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.

What’s wrong if transit support exceeds transit ridership?


In today's CityLab, Eric Jaffe expresses concern about the fact that support for public transit in many American cities is far exceeding its ridership.  

Every transit advocate knows this timeless Onion headline: "98 Percent Of U.S. Commuters Favor Public Transportation For Others." But the underlying truth that makes this line so funny also makes it a little concerning: enthusiasm for public transportation far, far outweighs the actual use of it. Last week, for instance, the American Public Transportation Association reported that 74 percent of people support more mass transit spending. But only 5 percent of commuters travel by mass transit. This support, in other words, is largely for others.

This is entirely a good thing, given the state of transit in America today.  If transit were only supported by its existing riders it would be in a death spiral, because most American transit isn't currently useful enough to penetrate a large part of the travel market.

The "support-usage gap," as Jaffe calls it, does not mean that Americans support transit just in hopes that others will use it.  We don't need that psychological speculation because the real explanation is factual:  For most Americans, in the context of their lives and locations and situations and priorities, the transit that exists today is not a rational choice.  Many Americans who support transit but don't use it may be saying that they want transit to be an option, but that it currently isn't.

This is exactly what we should expect in a country with such low quantitites of transit per capita, and where the public consciousness about the need for transit is way ahead of the political process of funding and designing it.  Canada, for example, has more than twice the transit service per capita, therefore more than twice the ridership per capita, therefore more of the population on transit.  But the support for transit in urban populations is high in both countries.  Support and usage are, and should be, unrelated.  That's because people are thinking about what they want, not what they have.

In my experience as a consultant, the real problem with the support-usage gap is one of education.  Working in Canada, I always notice that the public and stakeholder conversation about transit  is just a little more informed than it is in the US.  The common confusions (see Chapter 3 of my book) don't have as much impact on the discussion.  That difference arises from the fact that a bigger share of the Canadian population has personal experience with transit.  If you use transit regularly, there are some things about it that you'll just naturally understand better.  If nothing else you won't fall into common motorists' errors like overvaluing speed and undervaluing frequency, or assuming that technology choice is more important than where a service goes, and how soon you'll get there.

But do you support transit but don't find it useful?  That's great!  Help us make it better!  Welcome aboard!


ioby invites you to “trick out your trip” via crowd-funding

Our friends at the Transit Center are supporting a new ioby project to crowd-source ideas about how to improve the experience of commuting. If you aren't familiar with ioby, they are basically a crowd-funding platform focused on small-scale neighborhood improvement projects. Have a look at the promo video for the project:

 Similar to better-known sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo, ioby users are able to upload a project and create a funding goal which people who visit the page can contribute to. Examples of projects funded in this manner include community gardens, playgrounds, and environmental education programs, but now, ioby is offering a funding match up to $4000 for ideas related to transit. Have a look at the page for yourself here.

The guidelines for a project seem pretty open-ended:

1. Your project must do one of the following:

a. Be a non-digital tool that improves the public transportation experience, or
b. Focus on a single node within a transit system, but can be of any mode, i.e., a train station, a bus station, a bus shelter, subway or metro stop, bike share docking station, or parking lot, or
c. Encourage the use of clean transportation, in other words, have less environmental and social negative impacts than a single occupancy private car. Some examples include transit, bicycling, bike share, rideshare, carpool, car share, or vanpool.  We will consider modes and shared systems that aren’t identified here as long as they are less environmentally and socially harmful than a single-occupancy vehicle, or
d. Be something else in this spirit of the shared public transportation experiences! Talk to us! We don’t know all the great ideas out there! ([email protected])

On this blog, we focus to a great degree on what transit agencies can do to improve transportation outcomes in terms of network design and other aspects of the planning and operations of transit systems. But ioby's new project asks an interesting question: what small-scale, locally sourced ideas can people put into practice to make the transit experience more useful? 

Share your thoughts in the comments below, or better yet, head over to ioby and get your idea funded!

“We can’t have density there because there’s not enough transit.”

Ever heard this line?  A debate in Google's home town, Mountain View south of San Francisco, has turned up this response to an obvious idea of building more housing close to the city's business-park district, so that fewer people have to drive long distances to get there.  No, some council candidates say, because there's not enough transit there. 

Well, there's not enough transit there because there aren't enough people there, yet.  Transit is easy to add in response to seriously transit-oriented development, but as long as you have a development pattern that is too low-density or single-use for transit, you've locked in lousy transit service as an outcome.  

So whenever someone gives you this line as a reason to oppose a transit-friendly development, ask: "Well, what would it cost to provide good transit, and who should pay for that?"

Often, as in Mountain View, extremely frequent transit into the nearby transit hub can achieve plenty, and is not that expensive, because of the very short distances involved.

There are other situations where there's not enough transit because transit just isn't viable at any reasonable price, for an obvious geographic reason like remoteness from transit hubs or destinations.   

But it's worth asking.  

quote of the week: “how transit pays for the automobile’s sins”


We need services like dial-a-ride mainly because our car-oriented transportation system often leaves disabled Americans — not to mention the poor, the elderly and those too young to drive — waiting by the side of the road.

Over and over again, we call on transit to compensate for the failures of cars. Need to get New Year’s Eve revelers home without killing each other on the roadways? Extend transit service hours, put more buses on the road, and make them free. How about getting large crowds of people to a festival or a big game without triggering gridlock? Provide shuttle buses or run extra trains.

These are smart choices. But there is a cost to correcting these failures, and in the crude accounting done by folks such as the Post op-ed writers, all of them wind up on the “transit” side of the ledger.

It’s a nifty trick, really. Design a transportation system that leaves a wide swath of the population unserved and tends to fail when you need it most (including pretty much every weekday morning and evening in most American cities). Call on transit to fill the gap, sometimes at great expense. Then tar transit as being the inefficient user of public funds.

— Tony Dutzik, Senior Analyst, Frontier Group, in Streetsblog USA

quote of the week: on groupthink

The antidotes to groupthink …, I have found, are: one, leaders who are willing to question their own assumptions and surround themselves with strong critical thinkers who are willing to do the same, and, two, leaders who also have the willingness to seek out and listen carefully for the underlying interests (or even the kernel of a good idea) in the voices of the people initially perceived or expected to be on “the other side.” That mysterious blend of arrogance and humility is hard to find.

David Bragdon,
head of strategy for former 
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, 
and former elected head of 
Portland's regonal government, Metro.


my letter to the globe and mail (update 1)

Sent just now to the Globe and Mail Public Editor, Sylvia Stead.  Beneath this I will post any reply I receive.

Ms Stead 

Thank you so much for your followup re the Crowley article [see yesterday's post, and Ms Stead's comment at the end].  As a professional consultant and author on public transit, I have one more thought.
Unknown-2The interesting journalistic question is "What degree of rhetorical exaggeration crosses a line into explicit falsehood, and requires a correction even for an opinion piece?"  I assume you'd agree that opinion pieces must still state accurate facts.  The New York Times runs corrections to its opinion pieces and columnists all the time, at least in its online version.
The issue is clearest in this paragraph of Crowley, which I believe warrants a correction:

Portland, Ore., has pursued road-skeptical policies similar to many major Canadian cities. The result is markedly worsened commuting times. According to the TTI, over the past 30 years Portland has gone from having the 47th worst congestion in the U.S. to the sixth worst.

 The second sentence not only untrue but the opposite of the truth.  Portland has among the best commuting times in the US.  As the third sentence reveals, when Crowley talks about "commuting times" he means "motorists' commuting times".  Portland's commuting times are relatively fast not just because lots of people walk, cycle, or take transit.  They're faster because people here tend to live closer to their jobs, the result of decades of careful land use planning that began with Oregon's 1972 laws limiting horizontal sprawl. 
Crowley's omission of that crucial word "motorists'" not only makes the sentence false, it reveals that a large part of the population simply does not exist to him.  People who do not commute by car do not count as commuters at all in this calculation.    
Does denying the existence of a large group of readers constitute a reasonable distortion for an opinion column?  Or is it just a falsehood?
(You can find my rebuttal of Crowley here.)
Regards, Jarrett Walker
UPDATE 1:  Globe and Mail's Sylvia Stead replies:
Yes thank you Mr. Walker. An opinion piece must be based on the facts so that a reader can come up with his/her own opinion. I will look into the points below and get back to you later this week.
More when I have it.

a glimpse into the road lobby’s echo chamber, and how to respond

Canada's leading newspaper has published an anti-transit rant, by Brian Lee Crowley of the "non-partisan" MacDonald-Laurier Institute.  It's based on the work of the Texas Transportation Institute, a leading source of studies that view cities from behind the wheel of a single-occupant car.  It's filtered via Wendell Cox, who's made a career of car-centered advocacy.

I analyzed TTI's work more patiently here, so I'll cut to the chase now.  TTI believes that traffic congestion is a valid measure of people's ability to access the resources of their city.  They do not measure actual travel times for all people, or the liberty and economic opportunity that a good urban transporation system offers.  They apply these things as factors to a degree, but their bottom line is road congestion.  

Specifically, their metric is the difference in travel times, by car, between travel time on congested roads and the same roads in a free-flow condition.   In other words, their baseline utopian condition is abundant free-flowing roads at all times of day.  (That condition is actually an economic impossibility in a city above a certain size with a healthy economy and no road pricing.)  

Once you insist on measuring congestion, and against that fantasy baseline, you can get absolutely everything backwards.  

Portland, Ore., has pursued road-skeptical policies similar to many major Canadian cities. The result is markedly worsened commuting times. According to the TTI, over the past 30 years Portland has gone from having the 47th worst congestion in the U.S. to the sixth worst.

"Markedly worse commuting times" is false.  If you count everybody's commuting time, Portland is ahead of most US metros.   As the next sentence reveals, it is only congestion that is worse.  Yes, like all dense cities, Portland has exactly as much congestion as it makes room for, but it has low overall commute times, mostly because its carefully mixed density allows many people to commute very short distances.   Remember, if you are measuring car congestion, Portland's transit riders and cyclists and the many people who can walk to work simply do not exist.  Crowley disses "congested" Vancouver for the same reason, even though Vancouver is the only Canadian metro where the long-term trend is toward shorter commute times, due to continued consolidation of housing and business around transit.  

So how should an activist respond to this kind of talk from the asphalt-and-petroleum echo chamber?

Everyone should know how to respond to articles like this, because we'll keep seeing them.  The comments on the article ("Wendell Cox is an idiot") are not encouraging.  Wendell Cox is not an idiot.  He is part of a reactionary process that accompanies every revolution, one that we'll hear more from.  He's a smart man who knows exactly what he's doing.

Take time to understand the point of view.  Many people's brains are so fused with their cars that to them, congestion really is the same thing as urban mobility or urban liberty.  To them, the TTI is right.  

So first you have to object by shining light on that premise.  TTI, and by extension Canada's leading newspaper, believes that certain people do not exist or do not matter — namely everyone who already travels by transit, bike, or foot,  and everyone who can imagine choosing not to drive in the face of real and attractive choices.  

But then, avoid the trap of casting these excluded people as an underclass.  Too many activists fall into that Marxist reading, and issue a call to arms on  behalf of "ordinary people."  They get through to people who already agree with them, but to the dominant business culture they look like an easily-dismissed-or-manipulated rabble.  Instead, read Edward Glaeser or Bruce Katz and understand that people who are investing in low-car "congested" cities are the leaders of the new information economy.  

A good retort to road-lobby claims that life is really better in Houston than in Vancouver is to check the cost of comparable housing.  If it were has hard to get around in Vancouver as TTI suggests, people wouldn't pay a fortune to live there.  Transit-rich cities are expensive, in part, because many people there can get around without being stuck in congestion.  High costs of living, in turn, are the market telling us to create more places just like that.  This is the free-market argument.  It is the only one that will break through to the business mind and start conveying that maybe there's something to all this transit-oriented investment.  

The TTI will last at least as long as the Tobacco Institute, and it will sound just as scientific in praise of its product-centered world view — in this case, a world in which only motorists count.  So you have to question the world view.  If an argument is based on a false remise, don't engage the argument, because in doing so you're accepting the premise.  Attack the premise.

should we cut fares or increase service? an advocacy parable

A dispute in Portland is bringing to light the age old question of whether fare cuts or service increases are the best way to "improve" transit.  Both options improve ridership.  

The high-level answer is pretty simple.

  •  If you want transit to be mainly for low-income people who have a low value of time, cut fares, as this is an improvement  targeted to benefit only the cost-sensitive.  By not improving service, this choice may also lead to an increased "stigma" around transit as it is perceived, with increasing accuracy, as a low-quality experience that is of no relevance to people who have choices.  
  • If you want transit to be useful to a broad spectrum of the population, increase service.  

Cutting fares is good for lower-income people, while increasing service is good for almost everyone, including many low-income people.  

But it's not as good for some low-income people, and that's the interesting nuance in this particular story.

OPAL, an environmental justice organization that claims to focus on the needs of low-income people, is demanding that Portland's transit agency, Tri-Met, institute a fare cut.  The cut is specifically in the form of extending the period for which a cash fare is valid from two to three hours, an interesting issue that the Oregonian's Joseph Rose explores in a good article today.  (The headline is offensive, but reporters don't write headlines.)

At the same time, Portland has a throughly inadequate level of midday service, by almost any standard.  In the context of cities of Portland's size and age, Tri-Met practically invented the high-frequency grid that enables easy anywhere to anywhere travel in the city, but in 2009 it  destroyed that convenience by cutting service to 17-20 minute frequencies.  At those frequencies, the connections on which the grid relies are simply too time-wasting.  Those cuts correlated with substantial ridership losses at the time.  

OPAL's demand for a fare cut costing $2.6 million (about 2% of the agency's revenue) is, mathematically, also a demand that Tri-Met should not restore frequent service.  This money (about 80 vehicle-hours of service per day) is more than enough to restore frequent all-day service on several major lines.  

The rich irony of this proposal is that OPAL uses those service cuts to justify its proposed fare reduction.  In Portland, the basic cash fare purchases a two-hour pass that enables the passenger to transfer one or two times.  Because of the frequency cuts, transfers are now taking longer, and a few are taking too long for the two-hour pass.  OPAL therefore wants the pass to be good for longer.  

So OPAL's position is that because service has been cut, Tri-Met must mitigate the impact on low-income people instead of just fixing the problem.  

In particular, OPAL wants a solution that benefits only people who are money-poor but time-rich, a category that tends to include the low-income retired, disabled, and underemployed.   You must be both money-poor and time-rich to benefit from a system that reduces fares but wastes more and more of your time due to low frequencies and bad connections.  

If, on the other hand, you are money-poor and time-poor — working two jobs and taking a class and rushing to daycare — you will benefit from a good network that saves you time as much as from one that saves you money.  But that means you don't have time to go to meetings or be heard. We transit professionals see these busy low-income people on our systems and care about their needs, but we also know that we're not going to hear their voice as much from advocacy organizations, because they just don't have time to get involved.  

The same is true, by the way, of the vast working middle class.  In the transit business, we get lots of comments the money-poor-but-time-rich, who have time to get involved, and from the wealthy, who can hire others to represent them.  We don't hear as much from the middle class or from the money-poor-and-time-poor, even though those groups dominate ridership.  But hey, we understand!  They're just too busy.