All We Want for the Holidays is…

Here are a dozen timely gift ideas for creating better communities.

8 minute read

December 15, 2023, 5:00 AM PST

By Todd Litman


Green lawn in city park full of people sitting on lawn chairs with urban high-rises in background.

Andrew Kazmierski / Adobe Stock

1. Complete sidewalk networks.

Walking is the most basic and inclusive form of transportation, and sidewalk quality affects community mobility and livability in many ways. It would be a great gift to communities to increase sidewalk planning and funding priority.

Most communities have inadequate sidewalks including missing links, inadequate maintenance and failure to reflect universal design features needed to accommodate people with disabilities and other special needs.

The transportation organizations with the deepest pockets, federal, state/provincial and regional agencies, invest very little (usually less than 1 percent of their budgets) on pedestrian facilities. My research indicates that typical North American communities spend less than $50 annually per capita on sidewalks, which is tiny compared with what they spend on roads and parking subsidies, and compared with walking’s share of trips.

Most communities rely on developers to build sidewalks and property owners to maintain them, which explains why they are often inadequate. Some communities, including Los Angeles, Denver and Saint Paul, have ambitious programs to complete their sidewalk networks. This requires a detailed inventory that shows the quality of all city sidewalks and crosswalks, and adequate funding to achieve quality targets.

Saint Paul sidewalk network map.
This map shows sidewalks and sidewalk gaps in Saint Paul, Minnesota. The city has approximately 1,080 miles of potential sidewalk of which 327 miles are missing or inadequate.

2. Large-wheeled luggage

Wheeled luggage is one of the most important but overlooked transportation innovations of the Twenty-first Century. Very likely you have used a wheeled suitcase or briefcase sometime this year, but they hardly existed before 2000. Wheeled luggage increases the weight that pedestrians can reasonably carry when walking, which greatly improves walking comfort, freedom and affordability.

Yet, for reasons I cannot fathom, their designers are using increasingly small wheels, which makes wheeled luggage useless on rough surfaces. Please, designers, offer luggage with large rubber tire wheels that are comfortable, quiet and durable on cobblestone streets and the poorly maintained sidewalks mentioned above.

Wheeled luggage
Most new wheeled suitcases have dinky little wheels that are useless and noisy on rough surfaces. Most travellers need larger wheels with rubber tires.

3. Fashion designer shopping carts

Along with wheeled luggage, many city-folk are discovering the utility of wheeled shopping carts, pejoratively called “granny carts,” which makes them seem uncool and discourages their use. Most commercially-available carts are low-quality, poorly designed and unsuitable for daily use. Please Mr. Gucci add a line of well-deigned shopping carts with quality materials, attractive designs and a little bling. Perhaps the Levi or Jeep corporations can produce manly versions.

Shopping trolley
Shopping carts are very useful for urban residents, but most commercially available versions are inferior quality and ugly. Give us a little bling!

4. Fair share transportation planning

Our transportation system is grossly unfair to travellers who cannot, should not or prefer not to drive. According to my research, less than 10 percent of total transportation infrastructure funding and road space is devoted to non-auto modes, and therefore to non-drivers, which is less than their share of total trips or traffic casualties, and far less than their potential trips. This is unfair and inefficient; it forces travellers to drive for trips that they would make by more affordable and resource-efficient modes if transportation agencies gave them a fair share of support.

Graph showing non-auto infrastructure spending versus indictors of demands (https://www.planetizen.com/blogs/124002-fair-share-transportation-planning )
Most communities spend less than 10% of their total transportation infrastructure budgets on non-auto modes, which is less than their current share of trips, traffic deaths and users, particularly in cities and lower-income communities.

5. Multimodal level-of-service ratings

Level-of-service (LOS) is a rating system used to evaluate transportation service quality. It ranks facilities and services from A (best) to F (failure), just like grades elementary school; of course, everybody wants an A!

Currently, most transportation agencies rate roadway LOS based on traffic speeds and delay, and produce maps showing which roads are predicted to have excessive congestion, which are used to prioritize system improvements and investments. This is highly biased in favor of automobile travel, and therefore motorists, to the detriment of other modes, and therefore non-drivers, which results in automobile dependency and sprawl.

For more efficient and equitable planning transportation agencies must implement multimodal LOS analysis, so modes and attributes other than automobile traffic delay receive equal consideration. Unfortunately, few organizations are doing this, they don’t even have plans to collect the necessary data. If you want a more multimodal transportation system, we need more multimodal transportation planning including multimodal LOS ratings.

6. Cool community planning

In Canada, where I live, and most Northern U.S. states, we plan for extreme cold. We have programs to weatherize buildings, improve heating system efficiency, plus coat racks and mudrooms to accommodate the layers of clothing and dirty boots pedestrians require. Global warming is creating the opposite problem, excessive heat, but I’ve yet to see planners, designers and contactors respond effectively. We need cool community planning.

In hot climate cities, smart designers and building contactors should offer specialized services to retrofit existing buildings for more comfort and efficiency during hot conditions. This could include, for example, installing insulation, better ventilation, window awnings and shades, more efficient air conditioning systems, and landscaping to reduce building temperatures and the amount of energy needed for cooling.

Shadeway with solar panels.
Shadeways, such as this 196 meter walkway in Singapore, can incorporate solar panels to provide both shade and electricity.

Hot climate cities can improve pedestrian thermal comfort by planning shadeways (sidewalks with awnings or dense tree covers) and pedways (enclosed climate-controlled walkways) networks, so it is possible to walk in comfort between most common destinations.

Toronto's PATH pedway network provides comfortable walking conditions in all weather.
Toronto’s PATH pedway network includes more than 30 kilometers of enclosed walkway that provide convenient and comfortable access to common destination, four subway stations and the central train stations. This makes downtown Toronto a very walkable city even during extreme weather.

7. Remote-controlled, solar-powered, exterior window shades

In the hot climate cities I visit, during the heat of the day residents often close their curtains to reduce excessive solar gain (sunlight trapped in a building), but that’s too late; the solar energy has already entered the building. A much more effective solution is to block sunlight before it passes through the window glass by installing exterior awnings and shades outside windows that can be raised and lowered as needed from inside the building. These are easy and affordable to add to new buildings, when mechanical or electrical systems can be incorporated into the design, but are currently difficult to install in existing buildings. A smart solution would be to mass produce easy-to-install, high-quality, remote-controlled exterior window awnings and shades powered by small solar panels (they normally only need to drive a servo motor two to four times a day).

Interior shade allows most solar heat to enter a building.
Interior shades allows most solar heat to enter a building.
An exterior shade blocks sunlight before it enters a building, resulting in more comfort and cooling efficiency.
Exterior shades block sunlight before it enters a building, resulting in more comfort and cooling efficiency. Remote control shades give occupants control over their thermal comfort.

8. Affordable housing in compact, walkable neighborhoods

The greatest gift that a community can offer to people with mobility impairments and low incomes is appropriate, affordable housing in a compact urban village where it is easy to get around without driving. This provides independent mobility and economic opportunity for non-drivers, particularly people with disabilities, reduces transportation costs, improves health and safety, and creates more livable neighborhoods.

9. Less parking, more parks

Compact urban neighborhoods devote 20 to 40 percent of their land to roads and parking facilities which reduces the amount of land available for housing and greenspace. Cost-effective parking management strategies, for example, sharing parking facilities, efficient pricing, encouraging shifts to more space-efficient modes, and improving user information, can significantly reduce the number of parking spaces needed to serve parking demands, typically by half or more, freeing up land for other uses, including neighborhood parks.

To be happy and healthy people need more neighborhood parks and less vehicle parking.
To be happy and healthy people need more neighborhood parks and less vehicle parking.

Living close to greenspace tends to improve residents’ physical and mental health. The World Health Organization recommends that urban households should be located within 300 meters (about 1,000 feet) of a public park. The study, Public Parks and Wellbeing in Urban Areas of the United States (Larson, Jennings and Cloutier 2016) found that the portion of land devoted to parks in a neighborhood was among the strongest predictors of residents’ wellbeing, so 10-20 percent of neighborhood area should be devoted to public parks. 

10. Better planning data

Cooks use flour, carpenters use nails and plumbers use pipes. What is the key input for planning? Comprehensive and accurate data! We need information and projections of population trends, housing demands, infrastructure costs, travel activity, and impacts such as traffic casualties, pollution emissions and health risks.

Some of these data are available at some geographic scales, but there are many critical gaps. For example, the census departments provide population and housing data, traffic safety agencies have crash data, and most transportation departments have travel data, but they often vary in geographic scale, are incomplete and unreliable, and difficult to obtain.

For example, I recently tried to update my analysis of the traffic safety benefits of public transportation. I have recent data on traffic fatality rates and transit mode share for large U.S. metropolitan regions, but I cannot find a source of per capita transit-miles, which is a more accurate indicator of public transport demands. FTA and APTA should make this information easily accessible for research and planning purposes.

International data are even worse. A few organizations, such as the World Bank and the OECD, produce some national data, but the bits of data they provide are random and difficult to access. A few years ago we proposed a comprehensive sustainable transportation indicators data collection program, and the Sustainable Low Carbon Transportation Partnership tried to standardize international data collection, but they have made little progress. We are flying blind!

Please, let’s have data collection leadership.   

11. More tolerance for change

Our job is ultimately change management: planners help communities develop into their better selves. But many people fear change; they want more of the same and cannot image anything better. We need a positive vision of a more inclusive and efficient future.

For example, nearly every day our local newspaper includes letters complaining that “overdevelopment is ruining our neighborhood,” that upzoning and parking reforms “do nothing to increase affordability,” and that “nobody will ever give up their cars” so infill development will cause gridlock and parking hell.

Infill housing creates more inclusive and better communities.
Infill housing can create more inclusive and better communities.

Yet, those same people love to visit Montreal, where most households live in three-decker (three story) townhouses, or Paris where most households live in mid-rise apartments, or the Seattle region where a combination of active and public transport improvements and Washington State’s Commute Trip Reduction law has reduced automobile trips and related traffic problems.

12. More respect for good design

Planners care about details, where the devil resides. For example, when residents complain about the effects of infill development their concerns are often about design not density. With good design urban neighborhoods can accommodate more people without increasing traffic and parking problems, with better local services, and with more green space.

My favorite introduction to good design is the classic book A Pattern Language, which explains how professionals (planners, architects, designers, etc.) can collaborate with residents and occupants to ensure that cities, neighborhoods, buildings and other infrastructure truly meet our needs.

The book, "A Pattern Language" is a terrific introduction to good design (https://www.planetizen.com/features/109114-it-time-revive-pattern-language )
The book, “A Pattern Language” is a terrific introduction to good design.

The key to good urban design is to understand how cities actually work. Cities improve accessibility by increasing proximity, so less travel is needed to reach desired services and activities. As densities increase communities must shift from automobile-oriented to multimodal design, which means more compact and mixed development; better walking, bicycling and public transit; complete streets with lower traffic speeds; public parks replacing automobile parking; and fewer parking subsidies.

Similarly, we need buildings designed for local climate conditions; diverse housing demands including for people with disabilities and families with low incomes; and the needs of emerging industries, start-up businesses, and social service organizations that support beneficial but unprofitable activities.

Those are my ideas... what do you think? What gifts do you think are needed to create better communities?


Todd Litman

Todd Litman is founder and executive director of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute, an independent research organization dedicated to developing innovative solutions to transport problems. His work helps to expand the range of impacts and options considered in transportation decision-making, improve evaluation methods, and make specialized technical concepts accessible to a larger audience. His research is used worldwide in transport planning and policy analysis.

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