Form vs. Function

Post by Steven Dale

Is transit about form or function?

For the last couple of weeks that has very much been the debate over at Human Transit (here, here and here); Form, in the guise of “fun” and “glamour” has been characterized as an unnecessary frill that caters mostly to tourists. Function (“usefulness” and “availability), meanwhile has been cast as the serious business of transit.

And while I’d never go so far as to say that Usefulness is useless, I feel Jarrett Walker (the writer behind Human Transit) overstates Function’s role in stimulating transit usage and needlessly diminishes Form’s role when he says: “the priorities of a pleasure-driven agenda will always be precisely opposite from the agenda of getting around in daily life. Pleasure-driven travellers will go where the pleasure is, but in daily life, we need to go where we’re going.”

As I see it, it’s a poor understanding of human nature and the nature of marketing. It’s also one that is far too characteristic of our current transit (and urban) planning regimes. It’s a Utilitarian-Utopian ideal that posits if only we engineered it to work perfectly then people would use it! and one that completely and entirely negates the irrational, pleasure-seeking nature of humanity.

Just because something works great, doesn’t mean people are going to use it. Remember Betamax? Neither do I.

Consider Apple:

Apple’s computers always worked great. The mouse . . . the Graphical User Interface (GUI) . . . those were Apple’s inventions and they dated from the early 1980‘s. And while the technology worked great, the company was on death’s doorstep for much of the 1990’s. It wasn’t until they adopted industrial designer Jonathan Ive’s daring and sexy iMacs and iPods that people stood up and took notice.

The message “Apple computers are useful” wasn’t enough. And why would it be? The only thing less exciting than the word “useful” is “beige”. The company needed a message carrier – a Trojan Horse, if you will – to make people say “I want to try one of these . . . now!” Once Ive’s designs (Form) lured them in, customers learned quickly to appreciate the company’s hardware (Function). Now, of course, Apple has moved past Form-as-Bait to a point where Form and Function are seamlessly integrated to the mutual benefit of both.

But back to transit: When was the last time you saw a bus and thought I’ve gotta’ ride that . . . now!

The biggest problem I have with Jarrett’s position is his invocation of Maslow’s Heirarchy of Needs. Maslow’s Heirarchy is one of the most basic of marketing concepts yet when Jarrett invokes it, he strips it bare to justify the Utilitarian-Utopian ideal. He also does so incorrectly because he chooses to examine Public Transit in isolation from all other forms of transport. He treats Public Transit as though higher order needs and wants are not already being satisfied by other means. He basically argues that Public Transit has a base problem that needs to be addressed first before addressing higher order needs later.

Problem is, by treating public transit in isolation from all other modes of transport he misses the fact that the vast majority of people in developed countries do not have a basic transportation problem.

The overwhelming majority of people get to work just fine whether it be by private car, bike, foot, steamboat or pony. Many have already solved their basic problem of mobility and have already moved up the pyramid to explore the higher order needs Jarrett dismisses. They’ve also discovered that options other than Public Transit present a far more appealing product than what Public Transit currently has on offer.

Volvo, after all, isn’t competing at the bottom of Maslow’s pyramid.

A quick thought experiment:

Imagine that you have the choice between two possible routes which you can use to walk from your home and to your work every day.

The first route (let’s call it 1st Ave.) takes 20 minutes and passes through an industrial part of town. There are few storefronts, sidewalks are neglected and there’s little shade. There isn’t even a Starbucks for you to stop at to grab your morning latte. You’ll get your coffee at the office.

The second route (let’s call it 2nd St.) takes 25 minutes. It passes through a lively neighborhood of young professionals and artists. There are unique storefronts everywhere and even a Starbucks. Yet stopping for your latte adds an additional 10 minutes to your journey. Your total travel time via 2nd St. is 35 minutes (including Starbucks); a 75% longer journey than if you’d taken 1st Ave. Even if you skipped the Starbucks, you walk is still 5 minutes longer than 1st Ave.

Which would you opt for? I would, too.

Once your basic mobility needs are met (in this case via walking), you move on.

Despite my great respect for Jarrett, I simply cannot agree with his assumption that “the main problem with transit is that at most times, in most places, for most trips, the available transit service just isn’t useful.” That’s not to say that it isn’t a problem, it is. I’m just not so certain that it’s the main problem. I also cannot accept the idea that focusing solely on  “coverage, speed, reliability, frequency and information” will remedy the problem. The facts simply don’t support this theory:

The New York metropolitan area has one of the most developed transit systems on the planet. It is frequent, has express trains, covers a ludicriously large area, provides 24 hour subway service and is reasonably reliable. It’s also cheap. New York traffic, however, is miserable and good luck trying to find a parking spot. Yet only 30% of New Yorkers use public transit as their primary means of transport to work every day.

Switzerland meanwhile, has one of the densest rail and public transit networks on the planet. Transit runs on pitch-perfect schedules with few delays and cost-effective transit passes allow for unlimited use of all rail, bus and local transit systems for the entire country. Gasoline and parking meanwhile, is ridiculously expensive and camera-enabled speeding tickets are a constant nuissance. Despite all this, two-thirds of all transit in Switzerland is conducted by private automobile and car ownership is well-above the European average.

According to Jarrett’s thesis, these places should be transit meccas but they’re not. They’re average at best.

You can plow all your money into Function and Usefulness all you want, but it’s a strategy that’s unlikely to yield the desired results.

A colleague of mine always washes her hands after getting off of an LRT to rid herself of “streetcar hands” and complains that “buses make (her) feel poor.” This woman is a professional designer who has never driven in her life, doesn’t want to and doesn’t own a car. But now that she’s out of school, owns a home, runs her own business and is married to a man who does drive, how much longer can we expect her put up with Streetcar Hands before making the jump to car ownership?

Yes, Form does tend to follow Function, but part of a transit system’s function is to create ways by which to lure people to use the service and retain them as users. Public Transit needs to accept that they are in competition with a whole slew of other transport options – none of which rely on mass government subsidy the way transit does – and are losing badly. Form – or lack thereof – is part of the reason.

Public Transit is probably the worst marketed product in the history of mankind and the idea that we must sacrifice Form in favour of Function is just another misstep in a long line of gaffes and stumbles. Call it Fun or Glamour or Form or Novelty or whatever, but if you cannot find a way to convince people to use a service, the Usefulness of that service is wasted.

Usefulness isn’t useful if few are using it.

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  1. Sorry your wrong besides public transit there also bicycles and walking. And it also depends in which area you measure. In the city usually transit is the fastest option at least during daytime. In the countryside mostly the car is much faster. And it also depends how you make the statistic. If somebody walks 600m and another guy drives 6 km to go to work you can either say work trips are fifty fifty spitted between cars and pedestrians or you can say there are ten times more person kilometers traveled by cars both is true.
  2. Hi Matthias, I agree, there's also bicycles and walking aside from public transit. The point I was trying to make was that despite Switzerland having some of the most "useful" transit systems in the world, it is still not the primary means people move around. Walking, cycling and driving are dominant. I agree with your point regarding km's travelled, and even had that concern myself. If you had any transit ridership statistics for the country and her biggest cities, that would be very useful. Nevertheless, isn't it odd that car ownership in Switzerland is so much higher than the European average even though the transit system is so well developed?
  3. The point is that Switzerland is one of the wealthiest country in the world. I know many people which mainly use public transit. That means every day the use public transit for work and most of the time. They still own a car as a standby mainly using it for leisure activities. Simply because they earn enough to afford a car not because they need it. BTW also the value of the cars are more than average and the horse power and top speed too. Even speed is limited to 120km/h which any car easily achieves. Even with top public transit people still will use cars. See Singapore were car ownership is really expensive and at the same time public transit is very good and Singapore probably got the best cabs in teh world. With teh money you pay for a car you could commute for years using a taxi. there. But people still want to own a personal car. This is not something rational so any attempt to stop car ownerhip has only limited succes. However with good public transit people do not need a car and maybe one car per household is enough compared to many places in North America where you need to own a car to move around.
  4. Matthias, I couldn't agree with you more and I was waiting for someone to bring up the wealth argument. The major point I was making in response to Jarrett Walker's column(s) was that there are far more factors involved in getting people to use transit than just "usefulness". The reason I invoked the Swiss example was to demonstrate that, despite having some of the most advanced transit in the world, people still opt for car ownership and driving. Sometimes usefulness isn't enough. Thanks for your insight!
  5. The GUI was first implemented by Xerox PARC and first used in their Star Workstation in 1981. Later on Apple released a much improved GUI in the Lisa and then Macintosh. The GUI was conceptualised well before both of these products were released, but there wasn't hardware available to implement them on.
  6. Stephanie Stout
    Although I use a car for most of my transportation needs, I hate being a slave to the automobile. Even if I had a better car, there would still be the problems of congestion, the visual ugliness of sprawl, traffic fatality rates almost as bad as warfare, and the real fear of breaking down beyond walking range with little or no public transportation as a backup. In spite of those negatives, the automobile industry sells its products based upon FUN. Yes, urban mass transit and intercity passenger rail and busses should promote their services based on network coverage, frequency and span of service, speed, safety, reliability, and comfort (if they are capable of providing those things), but they should not forget FUN, even if they are a public agency. Most airlines have forgotten it, and most public transportation agencies have never learned the concept of FUN. If a transportation agency or company has the infrastructure and equipment to provide good service, adding FUN does not cost much more. When I was stationed in Germany, I walked and used buses, streetcars, and trains to go everywhere I wanted, almost any time I wanted and found the whole travel experience to be convenient, safe, comfortable, and FUN. I had no fear of being stranded and was not subjected to man made ugliness, nor was I ostracized for not owning a car.
  7. Hi Stephanie, I think "fun" is just one of those things we aren't "allowed" to consider when we talk about government infrastructure projects. It's as though we've built our models and equations to assume that people are not emotional creatures who are going to be motivated by things other than simple math. For example, in Switzerland there are parts of some major train cars configured to act very much like a miniature bar/restaurant (note, I'm not talking about the dining cars here). During rush hour you very often see people congregating in those places and sharing a pint of beer - which you can buy in the train station at the kiosk for a couple of bucks. That changes how people think of transit. It becomes a part of their lives because it's pleasant.

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