Transit can have a broad impact on community livability, like this bus stop in Los Angeles, which catalyzed nearby development after simple improvements were made

For years, large-scale transit projects submitted for funding in the United States have been evaluated primarily on cost and the amount of time they save commuters. While these criteria may seem perfectly reasonable, the cheapest, quickest transit route is not necessarily the one that best serves communities along the way.

Two weeks ago, the Obama Administration made a dramatic policy shift on how to evaluate major transportation projects. In a statement on January 13th, U.S Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced that, “We want to base our decisions on how much transit helps the environment, how much it improves development opportunities and how it makes our communities better places to live.”

Wow! For many years, Project for Public Spaces has advocated for greater community involvement in the transportation planning process, beginning with our 1997 publication, “The Role of Transit in Creating Livable Metropolitan Communities.” Reflecting on this report, Senior Vice President Steve Davies noted, “We first had to define what livability was, because it means different things to different people. It was through this process that we first developed the place diagram, which has become one of PPS’ most influential tools.”

Twelve years later, a key theme of the report–transportation projects can positively affect the livability of communities–is poised to become a part of federal policy. PPS.org sat down with PPS Vice President Cynthia Nikitin to gauge her reaction to this exciting news and discuss the implications for the transportation planning process in the future.

PPS.org: Transportation Secretary Ray Lahood recently announced that new funding guidelines for major transit projects will now be based on livability and economic development opportunities in addition to cost and time saved, which are currently the primary criteria. Please explain why this is such a significant development.

Cynthia Nikitin: This is a fundamental change in the way that transportation agencies measure success. Now, there is a greater focus on community benefits accrued, rather than the operational benefits that come from time savings.

PPS: Do you think a greater focus on livability in the transportation planning process can have a significant impact on the overall quality of life of a community?

CN: Absolutely, because transit becomes a way to build and support how people get around their community. Mobility is a key element in livability, and the transportation profession hasn’t fully realized how significant a role they play in creating viable, livable communities.

PPS: The secretary’s announcement does not specifically mention the role of community input during the planning process, but rather a means of inviting public comment after implementation. What are your thoughts on the role of community involvement, especially in regards to this new policy shift?

CN: I think community involvement throughout the planning process is absolutely vital. Talking about livability without also fundamentally changing the way [transportation agencies] involve communities is not going to be successful. In order to shift the focus to livability, they must also change the entire process by engaging communities at the outset to determine what liability means to them, and what they want their transit system to provide. Community involvement will have to play a much larger role than it has in the past.

PPS: Successful community involvement isn’t exactly a piece of cake. Tell me about how the Federal Transit Administration and PPS are working on ways to successfully engage communities in the transportation planning process.

CN: As of today, the FTA has awarded 40 firms research grants specifically geared towards developing new models and techniques for engaging communities in transportation planning. These grants specifically address transit-dependent groups, including seniors and the disabled. PPS was one of the lucky firms awarded the research grant, and there’s a great summary of our findings available as a chart on the PPS website.

PPS: Do you have any suggestions for how the administration should invite public comment on measuring livability after project implementation, as they state they plan to do?

CN: There needs to be some standardized measurements, because every community is different and the process could become very unwieldy very quickly. This should also occur as part of the visioning and framing of the process from the outset, rather than after the project is completed. The agencies should really be asking themselves, “How will we know success when we trip over it?” And that may be something slightly different for every community.

PPS has been involved with transportation and livability issues for many years. Our 1997 publication, “The Role of Transportation in Creating Livable Metropolitan Communities,” is available as a free PDF download. For more information on how PPS can help improve transportation in your community, contact cnikitin@pps.org.