Hating your transit agency won’t make it better

P1010476The Vancouver metro area has now reached the climax of a frenzy of orchestrated rage directed at its transit agency, TransLink.  Over 60% of voters have rejected a sales tax increase for urgently needed transit growth, largely due to an effective campaign that made the transit agency's alleged incompetence the issue.  

There's just one problem.  TransLink is (or was) one of North America's most effective transit agencies.   Parts of the agency had made mistakes, and of course TransLink was struggling to meet exploding demand in one of the world's most desirable metro areas.  Almost nobody defends TransLink's governance model either.  But TransLink is, or was, an effective network, run by a reasonably efficient agency.  For years I cited it all over the world as a model for good planning.  Whether it remains that depends on how much of it is now destroyed in the thrill of recrimination.

Admittedly, I have a personal angle on this, because I worked inside TransLink's planning department for two long stints, for a year in 2005-6 and for six months in 2011.  (I have assisted them as a consultant since, but I have no contracts with TransLink now and no expectation of one.)  It was, I thought, an unusually forward-thinking and principle-driven transit planning department.  I assumed this was an expression of Metro Vancouver's unusual culture of intentional, strategic, controlled urban development. It also reflected an era of leadership that created the space for these thoughts to occur, as opposed to the crisis-by-crisis lifestyle that too often prevails in transit management.

The conversations that were happening at TransLink — especially about the difficult question of how a regional transit agency can form a reality-based relationship with its constituent cities — were extremely sophisticated and respectful.  How should a large regional agency interact with city governments when it holds the technical expertise about transit that city governments mostly lack? For example, when a city government demands something that is geometrically impossible, how can the transit agency's response avoid appearing overbearing?  Much of what I now know about this relationship, and the unavoidable forces operating on it, I figured out while helping with policy development there.  

Today, those issues are at the core of my practice, as the relationship between city governments and transit authorities becomes an urgent issue almost everywhere. 

Special-purpose regional governments are vulnerable creatures.  The marquee leaders of an urban region — usually major mayors and state/province leaders — influence them but don't control them directly enough to feel responsible for them.  Blame is easily shifted to them by the more powerful governments all around them.  

All this is even more true when the product is transit, for four reasons.

First, transit somehow looks easy, in a way that water and power and regional land use planning do not.  Many reporters have no factual frame for thinking about transit, and treat anyone with a simplistic answer as an expert.  (Tip: my book can help provide that frame.)

Second, transit's success is utterly dependent on municipal actions around land use and street design, so regional transit agencies that are thinking strategically must form an interest in those municipal decisions.  This is easily characterized as interference with municipal sovereignty.  (I always advise transit agencies to respect local right to make decisions but to clearly describe the transit consequences of those decisions, in advance.)

Third, everyone is now screaming at transit agencies to innovate, and yet voters have zero tolerance for risk.  Some of TransLink's failures are arguably innovations that didn't work out.  If you expect everything your agency does to be successful, then quit telling them to innovate, because failure is intrinsic to innovation.  

Fourth, transit, when considered in isolation as in Metro Vancouver's referendum, cannot avoid generating a ferocious difference in opinion across different parts of an urban region.  In any region, maps of votes on transit referenda are mostly maps of residential density (Vancouver, Seattle), and for good reason.  Transit demand rises exponentially with density: doubling density makes it more than twice as urgent.  So of course the average core city dweller views transit as existential while the average outer-suburbanite on a cul-de-sac views it as unimportant.  Giant regional transit agencies will continue to be pulled apart by these forces until we stop having regional transit debates and start having regional transportation debates.  (The other important trend, in response to this basic math, is that core cities must exert more leadership, and funding, on their own transit issues.  More on that below.)

What is amazing, then, is not that regional transit agencies are having political problems, but that so many of them are doing so well, considering.  Many regions are moving forward with strong regional transit strategies, supported by working majorities of voters.  Many are also making tough choices, like the painful shift in priorities that underlies Houston's new network.

Hating your transit agency is easy and fun.  You don't have to understand your regional politics, in which the real power to fix transit is usually not held by the transit agency.  You can also have the thrill of blowing up a big institutional edifice, as Metro Vancouver voters may now have done.

But a lot that's good will also be destroyed.   In Metro Vancouver, amid all the recriminations, TransLink has lost the credibility it needs to lead reality-based conversations about transit.  Maybe some other agency will step into that role.  (Indeed, core cities for whom transit is an existential issue must develop that capability.)  Or maybe there will just be many more years of blame shifting among the elected officials who really control transit in the region.

If you look at transit from the point of view of a state or province leader, you can understand why so many politicians are terrified of the issue.  Everyone is screaming at them about it, pushing simplistic solutions, and the issue is polarizing on urban-suburban lines.  Some huge problems, like equipment failures due to deferred maintenance, are curses laid upon us all by our parents' generation.  What's more, most elite leaders are motorists, and need help finding their feet in the geometric facts of transit where a motorists' assumptions lead them astray.  So they panic, shift blame, and leave transit agencies appearing to have more power to solve problems than they actually have.  If you've never been a political leader, don't be sure you wouldn't do the same in their place.

Be patient.  Breathe.  Resist the desire to see your transit agency in smoldering ruins.  Then, demand leadership.  Demand state/provincial leadership that looks for solutions instead of pointlessly stoking urban-suburban conflict.  (One possible solution is to spend more time on regional transportation debates instead of just transit debates, because regional transportation plans can look more balanced than transit plans can.)  And yes, if your transit agency is being given dysfunctional direction by the region's leaders, demand a better system with more accountability to an elected official who will have to answer for outcomes.

Finally, if you live in a major city that cares about transit, demand that your city leaders look beyond blaming the transit agency, and that they do everything they can themselves to make their transit better.  Remember, your city government, through its powers of land use planning and street design, controls transit at least as much as the transit agency does.  Ask them: What is their transit plan?  Tell them to follow the work of cities that are investing in transit themselves, beyond what their transit agency can afford, like Seattle and Washington DC., or for that matter transit-ambitious secondary cities like Bellevue, Washington, who have their own transit plans to guide the city's work.  No regional or state transit authority — beholden to state or regionwide government that is dominated by less urban interests — is going to meet all of the transit needs of a dense, core city that has chosen to make transit a foundation of its livability.  Their staff may well be doing what they can with the direction that they have, but they need your city government's active support, involvement, leadership, and investment.  

Sorry, transit is complicated.  It's fun to blow things up, as Metro Vancouver's voters probably have.  But the solutions are out there, if we all demand leadership, and offer it.

Vancouver: Yes, you have a cost-effective transit agency!

A transit referendum underway in Metro Vancouver is asking voters to raise sales taxes to fund a huge range of transit improvements that are inevitably needed in such a dense and densifying region.  Polls are suggesting that one of the most transit-dependent regions in North America is going to vote no.  

There is plenty of room for argument about whether sales taxes are too regressive, or whether transit measures should go to the voters while highway measures are considered essential Provincial spending.  All those debates are happening.   I also suggested, here, some principles for deciding how to vote on transit funding measures in general.

But I want to intervene on one point.  The no campaign has managed to spin a lot of anecdotes to suggest that TransLink is a wildly inefficient or incompetent agency. 

TransLink is a major agency that does many things at once, answers to many masters with conflicting agendas, and certainly makes mistakes.  But the core of any transit agency budget is its operating budget — what it spends to run service and what it achieves in return.   That's the only budget that goes on and on forever, so it dominates the total budget picture.  The numbers confirm that Metro Vancouver is getting excellent value for its transit dollar.  Todd Litman of Victoria Transport Policy Institute recently put these numbers together.  

First, subsidy per passenger-kilometre (one passenger moving one km on transit).  What do regional taxpayers pay to move the massive numbers of people they move every day?  Less than 20 cents per passenger-km, which is right on the Canadian average and far better than what's achieved in the US, Australia, or New Zealand.  

Screen Shot 2015-03-30 at 12.15.35 PM

And what do Metro Vancouver taxpayers get for these 20 cents per ride?  Quite simply, a network that makes the regional economy possible, by allowing economic activity to grow despite the limits of the road network.  

One measure of this is passenger-kilometers per capita.  How much personal transit does Vancouver provide?  How many people can travel, and how far, to access jobs and opportunities without contributing to traffic congestion?

Vanc psgr kms per capita

Metro Vancouver's TransLink is a leader among similar sized regions, matched only by the older metro area of Montreal.  (Toronto does better than TransLink if you look only at the city [TTC in this chart], but the fairer comparison is with the whole metro area [GTHA in this chart], as TransLink covers all of Metro Vancouver.) 

Metro Vancouver has reached a level of transit reliance that is unprecedented for a young North American city.  Only centuries-old northeastern cities come close.   That reliance means that the region can add jobs and housing without adding traffic congestion.  Todd's paper provides some other excellent analysis to put these benefits in perspective, and explains why the sales tax is vastly cheaper than not having a good transit system. 

There are lots of reasons for Canadians to be unhappy about the Transit Referendum, including why it is happening at all.  And there will always be plenty of anecdotes about any agency that does so many different things at once.

But if you're voting no because you think your transit agency is fundamentally wasteful, that's just not true.   

a glimpse into the road lobby’s echo chamber, and how to respond

Canada's leading newspaper has published an anti-transit rant, by Brian Lee Crowley of the "non-partisan" MacDonald-Laurier Institute.  It's based on the work of the Texas Transportation Institute, a leading source of studies that view cities from behind the wheel of a single-occupant car.  It's filtered via Wendell Cox, who's made a career of car-centered advocacy.

I analyzed TTI's work more patiently here, so I'll cut to the chase now.  TTI believes that traffic congestion is a valid measure of people's ability to access the resources of their city.  They do not measure actual travel times for all people, or the liberty and economic opportunity that a good urban transporation system offers.  They apply these things as factors to a degree, but their bottom line is road congestion.  

Specifically, their metric is the difference in travel times, by car, between travel time on congested roads and the same roads in a free-flow condition.   In other words, their baseline utopian condition is abundant free-flowing roads at all times of day.  (That condition is actually an economic impossibility in a city above a certain size with a healthy economy and no road pricing.)  

Once you insist on measuring congestion, and against that fantasy baseline, you can get absolutely everything backwards.  

Portland, Ore., has pursued road-skeptical policies similar to many major Canadian cities. The result is markedly worsened commuting times. According to the TTI, over the past 30 years Portland has gone from having the 47th worst congestion in the U.S. to the sixth worst.

"Markedly worse commuting times" is false.  If you count everybody's commuting time, Portland is ahead of most US metros.   As the next sentence reveals, it is only congestion that is worse.  Yes, like all dense cities, Portland has exactly as much congestion as it makes room for, but it has low overall commute times, mostly because its carefully mixed density allows many people to commute very short distances.   Remember, if you are measuring car congestion, Portland's transit riders and cyclists and the many people who can walk to work simply do not exist.  Crowley disses "congested" Vancouver for the same reason, even though Vancouver is the only Canadian metro where the long-term trend is toward shorter commute times, due to continued consolidation of housing and business around transit.  

So how should an activist respond to this kind of talk from the asphalt-and-petroleum echo chamber?

Everyone should know how to respond to articles like this, because we'll keep seeing them.  The comments on the article ("Wendell Cox is an idiot") are not encouraging.  Wendell Cox is not an idiot.  He is part of a reactionary process that accompanies every revolution, one that we'll hear more from.  He's a smart man who knows exactly what he's doing.

Take time to understand the point of view.  Many people's brains are so fused with their cars that to them, congestion really is the same thing as urban mobility or urban liberty.  To them, the TTI is right.  

So first you have to object by shining light on that premise.  TTI, and by extension Canada's leading newspaper, believes that certain people do not exist or do not matter — namely everyone who already travels by transit, bike, or foot,  and everyone who can imagine choosing not to drive in the face of real and attractive choices.  

But then, avoid the trap of casting these excluded people as an underclass.  Too many activists fall into that Marxist reading, and issue a call to arms on  behalf of "ordinary people."  They get through to people who already agree with them, but to the dominant business culture they look like an easily-dismissed-or-manipulated rabble.  Instead, read Edward Glaeser or Bruce Katz and understand that people who are investing in low-car "congested" cities are the leaders of the new information economy.  

A good retort to road-lobby claims that life is really better in Houston than in Vancouver is to check the cost of comparable housing.  If it were has hard to get around in Vancouver as TTI suggests, people wouldn't pay a fortune to live there.  Transit-rich cities are expensive, in part, because many people there can get around without being stuck in congestion.  High costs of living, in turn, are the market telling us to create more places just like that.  This is the free-market argument.  It is the only one that will break through to the business mind and start conveying that maybe there's something to all this transit-oriented investment.  

The TTI will last at least as long as the Tobacco Institute, and it will sound just as scientific in praise of its product-centered world view — in this case, a world in which only motorists count.  So you have to question the world view.  If an argument is based on a false remise, don't engage the argument, because in doing so you're accepting the premise.  Attack the premise.

vancouver: interactive public outreach on network design

NE sector splash

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

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.

vancouver: my tangle with a columnist over the broadway line

If you're interested in Vancouver and missed my "debate"* with Bob Ransford about Broadway rapid transit at Gordon Price's blog Price Tags, well, it's not to late to pile on.  It refers back to one of grand debates on this blog, the question of "Is speed obsolete?" raised by Patrick Condon.  Gordon says our debate* the most commented piece in the history of his blog, and it's generated fierce Twitter traffic.  Apparently, Bob and I will be on CKNW News Talk 980, "The Bill Good Show" on Monday (or maybe we're just taping it Monday).

The occasion appears to have been the Vancouver City Council's decision to endorse a complete subway under Broadway, which is not much of a surprise to those who've been following this for a while.  Bob criticized the project on development potential grounds, and as usual, I tried to broaden the question a bit beyond that.

* an often self-glorifying term that readers should view with suspicion.  In this case it refers to a published Vancouver Sun opinion piece periodically interrupted by my heckling.  It all happened very fast when Gord forwarded me Bob's article, knowing exactly how it would provoke me …

transit as a city’s bloodstream: the video

Watch this video, and maybe you'll grasp the beauty of a great transit network, a beauty that has nothing to do with the technology it runs, but everything to do with the real life of a city and the feedom of its people.  Public transit vehicles moving around Greater Vancouver, an entire day compressed into 2.5 minutes.

The original is here.  It's by STLTransit, who has done a number of other cities.

Long ago I posted another of these, for Auckland, New Zealand.  It uses endearing tadpoles instead of white dots.  It's also interesting because Auckland's is not a single unified network, as Vancouver's is, (although we're working on it!).  You can see the difference if you watch closely, using the tips below.

So many people see public transit only as a vehicle on the street, or a thing they're waiting for.  But when you watch this video of a well-designed unified transit network, you can see that it's a gigantic interconnected organism.  And like all organisms, it's made up of complex but rhythmic motion.

Like your heart and lungs, the network effect of transit is quiet, ignorable, and yet the foundation of everything.   The network is one being, moving to a beat.  It's made of connections,  little sparks of energy that you must imagine whenever two dots touch, as the dots hand off to one another like relay runners.  For example, as you watch the video, watch this spot, especially toward the middle of the day:

Vanc tadpoles note phibbs

That's Phibbs Exchange, an example of strong pulse scheduling. At a langorous pace (representing a pulse every half hour or even every hour) you'll see many white dots gather themselves into a single bright dot, shine brightly for a moment, then "pulse" outward again.  What's happening is that many buses that run infrequently are converging on a point and sitting together briefly, so that people can transfer from any bus to any other.



I'm not sure I'll ever convey to my non-transit friends that regardless of what you think of buses, a pulse is a beautiful thing to watch.  Phibbs is more spread out than I like, and I photographed it at a quiet time of day, but in an ideal one, like the ones in downtown Eugene, you see this gradual gathering of energy to a climax, then a release.  Gradually the buses arrive, until finally they're all there.  You see signs on the buses announcing different parts of the city, all the places you could go right now, from here.  The drivers get off the bus briefly, chat with customers, point them to the right service.  People meet by chance.  It happens many times a day and yet there's always this sense of event: here, at this moment, you have service to all these different places, ready to go right now.  Enjoy the banquet of choices, select your bus, and let's go.  In a moment it's over, the buses all gone, the place quiet or even deserted, like a field after a storm has passed.  And in half an hour or an hour it will happen again.

And it's not a random thing, like a storm, but part of a huge intentional network that (in Vancouver's case) is designed.  This pulse is one of the network's many continuous, reliable heartbeats.  It's one big organism, made of unconscious rhythmic motion and circulation as all organisms are.  It's inseparable from the life of the city it serves.  And you're part of it.

how auditors get transit wrong: a lesson from vancouver

Elected officials love to demand "audits."  Auditing means that you hire high-prestige people who will scrutinize the books of an agency with particular genius, and deliver recommendations that resound with authority.

But many of the companies hired to audit transit agencies don't seem to understand transit.  That's certainly the evidence of a recently commissioned audit of Vancouver's TransLink, which discovered $41 million in potential annual savings including $5.3 million from cutting low-ridership services.  (Extensive detail and media reaction is gathered here.)

Like many audits, this one just assumes that low ridership means "without justfication."

But low-ridership services are unjustifiable only if ridership is their purpose.  

If you haven't read my book, or read this blog much, you may be under the impression that the goal of all public transit is high ridership, and that low-ridership services are therefore failing, evidence of waste, and should be cut.  In reality, every transit agency runs service that has a purpose other than ridership. These services, which I call "coverage" services in my own work, have purposes such as:

  • Equitably distributing service to all areas that contribute tax revenue to the agency.
  • Meeting the urgent needs of small numbers of people living in areas that are expensive to serve (seniors, disabled, isolated rural pockets of poverty etc)
  • Satisfying a coverage standard, which is a statement of the form "___% of the population live within ___ metres/feet of service".  The specific purpose of these statements, which most agencies have, is to determine when service must be operated despite predictably low ridership.

The TransLink audit appears to be simply ignorant about the universal tension between ridership goals and coverage goals.  They recommend cutting coverage services because they have (predictably) low ridership.  This is exactly as logical as throwing away your microwave because it doesn't produce ice.

When an auditor' assumes that ridership or fare revenue is the only goal of transit, they are expressing a certain set of values.  This is a valid philosophical position, but it is not the only justifiable one, nor the only one that is widely held in most urban populations.   So auditors do citizens a great disservice when they present their values as the only possible ones.  In 20 years I have never encountered a public transit agency that actually deploys service exclusively for ridership.  Now and then and auditor swoops down and criticizes the agency for the low-ridership services, often implying that the agency didn't already know about them.

Transit agencies need the backbone to reply to these audits firmly, explaining that low-ridership services may exist for purposes other than ridership, such as those listed above, and that if these services reflect the voters' values, they are as legitimate as any other.  

Transit agencies can also support clearer auditing processes if they identify which of their services are intended mainly for coverage, which means their low-ridership should never be counted as evidence of failure.  I have worked with several agencies on forming clear statements about the percentage of resources that the agency wishes to devote to coverage service.  Once those services are documented, everyone can stop complaining about the low ridership of those services, because high ridership is not their purpose.

Auditing is one of those high-prestige professions, like architecture, that is prone to form echo-chambers that resist the introduction of outside information and perspectives.  Great auditors, like great architects, are suspicious of their own echo-chamber and always looking for perspectives from outside of it.  If you want to be a good auditor of public transit agencies, read my book!  It will help you avoid the TransLink auditor's mistake, and many others.  


frequent service, mapped to your door

Vancouver's TransLink is one of several agencies who — with some input from me — have adopted Frequent Network brands that are designed to highlight services that are always coming soon, generally every 15 minutes or better all day and weekend.    I've always insisted that the Frequent Network can be both a short-term service branding tool (to build ridership by helping time-sensitive customers see where the network can serve them) but also a land use planning tool.

TransLink always understood it was both, and for several years has had a goal stating that half the region's population and jobs will be on the Frequent Network.  This is both a land use planning statement and a transit planning statement.  The message is not that TransLink will extend Frequent service to half the current population, but rather that it will do some of this while land use planning will also bring put residents and jobs on the existing Frequent Network.  More recently, Translink finally highlighted its Frequent Network on its maps for the public.

Ultimately, the Frequent Network, if properly mapped and promoted, should sell real estate, because the high level of all-day access should have a clear value as a city as a whole becomes more transit-oriented.  So this kind of micro-mapping should be really handy:

This map (click to enlarge and sharpen) of transit access in New Westminster, British Columbia is by Jonathan X. Cote, a City Councilor in that city and also an urban planning student at Simon Fraser Univerisity. He takes the standard walking distances of 800m to rapid transit and 400m to local transit and plots the portion of his city that has access to those networks.  I've seen these maps before, and even if they are not drawn they are what lies behind any coherent statement about what percentage of population and jobs have transit access, within a given walking distance, to service of a given standard.

Remember:  If your city wants to do really honest transit analysis, it needs very small analysis zones.  This map shows you the kind of clarity that you get when you can analyze right down to the parcel.  You don't need that much fine grain, but the zones need to be small.  And a parcel-level map like this is certainly ideal for land use planners, who need to minimize walking distances for the centroids of transit-oriented developments. 

Notice what a good tool this is for analyzing bus stop spacing as well.  You can move the stops a little apart and count how many parcels fall out of the walkshed.  Out to about 400m (1/4mi) spacing the answer is usually "fewer than you expected."