Friday, August 13, 2010

Transit minimalism, and why the left and the right frequently come together to oppose rail

The Milwaukie MAX project, and its escalating costs and increasingly unstable funding, has become a prime target of criticism.  While I'm critical of quite a few particulars of the project (its cost, for one; it's routing, for another)--most of my criticisms center around particulars of the project itself and the current economic climate.  I think the corridor in question needs to have rapid transit of some form--by which I mean "real" rapid transit that runs mostly (if not completely) in an exclusive right-of-way.  Rail or bus is a secondary concern.

However, much of the criticism of the project goes well-beyond the details of Milwaukie MAX, and instead takes the form of an outright anti-rail position.  Several different identifiable factions have been advancing anti-rail positions, asserting that TriMet ought to cancel the project outright, and not advance any other rail projects for the foreseeable future.  (Occasionally one even sees the suggestion that the existing MAX lines ought to be dismantled and replaced with something else; a position I won't consider further).  Many of these factions have entirely different motivations and goals--in some cases, they even conflict--but their positions all lead them to the same conclusion.

The positions in question, and several others, were previously discussed in this post on transit agency missions; here we focus on only three.  Some of the criticisms discussed herein extend to other forms of rapid transit as well, such as BRT; others are rail-specific.

Social justice

One common set of light-rail critics are to be found in the community of activists desiring social and economic justice.   A prominent such organization in Portland is OPAL (Organizing People/Activating Leaders), which has, on numerous occasions, called for TriMet to halt future light rail constructions and instead provide more bus service.  OPAL's John Ostar, speaking to TriMet on the proposed property tax levy now on the November ballot, had this to say:

What we're doing – what you're doing, essentially, is requiring voters to pass bonds for absolutely essentially service, essential infrastructure, basic infrastructure. Things that we have payroll tax revenue to pay for. But instead, we're now using that payroll tax revenue to pay for non-essential service – light rail - and requiring voters to pass bond measures to pay for essential service. I think that we have it backwards.

Emphasis added by me.  Clearly, Ostar considers light rail to be a "non-essential" service--an interesting position to take given that 1/3 of unlinked trips are on MAX and not bus.  But when you consider what OPAL considers important, and what they do not, it makes perfect sense:
  • OPAL, and similar advocates, think that a key part of TriMet's mission ought to be providing transit to the "transit-dependent"--people who cannot afford an automobile, or who otherwise cannot drive.  Given that the transit-dependent (and their destinations) are often widely-dispersed in the region, that leads to service patterns which require coverage of a large area rather than focusing on a smaller corridor--a pattern of service that is easier to provide with busses (and in many cases, with paratransit).
  • Poverty advocates are generally less concerned with attracting "choice riders", providing extensive service to wealthier parts of town, increasing transit's mode share, or using transit as a land-use tool.  Amenities beyond basic coverage and service frequency/speed/reliability are deemed unimportant.  They are especially  wary of anything that looks or smells like gentrification--almost always a bad thing if you're poor.  (Your neighborhood might improve, but you won't be able to afford it anymore).  Many of the stated goals of rapid transit--especially rail--are simply unimportant to advocates to the poor, and some are viewed with hostility.
  • Many poverty advocates are generally distrustful of government--which is often seen as in the hands of the wealthy and powerful, and inherently indifferent (or hostile) to the interests of the disadvantaged.   Such advocates, when a large project is proposed by the government, frequently start to smell a rat.
In a world with unlimited funding (or at least in one in which comprehensive, quality bus service is provided), I suspect that capital-intensive projects would not raise much objections among the social justice community--especially if the projects were demonstrated to improve service in ways that were considered important--but in a limited funding environment, any concentration of resources on a particular corridor is problematic--especially if the result of such concentration is higher rents along the line.

Economic conservatives

A second group who can be counted on to oppose capital transit projects are what I'll call "economic conservatives"--a group which includes libertarians, many Republicans, and a broader spectrum of the population that objects to high(er) taxes for services they consider to be wasteful or non-essential.  Motivations can range from ideological ("transit shouldn't be provided by the government"), to financial ("I don't want to pay for transit I don't intend to use"), to skepticism concerning particular agencies ("Sam Adams/TriMet/Metro are all crooks"), to hostility toward the community of transit users ("Those damn hippies ought to get a job and buy a car like the rest of us").  This community also includes a fair amount of lobbyists for industries (auto, petrochemical) which frequently regard transit as competition.  With the financial crisis and economic downturn, calls for greater fiscal austerity ("light rail is a luxury we can't afford") get added to the mix. 
The overriding concern for this group is that dedicated-ROW rapid transit, particularly rail, is too expensive.  While some in this group would eliminate public transit altogether, there is a significant faction that supports what I call "subsistence transit"--transit that provides basic mobility to those who have no other choice, but of a quality which is so low that only the desperate (or dedicated) would use it.  Almost invariably, this means POBS ("plain old bus service"), usually running at low frequencies--virtually any capital improvement to the system or attempt to provide frequent service (other than in places and times where the busses are crowded otherwise) is, by definition, superfluous.  This may superficially appear to be similar to the social justice position--which also isn't interested in expansive service--but differs in several important ways.  Where as the social justice advocate generally wants to provide decent transit to the communities s/he represents, those supporting subsistence transit generally care first and foremost about cost.
While some conservatives do generally care about (and will defend) basic levels of transit service; there are others who want to do away with it altogether--and frequently use the characteristics of "social service" transit to attack transit.  Social service transit is inefficient by its nature (the busses are often empty); and that is used to advance arguments that the transit agency is incompetent (otherwise the busses would be full!), or that transit is not environmentally friendly (an empty bus is less fuel-efficient than a single-occupant automobile, after all), or that it's wasteful because hardly anyone uses it (which is, after all, the point).
Conservatives are also frequently skeptical about politics and government in general--especially in large cities, where the political scene is often dominated by liberals.  Charges that rapid transit projects are exercises in "social engineering", or represent forthcoming Soviet-style totalitarianism, or are intended to enrich labor unions, are common.

Speaking of unions...

A third constituency which is often hostile to rapid transit, especially rail, is transit unions--and the reason is obvious:  Jobs.  The biggest operating cost for transit agencies is labor; and one of the selling points of rapid transit--especially rail--is that you can provide the same capacity and service levels with fewer payroll hours.  While this can mean increases in service without corresponding increases in labor cost, in practice it often means reductions in hours, or layoffs.  And while some transit agencies (such as Muni in San Francisco) are notoriously labor-friendly, in most cases, the agency and its workforce have a relationship that is at least somewhat antagonistic.

What do these all have in common?

What do these positions have in common?  Several things:
  • A belief that the specific benefits provided by rapid transit are unimportant, and thus not worth spending money on.
  • A desire for transit minimalism--lack of interest in increasing ridership or service beyond some baseline level which is held to be "good enough"; in particular, a lack of interest in attracting "choice riders" to the system.
  • A lack of confidence in transit management/governance, often causing disbelief in the stated goals of the project(s) in question, and/or the projections concerning population growth, future ridership demands, and future revenue used to justify such projects.  In many cases, this is expressed as a public officials are acting in bad faith.
Of course, the different groups have lots of things which are not in common--fundamentally, social justice advocates are interested in service quality; conservatives in minimizing public costs; and labor advocates in maintaining payrolls and jobs.  These things are all somewhat in conflict--if you reduce the budget, you either have to slash service (and hours) or wages.  Increase wages, and either revenue must increase or service must be cut.  And increasing service requires either new revenue, or wage concessions. But in all cases, there is a fear that if money is diverted from the taxpayers, or existing uses, to fund new capital construction--that there won't be any return on that investment or expenditure.   And driving that fear, in many cases, is a lack of trust in the transit agency.

When someone makes a statement that light rail is not an "essential service", or that it is "anti-transit"--it is good to ask of them what their vision for the transit system is.  Chances are, their vision is one of minimalism--they believe that transit has a limited (and specific) role to play in the overall economy and infrastructure of a place, and that attempts at expansion are out of line.

A few final thoughts

Many transit activists, including yours truly, don't subscribe to the minimalist philosophy.  After all, we (as a society) haven't practiced minimalism when it comes to road-building over the past century--there's scarcely a capacity problem on the roads that doesn't provoke calls to build more of them.  And the result is a mess--and will become a larger mess the next time gas heads north of $4 a gallon.  I'm not a maximalist, either--I'm fully cognizant of the political and financial constraints which are in place, and believe that projects need to undergo public scrutiny.

However, the absolutist positions expressed by some, are extensively troubling.  They're political arguments couched as technical arguments.  (This is true for light-rail supporters as well).  It's far more open and honest to say things such as "I think TriMet should focus on social service to the poor, and not on trying to attract motorists from their cars", rather than attacking a particular mode choice as unsound.  It's better to have an open debate about values--what sort of service should be provided, then cloud that debate in pissing matches about bus vs rail.  Because that's what the debate is really about.  Arguments about mode choice are really arguments about values, and the vast majority of participants in transit blogs (including myself) have only a superficial understanding about the limitations of various technologies--often colored by what TriMet (or whoever the local transit agency is) does in practice. 


  1. Well said, Scotty.

    I think a really top-notch, heavily invested and easy-to-navigage bus system can be as transit-maximalist as anything out there. But that doesn't seem to happen often, so maybe it's purely theoretical.

  2. Thanks for covering an important issue. To be clear, OPAL Environmental Justice Oregon is not anti-rail, nor have we ever called for a moratorium on light rail development. Any attribution as such is unsupported and incorrect.

    On a theoretical level, OPAL is not "transit-minimalist". In fact, OPAL contends that safe, accessible and affordable public transit is a basic right and an environmental justice concern, particularly as it impacts low-income communities of color, who tend towards greater transit-dependency. The more coverage and accessibility a regional system can provide, the better. Bus service is the backbone of our system with two-thirds of our daily boardings. Since we cannot replace the majority of bus rides with light-rail, we should not be spending limited dollars on rail expansion (which will chase a few choice-riders), where it could otherwise stave off untenable service cuts and fare increases (which could inhibit many bus-dependent riders). It's less about "essential" v. "non-essential" and more about making smart decisions in a tough economic climate to ensure that the system is accessible for the most bus-dependent riders, who have fewer and fewer transit alternatives. There are pros and cons to different modes of transit, and TriMet has shown that, in context, they can work in harmony. OPAL would proudly support the Total Transit System, including rail expansion, if we could guarantee basic quality bus service for those who rely on it most.

    Final note: Despite this disagreement on fiscal priorities, OPAL supports this ballot measure, assuming TriMet is committed to a process that solicits community input and equitably distributes dollars and targets investment to improve accessibility and service for all bus riders.

  3. Great post!!!

    In my opinion, transit loses when its seen as little more than a social service for the poor and disabled. Transit needs to be a public service that benefits everyone including but not exclusively the poor and disabled. If its designed for middle class and upper class riders, it will benefit the poor because the middle and upper classes are picky since theyre choice riders and will only ride if it is good... (good frequencies, safe and clean vehicles and stations, extensive network, decent travel times, few problem riders, decent operating hours). And politically it needs to be of use to all people given the public funding(whether they refuse to use it for their own bias is another story). Plus there are huge societal benefits in having a mix of classes, races and incomes sharing and interacting in a confined space.

    I think transit systems that have done large capital projects have found that it is essential to keep a balance. Those investing largely on buses (like both Seattle and Ottawa until recently) have found that to be inadequate and also need to invest in rail. Likewise those largely investing in rail have found you cant just build rail and neglect the bus system, LA is a good example of this.

    I do think its time that TriMet spend some time and money, and focus on building up the bus system more. Reintroduce articulated buses, renew the fleet of buses eliminating all high floors, express buses on more express lines (improving the service hours of those that currently exist), BRT & rapid bus, some SE-SW crosstown service via the new Sellwood bridge, improving the underutilized SW portland and outer SE bus service (will also require Portland to invest in sidewalks), improving frequencies and weekend service after cutbacks, implementing owl service after its ~25 year hiatus, maybe an on or off-line freeway station for I-5 express buses at Barbur TC. It would be great to do a bus transit measure similar to the recent one in Seattle that launched the rapid buses there.

    I'm not sure "economic conservatives" is the right description because they want lavish big government spending on roads, highways and bridges and have not the slightest problem with subsidies to automobiles, oil companies and their wars and suburban development. Additionally, they have no problem whatsoever with public spending on toll-less road and bridge infrastructure which singlehandedly put the private taxpaying transit, railroad and ferry companies out of business (that paid all their operating costs, all the infrastructure construction and maintenance costs plus maintenance for the adjacent roads).

    When someone makes a statement that light rail is not an "essential service", or that it is "anti-transit"--it is good to ask of them what their vision for the transit system is. Chances are, their vision is one of minimalism--they believe that transit has a limited (and specific) role to play in the overall economy and infrastructure of a place, and that attempts at expansion are out of line.

    Excellent point!

  4. @John,

    Thanks for commenting, and for clarifying the position of OPAL. I suspected that your position was indeed more nuanced--your organization appears to take good care to avoid the crass demagoguery of some other "social justice" agencies I can think of (LA's Bus Rider's Union comes to mind). As poncho points out in his comment, making transit attractive to other economic cohorts makes it more politically attractive--making it easier to improve service to those who depend on it.

    @poncho: When I say "economic conservative", I'm referring to a broad spectrum of folks, not all of which are oil company shills or road hogs (though the IGMFU crowd is certainly well-represented). Overall, I agree with what you say.

    Last weekend, I went with the family up to Vancouver, BC (drove), and one thing I noticed that in both Seattle and Vancouver, there was extensive bus infrastructure (median park-and-rides, bus lanes) along I-5 and BC99 that wasn't there on my prior trip. Both cities have gotten lots of press for their rail expansions (SkyTrain and Central Link), but continued improvements to bus infrastructure are also important.

  5. Transit should be designed for everyone in mind, not just the poor and disabled or only the wealthier citizenry.

    The best comment you made was that rapid transit needs a mostly dedicated right of way. Whatever mode that operates on that dedicated right of way is not important and it will always be different given the corridor dynamics.

    Such a good way to look at it, and it gets away from the rail-only or bus-only viewpoint!

  6. One issue which has been picked up more by economic conservatives than the other two groups is the incredible distortion resulting from federal Highway Trust Fund money going into capital projects but not operations. Imagine, for a moment, if it were the other way around.

    Another is change; societal and technological change. Just like so many long gone military leaders who kept on planning and building for the last war, we seem to be planning and spending for the last century. Jobs are migrating out of Portland and into suburban counties, we're aging, and, with the internet, we simply don't bother to travel to accomplish all our day-to-day business.

    I think the "killer app" re: transit-as-we-know-it will be autonomous jitneys which should make their first appearance somewhere in the world within 10 years. When they finally come to Portland --- and guaranteed we won't be an early adopter on this one --- we'll say "goodbye" to all regular transit bus operations and almost all rail/BRT transit except that which has an absolute time saving advantage. Paradoxically, the original Portland Streetcar alignment would probably survive, particularly if it continues to provide "free" rides.

  7. Agree 100% about the "capital projects" only rule--a rule whose purpose, it seems, is to prevent grants from being used to grant pay/benefits increases to transit workers. If it were the other way around, we'd probably have a much more extensive bus system, but little if any mass transit--a state of affairs which actually would probably work well within the city of Portland, but which would scale poorly out into the suburbs.

    Regarding anonymous jitneys--from what I know of the control technology, it's still longer than a decade off. I have yet to see even a prototype of such a thing that's anywhere near ready for operation in mixed traffic. While a mixed jitney network would help with the parking issue, and in theory could make better use of roads than human-driven cars, there's still also the energy issue--smaller vehicles, especially self-propelled ones, have high vehicle-weight-to-passenger-weight ratios.

  8. I'm a lurker and an Oregon voter doing her best to make a reasoned decision on 26-119. Your well-written commentary and the civil thoughtful dialogue from others here are truly helpful.

    I still have more reading to do before I vote, but thanks for lighting one voter's way.

    Voter Mary


Keep it clean, please