Kansas City: A Draft Network Redesign

About a year ago, our firm started helping the Kansas City Area Transit Authority (also known as KCATA or RideKC) on a short-term bus network redesign for the City of Kansas City, Missouri (KCMO).  While the regional agency covers a larger area, this study is only for KCMO, which pays for transit service directly from city funds.

The Draft Plan for this redesigned network was released last Friday, and you can read up on it at RideKCNext.org. If you live in Kansas City, there’s also an online survey, which you should respond to before March 16th.

This plan was not easy. Kansas City is an extraordinarily challenging place to plan transit service, a perfect storm of all the issues that beset most large US cities:

  • Low-density built environment combining hollowed-out parts of the urban core and ever-increasing suburbanization.
  • profound residential segregation by income and race.
  • some awkward jurisdictional boundaries, especially north of the Missouri River.  These matter because local funding arrangements mean we had to think about the City of Kansas City separately, which in some places can be like thinking about only the black squares on a chessboard.

At nearly 500,000 people, Kansas City, MO, is only a third of the Kansas City region by population. But this includes nearly all the region’s relatively dense, transit-oriented areas. KCMO also provides about 80% of local transit funding, and 90% of all regional transit ridership originates in KCMO.

The Good News

First, the good news. As a result of the Draft Plan, nearly 20% more KCMO residents would live near frequent service, with a bus coming every 15 minutes or better.

Weekend service would also be greatly expanded, with service every 15 minutes on Saturday, and every 20 minutes on the eight most important routes in the network.This compares to the You can see the expansion of the frequent network, and improvements in weekend service in page 11 of the plan, shown below. (Click to enlarge and sharpen)

 

Put together, these changes would go some way to address the biggest problem of Kansas City’s bus network, which is that it just doesn’t provide enough access to opportunity. If the Draft Plan were implemented, the average KCMO resident could reach 7% more jobs on weekdays, and 22% more jobs on Saturdays in 60 minutes or less using transit (including any time spent walking, waiting, or transferring), all with no new investment in service.

As you can see above, the big expansion of access is the result of an expanded frequent grid with more frequent east-west elements.  This is especially urgent because of the geography of race and income.  Kansas City (south of the Missouri River) features a north-south strip on the west side where almost all of the prosperity is, and, further east, a north-south strip that is heavily low-income and minority residents.

Job and opportunity density is concentrated in a north-south strip on the west side of the city.

Low income (and minority) residents mostly live further east.

Most existing frequent transit in the city is north-south, converging on downtown at the north end.  But low income people need to get from their homes in the east to wherever they are going on the west side of the city, not just downtown.  A high frequency grid does this.  People can travel westward more easy to connect to whichever north-south route meets their needs.  For that reason, much of the plan’s benefits arises from improvements in east-west frequency on streets like 12th, 39thand 47th/Blue Parkway.

Difficult Tradeoffs

But this good news comes at the cost of some painful compromises.  The plan is designed for fast change, and KCATA is in the midst of a parallel effort to eliminate transit fares in KCMO. So the Draft Plan assumes no new revenue is available.

That means all proposed improvements would come at the price of service reductions somewhere else. In the urban core, the plan would remove several infrequent bus routes that operate ¼-mile or less from a more frequent route. In outlying areas, the plan would entirely remove bus routes from several neighborhoods where ridership is extremely low. Overall, about 1.5% of KCMO residents would no longer be within ½-mile of any kind of transit.

Perhaps the most obvious shortcoming of the plan is that it would continue to provide very limited service in the suburban Northland, where over a third of KCMO’s population live, but densities are much lower and average incomes tend to be a little higher.

Ultimately, it’s a lot harder to efficiently invest KCMO’s very limited transit resources in the Northland. This is because relatively few people live close enough to any street where you might run a bus, the street networks make it harder to walk, and destinations tend to be far apart. And much of the Northland’s most likely transit street (North Oak) is located in enclave cities who contribute much less for service, reducing KCMO’s incentive to invest.

See below for full maps of the existing and proposed network. Because KCMO covers such a large area, you’ll be able to see these a lot better by clicking and expanding them. You can also get a detailed view of how transit service would change in each part of Kansas City by clicking here.

Existing network.

 

Proposed network.

As consultants, we make no claim that this is the best of all possible transit networks from KCMO. It’s clear to us and to KCATA that Kansas City would benefit from investing significantly more money in transit service; the plan identifies several incremental improvements that KCATA should prioritize if revenues improve. But we think this is what can be achieved with the resources currently on the table.

(with Daniel Costantino)

 

Now on Video: My Webinar with Jeff Speck

On January 17, 2020 I did a very fun webinar with the urban designer Jeff Speck (Walkable City, Walkable City Rules), sponsored by the Maryland Department of Planning on behalf of the Smart Growth Clearinghouse.  Jeff “entertained himself” (in his own words), and I, always the serious one, talked about freedom.

It’s here.  Jeff starts at 6:42.  Jeff introduces me at  41:51.  After my presentation, a great conversation between us ensues at 1:07:00.  (Unfortunately the video freezes awkwardly in this stretch so by all means turn it off.)

A New Years Letter, with Unsolicited Advice

This is our little consulting firm’s New Years letter to the world …

Friends, Clients, and Colleagues,

Jarrett's photoA New Years Letter is supposed to wish you all the best while talking about all our own wonderful news. We have some news, and I’ll share it below. But I also want to think with you about how to face a decade that could be the most challenging of our lives.

As we do transit plans in many cities, we’re hearing a lot of hope and a lot of anger, but we’re also hearing a word that I didn’t hear much a decade ago: emergency.

We have the “climate emergency,” an endlessly blaring alarm that unites all natural disasters into one. My Australian friends spent New Years Eve fleeing from 50-foot walls of flame. Young people come to our meetings asking what this thing we’re discussing will do for the climate, by which they mean: “Am I going to have a world to live in?”

But problems of social justice and inequality also look more like emergencies now. I spent much of November in Chile, watching “the most stable country in Latin America” explode in rage and chaos about an economic system that had been considered perfectly normal the week before. Social inequality, however you define it, is a potential emergency every bit as much as climate is.

Emergency is a frightening word. It says: “Do everything differently now, or else,” but people who just try to “do something” often do the wrong thing. Our challenge as a profession is to figure out how all these ringing alarms should affect how we do our jobs, and how we talk about them.

Most of us work in big organizations with complex webs of bureaucratic requirements and processes. We all spend time complying with rules, rather than solving problems or creating opportunities.

Most of those rules have purposes, and I am not calling for open rebellion against them. But to people outside our profession, it can look like we’re performing slow and mysterious rituals while the house is on fire.

So here are some new year resolutions we’re taking on as a firm. Maybe they’re useful to you.

  • I will act as if what I’m doing matters, because it does. Transit is a key tool that can ease many of the crises that are triggering fear and rage, so how you do your job is affecting the world. That’s true whether you drive a bus, design a bus route, audit compliance, or do any other of the thousand things that keep our industry running.
  • If something doesn’t matter, I will stop doing it and stop telling others to do it. Those of us who create procedures have a special responsibility to make sure that everything we tell people to do is actually helping make things better.
  • I will help people understand. Practice explaining what you do and why it matters in plain language. Transit is a widely misunderstood topic. We must be patient and clear in helping everyone see how it works, so that they can make decisions whose consequences they can see.

This, at least, is what we’ll try to do.

Our good news is that we’ve been fortunate to see our work improving people’s lives, and thus making transit more resilient and effective. We led the design process for networks that are now operating in Houston, Columbus, Indianapolis, Richmond, Anchorage and now, just last week, San Jose and Silicon Valley in California (VTA). Auckland, New Zealand’s spectacular public transit renaissance includes a network redesign that I worked on in 2012, and that finally rolled out last year.

We just finished our work on a giant redesign project in Dublin, our first job in the European Union, and we hope to see it on the street in a year or two. Right now, we’re in the midst of network design projects in Miami, Kansas City, Dallas, Salt Lake City, Chattanooga, and Alexandria, Virginia, among others.

But bus network design isn’t all we do, and 2019 was a year of branching out. We are doing more long range planning, including the Tucson Long Range Transit Plan this year. We’re helping universities and private companies think about transit. We’re providing crucial professional advice on land use plans, too many of which are done without deep thought about transit. We’re advising on a range of policy questions, helping people understand how decisions that are about other things determine whether effective service transit service will be possible.

So that’s our news. The new decade will be full of challenges, but I hope it’s also full of happiness and rewards for you. Let us all keep learning from each other.

Sincerely,

Jarrett Walker

You Won’t Want to Miss This Webinar!

So far, 857 people have registered for the January 17 webinar where I’ll be appearing alongside the celebrated urban designer Jeff Speck, author of Walkable City and Walkable City Rules.  It’s sponsored by the Smart Growth Network and the Maryland Department of Planning.

The cool thing about webinars is that there’s no registration limit, so you might as well come!

It’s Friday, January 17 at 1:00 PM US Eastern Time, 10: 00 AM Pacific.  You do need to register, so click here!

(Yes, the headline is clickbait.  I’m not good at clickbait but I’m practicing!)

New Year’s Resolution: Ignore Predictions

We’ve all been trained to view the confident prediction as evidence of expertise.  The expert commits to a prediction — “Blazers win by two, “Biden wins New Hampshire,” “We’ll all be riding driverless cars by 2019” — and we’re supposed to be impressed.  “If he’s so confident, he must know what he’s talking about” we are supposed to think.

He doesn’t.  The only statements about the future worth considering are those hedged with uncertainty and margins of error, where certainty is approached gradually through many people studying the facts.  That’s the long, slow, misunderstood process by which we got to the consensus on climate change.  But most practitioners of that craft don’t call this work prediction.  They speak more humbly (and accurately) of projections and scenarios. They tell us that things are moving in a direction, or that some outcomes are more likely than another, or that “if nothing changes” it will look something like this in 2050.

Prediction isn’t humble in this way.  Often it’s just a sales pitch:  “Buy this product and you will be happy.”  “Thanks to our product, public transit will soon be obsolete.”  Ignore these claims utterly.  They are not trying to make you smarter.  As always when you hear any statement about a patented new thing, lean into the wind.  The more you detect self-interest behind the prediction, the more you should doubt it.

When I say prediction-like things in my role as an expert, they are of two kinds.  Either I am predicting the continued existence of physical facts, (“In 2100, an elephant still won’t fit inside a wineglass”1) or I’m offering if-then statements that point to the listener’s power:  “If you do this, it will have this effect”.  I’m careful to stay in those bounds, where I’m certain. When journalists ask me “what will cities be like in 2030?” I decline.

Here’s the thing:  Prediction — by which I mean any non-trivial assertion about the future — is the opposite of moral thinking, because it implies we are passive receivers of the future instead of creators of it.

Predictions tell us that we will happen anyway if accept the future passively, doing nothing to change it.  But all credible, properly hedged projections about that future are dire.  So we will act, and our action will disrupt all the models and assumptions and prejudices that make prediction possible.

To feel powerful, then, you must resolve to reject all confident predictions that you hear.  Honor the projections and scenarios that reflect decades of humble work.  But don’t let anyone tell you they know what the future will be.  Nobody knows, and it would be cause for despair if they did.

 

(A much expanded version of this argument is in my Journal of Public Transportation paper here.)

Notes

1  A more relevant insight about urban planning than you might think, as I explain near the beginning of most of my public speeches — this one, for example.

San Jose and Silicon Valley: Welcome to Your New Network

Finally, the long deferred new network design for Valley Transportation Authority — which covers San Jose and much of Silicon Valley in the Bay Area, is going live as I write this, on December 28, 2019.  The plan arises from a major study that we led in 2016.

[Implementation was delayed so long due to delays in completing the BART rapid transit extension from the East Bay into San Jose, which the plan is intended to complement.  VTA planned on the line opening tomorrow, but a last minute delay (too late for VTA to postpone their plans) has pushed that opening into the spring, so express buses will be providing that link in the meantime.]

What’s new?  A massive high frequency grid covering most of San Jose, where transit demand is highest, but also bit improvements for the “Silicon Valley” area to the west.  A new frequent north south line runs through Sunnyvale and Cupertino.  Routes are simplified and made straighter. The light rail system was redesigned at the same time, to make it more gridlike as well.  Nothing new was built, but the service pattern is also more of a grid, with a new continuous east-west line across the north side of the region that will connect tens of thousands of jobs to BART for travel to the East Bay.

Here’s the old network, with red denoting high frequency.  (Click to enlarge and sharpen.)

The old VTA network. Red = 15 minute frequency or better. Note the lack of a high frequency grid apart from the lowest-income area in the far east. Map by Jarrett Walker + Associates.

And here’s the new one, by our friends at CHK America. The style is slightly different from ours, but still, high frequency is in red, and the broad colored lines (black in our map above) are the light rail network.

The new VTA network. Red=15 minute frequency or better. Map by CHK America.

Also, an historic event about which I’ll write more:  A two-segment very low-ridership light rail segment has been closed, between Ohlone/Chynoweth and Almaden stations in southern San Jose.  I believe this is the first time that a modern US light rail segment — i.e. built since the 1950s — was permanently closed, with the exception of a single station in Pittsburgh.  (Please correct me if I’m wrong!)

And yes, some low-ridership segments disappear, though very few people end up losing all of their service.  Often, the deleted routes provided some link inside an area that already had other service, and while some of these routes were fiercely defended by locals, there was no way to justify them when they achieved neither high ridership nor unique coverage.  Another important part of that story is that many of the wealthier Silicon Valley cities have their own transit services, and while of course they would prefer that the county pay for their service, they have the option of running some of these low-ridership links themselves if they decide it is important to them.

Meanwhile, the center of gravity of the network remains in the east, not just because incomes are lower there but also because the geography is more favorable to efficient transit, with fewer barriers to walking and a more regularly gridded street network.  Google’s move into the Diridon station area of San Jose is a great first step toward bringing jobs and prosperity into a landscape that efficient transit can serve well.

All this resulted from a clear discussion with the VTA Board, and the community, about the ridership-coverage tradeoff.  The old system was about 70% justified by ridership, while the new network is closer to 90%.  Getting to the right balance of ridership and coverage goals was the result of a long conversation, in which we showed the public alternatives and got their feedback before the Board made a decision.

To all of Silicon Valley and San Jose, welcome to your new network.  It’s been a long struggle (for VTA more than for us) but you can finally go places you could never go before, and soon.

 

Am I a Disruptor Now? (the Podcast)

“Getting excited about technology is often a way of distracting ourselves from the actual problems before us.”

I’m not known for the glorifying mass disruption, but I guess I’m a disruptor now.  Matt Ward’s podcast The Disruptors interviewed me this fall.  We talked about driverless cars, flying cars, Uber, scooters, “super mini micro smartcar pods,” and whether the whole interview was a Turing test.  Matt asked me especially tough questions about what might be possible in the future.

Something about Matt’s style got me talking a little fast, but it was fun.  It starts at 5:15 with John F. Kennedy pretending to be me, and then I get going at 5:30.  There’s one irritating ad early on, and then it’s uninterrupted.

It’s here.

 

Chile: Planning as Everything Changes

Santiago resembles Los Angeles in geography and climate, but the mountains are much higher, the city is denser, and of course there is much more poverty (not pictured).

My planned week in Santiago, intended to be for the CEDEUS conference, was wildly rearranged by the civic uprising that’s transforming Chile, which until a month ago was famously the most stable country in Latin America.  Bigger events than ours had to be cancelled, since nobody could guarantee security in the center of Santiago while the protests took their uncertain course.

You have probably heard about the appalling vandalism of the Santiago Metro and the destruction of businesses.  You may not have heard that these are massive protests whose underlying grievances have broad public support, even though almost everyone deplores the destruction.  Suddenly, the word on everyone’s lips is desigualdad — inequality.

But of course immobility is part of inequality, so around the edges I thought I might still have something to offer.  Some low income people in Santiago are over 90 minutes travel time from their jobs, giving them no time to either seek a better life or care for their families.  As always, this is both a transport problem and a land use problem, one I did my best to explain in purely geometric terms.

The graffito in yellow reads: “It wasn’t peace, it was silence.”

My host Juan-Carlos Muñoz of the Catholic University of Chile made an extraordinary effort to make good use of my time, even though nothing could be planned for certain.

We had planned an overnight trip to Concepción, for example, to speak at the university there, at the invitation of transport engineering professor Juan Antonio Carrasco. But Juan Carlos had to call me the day before to tell me there would be a general strike the next day, so while we could fly there tonight nobody knew if we would be able to get back tomorrow.  Also, there would be no public transport and students would be in the streets, so nobody knew if anyone would come to my talk.  He invited me to cancel, though he encouraged me to go.

The courageous, dashing consultant that I’d like you to think I am paused for effect and then said, in a gravelly voice: “Let’s do it.”  In fact I leaned hard on Juan Carlos’s optimism, and I’m glad I did.  Our spare time in Concepción was consumed by the work of getting around barricades and fires, so the only sightseeing we could do in that beautiful city was to gaze in shock at the looted and burned big box stores.  In the end, I was delighted to see over 40 people, including journalists, show up for my talk, and asked great questions.  Later I did a similar presentation back in Santiago (summarized in Spanish here) to a similar number. [1][2]

From left, Professor Juan Carlos Muñoz, I, Chile’s Minister of Transport and Telecomminications Gloria Hutt and Vice Minister José Luis Domínguez.

And there were great casual chats, including with activists from the sustainable transport advocacy group Muevete, and with dedicated and energetic staff from the government public transport authority, Transantiago.  Finally, beyond my expectations, I had an hour with Chile’s Ministry of Transport Gloria Hutt to talk about immobility in the context of the dramatic transformations in public transit that they are trying to achieve. [3]

Finally, there was a series of conversations with Lake Sagaris, one of the most fascinating people I know.  She’s now a Canadian-Chilean transport professor, but she was also one of the key journalists and authors who chronicled the Pinochet dictatorship and its aftermath.   Today, she’s a leading expert in the now-urgent task of fostering a constructive and inclusive public conversation.

One of the most remarkable features of the current crisis is the spontaneous generation of many thousands of cabildos, locally generated groups of people, beyond the usual interest groups, who gather to discuss the crisis and paths forward.  These groups, often organized by local government, are widely viewed as credible, and their ideas are strongly influencing the conversation as presented in the media.

Land use planning in Concón, Chile: a little too laissez-faire?

With such fractured but intense impressions, what can I say about Chile in this remarkable time?

The word revolution comes to mind but is too strong, and premature.  The Chilean media tend to call the recent events el estallido (explosion, outbreak, shattering), which conveys the force and disruption without implying a point of view on the grievances or a belief about how things will turn out.  The conservative government is showing openness to dramatic change, including a new Constitution, so perhaps things will evolve in a peaceful way.

Mostly, Chile is just deeply uncertain.  Uncertain in daily life:  Will we be able to travel tomorrow, and if so will we be able to come back?  Can a meeting in inner Santiago be planned for next week?  Will anyone come?  Will a random strike close a national park, stranding all the international visitors staying nearby?  And more deeply:  How much more violence and destruction lies ahead?  How real are the promised transformations?  What will the new constitution say? What kind of country will Chile be five years from now?

Chile presents a rapid alternation of the utterly normal and the utterly disrupted, and nobody knows where the future equilibrium is.  If there’s reason for optimism, it’s that there seems to be widespread consensus to deplore the violence but insist on the urgency of change.  And as always, equality isn’t just about how much money people have.  It’s also about mobility, access to opportunity, so land use and transport are at the center of it all.

 

Notes

[1]

The courageous, dashing consultant that I’d like you to think I am did all these events in fluent Spanish, despite not having studied the language at all until 6 months ago.  In fact, I was at a stage where I could give a prepared speech in Spanish but not really take questions in it. [2]  This is what I look like when I’m doing that.  Walking a tightrope, basically, or trying to invoke any available deity to give me the next word when I need it.  Note the heavily light of inspiration slightly missing me to my right:

[2]

A further challenge to comprehension is that the Chilean accent tends to omit vowels (which, to be fair, is a common complaint about the American accent in English.)  Thus I had conversations like this:

I:  A qué hora devolverán mi ropa mañana?  [when will they return our laundry tomorrow?]

She:  Awa owo.

I:  Um.  Otra vez?  [again?]

She:  Awa owo!  Eight!

I:  Ah!  “A las ocho?”

She:  Sí!  Awa owo!

This endless humiliation had its uses, of course.  It kept me from feeling that I could figure out the place too easily, and so slowed the inevitable slide from curiosity into judgment.

[3]

Chile is going through the same process that I was part of in Australia, New Zealand, and Ireland: bringing over-privatized bus services together into a single network that government controls and markets, while private companies still compete to operate the services.  It’s the only way to get a coherent and efficient network design that maximizes mobility while also yielding the benefits of competition in operations.

 

I Am Not a Bus Advocate

What, you say?  But you wrote an article in the Atlantic called The Bus is Still Best!  You redesign bus networks for a living!  You’ve been a skeptic about all kinds of new alternatives to the bus, from monorails to streetcars-stuck-in-traffic t0 “microtransit.”  Have you changed your mind?  

I am a freedom advocate[1], which means that I like it when people can go places, and therefore do things, and therefore have better lives more rich with choice and opportunity.  And when I analyze how to deliver freedom cost-effectively, the fixed route bus turns out to be the right answer in a huge percentage of cases.  It’s not right in all cases, and where it isn’t I don’t recommend it.  (Where a community has other goals, that too can yield a different answer, which is fine.  It’s their community.)

But it’s increasingly common to read things like this

Entrenched beliefs that the bus or rail is best, period — and that ridership and scalability are all that matter — stop us from seeing all the places where we can leverage technology and new ideas.

[UPDATE:  This article has since been revised in response to my objections.]

The word “bus” was a link to my Atlantic article, whose headline, “The Bus Is Still Best,” I dislike but could not control.[2]  The implication of this link is that I am “entrenched” in an emotional attachment to buses the way that many people can be emotionally attached to trains or airplanes or Porsches or whatever.[3]

Such attachments may also just be financial interests.  For example, huge amounts of venture capital are being spent making it sound like microtransit is a world-changing idea, and to attack those of us who honestly can’t make mathematical sense of that claim as being rigid, stuck in our ways, “entrenched.”[4]

In fact, I feel no emotions about transport technologies.  My shelves are not full of cardboard model buses.[5]  And where the right answer to the problem of efficiently providing freedom isn’t a bus, I don’t recommend a bus.  I have recommended all kinds of technologies in different situations. I want to achieve goals, and I look for tools that do that in each situation.

Above all, I hope I’m known for suggesting that our thinking should start with goals rather than emotional excitement about technologies, and that this requires some serious effort, because every technology salesperson wants us to do the opposite: first, get excited about a technology, then try to come with a goal that could justify it.  As soon as “innovation” becomes a goal in itself rather than a tool, we are headed down that slippery slope.

So I’m not surprised that I get attacked now and then, and now here’s a post as a ready-made response.  Next time you see someone say that I am (or you are) a “bus advocate,” or “entrenched,” just send them a link to this.  Thank you!

 

Notes

[1] Or, if you prefer, a mobility or access advocate.

[2] Never, ever link to something based only on the headline!  Headlines express the attitudes of the publication, not the writer.  (I am slapping my own wrist as I write this, because I’ve been guilty too.)

[3] … which is not to criticize emotional attachments.  I have them too about many things. As always, I am describing myself, not judging you!

[4]  This assumption about financial interest also gets projected onto me sometimes, so for the record: I have no financial link with any bus manufacturer, bus operating company, etc.

[5] … though if yours are, that’s wonderful!  As always, I am describing myself, not judging you!