Anchorage: A Clear Conversation on Transit Choices


Updated 23 Dec 2016 with concept maps and link to Next City article.

Our firm’s work for the Alaska’s largest city has turned into a public conversation about two possible futures for the transit network.  As often, the choice is the ridership-coverage trade-off:  Should the transit agency try to go everywhere with mediocre service, or should it focus on the places where high ridership is possible, and run good service there?

The city’s online presentation is very thorough.  You can explore the two concepts in detail, but you can also look at isochrones showing how your ability to get places changes under each scenario.  It’s the process we recommend for many studies at this point, since it turns the conversation away from proposals — with their tendency to polarize people into “support” and “oppose” camps — and focus instead of alternatives that each have advantages and disadvantages.

Here are the two alternative concepts.  Remember, these are not yes/no alternatives.  They are points on a spectrum and the final decision may be anywhere along that spectrum.



The Alaska Dispatch-News has a story on the process (though it inaccurately calls the concepts “proposals”).  For a really fun read, have a look at this unsigned opinion piece in the Anchorage Press.  The writer captures the special frustration of having lots of bus routes to choose from, none of which may actually be coming:

Between downtown and [University of Alaska], I’m spoiled with five options. When I miss the 3, a direct connector, I know the frequent [but circuitous] 45 won’t be long. If I’m really lucky, I’ll catch the 102, truly the unicorn of Anchorage bus routes (operating pretty much never, this rare but beautiful beast boomerangs through downtown on a route where red lights are rare and left turns are rarer). The far-flung 36 is obviously not my option, as it hugs Turnagain/West Anchorage, but the 13 seems blissfully benign, a loping zigzag across the city.

Often, when I’ve missed the 3 in the dead of winter, the 13 beckons with its bright lights twinkling “Downtown.” I know it’s a mistake, but it’s cold and I can’t help but climb aboard. Like traversing the doldrums, there’s no wind in the sails but at least it’s warm. So I steer into the Bermuda Triangle of bus routes, hoping to someday make it home.

It gives quite an attentive tour of Route 13, Anchorage’s most circuitous bus route.  Here’s the map if want to follow along.

Update:  Jen Kinney at Next City has a good piece on the plan.


Portraits of Transit Professionals from across the US


If you’ve ever wanted to learn more about transit from people inside the industry, especially those in important roles at major US agencies, you may want to check out this new project. People Who Move People is an interview series with people occupying all sorts of roles in the field, including high-profile figures like current FTA Acting Administrator Carolyn Flowers, former US Secretary of Transportation Norm Mineta and LA Metro CEO Phillip Washington. This may be of particular interest to our readers who hope to join the transit industry, as these interviews show the great variety of paths available to people working in the field.

Eugene: Let’s Talk Transit on November 30

Don Hankins via Flickr, used under Creative Commons License

Don Hankins via Flickr, used under Creative Commons License

On November 30 I’ll be in Eugene, Oregon for a public event organized by Better Eugene Springfield Transit.  It’s free but you need to sign up through Eventbrite.  (And if you sign up and then decide not to go, please cancel!).

The Eugene-Springfield area has been through an exhausting and polarizing debate about a Bus Rapid Transit line over the past few years.  As often happens, controversies about a specific project can make it impossible to have the larger conversation about a region’s vision for itself and how transit fits into that vision.  I hope I can help the community jump-start that conversation.

Look forward to seeing you there.


The Wikipedia Defense

A new practice I’m attempting:wikipedia-practice-crop

If you’ve read your favorite news sites in the last 24 hours, and feel an impulse to look at them again, look instead at Wikipedia.

Ignore any “recommendations” foisted on you by some versions of the site.  Instead, enter a few letters at random into the search bar, and scroll until you see something that isn’t obviously tedious to you.  (If you have an old version of the site with a “Random Article” button, just click that until you feel a twinge of curiosity.)

Read.  Learn something that’s at least as interesting as the news, if not more so.

In fact, this is news.

News isn’t all about the present.  All knowledge is news, if you haven’t discovered it before.  All of it sates curiosity, which is the reason you opened a browser or app at all.  And it’s all equally likely to be inspiring, intriguing, and useful.

Toronto-Hamilton: See You in Burlington Monday Night!

On Monday night, November 14, urbanist luminary Brent Toderian and I will be sharing the stage as part of Burlington Mayor Rick Goldring’s “Inspire Burlington” series.  The conversation will probably focus on retrofitting transit into a car-based suburban city, but you and your questions are welcome from all over the Toronto-Hamilton region.

It’s free, but you must reserve tickets here.






Cities Must, and Will, Take Care of Themselves (Election Notes)

It’s been a long night.  So just a few notes.

Nobody really knows what lies ahead for the US, but we are probably heading into a period when cities and metro areas must do even more to take care of themselves.  And there’s lots of evidence, from last night, that urban populations know that.

The sweep of victories on public transit measures is impressive.  Raleigh, Indianapolis, Atlanta, and the biggest transit plan of all this year, in greater Seattle.  In California, where revenue raising measures require 2/3, most of the Bay Area and Los Angeles area measures are on track to hit that very high bar.

This is becoming a common pattern.  There is a strong urban consensus about what it takes to make a great city, and the will is there, among urban populations, to do what needs to be done.

Some friends are despairing about federal funding for public transit, which is required to deliver the promised transit plans, and for other critical urban needs. I can’t predict what Federal policy may actually be like.  If you need reasons for hope, there are three:

  • This president-elect is from a big city, he famously likes to build things, and he campaigned on infrastructure spending.  It’s unlikely he will turn off the spigot on urban investments, or that a narrowly divided Senate would let him if he did.
  • I’ve also been through this moment — when one party appears to have won the White House and the Congress — several times.  Each time, it’s appeared that there’s now no impediment to the agenda, but it’s never been that simple.  When you can actually enact an agenda, you pause, especially when you have such a narrow majority in one chamber.
  • There’s simply no mandate here for an anti-urban agenda, or even for budget-cutting and fiscal austerity.  This election was just not about that.

But maybe the Federal role does shrink.  If so, cities and regions will have to do what needs to be done themselves.  Mayors and regional leaders may have to lead in larger and more courageous ways. Bruce Katz (The Metropolitan Revolution) and Benjamin Barber (If Mayors Ruled the World) have been charting this path for a while.   But if tonight’s transit measures are any indication, urban voters know what needs to be done, so the conditions for courageous urban leadership are there.

Personally, I have lots of other feelings about this election.  But when it comes to critical urban needs, one way or another, it can get done.


How “Innovation” Chatter Limits Urban Mobility Today: Election Edition

The new private players in urban transportation have learned to be careful about appearing to oppose public transit — at least, most of the time.  Uber is making a point of supporting some of the biggest transit tax proposals in the country.  Lyft wants you to know that they’re “friends with transit.”  These companies know that they rely on an urban, educated political base — people who can figure out for themselves that shifting lots of people from big vehicles into small ones is not the way to improve congestion, emissions, or pretty much anything that matters.

Still, the hype coming off the technology companies — even when not explicitly hostile to big-vehicle transit — feeds a vague notion that “innovation” will somehow sweep transit away.  And this attitude is damaging transit systems now.  

To make this claim I’ve usually had to refer to my personal experience as a consultant — and especially my constant conversations with local stakeholders and opinion leaders.  But right now, we have some examples, from the websites of opponents of transit proposals around the US.

My point in citing these is not to defend particular transit proposals.  We don’t endorse here.  And it doesn’t matter, to my point, which measures pass and which fail.

My point is that tech industry PR, with its meme of “innovation” somehow changing everything, is now a key source of anti-transit rhetoric.

Here’s the homepage of opponents of the rapid transit measure for the Seattle area, ST3.  It leads off with three big points, one of which is this:

Over in Indianapolis, there’s this, from an opponents’ press release:

If voters approve the transit referendum Nov. 8th, Indianapolis will buy a quaint 1940’s solution to a 21st Century opportunity.  When Uber and Lyft – the transportation innovation leaders of today — are initiating a transportation revolution in other communities, Indianapolis once again looks in the rear-view mirror.   Indianapolis leaders, IndyGo planners, and taxpayers should be anticipating the flood of change that will occur over the next few years—not building permanent bus lanes down the middle of major city thoroughfares which will be rendered obsolete.

Transit plan opponents in greater Detroit accuse a fixed rapid transit plan of “blocking” innovation — after first scaring us with the notion that buses or trains might get in the way of your car:

More Traffic Congestion

Major roads will have lanes closed to create ‘bus only’ lanes – congesting traffic.

Cities with bus only lanes also implement priority traffic signal policies that turn  stop lights green for approaching buses and red for cross traffic – further delaying motorists.

Blocks Mass Transit Innovation

The proposal spends billions on old transit tech like buses and rail while other cities are contracting out transit services to Uber, Lyft, Chariot and others that provide door-to-door service at substantial savings.

Advances in self driving vehicles may provide breakthroughs in personalized, cost-effective transit service that cannot be realized if our region is financially locked for decades into a dinosaur mass transit system.  [emphasis added]

Yes, there may be breakthroughs, which may have the outcomes we hope for, and this is reason enough to declare our existing tools to be “dinosaurs.”  The idea is that future inventions should destroy useful things today.  

It’s completely understandable that inventors want us to think this.  If we throw away our existing solutions to urban problems, we will be even more dependent on their inventions, which will be good for them.  That’s why we must lean in the the wind, being skeptical but not cynical about the good things invention may bring.

Why should we continue to invest in big-vehicle, space-efficient public transit, and protect what we have from degradation, when all this innovation may occur?

  • Technology never changes geometry.  In dense cities, the efficient use of space requires continuing to move large numbers of people in large vehicles, which is what successful urban transit networks are.  (The story may be different in low-density suburban areas, where demand is sparser and space is more abundant, especially if those places don’t intend to grow denser.)  The only way to move large vehicles efficiently and also attractively is first to run them frequently, and second, where possible, to protect them from traffic congestion.  Yes, this may get in the way of your car.
  • Inventions never turn out as hoped, and especially not as hyped.  They have downside impacts, some of them entirely predictable.  They destroy things that turn out to be valuable, especially because …
  • Making something easier causes more people to do it.  This is how autonomous cars could cause an explosion of vehicle trips that would overwhelm any space-saving benefits of the technology, congest our cities to the point of dysfunction, and thus trigger a new generation of urban sprawl.  Do you believe that autonomous cars will radically expand your liberty, even in the densest cities?  Do you imagine that you, a city dweller, will be able to get out into the beautiful countryside more easily, so that you could even buy a cabin in the woods?  That’s what the proponents of cars wanted you to believe 100 years ago.  The problem isn’t that you got those things, but so did everyone else.  So the liberty of the motorist became the prison of congestion, and everyone’s cabin in the woods meant there were no woods left.

Again, if you’re new to this, autonomous vehicles can be a wonderful thing.  The problem is the hype about things uninvented, and the way it encourages us to destroys things that we value, now.







Follow Transit Referenda on US Election Night

Yonah Freemark at The Transport Politic has set up a page where you can follow election night returns about the 20 biggest transit-related referenda to be voted on November 8 in the US.   His summaries are good, always mentioning operating funds and local bus service, not just the big-ticket infrastructure.

The biggest are in the Seattle and Los Angeles regions, both of which are behind the curve on rapid transit development, given their size, density and growth rates.  Both measures, which raise sales taxes, are close things.  The Seattle-area measure covers a huge three-county region including exurban areas that vote against transit routinely.  Los Angeles County has clear majorities for almost anything transit-related, but the measure requires 2/3.

Personally, I’ve never had so much of my own work, and that of my firm, at stake in one cycle of referenda.

Two plans that we worked on extensively are on the ballot, in Indianapolis and in Wake County (Raleigh area), North Carolina.  Both are dramatic expansions of transit that create robust frequent transit networks in the denser parts of those cities, while Wake County’s also includes a commuter rail program.

In San Jose and Silicon Valley, in California, we are also in the midst of working on a network redesign to accompany the opening of BART next fall, and this design will be considerably more abundant, with less painful trade-offs, if Santa Clara County’s sales tax increment passes (also a close thing, as it needs 2/3).

We also did some work in Spokane, Washington, in the area of Board and stakeholder workshops, that helped lead to the Moving Forward plan on the ballot there.

As a consultant, I don’t make endorsements.  But peruse Yonah’s list, and if you live in one of these places, please read up on these measures to make sure you have an informed view.



Auckland: South Auckland Redesign Rolls Out

Back in 2012, I worked with Auckland Transport to design a completely new design for the city’s transit system.  (Auckland has a single city government covering the whole urban region, so you could also call this a regional plan.)

The old design — if it could be a design at all — had been the result of private operating companies designing their own routes to their own advantage, which led to enormous numbers of express buses into the Auckland city centre (where they created major bus congestion) but poor services for getting around locally or crosstown.  It was also just impossibly complicated …

Old network in southern Auckland. Can you see how to get anywhere?

Old network in southern Auckland, almost all infrequent. Can you see how to get anywhere?

The new network emphasizes all-day high-frequency services, connecting to each other in grid patterns and to newly frequent rail lines.  Read about that big picture, and its payoffs, here.

A small piece of the network, in the Green Bay area, was implemented last year, and achieved a 20% ridership increase (on no increase in service quantity) in the first year.  Now, the first really big piece has been rolled out across southern Auckland.  This area, formerly the City of Manukau, is relatively low-income, ethnically diverse, and features fragmentary, shredded street patterns that are a huge challenge to network designers.

A fragment of the old network is above.  Virtually none of it, including the train line, was frequent.  The overlapping lines with uncountable 3-digit-route numbers show local routes tangled up in express routes going all the way into the CBD far to the north, competing with the rail line.

Here’s the same slice of the new network (beautiful full map here):

New South Auckland network. Wide lines (31, 32, 33) are the Frequent Network

New southern Auckland network.  Wide lines (31, 32, 33) are the Frequent Network

Why the huge reduction in complexity?  Virtually all express buses to the CBD were replaced by buses connecting to the main rail line, which is now frequent.  Local lines were organized so that they form a logical network feeding into local hubs as well as to major rail stations.  Note that not all rail stations are bus hubs; the network concentrates only on certain rail stations so that buses connect with each other as well as with the trains, and so that consolidated station facilities can be built at these locations.  The biggest new hub, Otahuhu at the north end of South Auckland, has a huge number of buses feeding it, and got a shiny new bus-rail station for the new network’s opening day.

As always, there will be hiccups in the implementation process, as people adjust. But it’s great to see this plan, first sketched four years ago, on the street at last.