Human Transit: Interview with Jarrett Walker

Jarrett Walker

What real estate developers can gain by thinking like a transit planner

I recently had the pleasure of catching up with Jarrett Walker on the occasion of the one-year anniversary of the release of his book, Human Transit: How Clearer Thinking about Public Transit Can Enrich Our Communities and Our Lives. Previously consulting mostly in Australia and New Zealand and familiar to transit-insiders through his blog of the same name, Human Transit brought Walker’s inspiring combination of pragmatism and passion to a larger audience. I was curious to hear how things had been going since ULI Infrastructure Initiative and ULI Washington invited him to a Q & A session back when he was in Washington DC in February.

SJP: Why did you write a book about transit for non-transit professionals, including real estate developers and land use planners?

JW: The book was urgently needed. Twenty years as a transit planning consultant had convinced me that the greatest obstacle to better public transit is that well-intentioned people, including many opinion leaders and activists, simply don’t understand it. Most have never seen a readable explanation of how transit works as a tool, or of the real choices it requires us to make.

I suspect that’s why much of the public discussion of transit is about externalities (emissions, economic outcomes, fun, “look and feel,” and so on) while strikingly little is about helping people to get where they’re going, or to access more of the city easily.

For years, transit professionals have lamented the absence of a clear and friendly book that would explain transit network design, the trade-offs it requires, and what it implies for sustainable urban form. Human Transit is meant to be that book. It’s not about imposing my values, but giving you the tools you need to advocate yours.

SJP: One of the surprising things about Human Transit is that you don’t place much emphasis on rail versus bus. Why is that? Should real estate developers be learning about bus service too?

JW: Absolutely. If you want the customers of your development to feel free to access the riches of their city, you need to care about the whole transit offering — especially the patterns of fast, frequent, reliable service. The rail-bus distinction is just not related to that.  You can make buses fast, frequent, and reliable if you want to, and you can also make rail slow and unreliable.  Rail is better at symbolizing “fast, frequent, and reliable” but it’s not always the most cost-effective way to provide those things.

Even if your development is at a rail station, the bus system is almost always a key part of how a transit-oriented, low-car style actually becomes viable. That’s why it’s important for developers to think about what makes transit useful, which is often very different from what makes it superficially appealing. Only the useful is an enduring value. That’s why our cities are full of great transit-oriented development based on frequent bus lines, regardless of whether the developers chose to call it that.

SJP: Your work emphasizes frequency: you even go so far as to say “frequency is freedom” and advocate for frequent network maps. As a transit watcher, I’ve noticed the concept of frequent network maps begin to catch on in the last year. Why is revealing frequency so important?

JW: When I say that “frequency is freedom” I mean something very precise. Your car or bicycle is always ready to go when you are. If you use those modes, you’re used to that freedom to go when you want.  Frequency is the measure of how close transit comes to that same freedom. Many transit lines are so frequent that they really are always coming, so of course transit agencies should promote that however they can. I’ve been gratified to see the spread of frequency mapping, because I’ve been campaigning for that on the blog for three years now, and as a consultant long before that.

SJP: You argue that real estate developers, land use planners, and urban designers will be more effective advocates for transit-and get better quality transit-if they learn to walk in a transit planner’s shoes. You are also an advocate of learning by doing. Why is that?

JW: The professions of development and urban design tend to care about how things look and feel, but when it comes to transit, they sometimes lose focus on what actually works. What features of transit make it a logical choice for people who value their time? What patterns of service tend to be best at providing that crucial sensation of freedom to large numbers of people? Is this development located and oriented in a way that makes quality transit possible? It’s remarkably easy to get these things wrong, and to miss wonderful opportunities.

You may not believe these things if I just explain them, though the book tries to do that. But you’ll really “get” them once you try to design a transit system yourself, and experience the real choices that are inherent in that craft. That’s what my course [see below] is all about: fun, interactive exercises that let you try your hand at network design. For anyone in a city-building profession, that experience will improve your intuition about how your own choices make it easier or harder for transit to succeed.


Jarrett Walker is Principal at Jarrett Walker & Associates, Consultants in Public Transport Planning and Policy, located in Portland, Oregon. In addition to the book and blog, Walker continues his campaign for clearer thinking on public transit through offering a hands-on short course for non-transit professionals.

2 comments on “Human Transit: Interview with Jarrett Walker

  1. Pingback: Today’s Headlines | Streetsblog Capitol Hill

  2. Thanks for the interview, Sarah Jo! Sessions of my course are coming up soon in Washington DC, January 17-18, and Portland OR, Feb 7-8. See for these and other opportunities. Jarrett

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