General

Portland: A 30-Year Old Kludge Finally Fixed

Living in Portland, I still care about the details of transit network planning here, and here’s a thing that Portland folks should comment about, especially those who deal with downtown.

Back in the 1980s, when the current frequent grid network was laid out, there was a controversy about the east-west path that Morrison Bridge buses (now Line 15) should use across downtown. As a result of this, the two directions of service ended up five blocks apart, with westbound buses on Washington St and eastbound buses on Salmon St.

Separating the two directions of service, beyond the minimum required by typical one-way couplets, is a Very Bad Thing, because a service is useful only if you can walk easily to both directions of it.

Blue shows the area with easy access to service. As the directions of service get further apart, the area served gets smaller.

 

Why was this five-block split ever created?  I was hanging around TriMet as a teenager then, so I think I remember.  Nobody who designed this liked it.  It was a political compromise, partly involving the department store whose large and busy loading dock fronted onto Alder, creating conflicts with buses.

The department store is long gone, but for some reason this was never fixed.  I started banging this drum again about a year ago, and the objection I heard was that Alder has too much rush hour traffic, backed up from the bridge.  While this is true:

  • A problem that happens briefly, like rush hour congestion, shouldn’t define the route that buses use all the time.
  • Congestion always happens where people want to go.  Designing bus routes to avoid congestion usually implies avoiding logical paths that would be useful to the most people.
  • Whatever time may be lost in that backup is far less than the time spent driving ten additional blocks, in the eastbound direction, to go down to Salmon St and back.

Now, TriMet is finally proposing to fix it:

Now, like any existing routing, some people find the Salmon St routing useful, probably including many municipal and county employees whose main offices are near there.  But these people are already walking from distant Washington St to travel in the other direction anyway, so they’re proving that they can.

If you live in Portland, please comment on this!  Tri-Met is taking feedback here.  As always, you must comment if you like an idea, not just if you hate it.  Negative comment predominates on almost all service changes, because people who like a change take it for granted that it’s happening anyway.  Don’t be part of that problem!  Comment here. There’s other cool stuff to comment on there too!

 

 

Livability and Protest in Portland: An Interview with Me

Protest against the Vietnam war in March 1970. Bonus points for knowing not just where this photo was taken, but also what the giant neon sign at the end of this street said.

Oregon Public Broadcasting has posted an interview with me about how Portland’s reputation for livability is related to its reputation for protest.  OPB’s Geoff Norcross is a great interviewer, and it was a fun conversation.  The audio and transcription are here.

“Through our livability, through the way we’ve built the city, we’ve created the stage on which those protests can express themselves effectively, but also attracted the kinds of people who are inclined to protest, who already see themselves to be as rejected by the system and want to stand up to it.”

Miami: Una Nueva Red con un Plan de Resiliencia

English

Por los últimos 18 meses, hemos estado rediseñando la red de autobuses para la agencia de transporte público del Condado de Miami-Dade, Florida (MDT, por sus siglas en inglés) con el grupo local Transit Alliance. Según se estaba acabando la última fase de participación ciudadana, la pandemia llegó a los Estados Unidos, y como muchas otras agencias, MDT entró en estado de crisis. Por lo tanto, nuestro trabajo estuvo en pausa por cuatro meses.

Según progresó la pandemia, se hizo evidente que la agencia necesitaba más de una red de transporte público lista para implementar. Necesitaba un plan que se pueda adaptar a una variedad de futuros impredecibles. Nadie sabe cuanto va a durar la pandemia, o que impactos tendrá en el dinero que la agencia recibe mediante impuestos.

Por lo tanto, mientras terminábamos la nueva red, trabajamos con la agencia y Transit Alliance para desarrollar un Plan de Resiliencia para guiar la toma de decisiones en el futuro sobre como se debe aumentar o reducir el servicio.

Pero primero, vamos a hablar de como llegamos aquí.

En la primera fase del proyecto, desarrollamos un Informe de Opciones para analizar la red existente y discutir preguntas claves que determinan como se debe diseñar el sistema. Tomamos información del público y diseñamos dos redes conceptuales que señalan la diferencia entre enfocarse en cobertura o enfocarse en alta frecuencia. Tuvimos otra fase de participación ciudadana para preguntarle al público hacia donde se inclinan entre las dos redes conceptuales. Recuerda que nunca es uno o el otro; alta cobertura y alta frecuencia representan los dos extremos de un espectro. Basado en los comentarios del público, diseñamos un Plan Borrador entre los dos conceptos y ahora lo acabamos de revisar para hacer el Plan Final.

A continuación, hay trozos de la red existente y la nueva red en el centro de la región (haz clic abajo para ver cada mapa entero).

Una comparación de los mapas de la Red Existente y la Nueva Red en el Condado de Miami-Dade, Florida. Nota que los colores de las líneas indican la frecuencia a mediodía.

Haz clic aquí para ver el mapa completo de la Red Existente

Haz clic aquí para ver el mapa completo de la Nueva Red

El nuevo sistema crea una red frecuente que ayuda a los residentes llegar a más lugares en menos tiempo. Con esta red, 353,000 más residentes viven cerca de una ruta frecuente (un aumento de 13% sobre el sistema actual). Con la nueva red, el residente promedio puede llegar a 36% más trabajos en 45 minutos usando transporte público y caminando.

La red frecuente significa que es más fácil cambiar de rutas y llegar a muchos más lugares dentro un tiempo razonable. La animación a continuación muestra a donde una persona puede llegar en 45 minutos usando transporte público y caminando desde Liberty City (NW 12th Avenue y 62nd Street). La zona gris muestra a donde una persona puede llegar con el sistema existente y la zona azul clara muestra a donde se puede llegar con la nueva red. Con la nueva red, alguien que vive en Liberty City, puede llegar a 60% más trabajos y 50% más personas. A esto es que nos referimos cuando hablamos del acceso a oportunidad.

Este mapa muestra los lugares a donde se puede llegar desde Liberty City en 45 minutos usando la Red Existente y la Nueva Red.

Esta amplia expansión en acceso solo es posible por la red frecuente. Esto significa que, si MDT tuviese menos dinero, pero quisiera maximizar el acceso de esta manera, tienen que proteger la red frecuente. Eso es lo que hace el Plan de Resiliencia. Los corredores del sistema están divididos en niveles para establecer que servicio se debe operar bajo diferentes niveles de fondos.

El Plan de Resiliencia protege la red frecuente en caso de una disminución de fondos.

En el nivel económico más grave (Nivel 1), la red solo sigue operando corredores frecuentes cada 1.6km (una milla en la cuadrícula vial de Miami) y algunas rutas de cobertura que son críticas para asegurar acceso equitativo. Sí, esta red hará que la gente camine distancias más largas. Pero cuando lleguen a una ruta, el autobús siempre viene pronto. Si MDT tiene más fondos, puede añadir el servicio del Nivel 2 y así sucesivamente.

Nadie quiere ver esta reducción de servicio, pero si fuese necesario, MDT podrá minimizar el daño al acceso a oportunidades usando el Plan de Resiliencia. Por el otro lado, si MDT decide recortar servicio como se suele hacer – manteniendo todas las rutas con menos frecuencia – el acceso a oportunidad se reducirá drásticamente. Consolidar rutas para hacerlas más frecuentes puede hacer que los viajes sean más cortos, aunque haya que caminar más.

Esta red final ahora esta en las manos de la Comisión del Condado para endosarlo, y si lo aprueban, será implementado por MDT. Probablemente habrá más oportunidades para comentar sobre este plan antes de que se implemente. Si viven en Miami-Dade County, recuerda someter un comentario o decirle a tu Comisionado sobre este Plan, especialmente si te gusta. Lamentablemente, la mayoría de los comentarios público sobre planes de transporte público son negativos incluso si a la mayoría de la gente le gusta el plan, porque la gente falsamente asume que se implementará como sea. Este plan no se implementará si no atrae mucho apoyo positivo. MDT quisiera comentarios constructivos sobre el plan, que se usarán para hacer que la implementación final sea aún mejor. Pero si te gusta el plan, ¡es importante que lo digas también!

How US Public Transit is Like the Postal Service

I’m in Bloomberg CityLab today.  Key quote:

Postal and transit services have the same problem. We want them to attract high usage and we want them to go everywhere, but those goals imply opposite kinds of service. Pursuing either goal will cause outcomes that look like failure when judged by the other goal’s measures of success. It’s like we’re telling our taxi driver to turn right and left at the same time. When they can’t do that, we just yell louder and call them incompetent. Is that taking us where we want to go?

Event: “The Free and Just City after COVID”, August 17

On Monday, August 17, at noon US Eastern Time, I’ll be speaking in a small corner of the Democratic National Convention festivities online.  The Strong Cities Alliance, a project of Organization of Democratic Municipal Officials (DMO), will be doing an hourlong event called The Free and Just City after COVIDAlso on the program are former Gary, Indiana mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson and Bruce Katz, the noted urban scholar and author of The Metropolitan Revolution and The New Localism: How Cities Can Thrive in the Age of Populism.

(This is the first truly partisan event I’ve ever done.  The ability to work with people from all reasonable parties is important to me, so I would normally resist anything partisan, but the last four years in the US have made this challenging.  I long to live in a country where both parties want people in big cities to vote for them, and hope we can find our way back there.)

You can register here.

 

 

Adelaide: A Network Design Proposal Fails

In my long experience redesigning bus networks, it’s been rare to see a team spend years talking with people, studying reams of data, and developing a design through many iterations, only to have the result be nothing.  Most designs I’ve worked on have either been implemented or at least been the basis of some improvements.

Adelaide, Australia, however, has just abandoned a thorough redesign of its network.  It was a political decision, in which the Premier of South Australia overruled his own Minister of Transport, who had proposed the changes.    (I was not involved in this project.)

The basic idea of the plan was to reorganize services into a simpler pattern with far less complexity and far more frequency — which is what high-ridership redesigns (like the projects I worked on in Auckland, Houston, and Silicon Valley) do.  Such a revision will typically delete stops that are too close to other stops, and may ask people to walk to frequent service on a nearby main street rather than having infrequent service closer to their door.  It may require some people to change buses who don’t have to do so now.

The result of the proposed simplification is typically a dramatic expansion of the high frequency network, which in turn means a network that provides faster door-to-door travel times and is easier to learn, remember, and explain.

Here’s a slice of the existing Adelaide network.  Lots of infrequent routes, but none of them are likely to be coming when you need them.

Here’s what it would have looked like under the new network.  Here, red lines are likely to be coming whenever you need them — they run every 15 minutes all day — while blue lines come every 30 minutes.  (Oddly enough, this is the same color scheme that we use in all of our maps!)

If your goal were higher ridership, or maximizing where people can get to in a fixed amount of time, this kind of network design would do that.    (Again, I was not involved in this design, and am not endorsing the specific design choices.)

But even if you do everything right — even if you do the right engagement, analyze the data well, and come up with the best possible design, people will scream.  That’s because many riders are used to the system as it is, and have no interest in how the network improves access to opportunity for anyone but themselves.  It doesn’t matter how useless the existing network is.  Some people use it, and they will defend it, and the negative feedback is always louder than the support.

Almost all journalists will tell the negative side (Rage! Recriminations! A chance to paint leaders as incompetent!) because it just gets more clicks than the positive side (More people can get to more places, especially disadvantaged people! More people will ride! Less car traffic and pollution!)  So of course, if a plan eliminates some bus stops that are too close to other stops, the headline will be:

 

 

It’s possible to make this reaction worse by doing a poor job at engaging decision makers and the public at every step, but it’s not possible to make it go away.  Thus, I always have to remind elected officials at the beginning of the process:  “All network designs that don’t add new operating cost are controversial.  The more they try to achieve, the more controversial they are. Some people will scream at you. It may divide your own coalition. If you’re not up for that, let’s not even begin.”  This, quite simply, is why some really incoherent and wasteful ones are never fixed.

So what went wrong here?

The excellent blog Melbourne on Transit blog has a long post-mortem. I agree with most of it, and would add:

  • If you are using the redesign to cut service, there should be a clearly understood reason, like the pandemic and related budget crises. Service cuts due to crisis can be a good time to do redesign — if that helps reduce the overall damage of the cuts — but it means that you have to deal with anger about the cuts at the same time that you deal with anger about the redesign.
  • Minimize the number of controversies you are having at once.  Network redesign is controversial enough when the public is allowed to focus on it; it gets much harder when the public confuses it with other issues happening at the same time.  Don’t try to reform contracts with operating companies, or introduce new companies, at the same time.  Don’t raise fares at the same time.
  • Don’t propose magical outcomes.  The government used the language of trying to “reduce subsidies” while improving service, due to some alchemy that was supposed to happen inside the operating companies.  This is not how it works.  Setting impossible expectations is a guarantee of failure.
  • Provide very clear information in lots of formats, with good before-and-after analysis tools.  We provide before-and-after trip planners, maps of how access (where you can get to in a reasonable time) changes, and lots of other ways for people to engage with how the plan affects their lives as well as how it affects the city.
  • Go to the public with options, or at least a draft, with a clear message that the plan will be revised in response to comment.

Still, it’s a struggle.  This may not have been the right design for Adelaide, but it’s unfortunate that after all that effort, they’ll get nothing.  An obsolete and inefficient network will always be popular among people who are used to it, but if that’s always a reason not to improve it, the whole city loses.

Should Public Transit Shut Down for Civil Disturbances?

What should public transit agencies do when a city is convulsed by massive demonstrations carrying a high risk of violence? Over the weekend, many transit agencies shut down rather than risk possible harm to their staff, passengers, and equipment. This left many good people stranded as they tried to leave the demonstrations.

Christof Spieler, a Board member at Houston Metro, has some ideas in a Twitter thread.  He starts with:

As someone who shares the goals of these protests, let me gently lay out why this is so difficult for transit managers.  This is not to defend or uphold any particular choices any agency has made.  The debate about this is urgent and important.  My only point is that it isn’t easy or obvious what transit agencies should have done.  It was absolutely not OK that people were stranded, and there needed to be a solution for that, but the actual solution isn’t so obvious.

Before you say that transit should have run as normally as possible during the crisis, ask yourself:
  • If you were a bus driver, would you be comfortable being told to drive into an area where civil unrest is likely and there is some risk of violence?
  • If you were a transit manager, who has seen plenty of pictures of burned and vandalized buses, what should be your tolerance of the risk of destroying or damaging the fleet, thus making normal service impossible?
  • But, you might say, buses could run normally to near the edge of the affected area.  OK, but how is the transit manager supposed to know the boundaries of that area in advance?  These are not obedient events.  They can rove fast and unpredictably.  They can even erupt from nothing where they weren’t planned at all.
  • But surely they could have kept most of the system running, far from the events?  I think there are cases where I’d have recommended that, but again, transit managers can’t predict where events will erupt.  What’s more, good transit networks are all interconnected and interdependent.  You can’t just turn off a piece without it having a huge effect on the rest.  This is especially true when that piece is downtown, where lots of lines meet or flow through.
  • If you say, yes, but they need realtime monitoring and guidance about how to detour in response to what’s happening:  Buses have limited option to maneuver as conditions change.  They don’t fit down every street.  They may need several blocks to turn around.  The dispatcher/driver ratio is far too low for dispatchers to give each bus driver the best advice for their situation when everything is changing so fast.

All this has to be figured out in realtime by staff who probably support the demonstrators’ goals, in a situation where they will be attacked for whatever they do.  They’re being criticized for holding back, but they’d also be criticized if the evening news were full of burning buses and injured drivers and passengers.

Of course, as with the sudden service changes required by Covid-19, these decisions were made fast by people who might have made better decisions on reflection, and will learn from this experience. But these decisions are hard.

Finally, regarding the use of transit vehicles for police purposes:  Most cities put a lot of effort into interagency emergency planning, where the various functions of government decide how they’d work together in various crises.  In most situations, that’s exactly what we’d want them to do.  Clearly, those plans around civil disturbances are going to be reviewed now, and deserve some public discussion.  Obviously, the crisis of trust around policing in the US needs to be considered when transit agencies decide how to work with them in these emergencies.

Those plans also need to address transit system shutdowns, because in a big city these are emergencies all by themselves.  They need to honor the limitations of each agency’s product and not expect the impossible from them, while also creatively addressing the challenges.  The Los Angeles transit agency reimbursed people’s Uber, Lyft, and taxi rides out of the demonstrations after they shut down service.  Was that the right thing to do?  Right now, give them credit for doing something.

Finally, if you care about these decisions, you might want to direct some of your activism toward influencing your city’s emergency planning.  Many people who do that work are exasperated by public apathy and may welcome your respectful interest.

But please, don’t make these emergency decisions sound easy and obvious, because they aren’t.

To Exit the Crisis, Rethink Our Goals

I’m in the Canadian Urban Transit Association newsletter this week, with a piece on goals.  Key quotation:

The crisis has revealed a strong new argument for transit, one we should deploy at anyone who wants to judge us on ridership.  Transit has kept running through the crisis as an essential service, supporting people who work in hospitals, grocery stores, utilities. These mostly low-income people would typically have been called “transit dependent.”  But it is they who are holding civilization together right now, so we are all “transit dependent” in this sense.

What’s more, this has always been true.  Transit riders have always been part of the basic functioning of our cities.  Measuring that role solely with ridership would be like measuring the success of the police by how many arrests they make.  The purpose of the police is to provide a base level of security that people can count on.  The purpose of transit is to do the same for urban mobility.  Transit means that people can go places, and thus do things, in a way that isn’t as harmful or expensive as driving.

Read it here.

The Collapse of Rush Hour: A Deep Dive

Covid-19 has understandably caused steep declines in public transit demand, but the pattern of that fall is important.  Peak (rush hour) demand has fallen much more than all-day demand, mirroring a change in travel demand overall.

 

 

This chart is from the daily updates we’ve been getting at the Transit app website.  This chart covers all Transit clients, who are heavily US and Canadian agencies but include a few in other countries.

[Caution:  These are not ridership statistics.  Instead, Transit counted queries of its app, which provides realtime information about when the next bus is coming and, in some cities, can be used to pay your fare.  That means this metric probably undercounts relatively unwired people, including low income people without smartphones and those less comfortable with apps.  Still, it’s the only data that can be collated and updated so rapidly.]

Of course people are working at home during the emergency, but some leading companies are planning to continue the practice, and nobody really knows how much office work will return.  You can see conflicting reports on whether working at home is wonderful or terrible, so we can expect continued experimentation as people and companies figure out what they like.  Still, with the virus lingering, it will be a long time before everybody is back in the office, and there’s room to wonder if they ever will be.

Why is the fall of the peak important?  Running service only at rush hour is expensive, for three reasons.

  • A vehicle must be owned and stored that isn’t used very much.
  • A driver must report to work for just 2-4 hours, which is less efficient, hard on the driver and will cost the agency more per hour of service.
  • Most peak demand is massively one-way in the morning and the other way in the evening.  Drivers’ shifts must end where they began, so every bus or train that runs full in one direction has to return empty in the other, often over long distances.

So the fall of the peak, if it were sustained into the future, could be great news.  While the peak is an easy place to rack up lots of ridership, its high costs mean it’s not always the best place to seek productivity (ridership divided by operating cost).  Ultimately that means that there could be all-day markets that would be more productive once the high cost of peaking is taken into account.

There is also the large social justice dimension to the peak.  Peak commuters are far more affluent on average than all-day travelers, because higher wage jobs are more likely to be “nine to five” while lower wage workers, predominantly in retail and services, are more likely to be needed around the clock.  So a decline in peaking could help sustain services that support lower wage people — and remember, these are people whose work everyone depends on.

Of course peak service is justified by the need to mitigate traffic congestion that occurs at that time, but it remains to be seen what levels of congestion will return.  It may go up if we try to run a full economy with social distancing, but it could also go back down after a vaccine.  We’ll have to see.

Peaking has such a huge effect on the life of a city, and the costs and efficiency of transit, that it’s worth taking a quick tour of how different it is in different cities, and how that reflects choices the city made — consciously or unconsciously.  Here’s my home city, Portland.

This is typical of a lot of US cities where the social distancing expectations (both legal and cultural) have been firm over the last two months. The peak is mostly gone. In percentage terms, the difference isn’t huge. Ridership is down about 80% at both midday and PM peak times, but it’s down about 87% on the AM peak, where few people travel other than for peak work shifts and schools. Still, the absolute numbers matter too, because they measure the degree to which an agency will be forced to run expensive peak-only services rather than an all-day pattern.

Note that this typical North American peak is about two hours long in the morning and three hours long in the afternoon.  That’s the result of peak spreading, the widespread tendency for start and end times to vary slightly by employer (and by school).  Compare Sydney, Australia [really this is all of the state of New South Wales, but Sydney is the overwhelmingly dominant market there]

Australian peaks are much sharper than North American peaks — less than two hours long — and as you can see from yesterday (May 25) they are coming back as sharp as ever.  Australian public transit also does most of the work of school transportation, which explains why the afternoon school peak at 3-4 PM is bigger than the evening commute peak at 5-6 PM.  Note that it is the school peak that is returning now, though, while the work commute peak — marked by activity in the 5-6 PM hour, is not so prominent.

When I worked as a transit planning consultant in Australia I was always struck by the huge cost of serving a rush hour that’s so brief.  Yet Australia is far behind North America is adjusting work and school scheduling to spread the peaks out, so that demand (both transit and road) can be served more efficiently.  (Spreading the peak can also create huge savings on infrastructure projects, since if you scale infrastructure to serve the peak one hour, you’ll need a lot more infrastructure than if the same demand is spread over two hours.)

Now look at Paris

 

The abundance of transit in Paris isn’t just a matter of spending lots of money on it, but on focusing on an all-day demand rather than peak demand. Paris has plenty of peak commuters, but so many people rely on transit for all kinds of purposes that those peaks don’t stand out the way they do in less transit-oriented cities.

Of course, there are some car-oriented cities without much peaking either, generally those built around entertainment and tourism. Las Vegas, say:

This is what happens when you have relatively few rush-hour commuters to office jobs, but massive employment in tourism: shifts starting and ending all the time. But it’s not all tourism. All those jobs that keep society running — working at WalMart or a hospital or a (take-out) restaurant — are visible here because the commute peak doesn’t swamp them in the chart. Note how much smaller the drop is from pre-pandemic days: only about 50% compared to 70-90% in most US cities, because there were fewer peak commuters before. Even with the massive loss of casino and hotel jobs, plenty of low-income people need to get to work.

Finally, a small US state capital with a huge university. Universities tend to be huge consumers of transit, and you can see the effect of both university and state offices shutdowns in Madison, Wisconsin.

The drop was over 90%, and only the PM peak shows the earliest signs of coming back, now to 80%.  [Again, these are Transit app queries, not ridership numbers that can only be provided by the agency.]

All these graphs are scaled to the pre-pandemic demand, so only in Las Vegas do you see the importance the low-wage worker in essential services including essential retail.  But those people are in all of these numbers and are why there was any ridership at all.

Keep an eye on these charts, and on peaking patterns as they emerge in ridership data from the agencies.

Covid-19: My Letter to Colleagues and Clients

This letter went out to our colleagues today:

Friends and colleagues.

First of all, we are deeply grateful to everyone working in public transit agencies right now.  Frontline staff are taking personal risks, while everyone is having to think fast and abandon usual procedures.  If you are in the midst of this, thank you for everything you’re doing.

The goals that justify our work have turned upside down.  I never thought I’d hear transit managers tell people not to use their service, or that the mandate of social distance would have us running big buses and long trains so that they would be as empty as possible.  All our old instincts for how to run good transit systems suddenly feel wrong.

Like many of you, my team and I have been thinking about how Covid-19 changes what we do, how we do it, what stories we tell, and what questions we ask the public.  I wanted to take a moment to share our thoughts as they stand right now.

The most important fact about Covid-19 is that our recovery will be gradual, and we will emerge from it into a different world.  Experts tell us to expect a tentative and slow recovery, in which people may fear the virus for several years.  Here are some of the changes we think are coming.

  • New public understanding of goals.  In a recent Bloomberg Citylab article I argued that at the moment, transit’s role is neither to attract riders or to serve people’s needs; it’s to protect essential services that are holding civilization together.  In a pandemic, we are all transit dependent in this sense.  The crisis will change the conversation about public transit, and we need to be ready to tell new stories about why transit matters now, even if the traffic congestion that motivates more affluent riders to use our service takes years to return.
  • Demand for interim outcomes.  For several years, as demand returns in unpredictable ways, transit agencies will need to make quick decisions about how to restore service in light of changing demands.   We are reviewing all of our approaches to see how they can produce insights fast enough to guide those decisions.
  • No “existing system.”  Most planning studies compare a proposed future to the existing system, but that system no longer exists.  In general, planning will need to rely less on pre-crisis data and more on an understanding of post-crisis demand, including a lot of listening and clear thinking about goals.
  • Outreach that is all online.  There will be no in-person meetings for a while, but that doesn’t mean we can’t do outreach.  Everyone is learning how to do more things online and by phone.  Religious services, community meetings, clubs, and many other such events are all happening online, so “going to where people are” may mean visiting those virtual spaces with them.  People are spending more time on social media, so the payoff of deep investment in communicating that way may increase.  Pollsters are noticing  that people have become more willing to answer the phone.  People want to engage, though we’ll need to find ways to include marginalized and less-wired communities in these conversations.
  • Outreach with faster turnaround.  Expectations for exhaustive public outreach may need to be balanced against the need to make some decisions more quickly, such as about interim service restoration.  The public will appreciate being consulted, even briefly, such as via text or social media.  It will be more urgent than ever to ask the public just the right question, so that the answer we get is influential on our work.
  • New reasons for redesign.  We are probably heading into a period of reduced funding combined with urgent expectations.  It’s more fun to plan service in the context of growth, but I have done many redesigns in the context of crises, and these have often given the agency a better structure on which to grow when resources and demand return.
  • Reduced resistance to change.  One of the most hopeful impacts of Covid-19 is that we may hear less anger about disrupting people’s habits when we change service.  Everyone’s habits are already disrupted, so it is in many ways an ideal time to make changes.  Some people will still feel entitled to the old service just as it was, but there will be powerful arguments – moral and data-driven – for why the new situation is different, and demands new thinking.

Our team has already made some happy discoveries about how to do great planning while keeping social distance.  For example, we’ve long emphasized the importance of “Core Design Retreats,” where we lock ourselves and key staff in a room for several days to sketch a new network.  I’d never have imagined we could do this in a Zoom meeting, but now we’ve done it, to redesign the bus network in Norfolk, Virginia, and we’ll do it even better next time.  Even the big stakeholder workshops that we’re known for, featuring interactive games, may be possible online.  We’re working to develop those tools now.  I think we’ll all be surprised by what becomes possible.

Like many, we are concerned about what this may do to our business, though we feel lucky compared to friends who work in tourism, restaurants, or the arts.  If we do see a slowdown in planning work, I’m committed to keeping our team together.  To do that, we’ve tightened our belts, and I’ve reduced my own salary, until we are sure our demand has fully returned.  When you need us, we will be here.

In the end, if there’s anything that gives us confidence, it’s that we have built our practice on questioning established planning habits. We will not get stuck trying to do things the way we’ve always done them.  We are ready to improvise and build new methods fast, so we can help you cope with the present and move toward the future rather than simply return to the past.

Thanks for reading, and thank you for everything you’re doing to help us emerge from this crisis into a better world.

All the best.