Archive | July, 2011

How urbanist visionaries can muck up transit

Architects and urban visionaries play an incredibly important role in a leadership-hungry culture.  They have to know a little bit about almost everything, which is hard to do.  But for some reason, certain segments of the profession have decided that the basic math and geometry of transit isn't one of those things they need to know, even when they present themselves as transit experts.

To see what I mean, I encourage you to watch this short video from Gensler Architects in Los Angeles.  It's a concise summary of all the crucial mistakes that you'll need to confront in much "visionary thinking" about transit.  (If Gensler takes down the video, read on.  I've inserted enough screenshots from it that you can follow.)

 

[NETWORK_LA transit from tam thien tran on Vimeo.]

The five most common "visionary" mistakes about transit, all on display in the video, are:

  • Disinterest in costs and efficiency.   Visionaries do need to set aside cost and efficiency for part of their brainstorming phase, because by doing so they might come upon an idea that's efficient and affordable in a completely new way.  But they don't have a coherent idea until they've brought those factors back in, at least at the level of order-of-magnitude reasonableness. Sadly, some urbanists scoff when I use the word efficiency, assuming that this means I've lost touch with human needs, aspirations, aesthetics and values.  In reality, efficiency means how much of those good things you can have in a world of limited resources.  Even in the arts, we speak often of the efficiency or economy with which an artist achieves an aesthetic effect.  (The Gensler video, for example, is efficient in displaying all five of these fallacies in only five minutes.)
  • Fixation on transit technologies as though they were the essential distinction between different  mobility outcomes.  For more on this, see here.
  • Confusion about scale.  In transit, if it doesn't scale, it doesn't matter.  Because visionary thinking often focuses first on a prototype – a tiny example of the hoped-for transformation — it often goes too far without thinking about scalability.  Sure, this cool idea works in one suburb or in one cool building, but that says very little about whether it would work in a whole city.  Gensler's particular error about scale is … 
  • Confusion about "flexibility," a dangerous slippery word.  Gensler imagines that a demand-responsive style of transit, in which you make a request on your phone and the transit system somehow deviates to meet your personal needs, is scalable to a vast, dense city where the transit system is already very crowded much of the time.  More on this below. 
  • Ignorance about what's already working, leading to premature demolition fantasies.  If you already hate buses, you won't have much interest in understanding why so many people use them.  Like many urbanist visionaries, Gensler doesn't appreciate the very high ridership and efficiency of the existing transit system across the core of Los Angeles. This allows them to jump to the conclusion that the system should be replaced instead of incrementally improved.  (Tip:  Prematurely dismissing the relevance of something that so many people clearly find useful is an excellent way to sound elitistregardless of the nobility of your intentions.)

So watch the Gensler video if you can, but you can also follow along via my screenshots and comments below.  You'll see these mistakes again and again in the urban visioning business.

0:27 Gensler states the question as "Get LA on transit HOW?"  No argument with the question.

03

0:51  Transit is divided into a set of vehicle types, and these types (light rail, metro, bus) are confused with "methods" of transport.  For more on the absurdity of treating bus/rail distinctions as primary, see here.

04

0:53  "We have only these methods.  What if we added more?"  An interesting question to which transit experts (and economists, and engineers) have a very good answer.  The more competing systems you establish in the same market trying to do the same thing, the less well any of them will function, and the less investment any one of them will justify.

05

06

11

0:56  They now begin to analyze vehicles in terms of distance, sustainability, flexibility.  What's missing?   Cost!  Efficiency!  Some things are just wildly expensive relative to what they deliver.  Darrin Nordahl has already been down this path, evaluating technologies by discussing only their supposed benefits.  That's not evaluation, it's either aesthetic rumination or marketing.  (Neither of those are bad things, but they have to be identified as what they are.)

07

1:20.  They talk about distances but their graphic is talking about speeds.  These are fair for personal modes but absurd generalizations for the transit modes. When your notion of "rail" conflates light rail, heavy metro rail subways, and 70 mile-long infrequent commuter rail, the word "rail" means nothing relevant about speed or travel distance, or any other transit outcome apart from capacity.  (Note that the earlier claim "we have only these methods" implies that these three kinds of rail are the same thing in every way that matters.) 

Likewise, if you think buses have an ideal distance, you're unclear on the role of local buses vs Bus Rapid Transit vs long-haul expresses, all of which are very successful in Los Angeles.  Gensler imposes a "technology first" frame on the data, thereby concealing almost everything that matters about how transit gets people where they're going.

In transit, the real speed distinctions within transit are usually not direct results of technology.  Speed is the result of how often you stop and what can get in your way.  See here.

12

08

09.

10

2:00.  Staggering incoherence in comparing input (bus service) to an unrelated output (total ridership including rail).  What's more, the numbers are misleading.  Per the 2011 APTA Fact Book, Los Angeles MTA has America's 3rd highest total boardings and 2nd highest total bus boardings.   In the context of its starved resources and the vagueness of public support for it, the Los Angeles bus system is working brilliantly.

2:26.  Here is Gensler's biggest mistake:

Gensler 1

Gensler 2

Which of these two networks would you rather travel on?

Gensler has mistaken metaphor for logic.  They think that "liberating" bus routes has something to do with liberating or enabling people.  The idea is barely explained and totally incoherent. 

Today, in our supposedly "inflexible" system, you'll find a bus going down a major boulevard with maybe 60 people on it.  Some of them want to go somewhere straight ahead, some want to go to somewhere ahead and to the left, some want to to somewhere ahead and to the right.  Fortunately, they are in a high frequency grid system, which will take all of them to their destination, either directly or via a connection to a north-south line, probably by a path similar to what they'd have followed if driving.  So this huge number of diverse people making diverse trips are all moving toward their destinations on a reasonably direct path.  This is the extraordinary power of the high-frequency grid.  So instead, Gensler proposes bus lines should twist and turn just because somebody with an iPhone wants them to?

Personal technology has great opportunity to better inform us about all transit services, and it can transform the convenience of transit at low-demand places and times, by influencing the operations of low-ridership, low-capacity services, such as demand-responsive buses and taxis. 

Quite possibly, personal apps will allow demand-responsive service to replace some low-demand fixed-route buses, which is fine with most transit planners.  Those low-ridership buses run mostly for social-service or "equity" reasons, and if there's a more efficient way to do that, I expect many transit experts would be all for it.  It would let them concentrate on the high-ridership, high-capacity services that can achieve a great deal of personal mobility and sustainability, very efficiently. 

Successful high-capacity frequent transit needs to take on more of the rigidity of subways, in order to spread the benefits of subways (which we can't afford everywhere) more widely.  That means it needs to be even more frequent, reliable, legible, permanent, and reinforced with infrastructure investment.  Fortunately, within limited resources, many transit agencies are now trying to do that.

The video is full of entirely laudable and familiar green ideas, but then we get to this …

  • 3:23  In Gensler's Los Angeles, every transit trip must be reserved.  Do you really want to have to make an appointment with a single vehicle and driver, because that's the only way to make any use of all the buses swarming around you on unpredictable paths?  Or might you prefer a simple frequent transit corridor where so many buses are coming all the time, in such a predictable pattern, that you can take any of them, and are thus almost guaranteed a vehicle soon even if one breaks down?

 

  • 4:20  "What if we had PERSONAL service?" they ask?  Well, the extreme of personal service would be low-ridership system in a tiny town, where the driver has time to learn everyone's name.  Is that what Los Angeles wants to be?   Or would you rather live in a city where you can get anywhere you want to go easily, starting right now, without making a reservation, and even with the option of spontaneously changing your path or destination, just like motorists do?  

To me as someone who values my personal freedom, flexibility, spontaneity, human dignity, and travel time, Gensler's Los Angeles would be a hell-world worse than Blade Runner.  Fortunately, it's also mathematically impossible.

We've blown up transit networks before, of course, and Gensler's vision should remind us of what was thought about cars vs. transit in the 1940s.  Like personal technology today, cars were just so wonderful for the individual that we just assumed the world could be made in their image.  (The technical term for this idea — that the world will bend to reflect my emotional needs and enthusiasms — is narcissism.)  So we made a deep investment in a car-and-highway technology that could not possibly scale to big cities.  Gensler proposes the same mistake:  Because our iPhones are so cool, they assume that the city, at every scale, can be reinvented around them.

For a more positive vision of the future of Los Angeles, one that begins by noticing the city's strengths and looking at how to build on them, see here and especially toward the end of an interview here.

 

who’s leading the non-car renaissance?

In the Atlantic today, Richard Florida announces that:

  • the non-car renaissance is being led by relatively dense metro areas and university towns and
  • that the strongest correlation with non-car use is belonging to his trademark Creative Class

This will not be breaking news to anyone who's worked in transit for more than 15 minutes.

Before we make policy based on regression analyses like this, we need to think about which of these factors are durable, and which are ephemeral.  As a transit network planner I feel much more confident basing my designs on long-term stable things like density, rather than ephemeral things like what the current generation seems to want. 

It is also important to caution against any suggestion that "class," creative or otherwise, should guide transit planning decisions.  Such thinking tends to result in "symbolic transit."  See my recent article on a textbook example of this:

More importantly: if "creative class" simply means "relatively educated and open-minded people who are more adaptable than average," then of course they are best suited to non-car modes.  Any growing trend relies on early adoption, which by definition is done by more open-minded and adaptable people.  So a claim that a transit renaissance is led by the "creative class" is almost a tautology.

permanent weather and the civic image

Rain in Seattle.  Sun in Los Angeles.  Fog in San Francisco.  Wind in Chicago.  The endless summer nights of Helsinki or Edinburgh.  How could we navigate without our stereotypes of the urban air and sky? 

(Yes, this is one of those personal and literary ruminations about urbanism, almost free of transit content, cross-posted from the personal blog Creature of the Shade.)

In his odd novel Voyage to Pagany, the great modernist poet (but not novelist) William Carlos Williams tells of a self-absorbed man riding through Europe by train.  At one point (adequate fragments here) he's delayed in the middle of the night in Genoa.

Genoa.  The name sounded hollow, depressing as the coldly sulphurous gallery through which he was passing, baggage in hand …

The placename is a sponge for first impressions, and never quite shakes them off.  For Williams's hero, "Genoa" means "night, don't know anybody, don't speak the language, poor me."  Or to reduce this (literally) benighted city to one sentence:

I will never see the sun in Genoa.

But here's what's odd.  When I read this chapter in graduate school, the only experience I'd ever had of Genoa was of passing through it at night on the train.  Today, that remains my only experience of Genoa, so even now, when someone says "Genoa" I imagine a city at night.  Northwest Italy isn't high on my list of urgent travel destinations, so it's quite likely that I too will never see the sun in Genoa, and hence never dissociate the city from this absurdly accidental recollection.

Professional thinkers-about-cities would never reduce their impression of a city to a story of something that happened to them there.  But everyone else does this quite naturally; when I ask a person on the street what she thinks of a city, she'll often mention some joyous or traumatic recollection, presenting that as her lasting definition of the place.  We urbanists are supposed to take pride in having a larger, grander view.  But I bet most of us carry these silly but useful attitudes, at least when we get far down our personal list of Cities We Want to Think About.

Right now, you see, I don't feel a specific need to expand my awareness of Genoa, except to the extent that I want to expand my awareness generally.  I wouldn't pass up an expense-paid visit to Genoa in the daytime, and would surrender my prejudice happily if I did.  But failing that, the prejudice is working for me.  It's painting a relatively unfamiliar part of Italy with a few touchstones of mood.  Thanks to these quick associations, my near-total ignorance of northwest Italy, while still near-total, is packaged and marked with a couple of personal baggage tags, so I can haul it around as a familiar without having to look inside.

The baggage tags are personal, but they're also authorized by the Greater Truth of Literature.  Anyone can pass through a city at night, but I passed through Genoa at night just as William Carlos Williams's hero did decades ago.  I have a similar tag stuck on Bologna, where I once had a scare of thinking I had missed a late night train connection and would be spending the night on a station bench.  I'd have forgotten the episode by now had Robert Dessaix's hero not had exactly the same experience, in his fine novel Night Letters.  Nonfiction lies all the time, but fiction makes no truth claims and therefore can never be disproven, so it can sell itself as a Gateway to Deeper Truth even when it's just the whining of a man stuck in a train station.  Williams and Dessaix tell me that I wasn't alone in my nocturnal and unwanted visits to Genoa and Bologna, that these experiences actually Resonate with the Human Experience.  So I remember them.

Thus authorized, it feels good, at least to me, to permanently associate cities with atmospheric conditions and their related moods.  Even dealing with cities I know well (Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles) I find a pleasure in wrapping each in the stereotypical weather condition (rain, fog, sun, respectively) and experiencing all variations from that as an engaging nuance.  For cities I don't know it's much easier: for me it's always night in Genoa.   These simplifications are silly but seem useful in maintaining a mental structure of reality on which more interesting and reality-based thoughts can sometimes sprout.

P1010366 Now and then I notice myself consciously choosing a new atmospheric prejudice.  I was in Chicago over Memorial Day weekend 2011, and have chosen, for now, to think of Chicago as a city where towers loom in ominous chilly fog and thunderstorms. 

On my stay there I had two days of that, followed by two days of hot sun.  The fog and storms, I decided, are the Chicago I want, because they allowed me to experience the downtown skyscrapers as overpowering, exactly as they were intended. Structures vanishing into the clouds are not just tall, but unknowably, maybe infinitely tall.

Chicago was built to turn a vast frontier into commodities and profit.  The many rail lines emanating from it look like force-lines of a blast, so to be at the center of the blast is, well, like the end of a science fiction film when we finally get inside the Center of Ominous Power.  I wanted it to be grand but in mysterious, overpowering, intimidating way.

My ideal Chicago, in short, is a meteorological projection of a conventional story about what makes Chicago unique.  So I feel briefly wise, though actually just prejudiced, when I look at my images of Chicago in such conditions, as though the city is telling me a story I want to hear …

P1010364

P1010390

P1010381

In such a perfectly symbolic city, a photo that might otherwise be a joke, "Christ the Steakhouse," isn't funny at all.
P1010369

Nor can "Time" be just the name of a media corporation.

P1010371

Then the sun came out, and it was all flatter, more like a city anywhere in the midwest.  On a long hike north from the loop, Michigan Avenue looked like Singapore's Orchard Road, Lincoln Park looked like a number of great midwestern city parks, the Clark Road business districts looked nice or not-nice in familiar ways, and the only glorious uniqueness was that my hike ended at a well-known religous site for green urbanists: Wrigley Field, a Major League Baseball Stadium with Practically No Parking.

By then, it was too dark to photograph, so as I sorted photographs in an about-to-close Starbucks in what would have been the shadow of the stadium walls, I thought "this is nice, Wrigley Field at night," which is perilously close to "Wrigley Field is night."   And indeed, not being much of a baseball fan, It's quite possible I'll never see the sun there.

 

what maps should be at stops and stations?

Yesterday I linked to a fine polemic by Kerwin Datu of the Global Urbanist, regarding London's much-imitated wayfinding system.  Datu reserved particular scorn for the "spider maps" presented at certain stops and stations, which show you only the bus lines that emanate from there.  Maps like this one.  (This is actually the west half of a map showing bus routes from the bright yellow area where the map would be posted.)

Buses from Farringdon (West End)

 

Datu's quip again:

These maps, which TfL call 'spider maps', fail at the very first task: helping you identify your destination. Normally, once you've found where you're going on a map, you work backwards to where you are. But not here. On these spider maps, you are only shown where the closest bus routes want to take you, not where you want to go. It's like the old joke they tell beyond the Pale: when asking a local for directions one is told, 'well, if that's where you want to go, I wouldn't start from here!'

The maps have many defenders, however, so I should expand on why Datu's polemic resonates with me.

First of all, of course, the London maps only make sense at all in a network where all bus lines can be assumed to be frequent.  That's true in inner London but not in many of the systems that imitate it.   If we show the customer a big, bright line direct from their location to their destination, we're conveying an impression of physical existence.  The bright line looks like a physical thing, like a road, not just the site of an occasional service event.  The whole point of Frequent Network mapping, of frequent buses and rapid transit, is that we want people to make exactly that association, to see frequent services as always there ready for them to use.

But when we use such a bright line to refer to an hourly or peak-only or nighttime-only service, we undermine that message and give a misleading impression.  Strong lines on the map suggest continuous existence on analogy with rapid transit lines, but these infrequent and short-span lines don't exist most of the time. They are probably not there when you need them.

All that, of course, is part of the case for transit maps that reflect frequency/span categories, both emphasising frequent and long-span services and specifically de-emphasising ephemeral ones like peak-only or night-only services.

But there's a more specific issue with spider maps or "buses from here" maps.  They promote single-seat rides while concealing connection opportunities.  More generally, they discourage people from discovering how to navigate the complete network.

There are contexts where this is fine.  At an outer suburban station where the only bus services are local circulators and links to a few nearby suburbs, the "spider map" allows the customer to see the complete local network without having to find it in a massive map of the whole system.

But there's a different way to organize mapping at stops/stations that might be both more truthful and would help people see more clearly (a) the structure of frequent services that are easy to use even with connections and (b) the necessary detail for all services in a local area.  That would be to provide two maps:

  • A Frequent Network map for the entire city (or if the city is as big as London, maybe a large subarea of the city).   This map would have a prominent "you are here" mark, but its function would to say "here's everywhere you can go from here, on service that's available right now."  (You could simplify this map by deleting some Frequent services that would not conceivably be useful on any possible trip from "here," but if you think broadly there usually aren't many of those.)  This map would also convey a very useful subliminal message: "here is where you are in your city, and in your network."   At least for spatial navigators, this map has a useful long-term value in helping people internalize the network so that they can navigate it more freely and spontaneously in the future. 
  • A local area map, showing all routes emanating from "here" (or perhaps all routes with those from "here" highlighted) but just out to a radius of several km.  The ideal radius is the distance beyond which you should usually be looking for rapid line, possibly with a connection, rather than a local bus line from "here."  The local area map should be strongly coded to highlight Frequent services and downplay peak-only and other short-span services. 

In both cases, lines exiting the map area should be labelled at the edge with any more distant destinations that you would logically use that line, from "here," to reach.  (That may not be all the places the line goes.)

This approach would not lead the customer as precisely as a spider map or "buses from here" map does, but nor would it mislead the customer as much as those maps can sometimes do.  Sometimes, the fastest way to get from here to there involves making a connection, but the connection may be very easy and very frequent, and we should resist mapping styles that conceal those opportunities. 

That's my instinct, but maybe it's just my prejudice.  What do you think?

 

 

london: questioning sacred maps

Buses from Farringdon (West End)

Are you tired of hearing that London does everything right when it comes to transit?  Do you wonder if the mapping styles widely copied from London are always the best?   Are you even open to the heresy that London's famous Underground map, despite its global reach as an image, may be less than perfect?  Then you'll enjoy Kerwin Datu's affectionate take-down of London's information system, at the Global Urbanist.  My favorite bit, about the image above:

These maps, which TfL call 'spider maps', fail at the very first task: helping you identify your destination. Normally, once you've found where you're going on a map, you work backwards to where you are. But not here. On these spider maps, you are only shown where the closest bus routes want to take you, not where you want to go. It's like the old joke they tell beyond the Pale: when asking a local for directions one is told, 'well, if that's where you want to go, I wouldn't start from here!'

UPDATE:  Excellent arguments in London's defense, in the comments.  More responsible followup by me here.

graphic artists! seeking ideas for book’s cover

If you're a talented illustrator who's willing to volunteer a few hours in return for a possible publication credit, read on.

My book Human Transit, which I hope will come out by November, needs some ideas for a cover.  The publisher has developed one that has promise but would like to see some alternatives.

The visual message of the cover must be:

  1. Hey!  Eye catching.
  2. Cool!  Minimalist, not emotional, not "hot"
  3. Transit can be simple.  The image must not convey a sense of complexity or confusion.  That's why I'm thinking "minimalist."
  4. Transit is about humans, their needs and desires, their joy and success, their jobs and families and recreation. 
  5. Transit is not about technology choice.  That's why I tend to prefer images that are based on transit map imagery rather than images of transit vehicles. 

The cover text is:

Title:

Human Transit

Subtitle:

How clear thinking
about public transit
can enrich our communities
and our lives

(I like this "four-line poem" layout, but it can be in any configuration.)

Author:Jarrett Walker

All this text must be clearly legible on the cover, though the subtitle should be smaller than the rest.

The cover dimensions are 6×9 inches.

If you provide the image that becomes the basis for the selected cover, you'll be credited on the title page.  Please note, however, that I'm not running a contest, just welcoming ideas from anyone who wants to share them.  The final decision about the cover will be made by the publisher.

Please pass this on to graphic artists, or aspiring talented ones, that you know!  I would need to see your ideas by July 20 to keep the project moving.

Thanks!

 

network design for high ridership, a dense city example

How do transit network designers go about their task? Surprisingly little has been written about this.  You can pick up books that appear to cover the “network planning” process and find examples of good and bad networks but rarely a description of how to do the design thinking itself.  EMBARQ’s recent manual for network planners in India, for example, provides great detail about how to analyze demand and evaluate results, but show no awareness of the really challenging task of network design, which sits in between those tasks. Continue Reading →

social media’s influence on public transit (guest post)

Guest Post by Daniela Baker

Daniela Baker is a social media advocate at CreditDonkey where she helps entrepreneurs find small business credit cards.  She grew up in Europe where public transportation plays a huge role in everybody's life.  Public transit "consumers" like Daniela are finding their voice and publishing it on the web for all to read. With that newfound confidence, they are discussing political issues, gaining support for changes to be made when it comes to public funding and increased public transit choices.

With more and more people on the road and gas prices on the rise,  Americans are looking for a better alternative to commuting by car. Unfortunately, many transit systems can be hard for the newbie to decipher, or fall short in offering what citizens are after. Even more unfortunate, many people are unaware of the options their towns offer when it comes to transportation.

When consumers aren’t finding what they’re looking for when it comes to public transportation, they are turning to social media to help garner the influence they need to get the services they’re after. This has left many professionals scratching their heads, uncertain how social media can influence a public service.

Here are some answers as to why consumers are turning to social media when it comes to public transportation, as well as how consumers and cities are driving the social media efforts.

Americans’ sentiments toward public transportation

A poll released in March 2010 by Smart Growth America and Transportation for America found that Americans are craving more transportation options. The poll indicated that Americans would be open to doubling the amount of funding that is currently being funneled toward public transportation.

The poll found that Americans are frustrated with the transportation options that are currently available. In fact, 73 percent of respondents stated they have no options other than driving as much as they currently do. In the study, only 1 in 5 of those polled took public transportation during the previous month (this included walking) but indicated they would like to use it more; about 47 percent indicated public transportation is not an option in their area and 35 percent said the timing of routes did not work with their schedule.

These survey results were not only for metro areas but applied to suburban and rural areas as well, with respondents stating that rural areas would also benefit from increased transportation systems. In fact, 79 percent stated that in rural areas the U.S. would benefit from expansion and improvements made to both bus and rail systems. Eighty-two percent of suburbanites shared the same sentiment.

Why social media

In the past, when a consumer was looking for information, they would go to the local library to research an issue or visit town hall for information on public services. If they were unhappy about the services provided or felt that there was a need that was being missed, they would meet with their elected official.

Nowadays, citizens are going straight to the Internet to get answers and try to make change. With social media like blogs, Twitter and Facebook, and websites created by the common consumer, people are making real connections with people who they have never met in person.

Nielsen Research wanted to see just how large of an influence social media has on today’s consumers. This question was answered with a study they conducted in 2007. When asked what sources they trust, chat/discussion comments and blogs ranked two and three on the list, just behind other consumers. Other choices included brand websites, TV/magazines, radio, sponsorships, search ads and banner ads.

Citizens making public transportation more convenient

Tech savvy individuals have started to take action by creating social media outlets that help fellow commuters find the information they need to make public transportation options work with their commute.

PBS.org has profiled one such effort – IAmCaltrain.com, which is utilizing web technology to make regional commuter train schedules easier to decipher. The site allows commuters to type in their starting and ending destinations and it maps the closest train stations and shows when trains are scheduled to arrive.

As websites like IAmCaltrain.com and commuter-driven blogs continue to be created, they are encouraging others in their area to embrace the transportation systems that are available to them as well as voice their opinions about what could be improved.

Cities increasing awareness of public transportation

Cities across America have started to embrace social media to help encourage their citizens to take advantage of the public transportations that are available to them. June 16 was the 6th Annual Dump the Pump Day, sponsored by the American Public Transportation Association (APTA). APTA partnered with cities across the U.S. to encourage citizens to park their cars and utilizing public transportation for the day.

As reported by StatePress.com, the City of Tempe was one of the public organizations that participated in APTA’s annual event. City employees turned to a method they knew would be effective to get the words out to Arizonians—they went to Twitter and Facebook to encourage residents to choose public transit, showing the cost savings available through using alternative modes of transportation (gas prices in the Phoenix area have been hovering between $3.50 and $4.00 per gallon since 2008).

Outside of government, citizens and the private sector are asserting greater control over transit information.  Google Transit is now the go-to source for routes and schedules over much of the world, and many transit agencies are increasingly deferring to Google rather than maintaining their own expensive systems. 

More importantly, Google’s standard public data formats let anyone access route, schedule, and even real-time location data.  As a result, entrepreneurs have developed countless web and phone applications to present and customize transit data, so that customers can increasingly choose the style and emphasis that they want in their own information.   Down at the grass roots, activists are even drawing new styles of map for their transit systems, promoting these through social media, and getting their transit agency’s attention as a result.

What Comes Next?  Innovation

Most leading transit agencies now have Facebook and Twitter accounts, and some put significant effort into both listening and communicating via these tools.  The trick, of course, is not just to listen for suggestions and opinions, but also to notice how the whole communication task is evolving as new tools are invented and new ways of using them arise.

The hardest challenge for transit professoinals is simply to be open to innovation arising from the social media sphere.  Sometimes, online innovators will do something better, and more cheaply, than a transit agency can do it.  As that happens, the transit agency's interest may lie in encouraging public innovation, not trying to control or limit it.

grids and the short diagonal (comment of the week)

Eric identifies an important issue for high-frequency grids, like those of Vancouver, Los Angeles, Chicago, Portland's eastside, etc … The short diagonal trip may be not much faster than walking.  Here's how he describes it, complete with clever 1980s-style computer graphics:

When discussing grids, it is important to think about trips like the following:

Start
|
| (1/4 mile)
|
|********(1 mile)************
A—————————-B
*****************************|
*****************************|
*****************************| (1 mile)
*****************************|
*****************************|
*****************************|
*****************************|
*****************************C—–Finish
*****************************(1/4 mile)***

(please ignore the '*' – they exist only to make the vertical lines go in the proper place).

The grid's approach to this trip would be to walk to A, then take a bus to B, then take another bus to C, then walk to the end. However, since each bus segment is so short, even with frequent service, the waiting time still becomes a huge deal.

For example, if we assume that the buses each run every 15 minutes the expected travel time might look something like this:

Time =
5 minutes (walk to A)
+ (0-15) minutes (wait)
+ (5-10) minutes (ride bus to B)
+ (0-15) minutes (wait)
+ (5-10) minutes (ride bus C)
+ 5 minutes (walk to destination)
= (20-60) minutes

The average 40 minute travel time is just 3.75 miles per hour, equivalent to a brisk walk, while the worst-case travel time is a mere 2.5 miles per hour, equivalent to a slow walk.

With the slow speeds and huge travel-time uncertainty in the above calculations, before you even consider the possibility of bunching leading to 20-30 minute waits, if the goal is simply to get to the destination quickly and reliably, transit can't even compete with walking, let along with driving.

This relegates the use of transit for these trips to people can't walk or bike and also can't afford to drive or spend $10 on a taxi ride.

Trips like these are not edge cases. I make trips like this quite frequently. Usually, I end up either biking or jogging the entire way or walking half way and taking a one-seat ride for the other half.

My personal opinion is not that the poor handling of such trips is a failure of transit, but rather that there are certain types of trips that transit is optimized for and short L-shaped trips isn't one of them. Short L-shaped trips are simply better accomplished by some other means, such as walking, jogging, skateboarding, bicycling, or even riding a taxi, while longer trips, especially trips in a straight line, allow transit to work more efficiently.

If anybody else has opinions on the matter, I look forward to hearing them!

Eric's point connects to a bunch of intersting issues:

  • What other solution is there?   Look at the overall mobility outcome from straight, fast, frequent lines in a grid pattern, and ask:  OK, yes, this is not so convenient for the short diagonal, but what exactly can or should we do about that?  In some cities, notably Los Angeles, you'll often find little circulators that serve some of these diagonals where there is a specific market for them, such as a link between two key local activity centers.  But these are always going to be specialized because they are so much less efficient than the main grid lines.
  • Note how much this outcome depends on the overall quality of the straight grid lines.  Eric assumes they're pretty poor.  In fact, the diagonal grid trip usually has a choice of two L-shaped paths ("over and down", or "down and over") so there's an opportunity to choose the better of these two, which will the the one that uses more frequent or faster services.
  • Eric's assumptions are for a standard local-stop grid.  Frequencies are assumed to be never better than 15 minutes, and travel speed, for example, is 5-10 min to go a mile, an average speed of only 6-12 mi/hr.  Some urban lines are down in this range, but such performance should be considered a problem in urgent need of attention.  Stop spacing and a range of minor infrastructure can have large impacts, and will yield benefits that are much greater than you'll get by dissipating your service over countless little diagonal shuttles.  So there's much that can be done to improve the short-diagonal problem simply by focusing improvements on the grid lines. 

In short, I agree with Eric's conclusion. Because I tend to live in urban places where most of my trips are short, I encounter the short diagonal problem all the time.  It's a drag, but I deal with it because I'm pretty sure that it's geometrically impossible to "solve," except by undermining far larger benefits of a network that serves the whole city, and that moves fast enough to compete with cars, not with walking.