Transportation Planning Paradigm Shifts from Personal Mobility to Multimodal Accessibility

A Forum Watch Editorial

By. Neil Williamson

There is a subtle shift in transportation planning philosophy.  The ultimate conversion to this philosophy may reduce or eliminate the freedom of mobility Americans have grown to cherish since the invention of the automobile.

Americans by both their nature and nurture love mobility. According to the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA):

Mobility is at the heart of America’s culture. Americans love the freedom of easily moving where they want, when they want. Mobility is at the heart of our economy, getting goods to market and getting people to work

For generations, transportation planners understood this fact and built transportation networks designed to segregate various uses (retail, industrial, residential).  Today’s planners see such old thinking as a mistake.  This generation of local planners has been swept up in the call for New Urbanism, a policy that places a greater importance on the project planner’s decisions rather than creating an environment for citizen mobility. 

When discussing “smart transportation” in the New Urbanist founding principles enumerate – 

  • A network of high-quality trains connecting cities, towns, and neighborhoods together
  • Pedestrian-friendly design that encourages a greater use of bicycles, rollerblades, scooters, and walking as daily transportation

It is rather amazing the concept of automobile traffic is merely an after thought in the New Urbanist philosophy suggesting a greater use of “scooters” for daily transportation.

Given all of the above, I suppose I should not have been surprised when a planner from The Renaissance Group said in a public meeting earlier this year that planning today is about designing multi-modal accessibility to the things government believes you want not providing you independent mobility (to make your own choices). 

Please go back and reread the underlined section of this indirect quote.  This is a very foreboding concept.  Reading only slightly between the lines, the automobile (and the freedom of movement it provides) is the enemy to this line of thinking.  To be clear, the Free Enterprise Forum believes there is a market for new urbanist development.  We also believe that market  is a small segment.   Citizens should be given the choice of being placed in such a development.

It is easy to see why local government may wish to force such a form of development.  Highly concentrated residential areas tend to cost less to deliver local governmental services. The Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission website contends (note the similarity to the new urbanist theory above):

Where we choose to live and work matters. . . . How our places are connected matters. – Changing where and how we grow – by building around historic town centers in walkable, village-scaled development patterns – could save $500 million in transportation system investments over the 50 years.

But is this really what citizens want? 

Citizens may clamor for lower taxes but are they willing to sacrifice personal mobility to balance the books of the locality? 

Will citizens engage in this laborious time intensive planning  process?

The Free Enterprise Forum believes people want a choice; but based on the drafts of Places29, Greene County Multimodal study and other regional planning exercises we remain unconvinced citizens will be provided such an option.

One response

  1. I appreciate this thought-provoking post. I think you are putting your finger on a real paradigm shift from mobility to accessibility, but I personally think it may be more benign than you are making it out to be. The idea is that the ultimate goal of the transportation infrastructure is to get people to where they want to go (accessibility), not merely to generate more traveling in and of itself (mobility). I personally don’t believe that Americans generally like the drive of their commute itself; they just want to get to work. It’s really the destination that counts. That’s all most planners mean by accessibility (You added a little “things government believes you want” to the quote, but I don’t think that’s fair. Who is saying this?)

    As far as multimodal goes, that’s all about choice. A monopoly is never good for business; options spur everyone to do a better job meeting demands. I’m not sure if it’s a good thing to be beholden to any one mode of travel.

    Also, you ask if citizens would be willing to sacrifice personal mobility to balance the books of the locality?

    I can’t speak for anyone else, but I would. If the government can’t afford it, the government shouldn’t buy it. If there is a market it for it, some enterprising individual will meet that need. The highway trust fund was bailed out for $8 billion last year. The federal bailout will be around $20 billion this August. And this is just to maintain the system the way it is. This is all money we don’t have.

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