Archive | July, 2016

Anton Dubrau’s Automated Transit Maps

Back in 2010, cartographer Anton Dubrau got my attention with his beautiful hand-drawn map of the Montréal transit system.  In my post on his work, I wrote:

There’s no question that the most beautiful network maps will continue to be those made by hand, with great care and thought, by people who know the city.  I’d like to say “most useful” as well, but that will be true only as long as they can be kept up to date.

Anton agreed, but now he’s not so sure.  He emailed me today:

It feels like a long time ago that Google Maps started publishing their transit maps generated by algorithms. You wrote about it, and I actually made a map by hand of Montreal’s frequent transit that you used in this discussion of algorithms vs humans for maps, on your blog: Montréal: The Pleasure of Maps Made by Hand, or by Eye.

Even though I advocated for maps made by hand at the time, the question of algorithmically generated but nevertheless pretty and functional transit maps has occupied me since then, for years. Well, working for Transit App, I had the chance to spend a significant amount of time trying to make the best algorithmically generated maps possible. We spent a significant amount of effort on this. Although not perfect, I feel we’ve gotten pretty far.

We published the maps last week, they’re shown inside Transit App. We wrote about our mapping story, telling it as wanting to achieve the prettiness of Apple’s more manual solution, but the scalability of Google’s automatic process. In short, we wanted algorithms to draw beautiful transit maps. Check out Chicago’s Loop as an example.

Jarrett here.  In the images above, Google is on the right, Apple in the center, and Anton’s new Transit Maps product on the left.  I recommend their entire post, which is a fun and well-illustrated read, if a bit brash.  Anton:

It’s a bit brash, in true startup fashion, but the response has been pretty positive overall so far. The story is getting shared by tech celebrities like Benedict Evans, NYT data journalists, and quite a number of transit thought leaders (Yonah Freemark, Second Avenue Sagas, Taras Grescoe).

So far we’re only including rail lines, and the odd BRT here and there. That’s a more technical limitation, bus networks are still a bit too complex – we plan to add them later.

Maybe this is interesting for you as well. I’d be interested in your thoughts.

I like it!  I wonder how much information density it can handle.  A simple frequent bus network?  A complicated mass of overlapping lines with numbers like 674Q, as in a typical peak commute network?  I’d encourage them to aim for the former and not bother with the latter, which are impossible to map clearly and are better found with trip planners anyway.

I don’t run many private sector press releases here, but I’ve liked Anton’s work for a long time, and as someone who routinely needs realtime info in lots of different cities, I admit I’ve become fond of Transit App.

Good Article on My Talk on Microtransit …

amon-logo-headerCaleb Pritchard at the Austin Monitor did a very clear writeup on my new talk on the impacts of microtransit (Bridj etc.) and ridesourcing (Lyft, Uber etc.) on public transit.  In it, I push back hard on the notion that these services have any potential to “disrupt” public transit in any meaningful way, though there are potential synergies around the edges of transit’s mission.

Here’s the most important paragraph:

“There’s an enormous amount of public relations noise coming out of the tech industry, and most of it is directed towards people who don’t understand transit very well,” Walker said. “And transit leaders like yourselves really have to be able to confront that and say, ‘No. The fixed-route service, especially frequent fixed-route service, is doing something incredible that no tech innovators are doing or show any signs of doing.’”

Read the whole thing.

Guest Post: David Moss on Driverless Buses

David Moss is a Detroit-based freelance transportation writer. When he is not writing about vehicle technology, he spends his time hiking. You can reach him at @davidcmoss

Buses driving autonomously might seem like something from science fiction but the technology is developing fast, and is actually in practice, or at least in a trial phase, in a number of cities all across Asia, Europe and North America.

The most important finding is that while European and American driverless trials are for very small buses – too small to be transformative to the larger public bus market – larger buses are now also under development, in China and also in a recent announcement by Mercedes.  If perfected, these large buses would have the potential to dramatically increase the quantity of transit service that agencies could afford to offer.


While there has been a heated debate in the United States over driverless vehicles, China took the initiative by developing a self-driving bus that completed a 20 mile trip through the city of Zhengzhou in August of 2015. Using a variety of sensors, cameras and an integrated navigation system, this bus was able to roll through the streets of Zhengzhou at a top speed of about 42 miles per hour.

This remarkable achievement was the end product of a three-year trial conducted in the city by Yutong—a Chinese bus company and the creator of the bus. This company, along with the Chinese Academy of Engineering, has shown that it is possible to put a driverless bus on the road and do it safely. However, while this test was impressive, it’s still going to take additional testing before a full-scale rollout can begin nationwide. Fortunately, that is currently in the works as the Chinese tech firm Baidu has recently unveiled a five-year plan to introduce a variety of autonomous vehicles at the streets of Wuhu.

While Google believes that the first truly autonomous vehicles to be used full time on the road will be taxi cabs, Baidu believes that the future of this technology is in driverless buses and/or shuttles. Although it should be said that their five year plan not only focuses on autonomous buses and vans, but on cars as well.


A few years ago, Singapore launched the Singapore Autonomous Vehicle Initiative (SAVI)—a joint partnership with the Land Transit Authority and A*STAR – whose primary goal is to research and develop autonomous vehicle technology.

SAVI has currently partnered with MIT on improving public transportation systems in urban areas by using autonomous vehicle technology. Several trials will take place this year, and the test route has already been planned to test the efficacy of driverless technology solutions. This study, which is expected to take about two years to complete, will end in 2018—at which time the public is expected to have full use of driverless transportation technology.

Greece and Switzerland

Greece also tested a small driverless bus in the town of Trikala—a rural community nestled in Northern Greece. Their trial lasted from October 2015 until February 2016, and featured a ten-passenger bus that could navigate the streets at a speed of about 12.4 miles per hour. In Switzerland, two driverless “SmartShuttles” are currently being tested in the Old Town of Scion. They are currently carrying passengers for free. The trials will continue over the next two years.

The United Kingdom

London unveiled plans to introduce autonomous bus-like vehicles this year. This plan—part of the Greenwich Automated Transport Environment Project (GATEway)—will utilize driverless shuttles that will be first tested on the streets of Greenwich—around the O2 Arena, several residential areas and the North Greenwich tube station. Currently, the Heathrow Airport shuttle operates between the business car park and terminal five. Seven of these shuttles will be modified for use in these trials, which are slated to begin later this year. If the trials prove to be successful, then people can expect to see completely autonomous shuttles used for everything from transportation to automated deliveries.

Belgium and Sweden

Belgium is also working on its own autonomous transit system that is due to be launched in 2018. This project—which is a joint partnership between the Belgium public transport operator De Lijn and the Brussels Airport Company—will feature driverless buses that are expected to transport passengers and airport staff around the airport.

In April of 2016, Sweden also conducted a trial on driverless bus technology, completed by Ericsson, a Swedish IT company that operated minibuses using 5G technology. However, their plan is not only to have autonomous electric vehicles transporting passengers, but also to develop a whole system of vehicles working together in a highly efficient transportation hub.

United States

The Bay Area is ground zero for autonomous buses in the United States.  San Francisco has developed a detailed plan for driverless vehicles on its roads, a system that will use both buses and shuttles. And a Bishop Ranch business park in San Ramon, California is initiating a pilot program in the summer of 2016 that will use two EZ10 pods to relieve traffic congestion in the area.

The Future of Driverless Bus Technology: Benefits and Concerns

Driverless technology may well be the wave of the future. And there are several reasons why that is the case. The vehicles in question are good for the environment because they are all electric and in full use they will dramatically reduce a city’s oil consumption. They are also safer than human driven vehicles. Some studies have also shown that driverless vehicles are more efficient and will increase the flow of traffic—particularly in congested areas.  But most importantly, they would allow transit agencies to make bus service dramatically more abundant, by severing the link between operating costs and labor costs that constrains all bus operations today.

It is also clear that many people have concerns about driverless technology. There are still many that believe that driverless buses are unsafe.

Certainly, there will be labor resisitance to automation, though history shows that automation usually prevails in the end. While the jobs of some drivers will indeed be lost due to the adoption of this technology, that will be offset by an increased need for other specialized workers. More mechanics, programmers and technicians will be needed to maintain driverless buses and keep them operating correctly.

However, so far, autonomous vehicles have proven to be safer than manned vehicles. That’s because they eliminate the “human error” factor common in many accidents. And while some people are still concerned about these vehicles’ reaction time, sensor arrays and vehicle safety technologies are improving continuously.

There are still, among other things, liability issues to be ironed out and there are too many public fears to be pacified. However, we can expect that eventually, driverless buses—like driverless cars—will be a common sight on our highways and roads.


Hello, Austin!

4896438450_b514415d0e_bI’m heading for Austin Sunday for two days of meetings about the relationship between transit, microtransit, and ridesourcing (Bridj, Split, Uber, Lyft, etc etc).  (Yesterday’s post may be a preview of my angle on this topic.)

The event open to the public is a Capital Metro Board Workshop Monday. July 25, Noon-2 pm, at the Cap Metro headquarters 2910 E 5th.  Note that this is a Board meeting and there may be some other business.

Look forward to meeting lots of cool people in Austin!

Does Elon Musk Understand Urban Geometry?

He may be a brilliant visionary in some ways, but Elon Musk wants to abolish fixed route transit without thinking clearly about urban space:

With the advent of autonomy, it will probably make sense to shrink the size of buses and transition the role of bus driver to that of fleet manager. Traffic congestion would improve due to increased passenger areal density by eliminating the center aisle and putting seats where there are currently entryways, and matching acceleration and braking to other vehicles, thus avoiding the inertial impedance to smooth traffic flow of traditional heavy buses. It would also take people all the way to their destination. …  (Emphasis added)

Musk assumes that transit is an engineering problem, about vehicle design and technology.   In fact, providing cost-effective and liberating transportation in cities requires solving a geometry problem, and he’s not even seeing it.  In this he’s repeating a common delusion, one I hear all the time in urbanist and technology circles.

In dense cities, where big transit vehicles (including buses) are carrying significant ridership, Musk’s vision it takes lots of people out of big transit vehicles and puts them into small ones, which increases the total number of vehicles on the road at any time.  The technical measure of this is Vehicle Miles (or Km) Travelled (VMT).

Today, increasing VMT would mean increased emissions and increased road carnage, but let’s say technology has solved those problems, with electric vehicles and automation.  Those are engineering problems.  Inventors can work on those.

But there is still, and aways, the problem of space.  Increasing VMT means that you are taking more space to move the same number of people.  This may be fine in low-density and rural areas, where there’s lots of space per person.  But a city, by definition, has little space per person, so the efficient use of space is the core problem of urban transportation.

When we are talking about space, we are talking about geometry, not engineering, and technology never changes geometry.  You must solve a problem spatially before you have really solved it.

The reigning fantasy of Musk’s argument is that we must always “take people all the way to their destination.”   To do this we must abolish the need to ever change vehicles — from a train to a bus, from a car to a train, from a bus to a bike — and of course we also abolish walking.  This implies a vision in which buses are shrunk into something like taxis, because a vehicle going directly from your exact origin to your exact destination at your chosen time won’t be useful to many people other than you.

So a bus with 4o people on it today is blown apart into, what, little driverless vans with an average of two each, a 20-fold increase in the number of vehicles?   It doesn’t matter if they’re electric or driverless.  Where will they all fit in the urban street?  And when they take over, what room will be left for wider sidewalks, bike lanes, pocket parks, or indeed anything but a vast river of vehicles?

There are audiences for which Musk’s vision makes perfect sense, people for whom useful high-ridership transit isn’t an option anyway.  There are two big categories of these people:

  • People who live in outer-suburban and rural areas, where space is abundant and high-ridership transit isn’t viable.
  • The wealthiest 20% or so of urban residents, who can afford to use relatively expensive services that would never scale to the entire population of the city.

If you are in one of these categories, your most urgent task is to remember that most people aren’t like you, and that cities are impossible if everyone lives according to your personal tastes.  As Edward Glaser said, “one’s own tastes are rarely a sound basis for public policy.”

That issue, right there, is the great disconnect between tech marketing and genuine urban problem-solving.

Tech marketing is all about appealing to elite personal tastes.  It runs on the assumption that whatever we sell to the wealthy today we can sell to the masses tomorrow.  But some things stop working when everybody buys them.  Cars in dense cities, for example, are not a problem when only the top 20% are using them; it’s mass adoption of cars that makes them ruinous to a dense city and to the liberty of its citizens.  Ask anyone in a fast-growing developing world city about that.

Here is the harm that this all this elite chatter about abolishing the bus is doing:  It’s introducing fatal confusion into the discussion of urban development.

Dense cities that want to live in the real world of space and time, and that do not want to become dystopias that are functional only for the rich, need to use urban space efficiently.  There is some simple and well-proven math about how to do this, which is also the math of how transit systems achieve high ridership.

These cities need to organize themselves around frequent transit corridors, where big-vehicle frequent transit, bus or rail, can prosper, allowing the city to grow dense without growing vehicle trips.

Someday some of these corridors will be rail or Bus Rapid Transit.  But the only way to grow enough corridors quickly, so that you cover much of the city with frequent service that can succeed in ridership terms, is to take frequent fixed-route bus service seriously.  If you don’t do that in your land use planning, you’re going to end up building a city where fixed transit is geometrically impossible, and then you’ll have to settle for Musk’s vision.  Geometrically, that vision can only mean liberating transportation just for the top 20% or electrified, automated gridlock for everyone.

Smart cities aren’t just the ones that chase the latest technology fads.  They’re the ones that think carefully about the spatial, geometric problem that a dense city is.   Because if it doesn’t work geometrically, it doesn’t work.

New York: “Subway Deserts” and the Bus “Turnaround” Campaign

It’s fun to draw maps of “deserts,” places where some cool thing is absent and where you can therefore imply that people are being abandoned or ignored.  This Chris Whong map of  New York “Subway deserts” for example, just showed up in Citylab:

Source: Chris Whong

Source: Chris Whong

Sure enough, most of the land area of New York city is not near a subway station.

But how many people is that?  It’s a lot of people, but fewer than you’d guess from looking at the map, because so much of the subwayless area is low-density or even open space.  Geographically accurate maps always invite you to misread area as population.

And in any case, should everyone in New York be close to a subway stop?  The subway is not the whole transit system; it’s just the high-capacity backbone of it.  You build subways only where you expect to fill long trains at high frequency for much of the day.

There may be places in New York that would profit from, and reward, the investment in a subway, but a map of everywhere that subways don’t go doesn’t even start that conversation.

The deserts that really matter are deserts of access, places where people are truly without options.  And to assess that for New York, even just for transit, you’d have to care about the massive bus network.  It’s the bus network job to cover the whole city, getting close to everyone.  Much of the bus system is also very frequent.

That’s why the smart folks at TransitCenter — a New York – based transit advocacy foundation — have launched a Turnaround campaign, meant to call attention to all the things that can be done to make New York bus service more useful, so that almost everyone can get to useful transit.  I deal with the barriers to good bus service all over the developed world, and the problem is always the same.  It’s not the technical limitations to what buses can do.  It’s the official apathy about them.

For example, many elected officials still believe that because buses are supposedly “flexible” they should just be changed so that they go by the house of anyone who requests them, as though fixed route bus lines were taxis or UberPools.  If they get enough phone calls, these elected officials will tell staff to transform the route on the right into the one on the left, with no comprehension of what they’re destroying.


Obviously, bus lines designed for high ridership run straight, so that they are as useful to many many people as possible, and so that they can run as frequently as possible.  Obvious stuff, but you have to fight this battle over and over, and that’s a lot of what I do.

So bravo to TransitCenter for its review of the New York buses.  It’s something that people in any developed-world city would be smart to review, and contemplate.

Job! Manager of Access Planning in Vancouver

It closes July 20, so act fast.  Greater Vancouver (Canada)’s transit agency TransLink seeks a Manager of Access Planning, where “access” refers to people with disabilities.  The listing is here.


Does the History of a Technology Matter?


Mater Hill busway station, Brisbane

Ben Ross has a nice long read in Dissent about the history of Bus Rapid Transit, noting all the ways it’s succeeded, failed, and been co-opted by various non-transit agendas.  He’s especially interested in the way various petroleum-and-asphalt interest groups have supported BRT as an alternative to rail for reasons that probably don’t have much to do with their love of great public transit.  All this is worth reading and knowing about.

But what, exactly, should we do with this history?  Practically everything that breaks through into the public discourse has private public relations money behind it, and that money always has different goals than you and your city do.  That’s why you should always lean into the wind when reading tech media.  But just as it’s wrong to fall for everything you read in corporate press releases, it’s also wrong to reflexively fall against them.  (Cynicism, remember, is consent.)

Galileo paid the bills, in part, by helping the military aim cannonballs correctly.  Does that mean pacifists should resist his insight that Jupiter has moons?

So while I loved Ross’s tour of the history, I reject his dismissive conclusion:

Buses will always be an essential part of public transit. Upgrading them serves urbanism, the environment, and social equity. But a better bus is not a train, and bus rapid transit promoters lead astray when they pretend otherwise. At its worst, BRT can be a Trojan horse for highway building. Even at its best, it is a technocratic solution to a fundamentally political problem.

The term technocratic is really loaded here.  Given the new “revolt against experts” trend in our politics, we urgently need to recognize  hard-earned expertise and to distinguish it from elite selfishness, but technocrat is a slur designed to confuse the two.


RBWH busway station, Brisbane

There are some great bus rapid transit systems out there, and not just in the developing world.  The mixed motives that underlie BRT advocacy don’t tell us anything about where BRT makes sense, any more than the mixed motives behind rail advocacy do.

A light reading of history can help you recognize the prejudices that may lay behind advocacy on all sides.  But then you have to set that aside, and think for yourself.