Yesterday morning, just before my public lecture, I did an interview with Steve Kraske of the local public radio station KCUR. If you're interested, you can find it here!
There should be nothing amazing about a new report on how easy it is for Americans to get to work on transit, but there is. Think about all the arguments we have about transit ...
... and ask: Why do we try to discuss these things in the absence of good analysis of the most basic question of all: Is transit useful? Does it help people get places in at a time and cost that's a logical choice for them? Such information is often hiding inside ridership models, but it's rarely revealed in a way that lets people see and discuss it. Without that, it's hardly surprising that the American transit debate is so confused.
Access across America: Transit 2014, from the University of Minnesota’s Accessibility Observatory, describes how easy it is to get to jobs in America’s major metro areas by way of transit plus walking. (For very short trips, it shows what can be reached by walking alone.) The authors are Andrew Owen and Professor David Levinson. The report is meant to sit alongside similar studies for the other transportation modes.
So here’s Portland, say, shaded by the number of jobs that can be reached within 30 minutes from each point in the city:
The report also offers a ranking of how easy it is to get to jobs for the average residential location in all the major metros. The ranking looks at where you can get to in a range of travel time budgets, from 10 minutes – basically a measure of walk access – to as much as 60 minutes. Here's are the top 17:
As the travel time budget rises, the relevance of transit to economic opportunity becomes visible. Los Angeles, with long access distances but extensive frequent transit, does poorly on 10-minute walkability but climbs in the rankings as you consider longer travel time budgets, thanks to its effective frequent transit grid. Miami drifts in the other direction, signaling that compared to Los Angeles, transit there is adding relatively little to access to jobs beyond what’s achieved by walking alone.
Now here's what's amazing for a study pubished in 2014: Owen and Levinson claim (p 6) that this study is unusual in properly accounting for frequency. Many analysts approach transit from the point of view of the nine-to-five commuter, who was presumed to be largely insensitive to frequency because they have made an appointment with a particular scheduled trip that they take every day. This sometimes feels right to bureaucrats and civic leaders, many of whom have such commutes themselves, but out there in the larger economy, more and more people work part time, or at irregular hours, or at times outside the standard commute peak. Increasing numbers of people also value flexibility and spontaneity even in work trips -- things that only a robust all-day frequency can provide.
Perusing these maps and rankings, my overwhelming reaction was “what if they’d analyzed it like this, or graphed it like that?” A huge amount of insight is readily available out of this database if we query it differently. For example:
Still, this is a great piece of work. And Americans should pause over the core of this announcement: Only now, in 2014, are we starting to study people’s ability to get where they’re going, and their opportunity to access all the opportunity that makes a great city.
In the six cases examined, we conducted off the record interviews with public officials, general managers, and thought leaders in each region. One of the consistent themes that emerged was that the bus systems and bus passengers were an afterthought. In every region – Chicago, New York, Boston, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Dallas/Ft. Worth, and the Bay Area – rail was the primary focus of virtually everyone we interviewed. We also found that maps of the regional transit networks tellingly either included a jumbled mess of bus routes behind a clean rail network, or ignored bus altogether.
It is likely this bias toward rail has very little to do with governance. But it does have a negative impact on transit delivery, particularly from a customer point of view. The vast majority of transit riders in the United States are on buses, so it would make sense to devote more resources and attention to them compared to rail riders, rather than less. Also, improvements to the bus network are likely to be less expensive than new rail expansions, and would be likely to yield substantially more net benefit per dollar. Yet while every region we visited had a new rail expansion either in planning or under construction, outside of New York none of the regions had any plans for regional bus networks, reorganization of existing bus systems, or major expansions of bus rapid transit (BRT).
Joshua Schank, President CEO,
Eno Center for Transportation
"The Case of the Neglected Bus"
I've certainly noticed, in my own work, that the aggressive, agency-wide commitment to building a complete access-maximizing transit system is stronger in cities that don't have much rail, or where rail is in early stages of development, as in Houston. Key tools for total network legibility, such as Frequent Network branding, also seem to be spreading much more effectively in the midsized transit authorities than in the gigantic ones.
A while back I had a brief chat with a major airline CEO at an event. He asked me: "So what's the future of transit. It's rail, isn't it?" I wanted to say: "So what's the future of aviation? It's all intercontinental jumbo jets, isn't it?
Or is it about people feeling free to go places? In that case, the future of aviation is a network, where many types of vehicle have an essential role.
In today's CityLab, Eric Jaffe expresses concern about the fact that support for public transit in many American cities is far exceeding its ridership.
Every transit advocate knows this timeless Onion headline: "98 Percent Of U.S. Commuters Favor Public Transportation For Others." But the underlying truth that makes this line so funny also makes it a little concerning: enthusiasm for public transportation far, far outweighs the actual use of it. Last week, for instance, the American Public Transportation Association reported that 74 percent of people support more mass transit spending. But only 5 percent of commuters travel by mass transit. This support, in other words, is largely for others.
This is entirely a good thing, given the state of transit in America today. If transit were only supported by its existing riders it would be in a death spiral, because most American transit isn't currently useful enough to penetrate a large part of the travel market.
The "support-usage gap," as Jaffe calls it, does not mean that Americans support transit just in hopes that others will use it. We don't need that psychological speculation because the real explanation is factual: For most Americans, in the context of their lives and locations and situations and priorities, the transit that exists today is not a rational choice. Many Americans who support transit but don't use it may be saying that they want transit to be an option, but that it currently isn't.
This is exactly what we should expect in a country with such low quantitites of transit per capita, and where the public consciousness about the need for transit is way ahead of the political process of funding and designing it. Canada, for example, has more than twice the transit service per capita, therefore more than twice the ridership per capita, therefore more of the population on transit. But the support for transit in urban populations is high in both countries. Support and usage are, and should be, unrelated. That's because people are thinking about what they want, not what they have.
In my experience as a consultant, the real problem with the support-usage gap is one of education. Working in Canada, I always notice that the public and stakeholder conversation about transit is just a little more informed than it is in the US. The common confusions (see Chapter 3 of my book) don't have as much impact on the discussion. That difference arises from the fact that a bigger share of the Canadian population has personal experience with transit. If you use transit regularly, there are some things about it that you'll just naturally understand better. If nothing else you won't fall into common motorists' errors like overvaluing speed and undervaluing frequency, or assuming that technology choice is more important than where a service goes, and how soon you'll get there.
But do you support transit but don't find it useful? That's great! Help us make it better! Welcome aboard!
A report from the TransitCenter has discovered something that's obvious to transit riders but not always to our urbanist elites: Transit succeeds when it is fast (in terms of total trip time and reliable).
While we know this from the actual human behavior we call ridership, it's also nice to see it confirmed in people's conscious thoughts, in the form of surveys. Actual behavior is a better signal than surveys when the two contradict, but when behavior and surveys agree, the survey adds something useful: a sense that people are not only making certain choices, but are conscious of those choices and able to discuss them. That, in turn, is good for intelligent policymaking.
They commissioned a study of 12,000 people across the country, representing large cities from each of the major regions, asking them a variety of questions on their attitudes towards and use of transit. While the document is full of interesting insights, this chart is really key:
The table below reports on a variation on the same question:
Look at the top 6 responses to the question of "I would ride transit more if...":
Four of the top 6 responses to this question concern travel time and reliability. How quickly can I get to my destination? How sure am I that the trip is going to work consistently? And how much does it cost? These are the same questions we ask when choosing to drive, or picking a commuting route.
The low ranking of frequency is not too surprising, because it simply shows that people are reacting to total trip time and reliability, and are not all that fixated on specific elements of that total. The problem with all surveys of this type is that they are divorced from the actual math of how optimal travel times are achieved for the most poeple. When this is factored in, frequency is paramount in delivering the desired outcome. On the other hand, shorter walking distances (item 2), if defined as a goal, is deterimental to total travel time because it implies lower frequencies and thus longer waits.
Note what isn't important in the respondents' assessment of their own mode choice factors: "nicer" vehicles, "more comfortable" seats. When it comes to how they make actual choices in their actual situation, these are far less critical than whether the service is useful. Obviously, people have minimum quality standards for these things, but these data suggest that they are finding those minimum standards to be met by the transit they see around them in the US.
Given the relative unimportance of even the most basic civility features like cleaniness and comfort, what importance can be ascribed to the even more optional features such as romantic vehicles or public art? (Not questioning the larger value of these things, but only their relevance to people's mode choices.) This data needs to be faced by anyone who argues that we should have quantitatively less transit so that shelters can be cuter, or so that our experience will be more like Disneyland, or simply because -- in the interests of "place mobility" -- people should want to travel more slowly.
What matters in transit ridership? These are the big ones: Travel time. Reliability. Cost. If you want to get people out of cars and into transit, start there.