On Being Among the “100 Most Influential Urbanists”

Planetizen did an online survey on the most influential urbanists, and a first round, with a list of over 200, has now been narrowed to 100.  For some reason, I am #57.  It means a lot to me that there’s this much interest in transit networks.  For most of my career, this has felt like lonely work, swimming upstream against a torrent of apathy.

But my gratitude wouldn’t be credible if I didn’t have a few questions.

The only person whose presence is really objectionable is surely Thomas Jefferson (#51).  He is on the list mainly for his contributions to rural architecture, notably his estate at Monticello, as though all architecture is automatically urbanism.  Meanwhile, he is famous for writing things like this:

I think our governments will remain virtuous for many centuries as long as they are chiefly agricultural; and this will be as long as there shall be vacant lands in any part of America. When they get plied upon one another in large cities, as in Europe, they will become corrupt as in Europe.

Jefferson was a good guy in many ways, but if you want to understand why the US constitutional structure is so biased against urban interests — most obviously in the construction of the Senate — you must consider Jefferson’s role in fostering this attitude.

Jefferson is the only person on this list that I’d question — and fortunately, I’m not too worried about offending him.  Which raises a more amusing point.

Though I’m ranked as more influential than Hippodamus of Miletus (498-408 BCE), I’m obviously infinitely less influential than he was, if only because he got a 25-century head start.  When I did this survey myself, I voted mainly for dead people, with a preference for long-dead people, because we have some perspective on how influential they actually were.  Separate polls for different historical eras, and one for living people only, would have been a little more credible maybe.  (And of course, the list makes it sound like urbanist history happened only in Europe and its colonies.)

Enough nitpicking.  I’m not the 57th most influential urbanist in human history — maybe not even the 5700th — but it’s still a huge honor to be the 57th most popular among the readers of Planetizen.  I’ve done what I could to change a conversation about transit that is very set in its ways, and I’m grateful to everyone who thought my work was worthwhile.

As for whether I was really influential, check back in the 47th century.

11 Responses to On Being Among the “100 Most Influential Urbanists”

  1. Tom October 17, 2017 at 11:19 am #

    Urbanism is an ideologic viewpoint. Transit planners should be neutral in cases where their ideology might interfere with their work. It is no surprise that in virtually all of your redesigns there is a consistent bias for less transit in low-density areas. Probably a dream for most urbanists, having the power to force people into high density areas. Yes I know, you only make recommendations, but this means having VERY big influence power.

    • Jarrett October 17, 2017 at 1:06 pm #


      Wrong. I have never, ever told any client that they SHOULD want higher ridership networks that reduce coverage. That is a desire that they bring to the process, and I am very careful to talk them through the consequences and make sure that is what they want.

      • Tom October 17, 2017 at 1:50 pm #

        In theory, yes. In reality, almost everyone with a strong bias for something unconsciously tries to emphasize the alternative that corresponds to their own ideological views. Maybe you should ask every transit agency you work for something like: Should maximum ridership really be a target itself for tax financed transit? I don’t mean that maximum coverage is the only thing that matters. There are other important qualities for the transit customers, but you shouldn’t think like a for-profit company when you are not.

        • Jarrett Walker October 17, 2017 at 2:10 pm #

          Tom. That’s pretty much exactly what I ask them. The fact that things are tax-funded doesn’t answer the ridership-coverage question. There are valid reason for tax-funding of high ridership services too, because they yield desired benefits like VMT reduction, support for denser development, etc.

          • Sailor Boy October 18, 2017 at 12:59 pm #

            High frequency routes are often less tax-funded than low frequency routes. Should transit agencies be providing a higher subsidy per passenger and comparable service in low density areas, or providing better service with comparable subsidy to higher density areas? Recognising the fact that higher density living enables more efficient provision of transport services doesn’t preclude you from having the debate. The cost of your choices should be the first thing you figure out!

          • MB October 24, 2017 at 2:52 pm #

            You may not mean for it to come off that way, Jarrett. But your planning style with the ridership vs coverage debate does put less dense areas at a disadvantage, because you tell government leaders that these less dense areas are a lost cause.

            Again, you tell them this despite very successful transit operating in less dense areas around the world.

            So in a way you are pushing for your “ridership” style system. Because you could easily plan based on the model that 90% or 95% of the population is within walking distance of transit that operates certain hours, etc. But you choose not to follow this style, even though it has worked great in Canadian cities for decades.

            Again, you may not think you do this. But you do push for ridership systems at the expense of people who live in areas that don’t fit your ideal style of a neighborhood. And to be honest, this is a shame, because as Canadian cities show, transit does great even in lower density areas. But the key is planners have to want to seek solutions and not just throw their hands in the air and reduce the bus service to every 60 minutes, because someone lives in a single family house.

            You need to take a second look at Transport for Suburbia.

  2. Tim October 17, 2017 at 1:55 pm #

    I can speak for myself best – your book, and subsequently your Transit Network Design course were instrumental in helping me find transportation planning as a career option that worked for you. You definitely influenced me to pursue graduate studies, and for that I’m very grateful.

  3. Henry Mulvey October 20, 2017 at 1:18 pm #

    Seriously? Jefferson the worst person on there? Not 45?

  4. Wanderer November 2, 2017 at 3:18 pm #

    Frank Lloyd Wright was not exactly pro-urban, ideologically he supported something like mid-late 20th Century sprawl.

  5. Alex Broner November 19, 2017 at 1:05 pm #

    Jefferson was slave owner and a rapist. He had some ideas for how the white male property owning, including slave owning males could settle their differences. Ideas which mostly kept things going for this class except for a civil war that killed about 3% of the population and accidentally granted full citizenship rights to African American men for a bit. That happened after he died of course, but Jefferson is as responsible for the bad stuff baked into the founding of the republic as he is for the good stuff. He also again was a slave owner and a rapist. I’m not a fan.