Four Big Questions for the New Year
By Joan Pasiuk, Program Director
In addition to embracing a few personal improvement goals at the start of a new calendar I like to pose some big-picture questions to grapple with over the coming year. Here are four at the top of my 2013 list-based on a vantage point of directing a nonmotorized transportation pilot program, of course. There's no time like the present to put some fresh thinking behind biking and walking!
1. What is the best practice for traffic modeling and predicting travel demand? For communities committed to complete streets, how are predicted travel needs of all road users accounted for, rather than just motorists as has been modeled historically? Is it possible for proactive, perhaps more forward-thinking communities to actively decide how a road should be designed to balance multiple demands rather than to react to existing models (e.g. "We predict increasing numbers of cars and we don't want to increase congestion or delay for cars so it has to be designed a certain way.")?
Fact: there is a downward trend of average annual vehicle miles travelled (VMTs) in the U.S. Most people on the street would not guess this change. Many transportation professionals who were trained in the years of an ever-climbing VMT graph line might find this turnaround startling. Some would say this is based on economics only-that in a recession fewer trips reflect a reduced workforce, fewer recreational trips, and so on. But interestingly, this decrease began even before the economy was hit hard, and before gas prices began to increase, and from the evidence I see still continues to persist. What would you attribute this to: A shift away from driving by young adults? A growing senior population? Other factors?
Motor vehicle travel demand continues long-term downward trend in 2011. (Source: State Smart Transportation Initiative)
All of us should be watchful of this trend and to transportation decisions based on traditional models. But in the business of inventing the future we want to see, how should we divvy up precious right of way on an urban/suburban arterial among bicyclists, pedestrians, transit riders, and motorists?
2. How would our communities look and function differently if public works, health, economic development, and equity stakeholders all had to sign off on a street project before sending it to the city council or county board for approval? Of course, streets move people and vehicles; traffic engineers must provide technical assurance that a design fully applies principles of safety. And streets cause runoff into rivers and lakes so water quality experts must play a key role in the process. But streets are so much more of a community asset. They are the lifeline for businesses and the front yard of residential neighborhoods. Street design is a significant determinant of health. Want to live longer or have a higher quality of life? Live in a walkable neighborhood. I heard Anthony Iton, MD, JD, MPH nail the evidence of the zip code effect. How do we get all these values into the decision-making process for our streets? I hope elected officials will start to demand numerous viewpoints before investing public resources on local streets.
3. What will be the single most important feature of thriving communities in the coming decades? I, and many others, say: walkability. The future is about the primacy of pedestrians. Walkable City by Jeff Speck (city planner and former head of the Mayors' Institute on City Design) is banishing any other responses to that question I might have considered. For Speck, walkability achieves health, wealth, and sustainability; I would add social justice. At TLC, walkability is integral to bikeability and transit-ability. In this final year of the Bike Walk Twin Cities program we put both feet assertively forward into engaging community members as walkability champions. The region will benefit enormously from residents who understand pedestrian safety, best practices street design, decision-making processes, and strategies for advancing walkability at a community level. Watch for a spring release of our new walkability empowerment program.
4. How can cities embrace the economic benefits associated with bicycling and walking improvements? Although there is push-back about the cost of new bike/walk projects, the evidence of their economic value is increasingly well documented. See a few resources here, here, here, and here. The value also extends far beyond boosts to profits and property values to include better health, improved air quality, and greater community vitality. The key will be to experience these benefits across society, or even to steer the benefits to achieve greater shared prosperity. For example, will people on fixed incomes or in neighborhoods with higher rates of foreclosure share in the benefits that bicycling and walking improvements can bring? How can cities engage community members and leverage limited resources to ensure such improvements achieve the greatest positive impact?
Leave a comment here on the blog to share your thoughts on these big-picture questions. Or tell us what your own big questions are for bicycling, walking, and community planning in 2013. We like to hear from you!