How urbanist visionaries can muck up transit

Architects and urban visionaries play an incredibly important role in a leadership-hungry culture.  They have to know a little bit about almost everything, which is hard to do.  But for some reason, certain segments of the profession have decided that the basic math and geometry of transit isn't one of those things they need to know, even when they present themselves as transit experts.

To see what I mean, I encourage you to watch this short video from Gensler Architects in Los Angeles.  It's a concise summary of all the crucial mistakes that you'll need to confront in much "visionary thinking" about transit.  (If Gensler takes down the video, read on.  I've inserted enough screenshots from it that you can follow.)


[NETWORK_LA transit from tam thien tran on Vimeo.]

The five most common "visionary" mistakes about transit, all on display in the video, are:

  • Disinterest in costs and efficiency.   Visionaries do need to set aside cost and efficiency for part of their brainstorming phase, because by doing so they might come upon an idea that's efficient and affordable in a completely new way.  But they don't have a coherent idea until they've brought those factors back in, at least at the level of order-of-magnitude reasonableness. Sadly, some urbanists scoff when I use the word efficiency, assuming that this means I've lost touch with human needs, aspirations, aesthetics and values.  In reality, efficiency means how much of those good things you can have in a world of limited resources.  Even in the arts, we speak often of the efficiency or economy with which an artist achieves an aesthetic effect.  (The Gensler video, for example, is efficient in displaying all five of these fallacies in only five minutes.)
  • Fixation on transit technologies as though they were the essential distinction between different  mobility outcomes.  For more on this, see here.
  • Confusion about scale.  In transit, if it doesn't scale, it doesn't matter.  Because visionary thinking often focuses first on a prototype – a tiny example of the hoped-for transformation — it often goes too far without thinking about scalability.  Sure, this cool idea works in one suburb or in one cool building, but that says very little about whether it would work in a whole city.  Gensler's particular error about scale is … 
  • Confusion about "flexibility," a dangerous slippery word.  Gensler imagines that a demand-responsive style of transit, in which you make a request on your phone and the transit system somehow deviates to meet your personal needs, is scalable to a vast, dense city where the transit system is already very crowded much of the time.  More on this below. 
  • Ignorance about what's already working, leading to premature demolition fantasies.  If you already hate buses, you won't have much interest in understanding why so many people use them.  Like many urbanist visionaries, Gensler doesn't appreciate the very high ridership and efficiency of the existing transit system across the core of Los Angeles. This allows them to jump to the conclusion that the system should be replaced instead of incrementally improved.  (Tip:  Prematurely dismissing the relevance of something that so many people clearly find useful is an excellent way to sound elitistregardless of the nobility of your intentions.)

So watch the Gensler video if you can, but you can also follow along via my screenshots and comments below.  You'll see these mistakes again and again in the urban visioning business.

0:27 Gensler states the question as "Get LA on transit HOW?"  No argument with the question.


0:51  Transit is divided into a set of vehicle types, and these types (light rail, metro, bus) are confused with "methods" of transport.  For more on the absurdity of treating bus/rail distinctions as primary, see here.


0:53  "We have only these methods.  What if we added more?"  An interesting question to which transit experts (and economists, and engineers) have a very good answer.  The more competing systems you establish in the same market trying to do the same thing, the less well any of them will function, and the less investment any one of them will justify.




0:56  They now begin to analyze vehicles in terms of distance, sustainability, flexibility.  What's missing?   Cost!  Efficiency!  Some things are just wildly expensive relative to what they deliver.  Darrin Nordahl has already been down this path, evaluating technologies by discussing only their supposed benefits.  That's not evaluation, it's either aesthetic rumination or marketing.  (Neither of those are bad things, but they have to be identified as what they are.)


1:20.  They talk about distances but their graphic is talking about speeds.  These are fair for personal modes but absurd generalizations for the transit modes. When your notion of "rail" conflates light rail, heavy metro rail subways, and 70 mile-long infrequent commuter rail, the word "rail" means nothing relevant about speed or travel distance, or any other transit outcome apart from capacity.  (Note that the earlier claim "we have only these methods" implies that these three kinds of rail are the same thing in every way that matters.) 

Likewise, if you think buses have an ideal distance, you're unclear on the role of local buses vs Bus Rapid Transit vs long-haul expresses, all of which are very successful in Los Angeles.  Gensler imposes a "technology first" frame on the data, thereby concealing almost everything that matters about how transit gets people where they're going.

In transit, the real speed distinctions within transit are usually not direct results of technology.  Speed is the result of how often you stop and what can get in your way.  See here.





2:00.  Staggering incoherence in comparing input (bus service) to an unrelated output (total ridership including rail).  What's more, the numbers are misleading.  Per the 2011 APTA Fact Book, Los Angeles MTA has America's 3rd highest total boardings and 2nd highest total bus boardings.   In the context of its starved resources and the vagueness of public support for it, the Los Angeles bus system is working brilliantly.

2:26.  Here is Gensler's biggest mistake:

Gensler 1

Gensler 2

Which of these two networks would you rather travel on?

Gensler has mistaken metaphor for logic.  They think that "liberating" bus routes has something to do with liberating or enabling people.  The idea is barely explained and totally incoherent. 

Today, in our supposedly "inflexible" system, you'll find a bus going down a major boulevard with maybe 60 people on it.  Some of them want to go somewhere straight ahead, some want to go to somewhere ahead and to the left, some want to to somewhere ahead and to the right.  Fortunately, they are in a high frequency grid system, which will take all of them to their destination, either directly or via a connection to a north-south line, probably by a path similar to what they'd have followed if driving.  So this huge number of diverse people making diverse trips are all moving toward their destinations on a reasonably direct path.  This is the extraordinary power of the high-frequency grid.  So instead, Gensler proposes bus lines should twist and turn just because somebody with an iPhone wants them to?

Personal technology has great opportunity to better inform us about all transit services, and it can transform the convenience of transit at low-demand places and times, by influencing the operations of low-ridership, low-capacity services, such as demand-responsive buses and taxis. 

Quite possibly, personal apps will allow demand-responsive service to replace some low-demand fixed-route buses, which is fine with most transit planners.  Those low-ridership buses run mostly for social-service or "equity" reasons, and if there's a more efficient way to do that, I expect many transit experts would be all for it.  It would let them concentrate on the high-ridership, high-capacity services that can achieve a great deal of personal mobility and sustainability, very efficiently. 

Successful high-capacity frequent transit needs to take on more of the rigidity of subways, in order to spread the benefits of subways (which we can't afford everywhere) more widely.  That means it needs to be even more frequent, reliable, legible, permanent, and reinforced with infrastructure investment.  Fortunately, within limited resources, many transit agencies are now trying to do that.

The video is full of entirely laudable and familiar green ideas, but then we get to this …

  • 3:23  In Gensler's Los Angeles, every transit trip must be reserved.  Do you really want to have to make an appointment with a single vehicle and driver, because that's the only way to make any use of all the buses swarming around you on unpredictable paths?  Or might you prefer a simple frequent transit corridor where so many buses are coming all the time, in such a predictable pattern, that you can take any of them, and are thus almost guaranteed a vehicle soon even if one breaks down?


  • 4:20  "What if we had PERSONAL service?" they ask?  Well, the extreme of personal service would be low-ridership system in a tiny town, where the driver has time to learn everyone's name.  Is that what Los Angeles wants to be?   Or would you rather live in a city where you can get anywhere you want to go easily, starting right now, without making a reservation, and even with the option of spontaneously changing your path or destination, just like motorists do?  

To me as someone who values my personal freedom, flexibility, spontaneity, human dignity, and travel time, Gensler's Los Angeles would be a hell-world worse than Blade Runner.  Fortunately, it's also mathematically impossible.

We've blown up transit networks before, of course, and Gensler's vision should remind us of what was thought about cars vs. transit in the 1940s.  Like personal technology today, cars were just so wonderful for the individual that we just assumed the world could be made in their image.  (The technical term for this idea — that the world will bend to reflect my emotional needs and enthusiasms — is narcissism.)  So we made a deep investment in a car-and-highway technology that could not possibly scale to big cities.  Gensler proposes the same mistake:  Because our iPhones are so cool, they assume that the city, at every scale, can be reinvented around them.

For a more positive vision of the future of Los Angeles, one that begins by noticing the city's strengths and looking at how to build on them, see here and especially toward the end of an interview here.


48 Responses to How urbanist visionaries can muck up transit

  1. Brent Palmer July 16, 2011 at 1:48 pm #

    Does Godwin’s Law apply if I suggest that the lines in the second screen-capture form a Swastika? Or maybe I’ve watched too much MST3K?

  2. Felix the Cassowary July 16, 2011 at 2:02 pm #

    Plus I don’t have an internet connection on my phone (and the GPS is broken), so I guess I can’t use PT except for specific trips I could plan in advance. Car breaks down? Found out a friend is in town? Public transport coming out of your eyeballs, but you’re catching a taxi.

  3. anonymouse July 16, 2011 at 2:21 pm #

    What about people who can’t afford an iPhone? Even with hardware costs dropping rapidly toward zero (at least for Android devices), you still need to pay something like $70 a month for the service, which is about the cost of a monthly pass, and while it might not be much for the “creative class” architects, it’s certainly a very noticeable expense for many transit users.
    Also, the whole appointment system completely destroys spontaneity, which is an important feature and one where transit does not do as well as the car. If I decide I want to go to Mountain View for some tea, I want to be able to do it now, not at my appointed time of an hour from now. Which leads naturally to a potential criterion of where this sort of demand responsive system can work: if the latency for a response to a demand is lower than the typical headway on fixed-route service.

  4. Danny July 16, 2011 at 2:53 pm #

    Beautiful and much needed takedown.

  5. Alex B. July 16, 2011 at 4:54 pm #


  6. chrismealy July 16, 2011 at 5:17 pm #

    Shorter Gensler: let’s make buses more like the %$#@ing airport shuttle.

  7. Morgentau July 16, 2011 at 5:18 pm #

    They are mistaking transit for jitneys and ride share applications (aka para transit). Someone has to tell them the difference.

  8. Wad July 16, 2011 at 5:34 pm #

    Jarrett, this post needs a follow-up.
    Your takedown is much appreciated and pulls apart the logical structure piece by piece.
    Think of how Gensler frames the issue. The problem is defined as the reality of the past and present being a shackle on the future, and the solution is to break the shackles.
    This is the thinking that gave us BART, the system that allowed engineers and designers to reinvent the wheel and deliver nothing they set out to do in the blueprint phase.
    Only this time, the opponents refuse to accept a constraint-based world. You now see other industries and academic disciplines being forced to incorporate Moore’s Law. If processing power can double every 18 months, so should pharmaceutical cures, crop yields, vehicle throughput, academic research, retail sales … .
    Think about the trope of flexibility. Transit must have flexible routes because the users come to expect it and are entitled to it. Never mind the constraints: It doesn’t work, it’s inefficient, it’s not so much a technological limitation as a physical one.
    The Gensler camp would counterargue that the Human Transit camp is another constraint because they are unable to deliver on flexibility (they only know how to make the exisiting system work) or unwilling to deliver on flexibility (because their paychecks depend on suppressing change).

  9. Carter R July 16, 2011 at 6:37 pm #

    I bet the 80,000 bus riders on Wilshire Blvd. appreciate that their 20s and 720s are making detours every two blocks to pick people up on 6th street.

  10. Carter R July 16, 2011 at 6:38 pm #

    Whoops, I definitely meant “are NOT” making detours. Feel free to edit that, Jarrett.

  11. Alon Levy July 16, 2011 at 7:42 pm #

    So, basically, this is crypto-PRT. It even lists PRT as one of several valid modes of transportation.
    The other way to think about it is that LA’s buses have become sufficiently iconic to be the basis of gadgetbahn proposals. Previously, gadgetbahns were all based on trains or self-driving cars or planes, but suddenly there’s one based on buses.

  12. Brent Palmer July 16, 2011 at 7:45 pm #

    @Morgentau: “Jitneys”… that’s the word for the sort of thing found in the likes of Bangkok and Manila. In other words, applying a developing-world model to a first-world city, despite the high-tech element tacked on. Paul Mees rightly dismissed such an approach in ‘A Very Public Solution’ a decade ago (that book was a real eye-opener).

  13. poncho July 16, 2011 at 8:17 pm #

    “visionary” architects should stick to what they do best… making hideous dysfunctional buildings that need to be replaced in 5 years

  14. Jarrett July 16, 2011 at 9:39 pm #

    Professor Patrick Condon has asked me to post this for him:
    Jarrett et al.
    Yes the Gensler video is enough to curdle your morning oatmeal. Its graphics are decent, its sound track obnoxious, and its premises sophomoric. But Jarrett, its also maddening when you lump together urbanists as if they were one thing! If only that were true! A partial list of the various strands of urbanism is provided below. If you think i am making this up just google away.
    post marxist urbanism
    post urbanism
    techno urbanism
    new urbanism
    traditional urbanism
    agrarian urbanism
    agricultural urbanism (yes there is a difference)
    landscape urbansim
    ecological urbanism
    punk rock urbanism
    social urbanism
    market urbanism
    emergent urbanism
    organic urbanism
    the new sub urbanism
    christian urbanism
    gay urbanism
    I suppose that the thing that unites all these urbanisms is they all approach cities as interlaced systems, rather than separate elements ( such as housing, downtowns, suburbs, culture, roads, industry, transit, ecology, tourists etc). This is probably why urbanists can be maddening to transit planners. In their enthusiasm for the inclusive study of systems, it might often seem that, as Jarrett suggests, they ignore real economic, technical, and cultural constraints.
    But transit planners, I beg you to cut urbanists some slack (sloppy thinking as with the Gensler video notwithstanding). They (we) might serve a useful function by trying to understand how any single element of complex urban systems connects to every other. Urbanists embrace an approach to knowledge that is the opposite of reductionist. It is radically inclusive. Urbanists generally try to think about all things at all times, in the hopes of unearthing something fundamental about their relationships. The hope is that by understanding the relationships between the interactive pieces of the urban landscape, better decisions will be made.
    I trust that Jarrett and the readers and participants of this great forum can agree that this is occasionally useful. As a case in point, I can mention the series of exchanges on “slow transit” in which I participated. Frankly, I have been astonished by how many people i meet who recall that exchange, and found it illuminating, whatever side of the debate they were on.
    Professor Patrick M. Condon
    [JW: The exchange on “slow transit” that Prof Condon refers to can be found here, and in posts linked there:]

  15. ant6n July 16, 2011 at 9:55 pm #

    Mmmh. You could just view it as a continuum from cabs (taxis) to buses. This would exist somewhere in the middle. Buses work. Taxis work. Can something in between not work? If there are enough people using it? You don’t have to book a cab an hour in advance, and you don’t need an iphone to do so. It’s certainly not mathematically impossible, but there are probably a lot of constraints. And getting it to work well is probably much harder than either a system of cabs, or buses.

  16. Jarrett July 16, 2011 at 10:03 pm #

    In response to Patrick:
    I agree completely that urbanism is diverse, and tried to speak consistently of “some” urbanists. But there is also a powerful system of legitimation in the architecture world, and it seems to legitimate a lot of stuff on a par with the Gensler video.
    So I frame the issue as a critique of a certain strain in “visionary urbanism” because I’ve seen arguments like Gensler’s over and over, and they need to be confronted wherever they arise, even if being spouted by highly credentialed urbanists.
    The most interesting part of Professor Condon’s response is his excellent explanation of what urbanists do: “Urbanists generally try to think about all things at all times, in the hopes of unearthing something fundamental about their relationships.”
    If only urbanists do that, we’re doomed. Patrick is arguing against all forms of reductionism, and I’m totally with him. What’s needed, in many disciplines, is integrated or synthetic thinking — thinking that sees patterns across disparate material. (That’s why I’d defend my literature training, for example, as a very relevant credential for this kind of work, though training or even interest in any synthetic-thinking field is equally useful.)
    We need analytic thinking too, but reductionism and the dead hand of habit arise from analytic thinking trying to dominate the creative space where synthetic thinking is needed.
    The real challenge for all city-making or city-analyzing professionals, including transit planners, is to be open to synthetic thinking in their own work. A transit planner doesn’t have to think as big-picture as a “visionary urbanist” does, but the world needs people who understand both transit and everything it’s connected to, at least to the point that their visions can incorporate what transit really offers — to imagined cities as much as real ones.

  17. Wad July 16, 2011 at 10:13 pm #

    @Brent Palmer, you can’t really call jitneys a developing world “model.” It’s more of a service born of need and circumstance.
    Certain think tanks like to point out that the developing world made jitneys work, so why should rich people subsidize a losing service?
    Well, there’s a logical blind spot: Rich nations subsidize transportation because they can. Poor nations leave transportation as a subsistence activity because they can’t afford subsidies.
    A jitney operator isn’t a path to a better life. It just entitles the operator to maintain their station in life but not go beyond it.

  18. Dexter Wong July 17, 2011 at 12:14 am #

    @Wad, to add to that, some people think that the Jitney is the best thing since sliced bread, but I don’t believe that. There can be a place for it, but you can’t base a big-city transit system on jitneys.
    Also I agree with Jarrett, architects can mess up a transit project with their misunderstanding of how certain technologies work.

  19. TransitPlannerMunich July 17, 2011 at 3:59 am #

    The analysis of Gensler what people want is right, the consequences are not.
    People want an easy to use system where they don’t have to think about how to use it.
    It should bring you whereever you want at whatever time without waiting too much, so giving you flexibility.
    And that can be done in the most efficient way with a conventional transit system, if planned properly.
    The secret behind the success of the transit systems in Zurich, Vienna and Munich is that you have a high frequency network (frequent does not mean every 20 minutes but 10 a headway of 10 minutes, 5 minutes or even 2 minutes).
    You can reach most destinations directly or with only one transfer to a different line. And yes, without thinking about tariffs or tickets or transfer slips.
    In Zurich tram lines operate every 7.5 minutes, usually two tram lines meet for most of the route so that you have a 3-4 minutes headway for most passengers (and at night a 7.5 headway when tram lines change to a 15-min.-headway).
    In Munich most bus lines operate on a 10 minutes or better headway, the tram between 3.3 minutes and 10 minutes headway, the underground metro system beween 2.5 and 10 minutes.
    The most frequent bus lines in Munich have a 10 minutes headway minimum monday to sunday(!) and are called MetroBus. And about 30 percent of all traffic lights (and constantly growing) passed by buses have transit priority speeding up the lines.
    All that leads to a transit share of over 30% for public transit in Munich (similar to the car), 26% for walking and 14% for bikes.

  20. marco July 17, 2011 at 7:24 am #

    Swiss bus networks often include some dial-a-ride services, but this services are usually intended for countryside areas or late-night operation. And you don’t need an iPhone to deal with it!
    Publicar: you call a telephone number and reserve your bus as it was a taxi.
    Service Pyjama: you board your bus downtown, then you tell the driver where you need to go.
    Of course, none of there services is intended to substitute a regular bus service. Usually is quite the opposite: once these services start to have a regular ridership, they are turned into fixred bus routes.

  21. Dave July 17, 2011 at 12:44 pm #

    “Exponential growth looks like nothing is happening, and then suddenly you get this explosion at the end,” –Ray Kurzweil
    This may seem a little off topic, and please excuse my naivete. Excellent blog, also. It’s just that I’m not fully convinced with assumptions constituting the dynamics we presume that hold things together–the cohesive forces of urbanization that inform long-range plans, especially when it comes to committing to mega-cost projects for urban transport.
    How do today’s transportation planners (was) determine (and then trust) even a five year set of assumptions for a demand forecast? Especially when, something as seemingly insignificant as a Zappos purchase prevents my leaving the house to shop for shoes. Multiply my solitary home-based or non-home-based-other trip to go look at shoes by n. Another trip reduction.
    Federal and state land-use policies to an extent, create, shape, and attempt to hold population density in place, but ultimately have little control over the evolution of travel patterns, especially if they were to become non existant. How often have we prepared for something in the process of disappearing? Take NYC in the pre-auto days, trying to get a handle on rising horse manure. I doubt the city even remotely imagined how quickly autos would replace horses.
    Apply “Amazon” to categories of retail–including groceries. Apply “Telepresence” to work and society. Apply the advent of “Pneumatic Transport Tubes” (don’t laugh) to accelerate a reduction in acquisition time for goods.
    What does that leave? Some resemblance to a look and feel of cities today could very well endure, but I am clueless, really. We’re seeing profound shifts in the basis for settlement.
    I find little discussion on this subject. And what to call it? Even in real estate circles, discussion beyond short-term trends, or a more sophisticated take on the underpinnings of urban form, is largely absent. That urbanism exists, is mostly all I hear.

  22. Danny July 17, 2011 at 1:42 pm #

    And despite all the technological advances that make increasing urbanization “unnecessary”, the world becomes even more urbanized at an even more rapid rate.
    Dave, your assumptions show that you think that trips of necessity will be replaced by nothing. That might be true for some people, but for most people, it is the exact opposite.
    A trip to the store to buy a necessity can, and often is, replaced by a trip to a store to buy a luxury. A trip to work can, and often is, replaced by a trip to visit a client or a trip to a local professional meetup. A trip to city hall to take care of legal paperwork can be replaced by a trip to the home of a friend.

  23. Dave July 17, 2011 at 5:22 pm #

    Danny, though I can’t provide the science, I conjecture that what may be about to occur is a breakdown of our overall habituation to home-based non-work trips–and “travel” altogether.
    Work trips have and will continue to diminish. I could be wrong. If I’m wrong, the continued burgeoning travel demand can only suggest that non-essential trips resist the net.
    To reinforce my idea, I’ve recently been through a personal experience of what I’d consider to have been an addiction to travel. I found it necessary to make a non-home-base auto trip at least once a day. I work at home. I was forced to break that addiction for economic reasons. I went through a period of withdrawal.
    Eventually I re-adapted to more minimal personal dwelling habits, and I am now stunned in looking back, and in consideration of what can be achieved without driving–or even biking and walking. Nothing was lost in eliminating those costs. Even my town and state government business is be done online–or by fax.

  24. Alon Levy July 17, 2011 at 7:46 pm #

    Dave, the problem with the we’re-on-the-cusp-of-revolution argument is that it’s extraordinary, and thus requires extraordinary evidence. A single story about New York’s horse manure problem taken straight from Freakonomics is not enough; I could give you many counterstories, of bubbles created by people who thought that things were suddenly different when they in fact were not.
    For instance, let’s take travel. Yes, there’s plenty of evidence of peak travel in developed countries. It’s not because of telecommuting; changes in commute mode share are extremely slow. Changes in what’s best transit practice are still slower; gadgetbahn proponents have been crowing about PRT for decades, with nothing to show for it. It’s the same with smartphones, which do not absolve agencies of the needs for a clockface schedule, a legible service map, and punctuality.

  25. Wad July 17, 2011 at 9:40 pm #

    @Dave, there’s at least a 95 percent certainty that you are wrong about diminishing work trips.
    The technology to make teleworking and non-office-based work is here and mature, and the jobs that can be done from home are being done from home.
    Telework is of limited utility to much of the services sector. Also, Baumol has theorized that as one sector improves productivity to the point where labor is unneeded, redundant workers will likely flock to an economic sector that is more labor-dependent. In the U.S., that would be the services sector.
    Many service-sector jobs require people to go to complete their tasks at a work site. Food services won’t expect chefs to prepare food at home and send it via courier to a kitchen. Despite the widespread availability of automobiles, health professionals don’t make house calls and patients must go to medical facilities for treatment. Hospitality industries require employees to interact with the guests at the lodge.
    In the education world, online learning is possible and widely used, but technology doesn’t improve the learning experience because uptake is now the students’ responsibility. Not everyone is capable or comfortable in a distant interactive environment, and many students want or need face-to-face interaction.
    Even high-value jobs like engineering require tools that must be used at a worksite or solutions applied at a location. No working for home there, either.
    Since most of our lives will be consumed by work, and many of us will be limited in the kinds of careers we will apply to, our options will require us to leave home.
    Sleep will take another third, but the rest of the waking hours we’ll need to keep our time occupied. Most of us will still need or want to live life in the physical world and not be constantly plugged into the matrix.

  26. Danny July 18, 2011 at 4:47 am #

    Wad, you could also add in management consulting. Everything that management consultants do today could be done with modern technology on computers or over the phone. But they don’t. They choose to fly hundreds/thousands of miles, and stay in expensive hotels on the dime of their clients, and the reason why is that face-to-face interaction is still too valuable to not do so.
    My job could be done through telework, but I choose not to as well. In fact, the only person I know where I work that regularly opts for telecommuting is the general manager who travels about 95% of the time, and an IT guy who is anti-social.

  27. Dave July 18, 2011 at 8:49 am #

    My conjecture on trip reduction is an option, a posit that long range plans should incorporate, imo. Good science acknowledges unknowables. The flexibility to respond to unknowables is important to a plan, and a plan must address the complexity of responding to change on the fly.
    Disruptive is a term that has come to describe the sudden adoption of a technology that renders unanticipated and far-reaching consequences to the status quo. A “disruption” will often arrive at an unexected moment after the tail of long term r&d for example, or when a product suddenly fits the bill for widespread adoption. Price point is a factor. iPhone is an example. Touchscreen phones were available years before the iPhone was thought to have invented the category. Tablets go back even further. Unheard of ten years ago–though there were several brands to choose from. In less than five years we’ve seen these two devices reshape entire sectors of information technology.
    Five years ago, who would have predicted Twitter?
    I disagree with but don’t dismiss, “the jobs that can be done from home are being done from home”, and “Most of us will still need or want to live life in the physical world and not be constantly plugged into the matrix”. These comments are as much conjecture as mine.
    Telework was recently reported to be down from a peak in 2008, which would indicate the up-trend is over. We suspect the economy is likely the cause, but we don’t have the data to back that claim. This doesn’t mean we would project downward on Telework, does it? I personally view Telework to be in the “fits and starts” of a long term course of development. Improvements in videoteleconferencing display technology can easily trigger a new and dramatically more powerful form of telework. To embrace at least a probability for such a development might soud like, “what if, and when?” To dismiss it’s potential might sound like, “no, forget it, it won’t happen!”.

  28. Alex July 18, 2011 at 9:20 am #

    Automobile-oriented narcissism – “carcissism”?

  29. Tom Radulovich July 18, 2011 at 9:42 am #

    Thanks for this, Jarrett. Another video Gensler produced about Downtown LA made the rounds a few months ago:
    I thought about writing a similar critique to yours, but dropped it. The ‘solutions’ the video puts forward are mostly straight out of the Big Book of Mid-Century Modernist Fantasies that Never Worked. In the 2030 future, you drive your fossil-fueled auto to a huge parking structure on the edge of downtown, and either swap it for an electric car to finish your journey within the city, or get on public transport. These reduced traffic streets can now become greener and more walkable, right? Wrong – the entire ground level of downtown is abandoned to ‘service’, and a system of sky bridges is constructed to connect buildings to one another at upper floors (The ‘visionary’ future for Downtown Los Angeles is, apparently, Downtown Houston). Public transit is relegated to aerial gondolas. An urban agriculture motif is added for currency, of course.

  30. Eric O July 18, 2011 at 10:22 am #

    Dang it, Jarrett, not many urbanists will want you at their cocktail party. 😀
    Hey, we’re lernin’… we’re lernin’…

  31. Erik G. July 18, 2011 at 11:08 am #

    Pedestrians move at 250 feet per minute?
    That is 4.16 feet per second!
    Even the new Federal MUTCD is suggesting that pedestrian signals be timed for 3.5 feet per second…
    ….(and Orange County, CA claims this extra time will increase Greenhouse Gas production!)…
    …while suggesting 2.8 feet per second for crosswalks used by the elderly and children.

  32. Dave July 18, 2011 at 12:07 pm #

    Tom, I agree with much of what you say. I’m also a proponent of cities and towns discovering ways of developing in-line with each own’s unique geographic opportunities and constraints. A gondola driven downtown office district can be the seed for something special. Or, badly disused–a disaster. We’ve seen that happen enough. Yet, it’s possible that a gondola driven downtown could reap fringe benefits due to it’s uniqueness as a grade separated reality. Perhaps popular with conventions looking for something different. A seemingly easy system to expand on.
    I once briefly proposed a small pedestrian-oriented community situated on a ridge line, accessed from the town below it by a five minute gondola trip. The idea for this addressed a land use horizon plan as a proposed solution for the preservation of valley soils and ag land. I considered that a gondola system would minimize impacts to the valley walls, while completely losing cars, and maintaining an unbroken wildlife habitat. The transport technology was proven and affordable. The development itself would have had to involve some novel construction methods. Large freight delivery was an issue. As it turned out, hillside/top development was deemed unacceptable. If by accident this were to have been accepted and had gone on to present a unique living and lifestyle opportunity for individuals who wanted to join, it could have established a niche unique to it’s place, and become known and respected. At the very least it would have represented a useful case study.

  33. Drew July 18, 2011 at 12:51 pm #

    So glad to see this post! I had to watch this video at an Architecture of Transportation event in LA a couple weeks ago and was wondering if anyone else found its conclusions unsettling. Its one thing to speculate the use of PRT in LA, but this video claims that a PRT-style system should replace the grid network of busses without offering any substantial evidence to support this conclusion. I can’t believe Gensler would present this to a room full of transportation experts, including several directors at Metro!

  34. Chris, Public Transport July 18, 2011 at 2:07 pm #

    The concept Dave is arguing is true, although the execution (everyone working from home) is unlikely to come to pass for emotional / psychological reasons. When planners plan for life in 2030, they assume that whatever the current growth pattern is will continue in the same manner until that time. This results in expectations that the Los Angeles Metropolitan Area will add 2 or 3 million people. In reality, it is equally likely that the Los Angeles population reaches a stasis, as people leave in search of better opportunities in other areas and illegal immigrants go home.
    But we need to continue to plan for the future, and we need some expected baseline data to plan for. If we had the time, then perhaps we could design 5 or more plausible long term scenarios and then analyze the transportation needs for each one. I’d estimate that in the next 10 years gas prices will continue to go up but the price of electric cars will remain too high for most Americans, which could entail even more Americans turning to transit than now.
    In terms of the video, it strikes me that Gensler is trying to design a literal replacement for the car instead of focusing on a replacement for the mobility that the car provides.
    I don’t think the failure to consider cost is the big failure of the video. It’s more the failure to understand even the basic fundamentals of public transit, which I find to be common amongst a lot of the planning community.

  35. Dave July 18, 2011 at 6:16 pm #

    Chris, I find the whole thing really intriguing. We’ve embraced urban-by-necessity, and it has evolved. Proximity to goods, functional meshworks, and a collective place of employment has been a given for thousands of years.
    Today we have a scenario where it’s conceivable that individuals could sever their urban ties if they so desired, and continue to earn a living, and experience a high quality of life in an entirely different setting.
    In the absence of necessity for a combined collective work and market place, we now have a presumed necessity of relationship place–and is this all that remains holding cities together? This subject is entirely undeveloped, and has little language to discuss it with. This need to see and be seen.
    Perhaps we don’t talk about the need to see and be seen because it stirs up western puritanical views of ego (churches deny this is probably why their congregation exists) We are fundamentally shy to admit we want to be seen by others.
    We’re approaching an extraordinary moment of choice. Choice not based on urban-by-necessity for employment, goods, and services, as in the past. Instead, choice based on the desire to see and be seen–and to be in close proximity with others. There is scarce theoretic/scientific basis for this proposition nor a word to describe it. It defies conventional money ideas of how markets work…
    Seems nobody cares to want to talk about it

  36. AbNtransit July 18, 2011 at 8:53 pm #

    This is a very ‘cute’ video, nothing more. …as a true rubber- meets- the- road transit professionals, all i can say is those who can, do and those who can’t call themselves urbanists. Skip class and drive a bus for a day. Then you’ll learn about boosting ridership!

  37. Alon Levy July 18, 2011 at 10:03 pm #

    Dave: yeah, 10 years ago there were no iPhones. So what? In 1999, people could and did justify the tech bubble on the grounds that 10 years before there was no World Wide Web. A pair of hacks wrote a book called Dow 36,000. Everything was supposed to be .com.
    I claim that teleconferencing’s impact on economics of agglomeration is going to be zero. Videophones as a technology have existed for decades; they never caught, except in science fiction and anime. People collaborating over long distances need email, phone, and maybe chat; they don’t need to see one another’s faces, and for evidence, observe that the most business-oriented laptop, the Thinkpad, doesn’t have an in-built webcam.
    Email has measurable impact on how people work. The proportion of solo papers in math is declining, and presumably also in other fields. It’s also made remote places less remote; a professor at Hawaii tells me how it used to be that the only way for local professors to interact with other experts was to invite speakers for talks, piggybacking on Hawaii’s then-important role as a stopover on flights from the US to Japan. However, even in a world with ubiquitous email, conferences, joint seminars, and meetings remain critical for intense collaboration; email is used more for preparation and followup.
    The world does not change quickly. Never has. Specific sectors do, and technology does so especially, but the effects on the rest of society are constantly overrated. For example, for all the talk about how Facebook and Twitter have helped spread the aborted Green Revolution and the Arab Spring, are those uprisings really unusual by the standards of the civil rights movement, the May 1968 student protests, the Tiananmen Square protests, and the Eastern European color revolutions?

  38. Dave July 19, 2011 at 8:20 am #

    Alon, “Videophones as a technology have existed for decades; they never caught, except in science fiction and anime” / I would add that touchscreen phones existed for a decade before catching on. Why? Because someone perfected an interface that transformed the user experience and the technology suddenly caught fire.
    “The world does not change quickly.” / Yes, so it seems. If you look at this conundrum through a different lens, you may notice how actually often substantial nonlinear–or rhizomic–events unfold rapidly, and elicit profound change. Cars, radio, television, internet, dna mapping…are a few examples from over a relatively short period of time. Where, at any given time, a pipeline of innovations with similar potential exists, only a few of which will emerge. Why some ideas make it and some do not, is a mystery.
    An interesting read on this thread: A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History, by Manuel De Landa.

  39. Chris Bradshaw July 19, 2011 at 1:52 pm #

    I identify with the ‘urbanist’ label, as defined by Prof. Condon: studying the complex web of systems that make up a city. I find the Gensler video thought-provoking, which is also how I find Human Transit.
    It is exciting to consider the application of wireless technology to planning and summoning rides in urban settings that are ridiculously congested, thanks to an over-commitment to ‘my car.’
    There are, of course, certain ‘rules’ in transportation that should be respected, such as the efficiency of both vehicles and the traveler’s time, making on-demand transit side trips impractical. Getting from transit stops to nearby addresses should be done by walking; it’s good for the neighbourhood and for the traveller.
    Cell phones, smart ones, will be ubiquitous and fairly cheap, as prices fall. Third-world countries, today, have higher market penetration than North America, making land-lines unnecessary. The only thing costly in North America are the use plans that overcharge for metered use to make unlimited plans seem reasonably priced (Canada has just started to move away flat-fee unlimited-use plans to all-use-metered plans)

  40. Dave July 19, 2011 at 5:16 pm #

    Chris, A wildly popular transit app.. Yeah!!

  41. Bert Green July 20, 2011 at 6:13 pm #

    How much you wanna bet that the people who made the video never take transit?

  42. CroMagnon July 20, 2011 at 9:09 pm #

    Thanks for writing this, Jarrett. I’ve been saying this for quite some time now.

  43. c July 21, 2011 at 8:27 am #

    Maybe an additional explanation is needed on this video: it was done as a wrap-up to what Gensler submitted to an ideas competition: A New Infrastructure: Innovative Transit Solutions for LA/2009.

  44. Jarrett at July 21, 2011 at 9:57 am #

    C. Yes, I know that. How does that affect how we should read the viideo?

  45. bzcat July 21, 2011 at 5:53 pm #

    The Gensler team that dreamed up this presentation must have never used public transit in LA. That’s the only conclusion I can reach.

  46. Paul July 24, 2011 at 3:34 am #

    I found the comparative cost between private car and public transport ($8+ per commute v $1.50) was dishonestly framed. The costs for private car included items such as noise, CO2, impacts on amenity, road maintenance, etc etc, none of which apparently apply to a public system.

  47. Chris L July 26, 2011 at 2:50 pm #

    Thank you for this post, Jarrett. I’ve been annoyed about the illogical conclusions of that video since they released it a couple months back.
    Please do a follow up for their equally nonsensical video about Downtown LA.
    I’m a fan of Gensler’s architectural work…I just wish they’d stick to what they’re good at and left the transportation planning to the big boys.

  48. Boo Ink October 5, 2012 at 12:43 am #

    I got here after hearing Gensler’s network_LA proposal firsthand. They mentioned this critique and offered strong arguments for many of its point. They also pointed out the downtown LA video mentioned above was a student speculation project. While the student ideas are very sophomoric, the findings in front part of that video are staggering.
    Jarrett did you ever reach out to Gensler to learn more? Could be a very interesting interview piece for the site, because after hearing them and reading the comments here I have to say the string of comments and your critique sound dated and off base.
    These guys want to bring collective intelligence to a system that has the capability, but doesnt use it. For those naysayers fixated on their ideas for liberated routes your missing the a-ha. You are applying old school thinking to old school problems. The 21st century is here folks.
    Riding the 720 down Wilshire, 75% of the riders already have phones and this “world will end” mindset of the buses rerouting themselves is just stupid. This conversation is about applying data to optimize, not mucking up routes for the sake of change. As a collective interested in transit here we should ask ourselves, what is the future of mass transit in large, complex cities like LA? How does real time data impact this conversation?
    I think Gensler Los Angeles is onto something by encouraging a network of vehicles versus obsessing over the routes of a single mode. I mean look at LA compared to other cities.