When transit advocates talk past each other, especially about the
glories of their favorite technology, I often feel we need a better way to talk about
what’s really important. Which features of a technology or transit plan
are truly essential in motivating ridership? Which are just really
Bottom line: People care about a particular set of needs only if lower-level needs are met.
This explains, for example, why it’s hard to get the people in poor and violent countries to care about democracy. A need for democracy arguably belongs to the Esteem level, as it’s about the government’s esteem of the citizen. But democracy is a pointless abstraction if you’re starving — i.e. your Physiological needs are not met — or even if you’re well fed but worried about civil war — i.e. threatened on the Safety level.
Most tales about the development of human civilization are about societies climbing, and slipping back, on this pyramid.
Scotty’s post looks at a University of Florida survey that used Maslow’s scheme to understand how people weigh different transit desires against each other. The survey has lots of problems — dig via Scotty’s post if you’re interested — but it’s a question worth thinking about.
We transport planners are sometimes cast as narrow-minded because we obsess about travel time. But we obsess about it because human beings do. When an urbanist such as Patrick Condon suggests that I should want transit to be slower so that it will foster better communities, I sense a problem that Maslow’s pyramid might elucidate.
Where in Maslow’s pyramid would we locate our need for speed? You might argue that it depends on the purpose of travel, but the vast majority of our travel is about the three lowest levels of the pyramid. These levels — Physiological, Safety and Love/belonging — are what motivate us to work, and work is one of the great drivers of transit demand.
(Sure, you say you work for Self-actualization. So do I, but only when the other needs are met! Put it another way: I work for Self-actualization, but my Physiological and Safety needs explain why I cash my paycheck instead of framing it.)
More directly, the anxious basic lower-level needs are why we often feel “we just need to get there.” You’re waiting for a bus or train because you want to be home where it’s safe. (Safety) Or you want to get home to your partner or child (Safety and Love/belonging). Or you’re hungry — a Physiological need.
When I hear certain urbanist circles argue that we should design transit mainly to be fun (as Darrin Nordahl does) or to catalyze certain desirable urban form outcomes (as Professor Condon does), the resulting consensus — if one forms — seems to consist of two groups of people:
- Citizens engaged in visionary debate about what would make their city better.
- Professionals engaged in selling a certain transit product and related services.
The second group, of course, is just people doing their jobs; they’re motivated to sell the product, becuase doing so is ultimately tied to their success at their work, and thus to their own Physiological and Safety needs.
The first group, on the other hand, is working at the Self-actualization level, the summit of the pyramid. They’re asking great questions about what the good urban life is. They are also, by definition, a self-selected portion of the population that has met all their lower needs to the point that they have time to think about this one.
But as Maslow shows, they shouldn’t expect these considerations to be very convincing to a citizen who’s stranded on a rainy streetcorner, or in a stopped transit vehicle, because the city designed its transit to catalyze great urban life at the expense of making it fast and reliable. That person will see other people’s high-level needs being placed above their low-level needs.
And once they have that perception, they’re ready to join, say, the Los Angeles Bus Riders Union (BRU). In the early 1990s in Los Angeles, a critical mass of people saw their bus service being cut even as money went into long-term rail transit plans. The rail projects were good ones, for the most part, but they were far in the future and therefore only relevant to people whose immediate needs were met. As a result of the BRU’s lawsuit, the Los Angeles County transit agency spent about a decade under a “consent decree” in which courts reviewed all their plans, to ensure that the city’s massive and crowded bus system was not just protected but enhanced. Today, Los Angeles is deservedly moving forward with rail again, but it’s also a city where buses are taken seriously.
This isn’t a buses-are-better-than-rail post. Longtime readers know that I advocate whatever technology meets the identified needs in a particular situation. I adamantly support every community’s right to decide what its needs are. If some communities decide that values such as fun or comfort or classiness or sheer love of technology rank high for them, I’m ready, like most consultants, to help them pursue those values.
This also isn’t a critique of philosophy or visionary urbanism, values that belong to the summit of Maslow’s pyramid. I’ve been incredibly privileged to spend a decade in great universities thinking about such things, and the ability to have these arguments is a basic source of joy for me, as it is for most of the other urbanists I know.
But when we engage in conversations about what makes a great city, or for that matter a good life, we have to remember that outside the sealed windows of our salon or charrette or network of likeminded blogs, most of our fellow citizens are working on more fundamental needs, and are motivated by those needs as they travel in the city. They’re buying food, or earning their rent money, or getting home to their families.
Those people are in a hurry, and they have every right to be. If we can implement our great visions in ways that work with their lives, they’ll appreciate it. But when we hear that transit should be slower because it’s good for us, or that a transit line will be so sexy that we shouldn’t care if it’s reliable, be careful. If our visions get in the way of their lives, they’ll eventually rebel.
In some cases, these are battles we have to have. Sometimes, people are meeting their low-level needs by destroying the planet, and we have every right to point that out even if we’re better fed than they. But it’s also a fight worth avoiding if we can. I suspect we’ll get better transit planning — and even better urbanism — if we remember, at every moment, the feeling of just needing to get where we’re going, and soon.