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.


The Bus Driver Shortage is an Emergency

I know we’re having a lot of emergencies and it’s hard to keep track, but many US transit agencies are looking at devastating service cuts due to a shortage of bus drivers.  Drivers are quitting or retiring early much faster than agencies can replace them.  One friend told me their agency is losing 10 drivers for every one they hire.

Here in Portland, TriMet is cutting 9% of its service, bigger even than the cuts in the Great Recession.  I’m seeing similar cuts all over the US.

Can you blame the bus drivers?  The job was always hard, and now it’s more dangerous in two ways: People breathe on drivers a lot, not always masked, and the mental health epidemic is showing up in more rudeness and bad behavior.  Worst of all, some US cities are seeing a rise in assaults on drivers.

Meanwhile, there’s been huge growth in delivery jobs, some of which pay decently and don’t involve dealing with people.

Transit agencies are doing what they can, offering one-time bonuses for signing up.  But the real problem is retention, and it’s hard to imagine how that will be solved without some increase in compensation, also known as operating cost.  It means less service for the same operating dollar.  And of course when compensation goes up it doesn’t come back down.

Before you jump on me:  I believe that drivers should be paid well and held to high standards. I believe that a bus driver, with an employed partner, should be able to own a home and raise children.  Most US bus drivers are unionized and tend to have relatively good pay and benefits, certainly compared to non-union driving jobs.  (One friend of mine is a freelance software consultant but still drives a bus part-time just for the health insurance.)  I wish all transportation jobs paid as well.

But in any case, these service cuts are an emergency.  They are not minor.  They are not necessarily temporary, because right now it’s not clear how the problem will get better.  We could be looking at a lasting shrinkage in our transit services, right when people are crying out for expanded service and many agencies had been on track to deliver it.

What can you do?  Advocate for funding, but also:

  • Be kind to your bus driver. If you have a moment, watch them in action.  Notice how hard their job is, and how much they have to deal with.  Thank them.
  • Be kind to your transit agency management.  It’s a terrible moment for them.  They’re as horrified as you are by having to cut service.  (You can be kind to them and still be mad at them for some things. But be sure that what you’re mad about is really their fault.  The driver shortage isn’t.)

This advice may sound simplistic, but it’s actually practical.  Kindness is a powerful form of activism.  A lot of it can add up to big change.


Freedom Happens In Infrastructure (and Services)

Alex Schafran, Matthew Noah Smith, Stephen Hall.  The Spatial Contract.  Manchester University Press, 2020

In Western political philosophy, physical space is a fairly recent discovery.  Early thinkers about socialism and capitalism tended to focus on wealth as the primary thing to be generated or distributed.  Only in recent decades, in the work of Edward Soja for example, have we seen serious consideration to how space — including the ability to move — is distributed.   Freedom, too, started out as an abstraction, often defined negatively as the absence of constraint.  But real freedom only happens in a system of infrastructure and services:

What does it mean to be free to walk down a road?  Most people would agree that this requires being free legally and socially … But to truly understand what makes someone free to walk down a road, we need to be paying a lot more attention to the road.

Or as you’ve heard me say elsewhere: Transportation planning is freedom planning.  Every decision about infrastructure or services (where they should be? how they should work?  what they should cost to use? how well they should be maintained?) is a decision about who will be free and how free they will be.

This little book explores what it means to be free in a world where freedom relies on systems. It’s fun to think of “throwing off your chains” and “hitting the open road.”  That’s negative freedom, the freedom from constraint. In fact, you can only “hit the open road” because somebody built the road, put it here rather than there, and is maintaining it or not.  What’s more, those decisions define your options about where you can really go, what you can really do, who you can meet, and so on.  We are always inside spatial systems — transportation, water, sanitation, power, etc — and our freedom lies entirely in what options and opportunities those systems offer us.  The authors call these reliance systems.  [1]

From this insight, the book builds the idea of a spatial contract.  It’s an analogy to the social contract — the idea that citizens and their governments have an implicit deal where the citizen accepts constraints imposed by the government in return for security, stability and other things that only government can provide.  A spatial contract is the same idea applied to space but especially to infrastructure and services.  In the narrow sense, a spatial contract between resident and government would specify that the citizen pays taxes and the government provides infrastructure and services.  But spatial contracts are more diverse than that, because reliance systems are not all produced by government, nor should they be.  There are private actors, informal sectors such as the taxicab industry, and so on.

The authors’ focus on establishing a moral framework for talking about reliance systems, one that (unlike many established frameworks of moral and political philosophy) deals with the physical and spatial reality of these systems.  The chapters “Seeing like a system” and “Seeing like a settlement” describe this framework from important but different spatial points of view.  Each system operates in physical space with its own logic, and needs to be seen from that point of view.  Each settlement, where people live and work together, is a point where many systems interact and must collaborate, and needs to be seen from that point of view.

Obviously I don’t recommend this book to every reader.  This is a scholarly conversation.  But unlike most academic writing, the book is friendly and readable for anyone who has a basic level of comfort with political and philosophical thinking.  Freedom is at the center of my work these days, and this book has helped me think about it more clearly.


[1]  The term reliance systems strikes me as confusing, because the word “system” is normally preceded by what it provides (water system, transit system) rather than the user’s relationship to it (reliance system).  If you prefer, you can just use infrastructure in the broad sense that is being proposed on the left in the US infrastructure funding debate, one that includes childcare and education as well as bridges and broadband.  But we could also call them liberation systems, since they go beyond providing basic needs to providing the possibilities for freedom.


Cork, Ireland: A Draft Bus Network Redesign

Since January we have been working for the National Transport Authority of Ireland (NTA) to redesign the bus network of Ireland’s second-largest city, Cork.  This follows on our 2018-19 work in Dublin whose first phase has just been implemented.

Now the NTA has released a Draft New Network for everyone’s consideration. The people of Cork are currently weighing in on the Draft New Network through an online feedback form created by our collaborators at JLA Public Involvement. The feedback form integrates animated videos by JLA and an online map prepared by our own staff.

In a metro area of only 300,000, the plan will be able to offer a network that’s mostly every 15 minutes or better (red). (Screenshot from the online map.)

To design the Draft New Network, we held intensive workshops with NTA staff, City and County planners, and the company (Bus Éireann) that runs the buses under contract with the government. We also leaned on public input from July about how to make the toughest network design choices. The Draft New Network would increase overall bus service by over one third, but as readers of this blog know well, within any limited budget – even a growing one – trade-offs must always be made.

What the Plan Would Achieve

When designing the Draft New Network, we kept in mind the first and second priorities of the 1,200 people who gave their input in an earlier phase of the project:

  1. Reduce vehicle use, by making public transport more useful to more people for more trips.
  2. Continue to serve all areas that have service today, and add service that covers new parts of the metropolitan area.

These goals are in famously in tension, but even in this fairly small city, the Irish government is funding public transport well enough that we can do a good job on both.  It’s a very different situation from what most North American transit agencies face.

Measuring the access provided by the Draft New Network gets at the first goal. Under the plan, the average person would be able to get to 17% more jobs or school enrolments in 30 minutes. (For unemployed and younger residents the benefit is slightly more.)  Existing trips would get shorter, and more trips would become possible within a reasonable amount of time.

Residents of some of the densest areas would see their access to jobs and other opportunities expand. Even outside the centre city, some large and growing towns would gain access. For example, Carrigaline – residents near the centre of Carrigaline would gain access to 35% more jobs within an hour’s commute.

Here’s how the network would change where you can go within 30 minutes from Carrigaline Town Centre south of Cork.  Dark purple is the area already reachable in this time, while pale purple shows the area that would be newly reachable due to the plan.   Grey (there isn’t much) is the area no longer reachable in 60 minutes.

How the plan would change where you can get to in 60 minutes, from the centre of Carrigaline. (That’s the city of Cork in the northwest.) Pale purple is the area newly accessible as a result of the plan.

The biggest reason access would increase is an increase in frequent services in the places where the greatest number of people live and work. Residents within a 5-minute walk of frequent service would increase by 34% (and for unemployed residents, by 56%).

Carrigaline, in the example above, would have 50% more buses departing for the city centre per hour, all day. This not only increases people’s access to the city centre but also to all the places they can go by interchanging with other routes.

To measure improvements that serve the second goal, of maintaining and increasing coverage of the metropolitan area, we counted up all residents and jobs that would be newly close to public transport (regardless of its frequency). The number of residents in the metropolitan area who would be within a 5-minute walk of service would go up by 7%, and the number of jobs would go up by 5%.

Requiring Interchange (Transfers in US Parlance)

The Draft New Network includes a few new nodes in outlying towns, where people would transfer (in Ireland, “interchange”) to reach the centre of Cork.

With improved frequencies, trips involving new interchange can be faster, on average, than direct trips.  Is a network that offers better frequencies, and shorter overall trips, but requires some new interchange, worth it?

Some people will understandably be anxious about interchange, or unhappy about what is a one-seat trip today turning into a two-seat trip: What if their second bus is running behind schedule? What if it’s too crowded and they can’t get a seat? What if they’re asked to interchange someplace without a good shelter to wait under? (It rains a lot in Ireland.)

This network redesign is part of a much larger project, called BusConnects Cork, that includes big investments in speed/reliability infrastructure, vehicles, shelters and signage. Much of this is designed to make interchange easier and more pleasant. The question of interchange, then, is not just about route and network design but also about investments in infrastructure that make interchange reliable and comfortable.

Preparing for Light Rail

Cork will build its first light rail line in the next decade, from its western edge to its eastern edge, connecting major universities, shopping centers, industrial areas, the city centre, existing dense housing and planned future developments.

To prepare for this, the Draft New Network includes an east-west frequent bus route that approximates the path of the future light rail line. Offering frequent, all-day, all-week bus service along the light rail corridor before the train is built supports the future success of the rail line. People’s will start to build their habits and their lives around travel patterns that the train will improve once it arrives. The city can permit new buildings before the light rail is built, knowing that they have decent public transit now while waiting for light rail to be built.


Caption: The three most frequent cross-city radial routes, in the existing network (top) and the Draft New Network (bottom). The colors don’t stand for frequency; they just serve to tell the routes apart. The new network sets up a line resembling the future light rail line.

Changing a long-standing route is always a bit controversial. It’s disruptive for people who know and use the bus network today, because they’ve built their lives and habits around the existing pattern. They’ve chosen where to live, or where to enroll in school, in part based on where they can go easily.

But in most cases, the impact on these people would be that they may have to change buses, but will get where they’re going soon.  So is the disruption worthwhile, if the result would be a major expansion in where people can go on public transport?.

More maps and resources are available on the project website.

Come work for us! Transit/Analyst Planner Job in Arlington VA or Portland OR


Jarrett Walker + Associates is excited to announce our next round of hiring, beginning today! JWA is seeking an analyst with interest or experience in public transit to work in either Arlington, Virginia or Portland, Oregon.  Our preference is for Arlington but we could hire in Portland for the ideal person.  You must be close enough to commute to one of these offices at least 3 days/week.

The position offers the potential to develop a range of transit planning skills. As a small firm, we can promote staff in response to skill and achievement. 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, mapping, graphic design and/or writing tasks associated with public transit planning.


Transit GIS analyst/planner

Salary range:

$25-$35 hourly equivalent

Applications due by:

11:00pm PST, December 3, 2021

How to apply:

See below.

Jarrett Walker + Associates is a consulting firm that helps communities think about public transit planning, especially the design and redesign of bus networks. You can learn about us at our website ( and at Jarrett’s blog (

What does a typical day look like?

At JWA, analysts work on many different aspects of transit planning projects, using different tools and skillsets. For example, early on in a project, you could be asked to draw a map showing the frequency of each route in a transit network using Adobe Illustrator and QGIS. On another day, you might be asked to lay out a report in Adobe InDesign or create a set of charts in Excel or using R’s ggplot plotting package. Once you’re more experienced, you might make site visits to our clients in other cities to help with a design workshop or a public meeting. We also work together using R and other data analysis programming languages to conduct detailed analyses of existing transit service performance and compare different planning options.

Because our team is small and our projects are highly varied, we seek to hire and provide training to ensure the widest range of ability possible among our staff.

Required Skills and Experience

For this position, the following are requirements.  Do not apply if you cannot offer these.

  • 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 or spatial information, including working with GIS.
  • Experience in cartography, evidenced in at least one mapping sample that is clear, accurate, and visually appealing.
  • Availability to start work in January 2022, at least 32 hours per week.
  • Willingness to travel occasionally (2-6 times per year) for projects.
  • Legal ability to work in the US as of January 2022.

Evaluation of Candidates

When we evaluate candidates, we will look for a combination of analysis skills and instincts; cartography skills; transit planning interest or experience; and interpersonal/teamwork skills. We may ask candidates to complete a practical test.

We will remove from applications information about each applicant’s sex, gender, race, ethnicity and name. Initial screening of applications will be performed without this information.  You are encouraged to submit your material with your name and these other identifiers (sex, gender, race, ethnicity) omitted, and to provide your name only in the submittal email.  If you do not do this our staff will do it for you.

Compensation, Benefits and Place of Work

Compensation will start in the range of $25-35/hour. Large raises in the first year are common. 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.

During the pandemic most employees have been working from home for a majority of their work hours, but we do expect employees to be able to be in the office at least three days a week. In normal conditions, JWA allows employees to set work schedules that include working from home or other locations for some of their work time, but we do not permit fully remote employment. This position may require travel a few times a year, for client visits or conferences, once the public health situation has stabilized.

Growth and Development

We generally prefer to develop staff internally rather than hire at senior levels, so there is considerable opportunity for strong employees to advance.  All of our mid-level staff and one of our senior staff started in this position.

The position offers the potential to develop a range of transit planning skills needed to advance in the profession. Everyone pitches in at many different levels, so there is intensive cross-training that helps everyone grow their skills.  There are also opportunities to learn more advanced skills either on the job or through attendance of professional conferences or other structured training.

How to Apply

To apply, please send the following materials to [email protected]

  • 1-page cover letter explaining your interest in the position.
  • 1 or 2-page resume describing your relevant experience and skills – technical, planning, and interpersonal. Please include experience working on projects or in teams with people from different backgrounds.
  • 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.)
    • If you submit a university group project or other collaborative document with multiple authors that is not solely your work (i.e. government agency, nonprofit or consulting reports), please include a short note clarifying your role in the production of the document. For example, if you provide as a work sample a group project from a university course for which you designed all of the maps but were not the primary author of the text, please include a note saying so.
  • 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.

Do not put any information in the email itself that you want to be used in the evaluation.    The cover letter and all other materials should be attachments.  The email must present your name and contact details.

Again, you are encouraged to anonymize all information by removing your name and references to sex, gender, race, or ethnicity, and to provide your name only in the email.  If you do not, we will do this for you.

Diversity and Inclusion

JWA follows an equal opportunity employment policy and employs personnel without regard to race, color, religion, sex/gender (including pregnancy, gender identity, and sexual orientation), national origin, age, disability, and any other legally protected 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.

Some Doubts about Access Analysis

Click to enlarge: The basic idea of access.

Access is your ability to go places so that you can do things.  In this “basics” article, I laid out why I think measuring access would help advance many important goals that appear to be in conflict, and I suggested, for both practical and moral reasons, that public policy should care about what people can do — i.e. their freedom — as opposed to just what we computer-enhanced elites predict people will do.

Many smart people have offered critiques of this idea, or at least of its practical applications.  I’m particularly grateful to Alex Karner of UT Austin and Willem Klumpenhouwer of University of Toronto for this conversation, and to Matt Laquidara, who laid out a very thoughtful critique early on.  Please point me to others that I may not have seen.

Two Kinds of Critique

First, let’s distinguish between rhetorical and investigative uses of analysis.  In my practice as a consultant, I’m trying to break through into a public conversation, and I’ll do this only with simple explanations of things that obviously matter to people.  It’s not wrong for me to oversimplify to make the idea visible and convey its importance.  The work can be accurate, as far as it goes, and still be simplified.

So there are two kinds of objections to my thesis:

  • those that undermine the fundamental claims of access analysis and
  • those that add nuance that could make access analyses more accurate, precise, and/or more relevant in edge cases.

The latter, of course, are not objections at all.  They’re just avenues for further development.  You’ll see a lot of these throughout this post.

My claims for access analysis

My argument for access analysis is here, but let me quickly list the aspects of my position that seem adjacent to the critiques, and thus most relevant to this response:

  • To the extent that we make strong predictions about what humans will do in the future and what outcomes will result, we are assuming that people are not really free.  Free people will surprise us.  Prediction also appeals to a human desire for control over history that is just not realistic.  The future really is unpredictable.  (More on this in my Journal of Public Transportation paper here.)
  • There are degrees of prediction and the best predictive work makes much softer claims.  Prediction of only near-term events, or prediction that speaks only of ranges of probability, is less problematic.
  • All analysis is more reliable when it predicts that people will continue to be what they’ve always been throughout history and across cultures.  It’s much more problematic assert the permanence of aspects of human society found only in the present, or in the very recent past, or in only one culture (however dominant that culture may be).  Again, this is less of an issue for shorter-term predictions.
  • Access analysis doesn’t need to be perfect or free of questionable assumptions. It just needs to be much more reliable than predictive modeling.  Even if (hypothetically) the two methods turned out to be equal on this score, access analysis would still be preferable because:
    • It’s about something that everyone cares about.
    • It is correlated to many outcomes that we urgently need our transport system to deliver.
    • It is a much more transparent process where the assumptions and their impacts are easy to document, even if they’re controversial.
  • When you pile up the assumptions on both sides, access analysis carries a much higher degree of certainty because it isolates geometric, physical, and biological insights and relies on them to the greatest extent possible.

So let’s look at the biggest doubts about access analysis.

Is it good only for commute trips?

Our firm‘s analyses usually focus on trips to work or school, and people routinely object that those aren’t the only kinds of trips.  Of course they aren’t.  They aren’t even half of all trips.

However, when we think about the most long-term freedoms we need, the freedom to construct our lives and commitments according to our values, the commute (work and school) looms large.  Your ability to hold a certain job, or study at a certain school, will do a great deal to define the capabilities you’ll develop, the money you’ll earn, the social networks you’ll be part of, and so on.  Those things, in turn, will create the conditions for the freedom or unfreedom that you’ll experience down the line.  So when we seek to quantify freedom in the broadest sense, it may be reasonable to put special emphasis on access to work or school.

Commutes are round trips made on a majority of days and that include spending several hours at the destination. They are almost always to work or school.  Commutes are easier to analyze than other trips because:

  • It’s easy to calculate how many people will value a trip to each destination.  While the number of people who want to go to a store will vary with the quality of the store, its competition, and people’s attitudes to it, every job or school enrollment position will be the destination of exactly one resident.
  • Data about the location and quantity of jobs and school enrollments are relatively good in developed countries, although there’s still a lot of variation.
  • We have a useful rule of thumb about the tolerable travel time for commutes: Marchetti’s constant, the observation that across many historical periods, people have tolerated a one-way commute time of about 30 minutes.  This is an example of the principle that if an aspect of human culture been true far into the past and across many cultures, it’s a more reliable basis for positing what freedoms people will continue to value.

Can we look beyond commutes?

But is access analysis good only for commutes?

In our work we do extend the principle to other kinds of trips.  In our recent San Francisco work, for example, we calculated access to groceries, low-cost food resources, parks, pharmacies, and medical centers.   We have also experimented with more precise pairing of residents and destinations.  For example, if we have good data on both income and wages, we can calculate low-income people’s access to low-wage jobs.  We can also exclude retired people from the database of people who value the freedom to access work or school opportunities, but include them — or even make specialized calculations for them — when looking at other destinations that tend to matter in a retired person’s life, including groceries, medical, and parks.

When we move beyond the commute, however, the three benefits I listed above are all absent.

  • We cannot calculate, for a given person, how much freedom is provided by the ability to go to one park or medical center over another.   The tool would be highly reliable for identical destinations, like McDonalds restaurants or whatever, but I think we’d all agree that if you can get to three McDonalds restaurants you don’t really have three times the freedom that comes from being able to get to just one.  The freedom value of alternative destinations depends precisely on them being different from another, and we have no hope of abstractly quantifying that value.  In San Francisco we inevitably made simplifying assumptions: valuing parks by the acre, for example, and valuing all medical centers the same.  For present-oriented analysis you can dig deeper into trip generation patterns, through surveys etc, and refine assumptions, but that works only for analyses meant to be relevant only in the present.  This is a genuine weak point for analysis.
  • We have lousy data about most nonwork and nonschool destinations.  Some of these things change rapidly.  Even if we know where they are we usually don’t know their size or intensity.
  • It’s harder to assign an acceptable travel time budget for a nonwork and nonschool trip, as I’ll address below, although we can still make educated guesses.

But predictive modeling has all these problems too!  Most such modeling relies too heavily on the commute as the primary trip that matters (and on rush hour as the primary time of day that matters).  All of the problems of the non-work trip are at best equal for predictive modeling as for access analysis.

Arbitrariness of Time Budgets

When I explain access, I have to start with the isochrone (see image above), the area that a person at a certain location could reach in a fixed amount of time.  Thus, in the access analyses that underlie our reports, we usually describe what area could be reached in 30 minute or 45 minutes.

Why 30 and 45 minutes?  If we had twelve fingers I’d probably be using 36 and 48.

There are two problems here: (1)  We are imposing an obviously arbitrary threshold, valuing a trip that can be made in 29 minutes but not 31, and (2) We are asserting an amount of time that people find acceptable, which requires an explanation.  These are interconnected.

How do we know what travel times people tolerate?

Everybody has the same amount of time.  There are 24 hours in everyone’s day.  When we perceive a travel time as acceptable it’s because it’s an acceptable percentage of the total time available.

You could argue that the perception of time is different in culturally “slow-paced” as opposed to “fast-paced” places, as in the stereotypes of New Orleans and New York, respectively.  On the other hand, setting travel time budgets differently based on the dominant culture of a place is itself oppressive, as more and more people live in places where theirs is not the dominant culture.

Meanwhile, economists like to talk about “value of time,” which is about the value of your time to the economy, not to you.  That’s definitely not what we should care about here.  We’re talking about an equal right to freedom here, and the only way to do that is to posit an equal value of time.

We can plunge into social science research at this point, looking for non-commute equivalents of Marchetti’s constant.  How long do people spend going to the grocery store?  How long do they spend going to a park?  The data will be all over the place, and it will be hard to separate how long people are willing to spend from how long they are forced to spend given their situation.  Again, if we can find something that’s been true longer, and over more cultures, we should rely on it more.

But I think we could start with a couple of principles, which I suspect are relatively transcultural and transhistorical:

  • We are willing to spend longer traveling if we will spend more time at the destination.
  • We are willing to spend longer making a trip we make less often.

We have a finite amount of time in our day, so if we have many commitments, we’ll need to hold down the total percentage of our day spent in travel.  So the commute is likely to be the longest trip we’ll make in a typical day, though we may make longer trips less often.  Errand trips, lunch trips etc. are likely to need to be shorter than commute trips.

For retired people, diverse errand trips (medical, recreation, shopping) may be able to take longer than for people who spend much of each day at work or school.  We need more research about retired people (and other people who are not in school and don’t have jobs) because their tolerable travel time may depend on the fact that their daily time is less scarce, and that some time-saving actions, like walking further to a more frequent bus stop, carry higher disincentives for them.

I think these principles, buttressed by some research, could help us creep toward some reasonable travel time budgets:  Marchetti’s constant (30 minutes one way) for commutes, a lower number for typical errands, but possibly a higher number for retired people.  Is this all wildly imprecise?  Yes.  Is it arbitrary?  No, we’re not picking numbers out of the air.  We have a sense of the right ranges.  Now we come to the next problem:  While the roughly correct travel time budget is not totally arbitrary, the exact one we use definitely is.

Why 30 minutes?  Why not 31?

From, our work for Portland Enhanced Transit Corridors project: A person at 82nd & Foster has lost 19% of their 45-minute access to jobs in a decade (2009-19) due to declining bus speeds.

Access analysis starts with an isochrone showing where someone could get to in a fixed amount of time, such as 30 minutes of 45 minutes.  But as Matt Laquidara points out, “no one who is willing to take a 45 minute trip is going to consider a destination 46 minutes away totally unreachable.” In a footnote he adds: “Why bound time at all? In theory, it’s possible to have no maximum time and compute the trip duration for every origin, destination, and starting time combination. Those could be aggregated into an average or percentiles.”

Yes, if you could tolerate a given travel time, you could probably tolerate one that’s a minute longer, but you’ll have limits.  In growing cities, city bus lines in mixed traffic often slow down very gradually, a classic “boiling frog” event that causes big cumulative damage but never generates a single crisis that would attract attention and action.  To a great extent, people who are used to a 45 minute bus ride may accept that it’s 46 the next year and 47 the year after that.

But at some point, they will run out of time in their day.  The person whose 45-minute ride is now 55 minutes will eventually give up.  They’ll change modes, or quit that job, or do what’s necessary to keep their total daily travel time down.  Meanwhile, a new customer who looks up that commute will see a 55 minute travel time, and say no thanks.

So a minute’s difference may not matter, but a 10 minute difference probably does.   And to talk about access as freedom, we need to be very approximately right in the travel time budget.  Perhaps we’ll get closer if we come up with bell curve of weighted travel time budgets for commutes, maybe peaking at 30 minutes one way but with a long tail stretching upward past 45.  This is a reasonable solution to the problem of assigning too much significance to a one-minute difference.  But if we get too fancy about how we draw the curve, it takes us back to the same problem.   It’s easy to quantify what people are putting up with in terrible situations, but that’s different from what a free person would tolerate.  We aren’t describing people’s freedom if we’re relying on data about their unfreedom now.

So some arbitrariness, proudly proclaimed, may be better.  For my own rhetorical purposes in presenting and justifying transit service plans, the soundbite and picture take us far:  “The average Dubliner can get to 20% more jobs and school enrollments in 30 minutes, and here, let us show how the 30-minute wall around your life changes.”  People who hear me say that rarely accuse me of claiming that 30 minutes is radically different from 31.  They know I’m making a simplifying assumption so that I can show them something that they can understand, and whose value is obvious to them.

Perils of Aggregation

It’s one thing to analyze all the various kinds of destinations.  It’s another more perilous thing to decide how these should be weighed to create a single measure of access.  As Matt Laquidara writes:

I’m deeply uncomfortable with most any determination of what locations are important, and consequently, which ones are not. I don’t want to do it myself. I don’t want anyone else deciding it either.

For reasons we explored above, there are always going to be trip desires that are just too scattered, and for which there’s so little data, that they will tend to be omitted in analysis.  Residence-to-residence trips are probably one example.

There will also always be the problem that some destinations are hard to quantify.  In San Francisco, we assumed that every acre of park was equally valuable in terms of people valuing the freedom to reach it, but of course there are lots of ways to question that, and to introduce other factors such as park infrastructure.  Each of those factors would make the measure more precise but also more questionable in terms of how it was projecting some people’s preferences (those who yell loudest at meetings, for example) onto the entire population.

But let’s say that refinements to access analysis make it possible to cover about 95% of trips — or as access analysis would describe it, 95% of the destinations that people will value the freedom to reach.  Matt’s objection arises only when we aggregate these different destinations into a single access score.  If we declare that one acre of park is worth 0.26 pharmacies, that’s a value judgment.  We could try to apply survey data about how much demand each place attracts, which requires assuming that people are making all the trips they want to make.  Or we could just stop trying to aggregate, which I prefer.  The elected and public audiences with whom I speak usually want to hear separately about each destination type, because each is the basis for a different kind of story and has a nexus with different kinds of public policy.  If you care about food security, look at access to groceries.  If you care about how much exercise people get, look at access to parks.  And so on.

To sum up

  • Access analysis is not perfect but can be more reliable than predictive analysis, if only because it makes a more modest claim.
  • Predictive modeling requires all the assumptions that access analysis requires, but adds even more assumptions about how human behavior in the future will resemble that in the recent past.  Access analysis does not need to include such perilous assumptions.
  • We can describe access for commutes with relative confidence.  Commutes are a minority of trips but there are a variety of reasons to consider them important.
  • Non-commute trips are important but harder to analyze.  Still, there’s a basis for making some reasonable assumptions.
  • Further work is needed on how to think about freedom of retired people, and more generally about how people’s tolerance for travel time varies with the competing demands on their time.  Up to now I’ve been using busy people as the primary frame of reference.  This probably contains a bias: I want transit to be useful to busy people, not just to people who enough time that they don’t feel constrained by slow service.  Most people are busy.

This post is out there to start arguments, though I hope it also resolves a few.  I am not an academic scholar, but I do feel confident in what I asserted in the “my claims” section above, at least until I read the comments, as you certainly should.  Then, I may add some updates here.

Access or Prediction? A Conversation with Alex Karner (and Willem Klumpenhouwer)

Alex Karner

Recently, I asked whether we should build transit infrastructure projects with the goal of expanding access to opportunity, as opposed to existing measures of success that depend on ridership prediction.  (If you’re not sure of what I mean by access, read this first.)  This stimulated a great conversation in the comments with Alex Karner, an Assistant Professor of Architecture at the University of Texas, Austin, with a useful interjection from Willem Klumpenhouwer, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Toronto Transportation Research Institute.  It’s very lightly edited.

Here is the part of my piece that set this off, followed by our exchange:

[Most Federal criteria for transit funding] are built on the same shaky foundation: a prediction of ridership well into the future.  Access analysis may help to shore up those foundations, because an access calculation is much more certain than a prediction.

That should be especially obvious during the Covid-19 pandemic.  The utterly unpredicted ridership trends of 2020 are just an extreme example of the kind of unpredictability that we must learn to accept as normal. As I argued in the Journal of Public Transportation, we can’t possibly know with certainty what urban transportation will be like in 10-20 years, or how our cities will function, or what goals and values will animate people’s lives.

Ridership prediction models generally begin with something like an assessment of access.  If a project improves travel time for a lot of possible trips, that’s the starting point for a high ridership prediction.  But then, predictive modeling mixes in a bunch of emotional factors that amount to assuming that how humans have behaved in the recent past tells us how they will behave in the future.  This is equivalent to telling your children that “when you’re my age, I know you’ll behave exactly the way I do.”

Of course some human behavior is predictable.  We’ll still need to eat.  But the world is changing in non-linear ways, which means that the recent past is becoming less reliable as a guide to the future.  So if we measured access, we’d still be measuring ridership potential, but without all the uncertainty that comes from extrapolating about human behavior, or telling people that you know how they’ll behave 20 years from now.


I agree with your criticisms of long-range forecasting but think there’s a substantial role for near-term (current year or opening-day) forecasts when thinking about the impacts of a proposed service change or the inequities inherent in the current system. Because these rely on more timely data about travel behavior, land use, and levels of service, we have more confidence that their results are meaningful. These forecasts can provide information about how travel times (walk, wait, in vehicle, and transfer), number of transfers, and out-of-pocket costs change or differ across people and places. (E.g., the proposed service change will increase origin-destination travel times for low-income transit riders on average by 8 minutes).

To be sure, accessibility (access/freedom) is super important. But we should also look simultaneously at expected impacts on transit riders today. Activists and advocates always request these types of measures when service changes are being proposed.

Willem Klumpenhouwer

Willem Klumpenhouwer:

Access is undoubtedly an important measure, and is definitely under-used as a metric of success or value in many transit system evaluations.

I do have one quibble with your argument, however. Measuring access now and using it for long-term projects into the future is *still* making static assumptions about human behaviour (that the destinations you measure access to are important and will be into the future), as well as assumptions about future land use. While I do think it’s not as explicitly modeled as with a standard econometric behavioral model, it’s still implied.

One way to potentially fuse some of that together and add flexibility is to get into the habit of bundling destinations into a weighted “basket of destinations”, something I argued in a JTG paper. Then the trick becomes figuring out ways to determine what those bundles should be.

Ultimately, I think there needs to be more research done on how access translates into use (of which ridership is one metric), and how that happens.


Alex and Willem

Alex: I agree completely that there’s role for understanding current needs and maybe even near-term forecasting, but the kind of transit infrastructure we’re talking about here has to be useful for decades if not centuries, and the present is just too brief a time to be the the only consideration or even the main one. Since the narcissism of the present will dominate the project politics anyway, I want to highlight measures that push against the present bias, because there’s literally no other way to give our unborn grandchildren a place at the table.

We all live inside our grandparents’ bad infrastructure design decisions — decisions that made sense at the time, in the culture of the time, for the people who were being listened to at the time. You can work to make that present-oriented conversation smarter, more fact-based, and more inclusive/equitable, and I support that 100%, but your approach still leaves us saying that our grandchildren will be just like us in all kinds of ways that we have no right to assume.

How do we know what our grandchildren will want? Two ways: (1) We can assume that they will want what history and biology tell us that humans have always wanted and (2) beyond that, we can focus on giving them the freedom to be whoever they turn out to be and want whatever they turn out to want.

For example, under (1) we have the biological needs that drive a lot of our daily activity, but also historical insights like Marchetti’s Constant, which help us set useful travel time budgets for a daily trip or “commute.” We can do some philosophical work to delineate the boundary of those two categories. This is where I was going with the Bortworld thought experiment in my Journal of Public Transportation paper.

Willem raises a good point about how we can know, on behalf of our grandchildren, what the relative importance of different kinds of destinations will be. Biological and historical knowledge can take us a long way.  When it comes to human motivations, the longer something’s been true in the past, the more likely it is to be true in the future. Finally, yes, that weighting will still be a judgment. But if we could get to the point where we were arguing mainly about that, I think we’d have made transformative progress in how we think about infrastructure. More on that here soon.


I think Willem’s point about having to make assumptions about future land use–either how it changes or assuming it stays constant–clarifies that accessibility or freedom analyses are still subject to at least some of the limitations of long-range ridership forecasts.

In terms of infrastructure, I’m fine with having different standards for fixed-guideway projects with high capital costs and longer-lasting impacts on urban form as compared to bus network redesigns or other tweaks to the bus network. Although I wonder how much land use and density is already baked in and how that differs by urban areas. Will the locations of high land use intensity look much different in 50-75 years, in terms of their locations, than they do today? If not, then holding land use constant and also using current/near-term forecasting can both provide important insights about impacts now and in the future. I don’t think we have to pick one set of metrics or approaches over the other. Both are important.

One key area where I think we differ is in our relative weighting of future vs. past impacts. I definitely appreciate your future orientation–this is important from a climate, health, sustainability and resilience perspective. But I think to make traction on these issues and to get residents to buy into any specific public transit vision, we (academics, practitioners) have to acknowledge that transportation infrastructure development (highways *and* transit) has historically had baleful effects on low-income people and people of color in the US. Black people were especially negatively affected throughout the 20th century and continue to bear the brunt of many of the transportation system’s most direct impacts while not sharing fairly in the system’s benefits.

I see looking at impacts on current riders and near-term forecasting as at least partially atoning–or at least acknowledging–these historical impacts. In conducting a current/near-term analysis, we’re saying that we value the experiences of current public transit riders and want to understand how our proposed changes will affect them. To be sure, there’s a lot more than can and needs to be done in this regard (this pending TCRP project will help to suss out exactly what a reparative approach for public transit planning/policy could look like). But jumping straight to the future without acknowledging the past seems like a surefire way to alienate the essential riders upon which public transit depends.

The folks at the Untokening Collective have written about this in their “Principles of Mobility Justice,” one of which is the following: “Mobility Justice demands that we fully excavate, recognize, and reconcile the historical and current injustices experienced by communities — with impacted communities given space and resources to envision and implement planning models and political advocacy on streets and mobility that actively work to address [the] historical and current injustices [they experience].”

Current/near-term forecasting doesn’t live up to this high standard on its own, but providing resources to communities to vision future transportation systems and to understand how their travel outcomes (in terms of performance, not necessarily choices) will differ in those futures might get us moving in the right direction.


We are in complete agreement about the need to show the impacts of proposals on the present, especially relatively short term work like bus network design. That’s what we do in all our projects.

Access analysis honors the future but is also an important way to talk about the present. For example, we can talk about the impact of a service change on the access to opportunity of existing riders based on their boarding location, so that we are specifically addressing the benefits and disbenefits that each such rider will experience. This can help riders see beyond an understandable initial assumption that all change is going to be bad for them.

There’s also a space for access analysis in giving elected officials another way to think about what they are hearing from the public, and to relate a service plan debate to larger goals that they care about, because expanding access supports so many of those goals.

But you’ll have to explain how forecasting serves the goal of “excavating … historical and current injustices.” How does predicting human behavior the near future help us understand the past, or our moral options for rectifying the injustices of the past? That one I just can’t follow.


It seems like we also differ in terms of whether we think access analyses are enough on their own to demonstrate present-day impacts. The analysis you describe based on boarding location sounds helpful. I’m arguing that in addition to evaluating those quantities, we should also look at impacts on *current trips* and *current riders,* summarized by place or for specific groups (e.g., low-income people, Black people, equity-priority neighborhoods, etc.). Access it great, but it does not tell us how people are using the system today and how a proposed change will affect the trips they currently need to undertake.

Our knowledge about the injustices of the past informs the places and groups that we think it important to analyze. A high-quality transit rider survey will capture the travel behavior of a sample of transit riders. These results need to be carefully weighted and expanded to represent all transit travel. This weighted and expanded sample is our best representation of the full range of travel being undertaken on a particular system. Trip characteristics can be modeled to assess how they change from a base (no-build) to a build scenario. These changes represent the real impacts that will be experienced by actual travelers today and can be used to understand differences between groups. If done well, this analysis will provide insight into current injustices, if any exist (e.g., wide disparities between the trip characteristics between places or groups).

If desired, appropriately crafted simulation models can also be used to understand how behavior will change in response to changing levels of service (or demographics or land uses). Model results can also be used to assess current injustices and to help us understand whether we are making progress towards redressing historical wrongs.


We certainly don’t disagree about the value of studying how the system is being used now, and evaluating impacts of changes on existing riders. We see the value in using rider surveys for this purpose, alongside access analyses that show how a network proposal changes what people *could* do (but aren’t doing now because the transit system doesn’t let them).

But I’m still puzzled about how models that predict “how behavior will change” are helpful in understanding or rectifying past injustice — unless you just mean really safe predictions such as “if we make high-demand trips possible that aren’t possible now, people will begin making those trips.” Is that all you mean?


That’s not all that I mean. If we have a “good” rider survey collected recently we can use that survey to estimate a ridership model that will help us understand how changes in level of service and land use will affect transit use. The changes need not be limited to “high-demand trips.”

If we constrain our forecasts to use near-term or current year data, then we will have more confidence in the outputs we’re generating than if we use a 30- or 50-year horizon.

And if we examine outcomes for groups that have historically experienced injustice, our results can speak to how their experience of using public transit will change.

We seem to end where we began, Alex is arguing that to understand people’s experience, we have to predict what they’ll do.  And I’m wondering if it’s better to just talk about what they’re free to do.  We debate, you decide.

What Should the Criteria for US Federal Transit Funding Be? (They’re Asking You, Now!)

Should proposed public transit infrastructure in the US be judged on whether it helps people go places so that they can do things?  The US Federal Transit Administration (FTA) is asking this question right now.

FTA helps fund most major transit construction projects in the US.  Recently, these programs have doled out about $2.3 billion per year in capital funding for transit projects across the country. The Senate Infrastructure Bill would nearly double the annual funding for these programs for the next five years.  If there’s a piece of transit infrastructure you want to see, or one that you oppose, you should care about how the FTA makes its funding decisions.

Congress has defined the criteria that FTA must use to evaluate the projects. But the FTA has broad discretion in deciding how to define the measures for each criterion. So now they are asking you, me, and everyone about how we ought to change or update those measures.

Their questions should make us optimistic about what US transit funding could become.  They don’t sound like an ancient bureaucracy going through the motions of public consultation.  Instead, the agency really seems to want our opinion about how they should measure the success of their investments, a decision that will directly determine what gets funded and built.  Read the questions yourself if you don’t believe me.

Does it matter if we can go places, so that we can do things?

FTA asks many good questions, but one especially stands out.

Should FTA consider ‘‘access to opportunity’’ under the Land Use criterion? If so, how specifically could FTA measure it? For example, should access provided by the project to education facilities, health care facilities, or food stores be considered? Please identify measures/data sources that would be readily available nationwide without requiring an undue burden on project sponsors to gather and FTA to verify the information.

Access is your ability to go places so that you can do things in a reasonable amount of time.  Access reframes discussions of travel time:  Instead of asking how long it takes to go to a particular place, you look at how many useful places you can go in a given time.  In short, we’re talking about access to opportunity, which means not just work or school but your freedom to do anything that requires leaving home.

If you’re not familiar with the concept, please see my full explainer here.  But the most important point is that when we increase people’s ability to reach destinations in a shorter amount of time, we are improving ridership potential, revenue potential, climate emission benefits, congestion mitigation benefits, overall access to opportunity, and personal freedom, and we can also measure whether we’re doing these things equitably.  Access measurement can help meet all of these seemingly disparate goals.

Access and the Land Use Criterion

When the FTA asks about whether access matters, they are thinking about this in the context of their Land Use criterion.  They deserve an answer on this, although they also should hear about how caring about access would affect other criteria they care about, which I’ll touch on further below.

FTA’s Land Use criterion measures how much population and employment is around the stops or stations of a proposed project. The point is to determine that there is enough demand adjacent to proposed facilities.   (The criterion is not about the ability to generate future development – that’s under a different criterion, Economic Development.)

This table, from the FAST Updated Interim Policy Guidance dated June 2016, gives you a sense of how this evaulation works now:

Federal Transit Administration, Final Interim Policy Guidance Federal Transit Administration Capital Investment Grant Program, June 2016. p 15.

A project gets a higher rating if there’s more density around the station, and also if there’s more employment anywhere on the “system”.

But what do they mean by “the system”?  Here’s the crucial footnote:

The total employment served includes employment along the entire line on which a no-transfer ride from the proposed project’s stations can be reached.

So all destinations that require a connection are excluded, while all destinations on the same line, even if they are an hour away, are included.  In other words, as long as you get to stay in your seat, it doesn’t matter how much of your life you spend commuting.  By contrast, if you can get to lots of jobs quickly with a fast transfer, those jobs don’t count in assessing the value of the line.  Travel time, and hence access, don’t matter at all!

If you have an hour and 40 minutes to spare, you can go from Gresham to Hillsboro without leaving your seat!  But should that count as access?  Source: Trimet, Portland, OR.

For example, in Portland, where I live, a single light rail line will take you across the region, from Gresham to Hillsboro, in one hour and 40 minutes – far too long for a one-way commute.  But under the current method, all the jobs in Hillsboro would be counted as providing value to someone in Gresham, while the jobs that are less than an hour away – on a trip that requires the train and a bus – count for nothing.

So “Employment served by the system” is really just “Employment served by the line”  Likewise, the measure gives zero value to populations that are not at stations but that can get to stations easily via connecting buses.  In short, the measure excludes all the benefits of actual networks, which are a bunch of lines working together to expand where people could go.

How would an access metric change this approach?  Suppose the measure were something like “increase in the number of resident-job pairs that are connected by a travel time of 30 or 45 minutes.”  

A resident-job pair is an imagined link between every resident and every job (or school enrollment).  Each link represents a possible commute, which is an opportunity that someone might value, now or in the future.  The number of resident-job pairs in a region is the number of residents times the number of jobs (or school enrollments).  A very big number, but we have computers!

If we measured access in this way, what effect would it have on how FTA evaluate projects?

  • It would still quantify the benefit of land use intensification around stations. These areas tend to get the largest access improvement from a project, so that improvement, multiplied by the density of population and jobs, would generate a higher score.
  • It would measure what that density achieves for mobility. From a transportation perspective, the value of density around a line is that it provides the line’s benefits to more people, so that more people can get to more useful places sooner.  So maybe we should measure what we’re really talking about.
  • It would consider land use in the whole area that benefits from the project, not just around stations. It would reward communities that have thought about the total transit network more deeply and made some commitments about it.  The tendency to propose a line in isolation, without thinking about its role in a network, is a very common problem in US transit infrastructure.
  • It would refer to something that everyone cares about: their ability to go places so that they can do things.

What about equity?  The current criteria specifically measure the quantity of affordable housing near stations, and its likely permanence – an important tool to discourage displacement due to gentrification.  That measure definitely still matters.

But in addition, you could measure the access experienced by various racial or income groups, and make sure that this isn’t much worse what the entire population experiences.  For low-income people, you could look at their links to low-wage jobs and educational opportunities, so that it emphasize the commutes that they are most likely to need or want.  This would ensure that every element of the land use pattern is equitable in its most important aspect: the way that it ensures fast access to many opportunities.

Finally, FTA specifically asks whether access to “education facilities, health care facilities, or food stores be considered”.  The answer is surely yes, because most transit trips are not work trips.  We must measure access to all these things for populations likely to care about them, to the extent that the data permits.

For example, you could construct a database of all resident-grocery store pairs and run the same calculation, probably using a shorter travel time budget like 15 or 30 minutes.  You could do the same for healthcare.  You could construct a database linking school-age residents to school enrolments, and young adults to university and college enrolments.  Retired people could be excluded from the residents-jobs database but included in databases of, say, links from residents to healthcare, food, etc.  There are many ways to broaden the diversity of travel desires that a good network needs to serve.

The relative importance or weighting of all these measures would need more debating, possibly based on the size of each market in the region’s travel patterns with some bonus weighting for equity.

But to sum up:  When we talk about existing land use as a transportation criterion, what do we really mean?  I think we mean that the land use pattern contributes to a transit project’s ability to expand many people’s ability to get to many places in a reasonable amount of time.  So let’s measure that!

Access or Prediction?  A Broader Question for FTA

Land use is just one of the six criteria that FTA uses, and the one they have specifically asked about.  The others are:

  • Mobility Improvement
  • Cost Effectiveness
  • Environmental Benefits
  • Congestion Relief
  • Economic Development

Except for Economic Development, all of these are built on the same shaky foundation: a prediction of ridership well into the future.  Access analysis may help to shore up those foundations, because an access calculation is much more certain than a prediction.

That should be especially obvious during the Covid-19 pandemic.  The utterly unpredicted ridership trends of 2020 are just an extreme example of the kind of unpredictability that we must learn to accept as normal. As I argued in the Journal of Public Transportation, we can’t possibly know with certainty what urban transportation will be like in 10-20 years, or how our cities will function, or what goals and values will animate people’s lives.

Still, ridership prediction models generally begin with something like an assessment of access.  If a project improves travel time for a lot of possible trips, that’s the starting point for a high ridership prediction.  But then, predictive modeling mixes in a bunch of emotional factors that amount to assuming that how humans have behaved in the recent past tells us how they will behave in the future.  This is equivalent to telling your children that “when you’re my age, I know you’ll behave exactly the way I do.”

Of course some human behavior is predictable.  We’ll still need to eat.  But the world is changing in non-linear ways, which means that the recent past is becoming less reliable as a guide to the future.  So if we measured access, we’d still be measuring ridership potential, but without all the uncertainty that comes from extrapolating about human behavior, or telling people that you know how they’ll behave 20 years from now.

Here’s how the access concept could illuminate each of the FTA’s criteria:

For the Cost Effectiveness criterion, Congress has required that FTA measure the capital and operating cost of a project and divide that by the total number of trips (predicted by a model) to effectively measure the cost per trip. Since it would take an act of Congress to change this measure, it stands to reason that FTA should be looking to access measures as factors to use for other criteria. However, we should also assess projects based on the increased access provided per dollar expended.

For the Congestion Relief criterion, FTA measures the number of new riders on the project, yet again based on ridership prediction. We know that transit expansion by itself doesn’t solve congestion, just as road expansion doesn’t either. But transit expansion can do very important things much better than road expansion: it can allow for drastically more economic growth and development at a fixed congestion level and improve the ability of those who cannot drive to participate in the life of the community.  It does this by expanding the access to opportunity that’s possible without generating a car trip. So, there’s a good role here for access measures as an indirect way to tell us whether a transit project has a high likelihood of providing an option to avoid congestion.

For the Environmental Benefits criterion FTA looks at changes in predicted air pollution, greenhouse gases, energy use, and safety benefits. Most of these factors are calculated based on predicted ridership. So, FTA is building many measures on the questionable assumption that ridership is predictable. Again, we know that greater access tends to mean greater ridership, which means great environmental benefits. Perhaps we need more research to be able to quantitatively tie improvements in job access to environmental benefits. If FTA sticks with its current measures for environmental benefits, it makes the case for using access measures in other criteria even stronger, if nothing else than to provide a wider range of measures that aren’t tied to one modeling outcome.

For its Economic Development criterion, FTA evaluates how likely a project would induce new, transit supportive development in the future by looking at local land use policies. How might access be a useful measure here? It depends a lot on what kinds of real estate investors we have in mind.  The real estate business already calculates car access for practically every site they consider.  They should be encouraged to care about transit access (and they sometimes do).

To Sum Up

All of the FTA’s criteria are attempting to answer the question “Which of these potential transit projects across the US is the best investment and therefore worth of funding?” That begs the question of what we, citizens of the US, think we value about our investments in transit. Access starts with one insight about what everybody wants, even if they don’t use the same words to describe it. People want to be free. They want more choices of all kinds so that they can choose what’s best for themselves. Access measures how we deliver those options so that everybody is more free to do whatever they want, and be whoever they are.

Should we be investing in projects that score well on predictions of what we think people will do in the future? Or should we be investing in projects that we can geometrically prove will drastically increase the average person’s access to opportunity?

Whatever your view on these topics, now is the time to respond to the FTA’s questions!