Santiago: I’m Coming Anyway

Photo: Carlos Figueroa, Wikimedia Creative Commons.

For months I’ve planned to be in Santiago next week, with a brief side trip to Concepción.  I was to speak at the annual joint conference of the Centre for Sustainable Urban Development and the Centre for the Study of Conflict and Social Cohesion.  I had visited the country in 2004, and looked forward to returning to one of the most stable and peaceful countries in Latin America.

So it goes.  Stability can always mask horrors that eventually have to come to light.  Chile’s extreme inequality had reached a point where a small increase in Santiago Metro fares sparked a broad social revolt. The initial outburst was violent, including looting of stores, burning of buildings, and terrible damage to the magnificent Santiago Metro.   The conservative government briefly tried out a confrontational response (“Chile is at war“) but backtracked the next day, apologizing, sacking much of the cabinet, and promising reforms. Today the protests continue as they should, mostly peaceful but with the inevitable scatterings of violence, and the country is debating profound reforms that Serious People deemed impossible even two weeks ago.

But the conference venue is right in the centre of Santiago, where protests are continuing, and the organizers have decided to cancel the conference, because, they write, “at this moment we do not have the conditions to complete the conference as it was planned.”  Instead, “we believe that the efforts of academics should lie in understanding and engaging in dialogue on the problems that confront our country, as well as cooperating to open paths to a more just country.”

I’m coming anyway. I’ll meet with some transport officials, and speak to a class at the university. In Concepción I’ll face the challenge of giving a talk in Spanish, a language I knew almost nothing of six months ago. I look forward to experiencing something even better than stability: a country transforming itself, as few countries dare imagine.

On Flying Cars

A journalist asked my opinion about flying cars. I wrote this.  Please tell me where I’m wrong.

For every technology pitch, you must ask not just “what is this like from the inside?” but also “what is it like from the outside?”  All vehicle technologies are sold based on how cool or useful it will be to ride them.  And most of these pitches do not want you think about what it will be like to be outside of them, or to share a city with them.

The issues with air taxis are obvious.  Even if they are much quieter than helicopters, they will introduce a new type level of noise to the city, anywhere near where they takeoff and land.  Their presence overhead in any numbers will have physical and emotional effects on the population.  They will introduce entirely new kinds of accidents that make everyone fearful of the space above them.  And in the end, by allowing elites to opt out of the transportation problems that everybody else in the city is having, they will encourage elite disinterest in solving those problems.

They will be cool to ride, though.


Cleveland: See Where You Could Go

We’re excited to share the next stage in our work in Great Cleveland, where the transit agency, GCRTA, has hired us to help think through their goals and different ways that their transit network can be designed to meet these goals in the next few years, and to help imagine what the possibilities may be with modest increase in operating funds in the future. For our readers in Cleveland, our last system redesign survey on is now open.  Learn more about the networks and let us know what you think!

In May of this year, we made a post about two budget-neutral alternative networks that illustrate what the transit network could look like if the agency shifted its focus more towards attracting higher ridership, and what the network would look like if shifted towards maximizing coverage. You can find out more about these alternatives here.

We surveyed the public on these alternatives, and RTA conducted a series of public meetings throughout the county. The result of the public process suggested that many people saw the value of the frequency improvements of the High Frequency Alternative, but that most people would not be in favor of a reduction in coverage to achieve the frequency improvements.

Based on this input, we worked with RTA staff to design two network concepts that illustrate how the network could look if it were designed with a slightly greater emphasis on generating high ridership, but without reducing the overall coverage area from today.  These networks illustrate for the stakeholders and the agency’s Board of Trustees the potential outcomes of this policy choice using only today’s funding levels and illustrate what sort of network those same design priorities could produce with additional funding for bus service.

You can click each map below to explore a larger annotated version.

RTA Existing Network

Current Funding Concept

Expanded Funding Concept

Remember, ridership and coverage and the opposite ends of the same spectrum so at the same funding level and without reducing coverage areas, opportunities to add ridership-focused service are very limited.

The Current Funding Concept tries to do this by minimizing duplication in the network, and by making some difficult tradeoffs about where to increase and reduce frequency. While everywhere that is served today would continue to have transit service with this concept, some lower-density places would see their frequency reduced (usually from every 45 minutes to every 60 minutes). Some key improvements include frequent service on busy corridors like Detroit, Lorain and Kinsman (all currently every 20 minutes), and frequent crosstown service on E 93rd and E 105th (Route 10).

These and other improvements are possible by reducing service levels elsewhere in the network. For example, the Center Ridge corridor on the west side of the county would be served every 60 minutes by a branch of Route 26 (which continues via Detroit towards downtown). Today, this corridor is today is served every 45 minutes, so this is a reduction in frequency, but it does come with the benefits of a one-seat ride downtown, and an extension to the new community college campus at the edge of the county (Tri-C Westshore).

Closer to downtown on the east side, low-frequency crosstown services on E 55th and E 79th would be discontinued with this design. Today, because of the crosstown routes’ low frequency and proximity to downtown, many trips along these corridors can be made more quickly by traveling in and back out along more frequent radial services (such as the HealthLine BRT, or routes 1 and 3).  Yes, that would mean having to transfer, but as we’ve explained in a past post, “transferring” can be good!

These hard choices are characteristic of a no-growth redesign; in this case, the network was designed to improve ridership potential and expand the frequent network, within the constraint of maintaining the current coverage area.

The Expanded Funding Concept deploys about 25% more bus operating resources that today’s network. With this greater resource level, this concept can increase the usefulness of the transit network in almost every part of the county that is served. Some key improvements include frequent crosstown service on W 117th in the west and Warrensville Center in the east, and on key radials like St. Clair, Superior, Quincy and Cedar. 30-minute service would be provided on corridors like outer Lorain, W 130th, and Granger where only infrequent or no service is available today.

More Information

RTA is conducting a survey in English and Spanish and public meetings on these concepts now, so if you are in Cleveland, head on over to their website to find out more:

We’ve also put together an interactive webmap (similar to what we were able to deploy in Dublin in 2018) that you can use to explore the network and compare some travel time isochrones for each concept: In these maps, blue areas are newly reachable with the network concept, purple areas are reachable with both the existing network and the concept, and red areas are where you can travel with the existing network that is no longer reachable with the concept. You can also click the “View Routes” button to explore the network structure of each concept.

Here’s a quick comparison for the Tri-C Western campus showing the area that would be reachable in 60 minutes with the Expanded Funding Concept:

With the Expanded Funding Concept, 30-minute service would connect TriC’s western campus to the W 130th, Pearl, Ridge and State corridors. Since the campus is only served with hourly routes today, this produces a big expansion in the area reachable from the college (the blue area shown on the map).

Finally, much more detail is available in our mini-report, which you can view here:

A Fine New Guide for Transit Activists

Steven Higashide, Better Buses, Better Cities: How to Plan, Run, and Win the Fight for Effective Transit. Island Press, 2019.

Why are American cities finally taking buses seriously?  Because, as Churchill famously said, “Americans will do the right thing, after they’ve exhausted all the alternatives.”

I’ve been following transit in America for 35 years, and working in the field for 25. During that time, cities have growh frustrating to get around in, with dire consequences for people’s access to opportunity. But throughout that time powerful people have always been telling me that buses just don’t matter. Development interests cared only about rail or ferries. Technology marketers have always shiften the conversation to new patented things, of which some are useful but many are tragic distractions.  To the extent that buses have mattered to the powerful, it’s often been as a social service — a charity that they give pennies to out of pity but whose functionality they barely care about.

And that’s not even to mention the active hostility to bus service that transit planners encounter daily: the shopping mall or hospital that refuses to let a bus get anywhere near the building, the communities that want buses out, the urban businesses who think that motorists are the only customers who matter.

But having exhausted all the alternatives, American cities are finally rediscovering this essential tool. No remotely functional city in the world lacks a transit system, and the bus is always a critical layer – the thing that goes to all the high-demand places that rail can’t go.  As we enter the inevitable hangover from the mid-2010s sugar-rush of tech boosterism, people are finally doing the math to see why, for a city to function for everyone, buses simply must be allowed to succeed.

Steven Higashide has written a great little book charting the current and incipient bus revolution.  In a skillful balance of facts and stories, Higashide explores what successful bus services look like, and how to overcome the barriers to bus service reform. He interviews the architects of some of the most impressive achievements, and also delves well into the deep challenge of equity and public engagement.

Do I have quibbles?  My only serious one is that I wish the book were clearer about where activists should direct their constructive rage.  US transit agencies are less powerful than they appear and are often not the source of the biggest problems. Much of what they do is defined by their poverty and by the great mass of regulations and labor contracts that form the boundaries of their world.

At times Higashide understates the danger of telling transit agencies to do so many things that everything they do suffers from lack of focus.  Transit agencies desperately need to focus on designing and running good transit systems.  Demanding they take on other battles often comes at a cost to that core business, by dividing staff and elected attention.

For example, Higashide suggests that transit agencies lead on pedestrian infrastructure around stops, a massive task that falls in the city (and sometimes state) role in managing streets. Cities must be pressured to adopt their own transit goals that lead to those kinds of investments, as leading ones like Seattle have done for years.  Just because transit is connected to everything doesn’t mean transit agencies should have to solve every related problem with their own meager budget, as they are often told to do. That just leads to ever-lousier bus service.

But this book is so good in so many ways that I don’t mind disagreeing with it here and there. The messages are critically important. The writing is lively and fun.  You can read the whole thing in a couple of hours, and it’s short and logical chapters support easy snacking.  It’s a great tool for giving you hope, and focus. Buy it, read it, give it to people who need it. It will make a difference.


We’re Hiring in Portland!

Once again, our firm has an opening for a transit analyst in our Portland office.  We require strong analytic and cartography skills, but interest and in transit planning is also valuable.  So this can be a great place to start a transit career, especially if you like our work or my approach to transit planning.

See the listing here!  Deadline is November 1.  Please spread the word!


Miami-Dade: Dinos que piensas sobre estos conceptos de transporte público

This page is available in English here

Nuestro trabajo más reciente en el sistema de transporte público de Miami-Dade ya está disponible en línea, y estamos buscando gente de la región para que nos cuenten su opinión a través de esta encuesta.

El respetado grupo de abogacía, Transit Alliance, está llevando a cabo el proyecto Better Bus en nombre de Miami-Dade Transit y varias ciudades clave. Transit Alliance y el condado nos contrataron este año para que ayudemos a desarrollar alternativas para el sistema de transporte público que ilustren como este podría cambiar si el sistema de trolleys estuviese mejor integrado a toda la red del condado y si el balance entre las metas de un sistema de alta frecuencia y uno de alta cobertura fuese a cambiar.

El periódico local, el Miami Herald, publicó un buen artículo sobre las redes conceptuales y las opciones que pretende ilustrar.

Anteriormente publicamos un Informe de Opciones que destaca las deficiencias del sistema actual, especialmente la falta de una red de alta frecuencia. Los dos conceptos que desarrollamos intentan construir una red de alta frecuencia, por lo menos en el centro del sistema. A continuación, pueden ver secciones de la red existente, la red de alta cobertura, y la red de alta frecuencia.

La leyenda:

Los dos conceptos cuestan lo mismo que el sistema existente y se pueden implementar en su totalidad. Si todos prefieren uno de estos dos conceptos, Miami-Dade y las ciudades pueden hacer los cambios necesarios e implementarlo dentro de 6 a 9 meses. Pero no estamos haciendo que a la gente elija uno o el otro. Les estamos pidiendo que nos digan hacia cuál concepto se inclinan para que la Junta del Condado y la Comisión de la Ciudad reciban información sobre la decisión que deben tomar para Miami-Dade.

Otras preguntas clave sobre estos conceptos incluyen:

  • ¿Se deben cambiar las rutas de los trolleys para que formen parte del sistema del condado entero? Ambos conceptos proveen rutas de mayor frecuencia en más calles porque los sistemas del la ciudad y el condado están diseñados para complementarse mutuamente.
  • ¿Se debería aumentar el espacio entre paradas para que los autobuses puedan ir mas rápido y así la gente puede llegar a donde quieren ir más rápido? Hoy, el espacio entre paradas es aproximadamente un 1/8 de milla. Ambos conceptos asumen un espacio de 1/4 de milla entre paradas.
  • Y por supuesto, ¿cómo la región debe balancear las metas contradictorias de alta frecuencia y alta cobertura.

Si conoces a alguien en el Condado de Miami-Dade, enséñale la página del proyecto para explorar y expresar sus opiniones. Anímalo a leer atentamente el Informe de Conceptos. Y si tú estás interesado en la reforma de sistemas de autobús en general, mira las conversaciones sobre los conceptos y la decisión final que tomarán los líderes electos. Como con todo rediseño que hacemos, estos conceptos están para ayudar a la gente decidir que valores quieren priorizar con el transporte público. Podemos ayudar a que la comunidad entienda sus opciones y los efectos de esas opciones, pero al final es tu decisión.

Linking US Small Cities and Towns: Time for State Leadership

When I was a boy, the US had a robust network of intercity commercial transit services, run by Greyhound and Trailways.  These services didn’t just link the biggest cities.  They also linked smaller towns and cities, too small or too close for airlines to serve.

In my home state of Oregon, for example,  the network looked like this.

Oregon private sector intercity bus services in 1976. Source: Bill Vandervoort


We often rode Greyhound (blue) or Trailways (red) from Portland to the then-small towns of Central Oregon (150 miles) or on one one of four routes out to towns on the coast, 60-100 miles away.

Almost all of those services are gone.  Private intercity bus companies, including new players like Megabus, stick to linking big cities.  All that remains is a minimal state-funded service called Point, one or two trips a day, mostly to feed Amtrak.

Transit agencies have done their best, but the US habit of organizing transit in county-level agencies means that many obvious services don’t exist.  Consider Eugene, Oregon (metro population about 250,000 with a big university).  It has a city bus line (4 trips/day) to the small mountain town of McKenzie Bridge, 53 miles away, but there’s no line to go the 41 miles to Corvallis (population 58,000 with the state’s other major university).  Why? McKenzie Bridge happens to be in the same county, and Corvallis in a different one.

Australia has similar geography to many US states but features state control of all public transit.  Local governments, including the rural ones that are comparable to US counties, have little role.  This arrangement has big downsides, but it does mean that state government actively organizes the long transit lines linking small cities, often with rail but extended as needed with buses.  As a result, there’s a viable public transit option for intertown travel in many parts of Austraila.

We have worked for several county and municipal transit agencies on addressing this problem. All are doing their best. Some have formed interesting partnerships, such Oregon’s NW Connector, to extend service a ways into adjacent counties and present multi-county networks in an integrated way.  But the mission of a county or municipal agency just does not let them run the long, continuous routes that make sense for these markets.

So bravo to the State of Colorado for a new initiative to expand state-funded service for obviously intercity links across their state.  Oregon is in the early stages of developing more such services, thanks to a new statewide funding source.  What is your state doing in this regard?

Miami: The Better Bus Project Goes Public

We’re delighted to announce the release of our analysis of the bus network of Miami-Dade County, the Better Bus Project Choices Report.  The report reviews existing services, identifies possible paths for improvement, and also points to difficult choices that policymakers need to think about.  Here’s the Miami Herald‘s coverage.

We’ve worked on a lot of bus network redesigns, but the Miami-Dade Better Bus Project is unusual in a number of interesting ways.

Most remarkably, the project is led not by the transit agency, but by a well-resourced and well-respected advocacy group, the Transit Alliance.  These folks brokered a deal where they would manage a study on behalf of both Miami-Dade Transit and several of the key cities.  They are handling all of the public outreach and government relations, leaving us to just do the planning behind the scenes.

The role of the cities is also unusual.  Many cities in the county run their own “trolley” services, which offer small buses, free fares, but often routes that duplicate what the countywide Miami-Dade Transit network does.  This happens in other metro areas, but in this project we some of the key cities at the table, trying to come up with the best solution for the city andthe region.

Less unusual, sadly, is now thinly the service is spread.  Here’s a bit of the network map for the dense core of the region.

And the legend:

Most effective transit systems have some kind of frequent grid, where many intersecting lines run at least every 15 minutes all day.   Houston’s, which we helped design, looks roughly like this:

The key idea of a frequent grid is that wherever red lines cross it’s easy to change buses to go a different direction, and that’s the key to being able to get to lots of places in a reasonable amount of time.

You’ll find extensive frequent grids in a number of gridded cities, including not just big cities like Los Angeles and Chicago but also in Houston, Portland, Phoenix and even Tucson.

But Miami-Dade, which is equally dense and equally gridded, has essentially no frequent grid.  There are grid lines, but most run every 20-30 minutes, not enough for connections to be easy.  Only in Miami Beach will you find the intensive frequent service that means transit is there whenever you need it.

So that’s one issue we’ll be looking at.  Others raised by the choices report include:

  • What’s the ideal division of labor between county transit and municipal services?
  • Is there too much peak service and not enough all-day service?  Overall, productivity (ridership / service quantity) is lower during peak hours than midday, which suggests that might be the case.
  • And biggest of all, how should the region balance the competing goals of ridership and coverage?

In the next round of the project, we’ll present illustrations of how the network might look if the region gave a higher priority to ridership, or if it gave a higher priority toward coverage.  As always, the first will have fewer and more frequent lines, but less service to some low-demand places, while the coverage network will go everywhere that people expect service, at the expense of lower frequencies.  As always, we’ll encourage a public conversation about this unavoidable question.

So if you know anyone in Miami-Dade County, send them to the project website to explore and express their views.  Encourage them to peruse the Choices Report. And if you’re interested in reforming bus networks in general, this one will be an interesting example.



Portland: Facing the East-West Chokepoint

That red line (and the adjacent blue line that’s hard to see) is the east-west spine of Portland’s transit system. On the west, it is one of just two direct paths (street or transit) across the hills linking downtown and the the “Silicon Forest” suburbs to the west. But the slow operations across downtown makes this line much less useful than it looks. Credit: Travel Portland.

In 1986, Portland opened one of the first modern light rail lines in the US, the beginning of a light rail renaissance that built networks in mid-sized cities across the country. It was nice to be a leader — we’re used to that in Portland — but it also means that everyone has learned from our mistakes, while Portland still has to live with them.

Perhaps “mistake” is too strong a word, but the priorities of the early light rail designers certainly aren’t the priorities today.  Planners of the 1970s (when I was an enthusiastic teenage transit geek) confronted a city whose downtown consisted mostly of surface parking while prosperity fled to the suburbs.  Their top priority wasn’t even getting people to downtown.  It was making downtown a place worth going.

So they built a line that rushes into the city from the eastern suburbs, but then creeps across the inner city, making lots of stops for a net speed under 7 miles/hour.  For a while that was fine.  All those stations meant lots of development sites right next to the line, and downtown grew and prospered.

Today, the success at revitalizing downtown has created an opposite set of problems.  Downtown and the surrounding neighborhoods are so successful that working people can’t afford to live there.  Low income people are being pushed out to places where they face longer commutes.  Most important, the line now continues west out of downtown to serve the “Silicon Forest” suburbs to the west, so that it runs across downtown, not just into it.  Meanwhile, the development that the slow downtown segment was supposed to stimulate is largely done.

So the downtown segment of the line is becoming more of a barrier than a resource.

Transit in Portland benefits enormously from chokepoint geography.  Between the inner city and the western suburbs, there is a wall of hills pierced by one gridlocked freeway, one parallel arterial, and a light rail line.  This rail segment has prospered because the driving alternatives are terrible.

As always, chokepoint geography means: It’s worth spending a lot of money improving transit here, because so many trips, between so many places, go through this point.  A regional inbalance of jobs and housing (more jobs in the west, more housing in the east) has create a huge east-west travel demand right through this ch0kepoint.  The hills are still a barrier for drivers, but for transit the barrier is the slow downtown streets, and the 1970s assumption that the train needs to stop near every building.

As if the slow operations weren’t bad enough, there’s also a problem of capacity.  Portland’s adorable little 200-foot blocks, rightly credited with giving downtown such a human scale, limit the train lengths to 2 cars as long as they run on the surface.  The city is too big now, and its transit needs too dire, for such tiny trains to do the job.

The problem is being attacked at several scales.  The transit agency is gingerly suggesting that a few stations should be closed. Stations on the downtown segment are as close as 350 feet — far too close for bus stops, let alone rail stations.  (The newer north-south light rail line, whose designers learned from the mistake, has station spacing closer to 1000 feet.  Unfortunately, it is the east-west line that extends furthest into the suburbs and therefore serves the most people.)

But the problem is so big, and obstructs so much access to opportunity across the region, that it won’t be solved just with half measures. A long overdue study is looking at the complex of capacity problems, and while it’s looked at some half-measures, the only thing that solves all the problems is a new segment of subway under the core.  The long frequent east-west lines serving suburbs (and the airport) would go into a tunnel, rushing under downtown in perhaps 1/3 the time, so that transit would finally be viable for travel across downtown and not just to it.  The existing surface line would still be used to provide a more local service across downtown.

An early concept for the downtown rail tunnel (black) with existing light rail segments in red. The tunnel has six stations counting the endpoints. Too many?

I have been skeptical of many rail projects in my time, but the most defensible of all are these “core capacity” projects.  Like the excellent Los Angeles Regional Connector, this is a project that is in downtown but not for downtown. Its purpose is to unlock the potential for all kinds of access across the region.  To bypass the inevitable edge-core debate, it will have to be presented in those terms.

That’s why I’m a little skeptical of the earliest concepts.  As sketched the tunnel has six stations downtown.  They should at least study a line that just has three: the two edges of downtown — Lloyd Center and Goose Hollow — where the fast line would connect with the slow surface line, and just one station at the very center of the city, Pioneer Courthouse Square, where almost all of they city’s radial transit services meet.  This would make the new line barely half as long and much less expensive.

Obviously there are great arguments for every proposed downtown station: the university, the stadium, the train station.  But it’s going to be important to have clear conversations about the balance between downtown and regional benefit, and between the benefits to an already prosperous downtown and the need for reasonable travel times for low income people, who are increasingly pushed further out where they have to travel further.

I don’t know that a three-station solution is right, but I know it should be looked at.  It’s really easy to get around downtown on transit, from anywhere to one of the three stations that this minimal version would offer.  It’s really hard to get across the region, and every station we add to this project moves us back toward not solving that problem — not just by making the line slower but also by making it more expensive.  It’s a tough balance, and I hope we’ll have the debate.