Emotions and Transit Technology

Jarrett Walker’s Human Transit blog (http://www.humantransit.org) has a defense of his position of BRT (bus rapid transit) and light-rail as competing technologies.  The critic suggested he was biased towards the first, because he doesn’t given enough weight to the superior ride of the latter, which he feels is outweighed by the flexibility of the former.  He then goes on to say that comfort is an ’emotional’ factor.

The criticism comes from ‘Carl’ of Seattle, a city which takes its transit serious, with a downtown tunnel and buses that switch between electric and diesel power as a result (to avoid trapped fumes underground).  Ottawa is about to get the tunnel, along with a revamping/expansion of its rail service (now diesel powered) to replace the BRT along part of its oldest sections.

Ottawa experienced the ’emotions’ of a debate over transit technology in 2006, during the most recent municipal elections (we are now in the middle of the succeeding one).  In that election, with coaching from the neophyte who beat the incumbent mayor, voters from the west and east ganged up on the south in a proposed plan to improve the current south-serving prototype  light-rail and giving it equal space on the surface in downtown (it now stops outside downtown).

The emotional part was two fold: 1) like Walker says, it is about ride comfort.  But I contend it was also about resentment.  The West, which is generally considered to be the best part of town (except downtown), was being ‘dissed’ by council for promising light-rail to the South before the West.  The West has more population along with its higher housing prices (and thus pays higher property taxes).  The latter recruited votes in the East to feel resentful too.

As to ride comfort, I agree.  But calling it an emotional factor is probably going to just evoke more resentment.  Walker’s ‘human transit’ title suggests that he gives more credence than most transit planners to certain intangibles.   Being bumped incessantly on buses traveling well beyond their ideal speed of 40 km/h is hard on the body (including the buses themselves), if you are standing or if you are a little older or are ferrying younger children.  Rail cars are descended from inter-urban travel technology and are sprung for faster speeds, in addition to their more integrated rolling surface (as a kid with a Canadian Pacific Railway father, we vacationed by rail, and I didn’t like the regular clicking of the rail joints).

Comfort is also one of gentle and gradual acceleration and braking, which again rail does better, especially now that buses are getting better brakes and acceleration to help speed service to cash-squeezed transit authorities.  The older riders and straphangers also appreciate the difference.

Finally, comfort is also about the width and presence of stairs at stops.  Got luggage or a laptop or a stroller?  You will like rail’s level platforms and wider entrances.

Since modeling, which Walker says he doesn’t do much, is about predicting human behaviour, it is important not to dismiss comfort so lightly, but to mix it with other factors, such as ‘transfer friction’ to get results that are true to what people do (which is based on their beliefs as well as current conditions).  People treat comfort as important; thus it has to be modeled.

Only when it isn’t given its due will the real emotion come out: resentment.  People don’t want to treated as cattle or as people who count only money, time, and exertion.  And when improvements are introduced, they don’t want to be ignored.  So many are ‘choice’ patrons, having a car sitting idle at home; and many who are ‘captive’ have real ailments that require a gentle ride.  The latter also can make quite a fuss, which will certainly show up in election results.

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