“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.

Dallas: Welcome to Your New Network

The Dallas area’s new bus network goes live on January 24, 2022!  It’s the result of our three-year collaboration with the transit agency DART and its member cities.  The project relied on extensive input from the community, and the Board, about what kind of transit system they want to see.  But it’s still a no-growth network, which means that DART couldn’t add new operating budget.  As a result, it’s full of difficult tradeoffs and not everyone will like it.

You can compare the old and new networks at this cool data viewer that we developed.  Here is the existing network followed by the new network.  Note the frequencies in the legend, without which these maps make no sense.

DART Existing Network (note frequencies in legend)

DART New Network (note frequencies in legend).

In general, it’s fewer routes, longer walks in some cases, but higher frequencies. We’ve also:

  • established more regular timed-transfer patterns among infrequent routes, especially at South Garland and Addison Transit Centers.
  • set feeder routes to 20 or 40 minute frequencies so that they match the 20 minute rail frequency.  This is the main reason that you see relatively little expansion of the 15-minute frequencies (red) but a big expansion of the 20-minute frequencies (purples).
  • substantially expanded the GoLink demand-response program to provide more coverage.  This is a relatively low-cost service for DART, as microtransit goes, because some of the service is provided using ordinary Uber rides under contract with DART.

The result is usually faster access to more destinations.  The average area resident will be able to get to 1/3 more jobs in 60 minutes, which means more access to all kinds of opportunity for all kinds of people.  This benefit happens almost everywhere (blue in this image) (click to enlarge).

… and the benefit is similar for all races, ages and incomes.

Source: DART

The plan was based on the Board’s decision (not mine) to shift the focus of the service slightly toward a ridership goal and away from a coverage goal.  That would have meant service to fewer places, or further away from a few people’s homes, in order to run higher frequencies that produced expanded access to opportunity for most people.  Because the sad mathematical fact is:  Ridership arises from how useful service is to many people, not how useful it is to absolutely everyone.  When we seek to serve absolutely everyone, we’re planning for coverage, not ridership.

But in fact, even though the priorities shifted away from coverage, the final network hardly cuts coverage at all.

None of this means that everyone will be happy.  Network changes are always disruptive to some people’s lives. We make sure every decision-maker to know that before they decide to proceed.

Finally, this is not our plan. It’s DART’s plan based on their conversation with the public, and the decision of their Board.  We facilitated the design conversations and did the analysis, but we didn’t set the policy that led to the network looking as it does.  That’s not an evasion of responsibility.  It’s the key to our whole approach to these projects, which is to defer entirely to the community on questions of priorities, and to never make those decisions ourselves.

We hope your new network takes you to good places.  Meanwhile, we’ll soon be starting work on a happier project to envision an expanded bus network, a little bit closer to what the community actually needs.  So if you’re in the Dallas area, stay involved!

Virtual Public Meetings: In Oregon, It’s the Law

Here in Oregon a new law mandates that all public meetings must have a virtual component. It is no longer acceptable to do only an in-person meeting.

This is great news, especially for people who want to have diverse and inclusive conversations about public transit.

In the old world, pre-2020, the default public meeting was in person.  If you wanted to express your view, you had to clear your schedule at the appointed time and travel to a meeting site — which was especially onerous for people who don’t drive. The result was a process that is biased against people who are busy. Most people don’t have the time that in-person meetings require.

When it comes to public transit, there is a direct tension between the interests of busy people — who tend to care about getting places quickly — and those of many people who have spare time.  To take one example, retired people often tell me that they need a bus right at their door, but that it’s fine if it comes once an hour, because they can plan around that.  That’s great for them, but that kind of service is useless to anyone whose day is full of deadlines they don’t control: punching a time clock, getting to class, picking up the kid at daycare.

The only way we get functional, just, and inclusive transit is for people with different needs to listen to each other.  That only happens if everyone has the opportunity to contribute, as they do in virtual events.

The other issue, of course, is that virtual meetings can be civil, because the moderator has tools to cut people off if they are rude, profane, or off-topic[1] or speaking too long. All forms of physical intimidation, however subtle, are also off the table [2]. Those behaviors have become another good reason to avoid public meetings.

The in-person event shouldn’t disappear until we’ve fully replaced it for everyone who really needs it, but the exigences of the pandemic have made far more people comfortable with virtual meetings, and there are a range of ways to reach those who still aren’t.  Oregon’s law doesn’t ban in-person meetings, of course. It just says that a process that’s only in-person is no longer acceptable, because it just excludes too many people. I hope we’ll see this spread far and wide.



[1] At a Cleveland meeting a few years ago, where I was presenting about our bus network design project, one lady devoted her three minutes to probing whether I was married, and if not, what I was doing about that.

[2] Then there was the meeting in a Western US city, years ago, where one belligerent gentleman testified while keeping one hand in his pocket, holding a clearly gun-shaped object.

My Most Popular Posts in 2021

Each year I’m interested to see which posts have gotten the most attention. Note: This list shows the most popular post in 2021, not the most popular posts written then. As you can see, many of my older posts remain useful and popular for years.  And if you are just starting to explore this blog, the place to start is the Basics posts!)

  1. That Photo That Explains Almost Everything (2011).  You’ve seen the photo.  I notice a few things in it beyond its first impression.
  2. The Dangers of Elite Projection (2017).  This is one of my most useful posts ever, about a basic mistake that’s everywhere in city planning.  It’s an example of my attempt to talk very patiently and inclusively about a difficult topic that makes people very emotional.
  3. The Power and Pleasure of Grids (2010). An explanation of why grid transit networks are so effective.  This showed up in Chapter 13 of my book.
  4. Basics: The Spacing of Stops and Stations.  (2010).  This turned into Chapter 4 of my book.
  5. Basics: Walking Distance to Transit.  (2010).
  6. Access, or the Wall Around Your Life (2021).  My most important 2021 piece by far, in which I talk about a new way to measure public transit’s success  Glad to see it on top of the 2021 stack. Keep promoting it!
  7. US Commuter Rail: What It Is and What It Could Be.  (2021)
  8. Fixing US Transit Requires Service, not just Infrastructure (2021).  The usual warning about US Federal public transit spending.
  9. San Francisco: A Forbidden Fantasy Comes True (2020).  A minor post about a transformation of San Francisco’s rail network.
  10. The Problem of School Transportation (2017).  Why don’t transit agencies serve schools in just the way they need?  Here’s the answer.

And a few important ones that are just outside the top ten:

A very sensible selection, readers, by you and the publications that linked here!  Honored to have such a thoughtful audience.

Happy New Year.

Transit System Maps Still Matter

A slice of our system map for AC Transit.

A slice of our system map for AC Transit.

As transit information tools have gotten better, some transit agencies have stopped offering a system map to the public.  Often, a website offers me trip planning software and route by route timetables, but not a map.  If it’s there, it’s often difficult to find.

We think system maps are essential.  They’re not just for everyday navigation.  They’re for exploration and understanding.  Some people prefer narrative directions, but many people are spatial navigators, and they need maps.  They’ll understand details only if they can see the big picture.

Another way to think about system maps is that they show you where they could go, and how.  They give you a sense of possibility.  (It’s the informational dimension of access to opportunity.)  Maps also show visually how different services work together.  Finally, good system maps help people make better decisions about where to locate, or even where to build things.

One of our most fun projects this year was a new system map for AC Transit in greater Oakland, California.  You can see the whole thing, including its legend, here.  (To be fair, we’re not the only people who do these. Our friends at CHK America do them, and I also love the work of the European designer Jug Cerovic.)

The style of this map is very similar to that of the maps that we’ve always used in our planning studies.  The key is the visual hierarchy that makes frequent lines more prominent than other lines, and makes all-day lines more prominent than peak-only lines.  (In older standard mapping styles in this region, peak-only express lines were often the brightest red, even though they don’t exist the vast majority of the time. It was very confusing.)

As transit planners, we use this style for all of the maps that appear in our studies.  In fact, red=frequent in absolutely everything we do, whether it’s a map, a chart, a planning game toy, or a pen used to draw routes inside a course or workshop.

We take pride in having been among the first to bang this drum.  I was making the case back the 2000s (really, in the 90s) and there’s a chapter on it in my book.

We’re excited to be in the business of public-facing system maps.  They don’t have to be this precise; they can be done at various levels of design at various costs.

But if a system map doesn’t exist, people can’t understand all that your transit system can do.

Two Great Books for Transit Map Lovers

The architect Jug Cerovic is one of Europe’s most prolific and distinctive transit map designers. Anyone who loves transit maps will love his book One Metro Worldwhich contains 40 of his most gorgeous maps for cities all over the world, and also presents a clear explanation of his design process.  (Unfortunately it doesn’t ship until January.)  You can look at the whole thing on his site, but the physical book is much more satisfying.

One Metro World book

Cerovic’s style is to recognize geometric forms in the geography, and to highlight these to create not just a clear diagram of network structure, but one with a certain minimalist beauty:



Cerovic’s new book, Middle Constellation, is about just one map, an infrastructure map of China.  Here, the whole book is about the process.  Page by page, he steps through the design choices, showing how he builds up the final map.  This one is available as an ebook, which gives you an animated effect for some of the process.  You can get a sense here.

If you like beautiful books, both are highly recommended.