This American Life #629: Expect Delays

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10 minute read

Every week This American Life chooses a theme, brings you different story’s based on that theme. This week’s theme: Expect Delays, all things transportation delays. Spoiler alert: some of the ways these non-fiction stories are told will be ruined by this summary.

Things to Note

A Female Pilot’s Comedy Routine

The show opens with a pre-flight routine by a flight attendant, Anne Aldrich, who, plot-twist, reveals herself to be the pilot, and an experienced one too (she jokes about this being her first flight). As Ira notes, it’s pretty rare for pilot’s to give these briefings, they also tend to be dry, and rarely do they perform “from the back”. But this act of humanity helps alleviate the stress of flying.

Apparently today women are still only 5% of pilots in the USA, which is shockingly low. The pilot makes a joke that when she was in elementary school she said she wanted to be a pilot when she grew up and her teacher responded: “but that’s a man’s job!”. Now her son, whose father is a firefighter, says that when asked he wants to be a firefighter. When the teacher asks why not a pilot her son responds: “but that’s a woman’s job.” Moving on.

Small Town Speed Trap

This main story is a delicious tale of small town versus State politics. In the highway building era, Linndale, Ohio, a small town suburb of Cleveland, was ripped in two by a highway, it’s population soon began to decline. But the town had a plan to fight back. Not really, it sounds like this next move was more a result of ingenuity than revenge. The town set up the most reliable highway speed trap in the state. It soon became widespread enough knowledge that if you got caught by the cops while going through Linndale, well, you were a sucker.

Some State politicians didn’t appreciate the zeal with which Linndale police were enforcing the law. While the highway that had brought decline to the Linndale community was now bringing in a phenomenal amount of revenue in fines, it hadn’t really brought access to the village: there were no ramps in Linndale. Some politicians didn’t like the idea of cops needing to drive out of village (Linndale has fewer than 200 residents) limits in order to sit on their section of highway and catch suckers all day. And so began a decades-long battle to try to legally remove the ability of small town local cops to enforce speed limits on the highway.

I’ll spare you the back and forth details of law, legal challenge and so on. Ultimately Ohio removed the ability for small towns to process highway traffic offenses in municipal court, and thus Linndale lost a substantial portion of every fine. But the crafty town found a new way to collect fines: automated traffic enforcement. After another round of legal challenges the speed camera has to be supervised by an officer in order for the tickets to be valid. So the town built a shack next to the camera, with a toilet, microwave and a weight set, and an officer gets paid to work out during their shift, because that still earns the town money. Trust me, this story is worth a listen.

Epic Chinese Traffic Jams

Everything transportation in China seems more epic: the pace of growth in their cities, their subways, their high-speed rail network, their multi-day traffic jams… This story follows some of the culture that has resulted from these all-too frequent jams: villagers hawking bottled water, fuel, and food, people setting up spontaneous sports games, truckers trading their cargo with each other to attempt a balanced meal… Perhaps most remarkable is that truckers, so used to these recurrent jams, appear to have decided to just stop working at night. At a certain hour they all just park in their lanes and get some rest.

Is Accessible Transit Really Accessible?

Britney Wilson, a black New Yorker with a form of cerebral palsy, talks about her experience using Access-a-Ride. The American’s with Disabilities Act required transit agencies (who receive Federal funding?) to provide what I will call a “separate but equivalent” service for people who can’t access fixed-route transit service due to (physical only?) disability. This paratransit service is door-to-door and heavily subsidized, but because of a North American belief that people who need government support are grifters, it is actually supremely inconvenient:

  • every trip must be booked at least 24 hours in advance
  • pickups within 30 minutes of a request are considered on time
  • you must be outside within five (5) minutes of the ride arriving or the ride will be cancelled
  • If you have too many rides cancelled, you will lose access to the service.

In the spirit of making operating the service more cost-efficient, multiple trips are combined, resulting in circuitous routes. Britney’s 40 minute drive to her work typically takes two hours by Access-a-Ride. People with disabilities and in particular women of colour with disabilities are more vulnerable to abuse and sexual assault. Because drivers know where their passengers live, passengers fear complaining about poor service lest they suffer retaliation. Britney tells the story of a driver who urinated into a cup in the vehicle in front of her while stopped in front of her house before he let her off. She hesitated to report him for reasons listed above and then found out he was fired for his behaviour. Since that report she says that the service she experiences has improved, but she can’t help but put this down to her privilege: because she is a civil rights lawyer, she is threatening enough to deserve better service. Meanwhile, most people who rely on accessible para-transit aren’t so fortunate.

My thoughts

Small Town Speed Trap

As someone who grew up in a small town I enjoyed this small town political intrigue, David vs. Goliath story. The story is also a great example of the ongoing political battles between different levels of government in America. The more I soak up Vision Zero the more I’m OK with more aggressive speed enforcement. That being said, the Scandinavian roots of Vision Zero don’t have the issue that minority communities bear the brunt of police enforcement. As the Black Lives Matter movement in North America has highlighted, many police killings of Black people start with traffic stops (for example: Sandra Bland, Philando Castile). Can automated enforcement, combined with an income-based sliding scale for fines, mitigate these equity impacts? Does the delay between deviant behaviour and its consequences reduce the behaviour change impacts of speed enforcement?

Yes, Things Are Different in China

While I appreciated being reminded that rapidly growing rapidly urbanizing China has different urban and transportation planning challenges than Westerners, and it was intriguing to learn about the culture that has developed around these epic traffic jams, I wanted more from this story. As a planner and engineer I would like to know more about how these jams can be prevented and more quickly cleared. Progressive transportation types acknowledge that congestion can’t be solved, but network unreliability can be mitigated at the very least and I’d love to learn more about how the Chinese government is trying to tackle these jams.

Separate and Invisible

I have never needed to use para-transit, but from what I’ve heard The Ride provided by the MBTA in Metro Boston and Wheel-Trans here in Toronto have similar user experiences. From classes I have had with Fred Salvucci, former Secretary of Transportation for Massachusetts (and my former boss), he has argued that The Ride can be better service than traditional transit (it’s point to point for a small fraction of the price of a cab ride). That may be, but this story highlights the dangers of providing separate services: people with less political power (and those who don’t have the privilege to get better service) are pushed into invisibility, and then their service can degrade. According to a 2002 study by the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS), 7-10% of people with disabilities (however defined) use para-transit, and 8-31% of people with disabilities use transit (ranges are across age groups).This American Life deserves praise for providing this story with its platform.

Meanwhile this service is incredibly expensive to operate for transit agencies that already have tight operating budgets. It is also a fundamentally different service to traditional transit: point-to-point with flexible schedules, typically contracted out, vs. fixed route, fixed schedule, publicly owned, operated, and maintained. Because of the unreliability of service, people with disabilities are twice as likely to pay a full-fare taxi ride than use subsidized service (same BTS study), while 2/3 of those who have transportation difficulties have annual incomes below $35k. Transportation Network Companies like Uber & Lyft have been trialled in DC and Boston as cheaper alternatives to traditional paratransit service. Read more about these trials in Angela Urban’s excellent MobilityLab piece, I’ve already referenced it twice in this section.

#ElevateMTA & #AccessDenied

Well known in the transportation community Chris Pangilinan Director of Technology and Rider Engagement at @TransitCenter has been leading the #elevateMTA campaign. Many transit systems were built before accessibility was law, and many buses and streetcars operating today still have high floors. While renovations to install elevators in stations and procuring low-floor vehicles are expensive and will take time, agencies can do more to maintain existing elevators (and communicate outages) and ensure that renovations do improve accessibility. Transit Center produced a report highlighting the issue and how the MTA can do more. To raise visibility around this, the ElevateMTA campaign had public officials pledge to take stair-free transit trips for a week, to show them the detours people who can’t use stairs must take to complete their trips.

Meanwhile, people have also been highlighting the maintenance issues with the MTA’s elevators with the #AccessDenied hashtag.

Bus Stop Balancing

Transit Center has been leading a series of efforts to improve NYC’s bus service and turnaround its declining ridership aptly named The latest element of this campaign has been a push to balance and reduce the number of stops bus routes make (this applies to other surface lines like streetcars as well). They have a great video explaining how bus stop spacing affects service speeds and why bus stops should be spaced more sensibly to serve demand and transfer nodes, and be around 1/4 mile apart.

Why am I highlighting this campaign in a section on accessibility? Because it highlights a trade-off in improving service. In order to improve bus speeds for the those who can take the bus, it may exclude people who can’t move an extra 1/8 mile (660 feet, 200 meters) to get on. I’ll confess to not knowing who those people might be, and what proportion of the population (or of seniors, or of people with mobility impairments) they might be. Transit Center does point out that “priority is also granted to bus stops near community and senior centers,” so I suppose these questions are mostly addressed. I would’ve wished they more explicitly addressed.

speed-enforcement, pilot, traffic, ADA, accessible-transit