Job! Admin/Marketing Assistant for Our Firm

 

Jarrett Walker + Associates is a small consulting firm that specializes in public transit planning.  Our clients are mostly local and state government agencies but can also include corporations, nonprofits, and other entities.  We have a staff of 14 in two locations.

We are looking for an Administrative and Marketing Assistant in our headquarters in Portland, Oregon.  The job requires one year of relevant work experience and has the potential to grow substantially in responsibility and compensation.

The successful applicant will need to be comfortable with some informality in dress and work hours, but also be highly organized and professional.

Starting pay in the range of $18-30/hour, depending on skills and experience.  (We pay this as a salary, calculated from actual hours worked.) You would work at least 30 hours/week.  Our generous benefits program, which would fully cover you, includes “Gold” medical and dental, disability, paid vacation, medical leave, 401k (after one year) and a free transit pass.

The job description includes:

  • Implementing administrative procedures for a small consulting firm, in consultation with senior staff.
  • Doing some clerical tasks with patience and attention to detail.
  • Helping us maintain and improve our marketing tools and materials, including but not limited to past project descriptions, the firm’ website, Jarrett Walker’s blog and others.
  • Helping us prepare proposals (bids).
  • Helping us find and track opportunities to submit proposals.
  • Supporting the Business Manager in tasks related to billing.
  • Managing basic needs to keep the office running smoothly and allow colleagues to focus on their work for clients.
  • Occasionally managing contractors involved in physical office improvements or maintenance.

An interest in urban planning and transit is helpful but not essential. This is primarily an administration and marketing position with the potential to grow into a Marketing Manager role.

The job requires:

  • At least 1 year of prior work experience that demonstrates some of the skills listed below – ideally in administrative support, communications, or marketing support.
  • Complete fluency in spoken and written English, including the ability to write clearly and accurately with a friendly but professional tone.
  • Ability to communicate professionally by email, web, and phone.
  • Ability to do detailed and sometimes tedious tasks with low error rate.
  • Resourcefulness in solving a range of problems.
  • Comfort with very open and frank communication within the organization. We work hard to avoid developing “office politics.”
  • Proficiency in MS Word and Excel.
  • Some experience working in Adobe Creative Suite, ideally Photoshop and InDesign, or similar document preparation and graphics tools.
  • Willingness to “pitch in” and help with whatever needs to be done at the moment.
  • Full vaccination against Covid-19, or evidence of being in a group that cannot be vaccinated.

The following are highly advantageous:

  • Prior experience preparing or submitting proposals or bids.
  • Website management and/or social media advertising and promotion experience.
  • Professional writing and editing.

To apply

The initial review of resumes will use a race-blind and gender-blind hiring process.  To this end, we do not yet want to know your name, gender, or race.

So please:

  • Edit your resume to remove your name and all indications of race and gender. If quoting people referring to you, please black out pronouns or replace them with they/their/them.
  • If you have important qualifications that strongly imply your gender or race, such as a role in a Black or women’s organization, these are valid and should not be omitted just to satisfy this requirement.
  • Provide an email address and phone number as your only contact information.
  • Provide a cover letter, also unsigned and not referring to your race or gender, explaining your qualifications. We will treat this as an example of your writing.

Based on these submissions we will select finalists, who will go through a more conventional process of interviews and reference checks.  We will want to know your name only at that point.

Please submit your resume and cover letter to [email protected] by September 16.  You can also send questions to that address, but please put “question” in the subject line.

If shortlisted for an interview, you will be asked to provide names and telephone contact information for three references. References can be anyone you have worked with closely, and who can tell stories that show you have the necessary skills and style, including former employers, coaches, volunteer coordinators, professors, colleagues, etc.

Thank you for your interest in this position.

 

 

 

Dallas: New Bus Network Unveiled

The Dallas area is getting a new bus network in January 2022, the result of our three-year collaboration with the transit agency DART.  It’s the result of extensive input from the community, and the Board, about what kind of transit system they want to see.

You can see maps of the new network here.  But here’s a taste of the contrast using one part of the city.  Pay attention to the colors!  They indicate frequency, which has a huge impact on whether the service will actually be useful to you.

Existing (above) and New Network for a portion of Dallas. Maps by Jarrett Walker + Associates.

This network is not all the service that the area needs or deserves; it’s just what DART can afford.  Our work was about reallocating existing service to make it more useful to more people to go more places.  It does that: The average area resident will be able to get to 1/3 more jobs in 60 minutes, which means more access to all kinds of opportunity for all kinds of people.  This benefit happens almost everywhere (blue in this image):

… and the benefit is similar for all races, ages and incomes.

Source: DART

This DART document talks you through how the new network looks in each area.

The plan was based on the Board’s decision (not mine) to shift the focus of the service slightly toward a ridership goal and away from a coverage goal.  That would have meant service to fewer places, or further away from a few people’s homes, in order to run higher frequencies that produced expanded access to opportunity for most people.  Because the sad mathematical fact is:  Ridership arises from how useful service is to many people, not how useful it is to absolutely everyone.  When we seek to serve absolutely everyone, we’re planning for coverage, not ridership.

But in fact, even though the priorities shifted away from coverage, the final network hardly cuts coverage at all.

None of this means that everyone will be happy.  Network changes are always disruptive to some people’s lives. We make sure every decision-maker to know that before they decide to proceed.

Finally, this is not our plan. It’s DART’s plan based on their conversation with the public, and the decision of their Board.  We facilitated the design conversations and did the analysis, but we didn’t set the policy that led to the network looking as it does.  That’s not an evasion of responsibility.  It’s the key to our whole approach to these projects, which is to defer entirely to the community on questions of priorities, and to never make those decisions ourselves.

So we hope you enjoy your new network, when it arrives in January.  Meanwhile, the DART Board will soon be discussion how much more bus service they can offer the following year, if any, given their other priorities.  If you’re a local, you may want to follow that conversation.

San Francisco: Go Forward by Going Back?

We’re currently working with the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA), which manages the city’s transit network called Muni, on options for how to develop their network as the pandemic wanes.  This piece is cross-posted with the SFMTA Blog.

Source: Wikipedia user Pi.1415926535

When a transit agency comes back from the COVID-19 crisis, should it aim to put service back the way it was, or try to put back something better?  That’s the question that the SFMTA will be asking the public later this summer.  

Muni started out as a service that took people downtown, and even today, most of the service is oriented that way. Meanwhile the pandemic accelerated ongoing trends that have shifted travel patterns away from a single focus on downtown and towards many locations across the city.  So are we sure we want the network to be exactly as it was?

Later this summer, the SFMTA will be sharing three alternatives for how service might be restored in winter and inviting the public to provide feedback on those alternatives. The input received from the public will help the SFMTA Board determine the pattern of Muni service to be implemented in early 2022. The three scenarios the SFMTA will be laying out for the public to consider are: 

  1. Return the Familiar Network​
  2. Build a High-Access Network
  3. Develop a Hybrid Network, balancing the best features of the first two.

The Familiar Network alternative would put back the routes people are used to from prior to the pandemic. But the service that people are used to isn’t always the service that helps the most people get where they need to go. 

The High-Access approach would shift some patterns of service to expand people’s ability to get to more destinations sooner. (See here for a full explanation of how access works.)

When we plan for high access, we aren’t just thinking about trips people are making, or the trips they made before the pandemic. We’re also thinking about all the trips they could make. Better access can mean more opportunities in your life. Right now, many people’s lives are changing as they find new jobs, get their kids started at new schools and explore new types of recreation. A high-access network tries to give people as many options as possible. 

What does a high-access alternative mean in practice? Here’s an example from the Richmond District:  Once Line 31 Balboa comes back in August, the Richmond district will have frequent east-west lines spaced every quarter mile. But Muni’s 2 Clement runs just one-eighth mile (a long Richmond block) from the frequent lines on California and Geary.  

Pre-pandemic map of San Francisco’s Richmond district transit services.  Note the consistent spacing of east-west routes every 1/4 mile, but the exception is Line 2-Clement in the upper right.  Source: SFMTA

Closer look at Line 2 Clement, and the more frequent lines 1/8 mile away on either side.

To measure the total access for people in a particular place, we look at all the trips to all the places they might be going, and calculate how long those trips take on the network. This travel time includes walking time, waiting time and riding time. In other words, we measure travel time starting from when you want to go, not when the bus comes.  

When we calculate access from points along Clement, we find that the 2 Clement doesn’t add much, because the nearby service on Geary is so much faster and frequent.  Even if you walk (or roll) slowly at 2 miles per hour, it would take you 8 minutes to get from Clement to Geary.  But your wait would be 5 minutes shorter, on average, because the 38 Geary is so frequent. You may save even more time if you get a 38R Geary Rapid, which is faster. At most, the 2 Clement service only saves riders a minute or two. And if you walk at a more average pace, 3 miles per hour, it’s almost always faster to walk to Geary than wait for the bus on Clement.

Such close spacing of parallel routes is not something the SFMTA provides in most parts of the city, so does it make sense to dedicate Muni’s scarce resources to provide it here? Should those resources go where they can measurably expand access to opportunity, such as by moving toward five-minute frequency on many lines?

I’ve talked at length about this high-access approach because it’s less familiar and therefore requires more explanation, but that doesn’t mean the SFMTA has already decided to do it. The choices between familiar and high-access approaches is a genuine question, and we’ll want to know what you think.

Finally, all of these choices are harder because the SFMTA faces severe resource constraints. It still faces a labor shortage and has lost much of its income from fares and parking revenues, not to mention the structural deficit that existed even before the pandemic.  So the agency can’t afford to restore all of the service it ran before the pandemic.  Even if the labor shortage were resolved (and the SFMTA is working on it), restoring 100% of the previously scheduled service would run the risk that just a year or two later, when one-time federal funding runs out, drastic service cuts would be needed that could leave us with even less service than we have now. 

Instead, it makes sense to offer only a level of Muni service that the SFMTA is sure they can sustain, at least until they find new resources to replace funds that have eroded over the last decade and fallen dramatically during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Next, we and the SFMTA will lay out exact plans for each alternative, showing the exact routes and frequencies that each alternative would provide. We’ll then analyze how each alternative affects access to opportunity.  We’ll look at this for the whole population, but we’ll also calculate the benefits and impacts for specific neighborhoods, for people of color, for low-income people, and for people who walk or roll relatively slowly.  

The SFMTA will bring this information to the community, so that everyone can think about the choices and express their view.  This will help the SFMTA Board reach a decision that reflects the values of San Francisco.  

Where Flying Cars Take Us: A Science Fiction Excursion

As a transport planner with a strong interest in science fiction, I am obviously provoked by this tweet:

Scott is talking about flying cars, a staple of science fiction at least since The Jetsons.  And as it happens, one of the most fascinating science fiction series of recent years — at least for anyone interested in politics, history, philosophy, or public policy — is about a 25th Century world where automated flying Uber has crushed all other modes of transport, creating a dreaded concentration of monopoly power from which flow the crises that drive the plot.

Historian Ada Palmer’s four “Terra Ignota” books, which begin with Too Like the Lightning and will end later this summer with the Perhaps the Stars, tell of a world where globe-spanning flying cars have done away with geographic nations, where “it does not take a firebrand leader to make someone who lives in Maui, works in Myanmar, and lunches in Syracuse to realize the absurdity of owing allegiance to the patch of dirt where babe first parted from placenta.” [p43]  Indeed, at 9,640 km/h, you’ll only need an hour to get from your job in Myanmar to lunch in Syracuse, Italy — and a half-hour longer to get to Syracuse, New York.  (The people of this world seem to have no concept of sonic booms, presumably for the same reason that fish don’t have a concept of water.)

In place of nations 25th Century earth has organized itself into Hives, non-geographic entities that do much of what nations do.  They have governments, laws, shared values, capitals, and cultures, but they don’t control patches of land.  You can choose which one to belong to, and still live anywhere.

For my readers who work in city planning or transport, many skeptical questions now jump to mind, so first let me say this:  These books are superb. They are funny.  They’re erudite but not intimidating, cheerfully explaining the key points of philosophical history when you need to know them.  They are driven by brightly sketched and often endearing characters.  They bristle with sharp ideas about everything from the enduring appeal of monarchy to the minefield of gendered pronouns.  They are especially interested in how societies use and distort the past; this, for example, is a world run by leaders who love an idealized memory of the European 18th Century — the philosophy, the politics, the hoopskirts and wigs — much as the Renaissance (Palmer’s expertise) was built on an idealized memory of ancient Greece and Rome.

This, in short, is what happens when historians write science fiction.  We have lots of science fiction where the science is meticulous but the history and culture are thin.  These books are the opposite.  Here, the technology is lightly and questionably sketched, but the cultural, political, and social consequences of that technology are worked out with stunning detail and plausibility.  Even if I doubt its technological premise, this alternative world — one that hasn’t had a war for centuries — was one that I could believe in while I was inside of it.

Still, all of it is built on universal, cheap, and frictionless flying cars.  There seems to be no reason not to go anywhere in the world, at any time.

After wondering how anything this energy-intensive could be provided in such abundance that people never discuss its cost, the economist asks: Why would there still be cities?  They do exist, and some of them seem to have streets that people walk along, so perhaps people still like being around other people.  Progressive urbanists will breathe a sigh of relief when they encounter these scenes.

But most of the cities we visit are capitals of Hives or of other Hive-like communities, and if we’re not there to see powerful people in secret chambers, then we are often there almost as tourists, seeing the sights and savoring the uniqueness and symbolism of the city.  Maybe the few pedestrian-filled streets that we see are like those of Colonial Williamsburg or Disneyland. We don’t delve into how the cities function beyond their role as stage sets for the drama.  It’s not clear that they function as cities at all.

The city we meet first, Cielo de Pájaros in Chile, is designed to attract vast clouds of birds but lacks commercial districts. It’s a “city designed for for those who don’t like city centers, whose perfect evening is spent by a window, watching gulls and black waves crashing down.” [p31]  Clearly if there’s universal Uber there must also be universal Amazon, delivering fish fresh off the dock from your choice of Portugal or Maine, so maybe nobody needs shops anymore.   But again, if you don’t like the bustle of human activity, why live in a city?  Why not scatter in cabins all along Chile’s coast?

If members of different Hives live side by side while obeying different sets of laws, what law is in force when they interact?  For Palmer this is a simple problem of inter-Hive crime, so she images a system of “polylaw” that brings a neutral justice to bear.  But a city that functions (rather than just symbolizes) needs a much finer shared web of legal and cultural systems.  There must still be rules about where you can land a flying car, or what you can throw in a sewer drain that goes to the local river, or whether you can build a factory next to people’s homes.

In the absence of such rules, we must imagine the libertarian urban world that the unrestrained flying car would make.  In the first chapter, even before you meet a child who performs decidedly religious miracles, you will encounter Palmer’s most unbelievable sentence:

Carlyle bade the car touch down, not on the high drawbridgelike walkaway which led to the main door of the shimmering [house], but by the narrow maintenance stairs beside it. [p14]

You can fly across the world on a car that will land on your preferred side of a house, so that you don’t have to walk even a few steps. Later, we even see this done in Paris.  Even today you shouldn’t expect Uber to come to your exact address in a dense city, and there will be lots of honking if it does. Bus lanes, bike lanes, pedestrians, deliveries — all these things need space in the street.   If a flying car can land in Paris exactly where the customer wants, what does the narrow Parisian street look like? Is there room to walk? What’s left for anything but landing space?

But while city planners may puzzle over these things, Palmer’s books still ask great questions that are at the heart of the question of cities:  Are you sure we should want to “abolish geography”, as so many transport gadget inventors have promised over the years? Would you really want to “live in Maui, work in Myanmar, and lunch in Syracuse,” or would you feel that in a world of such universal travel, all these places have become so identical that you might as well work from home?  If you did that, would you even go for a walk in your neighborhood, meeting familiar people in the flesh, when you could just as easily walk in a city that’s having better weather at the moment?  Will you like a placeless society where you and your neighbor listen to different news sources to the point that you have incompatible views about reality?  If so, would you still be able to cooperate about fixing the fence or agreeing on quiet hours?  And if that incomprehension got out of hand, then whoa, what would a war between Hives be like?

Whatever your first reaction to those questions, Palmer’s books will add nuance to it.  If you enjoy thinking about politics, philosophy, history or public policy (and if you are willing to live without the presumptive atheism of most science fiction) I think you’ll enjoy these books. And I promise: Your skepticism about flying cars will survive the journey.

 

 

The Problem with “Improving Transportation”

When you call it that, it’s not very popular.

Looking at this Pew survey, Matt Yglesias points out that Democrats and Republicans seem to agree on the unimportance of improving transportation.

 

Alas, faced with that, our politicians talk about jobs and infrastructure rather than transportation.  This in turn creates the suspicion that we’re employing people to do nothing or building things we may not need.

But of course, many of the things people seem to care most about (and the two parties agree most about) depend on transportation, notably: “Improving job situation.” “strengthening economy.”  (It’s also important to several things that are sadly more polarizing, such as “dealing with global climate change,” dealing with the problems of poor people,” and “addressing issues around race.”)

I wish we were in the habit of asking people if they care about “access to opportunities“, which captures why we care about jobs but also resonates with other important goals, like economic growth and access to opportunity.

But in any case, transportation  doesn’t poll well.  Maybe that’s fine.  Even I am not that interested in transportation. I’m interested in people being able to do things, as a result fo being able to go places.  Let’s talk about that.

Pedestrian Deaths are an Epidemic

Angie Schmitt, Right of Way: Race, Class, and the Silent Epidemic of Pedestrian Deaths in America.  Island Press, 2020.

As a transit planner, I work on creating better networks of routes and schedules that will help people access jobs and opportunity.  But a transit agency can’t complete any customer’s trip.  To do that, the customer needs to walk.  The transit agency can make a nice shelter like the one on the right here, but it can’t change the horror that the customer will face trying to walk to their destination, or to cross this street (9 lanes, half a mile from the nearest signal) to get to the bus in the other direction.  That curb lane is marked as a bus lane if that makes you feel better.

This picture happens to be Sahara Avenue in Las Vegas but as every American knows, it is utterly ordinary.  This is the standard suburban street, mass produced around every US city according to manuals that prioritized traffic flow over all other aspects of human life — manuals that are still widely used today.

When I started my transit planning career in the early 1990s, we faced this kind of suburban street but the stakes were usually lower, because transit wasn’t carrying huge volumes of people to these places.  Most of the ridership in major metro areas was in the relatively walkable pre-war inner city. But all that’s changed for the worse.  Today, in many US transit agencies I study,some of the highest ridership bus services are on these suburban arterials.   People who need transit are forced to live and work in these places, so they have no choice but to dash across those nine lanes, if they are fit enough to dash.  My father, in his 70s, used to have to cross a street like this one to catch the bus.  He couldn’t dash.  He could only hope.

So the fact is shocking but shouldn’t be surprising: compared to ten years ago, 50% more pedestrians are dying after being struck by vehicles — a growing tide of death and mutilation that Angie Schmitt rightly calls a “silent epidemic.”

To clear the space for discussing real causes, Schmitt starts by rejecting the dominant culture’s impulse to blame the pedestrian, which started with the invention of the crime of “jaywalking” almost a century ago.  She cites the most obscene examples of victim-blaming, such as the case of Raquel Nelson, a Georgia woman who was prosecuted for the death of her own young son because they had attempted to cross the street together.  But she rightly focuses more on the pervasive language choices made by journalists, law enforcement, and other officials that tend to exonerate the motorist no matter what the facts are.  Controversially, she even challenges the pervasive “distracted walking” campaigns as an example of setting up public perception to blame the victim.  I have mixed feelings about this, because pedestrians gazing into their phones do sometimes step directly in front of buses and trains, but there’s no question that distraction is too easy an accusation in most cases.  Crossing the suburban arterial most pedestrians are too terrified to be distracted.  My father was not distracted when he set out at 2 mph across a river of traffic going 60 mph.  He was simply helpless.

Technology won’t save us, and if it only caters to our urges it could make things worse.  Schmitt calls out the trend toward larger and higher-riding cars that make it harder to see a child stepping into the street.  In one of the most interesting chapters, she takes apart the various claims of the “driverless” car industry.  She sees value in many of the new technologies that alert drivers to hazard, and that could include automatic braking, but of course, much of this technology just opens up new opportunities for human stupidity, greed, and sloth.  As the vision of a truly driverless car recedes, we may be looking at a permanent state of partial automation, where the driver must be absolutely alert and ready to act at any moment despite having nothing to do.  Maintaining this state of hypervigilant boredom is a superhuman task.  People who study meditation for decades may finally get close to it.  But when Uber hired people to ride in its driverless test cars and watch for trouble, they didn’t hire or pay for those skills, so when one of their cars killed Elaine Hertzberg, the employee in the car was looking at their phone.

Finally, Schmitt rightly brings the focus back to road design and enforcement.  A chapter called The Ideology of Flow looks at how and why streets have been designed on the principle that traffic speed simply matters more than the safety of pedestrians.  Here she must take on the Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD) an excellent example of the principle that the most controversial ideologies are often hidden in documents whose titles promise that they are utterly boring and irrelevant.  MUTCD presents itself as a reasonable set of guidelines to ensure that if you drive from one state to another, the stop signs won’t look so different that you won’t recognize them.  But it also contains strong moral statements about the value of human life, such as when it says that a crosswalk should be built only if 93 pedestrians per hour are crossing, regardless of how many people are dying.  (This should also recall Brent Toderian’s maxim: You can’t judge the need for a bridge by counting the people swimming across the river.”)

Right of Way is clear, direct, and easy to read.  Like a good journalist, Schmitt has strong feelings about this but doesn’t lead with them.  Instead, she lays out facts and stories and lets you have your own feelings about them.  Ultimately, this book invites the reader to think about the value of human life when it conflicts with our need or longing to go places quickly.  Different people may have different perspectives on that, but after reading Schmitt, most will be shocked at just how extreme the epidemic of pedestrian death has become, and what simple things could be done to stop the killing.

US Commuter Rail: What it Is and What It Could Be

Jake Blumgart has a superb piece in Governing (free but click “Continue to site.”) about the distinctly North American artifact called commuter rail, and why it’s so different from the way heavy rail infrastructure is used for transit in most other developed countries.

The key difference is that most other countries want their heavy rail services to be useful all day, while the default in most of the US has been to run only at rush hour with at best minimal service the rest of the time, as though the briefcase commuter is the only conceivable customer.

There are not such sharp contrasts between regional rail and the rest of transit systems in most wealthy European or East Asian nations. But in North America, the divide was sacrosanct. As recently as 2016, then-MBTA General Manager Frank DePaola drew a bright line between this service and the rest of the agency’s subway, bus, and light rail services: “Commuter rail is commuter rail. It’s not transit. It’s designed to bring people into the city in the morning and take them home at night.”

The COVID-19 pandemic, however, calls that whole concept into doubt.

“It’s not transit.” “The divide was sacrosanct.” Of course this division of the market by trip purpose also implied a distinction of social class, manifested especially in very high fares.  But high ridership is diverse ridership.  If the goal is to help everyone go places, it’s always best to design services that are useful to everyone and make those services connect, rather than run two systems side by side (commuter rail and slow buses, for example).

Commuter rail services also tend to run long distances across core cities without providing much relevant service to them.  They either run nonstop or offer a frequency that’s too low to be relevant for the shorter in-city trips happening along the line.

I have my own trauma about this, because I spent too many years in the 1980s trying to advocate for an all-day frequent service on Caltrain, the commuter rail line between San Francisco and San Jose in California.  Caltrain has the geography of a frequent all-day rapid transit service: it runs through the historic downtown of almost every city it serves, because the downtowns grew around the rail line.  In terms of the useful transit provided, it could have functioned as another BART line.

Yet decades later, Caltrain service levels are still terrible in the context of the corridor it serves.  It was big event when the midday frequency was improved from two hours, as it was in my day, to one hour, but that still makes it irrelevant to most trips along the corridor, especially those of less than 10 miles or so where waiting time becomes more onerous.  So a bus system has to run alongside it, inefficiently serving some of the same trips that rail could be serving, and unable to efficiently feed the rail line very well because of the rail’s low frequency and erratic schedule.

Since then, as a bus network planner, I’ve encountered the same problem in many other cities.  There’s just no way to integrate commuter rail with a local bus network, because good bus networks involve regular patterns of frequency that are not what US commuter rail does.  At best you have to provide dedicated shuttles that meet the trains, and that’s a form of duplication that leads to worse access for everyone.

Blumgart’s piece touches on the effort that’s now being made to rethink commuter rail to make it more like what it’s always been in Europe, East Asia, and even low-density Australia and New Zealand.  In all these countries, rail is how you travel longer distances across the region all the time, not just at rush hour.

That difference arises in part from a different geography of social class.  When I lived in Sydney, I wasn’t happy with midday frequencies on the all-day rail network — mostly every 30 minutes then, mostly 15 now — but that was far superior to what most big US cities are used to.  The difference is the suburbanization of poverty, which has been happening for decades in Europe and Australia but is only now accelerating in the US.  The most remote parts of Sydney are some of the poorest.  In this urban structure, lower income people have to travel longer distances, but mostly to non-peak jobs.  Making heavy rail services part of the total transit system isn’t just a better use of infrastructure, it’s increasingly going to be an equity issue.

If Covid-19 causes a permanent drop in rush-hour commuting, we could see a golden opportunity to make better use of all the existing infrastructure of commuter rail.  There are plenty of obstacles, but they aren’t physical. They’re mostly cultural issues embedded in regulation and labor practices.  When it becomes important enough, those can be solved.

Basics: Should Bus Rapid Transit be Open or Closed?

If you are involved in debates about Bus Rapid Transit, you need to stop and think about whether the project will be closed or open, because this will have a big effect on how useful the service is.  I’m always surprised at how few BRT projects clearly debate this issue.

A BRT system is open if the buses can continue off the end of the infrastructure and operate as conventional buses on local streets.  In situations where multiple bus operating companies run along the same path, open can also mean that the infrastructure can be available to multiple operators, although that almost always implies the first meaning as well.

A BRT system is closed if the buses must remain with the infrastructure, so that service must end at the end of the infrastructure, just as all rail services do.

In a given situation, a closed BRT option will require more transferring than open BRT for people to reach actual destinations that lie beyond the infrastructure.  As a result, it will tend to lead to longer overall travel times unless the speed advantages of the BRT compensate for that transfer delay.

There are two reasons this is a problem for your actual ability to go places:

  • A very single-centered urban form may logically need services to branch as they head out of the city, because as demand gets lower, you need less frequency but needed to cover more area.  Branching divides frequency, and in that case this can be OK.
  • But the bigger problem is that for non-transit reasons, the infrastructure may end where the demand doesn’t end, and closed BRT in this situation forces a lot of people to transfer just to keep going in the same direction.  In a high-frequency grid, for example, it’s important that service operate continuously all the way across the grid, so that while some people will have to transfer once few have to transfer twice.  Closed BRT can be an obstacle to this.

Despite this disadvantage, BRT systems are often closed for two major reasons:

  • In extremely crowded systems, closed BRT allows for tighter control of operations, for maximum capacity and minimum waiting time.  Capacity considerations may also dictate that all buses using the infrastructure be as large as possible.
  • In wealthy countries closed BRT more likely to be about trying to mimic the experience of rail transit, so as to be more attractive to a supposed discretionary or “choice” rider. If the goal is to make BRT appear special and different from regular buses, this goal is muddied if BRT buses run outside the infrastructure, or regular buses run inside of it.

The first of these reasons translates into measurable benefits in travel time, and thus access to opportunity, while the second does not.

Closed BRT is the more common kind of BRT in the United States, mostly for the second reason.  Where it appears in developing countries with very high public transit demand, it is mostly for the first reason.

BRT can be closed by any of several mechanisms:

  • Full separation. It can be made physically impossible for buses to enter or leave the infrastructure.    This is unusual, since buses may need to enter or leave in emergencies or to travel to and from the operating base.
  • Station and fleet incompatibility. Stations and buses may be designed so that they can only be used together.  For example, Eugene, Oregon’s BRT can run in regular lanes and even in mixed traffic, but its stations have high platforms that only match the floor height of the designated BRT buses, effectively requiring a closed system.  Fleet incompatibility can also be created through electrification, especially if end-of-line charging stations are required.  These stations become barriers to continuing service beyond the end of the line at that station, because the charging requires an amount of time that is practical only at the end of the line when no passengers are on board.
  • Operating plan. Service can be operated as closed even though the infrastructure doesn’t physically prevent open operations.

So should a new BRT system be open or closed?  In most cases, the advantages of open BRT are about people being able to go places so they can do things.  The advantages of closed BRT are mostly about branding and some limited kinds of amenity.

Brisbane, Australia’s BRT system uses ordinary buses that continue onto local streets, but it’s still really, really nice.

The concept of amenity is worth unpacking.  Many great amenities are possible on open BRT – see the beautiful busway stations of Brisbane, for example – but these generally do not include special buses with special features, unless you buy enough of these that they can continue to wherever those buses logically need to go to create the most liberating possible network.  There’s another reason to be cautious about special buses: Really, all buses should be nice, so creating a distinct brand of buses amounts to disparaging the rest of the bus system as much as it’s promoting the BRT.   We may be spending a lot of capital money to promote the idea that most buses are inferior.

But a few things, such as absolutely level boarding, benefit from buses that stop exactly at the platform level, and these buses tend not to be able to stop an ordinary bus stop.  Absolutely level boarding is great, and especially important to people using mobility devices.   But well-designed open BRT, with good operations and training, can still do reasonably level boarding where it’s easy to cross with a wheelchair or stroller.

I said “in most cases,” open BRT offers the best travel times and thus the most access to opportunity.  So what are the exceptions?  Closed BRT can be more efficient at very, very high levels of ridership – such as we see in big cities in less wealthy countries.  Here, an entire corridor may be continuously very busy, and in this case, the most efficient operations, and hence highest capacity, arise from being able to use every bit of the infrastructure and keep buses evenly spaced.  This is harder to do with open BRT, because buses may be entering or leaving the infrastructure part way, thus leaving a part of the infrastructure with fewer buses.  Buses may also be entering unpredictably, because they are coming from route segments where they are running in mixed traffic and thus subject to delay.  Where such huge volumes of people are traveling, these problems can cause pass-ups that do measurably reduce travel.

But this important exception arises only where massive capacity is critical, and this case rarely arises in the moderate-density wealthy countries of North America, Australia/New Zealand, or even most of Europe.  So in those countries tends not to offer any advantage to people’s ability to go places so they can do things.  In these contexts, closed BRT can deliver a better “brand” or “look and feel”, but open BRT is more likely to get you to our destination as soon as possible.  You decide which matters more.