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Design Thought Leader

Two Conditions Must Change to Ensure Productive Transportation Planning

In part six of this series on urban design, Perkins+Will principal David Green discusses the two questions our region needs to ask itself as we deal with transportation issues and the upcoming referendum and the two conditions that have to change.

In this series we have discussed how, for the past 100 years or so, we have been struggling with issues of transportation; planning for the future, funding projects and trying to reduce congestion. We looked at the original context of the issues, from the constitutional and legal justifications to the initial strategies for implementation. And we reflected on what went wrong; why we are still grappling with these issues and, by most accounts, still unsuccessful. As a result, we should ask ourselves two simple questions: should we change this, and if so, how?

If the answer to the first question is yes, then the first thing we should to do is understand what we really want out of this process, how we want to live our daily lives. If we want to spend more time in our cars, get fatter and waste money, then the answer is simple: we just keep doing what we have been doing. We already know it works.

But if we want to spend less time driving, get healthier, and save money, then we have to do something else, reconsider the type of city we want to live in (and remember the Supreme Court said this is what we should do – keep people healthy, safe and prosperous). In order to do this successfully there are two broad conditions that have to change.

1. We have to work regionally. Unfortunately, the current situation in Georgia makes this very difficult. The trend is to further balkanize jurisdictions within each region, with many new small cities and towns. While this may seem like a good way to solve very local problems, it is moving us further from finding long-range solutions and fulfilling our constitutional obligations.

The issues and systems that bind us together are fundamentally regional (water, transportation, education, economic growth) yet we continue to try to find solutions in smaller jurisdictions. However, we have a system in the state that addresses this. It is a series of regional commissions that are charged with coordinating planning efforts throughout the state on a regional basis. The difficulty, however, is that they have almost no authority. In order to work regionally, we must give these commissions the authority to put in place planning criteria for each of the regions.

The state is currently reviewing and revising the operational structure of the regional commissions, and giving them more flexibility in how they operate within each region and giving local jurisdictions in each region more say in the process. This is a good thing, and it gives the system the flexibility it needs. Clearly, many of the issues facing the southwest region of the state are very different than the challenges the Atlanta region is facing. If this is to work, however, the regional commissions should be empowered to plan.

2. We should require testing and evaluation of the proposed transportation projects. The Supreme Court, in 1926, directed us to ensure that the methods we use to plan cities and regions are such that the resulting projects make us healthy, safe and prosperous. Yet the methods we currently use have either been proved to do just the opposite, or their affects on the population remain unknown.

For example, we know that the highway-arterial-collector system of roads creates an unhealthy, unproductive, unsafe environment, yet we continue to pay for and build them, based on ineffective modeling systems that were never scientifically constructed.

If, however, we find that walking creates healthy, safe and productive environments, and we want this, then we can look to recent research that shows people are significantly more likely to walk if the conditions make it comfortable to do so. And further, that the single most significant factor in measuring this is block size; smaller blocks provide an environment in which people are more likely to walk. But we have almost nothing in our current regulations that addresses this issue.

As a further example, it is now becoming clear that the cul-de-sac to highway pattern of development actually leads to a significant increase in pedestrian and vehicular deaths and injuries. The very model that was put in place to make our lives healthier, safer and more economically productive is doing just the opposite. Again, our constitutional obligation is to rectify this situation, and to do this we should provide a system in which projects are analyzed and tested to ensure appropriate results and minimize unintended consequences.

Imagine putting untested drugs on the market and waiting to see what kills us and what makes us better. This is essentially what we are doing with much of our planning efforts, with the same consequences, except in this case, even when we see the drugs are killing us, we don’t take them off the shelves; we order more.

We should be working regionally, and we should be testing projects to ensure they are doing what we want them to do.

Next week we will discuss very specific solutions and how they can be facilitated by the passage and implementation of the transportation referendum.


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