General

Fixing US Transit Requires Service, Not Just Infrastructure

TransitCenter has a new video and article with some powerful images saying what I say all the time:  If you want to transform public transit for the better in the US, there’s useful infrastructure you could build, but the quickest and most effective thing you could do is just run a lot more buses.

(Remember, US activists: Don’t just envy Europe; start by envying Canada.  The average Canadian city has higher ridership than the most comparable US city, not because they have nicer infrastructure or vastly better land use, but because they just run more transit.)

TransitCenter’s work uses access analysis to show what’s really at stake.  Increasing bus service by 40% (an aspirational number that still wouldn’t match many Canadian peers) would massively expand where people could go, and thus what they could do.

For example, here’s how 40% more service would expand where someone could get to from a particular point in metro Atlanta.  (The concentric colors mean where you could reach in 10, 20, 30, or 45 minutes, counting the walk, the wait, and the ride.)

Source: TransitCenter (graphic by Remix)

Source: TransitCenter (graphic by Remix)

With a 40% increase in service someone in this location can reach ten times the number of jobs in 45 minutes.  (These analyses use jobs because we have the data, but this means a comparable growth in the opportunities for all kinds of other trips: shopping, errand, social, and so on. )  I would argue that someone at this location would be 10 times as free, because they would have 10 times more options to do anything that requires leaving home.

The transportation chatter in the new administration is about infrastructure, partly because there’s lots of private money to be made on building things, and because building things is exciting.  But if you want to expand the possibility of people’s lives, and seriously address transport injustices that can be measured by this tool, don’t just fund infrastructure, fund operations.  Just run more buses!

 

 

Is Covid-19 a Threat to Public Transit? Only in the US

Jake Blumgart has a must-read in CityMonitor pointing out that in most wealthy countries, Covid-19 has raised few doubts about the future of public transit, nor have there been significant threats to funding.

City Monitor spoke with experts in Canada, East Asia, western Europe and Australia about the impacts of the pandemic on public transportation. None feared that systems in their nations would be deprived of the funds needed to continue providing decent service – and most even believed they would keep expanding. … In the US, by contrast, systems have been preparing doomsday scenarios, and advocates fear for the future.

We are seeing this with our own clients outside North America:  Even with demand cratering, authorities continue to fund good service.

There’s one technical reason for this in some cases.  In most wealthy countries outside North America, transit agencies are not free-standing local governments dependent on their own funding streams.  Instead, any needed subsidy flows to public transit directly from the central government budget.[1]  This means that public transit funding is debated alongside other expenses in a central budget, so the service level depends on what the nation or state/province values as a society, rather than what a transit agency can afford.

But there’s no question that apathy about public transit, and in some cases hostility, is higher in the US.  In my work I hear three kinds of negativity:

  • Cultural hostility to cities, which implies indifference to meeting their needs.
  • Disinterest in funding things that are useful to lower-income or disadvantaged groups, or groups that are culturally “other” in some way.
  • Especially aggressive marketing of new technologies as replacements of most public transit.  (Many new technologies are compatible with high-ridership public transit, but some are not, and many are overpromoted in ways that encourage opposition to transit funding.)

All three of these are understandably worse in the United States than in most other wealthy countries.

In any case, if you’re in the US, remember: there is no objective reality behind the idea that Covid-19 is a reason to care less about transit. It’s just a US thing, and we could choose to make it different.

 

 

 

 

[1] By central government I mean whichever level of government is sovereign: In most countries this is the national government, but in loose confederations like Canada and Australia, it’s the state or province.

Holiday Card, with Controversial Hummingbird

The card was lightly controversial because it has no public transit or urbanism theme, but I’m sorry: Hummingbirds are amazing.  If you’ve never watched one in action I suggest that as a New Years Resolution.  And when you get a green hummingbird at a red feeder, that basically ticks all the holiday boxes.

We are deeply grateful to all the clients and friends who’ve helped us get through this difficult year.  We hope we’ve been helpful to you as well.  Happy holidays, with best wishes and all necessary fortitude for 2021.

It’s OK to be Absolutely Furious

Today I took a stab at writing a holiday letter and discovered that, right at this moment, I can’t figure out how to cheer up transit advocates, or people who work in local government, or anyone else who loves cities.  Since consultants like me are expected to exude at least some degree of optimism, this is more of a problem for me than it is for the average person.

Why?  At the Federal level in the US, powerful forces, especially in the Senate, are happy to watch local governments implode in budgetary crisis, weakening the only level of government that citizens can influence.  Particular hostility seems to be directed at transit agencies associated with big cities.  In an absurdity that only Federal policy could create, high ridership in the big agencies before the Covid disaster is exactly why they are in such trouble nowNew York, Washington, Boston and possibly others are looking at service cuts that will simply devastate those cities, undermining essential workers and destroying the access to opportunity without which an equitable economic recovery is impossible.  Smaller agencies are in better shape at the moment, but if there isn’t a new funding package soon we’ll see devastating cuts across the US.

Tomorrow or next week, I will express optimism again and encourage constructive action.  But I know that the journey to any authentic optimism goes through the anger rather than around it.  So today I feel the need to state, for the record, that I’m absolutely furious: about what’s happening to transit in the US, and about many larger things of which that’s just an example.

Again, working consultants like me aren’t supposed to say this in public, and if I were at an earlier stage of my career I wouldn’t dare.

Please remember that when you deal with public servants or consultants at this time, and they don’t seem to be reacting in the way you think they should, that they are probably furious too, but are in roles where they can’t express that.  In addition to being furious about all the things that you’re furious about, they have also been through a period of unprecedented assault on their professions.  Because they did the long, hard work of learning about a topic so that they can help people deal with it, most have been slandered and a few have been threatened physically.  So when you see these people managing their own emotions to keep working constructively, consider expressing some gratitude and admiration for that.

When I am in a room with some citizens trying to solve a problem together, we can’t get much done if everyone is just expressing anger in every moment.  But even if we park it at the door in order to do our work, we shouldn’t deny it.  In almost every meeting, I wish I could say:  “I know how furious you are about all the injustice and cruelty and oppression and destructive behavior that surrounds us, in addition to your fears for yourself, your family, and your community.  I’m angry too.”  Maybe it’s my work to figure out how to say that, even to diverse audiences who may be angry about different things.

There will be many places where it’s not safe to talk this way.  But I know I speak for many calm-seeming professionals when I say:  I’m absolutely furious, and I hope you are too.

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.