Joining the STB Fold

My fellow readers, I’m very exited to announce that Matt the Engineer and I are going to be joining the excellent blogging crew over at Seattle Transit Blog. I’ve always had great respect for the STB team. In fact, our blogs started at about the same time back in 2007 when the infamous “Roads and Transit” debate was raging. They’ve created a strong community and a solid voice for transit and land use issues in the Seattle area.

I won’t shut down OR. Too much good stuff to let it slip to link rot. But I’ll probably be doing the bulk of my writing about transit at STB from now on. You’re welcome to follow me on Twitter, but you may be disappointed as few of my tweets are specifically about transit.

Special thanks to all the contributors who have blogged here over the years, and to you all for reading. The ability for anyone in the world to self-publish and find a niche of readers is still, to me, the most magical thing about the internet.

Let Density Be Density

If I could simplify what Martin’s saying here, it would be to say, “let density be density” (with apologies to Ronald Reagan). Dense development is good on it’s own. Locally owned businesses can also be good, but one doesn’t require the other.

As an example, I’d point to the area around the Columbia Heights Metro Station in Washington DC. It’s a walkable, urban paradise compared to almost any transit station in Seattle (outside of downtown) and yet it manages to feature a Target, a Best Buy, and more.

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Districts, Density and Development

Roger Valdez doesn’t want to debate anymore, he wants to win.  Apparently it’s Scarface, final scene, f**king bazookas under each arm, “say hello to my little friend.”

Okay then! In the interest of being solutions-oriented, let me offer something positive.

Compared to, say, most of Europe, Seattle falls short when it comes to building dense, transit-oriented development. Compared to most of America, though, I’d say we’re doing pretty darn well. But I get it, it’s not good enough. We can do better.

At the 30,000-foot level, Roger’s question is about power and influence: how does density win? How does it beat the other guys: the NIMBYs. Well, basically you either out-organize them or out-fundraise them. Liberals often think politics is a battle of ideas, when it’s usually a battle of interests. If you want your interests to beat out the other guys’ interests, you either need more money, better organization, or both. Having good ideas is important, but it’s a second-order importance. Ideas help you raise money and organize. But you still have to raise money and organize.

So, how do we get there?

Organizing in favor of change is always harder than organizing against it. People come out of the woodwork to oppose something, whether it’s to protest the Iraq War or changes to the Route 2, more often than they come out in favor of something new. But people do come out to celebrate the new, if they sense possibility and excitement around it. Witness the crazy crowds that surrounded the opening days of the Seattle Streetcar and Link. Positive, change-oriented agendas can have their own power, but they have to be specific, tangible, and actionable. Think Obama 2008: Change = Hope = Vote for This Dude. End of story.

For density advocates, raising money is in some ways the easier task. There are plenty of organizations – from developers to construction firms to trade unions – that benefit from urban development. But that money comes with strings attached. These folks are often just as happy to build sprawl. More happy, in fact, since it often requires less onerous soil remediation and environmental permitting. Also, the amount of money that can be made from infill development is proportional to the restrictions on said developments. If it became easier to build in the city, then building in the city would by definition be less profitable. I think pro-density folks often think that developers are their friends. In truth, it’s often a marriage of convenience.

I’m afraid there are no magic solutions here. “Politics is a long and slow boring of hard boards,” as Max Weber said. But I do think the broad outlines are right: a coalition needs to form — call it a political party or not — that has the power to change policy and can back it up with money and votes. It needs to be difficult for a politician to defy this coalition. From time to time, the coalition will do things that individual members disagree with, and these members need to find a way to support the coalition and not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. This is often a very difficult task for some, who may immediately defect if the percentage of funding for their favorite pet transportation mode isn’t exactly what they wanted.

Finally, the only way for such a coalition to survive this inevitable infighting is to have a common creed, a similar worldview. This worldview needs to be broad enough to be inclusive, but specific enough to actually mean something. Part of it is about climate change, but I’m pretty sure if we converted our entire auto fleet to zero emissions overnight, many of us would still be urbanists. Part of it is about the economic benefits of urbanization. Part of it is about limiting sprawl. And part of it’s purely romantic. It’s decidedly not about mode choice or fantasy maps (sadly!).

One last thing, as I approach the 700-word mark. I think the pieces of this coalition already exist, and great organizations like Sightline and Transportation Choices are absolutely leaders in it. It’s really a matter of finding the common thread and pulling it all together.

Parties and the Urban Agenda

Is Seattle’s political process the root cause of NIMBYism?

Roger Valdez seems to think it might be.  He really likes Matt Yglesias’ post about a David Schleicher paper.  Schleicher argues that the absence of political parties in largely Democratic cities results in lower density: because city council members don’t have a party to be loyal to, they never have to take uncomfortable votes that would result in the greater good even at some personal cost to their re-election.  The result is that NIMBYism rules.

Seattle is an interesting case, since we’ve actually had two competing, but informal, movements in Greater Seattle and Lesser Seattle since at least the 1960s. You could see these two interests morphing into two distinct parties, if there was some reward for doing so.

That said, while I’m compelled by the thesis, I’m not sure Seattle is the best example of Schleicher’s argument.  He writes:

Individual legislators frequently face prisoner’s dilemmas, preferring the achievement of citywide goals like increasing the housing supply to universally restrictive policies, but preferring restrictions on new development in their districts regardless of what happens elsewhere. [Emphasis added]

Trouble is, Seattle doesn’t have districts at the city council level. If you read Schleicher’s paper, that really is the thrust of his argument: district-centered provincialism is the root cause of NIMBYism.  Here in Seattle we have a different dichotomy, one you might call “neighborhoods” vs. “downtown”  (and I use quotes because I’m using the terms quite loosely).

The “neighborhoods” are where the people live, where NIMBYism is more prevalent, and where the votes are. “Downtown” is where you get the reelection money needed to run a city-wide campaign.  Seattle’s council members aren’t torn between constituents and political party, they’re torn between constituents and their donors.

Ironically, the easiest way to reduce the influence of money in our council elections is to go back to the district system, which might actually result in more NIMBYism if Schleicher’s theory is correct.

Federal Funding

Kevin Drum links approvingly to this idea from Ed Glaeser:

DE-FEDERALIZE TRANSPORT SPENDING: Most forms of transport infrastructure overwhelmingly serve the residents of a single state. Yet the federal government has played an outsized role in funding transportation for 50 years. Whenever the person paying isn’t the person who benefits, there will always be a push for more largesse and little check on spending efficiency. Would Detroit’s People Mover have ever been built if the people of Detroit had to pay for it? We should move toward a system in which states and localities take more responsibility for the infrastructure that serves their citizens.

I don’t necessarily have a problem with this, but if I were ever to agree to something like it, I’d have to extract some pretty serious concessions in return.  You’d have to radically strengthen metropolitan areas to control their own destiny, such as dedicated revenue sources, even if said metro crossed one or more state lines.  Metros should also be able to extract and keep some of the value that their ports provide to more inland areas.  Oh, and there should definitely be a higher gas tax, and more tolling.  And metros should be able to opt out of excessive Federal Railroad Administration requirements and “buy American” provisions that make trains so damn expensive in the U.S.

Glaeser’s bit about PPPs, on the other hand, needs more work:

This system has three big advantages. The private sector may be most cost-effective at construction and maintenance. The project only goes forward if private investors anticipate significant toll revenue. The private operator has every incentive to keep up maintenance, because it can only recoup costs if people keep driving the roads. There are also challenges involved in managing private concessions, as California’s experience with State Road 91illustrates, but these hurdles should be surmountable, especially if we have enough regulation to keep private roads and bridges safe. [Emphasis added]

Umm… no.  People will keep driving the road because it’s the only way to get from point A to point B.  That’s the whole point of a monopoly, and that’s why roads are typically public goods.

Baumol Follow-up: Automated Trains

In my post on Baumol’s Cost Disease and transit, I laid out four options for how transit will have to adapt over time:

  • Buses need to get bigger and carry more people per driver (i.e. turn into trains)
  • Fares have to continue to go up faster than the rate of inflation
  • Public subsidy has to rise, also faster than the rate of inflation
  • Buses need to get faster – do the same route in less time (while not losing any passengers)
I neglected to mention a fifth possibility (related to the first): automated trains like the ones in SeaTac Airport or Vancouver’s SkyTrain.  This is a perfect Baumol-style productivity upgrade for a transit system to keep pace with rising living costs.


Baumol’s Cost Disease and Transit

A related thought I had while attending last night’s meeting is that Baumol’s cost disease is a killer for bus service in the long run.

If you’re not familiar, Baumol basically says that the cost of wages in unproductive sectors of the economy go up because those works are living in the same world as workers in other sectors whose productivity has increased.  The famous example is orchestras.  An orchestra takes the same amount of time to perform Beethoven’s Ninth that it did 100 years ago.  Meanwhile, an auto worker can make the same car in half the time it took in 1970.  So the auto worker’s wages go up.  But the auto worker and the violinist rent from the same landlords and shop in the same grocery stores.  So the violinist’s wages need to go up, too, even though he/she is no more “productive” than 100 years ago.

Most sectors of the economy that are afflicted by Baumol — performing arts, education, health care, transit — tend to end up with government subsidies for precisely this reason.

(Recorded music, has, of course, made the violinist more productive in the sense that the same performance can now reach millions of people.  This is exactly the increase in productivity necessitated by Baumol.  Baumol doesn’t predict the increasing costs of music in general, but specifically live performances of music.)

Similarly, Seattle’s buses likely take the same amount of time and carry roughly the same number of passengers that they did 50 years go.  But the cost of living has gone up dramatically.  So drivers need to be paid more.  They have to live and raise families in the same city with software developers whose productivity has gone through the roof in the last 20 years.  Which means one ore more of the following:

  • Buses need to get bigger and carry more people per driver (i.e. turn into trains)
  • Fares have to continue to go up faster than the rate of inflation
  • Public subsidy has to rise, also faster than the rate of inflation
  • Buses need to get faster – do the same route in less time (while not losing any passengers)
I’m not the first to make this connection, of course.  There’s a great op-ed in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune from last July by Steve Elkins that makes exactly this point.  But it’s worth keeping in mind as you see agencies like Metro struggle to stay solvent.  In many ways they’re swimming against the tide, and that’s before you get into all the efforts in recent years (I-695, etc.) to actively cut transportation funding.
Incidentally, this is also why the suburbs are fundamentally doomed in the long run. But that’s another post entirely.

Route 2

Since it’s a bus I ride regularly, I headed over to the Madrona Community Council on Tuesday to listen to Metro come talk about the proposed changes to the Route 2.

It was an impressive turnout of residents, overwhelmingly in opposition.  Hats off to the folks opposed to the changes who organized en masse.  Over 50 people crowded into the Madrona field house to give Metro’s planners an earful about why they thought the proposed change was the worst idea since New Coke.

A couple of thoughts, as someone who designs systems for a living and has listened to my share of irate user feedback:

  • Change is hard. People come to expect the bus to be there, and they work those assumptions into their daily lives.  When someone tells you they’ve been riding the #2 since 1965, it’s hard to just say “well, sorry, it’s going away.”
  • Explaining why a change is better than the status quo is surprisingly difficult.  Metro’s planners, I think, struggled to articulate the benefits of the proposed change.  Telling people that their route will get shortened to benefit the overall system doesn’t really get you very far.
  • User feedback is important, but it isn’t the be-all and end-all. People make contradictory demands.  They want the bus to be more reliable, but they don’t seem willing to make the trade-offs to make it so.
  • People don’t understand the difference between SDOT and Metro.  This is obvious and long-running, but it’s especially problematic when Metro moves a bus to Madison Street under the assumption that Seattle’s Transit Master Plan calls for improving bus service on Madison, but people don’t make the connection because the changes aren’t made in sync.  You have to be paying very close attention.
  • The suburban-ness of Seattle exacerbates the issue.  Seattleites expect frequent bus service in relatively low-density neighborhoods, and older riders need to get on the bus just to get groceries. The QFC on Broadway seemed to be the go-to.  Shockingly, no one in the meeting shops at the nearby Grocery Outlet on MLK and Union.  One obvious solution would be to put a grocery store in Madrona proper, maybe with some apartments above it.  Apartments would mean more people, and thus justify more transit service.  But I’m pretty sure you’d get ridden out of that meeting on a rail (pun intended) if you proposed anything like that.
  • The residents of Madrona are quite scared of downtown, despite living just 2 miles from it. The idea of transferring to get to Queen Anne was a terrifying prospect, especially at night.  I wonder how much of that is based on downtown today, versus how they might remember it from 10-20 years ago.
  • For many riders, speed is not an issue.  The slow “milk run” routes are not really a problem for riders who aren’t in a rush to get anywhere.  How do you balance the needs of a transit-dependent person who needs to go to the grocery store once or twice a week with a downtown worker who rides 10 times a week?
As for me, I can see the benefits of the changes detailed by Bruce @ STB and I support them overall, even though it’ll mean I have to walk an extra two blocks to and from work. But I still feel like we’re doing something wrong by pouring all our bus service through a few East-West corridors (like Madison) rather than amping up the grid across the city with more transit-only lanes.  But maybe that’s wishful thinking.
I’d encourage everyone to take the survey and tell Metro what you think.  They’re listening.

Over a Barrel

Eric de Place writes about the Governor’s proposed “barrel fee” on oil to pay for transportation projects:

Now, let’s imagine a hypothetical barrel of oil under the proposed barrel fee. Perhaps 70 percent of it would be refined into transportation fuel, half of which would be sold to Washington’s consumers and half of which would be sold out-of-state. Another 20 percent or so would be refined into things like aviation fuel and lubricants, where prices can’t easily pass on to consumers. (The remaining 10 percent of refined products would not be touched by the fee.) At the end of the day, Washington consumers would be touched by fees on about 35 percent of a typical barrel of oil, yet the state would reap revenue on 90 percent of the barrel.

That’s a pretty sweet deal for Washington’s residents. It’s not such a sweet deal for oil companies because they will end up eating a sizeable portion of the cost of the fee. And it’s not such a sweet deal for drivers in places like Oregon—where much of Washington’s refined fuel is sold—because they will, in effect, be paying more for fuel in order to fund road projects in Washington.

I really don’t like these fees that pass the buck to other states.  The King County lodging tax is another one.  Rental car taxes, too.  It’s a cowardly way raise revenue, and it ends up being zero sum as other states ratchet up their taxes on out-of-staters to match.  I can’t help but think of this classic scene from The Wire:

The next guy’s pocket, indeed.

Being Prepared is About More than Plows

I wholeheartedly agree with Andrew and Art Thiel‘s general theses: snow is rare in Seattle, and due to our geography and other factors, a couple inches of white stuff can really mess us up.  It’s a total waste of resources to go out and buy hundreds of plows that would just sit idle most years.

That said, I think we all can agree that the city’s response to the 2008 snowstorm was a total clusterfuck, plows aside.  When the head of SDOT drives around her neighborhood and says “meh, I can get around in my Subaru” and goes back to bed, that’s a problem.  In retrospect, it’s clear that the whole leadership crew at SDOT was in over their heads.

The response to this year’s storm was excellent, IMO.  I don’t think it had to do with more plows, just having a smarter plan.

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