Connections, Transfers

Basics: Why Aren’t the Buses Timed to Meet the Trains?

Short answer:  Because the buses are timed to meet each other, and this is harder than it looks.

Long answer:  If you’ve used public transit in an area that has infrequent trains, including the suburbs of many cities, you’ve probably wondered why the bus and train schedules aren’t coordinated.  Why didn’t they write the bus schedule so that the bus would meet the train?

First of all, let’s gently note the bias in the question.  Why didn’t you ask why the train wasn’t scheduled to meet the bus?  We assume that because trains are bigger, faster, and more rigid, they are superior and buses are subordinate. You’ll even hear some bus routes described as “feeders”, implying that they have no purpose but to bring customers to the dominant mode.

But it’s rare for an efficient bus route to have no other purpose than feeding the train. Public transit thrives on the diversity of purposes that the same vehicle trip can serve.  At a busy rush hour time, you may encounter a true feeder bus that’s timed to the train and will even wait if the train is late.  But most bus services carry many people locally in their area, on trips that don’t involve the train connection.  For these networks to work, they have to connect well with themselves, and this is harder than it looks.

We’re talking here about infrequent bus routes (generally every 30 minutes or worse) and infrequent trains.  When frequency is high, no special effort is needed to make the connection work.

Pulse scheduling. Buses of many lines are coordinated so that buses meet at the same time each hour, allowing fast transfers despite low frequency.

Infrequent transit networks have a huge problem.  There’s not just a long wait for the initial bus or train.  There’s also a long wait for any connection you may need to make to reach your destination.   We often combat this problem with pulse scheduling.  At key hubs, we schedule the buses to all meet at the same time each hour or half hour, so that people can make connections quickly even though frequencies are low.  We design the whole network around those connections, because they are so important to making the network useful.

That means that the whole schedule has to have a regular repeating pattern.  As much as possible we want this pattern to repeat every hour, so that it’s easy to remember.  We even design route lengths to cycle well in this amount of time, or multiples of it.

If the train schedule has a similar pattern, we will certainly look at it and try to match our pattern to it.  But the timing of a pulse determines the schedules of all the routes serving that point.  Sometimes we have lattices of interacting pulses at several points, which can make an entire network interdependent.  You can’t change any of these schedules without changing all of them, or you lose the fast connections between infrequent bus routes that makes suburban networks usable.

Sometimes, an infrequent trunk train service will also present a repeating hourly cycle in its schedule, and if so, we’ll look at that and try to coordinate with it.  But at most this will be possible at a couple of stations where the timing works well, because of the way the local bus schedules are all connected.

More commonly, especially in North America, we face an irregular regional rail or “commuter rail” schedule, where there may be a regular midday pattern but there’s often no pattern at other times.  The pattern may often shift during the day for various reasons that make sense for the train operation.  All this is toxic to timing with the local bus network.  Local bus networks need that repeating hourly pattern to be efficient and legible.  For example, if at 1 PM the train pattern suddenly moves five minutes earlier, the bus network can’t adapt to that without opening up a gap in its schedules that will affect lots of other people.

Usually, the regional rail network and the local bus network are part of different transit authorities, which makes this an even bigger challenge.  A particular problem in multi-authority region is that different authorities may have different schedule change dates, sometimes baked into their labor agreements, and this prevents them from all changing together at the same time.  But the core problem isn’t just institutional.  Merging the authorities won’t solve it. No efficient bus system – working with sparse resources and therefore offering infrequent service – can make timed connections with a train schedule at every station, and especially not if the train schedule is irregular.  It’s just not mathematically possible.

The best possible outcomes happen when the rail and bus authorities have a relationship that recognizes their interdependence rather than one based on a supposed hierarchy.  That means that the rail authority recognizes that the local bus authorities can only connect with a repeating hourly schedule pattern, and tries to provide one.  It also means that rail schedule changes are made with plenty of warning so that there’s time for bus authorities to adapt.

With the decline of rush-hour commuting due to increased working from home, transit demand is even more all-directions and all-the-time.  It no longer makes sense to just assume that one trip – say, the commute to the big city – is superior to another, like the local trip to a grocery store or retail job.  All possible trips matter, and we get the best transit network when authorities coordinate to provide the best possible connections for all of them.








Charging for connections is insane

Congratulations to Los Angeles Metro, the latest transit agency to make connections (also called transfers) free.  There are footnotes: you have to be using a smartcard, but if you're in Los Angeles for more than a day or two you should already have one.  The big point is this:  The core of the Los Angeles transit network is the liberating high-frequency grid, which relies on the assumption that passengers can be asked to change buses once.  Until now, the agency's policy of charging passengers extra to change buses was in direct conflict with the foundational principle of its network design.

Once more with feeling;  Charging passengers extra for the inconvenience of connections is insanely self-destructive.  It discourages exactly the customer behavior that efficient and liberating networks depend on.  It undermines the whole notion of a transit network.   It also gives customers a reason to object to network redesigns that deliver both greater efficiency and greater liberty, because by imposing a connection on their trip it has also raised their fare.

For that reason, actual businesses don't do it.  When supposedly business minded bureaucrats tell us we should charge for connections, they are revealing that they have never stopped to think about how the transit product is different from soap or restaurants.   The difference is that your success relies on products working together, the so-called network effect.   So tell them to think about airlines:   Fares that require a connection are frequently cheaper than nonstops.   That's because the connection is something you endure for the sake of an efficient and broadly useful airline network, not an added service that you should pay extra for.  

There was, for a while, an argument against free transfers that arose from the ease of abusing paper transfer slips.  These slips, issued in return for a cash fare and to be presented on your second bus or train, were easy to give away or sell.  Many US systems eliminated transfers and offered day passes instead, which improved security but at the high cost of discouraging spontaneous trips.

In any case, as soon as a transit agency has a working smartcard, there's no excuse for connection charges.  They sometimes linger because managers and elected officials are desperate for revenue but are afraid to raise the base cash fare.  In some cities, local journalists are too lazy to understand fare structures and just write quick scare stories whenever the base fare goes up.  This motivates transit agencies to do desperate and devious-looking things to raise other charges, just as a simplistic obsession with low fares has caused  airlines to invent endless fees. 

But what matters is not just that the fare be low.  It needs to be fair, and it needs to encourage people to use the system in more efficient ways.  An efficient and liberating network requires connections, so penalizing connections is an attack on your network's efficiency.  

guest post: a leading transit manager on the ridership-coverage trade-off

This guest post is by Ron Kilcoyne, is the General Manager of Lane Transit District, which serves the Eugene-Springfield area in Oregon.  He is formerly the General Manager/CEO of Greater Bridgeport Transit in Bridgeport, Connecticut and of Santa Clarita Transit north of Los Angeles.  For many years he was manager of research and planning for AC Transit in Oakland, California.  The views expressed are his own and not those of his agency.

In a guest post last March, Alexis Grant responded to a Transport Politic
by Yonah Freemark which postulated that less affluent regions had less service
per capita than higher income regions. Ms. Grant questioned whether federal
transit funding should be used to “redistribute wealth” in the allocation of
transit service and questioned Mr. Freemark’ s use of the term “vital social
service.” More recently Jarrett Walker talked about the tension between
maximizing coverage or maximizing ridership. Ms. Grant drew the conclusion that
Mr. Freemark's focus on social service is akin to one of the goals of transit-

Reading this essay made me question the premise I have
worked under and impressed upon many people I mentored over the years – no one
is transit dependent and transit should be positioned as, and needs to be, an attractive
alternative. These views have often been considered elitist and condescending.
So let me explain how I got to them, what they really mean, why they still are
my guiding philosophy even after soul searching and how to apply in the real
world of limitations.

There were two events that greatly influenced me early in my
career. When I was a planner at AC Transit in the early 80‘s the District
proposed to restrict transfer usage. At the time transfers were free and there
was no limitation on how many times they could be used during the time limit on
them. A large number of riders were using 3 buses to reach their destination;
the proposal was to limit transfer use to the second bus only. There was a
large turnout at the public hearing with customers explaining how they needed 3
buses to get to work, school or medical appointments. When talking with my boss
the next day – a person not prone to condescension; he stated that “no one was
forcing them to take three buses” My reaction was “Huh?” Why would anyone take
thee buses if they didn’t have to?

The other event was a few years later when I was reading an
interview with a Canadian Transit official. He was asked why per capita transit
usage is three times that of the United States when economically and culturally
the two countries are very similar. His answer was that in the US transit is positioned
as a social service while in Canada transit is positioned as an alternative. This
uh huh moment brought me back to what my boss said a few years earlier. While
we may not do this intentionally, focusing on the transit dependent creates a
mindset that because they are transit dependent they will accept whatever crap
we offer.

No one is truly transit dependent. After all transit service
is not available 24/7 to all possible destinations and about half the
population has no access to transit. Individuals who don’t possess a driver’s license
and/or don’t have access to an auto may have limited choices but they have
choices. They can obtain a ride with a family member, friend or co-worker; take
a cab; walk; bike or stay home. Some of these choices may be poor choices (cabs
are expensive and staying home when wants or needs to be somewhere else may not
be considered a choice) but if transit service is non-existent or a hassle to
use that may be what the person chooses. 

The concept of positioning transit as an attractive
alternative does two things. It creates a positive image of transit in the
minds of the community at large and it generates a positive mindset among transit
managers and employees. This mindset is essential to providing high quality
service. As transit professionals we need to focus on bringing those who have traditionally
been called “choice” or “discretionary” riders on board, though not to the
point on spending money on high-end luxuries that could be spent on useful
service. By creating an attractive alternative that will be used by individuals
who have the full range of transportation choices (a driver’s license and
access to an auto) we are also providing better service for all including those
with limited choices. After all people with limited choices need to get to
work, school, medical appointments and other destinations just the same as
those whose choices aren’t limited. This is not condescending to individuals
with limited choices – feeling sorry of them is. People with limited choices
don’t want to be felt sorry for –they want useful transit service.

Focusing on the social service aspect of transit creates
another roadblock – lack of resources. Surveys typically show very high support
for transit, but if transit is pitched only as a social service – it is hard to
generate support for more resources. People will more likely vote or speak out for
more resources if they see a direct benefit to themselves, or to the economy as
a whole.  This may be an extreme example
but it illustrates the point. Alter sequestration took effect legislation
quickly passed to make sure it wouldn’t impact airport operations, but nothing
has yet to be done about the seniors who lost their Meals on Wheels or
preschoolers shut out of Head Start. Seventy to eighty percent of funding
measures involving transit may obtain positive votes each year, but collectively
they cover only a small portion of the country, are often multi modal funding
packages (something for everyone) or do involve new transit infrastructure that
is perceived as an attractive alternative.

I am still a firm believer that positioning transit as an
attractive alternative is essential for providing the best service, and for optimizing
transit’s ability to win battles for resources that will maximize the amount of
service provided. However when choosing between maximizing ridership or maximizing
coverage this approach seems to come down on maximizing ridership. I have always
leaned toward the maximizing ridership camp. Transit offers the community many economic,
environmental and social benefits – that is why public support for transit is warranted;
therefore the more riders the more benefit. Empty buses or trains don’t improve
air quality, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, reduce energy consumption, reduce
auto trips or the need for parking, or provide access for many individuals. I
would argue that the focus on ridership at the expense of coverage will provide
service to most individuals with limited travel choices and will provide them
far superior service. And most of all the more people who use transit and the
more diverse the population group is – the more political support there will be
that can translate into more resources for more service.

It isn’t a black and white choice between ridership and
coverage.  Almost all agencies are
somewhere in the middle. At my transit agency — Lane Transit District in
Eugene-Springfield, Oregon – the official policy is 75% productivity, 20 % coverage
and 5% Board discretion. I feel we should aim for both.  At minimum 30 minute service within walking
distance of all areas that have densities to support transit service but also
provide the highest frequency that the market can support on each route. We
need multi destinational networks – grid or timed transfer depending on service
frequency that minimizes out of direction travel. Plus higher capacity transportation
systems where the thresholds justify the investment.  This may seem quixotic – we will never have the
resources for this scenario; maybe, but we will never get there if we don’t try
and we will probably not get there if our focus is exclusively on coverage or positioning
transit as merely a social service.  

Postscript by JW:  Opinions in guest posts are not my own, obviously, but to be clear, as a consultant I do not take a position on the ridership-coverage trade-off.  This trade-off is a non-technical value judgment, a choice between two things that most people want, and thus a decision that communities should make through their officials.  My role is always to help communities form their own view on this question, which I as a consultant can help them implement.

more uk frequent network maps: nottingham

Nottingham, UK now highlights frequent services on its network map.  More detail at the link.

Nottingham slice

Often when you first map the frequent network, you notice for the first time how self-disconnected it is.  Nottingham's frequent network is entirely radial with just one frequent orbital (crosstown) service spanning about 45 degrees of arc along the west side, easily seen on the full map.  The orbital is an extension of a radial, but it's clearly in an orbital role for a while.

One of the great outcomes of frequency is easy connections, so once you map the frequent network you usually start seeing opportunities to build more non-downtown connection opportunities, whether they be full orbital lines or just ways for two radials to connect (or even through-route at the outer ends) so as to create more direct travel opportunities within a subarea of the city.  For example, looking at this map, I immediately wonder whether 44 and 45 should be combined into a two-way loop so that you could ride through, say, between Carlton rail station in the far southeast corner of this image and Mapperley in the centre.  (You wouldn't present it as a loop in the schedule.  You'd still call it 44 and 45 but note on the map and in the timetable that 44 continues as 45 and vice versa.  This is how you build more direct travel opportunities in small city while still keeping the network legible.)

transit as a city’s bloodstream: the video

Watch this video, and maybe you'll grasp the beauty of a great transit network, a beauty that has nothing to do with the technology it runs, but everything to do with the real life of a city and the feedom of its people.  Public transit vehicles moving around Greater Vancouver, an entire day compressed into 2.5 minutes.

The original is here.  It's by STLTransit, who has done a number of other cities.

Long ago I posted another of these, for Auckland, New Zealand.  It uses endearing tadpoles instead of white dots.  It's also interesting because Auckland's is not a single unified network, as Vancouver's is, (although we're working on it!).  You can see the difference if you watch closely, using the tips below.

So many people see public transit only as a vehicle on the street, or a thing they're waiting for.  But when you watch this video of a well-designed unified transit network, you can see that it's a gigantic interconnected organism.  And like all organisms, it's made up of complex but rhythmic motion.

Like your heart and lungs, the network effect of transit is quiet, ignorable, and yet the foundation of everything.   The network is one being, moving to a beat.  It's made of connections,  little sparks of energy that you must imagine whenever two dots touch, as the dots hand off to one another like relay runners.  For example, as you watch the video, watch this spot, especially toward the middle of the day:

Vanc tadpoles note phibbs

That's Phibbs Exchange, an example of strong pulse scheduling. At a langorous pace (representing a pulse every half hour or even every hour) you'll see many white dots gather themselves into a single bright dot, shine brightly for a moment, then "pulse" outward again.  What's happening is that many buses that run infrequently are converging on a point and sitting together briefly, so that people can transfer from any bus to any other.



I'm not sure I'll ever convey to my non-transit friends that regardless of what you think of buses, a pulse is a beautiful thing to watch.  Phibbs is more spread out than I like, and I photographed it at a quiet time of day, but in an ideal one, like the ones in downtown Eugene, you see this gradual gathering of energy to a climax, then a release.  Gradually the buses arrive, until finally they're all there.  You see signs on the buses announcing different parts of the city, all the places you could go right now, from here.  The drivers get off the bus briefly, chat with customers, point them to the right service.  People meet by chance.  It happens many times a day and yet there's always this sense of event: here, at this moment, you have service to all these different places, ready to go right now.  Enjoy the banquet of choices, select your bus, and let's go.  In a moment it's over, the buses all gone, the place quiet or even deserted, like a field after a storm has passed.  And in half an hour or an hour it will happen again.

And it's not a random thing, like a storm, but part of a huge intentional network that (in Vancouver's case) is designed.  This pulse is one of the network's many continuous, reliable heartbeats.  It's one big organism, made of unconscious rhythmic motion and circulation as all organisms are.  It's inseparable from the life of the city it serves.  And you're part of it.

auckland: how network redesign can transform a city’s possibilities

When a public transport network has grown cumulatively over decades, but has never been reviewed from the ground up, it can contain an enormous amount of waste.  Careful redesign is the key to unlocking that waste and generating vast new public transport mobility.  Our new plan for Auckland, New Zealand, now open for public comment, is a dramatic example of what can be achieved.  ("Our" because I led the intensive network design work, with a great team of planners from Auckland Transport and my colleagues from MRCagney.)

If you want to get around Auckland at any time of day, on a service that's coming soon, here's where you can go on today's network (or more precisely, a "business as usual" network extended to 2016)

Akl existing
Under the proposed plan, which costs no more to operate than the existing one, here's where you'd be able to go, at any time of day, on service that's coming soon.

Akl proposed

The network still includes coverage to all corners of the city that are covered now, and ensures plenty of capacity for peak commuters into the city.  But meanwhile, it defines an extensive network of high frequency services around which future urban growth can organize to ensure that over time, more and more of the city finds public transport convenient.

What's the catch?  Only the geometrically inevitable one: more people will have to make connections from one service to another, and the fare system will need to encourage rather than penalise that.  

Whenever someone tells you that it's too expensive or hard to encourage people to make connections, ask them how expensive it is to run the only the first network above while spending enough money to run the second.  Networks that are designed to prevent transferring must run massive volumes of half-empty and quarter-empty buses and still have trouble delivering frequencies that make the service worth waiting for.  The waste involved can be colossal, as you can see from the amount of service we were able to redeploy in more useful ways with this redesign.

To see a bit of the structure clearer (and also because it's a cool graphic), here's the central slice of the drawing of the proposed frequent network, by my MRCagney colleague Nicolas Reid.  It's currently all over the media in Auckland, helping people assess the plan.  By streamlining it calls attention to the logic to the network — a logic that's sometimes easy to lose track of when following the details of every right and left.  Look at the whole thing.

Auckland network

I'm very proud of what our team achieved working with the excellent folks at Auckland Transport, and I hope the plan will be further improved as a result of public feedback, as good plans always are.  But as Aucklanders begin discussing the plan, I hope they stay focused on the core question:  Are you willing to get off one vehicle and onto another, with a short wait at a civilised facility, if this is the key to vastly expanding your public transport network without raising its subsidy?  

That is the real question before Auckland now.  The rest is details.

portland: the grid is 30 years old … thank a planner!

Thirty years ago next week, on Labor Day Weekend 1982, the role of public transit in Portland was utterly transformed in ways that everyone today takes for granted.  It was an epic struggle, one worth remembering and honoring.

I’m not talking about the MAX light rail (LRT) system, whose first line opened in 1986. I’m talking about the grid of frequent bus lines, without which MAX would have been inaccessible, and without which you would still be going into downtown Portland to travel between two points on the eastside.  (Full map here.)

Portland grid\

What did it look like before 1982?  Here’s a bit of the 1970 network (full map here).

Portland 1970

The 1970 network consisted of bus routes radiating from downtown across the gridded eastside, which constitutes about 3/4 of Portland.  If you were anywhere on this network, you had a direct bus downtown — a slow, circuitous, and infrequent bus.  Very few routes ran better than every 30 minutes during the day.  Only two routes ran north-south across the east side, and both were too infrequent to transfer to, so you couldn’t really use them unless both ends of your trip were on them.

How did the 1982 network transform the possibilities of mobility in the city?

  • The old network was solely about going downtown.  The new network was about going anywhere you wanted to go.
  • The old network was infrequent.  The new network required easy connections, so it was designed to run at high frequency (most lines every 15 minutes or better all day).  Remember: Frequency is freedom!
  • The old network was wasteful, as many overlapping lines converged on downtown.  The new network was efficient, with little overlap between lines, and with lines spaced further apart to the extent that the street network allowed.  This is how the resources were found to increase frequency so much.
  • The old network was complicated, with routes often zigzagging from one street to another.  The new network was simpler, easy to keep in your head.  Many streets that were formerly served by a patchwork of overlapping routes, such as Division, now had a single route from end to end, so that you needed only remember “the Division bus.”  Transit became an intrinsic part of the street.

If you’re in a hurry, skip to “Thank a Planner!” below.  But if you have a couple of minutes, let’s explore more deeply how the grid transformed Portland, and why it was so controversial at the time.

In both maps above, that wavy line across the middle of eastside Portland is the Banfield Freeway, where the first and backbone line of the MAX light rail system runs today.  In the 1970 image, look for the line marked “1” extending north from the Banfield in the middle of the image.  This is NE 42nd Avenue (a bit of which is labeled 41st, but don’t let that distract you).

In the old network the bus line along 42nd came from the north edge of the city, once an hour.  Partway down it merged with another branch, to form 30-minute frequency.  When it approached the Banfield, it turned west and zigzagged into the city via the Lloyd district.  Once it turned west off of 42nd, it was duplicating other routes the whole way.  If you wanted to go somewhere else on the eastside, the bus was not much use.   Frequencies were poor so it was very hard to make a trip involving multiple routes.

If you lived on NE 42nd in 1982, you were confronted with massive change, the sort of change that makes people scream.  Never again would you have a direct bus to downtown Portland.  Now you would be on the new 75, which would run continuously north-south all the way across the city.  And if you wanted to go downtown, you would have to transfer (as we called it in those days).

But on the bright side, the 75 would run every 15 minutes, so transfering wasn’t hard.  And in return, you got all the other benefits of a frequent routes that would let you connect quickly to reach destinations all over the east and north sides of the city, without going downtown.

This is always a tough sell, because many people value transit only for the commute downtown.  These people tend to complain when the network is optmized to serve many kinds of trip at once, which is exactly what the grid does.  A frequent grid is the ultimate in versatilityequity and freedom.  It does not pick favored destinations for favored markets. Instead, it delivers anywhere-to-anywhere mobility for wherever you might want to go.  Today, the non-downtown elements of the grid, especially 72 and 75, are among TriMet’s most productive lines.

The grid redefined the role of transit in serving Portland’s livability objectives.  When you think of everything that makes Portland both livable and culturally distinctive, you’re probably thinking about the historically dense and gridded part of the city.  This is where almost every cool urbanist outcome of the last 30 years — from food carts to bike lanes to office-over-retail — has sprouted and thrived most successfully. Rail gets all the press, but the MAX light rail line would not have worked without this grid to connect with it.  (The reverse is not true: the grid worked well for four years before the MAX line opened, though MAX was certainly an improvement that achieved further ridership payoffs.) As Gregory Thompson and Jeffrey Brown put it in a recent paper :

If the 1983 and 1986 restructurings had not happened, LRT would have been a competitor with the CBD-focused, poor quality parallel bus routes that already were there, and there would have been no high quality bus routes intersecting the LRT at right angles. Portland would have enjoyed much less patronage than it has since experienced on both its LRT and bus routes.

Where did all the money for the new high-frequency crosstown lines come from?  Removing duplication. Look again at the your ride on 1970’s route 1.  Once it turned west off of 42nd, it duplicated other routes the entire way into downtown.  Now look closely at the routes approaching downtown from further south in the old map.  They ran on so many closely-spaced parallel streets that they were effectively duplicating one another as well, wasting service.  The grid plan found many resources by removing these duplications and moving to wider and more consistent spacing of lines across the whole city.  In the same process,the grid introduced the idea that it’s OK to walk further to a more frequent and useful service — the foundation for transit’s link with walking (and with all of walking’s public health outcomes) today.

The grid was also a radical simplification, making it easier for people to keep the network map in their heads.  Now, bus lines would often follow the same street from end-to-end, so you could remember easily that there’s a Division Street bus, say, and an 82nd Avenue bus.  In the old network, if you wanted to go from 20th & Division to 82nd & Division, you had to go downtown and back, because these two parts of Division were covered by different routes.  The beauty of the grid is that your transit directions are sometimes as simply as walking or driving directions:  “Take the Division bus out to 82nd, then take the 82nd bus south.”  The transit lines are just part of the street.

Imagine, in 1982, the struggle involved in implementing this.  Vast numbers of people lost their direct bus to downtown, at a time when going downtown seemed like the only purpose of transit to many existing riders.  Transit agencies tend to listen most to their existing riders, who have adapted their lives to the system as it is, so it takes real courage for them to seek new markets instead of just catering to the existing ones.   Imagine the disruption, the rage, the recriminations, not to mention the apathy from people for whom buses just don’t matter, no matter what they’re achieving.

Thank a planner!

If you can imagine how hard this was, consider thanking the planners who took all this abuse and persisted in pushing the plan through, because they believed in everywhere-to-everywhere networks and knew this would work if it were tried.  I’m especially thinking of:

  • Ken Zatarain, who was a TriMet service planner at the time and who is still at the agency.  Thank him at:  ken dot zatarain at
  • Thomas G. Matoff, the single most important mentor in my own transit career, and probably the critical player in pushing the grid through.  Tom, who was service planning manager and thus Ken’s boss, was an eloquent, passionate and persistent advocate for the grid both inside and outside the agency.  He was the first person I’ve met, and one of the few I’ve known, who could convey how essential network design is to the life, joy, and prosperity of a city.  Tom went on to be General Manager of Sacramento Regional Transit and is now working on the Sonoma-Marin rail project in California.  Thank him at:  tmatoff at ltk dot org .

I’m dead serious:  If you value being able to get around Portland in all directions, thank them.  In other words, do one of these things:

  • shoot emails of appreciation to the three emails above, copied to me (jarrett AT jarrettwalker DOT net), with “Thanks for the grid” in the subject line, or
  • leave a comment here, or
  • say something on Twitter with the hashtag #PDXGrid .

You might also ask the two mayoral candidates about how important the frequent grid is to their vision of the city, and whether they think it should be enhanced.

Why does this matter?  Because even today, there’s disagreement in Portland about important the frequent grid is, or even whether a complete everywhere-to-everywhere network (which requires high-frequency buses as well as rail) should be a priority at all.  Some view the grid as unimportant, for example, because they view bus service as unimportant.

Purists might argue that the grid never made it to its 30th birthday, but rather perished at 27 in 2009.  That was the year that TriMet cut all-day frequencies below the 15-minute threshhold that is widely accepted as the definition of “frequent enough that you can use it spontaneously, without building your life around the timetable.”  Since the grid relies on easy connections to achieve its goal of easy anywhere-to-anywhere access, the 2009 cuts began to undermine the whole idea of the grid. TriMet avoided doing this in its first round of cutting after the crash, but felt it had no alternative in the second 2009 round.

Will the grid ever be restored to its necessary frequency?  Will it ever be expanded and enriched (as regional land use planning generally assumes it must be) with even better frequencies?  Not everyone in Portland thinks this is a priority, so you might want to express your view.

More on the history and spectacular outcomes of the grid if you click below.  But even if you don’t click, thank a planner!

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guest post: peter brown on the decline of u.k. privatization of transit

Peter Brown is a lifelong UK transit enthusiast (and an HT reader from the earliest days).   He is a member of the Light Rail Transit Association (LRTA), and a former volunteer tram driver at Seaton Tramway, Devon, England.

Twenty six years after the Thatcher government deregulated local bus services in the UK (outside London and Northern Ireland), the calls for some form of re-regulation persist.  

The latest issue is the stated ambition of the Tyne and Wear Passenger Transport Executive (PTE), which today calls itself 'Nexus,' to restore government control of planning and management for the bus system in the Newcastle-upon-Tyne/Gateshead/Sunderland conurbation.  This is significant because for a few years in the 1980s this authority operated the UK's only example of an integrated transport system on a par with European best practise — a system that was destroyed by the Thatcher government.

Img_10384In the early 1980s, the Tyne and Wear PTE directly operated a large bus system which was formed by the takeover of the former municipal fleets of Newcastle, Gateshead, and Sunderland, and also built and operated the LRT system (The Metro).  During the short life of this integrated system it was possible to travel between any two points on a single ticket by bus, local train, Metro, and ferry services. The bus system was redesigned to feed into the metro at purpose built interchanges for journeys into central Newcastle, thus reducing bus movements across the heavily congested Tyne bridges.  
Unfortunately the Thatcher Government deregulation of bus services destroyed this integrated network.  Deregulation swept away a regulated system that had existed in the UK since the 1930s. It meant that bus companies (referred to as ‘Operators’ in the UK) had to self financing through the fare box. Blanket subsidies and any form of network co-ordination (or what Americans would call "integrated network planning") were terminated.  In short, it became illegal to think of transit as a public resource, integrated with the city, and managed for greatest possible efficiency and usefulness.

Instead, the ideal became competition.  Bus operators could operate "commercial" (non-subsidised) networks anywhere, and the role of local government became to purchase subsidized services wherever more service was desired.  Integrated transit features that many cities take for granted — including citywide fare systems, lines that aim to connect with one another, and rational management of limited resources, became effectively impossible.  
Yet if the goal was competition, the system failed.  As in most of the UK today, there is very little direct on-the-road competition between the three bus companies in Tyne and Wear.  Instead, each company has settled into a "territory" in which the lack of competition is the key to profitability.  Passenger journeys starting in one operator's territory that finish in another's require the passenger to change buses and pay twice. Nexus is no longer happy about this and wants to take over the commercial networks and purchase operations from the bus companies – this is known as a 'Quality Contract' and there is new (as yet unused) legislation to do this. 

In short a Quality Contract would involve the suspension of deregulation within a specified area and the imposition of a tendered system whereby the transport authority would specify the network, fares, frequencies etc. As urban bus operation outside London is a profitable activity (nationally approximately 90% of bus mileage requires no direct revenue support) the proponents of Quality Contracts believe that massive subsidies would not be required.  
In order to bring about a Quality Contract several conditions must be satisfied, with an independent board to adjudicate. The promoters would have to prove that the new system would:

  • have a positive impact on the use of bus services
  • will be of benefit to users of bus services by improving quality
  • will contribute to the implementation of the local transport policies
  • achieve all the above in an economic, efficient and effective manner.

 All the above leave lots of room for argument against them, and since the commercial operators would in effect have their businesses sequestrated without compensation it is likely they will use the legal process in full, including the European Court of Human Rights.
The alternative approach for a local transport authority to increase its influence in the provision of bus services is the 'Statutory Quality Partnership' as demonstrated in Oxford last year using powers from the 2008 Transport Act. 
The 2008 Act expands the terms of the previous voluntary Quality Partnership model to allow a LTA [Local Transport Authority — the tier of local government responsible for transport] to specify requirements as to frequencies, timings or maximum fares as part of the standard of service to be provided under a scheme, in addition to quality standards. But it also provides important safeguards to ensure that unrealistic conditions are not imposed on operators, and that their legitimate right to a fair commercial rate of return on their investment is not undermined. The process by which an operator can object to particular standards included in a scheme relating to frequencies, timings or maximum fares, is an important feature of this. But at the same time it places a responsibility on them to justify the grounds for their objection, thus minimising the scope for vexatious or frivolous objections.

In the context of Oxford, where such a scheme was implemented last year, there is no history of municipal bus operation. This could account for the partnership approach being more acceptable to that LTA.

Photo: Simon Billis 

information request: fare revenue impact of free transfers

We're looking for case studies in which:

  • A transit agency that had been charging for transfers (changing from one transit vehicle to another) eliminated that charge.
  • No other major changes happened at the same time.
  • A result could be measured in fare revenue, and also ridership.

If anyone's familiar with cases, or with studies of this issue, please let me know.  Thanks!

chicago: a new bus rapid transit plan

A Chicago-area planning nonprofit, the Metropolitan Planning Council, has released a plan for 10 Bus Rapid Transit within the City of Chicago.  The final report is here:  Download BRT TRB Report Final

The work, led by consultant Joshua K. Anderson, is admirably wonky.  It analyzes a huge range of arterial segments to identify those that appear best from a standpoint of both constructibility, demand, and nexus with livability values.  The report is a "screening" study, which means it seeks to narrow the range of possibility and encourage more detailed study of those that remain. 

Bus Rapid Transit is defined quite vigorously:

BRT is 4 defined by four main components: 1) dedicated bus lanes, 2) at-grade boarding, 3) pay-before-you-board stations, and 4) signal-prioritized intersections.

This definition is met by almost none of the things now called BRT in North America, or at least not continuously from one end to the other.  But screening is a time to be ambitious about such things.

Chicago brt map final
The 10 corridors that survive the screening are shown on this map.  They're a mixed bag: portions of segments, some of them maybe too short to be effective as BRT, but also two very long corridors, Western and Ashland Avenues, one of which is probably the most urgent BRT project in the city.

The study appears to be silent on whether these are envisioned as open BRT or closed BRT.  Open BRT means that the infrastructure can be used by bus lines that flow onward beyond it to other destinations.  To take an obvious example, an Irving Park BRT that ends at Ashland, short of the Red Line's connection opportunities and the high density of the lakeshore, is unlikely to be satisfying as a complete corridor.  But if it's an open BRT, usable by buses that continue east, it could well be useful. 

Unfortunately, a presumption of closed BRT, in which buses can't continue beyond the limits of the infrastructure, seems to be implied by the author's decision to discard super-dense Lake Shore Drive from the analysis simply because of the complexity of branching patterns that it requires; this assumption will have to be reconsidered in light of open-BRT best practice.

The study illustrates a common challenge in analyzing large, long transit corridors.  Many of the key issues, including available right of way and "livability" impacts, are segment-by-segment affairs; if these dominated the analysis, the result would be a huge pile of largely disconnected short segments, which could not deliver the intended outcomes.  So the author streamlined, discarding small segments and emphasizing larger continuous ones, which is quite right.

But issues of network integrity and completeness seem not to be fully considered.  The report needed to step much further back and describe the underlying geographic structure of Chicago, which determines the type of services that could be relevant to citywide mobility needs.

Except near the lake, Chicago is an extremely regular grid of arterials spaced 1/2 mile (800m) apart.  CTA follows this grid with a grid-pattern of long bus lines that attempt, as much as possible, to cover the entire length of an arterial all the way across the city.  This achieves the important goal of grid completion.  The purpose of each line is not just travel across that street but to complete a network in which people can travel from literally anywhere to anywhere else through a simple L-shaped movement:

Grid with trip

For more on the high-frequency grid principle, see here.  Obviously this structure only works, in its purpose to serve any origin-destination pair, if its constituent lines flow all the way across the grid to its natural edge.  This is the problem with many of the proposed BRT corridors in the report.

Not everyone sees this grid, because Chicago also has an overlying radial system of rapid transit, which runs along diagonals pointing toward downtown.  The two overlaid elements — radial trains and grid buses — work well together, but if you focus too much on the trains, which are mostly about going downtown, you miss the power of the underlying grid to complete trips on any origin-destination pair by a reasonably direct path.  (The report discusses "network integration" only in the form of integration with rail.  Confusingly, too, it gives heavy emphasis to connections with suburban commuter rail — whose poor frequency makes connection difficult — and little to the bus-bus grid connections that are the essence of the network's anywhere-to-anywhere versatility.)

Given Chicago's grid structure, and how well it already works, BRT needed to be understood as a system of grid accelerators, just like the Metro Rapid and proposed Wilshire subway in the similar grid of Los Angeles.  Obviously, if you can concentrate particularly heavy demand on a few elements of the grid, you can justify an overlay of much faster service, stopping only at the grid connection points every half-mile.

On that score, Western Avenue is clearly a winner.  It is the longest arterial in Chicago, running north-south the entire length of the city.  Its extreme length creates reliability issues on a local-stop service, which has caused CTA to break it into three lines thus reducing its usefulness for continuous movement.  BRT would be an opportunity to recombine these three segments to offer a service that would be understood as an intrinsic feature of Western Avenue over its entire length.   Western is also far enough out of downtown that the direct paths it serves are much faster than riding rail into downtown and back.  A vast range of trips between many parts of Chicago would find a Western BRT line useful. 

None of the other corridors identified in the study can match Western in the utility that arises from extreme length with lots of connection opportunities.  Ashland is obviously close.  Most of the other proposed segments are simply too short, and would be useful only as open BRT segments used by buses that run further.  Effective BRT has to serve long corridors, because the tradeoff that BRT requires of the customer — walk further in return for faster service — makes sense only for a fairly long trip. 

To sum up, the report is very useful and highly recommended.  But it misses (or at least downplays) two points that are missing in many similar studies, and that really matter:

  • Open or closed BRT?  They're totally different, and if you're not clear which you mean, it's impossible to envision the service patterns, and thus the mobility, that your proposal will offer. 
  • Integration with the total network, not just rail.  This requires seeing how the whole mobility flow of the city works, and how each corridor would contribute to that flow.  Localized analysis that asks where BRT would be easy to create or locally beneficial can easily lose this "forest" in its obsession with the trees.  Understanding this principle would have required a much firmer focus on complete corridors that traverse the grid and make many connections, rather than the small fragments that are frequently proposed.

Still, the report can do a lot of good, and bravo to the Metropolitan Planning Council for sponsoring it.  Chicago really needs to start accelerating its bus grid, especially on its busy, high-stakes, versatile corridors like Western.  I hope this study helps to move that along.