Human Transit vs My Kind of Transit: Two Views of What Makes Transit Work, and Why (Book Review)

books being reviewed
via. Island Press

Island Press/via

At 3 Eastern on December 8, Darrin Nordahl, author of My Kind of Transit and Jarret Walker, author of Human Transit: how clearer thinking about public transit can enrich our communities and our lives will be on Bookhugger . This may well turn into an exciting bunfight; these are two very different books.

Vitruvius described the three essential characteristics of a good building: Commodity, Firmness and Delight. What describes buildings could be applied to transit: Firmness is the actual structural and mechanical properties that make it function. Commodity is about how well it works for people, how it serves their needs. Delight is what makes it loved.

Jarret Walker is all about Commodity, about how useful a transit system is. He is more sanguine about Firmness; he thinks we spend too much time thinking about the technology and not enough about practicality and geometry. From the very first chapter you know this is not going to be light reading, as he take apart the definition:

Public transit consists of regularly scheduled vehicle trips, open to all paying passengers, with the capacity to carry multiple passengers whose trips may have different origins, destinations, and purposes.

Darrin Nordahl is all about delight; My Kind of Transit is my kind of book. He starts with his different perspective:

The focus here is neither the economical nor environmental benefits of public transit travel but the experience offered to the passenger and onlooker. I wish to show that, through thoughtful planning and design, the transit vehicle- a mobile form of public space- can provide a setting for public life and enrich many aspects of our everyday lives.
subway buttons

Spacing/Promo image

I also should declare my biases; I live in a city where people actually do get delight out of their transit system, to the point that many of us wear buttons celebrating subway stations. We are also in the middle of a war on transit and bikes, where the Mayor got elected with the promise of killing a tax on cars, and now is essentially making up for it with an increase in transit fares that is a tax on those who take the bus and streetcar. He is from the suburbs and drives a minivan; besides increasing fares he is decreasing frequency. Walker writes:

Transit debates suffer from the fact that today, in most of our cities, most of our decision makers are motorists. No matter how much you support transit, driving a car every day can shape your thinking in powerful, subconscious ways. For example, in most debates about proposed rapid transit lines, the speed of the proposed service gets more political attention than how frequently it runs, even though frequency, which determines waiting time, often matters more than speed in determining how long your trip will take.

I don't think it is a stretch to say that people who drive from their suburban garage to their underground space at work don't think much about public space; the thing they love about their cars is that they are private. They are missing what Nordahl suggests is one of the most important features of public transit: that it is public.

By its very nature, transit breaks through the socio-economic boundaries of neighbourhoods...Transit cars, being a mobile form of public spaces, travel from one neighbourhood to the next and often gather a great diversity of people along the way. The rich ride with the poor, the young with the old, the black with the white, the gay with the straight.

Walker didn't think much of Nordhal's book in his review, which might make the debate interesting. He describes Nordhal's " Disneyland theory of transit" and notes:

Nowhere does he show any interest in what various transit technologies cost to build and operate. Nowhere does he suggest that ridership may have anything to do with the travel time we offer and the fare we charge...Instead, he offers a purely aesthetic rumination about the most famous tourist attractions in the American transit industry, from the San Francisco cable cars to the Seattle and Las Vegas monorails. Such ruminations have an important place in the literature of urban design, but they are far removed from the practical business of transit, and are unlikely to influence it much from such a distance.

In fact, the deeper you get into Walker's book, the more persuasive he becomes. His discussion of the relationship between urban design and transit is dead on:

Live where you want to live. Build whatever kind of community you want. Nobody is coercing you. But understand the costs, and don’t expect transit to be both high quality and cost-effective if you live in a place where that’s geometrically impossible.

Walker is telling us not to be seduced by aesthetics and whizzy tech. His key mantra is Technology never changes geometry.

If we want people to embrace transit as a primary mode of travel, transit service must be useful. Usefulness does include some subjective values, but it lies mostly in the design of the transit network and its fit with the geometric patterns of the city. If we cared about usefulness, transit technologies would be selected for their ability to fit those patterns well, and to serve them efficiently, so as to maximize the personal mobility of the entire community.

In the end, these two books complement each other nicely. Like a Vitruvian building, you can't be a success unless you have all three components. We currently have a system where the engineers are far too concerned about the firmness, the technology of the podcars and the monorails, and not enough about Walker's Commodity, or usefulness, and I think certainly not enough about Nordahl's Delight. One paragraph of Walker's book summarizes the problem, and I think proves that he and Nordahl are really not that far apart:

Everyone tries to translate a question into terms that they understand. Economists may talk about transit in terms of profitability, as though that were its goal. Social service advocates think of it as a tool for meeting the needs of the disadvantaged. Architects and urban designers care about how it feels to move through a city, so they often focus on the aesthetics of the transit vehicle and infrastructure. Urban redevelopment advocates categorize services according to how well they stimulate development. None of these perspectives is wrong; transit can serve all of these interests and more.

I look forward to the debate at three eastern.