Posted by: Karen Quinn Fung | January 22, 2012

Jarrett Walker talks making transit human at SFU Harbour Centre


Jarrett Walker, author of the popular blog Human Transit, gave a lecture at Simon Fraser University’s Harbour Centre on Tuesday, January 17, to promote his new book, Human Transit: How clearer thinking on public transit can enrich our communities and our lives.

During Walker’s last lecture in Vancouver, Walker spoke persuasively of key ideas and useful tools to describe and understand the challenges associated with public transit’s role in urban mobility, so as to raise the level and thoughtfulness of common debates about transit. His talk last week attracted an attentive crowd of planners, urban designers, transit advocates and interested citizens wanting more of his characteristically well-structured insight and thoughtful observations of the local state of transit affairs.

Here are five key takeaways from his lecture for you to ponder and absorb:

  1. The essential task of transit, in Walker’s estimation, is, “Abundant personal mobility without personal vehicles over distances too far to walk.” Many of the other things that we might think are transit’s main task — like walkable communities, expanding equitable access to destinations in a region, or the sheer fun transit — Walker sees as positive side benefits rather than transit’s core, central purpose. In Walker’s view, this non-intuitive answer to what transit is supposed to do makes conversations more difficult.(A quick sidenote: Walker pointed out his deliberate choice of the word “abundance.” Given how often discourse on transit infrastructure is framed as a collective burden or problem, rather than something which enables a wide range of activities and ways of living, it was a welcome breath of fresh air. That’s not to say he’s not pragmatic about the costs of things: Walker points out that abundance in the constraint of fixed budgets is functionally equivalent to the concept of efficiency.)
  2. Abundant personal mobility means “making the blobs bigger for as many people as possible.” By blobs, he’s referring to the shaded areas in these commute-time maps (see yours by typing in your address at Mapnificent; see an example below). These maps (available for US cities through WalkScore) show the destinations that you can go to on public transit depending on the amount of time you are willing to travel. Being able to get people as many places as they might possibly want to go, says Walker, should be a goal of transit agencies. (Note that this might also be achieved by using space efficiently and making more destinations in spaces as well.)

    From Mapnificent: the light-coloured areas show places accessible by transit from Main and King Edward in a 15-minute trip.

  3. We tend to get hung up on transit technology (is it light rail? bus? SkyTrain?) because it’s, well, easy.As far as the qualities of transit goes, the experience of a vehicle is easier to have an opinion on than deeper questions about the nature of the quality, says Walker, because it seems comparable to the experience of buying a car — something most people have an easier time understanding or imagining. The main issue with that, however, is that buying a car tends to be a highly emotional decision — how does it makes you feel? How do you look riding in it? How fast does it go? But when we think about transit, we should ideally be thinking rationally about trade-offs in cost and the qualities of the service required to be appropriate for the people it needs to serve.
  4. Frequency is freedom.This point, which Walker has made on his blog, refers to the idea that frequency allows for spontaneity, convenience, empowerment (because “waiting is the opposite of freedom”) and “getting on with the stuff of life.” Frequency even matters more than speed, because it makes the difference between a service you can work into your life, versus a service that you need to “make an appointment with.”
  5. Frequency is both central to high-quality service, and the hardest thing about transit for non-transit users to understand. Speed, capacity, and reliability tend to relate to be one-time decisions that have to do with right-of-way and the vehicle or technology, and they are, again, pretty easy for car drivers to grasp. That leaves frequency and span, says Walker, as the things about the service that are most susceptible to service rollbacks due to budget cuts. (Those of us using transit at the edges of the Metro Vancouver region are intimately familiar with this, given TransLink’s service changes in the past few years.)

Walker had a lot more to say; Stephen Rees’ summary of the event has more detail if you are interested in Walker’s thoughts on the grid, being “always on the way,” or specialized or “symbolic” transit services, as does Walker’s new book — an undoubtedly handy and useful resource for anyone interested in just about any aspect of public transit.

Robson Square

Walker closed with his perspective on proposals to pedestrianize Robson Square. (Recall, if you will, that the VPSN has done some work on this issue.) “Urban designers,” he advised, “be sure to check the impact of your ideas on transit early in the process.” He displayed a map highlighting the current 5 Robson route, underscoring how effective the 5 is as a transit route that runs the length of the street, and the way it serves those in the West End wanting to get to the south part of downtown. He then refreshed the maps to show how a re-route of the 5 would affect the effectiveness of the bus.

The Vancouver Public Space Network has continually advocated for careful and open consideration of what is possible to improve Robson Square for pedestrians while being mindful of the function that the 5 bus service provides for those living, working and moving through downtown and the West End of Vancouver. That is the reason that our petition gave opportunities to say either Yes and No to changing traffic patterns at the 800-block of Robson, as well as allowing people to be even more specific in their support, giving them the option to support closure to all vehicle traffic or only to cars while still allowing transit to pass.

We believe that the opportunity for Robson Square is worth discussing openly and considering closely, including what trade-offs are available between supporting transit service and enjoying Robson Square as a public space. We are grateful to Jarrett Walker for weighing in with his analysis, which, like the rest of his lecture, goes a great way in articulating the complexity of what’s happening in the space.



  1. Karen, that was an aexcellent review, full of lots of insightful commentary, as was your review of his previous (2010) talk.

    I am especially intrigued by what you (and Jarrett) had to sy about Robson Square.

    And of course, I have ideas about Broadway too.

  2. Just a take on the “urban design” of Robson Square… Why does making it a “pedestrian zone” mean a bus, a BRT, or an LRT can make its way thru it?

    I’ve designed ONE square in Vancouver: Chinatown Square. It has a bollard-delimited car lane accessing parking alongside; a stop sign; a “right-turn-only sign”; a community-sponsored monument; some 12 to 14 trees; continuous pavements; plugs for market stalls (that are not being used); and it stands to become the heart of the New Year’s Parade next Sunday.

    One does not necessarily exclude the other.

    • Lewis,

      Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts.

      The features you are describing about Chinatown Square seem well-suited to the context, as evidenced by the reception it has received from the surrounding community you have described. I myself don’t know the history of the site so I don’t know whether or how traffic flows were reconfigured in the course of designing it. Walker is commenting on Robson Square based on his perspective on what makes a reliable, convenient, legible and supportive multi-modal regional transit service. Correct me if I’m wrong, but that doesn’t seem to be a significant factor in the case you have cited — but please elaborate if I’m missing something.

      You write,

      Why does making it a “pedestrian zone” mean a bus, a BRT, or an LRT can make its way thru it?

      I must admit I’m a little perplexed by your comment. Jarrett Walker’s point was that making it a pedestrian zone which doesn’t let transit go through would severely weaken the transit network as a whole; he didn’t imply that we should build a pedestrian zone where vehicles can go through. My personal opinion is that it might be an intriguing compromise, although of course there would have to be a lot of thought into how such a space would actually work.

      I think (as I think Walker would too) that it’s important not to draw distinctions to sharply between pedestrians and transit users, given that they’re really just people, and transit users just happen to be standing or sitting inside a vehicle, and they will be pedestrians again once they disembark. As you say, making a cherished, meaningful place does not necessarily exclude providing a useful service.

  3. See Lewis, even among the VPSN folks, your idea is intriguing, and that make me wonder: what is intriguing with that?

    What Lewis suggests is a very common arrangement in Europe: we call it “shared space”,

    You can find them in virtually any European city nowadays : Google “Place de la Comedie, Bordeaux” or “Plaza Nueva, Sevilla” to have some of the finest Transit related example (picture with the tram track). one with buses: “Blackett Street, Newcastle” British have always been more cautious on the trend (so they make the bus track plain visible)- nevertheless notice, no kerb (no bollard either!)- plain flat surface (just a gentle bumper for blind and distracted people) .

    In my born city, they put one circa 1995 (they put bollard at the time), so there is ample experience on such space.

    and by the way the experience is don’t think too much for people and let them think by themselves and everything gonna be alright

    What I find myself intriguing instead is why there is a ditch in the middle of Robson square, squeezing pedestrian on both of its sides?

    Does people here are not aware of best practice abroad?

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