Realtime Information: Facts or Predictions?

Among the cool things that Portland’s transit agency Tri-Met did during our record snowstorm is this:


Instead of telling us a prediction of when the bus will arrive, they told us the fact of how far away it is.  Predictions are not facts.

Free and conscious citizens should always value facts over predictions.  It doesn’t hurt to have both, but predictions without facts can be dangerous.  Humans always want more certainty about the future than the universe provides, so they tend to overvalue predictions, and even treat them as promises.

A rare citywide disruption puts all this in perspective, by highlighting something that is really always true.  The transit agency is in no position to promise when the bus will arrive.  Too many things out of their control might happen.  What they can do is tell you the facts and let you make your own judgment about what to do.

Three Lyft Rides in a Rare Snowstorm, and Musings on “Rate Your Driver”

Portland's transit mall five days after the snow fell.

Portland’s transit mall five days after the snow fell.

Portland’s epic snowstorm continues.  Five days after we got about 9 inches (30 cm) of snow, most streets are still coated with ice.  Again, this shouldn’t be judged by the standards of snowier cities; this kind of extended storm happens less than once a decade here.

In my last post I talked about my transit experience on the first day, when snow was still coming down hard.  Later that day, and twice the next day, I used Lyft– but since most Portland drivers work for both Uber and Lyft, I’m guessing an Uber experience would have been identical.

My three Lyft rides gave me five interesting data points:

  • A trip to my mother’s house in Portland’s hilly west side.  The driver showed up in a tiny car without snow tires or chains, and said he can’t climb hills.  To prevent discrimination against customers based on their destination, the companies don’t tell drivers the destination until after they accept the ride, so this guy was unable to say no to a destination that he couldn’t physically reach.  Likewise, I was unable to specify, when requesting a ride, that the driver needs chains or snow tires and probably 4-wheel-drive to get there.  That’s obviously a design flaw in Lyft’s systems.
  • A trip back from the same hilly area.  The driver showed up in a small car with no left rear view mirror.  He told me another car knocked the mirror off and drove away the previous night.  He plans to get it fixed, he said, but meanwhile he has to keep driving, so he just glances over his left shoulder now and then.
  • On the same ride: The driver told me he lives in Los Angeles but is in Portland for a few months for some reason.  He’d never driven in snow or ice before, and clearly didn’t understand the risks.  I had to explain that in these conditions, you allow even more room behind the car in front of you.  “But people will cut in!” he said.  “Yes,” I said, “but you won’t die.”
  • … but on an earlier trip back from the airport, the driver was a very recent immigrant from Ghana who had also never driven in snow before.  I was surprised to learn this, because his snow driving skills seemed perfect — which maybe just means he was quite properly terrified and being very careful.

How am I to “rate your driver” in some these cases? The Ghanaian guy gets 5 stars of course, but what of the other two?

Should I give a low grade to the a driver whose car is unsuited to these conditions, at least in the hilly part of town?  Obviously this is mostly a policy failure, but should I declare, from my perch of authority, that he should have had chains?

What about the driver who didn’t have a left rear view mirror?  Well, that’s plainly illegal and unsafe, but as I talked with him, I wondered if he could afford to not drive until he can get it fixed.  As it was, he was also the tailgater, so it was easy to rate him low, but what if he’d been a great driver otherwise?

As I think about this, and about how the “rate your driver” scores are processed, I realize that I pretty much have to give 5 stars for anything other than obvious rudeness (unexplainable by cultural difference) or reckless driving.  That’s because I can sense how much pressure these people are under, how few options they have, and how devastating even a 4-star rating can be.  For all I know, someone’s kids are going to starve if I tell a guy to quit driving until his mirror is fixed.  On the other hand, for all I know, he’s doing fine and is just risking his life and that of his passengers because he’s greedy.

Once you open that window into considering the real causes of problems, and the real impacts of ratings, it’s hard to close it.

This is an instance of a more general problem with all of the “how did we do?” surveys that fill my inbox every day.  They really want my opinion of front-line staff, but often I can see that my negative experience was a matter of management.  The obvious example is restaurant or hotel staff who are harried and unresponsive because the management has decided to have too few people on duty.  I’ve learned to be careful about this.  Unless I’m sure that the frontline person was entirely responsible for the outcome, the worst situations get five stars, plus maybe a little note that nobody will read.


Portland: Transit Heroism in an Epic Snowstorm


Enough snow to paralyze Portland. Readers in Canada, Russia, Scandinavia, and the northern US are invited to keep their comments to themselves. :-)


Portland’s Gateway Transit Center at 8:30 AM on January 11, 2017. Everything working fine, considering. Rail moved at 4x the speed of an adjacent freeway studded with abandoned cars.

Portland woke up to about 9 inches (23 cm) of snow yesterday, with snow continuing to fall, and I had a chance to watch a bit of the transport situation. First, if you live in a snowier climate, spare us the comments about what wimps we are. Portland’s reaction to snow is very rational.  Significant snow is rare here.  The last big one was 2008 and some sources are saying that this could be the biggest in 37 years.  It makes no sense to have infrastructure and specialized staff for rare events that are inconvenient but not disastrous.   So we don’t have as many snowplows as Minneapolis, and we accept that it will take a while to dig ourselves out. Unfortunately, that morning I was booked to fly out to a client visit in Southern Oregon, so I had to do the ritual of going to the airport so that I would be there in the unlikely event our flight wasn’t canceled at the last minute. When I checked my options at 8 am, with snow still coming down hard, Lyft was nonexistent, Uber had a 20+ minute wait with 2.5x normal pricing, but a bus was coming soon.  I had a small adventure carrying a heavy suitcase through snowdrifts, but once on the bus everything was fine.  The driver even had to stop for a minute because he was running early.  Drop-down chains are great! I connected to light rail, and because of snow operations I had to connect again within the light rail system, but it all worked fine.  Each station I visited had a friendly transit employee with a snow-shovel.  I got to the airport in about 1.2 times the usual travel time, faster than would have been possible by any other mode of transport.  By then, many freeways were partly blocked by abandoned cars, including some especially dimwitted truck drivers who thought they could get over our highest bridge without chains. It was funny to hear some people grumbling, as though the snow were the transit agency’s fault or their staff weren’t obviously doing their best.  Remember, everyone who’s at work at 8 am in a snowstorm somehow got out of their houses at 4-5 AM.  Levels of heroism should not be underestimated.  Our agency, TriMet, did an amazing job. So, as you must do when you see staff working heroically, I sent a tweet:

Of course, it was not so easy for everyone.  The transit agency had pre-designed “snow routes” for buses that avoided most steep hills.  (If you live on a hill, this is a “feature” of your location choice!)  Trees were an issue; some trees bowing under the snow touched the catenary of the light rail and streetcar downtown, shutting them down for a while.  “Only so many arborists,” @pdxstreetcar tweeted sensibly.  (Another city might cut down trees that presented this risk, but you just don’t do that in Portland.) So we got what you expect.  We had made some local value judgments (not cutting down trees) that reflected our values but caused some trouble yesterday.  Most people accepted that consequence of their values.  And the transit agency staff really were amazing. In situations like this, I make a point of thanking every transit or city employee that I meet.  On a snowy morning, a good greeting is: “Hey, I realize you got out here at 5 AM, and I really appreciate it.”  Adjust to taste, but don’t say nothing.  And as studies of gratitude have shown, this will actually help you feel better about your own inconveniences. Finally, do not use the words “apocalypse” and “armaggedon.”  Your parents and grandparents got through snowstorms without needing those words, so they mark you as a hysterical kid.  Those words should be reserved for nuclear war, the Rapture, climate-induced civilizational collapse, and snow for those thin-skinned drama-queens in Seattle.

Seattle: “America’s Next Transit City” (Video)

I don’t usually run videos here, but the one below by TransitCenter and Streetfilms is a good overview of the city and its progress.

It’s been a big year for Seattle.  In November, votes passed Sound Transit 3, which expands the regionwide rail network while also funding two new lines within the city.  City voters previously passed measures to increase bus service and fun street and sidewalk improvements that are important to transit riders.

Seattle wasn’t a transit city for a long time.  The regional rapid transit system’s first line didn’t open until 2009.  (Nearby Portland had a regionwide network by then.)  Seattle’s densest inner city neighborhoods have long had good bus service to downtown, but a lot of work was needed to do a citywide network, and it wasn’t remotely ready for the massive growth in density that the already-dense city has experienced in the last decade.

The most important thing about Seattle is its municipal  transit leadership, starting with the Seattle Transit Plan of 2007 on which I was privileged to work.  Note that throughout this video, you see City of Seattle leaders talking about their transit system.  They don’t run it — it’s run by bigger regional agencies — but they’ve chosen to treat it as theirs, and that has made all the difference.

More from TransitCenter here.

Our Top Ten Posts in 2016

Normally, one does a list of the most-read posts of the last year.

But I’ve always tried to write things that would be useful for years, so I’d rather show you the posts that were viewed most often in 2016.  I’m delighted that only four of these were written in 2016:

  1. Does Elon Musk Understand Urban Geometry?  (2016) Why tech visionaries miss the obvious when they talk about urban transportation.
  2. Basics: Walking Distance to Transit (2010).  An explainer.
  3. Sounding the Alarm about Uber’s Impacts on Transit, and on Cities. (2016) The danger of planning cities around unsustainable business models.
  4. Let’s Quit Pretending About Uber. (2016) A quick flare-up that’s long since resolved.  Its the closest I’ve come to clickbait, so of course it got clicks.
  5. Explainer: The Transit Ridership Recipe (2015).  Perhaps our single most essential explainer.
  6. That Photo That Explains Almost Everything (2011).  You’ve seen the photo.  I notice a few things in it beyond its first impression.
  7. Learning from “Mini Metro”.  (2014) Geeking out on the best public transit planning game I’ve seen.
  8. Basics: The Spacing of Stops and Stations.  (2010).  This turned into Chapter 4 of my book.
  9. Core vs Edge Debates in Public Transit. (2016) An eternal issue.
  10. Streetcars: An Inconvenient Truth. (2009) My first controversial post, still starting arguments seven years later.

Remember, this blog is full of old stuff that’s still relevant, notably the “basics” or “explainer” pieces.  For links to all of those, see here!  This year should remind us all that just because it’s hot off the presses today doesn’t mean it’s either useful or true!

Basics: Where Can Ferries Succeed?


Brisbane’s cross-river ferry

An email from a transit professional asks what I have to say about ferries.

Think of a ferry as a rapid transit line, minus the huge cost of land and rails and power supply, but unable to continue across a land-water boundary.

Like rail, ferries carry the limitation that everyone has to get off at the end of the line.  Obviously you need transit connections there for onward journeys, but the result is multiple connections to continue in one direction, which is always less effective than grid structures where service can flow onward across the city.  Ferries, of course, have even more constraints about where the end of the line must be.  So ferries often struggle to compete with transit lines using adjacent bridges or tunnels, because these can penetrate deeper into the city on both sides to complete logical networks.

Another constraint of ferries is that waterfront land is expensive, so it’s hard to find space at a ferry terminal for everything you’d want at a transit node, including terminals for connecting transit, transit-oriented development, and (if you must) commuter parking.

This means that a really successful ferry line, especially all day, has the following necessary conditions.

  • High frequency. This requires minimizing on-board labor, as labor drives operating cost and thus constrains frequency.  (Marine regulations in many countries are an obstacle to this.)  Ferries with only one employee on board achieve frequency through low labor costs.  See, for example, the privately owned micro-ferries on Vancouver’s False Creek (really a small, sheltered harbor) or the small cross-river ferries in Brisbane.  These can do well with only moderate demand because they are so cheap to operate, and can build up useful frequency for the same reason.
  • Very high density right in walking distance of the ferry terminal, preferably without major grades to climb.  This is a challenge because if you draw a walk-access circle around a ferry terminal, most of it is usually water.  Cities that slope upward steeply from the water, like Seattle, present further barriers.
  • Quality landside access by frequent connecting transit modes, sufficient to draw adequate all-day demand.  This and the previous one can substitute for each other to a degree, but the most successful services have both. In Hong Kong, for example, there are large bus terminals at the major ferry terminals, despite astronomical land value and the many competing demands, because they really understand the importance of total networks, which in turn are built on easy connections.
  • No competition from bridges or tunnels, especially those carrying frequent transit lines (rail or bus).  Ferries just can’t compete, for high volume, with bridge-and-tunnel services.  Sometimes ferries are run to densely populated coves where the competing bridge or tunnel lands too far back from the water to serve the area, as on New York’s East River, but in this case you have to fill the ferry solely with waterfront demand, because people inland will take the bridge or tunnel service.
  • Favorable Pricing.  If there is any possible competition with bridge/tunnel service, the ferry needs to be cheaper to use, counting the total trip including any connections.
The immensely successful Staten Island Ferry has all the necessary features, including huge transit networks converging on both ends.

The immensely successful Staten Island Ferry has all the necessary features, including huge transit networks converging on both ends.

Really successful ferries, like New York’s Staten Island Ferry or Hong Kong’s Star Ferry, have all of these features.

The most common problem in ferry planning is to build too many little terminals, each with too small a market, so that they don’t support much service outside of rush hour and often not even then.  Auckland and Sydney, for example, have lots of ferry terminals in bucolic suburban coves, downhill from most nearby residents, where there are just not enough people.   These tend to become elite services and often not very productive ones.  Fewer terminals with larger demand is the key, just as fewer stops is a key to the most productive land-based networks.

The romantic and scenic qualities of ferries always generate support, just as happens with rail services, but service must be useful, compared to your alternatives, if it is to succeed long-term.  Tourism and recreation are often cited as markets, but unless you have a supercharged tourism sector, and the right kind of service and connections, this market is easily overstated due to inevitable private sector boosterism.

As always, if the ridership prospects are low and the benefits are mostly private, the funding should be private as well.  Encourage the tourist sector to fund tourist ferries directly, just as you would for any service precision-designed around a single interest.  The same could be said for small, low-demand ferries that mostly benefit a single development or specialized community.

So yes, ferries are good at certain things, but destinations along the water, and some local enthusiasm, isn’t enough to ensure a successful ferry project.

Appreciating Anthony Foxx, the “Great Connector”

US Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx will deserve a special place in the history of US transportation policy.  It has been a long time since the nation’s transport policy leader has reframed the conversation so profoundly.  An interview of him in Citylab by Laura Bliss, dubbing him “The Great Connector,” draws out several of these themes:

anthony_foxx_official_portraitBuilding Communities, Enabling Contact

We might not always acknowledge it, but the reality is, when we build infrastructure we’re also building communities. It’s different than housing. It’s where boundaries are drawn, where highways and rail lines cut through, where transit stops are or the places that are skipped over. All of those decisions matter, because they all affect how we come into contact with each other.

This is a truism in urbanist circles but I’ve never heard it so forcefully from a Secretary of Transportation.  In a department where handing out infrastructure money is the primary source of power, Foxx reframed the whole task away from the usual cost/benefit conversations or the love of technologies, to focus instead on the fundamental purpose of transport: how we “come into contact with each other” and thus, among other things, build communities.  The acknowledgment of the “dividing” effect of some infrastructure is especially historic.  Freeways enabled some connections only by obstructing others, like your ability to walk to a grocery store on the other side or the ability of a bus route to trace a straight path.

Devolving Power to States and Cities

Shifting power downward from the Federal government to states and cities used to be a conservative “small government” idea, but no longer.  The first step is to impose fewer Federal limits on how money is to be spent.

I’ve the made case—and will continue to make the case in my next life—that we need a more flexible funding approach. Rather than say that a certain percentage has to go to roads or transit or what have you, let the communities decide how that money should be spent, and grade them on criteria that shows how they’ve improved the system.

He’s especially clear that people who know the local issues need to make the decisions about them:

Regions and cities and towns could use more direct federal funds as well. This harkens back to my mayor days. Those areas can get things done relatively quickly, and many times they have a different sense of what they need than a state might. Rather than having regions, towns, and cities arguing over money, there should be a more dedicated program.

This is especially important for cities, whose needs are different from those of other areas but who often lack the autonomy to solve their own problems.  We are entering an era where urbanist impatience with a controlling and dictating Federal government will be as great as that of conservatives has always been, and for similar reasons.  If the next Administration is as hostile to urban issues (or perhaps, hostile to urban interests other than elite real estate development) we may soon reach a point where devolution of power is the only thing the nation can agree on.  Cities will have to take care of themselves, and have the power to do so.  Even some urban real estate tycoons may see the value of that.

Transit, and the City, as Unifier

Finally, in an age of division, he captures the singular role of transit in holding together urban civilization, using one of my favorite images:

Transportation can bring us together. When I ride on the New York City subway system, I’m riding with millionaires and with homeless people. No one is hidden from the other. That interaction doesn’t mean people live in the same neighborhoods, or that they go to the same school. But what it does mean is that no one is invisible.

Everything about politics today is about visibility.  Are you forced to see the consequences of your own ideas?  It is the genius of the city that almost everyone must, because they happen in front of you on the street, not just on television or the internet.  My own city, Portland, is in a time of general prosperity, but it just had a mayoral election where the predominant issues were homelessness and affordability.  That happened because those issues aren’t invisible in a city, the way they can be in suburbs or country towns.  The genius of the city is that the billionaire, whatever his achievements, must still acknowledge that he shares a city with homeless people, whose condition may result from the same forces that created his.  Transit keeps that reality present through the act of transportation.  That’s not its purpose; no social engineering is involved.  But the fact remains that in cities we must use space efficiently, and that often requires traveling in each other’s presence, so that we see the totality of what our city is.

Foxx’s reign has also included significant achievements in planning for automation, and he hints that they may still do something about the intrusiveness and harrowing potential of drones.  Good stuff.  But these shifts in tone may matter as much as anything.  Good job, Secretary, and I hope you continue to influence the transport conversation.

Tactical Transit: A Fast Path to Transit Infrastructure

Learn this term now: tactical transit.

(I wish I’d invented it, but the cool peeps at TransitCenter did, in their great overview today.)

If you know what tactical urbanism is, tactical transit is the same principle applied to transit.  So it means something like this:  Don’t just fight for giant infrastructure projects that take many years to fund, approve, and complete.  Try things now, with what you have, in ways that (a) make a measurable improvement and/or (b) inspire people to see what’s possible.  And often: Use temporary materials, as appropriate, to present things as experiments, so people can experience them before passing judgment on them.  

The TransitCenter folks are thinking about street infrastructure when they use the term.  Tactical urbanism creates parks, paths, and other infrastructure experimentally, using temporary and removable materials like planter boxes and folding chairs.

Temporary bulbout in Brooklyn, NY. Source: TransitCenter

Tactical transit does the same for bus stops, bus lanes, and other simple facilities.  Street-running Bus Rapid Transit, after all, doesn’t have to start as a huge infrastructure project with years of delay for environmental review.  A city can make bus lanes and stops quickly, with paint, signs, curbs, and other simple things, along with law enforcement.

Tactically Temporary Transit

Experimental transit infrastructure is an especially powerful technique because local interest groups along a street tend to wildly overestimate the impact these projects will have on traffic, parking, and local retail.  Huge, irreversible infrastructure projects are more likely to trigger emotional reactions, in part because they are polarizing, like any binary choice.  Your only options are support or oppose, and as we all know, that pushes lots of people to oppose.

Obviously, tactical transit is a very useful new term, but not a new idea.  Transit facilities have been part of tactical urbanism for a while, and we even did it now and then back in the dark ages before we had words for it.

Construction projects have long presented opportunities for tactical transit.  When you’re going to experience a sudden loss in road capacity because of a construction project, temporary bus lanes often make sense.  Sometimes, when the project’s done, people don’t want these temporary lanes removed.

Permanent Tactical Transit?

Of course, the term “tactical” doesn’t have to imply temporary.  Lasting permanent change is usually the goal of tactical transit.  Presenting the change as experimental or temporary is a tactic — not just a political tactic but also a practical one.  Some changes really don’t work, or need a lot of tweaking, so doing them temporarily, where that’s realistic, can be a great way to make sure we get them right.  Anyone who’s encountered expensive but poorly planned infrastructure can see why this is a good thing.

We can extend the term further.  An effective frequent bus network is tactical, compared to a giant infrastructure project, because its costs are diffuse and it can be tweaked after implementation.  But as always, great tactics serve a strategic purpose.  All the network redesigns I’ve done are parts of strategies, with clear goals for permanent transformation.  Tactical transit should not mean quick fixes for some urgent problem without regard to long-term results.  Such fixes are sometimes necessary, but smart strategy, manifested through smart tactics, is always playing a longer game.