My Kind of Transit: Rethinking Public Transportation in America by Darrin Nordahl

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Darrin Nordahl's book is a rallying cry for people to expect better from their transit systems. He uses a case study approach and experiental analysis in a vein similar to what Tony Hiss did in The Experience of Place (1990). Nordahl's strength is his careful comparison of a variety of transit systems to highlight what he sees as pleasing to riders and what does not seem to work. Transit riders as well as transit designers can examine this book to gain appreciation for a frequently-ignored aspect of transit systems: the emotional and psychological impact of the experience itself.

"The whole of the transit system should allow us to become better connected to our community by easily allowing us to survey and appreciate the landscape and built environment of our home place and by facilitating conversation and social engagement with our community brethren." -- p. 124.

Nordahl's analysis, albeit based on case studies, is nonetheless fairly strong when he compares systems with common functionality and design but different results. For example, he compares the monorail in Seattle with that in Las Vegas and shows how the latter suffers from a distinctively dull route and off-the-strip locale. In another extended analysis, he shows how Santa Barbara's bus circulator's open, bright design contrasts with Chatanooga's well-meaning, but severe design which dampens rider enthusiasm.

Nordahl concludes with a useful checklist of design considerations that can be applied to public transit (pp. 126-155):

  1. The route of the transit system should engage users with interesting places and spaces.
  2. The form of the vehicles should be appropriate to the culture and geography of the place as well as delight the riders.
  3. The scale of the vehicles should make both riders and pedestrians comfortable (not overwhelm with size or bulk).
  4. The headway, or length of time between vehicles, should balance costs, but shorter headway times can add color to a neighborhood and visibility to the transit options.
  5. The operation of the vehicles should have a human touch--with human voices and operators.
  6. The pace of the vehicles should allow riders to experience the setting in which they ride.
  7. The style of the vehicles should be distinctive, of high quality, and delight riders.
  8. The transparency of the vehicles should be maximized with open-air openings if possible and skylights, generous natural light, and clear windows.
  9. The seating choices in the vehicles should provide for a variety of choices, including accomodation for standing riders.
  10. The color of the vehicles can add greatly to the distinctive style and visual impact of the vehicles.
  11. The lighting in the vehicles should be "warm, soft incandescent" rather than harsh and allow for a feeling of safety yet visibility of outside features.
  12. A transit system can strengthen connection to place by bridging natural and made-made barriers as well as unique places.
  13. A transit system can support social opportunity by fostering a community feeling in the vehicles in which people feel comfortable.
  14. A transit system can support economic revitalization by bringing customers to--and increasing their awareness of--businesses along a transit route.

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