Ten Principles of Great Transit Planning

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Some work I’ve been undertaking over the past couple weeks related to a prairie community got me thinking about what the “laws” or principles of transit planning might be.

By this I don’t mean the principles of good transit service design: the best practices for designing route networks, schedules, infrastructure, their accompanying plans and so on.  Instead, I’m talking about the pithy statements that act as guides to the practice of transit planning itself.  The maxims that speak to “how” we go about our business of helping communities plan for and manifest change in their transportation networks.

I’ve amassed a lot of these quotes and sayings over the last couple decades.  On my bus ride to work the other morning I thought it might be interesting to pull them together here.  A number are my own, some I’ve gotten from others and I’ve included a shout out to my sources where applicable.

And I’m hoping that this post takes on the form of a dialogue as we still have much to learn from each other.

An 11×17″ version of this graphic is available here.

Ten Principles of Great Transit Planning

Principle #1: Whatever you do, don’t screw up the morning commutes. (aka “Boyd’s Law”) Ensure that the majority of people who already rely on transit to get to work or school in the morning can still do so when your service change goes in. (Quote source: Don Boyd, former BC Transit Senior Transit Planner and mentor to many).

Why This Matters: Work and school commuters are likely responsible for the majority of your regular daily rides.  These customers are also often the most publicly vocal when things change in what they perceive to be a negative way.  Negative changes include being forced to get up 10 minutes earlier in the morning due to what seems like the fickle random whims of “nameless, faceless transit overseers.”

So if you’re undertaking major changes in a system, spare yourself the grief and keep your regulars happy by always doing a detailed double check that your major commute trip times and patterns still offer similar or better service, arrive times, connections and so on.  Especially in the morning when people are more crunched for time.  And if commuter trips must change for good reason, make sure you are clearly communicating why the change is being made: The trip is leaving 10 minutes earlier so that it can actually arrive on time or offer better frequency, etc.

Principle #2: Hit the streets: from behind your desk is a very dangerous place to see the world. If you really want to understand a transit system and make meaningful, accurate improvements, you need to ride and be present in it. (Quote source: somewhat of a riff on John le Carré from his book “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy”).

Why This Matters: There are few things riskier than “armchair planning.”  Whatever your role in working with communities (planner, placemaker, citizen, spy), you are going to be far more effective if you take time to be on the ground and continually experience it firsthand. By doing so, you truly get to understand the scale, issues and opportunities of your project and the details behind the big picture.  This in turn will make your resulting solution that much more effective and comprehensive.

Principle #3: If the front line staff don’t think it will work, it won’t. Your project stands little chance of success if the people most responsible for its implementation don’t understand or support it.

Why This Matters: Front line staff make transit happen, period.  Through their daily interactions, they also have a huge impact on how customers negatively or positively view a system.

While no change will ever be universally supported, if the majority of the people closest to the system don’t think your idea is a good one, it usually means one of two things: [a] either you’re not fully understanding a critical piece of information and they are objecting for good reason; or [b] they don’t understand the change, which means you need to do a better job of explaining how it is supposed to work and why it’s taking place. In either case, be very cautious about proceeding if you haven’t addressed these two issues.

Principle #4: Include others in your doing and they will very rarely feel “done to.” For best results, seek to include those who will be implementing a decision or most impacted by it as early in the process as possible. (Quote source: Former Fernwood NRG Executive Director, Roberta Martell).

Why This Matters: The best way of avoiding the situation described in Principle #3 is by including those people closest to the action right from the start.  In particular, your major transit plans will move more smoothly to implementation if your process includes passengers and stakeholders plus the key people who will make resulting changes happen, such as front line staff leadership, safety and training reps and the folks who are responsible for bus stop or infrastructure changes.  Participatory processes work in your favor by enabling your ideas to be vetted by a larger group of people, building a sense of ownership in your service and a more engaged transit workplace.

Principle #5: Think in layers and relate your work to larger community objectives. See your project as a layer of something bigger, frame it as a way to achieve broader community goals, and repeatedly ask “And?” to figure out who else and what else needs to be connected in your solution.

Why This Matters: Too often in transportation and community planning we are accused of operating in silos.  The bike people, the transit people, the land use planners, the engineers, the placemakers, etc.  Whatever your role, we all stand a better chance of building truly enjoyable, beautiful communities when we increasingly think of how our work relates to that of others as well as to the overall goals of the community and people who live there.  You’re not building a transit network, you’re building the transit layer of a comprehensive mobility network, which in turn is a layer of a community.  And all of this is in service of people and fostering connection between them. (For more on this, see previous posts discussing the power of “and” across mobility and in tandem with land use planning).

Principle #6: Show your work. Base your decisions on evidence, describe how you got there and wherever possible show your explanations and solutions visually. (Quote source: Every math teacher who ever breathed.)

Why this Matters: Your recommendations stand a far better chance of being implemented if you can give elected officials and the public confidence in supporting them by demonstrating that they are based on something more than just a happy feeling in your tummy.

While I’m a firm believer that there is a place for gut instinct in the art of transit planning, that intuition needs to ultimately be supported by evidence.  Document your process and feedback received, present the supporting data and wherever possible use graphics, charts and annotated maps to visually present the compelling reasons for change.

Principle #7: Remember that every transit system (and community) is an ecosystem unto itself. Use your templates wisely and avoid the trap of cookie cutter solutions.

Why this Matters: Whether you spend your career working with multiple transit systems or multiple areas within a single larger system, there is much to be gained through repeating and building off successful past projects and processes.  Show me a well-tested template and I’ll show you a great way to ensure consistent quality and an effective use of time.

However, as you develop your work plan or proposed solution, take time to set aside a moment to ask yourself “what’s different here?” How does your new community’s context, culture and operating environment differ?  Then hone your process and plan accordingly. Take the time to truly appreciate—and accept!!—the uniqueness of each place and you won’t be faced with a situation where your project descends into acrimony because it doesn’t accurately reflect the scale, quirks or existing reality of the community trying to be served.

Principle #8: Don’t get stuck in “because we’ve always done it that way.” Keep challenging yourself to approach your system with clear eyes, ask the hard questions and live without “sacred cows.” 

Why this Matters: The flip side to the previous principle happens when you get so used to a particular system or community that you lose the ability to “see” it objectively.  When you feel yourself about to make the statement “well we can’t possibly change that because of x,” take a moment and ask yourself “well, why not?”  Make sure your reasons are still valid.  Inviting new perspectives into your planning team (peers, co-op students, front line staff) and ensuring you have a rigorous process for collecting and reviewing transit system data and customer comments can also combat complacency.

Principle #9: Never do today what you will undo tomorrow.  Think about the long term goals and be very cautious about implementing any service or perk that you plan on taking away at a future point. 

Why this Matters: When it comes to building transit ridership, I swear by what I call incremental positive momentum.  This concept is based on the idea of of aligning and communicating all the little changes in a system so that they create a perception that a community and its transit system are moving forward to a bigger long term goal. Nothing disrupts incremental positive momentum more than willy nilly removal of previously enjoyed features.

So if your long term plan is to increase overall service frequency or directness by implementing more transfers or a slightly longer walk to the bus stop, be very cautious about implementing any interim change that is contrary to that strategy.  This is because when you take those away again, people will be unhappy and increasingly cynical about your service.  While you can’t foresee all future events, always do your best to look ahead.  And the best looking ahead includes multiple perspectives, like picturing yourself continuously looking through different ends of the telescope I’ve associated with this principle: big picture–>details–>big picture–>details / short term–>long term–>short term–>long term, etc.

Principle #10: You can get away with almost anything if you call it a pilot project. The easiest path around resistance to change is to frame your approach as iterative and potentially temporary.  (With some caveats about applying this to new transit service.

Why this Matters: Proposing a big change as a pilot project usually makes it easier for people to move past their fear of the unknown.  They then get to discover whether or not the change actually works better (as opposed to assuming it won’t).  It also enables you to have a period of learning so that the final implemented option can be improved.

In transit systems, the term “pilot project” usually works best when applied to policy changes and some kinds of infrastructure implementations.  In cases where you want to try out new transit service in order to win permanent support, my suggestion is to call it “introductory.”  Calling it “Introductory” gives customers the sense that it’s still evolving but makes it sound more permanent and therefore worth the effort in figuring out how to use it.  I believe your overall initial ridership will be stronger in response.

Your thoughts?

I’m very curious to know how my ten principles align or differ from your own.

Have a principle that you think should be added to the list or a better way of saying what I have below?  I welcome comments and additions in the comment section and will add links in the main text to any real gems that come in.

And much thanks to Transportation Planner and fellow city blogger Tim Shah for his thoughtful contributions to this post and all those whom I’ve collaborated with over the years, the ongoing source for many of these.  There’s no better learning than learning together.

5 thoughts on “Ten Principles of Great Transit Planning

  1. Joanna Rustin (@joanna_rustin)

    Thanks for your post, Tania (and Tim for your contributions). Will share. Interesting how much this rings true with private transit programs we develop and run for employer workplaces. In fact, your “Principle 8” is spot-on, as is #5. With analytics driving real-time insights and rapid innovation in approaches, technologies and partnerships, there’s so much opportunity to get creative. We find that when passenger engagement flourishes with riders (employees) in our programs, it’s a great compass for #8 given the willingness to brainstorm new ideas and embrace a range of Commute Alternatives. – Joanna Rustin @joanna_rustin @WeDriveU

    1. Tania Wegwitz Post author

      Thanks very much for your comments, Joanna, and connecting this to even broader forms of mobility.

  2. Tania Wegwitz Post author

    Nice! I’d actually been thinking that #11 should be “We’re here for a good time, not a long time,” but I like yours better. Maybe each is worthy of their own posts. Thanks for the contribution!

  3. Pingback: The Art of Nudge: Ideas for Overcoming Resistance to Change - Connecting Dots . . .

  4. Kris Jacobson

    Nicely done. Your principles can be applied to many facets of transportation system planning and I plan on sharing your post with staff. Being involved in traffic engineering and operations, your principle #2 gave me a chuckle. It’s so simple and obvious but I’m amazed how many technical staff prefer to rely on digital investigation (Google Streetview) rather than going into the field to actually see how everything fits together. Regardless, well done.


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