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3 things I learned from Jarrett Walker

February 11, 2012


Streetcars in TorontoEarlier this week, for the first and probably last time, an important urbanist gave a lecture right here Silver Spring. Naturally, I wasn’t going to miss it.

Jarrett Walker is an international transit consultant and the author of the popular Human Transit blog. He specializes in cutting through fuzzy thinking about public transit: what it is, who it’s for, how it succeeds (or doesn’t).

Here are three key points I learned during his excellent forty-minute talk.

1.People care about getting to where they’re going, not the vehicle that takes them there.

This seems obvious. We all think we know it. But if you’ve ever gone to Toronto and felt just for a split second that you *wanted* those lovely old streetcars in your town, you could use a reminder. (Yes, I’m speaking from personal experience.)

When enough people go nuts for light rail or misty-eyed over streetcars, it leads to the kind of decision-making that Walker describes as: “What a cool vehicle! Now, where do we put it?”

Vehicle choice for public transit is not analogous with personal vehicle choice. Weighing bus rapid transit against a subway isn’t like going to the lot and deciding whether to buy a Golf or a Prius. The coolest-looking vehicle in the world can’t get you a high-functioning transit system.

2.Transit should help people traverse distances too far to walk, i.e., it should compete with cars.

Again, it seems obvious. But as Walker points out, distances between transit stops tend to be quite short in the U.S. In Europe and Australia, stops are spaced twice as far apart as they are in American cities.

Walker attributes this to an earlier generation’s view (in the States) that transit primarily helps disadvantaged people–especially the elderly–get around within their own neighborhoods. And it’s true that, thanks to transit, an older lady with a bad hip and no car can get to the grocery store a mile away. But if transit stops are too close together, then speed declines, making the bus or light rail less competitive with cars.

3.Ridership isn’t the be all and end all.

The relative value of a transit route lies in the sheer number of riders it serves–usually. Walker discussed several examples of “symbolic transit,” specialized to serve one demographic group or public-relations purpose. San Francisco’s cable cars, serving tourists rather than local commuters, are one example, as is Sydney’s single-loop monorail.

While symbolic transit can be synonymous with white elephant, sometimes it provides an intangible value to communities. A zig-zagging bus route from Watts to Beverly Hills in L.A. might be inefficient and therefore underutilized, but it could hardly resonate more as a symbol of social equity.

Walker doesn’t affirm or challenging the value of such “equity routes” and other symbolic forms of transit, so much as make his audience aware of the distinction between ridership and symbolism as motives for transit planning. The motives are there, but planners and community members may not be aware they’re acting on (or arguing about) them.

This is where Walker’s surprising background comes in: a humanities Ph.D., he’s skilled at unpacking debates about, say, fare increases or late-night service to find the larger, unspoken concerns that lie beneath them. It’s nice to encounter another former literature scholar whose second love is urbanism.

Thanks to the Montgomery County Planning Department for organizing this lecture. And please, guys, feel free to prove me wrong about the event being a one-off.

Photo of Toronto streetcars by Flickr user Benson Kua


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  1. Lawrence Hurley #
    February 12, 2012

    re: The Los Angeles bus route you mention:

  2. February 12, 2012

    Thanks for the great writeup, Amanda!

  3. February 12, 2012

    Jarrett Walker is not the first important urbanist to speak in Silver Spring. Several years ago Park and Planning had John Norquest in that very same room. And less than a year ago there was a multi-day conference in the new civic center in downtown Silver Spring that included a number of urbanism’s superstars. Hopefully he won’t be the last.

    • February 12, 2012

      Hi Ken–thanks for your comment; I wasn’t aware of the Norquist talk or the conference at the Civic Center. I wish I could get more of my design & urbanism fix locally instead of at NBM (wonderful as it is). But it’s encouraging that I should be able to attend more such events in the future!

      • February 13, 2012

        Hi Amanda,

        Park and Planning has talks, check their web site. Also Action Committee for Transit monthly meetings in Silver Spring. Univ. of Maryland Arch. School has a series, but that may be less convient than NBM.

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