What is “Microtransit” For?

In last year’s “microtransit week” series, I challenged the widely promoted notion that “new” flexible transit models, where the route of a vehicle varies according to who requests it, are transforming the nature of transit, and that transit agencies should be focusing a lot of energy on figuring out how to use these exciting tools. In this piece, I address a more practical question:  In what cases, and for what purposes, should flexible transit be considered as part of a transit network?

For clickbait purposes I used “microtransit” in the headline, but now that I have your attention I’ll use flexible transit, since it seems to be the most descriptive and least misleading term.  Flexible transit means any transit service where the route varies according to who requests it.  As such it’s the opposite of fixed transit or fixed routes.  But the common terms demand responsive transit, on-demand transit and “microtransit” mean the same thing.

This article is specifically about flexible transit offered as part of a publicly-funded transit network.  There may be all kinds of private-sector markets — paid for by institutions or by riders at market-rate fares — which are not my subject here.  The question here is what kind of service taxpayers should pay for.

As I reviewed in the series, the mathematical and historical facts are that:

  • Flexible transit is an old idea, and has long been in use throughout the world.  No living person should be claiming to have invented it.  The only new innovation is the software and communications tools for summoning and dispatching service. You can now summon service on relatively short notice, compared to old phone-based and manually dispatched systems that only guaranteed you service if you called the day before.
  • The efficiency of summoning and dispatching has done very little for the efficiency of operations. Flexible transit services have a very high operating cost per rider, and always will, for geometric reasons that no communications technology will change. Flexible services meander in order to protect customers from having to walk. Meandering consumes more time than running straight, and it’s less likely to be useful to people riding through.  Fixed routes are more efficient because customers walk to the route and gather at a few stops, so that the transit vehicle can go in a relatively straight line that more people are likely to find useful.
  • There is no particular efficiency in the fact that flexible transit vehicles are smaller than most fixed route buses, because operating cost is mostly labor. You can of course create savings by paying drivers less than transit agencies do, but you will get what you pay for in terms of service quality.
  • How inefficient are flexible services? While there are some rare exceptions in rare situations, few carry more than five customers per driver hour.  Even in suburban settings, fixed route buses rarely get less than 10, and frequent attractive fixed route services usually do better than 20.
  • Therefore, flexible transit makes sense only if ridership is not the primary goal of a service. 

All transit agencies must balance the competing goals of ridership and coverage, for reasons explained here.  Coverage means “providing access to transit regardless of whether many people use it.” A typical measurement of coverage is “___% of population is within ___ distance of transit service.”  Coverage goals arise from popular principles such as “leave nobody behind,” “be there for people who need us,” and “provide a ‘fair share’ of service in every city or electoral district.”

To provide clear direction to planning, we always encourage transit agencies to form a clear policy on how much of their resources should be set aside for service whose goal is a high coverage, not high ridership.

For example, in our 2016 study of Santa Clara County, California (Silicon Valley including San Jose), we developed a conceptual “Network 90” that focused 90% of resources on a goal of ridership, leaving only 10% for coverage service. The old network was about 70% ridership, so this was a substantial shift.  By deleting some coverage service, “Network 90” reduced the population covered by any transit, from 89% of the population to 73%.  (It would have increased ridership by concentrating frequent services in places of high demand, so the percentage of the population on frequent service went up.)  By contrast, the “concept 70” which left 30% of the budget for coverage, would have kept the coverage to around 89% of the population, but offered relatively little ridership benefit.

Once you have decided to invest some of your resources in coverage service, and know that ridership is not the point, flexible service may have a role.  That’s because if your goal is take credit for bringing transit close to many homes, it’s sometimes more efficient to do that without actually going there every hour.

In a great deal of American suburban development, you’ll find things like this:

This series of peninsulas and islands on the south edge of Savannah, Georgia is covered with very low-density residential development, in which entire neighborhoods are effectively cul-de-sacs.  A fixed route that tried to cover this area would have to go out each peninsula, turn around, and come back. In fact, there’s a bus route that tries to do that.

Savannah’s Route 20. Source: Chatham Area Transit.

It’s a rare example of a route who’s ridership is so low that flexible service might do better, and it’s not hard to see why.  Few people would be willing to ride through all these loops.

A flexible service could service this area with fewer driver hours.  To do this, it would allow enough time to go to perhaps half of the peninsulas in each hour, but would take credit for covering all of them.  That way, it would provide the lifeline transit access that is coverage service’s goal.  If enough people lived in landscapes like this, then this tool could help an agency satisfy a target like “90% of residents are within 1/2 mile of service.”

Flexible service isn’t always the right coverage tool.  There are many areas where density is too low to attract ridership, but where the street network puts most homes and destinations within a reasonable walk of through-streets.  Fixed routes can cover those areas quite efficiently, even when meeting a coverage goal.  But flexible services do have a place in the coverage toolbox.

However, contrary to almost all “microtransit” marketing, ridership is the death of flexible service.  Suppose that a flexible service on these peninsulas was so attractive that many people began calling it.  Then the flexible route van would be expected to go to every peninsula every hour, which is impossible. So more vans would have to be added, still at a very high cost/rider.  This process would devour the limited coverage budgets of most agencies, and if those agencies haven’t established a clear limit on what they’ll spend on coverage service, this process can start threatening high-ridership service.  At that point, someone should ask: If you end up deleting a bus carrying 30 people/hour so that you can run a van for 3 people/hour, aren’t you basically telling 27 people/hour to buy cars?

So attracting many riders to flexible services is the last thing a transit agency should want to do.  In fact, when flexible services become too popular, they have to be turned back into fixed routes.  Imagine that a flexible service covering the area above got so popular that you needed three vans to run it.  At that point you might as well just run a separate fixed route for each peninsula, at which point each one could be reasonably straight.  Still, though, three buses may be more than this particular area deserves, when you look at the total budget for coverage services and spread it over the whole region.  So if you really want to claim that you’ve covered all of these peninsulas, you want flexible service, but you also want to take every possible step to keep ridership down.

For this reason, too, flexible transit must avoid being more convenient than fixed routes.  It may need to have a higher fare, and it certainly shouldn’t offer service “to your door.” If the goal is coverage to areas where fixed routes don’t work, like these Savannah peninsulas, then you should provide the same quality of service that fixed routes do, which is to say, service to a point within a short walk of your house. This keeps the van out of cul-de-sacs and gravel roads, allows it follow a somewhat straighter path, and thus allows it cover more area in an hour, which is the whole point.

So most discussion of flexible services or “microtransit” is missing the point.  The Eno Foundation report, for example, went to great length to sound optimistic about pilots that were achieving three passengers per service hour – a worse-than-dismal performance by fixed route standards.  Flexible service will never be justifiable if the goal is ridership, because if ridership were the goal you wouldn’t serve places like these low-density peninsulas at all. Only if the goal is coverage do these services ever make sense, so only in that context does flexible service appear as a possible solution.

Unfortunately, plenty of “microtransit” marketing is still sowing confusion about this.  Transloc promises to “solve the frequency-coverage dilemma,”[1] which is dangerous nonsense.  “Microtransit” is a kind of coverage service, not a way to avoid having to think about how much service to devote to coverage goals.

Flexible service will never compete with fixed route on ridership grounds, so it should stop pretending that it can.  Market the service as what it is.  It’s one tool for providing lifeline access to hard-to-serve areas, where availability, not ridership, is the point.

 

 

[1] Transloc page https://transloc.com/microtransit-ondemand-software/ as of August 28, 2019.

Linking US Small Cities and Towns: Time for State Leadership

When I was a boy, the US had a robust network of intercity commercial transit services, run by Greyhound and Trailways.  These services didn’t just link the biggest cities.  They also linked smaller towns and cities, too small or too close for airlines to serve.

In my home state of Oregon, for example,  the network looked like this.

Oregon private sector intercity bus services in 1976. Source: Bill Vandervoort chicagorailfan.com.

 

We often rode Greyhound (blue) or Trailways (red) from Portland to the then-small towns of Central Oregon (150 miles) or on one one of four routes out to towns on the coast, 60-100 miles away.

Almost all of those services are gone.  Private intercity bus companies, including new players like Megabus, stick to linking big cities.  All that remains is a minimal state-funded service called Point, one or two trips a day, mostly to feed Amtrak.

Transit agencies have done their best, but the US habit of organizing transit in county-level agencies means that many obvious services don’t exist.  Consider Eugene, Oregon (metro population about 250,000 with a big university).  It has a city bus line (4 trips/day) to the small mountain town of McKenzie Bridge, 53 miles away, but there’s no line to go the 41 miles to Corvallis (population 58,000 with the state’s other major university).  Why? McKenzie Bridge happens to be in the same county, and Corvallis in a different one.

Australia has similar geography to many US states but features state control of all public transit.  Local governments, including the rural ones that are comparable to US counties, have little role.  This arrangement has big downsides, but it does mean that state government actively organizes the long transit lines linking small cities, often with rail but extended as needed with buses.  As a result, there’s a viable public transit option for intertown travel in many parts of Austraila.

We have worked for several county and municipal transit agencies on addressing this problem. All are doing their best. Some have formed interesting partnerships, such Oregon’s NW Connector, to extend service a ways into adjacent counties and present multi-county networks in an integrated way.  But the mission of a county or municipal agency just does not let them run the long, continuous routes that make sense for these markets.

So bravo to the State of Colorado for a new initiative to expand state-funded service for obviously intercity links across their state.  Oregon is in the early stages of developing more such services, thanks to a new statewide funding source.  What is your state doing in this regard?

Miami: The Better Bus Project Goes Public

We’re delighted to announce the release of our analysis of the bus network of Miami-Dade County, the Better Bus Project Choices Report.  The report reviews existing services, identifies possible paths for improvement, and also points to difficult choices that policymakers need to think about.  Here’s the Miami Herald‘s coverage.

We’ve worked on a lot of bus network redesigns, but the Miami-Dade Better Bus Project is unusual in a number of interesting ways.

Most remarkably, the project is led not by the transit agency, but by a well-resourced and well-respected advocacy group, the Transit Alliance.  These folks brokered a deal where they would manage a study on behalf of both Miami-Dade Transit and several of the key cities.  They are handling all of the public outreach and government relations, leaving us to just do the planning behind the scenes.

The role of the cities is also unusual.  Many cities in the county run their own “trolley” services, which offer small buses, free fares, but often routes that duplicate what the countywide Miami-Dade Transit network does.  This happens in other metro areas, but in this project we some of the key cities at the table, trying to come up with the best solution for the city andthe region.

Less unusual, sadly, is now thinly the service is spread.  Here’s a bit of the network map for the dense core of the region.

And the legend:

Most effective transit systems have some kind of frequent grid, where many intersecting lines run at least every 15 minutes all day.   Houston’s, which we helped design, looks roughly like this:

The key idea of a frequent grid is that wherever red lines cross it’s easy to change buses to go a different direction, and that’s the key to being able to get to lots of places in a reasonable amount of time.

You’ll find extensive frequent grids in a number of gridded cities, including not just big cities like Los Angeles and Chicago but also in Houston, Portland, Phoenix and even Tucson.

But Miami-Dade, which is equally dense and equally gridded, has essentially no frequent grid.  There are grid lines, but most run every 20-30 minutes, not enough for connections to be easy.  Only in Miami Beach will you find the intensive frequent service that means transit is there whenever you need it.

So that’s one issue we’ll be looking at.  Others raised by the choices report include:

  • What’s the ideal division of labor between county transit and municipal services?
  • Is there too much peak service and not enough all-day service?  Overall, productivity (ridership / service quantity) is lower during peak hours than midday, which suggests that might be the case.
  • And biggest of all, how should the region balance the competing goals of ridership and coverage?

In the next round of the project, we’ll present illustrations of how the network might look if the region gave a higher priority to ridership, or if it gave a higher priority toward coverage.  As always, the first will have fewer and more frequent lines, but less service to some low-demand places, while the coverage network will go everywhere that people expect service, at the expense of lower frequencies.  As always, we’ll encourage a public conversation about this unavoidable question.

So if you know anyone in Miami-Dade County, send them to the project website to explore and express their views.  Encourage them to peruse the Choices Report. And if you’re interested in reforming bus networks in general, this one will be an interesting example.

 

 

Portland: Facing the East-West Chokepoint

That red line (and the adjacent blue line that’s hard to see) is the east-west spine of Portland’s transit system. On the west, it is one of just two direct paths (street or transit) across the hills linking downtown and the the “Silicon Forest” suburbs to the west. But the slow operations across downtown makes this line much less useful than it looks. Credit: Travel Portland.

In 1986, Portland opened one of the first modern light rail lines in the US, the beginning of a light rail renaissance that built networks in mid-sized cities across the country. It was nice to be a leader — we’re used to that in Portland — but it also means that everyone has learned from our mistakes, while Portland still has to live with them.

Perhaps “mistake” is too strong a word, but the priorities of the early light rail designers certainly aren’t the priorities today.  Planners of the 1970s (when I was an enthusiastic teenage transit geek) confronted a city whose downtown consisted mostly of surface parking while prosperity fled to the suburbs.  Their top priority wasn’t even getting people to downtown.  It was making downtown a place worth going.

So they built a line that rushes into the city from the eastern suburbs, but then creeps across the inner city, making lots of stops for a net speed under 7 miles/hour.  For a while that was fine.  All those stations meant lots of development sites right next to the line, and downtown grew and prospered.

Today, the success at revitalizing downtown has created an opposite set of problems.  Downtown and the surrounding neighborhoods are so successful that working people can’t afford to live there.  Low income people are being pushed out to places where they face longer commutes.  Most important, the line now continues west out of downtown to serve the “Silicon Forest” suburbs to the west, so that it runs across downtown, not just into it.  Meanwhile, the development that the slow downtown segment was supposed to stimulate is largely done.

So the downtown segment of the line is becoming more of a barrier than a resource.

Transit in Portland benefits enormously from chokepoint geography.  Between the inner city and the western suburbs, there is a wall of hills pierced by one gridlocked freeway, one parallel arterial, and a light rail line.  This rail segment has prospered because the driving alternatives are terrible.

As always, chokepoint geography means: It’s worth spending a lot of money improving transit here, because so many trips, between so many places, go through this point.  A regional inbalance of jobs and housing (more jobs in the west, more housing in the east) has create a huge east-west travel demand right through this ch0kepoint.  The hills are still a barrier for drivers, but for transit the barrier is the slow downtown streets, and the 1970s assumption that the train needs to stop near every building.

As if the slow operations weren’t bad enough, there’s also a problem of capacity.  Portland’s adorable little 200-foot blocks, rightly credited with giving downtown such a human scale, limit the train lengths to 2 cars as long as they run on the surface.  The city is too big now, and its transit needs too dire, for such tiny trains to do the job.

The problem is being attacked at several scales.  The transit agency is gingerly suggesting that a few stations should be closed. Stations on the downtown segment are as close as 350 feet — far too close for bus stops, let alone rail stations.  (The newer north-south light rail line, whose designers learned from the mistake, has station spacing closer to 1000 feet.  Unfortunately, it is the east-west line that extends furthest into the suburbs and therefore serves the most people.)

But the problem is so big, and obstructs so much access to opportunity across the region, that it won’t be solved just with half measures. A long overdue study is looking at the complex of capacity problems, and while it’s looked at some half-measures, the only thing that solves all the problems is a new segment of subway under the core.  The long frequent east-west lines serving suburbs (and the airport) would go into a tunnel, rushing under downtown in perhaps 1/3 the time, so that transit would finally be viable for travel across downtown and not just to it.  The existing surface line would still be used to provide a more local service across downtown.

An early concept for the downtown rail tunnel (black) with existing light rail segments in red. The tunnel has six stations counting the endpoints. Too many?

I have been skeptical of many rail projects in my time, but the most defensible of all are these “core capacity” projects.  Like the excellent Los Angeles Regional Connector, this is a project that is in downtown but not for downtown. Its purpose is to unlock the potential for all kinds of access across the region.  To bypass the inevitable edge-core debate, it will have to be presented in those terms.

That’s why I’m a little skeptical of the earliest concepts.  As sketched the tunnel has six stations downtown.  They should at least study a line that just has three: the two edges of downtown — Lloyd Center and Goose Hollow — where the fast line would connect with the slow surface line, and just one station at the very center of the city, Pioneer Courthouse Square, where almost all of they city’s radial transit services meet.  This would make the new line barely half as long and much less expensive.

Obviously there are great arguments for every proposed downtown station: the university, the stadium, the train station.  But it’s going to be important to have clear conversations about the balance between downtown and regional benefit, and between the benefits to an already prosperous downtown and the need for reasonable travel times for low income people, who are increasingly pushed further out where they have to travel further.

I don’t know that a three-station solution is right, but I know it should be looked at.  It’s really easy to get around downtown on transit, from anywhere to one of the three stations that this minimal version would offer.  It’s really hard to get across the region, and every station we add to this project moves us back toward not solving that problem — not just by making the line slower but also by making it more expensive.  It’s a tough balance, and I hope we’ll have the debate.

 

 

Chattanooga: Choices for the City’s Transit Future

Chattanooga Incline Railway

Chattanooga, Tennessee’s most well-known transit infrastructure may be the Chattanooga Choo-Choo, a former train station made famous by a 1941 swing tune by Glenn Miller and His Orchestra, or perhaps the Lookout Mountain Incline Railway, a tourist-oriented funicular currently owned and operated by the Chattanooga Area Regional Transportation Authority (CARTA).  Most days though, Chattanooga’s transit line with the highest ridership is the Route 4 bus from downtown to the eastern suburbs. Although Chattanooga was an early adopter of electric buses, starting their downtown electric shuttles in 1992, transit has not been at the forefront of its planning policies in the past few decades.  Like many other similarly sized cities without urban growth boundaries in the US, development has sprawled outwards, enabled by highways, resulting in land use patterns that are difficult to serve by transit.

That is changing.  In recent years, Chattanooga has focused efforts on rekindling the inner city, adding housing, retail, and office space downtown, and becoming the first midsize city in the US to designate an urban innovation district.  As a recognition of their efforts to build vibrant public spaces, Chattanooga will be hosting the Project for Public Spaces placemaking conference this Fall, the third city to do so after Amsterdam and Vancouver.  But in order for a city center integrated within a growing regional economy to scale up without being choked by traffic congestion, Chattanooga needs better transit.  Today, the city is starting to reconsider the role of the bus and may be ready to make major changes to its bus services and perhaps invest more in it.

 

The recently revamped Miller Park in Downtown Chattanooga. Photo: downtownchattanooga.org

We’ve been studying the transit system in Chattanooga for over a year and in June CARTA released our report outlining four possible concepts of what the future of transit could look like. These four concepts show a range of options between coverage and ridership goals with no new funding and two options with additional funding for transit. Happily, the local newspaper’s coverage is clear and accurate.

The release of this report begins the period of public discussions and surveys. The results of that discussion will inform the decision that the CARTA Board makes in August about what direction the final plan should take.

Our report discusses four possible futures but most likely, the final plan won’t look quite like any of these. The key idea — as in much of our work — is to open up a “decision space” in which people can figure out where they want to come down on the two difficult policy decisions:

  • Ridership vs coverage? What percentage of resources should to go pursuing a goal of maximum ridership — which will tend to generate frequent service in the densest urban markets — as opposed to the goal of coverage — spreading service out so that as many people as possible have some service nearby?
  • Level of investment in service? How much should the community invest in service? The more it invests the more it gets in value, but the value it gets depends in part on how you answer the ridership-coverage trade-off.

If you live in Chattanooga or know anyone there, now is the time to get involved.  Download the report, read at least the executive summary, form your own view, and share it with us here!  The more people respond, the more confident we’ll be in defining the final plan based on their guidance.

Why Write About Elon Musk?

Two crucial bits of news about Elon Musk:

Aaron Gordon at Jalopnik lays on the irony so I can stay above the fray:

Yes, for those keeping score, in a mere two years we’ve gone from a futuristic vision of electric skates zooming around a variety of vehicles in a network of underground tunnels to—and I cannot stress this enough—a very small, paved tunnel that can fit one (1) car.

The video’s marketing conceit is that the car in the tunnel beats a car trying to go the same distance on roads. You’ll never believe this, but the car that has a dedicated right of way wins. Congratulations to The Boring Company for proving dedicated rights of way are important for speedy transportation, something transportation planners figured out roughly two centuries ago. I’m afraid for how many tunnels they’ll have to dig before they likewise acknowledge the validity of induced demand.

In other words, as I wrote three years ago, Musk may be brilliant at physics but he often doesn’t seem to understand geometry, or at least not without doing expensive experiments to rediscover it.

Why even write about Elon Musk again?  When Elon Musk insulted me on Twitter over a year ago, I had a brief rush of media fame, including interviews on the BBC and Fox Business.  Maybe I’m just addicted to that.  Evidence against this theory:  I’ve written little about Musk for over a year since that brief moment of fame.  One of my worst nightmares is that I die before doing anything else that gets that much attention, so that Elon Musk’s insult dominates my obituaries.

No, the real utility of Elon Musk is that he presents himself as an extreme example of elite projection.  I defined that term, here, as “the belief, among relatively fortunate and influential people, that what those people find convenient or attractive is good for the society as a whole.”

When he was first promoting his mysteriously cheap tunnels, he talked about how much he hated traffic personally.  So he invented a tunnel that might get him and a few other billionaires out of traffic, but whose capacity was so low that it couldn’t possibly be relevant to the volume of travel in a big city.  As always inefficiency is inequality.  Only an efficient solution (in terms of both space and money) can be made available to everyone.

So don’t confuse elite projection with elitism. The problem with elite projection isn’t that it’s an elite point of view.  The problem is that it doesn’t work.

Why have I devoted my career to fixed public transit, rail and bus?  Because unlike Musk’s tunnels, or streetcars that are slower than walking, or “Ubering your transit system,” or fantasies of universal microtransit, fixed transit scales.  When it’s allowed to succeed, it’s a supremely efficient use of both money and space.  Bus service, especially, is cheap enough that you can have a lot of it, everywhere, if you decide you care about liberating lots of people to move around your city.  And if you want a city that’s equitable and sustainable remember: if it doesn’t scale, it doesn’t matter.

So no, I’m not interested in Elon Musk for his own sake.  But ideas are more exciting when we put faces and stories to them.  So if Elon Musk wants to be the face of elite projection, I’m grateful for his rhetorical help.  Should we call the phenomenon Muskism.  Muskismo?

One Less Barrier to Expanding US Urban Rail Transit

 

Caltrain between San Francisco and San Jose is one of many urban “commuter rail” lines that really need to be high frequency rapid transit lines. Now that’s a little more likely. Photo: Lucius Kwok.

Here’s some good news for people who want more rapid transit service in US cities, and soon.

In the US, all passenger rail services that could potentially mix with freight are governed by the regulations of the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA). This applies not just to Amtrak but also, critically, to “commuter” rail lines, crucial rail transit services that run on freight railways.

If cities wanted to rapidly upgrade their rail transit systems, the cheapest way is often using upgraded commuter rail rather than building new lines.  Many major cities have large networks of radial commuter rail lines [typically originally freight lines] which, if upgraded to run every 15 minutes or better all day, would effectively become metro lines, on the cheap.  You’ll find this level of service in many major metro areas overseas. Toronto’s Smart Track plan is exactly this idea.

The problem, as always, is frequency, which in turn is a problem of operating cost.  Most US commuter rail systems are far too infrequent to be useful for anything but 9-5 commuting, even though many of them run through dense urban fabric where the demand is there for all-day frequent service.

The Obama FRA, responding to several freight rail disasters, had proposed a rule mandating two-person crews, and had quietly inserted language extending this to passenger rail, even though passenger and freight rail present very different safety issues.   Those requirements would have made commuter rail service too expensive to run frequently enough for it to be useful, and would have persisted regardless of whether technological developments improved the safety outcomes of one-person crews.

The Federal Railroad Administration has just announced that it will stop requiring two-person crews and preempt state requirements to do so.  If this were a genuine safety issues, I’d be alarmed, but it really isn’t. The new FRA position liberates transit agencies and other local governments to negotiate the right solution with their unions in the context of what’s technologically possible.

Yes, removing this requirement is a “conservative” idea that would be unlikely to come from a Democratic administration.  But it removes a significant barrier to providing more useful urban public transit, which leads to all kinds of benefits for equity, prosperity, and the environment.