Chile: Planning as Everything Changes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Notes

[1]

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

[2]

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

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

She:  Awa owo.

I:  Um.  Otra vez?  [again?]

She:  Awa owo!  Eight!

I:  Ah!  “A las ocho?”

She:  Sí!  Awa owo!

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

[3]

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

 

I Am Not a Bus Advocate

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

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

But it’s increasingly common to read things like this

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

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

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

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

I will say to my grave that I am not emotionally attached to any transport technology.  My shelves are not full of cardboard model buses.[5]  And where the right answer to the problem of efficiently providing freedom isn’t a bus, I don’t recommend a bus.  I have recommended all kinds of technologies in different situations. I want to achieve goals, and I look for tools that do that in each situation.

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

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

 

Notes

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

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

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

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

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

Alexandria, Virginia: A New Network Plan

At about 15 square miles, the City of Alexandria is relatively small, but it is firmly within the core of the Washington metropolitan region with key job centers like the large Department of Defense facility at Mark Center, a historic Old Town that draws many tourists, burgeoning employment centers like Eisenhower East, and many leafy suburban neighborhoods. It grew and changed dramatically, along with the rest of Washington region, in the latter half of the 20th Century, much of it in an auto-oriented design. And like many of the inner suburban areas of the Washington region, Alexandria is trying to find its way to a more transit-focused future, because in the nations 6th largest metro area, there’s just not room for everyone to get around by car.

When looking at Alexandria in the context of the ridership recipe, a key feature is that most of the density is around the edges of the city, along the Metrorail lines to the east and south, and along I-395 to the north. But not all of that density is equally suited to high transit ridership. In the western parts of the city, much of the development is auto-oriented, with less connected streets and poor walkability. In the middle of the city is a large area of primarily low density residential that is not dense or walkable. This doughnut pattern makes the transit network design and planning work particularly interesting and challenging for Alexandria.

Old Town Alexandria (Photo: Ken Lund https://flic.kr/p/o5Pgtc)

Skyscrapers_on_King_Street West End Alexandria Virginia (Photo: Ser Amantio di Nicolao via Wikimedia.org)

In that context, we’ve been working with the City, its local transit agency (DASH), and the regional transit agency (WMATA), on the Alexandria Transit Vision since 2018. The City recently released the Draft Recommended Networks that we helped design.

The networks are designed around the policy direction from the DASH Board that, by 2030, 85% of resources should go toward high ridership service. The plan includes a short-term network that could be implemented as soon as 2022, with no new service hours. It also includes an option to improve evening and weekend service in the short-term with new investment. Plus, the plan includes the ambitious Vision Network, a 2030 plan to expand the frequent network and evening and weekend service to substantially increase access across the city, seven days a week.

A major focus of the plan is building up a frequent network from what is mostly a low frequency system with lots of one-seat rides today. That means some trips that a person can make today on one bus might require two buses in the future, but the frequency of service means that total wait time is the same, or less, than today.

The slices of the network maps below show the western part of the city, where today many overlapping routes provide low frequency service to many destinations, but you can’t get anywhere soon with such long waits. The 2022 and 2030 networks dramatically simplify service and increase frequency to expand liberty and access through connections to other frequent routes.

Existing Network

2022 Network

 

2030 Network

Outcomes

The 2022 Recommended Network would increase the number of jobs that the average person could reach in 45 minutes at midday on weekdays by 13%. That is with a network with zero increase in service hours, just reallocating existing DASH and WMATA services in the city.

An 8% increase in service in the short-term (2022) could improve evening and weekend service so more people could get more places all week long. Specifically, it would increase the percent of residents near frequent service on Saturdays from 36% to 65% and on Sundays from 15% to 59%.

The longer-term Vision Network for 2030 would increase job access even more, helping the average resident reach 18% more jobs in 45 minutes at noon on weekdays. Plus, it would increase evening and weekend service, brining frequent service to 79% of residents on Saturdays and 74% on Sundays.

The vast majority of people and places in Alexandria see substantial improvements in overall access and freedom via transit with these networks, but like any change there are some trade-offs. Some parts of the city, particularly in the lower density center, see a decrease in service and also a decrease in access by transit.

These trade-offs were part of the concepts phase where we helped the public, stakeholders, and city leadership think through what goals they wanted to prioritize for transit in Alexandria. The outcome of that phase was the Board policy direction telling us to put 85% of resources toward Ridership Goals and 15% toward Coverage goals.

Your Liberty

We’ve also put together an interactive webmap that you can use to explore the networks and see how they affect your liberty and access to opportunities: http://alexandriatransitvision.com/. The tool compares travel time isochrones for each concept and shows you the change in jobs reachable in 30 or 45 minutes.

In these maps, blue areas are newly reachable with the network concept, purple areas are reachable with both the existing network and the concept, and red areas are where you can travel with the existing network that is no longer reachable with the concept. You can also click the “View Routes” button to explore the network structure.

Here’s a quick comparison for the Landmark Mall vicinity showing the area that would be reachable in 45 minutes with the 2030 Recommended Network:

Screen Shot Landmark Mall Isochrone

The City is working with developers to remake this area of the City, adding new housing and commercial development. With the 2030 network, someone living here would be able to reach 76,800 more jobs than with the existing network. Of course, those jobs aren’t just places you could work, they also represent the shopping, education, recreation, and other opportunities you could reach in a reasonable amount of time.

More Information

There’s much more detail in the Draft Recommended Network Report and at the city’s website, including individual neighborhood details.

If you live, work, or visit Alexandria, you should consider these changes and take the survey about them here. At this stage there is no decision about whether to implement a plan such as this one.  Any final plan will be revised based on public comment that comes in over the next couple of weeks.  That means that if you like the plan, it’s important to comment to that effect, as well.

Santiago: I’m Coming Anyway

Photo: Carlos Figueroa, Wikimedia Creative Commons.

For months I’ve planned to be in Santiago next week, with a brief side trip to Concepción.  I was to speak at the annual joint conference of the Centre for Sustainable Urban Development and the Centre for the Study of Conflict and Social Cohesion.  I had visited the country in 2004, and looked forward to returning to one of the most stable and peaceful countries in Latin America.

So it goes.  Stability can always mask horrors that eventually have to come to light.  Chile’s extreme inequality had reached a point where a small increase in Santiago Metro fares sparked a broad social revolt. The initial outburst was violent, including looting of stores, burning of buildings, and terrible damage to the magnificent Santiago Metro.   The conservative government briefly tried out a confrontational response (“Chile is at war“) but backtracked the next day, apologizing, sacking much of the cabinet, and promising reforms. Today the protests continue as they should, mostly peaceful but with the inevitable scatterings of violence, and the country is debating profound reforms that Serious People deemed impossible even two weeks ago.

But the conference venue is right in the centre of Santiago, where protests are continuing, and the organizers have decided to cancel the conference, because, they write, “at this moment we do not have the conditions to complete the conference as it was planned.”  Instead, “we believe that the efforts of academics should lie in understanding and engaging in dialogue on the problems that confront our country, as well as cooperating to open paths to a more just country.”

I’m coming anyway. I’ll meet with some transport officials, and speak to a class at the university. In Concepción I’ll face the challenge of giving a talk in Spanish, a language I knew almost nothing of six months ago. I look forward to experiencing something even better than stability: a country transforming itself, as few countries dare imagine.

Dublin: A Revised Network Plan

Map: National Transport Authority of Ireland

After many months of thinking about the feedback we got on our draft, a new version of the bus network plan for Dublin is out today!  At this site you’ll find:

  • Links to our revised report, and to the report on the consultation process, at the bottom of the cover page.
  • A map of the revised network.  (Detail about frequency is no longer on the website’s map but is in the maps and frequency tables in Chapter 7 of the report.)
  • Local area maps with more detail.  We understand that the National Transport Authority will be sending these maps to every household in Dublin.
  • A helpful tool that shows how any trip you select would be completed in the new network.
  • A little video explaining how a spine works.  (Here’s a written explanation.)
  • A way to provide feedback or ask questions.

You may recall that the last draft received a lively and sometimes hostile response.  That’s the whole point of drafts: as a starting point for conversation.  The new network plan won’t resolve every complaint, but it shows NTA’s best effort (with our advice) to reflect what we heard, and to integrate those comments into a functional and efficient network.

The heart of the network design, the frequent grid of spines and orbitals, is unchanged, but many services have been added or revised.

We are at the end of our engagement with NTA, so we won’t be as engaged in Twitter discussions about the details as we were in the last round.  But we will be watching this project closely.

On Flying Cars

A journalist asked my opinion about flying cars. I wrote this.  Please tell me where I’m wrong.

For every technology pitch, you must ask not just “what is this like from the inside?” but also “what is it like from the outside?”  All vehicle technologies are sold based on how cool or useful it will be to ride them.  And most of these pitches do not want you think about what it will be like to be outside of them, or to share a city with them.

The issues with air taxis are obvious.  Even if they are much quieter than helicopters, they will introduce a new type level of noise to the city, anywhere near where they takeoff and land.  Their presence overhead in any numbers will have physical and emotional effects on the population.  They will introduce entirely new kinds of accidents that make everyone fearful of the space above them.  And in the end, by allowing elites to opt out of the transportation problems that everybody else in the city is having, they will encourage elite disinterest in solving those problems.

They will be cool to ride, though.

 

Cleveland: See Where You Could Go

We’re excited to share the next stage in our work in Great Cleveland, where the transit agency, GCRTA, has hired us to help think through their goals and different ways that their transit network can be designed to meet these goals in the next few years, and to help imagine what the possibilities may be with modest increase in operating funds in the future. For our readers in Cleveland, our last system redesign survey on is now open.  Learn more about the networks and let us know what you think!

In May of this year, we made a post about two budget-neutral alternative networks that illustrate what the transit network could look like if the agency shifted its focus more towards attracting higher ridership, and what the network would look like if shifted towards maximizing coverage. You can find out more about these alternatives here.

We surveyed the public on these alternatives, and RTA conducted a series of public meetings throughout the county. The result of the public process suggested that many people saw the value of the frequency improvements of the High Frequency Alternative, but that most people would not be in favor of a reduction in coverage to achieve the frequency improvements.

Based on this input, we worked with RTA staff to design two network concepts that illustrate how the network could look if it were designed with a slightly greater emphasis on generating high ridership, but without reducing the overall coverage area from today.  These networks illustrate for the stakeholders and the agency’s Board of Trustees the potential outcomes of this policy choice using only today’s funding levels and illustrate what sort of network those same design priorities could produce with additional funding for bus service.

You can click each map below to explore a larger annotated version.

RTA Existing Network

Current Funding Concept

Expanded Funding Concept

Remember, ridership and coverage and the opposite ends of the same spectrum so at the same funding level and without reducing coverage areas, opportunities to add ridership-focused service are very limited.

The Current Funding Concept tries to do this by minimizing duplication in the network, and by making some difficult tradeoffs about where to increase and reduce frequency. While everywhere that is served today would continue to have transit service with this concept, some lower-density places would see their frequency reduced (usually from every 45 minutes to every 60 minutes). Some key improvements include frequent service on busy corridors like Detroit, Lorain and Kinsman (all currently every 20 minutes), and frequent crosstown service on E 93rd and E 105th (Route 10).

These and other improvements are possible by reducing service levels elsewhere in the network. For example, the Center Ridge corridor on the west side of the county would be served every 60 minutes by a branch of Route 26 (which continues via Detroit towards downtown). Today, this corridor is today is served every 45 minutes, so this is a reduction in frequency, but it does come with the benefits of a one-seat ride downtown, and an extension to the new community college campus at the edge of the county (Tri-C Westshore).

Closer to downtown on the east side, low-frequency crosstown services on E 55th and E 79th would be discontinued with this design. Today, because of the crosstown routes’ low frequency and proximity to downtown, many trips along these corridors can be made more quickly by traveling in and back out along more frequent radial services (such as the HealthLine BRT, or routes 1 and 3).  Yes, that would mean having to transfer, but as we’ve explained in a past post, “transferring” can be good!

These hard choices are characteristic of a no-growth redesign; in this case, the network was designed to improve ridership potential and expand the frequent network, within the constraint of maintaining the current coverage area.

The Expanded Funding Concept deploys about 25% more bus operating resources that today’s network. With this greater resource level, this concept can increase the usefulness of the transit network in almost every part of the county that is served. Some key improvements include frequent crosstown service on W 117th in the west and Warrensville Center in the east, and on key radials like St. Clair, Superior, Quincy and Cedar. 30-minute service would be provided on corridors like outer Lorain, W 130th, and Granger where only infrequent or no service is available today.

More Information

RTA is conducting a survey in English and Spanish and public meetings on these concepts now, so if you are in Cleveland, head on over to their website to find out more: http://riderta.com/systemdesign.

We’ve also put together an interactive webmap (similar to what we were able to deploy in Dublin in 2018) that you can use to explore the network and compare some travel time isochrones for each concept: https://rtanetworkconcepts.com/viewer/. In these maps, blue areas are newly reachable with the network concept, purple areas are reachable with both the existing network and the concept, and red areas are where you can travel with the existing network that is no longer reachable with the concept. You can also click the “View Routes” button to explore the network structure of each concept.

Here’s a quick comparison for the Tri-C Western campus showing the area that would be reachable in 60 minutes with the Expanded Funding Concept:

With the Expanded Funding Concept, 30-minute service would connect TriC’s western campus to the W 130th, Pearl, Ridge and State corridors. Since the campus is only served with hourly routes today, this produces a big expansion in the area reachable from the college (the blue area shown on the map).

Finally, much more detail is available in our mini-report, which you can view here: http://www.riderta.com/sites/default/files/events/RTASRSPresentation201909.pdf

A Fine New Guide for Transit Activists

Steven Higashide, Better Buses, Better Cities: How to Plan, Run, and Win the Fight for Effective Transit. Island Press, 2019.

Why are American cities finally taking buses seriously?  Because, as Churchill famously said, “Americans will do the right thing, after they’ve exhausted all the alternatives.”

I’ve been following transit in America for 35 years, and working in the field for 25. During that time, cities have growh frustrating to get around in, with dire consequences for people’s access to opportunity. But throughout that time powerful people have always been telling me that buses just don’t matter. Development interests cared only about rail or ferries. Technology marketers have always shiften the conversation to new patented things, of which some are useful but many are tragic distractions.  To the extent that buses have mattered to the powerful, it’s often been as a social service — a charity that they give pennies to out of pity but whose functionality they barely care about.

And that’s not even to mention the active hostility to bus service that transit planners encounter daily: the shopping mall or hospital that refuses to let a bus get anywhere near the building, the communities that want buses out, the urban businesses who think that motorists are the only customers who matter.

But having exhausted all the alternatives, American cities are finally rediscovering this essential tool. No remotely functional city in the world lacks a transit system, and the bus is always a critical layer – the thing that goes to all the high-demand places that rail can’t go.  As we enter the inevitable hangover from the mid-2010s sugar-rush of tech boosterism, people are finally doing the math to see why, for a city to function for everyone, buses simply must be allowed to succeed.

Steven Higashide has written a great little book charting the current and incipient bus revolution.  In a skillful balance of facts and stories, Higashide explores what successful bus services look like, and how to overcome the barriers to bus service reform. He interviews the architects of some of the most impressive achievements, and also delves well into the deep challenge of equity and public engagement.

Do I have quibbles?  My only serious one is that I wish the book were clearer about where activists should direct their constructive rage.  US transit agencies are less powerful than they appear and are often not the source of the biggest problems. Much of what they do is defined by their poverty and by the great mass of regulations and labor contracts that form the boundaries of their world.

At times Higashide understates the danger of telling transit agencies to do so many things that everything they do suffers from lack of focus.  Transit agencies desperately need to focus on designing and running good transit systems.  Demanding they take on other battles often comes at a cost to that core business, by dividing staff and elected attention.

For example, Higashide suggests that transit agencies lead on pedestrian infrastructure around stops, a massive task that falls in the city (and sometimes state) role in managing streets. Cities must be pressured to adopt their own transit goals that lead to those kinds of investments, as leading ones like Seattle have done for years.  Just because transit is connected to everything doesn’t mean transit agencies should have to solve every related problem with their own meager budget, as they are often told to do. That just leads to ever-lousier bus service.

But this book is so good in so many ways that I don’t mind disagreeing with it here and there. The messages are critically important. The writing is lively and fun.  You can read the whole thing in a couple of hours, and it’s short and logical chapters support easy snacking.  It’s a great tool for giving you hope, and focus. Buy it, read it, give it to people who need it. It will make a difference.

 

We’re Hiring in Portland!

Once again, our firm has an opening for a transit analyst in our Portland office.  We require strong analytic and cartography skills, but interest and in transit planning is also valuable.  So this can be a great place to start a transit career, especially if you like our work or my approach to transit planning.

See the listing here!  Deadline is November 1.  Please spread the word!