Hotseat: Jarrett Walker

A Portland transit expert says we shouldn't fall in love with trains when buses will do.

Jarrett Walker says he first fell in love with mass transit when he started riding buses around Portland at age 10. By age 14, he was calling TriMet to ask questions and offer suggestions for improvement.

Today Walker, 49, is public-transit consultant and author of, a transportation blog. His new book, Human Transit: How Clearer Thinking About Public Transit Can Enrich Our Communities and Our Lives (Island Press, 235 pages, $35), discusses what he's learned working around the world studying and working on mass transit systems.

Walker has just moved back to Portland after living and working for five years in Australia. WW talked to him about why emotional discussions regarding mass transit sometimes get in the way of smart planning, and he spoke about the hard transit choices that are facing TriMet and the region.

: You call yourself a transit geek from an early age.

Jarrett Walker: I was interested in how the bus system worked. I knew the routes and the timetables. Fortunately, there were people at TriMet who were willing to answer my questions when I called them up. I learned it was not a big faceless machine, and I was encouraged to keep thinking about transit issues.

You've written that the choice of technology in transit—bus or train—is not one of the most crucial decisions.

The most controversial suggestion I've ever made is that we might want to think about public transit as though its purpose is to help people get where they're going.

I am interested in transit as an instrument of freedom. If we look at transit from that point of view, what really matters is speed, frequency, reliability and span, which means how long a service runs, whether it's there all day or not. And those variables are just not related to whether we're on rails or tires.

Can you give an example?

The Portland Streetcar has done a lot of good for the Pearl District, but it was introduced as a development tool, and as it was presented, it was always very clear that the emotional attraction of the vehicle itself was an important part of why we should build it.

Why should we build a streetcar instead of just running a really good bus service? We're moving into a much leaner time. We may start having different conversations about how important it is to have emotionally appealing vehicles, as opposed to creating a system that maximizes people's personal freedom.

What city has the best mass transit system in the world?
I have an attachment to Paris because of what it is continuing to do in the area of growth, despite everything they've already achieved. In the last decade, Paris has installed bus lanes on almost all of its boulevards. It's continuing to evolve and improve, to make courageous investments.

How will mass transit change in the U.S. over the next 30 years or so?

Cities are the drivers of innovation in an information-based, creativity-based economy, which is what we increasingly have. Cities, in turn, are not going to be sustainable without high quality in the big, sustainable transport modes: walking, cycling and public transit. We can expect a future where the qualities of public transit we are now used to encountering, say, in Europe, become more common here. 

If you ride around in Northern European cities, transit is ordinary, it's expected, it is a favored mode—alongside cycling and walking. It's of high quality. When you are using transit in Northern or Western Europe, [it's clear] that you are an important and valued citizen. That is obviously not always clear in transit experiences in North America. Although I think that by the standards of some U.S. cities, Portland is in fairly good shape on that.

TriMet was the first system you studied. What concerns you about it now?

The design of the network is good. But TriMet faces a set of problems almost all U.S. transit agencies are having. They include unsustainable pension costs and very volatile funding sources. In TriMet's case, it relies heavily on payroll taxes, and obviously that's the first thing that goes down in a recession.

Where can TriMet improve?

Personally I wish TriMet could focus on restoring what's called the frequent transit network. That's the set of lines that are designed to run every 15 minutes, or better, all day so you don't have to use a timetable to use them. You can just show up at a bus stop and know something's coming soon. 

That's a very important concept particularly on the east side of Portland, where these lines are designed to fit together into a big grid so you can go more or less anywhere with a single transfer. In the last major service cut, TriMet had to step over a very important quality threshold by cutting the frequent transit network—buses that run worse than every 15 minutes. TriMet knows that, and they know they need to get those services back.  

WWeek 2015

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