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Jarrett Walker: Transit's job is to create freedom

Transportation guru Jarrett Walker had some criticism for the Metrobus map, and cautionary words for planners of the DC Circulator, streetcar, and similar circulators in Tysons Corner, when speaking to audiences last week in DC and Silver Spring.

Photo by thisisbossi on Flickr.

Walker, a native of transit mecca Portland, Oregon, was here to sell his new book, Human Transit: How Clearer Thinking about Public Transit Can Enrich Our Communities and Our Lives.

He acknowledged that many ascribe to him an anti-rail bias, but insisted that the goal of transit should be to provide fast, frequent, reliable service in the most cost-effective way possible, regardless of mode.

In his talk, he suggested that a great measure of transit's effectiveness is the isochronea map showing where you can travel on transit within a given time. Transit providers should aim increase the number of destinations within any given isochrone.

30-minute isochrone from the White House. Image from Mapnificent.

He encouraged cities to move away from the historic North American penchant for putting a bus stop at nearly every corner (something not done in the rest of the world), and expect riders to walk a little more so that service is faster for everyone. Shortening trip times reduces the cost of providing service, which usually means that more service can be provided. It also encourages more people to ride, because it increases the area of the isochrone.

Transit routes that deviate off a direct path to serve poorly-located shopping centers, housing cul-de-sacs, and insular complexes, inconvenience through-riders and make transit less attractive, he said. Anything not built "on the way" is essentially saying, "I only want as much transit service as I alone can support," because those destinations can't be pooled with any other destinations. Once urban areas have taken this built form, it becomes expensive to provide service to them.

He ripped into WMATA's Metrobus map, pointing out that almost every route is shown in red, regardless of how often it runs. That's not helpful, he says, because it's like a roadmap "which doesn't differentiate between a highway and a gravel road."

Section of the DC Metrobus map. Image from WMATA.

Maps like this, which Walker laments are all too common amongst US transit systems, put the onus on the rider to first figure out what routes get them to where they want to go, then consult a complicated schedule to find out how often it runs.

Instead, he said, the map's design should make it as easy as possible on the rider by displaying routes based on frequency. Routes with the most frequent and round-the-clock service "should scream out at you," he insisted. For example, putting routes in a different color would let riders know at a glance if they could easily jump on board and not bother with a timetable.

Poor map design and inscrutable signpost information cost more than just riders. In some cities, it's become so frustrating that officials have thrown up their hands and turned to another form of transit altogether. Walker finds that unconscionable: cities shouldn't build streetcars or new bus systems simply because the existing system is incomprehensible. He pointed to the DC Circulator as a prime example of unnecessary duplication that squanders public resources that would be better spent making the most-used Metrobus routes more frequent and user-friendly.

His point about circulators is instructive for Tysons Corner, where five are planned. Walker says when good bus service is already there, adding circulators can be redundant and wasteful. In Canberra, Australia, planners faced with a similar situation saved lots of money by choosing simply to rebrand a section where many existing bus lines converged as one cohesive service (the "Green Line") with clock-face regularity.

He acknowledged that streetcars do tend to drive economic development because of their perceived permanence and attractiveness compared to buses. But he urged planners to remember that 50 years from now, any economic development potential today will be distant history, but the travel time riders gain from a bus which can navigate around obstacles will endure. He further cautioned against thinking of laying rails as signifying permanence, since most of DC's original streetcar tracks have been paved over.

Above all, Walker emphasized, transit agencies and the governments that fund them should see their job as enhancing freedom by making as much of the region as possible accessible by frequent, reliable service. The other things transit does, such as spurring economic development, providing jobs, protecting the environment and enhancing social equity, are all secondary to this primary purpose of transit.

If you missed Jarrett last week, you can watch his presentation to the Montgomery County Planning Department, below:

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Jenifer Joy Madden is a multi-media journalist and founder of Vice chair of the Fairfax Co. Transportation Advisory Commission, she was instrumental in the Tysons Metrorail Station Access Management Project and planned a multi-purpose trail system that connects to Tysons.  
Malcolm Kenton lives in the DCís NoMa neighborhood. Hailing from Greensboro, NC and a graduate of Guilford College, he is a passionate advocate for world-class passenger rail and other forms of sustainable transportation and for incorporating nature and low-impact design into the urban fabric. The views he expresses on GGWash are his own. 


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Yep, this sounds all about right.

The "orange line with a view" was a brilliant way to sell the 38B.

Circulator continues to confuse tourists with buses that have the orginial Georgetown to Union station livery painted on the side.

Given the cost recovery on buses, you can see why transit agencies don't want more riders.

by charlie on Feb 13, 2012 11:27 am • linkreport

I think this is the perfect segue into the GGW "Metro Bus Map Redesign Contest."

You guys did a great job with the Metro contest - so much so that the agency adopted many of the fixes. How about one for the bus lines?

by Shipsa01 on Feb 13, 2012 11:32 am • linkreport

@charlie, can you explain your comment about cost recovery on buses? why don't transit agencies want more bus riders?

by david on Feb 13, 2012 11:52 am • linkreport

>He acknowledged that many ascribe to him an anti-rail bias, but insisted that the goal of transit should be to provide fast, frequent, reliable service in the most cost-effective way possible, regardless of mode.

I do think he has an anti-rail bias. And I think his description of the goal of transit shows why. It is far too narrow. The goal of transit should be to help build good cities.

Transit is a means to an end, not an end in and of itself.

by BeyondDC on Feb 13, 2012 11:59 am • linkreport

Yes, transit is a means to an end, not an end in and of itself. It's a means to get where I want to go, which is why I would prefer a fast BRT route with dedicated lanes over a slow, mixed traffic, expensive streetcar that gets stuck in traffic. Sure transit is part of building good cities because transit makes density possible and without good density you can't get great walkable cities. But let's not forget transit's first priority: getting riders where they want to go in a timely manner.

by FredInRVA on Feb 13, 2012 12:03 pm • linkreport

I agree, BeyondDC. Though he has some good ideas, I think he'd close the NYC Subway and DC Metro and replace them with fleets of buses if he could. He really goes for the bus=flexible thinking.

by Koe on Feb 13, 2012 12:04 pm • linkreport

Except BRT is the U.S. is rarely fast because we rarely get real BRT...usually we get standard bus service that's labelled BRT despite the fact it doesn't run on its own infrastructure. Real BRT is what they have it Curitiba. Google it to see. Separate roads for buses, bus stations (not just 'stops'), pre-boarding ticketing.

And I agree Walker has an anti-rail bias. He thinks streetcars aren't any better than (arguably) cheaper buses and thinks heavy rail is just too expensive.

by Jace on Feb 13, 2012 12:08 pm • linkreport

I disagree. Remember, his arguments focus largely on speed and reliability. The DC Metro and NYC Subways are completely grade separated and perform better than buses in those corridors.

What Jarrett might argue is that if buses were completely grade separated, they can operate just as quickly as trains. What they can't do is carry as much volume, and in that case, he says rail is the better choice.

by Matt Johnson on Feb 13, 2012 12:10 pm • linkreport

Transit is a means to an end, not an end in and of itself.

It's both. You can't discount the fact that transit is a transportation that is still subject to fiscal realities.

by Froggie on Feb 13, 2012 12:28 pm • linkreport

Speed is indeed the key. Jarrett talked about spacing of bus stops. That's important because it affects speed of service which directly impacts bus operating costs. Here's what Jarrett says about Speed in his book:
"In general, if you were able to cut the travel time of a service in half--that is, double its average speed--your operating cost would drop by half [whereas cutting the headway from 30 to 15 mins. doubles the cost]. That's because most operating cost is labor, so it varies with time rather than distance. For more on operating cost, see For now, remember: route distance, frequency and span all COST, but speed SAVES."

by J J Madden on Feb 13, 2012 12:38 pm • linkreport


And I agree Walker has an anti-rail bias. He thinks streetcars aren't any better than (arguably) cheaper buses and thinks heavy rail is just too expensive.

In many cases (i.e., low density US cities who receive transit funds from often-hostile state DOTs and the federal government) rail is too expensive, so you have to rely on buses. There are places that will never be able to support rail service, so you need to make do with what you've got.

Transit has a lot of roles: it's useful for city-branding (like the trolleys in San Francisco) or encouraging and supporting dense urbanism (like the subways in New York) but at its base it's a means for getting people around quickly and easily, and Jarrett Walker is right in promoting that role, because many people don't. I wouldn't call that anti-rail bias. I'd say that's being a realist, but also someone who sees lemons and can turn them into lemonade.

by dan reed! on Feb 13, 2012 12:52 pm • linkreport

Also, I'm glad that DC isn't quite as bad about the "buses stopping every block" thing as in other cities. In Philadelphia, the buses do stop every block (and occasionally half-blocks). In DC, at least on the buses I usually take (the 70s and S route), the stops are a few blocks apart.

by dan reed! on Feb 13, 2012 12:53 pm • linkreport

+1 to the idea of a bus map redesign contest!

by grumpy on Feb 13, 2012 1:02 pm • linkreport

I know what the Curitiba system is like and would very much like to see American bus systems implement similar service levels. True, many American "BRT" systems are more BRT-lite but many (such as LAs Orange Line) have dedicated lanes and off-board fare collection.
Oh and Jarret does suggest that perhaps mixed-traffic street cars can have worse reliability performance (in terms of keeping schedules and consistent speeds) compared to cheaper buses due to problems like this:

by FredInRVA on Feb 13, 2012 1:06 pm • linkreport

Yes, higher speeds allow you to provide more service (vehicle miles) in the same amount of time.

He does a lot of waving away the political considerations that basically prevent transit agencies from increasing speed. Dedicated street space is what's really needed to increase speed, and that of course brings up the "WAR ON CARS" critics.

I think lots of DC bus routes could stand to have their stop spacing increased to ~1200-1300 feet. For comparison, the local 16th Street S buses (S2, S4) stop on average every 790 feet, and the express S9 stops every 2400 feet. But I don't think increasing your stop spacing so a bus stops every other block instead of every block is going to change much in terms of speed.

by MLD on Feb 13, 2012 1:13 pm • linkreport

I'm a big fan of Jarrett Walker's blog, and always enjoy his commentary. In a world where US local governments built bus projects to the quality level they built rail projects, Mr. Walker's assertion that things could be done just as well at much lower cost with buses would stand up well to scrutiny.

The problem is that's not the world most transit planning occurs in. Most things that make B"R"T provide "rapid" service cost money. Most things that make the service more noticeable to the casual non-user are in the branding/paint scheme/marketing department and cost less. As US politicians are almost always non-users of transit, what do you think they are instinctively attracted to? Low-cost "improvements" to transit service that allows them to say the built "BRT" even though they do not understand what the mode is, or what they gave up when they elected not to build rail.

Also- who decided that streetcars always have to be in mixed traffic? Why aren't more cities taking steps to "free" them from mixed traffic and increase their speeds by taking lanes from cars? Politically, it's difficult and in some places impossible.

Jarrett Walker is focused on the right things that ultimately attract riders: speed and frequency. However, the fundamental question for either the bus or rail mode that communities need to answer is: "How well do you want the transit system to perform? Okay? Or do you want it to really shine? The latter? Okay, are you ready to take away space and priority from cars to make it happen? Yes? Good, let's get it done. No? You don't want good transit that badly."

by CityBeautiful21 on Feb 13, 2012 1:21 pm • linkreport


But I don't think increasing your stop spacing so a bus stops every other block instead of every block is going to change much in terms of speed.

Overall speed? Maybe not. But it could make a huge difference in reliability. Fewer boardings, less chance for delay when boarding, etc.

by Alex B. on Feb 13, 2012 1:35 pm • linkreport

Walker seems to think that the most efficient transit system is necessarily the best one. However, given actual human behavior, the most efficient system isn't necessarily the one that's most effective at creating value for its citizens. Sure, you could have the world's most transit accessible region but if no one uses it, what's the point? While there are many ways to make buses more user-friendly (and I commend Walker's suggestions), the reality is that people are not 100% rational and for whatever reason, they typically prefer rail.

The bottom line is that the track record is on the side of rail. It has a superior cost recovery and spurs greater growth than buses. And, cost recovery/development are the very things that make more money available for more transit.

So, even if you subscribe to Walker's view of transit accessibility as the primary consideration, you still end up with rail as the answer. Rail is the investment that gives back so you can invest in yet more transit.

by Falls Church on Feb 13, 2012 2:13 pm • linkreport

We need to incentivize and provide the political cover for transit systems to reorganize to Maximize People Trips. Sometimes that means not serving our most needy and sometimes it means some groups of people will need to get themselves to stops. It might also mean a fluidity that doesn't allow for multiyear published timetables.

However, when you maximize people trips, costs come down, political support goes up and you can reach more people for a similar amount of money.

Right now we don't have that.

by Bob on Feb 13, 2012 2:49 pm • linkreport

At the Montgomery County presentation, he praises Vancouver's Skytrain for things buses cannot do: they're automated, with no drivers, so they can operate at peak frequency at all hours.

No, Walker is of the opinion that there should be a hierarchy of transit modes depending on ridership, in general Bus < Streetcar < Light Rail < Metro. Don't build a streetcar if your buses can handle it, and don't build a metro if your light rail can handle it.

This is an idealized circumstance, of course, and sometimes a streetcar alone is necessary for political reasons. But if the buses are doing fine with the load, there's no technical need to "widen" the passenger throughput of a line by upgrading in mode.

by OctaviusIII on Feb 13, 2012 4:07 pm • linkreport


It's both. You can't discount the fact that transit is a transportation that is still subject to fiscal realities.

Great point.

I'd note that there are different scales and goals here - one is about efficient operations, one is about long-term planning for the shape of the city.

by Alex B. on Feb 13, 2012 4:28 pm • linkreport

The bottom line is that the track record is on the side of rail. It has a superior cost recovery and spurs greater growth than buses.

Please show us this track record.

by Bertie on Feb 13, 2012 7:21 pm • linkreport

Here in LA, transit planners and advocates are very familiar with Jarrett Walker's work, and to a significant extent the value of his ideas is borne out by our experience, whether it is in terms of emphasizing the grid, allocating mode by ridership, or simple, intuitive maps that differentiate services by frequency and span.

Unlike the fossil fuel industry's minions in the House, he is definitely not anti-rail. He does, like a Socratic professor, challenge those who proceed with a mode already in mind by posing questions that they need to think through. When we presented him with an idea for a new underground rail line, he asked several questions about potential bus alternatives, but when we demonstrated the ridership potential based on the number of vehicular trips through a geographic chokepoint, the time savings that would result, and the density of residences, jobs, and students, he agreed that rail could make sense for this purpose. The Vancouver Skytrain is another example, one based on the reduced operating cost of automation allowing for greater frequency, which boosts ridership.

To put it another way, he outlines tools by which transit services of any mode can be made more efficient and effective. For example, part of what makes the New York subway system so effective is that in midtown Manhattan, it functions as a rapid, high frequency grid.

by Here in LA on Feb 13, 2012 9:17 pm • linkreport

I'm a big fan of Walker's work, and I think his focus on the hard questions (does this efficiently get me where I need to go) over the soft (is this pleasant enough for middle-class people to ride) is refreshing.

One thing that troubles me is his focus on labor costs as the single biggest thing preventing transit from getting better. His silver transit bullet is basically Vancouver's SkyTrain - driverless rapid transit.

I don't claim to know enough to really critique this, but it perturbs me for some reason. Maybe I'm just a bleeding heart who wants to see people keep their blue-collar jobs; maybe I'm a tech skeptic who's horrified by the thought of a malfunctioning train indiscriminately mowing down innocent bystanders. I dunno.

by Chris on Feb 14, 2012 8:50 am • linkreport


Labor is the single largest line item in any transit agency's operating budget. That's just the way it is.

by Alex B. on Feb 14, 2012 9:16 am • linkreport

@alex -

yeah, but how much of that is drivers/motormen/whatever vs station personnel (tickets/security/janitorial.etc), track maintenance, car maintenance, central admin, etc, etc.

While there are benefits to focusing on driver labor costs (buses in dedicated lanes = less driver time/vehicle trip - Yay!) I am not sure how often it would make driverless technology (with higher capital costs and other issues?) worthwhile.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Feb 14, 2012 9:33 am • linkreport


Operator wages/benefits represent about 48% of bus operating expense, 37% for heavy rail, 27% for light rail.

My guess is that Light Rail number should be higher - probably there are a bunch of agencies that contract out their operations but do the rest (maintenance, admin) in-house.

by MLD on Feb 14, 2012 10:08 am • linkreport

While there are benefits to focusing on driver labor costs (buses in dedicated lanes = less driver time/vehicle trip - Yay!) I am not sure how often it would make driverless technology (with higher capital costs and other issues?) worthwhile.

It's all about span and frequency.

If you want Metro to run trains more frequently during off-peak hours, then driverless systems need to be considered.

Yes, there will always be a baseline labor cost, but the key to an automated, driverless system is at the margins. If you want to provide reliable, frequent service across a greater span of the day than just the peak periods, the implication is that you will incur more labor costs for operators unless you have some sort of automation in place.

by Alex B. on Feb 14, 2012 10:59 am • linkreport

I hope this article is a bit inaccurate as to Walker's understanding of the purpose of transit. Designing transit in a vacuum, with the sole purpose of "making as much of the region as possible accessible by frequent, reliable service" is short-sighted and won't work in the end: transportation needs to be designed to support an optimal pattern of land use, with an eye toward the future.

by Arnold on Feb 14, 2012 12:06 pm • linkreport


Walker is pretty clear in his talks that when he says "as much of the region," he's talking about the stuff of the region, not just raw area.

Implicit in that statement is a land use goal - planning for lots of stuff in a smaller, compact area invariably makes the provision of transit much easier.

I do tend to think that Walker discounts the longer term opportunities for transit to shape land use as a prescriptive tool, but I also think such an emphasis doesn't change the geometric realities of operations he mentions.

by Alex B. on Feb 14, 2012 12:13 pm • linkreport

Just like with streetcars, the observation that labor costs are large and should be kept in mind is not a directive to attack unions. For example, he notes that reducing deadheading, where a bus is driven empty back to the yard, as with commuter express buses, can increase the efficiency with which each hour of labor is utilized. Moreover, an automated rail system such as Skytrain has such high fixed costs that it only makes sense where you can have high ridership. Then that ridership will feed into connecting buses, which provides more opportunities for employing bus drivers. Manging labor costs efficiently is not necessarily a zero sum game.

by Here in LA on Feb 14, 2012 12:28 pm • linkreport

Walker is absolutely spot on. I am a big fan of Jarrett's and follow his blog. I'm also aware of the work he's done with Translink (Vancouver's transit agency) and I am a land use planner.

On automated rail - the fixed cost is no more than any other grade separated system - underground, metro, elevated train. The big advantage, and you see this in Vancouver, is the ability to add trains to a schedule at the push of a button; to turn trains around as soon as they arrive at the terminus without waiting for a driver to switch ends of take a break; to run the trains fast and close together with computers ensuring absolute safety; and train acceleration and deceleration and station stopping and travel speed is exactly the same for every train.

So you can run frequent trains that can be shorter - no need to maximise your labour-force by running longer and less frequent trains. On Vancouver's Skytrain, the mainline sees trains every 3 minutes all day and every 108 seconds in the peak, with some stretches seeing trains as close as every 75 minutes. The system can handle a 45 second headway, which is used for recovery after a delay.

This frequency means you just show up at a station and hardly need to wait. Even after midnight, trains are every 4 minutes on the main, and every 8 on the branches. With this frequency and the speed (Skytrain's average speed is faster than most subways), there is a strong attraction, so not surprisingly a lot of development has sprung up around the stations.

Vancouver Skytrain is an example of "build it and they will come" - for every $1 spent on Skytrain, around $5 to $6 has been invested by private companies in real estate development around the stations.

by David M on Feb 15, 2012 1:14 am • linkreport

I simply do not understand why people think someone like Jarrett Walker is anti-rail when we have people like Wendell Cox and Randal O'Toole who actively oppose rail - or transit in any practical form, for that matter.

by J.D. Hammond on Feb 16, 2012 10:59 am • linkreport

"If you want Metro to run trains more frequently during off-peak hours, then driverless systems need to be considered."

Metro is most likely to reduce congestion during peak hours. Its most likely to encourage development by its peak service (since most people looking to move to TOD do so because of concerns about peak hour commute times, and AFAICT, most are not car free) Im not convinced that most of what we want out of a metro rail system, either as a transportation tool, or economic development tool, is driven by frequency of off peak service. Now, if driverless can be implemented with the same up front costs, same reliability, safety, etc, etc, as systems with drivers - well duh, that would be a no brainer. even if it only reduced labor costs for existing service - the increased frequency would be a bonus. Is it really the case that there are ZERO incremental costs to building a driverless system at this point in time?

by AWalkerInTheCity on Feb 16, 2012 11:18 am • linkreport

Thanks for this article, Jenifer, I appreciate your insight and all the comments.

I am a business planner and believe Walker correctly understands that the goal of transit is something more than simply "to provide fast, frequent, reliable service in the most cost-effective way possible, regardless of mode." Walker spends a lot of time discussing goals in the introduction to his book, not so much "prescribing" what they should be but rather encouraging the development of an understanding and description of those goals. He lists as possible goals carrying as many people as possible or serving disadvantaged persons.

Much of the discussion of bus versus rail that I have seen is silent on rider demographis and seems to miss the fact that, given the demographics, bus and rail may serve--intentionally or otherwise--different goals. According to the local Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA), its 2008 passenger surveys found that 14% of its rail passengers were low income, compared to 42% of its bus passengers. This demographic information is consistent with system pricing, under which a rider may make an umlimited number of transfers from bus to bus within a two hour period for only $1.50, compared to a maximum rail fare of $5.00.

Further related to demographics, I think we need to recognize, as most planning models do, that riders are transportation consumers who make transportation choices that are sometimes rational, sometimes irrational, and sometimes both. I have developed a model of transportation choice, built on a Transit Accessibility Index, which takes opportunity cost into consideration and shows that the highest income earners--of which this area has many--will not, on a "rational" basis, elect to take public transit if public transit takes any more time at all than private vehicle travel.

Leaving aside the highest income earners, WMATA competes for riders with other modes of transit in a variety of ways, not the least of which is travel time. The isochrone is a step in the right direction, but falls short in a vacuum without comparison to other modes of transit. I think Walker's ideas for reducing travel time, such as spacing out stops, are terrific.

by Stuart M. Whitaker on Feb 19, 2012 8:59 am • linkreport

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