How Can We Study Things in Isolation? They’re Connected!

Whenever I present a bus network redesign plan, I’m always accused of ignoring important things.  How can I design a bus network, people say, without also planning for bus lanes, or bicycle parking, or road pricing, or parking policy, or urban structure? These things are all connected, they say!

Yes, they are all connected. But despite being connected, many planning tasks are separable:

  • Two projects are connected if they affect each other’s outcomes. For example, a network redesign and a bus lane project will certainly improve each other’s benefits over what either could do alone.  A rail line and a bus line parallel to it are competitors that will undermine each other’s outcomes, so they are connected too.  (Deep ecologists would say that almost everything is connected in this sense.)
  • Two projects are separable if one can be done before the others, and will achieve some benefits  by itself, even while waiting for the other connected parts to happen.

I know why people get anxious about this, because we all see situations where things were separated that really were inseparable. A rail line and a freeway are built side by side, without noting how each will reduce the demand for the other.  Maybe bus routes are designed without thought to connections between them, or worse, great infrastructure for bus connections gets built in a place where it’s not actually useful to the bus service.  A public transit service ends at a political boundary even though the demand doesn’t end there.  These are all examples of projects being separated when they were not really separable.

On the other hand, no human brain can focus on everything at once.  If we tried to do bus network redesign, fleet modernization, bus lanes, bike parking, road pricing, and parking policy as part of one project, it would never get off the ground.  Just co-ordinating the hundreds of experts needed to deal with all dimensions of such a project would consume most of our effort.

More important, in any project, everything moves at the speed of the slowest element, which is why it so often takes forever to get things done.

So separating projects is the only way for anything to happen soon. We are not denying that everything is connected. We are saying we have to start somewhere, and make some progress, even as other pieces of the puzzle are in the works.

Like any plan, a good network redesign effort requires clear thinking about separability.  A redesign is mainly a revision of the patterns in which buses run, but this process always identifies infrastructure and policy changes that are also needed. Sometimes these are truly inseperable:  The specified number of buses can’t meet at point A unless the facility there is enlarged to have room for them.  If the plan requires people to change buses at an intersection, we need to make sure there’s shelter and safe street crossings, and so on.  If the fare structure is penalizing changing buses, that needs to be fixed if our plan wants to encourage that.

But we fight to make the list of inseparable things as short as possible, because every time we decide that something is inseperable from the plan, that becomes one more thing that could stop the whole plan if it hits some kind of snag.  We ask:  Would the redesign still be possible, and worth doing, if some infrastructure or policy element doesn’t get done?  Sometimes this leads to good tactical thinking:  Can we do this necessary interchange quickly on-street, even while waiting for the funding and consensus to do the permanent facility that’s really needed?  Can we make some patches to the fare system while the ultimate system is still being worked out?

Another test is:  Does doing Project A without Project B actually make things worse?  If not, this is another signal that the projects are probably separable. The answer, for bus network redesigns, is almost always no.  By itself, redesign will achieve significant improvement even as it leaves a lot of other frustrating problems in place.  But getting it done may make other improvements politically easier if the result is that public transit is more visible, more used, and thus more widely valued.

So when people respond to a network redesign proposal by being angry that it doesn’t talk about bike lanes, electric buses, or road pricing, they’re confusing connectedness with inseparability.  Our network redesign study isn’t ignorant of those things just because we’re not talking about them.  We’re just talking about something different, something that’s also important and needs some attention.  A good network redesign, if allowed to succeed, will make all those other things easier.  And in any case, the redesign itself is important enough, and hard enough to explain, that it deserves the public’s full attention for a few weeks.

Everything is connected, but many things are still separable.  That’s a good thing, because if they weren’t, nothing would get done.

Dublin: A Bus Network for a More Liberated City

[Updated 2018 Aug 8]

For 18 months, our firm has been working with National Transport Authority of Ireland (NTA) to develop a redesign of Dublin’s bus network.  We studied every bus route, drew hundreds of maps of data and ideas, and spent a week locked in a conference room with experts from NTA, the bus operating company Dublin Bus, and staff from the local governments.  Once we had a rough plan we spent more months refining and analysing.  It’s been a long voyage to this point.

The plan is now released for public comment. The plan revises the entire network, creating a much simpler pattern that people can learn, remember, and explain.  A vast high-frequency network, in a spiderweb grid pattern, extends across most of the city, dramatically improving travel time for journeys in many directions.

Our key goal was improving access.  We wanted to speed up people’s trips, but we prefer to say that we wanted to expand the range of places that could be reached in a fixed amount of time.  We wanted people to get to more places, sooner, so that they would have more opportunities in their lives.   In short, we want public transport to give people more freedom.

Here is what we were trying to do. Under the plan, in 45 minutes of travel time, a person near DCU gains access to the blue area and loses access to the red area. That means she can get to 44% more jobs and student enrolments (and other useful places). That’s freedom and opportunity! The average result across all of Dublin is a 20% growth in where you can get to.

Under the plan, the average Dubliner can get to 20% more useful places in 30 minutes.  “Useful places” means jobs and student enrolments, which are easy to count with Irish data, but of course you can expect similar results for shopping and for all kinds of other destinations that give value to our lives.

There are many ways to explore the new network, including maps, frequency tables for every hour of the day and week, and an interactive map tool that shows where you could go soon on the proposed network, and how you might get there. You can also look at a table showing how the plan affects every segment of every existing route.

But we hope you’ll also try to understand the principles at work.  For that, here’s a link to the summary report.  Also, don’t be afraid to browse the full report.  It is written in plain non-technical English with lots of interesting pictures, and it lays out every aspect of the plan, including the thought process by which it was designed.

The maps are essential of course.  Chapter 7 of the full report lays them all out, but you can also see the main ones on the website (click to select a map, then click in the map window to see it fullsize).

But to understand the maps, you must look at the legend.  Our firm’s usual mapping style is dense with information, but therefore contains a couple of things that you need to learn.  Most of the early expressions of panic and confusion have been based on misreadings of the map.

In our maps:

  • Colour means frequency.  Red means high frequency, and cooler colours mean lower.
  • The colours mean midday frequency; see the frequency table for frequency at rush hour and other times, and see here [select Map 3] for peak-only routes that may be relevant to your area.
  • Change in colour may not indicate that a route ends.It often means that the frequency changes but the route continues. Watch the route numbers to be clear, and remember, a spine like “A” is made up of Routes A1, A2, and so on, so where A1 becomes A, the bus keeps going.

A network redesign is both a big idea and 10,000 details. In recent presentations to the media and to local government councils, I focused on the big idea:

  • more service …
  • to more places …
  • so that you get there sooner …
  • with a little more interchanging (transferring in US parlance)

But of course the questions and objections were more about the details:

  • How dare I take away my direct route to the city?  Because it’s really infrequent and inefficient, and we can get you there sooner another way.  If we give you more frequent service to a nearby hub, we can connect you to much faster service to the city, so in the end, counting waiting time, you get there sooner.  We can also connect you to countless places you can’t get to now at all.  In any case, only about 8% of riders all day, and 5% during the peak, lose direct service to the city centre, and not all of those people are going to the city centre!
  • How can people change buses, or walk to a different stop in an intersection, when it’s windy and raining? The plan includes good shelter and attention to walking distances at every interchange point.  But people change buses in more brutal climates than Ireland’s: Moscow and Edmonton come to mind.  Most people have adapted to their climate. They know how to do things outdoors in it, and therefore can work with it when changing buses.
  • How will this affect older people and people with disabilities? There is an unavoidable tension between senior and disabled needs – which are much more inconvenienced by interchange – and everyone else.  A network designed solely around senior/disabled preferences for minimum walk and interchange is simply too slow to be useful for the rest of the population.  Again, attention is being given to making interchanges as convenient as possible, including for people with limited mobility.
  • Isn’t this connected to a lot of other things? How can you work on it in isolation? I address that one here.

Whether you live in Dublin or not, I hope you enjoy this work.  The full report is the most advanced piece of work our firm has done yet.  I can’t speak highly enough of the team at NTA, who have shown clarity and courage throughout this predictably difficult process.

If you do live in Dublin, you MUST complete an online survey.  There is a link to it here.  Yes, that’s a command. Too often, people take the attitude that public comment is just for show, and that the government is going to do what they want anyway.  When that happens, people who like the plan take it for granted, and people who hate it feel like they have to scream to get their  point through. So we get nothing but screaming, which makes the plan look like a failure.

On the survey, remember, we value specific comments.  If you like the plan but object to a detail, say that.  Don’t tell us that we’re stupid because we didn’t get your detail right.  There are only so many details we can get right without consulting the public, so that’s the whole point of this public conversation.

Philadelphia: A First Step toward a Better Bus Network

Our work on the bus network design for Philadelphia has finally produced a report!  The transit agency, SEPTA, hired us a year ago to study the city’s bus network (separate from suburban services) and identify what issues a network design might address.

Jason Laughlin at the Philadelphia Inquirer has a good story here.  Plan Philly, a project of NPR station WHYY, has a story here.

Our report makes no recommendations.  We studied the network in great detail, and then made statements that all implicitly start with if.  We present options, show their consequences, and invite the community to think about the trade-offs these options imply.

If you wanted a network that increased where people can go in a given amount of time, and thus made transit useful for more purposes, you would consider these possibilities:

  • Be open to changing the network to some degree, even though this would change the travel patterns that existing riders are used to. Are the benefits worth the need for some riders to adjust to new travel patterns?
  • Widen stop spacing from about 500 ft (150m) to at least 1000 feet. European stop spacing is often well above 1500 ft (450m). Philadelphia’s bus stops are unusually close together even by US standards.  This means slower service.
  • Be willing to ask some people to change buses who now have a direct ride, often in cases where their total trip would be faster because they would wait less.(Does that sound wrong?  It did to me at first.  It’s explained here.)

The next step that we recommend is to encourage some public conversation about these and other choices, before a recommended network is designed.  Our work has ended on this project, but we certainly hope to be involved in the future.  Meanwhile, read the report!

Portland Plans Faster, More Reliable Buses

The Portland Bureau of Transportation has released the long-awaited Enhanced Transit Corridors plan, a set of policies and strategies to increase the speed and reliability of Portland’s major bus lines.  As in many cities, Portland’s bus lines have been slowing down about 1% a year, which is slowly eating away at people’s access to all kinds of opportunity.

The plan also points the way for the City of Portland to be a more active leader in transit policy, much as the City of Seattle has done so effectively.

The Portland Bureau of Transportation invited me to draft the Executive Summary, which offers some examples of ways to make this topic urgent for more people.  I’m happy with how it came out, and people fighting similar battles in other cities may find it useful.

Here’s the Executive Summary.  Here’s the rest of the report.

Portland residents: Have your say at or before the City Council hearing on June 20 at 2 pm, in the Council Chambers.  You can also submit comments before June 20 by writing to cctestimony at portlandoregon dot gov, cc: etcplan at portlandoregon dot gov.  It would be great if our City Council heard, loud and clear, how important this effort is.

 

The rise of “Super Commuters”

The Apartment List Rentonomics blog, which writes on real-estate statistics and economics, recently posted a census analysis on the “Rise of Supercommuters”.  It describes a recent increase in the percentage of people with commutes 90 minutes or longer each way.  This thoughtful analysis is well worth a read.  It finds that:

  • Nationwide, one in 36 commuters are super commuters, traveling 90+ minutes to work each day, spending hours on public transportation or battling traffic.
  • Super commuting is becoming increasingly common: the share of super commuters increased 15.9 percent from 2.4 percent in 2005 to 2.8 percent in 2016.
  • The share of super commuters is highest in expensive metros with strong economies — New York, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., Atlanta and Los Angeles, and in their surrounding areas.
  • Super commuters are more likely to rely on public transportation than those with shorter commutes. An estimated 91.4 percent of non-super commuters drive to work, compared to just 69.7 percent of super commuters.
  • In most U.S. metros, low-income commuters are more reliant on public transportation than high-income commuters, creating a nexus between super-commuting and poverty. When transit usage falls sharply with income it suggests that transit is used out of financial necessity rather than as a lifestyle choice.

But the term “Super Commuter” sounds too heroic.  “Super commutes” aren’t something to celebrate.  People should be free to arrange their lives this way, but shouldn’t be forced to by the housing market.

For the commuter, spending three hours of unpaid time a day commuting is only a response to a lack of reasonable alternatives.  For taxpayers, it represents a high cost- both in providing infrastructure, and in increased traffic congestion.  The US Census itself calls commutes over 90 minutes “Extreme commutes”.  That to me, better describes these long commutes- they are something that a few people may have to do because of their job or family situation, but something that shouldn’t be made the new normal.  “Extreme” also captures the right connotation.  As in “extreme sports,” it suggests something that most people would rather watch than do, and that many don’t even want to hear about.

We can also draw parallels between increases in in the prevalence of these extreme commutes and the decrease in overall transit ridership over the past few years.  They are both symptoms of the suburbanization of poverty, and to some extent, the middle class.  These suburbs are not geometrically conducive to high-ridership transit, and as a result the transit options are poor, so many people who move there, resort to driving.  But driving such long distances every day can cost thousands of dollars over the course of a year, so some people would still rather endure the low frequencies and limited spans of suburban transit service to access the city.

The article goes on to conclude that:

Reversing the growth in super commuting requires investment in both increasing housing supply and improving transportation.

Both increasing housing supply and improving transportation have the potential to reduce commute distances, but the location of this new housing and improved transportation are crucial.  Transit always achieves higher ridership per hour of service in dense, mixed-use urban centers, than in unwalkable outlying suburbs, so if we want to reduce the percentage of transit commutes that take more than 90 minutes each way, we will have to substantially increase densities in places where fast, frequent, and useful transit is most feasible.  That means a mixture of housing and jobs, and building up, not out.

 

Santa Cruz: Video of My Evening Presentation

In May 2017 I made a quick trip to Santa Cruz, California to do presentations both to the public and to the Regional Transportation Commission.  Some of my presentation is my usual shtick, but I also talked a lot about chokepoints in the Bay Area, and was also asked to comment on a local proposal (proponents, opponents) to remove the rails from a rail corridor in order to create a wider and more attractive active modes path (though a functional path alongside the rail is possible in any case.)

It’s here.  There’s quite a Q&A as well.

Is Anyone Owed a Transit Line?

San Francisco’s regional rapid transit agency, BART, just voted not to build a long-planned extension to the eastern suburb of Livermore.

To create the consensus to start the BART system, over 50 years ago, unfunded promises were made of future extensions into outer suburbs. The need to fulfill these promises is one of the top arguments for these extensions.

But are these promises wise, or for that matter, should they be believed?

When you promise some Town X a transit line, that’s logically equivalent to saying:  “You in Town X don’t have to do anything to make this line happen, or succeed.”  In other words, it doesn’t matter whether Town X …

  • … allows the transit line to go a place where there will be destinations in walking distance, and where it’s safe and easy to walk.
  • … plans major intensification around the transit line, so that there will be lots of demand there.
  • … allows the line to be built in a way that’s reasonably cost-effective for the transit agency.

This problem arises with all kinds of transit, from rapid transit lines to local bus services.  Leaders from Town X talk about transit as though it’s their entitlement as taxpayers, rather than something that they have to help succeed.  Logically, this leads to creating more transit lines where the necessary conditions for success are absent.  That leads, in turn, to accusations that the transit system is failing, when in fact it’s running intentionally low ridership services for non-ridership reasons.

A similar problem arises when the transit agency allows itself to be the sole advocate for a transit expansion to Town X.  This gives Town X the same message: The transit agency will do all the work; we don’t really have to help.  That’s why I am always advising that advocacy for expansion should not come from the transit agency.

So be careful what you promise, and be careful how seriously you take unfunded promises, especially ones made long ago.   In ridership terms, transit succeeds only in partnership with local government.  For that partnership to work, it must be clear that if the local government doesn’t do what’s really needed, the transit may not happen.

 

Richmond, Virginia: our Redesigned Network starts June 24!

On Sunday June 24, 2018 Richmond, Virginia will wake up to a new transit system, including its first Bus Rapid Transit line — the Pulse.   The redesigned network for the whole city is the result of a design process that our firm guided, in cooperation with the local office of Michael Baker International, for the City of Richmond and Greater Richmond Transit Company (the transit agency).

The redesign process began in early 2016 with our team leading city staff, stakeholders and the public in a conversation sparked by our Choices Report. We focused on key trade-offs, like ridership versus coverage and the right balance between peak service and all-day service.  Importantly, this project was led by the City of Richmond, not the transit agency, so it was closely aligned with the city’s own goals for itself, including its redevelopment.

We then developed three concepts of how to redesign the City’s bus network around the new BRT line and guided a conversation around those concepts and the goals they represented. The Familiar concept represented little change.  A Coverage concept focused on covering every part of the city even where ridership would be low.  A Ridership concept focused more on high-ridership services, like frequent lines in high-demand corridors.  Response from the public and stakeholders leaned toward the Ridership concept, though there was a wide diversity of opinion.

The top map shows the original proposal for the east end of the city.   Red = every 15 minutes.  Blue = every 30 minutes. Residents told us they preferred shorter walking distances and lower frequency, so we revised the proposal to the map below.

By January 2017 we published a draft recommended network with six new high frequency lines in addition to the BRT, clockface frequencies, more through-routing (instead of terminating) downtown, and a network that maintained nearly all existing coverage of people and jobs.

While response to the draft recommendation was very positive, the East End of the city raised some concerns. We had designed a high frequency line (Route 5 in the map) that required a longer walk for some residents. After more thought and review, the community and the city decided they would prefer to have shorter walks and longer waits. So, we revised the network design to have two lower frequency lines (Routes 5 and 41 in the map) instead of one higher frequency line.

We published the final network plan in March 2017 and since then the City and GRTC have been working hard to prepare for the big day when everything changes overnight, including additional tweaks and updates to the network in light of new information and additional community feedback. But overall, the basic network structure that will be implemented on June 24 is what was in the final plan from March 2017.

You can see how the new network drastically simplifies things by comparing the existing system

The top map shows the network before the redesign and the lower map shows the network after the redesign.

map to the new map in near west part of the city, which includes the Fan and Museum District neighborhoods. Previously, many routes piled together onto Broad Street to create a lot of service there, but it was not well organized and led to more bunching of buses than useful frequency. The new network is radically simpler, with more direct lines and frequent lines focused on the major east-west corridors in this part of the city. So there are now two major frequent lines in this area, the BRT line on Broad Street and the frequent Route 5 on the Main/Cary couplet.

And there is a new orbital line (Route 20) connecting the north, south and west parts of the city without requiring a transfer downtown. This is really important for Richmond because of the prevalence of jobs in the western part of the region while most lower cost housing is in the north, south, or east.  We wanted this line to be every 15 minutes, and we hope it will be soon; for now, budget constraints are holding it to a 30 minute frequency.

Also, GRTC has taken this opportunity to improve the communication in its system map. In the old map colors represented which parts of the city each route served. In the new map, colors represent frequency, which makes it much easier to see where the useful service is. (The new map is by our friends at CHK America, but the red-blue-green color scheme for frequency is one we’ve been using for years.)

Throughout the process we led the network design and guided the stakeholder conversations. We worked closely with our local partners at Michael Baker International who led the public outreach and key local government coordination. And the City provided strong leadership throughout to ensure the process led to a clear and convincing direction when City Council unanimously approved the policy direction for the plan in February 2017.

We’ve had fun working with GRTC, the City and surrounding counties on a ten-year plan for transit improvement. We’ve been leading an intensive effort on the network design in Henrico County, which covers Richmond’s northern suburbs, including concepts for a major expansion of transit into the county.  That is all leading toward a new Transit Development Plan for GRTC which will be completed in the next few months. Meanwhile, Henrico County has already taken major steps to implement parts of the plan. Starting in September, there will be evening and weekend service on three routes in Henrico (currently they do not have any service in the evening or on weekends). They will also extend service to the airport and along West Broad Street to Short Pump to serve the one of largest suburban office parks in the region and the largest shopping mall in the region.

When local governments start leading on transit, big things can happen. The fast movement on so many fronts in the last two years is due, in part, to the City of Richmond and Henrico County taking a much stronger role in guiding and planning for transit in coordination with GRTC, instead of leaving all the advocacy to the transit agency.

We’re pleased to have helped shepherd the conversation to this point, but much credit goes to all the GRTC, City, County, State, and regional agency staff (and other supporting consultants) who have worked hard on these issues for years and to the local transit advocates and organizers who have built grass roots support for more transit across the region.

So, get excited, Richmond and Henrico, for your new transit system is coming soon. And for those of you from other places who are interested in experiencing a transit redesign first hand, perhaps you should plan a long weekend trip to Richmond for the June 24 opening. You could even volunteer to help with the changeover!

What is “Development Oriented Transit”?

Chuck Marohn of the excellent organization Strong Towns doesn’t like transit-oriented development (TOD), and instead recommends “development-oriented transit” (DOT?) in a 2014 piece quoted by Rachel Quednau today. Debates about TOD and DOT have been around for a while, but are they really about anything?

Here’s Marohn:

 Transit-oriented development is the transit-advocate’s response to highway strip development in the same way that the early planned New Urbanist developments like Seaside were a response to greenfield suburban development. I’m sympathetic, but this isn’t the answer.

Instead of transit-oriented development, we should have development-oriented transit: Identify places where things are happening now and then connect them with the lowest level of viable transit possible. Make sure those places allow the next increment of development by right (without extensive permitting). This will ensure that the transit is viable and that it supports that next level of growth and expansion.

When that next level of growth and expansion happens, everything moves up a notch. Upgrade the transit to the next level — from jitney to shuttle bus, from shuttle bus to city bus, from city bus to streetcar, from streetcar to light rail, from light rail to subway — and repeat.

This is a beautiful idea that will make no sense to an actual transit planner.  It would be nice if you could start out with a low commitment to transit and then grow it as demand requires. But this approach routinely fails when communities do grow to the scale that requires high capacity transit, only to find that there is nowhere to develop effective transit because it wasn’t considered at an early stage.

This is the argument for ensuring public ownership of key rights-of-way, like abandoned railway corridors and utility corridors, and retaining the option for putting transit there in the future.  That much is usually not controversial.

But if we accept that, then it implies a greater challenge.  New towns need to be along a possible future right of way, so that future transit will serve them.

One of the most common mistakes of New Urbanist development is to build “transit-oriented” villages in places where efficient transit could never reach them.  Usually, this is because the village is in a cul-de-sac location position with respect to the larger network, so that transit can’t run through it on the way to anywhere else. I explain this problem more fully here.  In my book Human Transit I call out one of the earliest examples, Peter Calthorpe’s Laguna West, but I still encounter them constantly across the US.  (Here’s one in Davis, California, for example.)

So we transit planners are entitled to point out where development patterns make transit easier or harder to provide.  If the developers want to claim transit as a possible outcome, they must deliver development forms that are adaptable to transit in the future.  As Calthorpe and others have pointed out, the worst kind of sprawl is high-density sprawl, where travel demand is intense but the layout makes it impossible to serve with anything but cars.  Geometrically, this can only lead to high congestion, high vehicle miles traveled, and a range of other awful outcomes.

So what is “development-oriented transit”?  To be frank, I’m sure I’m not the only transit planner who finds the term insulting.  What exactly do you think we do all day?  Transit planning is a response to transit markets, which arise from the built form, i.e. “development”.  If development determines where people are and where they need to go, then all transit is development-oriented, and it always has been.

There is plenty to dislike about certain transit-oriented developments.  We must be suspicious of aesthetic objections that could be resolved only at high cost, as this amounts to dismissing the imperative of affordability, but even within that limit there are many ways to make development better or worse.

But in the end, transit-oriented development isn’t some architect’s theory, or even some set of prototypes.  It boils down to the idea that transportation infrastructure drives urban form as much as urban form drives infrastructure.  Virtually all authentic towns are located and configured in response to some kind of transportation: a port, a rail junction, a road junction, etc.  In cities, almost all of the inner city fabric that people love is transit-oriented development, in that it grew around early transit lines.

Transit-oriented development is not the opposite of “development-oriented transit.” All transport is development-oriented, and all development is oriented toward some transport mode.  If you want that mode to be public transit, then you need to plan development — not just its layout but also its location – with transit in mind, just as all urban planning did before 1945.  That’s all that the term “transit-oriented development” says, and all that it should mean.