How Clearer Thinking about Public Transit Can Enrich Our Communities and Our Lives
A book by Jarrett Walker. Island Press, 2012, 244 pp., $70 hardcover, $35 paperback
Note: This article is published in the October-November 2012 issue of Better! Cities & Towns (subscribe).
Once in a while, a book comes along that summarizes most of what’s important about a particular subject, and it does so in a way that’s lucid and effortless. One such book is Jarrett Walker’s Human Transit. A couple of hours spent with this slim volume will give anyone the basics on the theory and practice of public transportation planning. For new urbanists, this is more important than most will admit. All too many of us are designing transit-oriented developments with only a vague notion of what transit really needs to be effective. As a result, TODs have been built in places that are very expensive for transit to serve, and street networks have been created that just don’t work well for buses or rail.
There have been attempts in the past to convey the subtleties of transit to new urban audiences. When CNU was young, there were no break-out sessions at the first Congresses; every session was plenary. This forced architects, planners, engineers and designers to listen to each other. We all learned things that we might otherwise have dismissed as peripheral to our primary interest. As a result, we became better educated on matters affecting us indirectly (or, perhaps, more directly than we had realized). Over time, however, a greater portion of each Congress was dedicated to specialized breakout topics. Attendees were largely those already involved in these specialties. The value of Walker’s book is that it offers the opportunity for those not in the transit professions to pick up a lot of knowledge of this topic with a very short investment of time. Most of what a new urbanist needs to know is here. It’s even a valuable resource for seasoned planners like me, who have struggled to explain the needs of transit to lay audiences for years. These audiences, be they residents of a community or members of a governing board, can have a big influence on whether or not a transit proposal is approved and how effective it will be.
Those familiar with Walker’s blog of the same name will immediately recognize his style and subject matter. In fact, Human Transit takes as its source much of the material that has appeared in the blog. But the book is able to go further than the blog can, because it has assembled this material in a systematic way and expanded upon much of it.
I especially liked Walker’s explanation of common errors in thinking that can lead a potentially good transit proposal astray. One of these is the “motorist’s error.” Those who aren’t regular transit riders (or who may never have used transit) tend to think about mobility based on the form of travel they know best: driving a car or being driven in one. As a result, they often value the attribute of speed over frequency. They don’t realize that when transit service is infrequent, waiting time at the stop can be high, making the whole trip longer. In reality, ridership is often raised more effectively not by increasing the speed of buses and trains but by increasing their frequency. Anyone whose experience is restricted to automotive travel is generally oblivious to this basic tenant.
The shape of the network
There are lots of meaty discussions in Human Transit. Walker offers explanations of how the shape of a transit network—something that few of us ever think about—can influence its operating costs and its attractiveness to riders. He includes some excellent discussions on the pros and cons of transfers. He also explains routing configurations that can help or hinder a bus or rail line. Of particular importance to developers and urban designers, Walker points out the challenges created by boulevards, new towns, and streetscape designs. When these are directed by professionals ignorant of transit’s needs, earnest attempts to encourage transit ridership often fall short.
Walker provides an illuminating case study of bus service planning for a greenfield suburb in Canberra, Australia. The original plan proposed operating buses on a corridor directly connecting Canberra’s government center with the new suburb. Walker explains that the direct route would have required it to branch when it reached the suburb in order to reach all the populous areas. This would have resulted in lower frequencies on each branch, which would be less attractive to the riders there. He also points out that the government center generated trips primarily during the peak hours, with very little off-peak demand. This, in turn, would have resulted in low off-peak service levels. The better solution was to create a bus route that was less direct than originally proposed but would serve many more places that people wanted to access. This, in turn, would encourage more ridership that could justify greater frequency of service, particularly off peak. Greater frequency would, in turn, encourage even more ridership. This strategy seems counter to the common-sense notion of providing direct service on a shorter route. However, it’s one of several examples of how frequency can trump directness in many situations.
If there is a flaw in Walker’s book, it may be his candor in pointing out the shortcomings of some recent developments. Several of these were designed by fellow new urbanists. To be sure, real world problems generally offer more effective lessons than theoretical ones. Nonetheless, potential allies may be turned off by his critiques, which would be an unfortunate outcome. Given the task we face in transforming this auto-centric nation of ours, we all need to pull in the same direction. I would hope that those criticized would take it on the chin and learn to avoid similar mistakes the next time around.
This is an easy read. You can go through the whole book in a few hours. That makes its lessons more likely to be absorbed. Human Transit will serve you well as a source you can turn to for reference in the future. It will also make you a better new urbanist.
William Lieberman, AICP, is a transportation planning coordinator with CHS Consulting Group in San Francisco.