Politicals vs. Technicals: the Primary Division of Transit Activists

There are two distinct streams among modern American transit activists, both of which support more transit investment but in ways so different that the arguments between them have taken over debates on such transit issues as California High-Speed Rail and New Jersey’s ARC, and led to scores of back-and-forths on transit blogs. It’s a wonky division rather than a culture war like the mode war between cars and transit, but it discusses issues that are critical for transit revival.

Lacking better terms for the two camps I’m going to call them politicals and technicals, but there’s a fair number of people on the political side who are quite technically minded, and vice versa. 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.

Because the politicals are much more likely to be rooted in activism, predominantly of the progressive kind, they are better-represented in the major transit advocacy organizations; Streetsblog, Transportation Alternatives, and Transportation for America all deal with the politics and almost never with the little regulations, except for various road engineering standards. NJ-ARP, the Institute for Rational Urban Mobility, and other ARC critics are perhaps the few organizations that focus on attacking bad transit projects and promoting better alternatives.

Concretely, the best was to understand this division is to compare Clem Tillier’s writings on timetables and train control with anything on California High-Speed Rail Blog or with Bruce McFarling’s Sunday Train series. While the major bloggers are politicals, the split is more even than among the major activist organizations. In addition to the aforementioned, the Infrastructurist‘s views tend to echo those of the agencies that support more infrastructure investment, and Second Avenue Sagas‘ Ben Kabak is a major-league fan of the MTA’s work today. On the technical side there are Systemic Failure, Clem Tillier’s Caltrain-HSR Compatibility, this blog, and increasingly even The Transport Politic on such issues as the Fairmount Line. Writing on other issues such as urbanism can avoid these battles, but it’s almost impossible to transcend them; the only people who can are those who represent well-run agencies, and on the Internet the only blog that has done that is Human Transit.

Despite the name, being technical does not mean ignoring politics, or supporting technocracy. On the contrary, the primary impetus for the technicals, mistrust of transit and government authorities, is often bundled with mistrust of engineering standards, and with preference for practices that have worked abroad (European commenters on American blogs almost invariably side with the technicals). The difference is that the political battle lines we draw are less about mode wars and more about the interests of agencies versus those of riders, how broader political ideas affect transit and cities, or just plain corruption and incompetence.

Conversely, being political does not mean ignoring everything other than the effort to get projects built. Although the politicals are less picky about what projects to support (Bruce McF once referred to the position that only true high-speed rail be funded, rather than medium-speed lines such as the since-canceled 110 mph Ohio Hub plan, as another form of HSR denialism), they often do care about alignment and regulatory choices. For example, opposition to security theater on trains is universal. The difference is that they subsume them into the main political fight, treating them as less important issues, or just believe that truly incompetent decisions such as airline-style security will not happen. Insofar as the government’s statements on train security send mixed signals, they may be right; on the other hand, the FRA’s self-reforms are half-baked.

Although transit activists of both groups tend to tilt left of center, the political distribution in the two camps is different. The politicals’ emphasis on being part of the progressive fight has attracted many down-the-line progressives, who write for Daily Kos and attend Netroots Nation. In contrast, the technicals’ emphasis on mistrust of authority has attracted both radical leftists and right-wingers: the complaints about train overstaffing and government incompetence appeal to conservatives and libertarians, while the unfavorable comparisons of the US with Europe appeal to anti-American leftists such as Richard Mlynarik (see e.g. here).

It’s important to note that the division is not as rigid as depicted so far. Although technicals tend to oppose more transit projects than politicals, some projects (for example, Second Avenue Subway) enjoy near-universal support, while others (for example, the Oakland Airport Connector) enjoy near-universal opposition. ARC is more or less split down the line in New York – politicals supported it, technicals preferred Alt G; in California, technicals universally opposed the choice of the Pacheco Pass alignment for HSR, while politicals had no opinion and prefer to stay the course. But apart from these two, projects often have a different split. Jeff Wood of Reconnecting America and The Overhead Wire, who has never mentioned the FRA or agency turf, opposes new commuter rail on account of its poor performance as well as some exurban rapid transit extensions. And Systemic Failure’s Drunk Engineer supported Florida HSR, and despite complaints about grandiosity and incompetence (“Diridon Intergalactic,” as San Jose’s overbuilt station is named after local power broker and former HSR board member Rod Diridon) Clem Tillier still seems to support California HSR.

Ultimately, the two camps are on the same side when it comes to supporting a transit revival. However, the strategies are diametrically opposed. Ask Clem Tillier or Systemic Failure’s Drunk Engineer how to do it and they’ll propose modernizing the regulations, minimizing community impact through smart engineering to reduce NIMBYism, and making sure to build the most cost-effective projects in order to appeal to fiscal conservatives. Ask a political, such as Bruce McF, and he’ll propose to build locally popular projects and spread money around until there’s a critical mass of train riders willing to lobby for more cost-effective regulations. The two camps’ goal is the same, and there can be agreement on individual issues such as the need for FRA reform or support or opposition for specific projects, but the general strategies have the opposite sequences of steps.


  1. EngineerScotty

    A couple other key fault-lines:
    * The role of transit unions in the transit agency’s mission. Some transit activists loathe transit unions (particularly those, it seems, in cities like NYC or SF where rampant inefficiencies can be traced to extravagant labor demands). Others view provision of high-paying jobs to be part of a transit agency’s mission, and dismiss the first group as “neoliberals”–dupes for a broad right-wing conspiracy designed to subjugate the middle class by turning the non-union poor and professional classes against public employee unions. And many “technicals” view transit unions as vendors to be dealt with, much as one would view New Flyer or Siemens.
    * Likewise, the role of social justice. Many cities have antipoverty advocates who hector the local transit agency on various social justice issue–such as opposing fare increases, or demanding that resources be spent on basic transit service with a focus on poorer neighborhoods–with a particular skepticism towards large capital projects (especially rail) which are often portrayed as boondoggles designed to enrich developers, or as sops to middle-class sensitivities–this is especially true for anything that smacks of “new urbanism”, which many poverty activists consider a code word for “gentrification” and thus something likely hostile to the interests of the poor. In some cities, the social justice aspects may be conflated with race; the LA BRU is probably the most infamous example of this in the US.

    • Alon Levy

      The second division I did not think about – thanks. The way I’d break it down is that technicals tend to incorporate income into their cost-effectiveness ideas – poorer people are more likely to use transit than richer people – but otherwise don’t really put their fingers on the scales. Politicals have a much wider variation, which is the opposite as with the basic left-right political orientation. Some politicals have bought into neoliberalism as an ally for transit and root for development-oriented lines, others want to use transit as a way to correct society’s injustices. Overall the politicals seem to be on average friendlier toward development-oriented transit, but that’s because most proposed controversial lines are development-oriented.

      The first division is not that big of a division, I don’t think. The reason is that the union advocates and the bus advocates tend not to really be transit activists (especially not the BRU kind; ITDP is another matter). Technicals treat them, as you said, as another interest group, like Siemens. Politicals generally don’t view their interests as opposed, since they don’t advocate for staffing reduction or wage cuts, though many (not all) would side with management in management-union battles.

    • Stephen Smith

      I’d agree with Alon that the stance towards labor unions usually correlates strongly with political vs. technical. Politicals a) rarely know much about the problems that unions cause, b) tend to have ideological sympathies with unions and c) to the extent they do acknowledge the problems unions cause, they see it as a necessary trade-off to receive the political support that union backing brings. Technicals, on the other hand…well, let’s just say I’ve never seen any of them say anything positive about transit unions.

      • Nathanael

        There are unions and then there are unions.

        Unions in mass transit and railroading have relatively bad records compared to (for example) mining unions and service employees unions. But some are worse than others. The NYC unions in particular seem to be quite egregious in their behavior, while the Seattle transit unions seem like pretty reasonable people who can be usefully collaborative.

        I want to point back to *organizational culture* as an issue. Managements have it, and unions have it too.

        Each organization must be judged on its own culture. SEPTA has a culture of intransigence and conservatism and half-assedness (and honestly I don’t know how they ever built the Center City Commuter Connection — maybe the culture was different then). Boston’s MBTA has a culture of slow — it’s hopeless to try to hurry them — and nonresponsive — if they get their mind set on something they won’t listen to the community at all. LA Metro seems to have an expand-however-you-can, do-it-quick even if you have to do it over later attitude. Et cetera.

        LIRR’s unions have a documented attitude of fighting each other over turf, and collecting overtime for not working, which is particularly pernicious. But I don’t see this in other unions.

  2. MobilMan

    In Europe and elsewhere the existing basic infrastructure in place is the basic difference (and maybe more social democratic governance). That has allowed the long learning curve to reach an adequate height. Of course they’re still doing stupid things over here…

    There is no reason why the US shouldn’t take advantage of the accrued experience (good and bad) of others unless governance is completely politicized. If a strategy of “demand analysis -> time table -> organization -> electronics -> concrete” is too much to handle, then at least the initial capital projects should be chosen for maximum ridership and impact. Houston’s main street light rail line is a good example. Austin’s new commuter line is a terrible one.

    ps. Richard Mlynarik doesn’t strike me as a leftist but more like a radical technical who is anti American technology/management.

  3. Danny

    I am almost purely in the described “Technicals” group, and while I would like to transcend the differences, I absolutely can’t. While the motivations might be admirable, their absolute inability to hold public agencies accountable means that increases in funding rarely benefit the number of people that they could benefit.

    The reasons for public takeover of private transit agencies was several fold: to increase ridership, to boost capital investment, to redistribute surpluses in the form of increased expenditures on transit. None of the aforementioned scenarios have happened, and it keeps getting worse. We have been experiencing one of the most precipitous declines in productivity that any industry has seen in the last 200 years of human history.


    Click to access 159.pdf

    And the politicals don’t care one bit. IMO, they do more harm than good. IMO, they are the reason why so many conservatives hate public transit…they keep sucking down more money and they give nothing in return. Conservatives in other countries don’t share the same hatred, but then again, they don’t have to deal with transit agencies that give nothing in return.

    • EngineerScotty

      As someone who leans more technical than political (though I certainly don’t ignore politics and coalition-building), I think a big part of this is that many transit agency’s governance is broken by design. Most transit agencies, in the US at least, are standalone entities, generally special districts as opposed to state or municipal bodies or departments. Most have limited taxing or regulatory authority. Many have governance structures designed to provide political isolation from the communities they serve.

      Case in point: TriMet, the agency I cover most at Portland Transport. It’s a special purpose agency whose service district is most of the urbanized tri-county metropolitan area of Portland and its Oregon suburbs (Vancouver, WA is served by C-TRAN, a similar agency chartered under Washington law). One Portland suburb, Wilsonville, withdrew from TriMet 20+ years ago and started its own transit agency (Wilsonville contributed a large share of payroll tax revenue compared to its size, and basically decided to take that money and run). TriMet is funded by fares, grants, and a payroll tax; the rate is set by the state Legislature, and TriMet lacks power to change it. TriMet is run by a board of directors which serves at the pleasure of the governor; it is rare for Oregon governors to replace TriMet directors at times other than the expiration of their terms. TriMet has no direct control over land-use laws, albeit it benefits from transit-friendly administrations in the city of Portland and at Metro, the region’s powerful MPO.

      Ignoring the question of to what extent TriMet needs reform (and where)–how do local activists implement reform within the agency? The main levers of control are all located down in Salem, not in the Metro area–opening cans of worms there means inviting downstate teabaggers to the party. TriMet does plan jointly with (and listens to) Metro, but The main things that are left are things like denying bond measures (one was voted down last November), attacking and undermining capital projects, rider revolts (none has yet occurred at this time, though a few have been occasionally proposed by the bigger hotheads among the activist base), and other ways of attempting to encourage agency reform by denying funding. But much like NCLB has shown in the educational sphere, taking money away from nonperforming organizations seldom sends the message you want to send–and looks, to the political activists, like an attack. Giving government the racehorse treatment (“it’s broken, so lets shoot it”) is a time-honored tradition in US politics, one that transit supporters need to keep in mind.

      When I read all the reasons that the so-called “Orange Line” ought to be stopped (the expensive MAX extension to Milwaukie, which breaks ground on Thursday), it gets hard to tell apart those which come from the antipoverty left, who support transit and want to improve it, and thinks that more light rail is the wrong answer, and those which come from the Axis of Stupid on the right, who desire to kill transit outright (but will seldom admit as such). Its no wonder why some people choose to circle the wagons and retreat into the “political” shell; defending the local institutions and personalities, howeversomuch they may suck, because the only alternative they see is dismantling the system altogether.

      End rant.

      • David Alexander

        Its no wonder why some people choose to circle the wagons and retreat into the “political” shell

        That’s the problem. As much as one can question the motives of a line and it’s operating characteristics, there are some technicals that will back the politicals to protect public transportation and under the guise that “anything is better than nothing”.

      • EngineerScotty

        I think another issue that leads to this behavior is project inertia. Projects, especially the federally funded kind, have long lead times–it takes YEARS to get anything done. Any many proposed changes, no matter how well-intentioned–can effectively delay a project into oblivion–the more stakeholders and funding sources, the worse this gets. (See this article for more information).

        No matter what you think of the ARC project in New Jersey–governor Christie’s decision to terminate the project probably set it back decades–assuming a future administration were to revive the project. Funding agreements which were in place were terminated at the stoke of a pen; and years of accumulated political capital were squandered.

        Sometimes it seems that it’s a miracle that ANYTHING, let alone the right thing, gets built at all.

      • Nathanael

        What you said, Scotty!

        Governance structure matters, and the US has a pile of sloppy, ill-thought out governance structures which often do more harm than help.

        What do you call someone whose real priorities are the technical matter of reorganizing governments so that they function and are responsive? That would be me. Unforunately, we are very far from having a critical mass of people pushing to do that.

      • Danny

        Did you read somewhere in my comment a call for privatization of any transportation at all? If not, then how did you jump to the conclusion that I support privatization of all transportation?

        It is true that I think privatization would be a step up from what we have now…a HUGE step up. But the only reason why that is so is due to the absolutely poisonous anti-productivity pro-special-interest culture of our current political system. I would absolutely prefer a competent non-profit organization or well managed public organization, but in the US those ideas are politically unacceptable because it means less votes from loyal public “servants”. Privatization is merely a politically acceptable (well…acceptable enough to happen) compromise.

        I am a conservative, but I don’t hate government. I hate bad government. When they do things right, I’m a pretty damn big supporter. Take a trip to Salt Lake City some time…as a low tax supporting conservative, I’m still not ashamed in the least to support UTA with their tax proposals. But the UTA is the exception to the rule in the US unfortunately.

      • Nathanael

        Privatization is awful, Danny.

        And the reason it’s awful is that our business environment is dominated by short-term looters.

        If you privatized by selling to, say, Berkshire Hathaway, it would work out all right. But these days privatizations almost always end up being the equivalent of selling to Enron… and that is really bad, period.

        My ideal form of organization is the cooperative, and if it is viable to convert a transit system into a co-op, that would probably work quite well. The problem is that the “right people” for such co-ops, the people who care and are competent, are generally lacking in capital.

        Which gets us back to the problem of concentrations of vast inherited wealth, which Andrew Carnegie opposed, but which our current economic system encourages…. sigh….

    • Nathanael

      “The reasons for public takeover of private transit agencies was several fold: to increase ridership, to boost capital investment, to redistribute surpluses in the form of increased expenditures on transit. None of the aforementioned scenarios have happened,”

      Your history is wrong. All of the above have happened.

      Of course, the situation at the time (1920s-1950s) involved private transit agencies being specifically taxed to pay for competing roads and airports; it wasn’t hard to get all those scenarios to happen when the private companies were all going bankrupt.

      Perhaps the politicals simply have studied more history?

  4. Stephen Smith

    You and Old Urbanist make me feel a lot better about the fact that I’ve been neglecting Market Urbanism recently. Excellent post! Obviously you write from the perspective of a technical, but I’d be very interested to see what “politicals” think about your breakdown.

  5. Michael D. Setty

    Count me in as one of the “technicals.”

    Unfortunately, one of the blind spots of the “politicals” is that to obtain overall public and political support for transit and its expansion, one has to convince a lot more people than just a few progressives. Thus our emphasis on the “technical” side, which includes such things as “cost effectiveness,” common sense design and engineering, and so forth.

    Oh yes, also an emphasis on how well services actually serve passengers, as opposed to the narrow operational or political interests of transit agencies–whose main emphasis seems to be on money. Unfortunately, far too many U.S. transit agencies do not focus on “technical” issues and fundamental operating principles leading to success, particularly the “foreign” (sic) experience in places like Europe that has led to transit success.

  6. Michael D. Setty

    Please combine with previous post as last paragraph.

    Finally, the “politicals” pushing forward with whatever transit agencies want with no regard to cost effectiveness or rational design too easily can lead to political disaster. These include ineffective projects such as that half-baked proposal from New Jersey Transit killed by Chris Cristie; the strong and growing opposition to Californa’s HSR thanks to a stubborn insistence on building an entirely unnecessary, obscenely expensive 100% new right of way on the San Francisco Peninsula when current tracks have sufficient capacity for the number of HSR trains actually needed to serve San Francisco; and the huge row in Eugene, Oregon over a BRT extension that (1) would serve few people relative to its capital cost (even in Eugene, many “progressives” are concerned about that!); (2) looks more like massive street widening to residents and businesses along with the massive disruption that would occur with this construction, particularly to hundreds of small businesses; and (3) would remove an excessive number of trees, which in Oregon, we all know (?) are sacred, even if there are 100 billion+ in that state…in other words, ultimately I think the politics of the “technicals” will serve the cause much better in the long run, even if it handicaps us in the short run.

    • EngineerScotty

      A minor comment on the West Eugene EmX extension: It goes through a part of Eugene which is essentially sprawl, and politically conservative sprawl at that–many of them don’t mind seeing OR126 (W 11th) widened; they just don’t want it widened for a busway. Many west Eugene residents also were supporters of the West Eugene Parkway, a proposed highway bypass that was killed about five years ago, largely due to the efforts of environmentalists and other anti-car activists. I can think of far better places to run BRT in the Eugene/Springfield area than W 11th. OTOH, while West Eugene EmX is a questionable project–it’s small potatoes, If you’re looking for a poster child for transit agency/planning dysfunction, I can think of far better examples here in Oregon (Lake *cough* Oswego *cough* Streetcar) than it.

      • David Alexander

        I can think of far better examples here in Oregon (Lake *cough* Oswego *cough* Streetcar) than it

        What’s wrong with the streetcar extension? Is it merely a matter of the wrong application of a streetcar, or is the chosen corridor just not worth that level of investment?

      • EngineerScotty

        The stated application is rapid transit (and the design is being billed somewhat as “rapid streetcar”; its streetcar-class vehicles running mostly in an exclusive ROW); but a huge raft of design compromises have essentially resulted in a proposal that is slower than the bus that runs in the same corridor. (In particular, in one key place the proposed line switches from the abandoned rail line to mixed-traffic running on the nearby congested thoroughfare, both because the merchants on said thoroughfare want the line passing their front doors, and because condo owners adjacent to the tracks–which were there long before the condos–don’t want trains passing by and obstructing their river views).

        A big reason for the project is that there’s an existing abandoned rail alignment which can be reused (albeit with significant modification); but most of the land along the line is already developed, and much of it is low-density wealthy neighborhoods that are opposed to the project.

        If done right, it could be a useful project. The politics so far have prevented that.

    • Nathanael

      As a “technical” in spirit — but who inclines to the political because I’m pragmatic — I’ll say that the Caltrain corridor needs four-tracking to support HSR and Caltrain. As for the ARC project, there is no virtue to killing the whole thing; if one could somehow have gotten the Hudson tunnels built while stopping the deep cavern, *that* would have been useful.

      I hate “technicals” who are wrong. “Politicals” who are wrong I can deal with. “Technicals” who are wrong both sabotage good projects and encourage bad projects, and *with no political upside*.

  7. David Alexander

    I’m surprised that you didn’t bring up the one group that’s left, railfans. Admittedly, I approach trains from a railfan’s perspective, so I’m less likely to look at issues of urban planning and sustainability than many others in this side of the spectrum, and as a roadgeek, I suspect that some will think that I’m the enemy. 🙂

    Regardless, from what I’ve seen with the New York based railfan community, there’s some degree of animosity toward the transit agency, but there’s also reluctance to think outside of the box and adopt European methods. There’s a lot of myopic nostalgia for the former private operators and the older equipment, but there’s very little desire to even want to see other systems or emulate best practices from overseas. Plus, they tend to support anything resembling an extension, and a good number have crazy fantasy maps with subways going everywhere, so while technicals would mock something like Dallas’s recent extension, the railfans would agree with the politicals that it’s a wonderful idea to build such an extension.

    FWIW, I’d argue that you need both a technical and political approach to transit planning. One needs a certain degree of realism in regards to the political process, but the technical side is what permits that transit that gets built to operate to it’s maximum potential.

    • Alon Levy

      Yeah, I was thinking about where to categorize URPA and other people who mistrust agencies but look to 1950s’ America for inspiration rather than to 2000s’ Japan and Europe. Some are split down the middle; BrooklynBus on Second Avenue Sagas is very clearly a technical, while the people on NYC Transit Forums tend to be politicals. URPA itself I’d categorize as a separate interest group, like the unions or the construction industry, and although politicals tend to be more supportive of the long-distance train expansions it wants than technicals, technicals tend to listen to its critiques more than they do to what the unions say.

      Publishing fantasy maps is more a political than technical thing, yes, but it’s not completely down the line. The updated Second System maps for New York, consisting of SAS, Utica, and outbound extensions in Queens are not really a domain of either group. For other proposals, it depends on what they’re based on; the reason politicals do it more frequently is that technical ideas in many places are not as exciting.

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