In a post last week I mentioned Abraham Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs, a simple diagram suggesting that certain needs will only arise if more fundamental needs are met:
My post replied, in part, to Engineer Scotty’s effort to construct a similar hierarchy of transit needs. Now, Cap’n Transit has laid out a simpler hierarchy, one that I think captures much of what motivates my own thinking about transit, and particularly about issues of glamour or fun. To him, there are just four levels, which are, from the tip of the pyramid to its base:
4. Glamour (to which I would add: ‘Fun’)
1. Availability (for which I suggest a more precise term: ‘Usefulness’)
As the Cap’n defines it, ‘Availability’ includes a lot of factors that could probably be broken out further, but it basically boils down to “is there service when and where I need it, that can complete my trip in a reasonable time?” Frequently, outside of the biggest cities, the answer is no. I sometimes think that a better term for “availability” is “usefulness.” Sometimes a transit system may offer some kind of service for a proposed trip, but if it’s so infrequent or slow or circuitous that it’s no faster than walking the whole way, the service simply isn’t useful.
Elsewhere I’ve questioned arguments such as that put forth by Darrin Nordahl in My Kind of Transit, claiming that the key to achieving a step-change in transit is to make riding transit more fun. (Such an idea is also present, if sometimes beneath the surface, in the rhetoric of the American streetcar revival movement.) As a transport planner, I have always assumed that the main problem with transit is that at most times, in most places, for most trips, the available transit service just isn’t useful. So my career focuses on ways to increase transit’s usefulness: coverage, speed, reliability, frequency, and information. Nordahl, by contrast, thinks that the main problem is that transit isn’t fun. Where I would spend money to make transit more useful, he would spend it on making transit more endearing.
But I’m alert to the risk of creating too many endearing-but-useless services, especially if our purposes go beyond serving tourists and others who are travelling for pleasure.
As an example of an endearing but often useless service, I lovingly nominate the San Francisco cable cars. I lived for several years (1987-94) at Sacramento & Hyde streets, within blocks of two cable car lines, yet I almost never used them. It was not just that they are slow (top speed: 9 mi/hr) and unreliable. In the case of the Powell lines, it was also pointless to try to take them outbound most of the day, as they were packed with tourists who queue for half an hour to board them at Market Street. To me, living in the city, needing to to get places on time, the cable cars usually weren’t useful. (Only late at night, when the tourists were gone, would I sometimes ride them if one happened to appear. But this intermittent usefulness was always an unexpected gift of providence, never something I could count on.)
The cable cars are massively fun, full of tourists who are having a wonderful time. But for tourists, the priorities that the Cap’n outlines above are precisely reversed. The tourist doesn’t want to go somewhere; she wants to have an experience. So fun (and sometimes what the Cap’n calls Glamour) is the whole point, and she’ll ride a service that provides that regardless of where it goes.
This is why it’s dangerous to design your everyday transit system around the tourist’s experience, or even to be guided by your own tourism experiences as an inspiration. In terms of the hierarchy of needs, the priorities of a pleasure-driven agenda will always be precisely opposite from the agenda of getting around in daily life. Pleasure-driven travellers will go where the pleasure is, but in daily life, we need to go where we’re going.
Cable cars are fun. Ferris wheels are fun too. But that doesn’t mean I’d enjoy commuting on one.