Review - Human Transit: How Clearer Thinking about Public Transit can enrich our communities and our lives, by Jarrett Walker
An observation from last September’s Australasian Transport Research Forum conference was the abundance of academics versus the paucity of practitioners.
I define practitoners as those who plan and operate transport routes or closely work with those who do. They have their own work and don’t write books and attend conferences as much as academics and bureaucrats.
Consequently it was refreshing to find a book on public transport service planning by an experienced practitioner. The author, Jarrett Walker, is a service planner and consultant to transport agencies in the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. His work was already known to me through his blog at humantransit.org
Having read books by academics such as Mees, Newman and Kenworthy, I was particularly interested in the different perspective that a practitioner might bring.
Academics thrive on research, teaching and (sometimes) political advocacy. However the affordability, practicality and acceptance of their recommendations may not frequently be tested.
Whereas practitioners need to be more practical and less theoretical. They must often work within existing resources; something academics might find limiting. Consultants can be practitioners too but won’t get work if not seen as useful.
In Human Transit, Walker describes himself as a plumber.
We don’t expect plumbers to tell us how to run our cities and our lives; unlike (say) priests, politicians and talkback radio hosts. They may hold values but cannot choose them for their clients. But they might be able to advise on the consequences of particular decisions; for instance the cheap quick fix versus the dearer but enduring repair. And they might point out that any option chosen must respect basic laws, like water flowing from high to low, for the system to work effectively.
City planners and developers deal the hand with which transit planners must work. Some decisions, notably with respect to density, are controversial. Walker, more than Mees, sees density as conducive to higher patronage. However he adds, correctly in my view, that location and geometry are equally critical when designing neighbourhoods for direct and efficient transport routes. To Walker these factors are public transport’s equivalent of the plumber’s basic laws. If disobeyed an area may never be easily or efficiently served by good public transport.
Transport networks themselves can be optimised to favour patronage or coverage goals. Networks that optimise patronage generally have direct, fast, frequent but more widely spaced routes, whereas a coverage-oriented network sacrifices directness, speed and frequency for short walking distances. Walker insists that transport authorities set a resource allocation policy between ‘patronage’ and ‘coverage’ routes.
Only after such priorities, and thus available resources, are known can the service planner design the network.
The book is a mine of simple but often neglected insights that would make public transport better. All are applicable to Melbourne. For instance the trade-off between directness, frequency and legibility on the one hand, and requiring that people change for some trips. We’re used to road maps having different thicknesses for different types of road, from lane to freeway, so why not do the same with transit maps, highlighting our most frequent,and thus most usable routes? And, on busy roads, the contribution of the humble pedestrian crossing to improving access to bus stops and the impetus it provides to gradually increase an areas’s walkability (and thus transit access).
Human Transit does what its title suggests. It forces the reader, from layperson to transport planner, to sharpen their thoughts and ask the right questions. I highly recommend it.
Human Transit is published by Island Press and is available from UNSW Bookshop.