Top Planning Trends of 2015

Pulling a few threads to unravel some of the biggest planning stories of the year.

December 31, 2015, 5:00 AM PST

By James Brasuell


welcomia / Shutterstock

For last year's "Top Planning Trends" post, we dug into the data aggregated by the daily operations of Planetizen—letting the volume of articles published on the site inform a picture of the dominant and popular subjects of the year.

For 2015, however, I noted the recurring concepts and patterns I encountered in the process of managing the Planetizen news feed throughout the year, and took a more direct approach in selecting the trends listed below. My hope is that the following list validates trends our audience has encountered during the year, offers solidarity for local experiences with comparable models in other locations, and brings attention to threads connecting events and ideas that might have otherwise gone unnoticed.

State Departments of Transportation See the Light

Few phrases are more likely to trigger post-traumatic stress among local transit and complete streets advocates than "state department of transportation." The decades of great power wielded by state DOTs has resulted in more roads, wider roads, and faster roads—even at the expense of local planning efforts and the budgets required to maintain existing roads.

In 2015, however, signs of a shift in politics emerged from state DOTs. Different transportation agencies arrived at the conclusion for different reasons, but transportation officials are waking up to the idea that they can no longer continue building roads without first focusing on improving existing roads.

First came Paul Trombino, the director of the Iowa Department of Transportation, who predicted that the state highway system would shrink. Charles Marohn, who witnessed the statement at an Urban Land Institute event, said it was the first time he had ever heard a state DOT director publicly declare a policy of contraction. Trombino's reasoning was decidedly rational: the state cannot afford to maintain the existing system, so the system must shrink. A few months later, acting New Jersey Transportation Commissioner Richard Hammer echoed those words by saying that the days of expanding the highway system are over, and that the state would concentrate on "fixing and rehabilitating existing roads and transit infrastructure."

The Connecticut state Department of Transportation presented another variation on this theme this year. While planning to widen interstates 95 and 84, the state DOT's chief of planning acknowledged that the widening would fail to reduce congestion, because of induced demand, unless the state also improved rail service and implementing congestion pricing. To be fair, the highway widening proposals in Connecticut represent incremental change and not the kind of holistic shift many advocates and planners would like to see at DOTs. Still, Connecticut's example shows that business as usual is no longer politically feasible.

Even regional transportation agencies are perpetuating the trend—as exemplified by the Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency's September announcement that it would no longer build new road capacity for a stagnant population. Instead it would implement a "fix it first" policy.

Headed Opposite Directions: Vision Zero and Peak Driving

The sound of a million screeching breaks this year wasn't the sound of the largest generation in the nation's history giving up cars for good. It was, however, the end of the probably-too-optimistic idea of peak driving—that the vehicle miles traveled (VMT) by Americans had already begun a permanent decline. Per capita or in total—Americans are driving more than ever.

A counter-measure to the expansion of vehicle traffic can be found in the Vision Zero movement, which aims to end traffic fatalities entirely. After New York's high profile adoption of a Vision Zero policy in 2014, a growing number of cities adopted formal Vision Zero policies, including one of the capitals of car culture in the United States—Los Angeles. Another surprising location displayed the growing political relevance of Vision Zero—Texas—San Antonio, Austin, and Houston all launched or expanded Vision Zero efforts this year.

I'm not the only one who thinks the goals of Vision Zero are likely impossible, even if we have a moral obligation to do everything we can to achieve them. I also think that the goals of Vision Zero will be much more attainable if people drive less, and most cities are still not doing very much to convince people to ditch their cars. Hopefully soon planners, politicians, and people can move both of these trends in the same direction.

The Public Transit Innovation Award Goes To…The Bus

It would be easy look at transit funding allocations by the federal government and declare this the decade of the streetcar. And yes, cities like Houston and Los Angeles are currently adding impressive amounts of light rail capacity. But to the average daily transit commuter, the bus is where the greatest potential for improvement can be found, and bus service achieved new levels of innovation and improvement in 2015.

The most conspicuous evidence of the "Year of the Bus" came in a new global milestone for bus rapid transit (BRT)—the global total of BRT lines this year broke 400 for the first time. Chicago; Jacksonville; Connecticut; Oakland, California, and Tijuana, Mexico all launched new BRT service this year. Meanwhile Northern Virginia, Albuquerque, the Silicon Valley; Vancouver, Oregon; Richmond, Virginia; Seattle, Montgomery County, Maryland; Pittsburgh; Louisville; Birmingham; Detroit; Omaha; and Central Indiana moved forward with planning efforts to add new BRT service.

The less apparent innovation in service that marked the landmark year for buses, however, came from a very wonky concept known as the "high frequency grid." Houston implemented the largest bus system reimagining based on a high frequency grid, earning high ridership numbers. Omaha also launched a comprehensive overhaul of its bus service this year, on the high frequency grid model, and St. Petersburg, Florida and Toronto, Canada also announced overhauls of their bus systems. Los Angeles is currently studying its bus system in anticipation of an overhaul, and Maryland Governor Larry Hogan is pitching frequent buses as a replacement for the cancelled Red Line rail project in Baltimore (though that isn't exactly a situation without very serious controversies).

Anyone who has ever waited on major arterial for a bus with 50-minute headways and spotty real-time tracking information (ok, I admit I'm talking about myself) is grateful for renewed, rational effort in improving bus service, but here's to hoping that this trend indicates a growing awareness that for many cities and many citizens bus service is the only transit service, and efficient, liberating transit service is possible on the wheels of buses.

A Pop Culture Moment

We first heard news that former New York City Planning Commissioner Amanda Burden had inspired a Broadway musical back in 2014, but little did we know the role based on her example would go to Idina Menzel, fresh off stratospheric levels of fame thanks to the intractable appeal of Frozen. Now on a nationwide tour after a successful run on Broadway in New York City, If/Then devotes real attention to the day-to-day considerations of working as a planner. Set to music. If stranger things have happened, then we'd be surprised.

Then there was HBO's Show Me a Hero, based on the 1999 book of the same name written by Lisa Belkin. I'm not sure who could have predicted an HBO series, with writing credits going to The Wire creator David Simon, about a 1987 public housing battle in Yonkers, New York. The show provides inside baseball access to the political and legal context of the situation, as well as personal stories of the people living in the community at the time. A lot of screen time is devoted to contentious public hearings, and in the first episode the dirty words "social engineering" are uttered by a councilmember—with a packed City Hall audience roaring in supportive response. So we have a critically acclaimed miniseries, presenting a dramatic but accurate portrayal of planning processes to an HBO-sized audience. Lisa Belkin and David Simon: you are my heroes.

Finally, Comedy Central's South Park put out a 19th season that could have been a movie—ditching its usual episodic roasting of American culture to produce a season-long narrative arch hinging on themes of gentrification, displacement, and of urbanism signifiers like Yelp reviews and neighborhood rebranding. The show made news in the planning and urbanism media world when it devoted an episode to the hip new neighborhood of SoDoSoPa, built literally on top of the grittiest location in South Park (i.e., "historic Kenny's house"), but the satire lasts the duration of the season. Self-proclaimed urbanists who can handle jokes that consistently hit close to home would be wise to watch the whole season and test if some of the "givens" of urbanism don't come out looking a little more like dogmas.

Missing in Action on the Campaign Tail

The campaign leading up to the 2016 presidential election is making daily news…actually it would be more accurate to say the campaign is making news by the minute. Yet despite the pure tonnage of ink and months of airtime devoted to the campaign, the issues of importance to planning and related fields are completely absent. In October, in fact, the Washington Post's Wonkblog laid out a Venn diagram to compare the topics covered by the first three presidential debates (two by Republicans and one by Democrats, at that point). Two subjects left out of all three debates: affordable housing and transportation. Subsequent debates have not exactly tread any new ground, especially on subjects of importance to planners and their colleagues.

If you've made it this far into this post, I don't need to tell you how fundamental housing and transportation are to the country's economy, the quality of life of the country's existing population, and to the health and welfare of future generations. How is it then that an ongoing policy debate, making daily news and likely to continue to do so for the next year, has completely neglected these topics? Unfortunately, it seems, the planning conversation is not yet a presidential conversation or even yet a national conversation. Where is the disconnect—on our end, on the politicians' end, or somewhere in between?

View south along Interstate 45 (North Freeway) from the ramp between westbound Interstate 10 and southbound Interstate 45 in Houston, Harris County, Texas

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