The Receding Fantasy of Affordable Urban Transit “To Your Door”

Uber’s UberPool service, which attempts to gather multiple people on a single vehicle going the same way, is undergoing some tinkering that will make it even more like fixed route transit.  Andrew J. Hawkins at Verge has the story:

[UberPool riders] are being prompted to walk to the closest corner or intersection for more convenient pickups, rather than have drivers deviate from their north-south route.

The same goes for drop-offs, where riders are being let out at a proximate corner rather than the exact address of their destination. Uber calls it “dynamic drop-offs,” but the result is pretty plain. If you want those cheaper fares, you’re going to have to be cool with a lot more walking. Uber began testing this feature last year, and has since rolled it out in wider use.

Does the difference between these images remind you of anything?

Walking further for more direct, useful, and affordable service is the basic deal that fixed route transit has offered for more than a century.

What’s more, if you walk to the bus instead of to UberPool, you can get on any bus instead of waiting for your specific UberPool to arrive.

Yet this is exactly what Uber must do to make their UberPool less unprofitable.   As we’ve explored many times here, demand-responsive service is wildly inefficient.

UberPool would be less absurd if we were talking about somewhere other than Manhattan, or any other big city that’s rich in frequent transit.  In places with less transit, this concept could have some use.  But in big cities it’s clearly converging on something for which fixed route transit is already the ideal tool.

Now, New York City bus service has some problems, especially in the delay-ridden way that they handle fares.  I am not defending specific practices of any agency.  But the geometry remains what it is.  If you want affordable transit service, you’re going to have to walk to it.  That’s the math that makes fixed route service inevitable.

Transit people all over the world have understood this since long before Uber’s CEO was born.  They’ve also known about the concept of demand responsive transit, which means “transit that is extremely inefficient because of the degree to which it deviates or circulates based on the needs of a single person.”  Demand responsive service is so inefficient that it arises only in these contexts:

  • extremely low-wage environments, as in parts of the developing world, or:
  • focused on elites who can pay high fares, as in typical Uber or Taxi operations, or
  • for special-needs groups, such as the disabled and seniors, or for other groups that have the power to demand it, always at astronomical subsidies per rider.   (Costs per rider for this kind of service, called paratransit in North America, typically run about 10 times the rate for well-designed fixed route service.)

All the new apps have helped smooth out inefficiencies of communication, but they will never change the math.  Technology never changes geometry.

As UberPool gradually discovers this, the question becomes: Did Uber, and similar companies, really invent anything at all?  They invented apps, and algorithms, but do they have any new answers for the geometry problem that is urban transportation?

 

(Yes, I said almost exactly this in a post two years ago!  But one needs repetition to break through all the noise)  

 

The Pleasure of Track Maps

If you’ve never seen a subway track map, I suggest you look at this one, for New York, by “radical cartographer” Andrew Lynch. Most track diagrams are not to scale, and look like they’re meant to make to make sense only to insiders.  But this one is beautiful.
nyc track map b

 

 

What’s more, it’s accurate in geographic scale, though of course the separation of tracks can’t be on the same scale as the network.  Still, New York’s subway is both huge and full of details, so this is no mean feat.  Only 22 insets were required, to zoom in on tricky segments.

Gazing at a good track map can give you an appreciation for the heroics involved in moving trains around in this limited infrastructure. Switches and extra tracks are very expensive underground, which is why they are never where you need them to handle a particular incident.  This, for example, is why a track closure at one station may continue through several stations nearby.

Gaze at this piece of the Bronx, and marvel at what a train would have to do to get from Jerome Yard to a station on the Orange (B+D) line.  I presume they don’t have to do this very often, but in a pinch, they can.

nyc track map a

I spent a delighted hour with it.

Toronto: Defending Transit’s Right to Move

Toronto’s King and Queen Streets — where packed streetcars stop and wait behind one left-turning driver or someone taking forever to parallel-park — is one of North America’s greatest monuments to the natural superiority of motorists over everyone else.

100+ people's lives held hostage by the lady in the grey car at far left. Photo: GTD Aquitaine at Wikimedia Commons

100+ people’s lives inadvertently held hostage by the lady in the grey car at far left. Photo: GTD Aquitaine at Wikimedia Commons

These streetcars are all Toronto has in the way of east-west transit through the very core of downtown, yet their operations are routinely strangled by quite small numbers of cars, running as slow as 6 km/hr (4 mi/hr) (!) during the peak in the most critical section. This for a service that carries the overwhelming majority of the people moving down the street.

We’re talking about the middle of downtown Toronto, the city’s densest and fastest densifying area.  For such a place to function, transit just as to succeed.

We're clear on how dense downtown Toronto is, right?

We’re clear on how dense downtown Toronto is, right?  The King streetcar connects this area to very dense residential areas to the east and west.

Since this is Canada, you can be sure these are legacy streetcar lines.  Almost nobody outside the US intentionally builds streetcars in mixed traffic, but many cities have inherited them.  Long ago, they were reliable because there wasn’t much traffic.  But things got worse in the usual boiling-frog manner, and now here we are.

Now, the city is attempting the first step to improve things, by banning through traffic on King Street, one of the two key arteries.  Oliver Moore has the story, which sounds like almost every story about a city trying to pry a little space away from the motorist so that anyone else can move.  In few places, though, are the motorist’s claims to dominion so indefensible.

The key change will be that cars will be forced right at every intersection, and left turns will be banned.  There are still compromises: traffic is still in the streetcar’s lane, and refuges for passengers to board and alight will be marked only with paint.

Yet the plan will still be controversial at Council, with some Councilors arguing that they have a geometrically incoherent “right” or “need” to drive cars anywhere in the city.  This plan is a critical step, and deserves enthusiastic support.

World’s Best Non-Institutional, Self-Funded Blog! How Nice …

best blog medalFeedspot has identified us as one of the world’s 100 best transit blogs, but more remarkably, we’re at #4 out of these 100, after the World Bank’s blog and two big industry new blogs, Mass Transit and METRO Magazines.  That means we can call ourselves the world’s best blog that’s not part of a big institution or journalistic enterprise, and that’s totally self-funded without advertising.  Yes, this blog is lightly associated with my (little) firm, but I still do almost all the writing, and it’s still largely my personal work.

There are lots of awards out there, but this feels like a real evaluation, based on a mixture of editorial quality and influence.

So, cool!  Thanks!  This is nice gesture!

Burlington: A Transit Plan for a Toronto-Area City

By Scudder Wagg.  (Scudder is our firm’s new East Coast lead, based in Richmond, Virginia.)

One of the more exciting developments in the Greater Toronto Area is the conversion of historically infrequent commuter rail lines into all-day frequent services, so that you can travel, and make connections, at all times of day. This is creating new rewards for suburban cities who develop more frequent local bus networks. When local bus trips connect to a regional train with minimal waiting, they become useful for vastly more destinations and therefore will attract more riders.

Burlington Waterfront. Photo: László Varga

Burlington Waterfront. Photo: László Varga

We are now getting started working with the City of Burlington, in the western suburbs of Toronto, to help them rethink their transit system. The city has been shifting its focus in recent years from a suburban growth pattern to a city that wants to grow up instead of out. Combined with the region’s plans to improve the commuter rail line serving the city to 15-minute service all day, there is a fertile opportunity to rethink the role transit can play in Burlington.

As part of the Greater Toronto-Hamilton Area, Burlington is growing fast but the style of that growth is shifting. For many years, the city sprawled northward from Lake Ontario in a typical suburban pattern. But in 2005, the provincial government instituted a greenbelt, putting a limit on the sprawl. Having hit the greenbelt limit, Burlington has responded by intentionally deciding to grow more intensely.

With so much sprawling growth over the last twenty years, the transit system has been stretched to try to cover as much of the newly developed area as possible. This has shifted the transit system toward a higher coverage focus. The city’s transit system has only a few routes with anything approaching high frequency.

But the city has a strong two-kilometer grid built around the old concession roads that could form the backbone of a grid transit network, although the spacing of parallel grid streets is too far for this to be the only service.

The City adopted a new strategic plan in April 2016 that calls for shifting more trips to walking, biking and transit. They are following this up with a new Official Plan, currently in the draft form, that calls for higher density development in key areas. The draft Official Plan also promotes expanded and improved transit system with a frequent transit network to connect key areas.

We are helping to translate these visions and goals into a concrete network that can be implemented by 2019. That network can then be expanded and improved over time as the city adds more hubs of density and more walkable areas. We look forward to lots of great conversations about transit in this fast-changing and growing city over the next nine months.

 

The Virtues of Impossibility

Jane McGonigal — the noted game designer and futurist — has a TEDx video about imagining the future.  I’ll be speaking at this topic at CNU on May 4, so having loved her book on gaming, Reality is Broken, I was curious about her take.

You can watch it here, or below, but I also summarize it below.

McGonigal’s project here is to undermine that pervasive feeling that we are unable to shape the future.  “The future is dark,” she says, not in the sense of bad but in the sense of hard to see into.  It is precisely our ignorance of the future that gives us the space to imagine it, and thus to change it.

She tells the story of a futurism class she teaches at Stanford, where she asks students to name things that they are absolutely sure will be true in ten years.  Then, she takes this list to researchers and asks how sure they are of those things.  Sure enough, there are cases where something that people thought was permanent is in fact changing.

I am totally with McGonigal on the urgency of helping people imagine a more diverse range of futures, but we must also notice how easily this message gets out of control, and how much of the craziness — and destructiveness — of the tech industry arises from this belief in the radically open future.

If I were in her futurism class I could easily name things that will absolutely be true 10 years from now.

  • The circumference of a circle divided by the diameter of the circle will still be a little over three.
  • Adult elephants still will not fit into wine-glasses.
  • There will still be a mathematical limit to how many vehicles — each filling the width of a traffic lane — can fit down a single lane in a state of free flow.
  • In the absence of barriers to walking, the density of population will still determine the number of people within a fixed, short walking distance of any point.  That in turn determine the potential market size for fixed transit, which will govern the level of transit intensity and infrastructure that will pencil out in ridership terms.
  • Carrying fewer people in more vehicles will consume more urban space, compared to carrying more people in fewer vehicles.  This mismatch between demand for road space and its supply will manifest as either traffic congestion or a need to widen roads, removing scarce urban land from other uses.

Those are geometric facts.  Within the scale of space and time in which humans live, no invention can change these things.

McGonigal’s rhetoric echoes that of the corporate motivation industry, with its endless implication that nothing is impossible.  But as with heated political rhetoric, the danger is always that some people take this stuff literally, and literally, it’s nonsense.  The facts about the future I listed above are extremely useful, despite not being ridiculous.  They are useful because they keep us from imagining, and spending billions on, truly impossible things.

If we know one thing from watching the tech industry, it’s that the wide-open “anything can happen” futurism that McGonigal praises can be its own bubble, with its own blinders.  Much good has happened from Silicon Valley’s willingness to throw venture capital at the occasional wild idea — “moonshots,” they’re called in the biz — but a lot of VC also goes to investing in mathematically impossible things — like moving people from big transit vehicles into small ones without taking up more space — and into attacking folks like me who try to point that out.

In this new era of “disruption,’ urban transportation suffers as much from delusional imagination as from lack of imagination.  Only when we allow boring math to constrain our imaginings — and when venture capital gets smarter at recognizing those constraints — can we start to have reality-based conversations about how to liberate people to move in our cities.

Not everything is possible, and it’s a good thing, too.

 

Guest Post: Barcelona’s Bus Network: Better Access, If You Change Buses

Jacob Lynn is currently a data scientist at Booking.com, and was previously Chief Information Officer at public transit start-up Via Analytics.

Bus network redesigns have been making waves in the transit world over the past few years. The new Houston bus network represented a massive redeployment of resources, and early returns suggest that bus ridership is increasingly roughly as expected, though ridership is also subject to broader economic forces. Portland’s 1982 grid restructuring was critical to the early success of the new light rail system. But Barcelona’s recently redesigned bus network, the Nova Xarxa, has [despite this Human Transit post] received less attention outside Europe than it probably deserves. New research indicates that the network started inducing new demand as soon as it was deployed. Even though it is only partially complete, the Nova Xarxa is demonstrating the potential of transfer-oriented high-frequency bus networks for providing an anywhere-to-anywhere mobility solution for a city.

Prior to the redesign, Barcelona had a spaghetti-like tangle of routes with many stops, low speeds, and generally low frequencies. In other words, like most bus systems, it was biased towards coverage over ridership. Of course, in conjunction with the Metro network and the suburban Rodalies commuter rail, transit has a very high mode share in Barcelona overall. But city officials felt like they were not making the best use of their bus system. Could something be done?

A central section of the local bus network in Barcelona.

A central section of the local bus network in Barcelona.

Enter the Nova Xarxa. (NB: Nova Xarxa means “new network” in Catalan, and Xarxa is pronounced “sharsha.”) Carlos Daganzo developed a simple mathematical framework to model a “hybrid” transit network, which combines features of grid and radial networks. The model could be optimized to minimize a combination of transit agency and user costs, including travel and wait time. This abstract model was then applied to the specific situation in Barcelona to determine the target spacing between routes in the grid, spacing between stops on a route, service frequency, and other parameters of the network. It turned out that a grid-like network with very frequent service, stop spacing of about 400 meters, and about 20 lines would serve the city well.

Once these basic organizing principles had been determined, Transports Metropolitans de Barcelona (TMB), the city’s transit agency, got to work developing the actual routes. The resulting network has been remarkably faithful to the original grid vision. (The Nova Xarxa was previously discussed on Human Transit in 2010 and again in 2016.)

The current Nova Xarxa, which is about 60% complete.

The current Nova Xarxa, which is about 60% complete.

By design, a grid network depends critically on transfers between routes to enable anywhere-to-anywhere urban travel. Transfers between bus routes have a bad reputation among the public, to the point where there is a large academic literature quantifying exactly how awful it is to have to wait for the bus, particularly when connecting between routes. But in big urban metro rail networks, transfers between lines are commonplace and often only a mild inconvenience. The key difference is the amount of time you have to wait for your connection. Many metro lines run at intervals of 4 to 8 minutes, making the wait for the next train much more palatable. So, if the buses come sufficiently frequently, the thinking goes, the “transfer penalty” may disappear, and the system will function as a well-connected network rather than as a collection of individual lines. (Of course, the transfer experience differs between a metro system and a bus network due to other environmental factors, but generally speaking, if the wait time is short, those other factors will matter less too.)

The Nova Xarxa is designed with this principle in mind, with scheduled headways between 3 and 8 minutes for the entire system. The currently deployed Nova Xarxa routes all have scheduled headways of 6 to 8 minutes, and most current NX routes are intended to have shorter headways once the full network is deployed. Shorter headways are enabled by several factors. Increased spacing between stops, as well as dedicated bus lanes where space permits, have provided key speed increases. Some intersections have traffic signals which prioritize buses. New articulated buses were purchased that increased capacity and in some instances (e.g. line H12) enabled faster multi-door boarding. Removal of overlapping routes allowed redeployment of existing resources. But the network redesign was not intended to be cost-neutral, and some of the frequency increases have come from simply running more buses.

The Nova Xarxa has been deployed in four phases. In each phase, pre-existing routes that had been superseded by the new routes were removed or redesigned to focus on local service. Five routes were initially deployed in October 2012, five new routes were added in November 2013, and three more were added in September 2014. Three more were deployed in February 2016, but data from that period was not included in this report’s analysis. The full deployment of the Nova Xarxa will consist of 28 lines, and it is currently more than half complete. The detailed routes for the 12 final lines were recently proposed by TMB, and should be deployed during 2017 and 2018.

A group of researchers, including Hugo Badia of the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya and Juan Argote and Carlos Daganzo from UC Berkeley, presented an analysis of ridership on the Nova Xarxa at the recent Transportation Research Board meeting in D.C. (As noted above, Daganzo worked with the city of Barcelona on the initial high-level network concept in 2010, but was not thereafter involved in the detailed design or deployment of the Nova Xarxa.) The research is publicly available as a working paper and is currently under review at TRB Part A. TMB provided the researchers with their key dataset: total bus boardings, broken down on a per-route, per-month basis, over the entire period of the new network. The dataset did not include detailed records of individual boardings, so the proportion of transfers could not be determined directly. But the phased deployment of the network allowed the researchers to use a clever technique.

Boardings on the Phase 1 routes generally reached a fairly stable level within a few months, but then jumped up sharply when Phase 2 was deployed, and then again when Phase 3 was rolled out. The authors infer that the increase in boardings on the Phase 1 routes was caused by riders who were transferring to and from the new routes. When the new routes opened, the old routes immediately became more useful, because they now provided access to more destinations with a short transfer. The researchers formalized this intuition into a simple statistical model, which allowed them to decompose each route’s ridership into two components: baseline demand for the route itself, and transfer demand for connecting routes.

Monthly validations on the NX, with routes grouped by their phase of deployment. As new phases were deployed, boardings on routes from previous phases jumped up, almost certainly due to transfers to and from the new routes.

Monthly validations on the NX, with routes grouped by their phase of deployment. As new phases were deployed, boardings on routes from previous phases jumped up, almost certainly due to transfers to and from the new routes.

So how much do transfers matter? The authors estimate that 26% of boardings on the current Nova Xarxa comes from transferring passengers — and once the entire network is deployed, they project that bus-to-bus transfers will represent 44% of boardings. This will be much higher than other major bus networks that overlay rail transit networks, such as Melbourne (16%), Boston (1.5%), London (13%), and New York (3%). (Note that this indicator is not always made public by transit agencies, and different agencies measure it in different ways.) Furthermore, comparing ridership on old routes to their new replacements suggests that corridor ridership has increased by 6% to 24%, due to a combination of increased connectivity, ease of use, and improved level of service. This figure should also increase as the rest of the network is rolled out.

Other factors have contributed to the success of the new network. In the early modern period, Barcelona, as the key city of Catalonia, was repressed by the centralized Spanish monarchy, fortified against revolt, and penned in behind its medieval city walls. Once these walls were removed in the mid-1800s, the city of Barcelona expanded dramatically beyond its medieval core under a strongly gridded street plan, known as L’Eixample. Thus, the idea of the “grid” has a strong resonance with the shape of the city for its citizens. Barcelona city officials have indicated that they believe that the disruptive Nova Xarxa plan faced less political resistance thanks to this intuitive preference for grids.

Beyond any speculative psychological considerations, Barcelona is a city of relatively spatially uniform population and job density. Within the city, there is no strong central business district generating demand for highly radial transit. Furthermore, the city is geographically constrained by mountains to the northwest, the Mediterranean to the southeast, and the Llobregat and Besòs rivers on the other two sides. Thus the overall urban density is quite high. Demand for space-efficient modes in Barcelona is intrinsically high and isotropic, making the Nova Xarxa a natural fit.

These results should not be too surprising. But it is rare that the real world provides us with such a clear-cut opportunity to test the principles of network design. Barcelona’s experience strongly suggests that a dense network with sufficient frequency for painless transfers can unlock anywhere-to-anywhere travel.

The authors of the original analysis, Hugo Badia, Juan Argote, and Carlos Daganzo, provided very useful feedback on early drafts of this article.

San Jose / Silicon Valley: A New Bus Network

We’re now at the end of a 1.5-year study to help Silicon Valley’s local transit agency, VTA, rethink its bus network.   I explained the thinking, and public conversation, that led to the draft final plan in this comprehensive post, and also showed how it compares to the existing one.  The final plan looks pretty much like the draft one with a few additions and adjustments.

Here’s the new network.  Download a sharper copy here.

VTA Final Plan

The plan is expected to be implemented when the BART extension into the area opens next year.

You can explore the plan in more detail here, including maps, route-level info, and the background documents in the Board report.

We’re very proud of this work, and of all the people — in the transit agency, other local governments, and the broader community — who worked with us design and refine it.  With this plan, 150,000 more people will have access to all-day high-frequency service, as will 160,000 more jobs.  A huge expansion in weekend service is planned.  A new rapid bus line is added.  (Again, more on the details here.)

Most importantly, more people can get to more places sooner, so that they can do more things and have better lives.  And that’s what we’re all about.

How to Ask Me (or Any Expert) a Question

Every day, I get at least one email that looks more or less like this:

I hope this note finds you well and thanks for your time in advance. My name is X and I am studying/working at Y.  I’m writing something exploring the general transit topic of Z, and after browsing your blog I know you would be a great person to talk to. Is this something that you would be open to chatting about ?

I am a friendly but busy person who gets lots of these emails.  I enjoy talking about interesting issues with interesting people, and will spend some unpaid time doing that.

However, if you want a bit of that unpaid time, you need to offer me one of three things:

  1. Marketing.  You might be interested in having us do a study or a paid event.  Talking with you is part of my marketing budget, and I’m happy to do that.
  2. Influence.  You’re a journalist for a recognizable publication, or you want me involved in a major conference.  In that case, I’m trading my time for some influence in the larger conversation, which I’m usually happy to do.
  3. Intellectual Fun.  You can’t offer marketing or influence, but you want to have a conversation that’s interesting — to me and not just to you.  This can be fun and educational for both of us.

If you ask me a general question that requires me to explain things that I’ve explained in writing, and that I’ve said 1000 times in presentations, well, it’s interesting for you but not so much for me.   I repeat myself all the time on the job, and I’m happy to do it, but it’s how I spend my time off.

In short:

  1. Explore about what I’ve already said on your topic.  (Search the blog, or peruse the Basics posts.  or watch some videos you can watch, or read my book, whose introduction is here.)
  2. Form interesting thoughts about that.  Reasoned disagreements are especially welcome.
  3. Start a conversation with those thoughts.

That’s what I did when I was in your shoes, as a transit geek and advocate with no relevant connections, job, or influence.  It worked.

So if I didn’t respond to your email, this is probably why.  (Though sometimes, I admit, I’m just too busy.)