Posted by: Karen Quinn Fung | August 9, 2010

Public Transit: Jarrett Walker’s Field Guide to Transit Debates

Last week, transportation consultant and blogger Jarrett Walker spoke to an attentive crowd of Vancouver area planners, public transit authority staff, and other transit-minded folk, sharing some of what he’d learned in his 20 years of transportation consulting experience. Having spent the last 10 months enthralled by Jarrett’s articulate and insightful blog, Human Transit, it was a rare treat to listen to him speak in person about such a hotly contested topic.

For his talk, entitled “A Field Guide to Transit Debates,” Walker laid out his broader aim in writing and working in transit: to help people frame the nature of the most important questions about transit services, thus further empowering them to thoughtfully evaluate possible answers. He presented a spectrum from objectivity/rationality to subjectivity as a tool for navigating what people say about transit and advocating for more voices in the transit planning process that respect a balance of both perspectives.

Walker was a major critic of the all-too-common triumph of fantastical plans for the future of transit over practical concerns, the latter of which he dubbed the “Cold, Boring, Sexless and Inescapable Facts of Transit Geometry.” He provided examples of poorly designed and executed projects (or whole systems), many in open defiance of the constraints of service or land use considerations, comparing and contrasting Portland, Sydney, and San Francisco. Walker also made multiple references to the online debate he had with UBC Professor Patrick Condon on the role and value of streetcars, as well as his disagreements with the supporters of “slow transit,” given that it is speed, frequency, and reliability that affect quality of service, not the particularities of a transit technology.

Despite being a minor part of his presentation, one of Walker’s topics stood out as particularly relevant to the VPSN’s advocacy for meaningful, memorable, and inclusive public spaces: the detrimental effect of the over-emphasis on rational concerns in planning. While the rules of geometry are important, Walker argued, the outcome can be problematic if this focus is given the power to dictate human culture and behaviour without thought to the trade-offs. Walker emphasized that beyond geometry’s hard and fast rules, we can make the decision as communities to value things other than efficiency. However, he made it clear that we should work to be fully aware of the trade-offs. This will help to prevent, for example, taking an agency to task for slow ridership growth in places where ridership expansion is not the agency’s goal.

As audience questions brought the discussion closer to home, Walker’s advice for transit advocates here was to keep alive the memory of the moments when Vancouver has shown how transit can scale and work for the city, such as during the Vancouver Olympics. He also encouraged Vancouverites to look to Europe for inspiration in surmounting some of our obstacles, pointing out that as far as North America goes, most other cities are grappling with similar issues with about as much, if not less, success.

If you missed this talk, the SFU City Program is likely to release a video of this presentation in the future UPDATE: SFU did not tape it, although an audio version is in the works and will be linked to when available, as indicated in the comments below. To keep  up to date on his writing (including a forthcoming book), check out Jarrett’s blog Human Transit.



  1. Thanks for the great summary. If SFU is planning to release a video, though, they need to ask me to create one. I don’t believe anyone was recording the Vancouver talk.

  2. Jarrett,

    Thanks for the correction. I’ve been so accustomed to the SFU City program going for capture that I assumed that the same would happen for your talk and have corrected the post.

    I will update it again when you have a version of your talk up on your website.


  3. Correction to my above comment: the post has not been edited yet due to the way we have our site set up. The point still is: an audio version of the presentation synced with Jarrett’s slides is in the works, and we’ll link it as soon as that is available.

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