Shifting to Accessibility
Originally published in the January 2021 edition of Streetsmart News (Vol 32).
The concept of accessibility (aka access to destinations) has been discussed for decades as an alternative paradigm to conventional transportation planning practice. Proponents argue that accessibility better reflects the accepted notion of transportation as a derived demand; that is, people do not travel for its own sake, for the most part, but as a means to reach goods and services. Accessibility necessarily incorporates land use patterns and decision-making, which may account for its slow uptake in transportation, as land use processes may be foreign to transportation professionals. Furthermore, transportation professionals may even fail to understand how intertwined land use and transportation are.
So here is some food for thought. The international Transport Forum has released a collection of discussion papers, produced from a transportation workshop, exploring the opportunities and challenges with adopting accessibility as a mainstream planning practice: The Accessibility Shift, A People-Centred Approach to Accessibility, and Accessibility and Transport Appraisal: Summary and Conclusions.
In The Accessibility Shift, Jonathan Levine argues that one problem with accessibility is that is framed as a means to accomplish other objectives—such as VMT reduction—rather than it standing on its own as inherently valuable. Accessibility is not the strategy but the outcome, which is consistent with the idea that the goal of transportation is to provide access.
Another problematic way to conceptualize accessibility, Levine suggests, is as a proxy for urbanism. Accessibility is often promoted alongside walkable neighborhoods and transit-oriented development, and certainly, urban areas usually offer higher levels of accessibility. But accessibility applies to rural areas as well—it is simply the ability to reach more destinations rather than emphasizing speed.
Levine asserts that accessibility-based planning can’t take hold until they incorporate accessibility based performance measures rather than the mobility-based measures more commonly employed. However, in A People-Centred Approach to Accessibility, Karel Martens argues that replacing key performance indicators without changing the transportation planning process will not ultimately shift transportation practice and outcomes. Instead, Martens calls for an overhaul of transportation processes in favor of a people-centered approach to transportation planning.
While still emergent in the field as a whole, accessibility is being incorporated into transportation planning documents. Access to destinations is frequently included goal statements in city transportation plans. It may be framed as a goal for economic development (e.g., access to jobs), livability (e.g., walking distance to parks), or equity concerns (e.g., access to transit). In some cases, indicators have been developed as well. More research is needed to understand if these indicators are helping translate policy into practice (the dissertation subject of Streetsmart's Executive Director :).