February 25th, 2013

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.

2 responses to ““multi-modal””

  1. Nate Wessel says:

    Here’s an article that seems to make the mistake I discussed here:

  2. TBender says:

    When I think multi-modal in Cincinnati I think about the following modes:
    *Public Transit(bus, streetcar, trolley, BRT, etc)
    *Private Transit (Amtrak, MegaBus, Greyhound, etc)

    I think in terms of people getting places. There are other people who think in broader terms, and also include:
    * Freight Rail
    * Interstate Freight
    * Air Freight

    Nobody ever says “I need multi-modal solutions for getting T-Shirts to my house.” Someone cares about this stuff, but probably not most of us. So I don’t include it in my thinking.

    For me, something that is multi-modal needs to include at least 2 of the above passenger modes. From a technical standpoint, everyone is multi-modal because everyone walks from their car to the store in a parking lot. But, “realer” multi-modal might include using Anderson Ferry to get from Delhi Twp to Covington, and I bet you that the people who do this every day don’t consider that a multi-modal trip. But it is.

    When people say they want multi-modal choices, I think what they’re actually saying is that want to be able to choose how they get places. That means, being able to get door-to-door using two significantly different modal itineraries; and for both to be time-realistic. I consider driving to be the baseline index, and “realistic” being 200-300%, depending on how long the total trip takes (300% if driving trip is under 15 minutes, 200% if the driving trip is closer to 45 minutes or an hour).

    The problem in Cincinnati isn’t the lack of modal options, it’s the level of investment in those alternative modes that is keeping us behind. Pick someone from a crowd, and in a month I COULD get them knowledgeable and fit enough to use a bike and a bus to get to work, even if they thought it wasn’t possible in a million years. The problem is, the system is so complicated and the service levels so abysmal that it really takes a concerted effort to figure out a realistic option – one where people are willing to sacrifice in other areas of life to make it work. You’ll have to get to work earlier, you’ll probably have to spend a little less time at home, but you’ll be fitter and richer and probably happier.

    If transit service was better in this city, if you could just walk to the bus stop and not need a schedule, and expect to get to work in 2X the time it takes to drive there’d be way less noise about “needing a mulit-modal system.” Part of the problem is money, and if we (as a region) never decide to invest further in transit then it’s never going to work.

    The other part of the problem is an inefficient use of existing resources. There are so few people that use transit that we cherish them, and we do everything we can to make them happy. This means a bus stop in front of anyone’s house who calls and asks for one. Seriously. I can take you places in the region where there are 2 bus stops on the same block – you could park a bus at one stop, and the back of the bus would be at the 2nd stop. This slows things way the way down, and is infuriating for people who are on the bus.

    In Northern Kentucky right now we’re looking at transit corridors for opportunities to improve travel times. We’ve identified areas where bus stop consolidation will make trips 20% faster door-to-door, even when you suggest that half of the people are going to have to walk an additional 1/3 mile to a bus stop. To reiterate, there is low-hanging fruit in the region where, if we make people walk further to a bus stop, their door-to-door travel times will improve by 20%.

    Think about the #17 from Cincinnati to Clifton. Back in the early 2000s that was a 30 minute trip from Gov’t Square to McMillan St, or a 20 minute bike ride, or a 10 minute drive. It was insane because the bus would drive up Vine Street (one-way at the time) and pull over at every single intersection to let someone off. In reality, you only needed to stop at maybe 4 intersections from Central to West Clifton, and you’d make the trip about half as long time-wise.

    The transit providers in the region are starting to see what a difference this type of change can make and in the next 12 months I think you’re going to see serious changes to the way transit is provided along some of the more busy corridors. I’m excited about it.