Making Better Choices for Active Transportation Planning


Editor's Note: Today's guest post was written by Robert Voigt, a planner (MCIP, RPP), artist, and blogger specializing in active transportation, urban design, and community health.  Inspired by the work of Dan Burden of Walkable Communties, Peter Kenyon of the Bank of I.D.E.A.S., and our very own Chuck Marohn of Strong Towns, Robert recently completed the Collingwood Active Transportation Plan for the Town of Collingwood, Ontario.  We were extremely impressed with his work and offered him a chance to showcase it on the "Strong Towns Blog."  He obliged. 

We love seeing work inspired by what we are doing here.  If you have projects, reports or ideas that you would like featured on the blog, please contact me at burslie@strongtowns.net. 

Keep doing what you can to build Strong Towns. 

-Justin  

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A few short weeks ago I completed a critical project for the Town of Collingwood, Ontario that has the potential to help this community make a progressive shift for its transportation planning and the choices it makes for major policy initiatives in the future.  I am referring to the Active Transportation Plan (ATP) that is currently before Council, awaiting final disposition. 

Not long ago I had the pleasure of creating the Town’s Urban Design Manual (UDM).  I was inspired by Christopher Alexander’s Pattern Language and chose to change the way I conducting my planning work.  It represented a watershed of creativity in my practice, both in process and product.  In the end, this project had a number of ground-breaking elements: first design manual to be adopted as law (not guidelines) in Ontario; first in North America to include natural playground design standards for neighbourhoods; first in Region to use social media engagement strategy; first performance based urban design standards in the region; et cetera.  The result of implementing the UDM is a development review process that is highly streamlined and effective, with better projects that are human-centered in their design.  Overall, being more in my work resulted in a less expensive process that is creating a more livable community. 

I chose to take this shift in perspective into my next major project; developing the Active Transportation Plan for the Town.  In this case, my direct inspiration(s) came from three specific sources: Strong Towns; Dan Burden of the Walkable and Livable Communities Institute; and Peter Kenyon from the "Bank of I.D.E.A.S." in Australia.  I took these influences and mixed and molded them into a cohesive strategy for Collingwood and its citizens that concentrates on: leveraging community assets; facilitating citizen engagement; and focusing on practical solutions.  I asked a single question to guide my planning work for this project: “What do we need to do for our community’s future; to be successful, complete, inspired, healthy, and vibrant?”.  Not your typical transportation planning question, but the result is also not your typical active transportation plan.  The following outlines some aspects of the ATP that may be helpful to others taking on similar important work of building livable towns and cities.

Challenge

The impetus for developing the ATP was the County Official Plan, which states that each municipality is required to have an active transportation plan (with specific elements prescribed).  I began by reviewing over 200 ATPs and implementation strategies, and found a number of similar limiting characteristics.  In fact most AT plans are too big to manage, too complex to understand, too costly to implement, and too boring to capture the interest of citizens.  Realizing this, I didn’t want Collingwood to have a typical AT plan that has a 20 year planning horizon, would take 100 years of work to implement, and requires 1,000 years of municipal funding.  My view is that a plan that cannot realistically be implemented, is just an idea, and not a plan at all.  The following is a brief outline of what I found during this initial exploration:

A) Lack of systems approach to AT:

Most active transportation plans are overly “network” focused, disregarding urban design and user needs.  They ignore the range of design characteristics that make a community active transportation friendly, beyond just good coverage of “routes” (such as: safety, convenience, aesthetics, efficiency, culture)  Concepts and concrete implementation methods to improve placemaking and human-centred design in the community are critical, yet these items are usually assumed to be outside of the scope of active transportation, and are not addressed.  The result is a loss of: contextual design; consideration of land uses along to street corridors; and, attention to human-centred design.

B)  Only focused on growth:

These plans are generally based on an outdated growth perspective, where transportation is dealt with primarily by expansion of networks and large infrastructure projects.  The result is that they are overly prescriptive on the construction of physical infrastructure while equally lacking in ways for citizens to become involved, or for other choices that would make the community inherently more active transportation friendly (such as better urban design, well integrated and mixed land uses, and information and programs that support AT culture) .  Most active transportation plans define many projects which are town-wide initiatives that tend to be excessively difficult to fund, particularly for smaller towns and cities. These projects are also seldom easy to initiate or complete in phases; leaving them half done, or altogether passed-over. Implementation recommendations that are realistically not fundable, because of their size and/or number, are inappropriate and ineffective. An ATP needs to be readily achievable through the resources and assets of the community. The Town’s economic well-being and the health of citizens are dependent on the practicality of an active transportation plan.

C)  Lost sense of time:

Most AT plans include a series of implementation projects that go well beyond their planning horizon. It is important, and proper, to have some long-term projects and policies within an AT plan. However, if it is overburdened with these it becomes unmanageable, confusing, and stale.  If the majority of the initiatives within a plan cannot reasonably be achieved within its identified timeframe it does not serve a community and its citizens well.  The result is that the resources that went into developing these many unachieved initiatives are effectually misappropriated because much of that work will likely be either forgotten or need to be redone with future revisions of the plan.  An active transportation plan must be developed as a strategy for achieving particular goals if it is to be successful. Without the actionable components being reasonably “doable” the plan is reduced to becoming an overlooked vision document that will very likely have far less impact on the community.

D)  Poor communication:

Unfortunately active transportation plans are generally not written to be easily understandable by citizens, elected officials, and professionals alike.  They tend to be extremely technical in their presentation and content.  This results in plans that are, not only confusing, but also uninspiring to the community; effectively making them easily ignored, unimplemented, and forgotten.

To address these challenges, the Collingwood ATP was crafted with the following characteristics:

  • the Plan is written and illustrated to make it easily understood
  • it has a defined five year timeframe
  • implementation projects - “Elements” - are grouped into four categories (long-range 5 years; mid-range 3-5 years; near-range up to 3 years; and 100 day projects)
  • walkability/bikeability audits and crowdsourcing projects will help inform the evolution of the ATP and its implementation
  • urban acupuncture projects will be used to test solutions and engage citizens in helping create active transportation friendly neighbourhoods and places
  • complete streets strategies are integrated into design projects
  • multi-disciplinary design teams are required for all major projects and street designs
  • a “do-tank” of community volunteers will be struck to assist with implementation

Response

Throughout the development of the ATP there has been a positive reception from the community to the approach being taken and many of the specifics of the plan itself.  Interest in the ATP has also come from neighbouring communities and other municipalities across the Province for essentially these same reasons.  Three noteworthy ones reflect the Strong Towns perspective:

  • Interest in having a clear set of implementation projects that are within the “grasp” of the town and don’t require massive infusions of Provincial funds or grants;
  • People are excited about getting involved and making change happen as part of the “do-tank” or through urban acupuncture projects; while also not expecting the municipality to be the only “provider” of active transportation solutions; and,

Implementation

The Collingwood Active Transportation Plan is designed to be implementable within approximately five years, with an overall structure and policies that will be used to guide the “regeneration” the Plan for the following five year cycle.  By doing this, the Plan will be a dynamic and living tool for improving active transportation within the community.  It will also make it more manageable and scalable for the needs and available assets of the town.  The four sets of projects are intended to work together with a cycling of information out to citizens, and through them back into the action items of the ATP.  Part of this flow could look something like this:

  1. the community education Element and annual “meeting of the public” facilitate the prioritization of projects and adoption of new projects to be proposed such as traffic calming in a neighbourhood;
  2. the do-tank helps design possible solutions;
  3. these can be tested through urban acupuncture projects;
  4. the findings of this testing can then be permanently implemented through the Community Matching Fund Element; and,

When the Plan is adopted, Collingwood will have concrete ways for citizens to work with the Town; test ideas with urban acupuncture projects; partner on implementation; and improve their neighbourhoods, with an overall focus on placemaking and active transportation.  It will also set the parameters for cooperative multi-disciplinary transportation planning/design work between Planners, Engineers, and Landscape Architects that is focused on complete streets.  The results of completing the ATP’s Elements are expected to be:

a)  Changed Culture:  Making active transportation easier for daily activities; and supporting the local neighbourhoods and economy.

b)  Changed Environment:  Addressing all aspects of active transportation, including: people-oriented design; better biking facilities; better signage; and, complete streets approaches; that will all make the physical form of the town more supportive of active transportation.

c)  Empowered People:  Making it easier for citizens & neighbourhood groups to get involved in real projects and facilitate test projects in partnership through with the municipality.

d)  Changed Scope: Facilitating real measurable improvements to the various aspects of active transportation; having a range of implementation projects that will “make things happen” in the community.

e)  Changed Expectations:  Improved understanding of active transportation and Municipal implementation projects by citizens, elected officials, and professionals, and; include ongoing community input throughout the Plan’s life.

In the end, the ATP will help Collingwood evolve and become more active transportation friendly and livable.  Hopefully, it will also show other Planners, Engineers, and citizens how they can use creative approaches to managing and directing change in positive ways.  The difficulties of the future will require us to choose new ways of thinking about our problems and the solutions we develop.  This isn’t easy, and will often mean that we have to change the culture of the organizations we work in.  So to help you make the choice of creativity over the status-quo I pass on the words of Ze Frank: “Choices aren’t things that happen to you, they happen, when you happen onto things, and choose them. So happen.

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Robert Voigt is a Planner (MCIP, RPP), Artist and Blogger, specializing in active transportation, urban design, and community health.  He is a recognized leader in his profession having developed groundbreaking projects in urban design, community engagement and active transportation.   He has published articles and spoken at numerous conferences on these issues as well.

He has been a practicing Planner for over 15 years, with experience in Ontario, British Columbia and both Washington and Colorado States. Robert brings a design thinking approach to his work; a problem solving methodology founded in observation, storytelling, visual thinking, incremental and iterative projects, and experimentation.

In 2011 Robert was recognized by the Ontario Professional Planners Institute for his outstanding work and in 2010 he lead a project to develop new subdivision and PRD standards which earned a Washington State APA award.

Robert is a member of the Municipal Urban Designers Roundtable, OPPI Urban Design Working Group, a Contributing Editor to the Ontario Planning Journal, and writes CivicBlogger a web site dedicated to Planning issues.

He can be reached at rob@robvoigt.com, on Twitter @robvoigt, or Google+ and LinkedIn.