Mass Transit- A Path to Freedom

Photo from dc.streetsblog.org.

Photo from dc.streetsblog.org.

Jarrett Walker views transportation differently. For the innovative public transit planner, it’s not about the journey, nor really the destination, but about the act of arriving—and the freedom inherently coupled with this action.

He calls this process abundant access, and sought to explain the concept before an audience of designers, urban planners, and the generally curious at the auditorium at 66 West 12th Street last night. The definition, Walker said, revolved around a question rather complex for its presumed initial simplicity.  “What is the fundamental purpose of transit?” he asked, pausing for full effect. “It turns out, that’s a question that makes a lot of planners and designers uncomfortable.” Walker explained that many of the people he asked responded with outputs of transit, such as protecting the economy from congestion or limiting harmful emissions into the atmosphere. “Those are benefits of transit.”

So, what is the purpose of transit? “To get as many people as possible to reach as many destinations as possible as quickly as possible so they have as many real choices as possible and are therefore free.” Freedom is a key component, and forces planners to focus on the basic principles of public transit. These include the frequency of which the vehicle comes, the span that it encompasses, the speed in getting to the destination, and reliability.

Of course, public transit design must overcome a number of difficulties. Part of the trouble is the design itself. “Public Transit plans must follow basic geometry rules,” said Walker. “The shortest distance between any two points is a straight line, yes? Transit lines can’t be circuitous routes with cul-de-sacs. Stops need to be situated along a straight line.” Tools and technology also burden successful transit plans. “While people certainly have a preference when choosing their personal vehicles, that becomes less of a priority in mass transit,” said Walker. “Tools and technology aren’t freedom—they are symbols.”

Walker’s talk, “Abundant Access: Public Transit as an Instrument of Freedom,” was sponsored by the School of Constructed Environments at Parsons The New School for Design. Read more of his thoughts on transit issues at HumanTransit.org