Jarrett Walker’s Human Transit and Peninsula Transit dilemmas

Recently I read Jarrett Walker’s excellent new book Human Transit, which encapsulates the ideas that Walker shares on his transit planning blog. The book clearly frames the decisions that shape public transit systems, as well as some of the common misconceptions that mis-shape public transit.

The book sheds light on some of the dilemmas that afflict the transit system in our area, which doesn’t work much like a system.

1) Frequency is Freedom. When the media describes Caltrain electrification, they often describe the benefit as “faster service.” They leave out improved frequency to more stations. Jarrett Walker explains that media – and decision-makers – who are more familiar with automobiles often over-estimate the benefit of travel speed for transit systems. When you drive a car and can leave any time, the improvement that means the most to you is greater speed. But if you take transit that comes once an hour, the biggest improvement you need is greater frequency.

Speed isn’t irrelevant. When Caltrain added the “Baby Bullet” that made the train more competitive with driving, ridership went up overall. In San Francisco, Muni’s big problem really is speed – Muni travels an average of 8mph, slower than an ordinary bicyclist.

When people tout the benefits of BART, they describe it as “convenient” or even “fast”. But the BART trains aren’t particularly speedy – they are frequent. They arrive every 5-20 minutes, depending on the station and time of day. A rider can take the train with little or no advanced planning, and use transit most of the time.

Walker has popularized “Frequent Network maps that highlight, for riders and agencies, which parts of the transit network offer frequent service, and therefore useful service.

frequent network map

2) Ridership or coverage? The way that Walker frames this dilemma sheds light on the perennial problems of Caltrain and SamTrans.

Walker explains that a transit service needs to decide how to balance goals for ridership, and for coverage. To optimize for ridership, a service identifies where large numbers of people start and where they go, and designs routes that connects most people with their destinations. To optimize for coverage, a transit service attempts to serve as much of the geographic area, as possible, and to space stops as close together as possible.

Optimizing for a coverage goal can provide service to people who have no other travel choices. But the resulting service will be very slow and roundabout, uncompetitive for people who have other choices, and a burden for people whose time could be used with family or work.

Optimizing for ridership will have the best direct financial return (serving the most passengers per service/hour). Where there is high peak use, a plan to optimize ridership might provide service only at the height of rush hour. This type of service doesn’t address equity goals. It also may not maximize the larger economic benefits of transit, where people choose to live and work, and locate their businesses in areas with convenient transit.

With the Baby Bullet and its peak-centric service, Caltrain is oriented more toward a “ridership” goal.

With its service for schoolkids, elderly riders, and frequent stops in urban locations, and service to suburban locations, SamTrans is oriented toward a “coverage” goal. But since it is hemorrhaging cash, and expected to be bankrupt in 2015, this goal is clearly unsustainable.

What is the most frustrating is that Caltrain and SamTrans are not seen as parts of a single transit system helping riders get from point A to point B. Instead, they are seen as high end and low end products in a product line – a Cadillac and a Geo Metro.

Which raises another issue:

3) Connections or Complexity. Conventional wisdom holds that “riders won’t transfer”, and therefore transit services are designed to have convoluted and inefficient routes, which are not time-efficient for riders or cost-efficient for agencies.

Actually, experience around the world shows that riders will transfer if the schedule and stations are designed properly. IF – you can walk across a platform onto a waiting train or bus, and quickly head toward your destination, if you can transfer without financial penalty, if you can easily find directions from Point A to Point B without hunting among multiple maps and websites – then a transfer is pretty painless and a trip can be useful. A system designed with a grid is more efficient at getting people from origin to destination than a system.

transit grid

Unfortunately, because of the Bay Area’s fragmented transit system, we often do not have good transfers. Connect time isn’t optimized, and riders need to pay a premium because they are using different brands.

The MTC’s Transit Sustainability Project, designed to analyze and improve the efficiency of Bay Area transit, looks only at the point-to-point efficiency of individual major lines. The effectiveness of feeder service to support the first and last miles to and from the trunk service is not considered. It’s like looking at the arteries and veins of a circulation system without the capillaries that feed digits and organs.

In order to improve the connectivity of the system, the Bay Area doesn’t need to consolidate into One Big Transit Agency. There are several metro areas in Europe that have many cities, similar to the Bay Area. They have different local agencies, but a single coordinating agency that consolidates fares, schedules, and marketing across all of the agencies.

Walker doesn’t have pre-packaged answers for every transit problem. Instead, he lays out clear principles of transit system design that can be used to help jurisdictions make better decisions.

I highly recommend the book to anyone who is concerned about the ways that our transit system underperforms, and ways to make improvements.

2 thoughts on “Jarrett Walker’s Human Transit and Peninsula Transit dilemmas”

  1. I understand what you (and Walker) are saying about a ridership vs. coverage focus. And I think Caltrain should be ridership-oriented and Samtrans, as a service of last resort, should be coverage-oriented in order to allow freedom of movement in the entire County.

    But I disagree in that I don’t think SamTrans is REALLY focused on a coverage basis. The huge cuts over the past several years have definitely moved SamTrans toward a ridership instead of covership basis, with emphasis on ECR corridor service instead of connecting/east-west lines. It would be nice — as you said — if Caltrain and SamTrans were thought of as a single system (hopefully with an integrated fare structure). Then, whenever someone suggested Caltrain (or even BART in the North County) as an alternate service for north-south travel, it would be reasonable. But telling a low-income person to take that Menlo Park-San Bruno trip on Caltrain (cost $6.75 each way) instead of SamTrans ($2) just doesn’t fly.

    That’s why, if push come to shove, SamTrans SHOULD stop contributing to Caltrain and concentrate on buses. Caltrain already has 51% farebox recovery. Let’s bump that up and take less from Muni, VTA and SamTrans.

  2. Thinking about buses as a low-end product doesn’t make any sense. Google, Facebook and other big employers use private buses to transport employees from San Francisco to Silicon Valley. The buses makes sense because they pick employees up at neighborhood stops, which a train can’t do.

    By thinking about buses as a low end product, SamTrans may be losing opportunities to serve a higher end market, and our region is losing out on the ability to serve smaller companies (since the Google and Facebook shuttles are private, and don’t serve smaller employers)

    One of the points that Walker makes is that people focus too much on technology rather than on what service the technology can provide. For example, the reason buses are slow is that they get stuck in car traffic. A BRT system, with dedicated right of way and signal pre-emption can be fairly speedy.

    Rather than thinking about a bus as a low end product, we should think about ways to make buses a useful part of the system by providing distinctive service, and by connecting to other parts of the system.

    Some of SamTrans’ most successful lines are the ones that connect to BART and Caltrain. In that case they are acting as a system.

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