The “Roads are National, Transit is Local” Argument

Houston's West Loop Freeway. How many of these lanes were in the national interest?

Houston’s West Loop Freeway. How many of these lanes were in the national interest?

We all need to practice reading and refuting arguments of the form: “Central government should focus on big national issues, like highways, instead of local needs, like transit.”  It’s become one of the most common ways for people to dress up their preference for roads over transit as an expression of a consistent policy.

Here’s how it sounds:

For the most part, transit systems are local matters. Using federal taxes to collect money from the whole country and then send it back to each local transit system is a terribly inefficient way to raise money for transit and is also inherently unfair as different locales receive back either more or less than they paid in. The only reason to rely on federal funding for part of the cost of local transit systems is that it helps local politicians by keeping their local taxes and transit fares lower.

This common practice of using federal funds for local projects in order to hide the true cost should be stopped. The federal government should pay for the things that are truly national in scope (like the interstate highway system). This type of federal spending for local needs encourages too much government spending by making higher costs easier to sell to voters. The federal government should stop being used as an enabler to higher local government spending.

That’s University of Georgia economics professor Jeffrey Dorfman, in Forbes yesterday.

Dorfman seems to invoke the principle of devolution — the idea that government actions should be planned and funded at the lowest level of government that can deal with the issue within its boundaries.  It’s often stereotyped as a conservative idea in the US, but it shouldn’t be. In the UK, for example, it’s mostly the leftist cities who are rebelling against over-centralization of planning power in Westminster.    The same idea is gaining force in US urban policy, as cities chafe under rule by central governments that care only about suburbs and rural areas.  Everyone prefers to deal with more local governments that are easier for a voter to influence, so this is a space of potential left-right agreement that deserves more discussion.

But the notion that highways are national while transit is local? This makes sense if you’re a motorist, but here’s what happens when you press on it:

If the test for Federal funding is that a facility is used for interstate travel, fine, but this suggests a coherent interstate network of roads and rails scaled for the interstate demand only.  Then, all additional capacity and upgrades needed for travel within a state would be state and local costs.  What would this mean?

  • The Federal government would invest to create a robust interstate road network sized to interstate needs only.  In urban areas, the Federal government would fund only as many lanes as are justified by cars and trucks originating outside the state.  That means two lanes at most, and it means that many Federally funded highways would have no Federal role at all.
  • The Federal role in airports and maritime transportation would be viewed the same way.
  • The Federal government would also fund interstate rail (passenger and freight) to the degree that this is a better investment than roads for serving interstate needs.  Interstate high speed rail improvements would be squarely Federal.
  • Finally, many US metro areas span state lines, so a large part of the costs of urban transit in those cities would be Federal, as it would count as interstate transportation.

Nobody would propose this policy, but only for the boring reason that it’s biased toward multi-state metro areas: The Northeast wins big while California and Texas lose.  But if you could control for that, this would be a coherent principle of devolution such as Dorfman seems to be advocating.

But our car-first friends never make that argument.  Instead, they just handwave about how of course highways are naturally national while those other things are local.  In fact, the distinction between interstate and intrastate doesn’t line up at all with distinctions among road, rail, maritime and aviation modes — either passenger or freight.

This is why you should see through these familiar arguments, and recognize them instead as sheer claims to hegemony: “We road people are superior, so of course money should be spent on us — including giving road-based services a leg up in competition with other modes.”

The former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott liked to make the same argument:

“We have no history of funding urban rail and I think it’s important that we stick to our knitting,” the Federal Opposition Leader declared. “And the Commonwealth’s knitting when it comes to funding infrastructure is roads.”

In his autobiography, Abbott wrote about how driving a car is a quintessential Australian experience, a key to the national character.  He is also known for an extreme social and cultural conservatism that is toxic in inner cities.  So even among those who agreed with him, Abbott’s comments were widely recognized as an expression of a cultural agenda, not an economic one. While nodding at devolution, he was really saying that road people like him are superior to those urban transit people, none of whom will ever vote for him anyway.(1)

When you see arguments like Dorfman’s, that, I’d suggest, is what you should hear.  Devolution itself is a powerful idea, but we’ll never have a clear conversation about it if it’s only used to make claims of superiority.


(1) Abbott was deposed in 2015 by Malcolm Turnbull, an urban conservative from a wealthy part of Sydney.  Turnbull dumped Abbott’s roads-first view, stressing instead that Federal transport investments would be multimodal.  Despite its powerful rural interests and cultural identity, Australia has a strong bipartisan consensus that its national economy depends on the functioning of its cities.

Better Transit = Higher Property Values (but …)

Real estate giant Redfin (which owns WalkScore) has a study about how transit quality correlates with property values.  And yes, there’s a correlation:

On average, across the 14 metros analyzed, one Transit Score point can increase the price of a home by $2,040. But the price premium varies widely from metro to metro.

That variance is a problem, though.  For example, a Transit Score point gains you 1.13% on property values in Atlanta but counts for nothing in Orange County, California. When you see this kind of variance, you should suspect that other factors are more significant than the one being studied.  So this supposedly pro-transit Redfin piece can actually be used to argue that transit isn’t all that important, or at least that when transit is important, it’s because it echoes something else that matters more.

But we should explore a simpler explanation:  Maybe transit is relevant, but Transit Score isn’t.

I explain what’s wrong with Transit Score here, but the bottom line is that Transit Score has nothing to do with where you can get to on transit.  Transit Score is about how much transit is nearby, and whether it’s cute or sexy, but not at all about whether it’s useful.  In this it’s much like the way the real estate industry evaluates static civic amenities, like schools and parks, whereas it should be more like the way the same industry evaluates road access, i.e. by caring how fast you can get to places.  More here.

This is important because when you publish results with such huge variability, you tip off smart people that you may not be looking at the right explanatory variable.  It’s easy to look at these results and assume that transit isn’t what matters.  But maybe it’s Transit Score, not transit, that’s the distraction.


The Trouble with “Transit Score”

If you want a quick assessment of the usefulness of transit at a location — say, a place where you’re planning to live, locate a business, or invest — what do you want to know?

The tool realtors know is Transit Score, a two digit number (like its elder sibling WalkScore) that supposedly gives you a quick hit of meaning about how good transit is.  Transit Score was invented by, which has since been eaten by real estate giant Redfin.

But here’s how Transit Score is calculated:

To calculate a raw Transit Score, we sum the value of all of the nearby routes. The value of a route is defined as the service level (frequency per week) multiplied by the mode weight (heavy/light rail is weighted 2X, ferry/cable car/other are 1.5X, and bus is 1X) multiplied by a distance penalty. The distance penalty calculates the distance to the nearest stop on a route and then uses the same distance decay function as the Walk Score algorithm.

So in short:

  • For a product of, Transit Score is awfully cynical about walking.  Your Transit Score goes down steeply if you have to walk further to the bus stop, even if wider bus stop spacing provides you with faster service, as it often does.  In short, Transit Score assumes that walking is bad for you, and that you hate walking more than you hate riding.
  • Transit Score assumed 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 though the two will have the same speed and reliability.
  • Above all, Transit Score is uninterested in how long it will take you to get anywhere.  It 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 transit that went straight across your city and formed a connected network, accessing countless jobs and opportunities.

These problems arise from an unthinking real-estate world view in which transit is a feature of a site, like parks.  In fact, transit quality lies in a site’s position in a network, and it is the network, not the immediately proximate features, that delivers all valuable transit outcomes.

Imagine if an Auto Score were constructed like Transit Score:  It would give no value to average travel times to actual jobs around the region, but would be very interested in the square feet of paved roads found within a very short radius around the site.  It would also care about the aesthetic quality or “look and feel” of that pavement, and might give some weight the local speed limits.(1)

A few years ago, when Transit Score first rolled out, I discussed it ” WalkScore’s Matt Lerner, expanded on this very critique, and suggested a better (though computationally intense) approach.  It involves aggregating the content of travel time isochrones – effectively “maps of your freedom” — over all likely destinations from any residence, so the two digit score is actually a percentage, a composite of answers to the question “What percentage of jobs, retail, etc can you get to in __ minutes, on transit, from here?”   It needs refinement, but that’s the only truly factual measure of access that could be reduced to a two digit number — one that would actually mean something.

(1) Yes this is an inexact analogy.  Transit Score does begin with frequency, which matters a lot, and the impossibility of translating frequency into automotive terms is one of the main reasons it’s so poorly understood, especially in North America.

Auckland: Big Growth on the New Bus Network

In 2012, I worked with the transport authority of New Zealand’s largest metro area to design a new bus network for the fast-growing region.  A key idea was to replace a tangle of infrequent services with a simpler, more frequent network.  People would need to change buses a bit more, but they’d be able to get to more places sooner

Small parts of this network were implemented in 2015-16, but the first big slice was the South Auckland portion, which I discuss in detail (with maps) here.

South Auckland is about 1/5 of Auckland.  North Americans would recognize it as “inner ring suburbia”.  It has areas of very significant low income and disadvantage, but there are many barriers to walking, and the maddening, discontinuous street pattern makes it hard to draw remotely straight bus lines.

Auckland Transport implemented the South Auckland network at the end of October 2016, so it’s been running for just over four months.  Many network changes don’t show any benefits that early, but we’re getting a significant surge here.  From the March 2017 Board Report (starting on page 32):

Total South Auckland boardings in February (the number of times someone got on a bus or train) were  up about 19% from the previous February, when normalised — that is, adjusted to reflect different numbers of weekdays per month (and days in the month, in February’s case).  In this chart, the bars are raw data but the lines are normalized.


S auckland chart

But this chart is more helpful:



S Auckland ridership

Again, the new network went in at the end of October, so it’s clearly the cause of the sudden jump.

The growth in transfer boardings is almost 3/4 of the growth in boardings, so only about 1/4 of the growth in boardings is the growth in new passenger journeys [“normalised trip less transfer growth,” the yellow bars].  So the growth in passenger journeys is around 4%, not 19%.

(Yes, the lack of consistent counting of passenger journeys [“linked trips” in US parlance] is one of several things wrong with most ridership reporting.  A big jump in boardings can be just the jump in transfers, which means the network isn’t really serving more passenger trips.  Many transit systems have trouble counting transfers — indeed, some fare systems leave no record of them — and there are many estimation methods out there, s0 the reporting is hard to standardize.)

Note, too, that passenger journeys are growing at a steady clip after dipping down in the first month of the new network.  This is routine.  It takes time to discover the new network’s benefits, and for new passenger trips to appear as a result.  However, the need to transfer to complete formerly direct trips happened at once, so a sudden jump in transfers, and thus boardings, is understandable.

So if you were comparing this to other ridership figures, which tend to be about boardings, we’d say we’re up about 19% just four months in.  By contrast, the regional model in Houston suggested our redesign there might achieve +20% in boardings after two years (and net of external effects that have, in fact, utterly confounded the numbers.)

Four months in, a 4% growth in passenger journeys is spectacular.   This is the sort of growth I might hope for after a year.  And the trend-line is very promising!





We Have a US East Coast Office!

scudderOur tiny firm is delighted to announce that we’ve hired our first East Coast senior planner and project manager.

He’s Scudder Wagg, a versatile transit planning consultant formerly with Michael Baker International.  Scudder has been embedded with us for a year, working on the Richmond Transit Network Plan, so he already knows everything we do better than we do ourselves.

He is based in Richmond for now but he expects to move up to the DC area to establish a full East Coast office.



Researchers! Why is US Transit Ridership Falling?

It’s now pretty clear that transit ridership is falling in many US cities.  Why?

I don’t know.  (Don’t trust any pundit who never says this.)

But journalists are asking me this and I need an answer.  Laura Bliss’s recent piece in Citylab really captures the problem.  It’s a smart read, but in short: Bliss interviewed a bunch of experts on this, including me, and she got lots of smart speculation, mostly grounded in anecdotes.  (“Pick a Culprit” was her sub-headline).

Everyone seems to agree on the same long list of culprits.

  • Ridehailing services like Lyft and Uber, especially to the extent that this industry may be undermining transit through unsustainable predatory pricing.
  • Stagnating or declining transit service.  Even transit agencies that are not shrinking are mostly declining in service/capita, as the population grows but they don’t have the resources to keep up.
  • Cheap driving.  Previous studies about the impact of cheap gas thought this relationship was mild, but those are less useful now, because gas is so cheap that we are off the scale of those studies’ analysis.
  • Fares static or rising as other options get cheaper.  To be clear: I’ve seen no cases where cutting fares triggered so much ridership that the agency broke even.  Transit agencies have very little room to more financially here.  But there may be correlations.  (Always check transfer penalties, too; they often matter more than base fare.)
  • Crisis situations in certain agencies.  Lots of transit agencies are in financial trouble, which creates trouble of all other kinds.  The travails of Washington DC’s subway get all the press, maybe because national journalists and policymakers experience it personally.  But many transit agencies are facing crises — especially deferred maintenance in older transit agencies.  And no, not all transit agencies are victims.  I see a lot of obsolete management and planning habits, in some agencies, that hold transit down.
  • Some shifts from transit to other non-single-occupant-car modes, which can be OK.  These may include ridesharing, improved cycling infrastructuregreater urban density (which is putting more trips within walking distance) and better pedestrian amenities. 

And I would add a couple of others to the list.

  • Bad data.  Do we even know how bad the problem is?  A few weeks back TransitCenter published a table purporting to compare 2015 and 2016 ridership at many US metros, showing drops in many agencies. But most transit agencies I talked to said the table was wrong, and instead admitted to problems in their own reporting and analysis.  Transit data is often a mess — as I’ll discuss in another post — though it’s improving fast.  Still, almost every data element is prone to methodological problems.
  • Noisy data.  Transit ridership is so volatile that it takes time to see long trends.  I’d conclude nothing from a one year drop; it’s only because we’re now seeing multi-year drops that I’m deciding this is real.  That makes me very late to the party but it’s the only way I can know I’m not chasing phantoms.  And it’s a huge pitfall for transportation journalists, whose deadlines require them to write stories before we can really know.

The problem is, we really don’t know the relative importance of these things, and neither does anyone else who’s speculating in the media.

Bottom line:  We need research!  Not the sort of formally peer reviewed research that will take a year to publish, but faster work by real transportation scholars that can report preliminary results in time to guide action.  I am not a transportation researcher, but there are plenty of them out there, and this is our moment of need.  Here are my research questions:

  • Which global causes seem to matter?  Straight regression analysis, once you get data you believe.  Probably the study will need to start with a small dataset of transit agencies, so that there’s time to talk with each agency and understand their unique data issues.
  • What’s happening to the quantity of transit?  If ridership is falling because service is falling, this isn’t a surprise.  If ridership is falling because service is getting slower — which means lower frequency and speed at the same cost — well, that wouldn’t be surprising either.
  • How does the decline correlate to types of service?  Is this fall happening in dense areas or just in car-based suburbs?   Is it happening on routes that are designed for high ridership, or only on those that are designed for coverage purposes (services retained because three sympathetic people need them rather than because the bus will be full).   Is it correlated to frequency or span changes? Heads up, local geeks!  A lot could be done looking at data for your own transit agency — route by route and even (where available) stop by stop, to analyze where in your metro the fall is really occurring.

One more note:  It’s easy to analyse this “bus vs rail,” because that’s how the National Transit Database is structured, but nobody knows if that’s the real distinction that matters.  As Laura Bliss’s piece notes, rail ridership and bus ridership are not trending any particular way relative to each other — a good hint that this is just the wrong place to look for an explanation.

I don’t pretend this is easy, but it’s needed.  Scholars!  Come to our rescue!

Portland: Speaking at Active Transportation Summit!

atsummitlogoI’ll be speaking at the Oregon Active Transportation Summit here in Portland on March 20.

Like most conferences, there’s a fee, but it’s a great lineup of speakers and activities.  Register here.

The event is led by The Street Trust, the new name for what most Portlanders know as the Bicycle Transportation Alliance.  It’s great to see this revered organization rebranding with a more multimodal focus, centered on the challenge of making streets work for everyone.


Update on Our Current Hiring

If you’re following our recent effort to hire entry level staff, please know that:

  • We received over 120 applications.
  • We made shortlisting decisions yesterday, creating a leading shortlist of 17 (8 top candidates and 9 runners up).  These are for what we expect will ultimately be two positions.  That’s less than 10% of applicants, so if you missed the cut, that doesn’t mean you’re a bad person or that we never want to speak with you again.
  • You should have heard by now if you are shortlisted or not.  Check your email.
  • These positions had very, very hard criteria about spatial analysis skill and experience.  Some very interesting people missed the shortlist because they didn’t excel in that.   Again, that doesn’t mean you don’t have a lot to offer.
  • Some applicants were not free to start on April 1 and these were not shortlisted.  If we end up having more positions with later starts we may return to this list.
  • Some applicants really wanted summer internships.  If we do these, we will put out a separate call in April.
  • For obvious reasons, I’m not in the position to respond to individual inquiries.  Reading 120 applications has been pretty overwhelming for our staff.  We have to catch up on other things for a while.

While we’re a little exhausted, we’re really grateful at the number of people who want to be involved in what we’re doing, and we hope we can grow a bit to include more of your talents in the future.

Providence: Event Coming Up!

By Erika Smith ( via Wikimedia Commons

By Erika Smith ( via Wikimedia Commons

I’ll be speaking in Providence on the morning of Friday, March 17!  It’s free, but there are only 200 spaces and about 120 are gone, so you do have to register.  Details here!

Planning Transit to a Suburban Stadium: An Example from Silicon Valley (Guest Post)

By Matthew Roth (Flickr: #NinersYodel 49ers Faithful-21) , via Wikimedia Commons.

By Matthew Roth (Flickr: #NinersYodel 49ers Faithful-21) , via Wikimedia Commons.

About the authors:  Michelle DeRobertis and Richard Lee are both transportation consultants and educators with 30-years’ experience, mainly in the San Francisco Bay Area. Michelle has a M.S. degree from UC-Berkeley and is currently completing a PhD at Università degli Studi di Brescia in Italy. Richard received his PhD in City Planning from UC Berkeley in 1995, taught transport planning in New Zealand in the late 1990s, and is now Director of Innovation and Sustainability at VRPA Technologies. Michelle co-founded the non-profit research and policy institute, and serves on its Board, as does Richard. Michelle can be reached at , Richard at  This post first appeared on the website.

In the wake of this year’s Super Bowl, the Institute of Transportation Engineers (ITE) Journal has published an article reviewing the transportation planning for the site of last year’s Super Bowl: the San Francisco 49ers new Levi’s stadium. After playing for over 60 years in one of the most transit-oriented cities in the United States, in 2014 the 49ers moved to this $1 billion facility 40 miles south in the highly-congested and car-oriented Silicon Valley.

The transportation planning for the new stadium was done primarily via an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) that used automobile level of service (LOS) as its only transportation performance metric. The EIR referred to two separate transportation management plans in the transit analysis, but neither addressed, for example, the needed capital and operational improvements for the light rail system to accommodate the forecasted demand, nor the responsibility for paying these costs.

Two years after its opening, there is some good news for transit: ridership is roughly double what was predicted. On the other hand, up to 10,000 people wait after games for light rail trains that hold 300.   Moreover, the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA), the main transit provider, is recovering only about a third of the cost of supplemental services to serve stadium events, despite the stadium being considered a “financial success” and parking fees that start at $40 per car.

Furthermore, while games are nominally sold out (as they were at their former home at Candlestick Park), actual attendance is down since the opening two seasons; the 49ers will not release the actual turnstile numbers, but some games have appeared only half full.   Both the team’s performance and the hassle getting there contribute to the no-show affect.

The San José Mercury News has published many articles about the financial impacts of the stadium to the City and the community, some conflicting. For example, this San Jose Mercury-News article says the stadium “has been a financial success”, but many other articles from this very same newspaper reported that VTA and taxpayers were left holding the bag for the millions of dollars it costs to provide extra transit service to the site. Moreover, the host City of Santa Clara is only concerned about its costs. VTA, as a separate authority , is left out of the financial discussions, a common failure in transportation policy throughout California and the US.

Major regional facilities such as this 80,000-seat stadium not only generate an enormous amount of travel, they influence a region’s form, development and transportation systems for decades. How can transportation professionals improve the scope and quality of their analysis and recommendations to better plan for such regional attractors? The article provides some answers, but we would be interested in hearing more ideas for improving future analyses and learning about other cases, especially ones where the planning was more proactive and the results more positive.