“My education in planning is that when I was in fourth grade, I started riding the bus across Portland, Oregon to school, with a transfer downtown,” explained Jarrett Walker, author of Human Transit and the keynote speaker at the 2nd annual Heartland Active Transportation Summit this Friday at Metro Community College.  

“I became fascinated by the transit network, and before long, I had ideas about how it could work better. Fortunately, I found the transit agency’s planners open to talking with a geeky teenager.”

The world-renowned planner has designed transit networks for major cities from San Antonio to Minneapolis, suburban areas from Sydney, Australia to Southern California, and smaller communities from campus towns to rural New Zealand across a 20-year career. With a doctorate in literature, he’s “an oddity, a PhD who learned most of what he knows by doing it, not studying it.” It’s his latest design, the book born of the similarly named dot-com, that he hopes activates citizen involvement in transportation development by calling communities to find their values.

“[It’s] designed to give activists the tools to think more carefully about what they want and make sure they do not want something that’s self-contradictory or mathematically impossible. That’s the first step for an activist — provide realistic input that’s based on an understanding of how transit works and what it can do. Transit agencies can take on a lot of activist input if that input is realistic, and this conversation can help train elected officials to be more realistic as well.

“You don’t need to know complex theories of transit planning.  The facts of transit planning are simple, but many people are confused about them — particularly because of the common unconscious habit of thinking about transit as though it worked just like cars and roads. Actually designing transit networks requires skill and talent — you have to hold a large amount of geography in your head and recognize patterns of opportunity in it.

“But you don’t need much skill to understand how transit works and the choices it presents for our communities.  My book is about helping you focus on those choices, which require communities to think about their values.

“For example, it’s a fact of geometry that a transit network designed for maximum ridership won’t service large parts of the region at all.  So do you really want maximum ridership, or do you want a network that serves everyone, or some balance between those two?  My job is to frame those clear questions about a community’s values, and help communities answer them.”

His passion for improving transit is tempered by political realities and an emphasis on examining transit as a means to an end to act on these values.

“Urban communities and regions need to be having conversations about what role they want transit to play. These conversations need to happen in the context of an understanding of how transit works as a mobility tool — an understanding that very few people have and that even professional programs rarely teach. My experience is that when a region has a debate about the real question, it reaches a more durable consensus that can be acted on.”

The nature of transportation and transit funding plays a big role in the process and even transit-friendly Canada does a lot of work at the local level.

“Canada has a very different way of funding transit. Operating costs are built into state budgets instead of the American practice of special districts that rely on just one tax source budgets,” so they are “less volatile” and “there aren’t devastating service cuts in a downturn … If you want to build something big like a rail line, Canadians have to put the money together at the state level; the federal government has almost no role.”

The blog started in April 2009 as a way to build a community of like-minded professionals and activists and bring some transit fundamentals to the public debate.

“I’d become convinced that transit was foundering partly because few decision-makers understood it. Most are motorists and understand that form of transport intuitively, but most have a fairly abstract idea of transit.”

Omaha’s success in transit, now being developed in the city’s Transportation Master Plan and Alternatives Analysis, will rely on community engagement.

“It’s great that [Omaha is] starting a large-scale transit study for the region, but the challenge lies entirely in how that project frames questions for the community to discuss. Citizens have to be asked what they value, and especially how they weigh competing values against each other. That means the planners have to think about how to distill the values question from the technical questions. 

“The result needs to be conversation, from the beginning, in which government’s role is to educate citizens about the facts, and encourage discussion about what should be done.”

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