Some thoughts on long-range planning

Craig and I were discussing long range planning today, reviewing a forecast Craig dug up describing one vision of a sustainable future.  Neither of us bought into the top-down vision of the transportation component, and we talked about why it seemed so wrong.

I don’t want to get into the details of that discussion, nor do I want to propose my own vision for a sustainable transportation system (at least, not yet).  Instead what I wanted to list here are a few possible ground rules that should be followed when making long-range predictions.

First, and possibly last, as it is time to go home, basic economic principles still apply.  There are finite costs associated with everything, and you can’t just wave a pen and do away with them.  For example, a favorite theme with sustainable transportation is to declare that everyone will use eco-friendly transit, sometimes pronouncing transit with a “personal rapid” accent.   Transit by its very nature is most efficient when everybody uses it, but when faced with competition from private vehicles, you can’t charge enough per trip to cover the cost of the trip.  Claiming that mass transit modes will be the dominant form of transportation is therefore likely to be wrong, in that, short of outlawing private vehicle ownership, it is extremely difficult to make transit cost-competitive with the car.

Second (just to get at least two points in), it seems to me that most planning forecasts are largely top-down, and almost never bottom-up.  You can do some things in large steps, but compared to the total urban area, even the biggest steps are nearly infinitesimal.  So a local, top-down transit oriented development will have no noticeable impact on travel patterns in an urban area, and therefore there is little reason to assume that it will even have a local impact on travel patterns.

For example, I talked story briefly with a shave-ice seller in Koloa, Kauai last week, and she said that her day job (so to speak) was actually as a designer for a firm that was developing some property near Lihue.  She said it was going to be very village oriented and walking scale, so you could walk to everything.  She even said you could walk to Costco.  Last I checked Costco sold massive bulk items—things like paper towels in bundles that are bigger than a shopping cart can fit.  People aren’t going to walk to Costco, no matter how top-down village-like you make your development.  They are going to drive.

My argument is that a bottom-up approach is more organic, and might achieve a more lasting change.   By bottom-up we mean changing things on a per person basis.  Give people tools that make transit possible to use.  Sell people bikes that can be used for something other than a road race.  If you take the bottom up approach, you might be able to get a few people to bicycle if you make cool bikes like those cargo bikes we saw in Amsterdam last year.  You aren’t going to see any significant shift in transportation modes (at least, not right away), but what you end up with might be more resilient and flexible.  A cargo bike works anywhere, not just in a transit-oriented development or a walking village.

Okay, that is two things and I need to head home.