It's one of the better videos I've done, and if you have heard my talks in the past, you'll find this one pretty new.
It's one of the better videos I've done, and if you have heard my talks in the past, you'll find this one pretty new.
... is here. It comes with a nice diagram you can put on your wall!
There is a lot of confusion out there about Park-and-Ride. Is it necessary for ridership? Are motorists entitled to it? Can it last forever?
Let's start with the basic math.
It's a contradiction.
When a transit agency provides free or underpriced parking at a station where the land value signals that there is a higher use, it is subsidizing motorists in two ways. First, it is forcing a low-value land use to prevail over a high value land use, and second it is making a much bigger investment in access by motorists than it makes in access by people who get to the station in other ways. I am using the word subsidy in exactly the same sense that any other artificial limit on price is a subsidy.
Obviously the problem is much worse where the rapid transit is of the highest utility and quality and where the ambient land value is therefore higher. This is why free Park-and-Ride is much harder to justify on high-frequency metro systems than on infrequent outer-suburban commuter rail in most metro areas.
Low-cost Park-and-Ride can make great sense where a station area is undevelopable (floodplains etc). There's also an important role for distributed, small-scale Park-and-Ride created by sharing existing spaces. Transit agencies often make deals to share parking with land uses that peak on weekends and evenings, such as houses of worship and entertainment venues. These are great ways of providing some car access at very little cost to the public.
But the law of supply and demand generates some facts about free Park-and-Ride that many people don't want to hear, but that we really can't protect them from:
It's easy to feel entitled to a free Park-and-Ride space. But nobody can repeal the law of supply and demand, and that's what we're dealing with here.
Photo: Park and Ride at Auckland's Constellation Station, Auckland Transport
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.
Salem, Oregon (metro pop around 200,000) is typical of a lot of small cities in America. It's a state capital and has some small universities, which help keep its downtown focused, but it's not an enviro-utopian place like Boulder or Eugene, nor is it besieged by demand for massive urban density like the bigger west coast cities all are. This is a town that much of North America could recognize as familiar.
I love working on tranist in big cities, but I also love working in small ones. Often, it's easier to get things done.
So I'm proud to announce that the local transit agency, Salem Keizer Transit has released for public comment a major reworking of their transit network, one that we helped them design. As usual, red means every 15 minutes all day, blue is every 30 and green is every 60. Here's the new network on the left, and the existing network for comparison on the right.
The themes are familiar if you've followed other work of ours, in Columbus, Houston, or Auckland, New Zealand. There's more high-frequency service (red) which means more places where transit is useful to people in a hurry. The spacing of nearby routes is more even, so that walking distances are more uniform. Sometimes service has been eliminated to extremely low density areas, such as parts of the west side of Salem in this image, where existing service is logging fewer than 10 passengers per hour of service.
This doesn't mean that you shouldn't have low-ridership services to low-demand areas, but only that the community, acting through the transit agency Board, needs to decide how to balance ridership goals with competing goals that require low-ridership service, such as perceptions of equity and lifeline access for people who are extremely dependent on transit.
Salem is interesting in that the city's geography really limits the possibilities for a high-frequency grid. The arterial pattern is a starburst, many streets going downtown in different directions but very few streets that are useful for running perpendicular those streets. Thus Salem continues to have only one frequent crosstown -- along Lancaster Drive -- but the plan works toward expanding that crosstown so that more non-downtown trips can be made that way. Otherwise, this remains a strongly radial plan for a strongly radial city. Salem has done better than many cities at keeping its major institutions, including its biggest university, all clumped in a small area of greater downtown, where most of the transit sytsem goes.
The bigger story, however, is that freestanding cities of Salem's size are big enough to do interesting things with transit, and to build services that are useful enough that some people will make location decisions in response to them. That's the essence of how a city's form becomes more sustainable over time.
I don't have time to respond to everything that gets published on transit, but Robert Steuteville's must-read piece today on the Congress for the New Urbanism blog, which explains why we should invest in transit that's slower than walking*, certainly deserves a response.
Fortunately, sometimes an email does it for me. From Marc Szarkowski:
Perhaps you've already noticed this piece and are already penning a response (even though several already exist on your blog!). It seems to be another example of the "urban designers are from Mars, transportation planners are from Venus" phenomenon you described some time ago.
I admire and respect Robert, and I think his "place mobility" concept is quite sensible. Indeed, one can argue that the first and most powerful rung on the transportation "efficiency" ladder is to ensure that destinations are within walking/bicycling distance wherever possible, obviating the need for cars and transit in the first place, in turn freeing up the latter two for long-distance travel. But after the "place mobility" concept, I think the article begins to fall apart.
It seems to me that it's easy to romanticize slow transit if you don't have to rely on it all the time. With all due respect, I get the impression that many "streetcar tourists" use transit only occasionally when visiting a new city, or perhaps to go to a ball game, but for little else. And I get it: if much of your day-to-day travel is characterized by routinized, featureless car trips between work, shopping, meetings, and whatnot, I can see the allure in taking a break to relax and 'go slow,' as it were.
But the romantic impulse towards slow transit wears away quickly if you have no choice but to rely on it all the time! I don't have a car, so I rely on buses that travelexcruciatingly slowly, wasting much of my time. (I have, for example, learned to pad an hour between meetings and appointments in different parts of town, simply because the mixed-traffic transit takes so long to get from A to B to C.) So, rather than viewing slow transit as an opportunity to unwind and watch the street life pass by, I see it as a precious-free-time-gobbler.
I love to be immersed in street life when I'm walking, but when I inevitably need to travel beyond walking distance, I want to get there quickly. Does this make me a so-called "speed freak?" If so, wouldn't all the urban designers out there praising slow transit for others - while they hurriedly shuttle from charrette to public input meeting to office to daycare in their cars - be "speed freaks" too? The reality is that most of us - walkers, bicyclists, drivers, and transit riders alike - are "speed freaks" most of the time, simply because we prefer minimizing travel time and dedicating our precious free time to friends and family.
And this gets back to "place mobility:" it is great when many daily necessities - the grocery store, the bank, the library, the elementary school - are within walking distance. But - and this perhaps reveals a conceptual flaw in New Urbanism - not every place can or should be a self-contained "village." As Jane Jacobs argued, the whole point of cities is to offer rich opportunity - opportunity that requires travel beyond whatever a "village" can offer: "Planning theory is committed to the ideal of supposedly cozy, inwardly-turned city neighborhoods. [But] city people aren't stuck with the provincialism of a neighborhood, and why should they be – isn't wide choice and rich opportunity the point of cities? (Death and Life, 115-116)."
For example, I may be fortunate enough to have a daycare center on my block, but perhaps I want to send my kids to a magnet or private school across town - a school better than my neighborhood school? So would my kids rather wake up at 5am to take a streetcar sitting in traffic to get to school, or wake up at 7am to take a faster subway or a bus on a bus lane? I may be fortunate enough to have a pharmacy on my block too, but what if the doctor I trust is across town? Would I rather take the whole day off from work to take a streetcar sitting in traffic and delayed by a poorly-parked car to get there, or could I take a half-day by taking the subway or the crosstown express bus? For better or worse, there will always be long-distance destinations, and I suspect transit riders will continue to prioritize speed for these trips.
As for the short, local trips made possible by "place mobility," I still wonder whether mixed-traffic streetcars are the best bang for the buck. Yes, they are a placemaking tool, but they're not the only (or the cheapest) one. If, as admitted in the article, mixed-traffic streetcars don't particularly offer useful transit, nor are they necessarily the only/best/cheapest placemaking tool, then I have to wonder if 30 years from now we'll look back on them as yet another expensive urban renewal fad. (American cities are still littered with half-dead "game changing" fads from the 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s.) We ultimately need rapid transit and "place mobility," but mixed-traffic streetcars are hardly a prerequisite for creating the latter.
So far I've hesitated voicing these opinions to fellow urbanists because I don't want to alienate any friends, but I'm increasingly skeptical of the streetcar fervor. Given that (A) mixed-traffic streetcars are simply slower and less-flexible than mixed-traffic buses, and (B) that the benefits that are packaged with properly-prioritized streetcars (dedicated lanes, signal priority, durable shelters, etc.) could just as easily be packaged with buses, I wonder if the streetcar fervor is an example of simple "technograndiosity." At the end of the day, I'd rather have ten bus lines reaching twenty useful places than one streetcar line reaching two useful places.
(Marc Szarkowski creates plans, models, diagrams, and illustrations of urban design, streetscape design, and planning proposals, and is a regular rider of Boston's, Philadelphia's, and Baltimore's transit systems.)
*Most new streetcars in the US have average scheduled speeds of 6-10 mph, a jogging or running speed for able-bodied adults. However, actual travel time (compared to a private vehicle alternative) includes the average wait time. Most US streetcars are not very frequent (usually in the 15-20 minute range) given the short trips that they serve, so it is the high wait time, combined with the very slow ride, that makes them slower than walking. Again, this calculation describes the experience of an ordinary working person who needs to get places on time, not the tourist or flaneur for whom delay is another form of delight.
Transportation planning is full of projections -- a euphemism meaning predictions. Generally, when we need a euphemism, it means we may be accommodating a bit of denial about something.
Predicting the future, at a time when so many things seem to be changing in nonlinear ways, is a pretty audacious thing to do. There are professions whose job it is to do this, and we pay them a lot to give us predictions that sound like facts. I have the highest respect for them (all the more because what they do is nearly impossible) but only when they speak in ways that honor the limitations of their tools.
Good transportation planning does this. at the very least, it talks about future scenarios rather than predictions, often carrying multiple scenarios of how the future could vary. Scenarios are still predictions, though; they're just hedged predictions, where we place several bets in hope that one will be right.
I will never forget the first time that I presented a proposed transit plan and was told: "that's an interesting idea; we'll have to see how it performs." The speaker didn't mean "let's implement it and see what happens." He meant, "let's see what our predictive model says." You know you're inside a silo when people talk about prediction algorithms as though they are the outcome, not just a prediction of the outcome that is only as good as the assumptions on which it's built.
What's more, we seem to be really bad at predicting curves, or even acknowledging them as they happen.
Something really important happened in the US around 2004, which experts call the "VMT Inflection." Vehicle Miles Traveled in the US -- the total volume of driving -- departed from a linear growth path that it had followed for decades, and went flat. Here's the same curve looking further back. Around 2003, you could be forgiven for thinking that this steady slope was something we could count on.
(At this point an ecologist or economist will point out that the VMT inflection shouldn't have been a surprise at all. This graph looks like what a lot of systems do when their growth runs into a capacity or resource limit. The VMT inflection is a crowdsourced signal that the single-occupant car is hitting a limit of that kind.)
So reality changed, but the Federal projections didn't. Even as late as 2008, when the new horizontal path had been going for four years, Federal projections claimed that the growth in driving would immediately return to the previous fast-rising slope. Again:
This isn't prediction or projection. This is denial.
All predictions rest on the assumption that the future is like the past. Professional modelers assume their predictive algorithms are accurate if they accurately predict past or current events -- a process called calibration. This means that all such prediction rests on a bedrock idea that human behavior in the future, and the background conditions against which decisions are made, will all be pretty much unchanged, except for the variables that are under study.
In other words, as I like to say to Millennials: the foundation of orthodox transportation planning is our certainty that when you're the same age as your parents are now, you'll behave exactly the way they do.
We describe historical periods as "dark" or "static" when that assumption is true. Over the centuries of the European Middle Ages or Ancient Egypt, everyone acted like their parents did, so nothing ever seemed to change except accidents of war and the name of the king or pharaoh. Our transportation modeling assumes that ours is such an age.
Historical progress arises from people making different choices than their parents did, and there seems to be a lot of this happening now.
What we urgently need, in this business, are predictions that try to quantify how the future is not like the past; for example, by studying Millennial behavior and preferences and exploring what can reasonably be asserted about a world in which Millennials are in their 50s and are in the position to define what is normal, just as their parents and grandparents do today.
We already know that the future is curved. (With rare exceptions like the growth of VMT from 1970 to 2004, the past has been curvy as well). Millennials are not like their parents were at the same age. There will be major unpredictable shocks. There are many possible valid predictions for such a future. The one that we can be sure is wrong is the straight line.
My work on Abundant Access -- part of the emerging world of accessibility studies -- is precisely about providing a different way to talk about transportation outcomes that people can believe in and care about. It means carefully distinguishing facts from predictions, and valuing things that people have always cared about -- like getting places on time and having the freedom to go many places -- from human tastes that change more rapidly -- such as preferences and attitudes about transit technologies. It's a Socratic process of gently challenging assumptions. Ultimately, it's part of the emerging science of resilience thinking, extending that ecological metaphor to human societies. It posits that while the future can't be predicted there are still ways of acting rightly in the face of the range of likely possibilities.
Imagine planning without projections. What would that look like? How would we begin?
Next time someone tells you that transit has to be rail in order to affect real estate demand, send them this paper [paywalled] by Elin Charles-Edwards, Martin Bell and Jonathan Corcoran -- a dramatic example of bus infrastructure profoundly transforming residential demand.
Our scene is the main campus of University of Queensland, which is located on a peninsula formed by a loop of the Brisbane River. It's in the southwest corner of this image. The area labeled "Brisbane" is the highrise downtown. Most everything in between -- which is mostly on the south side of the river -- is dense, redevelopable inner city fabric.
If you look closely you can see a single faint bridge connecting the University across the river. This is the Eleanor Schonell Bridge, which opened in 2006, and which is solely for pedestrians, cyclists, and buses. No private cars. It's one of the developed world's most effective of examples of a transit path that is vastly straighter than the motorist's options.
Prior to the opening of the bridge, University of Queensland had a problem much like that of Vancouver's University of British Columbia. Its peninsula setting helped it feel remote and serene (the rarefied air of academe and all that) but it was also brutally hard to get to, especially from places where students and lower-paid staff could afford to live. While there are some affordable areas west of the campus, most of the immediate campus area is far too affluent and low-density to house the university's students or the bulk of its workforce. So commutes to the campus were long and difficult.
Apart from the geography of income, the issue here was classic chokepoint geography, and that was the key to the transit opportunity. Brisbane's looping river, and its extreme shortage of bridges outside of downtown, slices the city into a series of hard-to-access peninsulas. Motorists are used to driving way out of direction to reach their destinations, and until recently, buses had to do the same thing. The only transit that could do what cars couldn't was the river ferry system, CityCat, and while this system is immensely successful, it is still a small share of the travel market because (a) so much of the population is not on the river and (b) the river is a circuitous travel path as well.
Charles-Edwards et al show how the bridge created an explosive expansion of access (where can I get to, soon?) for the campus by walking, cycling, and bus service. Walking:
And by bus (focus on the triangle in the centre of the image, which is the campus):
It's worth noticing why this bus bridge is so effective: It plugs right into the Brisbane Busway network, which looks like this. ("UQ Lakes" is the campus stop.)
Direct buses from campus run along most of these paths, and connect to many other frequent services covering the area south of the river, including a couple of useful frequent rail lines extending southeast from downtown. This is the biggest and highest-quality busway system in the developed world, in terms of the degree of protection from private car traffic along complete travel paths, including a tunnel under downtown. So the access opened up by this bridge was extraordinary. The busway is so fast and reliable that even commutes from northern Brisbane -- on the same side of the river as the campus -- were speeded up by the new bridge because they could remain in busway for the entire journey.
The effect on the location of students and staff, from 2003 until 2012 (six years after the bridge opened) looks like this.
The colour choices are unfortunate, so pay attention to the legend and focus on "St Lucia" (the campus) and the inner city areas just across the river from it. Remember, too, that this is a map of percentage change, so don't be distracted by big colors far away from the action, which represent noise (percentage changes on a tiny base). You can see that students and staff have shifted in big numbers to the inner city across the river from the campus, but also to southern and eastern suburbs each of the river, which are more affordable and still easily reached by buses from the campus. In the author's careful words, the bridge caused "a significant redistribution of staff and students across the metropolitan area." It also had the likely effect of reducing overall commute times by enabling people to live much closer to the campus, though the authors don't mention that.
Because the project gave buses so much of an advantage in accessing the campus, the mode share shifted dramatically, enabling the campus itself to grow without choking on cars:
Between 2002 and 2011, the population accessing the campus increased by 23 per cent, ... all of which were absorbed by [non-car modes on] the bridge. There was an accompanying shift in the modal mix of trips away from cars to public transport. This was most marked among students, for whom less than one-quarter of trips were by car in 2011, down from two-fifths in 2002. Bus patronage increased among students from around a quarter of trips to more than half. Staff car usage declined from 70 per cent in 2002 to just over half in 2011, with buses, cycling and walking all increasing in popularity.
Eleanor Schonell Bridge is a powerful example of infrastructure that transforms a city's living patterns by transforming the isochrones of access. We can all think of trains and ferries that do this, but it's rare that buses are allowed to succeed in the same way. Once again, Brisbane has shown that it's not the transit technology that matters to people's location choices. It's where you can get to easily.
Revised in response to early comments.
Are you sure you know which of your transportation options is fastest? It depends on how you think about travel time.
A recent Boston Magazine article about the private bus service Bridj featured typical "race" between two transit modes: the MBTA subway and Bridj, which provices luxury buses on fixed routes and schedules running only at times of peak commute demand. The newspaper sent someone by each path at the same time. The outcome of the race is supposed to be decisive:
Why is this not a fair race? Well, it depends on when you start. From the article:
The MBTA passenger arrived last, [sic] even though she had a head start and boarded the train six minutes prior to Bridj’s departure.
Why a six minute headstart? Why not 10 or 20? What headstart would be appropriate? The headstart is your cue that there's something wrong with this methodology.
What's really happening here is that a service that is available all the time -- the subway -- is being compared to one that's only available at a few special times -- Bridj's specialized commuter buses. Any "travel time race," with any headstart, is going to miss the real point of this comparison.
The notion of travel time seems so self-explanatory that most people miss how deeply misleading it is in discussing transit. The imagined user is someone who happens to be going at the ideal moment for the preferred mode to succeed. We talk about travel time this way because it's how motorists, cyclists, and pedestrians experience it: as something that begins at the moment you want to go.
But that's not how transit travel time works, so the comparision implied by the term "transit travel time" is often a false one.
When I teach transit planning and rhetoric, I encourage people to think of a weighted sense of travel time that includes average wait time, or more generally the difference between when you wanted to go and when you went. A bus that's 10 minutes faster is of no use if gets you somewhere 30 minutes before you needed to be there [an 8:00 AM class or meeting, for example] because that's the only time it ran.
Purveyors of low-frequency transit services, such as classical North American commuter rail, do this as well, bragging about how fast you can get from A to B without mentioning that this travel time is available only once a day.
Unless you are sure that you will absolutely always travel at the same time each day, transit travel time figures have to be viewed with skepticism. Whenever you hear about travel time, ask about frequency!
Yesterday, Houston Metro began seeking public comment on what may be most transformative transit plan in its history. I'm honored to have been a part of it, as the network design lead* on the consulting team. Read all about it, in as much detail as you want, here. Explore the detailed map here. Note that the pulldown menus in the black bar lead to lots of cool maps and diagrams, as well as extensive data about the plan.
The plan shows that without increasing operating cost, Houston's frequent network -- the network of services where the bus or train is always coming when you need it -- could grow from this ...
This cool page toggles between the two, so you can see the system growing.
How on earth could we grow a network that much without new money? There are two answers:
1. That's how much waste there was in the existing system. Waste in the form of duplicative routes, and due to slow meandering routes created due to a few people's demands.
2. Hard choices are proposed about expensive service to very small numbers of people. The plan devotes 80% of Metro's resources to maximizing ridership, which all of these frequent lines do, and only 20% to providing access to people living in expensive to serve places. Currently only about 50-60% of resources are devoted to services where high ridership is a likely outcome. (See here for my paper on this analysis method.) This shift in focus will have negative impacts on small numbers of riders who rely on those services, but these were small numbers indeed . (About 0.5% of existing riders end up over 1/4 mile of service, and most of them are just over that threshold. Often, their longer walk is to a better service, a tradeoff that most people are willing to make in practice.)
The exciting thing is not just the massive growth in frequent services proposed, evident above, but the shape that they'll take. The core idea of the new network is the high-frequency grid, designed to enable anywhere to anywhere travel with a single fast connection. Everywhere on the proposed network of red lines, that kind of easy access will be possible.
Obviously, too, the whole geographic focus of the network had to shift. Houston is one of the biggest US cities that still has a radically downtown-oriented transit network despite decades of decentralization. The core area where the existing network converges has only 25% of the region's jobs, and while transit must favor the jobs that are in dense and walkable settings, there are now many highrise clusters around Houston that answer to this description to some degree.
Houston has been growing mostly westward and northward in the last few decades. Its densest residential neighborhood, for example, is Gulfton, located 7 miles west of downtown. Not far from there is its second-densent employment and activity center, Uptown-Galleria. Houston is a constellation of centers, and the transit network needs to be more decentralized to effectively service all of those centers where the density and walkability make transit viable. The high-frequency grid, shown above, reaches all of those places.
Houston also features a fascinating patchwork of incomes. There are rich and poor neighborhoods but there's no longrer a rich or poor side of town. That means that low-income people, too, will find the whole network useful. We have done our best to retain useful service on the historically low-income and minority eastside, despite declining population in some areas. The key strategy there was the anchor most services to the main universities in that area (University of Houston and Texas Southern U.) which are the surest drivers of all-day demand.
The huge no-cost expansion of useful service may remind you of a plan I worked on two years ago for Auckland, New Zealand, where it was also possible to massively expand the frequent network by redeploying duplicative services. Not all transit agencies have this much waste, so your city's mileage may vary. But if you suspect that transit could be doing more in your city, read all about the Houston plan. You'll be amazed, as we were, about how much is sometimes possible.
Finally, if you're in the Houston Metro service area, remember to submit a comment even about things you like. Sadly, most of the public comments received on transit plans are negative even if the plan is broadly popular, becuase people who like it falsely assume it will happen anyway. This plan will not be implemented if it does not attract strong support. We welcome constructive comments about the plan, which will be used to make the final plan even better. But if you like the plan, it's important to say that as well! Instructions for how to comment are here.
* This term means I led the design workshop that developed the design, but it does not mean I get all the credit. These plans are collaborations among many players, both on our large consulting team and of course at Houston METRO. The team was headed by TEI of Houston -- Geoff Carleton was the excellent project manager -- and included Carol Lewis, Nancy Edmondson, Dan Boyle, and Asakura Robinson. Kurt Lurhsen, METRO's head of planning, shepherded the project internally with the support of a great teams. The plan would also not have gotten to this stage without the preliminary support of METRO's Board, including Chair Gilbert Garcia and Strategic Planning Committee Chair Christof Spieler. Spieler has been an especially tireless advocate of this project from its earliest days. All of these people and organizations contributed substantially to the plan as it appears.
The Regional Plan Association, the New York-region planning think tank, has produced a great new map as part of their Fragile Success report:
This map takes the travel time methodology regular readers of this blog know well, but then within that area of access shows all of the jobs, categorized by sector, as a dot density map. The effect is to visualize the quantity and number of jobs that can be reached from a give point in a given time, by walking, transit, cycling, or driving. The map is also able to quickly calculate the number of jobs inside the AM peak travelshed on the fly, and even allows the user to toggle on and off different job classifications. If you want to see all of the education jobs within a 30 minute walk of a given location, now you can.
To revisit a 2012 post, this sort of map of personal mobility is useful for two reasons:
Helping people and organizations understand the transit consequences of where they choose to locate, and thus to take more responsbility for those consequences. This, over time, can help people who value good transit to locate where transit access is good -- something that's very hard to discern from a typical bus map but that becomes very obvious here. You can even assess access to specific things that you value, based on exactly where the blobs are.
Helping people visualise the benefit of transit -- access to your city -- as a freedom, and thus to understand more clearly what transit does for them. It broadens the narrow notion of travel time -- which is often understood for only one typical trip -- into a picture of your options for accessing all the things you value. The percentage of a city's resources (jobs, housing, retail etc) that is in the blobs for a particular location could also form the basis for a meaningful Transit Score that could replace the technologically biased scores now used by WalkScore.com.
The one on the left is "Chicago-style" seating, with most seats in pairs facing along the length of the car. The one in the middle is "New York-style" seating, with most seats facing sideways. The third is a hybrid.
Transit agencies commonly do surveys that imply that these things are just a matter of taste, as though they'll go with whatever their riders prefer. This question is not just a matter of taste. The left hand image has the most seats but the least capacity. The middle image as the fewest seats but the greatest capacity. Seats with their backs to the wall take up much less space than seats in pairs facing forward or back. And of course, any seat takes up more space than a standee in a crowded car. This is why really crowded subway systems inevitably gravitate toward side-facing seats.
So the question should be not whether you like the the configuration on the left, but whether you like it so much that you don't mind being left behind at rush hour because the train is full.
The survey asks you which configuration you prefer, and which you like better in terms of "personal space." But it doesn't inform the reader that the more forward- and back-facing seats there are, the more people will be left behind on the platform during the peak and the less ridership the system will be able to handle.
Almost all choices are tradeoffs, so when you ask the public their opinion, you need to explain what the real consequences of the options are. (At least that's my firm's approach to public outreach!)
In my book Human Transit, I argued that the underlying geometry of transit requires communities to make a series of choices, each of which is a tradeoff between two things that are popular. I argued that these hard choices are appropriate assignments for elected boards, because there is no technical ground for making one choice or the other. What you choose should depend on what your community wants transit to do. Examples of these choices include the following:
Note that while the framing of these choices tends to make them sound binary ("Ridership or coverage?") the choice is not between two boxes; it's of a position on the spectrum where the two terms define the extremes. You don't have to choose between ridership or coverage, for example, but you have to choose a point on the spectrum between them, and you have to accept the mathematical fact that, as on any spectrum, moving toward one extreme implies moving away from the other.
In the Epilogue of HT I briefly introduced the idea that for each of these choices, one option seems to trigger a positive-feedback loop, while the other option does not. Here is a new and expanded diagram of that idea. The image below is fuzzy, so download here: Download Abundant access diagram streamlined '15-05-08 (Tip: Print it on A3 or 11x17. There's a lot here.)
What do I mean by positive feedback loop? On each of these choices, the option that points toward the center leads to a particular kind of network that supports all of the goals implied by all the centerward choices. For example, if you plan your network for maximum ridership rather than coverage, you also generate a network that encourages higher walking distances, that supports easy connections rather than complexity, and that tends to present the strongest case for facilities that protect transit from congestion.
On the other hand, the options that point outward from the center tend not to support each other. You can achieve the goal implied by these outer choices, but (arguably with some exceptions) each one will require a separate effort. For example, if you believe walking distances to transit should be low, as seniors tend to advocate, then you need to put parallel transit routes -- and the stops on those routes -- very close together. This does nothing to advance any of the outer "outward" goals, whether it be growing peak demand, or avoiding connections, or achieving a luxurious experience that will compete with a BMW.
Another way of saying this is that the choices that point inward all point to a single set of network design principles, and a single set of consistent priorities, while the choices pointing outward lead to many different kinds of network design and competing priorities.
What happens when you move toward the center? These choices converge on a single, consistent goal that I propose to call Abundant access, which means:
The greatest possible number of jobs and other destinations are located within 30 minutes one way travel time of the greatest possible number of residents.
[Why 30 minutes? The question is tangential to my point, and other figures could be used, but if one has to pick a figure the most solid basis is Marchetti's constant [PDF], the idea that humans throughout history have tolerated about one hour of daily travel time. Obviously, shorter or longer periods may apply to trips other than the commute.]
For any individual, abundance of access can be visualized using a map of isochrones, like this one by Conveyal for downtown Portland, which shows the area you can get to within a fixed amount of time on some combination of transit and walking.
(In these maps, blue is a 15 minutes travel time, green is 30 minutes, and pink is 45 minutes. Unlike some imitators, these calculations include waiting time and therefore accurately convey the impact of frequency.)
Of course, any quantification of abundant access must consider not the area but the amount of stuff in it: jobs, retail, recreational opportunities, hospitals, all the things that form the universe of destinations. As a matter of public policy, it must also maximize over the largest possible share of the population. In the case of transit, the population over which abundant access is most cost-effectively maximized tends to be a more urban, high-density population, because among readily available measures, density is one that best predicts the intensity of ridership that will arise from a service investment. (Fortunately, that's fairer to than it sounds, because people living at high densities use much less road infrastructure per capita than people living at lower densities.)
The goal of abundant access has several kinds of appeal.
First, it can be measured objectively without recourse to psychology or culture. Ridership estimates are based heavily on travel times that approximate the notion of abundant access, but they also add psychological factors that are less stable, such as observed preferences for particular technologies. These factors may be emotionally vivid, but like many emotional factors they are likely to change with time and especially with generations -- just as emotional attitudes toward cars are changing now. Abundance access measures a fact that is entirely objective -- travel times. Unlike emotional reactions to technologies, the value of access has been constant across millennia of human experience.
Second, abundance of access is literally a quantification of freedom, in the sense that matters to us in transportation. Isochrone maps like Mapnificent's, in particular, show us our freedom in a very immediate way: here is where you are free to go, now. Abundant access measures the transportation element of opportunity of all kinds, which is one of the main reasons people have moved to cities since their invention.
The concept of freedom is sadly undervalued in much urbanist discourse, and I am always looking for ways to reintroduce it. Much urbanist writing, for example, is blatantly prescriptive ("you should want this kind of community"), which feeds conservative stereotypes of urbanism as manipulative or coercive. We need to be able to talk not just about ideal communities but about freedom and personal responsibility, a frame in which all the great urbanist ideas -- and all the urgent environmental imperatives -- can be stated equally well. In that frame, the key idea is not "the good" but "choice," where freedom of choices also implies responsiblity for your choices.
So again, all of this work is descriptive, not prescriptive. I'm not saying that you should like the goal of abundant access; that would be value judgment, and you get to make those for yourself.
I am saying, though, that abundant access as an idea has certain features and consequences, including a tendency to be self-reinforcing. As mapped along the various axes of choice, abundant access is a single consistent vision whereas the opposite choices lead to many unrelated visions.
Still, you don't have to like it. My role, as always, is to describe consequences clearly, and help people choose.
[Updated 8 May 2015 with streamlined diagram.]
This really is too much fun. From a scholarly study of the Craiglist "Missed Connections" section, where people express a romantic interest in someone that they saw out in the world. You know, ads like this:
We were both on the max [light rail]--me heading to the Blazer's game and you on your bike. You overheard part of my conversation with my friend and were quite amused. I wanted to talk to you but then got pushed back by other riders. Email me if you remember that conversation and would like to grab a drink sometime.
So here, by state, is the location most often cited in "Missed Connections" ads (click to sharpen):
In rail-rich older urban areas, it's rail transit, of course, the subway or train or metro. But in relatively rail-poor parts of the country, only Oregon and Washington find so much wistful romantic drama on public transit! This is one of those slightly twisted points of "Portlandia"-style pride that makes me proud to be an Oregonian transit planner.
If you're interested in Vancouver and missed my "debate"* with Bob Ransford about Broadway rapid transit at Gordon Price's blog Price Tags, well, it's not to late to pile on. It refers back to one of grand debates on this blog, the question of "Is speed obsolete?" raised by Patrick Condon. Gordon says our debate* the most commented piece in the history of his blog, and it's generated fierce Twitter traffic. Apparently, Bob and I will be on CKNW News Talk 980, "The Bill Good Show" on Monday (or maybe we're just taping it Monday).
The occasion appears to have been the Vancouver City Council's decision to endorse a complete subway under Broadway, which is not much of a surprise to those who've been following this for a while. Bob criticized the project on development potential grounds, and as usual, I tried to broaden the question a bit beyond that.
* an often self-glorifying term that readers should view with suspicion. In this case it refers to a published Vancouver Sun opinion piece periodically interrupted by my heckling. It all happened very fast when Gord forwarded me Bob's article, knowing exactly how it would provoke me ...
Remember this map?
I used it in the earliest days of this blog, and it's in almost every presentation I do. It's from a tool that allows you to select a location in a city and see blobs (technically isochrones) showing the area you can get to in a fixed amount of time using transit plus walking. This one is for 9:00 am and the three shades of blue represent travel times of 15, 30, or 45 minutes. In essence, the software takes the point you select and runs the equivalent of Google Transit trip planning searches to find a points where the travel time crosses the threshold; these become the boundaries of the blobs. (For details behind this crude summary, see Aaron Antrim's comment on this post.)
I call this a map of your freedom. It's useful for two potentially transformative purposes:
The original tool is a beta buried deep in WalkScore's archives. It's basic and very, very slow.
The other main alternative is mapnificent.net, by Stefan Wehrmeyer. Available for many cities, Mapnificent.net looks good ...
... except that it contains two fatal assumptions:
Here's the problem. Both assumptions mean that Mapnificent's assumptions undervalue frequency and overvalue vehicle speed. Since this conceptual bias is already very, very common (see Chapter 3 of my book), Mapnificent is seriously misleading in a way that can be really unhelpful. For cities that I know, especially area with lower frequency service, Mapnificent wildly overstates the convenience of transit, and fails to show how locating on frequent service will get you better access to the city.
In my network design course we talk about this. When figuring travel times in the course, I insist on using 1/2 of the headway as the intial wait time and the same as the transfer time (unless there's a pulse) so that frequencies weigh heavily into true travel times, as they do in life. This sometimes sounds silly: If a route runs once an hour does that really mean I wait an average of 30 minutes? Or do I just build my life around the schedule? I view the two as the same thing, really. We're not describing literal waiting so much as time when you're in the wrong place. We're describing the difference between when you need to arrive and when you can actually arrive. This could take the form of arriving at work 29 minutes earlier than your shift starts -- consistently, every day. Effectively, you end up waiting at your destination.
So there are a range of judgment calls to be made in designing these things, but it's worth getting it right because the potential utility of this tool is so significant. The good news: I'm involved with people who are working on something better. Stay tuned!
Vancouver's TransLink is one of several agencies who -- with some input from me -- have adopted Frequent Network brands that are designed to highlight services that are always coming soon, generally every 15 minutes or better all day and weekend. I've always insisted that the Frequent Network can be both a short-term service branding tool (to build ridership by helping time-sensitive customers see where the network can serve them) but also a land use planning tool.
TransLink always understood it was both, and for several years has had a goal stating that half the region's population and jobs will be on the Frequent Network. This is both a land use planning statement and a transit planning statement. The message is not that TransLink will extend Frequent service to half the current population, but rather that it will do some of this while land use planning will also bring put residents and jobs on the existing Frequent Network. More recently, Translink finally highlighted its Frequent Network on its maps for the public.
Ultimately, the Frequent Network, if properly mapped and promoted, should sell real estate, because the high level of all-day access should have a clear value as a city as a whole becomes more transit-oriented. So this kind of micro-mapping should be really handy:
This map (click to enlarge and sharpen) of transit access in New Westminster, British Columbia is by Jonathan X. Cote, a City Councilor in that city and also an urban planning student at Simon Fraser Univerisity. He takes the standard walking distances of 800m to rapid transit and 400m to local transit and plots the portion of his city that has access to those networks. I've seen these maps before, and even if they are not drawn they are what lies behind any coherent statement about what percentage of population and jobs have transit access, within a given walking distance, to service of a given standard.
Remember: If your city wants to do really honest transit analysis, it needs very small analysis zones. This map shows you the kind of clarity that you get when you can analyze right down to the parcel. You don't need that much fine grain, but the zones need to be small. And a parcel-level map like this is certainly ideal for land use planners, who need to minimize walking distances for the centroids of transit-oriented developments.
Notice what a good tool this is for analyzing bus stop spacing as well. You can move the stops a little apart and count how many parcels fall out of the walkshed. Out to about 400m (1/4mi) spacing the answer is usually "fewer than you expected."
Just got home from the Congress for the New Urbanism Transportation Summit, which is trying to formulate transportation policy and advice from a New Urbanist point of view.
Over the last decade, the CNU has made great efforts to form a coherent view on transportation. The organization's core has always been an architecture and urban design perspective that is very much about placemaking, and only secondarily about movement. Much New Urbanism is about slowing everything down in urban environments, and while the goal of increased urban density means that ultimately travel distances are shorter, slower movement can also mean reducing people's ability to get where they're going. For example, much of the idea that transit should be slower (e.g. Patrick Condon, Darrin Nordahl) has roots in early CNU thinking. This in turn can feed the perception (unfair but not totally unfounded) that the pastel people in a New Urbanist rendering are more a hermetic cult of utopians than free actors in a complex society who need to get to meetings on time.
Initially, transportation -- specifically highway engineering -- was CNU's number one enemy, and this conflict still generates some of the best drama. The summit this year featured a conversation between an AASHTO representative -- representing the view of State Departments of Transportation -- and a New Urbanist transport consultant, in which common ground was sought but lines in the sand were clearly drawn on both sides.
So the CNU's efforts at leadership in transportation policy are a very important move. Groups at the conference worked on issues such as cycling, functional street classification (sexier than it sounds), and the conversation of highways to boulevards. I was in the group dealing with transit networks.
We spent much of our time thinking about the mutual incomprehension that plagues the relationship between urban designers and transit planners. This issue is at the climax of my book Human Transit, where I look at famous examples of cases where supposedly transit-oriented developments were located in places where efficient and attractive public transit was geometrically impossible.
Phil Erickson, of Community Design + Architecture, made two of the best points:
In the same "Mars/Venus" spirit, here are a couple of other reasons that this relationship is so hard:
It was fascinating to watch this discussion, and to be a part of it. Many more useful things were said, and I may pick up on a few of them in future posts. Meanwhile, the first step toward overcoming a divide is to really understand why it is so pervasive, and that requires both sides to think about their deep assumptions, and why different assumptions follow from the nature of the other party's work.
A followup, based on comments on this post, is here.
I'm not sure if I should give this oxygen, but for the record: Randal O'Toole, the infamous anti-planning writer known for his blog The Antiplanner, has falsely implied that I agree with his critique of Los Angeles rail plans. Not so fast. If he'd read by blog, or my book, he'd know better.
Here's what he wrote today:
Portland transit expert Jarrett Walker argues that “we should stop talking about ‘bus stigma.’” In fact, he says, transit systems are designed by elites who rarely use transit at all, but who might be able to see themselves on a train. So they design expensive rail systems for themselves rather than planning transit systems for their real market, which is mostly people who want to travel as cost-effectively as possible and don’t really care whether they are on a bus or train.
This view is reinforced by the Los Angeles Bus Riders’ Union, and particularly by a report it published written by planner Ryan Snyder. Ryan calls L.A.’s rail system “one of the greatest wastes of taxpayer money in Los Angeles County history,” while he shows that regional transit ridership has grown “only when we have kept fares low and improved bus service,” two things that proved to be incompatible with rail construction.
So because I defended buses from the notion of "bus stigma", O'Toole assumes I'm a bus advocate and therefore a rail opponent. This is called a "false dichotomy," identical in logic to George W. Bush's claim that "either you're with us or you're with the terrorists."
(In a related move, he insists that you can't improve rail and buses at the same time, a claim directly disproven by the last decade in which LA Metro developed the Metro Rapid buses [and Orange and Silver Line busways] concurrent with rail extensions.)
In fact, I maintain and encourage a skeptical stance toward all technophilia -- that is, all emotional attachments to transit technologies that are unrelated to their utility as efficient and attractive means of public transport. To the extent that the Bus Riders Union is founded on the view that rail is some kind of adversary, while the bus is the unifying symbol of their cause, I view them with exactly the same skepticism that I would bring to the elite architect who implied that we don't need buses because she'd never ride one.
Some technology-fixated minds just can't imagine what it would be like to be agnostic about technology and to care instead about whether a service actually gets people where they're going efficiently. To put in terms that conservatives should respect -- I'm very interested in transit that efficiently expands people's freedom, and whatever technology best delivers that in each situation or corridor.
I'm also interested in how all kinds of transit fit together as networks, because this is essential if we're to offer a diverse range of travel options to each customers. Everyone who becomes emotionally invested in bus vs rail wars -- on either side -- closes themselves to the idea that different technologies can work together form a single network.
Like many pairs of polarized enemies, the Bus Riders Union and certain bus-hating elites both endorse the same fallacy. In this case, both seem to believe that the most important purpose of a transit technology is to signify class categories, and that the key feature of their favorite technology is that it serves their class and not the other's. Both experience cognitive dissonance when one suggests that maybe bus and rail are not enemies but complementary tools for different roles in a complete network designed for everyone, or that people of many classes and situations can mix happily on one transit vehicle, as happens in big cities all the time.
The idea that a city as vast and dense as Los Angeles can do everything with buses, no matter how much it grows, is absurd. Drivers are expensive, so rail is a logical investment where high vehicle capacity (ratio of passengers to drivers) is required.
The only way the conservative dream (shared by Gensler Architects) makes sense is if you smash the unions so that all bus drivers make minimum wage, preferably from low-overhead private operating companies. This is how transit works in much of the developing world, and the result is chaos, inefficient use of street space, and fairly appalling safety records. Most experts I know who've immigrated from such places were glad to trade that for the transit they find in North America, whatever its faults.
It is absurd, too, to continue claiming that the Los Angeles rail program is "elite." Go ride the Red Line to North Hollywood or the Blue Line through Watts and tell me if those services seem packed with "elites" to you. When I ride them, I see the same wonderful diversity that I see on the more useful bus services, weighted of course by the characteristics of the neighborhoods we're passing through.
There's no question that some LA rail projects can be criticized for having been built where right-of-way was available rather than where they were needed, though the more you understand the political process the more you sympathize with the difficulty of those decisions. But when self-identified bus-people attack rail, and self-identified rail people attack buses, they both sound like the lungs arguing with the heart. There's a larger purpose to transit, one that we achieve only by refusing to be drawn into technology wars, and demanding, instead, that everything work together.