Transit and cities grow together. As cities strive to become more compact, sustainable, and healthy, their work is paying dividends: in 2014, Americans took 10.8 billion trips on public transit, a stunning reversal of 20th century trends and the highest ridership since the dawn of the freeway era. The growing vitality of cities is bringing more and more people to our bus and rail networks, at the same time that the explosive growth of bicycling and walking has demonstrated the urgent priority of designing streets as public spaces.
This is a thrilling opportunity and a big challenge. Simply put, our critical transit lines and streets need to move more people without more space, and technology alone isn’t going to balance that equation. Neither will highways that treat transit and its riders as an afterthought at best. We have to change the purpose of the street—from traffic alone to active modes, from moving machines to moving people. The NACTO Transit Street Design Guide is part of this movement of cities to put people and transit right where they belong, at the heart of city street design. It’s about a shift in mindset and recognizing priorities.
Cities are rising to the challenge. From Seattle’s RapidRide to Houston’s New Bus Network, from the Los Angeles Metro Rapid to Toronto’s Queen’s Quay, we’re seeing renewed attention and investment in transit and streets together. City leaders are pushing forward because they want to create the kinds of healthy, active neighborhoods and downtowns that residents increasingly demand, and that wouldn’t be possible without excellent transit systems that take people where they need to, when they need to.
Some of this is simple math: allocating scarce space to transit instead of private automobiles greatly expands the number of people a street can move. But bringing these changes to complex city streets takes a lot more than good intentions. Cities need to know how to manage streets to keep transit moving. Street design and everyday engineering and design decisions made by cities, from how signals are timed to how long a bus stop will be, can dramatically change how transit works and how people use it. Transit service can be smarter, too: fewer stops means faster trips, and a chance to upgrade stops into comfortable, sustainable places to do more than just wait. Some of the finest public spaces in the world are transit streets, because transit does so much more with so much less space than any other mode. So it’s not just about making city streets into convenient places to ride, but also great places to arrive. Paying attention to the public realm and pedestrian space is what distinguishes good transit streets from great ones.
The Transit Street Design Guide arrives at a critical moment. Since the NACTO Urban Street Design Guide and Urban Bikeway Design Guide were first published a few short years ago, a design revolution has taken hold in cities around the world. More and more cities are reimagining their streets, replacing outdated highway-based practices with fresh ideas that prioritize people and the quality of their lives. The immense popularity of walkable urban places, built in part on transit investments over decades, has helped lay the groundwork for a new paradigm in how we think about streets.
Now the cities at the forefront of this movement are bringing their attention to transit as a core function of the street. The Transit Street Design Guide forges a much-needed link between transit service providers and city transportation departments. Through the National Association of City Transportation Officials, leaders from around the country have brought together innovative ideas in street design with the best service practices in transit, to create a new blueprint for transit streets in cities. This guide is the result of a professional collaboration between transit planners and street designers, city traffic engineers and project managers—people who understand and care how public transportation works in and for a city.
I know firsthand how important it is to bring together the professionals and policies that affect transit. We’re fortunate that the SFMTA is responsible for both transit and streets. We know that the day-to-day operational decisions about streets can keep transit rolling-—or grind it to a halt. So our transit service planners sit right next to the engineers and designers responsible for our key transit streets. That’s made it possible to do great things at the fast pace of a busy city, even when the design solutions take real work.
Here in San Francisco, our Muni Forward program has brought together smarter operations and on-street priority to make the whole transit system work better. That means rolling out the red carpet of dedicated transit lanes, for buses and light rail alike. It means investing in stops to create boarding islands and bulbs that give space to transit vehicles, passengers, and people on bikes all at the same time. Ultimately, it means saving time, and that means more transit service on the street.
We’re creating a Rapid Network of both bus and rail lines with frequent service spanning the entire city, and upgrading the country’s premier transit street in the Better Market Street project. Muni also has the distinction of being the first big transit system in the country with universal all-door boarding on both buses and rail, reducing the amount of time spent boarding by 38%. There’s less waiting, less fare evasion, less crowding at the front, and faster trips for everyone. San Francisco is a transit-first city, but these are techniques that every city can use to make their streets and transit work better together.
We have a lot riding on this: every day, the streets of San Francisco move hundreds of thousands of people in buses, light rail vehicles, historic streetcars, and, of course, cable cars, in one of the biggest municipally-operated transit systems in the world. So we have to manage our streets in a way that supports transit, regardless of the type of transit vehicle or mode that serves it.
With this guide, cities around the country and around the world have a new resource illustrating how streets of every size can be shaped to create great transit streets. Transit streets are an indispensable part of the movement among cities to make their streets into places, and the Transit Street Design Guide gives us the tools we need to design for any mode of transit on streets in cities.
NACTO President Emeritus (2014–2015)
Director, San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency