Why changing trains is good for you

Ideal. Image: Tokyo Transit authority.

To complete your trip in a world-class transit system, you may have to make a connection, or "transfer" as Americans say. That is, you may have to get off one transit vehicle and onto another. You probably don't like doing this, but if you demand no-transfer service, as many people doyou may actually be demanding a mediocre network for your city.

There are several reasons for this, but let's start with the most selfish one: your travel time. 

Imagine a simple city that has three primary residential areas, along the top in this diagram, and three primary activities of employment or activity, along the bottom.

In designing a network for this city, the first impulse is to try to run direct service from each residential area to each activity centre. If we have three of each, this yields a network of nine transit lines:

Suppose that we can afford to run each line every 30 minutes. Let’s call this the Direct Service Option.

Now consider another way of serving this simple city for the same cost. Instead of running a direct line between every residential area and every activity centre, we run a direct line from each residential area to one activity centre, but we make sure that all the resulting lines connect with each other at a strategic point. 

Now we have three lines instead of nine, so we can run each line three times as often at the same total cost as the Direct Service option. So instead of service every 30 minutes, we have service every 10 minutes. Let's call this the Connective Option.

Asking people to "transfer" is politically unpopular, so the Direct Service option is the politically safe solution, but if we want to maximize mobility with our fixed budget, we should prefer the Connective option. Consider how long at typical trip takes in each scenario, from the standpoint of a person whose needs to leave or arrive at a particular time. 

Let’s arbitrarily look at trips from Residential Area 1 to Activity Area 2. For simplicity, let's also assume that all the lines, in all the scenarios, are 20 minutes long.

In the Direct Service scenario, a service runs directly from Residential Area 1 to Activity Area 2. It runs every 30 minutes, so on average, the waiting time is 15 minutes. Once we’re on board, the travel time is 20 minutes. So the average trip time is:

Wait 15 minutes 

+  Ride 20 minutes

35 Minutes.

Now look at the Connective Option. We leave Residential Area 1 on its only line, which runs every 10 minutes, so our average wait is 5 minutes. We ride to the connection point and get off. Since this point is halfway between the residential areas and the activity centres, the travel time to it is 10 minutes. Now we get off and wait for the service to Activity Area 2. It also runs every 10 minutes, so our average wait time is 5 minutes. Finally, our ride from the connection point to Activity Area 2 is 10 minutes. So our average trip time is:

Wait 5 minutes

+ Ride 10 minutes

+ Wait 5 minutes

+ Ride 10 minutes

= 30 minutes.     

The Connective Network is faster, even though it imposes a connection, because of the much higher frequencies that it can offer for the same total budget.

As cities grow, the travel time advantages of the Connective Network only increase. For example, suppose that instead of three residential areas and three activity centres, we had six of each. In this case, the direct-service network would have 36 routes, while the connective network would have only six. You can run the numbers yourself, but the answer is that the Direct Service network still takes 35 minutes, while the Connective network is down to only 25 minutes, due to the added frequency.

Lets anticipate a couple of objections to this thinking.

The Modeller’s Objection

If we were actually using travel time as a means of estimating ridership, we would have to consider the widespread view, built into most ridership models, that connections impose a “transfer penalty” in addition to the actual time it takes. These penalties assume that even though people say they want the fastest possible trip, they'll actually prefer a slower trip if it saves them the trouble of getting out of their seat partway through their journey.

In the above example, for example, a model might assume that although the average trip in the Connective option is faster, the Direct Service option would give us higher ridership, because the Connective option imposes the inconvenience of the connection. The modeller might say that this inconvenience is the equivalent of 10 minutes of travel time, so that the Connective option will really attract ridership as though the trip took 40 minutes instead of 30. This common modelling approach assumes that the inconvenience of transferring is something different to, and separable from, the time that the transfer takes. 

There is considerable documentation behind the addition of this kind of factor, but the unpleasantness of the connection experience depends on many details of how the connection works. If two buses or trains arrive on opposite sides of a platform, facing one another five meters apart, with their doors open at the same time, walking out of one and into the other is a pretty low level of inconvenience for most passengers. If the connection involves getting off a bus, crossing a busy street, and waiting for another bus not knowing when it will arrive, the inconvenience is much greater. 

So the configuration of the connection matters. Transfer penalties are based on a crude averaging of many different types of connection experience, so good interchanges will reduce these penalties. Modelling assumptions about a "transfer penalty" (as distinct from the time the connection takes) deserved to be scrutinized: what kind of connection experience was used to calibrate the model? 

The 9-to-5 Commuter's Objection 

People who commute regularly might well object to the way I've inferred average waiting times from frequencies. After all, if a particular airline route has one flight a day, that doesn’t mean we have spend half the day waiting for it. We go on with our lives and work, and go catch the flight whenever it is leaving. Many people do treat commuter service schedules in this way. Even if the bus runs every 30 minutes, they’ll just do other things until it’s due, and then go out to catch it. 

However, the average wait is still a valid way of capturing the inconvenience of low-frequency services. For example, if you need to be at work at 8:00 and your bus is half-hourly, you may have to take a bus that gets you to work at 7:35. This means that every morning, you’ll have 25 minutes at your destination before work starts, time you’d probably rather have spent in bed. You may figure out how to make use of this time, but it’s still time you must spend somewhere other than where you want to be. 

Note too that for simplicity we have presented this example in terms of commutes to work, but of course, a good public transport system serves many kinds of trips happening all day. You may figure out how to make use of a predictable 25 minute delay at the beginning of your work day, but it’s much harder to deal with unpredictable 25 minute gaps in the many trips that you need to make in the course of the day, such as while taking a lunch break or running errands that involve many destinations. So all-day frequency still matters.

Other Advantages of Connective Networks

There's a few further factors which argue for Connective networks over Direct Service networks:

  • Average travel time is better than the worst-case time calculated above. In the Direct Service network, everybody’s trip takes 35 minutes. In the Connective network, two-thirds of the market has a 30-minute trip, but one-third of the market (those still served by a direct route) has an even faster trip. 
  • The Connective network is made of more frequent services. Frequency makes connections faster but it also stimulates ridership directly, especially when we consider the needs of people who have to make several trips in a day, or who want to travel spontaneously, and who therefore need to know that service is there whenever they need it.
  • The Connective network is simpler. A network of three frequent lines is much easier to remember than a network of nine infrequent ones. Marketing frequent lines as a Frequent Network can enhance the ridership benefits of this simplicity. 

Most transit networks start out as Direct Service networks with relatively little focus on connections, but as the city grows bigger and more complex, connections become more important. In most cases, though, there’s a transition from a Direct Service network to a Connective one, a transition that often requires severing direct links that people are used to in order to create a connection-based structure of frequent service that is more broadly useful and legible. 

Helping agencies through this hard step is one of my specialties as a consultant, and while there's usually a moment in the process where the resistance seems overwhelming, the agencies I've worked with are almost all glad that they broke through this resistance, because the result was a network that was much more frequent, and therefore more relevant to the life of the city.

Images courtesy of the author.

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.



In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 

The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.