Tuesday, May 24, 2011

On the Move

As Americans we pride ourselves as being part of a nation “on the move.”  We’re always going – commuting to work, running errands, chaperoning our children, etc.  But we’re also “on the move” in the figurative sense, always advancing – as individuals, as communities, as a nation – or at least striving to (at least I hope so).  For this blog, I take “on the move” literally, and focus on how we move, i.e. our transportation.  No doubt the sense of advancing will come up too as I explore the impact of our transportation choices on our environment, energy consumption, and more personally, on the quality of our daily lives.  My goal is to share what I know about transportation from my planning experiences, travels and reading, to open a dialogue on the topic with people in the Capital District and explore the possibilities for our future.
Why the fascination with transportation?  As a child growing up in a Long Island suburb, I could walk to elementary school or bike to a friend’s house or to the park.  If destinations were farther away, like ballet or Brownies, I didn’t think twice about having my mom drive me.  But as I grew older, my transportation choices became more limited.  School was no longer within easy walking or biking distance and taking the school bus, acceptable in the lower grades was definitely “not cool” for upperclassmen.  I was dependent on family or friends to get where I wanted to go, just as I reached an age when I desired to be more independent.
Travel to urban centers opened my eyes to transportation possibilities.  Living just 30 miles outside of Manhattan, I could easily get into “the City” via the Long Island Railroad and then navigate my way around town by walking or taking the subway.  Spending a semester in Paris in the late ‘80s, I became fascinated by the Metro which I took to class daily.  The trains were so reliable and provided such great coverage that I became intrigued by the Metro’s efficiency as a system.  I also noted the quality of my trips – the trains and stations were always clean, there was ample seating both in the cars and on the platforms, and different design treatments made the stops unique and interesting.  (Most memorable was the Louvre station which had replicas of artwork on display.)
Though I’ve worked in different fields of urban and regional planning I always seem to gravitate back to transportation planning.  Why?  It is fundamental to every plan.  What good is a redeveloped waterfront if you can’t get to it?  How can a low income neighborhood revitalize if its residents can’t reach employment centers?  And how can you design vibrant neighborhood commercial districts to be pedestrian-friendly without also accommodating auto circulation and parking? 
I invite you to join me as I explore these and other transportation issues.  What transportation issues intrigue you the most?

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

What is Multimodalism?

Multimodalism is about leveling the playing field so a transportation system can safely accommodate many modes or forms of transportation rather than have one dominate.  To me, it’s about putting people first.  When the question is “how can we move people from place to place?” rather than “how can we move cars?” the transportation solutions abound.  We can have people move on their own - walk or bicycle or use some other self-powered mode of transportation.  Or we can put them in some kind of vehicle – e.g. a car, a bus, a train, a plane.  And when challenges in transportation arise, we can become more creative.  Towns in the US and abroad are using funiculars to connect downtowns with outlying hilltop areas rather than limit themselves to roadway solutions, saving travel time and sparing their environments.
How do we put multimodalism into practice?  Once we start thinking in terms of how people can move, we start seeing our existing roadways, as potentially shared spaces.  And while multimodalism is about giving equal consideration to all modes, this does not imply equal accommodation on every street.  Sure, some streets can safely accommodate multiple modes (think of a four-lane boulevard with on-street parking, bike lanes and sidewalks), but far from all.  Nor would we want them too.  Many local streets are ideal for walking or biking precisely because they have low traffic volumes.  Multimodalism also allows us to think beyond the street for transportation.  We can develop paths not only as separated trails but as shortcuts across long blocks, complementing on-road circulation systems. 
Why have I decided to dedicate a blog to multimodalism?  I do consider it an area of expertise, one I developed as a transportation planner in Portland, Oregon and have continued to draw on in my urban planning career.  However, my interest goes deeper.  I see it as an important component to  making our communities more “livable.”  That means safer for our children, quieter, greener, more energy efficient, but also more community-oriented.   As I said from the start, multimodalism is about putting people first.  Modes like walking, biking or taking transit allow people to interact spontaneously and beyond their usual social circles.  As much as I appreciate how the Internet can bring the world to my laptop, there is still no substitute for daily social interactions.  For these reasons, I choose to be The Multimodalist.