Data is Overrated

Ten years ago I blogged that smartphones would not have a revolutionary effect on public transportation. I think the trend since then has vindicated me – routing apps have not had visible impact on ridership, whereas traditional investments in better service have. I bring this up because a brief conversation with an Israeli public transportation activist reminded me of how the British and American focus on data corrupts institutions elsewhere, to the point that people culturally cringe toward the generally wealthy UK and US and learn from them even on matters where they fail, that is public transportation.

What is data?

Data, in the context of transportation, is any information about how people travel or could travel. It is mostly collected through personal surveillance, whether by smartcard giving the agency exact origin and destination data linked to a specific person, or by a smartphone app doing same. It can also be collected from census data on travel, but the trend is to seek non-census sources and prefer surveillance apps for more granular information.

What are the uses of data?

Data can be used to plan networks more precisely. For examples, granular origin-destination data can be used to plan bus networks, time of day data can be used for schedule planning, and demographic crosstabs can be used to see whether there are patterns in ridership that require addressing (maybe people who don’t speak the language struggle with monthly passes?).

This can also be done in public, hence the fascination with open data. The idea behind open data is to some extent about transparency, but it’s adopted far more widely in places with poor general transparency, like the UK and US, than in places with good transparency, like Sweden. The justification in the US at least is less about informing the public and more about creating a pool of open data, like GTFS, that can be used for third-party apps, such include trip planners and next-bus apps, as well as for data visualization. The same data can also be used analytically, and thus for example TransitCenter has the Equity Dashboard showing unequal access by various demographic categories.

Has this worked?

Not really. An app showing me that the bus in Boston will not arrive for another 17 minutes is not going to make me ride the bus (I took a taxi that time; the public bus tracker was down but there was some dodgy third-party app). A schedule in which the bus shows up every 6 minutes without variation is.

Unsurprisingly to me, apps have made no difference in modal choice or in overall travel numbers. What visible effects there are come from the growth of TNCs, and even they have had a very small effect on overall mass transit ridership. This was surprising to other people – that post I wrote 10 years ago got a lot of criticism, and Reihan Salam dubbed it “bad Alon – backward-looking, dismissive – rather than good Alon – analytical.” But to me, it wasn’t even a particularly controversial claim. Innovating in an industry requires a lot of knowledge about where its current technological frontier is, and the sort of people pushing open data as the solution are, with few exceptions, incurious about recent success cases.

So that’s for apps. What about open data’s use for planning? That, too, is limited. I think Uday’s work showing how the Fairmount Line in Boston does provide as good job access as the subway is really good illustration of Boston’s transport planning failures. But it is less important to illustrate failure than to fix it. The planners who moved the Orange Line from black Roxbury to white Jamaica Plain didn’t need data; they needed to be fired for racism and replaced with people who don’t bustitute service to black neighborhoods. The Fairmount situation is likewise much less about data and more about a combination of racial sensitivity and understanding global (i.e. non-North American) best practices regarding mainline rail frequency.

Okay, so data is insufficient, but perhaps it’s necessary?

Nope. Important aspects of planning require either very coarse information, readily available not just from conventional present-day census sources but often also from the state of data analysis of the 1920s and 30s.

If anything, more recent (say, post-1970s) innovations in public transportation planning have made granular data less important rather than more important. The frequency-ridership spiral, not yet understood in the postwar era back when trips were CBD-centric and preexisting frequency was so high small cuts didn’t spiral, means that frequency must depend on minimum guidelines and not on granular time-of-day travel data. Changes in the nature of work also mean that split shifts are harder to sustain for the labor force now than then, which makes flat schedules better. In effect, how first-world rail transit works today is that costs depend almost entirely on the peak, and midday off-peak service is almost free to provide up to the point where it matches the peak.

Bus network redesigns have had a similar effect. Carlos Daganzo was adamant on not relying on current travel data in network redesign, because it only reveals how people travel today, not how people would travel on a redesigned network. It’s of course useful to know the major activity nodes, population density levels, etc., but matching origins to destinations is not useful.

At regional and intercity scale, the growth of integrated timed transfer networks is telling as well. The Swiss planner has no need for detailed surveillance app data to figure out how to precisely match where trains from St. Gallen, Biel, or Zug go and at what time. Instead, the national ITT system means trains run hourly with timed connections to everywhere; the decision of where the one-seat rides goes can be based on special patterns, but it’s a second-order effect. It’s not how Flixbus plans its service, but the modal splits of Switzerland are not achieved elsewhere in Europe, let alone in app-oriented North America.

Learning worst-industry practices

Britain and the US are complex, wealthy societies. London and New York also have high mass transit ridership, by virtue of size, and are globally familiar, especially given that they use English. It’s very easy to overlearn from them, to look at TfL’s open data and say “we want that,” even when the impact of such learning is limited. It’s harder to synthesize the real innovations in scheduling, signaling, fare payment, and construction.

It’s fortunate that there are parts of the world that don’t automatically think everything done in the core Anglosphere is the bee’s knees. Israel is among them – its idea of a normal country is pan-Western European – but even there it’s so easy to err and adopt worst industry practices just because of the cultural cachet of London and New York.


  1. Michael 'Long Branch Mike' Olivier

    Bingo. Most agencies are providing transit apps, but do they count how many are actually using them? I’m somewhat tech literate, but hate messing with downloading apps to my old phone. Transit agencies need to cater to those without such modern conveniences, ie the elderly, the disabled, the poor, who use transit as a lifeline.
    I do like real-time schedule updates, as this is genuinely useful to decide whether to take another route – for which I use my agency’s text next vehicle service. Works mostly great, text based, very simple, stop codes on most poles.

    • wiesmann

      At least in Switzerland, many people use a transit app, either the local transit one, or the SBB one.
      But to the point, this is not what makes me choose the train or public transportation, this is what helps me do routing, as the network in Zürich is such that the obvious route is often not the fastest.

  2. Phake Nick

    It wouldn’t make passengers more comfortable, but it have certainly make transit providers in Hong Kong become mire comfortable in downgrading frequency of tons of urban bus routes down to 18/22/25/30 minutes headway, suburban/rural routes down to 40/45/60 minutes headway, require passengers to make reservations before actually operating a timetabled frequency, creating tons of new route that try to target one goup of oassenger but doesn’t reach those bus stops directly for the purpose of resource utilization and ability to charge higher fare due to fare scale and expect nost passenger to reach their destinations using interchange, cut back short haul services hoping passengers would follow app recommendations and pay long haul fare for short trips, hiding essential fare and frequency intonation inside QR codes instead on bus stop info sheet to hide inconvenienct information, and think it is okay to cut service on a bus route already full with passengers unable to broad by operating a new expensive route that only partially overlap with the existing route abd think they can upcharge passengers and gain more revenue this way, making one’s own money-losing service more inconvenient to use to try to force passengers take other routes or interchange options instead in order to justify further axing of service

    • Phake Nick

      p.s. Transit card payment data seems to be the most commonly used data in determining bus service and accompanied with hand-counting numbers of passengers for each routes at each stops. But sometimes they would also intentionally over-serve a route to get a lower load factor and use such lower load factor to justify service cut.

      • Alon Levy

        Yes, whereas in our Brooklyn bus redesign, the only data on passenger ridership we used was weekday boardings per route, crosslisted with frequency and service-km; the variation between what we did and what NYCT’s consultant came up with is mostly in one route that we include and they didn’t even though passengers asked for it at meetings. Granular counts are really, and I mean really, not necessary for bus network planning and sometimes even subtract value by overlooking network potential.

  3. bruce hain

    Alon, this is surprising coming from you.

    I must say I agree, and there are a lot of good points. It’s more useful for optimizing service after the thing is built, as far as passenger rail. In building rail lines the potential for high passenger volumes is dependent on the physical characteristics of the line built, and the populations through which it passes. I think all the info necessary is a Google map and some population figures. Not much else matters if you can divine the best configuration and work backwards from that to make it stageable. It’s a tricky thing, takes longer to soak into one’s mind that architecture, maybe because of the large scale and the tendency of interdependent things to pop up somewhere if you make any change. In any case I gotta say, it’s not being done very well.

  4. Henry Miller

    This can be applied to every fad. 20 years ago it was “we need a computer in every classroom”. Big data has been the last 10 years. I make no predictions as to WHAT will be next, but there will be something (I’ll bet everything – the only way to lose is end of the world and then you cannot collect). As always, there are useful things to be had, but the impact will be overrated.

    Big data can be useful for some questions, but as we in the business are learning, most data has enough errors and one offs that conclusions are not as sure as we would like. You can figure out where everyone is going today, but that doesn’t tell you where they will go tomorrow. Maybe their company goes bankrupt and nobody will go to that office for the next 5 years while the courts figure things out (5 years in bankruptcy implies some form of criminal investigation). And long term trends are not clear. Is the rust belt going to recover or continue to decline? Will California go into a decline or not?

    Big data can tell you what happened, but not if the trends will continue, get worse or better. These are things that are really needed to make plans, and big data can only show you the past not the future. Of course the past indicate the future, but it doesn’t control it. In the case of transit the important factors of the future are in fact things good transit controls if planning is done right. (where you build good service over 20 years will bring people/jobs)

  5. Max Wyss

    In my (Swiss) opinion, public transportation is a supply-oriented entity, and not (much) demand-oriented. Demand can be determined very roughly, and occasionally on an anecdotical level. In fact, you may occasionally end up in a ticket check, which actually does not check the tickets, but they ask you from where to where your current trip goes; this is the data, based on a rather small sample, which determines, for example, how much every operator gets from the “Generalabonnement”-pot (SBB collects that money, and distributes it accordingly). This small amount of data is considered to be sufficient.

    That’s also why the “Swiss planner did not collect tons of data” before stitching together the Taktfahrplan.

    It may have to do with the anglosphere business education (do I hear MBA?), to wildly gather data (and then get lost in it).

    Not being a mathematician, I can not create equations, but for most information, an operator or planner can be interested in, a small sample gives almost as good results, as an overwhelming lot of data. Just with the difference, that a sample can be received faster and cheaper… and that applies also to the data processing.

    That also leads to the basic statement: If you don’t provide real shit, people will use transit, and the better (frequency), the more will use it, and the “the more” is non-linear.

  6. Richard Gadsden

    I find transit apps most useful for buses in cities I don’t know well. But that means using a familiar app, not the local one (which might be great, but is certainly not familiar). That means that the city has to provide a public data feed so any app can consume it, and then I can use one I’m familiar with – which means CityMapper for me personally.

    Non-bus transit is easy to work out from maps in the stations. But it’s hard to work out what the right bus is or which is the right stop for my destination: much harder than doing that on a train or tram with visible tracks and named stations.

    But, for my regular routes, I know the timetable and the stop locations and the bus numbers. I only need the app when I go somewhere I’ve never been or rarely go.

    • plaws0

      “Non-bus transit is easy to work out from maps in the stations. But it’s hard to work out what the right bus is or which is the right stop for my destination: much harder than doing that on a train or tram with visible tracks and named stations.”

      Pretty sure you just described how most transit agencies fail. “Visible tracks and named stations” are harder to do with buses, but posting maps at stops is pretty easy. To me, that’s been the big benefit of the “frequent bus” maps of the last decade – they turn the routes with reasonable headways into something that looks more like a rail transit line on the map.

      • Bobson Dugnutt

        @plaws0, you’d think it’s pretty easy to just put up a map at a stop, or list off a litany of even the fundamental customer service/user experience tasks that should be obvious to any transit agency. Yet the rule is for transit to not cross the bar when society sets the bar so low that it lays on the ground.

        Frontier Group had a great name for this: the sandbox mentality.

        When we are talking about most bus systems, they fall into the trap of Unwritten Rules 1 and 3. Rule 1: There is a pool of money called “transit money” that is fixed and cannot be meaningfully expanded, regardless of public opinion. All debates about how to allocate “transit money” are a zero-sum game: it’s either bus or rail, either repair or expand. Rule 3: The most important decisions that affect the success or failure of transit happen within the transit sandbox. … [T]ransit itself is imperfect. Because the world outside the transit sandbox is unchangeable, the solution is to accept reality and either do transit differently, less ambitiously, or not at all.

        A transit system is first bound by fiscal constraints, and even if a budget is expanded it is still fixed. The larger budget will have the same proportion of costs as the baseline budget (e.g., payroll capturing 70% or more of total operating expenses). Rule 3 also adds injury to insult by putting the burden of agency on the agency. Transit must answer for its own failings as well as the failings of the world it cannot and/or must not change.

        • Herbert

          Many political systems allocate higher level funds (to a lower level politician that is “free money”) to expansion but not to upkeep. For roads this creates the suburban Ponzi scheme… For public transit this has led in some cities to subway-surface tunnels that are a permanent money sink near the end of their lifetime

          • Chris Ledermuller

            @Herbert, I think for the transit example many light rail systems embedded into what Alon dubs “no transit” cities have that dubious distinction.

            The light rail line/network will be underproductive like its complementary bus system (e.g., San Jose, Dallas) or might get decent ridership but produce a flight to quality problem of riders taking the train but avoiding the bus system (e.g., St. Louis, Cleveland; for heavy rail, it’s Atlanta, BART outside of San Francisco and Oakland/Berkeley, or WMATA in Maryland and Virginia).

            The worst possible outcome is “Sacramento syndrome,” where you have a wholly unproductive bus and rail network and the flight to quality phenomenon of riders going out of their way to take a train over a bus. Just before the Great Recession, a blogger wrote that SacRT had a majority of its ridership on its two light rail lines (that stubby Green Line wasn’t yet running, and it was built in anticipation of downtown development that never materialized). It only had a daily ridership of bus+rail of just under 100,000. The problem is that almost all bus lines run a base frequency of hourly, and these are hundreds of route-miles that produce less ridership combined than the two light rail lines with a combined 60 or so track-miles. Also, the entire SacRT network shuts down around 9 p.m. every day.

            There’s no really good way to invest in expansion of any kind in Sacramento, other than the public clamor for buses and trains to run until midnight. Yet the public is demanding unproductive service that will drag already poor performance further down. Boost service frequency? Why bother, because SacRT already primed riders to bypass bus service and catch a car ride or take a bike to the light rail station. Also, there is one area where the busiest segment of light rail and its busiest bus line run parallel to each other (it’s the Blue Line south of downtown and the Stockton Avenue bus), so there’s no untapped ridership reserve that would warrant either light rail or bus expansion.

          • Matthew da Silva

            I think you are unnecessarily pessimistic here. Frequency increases + a redesign of the bus network to act as feeders into the light rail network where appropriate can go a long way to boost transit ridership in Sacramento. In a well-designed network, bus and rail are not competitors, but collaborators on overall mobility. If “flight to quality” is happening, its because the rail network was indeed well-planned and is meeting rider needs – the bus network needs to be redesigned to respond to that.

          • Phake Nick

            @Matthew da Silva
            In Hong Kong, following the opening up of a subway line extension and a new mid-capacity metro line, serving a total of 7 new stations in the Western and Southern part of the Hong Kong Island, the bus ridership on the island dropped from 254 million in 2013 to 212 million in 2018, while the metro ridership on the islands increased from 128 million to 188 million. Tram ridership on the Island also dropped from 72 million in 2013 to 60 million in 2018 as a result of the subway expansion. No data on how much the ridership on minibuses, nor residential bus, on the island have changed, but the trend is probably similar, as territorial-wide data showing minibus and residential bus are both seeing drop in ridership despite the entire bus system after taking into account rest of the city still manage to see increase in the overall ridership across the system.
            Such drop in demand have proved to be catastrophic to the bus system on the island, with the original operator exiting and selling the operation to an overseas company with Chinese backing interested in developing the use of Hydrogen buses, and the transaction was done at a price tag less than the total value of the fleet of buses involved, many routes have to be scaled back both in service hour and frequency, and with the drop in frequency and merging of routes it further reduce buses’ attractiveness to riders, and pushing them to use alternative modes, resulting in continuous drop in bus ridership, and financial difficulty, and inconvenience of passengers.
            The Hong Kong government is now trying to save the bus company by giving them the right to operate almost all the new bus routes serving new residential communities in the city, but with those communities being yet to mature, their geographical location and rail-transit-oriented-development mean rail often have significant advantage over bus services, and the lack of other bus routes forming network in those area given that most other bus routes in those area are operated by another companies resulting in inability to adjust coverage area or provide in-house interchange discount, have caused those new routes failed to help the company either, not to mention those new estate are far from the scale that can offset the 40+ million annual ridership lost as a consequence of metro expansion even if all those people take the buses everyday, and with yet another new metro line connecting to the Island planned to open in year 2022, not to mention the ongoing social instability in Hong Kong as well as the pandemic, it can be said that the bus system on the Hong Kong Island is killed by the metro line extension.
            Speaking of the pandemic, it should be noted that the pandemic caused ridership of various transit system in Hong Kong to drop by about 20% in year 2020, and that’s similar to the percentage of ridership drop seen by the bus system on Hong Kong Island following the metro extension before the pandemic. And thus it can be said the effect of the rail line extension on the bus system is about as severe as the pandemic.
            While the overall ridership on the HK Island do increased from 454 million to 460 million over the six years following the opening of the new metro lines, it haven’t take into account the drop in ridership on residential buses and minibuses, nor paratransit routes. Taking into account that the metro is now more crowded with even more passengers, and traffic on the HK Island is now smoother as bus frequencies are reduced due to drop in bus ridership, and with reducing bus service level in mind, the extension of metro system might actually encouraged more people to drive utilizing the road space freed up by buses that are no longer operating.
            Indeed, looking at number of registered vehicle in the entire city, the number of private cars grew from less than 500 thousands in 2012 to more than 600 thousands in 2018, and number of motorcycles increased from 57 thousands in 2012 to 79 thousands in 2018.
            Aberdeen Tunnel, a road tunnel paralleling a new subway, see their traffic dropped a bit following the opening of a completely parallel subway, but only from 64000 a day to 60000 a day. Considering the magnitude of bus and minibus frequency reduction have been seen across the district following the opening of the subway, that they probably make up a sizable amount of that reduction in 4000 vehicles each day, the effect of the rail line in attracting individual drivers giving up their cars and use transit seemed minimal, despite the metro line’s significant time-saving benefit, and most passengers drawn by the metro line appears to be from buses and other surface public transit.
            Hence, in situation like this, I think it is not wrong to say the relationship between bus and rail could be zero-sum.

      • Phake Nick

        I think, for bus, it would be better to give a sibgle location, and then create a route map base on all available bus routes as well as major connecting bus routes in the area.

      • Herbert

        That’s not how the term is used. “maas” means you got your taxis, your rental cars, your public transit etc. all in one app. I might find a German radio story on it if you’re interested…

        • Alon Levy

          Yeah, some people are desperate to turn physical infrastructure into apps. Google Maps notably is completely invisible in travel statistics, and ditto the phone versions. “Here’s how you can travel” is a poor substitute for actually useful public transit, and trying to integrate it with TNCs is silly when these two modes don’t complement each other.

          • Phake Nick

            In Japan, when organizations or companies do MaaS, it often also include integrated reservation and ticketing, sometimes they also provide a flat price for a user’s all mobility needs even if they want to move to destinations that are poorly covered by public transit hence needing taxi and other similar service to connect them.

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  8. borners

    Hey I’d say UK is showing cultural cringe towards the US here. I think the US is more “if all you have is a hammer and building other tools is boring and difficult”. UK discourse only deals with one other country in detail and that’s the US from Communists to the Far right. It comes from a being failed multi-national/multi-ethnic union and former Empire with the same language you envy what you don’t have (i.e. giant continental superpower with a unitary political identity)

    But there is another element, if you study postwar British Industrial policy there was and is a real tendency towards magic gimmicks stuff like the APT, the Concorde etc, Thatcherite style industrial policy’s use of weird pseudo-competition systems fits into this too. Its cultural expression in things James Bond’s Q and the WW2 gadget movies. All to avoid doing the hard work of building private and public systems capacity which would upset UK society’s social balance. And before Michael James pounces with his usual “Feudal Britain” guff this probably more about how certain sections of the working and middle classes detest middle management, formalised mid-level skills and social change. UK’s historic industrial model was based on a large informally skilled/trained working class, a similarly informal commercial/trading middle class and a narrow bourgeoise hogging the key professions. That society is a dying mediocrity but it still big enough to stop anybody else making things better. When they talk about upgrading the transport in decaying satellite towns of the North the locals will say stuff like “that’ll make us a dormitory town”.

    The interesting corollary to this is that London is the big exception, its sheer size allows it agglomeration economy its way out of mediocrity and it has so much legacy infrastructure its inability to build new stuff at a good cost hasn’t completely choked it. It’s relative success is despite the rest of British society and so misleading to people outside who don’t go to Failure England.

    • Alon Levy

      I have noticed that when I complain about incompetent institutions on Twitter, some people assume I mean middle management when I mean senior management. I’m not sure what to make of it; I’ve seen a lot of hate on middle management in the wild and not that much on the C-suite or political appointees and I don’t know why.

      • plaws0

        Because the C-Suite types created “middle management” to protect them from the proles?

      • borners

        Anglophone countries share the UK’s legacy of craft union organisation where each specific tranche of work is distinct from the other compared to East Asian unions based on enterprise and European based on industry. It comes from the 17-19th centuries when most industrial skills were learned through informal apprenticeships, shorter working lives, longer tech lifetimes and crueller tolerence of creative destruction kept the system flexible enough, but come 20th century you need more middling workers with formal qualifications and ability to learn new tech/organisation mid-career, you also need business structures that can do that kind of retooling i.e. middle management. Craft based labour organisation is very much self-destructive since its about protecting a specific job, not a specific factory, or enterprise or industry.

        What does that kind of working world offer the Thatcherite “Essex man” in his autumn years? Let alone some ex-industrial worker in the North or the Midlands? Or failson’s of the English upper classes? No wonder they all love Johnson’s guff. Big data, Great British ingenuity and gumption, steel a slogan from Biden rah rah rah.

        What that means for mass transit is that the middling “managerial” white collar staff are treated as “waste” and the actual service sector proletariat that relies on it mass transit is exploited via taxation and property while getting rubbish service. Outer England’s been a transportation mediocrity about as long as its been an industrial one (i.e. 100 years) and all it can say is “London bad, not-London good, strong community something something, real working class arble garble”.

      • Phake Nick

        In authoritarian countries like China people will often defend the top leader and say everything being wrong are those who down below’s fault even if it’s the top policy’s leader. I think it is to come to term with the sort of leader they are working under will actually lead to their success?

    • Herbert

      While Germany, France and Spain shut down trams while building at least some subways, the UK hasn’t built a subway outside London in over a century…

      However, I must say, your poo-pooing of the APT is uncalled for – FIAT is still using the patents that resulted from it… That it was abandoned is the fault of British media and politicians, not British engineering

    • michaelrjames

      London isn’t the exception. It’s both symptom and cause, and was inevitable when an entire nation’s SOP becomes dominated by financialisation. That was the result of Thatcher’s Big Bang deregulation of the City of London. One could argue about Thatcher’s culpability since there were immense forces by the usual elites to that end, combined with the long term decline of manufacturing or anything else to balance the books or people productively employed. If Empire could no longer keep the wealthy classes aloft then it had to be the handling of money itself, and, like the expert rentiers they have been for several centuries, taking their slice as it pours thru the sewer pipe (City of London). (Ha, not to be confused with the actual sewer, ie. London’s ‘super sewer’.) A secondary effect was the property bubble which is a natural result of financialisation (cheap money, low interest rates, world’s biggest QE (as %GDP) all boosting asset prices, plus of course a ‘free lunch’ means of injecting large amounts of money into the economy). This has been enough to sustain the capital and its vast service industries but not the rest of the country which declines as a direct result. Loss of housing affordability is another inevitable result.

      • borners

        Oh my God you really are an Antipodean snob who hates Britain so much he reads the Guardian obsessively (you’re channeling Larry “Britain will be a developing world country by 2015” Eliot). Not that they understand anything, 4 decades they whined without even bothering to notice the UK is a multi-national polity and the big issue is what is England?

        WTF does “financialisation” mean? UK was using invisible exports* to balance the books in the 19th century when it had 10% of world industrial output. Financial and business services have been rising as share of UK gdp even during de-globalisation of 1930-50 (that hit industry harder) as they have been for all economies. UK has a deep specialization in those. And furthermore they are actually complimentary with industry when done right which is why Southern England has been the dominant site of healthy UK manufacturing despite every attempt to stop it. There are two parasitical sides to it, of which the money laundering is the least important. The housing sector which is the real “financialisation” driver is product of open capital markets and a planning system designed to stop people building productive megacities i.e. London. Bevan wanted to build a socialist utopia of towns against capitalistic cities. He died in Chesham and Amersham, the last privately built railway suburb of London and the site of NIMBY by-election loss for the Tories daring to tinker with the sacred planning systems. Big bang just meant the building societies became banks delaying the crash till 2008 on the back of more diverse asset portfolios.

        Also like the QE’s a nothing burger unless its put into risky assets or real purchases. BoE just turned GILTS into cash i.e. turned a highly liquid low return high safe asset into…another highly liquid low return safe asset. Oh the speculation.

        On industry, all the staples shipbuildings/textiles are dead by 1970 losing 90% of their jobs and about the same share of their export markets, with them every city north of Birmingham suddenly has nothing to sell except “in Britain but cheap land and labour”, and Brum goes the same way when car industry craters. Successful pharma, defense, aerospace concentrates in the service sector oriented south. Fabian Britain was an industrial mediocrity, that’s why a political movement as revolutionary as Thatcherism was possible. She squeezes some recovery of productivity by gutting the fat (that includes railways), but at great human costs and limited long term benefits.

        As for “expert rentiers” you do realise that when 60% of the population owns their own homes and a quarter of triple locked pensioners lots of working class people actually have put a lot of financial but also emotional stake in the system….sorry your term would be “feudal peasants” I suppose. Hah but that lefty-storybook narrative is easier than the messy truth about a failed attempt an nation creation (i.e. Britain not England), a working class that destroys itself, a middle class that eats its own children, the failure of Socialism, the greedy brittle majoritarianism of the Labour party and the Conservative party flu-virus levels of adaptability. Those are all coming to roost and its humiliating. But you know what? That doesn’t excuse why Australians like you can’t do squat with my Aussie relatives in the Gold Coast or Mareeba voting Coalition or Katter’s. And it doesn’t mean that the French elite’s inability to abandon austerity politics won’t bring the whole goddam edifice to the ground. You can’t Brit-snob your way to a better world! Jokes on you, you fell for lie that “Britain” existed. Don’t worry it fools most people in England.

        • michaelrjames


          Well, I hope that helped vent whatever it is that needed venting.
          But I don’t think you helped your case. Too much protest and too little evidence.

          As to my being an Antipodean snob, maybe. But not in the way you have interpreted. I am one of those people without the dramatic nationalistic leanings so many seem to have. One could ascribe this to having lived in many countries for long periods and for shorter periods worked in many others, but actually I think I have always been like it and it was the cause of this life trajectory when I left Oz not sure if I would ever return. I have always been critical of Australia for it being the Lucky Country. Because this phrase is more often interpreted to mean the contrary of its creator, Donald Horn in his eponymous 1964 book, I provide the Wiki history of what it really means, at least when someone like me deploys it:

          Australia is a lucky country run mainly by second rate people who share its luck. It lives on other people’s ideas, and, although its ordinary people are adaptable, most of its leaders (in all fields) so lack curiosity about the events that surround them that they are often taken by surprise.[2]

          {Wiki:] Horne’s statement was an indictment of 1960s Australia. His intent was to comment that, while other industrialised nations created wealth using clever means such as technology and other innovations, Australia did not. Rather, Australia’s economic prosperity was largely derived from its rich natural resources and immigration. Horne observed that Australia “showed less enterprise than almost any other prosperous industrial society.”[3]

          See any similarity to today’s UK and the effects of financialisation? My anti-British attitudes, apart from being incubated by my ten years there (and made much more vivid, crystalised by an intervening decade in France!), is actually mostly in reaction to most Oz bad habits attributable directly to our colonial master! And the other bad habits are third-hand via those other ex-colonials across the Pacific/Atlantic. Lack of interest in anything resembling town planning, lack of interest in ‘good urbanism’, neglect of public transit until well beyond the point it is needed. And of course financialisation that works against a previously strong Australian character, equality and a “fair go for all”. No accident that in the news (at this EOFY) is the continuing surge of the residential property market in both countries, despite Covid and Brexit. Ultra-low interest rates, huge government injection of money and irresponsible relaxation of sensible macroprudential regulation (of personal borrowing limits; when I was in ’80s UK there were 105% mortgages! not accidentally just before the ’87 crash). Sound familiar? By its commonality throughout the Anglosphere (including honorary members like HK, to an extent Singapore). It is both absurd and obscene that places like Australia and NZ have a housing affordability crisis.

          You boast about Brit 60% home ownership and the valuable asset it provides those owners but there are multiple things wrong with that view. First, it is only 60%. Australia (& France) is marginally higher but used to be quite a lot higher (one of the highest in the world, no longer true) and the trajectory has been relentlessly downward. Increasing housing unaffordability is an outrage in one of the richest countries in the world and with largest land area per cap. Second, it turns out houses are not used for the owner’s benefit in later life but left as a (tax-free) inheritance thus reinforcing inherited privilege. This is exemplified by the landed gentry in the UK but the rest of the Anglosphere is catching up. Third, though many people think this is entirely fair it is nonsense. As one of the few economists I respect, Saul Eslake describes it, it is nothing less than “privileging birth order”. As the data shows, this property prosperity has been for only a short period for the majority and is rapidly returning to where it began, only available to a narrow elite via inherited privilege. As property prices go into the stratosphere (in Oz average price is ≈12 times av. earnings, completely unsustainable) and together with increasing gig-work (even for academics and other professionals) the current gen is frozen out of the property market unless they have recourse to the bank of mom & dad which, pure and simple, is a real toxic reversion to a class system. Fourth, this asset price inflation is a direct result of financialisation: treating habitation as primarily a financial asset. You seem to have forgotten that it was the cause of the 2008 GFC. Little more than a decade later we are sleepwalking into the same storm.

          The reason this topic is not out of place on Alon’s transit blog is that the attitudes behind, and outcomes from, excessive financialisation, most apparent in the Anglosphere, are a significant factor in neglect of public transit and then its excessive outsourcing, disengaging public oversight and ultimately cost inflation. In fact most things “public” but especially transit and urbanism in general, because you know, the market will solve all. Thatcher was a perfect representation of those toxic attitudes, closing BR rail development and ultimately leading to the disaster of BR privatisation, as well as forcing local government to sell off public housing while not allowing them to reinvest the earnings back into housing–with a direct line to today’s housing crises. Our most ardent Thatcher fan (partly because he touched her hem at Oxford) was our village idiot PM, Tony Abbott who made it overt policy “to not spend a single federal dollar on rail transit”! We needn’t go into the (faulty) logic behind this toxic ideology as everyone knows it.

          If you really need some clarity on what it means then just read the wiki on Financialisation. It adversely affects economic growth and contributes to income inequality and wage stagnation for the middle class. The worst parts of it are the highly leveraged derivatives developed by the finance industry in the 2000s. The biggest centre in the world, handling half of all derivative trading, is the City of London.

  9. ericson2314

    The overfocus on data is bad in a lot worse areas too. I think it also speaks to the unskilled managerial culture which is more comfortable writing presentations than getting actual work done. Some people have written about how grasping in the dark with statistics has gained ground at the expense of theory-building in the sciences too. Indeed going back a century it seems the Anglo-American academic tradition was more empiricist than the Central European one which was basically destroyed by the Nazis and WWII, with the the US and USSR dividing the spoils.

  10. ibhalla

    Another thing that I find both fascinating and frustrating is that whenever somebody inevitably comes to me extolling the vast benefits of big data they can never provide a concrete explanation on what those benefits are. I always ask, “so what will the tangible benefits of this be?” and they always either reply with two things. One is some sort of useless, sweeping statement a la “it will make everything so much easier!” (but naturally when pressed on how, the details are fuzzy and they are simply shocked that i “just don’t get it”). The other thing they tend to reply with is some sort of gimmicky, granular example that doesn’t meaningfully improve people’s lives. The transit equivalent of this would be “but what if you could know how many people are on the train?” I’m sorry, but I simply don’t care. Minutae like this don’t matter to me or the average rider. We care about high quality service and not some nifty app that we’ll likely never use in a dingy NYC subway station lacking cell service.

  11. Eric2

    Yes the benefit of data is limited. But so is the cost – it’s much cheaper than construction or running extra service indefinitely. Low-cost low-reward can be a good deal.

    • Alon Levy

      It’s in theory low-cost, no-reward, i.e. it’s invisible in ridership data but has positive cost. But in reality it leads management and especially politicians to focus on the wrong things, displacing high-reward investments that require acknowledging the US is not at the technological frontier of mass transit.

  12. Hubert Horan

    Understand (and agree with) the application of the headline point to many mass transit situations. But another example that underscores the point is Uber. For years the media narrative that Uber was a wildly innovative and successful company relied on how its “technology” translated data about user demand and vehicle operations into a system that was significantly more efficient than traditional taxis. Eventually Uber would use this technological prowess to expand into other forms of urban mobility and become the “Amazon of Transportation.” All of this was complete rubbish. Larry Ellison pointed out that Uber’s app was less sophisticated than something his cat could have come up with. Its underlying pricing/scheduling algorithms were primitive compared to what airlines were using 40 years ago. None of its claimed technology improved utilization or in any way reduced operating costs. Have published a great deal on this subject if you’d like more concrete evidence. As with the mass transit cases, issue is blind techno-utopianism pushed by people who had little understanding of the technology and no understanding of basic urban transport economics

  13. MilesT

    I only partially agree with the argument. Is data totally useless? clearly not. Does it improve ridership as much as other transport investments? I agree, it does not.

    But the investment needed share the data that is increasingly captured to support operations is modest, and is key to forming good transport habits amongst the young (encouraged by the NUMTOTs movement)

    Key to gaining the best benefit from the data is exposing the data in a multitude of inclusive ways, and not just digitally. The countdown signs seen increasingly at UK bus stops is an example of inclusiveness (especially when further exposed via an on demand audio option), and most of the UK has a text message option for bus stops that don’t have a countdown sign. In the UK is is possible to buy (at modest cost upfront and ongoing) your own countdown type sign to install in your cafe or office. This would not be possible without data. And data is key to understanding equity/equality issues of transport for planning, to improve utility for disadvantaged groups.

    Picking on one example in the article: using an app to find next bus. Agreed, not always the most encouraging way to drive ridership especially if service frequency is poor (need to invest in that, as you said), but at least you could check and make an informed judgement rather than hope and pray, or just defaulting to taxi. That’s a start. Also, if you were unfamiliar with the area and needed a longer journey (which might need several changes) then you could get complete directions, and this information would be hard to find in other ways (a freephone help desk could also do this, using the same data/tools) Again, based on that, you can then make the informed judgement for your transport of time vs. cost (and in an unfamiliar place, the journey itself can be interesting and informative).

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