Wednesday, September 7, 2011

These are known as Outcomes

The esteemed emeritus Prof. Jerry Schneider recently posted a link in the Transport-Innovators group to a piece by the editorial board of the Oregonian newspaper in Portland. Here it is in full:

September 05, 2011
Binding the community together
The doors open. We step inside, a little groggy, newspaper tucked under an elbow, latte in hand.

Celebrate this fact, Portland: After 25 years, the MAX light-rail system is so integral to our lives that we don't stop and think about it very much.

We don't have to stop and think about it very much. That's the beauty of it. MAX is just there, moving quietly in the background from 3:30 a.m. to 2 a.m. -- 22.5 hours a day.

We use the trains, sink into a seat when we can, stand when we can't, ignore the train for periods, grumble about it, then suddenly show it off to visitors. Do we contradict ourselves? Very well, then, we contradict ourselves.

We hop a train across downtown or plan a special weekend night out with friends, where everyone meets via MAX. We take our Red, Blue, Green, Yellow -- and soon to be Orange (to Milwaukie) -- light-rail system utterly for granted.

And, mostly, that's OK. But we don't want the silver anniversary of the Blue Line to slide by, like another sleek MAX train, unsung and unheralded.

Unpeel all that we would have to unpeel from Portland if the train system did not exist, and you have a clearly diminished place.

Portland's much-touted walkability, its draw for young people as a metro area where they can get by without a car, our bustling downtown -- all these things go away without the train. But the region's leaders didn't know that, of course, when they pushed for the 15-mile eastside MAX line to Gresham. (It opened in September 1986.)

Those leaders took a huge, if well-considered, gamble. At the time, as TriMet's Mary Fetsch pointed out last week, this was only the third modern light-rail line to be built in the U.S. "Now there are about 30 systems," she says. MAX has logged "483 million trips; bus trips reached 1.4 billion trips during those 25 years."

We would not have the system we have today without stick-your-neck-out leadership. Without steely determination to stay on track. And without regional coordination that has made our area an exemplar frequently cited by federal transportation authorities -- whenever they award TriMet more money.

With the construction of the Columbia River Crossing, we hope TriMet will finally realize our region's important goal of leaping the Columbia from Portland to Vancouver. TriMet went as far as it could, to the Expo Center, with the construction of the Interstate line.

And, of course, we need improvements in bus service, too, not only because of the value of the bus in and of itself, but also to help capitalize on the investment the region has made in the 52-mile light-rail system.

Do we know where we're headed? Sort of. TriMet's leaders and supporters have made it clear that the system should be headed toward a solid connection with Vancouver; and that's the right direction. After 25 years, light rail has moved well beyond the experimental and novel. Now it is integral to the broader community. It's far more than lines and rails and trains. It's part of the mortar that holds that community together.
Seeing this posted in the t-i group struck a chord with me for a number of reasons.
1. I happened to be visiting Portland when this editorial was published, and I read it that day. It was my first visit to the Rose City where I made a conscious decision to rely solely on the transit system to get around.
2. Really the transit experience began in Seattle, where I took Amtrak from King Street Station to Portland's Union Station. There was a marked difference even between these edifices. Seattle's is tattered and dark, only now undergoing renovations, while Portland's is bright and shiny inside and out.
From September 3rd through the 5th I used Trimet's Max light rail and buses to visit some people, attend a couple of family events, and do some sightseeing, so I feel qualified to state the following about the Oregonian oped.
3.  It's all true.  The vehicles were frequent, clean and always on time regardless of the time of day. There was enough of a rail grid to make walking distances reasonable. Compared to transit in Seattle, it was fast -- even the one crosstown bus I rode from Southwest to Northeast took only a half hour.
4. I confirm the community-binding influence, and I honor it, Portland felt positive and vibrant. While the city possesses visible examples of the socioeconomic problems typical of American cities, those problems were not pervasive and overpowering.  Transit oriented development appears healthy along all rail lines and bus routes, I saw no swaths of vacant storefronts.

Although the weather was perfect and locals and tourists packed the streets, their cars did not. I saw few speeders, no traffic jams, and do you know what? I didn't see any overt traffic calming methods, yet when we pedestrians crossed streets, drivers yielded without any crosswalk encroachment or impatient revving of engines.  Even on a main arterial like Burnside, drivers yielded to people crossing even at unsignalled, unsigned intersections.
Furthermore, bicycling in Portland appears truly mainstream. Well-equipped cyclists were everywhere at all hours, and they were a broad spectrum of age, race and class. Bike facilities -- lanes, sharrows, bike boxes, racks, etc. -- are prevalent.

Is the transit system responsible for all this safety and 'community binding'? Yes, it is, insofar as it is one of a number of planning choices the community has made during nearly three decades.
5. So far, Schneider's link has generated no discussion in the t-i group; maybe it's denial.  Today's Portland is a result of representative government and public policy, leading to positive community outcomes.  All transportation innovators need to take note, especially those who eschew 'big government,' federal government, and decry smart growth. I didn't see any mobs of outraged citizens demanding an end to Portland's oppressive central planning apparatus, ripping out the rail system, privatizing the buses, or putting their cars on guideways.
The community made itself a laboratory for progressive urban planning and infrastructure and, while any city will always be a work in progress, at this time Portland is a wild success in terms of livability outcomes. I doubt anyone in Portland feels 'less free' because of sustainable urban policies.

The people chose this, they made it real using available concepts and technologies, and in that Personal Rapid Transit supporters can find encouragement. For Portland's livability outcomes could be achieved with PRT too. For while smart growth and related concepts are ideologies, they are inherently apolitical -- just as technologies are inherently apolitical.

When public outreach surrounding PRT fails it is because of politicization. Where it is succeeding, it is in a nonpoliticized environment and the vendors stay out of politics -- especially of the fringe variety. Even the Morgantown PRT eventually thrived once it left behind the politics that accompanied its birth. 

America is a huge, prosperous country that can afford to nationally fund locally planned urban development.  We have done it before, and we can do it again if we can get out from under the influence of sociopolitical/economic theorists who think Libertarian Fantasyland is a neat idea. 

You, PRT engineers and vendors, are not implementers. Public authorities will evaluate and select transit technologies. What PRT designers need to do is bring products to a state of readiness, and leave political ideology to the ideologues.

This includes not allowing yourselves to be manipulated by political ideologues.

Update 1 - This article is an example of why astute PRT supporters stay away from anything that smells like a libertarian or neoconservative.

And where Seattle is concerned, the decades-old question remains -- what are the reasons our decisionmaking system often fails to transform good concepts into meaningful, human-focused public policies and implementations?


  1. On the one hand, you exhort us to sidestep politics. On the other hand, you insult an important potential constituency for PRT by speaking of Libertarian Fantasyland. I have news for you: PRT, run by private interests as local passenger rail and trolley lines once were, belongs in and is a product of "Libertarian Fantasyland." America can indeed afford a lot. But a key question is whether it should afford that through tax revenue or by the numerous voluntary decisions of ordinary citizens to reward valuable services and products with their patronage and their money. It's all well and good to say that "leaders" should be bold and resolute, that they should drag their "constituents" ("subjects"?) kicking and screaming into a Transit Fantasyland, because once the deed is done, people will find out that they like the new facility and the sense of community it may engender. But, if the same can be done WITHOUT coercion -- by private interests (and those might be non-profit corporations, not just in it for the money, but why discriminate?) working together to create a self-sustaining enterprise that ATTRACTS patronage -- why not do it that way? Why involve the government (and open the door to eventual problems of politicization -- as occurs with ANY government enterprise, pretty much by definition) any more than we must?

    PRT has the potential to return us to a situation we enjoyed at the beginning of the 20th century: mass transportation was routinely, efficiently, and affordablu provided by private enterprise, and the large number of people who used the system paid for it and sustained it. This a very attractive proposition for libertarians. Why not explore it with an open mind and heart? If what you want is to see a PRT system running in an American city, doesn't it make sense to try all reasonable options?

  2. This is the point at which I can describe the wall dividing Reality from Fantasyland.

    I oppose what libertarians* are offering because I am convinced that, at a fundamental level, libertarians don't really believe in our country.

    Our Constitution-based nation is the result of a progression of historical events which, examined in aggregate, is the product of our representative form of government. Across a spectrum of social/cultural, political and economic issues the US has evolved because its people have evolved. Our country is based in Enlightenment ideas, and Americans have evolved to become more enlightened in many ways. We are a progressive people.

    Through our representative government the American people have staked out private and public spheres. In the latter sphere we take collective initiative to address issues we agree are public -- defense, education, the environment, race, poverty & health of the elderly, unemployment, etc.

    Libertarians will say they are only offering an alternative means of addressing those issues, another choice. But in practice they are attacking the institutions we have created to address those concerns as one people.

    As I see it libertarians want to take the Great American Experience and stomp on it, all so they can experiment with their little theories.

    I find this even more odious when applied at the local level, where people are very close to their elected leaders and representatives. Yet libertarians portray those officials -- so often elected out of the neighborhoods they represent -- as elitists and borderline dictators, coercively dragging their subjects toward Utopia.

    If there was a "gamble" in Portland leaders' light rail decision 25 years ago, if they had to 'stick their necks out,' it wasn't because they feared being guillotined by a mob. It was a reflection that public debate took place, there was controversy, and a public decision was reached on an admittedly risky public project. And it is a success.

    I can be political while advising transport innovators to avoid (libertarian) politics because this is one of those instances where, sorry, all points of view do not have equal weight. What I have been describing is how we make public decisions in the United States, and implementing anything in a libertarian way means suspending or overthrowing those processes.

    It is my belief that transport innovators who are libertarian have made the mistake of confusing personalizing transit service with privatizing the service and its infrastructure. Sure, there was once a time when there were private streetcar lines and bus companies, sustained by fares or underwritten by developers.



    * By libertarian I mean the idea and its advocates who maintain our country is best managed under an extreme variety of laissez faire. Because this idea has a heavy flavor of corporate power, I like to call it 'aggressive laissez faire.'

  3. (cont'd from September 9, 2011 9:20 PM)

    But we now live in an age of greater awareness. Communities demand equity in service, and are highly familiar with the effects transit lines and stations have on land use and the social fabric. Those concerns made transit service a public economic good; the roots of the transformation go back almost a century -- remember how Charles Foster Kane had "the traction magnates on the run"?

    This is the way things are, and I give low odds of it ever changing -- nor do I want it to change. Earlier I characterized America as progressive, and I meant that we seek through progress to improve our lives. I also maintain that Americans are progressive in a political sense as well, whether they know it or not a center-left country. Every opinion poll worth anything agrees with me -- we want the rich to pay their fair share in taxes, we want some sort of public option for health insurance, we want to preserve Social Security and Medicare, and on and on.

    We also want transit. Portland is succeeding with the choice it made, and that is what I meant to highlight by using "outcomes" in the title. Outcomes, as in it is real. Whereas what advocates of laissez faire are proposing are just theories.

    Furthermore, when I talk about Portland making a choice, I mean a community of citizens working together, through their government, to decide what to do to make their city a great place to live. It's individuals, and coalitions of individuals, the most relevant to our discussion being the traditional environmental-transit coalition. I consider myself a longtime part of that coalition. We are active in cities across the country, we outnumber libertarians and other laissez faire, anti-environment, and anti-government (and therefore anti-citizen) fantasists.

    We will never let libertarians restrict our right to decide community issues as a community, to replace the public sphere with a series of private transactions. If it comes to that, we will never let the libertarians win.

    Libertarians should be figuring out ways to work with us, to compromise with us, not the other way around.

    Fortunately, PRT is a technology. It is not libertarian, or anything else other than a technology. PRT is gaining more mainstream credibility every day, and it will be implemented according to how each community handles such projects.

    So when I advise libertarian transport innovators to stick to engineering and let communities handle the implementing, they can take it in a negative way, or it can be seen as me just trying to help them stay in business.