New York City

new york: playing on fears of subway safety

The Atlantic Cities has a must-read about why people still fear being hit by New York subway trains, even though the subway is one of the safest ways to travel. The union representing New York subway workers is proposing a series of steps to reduce the risk of subway-person collisions, assisted by lurid graphics.  It just so happens that their main ideas require hiring more unionized staff!  This includes the proposal to slow down trains as they enter stations, which will slow down everyone's travel and increase the number of trains, and hence drivers, needed to maintain the current frequencies.

If subway-person collisions were common, these would be valid safety precautions.  Transit agencies do take these expensive steps when an objective safety issue arises.

But as the article states, the facts are these:

And yet, subway deaths remain exceedingly rare. The fatality rate has not changed significantly over the last decade. Of the 55 fatalities on the subway tracks in 2012, 19 were suicides. The remaining 36 accidental deaths on the New York City subway in 2012 occurred on 1.66 billion subway rides. That’s one death for every 46 million rides.*

For infrequent riders, death on the rails is less likely than being hit by lightning. If you’re a twice-a-day commuter, you’re likely to be killed once every 100,000 years. …

A significantly more dangerous feature of city life is car traffic. Even the most dedicated mass transit commuters are twice as likely to be hit and killed by a car than a train. One in 50,000 New Yorkers is killed by a car each year, and one in five hundred is injured.

If your desire to continue living is quite clear in your mind, it's very easy not to be hit by a subway train.  Stay behind the yellow line.  If that doesn't feel safe, stay back still further.  

The real question is: Why do we reward the media for giving us lurid details of every subway fatality but not for every road fatality?  The Atlantic article has some ideas about that, though I think it dwells too long on the late-20c period when New York was much more objectively dangerous than it is today.

Let's also note that some subway systems are installing platform walls with doors (like these in Singapore) opening only when and where a train door is present.  These further reduce risk and are useful in stations with very high crowding, but are very expensive (Over $1m per station) and technically difficult to fit into the already-compact New York platforms.  The MTA appears to be considering these, and other technological options.  The goal, however, would be to increase the feeling of safety, since actual safety is already extremely high.  How infinitesimal does the risk need to be before we focus our investments on other things, like more useful service?

dissent of the week: praise for new york city’s bus rapid transit

SBS_articulated_busIn my recent post on incomplete Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) I made a one-sentence reference to New York City's BRT services, called Select Bus Service:  " New York's supposed BRT is so compromised that many refused to call it BRT anymore."  The comment was based not just on the linked article but also on what I hear endlessly from transit advocates and professionals there, plus one experience riding the First/Second Avenue line, which has a lane on the Avenues but is in mixed traffic all the way across Lower Manhattan.

A transit professional fired back: 

Look at the numbers before you criticize NYCT!  I'd call a 15% increase in speeds on Fordham Road and First/Second Avenue pretty significant.  As I recall from talking to their schedulers, it was somewhat greater than expected on Fordham Road and somewhat less in Manhattan.  But how can you ignore these numbers in an article talking about a one-minute difference?  And to pull off the first implementation of off-board fare collection in the Bronx (I grew up about a mile away from Fordham Road) is not something to be taken for granted!  NYCT and NYCDOT did the footwork to address concerns of businesses in the Bronx. Yes, there are enforcement problems – this is New York City, after all.  And of course it's not ideal BRT in terms of separated lanes and high-level platforms (how well do these blend into an urban environment?  Don't join the cheap-shot artists!!

Fifteen percent is a good start, no question.  Advocates often hate percentage increases because they are used to validate progress from dreadful to just very bad, but for the professionals who fought this fight in the context of massive forces demanding the status quo, the percentage increase is the only way to give any validity to what they've achieved, and they deserve praise for that achievement.

Still, there is another equally valid frame, which is to ask "How fast does BRT need to be to be achieving something sufficiently transformative — something on the scale of the actual mode share and sustainability targets of a city like New York?"  And there's often a huge disconnect between the two.

This is why, in my own work, I routinely cite those targets and encourage people to think about what it would mean to actually aim that high.  I do this not to criticize those who fought the fight with inadequate support and ended up with something that's much less though still a real improvement.  All praise on those people!  Rather, the targets are important because they can form the basis for a more widely-endorsed argument for why the status quo has to be defeated — an argument that should be made at higher levels, in a form that transit planners can cite, so that transit planners don't feel like they're fighting alone in the cold.

For example, in the original Seattle Transit Plan that I worked on in 2005, we asked not "what interventions can we make to speed up those buses a bit?" but rather "how fast (and frequent) do the buses have to be to deliver the scale of mode shift that is essential to what Seattle wants to be as a city?"  San Francisco's Transit Effectiveness Project is a similar model.   Get influential policy people thinking about the second question, and the battlefield changes, because now each struggle to remove a parking space is part of a citywide or regionwide sustainability mission.  

So when planners fight the good fight with insufficient support, and end up with only 15% improvement over a possibly-dreadful pre-existing travel time, they have to be (a) thanked, and (b) reinforced by even more talk about the urgency of the citywide goals that they are fighting for, block by block, foot by foot, parking space by parking space.

new york: instant bus rapid transit

If you ever wondered how fast you could really create a Bus Rapid Transit line, well, New York City has done it just in the last couple of days:


Could use embellishment, but everything you need for speed and reliability looks like it's there.

This happens to be a replacement service for an out-of-service subway line.  For more, see here.

new york subways after hurricane sandy, etc

I am way off the grid near Kerikeri, New Zealand for the weekend.  

So here's a map of the NYC subway system today, after the hurricane:

Bravo to Larry Gould of MTA who I'm sure was involved in figuring this out, though I doubt it was as much of a challenge as his work on September 12, 2001.

Have a good weekend.  If you're a US citizen and you don't vote by Tuesday, I forbid you to ever complain on this blog about anything, for the rest of your life.  So there.

the economist and the “redundancy” fallacy

Today's unsigned piece in the Economist "Democracy in America" blog picks up on Tom Vanderbilt's Slate item reviewing my book.  I'm certainly grateful for the publicity, though for the record, I do believe in pleasure!

But the Economist's writer ends his piece with a commonplace of old-inner-city thinking that can do real harm when taken outside those bounds:

Ultimately, what makes public transit work is massive redundancy: lots of different systems layered on top of each other, all running at high frequencies, providing you clear information on when the next one arrives. The world's best cities, New York, Paris, London, Hong Kong, Berlin, all do this pretty well. For cities that aspire to greatness, the road map doesn't seem so hard to follow.

"Lots of different systems layered on top of each other" begs the question of whether these systems are working together — for example by encouraging connections from one to the other — or simply duplicating each other.  That is the distinction that matters.  

Yes, if you're in "New York, Paris, London, Hong Kong and Berlin" you may perceive a layering of "redundant" services, but one of two very different things is happening:

  1. The services are truly redundant in the sense of duplicating (or even competing) but the demand is so intense that they're all full, so the duplication isn't much of a waste.  This is the case with many big-city commute markets, but often not with all-day patterns.
  2. The services are actually fitting together into an integrated network, through some mix of planned connectivity and complementarity.  An example of complementarity is the simultaneous presence of services in one corridor that differ in the speed/access tradeoff.  A major Manhattan avenue, for example, may have an "express" train stopping only every mile or less, a "local" train stopping less than every half-mile, and a bus on the surface stopping even more frequently.  That isn't redundancy unless the market isn't strong enough to support all three.

Praising these super-dense cities for "massive redundancy" sends exactly the wrong message to less-dense and smaller cities.  Tell them to plan for redundancy, when their markets are insufficiently developed, and they'll spread their resources out in tangles of overlapping services none of which are frequent or attractive enough to be worth waiting for.  This is the lesson of inner Sydney, discussed in Chapter 12 of my book.

You need massive agglomeration for true redundancy to work.  Without that, you dissipate service quality too much.  This was a key failing of the privatization of the British bus industry, which gave private companies control over transit planning and prohibited them from working together to create rational connective networks, by declaring that to be collusion.  The result was a generation of frustrated riders who had to let Jim's bus go by because they had a ticket for Joe's bus, even though the two bus lines together might add up to enough frequency to actually be useful.  The last Labour government finally removed this prohibition on "collusion," allowing simple, obvious, and mutually beneficial plans to go forward, like this one in Oxford.

"Massive redundancy" may be fine if you're a megacity, though even there, its effectiveness may be a feature of the peak that doesn't translate to the rest of the day.  Anywhere else, services need to work together as a network.  Even in London, New York, Paris, Hong Kong and Berlin, that's really what's happening. 

new york ferries: the first smartphone payment system for transit?

Ny waterway

That's what I'm being told about the new fare system at the Hudson River ferry operator New York Waterway.  You can now buy a ticket using your smartphone and then use the phone itself to present the ticket to the fare reader, similar to the "digital boarding passes" already used by airlines.  No paper required.  Expect this to spread in high-end commuter markets.

It would be great to see this spread in urban bus transit, where boarding times are still a dominant problem, but that will rely a very easy-to-use app and compatibility with smartcard media now under development.  My guess is that we'll get a ubiquitous commercial smartcard-creditcard first, which will do the same job.

Photo: Hoboken Condos

new york times: how to be confused about transit

Lisa Margonelli's opinion piece in today's New York Times, "Thinking Outside the Bus," is a must-read, and not just for its important stories about small-town public transit development and the private van initiatives in New York.  It's also useful as an illustration of how people often imagine false links between unrelated ideas, and the role of emotive words and images in making these falsehoods seem real.

Everyone does this, so it's important to understand how it works.  Journalists especially must understand how this works, if they want to go beyond quick "good and evil" stories and actually explain an issue fairly.

The article begins with the story of Pam Boucher, a carless woman in the small town of Brunswick, Maine who was stranded until the advent of a small, intimate bus system:

Now in a wheelchair, Boucher calls me from a bus stop, where she’s waiting with a friend. The bus has changed her life, she says, giving her independence, control over her time and the ability to socialize. “I take it at least once a day. Sometimes three times.” She meets friends on the bus, takes herself to her medical appointments, and goes shopping for groceries afterwards. A few months ago the bus extended its hours into the evening to accommodate more commuters; she can now shop for groceries in the evening if her day has been spent at medical appointments.

And this bit is important:

“Doug’s the driver. He’s really good to me. He’s knows my condition and that I sometimes forget where I am.”

Brunswick's local buses, in short, are geared to people with special needs, as small-town transit systems often are.  The emphasis is on ensuring access for these people and providing them basic mobility in their community.

These systems are absolutely laudable.  I've helped design several of them myself.  But they are intrinsically inefficient, in terms of passengers service per unit of public cost, because the effort Doug takes in making sure Pam's needs are met requires a lot of Doug's time.  Suppose that on average, he spent six minutes taking care of each customer's needs, counting the time he's driving.  That would mean he'll never be able to serve more than 12 people per pay hour, which is very, very low by urban transit standards.  Serving special needs is a good thing to do, but it requires lots of staff time per passenger, so it will always have a very high cost per passenger.  Unless: 

Unless you pay the drivers less.  Margonelli's next story is about the emerging minibuses of New York, an important private sector initiative that's generating high frequencies of service on some streets using vans on fixed routes, where the van companies can quickly invent new routes as demand seems to require.  The genius of these buses is that they tolerate lower ridership (mandated in fact by their small size) but they can do this because the drivers make much less than unionized transit agency labor.  These vans may be innovative for New York but they're actually the normal way of doing business across most of the developing world, where low prevailing wages allow for high volumes of small-bus transit.  These systems are often not organized in the way that developed-world public transit is; often they feel more like taxis with multiple passengers.  But their sheer abundance, made possible by low wages, makes up for that deficit.

(There are intermediate models, by the way.  Vancouver's transit agency runs small buses, the Community Shuttle, at 50% of the cost of running big buses.  That lets the small buses be more abundant, reaching deeper into low-density hills than big buses could afford to do.  This didn't require the private sector, just a negotiation with the union based on the obvious fact that driving a small bus with few passengers is an easier job than driving a big bus with many.)

So is Margonelli really a ferocious right-wing union-busting capitalist?  No, she's just unclear on transit's basic geometry and economics.  Note this strange move:

America’s famously car-dependent culture strands the Pam Bouchers among us: those too old, too young, or too sick to drive cars. Overall, only 5 percent of Americans use public transit to get to work and that number is somewhat distorted by the huge numbers of people in cities who commute by subway, train or bus. Outside of metropolitan areas, the number of Americans taking public transit falls to just 1.2 percent. With so few people on the bus, schedules become infrequent and inconvenient, and ridership drops further.

The "huge numbers of people in cities" are distorting the national transit data?  Margonelli is clearly interested only in small town and rural transit, where she would like to raise that 1.2 percent figure.  Personally, I'm all for small town and rural transit, but only because of my own social-democratic beliefs about an inclusive society; unless you want developing-world wage rates, it's definitely not an efficient way to raise nationwide mode share.   That goal will be served only by focusing on places that transit can serve cost-effectively, carrying many people with few drivers.  That means cities, and a few other dense transit-oriented places like university towns.

Margonelli wants to somehow tie the social-service imperative in small towns in rural areas to the national challenge of increasing ridership, but the "low hanging fruit" for huge ridership increases is in the cities.  Our cities still have many places where the development pattern creates high potential demand for transit that isn't being well served.  If we were engaged in a national struggle to increase the usage of transit overall, that's where the big wins are. 

So let's come back to the issue of images and emotive words, and the way they help sustain confusion.  One thing happening in this story is that the human interest in Pam Boucher makes the author think that solving Pam's problem is an efficient way to serve national ridership goals.  This is just mathmatically false, becuase social service needs require lots of driver time per customer and the essence of efficient transit is minimizing driver time per customer.  Neither objective is bad, but they're different objectives.  If giving every customer five minutes of attention were the key to efficiency, corporations would still have human beings answering every customer's call.

But there are also three emotive words at work in this rhetoric.  One is "bus" as used in the article's title, "Thinking outside the bus."  The other two are in this passage:

Conventional wisdom says that the way to create or improve public transit is to invest billions to engineer rails, trains and buses. But the Brunswick Explorer [the new service that Pam Boucher uses] is one of many innovators that are seeing transit as more than an engineering problem and trying to  build transit that meets the needs of its residents.

You see them:  conventional wisdom and innovator.  This tired good-and-evil frame is routinely stamped onto all kinds of journalism about sustainability issues.  I wonder how many journalists could even write an article on these topics without using it.

Look at that word innovator or innovation.  We hear it all the time.  It means "having an idea that I personally haven't heard of before."

If don't know much about transit, many old and well-tried ideas will strike you as innovative.  The Brunswick, Maine transit system is laudable, but this kind of problem-solving focused on senior-disabled needs has been going on for decades.  It's a very localized, specialized process that's different in every town.  It's beautiful to watch and be a part of.  But the basic frame of the problem: the costs of service, the patterns of service that work in a small town, North American wage expectations, the opportunities for savings through communications and through merging existing operations — all this has been worked on for decades and solutions like Brunswick's have been created in many places.  Brunswick has tread a well-researched path; locally it's an innovation, but it's not more innovative than hundreds of similar systems.  Again, the word innovation reflects the writer's ignorance about the field.

If transit professionals seem cold to "innovative" proposals, it may because they're stuck in the mud.  But it may be because they know their field, have heard this proposal twenty times already, and understand the ways it works and doesn't work.  They may also understand that the "innovation" meme is really a way to evade a real, hard question, such as the appropriate levels of wage for transit workers.  Nobody wants to talk about that; it's much more fun to praise private-sector models like the Flatbush vans.  But if you call those vans innovative, what you're really saying is:   "I've never used public transit in the developing world, where this idea is routine, so it's new to me."  (You're also saying: "Drastically lower driver wages are a great idea.")

Remember, in North America, most of what looks "efficient" and "innovative" about "private sector" transit is simply liberation from the negotiated wage rates that bind virtually all public transit operators.  Transit costs are driven by the cost of labor, so if you make labor cheaper, many things are possible.  Calling these services "innovative" is taking your eye off the ball, and needlessly slandering transit experts as purveyors conventional wisdom just because they've heard the idea before.

As for "bus" as an image of constrained thinking (in the title, "Thinking outside the bus"), it's understandable, though increasingly archaic.  The crowded, constraining, poorly ventilated bus does feel like a box and thus as a good metaphor for mental imprisonment or "conventional wisdom".  (Remember the film Speed, or the pilot of Six Feet Under?  Both used a bus that was older than most buses on the road at the time, intentionally playing to a stereotype of buses as primitive.)  Yet all the solutions Margonelli proposes are also vehicles on tires.  "Bus" is a large and diverse category, which makes it useless for talking about what matters in transit.  The word says nothing about speed, duration, frequency, and reliability, nor does it address labor cost, which determines how much of these things you can afford.   "Think outside the bus" if you must, but as Margonelli's examples show, you're still likely to end up with one.

UPDATE:  For further entertainment, see Eric Jaffe today in the Atlantic on the "entirely new transit concept flexible bus services," which have been around for decades.  I personally was designing them (and sometimes ripping them out) almost 20 years ago. 


redundancy in transit networks: a good thing?

Transit planning consultant Bob Bourne is thinking about the Brisbane flood's impact, and wondering whether building more redundancy into transit networks is a good idea:

My heart goes out to everyone affected by the floods.  It can be devastating on so many levels, individual lives lost; extensive property damage to individual residences, and infrastructure damage.  I managed the system in Ames, IA during our floods in 1990, 1993, 1998, and 2005 and I have been assisting the Cedar Rapids, IA transit system in recovering from their 2008 floods.  I worked in Chicago during the blizzard winters of 1977-78 and 1978-79 where the city and suburbs experienced several weeks of paralysis due to the continuous heavy snows as well as way too many blizzards in Iowa over the years.
In the U.S. buses typically operate without a lot of redunancy in the route network.  Your commentary on numbering overlapping bus routes and make them understandable to the riding public is interesting and implies that there are lots of routes serving several corridors.  In the U.S. that may be true, but usually the headways are pretty well trimmed to provide the absolute minimal level of service.  When you add demand due to adjacent services becoming inoperative, the existing routes are overwhelmed.  Overloading causes extended travel times and buses cannot make their normal cycle times which exacerbates the problem.  Throw in a street network in chaos and the bus system will be criticized as not meeting the needs of the citizens in the time of crisis.  No easy way to explain the problem.
The other problem that we had in Ames, Chicago, and Cedar Rapids was that some of the drivers lived in areas that were flooded or had immediate family in those areas.  They needed to tend to their family/housing priorities and this decreased the number of people available when the workload  of more passengers and longer travel times increases.
At some time in the future, after everything settles, perhaps you could solicit comments on building redundancy into your transit system.  Sometimes, it is good to have lightly used routes that can be cancelled in a crisis allowing redeployment of drivers and vehicles.  Sometimes it is good to have headways with a loading standard of less than 125% of seats at the peak point on the route instead of cramming buses with 150% or 175% of seated load.   Your 10 or 12 minute frequent headway concept can provide additional resources if you need to cut it back to 15 to 20 minutes during a crisis.
After the September 11, 2001 disaster in New York, the subway system was able to recover quickly because the lower end of Manhattan was one of the few places in the subway system where there was some redundancy.   Multiple routes close to each other and at the end of some routes made it easy for commuters to resume their normal lives long before the reconstruction of the subway damage.
Redundancy is not favored by policy makers and can add to costs.  However, a system with excess capacity will perform well in times of crisis and will provide addtional service during normal times.
Our prayers are with everyone who is suffering through this disaster and we hope that good luck will shine on Australia again.

The kind of redundancy that Bob praises is something transit planners spend much of their time trying to get rid of, because on typical days when we don't need it as redundancy, we call it duplication and waste.

Transit agencies work on such tight budgets that it doesn't make sense to run, say, a bus line next to a rail line, doing the same thing, just for the redundancy.  If the rail line is serving the market, the bus should be off somewhere else, providing unique mobility rather than duplicating the rail.

This is especially true in small cities like Bob's hometown of Ames, Iowa, or Great Falls, Montana.  These networks' resources are stretched tightly to create the maximum amount of mobility for the budget.

Having said that, there are a few situations where an efficient network is also a redundant one.

Classic high-frequency grids provide redundancy for transit in the same way they do for cars.  If one segment in a grid goes down, there's a parallel line 800m away that you can walk to in a pinch.  It will probably allow you to complete the same L-shaped trip that you intended to make on the disabled line.  

Grid with trip

Ferries are more complicated.  The long cross-city run of the CityCats mostly connects stations that are also connected by bus.  The bus trip generally runs a shorter distance at a higher frequency, though it may require a connection.  So there's no question that the intrinisic attraction of the ferry is part of what keeps it busy.  There may also be secondary issues, like the legibility problems of much of the bus system in downtown Brisbane, where most connections occur.  But there are also situations where CityCat and the smaller CityFerry does a link that's simply impossible by road, or much, much longer, and in these cases the ferry wins on pure mobility grounds. 

Of course, bus operators generally have backup fleets in case they need to suddenly replace a non-redundant train or ferry line that goes down.  In Australia, there are often standing agreements between government and private operators to shift buses into this role, and given a day's warning — which Brisbane had — it's not hard to replace a failed network segment with buses even while running the rest of the bus network.

So is redundacy a good thing in disasters?  Of course it is.  Is it a reason to design networks that are redundant all the time, at the expense of more mobility that could be provided at the same cost?  No, probably not, because you're weighing a rare disaster against daily inefficiency.  Are there styles of network design that are both efficient and redundant?  Yes, the high-frequency grid comes to mind. 

In really big and dense cities, you can also get both redundancy and efficiency, because there will tend to be overlaps of service just to provide capacity into dense centers like Lower Manhattan, and in these cases, as Bob notes, redundancy is often possible.  The key there, however, is that the duplication of services isn't justified by the need for redundancy, but rather for the sheer capacity need, and providing necessary capacity, of course, is part of efficiency.


New York’s Broadway: Why Do the Cab Drivers Hate It?

New York City Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan is here in Sydney, and spoke last night at the City of Sydney’s CityTalks series, hosted as always by Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore.  Sadik-Khan gave her standard presentation on her work in New York, with emphasis on the conversion of traffic and parking space to pedestrian and park spaces.  She also highlighted the new Bus Rapid Transit project, called Select Bus Service, clearly distinguishing between SBS projects that are still compromised, such as First/Second Avenue and Fordham Road, and those that really will be fully exclusive-lane and thus highly reliable, such as the 34th Street line now under development. Continue Reading →

Guest Post: Aaron Renn on Universal Fare Media

(Aaron Renn, who writes The Urbanophile, is an opinion-leading urban affairs analyst, consultant, and speaker, based in the US Midwest.)

When I’m at home, I ride bus and rail transit about equally.  But when I travel to a new city, I travel on rail systems frequently, but almost never use the bus.  Why?

For me, while I know how transit systems generally work, the specifics of fares and fare media are different from place to place. I know that if I show up at a rail station there is likely to be a station house where I can look at maps, read about fares and rules, and use nice machines with step by step instructions for purchasing tickets or other fare media.  Continue Reading →