The Absurdity of Counting Bus Routes

When presenting a plan, I’ll sometimes be asked to count bus routes.  How many bus routes change in the plan?  How many bus routes still go into the urban core?

These questions have nothing to do with the quality or quantity of transit service.  They have nothing to do with anyone’s ability to get anywhere, or even with how much the service is changing.  The number of bus routes measures one thing only: the complexity of the service.

Here’s how this works:

A bus route is a path followed by some number of buses during the day.  A route may be followed by one bus a day or by a bus every two minutes; either way, it counts as one route.

The number of bus routes can also be changed by how they are named or numbered.  Say a bus route is mostly the same but has a branch on one end, where some buses go one way and some go the other. Is that one bus route or two?  The answer to that question changes the number of bus routes, even though the service itself is identical in either case.

If you want to talk about service quantity, the correct unit is service hours (or service km), where this means one bus operating in service for an hour (or km).

Why count bus routes then?  Only if you are making a point about complexity.  The number of routes in a network is a measure of how complicated the service is.  In this post, for example, I show how a three-route system gets everyone where they’re going faster than a nine-route system, with the added benefit that three routes are easier to keep in your head than nine.

In our Dublin bus network redesign proposal, the number of routes goes from 130 to about 100.  Stated in isolation that sounds like a service cut, when in fact we are just running more buses on simpler routes.  We are expanding service, and making it more useful, by reducing complexity.  Practically nobody is losing service; most people are seeing a measurable improvement

The more routes a system has, the more complexity you have to remember.  Spreading a service budget across more routes also means those routes are less frequent and therefore less useful.

And again, the real measure of a network plan is where people can get to in a reasonable amount of time.  In the Dublin proposal, for example, the average Dubliner can get to 20% more jobs (counting student enrolments) in 45 minutes.  That’s a real expansion in the liberty and opportunity that people experience in their daily lives.  Are you sure the number of bus routes matters more than that?

 

Dublin: How Much Could the Draft Network Change?

While our Dublin network redesign is open for public comment, I’ll be posting some frequently asked questions here.

How much change could we make to the plan in response to public comment?

In a July 18 article in the Irish daily The Independent, Paul Melia wrote that “Only minor changes can be made to a radical restructuring of the Dublin Bus network unveiled last week or it will “fall apart”.  The headline is “Only ‘minor changes’ can be made to radical plan for Dublin Bus.”

“Minor” is the reporter’s word, not mine.  I did say that if you change more than about 15% of the network it will fall apart.  But 15% is not minor.  While the plan is a dramatic change, at least half of it consists of service on streets served now, doing something much like what it does now.  So compared to the amount of the network we’re actually changing, 15% is very substantial.

Under the plan, 77% more people can get to DCU in 45 minutes, and someone living near there can get to 44% more jobs in that time. (You can find these for many point around Dublin at busconnects.ie)  But this isn’t the result of certain routes. It’s the result of a whole network of connections involving many possible routes you could use.

Why is there a limit to how much we could change the network?

The defining feature of a network the interdependence of its parts.  We did not just design a set of routes.  We designed a pattern of connections.  The connections, as much as the routes, governs how much of Dublin people can get to in a reasonable amount of time.  So we will resist changing a route in a way that destroys or damages a connection, because the connections — the ease of getting off this bus and onto that one so that you can get to more places — are the essence of how the plan achieves its benefits.

Having said that, we will make changes.  Quite possibly lots of them.  But we will be mindful of this principle when we do.

How Can We Study Things in Isolation? They’re Connected!

Whenever I present a bus network redesign plan, I’m always accused of ignoring important things.  How can I design a bus network, people say, without also planning for bus lanes, or bicycle parking, or road pricing, or parking policy, or urban structure? These things are all connected, they say!

Yes, they are all connected. But despite being connected, many planning tasks are separable:

  • Two projects are connected if they affect each other’s outcomes. For example, a network redesign and a bus lane project will certainly improve each other’s benefits over what either could do alone.  A rail line and a bus line parallel to it are competitors that will undermine each other’s outcomes, so they are connected too.  (Deep ecologists would say that almost everything is connected in this sense.)
  • Two projects are separable if one can be done before the others, and will achieve some benefits  by itself, even while waiting for the other connected parts to happen.

I know why people get anxious about this, because we all see situations where things were separated that really were inseparable. A rail line and a freeway are built side by side, without noting how each will reduce the demand for the other.  Maybe bus routes are designed without thought to connections between them, or worse, great infrastructure for bus connections gets built in a place where it’s not actually useful to the bus service.  A public transit service ends at a political boundary even though the demand doesn’t end there.  These are all examples of projects being separated when they were not really separable.

On the other hand, no human brain can focus on everything at once.  If we tried to do bus network redesign, fleet modernization, bus lanes, bike parking, road pricing, and parking policy as part of one project, it would never get off the ground.  Just co-ordinating the hundreds of experts needed to deal with all dimensions of such a project would consume most of our effort.

More important, in any project, everything moves at the speed of the slowest element, which is why it so often takes forever to get things done.

So separating projects is the only way for anything to happen soon. We are not denying that everything is connected. We are saying we have to start somewhere, and make some progress, even as other pieces of the puzzle are in the works.

Like any plan, a good network redesign effort requires clear thinking about separability.  A redesign is mainly a revision of the patterns in which buses run, but this process always identifies infrastructure and policy changes that are also needed. Sometimes these are truly inseperable:  The specified number of buses can’t meet at point A unless the facility there is enlarged to have room for them.  If the plan requires people to change buses at an intersection, we need to make sure there’s shelter and safe street crossings, and so on.  If the fare structure is penalizing changing buses, that needs to be fixed if our plan wants to encourage that.

But we fight to make the list of inseparable things as short as possible, because every time we decide that something is inseperable from the plan, that becomes one more thing that could stop the whole plan if it hits some kind of snag.  We ask:  Would the redesign still be possible, and worth doing, if some infrastructure or policy element doesn’t get done?  Sometimes this leads to good tactical thinking:  Can we do this necessary interchange quickly on-street, even while waiting for the funding and consensus to do the permanent facility that’s really needed?  Can we make some patches to the fare system while the ultimate system is still being worked out?

Another test is:  Does doing Project A without Project B actually make things worse?  If not, this is another signal that the projects are probably separable. The answer, for bus network redesigns, is almost always no.  By itself, redesign will achieve significant improvement even as it leaves a lot of other frustrating problems in place.  But getting it done may make other improvements politically easier if the result is that public transit is more visible, more used, and thus more widely valued.

So when people respond to a network redesign proposal by being angry that it doesn’t talk about bike lanes, electric buses, or road pricing, they’re confusing connectedness with inseparability.  Our network redesign study isn’t ignorant of those things just because we’re not talking about them.  We’re just talking about something different, something that’s also important and needs some attention.  A good network redesign, if allowed to succeed, will make all those other things easier.  And in any case, the redesign itself is important enough, and hard enough to explain, that it deserves the public’s full attention for a few weeks.

Everything is connected, but many things are still separable.  That’s a good thing, because if they weren’t, nothing would get done.

Dublin: A New Bus Network for a More Liberated City

For 18 months, our firm has been working with National Transport Authority of Ireland (NTA) to develop a redesign of Dublin’s bus network.  We studied every bus route, drew hundreds of maps of data and ideas, and spent a week locked in a conference room with experts from NTA, the bus operating company Dublin Bus, and staff from the local governments.  Once we had a rough plan we spent more months refining and analysing.  It’s been a long journey.

Last week, the plan was released for public comment. The plan revises the entire network, creating a much simpler pattern that people can learn, remember, and explain. As usual, fewer routes mean more service: the number of routes falls from 130 to 102, as a huge high-frequency network, in a spiderweb grid pattern, extends across most of the city.

Our key goal was improving access.  We wanted to speed up people’s trips, but we prefer to say that we wanted to expand the range of places that could be reached in a fixed amount of time.  We wanted people to get to more places, sooner, so that they would have more opportunities in their lives.   In short, we want public transport to give people more freedom.

Here is what we were trying to do. Under the plan, in 45 minutes of travel time, a person near DCU gains access to the blue area and loses access to the red area. That means she can get to 44% more jobs and student enrolments (and other useful places) that she can get to. That’s freedom and opportunity! The average result across all of Dublin is a 20% growth in where you can get to.

Under the plan, the average Dubliner can get to 20% more useful places in 45 minutes.  “Useful places” means jobs and student enrolments, which are easy to count with Irish data, but of course you can expect similar results for shopping and for all kinds of other destinations that give value to our lives.

You can explore the network here, But if you want to understand why the plan looks as it does, here’s a link to the summary reportand (our favourite) our full report, which you can download, chapter by chapter, at the bottom of the front page.  (Chapter 7 has the detailed explanation of the network, but the others all help explain the big picture ofwhy we propose this.)   Don’t be afraid of the full report!  It is written in plain non-technical English with lots of interesting pictures, and it lays out every aspect of the plan, including the thought process by which it was designed.

To understand the plan, you must understand the maps.  The front page has links to maps of the entire network before and after.  After you look at the map, you can look here or a table that will tell you exactly how often every route will run at every hour of every day.

But to understand the maps, you must look at the legend.  Our firm’s usual mapping style is dense with information, but therefore contains a couple of things that you need to learn.  Most of the early expressions of panic and confusion have been based on misreadings of the map.

In our maps:

  • Colour means frequency.Red means high frequency, and cooler colours mean lower.  (The colours mean midday frequency; see the frequency tablefor frequency at rush hour and other times, and see here for peak-only routes that may be relevant to your area.)
  • Change in colour may not indicate that a route ends.It often means that the frequency changes but the route continues. Watch the route numbers to be clear.
  • The map describes the weekday midday condition.There are also peak-only routes here, and most routes have higher frequency during the peak and lower frequency in the evening.  To understand what the frequency of a route will be at any hour of the day or night, see here.

A network redesign is both a big idea and 10,000 details. Over the past week, in presentations to the media and to local government councils, I focused on the big idea:

  • more service …
  • to more places …
  • so that you get there sooner …
  • with a little more interchanging (transferring in US parlance)

But of course the questions and objections were more about the details:

  • How dare I take away my direct route to the city?  Because it’s really infrequent and inefficient, and we can get you there sooner another way.  If we give you more frequent service to a nearby hub, we can connect you to much faster service to the city, so in the end, counting waiting time, you get there sooner.  We can also connect you to countless places you can’t get to now at all.
  • How can people change buses, or walk to a different stop in an intersection, when it’s windy and raining? The plan includes good shelter at every interchange point.  But the deeper answer is this:  People change buses in Houston (hot and humid with fierce thunderstorms) and in brutally cold places like Moscow, Anchorage, and Edmonton.  Everyone always cites their climate as a reason people won’t interchange, but in every climate, if interchanging is the way to get places fast, people do.  Most people have adapted to their climate. They know how to do things outdoors in it, and therefore can work with it when changing buses.
  • How will this affect older people and people with disabilities? There is an unavoidable tension between senior and disabled needs – which are much more inconvenienced by interchange – and everyone else, and a network designed solely around senior/disabled preferences for minimum walk and interchange is simply too slow to be useful for the rest of the population.  Again, attention is being given to making interchanges as convenient as possible, including for people with limited mobility, but a balance must be struck.
  • Isn’t this connected to a lot of other things? How can you work on it in isolation? I’ll address that one in the next post.

Whether you live in Dublin or not, I hope you enjoy this work.  The full report is the most advanced piece of work our firm done yet.  I can’t speak highly enough of the team at NTA, who have shown clarity and courage throughout this predictably difficult process.

If you do live in Dublin, you MUST complete an online survey.  If a link to it is not here, it will be there very soon.  Yes, that’s a command. Too often, people take the attitude that public comment is just for show, and that the government is going to do what they want anyway.  When that happens, people who like the plan take it for granted, and people who hate it feel like they have to scream to get their  point through. So we get nothing but screaming, which makes the plan look like a failure.

So Dubliners: even if you like the plan, you must fill out an online survey.  If you don’t it may not happen. 

Philadelphia: A First Step toward a Better Bus Network

Our work on the bus network design for Philadelphia has finally produced a report!  The transit agency, SEPTA, hired us a year ago to study the city’s bus network (separate from suburban services) and identify what issues a network design might address.

Jason Laughlin at the Philadelphia Inquirer has a good story here.  Plan Philly, a project of NPR station WHYY, has a story here.

Our report makes no recommendations.  We studied the network in great detail, and then made statements that all implicitly start with if.  We present options, show their consequences, and invite the community to think about the trade-offs these options imply.

If you wanted a network that increased where people can go in a given amount of time, and thus made transit useful for more purposes, you would consider these possibilities:

  • Be open to changing the network to some degree, even though this would change the travel patterns that existing riders are used to. Are the benefits worth the need for some riders to adjust to new travel patterns?
  • Widen stop spacing from about 500 ft (150m) to at least 1000 feet. European stop spacing is often well above 1500 ft (450m). Philadelphia’s bus stops are unusually close together even by US standards.  This means slower service.
  • Be willing to ask some people to change buses who now have a direct ride, often in cases where their total trip would be faster because they would wait less.(Does that sound wrong?  It did to me at first.  It’s explained here.)

The next step that we recommend is to encourage some public conversation about these and other choices, before a recommended network is designed.  Our work has ended on this project, but we certainly hope to be involved in the future.  Meanwhile, read the report!

Portland Plans Faster, More Reliable Buses

The Portland Bureau of Transportation has released the long-awaited Enhanced Transit Corridors plan, a set of policies and strategies to increase the speed and reliability of Portland’s major bus lines.  As in many cities, Portland’s bus lines have been slowing down about 1% a year, which is slowly eating away at people’s access to all kinds of opportunity.

The plan also points the way for the City of Portland to be a more active leader in transit policy, much as the City of Seattle has done so effectively.

The Portland Bureau of Transportation invited me to draft the Executive Summary, which offers some examples of ways to make this topic urgent for more people.  I’m happy with how it came out, and people fighting similar battles in other cities may find it useful.

Here’s the Executive Summary.  Here’s the rest of the report.

Portland residents: Have your say at or before the City Council hearing on June 20 at 2 pm, in the Council Chambers.  You can also submit comments before June 20 by writing to cctestimony at portlandoregon dot gov, cc: etcplan at portlandoregon dot gov.  It would be great if our City Council heard, loud and clear, how important this effort is.

 

The rise of “Super Commuters”

The Apartment List Rentonomics blog, which writes on real-estate statistics and economics, recently posted a census analysis on the “Rise of Supercommuters”.  It describes a recent increase in the percentage of people with commutes 90 minutes or longer each way.  This thoughtful analysis is well worth a read.  It finds that:

  • Nationwide, one in 36 commuters are super commuters, traveling 90+ minutes to work each day, spending hours on public transportation or battling traffic.
  • Super commuting is becoming increasingly common: the share of super commuters increased 15.9 percent from 2.4 percent in 2005 to 2.8 percent in 2016.
  • The share of super commuters is highest in expensive metros with strong economies — New York, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., Atlanta and Los Angeles, and in their surrounding areas.
  • Super commuters are more likely to rely on public transportation than those with shorter commutes. An estimated 91.4 percent of non-super commuters drive to work, compared to just 69.7 percent of super commuters.
  • In most U.S. metros, low-income commuters are more reliant on public transportation than high-income commuters, creating a nexus between super-commuting and poverty. When transit usage falls sharply with income it suggests that transit is used out of financial necessity rather than as a lifestyle choice.

But the term “Super Commuter” sounds too heroic.  “Super commutes” aren’t something to celebrate.  People should be free to arrange their lives this way, but shouldn’t be forced to by the housing market.

For the commuter, spending three hours of unpaid time a day commuting is only a response to a lack of reasonable alternatives.  For taxpayers, it represents a high cost- both in providing infrastructure, and in increased traffic congestion.  The US Census itself calls commutes over 90 minutes “Extreme commutes”.  That to me, better describes these long commutes- they are something that a few people may have to do because of their job or family situation, but something that shouldn’t be made the new normal.  “Extreme” also captures the right connotation.  As in “extreme sports,” it suggests something that most people would rather watch than do, and that many don’t even want to hear about.

We can also draw parallels between increases in in the prevalence of these extreme commutes and the decrease in overall transit ridership over the past few years.  They are both symptoms of the suburbanization of poverty, and to some extent, the middle class.  These suburbs are not geometrically conducive to high-ridership transit, and as a result the transit options are poor, so many people who move there, resort to driving.  But driving such long distances every day can cost thousands of dollars over the course of a year, so some people would still rather endure the low frequencies and limited spans of suburban transit service to access the city.

The article goes on to conclude that:

Reversing the growth in super commuting requires investment in both increasing housing supply and improving transportation.

Both increasing housing supply and improving transportation have the potential to reduce commute distances, but the location of this new housing and improved transportation are crucial.  Transit always achieves higher ridership per hour of service in dense, mixed-use urban centers, than in unwalkable outlying suburbs, so if we want to reduce the percentage of transit commutes that take more than 90 minutes each way, we will have to substantially increase densities in places where fast, frequent, and useful transit is most feasible.  That means a mixture of housing and jobs, and building up, not out.

 

Santa Cruz: Video of My Evening Presentation

In May 2017 I made a quick trip to Santa Cruz, California to do presentations both to the public and to the Regional Transportation Commission.  Some of my presentation is my usual shtick, but I also talked a lot about chokepoints in the Bay Area, and was also asked to comment on a local proposal (proponents, opponents) to remove the rails from a rail corridor in order to create a wider and more attractive active modes path (though a functional path alongside the rail is possible in any case.)

It’s here.  There’s quite a Q&A as well.

Is Anyone Owed a Transit Line?

San Francisco’s regional rapid transit agency, BART, just voted not to build a long-planned extension to the eastern suburb of Livermore.

To create the consensus to start the BART system, over 50 years ago, unfunded promises were made of future extensions into outer suburbs. The need to fulfill these promises is one of the top arguments for these extensions.

But are these promises wise, or for that matter, should they be believed?

When you promise some Town X a transit line, that’s logically equivalent to saying:  “You in Town X don’t have to do anything to make this line happen, or succeed.”  In other words, it doesn’t matter whether Town X …

  • … allows the transit line to go a place where there will be destinations in walking distance, and where it’s safe and easy to walk.
  • … plans major intensification around the transit line, so that there will be lots of demand there.
  • … allows the line to be built in a way that’s reasonably cost-effective for the transit agency.

This problem arises with all kinds of transit, from rapid transit lines to local bus services.  Leaders from Town X talk about transit as though it’s their entitlement as taxpayers, rather than something that they have to help succeed.  Logically, this leads to creating more transit lines where the necessary conditions for success are absent.  That leads, in turn, to accusations that the transit system is failing, when in fact it’s running intentionally low ridership services for non-ridership reasons.

A similar problem arises when the transit agency allows itself to be the sole advocate for a transit expansion to Town X.  This gives Town X the same message: The transit agency will do all the work; we don’t really have to help.  That’s why I am always advising that advocacy for expansion should not come from the transit agency.

So be careful what you promise, and be careful how seriously you take unfunded promises, especially ones made long ago.   In ridership terms, transit succeeds only in partnership with local government.  For that partnership to work, it must be clear that if the local government doesn’t do what’s really needed, the transit may not happen.