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.


Portland: Hiring Nice People

IMG_3584A thing to like about Portland’s transit agency TriMet:  They don’t hire commercial drivers and train them to be friendly.  They hire friendly people and train them to drive a bus.

Los Peligros de la Proyección del Elitismo

(A Spanish version of my article “The Dangers of Elite Projection,” translated by Rodrigo García.)

La Proyección del Elitismo es la creencia entre las personas relativamente influyentes y privilegiadas de que aquello que éstas encuentran conveniente o atractivo es bueno para la sociedad en general. Una vez que se aprenda a reconocer este error común, es fácil verlo por todos lados. Es probablemente la barrera más importante para la creación de ciudades prósperas, justas y liberadoras.

Este no es un llamado a atacar a las élites. Tampoco es una declaración sobre la correcta distribución de riqueza y oportunidad o el derecho de una persona a influenciar el discurso público. La intención es señalar un error que las élites constantemente suelen cometer. Ese error es olvidar que las élites son siempre minoría y que, comúnmente, planear una ciudad o una red de transporte a partir de sus gustos y preferencias resulta en un proyecto que no es funcional para la mayoría. De hecho, ni siquiera la élite minoritaria gusta del resultado final.

Hace un tiempo, cuando estaba presentando una propuesta de transporte público ante la Junta de Directores de una agencia de transporte público de un suburbio californiano, uno de los miembros, que representaba a la ciudad más adinerada del área, se acercó, aclaró su garganta y dijo:

Ahora bien, Señor Walker. Si adoptamos su plan, ¿eso hará que deje mi BMW en el garage?

Por supuesto que la respuesta es no. Pero pensar que esa es una pregunta adecuada para evaluar un sistema de transporte público es un claro ejemplo de la proyección del elitismo. Un multimillonario como este señor pertenece a una pequeña minoría, por lo que no tiene ningún sentido diseñar un sistema de transporte público con base en sus gustos y preferencias. Un transporte público exitoso es un transporte público masivo y no tiene sentido buscar la masificación a través de la atracción de usuarios como él. Quizá él se sentiría atraído a un servicio que lo dejara en la puerta de su casa, le ofreciera un masaje y una copa de vino pero muchas personas preferirían un servicio más congruente con un presupuesto limitado. Así que dejemos que el sector privado les provea ese lujo y asegurémonos que los usuarios paguen por sus impactos.

Por supuesto que no es nuevo que se justifique la inversión que beneficia a las élites como una inversión que sirve al bien común. Por ejemplo, mejorar la vida de los ejecutivos de negocios supuestamente atraerá inversiones a la comunidad. Un proyecto de transporte público especializado supuestamente atraerá la construcción de vivienda de lujo que a su vez incrementará la recaudación. Quizá algunos elementos de estos argumentos son correctos y el término Proyección del Elitismo no es el adecuado. Sin embargo, la mayoría de las proyecciones elitistas no tienen un razonamiento detrás. Es únicamente el hábito inconsciente de asumir que los gustos de uno son un buen reflejo de lo que todas las personas valoran.

Al retar la Proyección del Elitismo estoy siendo completamente razonable. Casi todas las personas se refieren a su propia experiencia al discutir políticas públicas. ¿A quién no le gusta que su experiencia personal sea tomada en cuenta? Pero en una sociedad donde las élites tienen un poder desproporcionado, la tarea súper-humana de resistir su proyección debe estar dentro de las mismas élites. Y yo al ser parte de esas élites – no soy millonario, pero ciertamente tengo educación y privilegios – es mi trabajo también. Como en cualquier intento de ser una mejor persona, es una tarea cansada y nunca estaremos en lo correcto el 100 por ciento de las ocasiones. Por lo tanto, la crítica a la Proyección del Elitismo no puede únicamente desencadenar en ira y enojo. También tiene que ser un proceso empático e indulgente.

De cualquier forma, la Proyección del Elitismo es quizá la primera barrera para lograr ciudades eficientes, justas y liberadoras. La ciudad tiene una característica especial: Funciona para todos solo si funciona para casi todos. Lo mismo puede argumentarse de la sociedad en general, pero sólo en las ciudades esta característica es tan evidente como inevitable.

El tráfico, para usar el ejemplo más obvio, es el resultado de las elecciones de todos en respuesta a la situación de todos. Hasta las élites están atoradas en el tráfico. Hasta hoy, no se ha encontrado solución para liberar a las élites del tráfico y no es porque no se haya intentado. La única solución para el tráfico es solucionarlo para todos y todas y para hacer eso es necesario verlo desde la perspectiva de todos y todas, no sólo desde la de los más privilegiados.

El existente menosprecio al servicio de autobús en las ciudades de Estados Unidos tiene un problema fundamental de Proyección del Elitismo. La única forma en la que el transporte público puede expandirse rápidamente y utilizar con extrema eficiencia el espacio urbano limitado de una ciudad es con autobuses espaciosos que siguen rutas fijas. Pero las élites creen que los autobuses y el servicio que proveen no importan ya que personalmente no es útil para ellos ni ellas.

Durante mis 25 años de carrera he presenciado a líderes urbanos privilegiados – la mayoría con buenas intenciones – buscar exhaustivamente la solución para el transporte público que les permita olvidarse de los autobuses. Ese mismo error alimenta la vaga promesa de la disrupción tecnológica en el transporte público, especialmente la absurda noción matemática de que en zonas urbanas y densas el transporte público llegará hasta tu puerta al llamarlo. (Expertos y expertas serias han abandonado esta idea, pero por desgracia aún se mantiene, minando el apoyo y noción sobre el funcionamiento real del transporte público.)

Ninguna de estas ideas tienen sentido geométrico y por lo tanto no funcionarán para liberar y proveer acceso y movilidad en zonas urbanas y densas. Sin embargo, son ideas atractivas para las élites, atraen la atención del público en general y por lo mismo ayudar a aplazar la inversión tan necesaria en transporte público que millones de personas encontrarían útil y liberadora. Este descuido causa deterioro en el transporte público, generando resultados y decisiones que justifican un mayor descuido y deterioro.

De nuevo, no podemos retar la Proyección del Elitismo hasta que hagamos un examen de conciencia personal. Casi todas las personas que leerán este artículo forman parte de alguna élite. Pero mientras más poder se ostente, más urgente e importante es esta tarea. Debemos preguntarnos: “¿Esta idea funcionaría para mí si estuviera en una situación típica en vez de la posición privilegiada en la que me encuentro?” Ya que si la respuesta es no, tampoco funcionará para la ciudad, lo que significa que al final tampoco funcionará para ti.

(El traductor Rodrigo Garcia es un urbanista especializado en transporte activo y participación comunitaria. Puedes contactarlo en twitter o en su correo electrónico


Should I come to SXSW?

If you’re not a techie, SXSW is South by Southwest, one of the leading summits of the tech “disruptors,” held every year in sxswAustin.

A proposed panel on New Mobility and the Future of Design would include:

  • Gabe Klein, Founder of CityFi and former director of the Depts. of Transportation in Washington DC and Chicago.
  • Jeff Wood, who runs the fine urban news outlet The Overhead Wire.
  • Ben Holland, Sr Associate at Rocky Mountain Institute.
  • … and me!

By the standards of tech conferences, this panel would be heavy on people with experience in transit agencies and government, which could be help counterbalance some of the prevailing instincts in the tech industry.

Anyway, there’s a place you can vote for this panel.  It requires a login, which many of my tech-savvy readers already have.  Feel free to state your view.

The Dangers of Elite Projection

Elite projection is the belief, among relatively fortunate and influential people, that what those people find convenient or attractive is good for the society as a whole.  Once you learn to recognize this simple mistake, you see it everywhere.  It is perhaps the single most comprehensive barrier to prosperous, just, and liberating cities.

This is not a call to bash elites.  I am making no claim about the proper distribution of wealth and opportunity, or about anyone’s entitlement to influence. But I am pointing out a mistake that elites are constantly at risk of making.  The mistake is to forget that elites are always a minority, and that planning a city or transport network around the preferences of a minority routinely yields an outcome that doesn’t work for the majority.  Even the elite minority won’t like the result in the end.

Long ago, when I was presenting a proposed transit plan to the Board of Directors of a suburban transit agency in California, one board member — representing the wealthiest city in the area — leaned forward, cleared his throat, and said:

Now, Mister Walker.  If we adopt this plan of yours, will that make me leave my BMW in the driveway?

The answer, of course, is no.  But to suggest that this question is a valid test of a transit plan is an extreme example of elite projection.  As a multi-millionaire, this man belongs to a tiny minority, so it makes no sense to design a transit system around his personal tastes.  Successful transit is mass transit, and there is no mass to be achieved by pursuing him as a customer.  Perhaps he could be attracted by a service to his door featuring on-board wine bar and massage service, but few other people would consider that good value for their more limited dollars.  Let the for-profit sector give him that luxury, and ensure he pays for its impacts.

Now and then, of course, investment that benefits elites justifies itself as serving the common good.  Expediting the lives of business executives, for example, will supposedly attract investment to your community.  A specialized transit project will supposedly stimulate upscale housing development that will add to the tax base, even if you could never afford to live there. I am not seeking to open debate on those claims.  To the extent that these arguments were right, elite projection would not be the right term.  Most elite projection, however, makes no such claims.  It’s simply an unconscious habit of assuming that your tastes are a good guide to what everyone will value.

In challenging elite projection, I am being utterly unreasonable. I am calling upon elites to meet a superhuman standard.  Almost everyone refers to their own experience when discussing policy.  Who doesn’t want their experience to be acknowledged? But in a society where elites have disproportionate power, the superhuman task of resisting elite projection must be their work.  And since I’m one of these elites — not at all in wealth but certainly in education and other kinds of good fortune — it’s sometimes my work as well.  Like all attempts to be better people, it’s utterly exhausting and we’ll never get it right. That means the critique of elite projection can’t just take the form of rage. It also has to be empathic and forgiving.

Still, elite projection is perhaps the primary barrier to the efficient, just, and liberating city.  The city has this special feature: It functions for anyone only if it functions for almost everyone.  You can say this about society in general, but only in the city is this fact so brutally obvious as to be unavoidable.

Traffic congestion, to take the obvious example, is the result of everyone’s choices in response to everyone’s situation.  Even the elites are mostly stuck in it. No satisfying solution has been found to protect elites from this problem, and it’s not for want of trying.  The only real solution to congestion is to solve it for everyone, and to do that you have to look at it from everyone’s perspective, not just from the fortunate perspective.

The ongoing disparagement of bus service in urban America has elite projection at its foundation.  Large fixed-route buses are the only form of transit that can quickly scale to an entire city while using scarce urban space with extreme efficiency.   Yet many urban elites assume (subtly or overtly) that bus service doesn’t matter because it’s not useful to them personally.

During my 25-year career I’ve watched fortunate urban leaders — mostly very well-intentioned — search endlessly for a transit idea that will allow them to neglect buses.  One could point to some American streetcars-stuck-in-traffic, “redevelopment tools” which sometimes had no discernible transportation value   There are the adorable ferries with tiny markets, and the overspecialized airport trains.  Now, the same mistake powers the endless vague promises of tech disruption in transit, especially the mathematically absurd notion that transit that comes to your door when you call it will scale to the entire population of a dense city.  (Serious experts have largely abandoned this claim, but it is out there in the discourse, undermining support for transit that actually works.)

None of these ideas made any geometric sense as a way to liberate everyone in a dense city, but they appealed to elite tastes, dazzled public attention, and therefore helped to defer investment in the transit that vast numbers of urban people would find useful and liberating. This neglect causes transit to deteriorate, yielding outcomes that further justify the neglect.

Again, we can’t challenge elite projection in others until we forgive it in ourselves.  Almost everyone reading this is part of some kind of elite.  But the more powerful you are, the more urgent this work is.  We must all ask ourselves: “Would this idea work for me if I were in a typical citizen’s situation, instead of my fortunate situation?”  Because if not, it won’t work for the city, and in the end that means it won’t even work for you.


Can You Tour a Bus Network Redesign?

In my email today:

I am visiting Houston in a couple of weeks.  …  I was wondering: are there any particular routes that would be interesting to ride as an example?

Yes, I led the design process for the new Houston bus network, implemented in August 2015.  Buses now run in simpler, straighter, more useful paths, and often at much higher frequencies.  People can get to more places more quickly than ever before.  The high-frequency network went from this …

houston frequent before

to this …

houston frequent after

But I don’t know how I would direct a tourist to experience this — the way it’s so easy to tour a piece of transit technology. You can ride one of the redesigned bus routes, but you won’t notice it’s redesigned unless you try to travel through the system for many purposes.  You can ride a cool bus, and take pictures of it, but then you’ve toured another piece of technology, not the network.

You’d have to live in the city, and use the bus to go lots of places, in order to experience the thing that we designed, which is the sheer ease of getting to many places more quickly.

At best, you could tour information and wayfinding systems.  If you stand at a bus stop, how obvious is the network and its usefulness?  This is a kind of tourism that I encourage, and that I always engage in.  But the wayfinding is not the network.  Many transit networks are much better than you’d guess from their public information, signage, etc.

Here is yet another example of why cities often look at improving their bus networks only after they’ve tried everything else.  There’s nothing to tour, nothing a visitor can see in an hour that would give them a sense of it.

I’m curious if anyone else has encountered ways to make bus network redesign an object of tourism.  Because among urbanist opinion leaders, tourism is a huge part of how ideas are transmitted, and valued.

The Pleasure of Riding Failing Transit

The New York Times has a great parable about the largely empty ferries plying the Hudson River, and the massively crowded trains that the money could have been spent on.  I was reminded of Leap, the failed elite bus in San Francisco, whose marketing images always emphasized how you have room to spread out.  Here was one of their videos:

Note that the bus in this video is never more than half full.

Images that sell you a transit service by emphasizing how empty it is are advertising either (a) an failing service or (b) a service targeted at elites, one that should have very high fares.  The few passengers on the bus must pay for transporting the empty seats all around them.

And not many people are actually willing to pay that.  So instead they are subsidized, either by taxpayers (US $95 per customer round trip in the case of the ferry) or by venture capital, which sooner or later runs out.

But the goal of this marketing, as always, is to encourage elites to mistake what is nice for them with what works for the city.  Because when public transit is really working effective to foster a functional city, you can’t expect to be surrounded by empty seats.

Moscow: Speaking at Strelka Institute


I’m in Moscow again, following up on our work a year ago that redesigned the bus network in the core of the city.  Thursday night, 6 July, I’ll be speaking at the Strelka Institute, a prestigious institution focused on the issues facing Russian cities.  I’ll speak in English with simultaneous translation into Russian.  Details here!