An excellent comment debate has arisen on my recent post "New Urbanists are from Mars, Transit Planners are from Venus," which addresses the mutual incomprehension between many transit agencies and many urban designers who think they're building transit friendly communities. Read the whole thing and its comments, but I want to highlight three comments from professionals in particular:
From Alex Block:
Jarrett writes: "I think many New Urbanists have no idea how much conflict they have with transit planning, because in many cases transit planners are excluded so completely from the conversation that the New Urbanist never realizes what a mess has been made for transit."
I also think this fits into a broader critique of New Urbanism in general – in that it originally sought to engage with developers where the action was – in the suburbs – and thus often did so on suburban terms. The signature work products of many New Urbanist firms are often just changes on what remains essentially a drive-able suburban model – albeit one that at least provides for walkability, placemaking, and many other important elements.
In short, it's a evolution of suburban development – an incremental change.
I do think the New Urbanists have done some very good work for core cities insofar as the suburban standards developed by engineers have often been grafted onto existing cities after the fact (and in many cases are now being corrected), but that doesn't get around the fact that the movement's most successful elements are essentially still suburban models.
On the one hand, that's great! As many of the American suburbs are the places that need the most fixing. Providing a walkable environment at least helps mitigate some of the problems.
However, since this model is development-based, therefore the client is the developer and the to the extent that the underlying development model hasn't changed, so too the transportation model of the New Urbanists has not.
Perhaps the growing revival of urban places of all stripes (whether urban, suburban, developed or redeveloped, etc) can help shift the balance a bit – instead of New Urbanism we'll just look at urbansim, which I think would open the doors to transit planning and regional planning in a more fruitful way.
Architect Eric Orozco, also an illustrator on my book, hits a key point about the role of some transit agencies in perpetuating the confusion:
If the "cult of New Urbanism" is as hermetic as it is characterized, it has not done such a good job crafting a unified social theory or keeping its members much aligned to any such thing, much less one. …
The predilection to design pod-like development with self-contained "town centers" stems more from a design vision than a social one. What is to blame is simply poor contextual sensitivity in locating the town center. Not knowing enough about the geometry of supportable transit service and mistaken assumptions about its flexibility. That's an innocent lack of cognizance of the necessities of transit routes, not so much Moses-like hubris.
To be fair to urban designers, this mistaken assumption sometimes stems from the collaboration with the transit agency, which is also studying "optional alignments" on maps, not mentioning the "eternal" costs involved. In fact, some problems stem from the fact that some transit agencies – themselves! – seem not to be prioritizing effective transit service in their planning and are repeating the early mistakes of Calthorpe and folks by conceding more optimal alignments to better serve development. Transit planners, maybe your Venusian priorities need to be communicated forcefully. Martians think you are too easy.
Bingo. A few transit agencies are very sophisticated about interacting with land use planning, but others are entirely passive and accommodating. The latter, in my experience, are agencies where staff has internalized the message that what they do isn't very important — a message that local politicians may well be reinforcing. In multimodal agencies, politicians may also be signaling that while rail is important, the access and freedom provided by buses is of no interest to them, so a development's geometry problems for bus service can be ignored.
These agency staffs will respond to transit-hostile development proposals in purely detailed terms. They will focus on minor adjustments needed to accommodate bus geometry, etc., but are silent on the development's effects on the prospects for transit overall. Once transit agencies have chosen that submissive role, nobody is in the position to identify the development as transit-hostile — certainly not early enough in the process for the critique to be taken on board.
If your transit agency responds to development proposals in this way, make sure that this is really what the political leadership wants them to do. Often, the political leadership wants more active engagement from its transit agency but the agency hasn't acquired staff or consultants who know enough about development to engage in that conversation. If the transit agency won't take on this role, city planning departments need to develop their own expertise in this area.
Finally, commenter Marc reminds us that it's all about education:
Maybe I should elaborate on how much a lack of education may be contributing to this problem: as a former architecture student, I had NO classes on transportation, planning, or even urban design. The program had almost completely devolved into insular, solipsistic endeavors, almost to the point where architecture was little more than fine art. Save for a handful of exceptions, most non-engineering design schools are at least partially trapped in this approach (and the more "avant garde" the worse they are).
Lots of the earliest new urbanists describe how they had to laboriously self-educate themselves on matters of urbanism which their schools completely ignored. Even today you probably will find many NU architects, urban designers, and planners who will say that whatever they learned about transit and urbanism they picked up informally or after graduation, because the architecture-as-art schools simply don't teach these things. You design objects in splendid isolation (never mind the rhetoric about "biophilia" and "connectivity"), and I suspect that isolationist approach might still be carrying over when we see "town centers" or TODs that are strangely disconnected from their surroundings, even if their designers mean well. So injecting some transportation courses into the schools, as well as reducing the preoccupation with isolated art objects, might do a lot for molding designers who can keep transit in the back of their minds when they draw up development ideas.
I'll also concede that sometimes there seems to be a callous disregard for transit modes that are beneath a certain ideal – "streetcars or nothing." But I'm not sure if this is concentrated among new urbanists or even among architects and other designers in general, or whether it's just a widespread upper-class attitude. (Like the situation with buses that Jarrett noted: "I don't take buses and don't see them as all that important, so I don't really care about how well they function.")
Whenever I've lectured in graduate programs — including the one time I taught an entire graduate transit planning course (Berkeley, 2002) — it's been clear that the practical, geometry-based approach to transit that I present in my book is completely unlike what urban planning students are used to getting in school. They seem to get empirical material about what transit achieves and how it relates to society, but nothing of the geometry of how transit works. I know people who completed Masters of Urban and Regional Planning degrees with a transportation emphasis and never learned the essentials of transit. Architecture students, as Marc indicates, are likely to be even more remote from these realities. So urban designers and planners who want to understand transit have to notice the problem and choose to teach themselves (tip: that's what my book is for!), just as the early New Urbanist architects had to learn urbanism on their own.
What will it take to build respect for transit into our curricula?