In the Transportation / Land Use Debate, Both Sides Are Right

I like driving fast—a lot—and have come to expect that.  But, on the other hand, as a resident of a rapidly growing city, I also want fun and interesting destinations: places where I can walk around, enjoy the evening air, share a drink with friends, or [insert your favorite activity here].  There has been plenty of research over the years showing that people want both mobility AND accessibility.

I’ll apologize right now for what I just said.  In many circles, I just uttered a very dirty word (or at least idea), depending upon what your transportation view is.

Much like our nation’s partisan politics, there are two transportation views growing further and further apart from one another: that of providing meaningful mobility within a region and that of providing access within a region.  Again, drawing from our nation’s current political climate, both groups want (roughly) to achieve the same goals, but because of their views of the problem, each solution is different.  But that doesn’t mean that either is necessarily right or wrong.

What frustrates me as a transportation planner and researcher is that we feel we are forced to choose sides.  Radicals on either side of the aisle attempt to convince us that completely ignoring one mode of transportation over another will solve all of our urban transportation problems.  Isn’t this myopic view what gave us our current problems in the first place?

Reality is never as cut and dried as we try to make it appear.  Accessibility in our cities’ transportation networks—from a holistic view—has legitimately been ignored for far too long, which has caused some serious problems.  Thankfully, it appears the tide is turning; cities are beginning to see the many benefits of approaching their transportation networks as multi-modal.

We must be careful, though, not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.  Whether we like it or not, cars are here to stay, and they have greatly improved the quality of our lives.  As long as this nation remains free, some people will choose to live in the suburbs and commute long distances.  This means that cities will continue to deal with traffic congestion, and there will be times when expanding a freeway will legitimately be the best option.

But for many reasons (too many for a Sunday afternoon), we as transportation planners, engineers, policy makers, and the public must do a better job of balancing the reality of today with the vision of tomorrow.  Yes, we have a serious transportation and land use problem.  But I reject the claim by either side that it has the absolute right solution (and for the record, I don’t either).

But I do think that between the two groups, we have the solution.  Imagine two fiercely independent and stubborn brothers building a puzzle.  They each hoard a collection of the pieces and see the same picture, but on their own, neither can finish the puzzle.  Only when both concede that the other has something valuable to contribute will the puzzle ever be completed.

So in a sign of solidarity, in the coming months I will be showing you my puzzle pieces: a wealth of research and experience on different ways to address both mobility and accessibility without unnecessarily widening a freeway, what it looks like to involve the public in these decisions, and creative ideas to pay for them.

But I would also like to hear your story: from what perspective do you see the problem, and what are some of the puzzle pieces you bring to the table?  What ideas, both practical and out of this world, have you thought about while sitting in traffic trying to get home to your family?