Human Transit: How Clearer Thinking about Public Transit Can Enrich Our Communities and Our Lives

Author: Jarrett Walker (Island Press, 2012)

Only if we embrace the facts of transit, and discover the opportunities they present, will our cities, and our transit, be human. – Jarrett Walker

Whether you are transit geek, a SkyTrain rider or an interested citizen, you will learning something by reading Human Transit: How Clearer Thinking about Public Transit Can Enrich Our Communities and Our Lives. The newly published book by Jarrett Walker is an accessible guide to thinking about public transit in an informed and systemic manner. It provides professionals, users, and citizens alike with the background to have informed conversations about this important topic.

Jarrett Walker is transit consultant who has been designing public transit systems for over 20 years and author of the popular transit blog HumanTransit, from which much of the book is based. Unlike a lot of transit analysts, who write from a east coast perspective—based on dense, pre-automobile urban cities— Walker writes with a uniquely west coast—and post-automobile city—outlook. This outlook, informed by living and working in cities such as Portland, Sydney and Vancouver, make the book extremely relevant for Spacing Vancouver readers as well as others interested in this perspective.

Walker is a transit technology agnostic. To him technology is a tool, a means to an end; not the end itself. As such, Human Transit focuses on the ‘what’ and ‘why’ of transit, not just the ‘how.’ The book goes beyond the usual transit debates of whether buses, street cars, light rail or subways are better. Instead, it looks at the basic fundamentals of transit, including concepts like speed, frequency, span, capacity and reliability.

Walker believes that to determine the right tool (i.e. transit mode) you need to understand the purpose of that tool. Too often transit debates focus on the technology and not the purpose. As a result we “get people using a hammer to turn a screw or a screwdriver to pound nails.” I would add that even when we use the right tool, undue focus on technology can lead to overkill; using a power drill to turn a screw, when a simple screwdriver would do the job more effectively.

If the debate over transit technologies is not distracting enough, transit planning is further confused by a lack of consensus over the basic goals of public transit. This was the topic of a presentation Walker made at SFU Harbour Centre on January 17th, entitled Public Transit: What is the Question? It is a more difficult to answer than you may think.

During his remarks, Walker noted that we “will hear a lot of answers” offered by transit experts, but with little agreement on exactly what the question is. As he writes in his book, while other city services, like policing, have easily agreed upon answers (enforcing the law), the ‘answer’ of public transit is influenced by a diversity of questions:

Economists may talk about transit in terms of profitability, as though that were its goal. Social service advocates think of it as a tool for meeting the needs of the disadvantaged. Architects and urban designers care about how it feels to move through a city, so they often focus on the aesthetics of the transit vehicle and infrastructure. Urban redevelopment advocates categorize services according to how well they stimulate development.

The result of this confusion is that no clear priorities arise, and when it comes to persuading decision-makers, transit planners are at a decided disadvantage with this myriad of priorities, next to their colleagues in other departments with clearer goals..

Making this even more challenging is fact that most of our transit decision-makers are motorists. This was a key point made in Human Transit—and reiterated during Walker’s SFU presentation. He notes that driving a car regularly can subconsciously shape our thinking, leading to certain biases, such as favouring transit speed over frequency. But for most regular transit riders, ‘frequency is freedom,’ as waiting times (determined by frequency) often matter more than speed in determining trip times. This leaves many decision-makers—be they politicians or transit executives—asking the wrong question.

One solution to this challenge is, ironically, through the use of technology. During his presentation, Walker mentioned one of his favourite transit tools is a new feature on WalkScore.com that allows you to see how far you can travel on transit within a specified time period. Visual representations like this can help decision-makers understand the important role that frequency plays in transit mobility. Alas, the feature is not available for Vancouver yet.

As a pedestrian advocate, I was impressed by Human Transit’s attention to pedestrians. Too often, the pedestrian experience is left out of transit discussions, despite the fact that every trip begins and ends on foot. Walker argues that that transit should be a complement to walking, not a competitor. In other words, bus routes and stops should not be too close together, but rather spaced far enough apart to optimize the travel range of pedestrians.

Although Human Transit is directed towards those with an interest in public transit, Walker’s PhD in literature and experience as a blogger helps make his writing clear and accessible to any reader. This is a decided blessing when talking about the often dry and jargon laden subject, such as “transit geometry” or “inverted couplet.” The book is made more accessible by Walker’s focus on the ‘human’ side of the title, through numerous references to the experience of taking transit.

While, like many Spacing readers, I am a regular transit rider and reader of Walker’s blog, I am by no means a transit expert. But Walker’s writing style kept me interested and engaged throughout the book. By the end, I had an appreciation of why the technical side of the transit equation is as important as the human side—and how knowledge of both is an important part of understanding the urban landscape. Read the book and you will too.

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Yuri Artibise is a public policy analyst and social media specialist. Through his Yurbanism brand, he explores the ‘Y’ of urbanism by sharing ways to make our cities more livable, community-oriented places one block at a time. He currently works with PlaceSpeak, an online location-based community consultation platform.

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