calgary: good local journalism on transit!

This Calgary Herald article by Tony Seskus deserves some kudos for taking the time to understand the transit planning problem, and educating readers about it.  This, for example, is strikingly clear and accurate:

Peering at his map, [transit planning manager Neil] McKendrick finds transit routes that don't look like looped shoelaces. They look more like wobbly cursives penned with the wrong hand.

They are the result of circuitous streets and discontinuous roads in communities that often have limited or no connections to other communities. Some are the product of old neighbourhood planning where transit wasn't a focus. Others result from the city's topography.

The routes aren't just awkward. They often don't perform well on a costperpassenger basis because they don't serve enough people or aren't direct enough to attract riders. On that basis, it means the difference between the best-and worst-performing routes might be more than $6 per passenger in some cases.

My only critique: reliance on Transit Score, a metric that contains a heavy bias toward rail even when the mobility and access outcomes are identical.  For example, when Seskus writes:
            Generally, results show better scores … along C-Train lines …
… some of this is tautology, because the presence of rail — regardless of whether it's more useful than a bus — is part of the Transit Score formula.
By the way, I look forward to visiting Calgary in April for a public lecture, which we're in the process of scheduling now.

9 Responses to calgary: good local journalism on transit!

  1. Miles Bader December 16, 2011 at 11:22 pm #

    Hmm, since people usually seem to like rail better, even compared to “equivalent” bus service, it would make sense to prefer it when all else is equal. Details do matter, as do public impressions.
    Maybe it’s crude to lump such things under a single “bus vs. rail” tag, but it’s hardly the worst simplifying assumption being made…
    [As to why they like it better, I dunno… I presume most people aren’t thinking about technical advantages like maintenance costs, etc, but rail has the reputation as being smoother, more comfortable, faster, less down-market, more “permanent”, more reliable etc. Of course not all rail systems will in fact have all these advantages (though they’ll probably have a few of them), but I suspect given very similar bus and rail systems many people will associate the bus with the rather poor reputation of typical city buses, and the train with significantly better heavy rail systems…]

  2. Jarrett at December 17, 2011 at 2:50 pm #

    Miles.  The point is that the "Transit Score" has a built-in bias toward rail that not all users share to the same degree.  While Transit Score is better than nothing, I would prefer a more factual score based on what % of the city's jobs and activities you can get to on transit in a give amount of time. 

  3. Robert in Calgary December 17, 2011 at 8:08 pm #

    Calgary in April….

  4. TransitPlannerMunich December 18, 2011 at 5:11 am #

    About the “bias towards rail”…
    One week ago we opened a new tram line here in Munich. It replaced basically 1:1 an existing “Metrobus” line.
    The Metrobus had a frequency of every 5 minutes in the morning and every 6-7 minutes in the afternoon, in between every 10 minutes. Operated with articulated buses.
    The tram runs most of the time less frequent (every 10 minutes). The tram is maybe 1-2 minutes faster (for most riders 1 minute) – bit with fewer stops. And operates with vehicles with a much higher capacity.
    Strange enough even within the first days of the system ridership exploded. From our expirience it will even more increase.
    I am sure Jarrett will find good reasons why you cannot make a point with this example and somehow the bus would have had the same potential. Still we are very happy with the new tram line already. And the riders too. Even when the tram made the first test drives on the new tracks all kind of people – young and old – waved with their hands to greet the new tram.
    And to the opening on saturday last week came over 20,000 people, despite cold, rainy-snowy weather…
    Maybe the tram is in your eyes some kind of voodoo. And we here in Europe are some kinds of voodoo masters. But hey, our voodoo works. We do not ask why anymore, but we perform it and are successful.
    May North America be happy with its rational bus-logic, we go for tram-voodoo… :-)
    By the way, the costs for the 4.3 kilometers were 43 million Euros. Here a video with some impressions from the driver’s perspective. All the area around the tracks has grass and flowers that will we fully visible next spring..:

  5. The Overhead Wire December 18, 2011 at 1:17 pm #

    If we’re going to continue to complain about how transit score works, we should also complain about the agencies that don’t allow route and headway data to be shared in a digital format. For example, the recent Brookings Institute report on the top 100 metro areas and employment connections took two years to gather all the GIS data from the agencies and is not allowed to be shared because of confidentiality agreements. Why transit agencies need those types of agreements is beyond me.
    CNT, who I believe provided the data for Transit Score has been collecting bus data for years as well to trying to get the headway data so that they can do what you’re talking about in terms of time and service quality. But again, they have to sign confidentiality agreements with agencies and even if they did collect the data, it can’t be assured to be very accurate because of frequent schedule and route changes. Which is what people often complain about during these bus v rail arguments.
    So while it’s all well and good to complain about transit score focusing on rail, we have much more fixed data for rail than for every bus line in over 360 MSAs. Especially when bus network headways, limited use small routes, and scheduling can be changed quarterly and agencies don’t want to share. This is one reason why Google Transit requires that agencies update their GTFS feeds quarterly else be kicked out of the program.
    Just wanted to be clear that these issues were understood as well.

  6. Jarrett at December 18, 2011 at 1:20 pm #

    @ Overhead wire.  Agree completely.  Jarrett

  7. Julian Wearne December 18, 2011 at 5:40 pm #

    @The Overhead Wire
    Here here! Melbourne has finally agreed to start sending information to Google to allow Google Transit to work, however it has still ensured the information is not legally released to virtually anyone else.
    One gentleman had developed an iPhone app that had some useful features that none of the official apps had. He was made to remove the app or risk being sued by the official agency Metlink. Metlink’s reasoning was that they didn’t want passengers getting confused by out of date information, yet their own information is so frequently out of date that I believe their real reason was simply so their app wouldn’t have better alternatives to look poor against.

  8. Miles Bader January 9, 2012 at 5:23 pm #

    @Jarret ~
    The problem is that simply because something is hard to measure, does not mean it’s valid to simply ignore it.
    Such “transit scores” are used to affect public policy, and public policy needs to pay attention to all relevant issues, even if they’re hard to measure.
    Because the general preference for rail is a real issue that needs to be considered by those making decisions about transit, if you popularize (in planning circles) some measure that omits it, what you’ve actually done is to simply assign such preference a value of “zero”—which is not only exactly the same sort of “assumption” you complain about, it’s actually worse because it’s not only obviously incorrect (clearly this preference is not zero), but it’s adopted for reasons that are irrelevant to the actual goal of such measures.
    So if you object to the use of such estimates because they seem somewhat arbitrary, the proper thing to do is try and come up with a more concrete basis and improve the estimates, not to simply ignore them.

  9. Jarrett at January 9, 2012 at 7:39 pm #

    Miles.  My issue with Transit Score is that nobody knows what it's trying to measure.  A transit score that captured the percentage of the city's jobs/housing/attractions that I could get to in a fixed time … THAT would be a concrete measurement.  Giving a higher transit score because nearby transit is on rail rather than tires, even if it runs more slowly than buses?  Scoring systems shouldn't be telling me that that's more important than getting where I'm going.  If anything, they should be asking me.