In a previous post, I wrote about transit as a compromise. In that post, I pointed out that passengers on board a bus and passengers waiting for a bus have very different attitudes about how the bus should move, even though the same person will experience both sides of that coin on any bus trip.
Today I wanted to extend that paradox, and look at a few more places where there seems to be conflicting thought processes when it comes to moving people around.
One constant source of difficulty in transportation planning is the conflict between different modes of transportation trying to use the same place. Jarrett Walker often refers to these issues as ‘geometry problems’ (one example here), which is a concise way of explaining that there is a limited amount of space that has to be divided up between modes of travel. Think about an intersection you both drive and walk through regularly: when you’re a pedestrian, you wish the walk signals were longer and exclusive to pedestrians (no cars turning on a walk signal). When you’re driving through an intersection you wish pedestrians were moved onto a bridge (or into a tunnel) so you didn’t have to worry about any of them darting in front of you while you drive.
A big issue with the popular attitude towards transportation problems is that people think primarily as a driver instead of as a pedestrian in these types of scenarios, despite the fact that at any moment there are certainly more people moving themselves by foot than by car. In reality, travel by foot is the basic unit of transportation (Pedestrian is King, after all), not travel by car. This leads to some interesting instances of neglect for pedestrian areas, which is especially evident in new suburban developments where sidewalks are lacking, and roads curve in almost a perfect sub-optimal.
One more thought – quite often (at least in a typical North American city) a mode of transportation seems to get priority based on its kinetic energy (heavier and faster means more important). Heavy rail is given almost exclusive right of way and freedom of movement, followed by highways and vehicles moving at high speeds, followed by frequent-stop vehicles like buses, followed finally by pedestrians and other forms of manual transportation like cycling. From a safety perspective, it’s good to keep objects that have different kinetic energies apart, but should we be prioritizing the freedom of movement of fewer, heavier, and faster objects over the many, small, and slow?
Transit – The Moving Sidewalk of Cities
If you’re willing to abandon the car as your basic unit of transportation, then transit can be looked at from a whole other perspective. Buses are no longer vehicles that run on roads (like a car), but a system of moving pedestrians around at high speeds. It’s like those moving walkways found in airports, where you can suddenly accelerate movement along your journey by hopping on and off of a transit system. When you think of transit as infrastructure, not vehicles, then a bus that runs fairly empty sometimes doesn’t seem so bad (after all, there are plenty of roads that sit fairly empty for long periods of time). I treat a transit system as a form of enhanced walking that expands your range of movement as a person, instead of seeing it as a slower, crappier version of a car.
As it stands now, a lot of cities (especially in North America) are so geared towards the automobile that it seems a daunting task to change the way we think about getting around. That barrier is self-reinforcing; the more we think like a car, the more cities will grow to accommodate that thinking, and the harder it will be to shift. The loop works both ways, though: if we are able to re-calibrate ourselves to think as a pedestrian, not a car, then cities will change their shapes to accommodate that, and it will become easier to think. It’s a slow but self-reinforcing loop.