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SLATE Whats the Best Way To Get Users To Embrace Mass Transit?

Make it pleasant? Or make it efficient?


By Tom Vanderbilt

Planned cities like Dubai (left) are considered high system/low empathy while places that grew more organically, like the fa elas of !io (right) are low system/high empathy

" few months ago, at an urban mobility conference in #rankfurt, the British consultant $harles %eadbeater presented a sort of &'y matri& for thinking about how to manage and design cities( The chart was di ided into )uadrants of *system+ and *empathy,+ inspired by the psychologist ,imon Baron'$ohen-s work with "sperger-s patients, who in some cases are )uite good at *systemi.ing+ beha ior (e(g(, attention to detail, patterns, organi.ation, etc(), but less adept at empathic human relationships( #or cities, *system+ implied things like infrastructure and institutions, while empathy implied the cultural te&ture of a place (that ineffable )uality that guidebooks sometimes call *soul+)( " planned' from'scratch place like Dubai, or %e $orbusier-s *!adiant $ity,+ %eadbeater argued, was *high system/low empathy,+ while the favelas of !io, which grew up organically and are sustained by a web of informal networks, could be considered *low system/high empathy(+ Then there are places /%agos, he suggested/where neither a&is is particularly optimi.ed( 0ow, he wanted to know, could you design for both1 2 am habitually doubtful of such sweeping constructs/the world e&plained in a Power Point slide/ but 2 was pi)ued by the concept, and 2 spent the rest of the presentation sketching out matri&es in

my notebook( Take 3(,( military strategy in "fghanistan( Drones are high system/low empathy4 the "rmy-s *0uman Terrain ,ystem,+ which has used anthropologists and other ci ilian specialists to meet with tribal elders, is *low system/high empathy(+ The High Line in 5ew 6ork1 %ow system/high empathy( ("lthough back when it was functioning transport infrastructure it was the other way around)( 7r think of "ma.on(com ersus your friendly local bookseller( 6ou get the picture( 2 thought again of %eadbeater-s system/empathy argument in reading 8arrett 9alker-s new book, Human Transit. 9alker, a Portland, 7re('based transit planner who writes a popular blog of the same name, espouses a ery *system+'oriented iew of transit: 0e cares less what trains look like/ or e en that they-re trains to begin with/than that they simply run on time (and take people where they want to go)( 0e has been pitched as a sort of antagonist to another planner, Darrin 5ordahl, whose ;<<= book My Kind of Transit, argues that the *ride e&perience+ is crucial for getting "mericans out of their cars and into public transit( $onsider their opinions of ,an #rancisco-s cable cars: 9alker (*system+) thinks they-re neither efficient nor cost'effecti e (each car re)uires two employees) nor ery important to getting ,an #ranciscans around4 5ordahl (*empathy+) argues they-re a ital public space, an e&perience in themsel es, part of what makes the city the city( 9ho is right1 These iews may not be so di ergent as they initially seem, but 9alker-s book makes the strong case that the system half of the e)uation cannot be ignored( "s befits someone who has spent decades in small, formerly smoke'filled rooms with ci ic officials trying to implement working transit systems, 9alker is a realist, and Human Transit is a spirited guide/prescripti e but with a righteous dash of polemic/to what we get wrong about transit( *2n many urban regions,+ he writes, *support for public transit is wide but shallow(+ People generally like the idea of transit (as characteri.ed by the Onion headline, *=> Percent of "mericans ,upport Public Transit for 7thers+), but much of our society-s e&perience and understanding of transit, not to mention our willingness to pay for it, is limited( The ery fact that most of us dri e, argues 9alker, casts a subtle, but powerful, influence onto transit thinking( *2n most debates about proposed rapid transit lines,+ he writes, *the speed of the proposed ser ice gets more political attention than how frequently it runs, e en though fre)uency, which determines waiting time, often matters more than speed in determining how long your trip will take(+ Dri ers don-t wonder when their cars are going to show up( Transit systems themsel es are guilty of these distortions, 9alker argues, falling prey to a kind of destination fetish( *The pre ailing habit of most transit systems,+ he writes, *is to ad ertise where they go but to treat when as though it were a detail(+ The map, in other words, dwells larger in the imagination than the timetable (and trying to combine these may re)uire a certain ,wiss efficiency)( Transit agencies hardly help matters by printing maps where all lines seem to promise the *same kind of product,+ when, in fact, one line may run e ery ten ?< minutes and the other twice a day( *" transit map that makes all the lines look e)ual,+ writes 9alker, *is like a road map that doesn-t show the difference between a freeway and a gra el road(+ Human Transit, as one might e&pect, is full of delectably geeky details( (Did you know that an *in erted couplet+ is a way to organi.e multiple bus unloadings so that people can transfer without crossing the street1) But 9alker, a onetime grad student in literature, also pays careful attention to the language we use in talking about transit( #or most of us, *route+ and *line+ are indistinct, but 9alker argues their meanings color our impressions( *" route is a place where some kind of transport e ent happens, but the e ent may be rare(+ *Do you want to think of transit as something that-s always there, that you can count on1 2f so, call it a line(+ 0e also warns against the seducti e nature of transit *loops+: *,traight lines can seem aggressi e, whereas loops offer a sense of closure( They can e en suggest the shape of an embrace(+ But while loops are fa ored by tourist buses, among others, it-s lines that get us where we need to go( Transit has its enemies, surely/but 9alker suggests it too can be killed by kindness( Transportation ad ocates clea e into camps who fa or, often messianically, certain con eyances( *Technology choices do matter,+ 9alker says, but adds that *the fundamental geometry of transit is e&actly the

same for buses, trains and ferries(+ "nd yet people often become enchanted with transit for its own sake( Take, for e&ample, the proposed @(A mile trolley loop (those loops againB) in %os "ngeles running from the Disney $oncert 0all to %("( %i e( "s the writer D( 8( 9aldie notes, *the point doesnCt seem to be impro ed mobility( Downtown already has the regionCs densest transit network: DetroCs local and rapid ser ices, other municipal commuter lines, the cityCs D",0 buses, Blue %ine light rail, and the !ed and Purple subway lines(+ ,o why add a trolley to this mi&1 *Tourists and con entioneers,+ says 9aldie( 9hich brings us back to the idea of system and empathy, and the debate between the systems' oriented 9alker and the empathic 5ordahl( The latter argues that *if transit is to become an attracti e alternati e to the automobile, the ride itself must offer an e&perience to passengers that they cannot get within the solitude of their cars+/maybe it-s the genteel sociability of a 5ew 7rleans streetcar, maybe it-s the free wi9i'fi #i on an inter'urban bus. The former says we need fre)uency, legibility, connections, proper stop spacing/in short, all those things that don-t make good news copy( 2t-s no doubt easier to enchant the collecti e imagination with a gaily painted trolley Eauntily Eangling down the street than to crunch the numbers on the weekday boardings per hour of an authentic %os "ngeles transit success story, the Wilshire Rapid bus line. But if the )uestion is what-s going to get the most people on transit in a city, what-s going to mo e the most people, it seems to ha e less to do with the )uality of the e&perience than the quantity/ studies routinely find increases in transit usage linked to things like metropolitan employment numbers, fare costs, fre)uency of ser ice, and gas prices( Trolling the 6elpB re iews for ,an #rancisco-s B"!T system, for e&ample, while one sees the occasional knock for cleanliness, most people focus on things like ease of use (wayfinding and ticketing), connections, price, parking( Perhaps that-s because our e&pectations are so low4 one budget'strapped and beleaguered transit planner countered 5ordahl-s ision of a *fun+ transit e&perience with this: *2-m Eust trying to gi e people a transit e&perience(+ 7r perhaps there-s an empathic component to a good system( 9hat warms a city dweller-s heart more, for e&ample, than a local train waiting across from an e&press for a )uick transfer1 7r transit that comes so often you rarely think about it1 $on ersely, a trolley car that comes once an hour/and rarely on time/no matter how droll in appearance, hardly raises the )uality of life of those waiting for it( 9hich is not to say empathy doesn-t ha e its place( F en if ,an #rancisco-s cable cars mo ed only tourists, tourism represents that city-s largest sector of pri ate employment/so why shouldn-t the city in est in a transit system that largely caters to them, as a kind of loss leader to bring people in to the city1 "t a logistics conference in 7rlando 2 attended a few years ago, a Disney e&ecuti e made what 2 thought was a critical, and rather startling, point: #or many of the park-s isitors, their e&perience of Disney-s massi e fleet of buses and trains (taken together bigger than many 3(,( cities- fleets) represented those customers- first encounter with *public+ transit( Disney had, in essence, to walk the customers through it, to make the e&perience pleasurable( 2t was *high system/high empathy(+ $an we achie e the same in public transit, or is it doomed to a condition, to paraphrase the old Eoke about the $atskills hotel, of a place that has terrible food, and such small portions1 Tom anderbilt is author of Traffic: 9hy 9e Dri e the 9ay 9e Do! now available in paperba"#. He is "ontributing editor to "rtforum! Print! and 2(D($ "ontributing writer to Design 7bser er$ and has written for many publi"ations! in"luding 9ired! the 9ilson Guarterly! the 5ew 6ork Times Daga.ine! and the %ondon !e iew of Books. He blogs at howwedrive."om and lives in %roo#lyn! &.'. 'ou "an follow him on Twitter at www.twitter."om(tomvanderbilt. http://www(slate(com/articles/life/transport/;<?;/<?/EarrettHwalkerHsHhumanHtransitHareHweHthinki ngHaboutHurbanHplanningHallHwrongH(single(html