A critical determinant of how we experience a place is how we move through it. So when we plan places, we need to plan for them to be mobilized, and to operate under principles of traffic management. Land use planning and urban design are also about transportation planning and traffic engineering. But in practice, these disciplines are often segregated. Planning firms address land use and the three-dimensional built environment, while traffic engineers are called in as subconsultants, often at the end of the planning process, to test the road pattern and ratify the parking program.
At Sasaki, transportation planning is embedded in our practice, and supports a wide range of work around the globe. So our transportation planners are concerned with all aspects of mobility, from the latest refinements in bicycle facility design to the growth of vehicle ownership in Asia and the evermore apparent connection between mobility, economy, and environment. Here are some of our observations about the changing world of motion in cities, economies, design, technology and policy.
Streets for People (and Trees)
The stereotype of traffic engineers as concerned only with moving cars—maximizing capacity, minimizing delay—is no longer applicable. In the past decade, the profession has adopted a new attitude, under a variety of planning-friendly rubrics, including context-sensitive design, complete streets, and engineering judgment. The results of this paradigm shift are visible everywhere: improved crosswalk markings and raised intersections for pedestrian safety and traffic calming; bike lanes in various configurations, and even intersection loop detectors calibrated to recognize bicycles; wider sidewalks, with space for outdoor retail, dining, and seating; larger tree pits that not only provide a healthier growing environment but also improve drainage and reduce impervious surface. Collectively, these details support more economically, culturally, and environmentally sustainable places.
In the 1970s the Dutch developed woonerven, multimodal but pedestrian-oriented "living streets" in dense residential areas. The concept of shared, undifferentiated public spaces, where automobiles are compelled by design to drive slow so that people can walk, bike, and play in safety, has inspired ever more adventurous reconceptualizations of streets. Recently in Europe, the idea has been extended to downtown areas, with "naked streets" stripped of signals, signage and lane markings, forcing drivers to slow down, pay attention, and drive cooperatively.
In the United States, we are seeing a wave of conversions of one-way streets back to two-way. Midwestern cities, especially, are realizing the advantages of two-way streets, primary among which is downtown revitalization. Streets which under one-way regimens only flushed cars out into the suburbs are being returned to their original function: providing access to downtown businesses and attractions. Business thrives as two-way traffic increases the number of visible storefronts, and slower traffic engenders a sense of downtowns as places to be experienced, by drivers and pedestrians alike.
Right-of-Way as Real Estate
Streets, by definition, are for public mobility. When the right-of-way is devoted to parking cars, it is hijacked for private use. Lately two separate but sympathetic responses have developed. One is the parklet, in which on-street parking spaces are converted into tiny parks, with benches, plantings, or other pedestrian amenities. A parklet functions both as an enhancement of the urban sidewalk and as a sort of guerilla theater, reminding us of how cars have taken over our lives and suggesting that we can fight back.
The second response is in the realm of urban economics: a growing recognition that on-street metered parking is often grossly underpriced. UCLA planning professor Donald Shoup has shown the many ways that cheap meters harm downtowns. Drivers, conditioned to look for an open parking space, cruise block after block, adding to congestion and pollution. Meanwhile garages, the most efficient and unobtrusive way to store cars, go empty because they cost many times more than on-street parking. Recently in many cities, the price of on-street meters has been raised dramatically—often, ironically, by private firms to whom municipalities have granted long-term concessions to run their parking systems.
While the story of transit in America is complicated and troubled, there are signs of a renaissance. Light rail and streetcars are making a comeback, as cities from Portland, Oregon, to Camden, New Jersey, are finding ways to insert fixed-route systems back into their street networks. The success of these systems, in terms of economics and mobility, is mixed, but they are a refreshing development in our auto-dominated landscape. Equally interesting is bus rapid transit, a flexible model that combines the best features of buses and streetcars, embellished with the latest technologies, such as automated off-board fare collection, signal preemption, precision docking for smooth access, and real-time bus location via cellphone.
Transportation is a means, not an end. The goal of transportation planning is to ensure access, and access can be accomplished by co-location as well as by mobility. The failings of urban and suburban development in the 20th century come down in large measure to the segregation of land uses and the consequent need to overcome separation by driving. In recent decades, Euclidian zoning regulations have been reconsidered in favor of a mixed-use philosophy that puts home, work, shopping, and recreation in closer proximity. This approach forces planners to make sophisticated judgments about the economic, physical, and social balance between land uses.
One of the strongest ideas to emerge is transit-oriented development (TOD), in which mixed uses are clustered around transit facilities, giving people access both to a bigger slice of life within walking distance and to transit facilities that will carry them to distant destinations without resorting to the automobile. TOD has been successful in many instances, and also has resulted in some failed developments. New research is helping us understand what works and why, and suggests that factors such as parking availability, the mix and size of housing units, real-estate marketing and the self-selection of residents and businesses may be as important as the presence of rail transit services.
Taken together, these developments indicate a rapid evolution in thinking about how transportation shapes our cities and makes them work. At Sasaki we embrace these changes and make the most of them. For the sake of our communities and our environment, we can do nothing less.