If we’re being honest with ourselves, 2015 was a pretty average year for urban transportation. Miraculously, Congress passed a major transportation package, but despite a few high points (transit funding, new design options), it’s still mostly money for highways. There were some innovative bike infrastructure projects and lots of new bike-share programs. Car-loving cities such as Dallas and Charlotte got streetcar systems up and running. But largely, 2015 just maintained our driving-first status quo.
Luckily that’s all in the past now. It’s January 2016 and time for a fresh start. To that end, here are four New Year’s resolutions that transportation planners and advocates should take to heart.
For the Sake of Equity, Learn to Listen
Earlier this year, a Washington state legislator proposed a bill that would’ve provided subsidized parking passes to low-income residents living in the rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods near current and future Seattle light-rail stations. Her argument was that many of those residents weren’t served by light rail to get to their jobs, were feeling the squeeze from rising costs of living, and therefore could use assistance to protect their ability to drive to work. When I covered the story, I heard from urbanists and transportation advocates in the comments section, and on Twitter and Facebook that the article was absurd, that transit is way cheaper than driving any day, that subsidizing cars is a terrible idea no matter the circumstance. While I understand the enthusiasm for alternative transportation and don’t think they’re incorrect, per se, that sort of knee-jerk dismissal is hugely problematic. At best it highlights a paternalistic tendency of mostly white, mostly middle- to upper-middle-class transportation advocates to assume mostly poor, mostly minority communities don’t know what they’re talking about. At worst it makes cities more inequitable by exacerbating the impacts of gentrification and displacement.
In 2015, equity was the word du jour for transportation nonprofits, government agencies, media outlets and urbanists. In 2016, those same groups should really listen if a community tells them a new light-rail line or set of bike lanes will harm rather than help. Sure sometimes it’ll be simple NIMBYism, but the smart folks who care about cities will be able to figure out if it’s a homeowner worried about his property value or a community worried about being displaced.
No New Sharrows
I thought this was a resolution we’d already accomplished, but recently a friend in Asheville, North Carolina, posted a photo of a fresh sharrow being laid down, so apparently disdain for this unhelpful street painting is not yet universal. In the past I might’ve argued that sharrows were better than nothing or a good first step toward better infrastructure, but time has shown that neither drivers nor bicyclists really understand their purpose. They clearly don’t do much to make biking conditions safer (no angry driver has ever seen a sharrow and thought, “fine I guess I should share the road.”) As such, 2016 should be the year we leave sharrows behind. They may be one of the least expensive forms of “infrastructure” and require the least amount of political capital to get installed, but that’s clearly money and energy that could be better spent on infrastructure that actually helps people get around by bike.
Start a War on Cars
Many of you reading this have never once shied from arguing against cars and their laundry list of damaging impacts. I used to think talking about the evils of automobiles was counterproductive to improving transit and biking and walking. Many mainstream advocates and DOT agents still think that’s the case. Though the rhetoric has changed significantly over the past five or so years, the argument still tends to be, “it’s not about making driving harder, it’s about making transit and biking easier.” This has gotten us to single digit percentages of walkers and bikers in most cities, incomplete infrastructure networks and unacceptably high numbers of fatal crashes.
As such, 2016 should be the year we’re consistently honest about the level to which we subsidize cars through roads, parking and cheap gas, and the tens of thousands of deaths they cause each year. Maybe your average public meeting attendee still comes away thinking, “my parking lane is more important than your bus lane,” but at least it’s a more honest conversation about what’s at stake and who’s got all the advantages. (Lest you think I’m not also part of the problem, I own a car and typically drive once or twice a week.)
Build Complete Bike Networks
This is perhaps the least realistic of the resolutions, but January is a time for thinking big. This year, DOTs around the country should resolve to only build complete, connected bike infrastructure networks rather than continuing with their piecemeal approach. Over the past few years, Seattle has built several short sections of protected bike lanes. Riding on a given protected bike lane is great, but getting to and from is awful. I realize the bit-here, bit-there approach to building a network comes from a mix of political capital, funding and a lingering belief that sharrows and painted bike lanes on the shoulder count as infrastructure. But it’s still baffling. No engineer would ever propose to send cars down a gravel road in the middle of the city to get from one piece of pavement to the next or build unconnected light-rail lines. If we want biking to succeed as a mode of urban transportation, we need connected networks of good, safe infrastructure. In 2016 and beyond, planners and engineers should focus on building complete bike networks from the center out.
The Works is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.
Josh Cohen is Crosscut’s city reporter covering Seattle government, politics and the issues that shape life in the city.