“Transit Unplugged” Interview with Me

Paul Comfort’s Transit Unplugged is a podcast for transit industry professionals.  He just did a two-part interview of me, where we talked about how our thinking about transit goals, and our measures of success, need to adapt to the post-pandemic world.  It’s in two podcasts

Part 1, from 7:10 to 22:10. (Ends at a moment of suspense!)

Part 2, from 8:03 to 18:10.

Hope you enjoy!

The Tyranny of the “Community”: Transcending the Public Meeting

My job as a public transit planner requires a lot of public engagement, as it should.  In the projects we do for transit agency clients, mostly around bus network redesign, the task of seeking public feedback is at least one third of the project budget.  But public outreach can be a frustrating and anti-democratic process, especially when it happens in public meetings.  Aaron Gordon’s excellent piece in Vice explores what’s wrong with this grand civic ritual.

The problem with community feedback is not the concept itself, but the way it is executed. We do it too often, for too many things, for too long, and in the wrong manner. We ask the wrong questions of the wrong people and use the answers in the wrong way. Professionals and politicians have so far been afraid to admit there is a problem outside of private conversations, because it can seem anti-democratic and even anti-American to appear opposed to the town hall ethos of local control.

His article is mostly about urban development debates, dipping into transit now and then.  As a transit planner, I can confirm a lot of his insights:

  • People who come to public meetings are very unrepresentative of the population, so if the government simply obeys them, that is not democracy.
  • While we have plenty of regulations telling us to have public meetings, but not explaining why.  What questions are we supposed to be asking?  What are we supposed to do with the answers?  What is the correct relationship between public opinion and professional expertise?
  • We don’t have a definition of success.  Anyone who disagrees with your recommendation will say you didn’t do enough outreach.  How much is enough?

But Gordon makes one observation that doesn’t translate to transit well.  In debates about what to build in a city, the classic meeting-dominating character, captured in this immortal McSweeney’s satire, is older, whiter, and more prosperous than the general population.

In my experience, this is true of debates about transit infrastructure, but not in debates about transit service.  When we are working on a redesign of a bus network, and the plan doesn’t have an obvious infrastructure impact, the vast majority of fortunate people just don’t care.  No matter how profoundly we are transforming access to opportunity in a city, most fortunate people, including most elected officials, only care if we propose to build something.  (I can’t begin to express how frustrating this is.)

So the public meeting on a transit network redesign tends to be dominated by current users of the bus service.  These folks are not whiter or wealthier than the general population.  Many depend on the bus service.  Now they have been told that their bus route may change, sometimes by people spreading incomplete information.  They’re used to their route as it is, so they assume any change is bad.  So they make the considerable sacrifices needed to go to a public meeting and speak up.  And like many people with their backs against the wall, they often scream.

I don’t blame them.  If I were in their shoes, and had been told what some of them had been told, I would do the same.  But this makes it hard to work through things with them, to explain, for example, why the trip they make is still possible, and maybe even better, even if it’s changed in some way.  Transit planners do this hard work all the time, customer by customer.  And still they get a lot of abuse, which sometimes causes good ones to leave the profession.

Gordon doesn’t mention the most fundamental bias built into the entire public outreach process.  It takes a lot of time.

Time-consuming outreach processes are biased against people who are busy.  If you wonder why your bus is so slow, it may be because the people who are in a hurry, and would benefit from it being fast, don’t have time to go to public meetings. They’re too busy.

So people who come to public meetings on transit tend to be in one of three categories:

  • People who have spare time in their day, mostly retired or unemployed people.  This is why, although people who comment on bus network changes aren’t necessarily whiter and wealthier than average, they do tend to be older on average.
  • People who are being paid to be there.  These are spokespeople for powerful interests.  There aren’t usually many of these, but they can be very assertive.
  • People who feel so threatened that they have taken the time even though they don’t have much time, like the folks I’ve described above.

These people are important, but the majority of potential transit riders are not in any of these groups.  The majority of riders have jobs, families, and other complex commitments.  If they find a couple of spare hours in their day, you can’t blame them for watching a movie instead of going to a public meeting.

So in our practice, we put as much emphasis as we can on web-based feedback systems that use people’s time more effectively, supplemented by in-person outreach that focuses on populations at risk from exclusion by this method.  (To reach those populations, we go to them where the are: interviewing them on the transit system for example.)  We also do stakeholder workshops and focus groups, where smaller invited groups of people, selected to be representative, have the opportunity to talk more deeply with the planners, so that they can better understand the consequences of their choices.  To avoid the hassle of travel we encourage virtual meetings and not just physical ones.

But the most important issue is: What question are we asking the public?

We hate asking: “Here’s what we’re thinking of doing. What do you think?”  That question polarizes people, supporters vs opponents, in ways that make it hard for them to learn or think.  Instead, we ask: “What are your priorities?”  “If we could have more of this or more of that, which would you prefer?”  When we do go to the public with a single map, we don’t just ask “What do you think?”  We ask: “Notice the priorities being expressed here; do we have them right?”  This recent work in Portland is a good example.

This approach also expresses a coherent division of labor between expertise and community input.  We want a community to tell us what they want us to do — what goals they want us to achieve, and with what priorities among those goals.  With that input, we can draw a plan and show how it expresses those priorities.

Do enough people engage with these policy questions?  No.  Does everyone like the resulting plan?  Of course not.  Are there still angry public discussions? Of course there are.  But usually, when we do it this way, a critical mass of decision-makers remembers the conversation we had, and they see that the plan expresses what was decided then.  So usually, with some changes, some kind of plan moves forward to implementation.

Do you see a better way?

 

 

 

Portland: Turning the Dial Toward Equity (How Far?)

What does it mean to make a bus network design more equitable or “just”?  These terms mean different things to many people, but in this case the core idea is a redistribution of bus service resources, particularly toward people with lower incomes also toward historically excluded racial groups.

In Portland, where I live, we’ve been working with the local transit agency TriMet on a bus network design effort that has two overriding motives: ridership and equity.  And as we look at how much to invest in equity, we have a big question for the community to think about:  How much redistribution of service toward lower-income areas should we do?

TriMet’s project will eventually develop a near-term plan for expanded bus service.  Thanks to a new Oregon state funding source and some other revenues, the agency has the financial capability to run about 10% more bus service than it ran in 2019, and more than 30% more than TriMet runs right now.  The constraint at the moment is the dire shortage of bus operators, but once that’s resolved this level of service will be possible.

These goals, ridership and equity, overlap more than they differ.  If we were planning only for ridership we’d still offer good service where there are lots of people with low incomes even if equity weren’t a separate goal.

However, there are cases where people with low incomes need services that wouldn’t have especially high ridership.  With the suburbanization of poverty, more and more of these people live in areas with low density and/or street networks that present obstacles to efficient bus service.  Another example is service to industrial areas: These tend to have poor ridership because of the low density and terrible pedestrian environment, but they are much valued by the people who rely on them to get to lower-wage jobs.  So in these cases, the equity goal is the only reason we suggest more service there.

Note the word suggest.  The Service Concept we’ve released is just that, a concept.  It is not even a proposal, and it’s certainly not a recommendation.  We are not saying that we have it right.  We are putting it out there to start a conversation.

We drew the Service Concept map around a conference table with TriMet planning staff, and in an earlier phase we also had staffs of most of the cities and counties in TriMet’s service district as well.  In our professional judgment, it’s a good illustration of what you might do if you were trying to expand both ridership and equity.  We’re sure the public feedback will give us lots of great ideas for how to refine it.

But we are also asking the public a specific question:  How far should we shift the priorities toward equity?

One approach you could take is to spend the new resources on the needs of people with lower incomes, while retaining all the services that are there now.  This would get you some improvement in equity, but we wondered if that would be enough to match the public’s priorities.

So we (staff and we the consultants) decided to put out an illustration of what it might look like to turn the dial even further toward equity.

The concept map cuts some existing services to make an even larger investment in equity-improving services. The service cuts happen in places where the service has neither a ridership justification nor an equity justification.  These areas are low ridership because of physical features like low density, poor walkability, or disconnected streets.  They’re also low equity priorities because they have relatively few people with lower incomes.

In shifting service in this way, from higher-income areas to lower-income areas, did we go too far or not far enough?  That question is purely about values.  It has no technical answer.  That means that my opinion doesn’t matter and I won’t express one.  We are asking the community this question, as part of TriMet’s survey about the concept, and that will lead to a decision by the Board on how far we will turn the dial in creating the final plan.

 

 

 

 

Atlanta: You Have Choices for Your Transit Future

Source: “Atlantacitizen” at English language Wikipedia

For over a year now we have been working with the metro Atlanta transit agency MARTA on a study to potentially redesign their bus network.

A bus network plan isn’t just about bus service! It’s also about how public transit contributes to all kinds of goals that residents care about, including equity, prosperity, managing congestion, and reducing emissions. Bus service is relevant to redevelopment, too, because this study will help determine where it is viable to live without a car.

We’ve analyzed the existing system and patterns of demand.  Now, we really need everyone in the region to tell us what their priorities are.  If you live in Fulton, Clayton, or DeKalb Counties, your opinion matters and we need you to speak up.  The future design of the bus system will depend on what you tell us now!

There’s no money to add service above 2019 levels, so we have to make some hard choices.  To illustrate these choices, we’ve sketched two contrasting alternatives for what the network might look like.  We need you to have a look at these and tell us what you think.

To see the alternatives, and take the survey, just click here.

Please share this with everyone you know in the region!

 

You Can Help Save Public Transit In Your City …

… by thinking about people you know who are driving for Uber or doing poorly paid jobs they hate, and asking if they’d have better lives as bus or train operators.

I’m serious.  In the US, public transit is in grave trouble due to lack of staff.  Here’s how bad it is at TriMet here in Portland.

TriMet would need to increase our current operator ranks by more than 300 to return service to pre-pandemic levels. In January, we reduced service by 9%, to better-match staffing levels; however, resignations, retirements, promotions and departures of operators for other reasons have continued to outpace hiring, leading to canceled buses and trains and system delays for riders.

Everything transit advocates have fought for could be destroyed by this problem.

Pay and benefits?  A lot better than Uber!

TriMet has increased the starting pay for new bus operators to $25.24 per hour, and with regular, guaranteed pay raises, all operators earn $68,000 per year or more after three years on the job full time. In addition, TriMet bus operators receive a generous package of employment benefits, which includes no-to-low cost health insurance, life insurance, paid vacation and sick time, and a retirement plan with an 8% employer contribution. In addition, TriMet is offering all newly hired operators a $7,500 hiring bonus.

Plus there are very powerful labor unions looking out for you.  It’s designed to be a stable long term job that you can build a life on.

These kinds of offers are now typical in many cities around the country.

So here’s the deal on driving a bus.  (Note: Light rail train drivers usually start as bus drivers.)

  • You have to enjoy driving safely.
  • You have to deal with people.  Some are wonderful and help you feel better about humanity.  Most are harmless headphone-wrapped units of social isolation. Some are unpleasant.  A few could be dangerous.
  • You have to have an exercise routine to compensate for the sedentary nature of the job.

But all that’s true of Uber too!

This job is not for everyone, but anyone looking for a job in this wage/skill range should be considering it.  Do you know one of these people?  Do you meet groups of people who might fall in this category? Point them to your public transit authority’s website, where there’s probably a very prominent “we’re hiring!” box.

Because if nobody will do this job, we won’t have public transit anymore.

 

“Can We Just Make the Train Feel Faster?”

Pete Dyson and Rory Sutherland: Transport for Humans.  London Publishing Partnership, 2021

 

Behavioral science is a growing influence on the planning of cities and transport.  Conventional economic thinking views the customer as a rational actor who cares only about travel time and cost, but behavioral science adds two insights:  First, time and cost aren’t the only things travelers care about.  Second, even when optimizing time and cost, human brains aren’t ideal computers for this purpose, so they take various mental shortcuts that good planning can anticipate and guide.

This new British book is a lively read on how to apply behavioral science to transport planning — a process that’s well under way at many leading agencies such as Transport for London.  The authors touch on everything from signage to pricing to the joys of public art.  At one point they praise a stairway painted like piano keys that sound a note when you step on them.

Is there anything wrong with putting behavioral science in the lead in transport planning?  It depends on how you use it.  One danger lies in how planners choose to think about perceived vs actual time:

Cars go fast, so transport engineers put a lot of effort into making alternatives faster.  But a 32 minute train ride does not feel all that different from a 36 minute one, and the changes needed to shave off more time can get very expensive.

Can we just make the train feel faster instead?

The only bad word here is instead.

It may be that 36 minutes is the optimal travel time at a reasonable level of investment [1].  And certainly, there’s nothing wrong with doing things that make that time more pleasant and seem to pass more quickly.  But if you are making the train feel fast so that it doesn’t have to be fast, you may be making an elite projection mistake with major consequences for equity and social justice.  The authors cite the concept of Maslow’s hierarchy but not its most obvious point:  Values such as pleasure and “self-actualization” are only motivating when more basic needs are met.  Basic needs include the food and shelter that you will only have if you have a job, which in turn may require you to get to work on time.  When you get to your low-wage job four minutes late, the timeclock you punch doesn’t care that your trip felt so fast that you feel like you’re on time.

It’s also important to question the polarization that drives the book’s rhetoric.  The authors’ opponent is a conventional model-driven transport planning that thinks about passengers the way it thinks about cargo.

When we move things, rather than people, around efficiently, no feelings need to be taken into account.  Planning can be mathematically optimized without any consideration for psychology.

There really is a transport planning orthodoxy that is this silly, but there are also a lot of interesting positions in the middle.   For example, transport planners like me, who insist that we respect people’s need to get places by actual-time deadlines, aren’t denying the foundational role of great information design.  Bad information is a cause of delay as well as stress, both of which are fundamental human needs in Maslow’s hierarchy: stress is bad for health, and delay threatens our access to food and shelter if those require getting to work on time.   Obviously public transport authorities are not providing much value if their services aren’t used because they can’t be found, understood, and navigated, or if the experience is so stressful as to be harmful for the customer’s health.

The book offers little evidence to challenge the foundational importance of travel time.  People aren’t cargo, but like cargo they have deadlines.  A pleasant-but-unreliable public transport service may satisfy both tourists and the relatively fortunate people whose jobs aren’t in danger if they’re late.  But such a service is not part of a comprehensive public transport network addressing the full diversity of the society and potential ridership.

I recommend this book for a fun overview of behavioral science insights.  It has made me smarter about how to discuss these issues.  Fortunately, though, the transport planning world isn’t as black-and-white as their rhetoric might suggest.  There are many ways to use these insights while still respecting our need to get where we’re going, at the time we’re expected there.

 

[1]  I’m not saying it should be 32, since a responsible travel time analysis is door-to-door and therefore includes frequency as well as walking or other kinds of access-t0-transit time.

Is the NYTimes Worsening Transit Crime?

Whenever you read a news article in an influential publication, ask: “How is this article changing the thing that it claims to be passively describing?”

A recent New York Times story leads with fears of transit crime but waits until paragraph 5 to explain the math that shows that their own article is making things worse.  Here is the headline:

Here is fifth paragraph that most people won’t read:

Low ridership has left many passengers saying they feel more vulnerable than before. In Philadelphia, the number of certain serious crimes reported on public transit is higher than before the pandemic, and in New York about equal to previous levels, even though ridership in both places is significantly lower. In other cities, there are fewer crimes being reported than in 2019, but the crime rate is up because there are so few passengers. [emphasis added]

So in most cities:

  • Crime is down but crime/rider is up simply because ridership is down.
  • We can expect crime/rider to fall as ridership goes up, because, as the NYT itself says, low ridership makes passengers more vulnerable because they are more likely to be alone. A more crowded vehicle is safer (both absolutely and per passenger) because there are more potential witnesses, which tends to deter crime.

In this situation, the NYTimes decision to lead with the fear and bury the math is worsening the problem it claims to describe.  The effect of the article is to scare people away from transit, so that ridership stays low, so that crime/rider stays high, so that they can do more articles about how scary public transit is.

 

 

“Decide and Provide”: Transport Modeling That Gives Us Choices

Our whole urban form is heavily shaped by computer models that predict how much traffic a development will generate.  Want to build a small residential-over-retail building in a walkable area?  A conventional model will show that you need lots of parking, but also that you’ll generate lots of traffic on the nearby streets, which will provoke the neighbors to rise up to oppose the project.  Since the model doesn’t think anyone will walk to it anyway, you might as well just build it out by the highway.

Hence, our suburban landscape.

It all goes back to the transport planning ideology called “Predict and Provide.”  When predicting how much vehicle traffic a development will generate (its vehicle trip generation rate) the model looks at what similar developments have generated in the past, and just assumes that will continue.

Predict and Provide model: The future is just like the past. Nothing you can do about it. Source: TRICS Guidance Note, February 2021

If the community isn’t changing, and the world isn’t changing, this might work.  But of course, the very fact that you’re proposing a development means that the community is changing.  It’s growing, which means car-dependence is on its way to hitting known limits where congestion starts to affect behavior. Meanwhile, the world is changing: people want to live in more walkable communities, and there are many incentives to encourage them.  The classic “Predict and Provide” model tells us to ignore all that.  It presumes that you are a copy of your parents and that when you’re their age, you’ll behave exactly they way they do.

Some of us have been pointing this out for years.  The transport modeling industry sees the problem and has been softening its predictive claims, but the fact remains that the biggest investments, large infrastructure and real estate development, require everyone involved to (pretend to) believe predictions.  Even if everybody in a process knows now ridiculous the assumptions are, the easiest thing to do (and often the legally mandated thing to do) is to perform the process.

So it’s great to see the emergence, in the UK, of the “Decide to Provide” paradigm. It is now being recommended by the very people who curate the UK’s dominant transport model, TRICS.  It says that when describing rates at which a development generates traffic, it’s appropriate to have a “vision” scenario showing the most credible optimistic outcome.

Decide and Provide. There are several credible futures. Which one do you want?  Source: TRICS Guidance Note, February 2021

You can”t predict the future, but you can predict a range of credible possibilities, and then think about which one you actually want.

Maybe the trip generation rate will rebound (the “Nationally informed projection”).  Maybe it will continue its slow descent. Or maybe what it does will depend on your vision for your whole community, and your resolve in implementing that vision.  If you want a more walkable community, this model holds open the possibility that you might succeed.

The “vision-based” curve is “supply-led” because it’s based on the widely observed principle (and biological axiom) called induced demand: If you make something easier, people will do it more, and if you make something harder, they will do it less.

The “supply-led” curve is what happens if you limit road space and parking, while making it easier to walk, cycle, or take public transport.  Obviously this has to be done in the right place, where there is already a critical mass of walkable development, or where there’s a viable plan to create such an area at sufficient scale.

Should you seek to shift demand away from driving?  It’s a choice, arising from a set of values.  But “Predict and Provide” was also a choice, expressing a set of values. There never was neutral or factual way to predict trip generation.  There was only a culturally dominant one.

Every time we undermine the illusion of predictability, we expand our freedom to choose!

Do You Really Want to Live in “Perceived Time”?

Salvador Dali, “Profile of Time” Photo by Wikimedia Commons user “Julo”.

As you may have noticed, humans don’t perceive time passing at a constant rate. “Time flies when you’re having fun,” we say, or “the meeting was only an hour but it felt like an eternity.”

This phenomenon has obvious relevance to transportation and urban design.  It’s well established, for example, that a walk seems to take less time if it’s more pleasant.  Countless studies have established this as a matter of human psychology, and you probably also know this from your own experience.

But when the behavior science literature talks about improving perceived time, we should pause before deciding that this is the kind of time that matters.

As a transportation planner who sometimes works with architects, I often have this conversation:

Me:  “If you design it that way, these people will have a 15 minute walk.”

Architect: “But it’s a beautiful walk, so it won’t feel like 15 minutes.”

The architect’s implication is that perceived time is what’s real.  If a walk is so pleasant that it feels like five minutes, then you won’t notice that it’s actually 15.

Well, maybe you won’t, but the people waiting for you will.   If you have to punch a timeclock at work, try telling your boss: “I’m not really late, because my perception of time is that I got here ten minutes ago.”  For that matter, try telling that to the friends waiting to meet you, or to your spouse or child at home.

Perceived time is a crucial dimension of the human experience, and an important source of joy.  Perhaps you have had the pleasure of just wandering, in a city or wilderness, without goal, deadline, or destination. [1] You just walk, drink in the sensations of the place, and when you come to a place where you could go one way or another, you go whichever way feels right, without regard to where you will end up.   But important as these experiences are, they always end in ways that throw you back into objective time.  The sun sets, or a business you need is about to close, or you have to meet someone.

Perceived time can be a great experience, and there’s nothing wrong with it, but it could also be called selfish timeObjective time, by contrast, could also be called social time.  Social creatures cannot all live by their own clock.  It is only by respecting objective time that humans can show up for each other in all the ways that make jobs, friendships, and families possible.

There is an obvious class dimension to this issue.  If you make a trip longer in order to make it more pleasant, you’re imposing delay on people who can least afford it.   When we decide to sacrifice low-income people’s objective time to improve their perceived time, we are measurably reducing their access to the things they need, thus measurably impoverishing their lives.  To avoid these impacts, a logical and just approach to design and infrastructure would first focus on making the best use of people’s objective time, and only then, in cases where objective time is not at stake, work to improve perceived time.

So behavior science thinking is always at serious risk of elite projection.  When someone says that a journey can be longer as long as it feels faster, I always ask, “for whom will it feel faster, and is that the only person who matters?”

 

[1]  The French call this activity flânerie, and the person doing it a flâneur, a word that has come over into English in literary and urbanist contexts.

People Who Love War Hate Cities

Kyiv in 2022. Kyivcity.gov.ua, CC BY 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

People who love war hate cities.

Cities are places where people who are different from each other learn not to fear each other. They find that they can share a public space with people who don’t look like them, talk like them, or act the way they would act, and that it’s almost always fine. People who profit from fear hate that.

Cities produce visibility.  It is easier to not care about poverty or homelessness or the mental health crisis if you see them only on television, but in the city it’s all right in front of you.  It’s easy to believe that those demonstrators are all hoodlums if you’re not on the street with them hearing their actual voices.  In a city there is no avoiding the facts of what a society is, and what its conflicts are.  Cities are where we see each other.  People who don’t want to see hate that.

Cities and their people are vulnerable.  So many people so close together. So easily destroyed by just one disaster, or just one bomb.  So easy for anyone to enter, no matter how hostile their intentions. We don’t have city walls anymore. We have the opposite: Openness and vulnerability are the very form of the modern city. People who feel safe only behind walls hate that.

So lots of people hate cities.  And yet cities are centers of prosperity and opportunity and wealth, so they must be controlled, even by people who don’t much like them.  That struggle to control cities is everywhere: in politics, in policing, in city planning, and when all else fails, in war.

So of course, in time of war, it’s always the city that’s destroyed, and urban people who are massacred. That’s always how it’s been. Cities aren’t just attacked because of what country they’re in, or because of a resource they represent. They’re attacked because of what a city is.