Thursday, April 17, 2014

Five Steps to Successful Transportation Planning (and how to tell a NIMBY from a Naysayer)

Imagine yourself as a political official with authority over a city's transportation system. Your task is to build an efficient, functional transportation system in your city.
Let's assume that, for external reasons, exponential growth is headed your way. Your current infrastructure can't possibly handle it all. What do you do?

Step 1: Don't freak out.
All too often, planners faced with exponential growth panic. They propose outlandish plans to double, or even triple, the capacity of primary roadways. Georgia's Department of Transportation (DOT) did this with Atlanta's expressway network in the 1980s. For their trouble, they got some of the worst congestion resulting from induced demand the US has seen.

Step 2: Learn from the failures of your predecessors.
California built a staggering number of freeway lane-miles in the 1960s and 1970s, many of them in urban areas. It was very impressive-from the air. From the ground, it was bad enough to give rise to a new phrase, "road rage." Unfortunately, in the 2000s under Governor Schwarzenegger, California planners went old school and started building urban freeways again.  Neither the former governor nor his advisors connected the dots and realized that their approach had no more chance of success than did their predecessors'. Indeed, despite of the continuing gridlock, the former governor claimed in a recent interview on The Nerdist Podcast that his freeway construction was one of his great legacies. That's an odd way to feel about a collection of what are effectively parking lots during rush hour.

Step 3: Don't just react to circumstances.
If you simply take a reactive approach, you'll end up with a mess. Consider this hypothetical scenario: Main Street is jammed with cars, buses, and pedestrians. So, you decide to add vehicle capacity to the road by widening it. This penalizes pedestrians, of course, but maybe you're hoping to fix that later.
The added capacity induces demand, as it always does in urban areas, so you decide to build a bypass. That induces more demand, so you widen the bypass which induces still more demand. Lather, rinse, repeat.
The reactive approach, wildly popular in the mid-20th century US and currently in vogue in China, is great for keeping construction companies happy, but lousy for actually accomplishing anything. Try to anticipate conditions so that your solutions are sustainable.

Step 4: Get some vision.
This is easier said than done, as engineers and technocrats are seldom trained, or even asked, for creative vision. Vision requires the capability to step back and imagine the best result. Engineers and technocrats are usually expected to just make sure the details are right.
No, you need not be an artist (though that could lead to some amusing results), but you must have knowledge in a broad variety of fields so you can synthesize them into a holistic view of the urban environment. For instance, psychology gives insight into how pedestrian pathways tend to gravitate towards a straight line, even if it leads to walking a muddy track or jaywalking across an expressway. Sociology offers perspective on why Americans tend to shun buses, but ride streetcars, even when there's no difference in travel times. Political Science might give you a clue as to why mass transit is unpopular in the GOP-dominated American South, but highly prized in Democratic strongholds on the East and West Coasts. Bottom line: read outside your professional box.

Step 5: Don't confuse naysayers with NIMBYs.
Naysayers are those who reflexively say no to any change, even if it doesn't affect them directly. NIMBYs (Not In My Back Yard) are, as the name suggests, directly affected opponents.
However, someone who is adjacent to project doesn't necessarily start out as an opponent. For example, suppose a redevelopment project that will boost homevalues by eliminating ugly, decrepit warehouses ends up with strong NIMBY opposition because someone in a neighborhood association excitedly spread wordthat traffic would be awful. Never mind that the site is well-connected to transit and in a highly walkable area. Professional staff opinions will count for nothing, because those opinions are grounded in evidence. The naysayers who are whipping up the NIMBYs into a frenzy are manipulating emotions and have no need or use for evidence.

If you consider yourself a leader, you will have to be able to disregard dishonest naysayer objections and push forward. Luckily, in politics memories are surprisingly short. Those NIMBYs who want to burn you in effigy today may reluctantly admit you were right tomorrow, especially if the results of your projects are discernibly different from the apocalypse forecast by naysayers. But, this favorable outcome won't happen if you skip any of these steps.

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