Progressive transportation planning may be in the midst of a boom, but is it on the right track to create the shift that the movement is looking for? What might this vision look like, and how can we capture this momentum to effect real change in how we think about transportation planning?

How we leverage “alternative” modes of transport to create places can make significant contributions to broad-based community development strategies. 

Advocates are finally getting attention for issues like the impact and efficiency of various modes of transport, the fair allocation of road space and spending, and opportunities to create more seamless transportation systems and commuter options. While each of these advances are extremely important, when advocated for and implemented in isolation of the others, they do not lead to structural change. By moving the transportation discussion beyond technical mobility solutions and modal shifts, we can generate integrative solutions for each of these issues.

At the most basic level, the goal of transportation planning should be to facilitate getting people to places – connecting travelers with destinations. Unfortunately, much of today’s transportation planning has little involvement in creating and supporting place, and, in some cases, it has contributed to the degradation of the very destinations it is meant to connect. At the same time, those who are in charge of creating quality destinations have done so in isolation -in agency or disciplinary siloes.

Planning for mobility has neglected, and often degraded, those places worth traveling to.

In the misdirected effort to make people as mobile as possible, many of our transportation networks are accomplishing a great deal less at a much larger cost. Focusing narrowly on mobility, without simultaneously addressing Placemaking and accessibility, can in fact contribute to issues of traffic congestion and safety, social segregation, isolated land uses, car-oriented building design, decreased walkability and longer travel distances – the same issues that progressive transportation planners wish to positively address.

“What kind of cities, communities and streets do we actually want to have?”

The focus on mobility, throughput, and even traffic as growth indicator, has taken the political and community conversation a long ways from talking about what kind of cities, communities and streets we actually want to have.  This mentality has effectively turned all civic engagement along these lines where many community activists are now the fiercest defenders of mobility.  Even “alternative modes” advocacy (transit, bicycles, pedestrians) focuses are still often focused on mobility and on pushing solutions within this paradigm.  Only in small nibbles are advocacy efforts starting to frame their approach around accessibility or Placemaking.

“Transportation planning can shift from being the primary engine of community degradation, to the driving force of community development.”

Shifting the debate to creating great cities, great streets and great destinations, will more effectively create a political climate, and public realm, that is compatible with alternate modes while also reducing the need for travel and creating places where people actually want to be.  If it is allowed to, transportation planning can shift from being the primary engine of community degradation, to the driving force of community development.

“If the point of transportation planning is to get people places they want to be, then most transportation planning should really start with placemaking.”

If the point of transportation planning is to get people places they want to be, then all transportation planning should really start with placemaking.   And if our planning efforts actually focused on creating places, we could actually meet the goals of getting people places, and getting things done, much faster.  Great places are in fact defined by the ability to accomplish many things at once, often accomplishing many spontaneous, “unplanned” goals in the process. Even residential land-use and density can best be shifted from a suburban model through a broader focus on place rather than forced density, and mode shifts.

“If you don’t have a parking or congestion problem then you are not a good place.”

Congestion relief efforts have likewise focused on a single problem in isolation.  Congestion effectively prevents people from getting places, but the real problem is that current mobility focused transportation planning causes traffic because it is creating fewer places to go and is degrading reasons to be in any one place.  The clogging effectively occurs because it is increasingly hard to get to places we want to be.  In this regard, the way to address congestion or parking “problems” is actually to create destinations that are even more attractive for people to come to. People will walk from further out, park further away and, combine trips and take less convenient transit, all further making a good place and strong local economy possible. Certainly, if you don’t have a parking or congestion problem than you are not a good place.

“We have been moving people and goods around more and more and accomplishing less and less.”

Imagine for instance the efficiency of what gets accomplished in some of the best public markets or civic squares in the world where individual mobility is at its lowest and parking demand and congestion are at highest.  By focusing narrowly on mobility for mobility’s sake we have been moving people and goods around more and more and accomplishing less and less. The downtown main street also is an example of an efficient transportation system.  Main streets have struggled because the transportation systems have shifted to mobility-centric view and the development models that appeal to that have been able to out compete main streets.

Chester, CT moved their farmers market from a parking lot on the edge of town to the parking spaces on Main Street. The regional destination that the move created has been celebrated by all despite initial resistance. It became so successful that they eventually closed the street and put out games and music during markets. If approached as a transportation agenda, none of it would have likely happened.

The best way to create the true paradigm shift away from our oil dependence therefore is to create places that people want to be, places that support vital local economies, healthy, safe, active lifestyles and strong communities.

“Through re-envisioning our cities, transportation systems and economies around destinations we will make feasible the more sustainable transportation modes of mass transit, walking and bicycling.”

Current growth strategies have been based on increasing movement of people and goods.  The future of transportation planning needs to start with creating comfortable settings for all kinds of exchange between people.  It is through re-envisioning our cities, transportation systems and economies around these transportation destinations that we will be able to truly make our world compatible with strong communities, economies and natural ecosystems as well as make feasible the more sustainable transportation modes of mass transit, walking and bicycling.

At PPS, we are reframing transportation projects and local and national campaigns for change on all scales around Placemaking. Looking at Streets as Places as a focus is creating an “Upside Down” planning process that leverages the potential outcomes of transportation projects while insuring broad buy-in and support. From the NYC Streets Renaissance Campaign, to our Building Communities through Transportation program campaign for reinventing transportation around Placemaking and community outcomes, we are forging new prospects for success in progressive transportation planning.

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