Darrin Nordahl. My Kind of Transit: Rethinking Public Transportation in America. Center for American Places, 2008.
Like streets themselves, transit stations and vehicles are part of the common space of a city, and the experience of using them tells us a great deal, often at a crucial subconscious level, about our city and our place in it.
One of the great challenges of the transit business is to make every rider feel welcomed. It’s easy to do this if you’re running a few buses in a small town; there, you have so few riders that you can greet them all by name. But the challenge of big-city transit is to give a welcoming sensation to huge masses of people at once.
The great cathedral-like train stations of American railroad era did this; many great European stations still do, and contemporary station design is finding its way back to those principles.
Such stations are great not just because of aesthetics, but also because they work efficiently, serving the movement needs of masses of people in a way that makes good use of both limited space and limited funds. They provide a great aesthetic experience to enormous numbers of people at once, while also moving these people along on their journey. Their efficiency is an inseparable part of what makes them inspiring places.
In short, great urban design for transit must provide great sensory experiences while still serving the purpose of transit, which in most cases is to help large numbers of people move freely through a city without cars. It would seem reasonable, then, that an urban designer could be expected to know a bit about what counts as efficiency in the transit business. But no.
Darrin Nordahl’s My Kind of Transit is a book-length explanation of
what could be called, in its own terms, the Disneyland theory of transit. The theory states, in
its barest form, that to make people ride transit, we must provide an experience that’s more like what they get at Disneyland :
Disneyland’s omnibuses, streetcars, and monorails exemplify attention to detail that appeal to a passenger’s emotions. Sadly, such detail is missing in many American transit systems today. … Would [Disneyland’s] transit systems offer similar experiences within real urban settings? Would they appeal to both visitors and residents alike? Are they even practical outside the “Land of Make Believe”? In short, the answer is yes. … It is worth an exploration of this nation’s most unique transit systems and the resultant joy that they offer both to passengers and onlookers. This is the objective of the succeeding chapters. (emphasis added)
Note the passing reference to practicality. Nordahl asks the question here but never returns to it. Nowhere does he show any interest in what various transit technologies cost to build and operate. Nowhere does he suggest that ridership may have anything to do with the travel time we offer and the fare we charge.
Instead, he offers a purely aesthetic rumination about the most famous tourist attractions in the American transit industry, from the San Francisco cable cars to the Seattle and Las Vegas monorails. Such ruminations have an important place in the literature of urban design, but they are far removed from the practical business of transit, and are unlikely to influence it much from such a distance.
Consider, for example, his conclusion that some transit services should be designed specifically to be slow:
A passenger vehicle that travels a mere ten miles per hour, such as the New Orleans streetcar, may be anathema to current transportation ideology. … Time that is lost to the destination, however, is time afforded to the passenger to people-watch, window-shop, and sightsee … A slow-moving transit vehicle adds welcome animation to the street, drawing people to it, unlike a fast one from which safety-minded pedestrians keep their distance.
The urban design point is undeniable. Relative speed is a dominant factor in the perception of safety, so slow-moving vehicles feel safer than fast ones. But is this really our primary concern in choosing transit technologies? Quick: You have a meeting at 8:00 AM tomorrow. Will you set your alarm at 6:00 and take the boring old subway, or set it at 5:00 so that you can ride a 10 mph service that offers you the chance to “people-watch, window-shop, and sightsee”? We should all understand the emerging ideologies of slowness, but we’d surely deserve ridicule if we proposed such an ideology to a Rapid Transit agency or the High Speed Rail commission.
Nordahl’s book is also a fine example of the great fallacy of transit tourism. Political leaders frequently take junkets to other cities, ride those cities’ transit systems as tourists, and then come home proposing to build the same kind of service. But our values as tourists are different from our values as commuters: We enjoy riding the Ferris wheel, but that doesn’t mean we’d enjoy commuting on one. There certainly are times when we travel in our home city in a recreational way, with the primary goal of pleasure, but most of the time we really need to get somewhere, because a treasured or necessary part of our lives is on hold until we do.
The other problem with being guided by transit tourism is that tourists are specifically attracted to rarity. Most of the fun technologies that Nordahl praises consist of just one or two lines; not one of them forms the bulk of the network in its city. But effective, relevant transit must be all over a city; by definition it can’t be rare, it has to be normal, common, even taken for granted. By this standard, the great hero of hill-climbing transit in San Francisco is not the cable car but the abundant electric trolleybus. It may not be as romantic as a cable car, but it’s much cheaper to operate and faster at climbing steep hills, so these buses can run frequently at ordinary fares. (And because all the passengers are inside the vehicle frame instead of hanging on the exterior, they’re much safer in collisions — another thing that matters more to a regular rider than to a tourist in search of peak experiences.)
Nordahl’s main point is very important: Transit vehicles are not just transportation, they
are civic space, and they must be designed as such. Most of the values that he elucidates and defends — such as scale, style, transparency, lighting, and connection to place — should be considered in every decision about the design, procurement, and fitting of transit vehicles. But these experiential values cannot expect to rule on matters such as frequency, speed, and staffing, as Nordahl proposes to do, because those factors are the dominant cost-drivers of transit; they will always be governed largely by what provides the greatest possible mobility at the least possible cost. Nordahl regrets that driverless high-frequency metros (such as Vancouver’s SkyTrain) lack a human presence who will acknowledge us and answer our questions, but in a business whose costs are dominated by labor, we could only add such people by drastically reducing the mobility and capacity that those systems provide. This is the real-world tradeoff implied by Nordahl’s thinking, but he never discusses it.
A stronger book would have acknowledged the practical limits of aesthetic thinking and at least noted the role of efficiency in achieving sustainability outcomes through transit. An even stronger book would have explored case studies of how Nordahl’s design principles could be applied
in a real-world planning problem, where cost and ridership are
paramount concerns. Rather than praising systems that are popular because
of their rarity, he could have looked at all the ways that his values are
already being implemented in affordable and efficient technologies, ranging from super-frequent metros to ordinary but rapidly-improving
buses. He could have told the remarkable story of
the emergence of the low-floor bus in the 1990s; this transformation was politically driven by disabled
access issues, but it made the bus a much more pleasant place by increasing the vertical space inside and allowing for much larger
windows. He might even have taken us back to great transit experiences like Grand Central, to observe that sometimes the efficiency of a transit service is inseparable from its joy. Transit is crucial
urban space, and we desperately need more attention to the humanistic aspects
of its design. But we still need to get there, fast and affordably. Our jobs and our children are waiting.