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Rush hour traffic including TTC vehicles on Spadina Avenue in Toronto on Nov. 29, 2013.

Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail

What kind of city do you want, Toronto?

That's the sort of deceptively simple question that transportation expert Jarrett Walker says has been lost in the squabbling over transit routes. And it's urgent for a city struggling to keep moving in the coming decades.

Mr. Walker is the author of the book Human Transit and runs a blog of the same title. He will be appearing with Toronto Chief Planner Jennifer Keesmaat Thursday at St. Paul's church on Bloor Street East, at an event hosted by the city's planning department and the regional transit agency Metrolinx.

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Although the globe-trotting consultant is quick to caution against the "mono-modalists" who believe there is a single answer to traffic woes, he is firm that dense cities can't function without proper transit. Mr. Walker spoke to The Globe and Mail's Oliver Moore last week from Columbus, Ohio.

You're coming to Toronto, where transit planning is a political mess. What's your message?

You need to take a break from binary debates about whether or not to build a certain thing. It's pretty clear that, especially recently, we've lost track of what we're all trying to do here. So I'm going to be talking about, after you've built transit, what effect you want it to have on the city. And taking it back from that, what does a coherent network of all modes look like and, really only after that, okay, what we should build.

There's almost a capitulation – people saying 'just build something, anything.'

The downsides to building the wrong thing are not just that opponents of transit have evidence of waste, but also that you spent money serving a small number of people that could have been spent on serving a large number of people. And when I say serving I really mean liberating. In a city as dense as Toronto, transit needs to be an instrument of freedom. Transit needs to form a network that all fits together so you can get anywhere you're going. One of the things I think is most [discouraging] about the Toronto conversation is that nobody seems to be talking about the interests of Toronto, it's all about the interests of this neighbourhood against the interests of that neighbourhood. And that's another thing I'm going to talk about quite a bit.

System maps are a transit feature to which you devote a lot of attention. What's your take on the new ones proposed by the TTC?

They've picked up one idea that I think is fundamental: if you're not visually showing frequency you're not showing the system. Transit isn't useful unless it's there both where and when you need it. So whenever my firm draws a map, for example, we draw different frequencies in different colours. The service that's coming so frequently that there's basically always a next one coming jumps out at you very, very prominently. The last draft of the [TTC] map I saw is sort of halfway there, they're using kind of wider red lines for the frequent network. But I don't understand why the whole map has to be red and I don't understand why there have to be so many little footnotes. I'm constantly encouraging agencies to focus on simplicity.

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The analogy I make is that maps that don't signal frequency are basically like a highway map that doesn't show the difference between a freeway and a gravel road. If you can't see that this bus is coming every seven minutes and that bus is coming every 60 minutes, or once every Tuesday afternoon, you can't really see the network at all. All you're looking at is a bunch of lines on a map. I think that also affects the decisions that our [leaders] make, especially those that aren't transit riders themselves.

In your book you talk about a future in which transit acts as a pedestrian accelerator. Can you explain?

Transit is at its most effective when it delivers you much, much faster than you can walk into a place where you are welcomed as a pedestrian. Right now we have a bit of a conflict with the current trends in urban design. When we run transit on the surface, the urban designers want us all to be very slow. The challenge, though, is that you have to deliver a reasonable travel time. If we're only going a little faster than walking, people might as well walk. And that's not a very efficient way of serving people or attracting them. For transit to really succeed, it's got to be way faster than walking, not just be twice as fast as walking, which is kind of what you've achieved with your mixed-traffic streetcars. And that's where I differ with a great deal of the current conventional wisdom in the urban design profession, which tends to be very obsessed with slowing transit down and which tends to romanticize things like Queen Street or King Street.

I understand that you don't like drawing distinctions between captive riders, who must use transit, and choice riders, who must be convinced. But transit advocates often talk about the need to build a network good enough to convince the latter group to get out of their cars, a separate goal beyond moving people. Why does that distinction bother you?

As soon as you talk to me about choice or captive, you're being encouraged to divide everybody into two boxes. And once you are there, it's easy to feel, well, those captive riders, they'll ride anyway, we don't really have to care about their experience. But in the real world it's not two boxes, it's a spectrum. People are everywhere along the spectrum, between choice and captive, and most people are in their own complicated situations where they may be a little bit captive but also a little bit choice.

Where transit really succeeds is by being broadly useful to what I call the middle 80 per cent. I understand that people project their ideals about separation of classes onto transit. But to respond to that you've only got to look around you on the subway – transit succeeds through diversity. Transit succeeds through getting a middle 80 per cent onto the same vehicle. And that means two things.

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First, you can't assume that half these people are unimportant cause they're stuck with you. And you have to be careful not to design to such an elite level that you're appealing to rather small numbers of people. Successful transit is mass transit. You don't do great mass transit by appealing to the tastes of the top 10 per cent, because there's just not that many of them. I'm constantly asking people fortunate enough to be in elite positions in society to remember that your personal tastes aren't really a good guide necessarily to what makes transit succeed.

On your blog recently you said that on-time metrics -- which many transit executives love to tout -- are too narrow a way to measure performance. Why might headway maintenance be a better measure?

In every kind of measurement, we should be starting with the customer experience. When you get to extremely high frequencies, the customer is no longer waiting for a particular vehicle. They're going out there and knowing a vehicle will come soon. Headway maintenance and headway monitoring simply means that instead of caring about whether the bus is on time, we care about whether there's a bus every seven minutes, or however frequent it's supposed to be.

Suppose that you have a particular bus route that's supposed to run every five minutes and every trip is exactly 10 minutes late. That's 0 per cent on-time performance. Headway maintenance would be perfect. The customer can't tell the difference. Very frequently, and on-time performance is a particular example, we have in the transit industry measures that are convenient for the operator but not really relevant to what matters to the customer. Headway monitoring is one obvious example of a way to reframe how you think in order to be monitoring the right thing.

Finally, a guest columnist in this paper wrote last month that the way to beat congestion was to build more roads. And he pointed to Portland, your hometown, as the anti-example, to prove his point. What's your response?

If you really focus on what it says, it's saying people who don't drive cars don't exist. They don't matter to society. That is not only offensive but it's also economically wrong. You look at all the work that's being done on urban economics, and dense cities are the drivers of the economy. People who don't understand how dense cities work, and the fact that they start with transit, are creating a recipe for economic failure. They're drawing a recipe for choking off the very foundation of prosperity.

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The transportation networks of the future are going to be massively multi-modal, they're going to be many different kinds of bus technology used on different places depending on what works. And that's ultimately the challenge of the 21st century, beating back the mono-modalists – all of the people who think that, whatever it is, the driverless car, the streetcar, the monorail, I don't care what it is – who think that any one thing is the answer.

This interview has been edited and condensed

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