Chapter 3 from the First Edition of Human Transit, as Edited in 2023

Chapter 3 of my book Human Transit was deleted late in the editing process.  Here is the text as it stood at that time.  It’s largely the same as the text in the first edition of 2011, except that the “Tourist’s Errors” section is new and the first edition’s section on “Box Errors and False Dichotomies” was removed, largely replaced by the material on choice and captive riders in Chapter 4 of the Revised Edition of 2024. 

Five Paths to Confusion

Throughout this book, you’ll find examples of common misunderstandings about transit. In each case, my goal is not just to refute them but to suggest why they are so common and understandable, so that we can forgive and correct these mistakes both in others and in ourselves. A lively transit debate may seem to reflect many kinds of confusion, but we can penetrate the chaos by noticing a few common themes.

Map-Reading Errors

During their television coverage of the 2010 US election night, CNN repeatedly called the viewer’s attention to a map of the United States in which the congressional districts were colored red for Republicans or blue for Democrats. Each time, we were shown the map showing the pre-2010 makeup of Congress. Then the reporter said, “Now, watch this!” As he waved his hand, the map changed to show the post-2010 makeup, with many blue areas changed to red. We were meant to perceive a vast Republican wave pouring across the nation.

CNN was asking us to make the most common of all map-reading errors: perceiving map area as though it were population. The visual impression that a map makes comes from the sizes of areas on the map; a big zone looks more important than a small zone, even though, if the zones are congressional districts, both represent the same number of voters.

While the Republicans picked up many seats in 2010, CNN’s map visually exaggerated those gains because only rural and outer-suburban districts are big enough to show up on a national map. Many outer-suburban districts, which often include extensive rural areas and therefore show up as big, tend to be close to the political center, so they frequently flip in elections. Many of them turned from blue to red in 2010, and it was these districts that created most of the CNN map’s apparent “red wave.” The same map would have shown an equally exaggerated “blue wave” for the Democrats two years earlier.

What you cannot see on a national map are the many districts that are inside of urban areas. They are too small in area to see unless you zoom into them, which CNN didn’t. I am not sure if CNN’s emphasis on this map was malice or foolishness, but it certainly showed how easy it is to misread map area as population, and thus form a distorted impression of what is occurring.

Transit planning requires looking at maps of data about populations, so you will encounter many opportunities to make this mistake. Suppose you’re looking at a map showing the rate of zero-car households in a city. On the edge of the city is a huge zone that’s all wilderness except for six recluses living in mobile homes deep in the woods, four of whom have cars. That’s a 33 percent rate of zero-car households, and the whole vast zone will show up as having one of the most extreme rates of carlessness in the city. In fact, this large, brightly colored zone may be the most prominent thing on the map. Some people viewing this map may think: How terrible! We clearly need transit out there! The antidote to this map-reading error is to keep asking: “Wait, how many people are we talking about?” In this example, the answer is two.

In chapter 7 [8 in the revised edition of 2024], we’ll encounter a similar map-reading error when it comes to looking at maps of transit service. Briefly, most transit maps show the paths that transit runs on but not how frequently it runs. As a result, they tend to conceal the patterns of good service, which tend also to be the patterns of good ridership. So when looking at a transit map, you may need to say: “Wait, these are just routes. What are the frequencies? How late do they run? In other words, how much actual service am I looking at here?”

Motorist’s Errors

A motorist’s error is any mistake that arises from unconsciously thinking about transit as though it works just like cars and roads. These errors often come up when people who usually travel by car find themselves making decisions about transit. Understandably, they tend to think about transit as an analogy to the mode of transport that they know. Many people who drive are strong transit supporters, and they can still make good transit decisions, but it helps to be aware of this risk and consciously correct for it.

Many such errors are obvious. Someone who has never tried to walk along a busy street as a pedestrian, for example, may not grasp why such a walk could be unsafe or intolerable, and what might need to be done to fix that problem. That’s an example of an obvious difference between motoring and transit, one that most people can easily notice and correct for.

But the pervasive motorist’s errors are more subtle. The most common is overvaluing speed and undervaluing frequency, because speed is meaningful to a motorist’s experience while frequency really isn’t. Roads are there whenever you need them, so there is no road equivalent of the transit concept of waiting time. The closest thing to frequency that most motorists experience is the cycling of traffic signals, but this is not a close analogy at all, since each signal delay is rarely more than 2 minutes. Transit riders, by contrast, may face major waits at the beginning of a trip or at a connection point. For them, waiting time—that is, frequency—is often the major variable that governs actual travel time. We’ll come back to this motorist’s error in chapters 7 and 8 [8 and 9 in the revised edition of 2024].

Tourist’s Errors

Tourism has an enormous impact on transit planning. Influential people travel to other cities, like things they see, and want to bring them home. I am constantly asked why we can’t use some technology or service idea that someone has seen in another city during their travels.

But our values as tourists are different from our values as commuters: We may enjoy riding the Ferris wheel, but that doesn’t mean we’d enjoy commuting on one. There certainly are times when we travel in our home city in a recreational way, with the primary goal of pleasure, but most of the time we really need to get somewhere, because a treasured or necessary part of our lives is on hold until we do.

Another problem with being guided by transit tourism is that tourists are specifically attracted to rarity. They’re drawn to the service that’s unusual, like the San Francisco cable cars. But effective, relevant transit must be all over a city. It can’t be rare. It has to be normal, common, even taken for granted. By this standard, the great hero of hill-climbing transit in San Francisco is not the historic cable car but the abundant electric trolleybus. It may not be as romantic as a cable car, but it’s much cheaper to operate and faster at climbing steep hills, so these buses can run frequently at ordinary fares.

One of the perils of transit tourism is that we will bring home very expensive souvenirs. We can’t bring home the whole experience of a city we visited, but it’s tempting to bring home a thing that we associate with it.
Strasbourg, France is one of several western European cities that attract countless visitors interested in urban planning and transit. The historic center of the city is largely closed to cars, creating a large pedestrian realm, and beautiful modern streetcars glide through this space, extending out across the city.

When you’ve having that experience, it’s easy to focus on the streetcar as the key to everything – because unlike the pedestrian realm, the urban structure, or the cathedral, the streetcar is something you could take home. You could buy a streetcar system and set it up in your city.

But the success of streetcars in Strasbourg is more about Strasbourg than it is about streetcars. It’s not just a historically dense city. The creation of today’s city center mobility system also involved a range of difficult decisions around managing parking and traffic. A complex and courageous set of actions, over many decades, made Strasbourg into a place where streetcars would make sense as a transit mode. If you have enough money you can take the streetcar home, just as you can take a stuffed koala home from Australia. But it won’t be the same.

It is not my goal here to wade into the vast debate about the US streetcar revival movement. It has produced some useful services and some less useful ones. But a good general rule is that if you want transit to be useful and liberating, it has to be developed with the right technology for each situation, rather than based on a love of a particular technology for its own sake. In the rest of this book we’ll explore how transit creates freedom and opportunity. None of those chapters are about technology choice. They’re about designing a coherent network of services for a city, regardless of whether they’re on rails or tires.

Polarization Errors

Throughout this book, I will be like your plumber, asking, “Do you want more of this or more of that? You have to choose.” This isn’t always what you want to hear. People develop a range of responses to these questions, some of them unpleasant for the plumber.

One of the most common responses is to accuse me of advocating a particular answer to the question simply because I’ve stated the question. For example, if I describe some of the trade-offs between rail and bus options in a particular place, and try to do so with some equanimity, rail advocates may decide that I’m a bus advocate. If you already know where you are on a question, it can feel threatening for me to point out that there is a spectrum of credible opinions and that there are other possible valid positions on that spectrum.

I call this a polarization error, because ultimately it implies a stance of “you’re either with us or against us.” The polarization error is really an extreme example of a box error or false dichotomy. The speaker insists that his way of dividing the world into two boxes is the only one that’s meaningful and that everyone else must judge reality on those terms

There are some issues where I can describe the spectrum only by taking a position on it, because most people now occupy a different position out of sheer habit. For example, when we turn to the question of “connections or complexity?” in chapter 12, I will come down firmly on the side of encouraging connections in order to have a simpler network. I’ll do this, though, because you don’t need me to lay out the opposite position; distaste for connections, or “transfers” as Americans call them, is every- where, and many transit systems work hard to avoid them. The notion that “people hate to transfer” is already well established, so the only way I can usefully show the spectrum of possibility is to explain in some detail why a network that requires transferring might actually be desirable. Still, “connections or complexity?” is a plumber’s question, a choice between two things that we value, so there’s no technically right answer. When a client agency chooses connection avoidance as the goal, in full understanding of the consequences of that choice, I’m happy to help the client design a net- work that serves those values.

In some situations, polarization is unavoidable. Most commonly, once you’re engaged in a debate about whether to build a particular transit line, you’re likely to hear polarizing comments coming from both sides. People who are committed strongly to one position will tend to hear what you say as either “for” or “against.” That’s one reason to think about transit more generally before you get into the middle of those debates, so that you can see both your own values and their relationship to other possible values that people might rationally hold. This book tries to lay out some of this landscape of choices so that you can find your own home in it.

Unfortunate Connotations

Finally, many of the words that we use to talk about transit can carry troublesome connotations. We’ve already seen one: captive. I may understand that my elderly aunt can’t drive and thus depends on transit, but I’ll still bristle to hear her described as the transit system’s captive.

Most of the words used in the transit business also have a more common meaning outside that context. The common meaning forms a connotation that hangs around the word, often causing confusion, when we use the word to talk about transit. So when choosing what words to use, it’s important to think about each word’s everyday meaning, not just its transit meaning.

In the next chapter, for example, we’ll need a word for the path traced by a transit vehicle. This word is sometimes route and sometimes line. Which should we use? Listen to the common meaning of these two words.

When a package or message is going through a postal system, we say it’s being routed. The person who delivers newspapers to subscribers in the morning is following a paper route. School buses typically follow routes. Explorers trace a route to the South Pole.

What these meanings of the word route have in common is that the route isn’t necessarily followed very often. A route is a place where some kind of transport event happens, but the event may be rare. It may even happen only once.

The word line, on the other hand, has a clear meaning from geometry: a simple, straight, one-dimensional figure. In common usage, we often use line for something curved, like the laugh lines and worry lines on a face, and transit lines may be curved as well. But the word line doesn’t imply an event, as route does. A line is a thing that’s just there, no matter what hap- pens along it.

Lurking inside these two words, in short, is a profound difference in attitude about a transit service. Do you want to think of transit as some- thing that’s always there, that you can count on? If so, call it a line. We never speak of rail routes, always rail lines, and we do that because the rails are always there, suggesting a permanent and reliable thing.

If you’re selling a transportation product, you obviously want people to think they can count on it. So it’s not surprising that in the private sector, the word is usually line. Trucking and shipping companies often call themselves lines, as do most private bus companies and, of course, the airlines. This doesn’t mean that all these services are really line-like—some may be quite infrequent—but the company that chose the word wants you to think of their product as something that’s reliably there, as something that you can count on.

So the word route lowers expectations for the frequency and reliability of a service. The word line raises those expectations. My broad intention in this book is to raise expectations of transit rather than lower them, so I will generally use line. However, when I speak specifically of a service that doesn’t run very frequently, I’ll use route.

Connotations can be a nuisance. Most of the time you don’t want any connotation. You just want the meaning. Unfortunately, words without connotations tend to sound evasive or bureaucratic. I could insist on saying “fixed vehicle path” instead of “route” or “line,” just as I could say “nonmotorized access” when I mean walking or cycling, but you wouldn’t get through this book if I did. To keep our speech vivid and engaging, we often have to use words with connotations, and do our best to choose those con- notations consciously.