Human Transit: Clear Thinking on Public Transportation

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

Cover of Human Transit: How Clearer Thinking about Public Transit Can Enrich Our Communities and Our LivesWhether 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 way. 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 designed 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 an 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 west coast readers.

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 decide on 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. As Walker notes 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. Walker 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.

Photograph of Jarrett Walker

Jarrett Walker

One solution to this challenge is, ironically, through the use of technology. One of Walker’s favourite transit tools is a recently added feature on 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.

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 transit is a complement to walking, not a competitor. In other words, bus routes and stops should be 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.” Walker’s focus on the ‘human’ side of the title makes this book more accessible by his many references to the experience of taking transit.

While 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 appreciated 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.


NOTE: This review was originally posted on Spacing Vancouver in January 2012.  A condensed version appears in the Summer 2012 print edition of  Spacing Magazine

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Yuri Artibise

Yuri Artibise is an experienced policy analyst, community engagement practitioner and social media specialist. I have a Master of Public Administration degree with over 10 years of public policy research, analysis, and advocacy experience.

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