Skip to main content

Places worth loving (and protecting from traffic)

What is "success" in urban transport policy?

A common answer used to be "keeping vehicles moving and avoiding traffic jams".

But by now, most people involved with urban transport realise that "keeping the traffic moving" is NOT a useful goal.

Mobility, especially mobility for vehicles, is just a means to other ends. It should never be seen as an end in itself. If we make preventing congestion our goal, we are confusing ends with means.

OK. So what is the real goal of urban transport planning then?

Most of us tend to answer "accessibility"! Planning for accessibility involves trying to make it easy to REACH the things we want to (like contacts, services, goods, jobs, education).

This seems like progress. Here we have a much more coherent purpose for transport planning, right?

Unfortunately, accessibility doesn't seem to excite many people. Despite decades of lip service to accessibility planning most cities still have way too much traffic-focused transport policy.

Everyone seems to agree that accessibility is the real objective. But in practice, speeding up the traffic is what most urban traffic agencies work at hardest.

What are we doing wrong? Maybe accessibility planning seems too abstract and difficult to explain? It is hard to put into practice. Accessibility has defied efforts to measure it in practical, action-oriented ways.

The magic of great places

I wonder if PLACEMAKING offers a more compelling way forward than accessibility.

I have been excited about this since I heard Fred Kent and Kathy Madden, of Project for Public Spaces, speak at the World Cities Summit in Singapore earlier this year. I think they are onto something very important.

"A place worth loving" trumps traffic focused planning much more powerfully than the abstract idea of accessibility.

Cities that have done most to tame traffic tend to be blessed with places worth protecting. The historic city centres in Europe fit this bill. Rebellions against expressway building emerged when road projects threatened much-loved neighbourhoods in American cities from the late 1960s or Australian or Japanese cities in the 1970s.

Project for Public Spaces is working on bringing a placemaking perspective into US traffic engineering with catchphrases including 'context-sensitive design' and 'streets as places'.

I don't think placemaking replaces accessibility planning or proves it wrong. I think it gives access thinking a tangible and compelling focus to rally around.

The transforming power of these ideas shines through in this 10-minute StreetsFilms interview with Gary Toth the Senior Director of Transportation Initiatives with the Project for Public Spaces.

For those of us outside North America this video also offers some lessons on avoiding the mistakes that took the USA so far down an automobile dependent path.


  1. This placemaking or "places worth loving" line has been out there for a while, but I've rarely seen it detach from the discourse of leftist urbanism and show up in the mouths of average citizens or conservatives, most of whom see any attempt to change the subject away from transport as evidence of neo-Soviet central planing impulses.

    You're right about the hopelessness of defining the problem as traffic, and "accessibility" is a hopeless abstraction. I use the word "mobility" in my own work, because it seems a little less vague, but of course you're right that "mobility" can just mean going in circles, and that's not the point either.

    I encourage you to keep the conversation going on this crucial question.



Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Save Manila's (mostly informal) public transport!

Metro Manila depends on informal, lightly-regulated public transport which now faces a catastrophe as a result of this pandemic. The Mobility Coalition, an alliance of eight Metro Manila transport advocacy groups, has ideas on what to do. I spoke with Robie Siy who is active in the Mobility Coalition and who writes the weekly Mobility Matters column for the Manila Times.   [Scroll to the end for more details on Robie, Mobility Matters and the Mobility Alliance.] Scroll down for highlights of our conversation or listen with the player below. Click here to learn how to subscribe to this podcast.

Help improve this map of global sustainable transport advocates

I am working to map global "sustainable transport" advocates (for want of a better phrase).  You can help! Submit suggestions or corrections via this google form . Here is the map so far. Please explore it and help me improve it.

Transport-based City Types and their Trajectories

I want to help you get perspective on your city and its transport system with the help of simple city types based on their dominant transport modes, such as Walking Cities, Transit Cities, Bus Cities, Motorcycle Cities and Car Cities. This way of thinking about cities is a  heuristic  (an imperfect mental model or technique that is nevertheless good enough to be helpful). And it obviously is imperfect. For example, real cities often have various modes of transport, and modern cities are really all some kind of hybrid city type. But it is still useful, especially if we add the idea of a Traffic Saturated City , which is a very different beast from a Car City. It is important for change-makers in Traffic Saturated Cities to be aware they are not in automobile dependent cities yet. Options for digesting this:  Read the brief article below and study the diagrams. They complement the podcast.  For more depth, LISTEN to the 37 minute audio with the player above.  A full transcri