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Moderating two definitions of access

This post was written in the winter of 2014, but for some reason I got distracted and never posted it. Now I’m cleaning house, and here it is! In case you were wondering why it’s about winter weather…


About twice a week, I find myself waiting for the #17 at 13th and Main, heading up to UC for the day. The #17 works well for me since the geography department is on the west side of campus anyway, though in the winter more often than not I find myself wishing for a bus, any bus, for the love of god, when is the bus coming? My hands are freezing! I find myself here almost every day, but about twice a week, like I say, I find myself in a particular situation: passed up by a bus that’s going the same place I’m going, its clean, brightly lit, warm interior mocking me through it’s big windows. I don’t care it’s it’s going to the other side of campus. I just want on.

The M+ has just passed by. My inclination is to run for it’s next stop, but my position on 13th street denies me the option.

Too far.

Once I see the M+ coming up Main, it’s too late to run south to the courthouse stop, too far and still too late to run up to it’s next stop at Findlay market. This is why the M+ is marginally faster than the other buses. It doesn’t stop for people like me, people of course, not at it’s limited and clearly signed set of stops.

The 13th Street stop is the one closest to my house and it’s always my starting place when catching transit up to campus. I always look south when I get there, and if I don’t see anything coming, sometimes I’ll sneak toward the courthouse, stop by stop, never getting too far away in case a bus pops out of nowhere. (Sometimes I creep north, constantly looking back…do I have time to grab a baguette?!? I pay for it, already half-way out the door.) The courthouse stop, see, has better frequency toward campus since it works for both the #17 and the M+, two high-frequency lines going where I want to go. Since they don’t usually arrive at exactly the same time, their headways compound and we get some constructive interference.

But it’s more complicated than this. Because the schedules for the #17 and M+ don’t work together, aren’t coordinated, reliably interrelated, I never know which to catch, which will actually get me to Braunstein Hall first. Both are frequent enough that I wouldn’t bother looking at a schedule if I wanted either, and both are so often just a little late or early that it wouldn’t do me much good if I did. In the absence of real-time-location information…you know what? Let’s let this derailment happen. Why not?

Where the h*ll is that real-time data, SORTA? What’s the deal here? This is getting really frustrating, now that the real-time info is posted at half a dozen stops. You’ve missed at least three of your own deadlines for releasing it. Stop making excuses and get your shit together!!!! RAAAGHAHG!!!1

*Phew* OK. Back on track. Without that real-time data, I’m essentially looking to ascertain the quantum state of the buses. Buses here are both a wave and a particle. Clearly working in a regular pattern, they still come in discrete chunks which can be discovered only by measurement and then never exactly predicted.

What’s a boy to do?

Stop fussing and wait an extra minute perhaps. That would be too simple though.

A big part of my problem here is that the schedules aren’t coordinated, meaning that they overlap and interact with each other in unpredictable ways. If they were coordinated, I could decide now which stop is usually the better one and stick to that decision.

In this particular situation, there’s not a good case to be made that these ones should be coordinated since they split off from each other once they get to the hill, but my dilemma illustrates a broader problem with the way SORTA has conceived of BRT: as a fast express line mostly redundant to a slow local service. Schedule coordination is impossible where lines are running at different speeds.

And this same problem becomes more dramatic when I consider other destinations. Lets say I want to get to Norwood, or once there, even further out to Kenwood. In the first case, I would have to take a bigger risk in walking toward the courthouse stop.  The #4 turns east around the corner from the courthouse stop, meaning that I can’t even see it coming.

The best choice would necessarily be based on expected waiting times and expected travel times. A better-than-probabilistic decision can’t realistically be made during higher-frequency hours since the normal(in the non-statistical sense at least) delays, disrupt shorter and more-frequent trips more, relatively speaking. In the later case, I would most likely be presented with the same optimizing tactic that finds me sneaking south on Main Street. That is: walk to the nearest stop on Montgomery Road and once there, inch toward the closest higher-frequency stop, taking in any case whichever bus comes first. Once I know the position of one bus, the one having just arrived, I won’t typically wait around for the next since it’s position is unknown and possibly very distant. Assuming both came at once, and were both stopping, the choice would be easy: the faster one.

The problem here is one of lost potential. It’s not a bad situation by any stretch(I have two reasonably frequent-transit options! Yay!) but it could be better. Rather than having two transit lines in the same corridor running at ten-minute headways, one dramatically faster than other, we could have one line, significantly faster than what we have now, running more consistently, more frequently, and importantly: more simply.

Express lines, as SORTA have conceived them, split the baby.

Show 1 footnote

  1. real-time data DOES exist now!
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Posted in: Access | Analysis | Simplicity
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Real-time app review: Bus Detective

bus-detectiveThe first proper real-time app using SORTA’s new data has finally been released! It’s name is Bus Detective, and it’s available for Android, iwidgets, and web browser. The app is being developed by the decidedly friendly people at Gaslight, a software development company downtown across from the main library. Daniel and I met with them a couple weeks ago to talk about collaborating on our recent grant to develop a real-time display for local businesses. I found them hospitable, helpful, and most importantly to me, meaningfully interested in the usefulness of the thing: about half of the office takes transit to and from work every day. They are their own beta testers!

( You may also recognize Gaslight as a sponsor of the Cincinnati Bike Map. Gaslight rocks and their office is full of bikes too. Give them highfives when you see them. )

As for the app itself, it’s pretty simple right now, as it probably should be. You can click through all of the features as quickly as I could describe them, so I’ll leave you to that. The highest praise I can give it is that it seems to work. I’ve used the app a half-dozen times, and played around with it quite a bit. The interface is nice and simple and intuitive and most surprisingly of all, the data behind it seems pretty accurate. The buses come when it says they will. Plus, that logo. Gosh.

For all the developers in the room, Bus Detective is open-source and available on GitHub. Anyone who finds a technical/useability problem with the app should report a bug there. My understanding is that more features are coming soon, so there’s that to look forward to also.

Overall rating: 4.7 stars out of 5. ( You’ve got to leave some room for improvement, right? )

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Posted in: Simplicity
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Stored-value farecards: coming to a wallet near you!

Stored-value farecards will soon be available at the Downtown transit store! They’ll be replacing the ten-ride zone-1-only passes that are currently for sale1 on August 1st. The stored-value cards will not, like in most cities with such technology, be refillable to an arbitrary value but will be available in $10, $20, and $30 values. That means if you want to buy $50 worth next time you’re in the mercantile center, you’ll need to get one $20 and one $30 card.

The cards may be a little less convenient than the ten-rides for travelers sticking exclusively to zone 1, but they could potentially make things a whole lot simpler for everyone else.

Once the stored value card gets below the value of the fare you’ll need to pay the difference with either cash or another card. The big improvement in convenience then will be for zone 2+ or express passengers who’s choice is currently between a very expensive monthly unlimited-ride pass and paying with cash each time.

As a general rule, the more the agencies can reduce cash payments, the less they have to pay someone to straighten your crumpled bills and most importantly, the quicker people can board and the vehicle can get on it’s way. That means less bunching, more on-time buses, and less wasted time that needs to be padded into schedules to account for normal delays.

The next step is for both SORTA and TANK to introduce durable, arbitrary-value cards that can be refilled online or linked to a bank account. Such cards are fitted with a chip that can be tapped against the till as people board. That kind of card saves time over the thin disposable cards SORTA and TANK currently use which need to be completely inserted, read, possibly printed on, and returned. Tap-able cards will go even further toward reducing transaction costs, saving everyone a lot of time, and making services faster and more convenient.

WMATA SmarTrip card

WMATA SmarTrip card…hopefully we can do a better job designing a Cincinnati farecard ;-)

A quick calculation tells me that with about  23,000,000 transit trips in the metro area last year, shaving one second off each boarding time would save 6,389 vehicle hours a year, or 17 hours each day. If we value driver time at $20/hour that’s $128,000 a year. If we value passenger’s time fairly, I suspect we’d easily justify any capital costs in the first year alone assuming most regular riders made the switch. 6,389 hours by the way is 0.62% of total annual service hours2 meaning that the savings from losing a single second off each boarding could lead to an increase in total service the agencies would be able to provide of more than half a percent; that’s not insignificant.

Stored value farecards: This is a good first step. Let’s have more of this kind of improvement please!

Show 2 footnotes

  1. ..and which will continue to be accepted through December
  2. As reported to the NTD for 2011
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Posted in: Simplicity | Technology Choices
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Advertising: TANK is doing it right

I was in the airport last night on a late flight from DC and behold: What do I see greeting me unavoidably on my way down the escalator toward baggage claim? A giant sign telling me I can take transit to downtown for only $2.00.

It changed to another advertisement before I could calm my trembling heart and reach for the camera phone but I hung around for another minute and caught a picture of this:

southbank shuttle airport advertisement

A few steps further found me walking below this sign:

public transit ahead

And to my right, a kiosk toward which I quickly scampered

TANK transit kiosk at the airport

The kiosk is basically a big fancy machine that shows you a PDF of the 2X schedule. Normally I don’t approve of such complicated things, favouring instead a simple rack of paper schedules, but I have to say that this thing was really attractive, easy to use, and perfectly informative.

2x schedule kiosk

It gave you the times, the prices, the route map; it gave you everything you would need to just go outside and take transit right now.

That is perfectly informative.

That is perfectly informative.

But where exactly, you might ask, should you “just go outside?” Can it be that easy? Boom! The stop is right out that door.  Go. Now. Just do it. You’re so close!

CVG transit to downtown sign

This applause might sound pretty obvious, but many of the most important routes in the city lack this sort of pointed, direct, this-is-what-transit-does kind of advertising. I’d like to see more of this, particularly for routes that aren’t aimed narrowly at tourists(which is to say: almost all of them).

TANK wins 3 points for clear and effective communication and pulls into the lead.

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Posted in: Ads | Simplicity
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Google Transit isn’t enough

I’ve got a guest post over at Human Transit today! It’s primarily a response to all the people who always seem to be telling me that smartphones are making actual hand-rendered and tangible transit maps obsolete. I argue that quite to the contrary they’re a necessary precursor to such automated trip planning and that google transit has little use for anyone without the holistic understanding that can only be provided by a thoughtfully man-made map.

If you haven’t heard of Human Transit before, I highly recommend the blog. It’s author does a fantastic job of elucidating the choices and tradeoffs involved building a transit system, both in the abstract and with a good variety of concrete examples from around the world. Actually, some of his writing helped inspired me to develop the Cincinnati frequency map a couple years back!

Anyway, check out the post over there and peruse some of the other articles. They’re well worth the read, as (always surprisingly for the internet) are the comments.

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Posted in: Maps | Simplicity | Talking about Transit
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‘The Streetcar’ – 7 – Chicken or Egg: Shaping the future or following the past?

This is the seventh 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

The route of the streetcar  will be substantially less than efficient for the purposes of transportation. If, as it’s proponents say, it will encourage development along it’s route, then to the extent that it does so, it will stimulate development in a form that is itself structurally difficult to serve efficiently with transit. Rather than helping shape future development into an ideal form, it will reinforce unplanned patterns from the past and be less efficient in the long term than it could be. Since many people have talked about the streetcar “shaping development” and even creating “transit oriented development”, it’s important to think deeply about what transit oriented development would look like and whether the streetcar would move us toward it.

I’ll make a clear example to illustrate my point before I apply the principle to a more subtle reality. Here we have a regular gridded street pattern and some regularly placed transit stops crossing it on the diagonal.

a grid

Let’s say that right now the whole grid is developed pretty evenly with two story buildings and that denser development grows around the transit stops over the next few years. Here are some contour lines so you can visualize it:

grid with development visualized

Generated from some random numbers for each stop

This doesn’t really look so far fetched as a development pattern for a city. Places like St. Louis have a long stretched out development pattern that seems similar at first glance.

Aerial photo of St. Louis

St. Louis

But what would such a shape mean for transportation? The grid isn’t just decorative stripes crossing a flat surface. It’s a collection of rectangular barriers(buildings) lined up end to end with gaps(streets) in between them. Unless there’s a parking lot or a completely vacant parcel, you simply can’t cross a block diagonally. You have to follow the streets. If our transit line is underground, that isn’t a problem. Assuming there’s nothing else in the way, we could just take a straight line through each stop from end to end.

grid with development and transit line

1.6 miles in length

But let’s say that, like the streetcar would be, it isn’t underground and has to follow the streets. If we want to hit each stop, we’ll need to zig-zag.

grid with zig-zagging transit line

2.3 miles

Our little transit line here is starting to look a bit less reasonable. Pythagoras tells us this is actually a bit over 43% longer than the straight-line underground version. Further, there’s no way at all to make a shorter trip while we have to stick to the grid. Even if you were walking or riding a bike, there’s just no shorter trip to be made between any two stations. We can make a trip of the same distance that should be a bit faster, but it can’t be shorter. Both of the following possible routes are the exact same distance as our hypothetical transit line.

grid showing manhattan distance equality

This same feature is actually one of the reasons grids(or an approximation of them) are a truly great design for transportation. Because many paths are equivalent, traffic can be distributed very effectively if any one path gets blocked or clogged.

One thing classical geometry doesn’t account for is real-world intersections. Passing through an intersection can take a lot of time. Whether there are stop signs or traffic lights, you’re going to spend a significant amount of time not only waiting while stopped, but slowing down to stop and speeding back up again. Anyone who’s ridden a bicycle through Newport should be acutely aware of this. More important for our consideration though, turns can’t be taken at full speed even if you have a green light, so each turn adds time to the trip. Left turns particularly will slow us down. In fact, in an effort to save time and money, UPS apparently decided that their trucks would never turn left if they could avoid it.

So anyway, our transit line can be seen making a lot of left turns, right turns, and  passing through a lot of intersections. It will also go 43% further than is strictly necessary. The alternative of course was for the transit line to run parallel to one of the streets for all or most of it’s length. A line that was fully parallel to a street would eliminate 11 turns, 5 intersections and 30% of the total length from the route while going the same effective distance. Recall that we’re assuming even density across the whole area, so a similar line simply angled in a different direction would serve just as many people and would do so with significantly less effort. Our example route is the least efficient possible choice for a gridded street pattern. A route that makes the line fully parallel to a street would be the most efficient possible.

This isn’t true just for transit, but for all transportation. The development that occurred around our line is diagonally crossing the grid. Since more trips will originate and end in the denser areas(there are more people and things there), more trips will be crossing the grid diagonally than would otherwise have done so. Bike travel, car travel, walking and transit would all be significantly less efficient in the long term because of the initial decision to build a stimulating line diagonally across the grid. On the other hand, there would be more reasonable paths to the average destination meaning that congestion could be better distributed if necessary.

Let’s express these ideas numerically so that we can compare reality more readily to our example. With the diagonal zig-zag, we go exactly as far in one direction of the grid as we do in the other. Let’s call this a ratio of 1/1. That’s the least efficient. If our line were to follow one street all the way, it would go the whole distance in one direction and none in the other. That would be 1/0, the most efficient. Where does the streetcar fall on that scale? It depends on whether you want to consider the extension to Vine street. Without it, the ratio is about 1/0.19:

Cincinnati Streetcar Map

With it, the ratio comes to about 1/0.28. Here’ I’m considering that the effective distance would be less(it doubles back) and that the route deviates back to the east again before leaving the grid.

Cincinnati Streetcar Map

That’s not awful. It’s not the worst possible route by this measure, but it’s 28% of the way to being the worst. If the streetcar simply went up and down Vine Street, as I’ve suggested it should for a number of other reasons, we’d see a ratio of 1/0, the most efficient configuration. Our measure of 1/0.28 can’t be written off as a case of reality being more messy than hypothesis. It’s a case of planners(or in this case, politicians) ignoring the euclidean realities of transportation in favour of sending some real-estate-speculation money more directly to established and popular constituents like Findlay Market.

The streetcar won’t be helping to shape the city into a form that’s easy to serve by transit. Transit and transportation generally is best able to serve people when they establish linear development patterns that follow reasonably good transportation corridors. The typical picture we see in the media of “transit oriented development” does little to consider this aspect of meta-orientation. It matters little if your cafe fronts the street if the street is out of the way of the transit line. Conversely of course, it matters little if the transit line goes right past you if you’ve got a fenced parking lot in front of your building. “Transit oriented development” needs to consider not only it’s human-scale orientation to the street, but it’s regional-scale orientation to major transportation corridors, including the orientation of gridded street patterns.

I don’t want to be misunderstood as implying that the streetcar is doing especially poorly here. There really aren’t any transit lines that take an ideal route through downtown at the moment, and they all certainly miss a lot of opportunities for redundancy and centrality that could by now have established a few major high density corridors branching off from Downtown if we’d let them. These opportunities were missed at some point and SORTA’s downtown/OTR routing is currently a giant mess.

SORTA downtown transit map

Spaghetti with red and blue sauce.

No, I make these points not because I think the streetcar will actually make transportation substantially more difficult. I make them to point out internal consistencies in the arguments used to justify the streetcar. If as proponents said the streetcar would indeed encourage a lot of “transit oriented development”, it wouldn’t do so very well, and it wouldn’t do so in a way that’s in the best possible long-term interest of a city that wants to move toward increasing transit use. If we want that, we really need to develop linear corridors with redundant high-frequency transit lines that try not to cross grids on the diagonal.

I want to conclude by assuring you that I’m not just pulling this out of my ass. Linear developments that parallel street grids are absolutely everywhere that there are grids. If anyone can find me a truly non-parallel yet still linear business district or other denser development pattern occurring in a fully gridded context I’d like to see it. Here are some examples of my own, pulled pretty randomly from satellite photos:

Aerial photo of St. Louis

Downtown St. Louis. It does follow the grid.

aerial photo of chicago


Aerial photo of chicago

Chicago again…notice that even though dense development is crossing the grid, it effectively has an “underground” line because the diagonal street breaks the grid and allows linear access.

Aerial photo of Toronto ontario


Los Angeles business district development

Los Angeles

Go do a little Google Earth exploring yourself and think about why Cincinnati wants to build a project, ostensibly to encourage development, that would violate this almost universal transportation oriented development pattern.

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Posted in: Analysis | Back to Basics | Logic | Mobility | Simplicity | Technology Choices
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