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Two Years of Transit: by Foot, Rail, and Bus

by John December / Updates/More Info: johndecember.com/mke

Posted: 2022-05-23

Please see my caveats about my blog before reading this.

Outline of This Essay

I Used Transit and Walking As My Sole Mobility for a Second Year

I Continued to Use the Streetcar and Traveled Further
I Could See How The Pandemic Affected Transit Use
I Studied Transit Research
I Studied and Commented on Transit Projects

I Could See a Bigger Picture of Transit

A Walkshed Trip Diagram Shows A Single Trip Experience
Geography-Mode Diagrams Illustrate Different Scales of Geography
     The Street-Mode Diagram Shows Where the Passenger and Vehicle Interface
     The Neighborhood Mode Shows the Setting for Daily Life
     The District Mode Brings Together Several Neighborhoods
     The Metropolitan Mode Spans Jurisdictions and Involves More Transit Modes
     The Regional Mode Encompasses Portions of a State or Several States
     The National Mode Reveals Strategic Plans
     The World Mode Reveals Significant Areas

This Bigger Picture Reveals Some Lessons I Learned About Transit

Geography, Demographics, and Transit Modes Vary Widely Across a Region
Managing Spatial Competition is Key for Transit Success in Dense (and All) Areas
Public Transit in the USA Should Follow a Public Service Model

I See Transit as A Bridge Connecting Personal and Civic Life

I Conclude with the Big Picture

I Used Transit and Walking As My Sole Mobility for a Second Year

I didn't think my pandemic-inspired pattern of using only public transit and walking would extend into a third year. But by March 2022, I had added to my "Year of The Hop." For my second year, I continued to use The Hop streetcar, but I added MCTS buses and a trip on the intercity Amtrak train.

My transit-only life wasn't a radical change in my lifestyle, as I have lived without owning a car since 1989. I have used public transit for decades, and, occasionally, I would get a ride in a car or taxi. But during these past two pandemic years, I did not ride in a car, taxi, van, or rideshare vehicle. I am not alone in being car-free, as The US Census found that 8.5% of US households have no vehicle available, and 25% of households in my zip code 53202 have no vehicle available. As in my first year, this experience of being entirely car-free has helped me further appreciate the value of public transit.

During this historic time of a pandemic, I experienced walking and transit in an urban area from the finely-grained street level to a metropolitan context. I could appreciate the complex challenges facing Milwaukee, cities, and all regions of the world. I began to understand how, in the post-pandemic world, urbanism and transit need to be reimagined.

Although the pandemic reduced my world dramatically in terms of geography, this quieter and more somber time revealed what otherwise went unnoticed or hidden. These pandemic years have given me a chance to stay close to home, and I have come to realize that knowing a place well can be as adventurous as encountering the world in passing.

My interest in local history and my part-time work in photography first led me to take pictures of The Hop streetcar. Then, my love for lifelong learning motivated me to study transit in more detail. I have been reading about and experiencing urbanism and the city where I live, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, for decades. I found opportunities for continuing education as a student in the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and learned more about local history. Attending public lectures at UW-Milwaukee's School of Architecture & Urban Planning, I've gained awareness of contemporary urban planning issues. During the pandemic, I've had more time to read and learn more about cities, transportation, and communities.

I Continued to Use the Streetcar and Traveled Further

The pandemic was very much part of daily life, but I continued to use The Hop streetcar. Hop 01 had a special wrap during this time and raised awareness of masking requirements. I traveled by streetcar to get my covid shots--shot 1 and shot 2.

I used The Hop and walking to get to grocery stores, my freelance photography work, cafes, restaurants, my doctor's office, events, continuing education classes, libraries, the intermodal station, bus stops, and to parks and the riverwalk for exercise. I rode The Hop to vote and vote and vote, and I encouraged others to vote. I also rode The Hop to special events like Summerfest and the MKE Night Market.

Besides providing transportation, another purpose behind building a streetcar system in a city is to motivate the development of underutilized land (Brown and Mendez, 2018; Ramos-Santiago, Brown, and Nixon, 2016). I saw this in action as I worked on my MKE Streetcar Destination Guide. I saw new construction along the route and unused buildings being refurbished. Since The Hop's opening in November, 2018, I have seen construction along the route:

Since The Hop has opened, these buildings have been completed:

Announced and approved in 2022 was the 31-story 333 N Water St project (replacing a parking lot) near the Milwaukee Public Market.

The global pandemic was very much a part of daily life, but there was a struggle to return to normalcy. I saw the snowy morning of the 175th birthday of the City of Milwaukee, the early morning quiet of late winter, the busy activity of March, and a hopeful and tentative move toward normalcy in March, April, May, June, July, August, and September.

There were specially-wrapped Hops that brightened the streets: the Pride Hop, Merry Christmas Hop, The Milwaukee Bears (of 1923) Hop, the We Are Marquette Hop, Potawatomi special Back in The Game and Play to Win Hops. There was a memorable Bucks Victory Parade downtown and postseason baseball cheering on the Milwaukee Brewers.

After not having ridden a bus for more than a year, I rode the Milwaukee County Transit System (MCTS) bus in July 2021 to visit a friend. I also took the bus for specialized medical appointments, and classes at The University of Wisconsin--Milwaukee. I continued to use the bus and streetcar on what I called my intermodal days and as a walk extender.

In the fall of 2021, I took an intercity trip on the Amtrak Hiawatha to Chicago, starting out with an early-morning ride to the Intermodal Station on The Hop. I took photographs of Chicago architecture and sights, and I used my Ventra card to board the 146 bus and ride to the walkway along the pier by the Adler Planetarium for skyline photos.

This Chicago trip impressed me because it worked so well. I had not taken an Amtrak train trip since pre-covid times. The Amtrak app for electronic tickets works well, the ride was smooth and on-time, and the crew was diligent, prepared, and courteous. The whole trip recalled the ease and normalcy of a train trip I made many years ago from London's Euston station to Manchester. The rail service worked in a very reliable, seamless way. The Tube in London, like The Hop, provided the local service from in the neighborhood I was staying to the Euston rail station where I connected to the Virgin Train north to Manchester. I appreciated that I could take the local rail service so easily from the neighborhood transit mode (The Tube or The Hop) to the regional rail station (Euston or Intermodal Station Milwaukee).

Throughout this time, I continued to see the advantages of streetcars, but these issues stood out even more clearly during my second year:

I Could See How The Pandemic Affected Transit Use

The pandemic has resulted in perhaps one of the most extensive shocks in urban transportation history, and the resulting impacts on public transit ridership will be studied for a long time to come. The pandemic set up, as if in some giant science experiment, what happens when the trip generators and attractors in cities are removed, and then the results on transit systems recorded. Just as transportation textbooks and transit planners would state and predict (Woldeamanuel, 2016; Spieler, 2018), the absence of trip generators and attractors led to a massive collapse of ridership. The shape and pace of this downturn can be studied, as well as the different effects on transit modes, geographic settings, and demographic groups.

The global Covid-19 pandemic affected public transit systems because shutdowns of the places where people travel--to work, school, restaurants, bars, theaters, stores, and more--removed transit destinations from consideration. During the pandemic, stay-at-home orders and work-at-home practices further reduced the demand for trips. The recovery of transit from this downturn has been as gradual as the recovery from the pandemic itself.

The chart below shows the change in boardings for transit systems in terms of comparison to the prior year's boardings for that month. The systems listed are: The Hop streetcar (HOP), US Light Rail category (LRT), Milwaukee County Transit System (MCTS), US Public Transit as a whole (TRANSIT), US Bus Transit as a whole (BUS), and The San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit District (BART).

(You can click on the image, and all images in this essay, for a larger version.)

(click on image for larger version) graph of transit ridership 2021

The chart shows how systems began at the cliff's edge of ridership in February 2020, and then boardings dropped dramatically in March and April of that year. Then, the year 2021 showed rising ridership in comparison to the previous year's lows.

What this chart shows is that the pace and shape of the downturn (and now the recovery) in transit ridership shows similarity across categories and systems. It wasn't the case that people "lost interest" in The Hop streetcar or lost interest in transit in general. The pandemic's effect on transit was clear: it shut down destinations and thus the purpose of trips. Transit success, of course, depends on ridership for trip purposes--this is a basic concept taught in transportation textbooks (Woldeamanuel, 2016). The pandemic dramatically showed how, without the trip-generating power of urban vitality, transit systems falter. Again, this is very well explained in transit literature. However, many people misconstrue this and want to place the blame for the downturn in transit as some inherent fault of transit systems or particular transit modes.

Another way to look at transit ridership changes during the pandemic is to use the year 2019 as a benchmark. This chart documents the boarding change in transit systems in comparison to the year 2019.

(click on image for larger version) graph of transit ridership 2021

Systems began at the cliff's edge of ridership in February 2020, and then boardings dropped dramatically in March and April of that year. Then, the year 2021 showed ridership changes in comparison to 2019.

This shows how the vitality of a city drives ridership for transit. Certainly, transit systems must maintain high levels of service and customer satisfaction to attract ridership all the time, but the fundamental connection is that activities in the city (places to go to, things to do) is key to transit success. This relationship is clear to transit professionals because it is the basis of transportation planning (Woldeamanuel, 2016; Spieler, 2018).

The pandemic has shown the need for active land use at transit stops. I have observed Hop ridership go up during events and activities and remain low when not much is open or going on. I use the phrase "When MKE gets busy, The Hop gets busy." When activity centers are active, The Hop can provide transportation among them. The Hop connects people to visit more activity centers, and thus increases the attendance in each area. More people in each of the activity centers increases the demand for transit. The relationship is mutually reinforcing.

The impacts of COVID-19 on urban rail transit (URT) ridership was examined by researchers Xin et al, (2021) who found Chinese cities experienced 90% reductions in ridership during the pandemic which was "not guided by the infection rate." Their findings "suggest that URT ridership reductions are associated with the severity and duration of restrictions and lockdowns." Restrictions and lockdowns were done as a necessary part of efforts to slow the spread of the virus. This research showed that, with these stay-at-home orders and shuttering of destinations, transit ridership collapsed. This confirms the well-known principle of transit itself: it depends on a vital, active city.

I Studied Transit Research

To gain some insight into transportation issues, I have read articles about transportation and streetcars. Here are the highlights of what I've come across:

  1. Streetcar stops have a long-term effect on land use. Researchers Brooks & Lutz, 2019 in their journal article, "Vestiges of Transit: Urban Persistence at a Microscale," examined land use and population density near historic streetcar stops on The Los Angeles Railway. During the period 1890-1910, streetcars in LA County were a dominant form of transportation, but gradually they were supplanted by buses and later automobiles. However, the land near the historic streetcar stops shows statistically significant higher population and building density that diminishes with distance from the historic stops. This effect was discernible into the 21st-century, even though streetcars had not been operating at those stops since 1963.

    The researchers examined this persistence by looking at the yellow and red streetcar lines of The Los Angeles Railway. Using an analysis method to identify the causes of this persistence, their results suggest that land use regulation (zoning) and agglomeration (the clustering of buildings and people, in this case at the microscale near the streetcar stops) work together to reinforce each other. That is, the streetcar was placed near activity centers, and these areas were zoned to allow higher density in response to the activity of the streetcar passengers. This led to benefits to the owners of the land who then supported the land use regulations which allowed for the denser pattern of growth. What is significant about these findings was that the historic streetcar stops seeded this process, and this process continues to the 21st century.

    The researchers concluded:

    "Since its invention in 1888 through the early 1910s, the fast, cheap streetcar dominated urban transit. Despite its short heyday and later extinction, we document that the streetcar continues to exert a powerful influence on modern land use in Los Angeles. Notably, building activity since the removal of the last streetcar has maintained the density near streetcars. Our evidence suggests that only a limited portion of the persistent influence of the streetcar is explained by durable capital, in the form of either private structures or public infrastructure such as roads. Putting the remaining findings together, our evidence is consistent with both zoning and agglomeration causing persistent density."
    Brooks & Lutz suggest:
    "Overall, we view the weight of the evidence as most consistent with land use regulation and agglomeration acting as mutually reinforcing pathways. For example, zoning regulations may generate expectations of future density in certain locations, thereby reinforcing agglomeration. In turn, agglomeration may reinforce zoning by creating benefits for landowners, who then lobby to maintain those benefits via regulation."

    These results suggest that streetcar operations have an effect to not just serve dense areas, but also create and reinforce the formation of intensive land uses. Most importantly, this effect is powerful and persists over time. What this implies is that cities seeking to create more intensively-used activity centers might consider a streetcar service as generative and supportive of persistent density.

    This makes sense to me: a streetcar doesn't cause density--you have to have an active city to begin with. However, you can't have an active city without dense activity centers. But these dense activity centers can't be designed without a strong motivation for dense development that places people in proximity. Streetcars connote permanence (motivating development) and connect people and activities closely (versus land given over to automobiles). Then, ridership of the streetcar soars when activities in the city happen regularly. Streetcars and activity clusters are symbiotic.

    Within urban areas, observations show that density of activity clusters leads to productivity gains through the concentration of knowledge workers (Colin Buchanan and Partners, 2008; Gordon and Whitehead, 2016). People gain benefits from accessibility to activities and to each other (State Smart Transportation Initiative, 2018).

    Researcher Richard Florida (2017) observes that "The clustering force is the key driver of economic growth, and it is absolutely critical that we effectively harness it to create the broadest possible economic and social benefits. ... the crux of the problem here revolves around the urban land nexus: land is scarce precisely where it is needed the most" (p. 191). Florida advises that zoning and building codes can be modernized so that the power of NIMBYs and what he calls New Urban Luddites no longer dictates land use. Florida advises to invest in infrastructure for density and growth, with transportation infrastructure connecting growth clusters (Florida, 2017, p. 195).

    Density is key to the growth of Milwaukee. As people often point out, the city boundaries are fixed (landlocked): Milwaukee is surrounded by suburbs on the north, west, and south, and on the east by Lake Michigan. The city of Milwaukee's area is 248 sq km. However, great cities can be compact--the city boundaries of Paris, France (about 3.5 times more populous than Milwaukee) encompass an area of only 105 sq km. For comparison, the city of Chicago has an area of 607 sq km. Milwaukee, if it seeks to grow, must build up and use its 248 square kilometers for the best possible uses. Researcher Richard Florida (2017) advises that cities need to be designed to allow for clustering and density because this is the source of prosperity. Florida points out that it is no mistake that many of the superstar cities are landlocked (San Francisco, Manhattan, and others) where the land scarcity itself demands density. Researchers Shearer, Vey, and Kim, (2019) describe the role of density as serving the needs of "educated workers for transit access, walkability, and dense constellations of services and amenities."

  2. The global covid-19 pandemic dramatically revealed the relationship of transit ridership to trip generators. As noted above, researchers Xin et al (2021), in their journal article, "Impacts of COVID-19 on urban rail transit ridership using the Synthetic Control Method," examined the impacts of COVID-19 on urban rail transit (URT) ridership. Using the synthetic control method--a statistical technique used to measure the effects of some intervention that has occurred in a case study--they sought to determine the impacts of the pandemic on ridership. The researchers examined ridership in Chinese cities and found most had a 90% reduction in ridership. They analyzed covid infection rates, but the ridership reduction was "not guided by the infection rate." The researchers found that "URT ridership reductions are associated with the severity and duration of restrictions and lockdowns." In an effort to manage the public health crises of the pandemic, the shuttering of destinations effectively removed reasons for people to use transit, and transit ridership collapsed. A complete shutdown of the transit system in Wuhan led to a 22% slower recovery rate.

    This result confirms exactly what transportation textbooks and researchers (Woldeamanuel, 2016; Spieler, 2018) describe about the importance of trip generators for transit ridership. This result also answers critics of public transit who might confer pandemic low ridership to some failing of the transit system itself or a loss of interest in the system. Certainly, more research would need to identify the effect of a variety of these factors leading to transit ridership. However the research shown confirms the key relationship of urban vitality to urban rail transit ridership.

  3. Streetcars have shown beneficial impacts on traffic congestion. Researchers Nguyen-Phuoc and others, in their article "Net Impacts of Streetcar Operations on Traffic Congestion in Melbourne, Australia, examined the net effects of streetcars on congestion. The site of their study was Melbourne, Australia, which has the largest streetcar network in the world and the largest mixed traffic (streetcar and cars operate in the same lanes at times) operating environment in the world. After examining congestion, operations, curbside streetcar stops, and exclusive priority lanes, they concluded: "Findings show that the streetcar network in inner Melbourne results in a net congestion benefit to traffic; a 3.4% decrease in vehicle time traveled and total delay on the road network was established. The streetcar network also contributes to reducing the number of moderately congested links by 16%." These findings suggest that streetcars were not shown to slow down traffic, but even support a decrease in traffic congestion.

  4. Streetcars affect land use decisions and have a catalytic effect on development that is motivational, mutually-reinforcing, and long-lasting. As discussed above, Brooks & Lutz (2019) found that streetcar stops showed a "powerful influence" on land use and showed a remarkably long-lasting durability on agglomeration and density near streetcar stops in the urban landscape.

    The effect of streetcar systems on the built environment has been examined for many years. In 2010, a synthesis summary of literature on streetcar impacts identified the "the need for further empirical analysis" (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2010). Researchers Mendez and Brown (2019) later studied Portland and Seattle and found that "in certain contexts streetcars are associated with increased development activity." The results also suggest the need for a "more nuanced understanding of the relationship between streetcars and development." These researchers caution that the function of the streetcar system as transportation is key: "the more effective a streetcar is as a transportation service, and the more widely used it is by patrons, the more likely it is to have development effects" (Brown and Mendez, 2018).

    Ramos-Santiago, Brown, and Nixon (2016) examined the role of streetcars for transportation strategy as well as development motivator and pointed out both functions are being pursued. This research seems to indicate that a relationship of streetcars to development is one of catalytic, dynamic, and mutually-reinforcing factors in a relationship that is interdependent. Each of the components--development and streetcars--must each meet their goals well and be oriented to supporting and gaining from each other.

    Moreover, this research describes the streetcar as not just for development, but streetcars serve for transportation as well, as is observed in hundreds of streetcar systems operating worldwide. The roles for development and transportation are not mutually exclusive. This dual-role nature may have been the factor behind Portland's success, where development and streetcars were planned together (City of Portland Bureau of Transportation). Portland has seen housing development along its streetcar line, including affordable housing. The Minneapolis-St Paul metro area saw $15 billion of investments along its high-frequency transit between 2003 and 2020.

    The relationship between streetcars and development is not causal, but symbiotic--the streetcars and cities thrive together. It is interesting that Milwaukee's streetcar system soared in use and popularity (Canfield, 1972) during a growing and flourishing time in Milwaukee's history (Gurda, 1999).

  5. Decades of research into urban transportation reveal how automobile dependency might be reversed to improve equity, livability, economic, and health outcomes. Coining the term "automobile dependence," Newman and Kenworthy (2015), examined why some cities had high gasoline consumption. They discovered that automobile-centric planning built into cities was associated with higher gasoline consumption. They described a variety of policies to reduce automobile dependency. In a review their research, Newman and Kenworthy (2021), found that some of these key policies such as "re-urbanizing cities and prioritizing transit, walking and cycling, have been largely mainstreamed." However, future work to address automobile dependence involves the "hard-won principles of reurbanization of corridors, integrated with new transit alternatives and walkability at precincts/stations." Notably, the authors of this research encountered pushback from automobile interests. Newman and Kenworthy (2021) described "a prominent transport journal editor who just wanted to tell us that he would never publish anything we wrote as he was 'a highway man.'" (Such a threat would be not only unethical but possibly illegal if it involved research using federal highway funds).

    Reducing automobile use is not necessarily a goal for transportation policy. The smart evaluation of community goals for health, equity, livability, and prosperity, however, may indicate that other objectives may be more important than car use in some areas. This may shock some people, because cars have been considered the ultimate transportation mode, emphasized over all others, for nearly a century. This may lead some people to perceive this shift in emphasis as a "war on cars." Former Toronto Mayor Rob Ford famously used this phrase reflecting his antipathy towards a Toronto transportation plan which was aimed at reducing congestion and increasing the use of mass transit. The plan, called "The Big Move (2008)," was carried forward and is now the basis for the Toronto Regional Transportation Plan for 2041.

    If a careful evaluation of community goals includes reducing car use, research has shown some strategies available. Kuss & Nicholas (2022) reviewed nearly 800 peer-reviewed reports and case studies of strategies that European cities used to reduce car use. Their findings are presented in a chart (Nicholas, 2022) that ranks the strategies based on their effectiveness. The measures used include percent reduction in cars in the city center, drop in car commuting, or people reporting reduced car use. Their findings suggest that "...the Congestion Charge, Parking & Traffic Control, and Limited Traffic Zone were the most effective to reduce car use since all three significantly reduced the overall car use in a city and not only the car use of a specific car user group" (Kuss & Nicholas, 2022). The strategies are illustrated in their diagram (Nicholas, 2022):

    (click on image for larger version) illustration of Kuss and Nicholas 2022

    What is notable in this evaluation is the role of transportation. Mobility services for commuters, namely tram or rail-based urban transportation, can play a role.

    A major theme of the Kuss & Nicholas (2022) findings suggests that a key to effectiveness is to reveal the costs to drivers of their actions. These costs include congestion and parking fees. This corresponds to Shoup's research into parking economics (Shoup, 2011, 2018) uncovering the land use distortions resulting from automobile-storage subsidies. This also corresponds to research showing car drivers and decision makers underestimate the true cost of car operation: "motorists underestimate the full private costs of car ownership, while policy makers and planners underestimate social costs" (Gössling, Kees, and Litman, 2022).

    Once these sometimes hidden costs are revealed and no longer subsidized, the pattern of traffic changes. This approach depends on public policy decisions to set the degree of subsidy for automobile transportation and parking. The strategies seem to succeed largely because of market forces. Once people are confronted with the true private and social cost of driving and parking cars, they make market-based decisions in their best interest. A policy to subsidize car travel, enforce excessive car space use in cities, and provide free or underpriced parking spaces will encourage car use. The detrimental effect of these automobile subsidies is that they damage the health, equity, livability, and prosperity of cities. Unraveling car dependency and revealing true private and public costs of car operation can rebalance transportation decisions and support smart city concepts (Kunzig, 2019).

  6. Induced traffic demand also plays a role in both growing car dependency and suppressing public transportation adoption. Blumgart (2022) describes how expanding highways tends to invite still more traffic (called induced traffic) and that this phenomenon is regularly ignored by decision makers despite decades of research on the topic (Litman, "Generated Traffic and Induced Travel"). By failing to address induced demand, widening highways creates induced demand which leads to further highway capacity problems (Transportation for America, 2020 "The Congestion Con: How more lanes and more money equals more congestion"). Widened highways also have subsequent costs of automobile crashes. The cost of these crashes exceed any savings from the congestion reduction, states Robert Steuteville writing in the CNU Journal (Steuteville, 2022). Widening highways to reduce congestion therefore is an unsustainable and expensive cycle and suggests circular (Singer, 2013) or invalid (Jacobs, 2004) reasoning. The result is that highway departments spend large amounts of money to make congestion problems worse, cause deaths, and increase costs.

  7. Some people have inaccurate assumptions about ecologically-friendly land use patterns. A recent survey showed that people believe that low-density development is better for the environment. This belief may indicate a fundamental misunderstanding of environmentalism and urbanism. Edward Glaeser, in Triumph of the City, points out that suburbs may be full of "trees and energy-efficient homes, but homeowners drive so much that they undo most of those environmental benefits" (p. 182). The problem is that suburbanism places people far from transit and daily, walkable features and shows the terrible "unintended consequences of environmentalism" (p. 210). Glaeser concludes that "more Americans should live in denser, more urban environments" (p. 210) and that rural ecotowns are not green (p. 217). Automobiles, even electric ones, flood cities with space requirements so great that cities can't build the density or activity centers to be livable, ensure equity, or grow their economies.

    Similarly, David Owen, in Green Metropolis, describes why urban areas are green, but also why anti-city sentiment prevails among some people who call themselves environmentalists. The "green" in the suburbs and the spread-out fashion of living consumes massive land for agriculture, wetlands, habitat, and spreads out destinations that strain transportation systems and cause pollution and accidents, among many other issues. In contrast, cities offer an already-existing, limited footprint for living on land that already has the infrastructure for human habitat such as water and sewage systems, systems of public infrastructure, utilities, and parks. This issue is not a matter of telling people that they cannot have a preference for either suburbanism or urbanism--both choices can exist. But the actual features of a place need to be examined so that evidence can reveal the underlying patterns that contribute to factors that make a place ecologically-friendly. The option of urbanism itself, distinct from suburbanism, provides a significant advantage for cities (Leinberger, 2008).

I Studied and Commented on Transit Projects

As I continued my study of streetcar and transportation research, I looked at proposed transit projects in my area. I studied these transit projects in more detail, and I prepared public comments on them.

Comment on the Milwaukee North-South Transit Enhancement Study
This project presents an opportunity to remove barriers for underserved residents, address equity concerns, and strengthen our economy by providing quality transit. As a Milwaukee County resident, transit rider, and car-free household, I rely on public transportation and walking to get around. I live in Milwaukee's lower east side, and I've traveled to 27th Street by bus for shopping and medical appointments. I'd like to offer my insights to help fill in some specifics of what a car-free person experiences. Also, I can shed some light on the transit modes of your study, as I use The Hop streetcar for transit and have a good idea of its use in comparison with bus transportation. It is a privilege for me to use transit, and I hope that my comments can enhance transit for the entire community. more...
Comment on the I-94 East-West Corridor Study, Milwaukee - Milwaukee County
I'm a Milwaukee resident and know the importance of our highway system and the significance of our city in Wisconsin's transportation network. I believe that your presentation supports the repair of I-94 at its current six-lane capacity, but your claim on eight lanes is not supported by evidence. Your material lacks attention to modern or multimodal transportation management methods and insufficiently addresses equity, climate, and economic issues. Therefore, I write this letter in support of the proper repair, update, and management of the highway, within a multimodal context, at six lanes, but not at eight lanes. more...
Comment on Connect 2050: Planning NOW for the future of transportation in Wisconsin
I envision a Wisconsin in 2050 where land use and transportation serve the full spectrum of diverse rural, suburban, and urban communities. People will have many choices for living options and utilize a range of active, multimodal, intermodal, public, and private transportation modes and systems on land, water, rail, and air. A legal and financial framework for cooperatively funding, planning, building, and operating infrastructure and transportation to meet community needs continually works toward the goals of health, equity, livability, and prosperity for everyone. more...
Why I Support Streetcars
I've developed this comment where I express my support for streetcars used for transportation and city development. more...

By participating in the public information and comment process for these projects, I was able to see important contemporary issues facing urban transportation. These issues involve analyzing and balancing the tradeoffs and choices for the purpose, design, service levels, land use considerations, funding, and decisions about transportation modes.

I Could See a Bigger Picture of Transit

While studying the global pandemic and transportation research, I thought more about my experience of using walking, the streetcar, the bus, and intercity train exclusively for two years. What I observed during this time was the interaction of geography--the land and space where I live and go--with the transportation modes in these spaces.

I could see that, at varying scales of geography and for different transportation modes, a variety of land use and transportation topics became apparent. I could see this first at the small-scale, street-by-street, and then in neighborhoods, and then in larger areas like districts, metropolitan areas, and regions. Transit works with land use in different ways at each scale of geography.

I created a series of diagrams that illustrate my understanding of these different levels of geography and transit modes. I cover these diagrams in the next sections.

A Walkshed Trip Diagram Shows A Single Trip Experience

While it may be tempting to simplify a discussion of transit stating it as: "I want to get from A to B," this simplification erases the crucial relationship of transit to land use and the experience of the transit passenger across the total trip. I have come to realize that this is often ignored by transit critics and even some transit supporters. Transit riders do not come into existence at an origin station and cease to matter at a destination station. Transit happens in a context of rider experience that encompasses not just the ride on the transit vehicle, but the purpose of the trip and the land use and experience going to and from the vehicle. All of this exists within a community which has goals for health, equity, livability, and prosperity for each person.

The importance of the land use around transit stops became more clear to me when developing my guide to streetcar destinations. In writing my guide, I had to determine what destinations should be considered "on the route" in terms of distance and also the ease of reaching destinations from the streetcar. A basic element of this understanding is the idea of the walkshed. A walkshed is the area around a transit stop or station that people can be expected to walk to or from the transit vehicle. A distance of about 400 meters is often used as this walkshed distance (Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, 2016; PedShet.net). This represents the maximum distance, approximately, how far people are willing to walk from the transit stop to a destination or from their origin to a transit stop. Of course, people have different abilities and may walk more or less than 400 meters. But the concept is that an assumed walkshed distance is used to understand proximity.

The walkshed is not merely about distance, but it involves the quality of experience to and from transit stops and the reasons for the transit trip. The pandemic showed how the shuttering of reasons for travel (businesses, restaurants, theaters, and many other places) dramatically collapsed ridership. Because of the stark reduction in transit use caused by the removal of destinations, the importance of those destinations for the success of transit is very apparent, and the land use around transit stations to provide purposes for travel are a big part of the success of transit.

This diagram presents a very simplified generic diagram of a transit trip. The trip involves an origin, travel to the origin station of the transit, travel on the vehicle, then alighting (exiting) the vehicle, and travel to the trip's destination. The person might travel from the origin to the transit boarding stop or from the transit alighting stop by walking or using assistive support (a walker, wheelchair, or electric scooter for example).

(click on image for larger version) Diagram of walkshed showing a transit trip

This example diagram, greatly simplified, shows the interaction of a passenger with their trip, land, and the transit vehicle. In the diagram, I show the walkshed. The walkshed is simply the area around the transit station at the distance where most passengers are willing to walk. For simplification, I show the walkshed as a circle. The walkshed area acknowledges that transit occurs in the context of the land and its use around transit stops.

The success of transit depends on land use patterns and supportive walkability, density, diversity, and choices within these walksheds and just beyond them. Ignoring the land use context of transit leads to removing transit from usability and the effectiveness of transit to meet people's needs.

As an example to illustrate this, consider what is called the "last mile (1.6 km) problem." First, I think 1,000 meters is a more appropriate distance to consider as a barrier to reaching a destination for a transit rider, and so I will consider this the "last kilometer problem for transit." For transit riders who alight at a stop where their destination is outside of that 1 km distance, they may have a difficult time reaching their destination by walking. Typically, it might be a worker who lives in a city and takes transit, but on reaching a suburban transit stop, there is a hostile walking environment, speeding automobile traffic, and destinations spread out by massive surface parking lots. A partial solution to the last kilometer problem might be to create an automobile-like van service for workers to travel to and from suburban transit stops. However, this partial solution requires a mode transfer from mass transit to a low-capacity van that has inherent inefficiencies and cannot scale to the service levels that regular mass transit can supply. A more comprehensive solution is to look at the land use patterns at the suburban stops and question why the transit stops cannot be placed proximate to workplaces or why workplaces could not be developed on land surrounding major transit stops.

My walkshed trip diagram, although simplistic, acknowledges the concept of proximate land use at transit stops. This simple walkshed trip diagram could be expanded to show a more complex route. Chained trips could be shown where the destination for one purpose becomes the origin for another purpose. There could be more variations on the location of origins and destinations. I showed the origin for the trip as outside of the walkshed to illustrate that sometimes people do need to walk further to or from a transit stop than the expected walkshed distance.

Variations in the walkshed distance for different purposes is what the last kilometer problem seeks to address. When I used the streetcar exclusively for a year for transit, I would walk up to 2 km to an important destination (a visit to the dentist). It is not that I could not walk more or be willing to walk more, but walking to and from a transit stop reliably becomes more difficult for many people in all weather and all times of the day and night. Transit riders take this into consideration in choosing regular service providers like a dentist, doctor, grocery store, school, or workplace. For a transit rider, the questions for considering a destination include, "where is the nearest transit stop?" and "how often will I need to make that trip?"

In thinking about my experience using the streetcar, I demonstrated an upper limit of about 2 kilometers as a maximum distance I would walk from a streetcar stop. I walked this distance for an occasional destination (a dentist visit). For a daily job, school attendance, or other regular destination, I would want it to be within 1 km of the transit stop. This is because I understand that the daily changes in weather and the need for on-time arrival means that I would want to have less of a distance to travel. What this suggests is that the walkshed trip diagram might include a walkshed distance from the transit station of various distances for various purposes. The 400 meter distance is reasonable for general use, but perhaps longer distances could be assumed for a daily necessary trip (school or workplace, up to 1 km) or for occasional but important destinations (up to 2 km).

Rather than a simple statement of transit as being "from A to B," this walkshed trip diagram examines the total experience of the transit user.

Geography-Mode Diagrams Illustrate Different Scales of Geography

While my walkshed trip diagram represents origin, boarding, alighting, destinations, and walksheds, I want to place it into real-world situations. I do this by looking at transit in the context of different scales of geography, multiple transit modes, and various land uses in operation. My goal is to build a bigger picture of transit. I first start with street-level detail and then expand to the neighborhood, district, metro area, and then regional and national scales. At each scale, different considerations come into play. I want to look at the different issues involved at each scale, the operation and type of the transit vehicles used and their characteristics, and the different speeds, service area, or distance betweens stops of the transit modes.

The Street-Mode Diagram Shows Where the Passenger and Vehicle Interface

The first level of my geography-mode diagrams is at the street-level scale. At this level, passenger trips begin or end. I want to look at this level of detail carefully because this is where the passenger experiences the changes going to and from the transit vehicle or boarding and alighting from the vehicle. Examining this "continuum of experience" (Hiss, 1990) in and around the stop and at nearby land uses can identify issues that can be addressed to make the experience better. I present a diagram here that illustrates the immediate land around some example transit stops:

(click on image for larger version) Diagram of street-level transit features

This diagram shows a streetcar stop with its walkshed shaded in green, a bus stop, a bicycle/walking path or trail, a community bike station, and areas of commercial, residential, and mixed density. Mixed density areas are commercial and/or residential and might include stores, offices, apartments, condos, or other uses in several or just one building. I am using the boxes on the diagram to indicate the areas of higher concentration of these uses; so, for example, the shading might indicate density greater than the mean density. The white space on the other blocks is not meant to indicate that nothing is there, but that the uses in those areas are lower for residential, commercial, mixed, or other uses. Identifying these higher-density areas is key to placing the transportation stops, as they show likely high trip-generation locations for transit (Woldeamanuel, 2016; Spieler, 2018).

At the street level, many considerations and issues may come into play:

In summary, the street-level diagram serves as a framework to study, plan, design, and improve the experience of transit passengers. It is at the street level that people board and alight from transit vehicles and travel to or from destinations and origins. Managing the different uses of the street requires a smart spatial management and land use strategy.

The Neighborhood Mode Shows the Setting for Daily Life

While the street level diagram that I showed above illustrated just a few blocks in scope, the next step is to see a larger area covering several blocks or even dozens of blocks. This level of detail can capture the movement of transit riders and other people through the destinations in a neighborhood.

(click on image for larger version) Diagram of neighborhood-level transit features

This neighborhood mode map shows several transit stops, including bus and streetcar, community bike stations, a bicycle/walking path or trail, and several clusters of density. It is here that the differences in the routing of the transit modes becomes more apparent. The streetcar links points of highest density or concentration of activity. Buses provide access to nearly every corner to allow people to change to different modes and to provide coverage for passengers.

Note that in the diagram, I placed the streetcar stops at distances from each other so that their walksheds do not overlap. This would gain ridership from the most dense clusters of mixed use and activity. A rapid streetcar (Henry, 2012) might serve more widely-spaced stations.

In the case of streetcars serving unconnected walksheds, it would be important that ADA-compliant housing be available at those major stops, so that people who need the level-loading nature of the streetcar can make use of it. Alternatively, streetcar stops could also be placed so that their walksheds slightly overlap. With a neighborhood mode diagram, these different choices and their tradeoffs could be analyzed.

At the neighborhood level, we see if people could meet most of their daily needs by using active transportation and public transportation. During my first Hop year, I found that by having key destinations along the streetcar route (or at a distance from a streetcar stop I was willing to walk, up to 2 km), I was able to meet all my needs over the course of the year:

Here is an approximate map of my travels during my Hop Year of using only the streetcar and walking. The blue shaded area is the approximate area of the extent of the majority of my walking. The streetcar route is shown on the map.

(click on image for larger version) Hop Year Streetcar + Walking

I did take some longer walks outside this shaded area. Before I rode the MCTS bus again in the Summer of 2021, I wanted to challenge myself by walking as far from the streetcar stops that I could, knowing I would have to walk back. On one day, I walked south of the Third Ward as far as Greenfield Avenue and South 1st Street to Freshwater Plaza and back. On another day, I walked north along North Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive as far as North Avenue and back. On another day, I walked southwest from the Pritzlaff Building to National Avenue and west to S 9th Street and back. Since in each case, I knew I would walk back to the streetcar stop, this affected my perception of how far I would be willing to walk in one direction.

In all of these long walks from the streetcar stops and back, I could feel and experience how arduous it would be to walk that for a daily job or regular activity. I could understand how demand grew for so many streetcar lines in so many places when streetcars were the dominant mass transit of Milwaukee (Canfield, 1972).

The larger scale at the neighborhood level shows what land use and transportation issues become more apparent:

With the neighborhood mode diagram, we can start to understand the transit pattern of daily life. We can see how people choose and use active or public transit to meet their basic needs. Some purposes may be fulfilled within the neighborhood, and those that cannot be fulfilled could be identified. The "20-minute neighborhood" could perhaps be termed the "complete neighborhood."

I have often imagined that it would be ideal to have key resources right at the streetcar stops. These would provide accessible (level and rapid loading), high-capacity streetcar access to locations to meet daily needs. This might be considered a "complete corridor."

The District Mode Brings Together Several Neighborhoods

At a larger scale above the neighborhood level, we can look at a district. A district is simply the sum of surrounding neighborhoods. Often a city's downtown business improvement district is the sum of several distinct, proximate neighborhoods. The district level allows us to understand how different modes of transit can serve people at a larger scale of geography.

(click on image for larger version) Diagram of district-level transit features

This map shows a district including the central business district (CBD) of a city along a waterfront with a port. Heavy rail serves the port and downtown area and then continues out to the west. Light rail serves the district from northwest to the south. Automobile traffic is served by the brown lines of high-speed roadway that intersect in the downtown area.

The streetcar lines are not defined because at this level the detail would be too detailed to represent. Instead, green rectangles are shown that show areas of streetcar service, perhaps corresponding to three different, interoperating streetcar lines that might be built over a period of time. As described in the previous street and neighborhood levels, the streetcar serves the most dense activity areas of residential, commercial, mixed use, and key destinations.

This diagram also illustrates the bus rapid transit (BRT) in blue dashed lines. The orange dashed lines are light rail transit (LRT) . Throughout the system is support for walking and special pedestrian intersections, bicycling, and bus service.

The issues that this district mode diagram raise include the issues from the previous levels, but additionally:

The Metropolitan Mode Spans Jurisdictions and Involves More Transit Modes

The next level of analysis looks above one city district to an area that includes many districts, cities, towns, and suburbs.

(click on image for larger version) Diagram of metro-level transit features

Understanding geography and transit at the metropolitan level involves all the issues of the previous levels--district, neighborhood, and street--into a larger pattern.

The metro mode, because of its larger scale and scope, raises new issues:

The Regional Mode Encompasses Portions of a State or Several States

Moving up in scale from the metropolitan level, we can look at regional plans for transportation.

I experienced just a very small slice of regional transit with my intercity trip on The Amtrak Hiawatha to Chicago with a ride to and from the Intermodal Station on The Hop. I could see how the local transit (The Hop streetcar) connects to the Amtrak regional rail service at the Intermodal Station in Milwaukee.

The Wisconsin Department of Transportation is taking part in a Twin Cities-Milwaukee-Chicago (TCMC) Intercity Passenger Rail Service that looks at augmenting passenger rail trips from Chicago to Milwaukee and on to Minneapolis-St Paul.

(click on image for larger version) Diagram of regional rail plan (Wisconsindot.gov)

The map above notes that 59% of Wisconsin's population and 61% of Minnesota's population are within 48 km of a TCMC station or within 24 km of a TCMC bus shuttle service. This corresponds to the goal of providing rail service to populated areas. Transportation such as rail requires higher capital costs and thus should be placed on a highly-populated corridor where many people taking trips will use the transportation service. This connection serves cities important to the entire state of Wisconsin's economy. Further, this project provides additional rail service to alleviate the demand for highway travel and thus can mitigate the demand and costs for continual highway widening (Litman, "Generated Traffic and Induced Travel").

Regional planning may look at widening highways to relieve traffic congestion. However, building additional freeway lanes requires significant construction and maintenance costs, claims additional land, encourages more automobile-oriented land use, and erodes equity in communities along the corridor (Short, 2019; Niemuth, 2014). Most significantly, capacity expansion to alleviate congestion during highway peak use is nullified by induced demand (Litman, "Generated Traffic and Induced Travel"). By failing to address induced demand, planners are suggesting local and state governments engage in a feedback loop of paying for increased highway capacity which creates induced demand which then leads to further peak capacity problems (Transportation for America, 2020 "The Congestion Con: How more lanes and more money equals more congestion"). This is an unsustainable cycle because of the costs involved and the damage to the economic, land use, and social needs of the local communities, region, and state.

It has been observed that policymakers have difficulty in grasping induced demand, as Jake Blumgart's 2022 article series describes: "Searching for Ways to Limit Induced Demand in a Car-Loving Society" and "Why the Concept of Induced Demand Is a Hard Sell." These articles trace the nearly 100 years of observations of induced demand by highway builders as well as the formal and quantitative research done in the last century and into the 21st century. Addressing induced demand involves countering the skill of road-building lobbyists, but also understanding that the solutions may involve difficult tradeoffs. One approach Blumgart describes is managing congestion by charges. A similar finding was reported by Kuss and Nicholas (2022) who concluded that a congestion charge was one of several effective methods to reduce demand for car use.

While the desire to save the costs of congestion motivate highway widening, a careful cost analysis of the consequences of highway widening reveals that this cost savings disappears. The costs of automobile crashes resulting from widened highways can be much greater than any savings from the congestion reduction, states Robert Steuteville writing in the CNU Journal (Steuteville, 2022). Steuteville states that "The narrative of constantly needing to expand roadway capacity, justified by large congestion cost figures, is seriously undermined once those costs are compared to motor vehicle crashes" (Steuteville, 2022).

Integrated Corridor Management (ICM) and other modern management methods and technologies can be developed and implemented to manage highway demand in a sustainable way. This is the key to managing induced demand and peak use. ICM methods involve looking at all available resources in a corridor, including public transportation, across governmental units, and not just the highway system in isolation (U.S. Department of Transportation, 2016). Connected Vehicle (CV) technologies promise better use of existing highway capacity and could provide smoother freight transit of the corridor (Leong, 2018).

As Robert Steuteville states in his article's conclusion, the answer to congestion costs is not to address them by creating even greater costs and problems, but to engage in "investments in networks of streets that serve multiple purposes and give people choices in how to get around safely" (Steuteville, 2022). However, an overall approach may be to reveal costs of driving and cars to drivers, as found by Blumgart (2022), Shoup (2011, 2018), and Kuss and Nicholas (2022). The costs of car driving are often underestimated by both individuals as well as by policymakers (Gössling, Kees, and Litman, 2022) and this leads to hidden subsidies for automobile travel that incentivize car use.

Regional plans affect state plans, and I think that the state of Wisconsin needs a total approach that articulates the connected nature of transportation at all levels of scale and mode, for all users, with attention to land use, economic, environmental, and social equity concerns. The lack of such an approach puts Wisconsin at an economic disadvantage. Transportation involves all mobility--from active transportation including walking and biking, to mass transportation and individual mobility--including modes for paths, sidewalks, streets, roads, highways, rail, water, and air. Indeed, the goal of ICM and CV technologies is to manage these resources together. Treating highways in isolation, without this perspective of how transportation and land use is a total system that can be managed together, with interrelated parts, is a mistake because it fails to capture Wisconsin's diverse communities, goals, needs, and aspirations.

The National Mode Reveals Strategic Plans

Moving up in scale from the regional level, we can look at national plans for transportation. On the national level, Amtrak has prepared a map envisioning enhance rail service connecting US cities :

(click on image for larger version) Diagram of US rail system concept from Amtrak

The US national plans for passenger rail connect principal economic areas of the United States.

The World Mode Reveals Significant Areas

Moving up in scale from the national level, we get a global perspective.

Mega-regions are described by an article in Bloomberg's CityLab, "The Real Powerhouses That Drive the World's Economy--It's not nation states or even cities, but mega-regions--combinations of multiple metro areas--that are the real forces powering the global economy," by Richard Florida. This article looks at world economic output in terms of collections of cities and metropolitan areas called mega-regions. The article identifies the top-producing 29 mega-regions of the world.

(click on image for larger version) Diagram of World Megargions (bloomberg.com)

A list shows the top ten mega-regions ranked in terms of economic output (note that they not ranked by population):

  1. Bos-Wash (Boston through New York and Philadelphia down to Washington, D.C.)
  2. Par-Am-Mun (Paris, Amsterdam, Brussels, and Munich)
  3. Min-Chi-Pitts (Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Chicago, Indianapolis, Detroit, Cleveland, and Pittsburg)
  4. Greater Tokyo
  5. SoCal (Los Angeles to San Diego)
  6. Seoul-San (Seoul to Busan)
  7. The Texas Triangle (Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, and Austin)
  8. Beijing-Tianjin China
  9. Lon-Leed-Chester (London through Leeds, and Manchester)
  10. Hong-Shen (Hong Kong and Shenzhen)
  11. NorCal (San Francisco, San Jose, and other Bay Area cities)
  12. Shang-zou (Shanghai and Hangzhou)

Global production doesn't happen in provincial terms, but in global terms. Mega-regions act as single economic zones extending beyond state borders. Bringing Wisconsin into the world's third-largest producing mega-region on the planet is a significant advantage for the Wisconsin economy. The Min-Chi-Pitts mega-region (which I relabled to Min-Chi-Pitts instead of an older term "Chi-Pitts" that was used in Jean Gottmann's concept of megalopolis back in the 1960's). According to the Forbes article, Min-Chi-Pitts encompasses 32 million people and produces $2 trillion in economic output.

Here is a slightly different concept map specifically on USA mega-regions:

(click on image for larger version) Diagram of USA Megargions (wikimedia.org)

Note that the Bos-Wash mega-region is the most productive in the world in terms of economic output but is also the most populous mega-region of the world. Bos-Wash is served by Acela, Amtrak's service from the downtowns of Boston, New Haven, New York, Philadelphia, Wilmington, and Washington DC at speeds of up to 241 km/hr.

The second-ranked mega-region of the world, Par-Am-Mun, connects Paris, Amsterdam, Brussels, and Munich. The Eurostar high-speed train at up to 320 km/hr connects this mega-region with the 9th most productive mega-region, Lon-Leed-Chester (London through Leeds, and Manchester).

The SoCal mega-region (5th-ranked in the world and 3rd-ranked in the US) aims to develop a high-speed rail linking its major cities.

The fourth most-productive mega-region, the Greater Tokyo mega-region is served by an extensive rail network and Shinkansen rail with speeds up to 320 km/hr.

The importance of the rail connection between Milwaukee and Chicago is often underappreciated in terms of its integration of the economy of southeastern Wisconsin onto a global stage. Closer ties by rail for the residents in Wisconsin along the corridor to the third-largest mega-region in the world in terms of economic output is a key benefit.

The absence of high-speed rail in the Twin Cities-Milwaukee-Chicago corridor places it at an economic disadvantage in comparison to the other major mega-regions. This impacts jobs and the economy of the entire state of Wisconsin. By rejecting high-speed rail, previous governors of Wisconsin have affected Wisconsin's economy and growth prospects.

Community Outcomes for Regions and Nation: Health, Equity, Livability, and Prosperity (HELP)

In looking at regional and national areas, our concern will be to ensure community goals and outcomes. Because of the large size and complexity of regions and nations, these large goals are much more expansive, but more concisely stated. The implementation of these goals takes place at smaller scales of geography and local action.

National and regional goals to address climate change and individual health.
Mobility and access to resources for all.
Wide diversity of living choices and transportation mode options.
Economic growth in mega-region economic zones in which all people share.

This Bigger Picture Reveals Some Lessons I Learned About Transit

Examining the wide range of geographies and transit modes from the street, neighborhood, district, metropolitan area, region, nation, and world has given me a greater appreciation for transit.

I can experience walking from my home to my local streetcar stop. I can see the transit connections to larger land areas and other transit modes. I can see how this bigger picture encompasses more than just one level of detail and more than just one transit mode.

Too often, thinking, planning, and discussion about transit ignores these differences in scale, mode types, and the vast diversity of land uses in an area. Since many different types of geographies exist within a neighborhood, city, region, state, and country, understanding how different geographies play a role in transit is key.

Too often transportation planning allows for only one mode while ignoring the role and potential of other modes. People might use an automobile-oriented mindset and focus only on the movement and parking of automobiles. They make superficial statements assuming a suburban or average density for the entire area. They make narrow-view assumptions without considering the total picture of transit. Other times, people consider modes interchangeable--they wonder why a bus cannot do the same job as a streetcar. They have only a superficial appreciation for the characteristics of streetcars or light rail. They fail to see the difference among rail service and automobile or bus travel. Many might not even recognize that bus and rail include many different types of each.

Too often, public transit has demands put upon it that no other public infrastructure or service does. Many people claim that public transit needs to turn a profit, yet this demand is often not made on other public services or infrastructure. People force public transit to operate with intermittent or unreliable funding, when this same requirement is not demanded of other public infrastructure. Public transit is carved up by many jurisdictions and agencies so that it cannot easily be coordinated, and yet a region's road system is designed as continuous.

By thinking about my experience of using and studying transit over the past years, and my examination of the geography-mode levels, I list some insights I gained in the next sections.

Geography, Demographics, and Transit Modes Vary Widely Across a Region

Urbanists, land use planners, and transit planners recognize the vast differences in density, demographics, pedestrian activity, active uses, land use patterns, and community goals throughout a city or metropolitan area (Reader, 2004; Marshall, 2000). In fact, these differences are the foundation of transportation knowledge and planning (Woldeamanuel, 2016; Spieler, 2018). The spectrum runs from dense urban centers, to neighborhoods of all sizes and density, towns, suburbs, rural, and natural areas. All over the world, options exist along this full spectrum for land use practices and transportation modes that are distinct and tailored for each setting.

The key to addressing transportation needs is to provide a wide diversity of options and long-term commitments to communities. With stability in funding, planning, design, and implementation, people will be assured of a reliable, integrated, multimodal, and intermodal infrastructure that will always be there for them.

The wide spectrum of geographies can be supported by transit modes that match the land use characteristics, trip generation capabilities of transit stops, and community goals.

Not every mode of transit works well in all areas. Not every transit mode is directly interchangeable with another. A transit mode might serve a specific geography in specific areas of a city, but not be appropriate to all areas of a city--this does not mean the transit mode should not be used anywhere. Each transit mode has riders that freely use other modes. Transit modes are not in competition with each other, but are in cooperation with other modes for better service. There need not be antagonistic attitudes among advocates for one transit mode over another.

An excellent way to illustrate how different transportation modes can work at a variety of scales together is to look at transit in a specific community. I will cover Helsinki, Finland's transportation system because it demonstrates how a variety of transit modes, each serving niche purposes, work together.

In comparison to Milwaukee, Helskini is larger in population and has a bit snowier and colder climate.

The overview of Helsinki's transportation at the city's welcome site gives an excellent summary of the Helsinki region's transit system:

"Public transport in Helsinki is efficient and reliable, making it one of Helsinki's greatest strengths. The network of different transport options makes it easy for residents to travel to every corner of the capital region."

"The convenient service also offsets the environmental impact of heavy traffic. At least one form of regular transport serves every neighbourhood in the region, meaning that even those living far from the city centre can get around easily without a car. The City of Helsinki is investing heavily in expanding its public transport system to support sustainable growth. It aims to eliminate 69 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions from traffic by the year 2035."

The abbreviation for Helsinki Regional Transport is given as HRT which represents the English words. It is also represented as HSL for the Finnish words, "Helsingin Seudun Liikenne."

Helsinki Regional Transport is "a joint local authority whose member municipalities include Helsinki, Espoo, Vantaa, Kauniainen, Kerava, Sipoo, Tuusula, Kirkkonummi and Siuntio." HSL had 390 million boardings for the year 2019. In 2019, "ticket revenue accounted for 51 per cent, municipal contributions for 47 per cent and other income for 2 per cent of our operating income."

A closeup of transportation in central Helsinki shows its many transit modes. This image shows a portion of the central area of Helsinki with the key to transit modes:

(click on image for larger version) Partial map of Helsinki transportation
(Source: from HSL maps and timetables)

The components of the HSL transit system include:

Streetcar service operates in both dedicated lanes and mixed traffic. The network covers the densely-populated central districts and activity centers.

Helsinki has been running electric streetcars (trams) continuously since 1900. The tram system has 10 lines, 132 vehicles, a route length of 96 km, and about 200,000 daily weekday boardings.

Trams in Helsinki run in the snow just as streetcars in Milwaukee in the snow.

This image shows a portion of Helsinki's tram system in the central area of the city:

(click on image for larger version) Partial map of Helsinki trams
(Source: from HSL maps and timetables)

There are plans in place for an expansion of Helsinki's tram system.

Commuter trains
A commuter rail system connects cities in the Helsinki region with Helsinki Central Station.
A metro rail system connects suburbs with downtown Helsinki. The trains run above and below ground and connect to commuter trains and local transportation at Helsinki Central Station.
A system of various types of buses provide transportation coverage for all of Helsinki.
  1. Regular bus lines: these are the most prevalent buses that operate throughout Helsinki. These are operated by independent companies working with HSL standards and under HSL evaluation. They serve Helsinki Central Station as well as bus terminals. Regional buses serve the metropolitan area. A few are driverless (robot) buses.
  2. Trunk bus lines: these are buses with frequent service and distinct visual appearance and cover longer distances more quickly.
  3. Neighborhood route buses: A system of buses serve people who need help getting to and from the vehicles. The driver helps people on and off the bus if needed. These buses run at slower speeds in order to provide total coverage for people who can't get to the more rapid transit modes.
Two ferry lines connect the water-separated areas of Helsinki.
City Bikes
A public bicycle system run by a public-private partnership provides short-term rental bikes across the metro area. The bike stations are integrated into the overall transit system.

The key is that the Helsinki transit system supports a balanced, integrated, multimodal, and intermodal approach to meet community goals.

Helsinki's Regional Transport shows a mix of many different types of transit modes:

Managing Spatial Competition is Key for Transit Success in Dense (and All) Areas

If there is any one theme that I have observed by riding the streetcar regularly since it opened in 2018, it is the competition in the street for space. People, bicycles, motorcycles, automobiles, trucks, buses, streetcars, scooters, roller bladers, runners, wheelchair users, delivery drivers, walkers, dogs, and even some geese and horses all have a claim on the space of the street at one time or another. This may seem an obvious physical property of a street, but, like many things that are considered obvious, the assumptions made about the street, and the ways it might be made more efficient and equitable are often completely ignored. The result is a free-for-all that is just barely managed by layers of outdated assumptions.

The pandemic has shown how curb space plays a role in a city's commerce, and managing spatial competition is truly a multi-billion dollar issue. The American Planning Association calls curb space management itself the "The Billion Dollar Curb" and provides a curb-management framework. Smart Cities Dive publishes TRENDLINE: Parking & Curb Management that reviews the latest trends on managing curb space.

Researchers have shown how automobile parking policies have an impact on the utility of urban land (Shoup, 2011, 2018). To mitigate this spatial competition, the State Smart Transportation Initiative (SSTI), based at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, describes a transportation demand management (TDM) approach to achieve the purpose of cities. The SSTI report, "Modernizing Mitigation: A Demand-Centered Approach," calls for improved transit infrastructure, subsidized transit, and high-capacity transit. This report makes the case that adding motor vehicle trips to dense urban areas "degrades the accessibility of cities" and reduces the productivity increases that come from density.

Other established concepts help support this theme of spatial management. Fundamentals of public transportation such as Transit Signal Priority (TSP) (Li, 2008) utilize techniques to manage traffic lights and expedite public transit vehicles. Traffic signal timing has shown to reduce streetcar travel time (Ji, Tang, et al, 2018). Smart signaling has improved the reliability of service and reduced travel delays (Cheng and Yang, 2017). Complete streets concepts show how supporting all users of streets--pedestrians, transit riders, bicyclists, delivery vehicles, and car drivers--promotes equity and usability (Smart Growth America, "Complete Streets").

Streetcar systems that do not have a dedicated right-of-way (ROW) have been criticized because vehicles have to stop at lights and compete with automobile traffic on the corridor. The Hop streetcar utilizes Transit Signal Priority at several intersections and has a small section with dedicated ROW. However, with some additional technologies and methodologies, it might be possible to create a virtual ROW where it is not possible to have a physical ROW. This was the topic of the Smart Cities project I worked on to explore how this could be done with sensors, signals, and the development of methods to control signal lights (Pitstick, 2018; Li, 2008; Ji, Tang, et al, 2018). With a virtual ROW, enabled by 5G and cloud computing, the streetcar may be able to achieve a more rapid movement along its route by the use of smart signals.

Managing spatial competition in streets is key to unlocking the value of public transit and the economic opportunities of intensely-used activity centers. Using the best techniques and technology available, a variety of means should be used to manage curb space, street space, transportation, transit, and land use comprehensively. There should be concepts for pedestrian-favored areas, transit corridors, and pick-up and drop-off points that utilize concepts from modern parking reform.

Public Transit in the USA Should Follow a Public Service Model

Public transit ensures mobility and equity for its citizens to engage in civic and private life. Public transit is part of the public service infrastructure of a city--like streets, utilities, bridges, parks, schools, libraries, sidewalks, and more. Public service infrastructure is not expected to turn a direct profit, but to provide the value and reason-for-being of the community itself. The notion that public transit must turn a profit is a hollow demand. Public transit is justified as it meets community goals to increase the health, equity, livability, and prosperity of the community.

Public transit provides community benefits by its status as public infrastructure, public transportation, and rail transportation. Public transit benefits include energy and environmental benefits, economy and employment benefits, and health benefits (American Public Transportation Association, "Benefits of Public Transportation").

Rail benefits include "less traffic congestion, lower traffic death rates, lower consumer expenditures on transportation, and higher transit service cost recovery than otherwise comparable cities with less or no rail transit service. This indicates that rail transit systems provide economic, social and environmental benefits, and these benefits tend to increase as a system expands and matures" (Litman, "Rail Transit In America: A Comprehensive Evaluation of Benefits").

The prosperity of private enterprise itself depends on public infrastructure. Public transportation, in general, is never built to make a profit but to give public benefits and support free-market enterprises. The Hong Kong Mass Transit Railway (MTR) does make a profit, but it does so using a "transit + property" model where the MTR operates real estate on its service corridor and makes profits based on the added land values due to rail service. Our current system of public infrastructure + private enterprise allows the benefits to accrue to the community and the private sector. Hence, our public infrastructure uses a "transit + public service" model and needs financial support for its funding. In the USA, this value-added benefit of transit, accruing to private enterprise, could utilize a "Rail Entrepreneur Model" (Newman, Davies-Slate, and Jones, 2018) to fund urban rail. The key is that the profit value rail transit adds to an urban setting is partly in the real-estate value of proximate properties.

All transit modes ideally work for one purpose: mobility for all. Funding, planning, analysis, management, and use of transit must be coordinated and provide connections that are seamless and usable for people for modes and geographies in an area. Transit must work across agencies and jurisdictional boundaries in a cooperative, comprehensive, and convenient manner for all citizens. This includes all aspects of transit user-oriented information, services, and payment systems. It includes an operations analysis approach to continuous measurement, methodology development, and improvement of transit.

Kansas City shows an example of funding a transit system using a Transit Authority and strategic community goals. Transportation in the Kansas City area reflects the bi-state nature of its setting, the variety of transit modes offered, and its formation of organizations and districts to operate and fund their streetcar initiatives. Their comprehensive regional transit and funding plan is called One RideKC. The goal is to support "RideKC's four core pillars of access: jobs, housing, healthcare and education on a foundation of social equity."

Kansas City began construction in 2022 for a $351 million extension of the Kansas City streetcar. Funding for the Kansas City streetcar extension is through a Main Street Rail Transportation Development District (TDD). The United States Department of Transportation Federal Transit Administration awarded a grant for $174.1 million for this expansion. The remainder was funded through a special property assessment and sales tax, which is also allocated for maintenance and operation costs. The extension will go from Union Station to the University of Missouri - Kansas City. The funds will cover the extension plus eight new streetcars. (See: "Who will pay for the new Kansas City Streetcar extension?").

The Kansas City streetcar is just one part of an overall plan for the Kansas City metropolitan area to grow. The KC Smart Moves plan is a long-term transit and mobility plan for the Kansas City Region. The goal is the integration of transit modes and clear community benefits and outcomes for the entire region.

I See Transit as A Bridge Connecting Personal and Civic Life

Using only walking, The Hop streetcar, buses, and an Amtrak train as my transportation modes during the second year of the pandemic, I expanded the locations I reached in my first year. I met all my needs and formed a better idea of the relationship of local to city-wide and regional transit. I continued to see the advantages of the streetcar and learned more about transit research, projects, and concepts. I was able to see how geography and transit work together for people to access what they need. I can make these conclusions:

  1. I met all of my needs without a car. I was able to do my work, buy groceries, purchase goods in person (but also online), visit my doctor, get specialized medical care, get vaccinated, vote, reach areas for exercise and photography walks, attend educational classes, attend cultural events, take a trip to Chicago, visit with family and friends, and many other activities that I wanted to do. Simply put, I was fine with not riding in or driving a car. I found it peaceful to never be on a highway. In fact, although I had kept my driver's license current for many years for identification purposes, when it came up for renewal during this period, I opted to give it up and get a state-issued identification card instead. Now, my goal will be to always live where I can have a car-free life.

  2. I realized that the primary reason why walking and transit worked for me was that, decades ago, I had picked a walkable urban place to live. When I decided to move back to Milwaukee in 1998, two decades before the opening of the streetcar, I chose a neighborhood which was walkable and well-served by transit (a good bus system). I was car-free on moving here, and so I knew being able to use public transit effectively depends on there being a wide variety of useful destinations near the transit stops. I was unaware of the transit history of the area at the time I moved here, but since then, I have learned that the historic streetcars had run on the streets of the neighborhood I chose (Canfield, 1972). I continue to acknowledge my privilege of being able to live in an area with walkability (high walk scores) and near a streetcar, bus routes, and an Amtrak station. My hope is to advocate for extending this opportunity to others and support transit for underserved areas. I also wish to help people see that walking as a form of transportation has many benefits including involvement in community (Klinkenberg, 2014) as well as health (Warburton, et al, 2006).

  3. I gained a deeper understanding of what it means to not use a car at all. The connections transit brings seem even more vital to me, and I notice them more. I avoid going out to the areas beyond transit, and my work and routine make it possible for me to do so.

    I notice more how expectations about car ownership and car-centric planning are embedded in modern life. People organizing events and meetings or running a business, for example, give directions for car travel only, when the site may be well-served by transit. The story of how the world has been transformed by the bias toward cars, as fueled by the auto industry and oil companies, is a much longer story (Kunstler, 1993; Orum, 1995; Kay, 1997; Norquist, 1998; Duany, Plater-Zyberk, Speck, 2000; Hirschhorn, 2005; Wasik, 2009; Shoup, 2011; Gallagher, 2013; Florida, 2017; and others).

  4. With walking as a major component of my mobility, my exercise goals were built right into my daily routine. I have no need for a gym membership. I use the streetcar as a walk extender (described in my Hop Year) to increase my ability to go farther distances than just by walking. Together, walking and the streetcar are more useful as transportation than either alone. The hale and hearty walkers who claim they don't need the streetcar can actually extend their walking reach even further by using the streetcar as a walk extender.

  5. I could compare and contrast the ride experience of the streetcar and the bus quite dramatically. In my first year, I did not use a bus, and that was the longest stretch of not riding a bus in decades. I could see more clearly that the streetcar experience is dramatically different. The primary differences are that, with the streetcar, boarding and alighting is level and rapid through big doors, there is a smooth ride, better ventilation, and more natural light. The big windows of the streetcar are free of advertising to allow for easy viewing of the city as you glide through it. The time needed for boarding and alighting is dramatically reduced on the streetcar by having the two, big door openings. On a bus, the choke-point of boarding at the front, where passengers negotiate fare payment, chit-chat with the driver, or tend to stand in a clump, slows the progress of the bus down considerably. The layout design of the streetcar allows for rapid boarding and standing room during peak travel times. Most importantly, the fixed infrastructure of the streetcar gave me confidence that my choice of where to live in relation to my long-term decisions about where I work, go to school, have my doctor, banking, and other services, is on a long-term basis. With buses, the "agile" nature of their operation means that a bus route could be dropped or changed in an instant, rendering all my careful choices of my home location and services in doubt. I also know that the fixed nature of the streetcar motivates businesses and other features along the route to develop, and so over time, as I have seen, there are more things to do along the streetcar route. I can participate in the enthusiasm about cities that Kyle Ezell described in his book, Get Urban! (2004).

  6. I realized that much of the confusion about discussing transit involves people not acknowledging the many different scales of geography and unique transportation mode characteristics involved. The geographies from the street-level to neighborhood, district, metro area, and region show the operation of many different transit modes that each fill a niche need.

    Not all transit modes work in all geographies. Some modes work in specific areas. For example, buses serve less densely-populated areas. Streetcars serve dense, connected walksheds and clusters of activity. It is a fallacy to think that this specialization means that a specific transit mode should not be used at all. For example, streetcars can be designed to serve connected walksheds in dense areas (The Hop's Main Line) or separated walksheds at more widely-spaced stations and travel at higher speeds (the Rapid Streetcar concept (Henry, 2012)). In other areas, buses work better to provide coverage to less densely-populated areas. The example of Helsinki, Finland shows this very well.

  7. Local and regional transit must work seamlessly together, with connections and common purpose. Moving up the scales, as discussed, from street, neighborhood, district, metro, and then region, I could see how I could move from one area to another. This mobility depends, crucially, on that connectivity. Physical proximity of intermodal transfers are crucial, such as at Milwaukee's Intermodal Station area. Fare payments are available on apps and open-loop payment accounts. This can be a big boost toward connectivity and a seamless experience for riders of transit.

  8. Funding for transit must have a framework. Simply put, when transit has precarious funding that is constantly under politically-motivated attack, transit riders, the public, and potential businesses do not have a reason to make a commitment to transit. Keeping transit off-balance by making its funding precarious and its existence doubtful reduces transit's benefits.

  9. Our transit should work for continuous improvement and user satisfaction. I can't help but see the operation of the streetcar in terms of improving its effectiveness through careful operations analysis and implementing technologies for improvement.

    In my early work after graduating from college, I worked in an operations analysis department and analyzed aircraft missions, specifically air refueling and airlift missions. I could see how the movement of transportation (airplanes or transit vehicles) could be analyzed and made more effective using a mix of different types of vehicles for different purposes.

    This analysis can help improve operations. For example, many people criticize a streetcar system that does not have a dedicated right-of-way along its route. However, it might be possible to have a virtual right of way using sensors and advanced algorithms for transit signal priority. It may be that the 5G signal coverage along the route may enable better cloud-based data collection and control of signal priority. This was the topic of the Smart City project I worked on.

    I think that continuous improvement and developing a model for user satisfaction would improve transit effectiveness.

  10. My biggest realization is that land use and transit work together, because land use feeds transit, and transit supports land use--their relationship is synergistic. As a transit rider and city dweller, this seems so obvious that it seems unnecessary to convey. But allowing land use and transit to work together seems limited by reluctance, NIMBYism, or political resistance. It is when land use and transit work together that the great benefits of both are found. In fact, the benefits of both are demonstrated dramatically by the profit-making Mass Transit Railway (MTR) in Hong Kong which earns money to pay for its rail system through real-estate leasing on land proximate to transit stops (Hong Kong Mass Transit Railway).

    Historic streetcars evolved directly out of the walkable urbanism of pre-automobile settlements. I think that this historic use validated the efficacy of streetcars for transit in walkable urban settings (Canfield, 1972). The historic streetcar operations set down the walking and transit fabrics that persist to today (Brooks & Lutz, 2019).

I Conclude with the Big Picture

The pandemic revealed that we are all connected. We share biology but also our social, civic, environmental, and economic lives interact.

The uniqueness of geography, both cultural and physical, at a wide range of scales throughout a neighborhood, city, metropolitan area, region, state, and nation supports a vast spectrum of choices for lifestyle, housing, and transportation.

The foundation of diverse human communities is cooperation. Cooperation is not loss of rights or a central-planning effort, but the simple recognition that a degree of cooperation is inherent in sharing space and working toward positive opportunities for health, equity, livability, and prosperity for every person.

Free enterprise and free markets are engine parts of our economy, but they cannot operate without a community framework for cooperation, a kind of operating system. In many ways, the phrase "public market" seems to summarize this--our economy has a market part (free enterprise) but also requires a public basis in laws and standards for cooperation and fair competition. The public framework makes the free market possible, and a flourishing free market funds the public framework.

Because mobility is inherent in being a community participant, active and public transit is part of the infrastructure of the community. Transit should follow a public service model with cooperation and coordination among many public and private enterprises.

This diagram summarizes main points of my essay:

(click on image for larger version) The Big Picture of Transit 2022

Although this diagram shows a neighborhood-level scale, its topics and issues are present in smaller or larger scales. A neighborhood is the foundation of transit service, as illustrated by the 20-minute neighborhood concept.

In examining transit modes that operate in metropolitan areas throughout the world, I see many advantages of streetcars for public transit. As part of a balanced transportation strategy, streetcars serve a role by connecting walkable urbanism and clusters of mixed uses in densely populated areas. A streetcar functions to provide transportation as well as motivate development, with one function supporting the other in a synergistic way. The streetcar's success and the city's activity level are also synergistic and symbiotic. When the streetcar works well as transit, developers make investments along the route. This adds to the city's activity. When the city is active, the streetcar is active. When the streetcar is active, the streets do not have to be flooded with automobile traffic and parking, and centers of density can be built.

Transit can work well with land use decisions encompassing transit-oriented development, complete streets, a variety of transit modes, the smart use of technology, managed spatial competition for curb space and parking, and urban design patterns that recognize the roles of urban fabrics, people-orientation, and community goals. Transit systems integrate a wide variety of modes to serve populations across the scale from neighborhoods to metropolitan areas to regions to nations.

Examples from throughout the world show how funding for public transit can provide mobility and community benefits. Transit authorities and national and state governments have the ability to create a structure and authority for funding and cooperation. The funding works best when it flows from the combined benefits of successful transit, community goals, and land use.

I envision a Transit Bill of Rights that defines the basis and scope of what people in a community should have for transit choices.

The challenge for transportation is to work in partnership with public and market sector organizations, enterprises, and individuals to support positive community outcomes for health, equity, livability, and prosperity for every person.

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2023-12-31 · John December · Terms © johndecember.com