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.

Lyft Lobbying to Keep Cities from Governing Themselves

Portland’s mayor and transportation commissioner have blasted Lyft for lobbying the State of Oregon to prevent Portland from regulating to manage the impacts of Uber and Lyft on the city.  Their scathing letter to Lyft’s Chief Policy Officer Anthony Foxx (former Charlotte Mayor and USDOT secretary) is worth reading in its entirety.  It’s copied in full below.

The principle here is clear:  Dense cities have unique problems that arise from the shortage of space per person, which is what density is.  When state governments led by suburban and rural areas overrule dense cities, they are demanding that dense cities be governed as though they were country towns.  It’s not a cultural problem or an ideological problem.  It’s a geometry problem.  

Outer suburban and rural areas don’t experience a severe shortage of space on streets, so it’s understandable that they see Uber and Lyft mostly as great companies offering a great product.  Only dense cities experience the severe downside: increased vehicle trips due to repositioning movements from one job to the next, and a shift of customers into cars from more sustainable modes like transit, walking and cycling.

Only dense cities understand the problems of dense cities.  They have to be able to act to address those problems.

Here’s the full text of the letter from Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler and Transportation Commissioner Chloe Eudaly:

February 4, 2019


The Honorable Anthony Foxx

Chief Policy Officer and Senior Advisor


185 Berry St., Suite 5000

San Francisco, CA 94107


Mr. Foxx,

In 2015, the City of Portland, Oregon established an innovative pilot program to evaluate whether Transportation Network Companies (TNC) should be added to Portland’s existing private for-hire transportation system. In taking this approach, we wanted to give Portlanders access to a new transportation option while ensuring that TNCs served all Portlanders safely, fairly and reliably.

As one of the two TNCs to take part in the pilot, Lyft was a model participant. When issues or concerns arose, Lyft worked closely with the City of Portland to resolve them. This collaborative spirit was one of the primary reasons why our City Council decided to make TNCs permanent in January 2016. In the ensuing three years, Lyft was a good corporate citizen, including promptly paying over $52,000 in fines after failing to properly track the number of drivers on your platform, and worked closely with the City to deliver a convenient, safe transportation option.

Until now.

We have been dismayed to learn that Lyft is behind the effort to pass a bill to eliminate local consumer, safety and disability-access protections for people who use Lyft and other TNCs. If your lobbying efforts were to succeed, Portland would no longer be able to manage our transportation system to best support the mobility, safety, accessibility, sustainability, and equity needs of our City.

To be frank, we are puzzled by this. After all, you were a mayor and certainly appreciate the important role that cities have in managing their transportation systems. In addition, when you were appointed to your position at Lyft, you noted that, “Lyft has led the industry with its collaborative approach to working with regulators….”  As a company, Lyft has committed to bold sustainability goals and to creating a world designed for people, not cars. Finally, when Lyft co-Founder and President John Zimmer visited Portland last year, he reinforced these values and his interest in working with cities on transportation innovation, whether by car, bike, or scooter.

Your current efforts to avoid local consumer protections and skirt policies that ensure that TNC rides are safe for all passengers and accessible to people with disabilities run completely contrary to your stated positions and the positions of the company you represent.

Specifically, the bill Lyft has proposed and is attempting to pass would eliminate the ability of every Oregon city from taking the following common sense steps to protect TNC passengers:

  • Requiring thorough background checks for TNC drivers and mandating that Lyft and other TNCs ban drivers who pose a danger to the public.
  • Prohibiting companies from charging passengers with disabilities higher prices during busy times.
  • Conducting field safety audits to ensure that vehicles are reliable and do not pose a danger to passengers.
  • Requiring that Lyft and other TNCs do not discriminate against passengers based on their race, ethnicity, religion and other factors.
  • Conducting spot checks to verify that drivers are who they say they are.
  • Adopting regulations to provide better service for people with disabilities and low-income people.
  • Issuing permits to make sure that Lyft and other TNCs follow the law.
  • Creating programs to investigate when Lyft and other TNCs provide poor service.
  • Penalizing companies and drivers when they endanger, discriminate against or otherwise fail to provide safe, fair and reliable service to passengers.
  • Adopting regulations aimed at supporting drivers and consumers, including establishing insurance minimums.
  • Collecting local data, which is critical for understanding congestion and climate impacts.
  • Charging local fees necessary to maintain the consumer protections that have been established.
  • Establishing related programs and policies that advance safety and mobility goals.

In Portland, we have successfully protected the health and safety of private-for-hire passengers for over a century. We firmly believe that local governments are best positioned to provide oversight and management of their transportation systems and to ensure that safety, equity and sustainability goals and commitments are met. This has never been truer than with the emergence and rapid growth of the TNC industry. This proposed legislation is contrary to this bedrock philosophy that the best oversight of the transportation system and the private-for-hire industry is local.  Not only that, but it is a disservice to passengers, drivers and the general public who expect safe and reliable service and who are expecting you to stand by your sustainability and community commitments.

We look forward to a modification in Lyft’s position on this Oregon legislation.



Ted Wheeler,  Mayor

Chloe Eudaly, Commissioner of Transportation

Washington DC: What I’m Doing This Week

I am in snowy Washington DC this week, wondering if there will be any air traffic controllers by the time I need to get home, but meanwhile, I’m at the famous Transportation Research Board (TRB) Annual Meeting through Wednesday, and then at the World Bank’s Transforming Transportation conference on Thursday and Friday.

If you have suggests for cool things I should do, the fastest way to reach me is Twitter, @humantransit, and the second fastest is the email button somewhere in the bar on the right.  Comments on this blog are reviewed on a slower timeline.

This (Tuesday) afternoon at 3:45-5:30 pm I’m on a panel called “Transit Fightback: Pushback on Technology Hype for Stronger City Futures.”  Bravo to Professor Graham Currie for insisting on this title, which accurately conveys that despite all the good talk of partnerships and synergies, many of technology marketing’s effects are partly hostile to the success public transit, and thus to the efficient provision of freedom and opportunity in dense cities.  Some of these effects are inadvertent while others are intentional, but all of them are destructive.  While there are deals to be negotiated between transit agencies and tech companies, transit agencies need to come at these negotiations with confidence, and tech marketing is doing much to undermine that confidence especially at the political level.  So I’ll talk about that.

Thursday at the World Bank Transforming Transportation Conference (registration required) I’ll also be on a panel about “Integrated Transport in the Era of New Mobility and Impacts on Existing Urban Systems,” which is much more polite way of saying basically the same thing.  That’s 2:30-4 pm.  We’ll talk about the explicit threats to the just and functional city potentially caused by technologies such as TNCs and microtransit. Should be fun.

Go Green! Recycle New Year’s Resolutions!

Remarkably enough, none of my past new years resolutions has transformed  human consciousness to the point of making the resolution obsolete.  So if you need one at this late date, here are a few of my past resolution pieces:

If you really need a new one, how about:  “I resolve to value smart old ideas as much as smart new ones.”

Happy New Year!

Welcome, and the Most Read Posts of 2018

This blog is a resource, not just a source of New Exciting or Enraging Stuff.  Each year I review the most-read pages from the previous year, and am always relieved to find old posts, which were written to last, still doing well.  This year, three of the top ten are from 2010-11, and a 2009 post is #13.  (Two of those posts later became parts of my book.)  Here’s the list:

  1. The Dangers of Elite Projection (July 2017).  This is one of my most useful posts ever, about a basic mistake that’s everywhere in city planning.  It’s an example of my attempt to talk very patiently and inclusively about a difficult topic that makes people very emotional. (Also #1 last year).
  2. The Problem of School Transportation (August 2017).  Why don’t transit agencies serve schools in just the way they need?  Here’s the answer.  (Surprisingly viral.  Not on the list last year, but then it was written late in the year.)
  3. Basics: Walking Distance to Transit.  (2010)  An explainer.  (#4 last year.)
  4. Basics: The Spacing of Stops and Stations.  (2010).  This turned into Chapter 4 of my book.  (#5 last year)
  5. That Photo That Explains Almost Everything (2011).  You’ve seen the photo.  I notice a few things in it beyond its first impression.  (#6 last year)
  6. Streetcars vs Light Rail … Is there a Difference.  (2010).  Not linking to this one because  it’s dated and I need to rewrite it, which I will do soon.  (Not on the list last year.)
  7. Does Elon Musk Understand Urban Geometry? (2016)  My first effort at laying out what’s wrong with Elon Musk’s attempts to make cars go faster through cities, and to provide “service to your door.”  Written several months before I got Musk’s attention.  (Down from #2 last year, which I hope means that my interaction with Musk is receding as a topic.}
  8. Microtransit: What I Think We Know.  (February 2018).  The summary of my “microtransit week” series of posts, which lays out my concerns about the over-hyping of this supposedly new idea.
  9. Do We Need a New Theory and Name for Bike Lanes?  (August 2018)  A brainstorm that happened on a bus.  (Surprisingly high for a post written so late in the year.)
  10. Apps Are Not Transforming the Urban Transport Business.  (February 2018)  The urban passenger transport business is just not very profitable, and never has been.  Apps, both for ride-hailing (Uber etc.) and microtransit, seem to improve customer experience without improving efficiency.

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

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

Happy New Year.


Happy Holidays, and a Parable

Below is our firm’s self-consciously cheesy holiday card, and below that my mellow personal one.  (If you didn’t get one, it’s probably because I don’t have your email address, which you can rectify by hitting the little envelope symbol on the bar above.)

Plus, on the personal blog, there’s a cool parable about squirrels.

Happy holidays to all.  We’ll be quiet here until January.




Elon Musk’s Tunnel: It Doesn’t Scale, so it Doesn’t Matter

Elon Musk just gave the media a tour of his 1.5 mile prototype tunnel under Los Angeles, which he spent US$10m to build.  Why are Elon Musk’s tunnels so cheap?  Because they’re tiny.

As media photos of the event will show you, the tunnel is just slightly wider than a car.  That means that if you used it for a train, it might have room for one seat per row. I suppose you could fit two if there was no way to move through the train while it was between stations, but that’s almost unimaginable once you add a required emergency exit plan.

So despite Musk’s occasional noises about using his tunnels for public transit, this thing is for moving cars, which means it is for moving trivially tiny numbers of people.

As we’ve discussed before, a car-based tunnel also requires elevators.  You zip your car into a parking space and it descends to the tunnel.  Cool, but have they run the numbers on how many of these they would need, assuming it takes, say, a minute to do a full cycle of the elevator?  How much real estate would it require to get cars into the subway at a rate that even maximizes the tiny capacity of the subway?

Anyway, those are some questions to ask today.

And yes, it would be great if this dalliance produces genuine improvements in tunnel technologies useful for building actual train-sized tunnels that can move the number of people who need to move.  But Musk’s prairie-dog burrows are mostly hype, confusion, and elite projection.  While delivering almost nothing useful, they are confusing elite opinion about whether we still need to build mass transit, which we do.  Is any marginal benefit worth the resulting delay in getting the infrastructure we really need?

Two lessons to remember: 

  • If it doesn’t scale, it doesn’t matter.  The media are easily excited by demonstration projects, but this idea doesn’t scale.  You could build lots of tunnels, and they would each move so few people that they wouldn’t make a dent in a city’s transport needs.
  • If it doesn’t scale, it’s for the rich.  Or to put it another way:  Inefficiency is inequality.  Anything that spends a lot of money to serve small numbers of people raises the question “why are those people so important, and what about everyone else?”

Does this remind you of other transport fantasies, such as replacing transit with “service to your door”?  These rules about scalability are pretty good tests to bring to all the fun new inventions, including whatever’s coming next.

December Digest (and Why You Should Follow Me on Twitter)

I’m recently returned from almost a month in Australia and New Zealand — mostly doing speaking events in Sydney, Melbourne, and Auckland — and am way behind on blogging.  This happens now and then, which is why you should also follow me on Twitter (@humantransit).  When there’s no time to write paragraphs, I still write tweets.

Some important things:

It’s fun, and the writer, who goes by Joe Bagel but may have several identities, certainly knows his Shakespeare, and his Plato, and his hip-hop.  More impressively, he cast himself as Musk, who is not, in the end, the hero.

Walkability, Weaponized

Some people will read a book from beginning to end, but many are browsers, nibbling here and there.  Some people want to be told want to do, while fewer want to plumb the depths of why.  So it’s not surprising that we’re seeing more list-books, lists of things to do with only brief explanations of each.  Most are terrible.

The great list-books are by people who have written the long book first.  You can trust Michael Pollan’s fun book Food Rules — a set of memorable rules about how to recognize good food, each explained in a page — because it’s a summary of his longer book on the topic, In Defense of Food.  Likewise, you can trust Jeff Speck’s Walkable City Rules because it’s a summary of Walkable City, one of the most important books in modern urbanism.

Speck calls his new book “an effort to weaponize Walkable City for deployment in the field.”  War metaphors are appropriate, especially in the US, where so many pedestrians die on the roads, and so many more are forced to drive because it’s too scary to walk.

These rules are practical interventions in the decisions that local governments make every day.  As with transit, great walkability is not the result of “pedestrian planning.”  It arises mostly from other decisions that seem to be about other things: zoning, development review, street design, housing policy, parking policy, and even law enforcement.

Imagine Speck striding through your City Hall.  (He is tall, but with a disarmingly soft voice.)  He leans into each meeting, listens for a minute, and then inserts the one idea that those people, working on that exact issue, need to hear.  That’s what the book feels like.

Of course, you want me to comment on his treatment of transit, but full disclosure: I had a small role in this part of the book, including commenting on a draft.  Two sections are based partly on my work and we exchanged ideas about some of the rest.  So while this is definitely his book, written from the standpoint of an urban designer, it might seem self-promoting to single this part out for praise.  Having said that, it says important things and it says them well, in a language that policymakers will understand.

Speck and I disagree on a tiny number of points [1], but overall, this book brilliantly describes not just the challenge of being a pedestrian and how to make it better, but also exactly how to shift each decision to achieve that, in every room of City Hall, and beyond.

Jeff Speck. Walkable City Rules  Island Press, 2018.



[1] I defend countdown clocks at signals, while Speck wants to remove them.  And while he and I will never perfectly agree on how to talk about streetcars, his streetcar chapter is the most candid I’ve ever seen from someone in the urban design profession.