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The Walk Mode and Urban Land Use/Transportation Policy [A new direction for transportation planning and land use policy]

A simple definition suggests a new direction for transportation planning and land use policy. By this definition, suburbs are areas where people generally drive from origin to destination. Urban areas are places where people generally walk from origin to destination. A definition of land use -- based on transportation mode -- distinguishes urban from suburban areas. Land use/transportation policies, that begin with this modal definition of land use, can result in more effective long range plans to control sprawl and reduce congestion than does our current emphasis on regional transit.

The problem with transit policy

Transit plans are aimed at getting people out of their car and into a train, a bus, or someone else's car or van. Results have been spotty at best. Governor Hunt's 1997, Hearn Commission Report (1) noted two fundamental problems with current land use/transportation policies, which limit the success of transit plans to reduce North Carolinians reliance on driving:

 There is a geographic mismatch between transit plans and travel behavior. Origins and destinations are widely dispersed but transit service remains local or limited to a few corridors, not reflecting the regional character of travel.

 There is an administrative mismatch between agencies and institutions responsible for making transportation investment decisions and those responsible for guiding growth and development.

The Hearn Commission is not alone in thinking that problems of geography and governance are deep and pervasive. When it comes to coordinating transit and land development, the process inevitably leads to one of two "ugly situations."(2) (a) If a community chooses to concentrate on development - to ultimately achieve the density needed for transit - it will endure years of congested, overloaded highways. (b) If instead it embarks on a high capacity public transit project, before it has the necessary density, it will endure years of poor transit system performance and an undue financial burden.

So far, no transit/land use initiative seems able to significantly reduce our reliance on driving while avoiding one or the other "ugly situation," usually getting hit by both. For every public initiative to develop an urban area, there are a thousand private initiatives to develop suburbs.

We seem to have boxed ourselves into a corner. The Triangle Transit Authority's regional rail plan, North Carolina's most advanced transportation initiative, proposes to spend over $600 million -- doubling Wake County's transportation improvement program, from around $billion to over $1 billion -- to build a system that will carry less than one tenth of one percent of the region's daily person-trips. TTA's proponents admit that, once completed, the rail system will have no significant effect on sprawl or congestion. They are forced to justify the project with a lackluster, "it might not be much, but it's the best we can do." The only reason this weak justification works, is that so far, it is true. There are no other alternatives on the table, except for "do nothing" and "widen the roads more."

Transit's difficulties highlight the land use/transportation problem. A better solution to sprawl and congestion lies elsewhere, closer to Raleigh's Hillsborough Street Corridor project than to TTA's regional rail project. But a solution differs from the Hillsborough Street project in a crucial way. It begins with a core not a corridor.

Using transportation mode to distinguish urban from suburban areas

For planners the words "urban" and "suburban" should be full of meaning and technical specificity. After all, it is that which we plan. In practice, official plans seldom clearly distinguish between the two. When the line between urban and suburban land use is blurred, public policies -- designed to promote urban growth and control suburban growth -- suffer from confusion, ambiguity, and ineffectiveness. The Raleigh and Wake County Comprehensive Plans disregard the obvious. All developed land is characterized as "urban." Only recently has the City's official "Urban Forms" map added the word suburban to residential areas.

If we really want to promote urban development, and regulate suburban development, it seems reasonable to begin with a method to clearly distinguish between the two. Usually, land use maps that distinguish urban from suburban areas are based on measures of density (such as persons per square mile). But using density to define the fundamental structure or morphology of cities is arbitrary, relies on subjective analysis, and results in vague and ambiguous boundaries between "urban" and "suburban" areas. Regional surveys of travel behavior detect no statistical difference in the rate of automobile use between areas of higher and lower density.(3) The classic definitions of urban structure, from Burgess, Park, Wirth and others,(4) base their morphologies on economic and social criteria. But these also provide little practical help distinguishing urban from suburban areas. The difference between urban and suburban land uses, the ability to draw boundaries between them, to effectively plan for them, can be more easily accomplished when we begin with a land use definition based on transportation mode.

Local transportation can be broken down into three fundamental transportation modes, driving, riding and walking.

It is easy to see the powerful relationship between the drive mode and suburban land use. Unquestionably, in suburbs, people generally drive from origin to destination.

But what of urban areas? Is it that, in urban areas, people only drive a little less -- and walk and ride a little more? Is the difference just a matter of degree? Is there no real difference, in general travel behavior, between urban and suburban areas?

Surely there are communities where the residents are obviously urbanites and other communities where the residents are obviously suburbanites. There must be a difference between urban and suburban lifestyles. Does it not begin with transportation mode?

The answer, I believe, lies with the walk mode. Both driving and walking share a freedom of mobility that the ride modes lack. When riding, whether by bus, train or carpool, one cannot leave when one wishes, or travel directly to one's destination. With appropriate land use, walking can successfully compete with driving, as riding cannot. When walking, as when driving, you can leave the instant you wish and travel directly where you want to go.

The walk mode: key to urban policy

Urbanologists recognize that urban life and the walk mode are inextricably tied together. Transportation planners admit the relationship, but consider it weak. The walk mode is not seen to define urban areas as the drive mode defines suburban areas. Thus, the walk mode is placed on the periphery of our plans instead of the center. The only walk trip, recognized by transportation planning models, is a walk to a bus.(5)

In truth, the walk mode defines urban areas as the drive mode defines suburbs. Transit, together with the other ride modes, cannot define land use, as do driving and walking. One might argue that transit is even more needed in suburbs than in urban areas. An urban dweller has less need of transit than does a suburbanite when deprived of a car.

In any case, the ride mode does not define land use. Driving and walking, opposite ends of the transportation mode spectrum, do take into account the difference between urban and suburban areas. Suburbs are places where people generally drive from origin to destination. Urban areas are places where people generally walk from origin to destination. This is the modal definition of land use.

Transit struggles in suburbs and thrives in cities, but transit is inconsequential when it comes to fundamental land use/ transportation policy. The emphasis on transit, to plan our way out of sprawl and congestion, by running more buses and building a regional fixed rail system, places the cart before the horse; it is wrongheaded and ultimately futile. First, let us direct public policy toward developing one, truly urban area, a place where residents generally walk from origin to destination.

A new urban policy

We are exploring new territory here. There are no "transportation experts" on the walk mode. There are no examples to follow because all of us generally drive. When City Council tries to figure out how to get people out of their cars, they are like a committee of atheists trying to figure out how to get people back in church. All of us live in the suburbs. It will take a radical shift in perspective for us to even envision an environment where people travel from place to place mainly on foot. In a true urban environment it would be quicker and more convenient to walk than to drive; it would take longer to walk to your car than to your job, or school, or store. Businesses in urban areas would not worry about parking but about home delivery.

Our own, local history can help direct us toward a solution. After all, long before motorized vehicles, Raleigh began as a planned city, a development project laid out by William Christmas and a committee of state senators. By concentrating our efforts in the historic city, at least we can begin with an infrastructure that was designed for the walk mode, by people who relied on the walk mode.

It seems reasonable to approach new and untried public policy in small steps, admitting that our present plans are flawed, and that we must experiment to see what works and what does not. The effectiveness of a good urban policy would be relatively easy to measure. We will know we are on the right track when residents of the defined area walk more and drive less.

A plan based on the modal definition of land use

After much thought, I would like to suggest what I believe to be the minimum necessary land use/transportation policies needed to produce a true urban area. These begin by identifying the bounds of an urban core, Raleigh's historic city. I believe it is practicable to set a twenty-year goal of 50,000 persons living in and around this area, Raleigh's urban core.

Within the urban core:

 The slower mode gets the road.

 Streets are traffic-calmed to a speed safe for pedestrians, based on a standard pedestrian injury index such as the Abbreviated Injury Scale.(6) (AIS = 1.0 is equivalent to a vehicle traffic flow of approximately 10-15 mph. This means that, in the event of a pedestrian being struck by a motor vehicle traveling at 10 mph, the probability of receiving a fatal injury is approximately 2-3 percent. In other words, for most collisions at 15 mph or less, the pedestrian should survive. At vehicle speeds exceeding 35 mph, the AIS=6.0, and the rate of pedestrian mortality is approximately 100%.)(7)

 Paving and curbing, not regulation or speed humps, are used to traffic-calm streets so that traffic movement is smooth and safe for both drivers and pedestrians.

 Cars are free to travel in either direction on any street, turn either way at any intersection, and park anywhere safe to do so.

 Through-traffic is deviated around the urban core. Traffic with a destination in the urban core is captured at the perimeter.

 Unimproved land is taxed high; improved land taxed low to encourage development.

 Taxes are used to subsidize home delivery service, rents for small businesses, and housing.

One side effect, having 50,000 persons living in Raleigh's urban core, would be that projected ridership on the TTA regional rail system would double, from about 25,000 trips per day to more than 50,000. An added impact would be an increase in walk trips between 25,000 to 50,000 per day . Overall, Raleigh's single occupant vehicle trips would be reduced 10%, from approximately 0.9 million vehicle trips per day down to 0.8 million. Alternatively, the projected reduction of vehicle trips, when the TTA rail system is fully operational, is one percent.

I do not suggest that the regional rail initiative be abandoned, only that our land use/transportation policy be revised to reflect the true relationship between land use and transportation mode. In other words, the "driving" force behind urbanization is the walk mode, not the ride mode. Transit can gain if public policy focuses on the walk mode. With reinvigorated goals, who knows? Perhaps one day within our lifetime, it might be possible to catch a high-speed express -- any-time, day or night -- from (the historic city of) Raleigh... all the way to Cameron Village!

Respectfully submitted by Robert Alan Olason, AICP.

   (1) "The Transit 2001 Executive Summary and Technical Report," Transit 2001 Commission, appointed by Gov. James B. Hunt in September 1995, Thomas K. Hearn Jr., Chairman, January 1997, p.76.
   (2) Charlier, James, "Growth Management and Transportation: The Florida Experience", Carolina Planning, vol. 17, no. 1, Department of City and Regional Planning, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Spring 1991, p. 42.
   (3) "1994 Triangle Travel Behavior Survey," Triangle Transit Authority, prepared by Nustats International, September 8, 1995.
   (4) A synopsis of theories concerning the morphology of cities may be found at Martin, Douglas, Classical Theoretical Perspectives in Urban Sociology, accessed September 15, 2000.
   (5) City of Raleigh, DOT, CAMPO transportation model, July 2000.
   (6) Motor Vehicle Accident Reconstruction and Cause Analysis, Robert Limpert, The Michie Company, 1994.
   (7) Traditional Neighborhood Development Street Design Guidelines, ITE Transportation Planning Council Committee 5P-8, Chester Chellman, principal author, Institute of Transportation Engineers, pub. no. RP-027, 1997.