Thinking Differently about Public Transit

An interview with author and blogger Jarrett Walker.

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“My goal is not to make you share my values, but to give you the tools to help you clarify yours,” says Jarrett Walker, a public transit planning consultant, author and blogger. He works with cities and transit authorities across North America, Australia, and New Zealand to help them understand the basic principles of public transit, lay bare hidden assumptions, and make informed decisions on network design and related policies. We talked to him about his work, and the parameters that influence decisions about transit.

What’s the correlation between urban transit infrastructure and quality of life?

Quality of life comes from living in a community that functions well for everyone. For the individual, that means easy access to the opportunities that make life worthwhile: jobs, but also all kinds of social, cultural, and economic opportunities.

In rural areas and small towns, the car is a logical way to secure those outcomes, but cities don’t have to get very big before the car simply fails to deliver. It takes too much space, and thus creates congestion, which in turn becomes a cap on opportunity. Many transport modes are important; but high-ridership transit is the one that really cuts that knot completely, creating massive quantities of opportunity while efficiently using the scarcest of urban resources: space.

What are the most common misconceptions about public transit?

The biggest ones are false analogies that come from the world of roads and buildings. I’ll give you a couple of examples:

  • The assumption that public transportation is about a particular group of people – commuters, or low-income people, or whatever.
    Wrong. Transit becomes more successful when serving a diverse set of people and needs. “Demographic analysis” is the death of transit — if it leads to designing different services for different people who are going the same way at the same time, because the result is less useful service for everyone.Airport express trains are a good example: they’re often aimed at business travelers who are ready to pay a higher price to get to their destination more quickly. So that requires an elite train for these travelers and then another train for budget travelers and airport workers  – who take a cheaper train that stops more often. But dividing the market between two services going the same way means that both groups end up paying a high price: lower frequency and thus longer waits.Services for everyone would be better if the experience of that journey was re-engineered to the exact right quality and frequency, so that the maximum number of people find it acceptable to use the same vehicle.Everybody’s transportation decisions affect everybody else. Transit doesn’t benefit from specialization.
  • Another false assumption is that transit is about speed. In the urban context, frequency often matters more than speed. Frequency’s a tough thing to explain to a motorist. It helps to use an analogy: “Imagine there’s a gate at the end of your driveway that only opens once an hour.”
  • And then, there’s the idea that transit is about the vehicle. Useful transit arises from the design of the network – the pattern of lines and schedules that determine where you can get to, and how soon. It depends mostly on how lines are designed, and how they’re designed to work together as a network. That’s also why connections between services are the foundation of transit.

These misconceptions are understandable in countries like the United States where most decision-leaders are motorists, and have a limited experience of transit.  In countries where more influential people use transit – and not just for commuting – these confusions are less common.

Your blog, and a book you’ve written, are called ‘Human Transit’. Can you tell us why you chose that title?

People need to understand the basic geometric facts of transit – and, really, these principles are not that hard to grasp. In my workshops, I usually teach them within a few hours, using some basic materials.

I was tired of hearing this kind of knowledge described as “technical,” as though it was somehow opposed to human needs and desires or something that only professionals can grasp. In fact, the only way we can achieve our needs and desires is by working with the facts of physics and geometry. So by building public understanding of the basic math, I’m helping people achieve their human aspirations and needs.

On your blog you’ve got some posts categorized as “unhelpful word watch.” Why is it so important to raise awareness on how we speak about public transit?

A basic thing that words do is chop ideas apart: bus versus rail; commercial versus subsidized; choice riders versus transit-dependent riders. These binarisms are often considered normal parts of any analysis. But you always have to ask: “When I chop transit apart in this way, have I destroyed its essence?”

For example, transit works best when we don’t draw a hard line between choice and dependent riders, but instead observe all the ways that people are relatively choice or dependent. Networks become possible only when we make bus and rail work together, which means letting go of the notion that the division of transit into bus and rail is the only one that matters.

In transit, as in any political discourse, words often get chosen to make the issues sound technical, but really these words hide implicit value judgments and assumptions. Always ask two questions: “Does chopping a topic apart this way destroy something important?” And also: “Who is excluded from this description of reality?”

How do you help decision-makers separate questions of value from technology issues?

In transit, there are certain value judgments that arise over and over. An example is the trade-off between patronage and coverage. Is the goal of your transit system to carry as many riders as possible? Or is it to be there for everyone who might need or deserve it, even if that causes you to run low ridership services?

Those are two clear and widely held goals that are just opposites. They push network design in opposite directions, so I help communities arrive at their own judgment of how to balance those goals.

I believe that we must make the real choices clear to the voters or elected officials. Too much technical work in this field hides value judgments inside technical analysis, which is a way of saying “you should adopt my values because I’m an expert.” That’s wrong, because values don’t arise from expertise. Expertise helps present us with clear choices, but can’t make them for us.


 Jarrett Walker is a public transit consultant who helps cities redesign transit networks, describe transit issues to the public, and build values-based policies and standards. He has also taught graduate level transit courses and runs intensive courses on transit network design for both professionals and advocates.

Walker holds a PhD in theatre arts and humanities from Stanford, and is a passionate advocate of humanities education for careers in supposedly technical fields.

His book, Human Transit: How Clearer Thinking about Public Transit Can Enrich Our Communities and Our Lives, was published by Island Press. The book offers an introduction to transit issues for the average reader, designed to help anyone form clearer views that reflect their own values.

Visit Jarrett’s blog, Human Transit