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Transportation Twitter Discussion - Abnormality Arises

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Previous Entry Transportation Twitter Discussion May. 16th, 2011 @ 07:02 pm
{this is a cleaned-up-and-expanded version of a twitter conversation. It's not a fully thought out essay, though it draws on things I think about a lot. Please excuse poor grammar, wordy style, lack of an actual conclusion, and numerous instances of appeal-to-authority.}

My friend tweeted from a talk: "Loving the idea of cars as mobile personal space (more important than transport function)." He said that people love the notion of ambient control of temperature and sound. And that cars are used for storage and staging functions.

At first glossing over the idea that the environment of the car is more important than transportation functions, I replied that his statement rings true. Cars are providing more than just transport functions and we are so culturally attached to them in part for those reasons.

But, I said, cultural attachment to cars has sad implications for the future. We have designed our lives around the cars, and are creating an unsustainable autodependency. Some of the effects are: Sprawl. Oil dependency. Wasted physical space. Social isolation of drivers from other people and their environment. Social isolation of non-drivers due to inability to access services and opportunities. Injuries to pedestrians and cyclists. Drunk driving. Obesity. It's funny how things that originally expand freedom can be so perverted, when we design everything else in life around their use.

My friend suggested that providing some of the benefits via transit would help attract more people to transit.

Here's where I had to disagree with the idea that transit comfort matters "more" important than transportation functions. Lots of research exists on mode choice & has found choices are still based primarily on time and cost. Cultural issues matter, but on second-order choices, things like resistance to change, funding & policy priorities, and spatial arrangement of jobs & housing via tolerance for commutes. So a cultural preference for cars is an obstacle to providing other choices, because it prevents transit investment. It wouldn't work as a mechanism for change.

My friend found this did not match his experience. He still posited that transportation functions are not the main reason for choosing cars over public transit.

I elaborated that people compare quality only when reasonably good transit service exists and car use isn't overly subsidized, for example with easy, free parking.

Transit has to compete on price and time as a prerequisite. Transit service that's competitive with autos is only possible in certain places. That's because good, dense transit service can't be run economically without a density of demand and a political commitment to funding.

My friend lives in an urban environment with decent transit service, which he uses a lot, and scarce or pricy parking in most places. It occurred to me he may be falling victim to the "stated preferences" vs "observed preferences" problem. When taking a survey and thinking about their choices, people may state that their choices were based on things like comfort, because that is what they noticed and what marginally affected their choice. But people tend not to think about their pre-assumptions about things like this.

For example, if you ask someone who just bought a condo why they chose the unit they did, they'll tend to tell you about the aesthetics of the place, the quality of the amenities. Maybe they'll tell you about the number of bedrooms and bathrooms, and maybe they'll tell you about the location. It's unlikely they'll tell you about the cost. But you can be assured, their choice really proceeded in the opposite order. They only think first about the aesthetics because they had already narrowed their pool of choices. The aesthetics was the reason they chose this unit, but only compared to other very similar units with regard to cost, size, and location.

My friend persisted, noting that if he wants to exercise and work on the same day, he'll drive rather than take the bus, availing himself of the benefits of a car as a storage and staging area. He suggested that surveys might miss the importance of things like this by encoding them too generically, e.g. as "convenience." And as he put it, he was not arguing for more cars, but better infrastructure for non-car travel thru understanding of why car is chosen.

I had to object to the idea that the transit industry didn't understand these points. In fact, quality and comfort are mainstays of transit agency studies. The problem with these studies is that they tend to only survey people who already take transit... given what I've already mentioned about stated preferences I think the problem with that is obvious. More anecdotally, it's my understanding that improvements in comfort may improve user satisfaction, but they do not result in ridership or mode share improvements.

My friend also suggested providing such uses in transit would be cheaply addressable... I disagree it'd be cheap. For any transit facility improvement, you must multiply the cost over all stations. Especially anything that requires additional staffing. Besides which, I think that transit agencies have a hard enough time getting money to run existing operations as is. As my friend acknowledged, rhetoric around public transport sounds like a welfare debate.

A longtime transit consultant I respect summed up 5 priorities where transit agencies should put their operating money in order to improve their usage. They are:
1. Safety
2. Reliability
3. Frequency
4. Span of Service (e.g. hours and places of operation)
5. Speed

Granted, he's basing it on the current state of transit in most places... which is not great to start with. But still, these mostly relate to transportation functions, not social functions. Demand for transportation functions is a derived demand. Therefore, the most important demanded feature of a mode of transportation is accessibility... the ability to reach the places you want to get to at the time you want to get there. Transit is only an option if both your origin and destination are accessible via the service.

Clearly, cars have transit beat anywhere transit fails this basic test. Transit has to at least be a viable option for transportation purposes, and the above improvements are all about making it more viable by serving more places faster and over a longer amount of time.

But my friend's points did make me reflect that transit modeling is largely based on economics. Transit is an "inferior good," meaning as income goes up, less is consumed instead of more, because another option--cars--are substituted instead. But in that case, why do we care? Why is it a problem that people are using less transit because they're better off? Margaret Thatcher supposedly once said, "A man who, beyond the age of 26, finds himself on a bus can count himself as a failure."

An anthropological perspective can certainly give details that are not present in an economics analysis. But this thought just returned me to my original reaction, that this study sadly confirms that our culture has deeply tied itself to the automobile in ways that will be difficult to untie.

What worries me is that people who already have cars and like them may see no reason to invest in or prioritize transit. Nor would they necessarily prioritize living or working where transit is an available choice.

One thing transit will never be able to replicate is a car's ability to act as a satellite home. Even though this usage is relatively new, if we design cities around the idea that we need such satellites, transit's pretty much doomed.

But an anthropological study of cars misses out on the anthropological purpose of transit. Using transit for accessibility opens up a lot more possibilities for uses of space and money than using cars does.

Designing cities around cars means they take up a lot of space... highways, wide arterials, and especially parking all take up lots of space. This kind of space would simply not be possible in an urban environment if every resident used cars for every trip. If you try to combine a walkable urban environment with enough space to support unlimited car access, your models are theme parks, malls, and faux-downtown lifestyle centers. All of which, by the way, have other revenue streams to support things like parking garages or seas of unproductive lots.

If you are physically and financially able to drive a car, transit is only of benefit because it supports a dense urban environment. Living in dense urban places inherently means you give up some ambient control. In return you get urban benefits like proximity to amenities, cultural opportunities, serendipitous meetings, and presumably less time getting around. Transit makes these benefits possible because it can move large numbers of people around using less space and at less cost than cars, once you get above certain densities of demand.

So the real, important choice is not whether to take the train or the car to get places. On an individual level, the choice is whether to live and work in places where that choice exists. On a societal level, the choice is whether to support land use and infrastructure policies that allow urban form dense enough to make transit and walking possible. The study my friend mentioned makes me worry that people are so sufficiently adapted to cars that they no longer see the value of urban places. Reading public commentary on any transit project feels the same way.

I should mention that while I live in a transit-rich city and take transit to work, the system's poor reliability, frequency, and hours of service do not meet my needs, so I drive everywhere else and suffer the traffic and parking woes. I, too, use my car for storage and enjoy having full ambient control of a personal space. And I don't want to give it up. So maybe this depresses me because because I'm inherently hypocritical. But I, like everyone else no matter where they've chosen, struck my balance given the current infrastructure, my economic situation, and the culture I'm comfortable with.

So I think the choice is not ultimately individual and not ultimately about the comforts or speed/cost of any given trip, but about how we as a culture will balance our value of urban interaction with our value of isolation to independently control our environment. Hamiltonian-Jeffersonian stuff.
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Date:May 17th, 2011 03:11 pm (UTC)
I read this!

It's good.
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Date:October 31st, 2011 10:46 pm (UTC)
Hmm not sure what the problem is. Last line should be "Hamiltonian-Jeffersonian stuff." Gripping conclusion, I know.
Date:November 1st, 2011 06:27 am (UTC)
Great, I never knew this, thanks.

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