Quick Note: What is This for?

I’d like to propose a test whenever someone proposes a new conversation into public transit: what tangible changes come from this that would not have come about otherwise?

I put this out because I’ve seen a lot of people discuss the impact of corona on transportation and bring up solutions that they believed before the crisis began and that are at best loosely related to the pandemic. In the US these are BRT, higher off-peak bus and train frequency, bus network redesigns, and off-board fare collection, among others. All of these have been popular among American transit advocates for years, but now there’s spin talking about how they’re useful for corona.

Another buzzword in the US now is equity, in which every person is expected to figure out how to be less racist, which in practice means justifying what they already believed as a solution to racism. It’s weird – I asked on Twitter what the most useful transportation investments are from an equity perspective, and I got a lot of really good ideas in comments, but almost invariable they are things that are good even without the equity perspective. There are some differences in priorities and focus, but for example the value of (say) Second Avenue Subway Phase 2 is high regardless of any equity concerns.

Note that this does not mean all topical or newsworthy discussions regarding public transportation are useless. Most of them are, but there are some interesting ones. The most notable, I think, is the issue of equity for women as opposed to the more standard measures of looking at equal access for the working class or racial minorities. Nicole Badstuber, for example, wrote about it last year, and specifically mentioned an example: women walk at higher rates than men and drive at lower rates, and snow clearing priorities that had roads ahead of sidewalks were therefore sexist. Crush dummies for cars are man-sized and therefore result in cars that are less safe for smaller-size people, such as the average woman. Nicole also brings up the issue of trip chaining, which a number of commentators brought up in 2012 as well.

All of these have concrete implications that one would not have otherwise thought of: dummies should be sized for the average person and not the average man (and really have a variety of sizes to test car safety for), public transportation should be designed to facilitate trip chaining, etc.

However, this is not the typical case of trying to connect public transportation with another political idea or current event. To distinguish real additions from cases of “I am anti-racist, I like this, therefore this is anti-racist” that just create more red tape, it’s always important to ask what new concrete actions this recommends that would not be otherwise undertaken.


  1. Matthew F.

    “Crush dummies for cars are man-sized and therefore result in cars that are less safe for smaller-size people, such as the average woman.”

    A long time ago (around 2006, I think) I reviewed US NHTSA crash fatality statistics and found that statistically people who are 5’6″ are the least likely to die in a crash. Since this falls about midway between the average height of men (5’9″) and women(5’4″), I presumed that vehicle safety targeted this midpoint of all Americans.

    That was a fairly crude estimate, though, and requires one to assume people of all heights drove equally frequently. Maybe the noted differences in VMT accounts for how Perez came to a different conclusion.

  2. Henry

    The anecdote of the “average” crash dummy sounds very familiar. There’s an old tale about how upon its inception in the 1920s, the US Air Force, using common practice at the time, designed a cockpit for the “average” male in 1920, and then proceeded to reject candidates who were too outside the average as pilots. This worked while the US wasn’t at war, but during WWII the rapid expansion of the Air Force to press as many recruits as possible into the service caused performance to decline and death rates to skyrocket. To remedy this the USAF decided to update the “average” baseline, but one of the people who was performing the measurements realized that pretty much no one met the criteria for exactly average. And this was true; upon analyzing a dataset of thousands of airmen, zero people were average on all ten out of ten dimensions measured, and less than 5% of people were average on just three out of ten dimensions. So the USAF instead switched its requirements so that manufacturers had to account for both the tallest and shortest possible person, thickest and thinnest, etc., and this was how the adjustable seat was born. https://99percentinvisible.org/episode/on-average/

    • Alon Levy

      Yeah, the vast majority of these problems are summarized as “someone is being a moron, and racial/gender/w/e bias is what made it possible for them to think this was a good idea.”

      • Henry

        Also “lies, damned lies, and statistics.”

        We collect a lot of data, and it’s possible to massage it every which way to fit a certain goal or viewpoint (see: Level of Service in the US)

  3. wiesmann

    One thing I hate with the French TGV is that it seems designed for business travel and not family / vacation. It is really inconvenient when travelling with young kids and a pram: entrances are not level and cramped there is not convenient storage space, even in first class, the staircase to get to the first level is narrow. When the other passengers are old people with a lot of luggage, it gets really chaotic. And contrary to Japan, there are no good solutions to ship your luggages around the country.

    • Oreg

      The TGV interiors are really inconvenient, period. I dislike them as a business traveler as much as a vacationer. Might have to do with being tall and the TGV focusing on short people. But also the on-board catering is surprisingly bad.

      What does this have to do with the article again? 😉

      • wiesmann

        I feel there is a similar thing around accessibility, i.e. the trains are (or not) wheelchair accessible, but this translates to general convenience even for people who are not in a wheelchair. Also designing your system for a diverse set of passengers, as opposed to idealised business travellers. Does this make sense.

  4. Richard Mlynarik

    I don’t see why you disparage “equity” arguments for all the usual basic good, efficient, cost-effective ideas, because, for many of us, that, plus environmental degradation, is exactly why we’ve been involved/motivated/interested for decades.

    Providing more and better service at lower cost, prioritizing service where it will provide greatest benefit, prioritizing capital spending where it will provide greatest service improvement, prioritizing riders over enthrenched self-serving “public” agency welfare, prioritizing riders over rent-seeking contractor welfare programs, not prioritizing special cases of riders (inevitably the affluent) over others, prioritizing super-unglamorous bus efficiency improvements over “tunnel machine go brrr” fanboy bullshit, … it’s all good, and it all is hugely in the interests of the marginalized (poorer, urban, not car owners, not white collar, non-CBD employment, non-peak-commute employment hours, regressively taxed, female, unrepresented in decision making, etc, etc.)

    The people I’ve known have been all about social equity for decades. There is pretty much never a conflict between, say, more planetary environmental concerns and social equity arguments, or even between “I like public transit I wish there was more of it”. “Better” = “better for many” is pretty much how it works out in practice. Oh so sorry about your airport rail link.

    PS Speaking of “the impact of corona on transportation” I don’t think any of your pieces on the subject are aging well or are going to age well.

    • Alon Levy

      I’m specifically pooh-poohing the idea of forcing everything to go through additional layers of red tape just to get to the same outcomes that would have been proposed anyway. A few people from CTPS were presenting on this a few weeks ago and proposed a new system to review every change to make sure it was good for “equity populations” (a mixed bag of non-English speakers, the poor, the elderly, children, and people of color). A few people – not even me – chimed in asking about whether this meant more investment in bus shelter, since it’s a) generally good, and b) especially good for women in high-crime areas, and the CTPS people kind of choked on the answer, because their rubric first of all doesn’t include women, second of all isn’t intersectional, and finally is place-based rather than rider-based.

      Nobody asked about multilingual information, which would also be really helpful, but isn’t place-based – it affects riders who don’t speak the language rather than neighborhoods with many riders who don’t speak the language. At Transportation Camp yesterday when someone brought up multilingual announcements, someone else warned that there might be a Title VI lawsuit if a transit agency added announcements in foreign languages if it only did so at some stations or not in every language.

      The contractor welfare bit is even worse and it drives me up the wall, but a lot of the people I’m subtweeting have the same interest in cutting out the rent seekers as, say, Robert Cruickshank. And just as Robert cloaked his indifference to technical matters in anti-austerity left-wing language, there was recently a CityLab article saying that transit leaders should have political experience rather than operational experience, all for equity.

      This is as far as I can tell different from the Swedish approach of gender equity, which is proactive and can propose new things rather than just review and delay existing proposals. But the equity process as various American organizations have been trying to implement it in the last few months is much more about delay and lawsuit threat than about anything proactive. So for example if someone suggests a POP system for anything then there are layers of review re racial bias and the threat of lawsuits (and in Cleveland a judge struck down POP on the pretend-BRT route).

      So, yes, basically every protected class in US law except the elderly – women, minorities, immigrants, non-English speakers, the poor, people with disabilities, queers – rides transit more and drives less than straight, etc., white men. And yet, the equity process, both old tools (Title VI) and the wave of equity seminars from the last few months, has never even suggested it would be required to seize space away from cars and give it to surface transit. Nobody has tried suing; if I suggest such a lawsuit anywhere I’ll get laughed at; the people who dismissed Eric’s and my bus redesign on “we just can’t” grounds when we said streets should get bus lanes instead of parking are pitching themselves as woke.

      • Nilo

        I think what this comment does a good job of highlighting is how current American institutions are totally ill equipped to make things better. All the tools for furthering “justice” are designed based on the principle that things can only get worse. This basically sums up how environmental review and title VI work.

  5. Oreg

    I understand that you argue against equity as a justification for additional red tape. Others are probably just tapping the equity wave as a source of additional political capital for supporting those transit ideas you mention that have always made sense, no?

  6. B

    If anything, the hire-me-as-your-equity-consultant people in North America seem to be increasingly pro-car, borne out of an extreme loss-aversion attitude and contrarian distaste for anything promoted by ‘white urbanism’

    • Alon Levy

      Yeah, but even taking out the Los Angeles-based grifters, what’s left is people who reach the same conclusions as everyone else but demand a slower process, and instinctively recoil from looking outside the US and maybe Canada (and this is not just Adonia Lugo, she’s just the most explicit about it).

  7. James S

    I think youre confusing people who genuinely want equity verses those who simply want to hit the bullet point.

    Like a business owner who puts up a BLM sign not because he gives a shit, but because he thinks its good for business.

    The problem with this approach is that you discredit those who genuinely gives a shit.

    Easiest way to tell? Person A who genuinely cares is demanding bus improvements like shelters and sidewalks, and person B is demanding Spanish language signs be added at suburban commuter rail stations to direct people to the Uber pickup point.

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