how to (not) sound elitist when discussing transit



This is not a balanced book review. While I will start with some general praise of this new book, I must focus on a few passages about public transit that are both misleading and potentially harmful.  I do this not to challenge these authors in particular, but because these mistakes are so common in urbanist writing and need to be called out wherever they appear.

Reid Ewing and Keith Bartholomew, both at the University of Utah, have a new large-format paperback offering a concise overview of the basics on Pedestrian and Transit-Oriented design.  If you want a good glossary of key urbanist concepts such as imageability and coherence, or you want a good and well-cited argument for local street connectivity, this is your book.  

Very usefully, the book is organized as a series of checklists:  Here are the features that you must have to be considered transit-oriented design, here are others that are desirable.  It's designed to be handy to the time-crunched developer or policy person.  In fact, it meets one of the most important standards for an influential book in our distracted age:  You can get most of the message by just looking at the pictures and reading the section headings.  

The writing is good, too, clear and with careful attention to explaining and demystefying concepts.  With one exception, I could recommend this as a good reference guide to the key concepts of pedestrian-oriented design.  

As a guide to transit-oriented design, however, it has a fatal flaw:  The authors make recommendations about transit that make sense from a design and development point of view but are nonsense to many experienced transit planners.  These recommendations will sound elitist and tone-deaf if you present them to your transit agency.  As always, I emphasize sound; I've talked with enough urbanist writers to know how good their intentions are; they are mostly genuinely surprised when their comments about transit backfire.  But it's not a hard mistake to avoid.  I am going to take apart a critical passage in the book not because it's typical — it's an unusual flaw in a good book — but because it illustrates a lingering problem with urbanist discussions of transit in general, one that I hope we are close to moving beyond.

Ewing and Bartholomew lead off their transit discussion with this tired old chestnut:

In the quest for efficiency, transit has become dull and utilitarian, part of the problem reather than the solution to today's lifeless streetscapes (Coppe 1991).  [p 82]

If this generalization is really about "today," then how is it bolstered by a 22-year old citation?  Obviously it's true to a degree, more in some cities than others,  but there has been transformative progress in the last two decades.  Fleet, facilities, and technology have been upgraded across the developed world, often with the input of great designers.  Do transit agencies get no credit for the evolution in the comfort, openness and access that have happened over the last generation?  

More fundamentally, this line conveys disinterest of the  nature of transit's success, a disinterest that is tragically common in urbanist professions.  The word efficiency is used as though all readers would agree it's a misguided goal.  But when working under any fixed budget as transit agencies do, efficiency is the same thing as abundance.  (When something called efficiency is genuinely destructive or unsustainable, it should be called false efficiency.  Freeways, fracking, and industrial farming may be less efficient than they look because of externalized negative impacts.  Questioning those things doesn't amount to questioning efficiency.)

As for the word utilitarian, it has a technical meaning in philosophy but here it's a dismissive word meaning useful.  Anything that scales to a vast network that's potentially useful to thousands or millions of people can be called utilitarian.  Great transit agencies wear this term as a badge of honor.  What's more they prove that usefulness is beautiful.

But the authors dig themselves deeper.  After showing us pictures of charming, distinctive bus shelters in two wealthy communities that can afford them, they write:

In some cases, transit operators might do better by putting fewer buses on the street at times of low demand, and diverting the money they save into bus stop amenities and fleet facelifts.

This, urbanist friends, crosses a bright red line called upward redistribution of wealth.  

This book appears at a time when many US transit agencies have been slashing transit service for the last five years, driving away legions of riders.  Portland, for example, has had its inner city grid network gutted — mostly cut to 20 minute frequencies at which the connections on which it relies are almost impossible — even though frequent transit service is a foundational element in the City of Portland's neighborhood development policies. 

Any "low-ridership" services that have survived all that carnage are serving popular and important non-ridership goals.  They are not going to be cut to build nicer bus shelters.  Doing so could also be illegal in the US if you're using Federal funds: US Title VI legislation (part of the 1964 Civil Rights Act) is designed to prevent exactly this kind of upward redistribution of the benefits resulting from public investment.  All US transit agencies that receive Federal funds must do extensive analysis to prove they are treating low-income and minority riders fairly in both service and infrastructure.

So if you follow this book's advice, and tell your transit agency they should cut service and force lower income riders to buy cars so you can pay for  nicer bus shelters, it doesn't matter how noble your intentions are.  You will sound elitist.  You will sound especially hostile to the burgeoning environmental justice agenda that is already embodied in civil rights legislation, and that has its own strong nexus with the ultimate outcomes that we call sustainability.  If you prevail in guiding the policy of your transit agency, that agency could be exposed to civil rights lawsuits as a result.  Do you really want this many enemies?

It doesn't help that in suggesting service cuts at "times [rather than places] of low demand," the authors are just repeating a common misconception.  Ridership at different times of day is interdependent, if only for the obvious reason that most transit trips are round trips.  If you cut service and thus reject a customer at one time of day, you'll likely lose their business in the other direction as well.  The most obvious "time of low demand," the late evening, is also a "guaranteed ride home," which means it affects the overall attractiveness of the product.  Finally, lower-income riders who form the bedrock on which transit grows are especially likely to be travelling in the evening; cut their service, force them to spend their scarce money on cars, and you've shoved them further into poverty.

A consistent pattern of all-day service (including "times of low demand") is a powerful tool for fostering lower vehicle ownership.  That's is why many transit agencies are now committing to a policy "Frequent Network" that guarantees service over a certain span regardless of trip-by-trip ridership.  (These policies, important in guiding true Transit-oriented Development at regionwide scale, deserved a mention.  Policies in the Portland and Vancouver BC regions could both have been cited.  Indeed, the book is silent on the urgent question of how to recognize a suitable site for TOD.)

I love distinctive transit shelters as much as anyone, but not if they are defined as an alternative to the sheer quantities of service that cities need and that ridership would reward.  (Canadian midsized cities, for example, generally have about twice the ridership per capita of similar US cities, not becuase their shelters are cuter but becuase they run about twice as much service per capita.)

Distinctive, adorable shelters can still come about in one of three entirely reasonable ways.  Either:

  1. they have been paid for by developers, or by neighboring landowners who will profit most directly from any uplift in land values, or
  2. they have been paid for by city governments as a form of beautifcation, or
  3. they are transit agency investments that are affordable and suitable for mass production, like the San Francisco shelters with the characteristic wave roofs.  

Developer-funding (also endorsed in the book) is often the purest nexus of all, but city funding is also a healthy trend.  City governments are much better placed than regional transit agencies to make investments that express civic identity and character.  Most US cities can also do improvement districts that focus the cost on the landowners who will most benefit.  Still, it's usually wealthier communities that can afford to do this, so it's deeply misleading to present these specialized shelters as realistic examples for cities in general, let alone to suggest that cash-strapped agencies should reject existing riders in order to pay for them.

It's hard to even criticize Ewing and Bartholomew for these howlers.  As long as I've been in the business, I've heard leading urbanists lecturing transit planners about how they should abandon their obsession with abundant service and focus on aesthetics instead.  As someone with serious credentials in the arts, my response is always that I understand the aesthetic values that the urbanist is describing, but that their recommendation is pointless until they own the consequences of the cuts they are implicitly proposing to fund these things. 

To be fair, transit agencies have been slow to engage urbanists in their own language, which requires staff with appropriate expertise.  This, however, has improved dramatically over the last decade.  Most leading transit agencies in major US cities have design and land use professionals on staff.  Working urban designers and architects are responding constructively to transit agency input, and respectful conversations between the fields are happening more than ever.  Most urban design and architecture professonals that I deal with are sensitive to real-world transit issues and open to learning about transit agency perspectives, so we can hope for a continued spread of insight on these issues.  

Indeed, Ewing's and Bartholomew's book shows how far the urbanist discourse has come in respecting transit and the diversity of its riders.  They speak mostly of "transit," avoiding rail vs. bus arguments, and their photos show buses as accepted parts of the urban landscape deserving of attention.   This is real progress, still controversial in some quarters.  It was partly in the context of this larger sensitivity that the passages quoted above were so shocking.

In the long run, urbanist thinkers who discuss transit must learn to respect transit network design and policy as a genuine expertise — something that's worth learning about before you comment on it.  Again, my own experience suggests that the practice is ahead of the literature in this regard.  This book — very useful on all subjects except transit policy — shows how far urbanists' respect for transit agencies has come since the early days of the New Urbanism, and how much — or perhaps how little — remains to be done.

20 Responses to how to (not) sound elitist when discussing transit

  1. Eric June 18, 2013 at 3:05 am #

    (Canadian midsized cities, for example, generally have about twice the ridership per capita of similar US cities, not becuase their shelters are cuter but becuase they run about twice as much service per capita.)
    Or because the buses have much less competition. Specifically, those cities have no freeways going through downtown.

  2. Jarrett June 18, 2013 at 4:10 am #

    Eric. That doesn’t begin to explain such a large difference. J

  3. Aaron M. Renn June 18, 2013 at 5:09 am #

    Nice post.

  4. Brad T. June 18, 2013 at 6:03 am #

    Interesting that you mentioned that city councils could pay for bus stop shelters, Mr Walker. It’s eminently feasible but would require a close degree of co-ordination between the local council and the transport authority.
    Here in New South Wales, public transport is provided, contracted or regulated by the state government. But local councils are responsible for bus shelters. It’s not too difficult to find examples of bus shelters on streets where there are no bus routes.
    Then there are the B-lights installed by the state roads authority at traffic lights where no bus passes through. As I said, co-ordination is the key, something Australian governments typically aren’t terribly good at!

  5. a June 18, 2013 at 10:20 am #

    I saw Reid Ewing present this book at the APA conference in Chicago this April. He was very thoughtful and humorous, and was primarily presenting the checklists for his intended audience: planners whose focus is on the streets and sidewalks themselves, and not transit per se. The recommendations to transit agencies should be more directly about how to collaborate with the cities that maintain the streets and sidewalks that ultimately have to host these hypothetical adorable shelters– rather than put words in their mouths! Anyway, I’d assume in this book that Ewing/Bartholomew are driven to make the experience holistically better for the everyday pedestrian– of which transit riders are arguably a subset– by suggesting improved transit shelters, but you’re right, Jarrett, in that there are problematic implications in their some of their choices of quotes and passages to justify that very provision– for the transit-oriented AND pedestrians. Good post.

  6. Robert Wightman June 18, 2013 at 1:50 pm #

    Eric Said:
    “Or because the buses have much less competition. Specifically, those cities(Canadian) have no freeways going through downtown.”
    Thank God for that. When I travelled for a year in the US by boat I was constantly amazed how much of the urban fabric was given over to the car. In many cities transit ran once an hour from 6:00 a.m. to 7:00 or 8:00 p.m. except Sundays and holidays. If you didn’t have a car or someone to give you a ride you couldn’t get a job unless it was within walking distance.
    My experiences reminded me of Margaret Thatcher’s line that any man who was over 30 an rode the bus to work was a loser.
    It is hard to build up a transit system when most people only look up on it as a necessary evil for the “less fortunate.” For a transit system to be useful it has to run when and where it might be needed and not just when it can maximize revenue. Since most transit line recover less than 50% of their cost from the fare box it is probably perceived to be an advantage to run the minimal possible service rather than try to build up ridership to maximize benefit.
    It might be time for someone to actually cost out the true cost for each for of travel; plane,boat train (intercity and commuter) bus, HRT, LRT, BRT, street car, monorail, bicycle, pedestrian etc. and charge the true cost for each. It would be interestin.

  7. EngineerScotty June 18, 2013 at 6:25 pm #

    My experiences reminded me of Margaret Thatcher’s line that any man who was over 30 an rode the bus to work was a loser.
    While there is much to criticize Thatcher for, there is no evidence she ever actually said such a thing. (A Labour MP once accused her of saying this, and did so in Parliament, but no actual record of her uttering these words has been found).

  8. Dexter Wong June 18, 2013 at 11:01 pm #

    One blog post on San Francisco transit I read mentioned a transit shelter destroyed in an accident and someone worried about the cost to the City. Then it was pointed out that the shelter had been provided by an advertising company in return for the advertising revenue, so the company would pay for repairs.

  9. Wanderer June 19, 2013 at 11:03 am #

    Do we have any idea what Reid and Bartholomew think of this critique?

  10. MB June 19, 2013 at 1:27 pm #

    The City of Vancouver ran a competition about a decade ago to relace its ugly former bus shelters city-wide. CBS Deceaux won the competition over local competitor, the Jim Pattison Group.
    The deal was awarded on the merit of the shelter design, guarenteed maintenance schedules and financial solidity of the company. The vendor keeps most if not all the advertising revenue; I believe the city charges a small fee for the sidewalk space. There is also a power supply to most shelters.
    The result was a dramatic improvement to the public streetscape at no cost to any public agency, urban or transit. It appears to be a roaring success and could possibly be used as a model for other cities.

  11. Andre Lot June 21, 2013 at 2:05 am #

    One of the problems with whole “high-urbanism” contemporary conversation is that, at least on its mainstream circles, it seems to attempt to ditch all the hard talk on numbers, measurable outcomes, costs etc.
    It is a mindset that extends beyond transit, by the way.

  12. Robert Wightman June 22, 2013 at 6:14 pm #

    “While there is much to criticize Thatcher for, there is no evidence she ever actually said such a thing. (A Labour MP once accused her of saying this, and did so in Parliament, but no actual record of her uttering these words has been found)”
    And Kirk never said “beam me up Scotty” but if it gets repeated often enough it is a factoid if not a fact. Anyway it represents an attitude of many in power that needs to be changed. Keep the comments coming; I appreciate yours along with many others.

  13. EJ June 22, 2013 at 11:58 pm #

    In Vienna, which most people seem to agree is the gold standard for public transportation as well as an exemplar for modern urbanism, the typical bus stop is just a sign on a pole. To be sure, it’s an attractive, well designed sign (all public transit in Vienna features elegant design), but there’s no fancy shelter, usually not even a bench.
    It works because the bus is timely (a smartphone app even tells you accurately when the next bus is coming), frequent, clean, and comfortable.

  14. Miles Bader June 23, 2013 at 1:51 pm #

    In Vienna, which most people seem to agree is the gold standard for public transportation

    Ah, just what this thread needed: a bit of humor!

  15. Eric O June 23, 2013 at 9:05 pm #

    Andre is right. It extends also to a mindset that is curiously lagging, and even seems uninterested, on the questions about process. (Except when that process becomes, how should I put it, stuff hipsters like.) They seem to miss the big picture on abundance. They talk about retrofitting strip malls so much, you’d think they would perk up. Landscape urbanists do get the importance of going beyond the vignette urbanism, but are not generally interested in making themselves understood. You planners should ply them more. They like things like food-webs. They would at least appreciate the concept.

  16. tacony palmyra June 24, 2013 at 8:11 am #

    Well you need fancy shelters because you’ll be waiting so long for the bus with its new, lower frequency…
    The problem is that for people who don’t actually take transit every day, frequency doesn’t really look like anything. It’s not an exciting photo in a book. A fancy bus shelter is fancy even to people who don’t use it!

  17. Marc June 30, 2013 at 3:41 pm #

    Eric, my impression is that Landscape “Urbanists” (at least the academic ones from Penn and GSD speaking in idiotic archibabble) are pretty much into reviving the transit-hostile Radiant City all over again – by claiming that it’s “green” this time! (i.e. the renderings all suggest that the slabs in the park will be coated over with lots of “native grasses” this time). I find it impossible to take them seriously as anything other than just another greenwashing academic ideology (non-engineering design schools go through endless ideology-driven fads and fashionable stunts, with arch schools probably being the worst).
    But anyway, I simply think transit planners should simply “ply” more transit riders more frequently! It’s easy to admire (and demand better) transit aesthetics as an urban designer if you don’t have to take the transit yourself but think it’s nice “for other people.” (Kinda reminds me of 90s-era designers who were hostile to buses but loved stylish streetcars.)
    Admiring (and calling for better) high-art transit shelters and stylish rolling stock is less important if you’re a regular rider and simply want the bus to show up reliably and frequently enough so you don’t have to strategically plan every could-have-been-spur-of-the-moment trip on a schedule!

  18. Tiercelet July 2, 2013 at 1:30 pm #

    I do find it kind of mysterious that anyone could openly champion aesthetics over functionality when discussing public services, and yet still be taken seriously by anyone at all.
    Isn’t that sort of like arguing that the most important thing about Social Security is that the checks have a pretty background, not that they arrive on time? Or that the program suffers because money is “utilitarian” and really we should send beneficiaries a smaller amount of cash, along with a nice bouquet and fancy chocolates every week?
    That’s the very definition of elitism right there. But I trust from your description that the authors mean better, that they just don’t realize how using their recommended source for funding improved aesthetics would affect the usefulness of the system.

  19. Mikko July 7, 2013 at 6:26 am #

    “My experiences reminded me of Margaret Thatcher’s line that any man who was over 30 an rode the bus to work was a loser”
    Someone posted his research on this recently on the internets. Apparently the fact of the matter is that the quote attributed the Maggie T was actually an offhanded comment by a young aide of hers, and the age mentioned was 26, not 30. Of course, I’m not methodical enough to have the link to said research.
    I don’t think Thatcher herself would ever have uttered such a thing, being the poster girl for frugality (however hollow) that she was, never mind the effects of her policies on transit riders.

  20. Matt August 9, 2013 at 12:18 am #

    I am inclined to think Ewing and Bartholomew were pumping for more BRT. There is a sort of ‘sunk cost’ argument–where you put expensive shelters defines where you put your good bus service.

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