Can We Live without Prediction? The Video

For the Congress for the New Urbanism conference in Seattle last month, I tried out a new angle on my usual stump speech.  I asked: Can we live without predictions?  What would it mean to approach a city planning problem — say, transit planning, which I do — without needing to know the future?

I’m pretty happy with how it came out. It’s embedded below, but it seems to be slightly sharper here.

 

Google’s “Grand Central of the West”

Google and Apple continue to be a story of contrasts, and their latest development moves are no exception.  As Apple completes a new inward-looking space-age fortress in a largely transit-hostile location, Google is planning a huge campus right at Diridon station on the west edge of downtown San Jose, with up to 20,000 employees.

google sj

Google has its eye on the middle of this area in downtown San Jose, California. Note Diridon Stn on the left, LRT line running through, and existing fine street grid. Most of downtown San Jose is just off the map to the right.  Lots of frequent bus service too!

Under current plans, Diridon station will eventually have frequent rapid transit up both sides of the bay (Caltrain on the west to San Francisco, BART on the east side to Oakland and Berkeley).  It’s also a major hub in the local transit network (which we take pride in helping to design).  It is clearly on its way to being the most transit-accessible location in the southern half of the Bay Area.

Google’s current Silicon Valley situation is, frankly, a mess.

google in mv

Google’s self-inflicted transportation mess, Mountain View and Sunnyvale, California.

The company occupies a collection of office parks gathered around various sides of the obstacle of Moffett Field, a military and NASA installation.  This obstacle creates a chokepoint where east-west traffic is all forced down to the 101 freeway, increasing congestion there.  So traveling between Google sites, even over a distance of a mile or two, can be a pain, regardless of whether you drive or take a Google shuttle.

Google’s current locations on the north edge of the valley also form part of the Great Silicon Valley Jobs-Housing Imbalance — jobs are mostly in the north and residents in the south — which creates unmanageable south-north congestion.  And of course Google must also run a huge fleet of buses to bring staff from San Francisco, where many of them want to live.

Many newer startups — like Twitter, Uber, Lyft, Salesforce — have decided that to attract urban talent they have to move into San Francisco — great for transit and walkability, great for their top talent who live there, not so great for lower level employees who can’t afford to live within 20 miles of their job in one of the most expensive cities in the world.

Meanwhile, San Jose has just been sitting there, right adjacent to Silicon Valley, with a historic downtown that has great bones but could use more investment.  Inner San Jose is a pleasant, walkable, historic city that non-elite techies can afford to live in, and that still offers good transit access to the rest of the Bay Area.  Adobe, to its credit, is already there.

So bravo.  I hope this is opens the floodgates to more employers relocating in the most transit-oriented place in Silicon Valley.

Video of my Winnipeg Presentation

Last month I was in Winnipeg to provide some advice on the city’s next steps in developing transit.  The event included a well-attended evening lecture, whose video is here.  I start talking around 7:10, talk for about 40 minutes, and then take lots of good questions.


I do these a lot, but each one gets a little better.

Providence’s Downtown Connector: A Streetcar Transformed into Useful Transit

providence-enhanced-transit-corridor

Source: Greater City Providence, www.gcpvd.org

In the US, streetcars mixed with traffic are popular with developers and some urbanists. But when it comes to actually getting you where you’re going, a bus can do anything a streetcar can do, and it can go around many obstacles (accidents, poorly parked cars, etc.) that shut down a streetcar line.  US streetcar starter lines also tend to be very short, forcing people to make connections to reach most destinations.

Last year, Rhode Island leaders decided that the streetcar wasn’t the right answer for downtown Providence.  Instead, they redirected their federal funding for a streetcar into a bus-based project in the same place.  The Downtown Transit Connector will run through the center of the city, from the medical center in the south to the train station (also a major development node) in the north.   Its buses will come every 4-5 minutes, more frequently than any modern US streetcar. Frequency is critical in downtown circulation; we experience waiting time as a percentage of travel time, so we need extremely high frequency if we’re going only a mile or so.

This is not just a streetcar run with buses.  It’s more powerful, because the buses running along this path, forming the high frequency, will continue onto other routes across the city.  The genius of the project, then, is that it solves two urgent downtown problems at once.  It provides the attractive and legible very-frequent spine that makes so many American urbanists want streetcars, but it also solves the problem of getting major bus line through downtown, so that the whole city benefits.

It’s an excellent project with relevance to many US downtowns. I encourage you to follow its progress.

 

 

 

“Give Mrs. McG Her Bus Stop”? Reasons to Pause

Here’s some refreshing candor from a local politician, in the context of an effort to speed up express bus services on New York’s Staten Island by removing excessive bus stops and deviations:

Borough President James Oddo added that “people like me” were part of the problem: Requesting new bus stops to help vocal constituents.

“Who doesn’t want to give Mrs. McGillicuddy a bus stop?” Oddo asked.

When bus routes meander, do little squiggles, or make too many stops, the cause is almost always local elected officials who insisted that transit agencies say yes to whatever a noisy constituent demands.  Such officials are always calling the transit managers and saying: “Get Mrs McGillucuddy off my back!”

Of course, Mrs. McGillicuddy rarely calls to advocate the kinds of efficiency that makes transit more attractive and useful for the whole community.  She’s calling to demand something that’s good for her or her friends.

Here, as often, we’re in the presence of the paradox of public outreach.  We want transit to be useful to busy people, but busy people don’t engage much with public outreach processes.  They’re too busy.

So we disproportionately hear from the not-busy people, who have priorities other than speed.  So we hear demands like:  “All those busy people should have 3 minutes added to their trip so that I don’t have to walk three blocks.”

I don’t want to dismiss the concerns of senior and disabled riders, but if a person physically can’t walk three blocks, then the answer may be some kind of paratransit.  Paratransit is expensive, but not as expensive as doing something every hour all day to meet just one person’s needs.  There are some genuinely difficult choices here, but they should be addressed by a policy, rather than a process of just rewarding whoever makes the most noise.

Because if a transit agency establishes a pattern of saying yes to every demand for things that slow down the service, that precedent will only trigger more demands, accelerating a downward spiral in which a resource designed to be used by many becomes micro-designed around the demands of one or two, to everyone else’s detriment.

Arguing against these demands with data is tricky.  The differential impact of adding one bus stop or squiggle may not be much. It’s the cumulative effect of 100 such decisions is devastating, gradually transforming relatively fast and efficient services into slow, meandering scenic tours that only people with lots of spare time to use.

So you really need policy, not just data, to hold the line.  Service design standards about stop spacing and linearity can give staff the backup they need.  These standards should be periodically re-adopted, so that current elected officials feel ownership of them, or at least understand the dangers of not observing them.  And the adoption is the time to have the debate about how to balance some people’s difficulty walking with the need for transit to be fast, direct, and reliable.  Again, the point is not to leave seniors behind but to ensure we’re addressing their needs in a fair and consistent way.

Dublin: Imagine a Better Bus Network Design

buses1

Today, the National Transport Authority of Ireland launched the planning process that will lead to a redesign of the bus network in Dublin. We are incredibly honored and excited to be their lead consultant on this effort.  I explain the planning issues (for a Dublin audience) here.

Our project is part of BusConnects, which is a three-pronged effort to improve Dublin’s buses:

Dublin has less rail transit than most European cities of its size. There is no subway, two surface light rail lines, and one corridor along the coast where commuter rail runs every 15 minutes. So most of the city is on buses, and the buses must succeed for the city to succeed.

The bus service is abundant; almost 1000 buses are on the streets during the peak period, in an urban area of 1.2 million. But as is the case in almost all growing cities, the service may need revision to reflect some emerging needs. These include:

First, all frequent lines run into the City Centre, so trips between suburbs out can be difficult.  Orbital routes exist but they are not frequent enough for the connections on which most orbital travel relies. This becomes a bigger issue as suburban employment centers – some of them well suited to public transport – emerge.

Second, the system is very complex. We drew what may be the first really clear map (link coming soon) of the entire network, but we put a grey box over the City Centre, where a clear map may be literally impossible. Here is the best version available.  You see the problem.

ComplexCityCentre

As a result, we think Dublin may be missing opportunities to encourage patronage within the greater City Centre – especially for spontaneous trips and tourism — because while buses are everywhere, it is simply too hard to figure out how to use them. As consultants we can attest to this, because our work requires learning bus systems very quickly.

Finally, the City Centre has so many buses running through it that buses are frequently obstructing each other.

buses2

This problem has many solutions, including bus priority and ticketing improvements that parallel tracks are addressing. But we might be able to reduce these numbers a bit, especially with better orbital service that reduces the need to go through the city if you are not going there.

But as it turns out, the key to all of these problems is one question: Can we ask people to change buses if this means they can reach their destinations sooner, and reach other destinations citywide more quickly?  (I explained that math here.)  This is a hard question, because whatever we do to make it easier, changing buses is still an inconvenience.

So we’re asking the public what they think.  For the next month, we’ll be accepting input through a web survey, which you can find here, along with our Choices Report that you can download.  There, we share some specific possibilities, and ask the people of Dublin about their priorities.  As usual we ask:  Given how the math works, and the choices it presents, what should we do?

 

Notes on the Portland Terror Attack

Portland — where I grew up, and where I live again now — isn’t used to being attacked, but I’m proud of how many there are responding.  The terror attack on our light rail system, in which two men were killed and another injured for trying to stop the abuse of Muslim passengers, has been understood as an attack on the city itself.

If citizens cannot accommodate the ways they are different from one another, a democratic city is impossible.  Diversity — and the principle of kindness toward people who are different from you — is as essential to our city’s functioning as a water supply is.  So attacks on diversity are as much of a threat as attacks on our water supply.

Public transit, in particular, is always under attack, in part because of the levels of mutual respect that it requires.  No moment in urban life requires such intimate contact with diversity as the time spent on transit.  You are closer than you might like to people who are different from you, and unlike on the street, you can’t just walk away.  Sharing space on a bus or train requires 100 little adjustments, tiny acts of respect or accommodation.  Not everyone can do this.  So for those trained to read diversity as danger, hatred of public transit is understandable.

The healthiest response to this kind of attack, I think, is to take it personally, as most Portlanders I know are doing.  We should understand that the hatred is directed at each of us.  This is moral outrage that resonates through at least three tiers of concern:  It’s an attack on our own values as individuals, and also on our city, and also on the whole idea of civilization.  Feel how similar those three ways of being offended really are.

Then respond with an outrage that remains fused with kindness for one another.  For that is the whole point.

The Receding Fantasy of Affordable Urban Transit “To Your Door”

Uber’s UberPool service, which attempts to gather multiple people on a single vehicle going the same way, is undergoing some tinkering that will make it even more like fixed route transit.  Andrew J. Hawkins at Verge has the story:

[UberPool riders] are being prompted to walk to the closest corner or intersection for more convenient pickups, rather than have drivers deviate from their north-south route.

The same goes for drop-offs, where riders are being let out at a proximate corner rather than the exact address of their destination. Uber calls it “dynamic drop-offs,” but the result is pretty plain. If you want those cheaper fares, you’re going to have to be cool with a lot more walking. Uber began testing this feature last year, and has since rolled it out in wider use.

Does the difference between these images remind you of anything?

Walking further for more direct, useful, and affordable service is the basic deal that fixed route transit has offered for more than a century.

What’s more, if you walk to the bus instead of to UberPool, you can get on any bus instead of waiting for your specific UberPool to arrive.

Yet this is exactly what Uber must do to make their UberPool less unprofitable.   As we’ve explored many times here, demand-responsive service is wildly inefficient.

UberPool would be less absurd if we were talking about somewhere other than Manhattan, or any other big city that’s rich in frequent transit.  In places with less transit, this concept could have some use.  But in big cities it’s clearly converging on something for which fixed route transit is already the ideal tool.

Now, New York City bus service has some problems, especially in the delay-ridden way that they handle fares.  I am not defending specific practices of any agency.  But the geometry remains what it is.  If you want affordable transit service, you’re going to have to walk to it.  That’s the math that makes fixed route service inevitable.

Transit people all over the world have understood this since long before Uber’s CEO was born.  They’ve also known about the concept of demand responsive transit, which means “transit that is extremely inefficient because of the degree to which it deviates or circulates based on the needs of a single person.”  Demand responsive service is so inefficient that it arises only in these contexts:

  • extremely low-wage environments, as in parts of the developing world, or:
  • focused on elites who can pay high fares, as in typical Uber or Taxi operations, or
  • for special-needs groups, such as the disabled and seniors, or for other groups that have the power to demand it, always at astronomical subsidies per rider.   (Costs per rider for this kind of service, called paratransit in North America, typically run about 10 times the rate for well-designed fixed route service.)

All the new apps have helped smooth out inefficiencies of communication, but they will never change the math.  Technology never changes geometry.

As UberPool gradually discovers this, the question becomes: Did Uber, and similar companies, really invent anything at all?  They invented apps, and algorithms, but do they have any new answers for the geometry problem that is urban transportation?

 

(Yes, I said almost exactly this in a post two years ago!  But one needs repetition to break through all the noise)  

 

The Pleasure of Track Maps

If you’ve never seen a subway track map, I suggest you look at this one, for New York, by “radical cartographer” Andrew Lynch. Most track diagrams are not to scale, and look like they’re meant to make to make sense only to insiders.  But this one is beautiful.
nyc track map b

 

 

What’s more, it’s accurate in geographic scale, though of course the separation of tracks can’t be on the same scale as the network.  Still, New York’s subway is both huge and full of details, so this is no mean feat.  Only 22 insets were required, to zoom in on tricky segments.

Gazing at a good track map can give you an appreciation for the heroics involved in moving trains around in this limited infrastructure. Switches and extra tracks are very expensive underground, which is why they are never where you need them to handle a particular incident.  This, for example, is why a track closure at one station may continue through several stations nearby.

Gaze at this piece of the Bronx, and marvel at what a train would have to do to get from Jerome Yard to a station on the Orange (B+D) line.  I presume they don’t have to do this very often, but in a pinch, they can.

nyc track map a

I spent a delighted hour with it.