Transit for the Human Race

Transit for the Human Race
Koan-like wisdom, from a vintage Boston transit ad, featured in Jarrett Walker's equally gnomic Human Transit.

A Review of the Long-Awaited Revised Edition of Public Transit's Bible

// When I'm working on a non-fiction book, there sometimes comes a moment when I realize that there's somebody out there who has already reached many of the conclusions that I've been fumbling, in my non-expert way, to grasp. In the case of my book Bottomfeeder, about the impact of human appetite on life in oceans, lakes, and rivers, it was Daniel Pauly, the great fisheries expert at the University of British Columbia. (It was my honour to interview him in Vancouver, and then meet him again at New York at a board meeting of the non-profit Oceana, in the same room, oddly enough, as Ted Danson and Sam Waterston.) Pauly became my guru, the guy I turned to for a sensible, bullshit-free take on aquaculture and overfishing, backed by a complete command of the scholarship. He treated me, via e-mail, as his trainee-cricket, straightening me out when I was going off the research rails into some irrelevant sidetrack.

The same can be said of Jarrett Walker, whose book Human Transit: How Clearer Thinking About Public Transit Can Enrich Our Communities and Our Lives, I discovered just as I was in the final throes of writing my own book about transit, Straphanger. I inhaled that first edition, which helped me straighten out a lot of inchoate ideas I had about transit, particularly the relative importance of different modes (rail vs. bus in particular) and the geometry of cities, and their relationship to the way transit does or doesn't work. Jarrett wrote a review of my book on his blog, in which he took me to task for favoring light rail and subways. I didn't think that was entirely fair at the time—still don't, because my book goes out of the way to defend bus transit, when it's done right—but I didn't hold it against him. And when I came to Portland, Oregon, his home town, he kindly invited me over to his place for an al fresco breakfast which included eggs laid by a backyard chicken. (I did not hesitate to make far too many Portlandia-inspired jokes about the exact name and happiness level of the chicken who laid the eggs we would be eating that morning, etc.)

Jarrett Walker, caught explaining how to embrace all modes of transit

I'm happy to say that Jarrett has published a long-overdue 2nd edition of Human Transit, just been released by the admirable Island Press of Washington, D.C., who specialize in all things environmental and solution-oriented. In the years since we met, Jarrett has done amazing work redesigning the bus networks of Houston, Miami, Dublin, Memphis, Reykjavik and Auckland—where his firm goes, transit service improves (usually without investment in new equipment, but merely through re-imagining and rationalizing existing service). He is one of those rare transit types with a truly international perspective: Jarrett has lived in Sydney, Australia, and his firm Jarrett Walker + Associates has helped transform and improve transit systems in Europe, Oceania, and North America.

Something else that's important: Jarrett is not an engineer, or a technician, or a bureaucrat. In fact, his PhD at Stanford in literature, which means this is a transit professional who can quote Shakespeare and Portland hometown hero Ursula K. Le Guin, and, most importantly, communicate clearly. (Not the strong suit of engineers, especially traffic engineers.) In fact, at this point his transit wisdom has taken on a koan-like quality. His prose can be so unadorned, in fact, that it stops you mid-page with its simple truthfulness. I quote:

"Cities don't function if everyone is in their own car." (pg. 1) Wait a minute...but...oh shit, of course he's right!

"When we talk about physical space, we're talking about geometry, and technology never changes geometry." (pg. 15) But what about hyperloops and driverless cars...oh, I see what you're doing there, Jarrett.

"The pedestrian is the foundation of contemporary urban design, and walking is the ideal mode of travel for both health and sustainability." (pg. 17) That's something Jeff Speck says at length in his excellent book Walkable City (which recently celebrated its 10th anniversary) and I've been saying in a thousand different ways on social media for a decade, but here it is, wrapped up in a sentence. (By the way, early on Jarrett notes that he includes differently-abled people, some of them in wheelchairs, in his definition of "pedestrian," if only to avoid writing "walking and rolling" twenty times in a page.)

"The involvement of more informed and caring citizens, expressing themselves with courtesy, clarity, and persistence, almost always leads to better outcomes." (pg. 12) Remember that at your next town hall meeting, when the NIMBYs are shouting down a new bike lane or transit center.

"We are at Point A and need to be at Point B as soon as possible. The shape of that desire is not a loop. It's a straight line." (pg. 66) The "desire line," well known to urbanists, in a nutshell.

It is a pleasure to read how Jarrett makes short work of some of the major distractions out there, the flavor-of-the-month techno-solutions that distract from the real work of building and operating transit that really provides people with freedom and opportunity.

On the mirage of PRT, or personal rapid transit (like the Tesla Tunnels in Las Vegas): "Too much infrastructure to move too few people."


A point Jarrett hits hard: the chief cost to a system is the operating cost, not the construction cost (of a new subway, or trolley line, or BRT). Over the lifetime of a system, operating costs are the real drain on a budget. Historically, in Europe and North America, ...the cost of labor (paying drivers) is what can really limit the frequency and span of service. (That's why automated systems, like Vancouver's Skytrain, Montreal's REM, Paris's under-construction "super-métro" lines, are such great investments in the long term.) And why "micro-transit," which means small vehicles and few riders per driver (and convoluted routes) doesn't work at scale. As Jarrett puts it, about micro-transit vehicles: "They have their uses...but they usually take more time to serve fewer people than fixed lines do."

I love the way Jarrett unpacks a noxious outburst by the chief troll and antagonist of sustainable mobility, Elon Musk, who called public transport, in his ungrammatical way, "painful...That's why everyone doesn't like it. And there's like a bunch of random strangers, one of who might be a serial killer."

Jarrett's response: "Whether they are pods on a rail or Teslas in a tunnel, cars take lots of space to move few can choose to live in a very small town where everyone knows everyone, but most of us live in cities, and a bunch of random strangers is what a city is."

Jarrett lays out seven demands that users put on transit, from the simple "it takes me where I want to go," to the more difficult-to-attain "it allows me spontaneity to change my plans." These are clearly the fruit of the public-consulting process, but it's good to hear them distilled. Some cities will put the emphasis on coverage; others on frequency; others on speed or span of service. Every city or community will have a slightly different mix. What Jarrett's crystal-clear text does is say: don't get distracted by modes of transit (shiny streetcars vs. workaday buses); by almost-but-never-quite-here techno-mirages (driverless cars); or, God help us, by elite projection (the fact that transit board members often militate for airport lounge levels of comfort, especially in rail transit to their communities, to the detriment of good-enough service for the many). Figure out what's important to your city, and figure out a way to make it happen.

Reduced in this edition are sections that in the first went on a little too long ("Five Paths to Confusion" and "Density Distractions.") My only criticism is that, given the fact that this is a person who has traveled the world, on many different modes of transit, there could be a few more vivid and concrete examples of the diversity of transport options out there; and frankly, he gives short shrift to bicycles, bikeshare, and other forms of micromobility, which are surely an adjunct and enabler of heavy-hauling transit. That said, Jarrett's confessions about being a disruptive high-school Portland city bus rider in his youth (and an elder resentful of loud teenagers today) offered welcome relief from some of the book's more textbook-like longueurs.

Let's go back to that line about "courtesy, clarity, and persistence." Jarrett wraps these virtues up in the much-neglected idea of "civility," which he points out is essential for a transit agency, and its users, to aspire to. Public transport, at its best, fosters civility, by creating a realm where strangers with different interests, and destinations, can come together, if only for the length of a transit ride. That's something Elon Musk will never understand. Or, perhaps he knows that to sell Teslas, 0r his vision of Mars colonies, it's in his interest to convince us of the impossibility of co-existing in public spaces here on earth.

I've only had the latest edition of Human Transit for a week, and it's already dog-eared, distressed, and no candidate for resale. That's as it should be, because I'll be holding on to it for a long time, and consulting it every time some social media or town-hall debate sends my head spinning. This is clear-eyed thinking on what can be a convoluted topic, and required reading for anybody who, for work, or school, or any reason, ever has to move around a city.

Which means, just about all of us.

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