American Cities’ Biggest Transportation Innovation is Decidedly Low-Tech

Long Island Bike Lane

American cities are adding bus and bike lanes, implementing bikeshare systems, and creating public plazas and miniature parks at a rapid pace.

Urban streets, long the domain of automobiles, are increasingly being reclaimed by and for the people, a change that amounts to the biggest transportation innovation in recent years, according to a new report by TransitCenter.

“A People’s History of Recent Transportation Innovation” details how strong alignment among local civic organizations, city leadership, and transportation agencies has yielded enduring changes in regional transportation systems.

Moving people instead of cars isn’t a new idea. Indeed, it is an age-old one. And while it may not be innovative in the technological sense, when driven by local advocates seeking a widespread shift in priorities, it is nothing short of revolutionary, TransitCenter says.

Outside of progressive communities like Portland, Oregon, and Arlington, Virginia, it would have been inconceivable a decade ago to imagine cities re-orienting streets to people instead of cars. But today, these innovations are occurring wholesale across the U.S., part of an ongoing paradigm shift in the attitudes and preferences of the general public, and of the planners and elected officials who serve them.

These are small-scale innovations to be sure – turning a car lane into a bike lane, or transforming a curbside parking space into a parklet – yet they run counter to decades of postwar transportation policy focused on the automobile. TransitCenter’s report, written by Shin-pei Tsay, notes that these auto-centric policies “normalized, then calcified” to the point that “many local leaders and citizens felt powerless to override [them].”

“A People’s History” presents the historical context for cities’ recent changes to their streets. After World War II, the federal government focused on building out the Interstate Highway System. Officials established a massive policy and institutional superstructure that established a transportation system centered on the personal car, a new and exciting technology at the time. With federal funding for transit and pedestrian projects reduced and this new framework in place, it would take decades of sprawl and homogeneity for citizens and local policymakers to reach a critical mass necessary to enact significant nationwide change.

TransitCenter, an advocacy organization focused on strengthening transit and transit ridership, studied six of the largest cities and metropolitan areas that have shaped this reversal: New York City, Portland, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Denver, and Charlotte. They found three commonalities in communities that had revitalized their transportation networks:

  1. A civic sector that is resident-led, non-elite, and outside government
  2. A bold mayor and transportation agency head, and
  3. A staff willing to challenge the existing culture within local government.
Graphic from TransitCenter Report
Graphic from TransitCenter Report

Within each case, the report also examined the corresponding potential for “durability,” or likelihood that trends would last and change, and how cities and regions have historically achieved this.

In the case cities, the civic sector was often the driving source of ideas and innovation, which was most successful when paired with progressive leadership.

In Pittsburgh, for example, the city had little say in its own transportation system, and car-centric economic development plans brought further investments to the interstate system rather than to the city’s center. By the early 2000s, however, smaller groups began building on what the city already had – such as a network of off-street trails and tight-knit neighborhood organizations – in order to put forward reforms like a comprehensive bike plan and street revitalization pop-up programs. Recently, a caucus, helping build a stronger alignment between the city and county, further prioritized sustainable transportation changes, such as a bike lane plan and the just-launched Healthy Ride bikeshare program.

Based on its findings, TransitCenter recommends the following strategies to drive more urban transportation innovation in the future:

  1. Encourage civic organizations to emerge and re-frame transportation issues as quality-of-life issues
  2. Reinforce public support through political organizing and leveraging technical expertise or data
  3. Bolster the courage of leaders willing to take on reform by connecting them with visible public support and a compelling communications strategy
  4. Position advocates on the inside to catalyze a reorientation of city agency and staff culture
  5. Perpetuate new norms by changing agency standards, and
  6. Create federal and state policies that recognize and reward small-scale urban transportation reform and tip the scales towards innovation.

As car ownership continues to decline and a new generation of Americans less reverent of the automobile than their forebears comes into its own, the demand for multimodal, mixed-use urban places will continue to transform our cities.

The good news is, this preference for walkable urban places seems to no longer be a mere trend, but a lasting societal shift. Still, people-oriented transportation changes are not pervasive nationwide, nor are recent reforms guaranteed to stand the test of time.

In order to maintain momentum, cities need more local-level change agents and innovators, as well as the elected officials willing to think past cars, to create streets and neighborhoods that are destinations, rather than just places to speed through.

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