Microtransit is Eating Science Fiction

A while back I wrote about Ada Palmer’s glorious science fiction series Terra Ignota, which I really do recommend to anyone with the slightest interest in philosophy, politics, or history.  But I called out one feature of her world that made me crazy: the fantasy that globe-spanning supersonic driverless flying Uber would enable people to make daily trips of thousands of miles.  These would abolish the constraints of geography (we’ve been promised this before) to the point that geographically bounded nations no longer made sense to anyone, and a fascinating new polity would be born.  This technology, as Palmer imagined it, was so flexible that you could take such a car from Chile to Paris and land right next to the preferred door of your destination, without tearing down half of Paris to create all this landing space.

This is less surprising if you attend a tech conference and realize how completely the tech elite has bought the idea that fixed route transit, like big buses and trains, is soon to be obsolete.  For many otherwise smart people it’s just a given that we’ll eventually all be in driverless cars that make different stops based on who’s traveling, and that in their highest form would always go nonstop, even though all those cars would never fit in anything we’d recognize as a city.  People have even gotten into The Atlantic proposing to drastically reduce the capacity of the New York City Subway by remodeling it along these lines.

Well, now I’m in the midst of Malka Older’s intriguing Infomocracy trilogy, and am sensing a trend.  This future Earth has the same flying cars (she calls them “crows”) although it’s clear here, as it is not in Palmer, that they are expensive to use.  For those who can’t afford them, though, there’s something like demand-responsive transit or “microtransit“.  In an early scene, we watch a man crossing Japan and notice the ruins of the Shinkansen, as though the new airborne services have abolished one of the most space-efficient (and therefore liberating) passenger services in one of the densest places the world.  When I try to make sense of this I can only assume that in this hyperconnected and hyperinformed world, there’s just not so much need for travel anymore.

But then I hit this, in Chapter 2 of the third novel of the series, State Tectonics:

The next morning, Maryam boards a commercial crow for La Habana.  It’s usually a good bet, since there are only a few possible stops between Doha and La Habana, but they get stuck with a stop in Praia, another in Montserrat, and three in eastern Cuba, and the journey is two hours longer than usual.

Demand-responsive transit has even replaced airlines, and it sounds like hell.  Everybody is riding little flying buses that make unpredictable stops on unpredictable paths, arriving at unpredictable times.  I would much rather change planes at DFW than ride a service that lets me stay in my seat but whose arrival time can vary by hours, not due to a disruption but due to the service working as designed.

Once she gets to her destination city, though, things are even worse:

Even once they arrive there’s a long line for municipal public transport crows, so Maryam takes a taxi.

It’s not quite clear what a public transport crow is, but the long line is a good bet that it’s more like a demand-responsive van than a fixed route bus, which means that its capacity is very low and it therefore generates lines at its stops whenever demand is high.  If there were a fixed route with a suitably big vehicle, all those people could board at once, though they might make some (predictable) intermediate stops and they might, when they got off, have to do a little bit of walking.  There may be crowds on fixed transit, but there usually aren’t long lines to board.  That’s the genius of true high capacity that comes only from a vehicle that doesn’t make a separate stop for every customer.

It’s remarkable how even science fiction writers whose values seem progressive just assume that the future of transport is so atomizing, inefficient, and unscalable.  Again, both Palmer and Older may be imagining societies so socially stratified that only an elite minority even use “public transport crows,” let alone taxis.  But it may also be that there’s just something demand-responsive in the air right now, something that makes it seem inevitable that the most space-efficient and energy-efficient transport services in the world are destined for the dustbin as soon as we get flying cars.

Science fiction futures are never built solely on science.  There are always gaps filled by the author’s imagination.  Both of these writers have done brilliant work, but it would just be nice to see more writers imagining different futures for urban transportation.  Because this one isn’t going to work.

UPDATE:  The author Malka Older replied on Twitter: [Her sentences flow across breaks between tweets so I’ve taken the liberty of formatting it all as a paragraph and adding links.]

since you tagged, I’m going to guess you’re interested in discussion, & clarify: transit is like that in the book not because I think it should be, but as a consequence of the fragmenting of polities. There are a lot of excellent results from the microdemocracy I describe but cities in particular lose a lot of economies of scale (often partially mitigated with coalitions) & ground transit in particular suffers from needing to cross multiple jurisdictions with separate governments.

This is exactly right. Older’s books are premised on a globe-spanning system of “microdemocracy” where the largest government unit is 100,000 people: a mid-sized US/Canada “suburb” or a UK/Australian “council”, for example.  In a big metro area these units are too small to lead the formation of an effective regional transport network — or to provide water, power, or most other urban services.  Older goes on:

Air and sea become more important. In book 3 we see an effort to revive long-haul trains, but it’s still something of a novelty. Also btw crows are a lot slower than Ada [Palmer]’s flying cars, slightly slower than today’s airplanes. My new book [The Mimicking of Known Successes] has more trains.  Although I think the coolest train system I’ve seen lately is in Annalee Newitz’s new book, The Terraformers. There’s a whole section on designing public transit. Also there are moose with gravity nets.

Moose with gravity nets!


My First Questions to ChatGPT

At the moment, everyone is playing with ChatGPT, the new open-access Artificial Intelligence (AI) tool that is able to write remarkably clear prose in a range of styles. You can play with it here.

I knew it had passed all the easy tests, so I tried to throw it into the deep end:

So I think: OK, this isn’t intelligence. This thing isn’t thinking about the topic. It’s just collecting relevant scraps of chatter from the world, sorting the chatter into boxes, and giving me a tour of the boxes. Doing that requires some pattern-recognition skills, but it’s not thinking in the fullest sense of the word.

Only the first of the three paragraphs is an answer to my question. After that the program is just riffing. If this were a high school paper it would get a middling grade for lack of focus on the topic.

But the first paragraph is on-topic, and it’s evidence of how thoroughly Uber and Lyft have succeeded in owning large parts of the bandwidth of public chatter.  Roving the internet, and lacking any other reference points in reality, ChatGPT has decided that since the “Uber is public transit” meme has been so effectively amplified, that must be the most interesting definitional issue.

So let me see if I can be smarter than the computer. This, which I just wrote, is an example of actual thinking:

The term “public transit” (“public transport” outside North America) has long been used to denote passenger transport services that allow many people to ride in the same vehicle even though they are not intentionally traveling together, or even going to the same places. The term is usually limited to services traveling within an urban area or for similar short distances; long-distance intercity services are not included in the typical usage. Finally, these services are open to all paying passengers, and are thus “public,” regardless of what mixture of public and private sector is involved in providing them. 

This definition is an attempt to describe actual usage.  In other words, when people say “public transit” they almost always mean things that meet this definition and not things that don’t.

However, where public transit is a popular idea, there is an understandable impulse to extend its definition to adjacent concepts that a speaker wants to promote. So you will sometimes hear that taxis, Uber and Lyft should be called public transit, even though they are designed to transport only one travelling party at a time.

It is easy to say that this extension of the definition is just wrong, because strangers sharing a ride is a common feature of all public transit as the term is traditionally used, and that’s not what these services are.

But of course, definitions are never right or wrong. They are not facts but conventions. A sufficient consensus around any definition will make that the truth, because words have meaning only through how they are used.

A better argument against extending the meaning of public transit to include taxis, Uber, and Lyft is that the resulting term would no longer correspond to public transit’s reputation as a solution for important problems. Many of the most important benefits of public transit, especially around emissions and the efficient use of urban space, arise only from public transit carrying many people in the same vehicle.

From this point of view, extending the definition to cover taxi-like services can fairly be described as dishonest. Promoters of these services want them to be called public transit because public transit is seen as a good thing, but if these services don’t actually provide the outcomes that most people associate with public transit investments, then those people have been misled.

This is thinking.  It goes beyond the journalistic formula of “some people say this and some people say that.”  Instead, it looks into the actual issues at stake, and considers what definitions are for.  It is also narrowly focused on the task of definition, as distinct from just throwing out a lot of chatter about adjacent questions, as ChatGPT and mediocre student papers will do.  Finally and most important, it risks being wrong.

To verify this, I asked it an even more focused question:

ChatGPT correctly states that the two terms are largely equivalent. Then there’s a paragraph of nonsense trying to make distinctions based on modes. It thinks trams are part of the UK definition but not the US one, but that’s only because the word is different (tram in UK, streetcar in US). It has never heard of a ferry being called public transit in the US, so it clearly needs to spend more time in San Francisco. In short, the chatter in the world about public transit is heavily about modes, so ChatGPT assumes that must matter somehow to the question of definition.  As with the taxi question, it is mistaking amplification for meaning.

Then the last two paragraphs are completely off topic — just as the last two paragraphs of the previous answer were.  They’re about public transit, but I didn’t ask for a summary of all the differences between the US and the UK.  I asked about the meanings of the two terms, “public transit” and “public transport.”

So again, this thing writes great mediocre student papers, and its prose style is good, but it’s not ready to use philosophical concepts, such as definition, in its own thinking.

To check this conjecture, I asked:

For now, I guess that’s my answer.

The Tyranny of the “Community”: Transcending the Public Meeting

My job as a public transit planner requires a lot of public engagement, as it should.  In the projects we do for transit agency clients, mostly around bus network redesign, the task of seeking public feedback is at least one third of the project budget.  But public outreach can be a frustrating and anti-democratic process, especially when it happens in public meetings.  Aaron Gordon’s excellent piece in Vice explores what’s wrong with this grand civic ritual.

The problem with community feedback is not the concept itself, but the way it is executed. We do it too often, for too many things, for too long, and in the wrong manner. We ask the wrong questions of the wrong people and use the answers in the wrong way. Professionals and politicians have so far been afraid to admit there is a problem outside of private conversations, because it can seem anti-democratic and even anti-American to appear opposed to the town hall ethos of local control.

His article is mostly about urban development debates, dipping into transit now and then.  As a transit planner, I can confirm a lot of his insights:

  • People who come to public meetings are very unrepresentative of the population, so if the government simply obeys them, that is not democracy.
  • While we have plenty of regulations telling us to have public meetings, but not explaining why.  What questions are we supposed to be asking?  What are we supposed to do with the answers?  What is the correct relationship between public opinion and professional expertise?
  • We don’t have a definition of success.  Anyone who disagrees with your recommendation will say you didn’t do enough outreach.  How much is enough?

But Gordon makes one observation that doesn’t translate to transit well.  In debates about what to build in a city, the classic meeting-dominating character, captured in this immortal McSweeney’s satire, is older, whiter, and more prosperous than the general population.

In my experience, this is true of debates about transit infrastructure, but not in debates about transit service.  When we are working on a redesign of a bus network, and the plan doesn’t have an obvious infrastructure impact, the vast majority of fortunate people just don’t care.  No matter how profoundly we are transforming access to opportunity in a city, most fortunate people, including most elected officials, only care if we propose to build something.  (I can’t begin to express how frustrating this is.)

So the public meeting on a transit network redesign tends to be dominated by current users of the bus service.  These folks are not whiter or wealthier than the general population.  Many depend on the bus service.  Now they have been told that their bus route may change, sometimes by people spreading incomplete information.  They’re used to their route as it is, so they assume any change is bad.  So they make the considerable sacrifices needed to go to a public meeting and speak up.  And like many people with their backs against the wall, they often scream.

I don’t blame them.  If I were in their shoes, and had been told what some of them had been told, I would do the same.  But this makes it hard to work through things with them, to explain, for example, why the trip they make is still possible, and maybe even better, even if it’s changed in some way.  Transit planners do this hard work all the time, customer by customer.  And still they get a lot of abuse, which sometimes causes good ones to leave the profession.

Gordon doesn’t mention the most fundamental bias built into the entire public outreach process.  It takes a lot of time.

Time-consuming outreach processes are biased against people who are busy.  If you wonder why your bus is so slow, it may be because the people who are in a hurry, and would benefit from it being fast, don’t have time to go to public meetings. They’re too busy.

So people who come to public meetings on transit tend to be in one of three categories:

  • People who have spare time in their day, mostly retired or unemployed people.  This is why, although people who comment on bus network changes aren’t necessarily whiter and wealthier than average, they do tend to be older on average.
  • People who are being paid to be there.  These are spokespeople for powerful interests.  There aren’t usually many of these, but they can be very assertive.
  • People who feel so threatened that they have taken the time even though they don’t have much time, like the folks I’ve described above.

These people are important, but the majority of potential transit riders are not in any of these groups.  The majority of riders have jobs, families, and other complex commitments.  If they find a couple of spare hours in their day, you can’t blame them for watching a movie instead of going to a public meeting.

So in our practice, we put as much emphasis as we can on web-based feedback systems that use people’s time more effectively, supplemented by in-person outreach that focuses on populations at risk from exclusion by this method.  (To reach those populations, we go to them where the are: interviewing them on the transit system for example.)  We also do stakeholder workshops and focus groups, where smaller invited groups of people, selected to be representative, have the opportunity to talk more deeply with the planners, so that they can better understand the consequences of their choices.  To avoid the hassle of travel we encourage virtual meetings and not just physical ones.

But the most important issue is: What question are we asking the public?

We hate asking: “Here’s what we’re thinking of doing. What do you think?”  That question polarizes people, supporters vs opponents, in ways that make it hard for them to learn or think.  Instead, we ask: “What are your priorities?”  “If we could have more of this or more of that, which would you prefer?”  When we do go to the public with a single map, we don’t just ask “What do you think?”  We ask: “Notice the priorities being expressed here; do we have them right?”  This recent work in Portland is a good example.

This approach also expresses a coherent division of labor between expertise and community input.  We want a community to tell us what they want us to do — what goals they want us to achieve, and with what priorities among those goals.  With that input, we can draw a plan and show how it expresses those priorities.

Do enough people engage with these policy questions?  No.  Does everyone like the resulting plan?  Of course not.  Are there still angry public discussions? Of course there are.  But usually, when we do it this way, a critical mass of decision-makers remembers the conversation we had, and they see that the plan expresses what was decided then.  So usually, with some changes, some kind of plan moves forward to implementation.

Do you see a better way?




Atlanta: You Have Choices for Your Transit Future

Source: “Atlantacitizen” at English language Wikipedia

For over a year now we have been working with the metro Atlanta transit agency MARTA on a study to potentially redesign their bus network.

A bus network plan isn’t just about bus service! It’s also about how public transit contributes to all kinds of goals that residents care about, including equity, prosperity, managing congestion, and reducing emissions. Bus service is relevant to redevelopment, too, because this study will help determine where it is viable to live without a car.

We’ve analyzed the existing system and patterns of demand.  Now, we really need everyone in the region to tell us what their priorities are.  If you live in Fulton, Clayton, or DeKalb Counties, your opinion matters and we need you to speak up.  The future design of the bus system will depend on what you tell us now!

There’s no money to add service above 2019 levels, so we have to make some hard choices.  To illustrate these choices, we’ve sketched two contrasting alternatives for what the network might look like.  We need you to have a look at these and tell us what you think.

To see the alternatives, and take the survey, just click here.

Please share this with everyone you know in the region!


You Can Help Save Public Transit In Your City …

… by thinking about people you know who are driving for Uber or doing poorly paid jobs they hate, and asking if they’d have better lives as bus or train operators.

I’m serious.  In the US, public transit is in grave trouble due to lack of staff.  Here’s how bad it is at TriMet here in Portland.

TriMet would need to increase our current operator ranks by more than 300 to return service to pre-pandemic levels. In January, we reduced service by 9%, to better-match staffing levels; however, resignations, retirements, promotions and departures of operators for other reasons have continued to outpace hiring, leading to canceled buses and trains and system delays for riders.

Everything transit advocates have fought for could be destroyed by this problem.

Pay and benefits?  A lot better than Uber!

TriMet has increased the starting pay for new bus operators to $25.24 per hour, and with regular, guaranteed pay raises, all operators earn $68,000 per year or more after three years on the job full time. In addition, TriMet bus operators receive a generous package of employment benefits, which includes no-to-low cost health insurance, life insurance, paid vacation and sick time, and a retirement plan with an 8% employer contribution. In addition, TriMet is offering all newly hired operators a $7,500 hiring bonus.

Plus there are very powerful labor unions looking out for you.  It’s designed to be a stable long term job that you can build a life on.

These kinds of offers are now typical in many cities around the country.

So here’s the deal on driving a bus.  (Note: Light rail train drivers usually start as bus drivers.)

  • You have to enjoy driving safely.
  • You have to deal with people.  Some are wonderful and help you feel better about humanity.  Most are harmless headphone-wrapped units of social isolation. Some are unpleasant.  A few could be dangerous.
  • You have to have an exercise routine to compensate for the sedentary nature of the job.

But all that’s true of Uber too!

This job is not for everyone, but anyone looking for a job in this wage/skill range should be considering it.  Do you know one of these people?  Do you meet groups of people who might fall in this category? Point them to your public transit authority’s website, where there’s probably a very prominent “we’re hiring!” box.

Because if nobody will do this job, we won’t have public transit anymore.


“Can We Just Make the Train Feel Faster?”

Pete Dyson and Rory Sutherland: Transport for Humans.  London Publishing Partnership, 2021


Behavioral science is a growing influence on the planning of cities and transport.  Conventional economic thinking views the customer as a rational actor who cares only about travel time and cost, but behavioral science adds two insights:  First, time and cost aren’t the only things travelers care about.  Second, even when optimizing time and cost, human brains aren’t ideal computers for this purpose, so they take various mental shortcuts that good planning can anticipate and guide.

This new British book is a lively read on how to apply behavioral science to transport planning — a process that’s well under way at many leading agencies such as Transport for London.  The authors touch on everything from signage to pricing to the joys of public art.  At one point they praise a stairway painted like piano keys that sound a note when you step on them.

Is there anything wrong with putting behavioral science in the lead in transport planning?  It depends on how you use it.  One danger lies in how planners choose to think about perceived vs actual time:

Cars go fast, so transport engineers put a lot of effort into making alternatives faster.  But a 32 minute train ride does not feel all that different from a 36 minute one, and the changes needed to shave off more time can get very expensive.

Can we just make the train feel faster instead?

The only bad word here is instead.

It may be that 36 minutes is the optimal travel time at a reasonable level of investment [1].  And certainly, there’s nothing wrong with doing things that make that time more pleasant and seem to pass more quickly.  But if you are making the train feel fast so that it doesn’t have to be fast, you may be making an elite projection mistake with major consequences for equity and social justice.  The authors cite the concept of Maslow’s hierarchy but not its most obvious point:  Values such as pleasure and “self-actualization” are only motivating when more basic needs are met.  Basic needs include the food and shelter that you will only have if you have a job, which in turn may require you to get to work on time.  When you get to your low-wage job four minutes late, the timeclock you punch doesn’t care that your trip felt so fast that you feel like you’re on time.

It’s also important to question the polarization that drives the book’s rhetoric.  The authors’ opponent is a conventional model-driven transport planning that thinks about passengers the way it thinks about cargo.

When we move things, rather than people, around efficiently, no feelings need to be taken into account.  Planning can be mathematically optimized without any consideration for psychology.

There really is a transport planning orthodoxy that is this silly, but there are also a lot of interesting positions in the middle.   For example, transport planners like me, who insist that we respect people’s need to get places by actual-time deadlines, aren’t denying the foundational role of great information design.  Bad information is a cause of delay as well as stress, both of which are fundamental human needs in Maslow’s hierarchy: stress is bad for health, and delay threatens our access to food and shelter if those require getting to work on time.   Obviously public transport authorities are not providing much value if their services aren’t used because they can’t be found, understood, and navigated, or if the experience is so stressful as to be harmful for the customer’s health.

The book offers little evidence to challenge the foundational importance of travel time.  People aren’t cargo, but like cargo they have deadlines.  A pleasant-but-unreliable public transport service may satisfy both tourists and the relatively fortunate people whose jobs aren’t in danger if they’re late.  But such a service is not part of a comprehensive public transport network addressing the full diversity of the society and potential ridership.

I recommend this book for a fun overview of behavioral science insights.  It has made me smarter about how to discuss these issues.  Fortunately, though, the transport planning world isn’t as black-and-white as their rhetoric might suggest.  There are many ways to use these insights while still respecting our need to get where we’re going, at the time we’re expected there.


[1]  I’m not saying it should be 32, since a responsible travel time analysis is door-to-door and therefore includes frequency as well as walking or other kinds of access-t0-transit time.

“Decide and Provide”: Transport Modeling That Gives Us Choices

Our whole urban form is heavily shaped by computer models that predict how much traffic a development will generate.  Want to build a small residential-over-retail building in a walkable area?  A conventional model will show that you need lots of parking, but also that you’ll generate lots of traffic on the nearby streets, which will provoke the neighbors to rise up to oppose the project.  Since the model doesn’t think anyone will walk to it anyway, you might as well just build it out by the highway.

Hence, our suburban landscape.

It all goes back to the transport planning ideology called “Predict and Provide.”  When predicting how much vehicle traffic a development will generate (its vehicle trip generation rate) the model looks at what similar developments have generated in the past, and just assumes that will continue.

Predict and Provide model: The future is just like the past. Nothing you can do about it. Source: TRICS Guidance Note, February 2021

If the community isn’t changing, and the world isn’t changing, this might work.  But of course, the very fact that you’re proposing a development means that the community is changing.  It’s growing, which means car-dependence is on its way to hitting known limits where congestion starts to affect behavior. Meanwhile, the world is changing: people want to live in more walkable communities, and there are many incentives to encourage them.  The classic “Predict and Provide” model tells us to ignore all that.  It presumes that you are a copy of your parents and that when you’re their age, you’ll behave exactly they way they do.

Some of us have been pointing this out for years.  The transport modeling industry sees the problem and has been softening its predictive claims, but the fact remains that the biggest investments, large infrastructure and real estate development, require everyone involved to (pretend to) believe predictions.  Even if everybody in a process knows now ridiculous the assumptions are, the easiest thing to do (and often the legally mandated thing to do) is to perform the process.

So it’s great to see the emergence, in the UK, of the “Decide to Provide” paradigm. It is now being recommended by the very people who curate the UK’s dominant transport model, TRICS.  It says that when describing rates at which a development generates traffic, it’s appropriate to have a “vision” scenario showing the most credible optimistic outcome.

Decide and Provide. There are several credible futures. Which one do you want?  Source: TRICS Guidance Note, February 2021

You can”t predict the future, but you can predict a range of credible possibilities, and then think about which one you actually want.

Maybe the trip generation rate will rebound (the “Nationally informed projection”).  Maybe it will continue its slow descent. Or maybe what it does will depend on your vision for your whole community, and your resolve in implementing that vision.  If you want a more walkable community, this model holds open the possibility that you might succeed.

The “vision-based” curve is “supply-led” because it’s based on the widely observed principle (and biological axiom) called induced demand: If you make something easier, people will do it more, and if you make something harder, they will do it less.

The “supply-led” curve is what happens if you limit road space and parking, while making it easier to walk, cycle, or take public transport.  Obviously this has to be done in the right place, where there is already a critical mass of walkable development, or where there’s a viable plan to create such an area at sufficient scale.

Should you seek to shift demand away from driving?  It’s a choice, arising from a set of values.  But “Predict and Provide” was also a choice, expressing a set of values. There never was neutral or factual way to predict trip generation.  There was only a culturally dominant one.

Every time we undermine the illusion of predictability, we expand our freedom to choose!

People Who Love War Hate Cities

Kyiv in 2022., CC BY 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

People who love war hate cities.

Cities are places where people who are different from each other learn not to fear each other. They find that they can share a public space with people who don’t look like them, talk like them, or act the way they would act, and that it’s almost always fine. People who profit from fear hate that.

Cities produce visibility.  It is easier to not care about poverty or homelessness or the mental health crisis if you see them only on television, but in the city it’s all right in front of you.  It’s easy to believe that those demonstrators are all hoodlums if you’re not on the street with them hearing their actual voices.  In a city there is no avoiding the facts of what a society is, and what its conflicts are.  Cities are where we see each other.  People who don’t want to see hate that.

Cities and their people are vulnerable.  So many people so close together. So easily destroyed by just one disaster, or just one bomb.  So easy for anyone to enter, no matter how hostile their intentions. We don’t have city walls anymore. We have the opposite: Openness and vulnerability are the very form of the modern city. People who feel safe only behind walls hate that.

So lots of people hate cities.  And yet cities are centers of prosperity and opportunity and wealth, so they must be controlled, even by people who don’t much like them.  That struggle to control cities is everywhere: in politics, in policing, in city planning, and when all else fails, in war.

So of course, in time of war, it’s always the city that’s destroyed, and urban people who are massacred. That’s always how it’s been. Cities aren’t just attacked because of what country they’re in, or because of a resource they represent. They’re attacked because of what a city is.


Great News for Chile

Photo: Universidad Católica de Chile

My friend Professor Juan Carlos Muñoz Abogabir is Chile’s new Minister of Transport.  He is a Bus Rapid Transit expert and an eloquent advocate for sustainable and just transport planning, and is also one of the nicest people I know.

Juan Carlos has already been a leader through turbulent times.  In the 2000s was a key advisor to the project that created Transantiago, a government agency managing all public transport in the capital region.  The reform introduced integrated bus service planning and also changed the motivations of bus drivers. I remember riding a Santiago bus with Juan Carlos in the bad old days of 2004:  Bus drivers raced down the street, cutting each other off in hopes of grabbing the passengers at each stop.  And since they made money from taking passengers on but not for letting them off, people sometimes had to jump from the bus as it slowed but didn’t quite stop.

The implementation of Transantiago, however, was a disaster.  When the system was turned on in January 2007, some parts of it hadn’t come together.  Not enough new buses had arrived. Not all the necessary technology was ready. The incentives weren’t quite right.  The result was a couple of months of chaos.  Everyone who touched it, including Juan Carlos, was blamed.  It even affected the President’s approval rating.

Large-scale transformations like Transantiago are to some extent always like this. They were changing an entire sector of the economy over to a new model, in a way that required many people to see their jobs differently. You can flip the switch on a designated date, but people take longer to adapt and there’s always some conflict in the meantime.  In any case, the messy implementation doesn’t mean the reform wasn’t worth doing.  Over time, the biggest problems were fixed, the network began functioning and the anger quieted down.

A few years later, I saw Juan Carlos give a presentation on the Transantiago implementation, and was struck by the tone: He was not defensive at all.  He explained that this was a necessary reform but that Chile’s transport leaders, not excluding himself, had screwed it up.  He knew that failure is a better teacher than success, and he wanted everyone in the world to benefit from their meltdown.

During my 2019 trip Juan Carlos set up a meeting with then-Minister of Transport & Telecommunications Gloria Hutt to talk about my work on access analysis. From left to right: Juan Carlos, yours truly, Minister Gloria Hutt and Vice Minister José Luis Domínguez.

Fast forward to 2019.  The institute that Juan Carlos leads, CEDEUS, was planning a major global conference in Santiago when the country erupted in violent protests. All conferences were canceled, including his, because nobody could guarantee the security of visitors.  I had been booked as a speaker at the conference, but Juan Carlos asked if I would come anyway, and do some events around the edges of the crisis.  So I went, and lacking translation services I did a few presentations in my then-terrible Spanish. I described the experience here.

Obviously Juan Carlos grieved at the way that the social unrest began: a massive act of vandalism against the Santiago Metro.  But he shared the protesters’ demand for change, and he worked to channel the energy toward revealing the injustice of the built environment and transport systems.

So I’m just delighted at this announcement.  Chile is wealthy enough to do things, but its car ownership is low enough that it can still choose to avoid many of the worst mistakes of North America.  And it has the perfect transport leader for the moment.