Interview with Jarrett Walker, International Transit Network Planner (Part 2)

Jarrett Walker is an internationally renowned transit network planner currently working in Sydney, Australia as a Principal Consultant with McCormick Rankin Cagney.  At his professional blog Human Transit (a must-read), he has written dozens of articles about Los Angeles for a global audience, including one titled Los Angeles: The Next Great Transit Metropolis? During his recent trip to California, I had the opportunity to talk at length with Jarrett and he kindly offered to do an interview about Los Angeles for Los Angeles.  Since the interview is somewhat extensive, I broke it into two parts.  This is Part 2 of our interview; Part 1 can be found here.

CR:  With Measure R projects ramping up, public transit is getting more attention in the media and Angelenos are engaging in the planning process more than ever.  What are some of the best ways for planners to engage the public in these discussions?  Are there ways to avoid getting bogged down in planning jargon so that everyone can join the discussion, regardless of background?

Metro holds a hearing with members of the community in the run-up to certifying the Westside Subway Extension draft environmental impact report.

JW: Government agencies have to ask themselves:  What’s the hard value judgment inside whatever issue we’re debating?  What’s the basic choice between competing values that the city is facing? Journalists should be thinking this way too, of course.  Where a public conversation really works, it’s because everyone, no matter their education or background, can understand that the city is dealing with a hard choice between two things that are both desirable, or both undesirable.

In Portland, for example, the regional government in the 1980s and early 90s managed a really successful conversation about urban form by coming back over and over to a simple question:  More people are coming: do we expand vertically or horizontally, density or sprawl?   It was messy.  A lot of people wanted to change the subject.  But in the end they had the conversation, and reached a clear decision about where they’d allow new horizontal growth and where they’d aim for density, and that consensus has been remarkably resilient in the decade and a half since.

The government couldn’t have created that conversation on their own.  Journalists, in particular, played a big role in keeping the basic question visible through all the inevitable side-debates and ego-dramas that raged in the process.

Not all questions are that simple, but the point is to frame the issue so that people understand that there really is a hard choice to be made between different things they value.  Do you want lower taxes or do you want rapid transit?  Should we move bus stops closer together so that you don’t have to walk as far, or further apart so that the service runs faster? Do you want parking in front of this strip of businesses, or is it more important to have a transit lane there?  The questions are hard, but any reasonably conscious person can understand the question, and understand why it’s hard, if it’s presented to them respectfully and clearly.

If you do that well, you can deny people the crutch of saying “the big bad government is doing this to me.”  Individuals will still say that, but you won’t get that attitude raging out of control.   In a democracy the government’s place is to ask the question, help people understand and debate the question, arrive at a decision, and then act on it.  But every step of that reasoning needs to be visible to the public.

I see your governments trying to do this, and sometimes succeeding, but it’s hard to do in an era when many journalists would rather just do stories about what the government did today and why somebody’s mad about it.  That’s why good journalism is just essential.  Everyone is a customer of journalism, so everyone has a role in demanding that, through their own choices about what media to follow.

CR:  And finally, given that this summer was the 20th anniversary of LA’s first modern light rail line, the Blue Line, how do you predict Los Angeles’ transit system — and built environment generally – will look in another 20 years?

JW: In 2030 the whole Measure R rail program is done, and a bit more.  Rail links most of the largest centers in the region, at least to downtown if not to each other.  Thanks to the Regional Connector, the Blue and Gold Lines each extend all the way across the region, from the ocean to the foothills.  The Wilshire subway has reached Brentwood if not the ocean.   The Orange Line has been upgraded to light rail and extended east to Burbank, with plans to push on to Glendale and Pasadena where it will connect with the Blue Line [Editor’s note: Extending the Orange Line to Burbank is not in Metro’s current long-range plan].  The Crenshaw Line is pushing south toward Torrance and north toward Hollywood.   Similar growth in rail is happening all over the network.

Sensible, well-scaled dense communities are growing around these new rail stations, and some new highrise centers have developed.  More than ever, Los Angeles is a city of cities, with many skylines, many downtowns, many kinds of center, all linked by rapid transit.

In all the dense parts of the city, the population has the an option of a sustainable-transport lifestyle, in which you don’t own a car and instead rely on a mixture of transit, cycling, car-sharing, and the occasional taxi.   Driving costs a lot more.  Gas prices are over $10/gallon, and parking costs and congestion prices have been rising toward free-market levels as well, so even an electric car is expensive to drive and park.  It’s cool not to own a car, and the imagery of popular culture is shifting in response.  In one of the most popular 3D music videos of 2029, two teenage stars (both currently in the womb) dance and sing on top of a sleek Metro Rapid as it glides past stopped traffic in its exclusive lane, between the fashionable shops and hangouts of Venice Boulevard.   The dramatic Culver City skyline glitters in the background.

Yes, there are still buses, lots of them.  Despite all the new rail lines, most of the city still rides on tires.  But the Los Angeles boulevard of 2030 feels more like a Parisian boulevard in many ways, including generous sidewalks, lush shade trees, and of course a transit lane.  The long Metro Rapid buses have many doors that open wide at every stop, so that people can flow on and off as easily as they do on a subway.  Indeed, the Rapid has come to feel like a subway on the surface.  Nothing gets in its way, so it glides smoothly from one stop to the next past all the frustrations of other traffic.  In fact, the Rapid is the only reliable way to travel down most of the great boulevards of LA, if you’re going further than you can cycle.  And because it works, all kinds of people ride it.

The physical design of the Rapid of 2030 also helps it feel like an intrinsic part of the street.  Guided by optical technology, the vehicle lines up exactly with the curb, at the same level and with a very small gap.   When the wide doors open, wheelchairs just roll on and off, just as they would on a rail line.   More importantly, the spacious and mostly transparent Rapid vehicle feels like a continuation of the sidewalk.  The Rapid has become a pedestrian accelerator: it carries pedestrians further than they can walk while leaving them feeling, at every step, that they are still on the street – rather than on a vehicle that’s using the street.  You may have to stand, but you’re not standing on a bus; you’re just hanging out in an interesting street, while moving faster than your feet can take you.

Because of that, the language has changed too.  Nobody talks about “Line 754” anymore.  You might call it the Vermont Rapid, but really it’s just a basic part of Vermont Avenue.  If you want to go from Vermont & Adams to Olympic & La Brea, you just go north on Vermont and west on Olympic; in 2030, those simple directions for cars and taxis and bicycles and pedestrians are also the directions for transit.  Vermont and Olympic aren’t streets that a Rapid bus happens to run on.  They are complete streets, welcoming and serving everyone, so of course they must have Rapids, just as they must have wide and attractive sidewalks.

After all, you wouldn’t have a major boulevard without a Rapid in its own lane, because then there’d be no way for people to get through quickly and reliably without getting stuck in traffic.   You’d be storing cars where they obstruct not just the transit system but also the economy, and people’s happiness, and the life-saving work of emergency services.  And that just wouldn’t make sense.

Categories: Transportation News

3 replies

  1. Great vision! The pace of change in LA transportation has been at times frustratingly slow over the last 20 years, but it’s exciting that the changes are accelerating. Due to a convergence of factors, you can feel a cultural shift in LA beginning to happen. LA is embracing mass transit and the higher density population and job clusters which amplify the effect of the transit network. But there is still a tremendous amount of resistance to that vision. I’d be happy if it happens in one generation, but I think it will take at least two. The day that giving transit full priority on the streets becomes a nonissue is the day Los Angeles has grown past its automobile-centric focus. Right now, I’m hoping we don’t have to wait for 2030 to see Venice Bl repaved.