Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Access is more important than mobility

Sometimes transportation planners are confronted with a problem of access where transportation improvements aren't necessarily the best solution. Sometimes I seem to detect a note of frustration, something like "Well, what are you wasting my time for? I'm a transportation planner!" And sometimes they push ahead with the transportation improvements because, well, that's their job.

If I'm not imagining this, then it's, ahem, not such a good idea. Sure, your job is to improve transportation, but if that's not what's needed then you're wasting the customer's time and money.

This is certainly not unheard of outside the planning world: people often pay for clothing and food that are completely unrelated to their needs. But transportation planning is different when it's public money at stake. An ethical planner should simply not knowingly agree to facilitate a massive waste of tax dollars.

At one point I actually owned a car, and I was fairly far from home when it broke down. I was able to get it limping along to the next town and right into the first mechanic on the street. He could have charged me an arm and a leg just to look at the thing. But instead he told me where the nearest auto parts store was, and suggested I buy a bottle of "gas dry" and see if that fixed it. I bought a bottle for $5 and it actually didn't fix it, but I figured that if this mechanic was willing to pass up guaranteed work, he was a pretty honest guy. I brought the car back to him, and he eventually fixed it.

Last week Grist had a well-sourced article (which came to me via Planetizen, via Portland Transport, via Streetsblog.net) that nicely illustrates how improving access without mobility can get people to drive less. And of course by driving less, we reduce pollution and global warming, increase energy efficiency, and all the rest. In this case, when stores are located within walking distance, people walk more, improving their health as well.

Transportation planners should be willing to acknowledge when there's a possible non-transportation solution that's worth considering, especially when they're dealing with taxpayer money. They should then be prepared to say, "You know, you really need a business development planner. That's not my specialty, but let me introduce you to Joe, who's really good at fostering downtown businesses."


Jeff said...
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Jeff said...

"...fostering downtown businesses"

What if you live in a city where no one actually lives downtown?

But I do agree with your point. Public transportation is meaningless, except as a social welfare type service, if it doesn't connect walkable areas. Human scaled design and planning improves access without the need for improved mobility. Mobility further improves that access by allowing you to go to places that aren't within walking distance.