Akron: Welcome to Your New Network

New network in the core of Akron. Red = every 15 min, dark blue = every 30 min, light blue = every 60 min.

by Evan Landman

Akron METRO launched their reimagined bus network on June 4th!  Jarrett Walker + Associates assisted the agency in developing the new service plan over the past 2 years.

You can download the full map here.  On this page there’s also a side-by-side trip planner showing how any trip is made differently in the new network than the old one.

Despite dealing with the same operator shortage as all transit agencies have faced, METRO were able to implement nearly the entire service plan on Day 1, which included the following key elements:

  • 5 new high-frequency 15-minute corridors.
  • 3 new 30-minute routes in addition to 5 existing 30-min routes
  • New regional connections to greater Cleveland (which also implemented a JWA network redesign last year.)
  • Expanded weekend services, particularly on Sundays.

Old network for the same area. Red = every 15 minutes, purple = every 20 minutes, dark blue = every 30 minutes, light blue = every 60 min. Pale orange lines were less frequent than every hour.

Before the new network was implemented, METRO’s most frequent routes ran only every 20 minutes. The new network establishes frequent service to many key destinations and neighborhoods, including major hospitals, the University of Akron, and other important civic institutions. The Reimagined Network was designed to provide frequent and convenient service in busy places where many people need to travel to, while continuing to offer lifeline services in places where and for people for whom transit is essential.

With the new network, the median person in Summit County who lives near a bus route can access over 54% more jobs with a 45 minute transit trip; these outcomes are even larger for lower-income people and people of color, who are more likely to live in central Akron, where the new network’s most frequent routes are concentrated. This was achieved without a reduction in coverage – about 1% more people are now within a short walk to a transit than with the old network.

JWA congratulates METRO on the successful implementation of this plan. We’re proud to have assisted the agency in developing a new bus network that responds to the travel needs of today’s riders, and establishes the foundation for ridership growth in the future.


The Old, Old Idea of High-Tech Cars

Dense cities don’t have room for everyone’s car.  If too many people use cars, they take up all the available space and still get in each other’s way, which is what congestion is.

This was all obvious, and much discussed, when cars first appeared on the scene.  So the prospect of making the car the dominant tool of urban transportation — as opposed to, say, something you might rent to make a trip into the countryside — should have been easy to recognize as a scam.

Historian Peter Norton’s first book, Fighting Trafficchronicles how this scam took over the United States to create the way of life that most Americans now see as normal.  Exploiting understandable frustrations with the for-profit transit of the time, the nascent car and petroleum industries “partnered” with government to build a sense of inevitability around car-based travel.   This campaign had all of the disastrous results that were in fact predicted at the time — road carnage, pollution, and congestion.

Why did people fall for it?  In part, because “innovation” was going to fix those problems soon, leading us to a new utopia where we could take our cars wherever we wanted, safely, cleanly, and without delay. Norton’s new book, Autonorama: The Illusory Promise of High-Tech Driving, fills in more detail on this critical element of the scam, and shows how it operates in the driverless car narratives of today.

Obviously, actual technological improvements to make driving safer are to be welcomed.  The danger lies in the impossible visions of the congestion-free autonomous-car-dependent city, which is then cited as a reason not to invest in proven methods of urban transportation, such as public transit.  The claim that autonomous driving can fix congestion is no longer as loudly proclaimed as it was a few years ago, but it’s still out there.  The only basis of this claim is that because a computer’s reaction time is faster than a human’s,  autonomous cars could drive closer together at high speed, taking less space.  This, of course, is a minor improvement compared to the countervailing force of induced demand: Eliminating the hassle of driving will cause a lot more driving.  We have seen this before.

In the century-long history of high-tech car boosterism, Norton detects cycles of peak hype roughly 25-30 years long, peaking in the 1930s, 1960s, 1990s, and now.  At the peak of each cycle, a burst of technical innovation, fused with intense funding and public relations efforts, seems to bring the dazzling future almost within reach.  When the vision fails to deliver, there’s an inevitable pause of 20 years or so.  Memories fade, and perhaps more important, a generation reaches their 20s who don’t remember the last cycle, and whose sincerity and energy give the effort new life.

Norton calls the newest of these cycles Autonorama (a portmanteau of Futurama and autonomous), but his description of it captures what all four cycles have had in common:

Autonorama is the place where old-fashioned car-dependency is lent new credibility through the application of a fresh gloss of high-tech novelty, where simple possibilities are neglected not because of their inferiority but because of their simplicity, and where implausible promises of perfection divert attention from practical possibilities of actual improvement.  In Autonorama transportation research looks like public relations (and vice versa), theoretically possible performance is equated with actual performance, and technology is less a human means to human-chosen ends than a mysteriously willful entity that inevitably delivers ever-better solutions …

None of this is a secret, really. If you read business journalism you can find corporate gurus explaining their methods with pride:

In 1929 [Charles] Kettering distilled his advice into an article, written for Nation’s Business, called “Keep the Consumer Dissatisfied.”  “If everywhere were satisfied,” he explained, “no one would buy the new thing.”  To Kettering, transport sufficiency was a threat to motordom’s future.  He advocated perpetual insufficiency, propelled by an ever-receding promise of future perfection.

In the book’s first four chapters, Norton explores the four cycles that we’ve been through so far, ending with the current moment of autonomous-car boosterism.  But the most powerful chapter is the fifth, “Data Don’t Drive,” which will train you to recoil when you hear the term data-driven.  Norton explores how invocations of data as the ultimate authority invite us to surrender to interests and goals that may not be ours.

Part of the problem is that data is a valuable commodity.  “Data is the new oil,” as they say.  Norton even turns up a McKinsey report arguing that the real importance of driverless cars is that it will allow us to spend more time interacting with screens, generating data about ourselves that can be used to target and manipulate us.

But the real issue is that data is a tool, not a goal, and only humans can specify the goal.  As Norton puts it, “data can tell people which efforts are serving their goals and which are not, but the goals must be chosen first, and by people.”  In my own career, I’ve seen countless studies that sought to overwhelm the reader with data and analysis, not to illuminate the real choices (as our firm‘s work does) but to make them surrender to the goals (sometimes not clearly stated) of the proponents.  Traffic engineering is full of this kind of talk (“the data show that we need to widen the road”) and you’ll sometimes hear it in transit planning too.

I heartily recommend this book.  It will remind you, once again, of why historians are as urgently needed as scientists in our brave new technological future.


Lyft: The End of Shared Rides

I frequently travel in places and situations where public transit isn’t useful, especially in the transit-poor United States.  So I’ve been a frequent user of Lyft, a shared-ride competitor of Uber.  It was an easy choice.  Although the Lyft and Uber products are the same — often provided by the same cars and drivers — Lyft’s founders were credibly supportive of public transit, so their basic branding, “Uber with a conscience” or “Uber but nice” was pretty much directed at customers like me, although I had no illusions about where the ultimate profit motive would lead them.

One virtuous thing that Lyft attempted was shared rides.  For a lower fare, you could get a ride that would also pick up someone else along the way.  This would reduce VMT and provide lower fares for fare sensitive folks, though still much higher than public transit fares.

I used this service once.  On a departure from the airport, it paired my trip with one in a substantially different direction.  The other trip was to a point further from the airport than my destination, and yet it served that trip first.  I ended up with a travel time about twice what my direct travel time would have been, and much more than the app had estimated.  I never used this option again.  My impression was that they were overselling the product in contexts where it wasn’t appropriate, and they were offering the same discount to the person dropped off first — whose trip is exactly what it would have been if traveling alone — as to the person whose trip was being made much longer.

Drivers apparently hated it too, judging from many of the comments on this Reddit thread.  They didn’t pay drivers enough to deal with the hassles, including customers not understanding the rules and poor relations between strangers sharing the car.  Now, Lyft has abandoned shared rides, although Uber appears to be planning to expand them.

But shared-ride products are still needed, especially when demand appears all at once in high volume.  A common scenario: A plane lands at a small-city airport at midnight.  A line of 100 people ends up at the taxi stand.  Taxis are programmed to carry single parties.  In this situation I will usually poll the people around me in line to see if anyone shares my destination, which may be likely if it’s a downtown hotel.  But we must then present ourselves to the taxi driver as a single party, or they will charge us more.  It’s remarkable that in this particular case, late night airport to downtown, there isn’t a workable solution.  Because while it can be a pain to have another person in the car, it would be even better to get to the hotel at 1 am instead of 3 am, and a small town with 17 taxis and a few Lyft cars is not going to serve us all very quickly if it insists on serving us all separately.

Of course, there should really be a bus to downtown meeting this late-night airplane, but planes are late a lot, and transit agencies can’t devote a bus to meeting an unpredictable arrival time.

If you are not a traveling businessperson like me, this may all sound very “first world problems” to you, but there is a lot of VMT in carrying a bunch of people from an airport to the same distant cluster of hotels at the same time, all in separate cars.  I’m disappointed Lyft couldn’t focus this product on that problem, grouping people only when their destinations were very close together, and thus creating a product that both customers and drivers could be believe in.

Update on Human Transit, Revised Edition

First draft of the cover. Thoughts?

Whew! Last night I delivered the manuscript to Island Press for a Revised Edition of Human Transit.  It’s been a bigger project than I expected.  I started out thinking that I could just add some material and the rest would stand as it was, but as I got into it I saw more things that I could improve, and now it’s pretty substantially revised.  There’s nothing I would retract in the old version, of course.  Certainly, the geometry isn’t out of date.  But there are things I can say better now, so I do.

There are new chapters on planning for diversity, planning for access to opportunity, and network redesign, as well as new material on flexible transit (a.k.a demand-responsive transit or “microtransit”) and on Bus Rapid Transit.  And I’ve added some more pointed commentary about the challenge of sorting through technological claims that have been amplified by venture capital.

It should come out in February 2024.

Meanwhile, here’s the rough draft of the cover, based on a sketch by the architect Eric Orozco.  We were trying to capture the way that an abstract transit line turns into access which turns into human joy and possibility.  Let me know what you think.

And yes, now that that’s done I should be blogging more.

Galway, Ireland: A Proposed Bus Network

We’ve been honored to work with the National Transport Authority of Ireland on proposed network redesigns for all of the Irish Republic’s major cities: Dublin back in the late 2010s, Cork over the last two years, and now Galway and Limerick. (Waterford is coming next year.) The Galway plan is out now.  You can explore it here.  You can view the new network map here and compare it to our drawing of the current one, in the same style which is here.

Some key facts:

  • 38% more jobs reachable within 30 minutes on weekdays (daytime) for the average resident
    • And +43% on Saturdays, +54% on Sundays
  • one-third of residents would be within a 5 minute walk of a frequent route, which is nearly double the current number
  • nearly one-half of jobs would be within a 5 minute walk of a frequent route, up from 30% on the existing network
    • and of course many people are willing to walk more than 5 minutes to reach high frequency service
  • More residents and jobs covered by service of any frequency
  • More evening and weekend service
  • A new 24-hour route (Route 9) across the city
  • About 50% more service quantity overall in the bus network.

(US readers are welcome to salivate at the prospect of a transit network expanding by 50% in one go, in a city of only 84,000 people, but that’s where Ireland is in terms of its commitment to public transport.  It helps that public transport is funded directly out of the national budget, rather than through separate agencies each managing their own finances.)

We loved the challenges of working in Galway.  As in all Irish cities, the geography is hard — not just the narrow streets of the historic core, but the lack of any kind of grid pattern that would suggest an obvious pattern of transit lines.  Every bit of the city required a great deal of thought.

We look forward to feedback!

Seeking Perspectives Outside the US: Mental Health and Behavior Issues on Public Transport

In the second edition of Human Transit, which I’m working on how, there’s a new chapter about the need to plan for a diversity of riders, as against the classic fallacy of planning separately for different demographic groups or, even worse, dividing customers into “choice” and “captive.”  This leads me into discussing people’s ability to be comfortable around a diversity of strangers.  From there, I find myself drawn into saying something about the rise of crime and antisocial behavior on public transport during and since the pandemic.  Of course, public transport is just a kind of public space, and most of the same issues are arising in many kinds of public space, including parks, sidewalks, etc.

I would like to separate this behavior issue from the issue of homelessness, a different problem that also affects public space and sometimes public transport.  I want to focus on behavior, regardless of whether the people behaving badly are housed or unhoused.

This is a real issue in the US.  One friend who is a bus driver in a major US city tells me that the frequency which which a trip has to be paused or even canceled because of passenger misbehavior has gone up markedly since the pandemic.

I want to better understand what is going on in comparable countries.

Since the pandemic, my only public transport experiences outside the US have been in Europe, namely Spain, France and Switzerland in February of 2023.  I noticed that the issue didn’t seem to be nearly as bad, but of course one person’s experience is too small a sample.

My first impulse, on seeing that this problem is worse in the US than in Europe, is to assume that it’s tied to the poor safety net and especially the difficulty of accessing mental health care.  But it seems to be bad in Canada too.

If you’re outside the US, I’d love to know both how much worse you think the issue of misbehavior on public transport has become since the pandemic. and how it’s perceived, and whether that perception is affecting patronage/ridership.

It’s probably too soon to have good studies about this, but if you’ve seen one I’d love to see it.  Any other data you’re aware of would also be welcome.

Microtransit is Eating Science Fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moose with gravity nets!


My First Questions to ChatGPT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To check this conjecture, I asked:

For now, I guess that’s my answer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do you see a better way?




Atlanta: You Have Choices for Your Transit Future

Source: “Atlantacitizen” at English language Wikipedia

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

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

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

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

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

Please share this with everyone you know in the region!