Interview: Jarrett Walker, author of Human Transit

Elon Musk has called him a ‘sanctimonious idiot’ but public transit expert Jarrett Walker tells Andrew Stone that more data and smarter cars aren't the answer to mass mobility...
May 2, 2018
Jarrett Walker headshot.jpg

Most often found tweeting about luxury electric vehicles, rockets and men on Mars, Tesla and SpaceX boss Elon Musk got into an odd social media spat recently. The topic for the over-achieving tech billionaire? Urban mobility. After a tweet disparaging public transport, Musk was accused of imposing his desire to move by car around the city unimpeded and at the cost of public transit.

Musk called his Twitter provocateur an idiot (then tweeted to say that he actually meant ‘sanctimonious idiot’). His critic was Jarrett Walker, an experienced public transit consultant little-known outside his field. The spat didn’t just boost Walker’s profile, it also neatly summed up one of the issues he has been writing about for a few years now on his blog Human Transit and his book of the same name.

For Walker, cars in big cities are an impediment to mass transit. Smarter data use and other technology will only make a difference on the margins and fully automating them won’t change this. The only solution to urban mass mobility is the one we already have, Walker argues, which is more - but better organised - mass transit, some of it automated.

Delusional approach

Musk’s condescending attitude to public transport is the encapsulation of what is wrong with the current debate about urban transit as far as Walker is concerned. The collective private sector approach to improving urban mobility is, he says, delusional.

The micro transit vision of the near future is of electric robo-taxis and robo-jitneys whirring us around big cities smoothly and rapidly. Apps and smart technology have already taken us halfway to this exciting future, we are told, connecting us with the nearest Uber on the street, even as a shared ride is freeing more road space. Mass transit will wither on the vine.

This is a mirage, says Walker. Cars will never be the answer to urban mobility at scale for the simple reason that there is not enough space on the roads. It is a physical impossibility. “In public transport, if it doesn’t scale it doesn’t matter,” says Walker. “People need help understanding what is absolute and physical. The fact you can’t fit an elephant in a wine glass is not due to a lack of imagination or being stuck in our ways, it’s just a neutral fact about reality.”

Much of the current debate around autonomous cars reminds Walker of technological or mobility cure-alls of the past. Ten years ago it was trams, he says. “There’s always some fad. I’ve seen three to four go by and they hijack the conversation for a while.”

Blind alleys

There is emerging evidence to prove Walker’s point in recent studies from San Francisco and Boston that suggest ride-hailing platforms are not only adding to city congestion, they are also stealing mass transit riders.

Believing more data and smarter cars are the answer to mass mobility will lead legislators down blind alleys, offer the travelling public poorer transit services and cost entrepreneurs and investors their shirts in the long term, Walker argues. This utopian vision has gained the influence it has, partly owing to the fact that it originates in elite projection. “The elite, who are first users of Uber or Tesla think, ‘of course this is the future’,” says Walker.

It is in turn driven by venture and corporate capital hungry to sell products and it is a vision that legislators are too often in thrall to. “Technology never changes geometry but its investors are always claiming it will,” he adds. “The prominence of an idea in the [urban mobility] conversation is generally proportional to how much money the speaker thinks they are going to make off of it. ‘Innovative’ generally means ‘patented’. There is an enormous venture capital budget to shape the debate, to steer policy in a direction that is profitable. People want to believe the thing they find personally convenient will scale and be profitable. It is a textbook investing mistake. There are all kinds of wonderful things that don’t scale, like cars in cities. We are getting a lot of fuzzy thinking here.”

Academic ideal

Academia is failing to counter this, says Walker, speaking to ITS International from his Portland, Oregon base. “Academia is no longer a bulwark against that. Those of us making decisions about how to spend public funds need to lean against that trend.”

Part of the problem is the state of the mobility discipline, which lacks an overarching philosophical framework and does not have an academic home, says Walker. The ideal would be a dedicated institute to study the ability of as many people as possible to get to as many places as possible.

“The closest thing there is the University of Minnesota Accessibility Observatory,” he adds. “They have done some of the best work on visualising what we mean by that. It is a perspective that bypasses all the chatter about cool technology and brings it back to human liberty and opportunity.”

Walker is optimistic that those developing mobility-related technologies are becoming receptive. “We can’t change the fact that most of the conversational bandwidth is occupied by companies,” he continues. “We can help them be more realistic and help themselves. I work closely with tech companies and I have had frank conversations inside them. More inefficient forms of public transport are more exclusionary. If there is not room on the street for everyone, poor people will have to walk. Communities have not figured this out yet but when they do there will be an extraordinary backlash. Easy as it is to be cynical under the weight of hype, I do see a trend toward clear thinking about this.”

One exciting conversation that is happening in North America is that there is now a buzz around caring about fixed route bus networks and allowing them to succeed. “That is new in the last five years,” he concludes.

Perhaps one day, even Elon Musk will come round to the idea.

Three mobility problems, three discrete solutions

There are three different and distinct urban transit problems which can get conflated but should not be, says Jarrett Walker:

•    Electric vehicles are the solution to the energy use/air pollution problem
•    Automation is a solution to road safety and the use of human time in transit
•    Public transport and cycling are the solutions to city congestion and the more efficient use of space

“The solution to one is not a solution to the others,” Walker suggests. “If people could hold that framework in their mind we would have clearer thinking. Autonomous cars are still cars. They don’t fit in a city.”

Being able to route vehicles dynamically by using data and smart algorithms won’t make much difference. “All the chatter is around adorable pod buses but it is the wrong conversation to be having,” he goes on. “Dynamic routing is the essence of inefficiency in public transport. If you are going to get on a vehicle that stops at your front door and that stops some other places on the way to your destination, it won’t necessarily be faster for you than using a fixed route.”

In the hour a fixed route bus operates in a suburb, the lowest number of passenger journeys it will complete will be around ten and in the middle of a big city at least 60, says Walker. “You are never going to go to ten people’s doors in such a network in an hour. It doesn’t make sense.”

The solution, he believes, is better-planned mass transit on fixed routes, and in time automating mass transit, a technology already well-established in metro lines. “The next step is applying driverless technology to transit buses. It is a known technology and an autonomous bus is an easier problem to solve with fewer edge and corner cases [than a car]. Bus manufacturers in China, as well as Mercedes, are at advanced stages with this.”

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