The Virtues of Rail Transit and Democracy
UC Berkeley environmental law prof Ethan Elkind has been publishing a series of interesting articles on his website recently looking at rail planning in California. His basic thesis is that the ideas that make sense to the transit planners don’t often make it to construction – that the political process intervenes to produce different outcomes.
Shocking, I know.
One of Elkind’s first articles in the series was The Disconnect between L.A. Rail Leaders and Academics. His thesis here is that “academics” failed to influence the politics of transit planning in Los Angeles, leading to the construction of rail rather than more buses:
The old joke about transportation scholars is that their research can be summed up in four words: “Rail bad, bus good.” In Los Angeles, especially during the early years of the effort to start a rail transit system, that joke certainly rang true. Scholars at UCLA and USC campaigned against the idea of starting a rail system in Los Angeles, repeatedly arguing in public and to elected officials that rail was a waste of money, would not achieve the results that officials predicted, and was a bad idea compared to investments in buses, shuttles, jitneys and the like.
But elected leaders, and eventually most of the voting public, essentially ignored these pleas. The experts involved were left to lick their wounds, or in the case of scholar Jonathan Richmond, devote almost an entire book trying to explain through psychology research why everyone was basically too dumb to understand the anti-rail argument.
Elkind tries to figure out why the academics lost the argument, and comes up with the following theories:
However, the academic community bears some responsibility for its lack of relevance in shaping at least the early Metro Rail debate. The general stance of anti-rail, pro-bus recommendations ignored an overarching political dynamic in Los Angeles: rail was politically popular, and buses simply were (and still are) not. Most people associate buses with crowded, dirty, unpleasant conditions, whereas rail is perceived as a pleasant and modern way to get around. Around the country, the effort to raise public money to develop new, comprehensive urban transit systems was always sold with rail. From BART to MARTA to Metro Rail, voters wanted a big vision to solve the big problems of traffic and sprawl. Recommending low-cost options like buses captured nobody’s imagination. So the academic recommendations were often politically infeasible and therefore largely irrelevant.
I don’t mean to suggest that academics should not have spoken their truths or censored their recommendations in some way. Society benefits from hearing alternative opinions, and academics have a role in challenging popular public perceptions and shifting public opinion.
But perhaps academics could have helped their cause by recognizing political realities and tailoring their recommendations accordingly. For example, if buses are a superior option, but the public reacts viscerally to the idea of a bus, why not emphasize the positive attributes of a bus vision that counters public misperceptions? Emphasize a clean, fast, reliable, and modern bus system as an antidote to the stereotype. To some extent, this happened with the San Fernando Valley bus rapid transit line, which officials smartly dubbed “rail on rubber tires” or “rail on wheels.” Academics could similarly package and develop their arguments to acknowledge these political realities.
This is a rather naive analysis that suggests transit planners, particularly those in academia, could stand to take a few political science seminars from their colleagues. Voters are not morons. It’s not that they failed to grasp the insights of the anti-rail academics. Voters heard those arguments and properly rejected them because they did not match voter perceptions of what Southern California needs to address its transportation woes.
Southern Californians understand that rail is better not because it’s seen as cleaner or sexier. Rail carries more people than buses, at higher average speeds than buses, in part because it is grade separated and does not get stuck in traffic. Voters see themselves as potential transit riders, and of course a high capacity rail system is going to appeal to them more than a bus system – the train gives them better choices.
Voters absolutely want a big vision because they want real solutions to their problems. The problem with most transportation academics is they have a totally different concept of what “the problem” is. They get wrapped up in discussions about efficiency, often meaning cost efficiency, that most voters who are willing to support transit simply don’t care about. They will vote for rail even if it is perceived by the academics as being less efficient because the voters are evaluating things quite differently.
The academics may think the way the public sees transit is wrong, but who’s to say that’s true? We live in a democracy, after all. If voters say they want rail because it’s more reliable, carries more people faster and doesn’t get stuck in traffic, who cares? They’re showing support for the highest level of mass transit and that should be welcomed with open arms.
Elkind’s not breaking new ground here. His approach is a more academic version of Alon Levy’s post from June 2011, Politicals vs. Technicals: the Primary Division of Transit Activists. Levy looked at debates over rail, including those in this blog, and reached what I think is a generally correct interpretation of the different flavors of transit advocacy:
Politicals are the people who tend to trust the transit authorities, support a general expansion of all rail transit projects, and believe the primary problem is defeating oil-funded anti-transit lobbies. Technicals are the people who tend to distrust what the authorities say, and prefer their own analysis or that of technically-minded activists; they support transit but are skeptical about many projects, and treat agency inertia and turf wars as the primary obstacles for transit revival.
Elkind’s post on LA rail is a classic example of the “technical” genre. Unfortunately, so too is today’s post slamming the California high speed rail project, The Perils of Rail Transit and Democracy:
For political reasons, the California line is routed to serve the 99 corridor in the eastern San Joaquin Valley over the more direct western Interstate 5 route, all at the behest of congressional representatives and local Valley officials. And then the system serves the Lancaster/Palmdale area in the Mojave Desert area of northern Los Angeles County in order to please a powerful member of the five-seat county board of supervisors. Both route changes cost travel time between the state’s major population centers and have engendered local opposition partly as a result. Meanwhile, the wealthy residents of San Francisco peninsula towns that don’t want a high speed train near their backyards are bankrolling legal opposition.
This analysis is deeply flawed, and I said as much on Twitter, leading to a long back-and-forth with between myself and Elkind. Say what you will about my points (that’s what the comments are for), but it’s clear that Elkind utterly failed to mount a convincing case.
Elkind’s post falls into the rather common trap of believing that if the California High Speed Rail Authority had just made different route choices, all would be well. The problem is that his recommendations are contradictory, and even if adopted they’d do nothing to improve the project’s political fortunes.
As I’ve pointed out repeatedly, sending HSR along the Highway 99 corridor is a financial decision above all. There is no good argument to be made for bypassing over 2 million riders by sending the trains through empty land along Interstate 5 on the San Joaquin Valley’s West Side. Yet Elkind slams the Pacheco alignment for bypassing the half a million or so potential riders in the Tri-Valley region along the Altamont route.
He also points out that those routing choices have created local opposition. But here’s the reality: “local opposition” will emerge no matter where those tracks are proposed to be built. If Pacheco is somehow abandoned for Altamont, you will hear a scream from Pleasanton and Livermore residents every bit as angry and loud as we’ve heard from Peninsula NIMBYs or Kings County farmer. Same holds true for people living along the Tejon Pass corridor (and yes, they do exist).
Elkind cannot decide whether he supports increasing ridership overall, or just getting from SF to LA as fast as possible regardless of the consequences. In our Twitter exchange Elkind revealed himself to be a supporter of putting San José on a spur line rather than on the main line, in part to enable the detour through Altamont. Yet he refused to explain what that would mean for overall system ridership (a hint: it would almost certainly cause it to decline by missing out on the millions of riders going to and from destinations in or near Santa Clara County). His complaints are confused, lacking any clear logic aside from attacking the CHSRA.
More to the point, Elkind misunderstands the actual relationship of HSR to democracy. California’s democratic processes have produced repeated support for the bullet train. Those who oppose the train have had to resort to end runs around the democratic process, primarily by going to court to try and reverse the decisions of the voters and their legislators.
Elkind might support reforms to broken laws like CEQA that enable NIMBYs to attack transit projects. But his primary interest seems to be to insist that planners, not voters or elected officials, have the final say on what goes where.
There’s really no reason for anyone else to support such an approach. Transit routing has always been a highly politicized process. Planners can help lay out options and explain pros and cons of different choices, but in a democracy, it must be the people themselves or their representatives who make the final decisions. That is in part because their interests may not be the same as the technicals and the academics. And that’s OK.
Transit exists not to fulfill a theory on paper or to hit maximum efficiency. It exists to help people get around and make our lives better. Those are fundamentally subjective things. Data and analysis can help us understand the different ways we can get there. But if we the people choose something other than what the academics say is best, then that is the system working just as it should.
Especially when the academics have yet to agree with themselves on exactly what their standards for analysis actually are.