Adam Cadre describes writing urban characters as a process of tapping into the part of his own personality formed by growing up “stranded in a blotch of Orange County where lacking a driver’s license was tantamount to quadriplegia.” Despite growing up 1200 miles north, in an eastern suburb of Seattle, I can relate! The first liberation day of my adolescence came when I discovered a route that, after a mere 45 minutes of biking, would take me out of the bedroom communities and into a genuine city. Sure, downtown Redmond lacked something of the hustle and bustle, but knowing I could take off by myself to browse Half Price Books, pick up a CD at Love Music, or eat a donburi bowl at Nara whenever I wanted substantially enriched the quality of my young life. The second liberation day of my adolescence came, of course, when I received my driver’s license, which widened my range, yet somehow failed to lessen the hassle factor. Going anywhere I usually did entailed a bit of a production: the gym, a five-mile drive; school, a nine-mile drive; girlfriend’s house, a ten-mile drive; cool theater, eighteen-mile drive; buddy’s house, a forty-mile drive. At least gas only cost a buck a gallon back then.
I loathe the bus. There has to be a more dignified mode of transportation.
All this time, I hadn’t considered taking public transit, mostly because I’d never, ever seen a bus stop at the lonely route marker around the corner from my house. While growing up in this inconvenient corner of suburbia instilled in me a love of bikes and cycling as well as a love of cars and driving, it also kept me from imprinting on public transit use. I rode the poor old Seattle Center Monorail once in a while, but only in doing the tourist thing with friends, and buses meant noisy yellow tubes taking me the last place I wanted to go. Still, something inside me recognized and meditated on the deep undesirability of having to either get behind the wheel or spend half the day biking between small towns to do anything at all. Perhaps this drove me to move from English Hill (WalkScore 9, “Car Dependent”) to downtown Santa Barbara (WalkScore 88, “Very Walkable”) to Los Angeles’ Koreatown (Walkscore 92, “Walker’s Paradise”). I couldn’t have articulated my dissatisfaction with the Seattle ‘burbs back then, nor could I have said much about the inconveniences I still felt in Santa Barbara, but that’s why I turn to a guy like Jarrett Walker, author of the blog Human Transit, and now the book Human Transit: How Clearer Thinking About Public Transit Can Enrich Our Communities and Our Lives.
A public transit planning consultant for some twenty years, Walker has surely spent more time and energy explaining how to move people around cities than anyone I’ve ever heard of. His writing bears the mark of experience talking with riders, non-riders, planners, and developers, but especially governments; you can sense it in the extreme caution he takes with words and their definitions. He deliberately explains, as if to avoid a lawsuit, that when he says “walk,” he includes the use of wheelchairs; when he says “driver,” he includes transit vehicle operators that may not do anything resembling driving as we know it; and he insists that, when laying out the mechanics and consequences of different choices in transit operation, he doesn’t advocate for any particular one. Nevertheless, the book miraculously escapes the kind of binding neutral stiffness this would lead you to expect and, more than any other text I’ve read that so intently covers route/line geometry and connection timing, actually makes for a lively read. And while I wouldn’t say that Walker disingenuously plays the part of the dispassionate expert — the “plumber,” as he puts it, who tells you all the ways he can fix your sink but leaves the choice up to you — he describes certain qualities of public transit in such a way that makes you believe, as I suppose I already did, that cities in the non-European Anglosphere could run far superior service with a few near-obvious tweaks.
A man who, beyond the age of 26, finds himself on a bus can count himself as a failure.
Margaret Thatcher (though quite possibly apocryphal)
I haven’t had a car to drive since leaving Washington almost a decade ago. In Santa Barbara, I rode the buses, which helped cultivate in me an antipathy toward buses that someone like Walker might call unimaginative. Though possessed of clean-enough vehicles, friendly-enough drivers and convenient-enough stops, Santa Barbara’s transit system consisted entirely of buses running in what Walker terms a “Class C” way: through mixed traffic, in lanes neither exclusive nor separated. That is to say, they shared the road on equal terms with all the other cars, and thus operated as nothing more that bigger, slower, less convenient cars, and even then only before about 11:30 at night. Other than relieving you of parking costs, riding them offered no advantages over driving yourself. Therefore, Santa Barbarans who could drive — or, in my case, bike — almost always did. Before any bus trip, I had to consult the Santa Barbara MTD’s schedule and plan around it, lest I find myself alone at a stop with more than half an hour to kill. The system didn’t offer its users the frequency to “just go” anywhere, let alone to spontaneously change their plans with anything like ease.
Walker titles one chapter of Human Transit “Frequency is Freedom,” and throughout the book he treats frequency as one of the chief measures of a city’s transit system. To my mind as to his, if a transit vehicle shows up at least once every ten minutes, you can “just go” places on it. He’d like to see more maps that show only frequent lines, as opposed to every line, and having steeped myself for years in the information-design work of Edward Tufte, I endorse with all my being Walker’s suggestion of proportioning the map’s line thickness to the timetable’s line frequency. Another chapter called “Connections or Complexity?” left me convinced that, were Walker to take the gloves off and start flat-out telling cities what to do, he’d instruct them to run their transit frequently on as close to a grid pattern as possible, so that riders can easily and intuitively figure out how to get where they need to go by simply knowing which directions they need to travel in. And I’d like to think that he’d tell them to junk this Class C business and run all their lines as at least Class B, which means dedicating a whole lane to each, or better yet Class A, which means dedicating a whole lane to each and separating it from cross-traffic entirely.
Ah, the old number 22: clean, reliable public transportation; the chariot of the people; the ride of choice for the poor and very poor alike.
You urbanites will recognize Class A as how subway trains run: down in their tunnels, impeded by nothing but the trains ahead of them. Class B you’ll have experienced if you’ve taken buses with dedicated lanes or light-rail trains running at street level which still stop at traffic lights. Moving to Los Angeles introduced both Class A and B transit into my daily life, as well as service frequent enough to liberate me of timetables and a grid network (at least comapred to Santa Barbara) to liberate me, for the most part, from maps. This has gotten me using public transit as perhaps the primary organizing framework for my thoughts on cities. A city’s transit system tells you much about the city itself, and though still only about half-built, Los Angeles’ rail network and its prospects for growth make appealing promises about the coming alterations in this urban fabric. No less an authority than Walker himself sees Los Angeles as quite possibly “the next great transit metropolis,” and the city pops up in illustrative examples throughout Human Transit. Late in the book, he tantalizingly sketches a vibrant, transit-rich boulevard of 2030, which “feels more like a Parisian boulevard in many ways, including generous sidewalks, shade trees, and of course a transit lane” in which “bus and streetcar technologies have converged into a long snakelike vehicle lined with many doors, so that people can flow on and off as easily as they do on a subway” which is “guided by optical technology” and which, “mostly transparent above waist height,” “feels like a continuation of the sidewalk.”
Here, Walker is writing specifically about the evolution of Los Angeles’ Metro Rapid buses. He’s come down as a fan of these in his blog, and he seems especially to like the one that runs on Wilshire Boulevard, which also happens to be the only Los Angeles bus I ride regularly. True, I’ve given the Rapids a hard time before for their crowding, their lack of most actual bus rapid transit system features, and how painfully they remind me that the subway should have opened in Santa Monica a decade ago. But I think he and I would agree that they’re only a dedicated lane (which they may get) and an offboard payment system away from escaping much standard bus awfulness. (In this as elsewhere, Los Angeles could do well to take a page from Mexico City’s transit playbook; I could envision their Metrobús system fitting in here. But good luck getting an American public official to look toward Mexico City as the future.) Walker takes pains to point out the relative irrelevance of transit technology, claiming that, if you have the correct geometry, frequency, the separation from traffic, it matters less whether you run a train or a bus or a tram or what have you. But the image of buses as slow, smelly, unpredictable, rolling canisters of poor people lingers in my mind, just as it does in the minds of so many Americans. Once a city has listened to the Jarrett Walkers of the world and built a truly functional transit system, it faces the even hairier challenge of getting reasonably wealthy and free urban-ish liberals — or, in the parlance of 2007, “white people” — to use it. Or maybe ten-dollar-a-gallon gas will do the job for them.