Friday, April 30, 2010

Some advice for Neil McFarlane

While Neil McFarlane won't take over the post of TriMet general manager until June, here's some friendly (if unsolicited) advice as he transitions into his new role.  The advice is freely offered, and worth every penny.  :)

  1. Read--and understand--the parable of the three envelopes.  Know that you may not get three.  Read this.  It may look like motherhood and apple pie, but so many get it wrong.  Consider this parable.  While the squeaky while is often the one that gets the grease; not all wheels that need oil will squeal.
  2. Know your role.  You're no longer running construction projects, you're managing an entire transit agency.  Your old job is a very small part of your new one.  Find good people, and trust them.  Many good people probably already work for you.  A sign of a confident manager is an ability to trust the people hired on by his predecessor.
  3. Pay attention to your critics, to learn their motives.  Some want you or your organziation to succeed, and will tell you if you make a misstep--listen to them.  Some will want to fail, and only try to tear you down.  Ignore them.  I am in the former camp, for what it's worth.
  4. Get the agency's finances in order.  The past year has been a perfect storm of underperforming projects, recession, and bad bets.  Make sure future budgets include contingency for downturns, avoid speculating in the futures markets (rising fuel prices increase ridership, so you already have a built-in hedge there), and remember that lane-miles of trackage is not a key performance measure.
  5. Remember you are in the public sector--where capital dollars are easier to come by than operating dollars.  The feds hand out plenty of capital funds, and public agencies get great rates in the bond market.  Avoid actions which sacrifice your operating budget to raise capital--such as bonding payroll tax revenues, or doing capital projects "on the cheap", in a way which significantly affects operating efficiency.  (WES is an extreme example of this).
  6. Remember that land use has a bigger impact on transit operations than pretty much anything you can do as GM.  So long as most of the metro-area is sprawl; the preferred mode of transport will be the automobile.  
  7. Rather than focusing on expansion, focus on capital projects which will enable you to serve your customers more efficiently--in many cases, this will improve the quality of the service.  Suggestions here include things like electronic fare collection, more exclusive lanes, and signal priority for busses.
  8. Make it easier for people to ride the system.  TriMet actually is, in some ways, a leader in this regard.  In other ways, it is not
  9. Be a public face for the agency.  This doesn't mean engaging in grandstanding, but it does mean being visible in, and engaged with, the community. 
  10. While it is good to seek out new customers, don't ignore your existing ones.  Make sure that expansions to the system are not overly dependent on speculative development for their success.
Above all, good luck!

The Gulf Oil Spill: Obama's Katrina?

Not quite one and a half years into his term, and President Obama now has his first real (non-economic) crisis to deal with:  An underwater oil spill, resulting from an explosion at an offshore drilling platform (the Deepwater Horizon) in the Gulf of Mexico, now leaking thousands of gallons of petroleum into the Gulf per day.  Many are comparing the spill to the Exxon Valdez disaster--except that the Valdez only carried a finite amount of oil in her holds.  Worst case scenario here is that the spill--hundreds of feet underwater--cannot be stopped.

Already, many pundits are trying to place blame on the Administration for this.  Paul Krugman wrote an article entitled "The Oil Spill Is Obama's Fault"--and while reading the article reveals that this is not what Krugman himself thinks (despite frequent criticism of the President on other matters, the Nobel-winning economist seems to give Obama a pass here)--he's sure that it will be spun that way.  Numerous sources, from Kaus to the Wall Street Journal to Business Insider have either been asking the question, or stating it as fact.  And of course, I'm asking it here.

The justification for blaming the Administration for this is a delayed Federal response to the disaster.  BP Oil, who operates the Deepwater Horizon, underestimated the magnitude of the spill--allegedly prompting the delayed response.  Whether or not this is fair or not is an open question, but nothing is fair in politics.

The trouble is for the "Katrina" advocates is--the GOP has little room to criticize the Administration on this matter.  While Obama has been a supporter of offshore drilling (though he has suspended any such plans in the wake of the disaster), the GOP is the "drill baby, drill" crowd.  Likewise, complaining about the delayed Federal response goes against the grain of GOP ideology.  One plausible line of GOP attack might be that we should be drilling in ANWR rather than offshore; land-based oil leaks are easier to stop and contain than ones at sea--I could see Sarah Palin making such an argument--but it would be a highly revisionist argument coming from Republicans.

(It's worth noting that many on the hardcore right, including Rush Limbaugh, have been suggesting that rather than being an accident, the explosion was instead the work of sabotage by eco-terrorists trying to create a green equivalent of the Reichstag Fire.  That the right, including politically astute commentators such as Limbaugh, would entertain such a theory without any evidence shows how difficult this disaster may be for Republicans to exploit).

The biggest danger to Obama, I think, would be an abandonment of him on the left.  Many on the left are already unhappy with him for various reasons; and this incident could increase the chances that many who supported him in 2008, might instead choose to stay home, or back a Naderesque candidate (including Nader himself) in 2012.  Obama could blunt this somewhat by tacking a bit to the left on environmental issues (the disaster does give political cover for such a maneuver), but in many ways, the damage is done.

Of course, in many ways, comparisons to Katrina are silly.  Katrina resulted in hundreds of lives lost and thousands of lives ruined; we don't yet know the scope of the current disaster, but it's probably safe to say that the body count won't go far beyond the eleven lives already lost in the initial explosion and sinking.  Katrina was a thorough clusterf*ck on all levels; whereas at this point the main issue (in the response) was a tactical decision to let BP handle it.  Comparisons to the Exxon Valdez are probably of limited use--while the Valdez spill resulted in widespread ecological damage, it didn't occur in a heavily populated area.  The birds and fish, after all, don't vote. 

A lot will have to do with the success of the (delayed) Federal response, and any investigation.  It the Feds stop the spill, and it is discovered that BP misled the government as to the scope of the disaster, political damage will be limited.  On the other hand, if the response is botched, or the oil leak becomes a permanent fixture in the bottom of the Gulf, it could have significant consequences for US politics--consequences which could go well beyond the Obama administration.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Greece files for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy Protection.

New York City -- The Hellenic Republic, more commonly known by the trade name Greece (UN-GRE), yesterday filed for protection under Chapter Eleven of the United States Bankruptcy Court.  The filing, with the bankruptcy court for the Southern District of New York, came after rampant speculation about the nation's future, after a banking scandal plunged the millenia-old civilization deep into debt.  In a prepared statement, Greek prime minister and chairman George Papandreou stated that while Greece "regrets this course of action, it was necessary to protect the interests of our citizens, employees, and creditors".  Papandreou expected that Greece would ultimately survive the bankruptcy proceedings, and that today's filing would allow the country to "focus on our core business".

Jurisdictional questions

While the filing itself was not unexpected, the choice of venue was a surprise.  As an ancient civilization headquartered in Europe, many analysts doubt whether the US Bankruptcy courts have jurisdiction over Greece.  However, attorneys for the Mediterranean republic note that Greece is a member of the United Nations, and claim that the UN's physical presence in Manhattan gives the District Court for southern New York proper jurisdiction over the bankruptcy.

Assuming the jurisdictional questions can be resolved, many analysts hail the filing as a brilliant tactical maneuver.  Gerhard Brandt, an analyst with Deutsche Bank, notes that were Greece to find itself in bankruptcy court in Europe, it likely would be liquidated in short order--but US bankruptcy courts have a reputation for being much friendlier to debtors.  "If they want, the Greeks can drag this on for years."  Brandt speculated that some creditors might be willing to settle for a fraction of what they are owed, to keep the bankruptcy estate from being consumed by legal fees.

Creditors, however, were outraged, and planned to ask for the dismissal of the case at the earliest opportunity.  "This is [expletive]", said one creditor who spoke on condition of anonymity.  "They run up debts, they party like mad, toga, toga, toga, and then they run to the Americans when it is time to face the music".  A spokesman for another creditor doubted that the Greeks' maneuver would work.  "Just because the UN is in New York--so what?"

A checkered past

Greece, by far the oldest continuous civilization in Europe, and one of the oldest in the world, has had a checkered past.  Founded nearly three thousand years ago, ancient Greece is considered the birthplace of many modern innovations, including democracy, mathematics, and philosopy.  However, much corporate infighting over the centuries, including a devastating battle between the company's headquarters in Athens and its Trojan operations--reportedly over a woman--robbed ancient Greece of much of its strength and vitality.  And after a hostile takeover by bitter rival Rome, Greece ceased to be an independent concern for over two thousand years.  After Rome's liquidation, the assets of Greece were owned by numerous other concerns, including the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires.  Modern Greece did not arise until an IPO in 1830.

Many analysts believed that Greece, which had suffered from fierce competition throughout much of the twentieth century, had been starting to come around.  The International Olympic Committee (UN:IOC)--a successful spinoff of Greece--has become an economic and cultural powerhouse; though Greece nowadays holds little equity in the concern.  Greece's hosting of the 2004 Summer Games was widely hailed as a success--however it is now widely believed that the infrastructure buildout needed to successfully bid for the Games contributed to yesterday's bankruptcy filing.  Noted one observer, "putting on the Olympics is expensive.  While it can be profitable, it's a highly risky proposition for anyone without a healthy balance sheet".

An aggressive strategy?

In the bankruptcy filing, lawyers for Greece listed numerous assets which might offset the country's crushing debt.  Some of the assets were expected, including kilometres of sunny Mediterranean beaches, numerous historical relics, hectares of olive groves, and the right to march first at the Olympic opening ceremonies.  But others--such as intellectual property claims concerning things such as the Greek alphabet, democracy, and trademark rights around Greek place names--surprised analysts, who note that these things had long been considered to be in the public domain.  "Claims to own mathematics are outrageous" said one IP lawyer consulted for this report.  However, another attorney noted that the prospect of collecting royalties from anyone who uses phrases such as "alpha male" or "Trojan horse", was too lucrative to pass up.  "They're in bankruptcy.  What else are they going to do?"  The attorney noted that many potential defendants might be willing to enter into licensing agreements simply to avoid the risk and expense of being sued. 

In-house counsel for Church and Dwight Corporation (NYSE:CHD), the makers of Trojan-branded condoms, seemed unconcerned with the filing.  "We have been using the mark for decades", he said.  "As far as we are concerned, any rights the Greeks might have had to the name 'Trojan' were abandoned years ago".  He promised that Church and Dwight would "vigorously" defend itself in court if necessary.

The bankruptcy filing might bring to a close one other longstanding dispute.  Greece, which claims the rights to the name "Macedonia", has had an ongoing trademark battle with the Republic of Macedonia (UN:MKD) over the right to use the name.  Should Greece not survive the bankruptcy proceeding, many experts believe that the Republic, a former subsidiary of the now-defunct Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, would become the sole user of the mark.  When asked about the prospect of bidding on the name should it be auctioned off by the Court, Macedonian chairman Nikola Gruevski angrily stated that "we will not pay one single Euro for what is rightfully ours".

Greece's future

When asked for opinions as to whether or not Greece would survive the bankruptcy, analysts were mixed.  HSBC's Lloyd Johnston was bearish on Greece's future, expecting the country to be liquidated, and its assets to be purchased by rivals such as Italy and Turkey.  Frank Simpson, with Bank of America, stated that "they've had their run.  No pun intended, but they're a grease spot".  However, other experts were cautiously upbeat.  Jean-Paul Duquette, with the Bank of Montreal, praised the Greeks for their legendary resiliency.  "You don't survive for three thousand years if you are not resourceful", he said.  "Great powers and great civilizations may come and go.  But if you were to ask me if Greece were still around in another three thousand years, I would have to say yes".


Wednesday, April 28, 2010

TriMet and the quest for a Transit Professional (updated)

Update:  The initial reports that Grace Crunican would be named to the TriMet GM post were incorrect--TriMet has in fact named Neil McFarlane, who presently serves as the agency's executive director of capital projects, to the post.   Portions of this post have been edited to reflect the fact.

TriMet, it is now being reported, will on Wednesday named a new General Manager, to replace the departing (and oft-criticized) Fred Hansen.  The selection was an inside hire, capital projects executive director Neil McFarlane.  Such business is on the published agenda for Wednesday's board meeting, and while nothing official has been announcedPreviously, sources had indicated that the new bus boss willwould be one Grace Crunican.  Crunican has lots of experience in transportation administration, having previous gigs as the head of the City of Seattle Transportation Department, and of ODOT prior to that. 

Some, in town, are not happy with the rumored choice--either with the process undertaken to recruit a new GM, nor with the particularrumored choice.  The TriMet board didn't apparently seek outside advice in the hiring process (they are not required to, but the failure to do so is questionable politics); many at Metro, in particular, are annoyed.  And many local transit activists don'tdidn't seem enthralled with the choice of Crunican--whose ouster from Seattle city government was part of the campaign platforms of not one but two mayoral candidates.

At this point in time, I will not take a position on the wisdom of the hire, though I certainly have my doubts about the process.  Some consultation of Metro or the City of Portland, even if courtesy, would have been politically wise.  Instead, I will consider the qualifications for the gig, and what sort of person makes the most sense.


The GM of TriMet--a regional transit agency with a strong operational focus (but some planning responsibilities) and a significant investment in physical infrastructure, requires someone who can do--or delegate--the following.
  • Budgeting and planning
  • Overseeing operations and logistics
  • Dealing with labor (particularly unions) and vendors
  • Represent transit and transit ops in long-range planning activities.
  • Serve as the public face of the agency--especially when the sh*t hits the fan.  (When things go well, the director of TriMet simply doesn't make the news).
  • Interface with Metro, with ODOT, with the city and county governments, with other local transit agencies (C-Tran, SMART, Portland Streetcar), and with the various federal bureaucracies which care about transit and urban planning.
  • Go begging for money from those levels of government--in particular, the feds, with large pots of it to throw around.
  • Defend the agencies tax revenue stream from other rival agencies who might want it, and from transit opponents and tax hawks who might prefer to de-fund TriMet altogether.
That's a lot of things, and only about one or two of the above bullet items fall under the rubric of "operations".  Most of them are political or administrative chores.  There's not really any prepatory position that prepares you for all these roles, which is why delegation is mentioned above.  Unless you hire a director of some other transit agency, or someone who has served in many different roles in their career, anyone you hire is likely to be deficient in one or more of those areas.
The candidate pool for a position such as TriMet GM will generally consist of the following skillsets:
  • Transit operations managers
  • Public administrators (persons with training and experience running government bureacracies, not necessarily transit)
  • Planning, engineering, or urban design professionals
  • Politicians.
  • Occasionally, private-sector managers or executives.
  • Also occasionally, union officials.
Crunican, McFarlane, (and Hansen) both come from the public administration side of things--though Crunican has significant prior experience in public transportation.  McFarlane, of course, is an insider--but one from the administrative and political side of the house.  And this is the source of a common line of criticism concerning both all individuals.  Many critics and observers of the agency believe that TriMet should hire someone whose primary expertise is not in political glad-handing and schmoozing, but someone skilled in the nuts and bolts of running a transit agency.

In other words, a Transit Professional™.

The legendary, mythical Transit Professional

Simply running a transit agency, needless to say, does not make you a "transit professional".  When folks speak of transit pros, they generally mean those who have spent significant time in actual transit operations or engineering.  People who used to work as dispatchers or shop supervisors or as route planners (or possibly even as mechanics or drivers).  Those who know the ins and outs of scheduling, or when to order a new batch of brakes, or who can calculate overtime on the back of their hands.  People who get their hands dirty in the garage, rather than in the backroom.

Many demands for a Transit Professional seem to come from transit workers--and it's no wonder.  It's a common phenomenon in enterprises of all sorts, public and private, that the rank-and-file generally prefer "one of their own" get promoted into leadership positions, rather than seeing outside management professionals (especially those with little practical experience in the activity being managed) being inserted at the top.  Likewise, many well-meaning transit advocates--who interact with the rank and file every morning when they ride the train to work, express the same preference.

The term Transit Professional also suggests a degree of political independence and focus on technical merit.  It seems to be an article of faith for some that while your average bureaucratic hack will readily compromise the agency's mission for political expedience, a true Transit Professional will steadfastly put the agency and its patrons first and foremost every time; will make all decisions based solely on operational merits--politics be damned--and will slay whatever dragons get in the way.  A lack of political or administrative experience among many such professionals, is often considered a plus rather than a minus.

But is hiring a Transit Professional of this sort (either promoting a director of ops from within, or hiring an individual with said experience) really a good idea?

The risks of neophytes.

Getting back to the list of duties above--the majority of the list are political duties.  Interacting with other agencies and their heads.  Schmoozing.  Seeking funding.  Defending turf.  In short, anyone who heads a public agency of any significant size is going to be swimming with sharks--and chances are, the people that a transit head will be interacting with are going to be highly politically astute.  And some of them will be hostile to the transit agency (or covetous of its budget); and a sizable fraction of those will go to great lengths to conceal this intent.  As a result--the job requires political skills.  Some prospects with primary technical experience will have the "street smarts" to navigate these shark-infested waters--but many do not.  The halls of government (and the boardrooms of business) are littered with the remains of failed administrators who were technically proficient but politically clueless.

Of course, there are equally many examples of skilled politicians failing as administrators as well--often due to a lack of knowledge of what they were supposed to be administering.

Does that mean that administration of large organizations is hopeless, unless you can find that rare individual with both technical and managerial chops?

Of course not.  The key--is delegation.

The importance of delegation

Probably one of the most important skills in a manager is knowing his or her limitations, finding subordinates who possess the missing skillsets, and empowering them to do their job.  Oh, and listening to them and taking their advice on their areas of expertise.  Managers who cannot do this, who cannot successfully manage down, are likely to fail--no matter how skilled they are at dealing with peers, customers, and stakeholders.  A transit agency needs a politically skilled representative to be the face of, and advocate for, the agency--and they need someone who knows the nuts and bolts.

However, and this is key:  They don't necessarily need to be the same person.

And therein lies the rub.  Assuming you don't find that rare individual who can do it all; who walks on water when she's not busy parting it; the different leadership functions will probably be vested in different people.  Which brings up another important question:  Which one gets to be the boss?

And here, the answer may disappoint many transit advocates.  It is far easier to delegate operations  than it is to delegate politics.  Many cities nowadays have professional managers to oversee city operations--but they still report to a mayor or council.  Many corporations delegate day-to-day business to a COO--but when this is done, the COO is still subordinate to the guy whose job it is to schmooze with investors, interface with the board, and go out and make big deals with customers.  In the context of a public transit agency--it is easiest if the "transit professional" works for the boss, rather than is the boss.

All this assumes, of course, that the director or GM is competent.  If you have a leader who is more interested in empire-building than in running his organization well, that's a recipe for disaster.  But that's true regardless of who gets put in charge--no organizational structure can compensate for incompetent management.

A good hire?

Is the hire of McFarlane, or the previously reported hire of Crunican, a good idea?  I don't know.  She drew a lot of criticism during her tenure in Seattle--but also had her fair share of defenders.  Much of the criticism concerned the City's poor response to the massive snowstorm that blanketed the northwest in 2008--however, Seattle's books appear to be in far better shape than the organization she is reportedly joining. 

McFarlane was instrumental in much of the capital expansion of the system.  According to TriMet, "he led the development, design and construction of TriMet’s capital facilities, including the Airport, Interstate, I-205 and Portland Mall MAX extensions. From 1991 to 1998, he was TriMet’s Project Control Director for the 18-mile, $963 million Westside light rail project. Before coming to TriMet, McFarlane worked for Metro from November 1986 to February 1991 and helped manage construction for the 500,000 square foot $90 million Oregon Convention Center with landmark twin towers, successful public art program, and cost-effective design" (  His role in these projects may not endear him to many critics of the agency, who would prefer a more back-to-basics, operational focus.

But what ultimately matters to any person in the role is her their competence and her willingness to work with the transit professionals she they will interact with, both within TriMet, and in other agencies such as Metro or ODOT--not her knowledge of bus scheduling.  It's worth noting while Fred Hansen was frequently criticized for not being a transit pro--his biggest failings as TriMet GM were strategic and not operational in nature.  Like many a starry-eyed corporate CEO whose expansion plans lead the firm into bankruptcy, Hansen's plans and vision didn't adequately consider the possibility of a once-in-a-generation recession, leading to the agency's present precarious financial position.  But the busses and trains generally ran on schedule under his tenure; TriMet remains in far better shape than other agencies I could name.  (Muni, anyone?)

At any rate, I wish Ms. CrunicanMr. McFarlane luck in herhis new post, if rumors are indeed correct.  (If The Oregonian is wrong in its reporting, then I wish the same to whoever else is named in her stead.)   SheHe will certainly need it.  (And I wish the Oregonian better luck in its reporting... :)

And so, fellow Portlanders, will we.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

A three part series on sprawl...

...from a Buffalo planning professional knows as "Joe the Planner".  Written over a series of several months:
Read 'em all.  And weep.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Things that matter: pedestrian safety

In a thread at on the value of speed in urban transit lines, commenter "dejv" remarked that crossing safety requires (among other things):
force people to look in direction of oncoming train by crossing design (those railings do that efficiently). I know about one death caused by screwing up these two details
 I don't know dejv, and he could have been referring to any number of accidents involving rail transit and pedestrians--but he could have been referring to a particular accident on Portland's MAX system some years ago.  There have been several accidents involving MAX and pedestrians (or private vehicles); and the vast majority were likely unavoidable by the agency.  Many involve suicides, intoxicated pedestrians, or trespassing on the line (by which I mean being on the tracks in places other than designated crossing); and of the remaining accidents that do occur at crossings, the human simply wasn't paying attention; and there's little that the driver or the system designers could have done.

The importance of visibility

But an accident at the Millikan Way MAX station, in Beaverton, was a different story.
View Larger Map

The Millikan Way park-and-ride is located near an office park in Beaverton (just to the northeast, out of the embedded picture, is the famous Nike Employee Store).  It's a side-boarding station, with two platforms (one for each direction), and the tracks in the middle.  A large parking lot is located to the north (as is the Howard Vollum industrial park), a small lot and a bus stop is located to the south.  Two pedestrian crossings of the tracks are located on either end of the platforms; two additional pedestrian crossings are provided for the sidewalks on SW 141st, just east of the station.

A few years after the westside MAX line opened (and I apologize for not having a more precise date--I wasn't able to track down any news reports of the incident, so this is from memory), a worker at a high-tech company located nearby approached the station on foot, from the north, intending to catch an eastbound train.  Upon arriving at the station, he noted that an eastbound train was already waiting, about to depart.  So the worker sprinted through the parking lot to the pedestrian crossing just east of the platform, and ran across the tracks there--and was struck and killed by a westbound train pulling into the station.  Crossing gates on 141st were active and included an audible signal; but it is easy to surmise that this was due to the eastbound train getting ready to depart.

One immediate thing to note is the presence of a pair of utility buildings, east of each platform, and immediately west of the street.  These were found to be contributing factors to the accident, as they both obscured the victims' view of the westbound tracks, and the westbound train driver's view of the crossing.  (The driver was not held to be at fault; as is the case in most train-pedestrian accidents; the train crew is powerless to avoid the collision). 

The solution, to prevent further accidents of this sort, was to install safety barriers at each pedestrian crossing of the tracks--spring-loaded metal gates which must be opened by anyone seeking to cross the traffics, in an attempt to ensure that they slow down--and hopefully check for oncoming trains.  In addition, mirrors were installed to improve visibility of the area behind the building.  Unfortunately for TriMet, not all stations were retro-fitted in this manner, and there have been similar accidents of this sort at other crossings.  Recently, an accident involving a pedestrian and a train at a sidewalk crossing near a station has prompted TriMet to go one step further and install gates (and pedestrian channeling) at a sidewalk crossing, a few miles west of Millikan Way.

An alternate approach

There are other ways to improve pedestrian safety on light rail or tram lines where pedestrians must cross the tracks.  The Ping Shan stop on the MTR Light Rail in Hong Kong serves as an illustration.

View Larger Map

There is nothing remarkable about this particular stop, other than it was close to where I stayed on a recent visit.  Many other LTR stops have a similar design, but there is one key attribute which is worth noting--the staggered platforms.

Like the Millikan Way stop above, the Ping Shan station is a side-platform design; with the passengers standing off to the side and the tracks in the middle.   However, the two passenger platforms (identifiable in the picture by the orange shelters), rather than being directly across from each other as was the case for Millikan Way.  The picture was taken from the westbound platform (which, in Hong Kong, is the southernmost one--trains, like traffic, move on the left in HK), and shows the eastbound platform.

A single pedestrian crossing, shown in the picture, is between the two platforms.  Accessing the westbound platform practically requires use of this crossing, as there is no safe street-level crossing of Castle Peak Road (the highway adjacent to the tracks) in the area--those wanting to cross Castle Peak use the footbridge shown in the background.

How does the staggered platform design improve safety?  For one thing, all pedestrian crossings of the tracks occur in one location, rather than in several, as is the case of Millikan Way.  More importantly, though, all pedestrian crossings occur in front of stopped trains (at least in normal operation).  The accident at Millikan occurred when the victim was struck by a moving train, one pulling into the station.  Trains which are stopped pose no danger, and those just starting out are less of a hazard then trains which are already breaking.

While some TriMet stops are space-constrianed, many on the westside Blue Line have ample room for staggered platforms.  Why the design was not considered, I have no idea.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Just how SMART is Wilsonville, anyway?

TriMet, after two rounds already of budget cuts due to declining revenues caused by the recession (both in terms of tax receipts--higher unemployment means fewer payroll taxes to collect--and ridership--higher unemployment means fewer people riding the bus), is now looking at a third round.

And a few suburban governments, including the city of Wilsonville--which is not even IN the TriMet service district--are ticked about it.

A sharply-worded editorial in the Wilsonville Spokesman suggests that quite a bit of bad blood remains between TriMet and the city of Wilsonville, which withdrew from the TriMet service district in 19801988 to operate their own transit agency, SMART.   Wilsonville, apparently, is upset that TriMet is considering reductions in service to WES, the commuter rail boondoggleline which connect Wilsonville to Beaverton (where one can continue on to Portland or Hillsboro via MAX--without paying any additional fare).   The editorial also expresses dismay that the city of Tualatin, which is still part of TriMet, augments the WES service with a city-provided shuttle service--something which the writer thinks that TriMet ought to provide, instead.

Some critics of the agency have further noted that SMART has a pristine balance sheet, whereas TriMet is hemorrhaging red ink--suggesting that the latter is a victim of its own mismangement.

This is all very interesting.  While this does appear to indeed be a battle over turf--it's also a battle over something more fundamental (and one which has been going on for three decades):  Who gets the bigger piece of the service pie?

A bit of history

TriMet was formed in 1969 when the previously private bus operators in Portland went out of business.  Originally, TriMet's service district included much of southern and eastern Clackamas County, but four cities located wholly or partially within the county later chose to withdraw from TriMet and operate their own intra-city transit agencies:  Canby, Molalla, Sandy, and Wilsonville.  The first three are exurbs which are (and remain) separated from the Portland metro area both geographically and culturally--Molalla, if anything, is more in the orbit of Salem than Portland.  Their withdrawl didn't affect TriMet's finances materially; all of them have economies based on local agriculture or tourism.
Wilsonville was a different matter.  A third-ring suburb of Portland, Wilsonville is only fifteen miles from  downtown, and part of the contiguous (sub)urban area.  It's also a major employment area within the metro area--Xerox, Mentor Graphics, and numerous other high-tech employers are either headquartered there, or have a major presence.  At one point, Wilsonville had the distinction of having more jobs than residents within the city limits; though with many new residential neighborhoods this is no longer true.

What's fair?

Switching gears for a moment--let us consider the question:  The TriMet service district has a population of about 1.5 million, and includes pretty much all of the Portland metro area located within Oregon--except Wilsonville.  The city of Portland itself has a population of about 500 thousand--thus for every Portlander, there are two suburb-dwellers in Oregon.  Many consider the regional nature of TriMet's service district to be a good thing--cities with Balkanized transit service (one agency serving the city center, others serving the outlying communities) often suffer for it, especially if the agencies involved battle over turf or otherwise decline to integrate their operations for the benefit of passengers.

Now take a look at TriMet's frequent service map,  and its overall  system map.  What do you notice?  The highest concentration of services is in Portland, not in the burbs--and much of the suburban service is designed to get you to and from downtown.  There are exceptions, of course, but the bulk of the service is Portland-focused.

Is this state of affairs fair?  Many transit pros will answer yes--Portland is generally where the density is, and TriMet can provide operations within Portland efficiently.  Transit service to suburban sprawl is generally always going to be an inefficient proposition, as a) people are too spread out to serve effectively, and b) most of 'em drive anyway.

This analysis doesn't consider, however, who pays the bills.

Follow the money

TriMet has two main funding sources for its operations:  Fares, and a payroll tax levied within the service district.  Being a payroll tax, the tax is based on where a given employee works--someone who lives in Salem and works in Portland contributes to TriMet's revenue stream; someone who does the reverse, does not.   If someone lives in Beaverton and works in Tualatin, their contribution to TriMet is "booked" as coming from Tualatin.

Were one to compare the percentage of payroll tax revenues coming from a particular jurisdiction, with the level of service provided to that jurisdiction--one could determine whether a given jurisdiction is a net donor or beneficiary to TriMet.  Many of the 'burbs which are bedroom communities are net beneficiaries, according to the accounting--TriMet spends more money on service there than it receives in tax revenues.  But some communities, mainly on the west side of town (where the high tech industry is centered), are net donors--their employment centers subsidize, to some extent, TriMet's operations.  Much of Washington County is in this boat.

And prior to its withdrawl in 1980, so was Wilsonville.  In 1980That year, the city of Wilsonville was a mixture of high-tech campuses, farmland, a mental hospital, and a truck stop on I-5.  It had a very small residential population, and tons of high-tech, high-paying jobs.  It provided a significant part of TriMet's tax revenue, for which it received a handful of lines heading downtown.  In 1980, Wilsonville decided to take the money and run.   To its credit, it launched its own transit service--SMART, which provides circulator service within the city.  SMART also provides connecting service to TriMet in Tualatin and Tigard, and a line into the city of Salem.  Most SMART services are free, and as mentioned above, SMART has a nice, clean balance sheet.

How the pie is really sliced

Which brings us to the political realities of TriMet's service allocations.  It needs to provide a minimum level of service to all parts of its service district, in order to keep the tax revenues funding--there are quite a few lines whose primary justification is preserving the service footprint.  And those suburban communities which are net donors to TriMet, have leverage to insist upon a higher level of service than their land use and development patterns might otherwise merit.  And leaders there are quite happy to let TriMet (and Metro) know this.

It's widely believed that the reason TriMet went ahead with WES, despite quite a bit of institutional doubt about the project (doubts which were proven to be valid), is that Washington County was threatening, behind closed doors, to pull a Wilsonville if it didn't get a bigger piece of the service pie.

If there's a good thing about WES--it's that its existence will likely keep Washington County from any secession threats in the future.  After all, were the county to separate from TriMet, WES would then be their problem.  WES is, in many ways, like an underwater mortgage that keeps a squabbling couple from getting that divorce that might just make one (or both) of them happier.

As a resident of the metro area who is concerned about good transit service for the entire region, it's a shame that things have to end up this way.  As a resident of Washington County, it's a shame that county leaders blew their wad in way that backfired so spectacularly.  But as a resident of the TriMet service district, and as a taxpayer and user of the service, I have little sympathy for residents and leaders of Wilsonville who are upset that WES might not run as frequently as they like.

Hong Kong: Some transport observations

Part Two of a series.
In a prior post, the transportation system in Beijing is discussed.  Whereas we were essentially tourists in Beijing,  unfamiliar with the area (it was our first trip to the Chinese capital), we have visited Hong Kong many times and are quite familiar with the city, its layout, and its transportation system. 

Layout and geography.

Unlike Beijing, which stands on a flat plain, unencumbered for the most part by geography, Hong Kong lies on a series of mountainous landforms (mostly islands, and one peninsula off the Asian landmass) which limits how much of the land can be inhabited.  Only about 25% of the land within the Special Autonomous Region is suitable for development--this results in effective urban densities similar to Manhattan--and results in a great transit city.  Much of the land that is used is reclaimed land--areas that used to be water but were filled in by man.   .

Due to the geographic constraints, the freeway network is very irregular; and other than one freeway which crosses into mainland China at Shenzen, are contained entirely within Hong Kong.  An extensive network of tunnels and bridges (such as the Tsing Ma Bridge, pictured) connect the various islands with the Kowloon peninsula (and also tunnel under the mountains immediately north of Kowloon, into the New Territories).  While the freeways themselves are free; tolls are collected at many bridges and tunnels--some of which were constructed (and are operated) by private enterprise.

Like most places which were under British rule or influence at some point during the automobile era, traffic in Hong Kong moves on the left.  Traffic in the mainland moves on the right in the rest of China, and switching ramps can be found at border crossings--nonetheless, it's not unusual to find Chinese vehicles, with steering wheels on the left, operating on Hong Kong roads (or the reverse).

Private vehicle usage is far less than in Beijing--the density makes transit more practical.  Parking is expensive, as is gasoline--so much so that a thriving black market in "duty-free" petrol exists.  Much of the traffic on the freeways consists of transit and/or freight' and much of what remained consisted of luxury automobiles.  Traffic is far less chaotic than in the mainland--traffic laws are strictly enforced by the police, and the freeways are lined with photo-radar installations.  The "anything goes" traffic mentality found in China (and many other developing nations) does not apply to Hong Kong.

Taxis and personal transit

Like Beijing, Hong Kong has a thriving and well-regulated taxi industry; unlike Beijing hiring a cab is expensive (though nowhere near as bad as many US cities).   There's a notable absence of pedicabs and similar vehicles.  One interesting transport mode which is common in Hong Kong, but not replicated in many other places, is the public light bus (pictured)--small (16-passenger, typically) busses which essentially provide jitney service, typically on routes or to areas too small to justify regular bus service.  These come in two colors, red and green.  Green minibuses run on regular routes, like busses, but do not have fixed stops--passengers hail them like taxis, and can request stops in most places along the route where it is safe to do so.  These vehicles serve many less-dense communities in the New Territories.  The red minibus is even more taxi-like in that it has no fixed route.

Public transit.

Hong Kong has an extensive  heavy-rail subway system--the MTR--which concentrates in the urban core areas of northern Hong Kong iIsland (the local equivalent of Manhattan) and Kowloon.  Three spur lines serve Lantau Island (including the airport, Disneyland, and numerous high-rise neighborhoods such as Tung Chung) to the west, and the New Territories to the north.  In the northwestern New Territories towns of Tuen Mun, Yuen Long, and Tin Shui Wai, there is a light rail system (simply called the "light rail") which provides connections among these communities, and to the MTR West Rail.  The light rail isn't terribly fast--although it runs in its own right-of-way, it has high stop density, and frequently has to wait at traffic lights for crossing automobile traffic.  However, given its local function, its speed isn't a terribly big issue, and you seldom have to wait more than five minutes for a train.  If you need a particular train, you may have to wait--one feature of the systems is significant interlining (in some places up to five different routes run on the same track segment).

Hong Kong has numerous other transit apparatus.  The Star Ferry connects Kowloon (Tsim Sha Tsui, to be specific) with Hong Kong Island, and is a popular way to cross the harbor if you're on foot.  (The subway is faster, though more expensive).  A "historic" streetcar runs through the heart of downtown, and is useful for those on its route.  Hong Kong also has numerous pedestrian improvements--from an extensive underground tunnel network integrated with the subways (but which do far more than simply provide access to the trains), to labyrinthine network of skybridges and elevated walkways, to the famous Mid-Levels Escalator.  There's quite a few things which primarily serve tourists as well, such as the Victoria Peak Tram, or the Ngong Ping 360, a gondola line connecting the Tung Ching district near the airport with the "Big Buddha", a popular tourist attraction.

But the core of Hong Kong's transit network is its massive network of busses.

The bus system in Hong Kong goes everywhere, and does it frequently.  The most important component of the bus network are the "franchised busses", which are operated by one of five operating companies under license from the government.  Routes, fares, and schedules are all fixed, and there are over 700 different franchised routes.  Franchised busses operate on the pay-as-you-go principle, and most of the busses used are the double-decker variety.  Riding in the front of the upper level of one of these is an interesting experience, especially a bus barreling down some of the hillier Hong Kong freeways (route 9 east of Tuen Mun, or route 7 pretty much everywhere, are excellent examples).  In addition to the franchised busses are other specific bus services such as airport or hotel shuttles, "estate busses" (which serve specific housing developments), etc.

And no discussion of transit in Hong Kong would be complete without mentioning the Octopus Card, the world's first contactless smartcard system, and still one of the best.  While originally designed for transit (everything but the historic streetcars accept it as payment), it is also used for numerous other things--such as paying for parking or tolls, access to private lots, or buying coffee at 7-11 or McDonalds.  (Hong Kong has many of both chains).  Octopus cards are available in both anonymous and personalized versions, and life in the city would be difficult without one.  (The transit system does accept cash, but you pay more.)


While in Hong Kong, we stated at my wife's grandparents' apartment in Ping Shan, a small "village" located within the Yuen Long district.  The apartment happens to be adjacent to the Ping Shan light rail stop, so the light rail was our primary transit access point (a few busses stop within walking distance, but not many).  Given that the heavy-rail connection (the MTR West Rail line) from Yuen Long is inconvenient for many of the trips we planned to make, we often rode the bus from Yuen Long town center to wherever we were going--in all cases, there was a bus with a single-seat ride and no more than a 12 minute wait.  As a result, in the reverse of the typical situation, we found ourselves using the train as a "feeder" service to the bus network, something which I'm sure Jarrett will appreciate.  :)

In a previous section, I mentioned the freeway tollbooths which guard access to many of the chokepoints in the region (there's about 8 freeway tunnels and several bridges which are tolled).  Busses and taxis passing through the chokepoints have to stop and pay tolls as well (as the busses are privately operated, they don't get a free pass from the road authorities, or from the private entities which operate some of the tunnels).  However, the bus network puts these to good use--since all busses passing through a tollbooth have to slow down for the tollbooth (their tolls are automatically collected, but there are still gates which must be passed through), each tollbooth has, immediately before or after, a bus stop--which serves as a de-facto transit center.  Such stops are generally not located near any useful destination; but are serviced by each bus crossing the gridge or tunnel.  Thus the tollbooth stops are an excellent place for those who need to change busses (or trains--for some of these locations, there's also an MTR stop nearby) to do so. 

One "bug" I noticed in the bus system is that in some places, the sheer volume of stops (and of busses trying to get in and out of stops) would cause bus traffic jams--where busses trying to leave a stop would be blocked by another bus waiting to pull into a stop further ahead.  Nathan Road in Kowloon (a popular shopping corridor) is a common location for these sorts of traffic jams.  If any street in HK would benefit from turning into a transit mall (and closing it to private autos), it's this one.

Hong Kong is a very vertical city--both due to the steep terrain, and due to the endless parade of skyscrapers.  This causes transport links and buildings to mingle in ways that simply aren't seen in much of the west--there are places where freeways tunnel under shopping malls (or pass through skyscrapers), or where shopping mall concourses pass over freeways like a street overpass.  The roads have far less stringent design standard than are found in the US (where congestion avoidance and safety dominate all other concerns, such as humane integration with the surrounding fabric).  As a result, even where there are freeways or boulevards, they have less of an impact on the pedestrian environment than in the US, where highway trenches or viaducts are often viewed as insurmountable obstacles to anyone not in a car--even where there ample protected crossings.  Some of this may be cultural--traffic isn't viewed as much of a nuisance as it is in many less-dense Western cities. 

But Hong Kong--for many reasons, including those related to transport, is a place which simply must be experienced.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Transit oriented development: How much is the transit worth, anyway?

A common trend in urban planning circles in the English-speaking world, is transit-oriented development--higher density communities which are built with providing easy access to some form of (usually rapid) transit.  While the name TOD is fairly recent, the phenomenon is not--many cities in Asia and Europe feature so-called new towns, often built after World War II, which contain a significant transit component.  The new town is generally a larger-scale development that US-style TOD; and were not focused specifically on transit; so it would be incorrect to simply equate the two, but there are many similarities.

In many TODs, the development is built concurrently with the transit line, and predicted ridership from the development is often used in justifying the existence of the transit line.  In some cases, the developers may help finance construction of the line, or even operate it.  (The MAX Red Line airport segment is one example--Bechtel, which owned a big chunk of land near Portland International Airport, helped finance the line; and constructed a significant retail development, CascadeStation, along the line just east of the airport.  CascadeStation is not residential in nature--as it lies right under the eastern aircraft approach to PDX, it is not a desirable place to live--but it is there, nonetheless).

Such approaches are often highly controversial, for various reasons:
  • The heavy public/private involvement often draws accusations of corruption from many different political quarters.  While most such arrangements are conducted above-board and are not per se illegal; it is frequently alleged that the primary beneficiaries of TOD projects are developers, construction firms, and the relevant trade unions--not transit users or the general public.
  • This is especially true when the bulk of the ridership from a planned transit line is expected to come from TOD.  Many transit users would prefer that transit improvements come to where they already live, not to a new development which would require them to move.  Of course, it should be pointed out that in many cases "where they already live" often consists of low-density neighborhoods which are not possible to efficiently serve with high-quality transit.
  • In a political culture suspicious of central planning, TOD is a bright big red flag (complete with hammer and sickle) for some.  Of course,the notion that suburban sprawl is a natural byproduct of the free market is a myth, but reality seldom gets in the way of a good ideological soundbite.
Streetcars, part deux

Peter Christensen wrote an excellent article on a related subject--the financing and development of the original streetcar systems in the US during the early 20th century (which were usually private, for-profit operations).  In it, he noted that the streetcars "were a real estate ploy as much as a transportation ploy", and that efficient operation of the line (whether by a for-profit operator, or a public one) requires high density around it:

Basically, any city that’s building a light rail or subway line and not dramatically increasing the zoning around it is throwing money away. Without the proper land use, there’s not enough population to drive demand, without demand there’s not enough incentive to provide good levels of service, and without good levels of service people will find it faster to drive.
Indeed, much money made by streetcar operators was in real estate speculation--in some cases, the trains were a "loss leader" to boost the value of the surrounding real estate.  A common practice among streetcar operators was to build attractions such as amusement parks or stadiums as anchors for the line--Jantzen Beach, Oaks Park, and the now-gone Vaughn Street Park were all examples of so-called trolley parks.   


Some projects which are TOD, or cited as TOD, are successful--they have morphed into popular communities with good levels of occupancy, both residential and commercial.   Orenco Station in Hillsboro is frequently cited as one example.  The Pearl District occasionally gets cited as well; though much of the development of the Pearl predates the Portland Streetcar (more on that in a minute).

But other than a few surviving remnants, the old streetcar system is now long gone.  And there are many TOD project around the world--and in Portland, in particular, which have failed in some fashion; either failed to achieve the occupancy expected (resulting in lower-than-predicted ridership for the transit line), or in some cases which have resulted in bankruptcy for the developer(s) and or the assumption of debt by taxpayers when a private entity defaults.

The Round, in Beaverton, is one infamous example.  The South Waterfront development just south of downtown Portland, with OHSU as an anchor tenant and gorgeous Willamette River views, may be another.  (I'm cutting SoWa some slack as it started to open just as the housing bubble burst; whereas as The Round was a failure despite opening during the peak of the housing boom).

Why?  Is it not true that if you build it, they will come? 

Location, Location, Location

It is easy to note the staggeringly high prices of real estate in places such as Manhattan--or even in the Pearl or other nicer close-in Portland neighborhoods.  Which begs the question:  what makes these communities so popular--so much so that residents will pay a premium to live there?  Occasionally, it is alleged that the answer is things like "access to transit", or simply that high-density itself (and the more frequent interactions with neighbors that density brings--the "community", to use a frequent buzzword) are what makes these places pricey.

Were that so, though, then any old apartment building near a transit line ought to be popular--and have high occupancy at premium prices.  One would think.

But it's easy to see that it's not so.  Residents of The Round have a MAX stop at their front door, a decent selection of above-average restaurants on the bottom floor, and an office/retail park across the street.    However, they also have numerous trailer parks, low-cost apartments within walking distance; not to mention acres of car lots.  Museums, art galleries, truly fine restaurants, and first-class shopping?  Nada.  The Round is designed to appeal to upper-class consumers and sensibilities; but fails to offer any upper-class amenities.  And while inner Beaverton is no Hell's Kitchen, it's got its share of blight and crime--things which the well-heeled frequently pay a premium to avoid.  (There's probably a racial angle here as well, as the surrounding community has a strong Mexican presence).  And transit?  Besides MAX, the bus system in Washington County is sparse in both spacing and frequency--Beaverton is, and remains, auto-dominated suburbia.  Outside of The Round, all the neighboring businesses have huge parking lots, and are difficult to access on foot.

As an upscale community, The Round fails.  As TOD, it fails, too.

So why is the Pearl successful?  Or numerous other trendy inner-city Portland neighborhoods, whose only transit is local bus service? 

Proximity to cultural attractions.  Proximity to jobs.  Proximity to goods and services.  And for some, exclusivity.

This is not to say that transit is unimportant--as good infrastructure (provided it's not obnoxious or intrusive) increases the cultural attractions, jobs, goods, and services which are within ready reach.  However, most people ride the bus or train (or drive) because they want to get somewhere.  Being located next to a train is like being located near a freeway--great, but what else is in the neighborhood?

The Pearl is conveniently located to both downtown (and all the cultural activities located therein) and to some of the most exclusive shopping districts in Portland (and here the Streetcar helps a great deal).   Orenco doesn't have these amenities, but its located in the heart of the high-tech industrial employment zone.

One of the most interesting TOD projects in the Portland area, is Villebois in Wilsonville.  Located on the site of a former mental hospital, it's arguably a TOD which is located a short distance away from the southernmost WES stop.  It has enjoyed moderate success, as many folks have moved there, though retail occupancy still remains to be desired.  Wilsonville is also a key high-tech employment center in the Portland area.

But WES?  It's a peak-hour-only commuter rail service, that is a really inconvenient ride into Portland.  While Villebois may help drive usage of WES, the limitations of the service cast doubts on the notion that people moved to Villebois to be near commuter rail--if they did, many of them are doubtless disappointed.   The success of the development, if it continues to blossom, may have end up having little to do with transit at all.

The bottom line

Transit-oriented development can be a useful thing, if new infrastructure is to be built.  However, for it to succeed, a few things ought to be kept in mind:
  • Proximity to transit is not sufficient (nor is it necessary) for a desirable community--this is especially true when the community is located in suburbia (and where residents will probably need a car anyway).  What is important--with all communities--are things like good amenities and services, avoidance of blight, crime, and other undesirable situations.  Building new communities along transit is often better than building subdivisions on the next cornfield--but for either to succeed, they have to be good places to live.  Being near infrastructure is a small part of that equation.
  • From a planning/infrastructure, infill is often a better way to improve transit outcomes.  Of course, infill is often unpopular with existing residents (and less attractive to well-heeled developers).
  • If you are going to build new infrastructure based entirely on speculative demand (serving new communities rather than existing ones), you had better be right--this is especially true if creation of a new service requires curtailment of an existing service elsewhere.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Is Portland becoming a "shadow city"?

Over at The Urbanophile, Aaron M. Renn proposes a distinction between "true cities" and "shadow cities"; the latter being those, essentially, which have no stable economic vitality on their own.  In his essay, he divides the goods and services produced with a community into three types:
  1. Local goods and services. These are things like banks, grocery stores, dry cleaners, coffee shops, plumbers, etc. that exist in order to provide goods and services to the people who live in a place.
  2. Branch plant or departmental export. These are things like raising wheat, building brake components for cars, certain types of laboratory work, or any other type of specialized product that exists as a captive service or commodity to satisfy particularized demand from elsewhere. They are often specialized and routinized.
  3. Indigenous exports/industry. These are pieces of the production puzzle, often creative or innovative, that either serve a broad and diverse market or create markets. This could be anything from a biotech firm to a hedge fund to a specialty bike manufacturer to an internet company to a specialty manufacturing concern to a Fortune 500 headquarters. These types of businesses constitute the independent economic life force in a city.
If I may refactor a bit, the two questions he's asking concerning a given enterprise are:

  1. Does the enterprise produce income for the community (either by producing goods and services which are sold externally, resulting in revenue; or which otherwise attract outside revenue or investment?)
  2. How stable is the arrangement?  Renn's analysis of stability focuses on the location of a business in the value chain, and its need for human capital--a corporate headquarters is, in his analysis, more stable then a factory or branch office; a R&D facility is more stable than a factory or a distribution center.  Another key criteria for stability is tie to the area's physical location (geography or climate)--the agricultural production of Oregon can't be moved to Arizona, for instance; nor could the Port of Tacoma be towed to Spokane.  Nor can the tourists who flock to Hawaii be persuaded to surf the sunny beaches of British Columbia.   
Obviously, a community--over the long haul--must attract sufficient revenue to sustain itself, or else it will deteriorate and die.  Some communities (suburban bedroom communities) have almost no income-producing economic activity, and depend on residents having jobs elsewhere for their vitality.  My hometown of Oregon City, OR; once a thriving mill town, now mainly exists as a residential suburb of Portland, for instance.  

Another important factor is a city's capital base--essentially, the collective wealth of its residents.  Those cities with a large capital base will have an easier time responding to shocks.  Some places, such as retirement communities, depend entirely on attracting well-to-do residents (and depleting their savings and pensions) for economic vitality, as opposed to the export of goods and services).  
Cities with small capital bases, like businesses with cash flow problems, are more likely to be devastated by short-term economic downturns.

Turning back to Renn--he defines those cities which have adequate stable income producing enterprises as "true cities"; and those without as "shadow cities".  His categories 2 and 3 differ from each other on the question of stability--enterprises in category 2 are more likely to be closed or relocated on a whim; those in category 3 are more likely to have staying power.  Renn uses Flint, MI as an example of what can happen to a "shadow city"--though as a de facto company town (Flint wasn't merely tied to Detroit, it was tied to General Motors, and to the whims of company executives), Flint is an extreme example.

Whither Portland?

But what about the city I call home--Portland?

Over the past thirty years, we've seen the demise of one "indigenous export industry" here--the wood products industry.  Thirty years ago, Oregon's forests and mills supplied much of the world with timber, lumber, paper, and other things that come from trees; today, the wood products industry is a shadow of its former self (focusing on specialty wood products and paper).  Georgia-Pacific and Louisiana-Pacific are long gone.  Willamette Industries was bought out by Weyerhauser, which promptly closed many of its Oregon operations.   There's far more sawmills which have been torn down or abandoned in the state, than those still running.

Over the past twenty years, we've witnessed a wave of corporate consolidations, resulting many large Oregon corporations being bought out by larger, out-of-state entities.  Weyerhauser was mentioned above.  US Bancorp (bought up by larger banks twice, both of whom took the US Bancorp name).  Fred Meyer.  Freightliner.  Tektronix.  Meier and Frank.  The list goes on and on.  At the present time, the state of Oregon has only two Fortune 500 companies (Nike and Precision Castparts)--that's it.  When a company gets bought out, it produces a drop in local corporate philanthropy, and the prior headquarters gets relegated to a branch office--if it remains open at all.  (A major justification for corporate mergers, after all, is the opportunity to downsize the administrative staff in the combined entity--and the acquired company usually bears the brunt of the layoffs).

Over the past decades, we've seen the international shipping business focusing on container shipping, and moving to larger and larger ships--many of whom are unwilling (or unable) to endure the hassle of navigating the Columbia to reach Portland, when there are so many other deepwater ports on the West Coast which are easier to call on.  Portland's terminals still thrive in a few niche areas--bulk commodities and imports of automobiles--but the Port of Portland is a second-tier player in West Coast shipping.

Over the past few decades, we've seen boom and bust in the local high-tech industry.  Intel (a California company) maintains a significant presence in Oregon, and Oregon's cheap water and electricity make the state an attractive place for semiconductor fabrication.  On the other hand, the local high-tech economy is stagnant, and the "godfather" firm of the Silicon Forest--Tektronix--is now owned by an out-of-state entity (Danaher) which didn't take long to announce plans to move most production to China.  There's no top-tier research university in Portland (and even Oregon State University, the state's flagship tech institution, is widely regarded as second-class); and a rather small venture capital community.  Attempts to improve or expand the city's public universities (particularly Portland State) are frequently opposed by the downstate universities jealously guarding their turf. 

It's interesting to compare Portland to Seattle, 300km to the north.  Both have seen significant declines in their "original" industries--the aerospace industry in Seattle has been hit with numerous body blows over the years, culminating with the decision by Boeing to relocate its headquarters to Chicago.  (Cynics suggest that Boeing, long-term, plans to pull out of Seattle altogether, and move all its production to states with less union presence--a story which sounds a lot like that of Freightliner here, but with far more ramifications).  Yet Seattle has seen the rise of iconic firms such as Microsoft, Starbucks,, and Costco--the only comparable success story in Portland is that of Nike.

The good news

So, what's the good news?

The high-tech industry, despite the problems, is still productive.  Intel remains committed to the area, and much of what Intel designs and builds here cannot (for legal reasons) be outsourced outside the US.  Lots of smaller niche firms provide valuable goods and services, and Portland has become a de-facto center of "open source" software development, highlighted by the decision by Linux creator Linus Torvalds to relocate here. 

Agriculture is still a major component of the local economy.  The Willamette Valley wine industry has developed world-class status, and despite the departure of mid-label producer Henry Weinhard, Portland's brewing industry is also thriving.  The Willamette Valley remains a prime growing region, and the area's crop exports are in important segment of the economy.  (The state is also a prime producer of marijuana--despite that crop's less-than-legal status, it too benefits the local economy).  Portland has also developed a critical mass of quality restaurants, enough to bring about the emergence of a "food tourism" industry.

In addition to Nike, several other Portland-area apparel firms are doing well, most notably Columbia Sportswear.  Portland firms als do well in creative fields such as advertising, animation, and comic production.  The Portland music scene, long ignored by the major labels, is thriving in the area of Internet music distribution.

I could go on more.

The bottom line

So--what is the bottom line?  Is Portland a "shadow city", as Renn would put it?

Not yet.

The chances of Portland turning into another Flint are exceedingly remote; even considering the outsized impact of Intel on the local economy, Portland is in no way a "company town".  The economy here is far too broad-based for one firm to be able to devastate the city with an executive memo. 

That said, there are numerous danger signs, and a couple structural issues of grave concern.  As highlighted above, quite a few indigenous industries have left, and of those which remain, far too many are headquartered elsewhere.  For its size, Portland has a relatively small "capital base", (and likewise, a smaller and less prestigious set of cultural institutions) especially compared to other cities (such as New York or San Francisco) which have a liberal or pro-labor political consensus.  The former makes it harder to grow indigenous industry, the latter makes it harder to attract outside investment.   The second-tier status of Oregon's higher education system also remains an issue.

Of course, and I'm certain Renn would agree, that the question of being a "real city" vs a "shadow city" is not a binary one--there are many different degrees of economic independence between the great world cities such as New York, Paris, Tokyo, or Hong Kong; and dying former company towns such as Flint.  And while Portland is nowhere near Flint, nor even close to other beleaguered industrial cities such as Buffalo--there exists a good case that over the past decade or two, it has moved in that direction.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Beijing: Some transport observations

This is part one in a two-part series on my recent trip to China--this covers Beijing.  Part Two, covering Hong Kong, is forthcoming.
Regular readers of this blog (both of you) will note that there has only been one post here in the past month or so.  No, I wasn't run over by a proverbial bus--I was on vacation.

In China.

My wife is Chinese, and still has quite a bit of family in southern China (some in Hong Kong, some in Guangdong province in the mainland).  We regularly make hops 'cross the big pond to visit, which involves staying in Hong Kong, one of the world's truly fun cities (and a great transit town).  In addition, we made a side trip up to Beijing (where the Blogger platform, unfortunately, is blocked by the Great Firewall).

Now that we're back in the US, and mostly recovered from jet lag, here are a few interesting observations about both cities, from the perspective of a furriner and transport geek.  This post covers Beijing, a future post will cover Hong Kong.  This post makes no attempt to be a comprehensive guide to the city--google is your friend if you want that.

Overall layout and street system
We spent the better part of a week in Beijing.  The city and surround urban areas have a population of about 12 million--about the same size as London, and slightly larger than Paris.  Like these two European capitals, Beijing lies on a large, flat, plain, away from any significant waterways--and is rather spread out.   The city is surrounded by five "ring roads" (numbered 2 through 6 as you go out from the center, don't ask me why), all of them essentially freeways.  The central city lies within Ring Road #2--including most government buildings, the Forbidden City, and Tiananmen Square.   Everything within Ring Road #4 is generally of pretty high density; Ring Road #6 lies outside the president urban agglomination. 

These ring roads (which are more square than circular in shape, and aligned with the street grid; virtually all Beijing streets run N/S or E/W) are bisected by numerous inbound boulevards and "expressways" (a term generally used for tolled inter-urban freeways in China).  Generally no freeways penetrate the historic core; another similarity between Beijing and many European cities (and a difference from most US ones).   Despite this, Beijing overall has a freeway system which can give the LA area a run for its money.

Private vehicle usage

Given the abundance of roads, and the ample room for growth, and the increasing wealth of China, it's not a surprise that Beijing is becoming an auto-dominated city.  Fuel there cost about 6 RMB/liter, which works out to less then US$4 a gallon.  The freeways were frequently jammed, including with a large number of private vehicles--while parking is still an issue (freestanding homes with multi-car garages are not a feature of the cityscape), auto ownership is becoming increasingly popular.

Traffic in Beijing is frequently chaotic, and to the eyes of many Westerners, crazy.  Many maneuvers which would get you booked for reckless driving in the US and much of the West are commonplace in Beijing--passing in between lanes, speeding at highway speeds down narrow alleys, aggressively cutting into traffic, you name it--it gets done.  Beijing has a significant police presence, but I don't recall ever seeing a motorist receiving a citation.  (Nor do I recall seeing any traffic accidents either, so maybe it all works out...)

On interesting difference between China and the US is the classification of motorcycles.  In the US, motorcycles are classified equivalently to cars, and are limited to running on the roads (and not restricted from any).  In China, OTOH, they appear to be classified similarly to bicycles--motorbikes on the sidewalk or in pedestrian zones are commonplace; while many of them are banned from freeways. 

Taxis and personal transit

I must confess, we mainly used taxis to get around--mainly due to our in familiarity with the city.  Taxis are dirt cheap to hire there, especially for those exchanging US dollars, and the taxi service has been thoroughly professionalized.  (Make sure you hire a licensed cab, however; there are many unlicensed drivers operating, and many of these are lowlifes who will try to rip you off in some fashion). 

In addition to taxis, Beijing also has numerous pedicabs and motorcycle-cabs (the latter being contraptions where a motorcycle is encased in an aluminum shell providing seat for a passenger or two), providing service at bargain basement prices.  These mainly provide service within the heavily touristed areas of the city, and as far as I can tell, are unregulated.

Public transit

Beijing operates an extensive bus system, which includes a large number of trolleybus lines, mainly in the city center.  The terrain is nearly flat, so the sight of trolleybusses was a bit of a surprise to me (in the US, they're only used in cities with really steep hills).  Beijing also has an extensive subway system serving the urban core, one which is being rapidly expanded.

One of the most interesting things you'll find when you step on a Beijing city bus is--a conductor!  (Or a cashier, if you prefer).  Beijing busses board in the middle, and right behind the door is an official standing behind a counter with a cash register, collecting fares, checking passes, vending tickets, and otherwise making sure you pay for your bus ride.  The driver is free to drive the bus--an important concern in Beijing's chaotic and frequently jammed traffic.  The vehicles were modern and well-maintained, as near as I can tell.

Other Observations
China's rise has been a hot topic of conversation, recently--the government has a big surplus (the government in Beijing would like to extend a warm xiexie to all you WalMart shoppers out there), and is spending lots of money on infrastructure.  Construction cranes were everywhere in Beijing.  One important difference between China and the US is a lack of NIMBY opposition--generally, if the government decided to put public works someplace, whoever is there before has to move.  (And is often times paid a pittance--poor compensation for property condemnation is a common complaint).  The primary Olympic venues in the northern part of town (which now appear to be fenced off) were constructed over an existing neighborhood, for instance--350,000 people were reportedly forcibly relocated. 

A common theme about China is--labor is dirt cheap there.  Despite all the Marxist rhetoric of the regime's founding, China is a hotbed of laissez-faire crony capitalism (and quite a bit of corruption), with very little in the way of a social safety net.  Lots of people work very hard for very little money, though it's entirely possible to survive there on a pittance--but many jobs which would be automated, or simply not exist in the US, are done manually in mainland China.  As China continues to get wealthy and its middle class continues to grow, it will be interesting to see how the fortunes of the lower classes change.