Cleveland: See Where You Could Go

We’re excited to share the next stage in our work in Great Cleveland, where the transit agency, GCRTA, has hired us to help think through their goals and different ways that their transit network can be designed to meet these goals in the next few years, and to help imagine what the possibilities may be with modest increase in operating funds in the future. For our readers in Cleveland, our last system redesign survey on is now open.  Learn more about the networks and let us know what you think!

In May of this year, we made a post about two budget-neutral alternative networks that illustrate what the transit network could look like if the agency shifted its focus more towards attracting higher ridership, and what the network would look like if shifted towards maximizing coverage. You can find out more about these alternatives here.

We surveyed the public on these alternatives, and RTA conducted a series of public meetings throughout the county. The result of the public process suggested that many people saw the value of the frequency improvements of the High Frequency Alternative, but that most people would not be in favor of a reduction in coverage to achieve the frequency improvements.

Based on this input, we worked with RTA staff to design two network concepts that illustrate how the network could look if it were designed with a slightly greater emphasis on generating high ridership, but without reducing the overall coverage area from today.  These networks illustrate for the stakeholders and the agency’s Board of Trustees the potential outcomes of this policy choice using only today’s funding levels and illustrate what sort of network those same design priorities could produce with additional funding for bus service.

You can click each map below to explore a larger annotated version.

RTA Existing Network

Current Funding Concept

Expanded Funding Concept

Remember, ridership and coverage and the opposite ends of the same spectrum so at the same funding level and without reducing coverage areas, opportunities to add ridership-focused service are very limited.

The Current Funding Concept tries to do this by minimizing duplication in the network, and by making some difficult tradeoffs about where to increase and reduce frequency. While everywhere that is served today would continue to have transit service with this concept, some lower-density places would see their frequency reduced (usually from every 45 minutes to every 60 minutes). Some key improvements include frequent service on busy corridors like Detroit, Lorain and Kinsman (all currently every 20 minutes), and frequent crosstown service on E 93rd and E 105th (Route 10).

These and other improvements are possible by reducing service levels elsewhere in the network. For example, the Center Ridge corridor on the west side of the county would be served every 60 minutes by a branch of Route 26 (which continues via Detroit towards downtown). Today, this corridor is today is served every 45 minutes, so this is a reduction in frequency, but it does come with the benefits of a one-seat ride downtown, and an extension to the new community college campus at the edge of the county (Tri-C Westshore).

Closer to downtown on the east side, low-frequency crosstown services on E 55th and E 79th would be discontinued with this design. Today, because of the crosstown routes’ low frequency and proximity to downtown, many trips along these corridors can be made more quickly by traveling in and back out along more frequent radial services (such as the HealthLine BRT, or routes 1 and 3).  Yes, that would mean having to transfer, but as we’ve explained in a past post, “transferring” can be good!

These hard choices are characteristic of a no-growth redesign; in this case, the network was designed to improve ridership potential and expand the frequent network, within the constraint of maintaining the current coverage area.

The Expanded Funding Concept deploys about 25% more bus operating resources that today’s network. With this greater resource level, this concept can increase the usefulness of the transit network in almost every part of the county that is served. Some key improvements include frequent crosstown service on W 117th in the west and Warrensville Center in the east, and on key radials like St. Clair, Superior, Quincy and Cedar. 30-minute service would be provided on corridors like outer Lorain, W 130th, and Granger where only infrequent or no service is available today.

More Information

RTA is conducting a survey in English and Spanish and public meetings on these concepts now, so if you are in Cleveland, head on over to their website to find out more:

We’ve also put together an interactive webmap (similar to what we were able to deploy in Dublin in 2018) that you can use to explore the network and compare some travel time isochrones for each concept: In these maps, blue areas are newly reachable with the network concept, purple areas are reachable with both the existing network and the concept, and red areas are where you can travel with the existing network that is no longer reachable with the concept. You can also click the “View Routes” button to explore the network structure of each concept.

Here’s a quick comparison for the Tri-C Western campus showing the area that would be reachable in 60 minutes with the Expanded Funding Concept:

With the Expanded Funding Concept, 30-minute service would connect TriC’s western campus to the W 130th, Pearl, Ridge and State corridors. Since the campus is only served with hourly routes today, this produces a big expansion in the area reachable from the college (the blue area shown on the map).

Finally, much more detail is available in our mini-report, which you can view here:

A Fine New Guide for Transit Activists

Steven Higashide, Better Buses, Better Cities: How to Plan, Run, and Win the Fight for Effective Transit. Island Press, 2019.

Why are American cities finally taking buses seriously?  Because, as Churchill famously said, “Americans will do the right thing, after they’ve exhausted all the alternatives.”

I’ve been following transit in America for 35 years, and working in the field for 25. During that time, cities have growh frustrating to get around in, with dire consequences for people’s access to opportunity. But throughout that time powerful people have always been telling me that buses just don’t matter. Development interests cared only about rail or ferries. Technology marketers have always shiften the conversation to new patented things, of which some are useful but many are tragic distractions.  To the extent that buses have mattered to the powerful, it’s often been as a social service — a charity that they give pennies to out of pity but whose functionality they barely care about.

And that’s not even to mention the active hostility to bus service that transit planners encounter daily: the shopping mall or hospital that refuses to let a bus get anywhere near the building, the communities that want buses out, the urban businesses who think that motorists are the only customers who matter.

But having exhausted all the alternatives, American cities are finally rediscovering this essential tool. No remotely functional city in the world lacks a transit system, and the bus is always a critical layer – the thing that goes to all the high-demand places that rail can’t go.  As we enter the inevitable hangover from the mid-2010s sugar-rush of tech boosterism, people are finally doing the math to see why, for a city to function for everyone, buses simply must be allowed to succeed.

Steven Higashide has written a great little book charting the current and incipient bus revolution.  In a skillful balance of facts and stories, Higashide explores what successful bus services look like, and how to overcome the barriers to bus service reform. He interviews the architects of some of the most impressive achievements, and also delves well into the deep challenge of equity and public engagement.

Do I have quibbles?  My only serious one is that I wish the book were clearer about where activists should direct their constructive rage.  US transit agencies are less powerful than they appear and are often not the source of the biggest problems. Much of what they do is defined by their poverty and by the great mass of regulations and labor contracts that form the boundaries of their world.

At times Higashide understates the danger of telling transit agencies to do so many things that everything they do suffers from lack of focus.  Transit agencies desperately need to focus on designing and running good transit systems.  Demanding they take on other battles often comes at a cost to that core business, by dividing staff and elected attention.

For example, Higashide suggests that transit agencies lead on pedestrian infrastructure around stops, a massive task that falls in the city (and sometimes state) role in managing streets. Cities must be pressured to adopt their own transit goals that lead to those kinds of investments, as leading ones like Seattle have done for years.  Just because transit is connected to everything doesn’t mean transit agencies should have to solve every related problem with their own meager budget, as they are often told to do. That just leads to ever-lousier bus service.

But this book is so good in so many ways that I don’t mind disagreeing with it here and there. The messages are critically important. The writing is lively and fun.  You can read the whole thing in a couple of hours, and it’s short and logical chapters support easy snacking.  It’s a great tool for giving you hope, and focus. Buy it, read it, give it to people who need it. It will make a difference.


We’re Hiring in Portland!

Once again, our firm has an opening for a transit analyst in our Portland office.  We require strong analytic and cartography skills, but interest and in transit planning is also valuable.  So this can be a great place to start a transit career, especially if you like our work or my approach to transit planning.

See the listing here!  Deadline is November 1.  Please spread the word!


10 Years of Human Transit

This blog is 10 years old!  Please help celebrate by perusing the new Basics page!  There, you’ll find links to all the articles I’ve done that are likely to be most useful to people thinking about transit all over the world.  (If you think I’ve missed one, let me know!)

The blog was started by a frustrated American transit planner living in Australia.  Its first two years gestated the book Human Transit (introduction here) which in turn helped create our firm, Jarrett Walker & Associates, which provides transit planning and policy advice.

We’re 13 people now, with offices on both coasts of the US.  We’re proud of our recent track record of network redesigns.  Ridership is up as a result of plans we (or I) worked on in Houston, Auckland (NZ), Columbus and Richmond.  Our redesign for San Jose and Silicon Valley (VTA) goes live soon.  We’re currently doing similar work in Dublin (Ireland), Kansas City, Miami, Cleveland, and (just starting!) Dallas.  We’re also proud of our record in many smaller cities, from Anchorage to West Palm Beach.  And we’ve had some more distant adventures, including advising on the massive Magistral redesign of buses in central Moscow and a sojourn analyzing the network in chilly but friendly Reykjavik.

Some data for fun:  This is the 1225th post and the blog has gathered about 20,000 non-spam comments, many of which have started great conversations and generally made me smarter.  The top countries by readership over the last 3 years are, not surprisingly:

  1. USA
  2. Canada
  3. Australia
  4. UK
  5. India
  6. Ireland

But the top countries by readership per capita (readership divided by population) are

  1. Ireland
  2. New Zealand
  3. Canada
  4. Australia
  5. Iceland
  6. USA

… all places I’ve worked! Not all of this is honest curiosity, of course.  A few people have been looking for things to attack me for. But that’s fine.  No such thing as bad publicity.

You may have noticed the rate of new articles slowing down, and especially this year.   I will certainly never return to the rate of posting of the early days, when all of my surplus energy went into the blog, but I’ll keep writing useful things as long as enough people keep reading them.

How to keep up?

  • You can subscribe using FeedBurner.  (In the bar under the banner above, it’s the symbol to the left of the “search” (magnifying glass) symbol.)  If you’ll click that you’ll see an option to get every post emailed to you.
  • Follow me on Twitter, @humantransit!  There you’ll find every post announced there, and you’ll also get a lot of other commentary.

I can’t say how grateful I am for all of the feedback over the last 10 years.  I look forward to continuing the conversation.



Miami-Dade: Tell us what you think about these conceptual networks!

Esta página está disponible en español aquí.

Our latest work on the Miami-Dade transit network is now available online, and we’re looking for people from the area to provide their input through this online survey.

The well-respected advocacy group, Transit Alliance, is leading the Better Bus Project on behalf of both Miami-Dade Transit and several of the key cities.  Transit Alliance and the County hired us this year to help develop transit network alternatives that would illustrate what the transit network could look like if the trolley networks were more coherently integrated with the overall county-wide network and if the balance between ridership and coverage goals were changed.

The local newspaper, the Miami Herald, has a good article about the networks and the choices they illustrate.

We previously released a Choices Report that highlighted one of the major shortcomings of the existing network, a lack of a frequent grid. The two network concepts we developed try to build a frequent grid, at least in the core of the network. Below are slices of the Existing Network, Coverage Concept, and Ridership Concept for the core of the region.

And the legend:

The concepts cost the same as the existing network, and they are fully implementable. If everyone loved one of the concepts, it would be possible for Miami-Dade and the cities to make the network changes and implement one of these in 6-9 months. But we aren’t asking people to pick one or the other. We’re asking people to tell us which concept they are closest to, so that the County Board and City Commissions can get input on the direction they should choose for Miami-Dade.

Some other key questions raised by these concepts include:

  • Should the trolleys be changed to make them complementary parts of a county-wide network? Both the Coverage and Ridership Concepts can provide more frequency on more streets because the city and county networks are designed to complement each other.
  • Should bus stops be placed farther apart so buses can go faster and people can get where they are going faster. Today, stops are about 1/8 of a mile apart. Both the Coverage and Ridership Concepts assume that stops are spaced about ¼ mile.
  • And, of course, how should the region balance the competing goals of ridership and coverage?

So if you know anyone in Miami-Dade County, send them to the project website to explore and express their views.  Encourage them to peruse the Concepts Report. And if you’re interested in reforming bus networks in general, watch the conversations around the concepts and the ultimate decisions by the local elected leaders. As with every network redesign we do, these concepts are here to help people decide what values they want transit to prioritize. We can help the community understand the options and the outcome, but it’s ultimately their decision.

Miami-Dade: Dinos que piensas sobre estos conceptos de transporte público

This page is available in English here

Nuestro trabajo más reciente en el sistema de transporte público de Miami-Dade ya está disponible en línea, y estamos buscando gente de la región para que nos cuenten su opinión a través de esta encuesta.

El respetado grupo de abogacía, Transit Alliance, está llevando a cabo el proyecto Better Bus en nombre de Miami-Dade Transit y varias ciudades clave. Transit Alliance y el condado nos contrataron este año para que ayudemos a desarrollar alternativas para el sistema de transporte público que ilustren como este podría cambiar si el sistema de trolleys estuviese mejor integrado a toda la red del condado y si el balance entre las metas de un sistema de alta frecuencia y uno de alta cobertura fuese a cambiar.

El periódico local, el Miami Herald, publicó un buen artículo sobre las redes conceptuales y las opciones que pretende ilustrar.

Anteriormente publicamos un Informe de Opciones que destaca las deficiencias del sistema actual, especialmente la falta de una red de alta frecuencia. Los dos conceptos que desarrollamos intentan construir una red de alta frecuencia, por lo menos en el centro del sistema. A continuación, pueden ver secciones de la red existente, la red de alta cobertura, y la red de alta frecuencia.

La leyenda:

Los dos conceptos cuestan lo mismo que el sistema existente y se pueden implementar en su totalidad. Si todos prefieren uno de estos dos conceptos, Miami-Dade y las ciudades pueden hacer los cambios necesarios e implementarlo dentro de 6 a 9 meses. Pero no estamos haciendo que a la gente elija uno o el otro. Les estamos pidiendo que nos digan hacia cuál concepto se inclinan para que la Junta del Condado y la Comisión de la Ciudad reciban información sobre la decisión que deben tomar para Miami-Dade.

Otras preguntas clave sobre estos conceptos incluyen:

  • ¿Se deben cambiar las rutas de los trolleys para que formen parte del sistema del condado entero? Ambos conceptos proveen rutas de mayor frecuencia en más calles porque los sistemas del la ciudad y el condado están diseñados para complementarse mutuamente.
  • ¿Se debería aumentar el espacio entre paradas para que los autobuses puedan ir mas rápido y así la gente puede llegar a donde quieren ir más rápido? Hoy, el espacio entre paradas es aproximadamente un 1/8 de milla. Ambos conceptos asumen un espacio de 1/4 de milla entre paradas.
  • Y por supuesto, ¿cómo la región debe balancear las metas contradictorias de alta frecuencia y alta cobertura.

Si conoces a alguien en el Condado de Miami-Dade, enséñale la página del proyecto para explorar y expresar sus opiniones. Anímalo a leer atentamente el Informe de Conceptos. Y si tú estás interesado en la reforma de sistemas de autobús en general, mira las conversaciones sobre los conceptos y la decisión final que tomarán los líderes electos. Como con todo rediseño que hacemos, estos conceptos están para ayudar a la gente decidir que valores quieren priorizar con el transporte público. Podemos ayudar a que la comunidad entienda sus opciones y los efectos de esas opciones, pero al final es tu decisión.

What is “Microtransit” For?

In last year’s “microtransit week” series, I challenged the widely promoted notion that “new” flexible transit models, where the route of a vehicle varies according to who requests it, are transforming the nature of transit, and that transit agencies should be focusing a lot of energy on figuring out how to use these exciting tools. In this piece, I address a more practical question:  In what cases, and for what purposes, should flexible transit be considered as part of a transit network?

For clickbait purposes I used “microtransit” in the headline, but now that I have your attention I’ll use flexible transit, since it seems to be the most descriptive and least misleading term.  Flexible transit means any transit service where the route varies according to who requests it.  As such it’s the opposite of fixed transit or fixed routes.  But the common terms demand responsive transit, on-demand transit and “microtransit” mean the same thing.

This article is specifically about flexible transit offered as part of a publicly-funded transit network.  There may be all kinds of private-sector markets — paid for by institutions or by riders at market-rate fares — which are not my subject here.  The question here is what kind of service taxpayers should pay for.

As I reviewed in the series, the mathematical and historical facts are that:

  • Flexible transit is an old idea, and has long been in use throughout the world.  No living person should be claiming to have invented it.  The only new innovation is the software and communications tools for summoning and dispatching service. You can now summon service on relatively short notice, compared to old phone-based and manually dispatched systems that only guaranteed you service if you called the day before.
  • The efficiency of summoning and dispatching has done very little for the efficiency of operations. Flexible transit services have a very high operating cost per rider, and always will, for geometric reasons that no communications technology will change. Flexible services meander in order to protect customers from having to walk. Meandering consumes more time than running straight, and it’s less likely to be useful to people riding through.  Fixed routes are more efficient because customers walk to the route and gather at a few stops, so that the transit vehicle can go in a relatively straight line that more people are likely to find useful.
  • There is no particular efficiency in the fact that flexible transit vehicles are smaller than most fixed route buses, because operating cost is mostly labor. You can of course create savings by paying drivers less than transit agencies do, but you will get what you pay for in terms of service quality.
  • How inefficient are flexible services? While there are some rare exceptions in rare situations, few carry more than five customers per driver hour.  Even in suburban settings, fixed route buses rarely get less than 10, and frequent attractive fixed route services usually do better than 20.
  • Therefore, flexible transit makes sense only if ridership is not the primary goal of a service. 

All transit agencies must balance the competing goals of ridership and coverage, for reasons explained here.  Coverage means “providing access to transit regardless of whether many people use it.” A typical measurement of coverage is “___% of population is within ___ distance of transit service.”  Coverage goals arise from popular principles such as “leave nobody behind,” “be there for people who need us,” and “provide a ‘fair share’ of service in every city or electoral district.”

To provide clear direction to planning, we always encourage transit agencies to form a clear policy on how much of their resources should be set aside for service whose goal is a high coverage, not high ridership.

For example, in our 2016 study of Santa Clara County, California (Silicon Valley including San Jose), we developed a conceptual “Network 90” that focused 90% of resources on a goal of ridership, leaving only 10% for coverage service. The old network was about 70% ridership, so this was a substantial shift.  By deleting some coverage service, “Network 90” reduced the population covered by any transit, from 89% of the population to 73%.  (It would have increased ridership by concentrating frequent services in places of high demand, so the percentage of the population on frequent service went up.)  By contrast, the “concept 70” which left 30% of the budget for coverage, would have kept the coverage to around 89% of the population, but offered relatively little ridership benefit.

Once you have decided to invest some of your resources in coverage service, and know that ridership is not the point, flexible service may have a role.  That’s because if your goal is take credit for bringing transit close to many homes, it’s sometimes more efficient to do that without actually going there every hour.

In a great deal of American suburban development, you’ll find things like this:

This series of peninsulas and islands on the south edge of Savannah, Georgia is covered with very low-density residential development, in which entire neighborhoods are effectively cul-de-sacs.  A fixed route that tried to cover this area would have to go out each peninsula, turn around, and come back. In fact, there’s a bus route that tries to do that.

Savannah’s Route 20. Source: Chatham Area Transit.

It’s a rare example of a route who’s ridership is so low that flexible service might do better, and it’s not hard to see why.  Few people would be willing to ride through all these loops.

A flexible service could service this area with fewer driver hours.  To do this, it would allow enough time to go to perhaps half of the peninsulas in each hour, but would take credit for covering all of them.  That way, it would provide the lifeline transit access that is coverage service’s goal.  If enough people lived in landscapes like this, then this tool could help an agency satisfy a target like “90% of residents are within 1/2 mile of service.”

Flexible service isn’t always the right coverage tool.  There are many areas where density is too low to attract ridership, but where the street network puts most homes and destinations within a reasonable walk of through-streets.  Fixed routes can cover those areas quite efficiently, even when meeting a coverage goal.  But flexible services do have a place in the coverage toolbox.

However, contrary to almost all “microtransit” marketing, ridership is the death of flexible service.  Suppose that a flexible service on these peninsulas was so attractive that many people began calling it.  Then the flexible route van would be expected to go to every peninsula every hour, which is impossible. So more vans would have to be added, still at a very high cost/rider.  This process would devour the limited coverage budgets of most agencies, and if those agencies haven’t established a clear limit on what they’ll spend on coverage service, this process can start threatening high-ridership service.  At that point, someone should ask: If you end up deleting a bus carrying 30 people/hour so that you can run a van for 3 people/hour, aren’t you basically telling 27 people/hour to buy cars?

So attracting many riders to flexible services is the last thing a transit agency should want to do.  In fact, when flexible services become too popular, they have to be turned back into fixed routes.  Imagine that a flexible service covering the area above got so popular that you needed three vans to run it.  At that point you might as well just run a separate fixed route for each peninsula, at which point each one could be reasonably straight.  Still, though, three buses may be more than this particular area deserves, when you look at the total budget for coverage services and spread it over the whole region.  So if you really want to claim that you’ve covered all of these peninsulas, you want flexible service, but you also want to take every possible step to keep ridership down.

For this reason, too, flexible transit must avoid being more convenient than fixed routes.  It may need to have a higher fare, and it certainly shouldn’t offer service “to your door.” If the goal is coverage to areas where fixed routes don’t work, like these Savannah peninsulas, then you should provide the same quality of service that fixed routes do, which is to say, service to a point within a short walk of your house. This keeps the van out of cul-de-sacs and gravel roads, allows it follow a somewhat straighter path, and thus allows it cover more area in an hour, which is the whole point.

So most discussion of flexible services or “microtransit” is missing the point.  The Eno Foundation report, for example, went to great length to sound optimistic about pilots that were achieving three passengers per service hour – a worse-than-dismal performance by fixed route standards.  Flexible service will never be justifiable if the goal is ridership, because if ridership were the goal you wouldn’t serve places like these low-density peninsulas at all. Only if the goal is coverage do these services ever make sense, so only in that context does flexible service appear as a possible solution.

Unfortunately, plenty of “microtransit” marketing is still sowing confusion about this.  Transloc promises to “solve the frequency-coverage dilemma,”[1] which is dangerous nonsense.  “Microtransit” is a kind of coverage service, not a way to avoid having to think about how much service to devote to coverage goals.

Flexible service will never compete with fixed route on ridership grounds, so it should stop pretending that it can.  Market the service as what it is.  It’s one tool for providing lifeline access to hard-to-serve areas, where availability, not ridership, is the point.



[1] Transloc page as of August 28, 2019.

Linking US Small Cities and Towns: Time for State Leadership

When I was a boy, the US had a robust network of intercity commercial transit services, run by Greyhound and Trailways.  These services didn’t just link the biggest cities.  They also linked smaller towns and cities, too small or too close for airlines to serve.

In my home state of Oregon, for example,  the network looked like this.

Oregon private sector intercity bus services in 1976. Source: Bill Vandervoort


We often rode Greyhound (blue) or Trailways (red) from Portland to the then-small towns of Central Oregon (150 miles) or on one one of four routes out to towns on the coast, 60-100 miles away.

Almost all of those services are gone.  Private intercity bus companies, including new players like Megabus, stick to linking big cities.  All that remains is a minimal state-funded service called Point, one or two trips a day, mostly to feed Amtrak.

Transit agencies have done their best, but the US habit of organizing transit in county-level agencies means that many obvious services don’t exist.  Consider Eugene, Oregon (metro population about 250,000 with a big university).  It has a city bus line (4 trips/day) to the small mountain town of McKenzie Bridge, 53 miles away, but there’s no line to go the 41 miles to Corvallis (population 58,000 with the state’s other major university).  Why? McKenzie Bridge happens to be in the same county, and Corvallis in a different one.

Australia has similar geography to many US states but features state control of all public transit.  Local governments, including the rural ones that are comparable to US counties, have little role.  This arrangement has big downsides, but it does mean that state government actively organizes the long transit lines linking small cities, often with rail but extended as needed with buses.  As a result, there’s a viable public transit option for intertown travel in many parts of Austraila.

We have worked for several county and municipal transit agencies on addressing this problem. All are doing their best. Some have formed interesting partnerships, such Oregon’s NW Connector, to extend service a ways into adjacent counties and present multi-county networks in an integrated way.  But the mission of a county or municipal agency just does not let them run the long, continuous routes that make sense for these markets.

So bravo to the State of Colorado for a new initiative to expand state-funded service for obviously intercity links across their state.  Oregon is in the early stages of developing more such services, thanks to a new statewide funding source.  What is your state doing in this regard?