In some agencies, it goes without saying that transit maps should be geographically accurate. Many agencies follow San Francisco Muni in superimposing transit lines on a detailed map of the city:
But research out of MIT suggests that we really need to see network structure, and that requires a degree of abstraction:
By putting alternate versions of the New York and Boston subway maps through the computer model, the researchers showed that abstract versions of the maps (as opposed to geographically accurate versions) were more likely to be easily understood in a single, passing glance.
Geographical accuracy obscures network structure. Purely geographic maps show where service is but not how it works.
This is why a number of best practice agencies publish both kinds of maps, sometimes even presenting them side by side. The geographic map helps you locate yourself and points of interest in the city, but you need the structure map to understand how the system works.
All this is even more urgently true for bus network maps, where complexity can be crushing to the user. When we streamline maps to highlight key distinctions of usefulness such as frequency, we often have to compromise on geographic detail. Obviously the best maps fuse elements of the two, but you can always find the tradeoff in action. The new Washington DC transit maps, for example, highlight frequency (and show all operators' services together) but there's a limit to the number of points of interst you can highlight when keeping the structure clear:
Roy Nakadegawa, a longtime San Francisco Bay Area transit advocate and board member for both AC Transit and BART, has passed away. I remember him a soft-spoken but effective advocate who was able, as a professional engineer, to dig into details when they mattered.
I also remember him as someone who really understood transit networks, and considered them more important than transit technologies. You can get a taste of that from this 2008 kerfuffle (concerning a debate that I am agnostic on, personally).
From the joint AC Transit / BART press release:
Former AC Transit and BART director Roy Nakadegawa passed away last Friday morning, August 23, 2013, at his home in Berkeley. Mr. Nakadegawa had been suffering from congestive heart failure for some time.
Mr. Nakadegawa served on the AC Transit Board for 20 years, from 1972 to 1992. He then served on the BART Board for 12 years from 1992 to 2004. After he left the BART Board, he joined the Board of TRANSDEF (Transportation Solutions Defense and Education Fund), a non-profit environmental organization created by transit activists to advocate for better solutions to transportation, land use and air quality problems in the San Francisco Bay Area. In all those positions he argued for cost-effective, mobility improving transit.
Mr. Nakadegawa was an active attendee and participant in TRB (Transportation Research Board) meetings and was well known and respected around the world for his depth of knowledge about transit and its relation to land use. He was written up in the local press for the frugality of his travel arrangements. When Mr. Nakadegawa served on the AC Transit Board of Directors, its members got an annuity when they left the Board. For many years, Mr. Nakadegawa generously donated his annuity payments to buy prizes for AC Transit's local bus rodeo winners.
As a BART Director he consistently advocated for cost effective transit administration, which spilled over into his own campaigns. In his re-election materials for BART Director he was proud to point out that in November 2000, he garnered the highest vote (over 91,000 voters) of five previous BART races and spent less than a penny per vote. Mr. Nakadegawa tirelessly urged his fellow board members to consider innovative uses of BART facilities as a non-traditional source of revenue and improved customer access, resulting in the adoption of both permanent and experimental parking program initiatives.
He will also be remembered for his role in advocating BART’s Earthquake Safety Program. He helped to raise public awareness of this critical program, resulting in the successful 2004 passage of a bond measure to fund it.
Professionally, Mr. Nakadegawa had been a transportation engineer for the City of Richmond and for many years served on the Board that administers the civil engineering exam in California. His career as a public sector engineer reached a pinnacle in 1989 when he was elected National President of the Institute for Transportation of American Public Works Association and later served as its liaison to the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), the national transportation advocacy group. While with BART Mr. Nakadegawa became an active member of APTA, serving on several committees including its Policy and Planning; Advanced Technology, Governing Board; and Transit Management and Performance committees.
Mr. Nakadegawa and his wife Judy were the quintessential Berkeley couple, dedicated to peace, family, public service and folk dancing.
Cards and letters should be sent to: Judy Nakadegawa and family, 751 The Alameda, Berkeley, California 94707-1930.
Another great frequent network map from the prolific Steve Boland, this time of the East Bay region of California including Oakland and Berkeley . I previously covered his San Francisco frequent network here. Steve has created a series of transit maps for other cities, which can be found at his website, San Francisco Cityscape. Have a look at a small part of the map showing Downtown Oakland, below (or follow the link to view the full map):
Steve's done a great job drawing a map to show routes running at 10-15 minute weekday frequencies, and uses color to draw a distinction between local and rapid bus service, BART, and several shuttle services that operate in the same vicinity. The map doesn't try to show the more complex background of less frequent services. The best agency maps (Seattle, Vancouver, Spokane, Portland) have begun doing thi as well. But maps showing only the Frequent Network are also highly useful, especially for people who want to use transit but just can't afford to wait long. That's why every Los Angeles rapid transit station has a "15-minute map", and why many other agencies (Portland, Minneapolis, Brisbane) do maps of the Frequent Network alone. Remember: Frequency is freedom! So a frequency map is a map of your freedom as a transit rider.
San Francisco MTA is hiring a manager of service planning. It looks like a great job for a seasoned transit planner and pays enough that you can actually live comfortably in wonderful but super-expensive San Francisco. Spread the word!
Is this kind of network the future of transit?
This map by Stamen Design shows the paths of the various Silicon Valley bus services that flood San Francisco each morning and evening peak. (Linewidth is proportional to frequency.) All these lines running around San Francisco extend south off the map, duplicating each other for more than 30 miles until they diverge to serve different employers in Silicon Valley. The colors indicate which employer. In general, these private buses are open only to the employees of the company in question.
These buses carry some of world's smartest geeks between the manicured suburban headquarters of Google, Apple, Facebook, Yahoo, EBay and Electronic Arts and the diverse, interesting, crowded, messy city that these geeks insist on living in -- a distance of 30-40 miles.
(Here is a great page showing the process Stamen went through to get to this map. As you'd expect from a design firm, it's officially a work of art, called The City from the Valley.)
There is a public transit option in the same corridor, the Caltrain commuter rail line, but it can't begin to compete with these buses for speed, directness, and certainly the number of transfers required.
How should we feel about these privately operated services, which are effectively employee benefits at these companies?
My favorite data design firm, Stamen, released a map showing all the private buses that run from San Francisco to Silicon Valley, the elite's mass transit. Work in one of those places, and you have a wonderful travel experience. Everyone else gets the bus or an underfunded Caltrain. One way for our country's elites. The car and a crowded highway for everybody else.
"The elite's mass transit" versus "underfunded Caltrain." Is this really a class divide, with all the perils that class-based thinking implies? These buses have to drive to San Francisco because the geeks on board aren't willing to buy a big house in the suburbs of Silicon Valley. They want to live in a city, where they step over homeless people and deal with crowds but also have access to all that a city offers. So they're an unusual elite.
If you love inner-city living so much that you're willing to commute almost two hours a day, then I expect you're someone who's happy with the basic proposition of city life. That means that you're used to being in close proximity to strangers, so I'd guess you'd be a willing passenger on a public transit system if that transit system were useful.
So the real story here is not the upscale demands of "elites" but the story of "underfunded Caltrain" and and more generally the way that infrequent, slow and poorly connected transit systems are forcing these big employers to run so much expensive service of their own.
The inadequacy of transit between San Francisco and Silicon Valley lies in several things. First, neither the employers nor most San Francisco homes are anywhere near the Caltrain commuter rail line, so using that line requires multiple transfers -- often two at the San Francisco end. Second, the line is infrequent, designed for speed rather than frequency, which means that using shuttles between business parks and rail stations always involves the slight anxiety of the bus being late and missing the train.
Politically, the problem with this commute is that it crosses two county lines, and in California, where almost all transport decision-making happens at county-level agencies, a multi-county transit problem is orders of magnitude harder to solve. There is little doubt that if Caltrain were all in one County -- maybe one the size of Los Angeles County -- it would be a vastly better service by now: more frequent, probably electrified, probably extended to make better connections in San Francisco. But split between three counties it has always seemed peripheral to many county-level decision makers, so when its needs have conflicted with another pet project, Caltrain has been consistently shoved aside.
Most recently, Caltrain's future has been made dependent on the California High Speed Rail Project, which will help improve and extend Caltrain only in the context of needing to share its track. It does appear that Caltrain will finally be extended to a downtown San Francisco terminal where most of the city will be one transfer away instead of two. Caltrain may also become a little faster if, as contemplated, some minor stations are closed. But Caltrain will probably never be frequent given the new constraints of track sharing.
But why should people have to commute such distances at all? In this case, it happened because a whole mass of companies decided that they all had to have vast corporate campuses that are too big to be in walking distance to anything. The critical mass of Silicon Valley congealed in the high-car age, as early icons like Hewlett and Packard outgrew their garage. Stanford University has always sat in Silicon Valley's midst like a queen bee, happy to seem the indispensable center of the burbling mass of innovation. Since then every new breakthrough firm, from Google to Facebook, has felt they had to be there.
But now, that critical mass is in the wrong place for the needs of the next generation. A few of the area's suburbs are trying to build downtowns that will give a bit of the urban vibe that younger geeks seem to value, but many of these suburbs are dominated by people who want nothing to change. So it comes down to how the next generation of internet employers choose think about how to attract top employees. Twitter made a courageous choice, moving its headquarters right into San Francisco, but Apple is digging itself deeper, building an even larger and more car-dependent fortress in its corner of the Valley.
Finally, this joke is on the lords of Silicon Valley itself. The industry that liberated millions from the tyranny of distance remains mired in its own desperately car-dependent world of corporate campuses, where being too-far-to-walk from a Caltrain station -- and from anything else of interest -- is almost a point of pride. But meanwhile, top employees are rejecting the lifestyle that that location implies.
Geeks whose brilliance lightens the weight of our lives have bodies that must be hauled 70 or more miles every day, at a colossal waste of energy and time. Is this really the future?
You've seen photos like this. A large group of people, with images comparing the amount of precious urban space they take depending on the mode of transport they use. This new one is by Australia's Cycling Promotion Fund.
This photo makes at least three important points, two of them probably not intended. In this one image you can see that:
Dreamers along these lines may well be right about many suburban areas, where demand is sparse and the land use pattern precludes efficient transit. But when all the people in this picture want to travel, driverless cars may take less space than the cars shown here, but they will still take far more space than a bus would. The scarcity of space per person is part of the very definition of a city, as distinct from suburbia or rural area, so the efficiency with which transport options use that space will always be the paramount issue.
(Of course, this very thought experiment presumes that we will actually achieve, and culturally accept, driverless cars that require very little space between them, in which the prevention of ghastly accidents -- especially with pedestrians and bikes who may appear with zero warning and minimal stopping distance -- is achieved through the absolute infallibility of human-designed hardware and software.)
To make the same point more generally:
We spend too much time talking about what things cost in dollars and not enough about what they cost in space. That, of course, is because urban space is perversely priced to encourage inefficient uses of it and discourage efficient ones. If you're going to claim to be able to visualize how technology will change the world of 2040 -- as the techno-futurists claim to do -- you should also visualize what a political system ruled by people now under 40 would look like. These people are much less emotionally attached to cars, care about environmental outcomes much more, and value urban space much more than their parents do. Given that the revolution in urban pricing has already begun (see the London and Singapore congestion charges, and the San Francisco and Auckland dynamic parking systems), isn't it foolish to assume that today's assumptions about how we apportion urban space will still rule your techno-utopia?
UPDATE: A reader points out one other key point, which is that
Once you put these three systems in motion, the cars and bus will need more space in one dimension -- forward and back. However, in motion, the mass of bikes will expand in two dimensions, it will need to be both longer and wider for all the bikes to move safely. This could have been rectified in the photo by consciously spacing the bikes to a distance where riders would feel comfortable at a brisk cycling speed that ensures not only stopping distance but also space for passing. Masses of cyclists on a recreational ride may all agree to ride in tight formation at the same speed, but in daily life cycling infrastructure must accommodate the the fact that people in a cycling crowd will have different desires and intentions around speed, which affects lateral spacing and stopping distance.
In San Francisco passengers will be able to board through any door of any city bus, as they have long been able to do on light rail and streetcars. Nate Berg has a nice piece on this at Atlantic Cities.
This could be a very big deal.
No more of the silliness pictured at right, where passengers who could all board the bus in 10 seconds instead spend a minute or two outside in the rain. No more tired exhortations to "move to the back of the bus!" because people will naturally distribute themselves evenly throughout. No more delays due to fare payment problems and disputes. Fewer angry and threatening signs, like the "stop" sign on the back door in this image.
Obviously this change requires Proof of Payment (POP) fare collection, which has been routine on most North American light rail and commuter rail for a generation (though it arrived in San Francisco relatively recently.) POP means that you're responsible for having a ticket, pass, transfer slip, etc., called a "proof of payment", and a roving fare inspector can ask you to show it at any time and nail you with a big fine if you don't have it.
If you want to dig down into why so some people hate the bus-riding experience, well, the congestion and delay of front-door fare payment has to be a big factor. It is a major reason why buses are so slow and unreliable. It also produces inefficiency, hassle, and discomfort that everyone can see: the huge lines to board at the front, the crowding in the front of the bus while there is space of the back. The whole experience is both unpleasant and an objective cause of delay.
There's also a subtle emotional thing here: We're required to have a brief interaction with a (quite properly) impatient driver, which can give a subconscious feeling that we're being judged or dismissed. With all-door boarding, we feel free to move through the system by paths that feel direct to us, and we're much less likely to be waiting in line. If an observer chose to interpret my dislike of this experience as a stigma, front-door boarding might turn out to be part of why some people think there's a cultural stigma about riding the bus.
Front-door boarding is one of those indignities that people associate with buses but that is not an intrinsic feature of them. The idea that POP could be done on rail but not buses is just a North American (and Australasian) industry habit. It makes sense where loads are low, because front-door boarding doesn't involve much delay in that case, but it's never made sense at higher levels of crowding that are now routine in our transit-starved cities. Sure you need to have an expensive fare collection crew, but you are also saving so much running time, getting people where they're going faster, and so dramatically improving the sensation of civility and freedom in bus riding, that it's definitely worth it.
You do have to get over a hump. Many people are very upset about fare evasion, and the public usually thinks that it's a bigger problem than it is. With all-door boarding, you as a passenger can't tell whether others have paid their fares, and when you see a guy who looks shady to you (whatever that means to you in terms of race, class, dress or behavior cues) jumping on the back, you'll now have to assume that he's paid his fare. It's up to a fare inspector, not you, to verify that. The reality is that the cost of bringing fare evasion down from, say, 5% to 1% costs vastly more than the fares you'd collect, because you have to hire vast hordes of inspectors to catch those last few hardest-core offenders. We're better of tolerating a somewhat higher fare evasion so we can spend our money on service.
So all-door boarding on buses is hard to get to, and you tend to do it when, as in San Francisco, the overcrowding and slowness of buses is perceived as real crisis. (That means two things: overcrowding and slowness are severe and lots of citizens and elected leaders are demanding a solution.)
Don't expect every transit agency to follow San Francisco's lead at once, because there's a startup cost and risk that's hard to face in the middle of a recession, not to mention the whole public education struggle about tolerable levels of fare evasion. But I expect this to spread rapidly in the major metros if San Francisco MTA has the fortitude to keep it going. (I suspect all-door boarding is actually irreversable in San Francisco, because all-door boarding will create more capacity that will be instantly used, to the point that going back would require adding more service that MTA can't afford.)
And once it does, the experience of riding buses will a bit more like riding rail, in a way that matters to almost everyone. Greater speed and reliability. Less waiting in line. Less crush-loading The freedom to board where you want. Who doesn't value those things?
Photo: Tom Prete.
Major San Francisco transit lines take longer than they did a century ago, as they have been obstructed by traffic and slowed by heavy passenger loads using (until recently) inefficient pay-as-you-board methods. A New York Times piece by Zusha Elinson lays out the statistics.
(It's important to clarify, right away, that this has nothing to do with streetcars as a technology. You could easily be misled by this subtle bit of anti-bus bias:
In 1920, the F-Stockton streetcar carried passengers from the Financial District at Market and Stockton Streets all the way to the Marina at Chestnut and Scott Streets in a zippy 17 minutes. Today a very similar trip on the 30-Stockton, the successor to the F-Stockton, takes a half-hour if the stars are properly aligned.
In general, streetcars replaced by buses have slowed down more, over the last century, than those that remained streetcars, but that's an expression of how much more was invested in streetcars than in buses. The main lines that use the Market Street Subway -- J through N -- have picked up or shed just a couple of minutes from their 1920 times, even though back then they ran on the surface along Market St (about 3 miles) while now they're in a subway, effectively functioning as rapid transit. No such improvements were made for streetcars that became bus lines, so of course their performance deteriorated more. In fact, the 30-Stockton relies heavily on maneuverability in unpredictable Chinatown traffic; a streetcar in exactly the same traffic, unable to move around obstacles, would be even slower and less reliable.)
The real message of this story, though, is the need to have a conscious intention about the speed and reliability of transit. Highway planners ruled the late 20th century with their clearly defined notion of "Level of Service" or cars, which mowed down opposition through its simplistic A-F letter-grades. Just after 2000, the Transit Capacity and Quality of Service Manual sought, at first, to claim this same authority-through-simplification for transit. But while the TCQOS is a spectacular reference guide, few in the business believe that a single A-F score can capture the many important ways that transit succeeds and fails.
My own work in this area has always advocated a stronger, more transit-specific approach that begins not with the single delayed line, but rather with the functioning of an entire network. Don't just ask "how fast should this line be?" which tends to degenerate into "What can we do to make those forlorn buses move a little faster without upsetting anyone?" Instead, ask "What travel time outcomes do we need across this network?" Or turn it around: How much of the city needs to be within 30 minutes of most people? -- a question that leads to those compelling Walkscore travel time maps, which are literally maps of individual freedom.
A network speed standard would identify necessary speed standards for each service type, but especially for the Frequent Network, because high frequency means greater impact of delay -- both on passenger freedom and the agency's bottom line. We* used this approach in a Seattle Transit Plan study about 7 years ago:
1. Define the Frequent Network (every 15 min or better, all day, every day), including any segments that are "Rapid" (faster with fewer stops)
2. Define the policy operating speed standard for each product (frequent local vs rapid)
3. Map the existing scheduled speeds on each segment against this standard, creating a map with screaming red segments meaning "deficient."
4. Prioritize interventions to improve transit speed based on those deficiencies.
This is quite different from a classic cost-benefit approach in which we count the riders currently on a segment and assign value based on their total travel time saved, because it acknowledges that (a) a dysfunctional segment is probably driving away customers regardless of how many are on it now and (b) the outcome is the network, not just a single line.
We had a lot of success with this in Seattle at the time. Once the deficiency map was drawn, engineers noticed segments that they hadn't identified as problems before, and went to work on fixing them. Note too that the method cleanly separates problem from solution. Don't start with what you think is possible. Start with what you need. Define the absence of what you need as a citywide problem that affects the whole network. Then fix those deficiencies. If you're going to go to war with three businesses over "their" strip of on-street parking, you're more likely to break through the "big agency attacks struggling small business" frame if you're defending the entire city's transit system.
Remember: a line is only as reliable as its least reliable point, and a journey through a network is only as reliable as the least reliable of its lines involved. So one localized problem affecting speed and reliability (such as stops too close together) actually affects a vast area, and drags down public expectations for an entire network product. If it costs the agency money (as slower service always does) then it's also a direct detriment to the overall abundance of transit service. That's the frame in which you win battles over three on-street parking spaces, a signal phase, or even an entire tranist lane.
San Francisco's Transit Effectiveness Project is, to a great extent, the culimination of exactly this thought process. I remember in the 1980s or early 90s a time when Muni proposed to eliminate just one consequential bus stop; 17th & Mission. The story became: "Big, bad transit agency launches personal attack on the people and businesses at 17th & Mission." The TEP has worked to change that conversation, emphasizing that on high-frequency services, the speed of every segment is part of the whole city's transit outcomes. The same process has made it easier to do a range of other locally-hated citywide goods such as removing parallel routes that were too close together.
Does your city's transit system have a similar project underway, one that moves beyond route-by-route analysis and looks at how every speed/reliabilit deficiency harms the whole city's transit system?
*I was with Nelson\Nygaard at the time. The project was the City of Seattle "Urban Village Transit Network" study of 2004, which became a foundation of the Seattle Transit Plan.
Lanes that protect transit's speed and reliability are only as good as their enforcement. San Francisco, like many cities, has long had a few lanes whose enforcement was so spotty as to render them advisory. Now, the city is getting serious, with camera enforcement and significant fines.
I think another feature will eventually be necessary: Full painting of bus lanes in the same way that we usually paint bike lanes, along with signage on approaching intersecting streets, so that there is no "I didn't know" excuse. Sydney, for example, paints its bus lanes deep red, with gaps at the points where cars can cross for turns.
In addition, if you approach as a motorist on an intersecting street, you will see a sign with a lane diagram of the street you're approaching, so that there's no excluse for turning into a bus lane. Fines (stiff) are often advertised prominently.
A traumatic memory from my old neighborhood, still exactly as I remember it:
The California Street cable car still doesn't influence traffic signals, even in the era of GPS. Here at California & Hyde, the car stops in the median of the street, requiring passengers to cross a traffic lane to board or alight. Note the green traffic signal to the right, which tells motorists it's ok to speed past the cable car as people get on and off. The man in the black coat and cap, waiting to board, must stand in a traffic lane that has the green signal. To the motorist, he appears to be crossing illegally, yet it's the only way to get to the cable car.
This is not a high-traffic intersection. Surely all lights should turn red when the cable car is present.
I lived a block from this point for seven years (1987-94) yet almost never used the California St. cable car. This was why.
About 18 years ago, when I was chairing the Citizens Advisory Committee of the San Francisco County Transporation Authority, I remember a day when staff effusively advised that they'd gotten budget to put up green signs around the city to help motorists better identify the streets. The green sign in this picture, for example.
This is on Jones St. northbound approaching Sacramento St., but there are many similar cases. (Trivia note: One of these signs appears in Gus Van Sant's fine film Milk, which is set in the 1970s. It was the film's most glaring anachronism.)
Nobody asked my committee's opinion when these signs went up. And today, briefly touring my old neighborhood, I find that these signs are still there. Has nobody questioned them in all this time?
Most readers will see the issue at once, but if you don't, here we go:
The motorist faces a stopsign. That means they should be looking at the crosswalk in front of them, and the other traffic approaching. What's more, they should be stopped, or stopping, which means that their focal length should be short; they don't need a sign that's meant to be read at high speeds. Yet high speed is implied by the green sign's large typesize, high position, and "freeway font"; the green sign has the same color, font, and typesize typically used on California freeways.
San Francisco's standard black and white streetsigns are the most legible I've encountered anywhere in the world. They are a global model for simplicity, clarity, and grace. There's one right below the green sign in this pic, in front of the tree. The text on these signs is over 1.5 inches high. If you can't read that black-on-white sign while stopped at a stopsign, or decelerating to it, your vision is so poor that you shouldn't have a drivers license. Only seriously dangerous drivers need the green sign.
Then there's the question of focal height. A sign placed very high, like the green sign here, is pulling the driver's eye away from the ground plane, which is where the squishable pedestrians and cyclists are. Extreme type size also encourages reading the sign from further away, which means focusing further away, which means a greater risk of not seeing the pedestrian in front of you.
In short, the message of the green sign ("read me from a distance, like you're on a freeway, driving fast") contradicts the message of the stopsign and crosswalks.
Motorists choose their speed and focal length based on a range of signals, not just explicit commands and prohibitions. These signs may be appropriate on high speed multi-lane streets, where you may need to change lanes to turn once you've recognized a cross-street. But what are they doing at stopsigns?
I'm sure there are manuals that say this is compliant to standards. But many bad ideas are endorsed by manuals. Does the green sign make sense? Argue with me.
PS: "Wait, Jarrett didn't say he'd be in San Francisco, and he didn't call!" Sorry, it was just two days, and I'll be back soon.
SF Cityscape has done a refinement of their excellent frequent network map for San Francisco, one that highlights the basic structure of the network that's useful for impatient people at all times of day. You can download the full GIF and or PDF here. A slice:
But again, I can nitpick usefully only because it's a really great map!
... so long as you find beauty in anything that conveys a vast amount of content in the least possible space, or with the least possible complexity.
Perhaps this is a distinctly Zen sense of beauty, but it's also close to what mathematicians and scientists often mean by elegance.
If you know San Francisco, you know where Geary Blvd. is and you probably have a sense that the VA Hospital is out toward the west end of it somewhere. So this sign tells you a surprisingly complete story about what this bus does. This makes it useful not just as information but also as gentle passive advertising. Anyone can notice this sign out of the corner of their eye, and pick up a bit of information about the transit system ("there's a bus heading out Geary from here ... good to know ...")
For decades, San Francisco and Portland have used this simple style for all of their signage. I discussed how it works in Portland here. Even back in transit's "age of vinyl," San Francisco used separate roller signs for name and destination, so that they could present the same information in the same pattern consistently. (Photos were also blurrier back then!)
Many other cities, including Sydney and Seattle, habitually turn it upside down, so on the 38 above they might have said "38 VA HOSPITAL via Geary." A Sydney sign might read "380 DOVER BCH via Oxford St." I find that less intuitive, because the path the bus follows is usually more useful than the final destination in determining if the service is useful to you. Still, it's understandable in Sydney where street names change so frequently that it's hard to associate bus routes with them, as "38 GEARY" does.
But this post is actually an information request. Have you seen bus exterior signs that convey a lot of information briefly in an interesting way, either examples of the above or of other ideas? If so, please link or send them to me. I'm collecting them for a project.
Meanwhile, for a more literary perspective on bus signage, see here!
The park was developed from farmland by Masud Mehran's Sunset Development Corporation in 1978 on the belief that San Francisco real estate would soon become expensive and companies would need cheaper space for their administrative services. His grandson, Alexander Mehran, describes the transit program as "a necessity that developed into a whole different animal." When the park started, it was simply too far from anywhere. "We were getting crushed by people going to work in Walnut Creek and Dublin," where the BART stations are. As a result, the ranch bought a fleet of buses and worked with the city and county transit agencies to subsidize both bus routes and bus passes for workers. There are now 13 different bus routes running to the park, and the connections to BART and various local train and express bus services are coordinated. On its website, the Ranch now pitches its transit program as a competitive advantage.
The most important word in that paragraph, of course, is subsidize. Suburban business parks are expensive, per customer, for transit to serve, so a suburban employer can't expect attractive or useful service simply by demanding it.
The second most important word is cheaper, which in the suburban context is sometimes an illusion. Bishop Ranch exists because it was perceived as a cheaper location for business. It is, but partly because land value follows access. The cheapest site will usually be the one with the worst transportation problems, and if a business chooses the site solely on those grounds, they're transferring the hidden cost of transportation onto their employees, their customers, and the transit agency. Employees can quit, customers can go elsewhere, and increasingly, transit agencies, too, are pushing back against serving these cheap-because-inaccessible sites, by suggesting that employers take responsibility for some of the cost burden created by their choice of location.
Finally, it's worth noting that Bishop Ranch is a fairly intense business park, with many multi-story buildings. Effectively it was a single-use new town of considerable density, so while the location was difficult for transit, transit agencies still had a ridership motive in serving it. If it were being built today, I hope Bishop Ranch would be mixed-use, with some residences mixed in, and also located with greater care in relation to existing and potential transit corridors, on the "Be on the Way" principle. Still, for being what it is, Bishop Ranch deserves a lot of credit for taking responsiblity for the transit consequences of its site, and investing in services to help overcome those barriers.
San Francisco's Bay Area Rapid Transit system (BART) is, let's be frank, extremely grey. Most of its above-ground stations feature vast expanses of exposed concrete, true to the prevailing modernism of the age. (Most of the system was designed in the 1960s.)
At stations like MacArthur, where the grey station infrastructure interacts with the surround grey ramps of the freeways, one can wonder if the original BART planners were so obsessed with competing with freeways that they deliberately chose freeway-like lines and colors, especially where real freeways were nearby. This, of course, would be competition by resemblence rather than by differentiation. At one stage, that probably made sense.
And yes, cool grey can be beautiful, but only if there's color to throw it into relief. Modernism sometimes drew encouragement from the coolness of classical Greek and Roman architecture, but of course the ancient world seems colorless to us only because paints, fabrics, and other vehicles of color don't survive the centuries.
So it was fun to open my mail this morning and find this painting by Alfred Twu, reimagining the freeway-dominated landscape of MacArthur BART station with a more tropical sense of color. Why must we go to Germany to see bright colors and strong choices in design?
UPDATE: I can't resist highlighting a comment from jfruh:
I always think that BART is what someone in 1969 thought the future was going to look like.
If you're too young to remember 1969, I strongly recommend reviewing Stanley Kubrick's great film 2001: A Space Odyssey (1970). When I rode BART for the first time in 1976, I felt like I had arrived in the world of that film.
Emily Badger has a useful article on casual carpools, though it would be a little more useful if she -- or her editors at Miller McCune -- didn't keep implying that public transit is somehow the enemy.
Casual carpooling -- or "slugging" as some of its partisans like to call it -- is a perfectly rational response to very congested freeways with High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes. At informal queues, usually located near an onramp, motorists who want to use the HOV lanes meet up with other commuters who want to ride the lanes as passengers. These passengers fill the empty seats in the motorist's car so that they can all travel in the HOV lane. The phenomenon appears to happen where and when an HOV lane offers quite dramatic travel time savings, as it does on certain Washington DC freeways and on the San Francisco Bay Bridge. It happens only in intensive commute periods, because that's when the HOV lane's advantage is substantial.
For many, it's fun to think of casual carpooling as some sort of revolt against conventional transit. The term slugging, Badger explains, arose as an insult uttered by "bitter bus drivers" who saw their waiting passengers disappearing into private cars. Miller McCune's headline describes slugging as "the people's transit," as though conventional transit is something else.
In fact, casual carpooling or "slugging" is largely compatible with conventional transit. Really, the two are mutually beneficial. The casual carpool markets in San Francisco and Washington are both parallel to rapid transit lines, but the trains are still full. As for competition with peak bus services, the long one-way commuter bus run is one of the most expensive services a transit agency can operate. Often, each bus can be used for only one run during each peak, so all the costs of owning and maintaining the bus must be justified by a single trip. Drivers for these peak buses are also expensive, because there are costs associated with the short shifts that peak-only service requires, and because drivers must usually be paid to get back to where the shift began before clocking out.
Long commuter bus runs can still make sense, but they are very expensive compared to conventional two-way, all-day transit. If casual carpooling reduces the demand for them, the effect on transit is to flatten the overall peak that transit has to serve, increasing its potential cost-effectiveness and improving the utilization of fleet. It's especially helpful on the AM peak, which is usually the sharper of the two.
So slug away, if you need to feel that you're attacking something. I prefer to call it a casual carpool, because that term describes what it really is. And I see no reason not to welcome them. In fact, when new HOV lanes are developed, the casual carpool phenomenon should be planned for, both by ensuring that there are safe and logical pickup points and also by counting casual carpool trips in the mobility benefits of the lane.
Of course, such planning would contradict the libertarian fantasy -- heavily stressed in the Miller McCune piece -- that casual carpooling is a "government-free" form of spontaneous social organization, a kind of Tahrir Square for the cul-de-sac set. In fact, "slugging" is a freely chosen response to the design of the government-funded transport infrastructure -- just like everybody else's commute.
A short draft chapter from the book, overlapping the content of this recent post but with an extended BART example that I hope readers will enjoy and have comments on.
Figure 1. Lower Mississippi River System, Drawn as a Transit Map (Daniel Huffman)
It’s a fun idea, but it also points to an important insight. If you travel upriver by boat, you expect the river to get smaller and smaller. Every time you reach a branching point, the volume of water in the two rivers in front of you is the same as the volume in the river behind you. If you keep going, you’ll eventually reach a river that’s too small for your boat. Transit is like that too, because branching always divides frequency.
This is one of those too-obvious points that’s easy to forget in the heat of a transit debate. For example, in 2003, the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system opened a new extension to San Francisco International Airport (SFO) and also to Millbrae, an important connection point with the Caltrain commuter rail system. The basic extension, southward from San Francisco, looks like the top image in Figure 2.
It’s a triangle, with tracks from San Francisco to both SFO and Millbrae, and also direct tracks between Millbrae and SFO.
If you’re unconsciously thinking like a motorist, looking at this as though it were a highway map, it looks fine. All the points on the map are directly connected all the others. But transit can’t run all these connections at the same high frequency, because of the effect of branching. The actual pattern of service will have to be one of images beneath it. In these images, line-width represents frequency.
Figure 2. BART San Francisco Airport (SFO) Terminus
For example, suppose you want service every 10 minutes to both SFO and Millbrae, but you can only afford 10 minute frequency on the line through San Bruno and on to San Francisco. You have to run one of the two ‘sequential’ options in the upper left of Figure 2, either run all service to Millbrae via SFO, or all service to SFO via Millbrae. Either SFO passengers or Millbrae passengers are going to hate you.
Alternatively, we could branch the service at San Bruno, sending half of it to SFO and half of it to Millbrae. But the branching will cut our frequency. If we can only afford 10 minute frequency through San Bruno, then we’ll end up with 20 minute frequency at SFO and at Millbrae.
Finally, we can run everything every 10 minutes by forcing a connection. One side of the loop would have a shuttle train, while the other would have through service.
There is one other option, though it’s not available for BART. You could split the train in half, and send the front half on one branch and the rear half on the other. This is very tricky; it requires a driver in position ready to take half of the train when it arrives. It’s also hard to separate a train without at least a minute or two of delay, at least for the rear half of the divided train.
To sum up, we should suspicious whenever we see a branch drawn as though one line can effortlessly divide into two equal lines. Often, such a branch will be called an extension, a very slightly misleading word because it suggests that an existing, known quantity of service is being extended. In fact, a branch always means one of three things. Either
Geometrically, it has to mean one of those things, and it may not be the one you prefer. So before you decide whether the service is useful to you, or whether you support a proposed transit project whose map looks like this, you may want to ask which of those it is.
[i] A collection of these spanning most of the US’s major river systems is at http://somethingaboutmaps.wordpress.com/river-maps/
The planning professions work in a grey zone between expertise and activism, and managing these competing impulses is one of our hardest tasks.
As a transit planning consultant, I don't worry much about being perceived as an advocate of transit in general. Experts in any field are expected to believe in its importance. But I do try to keep a little distance between my knowledge about transit and the impulse to say "You should do this." A good consultant must know how to marry his own knowledge to his client's values, which may lead him to make different recommendations than he would do as a citizen, expressing his own values.
Often, I use this blog and its comments to refine my own thinking about transit in the abstract. This is part of how I cultivate my own expertise, but it is easy to mistake what I say for activism. When I say, for example, that some of the widespread claims about the superiority of rail over buses are cultural feedback effects, I'm not thinking like an activist or advocate; I'm thinking theoretically, like a philosopher. To me, this is a crucial skill for a consultant who's going to have to marry his client's values with his own expertise.
Philosophical or scientific training attunes you to the difference between prescription (telling people what they should do) and description (describing reality as it appears to be). In their purest form, prescription is the job of ethics, while description the job of science and metaphysics. A great deal of human speech, especially political speech, is a mixture of description and prescription, often one pretending to be the other.
In the planning world, prescription is the job of citizens, leaders, and advocates, while description is the work of professional experts like me. Obviously, this has to be a conversation. The expert has to ask the community to clarify its values based on the actual tradeoffs presented by reality, and the community has to respond. And as that goes on, both sides need to be clear about their roles, and respect the role of the other.
Partly because of my science and philosophy training, I tend to police the prescription-description boundary in my own thinking, and dwell in the space of pure description more than many people do -- certainly more than most activists do. A lot of regular readers of HT share that training and that inclination, and some don't.
For a critique of the futility of living your whole life in this descriptive mode, watching and describing the world but never doing anything, see Shakespeare's Hamlet. But the opposite is also futile. An ethical system devoid of curiosity about objective reality devolves into pure egotism, such as that of the tyrants currently falling across the Middle East. Tyrants -- whether they lead a nation or an office clique -- are people who sift reality and see only what suits their ethical narrative (which, at that point, is really an egotistical narrative) and who forge echo chambers of people who help each other do that. At the core of the tyrant's stance is a childlike egotistical wail: "Why doesn't everyone do as I say? I see so clearly what needs to be done!"
And yes, everyone has an inner tyrant, including me. I try to describe that tendency in myself, so that while it will always be in the room of my mind it's not usually able to set the room on fire. In fact, that's exactly why I'm so careful about not letting my descriptive thinking turn too quickly into prescriptions.
Streetcars, for example. Nowhere in this blog have I said that cities shouldn't build streetcars if they are sure that they want streetcars. Some streetcar advocates hear me saying that because they are dividing the world into pro-streetcar and anti-streetcar camps, and I've said things about streetcars that don't sound like enthusiastic advocacy. I've made some descriptive observations about problems raised by the American streetcar revival movement, and I've also noticed situations in which streetcars are inferior to buses in their ability to actually get you where you're going, like this one:
I would like people to know about these issues so that they make better decisions about what to advocate and why. That doesn't mean I want them to decide not to build streetcars, but it may mean, for example, that in deciding whether to support a streetcar, you might need to care about whether it will be in mixed traffic. It may also mean being very clear, when you're advocating a streetcar, that you're not getting anything faster or more reliable than a bus can be. Again, I say this not because I think cities should or shouldn't be building streetcars, but because you shouldn't be deluded about what you're buying, and what purposes it will really serve.
I have vivid memories of San Francisco Transportation Authority meetings in the early 1990s when the Third Street light rail was under debate. Activists from the neighborhood had turned out in droves to support the line, but when you actually listened to their testimony, some were talking about "we need rapid transit," while others were saying "we need rail to stop in every block where it will strengthen our businesses." I knew, as an expert, that while this whole crowd appeared to be on the same side of the issue at hand, half of them were not going to get what they thought they were advocating. They were not going to get a project that served their values.
I may also point out that if you think purely about "extending your rail network" as though your bus network is irrelevant, you can do serious damage to your existing transit system. For example, in a high-frequency grid, if you break one line of the grid into three consecutive pieces because you want rail in the middle but buses on the extremeties, you may suddenly force many new connections to a degree that could quite possibly will reduce the overall level of mobility in the city. That thought is relevant, for example, to several cities' streetcar plans, and to the Crenshaw light rail line in Los Angeles, and to the Gold Coast light rail line (at least its first phase) in Australia.
And yet, sometimes I do sound like an advocate -- about transit in general, about protecting transit from traffic, and about congestion pricing. Am I just falling off the wagon when I say those things?
Well, all scientists (by which I mean broadly "people who try to describe without prescribing") have this problem. Sometimes the scientific work of description discovers that something needs to be done if we want to survive and prosper: Banning DDT, addressing carbon emissions, correcting perverse pricing signals, even building a transit line. If you've followed any of the conversation around climate change, you know how uncomfortable trained scientists can be when they're required to speak prescriptively. Their credibility (not just to their profession but also to themselves) has depended precisely on not doing that. It's like telling a recovering alcoholic that after all the disciplined work of recovery he's done, the future of humanity now requires that he start drinking again, just a little.
All I can say is that I feel that discomfort and try to manage it, by marking, as clearly as I can, when I'm prescribing and when I'm describing. And there are also issues (like climate change) where, quite frankly, practically all experts seem to know what needs to be done to achieve the outcomes that everyone seems to want. I feel that way about congestion pricing. It's just not that hard to explain, to a reasonable person who's familiar with the idea of supply and demand, that as a motorist you are going to pay for scarce road space in either time or money, and that it's not unreasonable for some people to choose to spend money to save time.
I do what I can to distinguish between description and prescription when I'm writing. But frankly, we all need to do the same work when listening. If your first contact with transit politics is in the context of a fight about whether or not to build a particular rail line, you're going to hear prescriptive voices on both sides, citing data that's been selected to match their point of view. You're also going to hear descriptive voices treated as prescriptive -- which is how some streetcar advocates perceive my comments about streetcars. One of the most basic disciplines that you can cultivate, as an advocate or leader, is to try to hear descriptive information as descriptive. This may require you to consciously suppress or bracket the emotional reaction you have, as an advocate, when you first hear it.
Really, none of what I've written about streetcars is about streetcars, except insofar as the American streetcar revival movement is a excellent example of a descriptive point that seems important to me. The point is that "it's possible to spend a lot of money on transit lines that don't improve anyone's mobility." I'm not saying you shouldn't do that. I am saying that before you that, you should understand this point, so that you're sure that the line you support does what you want it to do.
That's what responsible experts do: they help you implement your values.