Paris: The Triumph of the Bus Stop

Do you think bus service is never as “permanent” as rail service?  Well, it depends on how much infrastructure you build, and how proudly it announces the bus service as an essential part of the cityscape, both as icon and as opportunity.

Each time I visit Paris there’s something new in its public transit, but these new bus stop signs, now standard across the city, are remarkable.

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They’re around 4m (12 ft) high, towering over the bus shelter to which they’re attached.  At night they are the most prominent informational icons in the streetscape, by an order of magnitude.

Look closer:

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Every stop has a name, reaffirming your sense of your place in the city.  (At night, these are actually the easiest locational signs to read, so they have navigational value extending beyond transit.)  For each route, there’s the number, the endpoint (indicating direction of travel) and the number of minutes until the next bus arrives.  If you know the network, you don’t even have to look down to know where you are, and when the next bus is coming.

Here’s one in the daytime, when the little realtime displays are harder to catch in a photo.

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I don’t have a good pic of the entire shelter, but it has everything you’d expect of a rail stop, including maps of each route, a diagram of the bus network, a diagram of the metro and regional rail network, and timetable and fare information.  It also has more extensive realtime information displays, showing the next several buses departing.

On the other hand, it doesn’t have the extraneous things that my architecture and built-environment friends often suggest, such as distinctive architectural designs or “community hub” features like coffee vending or (yes) lending libraries — all of which have been explored.  A big city needs lots of bus stops, so the ideas that matter are the ones that scale.  In any case, the more you respect your bus system, the more you can celebrate it for what it is, rather than expecting it to entertain us in ways that distract from the liberty it provides.

When I lived in Paris in 1986, the buses and bus shelters were like what most Americans are used to: basic, functional, but sometimes dirty and poorly maintained.  It was presumed, back then, that the Metro and regional rail systems were the serious transit, and that the buses didn’t matter much, and the infrastructure reinforced that message.

All that has changed.  Buses are so nice that you can scarcely distinguish them from trams (streetcars).  Many streets have car-free lanes that buses can use.  Now, with these pillars of information, bus stops are even easier to find than metro stations, and almost as easy to navigate.

There are several principles at work here:

  • The more subways you have, the more surface transit you need.  This excellent bus system operates right on top of the world’s densest metro network (in terms of stations/sq km).  Almost everyone in Paris is near a metro station, but there are still plenty of markets (short trips, trips along paths not followed by metro) where surface transit is the right tool.
  • Unless you already have streetcar tracks everywhere, the only surface transit that can cover your whole city, soon, is bus service.
  • So if you want an effective transit system for everyone, you have to convey that the bus system matters, through network design, branding, and infrastructure.
  • The order is important.  First get the network design right, then develop branding that works with the network design.  Finally, conceive infrastructure that serves and celebrates both.

I could quibble with Paris on that last point.  As with most bus networks, Paris’s seems to be more complex than it needs to be, though a modest simplification is underway, as you can see by playing the map here* .  The signage doesn’t help us distinguish major routes from minor ones.  Imagine the extreme transparency that would arise from fusing Paris’s level of bus signage with Barcelona’s commitment to extreme simplicity and legibility in network design.

But the big point is this:  Buses can be as liberating and efficient as your city wants them to be.  The more efficient and liberating they are, the more they deserve to be celebrated in infrastructure.  The bus stop is one of the biggest signals, to everyone in the city, about the community’s attitude toward buses and their customers.

 


* At this page, you can move the map left or right to see the changes.  The current network is on the left, the proposed one on the right.  It’s simpler but not that much simpler, and it still doesn’t help you distinguish major routes (high frequency, long duration) from minor ones (lower frequency, short duration).

Are Parking Levies Better than (De)congestion Pricing?

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Dave Hitchborne http://www.geograph.org.uk/

Nottingham is the first city in the UK to introduce a levy (i.e. tax) on all workplace parking to finance public transit.  Stephen Joseph at the UK’s Campaign for Better Transport thinks it’s a better strategy than congestion pricing (or as I have always advocated calling it, decongestion pricing):

Although every city is different, there might be some wider lessons here. One, for the transport economist geeks, might be to stop obsessing with congestion charging. Efficient in economic theory though this might be, Nottingham looked at it and decided that it would be very costly – all those cameras and enforcement – and would not target peak hour traffic jams and single-occupancy car commuting as effectively as the levy would.

The wider lesson from this is that the politics of a levy are different, too. With congestion charging you have to get support from the whole city and potentially its hinterland; and referenda in Manchester and Edinburgh show how difficult that is. With a workplace parking levy, there is a narrower and potentially more politically winnable discussion with businesses and commuters about what a levy could pay for – things that might make journeys to work easier and cut peak hour jams and pollution.

This may indeed be a good strategy at least for smaller cities.

This is not the first parking levy in the world: Sydney, Melbourne, and Perth in Australia all have them in their inner cities, as does Montreal in Canada.    Toronto is debating the issue now, while in the UK, Cambridge is considering following Nottingham’s lead.

 

Guest Post: Transit Oriented Development on a Small Town Scale

This guest post is by Hugh Mose, a transportation consultant who retired in 2014 after nearly 20 years as the General Manager of CATA, the transit provider in State College, PA (the home of Penn State). CATA transports nearly seven million passengers annually in a service area of less than 100,000 population.  For further information, contact Hugh at hughamose@comcast.net or Eric Bernier, CATA’s Director of Information Services, at ebernier@catabus.com.

While transit oriented development is increasingly common in major urban areas, smaller communities are also working hard to ensure that public transportation can be a viable alternative to the single occupant vehicle. One good example is State College, Pennsylvania, where the Centre Area Transportation Authority (CATA) has been particularly successful in securing transit-supportive elements as part of new real estate developments. In State College and its surrounding municipalities, as in most small communities, there are no ordinances requiring new residential or commercial developments to incorporate any particular transit amenities. However, that hasn’t stopped CATA from working diligently for more than two decades to develop an informal support system, one which has produced uncommonly good results.

Why do they do it?

The guiding philosophy at CATA is that the development getting built today is going to be there for 50 years. Lack of sidewalks, light-duty pavements, tight turning radii, and cul-de-sacs rather than through streets are going to be there forever, so nothing is more important than getting things right at the time the development is designed, approved and built.

How do they do it?

Build the relationships. Over the years CATA has built up a network of support within the development review process – consulting engineers, municipal staffs, planning commission members, local elected officials. And, CATA has established a very high level of credibility throughout the community.

Then, commit the resources. CATA and the local planning agency share the cost of a transportation planner whose job it is to review and comment on development plans. Municipalities forward the plans; requests are made, meetings are held with the proponents, accommodations are negotiated.

What do they ask for?

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Lighted pathway from apartment buildings directly to bus stop/shelter/pull-off.

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Pedestrian pathway from Wal-Mart store to bus stop, totally separated from parking.

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Bus pull-off and shelter constructed for CATA by shopping center developer.

A pedestrian network. Nothing is more important than a complete system of direct, accessible and lighted pathways between project buildings, connecting with adjacent sites, and extending to the bus stop(s). After all, every bus rider is a pedestrian (or a bicyclist) before they board and after they alight!

Location, location, location. The key elements that are considered include balancing passenger convenience with operating efficiency, avoiding conflicts with automobiles, integrating transit facilities into other planned amenities, and providing for safe and convenient street crossings.

Developer investments. Developers understand that they need to invest in roadways, parking, streetlights, traffic mitigations, etc. CATA asserts that transit amenities are no different. In addition, CATA offers to assume ongoing facility upkeep and maintenance – which removes a major objection.

Why does it work?

There’s a transit culture. Through successive projects, expectations have been established. The development community has come to understand that, even though there are no ordinances specifically requiring transit amenities, for project approvals to move expeditiously, transit has to be considered.

CATA is reasonable it what it asks for. Because the program has no formal “teeth,” CATA is very willing to compromise, to consider and balance the limitation of the site, and to work with the developer to find a location for transit amenities that, while less than ideal, both parties can live with.

What have they learned?

These are the important takeaways: Be persistent; CATA’s present success is the result of more than twenty years of effort. Be prepared to work hard; the time and effort required is not insignificant. Be reasonable; after all, the program is built entirely on relationships and credibility. Build on past successes; nothing is more persuasive in current negotiations than showing what others have done before. Be resilient; accept that you can’t win them all. And, don’t get discouraged – success will come.

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CATA and Centre Regional Planning Agency staff reviewing site plans.

Have you read my book? If so I have a question …

I hope this doesn’t sound like fishing for praise, but a client has asked me to provide some pithy quotations from my book for use in advertising an event.  Rather than trying to remember or find them myself, it would be great if people who’ve read the book could share pithy quotations that they remember.  That way I don’t have to decide what was pithy, or for that matter memorable.

Leave them in the comments if you think of any!  Thanks!

To Kill Fewer People, Rely More on Transit

It may seem an obvious point, but transit is a remarkably safe form of travel, especially compared to the private car.  A new report from the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) authored by Todd Litman puts some numbers to how higher transit dependence yields a transportation system that kills fewer people.

Public transportation is one of the safest ways to travel. It is ten times safer per mile than traveling by car because it has less than a tenth the per-mile traffic casualty (injury or death) rate as automobile travel. Public transit-oriented communities are five times safer because they have about a fifth the per capita traffic casualty rate as automobile-oriented communities. In addition, crash rates tend to decline as public transit travel increases in a community. Contrary to popular perceptions, public transit travel is significantly safer than automobile travel.

Credible research indicates that many planning practices that improve public transportation and encourage its use also tend to increase traffic safety. However, these benefits are often overlooked: individuals tend to exaggerate public transit risks; planners tend to overlook safety benefits when evaluating public transit improvements; and traffic experts seldom consider pro-transit policies as safety strategies.

It’s worth a peruse.  The press release is here, and the full report is here.

A new source for data on US transit

One of our longtime favorite transportation bloggers, Yonah Freemark over at the Transport Politic, has added an excellent new feature to his site: a set of interactive charts detailing key US transportation indicators called the Transport Databook. This does a great job of taking measures that are readily available in public data, though not always easily accessible, and compiling them into simple one stop shop for this kind of information. And the source data is also available in a condensed form that is likely to be easier to use for anyone unfamiliar with the original sources. These charts cover a wide array of transit and transportation trends beyond the familiar ridership, service hours, or VMT stats. For instance:

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We’ve already noticed parts of this work fueling a number of Twitter conversations, and hopefully, this site continues as a good resource for people interested in informing themselves about long-term trends in transportation data.

 

 

Barcelona: The Drunken Metro and the Sober Bus

For just two days, over a weekend, I’ve visited Barcelona for the first time.

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It has the sort of public transit system that will impress a North American at first: a large metro, pleasant buses with numerous stretches of exclusive lane, two practical funiculars, commuter trains, and two tram networks …

That’s the usual way most people summarize a transit system, isn’t it?  A list of technologies in use, which says nothing about how easy it is to get around the city. Did you notice how, when I said “two tram networks,” it sounded at first like that’s better than one tram network? The opposite is true, of course, and indeed they’re working on making it just one.

In the end, what matters is not the diversity of technologies, but how easy it is to get places, and this requires a different kind of transit tourism. Instead of going to a city to marvel at the technologies – picking trams over buses regardless of where they go, and riding every funicular, gondola, and odd little ferry – I prefer access tourism: I try to actually go places, and experience how easy or hard that is.  (I still experience serendipity of course, but it’s in sharper relief when seen against the bright background of intention.)

Only traveling with intention made me notice the oddness of the Barcelona metro. The transit agency’s full map is here, and a slice is coming up below.  You may also enjoy Jug Cerovic‘s more austere version here.  The network is complicated partly because it shows metro lines (L), tram lines (T) and regional commuter rail lines (R) but for this purpose I’ll focus on the Metro lines (L).

Some simple math: In an optimal grid network, lines keep going more or less straight, and intersect each other more or less perpendicularly.  You change direction in this network by making a connection.  The perpendicularity maximizes the area of the city that each connection could take you to.

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Transit grids can be standard or polar, but are almost always some subtle fusion of the two. The polar grid arises when there’s a huge center on which the network logically converges, because desirable destinations are packed most tightly there.

Once you recognize these patterns, you notice how coherent most metro networks are. Even those that are kludges to a degree have usually been patched as much as possible to create some appropriate fusion of radial and standard grid effects.

But among the metros I’ve encountered Barcelona’s metro network seems unusually chaotic in its network structure, often seeming to meander without intention.

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On the map above, for example, look at the medium blue line that enters the map area on the left at Pubilla Cases station.  This is Line 5.  It heads resolutely across the map from left to right, but two-thirds of the way across the city, at La Segrera, it seems to get distracted, suddenly turning 120 degrees and heading for the hills at the top of the map.

The network is also full of lines meeting tangentially instead of crossing.  For example, here’s a diagram of just Lines 5 and 2 (dark blue and purple, respectively) touching tangentially at (unmarked) Sagrada Família station:

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There are numerous cases like this.  In each case, you would have a more coherent network — more likely to connect more people to more destinations with fewer transfers — if the lines traded paths at this point, crossing over each other rather than touching tangentially.

Again, most metros are kludges to some degree.  It’s unlikely that anybody alive in Barcelona today deserves blame for the odd patterns of the metro’s flow.  There are always historical reasons for why things have ended up as they are.  If you want to follow that history, here’s a fun video.

But meanwhile:  Does your head contain some received wisdom along the lines of: “European metros are so fantastic that why would anyone take buses?” I can remember when many Europeans used to believe this, but today, bus network improvement is one of the most important of European trends. The need for a rational bus network may be even more urgent if your metro is staggering around drunkenly, unable to follow a straight line.

What’s great about the new Barcelona’s bus network then, is not just that it’s a grid, but that it really wants you to know that it’s a grid, and how straight its constituent lines are:

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The new lines have numbers preceded by “H” or “V” for “horizontal” or “vertical”.  (Vertical is quite literal: not just up-down on standard maps like this one, but also up to the hills or down to the sea.)  These frequent lines are also numbered in logical sequence across the city, so that as you get to know the network, a number reminds you of roughly where in the grid each line sits, and thus what it’s likely to be useful for.

The idea is that people should be able to keep a sense of the whole grid network in their heads.  If you just remember what H and V mean, and the sequence in which they’re numbered, you have an enormous amount of information the whole system. When you see any bus numbered this way, you have a general sense of which way it’s going, or at least along which axis.  And when you hear a bus route number, you can easily form a general sense of where it is.

There’s liberty in this kind of legibility.  You could measure it in terms of the number of useful places you can get to divided by the bytes of information you need to remember to have a workable map of how to get there.  Anyone who’s navigated Manhattan knows the difference between the regular grid across most of the island (high usefulness/byte) vs the patternless warren of streets at the south end (low usefulness/byte).  European cities tend to be especially challenged in this regard.

I talk about Barcelona’s bus network a lot because it’s one of the best examples of the marketing of network-scale legibility, an idea that’s almost unheard of in other parts of the world.  (Perhaps related, it also has a Wikipedia article that describes it with the same respect you’d expect in discussing a metro network.  Someone should translate it into English.)

Barcelona may have come upon its grid bus network, in part, because proudly legible grids were already its most celebrated urban planning idea. Most European street patterns are largely gridless and irregular. But in a sytematizing vision rivaling that of Haussmann in Paris, 19th century Barcelona embraced a single grid pattern for its fast expansion around the medieval core.

Photo by Alhzeiia via Wikipedia

Photo by Alhzeiia via Wikipedia

This plan is usually described as the Eixample district, but it’s really a principle rather than a place.  (The Catalan word eixample means “extension” or wider area”.)  The new grid flows across the city over a distance of about 7km (4.5mi). It therefore covers many neighborhoods, uniting them not just with a perfectly regular street pattern but also with the grid’s most distnctive detail: the “cut off” corners that create little square spaces at each major intersection.

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Now that Barcelona is beginning to close many of these streets to fast car traffic, these little diamonds will be the next great public spaces in a city already rich with them. And a great bus network, whose citywide grid pattern you can remember, and that stops just down the street, will take you there.

 

Thanks to my Barcelona friend Andreu Orte for background, including the Line 5/2 diagram.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

More on Uber “Competing” with Transit

On the whole question of whether ridesourcing (Uber/Lyft/etc) can replace fixed route buses, my fullest explanation is here, in both text and video form.  Since then, there’s been some interesting news:

  • Uber lost over $1.2 billon in 6 months.  Yes, with a “b.”   Cite this next time someone goes on about “money-losing” public transit systems.
  • Uber is starting to do absurdly deep discounts that look a lot like predatory pricing.  20 rides for $20????.  Such a price would undercut transit, thereby causing massively increased traffic with all the resulting ills.  It’s obviously unsustainable for Uber, but if it goes on long enough to damage transit systems, that will be a huge negative impact on our cities.  I hope someone is looking at whether this is legal.
  • In happier news, California has its first example of Uber/Lyft/etc. replacing a fixed bus route, and it’s a very sensible one.  It’s at the Livermore / Amador Valley Transit Authority on the eastern edge of the Bay Area.   The key is that the bus route being replaced has predictably dreadful ridership: only five people get on for every hour that the bus operates.  (Usually, a poor suburban fixed route performance is at least 10 boardings/service hour.)  This is almost as bad as a short-trip taxi, which means that Uber/Lyft, with the ability to pick up multiple riders on the same trip, might do just as well.  It’s still not a clean replacement.  The fare is higher than the transit agency’s, as it must be to compensate for ridesharing’s inefficiency, and transfers to the buses don’t appear to be free.  This is a reasonable deal, but there are  not many fixed bus lines that perform this poorly!