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.

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  1. real-time data DOES exist now!
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Posted in: Access | Analysis | Simplicity
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Philosophy, grad school, and a challenge to ‘BRT’

Apologies for the slow posting here lately…grad school has been swallowing an outrageous amount of my time the last couple of weeks. I do have some interesting things in the works though, so I’ll just whet your appetites until they’re ready to fruit before leaving you with some methodological musings.

But I may also blame the slow posting on a rapidly developing understanding of my approach to such problems as the ones I’m trying to address through this blog. My rational side says I need to be positive and empirical, adding nuance and evidence to the general discussion of transit in Cincinnati, but the less rational sides of me want prankishness and a negative reproach to the nonsense I see going on all around me, particularly about ‘the streetcar’. As much as I want to tear down the populist John Schneiders and John Cranleys I want to take the high road and pretend that I might thereby climb high enough to avoid them. But would I then still be able to see the ground to which I must ultimately return for food and shelter? I’m torn. I wonder if a positive approach which strives for intellectual rigor first is more than an acknowledgement that practical political change in Cincinnati is hopeless (in the short term at least) and that my personal prospects lie in a different context with different values. Am I seeking validation from a group of elite critics and experts, popularly ignored, or actually trying to change a system largely run by demagogues and their uninterested employees? Is a synthesis possible?

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Posted in: Access | Events
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Too many stops or not enough?

Chart of the relation between the number of stops on a transit line and it's so-called access

Access is a pretty vague word. I don’t think I could succinctly define it and I suspect no one else could either as it regards discussions about transit and transportation. Still, we can imagine a transit line that makes no stops at all and say that it would provide no access whatsoever. It would be useless. Similarly, a line with infinite stops where the bus moves infinitesimally after each stop before stopping again also has an access value of 0; it would also be useless.1

Somewhere in the middle is the Goldilocks stop spacing arrangement. Where does the m+ fall on this spectrum? Where do the other lines in the system? Might there be an ideal middle ground or are both either too crowded or sparse? Is there room for …lets call it ‘schedule diversity’ within a corridor? What effect does that have on effective frequency and average wait times at the skipped-over stops?

I’d like to hear SORTA’s and TANK’s official positions, or perhaps not positions but perspectives, on these questions as they move forward with their discussions of adding more rapid-transit-like lines to their systems. It’s not evident to me as an outsider that they’ve weighed the issue at all, at least publicly. Transit planners? Can you weigh in please? I’ve made my opinion clear in the above chart but I’m curious how SORTA and TANK would re-draw it and what they might add to it.

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  1. Though my line tapers off here without hitting 0 because the driver has some agency in stopping and doesn’t have to stop at an empty stop. Infinite stops might be more comparable to dial-a-ride or flexible schedule or no-stop services.
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Posted in: Access | Analysis | Logic
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What is transportation? Why do we need it?

Don’t say ‘economic development’!

Transportation is one of our most basic human needs. Without it, we would die pretty quickly. Transportation is the act of moving something from one place to another. We need transportation because all of life’s necessities and pleasures can’t possibly fit within the reach of our static bodies from birth to death. We either have to move ourselves to things or have things moved to us. Transportation gets food to our mouths, glycogen to our toes, rabbits to other rabbits to do rabbit things, and people to their boyfriend’s gallery openings. This is essentially all transportation is. It doesn’t matter how it happens. When I looked up the wikipedia article on the topic just now, I was a little put off that it jumps rather immediately from a basic definition of transport to an exhaustive list of technology used in institutional, large-scale, contemporary transportation. This awkward disjunction is a perfect example of our typically distorted thinking. Transportation isn’t about highways and trains and bicycles and space shuttles as is most people’s first thought. These are all temporary manifestations of transportation, not transportation itself. When we talk about transportation, we aren’t talking about these things, but the more essential act they help us bring about.

Transportation allows economic development to occur because it’s a basic prerequisite for anything human. Neither could our economy exist without air, sunlight, or an expectation of immediate bodily safety.

Transportation planners generally define a person’s ability to transport in two ways: mobility and access. Mobility is the extent to which you’re able to physically move. If I went for a jog around the block, we might say that I had an urge to be mobile. Access is the extent to which you’re able to get to the things you want to get to, or have them brought to you. If I need a laundromat, but every laundromat in the city is closed, I have very little access, even if I go all over the place looking for one. The important distinction is between method and end. Access is the end to which mobility is the means. (In almost every case)

You may start to see pretty quickly how these two measures might effect each other in practice; If you increase your personal mobility(perhaps you buy a helicopter), all things being equal, you’re likely to have increased your access to the things you need because you can now likely reach more things for a given amount of effort or time. If your access increases(say a 24 hour laundromat moves in downstairs), then your need for mobility is likely to decrease, all things being again equal because more things you need now exist within the same scope.

It is very important here to note that all things are never equal, and that a change in access or mobility, especially if it’s widely shared has enormous effects. More on that in another post though!

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Posted in: Back to Basics | Definitions | Talking about Transit
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