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.)

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The San Francisco Bay Area, with county lines


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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.


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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.

quote of the week: the neglected american bus

In the six cases examined, we conducted off the record interviews with public officials, general managers, and thought leaders in each region. One of the consistent themes that emerged was that the bus systems and bus passengers were an afterthought. In every region – Chicago, New York, Boston, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Dallas/Ft. Worth, and the Bay Area – rail was the primary focus of virtually everyone we interviewed. We also found that maps of the regional transit networks tellingly either included a jumbled mess of bus routes behind a clean rail network, or ignored bus altogether.

It is likely this bias toward rail has very little to do with governance. But it does have a negative impact on transit delivery, particularly from a customer point of view. The vast majority of transit riders in the United States are on buses, so it would make sense to devote more resources and attention to them compared to rail riders, rather than less. Also, improvements to the bus network are likely to be less expensive than new rail expansions, and would be likely to yield substantially more net benefit per dollar. Yet while every region we visited had a new rail expansion either in planning or under construction, outside of New York none of the regions had any plans for regional bus networks, reorganization of existing bus systems, or major expansions of bus rapid transit (BRT).

Joshua Schank, President CEO,
Eno Center for Transportation
"The Case of the Neglected Bus"

I've certainly noticed, in my own work, that the aggressive, agency-wide commitment to building a complete access-maximizing transit system is stronger in cities that don't have much rail, or where rail is in early stages of development, as in Houston.  Key tools for total network legibility, such as Frequent Network branding, also seem to be spreading much more effectively in the midsized transit authorities than in the gigantic ones.

A while back I had a brief chat with a major airline CEO at an event.  He asked me: "So what's the future of transit.  It's rail, isn't it?"  I wanted to say: "So what's the future of aviation?  It's all intercontinental jumbo jets, isn't it?  

Or is it about people feeling free to go places?  In that case, the future of aviation is a network, where many types of vehicle have an essential role.  

Roy Nakadegawa, 1923-2013

Roy NakadegawaRoy Nakadegawa, a longtime San Francisco Bay Area transit advocate and board member for both AC Transit and BART, has passed away.  I remember him a soft-spoken but effective advocate who was able, as a professional engineer, to dig into details when they mattered.  

I also remember him as someone who really understood transit networks, and considered them more important than transit technologies.  You can get a taste of that from this 2008 kerfuffle (concerning a debate that I am agnostic on, personally).

From the joint AC Transit / BART press release:

Former AC Transit and BART director Roy Nakadegawa passed
away last Friday morning, August 23, 2013, at his home in Berkeley. 
Mr. Nakadegawa had been suffering from congestive heart failure for some time.

Mr. Nakadegawa served on the AC Transit Board for 20 years,
from 1972 to 1992.  He then served on the BART Board for 12 years from
1992 to 2004.  After he left the BART Board, he joined the Board of TRANSDEF
(Transportation Solutions Defense and Education Fund), a non-profit
environmental organization created by transit activists to advocate for better
solutions to transportation, land use and air quality problems in the San
Francisco Bay Area.  In all those positions he argued for cost-effective,
mobility improving transit.

Mr. Nakadegawa was an active attendee and participant in TRB
(Transportation Research Board) meetings and was well known and respected
around the world for his depth of knowledge about transit and its relation to
land use.  He was written up in the local press for the frugality of his
travel arrangements.  When Mr. Nakadegawa served on the AC Transit Board
of Directors, its members got an annuity when they left the Board.  For
many years, Mr. Nakadegawa generously donated his annuity payments to buy
prizes for AC Transit's local bus rodeo winners.

As a BART Director he consistently advocated for cost
effective transit administration, which spilled over into his own
campaigns.  In his re-election materials
for BART Director he was proud to point out that in November 2000, he garnered
the highest vote (over 91,000 voters) of five previous BART races and spent
less than a penny per vote.  Mr.
Nakadegawa tirelessly urged his fellow board members to consider innovative
uses of BART facilities as a non-traditional source of
revenue and improved customer access, resulting in the adoption of both
permanent and experimental parking program initiatives.

 He will also be
remembered for his role in advocating BART’s Earthquake Safety Program.  He helped to raise public awareness of this
critical program, resulting in the successful 2004 passage of a bond measure to
fund it.

Professionally, Mr. Nakadegawa had been a transportation
engineer for the City of Richmond and for many years served on the Board that
administers the civil engineering exam in California.  His career as a public sector engineer
reached a pinnacle in 1989 when he was elected National President of the Institute
for Transportation of American Public Works Association and later served as its
liaison to the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), the national
transportation advocacy group.  While
with BART Mr. Nakadegawa became an active member of APTA, serving on several
committees including its Policy and Planning; Advanced Technology, Governing
Board; and Transit Management and Performance committees.

Mr. Nakadegawa and his wife Judy were the quintessential
Berkeley couple, dedicated to peace, family, public service and folk dancing.

Cards and letters should be sent to:  Judy Nakadegawa
and family, 751 The Alameda, Berkeley, California  94707-1930. 


school starting times can transform transit efficiency

Matt Conway writes:

AC Transit (Oakland, CA and surroundings) recently came to an agreement with schools to adjust the start times at those schools to reduce the cost of providing bus service. I've never heard of schools adjusting [start times] to save agencies money!


Start and end times of schools can have a huge impact on transit agencies that are expected to serve them.  If three large schools choose to start at the same time, rather than at staggered times, they can dramatically increase both the fleet needs and the operating cost of the transit system.  To serve such a short, sharp peak of school demand, the transit agency needs more drivers to work very short shifts, and must own more buses for them to drive.  Staggered school times can replace four buses with one, and replace two 1-2 hour driver shifts with one 3-hour shift.  Note that drivers must often be paid more to work a short shift; often the rule is that they must be paid for four hours even if they work one.  That's understandable; would you be willing to commute to work for just one or two hours' pay?

When I worked as a network design consultant for small agencies across California and the American West, I encountered this problem constantly.  Schools were under intense budget pressure and were cutting their own school bus service, shifting their transportation needs on the transit agency.  Schools would change start and end times for their own reasons, and falsely assume that the transit agency could deliver a fleet of buses at whatever time they choose.  It's an example of a common problem wherever many government agencies overlap; your agency can appear to "solve" a problem by shifting it to some other agency.

Has this situation improved?  Are many public transit authorities now co-operating with school districts to ensure that expensive transit resources are used efficiently?

beyond grey

San Francisco's Bay Area Rapid Transit system (BART) is, let's be frank, extremely grey.  Most of its above-ground stations feature vast expanses of exposed concrete, true to the prevailing modernism of the age.  (Most of the system was designed in the 1960s.)

At stations like MacArthur, where the grey station infrastructure interacts with the surround grey ramps of the freeways, one can wonder if the original BART planners were so obsessed with competing with freeways that they deliberately chose freeway-like lines and colors, especially where real freeways were nearby.  This, of course, would be competition by resemblence rather than by differentiation.  At one stage, that probably made sense.

And yes, cool grey can be beautiful, but only if there's color to throw it into relief.  Modernism sometimes drew encouragement from the coolness of classical Greek and Roman architecture, but of course the ancient world seems colorless to us only because paints, fabrics, and other vehicles of color don't survive the centuries. 

So it was fun to open my mail this morning and find this painting by Alfred Twu, reimagining the freeway-dominated landscape of MacArthur BART station with a more tropical sense of color.  Why must we go to Germany to see bright colors and strong choices in design?


UPDATE:  I can't resist highlighting a comment from jfruh:

I always think that BART is what someone in 1969 thought the future was going to look like.

If you're too young to remember 1969, I strongly recommend reviewing Stanley Kubrick's great film 2001: A Space Odyssey (1970).  When I rode BART for the first time in 1976, I felt like I had arrived in the world of that film. 

on casual carpools, or “slugging”

Emily Badger has a useful article on casual carpools, though it would be a little more useful if she — or her editors at Miller McCune — didn't keep implying that public transit is somehow the enemy.

Casual carpooling — or "slugging" as some of its partisans like to call it — is a perfectly rational response to very congested freeways with High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes.  At informal queues, usually located near an onramp, motorists who want to use the HOV lanes meet up with other commuters who want to ride the lanes as passengers.  These passengers fill the empty seats in the motorist's car so that they can all travel in the HOV lane.  The phenomenon appears to happen where and when an HOV lane offers quite dramatic travel time savings, as it does on certain Washington DC freeways and on the San Francisco Bay Bridge.  It happens only in intensive commute periods, because that's when the HOV lane's advantage is substantial.

For many, it's fun to think of casual carpooling as some sort of revolt against conventional transit.  The term slugging, Badger explains, arose as an insult uttered by "bitter bus drivers" who saw their waiting passengers disappearing into private cars.  Miller McCune's headline describes slugging as "the people's transit," as though conventional transit is something else.

In fact, casual carpooling or "slugging" is largely compatible with conventional transit.  Really, the two are mutually beneficial.  The casual carpool markets in San Francisco and Washington are both parallel to rapid transit lines, but the trains are still full.  As for competition with peak bus services, the long one-way commuter bus run is one of the most expensive services a transit agency can operate.  Often, each bus can be used for only one run during each peak, so all the costs of owning and maintaining the bus must be justified by a single trip.  Drivers for these peak buses are also expensive, because there are costs associated with the short shifts that peak-only service requires, and because drivers must usually be paid to get back to where the shift began before clocking out.     

Long commuter bus runs can still make sense, but they are very expensive compared to conventional two-way, all-day transit.  If casual carpooling reduces the demand for them, the effect on transit is to flatten the overall peak that transit has to serve, increasing its potential cost-effectiveness and improving the utilization of fleet.  It's especially helpful on the AM peak, which is usually the sharper of the two.

So slug away, if you need to feel that you're attacking something.  I prefer to call it a casual carpool, because that term describes what it really is.  And I see no reason not to welcome them.  In fact, when new HOV lanes are developed, the casual carpool phenomenon should be planned for, both by ensuring that there are safe and logical pickup points and also by counting casual carpool trips in the mobility benefits of the lane.

Of course, such planning would contradict the libertarian fantasy — heavily stressed in the Miller McCune piece — that casual carpooling is a "government-free" form of spontaneous social organization, a kind of Tahrir Square for the cul-de-sac set.  In fact, "slugging" is a freely chosen response to the design of the government-funded transport infrastructure — just like everybody else's commute.   

The Horrors of “Transferring” in 1974, and a Happier Future

Connections, or transfers as North Americans depressingly call them, are the foundation of a simple, frequent transit network that’s there whenever you need it.  I laid out the basic argument here, but in brief, a transit system that tries to run direct service from everywhere else (so that nobody has to make a connection) ends up as a confusing tangle of hundreds of overlapping lines, few of which are frequent enough to rely on or simple enough to remember.  Continue Reading →

Guest Post: Aaron Priven on the AC Transit (Oakland-Berkeley) Transit Map

Continuing the recent series on frequent network maps, today’s post is by Aaron Priven, who actually managed the redesign of a network map. I don’t agree with everything he says, but the resulting map (current version here in PDF, here in a version that you can pan and zoom online) certainly shows a lot of thought.  It’s interesting to see the thought process explained.  I’ll share my own responses to this map in a near-future post.

Jarrett’s post on frequency mapping, and a number of the comments there, referred to the AC Transit system maps. (AC Transit is the bus system for a large portion of the eastern shore of San Francisco Bay, including cities such as Oakland, Berkeley, Richmond, and Fremont.) Continue Reading →

Oakland: A New Streetcar Proposal

Bravo to Chip Johnson of the San Francisco Chronicle for doing a column on Daniel Jacobsen’s Oakland Streetcar Plan, which was just released.

Oakland Stcar alignment Jacobsen is an undergraduate at Stanford University who did the entire plan as a research project.  Drawing on the well-established literature of the US streetcar revival movement, including trips to Seattle and Portand to observe their streetcars, Jacobsen lays out a plan for a streetcar along Broadway, from Kaiser Medical Center at the north end to 2nd Avenue and the Amtrak station at the south end.  (The north end is very close to MacArthur BART station, and suggests the possibility of a Phase 2 extension west along 40th to this station and potentially on to the high-rise centre of Emeryville, just off this map to the left.) Continue Reading →