The Fishing Pier Problem in Public Transit Equity

Photo: Heditor6, Wikimedia Commons

Have you ever heard people say: “They got that transit improvement in their neighborhood!  We deserve to have one in our neighborhood!”

If this claim comes from a disadvantaged community, it will probably be framed as an equity or justice issue.  But even if no disadvantage is involved, it still sounds reasonable.  They got one. Why shouldn’t we get one?

But does this demand always makes sense?

Imagine a city on a lake or ocean, where neighborhoods near the water tend to be wealthier than those inland.  Suppose the city has a plan to build several fishing piers, but all the proposed piers are in the wealthy neighborhoods on the waterfront.  Isn’t that unfair?

No, I think you’d say, because fishing piers only work if they’re on the water.  If you were concerned with equity, maybe you’d propose a program that helps inland people get to the waterfront fishing piers quickly.  But you wouldn’t support an inland city councilor’s battle to get a fishing pier on dry land in their neighborhood, because it wouldn’t be useful for fishing.

In short, the point isn’t to equitably distribute fishing piers.  It’s to equitably distribute the ability to fish.

In the transit business, when a cool new thing is created somewhere, you always hear the rest of the city say: when do we get that cool thing?  You’ll hear this about everything, from subway lines to light rail to little vans that come to your door.   Enormous amounts of money get spent trying to act on this principle.

The typical pattern goes like this:

  • Cool new transit thing x is introduced, and deployed in one or two places in the city where it makes sense.  (Let’s build a fishing pier on the waterfront!)
  • Other neighborhoods demand the same thing, often claiming it’s unjust or inequitable that they don’t have it.  (Why don’t our inland neighborhoods have fishing piers?)
  • Often the cool new thing is actually built in those other neighborhoods that demand it, but it doesn’t work well there, because the geography is wrong for it.  (A fishing pier is actually built inland, extending across a patch of grass, but nobody uses it.)

The marketing of cool new transit things can make this problem worse.  The more you put out the message that light rail or BRT or microtransit or “Metro Rapid” is cool and different and better than “ordinary” buses, the more mad people will be if their neighborhood just gets ordinary buses.  That leads to political pressure to bring the cool new thing to a place where it just doesn’t work very well, which in turn leads to the cool new thing failing, just as an inland fishing pier will fail.

You’ll get the best transit mobility if we use the tool that works with your geography, even if it’s different from what works in other places.

So perhaps it makes no sense to equitably distribute any cool transit thing.  It makes sense to equitably distribute the ability to go lots of places quickly on transit.

How would our transit debates be different if we did this?

 

 

Los Angeles: The End of the Metro Rapid?

They were red! They made fewer stops! It was so cool! (c. 2005)

When they were first rolled out around 2000, the Los Angeles Metro Rapid lines were the hottest thing, so hot that a famous system of branding (Rapid buses red, local buses orange) was developed around them.  These buses ran long distances along major boulevards, stopping every half mile, while local buses ran alongside them stopping every two blocks.  I too was a booster of the idea at the time, and soon “rapid bus” products were appearing in many cities.

But of course, the branding distinction was about speed, which all motorists understand, as opposed to frequency, which they often don’t.

The first two Rapid lines (Wilshire and Ventura Blvds) had all kinds of great features.  There were architecturally designed shelters, and the City of Los Angeles helped with signal priority.  Then, however, the forces of envy set in.  Rapids made sense only where:

  • very high frequency (generally no worse than 10 minutes) could be afforded on both Rapid and local, so that it was worth waiting for the Rapid even if the local came first.
  • corridors were extremely long with long average trip distances, because you have to be going some distance for the speed advantage to be worth any added walking or waiting that a rapid would require.

But once the first two Rapids succeeded, there came the cries of “why does their street get this cool thing and mine doesn’t?”.  And while the two points above were good answers to that question on many streets, LA Metro was pressured to roll out Rapid lines all over the region, in places where they made sense and places where they didn’t.  Some, like Soto St, where just too short for the speed difference to be valuable to many people.  Others didn’t have the frequency needed for their speed to be useful, with some coming as infrequently as every 30 minutes all day.  Most of them had nothing like the signal priority of the initial two, nor the distinctive shelters.  The buses were red, though, so it looked like some cool thing had been spread across the region.  (For more on this political dynamic, which I call the Fishing Pier Problem, see here.)

So the result was outcomes like this:

Source: LA Metro NextGen Visual Workshop (for a trip of seven miles)

If you are on Venice Blvd but between Rapid stops, as in this example, you could walk less and use a Local or walk further and use a Rapid.  As this shows, the difference in travel time isn’t enough for that to make sense.  The Rapid is only three minutes faster for that distance, but you’ll spend six more minutes walking.

The upper blue bar shows that by combining the Rapid and local buses into a single line that runs twice as often (with fewer stops than the local but far more than the Rapid) the result is a shorter total trip, because of the shorter wait.  In this case, the customer walks six minutes to a single line instead of four (because the local stops are a little further apart) but then waits half as often (because the two lines are combined) and rides a trip that’s a little bit faster than the current local (again, because local stops are a little further apart).  It turns out that lots of people along these long boulevards are in this situation.

Combining Rapids and local into a single more feequent line is one of the key recommendations of the newly proposed Los Angeles metro bus network redesign, the work of our respected competitor Transportation Management & Design (TMD) working with Cambridge Systematics.  Russ Chisholm of TMD, whom I used to collaborate, actually led the planning that created the Rapids in the late 1990s, so it’s fitting that he’s also gotten to plan for their obsolescence.

Here are the outcomes.  (“Reconnect with our customers” is the no-growth redesign, the plan that reallocates existing service instead of adding new service.  “Transit First” adds bus lanes and other infrastructure, for even more improvement without adding operating cost.)

Source: LA Metro NextGen “Virtual Workshop”

The vast increase in the number of people with access to frequent service, from 900,000 to 2.15 million, is the key to why this plan is likely to succeed.   A huge share of this outcome results from combining the Rapid and local services into single lines, since many streets that formerly had both a local and a Rapid every 15 minutes will now have a bus every 7.5 minutes or so.

As always, a redesign that doesn’t add more service involves cutting some unproductive service, but here only 0.3% of riders losing walk access to transit, which is also impressive.  These are the least transit-oriented places in the region.  Still, we can expect ferocious complaints.  It may seem like 0.3% of the ridership isn’t much, but they and everyone they know, with some public relations skill, can make it sound like the plan is a disaster.  Even if nobody were losing their service, some people will be angry when you change anything.  So if you live in Los Angeles, it’s important that you engage with the plan!

That brings me to my main critique.  In exploring the website, I found the plan difficult to learn about. There’s no shortage of materials selling the plan to me, and there’s no shortage of route-by-route details, but I wish there had been a report that makes the argument for the plan and explains the thought process that led to its design.  (No, PowerPoint slide decks are not reports, because they don’t show the logical relationships between ideas; they are useful only with narrating voice attached.)  The plan’s data viewer is pretty good, especially the tool that helps people see how the plan changes where they go. We do similar things on our projects and they should be standard procedure now.

But I can’t find much on the website that seems to be speaking to non-riders, including anyone who cares about outcomes that the plan improves (congestion, climate, urban redevelopment, access to opportunity, social justice etc etc).  If you might support the plan for any of those reasons, the comment survey (a tab within the data viewer) will frustrate you.  It assumes that you’re evaluating the plan only selfishly, in terms of whether it will improve your travel.  (This also discourages feedback from non-riders who could see other selfish benefits, such as a business that gets better access from potential customers and employers, or a benefit for a friend or relative.)  Getting these plans across the line requires selling a big picture to the biggest possible audience, especially given that some angry riders will be yelling.  I hope that, in some forum that I can’t find on the website, that pitch is being made.

I wish LA Metro the best with this redesign.  It looks great.  It presents huge opportunities for better access to opportunity, more sustainable urban form, climate benefits, reduced local emissions, and safety.  It deserves to be allowed to succeed.

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.