How Communities Shape Our Streets
This article discusses the power of the community to shape decisions about transportation infrastructure and how we use our streets for getting around — things like whether a bike lane gets installed, whether car parking is free, whether a general traffic lane becomes a bus-only lane, or whether e-scooters are allowed in particular areas.*
To make my case, let me go back to when I wrote an overview of the different city and state departments that touch the street in LA.
Each of these departments consists primarily of the following professions: planners, engineers, construction workers, and operators.**
If one were to make a “start to finish” workflow chain based on that first series of articles for how a transportation infrastructure project comes to life, it might look like this:
Planners →Engineers →Construction Workers/Operators = Finished Project
Planners come up with the what — the idea for how use the street.
Engineers design how that idea might be implemented on the street.
Construction Workers then build and maintain the project (ex: road construction workers for a street) and Operators keep the idea going on a regular basis (ex: bus drivers for a public transit system).
Now, it’s useful to place things into simple categories to clarify complex relationships, though of course in real life there is always a degree of fluidity to these categories and relationships.
For example, a planner doesn’t just make a plan in isolation and hand it over to an engineer, who then creates a design in isolation and hands it over to a construction team. There is usually consistent dialogue between these groups along the chain, and the roles are not etched in stone— engineers come up with ideas, planners weigh in on design decisions, and ideally both groups get feedback from the people building and operating the project once it is implemented.
My second set of articles discussed elected officials, and it showed how they are the actual policy-makers for cities who make the big decisions about how our streets get used.
It turns out planners don’t actually “determine” the ideas for what to do on the street. That role ultimately belongs with elected officials. Planners can come up with all kinds of ideas and draw up the plans for them, but if a majority of elected officials don’t approve them, then those plans mean nothing.
The addition of elected officials modified the decision-making chain in the following way:
Planners →Elected Officials→Engineers→Construction Workers/Operators = Finished Project
Planners come up the what — the idea for how use the street.
Elected Officials approve or reject the idea.
Engineers then design how that idea might be implemented on the street.
Construction Workers then build and maintain the idea and Operators keep the idea going on a regular basis.
Again, it’s important to call out the fluidity that is still at play here — planners, elected officials, and engineers are almost always in consistent dialogue about a prospective idea. A planner will not submit an idea for official approval to an elected official without having discussed the idea with them and their staff first, nor will the planner seek approval for an idea without consulting an engineer to determine the feasibility of actually building it.
My third and most recent article on “Elected Officials and Their Communities” added another element to the mix: the community.
It turns out elected officials don’t actually occupy the power seat for what gets done on the street, because the community is the real decision-maker here.
The power of the community vastly outweighs the other links in the chain combined —and it isn’t even close. The community decides, and everyone else works to bring that decision to fruition.
One might conceive of the community as being the star occupying the center of the decision-making solar system around which all the other groups revolve.
When a bike lane project dies in the planning or implementation stage, it isn’t because planners and engineers don’t want it. Nor is it usually because the elected official doesn’t want it. It dies because most of the community either doesn’t want a bike lane or doesn’t care enough about the bike lane to be bothered by its absence.
Elected officials may be playing the role of the official decision-maker when a project is spiked, but in such situations they are more of a messenger. Elected officials aren’t making this decision without explicitly and implicitly consulting their thousands of constituent bosses.
As outlined in my article on elected officials, they and their staffs are uniquely vested with the capacity and resources to best understand what the community wants. And in order to best serve the community and retain their office, they overwhelmingly focus on delivering what the community wants. If an elected official vetoes a project, it is because they perceive that the community wants it vetoed.
The desires of the community underlie pretty much every single decision made by the elected official, and this power is no less potent because it is often an implicit influence rather than an observable one.
It’s worth discussing the idea of “implicit consultation” in more detail. One might think of the “community” as being made up of two groups of constituents:
(a) a group consisting of “accessible community members” who are accessible for City staff to get their feedback; and
(b) a second group made up of “hard-to-reach community members” whose daily activities make them less accessible to City staff to solicit their feedback.
For perhaps obvious reasons, elected officials spend more time with active community members who are accessible through their participation in official city-sponsored events, neighborhood groups, and other public activities. But these same elected officials are keenly aware of the presence of the people who don’t pay attention to politics or attend official community events. And while it’s certainly an imperfect art, elected officials definitely factor these hard-to-reach constituents into their decision-making. This isn’t just out of noble desire to serve all constituents — it’s also the case that people who don’t pay attention to local politics can still get family, friends, and neighbors to join them in voicing discontent at the voting booth if sufficiently upset about something. (For example: removing a lane of traffic to accommodate other travel modes.)
So here is one last attempt at defining the transportation decision-making process:
The Community →Planners →Elected Officials → Engineers →Construction Workers/Operators = Finished Project
The Community exists at the center of everything and is made up of a wide variety of people with different ideas and needs for the street.
Planners combine their professional expertise with input from the community to come up with an idea for the street that will bring significant benefit to the community.
Elected Officials consider the benefits and drawbacks of the idea, and at the same time carefully assess who in the community will like the idea and who won’t. They then approve, modify, or reject the idea. If approved, the idea is officially a project.
Engineers take an approved project and design how that project will be implemented given the real-world conditions on the street.
Construction Workers then build and maintain the project infrastructure,and if needed Operators keep it going on a regular basis.
This is my best attempt at describing a complex set of relationships in the decision-making process about how we use our streets for transportation infrastructure. I believe it simplifies things in a helpful way by stripping away many layers of detail and getting at the core truth of how these projects develop.
Future articles will explore the implications of this chain of relationships, including my belief that many of us in the livable streets movement make some fundamental mistakes as we go about trying to make streets safer for a variety of travel modes.
Agree? Disagree? Want to add some nuance? Send me an email: nsholmes at gmail.com.
*Obviously, there are many factors other than infrastructure that play a role in how our streets get used, such as a person’s health, sense of safety, and relationship to the people and places in their community. These are important factors in studying how people use the street, but this article focuses solely on the physical infrastructure component of our streets.
**A significant amount of planning, engineering, and construction work is carried out by private firms who work in conjunction with these departments. When I refer to “planners,” “engineers,” “construction workers,” and “operators,” I use the term for anybody doing these types of work, whether they are in the public or private sector.
See an overview of the other things I’ve written, transportation-related and otherwise, at the link here.