Human transit: An interview with Jarrett Walker

Audio (mp3: 8.2MB, 33:57)

Published: August 2011

Jarrett Walker talks to Gerry Gaffney about human transit, in a discussion that has many parallels for UX practitioners. “Think about the question,” Jarrett tells us, “before you fall in love with a technology.” He describes the need for ongoing education to help planners and residents understand that good transit promotes not just community building, but “the freedom and joy of individual humans.”

Gerry Gaffney:

This is Gerry Gaffney with the User Experience podcast. Today we turn our attention once again to the issues of transport. As a teenager my guest today saw his hometown of Portland, Oregon reinvent itself in a way that taught him to believe in the possibility of rapid and fundamental change in how a city imagines and builds itself.

With a PhD in humanities from Stanford University, he’s been a fulltime transit consultant since 1991, and has worked in New Zealand, USA, Canada, India and Australia. He runs the influential and frequently fascinating Human Transit blog and I’m very pleased to have him with me today.

Jarrett Walker, welcome to the User Experience podcast.

Jarrett Walker:

Thank you very much, Gerry.


What should we understand by the term “human transit”? Why is it interesting and why should anybody care about it?


I chose that name because I had 20 years of experience, well 18 at that time, of developing network plans of various kinds and being told in one way or another that what I was doing was just engineering and couldn’t possibly be relevant to anyone’s life.

I was also used to conversations in which when I tried to explain that these particular city-wide benefits of this network might require someone to undergo minor inconvenience, I was immediately told that I was out of touch with human realities of any kind by virtue of proposing that.

Once early in my career I actually had the experience of doing a complete network plan for a small city that would have substantially improved the way, the speed with which people could get around and the entire press coverage about the network plan was all about one group of senior citizens at a particular senior community who were outraged because I had moved their bus stop around the corner to a different side of their building and who felt that the entire network plan should be shut down simply in order to spare them that inconvenience.

So I felt, what I was discovering over time was that in the discourse about public transport, not enough people understand how to translate the city-wide benefits of a great transport network into human values and human experience. And ultimately into not just the joys of community building but also the freedom and joy of individual humans.

So that’s where the name came from and that continues to be one of the areas where I particularly specialise as a consultant is in that sort of communication problem around public transport planning.


So are you working with the public or are you working with city councils? Who are you clients typically?


I have generally three types of clients; public transport authorities, who in Australia of course are generally states but who in other countries are organised quite differently. So public transport authorities would be one. Municipal governments would be another, and the third would be private sector clients or architects who are thinking about a particular large development project and who want the public transport element of that project to be something other than window dressing, who actually want the development to work well with public transport and who are willing to actually think about the development structure in the context of public transport instead of just as they often do, you know, painting public transport on at the end.

So I would say those are the main groups; transport authorities, city governments or councils as you call them in Australia and then the private sector around development issues.


Many people listening to this are working in the design field in user experience design or web design, mobile design, or whatever, and I know that they’re used to political interference and you often hear them complaining; “Oh look you know we were going to do this and somebody came in at the last moment, the boss came in and said, do something else. It’s so wrong but we had to do it.”

But it seems like you must have that writ large in your work. I mean the amount of political… the number of political interests must be absolutely enormous and you’ve alluded to that with the senior citizens not liking their bus stop moved.

Do you have any strategies for dealing with that?


I try to keep a focus on the long-term education problem. Ultimately if we have this… I believe that we have this degree of confused input from political leaders, from opinion leaders, from stakeholders and so on in part because there isn’t a sufficient shared understanding about the fundamentals of public transport’s geometry and costs. People don’t understand the costs of what they’re asking for, nor do they recognise the win-win opportunities that come from combining this particular interest group’s needs with that particular interest group’s needs.

I compare this often to the politics around roadways where fundamentally in most cities where the influential people tend personally to be motorists, you tend to find that the conversation among stakeholders and political leaders around roadways is pretty realistic about how roadways work and what they cost and the ways that the geometry of a road can combine certain interests but tends to raise conflicts between other interests.

That’s pretty well understood because it’s understood through the intuitive experience that comes from driving a car every day. There’s a need to create that same level of understanding, of respectful understanding around public transport. And I generally take the view that what that requires is persistent, patient, compassionate explanation, which is what I try to provide.

I’ve been around plenty of battles where some political interest torpedoed a worthwhile project or, in some cases, built a non-worthwhile project, which I would define as a project that didn’t serve their own goals, let alone anyone else’s.

So I’ve been around plenty of those processes and rather than devote… I am certainly helpful around those processes, but the work that I really enjoy is the work of trying to change the whole dialogue by virtue of helping to build a more durable understanding. And my experience from the blog and also from the conversations I’ve had around my forthcoming book is that many, many citizens want that understanding, know they don’t have it and are desperate for someone to explain the public transport decision and the choices that it requires much more clearly than anyone is doing.


You used the term “respectful” there. It reminded me of Margaret Thatcher’s 8statement that anybody over the age of, I can’t remember what she said, 40 or something, who was still travelling by bus was a loser, and there was a song by Fatima Mansions called “Only Losers Take the Bus”.

Is that a perception still in the US, I guess, in particular? I know you’re not in the US right now but is that a perception in the US that public transport is for people who have failed in their life?


Two corrections to that. It appears that although it was attributed to Margaret Thatcher, she may never have actually said it. But some other influential Tory very close to her said it and it’s somehow, in her presence and I guess she didn’t disagree or something and it somehow got attributed to her.

Second, the statement was even more inflammatory because the age she referred to was 26.


Oh my God!


So anybody over the age of 26 who was still riding the bus she thought. So what do I think about that? The reality is that your perception of buses is going to be governed by your experience of buses in the city where you live. And if you live in a city where buses are respected and treated as an essential part of the transport system and treated as something of value and as something that is doing indispensable and important work, a8nd if you understand that the work buses do is important, both for environmental goals as well as for social service goals and that they serve those environmental goals even though they do themselves have to pollute a little bit. If you understand all that, if you’re in a city where that is understood and where that is evident in the way the bus system is managed, then you won’t have that impression. And you know, what we found in New York City especially after in 1996 New York City eliminated what had been a fare penalty for changing between its subways and its buses… and the result of that was that ridership on both, patronage on both went up. But patronage on buses went up explosively and what that told us was that those people that we think of as subway riders are happy also to be bus riders if the bus is meeting their needs, and that the idea that rail and bus correspond to a class distinction is… Well, if you live in Dallas, for example, you can believe that based on your daily experience. But you can also choose to change that by refusing to believe that it’s inevitable and that the class frame of thinking about bus versus rail is the only frame.

When you’re in a city where that frame doesn’t apply, you don’t really encounter the same attitudes and certainly, for example, in a highly public transport-dependent city like San Francisco, which has a mixture of rail and buses and where significantly the rail and buses, as in Melbourne, the rail and buses all go about the same speed, you know trams and buses have a very similar range of speeds and capabilities, everyone is on both and there’s absolutely no sociological distinction or class distinction that you can discern by looking around a tram as opposed to looking around a bus. They are the same diversity of people and in a great city of course you have virtually the diversity of the entire city there.


It seems to me that one of the things that’s interesting is a lot of cities are building light rail systems and, you know reinstalling or installing for the first time trams or whatever you want to call… what do you guys call trams… trolley cars, as some people call them?


North Americans call them street cars.


Street cars. Of course, yes. Why are people building light rail at all? Doesn’t it make more sense to take the approach, like I believe Bogotá, where you put the in dedicated bus ways instead?


There’s no uniform answer to that question but it is a very good idea to actually think about the question before you fall in love with a technology in a particular place. The technology experience of light rail and street cars is very appealing. The ride is certainly better. They cost a good deal more to install than bus services and what’s remarkable is that if you think about people who actually want to get where they’re going, if that matters to you, there’s really no difference. There’s no difference in that that follows from the rail versus bus distinction.

In other words, if you care about speed and reliability you need to care first of all about whether you’re in an exclusive lane or track. You need to care mostly about the ability of other traffic to get in your way. That has nothing to do with the rail versus bus distinction. You can put a tram in mixed traffic as you do on Toorak Road [Melbourne] and you get something that’s as reliable as a bus in mixed traffic.

And so you know, certainly in Melbourne in particular, but also certainly in Toronto and most European cities where there’s a mixture of trams in mixed traffic and trams in exclusive lanes, it should be perfectly obvious that the speed and reliability outcome has nothing to do with being on rails. It has to do with what can get in your way. It has to do with the design of the right of way. And obviously you mentioned Bogotá but you know in Australia of course Brisbane is the great leader in really exceptionally unobstructed and continuous bus ways, where buses are able to deliver exactly the same kind of speed and reliability that any rail line doing the same kind of corridor would deliver.

So speed, reliability, frequency is obviously unrelated to whether it’s a bus or a train. The core things that actually determine whether you get where you’re going don’t actually matter. The one exception being capacity. The one unequivocal reason to build rail rather than bus is that you want to be able to carry more passengers per driver than a bus can carry. An articulated bus will get pretty unpleasant above about 100 passengers per driver. But obviously an electric train on its own right of way, with enough space can carry 1000 passengers per driver.

And so that efficiency of capacity, which ultimately determines crowding, which can also be an obstacle to get where you’re going, that is a bus versus rail distinction. But many places, we’re building rail services where that really isn’t an issue and we’re building them for different reasons.

Now obviously where you already have a rail network of a certain size it could make sense to extend it in order to take advantage of the infrastructure you already have. I’m not saying, for example, that Melbourne should not have extended its tram lines into the Docklands. It made perfect sense given how much of a tram network you already had and how easy that extension was to do.

But you have to have a conversation about wait, is this really about look and feel and emissions and things that follow directly from the technology? How important is that as opposed to actually getting people where they’re going? If you actually want to get people where they’re going and build a network of services where everyone can go where they’re going it makes sense to deploy as much service as you can for the dollar you have and that’s what buses do.

So I am not in any way a bus advocate. I am frankly bored by technology distinctions. … My personal preference is to try to build a network in which people can get where they’re going. But inevitably the idea that we should build trams because they’re just nicer from an urban design point of view or something like that, which is something we hear often, well that can be true but if so you’re spending transportation dollars on what’s basically an amenity rather than a transport benefit. Right? And in that sense you’re really spending transport dollars on something that’s analogous to brick paving and planter boxes and decorative lights and things like that that you do to make an urban environment especially pleasant.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t spend money on that but it’s not a transport benefit.


One of the questions I wanted to ask you, you’ve just answered. I was going to ask you about the fact that you I think fairly clearly reject any romantic view of transit. And I think you’re always a bit paranoid on your blog when you’ve said anything negative about trams. You must have been attacked by tram lovers several times, have you?


Well I was in Portland, Oregon during the creation of the Portland street car. So yes I was very, you know I’ve had plenty of exposure to that on all sides. And I completely understand the thought process that has led to the interest in the street car revival movement in the United States.

It’s a very easy argument to make because we’re talking about basically building street cars where we had them 50 years ago, 50 to 70 years ago, and we’re talking about an outcome and a kind of urban form that people would very much like to get back to. And it’s very easy to assume that because we had street cars then and we had the desired urban form then, therefore if we just put the street cars back we’ll get the urban form back. It doesn’t actually work that way because so many other things have changed. But it certainly is true that if you’re doing a big intentional redevelopment like the Docklands or like the Pearl district in Portland which was the instigator for the Portland street car… If you’re doing that and you plan the street car together with the development and everyone’s in the same room planning the whole thing, sure you can have very nice outcomes but we’ll never know how many of those outcomes could have been achieved with really nice buses… especially if the trade-off that then your really nice buses which were cheaper to build and cheaper to operate, therefore ran more frequently, say, than the street car that we built because they’re relatively inexpensive to run. That’s the kind of real trade-off that you’re facing.


You reminded me there that you recently deconstructed a video, a very nice video, a kind of a marketing video put together by I think an architecture firm, the name of which entirely escapes me but on which is your very useful and interesting blog you deconstructed that video and you said that they were looking at the wrong things when they talked about the speed and the number of… There was a whole bunch of measures they had. It looked very nice, this proposal they had for a new transit system, and you deconstructed it and you said people need to be looking at different things when they’re talking about transit. What are the benefits that people need to consider when they’re looking at a particular transit solution?


You need to ask yourself is this about helping lots of people get where they’re going? I think that’s the simplest question you can ask because if you ask that question you start to ask yourself well, how much are we spending on things that aren’t actually about that?

And if you want to focus on getting people where they’re going, you need to focus on just a few variables which are frequency of course, waiting time is the most onerous kind of travel time but it’s also, especially for urban trips, it’s often the longest; frequency; duration of service, obviously, which determines whether you can make the trip at all at various times; speed, obviously, average speed; reliability and, finally, capacity.

… If you give me those five variables about your network, I can plot exactly what everyone’s travel time will be to wherever they want to go. That’s what determines travel time. So when we decide to spend money that we could be spending on that on amenity values instead, well… I’m not saying you shouldn’t. For example, it may be appropriate from an emissions standpoint to compare the emissions of a bus, say, especially if it’s not a trolley bus, with the emissions that that bus is preventing by displacing car trips and generally when we run that comparison the bus turns out to be a net benefit to emissions.

But you can run those numbers a lot of ways and there’s lots of room to argue about them and so, you know, you’ll find studies that go different ways in different situations. My view is that we’ll get the best public transport outcomes by offering a network in which people can get where they’re going as quickly as possible.


What’s your take, Jarrett, on high speed rail and the status in the US of the high speed rail movement or program?


I think that fundamentally the US is at a disadvantage because it does not have the current capability to launch major national programs, national spending programs, apart from defence. We would not have the interstate highway system, the extraordinary continuous freeway system that runs all over the US, we would not have had that without it having been a federal program in which the federal government said we are paying 90 per cent of the cost of this thing and locals are paying 10 per cent.

So it was basically given to everyone by the federal government. Obviously that got it built. Nobody’s proposing that for transit now. For a while, you know federal funding formulas in the US were as high as 80/20, 80% paid by the Feds. But that’s not lasting and more and more strings are attached to it and fewer and fewer cities are getting that deal.

The problem with high speed rail in addition is that obviously you know what’s happened in the US in the last week [this interview took place on August 4, 2011]; everyone knows that the political appetite in the US is not there to go to more European or even Australasian levels of taxing and spending, at least at the federal level where it’s very far away from people.

So I tend to suspect that the future of public transit is going to have to require much more funding than authority shifting to state local levels. As far as high speed rail goes then that becomes a problem because in the US only a couple of high speed rail corridors are all within one state and it’s interesting that California is so far ahead and part of why they’re so far ahead is that their project is entirely within one state. And so they can actually lead it as a state. Other than that you have to remember that, you know, US states are not drawn as cleanly as Australian states where the state boundary is way back from the city and it’s very easy to think about a metro area entirely within one state.

In the US most metro areas are actually close to state boundaries or even have state boundaries cutting through them in really awkward ways. So those are some of the problems of high speed rail. I think the California high speed rail project is a spectacularly effective project and I think it’s going to get built but it’s going to get built because of the fervour of support in California, not by much that the federal government does.


North America and many countries including Australia are extremely car-centric or auto-centric and the debate often seems to be cast in terms of the car versus alternative transit methods or alternative modes. Do you see that changing?


That is all about the prevalence of different kinds of urban form in the country you’re talking about. So I tend to find that that’s not… if you generalise about that at a national level you’re losing the distinctions that are really important.

Support for public transport is very, very high in inner city Sydney and inner city Melbourne and most other healthy cities where the inner city has been reclaimed and re-populated by successful and switched on and politically active people. That is the function of the fact that in inner cities things are close enough together and driving is so difficult that it is possible to choose a life of voluntary transit dependence where you choose not to own a car because the whole suite of other options; public transport but also all the other sustainable modes, walking, cycling, car-sharing, programs like Zipcar and so on. All of those collectively make it possible.

I lived that life for five years in inner city Sydney and while I found Sydney’s public transport system extremely frustrating, it was not nearly as frustrating as owning a car would have been. So there’s an understanding of people who choose to, love to live in those places and really love them but they have to have really good public transport. [Gerry's note: I blogged about using a car-share scheme in Sydney and Melbourne in 2010.]

Now as you get further out from the city, as densities rise and as the quantity of car infrastructure increases, it means that transit no longer has the competitive advantage that it has in the inner cities so of course its market declines and so of course people further out perceive it to be either irrelevant or much more specialised.

So, for example, a typical outer suburb if you poll them about public transport will probably think it’s mostly about the commute into the CBD [Central Business District] and maybe about their local social service needs but they won’t often put together the idea that no, we need a total network that helps people get everywhere. The car is just too easy to use that far out for that to be a dominant view.

So rather than generalising at all about how things are at a national level, I would just observe that those same kinds of political differences are observable in every North American city that I know. And certainly in the ones that have successfully re-populated their inner cities and have created strong inner cities which would include San Francisco, Portland, Vancouver, Chicago and a number of others.


So does that mean that transit is never going to be successful in less densely populated outer suburbs? Or am I missing the point somewhat here?


Well, it’s going to depend on your definition of success. If you mean that public transport should make a profit, which is some people’s definition of success, no. You shouldn’t expect that outside the inner city. What’s more that’s a very problematic goal for public transport anyway because it requires you to think about benefits line by line even though what’s really operating is an entire interconnected and interdependent network.

That’s why the whole model of commercialisation that, you know, Australia briefly inherited from Britain is simply not relevant there and is not the way it’s being done anymore. But more generally you can decide that a relatively empty small bus driving around in an outer suburb is successful because you get to decide what success is. Whoever is paying the subsidies to run that service is deciding what counts as success, and there’s no objective answer to the question of what counts as success. It’s what you choose to invest in.

One of the ways I often think about this, for example, is to encourage transport authorities, and Victoria does think this way to some extent and Jim Betts has even published about it is to think in terms of okay, what percentage of my budget, what percentage of our public transport budget is going to services that we know will always carry a very low patronage but whose purpose is to provide basic lifeline access to people who need it for whatever reason. [Jim Betts is currently Secretary, Dept of Transport, Victoria. Here's an amusing pen-portrait of him from 2005.]

And those tend to be the little, circuitous bus rounds driving around in low density outer suburbs. They are predictably low patronage. They are low patronage all over the world in similar economies. There’s nothing mysterious about why they’re low patronage. The density is very low and the competition from the private car is very successful because there’s lot of car infrastructure.

But whether you decide that running that little bus is a success or a failure depends on your definition of success and when we actually think about the question that way, some public transport authorities are entirely comfortable saying that yes, we have a certain amount of budget that’s set aside for intentionally low patronage services because they’re servicing an entirely different service from patronage.


To change topic totally here; what I noticed here in Melbourne is that when Yarra Trams, which is the company that runs the tram system here, started to publish real-time information, and in fact a former interviewee Robert Amos on this podcast wrote a program to access that data and distributed it on iPhones and subsequently has become a kind of an official system, people’s habits and ways of using the trams changed because they knew at a stop whether the next tram was 10 or 12 or 2 minutes away and it seemed to have a fairly radical effect on how they interacted with the system… What’s your take on the need for real-time information on transit systems?


It’s probably the most important technological innovation in at least the last decade as it affects public transport. It is functioning in the way that you describe and the reason it’s so important is that everyone’s least favourite part of using public transport is waiting, and real-time information directly attacks the experience of waiting. It tells you how much time you have so that you can choose to do other things with that time. And once you’re doing other things with that time it doesn’t feel like waiting anymore.

You know that you’re going to have 12 minutes before the tram comes, so instead of just sitting at the stop looking down the line wondering if the tram is about to appear, you’ve gone off to a cafe and checked your email on the Wi-Fi and gotten a cup of coffee and come back 2 minutes before the tram is expected and you don’t feel like you’ve waited at all. Totally different experience, so yes it is hugely important because it is so directly relevant to waiting, and waiting is the part everyone hates most.


I’m thinking very locally here. I’m thinking about Melbourne. You know Yarra Trams had made that information absolutely freely available and you can get in and access it but the bus carriers don’t provide that information, the train system doesn’t provide that information even though presumably it’s available, presumably they actually know where the trains are and the buses are at any given time, at least where the trains are at any given time. I wonder why it’s not more widely distributed.


Well in your system all of the operating companies that you’ve mentioned have one customer and that’s the state of Victoria. They are all under contract with the state of Victoria to serve the public but the state government controls the quality expectations as well as the network planning. That means that the state government can require this to happen, can require real-time information to be provided. I am not familiar specifically with Victorian government policy but generally the challenge is for the state government to both understand the technical barriers the operators are having and figure out how to either invest in infrastructure that they may need, that they can’t make pencil out commercially, which is sometimes necessary or to some extent often just lean on them. But some mixture of that is typically necessary in that situation to deliver real time information.

It is technologically totally possible. It has been operating successfully in, well some of the first cities to adopt like San Francisco, oh I think it’s been nearly a decade now that it’s been operating successfully. If you ever want to see what a really good real-time information system looks like you can log on to which was one of the first commercial providers and look around San Francisco and it will show you a map of every bus route with little symbols showing exactly where the bus is right now, and predictive information like when we think the bus will be there, but also for people who prefer not to believe predictions it gives you this map of the route so you can see where the bus is and guess for yourself how long it will take to get there.

So it’s really an excellent system and again, I think that’s a decade old now in San Francisco. It’s always been easier on rail because rail has always had sectional information like the train is between this signal and that signal. That’s always been an intrinsic part of rail operations because they need that to dispatch the trains and keep them from crashing into each other.

But on buses it was implemented initially with transponders which were actually little manual radio devices set beside the route but now it’s done generally with GPS which fails sometimes in central cities where there are lots of tall buildings. Sometimes you have a mixture of GPS and mobile phone tower kinds of signals but the technology’s there now to put all those together into a continuous information stream.


Jarrett, tell us about your forthcoming book.


The purpose of the book is to provide a fairly easy read for an activist or an elected official or a planner in some adjacent field or anyone else who wants to make public transport work better for them or for their city and who secretly knows that they just really don’t know enough about it. Or that the way it’s being described to them isn’t gelling in their minds and giving them what they need.

So my focus here is on stepping back from the politics of any particular city and taking you through the fundamental geometry of public transport that is true everywhere and explaining how certain difficult choices arise routinely in the public transport politics of every city because they are arising naturally out of the geometry and cost structure of the product. That may sound very technical but actually the whole style of the book is to try to establish it at the level of common sense.


What’s the title of the book and when is it out?


The title is same as the blog, Human Transit. The publisher is Island Press and I am currently optimistic that it will be out by November.


Okay and I can recommend that listeners, particularly if listeners perhaps haven’t been interested in this field before and have had their interests piqued by some of the things that Jarrett has been talking about and now they’re interested in networks and grids and pulse timing and how to plan networks and so on is certainly go to to that blog and perhaps follow Jarrett on Twitter and so on.

And in the right hand side of Jarrett’s blog you’ll see a set of links of “stuff that you need to know” and that’s really I think a great grounding and a great basis for getting started and understanding transit. Is that fair to say, Jarrett?


Absolutely. That’s what I try to do there.


We have kind of run up against our time window so Jarrett Walker, thank you very much for joining me today on the User Experience podcast.


Thank you, Gerry. Thanks very much.

Published: August 2011