Can Transit Survive the 21st Century?

I had the great pleasure of presenting a session a couple of weeks ago at the National Planning Conference in New York City, the annual planning conference put on by the American Planning Association.

Working with Shannon Greenwell at MassDOT and Patrick Sullivan at the Seaport Transportation Management Association, we put together a discussion asking the audacious and foolhardy question, what will transit look like in the year 2100? Is transit still going to be around? More importantly, should it?

It ended up being a pretty interesting discussion, with a lot of provocative ideas and a good deal of disagreement, which is exactly what we wanted. A transportation expert once said, “All traffic models are wrong, but some are useful.” That’s how we thought about this long-range planning session – we knew we were going to be wrong about our prognostications, but perhaps we could at least be useful.

Transit Barely Survived the 20th Century

The first point is that transit barely survived the 20th century. If you look at transit ridership in America, it peaked in the late 1940s and has been more or less stable, on a per capita basis, at much lower levels since then.

ridership
Source: APTA

At the same time that transit took a plunge, car use soared. Today, in any given area except for some of the largest cities, between 75% and 85% of all work trips are made via automobile.

Many urbanists have been rejoicing at a couple of trends since 2005. Per capita car use has been on the decline, and transit ridership has been going up (if you look at the blue line in the chart above, you can see that absolute ridership has been increasing).

But over the past year many transit agencies, including PVTA, have seen year-over-year declines in fixed-route bus service. At the same time, we are starting to see the trend in car use edge back up.

declinin ridership
A slide from the presentation. 

Our presentation explored three key uncertainties over the next century that are going to have an incredible impact on transportation, and the future of public transit:

  • Autonomous Vehicle Technology
  • Climate Change Policy
  • The Aging Population

These certainly aren’t the only three things that will impact our transit systems, but we focused in on them as playing an outsized role.

Autonomous Vehicle Technology

For those of you unfamiliar with Autonomous Vehicle Technology, it has the potential to change our lives, our cities, and our economy as much as automobiles did during the last century. Google, Uber, Tesla, Ford, and a lot of other firms are working on the technology to render drivers obsolete. The tech side could be complete by 2025.

av tech

This matters for transit a whole lot. A rule of thumb is that about 75% of the cost of operating a bus is paying the driver in the seat. If we didn’t have to do that anymore, then we could run buses anywhere, right?

Let’s take it a step further. Why run these buses all over the place when we can have small sedans or vans buzzing around, a la Lyft, just waiting for the next person to request a ride. Would rubber tire bus service become obsolete?

On the other hand, if we follow a private-ownership model, maybe people won’t mind traffic all that much if they get to read the paper or sleep or work on their way into town. Maybe traffic and air pollution and urban sprawl will get even worse because driving suddenly becomes “me” time or “productive” time. Would commuter rail service become obsolete?

Climate Change Policy

Another major trend in the future is climate change policy. Transit stands to benefit a lot if the US and/or the world gets serious about climate change. The energy needed to move transit, on a per capita basis, is a fraction of what it takes to move a person even in a very efficient compact car.

The wild card is whether we will ever get serious about climate change. In 2016, The Pew Center released a poll showing that about half of all Americans don’t think humans are the source of climate change – despite overwhelming scientific consensus to the contrary.

climate change

I won’t get into how depressing it is that half of my fellow citizens don’t accept climate change as something that we are causing. But the question becomes at what point, if any, will we actually get serious about climate change? And if the answer is “Never,” then will transit ever be able to compete with the ease and convenience of automobiles? Or self-driving automobiles?

Taking it a step further, it should be noted that in major cities subways are especially susceptible to sea level rise and storm surges. As climate change renders transit systems more and more unreliable (like we saw after super-storm Sandy), will we see riders abandon these systems? Will the subways that have served our cities for decades become unusable, and/or unused?

The Aging Population

Finally, the aging of the population is going to play a key role in what our transit system looks like in the future (full disclosure: this was my section, so I’ll do my best to not over-inflate its importance relative to the prior two).

I am 32 years old now; in one year, I will either be 32 years old – or dead. Those are my options; those are everyone’s options. So the average age of the population is relatively easy to forecast, using some assumptions about mortality rates. And Census Bureau has done that, showing that we’re going to increase from about 40 million people age 65 and over today, to about 80 million in 2050.

The wildcard is immigration. The Pew Research Center estimates that without immigrants, the US population will plateau at around 338 million people. Furthermore, non-native-born women are much more likely to have kids than native-born women, meaning that the 338 million Americans in a no-immigration scenario will also, on average, be pretty old.

immigration

This becomes important because older Americans are more likely to need door-to-door (paratransit) service (think those wheelchair accessible vans you see going around, “The RIDE” in Boston for example). This is due to dementia, vision loss, or any number of other impairments which make driving impossible. But as more people use paratransit service, the budget for regular “big bus” service dwindles.

As some communities become more and more dominated by senior citizens, could we imagine a transit system that only provides door-to-door service? And if the vehicles are self-driving, why not? Will big bus service even exist anymore?

Final Thoughts

I should finish by saying that I’m actually very optimistic about the future of transit. As Jarrett Walker has written about extensively in his blog and book, the simple geometry of cities and cars dictates that transit is a necessary attribute of density (just like transit depends on density, density too depends on transit). In our biggest cities, rail transit will probably never go away nor be replaceable. Cars, even self-driving cars, just take up too much space.

But on the other hand, this is an important discussion to have, especially for those places smaller than our biggest cities. In a very real sense, we as planners must be good stewards of public funding. Put bluntly, what if we build a commuter rail line that no one ever uses because they are in self-driving cars? We will have wasted millions of dollars that could have been better spent.

The discussion didn’t provide too many answers, but it did provide a lot of good questions. And if the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy taught us nothing, it’s that finding the right question can often be the more important than the answer.

Commute Series: Unicorn Sighting

When I was in college, I was involved with a community bike project. I was one of a bunch of bike geeks who would get together and wrench on “Yellow Bikes,” which people could ride freely around campus and drop for the next person to use. There was no end to the one-upsmanship during those Saturdays trying to turn rusty piles of parts into working bikes.

One afternoon, there was a new guy working on an old heap, and he started talking about a mythical bike he saw once:

Yeah, man, it was amazing. It’s a reverse recumbent tricycle with a teardrop shell, and it can fly like the wind. You can get up to 30 mph on a flat straightaway pedaling that thing – but it totally dies when you try to climb with it. Still, it’s truly a magical machine.

The image caught my imagination. For a while I entertained the idea of building or buying such a bike, but that dream faded into momentary flights of fancy, and then dwindled into but a faint ember. Until last week. I spotted my unicorn.

If you watch the video above, you’ll see that this guy really flies! He even outpaced me with my electric assist bike – he was definitely doing 30 mph or even faster there for a minute.

Anyway, happy Bike Week! It’s a beautiful one, so don’t forget to hop on two (or three) wheels at least once while the sun is shining. You may even spot a most magical ride.

Commute Series: “Wait, you kayak to work???”

Walking, biking and transit are usually referred to as “alternative transportation.” But what I find really interesting are those forms of transportation which truly are “out of the box.”

Two summers ago I decided to kayak to work along the Charles River. I got an inflatable kayak, walked down to the river, pumped it up and then made my way to downtown Boston. I thought it was pretty cool, but then I was surprised to see a friend of mine kayaked to work, too!

I met Ted Sweeney while at the University of Oregon – the bike community brought us together (though he’s much more athletic about it than I ever have been/will be). I thought I would throw him a few questions about his kayak commute, since he does it a lot more than I have. The below Q & A has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: What is your normal, non-waterborne commute like? How far do you usually have to go? 

A: I live in Ballard and work at the University of Washington, meaning that my commute is a 5-mile slog across North Seattle. Crossing the many north-south arterials that run to downtown means that transit is at least 45 minutes. My fastest and most common commute option is bicycling, as the Burke-Gilman Trail (one of the nation’s best and busiest rail trails) starts in Ballard and goes right through the university campus. The bike commute is a consistent 25 minutes, faster even than driving once parking is factored in.

But the most direct pathway from Ballard to the UW, the one with absolutely no traffic, no stoplights, no potholes, no fare to pay, no slick railroad tracks, and no texting drivers, is the Lake Washington Ship Canal.

lake-washington-canal

Q: Why did you decide to kayak to work? Is it for the exercise, the cost, the novelty? 

A: The kayak commute began because I needed calluses. In fall of 2014 I was preparing to do the first ever  Race to Alaska, an engineless small boat race from Port Townsend, WA, to Ketchikan, AK. Before embarking for the race in June, I needed to toughen up my hands because our sailboat had an auxiliary rowing system – I needed to be able to work those oars for potentially hours at a time. Adding kayaking to my commute meant I could work my hands a bit, so I kayaked consistently about once a week that winter in preparation. The race went well, we reached Ketichikan after about three blustery weeks on the wild British Columbia coast. I’ve kept doing the kayak commute off and on since, averaging somewhere around a couple times a month.  I find that what brings me to it is the exercise, the meditative time on the water, the sense of adventure that’s inherent in arriving somewhere by boat, and the ability to get some wide open, solitary space in the middle of my urban day.

misty-shot
“…what brings me to it is the exercise, the meditative time on the water, the sense of adventure that’s inherent in arriving somewhere by boat, and the ability to get some wide open, solitary space in the middle of my urban day.”

Q: Do you think kayak transportation will ever catch on? Do you know anyone else who kayaks to work?

Kayak commuting is a high-level urban eccentricity, and so it should be no surprise that there are at least a handful of Seattle weirdos who are also out there doing it. I’ve met another guy on the water who paddles Ballard – UW but to a much further point on campus than I do.  I know there are some people in the summer time who cross Portage Bay to the UW on kayaks and paddle boards from the Eastlake neighborhood. I’ve got a friend in Portland who was biking to the Willamette River, kayaking across it carrying his bike on the kayak, then biking to work.  But he got bored with that and now is biking to the river and then swimming across, towing his bike atop some pool noodles.  That guy is sort of my hero.

I think the key to making a kayak commute realistic is to have a safe, calm waterway that at least partially makes the connection between home and work. Making it time-competitive with other commute options is just about impossible – the best time I got from home to desk was about an hour and a quarter when towing the kayak by bike trailer, once you factor in the bike ride, locking the bike, putting on the dry suit, packing the kayak trailer up, paddling, schlepping the kayak up to the office, and changing.  Again, that’s compared to a 25-minute bike commute.

bike-rig
Ted’s Bike Trailer/Kayak Setup

I think safety is a limitation to widespread adoption.  I wear a gasketed dry suit year round when I do this (and of course a personal flotation device (PFD)) and I carry a VHF radio and lights for the boat. Being on the water, even relatively safe Lake Union and the Ship Canal, is no joke.  Taking the safety precautions adds time and complication that makes the commute take longer, but it’s essential to do this in a safe way.  It’s a serious undertaking to be out there, around commercial boat traffic, vulnerable to the weather and in water that is cold all year long.  People should be dressed for immersion, wearing a PFD, able to self-rescue, and aware of what the weather forecast means for water conditions.

Q: What’s the best part of a kayak commute? The worst part? 

A: The best part of the commute by far is getting into Lake Union and getting around Gasworks Park.  I get a wide open view of the downtown skyline and Space Needle over the flat expanse of Lake Union.  In the evenings when I’m not pressed for time I like to paddle a ways out into the lake and just float in quiet contemplation for a while admidst this scene.  That’s a pretty awesome commute perk.

night-shot
Night shot of the city from the water.

The worst part is just dealing with all the gear involved, as well as worrying somewhat about the security of the kayak – I have a pretty good out of the way spot away from the water to stash it and it’s pretty big to steal, but I haven’t devised any locking method as of yet.

sunrise
That tranquil water, in the middle of a bustling city.

Q: What else should people know about a human-powered waterborne commute? 

A: Like bike commuting, the first step to a happy water commute is to just get out on the water and learn to safely enjoy being out there, controlling your craft, and learning your limits and capabilities.  If there’s a river or lake where folks live and they haven’t found a way out onto it, I highly encourage them to do so.  It changes one’s whole perspective on the city and its infrastructure.  Once you’re comfortable and confident on the water, the possibilities for creative human powered water travel are extensive – kayaks that fold into backpacks, inflatable stand-up paddle boards, canoes, rowboats, floating bicycles.  Stay safe and enjoy the inevitable gasps – “Wait, you KAYAK to work????”

ted
Ted in action!

Car Commute: Easy Rider

It’s easy to forget just how unusual my work commute is. This past week it’s been rather cold (one morning was -1 degrees F, according to my weather app). I still biked to the bus stop, rode the express bus to work, and then biked the rest of the way to work.The reason is pretty simple – I didn’t have much choice, since I live in a one-car household and my wife uses it most days. But even if she didn’t need the car, I still probably would have done that same morning routine, because it’s just that – a routine.

At my office in Springfield, multiple people came up to me on that sub-zero day after seeing my bike and said, “I can’t believe you rode your bike into work today.” I sort of shrugged and explained that I didn’t really ride my bike in, not all the way, but only to/from the bus stop.

“Still,” they’d say, “you’re crazy!”

My Easy Ride

Yesterday, I had to drive into work to make it to an afternoon meeting in Northampton, and fortunately the household car was available. Here are the things I noticed on my car commute:

  1. Instead of needing to be out the door by 7:25 AM to make the bus to Springfield, I got to leave at 7:45.
  2. If I left at 7:46, it would be fine – unlike the bus, the car would still be there.
  3. It usually takes me several minutes just to bundle up. Since I was going from a heated home to a soon-to-be-heated car, I didn’t have to spend nearly as much time putting on winter weather gear.
  4. I got to crank my NPR up as loud as I wanted on my way to work.
  5. I got to park literally feet from the entrance to my office, instead of having to bike about a mile from the Springfield Bus Terminal to the office – again, reducing the amount of bundling I needed to do.
  6. I finally got to bring my suit jacket to work with me, which I’d been delaying because I really didn’t want to stuff my suit jacket into a pannier on my bike ride in.
  7. Driving to work was really convenient, easy, stress-free, and generally pleasant.

I forget how thoroughly engineered our transportation system is, so that driving the obvious choice. So self-evident to the point that people think you have a screw loose if you choose not to drive (and as for those poor folks who don’t have a choice and can’t drive – they deserve our sympathies).

Of course, the same does not hold true for places like Boston or New York City. In those cities, space is at a premium and driving is much more difficult – it’s just a reality of geometry. But Springfield, Massachusetts is much more representative of the rest of the country than these metropolises. The car is king.

In the end, if we want people to choose walking and transit and biking as their travel mode, driving has got to become harder. This could be done through more expensive gas, or parking, or dedicating a travel lane to bus service instead of cars – but in the end, if we want more people using active and/or sustainable transportation, driving is just way too easy.

Bus Commute: Community of Strangers

 

In transportation professional speak, I’m what is called a “choice rider.” These are the folks using transit who have other options, and tend to be higher-income, white collar, white-skinned professionals. When I first heard that phrase, “choice rider,” I thought it was offensive – like a choice cut of meat. Like there was some intrinsic quality of these transit users that made them preferable to the rest of “those people” who are using transit.

Of course, the origin is more innocuous – it refers to people who “have a choice” about whether or not to use the bus. Hence, “choice rider.” 

I live in a one-car household, and my wife uses it about 95% of the time. We could get a second car for me to use, but haven’t yet done so. For me, being mostly car-free is definitely a choice. If I wanted to, I could choose to buy or lease a car of my own and drive to work, to go shopping, to get to the end of my driveway if I wanted to.

But since I care about the environment and like to exercise and am a cheapskate, I stay mostly car-free. And it’s hit that time of year (dark, snowy, icy) when riding my bike becomes more challenging than I want to deal with. So I’ve switched over to the bus for the time being.

Taking transit in a big city isn’t a big deal. Even where I lived in relatively suburban Belmont, most people working in Cambridge or Boston hopped on the 73 bus or used commuter rail to get into the city.

Mid-sized cities are a whole different story. Growing up in Lexington, Kentucky (population 308,000), I never took the bus even once. Going to school in Eugene, Oregon (MSA population: 357,000), I took the bus rapid transit system several times, but only ventured onto the rest of the bus system only once. Even when I was in college at Hampshire, I generally only used the buses between college campuses, which act more or less as a shuttle for students and faculty.

Using the bus to get from Holyoke to Springfield, then, was a fairly new experience for me compared to my prior transit use. The big reason goes back to what I mentioned earlier: there are comparatively few “choice riders” in Hampden County. According to the most recent PVTA rider survey, two-thirds of transit users do not have reliable access to other transportation. That squares with a map I put together showing the percentage of households in Holyoke with zero cars (in some spots, >50%).

choice-riders
Source: PVTA Comprehensive Service Analysis

holyoke_no_vehicles

In short, that means a lot of very poor people are using the transit system in Hampden County.

And there is a stigma to using the bus. There’s a sense that “those people” who ride the bus are using drugs, or drunk, or cussing loudly, or stinky, or doing any number of other objectionable things. And of course race/racism plays into it, too – even though Hampden county is three-quarters white, the bus ridership is overwhelmingly non-white.

Riding the Bus

As I have ridden the bus, the biggest surprise is the subtle sense of community that exists. I take the P21 Express from Holyoke to Springfield, which runs hourly. That means that I ride with basically the same people every day, and have the same driver on most days. In an unexpected way, I get to know them all just the tiniest bit. 

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Typical afternoon on the P21 Express. 

Like last year, there was the driver who, everyday before her shift, was on her phone talking with her daughter and going over spelling words. She had to be at work at an ungodly early hour, but still wanted to help her daughter study for apparently frequent spelling quizzes.

There was also the family who would take the express bus most days, with the father who had to be at least 6’ 6” tall and his two daughters. They were always late, rushing to the bus stop – but usually that same bus driver who practiced spelling with her daughter would stop mid-block and open the door for the huffing family. That sort of thing would never happen in Boston, the driver would just keep going. 

I remember last winter that there was the one other biker who would put his mountain bike on the bus alongside mine. He would come in from South Hadley, from a public housing apartment complex, and take the bus down to Springfield where he drove a truck for deliveries. The business owner worked him hard, it sounded like, because sometimes he would just barely make the last bus back to Holyoke. That made for a long 12-hour day, but keeping the job was one of the conditions of keeping his apartment.

On the bus I’ve heard the crescendo-ing arguments of lovers in the midst of a quarrel, one side of cell phone calls with child protective services, and more frantic pocket-searches for day passes and nickels and dimes than I care to remember. Most conversation snippets I catch have the same undercurrent of being broke, being oh-so broke.

And not once have I been  harassed, or thrown up on, or in any way felt threatened. Indeed, surrounded by families and familiar faces, it’s actually comforting being on the P21 E – in an unexpected way, I feel connected. 

Would it be faster to drive to work? Oh yeah. Would it be easier? In a lot of ways, yes. But taking the bus I get to exit my white-collar bubble for a few minutes a day and become part of a subtle, unconscious community of strangers.

Bike Commute: My Unexpected Friends

In general, I find my bike commute to be a fairly solitary activity. It wasn’t as much this way when I lived in the Boston area, just because there were plenty of other bicyclists around me. I would occasionally bump into someone I knew and we’d ride together for a bit. But here in Hampden County, I’m usually the only biker on the road.

Of course, driving is a supremely isolating experience. People talk about being in their car-bubble while they go to work, engrossed by Terry Gross or singing an epic love ballad alongside the band Heart. A big difference for me when I’m on my bike, I can hear every singing swallow and booming bass beat and chatty Cathy on the street. In short, I’m exposed to – and a part of – the world

My bike route takes me the length of Chicopee, from the northern end with Al’s Diner and the Willimansett Bridge along suburban streets and over the Chicopee River through downtown. Once the school year started, I noticed crossing guards popping up along my route. It’s sort of like seeing the same person in the break room at work every day; at first, you don’t say much, but eventually you can’t avoid it. Not through shared interests but through repeated proximity does a tentative friendship form.

The first crossing guard to break the wall of silence that separates strangers was Bob, at the corner of Granby Road and Grattan Street. He’s the kind of guy who waves at passing school buses, so of course he started chatting with me.

bob
Bob, my first crossing guard friend.

Since the first time he said hi, I’ve gotten to know him in 30-second intervals. I found out that Bob is retired and lives about half a mile away. He used to be the maintenance manager at a warehouse in Springfield, but after he retired he thought being a crossing guard would be a good use of his time.

The next guy I got to know was Ricardo. I met him at the corner of Center St and Hampden St. Ricardo is less effusively sunshine and smiles than Bob, but still friendly and lights up when I roll into the intersection.

ricardo
Ricardo, my second crossing guard friend.

Here’s what I know about Ricardo: He is from Poland and France (I don’t know when he lived in one versus the other, though I do know that Chopin also called both Poland and France home!). Inexplicably, I believe Ricardo is a Spanish name, so I’m sure his story is much more interesting than I’ve gathered so far. He is also retired, and worked at Westover Air Force Base as a machinist making chains. I’m guessing the chains he machined were way more massive than my bike chain.

Finally, there are a couple of crossing guards at the intersection of Granby Rd and Montgomery St that I talk to less often, and haven’t really gotten to know. I don’t know their names, though I’m guessing by their age that they are also retired. My one main interaction with them was one time they unexpectedly stepped out into the crosswalk while I was making a right turn, and I had to slam on my brakes (my fault, not theirs). Since then, they’ve joshed me about being a reckless biker when I pass by.

xing-duo
The crossing guard duo

There has been a lot of talk about social fragmentation that accompanies suburban sprawl and car dependence (see Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone). Certainly, if I drove instead of biking I would have never met these folks, and Chicopee would just be a faceless expanse of post-war houses and whizzing traffic. 

At first, it was kind of annoying that when I was waiting for the light to change I would have to make conversation with the crossing guards standing nearby. But morning after morning of saying hi, talking about the weather, about biking, about retirement or ancestry, they’ve become welcomed sights – friends of a sort I didn’t expect. I bike to work because it’s good for my health, for my wallet, and for the planet. Waving hi and exchanging pleasantries wasn’t something I thought much about, but it’s come to be a nice fringe benefit.

Here is a quick video of a chat I had with Ricardo:

Kicking Off the Commute Series

commute-series

Between the all-consuming consternation of DJ Trump’s Electoral College triumph and finishing up a GIS Specialization on Coursera, November flew by with only one blog post. I thought I would break the drought by kicking off a new series of blog posts: The Commute Series. 

Much like Michael Pollan wrote about The Omnivore’s Dilemma, commuters today have a lot of choices (though most of us don’t know it, or don’t care). Especially in big cities, the options of how to get from A to B are numerous. Over the years, I’ve traveled to work the following ways:

  1. Bike
  2. Walk
  3. Run
  4. Drive
  5. Subway
  6. Razor Scooter
  7. Bus
  8. Kayak
  9. Carpool
  10. Telecommute
  11. Intercity Rail
  12. Probably more if I think hard about it
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The view from my kayak commute on the Charles River

Even though it’s something most of us don’t think much about, it’s my job to think about transportation. Each method of getting where we’re going involves varying experiences, different frustrations and small joys. Each time we set out on a journey, we make a decision that impacts ourselves and the world around us. Whether conscious or not, each trip is a choice with consequences.

The Commute Series is my effort to shine a light on the experience and implications of these transportation choices. Some of the key questions I’ll be looking to answer are:

  • What’s the best part of my commute?
  • What’s the worst part?
  • What’s the most unexpected thing that happened to me?
  • If I could change one thing about the commute, what would it be?

I’ll also intersperse some this series with some more data-heavy aspects of commuting. Expect some posts about climate change, public health, transportation funding and spending, and demographics.

This should be a lot of fun, and my helmet camera which my dear wife got for me a couple of years ago is definitely going to come in handy. Stay tuned!