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Is “free” parking possible?

People love free things. In my oddly skewed social circle, one of the things I hear that they love the most is ‘free parking”. Businesses want it for their customers, residents want it in front of their apartments, and many people will spend half an hour or more at a time circling the block looking for it.

But just what exactly are they looking for? What is it they want so bad?

The Free and Open Source Software(F/OSS) community seems to have noticed something about the English word ‘free‘ that transportation people haven’t yet quite grasped: that it has some very distinct and sometimes misleading meanings. F/OSS advocates have gone to extraordinary lengths to deal with the inadequacy of the word ‘free’ to communicate what it is that they’re trying to do. ‘Free software‘ is software that grants freedoms to it’s users and developers, such as the ability to see the source code, modify it, and to redistribute the program. The general public though often hears ‘free software’ and thinks of those awful AOL CDs that were everywhere ten years ago or of cheap software that can be downloaded at no cost. F/OSS advocates are neither cheapskates nor champions of the poor; they’re more akin to software libertarians. They’re concerned with freedom rather than free-ness, ‘libre‘(or liberty) rather than ‘gratis‘(lacking a price).

There’s a third meaning of ‘free’ that isn’t relevant to software at all, but that’s critically important to parking. Let’s put it this way: “Is the restroom free yet?” Clearly, our interlocutor doesn’t seek the restroom’s liberation nor probably do they expect they might be charged for it’s use. Free here can mean ‘available‘ when we’re talking about things with potentially limited access.

I know, I know. It’s gratis parking most people say they’re looking for. Free as in “free sample”. Just as with the word ‘free’ itself though, with ‘free parking’ three or more specific meanings twine inextricably around a central concept and each has an effect on the others. Is accessibility of much value if liberty is lacking? Is liberty meaningful if it costs a fortune? And, most relevantly, is gratis parking worth anything if none of it’s available?

For the last few months, the City of Cincinnati has been talking about eliminating all minimum parking regulations from the zoning code for Over-The-Rhine and Pendelton1. Basically, with the current regulations people are required to build a certain amount of parking on the same site as a building if they’re going to legally use the building. Some small, old buildings that have been in continuous use since before the law are exempted. The city has simply proposed to remove this requirement in OTR and Pendelton.

Concurrently, several community groups, myself among them, have been advocating various sorts of permit parking plans for their neighborhoods or the city as a whole.

Some people in both communities have been opposed to the deregulation proposal because of the negative effect it could have on the availability of gratis parking. Others have generally supported the plan because of the positive effects it would have on parking liberty and potentially, availability.2 Many people have supported the concept of a permit parking plan aimed at increasing availability to some or all people, but the details of any such plan have been contentious. Normal people have been at home watching TV and not giving a damn.

The whole discussion has made clear that people who care about parking issues in Cincinnati’s central neighborhoods are operating with two very different paradigms, and two very different understandings of which aspect of freedom is most important and for whom.

Those who see value in the City’s current minimum regulations value available, gratis parking as the highest good and are looking to match the almost limitless demand for unpriced spaces with actual spaces. There’s is a supply side solution to a problem that by their definition of it can’t really respond well to market forces. They view cars and parking as almost necessarily associated with people, and assume that people don’t want to pay anything at all for parking. Therefore if there are to be people, there must be ‘enough’ free or cheap parking. For them, for a developer to not provide parking is for that person to impose an externality on others who will have to pick up his slack. It’s generally an older crowd that feels this way.

Those who are looking to deregulate parking in OTR, Pendelton and perhaps eventually elsewhere value liberty highest, including a liberty from driving and from parking itself. A city that doesn’t mandate a certain type of transportation in all places is one that allows more liberty for it’s residents to decide which method they prefer. Not full liberty of course, but more of it. Perhaps on the balance the collectively chosen method or collection of methods will include more walking, bicycles and transit. This is generally a younger crowd.

Crossing both paradigms is the insistence that where there is parking, it should be available to people. That is to say, if a street has 30 spaces then all things being equal it’s better at any given time that only 28 of them are occupied than that 30 are. Post-Adam-Smith common sense tells those belonging to the later paradigm that one very logical way for us to achieve this goal is to put a price on those spaces that accurately reflects their value, letting people decide themselves who gets to use them just like we do for cabbage, cars, political speech, and most other saleable commodities. The other group, because of their insistence on the importance of unpriced parking doesn’t see this as an acceptable solution, so seeks to mandate a surplus that gluts the market thereby freeing spaces.

I say that at the end of the day there is no free lunch. Avoiding parking fees at the point of sale(that is, when you’re actually parking) just shifts the costs(and disincentives) to other people and places, including non-parkers like myself and the ~25% of Cincinnatians who don’t own cars. Most people would like the rest of society to subsidise the things they do…Truly, people really DO like free things. But they also like just as much getting to choose what they do and don’t pay for, the later category mostly including things for other people. Since all parking must be paid for at some point, I say let us live more frugally by having somewhat less of it as a result of us also having more liberty: more opportunity to choose another way of getting around. Gratis parking is in the big picture an impossibility, and so we should pursue the other aspects of ‘free’: availability and liberty.

Show 2 footnotes

  1. …and for a while Downtown, though that seems to have been dropped now for some reason
  2. I include in the second group the City’s planning staff and seemingly most of council since they made the initial request.
Comments: 7
Posted in: Definitions | Investments | Logic | Misconceptions | Priorities
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I’ve been hearing the word “multi-modal” thrown around a bit carelessly lately. As in “Cincinnati needs a multi-modal transportation system” or “people want to be able to choose from multiple modes of transit”. I think this line of thinking has in many cases overshot it’s original intent and gone to a place that’s slightly harmful to a reasonable conception of the best way to supply transportation.

But first, what was the original intent? Multi-modal means that there is more than one “mode”. A mode here is meant to mean a vehicle type, such that a list of modes might read:

“Multi-modal” seems to have started1 as a critical term addressing car culture…”I think the airport needs to be accessible by multiple modes” would mean that it’s being accessible by only car is unacceptably limited.

It seems to have grown legs in some circles though. I’m not sure anyone would admit to holding the position I’m about to define, but I’m definitely sensing the word being used in this way by quite a few people locally and nationally: “Multi-modal” is starting to be applied to transit systems alone such that “Cincinnati needs a multi-modal transit system” means that Cincinnati should provide more choices than buses to people using the transit system. It means that subways should be provided and perhaps also streetcars so as to improve “choice” and “provide more options”.

The analogy between the first definition and the second is subtle but disturbing. Cars and buses are different in kind while buses and streetcars are different in degree. In the first case, the car “mode” is owned exclusively by and fully directed by the user, while the bus is not. Streetcars and buses though are merely variations on a theme: the concept of public transit.

Streetcars and buses may be apples and oranges, but buses and cars are apples and…cars. The first are both fruit, different though they may superficially be.

Cars and bicycles are a closer analogy. We might even include walking in there. In any case, the traveler owns and controls the means fully. It’s not a shared vehicle with a set path, but one that can go any which way the “driver” likes. It might be useful to say that if we can provide access to bicycles, it would be good also to provide access by car and by foot as well. Whatever we’re talking about is likely accessible to one if the other.

But to say that if we can provide access by bus then it would be better to provide access by bus and subway and streetcar doesn’t quite hold up as well in our case. I’m willing to say that this IS true in the case of intercity travel where travelling by plane can be a major but quick pain, travelling by train a deliciously slow luxury, and by bus a happy medium. In these cases, the differences between the vehicles are exaggerated by time and distance such that they become a difference of kind. A trip across the country by train is so different from a trip by plane that in the terms of subjective experience it can’t quite be compared. I’ve made many friends and even had a fling(!)2 on a train, but I almost never speak to people on a plane.

When we’re looking at local trips though the difference is not so great. If we’re trying to get from Downtown to Clifton Heights, the longest it could possibly take is 20 minutes including waiting time. At this scale our primary interest is speed rather than comfort. We’d barely get the seat warm on a five minute ride.

At the local scale, the position that vehicle choice is somehow choice itself seems to deny other much more important aspects of functional transit like

The nature of the vehicle itself (and really the difference is minor between a bus and a streetcar) is a consideration to be taken into account when the ability to make a trip to the place you want to go at a reasonable cost and at the time you want is already taken for granted. The consideration of comfort is secondary to functionality. I can prove this with the example of roller-coasters. They’re tremendously fun(comfort) but utterly useless as transit(practicality). A roller-coaster, move you though it might, is just not transit. To say that we need a multi-modal transit system, with multi-modality as a goal or objective itself, is to put the cart before the horse. It’s like saying we need to buy a whole bunch of kitchen equipment before we have any idea what we’ll be cooking.

One last analogy before I go to bed:

A coral reef is diverse, and that diversity makes it strong and resilient and even beautiful. But not a single one of the millions of parts of that system came about for those reasons. Each organism exists in it’s glorious eccentricity for the incredibly simple purpose of living. Whatever form each takes was the most contingent for it’s simple purpose. We need not set out to make clown fish, but merely trust that they will arise to surprise us if we pursue our simple purpose: effective transportation.


Show 2 footnotes

  1. at least in the context I’m concerned with here. I think it may have originated in freight transportation to refer to ships, planes, trains and trucks, particularly as they move shipping containers that are transferable easily between modes. Anyone care to check that for me?
  2. Could I claim to be a member of the “meter high club“? The trip between Chicago and St. Louis is never so memorable as when someone walks by in the lounge car, turns back to tell you you have beautiful eyes and you proceed to talk intimately for the next 7 hours because you’ll never see each other again…sigh….oh Matthew.
Comments: 2
Posted in: Definitions | Priorities | Talking about Transit | Technology Choices
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‘The Streetcar’ – 3 – The role of transportation in economic development

This is the third post in an 8 part series on “The Streetcar”.

  1. Conceptual Flaws: civic boosters lead the charge
  2. Errors of Geometry: split one-ways are dumb
  3. The role of transportation in economic development
  4. Symbolic Transit
  5. On the back of branding
  6. Separate and Unequal: on therails of division
  7. Chicken or Egg: Shaping the future or following the past?
  8. A New and Highly Sarcastic Plan for Economic Development

Summing up the last couple of posts, I’ve said that The Streetcar was motivated by a desire for economic development and that that driving goal shaped the project in such a way that it was less than ideal as an actual transportation improvement. I’ll argue here that if it isn’t a substantial transportation improvement, it won’t be an engine of real economic development either.

Transportation is a necessary foundation of any economy. Transportation is the intentional movement of people or things to other people or things that they want to be closer to. These things could be tractor trailers full of widgets or people bicycling to a holiday party. They could even, with a bit of a stretch be encoded data physically moving about on the internet or through the air in waves. In any case, things that have started in one place have found themselves in another.

In a really essential way, this lies at the root of all commerce. If we couldn’t move our bodies, our ideas, parcels, products, or whatever else, there could be no commerce at all because there’d be very few people to talk to or exchange things with. Each of us would exist in the space we were born into, unable to move from it and unable to do anything outside the reach of our limbs. Without transportation, we might as well be lichen. To the extent that we expand our physical reach, we expand our possibilities for commerce by increasing the number of people and things to which we have access.

This is actually the reason cities first formed thousands of years ago: because the more efficient transportation, and thus exchange, possible inside dense areas, even very small ones, allowed an irresistible growth of commerce that’s still drawing people from poorer rural areas all over the world. If there are 1,000,000 potential customers within ten miles of me(and there probably are right now as I sit at a coffee shop OTR), I have a lot more immediate economic opportunities than a farmer who has three neighbours within the same distance. With that increase in scope comes all of the benefits of economies of scale, economies of agglomeration, and the ability to specialize.

But most of us have lived most or all of our lives within a dense urban, highly developed state(I’m talking about you, Ohio!1) and we can easily take these basic facts for granted. Relatively speaking, transportation is pretty good where us city-folk live, and we take for granted that if we quit a job, we could find another one without having to move too far or at all. If we want to try a new restaurant there will be one we haven’t been to before, perhaps even within walking distance. Still, we find ourselves to some extent living within effective boundaries. Since moving to Pendelton, I hardly ever go out as far as Northside any more even though I can get there without too much trouble. It’s just easier to go to Shadeau even if I might feel like going to Take the Cake. If I could get to Take the Cake with as little trouble, I would go there more often and the contrary is probably true of Northsiders craving some fresh bread. Better transportation in this case could expand our options locally and allow both shops to specialize a bit more as they reach a broader base of customers. That’s “economic development”, or more etymologically, the development of “economy” or efficiency or thrift.

But like I said, we can forget this living in a place that already has a well developed2 economy. Often when we talk about “economic development”, we’re really talking about hyper-local competition for a supposedly limited number of things like jobs, shops, offices, and rented apartments. When we think of economic development in this way, we often come up with proposals for things that don’t develop broad efficiency or economy and that sometimes work against it. The use of massive tax breaks to lure businesses to a certain municipality has been well documented as a collective action problem. Cities, states and countries often find themselves competing for a corporation that’s looking to (re)locate an office or factory that will bring job opportunities to the community. First a few places will desperately offer to waive all taxes on the new factory for as much as a decade, an offer that’s hard for any company to refuse, then every other place has to offer the same or better(/worse) if they want to compete. Seeing this, other companies start making threats to relocate unless they get their taxes cut and before you know it, you have areas where the largest, richest corporations are the ones that pay the fewest taxes while those least able to bargain pay relatively more. It’s often a rapidly developing race to the bottom that’s hard for either companies or cities to extract themselves from without some sort of a binding “arms agreement” or tariffs.

Tax incentives like this are of the competitive model of ‘economic development’ that places municipal boundaries above the actual development of broadly shared economy. And I worry that to a large extent, this is the model the streetcar is relying on for it’s intended economic effects. As I argued, the streetcar is not a substantial addition to the transportation system, or perhaps more accurately, not as good a contribution to it as it could have been given the resources and even assuming the basic premise of a streetcar in that general area.

I think instead it will rely on the perception of the area that the streetcar will create to pull people from other cities and other parts of Cincinnati to a neighborhood that they’ll see as more in line with their values. That’s a bit like a restaurant hiring an interior decorator and putting a neighboring restaurant out of business by attracting all of their former customers with modern lamps and Ikea cutlery. It hasn’t created new business and economy. Rather, the transactions would simply have moved a door or two over, and the successful restaurant will be out the not-insignificant cost of the interior decorator. From a disinterested perspective, very little will have changed.

Now, I don’t want to say that the City shouldn’t spend any money to make OTR and Downtown more attractive to potential residents. That would be silly. But to spend $100,000,000 or more on one aspect of that goal does seem a little inefficient. More than pointing out that inefficiency though, I want to make clear what kind of “economic development” this project is. It seems to be a lot more of the competitive model, than the holistic one. And that sucks because projects like this could do both models well at the same time. The wonderful thing about people flocking to areas with the perception of “urban” amenities like trains and subways and streetcars is that it affords another political justification for building them for their original purpose: transportation. An area that builds a subway because of popular or political demand has the opportunity to make it a major transportation improvement as well. The people who want “rails in the ground” without fully understanding why they would be needed will still get them, and the place where it’s built can actually substantially expand it’s access to other places. That would cause both holistic economic development for the whole regional economy and have the effect of increasing local competitiveness for business investments.

Our contemporary local political focus on the competitive model has made us miss the holistic model on this project, and our City planners, responding to strong political demands have failed to remind us of the lost opportunity. Instead, our streetcar literally spreads itself thin in an effort to spread it’s perception to as many streets as possible. In doing so, it minimizes it’s effect as transportation. It’s a clear tradeoff, and the clear winner is aesthetic competitiveness.

Watch out Portland, OR. We’re wearing Air Jordans now too, and we’re going to start flirting with all of your boyfriends.

Show 2 footnotes

  1. and Northern Kentucky…I didn’t forget you, babe.
  2. Compare Greater Cincinnati to Southeast Ohio.
Comments: 2
Posted in: Analysis | Back to Basics | Definitions | Logic | Mobility | Politics
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You may use transit more than you know

My definition of public transit:

I think that probably sounds pretty tame, but it has some important implications for the self-identity of a few upper-middle class suburbanites. Let’s unpack it!

Multiple people use the same vehicle to go somewhere together. This pretty only much rules out bikes, segways, pogo-sticks and shoes as one-person vehicles. People go somewhere, sharing the same space, such as they do in a subway car. It’s a vehicle where you might say “Excuse me, could you please turn that down.”

Everyone has access to any vehicle or trip(at least nominally). The same things are ruled out by this one. Bikes and pogo-sticks are typically owned by one person, and any one of them is not usually available for general use by anyone else. School buses are ruled out, because non-students aren’t allowed on. Also, people have to actually be able to know that a trip is going to happen.

Trips are scheduled in advance. Bikes are ruled out again, and so are cars. Even taxis don’t make planned trips. Everything they do is ad-hoc, and they really only move right when someone asks them to.

Users pay per-use or per-trip. Cars are definitely ruled out here, and so are private boats and anything else you have to buy first, use second. If you have to own anything solid before you can use it, it’s not public transit.

That’s what public transit isn’t. But then, what is it? Public transit is a form of transportation to which people can come as they are, board with other passengers, and get to their destination together with those other passengers in a shared space. Everyone has access and trips are planned in advance and the schedules publicised.

Typically, public transit includes city buses(SORTA, TANK), private scheduled intercity coaches(Greyhound, Megabus), almost all commercial airlines(Delta, United, Ultimate Air Shuttle, etc.), streetcars, subways, and passenger trains(Amtrak, Via).

The “public” word can be a little misleading because it doesn’t really matter who owns the vehicle, but it does matter who can be in it. We often talk about privately owned streetcar or bus companies of the late 19th and early 20th centuries as being “public transit”. In fact, it was only decades later that these types of services became “public” in a literal or legal sense–that is, legally owned and administered by a government like a city. Cars aren’t public transit because their interiors aren’t public, unless their drivers are explicitly permissive of hitch-hikers. “Public” here refers to access not ownership or management. This also applies to knowledge of schedules. Even if I’m absolutely certain that I’m going to take a car to Findlay market at 9:30am Saturday and I offer to drive people there, if I don’t tell the world what I’m doing, they don’t have access.

But I said this had important implications: it does! Because what if we talked about Delta as public transit? What if we held out the same hopes for Greyhound that we do for 3C rail? What would it mean for transit politically if everyone who flew out of CVG this year fully realized that they had relied on public transit for a major trip? What if the next ballot initiative like Metromoves took account of all aspects of public transportation rather than just a couple? How many more people might have voted for it?

The people who fly, as you’ll have noticed if you’ve ever done it, tend to be white, suburban, and at least middle class. That’s the exact same demographic that generally says they don’t support transit. Except most of them use transit in the form of airlines and they just don’t know it.

I’m reminded here of that study1 that says that people who don’t support gay marriage tend to report that they don’t actually know of any gay people at all that they’ve ever met. Once they meet some gay people and aren’t raped or molested or any of the other awful things they fantasize might happen, they realize before too long that gays are just normal, boring people and it’d be awfully impolite to deny them legal equality. Just so, people say they don’t support public transit because they don’t think it’s for them. They don’t think they would ever use it, and more particularly that they would ever want to.

“I don’t know any gays. They all live in the city and have crazy sex at bars. Why should I vote for them to get special rights?”

“I don’t go to Over-The-Rhine. It’s dangerous and dirty. Why should the city spend money on a trolley for them when Westwood could use the money for important things?”

Both of these quotes2 have some common characteristics. The first
is a reliance on misconceptions and stereotypes. The second is the use of the word “them” or “they” in contrast to the group that the speaker identifies with. The speaker doesn’t realize that they know gays or use transit when in fact they probably do3. They say the best way for gay people to advance legal equality is actually just to be openly, visibly gay. Tell people you’re gay, come out to your pastor, your friends, wear a gay t-shirt, etc, and you’ll be doing far more to change the local political culture than any organization could do to reach those same people with the same amount of effort. After nearly five years working for local queer organizations, I tend to think that’s true. When the cool kid at a high school comes out it can rock the whole school culture making it safe for dozens of other students to do the same. A football team that rallies behind their gay quarterback is the best tool against bullying that anyone could hope for. When someone you know or look up to reveals something about themselves that you might not be fully comfortable with, you make a point of trying to understand and come to grips with it because you’ve already invested something in the relationship. You may even come to respect them more for challenging you.

Which is why I think it’s important for us to start talking about airplanes as though they’re transit. They are public transit, just like 19th century streetcars were transit, and a lot of politically important people use them. If we can get the people who fly to realize that they’re actually in some way in the same category as the people who use SORTA and Greyhound, and to acknowledge that publicly, we’ll have begun to build a coalition behind the idea of shared-vehicle, fixed-schedule, public-access transportation that will likely do good things for transportation in cities generally, and particularly could expand the franchise of the currently marginalized communities that tend to use bus-based transit. One more cross-reference:

your kids might be gay billboard

And don’t assume that you and the people you love doesn’t benefit from transit next time you vote.

Show 3 footnotes

  1. Or perhaps series of studies. I can’t remember. Look it up yourself :-P
  2. …that arose out of my mind, and are fictitious, but still typical of the way people think…
  3. As between 3% and 8% percent of the human population, us homos are pretty damn hard to avoid, though you might never notice us if you aren’t looking.
Comments: 1
Posted in: Definitions | Misconceptions | Politics
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On the role of planners

I had a conversation with a friend a couple months ago that shed some light on what I think is probably a fairly common misunderstanding about the role of urban planners.

A city is a tremendously contentious, political being, one with millions of people and millions of ideas about what the city should be. Almost as many people are frustrated with some aspect of what the city actually is and hundreds or, more optimistically, thousands of people take it on themselves every day to be advocates for particular issues, like bicycling, businesses, street lighting, civil rights, transit etc. These people often become masters of their issues, knowing all there is to know about bicycling, for example, knowing all that goes on in the bicycling community, what people are saying and feeling about bicycling, what exactly they say they want from the city. These people quite naturally develop specific ideas about what the City should do about these issues, and they tell the City as much. These suggestions are heard by politicians and by planners. Politicians don’t generally have a specific area of expertise, but planners do. They’re really systems administrators of a sort. But the system isn’t a computer network, it’s a polis, a city in the lowercase sense; the whole interconnected web of real relations between people and places and all of the ‘applications’ or various uses of a city. To be clear, they’re not the city manager(he manages the municipal entity of the City, the City that has a bank account in it’s name). Rather, planners might be closer to what could be called city administrators.

Planners at their best1 don’t give a community merely what it asks for just a sysadmin doesn’t install just any program a user requests. Indeed, any unchecked program could be malicious(possibly causing stress or compromise of the whole network), or simply erroneous and dysfunctional, no matter how useful it could be for that one user right now.

Instead, planners give a community what it needs, and indeed what it wants at a deep level, whether they have asked for it or not. They establish systems through which things can happen which they haven’t necessarily foreseen, systems that are adaptive to change, and resilient to challenge.

And that’s not patronizing. It’s like parenting. You don’t let your kids have everything they ask for and you don’t favour one child over another. Planners don’t do that for citizens either.

I think a lot of people approach planners with very specific suggestions, thinking they’ll be duly considered, and possibly completely implemented, that their suggestion might be something the planner had never thought of. Typically the suggestions only address the concerns of the community that the suggester represents. “Why don’t you build a streetcar between my neighborhood and my office” is a typical if highly exaggerated example. Or perhaps “High meter rates are bad for my business and they shouldn’t be raised!”.2

Right. Got it. We’ll just not raise the meter rates then. Glad you chimed in with that insight. I wouldn’t want to unthinkingly impinge on your business as I blunder about.3

Planners hear these pleas for specific things and try to pick broader themes from them.

You can see this selection of broader themes and desires at work really clearly in Cincinnati’s new master plan. The plan actually makes surprisingly few concrete suggestions, but rather lays a nuanced framework of common desire on which specific plans can be firmly based. Really, the master planning process was just an elaborate exercise walking the general public through the process of saying and understanding what they really want. And the document reflects that. It makes no mandates, but serves as a justification for proposals that are in line with it, a point of contention for proposals discordant with it. It states some extraordinarily broad goals like “preserve or create a pedestrian-scaled city”, “strengthen community organizations” and “build on our assets”. These represent the consensus of the city.

Everyone has some specific ideas about what each of these mean, and almost every one of them will be in at least indirect conflict with almost every other idea, often even within the same person’s head. The broad goals having been established, it’s the job of planners to devise a means of achieving the goals with efficiency and fairness and balance. This is where the technical knowledge of the sysadmin is important. We have to know how to achieve the goal in reality. We all want a secure computer, but we don’t all know the best encryption protocol. We also don’t all know the best way to amend a complex transportation system, or help entrepreneurs have a flourishing environment at the same time that we’re collectively working to systemically reduce poverty and crime on shrinking budgets through incremental changes to the built environment.

And I think this is where the misconception starts. People live in cities. We all use transportation and encounter poverty every single day. We’ve each lived in our own city, our own neighborhood, our own community for what feels like ages. And we each know it damn well. We(the advocate citizens) know the details of our issues better than anyone, just as I know the arrangement of files on my hard drive like the back of my hand. But what we don’t generally know is that context that each of our experiences sits in, and the acute essential conflicts we have with some others in the city, and even with ourselves. Unless, you’re computer scientist, you probably don’t have the faintest idea how a computer4,the context of most of today’s communication, actually does anything.

One of the general goals from the master plan is to encourage the use of non-automotive transportation. Another goal is to promote and encourage local businesses. Most people you ask will agree with these goals generally, but if you present them with any possible discouragement to using a car, they’ll attack the idea on the grounds that it will hurt business. They’ll attack a plan to help business with a claim of necessary fiscal responsibility, and they’ll attack an attempt at fiscal responsibility with an insistence that not a single police officer can be laid off. People don’t collectively know how to manage city, and don’t individually know how to balance their own desires with the ambition of others. Enter the planner.

The sysadmin doesn’t want to reorganise your home folder, but she does want to make sure you’re accessing some sites with SHTTP from now on and that you have limited access to the network drive. Similarly, the good planner will want to cause a minimum of disturbance to any one person or group of people, while at the same time advancing everyone toward their stated or implicit goals. Where those goals are in conflict with one another, as they almost always are, the planner must mediate the conceptual conflict and decide which path advances the greater good.

So this is why I’m sometimes accused of succinctly dismissing people’s well thought out urban planning suggestions(they should put a shuttle at X and a parking garage at Y because Z). It’s not because that doesn’t make perfect sense inside the relatively narrow context of that person’s experiences, rather that it doesn’t make sense in light of the conflicting implicit desires of others, and reasonable ways of achieving those consensual common ends. You should trust an expert to know you how a computer network functions and you should trust a planner(again, at their best) to know you how a city functions. Not what you should do with it, but how it actually works and thus how you and the other 2,000,000 users can get the most of what ya’ll really want out of it.

Show 4 footnotes

  1. I’m going to speak from here on out of planners-at-their-best or ideal planners. We’ll leave that messy planners-as-they-actually-are stuff for another and more depressing post.
  2. Or to keep with our analogy, “Why don’t you just let me plug my home computer into the office network so I can get my work done in a more comfortable setting?”  — because you could introduce malicious stuff into the system, perhaps intentionally, compromising security and a stable computing environment for dozens, or thousands of other people!
  3. This is sarcasm.
  4. Start with this link and see how deep into wikipedia you can dive before your brain hurts.
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Posted in: Back to Basics | Definitions | Misconceptions | Plans
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‘BRT’ – What is it?

I’ve heard a lot of talk about Bus Rapid Transit(BRT) lately, and I’m feeling the need to start unpacking some of it. Just what is BRT? I suspect many people have a fairly vague idea, but fortunately, I found this great slideshow on SORTA’s page about the topic that actually explains everything quite clearly. From the second slide:

“[BRT is] A flexible, high performance rapid transit mode that combines a variety of physical, operating, and system elements into a permanently integrated system with a quality image and unique identity.”

Sounds good so far, no?

On the next slide we learn that “BRT is tailored to each unique corridor” and “can be implemented incrementally“. There are a variety of “alternate BRT packages”. Awesome!

The fourth slide gives us a show of how many cities are supposedly planning BRT.

BRT popularity map

Sweeping the nation like a new boy band!

Then on the next two slides we go back to how flexible BRT is.

The infinite specturm of BRT

BRT will be your everything.

Now this is actually the second time this next slide appears in the document. They really don’t want us to miss the fact that BRT is plug and play.

parts of a so called BRT

Buy the expansion pack!

Let’s pause for a moment to get real: I’m sure Parsons Brinkerhoff does some decent work every once in a while, but this slideshow looks like it was put together by a first year planning student assigned to learn about BRT.

Carrying on again: From here on out, the document spends a few slides at a time highlighting certain features of BRT one at a time. Let’s pick them apart one by one.

“Stylish Vehicles”

BRT is stylish apparently

“Environmentally compatible”: You don’t have to install any proprietary codecs?

Let’s look closer at that one in the top right.

Damn, BRT. You fine.

Damn, BRT. You fine.

That’s pretty awesome. I’m not sure I’ve ever felt as excited about transportation as the emotions this picture conveys, but I have come close.

The big difference, as the next slide explains, between a BRT bus and a “regular”(?) bus is that the BRT is more “rail-like”. They even suggest retrofitting existing buses from the fleet with “front cones” and “wheel covers“.

But then of course if you don’t want any of that, BRT will be anything you want it to be. I mean, look at LA!

BRT will be anything for you

BRT is available in sizes XS -5XL

“Running Ways”

“BRT can operate in a wide variety of physical environments:
-On Street
-Bus Lane
-Bus Way…
-Guided or Non-guided
-Exclusive Lane or Mixed Traffic”

This is pretty neat. You mean to tell me it can go anywhere if we want it to? It could even have it’s own lanes?

buses frolicking in a feild

Buses frolicking in grass. Curiously, there is no sidewalk.

a variety of BRT lane types


Well, this is all well and good, but it amounts to little more than saying something like “Nate: with his two feet, he can go anywhere, climb stairs, even run! He’s found in the great outdoors, in bed, in coffee shops and many other physical environments. He could even fit in a hot-tub if you bought him one.” *wink, wink*

It’s simply a list of possibilities rather than requirements or standards. And it’s not unique to things called “BRT”. Trains could operate with essentially the same infrastructure. So could cars or bicycles or people or anything else that moves.

“BRT Stations”

We’re told that BRT “stations” can include such amenities as “artwork”, “customer information”, and “lighting”. That they can be “attractive and safe”, “permanent, substantial, and protected from weather”. It gives us a range of design possibilities, most of which look like nice bus shelters already do.

BRT station design

What’s this bus doing here? I thought this was the train station!

Most importantly, it tells us that a typical spacing between “stations” is 1/4 to 1 mile. This is the real meat of the difference between BRT and “local service”, and it’s taken us 3/4 of the presentation to get to it.


Basically, yes, you can still write all over the stations and vehicles. BRT is not made of Teflon so your logos will stick just like they always have.

branding options

BRT will strut for you.

“BRT Service Plans”

This pretty much lists everything transit can be– from omnipresent frequency to peak-only, stops spaced far apart or close together, local service or express.

things transit can do

You can have BRT where and when you want.

Closing Thoughts

BRT as I understand it in theory has one critical difference from most transit lines we have in Cincinnati. Higher average speed brought about by less frequent stops and a designated transit only right-of-way.

Any other differences are imagined or branded. Indeed, this whole slideshow has amounted to very little more than an enumeration of what is possible with any type of transit. I said earlier in the post it looked like it was put together by a student researching BRT. I take that back. It looks like it was put together by a student researching transit generally and presenting to an audience who hasn’t heard of such a thing before.

If clean, safe stops are a good thing to have, why should BRT lines be the only ones to have them? If level, multi-door boarding and off-board payment are good things to have, why shouldn’t any other line have them too? If running in an exclusive right-of-way can make transit faster, why should we limit such a boon to only certain lines?

And further, if the qualities of BRT that we’ve heard make it special, that differentiate it from other lines are so flexible as to be completely optional, to be implemented one at a time as we can afford them, why can’t similar incremental improvements be made to any line as the funds are available?

It seems then like “BRT” is a brand more than anything. It’s a look to be slapped on a transit service, like the Southbank Shuttle’s  self-conscious ‘trolley’.

southbank shuttle

It’s a forced distinction and ultimately an ambiguous, unnecessary and possibly confusing one. It’s already resulting in maps that, like the streetcar’s, completely ignore the rest of the transit system:

BRT stands in glorious isolation.

BRT stands in glorious isolation.

That sort of cartography is indicative of a line that will itself ignore much of what already exists. Indeed, SORTA has put out some specific suggestions for BRT line routing and they seem to almost completely overlap existing ‘local’ lines:

proposed Cincinnati brt alignments

In this case the #33, #17, #78, #43, #4 & #11 but with a very, very different stop spacing:

SORTA transit proposal

This map is uglier than even yo’ mamma, and just as decontextualized as that joke.

What this means is potentially more of the same sort of confusion I’ve written about regarding TANK’s stop locations in Downtown with the shuttle stop disjunction. Where does one go to wait for the next bus in such a case? It’s not totally clear(without checking multiple schedules) whether you’re better off waiting for the #4 or the faster bus that won’t pick you up if you’re at the wrong stop.

Further muddying the waters is the complete silence on possible frequency for the new services SORTA is proposing. Since these new lines would be almost completely redundant to the main high frequency corridors, they would work best in compliment to them. I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that SORTA doesn’t have the money to operate these new lines at anywhere close to the frequency of the lines they duplicate(if they did have extra, they would already be spending it. It’s annual operatin funds.). That would mean they could either make ‘BRT’ by taking buses from the existing heavily used lines to run them with limited stops, decreasing ‘local’ service, or they could operate a very low-frequency high-speed line over the still-high-frequency lower-speed line. In the former case, we would have very significant service changes ahead, and ones that people who don’t live near proposed BRT stops will not be at all happy with. In the later case, one would have to wait a reasonably long time for the higher speed line, making irrelevant much of it’s speed benefit. It’s been well demonstrated that, all else being equal, people would rather get a slow bus with little time waiting at the stop than wait a long time for a fast bus. I’ll call it the at-least-we’re-moving effect. Psychology is crazy.

But the point is that if the frequency of the ‘BRT’ service isn’t high enough(and it can’t be without sacrificing ‘local’ service somewhere) then the best option people will have in many of these transit corridors will still be to go out there and wait for the next bus. It might be a higher-speed limited-stop bus if they are near a stop, or a line like we have now. Whichever comes first will be the one they catch. I do this between Downtown and Northside. There are a number of lines I can take to get out there but the one I choose is always the one that happens to get to Government Square first.

Beyond the stops though, the other substantive difference with the idea of BRT is the designated, transit-only right-of-way that prevents cars and stop lights and squirrels from getting in the way. It’s not at all clear where if anywhere this would be found along these proposed routes. In fact, the City has been extremely reluctant to yield even an occasional parking lane for bikes. I doubt they would be friendlier to transit. It’s also not clear whether the vehicles would get priority at traffic signals. Without the assurance that they could avoid most car traffic between stops the potential for substantively higher speed is significantly diminished.

My suggestion would be to improve the high frequency lines that we have by eliminating some stops, assigning a designated right-of-way where possible, improving technology on most or all lines such as with the signal prioritization, and investing(as operating money is available) in higher frequencies and longer schedules. This would have the added benefit of keeping the maps and schedules simple. If a different line is added over the #4 for example, and I just want to get from Downtown to Norwood, I might now have to check two schedules rather than one. Or worse, a new rider may well not realize there are two lines and only check the schedule for one of them, leading to unnecessary wait.

In conclusion, I’ll point everyone to the last words in that slideshow:

don't oversell BRT

Don’t do it.

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Posted in: Definitions | Maps | modes | Technology Choices
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