(Unedited) Podcast Transcript 483: An Update to Human Transit

May 16, 2024

This week we’re joined once again by Jarrett Walker to talk about the release of the revised edition of his influential book Human Transit. We chat about Ursula Le Guin, expanding access to opportunity, how to think about transit riders, the free transit movement and thoughts on anger as a response to change.

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Below is a full unedited transcript generated by AI:

Jeff Wood (1m 40s):
Jarret Walker. Welcome back to the Talking Headways podcast.

Jarrett Walker (2m 22s):
Hey, thanks very much. It’s good to be back. Yeah,

Jeff Wood (2m 24s):
It’s good to see you again. For folks that might not be familiar with your work or haven’t listened to episode 177 from 2018, can you tell folks a little bit about yourself?

Jarrett Walker (2m 33s):
I am a consultant who specializes in helping cities and public transit agencies think about the design and layout of public transit networks. Mostly what we do is the redesign of bus networks, but we provide a variety of other kinds of consulting around public transit planning. I’ve been doing this for about 30 years and I’ve had my own firm for 14 years now, Jarre Walker Associates. But I am also the author of a book called Human Transit, which is an attempt to make transit issues accessible and interesting to a general reader and to help people think through their options when they’re thinking about what kinds of opinions about public transit they should have.

Jeff Wood (3m 21s):
Well, so we’re gonna talk a little bit about human transit in the second edition in a little bit and we’ll go through that pretty extensively. And actually I I just realizing that you know, we never really talked about the first book. We never had you on to talk about the first book. We talked about a lot of other things when I chatted with you, but we never really talked about the first book. But first I wanted to ask you about something completely different entirely because I’ve seen you tweet about this a lot and unfortunately, you know, Ursula Lagu passed away and I’ve seen a lot of you talking about how important she was to you and your thinking about life and things like that. I’m curious why her writing was so important to you and especially as somebody who hasn’t never read her work. I’m interested in why it was important to you to share your experiences reading her books or at least talking about why she was such an important author.

Jarrett Walker (4m 2s):
Oh, there’s a great deal there ’cause I’ve been reading her so La Guin for 40 years. But let’s start by saying that a great deal of science fiction, especially in her generation in the late 20th century was about how cool technology will be and all the cool places technology will take us and that the future is a place, I’ll butcher the quotation, but she said things to the effect of the basic idea of a great deal of male science fiction is that the future is a place that we’ll conquer and tame and ize. And I think she would look at something like Star Trek for all of its idealism as being fundamentally about the promulgation of a middle class, American suburban lifestyle across the universe.

Jarrett Walker (4m 50s):
And her view was that science fiction is about the present and it is about other ways that things could be and it is a way of thinking about the present and thinking about our own moral choices by imagining other ways that things could happen. And she was the first, I think, great anthropological science fiction writer in that her interest was first and primarily and foremost human beings, the construction of human societies. Many of her books are actually written from the point of view of an anthropologist from the point of view of a scientist exploring a fictional culture that she has invented.

Jarrett Walker (5m 35s):
But it is always about different ways that we could be and it is always about holding open for people the possibility of there being many different ways that human beings could be for people who haven’t read her work at all. Guessing from the fact that you’re listening to this podcast that you’re interested in public policy, I’d suggest starting with her novel The Dispossessed, which is a 1974 novel that imagines an anarchist society and the contradictions and challenges that she develops as she imagines this society are remarkably relevant. I just reread the Dispossessed again and I was struck that in the 1990s, which was rather utopian period when we thought we had permanently solved a number of the fundamental problems of history.

Jarrett Walker (6m 20s):
I remember thinking that the dispossessed was rather dated, but when I just read it last month, it sounded, it read like it had been written yesterday. It read like it was all about the crises of the moment. So I hope that people who were involved in public policy will continue reading that book.

Jeff Wood (6m 37s):
So then it sounds like you’ve taken a lot of that and brought it forward into your thinking about transportation as well and into parts of your book too.

Jarrett Walker (6m 44s):
Sure. In that the fundamental conflict that I am in with so many people in this field is that I believe that this is a moral topic that is about making moral choices in understanding of their consequences. And many people working in this field believe that this is a technological topic where the key question is simply what is going to be invented and how do we respond to those inventions. Much of the discourse about public transit assumes that we as citizens are fundamentally passive receivers of technological events, that the inventors are in the driver’s seat and that we will have to live in whatever world that they invent. And we, we hope it’ll be a nice one, but this has been going on for a long time and we live in the world that our great-great grandparents invented in very much the same spirit as today’s inventors are inventing things.

Jarrett Walker (7m 37s):
So techno utopianism is quite old now and it’s very important that people have studied the history. It’s so important that people be reading, you know, Peter Norton’s wonderful historical books about just how we got here and why, and just how old fashioned techno height is, how old fashioned, the idea is that technology is going to fix everything is, it’s been sold to us on a large sort of industrial scale from more than a century now and goes back, you know, in, in some ways quite a bit further than that. So I’m a bit of an iconoclast in this space in believing that what I do, which is transit planning, is entirely a matter of helping communities reach choices about what to do that reflect their values and not ever intimidating people with telling them that something or other is coming and that they simply have to respond to it.

Jeff Wood (8m 37s):
That seems to happen quite a bit. I’ve just posted a story about Nashville and the potential for, you know, investment in, in their transit system in the last election lost in part because there were a lot of folks saying that, you know, the future is self-driving cars and so why do we need this anachronistic old technology that seems to work pretty well in places that are urban and dense and cities all over the world?

Jarrett Walker (9m 1s):
Absolutely. The transit agency in Silicon Valley itself in Santa Clara County, California had great deal of difficulty to getting bus lanes developed because various cities along the way, the argument would frequently take that form. So self-driving cars despite not having been perfected and despite not being a solution to the problems that transit is a solution to are already directly affecting your commute by virtue of undermining investments in transit and undermining support for, and that’s one of the main things that I’m trying to confront in the New edition book.

Jeff Wood (9m 34s):
Well let’s talk about the book Human Transit, the second edition. What made you wanna go back and revisit the book again after such a successful run with the first edition?

Jarrett Walker (9m 42s):
It wasn’t my first idea. I was trying to think about how to do a new book, but finally we came around to the notion that in fact the reason you revise a book is that the book is mostly still fine. If a book is not basically still fine, then you write a new book and that sort of erases the old one. But because the book is basically still fine, I wanted to respond to the fact that because of what people have been told and what people have have learned from the media, a book about public transit published in 2011, people will assume is outta date because we’re bombarded by messages that everything is changing and so many things have obviously happened since 2011, particularly with technology development and, and then of course with the effect of the pandemic that it became clear to me that if the book was going to continue to function, it needed to be updated anyway just so that it looked new.

Jarrett Walker (10m 40s):
But having decided to do that and inevitably I started with the idea, yeah, I’ll just add a couple chapters here, it won’t be very much work. And I ended up fundamentally working through and revising the whole thing to some extent. I’d say the book is about 35% new now and you know, the rest of it looking pretty much like the first edition. But there were several main things. Obviously we had to talk about technology hype, we had to talk about the way that inventors were promoting various false narratives that needed to be confronted about how public transit was obsolete because of something that was about to be invented and that had to be taken on at the right altitude and worked through in the tail.

Jarrett Walker (11m 22s):
And so we do that. And so there’s a lot of work in the early part of the book in establishing what is the thing that only public transit can do and that is not going to be replaced by any conceivable invention. And that thing is the efficient use of space in addition to a whole bunch of other important things that it does. Now the second thing was that there had particularly been a lot of hype and confusion around on demand or micro transit or there, there are many brand names for this thing, which is one reason to be suspicious of it, not because anything is really new there. Demand responsive or on demand transit has existed for decades, but it has been considerably streamlined by the addition of much, much better communications technology, which has allowed it to run much more efficiently.

Jarrett Walker (12m 9s):
My dispute with the micro transit marketers is not about whether this is a useful product. It does have its uses and we use it in our plans. My dispute with them is in the claim that they have somehow reinvented public transit on demand transit, which means transit surfaces that do something different based on what someone asks are an extremely inefficient use of operating dollars. And as a result they are a niche tool for some very, very specific use cases. They are not a transformative thing that’s going to, you know, change what public transit is across most environments.

Jarrett Walker (12m 50s):
And so I had to put some energy into that. Then I wanted to expand a bit more on network design, which is what I do. I also wanted to add more of a discussion about how we think about transit writers and transit customers because I had noticed more and more that the confusions that I was encountering in going from city to city and working with communities and obviously interacting with their assumptions and prejudices, that significant harm was being done by the notion that transit customers can be divided into a group of people who are, who we think of as dependent on public transit and other people who choose public transit.

Jarrett Walker (13m 35s):
And the purpose of that frame, that binary frame is to tell yourself, well the dependent people are stuck with us. So the only way we’ll grow is by attracting the choice rider. So we should focus on luxury, we should focus on things that will attract somebody out of their car. And this leads to, you know, very, very premium commuter services and it leads to building trains instead of using buses because you know, choice Rider supposedly won’t ride buses. And I think it has been really one of the fundamental confusions that’s underlied in public transit planning in the last few decades in the us What it does is to obviously it becomes a way for fortunate people to present themselves as the typical customer to present themselves as the person around whom planning should be done.

Jarrett Walker (14m 28s):
And the fact is that our elites, our decision makers are by virtue of being elite, are unusual and are not actually the average person around whom we should be planning. So we needed to talk through all that. And there’s a new chapter that works through all of those issues starting out with a, a useful exclamation by Elon Musk that I use as the book that chapter. But finally kind of at the root of all of it, as we think about the question of what is success, how are we defining success in transit, what is the thing we could measure that captures what we’re trying to do? And I’ve been saying for years there’s, there’s much less consensus about this than people assume and that one of the reasons why transit policy is so difficult is that there are so many different goals mixed up in it that people are not necessarily doing the work of reconciling.

Jarrett Walker (15m 21s):
And so I figured out in the mid-teens that the thing that I had been thinking about all my life and trying to do all my career with transit was actually to expand access to opportunity. What I wanted was for more people to be able to go to more places in less time so that they could have more choices in their lives and do more things. And so I, I started talking about that in probably 20 12, 20 13. There’s a little bit of a hint of it in the, in the first edition of the book, but I didn’t understand it very well then. And I think I describe it much more thoroughly and much more clearly now. And also we have developed in the last decade the analytic tools.

Jarrett Walker (16m 2s):
I mean the industry has developed the analytic tools necessary to really start going places with this idea. So there’s a new chapter that really puts that at the foundation and then all of the other arguments are, you know, revised to refer to that.

Jeff Wood (16m 18s):
That leads me to so many different questions. But the first one is around that idea of the elite projection. And this question I ask fairly frequently of folks is, you know, when you go somewhere, when you go to a city and and start working with folks there, like how many of the folks that you’re working with, whether they’re board members, whether they’re transit agency people, whether they’re people who are in the room when you’re, you’re having these sessions with folks, how many of them actually take transit to start with and how many actually use the service that they put out when you start the process of trying to reimagine a bus network?

Jarrett Walker (16m 49s):
I make a point of not asking that. And the reason is that I don’t want people who do not use transit to feel that I am diminishing their input. It is important that the transit system be owned and valued by the entire community, including many people for whom it’s not the logical way to travel. And so I want to be careful about, and it’s easy to say, you know what’s wrong is just the transit writers aren’t in charge. No, it’s more complicated than that because you do need to have leadership that has access to the levers of power in the community. You need to have leadership that reflects the diversity of the community.

Jarrett Walker (17m 30s):
And you need to be encouraging people who don’t use transit to nevertheless care about it. So when I go into a meeting and somebody stands up and say, I just wanna show of hands how many people got here on transit, I always cringe because the people who didn’t get here on transit are welcome here. And what I hear always is a subtle implication that they’re kind of not, or that they have in some sense less authority. What is true is that people who don’t use transit don’t understand it as well and will make certain understandable mistakes as they bring their own frame of reference to it and expect it to work like whatever the thing is that they’re an expert in.

Jarrett Walker (18m 11s):
And that’s really what the book is trying to do to a large extent, is engage and help people understand that this isn’t, this isn’t a priesthood, I, I never want you to believe me because I’m an expert. I want you to believe me because I’m making sense. And what I try in the book is to explain what you need to know in order to know what transit planners know so that you can actually make good decisions about transit. Because most of the people coming to this field, understandably, you get appointed to the transit board. You know, you’re waiting in line to run for city council. You may not be all that interested in transit, they put you on the transit board, you do your best, but you know, you may not really know much about it and you may not have any experience with it.

Jarrett Walker (18m 54s):
And so it’s tempting to bring whatever frame of reference you have, whether it’s architecture or economics or business management or civil rights or whatever frame you have and just expect transit to fit that frame. And it often doesn’t. There’s actually things you have to understand about how transit works if you’re going to use it to deliver whatever kind of outcome you care about. You know, I feel like it’s sort of my role to help people, you know, give people those tools.

Jeff Wood (19m 20s):
You call yourself a plumber in the book. Yes. Was that, was that the first idea that came to mind?

Jarrett Walker (19m 27s):
So the plumber metaphor is a way of isolating expertise from values and clarifying that in my view, and many consultants are not like me, but in my view it is incumbent on me as a consultant to offer my expertise without constraining you by my values. Because your values may be different. I’m coming to your community, I don’t live in your community, I’m not a voter in your community. I’m here to understand what your community is trying to do. But the hard part is that the expert gets to ask you questions that clarify what your values are.

Jarrett Walker (20m 10s):
And some of those questions may be difficult. So I say in the book, say you hire a man to fix your plumbing, he goes to work under your sink and then he comes back holding a wrench and he says, look, I could just glue this all together like this and it’d be good for another year or two and it cost you $50. Or I could rip out the whole assembly and you know, rebuild it just like nope. And that would cost you $600 and take me a week, but then it would be good as new. And so we all have been in that moment and we understand that the plumber is giving us a choice, cheap or durable, and he knows you want both. That’s not one of the options. We all understand that in that situation that he’s giving you a an or choice, right?

Jarrett Walker (20m 50s):
Well transit planning’s just full of those or choices between values. The most common one is that you have to choose between how much you value the goal of ridership and how much you value the goal of what I call coverage, which is making sure that everyone in the city has a little something because the math of transit tells us that we get ridership by concentrating service in places where the demand is greatest and not trying to serve places of low demand. And that’s how you get the highest ridership overall for your investment. And if instead you’re expected to go everywhere. ’cause everywhere there are people who have needs or because we pay taxes too or because you know you need to go to every city council district or whatever excellent reason there is to provide coverage.

Jarrett Walker (21m 35s):
There’s nothing wrong with coverage. My point about coverage is just that it’s the opposite of ridership. And so in our studies when we’re doing network plans, we are often asking boards to actually tell us what percentage of your operating budget do you actually want to spend on the goal of ridership? Tell us that and then we’ll Make sure that that percentage of the of the resources are going into things that we can tell you are high ridership services, the rest will will go to coverage. And if you can tell us where that split is, and of course we lead a conversation, we usually draw some conceptual networks that show what the network would look like if you went different directions. If you go in the direction of ridership, there’ll be more frequency but fewer routes going, fewer places.

Jarrett Walker (22m 17s):
If you go in the direction of coverage, there’ll be more routes going everywhere. Everyone will be near something but there’ll be less frequency, there’ll be less likely to be coming when you need them. That’s the sort of thing where I just frame the question and stand back in the way that the plumber is standing back. And the thing everyone recognizes about the plumber situation is that when the plumber is standing there asking you his question, you cannot just pick up a magazine and start talking about how you’d like your kitchen to feel. None of those speeches that you wanna give at that moment are going to have any effect on the plumber. You have to answer his question exactly the way he asked it. Cheap or durable, you’ve got to answer that. And so that’s the point of the plumber.

Jarrett Walker (22m 57s):
The point of the plumber is that you have to bring your values into contact with reality. And that’s what I’m trying to help you do in this process.

Jeff Wood (23m 5s):
At the end of the book though, you talk about it’s not always or it’s a spectrum, right?

Jarrett Walker (23m 9s):
It is a spectrum. Yeah. So, so the plumber metaphor is a little misleading in that it’s a binary thing when in fact what I’m asking you is a spectrum question. So how do you want to divide your resources between these two goals? So I’m not saying that you have to choose an entirely ridership system or an entirely covered system, nobody chooses that. It’s a question of where you come down on the spectrum and you know, an elected official’s first impulse is to just, you know, give me rhetoric about balance or whatever and just gimme words and no, we need to cut through and get to the number. How much do you wanna spend on this? How much do you wanna spend on that? You know, it goes to the urban planner, Brent Totter and Stickum that if you want to understand the values of an organization, you should ignore their vision statement and look at their budget because that’s exactly what a budget is.

Jarrett Walker (23m 59s):
It’s what’s the numbers? How important is this goal? How important is this goal? The budget tells you,

Jeff Wood (24m 6s):
You also mentioned access before and I think that’s something that on the show we’ve tried to talk more about and tried to explain a little bit more because I think that’s really important part of the change in discussion that’s been happening over the last 10, 15 years or so. And so the idea in the book of walls is really interesting to me too in thinking about that access question, right? So the the idea that there are travel times where people will take for certain activities, whether it’s 15 minutes for an errand or 30 minutes for a commute, which is machetes constant social walls at 60. But recently I also saw that, you know, South Korea is thinking about building six new transit lines at $99 billion to build a fertility wall basically so they can allow people to go home faster, right?

Jeff Wood (24m 46s):
It’s like, this is the thing that came in my head, right? They were gonna build six new high speed lines to cut 60 minutes off commute. Oh that’s that. So people could go home and have babies, right? So there’s, there’s that wall. I guess there might be better ways to get to that policy goal and and but it’s the wall that something people really do take to and they really think about. And so there’s lots of ways to apply it and think about those walls. So how does talking about a wall get people to like understand access or perk up a little bit more?

Jarrett Walker (25m 14s):
So the thing I brought to the discussion of access and accessibility because ISO Crohn’s the blob, the idea of here’s a person draw the blob of where they could get to in a given amount of time. That’s called an isoc. That diagram as an idea has been around forever. I think what I have brought to this conversation is that metaphor that the iocn is a map of a wall. It is the wall around your life for certain purposes because there is, for any particular kind of thing we might want to do, there is an amount of time that we have in our day that we can reasonably devote to that. And if it cannot be done in that amount of time, we’re not going to do it.

Jarrett Walker (25m 55s):
And so that becomes a kind of freedom that we don’t have, right? So I look at an isoc crown, that image of you are here, here are all the places you could be. It is a map of freedom or to put it more negatively, it is a description of if you will, a sort of prison wall around your life. The wall that constraints what you can do. I find the metaphor very, very powerful first of all because it connects with how people talk about the way transportation affects their lives. People talk all the time about things they don’t do because they can’t get there. Opportunities in their lives that they don’t experience because they can’t get there or because getting there would just take too some and some to something that is very deeply felt by a lot of people and to try to talk in a way that connects to people’s feelings.

Jarrett Walker (26m 52s):
Now what’s this replacing, I’m trying to take some bandwidth away from the reigning ideology, which says that ultimately everything the transportation planners do should be about pleasing a ridership model. Because the prediction of ridership is the ultimate thing that measures our success. And the process of predicting ridership, like the process of predicting traffic or any sort of behavior, you know, has two steps. There is a step of looking at the access that exists in a particular situation, but then there’s a sort of social science step of looking at how people make decisions in the context of their options and guessing what people will do in the future.

Jarrett Walker (27m 34s):
So what I wanna do is just stop that process one step sooner and say the access analysis, which has always been going on hidden inside the ridership model where we can’t see it, is what we want. So for example, when I come into a community and the decision makers are having an argument about whether to build this project and everyone has been told it will have 7,000 writers and some people think that’s a big number and some people think that’s a small number, I wish they were not talking about that because nobody actually knows how many writers that will be. That will be a prediction about human behavior. But what we do know is how it would transform where people can go. And so I wish they were saying things like if we build this project, someone living here will be able to get to 60% more jobs.

Jarrett Walker (28m 19s):
That would be a fact. And the important thing about that is that whereas ridership is a prediction, access is a fact about the present access is a fact about the possibilities in your life and that is a fact about the present. And as a result, we’re much more sure about it than we are about a ridership prediction. So I think that we in general in the profession tend to overvalue prediction and use prediction, use predictive language when that is not actually what we really wanna talk about. And I think it’s particularly what a lot of ordinary people outside of the profession wanna talk about. I, I’ve encountered very few average people that I meet on the street or on the bus who actually care very much about the ridership prediction. They care about how this affects their lives.

Jeff Wood (28m 59s):
It’s interesting ’cause I feel like if you’re an elected official or you are a transit agency or you’re in charge of how the money is spent, you wanna break stuff down into these technical details or right. You know, ways that you can sell it to, you know, legislature or whoever is making the decisions about the purse strings. And so it’s interesting to think about the differences between what you know, normie writers would want versus the people maybe making decisions and what they’re thinking about. ’cause all day they’re probably, you know, immersed in this soup of ridership data or, or thinking about, you know, how much money we’re actually gonna get from the legislature for this project. Or in California for example, for transit service writ large, right? Right. And so I think that that’s an interesting way to think about it as well.

Jarrett Walker (29m 40s):
And so I really have come to feel that the conversation that we’re having about ridership predictions is actually a very narrowly focused conversation for the purposes of pleasing certain funding authorities and satisfying certain people. But that is the wrong conversation to be having with most people because most people don’t care about that. And if you want votes, you know, don’t talk about ridership, talk about how we’re expanding access to opportunity.

Jeff Wood (30m 10s):
Along those same lines, I mean the data and the data collection and, and just like the mapping technologies have taken off and are so easy to use now. I mean what has the improvement in, in all that meant for how you discuss this stuff?

Jarrett Walker (30m 22s):
Oh, it’s just so much less theoretical now because we can do very subtle kinds of analysis. We can use access analysis in a network plan. We’ll be using access analysis, not just to talk in general about like, you know, the average access to opportunity across the region and how that changes. But we can talk about how that changes for people of color. For any particular, for low income people, for any particular subgroup of of equity concern. We can talk about it very easily. You know, we can slice it by any geography that you care about. If you want to know how access changes from your council district counselor, you know, there’s a way to slice the data for that. So we just have a whole lot of ability to get precise about access and to tell stories.

Jarrett Walker (31m 5s):
You know, one of the most fun things though that we can do now, we’ve been doing this for a few years, I think we did the first one when we did the Dublin redesign back in 2017, when we’re proposing some sort of change to the transit network, we can throw an access viewer up on the web. We can say, Hey, go online, there’s a map of your city, pick a location, pick your house, pick your mother’s house, pick whatever else you care about and we’ll show you blobs of where you can get to and we’ll show you how those blobs change in response to the proposal, right? So you can see from your own selfish point of view, oh okay, I’d be able to shop over there now I can’t get to that grocery store now, but I’d be able to get to that grocery store.

Jarrett Walker (31m 46s):
That’s cool. You can see that in your blob. And one of the goals of that is I know most people are going to give us input from a selfish point of view and I’d like their selfish point of view to be more informed. I’d like their, and I’d like their selfish point of view to be not just about how this affects what they’re used to, which is what most comments are about, how this is changing something that I’m entitled to have never changed ’cause I’m used to it. I would love for comments to be more about how this changes what I can do and to help people see the incredibly positive ways that this affects them. You know, the Dublin plan, the draft report that we put out, the average Dublin could get to 20% more useful destinations in half an hour. And you stop and think about that.

Jarrett Walker (32m 27s):
Wow. You know, or more precisely we were looking at jobs in school enrollments, which are the things we have really good location data for in Ireland. And we were saying, so just think of that as kind of a proxy for all the other things you might want to go to. You can get to 20% more in half an hour, just there’s just more of the city is available to you if you’re on public transport. And that draft, there were enormous, enormous campaigns of opposition on that draft. We had, you know, there are some political parties that have trouble differentiating themselves and so they, they tend to exaggerate small differences sometimes. You know, we had one of the unions coming out against it. There was a whole lot of misinformation about it. But that was the thing that kept everyone focused on why this wasn’t just a bad idea.

Jarrett Walker (33m 13s):
’cause lots of people were complaining and putting out the ione viewer where people could look for themselves on how this expanded, where they could go really helped.

Jeff Wood (33m 23s):
How much anger have you absorbed over the last 10 to 13 years or so from folks who are upset about changes or things like that?

Jarrett Walker (33m 32s):
So the challenge of that question is that if I tell you that I have in fact absorbed it, I would be confessing to a fairly serious mental health problem. Because no one can absorb the amount of anger that comes at you when you do this work. And if I were to tell you that I hadn’t, I would be making myself sound like I’m heartless and don’t care about the impacts of the plans that we have. Which isn’t true either. We understand from long experience that people are used to things being as they are and their first reaction is to be angry when confronted with the possibility that things will change.

Jarrett Walker (34m 16s):
And I think that it’s, it’s easy to ridicule the nimby, it’s easy to ridicule the opponent of change. And I, I for that reason am always noticing all the ways that I am doing this too. And I think we should all call ourselves out on all the ways that we are doing this to, because I bet if you think about it now and then you encounter things that you were used to that you are changing that you think shouldn’t have changed and it irritates you. And that’s nimbyism, right? That’s, that’s the heart of that whole sensation. And so what we start every project, a typical interaction is a client comes to us, you know, hires us, wants a network design, they want more ridership, they want their network to be more relevant.

Jarrett Walker (35m 5s):
And one of the early questions is basically how much anger are you prepared to sit through? Because the level of anger will be proportional to how much we are changing. It won’t be proportional to the quality of the plan. It’ll be proportional to how much the plan changes things because the more we change things people are used to, the angrier people will be. So I always have to take every client through this process, not just at the staff level but also at the level of the elected officials or policy makers. You know, when we did the Houston redesign that went in in 2015, the board hearings for that redesign lasted night after night after night, several evenings until midnight. Hundreds of people spoke overwhelmingly opposed to the plan.

Jarrett Walker (35m 47s):
Hundreds of people stood up over and over and told this board that if we implement this plan will be in some way destroying their lives. Many of those people were overdramatizing, but a few of those people were right. You know, the network plan did go through and change things in a very dramatic way to make the network more relevant. And yes, that was gonna be bad for some people who were used to the network as it was. There’s no way to avoid that in the context of the very austere transit operations budgets that were working with in the United States. Somewhat different in Europe. So, you know, I respect the anger but I also anticipate the anger and we plan for the anger from the beginning and we are thinking from the beginning about how do we tell a story that makes it worth sitting through some anger to get to a good place.

Jeff Wood (36m 36s):
Last time we chatted, we’ve had a kind of a longer discussion about this and NIMBYs and the NIMBY mind and things like that, which was, I think folks really took to, but in the book you talk also about the mindset of people that do these stated preference surveys. And I was curious when I was reading and I was like, do you, do you feel like people can know of a preference if they haven’t experienced it before?

Jarrett Walker (36m 54s):
That’s, that’s the thing stated preference means doing surveys that ask people what would you do if, and we’re seeing these all the time right now in the election, you know, how would learning this about this candidate change? And in the old days you saw this a lot more people were always asking you, would you, we use a bus route that if it went from here to here it’s useless information. People can’t, people don’t know enough about hypothetical situations and most people just are not good at thinking honestly about hypothetical situation. So I just don’t find stated preference information to be very useful.

Jeff Wood (37m 29s):
Since the book first came out, what’s the most interesting or maybe unexpected response you’ve had from a reader about the concepts in the book?

Jarrett Walker (37m 39s):
I’m gonna have trouble picking one. I think

Jeff Wood (37m 40s):
That’s okay. Can do a couple if you want.

Jarrett Walker (37m 45s):
I think I’m gonna have trouble with that question ’cause there’ve been so many different responses, but honestly most of what I’ve gotten, I’ve gotten a lot of emails of the form, your book is really interesting, but have you thought about this cool invention I’m working on that will change everything. I’ve gotten so many of those, some of these people have actually hired me briefly as advisors and I’ve sat down with them and talked to them a little while about their invention. And it’s partly through that experience that I’ve become much more confident in my doctrinaire belief that as I put a technology never changes geometry. And that we need to be very clear that when we’re talking about public transit, we’re talking about the solution to a geometric problem, the efficient use of space in cities.

Jarrett Walker (38m 31s):
And there’s a great deal of that. And I think that the way that the talks about technology is probably that. But I think the other thing is that the first edition, I think I, I found through the way my practice was continued to go and the challenges that I was encountering that I had not really gotten to the heart of what I mean by access and that I needed to do more work on that. And the second edition is, you know, is the fruit of another decade’s work on that

Jeff Wood (39m 2s):
Geometry is key to a lot of the discussions. And last week we were talking with Megan Kimble who recently released a book about highways in Texas and you know, she brought up some interesting history, which is that, you know, general Bragdon reported to President Eisenhower in the fifties and sixties how the funds for the highway system were being spent on cities and blowing up the budget because they were going through cities instead of two cities. And you know, basically he brought this report, he said the best way to serve cities would be with mass transit. And Eisenhower I guess believed it, but then he put it aside because he wanted Nixon to be elected eventually JFK got elected instead. But geometry is, is is a known quantity. It’s been known for a long time. And this report in the fifties to the president, it spelled that out as well.

Jeff Wood (39m 45s):
And so I’m, I’m wondering why it’s hard to understand it now or why is it hard for people to understand it now? It’s something that’s a constant,

Jarrett Walker (39m 51s):
You know, the day before yesterday I had a guest from Europe and we went up on the hills here in Portland to a place where we could look at over the city and we looked down at the city and it was PM rush hour and there was the freeway in front of us through the middle of the city and the freeway loop around downtown, all completely plugged with cars, all completely plugged with red lights. The freeway bridge across the river and the freeway via that walls off the east bank of the river are all plugged with cars. Basically parked all that infrastructure taking up that extraordinarily valuable land and the extraordinary opportunity cost of you know, having a wall down the east side of the river instead of a city there all to serve really a microscopic number of people when you count, you know what’s in those cars and what happened as well as I can understand, it was an instructive example of what I call the fishing peer problem of equity or the fishing peer problem of fairness.

Jarrett Walker (40m 51s):
And it goes like this, this is not in the book. Imagine a coastal city like Chicago and imagine that they’ve gotten some money together to build some fishing piers. And so like a good study, they do a fishing peer distribution study and they develop a plan for fishing piers and all the fishing piers that are proposed are in the wealthy neighborhoods on the lake. And people who live away from the lake in less wealthy neighborhoods would they rise up and say, wait a minute, where are our fishing piers? And they wouldn’t because they would understand that fishing piers only make sense on bodies of water.

Jarrett Walker (41m 35s):
And that the notion that you can just distribute something equitably by a neighborhood without regard to the more fundamental physical facts of the matter is something that people would understand. Well this is happening with transportation all the time. And freeways through cities are a great example of the fishing pair of palace. So a new kind of transportation thing was invented the freeway and it was really, really good as a form of transportation between cities and around the edges of cities, which is exactly how they’re used in Europe. That’s what the European freeway system looks like. There’s a big loop around the end of each city and there’s a freeway that goes off that loop to the next city, but they don’t come into the city.

Jarrett Walker (42m 19s):
So you had these representatives from the inner cities who were saying, but this is the cool new thing, why is ours? And the answer was, it’s like asking for a fishing pier when you’re not on the lake. This fishing pier is not going to do for you what it would do over there because you are in a different place and you are not. And it’s not because you are not a good person, it’s because of geometry. It’s not because of who you are, it’s because of where you are in the geometry of where you live. But because you are in a high density place, freeways will not work for you. They will all be plugged all the time, they will do enormous destruction to your city and then they will be plugged all the time and not even be all that used.

Jarrett Walker (43m 4s):
So it’s just interesting that, you know, that original epic catastrophic mistake about building urban freeways in the US is of the same shape as so many little mistakes that are being made now. You know, they’re getting Microt transit in their suburb. Why aren’t we getting Microt transit downtown? Because you have a fixed route network downtown. But Microt transit is the cool new thing. We don’t want these old fixed droughts. No Microt transit is a tool for a particular set of situations, which are not your situation. That’s the endless challenge. That’s the fishing curve problem.

Jeff Wood (43m 40s):
What’s the pandemic done to the discussions that you have?

Jarrett Walker (43m 44s):
Prior to the pandemic transit agencies were under the very heavy influence of rush hour commuters with their briefcases and laptops demanding very expensive, specialized, high quality choice rider services into downtown. One of the reasons that the whole conversation has become, for me a little easier since the pandemic is that many of those people went away. And what we got instead was a new conversation about equity. And to me that is just an invitation to say what I’ve been saying all along, which is that we will do great transit planning when we focus on the lower to middle, 80 to 90% and not as much on the tastes of people in relatively elite positions in society.

Jarrett Walker (44m 32s):
That’s a challenge of course because of who the decision makers are. But equity is a sort of blunt instrument, but a tool that, you know, makes it possible I, and creates the space to have those conversations. And I think these conversations have been easier because the rush hour commuter as to some extent disappeared. Now what this means, I don’t wanna make it sound like it’s all good for transit agency transit agencies that were financially and institutionally locked into the rush hour commute, like commuter railroads have had a terrible time transit agencies through whose primary justification was that. But the silver lining has been that you’ve seen some extraordinary innovation now in repurposing transit services and transit infrastructure to be more useful all day.

Jarrett Walker (45m 24s):
I’m working right now on a project for PACE in the suburbs of Chicago. So I’ve had occasion to study the timetables of the Chicago suburban rail system metro vastly more useful services now than there were before the pandemic when the metro was overwhelmingly focused on just how do we move as many trains into Chicago at 8:00 AM as we can. You know, Metro has done everything they can in the context of their constraints to run a two-way, consistent frequency that is useful for all of the many and many other kinds of travel that’s happening. And ultimately what this is doing is helping transit agencies not just focus on a more diverse customer, but also frankly do something that is just much more efficient for them to do in the long run.

Jarrett Walker (46m 14s):
The one way peak express service is just about the most inefficient thing transit can do. Even if the bus or train is full, it’s a bus or train that you had to buy and own and store, but maybe use only once a day. You know, it’s a driver that had to work a short shift that you’ll have to pay extra for. It may have gone full in one direction but it went back empty in the other direction. Just all kinds of inefficiencies that we’re able to get away from now with less emphasis on that overwhelming rush hour community. Some transit agencies are in a very difficult place financially, and I certainly don’t minimize the fiscal cliffs. Another thing that’s happening is that labor is becoming more expensive. We’re going to have to pay bus drivers more and I’m fine with that because it’s a very difficult job and I wanna hold ’em to high standards and I wanna, I want people to be wanting to do that difficult job, but it does mean that we are gonna be gonna voters in many cities with, you know, new realities about what transit can do, but also, you know what it means to run a good transit system.

Jarrett Walker (47m 17s):
So we’re in the midst of, we’re in the midst of many of those conversations.

Jeff Wood (47m 21s):
I find it interesting too though that a lot of these agencies, especially like Bart, were lauded because they had such a high fare box recovery. And so now with work from home and the collapse of downtown commutes during the end of the week as well as, you know, midweek two, now they’re in a hole. And so you go from this vaunted status to, you know, albatross and I, I find that really interesting because you know, beforehand they were told that this is the way to go and this is what the best thing to do would be and now it’s something that’s hanging around their neck.

Jarrett Walker (47m 52s):
And so a lot of reinvention needs to be happening to get focused on not just the markets we have now, but the kinds of growth we can expect in the future. Lots of people, especially at the upper end of the income spectrum, are going to continue working from home. I think there’s no question it’s much less of a thing in Europe, interestingly. And I think the difference of course is that many, many more Americans, especially upscale Americans, have nice houses that they like spending the time in and actually had the experience during the pandemic that this was kind of nice and are just not gonna go back. So, you know, I think the future of downtowns that had become overdependent on the single economy of the office is of course housing and housing conversions that make those more interesting and diverse places.

Jarrett Walker (48m 42s):
And that over time, I, I mean I’m sure in 10 or 20 years downtown San Francisco will again be a vibrant and active place, but it will be a vibrant and active place because a lot more people live there and the journey to that is obviously going to be rough and difficult and transit agencies are gonna need a lot of help because ultimately we’re still going to need them as much as we ever did. And ultimately those tighter mixes of houses, housing and activity all over the place, getting beyond getting away from the rigid single use zoning that did so much damage to our cities in the 20th century, you know, that’s really going to take us in a direction that makes transit more and more efficient because it means people going back and forth all day.

Jarrett Walker (49m 22s):
It means people using the train in both directions at the same time. All those things that, you know, you just did not get with the single overwhelming office corps

Jeff Wood (49m 32s):
In the book. And one of the things you address this time that was not even on the radar previously is, is the fair free movement and the folks who are asking about, you know, whether we should, you know, basically get rid of affairs and make transit free. And I’m curious, you know, how that discussion has evolved in your mind, but also what some of the language that’s used, it’s a very sticky topic, but it’s also kind of like a way for people to talk about frequency and other things but not really talk about at the same time.

Jarrett Walker (50m 3s):
Well I, I think here’s the problem. I had to write the book because transit service is something that needs some explaining prices. The concept of prices needs no explaining, everyone understands, but the concept of service takes quite a bit of explaining because it’s not quite what you assume it is and it doesn’t work quite like however you assume it works based on whatever frame of reference you’re coming from that makes all the difference. Now we have seen over and over both studies, surveys, but also you know, revealed evidence that ridership responds much more to service than it does to fair.

Jarrett Walker (50m 44s):
And that quality service is the thing that makes the difference as a result, given the level of dependence on fares that American transit agencies have in big city. And I’m talking about big city agencies now, like Bart, simply eliminating fares is the same thing as massively cutting surface. So for that reason, the places that have actually done this experiment with various degrees of permanence are very specific kinds of places even before the pandemic university towns were doing it. And that’s typically because they already had a deal by which the university paid for passes for their students and then that was 90% of the ridership and it wasn’t worth the, the trouble to collect fairs from the rest, chapel Hill, North Carolina, places like that.

Jarrett Walker (51m 35s):
College towns, rural areas were often sometimes fair free for the same reason. The fair, the ridership is so low, the fair revenue is so low, it’s just not worth the, the costs of handling faires, the security, cash handling, all that. And there have been free rural systems in the state of Washington for a long time. So immediately after the pandemic, a whole bunch of transit agencies kind of temporarily went into that condition where their ridership was so low, their fair revenue was so low, they started wondering whether it was worth it. And so some cities like Kansas City and Albuquerque have eliminated fares and I think that was the right decision at the time in their situation.

Jarrett Walker (52m 16s):
I expect that if those transit agencies grow in relevance and improve their services, they will eventually reach a point where it does not make sense to continue being free. But in big cities there’s no way to do it. And even in Europe, nobody really does it. There are small college towns that do it. There’ve been little experiments. There was the big experiment in Tale in Estonia, which found very little benefit in terms of actually shifting people outta cars. I understand why it’s popular because it’s easy to explain and service is hard to explain and that makes a big difference right there. But ultimately service matters more than fair. I also think, by the way, that it makes good sense to have low income discounts so that people who are more sensitive to cost pay less entirely supportive of those many cities are doing those.

Jarrett Walker (53m 8s):
But I think that simply, you know, putting forward free fares as a solution to anything is in big city systems is just not going to work in the context of how our cities work and how our transit agencies are funded.

Jeff Wood (53m 20s):
Yeah, I can’t imagine large cities or places like San Francisco coming up with, you know, millions and millions of dollars, tens of millions of dollars that fair, fair revenue even though it’s such a small percentage of total compared to like what Bart was, I guess. But it’s interesting to think about. Last question, what’s interesting to you, right now?

Jarrett Walker (53m 40s):
Well, Europe is interesting to me right now because we’re doing more work there and we’re getting more involved in European conversations in European markets. And one of the things that’s been sort of one of the most interesting things to discover in the last year or two is that I can go over to Europe as an American and there are useful things we can offer. There are useful aspects to how American cities organize public transit and things that we achieve that are in fact helpful to Europeans. And I think that access analysis is one of those things because the default European approach, which is also the approach I dealt with that was the reigning approach when I was in Australia and New Zealand a decade ago, is one that’s very much rooted in prediction and modeling and rooted in also the metaphor of business.

Jarrett Walker (54m 35s):
You know, you, you sit down for five minutes with any transport planner in the UK or Australia, and you’ll hear the word business case over and over. They’re used to talking about everything on a metaphor of business. And I think that one of the strengths of the American transit industry is that we don’t talk about it that way. We aren’t obliged to pretend that we are some sort of failing business. We’re not a business at all. We’re something else. Or essential infrastructure or essential service. So I think that’s one thing that’s that’s, I’ve been enjoying the time I’ve been spending in Europe and the time I’ve been spending with European transit planners and you know, learning about their perspectives. So for example, just the other day I had a guest from Spain who visited me here in Portland, and there were things that were just impossible to explain.

Jarrett Walker (55m 23s):
Like there’s a very funny place in Portland in the Pearl District, which is the very upscale, dense neighborhood that was built around the streetcar where there is standing a single brick wall braced up with metal girders the way you would, the way you would brace a ruin of, you know, an ancient Greek temple or something, you know, to make it stand up. But it was just a brick wall of like a, an early 20th century warehouse that was just standing there, the windows open, grass trees growing visible through the windows. And I could not explain to this, to my European guest that it would make sense in America to just keep a wall of a building, not even a hundred years old, and then dress it up as though it were a ruin all in order to screen a parking lot, which is behind it, which is the real thing we’re doing there.

Jarrett Walker (56m 12s):
So there were funny things like that. We went to a suburban transit center, we went to Beaverton Transit Center, which is a fairly typical American suburban transit center. It has a little building in the center with a person selling coffee and has a huge amount of asphalt around it where lots of buses cycle around it at the station. And he said, this looks like Switzerland. And so there are just all these moments when it’s like, wait a minute, Beaverton looks like Switzerland to someone from Spain. There’s a whole bunch of information there about Spain, about Switzerland, about Beaverton, and I’m just having a lot of fun discovering all of those differences, differences between European

Jeff Wood (56m 50s):
Countries. Is it because Mount Hood’s in the background?

Jarrett Walker (56m 52s):
No, no, no, no. It’s because of the amount of space that there is and the amount of architecture that there is, which in Spain generally, you will not see that sort of big bus hub. You’ll see buses just meeting on the street however they can meet. But Spain has tended not to create those kinds of facilities. Interesting. You tend to see things sort of shoehorned in wherever they can. But anyway, I’m enjoying that very much. I am very excited by the future of an American transit industry that is allowed to focus on the lower to middle 90%. And I think that where that industry is going, to the extent that’s able to maintain political support, there’s a lot of great promise and just, I think there’s a lot of great promise in the kinds of cities that we’re having to build now.

Jarrett Walker (57m 41s):
So I’m, yeah, that’s what I’m interested in.

Jeff Wood (57m 44s):
I’m also excited, I think, because after, you know, being around for 20 plus years or so and thinking about these issues, you can be down about it because there it’s not, doesn’t have the political support of highways and things like that, but there’s been a lot of innovation and a lot of change and a lot of really cool stuff happening. I mean, van Ness, BRT here in San Francisco, for example, I mean that’s, it took a long time, but when it finished, it was really cool, right? It does some great things. So

Jarrett Walker (58m 11s):
You know why they call ’em the 49 ERs in San Francisco?

Jeff Wood (58m 14s):
I do,

Jarrett Walker (58m 15s):
Because the Transit first ordinance was adopted in 1973 and the van SBRT that implemented it finally opened in 2020 2 49 years.

Jeff Wood (58m 28s):
And it runs the 49 bus.

Jarrett Walker (58m 34s):

Jeff Wood (58m 34s):
The book is Human Transit Second Edition. How Clearer Thinking about Public Transit can enrich our communities and our lives. Jarrett, where can folks find the book if they wanna get a copy?

Jarrett Walker (58m 42s):
Oh, all the usual places. I encourage you to go down to your local physical bookstore and ask them for it, because merely the act of asking them for it will encourage them to stock it, whether or not you have the patience to buy it from them. But of course, all the usual online sources as well.

Jeff Wood (58m 57s):
Well, Jart, thanks for joining us. We really appreciate your time.

Jarrett Walker (58m 60s):
Thanks very much. I appreciate it.

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