Richmond: Bus Rapid Transit Line Approved

The Richmond (Virginia) city council has approved plans for a Bus Rapid transit line running east-west through the core of the city — the starting point for a more robust transit network for the whole city and potentially the region:

richmond pulse

Like all starter lines, it focuses on a small part of the city, and these projects always raise questions about the city-wide benefits. What’s in it for you if you don’t live or work near the line?

One answer to that concern is that a good core transit line produces all kinds of benefits across the city. By running a busy corridor more quickly and reliably, resources are freed up to run more effective local services.  Like all rapid transit lines, this one will depend heavily on improved local bus service, and improved local bus service will mean better mobility for people not on the rapid line.

That’s all very nice in the abstract, but what’s the specific plan? Fortunately, the people of Richmond will have the chance to help forge that plan in the coming year. We are now working with City of Richmond, GRTC and the local office of planning firm Michael Baker International on the Richmond City Transit Network Plan.  This effort, to develop specific ideas for a better local bus network, will include many opportunities for citizens to consider the choices themselves and share their ideas and priorities.

So if you’re worried about whether your neighborhood will be well served by the future transit system, get ready to join a conversation about exactly that.  Plans for major transit infrastructure are never total transit plans, any more than a main street is a total street network.   The real network planning starts now.



How to Read the Best Anti-Transit Writing

Randal O’Toole has made quite a career of being America’s leading anti-planning planning expert, and especially its leading anti-transit transit expert.  His biases are obvious but his points are occasionally good, so he’s sometimes worth reading a little closer.  If nothing else, transit advocates need to hear more arguments from outside their own media bubble, just as everyone else does.

Today he has a blog post asking if we are approaching “peak transit.”  It’s a concise and readable display of his biases and insights.  So if you’ve never read O’Toole before, let me take you on a quick guided tour:

“Billions spent, but fewer people are using public transportation,” declares the Los Angeles Times. The headline might have been more accurate if it read, “Billions spent, so thereforefewer are using public transit,” as the billions were spent on the wrong things.

The L.A. Times article focuses on Los Angeles’ Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro), though the same story could be written for many other cities. In Los Angeles, ridership peaked in 1985, fell to 1995, then grew again, and now is falling again.

O’Toole nicely summarizes the two fallacies that drove the sadly-too-influential LA Times piece.  First, that Los Angeles ridership is on a clear downward trend, which is an illusion created by the Times reporters’ selective citation of data, and second that short term ridership is the proper metric for judging long term investments.

Sometimes O’Toole is Right

But just as you’re ready to dismiss O’Toole, there’s this:

Unmentioned in the story, 1985 is just before Los Angeles transit shifted emphasis from providing low-cost bus service to building expensive rail lines, while 1995 is just before an NAACP lawsuit led to a court order to restore bus service lost since 1985 for ten years.

This is true, especially if you’re careful, as O’Toole is here, not to assert that the lawsuit caused the change.  (There are several explanations for why Los Angeles transit leaders started focusing on bus improvements in the late 90s, and rehashing them is not helpful to consensus-building today.)  Let’s look again at that chart from the LA Times article.


Los Angeles ridership fell when bus service was being cut early in the rail program, then rose when bus service was being rapidly improved.  Since 2005, when the balance of attention on rail vs bus has been closer to equilibrium, ridership has been basically flat, going up and down in a small range that is trivial compared to the great swings of the 1985-2005 period.  The little downtick at the end of the chart, on which the Times reporters hang their narrative, is obviously not enough to be significant yet, at least when viewed at this scale.

But this does not mean, of course, that “billions have been spent on the wrong things.”  This would require that we share O’Toole’s belief that short-term ridership was the purpose of these investments, which it was not.  Declaring transit to be failing at goals it is not pursuing is extremely common in anti-transit commentary.  Another common example of this is here.

The (Real) Ridership-Counting Problem

Then O’Toole makes another almost-good point:

The situation is actually worse than the numbers shown in the article, which are “unlinked trips.” If you take a bus, then transfer to another bus or train, you’ve taken two unlinked trips. Before building rail, more people could get to their destinations in one bus trip; after building rail, many bus lines were rerouted to funnel people to the rail lines. …

Higher transfer rates are not strictly a result of rail; they can arise from good bus network designs as well.  But the “unlinked trips” issue is real.  It’s one of those things that makes sense to the transit industry internally but not to the public to whom we have to explain our work.

The problem dates back to a time when completed journeys (“linked trips” in the comically opaque jargon of us technocrats) were just impossible to count without expensive manual surveying.  This is still the case in many agencies.  People flash monthly passes or day passes at the driver, for example, and even if the driver counts this as a pass, there’s no record of whether the rider was beginning their journey or making a connection.  As automated ticketing comes in, it is getting easier to count completed journeys.  But the transit data world is very concerned with comparability — this is the whole point of the US National Transit Database — and this creates a motivation to use only data that all transit agencies can easily report, even the lowest-tech ones.  This is a real issue.

Of course, a rising transfer rate isn’t evidence of failure. But it does distort the real outcomes if a count of boardings (“unlinked  trips”) are reported as though they were a count of human beings reaching their destinations.  They are not.

Judge by Real Investments, and Real Goals

Transit ridership is very sensitive to transit vehicle revenue miles. Metro’s predecessor, the Southern California Rapid Transit District, ran buses for 92.6 million revenue miles in 1985. By 1995, to help pay for rail cost overruns, this had fallen to 78.9 million. Thanks to the court order in the NAACP case, this climbed back up to 92.9 million in 2006. But after the court order lapsed, it declined to 75.7 million in 2014. The riders gained on the multi-billion-dollar rail lines don’t come close to making up for this loss in bus service.

This is right, too (except for the debatable causal claim of “thanks to,” which I won’t touch).  Yes, you have to evaluate ridership in the context of service quantity, and what matters is not what is built but what is operated.

Contradictory Accusations

But then, we get an old O’Toole favorite, that transit agency “officials” are incompetent:

The transit agency offers all kinds of excuses for its problems. Just wait until it finishes a “complete buildout” of the rail system, says general manager Phil Washington, a process (the Times observes) that could take decades. In other words, don’t criticize us until we have spent many more billions of your dollars. Besides, agency officials say wistfully, just wait until traffic congestion worsens, gas prices rise, everyone is living in transit-oriented developments, and transit vehicles are hauled by sparkly unicorns.

Imagine if we had built the Interstate Highway System with this attitude.  Oops, we just spent billions on a freeway to newly developing suburbs, but not many people are driving on it yet because the suburbs are still under construction. Surely the O’Toole of the day would have said that those highway planners are fools!

There’s another contradiction here, which pervades all of O’Toole’s work I’ve read.  O’Toole can’t decide if (a) transit is a bad idea or (b) transit is just badly planned and operated.  If transit is run by idiots, as he often implies, then logically its performance says nothing about transit’s actual potential.  On the other hand, if transit is a dumb idea, it would fail even if it were run by geniuses, which he advises it’s not.  He can never seem to decide if he’s against transit or against the people making decisions in transit agencies.  Logically, these two claims undermine each other.

The Heart of the Matter

We’ve arrived at what’s really at stake here in this obsession with short-term outcomes.   O’Toole begins from a deep hostility to the very notion of long-range planning, at least when done at the level of the city or community, and I hear this more and more from “conservative” voices in local conversations.  (I put “conservative” in scare quotes because the more I hear the word, the less it seems to mean.)  Sometimes I want to get some of these folks (especially older ones) into a room and just ask this:  “Close your eyes and visualize your grandchildren, or whatever children are in your family.  Are there any sacrifices you’d be willing to make so that they would have better lives, more opportunities, and generally a better world, even after you’re gone, even after you are no longer there to enjoy their gratitude?”

Most writers who self-describe as “conservative” these days, including O’Toole, seem to be starting from a clear no on this question, and presuming the same in their readers.  If it doesn’t pay off now, it doesn’t matter.  If you think about it, is the world view of the average thrill-seeking teenager, something most of us hope to grow out of as adults.

Transit investments will make no sense to anyone who thinks this way, so the best answer, I think, is to ask my question about grandchildren.  If the answer is no, there’s no point arguing.

O’Toole would probably respond that he’s only opposed to government long-range planning, not private-sector or personal long-range planning, but the real horror for him is that as the world is becoming more interconnected, prosperity depends more and more on collective outcomes.  Nowhere is this more obvious than in the rising economic importance of cities, the popularity of urban life as expressed in urban real estate values, and the impossibility of managing a  prosperous and inclusive city without effective government.

One of the most crticial things governments do, by the way, is involve affected people in decisionmaking.  Some folks may look back fondly at times when the private sector did most city planning and city building — as in the 1865-1929 period in the US.  Much of the developing world is like this today, and if anyone wants to argue that “great libertarian city” is not an oxymoron, that’s where they’ll have to look for case studies.  But these were and are oppressive places for vast majorities who are not connected to the power structure, and the developing-world cities that are trying hardest to improve themselves are doing so through strengthening the government’s role and competence.  The notion that a happy dense city can be generated solely from private profit-seeking has been tried, and I suggest you consult your favorite urban novel from the 1865-1929 period for reminders of what that was like.  Almost anything by Dickens will do, and so will Upton Sinclair.

Next up, another paragraph with which I can partly sympathize:

A more realistic assessment is provided by Brian Taylor, the director of UCLA’s Institute of Transportation Studies, who is quoted by the L.A. Times saying, “Lots of resources are being put into a few high-profile lines that often carry a smaller number of riders compared to bus routes.”

This is half right.  There are lots of great rail projects, but that list does not include projects that can only be promoted by categorically denigrating buses and their passengers.  O’Toole is making a good argument against projects based largely on technology-fixations, but it’s not clearly an argument against high-capacity projects like the Wilshire subway in Los Angeles, whose purpose is not just to improve transit there but to make many more people want to live and work there.  It’s certainly not an argument against Manhattan’s Second Avenue Subway, where the necessary crowds mostly already exist.

The Arbitrary Starting Year, and Other Statistical Absurdities

That, I’m afraid, was the best part.  From there on, O’Toole’s post goes downhill.  First, we get a pile of misleading but ominous-feeling statistics.

Los Angeles ridership trends are not unusual: transit agencies building expensive rail infrastructure often can’t afford to keep running the buses that carry the bulk of their riders, so ridership declines.

Ridership in Houston peaked at 102.5 million trips in 2006, falling to 85.9 million in 2014 thanks to cuts in bus service necessitated by the high cost of light rail;

Despite huge job growth, Washington ridership peaked at 494.2 million in 2009 and has since fallen to 470.4 million due at least in part to Metro’s inability to maintain the rail lines;

Atlanta ridership peaked at 170.0 million trips in 2000 and has since fallen nearly 20 percent to 137.5 million and per capita ridership has fallen by two thirds since 1985;

San Francisco Bay Area ridership reached 490.9 million in 1982, but was only 457.0 million in 2014 as BART expansions forced cutbacks in bus service, a one-third decline in per capita ridership;

Pittsburgh transit regularly carried more than 85 million riders per year in the 1980s but is now down to some 65 million;

Austin transit carried 38 million riders in 2000, but after opening a rail line in 2010, ridership is now down to 34 million.

Give O’Toole credit: When he tells us that ridership “peaked,” he’s confessing that he’s playing the “arbitrary starting year” game.  To get the biggest possible failure story, he compares current ridership to a past year that he selected because ridership was especially high then.  This is a standard way of exploiting the natural volatility of ridership to create exaggerated trends.  Again, the Los Angeles Times article that got O’Toole going made a big deal out of how ridership is down since 1985 and 2006, without mentioning that ridership is up since 1989 and up since 2004 and 2011.  Whether ridership is up or down depends on which past year you choose, which is to say, it’s about what story the writer wants to tell.

Then we get a real gem of absurdity:

Even where ridership is increasing, it’s decreasing. After building two light-rail lines, transit ridership in the Twin Cities has grown by 50 percent since 1990. However, bus ridership is declining and driving has grown faster than transit.

Well, of course bus ridership declines when you open high-ridership rail lines.  That’s because the rail lines, if they’re well designed, grow out of very high ridership bus lines.  Rail replaces those bus lines, shifting a large number of riders from bus to rail.  Maybe there is a larger story here about neglect of buses in the Twin Cities, but O’Toole doesn’t make that argument.

Ignore National Statistics

O’Toole ends by summarizing three standard anti-transit shibboleths.  First:

Whatever the service levels, transit just isn’t that relevant anymore to anyone. As I’ve pointed out before, more than 95 percent of American workers live in a household with at least one car, and of the 4.5 percent who don’t, less than half take transit to work, suggesting that transit isn’t even relevant to most people who don’t have cars.

Never, ever pay any attention to national statistics about transit, because transit works or doesn’t for entirely local reasons.  Most Americans don’t live in places where transit works really well — dense cities, mainly — so of course not many Americans use transit.  This says nothing about transit’s popularity in the places to which it’s suited.

Did You Know that You Don’t Exist?

You should also be offended whenever a minority of any kind, including the minority who use transit, is described as not counting as “anyone,” as O’Toole does in the first sentence here.  Because most Americans don’t ride transit, O’Toole says, transit isn’t relevant to anyone.  In case you weren’t offended already, O’Toole hammers it in.

“It’s not the dream of every bus rider to arrive in a bus that was on time, air conditioned and clean, where a seat was available,” the L.A. Times quotes USC civil engineering professor James Moore as saying. “It’s the dream of every bus rider to own a car. And as soon as they can afford one, that’s the first purchase they’ll make.”

Not the dream of most bus riders, but the dream of every single one.  Again, if that doesn’t describe you, you aren’t just evil or invisible or unimportant:  You actually don’t exist.  These are the moments, increasingly common in arguments in our polarized age, when O’Toole reveals that he has no desire to convince anyone who is not already in his cultural camp.

The Nod to Driverless Cars

Finally, there’s the inevitable coda about driverless cars:

Cities that invest in expensive transit infrastructure are ignoring the reality that, long before that infrastructure is worn out, self-driving cars will replace most transit. The short-run issue is that transit agencies that spend billions on rail transit or bus-rapid transit with dedicated lanes are doing a disservice to their customers. The most important thing they should focus on instead is increasing bus revenue miles in corridors where they will do the most good.

I am a big champion of bus investments, but this is the worst possible argument for them, and it’s an especially self-ridiculing argument against rail.  High capacity transit lines — including most the rail lines that O’Toole decries — are the kind of transit that is least threatened by driverless cars, because they succeed in dense cities where there simply isn’t room for everyone to be in a separate car, driverless or not.  (I believe this is also true of many high-ridership bus services, but not for low-ridership bus services.  More on that soon.)

Summing Up

What can we say at the end of such a reading?   O’Toole understands transit well enough that he can make substantiated points when he wants to, though he’s also willing to distort statistics with simple tricks like the arbitrary starting year.  His suspicion of rail is overly general but overlaps with some valid questions that have been raised by urban progressives like Matthew Yglesias, especially about slow and unreliable rail projects whose usefulness is no greater than that of buses.  His defense of bus services, when it’s separated from generalized hostility toward transit or blanket dismissal of anything on rails, echoes the view of many ethnic minority and low income groups and also of many transit professionals, including me.  Making bus services more useful, after all, is much of what I do as a consultant.

But O’Toole sends constant signals that he does not want to be taken seriously by anyone who lives in, works in, or cares about big, dense cities.  He ascribes to government stupidity anything that smacks of the kind of long-range planning that functional and civilized cities have always required, and he also has little time for the public consultation and consensus-building that governments spend so much time on, and which are a key reason they move so much more slowly than the private sector.

In the end, O’Toole sounds like almost everyone who lives inside of echo chambers today, anywhere on the many political spectra, saying this:

I, and the people choose to I listen to, all share the same tastes and experience and goals, so the fact that we’re right is just obvious!  So, when government disagrees with us it must be stupid and incompetent.  The only other explanation would be that there are actual citizens who disagree with us, because they have a different experience or goals, and that these people are asserting their democratic right to influence the government too.  No, it can’t be!  People who don’t fit my story aren’t “anyone.”  They simply do not exist!


Perils of Transit Journalism II: Judge Transit By Its Goals, Not Yours

In the last post I took on the problem of poor data analysis in transit journalism, specifically how easy it is to create totally arbitrary stories out of performance trends.  This post is about another routine mistake in transit journalism, which is to make false assumptions about what transit investments are trying to do.  The most common example is to assume that short-term ridership is the only valid measure of transit’s success.

For this series, I’m taking examples from an example-rich  Los Angeles Times article on the alleged “accelerating” decline of transit ridership in Los Angeles.  The article, by Laura Nelson and Dan Weikel, is provoking a lot of commentary, but it’s not unusual in the assumptions it’s making.

Here’s the lede again:

For almost a decade, transit ridership has declined across Southern California despite enormous and costly efforts by top transportation officials to entice people out of their cars and onto buses and trains.

The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the region’s largest carrier, lost more than 10% of its boardings from 2006 to 2015, a decline that appears to be accelerating. Despite a $9-billion investment in new light rail and subway lines, Metro now has fewer boardings than it did three decades ago, when buses were the county’s only transit option.

Long Term Infrastructure Is Not About Short Term Ridership

Here and throughout the article, Nelson and Weikel insistently pair the ridership drop with the $9 billion cost of an infrastructure investment program, giving the reader the impression that they must be connected.

This is like saying that your crops failed because you didn’t have a harvest the day after you planted them.

In this case, the “$9 billion investment” in infrastructure has nothing to do with the short term ridership being discussed here.  The rapid transit program is designed for long-term ridership growth and city-shaping effects.  One of the key things they do, for example, is make denser development viable, which enables more people to live and work where transit is excellent and therefore rely on it more.  Nelson and Weikel quote Metro’s CEO making this point, but doesn’t really explain why long-term investment works.

So how would you assess the value of these lines? You’d look not just at ridership but at what’s happening in real estate development along them.  You’d look at what the trends are in demand for housing and jobs near good transit, and extrapolate to show the benefits — for livability and in terms of long-term ridership potential — of meeting that demand.  And you’d see how similar investments in similar places have paid off in the past.

In a Tweet yesterday, Nelson said:

The ‘it’s too early to evaluate’ response (a favorite of Metro’s) has always struck me as self-inoculating.”

Yes, it can strike me that way too, which is why great transit agencies put a lot of effort into explaining this issue.  But that doesn’t make it wrong.

It takes a while, but great transit investments (and they’re not all great) do pay off when they’re done well.  And when they’re not done well, it’s not ridership that tells you this, but rather contradictions in the plan — like putting stations in places where dense development is illegal or impossible, or building in too many sources of delay while claiming that the line will be fast and reliable.

It’s easy for people to take pot-shots at transit projects by arbitrarily focusing on one outcome.  In a recent Seattle Times panel I was on recently, for example, Brian Mistele of the traffic analysis firm Inrix repeatedly criticized a Seattle area light rail line for not reducing congestion on the adjacent freeway, as though that were its purpose.  Another common example of this mistake is to criticize bus services for low ridership without asking if ridership is even their goal; many bus services exist for non-ridership purposes.

So remember:  If you’re going to imply that something is failing, you have to understand what it’s actually trying to do, and show it’s failing at that. 

Compare Ridership to the Service Offered

A broader point here is that ridership, and especially ridership trends, are meaningless unless they are compared to the service offered to achieve them.  This article gives the appearance of doing that by making a false comparison between short term ridership and long term investments.  This echoes the common fallacy that transit ridership is generated by infrastructure.

In fact, transit ridership comes from operating service.  Infrastructure is mostly a way to make that service more efficient and attractive, but its impact on ridership is indirect, while the impact of service is direct.

So the most important frame of reference for ridership is the quantity of service being operated, not capital dollars being spent.  This is why the article (and transit agency databases in general) should be showing productivity (ridership per unit of service provided.)  This “bang for buck” measure is the only way to tell whether transit is succeeding given how much service is being offered.  


Perils of Transit Journalism I: Don’t Let Trendlines Confuse You

When a transit trendline first seems to be going the wrong way, everyone wants an explanation, and most people want a quick one. Almost anyone a journalist asks will have a theory, which is often just a projection of their own tastes.  (“I personally like x in transit, so ridership would go up if there were more x.”)  Transit statistics, sadly, are often not presented in the best way to help journalists and citizens evaluate them — it’s something many folks, including me, are working on.   So it’s tough for journalists to reach any conclusion, and tempting to go for a quick but misleading take.

We need to read the resulting articles with sympathy to the journalist’s challenge but also an application of common sense.  So let’s have a look at Laura Nelson and Dan Weikel’s recent Los Angeles Times article, which discusses a recent moderate drop in transit ridership in greater Los Angeles.

Let me apologize to Nelson and Weikel for calling them out in particular, since my real point is to note how common these mistakes are in transit journalism.  The article contains some very good points about what the agency needs to be doing (better and faster buses) which are well-supported by the data and which I’ve discussed at length here.

Still, whole frame of the article is misleading, in two main ways:

  • the use of data, which I’ll discuss in this post.
  • the comparison of data to investments, which I’ll discuss in the next

Ridership Data is Noisy, so One or Two Data Points are Not a Trend

The chart in the article shows that ridership has been falling for one year, based on just one data point (Later in a Tweet, Nelson told me she had two data points, with ridership down in both calendar 2014 and ’15, but that’s not in the article or the chart.)


Based on these one or two points, the authors propose a vast and ominous trend:

The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the region’s largest carrier, lost more than 10% of its boardings from 2006 to 2015, a decline that appears to be accelerating. Despite a $9-billion investment in new light rail and subway lines, Metro now has fewer boardings than it did three decades ago, when buses were the county’s only transit option.

Accelerating? You need many data points to support this claim, because you are saying not just which way the line is going but also how it’s curving.  What the published chart shows is that:

  • There’s a larger interesting story about the broad fall in ridership across the 90s and dramatic recovery across the 00s.
  • Ridership has been generally flat since 2006, going up and down in about a 10% band, with no sign of strong movement in any direction.

Let’s acknowledge what a hard problem this is for journalists.  Something seems to be happening in the transit data.  People are asking about it.  You work on a short turnaround.  It’s very hard to take on the truth, which is that ridership data is very noisy, so it takes a long time to see a trend.

This, by the way, is why I’ve done so little commentary on trends since the August 2015 implementation of Houston’s new bus network, whose original design process I led.  Ridership was down the first month, so people wrote omnious articles.  Then it soared the next month, so people wrote triumphalist articles.  Now it looks like it may be down a little (post on this soon).  Ridership data is just very volatile, so a trend has to be going for a while before you can call it.

Watch for the “Arbitrary Starting Year” Trick

When a journalist says some grand thing has been happening since year y, you should immediately ask: “why year y in particular?”  Again, here’s how the article opens:

For almost a decade, transit ridership has declined across Southern California despite enormous and costly efforts by top transportation officials to entice people out of their cars and onto buses and trains.

Why “almost a decade”?  Why not just a decade?  Because if you compared 2015 to 2005 instead of 2006, ridership wouldn’t be down, and the authors wouldn’t have a story.

Sure, ridership is down 10% since 2006. But it’s up since 2011 and way up since 2004.  Want to talk about the grand sweep of history?  Nelson says that ridership is lower than it was 30 years ago, which sounds terrible, but it’s higher than it was 25 years ago!  Thirty years ago, by the way, was fiscal year 1984-85, the year of the Olympics, so of course ridership was unusually high.  [Update: Henry Fung, channeled by the excellent Ethan Elkind, has shown that it was fare cuts, not the Olympics, that made 1984-85 such a banner year.]

With a trendline like the one in the chart, you can say anything you want by comparing some past year to the present.  Your conclusion is about the year you chose.

This “arbitrary starting year” trick is a very common in misleading journalism.   Be suspicious whenever you see a single past year is cited as a point of comparison.

In Part 2, I’ll talk about the problem of comparing transit outcomes to transit investments.


Seattle: Core of Rapid Transit Network Opens March 19

The Seattle region’s rapidly growing rail transit system will cross a major milestone on March 19.  The segment between downtown and the University of Washington, via a station in tMAP_Draft1_U-Linkhe dense Capitol Hill neighborhood, opens then.  And if you vaguely associate Seattle with vast delays and cost overruns on tunneling projects, give Sound Transit credit:  This one is 6 months early and $150m under budget.

However far the region’s rail transit network expands, this will probably always be its busiest segment.  It’s not just that the link between a robust downtown and a major university is the biggest transit market in many comparable cities.    It’s also that a good 40% of the region — northeast Seattle, all the northern suburbs and some eastern ones — will eventually end up on trains through this segment to get downtown.

This year will be another milestone for Sound Transit: the 20th anniversary of the passage of its first ballot measure, which funded the now-existing line between the airport and downtown.  Through its next successful measure, Sound Transit 2 (ST 2) in 2008, the agency is now funded for long extensions north to Lynnwood and east through Bellevue to Redmond.  Meanwhile, they are starting a lively public discussion about the next ballot measure, ST 3, which will probably include an additional rail transit line in Seattle as well as several possible suburban extensions.  City of Seattle voters last year also passed Move Seattle, a measure that among other things greatly expands bus service in the city.  All in all, a great year for one of America’s most ambitious transit cities.


Ready to Go — Without a Driver’s License

We’ve heard over the past few years that the driving boom is over in the US. People are driving less and a smaller portion of the population is choosing to have a driver’s license.

Michael Sivak and his colleagues at the University of Michigan recently released an update on the percentage of people with driver’s licenses in the US. In 2011, the original research found that the percentage of young people with a driver’s license decreased substantially between 1983 and 2008. What’s the latest on driver’s license trends? Continue Reading →

Some New Years News from the Firm

JWlogoSquareWe are going to get back to more frequent posting here soon, but I hope this post explains why it’s been a busy time.  First, a bit about the interesting range of places we’re looking forward to working this year.  Then a bit about our hiring.  (Yes, we are still looking for senior staff!)

Meanwhile, we’ll be working an a great spectrum of places this year, including:

  • San Jose and Silicon Valley.  We’re helping out the local transit agency, VTA, think through their bus network design in the context of updated goals and the arrival of rapid transit from Oakland and San Francisco.  We’re excited to be working in the backyard of so many tech giants, and wading into the debates about how disruptable (to use their favorite word) transit is, or should be.
  • Richmond, Virginia.  We’ll be helping the city think about how its bus network should evolve, including but not limited to the impact of a new Bus Rapid Transit line.
  • Anchorage.  We’ll be running some transit visioning workshops for Alaska’s big city.  This is not our northernmost client, however, because of:
  • Reykjavík. We had a great time doing stakeholder workshops and elected official briefings in Iceland last year, and we’ll be doing further analysis of their bus system this year, to help them think about their options.  And most exotically:
  • Yekaterinburg, the Russian city where the last czar’s family was assassinated, now an industrial and university town.  We’ll be working through the local NGO to help the City explore options for simplifying its amazingly complex transit system.  (This is just the tram network, for example.)  The legal issues have been daunting, but if all goes well with visas and geopolitics, I’ll be there for a week in late April for the intensive work.  Here (in Russian) is how they are pitching the plan.


We’re really grateful to everyone who’s applied for positions with us.

From last fall’s search we’re happy to announce Daniel Costantino will be joining us as a new Senior Associate.  Dan has been an emergency planner in recent years but has strong bus network planning credentials from earlier in his career, including a fine thesis on bus network redesign in Montréal.  His French is also better than mine.

We’ve also added GIS analyst and planner Gavin Pritchard and planner Tam Guy.  These folks join our longtime Senior Associates Michelle Poyourow and Evan Landman to help us excel at delivering more projects at once.

And yes, we are still looking for an experienced transit planner to join our team in a more senior role, but there’s no deadline on that.  This is such a consequential hire that it’s more like finding a romantic partner: we’ll know it when we see it, and there’s no point in trying to rush the process.


Who Is Not in the Room? (A Question for 2016)

So we all want to write New Years posts about resolutions we should make — mostly resolutions we could have made last year and will probably make again next year.  To me, this is a good time to make conceptual resolutions — not about what we’ll do, but about how we’ll think, and especially what questions we will ask.  Two years ago, for example, I suggested a resolution against binary thinking — that is, to reject any formation of a problem that is “either-or” or “us vs them” or “win-lose”.

For 2016, let me propose a resolution that’s a little more concrete, maybe a little easier to bring to bear in any situation.

Whatever room I’m in, I resolve to ask “Who is not in the room?”

In other words, ask:  What real points of view, and real dimensions of the human experience, are not represented in this conversation? How could their absence lead us to make a bad decision even with the best of intentions, and how do we compensate for that?

Why this?  Because in many parts of society, including urban planning, the rooms in which decisions are made are getting smaller and less diverse, and that can make for worse decisions, no matter how well-intentioned the people in the room are.  What’s more, creating a diverse room is harder and harder, because people are just less interested in spending any time in rooms with people who don’t share their experience — either physically or online.

So it is easier than ever, in this historical moment, for us to forge a seemingly complete society of people who think just the way we do.  Not just on the internet, but also in physical space: Because I live where I do, and go where I go, I tend to meet people like me.  Every day, I sadly scan my Twitter feed seeking some sentiment that isn’t just reinforcing my own beliefs.  I have this reaction because I want to live in the presence of the real, and this constant emotional reinforcement of my opinions is the opposite.  It makes me feel like a CEO or elected official who is only told what staff thinks they want to hear, and who therefore ends up completely unaware of what’s actually going on.

We can all identify urban planning disasters that arose from only certain people being in the room.  One thing that happens in small rooms, for example, is that people agree too quickly that an ideal implies a technology or product.  Tools are so cool that we mistake the tool for its purpose.  For example: “freedom means cars which means more highways,” (even if that leads to freedom-destroying congestion).   But another example is: “urban redevelopment means rails in the street, but done fast and cheaply, which means streetcars” (even streetcars that don’t function well as transit, because they are stuck in traffic or don’t follow real patterns of demand).

I suspect transit consultants notice the small-room problem more than the average professional does, because in our field we don’t have an organized circle of professionals who reinforce each other’s habits and ways of thought.   Architects and traffic engineers and developers and emergency services planners spend lots of time in rooms with people like them, in conferences and professional organizations.  But transit planning isn’t an especially recognized and accredited profession.  Many powerful people have no idea that it even exists as an expertise.  So transit planners don’t spend much time in rooms where everyone shares their professional knowledge and assumptions.

Like anyone, though, we notice decisions that were made in our absence.  Decisions about street design (often arising from small-room project definitions like “add a bike lane”) may inadvertently wreck the transit operations.  Ditto decisions about land use — such as putting a transit-dependent land use (medical center, senior center, social security office) in a transit-inaccessible location because the land was cheap there, and then expecting transit to run an expensive empty bus just to get to that remote location.   (Businesses make those decisions in small rooms too.  Sometimes they really do move from a downtown office tower to a remote business park, and then ask the transit agency: “Hey, what happened to our transit service?”)

The larger reason transit planners tend to notice small-room problems is that transit is intrinsically a win-win proposition with a long-term payoff.  In fact, the longer-term your view, the more win-win it is.  The most successful transit services of all — rail rapid transit in big cities — work because of the huge diversity of people who find them useful, and because they’ve had a chance to pay off in the long run, by helping the city grow around them. These are the consummate win-win services, not just because there are so many riders from every part of the society, but because so many people benefit from the economic, environmental, and social opportunities that these services create.

But it’s politically hard to develop those kinds of services, because so many people assume that all issues are win-lose.  An elected official will cut short my briefing by asking: “Who are the winners and losers here?”  And let’s admit: Most of us sometimes like winning in ways that require there to be losers.  If we didn’t, nobody would care about sports, or relish the drama of competition.

But if you need there to be losers, then you need there to be people outside the room.  And that will prevent you from designing transit to do what transit does best, which to provide liberation and economic prosperity to a vast diversity of people.

So this is good advice in any field, but it’s really important when hatching transit ideas:  Look around you in your meeting room, or professional conference, or party of like-minded friends, or online forum, and ask:  “Who isn’t here?  And how would this issue look different if they were?”

New Opportunity for Experienced Transit Planners

JWlogoSquareOur firm is busier than it has ever been, and we need to grow quickly to keep up with our demand.  So I want to hear from transit planning professionals who’d like to be a part of it.  If you’re not familiar with our firm, you can read about it here.

This is not a specific job listing with a specific deadline.  Instead, it’s a general notice of interest, which will lead to one or more hires whenever we find the right match and can make a deal that both of us are excited about.

Are you a working transit planner (in consulting or public sector) who’d like a more exciting and adventurous job where your advancement depends entirely on your own skills, creativity, and initiative?  Would you like the chance to grow a strong public profile?   Read on if you:

  •  have a track record of successful project management.  This can be either in consulting or the public sector.
  • have over 2 years of marketable transport planning and/or policy experience.  Direct  network planning experience is ideal but adjacent experience (e.g. transport policy, wayfinding, multimodal planning, corridor studies) can be workable if you are strong on other factors.  In any case, the key word is marketable.  Your resume, as it stands now, must make you interesting to clients as a key part of a consulting team, and also show us you’re ready to handle a diversity of transit planning situations.
  • know a bit about our work and reputation, and are generally supportive of our approaches to things.  Reading a bit of my book, or this blog (try the Basics category), or one of our recent reports (like this one),  will tell you if that’s you.
  • are willing to locate (at least temporarily) in Portland, Oregon.  If you are (or want to be) elsewhere in the US, we are open to deals where you come to Portland for some intensive time, make yourself indispensable, then set up an office on your home turf, but this sets a higher bar for your qualifications.  Our strong preference is to have you here, with us, exchanging ideas and influence in that casual way that only comes from seeing each other.  It must be legal for you to work in the US without major hassles for us apart from a letter of sponsorship.  (This is easy for Canadian urban planners but we haven’t researched other countries.)
  • … can show strong experience with synthetic thinking.  Synthetic means putting things together.  It’s the opposite of analytic, which means taking things apart.  Analysis skills are important too, but you thrive in situations where there are several criteria of success that can’t be converted into a single measure, so you need to come up with ideas that solve several problems at once.  You also enjoy leading others through this kind of thinking, encouraging them to contribute solutions while keeping them on task.
  • … are good at explaining and engaging.  You’re good at public speaking and other interactive events, or think you could grow into that.  Perhaps you aspire to do some of what I do, building a national and international reputation as an explainer, not just a technical expert.
  • … can handle travel, much of it interesting.  We are a national and international practice.  Mostly our clients are all over North America, but we also have strong relationships in New Zealand and Australia, and are currently working in Russia and Iceland.  I travel about 1/3 of the time (and that’s my limit).  The more senior you are with us, and the more you want to grow into a role like mine, the more likely it is that you would too.

It is an especially exciting time to join our firm, because we’re growing from a very small base, and that means two key things.  (1)  You will have a lot of influence on the firm’s next few decisions (I consult heavily with staff and love to delegate) and (2) you will have the opportunity to work on lot of different things.

Compensation and benefits?  For the right person, we will make the right deal based on your experience and salary history.  If you are used to a government job, moving to consulting is almost always a step down in benefits, but often a step up in challenge and opportunity for advancement. If you’re already in consulting, we will be more likely to match your salary and benefit history, at least after 3-6 months.  We prefer to hire a little low and then give steep raises in the first year; raises of over 20% in one year have been common for excellent staff.

Deadline?  As soon as possible, but if this post is still here, it means I’m still interested in hearing from you, because we may make decisions at any time, and we may hire one or several people.

Obviously, we do not discriminate based on race, ethnicity, religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, or any other trait that would not be relevant to your success, and we encourage applications from across all of those dimensions of diversity.

If you think this is you, and you’re interested, send me a resume, cover letter, and some samples of your best work (reports, images, audio, video) using the little envelope icon in the menu bar above.  If you think this might be you, but you have questions, use the same email.

Thanks for reading!  Please spread the word!

Welcome to the New Human Transit! (Same Content as the Old!)

As you can see, this afternoon, the Human Transit blog has had some visual tweaks and changes as we’ve moved our operations over to WordPress. We’re excited to share the new, cleaner look and feel with everyone, and hope that you agree that its a welcome evolution towards a more readable, easier-to-navigate site.

All the old content and comments should still be here.  But moving to a new platform is always a big change, so we hope you’ll pardon our dust as we comb through the back catalog of posts over the coming weeks and make sure everything’s still working. If you see something that doesn’t look right, leave a comment here.

If you read Human Transit using an RSS reader, you may need to update your feed settings to point to here.

Meanwhile, we’ve also updated the firm website, and so we encourage everyone to have a look at that as well.