On Friday the The Transport Politic’s Yonah Freemark had a meditation on Sound Transit 3 and the values inherent in prioritizing projects. After a piece two weeks earlier in which he took a standard performance-first approach while arguing for the priority of Ballard over other regional projects, he then stepped back a bit and used his most recent post to ask, “Which riders matter?”
At face value, the idea that we should treat each transit rider equivalently in a comparative analysis may not seem particularly controversial. Doesn’t it make intuitive sense to prioritize transit projects that serve the most people for the lowest cost?
In truth, though, riders are different. Some are taking long trips, some short ones. Some are wealthy, some are poor. Some have no choice but to ride transit, others are picking it instead of driving.
If the Ballard light rail project I noted above was filled with people already using buses to get to work and who would save just a few minutes traveling by train versus bus, while the Tacoma project was to be used by people who otherwise would be driving and who would be saving a lot of time, can we still be confident that the Ballard project is the better one? What if the Ballard project was serving all wealthy people, while the Tacoma one was designed for the poor?
How do we differentiate between riders? Who matters most? These are essential questions that we must answer when we’re picking investments. After all, given the fact that resources are limited, we must have some way to determine how to use them—whether that is through a process of reviewing quantitative statistics or through political debate.
When it comes to urban transit systems in the U.S., determining what riders matter most has a direct impact on what types of services are provided. Many large regions, for instance, have chosen to subsidize commuter rail at a higher rate per rider than other modes of transportation. Essentially that means that suburban, longer-distance travelers are being prioritized over urban travelers.
It’s a great piece and I’d encourage you to read the whole thing, but echoing my earlier piece on values, I’d add that this preference for the qualitative over the quantitative applies equally to process as it does to outcomes, or as much to means as to ends. That is to say that politics is the art (not science) of managing human relationships to produce outcomes. We do studies and calculate metrics, but at the end of the day this is a political business, and we have to ask, “Which
riders politicians matter?”
Consider this from a theoretical ethics perspective. Wonky blogs like ours tend to take utilitarian viewpoints; we’re systems people who see inherent value in optimizing transit for the greatest good of the greatest number of people. To our minds it’s self evident that ridership-maximizing rail options are superior, or that frequent service with transfers should be preferred over infrequent one-seat rides.
But when analyzing the politics of these things, it’s helpful to remember that political systems think more like Kant than John Stuart Mill. Their ethical frameworks are based not on quantitative outcomes, but on perceived duties to one another. It’s about who is owed what and when. It’s an economy of debts, and transit just so happens to be the currency in which these transactions are settled. When cities mostly lack projects in a proposed measure, such as Renton, they get angry not because that the agency failed to appropriately rank objective criteria, but because they feel left out and devalued.
Uncomfortable with the nakedness of this reality, we attempt to buttress our intended actions with studies and metrics and numbers, but it’s remarkable how little weight these numbers usually end up carrying; no one will prioritize a project because it carries a couple thousand more riders for the same money, but the issue will be decided on much more personal and qualitative grounds.
So identity matters; it matters who is asking for what, and for whom they’re asking it. And governance structures matter too, because they frame the range of acceptable outcomes, decide who gets seats at the table, and determine who is entitled to a share of projects.
This may be a cynical frame, but it’s also one less likely to lead to unnecessary disillusionment (it’s a pre-emptive disillusionment, if you will). In such a case a premium should be placed on the importance of organizing over argument, for superior arguments only win the day if accompanied by a much more basic emotional weight for the agencies involved: the threat of embarrassment, the possibility of electoral defeat, or the fear of conflict. That’s why agencies live and die by their ability to put out fires. What emerges from the ashes of our competing concerns is what we get to vote on. If that sounds dark, consider the autocratic alternatives.