The Problem with “Transit Gaps”

I’m in Citylab today on the subject of “transit gaps,” or “transit deserts.”  Lots of people are drawing cool maps of where transit is especially inadequate, but:

But the concept of “transit gaps” (or even worse, “transit deserts”) is less enlightening than it seems, for two reasons. First, it ignores the cost of providing transit, which has to be considered when actually doing anything about a transit gap. Second, it presents values, goals, and priorities as though they could be deduced purely from the data, which is never true.

Read the whole piece here.

Ursula K. Le Guin: Urbanist

Ursula K. Le Guin is describing her process of imagining an ideal city:

What about technology?  I think that there would be no cars or helicopters in and above the streets; this follows from the fact that the people of Omelas are happy people.  Happiness is based on a just discrimination of what is necessary, what is neither necessary nor destructive, and what is destructive.

In the middle category — that of the unnecessary but undestructive … — they could perfectly well have central heating, subway trains, washing machines, and all kinds of marvelous devices not yet invented here: floating light sources, fuelless power, a cure for the common cold.  …

I inclined to think that people from towns up and down the coast have been coming into Omelas on very fast little trains and double-decked trams, and that the train station is Omelas is actually the handsomest building in town …

Ursula K. Le Guin
The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas
The Wind’s Twelve Quarters.

Of course a big city has other needs if it is to provide for equitable happiness while growing beyond a certain scale — possibly including subway trains — but Le Guin is using necessary in a philosophical sense here: not what is necessary for a city, but what is necessary for happiness.

Le Guin, who passed away last week at the age of 88, never learned to drive: not because she couldn’t but because she didn’t like it, and she was fortunate to have a family who could do it for her. Cars were necessities in her place and time, but given the choice in her fiction, she often did without them, or made them recede into the background. She praises Venice as a city where you can hear “the sounds that humans make,” because you can’t hear motors. 

One of her most powerful young-adult books, Very Far Away From Anywhere Else, features a teenager who doesn’t want the car that his father gives him at age 16, because he really loves walking.  This is part of his desire to be something other than what’s dictated by the society around him.

In any case, what matters in Le Guin is not so much her specific references to cars as the ethics behind them, and the quotation above lays that out as clearly as anything. And it’s from a story that you must read, for reasons explained here.


Visualizing Transit Reliability

Reliability is one of those essential features of transit that you can’t take a picture of.  It’s an overwhelming issue in the lives of transit customers but can seem abstract to others who make transit policy.  And it’s a major issue in many transit systems.

Poor reliability of buses has many causes, mostly having to do with the traffic congestion and other causes of random delay to which they’re exposed.  But when a rail line runs in an exclusive right of way, never interacting with traffic, there aren’t a lot of excuses.

The Miami organization Transit Alliance has done a nice visualization of transit reliability on that city’s rail transit system.  It looks at the system right now and shows how many trains are running late.  It’s important to note here that late does not mean behind schedule.  It means that the maximum wait time is longer than scheduled, by a given number of minutes.  (That’s the only rational way to talk about reliability in high-frequency services.)

Some insitute really needs to create a database of reliability info across many agencies, searchable many ways — and always based on this headway reliability rather than on-time performance.  Most transit agencies now have real time vehicle location feeds, and they are already released in standard formats for use by apps.  Yet we see remarkably few of these kinds of analytics that could help people understand the severity of the reliability problem — even on services like grade-separated heavy rail that have few external causes of delay.



Maybe Apps Are Not Transforming the Urban Transport Business

Revised February 19, 2018, based on excellent comments.

We’ve all heard that the most important transportation innovation of the century is the smartphone.  Who can doubt that apps for ride-hailing, navigation, and payment are making it easier to use shared transportation services, whether buses or Uber/Lyft or anything in between?   How can anyone who remembers waving helplessly at rushing taxis, or wondering when the bus would come, possibly doubt that this transformation has fundamentally changed all the products it touches?

From a customer’s point of view, I don’t doubt any of these things.  Apps have transformed the customer experience totally.  But that says nothing about whether they’ve transformed the bottom line of the provider.

Len Sherman has a nice short piece in Forbes explaining why Uber can’t make money.  Key quote:

The taxi industry that Uber is seeking to disrupt was never profitable when allowed to expand in unregulated markets, reflecting the industry’s low barriers to entry, high variable costs, low economies of scale and intense price competition — and Uber’s current business model doesn’t fundamentally change these structural industry characteristics.

Standard Uber/Lyft ride-hailing service is made of two main ingredients:

  • Taxi service, minus the protectionist regulations that kept some taxi fares artificially high.
  • An app that expedites hailing a taxi and paying the fare.

The relationship with drivers is also a difference, but not as much as it may seem. Uber and Lyft let drivers use their own cars, but many taxis are driver-owned as well.  Both Uber/Lyft and taxis pay the driver based on fares, not based on hours worked.

So really, the big difference is the app.

The app has transformed customer experience — by taking the friction out of the hailing, routing, and paying — but it doesn’t seem to be transforming the fundamental nature of the task, or its potential to be profitable.

That’s because transportation happens in physical space.  The dominant element of cost is the time it takes to drive someone to their destination, and to travel empty between jobs. The app does nothing to change this.  At most, Uber and Lyft have turned their efficiencies into fares slightly lower than taxis, due to intense competition between them.

If ride-hailing companies had the potential to be profitable — short of creating the same monopoly for them that taxis used to have — someone surely would have done it by now.  But Sherman notes:

Every major ridesharing company in the world is still experiencing steep losses after five or more years of operation, including Lyft (U.S.), Ola (India), 99 (Brazil), and Didi Chuxing (China).

We are seeing the same thing on the microtransit side.  So far, microtransit is doing no better than demand-responsive transit has always done, generally worse than 3 passenger trips per driver hour, compared to 10 for the typical outer suburban fixed and 20-100 for fixed routes in dense and walkable places.  In fact, the most widely promoted recent experiment, the Bridj pilot in Kansas City, did not reach 1 passenger / hour and managed to spend about $1000 per passenger trip,[2] compared to less than $5 for a decent fixed route.

This gap is too vast to be a marketing problem or something that can be solved by tinkering.  It’s a fact about the intrinsic spatial inefficiency of demand-responsive service, which has little to do with the communications tools used.

It’s time to notice a pattern:  Tech boosters treat solutions to a communication problem as though they were solutions to a spatial problem.

Certainly, communicating via telephone calls was part of the inefficiency of taxis, but if the smartphone app were enough to make taxis profitable, we’d be seeing the results by now.  Likewise, it’s great that apps are improving the communications side of demand-responsive transit, but so far, there’s no sign that this is making a difference on the bottom line.

Remember: Urban transportation is a spatial problem, and (until automation) a problem of the efficient use of labor.  If you’re going to transform it, you have to transform those things. Nothing about the standard Uber/Lyft product, or “microtransit,” is touching those fundamentals.

So have apps transformed the customer experience of urban transport?  Yes!  Have they transformed the urban transport business?  Maybe not so much.




[1]  There is a vast range of hybrids between a fixed route and a fully “to your door” demand-responsive service, all of which are very old ideas.  I was designing and revising these 25 years ago.  Everything that’s known about the math of that problem was well understood back then by the people doing it.

[2] This appalling number is from Eno Center’s report “UpRouted: Exploring Microtransit in the United States,” p.7, which is generally upbeat about microtransit prospects.   More commentary on this report soon.

The Financial Times Interview of Me

Izabella Kaminsky at the Financial Times Alphaville blog did an interview with me two weeks ago that was meant to be a podcast. We covered a lot of ground, including microtransit, Uber, Elon Musk, Big Data, and elite projection.

The audio didn’t work for the podcast, so they just printed the transcript.  (Sometimes it makes you register for free.)

I find it agonizing to read in print, because things that make sense in speech look terrible on the page, stripped of all the inflections and pauses that give spoken text its meaning.

Lots of people seem to be enjoying it, though.  And if a desire to laugh at my run-on sentences will make you read it, that’s on balance a good thing. It’s here.

The Only Political Theory You Will Ever Need

Ursula K. LeGuin, who left us on Monday, once wrote a very short story that contains all the political theory you will ever need. The puzzle it presents is the moral puzzle of “civilization,” which means it’s a puzzle that’s most acute in the city. Personally, it captures much of what motivates me, and confuses me.

It’s a parable, but it doesn’t lecture you. It opens space to think, as all of her best work did.

It’s very short. It’s very funny. There’s nudity and (optional) sex. You can read it in five minutes. You have time. Don’t skim. Read every sentence. It’s here.

(If for any reason that link doesn’t work, it’s called “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” and it’s in the collection The Wind’s Twelve Quarters. My understanding is that the online versions exist with her permission, but if the link vanishes, then maybe they didn’t.)

Pass it on.


Should Transit Agencies Panic?

I’m in Atlantic Citylab today, responding to the widespread notion that transit agencies face some kind of existential crisis.  So far, the two most quoted bits are:

“A general message of ‘technology changes everything’ has become one of the most powerful arguments for letting fixed transit wither, even though this means worse traffic and higher transportation costs for cost-sensitive people.”

“Technology is a tool, not a goal. The job of local government—including transit agencies—is to serve the goals and aspirations of citizens. That, not fear of technological change, should be the foundation of their decisions.”

Hope you’ll read the whole thing.

Over the weekend, I also attempted a longer thinkpiece on why transit agencies can be frustrating to deal with, and how transit advocates can work with them more constructively.




Why Transit Authorities Sometimes Resist Change

Everyone gets frustrated with transit agencies.  The people inside of them get frustrated too.

But spewing rage at a transit agency rarely has much effect.  Making good arguments does better but you will still find resistance.  Elected officials have an impact, but if their direction is confusing or contradictory, it may not be the impact they intend.

As often, if you really want to influence someone, you have to start by thinking about things from their point of view.

I’ve worked with over 50 transit authorities, of various sizes, in many countries.  I’ll talk here mainly about the US transit agency, but much of what I’ll say is relevant in other countries.  My goal here is not to defend anything a transit agency does, but just to suggest ways to be more understanding of the agency’s experience, which will make you better able to influence them.


If you run a business, you may be frustrated with all the laws and regulations that limit your ability to do the right thing fast.  But this is nothing compared to what transit agencies deal with every day.

In the US, transit agencies don’t just obey the laws that every employer or transport company obeys.  Much of their money comes through the Federal government, and receiving this funding requires satisfying all kinds of Federal requirements.  These regulations go beyond laudable goals like safety and civil rights.  They specify detailed procedures that must be followed in many kinds of activity.  Everything, from labor relations to service planning t0 the design of major planning studies, happens in the context of this web of Federal requirements, and like all webs (in the spider sense) these limit your range of movement and slow you down.

I’m not commenting on the worth of each of these regulations, but can certainly testify to their cumulative impact. I’ve seen countless situations where elected officials were demanding that something get done fast, and the correct answer was that Federal mandates and processes simply prohibit that.

Rigid Labor Structures

Until the uptake of automation, transit will be a labor-intensive industry.  Labor is around 2/3 of a typical transit agency’s operating costs.  The cost to run a bus for an hour obviously governs how many bus-hours of service you can run, and this cost, which is between $100 and $200 in most US urban agencies, turns centrally on the deal between the transit agency and its labor unions.

What matters is not just the pay rate and benefits (which are complicated enough) but also the rules of work.  These can be very intricate, and their impacts can cost a lot of money.  Once the contract is set, the rules, no matter how bizarre or costly their impacts, define what’s possible.

Labor-management relations are legally structured to be adversarial, and adversarial relationships are always inefficient. That’s not the fault of anyone working in the system now, on either side.

There is no neutral definition of what’s fair.  Both sides push for whatever they can get.  Most big cities have progressive elected officials who care about both transit workers and transit riders, but both of those voices have to be strongly present in the conversation, because ultimately they want opposite things.  You’re not going to get more bus service if the cost of an hour of service is going through the roof, so you have to want labor compensation and work rules that are fair but not outrageous.

(By the way, I’m a strong supporter of unions, but please don’t be distracted when they talk about what the senior managers are paid. Those are trivial numbers compared to a transit agency’s labor-driven operating budget. If you want great transit, don’t demand that managers be paid less. Demand that they hire excellent managers.)

Confusing Direction from Elected Officials

When elected officials first find themselves in charge of transit, they may not know much about the topic, and can have trouble figuring out what to do.  It’s like that famous nightmare where you find yourself seated at a piano onstage, with a huge audience looking at you, but you never learned to play the piano.

So elected leaders need some training on the facts and choices that they’ll face.  If you’re going to drive a transit agency, you have to know where the controls are, what happens if you push this button, and how to avoid hurting yourself or others. Not all transit managers think it’s their role to educate their elected boards, because this can feel like criticizing your boss.

So without intending to, elected officials often give direction that causes confusion or anxiety in the transit agency.  A great example is the conflict between ridership and coverage goals, which I explain here. If you demand both ridership and coverage from your transit agency — and most people do want both — then you’re giving contradictory direction, and someone needs to force you to be clearer about what the priorities are.  This is a role my firm often plays in transit studies.

Finally, there’s no consensus on what core body of knowledge a “transit expert” should have; this is the starting point of my book Human Transit, and discussed more detail in its introduction.

Operations as Resistance to Change

The dominant task of most US transit agencies is running the service every day, and most staff are focused on that.  In operations, your goal is to make the service the same today as it was yesterday. Disruption is your enemy.

S0 when some egghead planner shows up wanting to change the transit system, it’s easy to see them as just another disruption — not fundamentally different from the car crash blocking the your rail line. I’ve been that egghead for many transit agencies, so I’m used to the particular kinds of resistance that often (not always) come from the operations side. I don’t criticize them for reacting this way. They’re doing what they were trained to do, which is keep things steady and predictable, as we all want transit to be.

Because operations is the dominant part of most agencies, it’s easy for this aversion to change to define the whole agency’s culture. It takes great management to keep operations staff feeling valued and supported even as you contemplate major changes — even “disruptions” — to how you do business.

Misdirected Blame

Many aspects of the the success or failure of a transit system is outside the transit agency’s control.

When a bus is late, do you blame  the city that decided not to have bus lanes or other transit priority, or do you just blame the transit agency?

When a planning process seems bureaucratic and unresponsive, do you blame the Federal rules that they have to follow, or do you just blame the transit agency?

When it’s hard to walk from a bus stop to your workplace, do you blame the road department that designs and manages the street, or do you just blame the transit agency?

When you see a transit agency’s ridership falling, do you consider outside causes like low gas prices?  Do you consider non-ridership goals the agency may be pursuing?  Or do you just assume that the agency is failing?

If there isn’t enough service in your area, do you blame the elected leaders (and voters) who refuse to fund transit properly, or do you blame the transit agency for serving someone else when they should be serving you?

Transit agencies are constantly blamed for things they don’t control, which leads to …

Public Abuse

Screaming abuse at your transit agency staff is not a good way to get them to do things.  But it does have an impact: It makes the transit agency more defensive, and less likely to be open with ideas and information. The best transit managers are also hard to keep in this situation, because there are probably other jobs they could do that don’t require taking so much abuse.

There’s a deep sadness at the heart of transit operations, which is that when you do it well nobody thanks you.  Your job is to be invisible. When you become visible, it’s when people scream at you because you’ve done something wrong. If that’s your daily experience, of course you’ll keep your head down, not speak up, not share ideas.  Or as a  seasoned Australian transport bureaucrat told me years ago: “The key to success here is to say as little as possible.”

I’m just thinking of the management staff’s role taking abuse, but that’s nothing compared to the bus driver’s. People yell at them and argue with them all day. Those who maintain good cheer (and safe driving) under all that pressure are absolute heroes in my book.

Finally, some journalists write in ways that amplify the abuse.  I’ve worked with some excellent transit reporters, but also I’ve faced some who are sure I’m deceiving them just because I’m sharing information that doesn’t match their prejudices.  I’ve also used to mainstream media stories that misuse data to make stories of transit failure sound more extreme than they are. They deserve pushback from people who care.

When people are abusive toward you, does that make you want be more open and vulnerable, as you need to be to really engage with others? Me neither. No wonder transit agency staffs seem a little defensive sometimes.

I wrote more about the paradoxes of public communications here.

To Sum Up

It’s totally OK to be unhappy with the quality of your transit system. The best people on your transit agency’s staff almost certainly share your opinion. By all means press your transit agency to improve, but take the time to understand what the real barriers are, which will help you see where advocacy is really needed.

If you want to influence a person, you start by listening to them, understanding what it’s like to be them.  Try treating your transit agency the same way.

A Friendly Guide to Transport Planning

David M. Levinson, Wes Marshall, Kay Axthausen.  Elements of Access.  Network Design Lab, 2017. 

Access — where can you get to soon? — is, or should be, the core idea of transportation planning.  David Levinson has long been one of the leaders in quantifying and analyzing access, and this work kicks off this fine new book.  The cover — a 1925 map showing travel times to the centre of Melbourne, Australia — captures the universality of the idea.  Access is what  I prefer to call freedom: Where you can go determines what you can do, so access is about literally everything that matters to us once we step out our front door.

But that’s just the beginning of this very friendly book.  Elements of Access is really a tour of the whole field of transport planning, and its goal is to strike a balance between academic precision and readability.  In this, it’s a great success.  I’ve never taken more pleasure from reading academic writing about transport.  The writing is mostly clear and easy to read, and deftly combines technical ideas with references to everyday life.

The book is also easy to browse.  It’s organized in units of 1-2 pages, grouped under six themes.  Photos are used well.  Footnotes appear in the otherwise white space on each page, so that there’s no flipping to them, and interesting nuggets in them have a chance to catch your eye.  The book is also full of internal references, aiming for the structure of a hypertext to the extent that a physical book can.

Do I have gripes?  Sure.  Inevitably, a book of this breadth rushes past many rich topics, and sometimes — as with transit fares — the treatment is too cursory to be useful.  Some explanations are clearer to the average reader than others.  And I wish the content had been linked to the concept of access more explicitly throughout.

Of course, one common reason for negative reviews is that the reviewer looked at the bibliography, didn’t see his own book listed, and formed a judgment right there.  Well, my book isn’t in the bibliography, but Elements of Access is a good book anyway, whether for reading, browsing, or as a reference.  I recommend it.

MobilityScore: an Improvement over TransitScore?

By Christopher Yuen

For cities aiming to increase transit ridership, expanding transit to reach more people is only half the task.  The other half is to encourage people who value transit to locate where high-quality transit is possible.

To that end, tools that help quantify the usefulness of transit at any given location can be extremely valuable, whether for a person finding a place to live, or for a business looking to locate in a place most accessible by its employees and customers.

Since 2010, the tool that has gained the most attention has been Transit Score. With it, you type in an address and are returned a two-digit score that is supposed to approximate the usefulness of transit at that location. While simple and easy to use, Transit Score’s methodology has a few flaws, as discussed in our last post about it. Two issues particularly stand out:

  1. Transit Score assumes that the sexiness of transit technologies compensates for their objective uselessness. For example, Transit Score assumes that you’d rather wait 20 minutes for a streetcar instead of 10 minutes for a bus, even if the two will have the same speed and reliability.
  2. Transit Score describes the transit around a site without evaluating where it goes. Frequent transit that drove around in circles inside your neighborhood would score exactly the same as frequent transit that went straight across your city and formed a connected network, accessing countless jobs and opportunities.

Recently, the beta version of a new tool, MobilityScore, was released.  It offers a similarly simple two-digit score, but with a broader scope than TransitScore. Created by TransitScreen, a company specializing in real-time transit information displays, MobilityScore is described as an “easy-to-understand measure of your transportation access.”

MobilityScore takes into account all your options, from public transit to carsharing, bikesharing, and hailed ridesharing services, to give you a number from 0-100 that will tell you how easy it is to get around. –

MobilityScore works by scoring the typical time it takes to access each transportation mode based on past availability and response time data from bike share, car share, and ride-hailing services. For its transit component, it generates a score based on the frequency of scheduled trips near the address being queried. It then aggregates the scores of each component to generate a total “Mobility Score”.  The tool does not directly indicate the score of each component, although it does indicate the fraction of overall mobility that comes from each mode as percentages.

The “Mobility Score” from a location in Portland, Oregon

In some ways, MobilitysScore appears to be an improvement over TransitScore. For example, TransitScore weighs results based on vehicle type, rewarding rail and penalizing buses, regardless of whether they differ in speed and reliability, but MobilityScore’s transit component is only based on frequency, without bias based on vehicle type.

However, a true measure of mobility must also look at the speed of travel on the relevant transit routes. Taking this a step further, a fair measure of the usefulness of transit must consider the access that the service provides– the number of jobs and opportunities that can be reached from the starting point within a reasonable travel time.  Like TransitScore, MobilityScore only tells you where you can easily access transportation services to begin your trip, which says nothing about what destinations you can reach in a given time.

One could consider MobilityScore’s expanded scope (including ride-hailing, car-share, and bike-share) to be an improvement over TransitScore, given that transit riders are likely to also occasionally use those other modes. However, the resulting combined mobility score should be interpreted with some caution. For a data-driven approach meant to be objective, the combination of ride-hailing, car-sharing, bike sharing and transit scores into one single measure introduces a new layer of value judgement that is difficult to generalize. While a well-paid executive may place a high value on the ride-hailing services for everyday use, a person with a limited income may not find the availability of ride-hailing to be relevant, since it is not affordable to them. Similarly, car-sharing services may not be useful to a person without a driver’s license.

The mere availability of a ride-hailing option, including taxis, uber, or lyft, seems to result in a minimum score of 40. This optimism means that many sites, without any transit service, and a significant drive from urbanized areas are said to have – “Fair Mobility” despite being completely impractical for the average person.

MobilityScore thinks this farm, nowhere near transit has “fair mobility” because it is within the service area of ride-hailing

The location of that farm

It’s not easy to build a measure of transportation access that is both objective and simple to use so despite my criticism of some aspects of MobilityScore, I think it is great to see the development of more products like this. Hopefully, when MobilityScore evolves beyond its beta version, it will address some of its current deficiencies and become a serious contender for inclusion in real-estate listings.  As we suggested before, the real two-digit score that matters may be a percentage:  What percentage of your city’s jobs and opportunities can you reach from this point, in a given amount of time?


Christopher Yuen is an associate at Jarrett Walker+Associates and is a regular contributor to this blog.