Vera Katz, 1933-2017

Photo: BJ (Brian Jim) Imagery via Wikipedia.

Vera Katz, mayor of Portland from 1993 to 2005, has passed away at 84.  She began life fleeing from the Nazis, and became one of the most distinctive and effective characters in Oregon politics.  I disagreed with her sometimes but can’t forget the way she could bring out the best in people.  Her 12 years as mayor meant that a whole generation came of age knowing no other leader.

The Oregonian has a fine obituary. Jonathan Maus has a nice review of her urbanist achievements.

Our oldest free weekly, Willamette Week, called her “Portland’s last successful mayor,” which seems a little nasty to me.  The three men who followed her all served just one term, opting not to run for re-election, so I suppose you can say that if you mean sheer longevity in office.

But of course, the job has also gotten harder.  Portland is an angrier place than it was in her time.  News media is more diverse, which is great, but can also be less constructive.  More of the population feels cornered and desperate, due to a greater economic cruelty in the culture that is beyond city government’s power to heal.  The kind of patience and shared effort that Katz could inspire may not be possible now.

Portland’s mayor is legally a weak position, largely a role of chairing the City Council and assigning fellow councilors to supervise different parts of city government.  In my experience, the average citizen has wildly exaggerated expectations for what a Portland mayor can actually do.

In this context, great mayors have succeeded by managing the council, creating space for everyone to excel while steering people toward a common purpose.  But this only happens if there’s an electorate that really wants to reward that kind of co-operation.

I wonder if we’ll notice the moment when the job of Mayor of Portland — and similar weak-mayor positions in other cities — has gone from difficult to impossible.  When a job is impossible, you won’t find competent people who want to do it, and that’s not good for any of the causes you care about.

Toronto: A new King Street for Transit

By Christopher Yuen

For the past few decades, Toronto’s King Street, a frequent transit corridor through the densest and fastest-growing parts of the city, has been increasingly choked by car traffic. Built before the age of the automobile, and running in mixed traffic as was typical with legacy streetcar systems, the 504 King streetcar’s speed has deteriorated to just about walking speed on most days during rush hour. That was until three weeks ago, when the City of Toronto launched a one-year pilot project to restrict car traffic and give transit the space it needs to move. The Globe and Mail has a great piece on the significance of this project here. Details on the project and its design are available at the City of Toronto website here.

King Street Pilot Plan Diagram excerpt

The King Street pilot project prioritizes transit.

The new design of 4-lane King street was particularly thoughtful, given some of the constraints the corridor faces. While transit malls in some cities completely ban non-transit vehicles, existing high-rise parking garages that front onto King Street and businesses throughout the bustling entertainment district without back lane for loading and deliveries meant that vehicular access had to be maintained. Under the new design, left turns and through-travel are prohibited for cars and trucks at all major intersections- requiring drivers to turn right and use alternate streets.

At the approach to intersections, vehicles waiting to turn right form a queue in the right lane, out of the way of transit. At some intersections, cars receive an advance turn signal ahead of pedestrians to ensure the tail of the turning queue does not impede the streetcars.

Taken on a weekday at 4:00pm, this scene would have been much more chaotic with through-traffic blocking transit before the project. Now, cars are channeled to turn right at every intersection. (Photo: Alex Gaio)

Taken on a weekday at 4:00pm, this scene would have been much more chaotic with through-traffic blocking transit before the project. Now, cars are channeled to turn right at every intersection. (Photo: Alex Gaio)

Without through-traffic, having two lanes at the start of each block is no longer necessary, allowing for an important feature for efficient transit operations- far-side stops. Streetcar tracks in Toronto, and in many legacy systems, operate in the middle of the road. To board and alight, passengers must step into the roadway, protected only by a rule prohibiting motorists from passing open streetcar doors. As a result, stops have always been located on the near-side to reduce the risk of drivers making a right turn onto a transit corridor and immediately conflicting with passengers getting on or off a streetcar. Under the new design, streetcars stop on the far side of most intersections, beside barriers that effectively extends the curb to the second lane at the start of each intersection.

New far-side stops with a temporary curb-extension mean passengers no longer have to walk through a traffic lane to get on and off the streetcar. (Photo: Alex Gaio)

New far-side stops with a temporary curb-extension mean passengers no longer have to walk through a traffic lane to get on and off the streetcar. (Photo: Alex Gaio)

In addition to the obvious safety benefits of the new design, the far-side stops also allow transit vehicles to travel faster. Traffic signals along Toronto’s King Street already feature transit signal priority- they detect an approaching transit vehicle to hold a green light, or shorten a red light. With near-side stops, the unpredictable dwell times at stops would sometimes cause the traffic-signal to time-out, leaving the transit vehicle with a red light just as it closes its doors and is ready to get moving. Far side stops allow signals to be held for a streetcar to get through an intersection before stopping for passengers.

The new design also re-allocates curb space as loading zones, taxi stands and for new seating and patio space mid-block- all valuable features for a dense, mixed-use central business district which would not have been possible when all four lanes have been dedicated to the throughput of cars.

New public spaces like this will become especially valuable when patio season begins.

New public spaces like this will become especially valuable when patio season begins. (Photo: Alex Gaio)

Since its launch, public support has been for the most part, positive. The all-at-once approach to implementing this pilot across the corridor has ensured that the new inconvenience to some drivers has also been matched with a drastic, noticeable, and immediate improvement for everyone else. Across the twittersphere, Torontonians are reporting anecdotes of more consistent departures and trips taking half as they did previously.

Even among some taxi drivers, subject to the same turn restrictions throughout the day, initial skepticism appears to have eased.

Preliminary analysis of GPS data shows that the project is working, significantly reducing both the average and the spread of travel times.  However, it remains to be seen if enough drivers will comply with the new restrictions once the initial enforcement blitz is over. If New York or San Francisco‘s bus lanes offer any guidance, Toronto should introduce automatic camera enforcement along the corridor. Over the course of this one-year pilot project, municipal staff and the transit agency will be sure to monitor the situation closely and make adjustments based on actual results.

Cities, faced with growing populations and spatial constraints, must defend the right for transit to move if they wish to limit the negative impacts of traffic congestion. Toronto’s King Street offers a story of how that can be done quickly and effectively.

 

Christopher Yuen is an associate at Jarrett Walker+Associates and will be regularly contributing to this blog.

Notes on the New Microsoft Campus

Microsoft has unveiled plans for a complete rebuild of its headquarters in Redmond, Washington, in the eastern suburbs of Seattle.    Corporations have long wanted to make their headquarters feel like universities — hence their love of the word campus — but this one is much closer to delivering on that image. complete with retail, generous plazas and open space, and — very important — the removal of through car traffic.

Artist-rendering_Microsoft-Redmond-campus

It’s most important feature is its relationship to the new light rail station that will open on the edge of the campus in 2023.  A central axis of the campus points right to the station, minimizing walk distances to all campus destinations.  The station is just off the image to the upper right.  It’s not the town of circa 1900 town where density crowded around the station, but then rail stations in 1900 weren’t in ravines next to freeways.  This campus represents the best of what you can do given the suburban nature of the urban fabric, land ownership, and transportation infrastructure. It’s no substitute for locating in the old fabric of a dense city — as Amazon and Twitter did and Google is planning to do — but it’s a great start toward building a more human urban environment in a difficult context.

None of the materials I’ve seen mentions the parking ratios, however.  How many spaces per employee?  Too much parking would destroy the whole point.

 

 

 

 

 

Albuquerque: A Rare “Gold” BRT

Albuquerque’s new Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) line is open, and it’s different from most such projects that we’re seeing in US cities of similar size.  Quite simply, most of it is protected from traffic congestion, thanks to a median bus-only lane.  It’s the red segment (with green stations) on this map (full map here)

ABQ brt map

Albuquerque BRT alignment. Red with green stations denotes exclusive bus lanes.

This is why it’s being called a “Gold” standard right of way by the global Institute for Transport and Development Policy (ITDP).  ITDP Gold is not just another feel-g0od award; it has a specific meaning in their international BRT standard, and the core point is protection from traffic.

ABQ BRT station

Yes, the lanes are red. No excuse for not seeing them. (Photo: Albuquerque Rapid Transit, http://www.brtabq.com/)

Many, many US BRT projects start out with exclusive lanes, but then make too many compromises along the way.  In the worst cases, they end up as a bunch of nice infrastructure but little or no improvement in travel times.  My own view is that if a bus does not have protection from traffic in the segments where it is needed to deliver a reliable operation, then it’s not BRT.  For example, Las Vegas has a fine segment of busway that delivers buses from the traffic jam of downtown to the traffic jam of the Las Vegas Strip, but it doesn’t exist where it’s most needed, which is to get through those jams.

Albuquerque’s looks like a breakthrough in this regard.

And no, it’s not a problem that the buses continue beyond the end of the right of way to do further things in mixed traffic at the east end of the line.  One of the great virtues of BRT is that it can do this.  The vehicles are not confined to the infrastructure, as rail transit is, so they can continue to key destinations beyond the busway itself.  Of course, if those mixed traffic segments become too congested, the busway will eventually need to be extended further.

So congratulations to Albuquerque.  It looks like the opening day went well.  I hope the system helps other cities see the benefits of not compromising on the most critical element of BRT — protection from traffic delay.

Should Transit Agencies Listen More? What Would That Mean?

It’s popular to claim that what’s wrong with transit is that transit agencies “don’t listen” to riders or potential riders, and that doing so would produce better transit service. Is this true?

In some respects, and in some agencies, I’m sure it is. But the implied accusation here can also be false and misleading.

Most transit agencies I know put a lot of effort into getting and managing input from the public, both riders and non-riders. The problem is not that agencies aren’t listening. It’s that most of the things they hear are not things that the they can do something about, or at least not without harming other people. As a result, they don’t appear to be doing anything in response to what they hear, which can feed the idea that they didn’t listen.

In fact, one of the most common mistakes in transit planning — a mistake encouraged by too many elected officials — is to change something in a way that satisfies a noisy complaint but makes the service worse for everyone else. This is exactly why the simplicity and usefuless of bus systems tends to deteriorate over time — requiring the occasional intervention of a network redesign.

There are really four problems here:
  1. Public feedback processes can never represent people who are busy.  Have you ever attended a public meeting where everyone who came to give comments was either retired or unemployed?  Probably not, because you’re too busy, but I have been to maybe 100 such meetings as a professional.  We love retired and unemployed people too, but a transit system designed around the tastes of people with lots of spare time is likely to be different from one designed for busy people.   The more time it takes to submit a comment, the worse this distortion is, so it’s worst in public meetings and much better with web surveys, intercept surveys and so on. Still, any kind of listening requires a busy person to engage, so busy people will be under-represented.  And most people are busy.
  2. Public feedback tends to be low-altitude.  It expresses desires and aversions about specific bus routes or stops, or some detailed aspect of the service.  Sometimes these can be addressed at their correct micro scale, but again, often the result is harm to someone else.  And it’s hard to derive any useful advice about the big policy decisions a government must make from this kind of input.
  3. Public feedback tends not to talk about priorities, but only about desires and aversions.  For example, most unstructured public comments will say “spend more here” without saying where the agency should spend less.
  4. Public feedback is often laced with abuse.  Because so many public comments are not actionable for the reasons outlined above, some members of the public assume that this inaction means that the transit agency isn’t listening, and that they therefore need to yell louder.  And of course, many people are also just angry about other things and direct this anger at anyone who seems to be in authority.  (Bulletin: There is a lot of agony and rage in society, especially in the US, for many good reasons that your transit manager can’t do much to fix.)

I have been listening to public comments about transit for 25 years — and making them for 15 years before that — so trust me when I say that these patterns are really obvious. I do not want to imply that agencies are perfect in how they respond to comments, but I do know that they work harder at this than almost anyone gives them credit for.

Our firm knows of some ways to work with these problems, and we are delighted to see these strategies used more widely.  To put it simply, we never ask the public to tell us what they want.  We ask them to tell us about priorities:  How would you choose between this or that?  If you want more of this, what should there be less of?  We also put a lot of effort into helping people gain altitude, which means thinking about your personal complaint or idea might be an example of a bigger principle worth talking about.  Many transit problems — including good network redesign — can only be fixed by first viewing them at a high altitude, looking at the structure of the entire city or the policies that govern the transit agency.  So we need to help people come to the necessary altitude to influence those decisions at the scale where they actually occur.

For this reason, our studies rely heavily on groups of invited stakeholders, who are selected because they (a) represent lots of other people, (b) collectively represent the diversity of the community, and (c) have the time and professional interest to focus on the problem.  These stakeholders get an intensive education in the high-altitude questions that govern a network design, and the opportunity to have input on them.  In return, they commit to represent the study to their own communities of interest — by presenting to whatever groups they represent and helping those groups to engage.  This isn’t perfect, but it’s the least bad way we know of to get input at the right altitude — which requires some education and focus — while still hearing about the experience and perspectives of a diverse public.

Of course, this is only a part of a strategy that also includes a lot of web-based surveying of the public, sometimes with both brief and long surveys to reward different levels of attention and curiosity.

All this is hard, and the outcomes are never perfect, and someone, somewhere is always still angry at the end, but it’s the least bad way we’ve found to have an inclusive and respectful conversation that still reaches a decision, so that something can change for the better.

So be careful about accusing your transit system of not listening. If anything, the problem is often that they listen too passively, rather than reaching out and asking the public the hard questions about priorities that would help them know what’s really expected of them.  And remember, public outreach is incredibly hard and the people who do it get yelled at no matter what they do.  Be kind.

Portland: A Chat with the Transit Board of Directors

On November 8 I was the guest of the Board of Directors of the Portland area transit agency, TriMet, for a two hour workshop on issues facing the agency.  It was not so much a presentation as a freewheeling discussion, where Board members got to engage with me, question some of my ideas, and sharpen their own views.  I rarely have a chance to engage with transit planning in my own home town, so I was really honored by this opportunity.

Most of you have much better things to do than listen to two hours of this, but for those special folks who love these things, it’s here.  There’s some cool new philosophical stuff at the beginning.

My part runs 0:24:26 to 2:28:30. There’s some further relevant Board/staff discussion, about where to go with the agency at 3:50.

 

San Jose / Silicon Valley: Free Connections Make a Network

One of our recent projects was a major redesign for the bus system in Silicon Valley, more exactly Santa Clara County, in California.  The plan has been approved by the Board of Directors of the transit agency, VTA, but is stuck waiting for the BART rapid transit extension around which it was designed.

Still, the agency is moving ahead with the most critical step: getting rid of the fare penalties for getting off of one bus or train and onto another.  (This act is commonly called transferring, although I recommend calling it connecting.)  These penalties are common, but they are also insane.  Connecting from one transit vehicle to another is exactly what customers need to do in a maximally efficient network that gets the most people to the most places fastest.  Connections, in short, are what combines a pile of lines into a network.  It is insane to make customers pay extra to do the thing that uses your resource most efficiently.

The new network is a high-frequency grid system — and so, to some degree, is the existing one.  Here’s the new network, with frequent lines in black, red and orange.   (Download sharper version here.)

VTA Final Plan compressed

Wherever red lines cross, you can “turn” by changing from one transit line to the other, and because of the high frequency, the next bus or train will be along soon.  Imagine what driving would be like if there were special surcharges for turning!

To eliminate these penalties, of course, is to lose some revenue, at least initially.  So you usually have to raise the base cash fare to compensate, which sets off all kinds of alarms about “raising fares.”  VTA is raising its base fare only modestly, from $2.00 to $2.25.

But really, this shouldn’t be called raising the fare at all, because it is vastly increasing what the fare buys.  Instead of buying service only along the line you happen to be on, the new fare buys access all over the city and county.  Yes, some people who’ve built their lives around a single transit line will complain, but in such a decentralized county, with so many destinations throughout, it’s only a matter of luck if your home and destination are on the same line.  To really get places, you need connections.

Learning from Portland’s “For Rent” Signs

Screenshot-2017-10-26-10.53.15

Photo: City Observatory

Joe Cortright spreads the good news that “For Rent” signs are proliferating across Portland, signaling an easing of the affordable housing crisis.  And he points out a critical thing that many activists miss.  That luxury housing that affordability advocates decry does improve affordability for everyone.

The … myth is that you can’t make housing affordable by building more of it, particularly if new units are more expensive than existing ones. The surge in vacancies in existing apartments is an indication of the interconnectedness of apartment supply, and an illustration of how construction of new high end, market-rate units lessens the price pressure on the existing housing stock. When you don’t build lots of new apartments, the people who would otherwise rent them bid up the price of existing apartments. The reverse is also true: every household that moves into a new apartment is one fewer household competing for the stock of existing apartments. This is why, as we’ve argued, building more “luxury” apartments helps with affordability.  As our colleagues at the Sightline Institute recently observed, you can build your way to affordable housing. In fact, building more supply is the only effective way to reduce the pressure that is driving up rents.  (Emphasis added.)

Why mention this on a transit blog?  Because the mistake activists make here is the same one that many transit advocates make, which is to think of wealth as a set of boxes, called classes, that never intermix or affect each other.  It’s the same mistake that underlies the false dichotomy of “choice” and “dependent” riders in transit planning, the notion that you need separate services for each type of rider because they are absolutely different kinds of people who will never mix.

In fact, wealth is a spectrum.  People are everywhere along it.  Admittedly, this is less true that it once was, but it’s still true.  So although people certainly differ in wealth and thus in the options they have, they are still part of the same diverse market — for housing, as for transit.  When advocating for a fairer and more equal economic world, don’t lose track of this.  Don’t become so focused on us-them differences that you miss the solution that improves things for everyone, including you.

 

 

Anchorage: Alaska’s First Frequent Network

We’re happy to announce that Anchorage’s new bus network, for which we were the planning consultants, went live yesterday.  Without adding much operating cost, it introduces a network of four frequent lines — shown in red — where there were previously none. See these maps in high resolution here.

Anchorage Comparison Maps on letterhead

Again, the colors matter: red means high frequency (every <=15 minutes) while blue means every 30 minutes, green means every 60 minutes, and brown means less frequent than that.

(And if you like trivia, this is the northernmost Frequent Network in its hemisphere!)

This plan was the result of a two-stage public conversation which began by thinking about the trade-off between ridership goals and coverage goals.  The first round of that process led to a decision to lean heavily toward ridership — which means focusing resources where demand is highest instead of trying to cover the whole city.  So as always, a no-growth plan isn’t good news for everyone.  You can see several route segments disappearing.

We worked hard, though, to minimize that impact.  In the urban grid in the northern part of the city, lots of little hourly segments winding between the major grid streets have been removed, but there is still some service within walking distance for most of these people.  Further south and west, the development pattern is more scattered and less walkable, so focusing on high-demand areas meant complete deletion of service to some low-demand areas.

Remember, we didn’t propose this shift toward ridership.  As always, we laid out options and let the community decide.  If a community decided it wanted less frequency in order to have more coverage, we’d help them do that, too.

Another moral to this story: Active political leadership matters!  These plans usually need at least one political leader to show active interest, not just passive support.  Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz took personal interest in this project, engaging with it far more than any mayor in any city we’ve worked in so far.  His leadership was critical to pushing it over the line.

We really enjoyed collaborating with the great staff at Anchorage’s municipal transit department, People Mover.  It was a fun project for us from start to finish, because we were dealing with people who were really enthusiastic about making a better system.