Oh Goody, “Fresh Ideas” in Urban Transportation

Techies commuting in San Francisco sometimes have to wait for one or two stuffed buses to pass before boarding one with room to carry them from Marina or Mission downtown. This obviously takes away from time they could be devoting to disrupting things, which is obviously terrible.

My old-economy, twentieth-century brain is thinking that buying more buses, hiring more drivers, and expanding the SF Muni system to make more seats on more buses for everyone would be the way to go to resolve this problem.

How wrong I am! The answer, as always, is a private startup!

These buses are going to have fancy coffee and WiFi, and they’ll go where the people who can pay $6 per ride want to go, instead of stopping at other places along the way where “the public” might try to get on board.

Don’t worry, this isn’t creating a price-based filter to keep poor people out while shunting the wealthy into a private and more desirable alternative. It’s “reimagining” transportation!

“Urban transportation is an area of extreme impact that still desperately needs fresh ideas,” said Banister, previously a co-founder of IronPort and an early adviser and board member at PayPal. “As a private player, Leap has the flexibility to reimagine mass transit, creating new ways to get people where they need to go while also enjoying the journey.”

Truly, a new idea that no one’s thought of before.

Cartoon John T. McCutcheon, 1905

Cartoon John T. McCutcheon, 1905

The history of public transportation has always been intertwined with conflicts that have arisen from sharing urban space across the social boundaries created by class inequality and institutionalized racism. Who gets to “enjoy the journey” has been a fraught question. Robin Kelley’s work in Race Rebels offered an innovative and influential look at transit in the Jim Crow south as a theater for acts of aggression and resistance that replicated the Jim Crow system in microcosm and allowed Black southerners the opportunity to resist it in small ways that became a large and transformative social movement. As Kelley writes,

Examples of black working-class resistance in public spaces offer some of the richest insights into how race, gender, class, space, time, and collective memory shape both domination and resistance (56)

These small experiences created an infrapolitics–an implicit script of action that helped to define and shape daily life in Jim Crow Birmingham. I don’t want to diminish the significance of major events like the Birmingham campaign of 1963, but the contested question of who would enjoy the ride to work on a daily basis was as much a part of the fabric of life in Birmingham as the actions of Bull Connor or the determination of the city’s business elite to resist integration.

Elsewhere in the South, Kevin Kruse in White Flight has analyzed a different dynamic–white abandonment of Atlanta’s buses after desegregation in protest. However, Kruse’s evidence shows that white disdain for integrated public transit–the problem being that whites no longer “enjoyed the journey” on terms of white supremacy–was hardly a Southern problem:

A northern man warned Chief Jenkins about what would happen to Atlanta’s desegregated buses as whites fled in fear. “As of today, Detroit, Chicago, Cleveland public transportation systems are shells of their former place in public utility…. They are almost abandoned to the private car—bumper to bumper, one man to a vehicle—definitely to avoid Integration.” (115)

Even today, certain residents will joke that MARTA, the  Metro Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority which operates buses and rail in Fulton and DeKalb (and soon Clayton) Counties, stands for Moving Africans Rapidly Through Atlanta. Throughout the country, as Amanda Hess notes at Citylab, transit ridership is laden with racial and class stigma that discourages “choice” commuters, leaving regular riding the domain of “captive” commuters. Ditto for DJ Waldie, citing the work of urban planning scholar Steven Spears on cognitive barriers to transit ridership. And, as recent work by Robert Bullard and others in Highway Robbery shows,

Transportation planning has duplicated the discrimination used by other racist government institutions and private entities to maintain white privilege. The transportation options that are available to most Americans to day were shaped largely by Federal policies as well as individual and institutional discrimination…. Transportation decision-making is political. (20)

Part of the decision-making process lies with the San Francisco Muni system. Like other transit agencies, though, they face severe budgetary constraints on expansion. And the private decisions of individuals and entrepreneurs–to shun a public system but flock to a private and elite alternative, or to invest in a private and for-profit system rather than promote the public one as a tacit statement on civic participation by the new tech elite, are political too. In the long run, those diffuse private decisions will be just as historically consequential, and the motives and purposes of the people making them are fair game for analysis. Here, in a photo from one of Rebecca Solnit’s London Review of Books diaries from San Francisco, two protesters try to stop Google employees from enjoying their ride:

They seem to be making some kind of point, or even resisting the daily infrapolitics of an increasingly socially segregated city. Of course, this is San Francisco and there’s no racism here, so maybe my analogy is flawed….

The City that Works (To Enrich Private Interests)

At this blog, we are personally rooting hard for Jesus “Chuy” Garcia to defeat Rahm Emanuel in Chicago’s mayoral runoff. Garcia’s support from the teachers’ union is a big factor, but as I wrote here and here at the height of the teachers’ strike in 2012, the bigger problem with Rahm’s administration is his enthusiasm for selling off the legacy of decades of public investment in schools, roads, and other infrastructure in deals that aren’t even all that great in the short run, but result on putrid return on investment in the long term.

Rick Perlstein’s piece in In These Times in January hits the nail on the head. He discusses the deep links between Emanuel’s appointed school board and for-profit charter school operators, and the mayor’s deep professional debt to Illinois’s new Republican governor Bruce Rauner, whose efforts to destroy public worker pensions and pass right-to-work laws will adversely affect the majority of Chicagoans. But the big takeaway of the piece is a discussion of the horrid long term leases negotiated for the operation of the Chicago Skyway toll road and the city’s parking meters, deals which will strip the city of public assets for decades while allowing private operators to rip off the public by raising tolls, fees, and fines. The only winners are politicians like Emanuel, who seem to exercise fiscal responsibility by closing short-term budget deficits (without having to raise Bruce Rauner’s taxes).

Why would politicians negotiate 75-and 99-year contracts that systematically shortchange their constituencies the longer they last? Because the concessionaires are able to exploit the simple fact that no politician, even ones named “Daley,” last in office that long. Politicians reap immediate glory for closing deficits without raising taxes and funding popular programs, an irresistible temptation. Voters blame the corporations that operate the roads for the toll increases and revenue shortfalls, not the politicians who wrote or voted for the deals in the first place. Then, when the damage is done, IBDYBD—“I’ll be dead, you’ll be dead,” to repurpose the phrase that became popular among the cynical Masters of the Universe who structured the financial time-bombs like mortgage-backed securities that tanked the global economy in 2008.

They are the people’s schools, the people’s bridges, and the people’s parking meters. They aren’t Rahm Emanuel’s to give away. This is the unfolding of urban history yet to be written.

One thing that’s encouraging from reading this article? This was Perlstein’s closing paragraph on January 21:

What’s next? Now that Emanuel is gliding to likely re-election in February, quite possibly a municipal constitutional apocalypse. The enabling legislation for his infrastructure trust includes the following language: “To the extent that any ordinance, resolution or order of the city is in conflict with the provisions of this ordinance, the provisions of this ordinance shall be controlling.” It sounds like a formula to turn the governing of the City by the Lake over to the bankers on a street called Wall. When Chicago voters go to the polls on February 24 to decide whether to keep Rahm Emanuel as their mayor or replace him with someone else, this is what that race should be all about.

Six weeks later, it looks like Chicago voters have done just that. Voters might be sick of the daily hassles imposed by privatization, or they might be more aware of its long term costs. Or, it might be that visibly sucking up to a union-busting Republican governor when you’re running for mayor in one of the most Democratic cities in America is still colossally arrogant and strategically inept no matter how much campaign money you have.



New Metro Atlanta Cities–Maybe Not About Good Government After All?

Mark Niesse at the AJC has been covering the Georgia General Assembly’s debates on bills to allow incorporation referenda and annexations in DeKalb County. His efforts to dig beneath the slogans and rhetoric on this issue has been commendable. I’ve been particularly interested in an article he wrote in late February that predicts a rapidly diminishing rate of return for each successive incorporation in the region.

All of the seven cities that have been created since 2005, when Sandy Springs started the local government trend, have become mostly white islands of safety and affluence. What’s remaining is heavily black, less well-off and will have to devote more resources to solve tougher crime problems.

Niesse goes on to make an argument that echoes what I’ve written about the limits of public choice theory in practice–the early adopters of incorporation secure control of high-value taxable property and are able to set boundaries that enclose affluent populations that demand few services. The real equity problem comes from the fact that a process that works well for the early-adopting cities is inherently less good for latecomers.

They also lack as much precious commercial property whose taxes help fund municipal governments. Only two of them, LaVista Hills and South Fulton, would bankroll their own police departments. The potential cities of Greenhaven, Tucker, Sharon Springs and Stonecrest would continuing to use county police.

The formation of wealthier cities has denied unincorporated residents resources, said Kathryn Rice, who lives in the southern part of DeKalb County. She too wants safer neighborhoods, fewer potholes, freshly paved roads and better parks.

“They need to know that they’re hurting me,” Rice said. “We don’t want to be scapegoats.”

What’s interesting, however, is that the new cities in Fulton and DeKalb Counties may not even be good instruments for local control or good, responsive government. Johnny Edwards and Craig Schneider in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution provided an interesting report in late January describing on discontent among residents with local government in many of the suburban cities incorporated since 2005. I had meant to blog about it at the time, and didn’t, but since incorporating more cities is on the agenda in the Georgia Legislature’s annual session, it’s worth digging in a little bit.

As Edwards and Schneider write,

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found numerous problems among the growing ranks of metro Atlanta’s new cities, from Johns Creek to Brookhaven, Dunwoody to Sandy Springs. Elected leaders have faced complaints that they steered city business to relatives and campaign donors, accepted gifts and favors barred by ethics codes, spent too freely on salaries or dreamed up mega-dollar development deals that many constituents didn’t want.

  • Johns Creek Mayor Mike Bodker took a free vacation and rented a townhome from a developer and campaign contributor, then voted favorably on his zoning request.
  • A family member of Brookhaven Mayor J. Max Davis secured a $28,000 renovation contract with the city.
  • A Brookhaven councilman’s top campaign donors quickly won city work, and another councilman faced complaints that he routinely conducted private business at City Hall.
  • The impulse to smaller government sometimes turns into grand civic dreams once a city is born. Sandy Springs, the first in the wave of new cities, now plans a $100 million city center to house government offices, a performing arts center and shops.

The last is particularly ironic, because the movement to incorporate Sandy Springs drew great strength from the tax revolt that erupted in Fulton County in 1991. That tax revolt was a backlash by many of Fulton County’s wealthiest residents against legally required corrections to property tax assessments that finally made owners of the most valuable property pay something resembling the full share of taxes mandated by state law. But leaders of the tax revolt, many of whom would take leadership roles in the Sandy Springs incorporation movement and hold elected office in new cities or represent north Fulton voters in the state legislature, directed ire toward Fulton County’s “Taj Mahal” government center.

More seriously, advocates for cityhood in north Fulton areas in the 2000s and in DeKalb today, along with advocates for splitting Fulton County, frequently defend against the charge that they seek to create majority-white political enclaves by shifting the conversation to “good government” and condemning corruption at the County level.

This, however, is an example of the kind of good government that some residents of new cities have been getting, as Edwards and Schneider describe:

In 2013, several city officials in Johns Creek accused Mayor Mike Bodker of unethical conduct in his official dealings with men who had given him campaign contributions and gifts. The city hired former DeKalb County District Attorney Bob Wilson to investigate.

According to Wilson’s preliminary report, Bodker pushed the council to buy property from a campaign donor, Bob Cheeley, and urged the city to pay Cheeley’s asking price. Cheeley gave Bodker’s campaign $1,000 in 2006.

Cheeley was asking for more than $3 million for the property, former City Manager John Kachmar told the AJC. The council insisted on an independent appraisal, which came in at $2 million.

Wilson’s report also explored Bodker’s relationship with developer Richard Aaronson. Wilson said that in 2010, Bodker spent a free week in Aaronson’s Destin, Fla., beach house, then spent a year renting a townhome from Aaronson at a rate below what other tenants were paying.

In December 2010, a few months after the beach trip and just as he was moving into the townhome, Bodker voted in favor of changes Aaronson had requested in the Johns Creek Walk Phase II project.

The Aaronson family and company gave Bodker’s campaign $2,000 in 2008 and $3,500 in 2013.

Edwards and Schneider note that these actions are not in and of themselves illegal. But is “not technically against the law” a good standard for government integrity? In some of the new metro Atlanta cities, where

Gaining influence with top officials can be easier…. There are fewer power players, and some have known each other and done business for decades,

that standard might have to do.

I won’t beat a dead horse about this any more than necessary, but these kinds of complaints do suggest that the folks in most of these communities who voted to incorporate may have had a particular vision of “good government” in mind when they hit the voting booth. The notion that African American voters are not to be trusted with the public purse is hardly novel in Atlanta’s political culture, and there’s pretty strong visual evidence for the proposition that the complexion of new cities’ leadership strata is not an irrelevant factor in enthusiasm for incorporation.

from "New Cities Ignite Debate Over Race", Johnny Edwards and Bill Torpy, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, January 25, 2014

from “New Cities Ignite Debate Over Race”, Johnny Edwards and Bill Torpy, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, January 25, 2014

Sometimes, an apparent failure of policy–cityhood opening the door to corruption instead of responsiveness and transparency–reflects a critical misunderstanding of the actual goals of the policy.