Jane Jacobs at 100

17285When Jane Jacobs died 10 years ago, I wrote this on the personal blog:

Jane Jacobs, 1916-2006

(If you don’t know who she was, please read the NYT obituary.)

When news of her death arrived, I was in the midst of an event that would have been inconceivable without her work:  a four day intensive planning workshop — called a charrette in planning parlance — designing a new light rail line for several suburbs east of Vancouver.  

When I worked on one of North America’s first modern light rail systems, in Portland in the 1980s, the agency put out videos showing that statons could be built in low-density, single-family neighborhoods without affecting them in any way.  To tell the truth — that rapid transit projects would energize denser and more vibrant citybuilding — would have roused terrified homeowners to kill the project.  

Today, almost everyone sees rapid transit stations as magnets of convenience around which vibrant, very dense cities can gather.  None of the suburban cities at our table wanted rail stations to serve their existing sprawl.  They wanted them to galvanize a new high-density urban future, while preserving historical qualities of their communities that give them character and uniqueness.  They wanted to create mixed-use places — housing over retail mixed with offices — so people could live complete lives while making many of their daily trips on foot.  And though it wasn’t mentioned, they mostly opposed a nearby freeway widening project, which threatened them with more traffic than their roads could accommodate while remaining civilized places. 

These were Jane Jacobs’s themes, in her writing and activism in both New York and Toronto.  In New York, she will forever be juxtaposed with the mid-century city-builder Robert Moses, who saw cities as confusing messes that needed to be taken apart into abstract systems of order:  towers surrounded by parks served by freeways.  Her 1961 masterpiece, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, did more than challenge Moses’s vision, and the devastation it was wreaking on New York.  It reread the seeming jumble of cities — the random mixtures of many kinds of people and activites — as the essence of civic health.   Today’s consensus among urbanists is her insight.

I felt a special kinship and admiration toward her, because like me she was formally uneducated in her field of practice, and massively suspicious of the planning establishment.  In her day, the entire field of urban planning had succumbed to beautiful abstractions:  Dense, congested mixtures of activity were bad.  Surprises and happenstances had no place.  In a beautiful city, everything should be separated, like pieces in a museum or butterflies pinned to the wall for study.  The beautiful city would have free-flowing freeways, garden suburbs, towers in parks.  

Jacobs first noted that the results of these visions were less vibrant than the “slums” that had been bulldozed to create them, that the very features that made cities seemingly inefficient were those that made them great places where people loved to be.  But she thought beyond this simple opposition to develop a theory of cities based not on what she read, but on what she saw.  Jacobs, who never finished college, built her extraordinary career on a relentless return to the evidence of her senses.  Her best books rest on lyrical and yet finally analyzed descriptions of the life of a street, showing how it functions as an ecological fabric as sound as the one that nature spins in the wilderness, one that produces not just livelihood but also joy.

Fellow environmentalists — you who sing the minute brilliance of the natural world — read Jacobs, and understand those of us who would protect nature by cherishing cities.  In dense cities we not only use resources more efficiently, we also expose ourselves to the cacophany of happenstance, daily offerings of mutation that drive the evolution of humanity.


Anchorage: Come Talk Transit on May 5

Updated TransitTalks Banner

IMG_7096We’ve been studying the transit system in Anchorage, Alaska for the last few months, and this Thursday May 5 I’ll be in town for an evening event.  I’ll do a keynote providing an overview of the transit planning challenge and exploring what we’ve found out about your transit system.  (Did you know that on average, your buses are more crowded on weekends than on weekdays?).  There will be plenty of opportunities to get involved and express your views.

See here for more information about the event.  Our most recent detailed report on the system and its prospects is called the Choices Report.  <– Download it there!

Yekaterinburg: An Intense Week in Review

For the last 10 days, I’ve been in Yekaterinburg, Sverdlovsk Oblast, Russia.


IMG_7567It’s over a million people in a remarkably compact city at a dam on a river, in the midst of taiga forest (spruce, birch, larch, pine).  In fact, it’s by far the most dense and compact Russian city of its size, which means they need to get used to being a national leader in public transit development.

And yes, it already has a lot of transit.  In this first picture, note the trams, full-size motorbuses, and, at the crowded stop in the distance, trolleybuses and tiny van-like buses.  There’s also a metro.


IMG_7574 IMG_7792.jpg

Still, it’s OK if you haven’t heard of Yekaterinburg.  A year ago I’d barely heard of it either.

But last year, an energetic local NGO called Gorod.pro, which is dedicated to improving the city’s transport and urban environment, called me, and I do my best to say yes to these things.

Yekaterinburg presents a series of transit situations common in middle-wealth places, but that I’ve also struggled with in Australia and New Zealand and the UK.  As I outlined in more detail here, the city has evolved several overlapping transit systems that compete as much as they cooperate, and as a result you can’t get to as many places as quickly as you could if they were all working together.  The trams, trolleybuses, and motorbuses overlap each other and also overlap the single metro line.  And there are about 1000 smaller buses, down to the size of vans, that do all kinds of unpredictable things, including driving rather dangerously in order to get ahead of big buses and grab their passengers.

So I was asked to work with local leaders and transit managers to hammer out a vision — including a specific map — of what that would look like.

I’m always happy to slip quietly into a city, but that certainly didn’t happen here.  The client wanted a splash, so all week I was doing public lectures, radio interviews, and high profile meetings with the City Manager, his key deputy for transportation, and even the mayor, Yevgeny Roizman — all with lots of reporters.


Mayor Roizman was especially generous with his time and interest.  In addition to our formal meeting in his office he also gave me a tour of a museum of icon painting that he founded. He also joined us for a few hours of touring the city, often interrupted by eager citizens wanting a photo with him.   He even dropped into our working sessions, with chocolate.

For much of the week, I was sequestered with a group of key staff leaders, including senior managers from the various transit operating companies and city transport and planning staff.  As I insist on doing in most of my planning projects, we locked ourselves away for 8 hours a day to hammer out a shared vision of how the city’s transit might be better if it were planned as a single network.  An excellent set of photos by Gorod.pro gives a sense of the intensity.


(The guy drawing is Vladimir Zlokazov of Gorod.pro.  He was my main contact, advisor, negotiator and translator throughout the project.)


At the end of the week, we had a sketch of how the network could look if everything worked together.  We had tram, trolleybus, and frequent motor bus lines drawn specifically, and a general set of principles for how the enormous fleet of smaller buses would supplement this network.

We also identified some of the biggest challenges for moving forward:

  1. Fixing the fare system.  The current fare structure charges people for changing vehicles, which undermines the whole point of a highly efficient network.
  2. Reorganizing operating contracts, so that the only revenue total that matters is that from the entire network.  This is essential to eliminate competitive behavior between subsidized services, so that the result is the maximum possible access to the city for everyone.
  3. Maintaining separability from other issues.  There are 1000 other things to be done to improve transit, notably in the area of infrastructure.  But almost none of it has to be done to get the new network on the road.  We worked carefully to make sure we had a plan that didn’t require building anything more than bus stops, and that had a first phase that didn’t even require that.  This is the key to ensuring that a network plan doesn’t get stuck waiting for something to be built.

A report on this network, its benefits, and the challenges it will present, will be out soon, and I’ll do a post on it here.


(Workshop photos: Gorod.pro)



Why the Media Fixation on “Transit is Failing” Stories?

Recently, I took issue with the Los Angeles Times for telling a  “ridership is falling” story, even as they published a chart that cast doubt on that claim.

Now here comes the same distortion in Silicon Valley’s San Jose Mercury News.  Look at the chart:


The chart title contradicts the chart.  The transit agency’s ridership has not been in any serious decline since 2005.  The truth is that it fell steeply from 2000 to 2005, and had a small drop in ’09-10 related to the financial crisis and related service cuts.  Otherwise, ridership has been tracking pretty well with population.

Now, here’s how the Mercury News spins it:

Staggering drop in VTA bus ridership may signal dramatic changes

Despite a Santa Clara Valley population and jobs boom, ridership on buses and light-rail trains has dropped a staggering 23 percent since 2001, forcing the Valley Transportation Authority to consider its biggest shake-up ever in transit service.

 The decline comes as new BART service into the South Bay is projected to spill 23,000 more transit riders into the VTA region next year.
As their own chart shows, ridership is down since 2000 but up since 2005.  The Mercury News is just playing the old arbitrary starting year game.  If you want to tell a story about ridership collapse, just pick a high starting year for your comparison.  If you want to tell a story about ridership soaring, pick a low starting year.  Both kinds of stories are bogus.

From this silliness, the article above spins vast webs of misinformation. Notice how you’re supposed to conclude …

  • … that VTA is in a crisis today.  No, VTA was in crisis 10-15 years ago, and had a bad year during the financial crisis, when everyone else did, too.
  • … that VTA is falling behind recent growth in population and jobs.  Again, just look at the chart!
  • … that VTA’s supposed crisis is some kind of failure to meet the opportunity presented  by the BART extension.  No: The BART extension is happening now, the “crisis” happened over a decade ago.
  • … that a ridership “crisis” is forcing VTA’s hand.  Yes, ridership is lower than we want it to be, but that’s not because of a “crisis.”  It’s because ambitions for public transit are rising as it becomes clear to more people that cars are incapable of serving the region’s growth.

When we look at this piece together with Laura Nelson’s recent Los Angeles Times piece, then, the only interesting question is this: Why are newspapers so desperate to tell “transit in crisis” stories?

Why is this story what everyone supposedly wants to hear? Why do we see this hysterical spin over and over, even when the very same article contains a chart telling a different story?

There’s no doubt that the San Jose / Silicon Valley transit system isn’t what citizens want it to be.  That’s why we’re working with the agency.  But the issue is not that these agencies are in crisis; it’s that citizens’ expectations of them are higher than they have been in the past.  Most transit staffers I know, including those at VTA, spend all their time looking for ways to meet those higher expectations.

But if you wonder why transit agencies can sometimes seem defensive, imagine how you would feel if everything you did was slammed in the media using simple distortions like the arbitrary starting year.  Would you remain cheerful, open-minded, and ready to take risks for a better world?


Chart: San Jose Mercury News, from a chart in our own Choices Report, which is downloadable at the bottom of this page.

Yekaterinburg: Rethinking Transit in a Russian City


Last year, I got an inquiry from Russia’s fourth largest city, Yekaterinburg, about helping them rethink their transit system.  An excellent local NGO called Gorod.pro put the project together, and after the usual struggles over visas and insurance, I’m off to Yekaterinburg next week to work with City and foundation staff on new options for network design.  If you read Russian, you can follow along on the project page.

We’ve laid out an initial analysis of the system in our Choices Report, which is now public.  You can download it here: English.  Russian.

Yekaterinburg has several transit networks, which is not necessarily better than having one.  There’s a metro, a tram network, a trolleybus network, a local bus network, and a range of small-bus products, and they mostly look like they’ve been designed separately, rather than working together.  There’s an emphasis on low-frequency direct services rather than high-frequency connective services, so that’s a trade-off we’ll explore.

One key thing we did was to draw what may be the first map that shows all the transit services.  You can find it in the report, but here’s a slice.  The colors here mean frequency (red is 15 or better, green is 30 or better, green is 60 or better).  The number symbols distinguish the technologies.

yek slice

We think maybe this could be simpler.

And of course, when you have a lot of infrequent lines piled up on the same long segments, it means you could afford more frequent lines if you combined them.

But it’s all about trade-offs.  I ask the questions but the locals answer them.  We’re happy to see people downloading and reading our Choices Report, and I’m looking forward to great conversations (in simultaneous translation) over the next two weeks.





Job in the Sun: Senior Planner / Scheduler for Palm Beach County Transit

Just got home from a great trip to Palm Beach County, Florida, where I sampled the famous walkability of West Palm Beach (and Palm Beach) and had a series of workshops and public events with PalmTran, the local transit agency.

PalmTran is at that point where it needs strong planning leadership.  They will have Senior Planner / Scheduler position open in May.  This job needs someone with a track record of finding efficiency in schedules and routes, managing difficult data sources, thinking geometrically about network structure, and leading a planning team.  $90,ooo/year.

Palm Beach County is the geographically largest county in the eastern US, with an interesting mix of vibrant coastal cities, barrier island cities, typical postwar suburbia, and rural Everglades communities.  Many of its key cities are serious about walkable urbanism — West Palm Beach is the most famous, but many others are making the effort.

If you’re interested, please watch the website at palmtran.org and email an application to hmartin@pbcgov.org

The Best of April 1 Transit News (ongoing)

Self Driving Cars Likely to Restore 70% of Lost Faith in Humanity.  (Planetizen)

Google Netherlands (who else?) Invents the Driverless Bicycle  (Excellent YouTube Video of Dutch people being adorable as usual.)

With typical tech-bro grandiosity, inventors promise that Duck Rapid transit will abolish that old fashioned subway system in Washington DC.  (Greater Greater Washington).

Community Transit (Everett, WA) will celebrate 40th Annversary by running its 1976 network on October 4.  Helpful diagram:

Oct 4 routing map

I’ll add more as the day progresses.  Send links to your favorites.



Some Common Transit Analysis Mistakes

There’s more data than ever, so there are more ways than ever to draw brightly colored maps of supposed transit facts.  But that means it’s also easier than ever to take common types of confusion about transit and make them look like the outcomes of analysis.  Your results will always reflect your assumptions, and a lot of transit analysis is still built on common mistakes that are completely obvious if you stop to think about them.

Case in point today, US Department of Transportation wants to undertake a National Transit Map project.  This seems to mean drawing all the nation’s transit data feeds into a national database, which is certainly a good thing. But everything depends on the assumptions being made, and the initial video — recommended on Twitter by its narrator, Dan Morgan of USDOT — is not encouraging.  The big mistakes can all be found in a 3-minute stretch starting at 5:00.  Here’s the video.

The three big mistakes are:

  1. Implicitly confusing land area with population in visual representations.  Starting at 5:00, the video presents a map of intercity access by car and train.  The “discovery” from this analysis is that Amtrak doesn’t stop for several hundred miles as it crosses West Texas.  It looks like a gap on the map, but it’s not a gap in reality because there are almost no people there.  Of course, people draw maps like this all the time (we’ll see a lot of them during election season) but good analysis provides some visual cue to caution the viewer that land area, which is what jumps out on maps, has nothing to do with people.  For example, this map could have been superimposed on a map of population density.Screen Shot 2016-03-31 at 9.30.15 AM
  2. Assuming that having transit nearby is more important than transit being useful or liberating.   At 6:00 we see a map of the part of Salt Lake City in walking distance to transit, showing obvious gaps.Screen Shot 2016-03-31 at 9.32.47 AMThis makes the previous mistake (there’s no indication of whether anyone lives or works in those gaps) but more importantly, it gives the impression that the primary problem with transit is that it doesn’t cover more area.   In actual transit systems with fixed budgets, the area you cover will be inversely related to the frequency, speed, and reliability you can offer, which means that a transit agency that spreads itself thin tends to offer services that are useless to almost everyone.  This geometric fact is the basis of the ridership-coverage tradeoff problem.  When we see analyses that imply that transit’s problem is that it doesn’t go enough places, we need to recognize this as implying an advocacy of coverage over ridership, and more generally an advocacy of spreading service so thin that none of it is useful to most people’s lives.
  3. Focusing on peak hour service when discussing the access needs of poor people, even though most low-income people need to travel at all times of the day, evening and weekend.   Starting at 6:55, we get an analysis that identifies poor people who do not have good access to rush hour transit.  Poor people are rarely rush-hour commuters and they go many places other than the downtowns on which most peak service focuses.

I’m sure the analysts behind these examples thought that they were simplifying in a useful way.  In my consulting work we simplify all the time.  But we are careful to simplify in the direction of clarity about reality, rather than in the direction of helping people feel good about their often-false assumptions.  The simplifications in this video — and of so much transit analysis still — are of the latter kind.


My New Article on Transit’s Space Efficiency

You may have seen my recent Washington Post piece on why fixed route transit will always be essential.  Here’s my deeper dive for the Southern California Association of Governments Vision 2040 report.  It focuses more specifically on how a focus on geometry can help us be smarter about prediction.  Most important paragraph:

If you can recognize a problem as geometric — such as the need to use space efficiently in cities – you can become a smarter consumer of predictions. Cities will always have relatively little space per person, so no matter what technologies we invent, the amount of space that things take will always matter, and we’ll have to use that space wisely.