Los Angeles

Explainer: On Transit “Integration” or “Seamlessness”

When you hear the word integration in conversations about transit, it usually means making it easy to make trips that involve multiple transit agencies that are geographically connected or entangled.  Another common word is seamlessness, which I like because it evokes the image of a well-made complete object.

(Tip: Anglo-Saxon words like seamlessness usually sound less obscure and bureaucratic than Latin-derived words like integration, because it’s easier to see how the parts of the word fit together to make the meaning.)

The San Francisco Bay Area has long been one of North America’s most difficult integration challenges, so it’s a good laboratory for exploring the issue.  If you can get transit integration right in the Bay Area, you can probably do it anywhere.  The Bay Area’s particular challenge is that it has no recognized central city.  Instead, it’s named after an obstacle, the Bay, and its geography of bays and hills provides natural psychological divides.  Wherever you live in the Bay Area, most of the Bay Area is “across the water” or “over the hills” from you, and this matters enormously to how people perceive issues as local or regional.  (Los Angeles, mostly a city of vast continuous basins, could not be more opposite.)

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The San Francisco Bay Area, with county lines

 

Fig1-WholeBayArea BS2_REV3_040915

Map of Bay Area transit agencies (SPUR)

The region’s wildly respectable good-government institute, SPUR, recently released a friendly and readable report on the topic, Seamless Transit, primarily authored by Ratna Amin and Sara Barz.  It’s a superb report, because it focuses relentlessly on the obvious “seams” that impede travel and liberty for the transit customer. In particular:

  • The report discusses practical integration problems like navigation and fare payment, explores different solutions suitable to each, and tries to show how much can be achieved without huge mergers.
  • The report points out bleedingly obvious solutions politely enough that not everyone will hear the subtext, which is “Why wasn’t this done 50 years ago?”  The lack of a customer-oriented regional transit map is in this category.  Such maps as exist are more like diagrams of turf — the sort of map you include in a peace treaty.  They’re designed to clarify what agency controls what rather than help people understand their travel options.
  • There is little discussion of creating a giant regional transit agency, or indeed of mergers in general. The report accepts that while the existing patchwork is not what anyone would design from scratch, it is achieving a balance between the ability to work over a large area and the ability to act locally on local issues.  Too many integration discussions jump too quickly to hugeness as the answer.
Regional-Transit-Diagram

A typical old regional transit diagram, showing areas of turf but no sense of what service might be useful (no indication of frequency, for example).  (MTC)

For decades, it’s been easy to propose that some grand merger of agencies would solve problems of integration, but the obvious problem was you would have to merge the whole Bay Area into one transit authority serving almost 8 million people, in a region around 100 miles long.  That population would mean little citizen access to the leadership, while the huge area would mean that people planning your bus routes may be working in an office 50 miles away.  It just doesn’t work when the sense of  citizenship is as understandably decentralized as it is in the Bay Area.

What’s more, if you value transit-intensive core cities, places like San Francisco and Oakland, or if you want your city to be more like those places, you have an especially strong reason to want local control.  These places need more transit than the whole region wants on average, so they struggle to get adequate service from the regional transit agency, whose decisions will tend to converge on the average regional opinion.   (See Chapter 10 of Human Transit for a through tour of this issue and why it’s geometrically inevitable.)

Many North American regions are seeing conflict around this issue, and are evolving a fascinating range of solutions.  Many of these solutions involve additional funding from the cities that want more transit than the regional average.

Some core cities are proud to have their own city-controlled transit systems separate from what regional agencies do (San Francisco, Toronto, Chicago).  Some pay their regional transit agency for a higher level of service in the core city (Seattle).  Some run their own transit systems overlaid, often messily and confusingly, on the regional one (Washington DC).   Many more core cities are going to face this issue soon, especially if regional politics continue to polarize on urban-exurban lines.

Apart from the issue of urban-exurban differences in the need for transit, there are also real challenges when a single transit agency becomes enormous, especially if it provides local service over a vast geographic area.  Los Angeles is a great example.   As an undergraduate in the 1980s, living in the region, I marveled at what I assumed to be the stupid chaos of provincialism.  The region had a big transit agency, which has evolved into what we now call LA Metro, but many cities within the region ran their own transit systems, which were tangled up in each other, and with the regional agency, in complex ways.  As an undergraduate, I assumed that progress would mean merging all this into one giant agency that could provide the same product everywhere.

And yet: in those days, everyone hated the regional agency, but loved their city ones.  And there were good reasons for that that weren’t anyone’s fault, and still aren’t today.  You could get your city’s transit manager on the phone, but not the regional one.  Small city governments can fix a bus route and put up a new bus shelter in the time it would take the regional agency to organize the right series of meetings.  Again, nobody’s at fault there; these are natural consequences of smallness and bigness — in corporations as well as in governments.

Which is why, even in Los Angeles, the trend is not toward mergers.  Today, many city systems in the county are doing excellent work at their local scale.  LA Metro has improved massively as well, of course, but its costs are still high; more important, it’s still very big and therefore inevitably feels distant to many people — again, not the fault of the folks working there.

Meanwhile, a clearer negotiated boundary between regional and city functions is slowly starting to emerge.  One idea, for example, is that a key role of city systems is to run services that don’t meet regional standards for ridership, but that the locals feel to be important.  The division of labor among agencies is not what anyone would design from scratch.  But great work has been done over the years to build clearer relationships, or what I will call, later in this post, “good fences.”

City-operated transit is growing more popular in North American for another excellent reason:  Most of transit’s ability to succeed is already controlled by city government: specifically the functions of land use planning and street design.  If a city government feels in control of its transit, it is more likely to exercise those other functions in ways that support transit rather than undermine it.  San Francisco’s recent decision to combine traffic and parking functions with transit under one city agency shows a new way of thinking about the need to get this right, but it would be impossible if San Francisco relied on a big regional agency for its transit service.  Whenever someone proposes to turn a city transit system over to a consolidated regional agency, I have to point out that integrating in one dimension (between geographically adjacent services) means disintegrating in another (between key functions of city government.)

So there’s no simple answer.  City control creates a nasty patchwork of geographic integration problems across adjacent cities in a region.  The big regional agency has a different integration problem, which is with the land use and street design functions of municipal governments that don’t control their transit and therefore have trouble caring about it.  Whichever thing you integrate, you’re disintegrating the other.

What’s the answer?  It’s for each region to feel its way through the inevitable tensions to its own solution.  But I’d propose we start with this truism from Robert Frost:

Good fences make good neighbors.

Neighbors have an easier time being friendly if they have a very clear agreement about where their boundary is.  Collaborating with your neighbor to mark the boundary, and fence it if need be, is a peacemaking gesture.  This is as true of neighboring landowners as it is of nations.  And it’s certainly true of transit agencies.

What does it mean to have a clear sense of boundary?

It’s not just that both sides agree where the boundary is.  It’s also that it’s easy for both sides to live with the boundary, and work across it as need be.  For nations, it’s much easier to manage a boundary that runs across a natural barrier, so that the natural boundary reinforces the agreed boundary — the Rio Grande River between the US and Mexico, say, or the Great Lakes along the US-Canada border.  The worst possible national boundary is something like the 49th parallel, the US-Canada border in western North America, an arbitrary line that runs perpendicular to most mountains and valleys.  Only the extreme friendship and cultural affinity between the two countries makes this boundary workable.

All that is true of transit agencies as well.  Let’s talk first about local networks, and then, separately, about the relationship between networks of different scales.

Boundaries between Adjacent Local Transit Agencies

A bank of hills or a water body means that there are limited points of access across the boundary, called chokepoints, and this in turn means people are used to going out of their way to cross that point.  That means, in turn, that a well-placed transit connection point adjacent to the bridge or pass is an easy place for transit agencies on the two sides to converge.

On the other hand, a boundary that runs across a flat expanse of urban area, so that many people are literally across the street from the other side, is a problematic transit boundary.  In this case there is decentralized demand in all directions crossing the boundary at many points.  This makes it harder to bring both agencies to a shared focal point for connections between the agencies.  It also means there are lots of relatively short trips flowing over the border, and these benefit from a continuous network of service rather than an interrupted one.  As in many US states, California transit agency boundaries tend to default to county lines, and where these create that problem, it’s a mess for transit.

Some of this wisdom is already encoded in the boundaries of the East Bay agency AC Transit.  Near the Bay, the border between Alameda and Contra Costa counties cuts across dense urban fabric, so it would be an awful place for a transit network to end from the point of view of either side.

 

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Regional transit map, with boundary between Alameda and Contra Costa Counties highlighted red. Note that AC Transit extends across boundary next to the bay (SPUR report)

Recognizing this, AC Transit was constructed to unite the two sides of the county line where the urban fabric was continuous, while dividing from other agencies along natural hill and water boundaries, even where the latter are not county lines.  This is an important example for many US regions where counties are the default planning units, and arbitrary boundaries drawn in the 19th century (or before) risk turning into walls that sever transit access.

For AC Transit, the “good fences” solution was to put the border in a place that worked well for both sides — worked well for transit customers, that is, not for anyone’s desire for turf or empire.  That tends to mean looking for the natural chokepoint and putting the boundary there.

This observation also helps to clarify the city transit option.  Even in big urban areas, some cities have a geography that makes it easy for much of the transit to be city-controlled, typically because of natural chokepoints along the edges that help isolate the city-scale network from the regional one.  On the other hand, if the city boundary is logically pierced by long, straight local transit corridors that logically function both within the city and beyond it, a municipal network is less viable.

Screen Shot 2015-08-03 at 12.59.36 PMBurbank, California is a good example of a city where most main streets are parts of much longer logical lines running deep into adjacent cities, so its city limits would make especially poor transit boundaries.  Burbank therefore profits from its reliance on LA Metro, which runs long, continuous lines across city boundaries many of them converging on Burbank’s downtown.  The regional network is also, logically, the local one.

Screen Shot 2015-08-03 at 1.00.05 PMNearby Pasadena (considered together with Altadena) has good geography for a larger city role.  It has hill barriers on three sides — only the east edge is really continuous with other dense urban fabric — so fewer of its internal corridors necessarily flow into other cities.  (Tip: cities whose density is so low that they might as well be wilderness as far as transit is concerned — San Marino in this case — count as natural barriers to some degree.)  Another important feature is that Pasadena has a frequent regional rapid transit line running through, so its local lines don’t need to extend far out of the city to make regional connections.

So Pasadena could run most of its local transit system if it wanted to, because a logical network would consist mostly of internal routes.  Burbank could not, because most of its local service is logically proivded by routes that continue beyond the city limits.

Do not cite me saying that Pasadena’s transit should be more local.  I am not saying anything about what the regional-local balance should be in these cases, but merely observing how the geography makes the opportunities larger or smaller.  One value of Pasadena being served by the regional agency, for example, is that it can eventually be part of a larger high-frequency grid, with all the liberty that brings.

Local – Regional Transit Boundaries

All that is about what happens between local networks.  But another “good fence” can be a clear division of labor between local and regional services.   Regional services that are designed as rapid transit (widely spaced stations for fast operation between them, relying on local transit connections to get closer to most destinations) do not need to be the same agency as the local service meeting them; in fact, this can be a very clean “fence.”  Obviously you have to work on the specific problems of integration: information, fares, etc., just as adjacent local agencies do.  But there’s little need to merge or change boundaries in these situations.

All this is to say that the SPUR report is excellent, but that the organization of transit agencies, and especially of their boundaries or seams, needs to respect the geography of demand — as inherited county lines in the US do not always do.

We’ve also arrived at a more realistic notion of “seamlessness.”  There will always be seams in a transit journey, just as there will always be the need to make connections.  The conversation should not be about how to get rid of seams but how to put them in the right places, so that they work for both sides, and how to manage them so that travelers can flow through them easily.

Another way of thinking about the geographic issues I’ve been laying out here is that if you require a connection to continue your trip, there should be a rich payoff in terms of destinations you can reach.  The same is true for any hassles created by seams.  It’s like planes: it’s a drag to change planes, and especially to change between airlines, but it’s kind of cool, while you are changing planes, to look at the departure planes and think about all the other places you could also get to via this connection.  What’s more, all those connections are crucial to making your flights viable for the airline, even if you don’t use them.

The logic of connections is the logic of good seams in general.  They happen in places where it’s already logical for transit services to be discontinuous — either because of a natural boundary or because of a clear division of labor between regional and local service.  Those “good fences”, once found, can make for happy neighboring transit authorities, which will find it easy to work together for the sake of the customer’s liberty.

Sure, let’s regionalize the right things: fare media, information systems.  (An often-neglected one is service change dates, so that timed connections between agencies don’t get broken because the agencies change their schedules at different times.)  Some mergers may make sense, such as between BART and Caltrain to create a regional rapid transit agency.

Big transit agencies and little ones are both excellent things.  The trick is to get the fence right.

 

UPDATE: For a book-length academic analysis reaching a similar view, see Donald Chisholm: Coordination without Hierarchy.  1992, UC Press.  H/t David King.

Los Angeles: building the frequent network, and making hard choices

The main Los Angeles County transit agency, Metro, has released a set of “Blue Ribbon Committee” recommendations that show the agency trying to find its way toward higher ridership with the limits of its operating budget.  These are not yet Metro’s recommendations to the pubilc; the agency is still thinking about them, but they are out there for public discussion.  The main presentation of them is a PowerPoint, not all of which may be easy for the average person to follow, but here are the big important points.

(Full disclosure: I have advised Metro in the past on strategic bus network planning, but I was not involved in this process and have no contract with them now.)

The proposal would do one really important thing, and would also do two controversial things to pay for it.

The important thing is to expand the Frequent bus network.  Frequent service means that service is coming soon, all day; the specific definition at Metro is service every 15 minutes or better.  Frequency is the essence of freedom and spontaneity for transit users, and it’s also essential for people with busy complex lives, which is true of many people across the income spectrum.  Finally, frequency is essential if you’re going to connect from one transit service to another, which is essential for getting where you’re going in a city like LA where there are many destinations, not just one downtown.  High frequency, in places of high demand, leads to high ridership.

Here is where the frequency expansions would occur.  Blue already has frequent service, red is top priority for new frequent service, purple is second priority.  (Green is the rail system.)

La metro frequent network priorities

 

This expansion looks like it’s all about affordability and opportunity.  The focus is on South LA, some of the South Bay, the San Fernando Valley, and the San Gabriel Valley.   These are areas with relatively affordable housing, but they are often far from concentrations of jobs and opportunity.  People are moving to these areas in search of affordable housing, but transport must also be affordable. Expanding frequent service in these areas means that lots of low- to moderate-income people will have less need to own cars, because more jobs and opportunities will be readily available by transit.  That benefits everyone.

What are the tradeoffs?

First, the proposal suggests reductions to low-ridership coverage services.  These services run in areas where demand is predictably low due to land use factors such as low density or walkability.  People will be angry about these service reductions, but Metro is saying, in effect, that it has to focus its limited resources on areas of higher ridership potential.  One possibility in Los Angeles is that local city governments can choose to run some of these services themselves; many already have municipal transit systems.

Second, the proposal carefully increases the acceptable standard for peak crowding.  

This will be very controversial because on the surface it sounds horrible, and it’s hard to explain.  But it’s not that bad, and the tradeoff is a real one.

Metro, like most crowded transit systems, has a standard for how crowded buses can be allowed to get before they add another bus.  These standards accept lower levels of crowding than many of their peer agencies, such as New York and Chicago do.  That sounds nice for passengers, but it’s very expensive, which is why many other needed services in Los Angeles don’t exist.  These standards require Metro to pull out additional buses for short periods of peak demand, and remember, this service is expensive because (a) you have to pay drivers more to work very short shifts and (b) the number of buses an agency must buy, store and maintain is based on the peak demand, not the all day demand.*

So smart transit agencies, facing the growth of all-day demand that is easier to serve cost-effectively, are questioning every peak bus, and making sure that the demand for that bus justifies the high cost of peak only service.  That’s the context in which this has to be understood.  So the talking point is this:

Saving a little peak service unlocks a lot of all-day service.

More crowded buses!  A sympathetic person unhappy about losing service!  It will be easy for the media to make this proposal sound terrible.  But to me, this proposal is exactly what you should expect a transit agency to do, if you tell it serve more people without more money.

 

*  There’s further reason for optimism about crowding, but it’s so geeky that I thought I should leave it to a footnote.  Here goes:  Metro staff have advised me that they think this change in loading standards will have little noticeable impact because they are also changing some details about range of  situations over which they average to calculate that load.  The proposed change focuses the calculation more narrowly on trips that are  likely to be crowded.  This narrows the range of variation between loads on different trips, which reduces the difference between the average load — which is all a standard can discuss — and the apocalyptic worst case load, which is what everyone remembers and tweets about.  This means that a higher average load doesn’t necessarily mean that worst cases get any worse, or even become much more common.  They will still happen, and everyone will tweet about them when they occur.

 

quote of the week: “rail is only part of the equation”

 

Trains would be just one layer of a comprehensive, multi-modal network that greatly enhances both neighborhood and regional accessibility for people all across the [Los Angeles] region. …

A singular focus on rail would divide the region into two: neighborhoods with rail and neighborhoods without. Such a future would perpetuate income inequality as housing costs rise near stations and station areas would be choked with traffic congestion. …

Getting our existing buses out of traffic is the quickest, most cost-effective means to bring high-quality transit to the greatest number of Angelenos.

Juan Matute, UCLA Institute of Transportation Studies
from a discussion called "Trains are Not the Silver Bullet"
 at ZocaloPublicSquare

This is from a collection of commentary about the the role of rail in the larger context of transit investment strategies.  Read the whole thing!

 

 

 

 

 

Charging for connections is insane

Congratulations to Los Angeles Metro, the latest transit agency to make connections (also called transfers) free.  There are footnotes: you have to be using a smartcard, but if you're in Los Angeles for more than a day or two you should already have one.  The big point is this:  The core of the Los Angeles transit network is the liberating high-frequency grid, which relies on the assumption that passengers can be asked to change buses once.  Until now, the agency's policy of charging passengers extra to change buses was in direct conflict with the foundational principle of its network design.

Once more with feeling;  Charging passengers extra for the inconvenience of connections is insanely self-destructive.  It discourages exactly the customer behavior that efficient and liberating networks depend on.  It undermines the whole notion of a transit network.   It also gives customers a reason to object to network redesigns that deliver both greater efficiency and greater liberty, because by imposing a connection on their trip it has also raised their fare.

For that reason, actual businesses don't do it.  When supposedly business minded bureaucrats tell us we should charge for connections, they are revealing that they have never stopped to think about how the transit product is different from soap or restaurants.   The difference is that your success relies on products working together, the so-called network effect.   So tell them to think about airlines:   Fares that require a connection are frequently cheaper than nonstops.   That's because the connection is something you endure for the sake of an efficient and broadly useful airline network, not an added service that you should pay extra for.  

There was, for a while, an argument against free transfers that arose from the ease of abusing paper transfer slips.  These slips, issued in return for a cash fare and to be presented on your second bus or train, were easy to give away or sell.  Many US systems eliminated transfers and offered day passes instead, which improved security but at the high cost of discouraging spontaneous trips.

In any case, as soon as a transit agency has a working smartcard, there's no excuse for connection charges.  They sometimes linger because managers and elected officials are desperate for revenue but are afraid to raise the base cash fare.  In some cities, local journalists are too lazy to understand fare structures and just write quick scare stories whenever the base fare goes up.  This motivates transit agencies to do desperate and devious-looking things to raise other charges, just as a simplistic obsession with low fares has caused  airlines to invent endless fees. 

But what matters is not just that the fare be low.  It needs to be fair, and it needs to encourage people to use the system in more efficient ways.  An efficient and liberating network requires connections, so penalizing connections is an attack on your network's efficiency.  

race, racism, and transit planning

 

I should not have taken the phone call from LA Weekly.  As soon as the reporter said that he wanted to probe "why so few white people ride transit in LA", I should have said no, I will not give any more oxygen to the divisive and pointless conversation that the question is trying to encourage.  I had already given the factual answer to that question in my article on "bus stigma" in the Atlantic Citylab, and I should have simply referred the reporter, Chris Walker, there.

Still, there's nothing wrong with the LA Weekly article:

[Jarrett] Walker tells L.A. Weekly:

"There is no reason to believe that Angelenos are irrational about their transportation choices. … I believe a transportation system is reflective of its usefulness. The focus should be on making a more useful system. Do that, and [increased] diversity will be a side effect."

Walker argues that the way to get bigger ridership more reflective of Los Angeles is to increase density along L.A.'s transit lines: add special transit lanes for buses (as the city is currently creating on Wilshire Boulevard) and push for transit-oriented developments (TODs) that feature high-density buildings filled with offices and housing near the major transit routes.

But of course, this was too much for Breitbart News:

According to Jarrett Walker, a designer of transportation systems for a number of big cities, the Los Angeles bus system is designed in a way that offers better service to non-white Angelenos. No one uses the word racism, but the dog whistles in this clinical explanation will chill your spine:

But Jarrett Walker, who has designed transportation systems in multiple cities, says stigma and social standing are not what's keeping L.A.'s white folks in their cars.

In a blog post, he points out that white residents are more likely to live in low-density areas where bus service is not common or practical. Meanwhile, the population of the area served by Metro is well over 70 percent people of color, "which means that the number of white bus riders is not far off what we should expect."

What say we just stop with the word games, Los Angeles. 

 " And fancy language like "the number of white bus riders is not far off what we should expect" is just another way of screaming "honky."

What can one say?  Well, this:

This is transit planning consultant Jarrett Walker, author of the book Human Transit and the blog humantransit.org. The author of this post clearly knows nothing about my work, though he could have looked me up easily enough, and like many race-obsessed folks he seems to know nothing about the law of supply and demand, or the nature of how organizations succeed.

If anyone wants to understand my actual views on this matter, see the original article of mine: http://www.citylab.com/commute…

Like any organization that seeks any kind of success, including every private business, transit in LA tries to respond to the demand for its product. It does this by focusing on areas where the nature of development makes it easy for transit to succeed. It's a mathematical fact that transit is more useful in places where density is high, the local street network is well-connected, and where walking is easy. If white people in LA are more likely to live in areas that are not like this, transit is not being racist in not serving them.

You know what I love about LA? It's way less obsessed with race than its media is. I suspect most Angelenos would never have asked how many white people ride the bus, because it's not an interesting question. As a white person I couldn't care less, and most of the white people I know couldn't care less. LA's prosperity arises from people working together, and getting where they're going together. Racial resentments get in the way of that.

Conservatives need to chose between their commitment to ethnic resentments and their commitment to prosperity. In an age of global collaboration, you can't have both.

I can now imagine a horde of commenters saying:  "You're giving the merchants of hatred too much attention, Jarrett.  Breitbart News deserves to be ignored."  Yes, they do, but when ethnic hatemongering gets as much attention as Breitbart News does, there has to be a response on the record, and now there is.

when is a fare hike really a fare cut?

Images-6When it provides free connections, as a Los Angeles Metro report is finally proposing to do.  The Bus Riders Union is screaming about a fare hike, but for many riders — those whose trips require a connection — the proposal is a fare reduction, because the transfer penalty to be eliminated ($1.50) is far bigger than the hike in the base fare ($0.25)

The vast dense core of Los Angeles is one of North America's great grid systems, designed to allow easy travel between any point A and any point B via a single connection.   Unfortunately, their current fare structure charges for a connection.  This makes as much sense as a road tolling system that charges only for turns. 

It's nonsense.  Connections are an inconvenience to passengers that is required by the structure of an efficient network.   Charging for connections encourages riders to demand wildly inefficient services like the late and famous 305, which zigzag diagonally across the grid, increasing complexity without adding much useful service.  It amounts to punishing customers for helping Metro run an efficient and attractive service pattern. 

Like other fees, fare penalties for connections arise in part because journalists and activists over-react to the base fare figure, creating more political heat for raising that number.  So like money-losing airlines, the agencies have to look for other things to charge for to hit their fare recovery targets.  But charging for connections is counterproductive, because connections are the foundation of the network.  Airlines don't do it.  In fact, airfares via a connection are often cheaper than the nonstop.  That's because the connecting itinerary lets the airline run a more efficient service pattern.  

So don't believe the news about a proposed fare hike in LA.  Some people will experience one, but many cash paying passengers, who are often among the lower-income riders, will save.  

And one thing's even more important than that:  The pricing scheme won't be crazy anymore.

 

“uncaptive rider”: download my chat with colin marshall …

If you'd be interested in the sound of my voice, ruminating broadly about transit and cities in the serenity of my own livingroom, there's now quite a good podcast by Colin Marshall in the Notebook on Cities and Culture series.  You can download an mp3 from Colin's site here, or get it from iTunes here.

Colin's a brilliant interviewer, asking great and often surprising questions.  He draws me out on my own living arrangements, my complex relationships with Portland and with Los Angeles, some notes on my global transit travels, and finally onto really substantive topics about what transit is and how it relates to the larger question of what cities are.  It's all feels very public-radio …

Colin's whole series of downloadable podcasts looks like it's worth a look, as he's put me in some impressive company … 

los angeles: a nightmarish fantasy that refuses to die

An article in Fast Company, by Li Wen and Shawn Gayle, has unfortunately give more oxygen to the so-called NETWORK_LA proposal, which is founded on the delusion — especially common among designers and "futurists" — that Sufficiently Sexy Technology Will Change the Facts of Mathematics.  

The idea is that somehow, flexible small-vehicle services responding to your personal requests will efficiently replace crowded fixed route transit services that routinely board upwards of one passenger per minute.  Many Los Angeles bus lines are already incredibly successful, even if you personally don't identify as someone who would use them, and they are going to get even better very rapidly.

My reasonably humorous if exasperated rebuttal to NETWORK_LA, written when the idea first came out, is here.  Quotable line: To … someone who values personal freedom, flexibility, spontaneity, human dignity, and travel time, Gensler's Los Angeles would be a hell-world worse than Blade Runner.  Fortunately, it's also mathematically impossible."

For a more general discussion of the limits of flexible services (in the context of human-driven vehicles) is here.  If you are of the school that thinks driverless cars (and buses) are just around the corner and bound to mow down all public resistance, then you've solved the operating cost problem with the NETWORK_LA idea.  But you still haven't addressed the real problem, which is not the scarcity of money but the scarcity of urban space, as explained pretty simply here.

As I have said repeatedly, if driverless cars (or competition) can improve the cost-effectiveness of flexible services, they have great potential to be a better solution than fixed route buses for low-demand markets.  But the grandiosity of the NETWORK_LA proposal is simply an expression of ignorance about how transit actually works, and what the real opportunities are.

 

greater seattle: loving the new sub-network maps

Now this is a clear map!  It's by the Seattle area agency King County Metro.  First the legend:

KC metro legend.png
RapidRIde is King County Metro's new rapid bus product, with widely spaced stops, high frequency, special stations, but usually no exclusive lane.  Note how cleanly this legend distinguishes services that are useful for different purposes.  Note too that it omits peak-only commuter express services, because if they were present they would be lots of confusing overlapping lines that would make the basic network impossible to see.

So here's a piece the map.  Click to enlarge, but more important, go here (that's an order) to see the whole thing.

KC metro eastside map

The distinctions on this map are entirely about what matters to the customer, especially the person who wants to see the all-day transit network that is ready to liberate your life, not just your commute.  Red means fast and frequent.  Blue means frequent.  Green means all day but not frequent.  And if you want to see peak commuter express services, which would obliterate the legibility of this map if they were included, see another map or individual timetable.  

To be fair, many good maps do show peak only services and visually de-emphasise them as faint dashed lines.  That works too, but the key design principle is this:  The network of any particular layer in the hierarchy of service should be clear without being obscured by lower levels of service.  This map does that perfectly:  You can see just the red Rapid Ride line, or you can focus easily on red plus blue to see the frequent network, or you can notice the paler green and see the all-day network.  All in one map.

To get to this kind of customer-centered clarity, note what they had to omit:  Two transit agencies' services are presented here with no differentiation at all.  Bus routes numbered in the 500s belong to Sound Transit while the others belong to King County Metro.  Most multi-agency regions would focus on highlighting this distinction first, on the assumption that the customer's loyalty to a transit company is much more important than their desire to get where they're going.  The distinction should arguably be at least a footnote if you don't have integrated fares between the companies, as it could imply fare penalties and different fare media.

Some multi-agency maps do show all operators, but still visually distinguish them, as the Los Angeles Metro map does, for example.  But if you want a really simple map, reduce the transit company's identity to a footnote, or something that can be inferred from a route number*, or don't even show it at all.  Instead, show the customer what matters to them: frequency, speed, and duration of service.

*Can you spot the one place on the LAMetro map where they do that?  The answer is in "Joseph E"'s comment below.