don’t look a gift horse in the mouth, janice.

The city of Troy has an atrocious track record. In the past ten years, council members denied a vote to host an Ikea in Troy, reasoning the big blue box was an eyesore in a town of strip malls. Under its poor management, Troy has made national news for being a wealthy city considering doing away with its public library.

In its most recent in a string of abysmal decisions, the Troy City Council is delaying a vote to bring a transit center to the city. The project, slated to connect already existing train lines that go between Chicago and Southeast Michigan, will be supported by $8.5 million in federal funds.

However, Troy, yet again, does not get it.

Troy Mayor Janice Daniels, notorious for her bigoted twitter feeds, decries the project as “a terrible waste of money.”

“How do you justify taking $8.5 million from a government that is trillions of dollars in debt?” Janice asks.

Easily. You have to spend money to make money. The government spending money on this project will do a lot to make money for its citizens. And this is good for everyone, because citizens who have money can spend more money. They can afford health insurance, they can pump money into an economy that needs it.  In a similar project done in Normal, Illinois another city not exactly the epicenter of public transport, a similar investment furnished $200 million in private investment and 375 jobs.

The Detroit Free Press has it right when they argue that this issue is about more than Troy. Troy’s inability to see the bigger picture, whether that would be t

Troy has a track record of turning down job-creating policies and degrading the public investments that attract residents and keep them. Mistaken ideology, Janice, should not get in the way of a pragmatic policy to help residents needing jobs in your city.


food trucks in a food grassland

DDD plots Detroit-area grocery stores. Photo credit: Data Driven Detroit

1. Data Driven Detroit does some good stuff.

This map of grocery stores located in Detroit, featured in DDD’s most recent newsletter (linked above), depicts the 115 grocery stores that meet their criteria for supplying produce (essentially more than alcohol, tobacco, and chips). The authors analyzed the use of Electronic Benefit Transfer cards, or Bridge cards, in these 155 stores, tracking where users spent EBT dollars. They found that that a significant portion is exchanged for groceries outside of the city’s borders.

When I first spotted this map, I hoped that the analysis would be based at least in part on how far and how long it took a Detroit resident (with and without a car) to access these full service grocery stores. The authors acknowledge that while Detroit is not a food desert in the traditional sense, it fits the bill for a “food grassland,” where distinct pockets within the city do not have ready access to the plotted grocery stores. A next step to determine accessibility would have to take transport times and perhaps store hours (sometimes it’s hard to get to a store if it closes at 7PM post work if you have a commute… hence my dinner of whatever is in the fridge… for the third night…) into account.

2. More food truck news!  First stop September 27th from 4PM to 8PM! Let’s go! Eastern Market Stand 2! Here’s their Facebook page!


fare play: trading off profitability and equity

This string (and here and here) about the profitability of public transportation is garnering some attention.

It’s timely, too, as we continue to face the fake-choice between revenue increases and service cuts in the NOW URGENT ALL OF A SUDDEN NOW NOW need to achieve a massive deficit reduction in the face of a dismal economy.

My personal leanings aside, the contrast between profit and public use as the objective of transportation systems is well worth examining.

The gist of both arguments is as follows:

PROFIT: David Levinson

Mass (or public) transit agencies are transportation organizations first, not welfare organizations. They should be considered public utilities rather than departments of government, which provide a useful service for a price to their users.

My thesis is that the local transit systems should identify and propose to retrench to the financially sustainable system, and present local politicians with a choice.

If local politicians want additional “equity” services, they should be presented with a cost of subsidy per line, and then can collectively choose which lines to finance out of general revenue, as this is primarily a welfare rather than an transportation function. In other words, public transit organizations would present the public with a bill for these money-losing services (the subsidy required in order to at least break even on operating them (i.e. the difference between their revenue and their cost), and not be expected to pay for them out of operating revenue.

PUBLIC USE/EQUITY: Jarrett Walker

Currently, transit agencies are not trying to break even, so they are not failing if they don’t.  If we propose a free-market view in which transit should be breaking even, well, I’d like to see this as well in a perfect world.  But that would be a world in which government isn’t heavily subsidizing transit’s competitor, the private car — not just through road expenditures but through such interventions as minimum parking requirements and petroleum-based foreign policy.  I would further suggest that current environmental crises argue for government to be biased away from the private car and toward modes that do less environmental harm, and that subsidies toward transit (i.e. accepting that transit “loses money”) are one valid way of doing that.

Profit and equity are on the opposite ends of the spectrum; yet there is commonality between these views as Walker acknowledges. Yes, transportation systems should work to provide transit to where jobs are, not being afraid to shed lines that are shedding public funds. In this sense, Levinson is perfectly correct, and a profit-driven transit model would be certain cull the unprofitable in order to stay in the black. However, Walker is also right. The demand for transport is  extremely distorted by heavy subsidization of private cars and the gasoline that powers them. Until transit agencies can tap into this projection of actual demand, how can profitability be evaluated? Perfect substitutes are so readily available that projecting demand (as has been found by no congestion alleviation with new highways) remains difficult.

Lastly, neither case considers transportation infrastructure as a driver of profitability. New transportation opens up new access to jobs, housing, retail, etc. If transit agencies were to evaluate their effectiveness only based on existing profit, they might miss the opportunity for new lines. For instance, on the South side of Chicago, I would guess (though I’d really like to Know This Fact and not be guessing), that many transit lines do not pay for themselves.   I am guessing that the current bus lines that serve the area (dependably a bit late, dependably a bit longer of a wait than you really want to spend being wind-whipped) do not generate the sort of high demand “profitable” line that would be used under Levinson’s model to make the case for the possibility of sustainable transportation. Some lines going into the downtown might, out of sheer necessity for many who need to get to and from work, but I’d guess that most commuters take the faster, more dependable Metra rather than depending on less reliable buses if they can afford the slight cost premium. The potential for profitability is clear: transit below Congress Ave. serves a constituent base that probably owns fewer cars, and is more dependent on the public transit system. To anyone familiar with the South Side, an El stop would be transformative, but I’m not sure that the current demand would be capable of telling the same story.