REVIEW: My Kind of Transit: Rethinking Public Transportation in America

Far from a boring treatise on the need for public transit, My Kind of Transit is an appeal on behalf of the emotional factors that make most transit repulsive and a select few forms enjoyable and uplifting.

It is always gratifying as a reader to see your own obsessions justified. That's why I was so pleased to see Darrin Nordahl give loving recognition to Disneyland's transportation systems in the very first chapter of his new book, My Kind of Transit: Rethinking Public Transportation in America.

Far from a boring treatise on the need for public transit, My Kind of Transit is an appeal on behalf of the emotional factors that make most transit repulsive and a select few forms enjoyable and uplifting. Nordahl gives detailed analysis of how Disneyland's antique transit forms (the omnibus, the horse-pulled streetcar) give riders a sense of "buoyancy" and "giddiness." On both vehicles, he observes that it is the transparency of the vehicle, allowing passengers to see out and be a part of the environment as they pass through it, which makes them so enjoyable. He writes,

The open-air cabin [of the streetcar] offers passengers the sights, sounds and smells of Main St. without obstruction. And these passengers, gliding slowly by, seem to engage pedestrians as well. There is a strong sense of connectedness between passenger and pedestrian, presumably because of the lack of physical barriers.


The Disneyland Omnibus.

Nordahl's observations are sometimes so simple they elicit a 'duh!' moment. For example, New Orleans' famous St. Charles streetcars feature a seat that can be switched to face forwards or backwards, so that a group of four could face each other. That kind of flexibility, he argues, gives riders control over their environment, the same type of control that William H. Whyte observed people seeking in public spaces.

Indeed, Nordahl makes a convincing case in the beginning of the book that the lessons of urban design learned since Whyte's time are much in need when creating transit systems. Transit design, like street design, has long been shaped by the automobile, to the detriment of both. The more transit has attempted to mimic the streamlined form of cars, the more it fails, because public transit will never be a car, with complete freedom of movement and a quiet, personal experience:

If transit is to become an attractive alternative to the automobile, the ride itself must offer an experience to passengers that they cannot get within the solitude of their cars. Perhaps the greatest asset that transit possesses, one that many do not recognize, is its potential as a setting for public life. [ ] The design approach, therefore, should not be markedly different for transit than for any public space. Like the successful public settings that have lured people from the privacy of their suburban homes and back onto central city sidewalks, so, too, must transit court people from the privacy of their cars with a similarly rewarding public setting.

Possibly the most compelling argument Nordahl makes with this book is that the most beloved transit in the U.S. are the systems that are unique and tailor-made for their location. Cable cars in San Francisco and funiculars in Pittsburgh still operate not because they are the fastest or most efficient way to get from place to place, but because they offer an experience that is pleasurable and worth the trip.

As cities around the country invest in streetcar systems, we may be seeing that idea spreading. But I'd like to think that Nordahl's book could be a clarion call for transit providers to get more creative when providing transit options. What limits us to light rail? Bring on the funiculars, omnibuses, and aerial trams!

Comments

Comments

Emotion may not be the best criterion

Emotion may not be the best criterion on which to base transit design. Sure, it sounds appealing, but none of the examples quoted will do anything significant to reduce the prime concerns we have about transportation - accidents, congestion, climate change and the high cost of transit.

I challenge that "...public transit will never be a car, with complete freedom of movement and a quiet, personal experience..." Certainly conventional public transit will never be, but have you not heard of personal rapid transit (PRT)? It has characteristics more similar to a car than to conventional transit. The only way transit can significantly compete with the car is to attempt do what the car does. There are many good reasons why we love our cars and refuse to give them up. Whimsical modes of transit will never make a significant dent in automobile miles traveled.

There are now three PRT projects under way worldwide with the first scheduled for service later this year.

Peter Muller

User experience and transit

As a transportation planner who spent 10+ years designing software for usability, I am keenly interested in the user experience of transit. Once you have met the basics such as safety, convenience, and reliability, designing for delight is what will win riders away from cars. Living here in SF, I see the value and attraction of unique transit options every day - the cable car, the PCC streetcars, and the ferries, all well used by locals and tourists alike.

Key to this discussion is identifying the features most valued by travelers (safety, convenience, comfort, and aesthetic treatments). This does *not* necessarily include privacy. It is this element that PRT advocates cling to and put above other considerations such as safety and cost. PRT gives us the worst aspects of public transit (inflexible routes) with the worst aspects of the auto (space consumed per passenger). PRT hallucinations look like those 50's animations of how our highways were going to be: the one lonely car moving smoothly down the perfect road, maybe one more in sight. Imagine our packed highways, only ALL of them elevated on stanchions, packed with little 2-person pods. Nevermind the mom and two kids - I guess she left one behind; or the person in the wheelchair, or the person whose pod stopped moving, and is now 20' up in the air with no way to get down.

PRT is a pipe-dream projected by those who can't envision getting out of their cars, and are desperate to never rub shoulders with their fellow travelers. After 40 years of bloviating about this insanely expensive and impractical system, there are now three tiny pilot projects scheduled to come on line. Congratulations. In the world of real public transit, PRT is a non-starter.

Environment key in transit design

I think that the topic of the environment/atmosphere of mass transit is very important. This includes design and upkeep of both the bus/train/trolley and the transit station.

Features such as strong fluorescent overhead lighting and vinyl and plastic interior in trains and buses can be turnoffs. The dingy atmosphere at train, subway and bus stations can be wearisome.

Also, there is one train station where each time a train whizzes by, a plume of smoke comes off the overhead electric wire. People waiting at the train platform have to breathe this in.

I think that the open air feature of some trolleys is indeed a reason for their success. You can connect with what is going on outside, as opposed to with people on your cell phone while you ride. This open feeling and opportunity for connection is why I often choose to ride a bicycle.

I've also heard (and seen in movies) that in some European countries, trains feature leather and wood interior and good food etc. A warm atmosphere created by natural interior materials and natural lighting would be preferable.

Michael Lewyn's picture
Blogger

open air cuts both ways

Great in good weather, not so good in rainy, snowy Toronto!

unique transit

i agree, uniqueness is key. just about any transit operation other than a standard diesel bus is very unique, and directly tied to the local place, history, culture. they use unique equipment and travel only a certain route (or network).

For a review of this book

For a review of this book from the perspective of an actual transit planning specialist, see here:

http://www.humantransit.org/2009/04/the-disneyland-theory-of-transit.html

Jarrett Walker
www.HumanTransit.org

Transparency of the vehicle--YES.

Good pickup by Nordahl (and good pickup by Halbur of Nordahl's pickup)--that transparency of the vehicle makes a transit system/vehichle more pleasant.

Check out these pictures of Dublin's LUAS tram in Ireland and see how nice it looks:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/10798592@N08/3677757516/

and

http://www.flickr.com/photos/10798592@N08/3676942477/

and

http://www.flickr.com/photos/10798592@N08/3676941567/

Also, I rode the NY-NJ PATH train recently and was struck by how it felt a noticeable small bit nicer than the NYC subway, and I guessed that PATH's much bigger windows helped.

Don't let creativity trump usefulness!

According to Tim Halbur "Possibly the most compelling argument Nordahl makes with this book is that the most beloved transit in the U.S. are the systems that are unique and tailor-made for their location. Cable cars in San Francisco and funiculars in Pittsburgh still operate not because they are the fastest or most efficient way to get from place to place, but because they offer an experience that is pleasurable and worth the trip."

It is painfully obvious that neither Halbur nor Nordahl are involved in the planning, design or operations of public transportation systems. While the "belovedness" of a transit system might be of vital importance to a city's tourism economy, transit serves the vital role of getting large numbers of people around from place to place. That is not to say that public transit doesn't also play a big role in city development and place-making, but its primary role is mass transportation. Neither the SF cable card or the Pittsburgh funicular are the types of systems that are used by large numbers of locals on a daily basis. They may be wonderful things to have, and they may provide great benefits to the immediate community, but in a very real sense they do not play the role of getting people from point A to point B quickly, comfortably and on time.

If we start thinking more about creating a "beloved" system than one that is user-friendly, convenient and efficient, then we're starting to get into same territory that has brought us large buildings designed by starchitects - beloved perhaps, but not exactly useful to your average citizen.

Never lose sight of the fact that transportation is a derived demand, and that transportation systems are there to help people do all the other fun, exciting and enriching things that make up their day-to-day lives. Design and appeal are vital aspects of a transit system, but don't let creativity trump usefulness!

Better transit conditions

Perhaps our transit systems need not be "beloved", but enhancing their atmosphere will certainly increase ridership. I do not want to ride buses that cycle diesel exhaust from the outside of the bus through the interior of the bus via the heat/air system. In my car, I can choose not to turn the heat or air on and thereby avoid auto/truck/bus emissions entirely. I have no such choice while on the bus. Also, I prefer dim lighting and the heavy overhead fluorescents on regional rail trains in my region make for a less enjoyable ride.

Aside from an improved atmosphere, people need transit that fits with their work schedules, is cheap or offers a savings over using their car, and is safe (absence of crime on the train/bus/subway car.)

We agree

I think we actually agree completely. The points I was making were that public transit needs to be reliable, fast, efficient, comfortable and useful, and those are exactly the aspects of transit that you highlighted. Where I disagree with Nordahl and Halbur is in their thinking that the uniqueness of the SF cable cars or the Pittsburgh funicular is something we should emulate when planning and building a modern transit system.

I'll say it again, public transit needs to be reliable, fast, efficient, comfortable and useful, and having comfortable lighting and clean air are important factors in that. As for your comment that "people need transit that fits with their work schedules, is cheap or offers a savings over using their car, and is safe (absence of crime on the train/bus/subway car)", you are exactly right. In everything you've mentioned, usefulness far outweighs uniqueness, as it should!

i started out reading this

i started out reading this book and was thinking, "yes! yes! yes!" -- and then i kept reading. blah.

the author makes the insightful argument that public transit should really be thought of an extension of public space -- just one that moves you from Point A to Point B.

but the author's focus on tourist transit just kills this book -- absolutely crushes the strength of his main premise. so, naturally, i'm more than a little disappointed, because i've been making the same case -- that for public transit to be successful, it must be at least decent, at least dignified, but ideally more than that -- pleasurable, joyful, etc.

the title of the book should be 'My Kind of Tourist Transit' -- that would make the title accurate, and then the author could make the case, "OK -- here's what works for tourists, let's see what we can apply to everyday transit needs."

so, it has a very few key insights that are must-knows for any advocate who is actually interested in dignified public transit, but it's so wrapped in tourist transit nonsense that most of the book can just be skimmed over.

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