General

Early Positive News from Richmond, Virginia Redesign

by Scudder Wagg

It’s been nearly three months since the launch of the Pulse Bus Rapid Transit line, and the bus network we helped design, for the City of Richmond and its transit agency.

The early news looks positive for ridership. For some context, the redesigned network was intended to shift the balance of the network from about 50% ridership focus to about 70% ridership focus.

Prior to the launch of the new network, weekly ridership was averaging about 141,000. The first week of the new network saw huge ridership, 226,000 for the week, but that was driven by free rides. Immediately after the launch, ridership remained near or above the pre-launch ridership levels (if you ignore the July 4 holiday week). And since August, ridership has climbed to about 157,000 per week, an 11% gain.

Any gain at this point is good news.  It’s normal for there to be a slight dip in ridership just after implementation, as people take time to adjust to the new network, and for ridership to then grow gradually over two to three years.

Some of this gain is attributable to the new partnership with Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU). VCU has partnered with the transit agency by investing $1.2 million per year in exchange for transit passes for all students, faculty, and staff. VCU was drawn to this partnership in part by the obvious value that the new BRT and Route 5 (part of our network design) provided to the University. And its willingness to invest in the service is a good sign of the renewed confidence that many have in the usefulness of transit service in Richmond.

That confidence is reinforced by the expansion of service that happened this past weekend in adjacent Henrico County. The County decided this past spring to add evening and weekend service on three routes and extend service to Short Pump, the largest suburban retail and jobs center in the region. That expansion launched on September 16.

More time and data will help make clear how much ridership growth is attributable to network design and how much is attributable to other factors. But the early signs are positive, and we hope they continue in that direction and spur additional improvements in transit for Richmond.

 

Scudder Wagg, who played a central role in the Richmond project, manages the US East Coast practice for Jarrett Walker + Associates.

What is a Spine?

A spine is a really powerful network design idea that takes a moment to explain.  This is how a spine works, in an example from the Dublin bus network redesign proposal.

[That diagram is by Dublin-based graphic designer Kevin Carter, and uses a style common in the UK.  The National Transport Authority has hired Kevin to complete these diagrams for the other six spines.   If you’re on Twitter, follow him at @yascaoimhin.]

A spine is several bus lines designed to share a common segment, with the buses evenly spaced on that segment to deliver a very high frequency.  In this case, each spine branch runs every 15 minutes all day, so the common segment is every 3.75 minutes on average.

If you are in the inner city, where all the spines are running on their common segment, you just say “take any bus whose number starts with A”.  The result is a high-frequency network map that’s easy to draw a map of, and to learn, remember, and explain.

(That image is ours, from the summary report.)

In the case of the A spine, all four branches are every 15 minutes all day so the common segment is a little better than every 4 minutes all day.

The National Transport Authority also did an animation, here.

Many, many cities have a geography where this structure makes sense.  As you move out from the centre, the area to be covered gets wider but the frequency need gets lower, so you branch.  But you make it legible.   The inner city needs an extremely frequent line that’s easy to learn and remember, so we just explain that the A-spine is made of all the buses whose numbers start with A.  Presto.  You have a simple network of inner-city lines where the bus is always coming soon, exactly what people moving around in the core need.

Once you understand it, it’s simple.  But it takes a moment to learn, and different people learn it differently.

Do We Need a New Theory and Name for “Bike Lanes”?

Important: I’m thinking out loud here!  The title is a question because I don’t have answers and am not proposing anything.

Now that we have scooters sharing bike lanes, I wonder if we’ll need to think more clearly about the different kinds of lane on a street and what their real defining features are.  This could lead to different words.

We separate traffic types for two reasons:

  • Speed, so that faster vehicles aren’t often stuck behind slower ones,
  • Width, so that we use less space to serve the needs of narrower vehicles, thus using scarce space more efficiently overall.

Sarah Iannarone and I were chatting about this on the bus this morning, and after that she went straight to the whiteboard and drew this:

The idea here is that a street with a speed limit over 30 km/hr will need to separate these three kinds of traffic, because they differ in both speed and width.  At lower speeds you can mix them more.

Where speed and width come apart, however, speed has to be the defining feature.  You can’t ride a motorbike at 30 km/hr down a “bike” lane, even though it may be narrow enough.  You have to ride it in the traffic lane, even though that’s a waste of space.

All this came up because I was trying to think of the correct new term for “bike lane” as we proliferate more vehicle types that run more or less at the speed and width of bicycles but are clearly not bicycles, such as electric scooters.  The two logical terms seem to be narrow lane or midspeed lane.  One way or another the two concepts will need to track with each other.

I wonder if this kind of language can make our sense of the role of these lanes more flexible, and thus less divisive.

There is a lot of room for individual choice here about which lane to use.  Cyclists, for example, already choose between midspeed “bike” lanes and full-speed traffic lanes, depending on their preferred balance of speed and safety.  Meanwhile, an 8-year-old learning to ride a bike should probably be on the sidewalk.  Another reason that “cycle lane” may be a misnomer.

This isn’t easy.  The things that might go in a midspeed lane have very different acceleration and stopping characteristics, all of which will cause friction.  When I raised this thought on Twitter, I got lots of responses expressing concern about different kinds of vehicles sharing a lane.  But even with just the few lane types that we already have, it’s hard to make them all fit.   We’ll never have a separate lane for every type of vehicle that needs a slightly different speed, acceleration, or stopping distance.  So again, I’m asking a question, not answering it.

Finally, Sarah assigns transit to the full-speed, widest lanes, but of course that leaves open the question of transit priority within that territory.  Where there’s demand and room for a bus lane, it should be automatic in my view.  It doesn’t even need to be “constructed” necessarily.  Just paint the lane red.

 

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.]

Dublin: We Need Your Comments!

 

The proposed Dublin bus network redesign has been out for public comment for about a month. It’s very important that Dubliners learn about the plan (there are many ways to do this) and then to comment on it before the end of September.

Sadly, a great deal of false or misleading information is out there.  Falsehoods appeared on social media within minutes after the report was posted, long before anyone could have read it.  Then, a major bus drivers’ union distributed a table that claims to describe the plan, but whose real effect is to cause needless confusion and panic.  For example, it describes existing route 140 as “gone” even though every segment of that route continues to be served, mostly at higher frequencies, in the new plan.

We’ve put out more accurate information, including a detailed route-by-route table and interactive maps that help you see how an existing route would be replaced, and how the network expands where you could go on public transport.

But of all the falsehoods being spread, the biggest is that NTA has “decided” to implement the plan.  Many people are outraged because NTA “decided on” the plan without consulting them.

The answer is:  NTA is consulting you now.  That is what the draft plan is for, to put ideas out there for people to respond to.  Nothing has been decided.  What you tell us now will guide what happens next.

So again:

  1. Read my overview of the plan here.
  2. Explore the plan here (busconnects.ie), or at one of the meetings (check back for more to come).
  3. If you have a specific objection to the plan, use the survey to explain that objection.
  4. There’s no need to attack the whole plan unless you hate the whole plan.  We may have gotten something wrong in your neighborhood, but that doesn’t mean the whole plan is a bad idea.

Again big ideas of the whole plan are:

  • a much simpler, more frequent network on which more people can get to more places sooner …
  • which requires a few people to interchange where they now have a direct bus …
  • and which sometimes requires a little more walking, though almost never over 400m.

If you hate these ideas, you should definitely oppose the whole plan.   (Look at Chapter 5 of our report if you want to understand why these things are connected. )

But meanwhile, we need everyone’s detailed feedback and comments, so that we can make the plan better.  Start here.

Is Ride-Hailing to Blame for Rising Congestion?

Throughout the past few years, the explosive growth of ride-hailing services such as Uber and Lyft have changed the landscape of urban transportation.  Proponents of ride-hailing have long argued that these services benefit cities by reducing the need for people to own their own cars and by encourage them to use other transportation options, ultimately reducing the total vehicle miles driven in cities.

Last week, a new report by Bruce Schaller suggests that these ride hailing services are in fact, adding to overall traffic on city streets, and risk making urban cores less desirable places to live. Notably, Schaller’s report finds that:

  • TNCs added 5.7 billion miles of driving in the nation’s nine largest metro areas at the same time that car ownership grew more rapidly than the population.
  • About 60 percent of TNC users in large, dense cities would have taken public transportation, walked, biked or not made the trip if TNCs had not been available for the trip, while 40 percent would have used their own car or a taxi.
  • TNCs are not generally competitive with personal autos on the core mode-choice drivers of speed, convenience or comfort. TNCs are used instead of personal autos mainly when parking is expensive or difficult to find and to avoid drinking and driving

Schaller points out that on balance, even shared rides, offered by Lyft Line and Uber Pool, add to traffic congestion.

Shared rides add to traffic because most users switch from non-auto modes. In addition, there is added mileage between trips as drivers wait for the next dispatch and then drive to a pickup location. Finally, even in a shared ride, some of the trip involves just one passenger (e.g., between the first and second pickup).

To many readers, Schaller’s report implies that Uber and Lyft are primarily to blame for the increasing traffic congestion and declining transit ridership in many US cities.  Citylab published a rebuttal to Schaller’s report, titled “If Your Car Is Stuck in Traffic, It’s Not Uber and Lyft’s Fault”.  The author, Robin Chase, founder of Zipcar, disputes the scale of ride-hailing’s impacts on traffic congestion in cities.  Chase writes:

[In major urban areas], taxis plus ride-hailing plus carsharing account for just 1.7 percent of miles travelled by urban dwellers, while travel by personal cars account for 86 percent.

Chase contends that traffic congestion is not a new problem in cities and that ride-hailing is no more responsible for it than the personal automobiles that still make up the majority of trips.

Special taxes, fees, and caps on ride-hailing vehicles are not the answer. My strong recommendation for cities is to make walking, biking and all shared modes of transit better and more attractive than driving alone—irrespective of the vehicle (personal car, taxi, or autonomous vehicle). Reallocate street space to reflect these goals. And start charging all vehicles for their contribution to emissions, congestion, and use of curbs.

On taxing or limiting all vehicles — called (de)congestion pricing — Chase is right on the theory and Schaller’s report doesn’t disagree.  From Schaller’s report:

Some analysts argue for a more holistic approach that includes charges on all vehicle travel including personal autos, TNCs, trucks and so forth, paired with large investments to improve public transit.  This is certainly an attractive vision for the future of cities and should continue to be pursued. But cordon pricing on the model of London and Stockholm has never gone very far in American cities. Vehicle mile charges have been tested in several states, but implementation seems even further from reach.

Yes, ideally, we would aim to charge every vehicle for precisely the space it takes up, for the noise it creates, and for the pollution it emits, and to vary all that by location and time-of-day. However, we have to start with what’s possible.

Ultimately, the most scarce resource in cities is physical space, so when we allow spatially-inefficient ride-hailing services to excessively grow in our densest, most urban streets, we risk strangling spatially efficient public transit and fueling a cycle of decline.  If we are to defend the ability to move in cities, we have to defend transit, and that means enacting achievable, tactical policies even as we work on building the coalitions needed for bigger change.  Reasonable taxes or limitations on TNCs are one such step.

Finally, these interventions should really be locally-focused, because like all urban transportation problems, this one is extremely localized.  Lyft wants us to think of them as feeders to transit, which is a fine idea.  But what is actually profitable to TNCs is to swarm in the densest parts of cities, increasing congestion and competing with good transit, and that’s where they do net harm.  Lyft and Uber knows where every car is at every moment, so it would be perfectly possible to develop cordon-based surcharges to focus any interventions on the actual problem.  Otherwise, it will be easy to say that by restricting TNCs in Manhattan we’re keeping someone in outer Queens from getting to the subway, which is not the point at all.

Christopher Yuen and Jarrett Walker

Dublin: How Much Could the Draft Network Change?

While our Dublin network redesign is open for public comment, I’ll be posting some frequently asked questions here.

How much change could we make to the plan in response to public comment?

In a July 18 article in the Irish daily The Independent, Paul Melia wrote that “Only minor changes can be made to a radical restructuring of the Dublin Bus network unveiled last week or it will “fall apart”.  The headline is “Only ‘minor changes’ can be made to radical plan for Dublin Bus.”

“Minor” is the reporter’s word, not mine.  I did say that if you change more than about 15% of the network it will fall apart.  But 15% is not minor.  While the plan is a dramatic change, at least half of it consists of service on streets served now, doing something much like what it does now.  So compared to the amount of the network we’re actually changing, 15% is very substantial.

Under the plan, 77% more people can get to DCU in 45 minutes, and someone living near there can get to 44% more jobs in that time. (You can find these for many point around Dublin at busconnects.ie)  But this isn’t the result of certain routes. It’s the result of a whole network of connections involving many possible routes you could use.

Why is there a limit to how much we could change the network?

The defining feature of a network the interdependence of its parts.  We did not just design a set of routes.  We designed a pattern of connections.  The connections, as much as the routes, governs how much of Dublin people can get to in a reasonable amount of time.  So we will resist changing a route in a way that destroys or damages a connection, because the connections — the ease of getting off this bus and onto that one so that you can get to more places — are the essence of how the plan achieves its benefits.

Having said that, we will make changes.  Quite possibly lots of them.  But we will be mindful of this principle when we do.

How Can We Study Things in Isolation? They’re Connected!

Whenever I present a bus network redesign plan, I’m always accused of ignoring important things.  How can I design a bus network, people say, without also planning for bus lanes, or bicycle parking, or road pricing, or parking policy, or urban structure? These things are all connected, they say!

Yes, they are all connected. But despite being connected, many planning tasks are separable:

  • Two projects are connected if they affect each other’s outcomes. For example, a network redesign and a bus lane project will certainly improve each other’s benefits over what either could do alone.  A rail line and a bus line parallel to it are competitors that will undermine each other’s outcomes, so they are connected too.  (Deep ecologists would say that almost everything is connected in this sense.)
  • Two projects are separable if one can be done before the others, and will achieve some benefits  by itself, even while waiting for the other connected parts to happen.

I know why people get anxious about this, because we all see situations where things were separated that really were inseparable. A rail line and a freeway are built side by side, without noting how each will reduce the demand for the other.  Maybe bus routes are designed without thought to connections between them, or worse, great infrastructure for bus connections gets built in a place where it’s not actually useful to the bus service.  A public transit service ends at a political boundary even though the demand doesn’t end there.  These are all examples of projects being separated when they were not really separable.

On the other hand, no human brain can focus on everything at once.  If we tried to do bus network redesign, fleet modernization, bus lanes, bike parking, road pricing, and parking policy as part of one project, it would never get off the ground.  Just co-ordinating the hundreds of experts needed to deal with all dimensions of such a project would consume most of our effort.

More important, in any project, everything moves at the speed of the slowest element, which is why it so often takes forever to get things done.

So separating projects is the only way for anything to happen soon. We are not denying that everything is connected. We are saying we have to start somewhere, and make some progress, even as other pieces of the puzzle are in the works.

Like any plan, a good network redesign effort requires clear thinking about separability.  A redesign is mainly a revision of the patterns in which buses run, but this process always identifies infrastructure and policy changes that are also needed. Sometimes these are truly inseperable:  The specified number of buses can’t meet at point A unless the facility there is enlarged to have room for them.  If the plan requires people to change buses at an intersection, we need to make sure there’s shelter and safe street crossings, and so on.  If the fare structure is penalizing changing buses, that needs to be fixed if our plan wants to encourage that.

But we fight to make the list of inseparable things as short as possible, because every time we decide that something is inseperable from the plan, that becomes one more thing that could stop the whole plan if it hits some kind of snag.  We ask:  Would the redesign still be possible, and worth doing, if some infrastructure or policy element doesn’t get done?  Sometimes this leads to good tactical thinking:  Can we do this necessary interchange quickly on-street, even while waiting for the funding and consensus to do the permanent facility that’s really needed?  Can we make some patches to the fare system while the ultimate system is still being worked out?

Another test is:  Does doing Project A without Project B actually make things worse?  If not, this is another signal that the projects are probably separable. The answer, for bus network redesigns, is almost always no.  By itself, redesign will achieve significant improvement even as it leaves a lot of other frustrating problems in place.  But getting it done may make other improvements politically easier if the result is that public transit is more visible, more used, and thus more widely valued.

So when people respond to a network redesign proposal by being angry that it doesn’t talk about bike lanes, electric buses, or road pricing, they’re confusing connectedness with inseparability.  Our network redesign study isn’t ignorant of those things just because we’re not talking about them.  We’re just talking about something different, something that’s also important and needs some attention.  A good network redesign, if allowed to succeed, will make all those other things easier.  And in any case, the redesign itself is important enough, and hard enough to explain, that it deserves the public’s full attention for a few weeks.

Everything is connected, but many things are still separable.  That’s a good thing, because if they weren’t, nothing would get done.

Dublin: A Bus Network for a More Liberated City

[Updated 2018 Aug 8]

For 18 months, our firm has been working with National Transport Authority of Ireland (NTA) to develop a redesign of Dublin’s bus network.  We studied every bus route, drew hundreds of maps of data and ideas, and spent a week locked in a conference room with experts from NTA, the bus operating company Dublin Bus, and staff from the local governments.  Once we had a rough plan we spent more months refining and analysing.  It’s been a long voyage to this point.

The plan is now released for public comment. The plan revises the entire network, creating a much simpler pattern that people can learn, remember, and explain.  A vast high-frequency network, in a spiderweb grid pattern, extends across most of the city, dramatically improving travel time for journeys in many directions.

Our key goal was improving access.  We wanted to speed up people’s trips, but we prefer to say that we wanted to expand the range of places that could be reached in a fixed amount of time.  We wanted people to get to more places, sooner, so that they would have more opportunities in their lives.   In short, we want public transport to give people more freedom.

Here is what we were trying to do. Under the plan, in 45 minutes of travel time, a person near DCU gains access to the blue area and loses access to the red area. That means she can get to 44% more jobs and student enrolments (and other useful places). That’s freedom and opportunity! The average result across all of Dublin is a 20% growth in where you can get to.

Under the plan, the average Dubliner can get to 20% more useful places in 30 minutes.  “Useful places” means jobs and student enrolments, which are easy to count with Irish data, but of course you can expect similar results for shopping and for all kinds of other destinations that give value to our lives.

There are many ways to explore the new network, including maps, frequency tables for every hour of the day and week, and an interactive map tool that shows where you could go soon on the proposed network, and how you might get there. You can also look at a table showing how the plan affects every segment of every existing route.

But we hope you’ll also try to understand the principles at work.  For that, here’s a link to the summary report.  Also, don’t be afraid to browse the full report.  It is written in plain non-technical English with lots of interesting pictures, and it lays out every aspect of the plan, including the thought process by which it was designed.

The maps are essential of course.  Chapter 7 of the full report lays them all out, but you can also see the main ones on the website (click to select a map, then click in the map window to see it fullsize).

But to understand the maps, you must look at the legend.  Our firm’s usual mapping style is dense with information, but therefore contains a couple of things that you need to learn.  Most of the early expressions of panic and confusion have been based on misreadings of the map.

In our maps:

  • Colour means frequency.  Red means high frequency, and cooler colours mean lower.
  • The colours mean midday frequency; see the frequency table for frequency at rush hour and other times, and see here [select Map 3] for peak-only routes that may be relevant to your area.
  • Change in colour may not indicate that a route ends.It often means that the frequency changes but the route continues. Watch the route numbers to be clear, and remember, a spine like “A” is made up of Routes A1, A2, and so on, so where A1 becomes A, the bus keeps going.

A network redesign is both a big idea and 10,000 details. In recent presentations to the media and to local government councils, I focused on the big idea:

  • more service …
  • to more places …
  • so that you get there sooner …
  • with a little more interchanging (transferring in US parlance)

But of course the questions and objections were more about the details:

  • How dare I take away my direct route to the city?  Because it’s really infrequent and inefficient, and we can get you there sooner another way.  If we give you more frequent service to a nearby hub, we can connect you to much faster service to the city, so in the end, counting waiting time, you get there sooner.  We can also connect you to countless places you can’t get to now at all.  In any case, only about 8% of riders all day, and 5% during the peak, lose direct service to the city centre, and not all of those people are going to the city centre!
  • How can people change buses, or walk to a different stop in an intersection, when it’s windy and raining? The plan includes good shelter and attention to walking distances at every interchange point.  But people change buses in more brutal climates than Ireland’s: Moscow and Edmonton come to mind.  Most people have adapted to their climate. They know how to do things outdoors in it, and therefore can work with it when changing buses.
  • How will this affect older people and people with disabilities? There is an unavoidable tension between senior and disabled needs – which are much more inconvenienced by interchange – and everyone else.  A network designed solely around senior/disabled preferences for minimum walk and interchange is simply too slow to be useful for the rest of the population.  Again, attention is being given to making interchanges as convenient as possible, including for people with limited mobility.
  • Isn’t this connected to a lot of other things? How can you work on it in isolation? I address that one here.

Whether you live in Dublin or not, I hope you enjoy this work.  The full report is the most advanced piece of work our firm has done yet.  I can’t speak highly enough of the team at NTA, who have shown clarity and courage throughout this predictably difficult process.

If you do live in Dublin, you MUST complete an online survey.  There is a link to it here.  Yes, that’s a command. Too often, people take the attitude that public comment is just for show, and that the government is going to do what they want anyway.  When that happens, people who like the plan take it for granted, and people who hate it feel like they have to scream to get their  point through. So we get nothing but screaming, which makes the plan look like a failure.

On the survey, remember, we value specific comments.  If you like the plan but object to a detail, say that.  Don’t tell us that we’re stupid because we didn’t get your detail right.  There are only so many details we can get right without consulting the public, so that’s the whole point of this public conversation.