US Transport planning – bikes are part of it!

Transport Planning in large American cities

This panel took place at NACTO’s Designing Cities Conference, on October 26, 2012, in New York, NY, and was sponsored by IBM. NACTO is the peak body for transportation planners in the USA.

Moderator: Chris Hayes, Host, MSNBC’s UP w/ Chris Hayes (CH)


Janette Sadik-Khan, Commissioner, New York City Department of Transportation, (JSK)

Gabe Klein, Commissioner, Chicago Department of Transportation, (GK)

Ed Reiskin, Director of Transportation, San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, (ER)

Tom Tinlin, Commissioner, Boston Transportation Department (TT)

Rina Cutler, Deputy Mayor of Transportation and Utilities, Philadelphia.(RC)

The metropolitan areas of the five regions above have a population of about 45 million people.

The video recording of the panel discussion can be found here.


Traffic modelling based on “business as usual” showed that in 2050 people would not be able to get from one side of Washington to the other – it would be impossible to accommodate the population increases with single occupancy vehicles. Fortunately America is in a hybrid generation, where the older segment firmly subscribes to the “freedom is a car” myth, but the younger generation is developing different (transport) priorities. Listening to polls does not work, “you don’t lead by looking into the rear view mirror”.

They agreed that mass transit is increasingly important and needs to be made accessible and reliable. However in most areas the public transport systems is drowning in debt, and in the current economic climate it is unlikely that more money will become available. Privately funded schemes, for instance the 41mio bike hire scheme in New York are part of the solution. Developing better transport strategies is an economic development option, it is not tree hugging.

Single occupancy vehicles should be the least attractive choice for commuters

What follows is NOT a transcript, but an attempt to get the gist of the panel discussion and some quotes. The duration of the video is about 53 minutes.

CH: Transportation is intensely political, but at the same time it is absent from national political conversations (he talks about the USA, but it is similar here), yet it intimately affects the daily life of each person. Spending time in a congested traffic environment means burning up economic value. Commuting time affects personal happiness, and a recent study suggests that taking a job that involves an extra hour of commuting a day would need 40% increase in remuneration to compensate.

ER: We need to make people feel safe when they use the streets on their bicycles. With a public transport system that is made accessible, reliable and enjoyable the use of a car should be the last resort, and should be met with access to car share vehicles. We need to redesign the cities for that purpose.

GK: A vibrant city with active safe streets becomes a financially vibrant place. Transportation is key to the revitalisation efforts of cities.

RC: We need to break down departmental silos. Look for opportunities to move people around in different ways. We need to invest in the relevant infrastructure now. Everybody talks about the large deficit, but if we do not fix the (transportation) infrastructure this will be a lot worse in 15 or 20 years.

TT: We got a mass transit system that is drowning in debt. The mayor declared in 2009 “the car is no longer king in Boston”. They issued a new street design manual, which included the removal of car parking space to create bike lanes, bike parking and parklets (space taken away from cars to extend the curb line further out, for instance to allow outdoor cafes etc). Lucky to have a mayor that will spend political capital on these issues. It is not easy, but if you believe you believe. Taking space away from cars and give it to slower transport modes is counterintuitive (but it works)

CH: The current financial and budgetary problems will create a difficult environment to get capital to spend, especially in the absence of solid economic recovery.

JSK: The aim is to make it easier to get around and with more options, in ways that cost not much money. For instance the $41mio bike share scheme that we have put it, the largest in North America, is all privately funded. Sometimes paint on the road can substitute for more expensive infrastructure projects, e.g. when creating dedicated bus lanes.

ER: We need to be strategic on how we invest limited resources. The most cost effective measure we can make to move people is bike infrastructure. It is much cheaper to put in a bike lane than to put in a subway, with benefits both in relieving congestion and in health outcomes. There is a direct connection between the effectiveness of the transportation system and the economy.

GK: Bike share is a profitable transit system, and the city got its investment back in less than two years.

CH: Is there a problem using private equity? Will private sponsors such as Citibank support projects active transport projects in poorer area that might not result in increased economic activity?

TT: Tough fiscal times allow you to be more bold. Make no mistake – the street network is public space, and it is not just about vehicles. In the first 18 months of the bike share program in Boston they got 600’000 rides, 9500 people subscribed, and 20mio calories got burned. It goes across the spectrum of health, congestion, and zero-emission travel.

ER: However transit solutions are delivered they have to fair and equitable.

JSK: Bike share systems are put into areas that have poor access to public transit.

GK: Talks about putting conditions on private enterprise (egg car share systems) to force them to service the less attractive neighbourhoods as well.

CH :Cars are an important subtext in all transport discussion because they dominate the built infrastructure and are speeding machines of death. The “pedestrian lobby” are up against the emotional and spiritual attachment of people to their cars as symbols of autonomy. How does this affect discussions aimed at reducing the amount car miles travelled?

RC: “Philadelphians love change as long as it looks exactly the same when it is done”. In my world every person is a pedestrian. Evolution and not revolution is the key, making transport options available for people to choose from is important. The more attractive these other options are, the easier it is for people to leave their cars at home.

CH: …. emphasising the carrot rather than the stick

RC: It is more like change management, until it is easier for people to leave the car at home three days a week.

JSK: 2/3 of New Yorkers get around without a car, 50% do not own a car, but you still have the car like a symbol of constitutional rights. Other transport options have to be attractive, people will use the bus if it is fast and clean. They will use the bike if it gets them to their destination faster than the bus or the car.

CH: So there seem to be habit and convenience that need to be overcome, but in the end people will make rational choices?

JSK: People will not necessarily know or support buses or bike lanes, but once they are out there available people will use it. New Yorkers are smart (that is perhaps different to Chicago)

CH: behavioural changes happen more quickly than one would anticipate?

GK:. It is all about eliminating costs and hassles. It is not about eliminating pollution etc. People are basically selfish. So if you eliminate costs and hassles it will work for people. We need to provide layers of options, and sometimes push them in the right direction for instance by raising parking rates, or congestion pricing.

TT: It is about providing consumer choice that is safe, clean and accessible. And if can get them to do this different trip once, being car share, mass transit or bike, you got to make sure it is a pleasant experience that makes them want to come back. It is too easy just to say if the price of petrol continues to go up people will leave their cars at home.

CH: How do we know that what we discuss here is not just a fad, and that in 30 years time the planners will try to undo what we have done?

SDK: It will be impossible to accommodate the growth in these cities with single occupancy vehicles. By 2050 we are adding 400mio Americans living on 12% of our land area gravitating towards cities. The status quo will not work. It is not an option, it is what has to be done to accommodate the population projections.

ER: It is not just about the population maths, it is also about the economic benefits resulting from these changes.

SDK: It is an economic development strategy, not tree hugging.

GK: It comes down to change or die, and it applies both at the micro and macro levels. When the worked on the 2050 plans for Washington DC they found to by that time people would not be able to get from one side of the city to the other side anymore if current policies continued. About 10% of people “get it” the rest has to be seeing it to believe it. We have to do the right thing, against the political odds.

RC: We are in a hybrid generation, the older generation who is car dependent and see the “freedom is a car” myth, but the younger generation is developing different priorities.

CH: Imagine you are on your last day on the job and are able to give one piece of advice to your successor ….

JSK: I work for a mayor who does not listen to polls, and that gives freedom to innovate. If we took a poll before we put down bike lanes or bus lanes, it would never have happened. You don’t lead by looking into the rear view mirror and holding a microphone to everybody (“If I arrive at New York airport and the taxi driver knew who I was I would be dead in a second”).

ER: You cannot act and be fearful. It is about thinking about your job and providing good options to people, so they can make choices that are good for them and for the city. The “war on cars” as newspaper call it is a losing strategy.

GK: If you are not heavily criticised by someone you are probably not doing a good job.

TT: Remember it is not about you, it is about everybody else. It is about what you leave behind.

About Heinrich

Promoting everyday cycling