Thinking in Networks, or Transit’s Political Challenge

Last week, New Jersey governor Chris Christie made headlines (in a small segment of the population at least) by poo-pooing entreaties to extend the Camden-Trenton River Line to the Statehouse, telling riders to “Use Uber” instead.  Now, the River Line is seemingly mediocre transit; despite forming a strategic link between two depressed cities, and connecting to strong transit options on both ends, its farebox recovery is atrocious (although it has shown some returns for the region).

That being said, it’s clear that the River Line’s Trenton terminus is in a less-than-ideal location. Although it connects well with SEPTA, NJT, and Amtrak trains, I think it’s fair to assume that most River Line riders are local, rather than making connections to destinations along the Northeast Corridor. And to reach many of the government jobs in downtown Trenton, those riders will have to walk a decent distance or transfer to a collection of buses branded as “Capital Connection.”

The Trenton Transit Center is on the far eastern end of the heaviest job concentration in Trenton.

trenton jobs

From Census LEHD

So: even if the River Line is mediocre transit, extending it a few more blocks into downtown Trenton isn’t a waste–it’s a key network connection that holds potential to be highly useful to lots of riders. And that’s where my take on the potential extension differs from Gov. Christie’s. Where the governor sees a question of expanding an underperforming transit system–that is, in a sense, rewarding underperformance–I see an attempt to redeem that same system with a relatively minor expenditure based on the principle of network connections. Indeed, is it possible that the statehouse connection could be the key to unlocking the River Line’s overall potential?

Much the same logic has been at work in Massachusetts, where Governor Charlie Baker has posed a dichotomy between “core operation” and “expansion,” as told to Politico:

“It just so happens our capital investment is in its core operation and not in expansion. But we see what happens when you spend all your money on the shiny new thing and forget about the fact that you have a core system that you need to invest in, to maintain, to enhance, and to modernize”

Baker’s commitment to this dichotomy has played out mostly in his administration’s skepticism toward the Green Line Extension into Somerville and Medford, and to a lesser extent on the North-South Rail Link. Baker has a point, of course, that MBTA and the state of Massachusetts have shown little capacity for effective project management, and there is a crying need to fix the maintenance and State of Good Repair backlogs facing the existing system.

But, like Christie, Baker fails to understand that the Green Line Extension and NSRL represent not “expansion” for its own sake but targeted infrastructural investments on the principle of building a transit network. Indeed, NSRL would enable the transformation of the MBTA commuter rail system from a collection of disconnected dead-end lines into a real network. In the dichotomous lingo that has taken effect in Boston, NSRL represents neither reform nor revenue, but reform through revenue (or really, investment), which, when needed, is the core logic of network-based thinking. It would take the system from this:

pre NSRL

Existing MBTA commuter rail network, from the North-South Rail Link website

to this:

post NSRL

One vision for a post-NSRL network, from the NSRL website.

To illuminate the conceptual challenge in convincing politicians to think in terms of networks, let’s turn to Jarrett Walker’s well-timed (for my purposes!) post from yesterday on core vs. edge debates. Of course, core/periphery fights are not precisely the same issue as opposing “expansion” that actually represents a key network link–but both represent a failure to think in terms of networks. In Jarrett’s words:

Once more with feeling: Transit is a network, which means that its parts are interdependent.  You cannot think about it the way you think about libraries or fire stations, where putting one in a certain place clearly benefits the people there, because the whole network affects everyone’s ability to get everywhere.

This is the key concept that, it seems, Christie and Baker have failed to grasp. Certainly, there are transit expansions that benefit only a discrete set of people within a region; many (politically popular) commuter rail and light rail extensions into low-density areas fall into this category. But many “expansions” have utility well beyond their own immediate area. The key is for decision makers to be able to differentiate between different kinds of “expansion”–and, in fairness to Christie and Baker, the political incentives are largely set up to make this differentiation hard.

Politicians face pressure to “give” everyone (that is, all geographic areas) benefits from government spending, which–and this is where we return to the parallels with the core/periphery problem–incentivizes spreading money around inefficiently rather than investing in geographically central yet regionally (networkily?) beneficial links. Would Christie or, especially, Baker, be more willing to risk some political capital on an “expansion” if it were seen as a key network link rather than a luxury whose benefits accrue to one particular area? Maybe, maybe not. But those of us with a stronger grasp of the concepts behind the transit can work on educating, those nonspecialists whose first instinct is to respond to the loudest voices.




5 thoughts on “Thinking in Networks, or Transit’s Political Challenge

  1. The counterexample which you should know very well is the current outcome of SEPTA’s Center City Commuter Connection, which is a rare example of a massive core investment made in the 1980s when the city was at its nadir, yet deliberately operated against plainly obvious logic to give maximum benefit to suburbanites and still remains marginally useful for urbanites (even though 50% of Regional Rail mileage lies fully within the City). We shouldn’t fall into thinking solely in terms of geographical determinism, and realize that operations funding needs to be increased proportionate to the expanded scope of the infrastructure. The political weightlifting that accompanies this particular campaign, much less the paradigm shift needed from the transit agency, is far less developed than for capital funding for concrete, as we all know. The NSRL won’t be half as effective if through-running trains just end up in Somerville and Southampton St yards, a pattern SEPTA is slowly moving towards, and if the River Line extension isn’t set up as a transit mall at minimum, the delays would inevitably cascade across the entire line.
    At the same time, we can see the benefits of network thinking even for suburban extensions.
    Even for the NHSL King of Prussia extension, which should have never been this high on SEPTA’s priority list, there is a great opportunity to create a really strong suburban network backbone not with 69th-KoP trips, but with KoP-Norristown trips. A direct connection from the county seat and regional O/D node to the region’s largest retail center offers the chance to reorient the entire Montgomery County bus network on its terms, replacing redundant, infrequent route segments and freeway express buses with feeder buses making timed transfers with some degree of greater reliability (as well as enhance the plethora of buses that already terminate at NTC and KoP).

  2. I really wouldn’t class Baker’s antipathy toward the NSRL as either a matter of system-based thinking or suburbs vs. city funding battles. He’s unwilling to front the few billion dollars the NSRL would cost (it’s, what, $6 billion including electrification?), and may not even believe the costs and benefits are what people say they are. Costs have a tendency to be sticky downward, and a large overrun on one project, say the Big Dig, has a tendency to reduce rather than increase the political system’s support for a competing project.

  3. A particularly bad example of this was the California HSR project, and specifically the decision of what parts to build first. Because it’s a state project, with a board that was made up of state-level politicians, each politician tried to get something for their constituents, whether they be in the Bay Area, Central Valley, or Southern California. Unfortunately, they whole point of the project was to build links between those regions, but those links would run through mountainous areas that have almost no population, and thus no politicians to advocated for building there.

  4. Pingback: Thinking in Networks, or Transit’s Political Challenge – Talking Southern Auckland

  5. Great post about what’s going on in New Jersey. I’m not sure that there is any kind of transit project that Chris Christie would support. I remember riding the River Line when I was in Philly and it was generally not very fast or frequent because of the single track sections and though it went from one transit hub to another, there weren’t any actual destinations on the line. Getting to downtown Trenton could be a big help as that city surely needs it.

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