There’s a certain thread of argument in transit advocacy that is frustrating because it is totally factually accurate, and yet completely misses the point. The latest example is this report on American light rail by the right-leaning Manhattan Institute, called The Economics of Urban Light Rail: A Guide for Planners and Citizens.
America has way fewer light rail boardings per route-mile than Europe and Canada. However, Seattle does well, one of only 5 in the US to have more than 3,000. No surprise: the strongest indicators of success are frequency and density around stations, two standards Link currently meets.
There’s nothing here that someone who’s spent a week in our comment threads doesn’t know. To optimize for ridership:
- Focus on close-in, urban areas, particularly over low-density areas but also far-flung TOD;
- De-emphasize parking;
- Don’t build highways through downtown;
- Eliminate density restrictions around stations;
- Don’t obsess over airport service; and
- Go through the dense area, not on the cheaper right-of-way that’s sort of near it.
If regions actually implemented this agenda, there wouldn’t need to be an STB. Needless to say, Sound Transit and its municipal partners are largely failing at these criteria, even as they do much better than peer regions.
But the next level of enlightenment is to realize that
not all virtually no stakeholders are trying to maximize ridership. The report almost gets there, blaming “route choices that are more politically expedient than economically efficient.” But there’s a certain hubris in “economic efficiency” as an obviously correct objective, while everything else is “political expedience.”
After all, “political expedience” is another phrase for “giving people what they want.” And what people want, unless they are just trying to not pay taxes, is high-quality projects in their communities rather than a distant downtown, or “social justice,” or minimizing “impacts.” In particular, minimizing impacts means spending money to not change things much at all, which is the opposite of “economic efficiency.” It’s one reason light rail money can’t simply be re-appropriated into high-quality BRT, as reports like this one seem to imagine.
Knowledge is great, and if this report somehow went viral we might get somewhat better policy outcomes. But this won’t go viral, and few people will read transit planning doctrine.
Rather than tell transit advocates that they should fight for something else (BRT) that is going to be disappointing, a more useful education would highlight some of the institutional factors that lead to the outcomes we’re getting. For example:
- The state legislature yoked King County’s high-capacity transit fortunes to outer counties that demand capital projects but contribute negligible taxes to projects in the core.
- A culture that requires public votes to build transit, but not other projects, and offers many opportunities for recall and other kneecapping ballot measures.
- Zoning happens at the lowest political level, where specific interests are most able to overcome shared regional objectives.
- Cities have permitting power over regional projects, giving them leverage to overcome system goals in favor of short-term interests.
There are veto points everywhere, so projects have to be as inoffensive as possible. As a large minority of voters will never approve a tax increase, that leaves little margin to be offensive, or disruptive, at all. And a project that can’t be disruptive can’t be transformative.
Fix that doom loop, and we’ll achieve European outcomes.