Tyler A. Green

In Transit

Month: January 2016

Baseball Transit Authority. We’ll wave you home.

I like baseball. I like stadiums. I like maps. I really like transit. The result: the Baseball Transit Authority!

What baseball fan hasn’t dreamed of single-seat ride between Seattle and Washington, D.C. to catch a Mariners/Nationals doubleheader? The Baseball Transit Authority’s new stadium subway is here to ferry you between ball parks faster than Rickey Henderson could slide into second.

You may notice there are only 25 stations for the 30 MLB teams, with multiple teams combined into single transit stops in Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Washington, D.C./Baltimore, and San Francisco. Now may be a good time to say: the map is entirely fictional. You can rest assured no fans heading to an Orioles game will be dropped off halfway between Nationals Park and Camden Yards. Best of all, the Baseball Transit Authority system is entirely underground. An original revision did not contain the route between the Twins and Mariners, but fortunately for baseball-transit-fiction-land, Rob Manfred developed some creative financing schemes and was able to complete the entire subterranean Northwest Corridor on-schedule and under-budget.

Baseball Transit Authority Subway Map

The Baseball Transit Authority prides itself on performance. While “I don’t care if I never get back” is the chorus of its ridership, this iron rail is more reliable than Cal Ripken, Jr.

Joking about highly-unfeasible transit systems aside, I learned loads about the incredibly-useful vector graphics to produce this map! How can you not be a fan of an infinite-resolution image? Raster graphics (of which JPEG is one format) define images using an array of pixels, whereas vector graphics define images using an XML list of shapes, text, and colors. While you can write the code yourself and understand SVGs (scalar vector graphics) 110% better as a result, fortunately this is not necessary. Cam Booth of the Transit Maps blog recommends the industry-standard Adobe Illustrator to create vector transit maps. For beginners and designers on a budget, Inkscape is a capable alternative. Best of all, it’s free to download! I learned about shapes, grids, paths, and nodes, and was quickly able to apply them to my project of confusing baseball and transit fans everywhere.

Click here to download the map as a PDF. And, as always, let me know about any recommendations you may have!

Don’t forget: next time you head out to the ball park…

Ride BTA. We’ll wave you home.

Transfort Bus Stops Through the Lens of GIS

To better understand the Fort Collins population and what percentage of it is adequately served by Transfort bus stops, I decided to jump on board the GIS-hype train. I downloaded QGIS, read a bit at qgistutorials.com, and felt ready to dive in.

You’re talkin’ about Transfort bus stops?

You bet I am! To begin (and prove to myself this wouldn’t be the most manual project I’d ever taken on), I collected data from several sources. I have included a Links section with paths to download the data yourself. You can also jump straight to the data, though you’ll miss some sweet graphics along the way.

  1. Transfort – I could not find shapefiles for either the Transfort stops or routes, so I began with the GTFS feed. Data in this transit agency standard format is in a series of comma-separated text files. The three of interest to me were the stops.txt, shapes.txt, and routes.txt.
  2. City of Fort Collins – I used two shapefiles provided by the city, ones of city limits and street centerlines.
  3. Colorado Information Marketplace – Fortuitously, Colorado publishes population data on the census block level. These correspond to city blocks, which were necessary for analyzing the population within Fort Collins.

To visualize the population density, I began with a heatmap. The census blocks shapefile is essentially a table of polygons, each with an attribute containing the population of that block in 2010. I filtered the layer to only include blocks within Larimer County and then created a layer of the census block centroids, which turned each polygon into a point. At this point, the default layer unit was degrees. To analyze this layer in meters, I reprojected the layer to SIRGAS 2000 / UTM Zone 13N. I then created a raster heatmap with a radius of 402 meters, which corresponds to a quarter-mile radius. This is an area of approximately 0.2 square miles, which is also listed in the map legend.

Before analyzing bus stops, I wanted to visually present each Transfort route. This required converting the shapes.txt file into a routes shapefile. QGIS can do this with the “Points to path” tool under Vector Creation algorithms. I have uploaded the resulting shapefile, along with PDFs of the following maps, in the Downloads section.

Population Density with Transfort Bus Stops

In addition to population density, I wanted to study walking distance from Transfort bus stops. Latitude and longitude information for each stop is contained within the stops.txt file. The QGIS plugin MMQGIS allows imports of these using “Geometry Import from CSV File.” I again needed to reproject the resulting layer to SIRGAS 2000 / UTM Zone 13N to ensure the layer units were meters. I wanted see the results of a 10-minute walk radii, so I created 804 meter (half-mile) buffers around each bus stop.

Ten-Minute Walk Radii from Tranfort Bus Stops

Since the half-mile coverage seemed surprisingly complete, I created a layer of 402 meter (quarter-mile) buffers around each bus stop to show the area within a 5-minute walk.

Five-Minute Walk Radii from Transfort Bus Stops

To allow the population density layer to blend with the walk distance buffers, I changed the layer blending mode to Darken.  The shades of green in the image below show dense areas overlapping with a 5-minute walk radius from a bus stop.

Population Density with Five-Minute Walk Radii from Transfort Bus Stops

Do you have any numbers I can ‘wow’ my friends with?

Fort Collins Population within Walking Distance of Transfort Bus Stops

I’m glad you asked! Another powerful feature of GIS is quantitative analysis. I used “Basic statistics” on the 2010 population field of the census block centroids layer to calculate the population of Larimer county. For the population of Fort Collins, I selected the census blocks that lie within the city limits polygon using a Spatial Query. Running statistics on these selected census block centroids produced the city population number in the table above.

You can see that the first half-mile buffer population is larger than the city population. I calculated the population within the walking distance buffers using two methods to adjust for this:

  1. No Flex Route – The FLEX is a commuter route operated by Transfort whose northern terminus is the South Transit Center. Several of its northern-most stops are inside Fort Collins city limits. I made the decision to remove the population near FLEX stops as commuter bus service has lower frequencies, and therefore different usage patterns, than a typical city bus. This was accomplished by joining the stops shapefile with stop_times.txt and trips.txt to give each route a column with its route name. I then used the Query Builder to select all stops whose route name was not “FLEX”.
  2. City Limits – The northwest corner of the Transfort routes actually runs outside of Fort Collins city limits, meaning the people living close to these stops were not included in my calculated city population. I performed a Spatial Query to select the bus stops within the city limits polygon boundary. These are the only stops I calculated buffers around when selecting census blocks for this method.

In the figure below, the bottom center red circle shows the location of the first adjustment and top left red circle the second.

Exceptions Made When Analyzing Data for Transfort Bus Stops

What does this mean?

You can see that the east side of Fort Collins contains both fewer dense areas and fewer routes, especially north-south routes. I have seen a pre-MAX Transfort map (pre-May 2014) that contained a north-south route on Timberline Road, the easternmost arterial in Fort Collins. While it is disappointing that ridership supposedly did not justify keeping this route, the density numbers back up this service change.

The half-mile buffers confirm that the city is broken into a square mile grid. The two east-west routes (Horsetooth and Harmony) in the southeast corner of the map show the half-mile circles bumping against each other, creating a distance of a mile between the two roads.

Depending on the metric, between 60% and 63% of Fort Collins residents are within a five-minute walk of a Transfort bus stop. This is significantly higher than I would have guessed. However, being near a bus stop is only part of the story; frequency of service and driving disincentives also play a major role in whether a resident will ride the bus or not. Parking is quite easy in most of Fort Collins and the areas where it is harder, mainly Old Town, provide markedly sub-market value parking. The headway on the routes, excluding the MAX, is either 30 or 60 minutes. And there is no Sunday service. All this goes to say living within 5 minutes of a bus stop does not necessarily make for a transit heaven. It should also be noted that the block-level populations may have significantly changed since the 2010 census.

Regardless, having 87% of your population live within a 10-minute walk of a bus stop indicates an overall lack of transit deserts and a fairly comprehensive bus system. I think Fort Collins is very close to a big shift in transit culture!

For better or worse, I will now scrutinize the density surrounding my Transfort bus stops and routes even more. Here’s what I can tell you from my observations thus far: it’s not great. Here’s what the data says: it’s not great. And here’s to using data to continue to improve our city and its bus service!

Let me know if there is more I can do with this data! I’d also enjoy seeing analysis of this type in your own city.

Until next time, ride on!

Downloads

Transfort Routes Shapefile

Population Density with Transfort Bus Routes PDF

Ten-Minute Walk Radii from Tranfort Bus Routes PDF

Five-Minute Walk Radii from Transfort Bus Routes PDF

Population Density with Five-Minute Walk Radii from Transfort Bus Routes PDF

Links

Transfort GTFS Feed
http://www.ridetransfort.com/developers OR
https://code.google.com/p/googletransitdatafeed/wiki/PublicFeeds OR
http://transitfeeds.com/

City of Fort Collins
http://www.fcgov.com/gis/downloadable-data.php

Colorado Information Marketplace
https://data.colorado.gov/Demographics/Census-Blocks-2010/xipb-k5bu

A Call to Charms: What “Mind the Gap” and Tray Tables Have in Common

When I tell you to “Mind the Gap,” what is the first thing that comes to mind? If you answered Michael Strahan’s front teeth, it might be time for you to turn off the tube and take a ride on the Tube. (For those of you that are unaware, a voice says “mind the gap” when the subway doors on the London Underground open at each station.)

When I ask you to place your tray table in its upright and locked position, after giving me a gaze that says, “I’m not using a tray table”, you’d probably recall this as a pre-flight instruction on many a commercial airline.

What do “Mind the Gap” and tray tables have in common? They are both instantly-recognizable phrases that began on modes of transportation. How do they differ? Gap minding is only audibly encouraged in London, while all flyers know they darn well can’t use their tray table during take-off and landing.

Part of the charm (yes, I said it: charm!) of airlines is the vernacular that we have collectively experienced hundreds of times. Every reminder that the nearest exit may be behind us is a friendly reminder that we’re in a familiar place. Though it must not be too familiar, or we’d be expected to know where the nearest exit is by now.

Contrast this with transit, where interaction with the conductor varies from a computer speaking a stop name aloud to a muffled voice speaking…..let’s be honest…..does anyone have the slightest idea what they’re saying???

My point is this: transit stands to benefit from instantly-recognizable phrases.

Every time a tourist buys a “Mind the Gap” t-shirt or someone says “Mind the Gap” outside the American clothing giant, it is an indication that transit has impacted the culture in both London and beyond. I like to speak along with the recorded voice in Chicago as the CTA lady says, “This is a Blue line train to O’Hare.” However, neither this nor “doors open on the right” inspire unique visions of the Windy City. DC’s “Metro Opens Doors” had the potential to enter the mainstream, but it seems to have fallen out of favor in recent years. In Fort Collins, the closest we have to a recognizable phrase is, “Have you ridden the MAX?” Yes, this is just a question. But it has almost become recognizable because everyone has to ask it because NO ONE HERE RIDES THE BUS.</rant>

Phrase creation starts with the local transit agency. Due to the nature of public transit, we’re never going to have an internationally mandated safety demonstration on-board buses and subways which dishes out recycled phrases to distracted commuters. And that is a good thing! But the agency has the platform (*wink wink*) to brand themselves in more ways than their logo and that half-decade’s slogan printed on the paper maps which no one picks up. A phrase spoken on board will be heard by thousands of locals and tourists alike and, if it is powerful enough, stop them in their tracks (*wink wink*).

Have the bus driver say the same phrase every day. And not just, “Please move all the way to the back!” We’re never going to learn! If recorded voices are a must, have the e-conductor say something you’d never expect a pre-recorded voice say. Maybe it’s, “Have a great day, folks,” followed by your local wing-dinger of a phrase. Yes, these are regional solutions, but having an instantly-recognizable phrase that is unique to a single system still has the potential to have a global reach. Well-designed transit maps become icons for their city (and in the case of Portland, the airport carpet did too), so why should London be the only system with a recognizable phrase? If you want praise of your transit system to spread via word-of-mouth, what could be a better starting point than an instantly-recognizable phrase straight from the conductor’s mouth?

Sure, it will annoy some people. But so does everything.

I want to be able to land in my current city of residence, hear the phrase on my ride from the airport, and know I am home.

I want to be able to land in Portland, Vancouver, or Prague, take some rail to city center, and hear a phrase that makes me glance up at the speaker with eyebrows raised. In Prague, my confusion will be over not understanding Czech, while the others will catch my attention because the train just became more than a local mode of transit in my eyes. I’ll peer down the aisle and see a handful of passengers rolling their eyes. Then I’ll notice one passenger smirking without glancing up from a novel. It will be then that I will I just know. I will talk to the first person I meet in town about the curious and potentially recognizable phrase I heard on the train. We’ll be talking about transit outside of transit. And that is a win for transit.

Let’s put our thinking caps on, transit lovers. It’s time to start a brand.

Honolulu Is Where the HART Is

Rapid transit is coming to Hawaii! Construction has begun on an elevated Honolulu rapid transit system, operated by the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transit. Residents and tourists alike will be able to traverse a 20-mile route in just 42 minutes.

I was fortunate enough to spend the holidays with my parents on the island of Oahu. One afternoon, I visited Waikiki Brewing Company and met Pomai, the man behind the popular Honolulu food blog, The Tasty Island. I was vaguely familiar with the HART project, but Pomai gave me a local tip on how to learn more. He spoke of an informational exhibit and diorama at Satellite City Hall in the Ala Moana Center, a popular Honolulu mall.

I eagerly took his suggestion! The next few photos show a model of the West Loch Station, which is near the western terminus of the route.

Diorama of HART Station, the upcoming Honolulu rapid transit

Diorama of HART Station, the upcoming Honolulu rapid transit

Diorama of HART Station, the upcoming Honolulu rapid transit

Diorama of HART Station, the upcoming Honolulu rapid transit

Diorama of HART Station, the upcoming Honolulu rapid transit

A few things stood out to me:

  • The trains will be the first driverless rail cars in the United States. Compared to rail cars with drivers, these are expected to provide increased safety and reliability, along with lower cost of operation. (For a much more in-depth discussion on HART’s planned automation, check out this fantastic CityLab article on the topic.) I personally think the automation is a great step for transit in America! It gives a new and long overdue realm for technology to impact positively, and will hopefully cause other cities to consider the same plan (if they can avoid labor union disputes). The main downside to automated trains I can see is the absence of the charming and alarmingly ineffective “conductor speak”. Who knows? Maybe Hawaii’s humidity will wreck havoc on the speakers and even Microsoft Sam will end up sounding like a muffled conductor in Queens.
  • The last photo above shows the platform safety gates which will be installed at each station. I have seen these in several European cities, but I’m not aware of another example in the United States. (Let me know if I’m incorrect!) I assume they will be a bit taller than barely reaching the shoulders of the pictured man in the fedora, but we’ll see.
  • A single pass will be accepted on both rail and buses. Besides making a collector’s item for transit ticket junkies, this which will ease the hassle of making a transfer. Single farecards excite me because multimodal passes turn a collection of transit services into a veritable “transit system”. Any services that can be bundled onto a single card tend to lower my encounters with what I call “The Exact Fare Problem”: why figure out how to take a bus when it isn’t obvious AND you don’t have dollar bills and/or quarters?
  • The route does not reach into Waikiki, meaning droves of tourists will have to take bus connections from the Ala Moana Center, the eastern terminus. I assume this is due to the lack of space for a guideway through this dense neighborhood, though it wouldn’t surprise me if some of Waikiki’s high-end hotels are playing the NIMBY card. I’m sure the city of Honolulu knows how important the tourists that fill their rooms are to the local economy. While the Waikiki resorts are at most 20 minutes by bus from Ala Moana, it’s frustrating when a transit project doesn’t go all in.
  • There will be a policy for passengers traveling with surfboards. My only response to that is: #hawaii.

Pomai mentioned his main frustration was that the project will be steel-wheel-on-steel-rail instead of maglev. My initial reaction was that an urban rail would not benefit from the increased speeds offered by maglev trains (due to the short distances between stops), but I reasoned that maglav would likely offer greater reliability. Fewer moving parts => fewer maintenance issues! Upon reading more, it sounds like this decision was made when applying for the federal Full Funding Grant Agreement, rather than being a recent budget cut. You can read about this and a few other myths on the official HART Mythbusters page. This decision didn’t bother me as I’d never even considered using maglev technology on an intra-city system. Let me know if there are any examples out there!

The following photos are some of the infographics that were on display. You can click on each of the photos below to view a larger version!

Station map for HART, the upcoming Honolulu rapid transit

Information about HART, the upcoming Honolulu rapid transit

Platform renderings for HART, the upcoming Honolulu rapid transit

I’m excited to ride HART during a future trip to Honolulu! It will complement the existing bus system, TheBus. I spent a not-insignificant part of the week on the 2, 19, and 42 bus routes. The service got me to where I needed to go (and I enjoyed it…), but trips to Aloha Stadium and Pearl Harbor, in particular, will GREATLY benefit from the rail connection. For example, Pearl Harbor to the Ala Moana Center took me 52 minutes on the 42 bus, but will take just 19 minutes via HART. As Honolulu is ranked as the 3rd worst city in the United States for traffic congestion, heavy rail can’t come soon enough!

Until next time, ride on!

TheBus, Honolulu's extensive bus system

This bus was NOT IN SERVICE, but will always be IN MY HEART.