Human-scale transit planning and design, with Jarrett Walker


Sustainable Cities Collective

As a teenager in the 1970s, Jarrett Walker lived in Portland Oregon during a land use and transportation revolution. A waterfront freeway was removed. A new freeway was scrapped from long-range plans. The light rail system began.
The purpose-driven effort to protect against sprawl taught Jarrett a lot about how a city imagines and builds itself. Jarrett has been consulting as a transit planner for over 20 years. He is the author of the book Human Transit, and also maintains a blog at


The first step in planning public transit is…community values?

I’ve encountered very few people who love talking about transit as much as Jarrett. I mean, everyone has an opinion about buses or trains. But it’s nice to have someone pull back the curtain of public transit and the impact it can have on cities. In some ways I think discussing or debating public transit is similar to traffic engineering issues. Anyone who has a driver’s license feels compelled to declare a strong opinion – pro or con – even without basic understanding of bus operations or light rail design challenges. Every city has a body of decision makers. They’re probably a combination of special interests, motorists, and do-gooders. They all bring baggage and assumptions (profit, special needs, aesthetics, revitalization and so on). In Jarrett’s book, he talks about the importance of understanding community values before getting in the weeds of where to place bus stops and how often to run service. What does he mean by community values? And how do you design a mass transit system that appeals to community values?


chicken:egg :: greatcity:hightransit

In professional design and planning circles, there is always a debate over which comes first: a great place or high transit usage. Both sides can show examples that seem to validate their position. Meanwhile, city residents just want to know how to best spend their limited resources to maintain or improve vitality. So in the context of economic development, is higher transit usage generally an outcome of great places? If a city focuses on smart growth and development patterns, will more transit options result?


Public transit: privatize or subsidize?

As the United States continues through the financial recession we’re in, more people are paying attention to publicly subsidized services. One of the most common ways of expressing this in the context of mass transit, is “running transit like a business”. City planners generally think in terms of 30 or 50 year horizons. So if we’re exploring long-range plans based on potential realities, consider a reality that enjoys a free market. Not cronyism – but free.
In other words, private enterprise provides services, not government or quasi-government agencies.
With completely privatized mass transit systems, does Jarrett think cities are better or worse off?

This topic will be revisited and explored in a future show. 


Double standards in transport planning

Highway building projects are called transportation projects. Every other type of project on a transportation network is usually lumped into the unfortunate category of “alternate transportation”. The issue of language comes up quite often on Urbanism Speakeasy. Anyone who listens knows that messaging is a soapbox of mine. Jarrett gives some ideas for the non-expert to clearly advocate their own community values.


Connect with our guest

Jarrett Walker is a fairly busy guy online. Here are the best places to keep track of him:


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