One Less Barrier to Expanding US Urban Rail Transit

 

Caltrain between San Francisco and San Jose is one of many urban “commuter rail” lines that really need to be high frequency rapid transit lines. Now that’s a little more likely. Photo: Lucius Kwok.

Here’s some good news for people who want more rapid transit service in US cities, and soon.

In the US, all passenger rail services that could potentially mix with freight are governed by the regulations of the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA). This applies not just to Amtrak but also, critically, to “commuter” rail lines, crucial rail transit services that run on freight railways.

If cities wanted to rapidly upgrade their rail transit systems, the cheapest way is often using upgraded commuter rail rather than building new lines.  Many major cities have large networks of radial commuter rail lines [typically originally freight lines] which, if upgraded to run every 15 minutes or better all day, would effectively become metro lines, on the cheap.  You’ll find this level of service in many major metro areas overseas. Toronto’s Smart Track plan is exactly this idea.

The problem, as always, is frequency, which in turn is a problem of operating cost.  Most US commuter rail systems are far too infrequent to be useful for anything but 9-5 commuting, even though many of them run through dense urban fabric where the demand is there for all-day frequent service.

The Obama FRA, responding to several freight rail disasters, had proposed a rule mandating two-person crews, and had quietly inserted language extending this to passenger rail, even though passenger and freight rail present very different safety issues.   Those requirements would have made commuter rail service too expensive to run frequently enough for it to be useful, and would have persisted regardless of whether technological developments improved the safety outcomes of one-person crews.

The Federal Railroad Administration has just announced that it will stop requiring two-person crews and preempt state requirements to do so.  If this were a genuine safety issues, I’d be alarmed, but it really isn’t. The new FRA position liberates transit agencies and other local governments to negotiate the right solution with their unions in the context of what’s technologically possible.

Yes, removing this requirement is a “conservative” idea that would be unlikely to come from a Democratic administration.  But it removes a significant barrier to providing more useful urban public transit, which leads to all kinds of benefits for equity, prosperity, and the environment.

Miami: Starting a Network Redesign

We’re excited to get started on a bus network redesign in Miami!

Miami-Dade Transit runs a large network of about 100 routes, running over 750 buses across a huge area over 40 miles long. Over the last five years, the Metrobus system has lost about 1/4 of its riders, which has caused Miami-Dade leadership to question the current bus network and how well it’s serving the county.

Like many other Sunbelt cities, Miami is growing and a lot of that growth is in a few places: around downtown, on the beaches, and in a few key centers such as Coral Gables. These densifying centers are reaching the point where cars simply don’t work anymore, and transit is essential to the continued growth and prosperity, not to mention equity. Thus, there are increasing demands for more useful service in these core areas.

As in many cities, the edges of the region are also seeing new development designed almost entirely for car dependence. And many people moving to the edges are doing so because they have limited incomes and the housing is cheap. But the land use design and distance means that the cost to serve them with transit is very high. These trends are stretching Miami-Dade Transit farther and farther geographically on a limited budget. This combination of forces is putting great demands on transit in opposite directions and is heightening the difficulty of the ridership-coverage tradeoff.

A key question in the process will be the different roles of different transit agencies. Many municipalities have begun running their own municipal bus routes. Some, like the Miami Beach network, are extensive. As Miami-Dade has lost riders municipal systems have seen big ridership increases, rising from 7.4 million riders per year in 2013 to 10.9 million in 2017. Where these municipal routes compete with county-wide Miami-Dade routes, many people are choosing the municipal routes, in part because they are free. These trends are causing greater segmentation of transit services across the county and adding to the complexity that an average rider must manage when trying to figure out how to make a trip or trying to understand the whole system.  They also represent a degree of duplication that could potentially be reallocated to create more frequent and useful service.

As always, public input (including but not limited to riders) will be essential to figuring out what direction Miami-Dade wants to go. For that effort, we are especially excited to partner with Transit Alliance Miami, a local non-profit organization advocating for walkable streets, bikeable neighborhoods and better public transit. Transit Alliance advocated this project for years, and now they are actually leading the process on behalf of Miami-Dade County, with a big emphasis on involving the community in decision-making throughout the process. We think this is the first US bus network redesign that is led by a community advocacy group.

We expect there will be some early outreach on key choices in the summer. In the fall, we expect to release two concepts for how the future network could look, and this will be a key point for public input. All of that input will guide us on a final plan, which we expect will be voted on this winter. Keep an eye on the Transit Alliance twitter feed and website for regular updates throughout the redesign process and opportunities to provide input and respond to concepts.

Cleveland: Tell us what you think about these alternative networks!

Our work on Greater Cleveland’s transit network is now available online, and we’re looking for people from the area to provide their input through this online survey.  The transit agency, GCRTA, hired us this year to help develop transit network alternatives that would illustrate what the transit network could look like if it shifted its focus more towards attracting higher ridership, and what it what the network would look like if it shifted towards extending coverage, as well as what the possibilities may be with different levels of funding.

The local newspaper, the Plain Dealer, has a great article about the networks and what they are intended to illustrate.

Cleveland is fortunate to have a relatively dense, and walkable pre-war era development pattern across much of the city, but as with most places in the United States, the trend over the past half-century has been the continual spread of residents and jobs to far-flung locations across the region. Since the region as a whole is growing very slowly, or not at all, this slow dispersal of the tax base poses a long-term challenge for the stability of transit resources and travel markets as more people and jobs flee to the margins of Cuyahoga County, or beyond.

When operating resources are limited, as in GCRTA’s case, the ridership/coverage tradeoff is put front and center in any discussion of what transit can do. Today’s network extends to most, but not all, of the developed area of the county, and provides little high-frequency service within the dense, walkable core of the region. Reaching more of Cuyahoga County would mean curtailing frequency in dense areas even more. But building a robust frequent network would require pulling back from many of these lower-density suburban areas, as there is little waste or duplication to reallocate in the current service design of RTA’s network.

In this context, RTA has brought us in to help explore what the transit network could look like today, if different policy priorities were emphasized more strongly in network design. Further on in the project, we’ll also be developing alternatives for different financial scenarios. Right now, RTA is conducting outreach on two alternatives: a High Frequency Alternative which brings frequent service to most of the dense, walkable central areas of Cleveland and the inner-ring suburbs, and a Coverage Alternative, which spreads low-frequency service to more of county.

The purpose of these alternatives is to illustrate for the public, stakeholders, and the agency’s Board of Trustees the potential outcomes of a policy choice to focus more on ridership or on coverage. (You can click each map below to explore a larger annotated version).

The High Frequency Alternative concentrates service so that lines run more frequently, reducing waiting times and making travel by transit more convenient. The network would reach fewer places, but where it does reach, trips would be faster than with the Existing Network.

As a result, over 40% more jobs would be accessible by the average county resident in an hour with the High Frequency Alternative. But on the other hand, the reduction in overall network extent reduces the number of people within a ½-mile walk to transit by over 20% from current levels.

You can compare the structure of the network on Cleveland’s east side to see this principle in action:

GCRTA Existing Network (left) compared with the High Frequency Alternative (right)

On the other hand, the Coverage Alternative spreads out service across the county, but spreading it out means spreading it thin. Frequencies would be lower throughout the network. This means that the network reaches more places but some trips would take much longer. Because these are budget-neutral alternatives, expanding the reach of the network requires reducing service levels on other routes, some routes that run every 45 minutes today would run every 60 minutes, and RTA’s single existing 15-minute bus service would run every 20 minutes. About 25,000 more people would be within a ½-mile walk of a transit stop, about a 5% increase from the Existing Network.

We hope these alternatives clearly illustrate the ridership/coverage tradeoff as it applies to Cuyahoga County and Cleveland. If you live in the area, please tell us what you think! You can learn more about the project and alternatives here.  Then, if you live, work or study in Cuyahoga County, be sure  take this short online survey.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mirra Meyer, 1942-2019

My mother, the artist Mirra (Louella) Meyer, passed away on Friday, April 16.  The story of her life, with images of her work, are here.

 

Do Uber and Lyft Want to Connect to Transit?

Uber and Lyft — especially Lyft — want you to think that they are partners of public transit, eager to help more people get to rapid transit stations.  Lyft and Uber have both created partnerships with transit agencies to provide “last mile” service.  When people talk about the “last mile” problem of access to transit (a problem that exists mostly in suburban areas or late at night) Lyft and Uber are eager to seem part of the solution.

I would like to believe this.  Here are two reasons I don’t.

  1.  Uber/Lyft Drivers Don’t Want Short Trips

First, no Uber or Lyft driver really wants to offer a “last mile” because a mile is too short a trip to make sense to them.  The hassles of each trip are constant regardless of the trip’s length, so long trips are always preferred.  In the old days of taxis, whenever I booked a taxi ride to a transit station, the driver always pitched me to give me a ride all the way to my destination.  And if I approached a long taxi queue at a suburban rail station and told the driver I wanted to go a mile, he’d be unhappy to say the least, because he spent a lot of time waiting for my fare.

That’s why the partnerships between Uber/Lyft and transit agencies for “last mile” service inevitably involve public subsidy, which means that they compete with other kinds of transit service for those funds.  (This can be OK if transit agencies have really decided that this is the best use of funds given all of their other needs.)

2.  Uber/Lyft Drivers Can’t Find Transit Station Entrances

Uber and Lyft drivers mostly use mapping software that can’t find many transit station entrances.  If connecting with transit were a critical part of their business, this would have been fixed by now.

The nearest rapid transit station to my home in Portland (Bybee Blvd) looks like this:

This is a typical suburban arrangement (although this is not really suburbia).  The station is alongside a highway (labeled McLoughlin Blvd.).  The pedestrian access to the station is from the overpass. The little roofs are the elevators and stairs.

But the mapping apps think that the station entrance is on the highway.

So it is impossible to call Uber or Lyft to this station, because the software tells the driver to go down the highway, where all they’ll find is a fence.  I can text them to correct it, but not all drivers pay attention to texts (nor should they, while driving.)  And even if I correct it, I’ll then wait an extra 10 minutes as they get themselves turned around and navigated to the right spot.

This is the example I deal with all the time, but I’ve found many suburban rail stations in many cities where drivers don’t have clear directions about station locations.  For example, call Lyft or Uber to Van Dorn Metro Station in Alexandria, Virginia, and you can expect the driver to wander all over the adjacent interchange.

Some people clearly need to go to work accurately coding the location of every entrance to every transit station, but it’s clearly not being done.  Why not?  It must not be that important to these companies.

So Do Uber and Lyft Want to Go to Transit?

It makes sense that Uber and Lyft would want to do long trips to rapid transit, more than a few miles.  For example, in San Francisco, Uber and Lyft do a good business to regional rapid transit stations (BART and Caltrain) but since each system has only one line in the city, these can be trips of several miles (often competing with the abundant local bus and light rail system).

And Uber and Lyft certainly want to be subsidized to do more “last mile” work, via partnerships with transit agencies.

But the drivers’ inability to find transit station entrances — and the fact that this problem has been tolerated for years — is what really decides it for me.  Companies that really want to connect with transit would have made sure that they can navigate a driver to any entrance of any rapid transit station.  But they don’t.

Why Invest in Lyft or Uber? What Am I Missing?

Lyft has completed its Initial Public Offering, and at this writing the price has since fallen 35%.  Uber’s IPO is expected soon.  Both will now be publicly traded companies, reliant on many people’s judgments about whether they can be good investments.  Uber loses billions of US dollars every year, while Lyft, which is smaller but growing faster, is getting close to losing $1 billon/year for the first time.

Why invest in these companies?

Anyone who says “Amazon lost money too at first” is just not thinking about transportation.  Amazon can grow more profitable as they grow larger, because they can do things more efficiently at the larger scale.

Uber and Lyft are not like this, because their dominant cost, the driver’s time, is entirely unrelated to the company’s size.   For every customer hour there must be a driver hour.  Prior to automation, this means that no matter how big these companies get, there is no reason to expect improvement on their bottom line.  Any Uber or Lyft driver will tell you that these companies have cut compensation to the bone, and that they already require drivers to pay costs that most other companies would pay themselves, like fuel and maintenance.

If Uber and Lyft could rapidly grow their shared ride products, where your driver picks up other customers while driving you where you’re going, that could change the math.  But shared ride services don’t seem to be taking off.  My Lyft app rarely offers me the option, even when I’m at a huge destination like an airport, and when they do it isn’t much of a savings, which suggests that it’s not really scaling for them.

Of course Uber and Lyft could also go into another business, such as bike and scooter rental, but in doing that they’re entering an already crowded market with no particular advantage apart from capital.  The single-customer ride-hailing is the essence of why these companies exist, and there’s no point in investing in them unless you think that product can succeed.

Please correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems to me the possible universe of reasons someone would invest in these companies is the following:

  • Confusion about the basic math of ridehailing, outlined above.  Hand-waving comparisons to Amazon are a good sign that this mistake is being made.
  • Extreme optimism about Level 5 automation, which would indeed transform the math by eliminating drivers.  I no longer hear many people saying that commercial rollout of Level 5, in all situations and weathers, is imminent, as many people believed around the time Uber and Lyft were founded.   (And no, it makes no sense to have a huge crew of drivers ready to take the wheel only when the weather looks bad.  Nobody can live on that kind of erratic compensation.)
  • A naive belief that if you love a product, or find it essential to your own life, it must therefore be a good investment (a rookie investing mistake).
  • A belief that while you don’t believe any of those three things, enough other people do that those people will drive the price up, and you can get out before they discover the truth.  If this goal were intended clearly and honestly, it would be Ponzi scheme.  So surely it can’t be that.

So I must be missing something.  What am I missing?

 

Interview by “The Rideshare Guy”

Harry Campbell, who calls himself “The Rideshare Guy,” runs a blog and podcast specifically for Uber and Lyft drivers.  In a new podcast, he interviews me a broad range of topics, not just Uber and Lyft.  He gets me going on how transit works, and how I got into the business, in addition to the effects of rideshare.

You can listen right here.  We get going at 3:20.

Want to work with us in the Washington DC area? Apply now!

We’re excited to announce that Jarrett Walker + Associates is once again in a position to grow our excellent team of skilled transit planners and analysts, this time in our Washington, DC area office. Applications are open through May 17, 2019, so read on for details, and don’t forget to share with anyone you know who might be interested! You can also view the posting over at the firm website.

Overview

JWA is seeking a transit planner/analyst to work in our Arlington, Virginia office (Washington DC area), currently located in Crystal City.  The position offers the potential to grow a career as a consultant in transit planning.  As a small firm, we can promote staff in response to skill and achievement, without waiting for a more senior position to become vacant.  Everyone pitches in at many different levels, and there are many opportunities to learn on the job.

Duties include a wide range of data analysis and mapping tasks associated with public transit planning.

About JWA

Jarrett Walker and Associates is a consulting firm that helps communities think about public transit planning issues, especially the design and redesign of bus networks.  The firm was initially built around Jarrett Walker’s book Human Transit and his 25 years of experience in the field.  Today, our professional staff of nine leads planning projects across North America, with an overseas practice including Europe and Australia / New Zealand.You can learn about us at our website (jarrettwalker.com) and at Jarrett’s blog (humantransit.org).  For a sense of our basic approach to transit planning, see the introduction to Jarrett’s book Human Transit, which is available online.

Required Skills and Experience

For this position, the following are requirements.  Please respond only if you offer all of the following:

  • Two or more years professional experience using the skills listed in this section, or formal training in these skills (such as at a college or university). Directly-applicable coursework is valuable but not essential.
  • Fluency in written and spoken English. In particular, an ability to explain analytic ideas clearly.
  • Understanding and experience with analysis and visualization of quantitative information.
  • Experience in spatial data analysis (GIS).
  • Experience working in Adobe Illustrator, particularly in applications related to mapping or cartography.
  • Experience in cartography, evidenced in at least one mapping sample that is clear, accurate, and visually appealing.
  • Availability to start training in our Portland office the week of July 15, and full-time work in our Arlington office soon after, at least 32 hours per week.
  • Willingness to travel occasionally for projects.
  • Legal ability to work in the US

Other Desired Skills and Experience

The following are desirable but not essential, and candidates with the required skills listed above but none or few of these desired skills are still encouraged to apply.If you have any of the following skills, please note them in your application.

  • Experience with public transit issues, especially related to planning. Please describe any such experience.
  • Experience and skill level using data analysis programming languages (particularly R). If you can, please share some details on projects to which you have applied data analysis programming skills, and how long you have been working with the language.
  • Experience and skill level working in GIS, particularly QGIS.
  • Experience and skill level in Adobe Creative Suite, particularly Illustrator and InDesign. If you can, please tell us about the types of documents you have created in either software, and how long you have been using them.
  • Experience using Remix or other transit planning software.
  • Experience in database analysis. (Postgres/PostGIS, MySQL, etc)
  • Expertise with transit-focused routing software, such as OpenTripPlanner or Conveyal.
  • Experience describing issues from multiple points of view, including the perspectives of different types of people, and different professions.
  • Graduate degree in urban planning, transportation, or a related field.
  • Foreign language ability. Spanish is especially useful but other language skills are valued as well.
  • Experience managing small groups.
  • Experience working with minority and disadvantaged communities.
  • Experience and comfort in public speaking. If this is a strong point, please share a link to a video of you giving a presentation to a relatively non-technical audience.

Compensation, Benefits and Place of Work

Compensation will depend on skills, but will start in the range of $25-40/hour depending on skills and experience.  Large raises in the first year are typical for excellent work. Our benefits program includes medical, dental, and disability insurance; a 401(k) program; subsidized and pre-tax transit benefits; paid sick leave; and paid time off.This position will require working out of our Washington, D.C., area office, located in Arlington, Virginia’s Crystal City area. JWA does allow employees to set work schedules that include working from home or other locations for some of their work time, but employees will be expected to work in the Washington, D.C., area office for most of their work hours. This position will likely require occasional travel, to work with clients directly, a few times per year, and a trip to Portland to work with staff in our main office once or twice a year.

How to Apply

To apply, please send the following materials to hiring@jarrettwalker.com.

  • 1-page cover letter, explaining your interest in the position.
  • 1- or 2-page resume, describing your relevant experience and skills.
  • Links or electronic files for up to three (3) samples of your work. If possible, please include a map, a piece of writing, and a demonstration of a spatial analysis. (A single sample may satisfy more than one of these requests.)
  • Contact information for 1 to 3 references who can attest to your experience with the skills listed above.
  • Please do not include any information about your prior compensation.

On your applications materials, please remove or redact any explicit information about your name, gender, or sex.

Diversity and inclusion

JWA follows an equal opportunity employment policy and employs personnel without regard to race, creed, color, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender expression, age, physical or mental ability, veteran status, military obligations, and marital status.This policy also applies to management of staff with regards to internal promotions, training, opportunities for advancement, and terminations. It also applies to our interactions with outside vendors, subcontractors and the general public.

Timeline

The deadline for applying is 11:00 pm Pacific Standard Time on Thursday, May 17. Submitting earlier is advantageous as we will review applications as we receive them.We will ask a select group of applicants to perform a simple analysis and mapmaking test on their own, and then to join us for an interview. The test will likely be assigned on May 24 and due on May 31. We wish to hold interviews (in person or by phone/web) the week of June 3-7. Thank you for reviewing this listing. Please share it with others you know who might be interested. We look forward to hearing from you.

US Congress Considering Freedom-Based Measures of Project Success

It’s hard to capture what good news this is.  Through a bipartisan bill, Congress is seriously considering a plan to give more weight to how proposed transit investments improve access to jobs and opportunity.  The bureaucratic word for this is accessibility, but I like to call it physical freedom, because the presence of meaningful choices in your life lies in whether you can get to them in a reasonable time, which is exactly what this measures.  From the Transportation For America website:

The incredibly blunt metrics that most planners or communities have used since the 1960s, like overall traffic congestion and on-time performance for transit, paint a grossly two-dimensional picture of the challenges people face while trying to reach jobs and services. They don’t provide sufficient information for agencies to make accurate decisions about what to build in order to best connect people to the places they need to go. These 1960s metrics lead to singular and expensive solutions (like highway expansions), while often failing to solve the problem or even creating new ones.

Today, precise new tools allow communities to accurately calculate accessibility to employment opportunities, daily errands, public services, and much more. These tools allow states and MPOs to better understand where people are traveling and to design transportation networks to maximize the ability of people to travel. It also allows states and MPOs to optimize their transportation networks to utilize all modes of transportation and even to understand how their investments interact with land use policies.

We use these tools all the time in our bus network redesigns, though we are limited, by available data, to studying access to jobs.  It is great to see people working on better data layers to capture errands, shopping, and so on.  I am not sure how much of this granularity is necessary, but it doesn’t hurt.

Implicit in this news is the idea that ridership prediction could decline in importance, which would be great news.  We are much too deferential to predictive algorithms for things that may not be predictable, such as human preferences and attitudes 20 or 30 years from now.

There’s one other caution.  When planning fixed infrastructure investment, hard thinking has to go into what facts from today are assumed to be permanent.  For example, when we talk about access to public services, will we just analyze outcomes based on the often terrible locations of these services, thereby enabling continued terrible location decisions?  If we dare to predict better urban form in response to public investments, on what basis will we predict that?

The conversation about access therefore needs to reflect on what aspects of urban form and location are likely to last for decades, like the larger scale urban form and the likely trip generation it implies.   (We may build more dense urban fabric, but we are unlikely to tear it down.)  This is another reason why too much granularity could distract us; it leads us back into obsessive descriptions of the present, some aspects of which could be different next year.

So this is difficult philosophical stuff.  I’m trying to grapple with it in the next book.  Feel free to nag me about how it’s going!