Should Transit Agencies Listen More? What Would That Mean?

It’s popular to claim that what’s wrong with transit is that transit agencies “don’t listen” to riders or potential riders, and that doing so would produce better transit service. Is this true?

In some respects, and in some agencies, I’m sure it is. But the implied accusation here can also be false and misleading.

Most transit agencies I know put a lot of effort into getting and managing input from the public, both riders and non-riders. The problem is not that agencies aren’t listening. It’s that most of the things they hear are not things that the they can do something about, or at least not without harming other people. As a result, they don’t appear to be doing anything in response to what they hear, which can feed the idea that they didn’t listen.

In fact, one of the most common mistakes in transit planning — a mistake encouraged by too many elected officials — is to change something in a way that satisfies a noisy complaint but makes the service worse for everyone else. This is exactly why the simplicity and usefuless of bus systems tends to deteriorate over time — requiring the occasional intervention of a network redesign.

There are really four problems here:
  1. Public feedback processes can never represent people who are busy.  Have you ever attended a public meeting where everyone who came to give comments was either retired or unemployed?  Probably not, because you’re too busy, but I have been to maybe 100 such meetings as a professional.  We love retired and unemployed people too, but a transit system designed around the tastes of people with lots of spare time is likely to be different from one designed for busy people.   The more time it takes to submit a comment, the worse this distortion is, so it’s worst in public meetings and much better with web surveys, intercept surveys and so on. Still, any kind of listening requires a busy person to engage, so busy people will be under-represented.  And most people are busy.
  2. Public feedback tends to be low-altitude.  It expresses desires and aversions about specific bus routes or stops, or some detailed aspect of the service.  Sometimes these can be addressed at their correct micro scale, but again, often the result is harm to someone else.  And it’s hard to derive any useful advice about the big policy decisions a government must make from this kind of input.
  3. Public feedback tends not to talk about priorities, but only about desires and aversions.  For example, most unstructured public comments will say “spend more here” without saying where the agency should spend less.
  4. Public feedback is often laced with abuse.  Because so many public comments are not actionable for the reasons outlined above, some members of the public assume that this inaction means that the transit agency isn’t listening, and that they therefore need to yell louder.  And of course, many people are also just angry about other things and direct this anger at anyone who seems to be in authority.  (Bulletin: There is a lot of agony and rage in society, especially in the US, for many good reasons that your transit manager can’t do much to fix.)

I have been listening to public comments about transit for 25 years — and making them for 15 years before that — so trust me when I say that these patterns are really obvious. I do not want to imply that agencies are perfect in how they respond to comments, but I do know that they work harder at this than almost anyone gives them credit for.

Our firm knows of some ways to work with these problems, and we are delighted to see these strategies used more widely.  To put it simply, we never ask the public to tell us what they want.  We ask them to tell us about priorities:  How would you choose between this or that?  If you want more of this, what should there be less of?  We also put a lot of effort into helping people gain altitude, which means thinking about your personal complaint or idea might be an example of a bigger principle worth talking about.  Many transit problems — including good network redesign — can only be fixed by first viewing them at a high altitude, looking at the structure of the entire city or the policies that govern the transit agency.  So we need to help people come to the necessary altitude to influence those decisions at the scale where they actually occur.

For this reason, our studies rely heavily on groups of invited stakeholders, who are selected because they (a) represent lots of other people, (b) collectively represent the diversity of the community, and (c) have the time and professional interest to focus on the problem.  These stakeholders get an intensive education in the high-altitude questions that govern a network design, and the opportunity to have input on them.  In return, they commit to represent the study to their own communities of interest — by presenting to whatever groups they represent and helping those groups to engage.  This isn’t perfect, but it’s the least bad way we know of to get input at the right altitude — which requires some education and focus — while still hearing about the experience and perspectives of a diverse public.

Of course, this is only a part of a strategy that also includes a lot of web-based surveying of the public, sometimes with both brief and long surveys to reward different levels of attention and curiosity.

All this is hard, and the outcomes are never perfect, and someone, somewhere is always still angry at the end, but it’s the least bad way we’ve found to have an inclusive and respectful conversation that still reaches a decision, so that something can change for the better.

So be careful about accusing your transit system of not listening. If anything, the problem is often that they listen too passively, rather than reaching out and asking the public the hard questions about priorities that would help them know what’s really expected of them.  And remember, public outreach is incredibly hard and the people who do it get yelled at no matter what they do.  Be kind.

San Jose / Silicon Valley: Free Connections Make a Network

One of our recent projects was a major redesign for the bus system in Silicon Valley, more exactly Santa Clara County, in California.  The plan has been approved by the Board of Directors of the transit agency, VTA, but is stuck waiting for the BART rapid transit extension around which it was designed.

Still, the agency is moving ahead with the most critical step: getting rid of the fare penalties for getting off of one bus or train and onto another.  (This act is commonly called transferring, although I recommend calling it connecting.)  These penalties are common, but they are also insane.  Connecting from one transit vehicle to another is exactly what customers need to do in a maximally efficient network that gets the most people to the most places fastest.  Connections, in short, are what combines a pile of lines into a network.  It is insane to make customers pay extra to do the thing that uses your resource most efficiently.

The new network is a high-frequency grid system — and so, to some degree, is the existing one.  Here’s the new network, with frequent lines in black, red and orange.   (Download sharper version here.)

VTA Final Plan compressed

Wherever red lines cross, you can “turn” by changing from one transit line to the other, and because of the high frequency, the next bus or train will be along soon.  Imagine what driving would be like if there were special surcharges for turning!

To eliminate these penalties, of course, is to lose some revenue, at least initially.  So you usually have to raise the base cash fare to compensate, which sets off all kinds of alarms about “raising fares.”  VTA is raising its base fare only modestly, from $2.00 to $2.25.

But really, this shouldn’t be called raising the fare at all, because it is vastly increasing what the fare buys.  Instead of buying service only along the line you happen to be on, the new fare buys access all over the city and county.  Yes, some people who’ve built their lives around a single transit line will complain, but in such a decentralized county, with so many destinations throughout, it’s only a matter of luck if your home and destination are on the same line.  To really get places, you need connections.

Learning from Portland’s “For Rent” Signs


Photo: City Observatory

Joe Cortright spreads the good news that “For Rent” signs are proliferating across Portland, signaling an easing of the affordable housing crisis.  And he points out a critical thing that many activists miss.  That luxury housing that affordability advocates decry does improve affordability for everyone.

The … myth is that you can’t make housing affordable by building more of it, particularly if new units are more expensive than existing ones. The surge in vacancies in existing apartments is an indication of the interconnectedness of apartment supply, and an illustration of how construction of new high end, market-rate units lessens the price pressure on the existing housing stock. When you don’t build lots of new apartments, the people who would otherwise rent them bid up the price of existing apartments. The reverse is also true: every household that moves into a new apartment is one fewer household competing for the stock of existing apartments. This is why, as we’ve argued, building more “luxury” apartments helps with affordability.  As our colleagues at the Sightline Institute recently observed, you can build your way to affordable housing. In fact, building more supply is the only effective way to reduce the pressure that is driving up rents.  (Emphasis added.)

Why mention this on a transit blog?  Because the mistake activists make here is the same one that many transit advocates make, which is to think of wealth as a set of boxes, called classes, that never intermix or affect each other.  It’s the same mistake that underlies the false dichotomy of “choice” and “dependent” riders in transit planning, the notion that you need separate services for each type of rider because they are absolutely different kinds of people who will never mix.

In fact, wealth is a spectrum.  People are everywhere along it.  Admittedly, this is less true that it once was, but it’s still true.  So although people certainly differ in wealth and thus in the options they have, they are still part of the same diverse market — for housing, as for transit.  When advocating for a fairer and more equal economic world, don’t lose track of this.  Don’t become so focused on us-them differences that you miss the solution that improves things for everyone, including you.



Singapore: No More Cars

No more room for cars.

That freeway serves a trivial share of Singapore’s travel demand.

I’ve written about the why cars are a bad fit for cities in the past.  While technologies such as automation and electrification may offer improvements in safety and environmental impact, the spatial requirements of automobiles will always be at odds with the spatial limitations of cities.

Cities in the United States have an estimated 8 parking spaces for every car.  Automobiles take up a lot of space just to store, and require even more space on streets to move and be useful.

As one of the most densely populated cities in the world, Singapore has already devoted 12% of its land area to roads and there is no room to add more.  Their updated policy to cap the total number of privately owned automobiles, including those used for ride-hailing services such as Uber and and its Southeast Asian competitor Grab, isn’t what some commentators may decry as a “war on cars”.  It is an acknowledgement of the facts of geometry.

Cities, by definition, have relatively little space per person.  Cars take up a lot of space per person. For cities undergoing population and economic growth, the only long-term solution to this geometric problem is to enable people to get around using less space than cars require — through walking, cycling and mass transit.

Canberra: Good Planning Can Lead to More Service

A decade ago, I was part of a team developing a Strategic Public Transport[1] Network Plan for Australia’s national capital, Canberra.  It gave rise to this thinkpiece about long term public transport planning in general.

A key idea was to have a citywide network of Rapid buses, with widely spaced stops.  Our most ambitious map (below, click to enlarge) imagined four of them, shown in red, though only the two longest ones were to be implemented anytime in the near future.  We also proposed a local frequent network (orange) covering most of the city.

Canberra 2031 network envisioned in 2007

We stopped there because we wanted the plan to seem financially reasonable.  Still, we were clear at the time that we were creating a structure for growth.  We were not predicting what would happen in what year, but rather defining a network of services that would phase in as development and political support warranted.

So it’s in the nature of such a plan that you’re creating a guide without knowing exactly how it will come out.  As it turns out, the plan has moved faster than I expected.  One Rapid line is now becoming light rail, but just as important, the government has announced a far larger Rapid network than we ever imagined, nine lines in total:

Canberra Rapid Network 2018

When a transit idea catches on locally, everyone wants it, so the next stage is often to deploy it beyond the range of where it can really succeed.[2]  So I wouldn’t be surprised to see this network pruned as ridership numbers come in, especially if times get leaner.  But meanwhile, the lesson is that great planning can lead to more money, if it starts to build a vision that people care about.  I don’t regret the fact that our plan’s vision, prepared 10 years ago, was more limited.  At that time, a more abundant plan would have seemed delusional.  You walk before you run, as they say.  We were walking 10 years ago.  Now Canberra is running.




[1] Public transport is the global term for what North Americans call transit.  I tend to use the word appropriate to the place I’m talking about, but I hope everyone understands it on both sides of North America’s moat.

[2] One of my concerns in strategic planning is to propose only a few corridors of high-level transit in the early years, so that there’s a motive for development to concentrate on them.  This effect is lost if that network goes too many places, relative to the demand for development.  The result is likely to be a more sprawling city.

On Being Among the “100 Most Influential Urbanists”

Planetizen did an online survey on the most influential urbanists, and a first round, with a list of over 200, has now been narrowed to 100.  For some reason, I am #57.  It means a lot to me that there’s this much interest in transit networks.  For most of my career, this has felt like lonely work, swimming upstream against a torrent of apathy.

But my gratitude wouldn’t be credible if I didn’t have a few questions.

The only person whose presence is really objectionable is surely Thomas Jefferson (#51).  He is on the list mainly for his contributions to rural architecture, notably his estate at Monticello, as though all architecture is automatically urbanism.  Meanwhile, he is famous for writing things like this:

I think our governments will remain virtuous for many centuries as long as they are chiefly agricultural; and this will be as long as there shall be vacant lands in any part of America. When they get plied upon one another in large cities, as in Europe, they will become corrupt as in Europe.

Jefferson was a good guy in many ways, but if you want to understand why the US constitutional structure is so biased against urban interests — most obviously in the construction of the Senate — you must consider Jefferson’s role in fostering this attitude.

Jefferson is the only person on this list that I’d question — and fortunately, I’m not too worried about offending him.  Which raises a more amusing point.

Though I’m ranked as more influential than Hippodamus of Miletus (498-408 BCE), I’m obviously infinitely less influential than he was, if only because he got a 25-century head start.  When I did this survey myself, I voted mainly for dead people, with a preference for long-dead people, because we have some perspective on how influential they actually were.  Separate polls for different historical eras, and one for living people only, would have been a little more credible maybe.  (And of course, the list makes it sound like urbanist history happened only in Europe and its colonies.)

Enough nitpicking.  I’m not the 57th most influential urbanist in human history — maybe not even the 5700th — but it’s still a huge honor to be the 57th most popular among the readers of Planetizen.  I’ve done what I could to change a conversation about transit that is very set in its ways, and I’m grateful to everyone who thought my work was worthwhile.

As for whether I was really influential, check back in the 47th century.

Not the Suburb of the Future

Several people have asked me to respond to landscape architect Alan Berger’s NYTimes piece on “The Suburb of the Future.”  The piece invites us to imagine a series of technologies that will allow all of us to live on large plots of land spreading out across the landscape.  It’s worth reading, because it captures a lot of what goes wrong when architects posit a purely aesthetic notion of urbanism without running the numbers or discussing the full impacts.

(It also contains that self-ridiculing term “what Millennials want,” which in the absence of data means “what I want Millennials to want.”  Most people can’t predict what they’ll want later in life, and their parents and grandparents can only do this by assuming, perilously, that their children are copies of themselves who will follow the same life trajectory that they did.)

There are basic geometry problems with uncontrolled sprawl that Alan Berger is not discussing, and that his vision does nothing to address.  These include the long travel distances which consume more transport capacity and cause more emissions, as well as the removal of so much land from agriculture, flood protection, and the environment generally.  There is also the severe problem of induced travel demand from driverless vehicles, which will expand the demand for road space.

My own city, Portland, has achieved its desirability largely through it’s urban growth boundary constraining sprawl.  If Alan had had his way 40 years ago, the magnificent and relatively new vineyard region just outside of our city, and Oregon’s best agricultural land, would all be covered with houses by now.

Oregon wine country

Oregon’s wine country just outside of Portland. It exists only because our 1972 limits on sprawl kept us from paving it.

 In short, sprawl still has all of the usual negative impacts, and because these problems are not aesthetic, making sprawl more beautiful is not really the point.
Personally, I live in a detached house because am into gardening, so I would never argue that everyone should live in apartments.  In our existing suburbia there can still be plenty of places for people who genuinely want low-density living to have it.  But there is not enough room for it to continue to be promoted as the only way to have a normal life.





The Problem of School Transportation

Why Isn’t the Transportation Sector More Engaged in Student Transportation?” asks Jennifer Schiess of Bellwether Education Partners in the Eno Transportation Weekly.  Schless provides a good overview of why school buses — “the largest mass transit system in the [US]” — are so frustrating, for both students and providers.

Yet the real problem is much simpler than her article suggests.  The problem is bell times.  Really, this is all you need to know.

Many, many US transit agencies are pressured to run service to schools where yellow bus service isn’t provided.  In the early 1990s, for example, when I was working in California, funding cuts wiped out almost all school-funded yellow bus service.  Suddenly one day, a regular bus passed near a high school and found 200 kids waiting, for more than a bus could handle.  The problem was dumped onto the transit agencies without any funding to address it.

What’s more, when school districts run school buses, they think about how to run them more efficiently.  This often means setting bell times — the time school begins and ends —  differently at different schools so that a single bus and driver can do multiple pieces of work.

But as soon as the schools didn’t have to think about transportation, they stopped setting their bell times with any concern for the efficient use of transit resources.  Suddenly, we transit planners were told, bell times were locked down by other priorities.  The result was a mess for both transit agencies and students.

For transit agencies, pulling out a bus to work just a brief shift is very, very expensive.  The cost lies in the short driver shift, the one-direcitonal demand, and the cost of owning a vehicle that is used only briefly.  You can pay the driver less, but expect to get what you pay for in terms of the skills required (supervising kids, intervening in conflicts, and, in your spare moments, driving.)

school deviation

Deviations to get close to schools disrupt the all-day pattern for other riders, and usually can’t provide the capacity the school needs anyway if the all-day demand is low, as in most low-density suburbs.  NCTD Route 332 in Vista, California.  Source:

In dense cities, there is often enough all-day transit near a school, and enough walkable streets, that students can disperse at bell times using services that are running all-day anyway, though the sudden big loads are still a challenge for these services.  In network designs, I often try to keep routes a few blocks away from major schools, so that kids will tend to walk to stops on different routes instead of all ending up at one.

But in a low density suburban area, there may be almost no demand until 3:00 PM, when suddenly there are 500 kids expecting us to take them home.  Buy big buses that hold 100?  Sure, but that’s still five driver shifts that are 1-2 hours long.  And if three schools set identical bell times, we need 15 shifts, when if they staggered bell times we might still get away with five.

This is a nice example of a problem that no technology will solve, at least until we have such cheap driverless buses that it’s no problem for them to sit around until once, twice a day, we need five of them.  Like all users of transportation services, schools need to be motivated to think about the demands they place on public services.  Because without staggered bell times, these demands can eat transit agency budgets, disrupt other customers, and produce worse mobility for everyone.



Why is Bus Ridership Falling? — Notes on the Famous Mineta Paper

When respected authorities speculate about why transit ridership is falling in the US, they usually cite a 2015 paper by the (respected) Mineta Transportation Institute, authored by Bhuiyan Alam, Hilary Nixon, and Qiong Zhang.

The paper has one blindingly obvious conclusion that we shouldn’t need statistics to prove: If you want ridership, you have to run service.  The quantity of service, measured several ways, overwhelmingly determines ridership outcomes.  My comments about the paper in no way question this conclusion.

Still, the paper has problems that are common in papers in the statistical social sciences.  To some extent, I’m not even critiquing the paper so much as the discourse from which it arises.

(And if this is tl;dr, by the way, there’s a “Conclusion” section you can scroll down to.)

Useful Findings, Misleading Interpretation

The study seeks to explain the variation in passenger boardings per capita, an imperfect but easily calculated measure of ridership.  It looks at a large set of things that could explain this variation and concludes that:

The results indicate that gas price, transit fare, transit supply, revenue hours, average headway, safety, transit coverage, and service intensity show statistically significant impacts on transit demand by bus.

All of these except gas price are internal.  In simple language, an internal variable is a thing that someone could change, while an external one (like the weather) is one that they can’t. [1]

But their interpretation of this is deeply misleading:

The results show that the internal variables, the factors that transit managers and operators control, are predominantly the significant predictors of transit travel demand by bus mode. Seven out of eight internal variables in the OLS regression model proved to be significant factors in determining travel demand by bus. [emphasis added]

It is utterly false to say that the internal variables are under the control of “transit managers and operators,” unless you think they can print money. Again, these variables are “transit fare, transit supply, revenue hours, average headway, safety, transit coverage, and service intensity.”

Transit managements can turn fares up or down, and they can be more or less careful about safety, and they can hire firms like mine to help them redesign their networks.  But the larger reality of service quantity — the most important point of the entire paper — is mostly the result of investment decisions made above their level.  Transit is mostly subsidized due to its public benefits, and the level of that subsidy is controlled by some mix of elected officials and voters.  Management has a marginal role in how efficiently that subsidy is translated into service quantity. [2]  Mostly, you get in service what you’ve paid for in subsidy.

This mistake goes to a critical problem in the way the bus ridership decline is being discussed, and why so much activism around the issue is misfiring.  More people are yelling at their transit agencies than are yelling at the elected officials who actually control service quantity   The Mineta paper’s careless language encourages that confusion.  There is no point in telling transit managers that they should run more service.  They agree with you.  You need to tell elected officials this.

What Doesn’t Matter?

The findings about what matter to transit ridership are interesting, but so are claims about what factors don’t matter. Here the authors make sweeping claims about how clueless we transit planners are:

The study found that certain variables that many transit planners view as important determinants of transit demand did not have significant impacts on transit demand. … Variables such as transit orientation pattern, median household income, percentage of college population, percentage of immigrant population, vehicles per household, and MSAs in the South … do not impart significant effects on transit demand by bus. … Population density and the percentage of households without cars show insignificant impacts on transit demand …

To which I can only say, it depends on how you measure these things.

The finding that population density doesn’t matter is based on a common mistake.  The authors measure the total density of Metropolitan Statistical Areas, which are aggregations of US counties that may contain vast expanses of rural area and even wilderness. (More on this, with photos, here.) But even average density of the truly urban area is not what matters.  What matters is density adjacent to transit service.  (The late Paul Mees made the same mistake in his book Transport for Suburbia, as I discuss here.)

This is an example of a case where some geometric thinking would have helped, which is what I tried to do in my transit ridership explainer.  The residential density that matters to transit is the number of people within a fixed radius of a transit stop.  If ridership wasn’t twice as high where density is twice as high, this would mean that individuals living at low density are more likely to use transit than those living at high density.  Such a claim would not only be wildly counterintuitive, it’s also disproven by virtually every transit agency’s stop-by-stop ridership data, as long as you focus narrowly on density near transit.

dot map dublin

A segment of Dublin’s bus route 13, with passenger boardings as dots and residential density in the background. More density right around the route means more ridership. Makes sense, doesn’t it?

Problems with Rates

The confusion about how to measure density also affects a confusion about terms expressed in percentages, medians or averages, as most of the demographic variables are.

The authors run correlations with the percentage of people who are immigrants or college students. Vast parts of an urban area where transit isn’t abundant enough to be useful, if it exists at all, are counted in these rates.   The median income of an entire city matters less to ridership than the median income of the parts of the city served by useful transit.  These are always very different things.

That’s why our firm almost never studies or maps percentages; instead, we study densities.  We draw maps of the density of poor people, or students, or seniors, or whatever.  Because only that shows you how many people we’re really talking about, and where they are.


Too often, social science papers rely on correlations without thinking about what transit is spatially.  Everything I’ve said here will be blindingly obvious to any practicing transit planner —  not just because they show up in properly granular analyses but because the mathematical consequences of them not being true are so nonsensical.  That’s why I’m confident in relying on geometric claims in my own work.  They tend to win arguments in the political world because they don’t require anyone trust a black box of analysis that’s studded with assumptions, or to assume that experts always know best.

The biggest single mistake in this and most similar studies is the false confidence in aggregating data across a metro region.  It is geometrically inevitable that any remotely viable transit agency will distribute its benefits very unequally across the land area of its region — especially in response to density — and the way that transit’s benefits are distributed over a city means that total inputs and outputs at the citywide scale don’t matter very much.

But these papers are at their most exasperating when their resistance to geometric thought is coupled with unfounded claims about how clueless we practitioners were before this paper enlightened us. As a PhD myself, I have the highest respect for the work of scholarship.  But a regression analysis is only as good as the assumptions that went into it, and these need much firmer grounding in geometric reality, as well as in the reality of how transit decisions are actually made.

Nevertheless, the main point of the study, and the one for which it’s most often cited, is indisputable:  Network design projects can help improve ridership for a given amount of money, but for step-changes in ridership, you have to fund more service.


[1] The internal/external distinction, routine in the social sciences, is entirely relative in ways that should be more clearly marked in papers.  Whether a factor is internal or external depends on the selected point of view.  My reaction to seeing transit quantity described as internal is that it is not in control of the stated point of view, namely “transit managers and operators.”  Weather used to be the paradigmatic example of an external variable, but now that we know it’s partly the result of human actions, it could be internal if you take the long view of human agency.

[2] Not a zero role, but very small compared to the magnitude of cost involved.