What’s the Best Way To Get Users To Embrace Mass Transit?

Make it pleasant? Or make it efficient?

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Tom Vanderbilt

Planned cities like Dubai (left) are considered high system/low empathy while places that grew more organically, like the favelasof  Rio (right) are low system/high empathyPhotograph of Dubai by Hemera/Thinkstock. Photograph of Rio by chensiyuan via Wikipedia.

A few months ago, at an urban mobility conference in Frankfurt, the British consultant Charles Leadbeater presented a sort of x-y matrix for thinking about how to manage and design cities. The chart was divided into quadrants of “system” and “empathy,” inspired by the psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen’s work with Asperger’s patients, who in some cases are quite good at “systemizing” behavior (e.g., attention to detail, patterns, organization, etc.), but less adept at empathic human relationships.

For cities, “system” implied things like infrastructure and institutions, while empathy implied the cultural texture of a place (that ineffable quality that guidebooks sometimes call “soul”). A planned-from-scratch place like Dubai, or Le Corbusier’s “Radiant City,” Leadbeater argued, was “high system/low empathy,” while the favelas of Rio, which grew up organically and are sustained by a web of informal networks, could be considered “low system/high empathy.” Then there are places—Lagos, he suggested—where neither axis is particularly optimized. How, he wanted to know, could you design for both?

I am habitually doubtful of such sweeping constructs—the world explained in a Power Point slide—but I was piqued by the concept, and I spent the rest of the presentation sketching out matrixes in my notebook. Take U.S. military strategy in Afghanistan. Drones are high system/low empathy; the Army’s “Human Terrain System,” which has used anthropologists and other civilian specialists to meet with tribal elders, is “low system/high empathy.” The High Line in New York? Low system/high empathy. (Although back when it was functioning transport infrastructure it was the other way around). Or think of Amazon.com versus your friendly local bookseller. You get the picture.

I thought again of Leadbeater’s system/empathy argument in reading Jarrett Walker’s new book, Human Transit. Walker, a Portland, Ore.-based transit planner who writes a popular blog of the same name, espouses a very “system”-oriented view of transit: He cares less what trains look like—or even that they’re trains to begin with—than that they simply run on time (and take people where they want to go). He has been pitched as a sort of antagonist to another planner, Darrin Nordahl, whose 2009 book My Kind of Transit, argues that the “ride experience” is crucial for getting Americans out of their cars and into public transit. Consider their opinions of San Francisco’s cable cars: Walker (“system”) thinks they’re neither efficient nor cost-effective (each car requires two employees) nor very important to getting San Franciscans around; Nordahl (“empathy”) argues they’re a vital public space, an experience in themselves, part of what makes the city the city.

Who is right? These views may not be so divergent as they initially seem, but Walker’s book makes the strong case that the system half of the equation cannot be ignored. As befits someone who has spent decades in small, formerly smoke-filled rooms with civic officials trying to implement working transit systems, Walker is a realist, and Human Transit is a spirited guide—prescriptive but with a righteous dash of polemic—to what we get wrong about transit. “In many urban regions,” he writes, “support for public transit is wide but shallow.” People generally like the idea of transit (as characterized by the Onion headline, “98 Percent of Americans Support Public Transit for Others”), but much of our society’s experience and understanding of transit, not to mention our willingness to pay for it, is limited. The very fact that most of us drive, argues Walker, casts a subtle, but powerful, influence onto transit thinking. “In most debates about proposed rapid transit lines,” he writes, “the speed of the proposed service gets more political attention than how frequently it runs, even though frequency, which determines waiting time, often matters more than speed in determining how long your trip will take.” Drivers don’t wonder when their cars are going to show up.

  • Transit systems themselves are guilty of these distortions, Walker argues, falling prey to a kind of destination fetish. “The prevailing habit of most transit systems,” he writes, “is to advertise where they go but to treat when as though it were a detail.” The map, in other words, dwells larger in the imagination than the timetable (and trying to combine these may require a certain Swiss efficiency). Transit agencies hardly help matters by printing maps where all lines seem to promise the “same kind of product,” when, in fact, one line may run every ten 10 minutes and the other twice a day. “A transit map that makes all the lines look equal,” writes Walker, “is like a road map that doesn’t show the difference between a freeway and a gravel road.”

    Human Transit, as one might expect, is full of delectably geeky details. (Did you know that an “inverted couplet” is a way to organize multiple bus unloadings so that people can transfer without crossing the street?) But Walker, a onetime grad student in literature, also pays careful attention to the language we use in talking about transit. For most of us, “route” and “line” are indistinct, but Walker argues their meanings color our impressions. “A route is a place where some kind of transport event happens, but the event may be rare.” “Do you want to think of transit as something that’s always there, that you can count on? If so, call it a line.” He also warns against the seductive nature of transit “loops”: “Straight lines can seem aggressive, whereas loops offer a sense of closure. They can even suggest the shape of an embrace.” But while loops are favored by tourist buses, among others, it’s lines that get us where we need to go.

    Transit has its enemies, surely—but Walker suggests it too can be killed by kindness. Transportation advocates cleave into camps who favor, often messianically, certain conveyances. “Technology choices do matter,” Walker says, but adds that “the fundamental geometry of transit is exactly the same for buses, trains and ferries.” And yet people often become enchanted with transit for its own sake. Take, for example, the proposed 3.5 mile trolley loop (those loops again!) in Los Angeles running from the Disney Concert Hall to L.A. Live. As the writer D. J. Waldie notes, “the point doesn’t seem to be improved mobility. Downtown already has the region’s densest transit network: Metro’s local and rapid services, other municipal commuter lines, the city’s DASH buses, Blue Line light rail, and the Red and Purple subway lines.” So why add a trolley to this mix? “Tourists and conventioneers,” says Waldie.

    Which brings us back to the idea of system and empathy, and the debate between the systems-oriented Walker and the empathic Nordahl. The latter argues that “if transit is to become an attractive alternative to the automobile, the ride itself must offer an experience to passengers that they cannot get within the solitude of their cars”—maybe it’s the genteel sociability of a New Orleans streetcar, maybe it’s the free wiWi-fi Fi on an inter-urban bus. The former says we need frequency, legibility, connections, proper stop spacing—in short, all those things that don’t make good news copy. It’s no doubt easier to enchant the collective imagination with a gaily painted trolley jauntily jangling down the street than to crunch the numbers on the weekday boardings per hour of an authentic Los Angeles transit success story, the Wilshire Rapid bus line.

    But if the question is what’s going to get the most people on transit in a city, what’s going to move the most people, it seems to have less to do with the quality of the experience than the quantitystudies routinely find increases in transit usage linked to things like metropolitan employment numbers, fare costs, frequency of service, and gas prices. Trolling the Yelp! reviews for San Francisco’s BART system, for example, while one sees the occasional knock for cleanliness, most people focus on things like ease of use (wayfinding and ticketing), connections, price, parking. Perhaps that’s because our expectations are so low; one budget-strapped and beleaguered transit planner countered Nordahl’s vision of a “fun” transit experience with this: “I’m just trying to give people a transit experience.” Or perhaps there’s an empathic component to a good system. What warms a city dweller’s heart more, for example, than a local train waiting across from an express for a quick transfer? Or transit that comes so often you rarely think about it? Conversely, a trolley car that comes once an hour—and rarely on time—no matter how droll in appearance, hardly raises the quality of life of those waiting for it.

    Which is not to say empathy doesn’t have its place. Even if San Francisco’s cable cars moved only tourists, tourism represents that city’s largest sector of private employment—so why shouldn’t the city invest in a transit system that largely caters to them, as a kind of loss leader to bring people in to the city? At a logistics conference in Orlando I attended a few years ago, a Disney executive made what I thought was a critical, and rather startling, point: For many of the park’s visitors, their experience of Disney’s massive fleet of buses and trains (taken together bigger than many U.S. cities’ fleets) represented those customers’ first encounter with “public” transit. Disney had, in essence, to walk the customers through it, to make the experience pleasurable. It was “high system/high empathy.” Can we achieve the same in public transit, or is it doomed to a condition, to paraphrase the old joke about the Catskills hotel, of a place that has terrible food, and such small portions?

    No, thanks!