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Transportation as opportunity space

By David Beach

What is transportation? This may seem like a silly question, but it’s important to ask because there can be differing interpretations.

Lower Euclid in Cleveland is a vibrant place with lots of transportation options

I really didn’t understand transportation until I went to Yellowstone National Park a few years ago. One day I hiked off the road to a spot where I could see a vast plain stretching to a mountain range far away. The land seemed limitless in all directions. There were no fences, no signs, no artificial barriers to stop me. If I had wanted to do so, I could have walked unimpeded for days.

This was a novel experience for someone who had grown up in Ohio, a land that long ago had been cut up into small, private parcels. It made me realize that important thing about transportation isn’t roads or cars. The important thing is space.

In essence, transportation is the public space through which people can move between blocks of private property. If all land were private, you could only travel as far as your neighbor’s fence. Of course, that would make your life difficult. There would be no sidewalk or street allowing you to access other properties beyond your neighbor’s. You couldn’t get to work or school, go shopping, or reach many other opportunities of the larger society. Indeed, society couldn’t function very well at all, which is why one of the most important jobs of any government is to create and manage public rights-of-way to provide for the free flow of commerce. That’s why the first thing developers have to do when subdividing land and building new houses is to put in the streets. And that’s why it’s so important to preserve public access to navigable water.

Key point: The public space allows you to access what you need. The emphasis is on access to opportunities. Very seldom do people move about just for the sake of moving (occasionally the journey is the thing, but not often). Usually they want to access something—work, shopping, recreation, family and friends. And they want that access as quickly, easily, and cheaply as possible.

The goal of transportation, therefore, is to maximize people’s access to opportunities. There are two ways to do this:

Access by proximity — The model here is a vibrant city or town center where many opportunities are located close together. Public policies and investments focus first on promoting the development of diverse land uses (residences, shopping, work places, civic uses) in a compact area. Then the public transportation space is designed so that large numbers of people can move short distances, typically by emphasizing high-quality pedestrian environments that promote walking, biking, and transit (or a tight grid of streets for cars). When this happens, people don’t have to move very far to get what they want; they just walk down the street. This allows them to save time and money.

Access by mobility — The model here is a sprawling suburb or exurb served by highways. Destinations are spread far apart, so the public transportation space is designed so that people can cover long distances at high speed by automobile. The emphasis is on increasing speed of movement between places. A suburban shopping mall, for example, is typically designed with good highway access and huge parking lots so that many people can arrive from all over the region. If there’s not too much traffic congestion from all those cars arriving at one destination, then people can access the mall in a reasonable period of time.
Thus, the choice is between providing convenient places or increasing mobility. There are pros and cons to both approaches. My point is that the transportation system we have developed in the past 50 years has focused almost entirely on the latter strategy. The primary emphasis is on moving people or goods farther and faster.

The result is a transportation system that is seriously out of balance, as well as costly, inefficient, and unsustainable. The following pages in this section of the site attempt to explain why this has happened and how to rethink transportation — creating a new vision of access in Northeast Ohio that enables everyone to get what they need with less wasted motion.

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