REFRAMING ISSUES TO UNITE US: A Transportation Platform for Local Use

Transportation for America (T4) is a huge national coalition (including LivableStreets Alliance) focused on getting improvements in the next federal transportation authorization bill – which is already overdue and now mired in Republican demands to reduce government activity and spending no matter the consequences.  T4A conducted a lengthy national process of collecting ideas and creating a really good consensus platform.

But the T4A platform is focused on national issues.  Those of us who mostly work at the city and state levels need a set of issues and positions that more directly speak to people’s everyday experiences, fears, and hopes – and can serve as a platform for building the broad coalitions needed to successfully push for change.

And we need to be about more than bicycles or even bicycles and walking – while bike advocates are often the most active group in these coalitions, they are too narrow a base for a winning campaign.  We need to frame our slogans and construct our platforms on a vision of improvements in everyday life.  This is why the concept of “livable streets” is so powerful, and so often repeated.  But we need to get even more visceral, more concrete.  We need a platform that taps into feelings about safety, convenience, health, and economic insecurity.  Here are some ideas that I think might empower local coalition-building and action – and I welcome reader’s suggestions as well.

  • Protect Your Child By Slowing Dangerous Traffic

— Make streets safer for kids, seniors, people pushing baby carriages and shopping carts, and anyone who might get hit by a speeding car.

— Implement through traffic calming, road diets, 20mph “vulnerable population” zones, and better enforcement.

  • Respect Individuals By Providing Healthy and Convenient Choices

— Stop requiring everyone to move around in the same, increasingly expensive and congested manner; make transit, walking, and bicycling more convenient and inviting.

— Implement through “complete streets” (better sidewalks, family-friendly bike facilities, expanded bus/rail service), cleaner and quieter vehicles and fuels, smart growth zoning and construction codes.

  • Reduce Waste by Ending the Giveaway of Public Assets

— Treat roadway as public space rather than auto subsidy.

— Implement through more market-rate parking fees, facilitating street closings for festivals and play, increasing road user fees.


From National to Personal Concerns

After an extensive consultation process, T4A has outlined key goals for the next federal transportation funding authorization legislation including:

  • Setting performance targets for improved safety, efficiency, environment and health impacts, modal integration and accessible options, and equity;
  • Consolidate federal programs while giving state and local agencies direct funding and greater flexibility in exchange for accountability to meet national targets;
  • Develop new revenue strategies and invest the money to create more balance among rail, freight, highway, public transportation, and non-motorized facilities.

The incorporation of these proposals into federal policy will go a long way towards creating a better transportation system and a stronger America, and they deserve our support – especially in the face of right-wing comments that the market is always right so if more people drive than bike we should stop putting any money into anything other than car facilities.

(Of course, the reality is that today’s transportation system is almost entirely the creation of corporate and government actions in areas ranging from oil subsidies to mortgage guarantees – meaning that people have had little or no effective choice in what type of travel modes they consume.  But the status quo is always the default, and most people feel that what exists is “natural,” maybe even divinely ordained, while change is an imposition.)

But national debates feel very removed from most of our day-to-day personal realities.  We go to work, cursing the congestion and how long it takes.  We worry about our kids, remembering how we used to play in the neighborhood street or bike freely around town to visit friends or join sports games.  We’re uncertain about our jobs or salaries, and upset at all the unplowed streets and endless potholes.

Rational arguments are an important part of any political campaign.  But people seldom change their behaviors or join a campaign simply because they’ve learned that car taxes don’t cover the cost of roads, that transit is many times more fuel efficient per person than cars, or that commuting by bike makes you live longer than staying fit through regular workouts or athletics.  We humans are much more motivated by issues with immediate emotional appeal.

So how about reframing local transportation reform behind these kinds of issues:


Protect Your Child by Slowing Dangerous Traffic

Whenever there is a proposal to add corner bulb-outs, widen crossing areas, or install bike lanes (much less a separated-from-traffic cycle track), someone will complain about the loss or relocation of parking places.  In some neighborhoods, this can be a deal killer.  Unless its reframed:  it’s true, given the limited available width of our roads, making the road safer for kids to get across to the playground or school, and for slower adult cyclists to get to the shopping area without fighting car traffic will cost some parking.  So the complainers need to be clear about and accept responsibility for the consequences of their choices – would they rather have the parking places or the higher chance that their child (or someone else’s child) will be hit by a car?

It’s their call and their right to choose.  But they then have to explain their choice to their neighbors.  I’ve found that after this reframing, people are much more likely to feel the personal relevance of the otherwise abstract fact that a person getting hit by a car going 20 mph has a 95% of surviving while someone hit by a car going 40 mph has a 85% of getting killed.

And having made the point, it is then possible to talk about the “aging in place” elderly trying to avoid nursing homes, or the adults who would like to use a bike as a way to get more exercise.


Respect Individuals by Providing Healthy and Convenient Choices

Consumer choice is an American mantra.  But when it comes to transportation, few of us have viable options – we either have to get into a car or not go out.   If you ask someone why they don’t walk or bike to nearby destinations the most frequent respond – other than weather and distance (which is itself tied to the impact of cars on land use) – is fear.  Cars are scary:  several tons of deadly metal steered by not-always-attentive or skilled strangers roaring by at the highest speed at which the driver feels comfortable.  Which often makes people not inside the car feel uncomfortable.  (Sometimes people inside the car feel that way, too!)

We need to be the ones calling for more choices, for the ability to safely walk or bike or take a bus.  We need to be demanding that everyone have these choices, not just the spandex crowd of fit, mostly young, mostly male, mostly white, risk takers.  But this also means that we have to be pushing for street improvements that serve the traffic-intolerant mainstream majority of the population – making it easier to get on/off buses, assuming slower walking speed when calculating walk signal duration, moving from bike lanes next to parked cars to buffered bike lanes or separated cycle tracks.  These are not technical issues that should be left for traffic engineers to specify at the 75% design stage.  These concerns should be front and center of our initial public outreach.

In addition to the “Five Es” (education, encouragement, engineering, enforcement, evaluation) that the League of American Bicyclists’ uses to judge applicants for its “Bicycle Friendly” awards, we need to add a “Sixth E” for equity – the inclusion of people of all ages, abilities, incomes, neighborhoods, race, immigration status, and more.


Reduce Waste by Ending the Giveaway of Public Assets

Streets are the most valuable physical asset owned by most municipalities, by the public.  Roads take up 25% to 35% of all developed land in the “average” American city.  Even in Boston, where enough of the narrow-street colonial layout remains to drop the amount of pavement devoted to cars down to 16%, roads take up twice as much space as all the parks combined.  We’ve got our priorities wrong.

But, even more outrageously, in these tight fiscal times (which are likely to remain tight until we’re once again willing to raise taxes on those most able to pay), we are giving most of that valuable space away at a loss to a single use:  car traffic.  Markets do have their appropriate place – shouldn’t we be getting something closer to market value for the use of that scare resource, public space?

Parking is the most obvious place to start.  Our artificially low parking-meter rates (compared to the artificially high cost of a commercial parking garage) convince many of us to circle the street, wasting time and money, looking for an open spot.  Research shows that making the most desired spots more expensive actually increases turnover, which then increases the number of customers at local stores – contradicting store owners fear that making it more expensive to park in front of their door will hurt business.  The most sophisticated systems dynamically change the cost of parking by time of day and day of the week, and have a graduated drop-off in cost from “hot spots” to the other end of the block.

The same principle goes for the gas tax, the cost of inspections and license plates, and more.

On the other hand, if we’re going to keep on subsidizing our roads, why shouldn’t we use them in ways that benefit all users – walkers, cyclists, and transit travels – as well?  In fact, maybe we should stop thinking of roads as simply travel corridors.  The book “Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City” by Peter D. Norton describes the auto industry’s to change the space between buildings from a public area used for play, socializing, business, travel, and a host of other uses into a space reserved for their products.  Maybe its time to reclaim our streets, even if only occasionally, as public places.   The spread of street closings – called “Cyclovia” in Bogotá, “Sunday Streets” in San Francisco, “City Streets” in New York – for use as “linear street fairs” shows the popularity of the underlying idea.

The next step is the growth of “Share Spaces” – in which a plaza, intersection, or even a stretch of road is permanently opened to all users and uses with the provision that everyone is responsible for the effects of their own presence upon others; meaning that speeds are slow and everyone is constantly looking around to avoid conflict.  The concept has been implemented in several thousand locations in Europe, Japan, Israel, and several US cities (including Cambridge!)  London’s Kensington High Street produced a typical result:  accidents dropped 44% and car throughput actually increased because there was less waiting for traffic lights and turning back-ups.

Maybe there is hope!


For more on Shared Spaces, see:



Thanks to Rebecca Albrecht who let me know about “Fighting Traffic” and her summary of its message.

Take our website survey!