Explaining Transit's Secret Language

In his new book, blogger-turned-author Jarrett Walker shows how transportation really works.

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It's difficult to categorize Jarrett Walker's excellent new book, Human Transit. It's not quite for a popular audience, though it's written with engaging ease. It's not for academics, though it's as thorough as most published research and far more approachable. It's not strictly for a policy audience, though it's fresh grist for any transit wonk's mill.

Its closest literary cousin may be a good language book, for it feels capable of teaching anyone, beginner or beyond, to speak Transit more fluently.

Walker, a consultant known for his Human Transit blog, sees his audience as "a curious and thoughtful person who cares about whether we find our way to more rational forms of urban mobility." To that end he clarifies many misguided perceptions held by those concerned with better transit development.

Instead of focusing on speed, we should elevate frequency; instead of debating technology (e.g. light rail v. bus) we should consider geometry; instead of glorifying direct service we should build more connections; instead of linking transit with restraint we should associate it with the "freedom to move."

Walker recently offered a few more transit insights to the humans who read Atlantic Cities.

You've been writing the Human Transit blog for some time. What made you decide to turn those ideas into a book?

The book was urgently needed. Twenty years as a transit planning consultant had convinced me that the greatest obstacle to better public transit is that well-intentioned people, including many opinion leaders and activists, simply don’t understand it. Most have never seen a readable explanation of how transit works as a tool, or of the real choices it requires us to make.

I suspect that’s why much of the public discussion of transit is about externalities (emissions, economic outcomes, fun, “look and feel,” and so on) while strikingly little is about helping people to get where they’re going, or to access more of the city easily.

For years, transit professionals have lamented the absence of a clear and friendly book that would explain transit network design, the trade-offs it requires, and what it implies for sustainable urban form. Human Transit is meant to be that book. It’s not about imposing my values, but giving you the tools you need to advocate yours.

The subtitle of your book emphasizes "clearer thinking about public transit." Is there something about the subject of public transportation that invites confusion?

Most influential people in our society are motorists, which means they instinctually understand how roads work. If that’s your reality, you may unconsciously try to think about transit in those terms. But transit is just not like roads, and if you haven’t stopped to think about the differences, you can make innocent but consequential mistakes.

The most obvious “motorist’s error” is confusion about frequency. In urban transit, frequency is freedom. Frequency is how transit approximates the freedom that’s inherent in your car or bike. Frequency also governs waiting, which is everyone’s least favourite part of using transit. Finally, frequency determines how well lines can fit together into a network, so that you can go anywhere easily, not just to points in one line.

Motorists rarely have to wait long periods before they can go anywhere, as you do on an infrequent transit service, so they often don’t “get” how crucial frequency is, even if they understand it in the abstract. All I can say is: “Imagine a gate at the end of your driveway that opens only once every 30 minutes.” Motorists making transit decisions need to ask themselves if they’re valuing frequency enough. Because once you do, you see transit issues very differently.

You talk a lot about the advantages of building a transit service that runs at all times of the day, as opposed to one that exists primarily to serve the peak hours. What's the main benefit of all-day service?

In a low-density outer suburban area, most people consider transit only for the peak commute into a city, because driving a car is the rational thing to do for most other trips. So they care about peak-only service. There’s nothing wrong with that.

But inside denser cities, and anywhere that you want to encourage more sustainable transport choices, transit needs to be there all day, for all of life’s purposes.

Neither of these perspectives is wrong, but they imply utterly different kinds of service. Futile arguments arise when one person has a peak-commute focus while the other has an all-day focus, and they’re not aware that this is the essence of their disagreement. The balance between a peak focus and an all-day focus is one of several questions that arise unavoidably from the geometry of transit, and that communities should be urged to think about.

You also make a convincing case that connections (or transfers) can often reduce travel time and create simpler, more useful networks. How do you get communities and transit riders to buy into a "connections are good" mindset?

Connections are a tough issue. I devote two chapters to them and they probably need their own book. But the geometry of transit presents us with a simple choice. You can accept the need for connections and in return get simplicity, high frequency, and a high degree of personal freedom for the customer. Or you can try to avoid connections by running a few direct services from everywhere to everywhere else. That approach yields low frequency and a network so complicated that nobody dares to explore it outside of the one or two routes they know how to use. One of the chapters is called “Connections or Complexity?” Because that really is the choice.

You explain that low-density suburbs must choose between cost-effective transit or high-quality transit. Why can't they have both?

Because the design of the typical low-density suburb makes it geometrically impossible. Yelling at your transit agency or elected officials won’t change the facts of geometry. Once you see that, you can move beyond blame and start thinking about what kind of transit is reasonable in each situation.

You can also think about how suburbs and cities could be better designed to avoid creating barriers to good transit. The book is about urban planning, not just transit, because we desperately need planners, developers, and architects to understand what makes transit efficient, and therefore abundant. (Remember: wherever resources are limited, efficiency and abundance are the same thing.) I’ve seen too many development plans — even self-proclaimed “sustainable” or “transit-oriented” ones — where the geometry ensures that transit will be inefficient, and therefore sparse.

The book also suggests much better futures that might arise with more transit-conscious planning. For example, the typical suburban boulevard lined with car-based commercial strips could be the site of superb transit and incremental, affordable redevelopment, because it’s well suited to the geometry of efficient transit. Achieving this vision will require street designers and transit planners to think together much more creatively, but there are great possibilities for transit in that built form.

A similar dilemma exists with the "contradictory mission" between ridership and coverage goals. What's the most important thing for people to understand about why these missions can't coexist?

Ask yourself: What would my transit system look like if ridership (and cost recovery) were its only goal? I’ve been staring at ridership statistics for over 20 years, and the pattern is the same everywhere. Top performing services are usually either commuter express routes that run only when they’re crowded or a network of all-day high-frequency services covering areas of medium to high density. So like any business, a network whose sole goal was ridership would focus on those successful products. They would run little or no all-day service to low-density suburbs, because ridership on that product is predictably low.

So when transit agencies do run that low-ridership service, as most do, it doesn’t mean they’re failing, as anti-transit conservatives often assume. It just means they have a goal other than ridership. Coverage goals, often expressed by a policy like “95 percent of population will be within walking distance of service” cause service to be spread out over large areas despite low ridership.

There’s nothing wrong with either goal, but they’re competing goals. So I offer tools for how to think about the choice between them. Reno’s transit agency, for example, has adopted a policy about how the budget should be divided between these two goals. This is wonderful, because finally transit planners aren’t attacked for reducing coverage every time they increase ridership, and vice versa.

You've been on transit systems around the world. What do you consider the most efficient ones you've ever seen — and what do they do that's so great?

Efficient (and therefore abundant) transit systems focus on the five elements of useful service: frequency, duration, speed, reliability, and capacity. They choose technologies not just for emotional appeal but for the ability to deliver those outcomes. When they do this, the results are often very emotionally appealing, because people love to get where they’re going, and to move freely and spontaneously around their city.

For example, you may not think of Paris as a bus city, but in the last decade Paris has created bus lanes on virtually every boulevard, all over the city. Imagine how many decades it would take for an American city to do that. They didn’t just do one incomplete and compromised demonstration project in anxious hopes of public approval, because they realised the public wouldn’t see the benefit unless they delivered speed and reliability across a large network. So they did it, creating bus lanes (and bike lanes) at the expense of cars. Suddenly the bus system is a rational and obvious choice for getting around Paris, so people use it.

Meanwhile, the buses now appearing in Paris are beautifully transparent. Riding a Paris bus I feel I’m still on the street, able to enjoy everything that’s going on around me. Fare collection is off-board, so you don’t have that awkward and time-wasting process of paying the driver. Everything about these buses conveys a sense of freedom while using them. So all kinds of people use them.

I’m also optimistic about Los Angeles, not just because its geography is superb for transit but because there’s a widely shared understanding of what must be done to move forward. Its bus system gets too little respect, but it’s tremendously effective at what it does and has been a leader in the “Rapid bus” revolution of the last decade.

So great things are happening in many cities, and many more great revolutions are on the cusp of happening. But to make them happen, more people need to understand the essence of how transit works, the choices it presents, and how it can serve our freedom.

Regis Duvignau/Reuters

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