Sunday, December 4, 2016

Abundant Access: Public Transit as an Instrument of Freedom

Jarrett Walker, PhD

The AIA-SWO Design Excellence committee initiated the Making Great Cities series of lectures in 2013 with the goal of creating a community forum for discussions about the built environment. The committee’s hope was to provide timely, meaningful, and defining dialogue about how to improve our built environment. Every lecture since then has met that goal and more. The growing list of luminaries who have spoken reads like a who’s who of today’s best thinkers about how to improve our cities: Maurice Cox, Carol Coletta, Joe Minicozzi, Jeff Speck, and Fred Kent all delivered thought-provoking and persuasive presentations, directly applicable to the future of Eugene-Springfield. 

Add Jarrett Walker to this outstanding list of speakers. Jarrett, president of Jarrett Walker + Associates, is one of the most innovative planners and advocates for public transit in North America today. For over 20 years, he has assisted governments improve and explain their public transit services by leading the design or redesign of transit networks, helping choose the right transit tools for each situation, analyzing transit data and integrating it with local goals, facilitating innovative public outreach processes that engage and empower the public, and helping explain transit principles and the real choices they imply for communities and their leaders. 

Jarrett’s principal message to the audience that packed the Downtown Athletic Club’s ballroom(1) was that planners and politicians too often allow distractions to dominate transit debates rather than focusing upon public transit’s core power, which is to give people freedom and opportunity as a city grows denser. For him, the challenge for public transit today isn’t just having good ideas but also being able to explain them plainly in a way people can understand. The problem is many of us are easily seduced by distractions, the two biggest of which are 1) technology, and 2) the fact that the transit conversation in North America too often is binary in its thinking. 

The issue with technology is that it cannot change the underlying geometry of the transit conundrum. Improvements in technology often only induce greater demand rather than alleviating it, meaning if something becomes easier and more convenient, people will use it more. That’s why the appeal of driverless cars or rideshare services (such as Lyft or Uber) is problematic. Replacing big vehicles with little ones only means more vehicle trips, with all the attendant congestion and environmental impacts. More cars take up more room per passenger than buses or trains. This may be fine in low-density and rural areas, where there’s lots of space per individual. But a city has relatively little space per person, so the efficient use of space is the core problem of urban transportation. Increasing vehicle miles traveled by cars means you take up more space to move the same number of people. Additionally, the sprawl induced by private transportation has not led to congestion relief, but exacerbated it tremendously due to the increasing need to travel for more and more basic functions that previously required less or no travel. 

Space (or lack thereof) to accommodate transportation is the problem. (Image from Jarrett Walker’s blog Human Transit). 

Jarrett explained how the geometry of transit requires communities to make a series of hard choices that at first appear to be oppositional or binary. Examples of these choices include the following: 
  • Ridership or Coverage? Should transit agencies maximize their ridership by abandoning service to low-ridership areas, or should they spread out service so that everyone has some service, despite the predictably low ridership that results? 
  • Connections or Complexity? Should agencies design transit networks in which people won’t have to transfer; if the answer is yes the result is a network with high complexity and low frequency. 
  • Peak-first or all-day? Should the peak commuter be the primary focus of a transit network or should a transit agency seek to build an all-day network of services that encourages reliance on transit at all hours, while still meeting peak capacity needs? 
These choices may seem binary but they’re really a function of the position upon a spectrum; the opposing terms simply define the extremes. For example, we don’t have to choose between ridership or coverage, but we do have to choose a point on the spectrum between them, and be willing to accept the fact that, as on any spectrum, moving toward one extreme means we have to move away from the other. 

Rather than allowing ourselves to be distracted by the allure of new technologies or engaging in politically polarizing discussions about priorities, Jarrett believes a community’s focus should be upon understanding transit options and how they relate to the things it cares about. The challenge for public transit agencies today is not just having good ideas but being able to explain them. Ultimately, decisions regarding how these agencies provide their services should be based upon a community’s peculiar values, its understanding of its unique needs, and what a transit plan does to meet those needs. 

An isochrone map of Portland showing the area you can get to within a fixed amount of time on some combination of transit and walking. Blue is 15 minutes’ travel time, green is 30 minutes, and pink is 45 minutes. These calculations include waiting time and therefore accurately convey the impact of frequency. Jarrett used this map to illustrate his presentation. 

A true constant in transit discussions is a universal desire for abundant access. Absence of access sets up walls around your life. Some of these walls may be a function of time. Where can I be soon? How much of the city and its resources are conveniently available to me? Abundant access provides as many choices and opportunities as possible, breaking down those walls. Abundance of access is literally a quantification of freedom. It is a measure for opportunity of all kinds. Jarrett believes our discussions about transit should focus on this aspect because it emphasizes personal responsibility by framing choice about questions of where you are free to go, when you wish to. 

Reemphasizing his most salient point, Jarrett clarified how abundant access is dependent upon the geometry of public transit. Speed is good, but it is meaningless if service is infrequent. Picture a gate at the end of a private driveway opening only every half-hour. It doesn’t matter if the owner’s car is a powerful and speedy Corvette; he or she will only arrive at his or her destination as quickly as the gate allows. Instead of focusing on speed, frequency may be the key to optimizing service. Likewise, ample connections between many simple-to-understand routes may be more effective than the direct lines between destinations in a network of greater complexity. 

Jarrett thinks the goal should be to link the notion of transit in peoples’ minds with freedom to move. The traits of the most successful systems consist of intense service focused on places of high density, good walkability, and straight paths that transit can follow. This is why transit does best in dense, walkable cities and is also most indispensable there. The ingredients of a successful ridership (or “freedom”) recipe are frequency of service, favorable development patterns (density, walkability, linearity), reasonable speed and reliability, and a connected network. A good system is one that “confers useful liberty,” a quality people of all political stripes can happily support. 

Jarrett believes communities must avoid facile thinking about transit ridership, such as labeling patrons either as “choice riders” or “dependent or captive riders.” Such thinking only exacerbates prejudices and frustrates constructive discussions about a shared set of values. 

Characterizing the decisions as value choices for a community is the best means to ensure transit-friendly development occurs and is embraced. It does come down to choices, but again these choices become a function of a community’s peculiar needs and values. Jarrett rhetorically asked “What would my transit system look like if ridership (and cost recovery) were its only goal?” He noted how top-performing services are usually either commuter express routes that run only when they’re crowded or a network of all-day high-frequency services covering areas of medium to high density. Systems emphasizing ridership would run little or no all-day service to low-density suburbs, because ridership on that product is predictably low. Conversely, coverage goals, often expressed by a policy like “90% of the population shall be within walking distance of service” require a system to be spread out over large areas despite low ridership. As Jarrett pointed out, there’s nothing wrong with either goal, but the public must understand they are competing goals and cannot be achieved in equal measure without tradeoffs.

As with all planning, there is a fundamental unpredictability about the future. Transit ridership is based on predictions; not only that, these predictions typically assume everybody grows up to act just like their parents, which may or may not prove to be the case. Regardless, Jarrett is convinced planning for and providing a good transit solution is a win-win formula, however it is achieved. A good solution, embraced by the community it serves, stimulates positive feedback loops of a desirable kind. A well-used system shapes appropriate development patterns, which in turn demands and helps pay for further system enhancements. Ultimately, the outcome favors a future in which public transit becomes valued and indispensable, which is good both locally and globally.

*    *    *    *    *   

Congratulations to AIA-SWO’s Design Excellence Committee for keeping the bar high and featuring yet another great speaker in Jarrett Walker for its Making Great Cities series of lectures. And big thanks too to the following organizations for helping make the evening’s presentation a reality: 

(1)    Jarrett noted the tremendous turnout for his lecture here. By his calculation, comparable attendance for his lecture in Houston would be 4,000 people or 10,000 people in New York. He attributed the large audience to our community’s keen interest in Lane Transit District’s evolving public transit system and what it augurs for the future of Eugene-Springfield.

No comments: