seattle media cover last night’s event

My fun faux-debate with Darrin Nordahl last night, sponsored by Town Hall and Transportation Choices, has been covered by both the Seattle Times and the online journal Publicola.  Both summarize the question as something like:  "Should transit be useful or fun?"  Put that way, it's easy to say yes to both, but there really are some choices to be made, because often we're asked to sacrifice the useful for the fun.  As I said in the debate, I support all of Darrin's recommendations for a more joyous transit experience, except where the abundance and usefulness of service must be sacrificed to achieve them. 

darrin nordahl’s new book

9781610910446Darrin Nordahl has a new book out, e-book format only, called Making Transit Fun! You can download Chapter 1 here: Download PDF.

I will be appearing with Darrin Thursday Wednesday night in Seattle, to promote both of our books.  Details in the far-right column under my photo. 

For my review of Darrin's previous book, My Kind of Transit, see here.  Note that Darrin is such a classy guy that he links to my review on his website, even though my review raised major objections to that book.

Darrin is a great writer, a keen observer, and a committed urbanist.  While we have utterly different perspectives (compared by Treehugger's Lloyd Alter here and by Slate's Tom Vanderbilt here) we agree about almost everything that really matters.  I look forward to reading and reviewing his new book, and meeting him again in Seattle on Wednesday.

san francisco: winning speed and reliability battles

38 GEARY V A HospMajor San Francisco transit lines take longer than they did a century ago, as they have been obstructed by traffic and slowed by heavy passenger loads using (until recently) inefficient pay-as-you-board methods. A New York Times piece by Zusha Elinson lays out the statistics.  

(It's important to clarify, right away, that this has nothing to do with streetcars as a technology.  You could easily be misled by this subtle bit of anti-bus bias:

In 1920, the F-Stockton streetcar carried passengers from the Financial District at Market and Stockton Streets all the way to the Marina at Chestnut and Scott Streets in a zippy 17 minutes. Today a very similar trip on the 30-Stockton, the successor to the F-Stockton, takes a half-hour if the stars are properly aligned.

In general, streetcars replaced by buses have slowed down more, over the last century, than those that remained streetcars, but that's an expression of how much more was invested in streetcars than in buses.  The main lines that use the Market Street Subway — J through N — have picked up or shed just a couple of minutes from their 1920 times, even though back then they ran on the surface along Market St (about 3 miles) while now they're in a subway, effectively functioning as rapid transit.  No such improvements were made for streetcars that became bus lines, so of course their performance deteriorated more.  In fact, the 30-Stockton relies heavily on maneuverability in unpredictable Chinatown traffic; a streetcar in exactly the same traffic, unable to move around obstacles, would be even slower and less reliable.)

The real message of this story, though, is the need to have a conscious intention about the speed and reliability of transit.  Highway planners ruled the late 20th century with their clearly defined notion of "Level of Service" or cars, which mowed down opposition through its simplistic A-F letter-grades.  Just after 2000, the Transit Capacity and Quality of Service Manual sought, at first, to claim this same authority-through-simplification for transit.  But while the TCQOS is a spectacular reference guide, few in the business believe that a single A-F score can capture the many important ways that transit succeeds and fails.

My own work in this area has always advocated a stronger, more transit-specific approach that begins not with the single delayed line, but rather with the functioning of an entire network.  Don't just ask "how fast should this line be?" which tends to degenerate into "What can we do to make those forlorn buses move a little faster without upsetting anyone?"  Instead, ask "What travel time outcomes do we need across this network?"  Or turn it around: How much of the city needs to be within 30 minutes of most people?  – a question that leads to those compelling Walkscore travel time maps, which are literally maps of individual freedom.

A network speed standard would identify necessary speed standards for each service type, but especially for the Frequent Network, because high frequency means greater impact of delay — both on passenger freedom and the agency's bottom line.  We* used this approach in a Seattle Transit Plan study about 7 years ago:

1.  Define the Frequent Network (every 15 min or better, all day, every day), including any segments that are "Rapid" (faster with fewer stops)

2.  Define the policy operating speed standard for each product (frequent local vs rapid)

3.  Map the existing scheduled speeds on each segment against this standard, creating a map with screaming red segments meaning "deficient."

4.  Prioritize interventions to improve transit speed based on those deficiencies.  

This is quite different from a classic cost-benefit approach in which we count the riders currently on a segment and assign value based on their total travel time saved, because it acknowledges that (a) a dysfunctional segment is probably driving away customers regardless of how many are on it now and (b) the outcome is the network, not just a single line.

We had a lot of success with this in Seattle at the time.  Once the deficiency map was drawn, engineers noticed segments that they hadn't identified as problems before, and went to work on fixing them.  Note too that the method cleanly separates problem from solution.  Don't start with what you think is possible.  Start with what you need.  Define the absence of what you need as a citywide problem that affects the whole network.  Then fix those deficiencies.  If you're going to go to war with three businesses over "their" strip of on-street parking, you're more likely to break through the "big agency attacks struggling small business" frame if you're defending the entire city's transit system.  

Remember: a line is only as reliable as its least reliable point, and a journey through a network is only as reliable as the least reliable of its lines involved.  So one localized problem affecting speed and reliability (such as stops too close together) actually affects a vast area, and drags down public expectations for an entire network product.  If it costs the agency money (as slower service always does) then it's also a direct detriment to the overall abundance of transit service.  That's the frame in which you win battles over three on-street parking spaces, a signal phase, or even an entire tranist lane.

San Francisco's Transit Effectiveness Project is, to a great extent, the culimination of exactly this thought process.  I remember in the 1980s or early 90s a time when Muni proposed to eliminate just one consequential bus stop;  17th & Mission.  The story became: "Big, bad transit agency launches personal attack on the people and businesses at 17th & Mission."  The TEP has worked to change that conversation, emphasizing that on high-frequency services, the speed of every segment is part of the whole city's transit outcomes.  The same process has made it easier to do a range of other locally-hated citywide goods such as removing parallel routes that were too close together.  

Does your city's transit system have a similar project underway, one that moves beyond route-by-route analysis and looks at how every speed/reliabilit deficiency harms the whole city's transit system?


*I was with Nelson\Nygaard at the time.  The project was the City of Seattle "Urban Village Transit Network" study of 2004, which became a foundation of the Seattle Transit Plan.

how do you compare to your peers? should you care?

Admit it:  You've always cared, at least in secret, about how you compare to your peers: your friends, your fellow students, your graduating class, your co-workers, your generation.  Well, deep down, transit authorities and city governments care too, which is why comparing a city to other similar cities always gets attention.

Sometimes peer comparisons cause complacency, especially if you choose the wrong peers.  Wellington has the highest transit mode share in New Zealand, but in a country with only one other big, dense city, that obviously shouldn't imply that it's reached nirvana.  Working in greater Vancouver I always have to emphasize that they are doing so well by North American standards that they have to start comparing themselves to European port cities in their size class (Glasgow, Edinburgh, Copenhagen, Helsinki, Marseilles).  My general advice: If your peer comparison says you're wonderful, throw a party and revel in this for 48 hours, then look for a more motivating group of peers. 

At the other extreme, nothing is more motivating than being told that you're dead last among your peers.  Earlier this year I worked (through my Australian employer MRCagney under the leadership of Ian Wallis Associates) on a peer comparison study for Auckland, New Zealand, which compared Auckland's transit performance with all the five biggest Australian cities plus a selection of North American ones.  Download the full report here.  Remember, if you're in any of the peer cities that it uses (Wellington, Brisbane, Perth, Adelaide, Sydney, Melbourne, Edmonton, Ottawa, Calgary, Vancouver, Honolulu, Portland, Seattle) this is your peer study too!  Just keep the tables and refocus the text (citing the source of course!).

More generally, the report is a good illustration of how peer comparison can work at its best, and also of the cautions that must be shouted from the sidelines once the conclusions take fire in the media, as they certainly have in Auckland.  From yesterday's New Zealand Herald:

Consultants have ranked Auckland last out of 14 cities – in New Zealand, Australia, Canada and the United States – included in a benchmark study for the average number of public transport trips taken annually by its residents.

Aucklanders also pay the highest fares of any of the cities, amounting to 24c for every kilometre travelled on the average 44 public transport trips they take each year, compared with 17c in Wellington.

The rest of the article is further grim statistics, plus quotations from political leaders demanding that something be done. 

I'm  sympathetic to Auckland Transport in this case.  Remember, a city's transit performance is mostly about the physical layout of the city and the constraints on other modes; the quality of the transit system by itself can't overcome problems in those areas.  The nature of the economy also matters.  Wellington is much smaller but it has much more severe chokepoints in its urban structure.  In fact, all travel between the northern and southern parts of the city must go through a single chokepoint less than 1 km wide, which is also the (very dense) downtown.  Wellington's economy is dominated by government, which is generally a sector disposed to use transit heavily. All of these features are hugely important in driving Wellington's mode share above Auckland's, and yet they don't include anything about the respective quality of the transit systems. 

Peer comparisons also carry the false assumption that everyone wants to be the same kind of city, and is therefore working to the same kind of goals.  (This attitude, taken to extreme, produces the absurdity of top ten "best cities for transit" lists.)  Low mode share for transit may mean your transit system is failing, but it may mean that it's not trying for mode share, or at least that it has other objectives or constraints that prevent it from focusing on that goal.  It may just mean that your city has different values.  It may mean the city stikes a different balance between cycling, transit, and walking based on its own geography.

Still, service quality matters, and there's a lot that Auckland can do.  I hope the city's opinion leaders are listening to Auckland Transport as well as berating it, so that they understand the real choices that must be made to move Auckland forward.  If there's a real conversation, great things can be accomplished. 

in seattle next 3 days …

… but probably not with much spare time for non-work, non-marketing items.  I'm the lunchtime speaker on Monday at the APTA Multimodal Operations Planning Workshop, and will be at the conference through Wednesday.  It's always a good source of planning stories so I expect to emerge with some material, though maybe not time to write about it.

This is a very busy time for me between the 1.5 jobs and the book, so remember, we welcome quality guest posts — or even just stories from a thoughtful "correspondent," like this guy, that I can publish with just a little commentary. 

parents worry: my boy is too interested in bus schedules!

Ever seen a human-interest news story profiling someone for doing more or less what you did?

That could have been my first reaction to the Seattle Times profile of transit planner Ted Day, but there's no time for envy.  The main story is that a boy who stayed out of trouble at age 10 by collecting and memorizing bus schedules turned out to be a successful family man and transit planner.  Like all such "different drummer" narratives, perhaps it will help a few parents embrace the unexpected transit-geekery of their children, and speed the coming-out of kids who hide bus schedule collections in their mattresses out of fear of parental or social disapproval.

Not every boy who studies bus schedules at age 10 turns out like Ted Day.  One turned out like me.  My fine collection of 1970s and 80s bus schedules from Portland and Los Angeles is still in a box somewhere.  I especially recall the Portland "East Burnside" timetable (c. 1973) which predates the numbering of the lines and reveals the evasive maneuvers that this bus made for decades before the 1982 advent of Portland's  frequent grid.

So congrats to Ted Day for his well-deserved rise to fame!  The human-interest potential of transit planners' lives is just beginning to emerge into public consciousness.  Has your newspaper profiled one lately?  😉

great american “metro areas”

When any US study or journalist refers to “metro areas,” they probably mean this:







These are all photos of US Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSAs).  Many, many national studies — most recently the Brookings study on “transit and jobs in metropolitan America” — mean “MSA” when they say “metro area.”

MSAs, however, are aggregations of counties. They’re the red patches on this map:

Counties come in all kinds of weird sizes, and are usually irrelevant to anyone’s lived experience of a metro area.  Eastern US counties are mostly small, so MSAs there are often credible.  But western counties are often huge, so MSAs have to be huge too.  Almost two-thirds of California’s land area is a metro area by this defintion, including the “Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario MSA,” which contains most of the Mojave Desert.  Metro areas in America include the Grand Canyon,  a big chunk of the Everglades, and the vast Voyageurs wilderness of northern Minnesota, accessible only by canoe or snowmobile.

So when the Brookings Institution, for example, declares that Riverside-San Bernardino is doing poorly on transit travel times to work, they’re referring partly to travel times from Needles to Riverside, a distance of about 230 miles (370 km) over open desert.  They’re also implying that there ought to be intense transit service between the Riverside area and the Palm Springs area, even though locals largely experience these as two different metro areas.  (Their centroids are 50 miles apart, the towns between are mostly semi-rural in nature, and if those facts don’t convince you, there’s also a 10,000-foot mountain in the way.)  What matters to the MSA is that the two metro areas are in the same counties as Riverside-San Bernardino, so nothing else about their lived geography can possibly matter.

A deeper problem arises when all the demographic statistics of an MSA are declared to be features of a “metro area.”  Consider the Visalia-Porterville MSA, site of the top photo above.  The MSA, identical to Tulare County, has a 2000 population of 368,000.  All of these people are counted in MSA-based statistics about “metropolitan America,” but only about half of them live in a city over 50,000.  The other half live in much smaller towns and in rural areas.  (The rural areas also have high labor needs, so they support semi-mobile populations, validly picked up by the census, that have no relationship to any city.)  A fundamentally rural and small-town culture, indistinguishable from many other entirely rural counties, is being described as metropolitan whenever the Visalia-Porterville MSA is referenced as part of generalizations about “metropolitan America.”  This culture is not just small and easily dismissed statistical “noise.”  It’s half of the population of the MSA.

This is one of those absurdities that we’re trained to think of as eternal.  Many weird and misleading boundaries (e.g. some counties, city limits etc) are going to persist even if they have no emotional or cultural meaning, simply because influential people are attached to them as a matter of self-interest.  But how many people are really attached in this way to MSAs?  And is it really impossible, with all the increasingly detailed information in the census, to describe metro areas in a more subtle and accurate way?

Even if we’re stuck with them, is it really appropriate to keep saying “metro area” when you mean MSA?  It’s statistically convenient given how much data is organized by these crazy units.  But are you really misleading people about what a metro area is?

In the sense that usually matters for urban policy, “metro area” means “the contiguous patch of lights that you can see at night from an airplane or satellite.”  You can approximate this with census blocks.  Their technical definition is something like “any agglomeration of contiguous census blocks that all have a non-rural population or employment density.”  Census blocks are small enough that they can aggregate in a way that follows the geography, connecting what’s really connected and separating what’s really separate.  Defining “metro area” in that way would finally mean what ordinary people mean by “metro area.”

What’s more, it would really cut down on bear attacks in “metropolitan America.”


  1. Kaweah Gap, Sequoia National Park, Visalia-Porterville MSA, California.  Credit: Davigoli, Wikipedia.
  2. Lake Mead National Recreation Area, Las Vegas-Paradise MSA, Nevada.  (my photo)
  3. Duck Lake and High Sierra, John Muir Wilderness, Fresno MSA, California.  (my photo)
  4. Matanuska Glacier, Anchorage MSA, Alaska.  Credit: Elaina G, via Google Earth.
  5. Melakwa Lake, Alpine Lakes Wilderness, Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue MSA, Washington.  Credit: Wikipedia.
  6. Joshua trees in open desert southwest of Las Vegas, Las Vegas-Paradise MSA, Nevada.  (my photo)




downtown networks: the oblique approach

How important is it that the transit services converging on downtown all go right to the core of downtown's demand?  In a city with a strong downtown, a reactive, demand-driven view of planning will add more and more transit into downtown as demand requires, because the loads are always highest there.  But sometimes, it can make sense to avoid the center of downtown, or to slide past downtown along one edge.

Zach Shaner's new proposal for the core area of Seattle is a nice example.   (Click to enlarge and sharpen, or see JPG here:  JPG )


You don't have to know Seattle to follow this.  The core of downtown is the little shaded box on the left, where LINK light rail will be in a subway and other frequent buses will run on the surface.  Most of the rest of the map area is also dense, so this is an area where you would expect a high-frequency grid to be possible, easily serving trips from anywhere to anywhere. 

But the map area is also ferociously hilly, so fitting the classical grid to this terrain has always been a struggle.  Still, Zach suggests that once the LINK light rail extension northward opens, ending at the University of Washington just off the north edge of the map, something remarkably gridlike might come into being. 

Several of the design principles that I often advocate are at work here.  First, Zach has focused on running on the fewest possible streets so as to provide the maximum possible frequency.  Second, he's mapped both the existing and proposed networks so that you can see this frequency difference.

But he's also provided a nice example of the oblique approach to downtown, which is a way of balancing the distributive quality of a grid with the need to serve downtown's concentration of demand. 

Look at the magenta line coming from the southeast.  It's Line 7, now the single busiest bus line in Seattle.  Off the map to the south, it extends about 5.5 km (3.4 mi) onward through dense, old, and historically low-income areas of the Rainier Valley.  It touches the rail line at Mount Baker station, just inside the map, but it flows onward into the city, currently going right through downtown.

Zach proposes instead that Line 7 approach downtown but then bypass it just to the east, via Boren Avenue.  He would do this to create a new crosstown (north-south) opportunity to reach dense north parts of downtown (including the South Lake Union redevelopment area and Seattle Center, which is right where Line 7 exits the map on the west edge) without going right through downtown's heart.

What would the dense downtown ridership of Line 7 do?  Well, some of it would transfer to LINK where the two lines touch at the south edge of the map.  Others, depending on exactly where in downtown they were going, might transfer to any of several very frequent east-west services crossing the line.  But many who now seem to be going downtown would reveal that they're really going elsewhere.  This is the key.

Line 7 ridership shows massive boarding and alighting downtown, and downtown is certainly an overwhelming destination.  But you always have to ask if the concentration of downtown boardings is evidence of what people want or what the current network structure requires of them.  People going to the dense and fast-growing areas on the north edge of downtown will find Zach's revision a dramatic improvement.  Many others may be going still further north, to anywhere in the northern half of the city, in fact; they currently have to go through downtown to make their connections, because that's where their bus goes, but they could make the same connections to northward services from the revised Line 7, often with quite a savings of travel time.

Obviously, I don't have the data to validate exactly how many people are in each of these categories.  I'm not even advocating Zach's design, but I do think it illustrates an important design concept, one that you will never think of if you're focused entirely on where your current ridership patterns seem to be leading.

Many major cities are facing unmanageable volumes of buses squeezing through a tight downtown.  Sydney, where I lived for five years, has a remarkably similar predicament to Seattle's.  One solution, in Sydney as in Seattle, is to let go of the idea that radial services aimed generally for downtown need to go right through the very center of it.  If there is a sufficient diversity and richness of connection opportuntiies for reaching various parts of downtown, you can often create a better design by sliding past downtown obliquely, as Zach proposes that Line 7 should do. 

I don't advocate or oppose Zach's design, but I do think it's a nice illustration of how to fit the "everywhere to everywhere" network design principles (such as the high frequency grid) to a very difficult terrain.  It also raised some interestingly contrasting comments from different Seattle transit experts who've seen it; more on that in another post.

UPDATE:  Zach explains his proposal to the Seattle transit community here.

are toll lanes “congestion pricing”?

Congestion pricing should really be called decongestion pricing.  Its purpose is to provide an alternative to sitting in congestion for people and businesses willing to pay the fair price for the scarce road space required.  The toll isn't a tax, it's a price for driving in an uncongested lane.   So if your toll lane is still congested, you're not doing (de)congestion pricing, and your results say nothing about whether it's a good idea.

In Crosscut, former Washington State Secretary of Transportation Douglas MacDonald lays out the issue today as it applies to Seattle area freeways.  There, likely toll lanes are already High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes permitting cars with two or more people.  Everyone knows that if the goal is free flow, this minimum has to go up to three whenever congestion requires it. 

When carpool lanes were first established there was a vigorous “now or later” debate about the right limit for the carpool privilege: two-to-a-car, or three-to-a-car? Pragmatism won. Except for three-to-a-car from the start on the Evergreen Point Bridge, carpool lanes were introduced with the two-to-a-car rule.

Everyone involved at the time believed that later the rule would have to be, and could be, changed to three-to-a-car. Everyone was entirely up-front about this expectation. The trigger would be the growth of traffic in the carpool lanes to the point where access would have to be cut back so that they would still work.

Didn't happen. Good luck today with that ticking time bomb for a political revolt. The moment of truth is at hand, at least for some carpool lane segments. But no one today seriously talks about outright banishing the two-to-a-car carpoolers to thin out jammed carpool lanes.

I defer to Doug's knowledge of Washington State politics, but I do resist the apathy-inducing hyperbole of the phrase "no one talks seriously."  Is "everyone" sure that changing carpool lanes to 3+ would trigger a political revolt if it also caused people to start getting to work on time?  Especially if the state also put some effort into casual carpool facilities at the same time?  Especially if transit riders (in buses in the same lanes) began getting to work on time too?  I wonder.  I can see it would be controversial.  I can see it would take some time.  But can no one "seriously" discuss it?

basics: expertise vs. activism

The planning professions work in a grey zone between expertise and activism, and managing these competing impulses is one of our hardest tasks.

As a transit planning consultant, I don’t worry much about being perceived as an advocate of transit in general.  Experts in any field are expected to believe in its importance.  But I do try to keep a little distance between my knowledge about transit and the impulse to say “You should do this.”  A good consultant must know how to marry his own knowledge to his client’s values, which may lead him to make different recommendations than he would do as a citizen, expressing his own values. Continue Reading →