Friday, July 27, 2012

Standard of Living vs. Quality of Life

Standard of Living is a commonly tossed-around measure of a country's prosperity. Exceptionalists like to point out that the United States has the highest standard of living in the world, and anti-environmentalists cringe at the thought of environmental regulation reducing our standard of living. A lower standard of living does sound horrible at its face, but there is an important piece of information that is being left out in these discussions.

Standard of living, as it is commonly expressed, is a measure of consumption. It's not a measure of comfort, of health, or of happiness. It's simply a measure of how much stuff is consumed by each person in a society, on average. It's usually expressed in terms of GDP per capita. There are people who use "standard of living" to mean something more useful, but they are not in the majority.

This is different from measures that try to capture "quality of life." Quality of life is a concept that attempts to aggregate both material and intangible components of human well-being. Quality of life measures will include measures of economic health, but also things like access to health care, life expectancy, infant mortality, leisure time, self-reported happiness, equality, etc.

Americans may have the highest standard of living in the world, but we are suffering in the quality of life department. We have shorter lives, filled with less leisure, more economic insecurity, longer work hours and less travel than most of the rest of the civilized world.

Why am I bring this up on an alternative transport blog? Because I think this has profound implications for how we talk about re-organizing our built environment as we move in to the 21st Century. Two of the factors that contributed to our nation's vast accumulation of wealth over the last century-- cheap oil and the suburban boom-- are clearly unsustainable in the future. Much of the throwaway consumer economy is built on top of these things-- that, too, is coming to an end. We are most likely going to see a decline in our standard of living as we move in to the future.

That said, I don't think that a decline in standards of living must necessarily mean a decline in quality of life. For example, a person who takes a pay cut to live within walking distance of work has decreased their standard of living. Maybe they can no longer afford to consume all of the gasoline that they used to during their daily commute. But it's also likely that their quality of life has gone up-- they have more leisure time, they are healthier from including a brisk walk in their daily routine, they are likely happier from alleviating the stress of a long commute. Similarly, somebody who takes a pay cut and has to switch from eating fast food to cooking farmers' market vegetables at home has undergone the same transition-- a decrease in standard of living, but an increase in quality of life.

There is, of course, a reason that we measure standard of living this way. These two concepts are strongly correlated, at low levels of both. In the developing world, an increase in standard of living is often also an increase in quality of life, because it means the difference between starvation and satiety, between a cardboard shack and a modest house. But after a point (which is different for different cultures), additional consumption no longer translates in to additional happiness, and indeed can have the opposite effect.

We are all going to have to find these trade-offs in the coming years. The future will be about downsizing-- owning less, sharing more, living smaller, living closer. All of us are going to suffer a decline in our standard of living. Done properly, however, I think we could see a renaissance in our quality of life.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

San Bernardino Transit Center Plans Released

And it looks good! There's a ~1600 sq. m. (~17,000 sq. ft.) building on the site, which will have space for two retail stores, restrooms, a ticket office, and a bike station. 22 bus bays are on the plans (two along Rialto Ave.), along with a stop on the sbX BRT system, a Metrolink station on the south edge, a large public plaza, and a total of 3 (ADA) parking spaces on site. This is a fantastic plan, and a great example of what a small urban transit station should look like.

More from the Omnitrans Blog.

Friday, July 20, 2012

"No transit" from people who should know better.

I've written before about people who use the words "No public transportation" to mean "No rail service." I saw an example today from people who ought to know better: Rail-Volution, a transit/livable streets conference that will be coming to LA soon. I received their brochure in the mail today. One of their "mobile workshops", on Tuesday, will be held at LAX and will talk about Metro and LAWA's plans to bring rail to the airport.

In the talk's description, the first sentence is "LA has no direct transit connection to LAX."

That's obviously false. I've ridden the FlyAway bus, which travels directly from downtown LA to LAX, several times. It stops at two places: Union Station and the airport terminals. That's as direct as it gets. There is also a shuttle which directly connects the Green Line's Aviation station to the terminals, and a shuttle which connects the LAX City Bus Center to the terminals. The LAX City Bus Center is served by the LA Metro 40, 42, 111, 117, 232, 439, 625, and 715, the Santa Monica 3 and Rapid 3, the Culver City 6 and Rapid 6, the Beach Cities 109 and the Torrance 8. The Green Line Aviation station is served by the Metro Green Line, the MAX 2, 3, and 3x, the Culver City 6 and Rapid 6, the Metro 120, the Beach Cities 109, and the Santa Monica 3 and Rapid 3. By my count, the airport has 20 direct transit connections.

What you meant to say, conference organizers, is that the airport has no direct *rail* connection. However, you can have valuable transit service without rail. Please be more specific.

Monday, July 16, 2012

A Decent Article on sbX

So, as many of you are no doubt aware, the Inland Empire's first rapid transit project (since the streetcar era) is presently being built in San Bernardino. The E-Street sbX BRT will connect the northern ends of San Bernardino with Cal State, downtown, Hospitality Ln. and Loma Linda, and there has been no shortage of criticism of the project. (Personally, I think it's a great idea, and I think that a lot more of the route should have dedicated lanes than do at present. Currently, the dedicated right-of-way runs only from Baseline & E to Hospitality & Anderson, but that stretch of Anderson in Loma Linda can get really congested during peak hours.)

Fortunately, the mayor of Yucaipa chimed in in the Sun to defend the project, especially in light of the recent bankruptcy of San Bernardino. (The project isn't threatened, as it's being funded almost entirely by federal sources.) I think the piece could have used some editing, but it's good to see some optimism about the project in the local press. Even the comments are (at present) civil!

Friday, July 13, 2012

Metrolink's 2nd "Beach Train" Here To Stay

It's July, which means that the Inland Empire-Orange County line is now operating with two round trips per weekend day. This year, however, the service will not be dropped in October, but rather will continue "indefinitely." This from an agency that dropped nearly all IE-OC weekend service just a few short years ago. I'm not sure I'm ready to trust you again yet, Metrolink, but I am glad to see some service returning to the IE-OC line. Please keep it up.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

CSUSB Loses Transit Passes

As of last Saturday, June 30th, the one-year pilot program to provide Cal State San Bernardino students with universal transit passes has expired. Apparently, no permanent program was organized to replace it. This sucks, because universal transit passes are an extremely effective tool to promote transit ridership.

First off, they eliminate one of the several impediments to new riders trying transit: understanding fare policy. Fare policy can be complicated, as this old post I wrote about transfers demonstrates. Beyond that, there are local/express distinctions within the RTA system. Some other transit agencies further confuse the issue with zone fare systems, peak/off-peak distinctions, distance fares, bike rack permits, the list goes on. And don't get me started on the miserable failure that was the fare policy on the old 149 (now 216). "Just swipe/flash your card and go" gets rid of all that, and the corresponding anxiety for first-time riders.

Second, they offer all the benefits that a transit pass usually offers, combined with the fact that it's on a card that most college students carry anyway. It's easy for me to go out to lunch with colleagues on the bus, even if they're not usually bus riders, because they've all got UCR ID cards in their wallets.

Last, and this is especially true for college passes, is that universal transit passes develop habits in young adults that may stick with them for life. My generation is one that was raised overwhelmingly in the suburbs. Many friends, colleagues, and students have never ridden a public bus in their lives until their arrival at college. (This is especially true at UCR.) Introducing students to public transit just might get them hooked, and they're more likely to try it if you make it free.

So, Cal State folks, I wish you the best in getting a universal transit pass restored to your campus.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Cars, Costs, and the Working Poor

Before I started this blog, but during my time in Riverside, I spent a time working as a cable TV installer for our local cable company. My wife was going to school at RCC during the time, as well as working at a local fast food joint. We had a roommate who lived primarily on disability. We were living at about 130% of the federal poverty line. We lived paycheck-to-paycheck, and sometimes fell behind on that.

Why do I bring this up? It's about transportation, of course. Back then, what really killed us was unpredictable expenses. We could keep a roof over our head, food on the table, and the lights on, but a large and unexpected bill would really hurt. And, at the time, we were relatively car-dependent. So probably the most frequent large, unexpected bill we received was the bill from the mechanic. We mitigated this to an extent by trading favors with car-handy relatives, but car parts are still expensive. As anyone who has suffered through driving an old, failing car knows, every strange noise under your hood sounds eerily similar to the sound of money draining from your bank account.

It is this experience that informs why I think that transit and active transportation are much better tools for enhancing the mobility of the poor and working-class. Yes, both transit and cycling have costs, but they aren't the same as the costs of driving. Transit has extremely predictable costs, even if it can sometimes get pricey for long-distance commutes. (A monthly Metrolink pass from Riverside-LA will run you a cool $352. New York's 30-day Unlimited MetroCard is $104.) Cycling has extremely low costs, although they can sometimes be unpredictable. Neither one is likely to approach the cost of even some relatively simple car repairs. And I guarantee that, given the choice between a $600 car and a $600 bike, the latter will be a much more reliable vehicle.

Bike Repairs

My wife went away on vacation to (the suburbs of) Washington, D.C., and while she was gone I suffered a kind of comedy of errors with my bicycle. It started with a squeaking bottom bracket, which I thought I'd fixed before I went to Long Beach. I cleaned and greased and polished up the bracket, and stuck it back in, and at any rate, it didn't squeak while I was out. Halfway into a ride with some friends the following Tuesday it was back with a vengeance. My fellow cyclists joked that my bike sounded like Willy Wonka's boat. So I fully replaced the bottom bracket, which fixed things up until the following Monday, when my front wheel literally fell off as I left my apartment. On and on it went, with several more bolts, a bar plug, and eventually my saddle needing replaced.

As a grad student married to a substitute teacher, our summer earnings are a bit slim, so my wife was watching this saga unfold on Facebook with no small measure of trepidation. When she came home, however, I went over an itemized list of the things I had to fix. All told, it came to just over $50 (and a lot of elbow grease on my part).

This feeds back in to the empowerment of the bicycle that I talked about before. Yes, the bike is a machine, and all machines break. But it's a very different sort of machine than a car. It's a machine that I can fix in my kitchen, and whose parts I can buy with change in the sofa cushions.