

That hasn’t changed so much, but the balance of what’s available to do has shifted decisively to things that are hard, while the balance of what people in city government are willing to do has curled up into a ball of frightened roly-poly and gone to sleep. That includes intra-government negotiations (for example, negotiating with PF&R) as well as in citizen/government negotiations. Yet there are more people riding bikes, more bike parking, more bike tourism, and more competition for the title of “Least Sucky American Bicycle City” from other cities than ever. There’s been a material shift in the popular discourse about what constitutes acceptable bicycling conditions. Riders want more, advocates want more, and the city is giving less. This is a recipe for stalemate/stagnation (where we have been and are) followed by serious clashes of interests (where we’re rapidly getting to), not for the previous semi-agreeable coexistence of working in similar directions at different magnitudes.

The final factor in this situation is us (advocates): we seem to think that more of the same strategy will lead to different results (the definition of insanity). We seem to have forgotten that many of the people who’ve been working within the system recently once were cranks and radicals. The BTA, criticized these days for being too moderate, got its start suing the city for failing to live up to its commitments. When you’re willing to be a crank and a radical when you don’t get what you want, sometimes you get what you want. If you’re not willing to do that, it’s not a huge surprise that privileged stakeholders with lots of free time and lots of $$$ are outranking you on the priority list.

What has worked in the recent past will continue to limp along. Things continue to happen — the 50s Bikeway and the Williams plans were both passed, and both are decent, if not ideal. (Not passed without a lot of pain in the latter case, providing a great example of the way the stakeholder process normally privileges some over others.) And the non-controversial processes continue to hum along, which is great, and which I don’t want to dis in any way. I love me some SmartTrips and I love greenways; they’re good things and more of them is good.

But if we don’t make some serious changes, things we want to happen will keep not happening even though we keep participating in processes that are disguised as ways to make them happen. I quit the 20s Bikeway Committee because I could see this coming, and I couldn’t stand the frustration of sitting there watching it. That felt like a personal failure, but maybe it was only a failure inasmuch as it was insufficient: I should have encouraged the BTA to quit the process as well, the way that they once quit the CRC process (which was a similar procedural sham biased to produce only one outcome, and which was only eventually killed by repeated, persistent, loud, direct opposition, plus its own incompetence).

Revolution?

We may not need to have a literal revolution (except of our wheels), but we definitely need a substantive change in one or more of City Council, PBOT leadership, or city process — ideally all three, including multiple changes in city process — to change what’s happening. Unfortunately I don’t think the recent change in bureau heading (Novick/Treat) has actually made any difference, though I had initially hoped it would. The 20s Bikeway project convinced me that there’s no hope from that quarter. A city that thinks it’s a bike city and can’t get a direct bikeway placed on a route that’s explicitly designated as a through route (emergency response) and is the connection to the only freeway crossing nearby because of a tiny number of businesses that are somewhere between totally confused about the issues and totally irate about the notion of losing a tiny number of parking spaces in a plan specially designed to appease them in the first place is a city that is frankly schizophrenic on this point, because what it’s actually doing has an inverse relationship to what it claims to be doing and to what its goals say it’s supposed to be doing.

To do that, we first have to change our own approach, because we aren’t going to get those kinds of changes made with magic fairy dust. Those are changes to disempower the powerful, and you don’t get those easily. So personally, I’m done being nice, because being nice doesn’t get you anywhere in an adversarial political system when the people in power don’t want to do what you want them to do. And I’m done pretending that I think that the current process isn’t total bullshit, because it is total bullshit, and I want it to change and I’m going to be loud about how it’s crap and needs changing. If we can’t get the political muscle to get it to change, well, then, we’ll keep losing fights, but I’d like to go down fighting on the battlefield where the battle is actually taking place, not laying down my arms at a safe surrender point 10 miles off. Note to PBOT: I’d like to see you adopt the same philosophy, plzkthx.

I’ll be back when I’m ready. It might be soon.

What can I contribute?

Asked of oneself, in the context of being able to contribute one’s non-material resources to societal endeavors, the question What can I contribute? can be taken at least two ways. One is: what resources am I able to contribute, or capable of contributing? The other is: what resources can I offer that constitute a unique and valuable contribution?

I’m lucky to have a job where I frequently have the opportunity to make a contribution to improving people’s experience with software that’s important to their business or profession. I do that alongside other people with a similar role, which is a great opportunity to see both the common contributions that we bring and the unique and valuable ones. Everyone I work with has really strong technical skills, proven ability to analyze complex problems and identify solutions, and the ability to express those problems and solutions clearly and appropriately in speech and writing. But we all have different styles of expressing ourselves, different specific technical knowledge areas, and different ways of looking at problems. I’m particularly interested in documentation, zero in on and remember details, and tend to focus on the core issue without a lot of verbal decoration. I also have a great head for correct and effective process and a related, more amorphous thing that I think of as ‘appropriateness’ — I’m unlikely to jump into a situation headlong and ask for something that was already provided or try to answer a question I’m just guessing at. That’s a pretty cool thing that I’m good at. The flip side of that skill is “get ‘er done” — jump in and move things along, even if you don’t always get it quite right. It’s also valuable, but it’s not something that I personally am best at doing. It’s great to be part of a team so that I can focus on using my skills where they’re most needed and letting others do the same.

Applying that same thinking to transportation advocacy seems fruitful. Being on the sidelines right now means I’m mostly tuned out, but I’m still friends with my friends and Twitter is still Twitter, so I have the chance to see some of what happens with me out of the game. And the answer is: mostly the same stuff happens. I’m not the axis on which that world turns (obviously), but when I was in the midst of it, it was easy to think that because I could contribute something, that meant I should, because the work I was doing was important and therefore doing as much as I could was obviously valuable.

This seems honestly kind of stupid in retrospect. Most of what I can contribute (in the first sense) in advocacy can also be contributed by other people. As in my job, I’m one of several to dozens of people with similar capabilities and inclinations. Is this kind of contribution valueless? Definitely not. At work we’ve got a certain ticket load and my base contributions are important to keeping that load manageable. And in advocacy there’s a certain amount of basic work to be done that creates value by showing interest and articulating opinions — writing letters, making requests, commentating on issues, having discussions, attending meetings. But almost anyone can do this, and I don’t do most of it remarkably better than most people, aside from being a good letter-writer. Unlike in my professional life, though, I’m not as clear on what I do in advocacy that is unique and valuable, and that’s part of what I’d like to figure out during this hiatus.

This idea has a pretty broad application — it’s worth thinking about how it applies to close relationships, general socializing, and internet/social media as well, but that’s too long for one post (and I’m too tired).

Vision Zero and enforcement?

When you’re walking and riding around and you see people in 2-ton vehicles doing things that are dangerous to you, I think it’s natural response (especially for rule-followers like me) to think “Someone should stop them from doing that.” Often what they’re doing is already illegal, so it’s natural to think that enforcement by the police would be the way to fix the problem. And indeed, enforcement is one of the “three Es” of traditional traffic safety problem-solving: engineering, education, and enforcement.

You know what, though? I think it’s usually listed last for a reason. Enforcement for street safety is about fear: not doing something for fear of the consequences. And police enforcement is the wrong consequence for dangerous drivers to be afraid of, in my opinion. I want people to drive safely because they care about their fellow human beings, because they understand what it’s like to be the one out there walking or riding, because they know it won’t benefit them, won’t get them anywhere any faster if they try to cut corners (figuratively or literally). Fear has a place in this as well: I want people to fear the social disapproval of others who do feel that propelling a two-ton metal object around at high speed is a privilege that only the deserving should have. Fearing the police seems like a last resort.

Enforcement is important, because there will always be people who will try to get away with anything they can get away with, and because if there are no penalties for dangerous driving, then there’s little motivation for those people to change. And enforcement is entwined with the cultural change that would be required for people to feel the way I described above. Something being illegal and having heavy penalties reinforces a social sense that it’s unacceptable. But the equation goes both ways. Something has to be seen as unacceptable before it can be assigned heavy penalties.

Education is lovely, but I think the main burden here has to fall on engineering. We know how to create streets that are safe for people. If streets are designed for low car speeds and provide plenty of space for walking and biking, people will respond to the system, speeds will go down, more people will walk and bike, and the culture will become open to the notion that safe, slow driving is required, not optional. You stop at a stop sign before you get to the crosswalk because your neighbor’s child might be walking out in front of you any minute, or because you know how you feel when cars come too close when you’re walking. And you can stop at the stop sign and still see the intersection, because parking near corners isn’t allowed and so you have good visibility from the stop line.

Otherwise, stiff penalties for most types of routine dangerous driving, outside the more extreme cases, really are punitive, because drivers are largely responding to the system they’ve been provided. It sounds awful, and it should — I suffer the consequences of this every day, and so does everyone else who doesn’t go around dressed in a steel shell. But if the system is built with wide streets and gentle curves that encourage high speeds, if parked cars are allowed to obstruct visibility at corners, if walkers aren’t protected at crosswalks by one or both of traffic control devices (stop signs or signals) or very slow speeds, if cars can veer into and cut across bikeways on major streets, the system is telling drivers that these dangerous behaviors are acceptable, and drivers are hearing it. Sending mixed messages with heavy enforcement efforts and high penalties won’t solve the real problem: we have to fix the system.

Why I never want to hear “Sorry, I didn’t see you” again

Here’s what people usually say when they almost kill you in traffic:

“Sorry, I didn’t see you.”

Here’s why I never want to hear it  again:

1) I assume you didn’t see me, because I assume it wasn’t your goal to run into, hurt, or kill me. Most people don’t set out into traffic with the goal of running into someone else and hurting or killing them. But it happens all the time anyway. 35,000 people a year die on American roads, or about 100 a day. So your intention is both assumed to be good and also not really adequate as far as not killing me goes.

2) It’s your responsibility to see me. If you didn’t see me, you either didn’t look where you needed to look, weren’t paying attention to the right things when you did look there (attention blindness, which everyone has to some extent and most drivers are especially afflicted with where bikes are concerned), couldn’t see because of conditions and therefore shouldn’t have been driving at all, or should have been going more slowly, or you made a maneuver when you couldn’t look where you needed to look.

3) Frequently, what you did was illegal even if you had looked and the way was clear. In some cases where you just almost ran over me, failure to yield or a similar failure is the only violation. But far more often, you changed lanes or turned illegally or failed to stop at all or did some other completely illegal thing. In that case, I don’t really think NOT SEEING ME is your problem. Your problem is that you were driving illegally and unsafely and I just happened to be in your way at the time.

Here’s what I want to hear instead:

“I’m sorry, I was being careless and I came close to causing a crash that could have hurt or killed you. I will be more careful in the future.”

“I’m sorry, I wasn’t thinking / I wasn’t paying attention. I know I should pay careful attention when driving, and I apologize for scaring you like that.”

“I’m sorry, I was focused on getting where I needed to be and did something foolish and risky. I’ll try to avoid that in the future.”

Granted, I’d rather hear “I’m sorry, I didn’t see you” than any number of other things, like “You were in my way”, “What do you think you’re doing?” or “Get off the road”. You might say this is a first-world problem, or a Platinum Bike City problem, or even a Portland Problem. But it’s not just that. Understanding that good intentions are not enough is a critical step in the progress toward Vision Zero and designing for safe traffic flow. The fact that you could kill someone without meaning to, just because you forgot to look, or couldn’t see well, or suffered from over-focused attention, means that the street lets you create unsafe conditions just because you’re a fallible human being. As the Onion says, it’s pretty incredible that Americans are entrusted with driving cars.

I’d really like everyone using the streets to travel in a vehicle get past the notion that “I’m sorry, I didn’t see you” is an adequate answer to scaring and almost hurting or killing someone. That goes for people biking and walking too. Because if you had actually hurt or killed them, that wouldn’t really be a good reason, would it? Let’s design our streets to be safe even when they’re being used by tired, stressed, inattentive, fallible humans. And let’s try to be the best falliable humans we can be, and admit our fault when we aren’t.

Mees 3: Have your cake and eat it too?

The quote that first caught my eye from this chapter was:

However, the same citizens who are most concerned about sustainable transport are often the fiercest defenders of leafy, low-rise neighborhoods.

This is a particularly pertinent note for Portland, especially right now in light of the discussion around the code allowing developers to build apartment buildings without on-site auto parking (one of which I’ll soon be living in!). These buildings, which allow greater density and improved urban form, including a better pedestrian environment without ugly parking lot gaps and ‘blank faces’ on buildings, are fiercely opposed by inner SE homeowners who believe it destroys the character of their neighborhood and clogs their streets. (Let’s leave aside for now that the former is completely subjective and the latter is false based on research by the city.)

These same neighbors, to stereotype just a little, also recycle, compost, shop at New Seasons, have chickens in their backyards, collect water in rainbarrels, buy Priuses, and have a school in their midst called the Sunnyside Environmental School…in short, they care about the earth on a personal level. But heaven forfend someone should try to change the development pattern so that it’s better for long-term sustainability. That, to them, is “like a rape.” (Yes, someone really said that, and yes, it makes me want to throw up.)

So, are these neighbors super lucky? Yes they are. Because Mr. Mees is here to tell us that you can have your leafy low-rise neighborhoods and your public transit too, if you design your transit cleverly!

The bulk of the chapter is devoted to dissing other possible solutions, like road pricing and electric cars. He’s unsurprisingly down on electric cars, saying:

The global effect of a large shift to electric cars would be to increase greenhouse emissions, since coal is still the main source of power.

He’s also surprisingly down on road pricing, saying that while it’s been a modest success in reducing car travel into city centers, it motivates people who can afford it to continue to drive, because they can just buy their way out of congestion. If you can’t buy your way out of congestion, you just have to live with it, and you’re more likely to actually seek out alternatives.

Vancouver reduced journey times by promoting congestion, while the other Canadian cities increased them by planning for higher speeds.

This is also pertinent for Portland, since our land-use rules and urban growth boundary tend to create greater congestion within the boundary, but they also shorten journeys, leading to an overall reduction in travel times. Vancouver saw the same effect, simply by failing to build more roads further out — when congestion is a factor in the central city, people choose to live closer in and select transportation alternatives. So even though my life would be easier if we could clear out some of the cars from downtown at 5pm, maybe I shouldn’t really be wishing for that — unless it’s because they’re riding bikes instead.

Finally, Mees tars public transit with some of the same brush as cars, particularly low-occupancy buses:

A bus with half a dozen passengers will be no more efficient, in greenhouse terms, than if the passengers travelled in cars at average occupanies…Walking and cycling produce no greenhouse emissions and are the only truly sustainable travel modes.

I’m with him there, but only up to a point. Jarrett has made a case that the purpose of public transit is to extend the reach of the walk, and if walking and cycling are the primary local modes, public transit is the necessary long distance complement unless you want to have tiny towns and cities, and also keep everyone’s car in a giant lot on the edge of the city, which sounds pretty expensive and dumb to me.

So, we can have our leafy low-rise neighborhood and our public transit too, but we can’t have our auto incentives and our transit incentives too:

The only way to produce mode shift is to combine transit incentives with auto disincentives.

How ‘bus stigma’ can be contagious

I participated in an interesting conversation today that reminded me how ‘bus stigma’ is self-reinforcing.

Scene: at work, in the lunchroom. Our company owner, a very smart guy based in Irvine, is visiting us this week.

He asked where the nearest Red Line MAX station to the office was, to find out how to get back to the airport from the office. The geographical answer is that the 1st and Yamhill station is the closest, but it’s a bit of a hike (about a mile). Several people explained that it’s a bit far to walk, but you can take the bus from the stop outside our window (which you can see from the lunchroom) to either the Red Line MAX or the Green Line MAX, or you could walk to the Green Line MAX instead. If you take the Green, they explained, you then transfer “after the Steel Bridge” (a very visitor-accessible way of saying “at the Rose Quarter Transit Center”). You can stay on longer but definitely have to get off by Gateway.

I noticed, vaguely, that he seemed receptive to the suggestions about walking. He mentioned that he had walked from the Red Line to the office. He didn’t seem to be paying much attention to the suggestions about taking the bus, but when they reached a critical mass, he finally asked “How often does the bus come by here?” Oh, everyone said, about every ten minutes or so (we have 3 buses at the same stop, otherwise it wouldn’t be quite so good). Oh, that’s quite good, he said. “In Southern California* the buses come every hour and a half.”

Buses get a bad rap because so many bus services are inadquate or only barely adequate. Subway or light rail systems tend to be more frequent, because they usually form the core of a system wherever they are, and because they represent a large amount of sunk capital cost, so abandoning them looks pretty bad.  So buses tend to look slightly worse to most people, and they look especially bad to people who live in places with no rail at all, and bus services that really aren’t very useful to most people. And when they go visit other cities, they may automatically focus on the rail system (which is often more well-known, well-publicized, well-mapped, and simpler, not to mention the part of the system that’s usually connected to the airport, where they arrive) and ignore the buses that form the veins and arteries of the system, complementing the rail system spine. They miss an opportunity to learn that buses can be useful, and they go back home thinking “I want a light rail system!” And then they may even try to build one, because isn’t it the rail that’s so cool and useful? But since rail requires a larger capital investment, it pulls money away from other options in order to create a decent rail system, buses suffer, and modal bias is reinforced once again.

* I assume he meant something like “in the part of Southern California I live in” (Orange County), since LA has a frequent bus network.

Mees 2: Was auto dominance inevitable?

One of the most interesting myths that Mees spends time debunking in this chapter is actually not that auto dominance was inevitable (since I didn’t believe that to begin with) but the idea that American public transit declined and died because of a conspiracy by the auto industry. His analysis is that the tram industry had serious problems at the time that it was purchased, converted to buses, and then dismantled by GM. There’s no disagreement on the latter points, but earlier reports from the government and other sources show that the tram companies had been privately run with an eye to the short-term profits of their owners, and were in dire financial straits by the time the takeovers occurred. In Los Angeles:

By the 1920s, it was clear that the Pacific Electric system would need substantial investment to modernize equipment, segregate servies from traffic congestion, improve level crossing safety, and duplicate single track sections. Cross-suburban routes to complement the mainly radial network, and extensions to new growth areas, would also be needed to compete with the car. But Pacific Electric lost money in all but one of the years from 1912 to 1941.

A report by engineering consultants suggested the implementation of a multi-modal system, with exclusive-ROW rapid transit supplemented by interurban trams and suburban buses. But it would have meant pumping money into the unpopular and fiscally unsound private railway companies, and was eventually abandoned in favor of an entirely public-section solution of building radial freeways, on the grounds that Los Angeles’s dispersed development pattern was more suitable for the automobile — even though that pattern was largely created by the tram network.

People disliked the railway companies because they had been providing increasingly poorer service for years and trying to raise prices as well. That doesn’t bode well for today’s transit agencies trying to get money to provide better service — but at least they don’t have the image of greedy private companies!

As a contrast to the perfect storm of economic and political factors in LA, and a supporting piece of evidence that auto dominance wasn’t inevitable, Mees also tells the story of a decline which was a conspiracy, that of Auckland public transit. It was a conspiracy not of the auto industry (there is none in New Zealand), but of government officials and planners: the Auckland City Engineer, the national Transport Minister, and a professor of Geography at Auckland University, who with other road supporters, created a stacked committee, referred an earlier rail and public transport plan to the committee, and declared Auckland unsuitable for public transit, despite the fact that at the time it had the majority share of travel into the city centre (58%). Again the justification was the dispersed nature of the Auckland area. They cited Ernest Fooks’ figures giving Auckland a density of only 4 people per acre, below even LA.

The only problem is that Fooks, in his book X-Ray the City, provided these figures exactly to demonstrate the fallacy of calculating density based on urban boundaries, which are arbitrary and don’t represent an entire built-up area. Portlanders know that our city includes Forest Park, which is entirely uninhabited by humans. LA and Auckland suffer from the same effect in the calculation of average density: large undeveloped areas. As the same committee had only four years earlier calculated the actual urbanized area of Auckland, it’s difficult to write this off as an innocent error.

The use of density is revealed once again as a convenient story. It’s a classic case of the fallacy of assuming that because A is correlated with B, A must cause B, and completely ignores other potential relationships and confounding effects, such as different policies and political environments that played a large role in transit investment and operation.

Mees 1: “Density as destiny” is a convenient story

One of the most interesting points that Mees makes  early on is that the story of “density as destiny” where transit is concerned is convenient for a lot of people on both sides of the spectrum. Road-builders who’d like to keep building roads can say that they have to, because density is insufficient for effective transit. Transit agencies that are providing poor service can use low density as an excuse for doing so.

He touches a little bit on the issues that changing density raises: “large increases in the density of big cities take many decades, and may be politically impossible in a democratic society.” This is one of Portland’s current controversies: people who aren’t interested in transit and would rather have money spent on roads, and who definitely don’t want density, can stop both density and transit investment by having a fit only about density.

Mees’ hypothesis is the opposite:

Transport policy itself has a bigger impact on transport patterns than urban planners have realized, and suburbs don’t have to be totally reliant on the car. Planners who insist that car dominance can only be addressed by impossibly large increases in density may actually be entrenching the problem they are trying to solve.

He shows a counterexample to the idea that density is destiny in his story of Sternenberg and Bauma, a small village and its nearby town in Canton Zurich, Switzerland. Bauma has around 1,000 residents and has half-hourly trains from 6am to midnight and all-night buses on Friday and Saturday. Sternenberg, with a population of 300, has seven buses a day, which coordinate with the arrival and departure of the train at Bauma, going to onward services at regional centers and into Zurich City. The transit modeshare in Sternenberg is higher than Portland’s (the city of Portland): 19% (plus 10% walking and cycling). This is mindblowing when you think of entire towns and cities in the US that have no public transit whatsoever, or have quite useless transit, despite being many times the size (and as Mees the Australian reminds us, Americans are not alone in this).

One interesting bit from this story that Mees doesn’t spend much time on is that the population of Sternenberg is beginning to increase after many years of decline, and that much of this increase comes from people commuting into Zurich and suburbs (and that this is a general pattern). This is a case of high mobility by transit — something I like to think of as good — causing a kind of population sprawl. Mees isn’t so worried about this because his point is that relatively sprawling populations don’t have to impede good transit, and transit sprawl is usually a bit ‘better’ than auto-driven sprawl, but in general terms enabling urban depopulation and long-distance commuting decreases accessibility. It makes it more difficult to meet daily needs other than commuting by non-auto modes, which is reflected in the relatively high (for Zurich) car use in Sternenberg.

From my personal angle, interested in community building as I am and having lived in a sprawling metro area, it also impedes community formation and seriously burdens workers. When your friends live 2 hours away by train, you can’t run over for a quick cup of tea, and when you’re spending 2 hours a day commuting, you aren’t spending those hours with friends and family, being active, cooking, pursuing hobbies, or anything else you might like to do. In this view, the success of Sternenberg potentially comes at a price, something that is frequently, but not always, overlooked.

Car2Go: less horrible, possibly useful

Car2Go seems to have fixed most of the problems that I mentioned in my previous post about their website and I was actually able to successfully use it recently. I was going to pick up my bike from the shop, and I had a time crunch because I had to be home by six. At 5pm, I checked for 17s and discovered that the usual 5:15-5:20pm 17 was nowhere to be found and the 5:00-5:05 had either already gone or was also nonexistent.

Fortunately, there was a Car2Go a few blocks away (one of them seems to have a ‘home’ near my work) and I was able to confirm it was there, update my account information (I had forgotten my PIN, never having used it) and start the drive at the car. I found the car maneuverable but not very powerful or responsive, and the GPS didn’t work at all to enter an address because it was too slow (I puzzled through the route-choice-for-driving myself, and did okay). Parking it on a side street by Metropolis was easy because it’s quite tiny. It was a perfect use for that trip, since I could ride my bike home from the shop. It was nice to finally get to use it when it was convenient and see what the fuss is about.I found it was fairly expensive — even with 15 free minutes, my trip (29 minutes because of traffic) cost over $5. So it’s not great in times of heavier traffic because you spend too much expensive time idling (time for congestion charging in downtown Portland, revenue to go to transit, plzkthx). I would rather have taken TriMet from a cost perspective, although the convenience of Car2Go was better.

As far as the website, some of their landing pages are still a bit useless, like http://portland.car2go.com/, but if you go to Car2Go.com you can easily select your city, see the map, and log in, which is a major improvement. The map is less painful to use, too — it groups cars when zoomed out and runs more smoothly when zooming in.

It looks like they’ve sorted out reservations by making them too simple to be really useful for advance needs — all they can do is ensure that a car will still be there in 30 minutes. It fits with the usage model, but it makes them useless if you need to get to an appointment that you know about a long time in advance and don’t have much flexibility with, because they could all be gone by then.

Overall, a great improvement. And they have an Android app now which looks like it would simplify the process even more, although I’ve basically maxed out my apps so I may not be able to install it until I get a new phone.