A Friendly Guide to Transport Planning

David M. Levinson, Wes Marshall, Kay Axthausen.  Elements of Access.  Network Design Lab, 2017. 

Access — where can you get to soon? — is, or should be, the core idea of transportation planning.  David Levinson has long been one of the leaders in quantifying and analyzing access, and this work kicks off this fine new book.  The cover — a 1925 map showing travel times to the centre of Melbourne, Australia — captures the universality of the idea.  Access is what  I prefer to call freedom: Where you can go determines what you can do, so access is about literally everything that matters to us once we step out our front door.

But that’s just the beginning of this very friendly book.  Elements of Access is really a tour of the whole field of transport planning, and its goal is to strike a balance between academic precision and readability.  In this, it’s a great success.  I’ve never taken more pleasure from reading academic writing about transport.  The writing is mostly clear and easy to read, and deftly combines technical ideas with references to everyday life.

The book is also easy to browse.  It’s organized in units of 1-2 pages, grouped under six themes.  Photos are used well.  Footnotes appear in the otherwise white space on each page, so that there’s no flipping to them, and interesting nuggets in them have a chance to catch your eye.  The book is also full of internal references, aiming for the structure of a hypertext to the extent that a physical book can.

Do I have gripes?  Sure.  Inevitably, a book of this breadth rushes past many rich topics, and sometimes — as with transit fares — the treatment is too cursory to be useful.  Some explanations are clearer to the average reader than others.  And I wish the content had been linked to the concept of access more explicitly throughout.

Of course, one common reason for negative reviews is that the reviewer looked at the bibliography, didn’t see his own book listed, and formed a judgment right there.  Well, my book isn’t in the bibliography, but Elements of Access is a good book anyway, whether for reading, browsing, or as a reference.  I recommend it.

MobilityScore: an Improvement over TransitScore?

By Christopher Yuen

For cities aiming to increase transit ridership, expanding transit to reach more people is only half the task.  The other half is to encourage people who value transit to locate where high-quality transit is possible.

To that end, tools that help quantify the usefulness of transit at any given location can be extremely valuable, whether for a person finding a place to live, or for a business looking to locate in a place most accessible by its employees and customers.

Since 2010, the tool that has gained the most attention has been Transit Score. With it, you type in an address and are returned a two-digit score that is supposed to approximate the usefulness of transit at that location. While simple and easy to use, Transit Score’s methodology has a few flaws, as discussed in our last post about it. Two issues particularly stand out:

  1. Transit Score assumes that the sexiness of transit technologies compensates for their objective uselessness. For example, Transit Score assumes that you’d rather wait 20 minutes for a streetcar instead of 10 minutes for a bus, even if the two will have the same speed and reliability.
  2. Transit Score describes the transit around a site without evaluating where it goes. Frequent transit that drove around in circles inside your neighborhood would score exactly the same as frequent transit that went straight across your city and formed a connected network, accessing countless jobs and opportunities.

Recently, the beta version of a new tool, MobilityScore, was released.  It offers a similarly simple two-digit score, but with a broader scope than TransitScore. Created by TransitScreen, a company specializing in real-time transit information displays, MobilityScore is described as an “easy-to-understand measure of your transportation access.”

MobilityScore takes into account all your options, from public transit to carsharing, bikesharing, and hailed ridesharing services, to give you a number from 0-100 that will tell you how easy it is to get around. –

MobilityScore works by scoring the typical time it takes to access each transportation mode based on past availability and response time data from bike share, car share, and ride-hailing services. For its transit component, it generates a score based on the frequency of scheduled trips near the address being queried. It then aggregates the scores of each component to generate a total “Mobility Score”.  The tool does not directly indicate the score of each component, although it does indicate the fraction of overall mobility that comes from each mode as percentages.

The “Mobility Score” from a location in Portland, Oregon

In some ways, MobilitysScore appears to be an improvement over TransitScore. For example, TransitScore weighs results based on vehicle type, rewarding rail and penalizing buses, regardless of whether they differ in speed and reliability, but MobilityScore’s transit component is only based on frequency, without bias based on vehicle type.

However, a true measure of mobility must also look at the speed of travel on the relevant transit routes. Taking this a step further, a fair measure of the usefulness of transit must consider the access that the service provides– the number of jobs and opportunities that can be reached from the starting point within a reasonable travel time.  Like TransitScore, MobilityScore only tells you where you can easily access transportation services to begin your trip, which says nothing about what destinations you can reach in a given time.

One could consider MobilityScore’s expanded scope (including ride-hailing, car-share, and bike-share) to be an improvement over TransitScore, given that transit riders are likely to also occasionally use those other modes. However, the resulting combined mobility score should be interpreted with some caution. For a data-driven approach meant to be objective, the combination of ride-hailing, car-sharing, bike sharing and transit scores into one single measure introduces a new layer of value judgement that is difficult to generalize. While a well-paid executive may place a high value on the ride-hailing services for everyday use, a person with a limited income may not find the availability of ride-hailing to be relevant, since it is not affordable to them. Similarly, car-sharing services may not be useful to a person without a driver’s license.

The mere availability of a ride-hailing option, including taxis, uber, or lyft, seems to result in a minimum score of 40. This optimism means that many sites, without any transit service, and a significant drive from urbanized areas are said to have – “Fair Mobility” despite being completely impractical for the average person.

MobilityScore thinks this farm, nowhere near transit has “fair mobility” because it is within the service area of ride-hailing

The location of that farm

It’s not easy to build a measure of transportation access that is both objective and simple to use so despite my criticism of some aspects of MobilityScore, I think it is great to see the development of more products like this. Hopefully, when MobilityScore evolves beyond its beta version, it will address some of its current deficiencies and become a serious contender for inclusion in real-estate listings.  As we suggested before, the real two-digit score that matters may be a percentage:  What percentage of your city’s jobs and opportunities can you reach from this point, in a given amount of time?


Christopher Yuen is an associate at Jarrett Walker+Associates and is a regular contributor to this blog.

Caution: Long Chatty Holiday Letter

This is the letter our firm sent to our friends and colleagues today.  Yes, holiday letters, like Facebook posts, can make you feel that everyone but you is living perfect lives devoid of struggle and heartache.  Here I do my best to rise above that, but it comes with the genre.  You’ve been warned.  

When I returned to the US in 2011, after five years working in Australia, I wasn’t sure what to do, so I created a thing called “Jarrett Walker and Associates”. My book Human Transit had just come out but I had no idea how it would be received. I didn’t even know if I’d need employees.

I had a few vague goals. My first slogan was Let’s think about transit,”because I hate making recommendations. Instead, I wanted to help communities and clients think for themselves. And while there is lots of work in planning infrastructure, I wanted to focus on service and network planning—the thing you need to figure out before you know what infrastructure to build.

Michelle Poyourow and Evan Landman joined me in the first year, and after that, the firm grew around their influence as much as mine. As it became clear that we needed to combine transit planning and public outreach in a new way, we arrived at a grander mission statement: We foster clear conversations about transit, leading to confident decisions.” Since then, our outreach tools—tools that put every participant in the city’s or transit agency’s shoes—have taken a central role in most of our projects.

So far, many people seem to like our approach. The bus networks now running in HoustonColumbusSalem and Anchorage all are based at least partly on our work. Many others are awaiting implementation in the coming year, including in Richmond, Virginia and in San José and Silicon Valley in California). Local US elections in 2016 produced sweeping victories for transit, and we’re proud to have helped develop the voter-approved transit plans in Indianapolis and greater Raleigh.

We’ve now worked in about 30 metro areas across North America, and we’re active in several other countries.  New Zealand and Australia remain close to my heart, and we continue to collaborate there with my former employer MRCagney: Auckland continues rolling out a network that began with our work in 2012, and we’ve also worked in Canberra, Christchurch and Darwin.  We’ve had unexpected Russian adventures, including a bus and tram redesign for Yekaterinburg and the wildly successful streamlining of the buses in central Moscow. Our work in Reykjavík, Iceland was great fun.

This year, we took on our first job in the European Union: the redesign ofDublin’s bus network, led by Daniel Costantino. Europeans rarely ask North Americans for transit planning advice, but our approach to the transit conversation is different from what’s routine in Europe, and we are excited by the possibilities there.

We grew slowly in our first six years, adding about one person per year. But in 2017, we suddenly grew from six people to ten, moved into proper office space in Portland, and opened our first satellite office—in Richmond, Virginia, led by Scudder Wagg.

Scudder WaggScudder was our client, in effect, for two years before joining us, as we collaborated on the redesign of Richmond’s transit network. Now, he leads our efforts on the east coast of the US and Canada.

We also hired Joey Reid, a senior data scientist from Metro Transit in Minneapolis.  He has done wonders in automating our analysis processes, so we can ask smarter questions and get answers faster.

You can read more about our incredible team here.

We’re still figuring out how to exist at our new size, and we have all the conversations you’d expect: Should we grow any more? Would we lose our focus? Would it be more or less fun if we added the structure that a larger firm requires?

My own job has evolved, but I still have at least an advisory role in every project. If an intensive network design retreat with client staff is involved, I lead that retreat. I also continue traveling to new cities to meet local advocates and thought leaders, to run workshops, and give public talks. I am starting to outline my next book, tentatively called Freedom in the City, and the blog remains lively. It’s amazing what Elon Musk calling you an idiot can do to build interest in your work.

But is transit obsolete? Is all that we do about to be swept away by autonomous vehicles, or microtransit, or pods in tunnels, or some other innovation? The transit industry needs to welcome innovation, but many of the people trying to “disrupt” fixed-route transit don’t understand how transit already works. We’re increasingly drawn into debates about the future of transit—on the blog, in the media, and in our work with transit agencies. We collaborate with many innovative technology companies, but we are also unafraid to challenge innovators when their ideas don’t make sense, especially if their marketing campaigns sow confusion or do harm.

We’re grateful to all of our clients, colleagues, and friends for what’s been possible in the last year. We’re trying to make transit and cities better however we can, and we are keen to work with others who share that goal.

We wish you all the best in 2018 and beyond,

Jarrett Walker
President and Principal Consultant
Jarrett Walker + Associates

A New Welcome, and the Most-Read Posts in 2017

If you recently joined us thanks to Elon Musk, you may not know all about what I’m up to here.  There’s an “about” page for that, and over at the right you’ll find links to my book and consulting firm  But there’s also a lot of good material here that doesn’t go out of date.  Start with the Basics collection!

Last year at this time, I reviewed the 10 posts that got the most views in 2016 and was happy to find that only four of the ten were written in that year.  The pattern continues: only three of 2017’s most-read articles were written in 2017.

  1. The Dangers of Elite Projection (July 2017).  This is one of my most useful posts ever, about a basic mistake that’s everywhere in city planning.  It’s an example of my attempt to talk very patiently and inclusively about a difficult topic that makes people very emotional.
  2. Does Elon Musk Understand Urban Geometry? (2016)  My first effort at laying out what’s wrong with Elon Musk’s attempts to make cars go faster through cities, and to provide “service to your door.”  Written several months before I got Musk’s attention.
  3. Elon Musk Responds!  (December 2017) Some drama around my December 14 exchange with Musk. No enduring content.
  4. Basics: Walking Distance to Transit (2010).  An explainer.
  5. Basics: The Spacing of Stops and Stations.  (2010).  This turned into Chapter 4 of my book.
  6. The Receding Fantasy of Affordable Urban Transit “To Your Door” (May 2017).  A first attempt to lay out why demand-responsive services do not scale as any sort of substitute for fixed transit in dense cities.  However, the post will probably be superseded by this expanded one written just this week.
  7. That Photo That Explains Almost Everything (2011).  You’ve seen the photo.  I notice a few things in it beyond its first impression.
  8. Keys to Great Airport Transit (2016, but new on the list in ’17)  A pretty useful explainer about the common challenges and mistakes in airport rail lines.
  9. Streetcars: An Inconvenient Truth. (2009) My first controversial post, still starting arguments seven years later.
  10. Learning from “Mini Metro”.  (2014) Geeking out on the best public transit planning game I’ve seen.

But the Musk drama nudged some other keepers just out of the top 10.

  1. Explainer: The Transit Ridership Recipe (2015).  Perhaps my single most essential explainer.
  2. Core vs Edge Debates in Public Transit. (2016) An eternal issue.

Happy reading!  And if you’d like to see some of this material in more organized form, there’s a book, whose introduction you can read online.

Happy New Year.


The Fantasy of “Service to Your Door” in Dense Cities

Customers love our new invention!  You have to start listening to the customer!  How often have you heard this line as though it ended any argument?  I certainly hear it all the time as an explanation of why “service to your door” will sweep away large parts of the fixed route transit industry.

The answer is:  People want all kinds of things that they can’t all have, because those things just too expensive per customer to provide.  Wealthier people can have them, but the tastes that wealthy people can afford are a terrible guide to what will work for everyone.

A great example is “service to your door,” when applied to dense cities.  There is a different issue when applied to suburbs, to which I’ll return in another post.

As far as we can tell, neither Uber nor its competitors can make a profit, even though they focus heavily on dense cities where the geography is most favorable to them.  Startups have lots of good arguments for why we should wait a while for them to be profitable, but Uber is running out of them.  We are not waiting for Uber to scale up; it is already huge.  We are not waiting for it to become more labor-efficient; it has already squeezed labor so hard that it can’t retain drivers.  We are not waiting for more efficiency in communications; the app already works fine.  What are we waiting for?

As Len Sherman argued in Fortune recently, the real answer is simpler.  Urban transportation is just not a profitable business.  Transit isn’t, and taxis and taxi-like services usually aren’t either.

But transit is supremely efficient at one essential thing: it uses scarce urban space efficiently.  By contrast, “service to your door” is becoming a new way to strangle our cities with congestion. Congestion is a spatial problem; it will still be there in a coming age of automation.

So yes, everybody would like to have service to their door.  But the true price of that, in dense cities, is likely to be something that only relatively wealthy people can afford.  Pre-automation, labor is an irreducible cost.  Post-automation, in dense cities, there will still be the problem of space. Uber and Lyft are already increasing traffic in dense cities that don’t have room for it. If they suddenly become cheaper, the resulting induced demand would be the death-knell for the functioning of cities.

To its credit, Uber understands that only road pricing will solve this problem even in the post-automation world.  This, of course, would push the price of their service back up, and thus out of range for many people.  But that would indeed be the true price.  Which is why the “service to your door” fad must not be allowed to undermine fixed route transit systems that can work for everyone because they use space so efficiently.  (Post-automation, too, we should also think of autonomous taxis competing with autonomous buses, which would be vastly more frequent than buses today.)

Advertising glorifies the tastes of the wealthy, not just to sell to them but to help less wealthy people form unrealistic tastes. “Service to your door” is yet another example of that kind of marketing.  And whenever we are told to design things around technologies that only the fortunate can afford, we’re being asked to make a mistake called elite projection.  Cities do not work for anyone unless they makes room for transportation that works for everyone. So they must be designed around what works for everyone.  They must also be designed around solutions that are financially sustainable, which “service to your door” — when properly priced to account for its inefficient use of street space — is probably not.

But is “service to your door” relevant to suburban needs, or to the distinctly suburban “first mile last mile” problem? I’ll cover that in an imminent post.

If You Need a Holiday Distraction

… I would like to recommend the computer game The Witness.

Yes, this is off topic in a narrow sense. But I know many readers of this blog love the process of scientific discovery, and that’s what The Witness is about.

You arrive in a beautiful garden that presents you with puzzles.  You figure them out. Soon you are allowed out of the garden into a large island full of more puzzles, which gradually open up richer mysteries.  You learn more and more about the world.  Just like science, see?

As I faced these puzzles of increasing difficulty, I found myself having the full range of sensations that accompany the scientific process:

  • The thrill of recognizing a pattern, solving something, and thus being free to move forward.
  • The need to document what you’ve learned. (Take lots of screenshots.)
  • The uncertainty about what might turn out to be important later.  This gradually recedes  a bit as you grow to learn the world’s “rules” but never quite goes away.
  • The frustration of being stuck.
  • The moment when the beautiful solution that you’ve found turns out to be wrong, but it’s so beautiful that you’re angry it isn’t right.
  • The way this anger can guide you to come up with mathematical proofs that there is no solution to the puzzle.
  • That feeling when this ironclad argument for despair is ruined by a sudden insight or successful guess.
  • The resulting realization that while the pattern isn’t always the beautiful thing you imagined, there is a different beautiful pattern.
  • The way that, late in the game as the problems get very hard, the notion that every pattern must be discoverable becomes stretched, and you start trying to theorize unknowability in ways reminiscent of chaos theory or the Heisenberg principle.
  • The way the sheer beauty of the world keeps you coming back to it, even when you feel mad at its designers.

I write this at a moment of being very stuck, but I’m still eager to recommend it, if only for the delight I’ve had getting to this point.

But this is important: If you decide to trust me, do not read anything else about the game!  Don’t read other reviews, because it’s hard to say more than I’ve said without giving spoilers.

Well, I will give one clue.  It’s a comment to a review (yet another review you really shouldn’t read):

Was walking my dog. Saw something on sidewalk that looked like part of a circle. Wondered how I can get on neighbors roof for better perspective.

It’s best on a tablet.

Commenters:  No spoilers.  Please don’t give away anything more than what I’ve described.  Because the pleasure of this game starts with knowing nothing at all.

Media Roundup: My “Dispute” with Elon Musk

It’s been a week since Aarian Marshall at Wired published Elon Musk’s comments about public transport (“there’s like a bunch of random strangers, one of whom might be a serial killer”, etc.)

… which led to this exchange on Twitter …

… followed by a few other rude and thin-skinned tweets, all now deleted …

… which caused all kinds of unexpected things.  Urban planning guru Brent Toderian launched the Twitter hashtag #GreatThingsThat HappenedOnTransit, where hundreds of people have told about great encounters with “a bunch of random strangers” on public transit; the Guardian has that story.  Island Press instantly put my book on sale and sold out their inventory.  And I’ve heard from hundreds of people who were offended by Musk’s comments, and by his response to mine.

Yesterday, in the Atlantic Citylab, I tried to lay out what it’s all about. Read that for the big picture.  It’s much more interesting than a media roundup post!

Being called an idiot can change your life, or at least your schedule.  At 6:15 AM today, a black limo appeared in front of my house and took me to a Fox Business segment with Stuart Varney.  You can watch that here.  And tonight I did both live and taped interviews with the BBC World Service’s Newsday program.  It’s been a long day.

Now I hear Elon Musk is planning a blog post, which I look forward to.

The “Twitter war” meme … the “you won’t believe what he said!” … is really boring to me.  I would much rather talk about what public transit is and why it’s so essential to great cities.  At some point, I hope, Elon Musk will want to be part of that crusade. Because he’s a smart and effective guy.

DEADLINE EXTENDED: My Book Is On Sale! Thank Elon Musk!

WalkerCover-r06 cropped

Thanks to my recent dust-up with Elon Musk, my book is 50% off at the Island Press website.  Not sure you want it?  Read the introduction online first.

You can get the e-book for half off here until January 22).

As for the physical book, well:  Just an hour or two after Elon Musk called me an idiot, Island Press announced a discount on my book, and they quickly sold out of all their copies on hand.  You can still get the discount from the Island Press, until January 22, by going here and checking out with the code ELON, but I’m afraid it may take a month for you to get the book, though they tell me they’re trying to do an expedited print run.

Of course, you may still be able to get it from other online retailers.


Elon Musk Responds!

I confess, I’ve sometimes been hard on Elon Musk. When he talks about how he’s going to change the facts of geometry, I point out that no technology has ever done that. And I’ve commented on other things he’s said that express cluelessness about how cities work.  Musk is doing some great things, but he is also using his megaphone to advance the idea that our cities will be great if we can just drive faster through them.  Most of his own home town, Los Angeles, was designed on that very principle, and look how that turned out.

Recently, I wrote a very careful piece on elite projection — the universal problem of very fortunate people designing the world around their private needs and tastes.  (Read the piece before you make a judgmental comment based on that summary!) Since then, Musk has really been helping me out.  He keeps uttering more and more lurid quotes that are perfect examples of elite projection. Even the tech boosters of Fast Company noticed that his Los Angeles tunnel project seems engineered for his personal commute.  And he is always saying things like this:

[Public transit is] a pain in the ass,” he continued. “That’s why everyone doesn’t like it. And there’s like a bunch of random strangers, one of who might be a serial killer, OK, great. And so that’s why people like individualized transport, that goes where you want, when you want.”

Well, the company of “random strangers” is what a city is, and since a city is a lot of people in not much space, there isn’t room for everyone’s car.  So I said the obvious:

To which the great man replied:

… which, at the moment, has over 17000 likes, 2500 retweets, and a diverse thread of responses, including a lot of cool urbanist and tech people defending me. It’s all very funny to me, and I hope it is to you.

Vera Katz, 1933-2017

Photo: BJ (Brian Jim) Imagery via Wikipedia.

Vera Katz, mayor of Portland from 1993 to 2005, has passed away at 84.  She began life fleeing from the Nazis, and became one of the most distinctive and effective characters in Oregon politics.  I disagreed with her sometimes but can’t forget the way she could bring out the best in people.  Her 12 years as mayor meant that a whole generation came of age knowing no other leader.

The Oregonian has a fine obituary. Jonathan Maus has a nice review of her urbanist achievements.

Our oldest free weekly, Willamette Week, called her “Portland’s last successful mayor,” which seems a little nasty to me.  The three men who followed her all served just one term, opting not to run for re-election, so I suppose you can say that if you mean sheer longevity in office.

But of course, the job has also gotten harder.  Portland is an angrier place than it was in her time.  News media is more diverse, which is great, but can also be less constructive.  More of the population feels cornered and desperate, due to a greater economic cruelty in the culture that is beyond city government’s power to heal.  The kind of patience and shared effort that Katz could inspire may not be possible now.

Portland’s mayor is legally a weak position, largely a role of chairing the City Council and assigning fellow councilors to supervise different parts of city government.  In my experience, the average citizen has wildly exaggerated expectations for what a Portland mayor can actually do.

In this context, great mayors have succeeded by managing the council, creating space for everyone to excel while steering people toward a common purpose.  But this only happens if there’s an electorate that really wants to reward that kind of co-operation.

I wonder if we’ll notice the moment when the job of Mayor of Portland — and similar weak-mayor positions in other cities — has gone from difficult to impossible.  When a job is impossible, you won’t find competent people who want to do it, and that’s not good for any of the causes you care about.