Event: “The Free and Just City after COVID”, August 17

On Monday, August 17, at noon US Eastern Time, I’ll be speaking in a small corner of the Democratic National Convention festivities online.  The Strong Cities Alliance, a project of Organization of Democratic Municipal Officials (DMO), will be doing an hourlong event called The Free and Just City after COVIDAlso on the program are former Gary, Indiana mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson and Bruce Katz, the noted urban scholar and author of The Metropolitan Revolution and The New Localism: How Cities Can Thrive in the Age of Populism.

(This is the first truly partisan event I’ve ever done.  The ability to work with people from all reasonable parties is important to me, so I would normally resist anything partisan, but the last four years in the US have made this challenging.  I long to live in a country where both parties want people in big cities to vote for them, and hope we can find our way back there.)

You can register here.



Adelaide: A Network Design Proposal Fails

In my long experience redesigning bus networks, it’s been rare to see a team spend years talking with people, studying reams of data, and developing a design through many iterations, only to have the result be nothing.  Most designs I’ve worked on have either been implemented or at least been the basis of some improvements.

Adelaide, Australia, however, has just abandoned a thorough redesign of its network.  It was a political decision, in which the Premier of South Australia overruled his own Minister of Transport, who had proposed the changes.    (I was not involved in this project.)

The basic idea of the plan was to reorganize services into a simpler pattern with far less complexity and far more frequency — which is what high-ridership redesigns (like the projects I worked on in Auckland, Houston, and Silicon Valley) do.  Such a revision will typically delete stops that are too close to other stops, and may ask people to walk to frequent service on a nearby main street rather than having infrequent service closer to their door.  It may require some people to change buses who don’t have to do so now.

The result of the proposed simplification is typically a dramatic expansion of the high frequency network, which in turn means a network that provides faster door-to-door travel times and is easier to learn, remember, and explain.

Here’s a slice of the existing Adelaide network.  Lots of infrequent routes, but none of them are likely to be coming when you need them.

Here’s what it would have looked like under the new network.  Here, red lines are likely to be coming whenever you need them — they run every 15 minutes all day — while blue lines come every 30 minutes.  (Oddly enough, this is the same color scheme that we use in all of our maps!)

If your goal were higher ridership, or maximizing where people can get to in a fixed amount of time, this kind of network design would do that.    (Again, I was not involved in this design, and am not endorsing the specific design choices.)

But even if you do everything right — even if you do the right engagement, analyze the data well, and come up with the best possible design, people will scream.  That’s because many riders are used to the system as it is, and have no interest in how the network improves access to opportunity for anyone but themselves.  It doesn’t matter how useless the existing network is.  Some people use it, and they will defend it, and the negative feedback is always louder than the support.

Almost all journalists will tell the negative side (Rage! Recriminations! A chance to paint leaders as incompetent!) because it just gets more clicks than the positive side (More people can get to more places, especially disadvantaged people! More people will ride! Less car traffic and pollution!)  So of course, if a plan eliminates some bus stops that are too close to other stops, the headline will be:



It’s possible to make this reaction worse by doing a poor job at engaging decision makers and the public at every step, but it’s not possible to make it go away.  Thus, I always have to remind elected officials at the beginning of the process:  “All network designs that don’t add new operating cost are controversial.  The more they try to achieve, the more controversial they are. Some people will scream at you. It may divide your own coalition. If you’re not up for that, let’s not even begin.”  This, quite simply, is why some really incoherent and wasteful ones are never fixed.

So what went wrong here?

The excellent blog Melbourne on Transit blog has a long post-mortem. I agree with most of it, and would add:

  • If you are using the redesign to cut service, there should be a clearly understood reason, like the pandemic and related budget crises. Service cuts due to crisis can be a good time to do redesign — if that helps reduce the overall damage of the cuts — but it means that you have to deal with anger about the cuts at the same time that you deal with anger about the redesign.
  • Minimize the number of controversies you are having at once.  Network redesign is controversial enough when the public is allowed to focus on it; it gets much harder when the public confuses it with other issues happening at the same time.  Don’t try to reform contracts with operating companies, or introduce new companies, at the same time.  Don’t raise fares at the same time.
  • Don’t propose magical outcomes.  The government used the language of trying to “reduce subsidies” while improving service, due to some alchemy that was supposed to happen inside the operating companies.  This is not how it works.  Setting impossible expectations is a guarantee of failure.
  • Provide very clear information in lots of formats, with good before-and-after analysis tools.  We provide before-and-after trip planners, maps of how access (where you can get to in a reasonable time) changes, and lots of other ways for people to engage with how the plan affects their lives as well as how it affects the city.
  • Go to the public with options, or at least a draft, with a clear message that the plan will be revised in response to comment.

Still, it’s a struggle.  This may not have been the right design for Adelaide, but it’s unfortunate that after all that effort, they’ll get nothing.  An obsolete and inefficient network will always be popular among people who are used to it, but if that’s always a reason not to improve it, the whole city loses.

San Francisco: A Forbidden Fantasy Comes True

Around 1989, when I lived in San Francisco, I spent too much time in little rooms with transit advocates (and some transit professionals who could not be named) complaining about Muni Metro, the combined surface-subway light rail system.  It looked like this and still does, except that the T line was added more recently.  Note the r0ute letter names in the lower left.

The segment with 3-5 lines on it, from Embarcadero to West Portal, is the underground segment, which carries the heaviest loads through the densest part of the city.

It had always been wildly unreliable.  The five lines that ran through it (J, K, L, M, and N) always came in sequences of pure arithmetic randomness: N, J, M, K, J, N, N, K, K, M, N, J, L.  (Finally, my “L”!  But of course, after such a long gap, it’s crush-loaded and I can’t get on.)

Four decades after the subway opened, lots of things have been fixed: longer and better trains, better signaling, an extension downtown that helped trains turn back more efficiently.  But none of this touched the true problem:  The core Metro subway carries five lines, all of which deserve to be very frequent.  But they can’t all be frequent enough because they all have to squeeze into one two-track subway.  The other part of the problem is that they all have surface segments at the outer end, where they encounter more sources of delay, causing them to enter the subway at unpredictable times, and in an unpredictable order.

In those small rooms in the 1980s, we all knew that there was only one mathematically coherent solution.  Some us drew the map of this solution on napkins, but we really didn’t need to.  The map was burned into our minds from our relentless, powerless mental fondling of it.  Of course it was politically impossible, so impossible that if you valued your career you would wad up that napkin at once, burn it probably, and certainly not mention it outside your most trusted circle.

At most you might let out the pressure as a joke: “You know, we *could* turn the J, K, and L into feeders, and just run the M and N downtown. And then we’d have room for a line that just stayed in the subway, so it was never affected by surface delays.”  Everyone would titter at hearing this actually said, as though in some alternate universe such a change could be possible.

Now, the impossible is happening.  Without fear or shame, I can finally share the content of that forbidden napkin, because it looks like San Francisco is actually going to do it.


The two busiest western lines (M, N) will still go downtown, the others (J, K, L) will terminate when they reach a station but you have to transfer to continue downtown.  M trains will flow through as T.  Finally, a shuttle (S) will provide additional frequency in the subway, immune to surface delays.  As always, asking people to transfer makes possible a simpler, more frequent, and more reliable system.

You may detect, at San Francisco’s tiny scale, a case of the universal “edge vs core” problem.  Like many, many US rail transit systems, Muni Metro had been designed to take care of the edge, people who lived on one of the branch lines, rather than the core, people traveling along the subway in the dense inner city.  The new system finally fixes the core. But the edge folks benefit from a reliable subway too.  What’s more, in the future it may be possible to run the surface segments of J, K, and L more frequently, because their capacity will no longer be capped by the need to fit down the subway with four other lines.

All that in return for having to transfer to go downtown if you’re on the J, K, or L.

Let me not make this sound easy.  These transfer points, West Portal and Duboce Portal, are a little awkward, because they were never designed for this purpose.  You have to walk from one platform to another, crossing at least one street.  There are valid concerns from people with mobility limitations, which will have to be addressed with better street and intersection design.  Plenty of people won’t like it.

But the transit backbone of a major city will finally function.  And for those of us who’ve known San Francisco for decades, that’s a forbidden fantasy come true.



Should Public Transit Shut Down for Civil Disturbances?

What should public transit agencies do when a city is convulsed by massive demonstrations carrying a high risk of violence? Over the weekend, many transit agencies shut down rather than risk possible harm to their staff, passengers, and equipment. This left many good people stranded as they tried to leave the demonstrations.

Christof Spieler, a Board member at Houston Metro, has some ideas in a Twitter thread.  He starts with:

As someone who shares the goals of these protests, let me gently lay out why this is so difficult for transit managers.  This is not to defend or uphold any particular choices any agency has made.  The debate about this is urgent and important.  My only point is that it isn’t easy or obvious what transit agencies should have done.  It was absolutely not OK that people were stranded, and there needed to be a solution for that, but the actual solution isn’t so obvious.

Before you say that transit should have run as normally as possible during the crisis, ask yourself:
  • If you were a bus driver, would you be comfortable being told to drive into an area where civil unrest is likely and there is some risk of violence?
  • If you were a transit manager, who has seen plenty of pictures of burned and vandalized buses, what should be your tolerance of the risk of destroying or damaging the fleet, thus making normal service impossible?
  • But, you might say, buses could run normally to near the edge of the affected area.  OK, but how is the transit manager supposed to know the boundaries of that area in advance?  These are not obedient events.  They can rove fast and unpredictably.  They can even erupt from nothing where they weren’t planned at all.
  • But surely they could have kept most of the system running, far from the events?  I think there are cases where I’d have recommended that, but again, transit managers can’t predict where events will erupt.  What’s more, good transit networks are all interconnected and interdependent.  You can’t just turn off a piece without it having a huge effect on the rest.  This is especially true when that piece is downtown, where lots of lines meet or flow through.
  • If you say, yes, but they need realtime monitoring and guidance about how to detour in response to what’s happening:  Buses have limited option to maneuver as conditions change.  They don’t fit down every street.  They may need several blocks to turn around.  The dispatcher/driver ratio is far too low for dispatchers to give each bus driver the best advice for their situation when everything is changing so fast.

All this has to be figured out in realtime by staff who probably support the demonstrators’ goals, in a situation where they will be attacked for whatever they do.  They’re being criticized for holding back, but they’d also be criticized if the evening news were full of burning buses and injured drivers and passengers.

Of course, as with the sudden service changes required by Covid-19, these decisions were made fast by people who might have made better decisions on reflection, and will learn from this experience. But these decisions are hard.

Finally, regarding the use of transit vehicles for police purposes:  Most cities put a lot of effort into interagency emergency planning, where the various functions of government decide how they’d work together in various crises.  In most situations, that’s exactly what we’d want them to do.  Clearly, those plans around civil disturbances are going to be reviewed now, and deserve some public discussion.  Obviously, the crisis of trust around policing in the US needs to be considered when transit agencies decide how to work with them in these emergencies.

Those plans also need to address transit system shutdowns, because in a big city these are emergencies all by themselves.  They need to honor the limitations of each agency’s product and not expect the impossible from them, while also creatively addressing the challenges.  The Los Angeles transit agency reimbursed people’s Uber, Lyft, and taxi rides out of the demonstrations after they shut down service.  Was that the right thing to do?  Right now, give them credit for doing something.

Finally, if you care about these decisions, you might want to direct some of your activism toward influencing your city’s emergency planning.  Many people who do that work are exasperated by public apathy and may welcome your respectful interest.

But please, don’t make these emergency decisions sound easy and obvious, because they aren’t.

To Exit the Crisis, Rethink Our Goals

I’m in the Canadian Urban Transit Association newsletter this week, with a piece on goals.  Key quotation:

The crisis has revealed a strong new argument for transit, one we should deploy at anyone who wants to judge us on ridership.  Transit has kept running through the crisis as an essential service, supporting people who work in hospitals, grocery stores, utilities. These mostly low-income people would typically have been called “transit dependent.”  But it is they who are holding civilization together right now, so we are all “transit dependent” in this sense.

What’s more, this has always been true.  Transit riders have always been part of the basic functioning of our cities.  Measuring that role solely with ridership would be like measuring the success of the police by how many arrests they make.  The purpose of the police is to provide a base level of security that people can count on.  The purpose of transit is to do the same for urban mobility.  Transit means that people can go places, and thus do things, in a way that isn’t as harmful or expensive as driving.

Read it here.

The Collapse of Rush Hour: A Deep Dive

Covid-19 has understandably caused steep declines in public transit demand, but the pattern of that fall is important.  Peak (rush hour) demand has fallen much more than all-day demand, mirroring a change in travel demand overall.



This chart is from the daily updates we’ve been getting at the Transit app website.  This chart covers all Transit clients, who are heavily US and Canadian agencies but include a few in other countries.

[Caution:  These are not ridership statistics.  Instead, Transit counted queries of its app, which provides realtime information about when the next bus is coming and, in some cities, can be used to pay your fare.  That means this metric probably undercounts relatively unwired people, including low income people without smartphones and those less comfortable with apps.  Still, it’s the only data that can be collated and updated so rapidly.]

Of course people are working at home during the emergency, but some leading companies are planning to continue the practice, and nobody really knows how much office work will return.  You can see conflicting reports on whether working at home is wonderful or terrible, so we can expect continued experimentation as people and companies figure out what they like.  Still, with the virus lingering, it will be a long time before everybody is back in the office, and there’s room to wonder if they ever will be.

Why is the fall of the peak important?  Running service only at rush hour is expensive, for three reasons.

  • A vehicle must be owned and stored that isn’t used very much.
  • A driver must report to work for just 2-4 hours, which is less efficient, hard on the driver and will cost the agency more per hour of service.
  • Most peak demand is massively one-way in the morning and the other way in the evening.  Drivers’ shifts must end where they began, so every bus or train that runs full in one direction has to return empty in the other, often over long distances.

So the fall of the peak, if it were sustained into the future, could be great news.  While the peak is an easy place to rack up lots of ridership, its high costs mean it’s not always the best place to seek productivity (ridership divided by operating cost).  Ultimately that means that there could be all-day markets that would be more productive once the high cost of peaking is taken into account.

There is also the large social justice dimension to the peak.  Peak commuters are far more affluent on average than all-day travelers, because higher wage jobs are more likely to be “nine to five” while lower wage workers, predominantly in retail and services, are more likely to be needed around the clock.  So a decline in peaking could help sustain services that support lower wage people — and remember, these are people whose work everyone depends on.

Of course peak service is justified by the need to mitigate traffic congestion that occurs at that time, but it remains to be seen what levels of congestion will return.  It may go up if we try to run a full economy with social distancing, but it could also go back down after a vaccine.  We’ll have to see.

Peaking has such a huge effect on the life of a city, and the costs and efficiency of transit, that it’s worth taking a quick tour of how different it is in different cities, and how that reflects choices the city made — consciously or unconsciously.  Here’s my home city, Portland.

This is typical of a lot of US cities where the social distancing expectations (both legal and cultural) have been firm over the last two months. The peak is mostly gone. In percentage terms, the difference isn’t huge. Ridership is down about 80% at both midday and PM peak times, but it’s down about 87% on the AM peak, where few people travel other than for peak work shifts and schools. Still, the absolute numbers matter too, because they measure the degree to which an agency will be forced to run expensive peak-only services rather than an all-day pattern.

Note that this typical North American peak is about two hours long in the morning and three hours long in the afternoon.  That’s the result of peak spreading, the widespread tendency for start and end times to vary slightly by employer (and by school).  Compare Sydney, Australia [really this is all of the state of New South Wales, but Sydney is the overwhelmingly dominant market there]

Australian peaks are much sharper than North American peaks — less than two hours long — and as you can see from yesterday (May 25) they are coming back as sharp as ever.  Australian public transit also does most of the work of school transportation, which explains why the afternoon school peak at 3-4 PM is bigger than the evening commute peak at 5-6 PM.  Note that it is the school peak that is returning now, though, while the work commute peak — marked by activity in the 5-6 PM hour, is not so prominent.

When I worked as a transit planning consultant in Australia I was always struck by the huge cost of serving a rush hour that’s so brief.  Yet Australia is far behind North America is adjusting work and school scheduling to spread the peaks out, so that demand (both transit and road) can be served more efficiently.  (Spreading the peak can also create huge savings on infrastructure projects, since if you scale infrastructure to serve the peak one hour, you’ll need a lot more infrastructure than if the same demand is spread over two hours.)

Now look at Paris


The abundance of transit in Paris isn’t just a matter of spending lots of money on it, but on focusing on an all-day demand rather than peak demand. Paris has plenty of peak commuters, but so many people rely on transit for all kinds of purposes that those peaks don’t stand out the way they do in less transit-oriented cities.

Of course, there are some car-oriented cities without much peaking either, generally those built around entertainment and tourism. Las Vegas, say:

This is what happens when you have relatively few rush-hour commuters to office jobs, but massive employment in tourism: shifts starting and ending all the time. But it’s not all tourism. All those jobs that keep society running — working at WalMart or a hospital or a (take-out) restaurant — are visible here because the commute peak doesn’t swamp them in the chart. Note how much smaller the drop is from pre-pandemic days: only about 50% compared to 70-90% in most US cities, because there were fewer peak commuters before. Even with the massive loss of casino and hotel jobs, plenty of low-income people need to get to work.

Finally, a small US state capital with a huge university. Universities tend to be huge consumers of transit, and you can see the effect of both university and state offices shutdowns in Madison, Wisconsin.

The drop was over 90%, and only the PM peak shows the earliest signs of coming back, now to 80%.  [Again, these are Transit app queries, not ridership numbers that can only be provided by the agency.]

All these graphs are scaled to the pre-pandemic demand, so only in Las Vegas do you see the importance the low-wage worker in essential services including essential retail.  But those people are in all of these numbers and are why there was any ridership at all.

Keep an eye on these charts, and on peaking patterns as they emerge in ridership data from the agencies.

Covid-19: My Letter to Colleagues and Clients

This letter went out to our colleagues today:

Friends and colleagues.

First of all, we are deeply grateful to everyone working in public transit agencies right now.  Frontline staff are taking personal risks, while everyone is having to think fast and abandon usual procedures.  If you are in the midst of this, thank you for everything you’re doing.

The goals that justify our work have turned upside down.  I never thought I’d hear transit managers tell people not to use their service, or that the mandate of social distance would have us running big buses and long trains so that they would be as empty as possible.  All our old instincts for how to run good transit systems suddenly feel wrong.

Like many of you, my team and I have been thinking about how Covid-19 changes what we do, how we do it, what stories we tell, and what questions we ask the public.  I wanted to take a moment to share our thoughts as they stand right now.

The most important fact about Covid-19 is that our recovery will be gradual, and we will emerge from it into a different world.  Experts tell us to expect a tentative and slow recovery, in which people may fear the virus for several years.  Here are some of the changes we think are coming.

  • New public understanding of goals.  In a recent Bloomberg Citylab article I argued that at the moment, transit’s role is neither to attract riders or to serve people’s needs; it’s to protect essential services that are holding civilization together.  In a pandemic, we are all transit dependent in this sense.  The crisis will change the conversation about public transit, and we need to be ready to tell new stories about why transit matters now, even if the traffic congestion that motivates more affluent riders to use our service takes years to return.
  • Demand for interim outcomes.  For several years, as demand returns in unpredictable ways, transit agencies will need to make quick decisions about how to restore service in light of changing demands.   We are reviewing all of our approaches to see how they can produce insights fast enough to guide those decisions.
  • No “existing system.”  Most planning studies compare a proposed future to the existing system, but that system no longer exists.  In general, planning will need to rely less on pre-crisis data and more on an understanding of post-crisis demand, including a lot of listening and clear thinking about goals.
  • Outreach that is all online.  There will be no in-person meetings for a while, but that doesn’t mean we can’t do outreach.  Everyone is learning how to do more things online and by phone.  Religious services, community meetings, clubs, and many other such events are all happening online, so “going to where people are” may mean visiting those virtual spaces with them.  People are spending more time on social media, so the payoff of deep investment in communicating that way may increase.  Pollsters are noticing  that people have become more willing to answer the phone.  People want to engage, though we’ll need to find ways to include marginalized and less-wired communities in these conversations.
  • Outreach with faster turnaround.  Expectations for exhaustive public outreach may need to be balanced against the need to make some decisions more quickly, such as about interim service restoration.  The public will appreciate being consulted, even briefly, such as via text or social media.  It will be more urgent than ever to ask the public just the right question, so that the answer we get is influential on our work.
  • New reasons for redesign.  We are probably heading into a period of reduced funding combined with urgent expectations.  It’s more fun to plan service in the context of growth, but I have done many redesigns in the context of crises, and these have often given the agency a better structure on which to grow when resources and demand return.
  • Reduced resistance to change.  One of the most hopeful impacts of Covid-19 is that we may hear less anger about disrupting people’s habits when we change service.  Everyone’s habits are already disrupted, so it is in many ways an ideal time to make changes.  Some people will still feel entitled to the old service just as it was, but there will be powerful arguments – moral and data-driven – for why the new situation is different, and demands new thinking.

Our team has already made some happy discoveries about how to do great planning while keeping social distance.  For example, we’ve long emphasized the importance of “Core Design Retreats,” where we lock ourselves and key staff in a room for several days to sketch a new network.  I’d never have imagined we could do this in a Zoom meeting, but now we’ve done it, to redesign the bus network in Norfolk, Virginia, and we’ll do it even better next time.  Even the big stakeholder workshops that we’re known for, featuring interactive games, may be possible online.  We’re working to develop those tools now.  I think we’ll all be surprised by what becomes possible.

Like many, we are concerned about what this may do to our business, though we feel lucky compared to friends who work in tourism, restaurants, or the arts.  If we do see a slowdown in planning work, I’m committed to keeping our team together.  To do that, we’ve tightened our belts, and I’ve reduced my own salary, until we are sure our demand has fully returned.  When you need us, we will be here.

In the end, if there’s anything that gives us confidence, it’s that we have built our practice on questioning established planning habits. We will not get stuck trying to do things the way we’ve always done them.  We are ready to improvise and build new methods fast, so we can help you cope with the present and move toward the future rather than simply return to the past.

Thanks for reading, and thank you for everything you’re doing to help us emerge from this crisis into a better world.

All the best.


Cutting Transit Service During the Pandemic: Why? How? And What’s Next?

Most of the goals that we expect public transit to pursue have just turned upside down.  Ridership was an important goal two months ago, but now public transit agencies are telling customers to stay away if they can, restricting service to “essential trips.”  These trips are critical, though, to the functioning of society.  You could even argue, as I did in Citylab recently, that transit is helping prevent the collapse of civilization.

But now transit authorities are having to cut service.  This post examines why, and how they should do it.  It’s long, so there’s a table of contents:


  1. Why Cut Service?
  2. Why Not Shut Down?
  3. What Service Should be Cut?
  4. What Agencies are Doing, and May Do
  5. Three Stages of Adaptation and Recovery


1.  Why Cut Service?

Why cut service at all in this situation?  There are two compelling reasons:

  • Staff availability.  Some critical staff are sick, and it’s likely that every transit employee is at least worried about being sick.  So right now, there just aren’t enough people showing up for work.
  • Saving money.  In the US, the Federal CARES Act will keep transit agencies whole for a couple of months but requires them to continue paying all their staff.  But the financial prospects are dire in the longer term, so some agencies are trying to save money so that they can keep going a little longer if the federal funding dries up.  In countries where no emergency funding is being provided, many agencies will run out of money very soon if they don’t cut their service dramatically.  (Vancouver’s TransLink, for example, has been told not to expect support from the Canadian federal government, and will have to “deconstruct” much of the network as a result.)

2.  Why Not Shut Down?

This is a brutal time to be a bus driver.  Already some services have been shut down by union action and some labor leaders are demanding more shutdowns.  Some transit systems — such as the one in Windsor, Ontario — have shut down completely with no particular attempt to provide alternate solutions for the “essential services” workers.

Apart from the workforce safety issue, would it be cheaper to shut down transit and just subsidize Uber-Lyft rides for all essential services workers? That math only works if you truly lay off the workforce.  This is not what the unions have in mind, and in the US it’s expressly prohibited for agencies taking the Federal CARES act rescue funds.  It also means that when economic activity resumes it will take more time to get the agency restarted, potentially creating a long period when lots of people need transit and it’s just not there.  Meanwhile, while keeping people 6 feet (2m) apart is certainly hard on public transit, it’s impossible on the Uber or Lyft.  You’d need a van to carry just one passenger in addition to the driver.

3.  What Service Should Be Cut?

Easy Options

If service has to be cut, how should it be cut, and with what priorities?  Two cuts are really obvious and most agencies have done them:

  • Tourism and recreation services.  These markets have vanished.  San Francisco, for example, has replaced its cable cars with buses.  Many downtown circulators and trolleys, especially those justified by tourism, have shut down.
  • Service usually added for rush hour, unless it’s the only service to an area.   The “essential service” trips that are still on transit happen all over the clock with very little peaking.  The huge nine-to-five peak created by white collar workers is nearly gone, and of course the school peak — a big one in many agencies — has disappeared entirely.  Peak-only service is expensive, so it’s a logical first thing to go as long as people along those routes have a local service option to complete essential trips.

Difficult Options

  • Cut frequencies.  Most agencies have done it. but it’s dangerous.  A common misconception is that if you cut frequency, people still have “access.”  But lower frequency means longer waits for connections, so this can cause massive increases in travel times.  A trip that takes longer than people have in their day might as well not be served at all.  A good guideline, which several agencies are following, is to cut very frequent services to run only every 15 minutes, the worst frequency at which connections are still viable, but resist cutting further.
  • Abandon service to some areas entirely, while focusing on “essential” destinations.  Many agencies have plotted the locations of essential services, especially medical centers, and retained only routes serving those.  The problem here is that the workers who need to get to those places live everywhere.  To make all essential trips possible, you need a degree of citywide access, at least to all areas where incomes match the typical pay of essential workers.
  • Cut duration of service.  This totally abandons some essential shift workers, especially in the 24/7 medical world.  Most transit agencies were already offering little or new overnight service, and closure of restaurants and entertainment has eliminated most of the ridership of evening service.  But further reductions of span can still be a problem for essential services workers, who may have to travel all over the clock.
  • Increase walking distances consistently.  In a grid network where there are routes about every half-mile or 1 km, just turn off every other route, so that walking distance to transit increases but everyone still can get to some service.  More on this interesting option below.

4.  What Agencies are Doing, and May Do

The most common quick response to the crisis has been to go to Saturday or Sunday schedules.  This effectively does a bit of everything on the “difficult options” list.  It’s totally reasonable as a quick response.  Saturday and Sunday schedules already exist, have already been approved by both union and management, and are relatively easy to turn on.  The normal process of writing, approving, and implementing a schedule takes months, with procedures that tend to be strictly defined in labor contracts.  Many agencies have found their unions to be motivated to help make things work in the crisis, but that approval process still takes time.  So it’s understandable that using weekend schedules was the thing that could be done fast.

Still, several agencies have already managed to implement more carefully designed service cuts.  Cleveland’s RTA, for example, has completed a service cut with revised schedules reflecting detailed thought about every route and how to make a minimally functional and connective system.  In their case, the suburbanization of low income means they can’t cut any coverage, but they’ve turned off their downtown shuttles and carefully chosen frequencies for each route to optimize travel times.

It’s critical that transit agencies do these designed reduced networks they have time to think about it.  Many transit agency Sunday schedules are just the daytime network run less frequently, and often don’t work very well because it can take an hour to change buses.  But transit agencies will be running on reduced demand and resources for some time, so more careful design is needed.

San Francisco and Philadelphia (within the city) are among the cities where the cuts have tended to protect frequency bhy increasing walking distance — though of course this works best in old cities that are relatively walkable.  San Francisco has turned off many routes and thus increased walking distances to about a mile but in return its frequencies are 20 minutes or better everywhere, so once you’ve walked to a functioning route you can be on your way.  Their new “Core” network doesn’t immediately show a consistent route spacing, because their initial design was limited to turning existing routes off or on, but if this goes on I wouldn’t be surprised if they start doing modest restructuring to improve the amount of useful service they can provide with such reduced resources.

5.  Three Stages of Adaptation and Recovery

From what agencies are doing, and the facts behind them, I think we can identify three stages that agencies are going through, or likely to go through, as they deal with the combination of (a) suddenly needing to cut service and (b) retaining the ability to slowly grow service back as demand returns, knowing that the pattern of new demand may be different from the old.

Stage 1.  Emergency cuts.  These cuts, mostly done by now, are necessarily rushed and crude, such as going to weekend schedules.

Stage 2.  Designed cuts.  When time permits, refine the schedules to better reflect actual patterns of “essential services” needs during the emergency.

Stage 3.  Strategic design.  While Stage 2 generally works with the existing network structure, this stage may revise routes or even redesign some services.  You would do this, though, only if you think that redesign will probably continue making sense as demand returns.

Everyone knows that when this crisis passes, they will emerge into a different world with different patterns of demand.  The usual controversy around network changes, where we disrupt patterns that people are used to, will no longer apply, because nobody’s used to anything at the moment, and we all know the new world will be different from the old.  We can anticipate some reasons that the return of service will need to follow new patterns:  People who can drive will be slow to return to transit, but people without a good option of driving will show up in much greater numbers.  So service priorities optimized for the latter may be the best way to bring service back, and that’s not always what existing route structures are designed to do.

In short, like all crises, this is an opportunity.  And because this is a big and enduring crisis, the opportunity is big and enduring too.


Transit Prevents the Collapse of Civilization

My piece on transit’s role in the Covid-19 crisis, and what it should teach us about what it’s role has always been, is in Citylab today.  Key idea:

The goal of transit, right now, is not competing for riders nor providing a social service.  It is helping prevent the collapse of civilization.

What’s Wrong with an Empty Bus?

Why is this bus in Paris empty? It’s parked at the end of the line.

When people want to imply that public transit is irrelevant or failing or wasteful, they always point to relatively empty buses or trains.  To the layman it certainly seems as though buses with few passengers aren’t achieving much.

This common line is based on two false assumptions.  It assumes that empty seats indicates waste, which they usually don’t, and it falsely assumes that ridership is transit’s only measure of success, which it isn’t.

The Math of Efficiency: Run the Biggest Bus You Will Ever Need

In fact, when a transit agency runs a relatively empty bus, they’re doing what they’re told to do, and they’re doing it efficiently.

Transit operating cost is mostly labor.  The cost of a bus is in the driver, not the size of the vehicle.  So it doesn’t cost much for the vehicle to be bigger than needed.

But it costs a lot for the bus to be too small.  Then you have crowding, or you leave passengers behind.

Demand for transit goes up and down during the day, and on different parts of the route.  It also goes up and down for unpredictable reasons.  A school decides to have a field trip, and a normally empty bus is suddenly packed.  Nice or bad weather can change ridership patterns suddenly.

Buses and trains cannot dynamically shrink or expand to match these changing demands, and since the operating cost lies mostly in the driver, there wouldn’t be much to gain by doing that.  For example, you might propose that after the morning rush hour the big buses should be replaced by smaller ones.  But the cost of paying a driver to take a bus back to the base and take out a different one far exceeds any cost in running a larger bus than you need for a few hours.

So transit agencies are smart to run the biggest bus they will ever need, even though that means the bus will be empty at some hours, or on some parts of the route, or even on some days when demand is lower.  They may even run a bigger bus than a route ever needs, because there are also massive inefficiencies in having too many different kinds of buses.  Smart agencies have thought this through and what they are doing, in my experience, mostly makes sense.

Ridership Is Not Transit’s Only Measure of Success

If public transit were the only goal of transit, it would look very different.  For example, it wouldn’t serve many parts of the city, because high ridership is just geometrically impossible in those places, for reasons we explain here.  For example, it would delete a service that almost nobody is using, and it wouldn’t waste five seconds on people’s complaints that they really need or deserve that service.

The boards of directors who govern transit agencies — who are either elected officials or their appointees — never tell their staffs to run the agency this way.  They want ridership, but they also want a lot of other things that often justify running low-ridership service.

The 2020 Covid-19 epidemic proved this point.  Instead of shutting down and laying off most staff, as a profit-making business would logically do, most big city agencies did their best to run service, not just to keep their staff employed but also to enable those “essential service” workers to get around, so that the city could keep functioning.  To do this, and to encourage social distance, they ran intentionally “empty” buses and discouraged people from riding them.  In this, transit revealed itself to be the opposite of a business.  It’s a utility, an essential element of the functioning of a city.