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.

December Digest (and Why You Should Follow Me on Twitter)

I’m recently returned from almost a month in Australia and New Zealand — mostly doing speaking events in Sydney, Melbourne, and Auckland — and am way behind on blogging.  This happens now and then, which is why you should also follow me on Twitter (@humantransit).  When there’s no time to write paragraphs, I still write tweets.

Some important things:

It’s fun, and the writer, who goes by Joe Bagel but may have several identities, certainly knows his Shakespeare, and his Plato, and his hip-hop.  More impressively, he cast himself as Musk, who is not, in the end, the hero.

Walkability, Weaponized

Some people will read a book from beginning to end, but many are browsers, nibbling here and there.  Some people want to be told want to do, while fewer want to plumb the depths of why.  So it’s not surprising that we’re seeing more list-books, lists of things to do with only brief explanations of each.  Most are terrible.

The great list-books are by people who have written the long book first.  You can trust Michael Pollan’s fun book Food Rules — a set of memorable rules about how to recognize good food, each explained in a page — because it’s a summary of his longer book on the topic, In Defense of Food.  Likewise, you can trust Jeff Speck’s Walkable City Rules because it’s a summary of Walkable City, one of the most important books in modern urbanism.

Speck calls his new book “an effort to weaponize Walkable City for deployment in the field.”  War metaphors are appropriate, especially in the US, where so many pedestrians die on the roads, and so many more are forced to drive because it’s too scary to walk.

These rules are practical interventions in the decisions that local governments make every day.  As with transit, great walkability is not the result of “pedestrian planning.”  It arises mostly from other decisions that seem to be about other things: zoning, development review, street design, housing policy, parking policy, and even law enforcement.

Imagine Speck striding through your City Hall.  (He is tall, but with a disarmingly soft voice.)  He leans into each meeting, listens for a minute, and then inserts the one idea that those people, working on that exact issue, need to hear.  That’s what the book feels like.

Of course, you want me to comment on his treatment of transit, but full disclosure: I had a small role in this part of the book, including commenting on a draft.  Two sections are based partly on my work and we exchanged ideas about some of the rest.  So while this is definitely his book, written from the standpoint of an urban designer, it might seem self-promoting to single this part out for praise.  Having said that, it says important things and it says them well, in a language that policymakers will understand.

Speck and I disagree on a tiny number of points [1], but overall, this book brilliantly describes not just the challenge of being a pedestrian and how to make it better, but also exactly how to shift each decision to achieve that, in every room of City Hall, and beyond.

Jeff Speck. Walkable City Rules  Island Press, 2018.



[1] I defend countdown clocks at signals, while Speck wants to remove them.  And while he and I will never perfectly agree on how to talk about streetcars, his streetcar chapter is the most candid I’ve ever seen from someone in the urban design profession.

An “Opinionated Atlas” of US Transit by a Great Transit Traveler

The massive redesign of Houston’s bus system, which has helped grow ridership as many US transit agencies are losing riders, would not have happened without Christof Spieler. Within the Houston METRO Board, he was the one member who rode transit, thought constantly about transit, brought professional credentials as an urban planner, knew what needed to be done, and knew how to argue for it to people of many different ideologies and cultural backgrounds.  The Board, which was itself ideologically and culturally diverse, was inevitably guided in part by his expertise, passion, and patient persistence.

Since then, Christof has been traveling the US, studying and thinking about transit.  Every week, it has seemed, he tweets from some new city.  Finally, all that thinking has come together as Trains, Buses, People: An Opinionated Atlas of US Transit.  

The first two parts of the book are a sensible explanation of what good transit planning is:  Think about people rather than technologies.  Think about networks rather than lines or corridor projects.  Think about frequency rather than just speed.  These are arranged in simple one-topic pages, with a summary paragraph and bullet points — ideal for skimming.

Christof’s map of Los Angeles. Note what a small area has frequent service both north-south and east-west. (Orange lines are frequent buses, and all rail is frequent except the purple commuter rail lines.) (Island Press, 2018)

But it’s the third part, the atlas, that will really suck you in.  For the 50 largest metro areas in the US that have rail or Bus Rapid Transit (that’s everything bigger than Fort Collins, Colorado or Eugene, Oregon) he provides a loving description of the city’s network, its demand pattern, its recent history, and its issues.  Denizens of each city may disagree with what Spieler chooses to emphasize, but he certainly will start a lively conversation, not just within cities but about the comparisons between them.

What’s new about this atlas?  Spieler shows you the frequent bus network for every city, thus helping you see not just where trains go, but where people can go easily.

Christof’s map of Chicago at the same scale. Note the substantially larger area with both north-south and east-west frequent lines. (Island Press, 2018.)

For example, his Los Angeles map reveals that despite the vast area of moderate density in that city, a complete frequent grid (with both north-south and east-west lines near most people) exists only in a tiny area of about 7 x 7 miles (the size of San Francisco), extending roughly from downtown to the edge of Beverly Hills and from the Hollywood Hills to just south of I-10.  Everything else, including highrise centers like Century City, Burbank, Glendale, and Pasadena as well as vast areas of mostly 2-3 story housing, has frequent service in only one direction, if at all.  Another map of Los Angeles includes densities, and shows how much high-density area lies outside the frequent network entirely.

Spieler’s map of Chicago, by contrast, shows  a remarkably complete grid over very similar densities in a city with even fewer major destinations outside of downtown.

Spieler’s book is perfectly designed to be both readable and browsable — a great gift for an urbanist or transport geek and a great book for the coffee table.  You can read around in for a long time, exploring different cities, their strengths and their missed opportunities.  Let’s hope it produces a smarter conversation about urban transit.

Christof Spieler:  Trains, Buses, People: An Opinionated Atlas of US Transit: Island Press, 2018 


Sydney: The Committee for Sydney Podcast

While I was in Sydney last week I didn’t have a public event, but I did do this podcast, interviewed by Committee for Sydney’s Eamon Waterford.  Not the best sound quality, but it might be interesting.  It’s here.