Welcome back to Sunday reading. This week, I wanted to lead off with a couple of pieces about bus networks – what works and what doesn’t.
First, three transport analysts have published an important research paper on patronage outcomes from transfer-friendly networks: “How network structure can boost and shape the demand for bus transit“. From the abstract:
The Nova Xarxa in Barcelona was designed with a different paradigm. It was designed and deployed to cover the whole city on the belief that if a bus map is easy to understand, and has direct lines with frequent service and ubiquitous transfer points then the bus system would become more appealing, people would transfer more freely and become users of the network rather than its single lines. With this design paradigm, a city can be covered with fewer lines, which can be depicted on a simple map. The lines can in turn be economically populated with sufficient buses to deliver the high frequency required to encourage transfers. Could this work?
To answer this question and see whether there is truth in the beliefs underlying the new paradigm, this paper examines data from the first three deployment phases of the Nova Xarxa (from 2012 to 2015). It is found that the Nova Xarxa is already attracting more demand than the network it replaced. This attests to its appeal. Furthermore, this demand has increased disproportionately with the number of lines opened for service in each phase, revealing that some people are using the Nova Xarxa as a network. The paper further shows that this growth is underpinned by transfers — at the end of 2015, the percentage of trips that involved a transfer was approximately 26%, and it reached a maximum of 57% for line V7. These numbers should increase considerably (to 44% and 66%, respectively) once the Nova Xarxa is completed in 2018 and passengers have even more opportunities for transferring. The numbers disprove the conventional wisdom. They strongly suggest that transit providers can attract more demand by providing transfer-friendly networks that can be used as such and not as an inefficient aggregation of individual lines.
Too much massive, boxy construction with no setbacks or geeen space. Totally unlivable. pic.twitter.com/617qbYFPAl
— Matthew Yglesias (@mattyglesias) September 28, 2017
Second, Alon Levy has written a piece on four best practices for bus networks on the Greater Greater Washington blog. It’s all intuitive stuff – but surprisingly, it tends not to be implemented consistently. I found this recommendation particularly interesting:
4. Increase bus speed with off-board fare collection, dedicated bus lanes, and signal priority
Off-board fare collection, in which passengers generally purchase their tickets before they get on the bus, is one way of increasing bus speed. In German cities, for example, buses have off-board fare collection, with random fare inspections. Passengers who have valid monthly passes or transfers can board from any door; passengers who need to buy a ticket can board from the front and pay, but in practice those are a minority. This speeds up buses, since passengers can board more quickly.
In the United States, San Francisco Muni is to date the only American agency to have implemented this systemwide, gaining two percent speed with a two percent rise in passenger numbers, where normally rising passenger usage would lead to lower bus speed because of longer total boarding time. New York has implemented off-board fare collection on a few specially branded routes, with 10-15 percent speed gains.
This eyesore is badly out of context and doesn't match the surrounding neighborhood. pic.twitter.com/yVVlDciYm9
— Matthew Yglesias (@mattyglesias) September 27, 2017
A few weeks after the city of Detroit began charging riders a few bucks per ride on its brand-new downtown streetcar, ridership dropped 40 percent, according to the Detroit Free Press. Sadly, few observers were surprised.
“The streetcar doesn’t even connect directly to the city’s primary bus station,” remarked the transit consultant Yonah Freemark on Twitter. “It runs a total of 3 miles in a huge region. Set up to fail.”
The streetcar, dubbed the QLine, is carrying 3,000 riders per day, short of the projected 5,000 to 8,000 per day required to break even. Sure, it’s still early; the line opened in May. But a similar story is playing out across the country’s other 21st century streetcars: Pokey, infrequent, and generally disconnected from other transit, line after line keeps bottoming out.
Atlanta saw a 60 percent drop in ridership after its 1.3-mile line, which opened in 2014, started asking for $1 per go. The line is in the process of being transferred from the city’s authority to the metro’s transit agency, which may consider making it free again. But it’s been bedeviled by administrative and financial issues. Since it opened in September 2016, Cincinnati’s Bell Connector line has seen about two-thirds of the daily ridership consultants predicted. Salt Lake City’s Sugar House line has fared even worse, with just about one-third of the passengers originally projected. Even Seattle, for all of its other transit successes, is seeing about the same sorry share of original predictions.
Not all streetcars underperform: Since it opened in 2001, Portland’s successful streetcar network has managed to grow to 16 miles and 16,000 riders daily, a success story that clanged the bell for a streetcar resurgence across the U.S. downtowns. Kansas City’s streetcar has been drawing considerably more riders than critics surmised, and Washington, D.C.’s H Street streetcar isn’t doing so terribly—but rides on these lines are still free.
Overall, as critics have often pointed out, the record is pretty poor when these projects are judged as transit. Which might be the wrong frame. Actual transit riders aren’t well served by them, but developers and downtown business boosters tend to be pleased.
- Most of the figures that get quoted seem to be anecdotal or based on simply counting the quantity of development applications, without attempting to address any of the tricky issues around causality.
- Even if there is a measurable uplift in development in the streetcar catchment that can plausibly be attributed to the project, it’s not clear that this represents a net gain for society, or whether it’s simply shifting around development that would have happened anyway.
- Economic models suggest that the main reason why a transit project would lead to a net uplift in development (as opposed to shifting around development) is that it would improve accessibility and hence raise the economic productivity of a place.
However, if developers think streetcars are beneficial, then they should fund them without the need for public money, provided that this does not screw up the overall transport system.
On a separate note, Elle magazine (a fashion magazine?) has an interesting take on world politics: “what happens when men are photoshopped out of history“. You can watch the video, but be warned that the music is annoying. Or here’s a collection of compare-and-contrast images from the project.
On a separate note, the NZ Initiative’s new transport researcher, Sam Warburton, wrote an excellent piece for Interest.co.nz highlighting our godawful road safety trends:
So, what have we been getting for all the billions – over four of them – central government spends on transport each year?
Figure 1 shows fatalities of car occupants after accounting for how much people are driving.
Figure 1: Fatality rate of car occupants relative to 2013
The historical downward trend in fatalities has ended.
Deaths on our roads among car occupants appear to have been increasing since 2013. While the road toll naturally bounces around a bit, statistical tests confirm that this is not just natural variation.
This is not bad luck. Something worrying is happening.
It is particularly worrying given that improvements in vehicle technology should otherwise mean a continued fall in the road toll.
One out of every 40 people who died in 2015 was killed in a vehicle accident https://t.co/lQPhXQjxJA
— The Economist (@TheEconomist) September 30, 2017
It’s also worth taking a look at Michael Liebreich’s keynote speech at the recent Bloomberg New Energy Finance Summit. He unpicks some of the problems with forecasting, and the orthodoxy that develops behind forecasts. While it’s focused on energy supply and demand forecasts, much of it is relevant to transport:
There is now a new orthodoxy in energy and climate, which I summed up in my Summit keynote: in the world of 2040, one third of power will come from wind and solar, one third of vehicles will be electric, and the economy will be one third more energy-efficient than today.
However, there is much more to do. In too many areas the Orthodoxy Window is still tightly shut. For instance, the majority of people I meet still believe the following: the cost of managing intermittency is prohibitive; demand rebounds to eat all the benefits of energy efficiency; industrial processes are inevitably lumbering, inflexible and fossil-fuel powered; long-distance freight can only be carried by dense liquids; those lacking modern energy services would be better off waiting for a centralized grid, rather than using distributed solutions today; advanced biofuels will never work; the answer to every long-term question is hydrogen; self-driving cars will eat the world; England will never win another football World Cup.
Most likely none of those statements will prove true in the long term, except maybe the last one. Though even when it comes to soccer, we may be surprised. And how we need to be surprised! For the past three years, greenhouse gas emissions have been flat, despite a growing world economy. At most, the current orthodoxy – despite its renewable energy, electric vehicles and energy efficiency – will result in flat or gently declining emissions. As the science behind the Paris Agreement has clearly stated, to stay within 2 degrees Celsius of warming from pre-industrial levels, emissions need to reach net zero sometime this century. That is within the expected lifetime of our children.
London’s growth- both growth/decline outpace projections. Why not use wider set of growth scenarios (+ve,-ve)-> risk to planned capex/opex? pic.twitter.com/8kFpxTfZeh
— Jen McArthur (@jen_m_mcarthur) October 1, 2017
To close on a more whimsical note, the New Yorker’s Jia Tolentino delves into “the repressive authoritarian soul of Thomas the Tank Engine“:
…spend four minutes with “The Sad Story of Henry,” a segment from “Thomas & Friends” that aired on the second episode of the first season at PBS. (In the U.S., it was retitled “Come Out, Henry!”) It begins on a drizzly day in Sodor, the fictional island in the Irish Sea that serves as the show’s setting. Henry, the curmudgeonly train, is afraid to come out of his tunnel, because “the rain will ruin my lovely green paint and red stripes.” Then Sir Topham Hatt, the railway director, who is also known as the Fat Controller, arrives on the scene. (He looks like Monopoly’s Rich Uncle Pennybags but with eyes that have almost surely witnessed murder.) The Fat Controller orders the passengers to pull Henry out with a rope, but Henry won’t budge. They push him from the other direction, to no avail. (The Fat Controller declines to physically participate in this effort, citing “doctor’s orders.”) The passengers then tell Henry that it’s not raining; Henry, perhaps noticing that everyone still has their umbrellas out, refuses to move.
Realizing that the day’s workflow is irrevocably disrupted, Fat Controller decides that Henry must be punished—for life. “We shall take away your rails, and leave you here for always and always,” he tells Henry. As Henry’s face contorts into anguish and the background music toots a series of Oompa Loompa faux-glum flourishes, railway employees build a brick prison around Henry, leaving only half of his face visible. His train friends pass by: one snubs him, and another whistles hello. Henry has no steam left to whistle back. He spends his days alone, soot-streaked, wondering if he’ll ever be allowed to go back to work. The last line of the segment is the narrator saying, “I think he deserved his punishment, don’t you?” In the U.S. version, this voice-over is tweaked so that Henry’s fate seems temporary. But the original version is still on YouTube, and it’s comically bleak. As one commenter writes, “What moral lesson are kids supposed to learn from this? Do as you’re told or you will be entombed forever in the darkness to die?”
That’s it for now – have a good weekend!