by Rick Pruetz, Vice President, Ecocity Builders

Mobility is not an end in itself but rather a means of reaching destinations. Placing trip origins and destinations closer to one another improves access while offering several other benefits for people and the planet. That’s why ‘access by proximity’ has been an Ecocity Builders mantra since its founding in 1991.

During the last three decades, the common-sense logic of proximity has been clouded by a stubborn assumption that travel speed is the primary, and in some cases the only, indicator of access. I recently ran across a 2015 study that finds proximity to be far more important to access than travel speed. Hopefully this study and others are convincing a growing number of communities to focus less on “going places” and more on “being places”.

There is no reason to assume that a ten-minute trip in slow-moving, congested traffic is worse than a ten-minute trip on a fast-moving, uncongested highway. Yet trips in congested traffic have traditionally been considered inferior by public officials, the media, and hence, the general public. Congestion in and of itself has been wrongly accused of hampering social as well as economic interactions and used as the sole justification for expensive, sprawl-inducing, and often disruptive roadway expansion projects. This myopic focus on protecting the free flow of traffic often has the perverse effect of decreasing access.

In 2015, researchers punctured the speed=mobility myth with a study documenting how congestion in central cities occurs because density concentrates trip origins and destinations closer together. Their study of Los Angeles found that the greater proximity of multiple destinations in higher density areas more than compensates for the resulting traffic delay. People living in less-densely developed parts of Los Angeles with free-moving traffic do not have greater access to jobs because access is affected by proximity as well as speed. Furthermore, proximity is a much better indicator of job accessibility than faster travel speeds. They found that physical proximity, not traffic congestion, is the most significant component of access to jobs in five key industries. As the study puts it: “It’s possible to reach great speeds on a ‘road to nowhere,’ but traveling at high speeds in and of itself does not meaningfully affect one’s ability to get to work, friends, stores, or recreational activities. In this context, mobility – the speed at which it is possible to travel – is a “means” of travel whereas access is considered an “end” of travel, and refers to the actual opportunities to reach desired destinations within a regional economy.” “Assuming accessibility to be largely a function of speed may lead us to inappropriately prioritize congestion reduction at the expense of spatial (land use) arrangements that may more effectively improve accessibility in some (or perhaps many) places” (Mondschein et. al. 2015, 21).

This may sound like old news to those in tune with Smart Growth, New Urbanist, and Ecocity Builders philosophies. But it has taken decades for many governments to embrace this common-sense logic. For example, until recently the State of California required environmental studies to evaluate developments based on their impact on the affected roadways’ ‘level of service’ – meaning speed of travel. In other words, California’s decisions were based on travel as an end in itself rather than as a means to an end. Finally, last year, in 2020, California switched from evaluating projects based on the congestion they produce to how many new miles of vehicle travel they generate.     

The significance of proximity extends well beyond the benefits to employees, employers, and business development examined in the 2015 study. As illustrated in the Ecocity Standards, dense, mixed-use neighborhoods also allow people to reach schools, shopping, entertainment, and other everyday destinations on foot, bicycle, or public transportation. These forms of eco-mobility are much more planet-friendly than single-occupant cars that generate noise, safety concerns, and greenhouse gas emissions.

Furthermore, these eco-neighborhoods are key to maintaining compact urban form. Compact urban form, by itself, can cut resource and energy use in half. This conclusion was reached in a report prepared by the International Resource Panel (IRP) for the United Nations Environment Program that I have referenced in previous issues of Ecocites Emerging. The IRP report further calculated that resource use can be reduced by 80 to 90 percent when compact urban form is employed in a mutually reinforcing manner with three other levers: livable, functionally and socially mixed neighborhoods; resource-efficient buildings as well as urban waste, water and energy systems; and sustainable human behaviors (IRP 2018).

Putting many things closer together improves access, facilitates planet-friendly mobility, and provides a solid foundation for achieving many other sustainability goals. It is gratifying to see the 2015 analysis, the IRP report, and other studies supporting our long-held positions. But it is even more satisfying to see a growing number of communities around the world adopting access by proximity and other Ecocity Standards in their policies and plans.  

References

IRP (International Resource Panel). 2018. The Weight of Cities: Resource Requirements of Future Cities. Paris: United Nations Environment Programme. Mondschein et. al. 2015. Congested Development: A Study of Traffic Delays, Access and Economic Activity in Metropolitan Los Angeles. Accessed 9-14-21 at https://www.its.ucla.edu/publication/congested-development-a-study-of-traffic-delays-access-and-economic-activity-in-metropolitan-los-angeles/

About the author

Rick Pruetz

Rick Pruetz, FAICP, is Vice President of the Ecocity Builders Board and an urban planner who writes about sustainability, most recently Ecocity Snapshots: Learning from Europe’s Greenest Places and Smart Climate Action through Transfer of Development Rights.

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