A cable car named sensationalism
April 15, 2013, 11:35 pm
Filed under: Public Transit | Tags: , , ,

Originally reported by the Associated Press and subsequently picked up by both the San Francisco Examiner and the Huffington Post, this story on the cost of cable car-related injury liability settlements is sloppy journalism at best. With its lack of context or rigorous analysis, the article seems intent on erroneously maligning San Francisco’s cable car system.

$8 million in cable car accident settlements over the last three years!
151 injured over the last ten years!

At first blush, the story seems juicy; but it turns out to be a lemon. The piece provides most of the data one would need to put all of this in perspective, but then fails to actually do so. Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that the AP has resorted to using factoids to sell a sexy-sounding story, rather than exploring some broader or more meaningful truth.

Here are the raw facts, as reported by the story, taken with a grain of salt:

  • 7 million cable car riders annually
  • 126 accidents injuring a total of 151 people over the last ten years
  • $8 million over the last three years to settle four dozen lawsuits
  • $12 million in average annual liability payouts relating to mass transit
  • $7 million of the $8 million for cable car accident liability payouts was related to two specific incidents

Let’s do some ballpark math here:

7 million annual riders × 10 years = 70 million riders over 10 years
151 injured over ten years ÷ 70 million riders =
Injury rate of 2.16×10-6 per rider

2.22 million motor-vehicle injuries (U.S. 2009) ÷ 399 billion person-trips by motor vehicle* (U.S. 2009) =
Injury rate of 5.56×10-6 per person trip

Granted, the distance traveled by the cable cars is considerably shorter than the average motor-vehicle trip, but the simple arithmetic still tells us that you’re roughly two-and-a-half times more likely to be injured each time you climb into a motor-vehicle than each time you clamber on to a cable car. Consider that over 2011 and 2012, San Francisco had an average 800 pedestrian collisions per year. Extrapolate that out by ten years and you get an estimated 8,000 pedestrian collisions—more than 50 times greater than the number of cable car-related injuries. Suddenly cable car safety doesn’t seem like it should be SFMTA’s main focus. Then further consider that these open-air vehicles are packed to the gills with gawky unrestrained tourists as they rumble through some of the steepest and most congested urban streets in the world—never mind that riders are hanging off the side with a camera-phone in one hand and a baby/frappuccino in the other. It’s a sheer miracle that the injury rate is actually lower than the national average for motor-vehicle trips.

The article states that the vast majority of cable car riders are tourists—no argument there. Given my own personal observations, I think it’s probably fair to say that 85% of riders are non-residents and thus likely to pay the full $5 fare. To be conservative, let’s assume 20% of these riders cheat and don’t pay. Altogether this yields $23.8 million in annual gross revenue from cable car fares, or an estimated $71.4 million over three years.

When you consider that the City is making approximately nine times more money from the line than it is losing in liability payouts, the $8 million figure starts to seem less dire. Additionally, as indicated by the story, $7 million of the total $8 million over the past three years resulted from two specific accidents. Without more extensive payout data for earlier years, it’s difficult to know if this is typical. Even assuming that such high-payout accidents are typical, a closer analysis again puts the numbers in perspective.

In 2012, MUNI collected a total $193.4 million in transit fares. Therefore, the cable cars seem to be responsible for about 12.3% of MUNI’s total gross revenue. Meanwhile, if you divide the total $8 million cable car settlement payouts over three years by the agency’s total $36 million payout over that period, you get 22.2%. Clearly, cable cars would seem to be responsible for more than their fare share of settlement payouts. Nevertheless, given the nature of the cable cars and *ahem* the majority of their riders, this hardly seems shocking.

With 204 million riders annually, cable cars make up only 3% of MUNI’s annual ridership. Therefore, while cable cars may be responsible for twice as much in settlement payouts, they also contribute nearly four times as much revenue per rider. If you assume that the large payouts incurred over the last two years might not be characteristic and occur perhaps only every other year on average, then suddenly the cable cars don’t seem like a much greater a liability than the rest of the MUNI system. Moreover, the farebox recovery of the cable cars (the extent to which their fares cover their operation) is actually more than twice that of the MUNI system as a whole. Finally, cable cars are one of San Francisco’s biggest tourist draws, bringing in untold amounts of tourist dollars and subsequent tax revenue.

None of this is to say that the accidents weren’t terrible for those involved or that the SFMTA shouldn’t make safety for all transportation modes a priority. It does, however, contravene the original article’s eagerness to indict cable cars. When looked at more closely, the data paint a picture of a system that is actually remarkably safe given its characteristics and more cost-effective than the rest of MUNI. Despite this would-be hatchet job by the AP, cable cars arguably remain a financial, as well as historical, cultural, and aesthetic asset to San Francisco.

* In addition trips taken by van, cars, truck, and other conventional private vehicle, conservatively includes all trips by public bus, school bus, charter/tour bus, city to city bus, shuttle bus, golf cart, RV, and motorcycle.

Farebox recovery of cable cars
MUNI farebox recovery
San Francisco Pedestrian Fatalities
2009 motor-vehicle injuries (PDF)
2009 U.S. Person trips
MUNI fare revenue(PDF)
MUNI annual passenger trips (PDF)

A Berkeley tax revolt? Not so fast
April 6, 2012, 9:00 am
Filed under: Berkeley | Tags: , , ,

The Mercury News recently reported on poll results purported to show that Berkeleyans would vote down new tax measures to fund infrastructure repairs.

I’d be very curious to see the methodology of the poll. The article doesn’t specify, but assuming this was a phone poll, it is important to note that such polls often leave out or under-represent mobile phones. Households or individuals who still have landlines are more likely to be property owners and typically skew older and more conservative–at least relatively speaking.

Berkeley’s Pool Initiative, Measure C, was up for a vote in the relatively low turnout June election in 2010, when the economy was even worse. Yet even this measure managed to garner 60 percent of the vote. No, this is not enough to pass, but it seems odd to me that a measure for pools (including an exorbitant sum for a warm-water pool) would get 60 percent of the vote, yet this survey projects that a similarly-priced measure for storm drain repair would fall just short of that, at 59 percent. This despite the fact that most people would probably regard storm drain repair as a higher priority than pool maintenance. Perhaps children’s use of pools or some other circumstance served to bolster support for Measure C, but I suspect that there may actually be some sample bias in play.

Additionally, the fact that Obama is up for reelection will probably serve to bring out students and minorities–groups that tend to be more progressive and tax-friendly, even within Berkeley. This is not to say that passing any tax measure will be a cakewalk, but I do think that the City shouldn’t be quite so discouraged. Either way, this is repair work that needs to be done to protect safety and property, and to prevent even greater costs in the future. Unless a viable alternative comes to light or the failure of such a measure seems truly inevitable, the City should arguably still put such a measure on the ballot.

A tale of two (LBNL) campuses
August 16, 2011, 11:56 pm
Filed under: Berkeley, Development, Public meetings

The first section of this post is mainly an exposition of events at the August 4th meeting regarding Lawrence Berkeley National Lab’s consideration of West Berkeley as a potential site for its proposed second campus. For those who attended or are otherwise familiar with the details of this meeting, you may want to jump directly to the more editorial section of this piece.

On the evening of Thursday the 4th, Lawrence Berkeley National Labs and would-be developers hosted a presentation and community meeting on the potential selection of a Berkeley Aquatic Park site for LBNL’s second campus. The event featured a veritable who’s-who of Berkeley activists, decision makers and business people. One could just as easily write a society column covering this event—but I won’t be doing that. (Vic’s Chaat does deserve a shout-out, however, for the delicious samosa and mango lassi they provided.)

The program began with lab presentations detailing the work of LBNL and the need for a second campus. With no intended insult towards the lab’s work, the presentation essentially boiled down to: “We invented Americium and a ton of other cool stuff and our latest inventions just might save the world,”—a sort of benign version of an offer you can’t refuse. In their presentation on the site itself, proponents emphasized the site’s close proximity to UC Berkeley and existing lab facilities, its accessibility by both mass transit and freeway, its stunning setting, and the cerebral, culinary, commercial, and cultural resources of the Berkeley community. Score a point for agreement on one front: Berkeley is awesome. (Future ballot proposition writers take note: Make your first statement, “WHEREAS: Berkeley is awesome.” You can probably secure some signatures/percentage points right there.)

The next portion of the developer pitch emphasized how Berkeley is special, i.e. tremendously sensitive and particular about every detail of a project. The developer’s presentation demonstrated how their planning process had been informed by Berkeley’s for better or worse tendency towards the fastidious. To their credit, the developer’s ideas seemed decently well-tailored both to the as-of-yet amorphous needs of the lab and to the likely demands of the Berkeley community. Some of the most notable proposed features of the plan included: a maximum of four stories on the site; a two acre increase in the size of Aquatic Park; preservation of view corridors down major streets and pathways; and the enhancement of public connectivity with the park. To bolster their credentials, the developer emphasized their experience in public-private partnerships in projects such as Mission Bay, Treasure Island, and Hunters Point. Interestingly, though the LBNL second campus will be much smaller than any of these projects, it will almost certainly face many of the same issues.

Several Berkeley decision makers also spoke or otherwise contributed to the discussion. City Manager Phil Kamlarz spoke to Berkeley’s highly educated population, high quality of life, and decreasing crime rates. Kamlarz also touched on the issue of property taxes, saying that developers were committed to working with staff to ensure no net loss of revenue for the city. In the end he expressed staff’s support for locating the LBNL second campus on one of the three proposed Berkeley sites. Despite some claims to the contrary, the promise of no net revenue loss is almost certainly an easy one to keep and staff’s support seems reflective of the second campus’s evident economic benefits. Despite his being abroad, the presence of Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates was nonetheless felt by way of a prerecorded video featuring his projected, Wizard-of-Oz-like visage. Suffice it to say, Mayor Bates was also gung-ho about the project.

Most fascinating, however, were District 2 Council Member, Darryl Moore’s statements, which were both pragmatic and highly impassioned. Speaking of how the lab could help fill the dire need for low-skill jobs in West Berkeley, Moore seemed to imply, at least obliquely, that project opponents were working against the interests of working class and minority Berkeley residents. In a statement that was anything but ambiguous, Moore declared, “How can we turn our back on this golden and great opportunity?” Finally, Moore made a practical argument for encouraging and welcoming the lab, pointing out that a report presented to the lab’s Community Advisory Group had shown the potential growth in annual tax revenue exceeding $55 million per year. (To be fair, the lab has clear motivation to present rosy figures, but it’s difficult to imagine a situation where the economic benefits of the lab fail to far exceed the current property tax revenue from the sites in question.) To make his point, Moore emphasized how Berkeley has more senior centers, pools, and libraries per capita than any other California city. Moore rightly pointed out that maintaining those services in our current fiscal and political climate will require the city to encourage just this sort of economic development. Ending his speech on an impossibly fantastical, albeit admirably hopeful note, Moore expressed his wish that we “sing out in one voice that we support our community.”

Finally, it was time for public comment and, to my own surprise, the entire process was civil, substantive and orderly—almost. Public comment cards, which were made available prior to and at the start of the meeting, were collected and shuffled, and speakers were then called up in the order of the shuffled cards. Time permitted only a limited amount of commentary, so each speaker was allotted two minutes. Among those speaking for the second campus, were quite a few notable people, including:

  • Meghan Pressman, the Associate Managing Director of the Berkeley Rep
  • Mark McLeod, Director of the Sustainable Business Alliance
  • Winston Burton, Economic Director of Building Opportunities for Self-Sufficiency
  • Tiffany Chia, Incoming ASUC Senator
  • Erin Rhoades, Executive Director of Livable Berkeley
  • Molly Fraker, Executive Director of the Berkeley Public Education Foundation
  • Deborah Bellush, Executive Director of the Biotech Partners program
  • Polly Armstrong, Co-CEO of the Berkeley Chamber of Commerce
  • Betty Inclan, President of Berkeley City College

Speaking to the challenges of the site, but not necessarily against the proposal were Norman LaForce, of the Sierra Club, as well as Marcy White; both echoed concerns regarding building height and potential impacts on migratory birds that use Aquatic Park. Speaking against the project were former Berkeley Mayoral candidate Zelda Bronstein and Pamela Sihvola of the Committee to Minimize Toxic Waste. Sihvola, no doubt still exercised by the controversy surrounding the demolition of the Bevatron, criticized the lab for what she views as its waste management misdeeds past and present.  Bronstein asserted that the anticipated economic benefits of the lab’s second campus were all “pipe dreams” and suggested that plans for the site were being misrepresented. Bronstein also criticized city council for “dismantling” zoning protections for artists and manufacturers—never mind that West Berkeley zoning remains incredibly restrictive for the conversion of space.

As of the conclusion of the formal public comment period, 31 speakers had made comments, of which 26 were in favor, two were against, and three were more or less neutral. In other words, this sample of the crowd was 84% in favor of locating the LBNL second campus at the Aquatic Park site—or at least somewhere in Berkeley.  This did not sit well with project opponents who seemed to feel that their minority status was the invention of some conspiracy rather than merely the expected result of having an unpopular position. As such, opponents demanded additional time to fulminate by all but storming the microphone, at one point using some choice four-letter words. (So much for keeping the meeting classy.) In a move born of admirable patience and, no doubt, a desperate desire to mollify naysayers and preclude further antics, opponents were given more time to speak. Whereas previous comments had at least been coherent, several of those that followed were less comment than invective. In all, an additional four members of the public spoke out against the project during this impromptu venting session.

While most of the initial skepticism/criticism leveled against the project was at least somewhat constructive, many of the final comments seemed low on reasoning and high on emotion. I believe that the latter observations have important implications for how the lab, the city, and the developer should approach this project. By and large, the most vociferous opponents of the proposal are individuals who have long-standing adversarial relationships not just with Berkeley’s largest educational and scientific institutions, but with Berkeley city government. I do not believe that even the most unmoving of this opposition is motivated by malice. Rather, the longevity of these conflicts would seem to indicate that these objections are instead rooted in perpetual distrust, genuine fear, and entrenched contrarianism. In previous battles, such as the Downtown Area Plan, decision makers have frequently sought to compromise with the opposition—a slow process which has produced mixed results at best and frequently failed to appease opponents. Though it will ultimately be LBNL which selects a site and controls development, I think that an approach different from endless compromise will be essential to collaboratively crafting the best possible project for the host city, the environment, and the lab.

At least at the Berkeley meeting, it was clear that opponents regarded the best project to be no project at all. Others who spoke of their reservations regarding the second campus seemed possibly amenable to project features or mitigations that would at least partially address their concerns. For those who are intent on not having a project, there is no reasonable amount of modification which is likely to alter that position. This may seem obvious, but Berkeley’s planning history has nonetheless been characterized by attempts to get buy-in from individuals or groups who have, from the outset, been disinclined to support plans or projects. This has frequently caused intolerable delay and made for planning processes where demands of the opposition take precedence over the more comprehensive needs of the city. By negotiating with those who are largely immovable, we can often find ourselves farther from what we originally wanted without actually having won any buy-in in the process. (Think the battle over universal healthcare.) If it becomes increasingly apparent that opponents of a Berkeley-based second campus will settle for nothing less than no project, decision makers should avoid engaging in a potentially futile exercise aimed at winning those opponents. Instead, those involved should pursue input and project features likely to garner the broadest civic and environmental benefits and thus, presumably, the broadest public support. Correspondingly, the lab must take seriously and respond to the concerns of the host cities, adjacent neighborhoods, and local environmental groups—ignoring them would be at the lab’s peril and would serve to squander both environmental opportunity and civic goodwill.

Whichever site is chosen, planning for LBNL’s second campus will require a careful balancing act. This may seem like cliché, but it is precisely this sort of balanced consideration that is so often lacking in Bay Area decision making. With all the steadiness of a slow-moving unicycle, our decision making has tottered along as if perched upon one heavily-greased, yet incessantly squeaky wheel. Let’s break that cycle. In a spirit of optimism,  we should work together to create plans that give all our wheels some grease and win the greatest possible environmental, community, and economic benefits.

The Death and Life of the California Dream
July 15, 2011, 12:32 pm
Filed under: California

CNN recently reported on the fading California dream. Though California has arguably experienced a decline, the article gives short shrift to the complex history behind it. What little analysis it attempts is generally glib or else grossly uninformed. Most disappointingly, the article forgoes any deeper exploration of California’s quandaries, ignores what California is doing right, and abdicates the opportunity to propose a single solution.

Sadly, it is difficult to deny that the situation in California has deteriorated since the mid-twentieth century. Once possessing the best infrastructure, services, and public education system in the country, California has allowed its roads to crumble and its education system to slip to 30th in the nation. The piece begins with an account of one woman’s fight to preserve one of Orange County’s few remaining, name-sake orange groves. With language like “ticky-tacky subdivision,” “sprawling,” and “congestion,” it seems at first that the article may venture into interesting territory. The article also starts on the right foot when it correctly points out that California is an expensive state in which to live. Though it never says so explicitly, the state is home to six of the ten most expensive real-estate markets in the U.S. Indeed, the article does get a few things right, but nevertheless quickly falls into the trap of outdated assumptions and tired California canards.

The piece lapses first into the myth that California’s problems stem from its being too “crowded.” Some perspective is in order here. At 239 inhabitants per square mile as of 2010, California is only the 11th densest state in the union—it was even beat out by the likes of Ohio, Maryland, and Florida. New Jersey took the top spot with 1,196 people per square mile—almost exactly five times the density of California. Florida, which had a 2000 population density of 293 (excluding water), experienced a 17.6% increase in population from 2000 to 2010. Berkeley, already a notably dense and vibrant city, saw its population increase by nearly 11% in the same time period. It would seem that California’s problems and net outward domestic migration cannot be attributed to crowdedness alone, if at all.

Recounting the net loss of California residents to other states, the article next considers the very real and ongoing crisis of California’s middle class. It rightly places some blame on the cost of housing, but punts on the question of why housing costs so much in the first place. What the article fails to explore is how the high cost of California housing is in large part a product of downzoning, NIMBYism, tax policy, and sprawl-type models of development. California’s most economically successful urban centers have been rendered unable to keep pace with their commensurate housing demand because of low-density zoning and the unremitting difficulty of building infill housing. In addition, by increasing the relative attractiveness of sales taxes as a revenue stream, Prop 13 has discouraged residential development for over 30 years. Meanwhile, sprawl has lead to increased land, infrastructure, and service costs, thus contributing to both higher housing costs and the loss of California’s farm and wild-lands. In apparent ignorance of this obvious cause, the piece mourns the loss of Orange County’s orchards to drab, monotonous housing tracts, but then fails to consider the alternatives. It bemoans long, smoggy commutes, but doesn’t pause to wonder why so many people have to drive or what can be done about it. This avoidance of deeper issues is something of a pattern.

There is at least one other way in which Prop 13 is responsible for undermining California’s middle class. By allowing large corporations, the wealthy, and—yes—some of the elderly to pay a disproportionately small share of property taxes, California has shifted the burden on to young adults, new families, and the lower/middle classes. In tandem with California’s former budget-by-supermajority, Prop 13 artificially restricted the ability of both the state and localities to choose to pay for the infrastructure, education, and other essential services that have historically made California appealing to employers and residents alike. A robust middle class is built upon strong public institutions, such as excellent K-12 education and affordable, high-quality public universities. Yet these are the very programs Prop 13 has forced California to incrementally dismantle.  Any exploration of California’s dysfunction that fails to mention Prop 13 is woefully incomplete.

The piece next proclaims the plight of California’s economy but again fails to look beyond its own assumptions. Citing an anemic 1.8% increase in California GDP from 2009 to 2010, the author bemoans the “fall” of California’s economy.  Putting aside questions regarding GDP’s validity as an accurate measure of economic or human well-being, a closer look at the numbers still reveals a different and more nuanced picture. Even though metro-level 2010 GDP data are not readily available, a review of data from 2001–2009 tells a tale of two California economies. While the San Francisco-Oakland-Fremont Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) saw its per-capita GDP increase by 12.5% during this time frame, Modesto saw a mere 2.0% increase. For comparison, Austin, Texas saw its per-capita GDP increase by 5.0% during this same time-frame. While it is hard to tease out how income inequality skews the real-world implications of these numbers, it is nonetheless striking that the “crowded” and expensive San Francisco MSA beat out the comparatively cheap and roomy likes of Austin and Modesto. Taking an approach as glib as the article’s, one would have to conclude that the solution to California’s economic problems would be to make places like Modesto as dense and expensive as San Francisco. Whether this conclusion is valid is a long discussion for another time.

On the subject of ecological limitations, the article again beings with a kernel of truth; California’s carrying capacity and natural resource use are valid considerations for California’s future. Ironically though, the CNN article skips over more important resource questions as it hastens to mishandle the issue of water. The article repeats unblinking the tired story of California stealing water from other states, to which the simplest retort is: California will stop stealing their water, as soon as they stop eating its food. Only 20% of California’s water goes to urban uses, most of the rest goes to agriculture. As of the 2007 Agricultural census, California: ranked 2nd in cotton production; had three times as many acres in vegetable production as its nearest runner-up; was the nation’s top producer of dairy products; and grew a whopping 59.4% of America’s fruits, nuts and berries. California’s water shortage is driven far more by America’s taste for the state’s produce than by the thirst of California residents. The piece would have done better to instead focus on California’s use of coal, oil, and natural gas, as these represent demands that are neither sustainable nor quickly solvable. Arguably, such issues were avoided because they fly in the face of a narrative that views California’s decline as being different or disconnected from nation-wide problems.

In many ways, California’s obstacles are a microcosm of a national struggle. Understanding this is essential to recognizing how California is moving to meet our shared challenges. To be sure, the problems of Prop 13 and a frequently dysfunctional state government remain largely unaddressed. But in areas where California is slowly lurching towards solutions, it is already far ahead of its U.S. counterparts. California’s high-speed rail project, while controversial and still fragile, currently represents the most far-along effort of its type. Neither California nor the U.S. as a whole can meet projected travel demand with current infrastructure. With many airports and highways already at or near capacity, California is the first state to take the crucial step of investing in alternatives. California was also the first state to move to regulate the emission of greenhouse gases, an effort neglected by the federal government despite its climatic, environmental, and economic importance. With the passage of AB32 and SB375, California has made itself the first U.S. state to make even modest strides toward creating cities, economies, and livelihoods founded upon a low-carbon future. In these and other ways, California is at least groping its way towards solutions.

Though it reaches no substantive conclusions, the article at times seems to imply that California should become more like the states its former residents have largely settled in: Texas, Colorado, Nevada, and Arizona. Ironically, these states’ housing bubbles and low-tax policies are now coming back to haunt them, as they too face looming budget deficits and withering economies. Texas especially faces massive cuts to its meager social programs and already underfunded education system; Nevada and Arizona face budget woes of their own as their housing markets crater. It is worth noting that Austin, Texas, one of the best-performing destinations for California expatriates, is arguably the most California-like of all these locales. But instead of learning from California’s mistakes, these states—and indeed the whole country—seem determined to repeat them.

In unwitting parallel to the very state it prematurely eulogizes, the article is limited by the same stale attitudes that restrain California and stifle its resurgence. Adherence to uninspired tropes leaves the article bereft of comprehension and renders elusive the solutions absent from the piece—and, by and large, from the political discourse as well. Reestablishing California as it was—a beacon of possibility and resolve—requires renewed vision, not a quest for conformity or a race to meet other states at the bottom. California should welcome and encourage new residents and economic opportunity in a way that conserves land, energy, and natural resources. We cannot rest on our laurels or creature comforts, but should instead seek to do, each of us, our fair share. We must rediscover the California Dream not as a destination, but as enthusiasm for thinking big, an unwavering commitment to invest in our future, and as an enduring willingness to share, not just in the rewards, but in the responsibility of that dream.


Welcome to CiviLogica
July 15, 2011, 11:33 am
Filed under: Announcements

Thank for you visiting my newly-minted blog, CiviLogica. Here, I hope to explore civic, state, and national policy, with the occasional dose of science or skepticism thrown in–especially as they relate to Bay Area issues. Expect to see a lot about Berkeley and about urban planning, transportation, and sustainability, as these are my geographic and intellectual realms. Though my writing will of course be colored by my own perspectives and principles, I will strive always to take a reasoned, evidence-based approach to the issues I tackle. I welcome constructive feedback and topic suggestions, so do say hello.

The name CiviLogica is intended as wordplay on three main themes: civic issues, civil discourse, and logical bases. Here, I must recognize Dr. Steven Novella whose podcast, The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe, and blog, Neurologica, have inspired me intellectually and, in the case of the latter, phonetically.