Environmentalist Critiques of Strategic Transit Planning

How should environmentalists engage with long-range transit planning studies?  What should you focus on?  What should you object to?

Canberra 2031

Last week I was in Australia’s capital city, Canberra, doing a series of public meetings on our draft Strategic Public Transport Network Plan for the city.  In the meetings, we received some very interesting critiques from environmentalist groups.  These got me thinking about how the planning process connects, or not, with environmental values.  The issues are relevant to any urban transit study, so bear with me on this longer-than-average post.

Brief Background

Most long-range transit planning takes the form of “corridor studies,” where the question is “should we build a transit project here, and if so what kind and how?”  A Network Plan is different; it looks at the whole picture of a city’s needs a decade or two into the future, sees how the individual corridor decisions are part of a larger picture, and tries to describe the key features of that picture that everyone must keep in mind if the city’s goals for itself are to be met.

A good Network Plan, once adopted, can make corridor studies a little easier.  For example, corridor studies have to focus on one part of the city, so they cause difficult debates about which part of a city is the priority right now.  An adopted Network Plan helps people focus on how each corridor is just part of a single interconnected network, designed to a consistent standard, that will serve the entire city.

Our draft plan for Canberra advocates identifying a long-term network of frequent transit services 20 years in advance and committing to that network as a matter of policy.  Why do that?  So the city has time to grow around it, time not just for the network to affect land use planning but also for it to affect thousands of individual decisions about where to locate.

In the public discussions of the plan, we received two large critiques from the environmentalist left.  Both are common in conversations about transit and worth forming your own opinion on.

The Technology-First Critique

First, some were upset because we hadn’t advocated light rail in certain corridors.  Our plan states that the proposed Rapid Transit corridors could be either bus or light rail, but that the important thing is to draw them now while there’s time to plan the urban form around them, rather than wait for the resolution of the technology debate and miss many of those opportunities to shape development.


Local 4 blog Perhaps it was insensitive of us to draw illustrations of the proposed services using buses, such as the one shown here (click to enlarge), but we needed to illustrate how each proposed type of service works.  It’s really hard to make a compelling illustration of a “technology-neutral rapid transit vehicle.”
My point was that everyone who’s thought about transit planning in Canberra knows where the major potential transit corridors are; they’re the same corridors regardless of whether you build light rail or bus rapid transit on them.  Let’s draw them, build some land use policy around them, and create official maps that show everyone — developers, realtors, anyone making decisions about the location of something — where those corridors will be.  If there are corridors we don’t agree about, let’s have that conversation and try to settle on them.  Then let’s have the technology debate in individual corridor studies, but meanwhile move forward with improvements to the bus services.


The Connectedness Critique

The second objection is more philosophically interesting.  Environmentalists are, by training and temperament, good at seeing how issues are connected.  So they often say:  “How can you talk about X without talking about Y?  X and Y are connected!”


In this case, I was asked how we could propose a public transit plan that didn’t talk about all the other transport modes transit interacts with.  I was asked why we didn’t talk about carsharing, subsidised taxis, bike parking, bikes on buses, and so on.  I was asked how we could think about what we spend on transit without thinking about what we spend on roads.  Some participants seemed to want a very large and intricate plan that would lay down the next 20 years of progress on all these fronts and show how they would all come together to create the sustainable city that everyone sought.


The practical response to this comment is that our strategic plan for public transit is meant to fit into a larger suite of interdependent strategic plans dealing with all the other modes.  The objection is philosophically important because connectedness is one of the most fundamental of environmentalist ideas.  Environmentalists are used to seeing their adversaries as “blinkered,” constrained by mental walls that conceal the thick tissue of linkages between this issue and that one.  And they’re right.


As an environmentalist myself, I believe that the underlying interdependence and connectedness of things extends far beyond humans’ capacity to comprehend, let alone act upon.  Some of us aspire to greater insight, but mostly we live in a concept of the world that’s simplified to fit our limited brains.  A public conversation, such as a planning process, has to take place in the space where many people’s concepts overlap; that’s going to be even more limited than what each individual has on her own.  So yes, any real process is going to miss connections, and our job as planners is to (a) constantly use other people’s insights to expand our own and (b) look for, and actively nurture, ways of thinking that seem to move us forward but that are widely enough shared to be the basis for political action.  We have to nurture those ways of thinking even though they are always compromises relative to our own personal level of insight.


Here’s the root paradox:  Action arises from a narrowing of focus.  Much as I admire vegetarians, our brains are adapted for carnivory.  Watch what a carnivorous predator does.  Watch your own cat or dog.  At rest, it sees a big picture, noting possibilities of food, danger, and shelter.  To get to the food it has to narrow down, focus on one thing, act.  As it lunges toward its prey, the million other parts of its world are momentarily invisible.  You might call this a Heisenberg uncertainty principle of action.  You can perceive everything in its connectedness, or you can act, but can’t do both in the same intensity at the same time; you always lose one as you engage the other.  That’s why meditation, i.e. explicitly not acting, is such an effective path toward insight.  That’s why a plan that explores every nuance of interdependence is never an action plan.


This is why real political progress is always iterative.  As a community planning our future, we arbitrarily start by thinking about topic A, understanding it on its own terms and temporarily not focusing too much on how everything else affects it.  We take some actions as a result.  Then we think about how A links to B.  Then we think about B and do something about that.  Then we think about A again, and now we’re smarter about it than we were the first time.  Once we’ve done this for a while, we may attempt to draw a “big picture” about how all these things interconnect, in the way that a Network Plan is a big picture composed of corridor studies.  As a community, we never “see the whole picture” as well as some individuals do, which is why the official “whole picture” is always more limited than each individual’s.


Our Network Plan in Canberra is just one step of that process.  It was influenced by existing plans about lots of the things transit is connected to:  land use, roads, bicycles, etc.  In turn, it’s meant to be a basis for future conversations about those subjects.  When our plan is updated in a few years, the update will reflect the outcomes of those conversations.  This lumbering iteration is, I suspect, the highest degree of intelligence that you can ever expect from a democratic process.  You can apply pressure and speed it up, but you won’t change its iterative shape.


Our world is changing whether we like it or not.  In the planning process, as in life, we have to make hard choices about what we can influence.  We know that everything is connected, but we also know that whatever we’re doing is just one piece of an iterative process, a continuing conversation, in which all the connections that matter will eventually manifest themselves.  Does this process make mistakes?  Definitely.  Does it fail to register important insights?  Yes, almost by definition.  Does it manage to stumble forward into desirable outcomes?  Often it does.  Do you have a better way?
Graphic (Frequent Local Service Connecting with Frequent Rapid) by Manidis Roberts for Australian Capital Territory Government.

17 Responses to Environmentalist Critiques of Strategic Transit Planning

  1. EngineerScotty August 20, 2009 at 9:50 pm #

    A couple other grounds for environmental criticism of transit planning that I’ve seen:
    Some environmentalists (not all) view the value of transit primarily in terms of environmental outcomes, not in terms of mobility outcomes; the purpose of transit for some, it seems, is not to get people efficiently from point A to point B, but to do it in a way that doesn’t involve an automobile. In extreme cases, environmental values (reducing energy consumption or emissions) may well trump mobility issues; in Portland more than a few folks in transit planning circles openly agitate for things like closing and demolishing existing (and functional freeways), in addition to constructing transit. (While Portland is famous for having ripped out a freeway–Harbor Drive–and replaced it with a park; the freeway in question was functionally obsolete, redundant due to the construction of I-5 and I-405 in the downtown area, and occupied a prime chunk of real estate. Unlike the acrimony over the cancelled Mt. Hood Freeway, the decision to remove Harbor Drive was far less controversial).
    One other reactionary (in a mobility sense) critique of transit planning that I frequently hear is the “if we don’t build it, they won’t come” argument. Given that infrastructure frequently begets development (whether suburbs around freeways, or TOD around transit lines), it is often proposed that instead infrastructure should NOT be built at all; in order to discourage long-distance travel. While land-use patterns in some locales put a heavy burden on transit (the Bay Area being a notorious example), I question the value of taking this position to its logical extremes–and further surmise that the best way to get people to live within walking distance of basic services is to zone cities that way; not to make mobility difficult.
    Finally–and while this is not an environmental objection per se–I’ve encountered several urban transit advocates who are hostile to any infrastructure (whether it be freeways or mass transit) that is seen to be mostly beneficial to suburban commuters. Many such critiques aren’t well informed, of course–but they certainly exist; contempt for suburbia has been a part of the urban landscape in many large cities for decades.

  2. K August 21, 2009 at 4:29 am #

    As I see it you told them where they would move and they wanted to know how they would move. You could have told them how they would move as well and they would have asked when they would move. This isn’t an environmentalist thing, it’s an advocacy thing.
    An advocates position is to always be pushing for the next step. Could you imagine the road lobby in Houston saying “well, we’re just about all done here”. There is always more to be fought for, even when it does not always add up logically.
    Maybe they saw your plan as the end of Part A and quickly moved onto pushing for Part B before your very eyes. In any case don’t take it personal. There’s a reason nobody likes lobbyists. Pushy jerks.
    From another self described environmentalist (and vegetarian)

  3. Tabitha August 21, 2009 at 3:18 pm #

    As far as a depiction of a more ambiguous vehicle, I wonder if it might be useful to draw articulated buses, because the additional length and the bend would make it easier to envision the vehicle as one of the boxier light rail models. Granted I realize there are more complications than that, but if looking for something somewhat neutral, it could be a direction to go in.

  4. Louis Haywood August 21, 2009 at 4:10 pm #

    I think your current vehicle is plenty ambiguous: it looks like a DMU (Diesel Multiple Unit).
    So, it’s a train that still runs on diesel. Well, it may not be the best of both worlds, but it’s not the Bombardier Jet Train.

  5. Cap'n Transit August 21, 2009 at 8:13 pm #

    Scotty, I agree that there are people who will view transit in terms of goals other than moving people; I’ve been one myself.
    In fact, I’d argue that we all have goals beyond getting people efficiently from A to B. Even those for whom everything points to mobility still desire mobility for a reason.
    Getting back to Jarrett’s statement, “I was asked how we could think about what we spend on transit without thinking about what we spend on roads,” well, it’s worth asking about. There are so many environmental consequences to transit mode share. Why spend a ton of money and effort on improving transit if the government is going to put as much or more money and effort into improving the roads, and tipping the balance further in favor of cars?

  6. Jarrett at HumanTransit.org August 22, 2009 at 5:28 am #

    I agree completely that transit spending and road spending need to be talked about together and brought into a more visible relationship so that both pursue the same vision of the future of the city. The hard question is how much you should insist on that as a prerequisite for any strategic transit planning. It’s the connectedness question again. If you refuse to talk about transit until people are willing to talk about it together with roads, you miss a lot of opportunities to do good things about transit.

  7. Cap'n Transit August 22, 2009 at 2:17 pm #

    Hm. With regard to the narrowing of focus, meeting facilitators talk about the value of an initial brainstorming session, where all connections can be explored. People need to feel listened to.
    At a certain point it’s definitely necessary to narrow the focus, but not until all the stakeholders (who are in earnest) have been listened to. It’s appropriate to cut off people who are just grandstanding or listening to themselves talk, but if they really have something to say and you cut it off, they tend to get irate later.

  8. Ed O. August 23, 2009 at 8:41 am #

    Is the main concern raised in this posting that the community members asked questions beyond the scope of the Network Plan project? That would have been easy enough to address if there had been, or will be, appropriate forums allowing people to raise these types of questions. If the next steps would be the corridor studies, people might feel that this is the right time to discuss a light rail network and the role of other modes at the city-wide level.

  9. Jarrett at HumanTransit.org August 23, 2009 at 11:38 am #

    Ed. I think the light rail conversation has to happen, but for the reasons I laid out I advise not letting the Network Plan process get stuck behind it. But we´ve heard that this is a point of controversy. I think it would be helpful if light rail advocates tried to engage with what we were doing in the network plan, understand why we´re doing it, and help us think through whether there´s a better way to incorporate the light rail goals, while still (my recommended bottom line) allowing the plan to move forward without WAITING for light rail.

  10. Jarrett at HumanTransit.org August 23, 2009 at 11:40 am #

    We did draw articulated buses for the Rapid service. You can see them in the distance in the drawing I used. The main purpose of this sample drawing was to illustrate Frequent Local service, which tends not to need articulated buses because it has high patraonge but over short distances, so not such huge loads.

  11. tomtakt September 14, 2009 at 3:00 pm #

    Isn’t part of the problem that we are not having enough of basic “strategic transportation planning”? Roads and transit are a complementary system of moving people and goods, not simply competing, as most people–on both sides of the issue–often choose to see it. Almost everyone uses different modes of transportation at different times depending on where they need to go, and how they need to do it. I think ideally, it would be nice to see transit and road systems conceptually and designed/planned in concert with one another–and funding would be dolled out based on the largest gaps/inefficiencies in BOTH systems.

  12. Nathanael September 15, 2009 at 4:11 pm #

    Given that BRT is, basically, an expensive joke for high-volume routes (less popular, more environmentally damaging, wears out faster, runs slower, for a similar price), particularly if you’re building the network *before* the development (so there’s no ‘free asphalt’), I question why you included it as a possibility at all. Is there some government mandate requiring you to?

  13. EngineerScotty September 15, 2009 at 11:09 pm #

    BRT occasionally makes sense when you are expecting (and planning for) low transit volumes, but want to provide a service which is faster and more reliable than a local bus. It is useful if you can build exclusive bus lanes around trouble spots or bottlenecks, but avoid having to have dedicated infrastructure where it would be really expensive or redundant. At lower volumes, busses are cheaper to run than trains (at high volumes the reverse is true), and a “rapid” service (I know, its a useless term) with fewer stops than a local will cause less damage to pavement (and said damage can often be mitigated).
    BRT does have the advantage as well that vehicles can leave the BRT route and branch out to local areas on the street network, which cannot be done with rail. In places where labor is cheap, running frequent busses rather than less-frequent trains is also a good way to improve headways.
    OTOH, if you are building a fully-separated right-of-way, as opposed to a mixed line, the difference in cost between BRT and rail will get you a service that is far cheaper to operate (again, assuming high passenger volumes), more comfortable, and more likely to attract “choice” riders.
    These are, of course, guidelines–selection of the appropriate mode for a route or network requires a lot of detailed investigation–but BRT isn’t useless, even if the oil-and-smoke lobby likes to push it as a way of blocking rail construction. Larger cities looking to build fast transit covering distance is probably better off with a rail-based solution, however.
    Your mileage, or kilometrage in Oz, may vary. :)

  14. Jarrett at HumanTransit.org September 16, 2009 at 12:12 am #

    We’re talking about a city of under 400,000, so by big city standards there
    are no high-volume routes. Meanwhile, I defy you to ride the Busway network
    in Brisbane and retain your characterisation of BRT as a joke. It’s the
    most successful rapid transit segment built in Australia for a generation,
    by most metrics that transit planning typically cares about. See my
    category “Brisbane” for more.

  15. EngineerScotty September 16, 2009 at 10:26 am #

    BRT, unfortunately, has a reputation (in the US) of being a type of Trojan horse–something that anti-transit interests advocate as a “cheaper alternative” to LRT, but then is done in a half-assed fashion, with poor mobility outcomes as a result. Not because of the bus-vs-rail choice, but because of the “half-assed” part; one of the advantages of BRT is that it can be done in piecemeal fashion, with portions of the route requiring little or no improvement, whereas LRT requires its own dedicated corridor for the length of the line. Do this too much, though, and the line doesn’t function well as “rapid transit”–which is what I mean by “half assed”.
    Some of this, of course, relates to US attitudes towards busses in general–many people don’t like to ride ’em, for whatever reason.
    Another issue occurs when you have mixed rapid transit lines (BRT and LRT/Metro in the same city, serving the same function)–it complicates the system. Both the Orange Line in LA and the Silver Line in Boston (BRT corridors in cities with significant rail investment) are routinely criticized; and LA is now considering BRT for the LAX to Wilshire corridor, for cost reasons. (Again, the cost difference isn’t tires vs tracks, it’s that LRT would require a subway north of Exposition Boulevard, whereas the bus would simply switch to regular surface streets at that point).
    Yonah blogs about the subject here.

  16. Nathanael November 3, 2009 at 12:39 pm #

    “First, some were upset because we hadn’t advocated light rail in certain corridors. ”
    For environmentalists, specifying that it will be either rail or *ELECTRIC* bus would probably have made a huge difference. The mode of energy generation is the crucial point for an environmentalist.
    “Meanwhile, I defy you to ride the Busway network
    in Brisbane and retain your characterisation of BRT as a joke”
    But it’s not called BRT, is it? It’s a “busway”. I really don’t have a problem with the idea of busways per se.
    “Another issue occurs when you have mixed rapid transit lines (BRT and LRT/Metro in the same city, serving the same function)–it complicates the system. ”
    Yep. Brisbane is going to hit the “system incompatilibity” problem. Pittsburgh already ran into this with its otherwise successful “East Busway”, which would have been a lot better off if it had actually connected to the existing tramway instead of dumping into the surface streets.
    And again, Brisbane’s busway appears to be *more* expensive to operate and maintain than a comparable rail line. It seems that the specialized conditions of allowing street running in a few key areas saved a lot on capital costs. I guess that sort of thing makes it worth it occasionally.
    “BRT occasionally makes sense when you are expecting (and planning for) low transit volumes, but want to provide a service which is faster and more reliable than a local bus. It is useful if you can build exclusive bus lanes around trouble spots or bottlenecks, but avoid having to have dedicated infrastructure where it would be really expensive or redundant.”
    This seems about right — but in general the correct thing to do here is to build exclusive bus lanes. Not usually actual busways — which incidentally are usually proposed on former rail routes.
    London impresses me because they *actually took away general-purpose lanes* to build bus lanes, all over town — and in the central city where the streets were too narrow to do that, they instituted the Congestion Charge!
    That’s the way to leverage the value of buses. And it’s a lot cheaper than “BRT”. The challenges are purely political.

  17. Rverne10 August 4, 2012 at 1:30 pm #

    I have studied the mass transit situation in the Detroit, Michigan, USA area for a long time, both as a user of the bus system who did not have a car and as a resident using an automobile. I have read extensively about the situation and have found that:
    1. The denser the development the worse commuting with an automobile gets. Traveling towards the central parts of Detroit is relatively easy until one attempts to park the auto. OMG! Even though parking structures abound (80% of downtown Detroit is taken up with streets, boulevards, freeways or parking structures) they are difficult to track down and expensive-at least for the area where parking is ‘free’ in the outlying regions. Often, leaving the venue after a major concert or sporting event becomes an epic wait to move out of the area.
    2. My concern is that nowhere, mainly because of concern about servicing the needs of auto use, have developers left any wilderness or open areas. But that is a phenomena that is universal, it is only worse in urban areas where parks and open spaces are rare jewels in the more developed areas. The idea of leaving archipelagos and islands of wilderness that are connected together never occurred to planners; plenty of space for parking and freeways though.
    Usually mass transit planners are working within the spaces and design confines set down by urban developers who are convinced they know best and who are also not open to suggestions on modifying plans-or so it seems.
    I can see why the transit experts can’t become advocates for environmental concerns. In the long run, as life in our urban areas deteriorates, we will all very soon come to regret not having taken a stand to protect the meadows, streams, fields, woodlands, swamps rivers and lakes.
    It seems that transit planners and enthusiasts have accepted the idea of coexisting with heavy auto use; however, taking the example of Chicago, which has a lot of both, the mass transit user is given short shrift in the mix. Bus lines are underutilized, as they have a kajillion stops per mile and slower than turtles. The same with the train system which stops every 1/4 or 1/3 mile for every shopper and commuter in the area. Park and ride lots become humongous and –here’s my point–the environment suffers because of the perceived need to kow-tow to auto use.
    I am slowly becoming aware, that until our cities are rebuilt to scale back or eliminate car use (especially in high density areas) transit planning will always be highly compromised and never rise above the mere ‘add on’ or ‘it’s nice to have buses and trams because they are so cute’ philosophy that seems to prevail in many of our urban centers.