About the Blog

Welcome.  Let’s talk about public transit.

I’m Jarrett Walker, and this is my professional blog.   Since 1991 I’ve been a consulting transit planner, helping to design transit networks and policies for a huge range of communities.  My goal here is to start conversations about how transit works, and how we can use it to create better cities and towns.

A bit about me

I’m in this business because as a teenager in the 1970s, I lived through a revolution in a place called Portland, Oregon.  In 1972 Oregon passed its famous land use laws, intended to protect agricultural land from car-based sprawl, and in the next few years Portland took a series of dramatic steps to establish a new direction.

The city demolished a waterfront freeway to replace it with a park.  It set aside two streets through the center of downtown as a transit mall, where transit wouldn’t get stuck in traffic.  It canceled a long-planned freeway project that would have torn up valuable old neighborhoods.  It began planning the light rail system that we now know as MAX.  And it made a series of smaller changes, block by block, policy by policy, that launched the city on a new course.  Rarely has a city changed direction so fast, or so profoundly.   Experiencing this transformation as a teenager — commuting by bus across the city through a downtown that grew more vibrant by the day — taught me to believe in the possibility of rapid and fundamental change in how a city imagines and builds itself.

In a small way, my career as a public transit planner has been about creating and managing these kinds of change.   I’ve led the redesign of many bus networks, developed long-range strategic plans for transit, and written policies that guide the design of transit and its role in the city.  During my year in Vancouver I had the privilege of working with talented architects and urbanists on visions for new town centers.  For several years I worked with the City of Seattle Department of Transportation on a range of great projects, including a downtown transit plan, a citywide long-term transit network, and policies on how the city would optimize those streets for transit.

I’ve lived for long stretches, usually without a car, in San Francisco, Vancouver, Portland, Sydney, Paris, Oxford, and in a leafy suburb called Claremont east of Los Angeles.  I began this blog while living in Sydney but moved to Vancouver in April 2011 and back to Portland in December of that year.  I now run my own firm, Jarrett Walker + Associates.

About the blog

I’ll be commenting here on developments in public transit in the developed world, especially in North America.

My goal is not to make you share my values, but to provide perspectives that help you clarify yours.  Much of my work has been about analyzing public transit problems to separate the technical question from the question about values.  To take just one example, most transit agencies will tell you they want maximum ridership, but they usually also operate some low-ridership services that meet other goals, such as to provide basic mobility to transit-dependent people who live in low-ridership areas.  Every agency decides, explicitly or not, whether to spend a dollar on building high ridership or to spend it on these social service needs.   Stated this way, this is a question of values.  It has no technical answer, because it’s a question about what your community feels is most important.  My role is to point out the question itself, show how it’s lurking inside debates that may seem to be about something else, and help you form an opinion based on your values.

Public transit debates are often a confused mixture of technical information and value judgments.  Sometimes, it serves someone’s agenda to keep these things mixed up.  When someone discussing transit hits you with technical detail that you can’t expect to follow, they may be making a valid point, but they may also be trying to exclude you from the discussion.

As an expert on public transit, let me warn you that the job of developing great transit must never be left entirely to experts.  Once a community has expressed its transit goals, experts have a role in designing systems to meet them.  But experts shouldn’t be the source of the goals themselves.  Citizens and their elected officials are entitled to a clear explanation of the underlying choices they face, and a chance to express their views on them.  I believe every citizen has a right to debate about their public services in terms that they can understand.  Much of my work has been about creating that debate, and I’ll try to continue that process here.

The other problem with “expertise” in transit is that there are many different kinds.  Transit agencies tend to draw staff with a wide range of experience, ranging from former bus drivers to engineers to people trained in marketing or business.  There is really no core graduate training that all the practitioners share, as there is in fields like engineering and architecture.

This permeability of the transit field, the ease with which it can be entered from other disciplines, is on balance a good thing.  The last thing we need is another uniform and revered priesthood working from a single holy book, like the culture of highway engineering in the Interstate era.  But because many kinds of expertise are at play, it’s important not to treat experts as the ultimate authority, and that includes me.  I’ll inevitably express my own values now and then, but my real purpose is to help you express yours in a way that can have an impact on your community.

Finally, I should confess that I spent my 20s at Stanford doing a Ph. D. in a literary field.  The training is more relevant than you might think, because literary theory is about what’s going on inside of language.  I’ll comment frequently on word choices, for example, like the depressing American verb to transfer.  The language of public transit debates is often deeply incoherent because most of the key words have been brought in from other discourses.  Several overlapping languages are also in play.  Bus operations speak one language, marketing people speak another, architects and urbanists speak another.  A transit debate requires a great deal of translation if everyone is to understand what’s going on, but more importantly, we need to see what’s going on inside the words we use, and to notice if they’re carrying baggage that we don’t really want.  So I’ll comment on words a good deal.

The blogging-consulting balance

Since I’m still a practicing consultant, you may notice me avoiding a hot topic now and then.  This may happen because I’m working on the issue professionally and am obliged not to discuss it until we publish something.  I may obviously be circumspect about criticizing anyone who might be a client in the future, and I hope this constraint will give the blog a positive but not saccharine tone.  I will advertise my own published work now and then, and that of my colleagues at McCormick Rankin Cagney, but I’ll do my best to advertise great work no matter who did it.  Everything I write is solely my view and does not represent the views of MRC or my clients.

About Comments

Constructive comments from readers are essential to what I’m doing here.  Transit is a big field where even the most articulate expert still has a lot to learn.  Certain bounds of civility and coherence are defined by the comment policy, but within those bounds I hope to let the debate flow, and learn as much from this as anyone.

About the Author

Jarrett Walker is an international consultant in public transit network design and policy, based in Portland, Oregon.  He has been a full-time consultant since 1991 and has led numerous major planning projects in cities and towns of all sizes, across North America, Australia, and New Zealand.  He is also the author of Human Transit: How clearer thinking about public transit can enrich our communites and our lives (Island Press, 2011).

He is President of Jarrett Walker + Associates, a consulting firm that provides advice and planning services North America.

Born in 1962, he grew up in Portland in during the revolutionary 1970s, the era when Portland first made its decisive commitment to be a city for people rather than cars.  He went on to complete a BA at Pomona College (Claremont, California) and a Ph.D. in theatre arts and humanities at Stanford University.  Passionately interested in an impractical number of fields, he is probably the only person with peer-reviewed publications in both the Journal of Transport Geography and Shakespeare Quarterly.


Comment Policy

Human Transit welcomes and encourages comments from people who want to

  • share relevant information, including narratives about their own experience, or
  • ask questions, or
  • engage in thoughtful conversations that could potentially transform or enrich their own views.

The following policies and guidelines are intended to foster such an environment.  I reserve the right to delete comments for violating any of these policies.

1.  Help Fight Spam by Not Resembling It

As spammers grow increasingly clever, I’ve been forced to introduce a new policy:  If the primary link on your name is to a commercial website, I reserve the right to delete the comment as spam.  In fact, I’ll only do this if the comment is otherwise suspicious, but because I can’t delineate everything that might make a comment suspicious, I have to be clear.  If you want to be sure your comment survives, don’t provide a link to a business as your main web address.  (Obviously, you can link to anything inside your comment, as long as it’s germane.)

2.  Provide a Valid Email Address (not published with comment)

It is not necessary to reveal your name to post a comment, but you must have a valid email address.

TypePad will invite you to provide an email address to submit a comment.  The address is visible to me but not to other readers.  This address must be valid.  I reserve the right to email you at this address to verify your comment, and to delete your comment if the email is bounced back as undeliverable, or receives no response. I reserve the right to delete comments with no email provided, though I generally don’t as long as the comment looks genuine.

3.  Say Where You Are

Human Transit is an international blog, with readers in many cities around the world.  Ensure that your comment will make sense to this audience.  You are encouraged to discuss your own city’s situation, but if you do, be sure that readers can tell which city you’re discussing.  Do not expect your readers to know the name of your local transit agency.  Instead, say something like: “Here in Portland, TriMet has done this …”  Government agencies — even in the United States — should be located clearly:  ‘the US Federal Transit Administration,’

4.  Be Careful with Abbreviations

If an abbreviation has been used in the post or in earlier comments, it’s OK to use it.  Otherwise, spell it out, and put the abbreviation in parentheses.  For example, say “US Federal Transit Administration (US FTA)” if you’re going to refer to FTA later.  Only internationally obvious abbreviations (US, UK, UN, EU, NATO etc) can be used without this gloss.  If in doubt, spell it out.

5.  Write in English

The standard English of any English-speaking nation is fine, but keep the international audience in mind.  (For example, it would be technically valid but unhelpful for me to write that “the pollies have been rorting our super.”)

If you cite a source in another language, provide a translation, but also link to, or provide, the original-language text.

6.  Isolate Minor Factual Corrections

Corrections of fact are welcome.  Where appropriate, please include a link to a factual source.

If you point out a minor factual mistake in a post, where “minor” means “not affecting the validity of the post’s argument,” I may make the correction with strikeouts.  However, to retain the long-term readibility of the blog, I often just make the correction silently, i.e. leaving no trace of the prior error.  If I do this, I will also delete the comment that pointed out the error, as it will have served its purpose.

If I’ve made a major error in a post, I will typically add an update to the post correcting it, often pointing to a new post.  In extreme cases I may delete an erroneous post entirely, or replace it with a simple note indicating that the post has been withdrawn.

To this end, it’s helpful if direct corrections of factual  errors are not combined with other comment material, as that requires me to edit your comment to remove the trace of the correction, which can sometimes be hard.

7.  Be On-Topic

Comments should be related to the topic of the post.  This is interpreted very broadly.

Comments frequently turn into conversations between two or three committed commenters, and this is often fine.  However, if you find yourself in such an exchange, re-read the original post on occasion, and try to re-engage with it in your discussion. This helps ensure that that the conversation stays in a range that other readers (who have been drawn by the post) will find relevant.

8.  Raise New Topics by Email, not Comment

Rather than using comments to raise new topics, email me, using the link under my photo.  If you feel there is an important topic that needs discussion, and that you’re qualified to discuss, offer me a guest post on the topic.  If you want my own views on a new topic, ask me via email.  If you do, be sure to enclose links to any source documents on the topic.  (Note that I am doing this as a volunteer*, so have very limited time to do research.)

* If you would like to pay me to write this blog, you should definitely email me!

9.  Link to Relevant Sources

Links to relevant sources, including other Human Transit posts, are always strongly encouraged.

10.  Avoid Profanity

Words widely identified as profanity are neither necessary nor appropriate.  HT is an environment where appearing angry doesn’t make you sound smarter or more effective.

11.  Be Kind

While it is normal to feel frustrated when engaging with people who have different views, the only way to keep conversation constructive is to avoid invective.  Invective is a pejorative statement about a person, rather than about his/her views.  Recent examples (which I’ve deleted from comments) include “x is a loon” and “x, you are being either obstinate or stupid.”

Factual statements about a person’s views or qualifications, e.g. “x is a longtime opponent of y,” or for that matter “x engages in invective,” are generally fair game, especially if supported by links to relevant sources or examples.

When I see invective statements in comments, I reserve the right to edit them out of the comment, or delete the comment entirely.  I may also leave them, but note that invective almost always reduces the credibility of the person who utters it.  There is always an invective-free way of saying anything that needs to be said, including any valid critique of another person’s views.

People can be obstinate.  If you find that a commenter is simply not getting your point, consider not replying, or replying with only strictly factual corrections.  Sometimes letting an obstinate comment hang at the end of a thread is the best way of refuting it.  Failing that, consider the final tip:

12.  One Final Tip

Finally, if you’re starting to get into a heated exchange, try this technique: Don’t state a judgment.  Instead, ask a question.