Thursday, July 23, 2009

A Portrait of the Future of Transportation Planning: Auto Lovers Beware

The questions surrounding our transportation system are some of the most intriguing and provocative questions related to the climate change dialogue. According to the Department of Transportation, vehicle-related emissions make up 28 percent of all carbon dioxide emissions in the United States, so improving automobile efficiency, increasing availability of and access to public transportation, as well as making changes to our urban structure which promote walkability and curtail automobile use have very real implications for mitigating the effects of global warming.

In many ways, my pursuit of an Urban Studies Degree originated from my interest in the transportation sector. It was my study of transportation planning and some key literature - most importantly Tom Vanderbilt’s Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What it Says About Us) - that got me thinking about how macroscopic urban development plans can influence micro-level decision making, and the tremendous potential this relationship has for positive environmental change.

One thing is for certain: our nation is addicted to oil, and along with it, our cars. But who could blame us? Our society is geared (pun intended?) to value the autonomy of automobile use, and to make matters worse we have a national urban composition that encourages this behavior. Starting after World War II, government planners established the system of interstate highways we still use today that promotes sprawl and a decentralized lifestyle. Apart from the freedom and convenience, we drive our cars as often as we do because the current urban fabric offers no viable alternative.

But how can we change our behaviors if our current system is rigged so heavily in favor of automobile use? As a society, we need to radically shift the notion that automobiles are the primary mode of transportation and create a planning paradigm where multi-modal streets (aka streets friendly to multiple uses, for example a road with a designated bus and bike lane), walkable neighborhoods, and mixed-use development become our priorities. Fortunately, officials in several major cities around the globe have taken it upon themselves to begin this transition.

As part of his PLANYC 2030 initiative, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg recently made a decision to promote pedestrian street access and directly undermine automobile use in Midtown Manhattan. As you may know, earlier this summer Bloomberg closed Times Square to traffic, transforming a five block section of Broadway from a chaotic bumper-to-bumper jam into a pedestrian-only plaza complete with lawn furniture (see photo above and slideshow here). In the midst of a city renowned for its traffic (and its bad drivers), this ambitious makeover of an iconic urban landmark could spell the beginning of the end for cars in the Big Apple.

A second example of city leadership favoring pedestrian priorities over those of automobiles was recently featured in this New York Times article. Four years ago, a $384 million recovery project was completed in Seoul, South Korea. This plan peeled back a major transit artery which sliced through the center of the city to reveal the Cheonggyecheon, a largely forgotten waterway that had been entombed in concrete after the Korean War. Spearheaded by then Mayor of Seoul and now President of South Korea Lee Myung-bak, this urban revitalization project brought wildlife back to the heart of the city, created a place where residents (an estimated 90,000 per day) can enjoy the green space along the banks of the stream, and restored a waterway with historical significance for South Korea. In the words of Lee In-keun, Seoul’s assistant mayor for infrastructure, “We’ve basically gone from a car-oriented city to a human-oriented city.”

The third example comes from Tom Vanderbilt’s Traffic, referenced earlier. One of my favorite anecdotes from the book, Vanderbilt describes how the Traffic and Planning Office in Copenhagen devised a plan to reduce the amount of auto traffic flowing into the center of the city. Government officials decided to take action without announcing their plan to the public in a truly remarkable display of the macro-micro relationship I described above. Between 1994 and 2005, the city gradually phased out parking spaces in favor of parks and bike lanes. During this period, the total number of spaces was reduced from 14,000 to 11,500 and bike traffic surged an incredible 40 percent (today one third of commuters bike to work). Ironically, biking has become so popular in Copenhagen that the city now has a bicycle congestion problem.

These three initiatives send clear and bold statements to members of the international community, and they will hopefully lead to similar projects around the globe in the years to come. It is understandably difficult to measure how much carbon dioxide these initiatives prevent, but they are undoubtedly moving transportation in a direction that not only has less of an impact on the environment, but also improves the lives of the people living in these communities.

Our auto-centric world may very well be dissolving, city by city, block by block. We will just have to wait and see what happens…

(Note: Image 1 & 2 source: The New York Times, Image 3 source:

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