Review of Human Transit by Jarrett Walker
Human Transit by Jarrett Walker (Island Press, Washington, 2011) is a comprehensive analysis of the questions that need to be answered when considering the design of a transit network. It is available on Amazon . Although the tone seems to be directed towards those who already have some kind of knowledge or interest in transit, the discussion is such that it can be understood by any educated person.
One interesting aspect of this book is that although Walker makes it plain that he is not advocating for or against any network design paradigm, the book subtly points the reader in his preferred direction. For example, in Chapter 13, in which he discusses the advantage of creating a bus network designed to require lots of connections because doing so allows for a simpler network design and more frequent service on major streets. While I agree with this argument, there are some areas which may be better served by direct connections. For example, bus travelers in Edmonton, AB may appreciate the fact that the Edmonton Transit System utilizes a lot of direct routes rather than force commuters to wait for their next bus in sub-zero temperatures. The senior and disabled are another group that may prefer to avoid transfers, and agencies that penalize transferring through their fare structures; like Sydney, Australia; are likely to have patrons who demand direct buses to all major destinations. While everyone is likely to find it easier to navigate the grid system of San Francisco’s Muni than the direct routes of Pittsburgh’s Port Authority, there are reasons why some cities would be better off with the Pittsburgh model than the San Francisco model. In addition, the advent of real-time trip planning and bus locating applications has reduced some of the drawbacks of a direct-route system by allowing people to limit their wait time at bus stops and to navigate complex route networks.
One aspect of transit that I wish Walker spent more time on is the issue of fares. While at first glance how, or if, fares are collected seems to have little to do with how a transit network should be planned, upon further thought fares can affect network design and operation in subtle but real ways. From above, the absence of fare transfers and a very expensive day pass in Sydney’s transit systems could make the adoption of a grid system of routes, in the absence of fare policy revision, unaffordable for residents who cannot afford period passes. In Los Angeles , Metro fare policy penalizes passengers who ride express buses on freeways, making the ride more expensive than light rail would be in the same corridor and thus affecting the potential ridership. Because of the effect that fares can have on the performance of the system, a fare analysis should be undertaken before major service changes.
One chapter of the book that may be of the most use to people in the transit industry is Chapter 3: Five Paths to Confusion. Transit planning, while not the most lucrative profession, certainly pays well enough for the planners to afford cars. As such, planners have to be cognizant of designing a transit network based on the needs of car drivers and not necessarily of their passengers (I have previously discussed this scenario in response to a class I took that was taught by Walker ) . As Walker mentions, one of the problems that can occur in this scenario is overvaluing speed and undervaluing frequency. We can see the application of this problem in the recent trend of introducing rapid bus routes. In Los Angeles, nobody would deny that Route 734, the rapid bus route along Sepulveda Blvd, has a faster average speed than Route 234, which provides local service along the same corridor. However, the operating cost of the rapid service was partially paid for by reducing service on the local route; today, due to many service reductions over the past couple of years, during the mid-day both Route 734 and 234 operate every 30 minutes. The increased speed of Route 734 is at least partially offset by the long waiting time for the route. Thus, ironically, operating the local route only but more frequently (say every 20 minutes) would likely result in overall faster trip times than the rapid would allow because the decrease in waiting time would more than offset the slower local trip time. This fact is why people at shared rapid/local stops in Los Angeles usually take the first bus that comes along.
It is interesting comparing this book to Darrin Nordahl’s My Kind of Transit . While Nordahl argues that more people would ride transit if it were fun, Walker states that more people would ride it if it were useful. I would hope that most people would agree more with the second statement than the first. Anyway, the good news is that if the type of network described in Human Transit was built, then transit networks would indeed attract more passengers. The better news is that these types of improvements are happening more and more frequently. Even Pittsburgh, a bus system so complicated that passengers had to remember both numbers and letters, has been simplified in recent years. However, the sad truth remains is that just as urban planners are almost never in a situation to design whole cities from scratch, so too are transit planners almost never in a situation to design whole transit networks from scratch. As such, transit professionals often know how to do the right thing ( as can you ) but are unable to do so because of a fear from decision makers to upset the status quo. In order to solve this problem, may I suggest the title of Mr. Walker’s next book: Political Transit: How to Get Politicians to Modify Their Transit Systems to Meet the Needs of the 21st Century.