Hating your transit agency won’t make it better

P1010476The Vancouver metro area has now reached the climax of a frenzy of orchestrated rage directed at its transit agency, TransLink.  Over 60% of voters have rejected a sales tax increase for urgently needed transit growth, largely due to an effective campaign that made the transit agency's alleged incompetence the issue.  

There's just one problem.  TransLink is (or was) one of North America's most effective transit agencies.   Parts of the agency had made mistakes, and of course TransLink was struggling to meet exploding demand in one of the world's most desirable metro areas.  Almost nobody defends TransLink's governance model either.  But TransLink is, or was, an effective network, run by a reasonably efficient agency.  For years I cited it all over the world as a model for good planning.  Whether it remains that depends on how much of it is now destroyed in the thrill of recrimination.

Admittedly, I have a personal angle on this, because I worked inside TransLink's planning department for two long stints, for a year in 2005-6 and for six months in 2011.  (I have assisted them as a consultant since, but I have no contracts with TransLink now and no expectation of one.)  It was, I thought, an unusually forward-thinking and principle-driven transit planning department.  I assumed this was an expression of Metro Vancouver's unusual culture of intentional, strategic, controlled urban development. It also reflected an era of leadership that created the space for these thoughts to occur, as opposed to the crisis-by-crisis lifestyle that too often prevails in transit management.

The conversations that were happening at TransLink — especially about the difficult question of how a regional transit agency can form a reality-based relationship with its constituent cities — were extremely sophisticated and respectful.  How should a large regional agency interact with city governments when it holds the technical expertise about transit that city governments mostly lack? For example, when a city government demands something that is geometrically impossible, how can the transit agency's response avoid appearing overbearing?  Much of what I now know about this relationship, and the unavoidable forces operating on it, I figured out while helping with policy development there.  

Today, those issues are at the core of my practice, as the relationship between city governments and transit authorities becomes an urgent issue almost everywhere. 

Special-purpose regional governments are vulnerable creatures.  The marquee leaders of an urban region — usually major mayors and state/province leaders — influence them but don't control them directly enough to feel responsible for them.  Blame is easily shifted to them by the more powerful governments all around them.  

All this is even more true when the product is transit, for four reasons.

First, transit somehow looks easy, in a way that water and power and regional land use planning do not.  Many reporters have no factual frame for thinking about transit, and treat anyone with a simplistic answer as an expert.  (Tip: my book can help provide that frame.)

Second, transit's success is utterly dependent on municipal actions around land use and street design, so regional transit agencies that are thinking strategically must form an interest in those municipal decisions.  This is easily characterized as interference with municipal sovereignty.  (I always advise transit agencies to respect local right to make decisions but to clearly describe the transit consequences of those decisions, in advance.)

Third, everyone is now screaming at transit agencies to innovate, and yet voters have zero tolerance for risk.  Some of TransLink's failures are arguably innovations that didn't work out.  If you expect everything your agency does to be successful, then quit telling them to innovate, because failure is intrinsic to innovation.  

Fourth, transit, when considered in isolation as in Metro Vancouver's referendum, cannot avoid generating a ferocious difference in opinion across different parts of an urban region.  In any region, maps of votes on transit referenda are mostly maps of residential density (Vancouver, Seattle), and for good reason.  Transit demand rises exponentially with density: doubling density makes it more than twice as urgent.  So of course the average core city dweller views transit as existential while the average outer-suburbanite on a cul-de-sac views it as unimportant.  Giant regional transit agencies will continue to be pulled apart by these forces until we stop having regional transit debates and start having regional transportation debates.  (The other important trend, in response to this basic math, is that core cities must exert more leadership, and funding, on their own transit issues.  More on that below.)

What is amazing, then, is not that regional transit agencies are having political problems, but that so many of them are doing so well, considering.  Many regions are moving forward with strong regional transit strategies, supported by working majorities of voters.  Many are also making tough choices, like the painful shift in priorities that underlies Houston's new network.

Hating your transit agency is easy and fun.  You don't have to understand your regional politics, in which the real power to fix transit is usually not held by the transit agency.  You can also have the thrill of blowing up a big institutional edifice, as Metro Vancouver voters may now have done.

But a lot that's good will also be destroyed.   In Metro Vancouver, amid all the recriminations, TransLink has lost the credibility it needs to lead reality-based conversations about transit.  Maybe some other agency will step into that role.  (Indeed, core cities for whom transit is an existential issue must develop that capability.)  Or maybe there will just be many more years of blame shifting among the elected officials who really control transit in the region.

If you look at transit from the point of view of a state or province leader, you can understand why so many politicians are terrified of the issue.  Everyone is screaming at them about it, pushing simplistic solutions, and the issue is polarizing on urban-suburban lines.  Some huge problems, like equipment failures due to deferred maintenance, are curses laid upon us all by our parents' generation.  What's more, most elite leaders are motorists, and need help finding their feet in the geometric facts of transit where a motorists' assumptions lead them astray.  So they panic, shift blame, and leave transit agencies appearing to have more power to solve problems than they actually have.  If you've never been a political leader, don't be sure you wouldn't do the same in their place.

Be patient.  Breathe.  Resist the desire to see your transit agency in smoldering ruins.  Then, demand leadership.  Demand state/provincial leadership that looks for solutions instead of pointlessly stoking urban-suburban conflict.  (One possible solution is to spend more time on regional transportation debates instead of just transit debates, because regional transportation plans can look more balanced than transit plans can.)  And yes, if your transit agency is being given dysfunctional direction by the region's leaders, demand a better system with more accountability to an elected official who will have to answer for outcomes.

Finally, if you live in a major city that cares about transit, demand that your city leaders look beyond blaming the transit agency, and that they do everything they can themselves to make their transit better.  Remember, your city government, through its powers of land use planning and street design, controls transit at least as much as the transit agency does.  Ask them: What is their transit plan?  Tell them to follow the work of cities that are investing in transit themselves, beyond what their transit agency can afford, like Seattle and Washington DC., or for that matter transit-ambitious secondary cities like Bellevue, Washington, who have their own transit plans to guide the city's work.  No regional or state transit authority — beholden to state or regionwide government that is dominated by less urban interests — is going to meet all of the transit needs of a dense, core city that has chosen to make transit a foundation of its livability.  Their staff may well be doing what they can with the direction that they have, but they need your city government's active support, involvement, leadership, and investment.  

Sorry, transit is complicated.  It's fun to blow things up, as Metro Vancouver's voters probably have.  But the solutions are out there, if we all demand leadership, and offer it.

Local bus systems reduce employee turnover! (quote of the week)

This.  Is.  So.  Important.

We find that the size of the fixed-route bus system (measured as real per capita operating expenditures) is negatively related to employee turnover rates [for local employers]: An increase in bus systems’ per capita operating expenditures is associated with a decrease in employee turnover. Decreases in employee turnover represent cost savings to businesses by reducing the costs associated with training new workers and rebuilding firm-specific knowledge or better employee-employer matches. These results suggest that access to fixed-route bus transit should be a component of the economic development strategy for communities not only for the access to jobs that it provides low-income workers but also for the benefits accruing to businesses that hire these workers.

Dagney Faulk and Michael J. Hicks,
"The Impact of Bus Transit on Employee Turnover:
Evidence from Quasi-experimental Samples"
Urban Studies

This also means that new employers need to read this before they choose their location!

I could wish that they had measured transit quantity using revenue hours rather than expenditures, because revenue hours are a better measure of service to the customer.  But still, this is a big deal.  Eric Jaffe also has the story at Citylab.

Email of the week: A no-voter on Metro Vancouver’s transit referendum

From John DeFazio.  He's responding to this post, or maybe to this one.  I have not edited for grammar or clarity.

you write like a scholar, using you master's degrees to cleverly make readers feel sorry for Translink and vote yes, even if they are confused… you know the adage, "bullshit baffle brains", thats what you and your kind are doing… and how much are they paying you Jarrett? 
there are many other ways that Translink can raise funding for transit and you bloody well know it… alternatively Translink should go public, make it competitive for private companies to run transit for the masses… look at BC Ferries, they run low on cheddar and they raise their rates, simple, you wanna ride, you pay…
Here's what professionals know:  Specialized transit services in monopoly positions or isolated intense markets are sometimes profitable.  BC Ferries, which cross water barriers where the only alternative is flying, are a great example.  But the entire transit system for a metro area the size of greater Vancouver is never profitable in a developed-world context, just as roads are not.  That's not why transit exists.  It exists, among other things, to protect the economy from being strangled by traffic congestion.
like [Vancouver] Mayor Robinson who makes stupid promises he cant even come close to keeping, and big ones too, you know, the "end homeless" bullshit he's peddling… Robinson wants a freebie from all lowermainlanders in the form of 0.5% tax hike to pay for his Broadway subway that he's been promising for years! Hey, what about if Vancouver raises their own money to do the subway? or lobby the provincial govt for cheddar or lobby the Federal govt for cheddar!! 
When the British Columbia government wanted to widen the Port Mann freeway bridge between the cities of Surrey and Coquitlam, they argued it was province-wide interest.  Nobody talked about it as "Surrey's and Coquitlam's bridge."  Likewise, the Broadway subway is physically in Vancouver but that doesn't make it Vancouver's.  If you ever want to be able to get from the northeastern part of the metro area to the airport, for example, you need the Broadway subway, because only with that subway do all the rapid transit lines into Vancouver connect with each other so that people can make suburb-suburb trips. 
I defer to locals to explain the cheddar metaphor.  
Im so glad i don't live in Vancouver where Robertson pretends he's the Mayor in…
Whatever supposedly high principles anti-transit campaigns may be espousing, a key motivating force is usually sheer hostility toward the region's densest city, and everything it represents.  If you want to understand why anti-transit campaigns are so fervent, this always seems to be part of the answer.
and who's paying for the yes advertising eh? taxpayers? who else… that's so shameful and in the end will see what a waste of resources this has been… pissing away good money when there is no chance of winning this plebiscite!
Why didn't you talk about Mayor Corrigen eh? remember him? he's opposed to the tax hike with validity…
Longtime readers know that I almost never write about personalities, because this is not about them.  It's about the freedom and opportunity of citizens in the region.
Ive voted NO, every one i know has done the same… the yes campaign hasn't a hope in hell to even come close and you know it Jarrett…
Yes, I'm sure everyone you know agrees with you.  That's how human beings withdraw from reality, by only "knowing" people who agree with them.   Personally, I get bored listening to people who agree with me, which is why I wanted to share John's email.  By the way, I didn't select this email from a whole pile to create a particular effect; it's the only one I've received on the subject, but it's typical of what Metro Vancouver seems to think is a credible opposition.

basics: should I vote for a transit tax?

Note:  This popular post is being continuously updated with useful links and comments.  Come back and it may be improved!

In the United States, but occasionally in Canada too, voters are sometimes asked to decide whether to raise taxes to fund transit improvements.  I’m often asked whether I support these things.  I don’t like telling people how to vote, but I can point out some predictable patterns in the arguments, and some universal facts about transit that you need to keep in mind.   Continue Reading →

the pedestrian experience in cities where cars rule

This image by Claes Tingvall needs to go viral.


I had many years living as a pedestrian in cities designed or managed for cars, including most big American cities in the least century, and I've never seen an image that better captured how that felt. 

The bottomless void, in this metaphor, represents the essential unpredictability of the reckless or distracted motorist (there only needs to be one) combined with the destructive potential of their machine. The sidewalk is a narrow ledge on the edge of extreme danger.  Crossing the street, even with a crosswalk, works when it works, but the rickety bridge perfectly captures the inherent risk; you're still relying on people to notice you even while they're texting, reading the newspaper, daydreaming, dozing off, flipping dials on the radio, trying to figure out the controls on their rental car, or doing any of other the things people do to handle the tedium of driving.

When we face this kind of danger in national parks, the government provides safety railings to keep us back from the precipice.  We tolerate this level of danger only for well-warned hikers in deep wilderness, and for almost everyone who ventures into the city without a car.

beware bus route saviors at election time …

We don't make endorsements, but beware politicians' promises about individual bus routes.  



Melbourne transit guru Daniel Bowen confirms that nobody is threatening  to cancel the 822.  The other team's plan involves removing some twists and turns on neighborhood streets, so that the route runs faster and is useful to more people.  As usual, that plan asks some people to walk further to a more useful service, as virtually any access-improving network design will do.    

Those changes are fair game for debate, but remember:  If you want to "save" every existing bus route exactly as it is, forever, then you're against almost any coherent plan and cost-effective plan to update and improve your transit network.  This and this, for example, would have been impossible!

Access across America!

  Levinson cover

There should be nothing amazing about a new report on how easy it is for Americans to get to work on transit, but there is.   Think about all the arguments we have about transit …

… and ask: Why do we try to discuss these things in the absence of good analysis of the most basic question of all:  Is transit useful?  Does it help people get places in at a time and cost that's a logical choice for them?  Such information is often hiding inside ridership models, but it's rarely revealed in a way that lets people see and discuss it.  Without that, it's hardly surprising that the American transit debate is so confused.   

Access across America: Transit 2014, from the University of Minnesota’s Accessibility Observatory, describes how easy it is to get to jobs in America’s major metro areas by way of transit plus walking.  (For very short trips, it shows what can be reached by walking alone.)   The authors are Andrew Owen and Professor David Levinson.  The report is meant to sit alongside similar studies for the other transportation modes.

So here’s Portland, say, shaded by the number of jobs that can be reached within 30 minutes from each point in the city:

Levinson pdx
The report also offers a ranking of how easy it is to get to jobs for the average residential location in all the major metros.  The ranking looks at where you can get to in a range of travel time budgets, from 10 minutes – basically a measure of walk access – to as much as 60 minutes.  Here's are the top 17:


As the travel time budget rises, the relevance of transit to economic opportunity becomes visible.   Los Angeles, with long access distances but extensive frequent transit, does poorly on 10-minute walkability but climbs in the rankings as you consider longer travel time budgets, thanks to its effective frequent transit grid.  Miami drifts in the other direction, signaling that compared to Los Angeles, transit there is adding relatively little to access to jobs beyond what’s achieved by walking alone.

Now here's what's amazing for a study pubished in 2014:  Owen and Levinson claim (p 6) that this study is unusual in properly accounting for frequency.  Many analysts approach transit from the point of view of the nine-to-five commuter, who was presumed to be largely insensitive to frequency because they have made an appointment with a particular scheduled trip that they take every day.   This sometimes feels right to bureaucrats and civic leaders, many of whom have such commutes themselves, but out there in the larger economy, more and more people work part time, or at irregular hours, or at times outside the standard commute peak.  Increasing numbers of people also value flexibility and spontaneity even in work trips — things that only a robust all-day frequency can provide.

Perusing these maps and rankings, my overwhelming reaction was “what if they’d analyzed it like this, or graphed it like that?”  A huge amount of insight is readily available out of this database if we query it differently.  For example:

  • Instead of ranking cities by the number of jobs reachable on transit in a given time, what if we ranked them by the percentage of jobs accessible?  The current rankings are still, predominantly, just a ranking by total volume of jobs.  Doing it in percentage terms will really pop out the winners in their size class, like Portland.
  • For the same reason, I really want to see Canadian cities ranked in this way.  They tend to have far more transit service per capita than comparable US ones, and higher ridership per capita as a result.  If this shows up in dramatically better economic opportunity and personal liberty, it could create a powerful contrast when cities compare themselves with similar ones across the border.
  • Why confine our attention to 7-9 AM, the classic morning commute peak?  There’s a good argument for starting there: it’s when the maximum number of people are trying to travel.  But the time-of-day dimension is essential to understanding the real lives of the majority of workers who are not peak commuters: those who work part time and in non-standard shifts, like almost everyone in retail, entertainment and manufacturing.
  • Let’s look at access to other things besides jobs.  All transportation studies overemphasize the journey to work because we have better data on it than on anything else.  But with the appropriate layer about locations, we can explore access to retail, access to food, access to education, even access to nightlife.   Regions may not have this data, but many cities do, and much of the interest in this tool will be at the municipal level.

Still, this is a great piece of work.  And Americans should pause over the core of this announcement:  Only now, in 2014, are we starting to study people’s ability to get where they’re going, and their opportunity to access all the opportunity that makes a great city.