Monday, December 29, 2008

Streets as Places

I was discussing the commons and the notion of a commons-based society with a friend a few days ago, and she said that Dr. Spock had articulated a commons philosophy in a dramatic episode of Star Trek, where he has to die in order to save the ship (or the planet—she couldn’t remember all the details.) I am not a “trekkie” so I cannot verify this, but she claims Dr. Spock said something like: ‘What is good for all is more important than what is good for many. What is good for many is more important than what is good for a few, and what is good for a few is more important than what is good for one.’ If he indeed said that, I agree, and even if he didn’t but someone else did, I still agree. Of course we do our best to create a society in which the good of one is not juxtaposed against the good of all, or where the “good” of one is not simply their financial enhancement at the expense of many.

Perhaps discussing Star Trek led me to think about traveling long distances and led me to propose another commons based approach to a big problem, which is transportation. I was also moved by reading about the national stimulus package, which has a lot in it about road widening and highway expansion, less about fixing roads and bridges but not much at all about public transportation or creating communities in which walking and biking are the easiest ways to get around, and, for those using a wheelchair, universal access is always the design.

For the following ideas and information, I am indebted to Gary Toth, the Director of Transportation Initiatives at the Project for Public Spaces. Gary worked for 34 years with the New Jersey Dept of Public Transportation. I encourage everyone to visit their website and sign up for their e-newsletter.

Mr. Toth proposes a very simple idea as the foundation of all transportation planning, but an idea that is the opposite of most prevailing plans: view streets as places. Current transportation planning, in contrast, does not focus at all on land use and places the highest priority on high speed travel. Ironically, this simply leads to more and more congestion. Streets take up as much as one-third of a community’s land, and yet in many places they are they are the exclusive domain of cars. He explains,
Traffic planners and public officials need to foster land use planning at the community level…This includes creating more attractive places that people will want to visit in both existing developments and new ones. A strong sense of place benefits the overall transportation system. Great Places - popular spots with a good mix of people and activities, which can be comfortably reached by foot, bike and perhaps transit as well as cars - put little strain on the transportation system. Poor land-use planning, by contrast, generates thousands of unnecessary vehicle-trips, creating dysfunctional roads, which further worsens the quality of the places.
The price of poor transportation planning can be seen beyond poor transportation and CO2 emissions that cause global warming. The National Center for Disease Control reports that 25 years ago, only two states had obesity rates above 10%, and none had rates above 15%. Today, no state has less than a 10% obesity rate and only one is below 15%. Twenty eight states are above 20%! The CDC calls this an “Inactivity Epidemic.” Certainly, this obesity cannot be blamed on bad transportation planning, but suburban lack of neighborhood stores, lack of attractive sidewalks on busy streets, and general lack of emphasis on creating walkable communities undoubtedly plays a role.

The poor state of our nation’s infrastructure and the massive and immediate need for a jobs program allow us, in fact, enjoins us, to demand a new approach to transportation and to community planning in general. This is one of the few times in our recent history where we could actually create the communities we want and that it would be economically wise to do so. We can only do this using “commons” thinking.


Anonymous said...

Spock (no doctor) died to save the ship at the end of Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan. The scene is here: and Spock's words come about 1:27 - "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. Or the one."

Thought you might want to know!

Frances said...

In addition to Spock...

As a NYC resident I was thrilled to read (in NY Magazine of course) that New Yorkers live longer because they walk so much and walk fast! And yes you can speed walk and enjoy the scenery.

kg said...

I'm happy to report that Trailnet ( is working on these issues on all levels in St. Louis and that there is a "Health and Active Initiative" across the state funded by the MO's largest health foundation.