General

Chattanooga: Choices for the City’s Transit Future

Chattanooga Incline Railway

Chattanooga, Tennessee’s most well-known transit infrastructure may be the Chattanooga Choo-Choo, a former train station made famous by a 1941 swing tune by Glenn Miller and His Orchestra, or perhaps the Lookout Mountain Incline Railway, a tourist-oriented funicular currently owned and operated by the Chattanooga Area Regional Transportation Authority (CARTA).  Most days though, Chattanooga’s transit line with the highest ridership is the Route 4 bus from downtown to the eastern suburbs. Although Chattanooga was an early adopter of electric buses, starting their downtown electric shuttles in 1992, transit has not been at the forefront of its planning policies in the past few decades.  Like many other similarly sized cities without urban growth boundaries in the US, development has sprawled outwards, enabled by highways, resulting in land use patterns that are difficult to serve by transit.

That is changing.  In recent years, Chattanooga has focused efforts on rekindling the inner city, adding housing, retail, and office space downtown, and becoming the first midsize city in the US to designate an urban innovation district.  As a recognition of their efforts to build vibrant public spaces, Chattanooga will be hosting the Project for Public Spaces placemaking conference this Fall, the third city to do so after Amsterdam and Vancouver.  But in order for a city center integrated within a growing regional economy to scale up without being choked by traffic congestion, Chattanooga needs better transit.  Today, the city is starting to reconsider the role of the bus and may be ready to make major changes to its bus services and perhaps invest more in it.

 

The recently revamped Miller Park in Downtown Chattanooga. Photo: downtownchattanooga.org

We’ve been studying the transit system in Chattanooga for over a year and in June CARTA released our report outlining four possible concepts of what the future of transit could look like. These four concepts show a range of options between coverage and ridership goals with no new funding and two options with additional funding for transit. Happily, the local newspaper’s coverage is clear and accurate.

The release of this report begins the period of public discussions and surveys. The results of that discussion will inform the decision that the CARTA Board makes in August about what direction the final plan should take.

Our report discusses four possible futures but most likely, the final plan won’t look quite like any of these. The key idea — as in much of our work — is to open up a “decision space” in which people can figure out where they want to come down on the two difficult policy decisions:

  • Ridership vs coverage? What percentage of resources should to go pursuing a goal of maximum ridership — which will tend to generate frequent service in the densest urban markets — as opposed to the goal of coverage — spreading service out so that as many people as possible have some service nearby?
  • Level of investment in service? How much should the community invest in service? The more it invests the more it gets in value, but the value it gets depends in part on how you answer the ridership-coverage trade-off.

If you live in Chattanooga or know anyone there, now is the time to get involved.  Download the report, read at least the executive summary, form your own view, and share it with us here!  The more people respond, the more confident we’ll be in defining the final plan based on their guidance.

Mirra Meyer, 1942-2019

My mother, the artist Mirra (Louella) Meyer, passed away on Friday, April 16.  The story of her life, with images of her work, are here.

 

Do Uber and Lyft Want to Connect to Transit?

Uber and Lyft — especially Lyft — want you to think that they are partners of public transit, eager to help more people get to rapid transit stations.  Lyft and Uber have both created partnerships with transit agencies to provide “last mile” service.  When people talk about the “last mile” problem of access to transit (a problem that exists mostly in suburban areas or late at night) Lyft and Uber are eager to seem part of the solution.

I would like to believe this.  Here are two reasons I don’t.

  1.  Uber/Lyft Drivers Don’t Want Short Trips

First, no Uber or Lyft driver really wants to offer a “last mile” because a mile is too short a trip to make sense to them.  The hassles of each trip are constant regardless of the trip’s length, so long trips are always preferred.  In the old days of taxis, whenever I booked a taxi ride to a transit station, the driver always pitched me to give me a ride all the way to my destination.  And if I approached a long taxi queue at a suburban rail station and told the driver I wanted to go a mile, he’d be unhappy to say the least, because he spent a lot of time waiting for my fare.

That’s why the partnerships between Uber/Lyft and transit agencies for “last mile” service inevitably involve public subsidy, which means that they compete with other kinds of transit service for those funds.  (This can be OK if transit agencies have really decided that this is the best use of funds given all of their other needs.)

2.  Uber/Lyft Drivers Can’t Find Transit Station Entrances

Uber and Lyft drivers mostly use mapping software that can’t find many transit station entrances.  If connecting with transit were a critical part of their business, this would have been fixed by now.

The nearest rapid transit station to my home in Portland (Bybee Blvd) looks like this:

This is a typical suburban arrangement (although this is not really suburbia).  The station is alongside a highway (labeled McLoughlin Blvd.).  The pedestrian access to the station is from the overpass. The little roofs are the elevators and stairs.

But the mapping apps think that the station entrance is on the highway.

So it is impossible to call Uber or Lyft to this station, because the software tells the driver to go down the highway, where all they’ll find is a fence.  I can text them to correct it, but not all drivers pay attention to texts (nor should they, while driving.)  And even if I correct it, I’ll then wait an extra 10 minutes as they get themselves turned around and navigated to the right spot.

This is the example I deal with all the time, but I’ve found many suburban rail stations in many cities where drivers don’t have clear directions about station locations.  For example, call Lyft or Uber to Van Dorn Metro Station in Alexandria, Virginia, and you can expect the driver to wander all over the adjacent interchange.

Some people clearly need to go to work accurately coding the location of every entrance to every transit station, but it’s clearly not being done.  Why not?  It must not be that important to these companies.

So Do Uber and Lyft Want to Go to Transit?

It makes sense that Uber and Lyft would want to do long trips to rapid transit, more than a few miles.  For example, in San Francisco, Uber and Lyft do a good business to regional rapid transit stations (BART and Caltrain) but since each system has only one line in the city, these can be trips of several miles (often competing with the abundant local bus and light rail system).

And Uber and Lyft certainly want to be subsidized to do more “last mile” work, via partnerships with transit agencies.

But the drivers’ inability to find transit station entrances — and the fact that this problem has been tolerated for years — is what really decides it for me.  Companies that really want to connect with transit would have made sure that they can navigate a driver to any entrance of any rapid transit station.  But they don’t.

Why Invest in Lyft or Uber? What Am I Missing?

Lyft has completed its Initial Public Offering, and at this writing the price has since fallen 35%.  Uber’s IPO is expected soon.  Both will now be publicly traded companies, reliant on many people’s judgments about whether they can be good investments.  Uber loses billions of US dollars every year, while Lyft, which is smaller but growing faster, is getting close to losing $1 billon/year for the first time.

Why invest in these companies?

Anyone who says “Amazon lost money too at first” is just not thinking about transportation.  Amazon can grow more profitable as they grow larger, because they can do things more efficiently at the larger scale.

Uber and Lyft are not like this, because their dominant cost, the driver’s time, is entirely unrelated to the company’s size.   For every customer hour there must be a driver hour.  Prior to automation, this means that no matter how big these companies get, there is no reason to expect improvement on their bottom line.  Any Uber or Lyft driver will tell you that these companies have cut compensation to the bone, and that they already require drivers to pay costs that most other companies would pay themselves, like fuel and maintenance.

If Uber and Lyft could rapidly grow their shared ride products, where your driver picks up other customers while driving you where you’re going, that could change the math.  But shared ride services don’t seem to be taking off.  My Lyft app rarely offers me the option, even when I’m at a huge destination like an airport, and when they do it isn’t much of a savings, which suggests that it’s not really scaling for them.

Of course Uber and Lyft could also go into another business, such as bike and scooter rental, but in doing that they’re entering an already crowded market with no particular advantage apart from capital.  The single-customer ride-hailing is the essence of why these companies exist, and there’s no point in investing in them unless you think that product can succeed.

Please correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems to me the possible universe of reasons someone would invest in these companies is the following:

  • Confusion about the basic math of ridehailing, outlined above.  Hand-waving comparisons to Amazon are a good sign that this mistake is being made.
  • Extreme optimism about Level 5 automation, which would indeed transform the math by eliminating drivers.  I no longer hear many people saying that commercial rollout of Level 5, in all situations and weathers, is imminent, as many people believed around the time Uber and Lyft were founded.   (And no, it makes no sense to have a huge crew of drivers ready to take the wheel only when the weather looks bad.  Nobody can live on that kind of erratic compensation.)
  • A naive belief that if you love a product, or find it essential to your own life, it must therefore be a good investment (a rookie investing mistake).
  • A belief that while you don’t believe any of those three things, enough other people do that those people will drive the price up, and you can get out before they discover the truth.  If this goal were intended clearly and honestly, it would be Ponzi scheme.  So surely it can’t be that.

So I must be missing something.  What am I missing?

 

Want to work with us in the Washington DC area? Apply now!

We’re excited to announce that Jarrett Walker + Associates is once again in a position to grow our excellent team of skilled transit planners and analysts, this time in our Washington, DC area office. Applications are open through May 17, 2019, so read on for details, and don’t forget to share with anyone you know who might be interested! You can also view the posting over at the firm website.

Overview

JWA is seeking a transit planner/analyst to work in our Arlington, Virginia office (Washington DC area), currently located in Crystal City.  The position offers the potential to grow a career as a consultant in transit planning.  As a small firm, we can promote staff in response to skill and achievement, without waiting for a more senior position to become vacant.  Everyone pitches in at many different levels, and there are many opportunities to learn on the job.

Duties include a wide range of data analysis and mapping tasks associated with public transit planning.

About JWA

Jarrett Walker and Associates is a consulting firm that helps communities think about public transit planning issues, especially the design and redesign of bus networks.  The firm was initially built around Jarrett Walker’s book Human Transit and his 25 years of experience in the field.  Today, our professional staff of nine leads planning projects across North America, with an overseas practice including Europe and Australia / New Zealand.You can learn about us at our website (jarrettwalker.com) and at Jarrett’s blog (humantransit.org).  For a sense of our basic approach to transit planning, see the introduction to Jarrett’s book Human Transit, which is available online.

Required Skills and Experience

For this position, the following are requirements.  Please respond only if you offer all of the following:

  • Two or more years professional experience using the skills listed in this section, or formal training in these skills (such as at a college or university). Directly-applicable coursework is valuable but not essential.
  • Fluency in written and spoken English. In particular, an ability to explain analytic ideas clearly.
  • Understanding and experience with analysis and visualization of quantitative information.
  • Experience in spatial data analysis (GIS).
  • Experience working in Adobe Illustrator, particularly in applications related to mapping or cartography.
  • Experience in cartography, evidenced in at least one mapping sample that is clear, accurate, and visually appealing.
  • Availability to start training in our Portland office the week of July 15, and full-time work in our Arlington office soon after, at least 32 hours per week.
  • Willingness to travel occasionally for projects.
  • Legal ability to work in the US

Other Desired Skills and Experience

The following are desirable but not essential, and candidates with the required skills listed above but none or few of these desired skills are still encouraged to apply.If you have any of the following skills, please note them in your application.

  • Experience with public transit issues, especially related to planning. Please describe any such experience.
  • Experience and skill level using data analysis programming languages (particularly R). If you can, please share some details on projects to which you have applied data analysis programming skills, and how long you have been working with the language.
  • Experience and skill level working in GIS, particularly QGIS.
  • Experience and skill level in Adobe Creative Suite, particularly Illustrator and InDesign. If you can, please tell us about the types of documents you have created in either software, and how long you have been using them.
  • Experience using Remix or other transit planning software.
  • Experience in database analysis. (Postgres/PostGIS, MySQL, etc)
  • Expertise with transit-focused routing software, such as OpenTripPlanner or Conveyal.
  • Experience describing issues from multiple points of view, including the perspectives of different types of people, and different professions.
  • Graduate degree in urban planning, transportation, or a related field.
  • Foreign language ability. Spanish is especially useful but other language skills are valued as well.
  • Experience managing small groups.
  • Experience working with minority and disadvantaged communities.
  • Experience and comfort in public speaking. If this is a strong point, please share a link to a video of you giving a presentation to a relatively non-technical audience.

Compensation, Benefits and Place of Work

Compensation will depend on skills, but will start in the range of $25-40/hour depending on skills and experience.  Large raises in the first year are typical for excellent work. Our benefits program includes medical, dental, and disability insurance; a 401(k) program; subsidized and pre-tax transit benefits; paid sick leave; and paid time off.This position will require working out of our Washington, D.C., area office, located in Arlington, Virginia’s Crystal City area. JWA does allow employees to set work schedules that include working from home or other locations for some of their work time, but employees will be expected to work in the Washington, D.C., area office for most of their work hours. This position will likely require occasional travel, to work with clients directly, a few times per year, and a trip to Portland to work with staff in our main office once or twice a year.

How to Apply

To apply, please send the following materials to hiring@jarrettwalker.com.

  • 1-page cover letter, explaining your interest in the position.
  • 1- or 2-page resume, describing your relevant experience and skills.
  • Links or electronic files for up to three (3) samples of your work. If possible, please include a map, a piece of writing, and a demonstration of a spatial analysis. (A single sample may satisfy more than one of these requests.)
  • Contact information for 1 to 3 references who can attest to your experience with the skills listed above.
  • Please do not include any information about your prior compensation.

On your applications materials, please remove or redact any explicit information about your name, gender, or sex.

Diversity and inclusion

JWA follows an equal opportunity employment policy and employs personnel without regard to race, creed, color, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender expression, age, physical or mental ability, veteran status, military obligations, and marital status.This policy also applies to management of staff with regards to internal promotions, training, opportunities for advancement, and terminations. It also applies to our interactions with outside vendors, subcontractors and the general public.

Timeline

The deadline for applying is 11:00 pm Pacific Standard Time on Thursday, May 17. Submitting earlier is advantageous as we will review applications as we receive them.We will ask a select group of applicants to perform a simple analysis and mapmaking test on their own, and then to join us for an interview. The test will likely be assigned on May 24 and due on May 31. We wish to hold interviews (in person or by phone/web) the week of June 3-7. Thank you for reviewing this listing. Please share it with others you know who might be interested. We look forward to hearing from you.

Cleveland: Kicking Off a Transit Plan

(Photo:  GCRTA)

I’m just back from a week in Cleveland, where I introduced our new transit planning project to members of the transit agency board and began the process of working with staff to develop network concepts that will help the public think about their choices.  Press coverage of my presentation is here, here, and here.  The local advocates at Clevelanders for Public Transit are also on the case.

Cleveland is in a challenging situation.  The city has been losing population for years and most growth has been in outer suburbs that were designed for total car dependence.  Low-wage industrial jobs are appearing in places that are otherwise almost rural, requiring low-income people to commute long distances.

All this is heightening the difficulty of the ridership-coverage tradeoff.  The agency faces understandable demands to run long routes to reach remote community colleges and low-wage jobs, but because these services require driving long distances to reach few people, they are always low-ridership services compared to what the agency could achieve if it focused more on Cleveland and its denser inner suburbs.   There’s no right or wrong answer about what to do.  The community must figure out its own priorities.

To that end, we have helped the agency launch a web survey to help people figure out what the agency should focus on.  In April, we’ll release two contrasting maps that illustrate the tradeoff more explicitly, and again ask people what they think.  Only then will we think about developing recommendations.

If you live in Cuyahoga County, please engage by taking the survey!

 

A US Density Revolution?

These two things are connected!

In major cities and some states across the US, the tide seems to suddenly be turning in favor of density.  James Brasuell at Planetizen has a thorough survey of these efforts.  Read the whole thing.

An inescapable trend emerged in recent years and months: a large and growing number of communities are now engaged in comprehensive plans and zoning code revisions, and they’re doing that planning work in the hopes of creating a future that is fundamentally distinct from the 20th century model of planning.

But the revolution Brasuell describes is about much more than planning documents.  The story is political:  In response to the housing crisis, both city and state politicians are producing legislation that makes it easier to build densely by:

  • reducing off-street parking requirements, which makes denser development pencil out and can also make units more affordable
  • streamlining transit-oriented development, including around frequent bus corridors and
  • most controversially, allowing more density in neighborhoods that have long been legally protected as exclusively for single family homes.

All this is great news, not because everybody wants to live at high density but because more people want it than can currently afford it.  The extreme cost of living in dense and walkable cities is the sound of the market screaming at us to build more of them, and finally that’s becoming possible.

From a transit perspective, I have one note of caution when it comes to upzoning absolutely everywhere.  Most cities have places that are hard for transit to get to, and where a few more people will create transit demand that is very expensive to serve.  Sometimes they are physically hard to reach: long cul-de-sacs, squiggly streets, etc.  But sometimes too they are so sparsely populated that they are poor transit markets and adding a few more people isn’t enough to make them better.

Gentle upzoning of single-family areas — allowing second and third units on formerly single-family parcels — is mostly helpful, but not always in these tough spots.  In any case, serious density must be organized around the frequent transit network — bus and rail — so that more people end up in places where transit can be really useful to them.   Don’t know where yours is?  There should be a map of it somewhere, reflecting a policy adopted by both your transit agency and your city government!  It should be on the wall in both the transit agency and the city’s planning and traffic offices.  (See Chapter 16 of my book, Human Transit, for more on this tool.)

Transit is expensive.  It succeeds when it can run in straight lines through dense and walkable places, so that it has enough ridership over a short enough distance that it can afford high frequency.  A policy frequent network, agreed upon by the transit agency and the city government(s) and manifested in both zoning and traffic planning, was critical to jumpstarting the growth of transit in Seattle, which is now one of the US’s great success stories.  It could make a difference for your city too.

Bus Crashes Auto Show with Killer Ad

By Christopher Yuen

This coming weekend for the first time, GO Transit, Toronto’s regional transit agency, will be displaying one of their buses at the Canadian International Auto Show.  They’ve also made a fantastically theatrical ad touting an amazing technology that’s even better than the self-driving car.

Dramatic?  Yes, but only fitting for a densely populated city where nearly 50 percent of commutes into downtown are made by transit, and where the mobility of everyone is dependent on not everybody travelling in individual cars, self-driving or not.