Caution: Long Chatty Holiday Letter

This is the letter our firm sent to our friends and colleagues today.  Yes, holiday letters, like Facebook posts, can make you feel that everyone but you is living perfect lives devoid of struggle and heartache.  Here I do my best to rise above that, but it comes with the genre.  You’ve been warned.  

When I returned to the US in 2011, after five years working in Australia, I wasn’t sure what to do, so I created a thing called “Jarrett Walker and Associates”. My book Human Transit had just come out but I had no idea how it would be received. I didn’t even know if I’d need employees.

I had a few vague goals. My first slogan was Let’s think about transit,”because I hate making recommendations. Instead, I wanted to help communities and clients think for themselves. And while there is lots of work in planning infrastructure, I wanted to focus on service and network planning—the thing you need to figure out before you know what infrastructure to build.

Michelle Poyourow and Evan Landman joined me in the first year, and after that, the firm grew around their influence as much as mine. As it became clear that we needed to combine transit planning and public outreach in a new way, we arrived at a grander mission statement: We foster clear conversations about transit, leading to confident decisions.” Since then, our outreach tools—tools that put every participant in the city’s or transit agency’s shoes—have taken a central role in most of our projects.

So far, many people seem to like our approach. The bus networks now running in HoustonColumbusSalem and Anchorage all are based at least partly on our work. Many others are awaiting implementation in the coming year, including in Richmond, Virginia and in San José and Silicon Valley in California). Local US elections in 2016 produced sweeping victories for transit, and we’re proud to have helped develop the voter-approved transit plans in Indianapolis and greater Raleigh.

We’ve now worked in about 30 metro areas across North America, and we’re active in several other countries.  New Zealand and Australia remain close to my heart, and we continue to collaborate there with my former employer MRCagney: Auckland continues rolling out a network that began with our work in 2012, and we’ve also worked in Canberra, Christchurch and Darwin.  We’ve had unexpected Russian adventures, including a bus and tram redesign for Yekaterinburg and the wildly successful streamlining of the buses in central Moscow. Our work in Reykjavík, Iceland was great fun.

This year, we took on our first job in the European Union: the redesign ofDublin’s bus network, led by Daniel Costantino. Europeans rarely ask North Americans for transit planning advice, but our approach to the transit conversation is different from what’s routine in Europe, and we are excited by the possibilities there.

We grew slowly in our first six years, adding about one person per year. But in 2017, we suddenly grew from six people to ten, moved into proper office space in Portland, and opened our first satellite office—in Richmond, Virginia, led by Scudder Wagg.

Scudder WaggScudder was our client, in effect, for two years before joining us, as we collaborated on the redesign of Richmond’s transit network. Now, he leads our efforts on the east coast of the US and Canada.

We also hired Joey Reid, a senior data scientist from Metro Transit in Minneapolis.  He has done wonders in automating our analysis processes, so we can ask smarter questions and get answers faster.

You can read more about our incredible team here.

We’re still figuring out how to exist at our new size, and we have all the conversations you’d expect: Should we grow any more? Would we lose our focus? Would it be more or less fun if we added the structure that a larger firm requires?

My own job has evolved, but I still have at least an advisory role in every project. If an intensive network design retreat with client staff is involved, I lead that retreat. I also continue traveling to new cities to meet local advocates and thought leaders, to run workshops, and give public talks. I am starting to outline my next book, tentatively called Freedom in the City, and the blog remains lively. It’s amazing what Elon Musk calling you an idiot can do to build interest in your work.

But is transit obsolete? Is all that we do about to be swept away by autonomous vehicles, or microtransit, or pods in tunnels, or some other innovation? The transit industry needs to welcome innovation, but many of the people trying to “disrupt” fixed-route transit don’t understand how transit already works. We’re increasingly drawn into debates about the future of transit—on the blog, in the media, and in our work with transit agencies. We collaborate with many innovative technology companies, but we are also unafraid to challenge innovators when their ideas don’t make sense, especially if their marketing campaigns sow confusion or do harm.

We’re grateful to all of our clients, colleagues, and friends for what’s been possible in the last year. We’re trying to make transit and cities better however we can, and we are keen to work with others who share that goal.

We wish you all the best in 2018 and beyond,

Jarrett Walker
President and Principal Consultant
Jarrett Walker + Associates

A New Welcome, and the Most-Read Posts in 2017

If you recently joined us thanks to Elon Musk, you may not know all about what I’m up to here.  There’s an “about” page for that, and over at the right you’ll find links to my book and consulting firm  But there’s also a lot of good material here that doesn’t go out of date.  Start with the Basics collection!

Last year at this time, I reviewed the 10 posts that got the most views in 2016 and was happy to find that only four of the ten were written in that year.  The pattern continues: only three of 2017’s most-read articles were written in 2017.

  1. The Dangers of Elite Projection (July 2017).  This is one of my most useful posts ever, about a basic mistake that’s everywhere in city planning.  It’s an example of my attempt to talk very patiently and inclusively about a difficult topic that makes people very emotional.
  2. Does Elon Musk Understand Urban Geometry? (2016)  My first effort at laying out what’s wrong with Elon Musk’s attempts to make cars go faster through cities, and to provide “service to your door.”  Written several months before I got Musk’s attention.
  3. Elon Musk Responds!  (December 2017) Some drama around my December 14 exchange with Musk. No enduring content.
  4. Basics: Walking Distance to Transit (2010).  An explainer.
  5. Basics: The Spacing of Stops and Stations.  (2010).  This turned into Chapter 4 of my book.
  6. The Receding Fantasy of Affordable Urban Transit “To Your Door” (May 2017).  A first attempt to lay out why demand-responsive services do not scale as any sort of substitute for fixed transit in dense cities.  However, the post will probably be superseded by this expanded one written just this week.
  7. That Photo That Explains Almost Everything (2011).  You’ve seen the photo.  I notice a few things in it beyond its first impression.
  8. Keys to Great Airport Transit (2016, but new on the list in ’17)  A pretty useful explainer about the common challenges and mistakes in airport rail lines.
  9. Streetcars: An Inconvenient Truth. (2009) My first controversial post, still starting arguments seven years later.
  10. Learning from “Mini Metro”.  (2014) Geeking out on the best public transit planning game I’ve seen.

But the Musk drama nudged some other keepers just out of the top 10.

  1. Explainer: The Transit Ridership Recipe (2015).  Perhaps my single most essential explainer.
  2. Core vs Edge Debates in Public Transit. (2016) An eternal issue.

Happy reading!  And if you’d like to see some of this material in more organized form, there’s a book, whose introduction you can read online.

Happy New Year.


The Fantasy of “Service to Your Door” in Dense Cities

Customers love our new invention!  You have to start listening to the customer!  How often have you heard this line as though it ended any argument?  I certainly hear it all the time as an explanation of why “service to your door” will sweep away large parts of the fixed route transit industry.

The answer is:  People want all kinds of things that they can’t all have, because those things just too expensive per customer to provide.  Wealthier people can have them, but the tastes that wealthy people can afford are a terrible guide to what will work for everyone.

A great example is “service to your door,” when applied to dense cities.  There is a different issue when applied to suburbs, to which I’ll return in another post.

As far as we can tell, neither Uber nor its competitors can make a profit, even though they focus heavily on dense cities where the geography is most favorable to them.  Startups have lots of good arguments for why we should wait a while for them to be profitable, but Uber is running out of them.  We are not waiting for Uber to scale up; it is already huge.  We are not waiting for it to become more labor-efficient; it has already squeezed labor so hard that it can’t retain drivers.  We are not waiting for more efficiency in communications; the app already works fine.  What are we waiting for?

As Len Sherman argued in Fortune recently, the real answer is simpler.  Urban transportation is just not a profitable business.  Transit isn’t, and taxis and taxi-like services usually aren’t either.

But transit is supremely efficient at one essential thing: it uses scarce urban space efficiently.  By contrast, “service to your door” is becoming a new way to strangle our cities with congestion. Congestion is a spatial problem; it will still be there in a coming age of automation.

So yes, everybody would like to have service to their door.  But the true price of that, in dense cities, is likely to be something that only relatively wealthy people can afford.  Pre-automation, labor is an irreducible cost.  Post-automation, in dense cities, there will still be the problem of space. Uber and Lyft are already increasing traffic in dense cities that don’t have room for it. If they suddenly become cheaper, the resulting induced demand would be the death-knell for the functioning of cities.

To its credit, Uber understands that only road pricing will solve this problem even in the post-automation world.  This, of course, would push the price of their service back up, and thus out of range for many people.  But that would indeed be the true price.  Which is why the “service to your door” fad must not be allowed to undermine fixed route transit systems that can work for everyone because they use space so efficiently.  (Post-automation, too, we should also think of autonomous taxis competing with autonomous buses, which would be vastly more frequent than buses today.)

Advertising glorifies the tastes of the wealthy, not just to sell to them but to help less wealthy people form unrealistic tastes. “Service to your door” is yet another example of that kind of marketing.  And whenever we are told to design things around technologies that only the fortunate can afford, we’re being asked to make a mistake called elite projection.  Cities do not work for anyone unless they makes room for transportation that works for everyone. So they must be designed around what works for everyone.  They must also be designed around solutions that are financially sustainable, which “service to your door” — when properly priced to account for its inefficient use of street space — is probably not.

But is “service to your door” relevant to suburban needs, or to the distinctly suburban “first mile last mile” problem? I’ll cover that in an imminent post.

If You Need a Holiday Distraction

… I would like to recommend the computer game The Witness.

Yes, this is off topic in a narrow sense. But I know many readers of this blog love the process of scientific discovery, and that’s what The Witness is about.

You arrive in a beautiful garden that presents you with puzzles.  You figure them out. Soon you are allowed out of the garden into a large island full of more puzzles, which gradually open up richer mysteries.  You learn more and more about the world.  Just like science, see?

As I faced these puzzles of increasing difficulty, I found myself having the full range of sensations that accompany the scientific process:

  • The thrill of recognizing a pattern, solving something, and thus being free to move forward.
  • The need to document what you’ve learned. (Take lots of screenshots.)
  • The uncertainty about what might turn out to be important later.  This gradually recedes  a bit as you grow to learn the world’s “rules” but never quite goes away.
  • The frustration of being stuck.
  • The moment when the beautiful solution that you’ve found turns out to be wrong, but it’s so beautiful that you’re angry it isn’t right.
  • The way this anger can guide you to come up with mathematical proofs that there is no solution to the puzzle.
  • That feeling when this ironclad argument for despair is ruined by a sudden insight or successful guess.
  • The resulting realization that while the pattern isn’t always the beautiful thing you imagined, there is a different beautiful pattern.
  • The way that, late in the game as the problems get very hard, the notion that every pattern must be discoverable becomes stretched, and you start trying to theorize unknowability in ways reminiscent of chaos theory or the Heisenberg principle.
  • The way the sheer beauty of the world keeps you coming back to it, even when you feel mad at its designers.

I write this at a moment of being very stuck, but I’m still eager to recommend it, if only for the delight I’ve had getting to this point.

But this is important: If you decide to trust me, do not read anything else about the game!  Don’t read other reviews, because it’s hard to say more than I’ve said without giving spoilers.

Well, I will give one clue.  It’s a comment to a review (yet another review you really shouldn’t read):

Was walking my dog. Saw something on sidewalk that looked like part of a circle. Wondered how I can get on neighbors roof for better perspective.

It’s best on a tablet.

Commenters:  No spoilers.  Please don’t give away anything more than what I’ve described.  Because the pleasure of this game starts with knowing nothing at all.

Media Roundup: My “Dispute” with Elon Musk

It’s been a week since Aarian Marshall at Wired published Elon Musk’s comments about public transport (“there’s like a bunch of random strangers, one of whom might be a serial killer”, etc.)

… which led to this exchange on Twitter …

… followed by a few other rude and thin-skinned tweets, all now deleted …

… which caused all kinds of unexpected things.  Urban planning guru Brent Toderian launched the Twitter hashtag #GreatThingsThat HappenedOnTransit, where hundreds of people have told about great encounters with “a bunch of random strangers” on public transit; the Guardian has that story.  Island Press instantly put my book on sale and sold out their inventory.  And I’ve heard from hundreds of people who were offended by Musk’s comments, and by his response to mine.

Yesterday, in the Atlantic Citylab, I tried to lay out what it’s all about. Read that for the big picture.  It’s much more interesting than a media roundup post!

Being called an idiot can change your life, or at least your schedule.  At 6:15 AM today, a black limo appeared in front of my house and took me to a Fox Business segment with Stuart Varney.  You can watch that here.  And tonight I did both live and taped interviews with the BBC World Service’s Newsday program.  It’s been a long day.

Now I hear Elon Musk is planning a blog post, which I look forward to.

The “Twitter war” meme … the “you won’t believe what he said!” … is really boring to me.  I would much rather talk about what public transit is and why it’s so essential to great cities.  At some point, I hope, Elon Musk will want to be part of that crusade. Because he’s a smart and effective guy.

DEADLINE EXTENDED: My Book Is On Sale! Thank Elon Musk!

WalkerCover-r06 cropped

Thanks to my recent dust-up with Elon Musk, my book is 50% off at the Island Press website.  Not sure you want it?  Read the introduction online first.

You can get the e-book for half off here until January 22).

As for the physical book, well:  Just an hour or two after Elon Musk called me an idiot, Island Press announced a discount on my book, and they quickly sold out of all their copies on hand.  You can still get the discount from the Island Press, until January 22, by going here and checking out with the code ELON, but I’m afraid it may take a month for you to get the book, though they tell me they’re trying to do an expedited print run.

Of course, you may still be able to get it from other online retailers.


Elon Musk Responds!

I confess, I’ve sometimes been hard on Elon Musk. When he talks about how he’s going to change the facts of geometry, I point out that no technology has ever done that. And I’ve commented on other things he’s said that express cluelessness about how cities work.  Musk is doing some great things, but he is also using his megaphone to advance the idea that our cities will be great if we can just drive faster through them.  Most of his own home town, Los Angeles, was designed on that very principle, and look how that turned out.

Recently, I wrote a very careful piece on elite projection — the universal problem of very fortunate people designing the world around their private needs and tastes.  (Read the piece before you make a judgmental comment based on that summary!) Since then, Musk has really been helping me out.  He keeps uttering more and more lurid quotes that are perfect examples of elite projection. Even the tech boosters of Fast Company noticed that his Los Angeles tunnel project seems engineered for his personal commute.  And he is always saying things like this:

[Public transit is] a pain in the ass,” he continued. “That’s why everyone doesn’t like it. And there’s like a bunch of random strangers, one of who might be a serial killer, OK, great. And so that’s why people like individualized transport, that goes where you want, when you want.”

Well, the company of “random strangers” is what a city is, and since a city is a lot of people in not much space, there isn’t room for everyone’s car.  So I said the obvious:

To which the great man replied:

… which, at the moment, has over 17000 likes, 2500 retweets, and a diverse thread of responses, including a lot of cool urbanist and tech people defending me. It’s all very funny to me, and I hope it is to you.

Vera Katz, 1933-2017

Photo: BJ (Brian Jim) Imagery via Wikipedia.

Vera Katz, mayor of Portland from 1993 to 2005, has passed away at 84.  She began life fleeing from the Nazis, and became one of the most distinctive and effective characters in Oregon politics.  I disagreed with her sometimes but can’t forget the way she could bring out the best in people.  Her 12 years as mayor meant that a whole generation came of age knowing no other leader.

The Oregonian has a fine obituary. Jonathan Maus has a nice review of her urbanist achievements.

Our oldest free weekly, Willamette Week, called her “Portland’s last successful mayor,” which seems a little nasty to me.  The three men who followed her all served just one term, opting not to run for re-election, so I suppose you can say that if you mean sheer longevity in office.

But of course, the job has also gotten harder.  Portland is an angrier place than it was in her time.  News media is more diverse, which is great, but can also be less constructive.  More of the population feels cornered and desperate, due to a greater economic cruelty in the culture that is beyond city government’s power to heal.  The kind of patience and shared effort that Katz could inspire may not be possible now.

Portland’s mayor is legally a weak position, largely a role of chairing the City Council and assigning fellow councilors to supervise different parts of city government.  In my experience, the average citizen has wildly exaggerated expectations for what a Portland mayor can actually do.

In this context, great mayors have succeeded by managing the council, creating space for everyone to excel while steering people toward a common purpose.  But this only happens if there’s an electorate that really wants to reward that kind of co-operation.

I wonder if we’ll notice the moment when the job of Mayor of Portland — and similar weak-mayor positions in other cities — has gone from difficult to impossible.  When a job is impossible, you won’t find competent people who want to do it, and that’s not good for any of the causes you care about.

Toronto: A new King Street for Transit

By Christopher Yuen

For the past few decades, Toronto’s King Street, a frequent transit corridor through the densest and fastest-growing parts of the city, has been increasingly choked by car traffic. Built before the age of the automobile, and running in mixed traffic as was typical with legacy streetcar systems, the 504 King streetcar’s speed has deteriorated to just about walking speed on most days during rush hour. That was until three weeks ago, when the City of Toronto launched a one-year pilot project to restrict car traffic and give transit the space it needs to move. The Globe and Mail has a great piece on the significance of this project here. Details on the project and its design are available at the City of Toronto website here.

King Street Pilot Plan Diagram excerpt

The King Street pilot project prioritizes transit.

The new design of 4-lane King street was particularly thoughtful, given some of the constraints the corridor faces. While transit malls in some cities completely ban non-transit vehicles, existing high-rise parking garages that front onto King Street and businesses throughout the bustling entertainment district without back lane for loading and deliveries meant that vehicular access had to be maintained. Under the new design, left turns and through-travel are prohibited for cars and trucks at all major intersections- requiring drivers to turn right and use alternate streets.

At the approach to intersections, vehicles waiting to turn right form a queue in the right lane, out of the way of transit. At some intersections, cars receive an advance turn signal ahead of pedestrians to ensure the tail of the turning queue does not impede the streetcars.

Taken on a weekday at 4:00pm, this scene would have been much more chaotic with through-traffic blocking transit before the project. Now, cars are channeled to turn right at every intersection. (Photo: Alex Gaio)

Taken on a weekday at 4:00pm, this scene would have been much more chaotic with through-traffic blocking transit before the project. Now, cars are channeled to turn right at every intersection. (Photo: Alex Gaio)

Without through-traffic, having two lanes at the start of each block is no longer necessary, allowing for an important feature for efficient transit operations- far-side stops. Streetcar tracks in Toronto, and in many legacy systems, operate in the middle of the road. To board and alight, passengers must step into the roadway, protected only by a rule prohibiting motorists from passing open streetcar doors. As a result, stops have always been located on the near-side to reduce the risk of drivers making a right turn onto a transit corridor and immediately conflicting with passengers getting on or off a streetcar. Under the new design, streetcars stop on the far side of most intersections, beside barriers that effectively extends the curb to the second lane at the start of each intersection.

New far-side stops with a temporary curb-extension mean passengers no longer have to walk through a traffic lane to get on and off the streetcar. (Photo: Alex Gaio)

New far-side stops with a temporary curb-extension mean passengers no longer have to walk through a traffic lane to get on and off the streetcar. (Photo: Alex Gaio)

In addition to the obvious safety benefits of the new design, the far-side stops also allow transit vehicles to travel faster. Traffic signals along Toronto’s King Street already feature transit signal priority- they detect an approaching transit vehicle to hold a green light, or shorten a red light. With near-side stops, the unpredictable dwell times at stops would sometimes cause the traffic-signal to time-out, leaving the transit vehicle with a red light just as it closes its doors and is ready to get moving. Far side stops allow signals to be held for a streetcar to get through an intersection before stopping for passengers.

The new design also re-allocates curb space as loading zones, taxi stands and for new seating and patio space mid-block- all valuable features for a dense, mixed-use central business district which would not have been possible when all four lanes have been dedicated to the throughput of cars.

New public spaces like this will become especially valuable when patio season begins.

New public spaces like this will become especially valuable when patio season begins. (Photo: Alex Gaio)

Since its launch, public support has been for the most part, positive. The all-at-once approach to implementing this pilot across the corridor has ensured that the new inconvenience to some drivers has also been matched with a drastic, noticeable, and immediate improvement for everyone else. Across the twittersphere, Torontonians are reporting anecdotes of more consistent departures and trips taking half as they did previously.

Even among some taxi drivers, subject to the same turn restrictions throughout the day, initial skepticism appears to have eased.

Preliminary analysis of GPS data shows that the project is working, significantly reducing both the average and the spread of travel times.  However, it remains to be seen if enough drivers will comply with the new restrictions once the initial enforcement blitz is over. If New York or San Francisco‘s bus lanes offer any guidance, Toronto should introduce automatic camera enforcement along the corridor. Over the course of this one-year pilot project, municipal staff and the transit agency will be sure to monitor the situation closely and make adjustments based on actual results.

Cities, faced with growing populations and spatial constraints, must defend the right for transit to move if they wish to limit the negative impacts of traffic congestion. Toronto’s King Street offers a story of how that can be done quickly and effectively.


Christopher Yuen is an associate at Jarrett Walker+Associates and will be regularly contributing to this blog.

Notes on the New Microsoft Campus

Microsoft has unveiled plans for a complete rebuild of its headquarters in Redmond, Washington, in the eastern suburbs of Seattle.    Corporations have long wanted to make their headquarters feel like universities — hence their love of the word campus — but this one is much closer to delivering on that image. complete with retail, generous plazas and open space, and — very important — the removal of through car traffic.


It’s most important feature is its relationship to the new light rail station that will open on the edge of the campus in 2023.  A central axis of the campus points right to the station, minimizing walk distances to all campus destinations.  The station is just off the image to the upper right.  It’s not the town of circa 1900 town where density crowded around the station, but then rail stations in 1900 weren’t in ravines next to freeways.  This campus represents the best of what you can do given the suburban nature of the urban fabric, land ownership, and transportation infrastructure. It’s no substitute for locating in the old fabric of a dense city — as Amazon and Twitter did and Google is planning to do — but it’s a great start toward building a more human urban environment in a difficult context.

None of the materials I’ve seen mentions the parking ratios, however.  How many spaces per employee?  Too much parking would destroy the whole point.