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