The Bus Arrives at the New York Times

Well, this was great to see! A piece by the always-wise NYT columnist Farhad Manjoo.

What I like about the piece is that he runs through the typical confusions and prejudices about the bus.  It’s kind of like he’s driving, well, a bus, picking up each reader in the neighborhood of their own assumptions before delivering them all them to his point.  Having gathered his readers, he takes them to London, and points out that the most important thing about London’s buses isn’t just that they are iconic, or sustainable, or easy to pay the fare on.  The important thing is that there are lots of them.

But the major innovation in London’s buses is less technological than numerical. The magic is one of scale — there are simply enough buses in London to allow for frequent, reliable service to the parts of the city that people want to travel to.

This is the point.  Successful transit is mass transit.  If it doesn’t scale, it doesn’t matter.

Yikes! I’m in Wikipedia

Well, I certainly didn’t expect this, and I don’t know who wrote it. Thanks to whoever did!

As of right now (March 10, 2021) it has several objective problems, including fanboy diction, some confused writing, and an emphasis on obscure citations instead of major ones.

If you want to wade into editing it, I’m happy to provide facts but not bias.

Richmond, Virginia: Expanding on a Redesigned System

In June 2018, Richmond, Virginia and its transit agency, GRTC, launched a new BRT line and a redesigned bus network that we helped design. That new network was intended to help increase ridership, and it did. From June 2018 through February 2020, ridership increased every month, a huge positive growth, topping out at 29% increase in ridership from February 2020 versus February 2018. The pandemic has reduced ridership but much of the ridership decline is concentrated in commuter express routes.

During and after the redesign process, the adjacent suburban counties participated in a longer-term planning process to consider expansion and improvement in each jurisdiction and those conversations coalesced into a ripe political moment to find dedicated funding for GRTC. In early 2020, the Virginia General Assembly created a new regional entity, the Central Virginia Transportation Authority, with dedicated revenues from sales and gas taxes, and 15% of their funding will go to GRTC.

Much of the new money goes to other things, including reducing the contributions that local governments already make. In the end, the measure funds about a 20% increase in bus service. Many local transit advocates argued for a higher percentage of the regional funding to go to GRTC, but the resulting legislation was a compromise between many differing regional interests. Initially expectations were high for how much this new funding could expand service across the region, but given how many different things the new funding is trying to do, it’s ultimately not a really big expansion of service.

As a result, the hard choices arising from transit’s basic geometry still need to be thought about, particularly the ridership-coverage trade-off. How should the region prioritize its new investment? Should it expanding routes as far as possible across the region, even if that means lower frequency service that we know few people will find useful? Or should it invest in more frequent services that will help more people get somewhere soon and connect most people to a lot more jobs and opportunities?

Those are the basic questions before the public, stakeholders, and leaders of the region in the Regional Transit Plan Concepts that we’ve helped to design for GRTC.

The Coverage Concept spends the new dollars on spreading service farther to more places, but does so mostly with service running just once an hour. While it would extend service to 50,000 more people, those long wait times mean that the jobs reachable in 45 minutes for the average person would go up by only 4%.

 Residents close to serviceJobs reachable in 45 min
Coverage Concept+50,000+4%
Ridership Concept+15,000+16%

This concept shows how new regional funding might be used to expand the bus network with 20% more service if Coverage goals were the primary focus for new investment.

The Ridership Concept concentrates investment in services running every 10, 15, or 30 minutes in the most dense and busy places in the core of the region. It expands access to jobs by 16% for the average resident, but only extends service to an additional 15,000 residents.

This concept shows how new regional funding might be used to expand the bus network with 20% more service if Ridership goals were the primary focus for new investment.

So regional leaders face the eternally difficult trade-off of how to invest limited dollars in transit. If you live in the Richmond area, weigh in with the online survey so GRTC and your regional leaders can know how you want your transit system to expand. If you know someone in the Richmond region, send them the link to the project website and this post. These concepts are here to help people decide what values they want transit to prioritize. We can help the community understand the options and the outcome, but it’s ultimately their decision.

 

 

 

Fixing US Transit Requires Service, Not Just Infrastructure

TransitCenter has a new video and article with some powerful images saying what I say all the time:  If you want to transform public transit for the better in the US, there’s useful infrastructure you could build, but the quickest and most effective thing you could do is just run a lot more buses.

(Remember, US activists: Don’t just envy Europe; start by envying Canada.  The average Canadian city has higher ridership than the most comparable US city, not because they have nicer infrastructure or vastly better land use, but because they just run more transit.)

TransitCenter’s work uses access analysis to show what’s really at stake.  Increasing bus service by 40% (an aspirational number that still wouldn’t match many Canadian peers) would massively expand where people could go, and thus what they could do.

For example, here’s how 40% more service would expand where someone could get to from a particular point in metro Atlanta.  (The concentric colors mean where you could reach in 10, 20, 30, or 45 minutes, counting the walk, the wait, and the ride.)

Source: TransitCenter (graphic by Remix)

Source: TransitCenter (graphic by Remix)

With a 40% increase in service someone in this location can reach ten times the number of jobs in 45 minutes.  (These analyses use jobs because we have the data, but this means a comparable growth in the opportunities for all kinds of other trips: shopping, errand, social, and so on. )  I would argue that someone at this location would be 10 times as free, because they would have 10 times more options to do anything that requires leaving home.

The transportation chatter in the new administration is about infrastructure, partly because there’s lots of private money to be made on building things, and because building things is exciting.  But if you want to expand the possibility of people’s lives, and seriously address transport injustices that can be measured by this tool, don’t just fund infrastructure, fund operations.  Just run more buses!

 

 

Is Covid-19 a Threat to Public Transit? Only in the US

Jake Blumgart has a must-read in CityMonitor pointing out that in most wealthy countries, Covid-19 has raised few doubts about the future of public transit, nor have there been significant threats to funding.

City Monitor spoke with experts in Canada, East Asia, western Europe and Australia about the impacts of the pandemic on public transportation. None feared that systems in their nations would be deprived of the funds needed to continue providing decent service – and most even believed they would keep expanding. … In the US, by contrast, systems have been preparing doomsday scenarios, and advocates fear for the future.

We are seeing this with our own clients outside North America:  Even with demand cratering, authorities continue to fund good service.

There’s one technical reason for this in some cases.  In most wealthy countries outside North America, transit agencies are not free-standing local governments dependent on their own funding streams.  Instead, any needed subsidy flows to public transit directly from the central government budget.[1]  This means that public transit funding is debated alongside other expenses in a central budget, so the service level depends on what the nation or state/province values as a society, rather than what a transit agency can afford.

But there’s no question that apathy about public transit, and in some cases hostility, is higher in the US.  In my work I hear three kinds of negativity:

  • Cultural hostility to cities, which implies indifference to meeting their needs.
  • Disinterest in funding things that are useful to lower-income or disadvantaged groups, or groups that are culturally “other” in some way.
  • Especially aggressive marketing of new technologies as replacements of most public transit.  (Many new technologies are compatible with high-ridership public transit, but some are not, and many are overpromoted in ways that encourage opposition to transit funding.)

All three of these are understandably worse in the United States than in most other wealthy countries.

In any case, if you’re in the US, remember: there is no objective reality behind the idea that Covid-19 is a reason to care less about transit. It’s just a US thing, and we could choose to make it different.

 

 

 

 

[1] By central government I mean whichever level of government is sovereign: In most countries this is the national government, but in loose confederations like Canada and Australia, it’s the state or province.

Why Are US Rail Projects So Expensive?

We’ve known for a long time that the US pays more than most other wealthy countries to build rapid transit lines, and especially for tunneling.  If the incoming Biden administration wants to invest more in transit construction, then it’s time to get a handle on this.

The transit researcher Alon Levy has been working on this issue for many years, has generated a helpful trove of articles is here.  Alon’s work triggered a New York Times exposé in 2017, focus on the extreme costs (over $1 billion/mile) of recent subway construction there.

But while the New York situation is the most extreme, rapid transit construction costs are persistently higher than in comparable countries in Europe, where they are tunneling through equally complex urban environments.

Now, Eno Foundation has dug into this, building a database of case studies to help define the problem.  Their top level findings:

  • Yes, US appears to spend more to build rail transit lines than comparable overseas peers.
  • This difference is mostly about the cost of tunneling, not surface lines.  The US pays far more to tunnel 1 km than Europeans do, even in cities like Rome where archaeology is a major issue.
  • Needless to say, the type of rail doesn’t matter much.  Once you leave the surface, either onto viaducts or into tunnels, any cost difference between light rail and heavy rail is swamped by the cost of those structures.  (This is true of bus viaducts and tunnels too, of course)
  • Remarkably, stations don’t seem to explain the difference in rail construction costs.  European subways with stations closer together still come out cheaper than US subways with fewer stations.

Most of us have known this for a long time — though I admit to being surprised by the last point.  But it’s good to see a respected institute like Eno building out a database to make the facts unavoidable.  If you want more rail transit in the US, it simply has to be cheaper.

Holiday Card, with Controversial Hummingbird

The card was lightly controversial because it has no public transit or urbanism theme, but I’m sorry: Hummingbirds are amazing.  If you’ve never watched one in action I suggest that as a New Years Resolution.  And when you get a green hummingbird at a red feeder, that basically ticks all the holiday boxes.

We are deeply grateful to all the clients and friends who’ve helped us get through this difficult year.  We hope we’ve been helpful to you as well.  Happy holidays, with best wishes and all necessary fortitude for 2021.

It’s OK to be Absolutely Furious

Today I took a stab at writing a holiday letter and discovered that, right at this moment, I can’t figure out how to cheer up transit advocates, or people who work in local government, or anyone else who loves cities.  Since consultants like me are expected to exude at least some degree of optimism, this is more of a problem for me than it is for the average person.

Why?  At the Federal level in the US, powerful forces, especially in the Senate, are happy to watch local governments implode in budgetary crisis, weakening the only level of government that citizens can influence.  Particular hostility seems to be directed at transit agencies associated with big cities.  In an absurdity that only Federal policy could create, high ridership in the big agencies before the Covid disaster is exactly why they are in such trouble nowNew York, Washington, Boston and possibly others are looking at service cuts that will simply devastate those cities, undermining essential workers and destroying the access to opportunity without which an equitable economic recovery is impossible.  Smaller agencies are in better shape at the moment, but if there isn’t a new funding package soon we’ll see devastating cuts across the US.

Tomorrow or next week, I will express optimism again and encourage constructive action.  But I know that the journey to any authentic optimism goes through the anger rather than around it.  So today I feel the need to state, for the record, that I’m absolutely furious: about what’s happening to transit in the US, and about many larger things of which that’s just an example.

Again, working consultants like me aren’t supposed to say this in public, and if I were at an earlier stage of my career I wouldn’t dare.

Please remember that when you deal with public servants or consultants at this time, and they don’t seem to be reacting in the way you think they should, that they are probably furious too, but are in roles where they can’t express that.  In addition to being furious about all the things that you’re furious about, they have also been through a period of unprecedented assault on their professions.  Because they did the long, hard work of learning about a topic so that they can help people deal with it, most have been slandered and a few have been threatened physically.  So when you see these people managing their own emotions to keep working constructively, consider expressing some gratitude and admiration for that.

When I am in a room with some citizens trying to solve a problem together, we can’t get much done if everyone is just expressing anger in every moment.  But even if we park it at the door in order to do our work, we shouldn’t deny it.  In almost every meeting, I wish I could say:  “I know how furious you are about all the injustice and cruelty and oppression and destructive behavior that surrounds us, in addition to your fears for yourself, your family, and your community.  I’m angry too.”  Maybe it’s my work to figure out how to say that, even to diverse audiences who may be angry about different things.

There will be many places where it’s not safe to talk this way.  But I know I speak for many calm-seeming professionals when I say:  I’m absolutely furious, and I hope you are too.

A Brief Detour into Comedy

Well, this isn’t your average interview.

“Nobody Listens to Paula Poundstone” is a comedy podcast series spun off by the US National Public Radio game show Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me.  A while back they called out of the blue.  Apparently they had done an interview with a parking garage designer, and a listener replied by asking them why they don’t interview the Human Transit guy, for balance I guess.  I had all the leeriness of comedy that you might expect, but it came off better than I expected, and it was fun.

The podcast is here.  After half an hour of comic banter between the hosts, the segment starts at 31:53 to 1:02:00.