What is Transportation Planning?

As we head into a new era of car design and transportation design, I believe it’s important for automotive designers to have a broader understanding of the larger transportation eco-system and how to create comprehensive mobility solutions.

For example, my classmate and good friend from Art Center College of Design, Grant Larson, is one of the best car designers in the world and designer of the Porsche Boxster and contributor to every significant new Porsche introduced over the past two decades. Grant has been as successful as any car designer might hope to be, but when I asked him what a Transportation Planner is, a profession that designs where vehicles fit into a city, Grant said he had no idea.

So I called Matt Benjamin, a super-talented transportation planner that focuses on active transportation (pedestrian and bicycle travel) who is a principal at Fehr & Peers (fehrandpeers.com) in their LA office, to tell us what he does.

I first asked Matt to tell us about his firm. He said, “We’re a progressive transportation planning consultancy. Our clients tend to be in areas that are looking to innovate and to provide high-quality transportation options and infrastructure for their constituents. We tend to be at the front end of answering how changes in demographics and changes in available technologies are going to impact transportation in cities.”

So what does a transportation planner do? “We look at land uses and the public right of way and help make tough decisions on how to balance all the different needs of residents, businesses and different users of the transportation system.” Some of you might have heard more about transportation engineers. I asked Matt about the difference. “The transportation planner develops the broader strategy for how we are going to provide a transportation system that works for a community. The engineer’s role is to take that and figure out how to build it.”

How was active transportation addressed 25 years ago? “Back then, cities addressed active transportation by figuring out if there is any left over and underutilized space that had not been completely assigned to automobile traffic and see if there is any room to provide a wider sidewalk or a bike lane. A lot of cities today are still using that paradigm from 25 years ago. But increasingly we are seeing in urban areas cities taking a fresh look at their public rights of way and taking a clean sheet approach by asking ‘If we had to allocate this public right away to meet all of our goals around livability and environmental sustainability, how do we re-allocate the roadway space to best serve the needs of the community?’ I think that’s a big step forward.”

Regarding the coming new mobility companies, Matt said: “They should be thinking about how their product fits within the broader system and how it solves or addresses all of the different problems we are seeing. The biggest problem that nobody really wants to address is that we have limited roadway space, a very limited public right of way. Does their product help with that? Or is it going to exacerbate the problem? How does it operate safely in a very complex urban environment, and how does it compete in an urban environment?”

How has Uber changed the work at Fehr & Peers? “The biggest change we need to address with this future is how to allocate curb space. If you have more people picking up and dropping off at the curb, then you have greater demand for curb space, and perhaps less demand for parking, and certainly for off-street parking. If rideshare demand continues to increase, parking demand will continue to decrease.”

Matt and I also discussed recent efforts to convert parking spaces to new uses. He said: “This is being referred to as ‘tactical urbanism.’ The idea is that very small strategic projects can provide a real benefit at a low cost. An example is taking a parking space or an awkward, underutilized space on the roadway, and turning it into something that provides value to the community like a mini-park or plaza.”

Finally, we discussed the age-old metric “Level of Service” for moving cars through cities and whether there is a better metric. Matt's response: “The dominant metric used to evaluate transportation system performance has been vehicular level of service (LOS), which focuses only on motorist convenience at the expense of almost every other transportation policy goal. The negative externalities have been staggering in terms of safety, community livability, maintenance liability and more. The purported benefits of congestion reduction haven't materialized. An approach I've proposed would add some sanity to the profession by considering both how quickly and how space efficiently we are moving people and goods. This will favor smaller, more space-efficient vehicles. There will be pushback, but resistance is futile in economically viable urban areas because travel demand will continue to increase and the public right-of-way won't be getting any bigger.”