Can You Tour a Bus Network Redesign?

In my email today:

I am visiting Houston in a couple of weeks.  …  I was wondering: are there any particular routes that would be interesting to ride as an example?

Yes, I led the design process for the new Houston bus network, implemented in August 2015.  Buses now run in simpler, straighter, more useful paths, and often at much higher frequencies.  People can get to more places more quickly than ever before.  The high-frequency network went from this …

houston frequent before

to this …

houston frequent after

But I don’t know how I would direct a tourist to experience this — the way it’s so easy to tour a piece of transit technology. You can ride one of the redesigned bus routes, but you won’t notice it’s redesigned unless you try to travel through the system for many purposes.  You can ride a cool bus, and take pictures of it, but then you’ve toured another piece of technology, not the network.

You’d have to live in the city, and use the bus to go lots of places, in order to experience the thing that we designed, which is the sheer ease of getting to many places more quickly.

At best, you could tour information and wayfinding systems.  If you stand at a bus stop, how obvious is the network and its usefulness?  This is a kind of tourism that I encourage, and that I always engage in.  But the wayfinding is not the network.  Many transit networks are much better than you’d guess from their public information, signage, etc.

Here is yet another example of why cities often look at improving their bus networks only after they’ve tried everything else.  There’s nothing to tour, nothing a visitor can see in an hour that would give them a sense of it.

I’m curious if anyone else has encountered ways to make bus network redesign an object of tourism.  Because among urbanist opinion leaders, tourism is a huge part of how ideas are transmitted, and valued.

Video of My Talk in Moscow

3a7463fIn the context of the Moscow Urban Forum, I did a well-attended public lecture at the Strelka Institute, a prestigious center for urban policy and design.   The video is here.  I start talking (in English) around 6:08.  (Click “Not now” if your credentials are challenged.)

Unfortunately, nobody told me that the event would be outdoors, so I was not quite dressed for the occasion; this explains the blanket and deeply unfashionable hat.  I am one of those old-fashioned people who refuses to freeze for the sake of style.


The Pleasure of Riding Failing Transit

The New York Times has a great parable about the largely empty ferries plying the Hudson River, and the massively crowded trains that the money could have been spent on.  I was reminded of Leap, the failed elite bus in San Francisco, whose marketing images always emphasized how you have room to spread out.  Here was one of their videos:

Note that the bus in this video is never more than half full.

Images that sell you a transit service by emphasizing how empty it is are advertising either (a) an failing service or (b) a service targeted at elites, one that should have very high fares.  The few passengers on the bus must pay for transporting the empty seats all around them.

And not many people are actually willing to pay that.  So instead they are subsidized, either by taxpayers (US $95 per customer round trip in the case of the ferry) or by venture capital, which sooner or later runs out.

But the goal of this marking, as always, is to encourage elites to mistake what is nice for them with what works for the city.  Because when public transit is really working effective to foster a functional city, you can’t expect to be surrounded by empty seats.

Moscow: Speaking at Strelka Institute


I’m in Moscow again, following up on our work a year ago that redesigned the bus network in the core of the city.  Thursday night, 6 July, I’ll be speaking at the Strelka Institute, a prestigious institution focused on the issues facing Russian cities.  I’ll speak in English with simultaneous translation into Russian.  Details here!


Can We Live without Prediction? The Video

For the Congress for the New Urbanism conference in Seattle last month, I tried out a new angle on my usual stump speech.  I asked: Can we live without predictions?  What would it mean to approach a city planning problem — say, transit planning, which I do — without needing to know the future?

I’m pretty happy with how it came out. It’s embedded below, but it seems to be slightly sharper here.


Google’s “Grand Central of the West”

Google and Apple continue to be a story of contrasts, and their latest development moves are no exception.  As Apple completes a new inward-looking space-age fortress in a largely transit-hostile location, Google is planning a huge campus right at Diridon station on the west edge of downtown San Jose, with up to 20,000 employees.

google sj

Google has its eye on the middle of this area in downtown San Jose, California. Note Diridon Stn on the left, LRT line running through, and existing fine street grid. Most of downtown San Jose is just off the map to the right.  Lots of frequent bus service too!

Under current plans, Diridon station will eventually have frequent rapid transit up both sides of the bay (Caltrain on the west to San Francisco, BART on the east side to Oakland and Berkeley).  It’s also a major hub in the local transit network (which we take pride in helping to design).  It is clearly on its way to being the most transit-accessible location in the southern half of the Bay Area.

Google’s current Silicon Valley situation is, frankly, a mess.

google in mv

Google’s self-inflicted transportation mess, Mountain View and Sunnyvale, California.

The company occupies a collection of office parks gathered around various sides of the obstacle of Moffett Field, a military and NASA installation.  This obstacle creates a chokepoint where east-west traffic is all forced down to the 101 freeway, increasing congestion there.  So traveling between Google sites, even over a distance of a mile or two, can be a pain, regardless of whether you drive or take a Google shuttle.

Google’s current locations on the north edge of the valley also form part of the Great Silicon Valley Jobs-Housing Imbalance — jobs are mostly in the north and residents in the south — which creates unmanageable south-north congestion.  And of course Google must also run a huge fleet of buses to bring staff from San Francisco, where many of them want to live.

Many newer startups — like Twitter, Uber, Lyft, Salesforce — have decided that to attract urban talent they have to move into San Francisco — great for transit and walkability, great for their top talent who live there, not so great for lower level employees who can’t afford to live within 20 miles of their job in one of the most expensive cities in the world.

Meanwhile, San Jose has just been sitting there, right adjacent to Silicon Valley, with a historic downtown that has great bones but could use more investment.  Inner San Jose is a pleasant, walkable, historic city that non-elite techies can afford to live in, and that still offers good transit access to the rest of the Bay Area.  Adobe, to its credit, is already there.

So bravo.  I hope this is opens the floodgates to more employers relocating in the most transit-oriented place in Silicon Valley.

Video of my Winnipeg Presentation

Last month I was in Winnipeg to provide some advice on the city’s next steps in developing transit.  The event included a well-attended evening lecture, whose video is here.  I start talking around 7:10, talk for about 40 minutes, and then take lots of good questions.

I do these a lot, but each one gets a little better.

Providence’s Downtown Connector: A Streetcar Transformed into Useful Transit


Source: Greater City Providence,

In the US, streetcars mixed with traffic are popular with developers and some urbanists. But when it comes to actually getting you where you’re going, a bus can do anything a streetcar can do, and it can go around many obstacles (accidents, poorly parked cars, etc.) that shut down a streetcar line.  US streetcar starter lines also tend to be very short, forcing people to make connections to reach most destinations.

Last year, Rhode Island leaders decided that the streetcar wasn’t the right answer for downtown Providence.  Instead, they redirected their federal funding for a streetcar into a bus-based project in the same place.  The Downtown Transit Connector will run through the center of the city, from the medical center in the south to the train station (also a major development node) in the north.   Its buses will come every 4-5 minutes, more frequently than any modern US streetcar. Frequency is critical in downtown circulation; we experience waiting time as a percentage of travel time, so we need extremely high frequency if we’re going only a mile or so.

This is not just a streetcar run with buses.  It’s more powerful, because the buses running along this path, forming the high frequency, will continue onto other routes across the city.  The genius of the project, then, is that it solves two urgent downtown problems at once.  It provides the attractive and legible very-frequent spine that makes so many American urbanists want streetcars, but it also solves the problem of getting major bus line through downtown, so that the whole city benefits.

It’s an excellent project with relevance to many US downtowns. I encourage you to follow its progress.




“Give Mrs. McG Her Bus Stop”? Reasons to Pause

Here’s some refreshing candor from a local politician, in the context of an effort to speed up express bus services on New York’s Staten Island by removing excessive bus stops and deviations:

Borough President James Oddo added that “people like me” were part of the problem: Requesting new bus stops to help vocal constituents.

“Who doesn’t want to give Mrs. McGillicuddy a bus stop?” Oddo asked.

When bus routes meander, do little squiggles, or make too many stops, the cause is almost always local elected officials who insisted that transit agencies say yes to whatever a noisy constituent demands.  Such officials are always calling the transit managers and saying: “Get Mrs McGillucuddy off my back!”

Of course, Mrs. McGillicuddy rarely calls to advocate the kinds of efficiency that makes transit more attractive and useful for the whole community.  She’s calling to demand something that’s good for her or her friends.

Here, as often, we’re in the presence of the paradox of public outreach.  We want transit to be useful to busy people, but busy people don’t engage much with public outreach processes.  They’re too busy.

So we disproportionately hear from the not-busy people, who have priorities other than speed.  So we hear demands like:  “All those busy people should have 3 minutes added to their trip so that I don’t have to walk three blocks.”

I don’t want to dismiss the concerns of senior and disabled riders, but if a person physically can’t walk three blocks, then the answer may be some kind of paratransit.  Paratransit is expensive, but not as expensive as doing something every hour all day to meet just one person’s needs.  There are some genuinely difficult choices here, but they should be addressed by a policy, rather than a process of just rewarding whoever makes the most noise.

Because if a transit agency establishes a pattern of saying yes to every demand for things that slow down the service, that precedent will only trigger more demands, accelerating a downward spiral in which a resource designed to be used by many becomes micro-designed around the demands of one or two, to everyone else’s detriment.

Arguing against these demands with data is tricky.  The differential impact of adding one bus stop or squiggle may not be much. It’s the cumulative effect of 100 such decisions is devastating, gradually transforming relatively fast and efficient services into slow, meandering scenic tours that only people with lots of spare time to use.

So you really need policy, not just data, to hold the line.  Service design standards about stop spacing and linearity can give staff the backup they need.  These standards should be periodically re-adopted, so that current elected officials feel ownership of them, or at least understand the dangers of not observing them.  And the adoption is the time to have the debate about how to balance some people’s difficulty walking with the need for transit to be fast, direct, and reliable.  Again, the point is not to leave seniors behind but to ensure we’re addressing their needs in a fair and consistent way.