yes, great bus service can stimulate development!

Are you sure that rail "stimulates development" and that buses don't?  In a major report released today, the Institution for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP) attacks this assumption head-on.  

Per dollar of transit investment, and under similar conditions, Bus Rapid Transit
leverages more transit-oriented development investment than Light Rail Transit
or streetcars.

What really matters to transit-oriented development [TOD] outcomes?  According to the report, the #1 predictor is strong government support for redevelopment, while the #2 predictor is real estate market conditions.  The #3 predictor is the usefulness of the transit services — frequency, speed, and reliability as ensured by an exclusive right of way.  Using rail vs bus technologies does not appear to matter much at all.

While BRT is is having overwhelming success across the developing world, ITDP's argument is aimed at North America, so it rests on North American examples.  Cleveland's HealthLine, a practical urban BRT linking two of the city's strongest destinations, emerges as a great urban redevelopment success story as well as the overall highest-quality BRT service in the US.  Las Vegas, Ottawa,  Eugene, and Pittsburgh's eastern line all play key roles in the argument.  Las Vegas, whose busway is incomplete but is in exactly the right place to serve heavy demand, is one of the most interesting stories, where BRT is playing a key role in the remarkable pedestrianization of what used to be one of the most famous car-only landscapes in the world.  

There will be plenty of quarrel over the details.  But this report does represent a "coming out" for the very concept of bus-based transit oriented development.  For too long, the identification of "transit oriented development" (TOD) with rail has bordered on tautological: if there wasn't rail, it was less likely to be called a TOD, no matter how useful the bus service was.  In fact, almost everything that's been built in every North American inner city has been TOD in the sense that bus service — usually of high quantity if not high quality — has been intrinsic to the neighborhood's appeal and functioning.

This is not to say that I agree with ITDP's anti-rail view.  I support many exclusive-right-of-way light rail projects, and I am not anti-rail except to the extent that rail partisans insist on being anti-bus.  In most North American cities, if you're ideologically anti-bus, then you are hostile to most of your city's transit system, and to most of what transit can practically achieve in the near future at the scale of the whole city.  Great transit networks are those where all the modes work together to maximize everyone's liberty.  All claims for the hegemony of one mode over another are distractions from creating the most effective transit for a city as a whole.

But technology wars meet so many human needs that they will always be with us, and so given that it's best they be as balanced as possible.  Bravo to ITDP for having the courage to speak up about the redevelopment value of highly useful and liberating transit services, regardless of what's going on under the floor.

end of the loop for sydney’s transit toy

This weekend, Sydney will complete a long and predictable narrative that cautions us yet again about the danger of relying on tourist experiences as a basis for transit planning.

The Sydney Monorail, built in imitation of Seattle's, has now been through the predictable phases of exuberance, delight, irritation, and boredom, and has finally arrived at the point of being more of an obstacle than a service.  The Sydney Morning Herald interviews longtime monorail fan Michael Sweeney who says what little can be said in the thing's defense.  He even uses the word groovy, reminding us (and the interviewer) that he's expressing a definition of coolness that prevailed in one historical moment. There was never any reason to assume the monorail would be cool forever.

Why?  The usual things.  It was conceived as part of a redevelopment, designed to be part of the excitement that would sell expensive real estate.  Like many new North American streetcars, the point was solely to achieve a development outcome and nobody much cared whether it would be useful as transit, especially decades into the future.

It was a tiny one-way loop, only about 1 km in diameter, connecting some key tourist destinations into downtown.  Even for tourists it had limited use because — like most North American streetcars again — the route was so short that you might as well walk, as most people do in this area.

As urban design, the monorail wasn't that bothersome when it sailed over the open spaces of Darling Harbour, but when it snaked through the narrow streets of the CBD, it was a heavy weight in the air on narrow streets that were already oppressive to the pedestrian.


 It's not surprising that it took a new redevelopment plan to sweep away the toys of the old.  Still, the calculus came down to this:  It's not very useful.  If you want to get somewhere on the loop, and back, you might as well walk.  And there are far fewer people riding it than walking under it, perceiving it as an oppressive weight.

So it's coming down.  Last ride is this Sunday. 

singapore: bbc profiles new frontiers in transit denial

This just in from the BBC:  Technology giant Philips corporation sent some people to the extremely busy Singapore bus system to imagine an alternative to typical fixed-route bus service.  The researchers' definition of the problem:

We discussed the benefits and limitations of the fixed-route system – it's clear such a system provided consistency in time and place (to get on and off), and to a certain extent convenience, but not completely. Flexibility is not what a fixed-route and fixed-time bus service system can offer. We have all experienced times when the bus is very empty or extremely packed, which means efficiency is best optimised at the bus-route level, but not individual bus level, since that bus is unable to respond to dynamic demand and traffic situations immediately. We all have all been in situations when there are only a few passengers in the bus and yet, the bus still has to plough through the entire fixed route, picking up no passengers along the way. The motivation was how to optimise the bus service by allowing the passengers and bus drivers to respond immediately to dynamic demand and traffic situations, not unlike a taxi that you can flag anywhere, anytime, and it will take you directly to your destination.

Needless to say, they came up with a massively all-demand-reponsive system identical to the one promoted last year by Gensler Associates, to which I responded (perhaps too colorfully) here. The idea is that now that you have a smartphone, the transit line should twist and turn to meet chase everyone's speciic need and that somehow this will be more efficient.  As I said in response to Gensler, there's little to fear from this dystopian vision beause it's mathematically impossible.  

In a place as crowded as Singapore, well-designed scheduled fixed routes are not just efficient but liberating.  They're efficient on a large scale despite routine under- and overcrowding because they follow straight paths that thousands of people find useful at the same time.  They're efficient because people gather at major stops where they board and alight in large numbers that are impossible in any demand-responsive form.  Frequent fixed routes are liberating because they're there for you when you need them, just as subways are, so that you don't have to wonder whether some automated system will approve your request for transport.  

The all-demand-responsive vision can mean one of two things:  (1) large buses that carry large numbers of people on complex variable routes, changing its route in response to every beep of desire from each of 5 million phones, or (2) fleets of very small vehicles each serving a few people on a more direct path.  Vision (1) is a hellishly circuitous system to ride any distance on, while (2) is a vision of vastly more wasteful use of urban space,  as people who are now carried in a space-efficient way are converted to a space-wasteful one.  Vision (2) also requires either driverless technology or extremely cheap labor, which is why it only happens at scale in low-wage developing countries.

No, Singapore has built its success on subways, and is developing fixed, infrastructural bus lines that work more like subways.

Please don't call yourself a transit visionary until you've grappled with the facts and possibilities of transit network design, by reading a book, say, or taking a course!

the mobile battery problem solved, in 1908! (quote of the week)

[Thomas Edison] has so far perfected his storage battery that it will live long enough to stand charges to carry a truck over fifty thousand miles.  The perfected battery will pull twice the load of an ordinary truck, will have double the speed and only take up half the space.  It will modify, to an extent hardly appreciated, the congestion of the down-town streets, for an electric truck equipped with the batteries will be half as long as today's unwieldy wagons.  Being twice as fast, there will be only one eighth of the present congestion in the streets under the new system of speedy motor trucks.

From a fascinating article about Thomas Edison
in Success magazine, 1908, by Robert D. Heil.
The whole article is a delightful read!

This makes so many important points!

  • The technology that Edison "perfected" is something that we're still trying to invent over a century later.  Richard Gilbert and Anthony Perl argue that much humbler batteries are close to physically impossible.
  • A century ago, like today, everyone assumed that problems of geometry and economics could be solved by some sort of technology.  Nobody wanted to think about induced demand, the obvious idea that demand for a valuable commodity is affected by its avaialbility.  In a growing city especially, technologies that open up new space for traffic (via either road expansion or vehicle shrinkage) inevitably create more demand for that space, causing congestion to return to an unpleasantly high state sufficient to deter further travel by private vehicle.  This is why all forms of modelling that imply a fixed demand for car travel in some future year (the "traffic is like water" idea) are preposterous.  
  • If you wonder why I rarely hyperventilate about game-changing technologies on this blog, and tend to be skeptical about technological solutions, one reason is that technology doesn't change the laws of geometry and physics, nor does it transform the mathematical concept of scarcity that underlies the law of supply and demand — perhaps the only idea in economics that deserves to be called a "law".  No invention has ever changed these facts, and doing so is the closest thing to an impossibility that we can imagine.  
  • If you wonder why I am skeptical about transformative claims made for driverless taxis, well, one reason is that Edison is making the same claims about congestion reduction benefits, based on the same limited assessment of impact.
  • More generally, if you've been fortunate to have some training in literature or history, you have read a lot of stuff that sounds like this.  If you study the history of "this-technology-will-change-everything" rhetoric, all the way back to the Industrial Revolution, much of what we hear today from technology promoters sounds thoroughly familiar, just as Edison's claims here should sound familiar to those following the driverless car debate (on which I have an article in the works).  You learn that most great ideas come to nothing, or have quite different impacts from those promised, often because of problems of physics, math, or basic economics that any rational, non-hyperventilating person could have thought about at the time.  

Obviously, stuff gets invented that changes things, but when technology claims to fix a physics problem, such as seems to underlie the challenge of mobile batteries, or a problem of supply and demand, like the role of induced demand in congestion, be skeptical.  

Hat tip: @enf, (Eric Fischer)

driverless cars and the limitations of the “complete imagined future”

Note:  This old post is still useful whenever you see a "driverless cars will change everything" story, (this one, for example) and especially a "driverless cars will be the end of transit" story.  Abstract: The two fallacies to watch for in these stories are (a) the "complete imagined future" mode, which denies the problems associated with evolving the future condition instead of just jumping to it, and (b) the assumption, universal in techno-marketing but always untrue in the real world, that when the whizbang new thing appears, everything else will still be the same; i.e. that none if the whizbang thing's imagined competitors will also have transformed themselves.  This latter assumption can also be called the "everyone but me is a dinosaur" trope.

Richard Gilbert, co-author of a book that I've praised called Transport Revolutions, has a Globe and Mail series arguing for how driverless cars will change everything.  I will give this series a more thorough read, but just want to call out one key rhetorical move that needs to be noticed in all these discussions.  It's in the beginning of Part 4, "Why driverless cars will trump transit rivals."

With widespread use of driverless cars – mostly as autonomous taxicabs (ATs) – there could be more vehicles on the road because ATs will substitute for most, and perhaps eventually all, private automobile use as well as much use of buses and other conventional transit. 

This, and much of the discussion around driverless cars, is in the complete imagined future mode.  Gilbert describes a world in which the driverless cars are already the dominant mode, and where our cities, infrastructure, and cultural expectations have already been reorganized around their potential and needs.  

Some complete imagined futures are not necessarily achievable, because the future must be evolved.  In fact, the evolution of organisms is a fairly apt metaphor for how cities and infrastructure change.  As in evolution, each incremental state in the transformation to the new reality must itself be a viable system. We can think of lots of wonderful futures that would be internally consistent but for which there is no credible path from here to there.  

Driverless cars remind me a bit of the "wheeled animal" question in evolution.  No animals have evolved with wheels, despite the splendid advantages that wheels might confer on open ground.  That's because there's no credible intermediate state where some part of an animal has mutated something vaguely wheel-like that incrementally improves its locomotion to the point of conferring an advantage.  Wheels (and axles) have to exist completely before they are useful at all, which is why wheeled animals, if they existed, would be an argument for "intelligent design."

I will begin to take driverless cars seriously when I see credible narratives about all the intermediate states of their evolution, and how each will be an improvement that is both technically and culturally embraced.  How will driverless and conventional cars mix in roads where the needs of conventional cars still dominate the politics of road design?  How will they come to triumph in this situation?  How does the driverless taxi business model work before the taxis are abundant?  Some of the questions seem menial but really are profound: When a driverless car is at fault in the accident, to what human being does that fault attach?  The programmer?  What degree of perfection is needed for software that will be trusted to protect not just the passengers, but everyone on the street who is involuntarily in the presence of such a machine? 

Here's a practical example:  In Part 3, Gilbert tells us that with narrower driverless cars, "three vehicles will fit across two lanes."  Presumably lanes will someday be restriped to match this reality, but when you do that, how do existing-width cars adapt?  If you could fit two driverless cars into one existing lane, you could imagine driverless cars fitting into existing lanes side by side, so that the street could gradually evolve from, say, two wide lanes to four narrow ones.  But converting two lanes to three narrow ones is much trickier.  I'd like to see how each stage in the evolution is supposed to work, both technically and culturally.

That's one reason that I seem unable to join the driverless car bandwagon just yet.  The other is that claims for driverless taxis replacing transit amount to imaging a completed new technology out-competing an existing unimproved technology — as though that would actually happen.  

Sure, driverless taxis might replace many lower-ridership bus lines, but wouldn't buses become driverless at the same time?  In such a future, wouldn't any fair pricing make these driverless buses much cheaper to use where volumes are high?  Wouldn't there be a future of shared vehicles of various sizes, many engaged in what we would recognize as public transit?  As with all things PRT, I notice a frequent slipperiness in explanations of it; I'm not sure, at each moment, whether we're talking about something that prevents you from having to ride with strangers (the core pitch of "Personal" rapid transit) as opposed to just a more efficient means of providing public transit, i.e. a service that welcomes the need to ride with strangers as the key to its efficient use of both money and space. 

more disneyland transit …

8169000596_7d7753e73d_zWouldn't your life be better if you commuted every day by roller coaster?  From the technophile annals of New Scientist:

The Eco-Ride train feels like a ride on a roller coaster – and that's pretty much what it is. In a few years' time, this cheap and energy-efficient train could be ferrying passengers around areas of Japan devastated by last year's tsunami.

Developed at Tokyo University's Institute of Industrial Science (IIS), with the help of amusement ride firm Senyo Kogyo, Eco-Ride works in the exactly the same way as a theme park roller coaster. By turning potential energy into kinetic energy, it coasts along its tubular tracks without an engine. The train's speed is controlled by aerodynamics and by "vertical curves", sections of track that form the transition between two sloping segments. The Eco-Ride is set in motion and slowed at stations via rotating wheels between the rails that catch a fin underneath the train.

"Speed controlled by aerodynamics" … "vertical curves" … Sounds like the perfect commute experience after a long day's work when all you really want to do is see your partner/children/dog/bed/dinner.  And imagine all the work you'll get done on your laptop!  Will they serve coffee on-board?

And this:

The idea is that Eco-Ride will use its own inertia to get up most slopes but may on occasion need to be winched up steeper inclines.

Yes, after several paragraphs promising the ancient ideal of perpetual motion, we finally get an acknowledgment of friction.  Physics can be such a downer.

Like many technologies, this one may have some relevance, but the article is a technophile fantasy that seeks to excite us into to the point that we treat the technology's limitations as features.  Stops would be "just 100m apart" and the route is "ideally circular" — both indicators of a slow and indirect transit service that's likely to have usefulness problems.  

Obviously I'm having fun here, not so much with the technology as with the New Scientist article.   This is yet another great example of "amusement park technophilia."  If you haven't thought about whether amusement park rides are good sources for transit ideas, well, my grand debate with Darrin Nordahl on this topic started here … and went on here …


hong kong: quick transit reactions

Finally, I am no longer the only international transit expert who hasn't been to Hong Kong.





Everyone who talks about transit in Hong Kong seems to talk about the MTR subway system.  Yes, it's sleek, and clean, and massive in its capacity, and beautiful in many other respects.  But as someone who looks to actual network outcomes, I remain struck by its lack of self-connectedness.  The difficulty of plotting a logical path between logical pairs of stations, even some major ones, makes the MTR subway quite different from many of its world-class peers.  Look again (click pic to enlarge and sharpen)

Hk zoom in

We stayed at Causeway Bay, on the east-west Island Line at the bottom of the diagram.  What if we had wanted to get to Hung Hom, more or less directly north of there across the harbour?  This is not a minor station; it's the main access point for the light-blue line that extends out of the city, up to the Mainland Chinese border.  It appeared that the answer was the old one: "If that's where you're going, don't start from here."  In many major subway systems of the world, you just wouldn't encounter this difficulty traveling between any pair of stations, certainly not in the dense urban core.

I did enjoy the double-decker trams that ply the main east-west trunk across the Island (mostly right on top of the MTR Island Line).  They have an exclusive lane and in stopping every 500m or so they clearly complement both the faster subway and some of the buses alongside them — the latter tending to branch off in more complex paths.  The trams are certainly stately, almost surreal in their height and narrowness.  I can't speak for their efficiency, but they're not stuck in traffic.  



They stop at platforms in the middle of the street, some rather awkward in their access.  This one is meant to be accessed only from an overhead walkway, but obviously many people jaywalk to follow the natural desire line.


Indeed, for a city so densely pedestrianized, I noticed a number of pedestrian challenges in the infrastructure.


Note that in discussing the trams in particular I am being careful to avoid the fallacy of technology-focused transit tourism.  While I enjoyed the trams and folks seemed to be riding them, I don't immediately tell you that these things are so cool that your city should have one.  I don't know enough about how these function in the context of the larger Hong Kong network to be able to tell you that, nor do I know enough about your city.

The real muscle of transit in Hong Kong was clearly the buses. Double-deckers, massive in both size and quantity.  These, it seems, are what really moves the city beyond the limited range of the MTR subway.


I'm coming to view the double-decker as the logical end-state of bus development in dense urban environments.  They use curb space so much more efficiently than their alternative, the articulated bus.  The sheer volumes of people I saw being moved on these things was unimaginable on long single-deck buses.  There simply wouldn't have been room at the stops.

By the way, I noted bus lanes wherever there was a lane to spare, as in Paris and a number of other world-cities where transit is essential to urban life.

On the downside, I could have wished — as in many cities — that the buses were more organized, and that there were a map showing how at least the frequent ones fit together as a network.  Instead, I saw many signs that the buses weren't being presented as a cohesive system, but rather as a pile of overlapping products, as if from different vendors.  


In fact, I nearly missed a desired bus because I couldn't find its sign among so many others.  

Finally, and most important, I noted a key bit of infrastructure that identifies cities that really value buses as an essential part of the mobility system.  Adequate bus facilities right where they're needed.  This one is at Wan Chai ferry terminal.  


There's a similar one across the harbor at Tsim Sha Tsui, right where ferries converge, and towers step down to the water, and tourists gather every evening to watch the skyline sparkle.  In short, these bus terminal facilities are on unimaginably expensive real estate, but they are viewed as essential infrastructure for a network that's essential for the life of the city, just like streets themselves, so they're there.  Many American and Australasian cities don't quite have this commitment; there, many still long to treat bus facilities as things that can be shoved out of the way.

Finally, before you attack me for having missed the richness and inner logic of public transit in Hong Kong, or for having noticed only things that connect with my own preoccupations, note that I was there for 48 hours — enough time to be confronted and delighted but not enough to absorb and understand.  I look forward to the chance to return to the city for a more thorough exploration. 

the photo that explains almost everything (updated!)

You've seen photos like this. A large group of people, with images comparing the amount of precious urban space they take depending on the mode of transport they use.  This new one is by Australia's Cycling Promotion Fund.


This photo makes at least three important points, two of them probably not intended.  In this one image you can see that:

  • Bike racks on buses (and most other transit) can never be more than a niche market

The rack on the bus in pic #1 carries two bikes, which is great for those two people.  But if all the bikes in pic #2 try to get onto the bus in pic #1, we have a geometric impossibility.  Bike racks are already as large as they can be if the driver is still to be far enough forward to drive safely.  A non-folding bike inside a transit vehicle takes the space of several passengers, so could fairly be accommodated only at several times the fare.  In the ideal sustainable future, you will have to park your bike at the station, or return your rental bike, just as Europeans do.  If transit does accommodate your bike, you really should pay a fare premium that reflects the rough number of passenger spaces displaced, or the supply/demand ratio for 2-3 bike racks vs 20 people wanting to use them.

 Dreamers along these lines may well be right about many suburban areas, where demand is sparse and the land use pattern precludes efficient transit.  But when all the people in this picture want to travel, driverless cars may take less space than the cars shown here, but they will still take far more space than a bus would.  The scarcity of space per person is part of the very definition of a city, as distinct from suburbia or rural area, so the efficiency with which transport options use that space will always be the paramount issue.  

(Of course, this very thought experiment presumes that we will actually achieve, and culturally accept, driverless cars that require very little space between them, in which the prevention of ghastly accidents — especially with pedestrians and bikes who may appear with zero warning and minimal stopping distance — is achieved through the absolute infallibility of human-designed hardware and software.)

To make the same point more generally:

  • In cities, urban space is the ultimate currency.  

We spend too much time talking about what things cost in dollars and not enough about what they cost in space.  That, of course, is because urban space is perversely priced to encourage inefficient uses of it and discourage efficient ones.  If you're going to claim to be able to visualize how technology will change the world of 2040 — as the techno-futurists claim to do — you should also visualize what a political system ruled by people now under 40 would look like.  These people are much less emotionally attached to cars, care about environmental outcomes much more, and value urban space much more than their parents do.  Given that the revolution in urban pricing has already begun (see the London and Singapore congestion charges, and the San Francisco and Auckland dynamic parking systems), isn't it foolish to assume that today's assumptions about how we apportion urban space will still rule your techno-utopia?

UPDATE:  A reader points out one other key point, which is that

  • the photo understates the space requirements of bikes compared to the other two.  

Once you put these three systems in motion, the cars and bus will need more space in one dimension — forward and back.  However, in motion, the mass of bikes will expand in two dimensions, it will need to be both longer and wider for all the bikes to move safely.  This could have been rectified in the photo by consciously spacing the bikes to a distance where riders would feel comfortable at a brisk cycling speed that ensures not only stopping distance but also space for passing.  Masses of cyclists on a recreational ride may all agree to ride in tight formation at the same speed, but in daily life cycling infrastructure must accommodate the the fact that people in a cycling crowd will have different desires and intentions around speed, which affects lateral spacing and stopping distance.

will driverless cars abolish buses? (email of the month)

An emailer who wishes to remain anonymous tries to put it all together:

Your recent [Atlantic article] regarding “bus stigma”, along with the concurrent proliferation of various autonomous car posts that I’ve seen all over the web, got me thinking: I am starting to believe that a certain “technophilia” (as you put it so well) not only applies to the “rail-in-any-and-all-situations” proponents, but also to the increasing number of urbanists who have come to view the impending autonomous car future as one in which buses are replaced by Self-Driving Vehicles (SDVs), as they’ve started to regularly call them).

Case in point, this blog post [at Grush Hour].

[Grush's] opinions appear to be very similar to those of the various urban planners and urban designers I’ve met and spoken with over the past year or so.  Now keep in mind that these folks view themselves as “progressives” on the issue of the need for public transportation.  In this case, the author thinks the recent Wall Street Journal Op-Ed which espouses that rapidly developing autonomous car technology means we don’t have to build high speed rail is flawed and incorrect, and that the trip purposes of the modes and their associated distances, et cetera, are sufficiently different to mean that high speed rail will still have a place, even with SDV’s.

However, as I was reading this, the kicker came in the last part of the post (I highlighted the most pertinent portions):

The frontier benefits of the SDV will accrue during 2022-2042 as special, restricted applications such as replacing mostly-empty and oversized urban buses, expensive and poorly driven taxis and shared cars. Here is where I would like to see Winston’s call for private funding focused: urban fleets of self-driving jitneys to replace every form of motorized shared vehicle (bus, taxi, street car, shared car, vanpool) from the front door of your home or work right up to the light-rail and heavy-rail transit station and vice versa. Replace them all. Then by 2045, maybe the US Congress will be able to pass another Surface Transportation Reauthorization Bill in plenty of time to eulogize the last of the personally-operated SOVs and fix the last of the traffic signals in time to remove them all, because they will no longer be needed.

I don’t honestly know what to make of this …; it seems that people have such a “stigma” against buses that they view SDV’s as being able to replace them completely and instead we would then have an on-demand or subscription-based autonomous jitney/“Johnny Cab” system which takes you (of course) to the rail line – if it doesn’t provide for your whole trip.  To be clear, this author is not the only one I’ve read or person I’ve spoken with who believes this – rather, this rationale is what I am increasingly seeing being espoused everywhere I look.

So, as far as I can tell from reading these materials over the past couple of years, it would appear that the most “anti-urban” (and perhaps least progressive) sort of folks see SDV’s as replacing the need for any public transit whatsoever – including the rail modes right up to true High Speed Rail – while the most progressive and pro-urban folks see SDV’s as at least replacing almost any and all buses (but not necessarily rail), and that “traditional, fixed route transit will only be needed in the densest cores of our cities”. 

Now – and here there are some shades of gray – some posts and articles I’ve read say the highest volume corridors may still justify some form of “traditional” bus service, but then – I kid you not – most of these folks go right on to say that such a corridor (i.e., one where the fundamentals of an enhanced bus or bus rapid transit regime may work) should just likely be rail (or “tram”) lines in any event.  (I saw this theme especially crop up in the comments to your Atlantic Cities post.)

Again, there are many assumptions about the economics of SDV’s, their energy sources, the legal ability to have them operate without a licensed driver behind the wheel, et cetera – but the fundamentals are still there in their arguments, and I think you get the picture.  In any event, I have three inter-related questions for you stemming from this theme:    

1.       Is this another form of “bus stigma”?  Or rather are buses simply most suited to an urban transit speed/capacity niche whose days are numbered, so to speak, as being the domain of the bus?  I find it interesting that most urbanists (but not all – there are actually a few out there who think a robust and subsidized SDV system can even replace rail and other fixed guideway high speed/capacity modes) seem to salivate at the thought of getting rid of the “lowly” bus, but that SDV’s can’t, won’t or shouldn’t replace rail.  Or they at least say that bus service will be relegated to the densest corridors where (eventually) it would be replaced by a rail line in any event.

2.       The follow-on question I have for you is this: is there a future – in a world where SDV’s have been fully developed – for the “regular” transit bus service that operates along a corridor where service is only provided every 15 minutes, or every 30 minutes, or even every 60 minutes on weekends (i.e., the vast majority of North American public transit service)?  Or will SDV’s eliminate the need for such bus service? 

The argument I was told this weekend by a city planner while discussing your “bus stigma” posts and the latest “Google-car” advances goes something like this: a very significant portion of riders today – of whatever income group – use buses just because they don’t have to drive or look for parking, and the fare is reasonable.  If an SDV service can take you door-to-door, without you needing to drive, park or fuel it yourself, for a fare similar to the bus, and for a total trip time at least as fast as the bus (yet likely shorter) but just slightly longer than a purely private car, then in the vast majority of North America where densities are not all that high “the big ole’ regular bus running every 10 to 15 minutes is history, along with the horse-drawn omnibus, and transit agencies will find themselves in the same territory as buggy whip manufacturers…”  This lady even quoted you back at me: she pointed out that if “frequency is freedom”, then “think of the immense freedom and mobility the public sector-subsidized SDV can provide, while saving us the costs of big buses and their unions…”  Sheesh.  So, what’s your take on the future of the regular, non-heavy-corridor bus service that runs every 10 to 15 minutes?   

3.       Finally, my last question: the Gensler fantasy which you took down so effectively seems to always re-appear in some form or another; does it become more (or even less) viable with the assumption that the vehicles are autonomous? 


Jarrett here.  My answer to all of these questions is the same.  It's in my book, and it should be on the screen-saver or refrigerator of every well-intentioned urban visionary:

Technology never changes facts of geometry!

We can be quite confident that nobody (on this world or any other) is going to discover a technology that changes the value of pi or that suddenly causes large, uncompressable objects to fit into boxes smaller than they are.  We know that because we understand the special status of mathematical and geometrical facts.  Indeed, they are so much more certain than any other "fact" that we should have a different word for them.  

And this, friends, is a geometric fact:

Bus bike ped in same street

If you define a "car" as "a separate enclosed vehicle for every passenger or party", then the geometric fact about all cars, self-driving or not, miniaturized or not, is that they take vastly more space per passenger than effective public transit.  This will not be a problem in low-density suburbs, but cities, by definition, are places with relatively little space per person.  Self-driving cars will certainly improve the efficiency with which cars use space, so they will shift the calculus somewhat.  But the bottom line will still be that if you want two crash-safe metal walls between every two strangers going down the same street, you will need a lot more space than if those two people can sit next to each other on civilized public transit.

You will also need vastly more metal and equipment, which means that the self-driving-car-replaces-transit fantasy involves massive industrial production with severe consequences for energy security and greenhouse-gas emissions. 

As for the idea that somehow these cars will replace buses but not rail, this may be true around the margins.  Grush's reference to "replacing mostly-empty and oversized urban buses" is a crude approximation of the issue and misses the point about why these sights occur.  The real problem is that most "legacy" labor agreements don't allow transit agencies to pay drivers less to do the easier job of driving a small bus in a low-demand area, and given that it's cheaper (due to high maintenance costs of fleet diversity) to run a standard modular bus everywhere. (Vancouver's TransLink is a spectacular exception.)  Most transit agencies run low-ridership service that is a drag on their budget, but that meets social inclusion or equity needs.  Most agencies I have worked with would be delighted to see those predictably low-ridership "coverage" services transitioned to a more decentralized or low-cost model, or moved off their books entirely, so that they could focus their big buses in places where they'll be full.

So to sum up, the technophile urbanists who believe that self-driving cars will eliminate the need for public transit are making several mistakes:

  • They are assuming that technology will change the facts of geometry, in this case the facts of urban space.
  • They are assuming that the costs of having every passenger encased in a metal sphere (in terms of production energy and emissions) are readily absorbable by the planet.  (To be fair, the SDV discussed here is one that you don't own but just grab when you want it, so if it replaced the car there would be far fewer cars.  But that's different from replacing a bus.)
  • If they think that self-driving cars will replace buses but not rail, then they haven't informed themselves about the vast diversity of different markets that buses are used to serve.  Self-driving cars many logically replace some of these markets but not others.
  • They believe that public transit is incapable of improving in ways that make it more positively attractive to a wider range of people, despite the fact that it is doing so almost continually.

Again, the whole bus vs rail confusion here arises from the fact that technophile urbanists classify transit services according to how they look and feel, whereas transit experts care more about the functions they perform.

So yes, buses are currently doing some things that other tools could do better, especially in sparser markets.  Some agencies, like Vancouver's, already have the tools to solve that problem.  But when a huge mass of people wants to go in the same direction at the same time, you need a rail if you have tracks and an exclusive lane for them, or a bus if you don't.  I don't care whether it's rail or bus, but the need for a high-capacity vehicle running high quality service that encourages people to use space efficiently — that's a fact of geometry!

a technophile wants my brain, and yours

I'm not sure if I should give this oxygen, but for the record: Randal O'Toole, the infamous anti-planning writer known for his blog The Antiplanner, has falsely implied that I agree with his critique of Los Angeles rail plans.  Not so fast.  If he'd read by blog, or my book, he'd know better.

Here's what he wrote today:

Portland transit expert Jarrett Walker argues that “we should stop talking about ‘bus stigma.’” In fact, he says, transit systems are designed by elites who rarely use transit at all, but who might be able to see themselves on a train. So they design expensive rail systems for themselves rather than planning transit systems for their real market, which is mostly people who want to travel as cost-effectively as possible and don’t really care whether they are on a bus or train.

This view is reinforced by the Los Angeles Bus Riders’ Union, and particularly by a report it published written by planner Ryan Snyder. Ryan calls L.A.’s rail system “one of the greatest wastes of taxpayer money in Los Angeles County history,” while he shows that regional transit ridership has grown “only when we have kept fares low and improved bus service,” two things that proved to be incompatible with rail construction.

So because I defended buses from the notion of "bus stigma", O'Toole assumes I'm a bus advocate and therefore a rail opponent.  This is called a "false dichotomy," identical in logic to George W. Bush's claim that "either you're with us or you're with the terrorists." 

(In a related move, he insists that you can't improve rail and buses at the same time, a claim directly disproven by the last decade in which LA Metro developed the Metro Rapid buses [and Orange and Silver Line busways] concurrent with rail extensions.) 

In fact, I maintain and encourage a skeptical stance toward all technophilia — that is, all emotional attachments to transit technologies that are unrelated to their utility as efficient and attractive means of public transport.  To the extent that the Bus Riders Union is founded on the view that rail is some kind of adversary, while the bus is the unifying symbol of their cause, I view them with exactly the same skepticism that I would bring to the elite architect who implied that we don't need buses because she'd never ride one. 

Some technology-fixated minds just can't imagine what it would be like to be agnostic about technology and to care instead about whether a service actually gets people where they're going efficiently.  To put in terms that conservatives should respect — I'm very interested in transit that efficiently expands people's freedom, and whatever technology best delivers that in each situation or corridor.

I'm also interested in how all kinds of transit fit together as networks, because this is essential if we're to offer a diverse range of travel options to each customers.  Everyone who becomes emotionally invested in bus vs rail wars — on either side — closes themselves to the idea that different technologies can work together form a single network. 

Like many pairs of polarized enemies, the Bus Riders Union and certain bus-hating elites both endorse the same fallacy.  In this case, both seem to believe that the most important purpose of a transit technology is to signify class categories, and that the key feature of their favorite technology is that it serves their class and not the other's.  Both experience cognitive dissonance when one suggests that maybe bus and rail are not enemies but complementary tools for different roles in a complete network designed for everyone, or that people of many classes and situations can mix happily on one transit vehicle, as happens in big cities all the time.

The idea that a city as vast and dense as Los Angeles can do everything with buses, no matter how much it grows, is absurd.  Drivers are expensive, so rail is a logical investment where high vehicle capacity (ratio of passengers to drivers) is required.

The only way the conservative dream (shared by Gensler Architects) makes sense is if you smash the unions so that all bus drivers make minimum wage, preferably from low-overhead private operating companies.  This is how transit works in much of the developing world, and the result is chaos, inefficient use of street space, and fairly appalling safety records.  Most experts I know who've immigrated from such places were glad to trade that for the transit they find in North America, whatever its faults.

It is absurd, too, to continue claiming that the Los Angeles rail program is "elite."  Go ride the Red Line to North Hollywood or the Blue Line through Watts and tell me if those services seem packed with "elites" to you.  When I ride them, I see the same wonderful diversity that I see on the more useful bus services, weighted of course by the characteristics of the neighborhoods we're passing through.

There's no question that some LA rail projects can be criticized for having been built where right-of-way was available rather than where they were needed, though the more you understand the political process the more you sympathize with the difficulty of those decisions.  But when self-identified bus-people attack rail, and self-identified rail people attack buses, they both sound like the lungs arguing with the heart.  There's a larger purpose to transit, one that we achieve only by refusing to be drawn into technology wars, and demanding, instead, that everything work together.