Gig: Graphics for My Updated Book

I am looking for a freelancer who is good at drawing simple explanatory diagrams about public transit concepts.  I need these diagrams for two uses: in our firm’s reports and also in the new edition of my book Human Transit.  This would be work for hire and our firm would retain the copyright on the images, though of course you could use your work as samples.  You would get illustrator credit in the book.

The images need to be greyscale, not in color, and suitable for print as well as web use.  I anticipate needing about 20 images, with the work ideally done mostly in February and early March 2023.

Location?  I would prefer that you be in North America, South America, Europe or Africa for reasons of time zones.  It will be harder for me to collaborate with someone in Asia or Australia/NZ.  If you are in the US, UK, or Eurozone it will be easy for us to pay you. Wherever you are, we will pay you in one of those three currencies and paying you needs to not involve a lot of hassle for us.

We already have a library of images but I think some of them could be clearer and/or more attractive, though clarity must never be sacrificed to attractiveness.  Images must always contain their own explanations, because a report or book must make sense to people who only scan the section titles and look at the pictures.

Here is a graphic that I feel pretty good about, explaining the concept of access:


This one, on the ridership-coverage tradeoff, also works well for us, although the blue is too faint.

(For more on this topic see here.)

Could these be sexier, more like “what an architect would draw”?  Sure, I’d love to see examples of that, but remember, the book will be black-and-white, although I may later ask for color work for other reports of ours.

To apply.  Hit the email button (it’s on the black bar above, and looks like an envelope.)  Please put “Graphics job” in the subject line.  Give me:

  • a resume/CV
  • some samples of work you’ve done that’s similar to what I’m describing.
  • An hourly rate.  In addition, please tell me: If I’d hired you to do the above images from scratch, given the basic idea, how many hours would you have spent?

I will look at submittals as I get them. I’d really like to get this person on-board well before February 1, so if interested, submit now. Please share!






Just “Prioritize Ridership”: Is it That Easy?

Matthew Yglesias thinks more carefully about transit than any other US pundit I’ve encountered at his level of celebrity, so his takes are often useful.  Today, he has a very broad one, called “American transit agencies should prioritize ridership over other goals.”  He begins:

Why does the United States struggle to create cost-effective rail infrastructure? Why do non-NYC American cities have such a hard time attracting mass transit ridership?

On one level, these are deep and complicated questions. But one thing I want to say to the growing community of people who are interested in them is that American agencies don’t deliver on these goals because this country’s high-level governance constructs don’t say they should deliver on them. Of course you won’t find a grant guideline that specifically says “don’t focus on delivering high ridership at an effective cost.” But wasting money is really, really easy when nobody is specifically telling you not to.

His piece spans a huge range of issues, from rail construction methods to bus service planning.  I agree with him about rail: We can do it cheaper by making stations more functional and less palatial, as long as we plan enough capacity.  On service planning, though, I think he oversimplifies in a way that lots of well-intentioned urban policy wonks oversimplify, so it’s worth unpacking a little.  There are two issues with saying “just prioritize ridership.”

  • Ridership is not very predictable.  That’s why, in our work, we prioritize access to opportunity instead.  Actual ridership is affected by lots of unpredictable external events (pandemics, economic conditions, etc), but access to opportunity is the constant thing that transit provides that is the foundation of ridership. Access is also important for a bunch of other policy reasons.
  • Low-ridership service is sometimes justified by policy goals that matter to people, including, in some cases, racial and social equity.

Yglesias cites my work on the ridership-coverage tradeoff:  In service planning, a ridership-maximizing network doesn’t go everywhere and serve everyone, because it goes where the most riders are and runs fast and direct enough to be useful to them.  So a ridership goal is in conflict with goals variously described as “leave nobody behind” or “meet the needs of low income people (wherever they are)” or “we pay taxes too so we should get some service.”  All those impulses lead to predictably low-ridership service, which I call coverage service.  I explain why this conflict is unavoidable here.

You will never hear me say, as Yglesias does, that ridership should be the only goal of a transit service, and not just because I’m a consultant who facilitates conversations on the topic.  I won’t say that because the decision is genuinely hard, and there are some good policy reasons for coverage services.

The suburbanization of poverty in many cities has increased the number of low-income people and people of color living in suburban land use patterns that are just inimical to public transit.  Those areas have fast roads that are unsafe to cross, no sidewalks, disconnected street patterns that obstruct walks to the stop, road patterns that require buses to make crazy loops, etc.  A strictly ridership-based approach would not go to a lot of those places, but will put lots of service in dense inner cities that happen to be increasingly gentrified.  The result can be something that is measurably inequitable by both race and income.  In other words, sometimes, in some common geographies, there’s a ridership vs equity tradeoff.   (We have some unpublished work on this for a major US transit agency that we hope to release soon.)

So when Yglesias says …

Now again, I’m happy to concede that across the entire possibility space, you could imagine a situation in which one route maximizes ridership but a slightly different version maximizes economic development goals or equity goals or environmental goals. But those divergences would in practice be either pretty rare or pretty small.

No, this is not an imaginary situation, and the divergences aren’t always small.  In our recent work for Portland’s TriMet, the agency articulated twin goals of ridership and equity, which led to a network that provides low-ridership coverage, but only only in low-income and minority areas.  Obviously, low-income and minority people generate ridership all over the network, so ridership and equity goals overlap more than they differ, but they still do differ significantly.

There’s a long-term, high-altitude view where Yglesias is right.  High-ridership services tend to create positive feedback loops with urban development that encourage even more ridership.  Smarter development could also reduce the need for coverage services over time.

But that’s not the altitude and timescale where most transit decision-making gets done, especially in service planning.  Those decisions are made by local elected officials or their appointees.  The problem is not just that people are yelling at them to defend their bus stop, although they are.  It’s that on a policy level, it’s just not always true that the high ridership network is the high-equity network.  That means that hard decisions have to happen.  I’m there to help boards reach those decisions, not give them the answer.

Transit Executives Muse about Equity, Inclusion, and Post-Covid Priorities

Paul Comfort, Conversations about Equity and Inclusion in Public Transportation, Comfort Consulting, 2022

Paul Comfort is a transit evangelist (his term) and the former Executive Director of Maryland Transit Authority, which covers greater Baltimore.  He’s become known especially for his Transit Unplugged podcast, which interviews transit industry leaders (including me).  He is, as you’d expect, an upbeat guy, keen to talk about successes, build morale, and help agencies learn from each others’ experience.  And while his audience is mostly transit professionals, it can be interesting for advocates to listen in on these conversations.

This new book is a collection of his interviews, mostly with the people leading major transit agencies in the US.  The book certainly does touch frequently on the title’s topics, equity and inclusion, but it’s also just a good overview of how many leading figures in the industry are seeing their situation in 2022, as we begin to sort out both the legacy of the George Floyd protests and the “new normal” of working life and travel patterns post-pandemic.

The book is a good tour of what’s on the minds of the industry right now, at least in the US.  (One Australian leader is interviewed, but she talks mainly about hiring and workforce diversity, not transit policy or operations.)  Zero fare programs, demand-responsive transit, and customer service innovations all come up repeatedly.  Now and then, you’ll also get hints of debates about the definition of success.  How much does ridership matter right now?  What do communities really want from their transit agencies?  And to come back to the title: What is equity, and can we measure it?

Obviously, senior executives know how to sell their agencies, so some of what you read will sound like vague feel-good pitches.  You may be frustrated that so few of these leaders dig into the details of policy and planning problems.  (Noah Berger of Merrimack Valley Regional Transit Authority, in northern Massachusetts, is a fun exception).

But even then, it’s good to see what transit leaders are being expected to do, in the political situations they find themselves in, to sustain support for a transit system.  A lot of what senior executives do is storytelling:  Most are talking to a public, and a decision-making elite, that doesn’t know much about transit, doesn’t use it themselves, and that wonders why they should care.  You have to connects the facts to people’s deepest longings for themselves and their community.  It’s interesting to watch how some different personalities do it.

When Buses Are Free but Trains Aren’t

I’m in Bloomberg CityLab with a piece on the dangers of applying free fares to buses but not to trains in the same city.  Key quote:

When we encourage people to get off trains and onto parallel buses, both kinds of transit lose. Buses are smaller, so they run out of capacity at a lower level of ridership. This requires the transit agency to put out more service — buses that could have been used in areas away from train lines where they provide the only mobility.

I go on to challenge the “buses are for poor people” assumption, which both equity advocates and wealthy elites often agree on.

To many, buses and trains symbolize positions in the class struggle. Equity advocates and wealthy elites often agree on this view. The equity advocate will say that we need to focus on buses because poor people use them, while I have heard elites argue (often in private) that we should neglect buses for the same reason. Most obviously, when developers and other elite urbanists argue that transit-oriented development requires rail, they are understandably privileging the view of people who are in the position to buy market-rate urban real estate. Those fortunate folks are especially likely to say, openly or not, that they would never ride a bus.

But in an urban transit network that’s trying to give everyone the greatest possible access to destinations, rail and bus services work together, and many trips involve both. You use a train for longer trips along corridors with high demand. To travel in lower-demand areas, or to make many shorter trips, you take a bus. Sometimes you ride the subway for part of the trip and a bus for the rest. An efficient and therefore liberating urban transit network encourages people to think about the total network, and to use buses or trains according to which is better for each part of their trip.

Anyway, the whole piece is worth a look.

Welcome Your Advice on the Second Edition!

So I’ve just signed a deal with Island Press to do a second edition of Human Transit, expected out near the end of 2023.  A lot has obviously happened in the history of public transit since book came out in 2011, including real things like the pandemic, unreal things like the hyperloop, and some things that are real but overhyped, like microtransit.  So in addition to updating examples and graphics, I plan at least five new chapters:

    • Why does transit matter?  A simple explanation of the unique role of transit in the city, and how it relates to all the other transportation options.
    • The Wall Around Your Life.  This chapter explains the idea of access and is mostly content from this article.
    • Against Specialization.  This chapter would emphasize that transit succeeds when an extreme diversity of people find it useful: diversity not just of race/gender/age but also of trip purpose.  This explains why demands for specialized services, which transit agencies receive all the time, usually lead away from the best networks for everyone.  The chapter would caution against elite projection, argue against the binarism of choice vs captive riders.  This is also where the connection would be made to equity/justice frames.
    • Flexible or Fixed?  A review of the demand response service options, largely from this article.
    • Should we Redesign our Network?  How to recognize when a network needs redesign, and how to think about that.

Still, it’s a new edition rather than a new book because at least half of the book doesn’t need updating.  After all, much of it is talking about geometry, and that doesn’t change.

But I’d love to know what you think!  If you feel like perusing the book again, I’d welcome your thoughts, ideally organized by chapter, about what I should edit.  You can email me by clicking that envelope up on the black bar, or just leave a comment.  If your comment turns out to be really useful, you’ll get an acknowledgment.




“Transit Unplugged” Interview with Me

Paul Comfort’s Transit Unplugged is a podcast for transit industry professionals.  He just did a two-part interview of me, where we talked about how our thinking about transit goals, and our measures of success, need to adapt to the post-pandemic world.  It’s in two podcasts

Part 1, from 7:10 to 22:10. (Ends at a moment of suspense!)

Part 2, from 8:03 to 18:10.

Hope you enjoy!

The Tyranny of the “Community”: Transcending the Public Meeting

My job as a public transit planner requires a lot of public engagement, as it should.  In the projects we do for transit agency clients, mostly around bus network redesign, the task of seeking public feedback is at least one third of the project budget.  But public outreach can be a frustrating and anti-democratic process, especially when it happens in public meetings.  Aaron Gordon’s excellent piece in Vice explores what’s wrong with this grand civic ritual.

The problem with community feedback is not the concept itself, but the way it is executed. We do it too often, for too many things, for too long, and in the wrong manner. We ask the wrong questions of the wrong people and use the answers in the wrong way. Professionals and politicians have so far been afraid to admit there is a problem outside of private conversations, because it can seem anti-democratic and even anti-American to appear opposed to the town hall ethos of local control.

His article is mostly about urban development debates, dipping into transit now and then.  As a transit planner, I can confirm a lot of his insights:

  • People who come to public meetings are very unrepresentative of the population, so if the government simply obeys them, that is not democracy.
  • While we have plenty of regulations telling us to have public meetings, but not explaining why.  What questions are we supposed to be asking?  What are we supposed to do with the answers?  What is the correct relationship between public opinion and professional expertise?
  • We don’t have a definition of success.  Anyone who disagrees with your recommendation will say you didn’t do enough outreach.  How much is enough?

But Gordon makes one observation that doesn’t translate to transit well.  In debates about what to build in a city, the classic meeting-dominating character, captured in this immortal McSweeney’s satire, is older, whiter, and more prosperous than the general population.

In my experience, this is true of debates about transit infrastructure, but not in debates about transit service.  When we are working on a redesign of a bus network, and the plan doesn’t have an obvious infrastructure impact, the vast majority of fortunate people just don’t care.  No matter how profoundly we are transforming access to opportunity in a city, most fortunate people, including most elected officials, only care if we propose to build something.  (I can’t begin to express how frustrating this is.)

So the public meeting on a transit network redesign tends to be dominated by current users of the bus service.  These folks are not whiter or wealthier than the general population.  Many depend on the bus service.  Now they have been told that their bus route may change, sometimes by people spreading incomplete information.  They’re used to their route as it is, so they assume any change is bad.  So they make the considerable sacrifices needed to go to a public meeting and speak up.  And like many people with their backs against the wall, they often scream.

I don’t blame them.  If I were in their shoes, and had been told what some of them had been told, I would do the same.  But this makes it hard to work through things with them, to explain, for example, why the trip they make is still possible, and maybe even better, even if it’s changed in some way.  Transit planners do this hard work all the time, customer by customer.  And still they get a lot of abuse, which sometimes causes good ones to leave the profession.

Gordon doesn’t mention the most fundamental bias built into the entire public outreach process.  It takes a lot of time.

Time-consuming outreach processes are biased against people who are busy.  If you wonder why your bus is so slow, it may be because the people who are in a hurry, and would benefit from it being fast, don’t have time to go to public meetings. They’re too busy.

So people who come to public meetings on transit tend to be in one of three categories:

  • People who have spare time in their day, mostly retired or unemployed people.  This is why, although people who comment on bus network changes aren’t necessarily whiter and wealthier than average, they do tend to be older on average.
  • People who are being paid to be there.  These are spokespeople for powerful interests.  There aren’t usually many of these, but they can be very assertive.
  • People who feel so threatened that they have taken the time even though they don’t have much time, like the folks I’ve described above.

These people are important, but the majority of potential transit riders are not in any of these groups.  The majority of riders have jobs, families, and other complex commitments.  If they find a couple of spare hours in their day, you can’t blame them for watching a movie instead of going to a public meeting.

So in our practice, we put as much emphasis as we can on web-based feedback systems that use people’s time more effectively, supplemented by in-person outreach that focuses on populations at risk from exclusion by this method.  (To reach those populations, we go to them where the are: interviewing them on the transit system for example.)  We also do stakeholder workshops and focus groups, where smaller invited groups of people, selected to be representative, have the opportunity to talk more deeply with the planners, so that they can better understand the consequences of their choices.  To avoid the hassle of travel we encourage virtual meetings and not just physical ones.

But the most important issue is: What question are we asking the public?

We hate asking: “Here’s what we’re thinking of doing. What do you think?”  That question polarizes people, supporters vs opponents, in ways that make it hard for them to learn or think.  Instead, we ask: “What are your priorities?”  “If we could have more of this or more of that, which would you prefer?”  When we do go to the public with a single map, we don’t just ask “What do you think?”  We ask: “Notice the priorities being expressed here; do we have them right?”  This recent work in Portland is a good example.

This approach also expresses a coherent division of labor between expertise and community input.  We want a community to tell us what they want us to do — what goals they want us to achieve, and with what priorities among those goals.  With that input, we can draw a plan and show how it expresses those priorities.

Do enough people engage with these policy questions?  No.  Does everyone like the resulting plan?  Of course not.  Are there still angry public discussions? Of course there are.  But usually, when we do it this way, a critical mass of decision-makers remembers the conversation we had, and they see that the plan expresses what was decided then.  So usually, with some changes, some kind of plan moves forward to implementation.

Do you see a better way?




Portland: Turning the Dial Toward Equity (How Far?)

What does it mean to make a bus network design more equitable or “just”?  These terms mean different things to many people, but in this case the core idea is a redistribution of bus service resources, particularly toward people with lower incomes also toward historically excluded racial groups.

In Portland, where I live, we’ve been working with the local transit agency TriMet on a bus network design effort that has two overriding motives: ridership and equity.  And as we look at how much to invest in equity, we have a big question for the community to think about:  How much redistribution of service toward lower-income areas should we do?

TriMet’s project will eventually develop a near-term plan for expanded bus service.  Thanks to a new Oregon state funding source and some other revenues, the agency has the financial capability to run about 10% more bus service than it ran in 2019, and more than 30% more than TriMet runs right now.  The constraint at the moment is the dire shortage of bus operators, but once that’s resolved this level of service will be possible.

These goals, ridership and equity, overlap more than they differ.  If we were planning only for ridership we’d still offer good service where there are lots of people with low incomes even if equity weren’t a separate goal.

However, there are cases where people with low incomes need services that wouldn’t have especially high ridership.  With the suburbanization of poverty, more and more of these people live in areas with low density and/or street networks that present obstacles to efficient bus service.  Another example is service to industrial areas: These tend to have poor ridership because of the low density and terrible pedestrian environment, but they are much valued by the people who rely on them to get to lower-wage jobs.  So in these cases, the equity goal is the only reason we suggest more service there.

Note the word suggest.  The Service Concept we’ve released is just that, a concept.  It is not even a proposal, and it’s certainly not a recommendation.  We are not saying that we have it right.  We are putting it out there to start a conversation.

We drew the Service Concept map around a conference table with TriMet planning staff, and in an earlier phase we also had staffs of most of the cities and counties in TriMet’s service district as well.  In our professional judgment, it’s a good illustration of what you might do if you were trying to expand both ridership and equity.  We’re sure the public feedback will give us lots of great ideas for how to refine it.

But we are also asking the public a specific question:  How far should we shift the priorities toward equity?

One approach you could take is to spend the new resources on the needs of people with lower incomes, while retaining all the services that are there now.  This would get you some improvement in equity, but we wondered if that would be enough to match the public’s priorities.

So we (staff and we the consultants) decided to put out an illustration of what it might look like to turn the dial even further toward equity.

The concept map cuts some existing services to make an even larger investment in equity-improving services. The service cuts happen in places where the service has neither a ridership justification nor an equity justification.  These areas are low ridership because of physical features like low density, poor walkability, or disconnected streets.  They’re also low equity priorities because they have relatively few people with lower incomes.

In shifting service in this way, from higher-income areas to lower-income areas, did we go too far or not far enough?  That question is purely about values.  It has no technical answer.  That means that my opinion doesn’t matter and I won’t express one.  We are asking the community this question, as part of TriMet’s survey about the concept, and that will lead to a decision by the Board on how far we will turn the dial in creating the final plan.





Atlanta: You Have Choices for Your Transit Future

Source: “Atlantacitizen” at English language Wikipedia

For over a year now we have been working with the metro Atlanta transit agency MARTA on a study to potentially redesign their bus network.

A bus network plan isn’t just about bus service! It’s also about how public transit contributes to all kinds of goals that residents care about, including equity, prosperity, managing congestion, and reducing emissions. Bus service is relevant to redevelopment, too, because this study will help determine where it is viable to live without a car.

We’ve analyzed the existing system and patterns of demand.  Now, we really need everyone in the region to tell us what their priorities are.  If you live in Fulton, Clayton, or DeKalb Counties, your opinion matters and we need you to speak up.  The future design of the bus system will depend on what you tell us now!

There’s no money to add service above 2019 levels, so we have to make some hard choices.  To illustrate these choices, we’ve sketched two contrasting alternatives for what the network might look like.  We need you to have a look at these and tell us what you think.

To see the alternatives, and take the survey, just click here.

Please share this with everyone you know in the region!


You Can Help Save Public Transit In Your City …

… by thinking about people you know who are driving for Uber or doing poorly paid jobs they hate, and asking if they’d have better lives as bus or train operators.

I’m serious.  In the US, public transit is in grave trouble due to lack of staff.  Here’s how bad it is at TriMet here in Portland.

TriMet would need to increase our current operator ranks by more than 300 to return service to pre-pandemic levels. In January, we reduced service by 9%, to better-match staffing levels; however, resignations, retirements, promotions and departures of operators for other reasons have continued to outpace hiring, leading to canceled buses and trains and system delays for riders.

Everything transit advocates have fought for could be destroyed by this problem.

Pay and benefits?  A lot better than Uber!

TriMet has increased the starting pay for new bus operators to $25.24 per hour, and with regular, guaranteed pay raises, all operators earn $68,000 per year or more after three years on the job full time. In addition, TriMet bus operators receive a generous package of employment benefits, which includes no-to-low cost health insurance, life insurance, paid vacation and sick time, and a retirement plan with an 8% employer contribution. In addition, TriMet is offering all newly hired operators a $7,500 hiring bonus.

Plus there are very powerful labor unions looking out for you.  It’s designed to be a stable long term job that you can build a life on.

These kinds of offers are now typical in many cities around the country.

So here’s the deal on driving a bus.  (Note: Light rail train drivers usually start as bus drivers.)

  • You have to enjoy driving safely.
  • You have to deal with people.  Some are wonderful and help you feel better about humanity.  Most are harmless headphone-wrapped units of social isolation. Some are unpleasant.  A few could be dangerous.
  • You have to have an exercise routine to compensate for the sedentary nature of the job.

But all that’s true of Uber too!

This job is not for everyone, but anyone looking for a job in this wage/skill range should be considering it.  Do you know one of these people?  Do you meet groups of people who might fall in this category? Point them to your public transit authority’s website, where there’s probably a very prominent “we’re hiring!” box.

Because if nobody will do this job, we won’t have public transit anymore.