That chart of US transit frequency is not all it's cracked up to be

Miami Metrorail. Image: Getty.

We recently reported on a chart showing which US cities had the best public transport networks. But transport planner Jarrett Walker thinks we might have over-simplified things a little...

The best of intentions lay behind the recent analysis of the availability of high frequency service, described by Jake Anbinder at TransitCenter. And as one of the original proponents of Frequent Network branding, I’m delighted to see organisations starting to care about whether transit is useful, rather than just whether it exists.

But when we transit professionals design Frequent Networks and their standards, we think really carefully about what counts as frequent service. I insist that it always means every 15 minutes or better on both peaks and throughout the midday, but we have to have a sensitive local conversation about how late it extends into the evening, and how long on weekends. It’s easy to say that you want 15 minute service 24 hours a day – but when you look at your fixed resources, you’ll find that if you insist on that, your Frequent Network won’t cover enough of your city to be either useful or politically feasible.

That’s exactly the problem that makes the analysis misleading. Here’s the chart making the rounds from the their work:

The problem is that this analysis defines frequent transit as 672 trips each direction per week on a route segment. Why 672? It’s 4 x 24 x 7:

  • 4 trips per hour (so every 15 minutes);
  • 24 hours per day;
  • 7 days per week.

For service to count as frequent, by this analysis, it has to be frequent even at 3:00am.

I can’t think of a bus route anywhere in North America that runs every 15 minutes in the middle of the night. Maybe there are a few in Manhattan, but this calculation is an unrealistic basis for defining frequent service anywhere in North America, except for the densest, biggest cities. (Obviously, the other way to meet this target is to be very, very frequent during the day to compensate for not being frequent at night.)

Why quibble about this? Because this chart caused some needless angst in the media. Among its worst outcomes would be to signal that frequent service is such a rarefied thing that most cities couldn’t realistically hope for it. It certainly obscures all the great work that’s actually being done to build realistic but useful frequent networks in many cities.

For example, it triggered this Houston Press article implying that there’s some racial disparity in the distribution of frequent service, based on the bizarre notion that Houston’s frequent service consists only of the areas highlighted in yellow:

The Press’s Megan Flynn writes:

In Houston, according to TransitCenter’s analysis, while nearly 80 percent of people have access to transit at least a half mile away from their doorstep, only 18 percent of them have access to what the map’s algorithm considers the highly reliable, “high-frequency” service.

By the AllTransit definition of high-frequency—service running at least every 15 minutes on average, 672 times a week—only one bus route, the Westheimer route, meets that standard, along with all three of Houston Metro’s light-rail lines.

As TransitCenter noted in its analysis: “Notably, in cities with fewer high-frequency transit lines there tends to be a greater demographic skew among people who live near quality transit.”

And it considered Houston to be one of the two “most notable” examples of that demographic skew.

Even though black and white people in Houston each have equal walking-distance access to public transportation in general – each making up 24 percent of the pie – 36 percent of white people can access high-frequency service while only 19 percent of the black population can. Latinos make up 45 percent of people with walking-distance access, yet only 34 percent access high-frequency routes. (See The New York Times‘s map of the racial makeup of Houston’s neighborhoods here to compare with the above map.)

Ouch! Great basis for rage.


But it’s not about what matters. When we designed the Houston network, our standard for frequent service was not 672 buses/week, and the map above illustrates why. If it had been, we’d have brought frequent service to too small a part of the city, and we could have fairly been accused of racial disparity. That’s exactly why we didn’t.

As it is, the Houston Frequent network (the red lines on the map) is abundant and citywide. It may not fit some abstract big-city standard, but it’s the fair and equitable way to cover most of Houston with frequent service given the transit agency’s resources, and it’s sculpted to hit inflection points on the frequency spectrum where ridership begins to take off. The same is true of many of the cities that “fail” the 672 buses/week test.

TransitCenter is an excellent organization, by the way, and this showed in how open they were to this critique when I shared it in draft. In our correspondence they asked me what a good benchmark would be. I suggested “15-15-7”: 15 minute frequency, 15 hours a day, 7 days a week, plus 30 minute service for an additional 5 hours a day. That gives you a total service day of 20 hours, e.g. 5:00am-1am.

That’s only 490 bus trips/week, so their estimate of 672 is high by over a third. The chart would be totally different, and more useful at motivating change in cities that aren’t as dense as New York or San Francisco, if a standard around there had been used.

Jarrett Walker is an international consultant in public transit network design and policy, based in Portland, Oregon. He is also the author of “Human Transit: How clearer thinking about public transit can enrich our communities and our lives".

This article was originally written for his blog, and is reposted here with permission.

 
 
 
 

Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.


Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.