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Déjà Vu and the Dilemma for Planners

The future, once again, isn't living up to the expectations of planners. How should long-range planning work in a world that is more suburban and more auto-oriented than a generation of planners and urbanists expected?
Steven Polzin | May 3, 2017, 2pm PDT
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Some planners may be feeling a little angst. A few months ago, the Federal Highway Administration released 2016 vehicle miles of travel data, indicating robust travel demand growth in 2016, up 2.8%. The increase pushed total vehicle miles of travel (VMT) to a new record and boosted travel per capita to levels not seen since mid-2008. That disappointment was compounded by the recent release of 2016 transit ridership data, indicating a decline of 2.3% in 2016, which compounds last year's 1.3% decline. The disheartening news continued with the recent release of Census data indicating growth trends that had many highly urbanized counties loosing population while growth flourished in predominately suburban style counties. The top ten shrinking counties had a transit commute mode share over twice as high as the top ten growing counties. Piling on, other data indicates that millennials are morphing toward more traditional characteristics as "Millennials are starting to find jobs and relocating to the suburbs and smaller cities," according to a recent Bloomberg article. "Everything we thought about millennials not buying cars was wrong," says the title of a Business Insider news story.

Meanwhile, in spite of an improving economy and the millennial generation aging, 31% of all 18- to 34-year-olds remain living in their parents' home in 2016 – 46.9% in New Jersey—a large group that has not yet necessarily expressed their unconstrained preferences with respect to living location and mobility choices.

Meanwhile, the expectations regarding automated (driverless) vehicles, most probably coupled with shared vehicle ownership and the adoption of electric vehicles, have ramped up. The trickle of public attention is now a firehose of media and policy interest as the public begins to grasp the speculated transformative implications.

The planner is left in a dilemma. How in the world do we do long-range planning if we have so badly missed the mark about the future of mobility and housing choice?

Future plans are influenced by four characteristics of interest: planners' aspirations, revealed phenomenon and behaviors, stated preferences of stakeholders and the engaged public, and innovation and change. Each is discussed briefly below. 

Planners' Aspirations

Like in any profession, planners carry their own values and life experiences to work in the morning. These experiences and values influence their work. Historically the implications of varying politics was of subtle and nuanced relevance when there was a strong consensus on the critical role of providing transportation capacity, travel safety and cost effectiveness.  However, in an era when everything is political, including transportation planning, different values have more significant implications going forward. As noted in a series of essays on planning theory nearly 40 years ago, the political nature of planning is no secret.

"One of the planning profession's most cherished myths – [is] that the planner is an apolitical professional, promoting goals that are widely accepted through the use of professional standards that are objectively correct." (Burchell and Sternlieb, 1978)

The recent past has seen the myth of an unbiased media exposed with explicit enumeration of political party registration, voting preferences, political contribution tallies, and measures of coverage bias. Such revelations show a media well out of sync with the public they serve. A consequence has been the polarization of media and audiences, which reinforces the value differences. Is the planning profession at risk of being similarly unmasked, and could political biases be impacting plans and their prospects for implementation? Can decision makers place full confidence in the objectivity of analyses and plans that are provided by planners? With the acknowledgement of the political nature of planning, should more senior planners be political appointees, or are other steps necessary to neutralize or expose planner biases?

I have always enjoyed the Albert Einstein quote, "The right to search for truth implies also a duty; one must not conceal any part of what one has recognized to be true," as it alludes to the sin of omission and the subtleties of objectivity. In our ever more politicized world, the politics of planning and planners is more relevant, yet it receives little attention.

Revealed Phenomenon and Behaviors

The foundation of planning practice is captured information about the behaviors of individuals and phenomenon and the use of that knowledge to predict how various policies and investments will perform in scenarios of future conditions. Examples include understanding the noise impacts of infrastructure as facilities are built, the emissions of vehicles in operation, and the travel of individuals when faced with various choices. Planners gain knowledge by observing history, discerning relationships, and extrapolating those relationships to reflect current and proposed future conditions—a process that often includes building and calibrating various models. Part of the current challenge of planning is understanding how valid historic relationships are for application to the future. People had, for example, observed changes in travel behavior and location decisions associated with millennials and extrapolated those to various conclusions regarding future transportation needs. Yet, a growing body of evidence suggests that the magnitude of those changes is not what had been expected, or perhaps hoped for. Many aspects of behavior are not fully understood and changes in demographics, economics, and technology are impacting behaviors in ways that are not reliably predicted based on current levels of knowledge. Our data and models are not always keeping up with changes. Thus, caution should be used in presuming significant variance from historic norms in fundamental travel and location behaviors, as the reversion toward historic trends in travel demand and development trends reveal.

Stated Preferences

"If I had asked people what they wanted, they would've said faster horses."

This quote, attributed to Henry Ford, is often used to characterize the fact that people's aspirations for the future are often constrained by the range of experiences to which they been exposed. While historians debate if this quote originated with Henry Ford, it has stirred discussion about the extent to which people's current aspirations should be a basis for guiding future actions.

The good intentions of planners have resulted in outreach and public participation initiatives to support planning efforts. Virtually ubiquitous communications have enabled broad dissemination of sophisticated information. The solicitation of input from the public offers many benefits: creating a sense of ownership of plans, bringing information and ideas to the table that have not previously been articulated, and cueing planners and decision makers to critical issues that may need to be addressed before approvals and successful implementation can occur. But public expressions about future desires or behaviors may not be a sound basis for action.

Stated preferences often run counter to revealed preferences. Everybody knows a doting parent who years earlier had sworn off having kids or has witnessed the bitter divorce of a couple not long after having seen them vow lifelong commitments. The stated expectations for how people will act in the future often run counter to strong evidence of how people actually behave. The literature is replete with examples of stated preferences varying substantially from actual choices, yet we have little guidance for how to "calibrate" expressions of stated preferences against revealed behaviors such that our plans will more closely address actual future needs.

Innovation and Change

The final factor influencing future plans is the impact of innovation and change. As we are beginning to grasp the potentially transformative impacts of technology, it has flummoxed our ability to plan for the future. Many marvel at the transformative impact of smartphones over a single decade, pointing out how everything from retail to media to business to social interactions has been profoundly impacted. Many are anticipating that self-driving vehicles will inevitably have a similar transformative impact on transportation and land-use. Massive financial and intellectual resources are being directed at transportation, and significant change is inevitable. The costs and impacts of transportation merit this attention. Unfortunately, the long lead times, high costs, and constrained flexibility of many traditional transportation investments make them particularly susceptible to risk if driverless, shared, and electric vehicles become dominant.

So What

So in summary, planners' biases might be more relevant than in the past, our foundational knowledge of behaviors and relationships is getting shaky as the world changes in multiple dimensions, we often don't know how to interpret the public's aspirations, and the pace of technological change might be undermining our historically infrastructure-intensive strategy for dealing with transportation. So planners have some big challenges and important issues to address to insure scarce resources serve the public well. Responding to that challenge is a noble calling, to be sure. On the other hand, if you are overwhelmed with the challenges planners face, both Uber and Lyft are looking for drivers. Bridj—not so much.

The comments are those of the author and are intended to provoke reflection. They do not reflect the policy positions of any associated entities or clients. Polzin@cutr.usf.edu.

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