quote of the week: the neglected american bus

In the six cases examined, we conducted off the record interviews with public officials, general managers, and thought leaders in each region. One of the consistent themes that emerged was that the bus systems and bus passengers were an afterthought. In every region – Chicago, New York, Boston, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Dallas/Ft. Worth, and the Bay Area – rail was the primary focus of virtually everyone we interviewed. We also found that maps of the regional transit networks tellingly either included a jumbled mess of bus routes behind a clean rail network, or ignored bus altogether.

It is likely this bias toward rail has very little to do with governance. But it does have a negative impact on transit delivery, particularly from a customer point of view. The vast majority of transit riders in the United States are on buses, so it would make sense to devote more resources and attention to them compared to rail riders, rather than less. Also, improvements to the bus network are likely to be less expensive than new rail expansions, and would be likely to yield substantially more net benefit per dollar. Yet while every region we visited had a new rail expansion either in planning or under construction, outside of New York none of the regions had any plans for regional bus networks, reorganization of existing bus systems, or major expansions of bus rapid transit (BRT).

Joshua Schank, President CEO,
Eno Center for Transportation
"The Case of the Neglected Bus"

I've certainly noticed, in my own work, that the aggressive, agency-wide commitment to building a complete access-maximizing transit system is stronger in cities that don't have much rail, or where rail is in early stages of development, as in Houston.  Key tools for total network legibility, such as Frequent Network branding, also seem to be spreading much more effectively in the midsized transit authorities than in the gigantic ones.

A while back I had a brief chat with a major airline CEO at an event.  He asked me: "So what's the future of transit.  It's rail, isn't it?"  I wanted to say: "So what's the future of aviation?  It's all intercontinental jumbo jets, isn't it?  

Or is it about people feeling free to go places?  In that case, the future of aviation is a network, where many types of vehicle have an essential role.  

the dangers of travel time comparisons

Revised in response to early comments. 

Are you sure you know which of your transportation options is fastest?  It depends on how you think about travel time.

A recent Boston Magazine article about the private bus service Bridj featured  typical "race" between two transit modes: the MBTA subway and Bridj, which provices luxury buses on fixed routes and schedules running only at times of peak commute demand.   The newspaper sent someone by each path at the same time.   The outcome of the race is supposed to be decisive:



Why is this not a fair race?  Well, it depends on when you start.  From the article:

The MBTA passenger arrived last, [sic] even though she had a head start and boarded the train six minutes prior to Bridj’s departure.

Why a six minute headstart?  Why not 10 or 20?  What headstart would be appropriate?  The headstart is your cue that there's something wrong with this methodology.  

What's really happening here is that a service that is available all the time — the subway — is being compared to one that's only available at a few special times — Bridj's specialized commuter buses.  Any "travel time race," with any headstart, is going to miss the real point of this comparison.

The notion of travel time seems so self-explanatory that most people miss how deeply misleading it is in discussing transit.   The imagined user is someone who happens to be going at the ideal moment for the preferred mode to succeed.  We talk about travel time this way because it's how motorists, cyclists, and pedestrians experience it: as something that begins at the moment you want to go.  

But that's not how transit travel time works, so the comparision implied by the term "transit travel time" is often a false one.  

When I teach transit planning and rhetoric, I encourage people to think of a weighted sense of travel time that includes average wait time, or more generally the difference between when you wanted to go and when you went.  A bus that's 10 minutes faster is of no use if gets you somewhere 30 minutes before you needed to be there [an 8:00 AM class or meeting, for example] because that's the only time it ran.  

Purveyors of low-frequency transit services, such as classical North American commuter rail, do this as well, bragging about how fast you can get from A to B without mentioning that this travel time is available only once a day.  

Unless you are sure that you will absolutely always travel at the same time each day, transit travel time figures have to be viewed with skepticism.  Whenever you hear about travel time, ask about frequency! 

visualizing transit: subway operations made beautiful

Grad students Mike Barry and Brian Card have produced an impressive new set of interactive visualizations of Boston's subway system. It's worth having a look for yourself here; much is lost when these are reduced to a screenshot. They've looked at key transit metrics like travel time, passenger volume, vehicle delay, and station congestion among other topics, all drawn from MBTA's open realtime data, in a style inspired by the content-first approach of design guru Edward Tufte.

 The image below is an example, showing the time of point-to-point trips of individual trains through the day. In this chart, the steeper the slope of the line, the longer the trip took. Scrolling through the day, the effect of the peak periods becomes apparent as the quantity and steepness of lines increases. 

Another example of the type of work skilled information designers can produce when public agencies make their data available. 

Screen Shot 2014-06-10 at 4.48.10 PM



email of the week: from a 10th grader, on streetcars

From Henry Mulvey, of Massachusetts:

Hello, my name is Henry Mulvey, I am a tenth grader. I am a huge streetcar fan and I love the old Boston Elevated Railway. I hope to attend M.I.T. for urban planning then work the M.B.T.A. or the state on a big replica streetcar plan for the city of Boston. I just read your article saying streetcar aren't what they seem and I have some rebuttal points.  I'm going try my hardest to be civil because I am a die-hard streetcar fan.  The two things I see that you either underestimate or don't mention are the aesthetic appeal of streetcars and the environmental costs of buses.  Streetcars look very different than buses and people like that.  In the case of replica streetcars, they might not carry as many passengers as modern types but they make people think "ooh, that's cool! I want to ride!".  Streetcars are more attractive than standard old buses, even an updated bus!  Streetcars are also more environmental friendly than buses.  Ideally streetcars do not omit any pollutants and are much more efficient than buses.  I also think the connection between streetcars and economic development is well documented and you don't provide any evidence to the contrary, can you give me evidence?  It's my belief that a streetcar line that uses replica streetcars does both provide great transit and showcases history.  Boston is a city that loves history and has a need for streetcars so I think a streetcar would work incredibly there.  Thank you for listening to me, Henry Mulvey

My reply:


Thanks so much for your note.  I love streetcars too, for all the reasons you mention.  
But all that beauty is expensive, and when we choose something more expensive, that means we can't afford as much of it.  That's a big problem for transit, because transit needs to be abundant.  It needs to go lots of places, so people can rely on it for lots of purposes.  That's why buses have to be respected, and have to be improved, because they're the only form of transit that we can afford to extend to all the parts of the city that need and justify good service.  Buses generate lots of real estate development too, although they're usually not given credit for it.
Yes, streetcars are driving some development right now, but that's also because lots of people are saying that streetcars drive development.  Streetcars are cool, in the same way that certain clothes are cool among people your age.  The real estate market is like your friends at school:  It wants to do what the "cool" people are doing. 
Fifty years ago streetcars weren't cool at all.  A decade from now they may not be so cool either,  My hometown, Portland, built streetcars mixed with traffic so that they run 6 mph and can't maintain a schedule.  Many of us find them useless if we're just trying to get where we're going on time.  [Because being late isn't cool, either.]    
And cities that have lived with streetcars for a while have mixed feelings about them.  For example, in Toronto they've kept their old streetcars and run them in mixed traffic, and you'll hear lots of frustration with them.  In fact, the mayor there is trying to kill light rail projects, and he does this by calling them "streetcars."  That's a dishonest description of light rail, but think about why he would say it:  He says it because knows that many people in his city hate their slow and unreliable downtown streetcars and don't want any more of them.  
As more new streetcars get built in mixed traffic, more and more people are going to figure out that if you're stuck in traffic, you'd rather be on a bus, because a bus can maneuver and often get through where a streetcar is stuck.  
I have very different feelings about "streetcars" that have their own lane, but I don't think of those as streetcars at all.  That's light rail, like the surface parts of your city's Green Line. 
Anyway, I've thought and written a great deal about this.  The piece that you probably read, because it gets the most attention, is this one, but these two are also important.
Thanks so much for writing to me.  It's great to hear about your interest in transit and your ambitions. When I was in 10th grade I knew my city's bus system by heart and hung around the transit agency's planning department after school. I was mostly a nuisance, probably, but I had just enough good ideas that they kept me around.  Don't be afraid to be so audacious, at the right time and place.
All the best, Jarrett 

boston: revealing the beauty of the useful bus

There seems to be no end to the uses creative people can find for NextBus feeds. This from Bostonography:

Screen Shot 2013-06-06 at 14.24.08

Screenshot of MBTA Bus Speed Map. Live version available at :

This map shows point-to-point speeds for MBTA buses across the Boston area. Like a stoplight, red lines are the slowest, green are the fastest. While the content of the map is unsurprising (freeways and tunnels make up the fastest segments, downtown streets and major intersections the slowest), this type of visualization is valuable because it takes the seemingly mundane function of a complex transit system and transforms it into a beautiful, comprehensible piece of art.

When we talk about beauty in transit, its easy to get stuck on the characteristics of the vehicles themselves: that shiny streetcar, or the sexy new buses for a branded express service. Properly displayed by someone with a sophisticated design sensibility, the mobility and access that a transit system can provide comes into focus as a dense latticework of possible trips. Local bus service might seem mundane when seen on the street, but visualized in terms of its utility as a system enabling people to get where they are going, it can be be a thing of beauty. 

to save time is to lengthen life

That was the slogan of this 1912 advertisement for the first segment of subway rapid transit to open in the Boston area, the Cambridge segment of the Red Line.  Thanks to the TRB History Committee.  

Red line ad

Yes, I know that slow, fun transit is supposed to make us enjoy the ride more, and the ride is part of life.  But if you're not riding for fun, wouldn't you rather get where you're going?

that second on-board employee

A reader asks:
My question relates to the relationship between frequency and capacity.  In Boston on the MBTA … for many of the trains, there are 2 employees running the train.  On the Green line, trains are 2 cars long, with a driver in the first, and in the second an operator responsible for opening and closing doors and making sure no one gets on without paying.  For the other lines, the 2nd operator only has to open and close doors because you need to pay to get into the stations.
To me, it seems like a waste to have to pay a second individual to open and close the doors.  Outside of the highest frequency travel times, and even possibly during those, wouldn't it be better for travelers to have service twice as often even at half the capacity?  Outside of the truly busy travel times, trains rarely run anywhere near capacity.  Especially on weekends and in the evening, trains are never full but the less frequent service does not encourage those spontaneous transit trips that are so vital to urban life.
This is not my core expertise, but my understanding is that generally this is right:  the second employee is usually a holdover from days when fare collection and monitoring of doors had to be done manually.  The job often survives because it's coded into labor contracts and sometimes also into regulations.

I am unaware of anything that non-driving on-board employees do that would be utterly impractical to automate today, the best evidence for which is that trams, streetcars, light rail, and heavy rail can be found operating with a single employee all over the world.   (Fully grade separated heavy rail, of course, can also be run with zero on-board employees, liberating the agency to operate intense frequency even late in the evening.)  Fare collection is increasingly handled by Proof of Payment systems which feature roving fare inspectors.  While these fare inspectors have a cost, their number is not directly related to the number of vehicles in service, so they are not such a direct barrier to increases in service. 

Frequency is driven by staffing requirements rather than vehicles, so the number of employees on board is the dominant variable determining how frequently any line can be run.  Only during the peak commute period is the availability of vehicles a significant element of the frequency decision.
As you would expect, however, any local debate about turning second employees into drivers of additional service will be fraught.  It is very easy for opponents (usually including the unions) to make generalized allegations about safety and security because most people feel safer and more secure if there's an employee nearby.  So it's politically hard to do.

This is one of those issues that is intensely local, and where examples of experience from other cities just have trouble penetrating a local debate.  It happens even in Europe.  See for example the peculiar fare-collector job that exists on Amsterdam trams.  A little cubicle placed at the middle of each tram contains an employee who serves as a cashier, selling tickets.  Boarding and circulation on Amsterdam trams is awkward, and effective capacity much reduced, because you're required to board only at certain doors and exit at certain others.

This second employee on Amsterdam trams is, as near as I can tell, unique in Europe; everywhere else trams run with one employee (the driver) and roving fare inspection.  Get a European transit professional going on how bizarre this Amsterdam practice is.  It's great fun over a beer.  But they can also explain, politically, why it will probably never change. 

If readers know of recent stories where second employees have been successfully removed and retrained as drivers, thus allowing more service, please post a link in the comments.

Boston: The “Rapid Transit and Key Bus Routes” Map

Boston map slice As several commenters have mentioned lately, Boston’s transit agency recently published a new network overview map, part of an overhaul of the information system.   The new map is similar in function to a subway network map but with some key bus lines added.  Here’s a slice, but you can get the whole thing, in much better resolution, here.

Most large transit agencies with extensive rail transit publish a map of just the rail transit services.  These tend to be the fastest, most frequent, and highest-capacity services in the network, so it makes sense that if you zoom out to a full-system overview, these are what you should see. Continue Reading →