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I Love Transit Week 2010: an interview with Jarrett Walker from Human Transit

It’s I Love Transit Week from July 12-16 — because even though there’s things we don’t like about transit, there’s much we do like! All week I’ll be sharing essays, stories, and more to celebrate transit. Come to I Love Transit Night on Thursday July 15 too – full details here!

To give us a different perspective for I Love Transit Week, I asked Jarrett Walker if he would do an interview for the blog. Jarrett is a public transit planning consultant in Australia who writes the fantastic transportation blog Human Transit. Here are his always-thoughtful reflections on why he enjoys transit, how he became a transit planner, and why Vancouver provides some great models for transit planning… plus more!

How did you get interested in transit in the first place?

Jarrett Walker


From a very early age, I had a profound and (to some) disturbing obsession with geography. By age 6 I was drawing maps of imaginary cities. When we moved to Portland when I was 8, my parents papered my room with state and province maps. (Gas stations used to give these away for free, back in the days when they checked your oil for free, too.) When I was about 12, I started riding Portland’s Tri-Met system to school, a trip that involved a transfer downtown. Within a few years I had most of the network memorized, along with most of the geography of the city. It was just a thing my brain did naturally, and still does.

You don’t have to have this obsession to do great work in transit. But some brains do memorize geography and are able to solve problems in geographical space. (Such people are always spatial navigators, capable of visualizing maps but often helpless when confronted with narrative directions.) When the time comes to rethink a complex and interdependent network, you do need one or more of those people at the table.

What makes transit so interesting for you today?

I spent my 20s doing a PhD in an arts/literature field, and today I’m beginning to reintegrate the geographical and numerical thinking that a transit planner does with the humanistic thinking that I did as a graduate student. So for example, I’m much more interested in language than the average transit planner, because humanities training is all about noticing what’s going on inside of words.

One aphorism I often use is from the philosopher P. F. Strawson: “What we can’t say, we can’t think.” If we don’t have a word for something, we can’t discuss it or even form clear ideas about it. And even if we do have a word for what we want to say, it may have emotional resonances that don’t serve our purpose.

One mentor of mine, a manager of network planning for a major agency, refused to use the word bus for this reason. He though bus sounded too plain and uninspiring, so he always used coach, which sounded more dignified to him. He lost that battle: coach now sounds so archaic that it would be self-ridiculing to use it, but bus still smells bad as a word. The challenge of premium bus services like Bus Rapid Transit is not just to rehabilitate the bus as a vehicle, but also to rehabilitate (or perhaps replace) bus as a word. Both dimensions of the struggle are equally essential.

Finally, I’m increasingly intrigued at the way different disciplines think about transit. The recent debates with Professor Patrick Condon on my blog are a good place to observe how the urban-design world-view differs from that of the transport planner, which invites me to wonder what it would take to construct a real conversation between these crucial aspects of urban expertise.

You were doing a PhD in an arts/literature field in your 20s? So how did you come to work in the transit field?

I have always been interested in too many things. Given enough lives, I’d have been happy to follow my first path into a career as a theatre director and performance theorist and literature scholar, as well as the public transit career that I do have. I wouldn’t mind having time for a career as a botanist and popular science writer, either. And it would be fun to open a nursery (plants, not babies).
But in the real world, I realised as I neared the end of my PhD that my obsession with geography was still on my mind, and that any viable career would have to work with it. I look back on the professional theatre work that I did, for example, and see that my best work was in spatial composition, not story-telling. Needing an income, and uninspired by the theatre world, I fell into consulting on public transit issues, with a new firm that was working mostly in small California agencies, and grew from there.

If anyone reading this is at a similar career crisis, I suggest you ask yourself: “What did I really love doing when I was 5-10 years old?” Think especially about interests that you can’t trace to the influence of your parents or other early adult mentors. We often decide to be interested in things because our parents are interested in them, and this can conceal who we really are and what we’re really good at. None of the adults who were around me as a child shared my obsession with geography. Because of that, I could be pretty sure that it was an intrinsic feature of who I was, and what I should be doing.

Through your discussions on Human Transit, what do you ultimately hope to share about transit? What do you see about the field that we non-planners don’t see?

I see that there’s a core set of geometric facts about transit that most people haven’t thought about, but that largely govern transit’s success or failure. These are the subject of my Basics series of posts, and include things like the necessity of transferring, the role of grids, and the nature of land use patterns that work well or badly with transit. Recognizing that these are facts of geometry can be liberating, because it helps take the heat out of some debates.

For example, it’s common to hear people in outer suburban areas, such as the South of Fraser in your region, complain that they get much less transit service than core cities like Vancouver. But there’s a clear geometric explanation for why that is, related to the geometry of density, and it also explains why the same issue comes up in virtually every urban area. If intelligent methane-breathing aliens on Jupiter have some sort of scheduled conveyance that takes them from one cloud to another in their vast floating cities, they are probably dealing with the same geometry problem, and having the same debate.

Where do you think the future of transit is headed? What type of progress do you hope to see?

My personal goals are:

* To enable governments and their citizens to have clearer conversations about transit, and to help them select projects and strategies that will actually serve their values.
* To build an appreciation for the mobility provided by public transport, even though the concept of mobility is out of fashion in the urban planning world.
* To reduce the number of people who think transit is just too complicated, and must be left to the experts. Paradoxically, I think this will actually increase the level of respect for the kinds of expertise that transit agencies require.

There are also technological changes that I want to see, but they’re those that serve the goals of practical urban mobility. Above all, we need a battery-driven electric bus, with enough reliability to become the standard bus product in our cities. You can plug it in at the end of the line. A lot of the negative perceptions of buses are about internal combustion.

Given that you know much more of the world transit planning scene, can you tell us where is the most exciting or interesting transportation planning work taking place? Where can we look to for examples of tackling transportation within the urban form?

When anyone in North America or Australia asks me that, and wants a short answer, I say look at greater Vancouver. Your region has five magnificent advantages in building a sustainable urban form where public transit is a mode of choice. Going further in this direction requires not just envying other cities, but really appreciating and building on your advantages:

1. Your constrained land area, combined with aggressive planning leadership and economic vitality, has led to a spectacular growth in high-rise residential density over the past few decades. No other North American city built so much high-rise housing from such a low base in the supposedly car-dominated late 20th Century. High-density housing around good transit – combined with high-density employment and activity centres also organized around transit — gives you all the essentials of a city that will prosper in the post-petroleum age.

2. SkyTrain’s driverless metro technology cuts the link between frequency and labour cost, allowing you to run high frequencies late into the night even though ridership is lower then. Frequency is freedom! People who live on SkyTrain have a service that’s ready to go whenever they are, close to the same freedom that people have in their cars. More on this here.

3. The U-Pass program drives massive ridership by university students, but with benefits that extend across the region. UBC, for example, generates high ridership on the west end of all the lines that serve it, and this allows those lines to be more frequent than they would otherwise be. SFU demand drives similar high-intensity services in many parts of Burnaby. This has huge benefits that extend far beyond those campuses. For example, if you live, work, play, invest or otherwise care about any location on Hastings, Broadway, or 41st Avenue, thank the U-Pass program for the high-frequency service that those streets enjoy. (And encourage TransLink’s efforts to take the next step in improving them.)

4. Vancouver itself is a nearly ideal grid for transit, as are Surrey and Richmond at their own scales. The spacing of parallel arterials is ideal for covering the maximum possible area with the fewest possible route-km. And the fewer km of route you run, the more frequently you can afford to run them. More on this here.

5. You have a single regional transit agency, with a unified brand and information system. Different companies run different parts of it, but what citizens see is a single unified network whose parts all work together.

This is a huge advantage over multi-agency cities (including Seattle, the San Francisco Bay Area, and Los Angeles) where customers have to navigate a confusing mix of brands and policies, and where transit staffs spend much of their time co-ordinating rather than creating.

No city is a leader in everything. Global liveability experts all rave about wealthy cities in Northern Europe and the Alps, but even they are far from perfect, and our attraction to them may reflect our European heritage to a degree that is not always appropriate for Pacific Rim cities like Vancouver. For leadership on road pricing, for example, don’t just look to London or Stockholm; the most Vancouver-like city that’s doing it is Singapore. Seoul is well down the track to be an urban transport leader for Asia, and of course Japan has long been leading on rapid transit. Good stuff is happening in many cultural contexts, and great cities will increasingly need to draw on all those traditions. Most of all, though, notice what other cities find admirable about your region, and build on that.

Just for fun: What’s the most memorable experience on transit you’ve ever had?

The Portland transit mall. Photo by Jarrett Walker.

Well, the most vivid memories are often those from childhood. When the Portland transit mall opened in 1977, I was 15 and saw it every day on my commute to school. Now there was one place where you could stand and see most of the buses in the city pass by, their overhead signs advertising the various places that they go. Part of why I learned the city’s geography in such detail was in order to better visualize where each bus was going. Because for whatever reason, I needed to feel that connection.

I remember that because it’s the same excitement that many of us have felt in an airport, or a great European train station, when we see a departure board showing all the exotic places to which people are departing. In the entire passenger transport experience, this is the moment that offers the most visceral sensation of freedom — look at all the places I could go, from right here! — and as the car industry can tell you, creating a sensation of freedom is the key to success. Urbanists need to think more about this sensation, because it could help them describe transit mobility in a way that connects it to things that we all value. Things like freedom, and joy.

Thanks Jarrett! For more, check out Human Transit — Jarrett is also giving a talk called “A Field Guide to Transit Debates” as part of SFU’s City Program on August 4, so you can see him in person!


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