Ever seen a human-interest news story profiling someone for doing more or less what you did?
That could have been my first reaction to the Seattle Times profile of transit planner Ted Day, but there's no time for envy. The main story is that a boy who stayed out of trouble at age 10 by collecting and memorizing bus schedules turned out to be a successful family man and transit planner. Like all such "different drummer" narratives, perhaps it will help a few parents embrace the unexpected transit-geekery of their children, and speed the coming-out of kids who hide bus schedule collections in their mattresses out of fear of parental or social disapproval.
Not every boy who studies bus schedules at age 10 turns out like Ted Day. One turned out like me. My fine collection of 1970s and 80s bus schedules from Portland and Los Angeles is still in a box somewhere. I especially recall the Portland "East Burnside" timetable (c. 1973) which predates the numbering of the lines and reveals the evasive maneuvers that this bus made for decades before the 1982 advent of Portland's frequent grid.
So congrats to Ted Day for his well-deserved rise to fame! The human-interest potential of transit planners' lives is just beginning to emerge into public consciousness. Has your newspaper profiled one lately? ;-)
In the Atlantic today, Richard Florida announces that:
This will not be breaking news to anyone who's worked in transit for more than 15 minutes.
Before we make policy based on regression analyses like this, we need to think about which of these factors are durable, and which are ephemeral. As a transit network planner I feel much more confident basing my designs on long-term stable things like density, rather than ephemeral things like what the current generation seems to want.
It is also important to caution against any suggestion that "class," creative or otherwise, should guide transit planning decisions. Such thinking tends to result in "symbolic transit." See my recent article on a textbook example of this:
More importantly: if "creative class" simply means "relatively educated and open-minded people who are more adaptable than average," then of course they are best suited to non-car modes. Any growing trend relies on early adoption, which by definition is done by more open-minded and adaptable people. So a claim that a transit renaissance is led by the "creative class" is almost a tautology.
The New York Times today bewails the loss of Los Angeles bus line 305, which soon will stop running diagonally across the city's grid, from Watts to Beverly Hills and Westwood.
NYT reporter Jennifer Medina assumes this is purely a victimization-of-the-poor story, starting with this observation:
The 305 was one of several lines created under the consent decree, and it is the only direct route from the city’s impoverished southern neighborhoods to its affluent West Side, where legions of janitors, nannies and maids work each day.
Sounds sad, and it's easy to fill an article with interviews with 305 riders who will experience the deletion as a hardship. But as that paragraph should warn us, 305 was a symbolic service. It cannot have been relevant to very many people, not even to many people in the targeted demographic ("janitors, nannies, maids" according to the NYT). Why? If you explore the route and schedule [ Download PDF ] and look at how the route fits into the larger network ("System map overview" here), you'll notice:
These points, but especially the last, identify a public transit service as symbolic. Symbolically, the 305 links the "poor south" and the "affluent west," and thus helps everyone feel good about having served domestic workers. In fact, the 305 runs through a small part of the vast "poor south" and a small part of the vast "affluent west," but it's still useless for most of the people making that kind of trip, because both areas are so large that no one bus line, or even five, could link all of the likely origin-destination pairs between them.
(You could take other buses in each area and transfer to the 305, but the low frequency of the 305 makes this very risky. Once you've accepted the need to connect, you might as well ride along the main grid and connect with a high-frequency line to take you where you're going.)
This problem is why frequency and connections were invented. The governing principle of transit in these core parts of Los Angeles is the high-frequency grid, which allows everywhere-to-everywhere travel at high frequencies with at most one connection. Yes, it may be sad that some domestic workers who are used to zero-transfer trips are now going to have a one-transfer trip, but that only means that 305 riders will have the same level of transit mobility that everyone else has, including most domestic workers. It also means that Los Angeles transit will be treating all of this demographic equally, rather than arbitrarily preferring people whose path happens to lie along Line 305.
The other moral of this story is even simpler: If your mission is to serve a whole city or region, designing transit routes around any self-identified group of people is almost always a bad idea. Most successful and attractive transit seeks maximum versatility, by serving the most diverse possible range of demographics, trip purposes, and origin-destination pairs. You can make exceptions where a single demographic group produces sufficiently massive ridership, as in some commute markets. But in general, the way people self-organize and self-identify politically is a bad guide to how to meet their transit needs efficiently. Everyone can draw the perfect transit line just for their interest group, but such proposals tell you nothing about what a good transit system would look like.
Nobody should be happy about the severe cuts being imposed on many US transit agencies that urgently need to move in the opposite direction. But as in San Francisco in 2009, cuts are sometimes an opportunity to delete services that have passionate, well-connected defenders, but that simply don't make sense if your goal is a complete network that people can use to go wherever they're going.
The British/Australian term "dead running" means "running out of service, unavailable for passengers." I like the term because it could be the title of a zombie movie. I look forward to seeing if it attracts hits.
The North American term is "deadheading," which may remind you of rock fans of a certain era. In both cases, the word "dead" is apt. It's a waste, a loss. It's unavoidable up to the point, but transit agencies are always trying to turn dead time into live, useful time.
The Brisbane Times has a piece by Marissa Calligeros announcing that '28 per cent of bus services are "dead running", where passengers are unable to board.' That's a confusing way of putting it. The reporter must mean that Brisbane buses are dead running 28% of the time.
That sounds like a lot, but "dead running" is the result of two different issues that need to be kept separate.
There's no way to understand Brisbane's "dead running" issue, or that of any other city, without separating these two causes. The Brisbane Times article talks only about the first, but the Brisbane bus system has a massive one-way peak due to its single dominant downtown and relatively lack of direct rail paths for much of the city. Can dead running be better addressed by a rigorous review of whether these one-way peak services can be combined, replaced by links to rail, or otherwise made more efficient? GIven the higher cost of dead running for one-way peaked service, could some of it be converted into two-way, all-day service at less expense than it would first appear?
That's an important question for any city. Details of driver costs vary, but in general, dead running is one of the main reasons that one-way express service (bus or rail) can be more expensive than it looks.
A polarizing summary of "facts" about a light rail debate in Waterloo, Ontario has popped up in an Atlantic item by Nicholas Jackson. After an introduction in which Jackson seems to confuse intercity high-speed rail and intra-city light rail, he invites us to admire a graphically rich presentation Waterloo light rail advocates. It's at the bottom of this post.
I cite this not to take a position on light rail transit (LRT) in Waterloo. (I'm certainly open to it, and am following with interest a similar project in similar-sized Victoria, BC.) I mean only to offer a useful illustration of the dangers of almost all "pro vs con" or "this vs that" or "with us or against us" framings of a question, in which all distinctions are reduced or distorted to fit the quarrel at hand.
Commenters are encouraged to nominate their favourite absurdities out of this piece, or to defend them. Mine are mostly (but not all) in the table partway down. Did you know light rail lines seem to cause high-tech companies to sprout decades before the line opens? Did you know that regionwide populations of Ottawa and Waterloo can be compared to city limits populations of other cities, as convenient? And what exactly can we learn from knowing the population of San Francisco in 1904, when they opened their first light rail line? Might the absence of cars in that year make the cases hard to compare?
This is well-intentioned, and perhaps in late stages of debate it's unavoidable. Again, my response to it is not a view about light rail but rather about the style of argument, which assumes (contrary to this) that rail-bus distinctions overwhelm all others, and explain so much of the arc of history.
UPDATE: This post isn't about the Waterloo light rail debate itself, but here are some sources on the subject:
When any US study refers to "metro areas," they probably mean this:
These are all photos of US Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSAs). Many, many national studies -- most recently the Brookings study on "transit and jobs in metropolitan America" -- mean "MSA" when they say "metro area."
MSAs, however, are aggregations of counties. They're the red patches on this map:
Counties come in all kinds of weird sizes, and are usually irrelevant to anyone's lived experience of a metro area. Eastern US counties are mostly small, so MSAs there are often credible. But western counties are often huge, so MSAs have to be huge too. Almost two-thirds of California's land area is a metro area by this defintion, including the "Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario MSA," which contains most of the Mojave Desert. Metro areas in America include the Grand Canyon, the Cascade wilderness areas east of Seattle and Portland, a big chunk of the Everglades, and the vast Voyageurs wilderness of northern Minnesota, accessible only by canoe or snowmobile.
So when the Brookings Institution, for example, declares that Riverside-San Bernardino is doing poorly on transit travel times to work, they're referring partly to travel times from Needles to Riverside, a distance of about 230 miles (370 km) over open desert. They're also implying that there ought to be intense transit service between the Riverside area and the Palm Springs area, even though locals largely experience these as two different metro areas. (Their centroids are 50 miles apart, the towns between are mostly semi-rural in nature, and if those facts don't convince you, there's also a 10,000-foot mountain in the way.) What matters to the MSA is that the two metro areas are in the same counties as Riverside-San Bernardino, so nothing else about their lived geography can possibly matter.
A deeper problem arises when all the demographic statistics of an MSA are declared to be features of a "metro area." Consider the Visalia-Porterville MSA, site of the top photo above. The MSA, identical to Tulare County, has a 2000 population of 368,000. All of these people are counted in MSA-based statistics about "metropolitan America," but only about half of them live in a city over 50,000. The other half live in much smaller towns and in rural areas. (The rural areas also have high labor needs, so they support semi-mobile populations, validly picked up by the census, that have no relationship to any city.) A fundamentally rural and small-town culture, indistinguishable from many other entirely rural counties, is being described as metropolitan whenever the Visalia-Porterville MSA is referenced as part of generalizations about "metropolitan America." This culture is not just small and easily dismissed statistical "noise." It's half of the population of the MSA.
This is one of those absurdities that we're trained to think of as eternal. Many weird and misleading boundaries (e.g. some counties, city limits etc) are going to persist even if they have no emotional or cultural meaning, simply because influential people are attached to them as a matter of self-interest. But how many people are really attached in this way to MSAs? And is it really impossible, with all the increasingly detailed information in the census, to describe metro areas in a more subtle and accurate way?
Even if we're stuck with them, is it really appropriate to keep saying "metro area" when you mean MSA? It's statistically convenient given how much data is organized by these crazy units. But are you really misleading people about what a metro area is?
In the sense that usually matters for urban policy, "metro area" means "the contiguous patch of lights that you can see at night from an airplane or satellite." You can approximate this with census blocks, as Mees and others do. Their technical definition is something like "any agglomeration of contiguous census blocks that all have a non-rural population or employment density." Census blocks are small enough that they can aggregate in a way that follows the geography, connecting what's really connected and separating what's really separate. Defining "metro area" in that way would finally mean what ordinary people mean by "metro area."
What's more, it would really cut down on bear attacks in "metropolitan America."
Well, how would you react if a major news magazine published definitive research on the "ten best fruits"?
Imagine it. The timeless standards (apple, orange, grape) are in the #3-5 positions. This confirms just enough of our long-standing assumptions to give the ranking system credibility. But the fast-surging pomegranate is now #1, the bratty little blueberry is #2, and more scandalous, some long-trusted fruits have crashed out of the top 10. Where did the banana (#21) go wrong?
The list would also contain some entries meant to surprise you. You're supposed to think: "Wow, the mushy little kiwifruit is now one of the ten best fruits? When did that happen? I'd better buy this magazine and get the details! Maybe the kiwifruit deserves another look!"
No, that would be silly, because almost anyone can see that "best fruit" is a meaningless term. You could do a list of the most popular fruits, the sweetest fruits, the most sustainably cultivated fruits, the best fruits for various kinds of nutrition, or the most important fruits for the Solomon Islands economy. But a list of the "ten best fruits" would be nonsense. We each have many different demands of a fruit, but those demands aren't all important in the same way at the same time. Most of us couldn't even form our own absolute definition of "best fruit," let alone try to get anyone to agree with it. In fact, we woudn't even try. The whole idea is obviously silly.
So why do we look twice at a list of top ten US transit systems? Why would a major magazine think we would care?
Well, the fruit analogy suggests that when it come to transit systems (or colleges) people either (a) assume that everyone's idea of a "good" transit system is the same or (b) just don't want to think about what they want from their transit system.
As in any business, journalists may think they're responding to their readers' desires, but they're also helping to forge those desires.
If ten-best lists are about something that's reasonably factual ("ten most reliable transit systems," "ten safest transit systems", "top ten in ridership per capita") then they can be useful. They can encourage excellence and help people reward that excellence with ridership and investment.
But when you tell your readers that certain transit systems are the "best," and don't explain your criteria very well, you signal that everyone must have the same sense of what's good. That encourages people to go into transit debates as bullies, assuming that if a transit agency doesn't deliver on their notion of the good, the agency must be incompetent or failing, so the only valid response is abuse. It encourages people not to notice that "failing to do what I want" is often a result of "doing what someone else wants."
In short, it encourages people to think like three-year-old children, for whom "my needs" are rich and glorious and self-evident to any reasonable person while "other people's needs" are vague and tedious abstractions. That, in turn, forces officials to act like parents managing their childrens' tantrums. And then we're offended when those officials can seem paternalistic?
In the last post, I noted a ranking of the "10 best US cities for transit" in U.S. News and World Report back in February, and some incoherence in how the ranking was explained. Since then, I've become even more disturbed by the rankings.
It turns out that Michael Andersen of Portland Afoot had done some research, or attempted to:
US News and World Report claims to have identified the 10 best US cities for public transit:
1. Portland, OR
3. New York
7. Los Angeles
9 (tie). Denver
9 (tie). Austin
All fine cities. The methodology:
The rankings take into account per capita spending on public transportation, number of safety incidents per million trips, and the number of trips taken per capita.
But then there was this:
Analysis of data from the Federal Transit Administration and APTA shows which cities are among the best in the country for public transportation. All of these cities' systems have unique features that set them apart. Portland's public transit provides riders with a variety of travel options, including buses, light rail, commuter rail, streetcars, and an aerial tram.
Aargh! Diversity of technologies says nothing whatever about travel options! And if Portlanders really did have the options of a bus, a light rail train, a commuter rail train, a streetcar, and an aerial tram all competing for the same trip, that would be a pretty silly network, wouldn't it?
UPDATE: Followup post is here!
There seems to be a flurry of new interest in congestion pricing, partly under the pressure of tight budgets almost everywhere. But journalists can muddy the waters by describing congestion pricing as either exploitative or punitive.
Last month, I was invited to contribute to a Sydney Morning Herald thinkpiece on the subject. My contribution, the second of four pieces here, emphasises that congestion pricing is not about paying for congestion, it's about paying to avoid congestion. The core point:
Suppose you announce that you'll give away free concert tickets to the first 500 people in a queue. You'll get a queue of 500 people. These people are paying time to save money.
Other people will just buy a ticket and avoid the queue. They're choosing to pay money to save time.
Today, we require all motorists to wait in the queue. When stuck in congestion, we are paying for the road space in time rather than in money.
Shouldn't we have a choice about this? Why are we required to save money, a renewable resource, by spending time, the least renewable resource of all?
Unfortunately, the Sydney Morning Herald framed the whole piece with the question, "Should motorists pay for the congestion they cause?" The implication is that congestion pricing is punitive, that some citizens believe that other citizens should be punished for their behavior. The question seems designed to sow misunderstanding and inflame rage. To their credit, none of the four expert responses -- even the one from the auto club opposing the congestion charge -- really took this bait.
So there's a problem with the terms congestion charge and congestion price. The terms sound like "paying for congestion," when the truth is the opposite, we're being invited to choose whether to spend money to avoid congestion. A more accurate term would be congestion avoidance price or even better, congestion avoidance option. But those are too many words.
Should we call it a decongestion price?
Real congestion pricing is about giving free and responsible adults a set of options that reflect the real-world geometry of cities. The core geometry problem is this:
Congestion pricing is a form of deregulation. It is the most libertarian concept imaginable.
There's another way to mess this up, and that's the term "congestion tax." Here's the New Zealand Herald:
Aucklanders may be levied to drive through increasingly congested streets in the absence of Government funding of the region's "strategic aspirations".
A paper released by Local Government Minister Rodney Hide before Auckland's first spatial plan due out in 11 days suggests raising revenue by charging motorists to drive around the Super City at peak times.
Hide makes clear that this isn't a congestion price intended to reduce congestion. It's just another tax, intended to raise revenue. So just to be clear: If it's congestion pricing, there are public transit (and bike-ped, and casual carpool) alternatives that enable people to get where they're going. The congestion price cordons on the CBDs of London and Singapore work because there's abundant public transit to those places, so relatively few people absolutely have to drive into them. The San Francisco Bay Bridge tolls have a congestion-pricing value because there's both abundant transit and casual carpool options for avoiding them.
If, on the other hand, you're in a place where there's no reasonable alternative to driving -- such as large parts of Auckland -- then anything that suppresses driving will suppress travel, and that means it will suppress economic activity. And if you're just taxing economic activity, then this is really no different from sales taxes, Goods and Services Taxes (GST), or income taxes. By taxing economic activity, you're suppressing something that government and society should be encouraging. That's not a libertarian idea; quite the opposite.
Somebody wants to pay you to attend the International Transport Forum annual meeting (ITF) in Leipzig this May:
The ITF is an intergovernmental organization within the OECD [Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development] with an annual meeting which draws transport secretaries from countries all over the world as well as top CEOs from fortune 500s.
This year we have set up a media travel grant to sponsor international journalists. The grant will reimburse travel costs including the roundtrip flight to Germany this May.
Cap'n Transit on the journalist's temptation to write "David vs Goliath" stories:
Behind an apparent David and Goliath story of Outraged Residents confronting the Heartless Bureaucrats may be a much uglier story. The Outraged Residents may actually be a few wealthy or upper-middle-class people protecting their privilege and convenience at the expense of the convenience - or often the safety and well-being - of much larger numbers of less fortunate people, and the Heartless Bureaucrats may actually be engaged in an emotionally draining struggle to protect these less fortunate people.
I expanded on this difficult issue here. Cap'n Transit frames this specifically as a class issue, but it doesn't have to be. In many cases the Heartless Bureaucrats are just balancing the needs of a number of conflicting parties, who would all rather yell about "the government" than do the hard work of talking and listening to each other.
James Fallows of the Atlantic has been pushing back on the habit of journalists to resist all statements of objective fact:
In today's political environment, when so many simple facts are disputed, journalists can feel abashed about stating plainly what is true. With an anticipatory cringe about the angry letters they will receive or the hostile blog posts that will appear, they instead cover themselves by writing, "according to most scientists, the sun rises in the east, although critics say...."
How does this play out in transit journalism? Very, very often, journalists present a transit expert stating a fact and someone else expressing a desire, as though this were a "he said, she said" disagreement. For example, here's Mike Rosenberg of Bay Area News Group, about the routing of California High Speed Rail through the suburb of Burlingame just south of San Francisco.
Burlingame officials want their entire stretch of planned high-speed rail track buried underground ... State rail planners say it would be several hundred million dollars cheaper to build aboveground tracks, which locals fear would tower 30 feet in the air, produce more noise and create a physical divide.
Note the tension of the two stem verbs. "Burlingame officials want" and "state planners say." It's set up to sound like "he said, she said."
But these two sentences don't describe a disagreement at all. Burlingame city officials are stating a desire, to have the line underground, to which state rail planners are responding with information about consequences, namely that undergrounding would be more expensive. That's not a disagreement; that's staff doing its job.
The disagreement is actually about who should pay for the undergounding that Burlingame wants. The state says that if a city wants high speed rail to go underground, it should pay the difference. The article quotes Burlingame mayor Terry Nagel's response:
Nagel said Burlingame could spend the city's entire $33 million annual budget on funding the tracks and barely make a dent in the price tag.
"It's not even a possibility," Nagel said Wednesday.
Note that mayor understands that building the line underground through his city will cost more than building the line on the surface. In fact, he's clear that it will cost massively more, more than his entire city budget. The cost is not in dispute. So why did we need "state planners say" in this sentence?
State rail planners say it would be several hundred million dollars cheaper to build aboveground tracks ...
All other things being equal, underground construction is more expensive than surface. This is a fact about the universe, readily found in any transport engineering textbook, so it's misleading to describe it as a claim or allegation.
Even if the journalist were thinking like a divorce lawyer, for whom there may be no verifiable reality outside of the fevered imaginations of the two parties, he still could have said that "all parties agree that undergrounding costs much, much more than surface." The journalist knows this, because he has quoted the Mayor of Burlingame displaying a complete grasp of that fact, even though the fact is inconvenient for his side.
So let's read that whole passage again:
Burlingame officials want their entire stretch of planned high-speed rail track buried underground ... State rail planners say it would be several hundred million dollars cheaper to build aboveground tracks, which locals fear would tower 30 feet in the air, produce more noise and create a physical divide.
Look again the three main verbs: want - say - fear. Emotion - alleged fact - emotion. And both emotions are on the same side! It's as predictable as the structure of a pop song. The people of Burlingame get their emotions recorded twice, while in opposition we hear only a fact about cost, presented as though it were the voice of some oppressor, crushing these honest folks who are trying to defend their homes.
Journalists! If you want to help people form coherent views that bear some relation to realty, ask yourself these questions:
[Burlingame expects] the rest of the state to essentially subsidize their property values. I cannot emphasize enough how absurd and out-of-touch that view is. At a time when property values have crashed hard in other parts of the state, why on earth would anyone in Riverside or Stockton or San Diego or East LA believe that Burlingame property owners deserve state aid to maintain their land values?
Bottom line: If your story sounds like passionate people are in conflict with soulless bean-counting bureaucrats, you probably don't understand your story yet. You may in fact have a story about venal, conniving bureaucrats, or about frightened or lazy bureaucrats blowing smoke, but the rules above will help you figure out if that's the case. You may also have a story about expert public servants doing their jobs, and if you want any honest and dedicated experts to be willing to work in those jobs, you owe it to them to consider that possibility.
I would welcome some push-back from professional journalists on this. (Email link is under my photo in the next column to the right.) Please forward a link to any journalists in your life! Me, I'm just a consumer of the product, and often not a very happy one.
Can this sentence, from the New York Times article on the DeLay conviction, be read as anything other than evidence of the collapse of journalism, and hence of language, and hence of civilization?
To be guilty of money laundering, the prosecution had to show the money had been obtained through an illegal activity before it was laundered.
They succeeded in showing that, so I guess that means the prosecution is guilty of money laundering.
This is the frigging NYTimes! Are there no editors sharp-eyed enough to change "To be guilty of ..." to "To prove ..." ? Predicates need subjects! Otherwise they run wild and incriminate innocent people.
Update: Commenter GD provides the necessary transit angle on this story:
William Safire is rotating in his grave. The question now is how to harness that energy and power rail transit with it ;)
Happy Thanksgiving to American readers. And if you had to fly in the USA yesterday, I hope it was stimulating.
Connections, or transfers as North Americans depressingly call them, are the foundation of a simple, frequent transit network that's there whenever you need it. I laid out the basic argument here, but in brief, a transit system that tries to run direct service from everywhere else (so that nobody has to make a connection) ends up as a confusing tangle of hundreds of overlapping lines, few of which are frequent enough to rely on or simple enough to remember.
But once you decide to offer free connections, you face challenges. Rail rapid transit systems usually let you change trains behind the faregates without paying another fare, but surface transit systems (bus, rail or ferry) struggle with how to encourage transfers without encouraging fare evasion. If you give paying passengers a transfer slip providing a free ride on a connecting service, you get all kinds of abuse: people who don't need the transfer slip sometimes sell it, or give it away, or simply drop it where someone else can find it, and ride free.
The blog of Vancouver's transit agency TransLink, called The Buzzer, recently featured this 1974 explanation of "transfer regulations" in that city, as printed on the route map. It's a nice example of the kind of regulation that was common at that time.
Note how much complexity follows from trying to insist that transfer slips must be used only for connections, and that you must not do anything else while connecting. The authors have thought of everything you could conceivably do that isn't exactly what they intend, and are resolved to prohibit all of it in meticulous detail.
Fortunately, not many transit agencies take this tone with their customers anymore.
There seem to be three defensible approaches to connection-pricing, at least in the North American and Australasian contexts where I work:
Of course, there are lots of other kinds of connection-pricing policy out there, including a range of partial policies and non-policies, and it all gets much more complicated where there are multiple entangled transit operators watching their own balance sheets, and no citywide agency with the power to co-ordinate them.
Many of the security problems around transfer slips should disappear in the new era of smartcards. A good GPS-based smartcard system will know that you got off another transit vehicle nine minutes ago, so it will be able to determine whether you should be charged a new fare when you board the next one. It will be interesting to see whether agencies that still have fare penalties for connections take the opportunity to elminate them. It will still be politically hard: if you eliminate your connection penalty without raising the base fare, your revenue will tick downward. If you raise the base fare to compensate, lazy journalists will do stories about your evil fare increase, ignoring the larger fairness of the change.
But one thing is true everywhere, because it's a matter of geometry: if you want frequency and simplicity in your network, you have to encourage connections. So any pricing scheme that penalizes connections, or that shrouds them with punitive rules like this 1974 policy, is in conflict with those basic goals.
What's so great about living on a cul-de-sac again? From the Oregonian:
Fallen tree blocks access to Lake Oswego neighborhood
A fallen tree blocked access to about 50 Lake Oswego homes for more than two hours this morning, authorities said.
The large tree toppled at 8:11 a.m. today, landing across Lakefront Road and McVey Avenue, according to the Lake Oswego Fire Department. It took out power and utility lines with it, causing some homes to lose electricity.
Crews from Portland General Electric had power mostly restored by 10:15 a.m., said the Fire Department's David Morris. PGE also took care of the tangled power lines on the ground, while firefighters and maintenance personnel worked to clear the downed tree.
People were able to get in and out of the neighborhood again about two hours after the tree fell, Morris said. Crews expected to have the street completely clear by 11 a.m., he said.
(Obvious question to the journalist: Were the residents really trapped, or was it just their cars that were trapped?)
From the look of it on Google Earth, the good burghers of Lakefront Road seem to have freely chosen their imprisonment. It's a very long cul-de-sac.
Does nobody understand the principle of redundancy in networks? Note to the real estate industry: I will never buy a house that cannot be escaped in at least two directions -- and preferably also by at least two modes of transport. We'd build much more resilient suburbs if everyone took this view.
A San Francisco reporter emailed me yesterday with this question, regarding the city's main transit system, Muni:
As you know, Muni set a goal in 1999 when the [San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency] board was formed, to have a 85 percent on-time performance standard. That was voted on in 1999 (Prop. E). Since then ... the agency has yet to the meet goal or even gotten close to it. The highest it's been was 75 percent a few months ago. ... I wanted to ask if you if there is any danger for Muni to be so focused on this one standard? Are performance metrics evolving and why are they evolving? What else should Muni to be looking at as far as improving reliability?
I have a great deal of sympathy for transit executives trying to deal with on-time performance, because many of the causes of delay are outside a transit agency's control. Still, there are two problems with the measures of "on-time performance" that prevail in the industry. (Note: San Francisco's transit agency does understand these issues, but your transit agency may not.)
1. They are not customer-centered. A standard on-time perormance measure shows percentage of services that were on-time, not the percentage of riders who were. Because crowded services are more likely to be delayed, the percentage of customers who were served on-time is probably lower than the announced on-time performance figure. An on-time performance figure weighted by ridership would give a clearer impression of the actual customer experience. For more on this problem, see here.
2. For high-frequency, high-volume services, actual frequency matters more. Suppose that a transit line is supposed to run every 10 minutes, but every trip on the line is exactly 10 minutes late. A typical on-time performance metric (e.g. the percentage of trips that are 0-5 minutes late) will declare this situation to be total failure, 0% on-time performance. But to the customer, this situation is perfection.
For this reason, some big-city transit agencies use a "headway-maintenance" system, in which a transit operator's job is not to run on time, but rather to run a specified number of minutes after the preceding vehicle on the line. What should be reported in this case is not the time a bus came, but the actual elapsed time between consecutive trips. GPS based real-time location systems, which are becoming common, provide the information needed to do this. More on this here.
It's worth noting that these two objections to standard on-time performance probably push the reported rate in opposite directions. An on-time performance measure weighted by ridership (responding to my point #1) would almost certainly yield a lower score. But on high-frequency services (my point #2) I suspect that many services now being counted as late don't seem that way to the passenger. If the trip ahead was late as well, then the actual gap between trips -- which is all that a customer notices on high-frequency service -- may be more or less fine. So a shift to headway maintenance might yield numbers that tell a more positive story about the actual customer experience. In any case, once the transit agency is clearly doing what it can to optimize reliability, the case for other improvements -- such as stronger transit priorities -- will be far stronger.
Changing these metrics is hard. There's a lot of room for debate about exactly how to calculate a revised measure, and that's the easy part. Headway maintenance, in particular, means changing job expectations and management practices. It can affect how drivers are judged, so the unions may have a role. All this takes a lot of courage and persistence, so it's understandable that many agencies aren't ready to do it. Some agencies are thinking about the issue but are not ready to act.
The hardest part may be explaining to the public that the previous measures weren't so good, because someone will ask: "If that's true, why have you used the imperfect measure for so long?" Fortunately, there's a good answer to that: the quality of data. GPS vehicle location systems have become routine in big North American systems only in the past decade, while new "smart card" ticketing technologies -- which can pinpoint ridership by time and location -- are just now coming on. Once their bugs are worked out, these systems will provide robust data that was never there before. Transit managers can say, truthfully, that they've always understood the problem with on-time performance but never had the tools to monitor a more nuanced and accurate indicator. But now they do, or they will soon.
So perhaps now is the time to update the idea of "on-time performance," and the ways that agencies pursue it, to achieve a better focus on what matters to the customer.
The Conservative Planner has a thoughtful attack on WalkScore.com's methodology for calculating a simple "walkability score" for any neighborhood in America. He's found several examples where WalkScore has given a high score to a place that's clearly hostile to pedestrians when viewed on the ground.
One only had to take a stroll around the Hilton in downtown Atlanta to see the inherent flaws in this online tool. Type the Hilton’s address in Walk Score (255 Courtland Street NE, Atlanta, GA) and it will tell you that it is a “86 – Walker’s Paradise”. [JW: Actually, it now says "86 - Very Walkable']
The Conservative Planner continues:
Nevermind the fact there are 4- and 5-lane one-way streets with high speed traffic surrounding the hotel. Interstates 85/75 runs to the north and east of the hotel and is a major pedestrian barrier. The restaurants that are deemed by Walk Score to be nearby and within walking distance are buried within the Marriott and Hilton hotels, which are 1960s/1970s behemoths. It is hardly a walking paradise; it may be in a downtown area but the street system is strikingly suburban.
Fair enough. But here's the Conservative Planner's suggested remedy:
Walk Score should not be used to analyze how walkable an area is as it does not consider the three most critical factors of walkability:
1. Connections: Walk Score can’t tell if sidewalks exist or not. It can’t even evaluate if there’s a street to connect to a destination that it tells you is within a walking distance of your address. You might need a machete and steel-toed books to walk to the doctor’s office.
2. Actual Route: Walk Score measures crowflight distance, not actual walking distance. I live in a neighborhood that has several destinations within a 1/2-mile radius. Too bad it takes me more than a mile to walk to them because of the lack of a pedestrian system along a 7-lane arterial highway with no crosswalks and poor connectivity despite its location within a streetcar suburb.
3. Land Use/Design: You could have the most “walkable” area according to Walk Score, but if you’re walking in front of a Walmart or other horribly designed commercial or residential strip, you won’t find the area to be very pedestrian-friendly.
These are all valid points, but if the Conservative Planner is really a planner, he/she would know how hard this bar is to meet. Items 1 and 2 require that every local government in America provide a digitized map of its entire pedestrian network, showing not just which streets have sidewalks but where the usable off-road paths are, possibly including parking lots and vacant lots that you can safely cut across. It should probably also show not just pedestrian signals but information on how they're timed. Many local governments don't have this information. Some have it only in the form of hand drawings on paper maps lovingly curated by the town's sole "pedestrian planner," who is allowed to play with these things in his broom-closet office so long as he stays out of the way of the road engineers.
As for item 3, "design," well, sure, most of us would rather walk through a park rather than across a parking lot, but "design" by its nature refers to a subjective response, not a scorable metric. (I'd make an exception for Robert Cervero's use of the word in The Transit Metropolis, which I suspect was selected more for alliteration in his phrase "density and design." By "design" Cervero really means network connectivity -- the Conservative Planner's #2 -- measurable, say, by the percentage of a 1/4 mile air radius that's within a 1/4 mile walk on the pedestrian network; more on this here.)
What's more, even if we could agree on a scorable metric, you'd need a nationwide database of exactly how every lot has been developed, continuously updated of course. The closest thing we have to that is Google Street View. Is someone working on a computer algorithm that will study every Street View photo in the country and assign a universally-respected "design score"? If so, perhaps we can look for improvement.
Bottom line: What the Conservative Planner is really pointing out is that prevailing data structures are designed to the needs of the prevailing mode -- and right now, that's cars. Yes, every local government should have a complete database of its pedestrian links, and yes, they should send it to Google so it can be added to Google Maps. Only then will we have an automated measure of actual walking distance.
Meanwhile, the sensible response from WalkScore.com would be to move their "How WalkScore Doesn't Work" page to a more prominent place on the site. A sensible response from the rest of us would be to remember that any methodology that reduces diverse inputs to a single score is not just an approximation, but an approximation shot through with value judgments that the score's consumer may not share. WalkScore could help remind us of this by showing, on the front page where it displays the score, the separate "sub-scores" from which it's calculated, so that we can each decide if the factors are weighed just as we'd like.
UPDATE: Matt Lerner of WalkScore tweets that they are working on these problems!
Is there anything wrong with calling a group of people "transit users" or "riders"? Is there anything wrong with calling yourself such a thing?
The fundamental attribution error leads us to interpret the behavior of others as reflecting something inherent about those people, more than is warranted. However, the language we use plays a role in that judgment as well. Our labels often describe who people are instead of what they’re doing, e.g. pedestrians, cyclists, transit users, or drivers. Each one of those terms gives us a category to which those people belong, making it easier to attribute their actions as reflecting some property of members of that category. That, in turn, makes it more difficult to progress towards a multimodal and sustainable transportation system.
I propose a different and deliberate use of language to mitigate this:
- Old: pedestrians. New: people on foot, or people walking.
- Old: cyclists. New: people on bikes, or people cycling.
- Old: transit users. New: people on transit.
- Old: drivers or motorists. New: people in cars, or people driving.
Sometimes we’re in cars, sometimes we’re on transit, sometimes we’re on bikes, and sometimes we’re on foot. But we’re all people, and our perspectives are much more similar than the facile modal categories lead us to believe.
Some people reading that are going to be reminded of the term "people of color," which rose in part from the ease with which, say, "black" as an adjective ("black people") tended to deteriorate into "black" as a noun ("the blacks"). "People of color" put the category term back where it belonged, in an adjective phrase, while also extending across all the non-white ethnicities. Other "people who" and "people with" terms began to appear around the same time -- "people with AIDS" for example -- each addressing a situation where describing with a noun -- "AIDS victims," "AIDS sufferers," -- seemed to crush individuality and personhood.
Of course, these terms were always easy to ridicule as "politically correct," partly because they were cumbersome. The need for sheer brevity makes me doubt I will fully embrace "people cycling" as a fully satisfactory synonym for "cyclist," though when speaking I do look for ways to keep the focus back on "people" rather than on the technology of transport they're using.
Still, Michael is basically right. Reducing mode choice categories to nouns -- cyclists, motorists, riders, etc -- is potentially divisive. These categories seem to give us the clarity we need to do any thinking at all, but clinging to them can blind us of all the ways that two cyclists can be different, and all the ways that this cyclist and that motorist may agree on far more than two cyclists do. Ultimately, the only way to combat this is to notice it, and point out alternate ways of categorizing that can help open minds. For example, you might think of "people who, in their ideal world, would like to get around on transit." Some but not all existing transit riders are in that group. But so are some motorists.
It's also worth noting that we don't just apply these reductive categories when describing others, we may also apply them to ourselves. (The comments on Michael's post explore this in some detail.) A "transit users group" may sound like a good political strategy, but if you identify yourself too much as a "transit user," and build your understanding of politics around that identity, you risk excluding the views of current non-transit users and thus prematurely narrowing your potential community of interest. (The San Francisco Transit Riders Union, for example, embraces "current and future riders.") Lots of people care about transit, and they want to be counted, too.