Connecting people by proximity: A better way to plan metro areas


Proximity has always been an essential ingredient in building great places. From Jane Jacobs to Jan Gehl, urban theorists consistently argue that bringing people and opportunities closer together allows neighborhoods to flourish.

New research from the Bass Center for Transformative Placemaking at Brookings confirms that when it comes to site selection, American businesses continue to value proximity. Our colleagues’ analysis found that, between 2004 and 2015, overall job density in large metropolitan areas increased by nearly 30%.

Transportation and land use planning are the ultimate enablers of proximity. The character of our urban form—including density, permitted use in buildings, and transportation designs—will either promote closer proximity or push economic activity further apart. And despite the best efforts of many business and civic leaders, the prevailing transportation model in the United States downplays distance and focuses too much on traffic.

If more communities want to get back to building great places, it’s time for a new transportation model that values proximity and shorter-distance travel.

We don’t have to go far to see how transportation approaches impact our ability to build great places. Consider the country’s archetypal street plans built before World War I: the tight streets and civic commons found in New England and the oldest Southern cities; the functional rigidity of Manhattan’s grid north of 14th Street; the monumental boulevards and nodal traffic circles of Washington, DC; even the walkable suburbs developed from Philadelphia to Chicago.

If more communities want to get back to building great places, it’s time for a new transportation model that values proximity and shorter-distance travel.

In each instance, physical proximity was the goal. With the technology of the day limited to walking, bicycling, and shared rides on carriages or streetcars, the combination of clustered buildings and streets helped connect as many neighborhoods as possible over short distances.

Now consider the most recent transportation plan for most communities: the highway model. Based on a premise that most households would want a vehicle and a standalone house, metro area after metro area built a network of limited access highways and wide streets to accommodate fast-moving vehicles. The automobile’s rapid travel speeds allowed planners to stretch the idea of what was proximate.

The problem? The highway model never emphasized place; it always emphasized speed and space.

After a century of construction, we can look around and see the highway model’s logical conclusion. By steadily giving space to the car and ever-larger homes, our urban footprints keep stretching outward. New real estate designs, from housing subdivisions to strip malls, were meant to accommodate the car. The net result is ever-growing distances between where people live and where they need to go, sky-high automobile ownership rates, longer trips, and never-ending congestion. Many now lack easy access to parks and other public meeting spaces. Too many simply lack safe and seamless connectivity to nearby neighborhoods.

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Transportation planners must return to their roots as vital enablers of transformative, high-quality places. That process starts by retiring value systems and performance measures that prioritize travel speed over all else. But to successfully retire one set of values, you need something else to replace it.

We propose a new model: prioritizing human-scale proximity and the shorter-distance travel it promotes. After all, the benefits of an urban form that promotes shorter-distance travel are significant:

  1. Proximity promotes agglomeration, helping to grow industries and regional economies. Research continually finds that urban economies benefit when workers and firms locate near one another (or cluster), saving travel time and promoting greater knowledge exchanges. Designing cities and suburbs to promote proximity—including compact, diverse, and pedestrian-orientated neighborhoods—can incentivize agglomeration to take hold.
  1. Proximity requires less infrastructure per capita, reducing fiscal burdens on communities. When cities and suburbs consume less space, they require less infrastructure—not just roadways, but also water pipes, broadband networks, and energy lines—to operate. This reduces the public burden to build-out initial infrastructure and maintain it long term.
  1. Proximity offers more modal choice, making transportation more affordable and age-neutral. People prefer not to walk, bike, or take certain transit trips at long distances, meaning the closer people and destinations are the more likely they are to consider these modes. Attracting more people to walk, bike, and take transit will then enable households to save money relative to driving. Bringing people and destinations closer together also promotes mobility for people of all ages, especially the young and old who cannot drive.
  1. Proximity is essential to hitting carbon targets and developing more resilient places. Transportation is now the number one polluting sector and personal vehicles are the major source. Since proximity incentivizes non-driving demand, more non-driving trips will make transportation cleaner. Meanwhile, sprawl has its own environmental costs, including higher per capita stormwater runoff and energy use.
  1. Proximity incentivizes safer streets and supports a healthier population. Transportation-related fatalities are on the rise and transportation is the most dangerous daily activity for most people. Designing streets for proximity should mean slower vehicle speeds and more bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, which creates a safer environment for everyone.

So how can transportation planners and their public and private sector peers help design communities that will deliver proximity? The country needs a new system to measure transportation performance based on actual distances traveled, with the idea that shorter trips are generally preferred.

Of course, a new measurement system can’t be overly rigid, either. The logical conclusion of a “short trip” model is a tight set of skyscrapers, which is both unrealistic and a little too Cobusier for our taste. Nor are longer trips necessarily bad; it’s the quality of longer trips that matters. For example, metropolitan New York’s commuter rail promotes local proximity within suburbs while unlocking greener long-distance trips via rail into the central city.

Fortunately, we now have the data to develop a measurement system that can accurately reflect the character of trip distance and its relationship to urban proximity. New geolocation services allow planners—for the first time in human history—to use anonymized or synthetic travel data to see how neighborhood design, transportation networks, and other factors influence travel patterns.

The next step is to put this data to use, experiment with new performance measures, and gauge public reaction. Developing those measures won’t be easy, but we just need to look around to see what kind of value that process could deliver.

It’s no coincidence that many of the American cities and suburbs designed before highways house some of the country’s most valuable land, function as today’s tourist hubs, and continue to attract globally competitive industries and world class talent. It’s time to relearn the lessons of the past and start building for proximity once again.