When transit advocates talk past each other, especially about the
glories of their favorite technology, I often feel we need a better way to talk about
what’s really important. Which features of a technology or transit plan
are truly essential in motivating ridership? Which are just really
One framework that may be helpful, suggested in an excellent
post by Engineer Scotty, is Abraham Maslow’s famous Hierarchy
Bottom line: People care about a particular set of needs only if lower-level needs are met.
This explains, for example, why it’s hard to get the people in poor and violent countries to care about democracy. A need for democracy arguably belongs to the Esteem level, as it’s about the government’s esteem of the citizen. But democracy is a pointless abstraction if you’re starving — i.e. your Physiological needs are not met — or even if you’re well fed but worried about civil war — i.e. threatened on the Safety level.
Most tales about the development of human civilization are about societies climbing, and slipping back, on this pyramid.
Scotty’s post looks at a University of Florida survey that used Maslow’s scheme to understand how people weigh different transit desires against each other. The survey has lots of problems — dig via Scotty’s post if you’re interested — but it’s a question worth thinking about.
We transport planners are sometimes cast as narrow-minded because we obsess about travel time. But we obsess about it because human beings do. When an urbanist such as Patrick Condon suggests that I should want transit to be slower so that it will foster better communities, I sense a problem that Maslow’s pyramid might elucidate.
Where in Maslow’s pyramid would we locate our need for speed? You might argue that it depends on the purpose of travel, but the vast majority of our travel is about the three lowest levels of the pyramid. These levels — Physiological, Safety and Love/belonging — are what motivate us to work, and work is one of the great drivers of transit demand.
(Sure, you say you work for Self-actualization. So do I, but only when the other needs are met! Put it another way: I work for Self-actualization, but my Physiological and Safety needs explain why I cash my paycheck instead of framing it.)
More directly, the anxious basic lower-level needs are why we often feel “we just need to get there.” You’re waiting for a bus or train because you want to be home where it’s safe. (Safety) Or you want to get home to your partner or child (Safety and Love/belonging). Or you’re hungry — a Physiological need.
When I hear certain urbanist circles argue that we should design transit mainly to be fun (as Darrin Nordahl does) or to catalyze certain desirable urban form outcomes (as Professor Condon does), the resulting consensus — if one forms — seems to consist of two groups of people:
- Citizens engaged in visionary debate about what would make their city better.
- Professionals engaged in selling a certain transit product and related services.
The second group, of course, is just people doing their jobs; they’re motivated to sell the product, becuase doing so is ultimately tied to their success at their work, and thus to their own Physiological and Safety needs.
The first group, on the other hand, is working at the Self-actualization level, the summit of the pyramid. They’re asking great questions about what the good urban life is. They are also, by definition, a self-selected portion of the population that has met all their lower needs to the point that they have time to think about this one.
But as Maslow shows, they shouldn’t expect these considerations to be very convincing to a citizen who’s stranded on a rainy streetcorner, or in a stopped transit vehicle, because the city designed its transit to catalyze great urban life at the expense of making it fast and reliable. That person will see other people’s high-level needs being placed above their low-level needs.
And once they have that perception, they’re ready to join, say, the Los Angeles Bus Riders Union (BRU). In the early 1990s in Los Angeles, a critical mass of people saw their bus service being cut even as money went into long-term rail transit plans. The rail projects were good ones, for the most part, but they were far in the future and therefore only relevant to people whose immediate needs were met. As a result of the BRU’s lawsuit, the Los Angeles County transit agency spent about a decade under a “consent decree” in which courts reviewed all their plans, to ensure that the city’s massive and crowded bus system was not just protected but enhanced. Today, Los Angeles is deservedly moving forward with rail again, but it’s also a city where buses are taken seriously.
This isn’t a buses-are-better-than-rail post. Longtime readers know that I advocate whatever technology meets the identified needs in a particular situation. I adamantly support every community’s right to decide what its needs are. If some communities decide that values such as fun or comfort or classiness or sheer love of technology rank high for them, I’m ready, like most consultants, to help them pursue those values.
This also isn’t a critique of philosophy or visionary urbanism, values that belong to the summit of Maslow’s pyramid. I’ve been incredibly privileged to spend a decade in great universities thinking about such things, and the ability to have these arguments is a basic source of joy for me, as it is for most of the other urbanists I know.
But when we engage in conversations about what makes a great city, or for that matter a good life, we have to remember that outside the sealed windows of our salon or charrette or network of likeminded blogs, most of our fellow citizens are working on more fundamental needs, and are motivated by those needs as they travel in the city. They’re buying food, or earning their rent money, or getting home to their families.
Those people are in a hurry, and they have every right to be. If we can implement our great visions in ways that work with their lives, they’ll appreciate it. But when we hear that transit should be slower because it’s good for us, or that a transit line will be so sexy that we shouldn’t care if it’s reliable, be careful. If our visions get in the way of their lives, they’ll eventually rebel.
In some cases, these are battles we have to have. Sometimes, people are meeting their low-level needs by destroying the planet, and we have every right to point that out even if we’re better fed than they. But it’s also a fight worth avoiding if we can. I suspect we’ll get better transit planning — and even better urbanism — if we remember, at every moment, the feeling of just needing to get where we’re going, and soon.
It’s worthwhile to point out that many people cite the feeling of safety that they get when they enter their personal automobile as a reason for driving.
Excellent post! But, I can’t help but wonder how dealing with air pollution as it relates to transit and transportation in the San Joaquin Valley would fit into Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs model.
To me, it’s all about safety. If the air were to become so polluted here that health were to be adversely affected and thus life itself is being shortened, then creating a transportation system that effectively reduces the amount of pollution coming from the transportation sector would become an important priority. It would also mean that “citizens engaged in visionary debate about what would make their city better” and “Professionals engaged in selling a certain transit product and related services” would require that both groups be on the same page, no doubt.
Pollution consistently ranks as an important issue among people living in the San Joaquin Valley of California as does transportation. (Several Public Policy Institute of California surveys substantiate this). Even with nearly one-in-three children in Fresno County alone being an asthmatic (75,000 out of a total 225,000 children, which is significant), solving pollution from transportation is not important enough, it seems. The transportation sector in the San Joaquin Valley is responsible for producing 80 percent of air pollution according to information I’ve read.
Another interesting observation is that separately air pollution and transportation are issues in the Valley that rank high. Question is: Are people in the Valley putting two and two together? I have a sneaking suspicion the bulk of us aren’t, otherwise we would see tremendous strides made in pollution being significantly reduced from transportation, not to mention from industrial, commercial and residential (fireplace burning) sources as well. I just don’t see this happening. In my opinion air pollution in the Valley is growing worse. Nearly one in three children in Fresno County alone being an asthmatic, this is very telling.
Wow, that was fast. 🙂
And quite well done, Jarrett.
The problem with air pollution, Alan, is that it’s an a) a a long term threat, and b) an externalized cost FTMP. For many in the world, it doesn’t register as a concern when one is faced with putting food on the table–when you are worried about tomorrow’s meal, you don’t worry about something that might kill you in a decade. And given that it is a cost which is easily externalized, in many socities, it is. (In China, for instance, there are millions of coal-burning stoves in people’s apartments, used for cooking and heating. The pollution contributed by this is terrible, but it’s very inexpensive, and many cannot afford cleaner sources of power such as gas and electricity.
California’s air quality standards are stricter than a lot of places,
I’ve always contended the “want versus need” was an invalid concept. Everything basically boils down to cost/benefit.
All needs are really based on some contingency. I need this, IF I want to do this. Nobody really needs anything other than those things which will keep you alive. Most of the bottom tier of the pyramid and some of the second tier fit that bill.
Very good post. People in cities really need to be able to cut through the smoke and mirrors of transit systems designed to do other things than improve mobility. If some transit system is not designed to improve mobility (or safety), the proponents should say that. However, I have a feeling taxpayers are not willing to foot the bill for transit primarily geared toward TOD. Improved transit should drive TOD, not TOD forcing transit to fit it.
Didn’t “Death of the Automobile” use Maslow to trace cars’ development from glorified tractors to cushy avatars? I think the idea was that once you get past getting from here to there, the rest is marketing…including safety.
This might be the juncture to point out that cars are in fact not safe at all. Automobile crashes are the number one cause of death in most age groups, until you reach old age.
Which shows that the perception of safety is more important than actual safety, annoyingly.
Actually, that’sa trifle unfair… if buses are bad, people (subconciously) exmaine the risk of a personal attack on a bus versus the risk of a crash in a car, and choose the car. Further, a car gives you the feeling that you are in control, and hence your safety is up to you, even though around half the risk comes from other drivers, not yourself.
(Aside: 90% of drivers in two-car collisions say it’s the other driver’s fault… ).
Of course, when we talk about what makes a great city … its the whole pyramid we are talking about. Are there employment opportunities created by recirculating the income in the city? Or is the income generated in the city sucked out to support an Oil Company CEO and Saudi Oil prince’s luxurious lifestyles. Is it possible to get to a place that sells healthy food to eat, or is the only accessible food fatty starch that is slowly killing everyone in the neighborhood. Jane Jacob long made the point about a diverse mix of uses at the level of the street creating a safer urban environment than urban monoculture.
There’s a really fatal flaw (aside from the one where Maslow himself said people shouldn’t take his hierarchy too literally)in this argument, as in much urban transportation discussion: travel time calculations don’t allow for re-forming the set of origins and destinations.
The origins and destinations really aren’t immutably geographically fixed for all time, and permanent, visible, high-level investment in alternatives such as light rail and street cars have proven extremely effective at reorganizing origins and destinations around themselves.
Even for the auto mode, traffic calming measures that create a workable “main street” are precisely to support NEW destinations. If you can get your food at the little store on the walkable strip, you don’t need to fly past on your way to the Walmart 10 miles away.
It’s also worth noting that (I’ve read somewhere) only 15% of suburbanites’ travel is for the work commute. The other 85% would benefit from walkable or transit-served communities and “place-making.”
BruceMcF: I think you misunderstand the hierarchy. The point is that it doesn’t matter if there is a place that sells healthy food if you can’t afford it and are starving. Whatever the downsides of McDonalds and Walmart and all the places that the illegentsia loves to disdain, they are cheap, and for many people (more than you would think, most likely) it comes down to a matter of calories per dollar. Not being able to eat kills people a whole lot faster than the “fatty starch”.
Sam, at a given density, I don’t see why the average trip length between origins and destinations would change with LRT/streetcar. I find your argument to be similar to the Patrick Condon argument. In a “good” urban area with fairly high population density (say constrained parking availability). The average trip lengths are already desirably shorter than in single use suburban territories. So why bother attempting to shorten them unless one plans to increase density as well. Why would the economics favor the shop on the corner over the Walmart with the addition of the streetcar/LRT when the population within the available cheap goods market is constant?
What would make sense would be to have better land use for future developments to favor shorter trips. Additionally, increasing the costs of driving to existing non-growth areas might dampen the demand to create trips to unnecessary distant destinations.
@Sam. Yes, but you’re talking about the future, and the future appears in Maslow’s hierarchy (as fear and arguably also hope) on the Safety level. People who are working on the Physiology level are just not going to care, but they will care if you get in their way.
The city we design has to not just be a great place in the future, but a continuously improving place at every step between here and there. And it needs to be improving not just in ways that we urbanist intellectuals approve of, but in ways that make it easier for ordinary people to meet ordinary needs. Good urban redevelopment does that, but putting things close together.
But my point in using Maslow is this: Be careful when you hear an urbanist say that ordinary transport planning values like speed, frequency, reliability, or cost-effectiveness should be sacrificed for the sake of a redevelopment return. I’ve linked to two writers, Condon and Nordahl, who in different ways really do make that claim.
Me, I think that great public transport — fast, frequent, reliable — will catalyze development sooner or later, because people will figure out how much easier life would be if they lived at one of its stations.
Interesting, but I’m not sure that the idea of the hierarchy really supports speed for its own sake.
If you look at the studies into people choosing where to live we do appear to choose status over distance and convenience to our workplace. This suggests that whatever it is, travel time isn’t a very salient basic need. It may be important when the journey is in progress, but it appears that when taken as a factor on its own it doesn’t hold signficant influence over our decisions. Where it might be important is in terms of moderating more basic transport desires: reliability and comfort.
Why do I think this? Evidence from studies of drivers suggests that what makes car commuting such a chore is the sheer unpredicatbility of it. Will there be road works? Will I make the lights or will they be against me? Will the traffic be light or jammed? It demands a level of attention that as a species we don’t like to devote to such a joyless activity. Using unreliable transit could be the same. Having to constantly come up with alternative journey plans to counteract the failings in the system is congitively demanding and therefore stressful. Fast usually means segregated and segregated means reliable; so it could be that we don’t really want fast itself, but the reliability byproduct of a fast system is desirable to reduce cognitive discomfort.
The case for time’s effect physical comfort is even more basic. If we hate longer travel times it’s mostly because we hate any extension to the suffering that it is to be stuck in a small space with noisy strangers being shaken around as the bus/tram/whatever makes its way to our destination. Faster systems minimise this agony.
But a system doesn’t have to be fast to meet these criteria. It just helps.
If you’re poor, generally you optimize for cost of housing. Which is often, unfortunately, a place that isn’t transit convenient, as closeness to transit can make a place more expensive.
If you’re sufficiently wealthy that higher levels of the pyramid play a choice in your lifestyle–chances are you’ve got the “transportation” issue licked, regardless of mode.
Interesting point about the disincentives of driving. But many of the hassles associated with driving balance against different hassles associated with transit.
One reason I like driverless rapid transit systems, for example, is that they are extremely frequent and extremely reliable, and this addresses transit’s typical weaknesses: waiting time and the anxiety associated with not knowing when/whether a bus or train will come.
That’s the perspective of the “I just want to get there” traveller, whose needs, I contend, should always be present in our thinking.
The disagreements you’re alluding to are more about the appropriate time-scale for change, than they are about a pyramid of needs. The person waiting in the rain for a bus wants a better bus service right about now, but the warm and dry urbanist wants to create an urban form over the next few decades in which waiting for a bus in the rain will be less common.
So it depends on who you’re working for; today’s population, or the much greater population of the future. I acknowledge that the people of tomorrow don’t vote now, nor do they pay for anything now, but that’s why they need strong advocacy now!
I’m uncertain of the value of applying Maslow here.
For starters, his hierarchy is pretty fluid. A librarian who has all the security, esteem and actualisation they need can still lock themselves out of their house and find themselves cold hungry and tired.
A person whose partner has died might lack love and intimacy but continue to find esteem and actualisation in their work.
To imagine that we work on these problems sequentially rather than simultaneously is unhelpful. Maslow’s hierarchy is just a loose model of human behaviour.
And more importantly, Maslow assumes the locus of control is internal. The hierarchy is arranged as it is because it is up to the individual to satisfy each need. For transit riders, much of the satisfaction of their needs is in the hands of dastardly planners.
I suspect alternative heuristics for determining what riders value might be more practical tools.
Another fascinating post… followed by very interesting comments, as always. I was first introduced to Maslow’s hierarchy over 20 years ago, but never applied it to what I do for a living. Perhaps I was struggling too much on the first three levels. Now that I’m older and more confident in my self-worth, the hierarchy, as applied to transit, makes sense.
What makes a great transit system? Reliable, safe, and convenient service. Travel time is a factor, but if you have the other three, the effect of speed is lessened. How much depends on how strong the other three are.
Still, good transit is integral to great cities, but each transit system has it’s own distinct flavor. Each city/transit system will eventually figure out what works best for it.
I would like see your evidence that “high-level investment in alternatives such as light rail and street cars have proven extremely effective at reorganizing origins and destinations around themselves.” That is certainly not what Baum-Snow and Kahn found in their study Effects of Urban Rail Transit Expansions: Evidence from Sixteen Cities, 1970–2000. They found that in all but one of the sixteen cities with significant rail transit expansion, density near existing transit lines declined rather than increased, that density near new transit lines is much lower than near old transit lines, and that in several cities, population density near new transit lines actually fell after the lines were built. And the recent Brookings Institution report The State of Metropolitan America found that population and workplaces have continued to sprawl over the past decade, despite continued investment in new and expanded urban rail transit.
You also say that “if you can get your food at the little store on the walkable strip, you don’t need to fly past on your way to the Walmart 10 miles away.” I think this again highlights the problem of confusing “needs” with desires. Yes, in that situation you may not “need” to go to Walmart for your food, but you will probably choose to do so anyway, for the lower prices and bigger selection. You might stop in at the little store occasionally, for bread or milk or somesuch, but you’ll probably do most of your shopping at a big supermarket.
I would like see your evidence that “high-level investment in alternatives such as light rail and street cars have proven extremely effective at reorganizing origins and destinations around themselves.”
There’s plenty of evidence here in Vancouver Canada, where you can pretty much find the Skytrain stations just by looking for the clusters of condo towers. And almost all of those towers came after Skytrain, not before. The third largest shopping mall in Canada was pretty much an empty lot when the Skytrain station opened.
I can’t speak for other cities or for what the “typical” experience is, but Vancouver is emphatic proof that this CAN be the case.
The BS&K paper doesn’t really say what you seem to be implying. It notes that transit use across the board (in the US) has fallen in the interval in question. There are several obvious reasons why: massive suburban expansion, resulting in land-use patterns which are car-friendly and transit-hostile; the completion of the Interstate system (and numerous non-Interstate freeway networks) in the three-dace span; and in many cases, depopulation or ghetto-ification of central cities.
Among the paper’s findings:
* Cities with no rail transit have done worse, both in terms of overall 2000 transit share as defined by the paper (6% vs 2%), and their declines in share have been steeper.
* If you exclude cities like Baltimore, St. Louis, Cleveland, and Buffalo which have seen significant decreases in population or decay in the urban core, the remaining cities have generally held or increased share.
* If you compare the 2000 transit share figures given in Table 2, with the percentage of land located within 2km of rail, you notice a nice correlation:
City %Land Transit Share
Various 0 2
Atlanta 5 5
Baltimore 7 7
Boston 7 15
Buffalo 1 4
Chicago 17 17
Dallas 3 2
Denver 1 5
LA 7 7
Miami 7 5
Portland 5 7
Sacto 3 3
San Diego 10 4
San Fran 19 17
San Jose 5 4
St. Louis 2 3
Washington 12 14
It seems that the more parts of the city are reachable by transit, the greater transit’s commute share is–and the correlation is dang near linear!
If anything, the paper suggests that excluding the real low-density cities (both those who have lost population, and those which have sprawled excessively), building rail does positively impact transit share.
Similar conclusions may apply, of course, to other forms of rapid transit–but those aren’t considered by the paper.
First of all, I always had a problem with Maslow’s food pyramid. There are many instances of people surrendering safety for love, take Romeo and Juliet, or liberty for safety, take Patrick Henry, or take anorexia, self-esteem for food. Second, let’s not patronize our poor Third World brethren. If democracy means taking out the warlord or dictator who just rounded up their family and killed and tortured them, then they certainly support democracy and freedom and civil rights over getting work, their own health, and property security. The whole concept that Third World people are too stupid to handle democracy is a First world invention. We destroyed their culture and stole their resources, but the real reason they don’t have democracy, is because they’re too stupid and overly concerned with eating and beating on their drums. Yuhhhhhh.
Finally, I had this debate a long time ago. Why do we keep gentrifying transit when we can move more people for less on ugly, unclean, buses like they have in Mexico? Why all the nice amenities for middle class riders? Well it’s called trickle down transit. If transit is palatable and useful for those in power, those who influence votes, those who wield political clout, then transit gets funding. If it’s just some welfare transportation system, it doesn’t get funding. So put in a $100 million streetcar system in an upscale neighborhood so rich folk don’t have to drive and park, and it will trickle down and the poor folk who clean their houses will get bus funding. It’s as simple as that.
Here’s another example of rail-inspired densification from today’s Vancouver Sun:
“The Vancouver-based developer PCI Group is proposing to build the city’s tallest tower outside the downtown core as part of an ambitious redevelopment of the southeast corner of Cambie Street and Marine Drive.
“Rising more than 30 storeys to 350 feet (105 metres), the proposed tower would contain 577 residential units (390 condominiums and 187 rental apartments) and form more than one-third of a sprawling 950,000-square-foot project PCI has named Marine Gateway.
“The residential tower would provide housing for 750 to 850 people. A second, 260-foot office tower plus a 288,000-square-foot retail centre at its base would support 2,000 jobs, said PCI CEO Andrew Grant.
“Grant said the site’s two-hectare size, plus its location practically on top of the Canada Line’s Marine Drive Station and TransLink bus exchange, begged for a substantial, “transit-oriented-design” project.”
Sydney is another example of density following transit. Stand on a hill and the train lines can be seen as spines of high-rise across the horizon. Those train lines all predated the development, sometimes by many decades.
I can’t be the only one who chokes a little bit upon hearing “fast, frequent, reliable” as the primary metrics on which to judge a transit system by an author who so frequently recommends buses, even the Rapid [sic], sort, so often.
The second least fast, reliable, and frequent service out there is the lowly city bus (it loses out only to the shared-lane streetcar, of course). And Rapid Bus isn’t much better. Those BRU riders weren’t defending their system because it was any good at all on those metrics; they were defending it because they had no other transportation option, period.
The BRU cared, and cares, more about shutting down rail than about enhancing buses.
It’s easy to romanticize BRU as a “people power” initiative to defend bus service. Up close, though, the BRU made the bus into racial irredentism.
While claiming to act in the name of the riders, the BRU showed not the slightest bit of understanding what made a transit system function. If the BRU did, its whole ideology would be built on a foundation of quicksand.
The problem is, the BRU adheres to a strain of Marxism that believes facts can be categorically denied if they weaken its class position. The victims have to create their own version of understanding to overcome victimhood. You can’t tell the BRU members they are wrong because you are trying to hold them down.
And this was the type of thinking Metro had to work with for 10 years under the consent decree.
Unfortunately, Wad, the right-wing in America is fast approaching a similar level of reality-denial, ideological rigidity, and general slovenliness. And unlike the BRU, we’re talking folks with legit political power.
Part of the problem with Maslow’s hierarchy is that the methodology behind it was really poor – the study had a small sample size, and was not replicated in subsequent experiments done by other people. In fact, one of the more robust ideas in psychology – namely, that people do not change their way of life even in the face of death – goes directly against the hierarchy.
What this means is that the hierarchy is useful mainly as an analogy, or a way of understanding things. It’s not an ironclad rule, and you could place a given transit issue on multiple rungs depending on your personal preferences. For example: is speed an issue of job security, or of personal convenience?
I’ve written a followup to this, and other postings on the subject, over at DHT. Of particular importance, and a subject that merits further exploration, is the present-needs-vs-future-needs debate–this is especially so as the recession in the US (and elsewhere) continues to shrink the transit pie, and various interest groups start fighting each other to maintain their particular piece.
The problem with any transit hierarchy of needs that is compared to Maslow’s hierarchy is that no one needs transit just like no one needs a cheeseburger. What people need is to travel, and only then to fulfill the basic needs at the bottom of the triangle. As needs are met we certainly do travel to self actualize but does it really make sense to develop a whole needs hierarchy around a type of travel? In my estimation the more important hierarchy to understand is the hierarchy of travel itself. The only reason the transit hierarchy so quickly devolves into a hierarchy that tries to rank aesthetic qualities of fun or comfort is because to a large extent the basic needs of travel can be met without transit. Talking about social comfort and fun transit is fighting only for the margins. My very limited exposure to travel in places where basic levels of safety, comfort and affordability in travel are not already accounted for, reveals that people will endure relatively uncomfortable, inconvenient, expensive and unsafe conditions to travel where they need to travel to. I am not at all arguing for making travel in general uncomfortable, unsafe, and expensive just so public transit is your best option, but unless we assess transit and the service it provides in the context of the true travel needs of a community, you will not be chasing the most important market.