Human Transit: Interview with Jarrett Walker

Chuck Marohn, Strong Towns: Our guest today is the author of a book, Human Transit. He runs the website and blog with the same name. He’s a consultant. He’s a speaker and he is an innovator. Jarrett Walker, welcome back to the Strong Towns podcast. You were on a couple of years ago at CNU (Congress for a New Urbanism).

I’m going to say, right now, just to get started [that] I am one of those people who is an outsider looking in. I’m not a transit rider. I live in a very small town. We have dial-a-ride, which in many ways is worse than having no transit system at all, at least in terms of our dialogue. So I’ve always been hesitant to have you on because I felt I would be wasting your time, not asking intelligent thoughtful questions. I’ve done enough homework now [to] where I hope I don’t waste your time but I want you to feel free to start at a 101 level.

I want you to start with geometry. You talk a lot about how geometry, essentially, doesn’t lie and is not subject to focus groups. Can you talk a little bit about transit and the geometry of cities and why the two are a match for each other.

Jarrett Walker: Sure. I think it’s helpful to start not so much with transit as a product as “what is the problem for which transit is a solution, [and] the problem for which trains is the best solution? — and in many cases the only solution [to] the problem of providing mobility and access to lots of people at fairly high densities or generally in cases where there is a strong disincentive to driving.”

So, right there, you can see that transit has a somewhat — in the U.S. the way it’s constructed, Canada too to a degree — has a somewhat contradictory mission, because there isn’t a contrary expectation that we run some transit service everywhere regardless of density because certainly there are, everywhere, there are people who can’t drive, [or do] without some sort of mobility assistance, transit, in the sense that we value with ridership.

And transit, in the sense that it achieves goals of substantially reduced car traffic, substantially reduces card dependence. Which is, of course, connected to the ability to use street space for something other than cars. All that really arises in places where there is sufficient demand for big vehicles running in regular patterns to be the right answer.

Strong Towns: There’s a lot of chatter right now about small scale transit of one kind or another.

Jarrett Walker: The word “transit” is being used to mean lots of different things. But fundamentally, really, really successful transit is transit that’s carrying a lot of people on relatively few vehicles. That’s the essence of what makes it highly effective.

There’s some geometry about where that’s likely to happen, and that’s the geometry that is primarily about density: How many people are around every possible stop.

Walkability, which is can the people around the stop, actually, are things close enough together that we don’t have to cross big wire or gas to get to them. You know that’s really what determines whether you’ve got a place where transit can succeed.

Strong Towns: And I want you to notice that with those things you’re thinking about your own town and it’s going to sound like him passing judgments about your own town whether it’s a good place or not. I’m not doing that.

Jarrett Walker: I’m simply describing some basic math about why transit works as it does. By the way if you Google an article of mine called “The Transit Ridership Recipe,” you’ll find an explanation of all this with some statistics.

Strong Towns: One of the things that I found very approachable about your work is that you go down the path that we don’t have to have transit everywhere to be successful. I know a lot of people who advocate for transit, advocate for transit at all times in all places. Can you talk a little bit about why that is maybe not the right approach and why you have a more nuanced understanding of where transit works well and maybe where transit doesn’t work as well and why there’s a important difference between those two?

Jarrett Walker: That comes right down to what you mean by working well. A lot of people believe that some measure of transit working well is that it has lots of riders that are relatively low cost. You read the newspaper, you look at the way average journalists writes about this stuff. and they just assume that the ridership is the measure of success.

Well, if we were designing a public transit network for high ridership, we wouldn’t go everywhere. We would think like a business, which is to say we would concentrate our service in the places where we are most likely to succeed. We’d concentrate on places where we have a concentration of potential customers and also where our competitor or the private car is at the greatest disadvantage, which tends to be in bigger denser cities and in denser parts. And so that’s what we would do if we were pursuing ridership in any community.

[One of the things] I’ve worked in there is an obvious, high-ridership thing to do, and that involves not going to a lot of the town, because those parts of the town are just not conducive they are giving me the density, walkability, linearity that I need to say that we’re going to have a good transit market. [Which means] that lots of people will drive.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t serve those places. What we always say is [that] if you serve those other places, you need to have a reason other than ridership, and you should be keeping track of or making clear about the fact that you’re doing this for a reason other than ridership.

I generally call that other reason coverage. Coverage is the contrasting justification of services where we run services to places where we know we’re not going to get high ridership, for teen ridership for this non-private purpose, maybe lifeline access to people with severe needs.

It may be perceptions of the quality. It can just be purely political. You know if we’re going to have some council members supporting the measure, we need to hit that and council districts, that kind of thing. Those are all, you know, perfectly good reasons why people demand coverage services, low ridership coverage services, and our role is basically to help communities think about this straight and reach an intelligent decision about what mix of ridership and coverage services they want.
It’s not that coverage services are bad, it’s just that, if you are being evaluated on ridership, you wouldn’t run them. So you have to be smarter about how you talk about what your goals are and what’s going to count as success if you’re going to run coverage.

Strong Towns: The tradeoff between ridership and coverage area it seems, a lot of time, like our transit systems today maybe were originally envisioned based on coverage area. And I’ll even go so far as to say they [were] originally envisioned for that person [who] has no other option, to serve the disadvantaged. Has that affected our cultural mindset regarding transit? Has that affected how we have tended to look at transit systems, and reforming them — some of the work that you’ve done to increase ridership.

Jarrett Walker: Right. Yes, there’s that history. There’s also a history of evaluating the ridership. The real problem that we have is that transit agencies are being given contradictory direction: they’re being evaluated on contradictory measures, and then we yell at them because they’re not satisfying our contradictory expectations.

You might as well tell your taxi driver to turn right and left at the same time. You know, it’s that stark. It’s that ridiculous.

If we’re going to measure transit agency outcomes on ridership, [then] you need to let them run service designed for ridership, and you need to not yell at them when they say “Well, that means we can’t go by Mrs. Jones house, even though she’s here standing in front of you with all of her Facebook friends telling you how much she needs [service].

And so, if we are going to go by Mrs. Jones’s house, I mean if we are going to satisfy everyone who has — everyone who has a severe need or a feeling of an entitlement to a bus that has two people — that were not doing that for a better reason, than let’s be clear about what we’re doing and why we’re doing that. There’s nothing wrong with doing that, as long as we’re being clear. So that, for example, the fact that you’re running that empty bus doesn’t get read as . . .

Strong Towns: Right — it isn’t failing when it runs an empty box of a low ridership area. It’s doing something that it is being demanded to do for inbound ridership. That’s the key distinction.

If we were going to, and I’m going to say this in a harsh way, if we’re going to just apply rote dollars and cents, are there a lot of parts of our transit system that we just wouldn’t cover then? If you are talking about a dollars and cents measure that comes down to ridership.

Jarrett Walker: You’ll hear “What percentage of our costs are we covered with fares?” That’s another way of saying ridership. “What’s the subsidy per passenger?” That’s based on ridership. So if any of those kinds of metrics, [which] ultimately vary with ridership, are going to push the transit agency toward running less, running more ridership service which means less coverage service.

You have to make sure, when you go to a transit agency with those metrics that that is really what you need. You know, the classic example is the relatively conservative elected official from a low-density outer suburban area who gets on the transit [board] or starts banging on about you know we need less subsidy per passenger. And the transit manager, quite accurately, says the best way to do that is to cut all the service to you or to your district; the best way to do that is to not go into those outer suburban, you know, unwalkable, low-density kinds of places that he may feel entitled to have the bus go to.

So there’s just no getting around. And, again, I will never say what we should do. What I do is convene communities and help them figure out what they want out.

Strong Towns: How does this concept of a total Transportation Investment fit into that? Clearly, if we’re talking about the suburban city council member, they’re not lacking for Transportation Investment are they?

Jarrett Walker: Right. In fact, this will seem much fairer. You know when I’m talking [about] this to the city council member who isn’t really sure he likes transit, but his attitude is usually “Well, as long as where I’ve paid for that . . .” And that often becomes a reason for why transit agencies are forced to run low-ridership services. You can think about that, which is to think about the fairness of the totality of the Transportation Investment. People who live in dense parts of cities people, who live in high density, who tend to be at the greatest need for transit stability, [have the] ability to generate ridership.

Strong Towns: Those people need a lot less asphalt per capita than someone who works in an outer suburbs.

Jarrett Walker: And if you thought in terms of that sort of, you know, square feet of asphalt per capita, you realize right away that in the inner city we get by with very little of that [compared to] in a very low density area, [where] you need a lot, because you need to cover long distances and there are [not too] many people.

If we could think about the totality of transportation, that’s what it would look [like] — fairer than what we usually do, which is to try to have a conversation about the fairness of transit in isolation because, however much you spend on coverage, it’s impossible to achieve something that everyone will experience [as] fair.

In fact, I argued in my book [that] one of the reasons I’m reluctant to use the word fairness is because people come with completely different definitions. There is no single, agreed definition of what a fair transit system is, really, at the end of the day. A cultural conversation that needs to happen. One of the reasons we struggle with transit [is] because we really haven’t defined what we are trying to do with our transportation investments.

Strong Towns: I think that’s absolutely right.

Jarrett Walker: Transit agencies — and this has been, you know, my life’s work for the last 20 years really — transit agencies have not demanded clear direction from their communities. But what the community wants [is for] them to actually prioritize.

This is really where my role has been if you will: to put elected officials to work. This is what elected officials are for, to make those hard, reality-based choices about which is more important. But elected officials all know, it’s basically the same experience you have when you’re drawing up a municipal budget. You have to decide what’s more important, and what you have to have painful conversations with them.

And that’s, essentially, what we’re trying to do in the transit space with encouraging communities to think about these unavoidable tradeoffs. Because in the absence of doing that, they’ll just keep yelling at their transit agency because they’re not getting something that they feel they’re entitled to.

Strong Towns: But if they don’t understand the math. You know a lot of the major transit investments that I see happening seem to spawn out of, like, a 1970s commuter mentality. The idea that we’ll have a central city and then we’ll commute people in. And if we can move people out of their cars and into a train that will just make it easier for people to drive.

There’s another mentality that I see starting, to have more primacy in places, and that has to do with, essentially, creating a high frequency transit network, the ability to get around in a place. Do those two mindsets compete with each other in a practical sense? And is there kind of one that you would prefer over another?

Jarrett Walker: Everybody’s mindset pretty much arises from their own daily experience, right? If you live in a suburb and your problem is getting into the central city, then you know that’s going to seem to you like the most important thing in transit too.

If you live in an inner city where you’re trying to get to many different places and getting around in the city, that’s really where the high frequency grid saves. That’s really where that pattern is most effective.

And so we’re really just talking about the right solutions with different places, different parts of our region. I’ll emphasize to you that there is a larger problem there, which is that the standard commuter express service is very very expensive per passenger to operate, particularly if it is the service that is flowing into the single big downtown at 8:00 in the morning while back at 5:00 in the afternoon.

That’s because all the trains and buses, and drivers who piled up in the city at A.M. as a result of all their trips, they all had to go back out, because you have all of these very short shifts and it’s difficult to get people to go to work to work for just three hours.

So and you have to own a fleet that you don’t use very much, and the distances are very long. If you ride a half-full to two-thirds full commuter express bus or commuter express train, your travel is probably being subsidized much more than if you ride a quarter whole municipal bus running a frequent network. The problem’s not just of the peaking, but a single directional nature.

And there are cities that do much better at this. Los Angeles comes to mind, because Los Angeles is so multi-directional because people are going all directions at once. There isn’t that huge single hotel in the morning, going back the afternoon.

So those are some of the issues [that make] suburban commute services very expensive. There are many possible ways in which you just cross subsidize by service. But you know it is part of the larger political consensus that makes regional transit agencies awesome.

Strong Towns: Can you elaborate on that a little bit? I’d like to contrast the L.A. experience, which I have been told by people, who have kind of pushed back against L.A. being a car city, [people] who said L.A. has some of the best transit in the country. Can you contrast that with Washington D.C. or a place that has maybe a more well-developed but, more high-end kind of transit system?

Jarrett Walker: Right. So I would say that Los Angeles has a lot of work to do on its transit system, and that it is doing that work. It is inevitably constrained by a legacy. You know, we are all forced to live in a world laid out for us by our parents and grandparents and great aunts.

And L.A. has the problem of the particular legacy that, you know, people’s grandparents and great grandparents wanted it for them, which was lots of roads and everybody driving.

L.A. has now grown to a point — it’s an extraordinary city because I don’t know any other place where there is such a massive consensus that the basic ways the city was laid out is not working.

I mean there’s a sort of complete existential rejection of how the city was built, and I find that very unusual. Most people allow their views to be conditioned by how their city is – [they] don’t really question it.

But the urgency about transit is so extreme. You know, we’re getting seventy percent, yes, on very expensive transit. No new taxes for transit. Seventy percent, yes. There’s just an overwhelming sense of urgency about that transit in L.A. is not everything it could be because they’re still scrambling to essentially compensate for all those decades of non-investment.

But, on the other hand, Los Angeles just has superb geography for trains — it’s hard to imagine a better city geographically. Precisely because, if you look out over it, and there are clusters of towers far apart, settled here and there, and those create those great markets where people are commuting both way at the same time, using the capacity very efficiently. And then you have a street network that’s ideally suited to that high frequency grid.

It’s mostly a grid in a city like Chicago. That gives you those very easy north-south east-west paths, where if you just run a service, running a frequency, and get the service running fast enough, you get these multiplier effect where it just becomes very easy to change from one ramp to another get to wherever you’re going.

The geography grid would be better. It’s just a matter of you know Los Angeles still obviously having to catch up after many decades of neglect.
Strong Towns: I want to ask you a question about building incrementally. We talk at Strong Towns a lot about our cities needing to kind of grow in this broader, more incremental way, as opposed to the large transformative investments. Many small investments over a broad area.

But when we get to transit, I get a lot of pushback. I get people saying “Well, Chuck, you can’t do transit incrementally, it doesn’t work that way, it’s an all or nothing kind of thing.” Can you talk about that? Is it possible to do transit incrementally? Can we scale transit over time? Or is that is that a crazy notion? Do we have to either be all in or not in at all.

Jarrett Walker: Let me be very clear. Yes, you can do transit incrementally.

Yes, you can get almost anywhere by starting with incremental improvement.

It doesn’t mean you don’t need the infrastructure. What it means is that the need for big infrastructure arises out of the fact that you’ve built a corridor that buses can’t serve anymore. And some of the best transit projects in the country, they’re incredibly expensive. But they are — they are the thing you have to do, once you’ve done everything you can with busses. [They] can be justified in those terms.

I’m thinking about the Wilshire Subway in Los Angeles. The Second Avenue subway in New York with Broadway Subway — the most obvious examples where buses are doing everything they can. And now we have built a manned transit demand to a point where we just have to do something higher order.

Strong Towns: That is I think a logical relationship between service and infrastructure. You use bus service to grow incrementally toward where you’re ready to do that big infrastructure.

There’s another theory of infrastructure though, which is that the reason we need the big bang is to attract more elite riders than those who are attracted to buses. You know, sometimes you have cases where there really is no transit value being added.

Like when you introduce a street car that’s going to be stuck in traffic instead of a bus. It doesn’t do anything the bus can’t. But even where we are building services that are going to be faster than buses, we as planners will certainly notice that there’s a subliminal message of the reason this has to be so expensive is that we’re trying to appeal to a higher class of people.

Jarrett Walker: So the big warning I have to always give is “If you are a very fortunate person who tends to sit in powerful rooms making propositions, you know, if you are a millionaire, if you are an executive, you have to start by remembering that most people are not like you.

You represent a small minority, and therefore your personal tastes, in what you would like in transportation, [you are a] very poor guy to [know] what will make a good investment for the entire city. So when someone comes up to me and says “Hey, I drive my BMW and what are you going to do to get out of me out of my BMW?”

My answer is there’s no there’s no public interest in getting you out of your BMW because there aren’t that many of you for it to matter. What matters is the way we incrementally expand people’s liberty, opportunity to transit, so that people who are in a financial or personal position where transit makes sense for them, they don’t have the BMW, maybe they own you know 1989 Chevy, those people can make the switch.

Strong Towns: What about this notion that “We have to build something big and permanent looking. We’ve got to have tracks in the ground and overhead wire. Otherwise we won’t get developers to build. We will get people to commit to it.”

Jarrett Walker: Well, that’s called infrastructure hostage taking. You know you basically give hostages, you lock up a certain amount of money from the ground, and therefore the real estate industry thinks that’s permanent. That’s actually a really bad guide to permanancy.

Let’s take one of the most obvious examples. At the same time that people were going around saying we have to have streetcar tracks in the streets, the service will be permanent, we were going around and ripping up whole freight tracks in the same neighborhoods.

In fact, you have the whole part of the martyrdom of the original streetcars, which were torn up by evil people. That’s not really the total story, that’s the story here. And of course that story proves that those rail tracks in the street didn’t make it permanent.

What is actually permanent is high ridership. So if you want service to be permanent, you want service to succeed in ridership terms. Because if it doesn’t succeed in ridership terms, the infrastructure isn’t going to stay, that’s the reality. Over and over, you’ve got to remember that transit operating costs are the — transit costs are primarily operating costs and that’s got to make sense in terms of ridership.

So that’s why it’s so important to recognize permanence. To say that a transit corridor is going to be permanent is to say that it has permanent high ridership.

And to say that it has permanent high ridership means that the land use conditions, that physical conditions are favorable, comes back to what I mentioned at the beginning: Get a walkability here, that’s where you got a permanent high ridership. So, ultimately, the permanence that realtors should be looking for is actually the permanence that they are creating with dense development the permanence of a land use pattern is what matters, not whether they’re attractive.

Strong Towns: I was on the outskirts of Portland with some of the transit planners there, and one of the things that was pointed out to me as being a huge win for them was this art installation at the station. The station itself had very little built around it. They were planning some big investment, hopefully, in the future, but it was pretty barren. The planners seem very, very happy, about this art installation essentially. You talk about the dependent writer, or derogatorily people call them captive writers, taking them for granted and kind of making a system based around getting that guy out of their BMW.

Jarrett Walker: Let me say my parents were public art experts. I grew up in the arts. I have a degree in an arts field, so I’m all for public art. I think that public art has an incredibly positive role, if it is bottom up, if it has arisen out of the community, it’s therefore an expression of a community’s particular value.

I think that top-down public art is probably less effective, but no one has a problem with there being an aesthetic dimension to service. The larger issue though is how much? When the question becomes “How much less service are we going to have so that we can pay for this?” That’s really the frame in which you need to think about that question.

So I’ll switch that to a common example, [people] calling me when their book came out about 10 years ago, they used the word transit has become dull and “utilitarian,” utilitarian of course is a derogatory word meaning useful. No indication that there’s something wrong with the fact that transit is just useful as opposed to beautiful and the way we think it should be.

And they use the example of you know whimsical bus shelters that create delight. They included a photograph of a famous Japanese bus shelter that’s shaped like a strawberry.

And my response to that was, “OK, how much service, less service are we going to [have] so that we can have those? How many people we going to tell that they can’t get where they’re going when they need to? Because we chose instead to invest in cute bus shelters.”

Strong Towns: Yes.

Jarrett Walker: And when they use the train. My job is to make that tradeoff visible and not let it get concealed behind vague romantic notions.

I’m fine with public art — I’m fine, you know I’m GREAT. I love art. I want that to be part of the experience, but part of the beauty to me is the beauty of people that have great lives and being liberated to do what they want to do because the transit system works for them.

And that requires sheer quantity. So I point out, for example, to the San Francisco bus shelters that were introduced a few years ago which have a very simple kind of waveform to them they are nice they’re distinct and they say something about San Francisco. And yet they’re designed to be just stamped out of a kit of parts very cost-effectively because the crucial thing about transit is that transit is big scale, and if your idea doesn’t scale it doesn’t matter.

That’s what you’ve got to be careful, too, about the demonstration project. The idea that “We’ll just do this little thing over here, and that we’ll see if it works,” and then it will take off. Very few things in transit — that works fine for a lot of product development kinds of ways, but it just doesn’t work in transit because if it doesn’t work at the scale of the network it probably doesn’t work.

Strong Towns: As a final question I want to pose to you the whole autonomous car conundrum and maybe we don’t have time to get into it too deeply but I’ll set it up this way.
I was in Omaha last week and we were having a conversation about transit. A nice little lady in the front row raises her hand. She is well into retirement age and she referred to this, you know, burgeoning technology of autonomous vehicles and how it basically is going to make transit systems obsolete and make the entire conversation we were we were having kind of silly. I had an answer for her, but I’d like to give you an opportunity to give your answer to her.

Jarrett Walker: There are three big kinds of problems in transportation, especially urban transportation. And they have three different kinds of solutions. And although it’s fashionable to want to mix them all up and create some sort of romantic or sexy vision of the future, you’ve got to keep one foot on the floor to do that. You’ve got to think about these three questions separately.

But first of all there is the problem of emissions and energy efficiency, for which the solution is electrification.

Then there is a problem of safety and use of time for which the solution is automation.

And then there is a problem of the efficient use of space in dense cities. Which the solution is big vehicles that use space efficiently.

Those are three different problems, and we can certainly imagine a future in which those three things get combined in the electric automated bus. Those are the solutions to all three problems combined as they apply to the city.

Now there are plenty of places where autonomous cars are going to be great, but they’re going to be the places that have room for [them] like outer suburbs, [not] in dense cities, [not] in places where space is precious.

They’re going to be a disaster if they if they are allowed to just go everywhere in a free market way, they’re going to create their own congestion, their own problems and that’s why, by the way, I want to give Uber and some of those companies credit. They are looking ahead to road pricing, the prospect that they will have to, in some way, pay some sort of pricing that that gives them a reason to use that road space official.

The notion that autonomous vehicles can replace public transit is probably true in some places. It’s true in the coverage places. It’s true in our suburbs. Places where transit doesn’t work well anyway. But it’s a disastrous vision.

Strong Towns: Do you think autonomous vehicles are going to make transit cheaper?

Jarrett Walker: I think yes. If we had an autonomous bus. Many many subway systems are autonomous now. You know, most people have ridden one of these things. But when it comes to autonomous buses, which are rapidly under development in places like Europe and China, where they where the value is “if we had that, bus service would suddenly become vastly more abundant” because the primary the cost on the quantity of bus service right now is labor.

So, you know, I look at typical bus systems, and I imagine how utterly transformative it would be if the bus was every five minutes, where we can’t afford that now. The cost is high that way. But that becomes possible with automation. What that would do is it would transform the useful mass of buses.

Strong Towns: It would also then transform people’s attitudes toward buses. And you know we’d be in a much better course the next time we chat.