Monday, June 7, 2010

More on hierarchies

This post, on applying Maslow's hierarchy to transit, appears to have attracted a fair bit of attention.  Jarrett did two pieces based on it, Cap'n Transit did an extensive five part magnum opus on the subject, and many of the other usual suspects have chimed in as well. There are few points I think are worth emphasizing.

Trips, habits, and investments.

The good Cap'n, in particular, breaks up the mode choice factors into four clusters (Availability, Value, Amenities, and Glamour), and mode choices themselves into three types:  single Trips, Habits, and Investments.

The mode choice for single Trips may be made for any number of reasons--curiosity, for expedience to a particular destination, to impress someone (such as a date), etc.  However, a mode choice that proves itself to be useful for large numbers of trips becomes a Habit, and when one orientates ones lifestyle around a particular mode choice, including spending money on it, it becomes an Investment.  Buying a car or a long-term transit pass, or making a choice to live in a place because of it's proximity to a particular piece of transport infrastructure (or to a particular destination--I live in Beaverton because that's where my job is, for instance), is evidence of an Investment.

Cap'n Transit goes into detail how this affects funding decisions as well.  I encourage you to check out the whole series at his blog.

Time and the luxury of waiting

Jarrett, and several commenters on the the original post at, bring up another important point:  As you move up Maslow's pyramid (here talking about Maslow's original work, not organizations of transit-specific values), you are frequently dealing with longer time scales for realization of needs.  And that significantly affects people's perceptions.  One commenter, Adrian, writes:
The disagreements you're alluding to are more about the appropriate time-scale for change, than they are about a pyramid of needs. The person waiting in the rain for a bus wants a better bus service right about now, but the warm and dry urbanist wants to create an urban form over the next few decades in which waiting for a bus in the rain will be less common.
So it depends on who you're working for; today's population, or the much greater population of the future. I acknowledge that the people of tomorrow don't vote now, nor do they pay for anything now, but that's why they need strong advocacy now!
Jarrett himself, brings up the story of the LA Bus Rider's Union, an oft-criticized organization of mostly-poor (and mostly-Latino) bus patrons in LA who were able to significantly delay the roll-out of LACMTA's rail system, on the grounds that it was adversely affecting transit-dependent bus riders in Los Angeles:

But as Maslow shows, they shouldn't expect these considerations to be very convincing to a citizen who's stranded on a rainy streetcorner, or in a stopped transit vehicle, because the city designed its transit to catalyze great urban life at the expense of making it fast and reliable.  That person will see other people's high-level needs being placed above their low-level needs.  

And once they have that perception, they're ready to join, say, the Los Angeles Bus Riders Union (BRU).  In the early 1990s in Los Angeles, a critical mass of people saw their bus service being cut even as money went into long-term rail transit plans.  The rail projects were good ones, for the most part, but they were far in the future and therefore only relevant to people whose immediate needs were met.  As a result of the BRU's lawsuit, the Los Angeles County transit agency spent about a decade under a "consent decree" in which courts reviewed all their plans, to ensure that the city's massive and crowded bus system was not just protected but enhanced.  Today, Los Angeles is deservedly moving forward with rail again, but it's also a city where buses are taken seriously.

While there are ample grounds for criticism of BRU--it frequently wallows in racial demagoguery, and it subscribes to the reality-is-a-social-construct-so-lets-make-up-our-own strain of Marxism--BRU certainly had a point:  Los Angeles planners were trading off the needs of the present for the needs of the future, and those with present needs were none too happy about it.  Jarrett continues in a comment:

Yes, but you're talking about the future, and the future appears in Maslow's hierarchy (as fear and arguably also hope) on the Safety level. People who are working on the Physiology level are just not going to care, but they will care if you get in their way. 

The city we design has to not just be a great place in the future, but a continuously improving place at every step between here and there. And it needs to be improving not just in ways that we urbanist intellectuals approve of, but in ways that make it easier for ordinary people to meet ordinary needs. Good urban redevelopment does that, but putting things close together. 

But my point in using Maslow is this: Be careful when you hear an urbanist say that ordinary transport planning values like speed, frequency, reliability, or cost-effectiveness should be sacrificed for the sake of a redevelopment return. I've linked to two writers, (Patrick) Condon and (Darrin) Nordahl, who in different ways really do make that claim.

Why is this important?  Because with the current budget crisis affecting transit agencies around the country, the needs of the future are running headlong into the needs of the present--which was part of the point of FTA chair Peter Rogoff's controversial remarks a few weeks back.   And this conflict is at the heart of a burgeoning debate on TriMet's Milwaukie MAX project--wherein many local transit advocates are starting to suggest that the project be postponed (or canceled altogether) until TriMet's operational finances are in better shape.  The June open thread at has largely been taken over by this debate (though many of the participants there are libertarians who would scratch the project in any case).  Whether or not delaying the Milwaukie Line would help TriMet plug its operational hole is an interesting question--certainly, eliminating the debt service on the $39 million construction bond backed by TriMet's payroll tax would help; but it's unclear how fungible the rest of the project's funding sources are.  (It's also unclear if the project could be delayed and restarted in the future without either incurring a significant financial penalty, or losing out on outside funding and not getting it back).

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