Just got home from the Congress for the New Urbanism Transportation Summit, which is trying to formulate transportation policy and advice from a New Urbanist point of view.
Over the last decade, the CNU has made great efforts to form a coherent view on transportation. The organization's core has always been an architecture and urban design perspective that is very much about placemaking, and only secondarily about movement. Much New Urbanism is about slowing everything down in urban environments, and while the goal of increased urban density means that ultimately travel distances are shorter, slower movement can also mean reducing people's ability to get where they're going. For example, much of the idea that transit should be slower (e.g. Patrick Condon, Darrin Nordahl) has roots in early CNU thinking. This in turn can feed the perception (unfair but not totally unfounded) that the pastel people in a New Urbanist rendering are more a hermetic cult of utopians than free actors in a complex society who need to get to meetings on time.
Initially, transportation — specifically highway engineering — was CNU's number one enemy, and this conflict still generates some of the best drama. The summit this year featured a conversation between an AASHTO representative — representing the view of State Departments of Transportation — and a New Urbanist transport consultant, in which common ground was sought but lines in the sand were clearly drawn on both sides.
So the CNU's efforts at leadership in transportation policy are a very important move. Groups at the conference worked on issues such as cycling, functional street classification (sexier than it sounds), and the conversation of highways to boulevards. I was in the group dealing with transit networks.
We spent much of our time thinking about the mutual incomprehension that plagues the relationship between urban designers and transit planners. This issue is at the climax of my book Human Transit, where I look at famous examples of cases where supposedly transit-oriented developments were located in places where efficient and attractive public transit was geometrically impossible.
Phil Erickson, of Community Design + Architecture, made two of the best points:
- Both sides of this incomprehension engage the other too late in the process. As a transit consultant, I can certainly attest that I'm always hired too late to fix a development's transit problems, which were usually locked in at the stage of site selection or conceptual design. I suppose you could say that transit agencies engage development too late, though ultimately it's the responsibility of a planning process to decide when to invite input from whom.
- Both sides assume that the other is more flexible than it is. As a transit planner, I often suggest some adjustment to a development that would make transit vastly more effective, and am told that's not possible. On the other hand, it's routine for a developer to assume that this bus line can just make a deviation to serve a development, without considering either operating cost or the effect on other customers trying to ride through that point. Placemakers' demands that transit be slowed down on a certain segment raise the same issues: operating cost and reduction of a transit line's usefulness for through travel.
In the same "Mars/Venus" spirit, here are a couple of other reasons that this relationship is so hard:
- We are literally working in different dimensions: Urban design is mostly about places. Transit planning is about corridors and networks. Transit planning can do little at a single site; transit functions only when you think of a whole long corridor — made up of many places and situations — as a unit, and even better when you think of networks comprised of corridors and interchanges. One place where urban design and placemaking can work together with transit planning is at the level of the whole-city network, which is why integrated regional planning of land use and major transit corridors is such a crucial task, one that few North American urban areas even try to do.
- We live in different timescales. Urban design is about something that will be built and completed. Transit planning is about eternal operations. Transit planners may seem distracted by the love of building something too, but ultimately, it's all about service, which means operations. So the two sides tend to talk past each other about costs in particular. The urban designer and developer are watching one-time capital cost, but the transit planner cares about eternal operating cost. Developers often throw a little one-time money at a transit service, e.g offering to subsidize the first five years of operation, but the wise transit agency knows that sooner or later, the developer will be gone and this service will become their financial problem, especially if it's a service that they can see is unlikely to perform well.
It was fascinating to watch this discussion, and to be a part of it. Many more useful things were said, and I may pick up on a few of them in future posts. Meanwhile, the first step toward overcoming a divide is to really understand why it is so pervasive, and that requires both sides to think about their deep assumptions, and why different assumptions follow from the nature of the other party's work.
A followup, based on comments on this post, is here.