Appreciating Anthony Foxx, the “Great Connector”

US Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx will deserve a special place in the history of US transportation policy.  It has been a long time since the nation’s transport policy leader has reframed the conversation so profoundly.  An interview of him in Citylab by Laura Bliss, dubbing him “The Great Connector,” draws out several of these themes:

anthony_foxx_official_portraitBuilding Communities, Enabling Contact

We might not always acknowledge it, but the reality is, when we build infrastructure we’re also building communities. It’s different than housing. It’s where boundaries are drawn, where highways and rail lines cut through, where transit stops are or the places that are skipped over. All of those decisions matter, because they all affect how we come into contact with each other.

This is a truism in urbanist circles but I’ve never heard it so forcefully from a Secretary of Transportation.  In a department where handing out infrastructure money is the primary source of power, Foxx reframed the whole task away from the usual cost/benefit conversations or the love of technologies, to focus instead on the fundamental purpose of transport: how we “come into contact with each other” and thus, among other things, build communities.  The acknowledgment of the “dividing” effect of some infrastructure is especially historic.  Freeways enabled some connections only by obstructing others, like your ability to walk to a grocery store on the other side or the ability of a bus route to trace a straight path.

Devolving Power to States and Cities

Shifting power downward from the Federal government to states and cities used to be a conservative “small government” idea, but no longer.  The first step is to impose fewer Federal limits on how money is to be spent.

I’ve the made case—and will continue to make the case in my next life—that we need a more flexible funding approach. Rather than say that a certain percentage has to go to roads or transit or what have you, let the communities decide how that money should be spent, and grade them on criteria that shows how they’ve improved the system.

He’s especially clear that people who know the local issues need to make the decisions about them:

Regions and cities and towns could use more direct federal funds as well. This harkens back to my mayor days. Those areas can get things done relatively quickly, and many times they have a different sense of what they need than a state might. Rather than having regions, towns, and cities arguing over money, there should be a more dedicated program.

This is especially important for cities, whose needs are different from those of other areas but who often lack the autonomy to solve their own problems.  We are entering an era where urbanist impatience with a controlling and dictating Federal government will be as great as that of conservatives has always been, and for similar reasons.  If the next Administration is as hostile to urban issues (or perhaps, hostile to urban interests other than elite real estate development) we may soon reach a point where devolution of power is the only thing the nation can agree on.  Cities will have to take care of themselves, and have the power to do so.  Even some urban real estate tycoons may see the value of that.

Transit, and the City, as Unifier

Finally, in an age of division, he captures the singular role of transit in holding together urban civilization, using one of my favorite images:

Transportation can bring us together. When I ride on the New York City subway system, I’m riding with millionaires and with homeless people. No one is hidden from the other. That interaction doesn’t mean people live in the same neighborhoods, or that they go to the same school. But what it does mean is that no one is invisible.

Everything about politics today is about visibility.  Are you forced to see the consequences of your own ideas?  It is the genius of the city that almost everyone must, because they happen in front of you on the street, not just on television or the internet.  My own city, Portland, is in a time of general prosperity, but it just had a mayoral election where the predominant issues were homelessness and affordability.  That happened because those issues aren’t invisible in a city, the way they can be in suburbs or country towns.  The genius of the city is that the billionaire, whatever his achievements, must still acknowledge that he shares a city with homeless people, whose condition may result from the same forces that created his.  Transit keeps that reality present through the act of transportation.  That’s not its purpose; no social engineering is involved.  But the fact remains that in cities we must use space efficiently, and that often requires traveling in each other’s presence, so that we see the totality of what our city is.

Foxx’s reign has also included significant achievements in planning for automation, and he hints that they may still do something about the intrusiveness and harrowing potential of drones.  Good stuff.  But these shifts in tone may matter as much as anything.  Good job, Secretary, and I hope you continue to influence the transport conversation.

Tactical Transit: A Fast Path to Transit Infrastructure

Learn this term now: tactical transit.

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

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

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

Temporary bulbout in Brooklyn, NY. Source: TransitCenter

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

Tactically Temporary Transit

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

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

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

Permanent Tactical Transit?

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

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


Sounding the Alarm about Uber’s Impacts on Transit, and on Cities


Photo: Alper Çuğun, via Flickr

This post pulls together everything I’ve had to say on the subject of how ride-sourcing companies like Uber could impact cities.  I hope to leave this topic for a while!

Henry Grabar at Slate has a good piece on an issue that I have been raising the alarm about for a while.

 The rise of ride-hailing companies is increasingly viewed not as a fix for bad service but as its justification. It is invoked, as you might expect, in bad faith by [people] who have advocated against public investment for decades. But even pro-transit politicians and officials have begun to see ride-hailing services as an acceptable substitute for public transit. As a result, cities across the country are making important decisions about transportation that treat 10-year-old companies as fixed variables for the decades to come.

Regardless of their corporate intentions, Uber and its ilk are doing harm to transit — and thus to transit-reliant dense cities — in two ways: one in the politics, the other in the reality of competition on the ground.

  • Politically, as a working consultant, I can confirm Grabar’s observation that “Uber” is becoming as a generic reason to let transit fall apart. I am constantly told that Uber will make transit obsolete.  As Grabar notes, some of this is just easy rhetoric for people who dislike transit for cultural reasons, or who oppose public investment of any kind.  But much of the confusion arises because people sincerely don’t understand how narrow the range of opportunities is for ride-sourcing to improve on fixed route transit’s efficiency.  Even an empty-looking suburban fixed route bus is usually doing over 10 boardings/hour, way more than you could ever do in any taxi-like mode that’s taking people to their door.
  • Competitively.  We know Uber is unprofitable, which means its prices are unsustainable.  As always, unsustainable means: “It would be folly to plan your city around the assumption that this will continue.”  We are not sure exactly how unsustainable Uber is.  Grabar cites an analysis by Hubert Horan that suggests Uber may be covering as little as 41% of its costs with fares, but Bloomberg’s Eric Newcomer thinks that reflects one-time losses from their failure in China.  More journalists need to be digging into this.  People making urban policy need to know whether the “Uber” that people experience is a permanent thing in the landscape, because a belief in permanence is essential to planning and development.

These two strands converge in the geometry problem that is at the core of urbanist alarm:  If travelers shift from larger vehicles (like buses) into smaller ones (like Ubers) you increase Vehicle Miles Travelled, which increases congestion, emissions, and the demand for road space.  This is tolerable in low-density areas but an existential threat to dense cities.   None of these would be problems if the higher cost of smaller-vehicle services reflected the true cost of their inefficient use of space.  But as we know, cars’ inefficient use of urban space is rarely reflected in the cost of urban driving, and Uber skates through on the same invisible subsidy that all urban motorists enjoy.  Transit, which doesn’t enjoy any such subsidy, is unable to properly reflect its efficient use of space in its pricing.

I’m sure that someone’s going to say that “Uber isn’t trying to damage transit.”  That’s not a response to any of these issues, because the issue is not intent but outcomes.  Uber’s behavior often looks like an intentional effort to undermine competitors and thus reduce customer choice — in which case you’d call it predatory pricing — but it doesn’t matter what the intention is.  Underpricing is a blunt weapon with zero targeting ability.  It mows down everything in its path.

Obviously, Uber is doing what all companies do, including trying to limit competition.  There’s no point in criticizing them in particular for that.  Such a critique would have to be leveled at all the underlying assumptions of American capitalism.

And there’s no doubting the value of these companies in the lives of fortunate people who can afford to use their services routinely, or that they have positive roles to play in parts of the urban transportation picture, such as low-demand areas.

But it’s time to quit discussing Uber and similar companies as though they were improving the world in a permanent way, and as though they will necessarily make cities better for everyone.  We already know that’s not true.  Governments need to regulate to expand the opportunities these companies, but must also respond to threats that they pose.

All this can be done very politely, by the way.  Many people who work inside of big companies understand perfectly well how the profit motive conflicts with what you’d do if you were just trying to foster a better city, and many welcome regulation precisely to plug that gap.

Anchorage: A Clear Conversation on Transit Choices


Updated 23 Dec 2016 with concept maps and link to Next City article.

Our firm’s work for the Alaska’s largest city has turned into a public conversation about two possible futures for the transit network.  As often, the choice is the ridership-coverage trade-off:  Should the transit agency try to go everywhere with mediocre service, or should it focus on the places where high ridership is possible, and run good service there?

The city’s online presentation is very thorough.  You can explore the two concepts in detail, but you can also look at isochrones showing how your ability to get places changes under each scenario.  It’s the process we recommend for many studies at this point, since it turns the conversation away from proposals — with their tendency to polarize people into “support” and “oppose” camps — and focus instead of alternatives that each have advantages and disadvantages.

Here are the two alternative concepts.  Remember, these are not yes/no alternatives.  They are points on a spectrum and the final decision may be anywhere along that spectrum.



The Alaska Dispatch-News has a story on the process (though it inaccurately calls the concepts “proposals”).  For a really fun read, have a look at this unsigned opinion piece in the Anchorage Press.  The writer captures the special frustration of having lots of bus routes to choose from, none of which may actually be coming:

Between downtown and [University of Alaska], I’m spoiled with five options. When I miss the 3, a direct connector, I know the frequent [but circuitous] 45 won’t be long. If I’m really lucky, I’ll catch the 102, truly the unicorn of Anchorage bus routes (operating pretty much never, this rare but beautiful beast boomerangs through downtown on a route where red lights are rare and left turns are rarer). The far-flung 36 is obviously not my option, as it hugs Turnagain/West Anchorage, but the 13 seems blissfully benign, a loping zigzag across the city.

Often, when I’ve missed the 3 in the dead of winter, the 13 beckons with its bright lights twinkling “Downtown.” I know it’s a mistake, but it’s cold and I can’t help but climb aboard. Like traversing the doldrums, there’s no wind in the sails but at least it’s warm. So I steer into the Bermuda Triangle of bus routes, hoping to someday make it home.

It gives quite an attentive tour of Route 13, Anchorage’s most circuitous bus route.  Here’s the map if want to follow along.

Update:  Jen Kinney at Next City has a good piece on the plan.


Portraits of Transit Professionals from across the US


If you’ve ever wanted to learn more about transit from people inside the industry, especially those in important roles at major US agencies, you may want to check out this new project. People Who Move People is an interview series with people occupying all sorts of roles in the field, including high-profile figures like current FTA Acting Administrator Carolyn Flowers, former US Secretary of Transportation Norm Mineta and LA Metro CEO Phillip Washington. This may be of particular interest to our readers who hope to join the transit industry, as these interviews show the great variety of paths available to people working in the field.

Eugene: Let’s Talk Transit on November 30

Don Hankins via Flickr, used under Creative Commons License

Don Hankins via Flickr, used under Creative Commons License

On November 30 I’ll be in Eugene, Oregon for a public event organized by Better Eugene Springfield Transit.  It’s free but you need to sign up through Eventbrite.  (And if you sign up and then decide not to go, please cancel!).

The Eugene-Springfield area has been through an exhausting and polarizing debate about a Bus Rapid Transit line over the past few years.  As often happens, controversies about a specific project can make it impossible to have the larger conversation about a region’s vision for itself and how transit fits into that vision.  I hope I can help the community jump-start that conversation.

Look forward to seeing you there.


Cities Must, and Will, Take Care of Themselves (Election Notes)

It’s been a long night.  So just a few notes.

Nobody really knows what lies ahead for the US, but we are probably heading into a period when cities and metro areas must do even more to take care of themselves.  And there’s lots of evidence, from last night, that urban populations know that.

The sweep of victories on public transit measures is impressive.  Raleigh, Indianapolis, Atlanta, and the biggest transit plan of all this year, in greater Seattle.  In California, where revenue raising measures require 2/3, most of the Bay Area and Los Angeles area measures are on track to hit that very high bar.

This is becoming a common pattern.  There is a strong urban consensus about what it takes to make a great city, and the will is there, among urban populations, to do what needs to be done.

Some friends are despairing about federal funding for public transit, which is required to deliver the promised transit plans, and for other critical urban needs. I can’t predict what Federal policy may actually be like.  If you need reasons for hope, there are three:

  • This president-elect is from a big city, he famously likes to build things, and he campaigned on infrastructure spending.  It’s unlikely he will turn off the spigot on urban investments, or that a narrowly divided Senate would let him if he did.
  • I’ve also been through this moment — when one party appears to have won the White House and the Congress — several times.  Each time, it’s appeared that there’s now no impediment to the agenda, but it’s never been that simple.  When you can actually enact an agenda, you pause, especially when you have such a narrow majority in one chamber.
  • There’s simply no mandate here for an anti-urban agenda, or even for budget-cutting and fiscal austerity.  This election was just not about that.

But maybe the Federal role does shrink.  If so, cities and regions will have to do what needs to be done themselves.  Mayors and regional leaders may have to lead in larger and more courageous ways. Bruce Katz (The Metropolitan Revolution) and Benjamin Barber (If Mayors Ruled the World) have been charting this path for a while.   But if tonight’s transit measures are any indication, urban voters know what needs to be done, so the conditions for courageous urban leadership are there.

Personally, I have lots of other feelings about this election.  But when it comes to critical urban needs, one way or another, it can get done.


How “Innovation” Chatter Limits Urban Mobility Today: Election Edition

The new private players in urban transportation have learned to be careful about appearing to oppose public transit — at least, most of the time.  Uber is making a point of supporting some of the biggest transit tax proposals in the country.  Lyft wants you to know that they’re “friends with transit.”  These companies know that they rely on an urban, educated political base — people who can figure out for themselves that shifting lots of people from big vehicles into small ones is not the way to improve congestion, emissions, or pretty much anything that matters.

Still, the hype coming off the technology companies — even when not explicitly hostile to big-vehicle transit — feeds a vague notion that “innovation” will somehow sweep transit away.  And this attitude is damaging transit systems now.  

To make this claim I’ve usually had to refer to my personal experience as a consultant — and especially my constant conversations with local stakeholders and opinion leaders.  But right now, we have some examples, from the websites of opponents of transit proposals around the US.

My point in citing these is not to defend particular transit proposals.  We don’t endorse here.  And it doesn’t matter, to my point, which measures pass and which fail.

My point is that tech industry PR, with its meme of “innovation” somehow changing everything, is now a key source of anti-transit rhetoric.

Here’s the homepage of opponents of the rapid transit measure for the Seattle area, ST3.  It leads off with three big points, one of which is this:

Over in Indianapolis, there’s this, from an opponents’ press release:

If voters approve the transit referendum Nov. 8th, Indianapolis will buy a quaint 1940’s solution to a 21st Century opportunity.  When Uber and Lyft – the transportation innovation leaders of today — are initiating a transportation revolution in other communities, Indianapolis once again looks in the rear-view mirror.   Indianapolis leaders, IndyGo planners, and taxpayers should be anticipating the flood of change that will occur over the next few years—not building permanent bus lanes down the middle of major city thoroughfares which will be rendered obsolete.

Transit plan opponents in greater Detroit accuse a fixed rapid transit plan of “blocking” innovation — after first scaring us with the notion that buses or trains might get in the way of your car:

More Traffic Congestion

Major roads will have lanes closed to create ‘bus only’ lanes – congesting traffic.

Cities with bus only lanes also implement priority traffic signal policies that turn  stop lights green for approaching buses and red for cross traffic – further delaying motorists.

Blocks Mass Transit Innovation

The proposal spends billions on old transit tech like buses and rail while other cities are contracting out transit services to Uber, Lyft, Chariot and others that provide door-to-door service at substantial savings.

Advances in self driving vehicles may provide breakthroughs in personalized, cost-effective transit service that cannot be realized if our region is financially locked for decades into a dinosaur mass transit system.  [emphasis added]

Yes, there may be breakthroughs, which may have the outcomes we hope for, and this is reason enough to declare our existing tools to be “dinosaurs.”  The idea is that future inventions should destroy useful things today.  

It’s completely understandable that inventors want us to think this.  If we throw away our existing solutions to urban problems, we will be even more dependent on their inventions, which will be good for them.  That’s why we must lean in the the wind, being skeptical but not cynical about the good things invention may bring.

Why should we continue to invest in big-vehicle, space-efficient public transit, and protect what we have from degradation, when all this innovation may occur?

  • Technology never changes geometry.  In dense cities, the efficient use of space requires continuing to move large numbers of people in large vehicles, which is what successful urban transit networks are.  (The story may be different in low-density suburban areas, where demand is sparser and space is more abundant, especially if those places don’t intend to grow denser.)  The only way to move large vehicles efficiently and also attractively is first to run them frequently, and second, where possible, to protect them from traffic congestion.  Yes, this may get in the way of your car.
  • Inventions never turn out as hoped, and especially not as hyped.  They have downside impacts, some of them entirely predictable.  They destroy things that turn out to be valuable, especially because …
  • Making something easier causes more people to do it.  This is how autonomous cars could cause an explosion of vehicle trips that would overwhelm any space-saving benefits of the technology, congest our cities to the point of dysfunction, and thus trigger a new generation of urban sprawl.  Do you believe that autonomous cars will radically expand your liberty, even in the densest cities?  Do you imagine that you, a city dweller, will be able to get out into the beautiful countryside more easily, so that you could even buy a cabin in the woods?  That’s what the proponents of cars wanted you to believe 100 years ago.  The problem isn’t that you got those things, but so did everyone else.  So the liberty of the motorist became the prison of congestion, and everyone’s cabin in the woods meant there were no woods left.

Again, if you’re new to this, autonomous vehicles can be a wonderful thing.  The problem is the hype about things uninvented, and the way it encourages us to destroys things that we value, now.







Follow Transit Referenda on US Election Night

Yonah Freemark at The Transport Politic has set up a page where you can follow election night returns about the 20 biggest transit-related referenda to be voted on November 8 in the US.   His summaries are good, always mentioning operating funds and local bus service, not just the big-ticket infrastructure.

The biggest are in the Seattle and Los Angeles regions, both of which are behind the curve on rapid transit development, given their size, density and growth rates.  Both measures, which raise sales taxes, are close things.  The Seattle-area measure covers a huge three-county region including exurban areas that vote against transit routinely.  Los Angeles County has clear majorities for almost anything transit-related, but the measure requires 2/3.

Personally, I’ve never had so much of my own work, and that of my firm, at stake in one cycle of referenda.

Two plans that we worked on extensively are on the ballot, in Indianapolis and in Wake County (Raleigh area), North Carolina.  Both are dramatic expansions of transit that create robust frequent transit networks in the denser parts of those cities, while Wake County’s also includes a commuter rail program.

In San Jose and Silicon Valley, in California, we are also in the midst of working on a network redesign to accompany the opening of BART next fall, and this design will be considerably more abundant, with less painful trade-offs, if Santa Clara County’s sales tax increment passes (also a close thing, as it needs 2/3).

We also did some work in Spokane, Washington, in the area of Board and stakeholder workshops, that helped lead to the Moving Forward plan on the ballot there.

As a consultant, I don’t make endorsements.  But peruse Yonah’s list, and if you live in one of these places, please read up on these measures to make sure you have an informed view.