Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Which Came First -- Transportation or Land Use?

Transportation has been a hot topic in local politics for much of the past year (see LaVar Webb's posting on Utah Policy Daily). Much of the discussion in the political realm is focused on dealing with congestion (a mighty source of irritation and frustration to voters, hence the attention paid by politicians), and the need to have a viable transportation system to keep and enhance the economic health of the region.

We planners frequently deal with transportation as well, as it is an important component of planning for communities. However, I think we often don't understand very well the relationship between transportation and land use.

The Wasatch Front Regional Council and the Mountainlands Association of Governments are in the midst of an initiative called Wasatch Vision 2040. It is the first step in the update of the long-range transportation plan for the Wasatch Front (required by federal rules for Metropolitan Planning Organizations to keep the flow of federal transportation dollars coming in). Wasatch Vision 2040 is deliberately looking at different future development scenarios for the region, with the preferred growth principles pulled from this being used by the two MPOs to then craft an updated long-range transportation plan.

In the past, the process has involved taking all the general plans of the communities and working the transportation system into that crazy-quilt pattern. This time, there is a better coordinated, comprehensive and cohesive "vision" for the region to work from. The "danger," though, is that such a regional-level vision may not necessarily jibe with what each of the individual cities and counties may actually have on their plans.

So which drives which? Does land use drive transportation (ha! pun intended!), or is it the reverse? It's the old question of which came first, the chicken or the egg?

I tend to side with the idea that transportation systems are the skeletons upon which the "flesh" of land use is hung upon. Alex Marshall, in his book How Cities Work, says, "transportation is the most visible and active (factor) in shaping a place. It's a simple rule: how we get around determines how we live. But it's a rule we still haven't grasped. Transportation determines the form of our places."

Marshall goes on, "With places, government does this by creating transportation systems. ... a city's internal transportation system -- the layout of its streets and roads, the layout of streetcar systems and subways -- determines the character of the city, how its citizens live and work. ... Build subways and people will live in dense neighborhoods and walk to corner stores; build broad suburban boulevards and they will live in subdivisions and drive to WalMart. The choice is a matter of taste, as expressed through political decisions, more than economics."

This is why, to me, the choices we are making now, when the legislature considers funding for transportation, when Congress seeks to reauthorize the TEA-21 transportation act, when we develop Wasatch Vision 2040 and create a new long-range transportation plan for the Wasatch Front, will have more influence on how we grow as a region than just about anything else we can do. Even now, the most recently adopted long-range transportation plan has more transit than we have ever considered before.

The challenge will be, once we have decided on what that transportation plan will be, will our communities make the choices and adopt general plans that will complement the investment we will then make in transportation?

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