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.

Toronto: A new King Street for Transit

By Christopher Yuen

For the past few decades, Toronto’s King Street, a frequent transit corridor through the densest and fastest-growing parts of the city, has been increasingly choked by car traffic. Built before the age of the automobile, and running in mixed traffic as was typical with legacy streetcar systems, the 504 King streetcar’s speed has deteriorated to just about walking speed on most days during rush hour. That was until three weeks ago, when the City of Toronto launched a one-year pilot project to restrict car traffic and give transit the space it needs to move. The Globe and Mail has a great piece on the significance of this project here. Details on the project and its design are available at the City of Toronto website here.

King Street Pilot Plan Diagram excerpt

The King Street pilot project prioritizes transit.

The new design of 4-lane King street was particularly thoughtful, given some of the constraints the corridor faces. While transit malls in some cities completely ban non-transit vehicles, existing high-rise parking garages that front onto King Street and businesses throughout the bustling entertainment district without back lane for loading and deliveries meant that vehicular access had to be maintained. Under the new design, left turns and through-travel are prohibited for cars and trucks at all major intersections- requiring drivers to turn right and use alternate streets.

At the approach to intersections, vehicles waiting to turn right form a queue in the right lane, out of the way of transit. At some intersections, cars receive an advance turn signal ahead of pedestrians to ensure the tail of the turning queue does not impede the streetcars.

Taken on a weekday at 4:00pm, this scene would have been much more chaotic with through-traffic blocking transit before the project. Now, cars are channeled to turn right at every intersection. (Photo: Alex Gaio)

Taken on a weekday at 4:00pm, this scene would have been much more chaotic with through-traffic blocking transit before the project. Now, cars are channeled to turn right at every intersection. (Photo: Alex Gaio)

Without through-traffic, having two lanes at the start of each block is no longer necessary, allowing for an important feature for efficient transit operations- far-side stops. Streetcar tracks in Toronto, and in many legacy systems, operate in the middle of the road. To board and alight, passengers must step into the roadway, protected only by a rule prohibiting motorists from passing open streetcar doors. As a result, stops have always been located on the near-side to reduce the risk of drivers making a right turn onto a transit corridor and immediately conflicting with passengers getting on or off a streetcar. Under the new design, streetcars stop on the far side of most intersections, beside barriers that effectively extends the curb to the second lane at the start of each intersection.

New far-side stops with a temporary curb-extension mean passengers no longer have to walk through a traffic lane to get on and off the streetcar. (Photo: Alex Gaio)

New far-side stops with a temporary curb-extension mean passengers no longer have to walk through a traffic lane to get on and off the streetcar. (Photo: Alex Gaio)

In addition to the obvious safety benefits of the new design, the far-side stops also allow transit vehicles to travel faster. Traffic signals along Toronto’s King Street already feature transit signal priority- they detect an approaching transit vehicle to hold a green light, or shorten a red light. With near-side stops, the unpredictable dwell times at stops would sometimes cause the traffic-signal to time-out, leaving the transit vehicle with a red light just as it closes its doors and is ready to get moving. Far side stops allow signals to be held for a streetcar to get through an intersection before stopping for passengers.

The new design also re-allocates curb space as loading zones, taxi stands and for new seating and patio space mid-block- all valuable features for a dense, mixed-use central business district which would not have been possible when all four lanes have been dedicated to the throughput of cars.

New public spaces like this will become especially valuable when patio season begins.

New public spaces like this will become especially valuable when patio season begins. (Photo: Alex Gaio)

Since its launch, public support has been for the most part, positive. The all-at-once approach to implementing this pilot across the corridor has ensured that the new inconvenience to some drivers has also been matched with a drastic, noticeable, and immediate improvement for everyone else. Across the twittersphere, Torontonians are reporting anecdotes of more consistent departures and trips taking half as they did previously.

Even among some taxi drivers, subject to the same turn restrictions throughout the day, initial skepticism appears to have eased.

Preliminary analysis of GPS data shows that the project is working, significantly reducing both the average and the spread of travel times.  However, it remains to be seen if enough drivers will comply with the new restrictions once the initial enforcement blitz is over. If New York or San Francisco‘s bus lanes offer any guidance, Toronto should introduce automatic camera enforcement along the corridor. Over the course of this one-year pilot project, municipal staff and the transit agency will be sure to monitor the situation closely and make adjustments based on actual results.

Cities, faced with growing populations and spatial constraints, must defend the right for transit to move if they wish to limit the negative impacts of traffic congestion. Toronto’s King Street offers a story of how that can be done quickly and effectively.


Christopher Yuen is an associate at Jarrett Walker+Associates and will be regularly contributing to this blog.

Notes on the New Microsoft Campus

Microsoft has unveiled plans for a complete rebuild of its headquarters in Redmond, Washington, in the eastern suburbs of Seattle.    Corporations have long wanted to make their headquarters feel like universities — hence their love of the word campus — but this one is much closer to delivering on that image. complete with retail, generous plazas and open space, and — very important — the removal of through car traffic.


It’s most important feature is its relationship to the new light rail station that will open on the edge of the campus in 2023.  A central axis of the campus points right to the station, minimizing walk distances to all campus destinations.  The station is just off the image to the upper right.  It’s not the town of circa 1900 town where density crowded around the station, but then rail stations in 1900 weren’t in ravines next to freeways.  This campus represents the best of what you can do given the suburban nature of the urban fabric, land ownership, and transportation infrastructure. It’s no substitute for locating in the old fabric of a dense city — as Amazon and Twitter did and Google is planning to do — but it’s a great start toward building a more human urban environment in a difficult context.

None of the materials I’ve seen mentions the parking ratios, however.  How many spaces per employee?  Too much parking would destroy the whole point.






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.