fort lauderdale: yet another triumph for multi-destinational networks

If your city is producing lousy outcomes with its bus services, are you sure it's because of the buses, or the drivers, or the sidewalks, or the degree of "transit oriented development", or that they're not streetcars?  Maybe it's because the network structure is obsolete.  A study team led by Gregory Thompson of Florida State looked at the success of Broward County Transit, which serves greater Fort Lauderdale.  Apart from a few special enclaves, Fort Lauderdale is unlikely to be high on anyone's list of urbanist paradises.  It has plenty of gridlock, plenty of pedestrian-hostile environments, and the usual abundance of oversized roads that seem only to generate more congestion.

Broward sidewalk campaignYet the hard-working if unappreciated Broward County Transit system is producing excellent outcomes through multidestinational design.  Instead of running a radial system into a single downtown, they decentralized to serve many destinations, through a network of routes making easy connections with one another. Eric Jaffe tells the story today in Atlantic Cities.

The whole case for this kind of design is in my book Human Transit, esp Chapter 12 and 13, but Thompson has been making it for years.  I'm impressed at how well it's working in not-especially-transit-friendly Florida metros.  Tallahassee took the plunge last year.

Obviously this is an issue close to my heart.  I came to consciousness as a transit planner during the decentralization of Portland's network in 1979-82, which created local pulse networks in each suburban area and culminated in the high-frequency grid that today covers most of the city.  Almost every network design I've ever done has helped to improve the multi-destinational utility of transit networks of all sizes.  Huge amounts of resistance have to be overcome.  But if they're designed well, they work. 

Finally, kudos to the folks at Atlantic Cities for coming back to this issue with one great story after another.  I'm not sure I've ever seen a major media outlet build up this degree of internal understanding about the fundamentals of transit network design — a topic that's easily forgotten while obsessing about how cool technologies are.   Is any other American media outlet dealing with network planning issues so clearly?  Certainly not the New York Times, which publishes one story after another in which well-meaning platitudes about social needs are proposed as ways to change the facts of geometry.

16 Responses to fort lauderdale: yet another triumph for multi-destinational networks

  1. Tom West May 22, 2012 at 9:44 am #

    From the end of the article: “we need to make sure transit takes riders where they need to go.” This is something fundamental that appears to get lost far too often. People will not travel by transit if is not possible to do their trip by transit!

  2. Jeff Wegerson May 22, 2012 at 1:00 pm #

    You, Jarrett, brought me to the realization that Chicago in many ways has two complete and complementary transit systems. The one that is radial in appearance and is the one that people notice, the el and commuter rail. But there is a second, in many ways independent, system, that is pure grid, the bus system. One really can get from and to about anywhere in Chicago with two buses and one connection. A big part of it is the luck of flatness and the boring grid layout of the city. But it’s there and it’s a lot more valuable than people notice and credit.

  3. Morgan Wick May 22, 2012 at 4:32 pm #

    Naturally, it’s an American journal that only snooty intellectuals read.
    Also: hey, Jarrett, you and your book got namedropped too!

  4. Julian Wearne May 22, 2012 at 7:15 pm #

    Frustratingly none of my university databases seem to give me access to Sage Journals…

  5. gustaajedrez May 22, 2012 at 7:18 pm #

    But as you mentioned, the routes need to have a high frequency for a grid to work well. I was surprised that the service in Broward County was fairly good (I think most routes ran every 20 minutes)

  6. Alon Levy May 22, 2012 at 8:21 pm #

    Julian: have you signed the open access petition? (Or are you not American and can’t sign?) If not, don’t complain that journals are gated.
    (Apologies for the spam. This is important.)

  7. Alon Levy May 22, 2012 at 8:25 pm #

    I think what Jeff is saying is the key here. Surface transit works best as a grid, because this maximizes everywhere-to-everywhere connections. Rapid transit, which has high fixed costs, low variable costs, and higher capacity than anything else, can only take the thicker markets (and of course will shape the city along those thicker markets, leading to the creation of CBDs like the Loop). If bus networks are just bustituted streetcar networks, built at a time when streetcars behaved more like rapid transit in terms of cost structure and nearby development, then they’re not going to maximize the benefits of the mode. If rapid transit is like meat, then these bus networks are like unchicken rather than like good vegetarian cuisines.

  8. Wad May 23, 2012 at 6:43 pm #

    @gustaajedrez, service in Broward County is not that good. Routes are 30 minutes or less frequent, and worse, there isn’t even a smooth frequency pattern. It varies on each line.
    You really can’t get away with a good grid service that’s transfer-dependent unless you have very high frequencies. Pulse points are a must.

  9. Krovoiniu gabenimas May 23, 2012 at 11:02 pm #

    Naturally, it’s an American journal that only snooty intellectuals read.
    Also: hey, Jarrett, you and your book got namedropped too!

  10. Eric O May 24, 2012 at 6:21 am #

    Surprised that the linear nature of coastal development wasn’t mentioned as an important ingredient (if not an instigator). It is natural to serve your market with high-frequency trunk routes running in parallel, needing grid-like connectors to tie the system together (and conveniently serve shorter cross routes that tie in to your inland suburbs). Therefore, radial networks of course don’t make sense. I realize there are many difficulties to overcome in realizing the network (particularly in crossing municipal boundaries and overcoming municipality centered thinking), but one should nonetheless point out that there is a distinct advantage in Broward County’s geography that allows it to more easily outperform other markets.
    Broward County should also be noted for implementing one of the first bikeshare systems in the country. Of course, it helps that their bikeshare network serves their tourism industry quite well by allowing beach-goers to more easily circulate around the tourist districts and thus lessening congestion while strengthening commercial traffic. The planning ethos that I see at play here is one that notices what the local advantages and resources are and learns how to make the most of them in overcoming the deficits.

  11. Jarrett at May 24, 2012 at 8:01 am #

    Eric o.  Usually coastal strip would be a big positive.  But it's very congested and has relatively little commercial on it.  Downtown is well inland, as are the other major shopping centers etc.  Beach access is a huge issue, but that's about east-west services.

  12. Eric O May 24, 2012 at 3:47 pm #

    Jarrett, I understand the point, but by “coastal development” I should clarify I don’t mean just the coastal strip, but the linear geography bounded strongly by the coast and the Everglades. When your system of boulevards is a grid anyway (with your major centers roughly along Route 1), and the freeways segment the region east-west, it’s just hard to get that one wrong. I’m just saying…

  13. M1EK May 25, 2012 at 12:42 pm #

    I grew up in Palm Beach County, and could walk to the county line with Broward. Parents still live there. As, now, do my grandparents.
    Broward is not exactly representative of a typical urban area in this country for many reasons represented above, but ALSO for socioeconomic reasons.
    Read: retirees and poor folks.
    You don’t have to compete as well to get those folks’ business as you do to get the business of somebody who is going to have a car either way, whose kids aren’t trying to get them to stop driving, and who can easily afford the variable costs of driving. My mom is currently trying everything she can think of to hide the keys from my grandfather – who is marginally unsafe as a driver. If she succeeds, he’ll likely take the bus sometime – even if it’s crappy. What else is he going to do?
    And that’s what this kind of “everybody transfers” transit is – just barely competitive enough to get the marginal cases on board. Not competitive enough to get somebody like me out of their car. In fact, this change makes it less competitive for a guy like me.
    The fact that ridership went up? Likely means some destinations that didn’t get served are now being served. Not that any pre-existing areas have truly jumped in ridership because of non-radial travel.

  14. Ben Smith May 26, 2012 at 8:45 am #

    I think M1EK has a point. A grid system is not necessarily a silver bullet in developing an efficient transit system, but it is an important step in developing one.
    Before I had a car, I used to take the Greyhound or GO bus to smaller cities in Southern Ontario to meet friends. Once I arrived at the bus terminal in the city centre, most of their bus routes followed the radial bus pattern. The result is that virtually all of their ridership was made up of teenagers and young adults, seniors, and low income individuals. Simply put, ridership among choice riders was non-existent.
    To further this, these downtowns were generally 100% commercial, with the only middle class employer being the city government. Any middle/upper class office or industrial jobs were located… on the outskirts of the city. Thus making public transit virtually useless.
    To comment on my area, I’d say that the Toronto region follows a hybrid. The GO commuter rail service is purely radial from downtown, however there are crosstown GO buses which connect suburb to suburb. While our local transit does take advantage of our grid layout, many crosstown routes terminate at bus terminals located at stations on the north-south Yonge subway line. This means if you are heading from one end of the city to the other, you will still need to transfer at Yonge St rather than ride through.

  15. Robert E. May 29, 2012 at 8:29 am #

    What are some the regional transit systems that could benefit most from a greater emphasis on grid and connections? Mr. Walker, how would you assess our home area, Portland? To my personal experience, much of the metro region’s transit is primarily radial / down-town centric.

  16. Jarrett at May 29, 2012 at 10:21 pm #

    Robert.  Portland's urban grid network, which extends from the river out to 122nd, is at least as important as light rail in shaping the city we have today, and the mobility that people here take for granted.  That's why I'm concerned about how budget cuts are undermining it.