Tactical Transit: A Fast Path to Transit Infrastructure

Learn this term now: tactical transit.

(I wish I’d invented it, but the cool peeps at TransitCenter did, in their great overview today.)

If you know what tactical urbanism is, tactical transit is the same principle applied to transit.  So it means something like this:  Don’t just fight for giant infrastructure projects that take many years to fund, approve, and complete.  Try things now, with what you have, in ways that (a) make a measurable improvement and/or (b) inspire people to see what’s possible.  And often: Use temporary materials, as appropriate, to present things as experiments, so people can experience them before passing judgment on them.  

The TransitCenter folks are thinking about street infrastructure when they use the term.  Tactical urbanism creates parks, paths, and other infrastructure experimentally, using temporary and removable materials like planter boxes and folding chairs.

Temporary bulbout in Brooklyn, NY. Source: TransitCenter

Tactical transit does the same for bus stops, bus lanes, and other simple facilities.  Street-running Bus Rapid Transit, after all, doesn’t have to start as a huge infrastructure project with years of delay for environmental review.  A city can make bus lanes and stops quickly, with paint, signs, curbs, and other simple things, along with law enforcement.

Tactically Temporary Transit

Experimental transit infrastructure is an especially powerful technique because local interest groups along a street tend to wildly overestimate the impact these projects will have on traffic, parking, and local retail.  Huge, irreversible infrastructure projects are more likely to trigger emotional reactions, in part because they are polarizing, like any binary choice.  Your only options are support or oppose, and as we all know, that pushes lots of people to oppose.

Obviously, tactical transit is a very useful new term, but not a new idea.  Transit facilities have been part of tactical urbanism for a while, and we even did it now and then back in the dark ages before we had words for it.

Construction projects have long presented opportunities for tactical transit.  When you’re going to experience a sudden loss in road capacity because of a construction project, temporary bus lanes often make sense.  Sometimes, when the project’s done, people don’t want these temporary lanes removed.

Permanent Tactical Transit?

Of course, the term “tactical” doesn’t have to imply temporary.  Lasting permanent change is usually the goal of tactical transit.  Presenting the change as experimental or temporary is a tactic — not just a political tactic but also a practical one.  Some changes really don’t work, or need a lot of tweaking, so doing them temporarily, where that’s realistic, can be a great way to make sure we get them right.  Anyone who’s encountered expensive but poorly planned infrastructure can see why this is a good thing.

We can extend the term further.  An effective frequent bus network is tactical, compared to a giant infrastructure project, because its costs are diffuse and it can be tweaked after implementation.  But as always, great tactics serve a strategic purpose.  All the network redesigns I’ve done are parts of strategies, with clear goals for permanent transformation.  Tactical transit should not mean quick fixes for some urgent problem without regard to long-term results.  Such fixes are sometimes necessary, but smart strategy, manifested through smart tactics, is always playing a longer game.


10 Responses to Tactical Transit: A Fast Path to Transit Infrastructure

  1. Tech Rider December 20, 2016 at 11:45 am #

    I like the idea of taking “tactical transit” beyond physical changes at the street or bus stop level. There are a host of technology solutions available today that can be just as impactful to ridership, on-time performance, and rider perception. Think demand-response instead of fixed route, first/last mile solutions, rider apps, etc….

  2. baselle December 21, 2016 at 11:58 am #

    I love this. Why can’t we pilot bus lines? In North Seattle, I often ask why we can’t pilot a set of east west lines whose function is to simply cross major lines heading in and out of downtown.

  3. Johnathan December 21, 2016 at 1:40 pm #

    I can speak only for NYC since I very familiar with the local transit problems. The situation is far from be under control of the Tactical Transit. The transit both buses and subway are unreliable running with variable frequency. A lot of business is given to Uber like ventures, which are part of the problem, rather the solution.
    The TransitCenter picture of the bus at the station is, rather, a very dangerous approach, when the bus lane is occupied by the bulbout without any signs or traffic restrictions before.
    Since this tactical transit approach has begun it is used as platform rather a transitional feature of transit (bus) improvement, and it is more like a small fixture. Today there are many fixtures like that in the city.
    Tactical Transit approach should be initiated on much wider grounds thru engaging the riders at the board meetings, stops, public events, social media, by sharing achievements that have been achieved around the world, sharing best practices that will address all problems of transit planning (e.g. local buses, BRT and LRT, parking and car sharing, biking and ped sidewalks, subways and commuter rails.

  4. Jeff Wegerson December 22, 2016 at 9:03 am #

    The industry at greatest danger of disruption by hailed autonomous vehicles may turn out to be automobile manufacturing rather than mass transit. As method of choice for short haul final half to five mile trips to rapid, comfortable, social, and express mass transit it would drastically reduce the net total of personal vehicles needed.

    This almost counter intuitive logic has not yet risen into our social consciousness.

  5. david vartanoff December 23, 2016 at 11:35 am #

    Jarrett, you are so spot on!. Bundling multiple improvements in order to have a “project” invites pushback, whereas,adding transit signal priority both for transit and fire/rescue, should be easy as a stand alone step. Adding selected queue jumps the same. The deficit here is large patronage opportunities and ribbon cutting photo ops–neither of which give us better transit service.

  6. Crispin Cast-Nine December 25, 2016 at 1:32 pm #

    So this sounds great, but how does it work in practice? For instance, you say that “Street-running Bus Rapid Transit, after all, doesn’t have to start as a huge infrastructure project with years of delay for environmental review. …A city can make bus lanes and stops quickly, with paint, signs, curbs, and other simple things.” But is this actually true in most American cities?

    Here in San Francisco, at least, it seems like the city can’t even plonk down a bollard without an environmental review and two local outreach meetings. The transit improvements Muni is currently trying to get through are already extremely mild-mannered and minor — things like adding a little island for disembarking light rail passengers, so they are less likely to get hit by illegally passing cars. But even those often seem to meet with outrage, and/or get debated into the ground until the city gives up. Is the issue that cities like SF actually have quick-fix options that they’re not using, or is the issue rather that the public has successfully tied the city’s hands to the point where a tiny minority of citizens can heckler’s-veto any infrastructure improvement they feel like?

    I’m also sure this type of forgiveness-not-permission “quick solution” would also be widely decried as undemocratic here, and not without reason: in a democratic society the government cannot really be in the business of making potentially disruptive decisions without first clearing them with the public. But see, for example, the intensely hostile reaction to the red transit lanes on Mission St. in SF, in which city officials were accused of “ethnic cleansing” for painting bus-only lanes red — and in that case there were even several public outreach sessions before the lanes appeared! So the idea that the city could just waltz in and paint a lane *without* a year-long process seems hard to believe, to me.

    Unfortunately, I totally agree with the rest of your post. I think the amount of hoops that city government has to jump through in order to get, e.g., BRT running — and I mean American-style “BRT” that mostly just involves painting a few lanes, not a Curitiba-esque metro system — is totally ridiculous. Combined with the intensely adversarial relationship citizens on both the left and the right have with the government in this country, I think it likely contributes to a downward spiral of negative trust in government’s ability to make positive changes for the public it serves: people fight Muni on everything because they don’t believe in its ability to do anything useful, and Muni can’t do anything useful because every time they try it’s obstructed into the ground. But I also don’t see a plausible way forward that anything can change.

  7. david vartanoff December 26, 2016 at 12:59 pm #

    Interesting that you cite SF. I had considered an example of a failure there. Roughly 10 or so years agho, Muni assigned a recent hire to do a study of improving the 38, Geary,* in the segment from Powell to Van Ness–locally known as the Tenderloin. After much ridership counting and bus speed timing etc, the planner proposed stop eliminations on the local variant of the bus. I attended a presentation at a transit advocate group meeting where he laid out both the data development and the plans. No surprise, the residents who actually use the bus were livid at the idea of losing their convenient stops–the ‘hood is hilly so for anyone not in the athletic bloom of youth, extra walking is an issue. The net result was stops were not eliminated.
    Now, what should we learn from this? There was then and continues to be a limited stop overlay route (since rebranded “rapid” which makes many fewer stops. Instead of trying to force the ridership of the locals to walk further, Muni could have reduced the frequency of locas while adding rapids. Asking those who are willing to take the slow bus closer to their destination to wait slightly longer is IMHO a fair tradeoff while increasing the frequency of the rapids taking riders longer distances faster. Rarely does a transitagency have to do EIRs, hearings, outreach etc to make minor scheduling changes in such instance.

    So, in my view, the entire Muni study/plan was a waste of resources which resulted in angry citizens and no improvement in service. The happy epilogue is that since then the rapid service has been increased both by frequency and span of service which was what should have happened in the first place.

    * at over 55k boardings/day the 38, 38R, AX, BX, is one of the top ridership bus transit routes in the US

  8. Crispin Cast-Nine December 26, 2016 at 3:11 pm #

    I’m willing to bet, though, that the reason they floated the plan of just removing stops was because they were trying to improve service without spending a lot more money, which Muni has been repeatedly urged to do. As I imagine you’re aware, we are currently going through something very similar along the L-Taraval. The thing is that adding rapids and subtracting locals may sound like a no-brainer solution to you, but is it just at peak hours that there’s a demand for rapid transit along the 38 corridor, or is it all day? And how many rapids can you actually add that way before local service deteriorates too much to be useful? To borrow the framing often used here, it sounds like the TL residents favored having the 38 be transit that helped people with low mobility and low incomes get around; on the other hand, I know that a lot of people in the Richmond wanted and continue to want rapid transit along Geary, as opposed to having their best option be a local bus that averages 9 miles per hour. I don’t think that’s a simple no-brainer trade-off, because both concerns are valid, and increasing both access and rapid transit may not have been in the budget — especially not until after the agency pitched the low-cost solution and got a negative response.

    I think this is also an example of how Muni is between a rock and a hard place here: everyone agrees that its service sucks and that the agency needs to make changes, but people oppose both spending the money needed to make those changes (often because of a perception that Muni is mismanaged and needs to do more with the money it already has) and cutting the low-ridership services that could raise that necessary money (which is seen as Muni throwing the disadvantaged under the ahem, bus).

    This also kind of illuminates a problem with “tactical transit”: it’s great, if people actually have enough faith in the transit agency to make the right calls. But in a city where both the right and the left see the transit agency as either agents of oppression or incompetent, I can’t imagine anything that seems like Muni acting without getting pre-approval from the populace would go over well.

  9. david vartanoff December 29, 2016 at 1:10 pm #

    Of course, Geary should get rail transit–preferably subway from downtown at least as far as Park Presidio. I was part of a Rescue Muni presentation at an outer Geary Merchants Assn. mtg. The “who cares about going downtown–there’s nothing there” attitude of D Heller was astounding but unfortunately he does have allies/support. The current plan is to waste millions on a nearly useless BRT which me ans genuine rail transit won’t happen for several decades if ever.

    So, yes, I am aware that Muni often faces significant pushback from various sides in their attempts to upgrade service. Muni has a long standing credibiilty deficit because service has been so unreliable for years. I used to receive the “Daily Repoirts” which detailed the “not outs” by barn and route; it was disgusting to see how many runs never operated. Much of this was driven by a tacit agreement that Muni would present a fraudulent budget claiming that it would fund delivering all advertised service even though it actually left roughly 100 driver positions unfilled. The overtime logged by drivers who wanted it would run out 3 months before the fiscal year ended resulting in a spare parts acquisition freeze. That in turn savaged service by piling up unrepaired buses in the barns.
    Only in the past few years has Muni’s budget reflected full staffing leading to most runs actually operating regularly.

    That said, I still believe that even shifting 2 runs per hour in base day scheduling from local to rapid on the 38 would have been easy to do without the fight. Until SF manages to force a transit service tax on large office/commercial spacesMuni will permanently be behind the eight ball, and until perception of the internal worker culture changes, the citizenry will remain stingy. One need only look back to November when SF residents voted that they wanted better service, but also voted down a sles tax increase to pay for it.

  10. david vartanoff December 30, 2016 at 5:26 pm #

    It occurs to me to point out that we should have a “control” experiment in thisarea as CTA has restored the Ashland Avenue Express after several years of contentious public discussion of a proposed BRT. The interesting question is whether CTA will be smart enough to get queue jumps and transit signal priority installed without waiting for the potential BRT program to be approved. If they did that and put a few TVMs out they would have most of what they intend w/o wasting money on custom left side door buses.

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