12.3.13

Quality Planning

[A crowded bus in Minneapolis.]
Today at Streets.mn, I put a new post up about some of the less tangible benefits of streetcars, things like ride quality, noise levels, and how traffic calming changes the feel of the street.

For example, here's the description of the acoustic experience of a streetcar vs. a bus:
Noise – The role of noise in cities is often overlooked. Our downtowns and neighborhoods are continually polluted by the sounds of combustion engines, and this daily harangue not only makes our streets unpleasant, but actually raises stress levels in strikingly unhealthy ways. Because they’re electric and run on rails, streetcars are quiet. The sound of a grunting diesel bus has a Pavolovian effect on me. That farting grumble instantly makes me more depressed. I feel like Charlie Brown on a bad day, slumping my shoulders and staring at my shoes. I imagine many others feel the same way.
Noise is one of those things that often gets lost in the way we think about planning our cities. We rely on statistics and models as ways to study efficiency. We like counting cars and measuring dollars, reducing our cities to quantities that can be stacked next to each other and graphed. Crime was down %2 this year. The average time spent in stuck traffic was 15 minutes, times 500 million trips equals 2.64 trillion dollars per year. Et cetera.

Noise, on the other hand, is what you might call a qualitative value. It joins a list of terms like "place," "walkability," or "architecture" in being vague and hard to measure. Compared to the hard numbers of traffic flow or assessed real estate value, qualitative concerns seem less important, so much icing on the urban cake. But at the same time, our actual experience of the city is composed of just these sensations. These qualitative values can make the difference whether we walk, trudge, or stroll. Sometimes everyday life is nothing but the sunshine on our shoes.

[Waiting for the bus in downtown Saint Paul.]
Riding the bus yesterday, I was reading through a short, smart book called Health and Community Design. I was struck by how public health studies about active transportation suggest the importance of qualitative factors. The authors, Frank, Engelke, and Schimid, write this about the "micro-economic perspective" that often governs transportation planning. Here's their long but interesting argument:
Another critique that can be leveled against the micro-economic perspective concerns its singular emphasis upon utility. Micro-economic theory logically requires a focus on individual calculations of loss versus gain, namely, the time and monetary cost involved in travel. Questions involved in the user's perception of the spaces in which travel occurs are dismissed almost entirely. The efficient movement of automobile traffic -- where efficiency is defined by high average speed and lack of traffic congestion -- has long been the standard amongst transportation engineers and many planners for judging the basic soundness of a transportation system. [...] It is assumed that the motorist, who exists in a metal and glass cocoon insulated from the surrounding environment, cares little about qualitative issues such as the aesthetics of the roadway and surrounding development. But to the non-motorists, the external environment has tremendous importance, directly influencing one's perception of the desirability of travel on foot or by bicycle.

This makes a lot of sense to me. A lot this comes down to the difference between the closed, private world of the automobile, and the open, public world of the city street. When you look at cars from above, it doesn't really matter what's going on inside them. One driver might be singing along to the radio, rocking out to some CCR. The next driver might be gritting their teeth, clenching the wheel, late for a meeting. The next might be totally relaxed, the next might be on the phone, the next might be wide-eyed after having just landed in the USA for the first time. Outside of road rage, it hardly matters. Qualitative concerns are irrelevant, taking a back seat to the number crunch of drivers.  

[A sidewalk on Minneapolis' Franklin Avenue.]
For walking and biking, it's a whole different story. Qualitative environments are everything. People will cross the street to be in the sunshine or to avoid an alley. People bike far out of their way to experience the intangible pleasures of a comfortable trail.

Frank et. al. end by arguing that, looking at the qualitative composition of a city, there's a zero-sum war waged between cars and everyone else:
The built environment can be highly pleasant, interesting, and safe or highly unpleasant, uninteresting, and unsafe for the non-motorist. It is not a stretch to claim that transportation systems and land use patterns that allow for efficient automobile movement are directly at odds with the interests of non-motorists, because the same environments that promote fast driving are almost always the environments that are unpleasant and unsafe for the walker and bicyclist.

To me, this argument is both convincing and scary. If environment matters little to cars, but is crucial for anyone else, and quantitative measures inherently struggle to perceive environmental factors, our cities are in trouble. It means that our predominant methodologies are by their very nature predisposed to create qualitatively alienating spaces. It means that the very language of efficiency and calculation undermines our social efforts to built sustainable and comfortable cities.

I hope I'm wrong. The alternative is trying to figure out how to accurately measure and assess qualitative values. We need to come up with numbers or values that can gauge comfort and the "feel" of a space. It seems an impossible task, but until we do, our indefinable streets will be getting the short end of the stick.


[Minneapolis sunset from the ped bridge over I-94.]

2 comments:

Taruhan bola online said...

is very important in life planning,,, should be drawn together as u may,,,, keep the spirit to live life

Erik Ostrom said...

Is noise really qualitative? It seems like something you could quantify, with raw decibels as a starting point. A smooth ride can also be measured numerically.

There are other factors you can't quantify, of course. But some of this just comes down to which quantitative factors we choose to value.