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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The trebuchet that is my work here

Note: I started writing this piece earlier this summer. I’ve since resolved much of my angst and committed myself to a variation on the plan sighted near the end. I just came back across this in my drafts folder though and thought it too interesting to delete. I offer it here as a glimpse into an earlier thought.

A good deal of travel this summer, and a better deal of reading from various philosophers and sociologists, has lead me to an angsty point. Angstier than usual that is.

My various attempts to criticize, I hope constructively, both SORTA and TANK over the last couple years, seem at SORTA at least, to have got me little more than a bad reputation around their Main St offices. I’ve known this for a while, and was reminded of it today1. Since I published the frequency map, I’ve known that the people whom I would love to employ me see me as no more than a potentially dangerous meddler, a niggling threat to their cautious and carefully laid plans. Inevitably, my criticisms come after plans are made, things purchased, contracts signed: the worst possible time. They come out of the dark. They are ill-informed. They are ignorant of all the work that has gone on behind the scenes. But how else could I possibly operate when there is a behind-the-scenes?

The problem is this: I do not work for SORTA.

The only thing I can do as someone who wants to be a major part of the big ongoing discussion Cincinnati needs to have about it’s transportation system is to shout at the institutional walls. To launch critical, perhaps political, attacks, hoping that I can strike deep enough or precisely enough to make some change in ‘the system’.

Must we either be inside the fort or assaulting it? This seems like an absurd dichotomy. Here is the problem: I have been too inclusive in my framing of the question up to now. For ‘we’ don’t care that much about the fort. I do. We are largely content to accept the work of planners, and should be. I am not.

The problem is this: I have become an expert, yet I do not work as one.

The ‘public feedback’ processes that planners design are grossly inadequate for people like me. For those without deep understanding, the planner’s leading questions are fine: Do you want more of this or that?(We’ll take care of the balance). Imagine a doctor describing his symptoms to another doctor and being required to accept the diagnosis without question or discussion.

I am much too qualified to engage in established ‘public feedback’ processes. Yet this is precisely what my peers and I are relegated to. Neither SORTA nor any other public organization (The City of Cincinnati is another example) has experience dealing with people like me: Experts Without Borders.

Normal, and local, employment seems impossible. There are too many planners graduating from DAAP and seemingly no hope for the growth of city administrative budgets.

Planners Without Borders…

We are left, this handful of un(der)employed planners and I, to attempt something that hasn’t really been done before, those of us wishing still to be planners: freelance urban planning, which sounds more like a Monty Python sketch than a viable career plan.

What is freelance urban planning? To my mind, it is NOT consulting for governments. If governments had the inclination, they would do better to hire staff. In any case, governments are sleeping with the big contractors and are generally not flexible enough to try working with small freelancers.2 Freelance urban planning could be a responsive, community/client driven urban planning process. It will be a challenge to established structures. Freelance urban planning can be a challenge to city institutions, from private organizations that lack expert planning knowledge, but whose goals are clearly stifled by planning institutions or administrative neglect. I want to be a hired gun in the same way lawyers are: you don’t jump into a legal environment without a (typically freelance) consultant do you? Neither should one attempt to reshape their city without a hired expert at their side.

I need the financial resources to build a really substantial challenge to stagnant institutions. And I DO want to challenge them, not kick the other contractors out of bed and climb in myself. By competition and challenge are we made stronger.

Show 2 footnotes

  1. Sometime in June actually
  2. Y’all are encouraged to prove me wrong.
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Posted in: Psychological
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SORTA’s new transit plan: The Map

I’ve put together a map of SORTA’s proposed routing changes that beats the pants off any maps I’ve yet seen, at least as far as legibility is concerned. It’s here for your digestion. I’ll have a more detailed play-by-play analysis coming soon, probably tomorrow.

Map of SORTA's proposed changes

PROPOSED changes. Click for full size.

current Cincinnati ransit frequency map for comparison

Transit AS IT IS. Click for full size.

Thoughts? Criticisms? Missed opportunities, or ones well taken? Post them in the comments! I’ll use them as fodder when I write the next post.

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Posted in: Maps | Priorities
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