I interviewed my friend Spencer Gardner regarding the private sector and city planning. He is a AICP, which is the professional certification for urban planners. Spencer has worked mostly with pedestrian and bicycle planning for the past few years. He rides his bike to work everyday and has a very handsome beard. He currently lives and works in Madison, Wisconsin.
My questions are in black and his answers are in blue.
What do you do?
I am an urban planner. Specifically, I prepare bicycle and pedestrian plans for various levels of government.
To what extent are you involved with local government?
It really depends on the project. In some cases, we are hired directly by a city – they are our client and we do everything in consultation with them. In other cases we are working on a statewide project and may interface with local governments tangentially as part of the planning process.
Positive/negative experiences with local government?
In general, local governments are good to work with. They tend to have the closest relationship with their citizens (as opposed to state or federal agencies) so they are highly motivated to get things done and do it right. There are many challenges too. Municipalities are rarely able to fund projects on their own – they are often partnering with a state or federal agency who provides money. This can complicate the process and introduce hurdles that, for good or bad, wouldn’t otherwise be an issue.
My other thought is that it depends so much on the municipality in question. I’ve worked with some great local governments. I’ve also worked with some that had little interest in the project and were simply wanting to “check a box” to satisfy some state or federal requirement. It’s frustrating to work in these circumstances because you’re often left without guidance or input and it’s clear that whatever plan you write is just going to sit on a shelf.
Does your company do studies to see the impact of new trails or walking paths on the physical activity of the area?
We have done some of that, although I haven’t been directly involved. I was just working on a project a few months ago on behalf of a federal agency where we interviewed various state departments of transportation. Our purpose was to ascertain to what level these organizations actually track the impact of their bicycle and pedestrian projects. Unfortunately, the answer from most was that they don’t really do anything like that now.
Some cities have wised up to the need for this kind of data and are starting to take it more seriously. Last year, the City of Madison, for example, installed a new bicycle counter on one of the main paths leading into downtown. I pass it every day on my way to work. It’s kinda fun to see how much usage the path is getting. In winter it’s down near 300 people per day, but when the weather is nice it’s well above 1,000.
What kind of studies does your company do before a new project?
Typically, a government would start the process with some kind of plan. It might be a comprehensive plan, which encompasses more than just transportation – things like housing, education, employment, storm sewers, etc. This answers questions like, “what kind of city do we want to be?”, and, “what do we need to do to get there?”. From there a more specific plan directly related to the project would generally follow. This would establish answers to questions like, “where should this path start and where should it end?” or, “what’s the best way to ensure that neighborhoods surrounding this path can access it?”
From there, you might move into preliminary engineering, where you actually start dealing with the physical reality of building the path. You would survey the ground and draw up designs for the trail based on the existing conditions.
This would lead into final engineering, where you get into details like how deep to pour the asphalt or how much material is needed to backfill in a low spot.
Finally, you’d construct the path.
My firm tends to focus on the plans and preliminary engineering phases. We don’t do as much detailed engineering and we definitely don’t do construction.
Does your company try to influence governmental policy?
Sorta. I’m not aware of any direct lobbying that my firm has done on a piece of legislation. We’re pretty small and insignificant as far as planning/engineering firms go. But we are members of professional organizations, such as the Association of Pedestrian and Bicycle Professionals (APBP), and the American Planning Association (APA). These organizations definitely lobby on behalf of policies that they see as beneficial.
More generally, we as a company are committed to the idea that all people should be able to get around their cities safely and easily without the necessity of driving a car. We believe cars and non-motorized travelers can and should coexist, and that too much of our landscape is out of balance in favor of moving automobiles rather than moving people. In that respect, we engage in the civic arena to advance our cause, whether it’s through our Twitter account, participation in conferences and professional activities, or simply doing the work that we’ve been hired to do.
This leads me to my last point. In many cases, we are hired explicitly for the purpose of providing advice on government policy. As an example, I’ve been working on a project here in Madison where the City has hired us to take a look at bike parking in the downtown area and offer suggestions for improving it. We are making recommendations such as changing parts of the zoning code to boost requirements for providing bike parking. We are also identifying specific locations where the city can install more bike racks. We don’t set the policy – the City is free to ignore our advice – but they have paid us to do the research and provide an expert perspective on the issue.
What goals do you/your company have for Madison?
Hmm. I don’t know that we have any explicit goals for Madison. As I stated above, we are committed to ensuring that everyone feels safe and comfortable getting around without a car. Madison does a pretty good job of that compared to many places in the US, but there are still problems to solve.
In fact, my co-workers and I have often talked about how Madison seems to be resting on its laurels a little bit. We have an excellent system of bikeways (both paths and bike lanes), but there hasn’t really been anything meaningful done in the last decade. In the meantime, other cities have been innovating like crazy. For instance, while we I lived in Chicago the city built an awesome new bike lane with special traffic signals for bikes. The lane is separated from moving traffic by parked cars so that you feel more protected. It got a lot of press and has really reshaped biking in the downtown area. That project was actually one of the things that got me thinking about changing to work at my current firm. Madison hasn’t really done anything like that in recent years.
What lessons have you learned that you think could be helpful in other towns?
One key lesson is that it really takes leadership within the city administration to get these things done. As consultants, we’re really limited by the vision and direction of the city we work for. If someone like a mayor or powerful city council person gets behind a project and is willing to fight for it, the end result is always so much better. There’s a lesson here for citizens, too. Elected leaders tend to respond when their constituents ask for things. If city leaders sense that no one really wants bike or pedestrian infrastructure, or that they’re not willing to repurpose roadway space to do it, they’re not going to fight for it. If, on the other hand, they hear people asking for better bike lanes or more paths or more sidewalks, they will respond accordingly.
The other lesson I would offer is that we are experiencing a significant shift in the perception of bicycle and pedestrian transportation. It used to be that we provided paths, sidewalks, and bike lanes purely as a recreational amenity. The result was that we built facilities that lead to the middle of nowhere – nice if you’re out for a jog, but not very helpful if you need to get to the grocery store.
Now, cities are starting to realize that biking and walking should be considered forms of everyday transportation. We’re reaching a breaking point in the US where we can’t build enough roads to solve our traffic problems. We have to look for other ways to get people where they want to go. There’s a saying in the industry that building more roads to alleviate traffic congestion is like trying to treat obesity by loosening your belt. Building more and bigger roads doesn’t solve a traffic problem. It just provides temporary relief and ultimately encourages the problem to get worse! Instead, we should be ensuring that everyone has alternatives to choose from when they need to get around.
Instead of widening a road, we should be looking at how to more effectively use the space we have. Here’s a cool image that illustrates this point. We dedicate vast amounts of space to moving cars that carry only a single person on average. Biking and walking, by contrast, require very little space, are less expensive to build infrastructure for, and encourage a more healthy way of getting around. Consider this: the city of Portland, OR, one of the premier biking cities in the US, has spent about the same amount on their biking infrastructure in the last decade as it costs to build a single mile of freeway.