Coming up, on the evening of April 18th, Town Hall Seattle is hosting a debate between two well-known transit authors:

Authors Darrin Nordahl and Jarrett Walker discuss public transit from two different ends of the bus route: technical simplicity—and fun. Most everyone agrees that public transit is a powerful tool for addressing a range of urban problems, but while Walker, author of Human Transit, believes that transit can be simple if we focus on the underlying geometry that all transit technologies share, Nordahl, author of My Kind of Transit, argues that when public transit is an enjoyable experience, tourists and commuters alike will willingly hand in their keys.

Regular readers won’t be surprised at all to learn that I am completely in the tank for Walker in this debate, as I am in most. In fact, almost everything I’ve written here on STB has been dedicated to the proposition that a simple, high-quality all-day bus network designed to maximize frequency, directness, and reliability would serve the city far, far better than what we have today. Two of the County’s best bus routes, the 358 and 120, were created out of mediocre services in a restructure process that was predicated on exactly the same ideas. And besides, what could possibly be more fun and enjoyable than travelling on the 358?

Sadly, my travel plans don’t permit me to attend, but I would commend this debate to the attention of anybody who takes an interest in promoting transit use, which is, I presume, all of you. STB is a co-sponsor of this event, for which space is limited.

26 Replies to “Jarrett Walker and Darrin Nordahl at Town Hall”

  1. I saw an online debate between these guys. Nordahl doesn’t come off well — the average commenter on this blog probably knows more about transportation than he does (even the trolls on Walker’s blog know more about transportation than Nordahl). As an example, Nordahl at one point suggested abandoning the commute entirely.

    Nordahl’s ideas may be relevant to a small city with no real need for much mass transit looking to build a cute fake historic district. Cities with real transportation problems (which includes almost all the big ones) and real budgets (which includes almost all the big ones) need a foot in reality.

    1. Not sure what you mean by “abandoning the commute”, but I strongly believe that it’s almost always a mistake to build transit infrastructure (or any infrastructure, really) that will only be used for about 20 hours a week.

      For example, let’s say that North Link had been designed so that, instead of going north from 45th to Northgate, it went west to Ballard. In 2030, it would probably have a smaller commuter ridership than the real North Link, but it would undoubtedly have a much higher all-day ridership. IMHO, that would be a much better use of money.

      Of course, it’s beyond silly to specifically aim for the tourist market, and I agree with you that Nordahl seemed particularly uninformed in that video interview.

      1. I basically agree about Ballard, and the idea that you don’t want to build too much infrastructure for the commute alone. But the commute is important — it’s when the transportation system is stretched to its limit. Sending the train down the Rainier Valley, to Cap Hill, UW, and Northgate, and to Bellevue before Ballard is at least plausible. But then to Lynnwood, Redmond, and Federal Way? Nooooo!

        Anyway, Nordahl with this comment seemed to be coming from the perspective that transit was basically a non-entity, that everyone drove to work, and that this basically worked for now. That people didn’t yet need transit, and didn’t know they would need transit. In some small cities that’s true (they’re not big enough that the roads can’t handle everyone driving). But in big cities we’re beyond that. We’d have to tear down even more of the city for everyone to drive to work (talk about infrastructure that’s only needed 20 hours per week!). Ballard knows it needs transit — it knows it needs capacity, frequency, and reliability. Ballard doesn’t need place-making, it’s already a place. It needs the direct products of well-engineered transit: mobility and access. Frequently, all-day, every day.

    2. I got turned off by Nordahl’s support of streetcars at 10 miles per hour, because people would rather enjoy the view than get somewhere. Sometimes I do take a slow bus to enjoy the view (43, 26, 16), but not usually.

      Re Link, of course it would have been better for Seattle to self-fund all needed subways while the county debated costs and P&Rs. But it was really ST1 and 2 that got anything built, and that comes with a requirement to get to Lynnwood.

      Ballard and Lynnwood are not either/or issues but both/and. We need comprehensive city transit, and we need full-time regional transit like the German S-bahn. Saying that Lynnwood transit is only about commuters ignores the fact that people travel to/from Lynnwood at all times, both for work and other things. Those “other things” include Bumbershoot and ball games, where Link obviates the need for special bus shuttles because it’s going there anyway. It allows people to get to events that aren’t large enough for shuttle routes. ST Express drops to half-hourly and serves different freeway stops at different times of day, and skips some entirely. (Quick: how do you get from Northgate to Lynnwood? 346 or 347 + some CT route, talking an hour or more.)

  2. “And besides, what could possibly be more fun and enjoyable than travelling on the 358?”

    It’s tough to argue with Walker, but comments like this don’t help. Is transit for everybody, or is it just for trainspotters and the lumpenproletariat?

    1. Yes, transit is indeed for everyone, and we’ll get a a wider cross-section of “everyone” with high-quality, frequent, reliable, simple-to-use bus service than the alternative. I’m sure the 6 and 359 had the same public-order problems as the 358 does now, and the 358 carries more, at a lower cost per boarding. The solution, in this case, is to increase security and enforcement on bus routes with public order problems. Anecdotal evidence on the old 174 (now RapidRide A), suggests that just having a couple of people on the bus wearing jackets that say “FARE ENFORCEMENT” works wonders for suppressing misbehavior, and the 358 will get that same treatment next year when it becomes RapidRide E.

      1. For that matter, simply having more floor space on the E line compared to a 358 ought to reduce jostling and confrontations as people try to reach the doorways.

  3. All those ot’s really have me curious. Somebody clue me in on what’ so controversial about the idea of a transit system that people can enjoy riding on, use for their travel purposes, and not get fired for being late?

    Same can be said for a school system that makes people literate, well-informed and eager to learn. And same problem: it takes some money and effort, up-front and long-term, to bring it about.

    Also some political determination to get and keep traffic out of the way of transit, both bus and rail. If the 358 had reserved lanes- center ones, not curb- and serious signal pre-empt, people could actually use it to get to work- which more than anything else changes the behavioral picture in the bus camera footage.

    Mess with me if I’m wrong, but I wonder how many of those ot’s really mean “I hate being forced to ride next to poor people.” I’m with George Bernard Shaw on that one- look up the quote. And like him, think that when everybody has decently paid work, places like the 358- and you’re right, Bruce, the 174 and the 6- will get a lot nicer too.

    For forty years, working people in this country have been directed to hate the poor- as ever more of them join that category. Including poor people who used to have good lifetime work. Look where it’s gotten us. Or better yet, get on the 358 and take a deep breath. Smell of the future.

    Mark Dublin

    1. Jobs for everyone would solve part of the homeless problem but not all of it. The most upwardly-mobile of the homeless are invisible because they don’t like to be seen begging and take the first opportunity out of their predicament. The remainder are people who refuse social services because it’d cramp their drinking/drugging lifestyle, and those who can’t hold down a job because they tell their boss off too quickly, sometimes due to mental illness (because we closed the institutions/clinics where they should be at).

      1. Point well taken, Mike, but look at the situation over time. Ever since the Viet Nam War, we’ve been lying to ourselves about the fact that our economy has been dying from the bottom since the 1970’s. If it weren’t for the credit cards, there might very well have been shooting civil war over the lifelong cut in so many people’s pay.

        Back home in Michigan, a very large number of the autoworkers around Detroit owned deer-rifles- more understated than an AK-47, but likely sufficient to make somebody think twice about suddenly moving those machines to Mexico and China. In the ’30’s, sit-down strikers fastened inner tubes to factory window frames, with a stack of iron door-hinges on the sill.

        Look at it like any other chronic disease which presently has no cure. The more people whose work lives are still healthy, the better able we’ll all be to deal with the personal troubles you mention. To keep this On Topic re transit, when I was eight, I used to ride the CTA heavy-rail elevated into Downtown Chicago for drawing lessons at the Art Institute every Saturday.

        Maybe one reason I never had reason to be afraid was that the average passenger load contained people physically able and quite ready to throw a victimizer under the train wheels. But I really think that because Chicago was so literally a working town, this kind of crime wasn’t the element of nature it is now.

        So you’re right that the strongest economic recovery isn’t going to solve our every social problem. But I’d be willing to give full employment forty years to balance the last forty.

        Mark Dublin

  4. Honestly, they’re both right. For an extreme example consider buses which are on time and on appropriate routes but are horrible, smog-belching, overcrowded nightmares. (They have these in some third world countries.) People will long to get in cars.

    Or imagine a really nice train on the wrong route. (They have this in Austin, Texas.) People will use cars because they have to.

    You genuinely ought to do BOTH.

    1. Um, to be clear, BOTH make the transportation relatively nice AND put it on the right route with the right frequency and reliability.

      You could also make it unpleasant, unreliable, infrequent, AND on the wrong route, and you’d have Greyhound Lines, but that’s not what I meant. :-)

  5. So Bruce, would a good Walker-Nordahl debate topic be the ST-Seattle choice between the First Hill Street and a more frequent and direct electric trolleybus network? The First Hill Streetcar is planned to go out-of-direction, not only to the topographical saddle point of 12th Avenue South and South Jackson Street, but deviate two blocks further east to 14th Avenue South to avoid a water main and right of way acquisition. Streetcar riders will have more time to enjoy their trips. In contrast, if some of the capital funds added electric trolleybus overhead to Yesler Way and 8th/9th avenues, some on new low floor artic trolleybuses, and most on additional service frequency, a revised Route 49 might provide faster, more frequent, and more direct service between the U District and Pioneer Square via Capitol Hill, Swedish, Harborview, Yesler Terrace, Pioneer Square Station.

    One comical proposition I heard was in the JRPC days in the early 90s: Seattle Councilmmeber Kraaabel asserted that water taxis would be a good investment as the riders would enjoy their trips so much.

    1. Nordahl’s argument is more about slowing down the streetcars than inserting gratuitous zigzags. For an example of the success of his argument, see the popularity of the San Francisco cable cars. For an example of applying it wholesale, think about replacing all of MUNI’s light rail and buses with cable cars. And BART! Let’s replace BART with 10 MPH cable car lines!

      Kraabel has a point. Water taxis are more enjoyable, and that may be worth a higher operating cost. (I said “may be worth”, not “is worth”.) Was the waterfront streetcar cheaper than alternative transit modes to run? Would a mosquito fleet be a nice complement to the Lake Washington bridges and Ship Canal bridges? Consider passenger-only microferries at Kirkland – UW, Kirkland – Madison Park, downtown – Ballard, and Lake Union Park – Fremont, Lake Union Park – Gasworks Park, and Lake Union Park – U-district.

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