Archive | 2010

new year’s resolution: no more coercion

PC310069 If you want to find vigorous attacks on urbanism and sustainable transport by car-and-highway advocates, just Google for forms of the verb to coerce.  The most recent one you'll find is from the reliable Fred Barnes of the Weekly Standard.  Called "Coercing people out of their cars," it exploits an unfortunate comment by Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood.  As Barnes puts it:

Last year, George Will zinged LaHood as the “Secretary of Behavior Modification” for his fervent opposition to cars. LaHood all but pleaded guilty. Steering funds from highways to bike and walking paths and streetcars, he said, “is a way to coerce people out of their cars.” His word, coerce.

Here's the source, reported on conservative blogs but not much elsewhere.  CNS News:

On May 21, [2009?] LaHood told reporters at the National Press Club that the “Partnership for Sustainable Communities’ his department had formed with the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Housing—sometimes known as the “livability initiative”–was designed to “coerce” people out of their cars.

If LaHood did describe the sustainable transportation project as coercion, even in jest, he should be more careful. Just as one doesn't joke about terrorism at airport security checkpoints, we shouldn't even joke about coercion in urban and transportation policy.  The word is a primitive grenade that can blow up any and all parties present.

The idea that urbanists and transit advocates are trying to coerce people to give up cars is one of the most treasured bits of pro-car rhetoric, because it feeds the association of cars with liberty.  Because so much urbanist work necessarily happens through government, the image of coercion also helps people think of government as intrinsically an oppressor, always a convenient refuge for the lazier kind of libertarian.

Google assembles a convenient list of definitions of to coerceWikipedia's is typical of the range:

Coercion (pronounced /koʊˈɜrʃən/) is the practice of forcing another party to behave in an involuntary manner (whether through action or inaction) by use of threats, intimidation or some other form of pressure or force.

Almost all of the definitions refer to actual or threatened force.  

By those definitions, I can't think of anything that I have done, in 20 years in this business, that would qualify as coercion.  Certainly, I've never threatened any motorist with force, or advised anyone else to do so.  No, Barnes would respond, but I have advised governments to adopt policies that are coercive toward motorists.  For example, I advised the City of Minneapolis to restrict traffic on certain streets to create a functional transit mall, which they did in 2009.  They even changed the direction of certain lanes.  Something that used to be legal is now prohibited.  If someone drives his private car through the bus lanes (especially in their pre-2009 direction!) police might show up and, if all else fails, might even shoot at him.  Force!  Coercion!  Rhetorically, the coercion-victim wins.  Of course, the vehicle he was driving was also a deadly weapon, so he too was threatening force, but he's already declared victory, paid his citation with an air of martyrdom, written his angry article, and gone home.

In the new year, let us all resolve not to be coerced by the rhetoric of coercion, and never to use the term, even in jest, to describe our own project. 

In its impact on motorists, sustainable urbanism is all about accurate pricing.  We care about pricing in two separate and non-convertible currencies: money, and the limited road space of our cities. 

We experience urban congestion, and parking shortages, when road-space is inaccurately priced.  As I explored here, it's as though we were giving out free tickets to a concert; when you do that, you get lots of people waiting in line, spending time to save money.  Today's approach to pricing forces everyone to act like those frugal concertgoers, when in fact many could easily afford to spend some money to save time, and would prefer to do so if asked.  High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes are one experiment in that direction, while the downtown congestion charges of London, Stockholm, and Singapore are another.  On the pricing front, San Francisco's free-market approach, which may finally liberate motorists from endlessly circling the block seeking a space, is another breakthrough. 

The absurdity of underpricing scarce urban road space, and thus causing congestion and parking shortages, is simply this: It forces us all to save money, a renewable resource, by wasting time, the least renewable resource of all.

Of course, when a price goes up, some who could afford it now can't, and may blame the government.  This happens when the price of anything goes up; it will always happen as long as people hold exaggerated notions about the power of government over the economy.  To meet the needs of people who are dissuaded from driving by price, and ensure that they continue participating in the economy, road-pricing and parking-pricing strategies work only in the context of abundant and attractive travel alternatives, including transit.  This is part of the free-market justification for transit subsidies, in a big-city context, so long as there continue to be equal or greater subsidies for the motorist.

Reduction of government subsidies is not coercion.  Fred Barnes is the socialist in this debate, demanding government subsidy for his own chosen lifestyle but not for that of others.  As for those of us who support more accurate pricing — of road space, parking, and all the other incremental costs of transport, including transit fares — we are the libertarians!

request for information: detailed studies of operations delay

Long ago, when all transit data was collected manually by students with clipboards, I did a few studies that watched what happened on a bus or streetcar/tram in normal operation and counted the seconds of delay associated with each of the following factors:

  • Being stopped at signals.
  • Being stopped or slowed by traffic.
  • Being stopped or slowed by accidents.
  • Normal-pace boarding and alighting.
  • Wheelchair boarding and alighting.
  • Conversations with the driver that interrupt boarding/alighting.

These studies are usually done deep inside of transit agencies and often not published (not out of secrecy or shame, but just because they're very technical.)  Have any readers seen or done any studies like this?  I'd like to pull some typical data for a couple of them. 

happy holidays: see you january 2

Santa Greetings from what Australians call "Silly Season," made sillier by the need to roll out all the winter-based imagery of European Christmas at the height of summer. 

Over the holiday I will be beavering (as they say in this beaverless country) on the book project, with the help of a great illustration staff

Expect new content here on January 2.  Meanwhile, if you've only recently started reading Human Transit, there's plenty of older but timely stuff to enjoy.  Browse for your favorite catgory in the column at right.

And no, this is not my house.  Happy holidays.


holiday hairsplitting: the challenge of one-day schedules

David Marlor writes:

Thought you’d like to see this.

Every year, Edmonton Transit reduces costs by reducing service during the Christmas holiday season. I’ve no problem with that, but the way it is done is totally user-unfriendly. When you look through that list of changes you quickly realize you have no easy way of knowing when buses are running and if the connections work. Yes, you can use the trip planner, but this kind of thing just defeats the idea of an easy to use network. My eyes glaze over and I think I’d just say “forget it, I’ll drive”.

Personally, I think Edmonton is too surgical with the reductions at the expense of losing the ease of understanding the network. I’m not sure it’s even worth it.

Edmonton Transit certainly has made it complicated, but I respect the imperative behind it.  Transit operators are under such constant cost-cutting pressure that they often can't justify running regular schedules on unusual holidays where when demand is higher than a typical weekend day but lower than a full weekday.

Most of the approaches to network planning that I recommend are based on the notion that we need to make networks simpler.  Part of that is grouping services into brands of similar usefulness (based on distinctions such as rapid vs. local, peak-only vs all-day, frequent vs not).  Doing this, however, requires that a transit agency give up some of its ability to micro-adjust service to its perception of demand.  For example, if we specify that the Frequent Network as a whole must be frequent until 9 PM, a few lines that we've included in that category may have to have their evening frequency expanded evne though their ridership then doesn't seem to justify it.  That's right: we spend a little and in return we get a network and schedule that we can describe succinctly, and that our customers can remember.

The same principle should ideally apply to these unusual days, though I respect that it's hard to get there.  But this kind of standardization, and the clarity that results, are an important frontier for transit if we're going to substantially increase its usefulness, and make people who value freedom choose to rely on it. 

email of the week: marketing a “bowl of tangled noodles”

Why do so many transit agencies not provide clear maps highlighting basic user-critical features such as frequency?  From a major transit authority located between the Arctic and Antarctic Circles, a planner proposes this explanation (links mine):

The current method [of designing marketing and information materials] is based on showing things to focus groups, and whatever wins the opinion poll seems to [get done].  Focus groups can kill good ideas.  [For example] if you show the Los Angeles 12-minute map [now a 15-minute map], it will probably be considered way too complicated.  However since the public’s image of buses [in my city] varies between zero and a bowl of tangled noodles, surely an effort like the 12 min map would be an improvement, despite the criticism re complexity.
Our marketing people are marketing people who work in transport, not transport people who work in marketing. So their knowledge of customers is probably better than mine, but their knowledge of the network (including its frequent service strength areas) would be inferior.
In contrast I take the view (influenced by the familiar themes on HT) that passengers worldwide pretty much have the same wants and needs.  So you can look at what works elsewhere, and apply it to relevant parts of the network here – no need to reinvent the wheel. You’d still have focus groups, but they would help with refining rather than saying yes or no.  I may grit my teeth at their lack of network knowledge; they’d probably think the same if I talk about marketing.

By “bowl of tangled noodles,” I’m guessing he means something like this (although this is not his city):
My experience is that good marketers and good transit planners have the same reaction to a bowl of tangled noodles — confusing piles of overlapping routes.  They hate them.  Both professions strive to reduce complexity, but often they don’t have the same notion of which fundamentals are most important. 

For example, as a planner I’d rather see a map that uses a strong color like red to highlight frequency, whereas many published maps use red to highlight speed — even fast services that run for only a few hours and are thus useful only to a narrow market.  San Jose’s VTA map, for example, uses red to mean “express, but maybe not all day, and maybe not in both directions.”  To me as a planner, this gives a misleading impression that the red lines are the underlying structure on which the network is built.  In fact, that structure lies more in the green and blue lines.

Others, as in this 2009 Portland map, prefer to use colors to differentiate the lines from each other, leaving little information bandwidth to convey other distinctions.  Portland’s 2009 map “highlights” Frequent Network lines by making the number bullet background yellow rather than white.  See?  Me neither.


Also, on this Portland map, if you look at 39th Avenue (north-south a bit to the left of the center of the image) you’ll see a route 66 running for a little distance, clearly an exception to the overall all-day grid pattern.  This route is one-way and peak-only, just a few trips designed to handle commutes to the medical center.  To me, drawing it as such a solid line gives a misleading impression that it’s more important than it is, and partly obscures the grid structure of frequent all-day lines that’s most people are likely to find useful.  So my instinct is usually to render peak-only services as dotted lines, showing them but not letting them distract from the big picture.


UPDATE:  Fortunately, Portland’s map has been revised, effective September 2010, exactly along the lines that I’d have suggested!  (Thanks to Nathan Banks for the update.)
Portland 10
The near-invisible yellow dots are still there, but Frequent Network lines are now drawn slightly wider.  See the difference?

Thanks to years of diligent planning, and a high tolerance for connections, Portland’s network is not a bowl of tangled noodles, though the 66 is a step down that slippery slope.  Still, even in Portland, these differences arise between the planning perspective and a marketing perspective on what’s important to show on a map.

I would especially love to get comments from transit marketing professionals on this.  Confidentiality policy is here.  Feel free to use email, via the link under my photo –>

two offers still open

Two housekeeping items:

  • My request for illustrators and mapmakers for my current book project got a good response, but I suspect there's room for one or two more.  See the original post for terms and conditions.
  • I recently sent a brief survey to North American professionals in transit planning/marketing and urbanism who read Human Transit regularly.  If you are in that category but didn't receive the survey and would like to respond, please email me and I'll send you one.  Use the email button under my photo.  —>

weekend distraction ii: google’s word history tool

This weekend everyone's playing with Google's new Books Ngram tool, which shows you how often any word you can think of showed up in books in each year of modern history, using Google's vast archive of digitized books.  The tool can be set to look back to before 1600, but before 1800 or so the dataset is too small to mean much.

"Tram" vs "streetcar" is interesting.  It seems that in the golden age of streetcars nobody was saying "streetcar" yet:

Ngram tram streetcar

Then there's "bus" vs. "coach."

Ngram bus coach

Personally I love the word "coach," and want it back, but I'm sure that the word's 20th century run refers mostly to athletic coaches.  

You can sometimes see a change in the prevailing meaning of a word marked by a low-point in its frequency, and that may be happening to "coach" around 1920.  (For an obvious recent example of the same phenomenon, see "gay.")  Words go quiet for a while as nobody's sure what they mean anymore.  Then people get sure, and they take off. 

Few transit terms are easy to search, because the profession's vocabulary is constructed metaphorically, so almost every word we use has a more common meaning outside the transit context.  But "city" and "town" are fascinating:

Ngram city town

"City" has lost about half of its frequency in the last century.  In the 19th Century, novels that took place in cities made sure you notice the fact, often dwelling on the confronting textures of city life.  Cities and country are in clear opposition, and as the Industrial Revolution rages everyone's worrying over the contrast between them.  The city is emerging as one of the main problems of civilization. 

Then in the 20th century we get the rise of subjectivity — the idea that stories don't really need settings if the personalities are vivid enough — and also the rise of specialization, which means that stuff that happens in cities is less likely to credit the city as a necessary frame.  And that, of course, sets the stage for the flight to suburbia and the possibility of no longer caring what a city is.  But starting around 1960 there's the beginning of something new.

Of course, some of the decline in "city" matches the rise of "urban," which dances closely with "rural."

Ngram urban rural

"Urban" rises as "city" declines.  Before the "urban" was invented (followed not long after by "urbanism") everyone just talked about the city. 

Have fun!  Did you know that the word "interchange" has been in decline since 1963?  Me neither!

weekend distraction: colombian bus rapid transit

Commenter Adriana offers a feast of videos of Bus Rapid Transit systems in Colombia.  Not Bogotà’s well-promoted Transmilenio, but a collection from smaller cities:

  • A flashy video on Cali’s El Mio (“Mine!”) by Mauricio Alzate is a nice example of how all the techniques of marketing video can be applied to something as seemingly prosaic as BRT.  If you live in a wealthier country you my find this video easy to make fun of, but BRT can be transformative in a city that has known only a gridlock of collective taxis, pedicabs, etc., and this kind of flashiness has a role in building understanding and excitement about that.
  • From Bucaramanga, a video on how using your new smartcard system correctly will help you win the approval of pretty young women.
  • From Pereira, an informative nonflashy video showing how the BRT system looks from a driver’s point of view, with little text boxes capturing the viewer’s thoughts along the way.  This video is a good place to notice the South American preference for high-platforms with high-floor buses.  Most of the rest of the world prefers low-floor, partly because of inter-operability with ordinary street-running and also for ease of emergency exits between stations, as well as for the intrinsic qualities of vertical space within the vehicle.  So when you see a high-floor system outside South America you can be pretty sure that South American planning consultants have been there.

Quote of the Week: Transit Construction Costs in the U.S.

It seems like every time I read about a metro line outside the United States, except in the UK, it is way cheaper than we can do. … Alon Levy has contrasted the cost of subway construction in New York with the much lower costs in Tokyo, for example. We seem to have a system in the US that significantly inflates the cost of construction vs. the rest of the world. Many of the typical complaints as to why this might be would seem to have no merit. Other countries are heavily unionized and regulated, for example, so don’t blame organized labor. (South Korean unions are famously militant). Spain and Japan are not exactly low cost countries. And basically all new systems world are fully compliant with equivalents to the [Americans with Disabilities Act].

— Aaron Renn, the Urbanophile

I keep hearing this observation about US construction costs.  It’s totally outside my expertise, but if anyone has seen a satisfactory explanation of why US transit construction is so expensive, please link to it in a comment.

Is Sim City 4 Still Making Us Stupid?

Long ago I did a post on my memories of the original Sim City, which I played a bit in the 1990s until I’d hammered its limited possibilities to rubble.  My impression looking back was that despite a minimal transit option, Sim City encouraged us to think in terms of 1960s city planning: rigid separation of commercial, residential, and industrial zones, and a car-based approach to transport supplemented by rail only at very high densities.

Sim city logo Lately I’ve played a little with Sim City 4 including its “Rush Hour Expansion Pack.”  Given that I have a fulltime job plus a book to write, this was a perilous lapse, but I’m relieved to report that the game spat me out within just a few days, uninterested in playing further, and not just because it crashed my MacBook a few times.

Has Sim City 4 really improved the range of cities that we’re allowed to envision?  Certainly, its small grid squares allow the creation of neighborhoods that feel more “mixed use.”  The Rush Hour module also allows you to look in more detail at the travel choices of your simulated residents.

But a few things are still not good and one thing is actually worse than in the 1990s version.

What’s worse is that buildings must now have orientations toward a particular street.  A building that can be accessed from several directions is deemed impossible.  A building that loses the street it’s “facing” dies even it it still has access on another side.  The simulated travel patterns assume that everyone goes through each building’s front door, even when the “building” is a shopping mall, university, or stadium.  (And even though the stadium has only one door, nobody ever gets hurt in a crush of stampeding fans.)

From a transit standpoint, the greater irritant is that while many new modes of transit are now provided, you still don’t control transit service; the prevailing assumption is that creating transit infrastructure — wherever you find it convenient — will cause useful service to exist.  A SimCity model of the Bay Area, for example, would leave the user clueless about the difference between BART (every 20 minutes or better) and Caltrain (every two hours at off times).  Both have rails, so what’s the difference?

In suburban California in the 90s, it was common to see developers build new bus shelters in places where there was no service, as though they thought “If I build a shelter, a bus will come.”  Sim City 4 is based on that exact assumption.  Obviously, I want to draw my own bus, rail, and subway networks, and turn the frequencies up or down.  Such a tiny tool, easily integrated into the budget panel, would have forced legions of geeks to at least learn the mathematical relationship between frequency, line length, and operating cost.  The real expense of most transit is operations, not construction.  SimCity constantly reminds us of operating cost when it comes to utilities and other public services, but the only sign of transit operations cost is a vague “mass transit” line item, and nothing too terrible happens if you turn it down a bit.

Yes, of course, the scale is all wrong.  Cities are quantitatively miniaturized, so that cities of 30,000 start needing subway systems, airports, and stadiums.  People don’t seem to walk any further to subway stations than to bus stops, and neither walking distance makes any sense compared to a real city.

And yes, after a while, it feels like all you’re doing is accounting.  Turn down the various budgets until your overall budget is in balance, then turn them up individually as performance sags or interests squeal.

And no, since you ask, I didn’t want a mayoral mansion, and certainly not a statue of myself, no matter how often the game offered them.  Spend that money on transit, the mayor says!