Sunday, November 25, 2012

CDD Forum: Jarrett Walker

On Monday, the author and transit expert Jarrett Walker visited MIT to give a talk to the City Design and Development forum. I was fortunate enough to have time to attend. Jarrett has written a book by the name Human Transit which is intended as an introduction to good transit planning principles in a format that is accessible to everyone. I recommend it for anyone at all interested in how transit affects their communities, and how their choices affect transit.

The talk itself was familiar to me, as I have been following his blog for some time. He pitched it towards the audience -- composed primarily of urban design students -- perhaps as a sharp reminder to them that transit is often forgotten by urban planners. He touches on several points, including,

  • Mobility vs access: measuring transit by the "mobility" metric (e.g. "person-miles") is not appropriate. It values overly long trips (for example, American commuter rail) over the kind of trips that a transit system usually handles. Instead, the better way to think about transit is "access" which basically boils down to "frequency of service."
  • More access means more freedom for people, and that is ultimately what transit is about. Freedom to move around at will, without the burden of a personal vehicle which imposes costs on the user as well as the city.
  • He is well known for promoting a grid of transit which relies on easy connections for access to wider areas, as opposed to the one-seat ride school of thought. You can provide much more frequent, understandable service along well-defined corridors, and rely on good connections to other frequent service, and get a lot more transit for your dollar.
  • He took a shot at planners who are overly dependent on the notion of "ridership projections" into the future, particularly long term projections. Making predictions about the year 2032 means assuming that the people living now will behave exactly as their parents did, not to mention predicting the strange twists of history that occur along the way.
  • Transit agencies need to be more assertive about what is reasonable and feasible to expect out of their service. One of his favorite examples is the rural bus route which diverts two miles down a dirt track to serve a single user -- who may no longer even live there. The bus agency was too afraid to push back and say that this is unreasonable. Also, transit agencies need to work together with the other agencies in the city to improve matters.
  • Finally, as always, he promotes the notion that availability and quality of service is much more important than the particular mode being utilized. Whether the vehicle has rubber tires or steel wheels, or anything else, what people care about most is getting to their destination in reasonable time and in a civilized fashion.
I think we would all be a lot better off if his book was required reading for all city and transit planners. The content is actually not that complicated if you are at all familiar with the basics, but that is a good thing because it is an introduction for those folks who may not be familiar with the geometry of transit.

One moment of note came up in the Q&A session afterwards, where a local Cambridge resident stood up and asked about the brewing controversy over the crowded route 1 bus. Briefly, there is a group of residents who are attempting to oppose further development in Cambridge and along the Red Line because they feel that the roads, buses and subways are overcrowded. Jarrett's response was this: build the new stuff, capture the revenue, and use it to fund improvements. If the route 1 bus is doing so poorly, then it needs dedicated lanes, all-door boarding, and more frequent service.

Another person asked whether it was a good idea to promote buses when they are frequently powered by polluting diesel engines. Jarrett's answer was that trolleybuses are still quite a viable alternative, so it is not an intractable problem, and that there are other pollution reducing technologies available to buses. I would have also pointed out that attracting riders out of single-occupancy vehicles and into buses is still a big net win for the environment and the community, even if the buses are powered by diesel engines.


  1. Were there any questions about the recent equity study, showing that black people have significantly longer transit commutes (8 minutes each way) than white people, since they use slow circumferential buses?

    1. No, I think the study didn't appear in the papers until after the meeting.

      Jarrett did mention as an aside that talking about "equity" is difficult because it can mean too many different things. Whenever someone asks him about "equity" he asks them to be specific. But nobody asked.

      And, coincidentally I did see Dukakis speak later that same evening, and he told the crowd that transportation was his #1 priority. But nothing about the study specifically.