Urban Structure

the pedestrian experience in cities where cars rule

This image by Claes Tingvall needs to go viral.


I had many years living as a pedestrian in cities designed or managed for cars, including most big American cities in the least century, and I've never seen an image that better captured how that felt. 

The bottomless void, in this metaphor, represents the essential unpredictability of the reckless or distracted motorist (there only needs to be one) combined with the destructive potential of their machine. The sidewalk is a narrow ledge on the edge of extreme danger.  Crossing the street, even with a crosswalk, works when it works, but the rickety bridge perfectly captures the inherent risk; you're still relying on people to notice you even while they're texting, reading the newspaper, daydreaming, dozing off, flipping dials on the radio, trying to figure out the controls on their rental car, or doing any of other the things people do to handle the tedium of driving.

When we face this kind of danger in national parks, the government provides safety railings to keep us back from the precipice.  We tolerate this level of danger only for well-warned hikers in deep wilderness, and for almost everyone who ventures into the city without a car.

Access across America!

  Levinson cover

There should be nothing amazing about a new report on how easy it is for Americans to get to work on transit, but there is.   Think about all the arguments we have about transit …

… and ask: Why do we try to discuss these things in the absence of good analysis of the most basic question of all:  Is transit useful?  Does it help people get places in at a time and cost that's a logical choice for them?  Such information is often hiding inside ridership models, but it's rarely revealed in a way that lets people see and discuss it.  Without that, it's hardly surprising that the American transit debate is so confused.   

Access across America: Transit 2014, from the University of Minnesota’s Accessibility Observatory, describes how easy it is to get to jobs in America’s major metro areas by way of transit plus walking.  (For very short trips, it shows what can be reached by walking alone.)   The authors are Andrew Owen and Professor David Levinson.  The report is meant to sit alongside similar studies for the other transportation modes.

So here’s Portland, say, shaded by the number of jobs that can be reached within 30 minutes from each point in the city:

Levinson pdx
The report also offers a ranking of how easy it is to get to jobs for the average residential location in all the major metros.  The ranking looks at where you can get to in a range of travel time budgets, from 10 minutes – basically a measure of walk access – to as much as 60 minutes.  Here's are the top 17:


As the travel time budget rises, the relevance of transit to economic opportunity becomes visible.   Los Angeles, with long access distances but extensive frequent transit, does poorly on 10-minute walkability but climbs in the rankings as you consider longer travel time budgets, thanks to its effective frequent transit grid.  Miami drifts in the other direction, signaling that compared to Los Angeles, transit there is adding relatively little to access to jobs beyond what’s achieved by walking alone.

Now here's what's amazing for a study pubished in 2014:  Owen and Levinson claim (p 6) that this study is unusual in properly accounting for frequency.  Many analysts approach transit from the point of view of the nine-to-five commuter, who was presumed to be largely insensitive to frequency because they have made an appointment with a particular scheduled trip that they take every day.   This sometimes feels right to bureaucrats and civic leaders, many of whom have such commutes themselves, but out there in the larger economy, more and more people work part time, or at irregular hours, or at times outside the standard commute peak.  Increasing numbers of people also value flexibility and spontaneity even in work trips — things that only a robust all-day frequency can provide.

Perusing these maps and rankings, my overwhelming reaction was “what if they’d analyzed it like this, or graphed it like that?”  A huge amount of insight is readily available out of this database if we query it differently.  For example:

  • Instead of ranking cities by the number of jobs reachable on transit in a given time, what if we ranked them by the percentage of jobs accessible?  The current rankings are still, predominantly, just a ranking by total volume of jobs.  Doing it in percentage terms will really pop out the winners in their size class, like Portland.
  • For the same reason, I really want to see Canadian cities ranked in this way.  They tend to have far more transit service per capita than comparable US ones, and higher ridership per capita as a result.  If this shows up in dramatically better economic opportunity and personal liberty, it could create a powerful contrast when cities compare themselves with similar ones across the border.
  • Why confine our attention to 7-9 AM, the classic morning commute peak?  There’s a good argument for starting there: it’s when the maximum number of people are trying to travel.  But the time-of-day dimension is essential to understanding the real lives of the majority of workers who are not peak commuters: those who work part time and in non-standard shifts, like almost everyone in retail, entertainment and manufacturing.
  • Let’s look at access to other things besides jobs.  All transportation studies overemphasize the journey to work because we have better data on it than on anything else.  But with the appropriate layer about locations, we can explore access to retail, access to food, access to education, even access to nightlife.   Regions may not have this data, but many cities do, and much of the interest in this tool will be at the municipal level.

Still, this is a great piece of work.  And Americans should pause over the core of this announcement:  Only now, in 2014, are we starting to study people’s ability to get where they’re going, and their opportunity to access all the opportunity that makes a great city.

reflections on world commuting times

Here's an interesting chart!  It's from a study of commute times in Brazil, but there are enough world cities to make it interesting.



1.  Viva Marchetti's constant!  There are interesting academic debates around the edges, but the persistence of the 30-minute one-way commute, and especially the few cities with averages much less than that, echoes the observation of Marchetti and others that this seems to have been a tolerable daily travel time across both many centuries and many cultures.  Average commute times in cities don't seem to get much below 30 minutes because most people don't seem to value such short commutes.  But in highly dysfunctional cities they can get much longer.

2.   The organic "planning" of many Brazilian cities is producing better outcomes than the alleged orderliness of Chinese planning. 

3.  Despite the common whining about traffic in both places, the California metros are in good shape.  Los Angeles in particular sings the advantages of a decentralized urban structure that gives many people opportunities to live near their jobs, one that can be easily adapted to successful transit-walk-bike mobility.  

4.  Conversely, dominant and fantastically wealthy central cities (London, New York) are bad for commute times  because so few workers can afford to live close to them.

5.   Aestheticist master planning in the car era was really bad for commute times, because it tended to create building-in-park arragements that are just toxic to both transit and pedestrians.  Like many capital cities that were planned to symbolize rather than function, Brasilia excludes too many pieces of a necessary economy, spawning a vast and disorganized fringe where commute times are even longer than in more organically grown Brazilian cities.  

(Don't get me started about Australia's master-planned capital Canberra,where I've done a great deal of work over the years.  While I love Canberra for a lot of reasons, it took a lot of planning effort to get less than 400,000 people spread out over an area that's 37 km (23 miles) long, insuring long commute times for most of the population.)

Oh, and this chart demonstrates one other takeway:  If you write studies or consulting reports for a living, make sure that everything someone needs to know to understand a graphic is in the graphic, not in adjacent text.  As here, graphics quickly throw off the shackles of context to make their own journeys across the web, confusing or enlightening people depending on the wisdom of the designer.



Expanding liberating transit in small cities

Salem, Oregon (metro pop around 200,000) is typical of a lot of small cities in America.  It's a state capital and has some small universities, which help keep its downtown focused, but it's not an enviro-utopian place like Boulder or Eugene, nor is it besieged by demand for massive urban density like the bigger west coast cities all are.  This is a town that much of North America could recognize as familiar.

I love working on tranist in big cities, but I also love working in small ones.  Often, it's easier to get things done.  

So I'm proud to announce that the local transit agency, Salem Keizer Transit has released for public comment a major reworking of their transit network, one that we helped them design.  As usual, red means every 15 minutes all day, blue is every 30 and green is every 60.  Here's the new network on the left, and the existing network for comparison on the right.


The themes are familiar if you've followed other work of ours, in Columbus, Houston, or Auckland, New Zealand.  There's more high-frequency service (red) which means more places where transit is useful to people in a hurry.  The spacing of nearby routes is more even, so that walking distances are more uniform.  Sometimes service has been eliminated to extremely low density areas, such as parts of the west side of Salem in this image, where existing service is logging fewer than 10 passengers per hour of service.  

This doesn't mean that you shouldn't have low-ridership services to low-demand areas, but only that the community, acting through the transit agency Board, needs to decide how to balance ridership goals with competing goals that require low-ridership service, such as perceptions of equity and lifeline access for people who are extremely dependent on transit.

Salem is interesting in that the city's geography really limits the possibilities for a high-frequency grid.  The arterial pattern is a starburst, many streets going downtown in different directions but very few streets that are useful for running perpendicular those streets.  Thus Salem continues to have only one frequent crosstown — along Lancaster Drive — but the plan works toward expanding that crosstown so that more non-downtown trips can be made that way.  Otherwise, this remains a strongly radial plan for a strongly radial city.  Salem has done better than many cities at keeping its major institutions, including its biggest university, all clumped in a small area of greater downtown, where most of the transit sytsem goes.

The bigger story, however, is that freestanding cities of Salem's size are big enough to do interesting things with transit, and to build services that are useful enough that some people will make location decisions in response to them.  That's the essence of how a city's form becomes more sustainable over time.  

Frequent networks: escaping the “food desert”

For their piece on food deserts this week, National Geographic led off with this map of Houston.  It shows where large numbers of people who lack cars are located more than 1/2 mile from a grocery store.  

Houston food desert

"Public transportation may not fill the gap," the article says, but sometimes it can.  The article doesn't mention it, but Houston METRO's proposed System Reimagining will actually liberate many people, but not all, from the "food desert" problem.  

One thing is for sure: When we're talking about errand trips like groceries, most customers don't have a lot of time.  If there's a line to check out of the grocery store, and you miss an hourly bus, you'd better not have bought anything that needs refrigeration, and certainly nothing frozen.  So as always, frequency is freedom.  

So if you need frequency, Houston's transit system today is basically willing to take you downtown, which is not likely to be the path to your nearest grocery story.  Here's the frequent network today. 


It's radial, good for going downtown but not for many other purposes.  If you're lucky it will take you to a grocery store, but more likely it misses the ones nearest you.  And of course you may not be on this network at all.

Here's the reimagined frequent network:


Compare this to the food desert map (to see the detailed Reimagined network maps, see here)  Many of the areas of concern, especially those in the southeast and southwest, get a much richer network in a grid pattern.  The grid pattern means ready access to many commercial centers in your part of town, not just to the major destinations of the region.  And of course, a much larger share of the "food desert" areas are on this network, so that they can make shopping trips that take an hour instead of all afternoon.

Another crucial thing about the grid is that by running in all directions, it cuts across socioeconomic divides.  Low-income people can get out of their enclaves to reach both jobs and commercial services in more prosperous areas nearby.   (This frightens some people on the upper side of these divides, but it's one of the basic ways that good transit that's broadly useful creates paths out of poverty.)

(Remember: Most low-income people are busy!  They have to be frugal with time as well as money!)

Not all the "food deserts" can be healed with transit.  Some of the highlighted areas on the food desert map are in the northwest and northeast, outside of loop 610.  Low-income housing in this area takes many forms, but a lot of it is semi-rural, and the built environment is often very hostile to both pedestrians and efficient transit routing.  Some of these areas also have declining population.  Our plan does try to offer some options in these areas, but transit is not the primary solution to the food desert problem there.

But over a very diverse range of Houston, the way to get low-income people to decent healthy food is the way you achieve so many other benefits: environmental, economic, and social: an abundant frequent transit system, in a grid pattern, that reaches across all the parts of the city that are dense enough to support it.  

brisbane: a city transformed by a bus link

Next time someone tells you that transit has to be rail in order to affect real estate demand, send them this paper [paywalled] by Elin Charles-Edwards, Martin Bell and Jonathan Corcoran –  a dramatic example of bus infrastructure profoundly transforming residential demand.

Our scene is the main campus of University of Queensland, which is located on a peninsula formed by a loop of the Brisbane River.  It's in the southwest corner of this image.  The area labeled "Brisbane" is the highrise downtown.  Most everything in between — which is mostly on the south side of the river — is dense, redevelopable inner city fabric.  

Bris cbd

If you look closely you can see a single faint bridge connecting the University across the river.  This is the Eleanor Schonell Bridge, which opened in 2006, and which is solely for pedestrians, cyclists, and buses.  No private cars.  It's one of the developed world's most effective of examples of a transit path that is vastly straighter than the motorist's options.

Prior to the opening of the bridge, University of Queensland had a problem much like that of Vancouver's University of British Columbia.  Its peninsula setting helped it feel remote and serene (the rarefied air of academe and all that) but it was also brutally hard to get to, especially from places where students and lower-paid staff could afford to live.  While there are some affordable areas west of the campus, most of the immediate campus area is far too affluent and low-density to house the university's students or the bulk of its workforce.  So commutes to the campus were long and difficult.  

Apart from the geography of income, the issue here was classic chokepoint geography, and that was the key to the transit opportunity.  Brisbane's looping river, and its extreme shortage of bridges outside of downtown, slices the city into a series of hard-to-access peninsulas.  Motorists are used to driving way out of direction to reach their destinations, and until recently, buses had to do the same thing.  The only transit that could do what cars couldn't was the river ferry system, CityCat, and while this system is immensely successful, it is still a small share of the travel market because (a) so much of the population is not on the river and (b) the river is a  circuitous travel path as well.  

Charles-Edwards et al show how the bridge created an explosive expansion of access (where can I get to, soon?) for the campus by walking, cycling, and bus service.  Walking:

Uq walkshed

And by bus (focus on the triangle in the centre of the image, which is the campus):

Uq busshed

It's worth noticing why this bus bridge is so effective:  It plugs right into the Brisbane Busway network, which looks like this.  ("UQ Lakes" is the campus stop.) 


Direct buses from campus run along most of these paths, and connect to many other frequent services covering the area south of the river, including a couple of useful frequent rail lines extending southeast from downtown.   This is the biggest and highest-quality busway system in the developed world, in terms of the degree of protection from private car traffic along complete travel paths, including a tunnel under downtown.  So the access opened up by this bridge was extraordinary.  The busway is so fast and reliable that even commutes from northern Brisbane — on the same side of the river as the campus — were speeded up by the new bridge because they could remain in busway for the entire journey.

The effect on the location of students and staff, from 2003 until 2012 (six years after the bridge opened) looks like this.

Uq relocations

The colour choices are unfortunate, so pay attention to the legend and focus on "St Lucia" (the campus) and the inner city areas just across the river from it. Remember, too, that this is a map of percentage change, so don't be distracted by big colors far away from the action, which represent noise (percentage changes on a tiny base). You can see that students and staff have shifted in big numbers to the inner city across the river from the campus, but also to southern and eastern suburbs each of the river, which are more affordable and still easily reached by buses from the campus.  In the author's careful words, the bridge caused "a significant redistribution of staff and students across the metropolitan area."  It also had the likely effect of reducing overall commute times by enabling people to live much closer to the campus, though the authors don't mention that.  

Because the project gave buses so much of an advantage in accessing the campus, the mode share shifted dramatically, enabling the campus itself to grow without choking on cars:

 Between 2002 and 2011, the population accessing the campus increased by 23 per cent, … all of which were absorbed by [non-car modes on] the bridge. There was an accompanying shift in the modal mix of trips away from cars to public transport. This was most marked among students, for whom less than one-quarter of trips were by car in 2011, down from two-fifths in 2002. Bus patronage increased among students from around a quarter of trips to more than half. Staff car usage declined from 70 per cent in 2002 to just over half in 2011, with buses, cycling and walking all increasing in popularity.

Eleanor Schonell Bridge is a powerful example of infrastructure that transforms a city's living patterns by transforming the isochrones of access.  We can all think of trains and ferries that do this, but it's rare that buses are allowed to succeed in the same way.   Once again, Brisbane has shown that it's not the transit technology that matters to people's location choices.  It's where you can get to easily.

columbus: a new transit network plan

Columbus, Ohio's metro transit agency, COTA, has now released a new network plan for public comment.  As in the recently unveiled similar plan for Houston, I led the network design task on this project as part of a consulting team led by IBI Associates.  

Again, the core idea is to expand the Frequent Network — the network of services that run every 15 minutes or better all day — so that more people have service that is highly useful.  Here's the existing Columbus area frequent network :


And here is the Draft Proposed Frequent Network:

 In Houston, we achieved similar expansion solely by reallocating existing resources.  In Columbus, there was a small budget for expanded service, but still, 90% of what is achieved here is the result of reallocation: removing overlapping routes and deviations, removing duplication, and in some cases removing service that very small numbers of people were using.  

Details of the plan are on the COTA website, here.   The total proposed network is here.  Note that color denotes all-day frequency: red is 15, blue is 30, green is 60.  The plan does many other good things, including a major expansion of weekend service.  


 You can upload the existing network, for comparison, here:   Download Existing System Frequency Map

Again, if you're in the Columbus area, please comment to COTA using this special email:   [email protected].  At this stage there is no decision about whether to implement a plan such as this one.  Any final plan will be revised based on public comment that comes in over the next couple of weeks.  That means that if you like the plan, it's important to comment to that effect, as well.  


houston: transit, reimagined

Yesterday, Houston Metro began seeking public comment on what may be most transformative transit plan in its history.  I'm honored to have been a part of it, as the network design lead* on the consulting team.  Read all about it, in as much detail as you want, here.  Explore the detailed map here.  Note that the pulldown menus in the black bar lead to lots of cool maps and diagrams, as well as extensive data about the plan.

The plan shows that without increasing operating cost, Houston's frequent network — the network of services where the bus or train is always coming when you need it — could grow from this …

Frequent Network Existing


to this:



This cool page toggles between the two, so you can see the system growing.

How on earth could we grow a network that much without new money?  There are two answers:

1.  That's how much waste there was in the existing system.  Waste in the form of duplicative routes, and due to slow meandering routes created due to a few people's demands.  

2.  Hard choices are proposed about expensive service to very small numbers of people.  The plan devotes 80% of Metro's resources to maximizing ridership, which all of these frequent lines do, and only 20% to providing access to people living in expensive to serve places.  Currently only about 50-60% of resources are devoted to services where high ridership is a likely outcome.   (See here for my paper on this analysis method.)   This shift in focus will have negative impacts on small numbers of riders who rely on those services, but these were small numbers indeed .  (About 0.5% of existing riders end up over 1/4 mile of service, and most of them are just over that threshold.  Often, their longer walk is to a better service, a tradeoff that most people are willing to make in practice.)

The exciting thing is not just the massive growth in frequent services proposed, evident above, but the shape that they'll take.  The core idea of the new network is the high-frequency grid, designed to enable anywhere to anywhere travel with a single fast connection.  Everywhere on the proposed network of red lines, that kind of easy access will be possible.

Obviously, too, the whole geographic focus of the network had to shift.  Houston is one of the biggest US cities that still has a radically downtown-oriented transit network despite decades of decentralization.   The core area where the existing network converges has only 25% of the region's jobs, and while transit must favor the jobs that are in dense and walkable settings, there are now many highrise clusters around Houston that answer to this description to some degree. 

Houston has been growing mostly westward and northward in the last few decades.  Its densest residential neighborhood, for example, is Gulfton, located 7 miles west of downtown.  Not far from there is its second-densent employment and activity center, Uptown-Galleria.  Houston is a constellation of centers, and the transit network needs to be more decentralized to effectively service all of those centers where the density and walkability make transit viable.  The high-frequency grid, shown above, reaches all of those places.

Houston also features a fascinating patchwork of incomes.  There are rich and poor neighborhoods but there's no longrer a rich or poor side of town.  That means that low-income people, too, will find the whole network useful.  We have done our best to retain useful service on the historically low-income and minority eastside, despite declining population in some areas.  The key strategy there was the anchor most services to the main universities in that area (University of Houston and Texas Southern U.) which are the surest drivers of all-day demand.

The huge no-cost expansion of useful service may remind you of a plan I worked on two years ago for Auckland, New Zealand, where it was also possible to massively expand the frequent network by redeploying duplicative services.   Not all  transit agencies have this much waste, so your city's mileage may vary.  But if you suspect that transit could be doing more in your city, read all about the Houston plan.  You'll be amazed, as we were, about how much is sometimes possible.

Finally, if you're in the Houston Metro service area, remember to submit a comment even about things you like.  Sadly, most of the public comments received on transit plans are negative even if the plan is broadly popular, becuase people who like it falsely assume it will happen anyway.   This plan will not be implemented if it does not attract strong support.   We welcome constructive comments about the plan, which will be used to make the final plan even better.  But if you like the plan, it's important to say that as well!  Instructions for how to comment are here.  


* This term means I led the design workshop that developed the design, but it does not mean I get all the credit.  These plans are collaborations among many players, both on our large consulting team and of course at Houston METRO.  The team was headed by TEI of Houston — Geoff Carleton was the excellent project manager — and included Carol Lewis, Nancy Edmondson, Dan Boyle, and Asakura Robinson.  Kurt Lurhsen, METRO's head of planning, shepherded the project internally with the support of a great teams.  The plan would also not have gotten to this stage without the preliminary support of METRO's Board, including Chair Gilbert Garcia and Strategic Planning Committee Chair Christof Spieler.  Spieler has been an especially tireless advocate of this project from its earliest days.  All of these people and organizations contributed substantially to the plan as it appears.

The Geometric Shapes of Transit’s Success

In my work for transit agencies, I’m always insisting that reports should not just explain how routes perform (typically in ridership per unit of cost) but also why.

Here’s one partial example from an infographic by TransLink, the transit agency serving Vancouver, Canada.  [1]

All other things being equal, long, straight routes perform better than short, squiggly and looping ones.  The reasons are obvious to most transit riders (and are laid out in detail in Chapters 4 and 14 of my book) but you’d be amazed how many well-intentioned people  haven’t figured this out, and continue to advocate land use patterns that make effective transit impossible.  (Mantra: Be on the way!  It’s not Transit-Oriented Development unless it’s oriented toward transit that can succeed.)

A core of my own practice is in developing ways to build understanding of the causes of transit’s success, so if your transit agency is struggling to explain productivity, put them in touch with me!


[1] Translink 2012 Bus Service Peformance Review, p 16.

vancouver: a source on the battle of robson square

In an online event today, I mentioned the "Battle of Robson Square" in Vancouver — an archetypal conflict between transit and civic placemaking that has arisen in a city that claims to be very pro-transit.  It's a fascinating conflict worth watching for people far beyond Vancouver.  

Fortunately, I don't need to write a post on this, because there's an excellent one by Peter Marriott, laying out the issues at stake, here.  Peter's intro is an important challenge to any urban designer who thinks transit can just "get out of the way" of a beautiful design idea.  Peter's article is also full of useful links to a wide range of voices in the conversation.