Welcome. Let’s talk about public transit.
I’m Jarrett Walker, and this is my professional blog. Since 1991 I’ve been a consulting transit planner, helping to design
transit networks and policies for a huge range of communities. My goal here is to start conversations about how transit works, and how we can use it to create better cities and towns.
A bit about me
I’m in this business because as a teenager in the 1970s, I lived through a revolution in a place called Portland, Oregon. In 1972 Oregon passed its famous land use laws, intended to protect agricultural land from car-based sprawl, and in the next few years Portland took a series of dramatic steps to establish a new direction.
The city demolished a waterfront freeway to replace it with a park. It set aside two streets through the center of downtown as a transit mall, where transit wouldn’t get stuck in traffic. It canceled a long-planned freeway project that would have torn up valuable old neighborhoods. It began planning the light rail system that we now know as MAX. And it made a series of smaller changes, block by block, policy by policy, that launched the city on a new course. Rarely has a city changed direction so fast, or so profoundly. Experiencing this transformation as a teenager — commuting by bus across the city through a downtown that grew more vibrant by the day — taught me to believe in the possibility of rapid and fundamental change in how a city imagines and builds itself.
In a small way, my career as a public transit planner has been about creating and managing these kinds of change. I’ve led the redesign of many bus networks, developed long-range strategic plans for transit, and written policies that guide the design of transit and its role in the city. During my year in Vancouver I had the privilege of working with talented architects and urbanists on visions for new town centers. For several years I worked with the City of Seattle Department of Transportation on a range of great projects, including a downtown transit plan, a citywide long-term transit network, and policies on how the city would optimize those streets for transit.
I’ve lived for long stretches, usually without a car, in San Francisco, Vancouver, Portland, Sydney, Paris, Oxford, and in a leafy suburb called Claremont east of Los Angeles. I began this blog while living in Sydney but moved to Vancouver in April 2011 and back to Portland in December of that year. I now run my own firm, Jarrett Walker + Associates, but when working in Australia and New Zealand I work through McCormick Rankin Cagney (MRC), a great firm that does transit planning and management there.
About the blog
I’ll be commenting here on developments in public transit in the developed world, especially in North America.
My goal is not to make you share my values, but to provide perspectives that help you clarify yours. Much of my work has been about analyzing public transit problems to separate the technical question from the question about values. To take just one example, most transit agencies will tell you they want maximum ridership, but they usually also operate some low-ridership services that meet other goals, such as to provide basic mobility to transit-dependent people who live in low-ridership areas. Every agency decides, explicitly or not, whether to spend a dollar on building high ridership or to spend it on these social service needs. Stated this way, this is a question of values. It has no technical answer, because it’s a question about what your community feels is most important. My role is to point out the question itself, show how it’s lurking inside debates that may seem to be about something else, and help you form an opinion based on your values.
Public transit debates are often a confused mixture of technical information and value judgments. Sometimes, it serves someone’s agenda to keep these things mixed up. When someone discussing transit hits you with technical detail that you can’t expect to follow, they may be making a valid point, but they may also be trying to exclude you from the discussion.
As an expert on public transit, let me warn you that the job of developing great transit must never be left entirely to experts. Once a community has expressed its transit goals, experts have a role in designing systems to meet them. But experts shouldn’t be the source of the goals themselves. Citizens and their elected officials are entitled to a clear explanation of the underlying choices they face, and a chance to express their views on them. I believe every citizen has a right to debate about their public services in terms that they can understand. Much of my work has been about creating that debate, and I’ll try to continue that process here.
The other problem with “expertise” in transit is that there are many different kinds. Transit agencies tend to draw staff with a wide range of experience, ranging from former bus drivers to engineers to people trained in marketing or business. There is really no core graduate training that all the practitioners share, as there is in fields like engineering and architecture.
This permeability of the transit field, the ease with which it can be entered from other disciplines, is on balance a good thing. The last thing we need is another uniform and revered priesthood working from a single holy book, like the culture of highway engineering in the Interstate era. But because many kinds of expertise are at play, it’s important not to treat experts as the ultimate authority, and that includes me. I’ll inevitably express my own values now and then, but my real purpose is to help you express yours in a way that can have an impact on your community.
Finally, I should confess that I spent my 20s at Stanford doing a Ph. D. in a literary
field. The training is more relevant than you might think, because
literary theory is about what’s going on inside of language. I’ll comment frequently on word choices, for example, like the depressing American verb to transfer. The language of public transit debates is often deeply incoherent because most of the key words have been brought in from other discourses. Several overlapping languages are also in play. Bus operations speak one language, marketing people speak another, architects and urbanists speak another. A transit debate requires a great deal of translation if everyone is to understand what’s going on, but more importantly, we need to see what’s going on inside the words we use, and to notice if they’re carrying baggage that we don’t really want. So I’ll comment on words a good deal.
The blogging-consulting balance
Since I’m still a practicing consultant, you may notice me avoiding a
hot topic now and then. This may happen because I’m working on the issue
professionally and am obliged not to discuss it until we publish
something. I may obviously be circumspect about criticizing anyone who might be a client in the future, and I hope this constraint will give the blog a positive but not saccharine tone. I will advertise my own published work now and then, and that of my colleagues at McCormick Rankin Cagney, but I’ll do my best to advertise great work no matter who did it. Everything I
write is solely my view and does not represent the views of MRC
or my clients.
Constructive comments from readers are essential to what I’m doing here. Transit is a big field where even the most articulate expert still has a lot to learn. Certain bounds of civility and coherence are defined by the comment policy, but within those bounds I hope to let the debate flow, and learn as much from this as anyone.