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Transit Stop Dispersion

SORTA bus stop dispersion histogram

This is a histogram showing the distance from every stop on every line in each direction to it’s nearest neighbor on the same line in the same direction. That’s the complicated way of saying: How far is every bus stop from it’s nearest neighbor?

Some basic stats:
Minimum = 56 feet
Maximum = 66,125 feet (12.52 miles)
Mean = 589 feet
Median = 476 feet

That massive 12-mile outlier is the 82X, which seems to have only one stop at it’s terminus in Eastgate after picking people up downtown. The next largest value is 8,484 feet for a pair of stops on the 30X.

I think it would be interesting to see how this distribution compares to TANK and some agencies in other cities…though that analysis will have to wait until after exam week. Unless anyone cares to get a head start on me! It wouldn’t be hard to do using GTFS data and the following code.


-- how far away is the nearest stop in this line and direction?
WITH stop_matrix AS (
    a.stop_id AS s1,
    b.stop_id AS s2,
    a.the_geom <-> b.the_geom AS dist -- geometry unit is feet(EPSG:3735)
    stops_table AS a,
    stops_table AS b
  WHERE a.line = b.line AND a.direction = b.direction ),
  MIN(dist) AS mindist
FROM stop_matrix
WHERE s1 != s2 -- or else we'll get zeros
GROUP BY s1, line, direction ;  -- aggregate at the level of stops
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Some things from the before-times

I just yesterday met this wonderful guy, Dave Walters, from the Cincinnati Transit Historical Association. He’s been scanning old documents related to transit in Cincinnati, and he just shared several gigs of his work so far with me. Schedules dating back to the 20′s and 30′s, maps, planning documents…so much incredibly interesting stuff…

I asked if he’d mind if I hosted the documents online for y’all to peruse and he said he’d have to check with the CTHA first…but in the meantime, I can post a few teasers: some random pretty maps from the 1948 Cincinnati master plan.

1948 - Cincinnati Public Transit Plan pg 19

1948 - Cincinnati Public Transit Plan pg 61

1948 - Cincinnati Public Transit Plan pg 9

And here’s what route #1 looked like in 1964:

Cincinnati Route 1 in 1964

Dave, you have my thanks, and for the rest of you, hopefully you can look forward to seeing a lot more of this stuff soon! It’s amazing to see how much and how little some things have changed in the last 80+ years. Hopefully I’ll also be able to pull some useful data out of the maps and schedules (beside just drooling over the thoughtful pre-GIS cartography).

Also, I’m planning to attend the next meeting of the CTHA, if anyone wants to join me and (make me) not feel like the only new person there. It’s Saturday May 17th, 7:30pm at the Queensgate Garage. Come on out!

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The ‘Leader in Operational Efficiency’

The UC Economics Center, a business that seems to produce only favourable ‘economic impact’ studies for its clients, recently reported1, after being paid an unknown amount by SORTA itself, that SORTA is the ‘leader in operational efficiency’ among a group of peer cities.

The actual report

Slideshow version of the report

I heard about this a while ago from several different news-sources, though only recently got around to finding it and reading the actual report2. Curiously, none of the news sources I found actually linked to the paper itself, though i did find it just now on SORTA’s website.

My nutshell take-away is this: SORTA is the ‘most efficient’ among the (only) 12 cities studied entirely because of it’s disproportionate reliance on fare revenue as a source of operating money. They actually phrased one aspect of this measure in the executive summary as “fare revenue earned per operating expense”, which is at best an awkward way to say something very simple, or at worst, distinctly misleading about the agency’s raison d’etre.

The study itself, and a couple of the articles that wrote about it did draw attention to this odd definition of ‘efficiency’, though I want to reemphasize it here and draw further notice to the conclusion the report draws based on this unusual metric. The paper says in conclusion to the executive summary:

…Metro’s demonstrated operational efficiency should position it favourably to receive and efficiently manage additional funds. …

Well, this is really like saying a starving person is well positioned to receive food, that an anorexic is being efficient with her calories and thereby deserves more. But it also raises the question: well-positioned with who?

I think it’s reasonable to presume we might first think of the federal government since this study compares major US cities, but it never mentions capital funding at all and the feds simply aren’t in the business of giving operating funds to local agencies. That leaves us with state and local sources of funding, but aren’t these the same people who’ve been starving the agency to the point where it’s the ‘most efficient’ in the region? The report indicates that PA is much more generous with its city’s transit agencies, but somehow I doubt we’ll convince them that we’re well positioned to manage funds from the state of Pennsylvania.

Show 2 footnotes

  1. Dear god, this was half a year ago…I’m going to be dead before I know it!
  2. My thanks to Erika Fiola for leaving me her printed copy. My eyes would never have lasted through the PDF version.

Ice Cream for Bike Maps

Friends, supporters, people who find my work mildly interesting,
Please join me this Sunday (Apr 13, 2014), 3-5pm at Rhinegeist in OTR for Cincy Sundaes where I’ll be pitching my Cincinnati Bike Map project. The  basic idea is this:

  1. Come to the event
  2. Pay $5 for an ice cream sundae
  3. Listen to me and three other people talk about our projects for a few minutes while you eat
  4. Vote for your favourite project
  5. That project gets all the money from the sundae sales, plus a match.

This marks the start of my fundraising efforts for the Cincinnati Bike map, a project I haven’t mentioned much here in a while, but which I’ve been working on intensely for the last few months. Below is a snippet from the legend just to whet your interest.


bike map legend

I’ll leave a detailed description of the project for another time(I’m writing a paper on it now), but I hope you’ll join me this Sunday to find out more and support the project!


Reactionary Incrementalism

I spend a lot of time thinking about transit in Cincinnati as you might imagine, and it’s of interest to me to have an idea what, generally, it is that I’m trying to do as regards transit. What are my goals?

I think I’ve got it down to a simple statement now,  my understanding of the transit problem of Cincinnati, my essential ‘position’, but I’ve been slow to write it because what I keep coming back to … almost doesn’t need to be written; it seems too obvious to bother with, a reaction to a strawman. I’m bored with it before I’ve even spoken: incremental changes are better than radical replannings that ignore what’s already there. We need big changes to come incrementally. I think Jane Jacobs’ ghost might give me a high-five tired smile at this point and we could carry on our atemporal conversation about what a misguided jerk Robert Moses was. City Beautiful? Ha! But this critique of master-planning is stale by 60 years. Of course radical social change rarely works as expected. We know this. We planners are taught it in school. We’ve all seen the wreckage of Pruitt Igo, and with the benefit of hindsight mused at what St. Louis might have been, or Cincinnati with an intact West Side, the States with a moderated federal highway program.

Let’s say it again and clearly: The historically, empirically established understanding of the planning community, at least at it’s leading edges, on most issues, is now, in defiant opposition to the master-planners of the early 20th, that clear-cutting plans, plans of total envisioning fail like communism did; we simply can’t fully imagine a new world order; we’d better, with recognition of our fallibility, stick close to what we have, testing our changes, not failing to have big ideas, but refusing to try them all at once, with other people’s lives.

“Something isn’t working in the city? Let’s trash the whole thing and build a new system!”

People keep pulling me to write my moderating scold with what increasingly seem to me like comical plans for a transit system they rarely acknowledge. I finally got a chance to look at that section in the Enquirer that brought me to reflect on these issues again.

Cincinnati Enquirer March 4th

The piece was framed in a way that begged big plans, and everyone seems to have unquestioningly obliged. They responded with maps that give no indication that something might already exist in this city, each of them boldly filling blank spaces like architects with their confident assertion of hip, coloured silhouettes, a sketch in place of, on top of a trembling grey reality. (Speaking of grey reality by the way, do you notice anything each of these maps has in common?)

I don’t want you to read this plainly as a criticism of the Enquirer, or perhaps even of the contributors, but rather as a distinction between our perspectives. I think they’ve correctly tapped the volksgeist, their readers, the interests of those with time to be interested, and their goals are purposefully more populist than mine. Perhaps better: mine are purposefully less populist than most. ‘People’ seem to be starved for radical change in this city’s transit. People don’t understand how we got to the point we’re at. People only know who they know and most of those people don’t know ‘the bus’, the system as it actually is because so few people use it any more. To their minds, to their experiences, we’re really starting from scratch here. ‘What we need is a real transit system!‘ the people and their friends shout over the transit system’s head. And this is a deeply compelling message to many. So many with bigger goals than mine, bigger goals so painfully constricted, are willing to deliver.

But should we, like every generation, react so hard against our inheritance? Might we better take the time to understand the position we’re in, or trust to those who do already, and approach our big goal slowly, without taking our eyes off it, first considering our trajectory and then altering course?

The way I’ve framed this, mine probably sounds like a perfectly reasonable approach, so who would be opposed to it and why am I reacting against them? These can’t be simple demagogues. Their position is more considered, if subjective and contingent.

We’re dealing here with, failing to deal as a city with, the divide between social service and ‘choice‘ conceptions of transit’s main purpose. TANK runs their system almost entirely on the social service model and is comfortable with this, but SORTA is torn because Cincinnati is torn. Still, SORTA is mostly on the social service model, enough that the more extreme alienated choicers don’t see any place for their own goals there.

Proposed now by the choicers is a system built newly to their ends, defined by relation to a handful of major US cities to whose status they aspire, whose rails they see plain as day, whose buses they mostly miss, and whose historical contingencies they don’t fully understand.

In another world, certainly not in the same conversation, the servers advocate for incremental change, generally accepting as given a steady or shrinking pot of resources. They seek to draw these out into finer and finer strands, weaving a web through which few will fall completely1. This is TANK’s political constituency and it’s most of SORTA’s. Rather than working for change in the constituency, the choicers2 seem to be splitting off altogether. This happened very clearly with the streetcar project, conceived by the city, funded through a separate mechanism, and clearly operating under a different set of rules. And there are calls to expand it, to build more onto it, to add more to these blank-map city plans. It’s clear in many conversations that transit advocates are not talking about the same system any more. The sane Union.

Where is our Lincoln?

TANK is not engaging as a leader3, and SORTA is only leading as much as they’re blowing in the wind.

SORTA’s BRT plans seem to me like an emancipation proclamation: a bold idea to stir support, an idea which they currently have no power to enforce, and one that explicitly broadens their platform in an attempt to diffuse potential attacks. It’s a ‘bold vision’ laid falsely on bare ground for the choicers, a reasonable redoubling on established corridors for the incrementalist planners concerned with serving more than the politically momentous, and for the servers: it does nothing to shake their web.

Why should I be unhappy with such a compromise? Because it splits the baby4 and fails to unite us, to challenge the claims of the politicians that a ‘new system’ is needed or to moderate the claims of the servers. SORTA’s plan then fails to challenge either group, leaving both of their ideas quite alone, which is, again, not in SORTA’s power to do. 5

If there is to be one united transit system, as I believe there should be, these conflicting ideas need both to be questioned and we need as a region to move from our false argument between choice and social-service toward a moderate position that appreciates both goals and plans for them, that estimates both demands and puts them in their places. “X amount of funding for coverage services, Y amount targeted to high-ridership ‘choice’ services, overlap in Z areas, and here’s how we’re measuring outcomes”.

The failure on SORTA’s part to reframe the discussion is, I think, why we keep seeing these radical plans bubble up from the ground, why I keep feeling the need to react to them.

Who will be our Lincoln? I haven’t the authority.

Show 5 footnotes

  1. And in which some will get stuck.
  2. Who I ought to point out are increasingly politically powerful.
  3. Politically, TANK is in a much more stable organization with clearly defined goals. They have county-level funding that seems to be steadily growing. Transit is primarily a social service and few people in Kentucky are demanding or proposing that they seriously pursue ridership goals. The smaller size of their budget, and the fact that their funding comes from a larger area also tends to insist that their services remain more scattered rather than concentrated as a ridership focus would demand.
  4. Two scheduled services running in the same corridor, one faster than the other will have structurally uncoordinated schedules. They can’t therefore build on each other to increase frequency in the corridor. For many purposes, the same service will be run twice with little additive effect, or at least much less than is possible. Also, the overall system becomes less legible with the addition of lines and distinctions between stops.
  5. I mean literally that they don’t have any reasonable expectation of seeing the operating funding needed for such a project in the near future. Rather, they MUST moderate conflicting demands because of their limited resources.

Increasing Fares, Decreasing Ridership

Cincinnati transit use vs funding comparison 1991 to 2012

I spent the day learning R‘s various graphics capabilities today and managed to pull together this little beauty1. I’m using it tomorrow in a panel discussion at the Mercantile Library. It’s hosted by the Enquirer and the topic is transit plans for the future or something like that. I think it should be pretty fun, though to be honest, I don’t quite know what to expect. I haven’t actually caught a glimpse of the paper that the discussion’s seminal article ran in, but I do know that a lot of the people I’ll be sitting next to will be pointing at maps of big thick lines running through an otherwise empty city. I’m hoping to use my tiny moment in the laser pointer to meekly emphasize the system that already exists and and how it’s been tripped up to the point where so many politicians seem to ignore it in their big transit plans.

The solution?

……..*drumroll* ………

Restore operating funding at least to the levels of the early 2000′s, drop fares back to pre-recession levels(adjusted for inflation), and focus on restoring service in the established transit corridors. Perhaps some minor capital improvements that help with efficiency goals, like faster farecards or real-time data should also be in the nearer offing.

Seems pretty reasonable to me, though I know it’s not as sexy as a mag-lev to CVG. If anyone’s interested in popping in, the panel discussion is 7:00pm to 8:30pm, Thursday March 13th in the Mercantile. I’m pretty sure they’re asking for RSVPs, but I’m not on Facepalm, so I can’t see the link.

Intelligent questions/comments are strongly appreciated if you’re able to make it!

EDIT: One additional statistic to drive the point home. Before 2009, for at least a couple years, UC/SORTA’s policy of letting UC students ride for free by simply showing their ID card produced about 90,000 monthly trips by UC students. At the time of the 2009 service cuts, this policy was replaced by a complicated and diminished subsidy program that required students to register and pay for a discounted farecard that needed to be replaced quarterly. UC students, who are counted by use of their farecards, now make about 23,000 monthly trips, a 75% reduction from just a few years ago.

Do we really need trains to ‘convince’ people to use transit? Or could we start more simply?

EDIT 2: … and TANK!


Just ignore the y scale; it’s all relative to 0.

Show 1 footnote

  1. Shut up. It’s beautiful…la la la la la… I can’t hear you.
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