Friday, May 18, 2012

Jarrett Walker

On Monday, I attended a Houston Tomorrow symposium which featured public transit consultant Jarrett Walker. I was happy to finally meet Walker in person, because his Human Transit blog is a daily read of mine. He has over two decades' worth of consulting experience in places all over the world, and is the author of the book Human Transit - How Clearer Thinking about Public Transit Can Enrich Our Communities and Our Lives, a copy of which I finally got my hands on at last week's event. He's also a very good public speaker.

As the title of his book suggests, Walker stresses the importance of clarity in the design and provision of public transportation services, so that the system becomes understandable, and therefore useful, to the greatest number of potential riders. In doing so, he urges people - users and non-users alike - to think a little bit differently about how public transit services should be provided.

For example, while transit services are oftentimes evaluated on speed (i.e. will that bus or train get me to my destination quicker than my car?), Walker argues that it is the frequency of the service - that is, how often it runs - rather than the speed that is of most importance to the transit user: after all, what good is a "fast" service if it only comes once an hour? As he says in his book, "frequency is freedom."

This, in turn, has implications on an agency's route network, which he describes as its geometry: a simple grid of frequently-running bus or rail lines can oftentimes provide better service than a confusing web of routes intended to provide specific, point-to-point service but which, out of financial reality, operate infrequently.

He also urges people to spend less time focusing on "technology" issues - i.e. the tiresome bus-versus-rail debates that seem to consume every city that is considering building or expanding bus rapid transit, light rail or heavy rail lines - and spend more time focusing on underlying factors such as frequency, geometry and separation from traffic that will have a greater impact on the service's effectiveness than whether it runs on rubber tires or steel wheels.

Walker also emphasizes the importance of clear information for users, whether it be in transit maps (which can oftentimes be confusing) or the naming of bus or rail routes (which oftentimes don't really tell you where a bus or train actually goes). In order for a system to be useful to the greatest number of people as possible, it has to be as clear to use as possible.

The previous paragraphs only scratch the surface of Walker's work, which is an invaluable resource for elected officials, agency personnel, transportation consultants and the general public alike. I would urge anybody who is interested in the subject of public transportation to spend some time reading his blog or pick up a copy of his book.

An excellent review of his book is here.

1 comment:

M1EK said...

"after all, what good is a "fast" service if it only comes once an hour?"

Well, it's a service somebody who owns a car might actually use - unlike the alternative.

I used to use an express bus as part of a reverse commute by bike to NW Austin - you remember the 98x's?

On the express, the penalty compared to driving in the morning was only about 10 minutes; and the afternoon bike home was competitive enough with the car that I was able to continue this commute even with a wife at home eager for me to get the hell back from work to help with the baby.

A couple of times when I missed the 98x, I rode the #3 - frequent, but slow. A 30 minute penalty compared to driving - if I had to do that every day, I'd have just driven.

Jarrett suffers from the common disease of people who just want everybody to ride the bus - forgetting that most of the people not currently riding have to be competed for, not just guilted into riding.