Amtrak’s Endless Ridership-vs-Coverage Problem

Amtrak is about to see more Federal funding than it’s had in decades, and is finally in the position to talk about major growth. But their “Amtrak Connects US” vision document is worth reading to notice two things: They continue to face a conflict between ridership goals and coverage goals, and they don’t feel that it’s safe to talk about that openly.

To review:

  • Ridership goals are served by concentrating good service where there are lots of people to benefit from it.
  • Coverage goals are served by spreading service out so that you can say everyone got some, regardless of whether people ride.

Ever since I did the first scholarly paper on this in 2008, I’ve been helping transit agencies face this problem honestly and make clear decisions about it.  Pretending that you are doing both just produces confusion and unhappiness, because these goals are mathematically opposite. They tell network designers to do opposite things. Rhetoric can paper over the problem but won’t resolve it.

For years, Congress has berated Amtrak for not being profitable (which would require ridership) while demanding that it run service to every corner of the country (coverage).  The high-ridership thing for Amtrak to do, as the report makes clear, is to focus on improved frequency and travel time for trips of under 500 miles, a distance where rail service between city centers can effectively compete with flying between airports, and this in fact is what the plan recommends. But that means the improvements won’t be everywhere.

Yet when it comes to highest-level summary, the report seems pressured to de-emphasize its own recommendations. Here are the seven bullet points that form “Amtrak’s 15 Year Vision” (p9). I’ve labeled each with whether it refers to ridership or coverage.

  • Add service to 160 new communities, large and small, while retaining the existing Amtrak network serving over 525 locations. [Coverage]
  • Provide intercity passenger rail service to the 50 largest metropolitan areas (by population).  [Ridership]
  • Serve 47 of the 48 contiguous states, expanding corridor passenger rail service in 20 states and bringing new corridor passenger rail service to 16 states.  [Coverage]
  • Add 39 new routes, and enhance 25 routes.  [Coverage]
  • Introduce new stations in over half of U.S. states.  [Coverage]
  • Expand or improve rail service for 20 million more riders annually—which would double the amount that the state-supported routes carried in fiscal year (FY) 2019.  [Ridership]
  • Provide $800 million in total Amtrak revenue growth versus FY 2019. [Ridership]

While ridership is the focus of the actual policy, four of these seven points emphasize coverage instead.  Three of the them count states, which has nothing to do with ridership or population but does matter when counting votes in the Senate, the US’s ultimate enforcer of coverage-oriented thinking.  Amtrak takes pride in serving 46 of the 48 contiguous states, though most rural states are served only by “land cruises,” trains that take 2-3 days to cross distances of over 1000 miles.  These provide useful access to some rural towns but are much too slow for travel between major cities, and their schedules — once a day at best — are almost guaranteed not to be going when you need them.  Amtrak recognizes that these trains are not a growth market.  The future lies in the shorter more frequent links under 500 miles, but the obsession with state-counting in these high level bullet points shows how Amtrak must dodge the obvious in its rhetoric.

Even more striking, Amtrak does not seem to feel it has permission to draw a map that would show what they’re actually doing.  Here’s a bit of the mapping that comes with the document:

Sample of mapping from Amtrak’s report.


Colors are used here to show where some service is being added, but this map tells you nothing about the actual levels of service on each line. It’s misleading about the pattern of existing service — where frequency is massively concentrated in the Boston-Washington “Northeast Corridor” — and also about the degree to which different corridors are proposed to be improved.  In short, it’s a coverage map, designed to emphasize how many places are affected rather than what the benefit is. Meanwhile, a quick internet search turns up a map of 2015 Amtrak frequencies that gives you some sense of how unevenly service is actually distributed:


Frequency based map of Amtrak in 2015.

Amtrak wouldn’t draw its own map in this style, so somebody else did a put it on the internet.  (This, by the way, is how the idea of showing frequency on local transit maps caught on in the US in the 2000s and 2010s: With encouragement and advice from this blog, impatient advocates drew the maps when the transit authority wouldn’t and this helped give the transit authorities the courage to do it themselves.  Today, at least in the US, most major agencies show some indication of frequency in their mapping.)  Sure enough, Yonah Freemark has already drawn a frequency based map of the Amtrak plan!

Yonah Freemark’s frequency map of the Amtrak plan.

But you won’t find this map in Amtrak’s report, and I can imagine the internal conversation over why.  “It will make it look like we hate North Dakota!” Yes, indeed, in the US there are many states with two senators and very few people. Amtrak is planning for ridership, so it doesn’t propose to improve service there.  Ignoring North Dakota is an inevitable consequence of a decision that ridership is the goal.

So we get a report that lays out a ridership-driven plan — higher frequencies where there are lots of people — but doesn’t dare say that at the highest level of the document: the bullet points and map that everyone will look at even if they don’t read the text.

I’m not criticizing Amtrak here! This is probably exactly the appropriate framing for their political situation. But you should read this document to practice reading for ridership-coverage tension, to help you recognize when this contradiction is hiding inside your own transit authority’s thinking or rhetoric.

Working on Climate Change? I Have a Question

Like many people, I’m terrified of climate change and see it as an important reason for my work.  But when I listen to climate activists, or the politicians they have trained, I’m puzzled by a word that they use.  It’s planet.  We have to “save the planet,” they say.

On the surface, there are two obvious problems with this word choice, so there must be some more subtle reason for using it, one that I need to be enlightened on.

First, the everyday meaning of planet, the one we learned in high school, is something like “a sufficiently large ball of matter orbiting a star.” If that’s what a planet is, then climate change doesn’t threaten the planet. Earth as a ball of rock will be fine.

So when we say “save the planet” we’re using planet in a newer and different way to mean something like biosphere — the sum of all life.  Actually, the meaning seems purposely fuzzy: do we think climate change will destroy all life on earth, or just destroy lots of species, or destroy our civilization, or destroy us?

In my work as an explainer, I try not to coin new words, or create new meanings of words, if there’s any way I can avoid it.  There’s an unavoidable rush of power when you create a word or meaning.  However worthy the reason for your coinage is, it sounds like you’re telling people that they’ve been talking wrong all their lives and only you are talking right. Because the way we talk is semi-conscious and hard to change, people can feel that attack subconsciously, not even articulating why it bothers them.  But like many subconscious responses it can make them defensive, which keeps them from getting to where we need them to be.

Second, many people who don’t care much about the “planet” care very much about civilization, including mainstream conservatives.  Apart from some survivalists and those awaiting an imminent Rapture, conservatives want to conserve their society — to keep it from changing too rapidly.  If we wanted them to hear us, it seems to me, we’d speak of climate change as a threat to civilization.

Speaking that way, we’d also be talking about something that we can be pretty sure about. Nobody can predict the biological consequences of climate change, but we know what happens when the support systems of civilization collapse, because it’s happened many times in history: Starvation, mass migration, wars (and personal violence) over declining resources.  Far more people would be horrified by this prospect than are horrified by threats to polar bears — however much the latter, and biodiversity in general, may matter to you and me.

Climate change has a moral dimension, regarding whether we have the right to destroy other life, but the most acute climate anxiety is about fears for ourselves and our children, not fears for the “planet.”  It’s about looking at your children and wondering if they’ll starve, or kill and die in wars, or live in patriarchal bands where rape is routine — all things humans have done repeatedly under similar pressures.  We have a robust genre of apocalyptic literature increasingly focused on imagining a world in which civilization has collapsed. If you wanted to alarm conservatives into action, it seems to me that you’d talk about this.

So why do I so rarely hear advocates or politicians say that climate change threatens civilization? Why do we keep using the word planet?  Please enlighten me.

“New Mobility”: Drowning in a Sea of Meaningless Words

I’m in the World Bank’s generally excellent Transforming Transportation conference in Washington DC.  The theme is “New Mobility.”  In the first panel, I found myself agreeing with almost everything the panel said, to the extent that I could understand it.

The limit to my understanding was the use of meaningless words: new mobility, micromobility, sharing.  

These words each have too many meanings, which is the same as having none.  That is a good sign that they have arisen from the language of sales.  Selling a product requires exaggerating its relevance.  If a word makes people feel good, the marketer will try to figure out how to extend the word to cover her product.

All three of these words feel good:  New mobility sounds cutting-edge.  Micromobility sounds intimate, maybe even cute the way little things are.  Sharing — well, we all think toddlers should learn to share.

But on this morning’s panel I heard all three words used with apparently conflicting meanings.

  • Sharing was used sometime to mean “sharing of rides” (different people with different purposes riding in same vehicle at the same time, as in public transit), but also to mean “sharing the vehicle” as in bikeshare and carshare.   (There’s also sharing of infrastructure: Motorists are expected to “share the road.”)  These are different concepts with different uses and consequences.  When the moderator polled us all on what words we associate “new mobility,” the top answer, of course, was “shared.”  The more meanings a word has, the more popular it will be, which in turn means it will give more people that warm buzz that comes from being surrounded by people who (seem to) agree with them.  That’s the mechanism by which words grow both popular and meaningless.
  • Micromobility is often used to mean “person sized vehicles” — bikes, scooters, and other things that let someone move faster than they can walk without taking much more space than their body does.  But when the Mayor of Quito was asked about it, his answer seemed to include microtransit, which is an utterly different thing.  I suggest “person sized vehicles,” (PSV)  It’s five syllables instead of six, and it actually says what it means.
  • New mobility says nothing but that it’s mobility and its new.  New things have absolutely nothing else in common, so why is this a meaningful category?  Only if you want to appeal to the common prejudice that all new ideas are better than all old ideas, which we all know to be nonsense.  After all, most innovations fail.

I’ll talk about this on a panel this afternoon.  If we are going to think clearly, we have to use words that mean, not words that sell.  

Meanwhile, if you hear one of these words, or any other word that seems to used in multiple ways, ask for a definition.  You have a right to that.  Only then are you actually thinking together.


Do We Need a New Theory and Name for “Bike Lanes”?

Important: I’m thinking out loud here!  The title is a question because I don’t have answers and am not proposing anything.

Now that we have scooters sharing bike lanes, I wonder if we’ll need to think more clearly about the different kinds of lane on a street and what their real defining features are.  This could lead to different words.

We separate traffic types for two reasons:

  • Speed, so that faster vehicles aren’t often stuck behind slower ones,
  • Width, so that we use less space to serve the needs of narrower vehicles, thus using scarce space more efficiently overall.

Sarah Iannarone and I were chatting about this on the bus this morning, and after that she went straight to the whiteboard and drew this:

The idea here is that a street with a speed limit over 30 km/hr will need to separate these three kinds of traffic, because they differ in both speed and width.  At lower speeds you can mix them more.

Where speed and width come apart, however, speed has to be the defining feature.  You can’t ride a motorbike at 30 km/hr down a “bike” lane, even though it may be narrow enough.  You have to ride it in the traffic lane, even though that’s a waste of space.

All this came up because I was trying to think of the correct new term for “bike lane” as we proliferate more vehicle types that run more or less at the speed and width of bicycles but are clearly not bicycles, such as electric scooters.  The two logical terms seem to be narrow lane or midspeed lane.  One way or another the two concepts will need to track with each other.

I wonder if this kind of language can make our sense of the role of these lanes more flexible, and thus less divisive.

There is a lot of room for individual choice here about which lane to use.  Cyclists, for example, already choose between midspeed “bike” lanes and full-speed traffic lanes, depending on their preferred balance of speed and safety.  Meanwhile, an 8-year-old learning to ride a bike should probably be on the sidewalk.  Another reason that “cycle lane” may be a misnomer.

This isn’t easy.  The things that might go in a midspeed lane have very different acceleration and stopping characteristics, all of which will cause friction.  When I raised this thought on Twitter, I got lots of responses expressing concern about different kinds of vehicles sharing a lane.  But even with just the few lane types that we already have, it’s hard to make them all fit.   We’ll never have a separate lane for every type of vehicle that needs a slightly different speed, acceleration, or stopping distance.  So again, I’m asking a question, not answering it.

Finally, Sarah assigns transit to the full-speed, widest lanes, but of course that leaves open the question of transit priority within that territory.  Where there’s demand and room for a bus lane, it should be automatic in my view.  It doesn’t even need to be “constructed” necessarily.  Just paint the lane red.


“Politics” Is Not a Political Actor

Anyone who believes in democracy should be appalled by the use of the word politics in this New York Times headline:

“Congestion Pricing Plan for Manhattan Ran Into Politics. Politics Won.”

Who is this “politics” that is capable of fighting battles, and winning or losing them?

Elected officials make decisions.  People who make decisions should take responsibility for those decisions.  This is why being an elected official is much less fun than it looks.

When we say that “politics” made a decision, we’re implying that the actual deciders aren’t responsible.  Some elected officials like it when we talk this way, because it helps them avoid responsibility for their choices.  But that’s not how a healthy democracy works, and if we accept that “politics” is a political actor, we are surrendering an important part of our right to democracy.





Useful New Term: Captive Driver

The insulting and generally inaccurate term captive rider — for someone who supposedly has no choice but to use transit — still shows up in transit studies now and then, but it seems to be receding.  I’ve certainly tried to do my part to drive the stake into it.

But sometimes the best way to undermine a misleading or prejudicial term is to promote an analogous term.  So I loved this exchange:


Yes, much of my life I’ve been a captive driver, in that I’ve been forced to live and work in landscapes where there are no reasonable choices for how to get around.

One of the worst things about being a captive driver is having to drive when you know you really shouldn’t. I’m careful with alcohol, but there are times when I’m just tired, or irritable, and there’s no choice but to drive.

I know several older people who are captive drivers. They know they probably should stop driving soon, but their happiness and even sanity may require them to stay in the house and garden that they’ve known for decades, even though that’s a place where transit isn’t viable. (And they often lack the smartphone skills to use Uber or Lyft, or have disabilities that those companies can’t handle.)

Captive drivers are everywhere. Will they rise up to shake off their chains?

For Reporters Disparaging Transit Projects, “Far” Isn’t Far

If you’ve ever wondered what well above and well below mean, as opposed to far above and far below, Dan Weikel and Ralph Vartebedian at the Los Angeles Times have quantified it for us, in an article about the California High Speed Rail project.

Rail officials also say the latest cost estimate for the entire 500-mile project has been reduced from $68 billion to $64 billion, well below the $98 billion projection from several years ago, but still far above initial estimates of less than $40 billion.

I’d always assumed that  far was further than well.  But no, by their math, well is $34 billion but far is as little as $24 billion.   Well is further than far.

So now, anytime someone uses far or its relatives to imply extremes — “the furthest corners of the earth” etc,, you can ask:  Sure, they may be the furthest, but are they the wellest?

Can Design Learn from the New Zealand Flag Debate?

If you care at all about visual communication — and if you aren't blind from birth, then you do — you should be following the remarkable debate about the New Zealand flag.  National flags are so enduring that it is hard to imagine a graphic design task with higher stakes.  Revising one triggers a profound argument about national identity, which ultimately comes down to a couple of questions:

  1.  One or many ideas?  Can the nation come together around one image or idea, or must there me a mash-up of several to satisfy different groups or points of view?
  2.  Fashionable or enduring?  Graphic design is so much about fashion and fun that identifying an image that will make sense for decades is harder than it sounds.  Yet that's what a flag must be – and the greatest company logos have mastered this challenge as well.

To review, the current New Zealand flag looks like this:


The Union Jack and the Southern Cross, the latter a distinctive constellation that is also on Australia's flag.   (With all due respect to defenders of this flag, both images are about New Zealand's tie to other countries, countries that the nation's identity has lately been separating from. I also understand the view that flags should never change on principle; that is a different debate.)

The New Zealand flag seems disconnected from the evolving palette of national identity.  National  imagery rarely uses the flag's colors.  Sometimes it uses blue-green colors that echo the textures of the landscape; you will find these in the customs hall at Auckland Airport for example.  Increasingly, though, the government uses black.  The association of black with New Zealand comes from another image that is so universal that some visitors probably think it's the flag already:


This image is most common in sports, as it's the logo of most national teams including the famous All Blacks of rugby, but it long ago spilled over into the general consciousness as an unofficial symbol of the country.  

If I may reveal botanical interests more suited to my other blog, this is not just any random leaf or frond.  It's based on the underside of the spectacular Silver Fern, Cyathea dealbata, one of the  tree ferns that define so many New Zealand rainforests (top on left, underside on right).


Sports and tree-hugging in one image!  This would seem to make the silver fern a winner across the cultural spectrum.  It might also remind you of another former British colony that tired of its Union Jack, and forged a new identity out of botany:


The Canadian flag was adopted in February 1965, so it just turned 50.  Like the Silver Fern in New Zealand, the maple leaf had been hanging around in Canadian imagery for a while.  So it's not surprising to see the fern so prominent in New Zealand flag ideas.

So how has the debate gone?  Well, the government's earnest committee canvassed the country and came up with these semi-finalists:


It's remarkable how much consensus there was on which images matter: the Southern Cross, a gesture toward the old flag, plus two main expressions of the fern: the frond and the spiral form called the koru.  (The latter, common in Maori imagery, is based on the shape of a frond as it just unfurls.)  

When you look at that field of contenders, does your eye go to the busier ones or the simpler ones?  Mine went to the simplest, the ones with a single idea, not a collision of several, and the ones that looked enduring by virtue of not trying to be sexy.  For that reason, the original silver-fern-on-black still looked right to me.  

But the people who chose the four finalists felt differently:


… at which point, all hell broke loose.  There are many complaints, including that three of the four are too similar to represent a choice, and that #2 is already selling plastic plates:

But the real problems are these:

  • #2 and #4 are both mash-ups, obviously collisions of multiple unresolved ideas.  A mash-up suggests that the country is too divided to revere any single image.  If Canada — a far more diverse country in terms of landscapes and identities — could avoid this mistake, New Zealand certainly can.  (British Columbia is another matter …)
  • Except for #3, they are all over-designed, with an attention to today's graphical fashions instead of any thought about what might stand the test of time.  This is equivalent to saying that they call attention to the designer.

What do you gain, designer of finalist #1, by flipping half of the silver fern image into negative, and making the frond leaflets more rounded so that they no longer resemble the plant?  How is this better than the simple silver fern on black?  Only that a graphic designer obviously designed it, in a way that is supposed to look cool.

But a flag is supposed to outlast its designer, and the design fashions of the moment.  Remember, the Canadian flag was designed in the 1960s.  If their design competition had been seeking something as "contemporary" and "designed" as New Zealand's final four, they might have found inspiration in one of these:




Fortunately, they didn't.  You can't tell, looking at the Canadian flag, that it's an artefact of the 1960s, and that's the whole point.  A flag has to have a sense of timelessness and simplicity, which is why you must reject  any design that calls attention to the cleverness of the designer or relies on design fashions of the moment.   The creativity it requires begins with the willingness to disappear as the creator.  None of the finalists displays this.  

How is this debate relevant to this blog's concerns in public transit?  If you really want to sell public transit, teach people to count on it.  Make it seem solid and enduring, not just sexy and ephemeral. Go for the simple, solid idea that will still make sense — practically and aesthetically — decades from now.  


And this principle extends even beyond graphic design, to debates about whether transit technologies should be chosen for "fun" or reliability.  

Do you notice how insecure companies change their logos and liveries more often than confident ones do?  Do you notice how they use flashy look-at-me images instead of clean and enduring ones?  

Flashiness, fun, and novelty may attract customers, but only simplicity and reliability retains them. Which message do you want to put forth about your transit system, or your country?

Major Think Tank Implies You Don’t Exist

Ums-2015-featureEvery year, the Texas Transportation Institute’s Urban Mobility Scorecard describes the nation’s most transit-intensive and walkable metro areas as having terrible “urban mobility”.  And every year, academic experts and smart journalists attack its indefensible methods and assumptions.  And yet, every year, careless journalists describe the report as though it were news about the state of "mobility" or “commuting” in America. 

But you don’t need to study the analysis to understand what’s wrong with TTI's claims.  All you need to do is look at their press release or summary, and notice that they want you to think of car congestion as equivalent to poor urban mobility

When you use words with different meanings as though they were interchangeable, you are denying the existence or relevance of people who are included in one meaning but not the other.  

Political rhetoric plays this trick all the time.  When scientific or academic rhetoric uses it, you should be suspicious.  It's one of several types of rhetorical annihilation.

In this case, the people being erased are anyone who moves about in cities (urban mobility) but does not experience congestion.  These include anyone who organized their lives so that they can walk to work, and of course anyone who cycles or uses public transit– at least those transit services that are protected from congestion such as most heavy rail, light rail, and busway services.   (And in fact, the report itself is interested only in the travel time of “auto commuters,” so all transit riders are excluded.) 

If you are one of these people, you do not count as part of your city when the TTI tallies your city’s “urban mobility."  Any subsequent commentary about the economic impact of “urban mobility” problems refers to an economy in which you do not exist.

This has been pointed out to TTI many times, including four years ago at a CNU conference workshop I attended.  Many of us said then that if TTI wanted to write reports about car congestion, an  appropriate name would be Urban Car Congestion Scorecard, not Urban Mobility Scorecard.  They have had ample opportunity to rename their report to describe what it really is, the, so we can only assume that the confusion they are sowing is intentional. 

Meanwhile, when you hear two different terms being used interchangeably, stop and ask: “Who is in one of these categories but not the other?”  Because those are the people the writer doesn’t want you to notice, even if you’re one of them. 

(Yet another reason to hire literature students!)