Photo by thisisbossi on Flickr.

Transportation guru Jarrett Walker had some criticism for the Metrobus map, and cautionary words for planners of the DC Circulator, streetcar, and similar circulators in Tysons Corner, when speaking to audiences last week in DC and Silver Spring.

Walker, a native of transit mecca Portland, Oregon, was here to sell his new book, Human Transit: How Clearer Thinking about Public Transit Can Enrich Our Communities and Our Lives.

He acknowledged that many ascribe to him an anti-rail bias, but insisted that the goal of transit should be to provide fast, frequent, reliable service in the most cost-effective way possible, regardless of mode.

In his talk, he suggested that a great measure of transit’s effectiveness is the isochrone — a map showing where you can travel on transit within a given time. Transit providers should aim increase the number of destinations within any given isochrone.


30-minute isochrone from the White House. Image from Mapnificent.


He encouraged cities to move away from the historic North American penchant for putting a bus stop at nearly every corner (something not done in the rest of the world), and expect riders to walk a little more so that service is faster for everyone. Shortening trip times reduces the cost of providing service, which usually means that more service can be provided. It also encourages more people to ride, because it increases the area of the isochrone.

Transit routes that deviate off a direct path to serve poorly-located shopping centers, housing cul-de-sacs, and insular complexes, inconvenience through-riders and make transit less attractive, he said. Anything not built “on the way” is essentially saying, “I only want as much transit service as I alone can support,” because those destinations can’t be pooled with any other destinations. Once urban areas have taken this built form, it becomes expensive to provide service to them.

He ripped into WMATA’s Metrobus map, pointing out that almost every route is shown in red, regardless of how often it runs.  That’s not helpful, he says, because it’s like a roadmap “which doesn’t differentiate between a highway and a gravel road.”


Section of the DC Metrobus map. Image from WMATA.


Maps like this, which Walker laments are all too common amongst US transit systems, put the onus on the rider to first figure out what routes get them to where they want to go, then consult a complicated schedule to find out how often it runs.

Instead, he said, the map’s design should make it as easy as possible on the rider by displaying routes based on frequency. Routes with the most frequent and round-the-clock service “should scream out at you,” he insisted. For example, putting routes in a different color would let riders know at a glance if they could easily jump on board and not bother with a timetable.

Poor map design and inscrutable signpost information cost more than just riders. In some cities, it’s become so frustrating that officials have thrown up their hands and turned to another form of transit altogether. Walker finds that unconscionable: cities shouldn’t build streetcars or new bus systems simply because the existing system is incomprehensible. He pointed to the DC Circulator as a prime example of unnecessary duplication that squanders public resources that would be better spent making the most-used Metrobus routes more frequent and user-friendly.

His point about circulators is instructive for Tysons Corner, where five are planned. Walker says when good bus service is already there, adding circulators can be redundant and wasteful. In Canberra, Australia, planners faced with a similar situation saved lots of money by choosing simply to rebrand a section where many existing bus lines converged as one cohesive service (the “Green Line”) with clock-face regularity.

He acknowledged that streetcars do tend to drive economic development because of their perceived permanence and attractiveness compared to buses. But he urged planners to remember that 50 years from now, any economic development potential today will be distant history, but the travel time riders gain from a bus which can navigate around obstacles will endure. He further cautioned against thinking of laying rails as signifying permanence, since most of DC’s original streetcar tracks have been paved over.

Above all, Walker emphasized, transit agencies and the governments that fund them should see their job as enhancing freedom by making as much of the region as possible accessible by frequent, reliable service. The other things transit does, such as spurring economic development, providing jobs, protecting the environment and enhancing social equity, are all secondary to this primary purpose of transit.

If you missed Jarrett last week, you can watch his presentation to the Montgomery County Planning Department, below:

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Jenifer Joy Madden is a multi-media journalist and founder of DurableHuman.com. Vice chair of the Fairfax Co. Transportation Advisory Commission, she was instrumental in the Tysons Metrorail Station Access Management Project and planned a multi-purpose trail system that connects to Tysons.

Malcolm Kenton lives in the DC’s NoMa neighborhood. Hailing from Greensboro, NC and a graduate of Guilford College (BA) and George Mason University (MA, Transportation Policy), he is a consultant and writer on transportation, travel, and sustainability topics and a passionate advocate for world-class passenger rail and other forms of sustainable mobility and for incorporating nature and low-impact design into the urban fabric. The views he expresses on GGWash are his own.