We all make decisions about what transportation mode to use. For most of us, these choices don’t change very often – we have routines and have thoroughly explored our options. But we do still make them – if we change jobs, if we move, if a new light rail line opens.

These decisions, like most, are largely cost-benefit: What’s the cost of busing to a suburban job and losing flexibility? How much would I save on parking if I bought a bus pass instead? They’re often complex, trying to balance everyday needs with exceptions while trying to predict future changes.

Most of us are here because we want to see those costs and benefits change: Some directly for ourselves – we want to be able to use transit, walk, or cycle more easily. Some more indirectly – we want to see lower carbon emissions per capita, or the political and social changes that come with more dense neighborhoods.

I think it’s important to recognize that an individual’s decisions about what mode to use are almost entirely a product of their environment. We all have preferences about what we want – a downtown condo and a subway, a rural house with a sports car – and these are equally valid desires. We each value our desired lifestyle differently – some people are willing to pay more than others toward their preferences – but for the most part, we are maximizers, looking for the best deal possible.

This is where public policy comes in. Public money spent on infrastructure has for centuries changed the costs and benefits for an individual when making their transportation choices. So much, in fact, that today ‘transportation choice’ is practically a code phrase for ‘not a car’, when only a hundred years ago road trips didn’t even exist – much less international flights.

The transportation and land use policy changes you’ll hear wonks and ideologues like us suggest are about changing those costs and benefits. The single largest reason these are so hard to change is that people everywhere around us have made future plans assuming the status quo. These can be as simple as “I plan to drive to work tomorrow” and as complex as “I plan to vote to expand this highway because I was elected largely due to contributions from employees of a labor union that does most of its work on highway projects.”

There’s a huge range in the relative difficulty of changing a transportation decision. On one end someone just might not know they can get a transit pass from their employer. On the other end, you might have to run challengers against entrenched politicians to stop a project. So the decisions we often make as activists are about the cost effectiveness not of transportation choices, but of our activism choices.

Activists like us can’t build a lot more transit right now. Link expansion is under construction, and getting significantly more means going to the legislature. Transportation for Washington is pushing bills to provide better local transit funding, mostly for bus agencies, but we won’t have a big opportunity to build rail for at least a few years, until today’s budget issues are worked out.

In the meantime, we can set up for the future: push to allow more development around transit, and to remove parking minimums. We’d let the market do our work for us – people who move into new buildings without parking are natural transit users, just like the vast majority of Capitol Hill voters who supported Sound Transit expansion. This is our low hanging fruit that makes the decision not to drive that much easier.

18 Replies to “Decision Making”

  1. A very nice and objective post, Mr. Schiendelman. Also, we must all respect each others transportation preferences. We all pay for each others roads and transit.

    1. I don’t think it’s meaningful to just say we all pay for each other’s roads and transit, when it’s the slight differences between those amounts that have led to our current land use.

      Right now, imagine I had a free new car – if I assume it’s free and don’t look ahead, I ignore the cost of replacing it in a few years. But if I plan ahead, I can see the replacement cost coming – and build something cheaper than replacing the car with another car.

      That’s what a lot of this comes down to – we aren’t considering future replacement costs of the highways we just assume as free. Generalizing like that comment doesn’t help us make decisions!

  2. Did you move out of Seattle when you took a job with Microsoft? You do live in Seattle, right?

    Personally, I can’t stand the east side and will never live out there, it’s just where I have to commute to for work. As long as I can afford it, that commute will be part of my carbon footprint one way or another. But I won’t move out there. Sorry to all the little children (I don’t have any).

  3. There is hubris in this post.

    You suggest that people make their decisions where to live and how to travel based mostly on governmental policy.

    I find that difficult to believe. I find that over the course of time, that when the average person is being robbed and his wealth taken away, he is forced into the dense city to try and earn a wage. During the best of times, when a middle class gains wealth, it flees the city and gives itself more land, better housing, healthier neighborhoods for its children.

    1. Funny how before government got into building highways, a far higher percentage of people lived in the city.

      1. 100 years ago, 50 percent of the country lived in rural areas and 50 percent urban.

        Now it’s more like 90 percent metro, 10 percent rural.

      2. Interstates between cities benefit everyone, rural and urban. Elevated or uncovered interstates through the middle of cities are sucking chest wounds on their social and economic fabric.

      3. Although vs. 50 years ago the definition of a Metro area has grown considerably. Now, its quite common to refer to the Seattle-Everett-Bellevue-Tacoma all encompassing area the “Seattle metro area” where fifty years ago it would have been the city of Seattle and not much else.

      4. I thought the cities were depopulating and most people were moving to exurban/rural areas.

  4. As one who commutes wayyyyy to much every day, I’ll still take living in the country vs. the city, and pay the price commute wise.

    Sometimes the country living can equate to better lifestyle choices for children, but often it is the opposite. There can be as much crime and bad behavior choices out in the sticks as in a city.

    This is a good piece overall. I agree that public policy needs to move towards more mass transit, and the road situation is deplorable which I don’t expect to get much better, in fact its only going to get worse both in terms of traffic and quality of the surface.

    But remember this has to have tangible, easily explainable, and with immediate results to get the rest of the public on board. Trying to explain something to people w/o having a reward in hand for immediate gratification will only lead to massive recalcitrance by practically everyone.

  5. On the other end, you might have to run challengers against entrenched politicians to stop a project.

    Yes, this is an excellent idea. And everyone should consider ways they can work to support such challengers. ;-)

    1. Michael,

      While I like what I read on your campaign website:

      The lack of any mention of the Seattle Streetcar Network is disappointing. I realize it’s not really on anyone’s radar but us activists, but I think it deserves some thought. No, they aren’t a replacement for the high capacity transit that Link provides for getting around the city and region, but they could be quite beneficial for getting around and between neighborhoods. Not only that but they could provide a catalyst for high density development.

      Not trying to beat you up on it, as I said overall I liked everything else I read, but just trying to put it out there.

    2. I like much of what Michael stands for, and I think he has a legitimate shot.

      My concern, Michael, is how will you bridge the gap between John Fox’s anti-transit crankiness and his honest desire to see more affordable housing built in Seattle? In particular, will you support higher building height limits (i.e. the highest options on the table) around rail stations?

      I respect John Fox highly, but his opposition to building more around rail stations is totally counterproductive to the cause of affordable housing. When Rev. Bloom followed John’s position on this issue, it cost him a wide swath of the progressive electorate. So, take John’s proposal with a very deep grain of salt, and come to the transit advocates for advice before signing off on each of his proposals, please.

      But thank you for offering yourself as a candidate!

      1. I want to be as clear as possible that I am supporting John and the Displacement Coalition on Yesler Terrace. I’m well aware of our disagreements with him in the past, but I’m glad to identify issues that we can all agree on and move forward together to accomplish. Perhaps through cooperation, we can gain a better understanding of our disagreements as well.

  6. Ben, like most activists, you are way ahead of the curve here! If I followed their blogs etc, I can picture Kemper Freeman and Tim Eyman arguing as much against transit as you do against cars and yet to be honest with all wings of the debate here, neither extremist reaction gets us very far in understanding our region’s very real needs.

    Rest assured, I will never follow the likes of Freeman and Eyman, but neither will I follow your path at the other end of the discussion. And it is not because I don’t like transit because obviously I do, but I don’t reject the function of the car as you do in our public life and I suspect most folks outside of the STB would agree with me on this. For the same reasons that I reject Eyman and Freeman, I have to reject most of your ideas too, although I have way more sympathy for them than I do for Eyman and co. because I love mass transit options and only wish like you that we had more of them to play with and discuss. Even Los Angeles where I have unfortunately been holed up for most of the past year is doing a better job than we do in Seattle with building buses and other forms of mass transit. Commuter rail even operates at weekends on some lines into the city. The Red, Orange, Blue and Green Lines are all excellent and to the best of my knowledge, no one voted for any of it. Decisive leadership has worked well here and with the minimum of distracting fuss from voting and initiatives and referenda. Someone may have voted once for some of all this, but for the most part, the decision makers seem to be doing pretty much what they want within a framework what they can afford.

    Back to Seattle, at the end of the day, what transportation decisions folks make in their daily lives is partly about the availability of transportation choices and partly a response to how and where they live. If all you do in life is live and work in Seattle, then, yes, I could see that you might not need or want a car. I would certainly hardly ever use one if I lived where you live, but if you make other choices and have a different set of core values, such as wanting a more rural lifestyle, then clearly a car is going to be of more use or relevance, if only to be able to get to a park-and-ride or home to children that much quicker in out of the way parts of the region. Families are more likely to need and use a car than are single individuals, the older more so than the young and the inflexible more than the flexible in terms of the pattern of their daily life. Those of us unemployed and single will be even more like to want to use public transit but sometimes find bus service outside of the commute hours to be less reliable so. The more hours to fill during the day makes for a less structured day and the likelihood of using the car for errands etc. that much the greater. Mass transit works best for those of us who have structured and relatively static daily patterns of living. They get up, go to work and come home. It does not work as well for those of us who are unstructured and/or unemployed and view the car as part of this sometimes enforced unstructured lives. Believe me, I would trade away an unstructured existence for a structured one anytime but right now, I don’t have the pleasure of being able to do this.

    I speak as someone who has been out of work for 2.5 years and so I use the car way more than I would like because my day is unstructured and fluid, although, I never use it to go into Seattle itself.

    Ben, if it makes you feel better, I think that one day you will get your wish on cars and that Eyman and Freeman will get their corresponding nightmare, but for the meantime, the future will be more about trade offs and compromise between the competing interests. As we are currently building Light Rail to both the University and hopefully to the Eastside, I am prepared to trade this against those supporting a tunnel. Andrew Smith once said that the trend is still towards mass transit whether road projects such as the tunnel are built or not.

  7. “Most of us are here because we want to see those costs and benefits change”

    Ben: I totally agree. Yet your post, and this blog keeps skirting the **social** issues (costs?) that keep people off of transit because it’s easier to harp on economic and quantifiable factors that “rationally” should get more folks onto transit.

    You emphasize “choice”; but choices aren’t made under the conditions of people’s own choosing.

    A major fail of this blog is the reluctance to engage seriously or very deeply with the less quantifiable- but very powerful– reasons many folks- folks who are not like you- refuse to take transit and will pay (even more) through the nose to drive- and their costs will not go to improving transit, sadly. You can argue, browbeat and dismiss all you want; but you’re not going to get them out of their cars until you spend as much time discussing the social issues– violence, harassment, racism, homophobia, sexism, classism, humiliation that keep folks who would otherwise be inclined to use Metro off the buses– as you do economic or technical issues. And these issues are *structural* not just emotional or experiential. Just because *you* find them rare on *your bus* doesn’t mean other folks’ experience are any less valid. And presuming that just getting more folks on buses will lead to solutions to these problems is naive and counterproductive to your ultimate goal.

    You or some commenter will undoubtedly post that my claims are invalid because *I* don’t experience these on *my* buses; or because they don’t appear in official statistics of complaints. My reply: that’s not the population I’m talking about.

  8. You’ll never get rid of cars.

    Especially with our weather, which probably tilts the balance in favor of a warm, dry, climate-controlled environment.

    With that in mind, although transit works better in the urban/suburban realms, it might be a more effective approach to chisel away at auto trips, rather than try to hit them with a sledgehammer.

    When we talk about transit service, and rail service in particular, arguments for both density around stations, and park-and-rides for those accessing the system, are both valid.

    There is no reason to choose one over the other.

    There is room for both types of access. P&R style Central Link stations are just as valid as the TOD stations. As an area becomes denser, it will become more advantageous to have better transit connections supplanting the automotive access.

    Another way to chisel away at the perceived necessity of auto-trips is to eliminate both on-street parking, and street-side parking lots.

    Okay, that sounds a lot more draconian than I appear to be professing, but I’m not saying a developer can’t provide parking, just that he be required to make his pedestrian and transit access just as equitable.

    Why this comes to mind is from looking at what has been the standard model for major intersections, strip malls set back on each corner, so that the distance for a shopper to go from one store on one corner of the intersection to the other corner is more simply answerable by getting in their car and driving the 1/4 mile total distance rather than navigate the acres of parking lot and 6 lane (x2 for the diagonal) crosswalks on foot.

    What solution comes to mind is places like Redmond’s Town Square, where the parking structures in the main part are in the center of the ‘block’, and where they’ve built pedestrian friendly (and could be just as transit friendly) environments. Yeah, I know the outer parts of that complex are more auto oriented, but this type of development style for any town would be a more preferrable option that would satisfy more ‘choices’.

    I have to admit, I’m amused by people who think that all we need to do is just live next to work. When I was in IT, working as a contractor, I was at many different locations, and transit wasn’t always an option.

    Is the expectation that we all live in Motorhomes, and move to each employers locale when our job situation changes?

    Or do we bring back company housing… company stores… and… Tennessee Ernie Ford?

    Now I live 5 minutes away from work, so life is good… but transit can’t solve my commute issues unfortunately.

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