General

US Commuter Rail: What it Is and What It Could Be

Jake Blumgart has a superb piece in Governing (free but click “Continue to site.”) about the distinctly North American artifact called commuter rail, and why it’s so different from the way heavy rail infrastructure is used for transit in most other developed countries.

The key difference is that most other countries want their heavy rail services to be useful all day, while the default in most of the US has been to run only at rush hour with at best minimal service the rest of the time, as though the briefcase commuter is the only conceivable customer.

There are not such sharp contrasts between regional rail and the rest of transit systems in most wealthy European or East Asian nations. But in North America, the divide was sacrosanct. As recently as 2016, then-MBTA General Manager Frank DePaola drew a bright line between this service and the rest of the agency’s subway, bus, and light rail services: “Commuter rail is commuter rail. It’s not transit. It’s designed to bring people into the city in the morning and take them home at night.”

The COVID-19 pandemic, however, calls that whole concept into doubt.

“It’s not transit.” “The divide was sacrosanct.” Of course this division of the market by trip purpose also implied a distinction of social class, manifested especially in very high fares.  But high ridership is diverse ridership.  If the goal is to help everyone go places, it’s always best to design services that are useful to everyone and make those services connect, rather than run two systems side by side (commuter rail and slow buses, for example).

Commuter rail services also tend to run long distances across core cities without providing much relevant service to them.  They either run nonstop or offer a frequency that’s too low to be relevant for the shorter in-city trips happening along the line.

I have my own trauma about this, because I spent too many years in the 1980s trying to advocate for an all-day frequent service on Caltrain, the commuter rail line between San Francisco and San Jose in California.  Caltrain has the geography of a frequent all-day rapid transit service: it runs through the historic downtown of almost every city it serves, because the downtowns grew around the rail line.  In terms of the useful transit provided, it could have functioned as another BART line.

Yet decades later, Caltrain service levels are still terrible in the context of the corridor it serves.  It was big event when the midday frequency was improved from two hours, as it was in my day, to one hour, but that still makes it irrelevant to most trips along the corridor, especially those of less than 10 miles or so where waiting time becomes more onerous.  So a bus system has to run alongside it, inefficiently serving some of the same trips that rail could be serving, and unable to efficiently feed the rail line very well because of the rail’s low frequency and erratic schedule.

Since then, as a bus network planner, I’ve encountered the same problem in many other cities.  There’s just no way to integrate commuter rail with a local bus network, because good bus networks involve regular patterns of frequency that are not what US commuter rail does.  At best you have to provide dedicated shuttles that meet the trains, and that’s a form of duplication that leads to worse access for everyone.

Blumgart’s piece touches on the effort that’s now being made to rethink commuter rail to make it more like what it’s always been in Europe, East Asia, and even low-density Australia and New Zealand.  In all these countries, rail is how you travel longer distances across the region all the time, not just at rush hour.

That difference arises in part from a different geography of social class.  When I lived in Sydney, I wasn’t happy with midday frequencies on the all-day rail network — mostly every 30 minutes then, mostly 15 now — but that was far superior to what most big US cities are used to.  The difference is the suburbanization of poverty, which has been happening for decades in Europe and Australia but is only now accelerating in the US.  The most remote parts of Sydney are some of the poorest.  In this urban structure, lower income people have to travel longer distances, but mostly to non-peak jobs.  Making heavy rail services part of the total transit system isn’t just a better use of infrastructure, it’s increasingly going to be an equity issue.

If Covid-19 causes a permanent drop in rush-hour commuting, we could see a golden opportunity to make better use of all the existing infrastructure of commuter rail.  There are plenty of obstacles, but they aren’t physical. They’re mostly cultural issues embedded in regulation and labor practices.  When it becomes important enough, those can be solved.

Basics: Should Bus Rapid Transit be Open or Closed?

If you are involved in debates about Bus Rapid Transit, you need to stop and think about whether the project will be closed or open, because this will have a big effect on how useful the service is.  I’m always surprised at how few BRT projects clearly debate this issue.

A BRT system is open if the buses can continue off the end of the infrastructure and operate as conventional buses on local streets.  In situations where multiple bus operating companies run along the same path, open can also mean that the infrastructure can be available to multiple operators, although that almost always implies the first meaning as well.

A BRT system is closed if the buses must remain with the infrastructure, so that service must end at the end of the infrastructure, just as all rail services do.

In a given situation, a closed BRT option will require more transferring than open BRT for people to reach actual destinations that lie beyond the infrastructure.  As a result, it will tend to lead to longer overall travel times unless the speed advantages of the BRT compensate for that transfer delay.

There are two reasons this is a problem for your actual ability to go places:

  • A very single-centered urban form may logically need services to branch as they head out of the city, because as demand gets lower, you need less frequency but needed to cover more area.  Branching divides frequency, and in that case this can be OK.
  • But the bigger problem is that for non-transit reasons, the infrastructure may end where the demand doesn’t end, and closed BRT in this situation forces a lot of people to transfer just to keep going in the same direction.  In a high-frequency grid, for example, it’s important that service operate continuously all the way across the grid, so that while some people will have to transfer once few have to transfer twice.  Closed BRT can be an obstacle to this.

Despite this disadvantage, BRT systems are often closed for two major reasons:

  • In extremely crowded systems, closed BRT allows for tighter control of operations, for maximum capacity and minimum waiting time.  Capacity considerations may also dictate that all buses using the infrastructure be as large as possible.
  • In wealthy countries closed BRT more likely to be about trying to mimic the experience of rail transit, so as to be more attractive to a supposed discretionary or “choice” rider. If the goal is to make BRT appear special and different from regular buses, this goal is muddied if BRT buses run outside the infrastructure, or regular buses run inside of it.

The first of these reasons translates into measurable benefits in travel time, and thus access to opportunity, while the second does not.

Closed BRT is the more common kind of BRT in the United States, mostly for the second reason.  Where it appears in developing countries with very high public transit demand, it is mostly for the first reason.

BRT can be closed by any of several mechanisms:

  • Full separation. It can be made physically impossible for buses to enter or leave the infrastructure.    This is unusual, since buses may need to enter or leave in emergencies or to travel to and from the operating base.
  • Station and fleet incompatibility. Stations and buses may be designed so that they can only be used together.  For example, Eugene, Oregon’s BRT can run in regular lanes and even in mixed traffic, but its stations have high platforms that only match the floor height of the designated BRT buses, effectively requiring a closed system.  Fleet incompatibility can also be created through electrification, especially if end-of-line charging stations are required.  These stations become barriers to continuing service beyond the end of the line at that station, because the charging requires an amount of time that is practical only at the end of the line when no passengers are on board.
  • Operating plan. Service can be operated as closed even though the infrastructure doesn’t physically prevent open operations.

So should a new BRT system be open or closed?  In most cases, the advantages of open BRT are about people being able to go places so they can do things.  The advantages of closed BRT are mostly about branding and some limited kinds of amenity.

Brisbane, Australia’s BRT system uses ordinary buses that continue onto local streets, but it’s still really, really nice.

The concept of amenity is worth unpacking.  Many great amenities are possible on open BRT – see the beautiful busway stations of Brisbane, for example – but these generally do not include special buses with special features, unless you buy enough of these that they can continue to wherever those buses logically need to go to create the most liberating possible network.  There’s another reason to be cautious about special buses: Really, all buses should be nice, so creating a distinct brand of buses amounts to disparaging the rest of the bus system as much as it’s promoting the BRT.   We may be spending a lot of capital money to promote the idea that most buses are inferior.

But a few things, such as absolutely level boarding, benefit from buses that stop exactly at the platform level, and these buses tend not to be able to stop an ordinary bus stop.  Absolutely level boarding is great, and especially important to people using mobility devices.   But well-designed open BRT, with good operations and training, can still do reasonably level boarding where it’s easy to cross with a wheelchair or stroller.

I said “in most cases,” open BRT offers the best travel times and thus the most access to opportunity.  So what are the exceptions?  Closed BRT can be more efficient at very, very high levels of ridership – such as we see in big cities in less wealthy countries.  Here, an entire corridor may be continuously very busy, and in this case, the most efficient operations, and hence highest capacity, arise from being able to use every bit of the infrastructure and keep buses evenly spaced.  This is harder to do with open BRT, because buses may be entering or leaving the infrastructure part way, thus leaving a part of the infrastructure with fewer buses.  Buses may also be entering unpredictably, because they are coming from route segments where they are running in mixed traffic and thus subject to delay.  Where such huge volumes of people are traveling, these problems can cause pass-ups that do measurably reduce travel.

But this important exception arises only where massive capacity is critical, and this case rarely arises in the moderate-density wealthy countries of North America, Australia/New Zealand, or even most of Europe.  So in those countries tends not to offer any advantage to people’s ability to go places so they can do things.  In these contexts, closed BRT can deliver a better “brand” or “look and feel”, but open BRT is more likely to get you to our destination as soon as possible.  You decide which matters more.

Miami: Explore your New Bus Network

Our collaboration with the amazing folks at Transit Alliance Miami has reached its conclusion: A new bus network coming for all of Miami-Dade county.  Here you’ll find maps and info about the new network, and at the bottom of that page you’ll find all of the reports we produced along the way, scheduled to be implemented later this year.

For the central area, here’s the existing system:

Colors mean all-day frequency!  Purple = 12 minutes or better.  Red = 15. Orange = 20, Blue = 30. Green = 60.

And here’s the new network.  Fewer routes, less duplication, more frequency.

 

(This is not our mapping style, by the way.  It’s from a tool developed by Kittelson Associates that lets you move a slider back and forth between the two maps, so that you can see how different they are in the same place.  It can be a little clunky.  Look close for a vertical grey bar and you’ll find you can slide it left and right.  If it isn’t working, reload.)

The plan lays out meager resources for bus service in a more equitable way, focusing on frequent service on a one-mile grid across the denser inner parts of the county.  It will dramatically expand where people can get to quickly across the county, although often people will have to walk further to better frequency.

My biggest regret about the project?  Most of the bigger cities in the region have their own municipal transit systems, and we had wanted to get better integration between them, which would have created even more improvement in access.  We had good staff engagement with three of the four biggest municipal operators: Miami, Miami Beach, and Doral.  In the end, though, the Miami City Council didn’t support redesigning their shuttle system to work with the revised bus network.

I hope that in the future the cities will look closer at how to build better local networks that work with Miami-Dade transit instead of duplicating it.   Los Angeles County is a good model:  There’s a regional agency and lots of municipal ones, but region and cities have worked together to decide who’ll run which segment, and how to make it all work as a single network that helps everyone get where they want to go.

 

 

 

 

Dallas: A New Bus Network Proposal Seeks Your Feedback

We have been working with DART in Dallas for almost two years to develop a new network concept for the bus layer of the DART system. The agency covers the City of Dallas and 12 surrounding smaller cities.

You can now review the draft plan here, in English or Spanish.  You can also download our friendly and readable Draft Plan Report to understand the plan and its benefits in detail, as well as the process and public conversation that led it to look as it looks today.

Some key facts:

  • More frequent service.  The plan doubles the number of residents and jobs on 15-minute service.
  • Expanded access!  The average resident can get to 28% more jobs in transit in 60 minutes.
  • Equity: The access benefit is identical or better for the average Black or Hispanic resident.
  • The plan retains service to 97.9% of existing riders within 1/4 mile, and 99.6% within 1/2 mile.  Why not 100%?  That’s a result of a Board decision about the balance of ridership and coverage goals, which was the result of a public conversation last year.

There is also a fun and helpful tool that you can use to explore the network and see where you could go in a fixed amount of time.  Just select a location and click “60 minute travel.”  It will show you a blue blob of the area you can get to, with light blue meaning new area you can reach in 60 minutes and grey meaning places you can no longer get to in that time.  The box also shows how many more jobs you could reach in 60 minutes.

If you live in the DART area be sure to fill out their survey at the link above.  Remember, if you like the plan, you must say so!  Too often, people who like the plan are silent, so the survey results make it look like everyone hates it.  Comments are open through June 8.

Basics: Access, or the Wall Around Your Life

What if we planned public transit with the goal of freedom?  Well, it’s hard to improve things that you can’t measure, but now it’s becoming possible to measure freedom, or as we call it in transport planning, access.

Access is your ability to go places so that you can do things.  Over the last few years, I’ve come to believe that may be the single most important thing we should be measuring about our transport systems — but that we usually don’t.[1]  Access isn’t a new idea, but as our data gets better it’s becoming easier to measure, and it could potentially replace many other measures that are groping toward the idea but not quite getting there.

We calculate access, for anyone anywhere, like this:

 

Whoever you are, and wherever you are, there’s an area you could get to in an amount of time that’s available in your day. That limit defines a wall around your life.  Outside that wall are places you can’t work, places you can’t shop, schools you can’t attend, clubs you can’t belong do, people you can’t hang out with, and a whole world of things you can’t do.

We chose 45 minutes travel time for this example, but of course you can study many travel time budgets suitable for different kinds of trips.  A 45 minute travel time one way might be right for commutes.  For other kinds of trips, like quick errands or going out to lunch, the travel time budget is less.  For a trip you make rarely it might be more.

But the key idea is that we have only so much time.  There is a limit to how long we can spend doing anything, and that limit defines a wall.  We can draw the map of that wall, and count up the opportunities inside it, and say:  This is what someone could do, if they lived here.

Access is a combined impact of land use planning and transport planning. We can expand your access by moving your wall outward (transport) or by putting more useful stuff inside your current wall (land use).  We can use the tool to identify how much of a place’s access problem lies in the transport as opposed to the development pattern.

We can calculate access for any location, as in this example, but we can also calculate the average access for the whole population of any area.  In the first draft of our bus network redesign for Dublin, Ireland, for example, we found that the average Dubliner count reach 20% more jobs (and other useful destinations) in 30 minutes.  To discuss equity, we can also calculate access for any subgroup of the population: low income people, older or younger people, ethnic or racial groups, and so on.

Why Access Matters

People come to public transit with many goals that seem to be in conflict, but it turns out that a lot of different things get better when we make access better:

  • Ridership tends to be higher, because access captures the likelihood that any particular person, when they check the travel time for a trip, will find that the transit trip time is reasonable.  Ridership goes up and down for all kinds of other reasons, but access captures how network design and operations affect ridership. [2]  In our firm’s bus network redesigns, we’ve been using access as a key measure of success for about five years now, and it consistently leads us to ridership-improving network designs.
  • Emissions and congestion benefits all improve, because they depend on ridership, which depends on access.
  • Economically, the whole point of a city is to connect people to abundant opportunities.  People come together in cities so that more stuff will be inside the wall around their lives.  When we measure access we’re measuring how well the city functions at its defining purpose.
  • As for equity or racial justice in transit, well, isn’t equal access to opportunity at the core of what these movements are fighting for?  Access describes the essence of what has been denied to some groups through exclusionary development planning and exclusionary transport planning, so it helps us quantify what it would mean to fix those things.  This, in turn, could help justice struggles avoid a lot of distractions.  Because in the end, access is …
  • Freedom.  Where you can go limits what you can do.   If we increase your access, we’ve expanded the options that you have in your life.  Isn’t that what freedom is?

When we improve access, with attention to who is benefiting most, we improve all of those things.  It’s this remarkable sweep of relevance that makes access analysis so interesting and potentially transformative as a way to think about transportation.

Access Compared to Common Measures

Most methods for studying or improving transit assume that we should care about (a) what people are doing or (b) what people want to do.

Data about what people are doing includes travel behavior data, which are the foundation of much of the accepted methods of transport planning.  In public transit, ridership data is in this category.  Ridership is the basis for transit’s benefits in the areas of congestion and emissions, and also of fare revenue.

However, what people are doing isn’t necessarily what people want to do, or what they would do if the transport network were better.  Much of what people do is just  be the least-bad of their options given the city and transport network as it is.   This problem leads to various methods of public surveying to “find out what people want,” in some sense.  But there are lots of problems with that, mostly lying in the fact that people are not very good at knowing what they’d do if the world were different in some major way.

Access takes us outside of both of those frames.  Instead of asking “what do people do?” or “what do people want to do?” it asks “what if we expanded what people can do?

Access analysis does not try to predict what you’ll do.  In fact, it doesn’t need to predict human behavior at all, which is a good thing because human behavior is less predictable than we’d like to think.  Access calculations are vastly more certain than almost anything emerging from social science research, because they are based almost entirely on the geometric patterns of transport and development.  [3]

Instead, access starts with one insight about what everybody wants, even if they don’t use the same words to describe it.  People want to be free.  They want more choices of all kinds so that they can choose what’s best for themselves.  Access measures how we deliver those options so that everybody is more free to do whatever they want, and be whoever they are.

What Access Analysis Can’t Do

Will access analysis of transit put the social sciences and market research out of business?  Of course not.

  • We need to understand how different users experience public transit, and how the experience can be better designed to meet those various needs.
  • We need to know exactly who won’t be served by access based network design so that we can decide what actions to take for those people, if any.
  • We need to keep exploring the relationship between access and ridership so that we can identify the factors that sit outside that relationship and must be considered.
  • Access analysis would also become more powerful if we had better data on the locations — to within 1/4 mile (400m) or so — of various non-work destinations: retail, groceries, medical, and so on — so that we could better assess people’s ability to get to such places.

But in 30 years of listening to public comment, I’ve heard enough times that people want to go places so that they can do things.  So let’s measure how well we’re delivering that, and let’s ask ourselves if that’s more important that some of the things we measure now.

Further Reading

This post could have been much longer; in fact, I hope it will become a book.  Meanwhile, here are some great resources:

  • The 2020 Transport Access Manual is the first comprehensive explanation of access and how it can be applied to various questions.  It’s the work of a team led by professors David Levinson (University of Sydney) and David King (Arizona State University). Full disclosure: I had a role and wrote some snippets.
  • The University of Minnesota’s Accessibility Observatory, founded by Levinson and now led by Andrew Owen, is one of the main research centers on the topic.  For several years they’ve been publishing Access across America, which are essentially atlases showing where people can get to from various places by car, transit, etc..
  • On the philosophical issues about freedom vs. prediction, and why it’s important to separate physical knowledge from social science knowledge, see my fun Journal of Public Transportation paper, “To Predict with Confidence, Plan for Freedom.”  Seriously, it’s fun.
  • On what high-access public transit tends to look like, here’s a fairly evergreen 2013 post of mine, with downloadable handout, on how some of the big debates of transit planning line up with a goal of high access for a community.

I will update this post with further links.

 

Endnotes

[1]  In the academic literature, what I’m calling access is usually called accessibility.  Both of these words have contested meanings, because both have been used specifically to refer to the needs and rights of people with disabilities.  I follow the recent Transport Access Manual in using access as the less confusing of these two words.  Of course, we are talking here specifically about spatial access — the ability to do things that require going places — which is not the only kind.  However, a lot of the ways that people are cut off from opportunity do turn out to be spatial.  Transportation (i.e. access) is a major barrier to employment in the US, for example.

[2]  This paper, for example, establishes a relationship between transit access and public transit’s mode share, one that is especially strong for lower income people.

[3]  There are exceptions.  Traffic congestion, for example, is a human behavior that affects the access calculation.

The Bus Arrives at the New York Times

Well, this was great to see! A piece by the always-wise NYT columnist Farhad Manjoo.

What I like about the piece is that he runs through the typical confusions and prejudices about the bus.  It’s kind of like he’s driving, well, a bus, picking up each reader in the neighborhood of their own assumptions before delivering them all them to his point.  Having gathered his readers, he takes them to London, and points out that the most important thing about London’s buses isn’t just that they are iconic, or sustainable, or easy to pay the fare on.  The important thing is that there are lots of them.

But the major innovation in London’s buses is less technological than numerical. The magic is one of scale — there are simply enough buses in London to allow for frequent, reliable service to the parts of the city that people want to travel to.

This is the point.  Successful transit is mass transit.  If it doesn’t scale, it doesn’t matter.

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.