Miami: A New Network with a Resilience Plan

Español

For the past 18 months, we have been redesigning the bus network for Miami-Dade County, Florida with the local advocacy group Transit Alliance. As the final public engagement phase was coming to an end, the pandemic reached the United States, and like many other agencies, Miami-Dade Transit went into crisis management mode. So our work paused for about four months.

As the pandemic wore on, it became apparent that the agency needed more than a single transit network ready to implement.  It needed a plan that could adapt to a range of unpredictable futures. Nobody knows how long the pandemic will go on, or what affect it will have on tax revenues that the agency relies on.

So, in finalizing the Better Bus Network, we worked with county staff and Transit Alliance to develop a Resilience Plan, to guide future decisions about how to ramp service up or down in the face of an unknown future.

But first, let’s talk about how we got here.

In the first phase of the project, we developed a Choices Report to analyze the existing network and discuss key questions that determine how the network should be designed. We took input from the public about those questions and developed two concept networks that highlight the tradeoffs between focusing on coverage and focusing on ridership. We returned to the public to ask them which way they lean between these the two concepts. Remember that it’s never one or the other; the ridership and coverage concepts represent two ends of a spectrum. Based on public input, we designed a Draft Network that was halfway between the two Concepts and now we revised it into the Final Network.

Below are slices of the Existing Network and New Network for the core of the region (click the maps to see the full-size maps of both networks).

A comparison of the maps of the Existing Network and the Final Better Bus Network in Miami-Dade County, Florida. Note the line colors, which indicate midday frequency.

Click here for the full map of the Existing Network

Click here for the full map of the Final Better Bus Network

 

The New Network creates a frequent grid that helps residents get to more places sooner. In this network, 353,000 more residents are near a frequent route (an increase of 13% over the existing network). With the new network, the average resident can reach 36% more jobs in 45 minutes by walking and transit.

The frequent grid means that it is easier for people to make connections between routes allowing them to get to many more places in a reasonable amount of time. The following animation shows where someone can get to in 45 minutes by walking and transit from Liberty City (NW 12th Avenue and 62nd Street).  The gray area shows where someone can get to with the Existing Network and the light blue area shows where they can get to with the New Network. With the Better Bus Network, someone living in Liberty City can get to 60% more jobs and 50% more people.  This is what we mean by access to opportunity.

This map shows the areas reachable from Liberty City within 45 minutes using the Existing Network and using the redesigned Final Network

This vast expansion in access is only possible because of the frequent grid. This means that if Miami-Dade Transit has less revenue but wants to maximize access like this, they have to protect the frequent grid. That is what the Resilience Plan does. The network’s corridors are divided into tiers to establish what service should be provided at different levels of revenue.

The Resilience Plan protects the frequent grid in case of budget shortfall.

In the grimmest financial scenario (Tier 1), the network would keep only frequent corridors spaced every mile, and a few coverage routes that are critical to ensuring equitable access. Yes, this network will make people walk longer distances. But when they get to a route, a bus is always coming soon. If the County has more revenue, they can add the service in Tier 2 and so forth.

Nobody wants to see these service cuts, but if they become necessary, MDT will be able to minimize the damage to people’s access to opportunity by using the Resilience Plan.  On the other hand, if MDT did service cuts the usual way – by leaving the routes as they are but cutting frequencies – access to opportunity would decrease drastically.  Consolidating routes to make them more frequent can actually make people’s trips faster, despite the longer walks.

This Final Network is now in the hands of the County Commission to endorse and, if approved, to be implemented by Miami-Dade Transit. There will likely be additional opportunities to comment on this plan before it is implemented. If you’re in Miami-Dade County, remember to submit a comment or tell your Commissioner about this Plan, particularly if you like it.  Sadly, most of the public comments received on transit plans are negative even if the plan is broadly popular, because people who like it falsely assume it will happen anyway.  This plan will not be implemented if it does not attract strong support.   The County would like constructive comments about the plan, which will be used to make the final implementation even better.  But if you like the plan, it’s important to say that as well!

Miami: Una Nueva Red con un Plan de Resiliencia

English

Por los últimos 18 meses, hemos estado rediseñando la red de autobuses para la agencia de transporte público del Condado de Miami-Dade, Florida (MDT, por sus siglas en inglés) con el grupo local Transit Alliance. Según se estaba acabando la última fase de participación ciudadana, la pandemia llegó a los Estados Unidos, y como muchas otras agencias, MDT entró en estado de crisis. Por lo tanto, nuestro trabajo estuvo en pausa por cuatro meses.

Según progresó la pandemia, se hizo evidente que la agencia necesitaba más de una red de transporte público lista para implementar. Necesitaba un plan que se pueda adaptar a una variedad de futuros impredecibles. Nadie sabe cuanto va a durar la pandemia, o que impactos tendrá en el dinero que la agencia recibe mediante impuestos.

Por lo tanto, mientras terminábamos la nueva red, trabajamos con la agencia y Transit Alliance para desarrollar un Plan de Resiliencia para guiar la toma de decisiones en el futuro sobre como se debe aumentar o reducir el servicio.

Pero primero, vamos a hablar de como llegamos aquí.

En la primera fase del proyecto, desarrollamos un Informe de Opciones para analizar la red existente y discutir preguntas claves que determinan como se debe diseñar el sistema. Tomamos información del público y diseñamos dos redes conceptuales que señalan la diferencia entre enfocarse en cobertura o enfocarse en alta frecuencia. Tuvimos otra fase de participación ciudadana para preguntarle al público hacia donde se inclinan entre las dos redes conceptuales. Recuerda que nunca es uno o el otro; alta cobertura y alta frecuencia representan los dos extremos de un espectro. Basado en los comentarios del público, diseñamos un Plan Borrador entre los dos conceptos y ahora lo acabamos de revisar para hacer el Plan Final.

A continuación, hay trozos de la red existente y la nueva red en el centro de la región (haz clic abajo para ver cada mapa entero).

Una comparación de los mapas de la Red Existente y la Nueva Red en el Condado de Miami-Dade, Florida. Nota que los colores de las líneas indican la frecuencia a mediodía.

Haz clic aquí para ver el mapa completo de la Red Existente

Haz clic aquí para ver el mapa completo de la Nueva Red

El nuevo sistema crea una red frecuente que ayuda a los residentes llegar a más lugares en menos tiempo. Con esta red, 353,000 más residentes viven cerca de una ruta frecuente (un aumento de 13% sobre el sistema actual). Con la nueva red, el residente promedio puede llegar a 36% más trabajos en 45 minutos usando transporte público y caminando.

La red frecuente significa que es más fácil cambiar de rutas y llegar a muchos más lugares dentro un tiempo razonable. La animación a continuación muestra a donde una persona puede llegar en 45 minutos usando transporte público y caminando desde Liberty City (NW 12th Avenue y 62nd Street). La zona gris muestra a donde una persona puede llegar con el sistema existente y la zona azul clara muestra a donde se puede llegar con la nueva red. Con la nueva red, alguien que vive en Liberty City, puede llegar a 60% más trabajos y 50% más personas. A esto es que nos referimos cuando hablamos del acceso a oportunidad.

Este mapa muestra los lugares a donde se puede llegar desde Liberty City en 45 minutos usando la Red Existente y la Nueva Red.

Esta amplia expansión en acceso solo es posible por la red frecuente. Esto significa que, si MDT tuviese menos dinero, pero quisiera maximizar el acceso de esta manera, tienen que proteger la red frecuente. Eso es lo que hace el Plan de Resiliencia. Los corredores del sistema están divididos en niveles para establecer que servicio se debe operar bajo diferentes niveles de fondos.

El Plan de Resiliencia protege la red frecuente en caso de una disminución de fondos.

En el nivel económico más grave (Nivel 1), la red solo sigue operando corredores frecuentes cada 1.6km (una milla en la cuadrícula vial de Miami) y algunas rutas de cobertura que son críticas para asegurar acceso equitativo. Sí, esta red hará que la gente camine distancias más largas. Pero cuando lleguen a una ruta, el autobús siempre viene pronto. Si MDT tiene más fondos, puede añadir el servicio del Nivel 2 y así sucesivamente.

Nadie quiere ver esta reducción de servicio, pero si fuese necesario, MDT podrá minimizar el daño al acceso a oportunidades usando el Plan de Resiliencia. Por el otro lado, si MDT decide recortar servicio como se suele hacer – manteniendo todas las rutas con menos frecuencia – el acceso a oportunidad se reducirá drásticamente. Consolidar rutas para hacerlas más frecuentes puede hacer que los viajes sean más cortos, aunque haya que caminar más.

Esta red final ahora esta en las manos de la Comisión del Condado para endosarlo, y si lo aprueban, será implementado por MDT. Probablemente habrá más oportunidades para comentar sobre este plan antes de que se implemente. Si viven en Miami-Dade County, recuerda someter un comentario o decirle a tu Comisionado sobre este Plan, especialmente si te gusta. Lamentablemente, la mayoría de los comentarios público sobre planes de transporte público son negativos incluso si a la mayoría de la gente le gusta el plan, porque la gente falsamente asume que se implementará como sea. Este plan no se implementará si no atrae mucho apoyo positivo. MDT quisiera comentarios constructivos sobre el plan, que se usarán para hacer que la implementación final sea aún mejor. Pero si te gusta el plan, ¡es importante que lo digas también!

How US Public Transit is Like the Postal Service

I’m in Bloomberg CityLab today.  Key quote:

Postal and transit services have the same problem. We want them to attract high usage and we want them to go everywhere, but those goals imply opposite kinds of service. Pursuing either goal will cause outcomes that look like failure when judged by the other goal’s measures of success. It’s like we’re telling our taxi driver to turn right and left at the same time. When they can’t do that, we just yell louder and call them incompetent. Is that taking us where we want to go?

Racial Justice and Transport Modeling

Two important thinkpieces just appeared that seem to be about different topics but should to be read together.

Christof Spieler, the Houston METRO Board member who drove the 2015 network redesign at the political level, has a piece at Kinder Institute called “Racism has shaped public transit, and it’s riddled with inequities.”  Meanwhile, in Vice, Aaron Gordon takes on “The Broken Algorithm that Poisoned American Transportation,” by which me means transportation demand models.

Spieler outlines how transportation, like everything else, has been forged through many decisions that reflected the values of the time, and how this history has created structures that still produce racially unjust outcomes today.  These structures can be literal infrastructure — like bus lanes designed to be useful for suburban commuters but useless for buses linking inner city residents to opportunity — but they can also be a wide range of bureaucratic and analytic procedures that continue those racially unjust practices in more subtle ways that the people executing those procedures don’t have to notice.

One of those procedures is transportation demand modeling, as Gordon describes it.  The best modeling is not nearly as dumb as the examples Gordon highlights.  But the problem of all modeling is that to show the effects of a proposed action, you have to assume that everything else in the background will remain constant, or at least will continue changing only along predictable paths.

When the modeling process considers many possible futures, the one that is most like the past is called the conservative assumption, as if that means “this is the safest thing to assume.”  This assumption seems calm and rational, attracting many people who would never call themselves conservative politically.  But fact, assuming that the future will be like the past can be crazy if the trajectory defined by the past is unsustainable — environmentally, financially, or morally.  “Unsustainable” means that it is going to change, and in that case, the “conservative” assumption is really the “self-delusion” assumption.

Transport modeling can’t be thrown out, but it never tells us what to do.  It is a basic logical fallacy to say that “the modeling shows we must do x.”  All modeling insights are if-then statements.  A full version of this statement, which I would like to see at the beginning of every modeling-drive transportation study, is:  “This report shows that if the future matches our assumptions, then you can expect this outcome.  But the future may not be like that.  In fact, maybe it shouldn’t be like that.  So what really happens is up to you.”

Event: “The Free and Just City after COVID”, August 17

On Monday, August 17, at noon US Eastern Time, I’ll be speaking in a small corner of the Democratic National Convention festivities online.  The Strong Cities Alliance, a project of Organization of Democratic Municipal Officials (DMO), will be doing an hourlong event called The Free and Just City after COVIDAlso on the program are former Gary, Indiana mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson and Bruce Katz, the noted urban scholar and author of The Metropolitan Revolution and The New Localism: How Cities Can Thrive in the Age of Populism.

(This is the first truly partisan event I’ve ever done.  The ability to work with people from all reasonable parties is important to me, so I would normally resist anything partisan, but the last four years in the US have made this challenging.  I long to live in a country where both parties want people in big cities to vote for them, and hope we can find our way back there.)

You can register here.

 

 

Adelaide: A Network Design Proposal Fails

In my long experience redesigning bus networks, it’s been rare to see a team spend years talking with people, studying reams of data, and developing a design through many iterations, only to have the result be nothing.  Most designs I’ve worked on have either been implemented or at least been the basis of some improvements.

Adelaide, Australia, however, has just abandoned a thorough redesign of its network.  It was a political decision, in which the Premier of South Australia overruled his own Minister of Transport, who had proposed the changes.    (I was not involved in this project.)

The basic idea of the plan was to reorganize services into a simpler pattern with far less complexity and far more frequency — which is what high-ridership redesigns (like the projects I worked on in Auckland, Houston, and Silicon Valley) do.  Such a revision will typically delete stops that are too close to other stops, and may ask people to walk to frequent service on a nearby main street rather than having infrequent service closer to their door.  It may require some people to change buses who don’t have to do so now.

The result of the proposed simplification is typically a dramatic expansion of the high frequency network, which in turn means a network that provides faster door-to-door travel times and is easier to learn, remember, and explain.

Here’s a slice of the existing Adelaide network.  Lots of infrequent routes, but none of them are likely to be coming when you need them.

Here’s what it would have looked like under the new network.  Here, red lines are likely to be coming whenever you need them — they run every 15 minutes all day — while blue lines come every 30 minutes.  (Oddly enough, this is the same color scheme that we use in all of our maps!)

If your goal were higher ridership, or maximizing where people can get to in a fixed amount of time, this kind of network design would do that.    (Again, I was not involved in this design, and am not endorsing the specific design choices.)

But even if you do everything right — even if you do the right engagement, analyze the data well, and come up with the best possible design, people will scream.  That’s because many riders are used to the system as it is, and have no interest in how the network improves access to opportunity for anyone but themselves.  It doesn’t matter how useless the existing network is.  Some people use it, and they will defend it, and the negative feedback is always louder than the support.

Almost all journalists will tell the negative side (Rage! Recriminations! A chance to paint leaders as incompetent!) because it just gets more clicks than the positive side (More people can get to more places, especially disadvantaged people! More people will ride! Less car traffic and pollution!)  So of course, if a plan eliminates some bus stops that are too close to other stops, the headline will be:

 

 

It’s possible to make this reaction worse by doing a poor job at engaging decision makers and the public at every step, but it’s not possible to make it go away.  Thus, I always have to remind elected officials at the beginning of the process:  “All network designs that don’t add new operating cost are controversial.  The more they try to achieve, the more controversial they are. Some people will scream at you. It may divide your own coalition. If you’re not up for that, let’s not even begin.”  This, quite simply, is why some really incoherent and wasteful ones are never fixed.

So what went wrong here?

The excellent blog Melbourne on Transit blog has a long post-mortem. I agree with most of it, and would add:

  • If you are using the redesign to cut service, there should be a clearly understood reason, like the pandemic and related budget crises. Service cuts due to crisis can be a good time to do redesign — if that helps reduce the overall damage of the cuts — but it means that you have to deal with anger about the cuts at the same time that you deal with anger about the redesign.
  • Minimize the number of controversies you are having at once.  Network redesign is controversial enough when the public is allowed to focus on it; it gets much harder when the public confuses it with other issues happening at the same time.  Don’t try to reform contracts with operating companies, or introduce new companies, at the same time.  Don’t raise fares at the same time.
  • Don’t propose magical outcomes.  The government used the language of trying to “reduce subsidies” while improving service, due to some alchemy that was supposed to happen inside the operating companies.  This is not how it works.  Setting impossible expectations is a guarantee of failure.
  • Provide very clear information in lots of formats, with good before-and-after analysis tools.  We provide before-and-after trip planners, maps of how access (where you can get to in a reasonable time) changes, and lots of other ways for people to engage with how the plan affects their lives as well as how it affects the city.
  • Go to the public with options, or at least a draft, with a clear message that the plan will be revised in response to comment.

Still, it’s a struggle.  This may not have been the right design for Adelaide, but it’s unfortunate that after all that effort, they’ll get nothing.  An obsolete and inefficient network will always be popular among people who are used to it, but if that’s always a reason not to improve it, the whole city loses.

San Francisco: A Forbidden Fantasy Comes True

Around 1989, when I lived in San Francisco, I spent too much time in little rooms with transit advocates (and some transit professionals who could not be named) complaining about Muni Metro, the combined surface-subway light rail system.  It looked like this and still does, except that the T line was added more recently.  Note the r0ute letter names in the lower left.

The segment with 3-5 lines on it, from Embarcadero to West Portal, is the underground segment, which carries the heaviest loads through the densest part of the city.

It had always been wildly unreliable.  The five lines that ran through it (J, K, L, M, and N) always came in sequences of pure arithmetic randomness: N, J, M, K, J, N, N, K, K, M, N, J, L.  (Finally, my “L”!  But of course, after such a long gap, it’s crush-loaded and I can’t get on.)

Four decades after the subway opened, lots of things have been fixed: longer and better trains, better signaling, an extension downtown that helped trains turn back more efficiently.  But none of this touched the true problem:  The core Metro subway carries five lines, all of which deserve to be very frequent.  But they can’t all be frequent enough because they all have to squeeze into one two-track subway.  The other part of the problem is that they all have surface segments at the outer end, where they encounter more sources of delay, causing them to enter the subway at unpredictable times, and in an unpredictable order.

In those small rooms in the 1980s, we all knew that there was only one mathematically coherent solution.  Some us drew the map of this solution on napkins, but we really didn’t need to.  The map was burned into our minds from our relentless, powerless mental fondling of it.  Of course it was politically impossible, so impossible that if you valued your career you would wad up that napkin at once, burn it probably, and certainly not mention it outside your most trusted circle.

At most you might let out the pressure as a joke: “You know, we *could* turn the J, K, and L into feeders, and just run the M and N downtown. And then we’d have room for a line that just stayed in the subway, so it was never affected by surface delays.”  Everyone would titter at hearing this actually said, as though in some alternate universe such a change could be possible.

Now, the impossible is happening.  Without fear or shame, I can finally share the content of that forbidden napkin, because it looks like San Francisco is actually going to do it.

 

The two busiest western lines (M, N) will still go downtown, the others (J, K, L) will terminate when they reach a station but you have to transfer to continue downtown.  M trains will flow through as T.  Finally, a shuttle (S) will provide additional frequency in the subway, immune to surface delays.  As always, asking people to transfer makes possible a simpler, more frequent, and more reliable system.

You may detect, at San Francisco’s tiny scale, a case of the universal “edge vs core” problem.  Like many, many US rail transit systems, Muni Metro had been designed to take care of the edge, people who lived on one of the branch lines, rather than the core, people traveling along the subway in the dense inner city.  The new system finally fixes the core. But the edge folks benefit from a reliable subway too.  What’s more, in the future it may be possible to run the surface segments of J, K, and L more frequently, because their capacity will no longer be capped by the need to fit down the subway with four other lines.

All that in return for having to transfer to go downtown if you’re on the J, K, or L.

Let me not make this sound easy.  These transfer points, West Portal and Duboce Portal, are a little awkward, because they were never designed for this purpose.  You have to walk from one platform to another, crossing at least one street.  There are valid concerns from people with mobility limitations, which will have to be addressed with better street and intersection design.  Plenty of people won’t like it.

But the transit backbone of a major city will finally function.  And for those of us who’ve known San Francisco for decades, that’s a forbidden fantasy come true.

 

 

Should Public Transit Shut Down for Civil Disturbances?

What should public transit agencies do when a city is convulsed by massive demonstrations carrying a high risk of violence? Over the weekend, many transit agencies shut down rather than risk possible harm to their staff, passengers, and equipment. This left many good people stranded as they tried to leave the demonstrations.

Christof Spieler, a Board member at Houston Metro, has some ideas in a Twitter thread.  He starts with:

As someone who shares the goals of these protests, let me gently lay out why this is so difficult for transit managers.  This is not to defend or uphold any particular choices any agency has made.  The debate about this is urgent and important.  My only point is that it isn’t easy or obvious what transit agencies should have done.  It was absolutely not OK that people were stranded, and there needed to be a solution for that, but the actual solution isn’t so obvious.

Before you say that transit should have run as normally as possible during the crisis, ask yourself:
  • If you were a bus driver, would you be comfortable being told to drive into an area where civil unrest is likely and there is some risk of violence?
  • If you were a transit manager, who has seen plenty of pictures of burned and vandalized buses, what should be your tolerance of the risk of destroying or damaging the fleet, thus making normal service impossible?
  • But, you might say, buses could run normally to near the edge of the affected area.  OK, but how is the transit manager supposed to know the boundaries of that area in advance?  These are not obedient events.  They can rove fast and unpredictably.  They can even erupt from nothing where they weren’t planned at all.
  • But surely they could have kept most of the system running, far from the events?  I think there are cases where I’d have recommended that, but again, transit managers can’t predict where events will erupt.  What’s more, good transit networks are all interconnected and interdependent.  You can’t just turn off a piece without it having a huge effect on the rest.  This is especially true when that piece is downtown, where lots of lines meet or flow through.
  • If you say, yes, but they need realtime monitoring and guidance about how to detour in response to what’s happening:  Buses have limited option to maneuver as conditions change.  They don’t fit down every street.  They may need several blocks to turn around.  The dispatcher/driver ratio is far too low for dispatchers to give each bus driver the best advice for their situation when everything is changing so fast.

All this has to be figured out in realtime by staff who probably support the demonstrators’ goals, in a situation where they will be attacked for whatever they do.  They’re being criticized for holding back, but they’d also be criticized if the evening news were full of burning buses and injured drivers and passengers.

Of course, as with the sudden service changes required by Covid-19, these decisions were made fast by people who might have made better decisions on reflection, and will learn from this experience. But these decisions are hard.

Finally, regarding the use of transit vehicles for police purposes:  Most cities put a lot of effort into interagency emergency planning, where the various functions of government decide how they’d work together in various crises.  In most situations, that’s exactly what we’d want them to do.  Clearly, those plans around civil disturbances are going to be reviewed now, and deserve some public discussion.  Obviously, the crisis of trust around policing in the US needs to be considered when transit agencies decide how to work with them in these emergencies.

Those plans also need to address transit system shutdowns, because in a big city these are emergencies all by themselves.  They need to honor the limitations of each agency’s product and not expect the impossible from them, while also creatively addressing the challenges.  The Los Angeles transit agency reimbursed people’s Uber, Lyft, and taxi rides out of the demonstrations after they shut down service.  Was that the right thing to do?  Right now, give them credit for doing something.

Finally, if you care about these decisions, you might want to direct some of your activism toward influencing your city’s emergency planning.  Many people who do that work are exasperated by public apathy and may welcome your respectful interest.

But please, don’t make these emergency decisions sound easy and obvious, because they aren’t.

To Exit the Crisis, Rethink Our Goals

I’m in the Canadian Urban Transit Association newsletter this week, with a piece on goals.  Key quotation:

The crisis has revealed a strong new argument for transit, one we should deploy at anyone who wants to judge us on ridership.  Transit has kept running through the crisis as an essential service, supporting people who work in hospitals, grocery stores, utilities. These mostly low-income people would typically have been called “transit dependent.”  But it is they who are holding civilization together right now, so we are all “transit dependent” in this sense.

What’s more, this has always been true.  Transit riders have always been part of the basic functioning of our cities.  Measuring that role solely with ridership would be like measuring the success of the police by how many arrests they make.  The purpose of the police is to provide a base level of security that people can count on.  The purpose of transit is to do the same for urban mobility.  Transit means that people can go places, and thus do things, in a way that isn’t as harmful or expensive as driving.

Read it here.

The Collapse of Rush Hour: A Deep Dive

Covid-19 has understandably caused steep declines in public transit demand, but the pattern of that fall is important.  Peak (rush hour) demand has fallen much more than all-day demand, mirroring a change in travel demand overall.

 

 

This chart is from the daily updates we’ve been getting at the Transit app website.  This chart covers all Transit clients, who are heavily US and Canadian agencies but include a few in other countries.

[Caution:  These are not ridership statistics.  Instead, Transit counted queries of its app, which provides realtime information about when the next bus is coming and, in some cities, can be used to pay your fare.  That means this metric probably undercounts relatively unwired people, including low income people without smartphones and those less comfortable with apps.  Still, it’s the only data that can be collated and updated so rapidly.]

Of course people are working at home during the emergency, but some leading companies are planning to continue the practice, and nobody really knows how much office work will return.  You can see conflicting reports on whether working at home is wonderful or terrible, so we can expect continued experimentation as people and companies figure out what they like.  Still, with the virus lingering, it will be a long time before everybody is back in the office, and there’s room to wonder if they ever will be.

Why is the fall of the peak important?  Running service only at rush hour is expensive, for three reasons.

  • A vehicle must be owned and stored that isn’t used very much.
  • A driver must report to work for just 2-4 hours, which is less efficient, hard on the driver and will cost the agency more per hour of service.
  • Most peak demand is massively one-way in the morning and the other way in the evening.  Drivers’ shifts must end where they began, so every bus or train that runs full in one direction has to return empty in the other, often over long distances.

So the fall of the peak, if it were sustained into the future, could be great news.  While the peak is an easy place to rack up lots of ridership, its high costs mean it’s not always the best place to seek productivity (ridership divided by operating cost).  Ultimately that means that there could be all-day markets that would be more productive once the high cost of peaking is taken into account.

There is also the large social justice dimension to the peak.  Peak commuters are far more affluent on average than all-day travelers, because higher wage jobs are more likely to be “nine to five” while lower wage workers, predominantly in retail and services, are more likely to be needed around the clock.  So a decline in peaking could help sustain services that support lower wage people — and remember, these are people whose work everyone depends on.

Of course peak service is justified by the need to mitigate traffic congestion that occurs at that time, but it remains to be seen what levels of congestion will return.  It may go up if we try to run a full economy with social distancing, but it could also go back down after a vaccine.  We’ll have to see.

Peaking has such a huge effect on the life of a city, and the costs and efficiency of transit, that it’s worth taking a quick tour of how different it is in different cities, and how that reflects choices the city made — consciously or unconsciously.  Here’s my home city, Portland.

This is typical of a lot of US cities where the social distancing expectations (both legal and cultural) have been firm over the last two months. The peak is mostly gone. In percentage terms, the difference isn’t huge. Ridership is down about 80% at both midday and PM peak times, but it’s down about 87% on the AM peak, where few people travel other than for peak work shifts and schools. Still, the absolute numbers matter too, because they measure the degree to which an agency will be forced to run expensive peak-only services rather than an all-day pattern.

Note that this typical North American peak is about two hours long in the morning and three hours long in the afternoon.  That’s the result of peak spreading, the widespread tendency for start and end times to vary slightly by employer (and by school).  Compare Sydney, Australia [really this is all of the state of New South Wales, but Sydney is the overwhelmingly dominant market there]

Australian peaks are much sharper than North American peaks — less than two hours long — and as you can see from yesterday (May 25) they are coming back as sharp as ever.  Australian public transit also does most of the work of school transportation, which explains why the afternoon school peak at 3-4 PM is bigger than the evening commute peak at 5-6 PM.  Note that it is the school peak that is returning now, though, while the work commute peak — marked by activity in the 5-6 PM hour, is not so prominent.

When I worked as a transit planning consultant in Australia I was always struck by the huge cost of serving a rush hour that’s so brief.  Yet Australia is far behind North America is adjusting work and school scheduling to spread the peaks out, so that demand (both transit and road) can be served more efficiently.  (Spreading the peak can also create huge savings on infrastructure projects, since if you scale infrastructure to serve the peak one hour, you’ll need a lot more infrastructure than if the same demand is spread over two hours.)

Now look at Paris

 

The abundance of transit in Paris isn’t just a matter of spending lots of money on it, but on focusing on an all-day demand rather than peak demand. Paris has plenty of peak commuters, but so many people rely on transit for all kinds of purposes that those peaks don’t stand out the way they do in less transit-oriented cities.

Of course, there are some car-oriented cities without much peaking either, generally those built around entertainment and tourism. Las Vegas, say:

This is what happens when you have relatively few rush-hour commuters to office jobs, but massive employment in tourism: shifts starting and ending all the time. But it’s not all tourism. All those jobs that keep society running — working at WalMart or a hospital or a (take-out) restaurant — are visible here because the commute peak doesn’t swamp them in the chart. Note how much smaller the drop is from pre-pandemic days: only about 50% compared to 70-90% in most US cities, because there were fewer peak commuters before. Even with the massive loss of casino and hotel jobs, plenty of low-income people need to get to work.

Finally, a small US state capital with a huge university. Universities tend to be huge consumers of transit, and you can see the effect of both university and state offices shutdowns in Madison, Wisconsin.

The drop was over 90%, and only the PM peak shows the earliest signs of coming back, now to 80%.  [Again, these are Transit app queries, not ridership numbers that can only be provided by the agency.]

All these graphs are scaled to the pre-pandemic demand, so only in Las Vegas do you see the importance the low-wage worker in essential services including essential retail.  But those people are in all of these numbers and are why there was any ridership at all.

Keep an eye on these charts, and on peaking patterns as they emerge in ridership data from the agencies.