How Urban Planners Can Connect More People to Opportunity

(Photo by Scott Webb)

We certainly live in a metropolitan moment. Across the planet, including the United States, the urban share of the population continues to grow. With growing populations also comes more opportunities: new jobs, new schools, new health care facilities, and new sources of entertainment.

Yet to keep metropolitan economies functioning while creating a platform for shared prosperity, transportation and land use planners must find new ways to connect people to all those opportunities. We now know that our current models won’t build us to where we want to go; more highway lanes just induce additional driving demand, bringing even more congestion in their wake. Even worse, the current model tends to prioritize high vehicle speeds at the expense of bicycle and pedestrian safety.

Instead, more people within the governance and planning communities have begun to subscribe to the concept of building around accessibility, or the ease of reaching destinations. If the current model focuses on speed, the accessibility model looks at land use and infrastructure from a more holistic economic perspective: Are we optimizing connections between people and places?

Delivering on this new approach, however, demands need new tools and techniques for engineers and planners. In recent work by Geneviève Boisjoly and Ahmed El-Geneidy published at Brookings, a survey of global metropolitan areas and working professionals reveals that regions must overcome significant technical hurdles in order to bring the accessibility approach into practice.

There is certainly good news with Boisjoly and El-Geneidy’s work. Most metropolitan transportation plans (22 of the 32 analyzed within the report) include accessibility in their vision, goals, or objectives. Nearly all of the 343 land use and transportation practitioners surveyed for the report were familiar with the concept and/or metrics of accessibility. Most agree that accessibility metrics can and should influence the decision-making processes within their agency or organization. The word is getting out.

The problem is that accessibility is still stuck in a theoretical place.

For example, many long-range plans use accessibility as a buzzword with little tangible meaning. Only eight metropolitan areas use the indicators to evaluate the benefits of land use and transportation projects. Only 55 percent of planners use accessibility metrics in their work, and largely as a result of their own initiative. Just saying you want to do something is a good first step, but transportation projects come with big price tags — regions need actual accessibility criteria to steer investments.

Just as troublingly, accessibility indicators are often only half-complete. The most typical accessibility indicator is “access to a facility.” Think of this as whether a bus stop is in your neighborhood. It’s an important first step, but what if the bus doesn’t take you anywhere of interest? Or it only runs every 30 minutes? If we don’t judge access to destinations, we’re not measuring how transportation actually works for people.

Finally, the access to destinations measures used are often too narrow. Many regions look only at aggregate travel via private vehicle or public transportation, rather than subdividing by demographic groups or alternative modes like walking or biking. Given modern planning principles to promote multimodal transportation and equitable access, not considering these variables is worrisome.

The good news, however, is innovative MPOs and planners can provide valuable insight for places and professionals looking to increase use of accessibility metrics. Boisjoly and El-Geneidy make several practical recommendations.

First, to promote tangible accessibility results, use clearly defined indicators to measure critical outcomes. For example, Transport for London’s (TfL) T2025 plan sets forth objectives (i.e., “Supporting economic development”), indicators (i.e., “Improvement in employment accessibility”), and measures (i.e., “The change in the number of jobs accessible by public transport within 45 minutes travel time”), all of which accurately stack up to larger objectives.

Second, include accessibility criteria in the selection process for projects. The Baltimore Regional Transportation Board’s Maximize2040 plan uses a multi-criteria scoring analysis (including accessibility) to compare projects submitted by local jurisdictions and to determine which ones would be included in the regional transportation plan. Accessibility is also one component within Virginia’s Smart Scale approach. These characteristics and others can elevate accessibility as a goal within formal transportation plans.

Third, measure different destination types, transportation modes, and splits between target demographic groups. As previously mentioned, accessibility measures the ease of reaching all destinations — not only workplaces, but also health care facilities, green amenities, sports and recreation centers, schools, and cultural resources. And as regions simultaneously look to shift transportation habits and promote shared prosperity, access measures must consider different modes and people.

Data from a Survey Administered by Geneviève Boisjoly and Ahmed El-Geneidy

Fourth, use visualization tools and clear reporting of costs and benefits to inform the public. TfL’s plan, as well as their current WebCAT web-based mapping tool, clearly demonstrate impacts of the transportation plan on accessibility outcomes by allowing users to visually explore their travel reach within different time periods. By developing these metrics, planners may more clearly convey the financial costs and benefits of proposed projects to those with decision-making power.

Cities face a long journey to implement accessibility as a practical framework. The litany of practitioners that do consider accessibility appropriately, however, provide a guiding light for planners and city officials newly entering the space. Following in the steps of successful MPOs, local governments looking to reform their approaches have immense potential. Formalizing new policies is an important first step.

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