I admit, this has a horrible title. But I wanted to get something written about a project that I would like to work a little more on…and creating good titles is not one of my strengths.
Anyone who has encountered a manifestation of B.F. Skinner’s utopian dreams (Walden II as a prime example) is made instantly aware of a certain view of public policy. Under this view, public policy is formulated by experts who mold the behaviors of citizens in such a way to lead to the most happiness possible. We should never have to ask people what sort of policies are good, we assume that certain results are desirable (pleasure, happiness, fulfillment, or whatever) and formulate policy with those as our end. This is the technocratic idea; it presupposes that people generally do not know how to achieve the outcomes we want and that experts can do so better. This is obviously undemocratic, but we do just this sort of thing for engineering problems. We don’t generally question how the engineers decide to build a bridge, for instance, once we have set the parameters. One might argue that we should aim for the same ideal in public policy; this would require an extensive understanding of sociology and psychology (which we don’t currently have) but we might still think that this is the sort of way we should develop public policy.
On the other end we find theorists such as Jane Jacobs, who thought that planners should generally leave people to their own devices and listen to their preferences. During New York City’s highway wars of the 1960s, Jacobs was one of the principal opponents of the technocrats (Robert Moses, most prominent among them) who had a vision of New York that stressed easy vehicular transportation. Such plans, however, typically involved the destruction of urban neighborhoods. Jacobs advocated mostly democratic (and localist) procedures that centered around the involvement of community members in the formation of public policy related to that community. This is similar to the messy process that is common today; there may be (and often are) grand, all encompassing plans for policy or urban design but these plans rarely see the light of day without a good deal of public debate. Of course, this approach is nearly as problematic as that advocated by the technocrats. Many questions arise as to how such a process actually works. How do we know what the goal of public policy should be? It is likely the case that what is actually better for people (what they will prefer in the end) is different from their current preferences. So, it seems that people may not even know what they want (as paradoxical as that may seem). Also, how do we make any cohesive plans if we have to listen to the chaotic preferences of the public? How do we find any commonalities or order among these preferences? It also often seems to be the case that political power overcomes truth in the formation of public policy. If political power is the determining factor of our public policy using the democratic process, such a process seems just as tyrannical as the technocratic solution.
I have a few more thoughts on this topic but I won’t share those today. I simply wanted to get some questions about this topic written down. I’ll certainly write more about it in the future.
However, perhaps I’ll post some coffee reviews next.
Some might answer the above question like an evolutionary biologist; the purpose of a transit system is to maintain its strength and grow. This at least seems to be the sort of perspective that is creeping into the debate about how to close a budget gap for the DC metro. Although it is very refreshing to see fare increases be the main strategy, many of the proposals from transit advocates in the area are centered around methods that take advantage of captive customers who are very unlikely to leave the system even with substantial fare increases.
The two main proposals that exhibit this property affect commuters to the city center (up to $0.50 surcharge during peak commuting time) and tourists, along with those who must pay with cash, (with surcharges for paper fare cards – frequent riders typically have a permanent credit card type fare card that would not be affected). The thinking behind these disproportional increases is quite simple; these sorts of people are very unlikely to change behaviors after fare increases and therefore metro can charge them more without losing ridership.
Is it wrong to charge disproportionate fees? Not exactly. The problem here is not the disproportionate fares themselves; this is done all the time in an effort to change people’s behaviors to more pro-social options. For instance, you might increase parking fees in an area with the hopes that people will take public transit instead (this might make sense if cars often clog the city center); however, the intent in such a case is totally different from the current case. It is hoped in the current case with metro that people won’t change their behaviors. Otherwise these extra fees would not raise the needed funds.
I’m not against most of the proposals that include fee increases but it is important to maintain a just (an ethically justifiable) distribution of burden. Something radical needs to be done but many transit advocates seem to have lost sight of the actual purpose of any mass transit system, building a just city. We can take advantage of the circumstances of some so that they carry a disproportionate burden but this sort of strategy is certainly wrong. After all, models of consumer elasticity can’t tell us what sort of values we should have.
The DC area rapid transit rail system (called ‘the Metro’) is facing something of a budget crisis this year. They need to close about a $180 million budget gap for the next fiscal year; the gap itself has many causes but a major one is the reduced travel due to the recession. Last week, the interim GM of WMATA (the agency in charge of Metro) presented a solution to the problem that features widespread fare increases but minimal service cuts. I don’t want to go into specifics because other sources have done a great job at analyzing the various options open to Metro but I do want to comment on how open people have been to fare increases.
The worry seems to be the similar for many who speak up against service reductions in place of fare increases; to reduce service to a level such that metro does not fulfill almost all of people’s transportation needs would in fact destroy the entire system. Many people (including myself) depend on Metro as a main source of transportation. For many it is not simply a supplementary method but something that is a requirement of normal living and to curtail it would be to breach a certain trust. People have modeled their lives around the persistence of a robust Metro, therefore limiting that system would also limit their ability to live normal lives.
People are willing to pay a lot to keep Metro healthy because it is, in many ways, a primary method of transportation for much of DC. I find it unlikely that this aversion in service cuts would take place in many metropolitan areas in the US outside of New York. Unlike most rail systems in the US, Metro is far more than a commuter system; rather, it is a legitimate transportation system by itself. Just as with highways, once this is the case it is very difficult to take such a system away from people.
As the automobile became the preferred method of travel in the United States during the 20th century, car oriented development became the dominant pattern of city design. Today it is extremely difficult or simply impossible to go about ones daily life without some reliance upon an automobile. Furthermore, in most areas of the country, the lack of one makes a person a second class citizen. For a variety of reasons, there has been a resurgence in the interest for mass-transit oriented developments (TODs). Proponents of this alternative method of city organization argue for its superiority over car oriented developments in efficiency, aesthetics, and livability (to name a few).1 Although there is something to be said for all of these reasons, here I will concentrate on an argument for TODs from the perspective of social justice. Typically arguments from social justice have been among the more controversial because they often involved some sort of redistribution of resources; in American politics it is often unclear how much the rich should be forced to give up in order to help the poor. I hope to bypass this issue by looking at a current public policy that seems to have wide-spread public approval, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and derive from it an argument for government sanctioned support of TODs. In section 1, I describe a number of public policies, including zoning, highway, and accessibility standards for the disabled and from these derive the moral basis for the government support of TODs. In section 2, I explain my argument in detail and address a number of initial concerns. Finally, in section 3, I address the most plausible objection to widespread TOD development – that gentrification could cause the poor to lose their homes. Continue reading Social Justice and Transit Oriented Developments
Some people feel buses are the answer to all our mass transit needs. They will, of course, admit that big expensive commuter rail systems are more pleasant than a fleet of buses (anyone who has ridden on both can attest to this), but they will simply point to the price tag as the major issue at hand. How can we afford such large transit systems?
In fact, if you look at the issue from a certain perspective rail systems seem simply fascist. Whereas bus networks can be easily adapted to meet the ever changing demands of the customers (we must keep them happy!) , rail systems dictate what the customer behavior should be. It is very easy to change a bus route to accommodate a new population distribution (for example, the construction of a new subdivision); it is extremely difficult to change a rail system.
A rail system has the remarkable effect of change the area around it. Transit stops usually become hubs of development; property values go up around them and people try to move as close by as possible. In the Washington DC area, for example, real estate prices are largely a function of distance to a metro stop; people want to use the metro and thus want to be near a stop. But it is not clear how we should feel about this trend. On the one hand, a rail system can have an incredible stabilizing effect on a community. It supports clear neighborhood centers and a maximization of space (i.e. higher density) around the stops of the metro. This in turn greatly decreases the dependence of residents on cars and thus decreases energy consumption; if you live near a metro station/neighborhood center, you have all your basic needs met within walking distance and you can take the train to anywhere else you need to go.
However, the flip side of stability is restrictiveness. The rail will stay where it is for a great while and therefore people are forced to live where that system exists if they want the high quality mass transit that their tax dollars helped build. People must, in effect, react to what the government has provided and are not as free when choosing where to live. The government can, in effect, coerce people to live in a specified pattern. The ethical implications of all this are rather interesting, and when I have time I’ll post about my take on it. However, for now this is an issue about which I am still starting to form a view.
One common complaint raised about car-oriented transit is that it is fixated on ‘flow’. Conventional road projects are generally designed to move vehicles, with less concern for the local social dynamics affected by that flow. This means that a large (wide) road is deemed successful if it is able to keep traffic flowing at desirable speeds; when flow is king, the people outside the cars simply do not matter. There are many obvious reasons why this is bad for the community around such a road, but if flow is not the desired outcome of a transportation project then what is?
The question of what we want out of our transit systems gets far too little attention from those concerned about the politics of transit. Many people already ascribe to a view; they may think that flow is desirable (they don’t like to wait in traffic) or instead they might shake their fists at all the passing cars and think how all this flow is ruining their surroundings. But this typically degenerates into a battle between car owners and pedestrians, and these sort of battles rarely end in satisfactorily. It seems that when two large portions of our society are at odds about how to proceed, the only fair path is to rethink the premises that got us to such an impasse. The question I think we should be asking is why we want to build the transit system in the first place?
The simple answer to the above question just goes back to the idea of traffic flow; we want to build a transit system because we want to move people and things. But this doesn’t even seem like a step beyond the question for traffic flow; the fact that movement is important is assumed in the very idea of a transit system. The deeper question we want to ask is why we want to facilitate the movement of people and things; this challenges us to think about the sorts of things we value in life. Such a question also forces everyone to do a new calculation about the cost and benefits of various transit systems. At some point of efficiency, the transit system will destroy the very mode of living that we value; because it is not simply the movement that we value but something which that movement facilitates, it is possible for an increase in movement to lead to a decrease in quality of life. So, even though adding another lane to a road may increase flow (and thus be called an “improvement” in the eyes of the traffic engineers) it could actually harm everyone involved. At some point, being able to move across town a little faster is no longer worth it, especially if you have to destroy the town in the process.
The above is all very abstract, but it needs to be this way because I don’t know how much flow is worth in relation to quality of life. I suspect it isn’t worth much, but this should be an empirical question; we need to start thinking about how movement is necessary for a happy and fulfilling life.
Last week I visited the Washington DC area for the first time. I might have some more comments about my experience in the future but I want to start out with some comments about Silver Spring, MD. I will be living near downtown Silver Spring, so I wanted to get a feel for the area. In recent years, Silver Spring has undergone an urban revival of sorts. Before this time, the area was a typical (somewhat rundown) suburb of DC but a large amount of residential and commercial development along with its access to the DC subway system has made it a very walkable area on paper. There are a number of grocery stores, shops, cafes, restaurants (though most of these are of a chain variety), so that one doesn’t really need a car in order to live in this area. Again, on paper, this seems like a very happy place for a pedestrian.
However, when one gets down into the streets it becomes obvious that this city is still controlled by the car. Several wide and busy streets (highways really) bisect the downtown area bringing with them a ton of through traffic. At cross walks, this means that a pedestrian must wait for an extremely long time to cross most streets; preference is obviously given to traffic flow along these corridors. There also seems to be very little thought (or enforcement) of coherent and contiguous sidewalks. You will be walking along a sidewalk (The east side of Eastern Ave. in front of the Blair’s apartment complex comes to mind) and the sidewalk will simply end for no reason. I can’t for the life of me understand why this is acceptable. This trend gets even worse in other locations; there were many instances where a sidewalk only exists on one side of the street and the ‘sidewalked’ side will change as the street progresses. This means that one has to continually cross a typically busy road simply to walk down the street. In another instance a sidewalk would degenerate into a curbless extension of a small parking lot, so that there was nothing between pedestrians (squeezing next to parked cars) and traffic than a small line on the pavement. That sucks.