Credit: Jarrett Walker & Associates
If you spend a lot of time in the transportation blogosphere, you probably know of Jarrett Walker, public transportation’s most eloquent advocate. But you might not know that he holds a Ph.D. in theater arts and humanities from Stanford University.
Here’s a quick interview I did with the transit pro himself on how his literature background informs his work.
Mobility Lab: I can’t think of many other “transit superstars” who have backgrounds as unique as yours. How do you think your literature background strengthens your writing on your blog?
Jarrett Walker: It’s more important for reading and consuming media than it is for writing. Literature study is a kind of detective work. You’re looking at a text and trying to figure out what is really going on. Not just what is the author trying to do, but what power agendas and hidden motivations are operating through the text, and how the text expresses unspoken assumptions of its time and place and culture. This is really helpful for consuming journalism and academic writing, and it also makes me naturally skeptical about anything that looks or operates like a sales pitch.
I’m also in the position to point out when an argument people are having is one that people have had forever. I wrote about that here.
ML: When making the case for public transportation overall, how do you make sure people don’t feel judged for driving?
JW: I am always explicit about that. Relying on cars in a city where there isn’t room for them constrains everyone’s freedom, including that of the motorist. But many people are driving for good reasons, having to do with the lack of options in their community, which is a fixable problem. And of course in rural areas where demand is sparse, driving will always be the most efficient and liberating choice for most purposes.
ML: How do you successfully explain complicated topics without degrading them?
JW: I’ve never encountered a public transport topic that needs to be presented obscurely or technically, unless it’s truly the kind of detail that the public won’t care about. I argue that much of what we know about transport is geometric knowledge – like our knowledge that objects don’t fit in containers smaller than themselves.
A lot of what we know about the human motivations is really about animal motivations: All animals above the level of a barnacle need to move in order to get the resources they need, and they are all motivated to do things the easy way rather than the hard way. The latter principle explains what is more obscurely called induced demand or Jevon’s paradox, terms I don’t use much because they make the topic more obscure than it is.
Jargon is sometimes needed for clarity among professionals. For example, as an amateur botanist, I use scientific names for their precision in referring to a species, but I wouldn’t use these names when talking to the general public. But jargon also has an evil use: It can be a way of making other people feel stupid, and of forcing them to trust you because you’re an expert. I never want people to trust me because I’m an expert. I want them to trust me because I’m making sense.
“I never want people to trust me because I’m an expert. I want them to trust me because I’m making sense.”
ML: In your various bus-redesign projects, you have to explain your decisions to the general public, not just transportation professionals. How do you navigate public hearings and criticism?
JW: Our firm’s motto is “we foster clear conversations about transit, leading to confident decisions.” We work with clients to develop network design plans, but we want the plan to be the local agency’s plan, not ours. I’m a consultant who aspires never to make a recommendation. What I want to do is guide a process in which locals figure out what they want for themselves.
When it comes to working with the public and nonprofessional stakeholders, my job is to convene people in the presence of reality. There are a few things you need to know about how transit works in order to understand the consequences of your opinions about it, and to see the choices you need to think about. I don’t recommend a decision, but I do recommend reality-based ways of thinking about the problem. The introduction to my book is a helpful read about this. It’s here.
Photo by Sam Kittner for Mobility Lab.