Does the Ridership-Coverage Question Apply to Bikes?

For over a decade, I've been encouraging transit agencies to be clear about how they balance the contradictory goals of ridership (as many customers as possible for the fixed operating budget) or coverage (some transit service everywhere, responding to needs rather than to demand).  I lay out the tradeoff in the opening part of this explainer.  

Michael Anderson, the editor of the excellent blog Bike Portland, has a very thoughtful article exploring how, and whether, this paradigm applies to cycling infrastructure.  Disclosure: It would be fascinating even if they hadn't interviewed Michelle Poyourow, a bike-and-transit planner who's also a Senior Associate at our firm.  (Did you know, btw, that we're hiring?)

Really, if you care about cycling, read Michael's piece.  It's a great piece of writing, one that I'm still thinking about.

Quote of the week: bike-bus conflicts

On the inevitable problem of curb bike lanes interacting with bus stops:

Generally, transit advocates are also bike advocates, but with regular on-street bike lanes, this conflict point becomes an unavoidable ally-versus-ally battle … As a bicyclist, I am constantly on the lookout for oncoming buses even when I’m in a bike lane. As a transit rider, the mere seconds delay to wait for a biker can cause my bus to miss a traffic signal, which can cause me to miss my transfer, which can cause me to arrive 15 minutes late to work on the day where a coworker brought in Mel-O-Glaze Donuts, which can then cause me to be donut-less for the whole morning. Like, I said, none of this is good.

Chris Iverson at the Minneapolis blog

This came across my email just as I'd finished a meeting about a bike vs bus lane problem on Auckland's Karangahape Road.  The interaction of curb-running bicycles and bus stops is a problem on every continent and island, because it's a geometry problem.

And that means, chill!  Obviously, we push back on anyone who says that either bikes or buses are "just more important" than the other; that's just tribalism.  But then you accept the difficulty and the unsatisfactoriness of any compromise, including the one Chris proposes, the "floating bus stop" shown here in an image from the NACTO Street Design Guidelines:


This works fine as long as the bus stop isn't busy, but of course there are likely to be lots of pedestrians crossing the bike lane at the times when the bus is stopped there, so a cyclist's odds of actually passing a stopped bus on the curb side may be limited.  I also prefer "table" or shared space solutions for the bike lane that alert the cyclist to yield to peds in this situation.  

Is it perfect?  No, but there isn't a perfect solution.  We know that geometrically, so: chill!

is walkability a right? how would this work in india?

Sarah Goodyear in Atlantic Cities asks today if walkability should be conceived as a right.  She's talking, though, about India:

To call attention to the appalling situation faced by pedestrians in the city of Chennai, the newspaper The Hindu has launched a campaign called “Right to Walk,” which aims to "reclaim our city’s footpaths" and "goad local officials to act."

So far, dozens of readers using the Twitter hashtag #righttowalk have sent in photos and detailed accounts of sidewalks completely blocked by trash, parked cars and motorbikes, vendors, road signs, and construction.

All good.  In the US, which is much more accustomed to the language of rights, the argument should be even more effective.

As for India: obviously I sympathize with the pedestrians there, having been one myself. It's typically a brutal urban environment, and arguably even worse for cyclists, who are legion.

Dscf2117But one fact of life about the Indian city is that it's very difficult to keep any public space empty enough to offer unimpeded transport by any mode. Just as any unfenced patch of urban land is quickly claimed as somebody's home, an empty patch of street tends to be seen as available for either transport or business purposes, and naturally evolves a locally best use that may not be transportation at all.

Even the car lanes of Indian streets can be gradually reduced, in width and number, though a purely natural and unregulated process. The process goes like this: (1) so many people walk and bike in the curb lanes that motorists start avoiding them, (2) people set up tables in the curb lanes and sell things to the people walking there, and cars begin stopping to make purchases, (3) eventually the whole lane fills up with a mix of peds and commercial activity and the occasional random patch of customer parking, even to the point that durable private structures get built in the public right-of-way. In Visakhapatnam, Andhra Pradesh, I once toured a former 4-lane street that had gradually turned into a narrow 2-lane street through this gradual process that Indian planners call "encroachment."  

Key take-away:  Developing-world infrastructure has to be self-enforcing of its assignment of space, and this is a tough design problem that runs contrary to the instincts of developed-world urbanists.  Otherwise, the natural jostling process by which uses compete for available vacant space tends to prevail over all but the most vigorous demarcations.  This is why developing-world Bus Rapid Transit, and any other single-mode transport infrastructure, must have hard physical barriers to its right-of-way in order to function at all.  Otherwise, space is gradually lost to the sheer pressure from other uses.  

(The problem is especially severe for transit lanes because these only function of they are literally empty most of the time, thus allowing each bus to move through rapidly.  And in the Indian city, empty space looks like available space.)

The process by which available space gets used is comparable in some ways to the self-organization of public space that characterizes the famous developed-world shared spaces, but in India the process tends to be much more responsive to immediate physical and economic forces, including the urgency of commercial activity and the danger presented by the motor vehicle.  Cars do retreat in the face of a sufficiently large volume of pedestrians, bicycles, and informal commerce, but the struggle along this ever-moving frontier is certainly not safe, or pleasant.  

And I'm not sure how defining a "right" would change that.  Perhaps it would.

the photo that explains almost everything (updated!)

You've seen photos like this. A large group of people, with images comparing the amount of precious urban space they take depending on the mode of transport they use.  This new one is by Australia's Cycling Promotion Fund.


This photo makes at least three important points, two of them probably not intended.  In this one image you can see that:

  • Bike racks on buses (and most other transit) can never be more than a niche market

The rack on the bus in pic #1 carries two bikes, which is great for those two people.  But if all the bikes in pic #2 try to get onto the bus in pic #1, we have a geometric impossibility.  Bike racks are already as large as they can be if the driver is still to be far enough forward to drive safely.  A non-folding bike inside a transit vehicle takes the space of several passengers, so could fairly be accommodated only at several times the fare.  In the ideal sustainable future, you will have to park your bike at the station, or return your rental bike, just as Europeans do.  If transit does accommodate your bike, you really should pay a fare premium that reflects the rough number of passenger spaces displaced, or the supply/demand ratio for 2-3 bike racks vs 20 people wanting to use them.

 Dreamers along these lines may well be right about many suburban areas, where demand is sparse and the land use pattern precludes efficient transit.  But when all the people in this picture want to travel, driverless cars may take less space than the cars shown here, but they will still take far more space than a bus would.  The scarcity of space per person is part of the very definition of a city, as distinct from suburbia or rural area, so the efficiency with which transport options use that space will always be the paramount issue.  

(Of course, this very thought experiment presumes that we will actually achieve, and culturally accept, driverless cars that require very little space between them, in which the prevention of ghastly accidents — especially with pedestrians and bikes who may appear with zero warning and minimal stopping distance — is achieved through the absolute infallibility of human-designed hardware and software.)

To make the same point more generally:

  • In cities, urban space is the ultimate currency.  

We spend too much time talking about what things cost in dollars and not enough about what they cost in space.  That, of course, is because urban space is perversely priced to encourage inefficient uses of it and discourage efficient ones.  If you're going to claim to be able to visualize how technology will change the world of 2040 — as the techno-futurists claim to do — you should also visualize what a political system ruled by people now under 40 would look like.  These people are much less emotionally attached to cars, care about environmental outcomes much more, and value urban space much more than their parents do.  Given that the revolution in urban pricing has already begun (see the London and Singapore congestion charges, and the San Francisco and Auckland dynamic parking systems), isn't it foolish to assume that today's assumptions about how we apportion urban space will still rule your techno-utopia?

UPDATE:  A reader points out one other key point, which is that

  • the photo understates the space requirements of bikes compared to the other two.  

Once you put these three systems in motion, the cars and bus will need more space in one dimension — forward and back.  However, in motion, the mass of bikes will expand in two dimensions, it will need to be both longer and wider for all the bikes to move safely.  This could have been rectified in the photo by consciously spacing the bikes to a distance where riders would feel comfortable at a brisk cycling speed that ensures not only stopping distance but also space for passing.  Masses of cyclists on a recreational ride may all agree to ride in tight formation at the same speed, but in daily life cycling infrastructure must accommodate the the fact that people in a cycling crowd will have different desires and intentions around speed, which affects lateral spacing and stopping distance.

cycling the last mile: an exchange with kyle “one red paper clip” mcdonald

Kyle McDonald, celebrated author of One Red Paper Clip (book, blog), recently had this exchange with me about bicycle access to transit:



I’ve seen some literature around the web that suggests bike sharing networks may reduce transit use somewhat, but I’m curious to your thoughts/insights on how a bike sharing system can be beneficial to extending the local reach of the network, as a transfer. 

I’m in Montreal and have been blown away with the spontaneity afforded byspur-of-the-moment Bixi rides in virtually any direction since the system’s implementation in 2009.  I see people riding to and fro from busy commerical areas and major transit nodes on Bixi bikes all the time, either returning on foot, taxi or transit, depending on the reason of their journey.

I’m following the launch of Citi Bike in NYC and Vancouver’s potential launch (currently fuddled behind helmet law and other problems) very closely.  

Curious to know your thoughts on bike sharing systems and how they interact with transit, and can extend access and local reach of existing services, etc.

In my experience, the 400m walk-to-transit norm is more in the order of 1km or 2km with very dense and well-planned bike share network like Bixi in place. 

Surprised you haven’t done a bikesharing post on Human Transit yet, as I think they’re one of the most exciting and emerging transport technologies for dense urban areas.

Multi-point public bicycling (ie one-way-journeys) is effectively a completely different mode of transport than the private bicycle in terms of usability and integration with transit networks.  (no need to transport bikes on trains or buses, just grab a new one at destination, etc)  

For that matter, the emergence of multi-point car sharing systems like car2go is a fascination phenomenon and brings up some interesting opportunities for transit/walking integration that return-to-the-same-spot services like ZipCar can simply not accomplish. 

I’m of the (under-researched) opinion that these emerging technologies are lowering per-capita car ownership and may have interesting macro effects on public urban transportation as they become more popular and widespread.

Anyhow, I guess I’ll repeat myself….curious to know your thoughts on all this stuff!

to which I replied:

Hey Kyle

I completely agree that bikeshare at stations is valuable to both cycling and transit modes! I suppose I haven’t posted on it because it’s so obvious to me that I’m not sure what to say. 

The key thing to keep in mind about these bike solutions, from a transit standpoint, is that anything that helps transit concentrate its resources on more rapid forms of service — e.g. by reducing the demand for “last mile” local transit — is great for transit too, because slower kinds of transit are also more expensive to operate.  So this ties directly to my [suggestion] (see Chapter 5 of my book) to not just expand rapid transit but also shift many local bus lines over to more rapid forms of stop spacing … so that service runs faster but is worth walking to.

The challenge for using bikeshare in that context, of course, is that the people who feel confident on bikes in the city are also confident as pedestrians.  The challenge is the older or less bike-confident person, some of whom resist walking 200+ meters [to more widely spaced transit stops] as well.  It is for these people that many high-cost-per-passenger local transit services — in low density areas — are retained.

Keep in mind that where bikeshare and bike-parking styles of access are needed most is in lower-density development.  This is where transit agencies that are focused on maximum ridership and sustainability benefits for the dollar would benefit from being able to run less service, because any service they run is low ridership and thus high cost per rider.  

So I’d like to see bike parking and bikeshare promoted especially in new lower density areas, and with a focus on being attractive to a wide range of users, not just the athletic younger people who’ve traditionally driven US bike advocacy.  That means infrastructure that’s more about safety than speed, such as you see in Europe.  (As I recall, the “design cyclist” for whom the Dutch design their infrastructure is a 60 year old woman with two bags of groceries.)  This is really easy to do in new suburbia with well-designed off-street paths and connective paths via low-traffic streets.  Canberra, Australia is one city that’s long done this kind of infrastructure really well for a long time, though they’re only now connecting it to transit.

All the best, Jarrett


I couldn’t agree more with you pretty much on all this stuff.

I’m from Vancouver and find it’s cycle culture especially militant, pushy and spandex clad to the point of turning the average person OFF cycling.  

Last-mile infrastructure to harbor more mainstream, even boring, cycling is totally necessary!  I’ve never heard the term “design cyclist” but strongly feel this concept needs more traction in the USA/Canada, especially the 60 year old with two bags of groceries……that’s pretty much my mom!

(I should add that I don’t necessarily endorse Kyle’s implied critique of all “militant, pushy, and spandex clad” cyclists. The tension between slow and fast cycling is a fact of the cultural moment, one that calls for some tolerance on all sides … But I appreciate where Kyle’s coming from here.)

email of the week: more bike racks on buses?

Bus-bike-rack-rsA reader asks:

Do you have any examples of buses that can take several bikes rather than just two on the front?  I suggested at the Velovillage conference that transit companies run a competition for designs to put more bikes on buses.  Where i live, many people are left by the side of our roads or at the main bus stop unable to board or have to leave their bike behind.

There are ways to fit another bike or two in. Seattle's King County Metro, pictured, is up to three.

But when you consider the real problem, on-board bus racks cannot possibly be the long-term answer.  Obviously, bus drivers hate anything that reduces their visibility, including downward at something or someone that they're about to run over.  The broader issue is simply that bikes take space, even when they're outside the bus frame, and taking that space has consequences. 

For example, exterior bike racks increase the length of the bus.  That means the bus needs a longer bus stop zone, needs more room to turn, etc., and this can easily make the difference in whether a bus line can get through a tight spot where its service is needed, or has to make a detour around it.  Small racks are widely accepted in North America now, but in the long run it should be obvious that bike racks on buses only work if they're not very popular.  The long term solution has to be a range of bike parking and bike rental stations at stations.  This is what you'll see in bicycle-dominated countries in Europe.

lamentation: bicycles vs transit?

From a correspondent in Portland:

Among my peer group [educated people in their 20s-30s] I see a "mono-modal" fixation on cycling, very similar to the attitude many drivers have that their primary mode should be everyone's primary mode. It really is remarkable how many young, affluent, educated folks living in inner Portland see cycling as the only legitimate travel mode for all people everywhere. My [peers] basically scoff at the idea that I might prefer to take the bus to and from school when it is rainy or dark out. I see walking, biking, and transit as three completely complementary modes that support a car-free or car-light lifestyle, but I'm realizing that in Portland at least there is a large group of people in the cycling community who see both cars and buses as the enemy, or at least not an option worth considering or supporting. This might help explain TriMet's underinvestment in the bus network, since politically active young people do not support transit.

I've been away from Portland too long to have my own impression, but if this is true it's certainly unfortunate.  While there are some conflicts between bicycles and transit in road design, I have always tried to accommodate both.  I don't necessarily believe bike lanes can be accommodated on every street, any more than transit is, but I do think both cycling and transit deserve and can have complete and functional networks. 

How common is a monomodal fixation on bicycles?  If so, why does it occur?

There's nothing wrong with cycling advocacy, or advocacy of any mode, until it becomes hostile toward other aspects of the full sustainable transport package.  Wouldn't advocacy for the suite of sustainable transport options (walking, cycling and transit, supplemented by carsharing etc.) be more effective than endless conflicts among these modes?

has anyone ridden a yike-bike?


More under-the-radar cleverness from the country that commercialised the bungee-jump:

YikeBike is a statement about using smart technology to solve the problems of our increasingly congested, polluted, stressful cities. It is the first commercial expression of the mini-farthing concept, created up by a bunch of successful entrepreneurs, engineers and dreamers. We sat down to try and answer:

  •  What is the simplest way to get from A to B with the aid of a machine?
  •  What is the smallest wheel you can have to get a stable, safe, comfortable ride?
  • Can you make something small enough to be able to go with you anywhere in a city?
  • Wonder if we could make a unicycle dramatically easier to ride and fold?

We were intrigued by creating something that could dramatically change urban transport, enabling city dwellers a fast, safe and easy way to navigate their environment.

The result was the mini-farthing concept and its first expression, the YikeBike. It employs state-of-the-art technology, engineering and industrial design to create a new class of personal transport.

I continue to wonder whether we might see a technology so lightweight and reliable that it would become universal for short-distance travel to the point of eliminating the need for local bus services — at least in low-density markets.  I'm not sure this is it.  Recycling a 19th century idea, though, is certain appealing.

Downside: It starts at US $3595, so we're a bit away from mass production.

bicycle vs transit problems

Bicycles have always had an anxious relationship with local-stop street-running transit, both bus and streetcar.  On a street without separate bike lanes, bikes and local-stop transit tend to end up sharing the "slow" traffic lane — typically a lane that's either next to the curb or next to a row of parked cars.  The difficulty lies not just in the obvious ability of rail tracks to throw a cyclist, but more generally in the fact that many cyclists like to move at something close to the average speed of local-stop transit — generally 10-20 mph.  With buses at least, the pattern is often for a local bus and a cyclist to "leapfrog," passing each other over and over, an uncomfortable and mildly risky move for both parties. 

Streetcars are much less likely to pass a cyclist than a bus is, and this, come to think of it, may be one of the many little reasons that streetcars often end up being slower than buses when you control for other differences (in right of way, fare handling, signaling, enforcement, etc).  Cyclist friends have often told me that they prefer cycling alongside streetcars rather than buses becuase streetcars don't make surprising lateral moves.  This is true, though of course the lateral motion of buses is a normal part of how they get through traffic, and how they often keep moving in situations where a streetcar would get stuck.

Mia Birk has a good article today arguing that bicycles and streetcars can be friends.  So far, though, the only examples she cites of really successful bicycle-transit integration are from streets where there's plenty of space to separate the two modes, such as Portland's King/Grand couplet.  She's involved now in a consulting team looking at how streetcars will interact with cyclists along a proposed line on Seattle's Broadway, and I look forward to seeing what they come up with. 

Birk is clear that the basic design of the starter streetcar lines in Portland in Seattle — operation in the right-hand (slow) lane next to a row of parked cars — didn't provide good options for cyclists needing to avoid the hazard of the streetcar tracks.  She wants to see better separation, but when looking at a dense urban street like Seattle's Broadway, it's hard to see how they'll deliver that without undermining either on-street parking or pedestrian circulation.  She notes one situation in Portland (14th & Lovejoy) where the streetcar-cyclist conflict was arguably resolved at the pedestrian's expense:

… and she's clear that this isn't the outcome she's after.  (This idea of a bike lane that passes between a transit stop and the sidewalk is common in the Netherlands.  It can work well as long as there's ample sidewalk width.  It's less nice in situations like this one where the remaining sidewalk is constrained.)

If I sound a little cynical about the prospects for harmony between local-stop transit and cyclists, it's because this is a geometry problem, and geometry tends to endure in the face of even the most brilliant innovation.  The examples in Mia's post seem to confirm that if the street is wide enough, it's easy to separate cycles and transit, but that if it isn't, it isn't. 

When the problem is this simple, it's not hard to reach a point where you're sure you've exhausted all the geometric possibilities.  At that point, you to make hard choices about competing goods, producing something that all sides will see as a compromise.  Hoping for new innovative solutions can become a distraction at that point, since no innovation in human history has ever changed a fact of geometry. 

Finally, if a streetcar ever does go down Seattle's Broadway, it had better be compatible with buses as well.  Broadway is an important link in the frequent transit network, with lines that extend far beyond the local area and thus make direct links that a starter streetcar line cannot replace.  What will happen to these buses?  If they share the streetcar lane, what will their role be in the streetcar-bicycle dance?

Photo: Mia Birk

email of the week: thinking pedestrian thoughts

DSCF5316 Is it useful to talk about "pedestrians" as a group the way we often talk about cyclists or transit riders?  All these category terms are problematic, as I discussed here.  Riordan Frost of Minnesota 2020 asks:

A recent article in a local paper and its connection to one of your previous blog posts has inspired me to write to you. The article is “Thinking Pedestrian Thoughts”, and it covers the recent adoption of a ‘pedestrian plan’ by Edina, which is an inner-ring suburb of the Twin Cities [of Minneapolis and St. Paul]. One of the points made in the article is that people don’t really advocate for themselves as pedestrians. This made me think of a post that you wrote back in October, which was entitled “should I call myself a ‘transit-rider’?” and discussed labels given to people using certain modes of transportation. In the post, you quote Michael Druker, who advocates for switching from ‘cyclist’ to ‘people cycling’ and from ‘pedestrian’ to ‘people walking’.

You agreed with him, but pointed out that these new terms were cumbersome, and you would probably still opt for the shorter terms in your writing. I write blogs and articles for MN2020, and I feel the same way. I understand the importance of what language we choose, and I try to be conscious of it in my writing, but I have a need for brevity and I have an editor. There is a more significant question apart from brevity, however: how do we avoid labels (which may carry negative connotations and/or stereotypes) while advocating for improvements of certain modes? …

Is it possible to cut down on lumping people into categories and still have effective advocacy for certain modes, like better crosswalks or more bike lanes? The cycling community is pretty well established in the blogosphere, which sometimes contributes to their ["cyclist"] label and its connotations, but pedestrians have no blogs or personalities specifically tailored to them – mostly because we are … all pedestrians at some point in the day, and there is nothing terribly distinctive about walking. I n a perfect world, we would just design our environments for all modes of transportation that people use, with people (not cyclists vs. motorists vs. pedestrians) in mind.   This doesn’t seem terribly viable, however.  What are your thoughts on this?

I think that the potential for organized activism and fellow-feeling is easier among a group of people who all wield the same tool, because tools are such powerful symbols.  Think about the role of the hammer and sickle — archetypal tools of manufacturing and agriculture, respectively — in the imagery of Soviet communism, for example.

The possession of the tool, and the knowledge of how to use it, becomes a feature by which a group defines itself and sets itself in opposition to other interests.

If you don't think this still happens, look at all the clubs and forums for people who own and cherish a particular tool — a Linux-powered computer, say, or a certain musical instrument.  If you read an online forum about such possessions, you'll see the practical work of exchanging troubleshooting tips also builds a community in which people love hearing each other's stories about life with the cherished tool.

So this is another thing that's going on behind the obsessive attachment to transit technologies.  People who love aerial gondolas or whatever can now network worldwide with every city that runs one, compare notes about each other's problems and achievements, and thus form a global community based on love of that particular tool.  Psychologically, it's just like a club of guys who all own a particular kind of car, or computer, or electric guitar, or whatever.

Pedestrians don't have that.  So I doubt we'll ever see a pedestrians-rights movement that has anything like the shape and force of the cycling movement.  Nor do we need to, really, because the best urban planning thought today is all about the primacy of the pedestrian. 

Ultimately, the strongest case for "pedestrian rights" is that we are all pedestrians.  Even the guy who loves his Porsche has to walk across parking lots, and can thus see the value of having protected paths between rows of cars instead of having to walk in the lot's roadways where a car can back into you.  Even he has a sense of what makes a shopping center or major downtown pleasant or unpleasant to walk in.  Maybe he's even broken down on the freeway and thus experienced what those places are like when you're out of your car.  So it's not hard to make anyone understand a pedestrian issue on analogy to the walking that everyone has to do.  That's how you win these arguments, I think.