Frequent Networks

Auckland: South Auckland Redesign Rolls Out

Back in 2012, I worked with Auckland Transport to design a completely new design for the city’s transit system.  (Auckland has a single city government covering the whole urban region, so you could also call this a regional plan.)

The old design — if it could be a design at all — had been the result of private operating companies designing their own routes to their own advantage, which led to enormous numbers of express buses into the Auckland city centre (where they created major bus congestion) but poor services for getting around locally or crosstown.  It was also just impossibly complicated …

Old network in southern Auckland. Can you see how to get anywhere?

Old network in southern Auckland, almost all infrequent. Can you see how to get anywhere?

The new network emphasizes all-day high-frequency services, connecting to each other in grid patterns and to newly frequent rail lines.  Read about that big picture, and its payoffs, here.

A small piece of the network, in the Green Bay area, was implemented last year, and achieved a 20% ridership increase (on no increase in service quantity) in the first year.  Now, the first really big piece has been rolled out across southern Auckland.  This area, formerly the City of Manukau, is relatively low-income, ethnically diverse, and features fragmentary, shredded street patterns that are a huge challenge to network designers.

A fragment of the old network is above.  Virtually none of it, including the train line, was frequent.  The overlapping lines with uncountable 3-digit-route numbers show local routes tangled up in express routes going all the way into the CBD far to the north, competing with the rail line.

Here’s the same slice of the new network (beautiful full map here):

New South Auckland network. Wide lines (31, 32, 33) are the Frequent Network

New southern Auckland network.  Wide lines (31, 32, 33) are the Frequent Network

Why the huge reduction in complexity?  Virtually all express buses to the CBD were replaced by buses connecting to the main rail line, which is now frequent.  Local lines were organized so that they form a logical network feeding into local hubs as well as to major rail stations.  Note that not all rail stations are bus hubs; the network concentrates only on certain rail stations so that buses connect with each other as well as with the trains, and so that consolidated station facilities can be built at these locations.  The biggest new hub, Otahuhu at the north end of South Auckland, has a huge number of buses feeding it, and got a shiny new bus-rail station for the new network’s opening day.

As always, there will be hiccups in the implementation process, as people adjust. But it’s great to see this plan, first sketched four years ago, on the street at last.

Portland: New Transit Map Underscores Frequent Network

By Evan Landman

Evan Landman is an associate at my firm, Jarrett Walker & Associates, and serves as a research assistant and ghostwriter on this blog. He tweets on transit and other Portland topics at @evanlandman

For years on this blog and in our projects, we've stressed the importance of highlighting and emphasizing transit agencies' Frequent Networks on customer information of all kinds.  Portland's agency TriMet has traditionally been a best practice example here, given their extensive Frequent Network branding down to the individual stop level, but curiously, their system map has not embraced this idea so wholeheartedly. Today, TriMet's new system map changes that, introducing a cleaner, more readable map, which does a much better job of highlighting the agency's premier bus services. 

Let's compare the two, starting with the old map that has just been retired:

Screen Shot 2015-09-30 at 3.57.57 PM

Portland Central Eastside, TriMet map (early 2015)

This Southeast Portland shows the core of the city's Frequent Network. The Frequent Network is symbolized with a thicker line weight, but every line still has its own individual color, presumably to make it easier to trace each individual line across the network. However, the effect of this choice distracts from the important information contained in the line weight property, because the wide diversity of bright colors climbs to the top of the visual hierarchy, though the colors communicate nothing about the nature of the service on each line. 

The legibility of the map is not aided by the large number of points of interest shown, with both text and symbols frequent overlapping the most important features (the transit routes). TriMet's old map was certainly not a bad transit map by any means, and deserves enormous credit for being one of the first to explicitly show frequency at all, but in the years since, many of TriMet's peer agencies around the country have focused even more heavily on frequency to produce truly useful and innovative maps.

Now compare the image above with the same area of the new map:

Screen Shot 2015-09-30 at 3.57.38 PM

Portland Central Eastside, TriMet map (late 2015)
 
This is a map that truly focuses on communicating the usefulness of the transit routes. The most important factor for usefulness is frequency, which is obscured when every line on the map is the same color, or a different color, or colored by a less important attribute, like which corner of the city it serves. 
 
Here, weight and color are both deployed to differentiate the Frequent Network (heavy, dark blue) from other less frequent routes, but without the riot of color of the older map. When we compare the legends of each, the difference is subtle, but the when deployed on the map, the difference is dramatic.
TriMet Map ComparisonThis new map makes one thing very apparent: anywhere near a thick, dark blue line, a bus is always coming soon.
 
It is also a clearer, more traceable map! Where the old version employed the common convention of using color to distinguish routes and make it easy to tell where they travel across the city, the new map uses line displacement and simplification in a much more sophisticated manner to accomplish the same task.
 
For example, examine the path of the 10-Harold: on the old map, its line appears to end at Hawthorne and 12th, where it joins the 14-Hawthorne to head into downtown (it's actually beneath the 14's line, if you look closely). With the new map, it is much clearer that this route overlaps with the 14 in this segment, just by the way in which the two lines have been separated from one another. Now that color is now longer necessary to distinguish each route, it can be used for a more important purpose: showing frequency.
 
Apart from the increased focus on frequency, this map also succeeds by reducing the amount of non-transit information, with fewer points of interest labeled. Those that are present have symbols and labels drawn with a brown color much closer to that of the map's background, reducing the effect of collisions with transit features, and diminishing the level of visual "noise" competing with the transit network structure for the reader's attention.
 
It's fantastic to see an agency like TriMet continuing to work to improve its customer information. Even in the age of real-time data and mobile trip planning, a transit agency's map is often the only place where the entire system is documented in a way that an average person can understand. City transit networks are complex, and the best maps, like TriMet's, are designed to reduce that complexity, focusing on the most important aspects of the service for the people who ride it. 
 

Houston METRO’s Transit System Reimagining Plan approved

Over the past two years, our firm has worked as a member of a diversely skilled team to help Houston METRO comprehensively redesign the city's transit system (look back to this post for the backstory). Houston is a dynamic, fast-growing city, where despite a reputation as a place where one must own a car to live, many areas have developed land-use characteristics indicating a large, untapped market for quality transit. This project has sought to design a transit network which can deliver the type of mobility outcomes current growth patterns demand, through a extensive Frequent Network grid. 

Today, we are proud to share the news of the unanimous passage of the final plan by METRO's Board of Directors, with implementation on track for August 2015. In the history of transit in North America, top-to-bottom transit network redesigns are very rare, particularly for a city of the Houston's size and national importance. This is a great day for Houston, and will be a fascinating case study for transit in North America.

The final approved map (click here for the detailed pdf):

Reimagined Network Plan Feb Revision

perth: a frequent network map

For over four years now, this blog has been encouraging transit agencies to map their high-frequency networks, and encouraging citizens to map them themselves if the transit agency doesn't.  We've featured many over the years, including a rapidly rising number of maps by actual transit agencies.  Just enter "frequent network maps" in our handy new searchbar.  —>

Here's a new citizen entry, from Perth, Western Australia, by a Mr. OC Benz on the Bus Australia discussion board.

Perth frequent network

And zooming in a bit:

Rsz_perth_high_frequency_map_inner_city

Although the definition does not include weekends, when Perth service levels drop sharply, the map is remarkable nonetheless.  Greater Perth is a young and mostly car-oriented area with a population of around 2 million, but it has a lot of frequent bus service — more than Brisbane, its closest peer in both geography and economics, and far more than almost any US city of similar size.  

The bus service is also intended for more than going downtown, indeed, you can also see disciplined efforts to construct a high-frequency grid against overwhelming geographical obstacles: downtown is at the convergence of two squiggly rivers that make it difficult.  (Again, a dramatic contrast to Brisbane, the only big Aussie city with no orbital frequent transit service at all.)

Edmonton: what a great transit debate looks like

The Edmonton Journal's Elise Stolte has been doing an excellent series on the city's debate about the future of transit.  Unlike many transit debates, this one is about a real issue that affects the entire city: how to balance the ridership goals of transit with the competing coverage goals, where "coverage" means "respond to every neighborhood's social-service needs and/or sense of entitlement to transit even if the result is predictably low-ridership service."   This is the great inner conflict in transit planning: Do we respond to demand (ridership) or to needs and expectations (coverage)?

When I briefed the Edmonton City Council last year, as part of their Transit System Review, I encouraged the council to formulate a policy about how they would divide their transit budget between ridership goals vs. coverage goals.  This solves a fundamental problem in transit analysis today: too often, transit services are being criticized based on their failure to achieve a goal that is not the actual goal of the service.  

For example, almost all arguments about how unproductive North American bus service is are based on the false assumption that all bus services are trying to be productive.  Based on all the agencies I've worked with, only around 60-70% of bus services have ridership as a primary purpose.  (My test: "Is this service where it would be if ridership were the only goal of the agency?")

I may have invented this rigorous way of talking about transit's conflicting mandate.   I began developing it in a Spokane (Washington) project around 1997 and in projects in Bellingham and Reno a few years later.  My peer-reviewed paper on the methodology us here and the case for it is also in Chapter 10 of my book Human Transit.  Helping transit agencies think about this question has been a central part of most transit studies I've done since, including major projects in Houston, Columbus, Indianapolis, Salem (OR) etc. 

Nothing makes me happier than to hear elected officials debating an actual question whose answer, once they give it, will actually affect reality.  This is what's happening in Edmonton now.  So far,  articles in Elise Stolte's series have included

Soon, I'm sure, she'll cover some of the passionate arguments in favor of coverage services, which we heard from several City Councilors when I last briefed them on the issue.  

Throughout, the Journal's Elise Stolte has taken a tone of genuine curiousity ("So, will you help me think this through?") in an argument where there are no right or wrong positions, only different priorities and visions to be balanced.  Is your city having this conversation clearly?

 

indianapolis: upcoming meetings on your transit system!

Last spring, Jarrett Walker + Associates was contracted by IndyGo, the transit agency serving Indianapolis and Marion County, to lead an update of their last Comprehensive Operation Assessment. This project involves consideration of the design, performance and mobility outcomes of IndyGo's existing network, followed by an extensive public engagement and redesign process. Next week, we will be on the ground in Indianapolis for a series of meetings, asking stakeholders and members of the public to share their views on the future of the network, including one very fundamental question: to what degree should IndyGo pursue each of the competing goals of high ridership and high coverage?

As always, one of our first steps was to draw a map showing IndyGo's midday route frequencies. To the agency's credit, it already incorporates frequency into its general purpose map (along with a lot of other useful information).

Frequency - Midday - Existing '14-08-25

 Next week, IndyGo and JWA will be hosting three meetings to discuss the future of the network at The Hall, 202 N. Alabama Street:

  • Thursday, Sept. 18: 11:30 a.m. – 1:30 p.m. 
  • Friday, Sept. 19: 9 – 11 a.m. 
  • Friday, Sept. 19: 4-6 p.m. 

We'll be discussing immediate changes to the network responding to the 2015 opening of the new Downtown Transit Center, as well as long term priorities and plans for future rapid transit lines. For more information, and to take a survey on these questions, head on over to IndyGo's site for the events: http://www.indygo.net/news-initiatives/indygoforward.

“We can’t have density there because there’s not enough transit.”

Ever heard this line?  A debate in Google's home town, Mountain View south of San Francisco, has turned up this response to an obvious idea of building more housing close to the city's business-park district, so that fewer people have to drive long distances to get there.  No, some council candidates say, because there's not enough transit there. 

Well, there's not enough transit there because there aren't enough people there, yet.  Transit is easy to add in response to seriously transit-oriented development, but as long as you have a development pattern that is too low-density or single-use for transit, you've locked in lousy transit service as an outcome.  

So whenever someone gives you this line as a reason to oppose a transit-friendly development, ask: "Well, what would it cost to provide good transit, and who should pay for that?"

Often, as in Mountain View, extremely frequent transit into the nearby transit hub can achieve plenty, and is not that expensive, because of the very short distances involved.

There are other situations where there's not enough transit because transit just isn't viable at any reasonable price, for an obvious geographic reason like remoteness from transit hubs or destinations.   

But it's worth asking.  

Frequent networks: escaping the “food desert”

For their piece on food deserts this week, National Geographic led off with this map of Houston.  It shows where large numbers of people who lack cars are located more than 1/2 mile from a grocery store.  

Houston food desert

"Public transportation may not fill the gap," the article says, but sometimes it can.  The article doesn't mention it, but Houston METRO's proposed System Reimagining will actually liberate many people, but not all, from the "food desert" problem.  

One thing is for sure: When we're talking about errand trips like groceries, most customers don't have a lot of time.  If there's a line to check out of the grocery store, and you miss an hourly bus, you'd better not have bought anything that needs refrigeration, and certainly nothing frozen.  So as always, frequency is freedom.  

So if you need frequency, Houston's transit system today is basically willing to take you downtown, which is not likely to be the path to your nearest grocery story.  Here's the frequent network today. 

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It's radial, good for going downtown but not for many other purposes.  If you're lucky it will take you to a grocery store, but more likely it misses the ones nearest you.  And of course you may not be on this network at all.

Here's the reimagined frequent network:

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Compare this to the food desert map (to see the detailed Reimagined network maps, see here)  Many of the areas of concern, especially those in the southeast and southwest, get a much richer network in a grid pattern.  The grid pattern means ready access to many commercial centers in your part of town, not just to the major destinations of the region.  And of course, a much larger share of the "food desert" areas are on this network, so that they can make shopping trips that take an hour instead of all afternoon.

Another crucial thing about the grid is that by running in all directions, it cuts across socioeconomic divides.  Low-income people can get out of their enclaves to reach both jobs and commercial services in more prosperous areas nearby.   (This frightens some people on the upper side of these divides, but it's one of the basic ways that good transit that's broadly useful creates paths out of poverty.)

(Remember: Most low-income people are busy!  They have to be frugal with time as well as money!)

Not all the "food deserts" can be healed with transit.  Some of the highlighted areas on the food desert map are in the northwest and northeast, outside of loop 610.  Low-income housing in this area takes many forms, but a lot of it is semi-rural, and the built environment is often very hostile to both pedestrians and efficient transit routing.  Some of these areas also have declining population.  Our plan does try to offer some options in these areas, but transit is not the primary solution to the food desert problem there.

But over a very diverse range of Houston, the way to get low-income people to decent healthy food is the way you achieve so many other benefits: environmental, economic, and social: an abundant frequent transit system, in a grid pattern, that reaches across all the parts of the city that are dense enough to support it.  

columbus: a new transit network plan

Columbus, Ohio's metro transit agency, COTA, has now released a new network plan for public comment.  As in the recently unveiled similar plan for Houston, I led the network design task on this project as part of a consulting team led by IBI Associates.  

Again, the core idea is to expand the Frequent Network — the network of services that run every 15 minutes or better all day — so that more people have service that is highly useful.  Here's the existing Columbus area frequent network :

Existing_frequent_network

And here is the Draft Proposed Frequent Network:

Draft_Proposed_FTN
 In Houston, we achieved similar expansion solely by reallocating existing resources.  In Columbus, there was a small budget for expanded service, but still, 90% of what is achieved here is the result of reallocation: removing overlapping routes and deviations, removing duplication, and in some cases removing service that very small numbers of people were using.  

Details of the plan are on the COTA website, here.   The total proposed network is here.  Note that color denotes all-day frequency: red is 15, blue is 30, green is 60.  The plan does many other good things, including a major expansion of weekend service.  

Draft_Proposed_Network_complete

 You can upload the existing network, for comparison, here:   Download Existing System Frequency Map

Again, if you're in the Columbus area, please comment to COTA using this special email:   TSR@cota.com.  At this stage there is no decision about whether to implement a plan such as this one.  Any final plan will be revised based on public comment that comes in over the next couple of weeks.  That means that if you like the plan, it's important to comment to that effect, as well.  

 

portland: the high-frequency grid is back!

FrequentserviceThe reputation of Portland as a transit city in the last two decades may have been about its light rail, streetcar, or aerial tram, but to the extent that the city achieved significant ridership and made transit a welcomed part of urban life, it's done so with a grid of frequent transit services.  


This grid consisted of both rail and bus services, but it's the frequent grid pattern, not the technology, that made it easy to get around the city, in ways you could measure with trip planning software.  For example, the amount of the city you can get to quickly from the inner-city Hollywood district arises mostly from frequent grid connections , as from the light rail line there. 

Portland_isochrone_intown

[Graphic by Conveyal showing travel times on transit+walking from Hollywood light rail station.  Blue is 15 min, green is 30, pink is 45.]

Back in 2012, this post celebrating the 30th birthday of the high-frequency grid ended with a serious caveat:

Purists might argue that the grid never made it to its 30th birthday, but rather perished at  age 27 in 2009.  That was the year that TriMet cut all-day frequencies below the 15-minute threshhold that is widely accepted as the definition of "frequent enough that you can use it spontaneously, without building your life around the timetable."  Since the grid relies on easy connections to achieve its goal of easy anywhere-to-anywhere access, the 2009 cuts began to undermine the whole idea of the grid. TriMet avoided doing this in its first round of cutting after the crash, but felt it had no alternative in the second 2009 round.  

Will the grid ever be restored to its necessary frequency?  Will it ever be expanded and enriched (as regional land use planning generally assumes it must be) with even better frequencies?  Not everyone in Portland thinks this is a priority, so you might want to express your view.  

Earlier this month, TriMet answered that question by restoring 15 minute service to 10 critical bus routes, in addition to the two routes which maintained that standard through the recession and recovery. During the period of this service cut, as good connections enabled by the frequent grid became more arduous and wait times increased, the overall utility of the system across its strongest market was diminished. The impact on ridership was clear: between fall 2012 and fall 2013 alone, weekday bus ridership declined 3.6 percent, 2.6 on the MAX light rail system, continuing the negative trend starting from 2009.  

The return of the grid is good news for riders, and no doubt the agency hopes to reverse the troubling ridership trend and create some good publicity in the processs. High frequency transit service is a key characteristic of many of Portland's most attractive neighborhoods, and must be seen as a permanent element of these places if they are to continue to grow in a manner that enables people to make real choices about their travel options. 

More importantly, the return of the grid is good for anyone who wants Portland to be a denser, more walkable, more sustainable city.  Portland policy allows lower minimum parking requirements for dense housing located along the frequent network, and those low requirements help make such development viable as an alternative to sprawl.  Last year, though, there was an eruption of controversy around these requirements in one inner neighborhood, and one of the legitimate objections was that the full span of frequency (7 days including evenings, as you need for a liberated life on transit) had been cut in 2009.  

The fall and rise of Portland's frequent grid shows the perils to actual freedom of access that arise when buses aren't respected for their essential role, and when nobody steps up in an economic crisis to save a crucial building block of the city's redevelopment policy.  Portland's 2009 frequency cuts drove away a lot of transit riders.  Please spread the word that they are welcome back.