Tag Archives: BART

Revelations on Carmageddon

In the summer of 2011, with the 405 through Sepulveda Pass set to close for construction, there were so many dire warnings of epic traffic jams that a new portmanteau, Carmageddon, was born. When the congestion failed to materialize, Streetsblog took a victory lap and declared that it was now apparent that LA doesn’t need so many freeways. Now, it’s Randal O’Toole’s turn to gloat, asserting that the BART strike has revealed the system to be unnecessary. (Although since it’s O’Toole, you have to consider the possibility that he had that post finished the day before the strike and so all he’d have to do is hit “publish”.) There are other similar examples of closures that were not known quite as far in advance: the closure of the 10 and the 14 after Northridge, the MBTA Green Line getting flooded, and so on. Why don’t the traffic prophesies bear out?

The answer is pretty simple. Cities are dynamic systems and people adjust. The predictions are silly because they assume a static system. The interesting thing to me is the apparent lack of curiosity about the knock-on effects of those adjustments.

Example: I’m right-handed; so let’s say I break my right hand. The static analysis says that my work and blogging productivity will go to zero because I can’t type, and that in a couple weeks I’ll starve to death because I can’t eat. Now obviously, that’s not going to happen. I’m going to type and eat with my left hand. I’ll type slower and I’ll probably spill coffee on myself, though I will get a little better with time.

There are two important takeaways here. One, the fact that I survive breaking my right hand does not mean that it is useless. Really, that reveals nothing about its utility for my survival. Its utility is shown by all the things I use it for when I have the ability to use it. Likewise, the utility of transportation is demonstrated by the people using it. Just because a city survives having a piece of infrastructure closed, it does not mean the infrastructure is useless. There is plenty of useless infrastructure in the United States, and it is self-evident because it is there and it has no users.

Second, even though I survive, there are still negative effects, because I get less work done and I ruin some of my clothes with coffee stains. In the case of cities, these losses are social and economic, manifest through lost economic activity, additional commuting time, etc. The losses diminish with time as people adjust, but the shadow can be very long. If I lose my right hand, I’ll recover some of my abilities in time, but I’ll never be able to do everything I could if I had both. The effects can be cumulative – if enough city infrastructure is broken and not replaced, the city will decline.

Finally, it is worth noting that there are cases where the loss of infrastructure does result in crippling traffic jams. This occurs when the disruption was not foreseen or when its magnitude was misunderestimated. The most common example is snowstorms, but even then, the system adjusts – if the roads are still blocked the next day, no one goes out. Likewise, if I order a steak for dinner and then discover I have somehow broken my hand splitting a dinner roll, I’m going to be pretty screwed that night because I won’t be able to cut my steak. But the next night, I’m not going to order another steak, knowing going in that I won’t be able to cut it.

We’re getting another experiment today with the 5 freeway closed at the interchange with the 2 due to the gas tanker spill and fire. Here’s betting that traffic won’t be as bad on Monday, since people have had time to plan ahead, as it was on Saturday, when everyone was caught off-guard. But remember, no matter what happens, it won’t tell us very much about the long-term effects of changes to the transportation network.

Like I said, I find it interesting that people seem relatively uninterested in those effects, because if you’re going to talk about eliminating infrastructure, that’s what matters.

H8ers Gon H8: BART Strike Edition

Well, here we are, about a month after my post Shuttle Envy, and with BART transit workers on strike, the shuttles, along with apps like Uber and Lyft, are back in the news. Kevin Roose published a piece postulating that the rise of the shuttles and ride-share apps is contributing to the poor quality of public transportation services, and eliminating the incentives for policy makers to improve service. Matthew Yglesias and Reihan Salam, with an assist from Stephen Smith of Market Urbanism, do most of the dirty work in showing that the shuttles and apps are largely irrelevant to the quality of Bay Area public transit. Salam’s third point is essentially what I was saying in Shuttle Envy.

However, I’d go two steps further. First, it is a dubious proposition that because a wider cross-section of people in NYC use transit, a transit strike would be more effective in getting politicians to improve service. Rich people in New York have other options too – that’s one of the advantages of being rich. And as Salam says, poor people in New York have other options, like the dollar cabs and Chinatown vans. Note that these services are also mercilessly attacked by both the taxi cartel on one side and public transit services on the other, for stealing ridership, but since they serve low-income people instead of Silicon Valley Millenials, they’re not ripe targets for progressive equity and social justice attacks.

But even beyond that, the whole issue at hand here – the BART strike – has literally nothing to do with the quality of public transit services. The unions are asking for higher pay, smaller health care cost increases, better pension benefits, and some tangential safety items. They are not asking for proof-of-payment fare collection, or modern signaling and driverless trains, or better maintenance practices, or any of the many things that would have a positive impact for riders. If management gives in to all of the union’s demands, the quality of BART will be exactly the same as it was June 30.

And that brings us to one of the real problems with public transit in the US, the heart of the Shuttle Envy post: the first step to fixing a problem is to admit that you have a problem and that not exercising control is part of the problem. Public transit services in the US are not poor because Mark Zuckerberg runs private shuttles, they’re not poor because Lyft stuck a bunch of pink mustaches on the fronts of cars, and they’re not poor because BART management is holding out against the unions. They’re poor because we allow them to be and don’t demand any accountability.