“Transit is a network”: why city and suburbs should stop competing for transport funding

Vancouver, British Columbia: a city at war with its suburbs. Image: Getty.

In just about every North American regional transit debate I’ve ever been involved in, someone has said: “Why is all this money being spent on transit downtown! Downtown already has lots of transit, while out here in ___, we have nothing!”

If this is a debate within a city — often between city councillors who represent districts — then they’ll say this about downtown, and sometimes about dense inner neighbourhoods around it. But exactly the same debate happens at another scale: among municipal governments in a huge urban region; in that case, they’ll complain about the entire dense, old, transit-oriented city at the region’s centre.

Either way, the debate sounds like this. (I’ll use the term core to mean the older, denser, inner area in this debate, and edge to refer to the newer, less dense, more car-dependent area.)

Edge: “The core area has so much transit, and we have little or nothing – but we pay taxes too, so why does so much of the money go to the core? Also, we’re trying to build denser development in more transit-oriented ways, to start moving beyond car-dependence. But how can we do that without good transit? We’re desperate out here!

Core: “It’s great that you want to be denser, but we’re already very dense. That means a much bigger share of our residents need or want transit, and our ability to grow and thrive depends on it. Car-dependence just isn’t an option at our density, so if transit doesn’t work, our city doesn’t work.  We’re desperate in here!

I sympathise with all sides, and do my best to warn all sides away from this kind of parochial polarization. Nothing is sadder than coming into a city or region with inadequate transit, and finding that the locals are more interested in blaming and resenting each other than in working on a problem they all share.

Once more with feeling: Transit is a network, which means that its parts are interdependent. You cannot think about it the way you think about libraries or fire stations, where putting one in a certain place mainly benefits the people there, because the whole network affects everyone’s ability to get everywhere. So when folks argue that the another part of the network should be weaker so that theirs can be stronger, they’re actually undermining their own transit service.

In North America, the edge tends to have the votes to win edge-core debates, so it’s not surprising that many North American transit networks are weak at the core. When you look at North American rapid transit systems, you often notice pieces missing in the middle.

Metro Vancouver is one of the most dramatic cases. Look at what happens at the west end of the yellow line:

Bit small, isn't it? Click to expand.

It never ever makes sense for a major rapid transit line to end just short of where it would connect with another major line, as the yellow line does here. This gap creates all kinds of overloading problems, as three suburban branches from the east all feed into a single line into downtown (the northward peninsula). It obstructs many cross-regional trips, most obviously from the eastern suburbs to the airport (on the island in the lower left). Finally, the bus line that crosses this gap is one of the busiest in North America, the best signal of all that you need a rail line.

Yet if you listened to the regional transit debate, you’d think that plugging this gap in the whole region’s network is a project “for Vancouver” just because the gap itself happens to be in Vancouver.

Once you learn to recognise it, you’ll see this theme in city after city. Missing links like Vancouver’s are an extreme example. More common is a persistent disinvestment in the core parts of a network even though people from the whole region rely on those parts. Many big city transit networks end up massively overcrowded and failing at the centre, even as the political pressure is all about extending further toward the edge.

Fortunately, a few North American regions are showing real leadership and progress on this:

  • Toronto is under political pressure to extend its subway lines further into the suburbs, adding even more riders, even as the inner segments of the network are severely overloaded. Where would all those passengers fit? The only solution is another subway through downtown, but as soon as you mention downtown, a majority of the City Council has had trouble seeing why they should care. Major progress has been made on advancing this crucial “core-strengthening” project in the last year.
  • Los Angeles Metro is building its Regional Connector project, a new subway under downtown whose purpose is to hook together rail lines that now terminate on opposite sides of downtown, never touching each other. For long trips across the region – from Pasadena to South LA, say, or from Santa Monica to East LA – the connector replaces two-transfer trips with zero-transfer trips (which means it also replaces three-transfer trips with one-transfer trips). And so it dramatically increases the ease with which you can get across the larger city.

LA Metro produced a very smart map with wide two-way arrows showing these improved regional flows. The agency did a great job of helping people see that while the project is in downtown, it’s for the whole city and region

  • Last month, there was major breakthrough in the Seattle area. The Sound Transit 3 regional rapid transit proposal, which will go to the voters in the fall, requires a new subway tunnel under downtown, parallel to the existing one two blocks away. Until last month, the entire cost of this tunnel was considered a Seattle expenditure, so it completed for funds with other city projects.

But of course, Seattle doesn’t need another subway tunnel two blocks from the existing one. It’s the whole region that needs it, to fit all of the region’s rail lines through Seattle. So the final plan, correctly, treats this is a cost to be shared across the region.

Finally, why have I said “North American” throughout this post? Because most other wealthy countries I’ve worked in or studied don’t have this issue to the same degree. Mostly this is because those countries have located regional transit planning at a level of government that has the power to see and act on a citywide vision, and account for all of its consequences.

Typically, this power is integrated with the other great powers that act on that scale, such as land use planning, infrastructure, and so on, so that the implications of each action can be accounted for.

Good planning can still happen in a more fragmented political context, though, so long as someone has the power and skill to make the argument for a complete network vision. Fortunately, this is happening more and more.

Jarrett Walker is an international consultant in public transit network design and policy, based in Portland, Oregon. He is also the author of “Human Transit: How clearer thinking about public transit can enrich our communities and our lives".

This article was originally written for his blog, and is reposted here with permission.


 
 
 
 

Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.


Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.