Basics: Controlling Altitude in Planning


One of the basic skills you should expect from a planning professional is the ability to control altitude.  Uncontrolled loss of altitude is a common cause of planning failure.

Altitude determines what you see.  If you are higher up from the surface of the earth, you can see a large area, but in less detail.  At lower altitude, you see a smaller area, but in greater detail.

In planning, there are high-altitude projects, which look at a large area (a city, a county, an urban region) and identify appropriate solutions to problems that exist at that scale.  There are also lower altitude projects, all the way down to parcel-level development approval, or, in my business, detailed designs of a transit station or a bus schedule.

Each project also moves through different altitudes.  As in a plane, you need to get up high to see the big picture.   If you don’t, if you just draw a box around a problem and try to solve the problem inside that box, you may do damage outside the box.  For example, if land use planning is nothing but development approval, then stuff will get built, project by project, without any attention to the aggregate consequences of that development — on traffic, on livability, on natural resources, etc.

On the other hand, plans that remain at high altitude — regional structure plans, vision plans, “strategic” plans, etc — don’t have any effect on reality unless they’re implemented by actions at lower altitudes.

So the airplane metaphor works like this:  To see clearly, we need to get our plane to a high altitude.  But to implement anything, we then need to land the plane.

The key is to lose altitude in a controlled and intentional way.  You look at the problem at high altitude and see the solutions that make sense at that level.  Maybe, for example, you identify a corridor that should have some kind of rapid transit but you don’t specify what the technology should be, or even an exact alignment.  Then, later, a study focuses just on that corridor and explores all the options for it.  All the remaining steps from there to implementation are part of a controlled loss of altitude until finally, on opening day, you’re on the ground:  The thing you planned is actually happening.

However, there is always the danger of uncontrolled loss of altitude, i.e. crashing the plane.  This happens when a conversation at a certain altitude is interrupted or shut down by a low-altitude issue.  For example, when we’re exploring the possible structure of a citywide network in a city, an operations manager may interject that a particular turn isn’t possible, or that this business would never let us put a bus stop there.  Those comments are plane-crashers.  If we succeed, at high altitude, in developing a network vision that excites people so that they want it to succeed, all those problems will be easy to solve.  But if we let those little concerns veto the high-level thinking, we’ll never be able to talk about the big picture.

This comes up often among people who have strong emotions about particular transit technologies.  They fervently support or oppose some technology option, so want to know the answer to the technology question before we have properly thought through higher altitude questions:  What are our goals for transit?  How do we balance predictably competing goals?  What kind of citywide network do we want?   What kind of mobility and access do we want to provide?

If those sound like hopelessly abstract questions, read the introduction to my book.  There, I explain how we can approach these questions so that citizens can answer them with an awareness of the consequences.  That, in turn, means that the decisions they make can be implemented.  The plane can descend, and finally land.  The key, as I explain there, is to listen to your plumber!

Photo:  Airplane Contrails- Creative Commons: Ian Renton, 2011




13 Responses to Basics: Controlling Altitude in Planning

  1. EngineerScotty December 12, 2014 at 3:11 pm #

    NIMBYs and others trying to derail projects by bringing up inappropriate objections is one problem of altitude.
    Another, of course, are stakeholders who artificially constrain the requirements to essentially force a desired solution, one which is often the result of political horse-trading done without planners in the room. The failed Columbia River Crossing is one notorious example of this; the state DOTs essentially agreed that wider freeway bridge was needed, wrote the purpose-and-need a statement to essentially force this outcome, and added things like light rail in an attempt to greenwash the project. Other useful solutions for the corridor (and many such proposals were produced) were excluded by high-level requirements drafted to lead to a particular solution.
    Such misuse of the draftman’s art is also a problem of altitude; but here it’s the pilot flying the plane into the ground, not an unruly passenger pounding on the windows.

  2. Vannevar Bush December 13, 2014 at 6:00 am #

    Hedgehog and the Fox?

  3. Steve Munro December 13, 2014 at 9:21 pm #

    Then there is “Planning by Google” where all you need is a line on a map with little reference to what’s really on the ground. Politicians are good at this sort of thing because it lends itself to “quick solutions”, and they even accuse anyone who criticizes them of being negative. Their own actions are rather like programming the autopilot with a video game and then wondering what the hell the plane is up to.

  4. EN57 December 14, 2014 at 2:50 am #

    These days there are so many people whose careers and livelihoods depend on making sure that the planes never land… Sometimes it’s also out of sheer fear – of commitment, the compromises, the messy details, people, the hard work involved… It’s always so much more fun – so much nicer, and comfortable flying at very high altitudes!

  5. M1EK December 14, 2014 at 8:32 am #

    Ditto to Scotty’s second paragraph. And it’s not just highway guys who do that. One of the smarmsters from our local transit agency approvingly posted a link to this article, claiming that Austin’s Project Connect followed this goal, which is nonsense; they, in fact, had a desired solution ahead of time, and then forced the process so it would spit out the plan they knew they wanted.

  6. Nathanael December 14, 2014 at 11:10 pm #

    One more of your thinly veiled attacks on rail service.
    Sure, it all sounds great in theory. I agree with the theory you’ve espoused. But it’s routinely abused.
    In practice, this ends up being implemented by BRT backers in the form of “How dare you tell us that our central core trunk route should be on rails — BRT bus bus bus!”
    There’s a reason Hawaii specified steel wheels on steel rails when it went to the ballot for HART. It’s the trunk line. So it ought to be steel wheels on steel rails. Saboteurs were trying to do something else.
    If I ask you about the technology, it’s a test of your *honesty*. At a very high level, you have trunk service and branch service. In practice, in any area of any significant population, the trunk service MUST be rail.
    If you’re spouting airy-fairly abstractions, I can quickly test whether you’re a fraud by asking whether your trunk line is supposed to be rail.
    If you say no, or start spouting “we haven’t decided that yet”, I know you’re a fraud.
    There are similar tests for honesty when people say that they want “more density”. “Are you OK with rowhouses?” and “Are you OK with apartment buildings?” are the questions, and if they say no to both, they’re a fraud.

  7. Nathanael December 14, 2014 at 11:13 pm #

    And by the way, Mr. Walker, you have flunked the honesty questions repeatedly.
    Asking about certain things like “are you going to make your high-capacity trunk route rail” are basically sanity checks, bringing it “down to earth”, if you will. If the project doesn’t pass these sanity checks, it’s like…
    …well, it’s like you’re trying to land the airplane without a runway. It doesn’t matter how good your high-level planning is, your plan is fundamentally unsound.

  8. EngineerScotty December 15, 2014 at 8:44 am #

    With all due respect, your tone is inappropriate. And you’re engaging in a bit of improper generalization yourself.
    Some of the first questions to ask when designing a system:
    1) Do I need trunk lines? If the answer is “no”–i.e. a widely distributed grid with no dominant central node, or a “pulse” network, or a “star” or “cactus” network centered around downtown; then rail service is probably not appropriate. For most major cities, even ones (like LA) where there isn’t a dominant downtown, the answer to the trunk line question is “yes, several of them”.
    2) Assuming a trunk is required, the second question is “what is the peak load of the trunk line, and over how much distance does this load need to be carried”? If it’s more than, oh, 2500pphpd over any significant distance, then rail becomes a more attractive option, as you can fill multiple-car trains while maintaining reasonable service capacity. If it’s over 4500pphpd, then rail becomes close to a requirement; you’re talking about bus frequencies of >30 per hour–even if you can make it work operationally and keep ’em from bunching, that’s a lot of labor cost. (If the length of the trunk is short, though, then open BRT becomes a useful option in this case). If it’s under 2000pphpd, even at the center, rail is probably a waste of money.
    You are correct in that incorrect technology choices are often made for political reasons, but this works both ways–both in creating white elephant rail projects that are there to boost political careers, spread around pork, and/or cater to wealthy suburbanites over closer urban populations; and in creating inappropriate bus projects that are “designed” to keep as many commuters as possible in their cars, and/or keep the capital budget as low as possible.

  9. Jim December 15, 2014 at 10:52 am #

    Robert Moses and most Communist and Socialists were high-altitude planners while Jane Jacobs advocated for street-level planning. A combination of multiple altitudes would work best keeping in focus however the importance of the street-level human experience. If you go out too far, say perhaps to the edge of the universe, then building a cosmic super highway (ala Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) by blowing up Earth may not be a good thing and aliens would be complaining about Earth NIMPs.

  10. Nathanael December 23, 2014 at 9:23 pm #

    EngineerScotty: I take your point about tone. But frankly I think Walker is being reliably dishonest, whether it’s deliberate dishonesty or, more likely, self-delusion. The appropriate response to dishonesty is *rude*; because you are not dealing with a thoughtful intellectual conversation, you’re dealing with rhetorical tactics.
    I didn’t come to this conclusion quickly, but after following this blog for years. Walker strawmans pretty often in order to attack rail service. The public figured it out, too: the plans he’s proposed as a consultant have in at least two locations gotten political heat for being overly bus-centric, or even overly fossil-fuel-bus-centric. He hasn’t reacted terribly well.
    It’s a truism that good consultants do what their employers tell them to. It probably isn’t actually helpful, as a consultant, to have one’s own views. What Walker says in his book is that he tries to work to implement his *employers’* values; he doesn’t change their values, he just tells them what will work how.
    Except this isn’t actually what he does, because everyone (including him) brings their own values to the job. And I’ll be specific about that.
    “If we succeed, at high altitude, in developing a network vision that excites people so that they want it to succeed, all those problems will be easy to solve. But if we let those little concerns veto the high-level thinking, we’ll never be able to talk about the big picture.”
    This is self-defensive chatter; it’s psychologically inaccurate.
    In practice, in several cities, Walker has proposed network visions which didn’t excite people, because of the lack of rail or replacement of electric with diesel. Sometimes what excites people is, in fact, the technology (“we get a train!”). Sometimes what excites people is one particular detail (“It goes to the airport!”). Sure, occasionally people are excited by ideas like Portland’s grid system; Walker is probably suitable for them.
    What were the values in the places where he got trouble? The values were “we want to ride trains”, or “Electricity power!” Walker dismissed these values in favor of his pet values of transporting people.
    All the evidence is that the populations of most cities really do have a mode preference. That’s a *value*. It would be appropriate according to Walker’s theory to respect it. When several cities vote overwhelming that they want to ride trains, not buses, Walker should understand that this is a statement of values: they just like riding trains better.
    Some cities have a population which really loves their bicycles; others have populations which don’t. This can change over time, but it’s a matter of taste: in other words, values.
    There are also cities where getting off of fossil fuels is the main *value*. So, even if it doesn’t look “efficient”, “electrify the whole network” may be what really inspires people.
    My point: sometimes the people in the town just don’t care about the network map picture, and will not care. What they care about, the key values for them, have nothing to do with Walker’s conception of transit. Which means that maybe Walker is the wrong consultant for them to hire.
    If the planner cares about the network map and the people really don’t, the planner should present a plan focused on what the people actually do care about. And the planner may be able to get his favored big picture plan attached to it as a side effect (“This grid plan will save us enough money / provide enough connections to run the airport service you all want”, or “Rerouting this service will provide the funds for total electrification”, or whatever).
    Sometimes the city cares about the map, but in ways which are socially unacceptable to admit to.
    City officials probably won’t say outright “These districts want trains and need to get them, these districts don’t want service and need to be avoided”, but that’s often the actual dynamic. (Sometimes it’s obvious, when there are a lot of little cities and the mayors get up and announce what their city wants.) This is very democratic, frankly: I have no problem with good service going to the municipalities and districts which vote for it and away from the ones which vote against it.
    But there’s no way this shows up in any sort of classic “planner’s” network design. The closest I’ve seen was a proposal on Seattle Transit blog to base service on the voting results by precinct for a transit tax. (I like it. It’s democratic.)
    For a more extreme example, city officials will now *never* say “We need the services for black people to be segregated from the ones for white people”, but in some cities, frankly, that’s still the values. 😛 St. Louis’s system of cul-de-sacs to prevent people from getting between particular neighborhoods and neighboring neighborhoods is an extremely clear expression of this.
    To quote the intro to Walker’s book:
    ” I never learned the debilitating cynicism that so many citizens feel–the sense that their transit agencies are so stuck in their ways that there’s no point in providing input. ”
    For someone who wrote this sentence, *Walker* spends a startling amount of time seeming to be the guy who’s too stuck in his ways to take input. I figure this is just his personal bias, which everyone has, and maybe he’ll come to the realization of exactly what his personal blinkers are.
    There are more possible values than “ridership” or “coverage” or even “emissions”. “Trains” can be a value choice too (possibly an expensive one), and it’s one which a number of cities have made. It’s not an accident that reporters ask about technology, and it’s not a mistake; they ask because *people actually care*.

  11. Jarrett December 24, 2014 at 4:55 pm #

    Re Nathanael’s last comment of Dec 23. My response to these kinds of claims is what it has always been, and i wrote it here almost a year ago:
    Happy holidays.

  12. el_slapper December 29, 2014 at 12:55 am #

    I like the analogy, as it’s strikingly the same that with computer programming, where real achievement is done only when the programmer is able to think at different abstraction levels. Micro-coding for the petty details, embedded in an overall vision of what the micro-coding is good for. Computer projects where some people are supposed to make the “architecture & design” & others the “mere coding” are boring, costly in man-days, and often failures.
    For the rail-bus comparison, I like the numbers provided by EngineerScotty. Engineering, basically, is choosing the right tool with the right dimension for the right problem. Not projecting one own’s phantasies upon any problem(real or imaginary).

  13. d.p. December 29, 2014 at 2:25 am #

    …in favor of his pet values of transporting people.
    Wow. Just wow.
    From the horse’s mouth, people: Nathanael does not care about transporting actual human beings.