how do you compare to your peers? should you care?

Admit it:  You've always cared, at least in secret, about how you compare to your peers: your friends, your fellow students, your graduating class, your co-workers, your generation.  Well, deep down, transit authorities and city governments care too, which is why comparing a city to other similar cities always gets attention.

Sometimes peer comparisons cause complacency, especially if you choose the wrong peers.  Wellington has the highest transit mode share in New Zealand, but in a country with only one other big, dense city, that obviously shouldn't imply that it's reached nirvana.  Working in greater Vancouver I always have to emphasize that they are doing so well by North American standards that they have to start comparing themselves to European port cities in their size class (Glasgow, Edinburgh, Copenhagen, Helsinki, Marseilles).  My general advice: If your peer comparison says you're wonderful, throw a party and revel in this for 48 hours, then look for a more motivating group of peers. 

At the other extreme, nothing is more motivating than being told that you're dead last among your peers.  Earlier this year I worked (through my Australian employer MRCagney under the leadership of Ian Wallis Associates) on a peer comparison study for Auckland, New Zealand, which compared Auckland's transit performance with all the five biggest Australian cities plus a selection of North American ones.  Download the full report here.  Remember, if you're in any of the peer cities that it uses (Wellington, Brisbane, Perth, Adelaide, Sydney, Melbourne, Edmonton, Ottawa, Calgary, Vancouver, Honolulu, Portland, Seattle) this is your peer study too!  Just keep the tables and refocus the text (citing the source of course!).

More generally, the report is a good illustration of how peer comparison can work at its best, and also of the cautions that must be shouted from the sidelines once the conclusions take fire in the media, as they certainly have in Auckland.  From yesterday's New Zealand Herald:

Consultants have ranked Auckland last out of 14 cities – in New Zealand, Australia, Canada and the United States – included in a benchmark study for the average number of public transport trips taken annually by its residents.

Aucklanders also pay the highest fares of any of the cities, amounting to 24c for every kilometre travelled on the average 44 public transport trips they take each year, compared with 17c in Wellington.

The rest of the article is further grim statistics, plus quotations from political leaders demanding that something be done. 

I'm  sympathetic to Auckland Transport in this case.  Remember, a city's transit performance is mostly about the physical layout of the city and the constraints on other modes; the quality of the transit system by itself can't overcome problems in those areas.  The nature of the economy also matters.  Wellington is much smaller but it has much more severe chokepoints in its urban structure.  In fact, all travel between the northern and southern parts of the city must go through a single chokepoint less than 1 km wide, which is also the (very dense) downtown.  Wellington's economy is dominated by government, which is generally a sector disposed to use transit heavily. All of these features are hugely important in driving Wellington's mode share above Auckland's, and yet they don't include anything about the respective quality of the transit systems. 

Peer comparisons also carry the false assumption that everyone wants to be the same kind of city, and is therefore working to the same kind of goals.  (This attitude, taken to extreme, produces the absurdity of top ten "best cities for transit" lists.)  Low mode share for transit may mean your transit system is failing, but it may mean that it's not trying for mode share, or at least that it has other objectives or constraints that prevent it from focusing on that goal.  It may just mean that your city has different values.  It may mean the city stikes a different balance between cycling, transit, and walking based on its own geography.

Still, service quality matters, and there's a lot that Auckland can do.  I hope the city's opinion leaders are listening to Auckland Transport as well as berating it, so that they understand the real choices that must be made to move Auckland forward.  If there's a real conversation, great things can be accomplished. 

updated: another weird way to measure “best cities for transit”

UPDATE:  This post in its original form happened when I had the Atlantic article article on the new Brookings report, but couldn't find the report itself.  As it turned out, the Brookings report is much smarter than the Atlantic article made it sound.  In particular, it appears to have been the Atlantic, not Brookings, who decided that this is a "10 best" story.  I've made minor corrections to revise the attribution, but watch soon for a series of posts responding to the Brookings report more fairly.  I'll have several things to say about it, some of them critical, over the next few days.    

The esteemed Brookings Institution US magazine The Atlantic says that America's best city for transit is … <drumroll> … Honolulu! 

Sooner or later, everyone ends up on a "10 best" list.  This time around (apart from Honolulu) Brookings seems to be reaching out to southwestern cities that feature vast grids of fast car-centered arterials spreading out across any available flat land.  Are those the best cities for transit?  Well, maybe it's just their turn.

The Brookings top 10:

  1. Honolulu, HI
  2. San Jose – Silicon Valley, CA
  3. Salt Lake City, UT
  4. Tucson, AZ
  5. Fresno, CA
  6. Denver, CO
  7. Albuquerque, NM
  8. Las Vegas, NV
  9. Provo-Orem, UT
  10. Modesto, CA

As regular readers of this blog understand, "best city for transit" is a meaningless term.  There are many ways to define "best," and we don't always agree with ourselves on which one matters, let alone agree with anyone else.

But the Brookings definition, as described in the Atlantic article, is especially perverse, even by "10 best" standards:

Brookings graded each city according to two criteria — coverage (the share of Americans within 3/4 miles from a transit stop) and job access (the share of city jobs accessible within 90 minutes of transit) — to determine the ten best performing cities for public transportation.

I have no idea what "within 90 minutes of transit" means, and the original report doesn't appear to be on the Brookings website.  [UPDATENow I do.  Look for a post on this soon.]

But residential coverage, as a primary indicator of transit quality, is a very loaded way of thinking about "best," especially if you care about transit sustainability outcomes that depend on ridership.  Many people are within walking distance of a bus stop but not within walking distance of service that's remotely attractive in terms of frequency, speed and reliability.  (Even more are within "air distance," which is what Brookings seems to refer to.)

Due to this definition, the Brookings Atlantic list comes to focus on rather low-density, car-dependent cities that happen to have good transit coverage.  The cities listed have transit systems that are complete in terms of getting close to almost every home, but in low-density cities this is usually achieved by sacrificing frequency, speed, and even directness.  For example, if you really want to maximise your residential coverage without spending money, and thus satisfy the Brookings criterion, just design routes like this:

Klamath falls

This is what "residential coverage" standards encourage transit planners to do!  So Brookings needs to explain how an abundance of transit routes that look like this could indicate a "best city for transit."

Then there's a pedestrian environment.  Many of these cities are hard to walk in, and transit especially often delivers you to a busy arterial where you'll have difficulty walking to nearby destinations.

Finally, of course, "residential coverage" is about how many people have access to the system, which has nothing to do with who finds it useful.  In fact, a transit system that's trying to maximize its relevance is always trying to push residential coverage standards down so that they can focus more service on dense areas where residents are more likely to want to build their lives around transit and other sustainable modes. 

UPDATEHaving now perused the Brookings report, I stand by these last three paragraphs, but will expand on them soon.  I'm relieved to know that Brookings's framing of the issue is smarter than the Atlantic made it sound. 

Still, a report like this from a distinguished institution raises great opportunities to question some of the more common assumptions about how transit should be compared across cities.  So I take issue with their reliance on city limits and Metropolitan Statistical Areas, among other things, not to criticize Brookings but simply to encourage more nuanced and coherent explanations of this kind of statistical work.  More posts on these critiques in the future, starting here.

Ridership Down in the US? Look Deeper

It seems to be, and I’m sure the New Republic’s Robert Puentes is right about the causes — (1) recession-driven unemployment (which both reduces commute demand and reduces discretionary income) plus (2) the epidemic of service cuts, which is proving yet again that not many riders are so “captive” that you can’t drive them away eventually.  Both of those factors are well-observed correlations.

But it’s interesting that the New Republic chose to feature this map from the Brookings Institution’s interactive source, which shows total numbers of public transit commuters by metro area, as opposed to this one, which shows the percentage of all commutes that go by public transit, or what’s technically called the Journey-to-Work (JTW) mode share. Continue Reading →

Honolulu: Grand Themes from the Rail Transit Wars


Eight months ago, a freelance reporter asked for my views on the emerging argument over Honolulu’s proposed rail transit line, which would stretch most of the length of the populated southern shore, from west of Pearl Harbor through downtown to Ala Moana Center on the edge of Waikiki.  The Transport Politic has covered the background here and here and here.  A good blog on the subject is here. Continue Reading →

Frequency and Freedom on Driverless Rapid Transit

DSCN1552If you’ve seen much of Vancouver on television the last few days, you’ve probably seen a shot of a small train gliding along an elevated guideway.  It’s SkyTrain, the world’s largest system of fully automated (driverless) metros.  Perhaps you’ve ridden driverless trains that shuttle between airport terminals.  SkyTrain is the same principle, at a citywide scale.

Driverless trains raise all kinds of anxieties. Many people like knowing there’s someone in charge on the vehicle, and imagine that this person will be useful in emergencies.  But on most subways, you can only talk to this person by pushing an intercom button.  There’s very little he can do if there’s an emergency in your car other than call for help.  Continue Reading →

Is Elevated Acceptable?


The Transport Politic has an excellent post on the debate over the plan to build Honolulu’s proposed light rail system elevated through downtown, as opposed to at the surface as a group of architects wants.

Everyone is prone to reduce the complexity of urbanism to a problem solvable by their own profession, and risks being dismissive of the expertise of other professions’ points of view.  (See here, for example.)  When a group of architects proposes that a major new transit investment should be made slower and more expensive to operate in order to foster a better streetscape, as is happening in Honolulu, one hopes that they have thought through the urbanist consequences of all the people who’ll be in cars instead of on transit because the transit is too slow, infrequent, and unreliable.  Let me clarify each of those words:

Continue Reading →