How (Not) to Wreck Your Transit System: Downtown Business Edition

What do you think of these people? Photo by the (great) Bay Area public artist Todd Gilens.

What do you think of these people? Photo by the (great) Bay Area public artist Todd Gilens.

Downtown business leaders! I know how much many of you support transit, and I love working with you folks, but here’s a hazard you need to think about.

Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson has announced that new bus lanes that were designed into city’s main square will be closed to buses, thus choking the bus system’s circulation at its very heart.  Citylab has the story.  The local newspaper of record, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, has an editorial in favor of keeping buses out, citing three points:

*The square is far more popular than anticipated. …

*Keeping buses out has greatly enhanced the pedestrian experience. …

*In an age of terrorism, barring large vehicles from being able to drive into crowded public spaces also matters. Cleveland Public Safety Director Mike McGrath has pointed out that if Superior Avenue is kept open through Public Square, a “determined person” could use a truck or other vehicle to drive into crowds gathered there. …


Electric Retractable Bollard, SecureUSA.

(Terrorism is a distraction, of course.  The way to prevent someone from driving a heavy vehicle into a public square is to install retractable bollards, which drop for emergency vehicles and transit.  Fixed bollards are also used to define a transit path across a space, and protect the rest from vehicles.)

But really: Would city leaders be saying this if the service being banned were a streetcar/tram?  Of course not.  Streetcars supposedly attract people that the business community values.  So when I read this …

[City Councilor] Zack Reed, … as reported by Cleveland Scene’s Sam Allard, [suggested] that the mayor is in the pocket of downtown’s corporate interests who view transit riders as “low-lifes” and “thugs.”

… I have to say that sadly, from personal experience, this accusation against downtown business interests is sometimes (sometimes) true, and the blowback against it is understandable.

Business leaders: I know you really want a transit system that a more diverse group of people will use, but you can’t promote transit while insulting the people who use it now.  It doesn’t make sense. Nobody will choose to join a category of people, “transit riders,” that you’re marking as unimportant or even despised.

In the course of my transit planning work in several US cities, I’ve been quietly taken aside by a downtown business leader and told that of course those ugly buses have to be gotten off of the main street, and put out on some back street where the loading docks are.  And sadly, I have sometimes been told the same by advocates of public space, often credentialed New Urbanists, who insist that their aesthetic disapproval of the bus should outweigh people’s need for useful, reliable transit service.   Most of these latter group don’t really understand the impact of those comments, but I see the effects: remote, unsafe and/or inoperable bus facilities hidden from the public eye.

Now and then someone makes the class-segregation narrative explicit.  For example, in one US city where I worked years ago, a downtown business leader explained to me that “those people” waiting for buses on the main street were deterring customers from visiting businesses, and “making people feel unsafe.”  The candor was refreshing: the problem isn’t the buses. The problem is unwanted people who do not deserve to be respected by the design of the city — including, of course, many of the business community’s own employees.

This leader also assured me that women would never feel comfortable walking through these crowds — contrary to the view of professional women who were working with us on the project.  The stops in question did have a lot of people waiting at them.  Like any busy place they attracted the usual diversity of urban characters, including street preachers, small scale salesmen, and self-styled performing artists, and perhaps one or two petty criminals.  But people are rarely attacked in the middle of largely law-abiding crowds.

This problem actually had an easy solution.  Robust real-time information, available by text and voice as well as in smartphone apps, encourages people to come to the stop only a few minutes before their bus leaves. Bus stops have become noticeably less crowded in communities that have rolled these out, as you would expect.  That also means, business leaders, that people waiting for the bus have more time to patronize nearby businesses.

But too often, the business community’s solution is to move the buses onto a deserted street where nobody will see them, and also to “spread buses out” so that no stop would be as busy.  This “solves” a problem of the “feeling of safety” by creating a problem of actual safety.  Bus riders have to walk to an isolated street and wait in a place with fewer eyes to witness crimes against them.  And of course, the other effect is to make the transit system less attractive, so that fewer people with choices will use it.  Connecting from one bus to another, for example, would be harder to figure out and require longer walks.

Now, let’s honor the experience of downtown businesses dealing with this situation.  A crowded bus stop in front of your business can be disruptive, depending on the kind of business you’re in.   Transit agencies do what they can to manage these impacts, but in the long run, a bus stop is an essential piece of urban infrastructure.  There are types of business that do very well next to a bus stop: convenience stores, fast food, and other “quick visit” places.  Good business location decisions always consider infrastructure.  Over time, businesses that value bus stops should locate next to them, and those that don’t should locate further away.

But it’s also true, as any planner can tell you, that some businesses will blame government whenever business isn’t going well.  On a busy street, there’s always something around you that’s not as you’d like, and it’s easy to decide that this is the cause of your troubles.

Downtown business leaders, you have a critical role in shaping your transportation future.  The most critical decision you make is whether to risk letting downtown succeed as a city — a place where everyone has a right to be, and move, and be safe — as opposed to trying to replicate the controlled experience of a shopping mall, where unwanted people can be easily removed.

I know you care about your customers, and about their experience.  But there’s a reason prosperity is coming back to downtowns, and it’s not because all those unwanted people are being hidden away.  Come to my city, Portland (where, by the way, buses run on the most important main streets downtown).  In the publicity photos Portland looks shiny and clean, but the real downtown is full of characters.  A few are irritating, and many are unfortunate.  But very few are dangerous, and people who live here have figured that out.  You might prefer to avoid some people’s company, but then you wouldn’t have a city.  And judging from the cost of locating there, downtown Portland and places like it seem to be what people want.

Remember:  Your businesses are all trained in market segmentation, dividing the society into “your potential customers” and “not your potential customers.”  But as soon as you take that habit into the public realm, segmentation becomes segregation.  The ethics of business and the ethics of public space are not the same.

Have courage.  Welcome the buses and their passengers.  Not every business will thrive, but that’s capitalism.  In the long run, you’ll have a city where people want to be.

San Jose and Silicon Valley: A New Bus Network Proposed

We’ve been working for over a year with VTA, the transit agency of Santa Clara County, California, on a rethinking of their bus network.  After a long process that has included multiple alternatives and a round of public discussion about them, we’ve arrived at a recommended network.  The plan is meant to go in this fall, when a BART rapid transit extension opens into the county from the north, and when a rearranged operating plan for the light rail system is also planned.  If you live in the County, or use the system, please tell VTA what you think.  As always: if you like the plan, you should assume it won’t happen unless you tell the agency that you like it.

So here’s the system as it looks now.  (Look carefully at the legend. Right-click and open in a new window for more detail.)


And here is the proposed network:


Here’s why the plan looks as it does.

  • The plan before the public does not significantly increase the budget for bus operations.  That means existing service has been re-arranged, which is part of why difficult trade-offs are made.  County voters just passed Measure B, which has some additional funds for service, but those funds are not shown in the above plan.  The Board could decide to add some of these funds to create the final plan.
  • A goal of the plan is to shift the percentage of resources devoted to high ridership service from 70% to 85%.
  • That means that the amount of resources for low-ridership coverage services — services that exist because some people need or want them but which not many people ride — goes from 30% of the budget to 15%.  (For background on ridership-coverage trade-off, see here.)
  • So in round numbers, the amount of coverage service drops by half.  You see this in the many areas that have a blue or green line in the existing system but no all day service, and in some cases no service at all, in the proposed.
  • The policy to devote 85% of resources to high ridership service, and 15% to coverage service, is not something we recommended.  It was the result of an extensive public conversation about different paths the network could take.  In the spring we presented three alternative networks to the public, showing this range of possibilities, and the 85-15 policy is the result of that conversation.
  • Where coverage service has been eliminated, it is because of very low ridership, usually tied to low density or difficult geography (see here for the geometric principles involved).  The plan does not discriminate between different parts of the county in this regard.  Every city in the county has one or more coverage segments disappearing.
  • Everyone at the agency, and everyone on the the Board, knows that some people will be mad about the coverage service cuts.  If you are unhappy about this, please tell VTA that in your comments, but be civil, because civil comments are much more effective.  Don’t tell us that we’re idiots or monsters (we’re not) or that we don’t know that people will be affected (we do).   Understand that the service you are defending is very expensive per passenger for the taxpayer, because so few people ride it.  Cuts to that service are not an expression of an opinion about you.

With that, here are some cool things about the plan.

  • A much-expanded frequent grid.  Eastside San Jose has always had one but now the same principle is spread across most of San Jose and a few main lines in the western part of the county, where demand is lower but where there are concentrations of all day demand that could support a grid pattern.
  • A new Rapid Bus line, which means a line that runs every 15 minutes or better all day but makes widely spaced stops (up to 1 mile spacing).  This one runs from the new Berryessa BART station through downtown and out Stevens Creek to Cupertino, then north through downtown Sunnyvale to the Lockheed area.
  • Weekday hourly frequencies (green) are almost gone.  If a route runs at all, it runs at least every 30 minutes.
  • San Jose Airport gets a very different kind of service.  Currently it has just a shuttle to light rail and Caltrain.  This means you may be two connections away from most places you might be going.  In the new network, the airport is on a line that runs all the way across the county, including directly to BART.  That means fewer connections with your luggage.  Much of the county, and much of the BART system in the East Bay, is just one connection away.
  • Weekend service is especially improved.  Here are the frequencies for the weekend network:


Once again, this draft plan is the starting point. The final plan, based on your comments and on board direction, will be adopted in April, and implemented this fall.

Realtime Information: Facts or Predictions?

Among the cool things that Portland’s transit agency Tri-Met did during our record snowstorm is this:


Instead of telling us a prediction of when the bus will arrive, they told us the fact of how far away it is.  Predictions are not facts.

Free and conscious citizens should always value facts over predictions.  It doesn’t hurt to have both, but predictions without facts can be dangerous.  Humans always want more certainty about the future than the universe provides, so they tend to overvalue predictions, and even treat them as promises.

A rare citywide disruption puts all this in perspective, by highlighting something that is really always true.  The transit agency is in no position to promise when the bus will arrive.  Too many things out of their control might happen.  What they can do is tell you the facts and let you make your own judgment about what to do.

Three Lyft Rides in a Rare Snowstorm, and Musings on “Rate Your Driver”

Portland's transit mall five days after the snow fell.

Portland’s transit mall five days after the snow fell.

Portland’s epic snowstorm continues.  Five days after we got about 9 inches (30 cm) of snow, most streets are still coated with ice.  Again, this shouldn’t be judged by the standards of snowier cities; this kind of extended storm happens less than once a decade here.

In my last post I talked about my transit experience on the first day, when snow was still coming down hard.  Later that day, and twice the next day, I used Lyft– but since most Portland drivers work for both Uber and Lyft, I’m guessing an Uber experience would have been identical.

My three Lyft rides gave me five interesting data points:

  • A trip to my mother’s house in Portland’s hilly west side.  The driver showed up in a tiny car without snow tires or chains, and said he can’t climb hills.  To prevent discrimination against customers based on their destination, the companies don’t tell drivers the destination until after they accept the ride, so this guy was unable to say no to a destination that he couldn’t physically reach.  Likewise, I was unable to specify, when requesting a ride, that the driver needs chains or snow tires and probably 4-wheel-drive to get there.  That’s obviously a design flaw in Lyft’s systems.
  • A trip back from the same hilly area.  The driver showed up in a small car with no left rear view mirror.  He told me another car knocked the mirror off and drove away the previous night.  He plans to get it fixed, he said, but meanwhile he has to keep driving, so he just glances over his left shoulder now and then.
  • On the same ride: The driver told me he lives in Los Angeles but is in Portland for a few months for some reason.  He’d never driven in snow or ice before, and clearly didn’t understand the risks.  I had to explain that in these conditions, you allow even more room behind the car in front of you.  “But people will cut in!” he said.  “Yes,” I said, “but you won’t die.”
  • … but on an earlier trip back from the airport, the driver was a very recent immigrant from Ghana who had also never driven in snow before.  I was surprised to learn this, because his snow driving skills seemed perfect — which maybe just means he was quite properly terrified and being very careful.

How am I to “rate your driver” in some these cases? The Ghanaian guy gets 5 stars of course, but what of the other two?

Should I give a low grade to the a driver whose car is unsuited to these conditions, at least in the hilly part of town?  Obviously this is mostly a policy failure, but should I declare, from my perch of authority, that he should have had chains?

What about the driver who didn’t have a left rear view mirror?  Well, that’s plainly illegal and unsafe, but as I talked with him, I wondered if he could afford to not drive until he can get it fixed.  As it was, he was also the tailgater, so it was easy to rate him low, but what if he’d been a great driver otherwise?

As I think about this, and about how the “rate your driver” scores are processed, I realize that I pretty much have to give 5 stars for anything other than obvious rudeness (unexplainable by cultural difference) or reckless driving.  That’s because I can sense how much pressure these people are under, how few options they have, and how devastating even a 4-star rating can be.  For all I know, someone’s kids are going to starve if I tell a guy to quit driving until his mirror is fixed.  On the other hand, for all I know, he’s doing fine and is just risking his life and that of his passengers because he’s greedy.

Once you open that window into considering the real causes of problems, and the real impacts of ratings, it’s hard to close it.

This is an instance of a more general problem with all of the “how did we do?” surveys that fill my inbox every day.  They really want my opinion of front-line staff, but often I can see that my negative experience was a matter of management.  The obvious example is restaurant or hotel staff who are harried and unresponsive because the management has decided to have too few people on duty.  I’ve learned to be careful about this.  Unless I’m sure that the frontline person was entirely responsible for the outcome, the worst situations get five stars, plus maybe a little note that nobody will read.


Portland: Transit Heroism in an Epic Snowstorm


Enough snow to almost paralyze Portland. Readers in Canada, Russia, and Scandinavia are invited to keep their comments to themselves. :-)


Portland’s Gateway Transit Center at 8:30 AM on January 11, 2017. Everything working fine, considering. Rail moved at 4x the speed of an adjacent freeway studded with abandoned cars.

Portland woke up to about 9 inches (23 cm) of snow yesterday, with snow continuing to fall, and I had a chance to watch a bit of the transport situation.

Unfortunately, that morning I was booked to fly out to a client visit in Southern Oregon, so I had to do the ritual of going to the airport so that I would be there in the unlikely event our flight wasn’t canceled at the last minute. When I checked my options at 8 am, with snow still coming down hard, Lyft was nonexistent, Uber had a 20+ minute wait with 2.5x normal pricing, but a bus was coming soon.  I had a small adventure carrying a heavy suitcase through snowdrifts, but once on the bus everything was fine.  The driver even had to stop for a minute because he was running early.  Drop-down chains are great!

I connected to light rail, and because of snow operations I had to connect again within the light rail system, but it all worked fine.  Each station I visited had a friendly transit employee with a snow-shovel.  I got to the airport in about 1.2 times the usual travel time, faster than would have been possible by any other mode of transport.  By then, many freeways were partly blocked by abandoned cars, including some especially dimwitted truck drivers who thought they could get over our highest bridge without chains.

It was funny to hear some people grumbling, as though the snow were the transit agency’s fault or their staff weren’t obviously doing their best.  Remember, everyone who’s at work at 7 am in a snowstorm somehow got out of their houses at 4-5 AM.  Levels of heroism should not be underestimated.  Our agency, TriMet, did an amazing job. So, as you must do when you see staff working heroically, I sent a tweet:

Of course, it was not so easy for everyone.  The transit agency had pre-designed “snow routes” for buses that avoided most steep hills.  (If you live on a hill, this is a “feature” of your location choice!)  Trees were an issue; some trees bowing under the snow touched the catenary of the light rail and streetcar downtown, shutting them down for a while.  “Only so many arborists,” @pdxstreetcar tweeted sensibly.  (Another city might cut down trees that presented this risk, but you just don’t do that in Portland.)

So we got what you expect.  We had made some local value judgments (not cutting down trees) that reflected our values but caused some trouble yesterday.  Most people accepted that consequence of their values.  And the transit agency staff really were amazing. In situations like this, I make a point of thanking every transit or city employee that I meet.  On a snowy morning, a good greeting is: “Hey, I realize you got out here at 5 AM, and I really appreciate it.”  Adjust to taste, but don’t say nothing.  And as studies of gratitude have shown, this will actually help you feel better about your own inconveniences.

Finally, do not use the words “apocalypse” and “armaggedon.”  Your parents and grandparents got through snowstorms without needing those words, so they mark you as a hysterical kid.  Those words should be reserved for nuclear war, the Rapture, climate-induced civilizational collapse, and snow for those thin-skinned drama-queens in Seattle.

Seattle: “America’s Next Transit City” (Video)

I don’t usually run videos here, but the one below by TransitCenter and Streetfilms is a good overview of the city and its progress.

It’s been a big year for Seattle.  In November, votes passed Sound Transit 3, which expands the regionwide rail network while also funding two new lines within the city.  City voters previously passed measures to increase bus service and fun street and sidewalk improvements that are important to transit riders.

Seattle wasn’t a transit city for a long time.  The regional rapid transit system’s first line didn’t open until 2009.  (Nearby Portland had a regionwide network by then.)  Seattle’s densest inner city neighborhoods have long had good bus service to downtown, but a lot of work was needed to do a citywide network, and it wasn’t remotely ready for the massive growth in density that the already-dense city has experienced in the last decade.

The most important thing about Seattle is its municipal  transit leadership, starting with the Seattle Transit Plan of 2007 on which I was privileged to work.  Note that throughout this video, you see City of Seattle leaders talking about their transit system.  They don’t run it — it’s run by bigger regional agencies — but they’ve chosen to treat it as theirs, and that has made all the difference.

More from TransitCenter here.

Our Top Ten Posts in 2016

Normally, one does a list of the most-read posts of the last year.

But I’ve always tried to write things that would be useful for years, so I’d rather show you the posts that were viewed most often in 2016.  I’m delighted that only four of these were written in 2016:

  1. Does Elon Musk Understand Urban Geometry?  (2016) Why tech visionaries miss the obvious when they talk about urban transportation.
  2. Basics: Walking Distance to Transit (2010).  An explainer.
  3. Sounding the Alarm about Uber’s Impacts on Transit, and on Cities. (2016) The danger of planning cities around unsustainable business models.
  4. Let’s Quit Pretending About Uber. (2016) A quick flare-up that’s long since resolved.  Its the closest I’ve come to clickbait, so of course it got clicks.
  5. Explainer: The Transit Ridership Recipe (2015).  Perhaps our single most essential explainer.
  6. That Photo That Explains Almost Everything (2011).  You’ve seen the photo.  I notice a few things in it beyond its first impression.
  7. Learning from “Mini Metro”.  (2014) Geeking out on the best public transit planning game I’ve seen.
  8. Basics: The Spacing of Stops and Stations.  (2010).  This turned into Chapter 4 of my book.
  9. Core vs Edge Debates in Public Transit. (2016) An eternal issue.
  10. Streetcars: An Inconvenient Truth. (2009) My first controversial post, still starting arguments seven years later.

Remember, this blog is full of old stuff that’s still relevant, notably the “basics” or “explainer” pieces.  For links to all of those, see here!  This year should remind us all that just because it’s hot off the presses today doesn’t mean it’s either useful or true!

Basics: Where Can Ferries Succeed?


Brisbane’s cross-river ferry

An email from a transit professional asks what I have to say about ferries.

Think of a ferry as a rapid transit line, minus the huge cost of land and rails and power supply, but unable to continue across a land-water boundary.

Like rail, ferries carry the limitation that everyone has to get off at the end of the line.  Obviously you need transit connections there for onward journeys, but the result is multiple connections to continue in one direction, which is always less effective than grid structures where service can flow onward across the city.  Ferries, of course, have even more constraints about where the end of the line must be.  So ferries often struggle to compete with transit lines using adjacent bridges or tunnels, because these can penetrate deeper into the city on both sides to complete logical networks.

Another constraint of ferries is that waterfront land is expensive, so it’s hard to find space at a ferry terminal for everything you’d want at a transit node, including terminals for connecting transit, transit-oriented development, and (if you must) commuter parking.

This means that a really successful ferry line, especially all day, has the following necessary conditions.

  • High frequency. This requires minimizing on-board labor, as labor drives operating cost and thus constrains frequency.  (Marine regulations in many countries are an obstacle to this.)  Ferries with only one employee on board achieve frequency through low labor costs.  See, for example, the privately owned micro-ferries on Vancouver’s False Creek (really a small, sheltered harbor) or the small cross-river ferries in Brisbane.  These can do well with only moderate demand because they are so cheap to operate, and can build up useful frequency for the same reason.
  • Very high density right in walking distance of the ferry terminal, preferably without major grades to climb.  This is a challenge because if you draw a walk-access circle around a ferry terminal, most of it is usually water.  Cities that slope upward steeply from the water, like Seattle, present further barriers.
  • Quality landside access by frequent connecting transit modes, sufficient to draw adequate all-day demand.  This and the previous one can substitute for each other to a degree, but the most successful services have both. In Hong Kong, for example, there are large bus terminals at the major ferry terminals, despite astronomical land value and the many competing demands, because they really understand the importance of total networks, which in turn are built on easy connections.
  • No competition from bridges or tunnels, especially those carrying frequent transit lines (rail or bus).  Ferries just can’t compete, for high volume, with bridge-and-tunnel services.  Sometimes ferries are run to densely populated coves where the competing bridge or tunnel lands too far back from the water to serve the area, as on New York’s East River, but in this case you have to fill the ferry solely with waterfront demand, because people inland will take the bridge or tunnel service.
  • Favorable Pricing.  If there is any possible competition with bridge/tunnel service, the ferry needs to be cheaper to use, counting the total trip including any connections.
The immensely successful Staten Island Ferry has all the necessary features, including huge transit networks converging on both ends.

The immensely successful Staten Island Ferry has all the necessary features, including huge transit networks converging on both ends.

Really successful ferries, like New York’s Staten Island Ferry or Hong Kong’s Star Ferry, have all of these features.

The most common problem in ferry planning is to build too many little terminals, each with too small a market, so that they don’t support much service outside of rush hour and often not even then.  Auckland and Sydney, for example, have lots of ferry terminals in bucolic suburban coves, downhill from most nearby residents, where there are just not enough people.   These tend to become elite services and often not very productive ones.  Fewer terminals with larger demand is the key, just as fewer stops is a key to the most productive land-based networks.

The romantic and scenic qualities of ferries always generate support, just as happens with rail services, but service must be useful, compared to your alternatives, if it is to succeed long-term.  Tourism and recreation are often cited as markets, but unless you have a supercharged tourism sector, and the right kind of service and connections, this market is easily overstated due to inevitable private sector boosterism.

As always, if the ridership prospects are low and the benefits are mostly private, the funding should be private as well.  Encourage the tourist sector to fund tourist ferries directly, just as you would for any service precision-designed around a single interest.  The same could be said for small, low-demand ferries that mostly benefit a single development or specialized community.

So yes, ferries are good at certain things, but destinations along the water, and some local enthusiasm, isn’t enough to ensure a successful ferry project.