Why We’re Used to Some Outrage at Network Redesigns

Here are some things that happen whenever a big bus network redesign is first proposed to the public. They are happening in the Dublin network redesign process right now, but to some degree they’ve happened on every project I’ve done over my 25-year career.

  • People assume that the plan is more final than it is, so they feel they need to gather forces in angry meetings and attack us, when in fact we want their detailed comments so we can address them.
  • We consult the public about the plan and they tell us, as we’re consulting them, that we’re not consulting them. (This is an understandable consequence of the previous point; people assume they’re being told when in fact they’re being asked.)
  • People say that while we’ve consulted some people, we haven’t consulted everyone in the right way.  (This is an understandable complaint, and often a valid one, but we will always get it no matter how much consultation is done. People rely on so many different information sources, and need things explained in so many different ways, that reaching everyone the right way is a potentially infinite task.)
  • Some people hear only that “there won’t be a Route 54” and begin holding rallies to “Save the 54,” without knowing or caring what service is proposed to replace the 54.  (Sometimes we’re just changing the number!)
  • Media headlines often inflame this confusion, with headlines about bus lines being “scrapped”.
  • People attack the whole plan because one local detail isn’t right.  (Many of the details that people are outraged about in Dublin are fixable, now that we have heard about them.  That’s why we’re consulting you about it now, to help us get the details right!)
  • Unions representing bus drivers, understandably seen as experts in some circles, will often put out their own messages tied to their own interests.
  • People attack the consultant.  (It’s not the first time my tiny 10-person firm has been called “corporate.”)
  • Some sympathetic person explains to me that people in their city or country are just crazy in some way, and I assure them that no, this is what happens everywhere, from Russia to the US to New Zealand, when a proposed network redesign comes out.  Because what everyone is doing is completely understandable in their situation.

Here, for example, is a deep dive into a current network redesign in Canberra, Australia (which I helped lay the groundwork for years ago).  You will see all of the themes I’ve listed.

What’s happened next, in all my projects, is that we collected the comments and fixed what was fixable, which turned out to include most of the details that had most inflamed people.  In most cases that addressed enough concerns that the plan moved forward and was a success.  It solved the problems it was meant to solve, and once people got used to it many of them discovered that it wasn’t as bad as they thought.

That doesn’t always happen, though. Sometimes elected leaders panic at this point and stop the plan, leaving all of the existing problems in place.

For me, there’s a reason to be happy about all the controversy:  It means people care.  The least controversial projects I’ve done were in very car-oriented places where few people (and no powerful people) cared what the buses did.  I would much rather be dealing with controversy.

The key thing is not to panic when we hear outrage at this stage of the process.  While was it was especially inflamed by misinformation in Dublin’s case, it’s a normal phase in the conversation.

And again, that doesn’t mean we’re not listening. The whole point is that we are listening, so we can make the plan better.

[Note: I will be mostly away from the internet, until the 20th August.]

Canberra: Good Planning Can Lead to More Service

A decade ago, I was part of a team developing a Strategic Public Transport[1] Network Plan for Australia’s national capital, Canberra.  It gave rise to this thinkpiece about long term public transport planning in general.

A key idea was to have a citywide network of Rapid buses, with widely spaced stops.  Our most ambitious map (below, click to enlarge) imagined four of them, shown in red, though only the two longest ones were to be implemented anytime in the near future.  We also proposed a local frequent network (orange) covering most of the city.

Canberra 2031 network envisioned in 2007

We stopped there because we wanted the plan to seem financially reasonable.  Still, we were clear at the time that we were creating a structure for growth.  We were not predicting what would happen in what year, but rather defining a network of services that would phase in as development and political support warranted.

So it’s in the nature of such a plan that you’re creating a guide without knowing exactly how it will come out.  As it turns out, the plan has moved faster than I expected.  One Rapid line is now becoming light rail, but just as important, the government has announced a far larger Rapid network than we ever imagined, nine lines in total:

Canberra Rapid Network 2018

When a transit idea catches on locally, everyone wants it, so the next stage is often to deploy it beyond the range of where it can really succeed.[2]  So I wouldn’t be surprised to see this network pruned as ridership numbers come in, especially if times get leaner.  But meanwhile, the lesson is that great planning can lead to more money, if it starts to build a vision that people care about.  I don’t regret the fact that our plan’s vision, prepared 10 years ago, was more limited.  At that time, a more abundant plan would have seemed delusional.  You walk before you run, as they say.  We were walking 10 years ago.  Now Canberra is running.




[1] Public transport is the global term for what North Americans call transit.  I tend to use the word appropriate to the place I’m talking about, but I hope everyone understands it on both sides of North America’s moat.

[2] One of my concerns in strategic planning is to propose only a few corridors of high-level transit in the early years, so that there’s a motive for development to concentrate on them.  This effect is lost if that network goes too many places, relative to the demand for development.  The result is likely to be a more sprawling city.

Paul Mees, 1961-2013


Paul Mees, the Australian public transit scholar and author of Transport for Suburbia, passed away June 19 after a battle with cancer. 

Paul was an important voice in the struggle to bring contemporary transit planning techniques to Australia in particular.  Transport for Suburbia, like much of his other writing, contains eloquent arguments for the basic geometric principles of ridership-oriented transit planning, ideas that are second nature to most transit planners but that have been extraordinarily hard to convey outside the profession.  

Sadly, I dealt with Paul mostly as an adversary.  We had one meeting in person, in which we drove around Canberra together mostly agreeing about what needed to be done there, but Paul chose, in print, to be mostly a critic of my work.  We certainly had a long-standing quarrel about the role of density in transit ridership, though I think this was mostly a problem of audience and language, not real opinion.  He was certainly caustic at times, and could certainly present is ideas in ways that sounded like personal attacks.

And certainly, there were reasons to be frustrated.  He worked in an era where the very possibility that transit could be planned as a citywide network, and that it was a crucial area of public interest and discussion, was at a low ebb in Australia, lost in the obsession with privatization and narrowly defined "benefit cost analysis".  Media coverage about transit was either about infrastructure debate or about whether some service should be "privatized" or "profitable."  The concept of networks — different kinds of services working together and serving an entire city — was only beginning to emerge.  For years, much of the essential work of transit planning had been outsourced to operating companies that planned for their own turf, not for the network as a whole.  There were few motivations to innovate, and many to suppress innovation.

This was the world in which Paul and I both had to work, and I'm grateful that he lived to see some of the subsequent revolution.  Australian governments are now re-asserting their right to control the design of their transit networks on behalf of the cities that depend on them so profoundly.  Many of the ideas that Paul helped promote are finally surfacing and taking hold.

All progress comes from a broad front of voices, and nobody hears the moderates ones unless more extreme and uncompromising ones are also present.  Paul Mees was, in many ways, the uncompromising conscience of Australian transit planning.  His passion and persistence on the topic will be missed.  

Photo:  Michael Clayton-Jones, The Age.

email of the week: should blue lines have blue buses?

From a longtime Canberra-based reader:

PB150032 In your latest post on [San Francisco] bus wrap art, you refer to your fondness for colour-coding of buses, etc for different service.  For instance in Canberra, this would see the Red Rapid using red coloured buses, the Blue Rapid using Blue coloured buses, and so on.
[JW:  The Red Rapid and Blue Rapid are the two frequent rapid corridors that connect the major dense nodes of Canberra to each other, with widely-spaced stops.  They are the top priority for bus lanes and other speed/reliability improvements.]
Which I personally think is great in promotion of the service, making the service stand out – it also helps give a rapid bus (which isn't run solely on transitways) an identity akin to a light rail line.
However, I've always found that schedulers don't like it as it limits the general number of vehicles available to run a network. It also removes the ability to use a vehicle in one service type and have it continue its run on a rapid route – thereby removing a connection for some passengers  …  And I'm sure there's a whole stack of other reasons which schedulers and operators will through up in relation to this.
So, I guess the question is, given that this is more of an aesthetic improvement … do the benefits measure up to the costs?

Seoul, South Korea went a long way with this idea, branding all their buses with four colors that indicate different functions in the network (Trunk, Branch, Rapid, or Circulator).  Paint schemes are often used to distinguished closed Bus Rapid Transit [BRT] systems (systems where buses do not flow through onto other corridors, but remain confined within the BRT infrastructure.)
DSCN2405    DSCN2519
Los Angeles Metro has painted their fleet two colors, red for Rapid and orange for Local.  Even with two colors, the "Local" is problematic.  Orange really means "everything but Rapid," including limited-stop and freeway-express services that wouldn't satisfy anyone's definition of a "local."
And even so, sometimes you see an orange bus on a Rapid line, or vice versa.  I've never seen a painted color scheme where this never occurred; sometimes the dispatcher needs a red bus and all he has are orange ones.  Sometimes an orange bus breaks down and the nearest available spare is red.  You'd rather we didn't send out a bus at all? 

I do think, however, we could be doing much more with signage to highlight color-based brands. 

Canberra: A New Circulator Network for the National Core

Washington DC has its downtown circulator, and now the Washington DC of Australia, Canberra, has one too. What’s more, my clients in Canberra created their circulator for almost zero in new operating costs, using one of my favorite planning tricks. Starting next week, four color-coded lines will provide frequent links among all the major tourist attractions, government buildings, universities, commercial districts, and interchange points in the dense core areas of the Australian capital. Continue Reading →

Canberra: Public Radio Interview on Transit in Australia’s Capital

Last month I did a radio interview for Alex Sloan of ABC 666 Canberra (the main public radio station in Australia’s national capital) on the broad future of public transit in that city, along with Monash University Professor Graham Currie.  Much of what was said, especially about light rail and bus rapid transit, is true of any low-density New World city with populations under 1 million.  ABC has now posted an MP3 of the interview here. Continue Reading →

Canberra: “They Only Refer to Buses”

Transit debates often get stuck because the word we need doesn’t exist.  As longtime readers of this blog will know, I’d really like there to be a word that means “transit vehicle, maybe on rails and maybe on tires” or “clearly a bus right now, but with the possibility of growing rails in the future.”

Local 4 blogBut there isn’t such a word.  So when I’m working in a city where the short-term reality is an all-bus system, and I talk about that system and our short-term plans for it, well, it’s really hard not to use the word bus.  When I want to help people visualize it, it’s hard not to draw a picture of a bus.

When I do, rail advocates assume that means I’m expressing an opposition to rail, or perhaps just pandering to such feelings in my clients.  Here, for example, the latest blast from the head of the main light rail lobby group in Australia’s capital city, Canberra, in a comment on the Canberra news blog RiotACT:

Although Mr Walker proclaims transport mode agnosticism, he is being paid by a pro-bus department … . What do you think would happen to future work for his firm if he came out and said, replace buses with light rail on the rapid route where the demand warrants this modal change.

I have heard the [local government] policy people report on their long term plans based on the ‘Canberra Transport Plan’. They only refer to buses.

Actually, I’m being paid (and modestly) by a department that’s trying to plot a rational course into a sustainable transport future, for a city of 345,000 people who live mostly at low densities with an abundant road network.  The transit system is not yet at a scale or intensity where it needs the capacity that light rail would offer, nor is there much near-term prospect of funding for it.  Light rail could happen, and I certainly don’t oppose it, but as I said over and over in Canberra’s Strategic Plan process, if you wait for light rail, you will miss a lot of other opportunities to improve transit mobility, and to encourage more transit-friendly urban form.

So to improve public transit in Canberra, the government is moving forward with a plan to improve the buses.   Not because they love buses, but because (a) they have buses and (b) they need to move forward.

And so, to talk about that, they need to say the word “bus” a lot, and even draw pictures of buses.  Yes, if your conception of transit begins with an absolute division between a bus world and a rail world, then officials who do that are going to sound to you like bus advocates.

But if you call them that, you’re projecting your scheme onto them.  Not everyone lives in a bus-vs-rail world.  The experts and officials who say bus a lot may well be true bus enthusiasts, but they may also be people like me who just want to get on with the work of developing good transit, and who therefore reach for whatever tool will best do the job at hand.

On Pedestrian Malls: Look to Australia

Why are pedestrian streets in commercial areas so common and successful in Europe, but not in North America?

A while back, a reader emailed me to ask this.  He observed that even in Vancouver, it’s hard to get a pedestrian mall going:

And why does a downtown core as densely populated as Vancouver only have one temporary pedestrian area (part of Granville Street)? And could Vancouver make the main shopping street (Robson Street) a pedestrian corridor like many UK towns and cities do (such as Birmingham, Glasgow, Reading, Bournemouth, and many more)?

I note you commented on Price Tags about Granville Mall earlier this year, and Price Tags has a recent article on the removal of a pedestrian area in Raleigh, North Carolina. Have you any further thoughts on these issues?

Continue Reading →

Cul-de-sac Hell and the Radius of Demand

This is interesting:

Research by Lawrence Frank, Bombardier Chair in Sustainable Transportation at the University of British Columbia, looks at neighborhoods in King County, Washington: Residents in areas with the most interconnected streets travel 26% fewer vehicle miles than those in areas with many cul-de-sacs. Recent studies by Frank and others show that as a neighborhood’s overall walkability increases, so does the amount of walking and biking—while, per capita, air pollution and body mass index decrease.

I especially appreciate this graphic, because it’s a nice illustration of a crucial transit concept: the radius of demand: Continue Reading →