Cars streaming over the Golden Gate Bridge (Flickr)
For a long time, cars reigned supreme in the American city-planning landscape. Suburbs thrived, and people needed a way to get back and forth between their houses in the suburbs and their work in the city’s center. City designers, planners, and developers built projects around car traffic and how easy it would be for people to get in and out of a specific place via car.
Now, we’re witnessing an influx of residents streaming back into a city’s core, increasing pedestrian activity, and emphasizing alternative transportation options. What once worked for the commuter traveling from the suburbs most likely won’t work for the pedestrian walking to work from her apartment. Cities must adapt to providing viable transportation options for both. Recognizing these trends, and also that vital urban cores can be huge economic drivers, large American cities are shifting away from a cars-first transportation approach to one that accounts for multiple modes of travel.
It won’t surprise you to learn that a shift that big can often move at a glacial pace. Though city planners and urban designers might think that a change is right, regulatory environments can be slow catching up to modern trends.
Take the saga of San Francisco’s bus rapid transportation (BRT) line down Van Ness Avenue. The BRT line would establish a dedicated express bus lane in the middle of a large thoroughfare in downtown San Francisco, adding a vital node to the city’s transportation options. Voters approved the project in 2003, and the city raised money for it with a half-cent sales tax increase. The project was set to open in 2009. But, construction hasn’t even started on it more than a decade after it was approved.
Here’s why: before the construction could start, the project had to be quick-tested for whether it would negatively affect a set of environmental factors outlined in the California Environmental Quality Act. It was found that the new project would negatively affect “traffic,” one of the 18 factors laid out in the CEQA. This triggered a larger environmental report, which cost $7 million and took more than a decade to finish. So, how did a project that promises to improve urban mobility get a negative rating for traffic? Eric Jaffe reports:
Here’s the sad thing about the Van Ness BRT report: The only area where it had an unavoidable negative impact that couldn’t be offset under CEQA was traffic. “So this whole document was prepared because of the traffic impact,” says Schwartz, nodding at the enormous report. And here’s the really sad thing about CEQA traffic impacts: They’re determined using a car-friendly metric known as “level of service” that bases a project’s transportation performance on driver delay. In other words, Van Ness BRT required all the trouble of preparing this massive report because, in the twisted eyes of California law, public transit is considered a greater enemy to the environment than car travel.
The “level of service” (LOS) metric meant that cars took pride of place in development projects over other, equally viable or even better transportation option. This means that though cities now know that cars shouldn’t necessarily be the primary mode of transportation anymore, the laws regulating how cities are built in California still think so:
In California, LOS has an especially high-profile. As the primary arbiter of traffic impacts under CEQA—adopted in 1970 by Governor Ronald Reagan—the metric not only determines the fate of many transportation and development projects, but has the awkward role of promoting car use within a law designed to protect the environment. “We have one section of CEQA saying we’ve got to reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” says transportation consultant Jeffrey Tumlin of Nelson\Nygaard, “and another section of CEQA saying we need to accommodate unlimited driving.”
Jaffe reports how thankfully this imbalance is about to change. Regulations are finally catching up to the reality that urban mobility need not solely rely on car travel. New metrics will replace LOS and take into account the variety of options that cities are now promoting for their citizens to get from point A to point B and all places in between.
Metrics are important. But, what San Francisco’s experience teaches us is that what type of metrics you’re collecting is just as important. In the case of the BRT, the wrong type of metric caused what many consider an unnecessary delay in construction. With a more comprehensive set of data tools in the city’s hands, citizens might’ve been riding the BRT down Van Ness today.
It is this exact sort of holistic approach that Placemeter’s data bolsters. Rather than just guessing at how many pedestrians are walking on a sidewalk or how many cars are zooming down your street, our tech will let cities know how many. That’s why we’re working with customers like the Mayors Office of Data Analytics in New York City to help them better understand the city.
We hope that our technology will cut down on the time and resources needed to make traffic reports and environmental studies like the one that plagued San Francisco’s BRT. At the end of the day, the laws and the regulations and the data tools like Placemeter’s should all be geared towards letting city builders get to the important stuff: making better, more livable places for people to thrive in.
Sound exciting? Join Placemeter today. You can make up to $50/month helping us crowdsource our network of sensors. Learn more here.