Increasing transit ridership: Should we make public transportation “fun” or “useful”?

By Glenn Halstead

Writer and urban designer Darrin Nordahl thinks he knows how to increase public transit ridership: If transportation planners and engineers simply make using transit more fun, tourists and commuters alike will be more likely to use it instead of driving. This idea of making transit “fun” goes against the usual way planners and engineers try to increase ridership: by making public transportation more useful and efficient. Both theories provide compelling arguments, and the debate has been taken up in recent weeks by publications and blogs such as Atlantic Cities, Slate, and Transportation Issues Daily.

In his new book My Kind of Transit: Rethinking Public Transportation in America, Nordahl recognizes that people derive significant enjoyment from their personal automobiles, and that unless planners and engineers make public transportation more enjoyable, people will remain resistant to leaving their cars at home. Cars, he states, “pray on the emotions” of travelers, and transit planners and policymakers should do the same. System to system, public transportation is nearly identical, he claims, with buses, trains, and light rail cars that lack any character. Because we are already investing in improving the design of public spaces like streets and parks, why not invest similarly in improving the design of public transit facilities? In the introduction to the book, he summarizes his intentions and theories:

The focus here is neither the economical nor environmental benefits of public transit, but the experience offered to the passenger and onlooker. I wish to show that, through thoughtful planning and design, the transit vehicle—a mobile form of public space—can provide a setting for public life and enrich many aspects of our daily lives.

Nordahl argues that some of the most beloved transit systems in the U.S. are systems that are unique to their own city—including the cable cars of San Francisco and the funicular trains in Pittsburgh. He believes that these systems remain popular, not because of their usefulness or efficiency, but because they offer a memorable, emotional experience to their users.

Jarret Walker, a transit policy and design consultant, supports a more traditional approach to increasing public transportation ridership. In his book, Human Transit, Walker argues that planners and engineers should focus on maximizing a system’s usefulness; he states that “if we want people to embrace transit as a primary mode, transit service must be useful.” Increasing the attractiveness of transit, he believes, will only happen by serving the most people in the largest coverage area possible, as frequently, reliably, and cheaply as possible.

Walker believes that policies that focus on appealing to passengers’ emotions disregard the importance users place on efficiency and cost. In a criticism of Nordahl’s arguments, Walker states that,

…nowhere does he show any interest in what various transit technologies cost to build and operate. Nowhere does he suggest that ridership may have anything to do with the travel time we offer and the fare we charge…Instead, he offers purely aesthetic rumination…[and] such ruminations…are far removed from the practical business of transit, and are unlikely to influence it from such a distance.

Although both publications make good points, perhaps the most interesting aspect of the debate is that it is being so fiercely argued in so many different media. The articles themselves are compelling reading for anyone interested in how and why we move about as we do.

Glenn Halstead worked as an assistant at SSTI until last week. He is off to the private sector, and can be reached at glennahalstead@gmail.com.