Jarrett Walker’s Human Transit: Are we thinking about urban planning all wrong?

What’s the Best Way To Get Users To Embrace Mass Transit?

What’s the Best Way To Get Users To Embrace Mass Transit?

How we get from here to there.
Jan. 19 2012 1:48 PM

What’s the Best Way To Get Users To Embrace Mass Transit?

Make it pleasant? Or make it efficient?

“Systematic” Dubai; “Empathy” in Rio.
Planned cities like Dubai (left) are considered high system/low empathy while places that grew more organically, like the favelas of Rio (right) are low system/high empathy

Photograph of Dubai by Hemera/Thinkstock. Photograph of Rio by chensiyuan via Wikipedia.

A few months ago, at an urban mobility conference in Frankfurt, the British consultant Charles Leadbeater presented a sort of x-y matrix for thinking about how to manage and design cities. The chart was divided into quadrants of “system” and “empathy,” inspired by the psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen’s work with Asperger’s patients, who in some cases are quite good at “systemizing” behavior (e.g., attention to detail, patterns, organization, etc.), but less adept at empathic human relationships.

For cities, “system” implied things like infrastructure and institutions, while empathy implied the cultural texture of a place (that ineffable quality that guidebooks sometimes call “soul”). A planned-from-scratch place like Dubai, or Le Corbusier’s “Radiant City,” Leadbeater argued, was “high system/low empathy,” while the favelas of Rio, which grew up organically and are sustained by a web of informal networks, could be considered “low system/high empathy.” Then there are places—Lagos, he suggested—where neither axis is particularly optimized. How, he wanted to know, could you design for both?


I am habitually doubtful of such sweeping constructs—the world explained in a Power Point slide—but I was piqued by the concept, and I spent the rest of the presentation sketching out matrixes in my notebook. Take U.S. military strategy in Afghanistan. Drones are high system/low empathy; the Army’s “Human Terrain System,” which has used anthropologists and other civilian specialists to meet with tribal elders, is “low system/high empathy.” The High Line in New York? Low system/high empathy. (Although back when it was functioning transport infrastructure it was the other way around). Or think of Amazon.com versus your friendly local bookseller. You get the picture.

I thought again of Leadbeater’s system/empathy argument in reading Jarrett Walker’s new book, Human Transit. Walker, a Portland, Ore.-based transit planner who writes a popular blog of the same name, espouses a very “system”-oriented view of transit: He cares less what trains look like—or even that they’re trains to begin with—than that they simply run on time (and take people where they want to go). He has been pitched as a sort of antagonist to another planner, Darrin Nordahl, whose 2009 book My Kind of Transit, argues that the “ride experience” is crucial for getting Americans out of their cars and into public transit. Consider their opinions of San Francisco’s cable cars: Walker (“system”) thinks they’re neither efficient nor cost-effective (each car requires two employees) nor very important to getting San Franciscans around; Nordahl (“empathy”) argues they’re a vital public space, an experience in themselves, part of what makes the city the city.

Who is right? These views may not be so divergent as they initially seem, but Walker’s book makes the strong case that the system half of the equation cannot be ignored. As befits someone who has spent decades in small, formerly smoke-filled rooms with civic officials trying to implement working transit systems, Walker is a realist, and Human Transit is a spirited guide—prescriptive but with a righteous dash of polemic—to what we get wrong about transit. “In many urban regions,” he writes, “support for public transit is wide but shallow.” People generally like the idea of transit (as characterized by the Onion headline, “98 Percent of Americans Support Public Transit for Others”), but much of our society’s experience and understanding of transit, not to mention our willingness to pay for it, is limited. The very fact that most of us drive, argues Walker, casts a subtle, but powerful, influence onto transit thinking. “In most debates about proposed rapid transit lines,” he writes, “the speed of the proposed service gets more political attention than how frequently it runs, even though frequency, which determines waiting time, often matters more than speed in determining how long your trip will take.” Drivers don’t wonder when their cars are going to show up.

Transit systems themselves are guilty of these distortions, Walker argues, falling prey to a kind of destination fetish. “The prevailing habit of most transit systems,” he writes, “is to advertise where they go but to treat when as though it were a detail.” The map, in other words, dwells larger in the imagination than the timetable (and trying to combine these may require a certain Swiss efficiency). Transit agencies hardly help matters by printing maps where all lines seem to promise the “same kind of product,” when, in fact, one line may run every ten 10 minutes and the other twice a day. “A transit map that makes all the lines look equal,” writes Walker, “is like a road map that doesn’t show the difference between a freeway and a gravel road.”

Human Transit, as one might expect, is full of delectably geeky details. (Did you know that an “inverted couplet” is a way to organize multiple bus unloadings so that people can transfer without crossing the street?) But Walker, a onetime grad student in literature, also pays careful attention to the language we use in talking about transit. For most of us, “route” and “line” are indistinct, but Walker argues their meanings color our impressions. “A route is a place where some kind of transport event happens, but the event may be rare.” “Do you want to think of transit as something that’s always there, that you can count on? If so, call it a line.” He also warns against the seductive nature of transit “loops”: “Straight lines can seem aggressive, whereas loops offer a sense of closure. They can even suggest the shape of an embrace.” But while loops are favored by tourist buses, among others, it’s lines that get us where we need to go.