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.



Portland: A 30-Year Old Kludge Finally Fixed

Living in Portland, I still care about the details of transit network planning here, and here’s a thing that Portland folks should comment about, especially those who deal with downtown.

Back in the 1980s, when the current frequent grid network was laid out, there was a controversy about the east-west path that Morrison Bridge buses (now Line 15) should use across downtown. As a result of this, the two directions of service ended up five blocks apart, with westbound buses on Washington St and eastbound buses on Salmon St.

Separating the two directions of service, beyond the minimum required by typical one-way couplets, is a Very Bad Thing, because a service is useful only if you can walk easily to both directions of it.

Blue shows the area with easy access to service. As the directions of service get further apart, the area served gets smaller.


Why was this five-block split ever created?  I was hanging around TriMet as a teenager then, so I think I remember.  Nobody who designed this liked it.  It was a political compromise, partly involving the department store whose large and busy loading dock fronted onto Alder, creating conflicts with buses.

The department store is long gone, but for some reason this was never fixed.  I started banging this drum again about a year ago, and the objection I heard was that Alder has too much rush hour traffic, backed up from the bridge.  While this is true:

  • A problem that happens briefly, like rush hour congestion, shouldn’t define the route that buses use all the time.
  • Congestion always happens where people want to go.  Designing bus routes to avoid congestion usually implies avoiding logical paths that would be useful to the most people.
  • Whatever time may be lost in that backup is far less than the time spent driving ten additional blocks, in the eastbound direction, to go down to Salmon St and back.

Now, TriMet is finally proposing to fix it:

Now, like any existing routing, some people find the Salmon St routing useful, probably including many municipal and county employees whose main offices are near there.  But these people are already walking from distant Washington St to travel in the other direction anyway, so they’re proving that they can.

If you live in Portland, please comment on this!  Tri-Met is taking feedback here.  As always, you must comment if you like an idea, not just if you hate it.  Negative comment predominates on almost all service changes, because people who like a change take it for granted that it’s happening anyway.  Don’t be part of that problem!  Comment here. There’s other cool stuff to comment on there too!



Livability and Protest in Portland: An Interview with Me

Protest against the Vietnam war in March 1970. Bonus points for knowing not just where this photo was taken, but also what the giant neon sign at the end of this street said.

Oregon Public Broadcasting has posted an interview with me about how Portland’s reputation for livability is related to its reputation for protest.  OPB’s Geoff Norcross is a great interviewer, and it was a fun conversation.  The audio and transcription are here.

“Through our livability, through the way we’ve built the city, we’ve created the stage on which those protests can express themselves effectively, but also attracted the kinds of people who are inclined to protest, who already see themselves to be as rejected by the system and want to stand up to it.”

Miami: A New Network with a Resilience Plan


For the past 18 months, we have been redesigning the bus network for Miami-Dade County, Florida with the local advocacy group Transit Alliance. As the final public engagement phase was coming to an end, the pandemic reached the United States, and like many other agencies, Miami-Dade Transit went into crisis management mode. So our work paused for about four months.

As the pandemic wore on, it became apparent that the agency needed more than a single transit network ready to implement.  It needed a plan that could adapt to a range of unpredictable futures. Nobody knows how long the pandemic will go on, or what affect it will have on tax revenues that the agency relies on.

So, in finalizing the Better Bus Network, we worked with county staff and Transit Alliance to develop a Resilience Plan, to guide future decisions about how to ramp service up or down in the face of an unknown future.

But first, let’s talk about how we got here.

In the first phase of the project, we developed a Choices Report to analyze the existing network and discuss key questions that determine how the network should be designed. We took input from the public about those questions and developed two concept networks that highlight the tradeoffs between focusing on coverage and focusing on ridership. We returned to the public to ask them which way they lean between these the two concepts. Remember that it’s never one or the other; the ridership and coverage concepts represent two ends of a spectrum. Based on public input, we designed a Draft Network that was halfway between the two Concepts and now we revised it into the Final Network.

Below are slices of the Existing Network and New Network for the core of the region (click the maps to see the full-size maps of both networks).

A comparison of the maps of the Existing Network and the Final Better Bus Network in Miami-Dade County, Florida. Note the line colors, which indicate midday frequency.

Click here for the full map of the Existing Network

Click here for the full map of the Final Better Bus Network


The New Network creates a frequent grid that helps residents get to more places sooner. In this network, 353,000 more residents are near a frequent route (an increase of 13% over the existing network). With the new network, the average resident can reach 36% more jobs in 45 minutes by walking and transit.

The frequent grid means that it is easier for people to make connections between routes allowing them to get to many more places in a reasonable amount of time. The following animation shows where someone can get to in 45 minutes by walking and transit from Liberty City (NW 12th Avenue and 62nd Street).  The gray area shows where someone can get to with the Existing Network and the light blue area shows where they can get to with the New Network. With the Better Bus Network, someone living in Liberty City can get to 60% more jobs and 50% more people.  This is what we mean by access to opportunity.

This map shows the areas reachable from Liberty City within 45 minutes using the Existing Network and using the redesigned Final Network

This vast expansion in access is only possible because of the frequent grid. This means that if Miami-Dade Transit has less revenue but wants to maximize access like this, they have to protect the frequent grid. That is what the Resilience Plan does. The network’s corridors are divided into tiers to establish what service should be provided at different levels of revenue.

The Resilience Plan protects the frequent grid in case of budget shortfall.

In the grimmest financial scenario (Tier 1), the network would keep only frequent corridors spaced every mile, and a few coverage routes that are critical to ensuring equitable access. Yes, this network will make people walk longer distances. But when they get to a route, a bus is always coming soon. If the County has more revenue, they can add the service in Tier 2 and so forth.

Nobody wants to see these service cuts, but if they become necessary, MDT will be able to minimize the damage to people’s access to opportunity by using the Resilience Plan.  On the other hand, if MDT did service cuts the usual way – by leaving the routes as they are but cutting frequencies – access to opportunity would decrease drastically.  Consolidating routes to make them more frequent can actually make people’s trips faster, despite the longer walks.

This Final Network is now in the hands of the County Commission to endorse and, if approved, to be implemented by Miami-Dade Transit. There will likely be additional opportunities to comment on this plan before it is implemented. If you’re in Miami-Dade County, remember to submit a comment or tell your Commissioner about this Plan, particularly if you like it.  Sadly, most of the public comments received on transit plans are negative even if the plan is broadly popular, because people who like it falsely assume it will happen anyway.  This plan will not be implemented if it does not attract strong support.   The County would like constructive comments about the plan, which will be used to make the final implementation even better.  But if you like the plan, it’s important to say that as well!

Miami: Una Nueva Red con un Plan de Resiliencia


Por los últimos 18 meses, hemos estado rediseñando la red de autobuses para la agencia de transporte público del Condado de Miami-Dade, Florida (MDT, por sus siglas en inglés) con el grupo local Transit Alliance. Según se estaba acabando la última fase de participación ciudadana, la pandemia llegó a los Estados Unidos, y como muchas otras agencias, MDT entró en estado de crisis. Por lo tanto, nuestro trabajo estuvo en pausa por cuatro meses.

Según progresó la pandemia, se hizo evidente que la agencia necesitaba más de una red de transporte público lista para implementar. Necesitaba un plan que se pueda adaptar a una variedad de futuros impredecibles. Nadie sabe cuanto va a durar la pandemia, o que impactos tendrá en el dinero que la agencia recibe mediante impuestos.

Por lo tanto, mientras terminábamos la nueva red, trabajamos con la agencia y Transit Alliance para desarrollar un Plan de Resiliencia para guiar la toma de decisiones en el futuro sobre como se debe aumentar o reducir el servicio.

Pero primero, vamos a hablar de como llegamos aquí.

En la primera fase del proyecto, desarrollamos un Informe de Opciones para analizar la red existente y discutir preguntas claves que determinan como se debe diseñar el sistema. Tomamos información del público y diseñamos dos redes conceptuales que señalan la diferencia entre enfocarse en cobertura o enfocarse en alta frecuencia. Tuvimos otra fase de participación ciudadana para preguntarle al público hacia donde se inclinan entre las dos redes conceptuales. Recuerda que nunca es uno o el otro; alta cobertura y alta frecuencia representan los dos extremos de un espectro. Basado en los comentarios del público, diseñamos un Plan Borrador entre los dos conceptos y ahora lo acabamos de revisar para hacer el Plan Final.

A continuación, hay trozos de la red existente y la nueva red en el centro de la región (haz clic abajo para ver cada mapa entero).

Una comparación de los mapas de la Red Existente y la Nueva Red en el Condado de Miami-Dade, Florida. Nota que los colores de las líneas indican la frecuencia a mediodía.

Haz clic aquí para ver el mapa completo de la Red Existente

Haz clic aquí para ver el mapa completo de la Nueva Red

El nuevo sistema crea una red frecuente que ayuda a los residentes llegar a más lugares en menos tiempo. Con esta red, 353,000 más residentes viven cerca de una ruta frecuente (un aumento de 13% sobre el sistema actual). Con la nueva red, el residente promedio puede llegar a 36% más trabajos en 45 minutos usando transporte público y caminando.

La red frecuente significa que es más fácil cambiar de rutas y llegar a muchos más lugares dentro un tiempo razonable. La animación a continuación muestra a donde una persona puede llegar en 45 minutos usando transporte público y caminando desde Liberty City (NW 12th Avenue y 62nd Street). La zona gris muestra a donde una persona puede llegar con el sistema existente y la zona azul clara muestra a donde se puede llegar con la nueva red. Con la nueva red, alguien que vive en Liberty City, puede llegar a 60% más trabajos y 50% más personas. A esto es que nos referimos cuando hablamos del acceso a oportunidad.

Este mapa muestra los lugares a donde se puede llegar desde Liberty City en 45 minutos usando la Red Existente y la Nueva Red.

Esta amplia expansión en acceso solo es posible por la red frecuente. Esto significa que, si MDT tuviese menos dinero, pero quisiera maximizar el acceso de esta manera, tienen que proteger la red frecuente. Eso es lo que hace el Plan de Resiliencia. Los corredores del sistema están divididos en niveles para establecer que servicio se debe operar bajo diferentes niveles de fondos.

El Plan de Resiliencia protege la red frecuente en caso de una disminución de fondos.

En el nivel económico más grave (Nivel 1), la red solo sigue operando corredores frecuentes cada 1.6km (una milla en la cuadrícula vial de Miami) y algunas rutas de cobertura que son críticas para asegurar acceso equitativo. Sí, esta red hará que la gente camine distancias más largas. Pero cuando lleguen a una ruta, el autobús siempre viene pronto. Si MDT tiene más fondos, puede añadir el servicio del Nivel 2 y así sucesivamente.

Nadie quiere ver esta reducción de servicio, pero si fuese necesario, MDT podrá minimizar el daño al acceso a oportunidades usando el Plan de Resiliencia. Por el otro lado, si MDT decide recortar servicio como se suele hacer – manteniendo todas las rutas con menos frecuencia – el acceso a oportunidad se reducirá drásticamente. Consolidar rutas para hacerlas más frecuentes puede hacer que los viajes sean más cortos, aunque haya que caminar más.

Esta red final ahora esta en las manos de la Comisión del Condado para endosarlo, y si lo aprueban, será implementado por MDT. Probablemente habrá más oportunidades para comentar sobre este plan antes de que se implemente. Si viven en Miami-Dade County, recuerda someter un comentario o decirle a tu Comisionado sobre este Plan, especialmente si te gusta. Lamentablemente, la mayoría de los comentarios público sobre planes de transporte público son negativos incluso si a la mayoría de la gente le gusta el plan, porque la gente falsamente asume que se implementará como sea. Este plan no se implementará si no atrae mucho apoyo positivo. MDT quisiera comentarios constructivos sobre el plan, que se usarán para hacer que la implementación final sea aún mejor. Pero si te gusta el plan, ¡es importante que lo digas también!

How US Public Transit is Like the Postal Service

I’m in Bloomberg CityLab today.  Key quote:

Postal and transit services have the same problem. We want them to attract high usage and we want them to go everywhere, but those goals imply opposite kinds of service. Pursuing either goal will cause outcomes that look like failure when judged by the other goal’s measures of success. It’s like we’re telling our taxi driver to turn right and left at the same time. When they can’t do that, we just yell louder and call them incompetent. Is that taking us where we want to go?