Good Industry Practices Thread

In contrast to the mismanagement highlighted in the last few posts, there’s a set of best industry practices for good transit. Here is a list of what I believe are the most salient. As far as possible I’ve avoided contentious issues that well-run agencies disagree on. By its nature, the list is open, and you should feel free to comment with your own ideas of what’s more important.

1. Regions should organize regionwide transport associations (the German Verkehrsverbund) with integrated fares and schedules, even across political boundaries. One ticket should be valid on all trips, and transfers should be free even across different operators. Bus and rail schedules should coordinate to minimize transfer time; rail-rail transfers should be cross-platform when possible and timed when possible, even if frequency is high.

2. Schedules should be organized on simple clockface intervals (Takt): instead of complex timetables, the same pattern should repeat every half hour or hour, and should be compressible to a system map. Supplemental peak services should be integrated into the same takt, for example arriving at the half-points or maybe third-points if the peak is very prominent. Minimum off-peak frequency for regional branch lines is hourly; for commuter rail and anything else intended to serve as suburban transit, it’s half-hourly; for urban services, it’s 15 or at worst 20 minutes.

3. If express service is desired, it should be limited-stop and make stops at all major stations, rather than running very long nonstop segments. For a good example, go here and click on the interval timetable links. In addition, the express buses and trains should run on their own clockface schedule, and express trains should have timed transfers to maximize utility and overtakes to minimize the amount of four-tracking required. The practice on Metro-North and other legacy US railroads of having peak commuter trains make a small number of suburban stops and then run nonstop to the CBD should end; not everyone works in the CBD.

4. Boarding should be level. For regional rail, this means at least moderately high platforms are non-negotiable. For surface transit, this means low-floor equipment; high-floor BRT is a feature in Latin America, where it’s a lower-cost replacement for a subway, but in developed countries, the cost of paying so many bus drivers is such that BRT is a replacement for local buses and should be open with many curb stops in outlying areas.

5. All payment should be done on a proof-of-payment basis. Any vehicle, no matter how long, should have at most one employee on board, operating it. The fare should be enforced with random inspections; it pains me to have to say it, but the inspectors should never hold a bus during inspections. This should be done systemwide, even on local buses, as is normal in Paris, Singapore, and every German-speaking city; turnstiles are only worth it on extremely busy trains (nothing in the US outside New York) and maybe also legacy subways that already have them. To discourage fare dodging, there should be a large unlimited monthly discount, as well as unlimited 6-month or annual tickets, so that most riders will be prepaid; the unlimited monthly pass should cost about 30 times as much as a single ride even with multi-ride discounts.

6. Intermediate-grade surface transit – i.e. the BRT and light rail lines providing service quality higher than a local bus and lower than rapid transit – should run in dedicated lanes, except perhaps on outer branches. Bus lanes should be physically separated, and tram lanes could even be put in a grassy median. Except for special cases where one side of the street is much more important than the other, in which case one-way pairs may be defensible, those dedicated lanes should be in the median of a two-way street, when street width permits it, which it does everywhere in the US except the North End of Boston and Lower Manhattan.

7. Intermodal transfers should be painless. Commuter trains should run through from one side of the region to the other, to allow for efficient suburb-to-suburb travel, and the infrastructure should be upgraded to allow for such operations. It should be unthinkable to terminate transit short of its natural destination. Though transfers at the originating end are unavoidable, planners should still endeavor to place rapid transit stops at every walkable place the line intersects, and achieve adequate speed by running better rolling stock. (In contrast, bus stop spacing should be 400-500 meters, rather than 200-250 as is common in North America). Parking lot commuter stations should be rare; they impede reverse-peak traffic, are expensive to provide, and help ensure transit will be used only when there’s no alternative.

Any other important principles for transit, dear commenters?


    • Alon Levy

      Yeah – that, too. Though, you could also have station-to-station commuter passes (Japan does), the obvious problem being that people taking short midday trips have an incentive to dodge the fare.

      P.S. I kept this comment and deleted the second one. Sorry about the comment moderation bit – it immediately flags the first comment each person posts. I don’t think it flags multi-link comments, at least not if you have a WordPress account. Sigh.

      • ant6n

        I think point-to-point monthly passes (I’ve seen them offered for NJTransit, too) are misguided – they disincentivise off-peak travel. The Verkehrsverbund Berlin/Brandenburg actually has a zone system around Berlin and other cities, and a approximate wafer structure in other areas map. I think they’re fairly flexible in picking the zones/regions you want a monthly pass for.

        Additionally, there are ‘zone extension’ tickets, that are valid on top of monthly passes, that act as single ticket extensions to your zone – this again incentivises off-peak travel: You can for cheap travel outside of your usual zones. In North American cities you’d have to pay full price.

  1. EngineerScotty

    A common issue in the US is that transit agencies are often special-purpose service districts which lack plenary taxing or regulatory authority; whereas roadbuilding agencies are often subdivisions of state or local government. (Many other services in the US are delivered in this fashion as well). While this decouples transit from political interference, in some cases, political interference is warranted.

    On a separate issue–in many places, a key “feature” of commuter rail and/or express bus is that it AVOIDS certain “bad” neighborhoods, and thus permits xenophobic suburbanites to get to their jobs and back again without the horror of having to sit next to someone from a different socio-economic or ethnic background.

  2. EngineerScotty

    Speaking of fares–I would think that contactless electronic fare media (or use of cellphones or other personal electronic devices for payment and/or proof thereof) should be considered a best practice–at a minimum for passes; preferably for everything. A constant source of annoyance about TriMet is that it still is a paper-based system; with no plans in the immediate future to join the 21st century.

    And likewise–detailed route and schedule and realtime arrival information should be made freely available to electronic devices and systems (Google Transit, local apps like TriMet’s TransitTracker) using open documented interfaces.

      • Miles Bader

        Only for people using passes for payment; otherwise POP essentially requires much of the same infrastructure as non-POP. This is especially true when using smart cards as opposed to paper tickets: unless one is using a pass, POP and non-POP smart-card-based systems are pretty much identical from a user’s point of view (except that the POP system makes it easier to accidentally screw up and possibly incur a heavy fine!).

        So POP can be beneficial during heavy commuter periods — but as transit mode-share and system coverage expands, and people depend on it for all their transportation needs, non-commuting / non-passholder usage becomes more important, and the advantages of POP diminish (and so the disadvantages of POP — e.g. the need for draconian penalties — stand out more starkly).

    • MobilMan

      Better yet, a cross-agency integrated trip planner. (and to some extent the websites of all the Verkehrsverbunde) manages to integrate the schedules of most European rail agencies plus the local transit of all Germany. It can plan a nationwide trip door-to-door or busstop-to-busstop. Maybe Google will do it someday when the data is there.

  3. Danny

    As a manufacturing industry professional, I have a love-hate relationship with “Best Practice” concepts. I recognize that sometimes people need a list of rules to follow, but at the same time, “Best Practices” often turn into “Thoughtless Practices” that are only done because someone else does it.

    So yes, I can agree with your best practices in a general sense. But I wanted to point out a few things:

    1) There is a point in any cooperative situation where cooperation should break down. Cooperation needs to be give-and-take. If I were running AC Transit, there is no way I would give in to any of the moronic demands of BART unless they were willing to concede some ground in areas that would make my system better. Care must be taken to ensure that some residents aren’t getting the short end of the stick just because their agency doesn’t have the same level of bully power as other agencies.

    2 and 3) Timed transfers are great, but they can only be optimized for a single node. As you increase the number of nodes at which transfers are to be timed, the optimization will decrease substantially, unless frequency is high enough to mitigate the difference.

    4) Level platforms aren’t a big deal in many cases, but it must be understood that, the higher the platform the more costly the station, and especially so in subterranean stations. For a subway network that is planning on a lot of growth with a lot of transferring stations, it may be more cost effective to have low platforms.

    5) There is nothing about proof-of-payment that guarantees lower costs. Technology costs could change substantially, and so can labor costs. Furthermore, the cost of proof-of-payment systems depends heavily on how they are run. Obviously having fare inspectors on every bus is overboard, but there will be a break-even as you get closer to that point. And if the NYC transit unions can demand 3 conductors per train in an age of driverless trains, imagine the possibilities with fare inspectors.

    6) Not much of an issue with this one, but I just wanted to point out that I’m not much of a fan of grass medians for rail tracks. Sure it discourages cars from entering the ROW, but so do bumper curbs…and bumper curbs don’t stop emergency vehicles in traffic jams.

    Now that I got that out of the way, I should probably concede the point that if transit agencies stopped their current moronic nonsense and followed every point you made here, we would probably be several magnitudes better off. A few best practices of my own (that are obviously nullified in certain situations) are:
    -Use lots of doors! A 3 door vehicle is better than a 2 door vehicle which is better than a 1 door vehicle. Station dwell time is what a manufacturer would call non-value-added time. Eliminate those bottlenecks.
    -Accelerate. Everybody knows what it is like to get into a bus with a driver who just doesn’t care how fast he accelerates. Often acceleration can make 10-20% differences in average speed, and as stops are closer together, acceleration will make a bigger difference.
    -Protect platforms with edge doors. Nobody wants to deal with suicides, let alone accidents. Compared to the cost of a station (as well as the soft costs involved with accidents, like vacation time and lawsuits), these are a no-brainer.
    -Eliminate or liberalize zoning in rapid transit vicinity. There is nothing like being required to build an 8 story parking garage in order to build a dense TOD. Eliminating or liberalizing zoning allows transit improvements to happen quickly. I know this always gets blown off by people that think that zoning rules help make cities better (usually the Starbucks Urbanism types, :::barf:::), but really all the proof they need can be obtained by talking to a business owner that has dealt with the system. Beneficial development can be delayed years, and sometimes completely eliminated, and it rarely makes the news because the news rarely reports on things that don’t happen.

    • dejv

      High platforms are expensive for street running operations and when converting from low-platform if operator already operates low-floor vehicles. In any other case, the cost difference between low and high can be safely rounded to zero. In addition, high floor vehicles tend to be cheaper, lighter, more energy-efficient and more comfortable because of their simpler construction.

      If subway station price is a concern, you want three-tube or two-tube design, where high platforms tend to use each tube’s cross section optimally, because platform is built slightly below centre of cross-section, maximizing it’s width within defined cross-section.

      • Nathanael

        Actually, high (~5 foot) platforms cost significantly more than low (~1 foot) platforms in situations where the rail is at grade. I’m remembering numbers of $100,000 for low platforms and $500,000 for high platforms. It’s totally irrelevant if you have a largely elevated or underground system, but it’s actually a big pain if you’re at grade.

        There are a lot of different platform heights, of course.

      • dejv

        Actually, high (~5 foot) platforms cost significantly more than low (~1 foot) platforms in situations where the rail is at grade. I’m remembering numbers of $100,000 for low platforms and $500,000 for high platforms.

        Those numbers seem weird, like there would be low platforms with grade crossing and high platforms with overpass/underpass.

    • Nathanael

      “2 and 3) Timed transfers are great, but they can only be optimized for a single node. As you increase the number of nodes at which transfers are to be timed, the optimization will decrease substantially, unless frequency is high enough to mitigate the difference.”

      The Swiss figured out that you can optimize your timed transfers for *every* node if you’re building the infrastructure for the *purpose* of optimizing the timed transfers — this is the fundamental insight of Rail2000. I think this qualifies as best practice, even if it is a rather new practice, so far implemented *only* in Switzerland.

  4. Alon Levy

    Oh yeah, I forgot about the door issue, and real-time arrival information. I didn’t mention zoning reform because it’s less under the direct control of the transit agency, but that’s obviously very important.

    Paper tickets aren’t necessarily bad. The Swiss are happy with them; with a robust POP system (which can involve a team of inspectors working on commission, as in Berlin) and high usage of season tickets, the fare collection costs are very low. Smartcards are also fine, but it’s important to make sure the technology is not locked to Cubic or another proprietary vendor.

    Level boarding can be expensive, but not as much as people think. The example level boarding platform I linked to cost $200,000.

    Timed transfers can be provided with multiple nodes. See this article. The disadvantage: it’s really hard and often requires speeding up trains to be just fast enough to meet the connecting trains. But if you’re just running a system with one trunk line and multiple branches, it’s much easier.

    Update: one more point – New York City Transit only has one conductor per train; it’s the commuter railroads that run with multiple conductors.

    • EngineerScotty

      “With a high usage of season tickets” is the key thing. And this assumes the pass is easily machine-readable, so that an inspector can quickly verify that the pass is valid at the current time and place.

      While on the subject of fares–you did mention zone-based systems; but what of distance-based fares (best implemented as a partial refund of a maximum fare for those passengers who tap out; unavailable to cash users)? One other annoying thing about TriMet is that they use the zone system, but the zones are three concentric rings around downtown (radial suburb-to-suburb travel is possible, albeit inconvenient, on a 1-zone ticket), and the difference between a “1-2 zone” fare (permitting travel within the zone you board, and any adjacent zone) and the “all-zone” fare (permitting travel anywhere within the system) is only US 30c. The obvious question, then: why bother?

      • Alon Levy

        Yes, it does assume machine-readability. But Singapore equips inspectors handheld card readers, which can verify the rider has tapped in but not out (Singaporean fares are based on distance, not zones). I don’t know how much the card readers cost, but the validators at the bus stations and on the buses cost S$960 each, which by transit agency standards is free.

        I don’t know why TriMet has such a small difference between the zone card fares. In Berlin, which has three zones like Portland, a two-zone annual pass is either 695 or 700 Euros, while a three-zone pass is 848. The three-zone pass is 21-22% more expensive than the two-zone pass, vs. 14% for TriMet.

      • ant6n

        If you do fare inspecting 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, you get much faster at reading paper transit passes than a computer reader would ever be. Growing up in Berlin I was always amazed how these people just walk along people holding up their passes, and basically always get it right – even if many people use single pass tickets, where the ticket validators stamp on the time.

    • Miles Bader

      Paper tickets are actually pretty bad, at least on local transport, because they require users to stop and do something before boarding the train (buy a ticket); that adds a severe bottleneck (TVMs are a far bigger bottleneck than faregates, especially when one must accurately choose a destination instead of just “buying the cheapest ticket” as one can do on a non-POP system with paper tickets and exit adjustment) and a significant delay for passengers.

      Passes are a very poor answer to the problem of paper tickets though. One must either (1) choose “piece of mind”, and buy a pass with a far greater area of coverage than is really necessary — and thus overpay greatly — or (2) choose a cheaper pass with restricted coverage, forcing the use of paper tickets in many cases.

      [Passes are fine solution for specific uses — e.g. commuter or school travel — but are not a good solution for general transportation, at least when the system has a non-trivial service area (with a very small system, of course, people may as well just all buy a “go anywhere pass”, because there’s not much choice anyway).]

      My basic impression is that in the pre-smart-card era, POP was a pretty good choice for local transport. In the smart-card era though, POP seems significantly worse in many respects, simply because smart-cards streamline faregate usage so much, making the disadvantages of POP seem relatively greater.

      • Miles Bader

        Another problem with POP is simply the need for ticket holders to choose a destination ahead of time — while this may be reasonable for long-distance travel, I often start an in-city journey by running and jumping on a train which I know is going in roughly the right direction, not being completely sure where I’m going or the route to get there … and then figure out exactly what to do while sitting on the train. I really, really, like this feeling of freedom.

        I guess that’s a good summary of the main problem with POP: it forces users to decide too much ahead of time (trip destination, pass coverage, …).

        [I would have added this to my original comment, but … no edit function]

      • Alon Levy

        It depends on the operating model. In Tokyo there’s no way to do POP, and for historical reasons fares are station-to-station. The European cities that have perfected POP have zone fares, so that travel is very spontaneous even with a season pass; in the city itself, the zones are coarse, with 1-2 zones covering the entire city. In Tokyo, the equivalent would be to have zone 1 consist of the stations on and inside the Yamanote Line, zone 2 consist of the rest of the 23 Special Wards, and additional zones farther out; there wouldn’t be zone 1-only tickets, just zone 1-2, with the distinction between zones 1 and 2 important only for people traveling from farther out.

        Also, there’s no need to decide ahead of time with POP, if you have a smartcard and tap on and off. That’s how it’s done on buses in Singapore; the inspectors’ handheld readers verify that you’ve tapped in but not yet tapped out, and you can tap out at validators either on the bus or at the bus stop when you get off. Since validators are really cheap (S$960 per unit and decreasing), the extra cost is trivial and the benefits (all-door boarding on buses) are very large.

  5. JJJ

    Level boarding is absolutely important, but there is a significant tradeoff with WHAT level is chosen. There is low, medium, sort of medium, and high. And each has tradeoffs.

    I assume of course youve been in a low floor american bus. Youve probably noticed the front right section is wasted because of the tire (some agencies place baggage racks there). The area behind the driver is also usually a wall. And there are stairs in the middle which creates bunching between passengers, and the design makes it hard to add a third door in the back.

    A high floor bus (with high floor boarding) provides the absolute maximum usable space, but the tradeoff is high station cost.

      • Alex B.

        There are also Buy America problems. DC’s Circulator has some three-door, low floor buses, but they were only able to buy them because they’re not subject to Buy America. WMATA can’t (or couldn’t at the time) buy the same buses.

      • Stephen Smith

        Alex – why is WMATA subject to Buy America? Did they get some recent round of federal funding? Or is WMATA special due to DC’s special status and is always subject to Buy America restrictions?

      • JJJ

        Yeah Ive been on those european buses. From what I saw, they wont fit the popular-in-america electric wheelchair, which is wider than the basic manual ones. Im not sure what kind of wheelchair ADA laws are written for.

      • Nathanael

        The ADA is written for a relatively wide manual wheelchair.

        For reference, ADA-compliant swinging doors are 36 inches wide (versus the common non-compliant 32-inch doors). That should give you an idea.

      • dejv

        For reference, ADA-compliant swinging doors are 36 inches wide (versus the common non-compliant 32-inch doors). That should give you an idea.

        Only if the regualtions are crazy enough to require all doors wheelchair-compliant. If not, then there is no problem to make a bus with only middle door compliant because that it the only place in the bus where a wheelchair actually fits.

  6. Tom West

    Minor disagreement about exprsss trains… if they are aimed at commuters going from suburbs to a single downtown station, it is better to have some trains doing only the outer 50% of stops, and some trains doing only the inner 50% (and some doing all). (You can split into 3 or sectiosn if you wish). That way, everyone coming from the outer 50% gets express speeds without transfer. The inner 50% don’t get faster trains (although being closer, the benefits of faster trains would be less), but they will be less crowded (if that’s an issue).

    The major-stops-only express is the best option for inter-city or regional trains, where origins and destinations are scattered amongst all possible pairs.

  7. Andrew in Ezo

    Agree with Tom with regards express train stop patterns. Here in Japan (and in Sapporo where I live) there are zone rapids (“kukan kaisoku”) which gather the commuters from the outer suburbs and deposit them at Sapporo Station without any stops in the inner zones. In another vein, JR East runs evening “home liners” (with walk-up reserve ticketing) which depart terminal stations and run nonstop until the outer zone suburban “bed town” stations. It all boils down to the traffic demand and the makeup of the city/metro area.

  8. Alon Levy

    I should qualify what I said about limited-stop patterns: they should be the rule when there’s a clear division into major and minor stations. For example, on the Chuo Line again, there’s a grand total of two commuter trains a day skipping Kokubunji; for the most part, even at the peak, there are regular rapid trains making all rapid stops, and special rapid trains stopping once every 3-4 stations. Now compare that with the zoo on the New Haven Line: 20 tph total frequency, but even busy stations such as Larchmont have half-hour service gaps, and a few trains even skip Stamford.

    Under a 50% split scheme, common but in more than just two sections on the New York-area commuter trains, the inner stations don’t get anything they wouldn’t get otherwise. The people boarding at the outermost inner station get less crowding, but the rest get the same crowding, because their trains’ frequency is reduced. It’s too bad, because sometimes the off-peak patterns are fine – e.g. on the Hudson Line some off-peak express trains stop at Ossining, Tarrytown (major suburban job center), Yonkers (actual city), and Marble Hill (subway connection to the West Side), but it’s inconsistent, and Marble Hill has several hour-long service gaps.

  9. John

    Interesting point about not using turnstiles. Is there some value to having entrance and exit turnstiles (like WMATA and BART) in order to get the detailed origin-destination data for passengers? If you don’t have the exit turnstiles, you have to assume people got off in the morning wherever they got on in the evening. If you don’t have any turnstiles, I guess you would be left with only automated passenger count data at vehicle doors.

    • Nathanael

      Entrance-and-exit turnstiles have massive value for data collection. On the other hand, civil libertarians may prefer not to have that data collected!

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