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A short chat with Jarrett Walker about his new book

A short chat with Jarrett Walker about his new book

Friend of the blog and all around transportation guru Jarrett Walker has a new book coming out early December. It’s called Human Transit: How Clearer Thinking about Public Transit Can Enrich Our Communities and Our Lives. I read the introduction, and judging from what it touches on, it’s safe to say that anyone with a passing interest in transit planning would find this book informative and empowering.

Jarrett Walker
The author, Jarrett Walker.

Regular readers of the blog will be very familiar with Jarrett. He’s been the subject of numerous posts, so I won’t get into too much detail about him. He’s recently finished a short stint at TransLink working with the Planning department as a consultant and has lent his expertise throughout the world including Australia, New Zealand and the U.S.

I got the opportunity to have a very quick and candid chat with Jarrett before he returned to his hometown of Portland, Oregon. **Please note that views expressed in this interview are Jarrett’s and are not the views of TransLink.**

It seems like you’re writing this for as big an audience as possible. Was that the impetus for writing the book?

Lots of people need to understand public transit better than they do. Public transit is one of the key elements of sustainable transportation, yet, it is not understood as well as cycling and walking. This is partly because cycling and walking are much more self evident in how to use them and how the geometry works. So, there’s a need for a book that provides the basics of what public transit does well and what are the situations and circumstances in which it can survive.

I wrote the book partly out of 20 years of my own experience as a consultant. I’ve encountered over and over well-intentioned decisions made about for example: development, urban form or even about how to design a street that were simply not cognizant of the impact that decision would have on public transportation. I wanted to do more than that of course. I wanted to build a sense of optimism about what transit can achieve when it’s being respected and you’re actually working with the intrinsic nature of its geometry.

It sounds like the book is trying to answer some very big questions. The introduction asks questions like: What is quality public transit? What are the goals of your transit system? Etc. You talk about engaging the public at large in these questions. When we look a voter turnout for political elections, sometimes we get around 30/40% per cent voter turnout for provincial and federal elections. How do you think you can engage voters on transit issues when big picture elections have such little buy in from the public?

Voter turnout is its own kind of tragedy, which is a larger issue than I don’t address in the book. The reality of how larger transit decisions get made is that people who care get together to make a decision. If the people who care about a particular development decision don’t actually care about public transit that much or care about it in a vague and general way but not enough to actually learn about the specifics that are going to matter in this particular situation, then decisions get made that turn out to be destructive to public transportation. Many of those decisions are made inadvertently by people who have the best of intentions.

Human Transit Book
The jacket of the forthcoming book.

I’m focused on talking to anyone who wants to be part of that conversation. So, obviously, that includes anyone who’s already part of that conversation, which is anyone in city planning, any elected official who deals with local issues, anyone involved in urban development, anyone in road planning and anyone who’s already in the transit industry who hasn’t thought about transit planning in strategic terms. These groups are all my audience.

But I’m also very interested in reaching out to the activist, the interested citizen because what I know from my experience is that because so many people are switched off as you say, that means that if you choose to get engaged, you will have more of an impact than you probably realize. So I want people who care about transit enough to actually understand it and get engaged. One of the fundamental things the book is trying to do is to give people the confidence to form your own defensible opinions about transit that reflect your own values.

You mentioned earlier the questions that I ask in the introduction, and there are several others that are even harder than those. The purpose of the book is not to answer those questions for you. Those are value judgment kinds of questions. Those are questions about what kind of city you want. I, as a consulting transit expert, shouldn’t be telling you what kind of city you want unless it’s a city I also live in as a citizen. The purpose of the book is to let you explore those questions so that you understand what’s at stake, so that you understand what’s connected to what, so that when you take an adamant position in favour of a certain thing, you understand what else is implied by that, so that you can ultimately form a clearer and stronger opinion about the values you do want to express.

You say that this engaged-in transit segment of society–the non-planners, non-architects, non- developers, non- politicians–is growing. Why do you think that?

I think that the potential for activism is enormous. We have seen this no where more clearly than in the cycling world. Everything that’s happened in cycling advocacy has been completely bottom up. It has now turned out that cycling is becoming a transformative feature of urban transport policy in a lot of major cities including Vancouver. It is doing really great things.

Because there is an operating company that is responsible for transit, people get it in their heads that transit is a thing that TransLink does to us and isn’t actually something that is ours. I have this issue with municipal governments all the time. They’ll sit down to do their own transport planning and will want to talk about the things that they control which is cycling, walking and roadways. Because they don’t control the transit, it can often seem like they don’t think through how decisions they make about cycling, walking and roadways may not actually be good decisions from the perspective of making the transit system work. Because it’s easy to think of it as, “Oh, that’s just TransLink. That’s not part of us.” You just have to break past that. The transit system belongs to everyone who uses it.

Great transit agencies—and I think TransLink is one—know how to actually engage activists’ interests and care about the views of activists who are becoming engaged in the process. It’s important when a reasonable, informed activist shows up and is maybe blogging rather coherently about the issues, it’s very important for the transit agencies to take the time to meet them and have a conversation and engage with them. In fact, I wouldn’t be in this business if people at my transit agency in Portland in the 1970s hadn’t done that with me as a teenager. I was just a teenage transit geek. Why would you listen to me? Because I actual had some good ideas, and they imediately recognized that and thought it would be interesting to engage with me.

Now you are in the field, and you mention that transit planners are so wrapped up with the job of planning that it’s difficult to step back and see the larger picture. How do you as a consultant see the bigger picture?

In my role as a consultant, I’m often hired as the person who can step back. Often, it’s actually helpful to clients that while I can learn the geography of their city very quickly, I don’t actually know the whole political history of their city, and, therefore, don’t know why this or that has been deemed impossible. So as a result, I can go ahead and suggest things that everyone locally knows. For example, you have to run that bus up there because the Mayor’s mother lives there (laughs). I don’t know about it, and I like not knowing about it.

And that’s an advantage.

Sure, that’s an advantage. I would say it’s the transit agency’s responsibility to create a genuine strategic, thinking space inside their planning department. There has to be a space for people to step back. There has to be people at a transit agency who’s job it is to step back. I’ve been at TransLink recently because to some extent they wanted someone to play this role. But someone has to be in that role, and, ideally, a few people need to have some of their time set aside to think creatively. Otherwise, daily life in a transit agency is one crisis after another, one deadline after another, and you’re just producing all the time. There’s always a danger that if you’re producing all the time, you don’t have time to think. That’s when transit agencies lose their focus. If you watch them over a decade, you look at the decisions they make, and they start to wander reactively. They do things because someone’s complained because the agency doesn’t know where they are going. That’s a very common problem with transit agencies.

You’re very lucky to live in a region where the transit agency does have a strong strategic planning function where people really are expected to step back and have good ideas. There’s still always a struggle because a project manager still has to get a deadline met. But that’s a productive conversation.

If you’d like to read the introduction and table of contents, it’s available on the Human Transit blog. Also, here’s a blog post that touches on some of the subject matter in the book. Jarrett tells me the book will come in hard, soft and electronic editions. Consider this an early Christmas gift buying idea for those transit lovers in your family.


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