Jarrett Walker on Denver’s Transit Culture, Frequency, and Pitfalls of Tech

Jarrett Walker. Photo: David Sachs
Jarrett Walker. Photo: David Sachs

In the last few years, Jarrett Walker has established himself as one of the nation’s most influential thinkers about transit. While you’ve probably read a lot of stories lately about ideas like autonomous Ubers replacing buses in a Jetsons future, Walker takes a very different view of transportation policy, grounding his analysis in reason and fact. He thinks about transit in terms of what it can do for cities and the people who live in them, and that mentality is reflected in the title of his blog, Human Transit (and a book by the same name).

The Transit Alliance, a nonprofit instrumental to passing FasTracks that has groomed regular Denverites into transportation leaders with its Citizens’ Academy, brought Walker to Denver to speak at its 6th Annual Event on Thursday. Walker also plays an advisory role on the first-ever transit plan for Denver proper, which aims to produce a better transit system for current residents and to accommodate the city’s future growth.

I spoke with Walker as we strolled the 16th Street Mall and into Uptown on Wednesday. We talked about the path for Denver to become a true transit city, why we need to pass a funding measure for city transit, and how electing a president with an anti-transit platform will affect cities like Denver.

This is part two of the interview. Check out part one for the full scope of the conversation.

Denver is a Western, car-first city. Is there a cultural shift that needs to take place?

I don’t know how to change people’s culture, but I do know how to change people’s experience. I know how to change their options and give them better options. My experience is that when people talk about a “culture” of some particular transportation, when you look closer, they tend to just be talking about people in places where that transportation mode is the logical thing to use most of the time. So you don’t need to go to culture.

What I do know how to do is change the network so it’s more useful to people. And we know, from experience, that when we make a network more useful to people more people use it. And so maybe the culture is actually just tagging along after the fact of the usefulness of the network, rather than something that is in and of itself a problem we have to change. Behavior will change in response to the actual facts of how useful it is.

What’s an example of where this approach has worked?

Los Angeles is a great example. It’s self-aware about this. You can say that Los Angeles is a car culture, but maybe what that really means is that Los Angeles is a place where it’s logical to use your car all of the time. But! Anyone that says Los Angeles is a car culture has to reckon with the fact that 70 percent of them just voted for a colossal new tax for transit. Seventy percent! I think what that says is that Los Angeles is not a car culture — it’s just a bunch of people who are trapped in their cars. And want an alternative.

Fewer than a third of Denver households live within walking distance of transit routes that run frequently during rush hour. Map: City and County of Denver

We have a good grid in Denver. Is Denver conducive to the high-frequency system you created in Houston, with timed transfers?

Yeah. Up to a point. Houston hired us to develop a new network structure for short-term purposes. I think what you’ll see in the Denver transit master plan is a longer term view, which is really looking not just at what kind of frequent network we would like to have next year, but what kind of frequent network will we need at build out of our land use intentions, which is vastly more extensive.

And the purpose of defining that is to send clear signals to the development community, to realtors, but also to other municipal functions like street design and land use planning. You put the same map on everybody’s wall on what the frequent network is intended to be in 20 years, and everyone just glances at that map as they work, and over time all kinds of different activities converge on making that network work.

The A-Line between downtown and the airport gave Denver’s transit system a myth of excellence. It’s nice to have, but connections to the stations are lacking.

Well that’s what a good frequent network does. It’s not about going to one place that everyone is thinking about, like the airport. It’s about a complete network that gets you all over the city. That reflects the fact that even in a city with a fairly strong downtown like this one, people are actually going all over the place. There are origins and destinations all over the place. The great thing about the frequent grid like we did in Houston, is that you can use it to go anywhere. It doesn’t pick favorites. A frequent grid lets you go anywhere with one transfer. So that’s one of the key things about it.

How frequent do we need bus service to be?

The rule of thumb in the industry is at every 15 minutes all day — that when it’s coming at least every 15 minutes you start to feel like it’s coming soon whenever it is that you want to go.

What’s wrong with obsessing over technology — like insisting on a streetcar over a bus rapid transit line?

Understanding how lines go together to create outcomes for people’s ability to get places is hard to reduce to a soundbite. It’s something you do have to think about for a few minutes, and inevitably not everyone understands. But everybody can be drawn into a conversation about what’s cool.

So it’s understandable that the media, and the public conversation, and thus the politicians to a degree — not all of them — tend to go with this narrative that the transit conversation is about what kind of thing we should buy. It’s like we’re out shopping and we’re gonna go out and buy a nice thing and put it in our house like a piece of furniture for the living room. And this quickly loses touch with the fact that most of the outcomes with transit have nothing to do with the technology used. Within an urban setting, rail and bus technologies can go as fast as it’s safe to go. Their reliability depends on what’s in their way. Technology never changes geometry.

What does Trump’s election mean for cities trying to shed car dependence, like Denver, with the help of transit?

There’s a cliché that people on the left like big federal government and people on the right don’t like it. And I think that’s decreasingly true. Because of the experience of big city governments, increasingly, that higher level governments are just getting in their way — like imposing requirements that make sense to a rural dominated legislature but that don’t make sense in the city.Just generally making it harder for the city to do what the city needs to do to be a good city for its citizenry.

The political right has always advocated — or at least claimed to support — a much smaller federal government which pushes power and decision making down closer to people. As a total urban, liberal, intellectual — part of that nasty urban elite — I actually totally support that. Everybody needs more self-determination, and cities in particular need the freedom to do what they need to do to meet their needs.

You’re an opinion leader. What don’t you know?

I work very hard in my business to maintain a clear separation between what I know geometrically — and I’m sure of it because I know it geometrically — and what I know based on extremely strong empirical evidence. I draw a clear line between that what a community’s values and goals are. So I aspire to be a consultant who never actually recommends. What I always want to do is lay out options. Help cities see the consequences of their options. And then I’m fine with whatever they decide.