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.

 

Great News for Chile

Photo: Universidad Católica de Chile

My friend Professor Juan Carlos Muñoz Abogabir is Chile’s new Minister of Transport.  He is a Bus Rapid Transit expert and an eloquent advocate for sustainable and just transport planning, and is also one of the nicest people I know.

Juan Carlos has already been a leader through turbulent times.  In the 2000s was a key advisor to the project that created Transantiago, a government agency managing all public transport in the capital region.  The reform introduced integrated bus service planning and also changed the motivations of bus drivers. I remember riding a Santiago bus with Juan Carlos in the bad old days of 2004:  Bus drivers raced down the street, cutting each other off in hopes of grabbing the passengers at each stop.  And since they made money from taking passengers on but not for letting them off, people sometimes had to jump from the bus as it slowed but didn’t quite stop.

The implementation of Transantiago, however, was a disaster.  When the system was turned on in January 2007, some parts of it hadn’t come together.  Not enough new buses had arrived. Not all the necessary technology was ready. The incentives weren’t quite right.  The result was a couple of months of chaos.  Everyone who touched it, including Juan Carlos, was blamed.  It even affected the President’s approval rating.

Large-scale transformations like Transantiago are to some extent always like this. They were changing an entire sector of the economy over to a new model, in a way that required many people to see their jobs differently. You can flip the switch on a designated date, but people take longer to adapt and there’s always some conflict in the meantime.  In any case, the messy implementation doesn’t mean the reform wasn’t worth doing.  Over time, the biggest problems were fixed, the network began functioning and the anger quieted down.

A few years later, I saw Juan Carlos give a presentation on the Transantiago implementation, and was struck by the tone: He was not defensive at all.  He explained that this was a necessary reform but that Chile’s transport leaders, not excluding himself, had screwed it up.  He knew that failure is a better teacher than success, and he wanted everyone in the world to benefit from their meltdown.

During my 2019 trip Juan Carlos set up a meeting with then-Minister of Transport & Telecommunications Gloria Hutt to talk about my work on access analysis. From left to right: Juan Carlos, yours truly, Minister Gloria Hutt and Vice Minister José Luis Domínguez.

Fast forward to 2019.  The institute that Juan Carlos leads, CEDEUS, was planning a major global conference in Santiago when the country erupted in violent protests. All conferences were canceled, including his, because nobody could guarantee the security of visitors.  I had been booked as a speaker at the conference, but Juan Carlos asked if I would come anyway, and do some events around the edges of the crisis.  So I went, and lacking translation services I did a few presentations in my then-terrible Spanish. I described the experience here.

Obviously Juan Carlos grieved at the way that the social unrest began: a massive act of vandalism against the Santiago Metro.  But he shared the protesters’ demand for change, and he worked to channel the energy toward revealing the injustice of the built environment and transport systems.

So I’m just delighted at this announcement.  Chile is wealthy enough to do things, but its car ownership is low enough that it can still choose to avoid many of the worst mistakes of North America.  And it has the perfect transport leader for the moment.

Dallas: Welcome to Your New Network

The Dallas area’s new bus network goes live on January 24, 2022!  It’s the result of our three-year collaboration with the transit agency DART and its member cities.  The project relied on extensive input from the community, and the Board, about what kind of transit system they want to see.  But it’s still a no-growth network, which means that DART couldn’t add new operating budget.  As a result, it’s full of difficult tradeoffs and not everyone will like it.

You can compare the old and new networks at this cool data viewer that we developed.  Here is the existing network followed by the new network.  Note the frequencies in the legend, without which these maps make no sense.

DART Existing Network (note frequencies in legend)

DART New Network (note frequencies in legend).

In general, it’s fewer routes, longer walks in some cases, but higher frequencies. We’ve also:

  • established more regular timed-transfer patterns among infrequent routes, especially at South Garland and Addison Transit Centers.
  • set feeder routes to 20 or 40 minute frequencies so that they match the 20 minute rail frequency.  This is the main reason that you see relatively little expansion of the 15-minute frequencies (red) but a big expansion of the 20-minute frequencies (purples).
  • substantially expanded the GoLink demand-response program to provide more coverage.  This is a relatively low-cost service for DART, as microtransit goes, because some of the service is provided using ordinary Uber rides under contract with DART.

The result is usually faster access to more destinations.  The average area resident will be able to get to 1/3 more jobs in 60 minutes, which means more access to all kinds of opportunity for all kinds of people.  This benefit happens almost everywhere (blue in this image) (click to enlarge).

… and the benefit is similar for all races, ages and incomes.

Source: DART

The plan was based on the Board’s decision (not mine) to shift the focus of the service slightly toward a ridership goal and away from a coverage goal.  That would have meant service to fewer places, or further away from a few people’s homes, in order to run higher frequencies that produced expanded access to opportunity for most people.  Because the sad mathematical fact is:  Ridership arises from how useful service is to many people, not how useful it is to absolutely everyone.  When we seek to serve absolutely everyone, we’re planning for coverage, not ridership.

But in fact, even though the priorities shifted away from coverage, the final network hardly cuts coverage at all.

None of this means that everyone will be happy.  Network changes are always disruptive to some people’s lives. We make sure every decision-maker to know that before they decide to proceed.

Finally, this is not our plan. It’s DART’s plan based on their conversation with the public, and the decision of their Board.  We facilitated the design conversations and did the analysis, but we didn’t set the policy that led to the network looking as it does.  That’s not an evasion of responsibility.  It’s the key to our whole approach to these projects, which is to defer entirely to the community on questions of priorities, and to never make those decisions ourselves.

We hope your new network takes you to good places.  Meanwhile, we’ll soon be starting work on a happier project to envision an expanded bus network, a little bit closer to what the community actually needs.  So if you’re in the Dallas area, stay involved!

Induced Demand: An Axiom of Biology

Figuring out the relationship between this tweet and this article is left as an exercise for the reader.

Induced demand is the observed fact that if you make something easier to do, people will do it more.  For example, if you create new capacity for cars in a place where travel demand is high, the result is more cars.  If you build more capacity to “fix congestion”, you end up back near the same level of congestion you had before.

After decades of observing this pattern, most people, including many road-building authorities, are still reluctant to face what this means.  Part of the problem, surely, is that we’re presenting induced demand as an observed discovery, allowing us to perform quarrels over data, research methods etc.

But induced demand isn’t just an observed fact.  It’s also an axiom of biology, so we are as sure about it as we are of the facts of math.  This means we don’t really need to be doing this experiment over and over, just as we don’t need to keep measuring circles to be sure of the value of pi.

In this context an axiom is a statement that can be taken as true because it is part of the definition of a concept you are using, or follows logically from that definition.  The value of pi is axiomatic because it follows from the definition of a circle, in standard Euclidean space that describes our everyday world.

Now consider the concept of an organism.  It implies that:

  • The thing consumes some resource from its environment, in order to have enough energy.
  • It will expend energy getting this resource.
  • Therefore, it must run a positive balance sheet: The energy it spends getting the resource must be less than the energy the resource will provide.

We humans are organisms, so we do what they do.  We seek resources in the easiest possible way (i.e. with the lowest possible expenditure of energy.)  So:

  • If driving suddenly becomes easier than taking transit (due to a road widening, for example), more people will shift to driving, increasing congestion.
  • If a road widening makes it possible for developers to save money (i.e. energy) by building in more distant places where land is cheaper, they will do that.
  • This process changes the shape of the urban area so that people travel longer distances (due to sprawl) at slower speeds (due to congestion).
  • Therefore the average organism will need to expend more energy to reach the same resources it reached before.  (Your job flees from downtown to a distant business park where taxes are lower.  Your grocery store closes because a WalMart opened two miles away where you can’t walk to it, or even walk from the nearest point that a bus could get to.)
  • On average, organisms in this system end up in a weakened state, with a worse balance sheet of energy expended vs energy gained.

The organisms in this parable are all trying to harvest more energy than they spend in the act of harvesting.   Even unimaginable aliens on distant planets would do this in the same situation.  So it’s axiomatic that, in the absence of other pressures, road widening in a high-demand area will induce more traffic and more sprawl.

So although road-building departments keep doing the induced demand experiment many times every year, and getting the same results, you don’t need to do more experiments, just as you don’t need to keep measuring circles to be sure of the value of pi.  You can add complexity by taking this into the human sciences and trying to model subtleties of human behavior, but all the resulting insights will be marginal compared to the axiomatic fact that above all, we’re organisms, so we’ll do what organisms do.