Download the PDF.
“Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably will not themselves be realized.” So said the great architect and planner Daniel Burnham—pioneer of the skyscraper, designer of some of the 19th century’s most stunning buildings, and creative and organizational force behind the “White City” of the Chicago World’s Fair. Burnham’s admonition resonates today. Planners, including transportation planners, have always liked to think big. Who doesn’t? People are drawn to outsized ambitions and outsized promises. And it’s easy to believe that we face big problems, which in turn require big solutions. How can we make transportation policy, after all, without also tackling land use, housing, and public health?
What is appealing, however, isn’t always effective. Thinking big might be necessary to get things approved, but thinking small is often what gets things done. Landmark policies tend to flow not from broad concepts but from ferocious dedication to specific goals.
Big ideas are popular because they tend to be ambiguous, and ambiguity enables consensus. But the consensus often breaks down when the ideas have to become actions. Consider the US Department of Transportation’s “Livability” initiative. “Livability,” as transportation consultant Alan Pisarski pointed out at UCLA’s 20th Conference on Transportation, Land Use, and the Environment last year, is pleasantly amorphous, and few people are against it. Nor, he went on, were many people opposed to previous DOT initiatives: “balanced” transportation, “smart” transportation, “performance” transportation. No one wakes up each day wishing we had an unlivable, unbalanced, dumb, and nonperforming transportation system, so agreement seems easy to come by. Unfortunately, we don’t enact “smart” transportation; we enact particular policies, which people may or may not consider smart. So everyone is only for livability until someone defines it as highspeed rail, or bike lanes, or double-decked freeways. Then the consensus disintegrates and we’re back where we started.
This problem of fragile consensus is exacerbated because transportation policy, especially at the federal level, has long been many things to many people. Ostensibly designed to promote mobility and access, it also serves as a vehicle for public investment; an opportunity for legislators to cut ribbons; a lever for accomplishing environmental goals; and a form of social service for the poor. These goals don’t necessarily coincide, but all of them, depending on who is asked, could promote “livability.” Agreement on broad principles doesn’t matter without consensus about narrow policies.
Ostensibly designed to promote mobility and access,