US Congress Considering Freedom-Based Measures of Project Success

It’s hard to capture what good news this is.  Through a bipartisan bill, Congress is seriously considering a plan to give more weight to how proposed transit investments improve access to jobs and opportunity.  The bureaucratic word for this is accessibility, but I like to call it physical freedom, because the presence of meaningful choices in your life lies in whether you can get to them in a reasonable time, which is exactly what this measures.  From the Transportation For America website:

The incredibly blunt metrics that most planners or communities have used since the 1960s, like overall traffic congestion and on-time performance for transit, paint a grossly two-dimensional picture of the challenges people face while trying to reach jobs and services. They don’t provide sufficient information for agencies to make accurate decisions about what to build in order to best connect people to the places they need to go. These 1960s metrics lead to singular and expensive solutions (like highway expansions), while often failing to solve the problem or even creating new ones.

Today, precise new tools allow communities to accurately calculate accessibility to employment opportunities, daily errands, public services, and much more. These tools allow states and MPOs to better understand where people are traveling and to design transportation networks to maximize the ability of people to travel. It also allows states and MPOs to optimize their transportation networks to utilize all modes of transportation and even to understand how their investments interact with land use policies.

We use these tools all the time in our bus network redesigns, though we are limited, by available data, to studying access to jobs.  It is great to see people working on better data layers to capture errands, shopping, and so on.  I am not sure how much of this granularity is necessary, but it doesn’t hurt.

Implicit in this news is the idea that ridership prediction could decline in importance, which would be great news.  We are much too deferential to predictive algorithms for things that may not be predictable, such as human preferences and attitudes 20 or 30 years from now.

There’s one other caution.  When planning fixed infrastructure investment, hard thinking has to go into what facts from today are assumed to be permanent.  For example, when we talk about access to public services, will we just analyze outcomes based on the often terrible locations of these services, thereby enabling continued terrible location decisions?  If we dare to predict better urban form in response to public investments, on what basis will we predict that?

The conversation about access therefore needs to reflect on what aspects of urban form and location are likely to last for decades, like the larger scale urban form and the likely trip generation it implies.   (We may build more dense urban fabric, but we are unlikely to tear it down.)  This is another reason why too much granularity could distract us; it leads us back into obsessive descriptions of the present, some aspects of which could be different next year.

So this is difficult philosophical stuff.  I’m trying to grapple with it in the next book.  Feel free to nag me about how it’s going!

Greater Salt Lake City: Your Choices for Transit Service

Photo credit: Garrett, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Utah Transit Authority (UTA) has launched Service Choices, a public conversation about the future of bus service in the big “Wasatch Front” metro area that includes Salt Lake City, Provo, Ogden, and everything around and between them.  We worked with UTA to develop the survey, and we’ll be helping them figure out how to develop a new vision for the bus network based on what they year.  Salt Lake Tribune covers the kickoff here.

The big question, of course, is the ridership-coverage trade-off.  Utah Transit Authority covers a huge area, with many suburban cities at a range of densities.  Spreading bus service over all of that area (to meet a coverage goal) would spread the service very thin, meaning poor frequencies and thus a service that not many people would find useful.  Concentrating service in high-density places, so that you can run high frequency there, is the key to a ridership goal, but that means no service to vast low-density areas.  We explain it in detail here.

As in the concurrent Cleveland study, we’re also asking about how coverage service should be deployed.  Given that UTA is going to run a certain amount of predictably low-ridership service for non-ridership reasons, should the priority for that service be:

  • addressing severe needs and equity?  This would focus coverage service on places of low income, high senior population or other indicator of need.
  • serving new horizontal development?  This would put service into newly developing area while they are still under construction.
  • providing a little service to everyone?  This would spread the service thinnest of all, but responds to the “we pay taxes too” argument for service.

The online survey is the most powerful way for lots of people to give us feedback, but there will also be putlic meetings and other outreach events, which will be posted here.

Please encourage everyone you know in the greater Wasatch Front area to engage with this study.  This outreach is not just for bus riders!  UTA works for every resident, every business, and every taxpayer, so everyone’s opinion counts.

 

Notes on SimCity at 30

Car oriented development looks a lot more viable when you hide all the parking!

Yes, the first attempt at a comprehensive city planning game, Sim City, is 30 years old.  Jessica Roy in the Los Angeles Times has a good piece on how the game helped turn people onto city planning …

Along the way, the games have introduced millions of players to the joys and frustrations of zoning, street grids and infrastructure funding — and influenced a generation of people who plan cities for a living. For many urban and transit planners, architects, government officials and activists, “SimCity” was their first taste of running a city. It was the first time they realized that neighborhoods, towns and cities were things that were planned, and that it was someone’s job to decide where streets, schools, bus stops and stores were supposed to go.

… while also reinforcing some bad 20th century ideologies.  Sim City …

  • conceals the impacts of parking, thereby making car-dependent development look more functional and attractive than it is.
  • requires single-use zoning.  You can’t live above your shop, or have a grocery store in your office building.
  • requires car access to every building.  Pedestrianized urban cores are impossible, no matter the density.
  • treats transit very superficially, not allowing the user to specify routes and frequencies, and giving the misleading impression that any kind of transit, anywhere, produces some vague benefit.  Thus there is nothing to stop you from common mistakes like building high density in culdesacs, where efficient transit could never get to it.

Recently, I did a quick look at available iPad city planning games.  I tried Megapolis, Designer City, Pocket City, and Sim City: BuildIt.   They’re all built on the same four fallacies, and their handling of transit ranges from comical to nonexistent.  (Sim City BuildIt actually starts with a greenfield freeway interchange, leaving no doubt what kind of city they expect you to build.)

My past articles on SimCity are here, here, here, and here.   Sim City gets credit as a pioneer, but it’s run its course.  I hope we see more planning games that try to get transportation right, and games that try to do transit in particular.  If you’re working on one, let’s talk!

  (Photo: BLDGBLOG)

 

Cleveland: Kicking Off a Transit Plan

(Photo:  GCRTA)

I’m just back from a week in Cleveland, where I introduced our new transit planning project to members of the transit agency board and began the process of working with staff to develop network concepts that will help the public think about their choices.  Press coverage of my presentation is here, here, and here.  The local advocates at Clevelanders for Public Transit are also on the case.

Cleveland is in a challenging situation.  The city has been losing population for years and most growth has been in outer suburbs that were designed for total car dependence.  Low-wage industrial jobs are appearing in places that are otherwise almost rural, requiring low-income people to commute long distances.

All this is heightening the difficulty of the ridership-coverage tradeoff.  The agency faces understandable demands to run long routes to reach remote community colleges and low-wage jobs, but because these services require driving long distances to reach few people, they are always low-ridership services compared to what the agency could achieve if it focused more on Cleveland and its denser inner suburbs.   There’s no right or wrong answer about what to do.  The community must figure out its own priorities.

To that end, we have helped the agency launch a web survey to help people figure out what the agency should focus on.  In April, we’ll release two contrasting maps that illustrate the tradeoff more explicitly, and again ask people what they think.  Only then will we think about developing recommendations.

If you live in Cuyahoga County, please engage by taking the survey!

 

A US Density Revolution?

These two things are connected!

In major cities and some states across the US, the tide seems to suddenly be turning in favor of density.  James Brasuell at Planetizen has a thorough survey of these efforts.  Read the whole thing.

An inescapable trend emerged in recent years and months: a large and growing number of communities are now engaged in comprehensive plans and zoning code revisions, and they’re doing that planning work in the hopes of creating a future that is fundamentally distinct from the 20th century model of planning.

But the revolution Brasuell describes is about much more than planning documents.  The story is political:  In response to the housing crisis, both city and state politicians are producing legislation that makes it easier to build densely by:

  • reducing off-street parking requirements, which makes denser development pencil out and can also make units more affordable
  • streamlining transit-oriented development, including around frequent bus corridors and
  • most controversially, allowing more density in neighborhoods that have long been legally protected as exclusively for single family homes.

All this is great news, not because everybody wants to live at high density but because more people want it than can currently afford it.  The extreme cost of living in dense and walkable cities is the sound of the market screaming at us to build more of them, and finally that’s becoming possible.

From a transit perspective, I have one note of caution when it comes to upzoning absolutely everywhere.  Most cities have places that are hard for transit to get to, and where a few more people will create transit demand that is very expensive to serve.  Sometimes they are physically hard to reach: long cul-de-sacs, squiggly streets, etc.  But sometimes too they are so sparsely populated that they are poor transit markets and adding a few more people isn’t enough to make them better.

Gentle upzoning of single-family areas — allowing second and third units on formerly single-family parcels — is mostly helpful, but not always in these tough spots.  In any case, serious density must be organized around the frequent transit network — bus and rail — so that more people end up in places where transit can be really useful to them.   Don’t know where yours is?  There should be a map of it somewhere, reflecting a policy adopted by both your transit agency and your city government!  It should be on the wall in both the transit agency and the city’s planning and traffic offices.  (See Chapter 16 of my book, Human Transit, for more on this tool.)

Transit is expensive.  It succeeds when it can run in straight lines through dense and walkable places, so that it has enough ridership over a short enough distance that it can afford high frequency.  A policy frequent network, agreed upon by the transit agency and the city government(s) and manifested in both zoning and traffic planning, was critical to jumpstarting the growth of transit in Seattle, which is now one of the US’s great success stories.  It could make a difference for your city too.

Bus Crashes Auto Show with Killer Ad

By Christopher Yuen

This coming weekend for the first time, GO Transit, Toronto’s regional transit agency, will be displaying one of their buses at the Canadian International Auto Show.  They’ve also made a fantastically theatrical ad touting an amazing technology that’s even better than the self-driving car.

Dramatic?  Yes, but only fitting for a densely populated city where nearly 50 percent of commutes into downtown are made by transit, and where the mobility of everyone is dependent on not everybody travelling in individual cars, self-driving or not.

Lyft Lobbying to Keep Cities from Governing Themselves

Portland’s mayor and transportation commissioner have blasted Lyft for lobbying the State of Oregon to prevent Portland from regulating to manage the impacts of Uber and Lyft on the city.  Their scathing letter to Lyft’s Chief Policy Officer Anthony Foxx (former Charlotte Mayor and USDOT secretary) is worth reading in its entirety.  It’s copied in full below.

The principle here is clear:  Dense cities have unique problems that arise from the shortage of space per person, which is what density is.  When state governments led by suburban and rural areas overrule dense cities, they are demanding that dense cities be governed as though they were country towns.  It’s not a cultural problem or an ideological problem.  It’s a geometry problem.  

Outer suburban and rural areas don’t experience a severe shortage of space on streets, so it’s understandable that they see Uber and Lyft mostly as great companies offering a great product.  Only dense cities experience the severe downside: increased vehicle trips due to repositioning movements from one job to the next, and a shift of customers into cars from more sustainable modes like transit, walking and cycling.

Only dense cities understand the problems of dense cities.  They have to be able to act to address those problems.


Here’s the full text of the letter from Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler and Transportation Commissioner Chloe Eudaly:

February 4, 2019

 

The Honorable Anthony Foxx

Chief Policy Officer and Senior Advisor

Lyft

185 Berry St., Suite 5000

San Francisco, CA 94107

 

Mr. Foxx,

In 2015, the City of Portland, Oregon established an innovative pilot program to evaluate whether Transportation Network Companies (TNC) should be added to Portland’s existing private for-hire transportation system. In taking this approach, we wanted to give Portlanders access to a new transportation option while ensuring that TNCs served all Portlanders safely, fairly and reliably.

As one of the two TNCs to take part in the pilot, Lyft was a model participant. When issues or concerns arose, Lyft worked closely with the City of Portland to resolve them. This collaborative spirit was one of the primary reasons why our City Council decided to make TNCs permanent in January 2016. In the ensuing three years, Lyft was a good corporate citizen, including promptly paying over $52,000 in fines after failing to properly track the number of drivers on your platform, and worked closely with the City to deliver a convenient, safe transportation option.

Until now.

We have been dismayed to learn that Lyft is behind the effort to pass a bill to eliminate local consumer, safety and disability-access protections for people who use Lyft and other TNCs. If your lobbying efforts were to succeed, Portland would no longer be able to manage our transportation system to best support the mobility, safety, accessibility, sustainability, and equity needs of our City.

To be frank, we are puzzled by this. After all, you were a mayor and certainly appreciate the important role that cities have in managing their transportation systems. In addition, when you were appointed to your position at Lyft, you noted that, “Lyft has led the industry with its collaborative approach to working with regulators….”  As a company, Lyft has committed to bold sustainability goals and to creating a world designed for people, not cars. Finally, when Lyft co-Founder and President John Zimmer visited Portland last year, he reinforced these values and his interest in working with cities on transportation innovation, whether by car, bike, or scooter.

Your current efforts to avoid local consumer protections and skirt policies that ensure that TNC rides are safe for all passengers and accessible to people with disabilities run completely contrary to your stated positions and the positions of the company you represent.

Specifically, the bill Lyft has proposed and is attempting to pass would eliminate the ability of every Oregon city from taking the following common sense steps to protect TNC passengers:

  • Requiring thorough background checks for TNC drivers and mandating that Lyft and other TNCs ban drivers who pose a danger to the public.
  • Prohibiting companies from charging passengers with disabilities higher prices during busy times.
  • Conducting field safety audits to ensure that vehicles are reliable and do not pose a danger to passengers.
  • Requiring that Lyft and other TNCs do not discriminate against passengers based on their race, ethnicity, religion and other factors.
  • Conducting spot checks to verify that drivers are who they say they are.
  • Adopting regulations to provide better service for people with disabilities and low-income people.
  • Issuing permits to make sure that Lyft and other TNCs follow the law.
  • Creating programs to investigate when Lyft and other TNCs provide poor service.
  • Penalizing companies and drivers when they endanger, discriminate against or otherwise fail to provide safe, fair and reliable service to passengers.
  • Adopting regulations aimed at supporting drivers and consumers, including establishing insurance minimums.
  • Collecting local data, which is critical for understanding congestion and climate impacts.
  • Charging local fees necessary to maintain the consumer protections that have been established.
  • Establishing related programs and policies that advance safety and mobility goals.

In Portland, we have successfully protected the health and safety of private-for-hire passengers for over a century. We firmly believe that local governments are best positioned to provide oversight and management of their transportation systems and to ensure that safety, equity and sustainability goals and commitments are met. This has never been truer than with the emergence and rapid growth of the TNC industry. This proposed legislation is contrary to this bedrock philosophy that the best oversight of the transportation system and the private-for-hire industry is local.  Not only that, but it is a disservice to passengers, drivers and the general public who expect safe and reliable service and who are expecting you to stand by your sustainability and community commitments.

We look forward to a modification in Lyft’s position on this Oregon legislation.

Sincerely,

 

Ted Wheeler,  Mayor

Chloe Eudaly, Commissioner of Transportation