I’d been making cryptic remarks about a possible job offer for a month, and a week ago I tweeted when I heard the final no. I didn’t want to say where I was interviewing until after I heard back, either way; now that I have, I’d like to talk more about the process, and what I think it means for transportation criticism in general.
A few weeks after I posted that I’m transitioning to working in transit or transit writing full-time, a recruiter reached out to me. I wouldn’t have applied myself, not out of ideological opposition to working on Hyperloop, but because until that point, I imagined they wouldn’t have wanted me working there anyway. But once the recruiter emailed me, I started the interview process. It went well. The company was familiar with my criticism of the initial concept and of startups’ own attempts to build it (the last link is Hyperloop One, the one before it is a different company). We talked about the technology, about which models I’d use to evaluate it, about various ways the system could be made more convenient.
People who are familiar with the interview process in the tech industry know that it is long and laborious. There are multiple rounds of interviews, with multiple people involved. Programming jobs involve something called whiteboarding, in which the interviewer will ask the interviewee to solve a coding problem on a whiteboard. I’m not a programmer, unless one counts QBASIC as programming, so I didn’t do any whiteboarding, but the same concept of interview meant there were a lot of hard on-the-spot technical questions. (In contrast, when I interviewed at Frontier, there were hard on-the-spot questions about political and social trends.)
Where I got stuck was American immigration policy. In the US, unlike in normal countries like Canada or Singapore or France, the skilled work visa process is based on a hard cap on the number of visas (called H-1B), rather than on a minimum salary requirement or a labor market analysis to make sure there are more jobs than qualified citizens, both of which criteria are easy to meet in tech. The H-1B cap is too tight – it’s oversubscribed by a factor of about 2; earlier this decade there was political consensus in the US elite that it needed to be lifted, but partisan politicking prevented this from happening. By mid-decade, even before Trump, the consensus frayed, thanks in no small part to anti-immigration reform conservatives, especially Reihan Salam (and, within the urbanist sphere, Aaron Renn). Academia and nonprofit research organizations, such as Frontier (or TransitCenter, or RPA), are exempt from the cap. Tech firms aren’t. This imposes a queue for getting a visa; HR at Hyperloop One said it would be a year, I think it would’ve been a year and a half. It took about a month to figure out whether Hyperloop One could work with me as a remote outside contractor, and when they realized they couldn’t, they had to tell me they couldn’t hire me.
My impressions of Hyperloop’s current status
Elon Musk’s original writeup was a scribble. Very little about it was salvageable. Hyperloop One is more serious. I believe that the most quotable criticism I made of the project in 2013 – the “barf ride” line – is being solved. As I said in 2013, I believe it is not too hard to solve the basic problem of curve radii; the problem is that it makes the civil engineering more expensive, by requiring more tunnels and more viaducts.
We didn’t discuss construction costs at the interview. I think of this as a point in the company’s favor, actually; they’d know that my understanding of construction costs is at too high a level, useful for policymakers but not for actual consultants or contractors. A few months ago, before this process started, I read somewhere that the company says Hyperloop would be 2/3 as expensive as conventional high-speed rail per km, up from Musk’s laughable 1/10 estimate. I’m skeptical about 2/3, but I’m willing to say “I’ll believe it when I see it” and not “yeah, right.”
The capacity constraints coming from the narrow tube diameter are also a problem that I think the company is capable of solving; the cost of a wider tube is higher, but in far less than linear proportion to the extra capacity provided.
There remain two big classes of hitches, one technical and one economic. The technical hitches involve materials engineering that I don’t understand as well, regarding sway inside the tube, ground subsidence, and construction tolerances. I am channeling other critics here; some of them are experts in the field and I am inclined to trust them. I’ve always taken these issues as a black box for conventional HSR and even 500-600 km/h service (maglev or conventional – the TGV reached 574 km/h in an experiment with a special train with a higher power-to-weight ratio), but at higher speeds, they become more serious.
My default assumption is that it’s still solvable at 1000+ km/h, but requires more delicate engineering, which may drive up construction costs even further. Even in my initial writeup I was implicitly arguing the required delicate engineering was such that it was inappropriate to generalize from the costs of oil pipelines, rather than from those of maglev. But it’s possible that the required materials and safety engineering will lead to much higher construction costs, and it’s possible that more basic research is required before it’s viable.
The economic hitch is, what is Hyperloop for? The technology suffers from tension between two opposing forces. The first force is speed: as a very fast technology, Hyperloop is the most useful for long-distance travel. At the distance of Musk’s original Los Angeles-San Francisco idea, security theater and design compromises about station locations (Sylmar and the East Bay, originally) would eat up the entire travel time advantage over conventional HSR. At longer distance, such as New York-Chicago, Hyperloop would still win on time, just as planes beat HSR on time on corridors in the 1,000 km range today. The second force is that Hyperloop still requires linear infrastructure, so it becomes less cost-effective versus planes as the distance increases.
Hyperloop One is a consulting firm. I was asked at the interview about the technology’s applicability in multiple geographies, and gave my opinions (“this place is a good candidate, that place isn’t”). So the company can’t just up and decide on an initial segment, which should probably be a connection from New York (probably in Jersey City or Hoboken) to either South Florida or Chicago. Complicating things, such an initial segment would require many tens of billions of dollars of capital investment, which is not easy for a startup to do. There’s a real problem with using the tech startup model to develop capital-intensive infrastructure, and it’s possible such vactrain technology will always fall between the conventional HSR and airplane chairs. I for one will keep putting vactrains in my 22nd-century science fiction, but not in my near-future science fiction.
One of the lines I wrote in my initial post is that tech megalomaniacs believe that “people who question [the entrepreneur] and laugh at his outlandish ideas will invariably fail and end up working for him.” I recognize the irony in my almost-working for Hyperloop One.
And yet, I think it offers a valuable lesson about what I variously call sycophancy, or a courtier mentality. I mentioned this about the tech press in the first post; the national political press is less sycophantic (since it can be loyal to an opposition party or political faction, and can draw on the opposition for criticism of current leadership). But local political actors in areas without real political opposition can act like royal courtiers at times, unreasonably praising the leader and begging for scraps. I’ve criticized the RPA for this, for example here: Governor Andrew Cuomo proposed a new airport connector with negative transportation value, and while the area’s transit bloggers all said no, the RPA studied the idea seriously.
The connection with Hyperloop is that I hit the concept pretty hard, and still would’ve been hired but for the US’s broken immigration policy. I don’t know if it’s generalizable to tech. I know it is true in math academia, where if I make a serious criticism of someone’s research program, it’s quite likely we will then write a paper together. For example, my advisor formulated a conjecture he called Dynamical Manin-Mumford; two professors, Rochester’s Tom Tucker and UBC’s Dragos Ghioca, later my own postdoc advisor, found a counterexample, and wrote it up together with my advisor. Nowadays the different researchers in the field are trying to prove different weaker versions of the conjecture that might still be true.
This collaborative aspect is certainly true of transit blogging. I spend a lot of time talking about transit with my biggest critic, who argues my argument about construction costs is spurious and the US is only expensive due to inexperience; I also talk a lot to people who are more nitpickers than critics, like Threestationsquare. I’ve seen the same sentiment at a thinktank whose founder I criticized years ago, and my understanding is that the RPA too is familiar with my writings. But I don’t know if it’s true of government hiring as much – if the MTA, let alone anyone working for Cuomo, is interested in hiring a critic; but then again, MTA hiring has severe problems.
Still, I’d draw a lesson and tell people who write about transportation to be less afraid of being critical. It’s a natural fear; I have it too, when I have criticism for a blogger or Twitter user who I know or consider part of my in-group. But the only result of suppressing criticism is that people who have bad ideas keep promulgating them and either never realize they’re wrong (if they’re honest) or keep acquiring suckers (if they’re dishonest). People who are interested in better transportation recognize this and seek out the critic. Megalomaniacs who are interested in selling themselves suppress and ignore the critic. We know which side Hyperloop One is on; but where is New York’s political system?
The future of my work
I can’t legally work in the US, unless it’s for a cap-exempt institution, which means either a university (that ship sailed five months ago) or a thinktank. Canada is looking unlikely – a consultancy I applied for ended up hiring someone else they felt was more qualified, and Metrolinx isn’t going to hire me. My French is conversational, but not good enough to apply for Keolis’s planning positions here, of which they have plenty, including some I’m otherwise qualified for.
This means I’m going to do transportation writing full-time for the foreseeable future. My plan is to invest in this blog more to make it look nicer (two pieces I’ve recently sent out have decent graphics), and (almost certainly) start a Patreon account in which people who pitch in a few dollars a month can influence what I write about. My intention is to commit to a post every week, not counting personal stuff like this post. I don’t expect this to net me a lot of money, but together with freelancing income, it should be enough to live on in a developed country with universal health care.
I don’t usually write about personal things in more detail than “I’ve gotten a job in city X,” but I feel like I ought to explain, for the benefit of both people who follow me on Twitter (who have seen parts of the story) and people who do not (who have seen even less of it in comments).
The short version is that I left math academia. It was not voluntary; I came close to getting a tenure-track position twice but didn’t. While waiting to hear from one place, I moved to Paris, to do research, and have stayed and gotten an apartment even as I did not get the job. So my move here was still about production amenities rather than consumption amenities; I’m not especially attached to the city, possibly to the chagrin of Michael R. James in comments.
Right now I’m freelancing for various news sites and magazines writing about urbanism and public transit. I will put up an organized compendium of things I’ve published for pay, and I will definitely tweet every article as it goes up. I have a piece in Streetsblog about why Trump is likely to make the US’s infrastructure construction cost problem worse than it is, a piece in City Metric comparing the RER A or Crossrail with the RER C or Thameslink, and a piece in Voice of San Diego calling for medium-speed rail between Los Angeles and San Diego; seven more pieces will appear in various outlets any day now. This blog will stay, and I intend to use it even more, for the wonkier side of analyses that I am going to rely on in published pieces elsewhere. The style here is different; for one, here I write assuming readers have read most of my previous posts. Of the three published pieces, only City Metric is something I would have written here if I’d stayed in academia, and few of the other to-appear pieces or the pieces I’m pitching is in that category.
I’m still actively looking for work in transit planning, or in thinktanks that write relevant studies for this; if I get something permanent, I will let everyone here know.
The long version is that I started looking for tenure-track jobs three years ago, in my third year of postdoc, just like everyone else. I didn’t get anything, but I did get a second postdoc at KTH, a two-year position, hence the move to Sweden. I looked for jobs both years. The first year I didn’t get any interview. The second year I got interviewed at my alma mater, NUS, in February. Academic interviews involve campus visits and a battery of meetings: with professors in my field, with the chair, with the committee, with some assistant deans. I think I had good chemistry with the people in my field, but not with the committee, which consisted of applied mathematicians. The other pure math people they were interviewing took jobs elsewhere, and the department ended up making offers only in applied math.
I kept looking for academic lifelines. These are called visiting positions (or sometimes lecturer positions), are usually for a year, and come up when due to a sabbatical or an unexpected postdoc move a department needs more short-term faculty to teach. Less research-intensive universities hire adjuncts, more research-intensive ones hire visiting professors in situations like mine. I got close at one US university, where the chair told me that it would be unusual to sponsor me for a visa for a technically part-time lecturer position but they were checking whether it was possible; they hired someone else, and I still don’t know if I would’ve been hired if they could sponsor me. I got even closer at Basel, where it was a two-year postdoc, but there I was #3 on the list and #2 took the offer.
Convinced I was going to leave academia, in July and August I corresponded with some people I know on Twitter, and met some Boston-area transit activists, and applied for jobs at US thinktanks. In August and September I got interviewed at Frontier, an environmentalist thinktank that among other things discusses public transit; see for example this recent report. Frontier mainly interfaces with other thinktanks and advocacy organizations, which plays to my strength in that I write to other people who already care about public transit.
In the middle of the interview process, already after I explained that I was leaving academia, I got an unexpected invitation to a tenure-track interview at Calgary, to be conducted in late September. By then I was out of Sweden and renting a studio in the Riviera near where my parents lived at the time. The Calgary interview went very well, and I gave myself a 50-60% chance of getting an offer. The big thing I was worried about was that I knew they would also interview Khoa Nguyen, who was a postdoc at UBC with the same postdoc advisor I’d had and who had a better publication list than I did.
In October I moved to Paris. It was temporary; I got a studio for a month. My advisor was visiting IHES for the semester and I wanted to both collaborate and discuss with him whether I should apply for jobs again even if Calgary said no, which he said I should. I then saw that one of the postdocs at IHES was someone I had known before who I had already wanted to work on a project with; we started to prove the result and write the paper, with many obstacles on the way. Almost immediately, Frontier said no, saying I was too specialized to transportation whereas they wanted people who had experience with several issues. By November, it became clear Calgary was hiring Khoa, but I stayed since I heard positive things about academic jobs in this cycle, I stayed put and kept working on the paper. I was in Paris for the production amenities – namely, IHES (and other universities and institutes) putting researchers in the same place, where they could collaborate.
It took until the end of December for it to be clear all the leads on academic jobs were gone. At the same time, Second Avenue Subway Phase 1 opened, leading to a flurry of articles about the project, some specifically citing me on its very high construction costs. In about 48 hours, I gained about 150 Twitter followers. Then I tweeted that I was leaving academia and looking for work in transit planning or writing, and with all the leads and retweets gained another 300 followers. Other than the Streetsblog article, everything I have comes from leads I got immediately after I posted that, including pieces to appear in the American Interest, Railway Gazette, New York YIMBY, SPUR, and the Atlantic. A few more are actual jobs I’m applying for, but very little in the US can sponsor me for a visa; thinktanks are the big exception, since they count as nonprofit research organizations and are exempt from the H-1B visa cap.
I’m still looking for more leads – magazines that are interested in articles about public transit or urban policy, especially. Any editor who wants to talk to me about this should email me at email@example.com or just leave a comment here, and of course any commenter who has a lead should please let me know about it.
I am planning to change this blog’s theme in the next few days, since the current Twenty Ten theme is not friendly to long nested comment threads. I am hunting for various free WordPress themes and will make decisions soon; I’m looking for somewhat smaller fonts so that more text can fit per line, but also less indent between comments (compare comment threads here today with threads on Second Avenue Sagas or California HSR Blog). Keeping the reverse chronology is a must – I emphatically do not want a theme that makes people click on posts to be able to see them at all.
If people have opinions, I am listening.
Update 7/23: hey everyone, go read Queens Transit, both for the regional rail posts (which I don’t fully agree with, but think are thoughtful and interesting), and for the theme; it looks like just what I need.
Update 7/25: I narrowed it down to a few themes, and chose Blaskan.
I no longer live in Vancouver. I am leaving the city tonight, heading to New York and New Haven until July 8th (email me if you want to meet). I will then travel to Europe: I got a two-year position at the Royal Institute of Technology (KTH). As Stockholm has tight rent control, expect a post on that subject once I’m settled in there and have gotten the chance to talk to people.
Stockholm also has a subway system that’s the opposite of the paradigm used in Vancouver or Copenhagen: it runs full-length trains, and branches heavily, with low frequencies on the branches. KTH is unfortunately on a branch, served every 10 minutes off-peak. (However, unlike in New York, in Stockholm branches are consistent, in that two branches of separate trunk lines do not combine to form another trunk line farther out the way the E and F branches combine to form the Queens Boulevard Line.)
I do not know many people who live in Boston proper. I know about a hundred who live in the Greater Boston area, but only a small minority lives in the city proper, as is of course true in general. I know many people who live in Boston suburbs or in secondary cities like Worcester, but the largest concentration lives in the urban parts north of the river: Cambridge, Somerville, and Watertown. This is true even if I exclude everyone with Harvard or MIT affiliation. In the geek community, Boston proper is where Chinatown is and where the train station is; the social centers are around MIT and Harvard, the jobs seem to be centered in Cambridge as well, and Brandeis graduates often gravitate toward Cambridge and Somerville.
What this means is that I don’t know what people in Greater Boston think about things very reliably. I know the attitudes in Greater Cambridge, or at least the part of Greater Cambridge that goes to conventions. Just as the Providence I inhabited was really a Greater East Side, one in which more people know more residents of Back Bay than of Olneyville, the Greater Boston I inhabited is a specific subculture that’s very active in New England, with specific attitudes that aren’t found elsewhere. For example, support for public transit is quite high, while at the same time enough events don’t and can’t take place in the urban core that people still figure cars are needed, leading to a culture of carpooling.
I keep being reminded by this every time I read pieces by Aaron Renn about attitudes in a city. His latest piece about gentrification is a more subdued example since he talks mostly about the actual effects of gentrification, but the point about people’s attitudes toward it is still there. An earlier piece about Rhode Island mindsets is more indicative. To Aaron, people in and around Providence identify with the state or with their local town rather than with the region. The people I have met are not like that, and often live in southern Massachusetts while still identifying with Providence somehow. For example, one of the Waterfire performers performs in Plymouth and Providence (and Providence is the bigger draw) and lives just outside the census-defined Providence metro area. For another example, I know a recent Brown graduate who is from a Providence suburb of Massachusetts who identifies with Rhode Island and southern Massachusetts, having gone to another college in Providence and to grad school at Brown.
The upshot of this is that it is extremely hard to make any generalization about a city from our own social circles. I live in social circles that are well within Richard Florida’s creative class, but aren’t really what urban leaders seem to care about. I went to a Providence event called Geeking Out once, and it turned out to be about subsidizing smartphone app developers. It’s clearly geeky; it also has no overlap with the geeks I know who teach children how to build robots, or go to fandom conventions. When we talk about cities and urban politics, we never say things like “the city needs to attract more talent.”
But the same difficulty of generalization of course affects the elites as well as people who perceive themselves as normal. If Aaron’s experience talking to urban development leaders is indicative of what they too think, then their social circles also consist mainly of other urban development leaders and their immediate families. There is nothing inherently wrong with that, but there is a real danger of overgeneralizing from an unrepresentative social network. Aaron himself doesn’t do this, but people in positions of power do. The New England I inhabited was a bubble in which downtown Boston didn’t really exist; the Providence that the power brokers seem to inhabit is one in which it is more important to improve transit access to the Jewelry District than to South Providence and Olneyville. I say this as someone who in a year in Providence visited Olneyville once and South Providence never, but because I never saw myself as representative of transit riders, I formed opinions based on where preexisting ridership is and where usable rail infrastructure is and not on gut feeling about where service should go. We all have subcultures, but some subcultures think of themselves as more normal than others, and a few think of themselves as not subcultures at all but as representative of everyone.
I live about 3 minutes from an express bus stop, where I can get the express bus and be at UBC within 15 minutes, whereupon I can walk from the diesel bus loop to my classroom in 6 minutes. Since I teach at 10 in the morning, it means I should leave around 9:30 or just before and then with rush hour headways I can be guaranteed not to be late to my own class. Unfortunately, because classes start on the hour, everyone wants to ride the last bus that makes the 10 am classes, and by the time this bus gets to my neighborhood, it is full. To guarantee getting on a bus I need to be at the bus stop by 9:20 or not much later, which since I have no real reason to show up to campus 15 minutes ahead of time lengthens my effective commute to 40-45 minutes. A bus that is in principle faster door-to-door than any proposed SkyTrain extension, which would serve my area at a much farther away station, becomes more than 10 minutes slower at the time of day relevant to me.
Vancouver has a general problem with passups – that is, passengers at a bus stop who have to let a full bus go. A list of the bus stops with the most passups is dominated by UBC’s peak caused by classes starting and ending at a synchronized time: eight of the top ten stops are for east-west buses serving UBC, and at those stops the passups are concentrated in the AM peak for westbound buses and the PM peak for eastbound ones. Of those eight stops, two, on the 49, are partially connections to the Canada Line (compare passups east and west of Cambie here), but the six on the 99-B are not, since a sizable fraction of riders ride end to end and there are substantial passups west of Cambie as well.
The demand generated by a traditional CBD can be smoothed with flex-time work and with a general spread of the peak around a peak half hour. With a university this is not feasible: to ensure maximum flexibility for students’ class schedule classes should be synchronized. When I was at NUS, a commuter university like UBC, I had a similar problem with full buses heading from campus to the subway stations after classes. Because UBC is nowhere near SkyTrain, its demand has to be spread among many bus routes, and is so great that it’s clogged not just the 99-B but also parallel routes such as the 25 and relief lines such as the 84.
The only alternative for investment in the Broadway corridor that has enough capacity to meet this demand is a full SkyTrain option. Any option that relies on a connecting bus part of the way not only won’t solve the capacity problem, but might even make it worse by concentrating all the UBC-bound demand at the westernmost SkyTrain station on Broadway, at either Granville or Arbutus. Today, people who take the Millennium Line can use the 84, which is faster than the 99-B; any extension of the Millennium Line west, even just to Cambie to complete the gap from Commercial to the Canada Line, is likely to concentrate demand on one corridor, overwhelming the truncated 99-B even further.
A light rail option probably has enough capacity, but does very little for Central Broadway or for completing the SkyTrain gap, and would also require pedestrian-hostile reconfiguration of stoplights and left turn cycles, making crossing the street even harder than it already is. UBC, which doesn’t care about Vancouver’s own needs, advocates an all-light rail option, while the city, which doesn’t care about UBC’s, wants a subway initially going as far west as Arbutus with a bus transfer to the west. A combo option with SkyTrain to Arbutus and light rail the rest of the way exists (Combo A in the alternatives analysis), but is almost as expensive as a full subway. The ridership projection for the combo option is almost even with that of a full subway, but such a projection is based on optimistic assumptions about transfer penalties and passengers’ willingness to travel on slower transit: the combo option is slower by about 7 minutes than the full subway from most preexisting SkyTrain stations as well as from Central Broadway, and requires an extra transfer for people traveling from the Millennium Line or Central Broadway.
Because the project has a $3 billion price tag, various critics have already begun complaining that it’s needlessly expensive (in reality, the inflation-adjusted projected cost per rider is the same as those of the Millennium, Canada, and Evergreen Lines) and proposing inferior solutions, and I believe that this cost is why the city and Translink are thinking of truncating the extension to Arbutus and only doing the rest later. It’s fine to spend a higher sum on the combination of the Canada and Evergreen Lines, which look nice on a map and make a lot of suburban mayors happy, but when it’s just one line that more or less stays within the city it’s too expensive and needs to be chopped into phases.
The other issue is that SkyTrain extensions have been more about shaping than about serving, i.e. serving areas that can be redeveloped rather than ones that are already dense. Look at the density map by census tract here: the residential density on Central Broadway and in the eastern parts of Kits is high, comparable to that of the census tracts hosting most SkyTrain-oriented developments. Even as far west as Alma there’s fairly high residential density. However, this is low-rise density, distributed roughly uniformly in the census tract, rather than clustered in a few high-rise buildings next to the SkyTrain stations. High-rises are possible throughout the corridor – there already are a few near the future Alma and Sasamat stops – but because of Point Grey’s affluent demographic it’s easy to write it off as not densifiable. Empty or very low-density plots are easier to redo from scratch than an existing neighborhood, even if the neighborhood already has enough development to justify a subway.
I suspect part of the problem comes from the context in which Vancouver’s TOD is located in. The Expo Line follows a private right-of-way with pedestrian-hostile streets connecting to stations, and the Millennium Line is elevated over the mostly sidewalk-free Lougheed Highway. The fastest way to get from some houses that are close to SkyTrain on a map to the station is to walk through mall parking lots. The walking range of SkyTrain stations located in unwalkable parts of Burnaby is not as high as it would be at ones located in a walkable urban context. At the level of how many people would live within a kilometer of SkyTrain, Kits and Central Broadway are already outperforming most of the Expo Line’s TOD, and even at the 500-meter range they do quite well; but in Burnaby the relevant distance is much shorter, and this may affect Translink’s ridership projections elsewhere in the metro area.
The only medium- and long-term solution is to find the $3 billion for the UBC extension, just as the metro region will have spent $3.5 billion in 10 years on the Canada and Evergreen Lines. Nothing else works for both UBC and Central Broadway; the counterarguments are based on generalizing from a different urban context; the difference-splitting intermediate solutions make some of the transit problems even worse than they are. It is always wrong to downgrade projects just because of a sticker shock, and if a very large project still has a good cost-benefit ratio then it’s a good investment to raise taxes or borrow money to fund it.
In most models I have seen, ridership and mode choice are assumed to be symmetric: if I take the bus to work, I will also take it back home. Of course those models distinguish home from work: if a bus is full inbound in the morning it’s not expected to be full outbound in the morning. But the assumptions are that if the bus is full inbound in the morning, it should be full outbound in the afternoon. To a first-order approximation this is fine, but there are multiple situations in which people can choose differently in each direction. This is less relevant when discussing cars and bikes, because if you use them in one direction you must use them in the other, but it’s relevant to car-share, bike-share, various kinds of buses and trains, walking, and flying.
Most of this post will take the form of anecdotes. I have not seen any model that accounts for these cases, or any discussion elsewhere. The only exception is when large changes in grade are involved: people walk or bike down more easily than up, and this means that in bikeshare systems, the operators sometimes have to tow bikes back to high-elevation neighborhoods because people persistently take them downhill more than uphill. However, in addition to asymmetry caused by physical geography, there’s asymmetry caused by urban layout and transit system layout, as well as asymmetry caused by different characteristics of trips.
Case 1: Frequency Splitting
Consider the above image of a transit network. Point A is a major destination; area D is a neighborhood, and point E is an origin. The thick black line is a rapid transit line, passing through and stopping at B, C, and E. The red and blue lines going east from A are frequent rapid bus lines. The gray line going from A to E is a lower-grade bus line: less frequent, and/or slower.
In this image, traveling between A and either D or E, the frequent buses will be more useful going away from A than toward A. For an A-D trip, if I live in neighborhood D and travel to A, then I need to choose which of the two parallel streets to stand on, whereas going back from A to D, I can stand at the bus terminal and take whichever bus comes first. For an A-E trip, if I live at E and am going to A, then again I need to choose which of the two bus lines to use, that is whether to get off the rapid transit line at B or C, whereas going back this is not an issue. On the margin, I might choose to take the lower-grade but direct bus from E to A but not back.
Neither of the situations is hypothetical. When I went to college at NUS, my situation was similar to the A-E case: while the subway has since reached campus, in the mid-2000s the campus was connected by buses to two separate subway stops, Clementi and Buona Vista, and although some parts were definitely closer to one than to the other, the connecting buses served all parts of campus relevant to me. There was no equivalent of the gray bus, and I’d almost always take a taxi to campus, but usually take transit back. Now that I’m in Vancouver and work at UBC, where bus lines converge from parallel east-west streets, my situation is similar to the A-D case, since I can take Broadway buses as well as 4th Avenue buses; there is no alternative to the buses for me, but if there were, for example bikeshare, or walking if I lived closer to campus, I might well use it.
In those examples the asymmetry is for the most part unavoidable, coming from urban layout. In Vancouver, there are multiple east-west streets on the West Side that deserve frequent bus service. Consolidating everything on one street can come from the opening of a Broadway subway to UBC, but because the asymmetry is a second-order effect, the main argument for the subway has little to do with it.
Case 2: Waiting Facilities
Some bus and train stations are notorious for being unpleasant to wait at. Tel Aviv’s Central Bus Station is dark and labyrinthine. In New York, Penn Station and Port Authority are both unpopular. Many older airports are infamous for their poor amenities and confusing layouts. Because people need to wait going outbound but not inbound, this could affect mode choice.
In Vancouver, UBC has two separate bus loops, one for generally express diesel buses, and one for local electric buses; each loop has buses going on multiple streets, as in the above image. I find the diesel loop noisy and disorienting, and therefore avoid it, waiting at the electric loop or the next stop after the loops. Therefore, I usually take electric buses back home from UBC, while I almost always take diesels toward UBC. I have no direct experience with Kennedy Plaza, but other Providence-based bloggers think little of it; I think it was Jef Nickerson who noted that buses going on the same trunk routes are not co-located there. This could induce a similar asymmetry.
It gets worse when bus stops do not have shelter from the elements. Sheltered stops should be included in any bundle of best industry practices, but when they are present only downtown or at major stations, they can bias me to take the bus in just one direction.
Transit agencies can eliminate this asymmetry by making their facilities better. Usually the cost of shelter, clear signage, a bus bay layout that makes identifying the correct bays easy, and similar improvements is negligible, and the benefits are large. Of course, independently of any asymmetry there is no excuse for not having passable facilities, but in some cases, such as the UBC diesel loop, the situation on the ground is worse than it appears on planning maps and this worsens the passengers’ experience.
Case 3: Stress for Time
For some trips – going to an airport or intercity train or bus station, going to a meeting, going to class, going to a workplace where I need to be there at a specific time – there’s a more pressing need for timeliness in one direction than in the other. This biases in favor of more punctual or faster vehicles, even if they’re more expensive or less pleasant. This manifests itself in airport choice (when flying out of New York, I strongly prefer rail-accessible JFK, while my preference for flying in is much weaker), willingness to transfer to save a few minutes of trip time, willingness to ride a more expensive but faster train (for example, the LIRR versus the E), and bus versus train decisions (trains are almost invariably more reliable, often by a large margin). The few times I used transit to get to NUS, I used the subway, whereas when I went back home I’d often use a trunk bus, which was slower but had a station much closer to where I lived.
In this case, there’s not much the transit agency can do. If the bus versus rail issue is persistent, the best thing that can be done is encourage more mixed-use zoning and more symmetric morning travel demand, so that buses would be used in both peaks and not just in the afternoon peak and vice versa for trains.
Case 4: One-Way Routes
To the extent that the transit activist community has an opinion, it is strongly against one-way pairs, going back at least to Jane Jacobs’ criticism in The Death and Life. I’ve written briefly about them; Jarrett has written more extensively. One more issue is that if a bus route runs one-way on different streets (as a consistent one-way pair as in New York, or in a more complex arrangement as in Tel Aviv and Singapore) and I live closer to one direction than to the other, I might take it in just one direction. In Tel Aviv it was not a major problem because the bus I took to middle school run two-way in the segment relevant to me, but in Singapore it was an issue in both middle school and college: I lived next to a very wide one-way street without nearby crosswalks, and getting to the other direction of the buses required crossing it and walking some extra distance; this helped bias me for taking the bus only in the return direction.
The Effects on the Margins
Since asymmetry is small enough an effect that models can ignore it and still come very close to predicting actual ridership, its effect on transit planning is only on decisions that are very close to begin with.
I believe the most common case is the one in the image. A city that transitions from an idiosyncratic network of infrequent direct buses to a regular frequent grid where passengers are expected to transfer needs to decide which of the infrequent buses to keep. It might even have a few peak-only express buses it is considering keeping. In this case, it’s useful to note in which directions the infrequent or peak-only buses are more likely to get passengers, and potentially have an asymmetric number of trips on those in each direction, recycling the equipment for nearby routes whose asymmetry goes in the other direction.
Two weeks ago, I found a board game store in Vancouver, and through it a variety of gaming events. The store is located about five blocks from my apartment, and I first saw it from a bus nearly two months after moving to Vancouver. It’s in the same neighborhood; to get from my apartment to the store requires walking on ordinary city streets with sufficient sidewalks and room to cross. However, those streets are residential, and so I have no reason to walk in that direction. It creates a split in what is formally the same neighborhood.
In my section of Vancouver, the two major throughfares are 4th Avenue and Broadway (9th). There is some retail elsewhere (e.g. on Cornwall, which is -1st, and even more so on Granville Island), but it’s not the continuous commercial development on the two major avenues. Even if it’s as big as Granville Island, it requires me to go specifically to it, whereas on 4th I can go until I see something I am interested in. Before I had wi-fi installed in my apartment, which is on 1st but which I got to by taking a 4th Avenue bus, I walked on 4th until I saw a cafe with free wi-fi and sat there.
This continuous retail ends roughly at the cross street I live on. It extends far east: on Broadway it’s to and beyond Cambie, but to the west it ends just west of Arbutus; on 4th, it extends east to about the Granville Bridge. As I said in my first post about Vancouver, the development on Broadway is fairly spiky, with peaks around Cambie, Granville, and Arbutus, but there’s also a base of 1- to 2-story retail. On 4th, the development is just continuous 1- to 2-story retail. The next major street west of Arbutus, Macdonald, has retail clusters at both Broadway and 4th, but on both avenues there’s a two-block residential gap between the Arbutus side and the Macdonald side. Living on the Arbutus side, I learned early that if I walk east there are cafes, stores, and restaurants immediately, and if I walk west there aren’t. The result is that even though in principle Macdonald is in my neighborhood whereas anything more than three blocks east of Arbutus isn’t, I go this far east of Arbutus much more than I go to Macdonald.
The main advantage of grid street networks over the gridless network of e.g. Providence is that they can provide continuous development, making it easy for people to spontaneously walk in all directions. In Providence spontaneity was provided only by the fact that I knew where the various retail clusters on the East Side were; in reality I would almost always go to Thayer rather than Wickenden or Wayland Square. In gridded cities neighborhoods are less formally defined around one center, but instead evolve more organically, since the center can shift over time and the street network doesn’t distinguish it from the boundary with the next neighborhood over.
On a broader level, this spontaneity is a good way to promote more access. If I can walk to interesting retail in more directions, there’s a higher chance I’ll find something that suits my interests, just as the gaming store does. It provides the same benefits as an increase in density or in travel speed, in this case specialization of retail.
Houston booster and blogger Tory Gattis has a theory of what he calls opportunity urbanism, i.e. a focus on upward mobility as the primary goal of urban policy. Responding to a post of his on The Urbanophile, in which the comment thread veered to a comparison of Houston and Vancouver, I noted that the US is actually much less upwardly mobile than Canada (follow links to studies here, e.g. this, with the father-son income elasticity on PDF-page 34), and that the Joel Kotkin report about opportunity urbanism that Tory contributed to does not, in fact, bring up any upward mobility facts arguing that Houston is at all better than the rest of the US.
The response, from both Tory and Aaron, was a series of platitudes that immigrants choose to come to the US, so it must have a lot of upward mobility: “Houston is revealed preference in action,” “America is still the brightest beacon for immigrants all over the world,” “given the huge preference for the US that international migrants show, it’s tough to believe they are all so dumb about their future prospects,” “America is such the promised land that millions risk everything to come here illegally.”
The first step in failing to combat any social problem is failing to recognize one exists. The US loves to congratulate itself about its acceptance of immigrants and to compare itself favorably with Europe’s racism; somehow, the facts that hate crimes happen on both sides of the border and that in the last few years Al Qaida has successfully recruited American-born Muslims do not count. Even the lack of visas for unskilled workers in the US, and the stingy visas for skilled ones, turn into an America-is-great argument, which is exceptionally inconsistent from someone who, on issues of domestic migration, trumpets Houston’s lack of zoning and blasts the restrictions on development on the coasts (which can be thought of as immigration restrictions, only space is auctioned by market pricing and not by quotas for immigrants). To reiterate what I said last year, good policy for integration is to treat immigrants as people rather than as either a problem or a solution to a problem.
As for what international migrants prefer, what they (we) consider when choosing where to move to is not just what the intergenerational income coefficient is. Although I did know the US was much less socially mobile than most European countries even before applying to grad school there, I had enough other reasons to want to move there. With the caveat that what I know comes from direct experience, which definitely skews toward white and Chinese professionals entering via the student route, here is a laundry list of factors that matter:
– Where we speak the language. The entire Anglosphere is a top destination for intercontinental migration, just as France is a top destination for West Africans. Observe this table of immigrant population by OECD country. A key clue that language matters is the difference between the various Scandinavian countries, which are quite similar to each other. Sweden, Denmark, and Norway have very similar languages, arguably just dialects of one language, and on top of that, Finns learn Swedish in school (Finland is the top source of immigrants to Sweden). Finland has a different language, which at least locally is considered very difficult to learn; it also has a much lower foreign-born percentage than the others.
– Where our skills match up with the local business clusters. The US happens to be strong in academics and fields that come out of it, like biotech, and those tend to be very porous to international migration everywhere.
– How easily we can elbow our way into the local social networks. This is not the same as domestic mobility. For example, my experience with Ivy social networks is uniformly positive; even when I’m the only non-American in the room, which is frequently the case at the gaming groups I’m involved in, I’m treated like a human being and not like a freakshow. It’s very easy to assimilate to the educated New York subculture if one wants to. But this is not true for domestic migrants: my It’s Complicated, a Kansan Harvard student of middle-middle-class background, does not feel as welcome in this subculture as I do, and tells me that at Harvard people treat her like a Real American, i.e. not a real Bostonian or New Yorker. The correlation between social mobility for immigrants and social mobility for the native-born is far from perfect.
– The presence of a preexisting community of immigrants from the same culture (not terribly relevant to me, but critical to others). This favors large cities and traditional gateways, like New York, Los Angeles, Toronto, and Miami. I’ve read a few case studies and stories of Brazilians in the Boston area; once the first few come in, news of their success spreads to their hometown, and more people come in to the same area. One good reference is God Needs No Passport; there are others I no longer remember. Likewise, Turks prefer Germany, and former Yugoslavians prefer Germany or the rest of Germanic Europe.
– What’s nearby. The US has a lot of immigration, but a huge fraction of it is Mexicans (right on the border), Puerto Ricans (can come in without restriction), Central Americans (close and can speak the language as many other immigrants), and non-Hispanic Anglophone Caribbeans. Likewise, in Germany the top sources of immigrants, excluding intra-first world migration, are Turkey, Poland, the former Yugoslavia, and Russia.
– Perceptions of opportunity and wealth, which aren’t exactly the same as opportunity and wealth. The US of the imaginations of Israelis and Singaporeans is not the same as the real US. For example, until I started hanging out in American political forums in 2002, I had no idea the US didn’t have universal health care. It somewhat blurs issues like social network porousness, but those issues have a real impact on whether one can get a job, and this information is somewhat more easily available to outsiders.
– Perceptions of how welcoming the society is. The US, Canada, and Australia are more welcoming than Europe (at least if you’ve gotten a visa – in many categories it’s easier to get into the EU than into the US), and successfully pretend to be even more welcoming than they are. Many year ago, a Pakistani-Canadian commenter expressed the Canadian attitude with the saying “Other people are racist; our minorities really are lazy.”
Take all of the above with a grain of salt. Not that the numbers I bring up are wrong, but my thinking of which numbers are relevant comes from a specific set of experiences, and what someone whose primary social network is Mexican immigrants to California may have a different idea of what’s important. We’re all very confident about our knowledge about things that there’s nobody around to correct us (and I’m saying this very self-consciously).
That said, I do know these issues a lot better than the average native-born American. To me, the question of where to live was nontrivial. For political reasons, circa the height of the Iraq War, I wanted to go to Canada, but I also knew that the US had better grad schools, and now to the extent that I have control over where I live, my social network is Northeastern.
The most troubling part of the entire exchange above was the invocation of “Revealed preference.” Ordinarily, this is a matter of technical questions about people’s mode choice in real-world situation, and is great at predicting how people will behave if the transportation network changes (e.g. a new transit line is built). It’s an awful way of trying to divine, based on migration flows, whether a country offers more opportunities to people who were born poor in it. Too many intervening variables, too many things most native-born people don’t really see. For that matter, even narrowly, with transportation, it doesn’t answer the question of “What people want?” because it’s much broader than the question of how many people will actually ride a new rail link assuming no change in broader transportation and urban policy.
There’s a serious problem with a discourse about anyone who is not part of the discourse. Transit managers’ discourse about riders is at least tempered by the need to build projects that meet ridership projections. With more social and demographic questions, this is not true, because Americans can bully their way into telling themselves they are doing better than immigrants think they are; if the literature on the subject suggests otherwise, they can abuse terminology and cry “Revealed preference.”
I moved to Vancouver last weekend. The slow pace of posting will probably continue for another week, but I do have multiple posts in the pipeline. I am currently at a downtown hotel, commuting to Kitsilano to look at apartments and to UBC to deal with early paperwork.
My appreciation of Translink dropped within a day, after I discovered that discounted books of multiple tickets and monthly passes are only available at 7-11 and other convenience stores, rather than at stations. (The ticket machines offer what appeared to be multiple-ride tickets but turned out to be single-ride tickets, perhaps usable by multiple people at once.) I still think it’s better-run than the other transit agencies of North America, but it has a lot to learn from New York regarding how to make fare media usable by passengers.
The most surprising pedestrian experience I’ve had is about the street width. The streets are wide, which is what I expected, based on Jarrett’s paean to the grid at Human Transit (which is necessarily wide in North America). What I did not expect was that the buildings would be so short away from downtown. Jarrett’s description of Central Broadway, around the Canada Line stop, as the second downtown, made me think Broadway was a continuous corridor of high-intensity development. It is not; it feels more like a secondary retail strip. The commercial buildings are usually one- or two-story, with some clusters of higher density at major street intersections, especially Cambie but also Granville, MacDonald, and others. This development is more spiky than linear, as if there’s already rapid transit on the route, rather than just interlined high-frequency buses.
Away from Broadway, Kitsilano feels very suburban – at least, the part of 11th Avenue I walked on does. The density looks higher than in Providence because a few of the buildings are tall, but most of the buildings have ornamental front lawns, and the sidewalks are narrow paths through the grass, more like a suburb than like the very old New England neighborhoods I had gotten used to over the past year.
There’s a point I made early on in this blog – I can’t remember where – about the relationship between street width and building height. To be pedestrian-friendly, a street needs to have a certain proportion between the height of the street wall – for example, the height of the buildings flanking it if they do not taper toward the top – and the width of the street. The ratio I initially proposed is 1:1, with a favorable range of 1:2 to 2:1; nowadays I’d propose higher ratios – Providence’s East Side’s 1:2 feels a bit too low, while the 2:1-3:1 on old streets in Boston and Providence feels fine – but the principle is similar.
Downtown Vancouver has what feels to me like correct proportions. With the setbacks and the tapering buildings, the height-to-width ratio is kept to average levels, with modernist skyscrapers balancing wide streets. Because there is high density in the core, the streets do not feel desolate, and the major streets are flush with ground-level retail. Buildings that look very similar to Akirov Towers do not make me feel the same revulsion toward their design; Akirov Towers are built like any housing project, but the towers of Downtown Vancouver feel like New York’s towers on a base. Although many of those buildings do not actually have any street wall, enough of them do that I feel like I’m walking in a human city.
Broadway does not have the same feel. From the bus, the trees frame the street, making it feel less like a highway. On foot, it’s different, and it feels more open and less dense. It works well enough for transit – the bus lines on it have extremely high traffic, much of it due to the pull of UBC – but the pedestrian experience is less than perfect. The street is 30 meters wide, the same as a Manhattan avenue or two-way street, and it needs to be framed by buildings about that tall.
UBC is the worst. Granted, it is summertime, so it’s more deserted than it is during the year. But Harvard Square, Kendall Square, College Hill, Morningside Heights, and even Yale are teeming with people at all times of year. UBC clearly has people – they fill the buses to the rest of the city – but the campus is so spread out there aren’t that many of them at one spot (or if there are, I haven’t found it). There is one cluster of restaurants at University Village, and a few cafes and other retail outlets sporadically located elsewhere, but nothing truly mixed-use the way any of the aforementioned Northeastern college neighborhoods are. There is a grid of major campus boulevards, built with landscaped lawns, but they end up feeling like a large urban renewal project. Columbia has some of those, but they have more people using them; the only Northeastern school I know that has similarly lonely throughfares is MIT, but MIT has its livelier parts at the main administration building and near its subway stop.
Somewhat away from the grid is UBC’s bus loop terminal. My first experience at UBC was stepping off the 99-B express bus to a terminal with a few bays for buses, surrounded by parking, and landscaped lawns that are far prettier from a moving vehicle than on foot. According to a presentation about the proposed subway under Broadway, UBC’s mode split among non-Vancouver residents is 71-27 in favor of cars. (Central Broadway’s is 77-21, which surprised me since it looks not particularly dense but not really auto-oriented the way UBC is). For Downtown, the comparable figure is 49-49.
Despite all this, Vancouver is by North American standards a reasonably successful transit city. Its transit usage is okay, and unlike in most North American cities, it is growing, if not as fast as I’d like. Translink believes that a Broadway subway would get 146,000 daily riders, up from 60,000 on the 99-B plus about 50,000 on local buses today; intuitively this feels low to me, though achieving high enough transit mode share to UBC and Central Broadway would probably require more fundamental changes to their urban design than is politically acceptable. For one, local activists would have to stop referring to the few mid-rises amidst the two-story retail at Broadway and Cambie as high-rise or high-intensity development. It’s nothing upzoning won’t fix, but upzoning this intense is unlikely. It’s really too bad, because walking on Broadway I feel insufficient height is the only problem on the street.