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Review: Human Transit by Jarrett Walker

The author's goal is to give us confidence to form and advocate clear opinions about the kind of transit we want and how that can help create the kind of city we desire.

By Gerry Balt
Published June 24, 2015

Jarrett Walker, Human Transit
Jarrett Walker, Human Transit

RTH writes frequently about transit. A book that could further increase knowledge and understanding of transit issues is Human Transit, written by Jarrett Walker, a consultant specializing in transit service design since 1990. His goal is to give us confidence to form and advocate clear opinions about the kind of transit we want and how that can help create the kind of city we desire.

Published in 2012 by Island Press in Washington, DC, the book is accurately subtitled "How Clearer Thinking about Public Transit Can Enrich Our Communities and Our Lives".

Walker discusses a number of concepts designed to increase readers' understanding of the goals, challenges and opportunities pertaining to transit. He states that his job is not to make us share his values but to give us the tools to promote and clarify ours. To that end, he uses the analogy of "plumber's questions".

In his example, a plumber might start a repair job and then ask what you want him to do. He might say that he can fix the problem for $50 and everything would probably work fine for a couple of years. Alternatively, he can replace the whole whatsit assembly and connect it with a new doohickey and the whole thing would be just like new. That would cost $700 and we would have to wait for a week for the part to arrive from Malaysia.

A transit planner's job is like the plumber's; he is there to implement your values, not his. Thus it is important for us, the public, to communicate with the "experts" and let them know what we are looking for in a transit system.

Our values would answer questions such as what is the purpose of transit, what constitutes adequate and useful transit and what kind of city we want.

After discussing what transit is and does, Walker launches into a series of crucial questions about transit. These include:

Along the way he covers "Five paths to confusion" (Common misunderstandings about transit), "Connections or Complexity" (the importance of frequent service and how it could be achieved by simplifying the network, but thus requiring more connections) and "Be on the Way" (Transit implication of location choice: You need to be on the way between major transit hubs or other high-demand transit destinations to get good transit service).

The author uses very little technical language, making the book an easy read for even casual transit enthusiasts. No doubt Walker's lucid writing style was influenced by the fact that he has a Ph. D. in literature.

When he does introduce terms specific to the transit industry, he provides careful explanations. For example, the author describes in detail how an inverted couplet works to enable passengers to connect with other transit vehicles without crossing a street.

In essence, buses would line up along both sides of a platform on the "wrong" side so that their doors would open towards each other.

There is a strong emphasis in the book on geometry, i. e. the configuration of the transit network is heavily dependent on our city's geography. Walker presents a visionary approach to shaping both geography and transit design.

His chapter entitled "Take the Long View" shows the importance of long-range planning. He advocates developing the basic outline of the transit network twenty years ahead of time, but, even more importantly, that there be a continuous two-way conversation with long-term land use planning.

Each function can then refine its plans based on the input from the other one, and also from other infrastructure plans. With each repetition, the time horizon can be extended so the vision is always about twenty years ahead. Short-term actions can then be taken based on long-range plans made years before.

How useful is this book? Let me put it this way:

While I was writing this review, the TTC announced an improved frequent service network. The announcement sounded almost like it was taken from Walker's book. TTC deputy CEO Chris Upfold said "It gives customers the surety they don't have to plan. It really is a turn-up-and-go service."

Walker puts it this way: "A very frequent service is where you (as a customer) don't worry about a timetable." He also states that this level of service is reached when there is a 10-minute frequency and that is precisely what the TTC is promising on 47 routes.

Did they read the book? We may never know. If you read the book, however, you are sure to learn a lot about transit.

Gerry Balt is a retired professional accountant who has made Hamilton has home for over 40 years. He resides in the Ainslie Wood neighbourhood with his wife.

4 Comments

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By KevinLove (registered) | Posted June 24, 2015 at 18:21:23

Mr. Walker also runs an excellent blog that I highly recommend.

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By Haveacow (registered) | Posted June 25, 2015 at 10:02:57

He definitely loves is buses though, he used to be employed by McCormick Rankin Consulting now MMM Consulting, a builder of both Ottawa's and Brisbane's BRT systems. He was part of that company's travelling road show that sells BRT to anyone whom will listen. That Road show came to Hamilton many years ago during the early part of the LRT vs. BRT debate between 2007-2009. The main person doing the promotion was not him but Helen Gault, the former head of Ottawa's OC Transpo and the agency's planning department, a transit agency with much obvious experience in operating BRT.

I have worked with him before, he is a good guy as well as very bright guy however, as much as he claims not to be biased in his transit technology choices he generally leans on his large amount of expertise in BRT, bus route design and bus system logistics. He has a tendency to play down the choice of transit technology as mostly a political process. In my experience, the choice of operating technology can not only lead to big operational issues after a rapid transit system starts running but, can lead to explosive political issues as well, unfortunately as a hired gun he is never around to clean up after his decisions are implemented, unlike a planner who works for the agency itself. Its the only remotely bad thing I can say about the guy and unfortunately that comment describes myself also, as a hired gun consultant.

His book is well crafted and does make some excellent points that many planners, including me, have made before. That's the great thing about a book, you can say what you want and as long as someone reads it, they see your ideas. As consultants we can only advise and can't implement that is the job of city staff and senior decision makers. I wish sometimes we could tie some of those decision makers down and force them to listen to us. Sometimes just for their own good!

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By JMorse (registered) | Posted June 25, 2015 at 13:19:09

Thank you Gerry for posting this review. An elevated conversation around transit will help to focus objectives.

The book does work as a how-to manual for transit advocacy regardless of the author's downplaying the importance of technology choice. This is not a huge theme and does not take away from the valid and crucial discussion around frequency vs. coverage, for example.

Answers to the questions raised will decide the success or failure of a system. It's best that all of us educate ourselves and advocate for the system we want instead of just waiting to see if it works.

BTW the author will fly in and give a lecture for around $8000. :)

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By KevinLove (registered) | Posted June 25, 2015 at 16:49:20 in reply to Comment 112471

He gives his price range for a workshop as $3,000 - $9,000 depending largely upon how far the site is from Portland, Oregon.

Comment edited by KevinLove on 2015-06-25 17:01:44

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