I first became aware of Jarrett Walker’s work through his blog, Human Transit, a few years ago. Here was someone writing about transit in a completely refreshing way, framing questions not in terms of mode or technology but through the prism of values and desires. To call Walker’s site a transit blog doesn’t quite do it justice. It’s about what we want from our cities, and how transit can help us get there. His 2011 book, Human Transit: How clearer thinking about public transit can enrich our communities and our lives, is a must-read if you’re interested in cities and want to understand what makes transit work well.
A transit planning consultant by trade whose clients literally span the globe, Walker will be in NYC next month to lead his two-day workshop in transit network design (as of press time, a few spaces are still available) and give a talk at the New School on the evening of February 6 (no registration required). When we first got in touch about doing an interview, he was about to leave for a gig in New Zealand for several weeks. A few days ago we caught up for a discussion that touched on transit on three continents, why simplicity matters in transit networks, and the legibility of New York City’s bus system.
The interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Can you tell us a bit about what you were working on in New Zealand?
I have been working in New Zealand on and off for five years now. The main project that brings me down there over and over is a complete redesign of the bus system in Auckland. Working with my New Zealand colleagues from a firm called MR Cagney, I led workshops with Auckland transit staff that completely redesigned the network, with the goal of much higher ridership and much higher levels of freedom for almost everyone. Aucklanders will see that network rolling out over the next few years. And since then I’ve been back there several times to help them work on the details. There are lots of interesting details around what the buses do downtown and how that interacts with various people’s ideas about what downtown ought to be.
Does the Auckland bus system consist of what we’d call conventional lines and rapid lines, specifically BRT lines?
They have one very nice busway, they have a couple of old commuter rail lines that they’re in the process of turning into rapid transit lines. They have an extension of the rail line through the downtown in the works. But most of the system is bus routes, and the system has grown incrementally, because New Zealand had gone through this period of Thatcherite madness where they had privatized the whole bus system and essentially given over to private companies the right to run buses in particular areas, and had pretty much hollowed out the government role in planning transit service. And so for quite a while you’d see routes being designed by various local bus operators without caring very much about how they fit together into a network.
Lots of people who are used to having a bus at 7:32 right where they need it at their favorite bus stop may find that the bus stop is a little further way, but that’s part of the process of building frequency. You have to reduce the complexity.
This is the first time the entire city has been looked at as a single unit without regard to the historic bus operator boundaries. This is a very common issue in Britain, Australia, and New Zealand. And Australia and New Zealand in particular are swinging back toward asserting strong government control over transit planning. Quite a different set of issues than we have in the states.
Do they run up against the problem where the current system has its own constituency? That’s a pretty big overhaul.
Absolutely. Lots of people who are used to having a bus at 7:32 right where they need it at their favorite bus stop may find that the bus stop is a little further way, but that’s part of the process of building frequency. You have to reduce the complexity, and you have to eliminate the things that only had historical justifications but don’t really make sense and aren’t generating ridership or coverage.