Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

Jarrett Walker imagines unified transit that respects its riders

February 9, 2012 - 09:28 AM
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Transit man. (Photo: John Hendel)

WMATA caused Jarrett Walker to be late for our meeting.

I hopped off the Metro at the Farragut North Metro station shortly before 11 a.m. on Wednesday only to soon receive a text message: "John. Can we move back to 11:45? Disruption on Red Line @ Bethesda." I laughed at how outlandishly fitting this was. Walker is a global transit consultant responsible for a new 227-page book called Human Transit: How Clearer Thinking about Public Transit Can Enrich Our Communities and Our Lives, published in December 2011 by Island Press. This week he's traveling along the East Coast with stops in Baltimore, Silver Spring, and this morning at D.C.'s own National Building Museum to talk and promote his manifesto on efficient, reasonable transit. But before the two of us could chat, he was, like so many D.C. residents, foiled by WMATA.

An hour later, Walker and I stood at the corner of K and 17th Street splitting a Starbucks cookie. Walker is a towering presence, even when wearing a quaint winter hat, leather jacket, and sipping a beverage. He expressed frustration for how WMATA ran its communications at the station earlier that morning. Station announcements would sometimes talk over system announcements. The flashing arrival board screen mentioned a problem at Benning Road that announcers noted was already resolved. Although there may have been reasons for all these technical snafus, Walker critiqued the impression it creates for riders. It doesn't look smart.

"When you're automating communications, you're making it more and more a one-way conversation," Walker told me.

Chocolate strawberries
(Photo: Courtesy of Island Press)

Walker would know. Since 1990, the Portland man has spent his time working as a transportation consultant specializing in transit service design, with a focus on how these systems serve the community. His Stanford Ph.D in literature may be what helps Walker pause and monitor language, its connotations and its emotional implications. He turns 50 years old this year and has expanded his voice in a popular blog that bears the same name as his book. "The core pleasure of my professional life is to see transit working well in the real world," he writes in Human Transit. Walker told me he values transit communications that informs people know about the service, straightforward and simple. He pointed to a Metrobus that flashed the message "Have a Nice Day" at the front of the vehicle and called it one of his pet peeves. Why take away from communicating something useful about the transit system to offer a nicety directed primarily to motorists? He sees "potentially a very subtle insult to the transit rider." Walker emphasizes the transit agency's need for legibility in both his book and his conversation with me. Why, for instance, doesn't WMATA always feature the train arrival times on its display boards, even if just at the bottom? The agency makes riders wait as it scrolls through several different messages. "The decision's been made that you don't need to see at a glance when the next train is," he said.

Walker also believes the importance of social media outreach through services like Twitter is given too much emphasis when talking about how to connect with riders. "I think people don't want to be crawling around in phone apps just to find out what's going on," he said.

In the chilly air, Walker pointed at the intersection's bus shelter signs and compared and contrasted the WMATA-run Metrobus and D.C. government-run Circulator signs and presentation. The question he spotlighted: "What's the relationship between WMATA and the D.C. Circulator?" The Circulator featured multiple maps that only emphasized its own routes, with "lots of repeated information," Walker said as he motioned to the bright red guides. Independent from this but adjacent was the sign for a Metrobus stop, which simply listed several different routes. But how frequently did they pass by and where did they go? No one would know from the stop. There wasn't even a map of the WMATA network.

"You have to make 'when' visible," Walker explained to me as he gestured at the signs. He's a strong advocate for frequency as the crucial element in making a system accessible. One of his chapter titles that he emphasized again with me is "frequency is freedom." Frequency is invisible but vital and, as he writes, "often matters more than speed in determining how long your trip will take." Higher frequency and the presentation of real-time arrival data will help encourage more transit riding, he proposes. To craft independent but similar transit systems that run through the same territory, as with these buses in this location, has the danger of reducing frequency for riders.

"Is the difference really that profound that you need different transit networks?" he asked as we considered Metrobus and the Circulator. "

He noted the same thing about the Bethesda Circulator. "I'm constantly having to remind people that few people want to travel in circles," he added. The ideal is to have different transit institutions working together rather than against one another, and these D.C. buses, "marketing in opposition to each other" currently, strike Walker as a prime example. "It would be less about different governments taking credit," he said, "and more about presenting the whole network as integrated, extensive, and useful. When you do that, everyone gets plenty of credit in the end."

Chocolate strawberries
(Photo: John Hendel)

Walker believes that transit agencies need to find a new voice in the 21st century as systems expand in cities around the country. Historically, they haven't always been the best at communications, partly as a consequence of dealing with politicians and a public who looked down on transit and believed riders followed the same routes at the same times. Now, decades later, these agencies struggle to find the right solutions to their problems, whether those be WMATA's maintenance failures or bus routes that create redundancies, confusion, and reduce their convenience to the broader public. D.C. will face more challenges of integrating different networks as the streetcar system emerges and biking infrastructure expands. If done right, transit even can even enhance the face of the city for the average pedestrian, bicyclist, and driver passing through. Where we stood near Farragut Square I saw cars and Metrobuses, walkers and Circulator buses, taxis and bicyclists, trucks and the occasional MetroAccess vehicle, not to mention both Farragut Metro stations as D.C. continued to tick by on its lunch hour. Didn't these people deserve such pleasurable, sensible service if it's possible?

"Transit can have a positive and rather joyous role in the streetscape," Walker declared as we looked out at the square.

Jarrett Walker will share more of his thoughts this afternoon at the National Building Museum from 12:30 to 1:30 p.m. as part of a sold-out speech and tonight as part of a sold-out forum at the American Public Transportation Association headquarters from 6:30 to 8 p.m.

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