Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Transportation values, missions, and anti-missions

Here in Portland, there's a transit advocacy organization called OPAL (Organizing People/Activating Leaders), which recently called for a major shift of the priorities of TriMet: away from future development of rail, and towards improving bus service.  There are numerous similar organizations in cities around the country; the most (in)famous is probably the Los Angeles Bus Riders Union (though the latter organization takes many far more controversial positions than does OPAL).  The point of this post is not to praise or criticize either organization, but to examine something more fundamental.

What OPAL is calling for is more than a simple change in funding allocation or transit planning strategies: they are calling for a realignment of TriMet's fundamental mission.  From OPAL's website:  "We need TriMet to prioritize working-class Portland, people who depend on our public transportation for access to the necessities of life."  OPAL, and similar organizations, believe that social and/or economic justice (in practical terms, ensuring that adequate transit service is provided to the poor), ought to be one of TriMet's fundamental missions, if not the fundamental mission.  While TriMet certainly does provide transit service to low-income neighborhoods, it would be difficult to argue that service to the poor is its primary mission.


In prior articles, the concept of transit values has been discussed--these are attributes of a transit system from which customers, or the public, derive some benefit.  This article discussed and critiqued a University of Florida paper which sought to apply Maslow's Hierarchy to transit, this one responded to comments on the first (and to related articles elsewhere), and this one gave a detailed list of twenty-odd transit values, without regard to importance.  The values listed in the latter paper were sorted into four broad categories suggested by Cap'n Transit; they are repeated here:
  • Availability values:  Geographic coverage, temporal coverage, capacity, special accomodations.
  • Value values:  Marginal cost, access cost, external costs, reliability, trip time, frequency, risk of accident, risk of crime.
  • Amenities values:  Ease of use, understandability, ease of payment, en-route hassles, comfort.
  • Glamour values:  Aesthetic/novelty issues, social status, self-actualization. 
Whereas values all are specific attributes of a system, the mission(s) of a system (and of the responsibly agency) are the overall statement(s) of goals which the system is intended to accomplish.  Whereas values reflect the how, the where, and the when; missions are the who, the what, and the why.  In the context of transit agencies, the "what" is more or less the same--provide transit to the public; missions differ in the question of why the service is provided in the first place, and who should benefit.  A mission, then, is the justification for the transportation service.

..and anti-missions
An anti-mission, if I may coin a term, is the same thing as a mission--a set of goals which the agency seeks to accomplish--but it's one that would be embarrassing to the agency if published.  Few agencies actively seek out anti-misisons; but they are a common result of political pressure from various factions, of self-aggrandizing behavior by public officials, and in some cases, of corruption.  In some cases, a goal or set of goals which are seen as beneficial in one locale may be seen as detrimental in another.  The origin of the term anti-mission is explained at the bottom of the post.

It's also important to note that many agencies operate under constraints which prevent them from fulfilling their mission.  Budgets must be balanced; credit, while available, is often limited in scope and hard to get, and few agencies have carte blanche to raise additional revenue through taxation.  An agency's service footprint and revenue base may contains extensive areas of low-density sprawl which are difficult to serve efficiently, yet which must be provided service to maintain the revenue source.  Even things like fares may be outside an agency's control.  In addition, many external funding sources, in particular those in Washington DC, come with numerous strings attached; and cash-strapped transit authorities are generally more than happy to jump through the hoops necessary to bring home the dollars--even if requires doing projects in a manner that's outside the mission.  It is useful to distinguish constraints from anti-missions.  (One minor issue I have with organizations such as OPAL is that they frequently make demands of agencies which cannot be met without a radical restructuring of an agency's external environment--but offer little assistance with the work of performing that restructuring, instead taking a "that's your problem--you figure it out" approach.  Sometimes it's an effective form of advocacy, but I often wonder if there aren't other ways to improve the situation for transit).

With all that in mind, we will now consider various missions and anti-missions (they are not identified as such--that is left as an exercise for the reader), and a rough ranking of the values implied by the mission.  This article is US-centric, unfortunately.  This article also generally assumes operation by a public entity, ostensibly for the common good--for private, for-profit operators, the only mission that truly matters is "make money", and the rest is an exercise in marketing.  :)

So, without further ado, the list.

Comprehensive transit

The first mission we consider consider is comprehensive transit--transit for transit's sake, if you will.  Many like to consider this mission the gold standard, asserting that its aims are based entirely on technocratic principles, rather than political compromises, interest-group politics, and other well-know attributes of the sausage factory.  Comprehensive transit advocates generally pursue the values in the order set forth by Cap'n Transit:  Availability, Value (to customers), Amenities, and Glamour concerns are last.
The problem with the "comprehensive transit" mission is that it's expensive to implement--and thus unrealistic in most places where there isn't widespread public support for transit.  (There is, in many places, widespread public support for road construction, and thus many state DOTs do get to build "comprehensive systems as a result--a state of affairs which has got us where we are today).  As a result, agencies typically find themselves pursuing one of the other missions (or anti-missions) listed in this article.

Social/economic justice

Next up is social and economic justice.  In support of this mission, transit is deployed as a tool to primarily benefit traditionally-disadvantaged communities, such as the poor or minority groups.  OPAL and BRU are both pursuing a social and economic justice mission (among other things), and take umbrage that TriMet and LACMTA don't necessarily share their priorities.
Values emphasized by this particular mission include low cost to users, good geographical coverage (emphasizing targeted neighborhoods and common destinations of the target groups), excellent temporal coverage (many of the working poor have jobs outside the normal daytime office shift), adequate capacity, and reliability and frequency of service.  End-to-end speed is less of an issue, as is service to wealthier communities.  Amenities and Glamour are unimportant.  Many who advocate for social and economic justice are suspicious of capital-intensive infrastructure projects such as rail of any sort (other than as a capacity improvement along an overcrowded route), viewing these as attempts to cater to constituencies other than the poor or minority groups the agency ought to support.

Low cost transit

A mission which is superficially similar to social/economic justice in its values, but antithetical to it in its motivations, is the low cost transit mission.  Here, the point is to provide the minimum level of service necessary to keep people on society's margins off more expensive forms of public support--or at is commonly (and indelicately) phrased, to get the poor to their jobs so they don't go on welfare.  Many on the political right advocate this mission, and view transit as a necessary evil, rather than a valuable public good in its own right.
Low-cost transit advocates generally emphasize Availability issues such as coverage and capacity; and like social justice advocates, don't give a rip about Glamour and Amenities.  Where they differ is in the Value category--whereas social justice advocates care about service quality; the low-cost advocate wants to minimize social cost.  Many transit systems in the US (including the vast majority of small-city systems) are of this sort--both due to conservative politics, and also due to transit-unfriendly land uses, which make any other sort of transit prohibitively expensive.  Given that, an aversion to capital costs or infrastructure of any sort causes low-cost advocates to invariably prefer local bus service (or BRT where demand warrants the additional capacity) to anything more expensive.

The environmentalism mission is concerned, first and foremost, with improving environmental outcomes--lowering emissions and other forms of pollution (whether from vehicles or from energy sources external to the system), lowering energy usage, etc.  Environmentalist advocates generally view comprehensive transit as an import goal.  Zero-emissions vehicles are highly desired--a category which includes human-powered transportation, as well as movement away from combustion-powered vehicles.  Reducing automobile trips, and opposition to the private automobile in general, is an important concern.  In some cases, this is combined with social justice issues (OPAL also lists the environment as a key concern); in other cases, environmentalist transit goals may be motivated by a bourgeois constituency.

Externalized public costs such as pollution (and avoidance thereof) is the paramount concern; public costs captured as taxes, not so.  Spending money on zero-emissions or high-capacity infrastructure is a common desire.  Other Value attributes are also important, as are some Amenities and Glamour attributes--as reducing auto trips is a concern, advocates of environmentalist transit frequently seek to attract choice riders.  Bourgeois advocates who are highly motivated may care less about comprehensive coverage, and neglect "social service" transit in favor of more productive routes--resulting in less comprehensive coverage. 

Urbanism and community-building

The urbanism and community-building emphasizes the importance of land-use for transit outcomes, and the importance of transit in building liveable communities (by which is meant, among other things, urban land-use patterns such as high density and mixed use--and generally excludes much of suburbia).  Transit is seen as an important part of the urban fabric, rather than as a service to be laid down on top of an already-built environment.

Urbanist transit values often express a preference for local forms of transit rather than regional ones; in many cases, trip-elimination rather than trip-accomodation is seen as an important goal.  As a result, geographic coverage may suffer--the urbanist is generally not concerned with providing suburban service at all.  Transit-oriented development (service to new communities designed to be transit-friendly, rather than to existing settlements) is also commonplace.

Like environmentalism advocates, there is a bourgeois faction to urbanism; which is often criticized for advocating "Starbucks urbanism" and neglecting the needs of the poor.  This faction tends to place higher value on Amenities and Glamour, and has developed (at least in the US) an affinity for local-service, mixed-traffic streetcars, often on the grounds that busses will not attract ridership (due, of course, to insufficient Glamour).  And with any sort of community-building or renewal project, especially those geared towards upper income levels, gentrification remains a key concern.

Premium service
The premium service mission is all about attracting choice riders who are extremely concerned about Glamour issues (particularly social status).  In many ways, this mission inverts the traditional hierarchy and stands it on its apex.  Premium-conscious riders view not mixing with the "wrong" crowd while on the bus or train as a key issue (often justifying it on safety concerns), and often view Amenities as important--in particular creature comforts, and other enhancements such as on-board Internet service.  Ticket price is often less of an issue, though performance factors and safety remain important.   Many Availability issues are unimportant however--limited geographic coverage (excluding the "bad" parts of town) is seen as an advantage, and high capacity isn't important to an exclusive audience.  Many Premium riders prefer rail (though not always), and seating configurations are often optimized for maximum seated capacity rather than accommodating large numbers of standees.

Some transit agencies have discovered that offering such services at elevated prices is often a politically and financially sensible thing to do (assuming local traffic conditions are such that driving becomes an unattractive option).  In the Portland area, both WES and C-Tran's express routes to Portland have been accused of targeting a luxury market (in the former case, bypassing a frequently-crowded parallel bus line).  The travel industry has engaged in such price discrimination for years, of course.

Political patronage

OK, this one's an obvious anti-mission.  Unlike other missions on this page whose political acceptability may depend on political context, virtually no transit agency will fess up to making choices designed to benefit political sponsors--at least not unless they can plead coercion.  (And in some cases, agencies with noble intent may indeed be forced to accommodate rent-seeking power-brokers in order to remain intact).  But it happens--and in some cases, in broad daylight.

When political patronage is an agency's mission, it seeks to benefit a wide variety of political backers:  agency managers and politicians looking to pad their resumes with ribbon-cuttings, developers and landowners, vendors, tradespeople, and trade unions looking to have public money thrown their way.  Few of the traditional customer-focused values truly matter; as neither the customer nor the public is the intended beneficiary; whatever values are politically popular will be offered up as justification.  In general, though, the values which are cited include things like geographic coverage, capacity, and performance--all of which benefit from new infrastructure.  Glamour issues are frequently cited as justification as well; builders of such projects will often cite the environment, or the alleged unpopularity of the lowly bus, as a reason for building more expensive forms of infrastructure.  It is common for those pursuing a political patronage mission to pretend to be environmentalists and/or urbanists, and sometimes difficult for outsiders to tell the difference--however, the difference does exist.  (One thing to look for:  are the proponents of development actually interested in operating the new service, or merely in its construction?)

Labor patronage
In some ways, this is a subset of the political patronage mission discussed above, if one views transit unions as a "patron" in the same way as one might view developers or construction firms, then this becomes same racket, different customer.  However, I'm treating labor patronage--where a key part of a transit agencies goals consist of providing high paying jobs to its employees--differently, because transit agencies in the thrall of labor act differently than those in the thrall of outside capital interests.  (Note that labor here only includes an agency's own employees; not outside bargaining units such as construction unions--they are dealt with in the political patronage mission).

Whereas political patronage agencies are very infrastructure focus, agencies patronizing their own labor unions focus on operations--though again, not on providing service to the customer or the general public.  Values which are cited include high availability and frequency--providing extensive coverage to all parts of the region at all times of the day.  Reliability and end-to-end speed frequently suffer.  Infrastructure improvements are frequently regarded with suspicion--construction of rail, for example, may be seen as a plot to downsize the workforce rather than as a strategy for improving the overall capacity or performance of the system.  Local bus service is the mode of choice.  Amenities and Glamour are generally unimportant.

In some cities (San Francisco comes to mind, where Muni's well-documented practices which result in lousy service nonetheless enjoy extensive political support), labor patronage is an open goal of a transit agency--however in many places, this is too regarded as an anti-mission.  Whereas agencies pursuing a political patronage mission may instead pretend to be environmentalists or urbanists, agencies captured by labor unions instead frequently emulate a social justice agenda.  (A common accusation against BRU is that it is a front for bus drivers--the organization does tend to side with transit unions in labor disputes).


Tourism and special event coverage are seldom a fundamental mission for an urban transit agency--the bulk of the riders on a system will be local regulars--but it is an important mission for some parts of some transit coverage.  Extra transit service for local events, such as football games, generally doesn't differ much from regular service, but tourist-oriented service may be another matter--and given the propensity of tourists to throw cash around, offer an excellent opportunity for price-discrimination.

Tourist-oriented service can be divided into two types--transit which is used by tourists to get places, and transit which frequently is the destination.  Many cities operate special services, often branded differently, for ferrying tourists between lodging and popular destinations.  And a few transit systems--ranging from well-known attractions like the San Francisco Cable Cars or the Seattle Monorail, to small-town operations like the Astoria Riverfront Trolley--are destinations in themselves; with tourists paying for round trips to nowhere (many of these also serve a useful transit function for locals as well). 

In either cases, important values for tourists are ease of use/navigation, novelty or aesthetic values, safety, and comfort--though on "vintage" services, the latter is optional.  Coverage and other Availability issues generally are not important.  Tourists, being unfamiliar with a city, will not appreciate having to memorize a transit map or a timetable to get around; nor are they likely to be in possession of a transit pass or exact change (unless in whole units of the currency).  This is an excellent way of practicing price discrimination, BTW--the cash fare on the SF cable cars is much higher (US$5) than for other Muni services, and transfers are not accepted; but there's no extra charge for passholders. 

Our final mission occurs when a public agency decides to operate like a private one, and uses its position to engage in rent-seeking.  Many transit agencies have monopolies on general-purpose transit within their region, and power to set fares--most of them set fares well below cost in order to attract ridership.  Some, though, will actually attempt to profit from operations.  Rent-seeking agencies are most likely to be found in cities whose socioeconomic or land use patterns encourage high degrees of transit use (and there's a large captive audience for whom switching to autos is not an option)--and where there is a great deal of corruption in the wider political culture.  Rent-seeking agencies need to provide sufficient Availability to make the service tenable--but beyond that, aren't keen on providing any other types of value to passengers--especially things which might threaten the operation.  Rent-seeking behavior can originate from a variety of factors--agencies which are dramatically underfunded; agencies explicitly chartered to earn revenue for a parent organization; or simple corruption. 


One final note, on the genesis of the term "anti-mission".  In my field of professional expertise (computer programming), there was a movement in the 1990s known as the "design patterns" movementEarly research on the topic was done by a pair of Oregon-based programmers, Ward Cunningham and Kent Beck (the former of which designed a novel web-based collaboration tool hosted at his software consulting firm in furtherance of the effort--the first wiki).  The seminal work in the field was Design Patterns:  Elements of Reusable Object-Oriented Software, written by a quartet of computer scientists known as the "Gang of Four".   The work on patterns, and much of the terminology, was borrowed from a similar concept in the field of architecture--specifically Christopher Alexander's opus A Pattern Language.  In programming, a "design pattern" refers to a program fragment or structure which is beneficial and commonly repeated, but which is difficult to capture as a class or function or other programming abstraction.  (If any other programmers are reading this, apologies for being rather imprecise).

Not soon after the Design Patterns book was published:  AntiPatterns: Refactoring Software, Architectures, and Projects in Crisis, which instead of cataloging useful ideas, instead documented bad ideas which were commonly found in practice--a notion known as an anti-pattern.  Anti-patterns are patterns; they're just ones that are bad for you.  And so it is with anti-missions, my humble attempt to repay the fields of public works for a quite useful notion.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the link! It's important to distinguish between your ultimate goals and the proximate goals that get you to them, and to realize that many of the proximate goals are cyclic.


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