How far will people walk for public transport – and how close should stops be?

Well, this guy isn't walking any further, that's for sure: a publicity stunt for a certain furniture store in Paris, in 2010. Image: Getty.

The question of walking distance in transit is much bigger than it seems.  A huge range of consequential decisions depend on assumptions about how far customers will be willing to walk: stop spacing, network structure, travel time, reliability standards, frequency and even mode choice...

The same issue also governs the amount of money an agency will have to spend on predictably low-ridership services that exist purely for social-service or "equity" reasons.

I once received an email asking about how walking distance standards vary around the world. I don't know the whole world, but in the countries I've worked in – the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand – the view is pretty consistent:

1) If you have to choose a single walking distance standard for all situations, the most commonly cited standard is 400m or 1/4 mile.  Europe tends to be comfortable with slightly longer distances.

2) But – people walk further to faster services.  (Rail advocates are more likely to phrase this as "people walk further to rail".) 

This doesn't have to be a sociological or humanistic debate, though urbanists often frame it that way. If you are a rational and informed actor seeking to minimise travel time, it often makes sense to walk more than 400m to a rapid transit station, rather than wait for a bus to cover such a short distance. 

3) Although the common standard is 400m or 1/4 mi, we all know that this cannot possibly be a hard boundary.  It makes no sense to assume that if you live 395m from a bus stop you'll be totally happy to walk that distance, while your neighbuor, who lives 405m from the same stop, will be totally unwilling to. 

Obviously, the relationship between distance and willingness to walk is a continuous curve without sharp breaks.  This has to be said becauseour language often forces us to create the illusionof sharp breaks – for instance, when we say something like "people are generally willing to walk up to 400m to transit”.

Finally, it's remarkably hard to sift data into a form that produces unequivocal guidance on the question.  For example, the leading US guide on transit planning, the Transit Capacity and Quality of Service Manual, offers only this:

Source: TCQSM Chapter 3, Appendix A, p. 3-93.  Discussion and version in US units is on p. 3-9.

This survey-based graph shows the breakdown of local bus passengers by the distance they walked to get to the service.  As you'd expect, few people walk more than 200m in downtown Washington, DC because in such a densely served area, few people would need to.  In low-density Calgary, at the opposite extreme, many people have to walk fairly long distances.

But extrapolating opinions from behaviour is a tricky business.  It's hard to reason from “how far people walk” to “how far they're willing to walk”.  To do that, you'd have to determine whether each rider would be willing to walk further than he actually has to walk.  

You'd also have to speculate about each rider's available options.  If 10 per cent of Calgary's bus riders walk 600m or more, does that mean they're willing to?  Or does it mean that these people are so lacking in good alternatives that they feel forced to walk that far?  (The difference between "high income" and "low income" Washington DC suggests that range of options does have something to do with it.) 

Sociologists and demographers can have a field day parsing this question – but they're unlikely to come up with an answer of such statistical certainty that it definitively sweeps the question aside.

So we approximate.  We generally assume that 400m is a rough upper bound for slow local-stop service, and that for rapid-transit, usually rail, we can expect people to walk up to 1000m or so.

But when we try to apply these rules of thumb, we hit another hard issue (or at least, we do if we're willing to acknowledge it). Are we talking about true walking distance, or just air distance?  Over and over, in transit studies, you'll see circles around bus stops being used to indicate the potential market area, as though everyone within 400m air distance is within 400m walk distance.

Check out this graphic:


In both images, the red dot is a transit stop and the red circle is an air-distance radius.  If you draw 400m circles around stops based on the assumption of a 400m walking distance, you're implying that the whole circle is within walking distance. 

But in fact, even with the near-perfect pedestrian grid in the right-hand image, the area within 400m walk (outline in blue) is only 64 per cent of the red air-distance circle.  With an obstructed suburban network like the left-hand image, it can be less than 30 per cent.

Obviously, the market area around each stop should really be defined by the walkable area, which requires a knowledge of the local pedestrian network. That requires a complete GIS database of every walkable link in the community – an extremely detailed task that few jurisdictions have been willing to attempt until recently.  Even in Canberra, Australia, which is known in the business for the extreme richness of off-street pedestrian connections, no reliable database of them was available for modelling purposes as recently as last year.

Still, if you don't have such a database, if you know you have a good street grid, it should be easy to adjust the walking distance standard to reflect the problem. In the right-hand image above, do the math and you'll figure out that if the radius of the red circle is 400m, then a circle whose area is the same as that of the blue diamond – the actual area in walking distance – would have a radius of 319m.  So if you want to roughly model the actual radius that arises from a 400m walking distance, and you have a well-connected street grid, draw a circle 319m in radius. 

That doesn't give you the correct boundaries of the area – it's a circle rather than a square – but it's a far better approximation than just drawing a 400m circle.  

I have never actually seen this done, and I'm not sure why. One reason might be that secretly, we transit planners all want people to walk further.  After all, most transit planners don't want to just passively respond to current behaviour: if they did, they'd all be highway engineers.  Most transit planners believe in the importance of shifting behaviour in more sustainable directions, and see both transit ridership and walking as deserving encouragement through intervention.  They are also aware of the public health benefits of walking.

But we have a more vivid motive to encourage walking.  The nature of the transit product is such that, if we assume longer walking distances, services could stop less often. That could achieve both better running times and reduced operating cost; the latter could be reinvested as higher frequency. 

In other words, the two most fundamental determinants of transit travel time – running time and frequency – both depend on our assumption about walking distance.

With such basic things at stake, it's understandable that planners are always looking for ways to push walking distance wider.  That may be the real reason that generations of planners have chosen to approximate a 400m walk with a 400m circle, even though every pedestrian knows how absurd that is.

I prefer to just have the argument in simpler terms.  In Canberra, we pushed the walking distance standard from 400m to 500m – not because people were calling us demanding to walk further, but rather because we looked at how much more frequency and speed we would achieve, and the ridership that could attract, and decided that 100m of radius was a small price to pay for such benefits. 

It comes back to that graph near the top of this post, showing how far people walk to transit in different cities.  There's no definitive authority for a 400m standard as opposed to 300m or 500m or even 600m.  Yes, if you pick a bigger radius you'll lose riders from the outer edges of the radius, but on the other hand, you may buy so much travel time and frequency that your ridership goes up. 

As with everything else in transit, it depends on what you're trying to do.

Jarrett Walker is an international consultant in public transit network design and policy, based in Portland, Oregon. He is also the author of “Human Transit: How clearer thinking about public transit can enrich our communities and our lives”.

This article was originally published on his blog in 2011, and is reposted here with permission. All images courtesy of the author.


How the rise of anti-crime politics caused lasting harm to Black Americans

"I see an awareness that has developed in the Black community in the last 10 years or so about how deeply racist the criminal justice system has become," James Forman Jr. says. (David McNew/Getty Images)

The police killing of George Floyd, and the protest movement that emerged from it, has reinvigorated a national conversation around reinventing criminal justice policy in the United States.

At the same time, reports that violent crime is rising in many US cities have resurrected talk of the much-disputed “Ferguson effect,” a theory put forward by law enforcement professionals, and some researchers, who argued that police slowdowns in the wake of the first wave of Black Lives Matter protests resulted in elevated rates of violent crime. President Donald Trump is trying to weaponise this narrative, paired with images of federal officers clashing with protesters in the streets of Portland, to wage a 1968-style backlash election campaign.

“People who want to mobilise a lock-them-up style of either policing or prosecution have tried to weaponise those short-term increases,” says James Forman Jr., professor of law at Yale Law School. “Criminologists will say you have to be very, very cautious about short-term movement [in crime statistics]. We don't know whether or not what we're seeing right now [with violent crime increasing] is going to sustain itself. But the fact is, it's here and people are talking about it.”

In 2018, Forman won the Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction for his book Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America. Drawing on his experience as a public defender in Washington, DC, he traced the emergence of anti-crime politics in late 20th century Black communities. Forman showed how newly empowered Black politicians fought for policies they believed would protect and uplift Black Americans, but inadvertently contributed to mass incarceration. 

CityMetric recently caught up with Forman to discuss crime trends, where he sees reason for hope in this moment and how the Black political class’s attitude toward crime and punishment has shifted since the latter part of the 20th century. 

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

There is talk right now about a resurgence of crime and violence in American cities. We saw similar, more localised concerns after the initial 2015 Black Lives Matter protests in Ferguson and Baltimore. Do you fear this could reinvigorate the kind of politics you describe in your book among segments of the Black community and political class?

I fear that it could be reinvigorated nationally and also in the Black political class. Look at the political conversations that are happening in Atlanta right now, for example, a city that also has seen a short-term uptick in crime as it is a site of a lot of protests about George Floyd and Breonna Taylor on the national level, as well as Rayshard Brooks and Ahmaud Arbery more locally in Georgia.

I think that you can already see in some of the language of the local elected officials this idea that we have to be very careful about pulling back. [They are saying] “while the protesters may make some valid points, we can't risk returning to the ‘80s and ‘90s.” Those decades really traumatised the United States, and particularly traumatised Black communities. There's a deep fear about returning to the levels of the violence that we saw in the crack years.

You write a lot about class divides among Black Americans, where middle income and elite Black people don't suffer as much from extremely punitive policies. They also have closer ties to the politicians who are creating these policies. There are very specific groups of people, even in marginalised communities, whose voices are heard.  As a result of these dynamics, you write about Black politicians fighting for things like mandatory minimum prison sentences or against decriminalising marijuana. Is there still that disconnect between those who suffer the most from criminal justice policies and those who are actually heard in political discourse?  

Let me just say a caveat, that when we talk about class divisions in the Black community it's important to hold two truths in our head at the same time. Bruce Western and others have shown the way in which class, educational status, income can dramatically reduce the likelihood of being hardest hit by the criminal system – namely incarcerated. Middle class and upper middle class Black people get some measure of protection. It's also true at the same time that Black people of all classes are worse off relative to their class counterparts in the white community. 

One area where class is least protective is policing and police stops. The police do not know how many degrees you have. They don't know how much money you have in your bank account. I want to be very clear that in making this point about class, I'm not making the argument that race or racism don't matter in this context. 

In terms of how it plays out now, I see an awareness that has developed in the Black community in the last 10 years or so about how deeply racist the criminal justice system has become. Twenty or 30 years ago they had a consciousness, but there's levels of understanding. Many of the people I write about in the book wanted to promote the interests of the Black community. They weren't motivated by indifference or callousness. When presented with mounting evidence of how awful this system has been in Black lives, they're reconsidering and recalibrating. 

Lots of former elected officials have said to me some version of “I didn't know at the time and I appreciate that you showed us in our full complexity. I appreciate that you showed the pressures we were under. If I had known then what I know now, maybe I would have been less quick to go along with some of these harsh measures.” 

The second thing that has affected the Black political class has been the emerging movements, led by Black people in particular and led by young people. They not only educated leaders, but pressured them and made them understand that there is a political cost. If you're not moved by the moral argument, then you'll be moved by the political argument. You'll be moved by the people protesting outside the office of District Attorney Jackie Lacey in Los Angeles, for example, where Black Lives Matter LA has held, I believe, a year of consecutive protests against a Black district attorney who has had really some of the worst practices.

From what I can tell, she's been pressured by the movement to change some of her positions on important issues like prosecution of low-level drug offenders, for example, and the aggressiveness with which she prosecutes police officers for acts of violence.

What do you make of the calls to defend or even abolish the police?

What I find so compelling about abolition, initially in the prison context and extended to the police as well, is that it shifts the conversation and forces us to go through experiments in which we imagine what it would take to build that world. I think that exercise is very important, because it pushes us further than we are naturally inclined to go. Cultivating a broader imagination is an incredibly important part of this work, because as you know from my book, often it was lack of imagination that caused people to fall back on [punitive policies]. 

That's what caused D.C. Councilmember David Clarke to call the police rather than public health experts when he was overwhelmed with letters about heroin addicts in public space. He was anti-drug war, but he couldn't imagine responding to a call for help with heroin addicts with anything other than police. That's a very common move from even really good and progressive people. 

People who are for defunding, for abolition, are absolutely right about reinvesting that money into alternative structures that support communities. But the reinvestment part doesn't follow naturally from the terms. We might want to come up with a term that captures the new stuff we want to do. I think that's particularly important because one of the reasons Black communities have ended up supporting more police is that Black communities have always wanted their fair share of the resources.

Then, the evidence suggests the United States has too many police officers doing prophylactic, preventative, or stop-and-frisk style policing. The style of policing that leads to district level harassment, pulling people over for no reason. But we have too little investment in the parts of police departments that investigate unsolved crimes. I'm talking about the investigator or the detective who comes to your house after there's been a robbery, an assault, a rape, or homicide. 

As compared to European countries, in the United States we actually underinvest in those parts of our police departments. Jill Leovy’s book Ghettoside shows this in dramatic detail. She describes an LAPD that's stopping and frisking Black drivers wantonly and yet the homicide detectives are still relying on a fax machine and the fax machine is broken. They have to go with their own money to Staples to buy a printer. Meanwhile, other aspects of the department are kitted out in this ridiculous riot gear that makes them look like they're in Fallujah. 

That under investment is particularly damaging to Black communities because we're disproportionately victimised by crime. Because of racism and this allocation of resources, the police are less likely to respond in Black communities. The kids I used to work with in the charter schools in DC, we talk about no snitching, but one of the reasons they would never call the police after they'd been victimised by crime is they would say, “They're not even going to come. You're wasting time.” 

I did a Q&A with Jill Leovy too and her argument is one I've struggled to articulate in our present moment. She argues the state doesn't have a monopoly on violence in low-income Black neighbourhoods, because investigations of violence are deemphasised and crime victims or their loved ones often take retribution into their own hands.  But right now, establishing or preserving the state's monopoly on violence isn't an appealing talking point. 

Yes, this is another thing nobody's talking about. Whatever we're going to do instead of the police has to be accountable to the public. The best, most direct way to have accountability is to have the individuals be public employees. As long as we have 300 million guns in this country at least some of those state employees are going to themselves be armed. It's unreasonable to ask them to do the job without it. Not as many need to be armed as are armed now, but some of them need to be. But they can't be hiding behind union contracts or civil service protections which make it impossible to remove even the worst performing, most abusive officers. 

We can not call them police if we want to. That's semantic, but maybe symbolism matters. But those people have to be state employees. They can work with community-based nonprofits, but there are also communities that don't have as robust of a nonprofit network, and they deserve protection too. These [community] groups have to be accountable to the state and, when they don't exist, the state has to be there. 

Progressives get all the points I just made when it's applied to education. The notion that things be public and accountable to the state is understood when it comes to schools. It's exactly why so many people on the left are opposed to charter schools, because they say they don't have public accountability. They want these things to be a state function. But this point about the difficulty in removing this entirely from the hands of the state is, I think, one that liberals and progressives understand from other contexts.

Jake Blumgart is a staff writer at CityMetric.