Here are some great free reads regarding the new edition of Human Transit! (I will keep updating this as things appear.)
Here are some great free reads regarding the new edition of Human Transit! (I will keep updating this as things appear.)
The new edition of Human Transit goes on sale February 6. You can buy direct from Island Press or through your favorite bookstore. Below is the preface, which explains what’s new in this edition. (If you don’t know the book, you can also read the introduction to the first edition online, but alas, I’m not authorized to release the introduction to the new edition, which is recognizably similar but does have a lot of updates.)
Tell your friends! Buy the book!
This book, aimed at a nontechnical reader, explores the challenging questions that you must think about when planning or advocating for public transit in your community. Ever since the first edition was released, public transit professionals have been thanking me for giving them something they can ask others to read, to help them form clearer expectations of public transit and see its real possibilities. Some public transit authorities have given copies to the elected leaders who make the big decisions. Over a decade later, the book is still widely read and used.
Why update it, then? The world has changed since the book came out in 2011, so there are some new issues to address. The new popularity of working from home, which began with the COVID-19 pandemic, has changed the patterns of travel demand. Some issues have become more urgent, such as land use planning and the suburbanization of poverty, so they are featured more. Rising concerns about racial and social justice have also driven an increased interest in free fares in some countries, so the chapter on fares is expanded to explore that issue.
Another big change since 2011 has been the flood of venture capital funding for companies attempting to “transform” or “disrupt” public transit in some way. These companies have unleashed enormous public relations campaigns to make us all focus on their inventions. They have produced both great innovations and a lot of hype and distraction, so in the opening chapters, I’ve put some energy into helping the reader sort through their claims.
Since the book first came out, I’ve continued working as a transit planning consultant, so I have another decade of experience to draw on. Our consulting firm, Jarrett Walker + Associates, now works in more parts of the world, so I have more international examples.
It’s become more obvious that people need help thinking about the diversity of people who find transit useful and resisting the urge to assign them to narrow categories, so I’ve added a new chapter on that, whose title comes from an instructive outburst by Elon Musk. There’s also a new chapter on my own specialty, bus network redesign.
The single most important change, though, is that in the last few years, I’ve become convinced of the importance of freedom, not just as a feel-good word but as a thing we can measure and plan for. So there’s a new chapter about access to opportunity—your freedom to go places so that you can do things—and many of the book’s arguments are restructured to refer to it.
But despite all these changes, the core idea of the book remains. The most important things to know about public transit—the purely geometric facts about why it matters and how it works—will always be current as long as we have cities. Explanations of these facts throughout the book are improved but need no correction. You can count on these things always being true, no matter what world events and technological disruptions come along.
I’m immensely grateful to everyone who’s told me how useful Human Transit has been for them, and those who have given me the feedback I needed to make it better. I hope this book is useful to you for many years to come, even after the next event or invention that seems, at first, as if it will change everything.
NOTE: Bolded chapters are entirely new, but there are new sections and/or significant edits in almost every chapter.
This was all obvious, and much discussed, when cars first appeared on the scene. So the prospect of making the car the dominant tool of urban transportation — as opposed to, say, something you might rent to make a trip into the countryside — should have been easy to recognize as a scam.
Historian Peter Norton’s first book, Fighting Traffic, chronicles how this scam took over the United States to create the way of life that most Americans now see as normal. Exploiting understandable frustrations with the for-profit transit of the time, the nascent car and petroleum industries “partnered” with government to build a sense of inevitability around car-based travel. This campaign had all of the disastrous results that were in fact predicted at the time — road carnage, pollution, and congestion.
Why did people fall for it? In part, because “innovation” was going to fix those problems soon, leading us to a new utopia where we could take our cars wherever we wanted, safely, cleanly, and without delay. Norton’s new book, Autonorama: The Illusory Promise of High-Tech Driving, fills in more detail on this critical element of the scam, and shows how it operates in the driverless car narratives of today.
Obviously, actual technological improvements to make driving safer are to be welcomed. The danger lies in the impossible visions of the congestion-free autonomous-car-dependent city, which is then cited as a reason not to invest in proven methods of urban transportation, such as public transit. The claim that autonomous driving can fix congestion is no longer as loudly proclaimed as it was a few years ago, but it’s still out there. The only basis of this claim is that because a computer’s reaction time is faster than a human’s, autonomous cars could drive closer together at high speed, taking less space. This, of course, is a minor improvement compared to the countervailing force of induced demand: Eliminating the hassle of driving will cause a lot more driving. We have seen this before.
In the century-long history of high-tech car boosterism, Norton detects cycles of peak hype roughly 25-30 years long, peaking in the 1930s, 1960s, 1990s, and now. At the peak of each cycle, a burst of technical innovation, fused with intense funding and public relations efforts, seems to bring the dazzling future almost within reach. When the vision fails to deliver, there’s an inevitable pause of 20 years or so. Memories fade, and perhaps more important, a generation reaches their 20s who don’t remember the last cycle, and whose sincerity and energy give the effort new life.
Norton calls the newest of these cycles Autonorama (a portmanteau of Futurama and autonomous), but his description of it captures what all four cycles have had in common:
Autonorama is the place where old-fashioned car-dependency is lent new credibility through the application of a fresh gloss of high-tech novelty, where simple possibilities are neglected not because of their inferiority but because of their simplicity, and where implausible promises of perfection divert attention from practical possibilities of actual improvement. In Autonorama transportation research looks like public relations (and vice versa), theoretically possible performance is equated with actual performance, and technology is less a human means to human-chosen ends than a mysteriously willful entity that inevitably delivers ever-better solutions …
None of this is a secret, really. If you read business journalism you can find corporate gurus explaining their methods with pride:
In 1929 [Charles] Kettering distilled his advice into an article, written for Nation’s Business, called “Keep the Consumer Dissatisfied.” “If everywhere were satisfied,” he explained, “no one would buy the new thing.” To Kettering, transport sufficiency was a threat to motordom’s future. He advocated perpetual insufficiency, propelled by an ever-receding promise of future perfection.
In the book’s first four chapters, Norton explores the four cycles that we’ve been through so far, ending with the current moment of autonomous-car boosterism. But the most powerful chapter is the fifth, “Data Don’t Drive,” which will train you to recoil when you hear the term data-driven. Norton explores how invocations of data as the ultimate authority invite us to surrender to interests and goals that may not be ours.
Part of the problem is that data is a valuable commodity. “Data is the new oil,” as they say. Norton even turns up a McKinsey report arguing that the real importance of driverless cars is that it will allow us to spend more time interacting with screens, generating data about ourselves that can be used to target and manipulate us.
But the real issue is that data is a tool, not a goal, and only humans can specify the goal. As Norton puts it, “data can tell people which efforts are serving their goals and which are not, but the goals must be chosen first, and by people.” In my own career, I’ve seen countless studies that sought to overwhelm the reader with data and analysis, not to illuminate the real choices (as our firm‘s work does) but to make them surrender to the goals (sometimes not clearly stated) of the proponents. Traffic engineering is full of this kind of talk (“the data show that we need to widen the road”) and you’ll sometimes hear it in transit planning too.
I heartily recommend this book. It will remind you, once again, of why historians are as urgently needed as scientists in our brave new technological future.
Paul Comfort, Conversations about Equity and Inclusion in Public Transportation, Comfort Consulting, 2022
Paul Comfort is a transit evangelist (his term) and the former Executive Director of Maryland Transit Authority, which covers greater Baltimore. He’s become known especially for his Transit Unplugged podcast, which interviews transit industry leaders (including me). He is, as you’d expect, an upbeat guy, keen to talk about successes, build morale, and help agencies learn from each others’ experience. And while his audience is mostly transit professionals, it can be interesting for advocates to listen in on these conversations.
This new book is a collection of his interviews, mostly with the people leading major transit agencies in the US. The book certainly does touch frequently on the title’s topics, equity and inclusion, but it’s also just a good overview of how many leading figures in the industry are seeing their situation in 2022, as we begin to sort out both the legacy of the George Floyd protests and the “new normal” of working life and travel patterns post-pandemic.
The book is a good tour of what’s on the minds of the industry right now, at least in the US. (One Australian leader is interviewed, but she talks mainly about hiring and workforce diversity, not transit policy or operations.) Zero fare programs, demand-responsive transit, and customer service innovations all come up repeatedly. Now and then, you’ll also get hints of debates about the definition of success. How much does ridership matter right now? What do communities really want from their transit agencies? And to come back to the title: What is equity, and can we measure it?
Obviously, senior executives know how to sell their agencies, so some of what you read will sound like vague feel-good pitches. You may be frustrated that so few of these leaders dig into the details of policy and planning problems. (Noah Berger of Merrimack Valley Regional Transit Authority, in northern Massachusetts, is a fun exception).
But even then, it’s good to see what transit leaders are being expected to do, in the political situations they find themselves in, to sustain support for a transit system. A lot of what senior executives do is storytelling: Most are talking to a public, and a decision-making elite, that doesn’t know much about transit, doesn’t use it themselves, and that wonders why they should care. You have to connects the facts to people’s deepest longings for themselves and their community. It’s interesting to watch how some different personalities do it.
So I’ve just signed a deal with Island Press to do a second edition of Human Transit, expected out near the end of 2023. A lot has obviously happened in the history of public transit since book came out in 2011, including real things like the pandemic, unreal things like the hyperloop, and some things that are real but overhyped, like microtransit. So in addition to updating examples and graphics, I plan at least five new chapters:
Still, it’s a new edition rather than a new book because at least half of the book doesn’t need updating. After all, much of it is talking about geometry, and that doesn’t change.
But I’d love to know what you think! If you feel like perusing the book again, I’d welcome your thoughts, ideally organized by chapter, about what I should edit. You can email me by clicking that envelope up on the black bar, or just leave a comment. If your comment turns out to be really useful, you’ll get an acknowledgment.
In Western political philosophy, physical space is a fairly recent discovery. Early thinkers about socialism and capitalism tended to focus on wealth as the primary thing to be generated or distributed. Only in recent decades, in the work of Edward Soja for example, have we seen serious consideration to how space — including the ability to move — is distributed. Freedom, too, started out as an abstraction, often defined negatively as the absence of constraint. But real freedom only happens in a system of infrastructure and services:
What does it mean to be free to walk down a road? Most people would agree that this requires being free legally and socially … But to truly understand what makes someone free to walk down a road, we need to be paying a lot more attention to the road.
Or as you’ve heard me say elsewhere: Transportation planning is freedom planning. Every decision about infrastructure or services (where they should be? how they should work? what they should cost to use? how well they should be maintained?) is a decision about who will be free and how free they will be.
This little book explores what it means to be free in a world where freedom relies on systems. It’s fun to think of “throwing off your chains” and “hitting the open road.” That’s negative freedom, the freedom from constraint. In fact, you can only “hit the open road” because somebody built the road, put it here rather than there, and is maintaining it or not. What’s more, those decisions define your options about where you can really go, what you can really do, who you can meet, and so on. We are always inside spatial systems — transportation, water, sanitation, power, etc — and our freedom lies entirely in what options and opportunities those systems offer us. The authors call these reliance systems. 
From this insight, the book builds the idea of a spatial contract. It’s an analogy to the social contract — the idea that citizens and their governments have an implicit deal where the citizen accepts constraints imposed by the government in return for security, stability and other things that only government can provide. A spatial contract is the same idea applied to space but especially to infrastructure and services. In the narrow sense, a spatial contract between resident and government would specify that the citizen pays taxes and the government provides infrastructure and services. But spatial contracts are more diverse than that, because reliance systems are not all produced by government, nor should they be. There are private actors, informal sectors such as the taxicab industry, and so on.
The authors’ focus on establishing a moral framework for talking about reliance systems, one that (unlike many established frameworks of moral and political philosophy) deals with the physical and spatial reality of these systems. The chapters “Seeing like a system” and “Seeing like a settlement” describe this framework from important but different spatial points of view. Each system operates in physical space with its own logic, and needs to be seen from that point of view. Each settlement, where people live and work together, is a point where many systems interact and must collaborate, and needs to be seen from that point of view.
Obviously I don’t recommend this book to every reader. This is a scholarly conversation. But unlike most academic writing, the book is friendly and readable for anyone who has a basic level of comfort with political and philosophical thinking. Freedom is at the center of my work these days, and this book has helped me think about it more clearly.
 The term reliance systems strikes me as confusing, because the word “system” is normally preceded by what it provides (water system, transit system) rather than the user’s relationship to it (reliance system). If you prefer, you can just use infrastructure in the broad sense that is being proposed on the left in the US infrastructure funding debate, one that includes childcare and education as well as bridges and broadband. But we could also call them liberation systems, since they go beyond providing basic needs to providing the possibilities for freedom.
Angie Schmitt, Right of Way: Race, Class, and the Silent Epidemic of Pedestrian Deaths in America. Island Press, 2020.
As a transit planner, I work on creating better networks of routes and schedules that will help people access jobs and opportunity. But a transit agency can’t complete any customer’s trip. To do that, the customer needs to walk. The transit agency can make a nice shelter like the one on the right here, but it can’t change the horror that the customer will face trying to walk to their destination, or to cross this street (9 lanes, half a mile from the nearest signal) to get to the bus in the other direction. That curb lane is marked as a bus lane if that makes you feel better.
This picture happens to be Sahara Avenue in Las Vegas but as every American knows, it is utterly ordinary. This is the standard suburban street, mass produced around every US city according to manuals that prioritized traffic flow over all other aspects of human life — manuals that are still widely used today.
When I started my transit planning career in the early 1990s, we faced this kind of suburban street but the stakes were usually lower, because transit wasn’t carrying huge volumes of people to these places. Most of the ridership in major metro areas was in the relatively walkable pre-war inner city. But all that’s changed for the worse. Today, in many US transit agencies I study,some of the highest ridership bus services are on these suburban arterials. People who need transit are forced to live and work in these places, so they have no choice but to dash across those nine lanes, if they are fit enough to dash. My father, in his 70s, used to have to cross a street like this one to catch the bus. He couldn’t dash. He could only hope.
So the fact is shocking but shouldn’t be surprising: compared to ten years ago, 50% more pedestrians are dying after being struck by vehicles — a growing tide of death and mutilation that Angie Schmitt rightly calls a “silent epidemic.”
To clear the space for discussing real causes, Schmitt starts by rejecting the dominant culture’s impulse to blame the pedestrian, which started with the invention of the crime of “jaywalking” almost a century ago. She cites the most obscene examples of victim-blaming, such as the case of Raquel Nelson, a Georgia woman who was prosecuted for the death of her own young son because they had attempted to cross the street together. But she rightly focuses more on the pervasive language choices made by journalists, law enforcement, and other officials that tend to exonerate the motorist no matter what the facts are. Controversially, she even challenges the pervasive “distracted walking” campaigns as an example of setting up public perception to blame the victim. I have mixed feelings about this, because pedestrians gazing into their phones do sometimes step directly in front of buses and trains, but there’s no question that distraction is too easy an accusation in most cases. Crossing the suburban arterial most pedestrians are too terrified to be distracted. My father was not distracted when he set out at 2 mph across a river of traffic going 60 mph. He was simply helpless.
Technology won’t save us, and if it only caters to our urges it could make things worse. Schmitt calls out the trend toward larger and higher-riding cars that make it harder to see a child stepping into the street. In one of the most interesting chapters, she takes apart the various claims of the “driverless” car industry. She sees value in many of the new technologies that alert drivers to hazard, and that could include automatic braking, but of course, much of this technology just opens up new opportunities for human stupidity, greed, and sloth. As the vision of a truly driverless car recedes, we may be looking at a permanent state of partial automation, where the driver must be absolutely alert and ready to act at any moment despite having nothing to do. Maintaining this state of hypervigilant boredom is a superhuman task. People who study meditation for decades may finally get close to it. But when Uber hired people to ride in its driverless test cars and watch for trouble, they didn’t hire or pay for those skills, so when one of their cars killed Elaine Hertzberg, the employee in the car was looking at their phone.
Finally, Schmitt rightly brings the focus back to road design and enforcement. A chapter called The Ideology of Flow looks at how and why streets have been designed on the principle that traffic speed simply matters more than the safety of pedestrians. Here she must take on the Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD) an excellent example of the principle that the most controversial ideologies are often hidden in documents whose titles promise that they are utterly boring and irrelevant. MUTCD presents itself as a reasonable set of guidelines to ensure that if you drive from one state to another, the stop signs won’t look so different that you won’t recognize them. But it also contains strong moral statements about the value of human life, such as when it says that a crosswalk should be built only if 93 pedestrians per hour are crossing, regardless of how many people are dying. (This should also recall Brent Toderian’s maxim: You can’t judge the need for a bridge by counting the people swimming across the river.”)
Right of Way is clear, direct, and easy to read. Like a good journalist, Schmitt has strong feelings about this but doesn’t lead with them. Instead, she lays out facts and stories and lets you have your own feelings about them. Ultimately, this book invites the reader to think about the value of human life when it conflicts with our need or longing to go places quickly. Different people may have different perspectives on that, but after reading Schmitt, most will be shocked at just how extreme the epidemic of pedestrian death has become, and what simple things could be done to stop the killing.
Steven Higashide, Better Buses, Better Cities: How to Plan, Run, and Win the Fight for Effective Transit. Island Press, 2019.
I’ve been following transit in America for 35 years, and working in the field for 25. During that time, cities have growh frustrating to get around in, with dire consequences for people’s access to opportunity. But throughout that time powerful people have always been telling me that buses just don’t matter. Development interests cared only about rail or ferries. Technology marketers have always shiften the conversation to new patented things, of which some are useful but many are tragic distractions. To the extent that buses have mattered to the powerful, it’s often been as a social service — a charity that they give pennies to out of pity but whose functionality they barely care about.
And that’s not even to mention the active hostility to bus service that transit planners encounter daily: the shopping mall or hospital that refuses to let a bus get anywhere near the building, the communities that want buses out, the urban businesses who think that motorists are the only customers who matter.
But having exhausted all the alternatives, American cities are finally rediscovering this essential tool. No remotely functional city in the world lacks a transit system, and the bus is always a critical layer – the thing that goes to all the high-demand places that rail can’t go. As we enter the inevitable hangover from the mid-2010s sugar-rush of tech boosterism, people are finally doing the math to see why, for a city to function for everyone, buses simply must be allowed to succeed.
Steven Higashide has written a great little book charting the current and incipient bus revolution. In a skillful balance of facts and stories, Higashide explores what successful bus services look like, and how to overcome the barriers to bus service reform. He interviews the architects of some of the most impressive achievements, and also delves well into the deep challenge of equity and public engagement.
Do I have quibbles? My only serious one is that I wish the book were clearer about where activists should direct their constructive rage. US transit agencies are less powerful than they appear and are often not the source of the biggest problems. Much of what they do is defined by their poverty and by the great mass of regulations and labor contracts that form the boundaries of their world.
At times Higashide understates the danger of telling transit agencies to do so many things that everything they do suffers from lack of focus. Transit agencies desperately need to focus on designing and running good transit systems. Demanding they take on other battles often comes at a cost to that core business, by dividing staff and elected attention.
For example, Higashide suggests that transit agencies lead on pedestrian infrastructure around stops, a massive task that falls in the city (and sometimes state) role in managing streets. Cities must be pressured to adopt their own transit goals that lead to those kinds of investments, as leading ones like Seattle have done for years. Just because transit is connected to everything doesn’t mean transit agencies should have to solve every related problem with their own meager budget, as they are often told to do. That just leads to ever-lousier bus service.
But this book is so good in so many ways that I don’t mind disagreeing with it here and there. The messages are critically important. The writing is lively and fun. You can read the whole thing in a couple of hours, and it’s short and logical chapters support easy snacking. It’s a great tool for giving you hope, and focus. Buy it, read it, give it to people who need it. It will make a difference.
The massive redesign of Houston’s bus system, which has helped grow ridership as many US transit agencies are losing riders, would not have happened without Christof Spieler. Within the Houston METRO Board, he was the one member who rode transit, thought constantly about transit, brought professional credentials as an urban planner, knew what needed to be done, and knew how to argue for it to people of many different ideologies and cultural backgrounds. The Board, which was itself ideologically and culturally diverse, was inevitably guided in part by his expertise, passion, and patient persistence.
Since then, Christof has been traveling the US, studying and thinking about transit. Every week, it has seemed, he tweets from some new city. Finally, all that thinking has come together as Trains, Buses, People: An Opinionated Atlas of US Transit.
The first two parts of the book are a sensible explanation of what good transit planning is: Think about people rather than technologies. Think about networks rather than lines or corridor projects. Think about frequency rather than just speed. These are arranged in simple one-topic pages, with a summary paragraph and bullet points — ideal for skimming.
But it’s the third part, the atlas, that will really suck you in. For the 50 largest metro areas in the US that have rail or Bus Rapid Transit (that’s everything bigger than Fort Collins, Colorado or Eugene, Oregon) he provides a loving description of the city’s network, its demand pattern, its recent history, and its issues. Denizens of each city may disagree with what Spieler chooses to emphasize, but he certainly will start a lively conversation, not just within cities but about the comparisons between them.
What’s new about this atlas? Spieler shows you the frequent bus network for every city, thus helping you see not just where trains go, but where people can go easily.
For example, his Los Angeles map reveals that despite the vast area of moderate density in that city, a complete frequent grid (with both north-south and east-west lines near most people) exists only in a tiny area of about 7 x 7 miles (the size of San Francisco), extending roughly from downtown to the edge of Beverly Hills and from the Hollywood Hills to just south of I-10. Everything else, including highrise centers like Century City, Burbank, Glendale, and Pasadena as well as vast areas of mostly 2-3 story housing, has frequent service in only one direction, if at all. Another map of Los Angeles includes densities, and shows how much high-density area lies outside the frequent network entirely.
Spieler’s map of Chicago, by contrast, shows a remarkably complete grid over very similar densities in a city with even fewer major destinations outside of downtown.
Spieler’s book is perfectly designed to be both readable and browsable — a great gift for an urbanist or transport geek and a great book for the coffee table. You can read around in for a long time, exploring different cities, their strengths and their missed opportunities. Let’s hope it produces a smarter conversation about urban transit.
Christof Spieler: Trains, Buses, People: An Opinionated Atlas of US Transit: Island Press, 2018
David M. Levinson, Wes Marshall, Kay Axthausen. Elements of Access. Network Design Lab, 2017.
Access — where can you get to soon? — is, or should be, the core idea of transportation planning. David Levinson has long been one of the leaders in quantifying and analyzing access, and this work kicks off this fine new book. The cover — a 1925 map showing travel times to the centre of Melbourne, Australia — captures the universality of the idea. Access is what I prefer to call freedom: Where you can go determines what you can do, so access is about literally everything that matters to us once we step out our front door.
But that’s just the beginning of this very friendly book. Elements of Access is really a tour of the whole field of transport planning, and its goal is to strike a balance between academic precision and readability. In this, it’s a great success. I’ve never taken more pleasure from reading academic writing about transport. The writing is mostly clear and easy to read, and deftly combines technical ideas with references to everyday life.
The book is also easy to browse. It’s organized in units of 1-2 pages, grouped under six themes. Photos are used well. Footnotes appear in the otherwise white space on each page, so that there’s no flipping to them, and interesting nuggets in them have a chance to catch your eye. The book is also full of internal references, aiming for the structure of a hypertext to the extent that a physical book can.
Do I have gripes? Sure. Inevitably, a book of this breadth rushes past many rich topics, and sometimes — as with transit fares — the treatment is too cursory to be useful. Some explanations are clearer to the average reader than others. And I wish the content had been linked to the concept of access more explicitly throughout.
Of course, one common reason for negative reviews is that the reviewer looked at the bibliography, didn’t see his own book listed, and formed a judgment right there. Well, my book isn’t in the bibliography, but Elements of Access is a good book anyway, whether for reading, browsing, or as a reference. I recommend it.