Originally published in the February 2020 edition of Streetsmart News (Vol 22)
Almost everyone can agree that how we build our cities and neighborhoods have a big impact on a resident’s quality of life. However, there is less agreement about what we mean by the term quality of life. Livability as a concept is complicated by its lack of definition, which means it is a term that gets bandied about to support or oppose a variety of community projects. Indeed, neighbors arguing on opposite sides of an affordable housing proposal can claim that new housing will detract from or support livability.
Although our understanding of livability is vague enough to contain contradictory ideas, that doesn’t mean it hasn’t been quantified. Some of these frameworks, such as the AARP Livability Index, offer well-considered indicators. Other indices highlight a particular idea of livability (see here and here for some reflection).
Given the number of policies and plans across the nation whose express purpose is to promote livability, having a more consistent and meaningful definition would be useful. What if the term livability were infused with scientific rigor? What if the definition of livability actually related to what it sounds like; that is, supporting people’s health and well being?
Researchers in Australia have done just that. A multi-institutional partnership led by Professor Billie Giles-Corti, the National Liveability Study, pursued the idea of constructing built environment livability indicators that impact health outcomes. Having found that the concept of livability and health were frequently linked, their research approach adopted a social determinants of health (SDOH) approach to building their indicator set. The SDOH are defined as the conditions in which people are born, live, work, and play. The most impactful way of improving a community’s health outcomes is by addressing these social determinants (versus a reliance on clinical interventions, for example).
As a result, researchers in this project defined a livable places as those that are “safe, attractive, socially cohesive and inclusive, and environmentally sustainable; with affordable and diverse housing linked to employment, education, public open space, local shops, health and community services, and leisure and cultural opportunities; via convenient public transport, walking and cycling infrastructure to employment, education, public open space, local shops, health and community services, and leisure and cultural opportunities.” Not only does this paint a clear picture of a livable neighborhood, this definition is also supported by the evidence on the social determinants of health in urban areas.
As discussed in a previous newsletter, transportation is a social determinant of health. Some of the pathways by which transportation affects health include supporting healthy behaviors—access to healthy food, facilitating physical activity, and enabling social interaction—and exposure to noise pollution, air pollution, traffic safety, and crime.
A health-informed approach to defining and promoting livability could be a way of translating an abstract concept to something very tangible and meaningful to people—the health of our bodies.
Originally published in the March 1, 2021 issue of Streetsmart News (Vol 33)
In the wake of decreased ridership during COVID, Transportation for America and others have argued for additional public transit funding, noting that transit is more than a transportation choice—it is an essential service for millions of workers. These workers are effectively preventing societal collapse, Jarrett Walker argues. As such, Walker suggests that we stop focusing on ridership numbers as though that were transit’s only goal. Similarly, Tamika Butler notes the transit's import, especially for people of color—although not only for them: “We have to get out of a mindset where there are only certain people who are transit-dependent. Because we are all dependent on the people who are transit-dependent. So, we’re all transit-dependent.”
Transit systems in most US cities follow a hub-and-spoke pattern that directs riders downtown, prioritizing the peak commute of the office worker (historically male and White). COVID has disrupted the peak commute, making it an excellent time to re-evaluate the role of transit in cities. David Zipper echoes Walker’s complaint of ridership as the primary metric by which transit is measured, instead suggesting that access is more appropriate (see our last issue for more discussion on access). Prioritizing ridership and peak hour commuters has led to transit systems that leave out the travel needs of large swaths of the population—suburb-to-suburb commuters, those who work non-traditional hours, and those trying to reach mid-day health care appointments, for example. With the conventional wisdom that peak hour revenues subsidize off-peak service, chasing peak commute fares has seemed like fiscally responsible way to manage transit. However, Zakhary Mallett argues that “peak service is extremely expensive when you consider capital costs. My hypothesis is that peak period travel, after you account for capital costs, is more expensive than off-peak—even after accounting for revenues.”
If this is the case—that the economic justification for privileging peak service is flawed—why not create transit systems that work for everyone? In shorthand, let's call this all-purpose transit after the Transit Center's research on all-purpose riders. With all-purpose transit, we can create truly transit-oriented cities. Not just transit-oriented development, which tends to be focused on development adjacent to rail transit stations, but complete communities with well-developed transit networks accessible within a ten-minute walk of residences. Walkable neighborhoods are a natural complement to transit-oriented cities.
We already know that increased transit access and transit service solve a number of problems—they increase walking and physical activity and reduce vehicle miles traveled and greenhouse gas emissions. As discussed above, it’s clear transit is a lifeline for many essential workers. It’s also quite likely that increased transit use will reduce air pollution (associated with respiratory and cardiovascular disease) and congestion, particularly if the city is organized in way that takes advantage of transit’s spatial efficiencies.
Creating all-purpose transit and transit-oriented cities won’t be easy. For cities with established transit systems, there are the sunk costs of having invested in peak-oriented transit. For auto-oriented cities, land use patterns don’t readily lend themselves to convenient transit use or efficient transit system design. The federal funding formula for transit is partly tied to ridership numbers (although this could help make the case for fareless transit, which boosts ridership). And in the post-COVID era, some people may be reluctant to take transit.
How do we start? A vision like the Transit Center's transportation Green New Deal centers access to frequent transit and increasing transit funding. Where else should we turn for ideas in creating all-purpose transit and transit-oriented cities? Ask existing riders.
Anna Zivarts argues that we should learn from those who don’t drive; specifically, to those with disabilities. Her Disability Mobility Initiative Program created a storymap that features interviews from people who rely on transit and other non-auto modes for getting where they need to go. In addition, Tamika Butler challenges the transportation profession to listen to Black people, especially Black women, many of whom are dedicated transit riders and are deeply concerned about transportation's impact on people.