Public Outreach

Portland: Turning the Dial Toward Equity (How Far?)

What does it mean to make a bus network design more equitable or “just”?  These terms mean different things to many people, but in this case the core idea is a redistribution of bus service resources, particularly toward people with lower incomes also toward historically excluded racial groups.

In Portland, where I live, we’ve been working with the local transit agency TriMet on a bus network design effort that has two overriding motives: ridership and equity.  And as we look at how much to invest in equity, we have a big question for the community to think about:  How much redistribution of service toward lower-income areas should we do?

TriMet’s project will eventually develop a near-term plan for expanded bus service.  Thanks to a new Oregon state funding source and some other revenues, the agency has the financial capability to run about 10% more bus service than it ran in 2019, and more than 30% more than TriMet runs right now.  The constraint at the moment is the dire shortage of bus operators, but once that’s resolved this level of service will be possible.

These goals, ridership and equity, overlap more than they differ.  If we were planning only for ridership we’d still offer good service where there are lots of people with low incomes even if equity weren’t a separate goal.

However, there are cases where people with low incomes need services that wouldn’t have especially high ridership.  With the suburbanization of poverty, more and more of these people live in areas with low density and/or street networks that present obstacles to efficient bus service.  Another example is service to industrial areas: These tend to have poor ridership because of the low density and terrible pedestrian environment, but they are much valued by the people who rely on them to get to lower-wage jobs.  So in these cases, the equity goal is the only reason we suggest more service there.

Note the word suggest.  The Service Concept we’ve released is just that, a concept.  It is not even a proposal, and it’s certainly not a recommendation.  We are not saying that we have it right.  We are putting it out there to start a conversation.

We drew the Service Concept map around a conference table with TriMet planning staff, and in an earlier phase we also had staffs of most of the cities and counties in TriMet’s service district as well.  In our professional judgment, it’s a good illustration of what you might do if you were trying to expand both ridership and equity.  We’re sure the public feedback will give us lots of great ideas for how to refine it.

But we are also asking the public a specific question:  How far should we shift the priorities toward equity?

One approach you could take is to spend the new resources on the needs of people with lower incomes, while retaining all the services that are there now.  This would get you some improvement in equity, but we wondered if that would be enough to match the public’s priorities.

So we (staff and we the consultants) decided to put out an illustration of what it might look like to turn the dial even further toward equity.

The concept map cuts some existing services to make an even larger investment in equity-improving services. The service cuts happen in places where the service has neither a ridership justification nor an equity justification.  These areas are low ridership because of physical features like low density, poor walkability, or disconnected streets.  They’re also low equity priorities because they have relatively few people with lower incomes.

In shifting service in this way, from higher-income areas to lower-income areas, did we go too far or not far enough?  That question is purely about values.  It has no technical answer.  That means that my opinion doesn’t matter and I won’t express one.  We are asking the community this question, as part of TriMet’s survey about the concept, and that will lead to a decision by the Board on how far we will turn the dial in creating the final plan.





Raleigh: Four (or 36) alternatives for Wake County’s transit future

Wake_transit_logo_full_colorToday, Wake County (the Raleigh, North Carolina area) released our report outlining four possible directions that the community could take in defining a future transit network.  Download it here.  Happily, the local newspaper's coverage is clear and accurate.  

This begins a period of public discussion about the report and the choices it outlines.  That discussion will give us direction on what form the final recommended plan should take.  That plan, in turn, will form the basis for a proposed referendum on a sales tax increment to fund expanded transit.

Actually, there are more than four possible futures, and the final plan won't look quite like any of these.  Read on:

The key idea — as in much of our work — is to build an "alternatives space" in which people can figure out where they want to come down on the two most difficult policy tradeoffs:

  • Ridership vs coverage?  What percentage of resources should to go pursuing a goal of maximum ridership — which will tend to generate frequent service in the densest urban markets — as opposed to the goal of coverage — spreading service out so that as many people as possible have some service nearby?
  • Infrastructure vs service?  How much to spend on building transit as opposed to operating transit.  Obviously infrastructure can make service more attractive and efficient, but too much infrastructure can lead to not enough ordinary bus service covering the whole county.  

Both of these tradeoffs are explored in detail in Chapter 5 of our report.

The idea is to use these four mapped alternatives to imply 36 alternatives, as follows:

Alternatives Space

The four red squares are the four mapped network alternatives, while the white squares are other possible positions that we can tabulate.  The idea is to ask people questions roughly of this form:

  1. "Which alternative is closest to what you want?"
  2. Would you like that alternative even more if it moved a bit toward coverage or toward ridership? (a step left or right in this table)
  3. Would you like that alternative even more if there it moved a bit toward infrastructure or toward service? (a step up or down in this table)

Obviously the questions can be phrased in ways that don't require the user to visualize this matrix.  This is just a high-level description of what we'll be after.

This approach allows everyone responding to navigate us to one of 36 squares indicating their preference, giving us feedback that is both nuanced and yet quantifiable.  Most public feedback is one or the other but not both.   And that's good for everyone who's responding, because in my experience, tabulated feedback is more influential feedback.  Written feedback is certain still welcome and will be reviewed, but tabulated feedback really tells what lots of people are thinking.

If you live in Wake County or know anyone there, it's now time to get involved.  Download the report, read at least the executive summary, form your own view, and express it!  The more people respond, the more confident we'll be in defining the final plan based on their guidance.

when transit agencies say “we don’t control that!” (email of the week)

Ask: Who does?

From Mark Szarkowski:

A common transit agency response to these pleas for improved service … is that the problem is out of their control. And in some cases, such as "bunching" due to traffic, they're right. So do you think irate passengers would get more mileage by directing their pleas to the third parties that actually are in a position to fix issues that are truly outside the transit agency's control – say local {transportation and public works departments] that could improve signal timing or implement [transit signal priority], bus lanes, bus bulbs, and so on?

Do we mistakenly assume transit agencies are more powerful than they really are? If so, should they be more aggressive in lobbying third parties for the improvements they know are needed to make bus service more reliable? And how can bus riders – a usually-invisible, but potentially powerful constituency – be tapped to do the lobbying? Would folding a metro's transit, traffic, road maintenance, and planning agencies into a single organization help, such that "complete streets" would actually be designed by "complete" agencies with a "complete" spectrum of users in mind?

When it comes to surface transit that interacts with traffic or other obvious causes of delay, vast parts of the customer experience are outside its control.  The same is true, more obviously, about the experience of walking to or from transit, or waiting at a surface transit stop.  These are important parts of the transit experience, but the transit agency usually has zero control over what happens in those places.  

I encourage transit agencies never to say "we don't control that!"   Instead, say "____ controls that."   Name the agency that has jurisdiction over the issue.

This doesn't necessarily mean that it's ___'s fault, exactly.  Sometimes the problem lies in inter-agency communication and planning.  

Sometimes, transit staffs feel so unsupported that they fear they would get reprisals if they forward a complaint to the responsible agency.  But refusing to say who's responsible makes the transit agency sound like it's obfuscating, and that affects the transit agency's image.  

For example, if transit riders blame all service problems on the transit agency, while the road authority hears only from motorists, the road authority won't get much evidence that they should care about transit riders, will it?

And if the responsible government agency doesn't get the calls about the things they do control, it's unlikely anything will change.  …  


indianapolis: upcoming meetings on your transit system!

Last spring, Jarrett Walker + Associates was contracted by IndyGo, the transit agency serving Indianapolis and Marion County, to lead an update of their last Comprehensive Operation Assessment. This project involves consideration of the design, performance and mobility outcomes of IndyGo's existing network, followed by an extensive public engagement and redesign process. Next week, we will be on the ground in Indianapolis for a series of meetings, asking stakeholders and members of the public to share their views on the future of the network, including one very fundamental question: to what degree should IndyGo pursue each of the competing goals of high ridership and high coverage?

As always, one of our first steps was to draw a map showing IndyGo's midday route frequencies. To the agency's credit, it already incorporates frequency into its general purpose map (along with a lot of other useful information).

Frequency - Midday - Existing '14-08-25

 Next week, IndyGo and JWA will be hosting three meetings to discuss the future of the network at The Hall, 202 N. Alabama Street:

  • Thursday, Sept. 18: 11:30 a.m. – 1:30 p.m. 
  • Friday, Sept. 19: 9 – 11 a.m. 
  • Friday, Sept. 19: 4-6 p.m. 

We'll be discussing immediate changes to the network responding to the 2015 opening of the new Downtown Transit Center, as well as long term priorities and plans for future rapid transit lines. For more information, and to take a survey on these questions, head on over to IndyGo's site for the events:

ioby invites you to “trick out your trip” via crowd-funding

Our friends at the Transit Center are supporting a new ioby project to crowd-source ideas about how to improve the experience of commuting. If you aren't familiar with ioby, they are basically a crowd-funding platform focused on small-scale neighborhood improvement projects. Have a look at the promo video for the project:

 Similar to better-known sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo, ioby users are able to upload a project and create a funding goal which people who visit the page can contribute to. Examples of projects funded in this manner include community gardens, playgrounds, and environmental education programs, but now, ioby is offering a funding match up to $4000 for ideas related to transit. Have a look at the page for yourself here.

The guidelines for a project seem pretty open-ended:

1. Your project must do one of the following:

a. Be a non-digital tool that improves the public transportation experience, or
b. Focus on a single node within a transit system, but can be of any mode, i.e., a train station, a bus station, a bus shelter, subway or metro stop, bike share docking station, or parking lot, or
c. Encourage the use of clean transportation, in other words, have less environmental and social negative impacts than a single occupancy private car. Some examples include transit, bicycling, bike share, rideshare, carpool, car share, or vanpool.  We will consider modes and shared systems that aren’t identified here as long as they are less environmentally and socially harmful than a single-occupancy vehicle, or
d. Be something else in this spirit of the shared public transportation experiences! Talk to us! We don’t know all the great ideas out there! ([email protected])

On this blog, we focus to a great degree on what transit agencies can do to improve transportation outcomes in terms of network design and other aspects of the planning and operations of transit systems. But ioby's new project asks an interesting question: what small-scale, locally sourced ideas can people put into practice to make the transit experience more useful? 

Share your thoughts in the comments below, or better yet, head over to ioby and get your idea funded!

portland: the citizens’ priorities for transportation

If you respect Portland as a leader when it comes to transit and sustainable urbanism, you should be interested in what its citizens think, not just what its spokespeople and marketers say.  It's the citizens who've demanded most of Portland's most dramatic transformations, and they who have to signal when it's time to take the next step.  

So here's what citizens of Portland think about how the city should prioritize its transportation investments, from a statistically valid phone survey (cellphones included) with a margin of error just under 5%.  

Screen Shot 2014-02-18 at 2.00.18 PM

Possible investments were ranked on a 1-7 scale where 7 (counter-intuitively) means the highest priority and 1 the lowest.  Dark green on this chart means users chose 7, the highest priority, while light green means 6, blue means 5 etc.   The brown is 4, which means netural, and the red and gray colors  at the right are low priorities.  Click to enlarge and sharpen.  Original report is here and PowerPoint here.

Frequent bus service (slashed in 2009 with major ridership losses resulting) is the top transit service priority, closely followed by more (probably more frequent*) light rail service.   Streetcars, in this supposed national leader of streetcar-revival movement?  Not so much.

Responses to frequent bus and MAX service may be lower than actual because some respondents could have presumed that the survey was solely about things that the City of Portland controls, and transit supply isn't one of them.

On the other hand, there's not much patience for parochialism on the part of Portland's city government.  

Screen Shot 2014-02-18 at 2.00.08 PM

People are increasingly seeing the services of regional agencies as something that the City of Portland may need to act on.  Given the list of improvements discussed above, and their relative importance, this response is probably heavily about Portland's relationship to TriMet, the regional agency that controls transit service. (It may also be about the relationship to Oregon's DOT, which still controls some major arterials.)

So for example, it's plausible that transit advocates who are in the 20% that oppose city involvement in "things it doesn't own" would not mention bus and light rail service as City of Portland priorities, even though they support them as investment priorities in general.  Support for these things may thus be even higher than indicated.

So to sum up (and some of this will be more surprising to Portland-admirers than to Portlanders):  

  • Less than 40% of Portlanders would assign any priority to expanding the streetcar system further, and only 9% call it a top priority.  
  • By contrast, two thirds (67%) assign a priority to frequent bus service, and 23% call it a top priority.
  • In a separate question, over 70% of respondents said they'd be "more likely" to support a "funding package that improved bus service in areas with substandard service, particularly if the areas are low income." 
  • Most important: more than 3/4 would say that just because the city doesn't control the transit agency doesn't mean that it shouldn't invest in the service that's needed, or lead in funding that investment.

This is actually a very practical view, the only one that ultimately works with transit's underlying math.  Core cities have higher per capita transit demands than their suburbs [see Chapter 10 of my book Human Transit] so they always tend to be underserved — relative to demand — by regional transit agencies that aim for some concept of "regional equity."  In many cases, the only solution is for core city voters to step up and vote, for themselves, the additional service that only they know that they need.  This doesn't have to mean breaking up the regional agency, but it does mean giving up on the idea that any service distribution formula that a suburb-dominated region would agree on will meet the core city's expectations for transit, based on the core city's economy and values.  

Am I concerned about the low ranking of bus lanes?  Not really surprised.  We would have to get our frequency back (many major Portland bus lines run less frequently than they did in 1982) and put ridership growth back on track.  Then that question would naturally arise in its own time.

There are other interesting nuggets in this survey.  Portlanders' overwhelming obession with pedestrian safety is heartening, especially since this is a crucial transit improvement.  (This may also signal a shared concern for East Portland, the disadvantaged "inner ring suburbia" within city limits that has poor pedestrian infrastructure, inadequate transit frequency, and most of the city's pedestrian fatalities.)  Portland cycling advocates, and their national admirers, may be disappointed in the ranking of "safe bike routes."  Sadly, cycling is polarizing here as it is everywhere.  Although 55% give some priority to "safer bike routes" and cycling is the only mode whose share of work trips is clearly growing, opposition and disinterest are also higher on cycling than for the main transit service investments.   

But when it comes to transit, there are some clear signals here, not just for Portland but for any city that hopes to replicate its achievements.


*This question should have been more specific.  The response says "MAX light rail service" which could mean either geographic expansion or more frequency.  The frequencies on MAX have been cut substantially in the last five years, so at least some of this response is probably about frequency.

vancouver: interactive public outreach on network design

NE sector splash

Here's another example of a transit agency trying to interact with the public in a way that presents people with real choices.  It's from TransLink (greater Vancouver) and it deals with the northeastern suburbs of greater Coquitlam.  They invite you first to state your priorities about matters of prinicple ("fewer transfers", "service to more places" etc) and then look at some network scenarios that might illustrate those principles.  You then get to rank the scenarios, which invites you to notice whether your principles have shifted once you see their consequences.  Check it out.  And on an ethical note: Play with it, but don't actually submit your views if you don't live or work or travel there!

postcard: al ain

A couple of weeks ago, I had the honor of joining a consulting team working on Bus Rapid Transit in Al Ain, United Arab Emirates.  Al Ain, pop. around 500k, is straight south of Dubai, inland, and it could not be more different.  While Dubai is a performance for the world, Al Ain is calm, satisfied and a bit inscrutable.  Expat workers abound, including plenty of professionals hired from the West, but this feels like a city for Emiratis.

Built around a series of oases, Al Ain has been a crossroads and watering place for millennia.  Like most such places, it's a bit of a chokepoint, defined by the Omani border and the massif of Jebel Hafeet rising to the south.   


What's here for a transit  blog?  This:


"Grow a vision with public transport," with the obligatory child photo.  (Another shows an Emirati man in agal and ghutra gazing thoughtfully into the distance.)  Al Ain recently started up a bus system, and has a nice downtown station under construction.  As you'd expect in the Emirates, it's mostly used by low-income guest workers from surrounding countries.  Emiratis, who are a minority of the workforce, are mostly relatively wealthy and generally drive.  

But why, if that's today's reality, would a public transit system be unveiled with such modern and air-conditioned buses?  And why did they undertake this kind of marketing and imagery, designed to get Emiratis thinking about public transport and why it might be important for the city's and country's future?

Often, in the US, I encounter the attitude that buses are just for the poor and that therefore there's no point in spending more than the minimum on them.   Plenty of US cities have bus systems whose service and infrastructure still convey that attitude.  In these situations I'm always pointing out that transit dependence, like income, is a spectrum, that there are people everywhere along the spectrum, and that transit can therefore grow incrementally in relevance in response to modest, incremental investments.  Even poor people make choices, and those choices have consequen  This is, among other things, a reason to care about the quality of bus services, rather than just longing for trains.

That line should be a harder sell in the Emirates, a wealthy country where (a) decision-making is concentrated in an elite, (b) the middle class is far smaller and newer than in the US, and (c) the underclass consists of foreign "guest workers" who have little political influence.   But the Al Ain bus system, and its vision-heavy marketing and investment in look and feel, suggests they may grasp the idea better than many Americans do.   They are envisioning a future when a more diverse range of people will be motivated to use transit, as the car becomes less attractive or affordable for a host of converging reasons. 


toronto: communicating transit’s hard truths to the public

The Ontario Transit Panel, convened by the province's Premier in September, released its first 'discussion paper' this week entitled "Hard Truths About Transit in the Toronto Region". This group exists to advise the Province on whether or not to support the agenda of the regional transit agency, Metrolinx.

While specific points will be familiar to readers of this blog, the document is notable as a good example of how to educate local people in a local context. This paper asks people to consider the real consequences of choices based on the facts of how transit works, rather than reproducing stereotypes or promising impossible outcomes. As the report says:

These are hard truths, but until we accept them, we will not be able to have a mature discussion. Decisions will not be based on reason and evidence, but will be one-off decisions aimed at short term political gain.

Have a look for yourself here:


subway car configurations: a matter of taste?

Chicago Transit Authority is asking its customers how seating should be configured in its rail rapid transit cars.  Whet Moser has a good writeup in  Here are the choices:


The one on the left is "Chicago-style" seating, with most seats in pairs facing along the length of the car.  The one in the middle is "New York-style" seating, with most seats facing sideways.  The third is a hybrid.

Transit agencies commonly do surveys that imply that these things are just a matter of taste, as though they'll go with whatever their riders prefer.  This question is not just a matter of taste.  The left hand image has the most seats but the least capacity.  The middle image as the fewest seats but the greatest capacity.  Seats with their backs to the wall take up much less space than seats in pairs facing forward or back.  And of course, any seat takes up more space than a standee in a crowded car.  This is why really crowded subway systems inevitably gravitate toward side-facing seats.

So the question should be not whether you like the the configuration on the left, but whether you like it so much that you don't mind being left behind at rush hour because the train is full.  

The survey asks you which configuration you prefer, and which you like better in terms of "personal space."  But it doesn't inform the reader that the more forward- and back-facing seats there are, the more people will be left behind on the platform during the peak and the less ridership the system will be able to handle.

Almost all choices are tradeoffs, so when you ask the public their opinion, you need to explain what the real consequences of the options are.  (At least that's my firm's approach to public outreach!)