Last week David posted an incredibly thoughtful and detailed Metro restructure proposal, and while I don’t wish to discuss any of his particular proposals (there’s a 300-strong comment thread for that), I do want to respond to a common critique that emerged in the comments and elsewhere in the blogosphere, namely that efficiency-obsessed bloggers disregard the social justice benefits of low-ridership routes. Two representative examples out of many:
- “The system he proposes would also eliminate very low-ridership routes, which is pretty much a non-starter if you believe mobility is a human right.” – Erica Barnett, Publicola
- “I would add that I do not support reducing any transit service to anyone, anywhere, for any reason.” – commenter Will Douglas
A thought experiment: imagine that the tables were reversed and we currently had David’s proposed system and Metro proposed overhauling that system to create the network we currently have. Just as many people would come out in opposition:
- “Why would you take away my all-day Route 35 service on 12th ave?”
- “I don’t want to travel downtown to go from SLU to First Hill! We’ve had great service on Boren for years, why take it away?”
- “You want me to ride an S-shaped 24 through Magnolia AND lose my access to Ballard?!?”
- “What is this proposed 26? Buses will barely fit on those Latona streets!”
- “The 2 on Seneca?! People from the C.D. have long been used to direct access to the retail core via Pine.”
- “I live at 23rd/Jackson. Instead of my current service to downtown every 15 minutes on the 14, you want me to choose between three separate half-hourly routes (4, 14, 27), NONE of which share even one common stop?”
What this thought experiment hopefully illustrates is that today’s ‘radical changes’ are tomorrow’s traditions, and resistance often has less to do with the substance of the change and more to do with fear of loss. An economist might call this loss aversion, where fear of loss has a much stronger emotional power than an anticipation of gains. Translated into advocacy, such aversion can quickly become moralistic — “You are taking away X!” — giving excessive deference to present conditions and placing the burden of proof on change itself. This is David Hume’s famous is-ought fallacy, whereby that which ought to be is derived uncritically from what currently is. Change is fought vigorously by defending the sum of all past changes, changes that themselves would have been fought in their time. And so it goes.
When restructures are proposed, we hear emotional appeals from those benefiting from existing but inefficient service, but fewer such stories from those hurt by buses that run too slow, too indirectly, and that don’t come often enough. But these ‘invisible’ riders are people, too, and their humanity and their mobility rights are equal to everyone else’s. If you believe mobility is a human right, then maximizing mobility maximizes the exercise of this right.
It is naive to assume that a transit system can hurt no one; any fixed-route system with less than infinite frequency necessarily creates winners and losers; this is a geometric fact that is foolish to deny. Even the world’s best-funded transit systems have constraints on whom they can serve. The core mission of public transit must be to benefit as many as possible and hurt as few as possible, which makes operational efficiency imperative.
We should absolutely use a social justice lens to help us evaluate and reshape our transit network (and Metro’s service guidelines do), but that is not equivalent to making a virtue of inefficiency. The quest for efficiency need not make us ruthless and inflexible, but efficiency should be the rule, with exceptions made in deliberate and transparent ways for clear and defensible reasons such as network comprehensibility or geographic coverage. But exceptions they must be, and the burden of proof should be on inefficient service, not the other way around.