How International is Human Transit?

While I live in the US now, we’ve always had an international readership, and I’m happy to say that this is more true that ever, as you can see in the table below.  In per-capita readership over the last year, the US ranks fifth, after four other countries that I’ve worked in extensively: Iceland, New Zealand, Canada, and Australia.  (The last two are also countries I’ve lived in.)

New Zealand has led these rankings for years, but Iceland’s population is so small that it wasn’t hard for it to take first place once I started working there last year.

Among developing countries, Malaysia just grazes the top 20 and the highest-ranking is Trinidad and Tobago, though given the small population, that could have been one avid reader checking every post.  Hey, if you read this blog in Trinidad and Tobago, say hi!  I don’t know who you are yet!

Per Capita Readership of Human Transit Blog, year ending 28 March 2016

Annual Sessions Pop 1000s Sessions/1k pop
Iceland 604 333 1.814
New Zealand 6799 4,675 1.454
Canada 46792 36,048 1.298
Australia 28422 24,039 1.182
USA 211769 323,137 0.655
Singapore 3559 5,535 0.643
Finland 2325 5,491 0.423
Ireland 1471 4,635 0.317
UK 19485 65,097 0.299
Israel 2506 8,476 0.296
Sweden 2759 9,858 0.280
Hong Kong 1951 7,324 0.266
Trinidad/Tobago 260 1,350 0.193
Netherlands 3035 17,001 0.179
Switzerland 1180 8,306 0.142
Belgium 1570 11,312 0.139
France 6084 64,529 0.094
Germany 6934 81,459 0.085
Malaysia 2378 30,901 0.077
Spain 2112 46,423 0.045

“This Is Our Reality”: Pushing Back on Abuse of Transit Staffs

Last week, Taylor Huckaby was manning the Twitter feed at San Francisco’s regional rapid transit agency,  BART, during a tough morning.  Mysterious electrical faults were causing cascading delays, and Twitter boiled over with rage.  Suddenly, Huckaby started tweeting in ways that got attention.bart tweets

Quite deservedly, this and 57 similar tweets went viral, even making it to the New York Times.  Vox, one of the more transit savvy of US national media outlets, got it right:  BART “stopped being polite and got real.

Inspired by Huckaby, let me put this more generally:  Politeness and deference are always the first impulse of transit staffs dealing with the public, but sometimes politeness turns into a habit of apologizing for everything and anything, and at that point, staff is consenting to abuse.  Few public servants take as much public abuse as transit agency staffs do, almost always because of problems that are out of their control.

Imagine Huckaby’s position.  His job is to communicate on BART’s behalf, but because of decades of decisions by past leaders (regional, state and national, not just at BART), his beloved transit system is betraying its customers.  It’s certainly not Huckaby’s fault.  In fact, he understands the issues well enough to know that it’s probably not the fault of anyone working at BART today.

In this situation, the usual vague apologies would amount to misleading the public.  Huckaby deserves his heroic moment, because he did exactly what transit agencies need to do: Find the courage to say the truth, because while people will yell at you when you do, nothing will ever improve if you don’t.  But don’t let me make that sound easy; it’s not.

Some of the early coverage, including that Vox piece, gave the impression that Huckaby had just snapped, “lost it,” gone rogue, but Huckaby has now spoken up to justify his comments, stand up for transit staffs, and properly blame some of BART’s problems on a broader US tradition of infrastructural neglect.  A BART management seems to have his back, and Los Angeles Metro tweeted this great video snippet, suggesting that they do too.

Mad at how bad your transit service is?  Maybe the problem is with people and cultures at the agency now, but maybe it’s because of decisions made at higher levels — regional, state, and federal — often outside the agency.  It’s easier if all those people if the frontline staff takes the blame, and are trained to just apologize all day.  But that never solves the problem, and what’s more, it’s abuse.

South Florida: Speaking on March 24

On March 24 at 1:30 PM I’ll be doing a presentation to the board of the Palm Beach County transit agency, PalmTran.  Conveniently, it’s in Boca Raton at the south end of the county, so it’s not too far from Fort Lauderdale or, for the truly motivated, from Miami.  palm-tran-logo_11224448

This is part of a new network review initiative from the new Executive Director, Clinton B. Forbes.  Obviously the presentation will touch on Palm Beach County examples, but much of it will be of general interest.

It’s unusual to have a board meeting noticed as a public event, but PalmTran is encouraging one and all to come.  It’s from 1:30 to 3:00 PM at the Boca Raton Municipal Building, 6500 Congress Avenue in Boca Raton.  The contact for further info is Steve Anderson,  No RSVP appears to be required.


Some Reads on the Maintenance Crisis

The one-day shutdown of the Washington DC Metro is a useful call to arms about the dreadful state of maintenance in some of the US’s major rapid transit systems — a subset of a larger issue about deferred maintenance in all kinds of infrastructure.  If it seems like this makes the US like the developing world, NPR reminds us that most developing world metro systems are in much better shape.  (My Moscow correspondent Ilya Petoushkoff was also quick with an email reminding me that when even one Moscow subway lines go down, emergency bus lanes are created with Jersey barriers.)

The Washington Post’s Philip Kennicott is also fine on how the subway’s failure ties to great themes of US urban decay.

I have no opinion about the wisdom of DC Metro CEO Paul Wiedefeld’s decision to shut down the subway for a day to inspect faulty wires, except that it seemed sudden and left little time for preparation.  Its attention-grabbing effect was unmistakable, and perhaps that was necessary to shock everyone into understanding the urgency of the problems. But it doesn’t appear to have been a PR stunt: the system’s faulty wiring had already caused a fatality, and sure enough, the one-day shutdown to inspect these wires turned up even more dangerous ones.

But do read this Vox piece by Libby Nelson on how transit agencies can be more honest with their customers, including on Twitter.  Bravo to the Bay Area Rapid Transit for telling customers the truth about the problems facing the agency — which is to say, facing the region.

San Jose and Silicon Valley: Follow our VTA “Next Network” Project

VTA3One of our big projects this year is a Transit Ridership Improvement Program for the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority, which serves San Jose and Silicon Valley in California.  A key piece of that will be the “Next Network,” to be implemented in 2017 with the opening of the BART extension into San Jose.  The Next Network is about more than accommodating BART.  It’s also a chance for citizens to help the agency think about its network design priorities.

I’m happy to announce that the project website is now live, and that our first report, called a Choices Report, can be downloaded here.

A Choices Report is our preferred term for what is often called, tediously, an “existing conditions” report.  (Has anyone ever looked forward to reading about “existing conditions”?)  The report does cover existing conditions — the performance of the transit service in relation to the markets it serves — but with an eye toward revealing insights that lead to a better understanding of the real choices an agency faces.

The Choices Report will form the background for a series of three network alternatives that will be shared with the public over the summer.  The whole point of those alternatives is to encourage you to think about different paths VTA could take.  A final network plan is expected near the end of this year, to be implemented when BART opens in July 2017.

The public conversation in this project is not a thing we do on the side.  It’s the whole point of the study.  We need robust public participation in this project to help sift the alternatives and make sure we’re heading in a direction that the community can support.  So please, if you live in the region, bookmark the project page, and watch for updates there and here.

Indianapolis: Next Stop: Opportunity


Over the last two years, we have been working with public agency staff, citizens, and national advocates to craft a way forward for transit in Indianapolis.  We’ve taken stakeholders and interested citizens through the difficult choices implied by the geometry of high-ridership service and the need to balance this with non-ridership goals.  We’ve briefed interested City Council members, and at the core of the project, we hammered out new network concepts with city transportation staff at the table.

c016901c-b0ea-4208-9689-b872aceff53dNow there’s a plan.  I’ll be in Indianapolis on March 16-17 to help brief key leaders about it, but I’ll also be at a terrific public breakfast event on March 17 called Next Stop Opportunity.  I love this name because, as can tell from today’s article in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, I really believe that liberty and opportunity, in the urban context, are the whole point of public transit.

I’ll write more about the plan, but if you are in Indianapolis, I hope you can join us bright and early on March 17.  Learn more and register here.

My Washington Post Piece

It’s here.  Twitter’s favorite quote from it is:

Cities have relatively little space per person. Cars are big. Big things don’t fit in little spaces.

In short, it’s all, always about geometry, which technology will never change…

To predict the future, we need to think carefully about what’s permanent and what may be fleeting. Fashions and tastes are fleeting, but geometric facts are permanent. Fifty years from now, our sense of what’s sexy or hip or green will be very different, but big things still won’t fit in small spaces.


Luxembourg: A New Official Frequency-based Map

Maps that help people see which services are coming soon are remarkably rare in Europe, for a variety of complex reasons.  Some European systems have such high frequency overall that it may seem unnecessary, but there are usually still significant frequency contrasts that matter.

luxemburg map jug cerovic

Now, there’s a great example out of Luxembourg.  The Paris-based Serbian designer Jug Cerovic has been featured here before, for his interest in making networks clearer by emphasizing a core geometric idea.  Not just for beauty, but as a way of combatting the mental overload that complex maps can cause.

Luxembourg’s transit system has just rolled out an official network map by Cerovic.  It highlights frequency with wide lines, including such details as how wide frequent lines split into narrow infrequent ones.  (Detailed PDF is here.)


Obviously this is a diagram, seeking network clarity rather than precise fit with local geography. The core geometric idea is the pentagon, a feature of the Luxembourg CBD that he uses, but not to excess, in arranging patterns. He explains his design process here.

UPDATE:  For comparison, this was the previous map. (H/t @ParadiseOxford)

Luxembourg map old

Keys to Great Airport Transit

Toronto’s new high-fare, elite train between downtown and the airport is a failure in ridership terms, so it’s a good moment to talk about transit to the airport in general.

This critique by Cherise Burda of Ryerson University, one of the Toronto line’s few regular riders, pretty much sums up why the Toronto Union Pearson Express is doing so poorly:  Fares too high (CAD $27.50 one way) for a line that just doesn’t connect the airport to enough places.  She also shares this very useful table from the recent Pearson Connects study, a transport plan for Toronto’s main airport by Urban Strategies, Inc.  Focus on the four columns at the right.

YYZ mode sharesDo you think that specialized airport express trains are the key to high transit mode share to an airport?  Think again.   What matters is not just the train to downtown, but the whole transit network and the airport’s position in it.  Where can you get to on that network, and how soon?  (A true assessment of this issue would have included bus services too, of course.)  London’s Heathrow, for example, has a high-fare express train very much like Toronto’s, but it also has a slower train that makes more stops for a lower fare, and a subway line that makes even more stops and serves even more places.  Those lines connect to more services, and are therefore more useful to far more people.

Basic math:  1000 airport employees using an airport service every day are more ridership than 100,000 air travelers using it, on average, maybe a couple of times a year.

This is the simple reason that airport transit politics are so frustrating.  Everyone wants to believe in transit to the airport, because they might ride it a few times a year.  But to create a great airport train (or bus) for air travelers, you have to make it useful to airport employees too  That generally means a service that’s an integral part of the regional transit network, not a specialized airport train.

The other key issue is that most airports are cul-de-sacs.  It’s hard for a line to continue beyond the airport unless it’s underground, and this is another huge limitation on an airport service’s ability to serve a sufficiently diverse market.  If you can afford it, aspire to be like Sydney, whose rapid transit system tunnels under the airport so that it can continue beyond it without branching. And if you’re a rare airport like Seattle’s, where surface transit can stop at the terminal but continue onward, so much the better.

So again, here are the keys to great transit to the airport, for travelers and employees:

  • Total travel time matters, not just in-vehicle time.  Airports are citadels of impatience.  Travel time matters hugely, but travel time is not just in-vehicle time (the time you’ll see advertised) but total time including waiting.  That’s why the advantage of making few stops is wildly exaggerated. To accurately measure real travel time, add the in-vehicle travel time to half the waiting time, where the latter is governed by frequency.  You’ll find that a more frequent train that stops more often (and is therefore useful to more people) comes out ahead even for the downtown-to-airport traveler.
  • Combine air travelers and airport employees on the same train/bus, and appeal to an economically diverse range of air travelers, not just the elite.  This is a case of the general principle that transit thrives on the diversity of trips for which it’s useful, not on specialization.  If elites want a nicer train, give them first class cars at higher fares, but not a separate train just for them.  (And as always, elite services are a good role for the for-profit sector.)  As always, the more people of all kinds you can get on a train or bus, the more frequently you can afford to run it, which means less waiting, and the lower the fare you need to charge.
  • Connect the airport to lots of places, not just downtown, by providing a total network.  It’s the total transit system at the airport, not just the sexy airport line, that determines who can get there, and how quickly.  And the total network requires connections — another reason to care about frequency.
  • Don’t interfere with the growth of other services.  Airport terminals are still not huge destinations by citywide standards, so don’t sacrifice other major markets to serve them.  Toronto’s airport train, for example, not only carries few people but creates issues for higher-ridership services with which it shares track. Another common problem is the branch into the airport that cuts frequency and capacity on a mainline, even though the mainline’s demand is much higher (San Francisco, Vancouver),
  • If you can afford it, go via the airport instead of terminating there.   Most airports are large-scale cul-de-sacs, and like every cul-de-sac, they say: “I want only as much transit service as I can justify all by myself.”  So if you can tunnel under the airport and serve it on the way to other places, as in Sydney, you will often end up with much better service for all your airport users, employees and travelers alike.