Guest Posts

Guest Post: Transit Oriented Development on a Small Town Scale

This guest post is by Hugh Mose, a transportation consultant who retired in 2014 after nearly 20 years as the General Manager of CATA, the transit provider in State College, PA (the home of Penn State). CATA transports nearly seven million passengers annually in a service area of less than 100,000 population.  For further information, contact Hugh at [email protected] or Eric Bernier, CATA’s Director of Information Services, at [email protected].

While transit oriented development is increasingly common in major urban areas, smaller communities are also working hard to ensure that public transportation can be a viable alternative to the single occupant vehicle. One good example is State College, Pennsylvania, where the Centre Area Transportation Authority (CATA) has been particularly successful in securing transit-supportive elements as part of new real estate developments. In State College and its surrounding municipalities, as in most small communities, there are no ordinances requiring new residential or commercial developments to incorporate any particular transit amenities. However, that hasn’t stopped CATA from working diligently for more than two decades to develop an informal support system, one which has produced uncommonly good results.

Why do they do it?

The guiding philosophy at CATA is that the development getting built today is going to be there for 50 years. Lack of sidewalks, light-duty pavements, tight turning radii, and cul-de-sacs rather than through streets are going to be there forever, so nothing is more important than getting things right at the time the development is designed, approved and built.

How do they do it?

Build the relationships. Over the years CATA has built up a network of support within the development review process – consulting engineers, municipal staffs, planning commission members, local elected officials. And, CATA has established a very high level of credibility throughout the community.

Then, commit the resources. CATA and the local planning agency share the cost of a transportation planner whose job it is to review and comment on development plans. Municipalities forward the plans; requests are made, meetings are held with the proponents, accommodations are negotiated.

What do they ask for?


Lighted pathway from apartment buildings directly to bus stop/shelter/pull-off.


Pedestrian pathway from Wal-Mart store to bus stop, totally separated from parking.


Bus pull-off and shelter constructed for CATA by shopping center developer.

A pedestrian network. Nothing is more important than a complete system of direct, accessible and lighted pathways between project buildings, connecting with adjacent sites, and extending to the bus stop(s). After all, every bus rider is a pedestrian (or a bicyclist) before they board and after they alight!

Location, location, location. The key elements that are considered include balancing passenger convenience with operating efficiency, avoiding conflicts with automobiles, integrating transit facilities into other planned amenities, and providing for safe and convenient street crossings.

Developer investments. Developers understand that they need to invest in roadways, parking, streetlights, traffic mitigations, etc. CATA asserts that transit amenities are no different. In addition, CATA offers to assume ongoing facility upkeep and maintenance – which removes a major objection.

Why does it work?

There’s a transit culture. Through successive projects, expectations have been established. The development community has come to understand that, even though there are no ordinances specifically requiring transit amenities, for project approvals to move expeditiously, transit has to be considered.

CATA is reasonable it what it asks for. Because the program has no formal “teeth,” CATA is very willing to compromise, to consider and balance the limitation of the site, and to work with the developer to find a location for transit amenities that, while less than ideal, both parties can live with.

What have they learned?

These are the important takeaways: Be persistent; CATA’s present success is the result of more than twenty years of effort. Be prepared to work hard; the time and effort required is not insignificant. Be reasonable; after all, the program is built entirely on relationships and credibility. Build on past successes; nothing is more persuasive in current negotiations than showing what others have done before. Be resilient; accept that you can’t win them all. And, don’t get discouraged – success will come.


CATA and Centre Regional Planning Agency staff reviewing site plans.

Guest Post: Autonomous Vehicles and the VMT Problem

 This guest post is by Ron Kilcoyne, general manager of Lane Transit District in Eugene, Oregon and formerly the head of transit in Bridgeport, Connecticut and Santa Clarita, California. 


The flurry of speculation about the future of autonomous vehicles is mostly ignoring a signficant downside: the impact on vehicle miles travelled (VMT).  Safety and congestion resonate with people while VMT doesn’t.  Yet reducing per capita VMT is also essential for combating climate change. The potential increase in VMT when self-driving cars become prevalent could negate any congestion reduction benefit. Indeed it could be far worse than today.

Reducing VMT or per capita VMT is usually viewed as restricting individual freedom. But is it? If high quality pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure and high quality transit service is provided, individuals have attractive choices to driving and many use them. Add to this mix car sharing, bike sharing and transportation network companies (TNC) like Uber and Lyft and many households are choosing to go car free or reduce the numbers autos owned without sacrificing mobility and accessibility.

Much has been written about autonomous cars in this blog and elsewhere. Countless predictions on the impact autonomous vehicles have been voiced – and they are probably all wrong. One good analysis on the introduction of autonomous vehicles is here, Zipcar founder Robin Chase has a heaven or hell scenario here.

Autonomous vehicles will not eliminate the need for high capacity transit (and Jarrett makes this case here) and we should be concerned that opponents of transit investment will use the prospect of autonomous vehicles as a reason not to invest in transit.

But the real concern is on the impact on society and the communities in which we live. Will the trend toward walkable communities and more active transportation be thwarted? Will we become a more isolated society moving about in our autonomous pods? Will sprawl spread? And to the main point, how much will VMT growth inhibit efforts to combat climate change.  Even electric vehicles contribute to climate change if the electricity comes from fossil fuels, and fast growing VMT implies accelerated road construction, with its own environmental impacts.

No one knows how fast autonomous vehicle availability and use will occur. But let's focus on two of the most discussed impacts of the growth in autonomous vehicle penetration in urban areas:

  • reducing the amount of land devoted exclusively to the movement and storage of automobiles (a benefit) and
  • the increase of Vehicle Miles Travelled (VMT), causing inevitable pressure to pave more of the earth (a negative);

The former will only occur, and the latter will only be tamed, if we price the movement and storage of vehicles correctly.

Improper pricing of automobile use and storage has put public transportation at a disadvantage since the end of WWII and maybe even longer than that. There is plenty of literature that makes the case for proper pricing of road space, but as impressive as these arguments are there is little public support to increase the cost of driving or storing a car. Without public support there will not be political support.

Car sharing and bike sharing have been growing over the past few years. The prevalence of these options result in some households shedding an car and using alternatives, including using transit more frequently.  Indeed the two are mutually supportive. It is likely that households will reduce the number of cars they own (some may become car free while others will reduce the number of vehicles owned) if they have choices including a good car share program and good transit service.

If car ownership declines, and trips using shared cars are accurately priced, then individuals are more inclined to walk, bike or use transit when those modes are attractive alternatives.  High-ridership transit, in particular will still be cheaper than shared cars.  Therefore it is in the transit industry interest to partner, promote and facilitate growth of the sharing economy, but also to ensure that these services are priced fairly.  If so, the sharing economy and high-ridership transit should be the best of friends, offering complementary services at different price points and often connecting with one another.

Shared autos, whether in the Zipcar or Uber model are still not paying anywhere near the cost of using road space.  Once autonomous vehicles enter the picture, ZipCar and Uber will become indistinguishable.  Articles such as the one referenced at the beginning of this blog make an appealing prognosis about the potential to repurpose significant chunks of urban land but fail to acknowledge the impact of increased VMT.

If VMT grows dramatically we may find that the promises of freeing our cities of parking craters an illusion.   And for the same reason widening roads doesn’t end congestion – induced demand — the promises that autonomous vehicles will end congestion could be just as fleeting. Therefore the need to properly price road usage and parking spaces; and to include externalities such as greenhouse gas emissions (tailpipe for liquid fuels or at the source for electricity) becomes more imperative.

Any combination of greenhouse gas tax, vehicle mile traveled tax, weight –distance tax, congestion pricing, or variable tolls can accomplished this if priced properly. However getting any of these fees enacted is daunting. Opponents of ending auto subsidies are much more effective in framing the issue in ways that appeal to the average citizen. The human inclination to resist change and oppose paying are also on their side. Yet we have seen sea changes in societal attitudes happen in our life time – some take decades (smoking); others less than a decade (gay marriage). In this case we don’t have the luxury of waiting decades.  

Individuals and organizations that care about climate change, the quality of our urban spaces, and protecting open space need to brainstorm on how to frame this issue to build the needed political support to accurately price road and parking space usage. We can start by using the comment section by focusing on how we can accomplish this rather than giving reasons why we can’t.

To keep our cities moving and not overrun with vehicles, we need high quality transit in an autonomous vehicle world. Most modeling relating to the impact of autonomous vehicles indicates an increase in VMT even in scenarios that assume the availability of high quality high capacity transit. Unless the number of people arriving at a destination equals the number of people leaving at the same time there will be a lot empty autonomous vehicles moving about going to their next trip. If we can call up a vehicle wherever we are and, and if use of street space is heavily subsidized enabling these services to be inexpensive, induced demand will overwhelm our road network even with these vehicles travelling closer together.  

With parking taking up to 25% of the space in our communities large and small and road space another 25% or more, the prospect of reducing this is very appealing. One futurist claims we can reduce the need for parking by 80%. That may seem fantastical but even a 10% reduction in land devoted to parking can result in more green space, housing and employment opportunities in our cities without destroying the character of existing neighborhoods and allowing cities and small communities to grow preventing sprawl.

This can only happen if road space is properly priced, and if we invest in high quality pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure and high quality transit service. The question we need to think about and answer is how do we succeed in getting pricing and investment decisions right.

Luca Guala: Why “personal rapid transit” evolves into fixed route transit

1280px-Masdar_PRT_(1)Remember Masdar, the car-free neighbourhood in Abu Dhabi that was going to show the power of "personal rapid transit" (PRT)?   

I just received this interesting letter from Luca Guala, a transport engineer in Italy:

Let me introduce myself. I am a transport planner and I am partner of a consultancy Company named MLab (, based in an obscure corner of Italy. Nothing to brag about except that I have had the chance to participate in two very interesting experiments that concerned automated, driverless vehicles: the Masdar City "Personal Rapid Transit" “automated taxi” transit system and the CityMobil2 experiment with automated minibuses in a mixed setting.

In 2006, I proposed to London’s architects and planners Foster & Partners to choose PRT as a sustainable, non-polluting transport system in their bid for Masdar City’s masterplan (which they won).

To make a long story short (my involvement in Masdar City lasted 3 years) we soon realized that the dream of using “automated taxis” as a mass transport system often resulted in… queues of taxis at pick up points!

Even though the “podcars” are the size of an European or Japanese mini city car (Citroen C1, or Toyota Aygo for example) but seats 4 people in full comfort and up to 6 rather uncomfortably, they still took up so much space, that we found ourselves at a bifurcation: capacity or space? Should we give up some capacity (and find something else to provide the peak) or enlarge the transport infrastructure beyond our desires, and what was healthy for a city? A well known dilemma for any transport planner…

We then tried a “group rapid transit” strategy, as opposed to “personal rapid transit”: timing the podcars to travel at fixed intervals and on fixed routes at peak, so that they could fill up on most requested routes. This strategy did work, although the capacity almost tripled, it was not that of true mass transit (but in densely built Masdar City there was no room for big mass transit) but then the economic crisis arrived, the plan was dramatically downsized etc. etc.

Bottom line:  When "personal rapid transit" succeeds, it succeeds by turning into a conventional fixed route transit system.  The fantasy of "personal" transit is that a vehicle will be there just for our party and take us directly to our destination, but in constrained infrastructure this only works if demand is low.  But PRT was meant to the the primary transport system in a car-free city, so demand would be high.  It was never going to work.  

Luca takes on driverless taxis in part 2 of his letter, coming in the next post.

guest post: shaun cleaver on zambian public transit

Cleaver is a PhD student at the University of Toronto. His main career focus is
disability and rehabilitation in low resource settings. This work has taken
Shaun to Haiti, remote northern Canada, South Africa, Cameroon, and most
recently Zambia where he is exploring the possibility of conducting
participatory research with leaders in the disability community

I am a
temporary resident of Lusaka, having recently relocated to Zambia’s capital
city from Canada. Now that I am here I need to get around, and doing so has
been a voyage of discovery into the public transportation system that is
responsible for most of my comings and goings in this sprawling African city.

There is currently no system to
disseminate information on public transportation in Lusaka.  As a new rider
looking to understand the network in its entirety, I have been forced to cobble
together information gleaned from specific discussions, my own experience and
observations, and rare nuggets left on the internet like messages in bottles
left to float on the great Internet Sea and hopefully find their way to future
adventurers trying to make sense of the chaos.

analyzing operations here I am building upon my perspectives as a regular user
of multiple systems in high-income countries (particularly in Southern
Ontario), as well as those of low-income countries where I have lived, such as
Haiti. Where they apply I will draw upon the principles described by Jarrett in
this blog and the associated book. As Jarrett states in the Introduction of the book, there
are some important differences between public transportation between “the
developed world” and “the developing world,” but also some common phenomena. I
will use this post to identify the characteristics of such a system to provide
a baseline perspective for blog readers unfamiliar with these realities. Indeed, some analysts suggest that these features
should be applied to transportation systems in high-income
countries too
, making it even more relevant that riders in those countries
understand the consequences of such structures.

Loading: What makes it all go?

Like many
cities in low- and middle-income countries (especially
), public transportation in Lusaka is operated as a seemingly infinite
number of mostly-independent small businesses that depend exclusively on fare
revenue. The backbone of the system is the minibus: a van with row seating
operated by a 2-person crew (a driver and a conductor, to whom I will refer to
collectively as the operators). I have heard differing accounts as to the
proportion of buses that are operated by their owners – as compared to those
that owned by entrepreneurs in some revenue-sharing arrangement with the
operators – leading me to conclude that both models are common. In order to earn a living the drivers and conductors need to maximize the revenue from their one vehicle
while minimizing the operating expenses, the most substantial of which is fuel.
With massive unemployment in Zambia and low wages the norm for the masses,
there are many people willing to do this work on a rather tight margin. Time is
a concern for drivers, but less-so than the cost of petrol, so the constant
preoccupation of the operators is ensuring that all available space on the
moving vehicle is earning fare revenue. Usually the bus will generally not move
until full (the exception being when movement is likely to help it fill).

At this
point I feel obligated to substantiate what is meant by “full”. In objective
terms, this means that each of the benches in the four rows behind the driver
has four fare-paying adults, and that there are another two adults in the front
next to the driver. Thus, the minibus is only “full” when there are 19 people
in it (and it is possible to squeeze another few riders if there are low odds
of a police checkpoint). Remember that I am referring to a vehicle that is
effectively a van. Consider this: when boarding I usually prepare the fare
prior to entering, as when I take my seat I am not able to reach into my pocket
due the proximity of the other riders. 

addition to the “market forces” that incentivize the individual operators to
pursue ridership goals, the system has
regulations imposed upon it by the municipal and national governments, and some
amount of collective self-regulation. The governmental regulations apply
primarily to the vehicles, but also to the routes and stops. The most visible
aspect of those regulations is the mandatory colour scheme, which has
traditionally seen all registered public transportation vehicles painted
different shades of blue and white (although white with an orange stripe was
recently approved as an acceptable alternative). Vehicles are also registered
by the Road Traffic Safety Authority (RTSA) as having met certain safety

have varying accounts of the regulation of routes and stops, but the evidence
is pointing towards minibuses only being authorized to and pick up and carry
passengers on a limited number of pre-identified roads. On certain major arterial
roads the stops are more clearly established with designated pull-out areas,
whereas on other roads it is common practice to pick passengers up or drop them
off just about anywhere.

Photo 2.1

Fare chart displayed on window of minibus.

Operators have organized into a syndicate, but it is not clearly visible to a rider and seems to be only rarely referred to in the
media. Nonetheless, operators seem to have a collective voice to negotiate the
designation of roads as being minibus approved and to set fares. Minibus fares
are formally established and publicized according to a fare by distance model. It is notable that the publicized fares do not include every
origin/destination possibility, yet every journey has an established and
precise fare that is collectively known to conductors and regular riders,
although often rounded up or down to the nearest half kwacha.

Of note,
journeys that start and finish among more quiet parts of the routes seem to be
priced more affordably than trips of similar distances in busier areas: I am
unsure if this is the product of intentional calculation, or simply based upon
the collective experience of what riders will pay and operators will accept in
order to fill the minibus. On the routes where large buses run these sometimes
cost less than minibuses, although the ride is generally slower due to the
longer fill times.

Setting off: How it all fits together

urban form and road network converges with the imperative to maximize ridership
to create a radial system focused on the traditional commercial area west of
Cairo Road (referred to locally as “Town”), where the minibuses serve four
central terminal stations. According to these conditions the radial system
self-perpetuates. Riders know that any destination in the city can be accessed
through a connection in Town, and therefore usually head there unless there is
a specific outbound destination in-mind. Operators want their bus to be full
before moving and the sequential departures in the downtown terminals ensure
timely filling. Once a vehicle sets out on it route it will likely have
passengers heading all the way to the route’s outer terminus; there the
operators find that the best way to fill the minibus is to serve the most
popular destination – Town.

In a
system that is driven by millions of individual micro-decisions there are few
examples of system-level thinking, making information on the system as a whole
conspicuously absent. In trying to understand the collection of possible trips
that the system allows I have had to patch together multiple practical
questions about how to get from individual points A and B. Almost inevitably
the answer goes “First you look for a bus into Town; when you get to Town ask
for the bus to where you are going.” Lusaka's
minibus fare structure includes no provision for making connections between
different routes. Instead, the rider must pay a fare penalty with every
boarding. This has the effect of enforcing the "one transfer into
town" model as the cheapest way to get from point to point, even if making
connections would effect a time savings or shorter trip distance.

Photo 3.1

llennium Station, the smallest of the four central terminals, on a quiet Sunday afternoon.

To date I
have only seen one example of a route map; one rider’s best guess at
identifying the patterns of movement as drawn onto a Google Map. Consistent with my
experience, the legend is laden with question marks; fortunately, it is close
enough to being accurate as to be useful. Other points of reference that I have
found include an ode to the
minibus operators
 and a superficial but
practical account
that essentially concludes that ‘it’s really just far easier to
take a taxi.’ 

this seeming anarchy, there are clearly routes. The picture of Millennium
Station shown here demonstrates the (surprisingly) orderly system of organizing
the minibuses by destination, a welcoming particularity of the central
terminals. As a new rider it was initially nerve-wracking that the vehicles
themselves were void of visual markers to indicate the route. Having been a
Lusaka-resident for less than two months I have already internalized the
irrelevance of such markings: if the minibus wants you as a passenger they will
let you know where they are going. If I am headed home but not at one of the
downtown terminals I know to listen for a conductor hanging out the window
yelling the familiar “Garden,
Ng’ombe, Roma,
 yooooo!” that will take me along the predictable route

readers will have presumably identified certain drawbacks of this
organizational arrangement. “If all of the minibuses converge on a limited
area, does this not strain the road capacity?” (Answer: yes, yes it does.) “If
there is sufficient demand for origin/destination pairings outside of Town,
would drivers not seek to fill that void and serve those riders?” (Answer: sort
of, read on.) “If all of the minibuses fill at the terminal, what happens to
those riders who try to board minibuses along the route?” (Answer: they watch a
lot of full buses drive past them while waiting for one that stops to let off a
passenger; or, for reasons to be explained shortly, a spacious minibus could
pull up, but this is usually not as much of a blessing as it seems).

Photo 3.2With
almost all vehicles converging on the city centre the congestion there is
indeed horrendous. For most of the connection-required trips that I take I know
in advance that up to half of the travel time will be spent inching down one of
the few roads into Town, before waiting for my next minibus to fill and inching
back out again. For this reason it is very desirable to identify travel possibilities
that do not include a downtown connection. 

I have found a few. One of these is at the terminal in front of the University
Teaching Hospital (in the central south-eastern part of the city, well outside
of Town). Here there are minibuses that serve other parts of the city using
orbital lines of travel, including two routes that get me close enough to walk
home. Using either one of these reduces my travel time by a minimum of 30
minutes. Sounds great, eh? Sort of – if we bear in mind some caveats. The first
is that the minibus takes longer to fill; and only does so reliably at certain
times of day (particularly as the hospitals day activities come to an end,
around 5pm). The  time I save traveling
is sometimes more than accounted for while sitting on a slowly filling bus for
an hour. Next, the operators charge a fare premium for the “short-cut” (a term
that seems to nearly gain official status in the frequent fare disputes among
unsuspecting riders). To be fair to the operators, the fare premium is not
unwarranted due to the time lost in filling this lesser used route, and the
operators seem to have to pay a fee to use the terminal: serving these unusual
routes does indeed address an unmet demand, but does so at a cost. As a rider I
am still in the process of determining when it is in my interest to use
“short-cut routes” and plan my journeys accordingly.

the use of the terminals seems to be a calculated decision on the part of
operators. In one sense the benefit is clear in that the vehicle at the front
of the queue is guaranteed to fill and then the driver and conductor need only
to replace disembarking passengers along the route. On the other hand, time is
lost while waiting for one’s turn and the fee to use the terminal cuts into

For these
reasons it is not uncommon to see a minibus begin its journey somewhere along
the route. As a passenger, however, boarding an empty minibus en-route can
prove to be a tactical error that often leads to a frustrating wait of unknown
duration as the conductor runs up and down side streets looking for any signs
of potential paying customers. To give the minibus the appearance that it is
about to leave the drivers will often turn on the ignition and inch the minibus
forward as the conductor frantically tries to steer people on “Come, come,
let’s go! We’re going!” moments before the driver cuts the ignition once more.
Often enough the bus will venture off-route as the driver and conductor whistle
for attention.

occasionally the vehicle will proceed forward along the route to repeat this
ritual in more promising locations. It sometimes, but rarely, occurs that this
forward progress is sufficient to allow a rider to reach a destination before
the minibus fills.

Photo 3.3

Inbound minibuses on the Ng’ombe-Town route. The minibus in the foreground is following the line of the route. The vehicle in the background (with its door open) was previously on the main road, traveling left to right. The operators chose to stop at the side of the road to collect more passengers and upon seeing none began reversing up the side street (the vehicle eventually disappeared from view; I left before it emerged).

On the road: the pearls and pitfalls of this type
of system

In this
environment, where the city is large and private automobile ownership is beyond the means of most, there is substantial demand for public
transportation. The capital investment required to serve that demand (by
purchasing a minibus) is notable but not extravagant. High unemployment and low
wages mean that there are plenty of people willing to depend on the thin and
unpredictable profit margin earned by drivers and conductors. The inevitable
response to that equation is the abundance of
which makes competition a necessity – but not usually in ways
that make operations more pleasant.

feel one perpetual manifestation of this when approaching busy mid-route stops.
Since I frequently board inbound minibuses at the University of Zambia I happen
to know that stop to be notoriously undesirable: accessing the stop requires
walking along a long footpath with only one destination, so the conductors
start aggressively courting passengers over a hundred metres from the stop,
well before riders can see which vehicle they are being asked to board. Once a
conductor has claimed a passenger for his (usually empty) minibus there is an
understanding that the passenger belongs to him. Of course this conflicts with
the interests of all competing operators (and quite often with the interests of
the passenger) leaving physical aggression as one of the few tools to enforce
the claim. The conductors often shout at one another and try to steer
passengers towards their vehicles. Sometimes the situation comes to blows. The
entire charade occurs while there are more than sufficient passengers to fill
any one given vehicle, yet a multitude sit immobile as operators calculate how
many more passengers are worth their while to compete over. 

At busy
stops and some terminals there is another group of individuals who add to the
dynamic, the “call boys” or ngangwazi. Call boys provide the
“service” of collecting passengers for approaching vehicles, in exchange for a
payment from operators. Readers familiar with the informal economy in
low-income countries will know that this is not merely a benign value-added
service: the call boys will steer riders away from operators who do not pay.
Call boys can be very aggressive in their activities as their earnings are
based upon their ability to influence ridership and operator behaviour, and
aggression is one of the few tactics they have at their disposal to achieve
this goal. Call boys are thus generally disliked, although their presence is
usually tolerated as a fact of life. On occasion the activities of call boys
can reach a tipping point that stimulates an organized response, as has
recently occurred at one of the terminal

Photo 4.1

Above: Showgrounds-Manda Hill bus stop on Great East Road on a Saturday. This is pull-out stop design is typical on Lusaka’s arterial roads, although some have the additional feature of a barrier between the stop and the road with a single entrance on the approach side and an exit on the far side. Note that this photograph was taken from the sky walk over the intersection of Great East and Addis Ababa roads; a maddening piece of pedestrian infrastructure that (along with the associated fencing of the intersection) forces one to climb/descend two stories to cross the road. On the plus side there is at least a reliably safe passage, a feature not available at the bus stop.
Photo 4.2

The large-size bus that I was riding was full and ready to depart the limited access pull-through stop at Millennium Station. Just before it left the minibus pictured at right reversed in through the exit to block our passage and collect a few additional riders.

designated pull-outs that have been created for stops are at least advantageous
in that waiting passengers are more fully separated from the speeding traffic.
Those with specific entrances and exits (presumably designed to instill flow on
the otherwise erratic vehicle movement around stops) can occasionally be a
curse, however, as it is not uncommon for a minibus to bypass the entrance and
park blocking the exit – ensuring that no one moves until that (now) front
vehicle is full. Predictably, this strategy also
comes with conflict.

corollary of the empty minibus waiting to fill is the full minibus speeding
toward its destination. Many of the secondary roads in Lusaka have wide rights
of way but only one paved lane in each direction. When traffic is heavy it is
thus common to see drivers leave the road in order to bypass traffic. Although
I have yet to see a vehicle stopped for this manoeuvre I am quite confident
that it is illegal. Interestingly, this is a strategy that is mostly employed
by minibuses and the occasional taxi, making me believe that this is a
calculated risk on the part of drivers where the potential of a fine/bribe is
weighed against the revenue lost by weighting in traffic. Using the logic of
spontaneity, it is almost possible to interpret the unpaved shoulders as public
transportation queue jump lanes. 

Lusaka public transportation vehicles arrange riders by rows they are equipped
with “flip down seating” where the aisle disappears as the vehicle fills. This
design means that half of the bus must disembark/re-embark if a passenger in
the back right corner needs to alight, a reality that passengers seem to accept
readily, although grudgingly. Minibuses thus fill in a predictable pattern
where the permanent seats near the front fill first, followed by the back seat,
followed by the aisle. Although it is tempting to try and avoid the most buried
of seats it is necessary for someone to take them – and the vehicle will not
move until someone does. Besides, sitting in an aisle seat is no relaxing nap
either as the rider needs to regularly exit and re-enter the vehicle to allow
others off.

Fares are collected by the conductor in a wave starting at the
front and moving backwards as soon as the vehicle starts moving, with riders
shouting out the “name” of their stop (usually a nearby landmark). With the
varied and precise fares there is a constant issue of having adequate change;
it is common practice for a minibus to pull into a petrol station mid-route in
order to simultaneously gas up and seek change. With the back seats of the bus
being beyond the reach of the conductor it means that the fare payments and any
change given need to be passed from hand-to-hand. The process is even more
complicated on the busy routes where large buses are used and money needs to be
passed over as many as 5 rows of intermediaries, creating plenty of
opportunities for dropped coins.

With the
operations focused on full and fast-moving (where possible) vehicles, “problem
riders” are not particularly welcome on Lusaka minibuses. Although it is not
uncommon to see a rider board with construction supplies or a massive bag of
corn flour (with the payment of an additional fare), I have yet to see a rider
with a disability, nor a parent with a stroller, sights which are commonplace
during my transit journeys around Canadian cities. Strollers are likely a moot point for most Lusakans as in Zambian culture the traditional way
for a parent to carry a child is using a chitenge with the
baby wrapped around the mother’s back. As for the disabled, the current situation at least disadvantages, if not outright excludes,
riders who have practical difficulties in meeting the expectation of boarding
quickly and squeezing oneself into a tight space.

minibuses is far more affordable than owning a vehicle or riding private taxis,
but still expensive on local terms. One advantage of a radial network in a
system where every transfer means a new fare is that almost every
origin-destination pair involves only one connection, and making the journey a
little cheaper in the process. I learned this myself in my daily commute for
language classes from my home in Roma (north part of the city) to Bauleni
(south-east). When I would travel there through Town there was only one
connection and the fare was 9.50 kwacha (currently 5.5 kwacha = $1US), and the
one-way trip would take nearly two hours with the traffic. Through some
experimentation I learned how to make the same journey using a combination of
inbound, outbound, and orbital routes (including a shared taxi), requiring five
connections, but dropping my travel time to under 90 minutes. However, the
total fare rose to 19.50 kwacha. The entire journey from home to class by
private taxi is about 25 minutes in the morning rush hour, but costs me 80
kwacha. Meanwhile, until quite recently the minimum monthly wage for a domestic
worker in Zambia was 480 kwacha for up to 24 days of work. Had a maid or
cleaner been making the same trip that I was (which is not implausible), using
the slowest and cheapest routing, the fares would have consumed the
equivalent of an
 entire month’s salary.

reality that travel is expensive helps to explain the ridership behaviour of
patiently waiting at stops while vehicles take an eternity to fill and depart:
a rider is always free to get up and leave the vehicle before their
destination, but by doing so (s)he will forfeit the fare paid early in the
ride. It is possible to chase down the conductor and try to persuade the
granting of a refund or a rebate, but this is a discussion in which a rider
holds precious little leverage. Indeed, there is a more severe form of this
situation where minibuses have maintenance issues; it is not uncommon to see a
crowd waiting near a vehicle that is jacked up for a tire change so that those
riders can benefit from the remainder of the trip for which they have already

Reflecting on the ride

foundational principles of this system ensure that it will only remain a
viable, let alone enticing, option for the primary transportation needs of a
certain section of the population: those in the income band that can afford to
use it but not afford greater convenience. Presently, that population is large
enough, and their expectations low enough, to support an entire industry. The
system exists at the convergence of a price point that is accessible to a large
number of riders, the profitability required for operators to earn a meagre
living, and a level of functionality where riding is (usually) at least a bit
preferable to walking. In this respect, public transportation in Lusaka is
similar to a large and growing number of rapidly expanding cities where the
current public policy is that the government offer the absolute minimum of
attention and interest. The rider’s experience on such a system is directly
proportional to that interest and attention.

Beyond income, there is
also an element of class association; some Lusakans that I
have spoken with do not consider minibus travel even for the trips where it
could make practical sense and in the situations where it definitely makes
economic sense. It seems to be a common sentiment in more elite groups that
staying home is preferable, “as that is not a transportation
option for me/us.”

minibus riders and operators not well-represented among the economically or
politically powerful, this form of transportation seems to be framed as a
problem (rather than a solution) in the dominant discourse. One seemingly
common framing is that of minibuses “creating congestion” by veering from their
designated routes or stopping outside of designated areas. With this framing
the apparent solution to the hot-button issue of congestion is the application
of increasing constraint to minibus operation. Similar views are common regarding
the enforcement of regular
departure times
, and the obligation that operators accept passengers with disabilities
(Persons with Disabilities Act). There have even been calls for citizen
surveillance regarding vehicle conduct
and maintenance
. Such strategies use the stick while neglecting the carrot: the current
realities of discomfort and unpredictability are in fact rational products of a
system where the prime incentivizing force is the ability of a multitude of
independent operators to generate a very thin margin of subsistence profit.
Although it is possible to improve the situation experienced by riders through
greater regulation and enforcement, these options should be recognized as one policy
stream among many; and that these options need not be limited to those that
shift the burdens from riders to operators.    

“MaConducta’, nisala!”: Disembarking

its pitfalls, public transportation in Lusaka is generally safe, as understood
from both crime and road safety dimensions. It is, however, intimidating to an
unfamiliar rider, and there are no mechanisms to encourage rider orientation at
a system-level (note that I do not consider having a conductor run up and grab
your arm while asking “Where are you going [right now]?” to be
reasonable orientation). This post will hopefully serve as a de-mystifying
agent for at least some potential riders with open minds, patience, and an
interest for a respectful taste of the daily reality of many Lusakans. May we
collectively establish how to maximize the system for what it does well while
systematically steering clear of its worst issues.

guest post: solving the mystery of portland’s missing ‘faire’

Evan Landman is the new fulltime associate at my firm, Jarrett Walker & Associates.  He holds a BA in Human Geography from University of British Columbia and was formerly a planning intern for the Portland area regional government, Metro.  He tweets on transit and other Portland topics at @evanlandman

On a recent weekend, I had the opportunity to participate in a transit scavenger hunt and race hosted by Portland Afoot, a low-car lifestyle citizen journalism outfit. Players traversed the city using TriMet to solve the mystery of "Who Whacked Ms. Faire LeSquare?", a pun on the free fare zone that until September 2012 covered Portland's downtown core and a portion of its inner eastside.  


The crowd prior to the start of the race.

The event kicked off at Velocult, a bike shop and bar in Portland's Hollywood neighborhoood, near to a transit center and light rail station. Around 60 teams of 3-5 players took part; by my estimate, something like 250 people came out to spend one of the nicest days of the year so far riding transit. At times, it felt like everyone in town who writes, blogs or tweets on transit or mobility had turned up to play. One group even had members who came down on the train from Seattle to participate!

In addition to solving the murder mystery, each team could score points by visiting distant transit centers, using different modes to travel, riding multiple transit lines, spotting public art, or meeting TriMet employees. Amusingly, there were also points available for anyone who was able to get a photo of themselves being grilled by a fare inspector. The entire game was smoothly run through the clever use of unique Twitter hashtags to track everyone's progress.

I found out about the game the day before, so I didn't have time to register a team, but some folks short a player were kind enough to let me tag along. We used light rail, a number of bus lines, the Portland Streetcar, our feet, and a dragonboat to visit destinations across the Metro area, from the eastern transit center at Parkrose to the far western suburb of Hillsboro. Portland Afoot stationed volunteer actors (including one member of the city council) at different points around town to continue the story, and to provide clues and directions.

At the end of the day, the entire contingent met back at Velocult, where it was revealed that LeSquare had skipped town to Calgary (which has retained its downtown free fare zone). The organizers lined up several generous prize packages for the top three finishers, with freebies from Car2Go, Zipcar, and a long list of local retailers and restaurants. Best of all, one lucky finisher won a free one-year TriMet pass! 

In the spirit of play, Portland Afoot brought hundreds of people onto Portland's transit system for trips very different than the home-work commute. This sort of event serves as a wonderful tool to get people to use transit in an unfamiliar way, and shows that riding the bus or light rail can be both functional and fun. If I can use transit to have fun on a sunny Saturday, maybe I can start to imagine other new ways I could be using the system? If nothing else, this serves as a reminder that people in Portland, including young, politically engaged people, can still get excited about TriMet despite its recent cutbacks and continual pillorying in the media. 


JW postscript: I recall playing a similar game in around 1978, with a team including David Bragdon — later the elected CEO of Portland's regional government.  Just imagine how much more fun Evan would have had without a phone, computer, or realtime information, on an infrequent, confusing transit network that only went downtown!

guest post: nate wessel on why google transit will never be enough for small to medium-sized systems

Nate Wessel lives in Cincinnati, Ohio where for the last few years he's been working to improve public understanding of the local transit system. In 2011 he designed and published his own map of the system  and he now writes the Cincinnati Transit Blog. Nate has a degree in urban planning from the University of Cincinnati from where he graduated this past June.


I've heard quite a few times that Google Transit and similar technologies have made hand-rendered transit maps outdated. Being myself a maker of hand-made, tangible maps and having spent the last couple of years physically working with a lot of maps, I find myself with a bit of a gut reaction to this common claim.  It's more than just a reaction to an existential threat though. My reaction is to an idea that would toss the baby out with the bathwater. Not only are lovingly created, tangible transit maps incredibly valuable to our understanding of the cities we live in, they're essential to the widespread use of transit. We'll need to go back to basics.

What do maps do? What are maps? Why are they?

Maps are like Cliffs-Notes for the physical world. We don't have time to read the whole book but we still need to get an idea what it's about before the test. You'll probably never manage to explore the entirety of one mid-size city let alone a country or the whole world. Yet we still want to see what's out there, where we could go if we wanted to and what we'd find when we got there. Understanding the shape and nature of the whole world or even one city through direct physical experience is a practical impossibility.

We all need an understanding of the world beyond our fingertips; that's absolutely essential to modern human existence. It's why we have novels, to pick one example. A story from another life lets us share an experience we haven't yet had and perhaps never will. It lets us plumb the depths (and heights) of our own emotions and thoughts by momentarily opening ourselves up to the author's. We don't necessarily have to go there ourselves to learn something of love or sorrow(or downtown). Our innate curiosity pulls us to see what's possible in the world and within ourselves.

The same goes for everything on TV, in print, and many things on the internet. Most media lets us reach beyond our own personal experience to learn something of the world we can't see directly. We absolutely need these things. They give us an understanding of the broader world and let us contextualize our own existence. They show us what's normal, and more importantly what's possible for ourselves; where we can go and what we can do. Kids can't dream of being astronauts if they've never heard of one. We can't speak seriously of knights in shining armour and chivalry and honor and of other deeply interesting ideas until we've read of their existence and felt something of it ourselves. In exactly the same way maps show us what's possible in the physical world. They tell us that Spain is a place in Europe, that Queens is connected to Manhattan by subways and bridges, and that it's not similarly connected to Britain. We can't think of taking transit until we know what transit does and doesn't.

The other critical thing maps (and some other media)do is provide us with answers to specific questions. These might be:

  • "Which line can I take to Queens?"
  • "Are there coffee shops within walking distance of my current location?"
  • "Exactly how much will the bus cost?"

Filling this need for specific information is in part why the encyclopedia was so revolutionary during the Renaissance and why the internet can be so powerful today. The amount of precise information available to people is just exploding. The age of science and empiricism has given us the idea of bulk 'information' as something that can succinctly and precisely answer an isolated question. "Where is the nearest bike shop?" We now keep stock of them in a Google database that can return the answer in milliseconds. Often you can ask the most esoteric questions of the Internet and find a succinct and satisfying answer in less than a minute. That's stupendously useful for travellers and college students with deadlines.

So maps (and other media generally) have two big functions: First to inform broadly and second to answer specifically. The informative function must necessarily precede the precise answering function. We need to know what's generally possible before we can know what exactly to ask. We need to know that transit is even an option before we can ask how exactly to use it.

Answering specific questions with specific answers is what Google Transit does well. Here's how it works:

  • You tell Google Transit your location and exactly where you want to go.
  • You tell it when you want to go there(usually now).
  • It decides exactly the fastest way to do it, with perhaps a second option if it's a close call.
  • It puts this exact path on a map and narrates directions like "turn left" or "wait here".

In many circumstances, this is quite useful. Many people, if they're taking a one-time trip to somewhere they don't normally go, will just want a quick answer; if the trip is possible, a computerized map can tell them exactly how to get there and exactly how to get back. That's often a very handy thing.

But Google Transit totally misses the first function of maps: informing us about the world, sating our curiosity, and showing us the possible. Google transit doesn't tell us anything about where transit goes generally. It makes us ask questions like "how do I get from exactly  here to exactly there right now?"

Without a basic understanding of what's possible it's left to hope that "here" is a decent place to start and that "there" is even a realistic possibility. Downtown Cincinnati for example has transit operating on just about every street, but you can't even spot it in the Google Transit interface before inquiring about a specific trip.


When we ask questions without knowing that a reasonable answer even exists, we're sometimes confronted with answers like "no results" or "there's one trip three days from now at 3:29am". Without a broader understanding of how the whole thing works, we don't know what to ask or if the answer we got doesn't sound right. Worse, when we get these disappointing answers to the wrong questions, we get confused and frustrated. Transit users need more guidance than "not possible" or "how about Tuesday?"give us. Also, some specific answers that serve us well for the moment will be misleading in the future. Here for example…


…Google Transit suggests we take the #19 northward, but says nothing of the invisible #17 that runs parallel to it at more than twice the frequency. You can easily imagine someone who's once looked up their route on Google Transit regularly letting a #17 pass by while they wait for a #19 and complain about headways. Similar situations must happen a thousand times a day.

Exploring a transit system with Google Transit is like blind men trying to understand an elephant by touch. This part is thick, this part is bumpy, we don't know how any of the parts attach to each other, and the whole thing is constantly, inexplicably moving. A thoughtfully hand-rendered transit map tells us what the elephant really is. It doesn't go into detail about the dimensions of it's toenails, but tells us of it's overall size, shape and temperament. It tells us that you might be able to ride the thing and that you probably don't want to try poking it with a sharp stick. Once we know these basics we can begin to ask exactly what the trunk is for.

That's why hand-rendered system maps continue to be completely relevant in the heyday of the computer. A map like that of DC's Metro tells us more about the city and how to use the transit system than any GTFS feed ever could on it's own.


A hand-rendered map must necessarily simplify a system, showing only some lines and only some landmarks. To do so it makes value judgements, something a computer has never yet been capable of. It does most of the hard work of understanding for us because a map-maker must understand the transit system before he can make a map of it; it's not just a matter of dumping all the routes into a GIS program. That deeper understanding of the transit system is an experience most people don't yet have and it's exactly what they're looking for when they explore a system map. Similarly, when they explore a novel they may be looking for a deeper understanding of the human condition, history, or their own lives. In either case, they're most essentially looking for their possibilities. "What is there?" "What is within my reach?" What is possible for me?

It seems like most big American cities put these questions, at least so far as transit is concerned, largely to rest decades ago with their famous metro maps but that many small and mid-sized cities, particularly those that primarily use buses, provide little if any coherent, holistic map of how their system operates. They often seem content with either no system maps at all or only topographically accurate maps that de-emphasise and confuse the areas that can benefit from transit the most: those that are dense and well served by multiple lines.


Dense areas by definition get less space than their human value warrants on a topographically accurate map. Every famous transit map, whether it's DC's or New York's or London's does just the opposite; exploding dense, important areas like Downtown Manhattan and condensing suburban service. They do this not only because that makes them easier to draw, but because that emphasis on the dense is typically the actual emphasis of the transit system itself. A map that embodies the logic of a transit system is one that tells us most truly how the system works and most basically what we can do with it. We need something of that understanding before Google Transit can work well. We need to know what the elephant is.

But that deep understanding of a transit system and of a city is so different for each system that no computer program could ever yet describe every system well.  Google maps can't yet do it. It's something that just can't be automated.

Google Transit can give us the answers but it can't give us the questions. And that's why it will never be enough for a transit agency to publish schedules to Google Transit without also publishing a substantial and thoughtfully developed system map made by people who are more than passingly familiar with the transit system and with the city.




the price is right: market-based parking comes to new zealand (guest post)

This guest post is by my friend and colleague Stuart Donovan, with whom I've worked on a range of excellent transit planning projects over the years.  Stuart is the head of the New Zealand office of MRCagney consultants, a credentialed engineer, and the manager of numerous successful transit and transport policy research projects around New Zealand and beyond.

Parking pricesFor me parking is like sex, money, and
religion – it’s one of those things you avoid bringing up in polite
conversation. The reason is that most cities have an over-supply of
under-priced parking, yet most inhabitants of those cities believe exactly the
opposite; that there is never enough parking.

Changing this belief is tough work. A large
part of it seems to reflect a common assumption that even as cities grow they will
be able to continue to provide similar levels of parking as they have had in
the past. Deeper analysis suggests this assumption is invalid.

It’s invalid because economic and geometric
realities prevent cities from expanding their parking at the same rate as they
grow. In terms of off-street parking, higher land values tend to squeeze out space-intensive
activities. In terms of on-street parking, limited kerb space and a range of
competing uses, such as bus stops, constrains the degree to which more on-street
parking can be provided.

For these two reasons, the supply of off-
and on-street parking will always struggle to keep pace with the rate that cities
grow. And of course combining constrained
with growing demand will
almost inexorably lead to higher prices.
This economic relationship is the main reason why larger cities tend to command
higher parking prices, other factors remaining equal.

During the 1950s many cities tried to subvert
this economic equation. They implemented regulations that required new developments
to provide large amounts of off-street parking. But minimum parking
requirements simply meant that the cost of parking was paid for by developers,
instead of users. The cost of parking was quite simply subsumed elsewhere in
the economy.

Minimum parking requirements had a number
of unintended impacts. Their primary impact was to create an over-supply of
parking and lower the direct cost of parking for drivers. In this way, minimum
parking requirements actually made a difficult problem even more challenging,
because – over several decades – they have reinforced people’s cultural
expectation for cheap parking.

Transport planners recognise that parking
is a key influence on the travel decisions that people make. Aside from access
to a vehicle, the price and availability of parking is probably the single most
important determinant of whether people choose to drive.

So people who are passionate advocates for more
efficient passenger transit, such as most readers of this blog, should also be
passionate about addressing our parking issues. It’s hard to avoid the fact
that abundant parking and efficient passenger transit are mutually exclusive

But what can we do to address parking issues?

The solution to off-street parking supply seems
quite clear: Cities should remove minimum parking requirements and allow developers
to determine how much off-street parking they need for their development. This will
usually be less than what minimum parking requirements currently stipulate.

Progress towards the removal of minimum
parking requirements has already occurred in a number of cities around the
world. My home city of Auckland, New Zealand (population circa 1.5 million)
removed minimum parking requirements in the city centre in 1996 and has not looked
back: More people now use passenger transit to access the city centre in peak
hour than use private vehicles.

Fewer cities have made progress, however, with
the way they manage on-street parking. Most still rely on time-limits (e.g. one
hour) overlaid with paid parking. The combination of time-limits and paid
parking creates an inconvenient situation, e.g. when your visit to the dentist
takes 2 hours instead of 45 minutes you may return to your car to find that in
addition to having holes where you wisdom teeth used to be your wallet has been
further emptied by a parking infringement.

Reforming on-street parking policies often become
bogged down in comments from residents and businesses about parking being “too
expensive.” And when confronted with such questions many parking reform
proposals die an unnatural death. But most discussions of cost focus only on
the hourly rate, rather than the cost of infringements. I would argue that the
latter needs to be included in discussions of cost, because it drastically
changes the nature of the conversation.

Until recently San Francisco was the only city
that had really forged ahead with major on-street parking reforms, under the
measured encouragement of Donald Shoup and aided by a federal transport
research grant. San Francisco’s approach to on-street parking reforms is brilliant
in its simplicity: They recognised that time-limits were a relatively inefficient
way of managing demand, especially in areas where pay parking also applied.

In most locations with pay parking, San
Francisco has sought to remove time-limits. In these areas they now rely almost
solely on prices to manage demand: If demand goes up then hourly rates also go
up, and vice versa. If you’re interested you can (and should!) read more about
San Francisco’s trail-blazing approach to on-street parking policy on the SFpark website. The most interesting result is
that revenue from meters went up, but revenue from infringements went down.

So San Francisco had effectively
substituted meter revenue for infringement revenue; and while many people hate
paying for parking, in my experience they have an even deeper hatred towards
parking tickets, primarily because it makes them feel “unlucky”. Until recently
SFpark was a lone super nova in an otherwise cold and dark parking universe.

Until yesterday when my home city of
Auckland, New Zealand announced
that it was applying to join San Francisco’s elite parking club. Auckland has followed
a similar line to San Francisco, by removing all time-limits from on-street
car-parks the city centre and instead relying on prices to manage demand. They
point to the following advantages of this approach:

  • Easier to understand – so long as you’re
    paid up you’re good to go. No need to search for a car-park that allows you to
    park for as long as you need.
  • Simpler to enforce – parking wardens
    only have to check that the ticket is valid, which greatly expedites the enforcement
  • Reduced street clutter – a consistent
    approach to on-street parking means that only a few “Pay and display” signs are
    required, rather than a forest of confusing restrictions.

One of Auckland’s interesting tweaks is the
implementation of a free 15 minute grace period, which is intended to replace the
need for so many dedicated taxi and loading zones (drop off/pick up).
Basically, with this grace period every space in the city becomes a potential
drop off / pick up space, so long as you don’t park for longer than 15 minutes,
which results in more efficient utilisation.

Overall, Auckland expects that the changes
will be broadly revenue neutral. But this hides a very significant shift in
where revenue comes from. Whereas in the current situation a large proportion
of revenue is derived from those unlucky people visiting the dentist (i.e.
through infringements), in the future revenue from parking infringements is
expect to decline, whereas meter revenue increases.

One of the less obvious benefits of the
approach taken by Auckland and San Francisco, however, is that they’ve set out an
agreed policy process for setting parking prices. That is, they have developed
a transparent formula through which parking prices are adjusted in response to
demand. This greatly reduces opportunities for public/political interference in
the setting of parking prices.

It’s now not so easy for individual residents
or businesses to demand lower prices on their particular street, because the prices
are determined by the policy. While people can seek to change the policy itself
(indeed that is their democratic right) in doing so they are at least required to
engage with broader questions such as: How
would this impact parking across the entire city centre?

The most telling sign of the broad-based
stakeholder support for Auckland’s proposed changes is the comes from the Chief
Executive of Heart of the City (business association) Alex Swney, who said:

“For many years parking has been seen as a major
reason not to come into the city. We see today’s announcement as a significant
change in approach to parking in the city.  It recognises the ‘moving
feast’ of parking demands of our businesses and their customers. It’s a major
step forward and we are sure we will be looking back in a year and see
significant improvement as a result.”

As one of the people that contributed to the
development of this policy I’m quite biased in its favour. I can’t help but
sense that this represents a big step in the direction of more transparent and
sustainable on-street parking policy in Auckland.

As someone who regularly visits cities overseas
it also makes me ask: Which city will be next?

using dynamite for lack of paint: alex broner on “cities in motion”

Ever since I posted on SimCity and SimCity 4 people have been telling me I must try Cities in Motion.  But when you have two jobs and you're already devoting hours to a blog and a book and a remodel, there is only so much time for computer games.  Fortunately, Alex Broner has boldly gone there in a guest post, so I don't have to!


CitiesinMotion_Image3In Cities in Motion (a game by Colossal Order, published by Paradox Interactive), one assumes the role of a CEO of a transit company tasked with providing transit to a particular city. In the campaign mode the cities are all based on specific cities at specific historical periods, Berlin during the cold war for example. There is also a “sandbox” mode in which you can play additional cities including player created cities and fictional cities.

Your transit company operates without subsidies for the most part, though there are “missions” which often offer monetary rewards for their completion. The most common mission is to connect two or more places together with a transit line.

In the campaign mode there are certain required missions which you must complete in order to “win” the scenario and unlock further scenarios.

Your transit company has a variety of different vehicle types which it can use to meet the needs of the city’s residents: Buses, trams, Metro, waterbuses, and helecopters.  There is (premium) downloadable content that adds electric trolleybuses, cable cars, and monorails.

CitiesinMotion_Image2Your success of failure in the game depends on finding ways to efficiently provide service connecting residents with destinations such as workplaces, shopping, leisure, and government. “Leisure” seems to include regional transportation hubs such as inter-city rail stations and airports. Like a real transit company, you must consider expenses for capital improvements such as stations and vehicles and also operational expenses such as labor and fuel/electricity.

This is not a city building game but the connection between density and transit service is made clear by the simple fact that even though you can build a subway to rural or suburban area, very few people will ride it.  The connection between service levels, frequency, and customer satisfaction is made clear by the “wait time” indicator. If the wait time on your transit lines is too long then customers will grow dissatisfied and eventually leave the station. Also, since all infrastructure such as stations and rails has maintenance cost, creating under-utilized infrastructure leads to a poor cost-revenue ratio.

17_0To be successful your agency must take into account the layout of the city and where different groups of people want to go: working class people work at working class jobs, students go to the university, professionals to the offices, and so on. Then you must make choices between vehicle types and network arrangements and put it all together into a profitable enterprise.

All of this is pretty realistic but as I played I immediately began noticing some major problems. The most notable problem is that the “walk shed” for each stop or station is different for each type of vehicle. The game will have residents walk much farther for metro service than they will for buses or trams, no matter how poor the metro service is or how good the buses and trams.

An additional problem is that there is nothing like transit lanes or transit signal priority for buses and trams. The streets of Cities in Motion have various amounts of traffic and in heavy traffic your vehicles will bunch up, depriving you of much needed revenue and making your riders unhappy. One's tools for dealing with this are limited: trams can run on unoccupied ground such as across plazas or on grass. Often in the game I find myself building a tram because there’s a long park or other way to bypass congestion. One can demolish buildings that get in the way of your trams but not build roads or even transit lanes, placing one in the bizarre situation of reaching for the dynamite for lack of paint. In combination the limited walk shed and lack of prioritization tools such as transit lanes means that the game very quickly becomes about building Metro systems. Not only is this unrealistic it’s also quite boring.

Additional annoying features:

  • Cyclical economic changes causes one to have to adjust ticket prices and labor pay rates constantly for each type of vehicle and 5 types of employees. There’s a mod that allows one to do this automatically but it would have been nice if that had been included in the base game.
  • Residents are drawn to transit in an almost fanatical fashion, they will navigate around any barrier to reach a station that’s close enough by straight line distance. One is not encouraged to situate stations in places realistically accessible. The routing algorithm of residents is poor meaning that they’ll pile up on the platform of one metro station even if there’s an empty platform with comparable services right nearby. 
  • Metro trains try to get 100% full before departing, even if this means holding up the empty train behind them. 
  • Finally, one is unable to combine either metro or tram vehicles to form longer trains (or construct longer platforms).

On the whole I give the game a B- for gameplay and a C for simulation value. It obsesses over certain aspects of transit (different types of customers, different types of workers, etc) while failing to address some really important ones. It teaches some important things about transit (frequency, density, operation costs) while furthering our confusion about the relationship between technology and levels of service. I would love for the makers of the game to fix some of these problems either through downloadable content or a new release. We need clearer thinking when it comes to transit and while this game doesn’t quite provide it, it very easily could.

[Alex Broner is a graduate student working on his Masters of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Hawaii with an expected graduation date of December 2012. He is also an intern writer/researcher for the Sightline Institute.  His professional interests are in transportation, landuse, and urban design. Alex is passionate about creating enjoyable urban places where it is easy and safe to walk, bicycle, and take transit. His personal interests include cycling, science fiction novels, computer games, and dodgeball.]

social media’s influence on public transit (guest post)

Guest Post by Daniela Baker

Daniela Baker is a social media advocate at CreditDonkey where she helps entrepreneurs find small business credit cards.  She grew up in Europe where public transportation plays a huge role in everybody's life.  Public transit "consumers" like Daniela are finding their voice and publishing it on the web for all to read. With that newfound confidence, they are discussing political issues, gaining support for changes to be made when it comes to public funding and increased public transit choices.

With more and more people on the road and gas prices on the rise,  Americans are looking for a better alternative to commuting by car. Unfortunately, many transit systems can be hard for the newbie to decipher, or fall short in offering what citizens are after. Even more unfortunate, many people are unaware of the options their towns offer when it comes to transportation.

When consumers aren’t finding what they’re looking for when it comes to public transportation, they are turning to social media to help garner the influence they need to get the services they’re after. This has left many professionals scratching their heads, uncertain how social media can influence a public service.

Here are some answers as to why consumers are turning to social media when it comes to public transportation, as well as how consumers and cities are driving the social media efforts.

Americans’ sentiments toward public transportation

A poll released in March 2010 by Smart Growth America and Transportation for America found that Americans are craving more transportation options. The poll indicated that Americans would be open to doubling the amount of funding that is currently being funneled toward public transportation.

The poll found that Americans are frustrated with the transportation options that are currently available. In fact, 73 percent of respondents stated they have no options other than driving as much as they currently do. In the study, only 1 in 5 of those polled took public transportation during the previous month (this included walking) but indicated they would like to use it more; about 47 percent indicated public transportation is not an option in their area and 35 percent said the timing of routes did not work with their schedule.

These survey results were not only for metro areas but applied to suburban and rural areas as well, with respondents stating that rural areas would also benefit from increased transportation systems. In fact, 79 percent stated that in rural areas the U.S. would benefit from expansion and improvements made to both bus and rail systems. Eighty-two percent of suburbanites shared the same sentiment.

Why social media

In the past, when a consumer was looking for information, they would go to the local library to research an issue or visit town hall for information on public services. If they were unhappy about the services provided or felt that there was a need that was being missed, they would meet with their elected official.

Nowadays, citizens are going straight to the Internet to get answers and try to make change. With social media like blogs, Twitter and Facebook, and websites created by the common consumer, people are making real connections with people who they have never met in person.

Nielsen Research wanted to see just how large of an influence social media has on today’s consumers. This question was answered with a study they conducted in 2007. When asked what sources they trust, chat/discussion comments and blogs ranked two and three on the list, just behind other consumers. Other choices included brand websites, TV/magazines, radio, sponsorships, search ads and banner ads.

Citizens making public transportation more convenient

Tech savvy individuals have started to take action by creating social media outlets that help fellow commuters find the information they need to make public transportation options work with their commute. has profiled one such effort –, which is utilizing web technology to make regional commuter train schedules easier to decipher. The site allows commuters to type in their starting and ending destinations and it maps the closest train stations and shows when trains are scheduled to arrive.

As websites like and commuter-driven blogs continue to be created, they are encouraging others in their area to embrace the transportation systems that are available to them as well as voice their opinions about what could be improved.

Cities increasing awareness of public transportation

Cities across America have started to embrace social media to help encourage their citizens to take advantage of the public transportations that are available to them. June 16 was the 6th Annual Dump the Pump Day, sponsored by the American Public Transportation Association (APTA). APTA partnered with cities across the U.S. to encourage citizens to park their cars and utilizing public transportation for the day.

As reported by, the City of Tempe was one of the public organizations that participated in APTA’s annual event. City employees turned to a method they knew would be effective to get the words out to Arizonians—they went to Twitter and Facebook to encourage residents to choose public transit, showing the cost savings available through using alternative modes of transportation (gas prices in the Phoenix area have been hovering between $3.50 and $4.00 per gallon since 2008).

Outside of government, citizens and the private sector are asserting greater control over transit information.  Google Transit is now the go-to source for routes and schedules over much of the world, and many transit agencies are increasingly deferring to Google rather than maintaining their own expensive systems. 

More importantly, Google’s standard public data formats let anyone access route, schedule, and even real-time location data.  As a result, entrepreneurs have developed countless web and phone applications to present and customize transit data, so that customers can increasingly choose the style and emphasis that they want in their own information.   Down at the grass roots, activists are even drawing new styles of map for their transit systems, promoting these through social media, and getting their transit agency’s attention as a result.

What Comes Next?  Innovation

Most leading transit agencies now have Facebook and Twitter accounts, and some put significant effort into both listening and communicating via these tools.  The trick, of course, is not just to listen for suggestions and opinions, but also to notice how the whole communication task is evolving as new tools are invented and new ways of using them arise.

The hardest challenge for transit professoinals is simply to be open to innovation arising from the social media sphere.  Sometimes, online innovators will do something better, and more cheaply, than a transit agency can do it.  As that happens, the transit agency's interest may lie in encouraging public innovation, not trying to control or limit it.

guest post: scott johnson on “over-constrained projects”

This is a guest post from EngineerScotty, who blogs at Portland Transport and the Dead Horse Times. It is a follow-up to the recent series of articles on the issue of expertise vs activism, and it further explores the theme of the second article: projects which are over-constrained–those with excessive and sometimes contradictory requirements imposed on them by stakeholders. This post originally appeared at Portland Transport here; the version which appears at Human Transit has been edited and revised for a more global audience.  As always, views expressed in guest posts are interesting to me but not necessarily mine.

Jarrett has been investigating the proper role of the transit planner. Is (s)he a dispassionate expert, much like an engineer is expected to be? Or should planners and other professionals serve a more activist role–essentially serving as advocates of the transit-riding public, and defending their interests? Jarrett, who has made numerous remarks about the limits of mixed-traffic streetcar (and has been accused, unfairly in my opinion, of being a "bus fanatic"), noted that his job has elements of both: He does prefer to optimize for mobility outcomes, and streetcar frequently fares poorly as a mobility measure; but when he takes on a project he needs to live within the project's constraints: If a project which hires Jarrett as a consultant is chartered with building streetcars, then he will help the agency design the best streetcar network that they can afford.

But then, an obnoxious commentor (OK, yours truly) threw a wrench into the gears, asking the essential question. What if the project requirements are nonsensical to begin with? Jarrett's answer focused on the role of transit planners in addressing all of this; and I defer to his expertise on such matters. Instead, this article looks at the more fundamental problem: projects with fundamentally conflicting requirements.

Too many cooks

Many public works projects, especially those in a multi-layer democracy like the United States and other countries with federalist systems, have many, many stakeholders. And not all of those stakeholders have the interest of the general public at heart, let's be honest. Politicians love to show up at ribbon-cuttings, and may have ideological axes to grind. Agencies frequently seek to expand their scope, power, and influence. Developers, vendors, unions, and other parties often want to cash in, and frequently aren't shy at trying to influence decision-makers (often in ways which are perfectly legal). NIMBYs frequently show up who want it somewhere else.

Even among those stakeholders who actively support a project's goals, one can frequently find many demands on a project. Institutions can fall into the "golden hammer" trap, where their job involves swinging hammers and thus view every problem as a nail. Professional societies frequently have standards and practices which they view as sacrosanct, regardless of whether appropriate for a given context. Diverse communities of users may impose conflicting requirements. If grants are part of the funding package, the granting agency will often impose conditions of their own. And spools of bureaucratic red tape will surround the project, particularly if the United States government is involved.

All too often, public works projects collect so many differing requirements and constraints, both legitimate and not, that running the project is like squaring the circle. (For the non-mathematically inclined, constructing a square with the same area as a given circle using only straightedge and compass, was proven impossible in the 19th century). And this is without taking into account financial and schedule constraints. Yet projects which attempt to square the circle–which attempt to satisfy simultaneously many conflicting requirements, often dictated by stakeholders with de facto veto power over the project–still happen way too often, often times with disappointing results.

At least two prominent projects in the Portland, Oregon metropolitan area — one primarily highway, one exclusively transit — exhibit signs of being over-constrained. One of them is the Columbia River Crossing (CRC), a project to replace the Interstate Bridge crossing the Columbia River, between Portland, Oregon and Vancouver, Washington. The other is the Lake Oswego-Portland Transit Project, a project which seeks to build a "rapid streetcar" line connecting the city of Portland with its inner suburb of Lake Oswego, using an abandoned rail right-of-way.

The Swiss Army Bridge

The fundamental goal of the CRC ought to be conceptually simple. Modernize (structurally and functionally) the primary crossing of the Columbia, providing multi-modal crossing support, while eliminating the draw span. Straightening out the shipping channel on the river is a bonus. But what has actually happened has been a mess. The first problem is governance. Given that it's a bi-state effort, there isn't any single entity which is an obvious candidate to run the project.  So management was given jointly to the Oregon and Washington State departments of transportation (ODOT, WSDOT), with the participation of the cities of Portland, Oregon and Vancouver, Washington; the counties of Clark and Multnomah; Metro [the Portland regional planning authority]; the Southwest Washington Regional Transportation Council; and the two transit agencies, TriMet and C-Tran.  ODOT and WSDOT drafted purpose-and-need statements that pretty much excluded any solution other than a new freeway bridge. Throw in a pile of rules from various highway manuals and "poof": rather than simply building a bridge, the project now involves rebuilding about five miles of Interstate 5. On Hayden Island, a small island south of the river's primary channel, a new proposed network of ramps and interchanges cuts a swath through the island, nearly as wide as a football pitch is long.

The city of Portland and Metro have their own requirements for the project. It must contain light rail (an extension of the MAX Yellow Line), and other "green" features.  Many in Portland's civic leadership have insisted on an "iconic design" rather than a simple truss bridge.  With all of these design elements, the total proposed cost reached US$4 billion. 

Financing for such a price tag will require that the bridge be tolled. Residents on the Washington side would allegedly bear the brunt of tolls, because many of them commute to jobs in Oregon. The mayor of Vancouver was recently unseated when his challenger ran on the issue of bridge tolls.  Many on the Oregon side have little sympathy for those in Vancouver, whom are accused of wanting the benefits of a large, dynamic city, but of not wanting to contribute to its upkeep. And so on.

The result, at this stage, seems to be a design that nobody really likes, that has a murky funding picture, that has cost eight figures to produce nothing but paper so far, and which has no end date in sight.

Did it have to be this way? That's a hard question. One fundamental issue is that the City of Portland objects to a key design goal of the highway departments on both sides of the river–"modernization" of the freeway (a catchall term which includes widening, ramp reconfiguration, and all sorts of other stuff designed to reduce congestion). While some of Portland's objections spring from ideological or environmental concerns that other stakeholders don't share to the same extent, the city does have a legitimate concern that redesigning the bridge simply will move the existing traffic bottleneck south into Portland's city center. The state departments of transportation, for their part, seem more than willing to hold Portland's transit expansion plans hostage (an ODOT staffer once reportedly suggested that the agency would block any attempt to extend MAX across the Columbia, unless as part of a larger project to widen I-5). And Vancouver doesn't want to be stuck with an ever-escalating bill. Part of the present dynamic seems to involve both sides wishing that someone (Governor Kitzhaber, the feds) would "see the light" and kick the other side to the curb.  

The Lake Oswego Quit Calling It Streetcar (At Least For Now) Project

Compared to the CRC, the Lake Oswego transit project (LOTP) is a model of piece and harmony. The "what" of the project was largely fixed: a streetcar line, running from the current south end of the Portland Streetcar, along the old Jefferson Branch line to Lake Oswego. The project goals make sense: Use an existing asset (the rail right-of-way) to leverage federal funds, and build a transit service running in exclusive right-of-way which ought to be faster than local bus service on Highway 43, a frequently-congested 3-5 lane surface route. Demonstrate the potential of "rapid streetcar" as a budget alternative to light rail for shorter corridors. A no-brainer, right? Unlike the CRC, where leadership was distributed among a handful of agencies with contrary goals and a decided lack of trust, the involved government agencies (TriMet, Metro, and the cities of Portland and Lake Oswego) aren't fighting over the project requirements. But the devil, as is often the case, is in the details.

The most fundamental issue is that the project is promoted as rapid transit–as an upgrade over the existing bus service (TriMet's 35 and 36 lines, which the streetcar would replace between Portland and Lake Oswego).  But this premise is undermined by the proposed implementation. The project is currently planned to be an extension of the existing Portland Streetcar system, which offers local-stop service along is present route, and which bypasses the main transit corridor downtown (the Portland Transit Mall). Portland Streetcar's current rolling stock (Skoda 10T streetcars and a clone produced by Oregon Iron Works), are optimized for mixed-traffic application, not for rapid transit use. In addition, many local merchants on Highway 43 in the Johns Landing neighborhood want streetcar service at their front door; whereas many condo owners along the existing right-of-way don't want trains past their front door. (Never mind that the rail line has been there far longer than the condos). Thus, the streetcar line is likely to make an expensive detour onto Highway 43–the same highway which is predicted to turn into a parking lot in the near future, justifying the mobility need for the project in the first place.

Unlike the new Milwaukie MAX line directly across the river, which is designed to function well as rapid transit until hitting downtown, the streetcar is not so designed.  It's likely to be slower than the existing bus between Lake Oswego and downtown, and that's without considering the need for riders travelling from/to beyond Lake Oswego to transfer.  Bus lines 35 and 36 from beyond Lake Oswego, which now flow through Lake Oswego into Portland, will have to be truncated, forcing a connection to the new streetcar.  This is necessary both to avoid duplication and to provide operating funds for the streetcar line.

The streetcar does offer modest capacity improvements over the bus, and has the cachet of being rail.  (That cachet is a source of debate in transit circles, but will likely have an impact given the demographics along the line).  But the mobility improvements of the project are close to nil; and for longer-distance commuters on the 35 and 36, probably a net negative.  Perhaps land-use improvements alleged to flow from the project will be worth the local investment, though much of the area along the line is already developed or not suitable for development. Perhaps the ability to get a big check from the US Government for a minimal local cash contribution–given that the federal government is willing to consider the value of the right-of-way in calculating their match–makes the project worth doing. This is a difficult case to make, however, to the transit-riding public, who tend to care more about headways and trip times than they do about property values.

Signs of an over-constrained project

Here at Human Transit, another commenter posed an interesting question: How do you know if a project has requirements or constraints that make it difficult to do a good job? The question was posed in the context of bad-faith requirements (such as developers engaging in rent-seeking), but the answers also apply to good faith attempts to square the circle. My response is here; the answers are also reproduced below, edited for brevity. (In particular, observations about the CRC and Lake Oswego streetcar projects which are redundant with the criticisms above are excised; if you want to see the original answers, click the link).

  • Overly constrained initial project requirements. It's useful to distinguish here bona-fide requirements from design/implementation details, the latter of which ought to flow from the former. But sometimes, elements which ought to be details are set forth in the requirements without adequate explanation of why this should be so. Sometimes these requirements aren't stated explicitly, but still are constrained enough that only the solution preferred by the powerbroker can meet them. [CRC used as example]
  • Decision criteria which may not match the stated goals of the project. For example, publicly identifying a project as "rapid transit" but then de-emphasizing speed and reliability, or basing decisions on highly speculative future estimates. [LOTP used as example]
  • Thee presence of strawman alternatives in the DEIS (Draft Environmental Impact Statement) or equivalent planning/analysis document. By "strawman alternatives", I mean proposed alternatives which are obviously bad, and included only to satisfy process requirements that multiple alternatives be studied in depth. [LOTP "enhanced bus" used as example; in this case, a more robust BRT solution was excluded from analysis early in the project..which lead us to the next item…]
  • Viable project alternatives rejected early in the planning phase, often due to being "out of scope" (see the first item concerning overly restrictive requirements), or on the basis of vague or overly-picky technical factors. Look for signs that point to "this might work, but we really don't want to (or aren't allowed to) consider it, so we'll dispose of it as quickly as we can". [Many have alleged that the proposed "supplemental bridge" alternative to the CRC is another example].
  • Projects that appear "out of the blue", rather than the result of organic planning activities, or which are done "out of sequence" compared to their apparent priority. May represent a unique opportunity (such a project eligible for funding that isn't available for other projects) or it may be a sign that someone has his thumb on the scale.
  • "Economic development" being touted as an advantage is a frequent red flag.  This is always touted, of course, but if "economic development" is the main reason for doing a project (and especially if the "development" in question refers mainly to the project's construction effort itself and not to post-project activities the work will enable) a good response is to ask if there are any places to deploy the "economic development" that will have better post-project outcomes.  Paying someone to dig ditches and refill them can be considered "economic development" in that it does create jobs, but it's better to pay people to build useful things.
  • And one other, not in the HT article: The use of unproven or untested designs or methodologies in the project, or anything dubbed "experimental".  Until recently, the CRC was considering an experimental bridge design, until cooler heads prevailed.

Of course, not all over-constrained projects are failures. Westside MAX had some annoying constraints placed on it, but is overall a successful project.  Still, had ten extraneous stops been sprinkled along the line between Portland and Hillsboro, would the line be as successful?

Dealing with over-constrained projects

What to do about all of this?   The hard fact about overconstrained projects is that often, we have to live with them.  It's easy to fantasize about driving bad actors out of the process, and about having strong visionary leaders who have the foresight and the clout to sweep conflicting requirements out of the way, without losing support for the project.  But such individuals are rare, and in many of these projects — notably the CRC — nobody in the process, not even the governors, are in the position to act unilaterally.  Still, a few suggestions come to mind:

  • Governance matters. It's hard with multiple stakeholders. In the case of the CRC, the first step to fixing the project would be for the stakeholders to jointly hire an outside project leader; one who has no particular ties to either Oregon or Washington, or to the various modal factions, to lead the project. Of course, for such a leader to be effective, the various agencies will need to cede a fair bit of authority to said leader; I'm not sure any of them are willing to do so at this point.
  • Sunlight is the best disinfectant. A transparent process, one where decisions can be easily traced to inputs and planning work products are available for inspection, may help cut down on (or at least expose) some of the pettier forms of backroom dealing. Bad actors don't like being subject to public scrutiny. Transparency also helps good-faith projects avoid accusations of backroom dealing; virtually every large capital project gets accused of being done in order to grease someone's palm; an accusation which is frequently not true.
  • Be prepared to say no. The City of Portland has won some concessions on the CRC with this tactic, but if a project is really going off the rails, cancellation should always be an option.
  • Bifurcation and phasing may work. A controversial and difficult project can sometimes be split up into two or more separate projects.  Often, though, the political impetus is in the opposite direction, creating more linkages between projects so as to create a package containing something that everyone wants.
  • Better advocacy for users. One of the unfortunate parts of transit advocacy in the Portland area is a lack of effective organization of transit users. Freight users of the highway system are well-organized, and often asking government for better freight mobility. The auto lobby is likewise strong and forceful. Even the cycling community in Portland is relatively-well organized. Transit users in the city do have some organized advocates, but many of these activists represent subset of the overall transit community (such as lower-income inner city bus riders), not transit users as a whole. Beleaguered transit agencies, especially ones looking to grow their ridership base, can't always represent the interests of their existing ridership.

That said, not all gloom and doom is justified. Over-constrained projects do end up successful, despite warts. This is especially true when the bulk of the constraints come from actual community needs that happen to be in conflict (such as simultaneous demands for access and mobility). Portland's MAX system, overall, threads the access/mobility needle reasonably well, although not perfectly. Some critics of the system complain about too many highway-running segments without development potential; others complain that it's too slow downtown, and uncompetitive for crosstown trips. However, were MAX to offer streetcar-like performance over its entire length, it probably would not attract the ridership that it does (especially the large number of suburban commuters using the system); conversely, were it required to be built to "class A" levels of mobility throughout the system, it probably could not have been built at all. The flip-side of the overconstrained project is one which has too many degrees of freedom–and which may not be taking as many community needs into account as it should–or in the worst cases, such as the destruction wrought by urban freeway-building, result from the neglect of a particular community's concerns altogether.