My Debate with Randal O’Toole: Video

It was fun to finally meet famous anti-transit and anti-planning writer Randal O’Toole, and spar politely with him in a Washington DC event sponsored by the Cato Institute.

We inevitably talked past each other a bit, but it was a great session.  I only wish there had been more hard questions from libertarians.  Here’s the video.  You can also download a podcast here.

Wellington: Notes on that Newsroom NZ Piece

According to Newsroom NZ’s Simon Louisson, I am “the US Consultant behind the Wellington bus nightmare.”  Wellington, New Zealand is having some problems with recent bus service changes.  I have had no role in Wellington for the last six years, but I, being a foreigner, must be to blame!

Jarrett Walker and Associations (JWA), the US company that has united Wellingtonians in their loathing for the chaotic new bus network has also redesigned Dublin’s network and has met an even more rigorous negative response.

The reporter is wrong about the name of my firm and my firm’s role in the study [none, because it didn’t exist yet].  I have no idea what he means by “rigorous negative response,” unless he thinks rigorous means extreme.  All that is just to establish Mr Louisson’s sloppiness and laziness, which should affect how the rest of his work is read.

On he goes:

Jarrett Walker, head of JWA, is one of America’s foremost advocates of public transport over cars, but he sees the intense reactions of Wellingtonians and Dubliners as a welcome part of the process. His stance opposing ride-sharing has led Tesla manufacturer Elon Musk to call him “a sanctimonious idiot”.

My exchange with Elon Musk had nothing to do with ride-sharing.  It was about Musk’s insulting and ignorant comments about public transport which I identified as an example of elite projection. And while it’s true that I anticipate negative feedback on my plans, that doesn’t mean my goal is to make people upset, as he seems to imply here.  All I have said, in many ways, is what every politician knows: Changing anything will upset some people.

In paragraph after paragraph, Mr Louisson wanders around the internet finding things I wrote that sound vaguely incriminating to him, and uses these to construct false descriptions of my views:

Walker takes a very binary view of change. In his blog he says cities should either totally revamp a network or leave it as it is.

That appears to be a perversion of this post, which points out that network plans have a degree of interdependence that limits how much they can be revised without falling apart.  People who need me to be a villain imagine me saying “my way or the highway,” which is nonsense.  Plans get revised a lot through public consultation, and that’s a good thing.

And anyone who knows me will burst out laughing at this:

His company, Jarrett Walker Associates, is very comfortable with the neo-liberal mantra of user-pays, and a strong commercial imperative underlies much of its design work.

Bonus points if you can figure out what text of mine was misread to fabricate this, because I can’t think of one.  I have always advocated heavy state subsidy of public transport.  As for commercial, that’s a confusing term that I never use myself, because it gives the impression that the only reason to serve lots of people is greed.  (Tip: Sometimes you do it because you want to improve lots of people’s lives.)  And even so, of course, I don’t bring an imperative to carry lots of people, because I encourage each city to think about the ridership-coverage tradeoff.

Mr Louisson formed all these insights without interviewing me, but you won’t find out why unless you get to paragraph 28:

Asked to comment on the implementation of the Wellington redesign, Walker seemed at pains to distance himself, saying in an email, “Unfortunately, I have not had any role in Wellington since 2012, and have not had time to study recent events there closely enough to have an opinion.”

While JWA’s work had involved developing a network redesign proposal, “I had no role in the public consultation at that time or in anything that has occurred since.”

My quoted words are indeed the only words I sent to Mr Louisson.  I was trying to establish that it would not be interesting to interview me, because I could tell him nothing about what had happened to transit in his city in the last six years.

The facts:  Through my employer at the time, the Australian firm MRCagney, I did a project for the Greater Wellington Regional Council on the design of the bus network in Wellington (the city only).  This work was mostly in 2011, ending in early ’12.  My role ended with the completion of the draft network plan.  I had no role in how the plan was presented to the public, and when that didn’t go well in 2012, I assumed it was dead.  That is always a possible and valid outcome of a public consultation process.

Does this make me “behind” a revised plan, implemented without my involvement or even my knowledge six years later?  And does my unwillingness to comment on something I know nothing about license a reporter to just make up stories about who I am and what I believe?

Remember, if you don’t want your name dragged through the dirt in the media, it’s an easy thing to avoid:  Say nothing.  Do nothing.  Propose nothing.  Change nothing.

That’s why nothing gets done.

Auckland: The New Bus Network is Complete!

For the last three years, Auckland, New Zealand, has been rolling out a new bus network in different parts of the city.  Sunday, the final portion, the North Shore, got its new network, so the entire effort is complete.  Bravo!

I worked on the original design back in 2012 (with colleagues at MRCagney‘s amazing New Zealand office) and first explained it here.   While public comments have led to revisions and improvements, the most important layer, the citywide frequent network, is almost exactly what we designed.

A 2011 sketch of what the all-day high-frequency network would look like when complete. (In 2011, only a tiny part of central Auckland had frequent service all day.)    (MRCagney)

Even more important than the network are the principles, which Auckland Transport explains here. We figured out these principles at the beginning of the process, and they should sound familiar to anyone who knows my work.  For example, this image still appears in most of my firm’s reports, showing two ways to serve an abstract city consisting of three residential areas (top) and three destination areas:

[The idea, explained fully here, is that in this simple fictional city, if you run three routes instead of nine, you can afford to run them three times as often, which means that the average wait is only 1/3 of what it was before.  Even if you have to change buses in the new network, which means you make this short wait twice, you’re still waiting only 2/3 as much as you did before (1/3 at the start of your trip, and 1/3 for the connection).  Hence the counterintuitive fact: a network that makes you change buses gets you there sooner.   Such a network is also simpler, three routes instead of nine in this case, with buses coming so often that you don’t need at timetable.]

An important complement to the bus network redesign has been a major increase in frequency on the city’s four commuter rail lines, which enabled us to offer outlying areas frequent connections to the rail line instead of a long bus route competing with it.  Now, the New Zealand government has funded a huge project to extend this network underground through the city centre, so it will function like a proper subway system.[1]  This will further strengthen bus lines connecting with it and further reduce the need for lines running parallel.

Each phase of the network has triggered gains in patronage — increases in total journeys, not just passenger boardings — so all that new frequency is clearly attracting new riders.

Many people ask me about phasing.  Does a new bus network have to be implemented all at once?  The answer in many cities, including Houston and Dublin, is yes: The geography of the city is so interconnected and interdependent that trying to implement a network in pieces is just too much work. The interim phase in which the network is partly new and partly old becomes a huge network design challenge in itself, as well as a challenge for communications and operations.

Auckland was an exception, though, because of the city’s shape.  The city is so riven by bodies of water that it functions almost like an archipelago.  The narrow points of connection between areas make those areas relatively easy to separate.  (This is why New York City, for example, can reasonably do separate phases for Staten Island, Manhattan, and the Bronx, although Brooklyn and Queens are inseparable.)

I’ve been back to Auckland several times since the network began rolling out, and it’s great to see this great Pacific city becoming more and more oriented toward great public transport.  I’ll be back there in late November, to speak at an Auckland Conversations event, and look forward to getting places sooner on the new frequent network.

Congratulations to everyone at Auckland Transport and the City for this great milestone.  The plan had many important authors and advocates, but if I had to call out one it would certainly be Anthony Cross, the tireless head of bus planning who conceived this project and pushed it through, in a struggle of many years.  I hope he’s happy today.





[1]  North Americans are encouraged to make wistful comparisons to the eternally-deferred San Francisco Caltrain downtown extension and New York Gateway project.  Further cause for antipodean triumphalism: similar projects are well-advanced in both Melbourne and Brisbane.

Early Positive News from Richmond, Virginia Redesign

by Scudder Wagg

It’s been nearly three months since the launch of the Pulse Bus Rapid Transit line, and the bus network we helped design, for the City of Richmond and its transit agency.

The early news looks positive for ridership. For some context, the redesigned network was intended to shift the balance of the network from about 50% ridership focus to about 70% ridership focus.

Prior to the launch of the new network, weekly ridership was averaging about 141,000. The first week of the new network saw huge ridership, 226,000 for the week, but that was driven by free rides. Immediately after the launch, ridership remained near or above the pre-launch ridership levels (if you ignore the July 4 holiday week). And since August, ridership has climbed to about 157,000 per week, an 11% gain.

Any gain at this point is good news.  It’s normal for there to be a slight dip in ridership just after implementation, as people take time to adjust to the new network, and for ridership to then grow gradually over two to three years.

Some of this gain is attributable to the new partnership with Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU). VCU has partnered with the transit agency by investing $1.2 million per year in exchange for transit passes for all students, faculty, and staff. VCU was drawn to this partnership in part by the obvious value that the new BRT and Route 5 (part of our network design) provided to the University. And its willingness to invest in the service is a good sign of the renewed confidence that many have in the usefulness of transit service in Richmond.

That confidence is reinforced by the expansion of service that happened this past weekend in adjacent Henrico County. The County decided this past spring to add evening and weekend service on three routes and extend service to Short Pump, the largest suburban retail and jobs center in the region. That expansion launched on September 16.

More time and data will help make clear how much ridership growth is attributable to network design and how much is attributable to other factors. But the early signs are positive, and we hope they continue in that direction and spur additional improvements in transit for Richmond.


Scudder Wagg, who played a central role in the Richmond project, manages the US East Coast practice for Jarrett Walker + Associates.

Why Your Bus Network May Never Improve

Improving a bus network requires changing things.  Maybe you change a bus route number so that the system is easier to figure out.  Maybe this segment of a bus route would be more useful if it connected to other segments differently than it does today.

Maybe your city centre just has too many half-empty buses, more than can fit down the streets, so they are constantly blocking each other.  In that case, you might want to question the idea that every streetcorner in your entire metro area needs a direct bus to the city centre. Instead, you may want to create frequent local routes that connect to frequent routes into the city.  If both routes are more frequent, a trip to the city could end up being faster than it is now.

Figuring out plans to do this is my job.  I’ve done it for 25 years, all over the world.  And if you think it should be done in your city, you need to reckon with how hard it is.

To improve anything you will have to change things.  And when you do, people will say this:


And someone will say “save the ___!” about every single bus route in the existing system.

To satisfy these comments, the only solution is to leave the existing system exactly as it is.  That means keeping a network that does what it does mostly because it’s been doing that for decades and some people are used to it.

Changing bus networks is fiendishly hard to do politically, and this is why.  When I prepare government clients for a network redesign, part of my job is shock-therapy: they need to know who will be yelling at them, and what they’ll be saying, and how unpleasant that will be.  Because if they are not ready to sit through some of that, there is no point in beginning.

The other reason that is hard is that advocates of these plans do not speak up.  In Dublin, for example, we put out a network plan that makes public transport useful to vastly more people for vastly more trips.  The average Dubliner can get to 20% more useful places in 30 minutes.  But the people who benefit won’t learn about the plan, or complete the survey.

[For example, the community that this petition is defending, Tyrrelstown, now has an infrequent 40D bus to the city, but its bus to its local shopping centre is only hourly, and it’s virtually impossible to get to the major hospital in the same area.  “Saving the 40D” means continuing to make those trips impossible.  But that may end up being what happens.]

The problem is that people falsely assume that the plan will happen anyway.  Therefore, people who like the plan don’t speak up because they take it for granted, while people who don’t like it think they need to scream bloody murder.  So the story in the press is mostly of people screaming.

The other problem with the screaming is that makes a lot of noise but doesn’t tell us what to do.

The authors of this petition think we don’t hear this comment, so they need to scream loud, with a petition.

But the problem isn’t that we don’t hear it.  It’s that the comment means either (a) the bus network should never change or (b) there are some things wrong with the plan, affecting some people on the 40D, and we need to look at those in the next round.

Usually it’s actually the latter.   “Save the 40D” may really mean something specific.  It may even mean something that the plan already addresses.  People may be reacting to the news that we’re “axing the 40D” without even looking into what the plan does instead, and why that might even be better for them.

This is especially true in the current Dublin public consultation, where certain parties have spread hysterical distortions, often telling people their routes are being cut without explaining what’s proposed to replace them.

But if you just tell me “save the 40D” we don’t know exactly what these people want.  So apart from changing nothing at all, we can’t fix their problem in the next revision.

Which could mean, in the end, that after huge amounts of stress and anguish, nothing changes (or improves) at all.

What is a Spine?

A spine is a really powerful network design idea that takes a moment to explain.  This is how a spine works, in an example from the Dublin bus network redesign proposal.

[That diagram is by Dublin-based graphic designer Kevin Carter, and uses a style common in the UK.  The National Transport Authority has hired Kevin to complete these diagrams for the other six spines.   If you’re on Twitter, follow him at @yascaoimhin.]

A spine is several bus lines designed to share a common segment, with the buses evenly spaced on that segment to deliver a very high frequency.  In this case, each spine branch runs every 15 minutes all day, so the common segment is every 3.75 minutes on average.

If you are in the inner city, where all the spines are running on their common segment, you just say “take any bus whose number starts with A”.  The result is a high-frequency network map that’s easy to draw a map of, and to learn, remember, and explain.

(That image is ours, from the summary report.)

In the case of the A spine, all four branches are every 15 minutes all day so the common segment is a little better than every 4 minutes all day.

The National Transport Authority also did an animation, here.

Many, many cities have a geography where this structure makes sense.  As you move out from the centre, the area to be covered gets wider but the frequency need gets lower, so you branch.  But you make it legible.   The inner city needs an extremely frequent line that’s easy to learn and remember, so we just explain that the A-spine is made of all the buses whose numbers start with A.  Presto.  You have a simple network of inner-city lines where the bus is always coming soon, exactly what people moving around in the core need.

Once you understand it, it’s simple.  But it takes a moment to learn, and different people learn it differently.

Dublin: Call Copenhagen

A few silly things (and many smart ones) have been said our proposed bus network redesign for Dublin, but the silliest is that it’s “North American.”

Actually, it’s European:

Copenhagen has much in common with Dublin. A maritime city and national capital about the same size and not that different in shape. It has a frequent heavy rail system like DART (marked S), and one metro line (marked M) but no trams.

Look at the bus routes.  The route numbers ending in A are high-frequency services all coming every few minutes and they form a spiderweb-shaped grid.  Look at 3A and 4A on the left.  They run north south on the west side and then curve to the right in the north.  We call those orbitals, because they orbit the city centre instead of going into it.  Intersecting them are a bunch of radial lines that go into the centre.  Wherever these lines cross (or where they cross rail lines) you can change easily.  That’s what makes it easy to go anywhere, not just into the centre.

Several areas, you’ll notice, are on only an orbital.  If you are on an orbital-only stop, you may have to change buses (or take a bus to a train) to reach the city.  The ticketing system, however, gives you unlimited use of the system for a fixed time.  NTA is proposing a similar 90-minute ticket, so that your fare never depends on how many times you change vehicles.

And if you don’t think people will use this kind of network if it requires them to change buses in bad weather:

Average daily low (January)3.9 C0.8 C
Annual precipitation758523
Days with rain or snow per year129157
Days with snow per year1621

We practice what we preach. My home town, Portland, Oregon, has almost exactly the same climate.  I change buses in the rain all the time.  In fact, sometimes I ignore my infrequent direct bus to the office and instead take two frequent buses, because with so much less waiting, I get there sooner.

Many European bus networks show the same principle in their design.  I chose Copenhagen because it’s especially comparable, and they draw an especially clear map.

Again, I don’t want to pretend this is easy.  But it’s certainly European (and Asian, and North American, and South American, and Australian) if you care about that.

Do We Need a New Theory and Name for “Bike Lanes”?

Important: I’m thinking out loud here!  The title is a question because I don’t have answers and am not proposing anything.

Now that we have scooters sharing bike lanes, I wonder if we’ll need to think more clearly about the different kinds of lane on a street and what their real defining features are.  This could lead to different words.

We separate traffic types for two reasons:

  • Speed, so that faster vehicles aren’t often stuck behind slower ones,
  • Width, so that we use less space to serve the needs of narrower vehicles, thus using scarce space more efficiently overall.

Sarah Iannarone and I were chatting about this on the bus this morning, and after that she went straight to the whiteboard and drew this:

The idea here is that a street with a speed limit over 30 km/hr will need to separate these three kinds of traffic, because they differ in both speed and width.  At lower speeds you can mix them more.

Where speed and width come apart, however, speed has to be the defining feature.  You can’t ride a motorbike at 30 km/hr down a “bike” lane, even though it may be narrow enough.  You have to ride it in the traffic lane, even though that’s a waste of space.

All this came up because I was trying to think of the correct new term for “bike lane” as we proliferate more vehicle types that run more or less at the speed and width of bicycles but are clearly not bicycles, such as electric scooters.  The two logical terms seem to be narrow lane or midspeed lane.  One way or another the two concepts will need to track with each other.

I wonder if this kind of language can make our sense of the role of these lanes more flexible, and thus less divisive.

There is a lot of room for individual choice here about which lane to use.  Cyclists, for example, already choose between midspeed “bike” lanes and full-speed traffic lanes, depending on their preferred balance of speed and safety.  Meanwhile, an 8-year-old learning to ride a bike should probably be on the sidewalk.  Another reason that “cycle lane” may be a misnomer.

This isn’t easy.  The things that might go in a midspeed lane have very different acceleration and stopping characteristics, all of which will cause friction.  When I raised this thought on Twitter, I got lots of responses expressing concern about different kinds of vehicles sharing a lane.  But even with just the few lane types that we already have, it’s hard to make them all fit.   We’ll never have a separate lane for every type of vehicle that needs a slightly different speed, acceleration, or stopping distance.  So again, I’m asking a question, not answering it.

Finally, Sarah assigns transit to the full-speed, widest lanes, but of course that leaves open the question of transit priority within that territory.  Where there’s demand and room for a bus lane, it should be automatic in my view.  It doesn’t even need to be “constructed” necessarily.  Just paint the lane red.


Why We’re Used to Some Outrage at Network Redesigns

Here are some things that happen whenever a big bus network redesign is first proposed to the public. They are happening in the Dublin network redesign process right now, but to some degree they’ve happened on every project I’ve done over my 25-year career.

  • People assume that the plan is more final than it is, so they feel they need to gather forces in angry meetings and attack us, when in fact we want their detailed comments so we can address them.
  • We consult the public about the plan and they tell us, as we’re consulting them, that we’re not consulting them. (This is an understandable consequence of the previous point; people assume they’re being told when in fact they’re being asked.)
  • People say that while we’ve consulted some people, we haven’t consulted everyone in the right way.  (This is an understandable complaint, and often a valid one, but we will always get it no matter how much consultation is done. People rely on so many different information sources, and need things explained in so many different ways, that reaching everyone the right way is a potentially infinite task.)
  • Some people hear only that “there won’t be a Route 54” and begin holding rallies to “Save the 54,” without knowing or caring what service is proposed to replace the 54.  (Sometimes we’re just changing the number!)
  • Media headlines often inflame this confusion, with headlines about bus lines being “scrapped”.
  • People attack the whole plan because one local detail isn’t right.  (Many of the details that people are outraged about in Dublin are fixable, now that we have heard about them.  That’s why we’re consulting you about it now, to help us get the details right!)
  • Unions representing bus drivers, understandably seen as experts in some circles, will often put out their own messages tied to their own interests.
  • People attack the consultant.  (It’s not the first time my tiny 10-person firm has been called “corporate.”)
  • Some sympathetic person explains to me that people in their city or country are just crazy in some way, and I assure them that no, this is what happens everywhere, from Russia to the US to New Zealand, when a proposed network redesign comes out.  Because what everyone is doing is completely understandable in their situation.

Here, for example, is a deep dive into a current network redesign in Canberra, Australia (which I helped lay the groundwork for years ago).  You will see all of the themes I’ve listed.

What’s happened next, in all my projects, is that we collected the comments and fixed what was fixable, which turned out to include most of the details that had most inflamed people.  In most cases that addressed enough concerns that the plan moved forward and was a success.  It solved the problems it was meant to solve, and once people got used to it many of them discovered that it wasn’t as bad as they thought.

That doesn’t always happen, though. Sometimes elected leaders panic at this point and stop the plan, leaving all of the existing problems in place.

For me, there’s a reason to be happy about all the controversy:  It means people care.  The least controversial projects I’ve done were in very car-oriented places where few people (and no powerful people) cared what the buses did.  I would much rather be dealing with controversy.

The key thing is not to panic when we hear outrage at this stage of the process.  While was it was especially inflamed by misinformation in Dublin’s case, it’s a normal phase in the conversation.

And again, that doesn’t mean we’re not listening. The whole point is that we are listening, so we can make the plan better.

[Note: I will be mostly away from the internet, until the 20th August.]