A US Density Revolution?

These two things are connected!

In major cities and some states across the US, the tide seems to suddenly be turning in favor of density.  James Brasuell at Planetizen has a thorough survey of these efforts.  Read the whole thing.

An inescapable trend emerged in recent years and months: a large and growing number of communities are now engaged in comprehensive plans and zoning code revisions, and they’re doing that planning work in the hopes of creating a future that is fundamentally distinct from the 20th century model of planning.

But the revolution Brasuell describes is about much more than planning documents.  The story is political:  In response to the housing crisis, both city and state politicians are producing legislation that makes it easier to build densely by:

  • reducing off-street parking requirements, which makes denser development pencil out and can also make units more affordable
  • streamlining transit-oriented development, including around frequent bus corridors and
  • most controversially, allowing more density in neighborhoods that have long been legally protected as exclusively for single family homes.

All this is great news, not because everybody wants to live at high density but because more people want it than can currently afford it.  The extreme cost of living in dense and walkable cities is the sound of the market screaming at us to build more of them, and finally that’s becoming possible.

From a transit perspective, I have one note of caution when it comes to upzoning absolutely everywhere.  Most cities have places that are hard for transit to get to, and where a few more people will create transit demand that is very expensive to serve.  Sometimes they are physically hard to reach: long cul-de-sacs, squiggly streets, etc.  But sometimes too they are so sparsely populated that they are poor transit markets and adding a few more people isn’t enough to make them better.

Gentle upzoning of single-family areas — allowing second and third units on formerly single-family parcels — is mostly helpful, but not always in these tough spots.  In any case, serious density must be organized around the frequent transit network — bus and rail — so that more people end up in places where transit can be really useful to them.   Don’t know where yours is?  There should be a map of it somewhere, reflecting a policy adopted by both your transit agency and your city government!  It should be on the wall in both the transit agency and the city’s planning and traffic offices.  (See Chapter 16 of my book, Human Transit, for more on this tool.)

Transit is expensive.  It succeeds when it can run in straight lines through dense and walkable places, so that it has enough ridership over a short enough distance that it can afford high frequency.  A policy frequent network, agreed upon by the transit agency and the city government(s) and manifested in both zoning and traffic planning, was critical to jumpstarting the growth of transit in Seattle, which is now one of the US’s great success stories.  It could make a difference for your city too.

Bus Crashes Auto Show with Killer Ad

By Christopher Yuen

This coming weekend for the first time, GO Transit, Toronto’s regional transit agency, will be displaying one of their buses at the Canadian International Auto Show.  They’ve also made a fantastically theatrical ad touting an amazing technology that’s even better than the self-driving car.

Dramatic?  Yes, but only fitting for a densely populated city where nearly 50 percent of commutes into downtown are made by transit, and where the mobility of everyone is dependent on not everybody travelling in individual cars, self-driving or not.

Lyft Lobbying to Keep Cities from Governing Themselves

Portland’s mayor and transportation commissioner have blasted Lyft for lobbying the State of Oregon to prevent Portland from regulating to manage the impacts of Uber and Lyft on the city.  Their scathing letter to Lyft’s Chief Policy Officer Anthony Foxx (former Charlotte Mayor and USDOT secretary) is worth reading in its entirety.  It’s copied in full below.

The principle here is clear:  Dense cities have unique problems that arise from the shortage of space per person, which is what density is.  When state governments led by suburban and rural areas overrule dense cities, they are demanding that dense cities be governed as though they were country towns.  It’s not a cultural problem or an ideological problem.  It’s a geometry problem.  

Outer suburban and rural areas don’t experience a severe shortage of space on streets, so it’s understandable that they see Uber and Lyft mostly as great companies offering a great product.  Only dense cities experience the severe downside: increased vehicle trips due to repositioning movements from one job to the next, and a shift of customers into cars from more sustainable modes like transit, walking and cycling.

Only dense cities understand the problems of dense cities.  They have to be able to act to address those problems.

Here’s the full text of the letter from Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler and Transportation Commissioner Chloe Eudaly:

February 4, 2019


The Honorable Anthony Foxx

Chief Policy Officer and Senior Advisor


185 Berry St., Suite 5000

San Francisco, CA 94107


Mr. Foxx,

In 2015, the City of Portland, Oregon established an innovative pilot program to evaluate whether Transportation Network Companies (TNC) should be added to Portland’s existing private for-hire transportation system. In taking this approach, we wanted to give Portlanders access to a new transportation option while ensuring that TNCs served all Portlanders safely, fairly and reliably.

As one of the two TNCs to take part in the pilot, Lyft was a model participant. When issues or concerns arose, Lyft worked closely with the City of Portland to resolve them. This collaborative spirit was one of the primary reasons why our City Council decided to make TNCs permanent in January 2016. In the ensuing three years, Lyft was a good corporate citizen, including promptly paying over $52,000 in fines after failing to properly track the number of drivers on your platform, and worked closely with the City to deliver a convenient, safe transportation option.

Until now.

We have been dismayed to learn that Lyft is behind the effort to pass a bill to eliminate local consumer, safety and disability-access protections for people who use Lyft and other TNCs. If your lobbying efforts were to succeed, Portland would no longer be able to manage our transportation system to best support the mobility, safety, accessibility, sustainability, and equity needs of our City.

To be frank, we are puzzled by this. After all, you were a mayor and certainly appreciate the important role that cities have in managing their transportation systems. In addition, when you were appointed to your position at Lyft, you noted that, “Lyft has led the industry with its collaborative approach to working with regulators….”  As a company, Lyft has committed to bold sustainability goals and to creating a world designed for people, not cars. Finally, when Lyft co-Founder and President John Zimmer visited Portland last year, he reinforced these values and his interest in working with cities on transportation innovation, whether by car, bike, or scooter.

Your current efforts to avoid local consumer protections and skirt policies that ensure that TNC rides are safe for all passengers and accessible to people with disabilities run completely contrary to your stated positions and the positions of the company you represent.

Specifically, the bill Lyft has proposed and is attempting to pass would eliminate the ability of every Oregon city from taking the following common sense steps to protect TNC passengers:

  • Requiring thorough background checks for TNC drivers and mandating that Lyft and other TNCs ban drivers who pose a danger to the public.
  • Prohibiting companies from charging passengers with disabilities higher prices during busy times.
  • Conducting field safety audits to ensure that vehicles are reliable and do not pose a danger to passengers.
  • Requiring that Lyft and other TNCs do not discriminate against passengers based on their race, ethnicity, religion and other factors.
  • Conducting spot checks to verify that drivers are who they say they are.
  • Adopting regulations to provide better service for people with disabilities and low-income people.
  • Issuing permits to make sure that Lyft and other TNCs follow the law.
  • Creating programs to investigate when Lyft and other TNCs provide poor service.
  • Penalizing companies and drivers when they endanger, discriminate against or otherwise fail to provide safe, fair and reliable service to passengers.
  • Adopting regulations aimed at supporting drivers and consumers, including establishing insurance minimums.
  • Collecting local data, which is critical for understanding congestion and climate impacts.
  • Charging local fees necessary to maintain the consumer protections that have been established.
  • Establishing related programs and policies that advance safety and mobility goals.

In Portland, we have successfully protected the health and safety of private-for-hire passengers for over a century. We firmly believe that local governments are best positioned to provide oversight and management of their transportation systems and to ensure that safety, equity and sustainability goals and commitments are met. This has never been truer than with the emergence and rapid growth of the TNC industry. This proposed legislation is contrary to this bedrock philosophy that the best oversight of the transportation system and the private-for-hire industry is local.  Not only that, but it is a disservice to passengers, drivers and the general public who expect safe and reliable service and who are expecting you to stand by your sustainability and community commitments.

We look forward to a modification in Lyft’s position on this Oregon legislation.



Ted Wheeler,  Mayor

Chloe Eudaly, Commissioner of Transportation

“New Mobility”: Drowning in a Sea of Meaningless Words

I’m in the World Bank’s generally excellent Transforming Transportation conference in Washington DC.  The theme is “New Mobility.”  In the first panel, I found myself agreeing with almost everything the panel said, to the extent that I could understand it.

The limit to my understanding was the use of meaningless words: new mobility, micromobility, sharing.  

These words each have too many meanings, which is the same as having none.  That is a good sign that they have arisen from the language of sales.  Selling a product requires exaggerating its relevance.  If a word makes people feel good, the marketer will try to figure out how to extend the word to cover her product.

All three of these words feel good:  New mobility sounds cutting-edge.  Micromobility sounds intimate, maybe even cute the way little things are.  Sharing — well, we all think toddlers should learn to share.

But on this morning’s panel I heard all three words used with apparently conflicting meanings.

  • Sharing was used sometime to mean “sharing of rides” (different people with different purposes riding in same vehicle at the same time, as in public transit), but also to mean “sharing the vehicle” as in bikeshare and carshare.   (There’s also sharing of infrastructure: Motorists are expected to “share the road.”)  These are different concepts with different uses and consequences.  When the moderator polled us all on what words we associate “new mobility,” the top answer, of course, was “shared.”  The more meanings a word has, the more popular it will be, which in turn means it will give more people that warm buzz that comes from being surrounded by people who (seem to) agree with them.  That’s the mechanism by which words grow both popular and meaningless.
  • Micromobility is often used to mean “person sized vehicles” — bikes, scooters, and other things that let someone move faster than they can walk without taking much more space than their body does.  But when the Mayor of Quito was asked about it, his answer seemed to include microtransit, which is an utterly different thing.  I suggest “person sized vehicles,” (PSV)  It’s five syllables instead of six, and it actually says what it means.
  • New mobility says nothing but that it’s mobility and its new.  New things have absolutely nothing else in common, so why is this a meaningful category?  Only if you want to appeal to the common prejudice that all new ideas are better than all old ideas, which we all know to be nonsense.  After all, most innovations fail.

I’ll talk about this on a panel this afternoon.  If we are going to think clearly, we have to use words that mean, not words that sell.  

Meanwhile, if you hear one of these words, or any other word that seems to used in multiple ways, ask for a definition.  You have a right to that.  Only then are you actually thinking together.


Washington DC: What I’m Doing This Week

I am in snowy Washington DC this week, wondering if there will be any air traffic controllers by the time I need to get home, but meanwhile, I’m at the famous Transportation Research Board (TRB) Annual Meeting through Wednesday, and then at the World Bank’s Transforming Transportation conference on Thursday and Friday.

If you have suggests for cool things I should do, the fastest way to reach me is Twitter, @humantransit, and the second fastest is the email button somewhere in the bar on the right.  Comments on this blog are reviewed on a slower timeline.

This (Tuesday) afternoon at 3:45-5:30 pm I’m on a panel called “Transit Fightback: Pushback on Technology Hype for Stronger City Futures.”  Bravo to Professor Graham Currie for insisting on this title, which accurately conveys that despite all the good talk of partnerships and synergies, many of technology marketing’s effects are partly hostile to the success public transit, and thus to the efficient provision of freedom and opportunity in dense cities.  Some of these effects are inadvertent while others are intentional, but all of them are destructive.  While there are deals to be negotiated between transit agencies and tech companies, transit agencies need to come at these negotiations with confidence, and tech marketing is doing much to undermine that confidence especially at the political level.  So I’ll talk about that.

Thursday at the World Bank Transforming Transportation Conference (registration required) I’ll also be on a panel about “Integrated Transport in the Era of New Mobility and Impacts on Existing Urban Systems,” which is much more polite way of saying basically the same thing.  That’s 2:30-4 pm.  We’ll talk about the explicit threats to the just and functional city potentially caused by technologies such as TNCs and microtransit. Should be fun.

New York: Mayor Vows to Increase Bus Speeds

In all my years of working on transit in North America, I’ve heard lots of mayors make announcements about rail projects and various new technologies.  I’ve heard many make vague supportive statements about bus service. I’ve even heard them advocate for more bus service.  But I’ve never a big city mayor promise to dramatically speed up buses all over a city.  (Correct me if you have.)

Vin Barone at AMNY reports that New York Mayor Bill de Blasio will announce a commitment to increasing bus speeds across his city by 25%.

This is a very high number!  Admittedly, it’s a low base, with so many New York city bus routes running so slowly that it’s sometimes faster to walk.  Most individual interventions I’ve encountered improve speed by much less than 10%.  So hitting 25% will require a huge range of actions.

These actions can be sorted into two baskets:  Cost and Controversy.

Some problems can be solved with money, without too much controversy.  All of the following are planned, either by the City or by the transit agency (MTA).

  • Improving signal priority systems, which is a matter of signal technology. (City)
  • Improving enforcement of bus lanes.  (City)
  • Improving active supervision to reduce bunching, via a “Bus Command Center” (MTA)
  • All-door boarding via fare-card readers at rear doors, and roving fare enforcement (MTA)

All that is mostly money, both capital and operating.  Lots of it.  And all together, it is unlikely to get you to 25% citywide.

The other big step involves controversy rather than money.  More bus lanes need to be created, and the space for them will come from some other street use, usually parking lanes, traffic lanes, and versatile curb space for pickups and deliveries.  Bus facilities cost money too, but winning these battles is the bigger struggle, so the cost is really in political capital rather than money.  All of these impacts are profoundly controversial in a dense city, which is why cities tend to do them only after they’ve exhausted all the other options, and why so many bus lane plans are watered down, and made less functional, through the public outreach process.

The mayor’s target will work if it becomes a consistent direction to city government, fully explained to the people, so that not achieving it is not an option.  When we work on this process, we do a lot of work in explaining why the target is what it is, and building some consensus around it, so that staff will have political support to not compromise as the inevitable objections roll in.  The mayoral declaration is a huge step.  It remains to be seen if the target holds in the face of the controversy.

Because ultimately, while money is an obstacle, controversy is a much, much bigger one, and is the main reason big-city bus service usually doesn’t improve.

Go Green! Recycle New Year’s Resolutions!

Remarkably enough, none of my past new years resolutions has transformed  human consciousness to the point of making the resolution obsolete.  So if you need one at this late date, here are a few of my past resolution pieces:

If you really need a new one, how about:  “I resolve to value smart old ideas as much as smart new ones.”

Happy New Year!

Welcome, and the Most Read Posts of 2018

This blog is a resource, not just a source of New Exciting or Enraging Stuff.  Each year I review the most-read pages from the previous year, and am always relieved to find old posts, which were written to last, still doing well.  This year, three of the top ten are from 2010-11, and a 2009 post is #13.  (Two of those posts later became parts of my book.)  Here’s the list:

  1. The Dangers of Elite Projection (July 2017).  This is one of my most useful posts ever, about a basic mistake that’s everywhere in city planning.  It’s an example of my attempt to talk very patiently and inclusively about a difficult topic that makes people very emotional. (Also #1 last year).
  2. The Problem of School Transportation (August 2017).  Why don’t transit agencies serve schools in just the way they need?  Here’s the answer.  (Surprisingly viral.  Not on the list last year, but then it was written late in the year.)
  3. Basics: Walking Distance to Transit.  (2010)  An explainer.  (#4 last year.)
  4. Basics: The Spacing of Stops and Stations.  (2010).  This turned into Chapter 4 of my book.  (#5 last year)
  5. That Photo That Explains Almost Everything (2011).  You’ve seen the photo.  I notice a few things in it beyond its first impression.  (#6 last year)
  6. Streetcars vs Light Rail … Is there a Difference.  (2010).  Not linking to this one because  it’s dated and I need to rewrite it, which I will do soon.  (Not on the list last year.)
  7. Does Elon Musk Understand Urban Geometry? (2016)  My first effort at laying out what’s wrong with Elon Musk’s attempts to make cars go faster through cities, and to provide “service to your door.”  Written several months before I got Musk’s attention.  (Down from #2 last year, which I hope means that my interaction with Musk is receding as a topic.}
  8. Microtransit: What I Think We Know.  (February 2018).  The summary of my “microtransit week” series of posts, which lays out my concerns about the over-hyping of this supposedly new idea.
  9. Do We Need a New Theory and Name for Bike Lanes?  (August 2018)  A brainstorm that happened on a bus.  (Surprisingly high for a post written so late in the year.)
  10. Apps Are Not Transforming the Urban Transport Business.  (February 2018)  The urban passenger transport business is just not very profitable, and never has been.  Apps, both for ride-hailing (Uber etc.) and microtransit, seem to improve customer experience without improving efficiency.

And a few important ones that are just outside the top ten:

A very sensible selection, readers, by you and the publications that linked here!  Honored to have such a thoughtful audiencc.

Happy New Year.


Happy Holidays, and a Parable

Below is our firm’s self-consciously cheesy holiday card, and below that my mellow personal one.  (If you didn’t get one, it’s probably because I don’t have your email address, which you can rectify by hitting the little envelope symbol on the bar above.)

Plus, on the personal blog, there’s a cool parable about squirrels.

Happy holidays to all.  We’ll be quiet here until January.




Elon Musk’s Tunnel: It Doesn’t Scale, so it Doesn’t Matter

Elon Musk just gave the media a tour of his 1.5 mile prototype tunnel under Los Angeles, which he spent US$10m to build.  Why are Elon Musk’s tunnels so cheap?  Because they’re tiny.

As media photos of the event will show you, the tunnel is just slightly wider than a car.  That means that if you used it for a train, it might have room for one seat per row. I suppose you could fit two if there was no way to move through the train while it was between stations, but that’s almost unimaginable once you add a required emergency exit plan.

So despite Musk’s occasional noises about using his tunnels for public transit, this thing is for moving cars, which means it is for moving trivially tiny numbers of people.

As we’ve discussed before, a car-based tunnel also requires elevators.  You zip your car into a parking space and it descends to the tunnel.  Cool, but have they run the numbers on how many of these they would need, assuming it takes, say, a minute to do a full cycle of the elevator?  How much real estate would it require to get cars into the subway at a rate that even maximizes the tiny capacity of the subway?

Anyway, those are some questions to ask today.

And yes, it would be great if this dalliance produces genuine improvements in tunnel technologies useful for building actual train-sized tunnels that can move the number of people who need to move.  But Musk’s prairie-dog burrows are mostly hype, confusion, and elite projection.  While delivering almost nothing useful, they are confusing elite opinion about whether we still need to build mass transit, which we do.  Is any marginal benefit worth the resulting delay in getting the infrastructure we really need?

Two lessons to remember: 

  • If it doesn’t scale, it doesn’t matter.  The media are easily excited by demonstration projects, but this idea doesn’t scale.  You could build lots of tunnels, and they would each move so few people that they wouldn’t make a dent in a city’s transport needs.
  • If it doesn’t scale, it’s for the rich.  Or to put it another way:  Inefficiency is inequality.  Anything that spends a lot of money to serve small numbers of people raises the question “why are those people so important, and what about everyone else?”

Does this remind you of other transport fantasies, such as replacing transit with “service to your door”?  These rules about scalability are pretty good tests to bring to all the fun new inventions, including whatever’s coming next.