Human Transit: How Clearer Thinking about Public Transit Can Enrich Our Communities and Our Lives

Human Transit: How Clearer Thinking about Public Transit Can Enrich Our Communities and Our Lives

by Jarrett Walker

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Public transit is a powerful tool for addressing a huge range of urban problems, including traffic congestion and economic developmas well as climate change. But while many people support transit in the abstract, it's often hard to channel that support into good transit investments. Part of the problem is that transit debates attract many kinds of experts, who often talk past each other. Ordinary people listen to a little of this and decide that transit is impossible to figure out.

Jarrett Walker believes that transit can be simple, if we focus first on the underlying geometry that all transit technologies share. In Human Transit, Walker supplies the basic tools, the critical questions, and the means to make smarter decisions about designing and implementing transit services.

Human Transit explains the fundamental geometry of transit that shapes successful systems; the process for fitting technology to a particular community; and the local choices that lead to transit-friendly development. Whether you are in the field or simply a concerned citizen, here is an accessible guide to achieving successful public transit that will enrich any community.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781610911740
Publisher: Island Press
Publication date: 07/29/2012
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 235
Sales rank: 649,882
File size: 16 MB
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About the Author

Jarrett Walker has been designing public transit systems for over 20 years. He is an independconsultant in North America and Principal Consultant with MRCagney in Australia. He writes the popular transit blog

Read an Excerpt

Human Transit

How Clearer Thinking about Public Transit Can Enrich Our Communities and Our Lives

By Jarrett Walker, Eric Orozco, Erin Walsh, Alfred Twu, Daniel Howard, David Jones


Copyright © 2012 Jarrett Walker
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-61091-174-0



There are several ways to define public transit, so it is important to clarify how I'll be using the term. Public transit consists of regularly scheduled vehicle trips, open to all paying passengers, with the capacity to carry multiple passengers whose trips may have different origins, destinations, and purposes.

Let's take this definition apart:

"regularly scheduled vehicle trips": Transit is provided by a vehicle running on a regular schedule or pattern. There is room for variation in routes and schedules. Demand-responsive services, for example, may vary their routing according to customer requests, within set limits. But at its core, transit service must be predictable so that different people can plan around it without coordinating directly with one another. This feature is the crucial difference between transit and other ways of sharing a ride.

"open to all paying passengers": The word public in public transit means "open to the entire public." This word can be confusing in debates about whether transit should be operated by the government or by the private sector. In the developed world, where wage costs are high, transit is usually subsidized by government, but it may still be operated either by government or by private companies. In those conversations, public transit can be misunderstood as meaning "transit operated by the public sector—that is, government—rather than by private companies." That is not the meaning in this book or the prevalent meaning in the developed world. Even privately operated transport services are expected to welcome all paying customers; in fact, the failure to do so can become a civil rights issue.

"that can carry multiple passengers": The ability to carry many people with a single vehicle is the defining virtue of transit, and the most basic measure of its efficiency.

"whose trips may have different origins, destinations, and purposes": Transit, in the sense used in this book, does not include:

* carpools and vanpools, where several people with the same destination share a ride;

* school buses, where school is the only origin or destination served;

* a family in their minivan, or any other group that's intentionally traveling together;

* taxis, which carry a small number of riders at the time, typically all with the same origin and destination.

There are many forms of multi-occupant vehicles, all of which are better for the environment than the same individuals each driving alone. Carpools, school buses, and shared taxis are all useful parts of a city's transportation mix, and sometimes demand can be shifted between these services and the formal public transit system. But they are not public transit as this book, and most of the industry, uses the term.

At its core, transit is about multiple people riding in one vehicle even though they are not intentionally traveling together or even going to the same places. The core challenge of transit design, then, is how to run vehicles so that people with different origins, destinations, and purposes can make their trip at the same time and will be motivated to choose transit to do so. This book is all about that challenge.


While this book is about transit, I never imply that transit is or should be the dominant alternative to the private car. Many ways of sharing vehicles have important roles to play in the larger project of reducing car dependence. These include many forms of carpooling and vanpooling, which typically carry people from a similar area of origin to a common destination, as well as "carshare" programs, which provide members with hourly self-service car rental, thus reducing a household's need to own cars. These programs, commonly supported by transit agencies, are important complements to transit, though they are not this book's focus.

In focusing on transit, I am also not denying the role of the "active modes," such as cycling and walking. Quite the opposite. Virtually every transit rider is also a pedestrian, so transit ridership depends heavily on the quality of the pedestrian environment where transit stops. The ability and willingness of people to walk a short distance to a stop or station is what makes it possible to gather many people with many intentions on a single vehicle, which is the essence of transit's project.

Cycling, meanwhile, is growing rapidly in many New World cities, at least those that have made some effort to accommodate it. But even in the most bicycle-dominated countries, such as the Netherlands, transit has a crucial market. Local bus service has a somewhat smaller role there because bicycles take so much of the short-distance market, but in the longer-distance market, trips over 3 miles (5 km) or so, cycling and transit reinforce each other. Longer-distance "rapid transit" services (rail and bus) run fast by not stopping often, but their stations feature masses of bicycle parking. The bicycle becomes an ideal tool for extending the reach of a rapid transit station, reducing (but not eliminating) the need for slower local bus and streetcar services.

Many cities and transit agencies are looking at how to expand the potential for these "cycle + transit" trips. These efforts include enhancing bicycle storage opportunities at stations as well as allowing cyclists to bring their bikes onboard, at least during low- demand times when there's room to spare. These strategies have the potential to build the market for both cycling and public transit.

So transit has the potential for a mutually beneficial relationship with most of the other alternatives to the private car.

Walking is an intrinsic feature of almost all transit trips, so all transit advocates must be pedestrian advocates. Transit outcomes depend heavily on the nature of the walking required, including both how long the walk is and how pleasant it is.

Cycling can compete with local transit but tends to complement longer-distance rapid transit, especially when investments are made in secure bicycle storage at stations.

Carpooling is a crucial tool for regularly scheduled commutes, especially to lower-density employment centers, such as business and industrial parks, that are not dense enough to attract high-quality transit.

Carsharing, a form of short-term car rental, is essential in cities that want to encourage lower levels of car ownership, at least in their denser neighborhoods where the space requirements of private cars are hardest to meet. Carsharing eliminates the temptation to own a car that you only need once or twice a week, by providing the cheaper option of shared cars for these purposes.

So even as these other sustainable transport modes grow, we will need public transit. Among the sustainable transportation alternatives, public transit is unique in two crucial respects. First, only public transit can carry large numbers of people in a single vehicle with a single driver, even as these people travel from different origins to different destinations for different purposes. At the intense levels of demand found in high-density cities, public transit is an efficient use of both energy and scarce urban space and is often the most attractive option for trips that are too long to walk or cycle.

Second, public transit delivers people from one part of the city to another as pedestrians, eliminating all the challenges of storing a personal vehicle. The pedestrian is the foundation of contemporary urban design, because walking is the only form of transportation that doesn't feel like transportation at all. Walking is also an ideal mode for both health and sustainability. If you want to encourage pedestrian life, you need to connect pedestrian-intensive places to one another in a way that the pedestrian can use. Transit can be ideal for this purpose.


To make a vehicle trip useful to many people who are not coordinating with one another, the vehicle trip has to be predictable. That's why, in the developed world, transit is dominated by fixed services; on these, transit vehicles follow the same path, at the same time, day after day, so that customers can plan around the pattern. Fixed services are the most efficient form of transit in terms of the ability to carry many passengers for each hour of the driver's time, so they have come to represent well over 99 percent of transit ridership in the United States.

The rest, accounting for less than 1 percent of ridership, are various kinds of flexible or demand-responsive services, where the routing followed by a transit bus or van can change based on customer requests. Although flexible route services are an area of great innovation, they remain limited because they're intrinsically less efficient. Taking a different route depending on customer requests, as flexible routes do, takes more of the driver's time for each passenger's needs. So flexible routes tend to be useful where the overall demand is low, or for specific populations whose needs aren't met by fixed services, such as some disabled persons. I'll return to this issue in chapter 10, but for now let's focus on the services that the other 99 percent ride: the fixed services.


In 2009, we began to see web-based tools that allow you to enter an address and see where you can get to from there on transit in a fixed amount of time. Figure 1-1, for example, is the output from when queried by someone near the San Francisco Civic Center at 9:00 am.

These tools aren't for planning a trip; rather, they're for visualizing your freedom. That freedom is transit's product. The core product that arises from transit is personal mobility, by which I mean the freedom to move beyond your walking range. Mobility is a controversial concept, so it's worth taking a moment to clarify how I'll use the term and why. Readers who are less interested in theory may skip the rest of this chapter, but anyone who thinks theoretically about transportation or urbanism will find this section crucial.

A quick survey of definitions of mobility turns up a range of slightly different ones, indicating some ambiguity in the word. Here are a few:

The condition of moving freely.

Ease of moving about.

Movement of people or goods within the transportation system.

By defining the term personal mobility as a freedom, I mean something close to "ease of moving about," but this is not at all the same as movement. The first describes a degree of freedom, while the second is a result of some people choosing to exercise that freedom.

If you think of person movement as transit's product, as many conventional measures do, the output of transit that matters is passenger-miles or passenger-kilometers. A passenger-mile is one passenger carried for 1 mile. (Fifty passenger miles, for example, could mean one passenger carried for 50 miles, or 50 passengers each carried for 1 mile.) As an approach to measuring transit's output, this concept of quantities of movement is troublesome. It doesn't measure how readily people got to where they were going; it just measures how far they were moved. Most of the time, though, our travel isn't motivated by a sheer desire for movement; it's motivated by the need to do something—to make some kind of economic or personal contact—that is too far away to walk to. In most cases, we don't want movement. We want access.

Access is the ability to complete some desired personal or economic transaction. Your mobility can be visualized as where you can go in a given time.

Access is how many useful or valuable things you can do. If a new grocery store opens near your house, that addition doesn't improve your mobility but it does improve your access. You can now get your groceries closer to home, so you don't need as much mobility as you did before. You can also improve your access (but not your mobility) by working at home instead of commuting, downloading music instead of going to a store, or moving in with your romantic partner. In other words, much of the work of access is about eliminating the need to move your body around the city in order to complete the economic and personal transactions that make up a life.

As Todd Litman points out, access can be achieved in three ways. You can (1) travel to the thing you need, in which case you need mobility; you can (2) obtain it via telecommunications; or you can (3) relocate either yourself or the desired thing so that both are closer together. Urban redevelopment, which adds new destinations close to you, supports option 3 at a large scale.

Transit plays a role in both option 1 and option 3. Transit provides mobility directly, but it can also influence urban development, which in turn can improve access. For example, if a new subway station opens near your house, you get improved mobility. But if the station leads to new development around it, you may get a new grocery store close to home. Even if you never ride transit, that's an access improvement for you.

Still, transit's role in mobility is direct, whereas its influence on redevelopment is indirect. Transit may lead to access-improving development, but only via several intermediate and unreliable steps. You can build a transit line and still not get new development if any of several other things don't fall into place—including zoning, economic growth, cooperative neighbors, courageous developers, and bankers willing to lend. In that case, the new transit project doesn't improve access at all, unless it has improved the first kind of access: mobility.

So personal mobility—the freedom to move—is the direct product of public transit. Mobility doesn't always generate movement, but it does generate happiness. For this reason, people will resist locating in places where it seems to be denied.

If we want cities to be built in ways that require less travel—that is, if we want cities with better access—we will need to ensure that those cities still have generous transit mobility. We need to show that if you locate in a transit-intensive place, you will be able to get to lots of places that matter to you, on transit.

So in a book on transit, I'm going to insist that personal mobility—the freedom to move—is still transit's primary product. Again, mobility is only one dimension of access. The other two are urban redevelopment and telecommunications, both of which can reduce the need for travel. But mobility is the kind of access that most people expect transit, in particular, to deliver.

Chapter 14 will look more at urban form and all the ways we can change it, but we can't use transit to create better cities unless we first understand how transit does its primary task of providing personal mobility. Transit must focus not just on city-building impacts but also on the perspective of someone who needs to go somewhere, and get there soon, to address an immediate need. This person isn't thinking about how better transit might help transform the city, but rather, "I need to be there!" We must figure out whether transit can help, and if so, how.



If you spend any time inside the offices of a transit agency, you get used to seeing messages like "The customer comes first!" and "Service is our business !" Posted in the elevator or in the lunchroom, these messages are supposed to focus employees on a particular mission called "service."

But what kind of service do we need to provide so that people will use it? What is this mysterious thing called "service" anyway?

The most common answer is "Ask the customer!" As in any business, transit customers have needs, desires, and dislikes that must be a starting point in designing and operating a transit system. Most transit agencies do listen to public comments and demands and sometimes change direction because of them.


Excerpted from Human Transit by Jarrett Walker, Eric Orozco, Erin Walsh, Alfred Twu, Daniel Howard, David Jones. Copyright © 2012 Jarrett Walker. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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About Island Press,
Title Page,
Copyright Page,
Island Press | Board of Directors,

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