TANK plans route changes

Add yet another thing to the giant list of transit things I need to find the time to pick through: TANK has just released a brief description of proposed route changes that could take effect soon. They’re conducting public meetings today through Sept 21st to inform people about the suggested changes and solicit feedback. Normally, and I am permitted to say this only as a planner who’s not currently employed as a planner, such meetings are a principled show of democracy without much practical usefulness. Basically, people don’t like change and the people who don’t like these changes will show up to voice their complaints. The planners if they’re any good will have expected this and already will have built most of the expected participants’ concerns into the plan before they announced it. Thus, actually hearing the complaints that they expected doesn’t change much, nor should it.

You, gentle readers, being the type of people who are clever enough and patient enough to follow along with my meandering buses of thought, may actually be able to positively effect the plans if indeed you can spot something they can do better and articulate an objective case for it to the people in charge. I therefore encourage you to attend one of the meetings listed through the links above.

One quick suggestion for both agencies: Drop the phrase “short-term” when you’re describing permanent service changes. We know the routes aren’t necessarily set in stone after these changes take effect. Is anything (metaphorically) set in stone really? We all die after all. These changes are as permanent as anything gets and that should be made clear so that people don’t think you’re doing less than you are.

Many more suggestions coming eventually once I get chance to think holistically :-)

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The Streetcar – 6 – Separate and Unequal: on the rails of division

This is the sixth 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 the rails of division
  7. Chicken or Egg: Shaping the future or following the past?
  8. A New and Highly Sarcastic Plan for Economic Development

I’ve been hinting at the main point of this post throughout the series and it’s time now to address it head-on. The streetcar of our imaginations, the streetcar we’ve been talking about(for there is no other) seems to have, at least for many people, taken the burden of the entire transit system on itself. People have begun to talk about the proposed expansion of the streetcar as though it were the expansion of transit itself. And I feel it necessary here to elucidate a distinction: that the streetcar is not transit itself, that it’s expansion is not into new frontiers.

I’ve heard people say that the extension of the streetcar to UC would allow students to come Downtown and how great that would be. It would be great. It is great! I used to do it all the time as a UC student on the #17/#19 or the #78/#46. It’s great for UC students to be able to get to Downtown with transit. The streetcar will help that if it’s extended1. It would mean for many people that the frequency of transit between Corryville and the East side of UC and Downtown via Vine Street would jump by a few minutes and wait times would be noticeably diminished(though because of the indirect route, it may not actually decrease the amount of time needed to get Downtown on average).

But I don’t think that’s what people are talking about when they say that the streetcar  will allow UC students to make it to Downtown. What they’re talking about if you listen closely is the introduction of something wholly new. They’re talking about major change, about making a connection that didn’t exist before.

Now I need to be very clear in what I’m saying because I don’t want to unjustly mischaracterize the position of the streetcar advocates. If asked directly, I don’t think any sane person would fail to acknowledge the presence of transit on Vine or West Clifton Streets. But in the way they talk, it’s clear that the buses are just…the buses. A lot of people really do have a very negative connotation for that word. Just buses. Most readers will understand the emphasis there, perhaps even have heard the phrase before. “Does Cincinnati have good transit?” you overhear a visitor at a bar,  “Oh, just buses.” comes the native reply.

Just buses.

forever alone bus with the Cincinnati Streetcar

My thanks to Meddling with Nature for this photo, ever a reliable a source for silly photos and delightfully alive dead things.

When we talk about adding a streetcar to Vine street, what a lot of people are talking about is a perceived upgrade of sorts. Streetcars or more so, subways, are often seen as indicators of transit corridors that are of higher-priority, better used, more traveled, taken more seriously by a community and a city. We’re talking about upgrading transit on Vine street to something more serious and grown-up. It’s a cultural upgrade a dozen times more than it is a functional one2.

I’m reminded of the now dated cliché of the recent graduate, out of school and employed in a great new job, on to the next stage of life and looking to prove to the world, perhaps though mostly to himself that he’s really made it. That what he’s doing is somehow for real. He might buy himself a nice suit with his new cash, maybe even a new car. He buys a round of drinks for the bar. He’s never had this much money before! What he’s buying though isn’t success itself. What’s he’s buying are symbols of success. They’re tokens that are to indicate to the world and to himself that he’s made an important transition and that he’s now to be taken a bit more seriously.

And I think a lot of people, particularly from the lower classes, tend to get hung up on these symbols of success and mistake them for the real thing.  We associate the things that often accompany the succeeded goal with the accomplishment of the goal itself. This is why there is “bling”. Seriously. How wantonly demonstrative can you get?

Is this person truly successful? Or trying to prove something?

We’re striving for a sign that we’re taking transit seriously as a community, but somewhere along the line we’ve really gone off the tracks.

Instead of seeking symbols as confirmation-of a realized goal, we’re seeking them as if they were the thing itself. And in so doing, we’re losing track of the thing itself and slowly beginning to replace it with the symbol. We’re talking often about the streetcar not as though it were (rightly or wrongly) the highly visible indicator that the Corryville-OTR-Downtown corridor is important to us, and I’ve never actually heard anyone say that, but as if it were transit itself reaching uptown for the first time. As if it were of such a magnitude that it’s predecessor the lowly bus can be safely ignored. We’re talking about a moon landing, a game-changer. But instead of the moon, it’s Canada, and there are already more than a hundred flights, a dozen trains and three thousand moose a day crossing that border.

Some people have commented on my recent critique of the streetcar, saying that it’s not entirely fair to the project because it doesn’t account for later phases. That later phases will allow connections to Uptown and Union Terminal and the Casino and the zoo. That’s a valid point. The streetcar, as proposed as a larger system would be much more substantial than my suppositions have allowed it thus far.

But I want though to play on that word ‘system‘ that I just used. The streetcar as a ‘system’. As a transit system with it’s branches making “connections” to places that were otherwise “unconnected”. It’s not an idea that you’ll find unfamiliar if you know where to look for it. We’ve all seen maps by now of the streetcar in glorious isolation, branching out to cover an increasingly large portion of the city depending on how bold the politicians are feeling that day. Sometimes these fantasy maps, which by the way are part of a large and obsessive genre in cartography, take on even larger proportions and include the proposed ‘Oasis’ line, a newly refurbished subway and perhaps even, against all common sense, Amtrak’s thrice-weekly-at-2am Cardinal through Union Terminal. We’re shown how these things could link together, connecting the city in new ways. We might call these “Rail Transit Systems”. Below are a few examples of maps of this type. Notice how the ‘old’ means of connection are assiduously hidden from us as the relics of the old ‘bus’ days, and we’re shown an entirely new way of traversing the city. Let’s take a tour:

streetcar proposal map

If such promiscuous proposal mapping is to be allowed, I’m going to propose a space shuttle launching facility where that big warehouse is in Covington and start including it prominently in maps. Eden park will turn into the home of a proposed high-speed merry-go-round connected to the zoo by aerial gondolas drawn in bold red lines. Westchester will disappear entirely after my proposal for complete demolition to remove blight.

Metro Moves Plan Map

The Metro Moves plan segregated buses and non-buses into separate maps. The bus map had significantly less design time put into it.


rail fantasy map

A proposal for rail transit found via UrbanCincy(I can’t recall where I originally saw this) gives priority to the currently neglected areas around the beltway. Also, inexplicably, the trip between Dent(??) and Monfort Heights seems to get more traffic than between Downtown and anywhere. Good luck explaining that one.

rail fantasy map

This is really the epitome of the fantasy map genre as far as Cincinnati is concerned. This pretty and deliciously elaborate morsel from Metro Cincinnati(not the transit agency) shows a very large and complex system of streetcars and subways but not a single bus.

cincinnati rail fantasy map

Source. This ones seems to have cars in mind more than buses, and length more than usefulness. My guess? Something Freudian perhaps.

I want to call attention to the fact that these maps have pretty much nothing in common except steel wheels. Seriously. Go back and look at them all. We’ve got plans for just about every kind of train but freight trains here. Train fetish much, Cincinnati transit geeks?

It’s all fine and dandy to make a few fantasy rail maps and pretend we’re London for a day, but a lot of these plans have really captured people’s attention. As silly as these maps are under the scrutiny of a good planner or an operations manager with an eye on the budget, they’re very compelling to people who want to see Cincinnati as a major world city. These maps are the result of us literally painting the city or at least a map of it with a broad brush.

These sorts of maps have lit up the popular imagination, and we’re getting used to imagining a Cincinnati connected by an extensive rail-based transit system. I’ve been asked more times than I can remember if the transit map I made is a proposal for something. It’s not! Why on earth would I carry around a bunch of printed and folded fantasy maps?

Cincinnati transit map frequency poster

This is what a real bus map looks like.

For many people I guess it looks too much like all of the above to have been a map of something that actually exists. There’s that famous Cinicism. But where was I going? I’ve gotten derailed. Ah yes. Here’s the meat of it:

We’re starting, as a city, to talk about expanding transit in a way that doesn’t include buses.

Many people increasingly don’t see the future of Cincinnati’s transit in buses at all. But that’s a pretty big disconnect because all of the transit we currently have uses buses for everything. Really. All of it. I mean except for Amrak maybe or the airport shuttle. That means that people are talking about transit as though the city were a blank slate. It simply isn’t; this isn’t SimCity. We’ve been building stuff here for a couple hundred years already and there are a lot of travel patterns that people have got used to. That doesn’t mean things can’t change, just that very serious consideration would need to be given to intermediate stages in the transition  process before a sweeping multi-billion dollar rail system could ever even conceivably replace the transit system we have now.

Some people do include buses when they talk about the future of transit. Roxanne Qualls for example has been a big proponent of “Bus Rapid Transit“, but in a way, even this, with it’s strong emphasis on different-looking vehicles and stops is a sort of “non-bus” idea in spirit. Generally, I’m beginning to feel like transit advocates are becoming divided between “transit pragmatists” and “transit visionaries”. The pragmatists actually ride the bus a lot and just want increased frequencies, later hours, faster trips and usually some more east-west connections. The visionaries don’t typically ride the bus, but they have enjoyed using transit in other cities. The visionaries don’t seem to actually care so much where the transit goes, just so long as it gets there on steel tracks. They know they would use that kind of transit. They want that kind of lifestyle.

There have been so many proposals, the streetcar being the most visible example, that take this visionary approach–technology first, route second– that I’m beginning to wonder if we can reconcile this way of thinking with an existing system at all. The streetcar pretty obviously ignores the rest of the transit system. Brad Thomas of the CincyStreetcar Blog sent me this image after I said in an earlier post that I couldn’t find a single map of the streetcar that had another real transit line in it:

There are a few other lines in there, but do notice the difference between the smooth, finished, labelled lines of the streetcar and the rough, irregular, anonymous and distractingly colored lines of the other arbitrarily selected lines. They were literally added later. Still, it’s a lot better than most maps I’ve seen which ignore other transit entirely.

I’m starting to feel like we’re talking in effect about developing two transit systems in parallel. The one we have now, plus a rail-based transit system on top of it, perhaps eventually replacing buses. And that makes me extremely uncomfortable because there’s no reason such things should be in competition with one another even implicitly. Our toolbox is full of screwdrivers, and we might be able to use a hammer or two, but we’re starting to look even at screws like a problem that could be solved better with a hammer if only we had one. We really really want that hammer!!

We need a middle ground here. The pragmatists could probably benefit from aiming a bit higher, and the visionaries definitely need some grounding. Buses certainly aren’t the entire destiny of a well developed regional transit system in Cincinnati(you can’t make a house with a screwdriver alone), but rail doesn’t really seem to make much sense yet and certainly not in most of the places it’s been proposed(you don’t simply add a hammer to the project, you need to use it only on the nails).

Most importantly, an approach that takes the technology of the vehicle as the central question is really missing the mark completely. The first question is “where do most of us want to go?” and only later “how do we best get there?” We need to get behind plans that really improve transit regardless of the vehicle they use, not ones that mostly just have a big-city feel.

In my next post, I’ll be analysing SORTA’s newly released ridership data which should give us a good clue where potentially higher-capacity vehicles like trains(running in their own right-of-way!!) could potentially be a good response to existing strong demand for transit. Eventually, I’ll even get around to comparing some of these rail plans against actual population density and existing high-capacity corridors.

Alright… I feel like I’ve been rambling, so here’s a discussion question: What role did the political failure of MetroMoves play in encouraging the “pragmatists” to be pragmatic and egging on the “visionaries”?

Show 2 footnotes

  1. …If, further, it’s built.
  2. If you want really solid proof of this, look at the fact that the streetcar didn’t know what street it was going to take up the hill until the (short-lived)money came in to extend it. If a transit corridor needed the expansion of capacity a streetcar could potentially provide, we wouldn’t have had any debate about whether it should take Vine or W Clifton up the hill, and the City wouldn’t have spent months of study to figure out which route had more developable land.
Comments: 2
Posted in: Analysis | Misconceptions | Mobility | Talking about Transit
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The Streetcar – 5 – On the back of branding

This is the fifth 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 the rails of division
  7. Chicken or Egg: Shaping the future or following the past?
  8. A New and Highly Sarcastic Plan for Economic Development

The streetcar will be one of four lines in the region that are heavily reliant on branding and advertising to stand out from the crowd and attract riders. The other three are the Southbank Shuttle, SORTA’s #1, and the 2X. I’ve touched on this idea before as it relates to the first two, so I do recommend you check out those links. Let’s try and unpack some of those thoughts here though and see how relevant they are to the streetcar. First, we’ll need to establish a baseline: what sort of advertising/branding treatment do most transit lines get? And then we can move on to what sort of treatment they might warrant.

Both agencies do some advertising for their services generally, but little to none for specific lines except for the three just mentioned.

Bus shelter ad

Part of a larger campaign aimed at weakening ‘bus stigma’ by introducing relatable characters

SORTA places billboard ads, bus shelter ads, has booths at fairs and festivals, and buys various print advertising to promote several campaigns aimed mostly at getting people comfortable with the idea of using transit. They also have pens and keychains and stuff like that to hand out at events.


TANK doesn’t seem to do quite as much advertising, which would reflect their smaller overall size1.

little girl holding a balloon

Anyone who can find me a TANK balloon will get a cookie. SORTA: You need balloons too. Get with the program.

They do evidently have balloons which is pretty cool and they sponsored my transit map, getting their logo on the back. Also, because I really want an excuse to share this photo from their facebook page, I’ll tell you that they also seem to do some public events for charity.


TANK-Man: protecting Northern Kentucky every single day from over-whelming the burdens of car ownership.

So generally speaking, both agencies do things to keep their organization in the minds of their customers and supporters(pens and balloons and TANK-Man), things to gently reach out to people who are transit-curious(SORTA’s billboard ads)and obviously, things to give specific information to people who are looking for it(maps, schedules and websites).

There are exceptions…

Bus shelter advert for the #38X

Bus shelter advertisement for the #38X

…but they seem rare. This advertisement for the #38X is the only one I can think of so I guess it’s the exception that proves the rule. Only three lines really get a special treatment. Here’s a sampling of it:

2x advertisement

The 2X becomes the ‘Airporter’

TANK southbank shuttle

The Southbank Shuttle. I really like TANK’s photographer, whoever (s)he is.

1 4 fun

And the #1 for fun (Not for serious use)

We have a few things going with these lines:

And really, it’s only these three. Other lines get ads all over their interchangeable vehicles, have no distinguishing marks except for the changeable electric signs, and are known only by numbers and sometimes an extension name like “17 Mt Airy”.

scientology ad on a bus

This is NOT SORTA’s Scientology line. it’s just the #11 wearing a costume.

The #4 doesn’t have a big permanent sign on it proclaiming it the ‘Norwooder’ (Hehe… Norwooder), it’s just the #4. That makes sense, too. Often it’s useful to switch a bus from one line to another, such that it might be the #4 coming into Downtown, but when that same bus leaves, it’s running as the #28 with a simple change to the sign. The number is an indication of a path that any given vehicle could follow. Marking up vehicles with special branding just means you can’t use them for other lines and ties your hands a bit when you’re planning schedules or even doing maintenance. Say you need 3 buses to cover a given route at the busiest part of the day. You have to assume that any one of those three could break down unexpectedly or need significant scheduled maintenance so you need to have four or more buses in the garage so you can always be sure of having three ready to go. If all your vehicles are interchangeable, you spread out the risk of a breakdown on any particular line and can have fewer extra vehicles sitting around just in case.

Anyway, back on topic! These three lines do get special treatment. I used the phrase “stand out from the crowd” earlier. That’s essentially what they’re trying to do and the advertising, often aimed mainly at tourists, can be pretty heavy handed. Here for example the rest of the system is completely ignored:

Downtown Cincinnati guidebook map

This map, from the Cincinnati Chamber’s free guidebooks to Downtown, while hard to read, shows only the #1 and the Southbank Shuttle. The guidebooks are all over the place, but are particularly present at places like hotels and the convention center. They’re designed for people unfamiliar with the City. In a word, tourists.

And here special signs make the Shuttle’s stops stand out quite a bit more than normal:

Southbank Shuttle stop sign

A crude measurement involving my computer monitor and a ruler reveals that the Shuttle literally gets more than 100 times more space on this sign than any other line. By the way, at this stop I’m pretty sure all of the other lines are going to Cincinnati and Covington too, but the sign totally fails to mention it.

The streetcar will likely stand out like this too. Every map of the route that I’ve seen has completely failed to acknowledge the rest of the transit system.

streetcar development map

From the Cincinnati Streetcar Blog

People have held design competitions for the stops, each of which will be a large, expensive and highly visible change to a significant piece of the sidewalk rather than just another number on a post.


The stops that are already preemptively(and presumptuously) marked actually already have larger signs than most other stops. The streetcar doesn’t even exist yet and it’s more visible!

Cincinnati streetcar sign

And then of course there’s the vehicle itself which stands out dramatically from the rest of the fleet and won’t likely carry any general advertising for Scientology or cars or other nonsense.

There is a problem with “standing out from the crowd”, and that’s the direct implication that the rest of the transit system is a “crowd”. To increase emphasis on one line so dramatically is to decrease emphasis on every other line.

For many people, the numbered lines(~97% of the system2) drop into a second category of “other routes” and the only lines they know are the ones that have distinct vehicles and maps that are highly simplified. The “other routes” all look alike, don’t tell you where they’re going, and are literally harder to spot. When we create such a distinct hierarchy, every visual cue tells people that the “other routes” aren’t as important, rather that the Southbank shuttle is very important and so is the streetcar. The shuttle may actually be important, but every other line is important too. Every parent thinks their kid is the center of the universe, but everyone who’s not a sociopath realizes that asserting just that to the kindergarten teacher would be way over the line. That is to say that their kid is not the center of the universe. They may feel that way, but they realize it isn’t actually true and that other children are equally important to themselves and their own parents.

Just so, this lopsided emphasis of some lines over and above others wouldn’t make sense if we assumed that all lines are equal. All lines aren’t equal, but not in a way that favours the streetcar. Some lines, like the #33, #17, #4, and #43 are significantly more important than the rest. They go more places, more frequently and as a consequence have many more riders. The corridors they form are critical for thousands of people every day. This just simply cannot be said of the #1 or the Shuttle, or yes, the streetcar.

So I think we’ve gone pretty far out of balance here. We have some lines that we’re effectively advertising to people as the only thing they need to know about, but none of those lines(I’m excepting the 2X from this now) is actually very useful at all in the big scheme of things. They’re really pretty minor routes and are so by design. I suspect that that actually may be why they get so much advertising to begin with. When we design a route with only a small subset of people in mind(say, tourists or yuppies), we make a line that is destined to have relatively low ridership. We most often see these lines designed to fulfil a political end3. I think perhaps that when people see the (structurally) low ridership of a less useful line they try to correct it in a way that’s familiar to the people who helped instigate it, that is, the people who applied the original political pressure. What do they think of first? Advertising. Branding. Distinction from that mess of “other routes” that they don’t actually understand very well. This is ‘their’ line in question, intending to serve people they know well, and they actually do know what reaches those people. So they make simple maps and big signs that ignore the rest of the system while explaining just one tiny part of it that they think is important to a particular group.

What’s perverse is that if they did understand the mess of “other routes”, in almost any case, they wouldn’t have proposed a narrow solution for a small constituency in the first place and it wouldn’t have needed the expense and sillyness of a distinct brand because it would have just been plainly useful from the start.

If most lines don’t need special advertising and branding, I think we need to ask ourselves collectively why only a few lines should get it and which those should be. I think we might also usefully ask why only some lines get a distinct brand when just about any line might benefit from it(Norwooder! :-P). It seems like the very strong brand and high level of visual distinction being created for the streetcar is probably in part a preemptive defense against the political embarrassment that would result from the naturally low ridership on a poorly chosen route.

Show 3 footnotes

  1. Also, I don’t live in KY, so I could just be missing some of it.
  2. Source: My ass. But still, it should be close.
  3. Definitely true for the Shuttle(Chamber/tourism people in NKY I’m pretty sure) and the #1(Arts orgs and I think it even get’s money from the casino if I remember right. Don’t quote me on that).
Comments: 9
Posted in: Ads | Investments | Misconceptions | Plans | Technology Choices
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Mapping ridership on a linear corridor

I saw something on the internet a couple days ago:


…that made me want to analyse ridership stop by stop, and well, hopefully make more sense of it than this chart did. It’s kind of pretty, and I’d probably get more out of it if I were familiar with the system, but it’s hard to see any interesting trends here, mostly because the vertical scales vary quite a bit1.

Being the techy that I am, I wrote up a little PHP script to manipulate SORTA’s not-quite-public ridership data  from 20092. Stops are paired up, as well as I could manage for each direction. The green bars are passengers getting on, the blue getting off. Grey bars between them indicate the day’s total. Each side of the center line is a direction of travel.

a day's ridership on the SORTA #33

View full size to read the little stop labels. One pixel represents 2.5 riders(in the full size image)

I made a few of these graphs and they got me thinking about what I should have expected the data to look like. I’d never really thought about what transit ridership should look like theoretically. Did you notice that the balance of riders getting on or off shifts completely from one end of the line to the other? It makes sense. If a transit line were to travel straight through an area with even density, we might expect it to look something like this:

even ridership on a linear transit corridor

This on-off aspect of the data is pretty interesting, and I’m glad it wasn’t all aggregated to totals for each stop.

We see a shift in boardings and de-boardings because a line is more useful if it has a long way to go yet, and not very useful at all if you’re at the second to last stop. Not many people will get on at 7th St to go two blocks to Government Square but if they get on at 7th to go the other direction they have the whole world ahead of them.

And so we see each trip slowly shift from “on”-heavy at the beginning to “off”-heavy at the end with a solid mix of boardings and de-boardings in the middle.

Here’s the #33 again, in map form, and only going out from Downtown:

ridership on the #33 outbound

Remember that this doesn’t include the inbound trips. Not everyone is going one way, I’m just not showing the other half.

Here it is zoomed in on the Glenway/Warsaw business district:

Glenway business district ridership on the SORTA #33

Here’s what just that looked like in the chart by the way:

Ridership outbound on the #33

It’s only the outbound trip, so it’s only one side of the graph. If you look at an aerial photo, you can see pretty quickly that the ridership is higher where there are businesses and dense side-streets going off perpendicularly to houses. The places where riders drop off rather quickly are places where hills have precluded development and one or both sides of the street have either a lot less development within a couple blocks, or even just woods. The hill up from Lower Price hill(East side of the image) demonstrates this effect most notably.

ridership of the #33 over satellites

Transit users don’t visit the woods.

Dense areas are good places to run transit. It’s also good to connect dense areas that are divided by a sparse area like Queensgate. The stops along the way won’t show it, but the huge number of people who loaded on at Government square are still on the bus heading west to the Warsaw Glenway business district and beyond.

There’s a ton more to discover in here but it’s actually a lot of work preparing the data. If you want to do a little exploring yourself, here’s the script and the data that I used. The full stop-level ridership dataset from March 2008 is available on the Data page of this site and a more up to date version will be available very soon if enough people email Kevin, SORTA’s senior system planner. If you haven’t seen it yet, you may also want to check out the full ridership intensity map I made from the same 2008 data. Here are a couple more charts just to whet your appetite:

The #24:

chart of ridership on SORTA's 24

This is the exact same scale(for full size image) as for the full chart of the #33 above.

And the #51:

51 ridership

Same scale here too. Notice that rider’s don’t start using the #51 in earnest until it hits Clifton. That’s why the dip into Fairview is dropped altogether in SORTA’s new routing proposals.

It’s important to note for these two that it’s not that they’re necessarily “performing” a lot worse than the #33, rather their frequency is significantly lower so less riders could have been expected from the beginning.

Show 2 footnotes

  1. As has been said of it. Not being original there.
  2. Spreadsheet software just has nothing on custom, dynamic, database-driven scaleable vector graphics!
Comments: 3
Posted in: Analysis | Logic | Math
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A critical review of bus shelter ads

Bus shelter ads are sort of a window into the soul of a region and a transit agency. They show quite clearly:

  1. What the transit agency is saying; after all, since they get a discount on their own space and have direct access, they use it more.
  2. The type of people who use the system, as seen by the advertisers, and what’s important to them.
  3. The aspirations of people who use the system, again, as perceived by the advertisers.
  4. What the transit agency is willing to tolerate. Where they see themselves standing in the big scheme of things. Self-confidence and financial surety.

I’m thinking this might become sort of a regular thing. Here are the first few shelter ads:

Bus shelter ad

Bus shelter ad from the ‘go-metro’ campaign across from P&G on Fifth.

This one’s from SORTA. It’s part of the ‘Go-Metro’ campaign, an effort to normalize riding the bus by showing middle and upper-middle class people along with their reason for using transit. Why should you use transit? Because these people do, and look how like you they are! Or at least how like you aspire to be. This actually isn’t too bad, as long as it’s accompanied by other marketing efforts. Where does transit go? When does it run? Is it actually useful where and when you need it to be? These are essential questions that aren’t answered by this ad. But it doesn’t need to answer them as long as it’s companions will. This sort of marketing is in line with marketing for anything else, if a bit less subtle. Why should you buy an i-widget? ’cause that guy in the commercial has one and look how cute and successful he is! This stuff (generally)works to get people to be open to your product if not actively pursuing it. If you haven’t seen it yet, check out this (I really wish it weren’t) only slightly self deprecating bus ad.

Bus shelter advert for the #38X

Bus shelter advertisement for the #38X on west 9th St between Plum and Elm

Now this is what I get excited about: An ad that  really tells you something! “What is the 38X? you ask. Why, let me tell you. It goes from the Glenway Crossing park and ride directly to UC and uptown.” This is a great companion to the ad above. Hit ’em from both sides. You got your soft aspirational appeal, and here you have the kicker. Your trip to uptown from the west side just got one connection shorter. Notice that the ad is on the west side of Downtown. It should be right where people who are making a now unnecessary transfer downtown might pass by. But it isn’t quite. The only express bus from the Glenway Crossing Transit Center to Downtown has it’s closest stop to this location at 9th and Vine more than two blocks away. And of course anyone going to uptown would have got off earlier at Government Square or somewhere on Main Street to transfer. So who is going to see this ad? I’m not quite sure. It’s a pretty specific message, so I would hope the targeting would be rock solid. I’ve seen this a few other places(uptown, I think), so this location may be an outlier.

Bus shelter ad for mobile service

Bus shelter ad for AT&T mobile service near Xavier at the intersection of the #4 and #51.

Here’s an interesting one! AT&T’s 4GLTE(whatever that is) now covers almost all of the region. How the region is defined is what’s interesting to me. The map shows only a very few things. In order of prominence:

I won’t dispute the river. That should be on every Cincinnati map. Are the rest of these things important to you? Are they important to people waiting for the bus? Does transit even go to Hamilton? Why are these specific cities mentioned? It’s a plainly suburban map, directed at people who live in or near the suburban cities mentioned and who are used to navigating by car on the highway. The ad is less directed at transit users, more at the people in cars passing through the intersection and waiting at the light on Dana going east. Transit is advertising with it’s infrastructure a view of the region that is, really, antagonistic toward an understanding and acceptance of transit. It’s also taking money from the advertiser, ostensibly to pay for transit itself. Complicated.

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Bunching, or why the buses all come at once

Have you ever been waiting way too long for a bus on a major line and then out of nowhere two or three buses come by one after another? Inevitably,  the one you get on is completely stuffed with people. “What the hell is SORTA up to??” you wonder.

The drivers aren’t just being ridiculous. In fact, this behaviour of buses can be explained by statistics and a little algebra. And it’s really hard to avoid in a transit system set up the way ours is.

On transit lines that are frequent enough that people don’t tend to look at schedules, people will arrive at their stops in a fairly steady, predictable way. We have a few such routes, a fuzzy distinction to be sure, but including the main corridors of the 33, 17/19, 43, and 4 at least.

main Cincinnati transit corridors

Main transit corridors in Cincinnati.

Since people won’t try to arrive at any particular time because of the schedule, and because there are a lot of people, their arrivals are more or less random and can reasonably be predicted for any given stop in similar circumstances.

Let’s say that stops along line X accumulate on average 1 person each minute. Let’s also say that during the day, a bus will come by every 10 minutes, and that it takes 7 seconds for each person to board. They have to line up single file, pay the fare, then move to their seat. In our hypothetical world, this bus will come by a given stop every ten minutes, spend 70 seconds loading 10 passengers and then move along to the next stop where it will do the same and so on. It will spend 20 seconds travelling between each stop.

What happens if one bus is delayed by just one minute?

A single bus gets delayed by one minute between stops; say a squirrel was in the way. When it arrives at it’s next stop 11 minutes will have elapsed since the last bus came by and there are likely to be 11 people waiting at the stop. The bus will spend 77 seconds loading these passengers before moving on. When it gets to the next stop, it is now one minute and seven seconds late and has 11.0833 (in reality, 11 or sometimes 12) passengers to board, taking 77.82 seconds, putting it then one minute and 14.82 seconds behind. Remember that while this is happening, the bus immediately before it has not slowed down. It’s still on schedule, picking up it’s average ten people per stop and taking the expected time to do so.

As our hypothetical late bus progresses, needing to board more passengers than normal and taking longer than the normal 70 seconds to do so, the the gap between it and the bus ahead of it is slowly widening. This delay grows logarithmicly; the further behind the bus gets the longer it has to take to board passengers at each stop since each stop has had more time to accumulate passengers in the interval.

The first bus in a bunching scenario, stop by stop.

The first bus in a bunching scenario, stop by stop.

And here’s the math(in PHP) in case anyone is interested:

$time_between_stops = 20; // time between stops in seconds
$initial_span = 600; // time between buses in seconds
$delay = 60; // initial delay in seconds
$board = 7; // boarding time of passengers
$pass = 1/60; // passengers per second at each stop
$time_elapsed = 0; // total time from start
$span = $initial_span - 60;
while($span > 0){ // IE, the bus behind moving at scheduled speed hasn't caught up yet
$passengers_at_stop = ($initial_span + $delay) * $pass;
$additional_delay = ($passengers_at_stop * $board) - ($initial_span *   $pass * $board);
$delay += $additional_delay;
$time_elapsed += $delay + $time_between_stops;
$span -= $additional_delay;

Meanwhile, if the bus behind our late bus isn’t careful, it will speed up once it passes the squirrel-point. The nearest stop, as the squirrel will observe, is likely to have 9 passengers, taking only 63 seconds boarding time.

The time between it and the late bus decreases, such that once it has caught up to the point at which the first bus became late it will be picking up less and less people and spending less time dwelling at a stop while people pay fare and find their seats.

How a squirrel delaying a bus for one minute can stop all buses forever

A one minute delay can hypothetically lead to infinite delay for all buses some distance after the point of initial delay.

The above chart shows the impact of a bus delayed by one minute on an infinitely long line with buses coming every ten minutes forever. It’s assumed that buses can’t pass and thus the first bus will dictate the speed of all. The chart doesn’t take into account the possibility for coordinated efforts of buses running the exact same route to pass one another and individually skip stops, such coordinated action as would be needed to avoid eventually infinite delay. But as all of our high-frequency trunk lines spread out into sub-routes once they get further from Downtown, such coordination would only even be theoretically possible in one direction anyway!

There are a few things we can do about vehicle bunching.

Drunk Squirrel

Go home, squirrel. You’re drunk.

This isn’t necessarily as hard as it sounds. Squirrels aside, things like putting transit underground, or letting it bypass stop-lights can go quite a long way toward avoiding random delays.

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Posted in: Back to Basics | Math | Technology Choices
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