This is a Guest Post by Matt. (Yes a lot of Matts comment on this blog, this is by “handlebars Matt”). 

Human Transit is Jarrett Walker’s blog, which he calls the professional blog of a public transit planning consultant. Human Transit – How Clearer Thinking about Public Transit Can Enrich Our Communities and Our Lives is his book distilling his blog, and the essence of his philosophy of public transport planning. The book, and his views are based on where he’s lived and worked (Portland, Sydney, Vancouver amongst them) and his examples are from West Coast North America and Australasia, and therefore will not be so remote from readers in Auckland and Wellington. He even acknowledges that some people call it public transport, and in some cities they even drive on the left. He’s worked in various cities and hints at some of the arguments and debates that he’s witnessed over the years. Whatever his frustrations may have been, he wished that everyone was arguing from the same place with the same language and the same understanding of the basics. This is a book about those basics.

It’s a short book, and an easy read (which I finished today, appropriately on a train). You’ll not struggle with convoluted language. It uses simple and clear prose. This is a bit of a blessing since this is essentially a book about the geometry of transit, a topic which could be as dry as Weeties in a milk drought, but here it isn’t. I think anyone could read this. And I think a lot of people should. It would be nice if more people understood the trade-offs that a city makes when they plan and fund their network. You’d hope this was known like the backs of hands by people who do the actual planning. One look at the average city map (like Maxx’s Southern Suburbs map) shows that there is a lot of room for taking on more of the book’s key messages.

Some of his topics will be familiar to readers of his blog – legibility of maps, and frequent network maps is important, and the ease of making connections (with a short spiel on smartcards and integrated ticketing) facilitating a grid of rapid services which give the rider the freedom of personal mobility to move around their city. Coverage in a network can be given by local, meandering services, but ridership is increased by frequent connected services linking the major nodes of the city in a grid. In a flat city with many nodes of activity this would be a rectangular grid, but in a city like Auckland with a strong CBD, and it’s unique topography, a spider’s web network of rapid services would fit (that’s my observation and not one from the book). It is making the same point as Paul Mees in his book A Very Public Solution (and more recently, Transport for Suburbia); a network of frequent interlinked services is possible in dispersed cities (like Australian, US, Canadian and NZ cities) even with low overall density if the local density around the stops is higher.

Like his blog the book is technology neutral. He doesn’t care whether trains are better than buses. He cares about whether they have their own right of way, whether their crossings are at grade or not, the frequency of service, and the span of those services. He talks about planning for all day products, and not necessarily concentrating on the peaks. The book does ignore technology, but there are aspects of technology that are relevant in regards to capacity, e.g. passengers per hour (train lines can carry more passengers than a dedicated bus lane perhaps) and in some ways technologies aren’t solving the same problems. Replacing the Wellington Cable Car with a bus for instance isn’t possible as some technologies have different capabilities. Somehow, interesting as they are, I think those kind of discussions would have got in the way of the lessons that are in the book.

Another thing missing perhaps was much talk of the stations and stops themselves, other than to say they must respect the passengers, and be safe and pleasant places. There was only passing mention of bicycle and car park and rides and kiss ‘n rides. Again maybe this is my bugbear and is a detail left for elsewhere.

Frequent readers of Human Transit, or other urban transit blogs may think they know it all already. You probably do, but still read this book. Seeing the rules of transit planning distilled down to simple heuristics, and understanding that some things (like coverage and ridership) are tradeoffs, all in the one place may be useful to you. Lessons learned for me are the language of describing the different delays that a service may encounter and the “be on the way” rule. If you’re planning a passenger generator (like a university) don’t build it on a cul-de-sac or on top of a hill. (He mentions the currently in the news Simon Fraser University in Vancouver in regards to this). Another example of his “be on the way” rule was the dreams unfulfilled of Peter Calthorpe designed Laguna West south of Sacramento. It had me breaking out Calthorpe’s The Next American Metropolis and checking it out on Google Maps. His example of Fresno, California left me scratching my head though. 6-8 lane boulevards are just not the New Zealand experience.

All up this book is a practical vision, working inside political realities, where a city can intensify development opportunities, by choosing the geometry and frequency of its services, that result in more efficient public transport opportunities that give people true freedom to have the mobility of their own cities. It is a very human philosophy and should enable us to share a language to ask for what we want.

For Auckland if the political reality is a central government that is not going to come to the party on rail improvements then what lessons could we learn from this book about how we could have a frequent grid? For all NZ cities how do we get bus priority and, where useful, buses in their own dedicated lanes? We often accuse the central government of “being dumb”, but how, faced with that reality, could we be smarter? This book should help.

Share this

one comment

  1. I am about 60% through this book myself and agree with what you’ve said Matt. It is an excellent book and something I hope most Auckland Transport staff have a good read of. One particular thing I found interesting was the comparative costs of providing peak and off peak services. Will write something on that tonight.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *