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Planners' Sacred Trust

Most professions have special responsibilities to society. Physicians are expected to observe the Hippocratic oath. Police officers must apply the law fairly and refrain from abusing their power. Lawyers and accountants are expected to offer accurate advice and protect client confidentiality.

And planners? We have a special responsibility to consider all perspectives and impacts. When evaluating public policy questions most people ask selfishly, “How does this affect me?” Planners, in contrast, should ask selflessly, “How does this affect the community, particularly disadvantaged and underrepresented groups?”

Todd Litman | April 14, 2011, 11am PDT
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Most professions have special responsibilities to society. Physicians are expected to observe the Hippocratic oath. Police officers must apply the law fairly and refrain from abusing their power. Lawyers and accountants are expected to offer accurate advice and protect client confidentiality.

And planners? We have a special responsibility to consider all perspectives and impacts. When evaluating public policy questions most people ask selfishly, "How does this affect me?" Planners, in contrast, should ask selflessly, "How does this affect the community, particularly disadvantaged and underrepresented groups?"

This issue came to mind in a recent exchange in my blog, A War On Cars? Let There Be Peace! Jeff Stivenson wrote the following: 

I am not an academic or an intellectual, though I have a Master's degree in Urban Planning. I am disabled: ambulatory but not able to walk far or often. The most convenient mode of transportation for me is the automobile. It comes closest to getting me door to door. An alternative is paratransit systems, but I don't want to be ghettoized. Many of the prevailing trends in urban planning are oblivious to the needs of the handicapped, none more so than the demonization of the automobile. To not use a car, unless I wanted to take paratransit, means getting myself to a bus/trainstop, or walking, or riding a bike, which is very difficult for me. This emphasis on transportation alternatives to the car, just like the fashionability of New Urbanism, is mindless of the handicapped. 

Stivenson's argument is a classic example of selfish illogic:

  1. I have a disability.
  2. I prefer to drive rather than use alternative modes.
  3. Improving alternative modes harms motorists.
  4. Efforts to improve alternative modes are therefore harmful and unfair to people with disabilities.
  5. This validates the existence of a war on cars.

 

I disagree with Stivenson on several points. First, prevailing planning trends and New Urbanism certainly do consider the needs of people with disabilities and other special needs, a concept called universal design. This includes special design features such as curb cuts, ramps, lifts, and easy-to-understand signage. In addition, people with disabilities tend to benefit from general efforts to create more diverse transport systems and more accessible communities. For example, building sidewalks on neighborhood streets, improving transit service, and providing more affordable housing in accessible neighborhoods benefits many people, but is particularly helpful to people with disabilities because they tend to rely on these options and are particularly sensitive to their quality. Not every person with disabilities uses every alternative mode, but people with mobility constraints tend to benefit overall from having better transport options. 

Second, Stivenson claims that contemporary planning ‘demonizes' automobiles, part of a ‘war on cars.' This is a political rather than a rational statement. Let me repeat my challenge: provide evidence of acoordinated effort to unjustifiably restrict automobile use. Without this, claims of a war on cars are simply selfish complaining.

Third, and what I consider most troubling from somebody trained as a professional planner is Mr. Stivenson's implication that efforts to improve walking, cycling and public transit are harmful to people with disabilities simply because he does not currently use these modes. As a planner, he should recognize that, although some people with disabilities drive, many others do not, and our planning decisions must balance these differing needs. His attitude violates planners' sacred responsibility to consider all perspectives and impacts.

In addition, it is inaccurate to portray paratransit as the main alternative to driving and to characterize it as ‘ghettoized' transport. Although I appreciate that some people with disabilities place a high value on their ability to drive, and so I support efforts to accommodate them with priority vehicle parking, this in no way makes public transit a "ghetto." Advocates for people with disabilities strive to make all forms of transport accessible and to integrate these services into communities. When people who are "ambulatory but not able to walk far or often" give up driving, they generally rely on a combination of conventional transit and taxi services (savings from not owning a car can purchase lots of taxi rides), with paratransit reserved for people with severe disabilities.

Stivenson provides few details about his disability, but most health problems that leave people ambulatory but limited in walking ability are best prevented and corrected by increased walking and cycling activity. The U.S. Center of Disease Control recommends improving walking, cycling and public transit because research indicates that these can achieve positive health outcomes such as reduced obesity, chronic diseases and disabilities. His disability is therefore a justification for more rather than less effort to improve walking and cycling conditions.

Finally, the term ‘handicapped' is out of fashion and should generally be avoided by professionals. The preferred term is ‘people with disabilities,' 'impediments' or ‘impairments,' which emphasize that the problems result from inadequate accommodation rather than the person's physical constraints. For example, inadequate walking conditions and poor public transit service often impair wheelchair users' ability to access destinations; the problem is the transport system's inability to accommodate users not the users' inability to accommodate the transport system. An even better approach is to describe users' specific constraints and needs, such as ‘travelers with limited vision,' ‘wheelchair users,' and 'passengers with wheeled luggage.'

Some people assume that planning is a zero-sum game of interest groups fighting for special policies and projects. But good planners generally want something quite different: policies and projects that benefit the greatest number of people including many who are unaware of their gains. Improving alternative modes is a perfect example: most North Americans are automobile-dependent and so give little consideration to walking, cycling and public transit improvements, ignoring the possibility that they may rely on alternative modes more in the future. As a result, they are easy prey to critics who claim that efforts to improve alternative modes will harm them and represents ‘a war on the car.'

Perhaps I am being too harsh on Mr. Stivenson for remarks that may have been written impulsively with more emotion than contemplation. However, I do believe that planners should be held to a high standard with regard to issues within our professional realm, such as how to best to accommodate people with special needs and constraints.

What do you think?

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