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.

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