Los Angeles

Video of My UCLA Event: Great Questions!

Last month I did an event at the Institute of Transportation Studies at UCLA (the University of California at Los Angeles), hosted by Jacob Wasserman.  It was fun, with many excellent questions that made me think.  The video is on Youtube here.

The first 30 minutes are my presentation, and the fun part, the questions, starts at 33:40. Some highlights:

  • 35:50  Jacob asks “What did Covid change?”  (“Covid liberated the transit industry.”)
  • 39:00 Jacob asks “When should we start caring about ridership again?”
  • 43:00 Jacob asks “How can you design microtransit well?  Where can it work?” (Triggers my hardware store analogy.)
  • 48:20 Jacob asks about the importance of pricing of parking and driving, which leads into a riff lanes on bus lanes and “Bus Rapid Transit.”
  • 51:30  Jacob asks “What tips would you give for writing well in planning?)  (“Write to your grandmother.”)
  • 58:10  Juan Matute, Deputy Director of the Institute, asks about opportunites to make transit easier to understand, especially for a new rider.
  • 1:02:44  Audience question: “Have transit agencies had success influencing land use?” “You can’t expect the transit agencies to do this.” Here I make a reference to the Irish Planning Guide, which you can read about here.
  • 1:06:10 Jacob asks “What is the role of consultants? Justify yourself!”
  • 1:14:15  Josh Stevens of the California Planning and Development Report asks “How will autonomous vehicles affect transit?”
  • 1:17:20 Audience question “What kinds of incrementalism are most important to get us to the point where we can make a big push (toward sustainabile mobility)”  Thus prodded, I managed to end the event on a note of optimism.

Los Angeles: A Major Expansion of Rail Transit Access

Los Angeles’s Regional Connector is open.  It’s a small piece of subway — less than two miles, with three stations, but it utterly transforms the rail network of Los Angeles, making trips across downtown much faster.  Here’s LA Metro’s quick diagram of the change:

It’s simple: In the network as it existed until this weeekend, light rail from north and east, called Line L, only came to the northeast edge of downtown, while the two lines from the south and west (Lines A and E) only came to the southwest edge. Traveling across the center thus required making two transfers, using the Line C & D Subway.  The Regional Connector rearranges these lines to that all services flow across downtown and out the far side. Much faster trips across downtown mean greater access to opportunity for many people across the city and beyond.

I’ve written before about the difficulty of getting regional focus on these core-city projects.  LA Metro did a good job with this one, starting by branding it the Regional Connector.  It may be in downtown Los Angeles but it’s not for downtown Los Angeles.  It’s for the entire region.

La Sombrita: A Sculpture About the Rules

Credit: Streetsblog Los Angeles

Two weeks ago the Los Angeles Department of Transportation unveiled La Sombrita, a privately-funded demonstration project that makes a tiny improvement to the situation of people waiting at unsheltered bus stops in Los Angeles.  La Sombrita (“the little shade”) is a small panel attached to pole that casts a very small amount of shade, and that lights up at night. That’s it.  That’s all it does.

The blowback among bus riders and transit advocates was intense, and the whole thing ended up in the New York Times.

La Sombrita looks pretty sad, but that’s the point.  If you accept the wildly unjust apportionment of space on the Los Angeles street, and you obey all of the rules and regulations around building things in the public right of way, you get this.  To a degree, making that point is what La Sombrita is for.

Kriston Capps in Bloomberg has the best summary I’ve seen of this teachable moment.  Read the whole thing.  The key passage comes from a conversation with Chelina Odbert, who heads the design collective behind La Sombrita.

Fabricating a prototype that actually fits within all the applicable constraints can actually help to highlight the problem at hand. The way Odbert describes it, the iterative design process itself functions as a form of criticism. She gives an example: After the Los Angeles City Council voted to legalize street vending in 2018, food vendors ran into a problem. Their carts couldn’t pass inspections meant for brick-and-mortar restaurants. As an exercise, Kounkuey designed (but did not fabricate) a cart that would meet LA’s high standards. With its mandatory hand-washing station, fire extinguisher and 20 cubic feet of dry storage, this street-legal vending cart design would stretch 12 feet and weigh 700 pounds.

Obviously, an SUV-sized cart would be no use to tamale vendors, one of whom designed his own prototype (which was eventually approved). But by engaging with this farcical process, Kounkuey helped illustrate its flaws. With the absurd rendering in hand, Odbert says, the designers were able to lobby the county for changes to the health code.

La Sombrita deserves praise, especially as a privately-funded initiative, as a demonstration of how ridiculous the rules governing bus stops are.  If you want to improve a bus stop fast without requiring complicated permits or violating any laws, La Sombrita is what you can do.  Don’t like it?  Then it’s time to change those rules, and now you have a public sculpture to make your point.

Los Angeles: The End of the Metro Rapid?

They were red! They made fewer stops! It was so cool! (c. 2005)

When they were first rolled out around 2000, the Los Angeles Metro Rapid lines were the hottest thing, so hot that a famous system of branding (Rapid buses red, local buses orange) was developed around them.  Rapid buses run long distances along major boulevards, stopping every half mile, while local buses run alongside them stopping every two blocks.  I too was a booster of the idea at the time, and soon “rapid bus” products were appearing in many cities.

But of course, the branding distinction was about speed, which all motorists understand, as opposed to frequency, which they often don’t.

The first two Rapid lines (Wilshire and Ventura Blvds) had all kinds of great features.  There were architecturally designed shelters, and the City of Los Angeles helped with signal priority.  Then, however, the forces of envy set in.  Rapids made sense only where:

  • the agency could afford very high frequency (generally no worse than 10 minutes) on both Rapid and local buses, so that it was worth waiting for the Rapid even if the local came first, AND
  • corridors were extremely long with long average trip distances, because you have to be going some distance for the speed advantage of a Rapid to be worth any added walking or waiting that a Rapid would require.

But once the first two Rapids succeeded, there came the cries of “why does their street get this cool thing and mine doesn’t?”.  And while the two points above were good answers to that question on many streets, LA Metro was pressured to roll out Rapid lines all over the region, in places where they made sense and places where they didn’t.  Some, like Soto St, were just too short for the speed difference to be valuable to many people.  Others didn’t have the frequency needed for their speed to be useful, with some coming as infrequently as every 30 minutes all day.  Most of them had nothing like the signal priority of the initial two, nor the distinctive shelters.  The buses were red, though, so it looked like some cool thing had been spread across the region.  (For more on this political dynamic, which I call the Fishing Pier Problem, see here.)

So the result was outcomes like this:

Source: LA Metro NextGen Visual Workshop (for a trip of seven miles)

If you’re on Venice Blvd but between Rapid stops, as in this example, you could walk less and use a local bus or walk further and use a Rapid.  As this shows, the difference in travel time isn’t enough for that to make sense.  The Rapid is only three minutes faster for that distance, but you’ll spend six more minutes walking.

The upper blue bar shows that by combining the Rapid and local buses into a single line that runs twice as often (with fewer stops than the local but far more than the Rapid) the result is a shorter total trip, because of the shorter wait.  In this case, the customer walks six minutes to a single line instead of four (because the local stops are a little further apart) but then waits half as often (because the two lines are combined) and rides a trip that’s a little bit faster than the current local (again, because local stops are a little further apart).  It turns out that lots of people along these long boulevards are in this situation.

Combining Rapids and local into a single more feequent line is one of the key recommendations of the newly proposed Los Angeles metro bus network redesign, the work of our respected competitor Transportation Management & Design (TMD) working with Cambridge Systematics.  Russ Chisholm of TMD, whom I used to collaborate, actually led the planning that created the Rapids in the late 1990s, so it’s fitting that he’s also gotten to plan for their obsolescence.

Here are the outcomes.  (“Reconnect with our customers” is the no-growth redesign, the plan that reallocates existing service instead of adding new service.  “Transit First” adds bus lanes and other infrastructure, for even more improvement without adding operating cost.)

Source: LA Metro NextGen “Virtual Workshop”

The vast increase in the number of people with access to frequent service, from 900,000 to 2.15 million, is the key to why this plan is likely to succeed.   A huge share of this outcome results from combining the Rapid and local services into single lines, since many streets that formerly had both a local and a Rapid every 15 minutes will now have a bus every 7.5 minutes or so.

As always, a redesign that doesn’t add more service involves cutting some unproductive service, but here only 0.3% of riders losing walk access to transit, which is also impressive.  These are the least transit-oriented places in the region.  Still, we can expect ferocious complaints.  It may seem like 0.3% of the ridership isn’t much, but they and everyone they know, with some public relations skill, can make it sound like the plan is a disaster.  Even if nobody were losing their service, some people will be angry when you change anything.  So if you live in Los Angeles, it’s important that you engage with the plan!

That brings me to my main critique.  In exploring the website, I found the plan difficult to learn about. There’s no shortage of materials selling the plan to me, and there’s no shortage of route-by-route details, but I wish there had been a report that makes the argument for the plan and explains the thought process that led to its design.  (No, PowerPoint slide decks are not reports, because they don’t show the logical relationships between ideas; they are useful only with narrating voice attached.)  The plan’s data viewer is pretty good, especially the tool that helps people see how the plan changes where they go. We do similar things on our projects and they should be standard procedure now.

But I can’t find much on the website that seems to be speaking to non-riders, including anyone who cares about outcomes that the plan improves (congestion, climate, urban redevelopment, access to opportunity, social justice etc etc).  If you might support the plan for any of those reasons, the comment survey (a tab within the data viewer) will frustrate you.  It assumes that you’re evaluating the plan only selfishly, in terms of whether it will improve your travel.  (This also discourages feedback from non-riders who could see other selfish benefits, such as a business that gets better access from potential customers and employers, or a benefit for a friend or relative.)  Getting these plans across the line requires selling a big picture to the biggest possible audience, especially given that some angry riders will be yelling.  I hope that, in some forum that I can’t find on the website, that pitch is being made.

I wish LA Metro the best with this redesign.  It looks great.  It presents huge opportunities for better access to opportunity, more sustainable urban form, climate benefits, reduced local emissions, and safety.  It deserves to be allowed to succeed.

An “Opinionated Atlas” of US Transit by a Great Transit Traveler

The massive redesign of Houston’s bus system, which has helped grow ridership as many US transit agencies are losing riders, would not have happened without Christof Spieler. Within the Houston METRO Board, he was the one member who rode transit, thought constantly about transit, brought professional credentials as an urban planner, knew what needed to be done, and knew how to argue for it to people of many different ideologies and cultural backgrounds.  The Board, which was itself ideologically and culturally diverse, was inevitably guided in part by his expertise, passion, and patient persistence.

Since then, Christof has been traveling the US, studying and thinking about transit.  Every week, it has seemed, he tweets from some new city.  Finally, all that thinking has come together as Trains, Buses, People: An Opinionated Atlas of US Transit.  

The first two parts of the book are a sensible explanation of what good transit planning is:  Think about people rather than technologies.  Think about networks rather than lines or corridor projects.  Think about frequency rather than just speed.  These are arranged in simple one-topic pages, with a summary paragraph and bullet points — ideal for skimming.

Christof’s map of Los Angeles. Note what a small area has frequent service both north-south and east-west. (Orange lines are frequent buses, and all rail is frequent except the purple commuter rail lines.) (Island Press, 2018)

But it’s the third part, the atlas, that will really suck you in.  For the 50 largest metro areas in the US that have rail or Bus Rapid Transit (that’s everything bigger than Fort Collins, Colorado or Eugene, Oregon) he provides a loving description of the city’s network, its demand pattern, its recent history, and its issues.  Denizens of each city may disagree with what Spieler chooses to emphasize, but he certainly will start a lively conversation, not just within cities but about the comparisons between them.

What’s new about this atlas?  Spieler shows you the frequent bus network for every city, thus helping you see not just where trains go, but where people can go easily.

Christof’s map of Chicago at the same scale. Note the substantially larger area with both north-south and east-west frequent lines. (Island Press, 2018.)

For example, his Los Angeles map reveals that despite the vast area of moderate density in that city, a complete frequent grid (with both north-south and east-west lines near most people) exists only in a tiny area of about 7 x 7 miles (the size of San Francisco), extending roughly from downtown to the edge of Beverly Hills and from the Hollywood Hills to just south of I-10.  Everything else, including highrise centers like Century City, Burbank, Glendale, and Pasadena as well as vast areas of mostly 2-3 story housing, has frequent service in only one direction, if at all.  Another map of Los Angeles includes densities, and shows how much high-density area lies outside the frequent network entirely.

Spieler’s map of Chicago, by contrast, shows  a remarkably complete grid over very similar densities in a city with even fewer major destinations outside of downtown.

Spieler’s book is perfectly designed to be both readable and browsable — a great gift for an urbanist or transport geek and a great book for the coffee table.  You can read around in for a long time, exploring different cities, their strengths and their missed opportunities.  Let’s hope it produces a smarter conversation about urban transit.

Christof Spieler:  Trains, Buses, People: An Opinionated Atlas of US Transit: Island Press, 2018 


Basics: Public Transit “Integration” or “Seamlessness”

When you hear the word integration or seamlessness in conversations about transit, it usually means making it easy to make trips that involve multiple public transit agencies or operating companies.  (In the US we are generally talking about entangled government agencies, but in countries where private operators control patches of the network, the issue is the same.)

The San Francisco Bay Area has long been one of North America’s most difficult integration challenges, so it’s a good laboratory for exploring the issue.  If you can get transit integration right in the Bay Area, you can probably do it anywhere.  The Bay Area’s particular challenge is that it has no recognized central city.  Instead, it’s named after an obstacle, the Bay, and its geography of bays and hills provides natural psychological divides.  Wherever you live in the Bay Area, most of the Bay Area is “across the water” or “over the hills” from you, and this matters enormously to how people perceive issues as local or regional.  (Los Angeles, mostly a city of vast continuous basins, could not be more opposite.)

Screen Shot 2015-08-03 at 11.31.30 AM

The San Francisco Bay Area, with county lines


Fig1-WholeBayArea BS2_REV3_040915

Map of Bay Area transit agencies (SPUR, “Seamless Transit” 2015)

The key types of seam are:

  1. Fare barriers, where a trip involving two agencies requires paying both agencies’ fares, and sometimes also keeping track of two kinds of ticket or pass.
  2. Information barriers, such as the lack of a clear map.  (In many regions, the only regionwide map, if it exists, is more like a diagram of turf.  It’s designed to clarify what agency controls what rather than help people understand their travel options.)  Other information barriers include information systems that don’t describe how to use other agencies’ networks to complete common trips.
  3. Service Design Barriers, where a route ends at an agency boundary even though almost everyone on the bus is trying to go further.

A typical old regional transit diagram, showing areas of turf but no sense of what service might be useful (no indication of frequency, for example).  (MTC)

For decades, it’s been easy to propose that some grand merger of agencies would solve problems of integration, but the obvious problem was you would have to merge the whole Bay Area into one transit authority serving almost 8 million people, in a region around 100 miles long.  That population would mean little citizen access to the leadership, while the huge area would mean that people planning your bus routes may be working in an office 50 miles away.  It just doesn’t work when the sense of  citizenship is as understandably decentralized as it is in the Bay Area.

What’s more, if you value transit-intensive core cities, places like San Francisco and Oakland, or if you want your city to be more like those places, you have an especially strong reason to want local control.  These places need more transit than the whole region wants on average, so they will struggle to get adequate service from a regional transit agency, whose decisions will tend to converge on the average regional opinion.

Many North American regions are seeing conflict around this issue, and are evolving a fascinating range of solutions.  Many of these solutions involve additional funding from the cities that want more transit than the regional average.

Some core cities are proud to have their own city-controlled transit systems separate from what regional agencies do (San Francisco, Toronto, Chicago).  Some pay their regional transit agency for a higher level of service in the core city (Seattle, Salt Lake City).  Some run their own transit systems overlaid, often messily and confusingly, on the regional one (Washington DC).   Many more core cities are going to face this issue soon, especially if regional politics continue to polarize on urban-exurban lines.

Apart from the issue of urban-exurban differences in the need for transit, there are also real challenges when a single transit agency becomes enormous, especially if it provides local service over a vast geographic area.  Los Angeles is a great example.   As an undergraduate in the 1980s, living in the region, I marveled at what I assumed to be the stupid chaos of provincialism.  The region had a big transit agency, which has evolved into what we now call LA Metro, but many cities within the region ran their own transit systems, which were tangled up in each other, and with the regional agency, in complex ways.  As an undergraduate, I assumed that progress would mean merging all this into one giant agency that could provide the same product everywhere.

And yet: in those days, everyone hated the regional agency, but loved their city ones.  And there were good reasons for that that weren’t anyone’s fault, and still aren’t today.  You could get your city’s transit manager on the phone, but not the regional one.  Small city governments can fix a bus route and put up a new bus shelter in the time it would take the regional agency to organize the right series of meetings.  Again, nobody’s at fault there; these are natural consequences of smallness and bigness — in corporations as well as in governments.

Which is why, even in Los Angeles, the trend is not toward mergers.  Today, many city systems in the county are doing excellent work at their local scale.  LA Metro has improved massively as well, of course, but its costs are still high; more important, it’s still very big and therefore inevitably feels distant to many people — again, not the fault of the folks working there.

Meanwhile, a clearer negotiated boundary between regional and city functions is slowly starting to emerge.  One idea, for example, is that a key role of city systems is to run services that don’t meet regional standards for ridership, but that the locals feel to be important.  The division of labor among agencies is not what anyone would design from scratch.  But great work has been done over the years to build clearer relationships, or what I will call, later in this post, “good fences.”

City-operated transit is growing more popular in North American for another excellent reason:  Most of transit’s ability to succeed is already controlled by city government: specifically the functions of land use planning and street design.  If a city government feels in control of its transit, it is more likely to exercise those other functions in ways that support transit rather than undermine it.  San Francisco’s recent decision to combine traffic and parking functions with transit under one city agency shows a new way of thinking about the need to get this right, but it would be impossible if San Francisco relied on a big regional agency for its transit service.  Whenever someone proposes to turn a city transit system over to a consolidated regional agency, I have to point out that integrating in one dimension (between geographically adjacent services) means disintegrating in another (between key functions of city government.)

So there’s no simple answer.  City control creates a nasty patchwork of geographic integration problems across adjacent cities in a region.  The big regional agency has a different integration problem, which is with the land use and street design functions of municipal governments that don’t control their transit and therefore have trouble caring about it.  Whichever thing you integrate, you’re disintegrating the other.

What’s the answer?  It’s for each region to feel its way through the inevitable tensions to its own solution.  But I’d propose we start old fashioned idea made famous by a Robert Frost poem:

Good fences make good neighbors.

Neighbors have an easier time being friendly if they have a very clear agreement about where their boundary is.  Collaborating with your neighbor to mark the boundary, and fence it if need be, is a peacemaking gesture.  This is as true of neighboring landowners as it is of nations.  And it’s certainly true of transit agencies.

What does it mean to have a clear sense of boundary?

It’s not just that both sides agree where the boundary is.  It’s also that it’s easy for both sides to live with the boundary, and work across it as need be.  For nations, it’s much easier to manage a boundary that runs across a natural barrier, so that the natural boundary reinforces the agreed boundary — the Rio Grande River between the US and Mexico, say, or the Great Lakes along the US-Canada border.  The worst possible national boundary is something like the 49th parallel, the US-Canada border in western North America, an arbitrary line that runs perpendicular to most mountains and valleys.  Only the extreme friendship and cultural affinity between the two countries makes this boundary workable.

All that is true of transit agencies as well.  Let’s talk first about local networks, and then, separately, about the relationship between networks of different scales.

Boundaries between Adjacent Local Transit Agencies

A bank of hills or a water body means that there are limited points of access across the boundary, called chokepoints, and this in turn means people are used to going out of their way to cross that point.  That means, in turn, that a well-placed transit connection point adjacent to the bridge or pass is an easy place for transit agencies on the two sides to converge.

On the other hand, a boundary that runs across a flat expanse of urban area, so that many people are literally across the street from the other side, is a problematic transit boundary.  In this case there is decentralized demand in all directions crossing the boundary at many points.  This makes it harder to bring both agencies to a shared focal point for connections between the agencies.  It also means there are lots of relatively short trips flowing over the border, and these benefit from a continuous network of service rather than an interrupted one.  As in many US states, California transit agency boundaries tend to default to county lines, and where these create that problem, it’s a mess for transit.

Some of this wisdom is already encoded in the boundaries of the East Bay agency AC Transit.  Near the Bay, the border between Alameda and Contra Costa counties cuts across dense urban fabric, so it would be an awful place for a transit network to end from the point of view of either side.


Fig1-WholeBayArea BS2_REV3_040915_0

Regional transit map, with boundary between Alameda and Contra Costa Counties highlighted red. Note that AC Transit extends across boundary next to the bay (SPUR report)

Recognizing this, AC Transit was constructed to unite the two sides of the county line where the urban fabric was continuous, while dividing from other agencies along natural hill and water boundaries, even where the latter are not county lines.  This is an important example for many US regions where counties are the default planning units, and arbitrary boundaries drawn in the 19th century (or before) risk turning into walls that sever transit access.

For AC Transit, the “good fences” solution was to put the border in a place that worked well for both sides — worked well for transit customers, that is, not for anyone’s desire for turf or empire.  That tends to mean looking for the natural chokepoint and putting the boundary there.

This observation also helps to clarify the city transit option.  Even in big urban areas, some cities have a geography that makes it easy for much of the transit to be city-controlled, typically because of natural chokepoints along the edges that help isolate the city-scale network from the regional one.  On the other hand, if the city boundary is logically pierced by long, straight local transit corridors that logically function both within the city and beyond it, a municipal network is less viable.

Screen Shot 2015-08-03 at 12.59.36 PMBurbank, California is a good example of a city where most main streets are parts of much longer logical lines running deep into adjacent cities, so its city limits would make especially poor transit boundaries.  Burbank therefore profits from its reliance on LA Metro, which runs long, continuous lines across city boundaries many of them converging on Burbank’s downtown.  The regional network is also, logically, the local one.

Screen Shot 2015-08-03 at 1.00.05 PMNearby Pasadena (considered together with Altadena) has good geography for a larger city role.  It has hill barriers on three sides — only the east edge is really continuous with other dense urban fabric — so fewer of its internal corridors necessarily flow into other cities.  (Areas whose density is so low that they might as well be wilderness as far as transit is concerned — San Marino in this case — count as natural barriers to some degree.)  Another important feature is that Pasadena has a frequent regional rapid transit line running through, so its local lines don’t need to extend far out of the city to make regional connections.

So Pasadena could run most of its local transit system if it wanted to, because a logical network would consist mostly of internal routes.  Burbank could not, because most of its local service is logically provided by routes that continue beyond the city limits.

Do not quote me saying that Pasadena’s transit should be more local.  I am not saying anything about what the regional-local balance should be in these cases, but merely observing how the geography makes the opportunities larger or smaller.  One value of Pasadena being served by the regional agency, for example, is that it can eventually be part of a larger high-frequency grid, with all the liberty that brings.

Local – Regional Transit Boundaries

All that is about what happens between local networks.  But another “good fence” can be a clear division of labor between local and regional services.   Regional services that are designed as rapid transit (widely spaced stations for fast operation between them, relying on local transit connections to get closer to most destinations) do not need to be the same agency as the local service meeting them; in fact, this can be a very clean “fence.”  Obviously you have to work on the specific problems of integration: information, fares, etc., just as adjacent local agencies do.  But there’s little need to merge or change boundaries in these situations.

There will always be seams in a transit journey, just as there will always be the need to make connections.  The conversation should not be about how to get rid of seams but how to put them in the right places, so that they work for both sides, and how to manage them so that travelers can flow through them easily.

Another way of thinking about the geographic issues I’ve been laying out here is that if you require a connection to continue your trip, there should be a rich payoff in terms of destinations you can reach.  The same is true for any hassles created by seams.  It’s like planes: it’s a drag to change planes, and especially to change between airlines, but it’s kind of cool, while you are changing planes, to look at the departure board and think about all the other places you could also get to via this connection.  What’s more, all those connections are crucial to making your flights viable for the airline, even if you don’t use them.

The logic of connections is the logic of good seams in general.  They happen in places where it already makes sense for transit services to be discontinuous — either because of a natural boundary or because of a clear division of labor between regional and local service.  Those “good fences”, once found, can make for happy neighboring transit authorities, which will find it easy to work together for the sake of the customer’s liberty.

Sure, let’s regionalize the right things: fare media, information systems.  (An often-neglected one is service change dates, so that timed connections between agencies don’t get broken because the agencies change their schedules at different times.)  Some mergers may make sense, such as between BART and Caltrain to create a regional rapid transit agency.

Big transit agencies and little ones are both excellent things.  The trick is to get the fence right.


UPDATE: For a book-length academic analysis reaching a similar view, see Donald Chisholm: Coordination without Hierarchy.  1992, UC Press.  H/t David King.

Los Angeles: building the frequent network, and making hard choices

The main Los Angeles County transit agency, Metro, has released a set of “Blue Ribbon Committee” recommendations that show the agency trying to find its way toward higher ridership with the limits of its operating budget.  These are not yet Metro’s recommendations to the pubilc; the agency is still thinking about them, but they are out there for public discussion.  The main presentation of them is a PowerPoint, not all of which may be easy for the average person to follow, but here are the big important points.

(Full disclosure: I have advised Metro in the past on strategic bus network planning, but I was not involved in this process and have no contract with them now.)

The proposal would do one really important thing, and would also do two controversial things to pay for it.

The important thing is to expand the Frequent bus network.  Frequent service means that service is coming soon, all day; the specific definition at Metro is service every 15 minutes or better.  Frequency is the essence of freedom and spontaneity for transit users, and it’s also essential for people with busy complex lives, which is true of many people across the income spectrum.  Finally, frequency is essential if you’re going to connect from one transit service to another, which is essential for getting where you’re going in a city like LA where there are many destinations, not just one downtown.  High frequency, in places of high demand, leads to high ridership.

Here is where the frequency expansions would occur.  Blue already has frequent service, red is top priority for new frequent service, purple is second priority.  (Green is the rail system.)

La metro frequent network priorities


This expansion looks like it’s all about affordability and opportunity.  The focus is on South LA, some of the South Bay, the San Fernando Valley, and the San Gabriel Valley.   These are areas with relatively affordable housing, but they are often far from concentrations of jobs and opportunity.  People are moving to these areas in search of affordable housing, but transport must also be affordable. Expanding frequent service in these areas means that lots of low- to moderate-income people will have less need to own cars, because more jobs and opportunities will be readily available by transit.  That benefits everyone.

What are the tradeoffs?

First, the proposal suggests reductions to low-ridership coverage services.  These services run in areas where demand is predictably low due to land use factors such as low density or walkability.  People will be angry about these service reductions, but Metro is saying, in effect, that it has to focus its limited resources on areas of higher ridership potential.  One possibility in Los Angeles is that local city governments can choose to run some of these services themselves; many already have municipal transit systems.

Second, the proposal carefully increases the acceptable standard for peak crowding.  

This will be very controversial because on the surface it sounds horrible, and it’s hard to explain.  But it’s not that bad, and the tradeoff is a real one.

Metro, like most crowded transit systems, has a standard for how crowded buses can be allowed to get before they add another bus.  These standards accept lower levels of crowding than many of their peer agencies, such as New York and Chicago do.  That sounds nice for passengers, but it’s very expensive, which is why many other needed services in Los Angeles don’t exist.  These standards require Metro to pull out additional buses for short periods of peak demand, and remember, this service is expensive because (a) you have to pay drivers more to work very short shifts and (b) the number of buses an agency must buy, store and maintain is based on the peak demand, not the all day demand.*

So smart transit agencies, facing the growth of all-day demand that is easier to serve cost-effectively, are questioning every peak bus, and making sure that the demand for that bus justifies the high cost of peak only service.  That’s the context in which this has to be understood.  So the talking point is this:

Saving a little peak service unlocks a lot of all-day service.

More crowded buses!  A sympathetic person unhappy about losing service!  It will be easy for the media to make this proposal sound terrible.  But to me, this proposal is exactly what you should expect a transit agency to do, if you tell it serve more people without more money.


*  There’s further reason for optimism about crowding, but it’s so geeky that I thought I should leave it to a footnote.  Here goes:  Metro staff have advised me that they think this change in loading standards will have little noticeable impact because they are also changing some details about range of  situations over which they average to calculate that load.  The proposed change focuses the calculation more narrowly on trips that are  likely to be crowded.  This narrows the range of variation between loads on different trips, which reduces the difference between the average load — which is all a standard can discuss — and the apocalyptic worst case load, which is what everyone remembers and tweets about.  This means that a higher average load doesn’t necessarily mean that worst cases get any worse, or even become much more common.  They will still happen, and everyone will tweet about them when they occur.


quote of the week: “rail is only part of the equation”


Trains would be just one layer of a comprehensive, multi-modal network that greatly enhances both neighborhood and regional accessibility for people all across the [Los Angeles] region. …

A singular focus on rail would divide the region into two: neighborhoods with rail and neighborhoods without. Such a future would perpetuate income inequality as housing costs rise near stations and station areas would be choked with traffic congestion. …

Getting our existing buses out of traffic is the quickest, most cost-effective means to bring high-quality transit to the greatest number of Angelenos.

Juan Matute, UCLA Institute of Transportation Studies
from a discussion called "Trains are Not the Silver Bullet"
 at ZocaloPublicSquare

This is from a collection of commentary about the the role of rail in the larger context of transit investment strategies.  Read the whole thing!






Charging for connections is insane

Congratulations to Los Angeles Metro, the latest transit agency to make connections (also called transfers) free.  There are footnotes: you have to be using a smartcard, but if you're in Los Angeles for more than a day or two you should already have one.  The big point is this:  The core of the Los Angeles transit network is the liberating high-frequency grid, which relies on the assumption that passengers can be asked to change buses once.  Until now, the agency's policy of charging passengers extra to change buses was in direct conflict with the foundational principle of its network design.

Once more with feeling;  Charging passengers extra for the inconvenience of connections is insanely self-destructive.  It discourages exactly the customer behavior that efficient and liberating networks depend on.  It undermines the whole notion of a transit network.   It also gives customers a reason to object to network redesigns that deliver both greater efficiency and greater liberty, because by imposing a connection on their trip it has also raised their fare.

For that reason, actual businesses don't do it.  When supposedly business minded bureaucrats tell us we should charge for connections, they are revealing that they have never stopped to think about how the transit product is different from soap or restaurants.   The difference is that your success relies on products working together, the so-called network effect.   So tell them to think about airlines:   Fares that require a connection are frequently cheaper than nonstops.   That's because the connection is something you endure for the sake of an efficient and broadly useful airline network, not an added service that you should pay extra for.  

There was, for a while, an argument against free transfers that arose from the ease of abusing paper transfer slips.  These slips, issued in return for a cash fare and to be presented on your second bus or train, were easy to give away or sell.  Many US systems eliminated transfers and offered day passes instead, which improved security but at the high cost of discouraging spontaneous trips.

In any case, as soon as a transit agency has a working smartcard, there's no excuse for connection charges.  They sometimes linger because managers and elected officials are desperate for revenue but are afraid to raise the base cash fare.  In some cities, local journalists are too lazy to understand fare structures and just write quick scare stories whenever the base fare goes up.  This motivates transit agencies to do desperate and devious-looking things to raise other charges, just as a simplistic obsession with low fares has caused  airlines to invent endless fees. 

But what matters is not just that the fare be low.  It needs to be fair, and it needs to encourage people to use the system in more efficient ways.  An efficient and liberating network requires connections, so penalizing connections is an attack on your network's efficiency.