Clearer Thinking: Urbanism + Transit.

15 May

Jarrett Walker, author of Human Transit: How Clearer Thinking About Public Transit Can Enrich Our Communities and Our Lives, told us he was at CNU20 to preach a little fire and brimstone:  transportation planner to new urbanist. While I wouldn’t call it brimstone, he definitely spoke passionately about real issues that need to be considered in enriching people’s lives. While I certainly subscribe to most New Urbanist principles, and am a card-carrying member of the Congress for the New Urbanism, I appreciated Walker’s candid challenge of the art behind the movement. He began his lecture by saying, “You know all those little people you draw in pastel and watercolor? Well, they are citizens of society, not going where you think they will, but where they want to.” That was a straight shot on the idealistic “if you build it, they will come” mentality that exists among some members of the CNU. Him, you, me…all of us…want to feel in control and active in how we navigate our built environment.

An example of those people we draw who are not going “where we want them to” (Source: Calgary-Canada Lands Comany)

One of the great things about the New Urbanism movement is that its principles are very relevant to many sectors of the built environment and has, therefore, welcomed members with many different views and beliefs. From his delivery, I don’t think Jarrett Walker would call himself a new urbanist, but he and I share the same priorities on transit.

Prior to Walker’s presentation as part of Clearer Thinking: Urbanism + Transit, G.B. Arrington of Parsons Brinckerhoff / Placemaking gave us “5 Things New Urbanists Need to Know about Transit,” which laid a foundation for the rest of the session. Three of them stand out in particular. The five points are as follows:

  1. Transit Is Not What It Used to Be About – Transit is not about the work trip, the relief of congestion, or brief interventions. Transit is now relevant to all trips, all purposes, and community building.
  2. Distance Matters Differently Between Users – Different users are willing to travel different distances using transit before they resort to their automobile. The most connections should be made within 600 feet. Past that, users drop off quickly (between 1/4 mile and a 1/2 mile riders drop by 50%) so placing retail and office uses within this distance is most important.
  3. The Land Use Gap - Built environment professionals are responsible for designing transit-ready neighborhoods based around connected and complete streets. Other built environment professions are responsible for planning the transit system. The gap is that there is no one responsible for merging the two together.
  4. Lifecycles in Planning – The planning cycle for transit oriented development and the planning cycle for a rail system can have a difference of a decade, which is longer than a typical market cycle.
  5. Mode Is Not As Important as You Think – Let the land use/corridor determine the mode. What matters much more is the location, market, and frequency of service.

Built upon this foundation was Walker’s argument:  abundancy = efficiency. What matters is lots of service going where you need it to go and the ability for users to be spontaneous in their use of the system. This is the benefit of the car and it is required of our public transportation system to compete. That is the first and most important requirement in making transit a viable alternative in America.

Walker said that the goal of abundant transit requires thinking about how transit can be useful to many kind of trips, not just a few specialized movements such as downtown commutes or senior citizen needs.  Instead, we need to design services that are useful to many different people at once.  Moving bus stops further apart, for example, imposes some inconvenience on some seniors but dramatically improves the usefulness of service for the city as a whole, by increasing its speed.

Secondly, Walker suggests that New Urbanism is really hung up on rail as the only way to support transit oriented development (TOD), but that where rail’s capacity (passengers/driver) is not required, the most efficient mode of transportation is the bus. Perhaps the reason for the obsession with rail is that the alternative is identified with a huge social stigma in the U.S. Issues of race and poverty overshadow the bus system. We have to change this stigma to be able to use effectively our most abundant and, therefore, efficient mode of transit.

Thirdly, we must combine our modes seamlessly in order to achieve the optimal amount of efficiency. Walker told the story of his experience of using public transit in Germany. When he arrived at the train station in Heidelberg, he was told he needed to take the 32. He found the appropriate platform, which was beside a set of tracks. He expected a streetcar to arrive, but instead a bus pulled over the tracks. He then transferred to a streetcar, where he could not distinguish between the inside of the two. A perfect and seamless integration of the modes meant that it didn’t matter if you were on a bus, streetcar, train, etc. They were all getting you where you needed to go.

Jarrett Walker’s Journey Heidelberg

Jarrett Walker’s Journey in Heidelberg: Bus 32 acted as a streetcar in a seamless multimodal transportation network. (Source: Jarrett Walker)

Geneva Rail For The Valley

Efficiency in abundancy and the seamless integration of modes. (Source: Rail for the Valley)

Most importantly, Walker makes the point that transit needs to become more transparent, efficient, and functional so that people can take responsibility for where and how they live. He has developed a software tool that shows from any location in Portland where you can get within a certain amount of time on transit systems. The results are blobs on a map in varying degrees of hues, representing periods of time. Not surprisingly, the blobs are bigger and darker the closer the location to the city center. Reproduced for the entire country and made accessible to all, similar to the effect of providing nutrition facts on food packaging, people will be able to make responsible transit decisions that will give them greater control of their mobility.

These achievements in transit will allow people to live freely, abundantly, and spontaneously, which in turn will enrich our lives and our communities. While I believe there is value in making transit use enjoyable, pleasant, comfortable, and even fun, I believe more strongly in Walker’s opinion that more than the “color of our seats,” we care about getting where we want to go faster.

This post can also be found at Tindale-Oliver & Associates.

Erin Chantry is an Urban Designer in the Urban Design and Community Planning Service Team with Tindale-Oliver & Associates. With a BA in Architecture, an MA in Urban Design, and an MSc in Urban Planning, Erin has served on a variety of projects for both public sector and private sector clients, with a primary focus on architecture, urban design, land use planning, design research, and sustainability. She has expert knowledge in New Urbanism, LEED for Neighborhood Development, and how sustainable city planning and urban design can be used as a catalyst for redevelopment.
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