Category: Get Involved, Transit, Uncategorized
“Transportation is freedom” was one of the take-away points from Jarrett Walker‘s presentation at the Heartland Active Transportation Summit on Friday, September 28, 2012. Walker earns his living thinking about public transit and helping others do the same. Therefore, it was no surprise that he offered many interesting questions, theories, and terms.
The idea that “transportation is freedom” is so obvious that it is often overlooked. Hearing Walker articulate this sentiment so eloquently helped me understand the attraction to owning a car. When people have immediate access to any place in the vicinity, they feel free. Anyone who has been car-free for even a short period of time knows the disadvantages to depending on other people for rides. His point is that if people have access to convenient transit, they can feel that same freedom. Transportation, then, is a form of agency, the power to do what we want to do.
Walker explained that five factors impacted the efficacy of transit: (1) frequency, (2) span, (3) speed, (4) reliability, and (5) capacity. I’ll explain what each of these means in terms of buses. Frequency means how often the bus comes. Span refers to how early it starts running and how late it stops running. Speed means how fast it goes. Reliability means it is there when it should be. And capacity means how many people it can accommodate. Walker is an advocate for choosing the appropriate technology (meaning the kind of vehicle) and argued during his presentation that technology usually doesn’t fix any of the problems that can arise with these five factors. At the extremes, technology can impact capacity and span .
If you get a bigger bus, you can fit more people. If a city spends more money installing a light rail that doesn’t need an operating, then it can run the light rail into the wee hours of the morning. However, although we are emotionally connected to speed and reliability, technology generally doesn’t affect them. He explained that these two factors are determined by how long the vehicle stops and by what can get in its way. So, if a bus has a dedicated lane, it can be just as fast as a light rail. Span and frequency are the most cost-intensive factors, after the initial investment, because they depend on employing more people to operate the vehicles. Speed, reliability, and capacity all get better as the system becomes more efficient. He goes on to suggest that when city planners/city council members try to imagine the needs of people using transit, frequency is the most difficult to explain to habitual car-users. Speed, reliability, and capacity are part of the personal-vehicle experience, and therefore, are easy to imagine. He said that he uses the analogy of a store being open or closed to help habitual car-users understand what it feels like to be subjected to the span of transit. But he runs into problems when he tries to explain why frequency is so important. Often, transit designers conserve costs by having a bus run less often. His analogy about why this is a problem was one of the best things I got from the presentation. He said that to help habitual car-users understand the problem with infrequent service, he asks them to imagine that at the end of their driveway is a gate that only opens once an hour. What a truly poignant analogy! If you have to be somewhere at a certain time, you need to consider when that gate is going to open and get out before you miss it and need to wait for the next opening. Or if you are trying to get home, it doesn’t matter how tired or hungry you are, you will have to wait for that gate to open. To me, that was such a helpful way of articulating why taking public transit is sometimes problematic. He suggested that transit planners make maps that show how frequently buses run to help users make the best choices for them.
These five factors strongly impact the freedom that we experience in our transportation options. Transit can play a big part in cities’ transportation plans if it is appropriately designed and used. Walker’s presentation offered those who attended the summit some new ways of thinking about transit and about how to talk about transit. He has a blog called humantransit.org and a book of the same name.
What did you think of Walker’s talk? Let me know if you want to post a blog about it: email@example.com.