CURA’s analysis of Richmond’s bus network redesign is real bad

The following originally appear on Twitter as an epic thread. It’s been adapted and lightly edited for this website.

A new report is out on @GRTCTransit‘s year-old system redesign, and it shows benefits that starkly contradict a prior report by @Wilder_Planning‘s CURA. The CURA report is so flawed that the authors should immediately retract it. Let’s take a look.

First, the topline: the new system increases the number of jobs the average resident can reach in 45 minutes by 6%, and the number of jobs the average low-income and minority resident can reach by 10%. Better on average, in particular for disadvantaged populations.

So how did CURA find that access for disadvantaged populations decrease by 22%. Well, besides using methodology that doesn’t make sense and is not generally accepted in the field, they used the methodology incorrectly! 😲

CURA took all the bus stops (red) and calculated all the areas within a half a mile (blue) and considered loss of access for areas over half a mile (white). As you can see, some of the areas considered over half a mile from bus stops are bus stops themselves! 🤔

Obviously, this makes no sense, but sometimes data spits out weird results. That’s why you need to do a sanity check and, if you find something wrong, fix your analysis. Unfortunately, CURA didn’t, and just published, and when this was brought to their attention they did nothing.

What’s the result of this lack of simple checking? Take a look at Creighton Court. It is two large parcels. The parcel on top, in yellow, has 0.2% of it more than 1/4 mile from a bus stop. So CURA excludes the entire parcel from those having <1/4 mile to a bus stop.

Now you would think, “Well, if 0.2% is outside 1/4 mile, you should count 99.8% within a quarter mile, so of the 356 dwellings, include 355, especially since the 0.2% is grass.” CURA disagrees, and excludes the whole parcel, so all 356 units “lost access” in their report.

“Well, using this methodology is bad, but at least it affected both systems equally, right?” you might ask. Wrong again. You see, CURA noticed that some parcels, especially housing courts, were being excluded, so they manually included them…only for the old system!

[w]e were concerned that many multi-family and public housing courts were not completely contained in the polygons due to their size even though they overlapped with the coverage polygons, and made an effort to accurately include them in both old and new polygons.

Yes, the CURA report manually fudged the numbers while analyzing the old system but not the new one! At best it’s sloppy; at worst, dishonest. Note that when trying to replicate the results (CURA vs QGIS), the new network is the same, but the old is different, due to fudging.

Don’t be scared by the math, but the formula CURA used isn’t right either. The first one, from a peer-reviewed paper, has seven variables, while CURA’s, below, has five. They just eliminated two variables! One is activity density, the other is speed. Yes, speed disappeared!

It doesn’t take a transit expert to realize that the faster a bus goes, the better the service is. While the peer-reviewed experts incorporated speed as a key element, CURA just lops it off. 🤷‍♀️ It’s not even hard to figure out: distance/time. The schedules are all online.

CURA messes up the frequency factor too! It’s easy to look up, but they instead pulled the data from a source that isn’t updated, so they got a ton of weird results, including saying a training platform with no regular service gets a bus every 7 minutes!

Want more sloppy data handling? CURA comingled weekday and weekend times when calculating how often a bus came. This shows two buses coming one minute apart, and then they just averaged it, producing a wait time that is half of reality. This mistake is EVERYWHERE.

CURA also just assumed all buses ran 12 hours a day, even though some run only at rush hour and some run 18 hours a day, making the most frequent and useful routes seem worse and the commuter ones (mostly in rich areas) seem better.

As a result, for peak-only services like Routes 26, 27, 28, 29, and 64, which actually operate about 6 hours per weekday, the hours of operation have been overstated by more than double. And for routes that run later in the evening, like The Pulse, 1, 2, 3, 4A, 4B, 5, 12, 13, 14, the hours of operation have been understated by a third: those long-span routes run 18-19 hours per weekday.

For the distance factor instead of looking at how long a route is (more things to go to), CURA looked at how far a stop was from other stops (long trip). Thus Short Pump had some of the best service, while downtown had the worst. They multiplied when they should have divided!

CURA then decided to grade more positively a stop if it has more routes serving it. So a stop with two routes that run once a day is better than one with one route that runs every 15 minutes. A quick thought experiment and you should easily spot the error. CURA didn’t.

That’s right: of the 7 variables in the equation CURA took from peer-reviewed researchers, they used 5 incorrectly and didn’t use the other 2 at all. There’s not a single variable CURA used correctly. Not one! How can we trust any of this? Garbage in, garbage out.

I could go on, as there’s lots more, but it’s clear that CURA has no idea what it’s doing here. They do really good work in a lot of fields, but their expertise is not in transit, and anything they put out in this field should clearly be ignored.

We all have specialties and weak spots, and when venturing into another field it’s good to speak to those experts before publishing. Unfortunately, it seems they didn’t do this, and when I and others brought up these concerns after publication, they were kind but didn’t change.

It’s really disappointing that such shoddy research is sullying such a respectable organization. If CURA has any honor, they’ll immediately retract their report. This doesn’t live up to their academic tradition.

It’s worth adding that @VCU put the @Wilder_Planning CURA report on their front page. I hope, in the vein of intellectual honesty, when this paper gets retracted they offer up a mea culpa that is similarly prominent, as it is to reporters. cc: @ByRobertoR @Suarez_CM /fin

Pulse paradise, or put up a parking lot?

I want you to think of your favorite place you’ve ever visited in a city. Picture it in your mind. Maybe a public square? A park? People walking around, a restaurant with tables and chairs on the street? A lot of “life” is happening, right? Look around and what do you see? Buildings of two to five stories, maybe taller? A frequent transit line nearby? Wide sidewalks? There are all kinds of things that make this place great, but I’m pretty sure you didn’t picture a giant parking deck!

That’s why it was so disappointing to hear about a 790-space parking garage being built next to the new Whole Foods at Hermitage and Broad. Right next to the Fan, this area is very walkable, bikeable, and next to a brand new Pulse Bus Rapid Transit station that was built specifically for this development. There are a ton of ways to get here, so it seems odd to be building one of the largest parking decks in the city!

Contrary to what you may have heard, Richmond already has a lot of parking. You can almost always find parking if you are willing to walk a block or two (about how far you might have to walk through a big-box retail parking lot in the suburbs). And the areas where the demand is highest are also the areas with the best transit and biking conditions: Downtown, Shockoe Bottom, the Fan, Carytown, Manchester, etc.

All those reds, yellows, browns and greens are parking: almost half our downtown!

But maybe, you say, parking in this area is really difficult? As part of the Pulse planning study, the City hired consultants to watch the corridor and count how many street parking spots are being used. Surprise, surprise: most of them sit empty.

A sea of blue: 86 parking spots, mostly unused all day.

The new Sauer development, of course, could bring more people to the area. But while the old plan was to build a 10-story apartment building as well as a six-story parking deck, the new plan includes only an office building, which is generally unoccupied after close-of-business. Using Google Maps, we can clearly see how much off-street parking there is during the day and how much of that parking sits unoccupied.

Look at all that parking, and look how little of it is used!

This Pulse-adjacent district is basically more parking than not, and almost entirely filled with one- to three-story buildings—and that’s not counting the four-story parking deck the Science Museum is about to build. How could this neighborhood need nearly 800 more parking spaces? You don’t ever want to check the zoning ordinance, but I did, and the minimum required parking spaces for this office tower is 132 spaces. When other mid-sized cities are significantly reducing or removing parking minimums altogether because of their harmful effects, building six times the required parking next to a Pulse station in a neighborhood full of mostly unused parking is not the way to design a good city.

Let me tell you about how parking hurts Richmond. It induces people to drive more instead of walk, bike, or take transit. It pushes things further apart and makes them harder to access, which also reduces our physical activity and our health. It induces people to live further out, hurting development in the city. It takes up a lot of space. It pushes aside other development, like this 10-story apartment tower, and makes them smaller and more expensive than they could be because of the built-in cost and space of required (but possibly unwanted!) parking. It costs the city money in lost property tax revenue. And it heats our air, which in particular hurts those people not able to drive around in an air-conditioned car.

And the worst part about this is that the City requires parking (p.239) usually well in excess of the market demand, when it should be limiting this development that’s harmful to our neighborhoods. 1st District Councilmember Addison even tried to reduce some of these parking minimums, but his legislation was withdrawn after four months of no movement by Council.

If we want to make our city better, we need to change how we look at parking. We need to stop building parking decks to the sky. We need to design our cities and public spaces for people, not the storage of their personal property.