Counting what you can’t see: Downsides of Data-Based Transportation Planning

Richmond Rides bike tour in Church Hill.

I am a transportation planner. My job is primarily focused on bike and pedestrian planning, which I love. But planners cannot wave a magic wand to create the infrastructure needed to better accommodate those modes of transit.

Planning requires data and information to quantify projects. Everything costs money and elected or appointed officials are not likely to blindly approve projects because somebody wants them built. But how do you best account for pedestrians and cyclists?

A recent article published by City Lab touches on this issue:

When it comes to car traffic, we have parking standards, traffic counts, speed studies, and “level of service” standards. Traffic engineers can immediately tell us when a road is substandard, or its pavement has deteriorated, or its level of service has become (or might someday become) degraded. By stark contrast, there is no comparable vocabulary or metrics for walking or cycling. We have not collected a parallel array of statistics to tell us that it isn’t similarly as safe, convenient, or desirable to walk or bicycle to common destinations.

I bike all over Richmond and I can personally recommend all kinds of alterations to our transit network, but my opinion isn’t what matters. Decisions are made on data, studies, budgets, etc.

Public input is crucial when it comes to bike and pedestrian planning. That’s a big part of why there is so much outreach on plans that involve those modes of transit. How do you account for what you cannot properly measure?

The fundamental problem is that we’ve designed our cities for the people moving through them, rather than for the people living, working, and being in them. We’re obsessed with getting there rather than being there.

Agreed. And then some!

If we want cities that are truly walkable and bikeable—that can become great places to be rather than easy corridors to travel through—we have to rely on more than just data. We need a framework that considers a wide array of evidence related to what we’ve done and what we’ve left undone; of what we are, and what we aspire to be.



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