A Seven-Year Perspective on Mobility Management

posted Sep 13, 2016, 7:09 AM by Nick C.   [ updated Sep 30, 2016, 9:16 AM ]
I became a mobility manager in 2009 when Seven Valleys Health Coalition in Cortland, NY took a chance on a handsome, hard-working, bright young man to help run their new transportation program.  When he quit, they reluctantly turned to me.  Since then, I’ve been basically doing the same thing: trying to solve problems that will make it easier for people to get where they need to. I’ve learned a few things over the years, hopefully more than I’ve forgotten. But then, I’ve forgotten a lot since then too, hopefully less than I knew in the first place.  

My ideas about things have changed a lot in seven years.  I took it for granted that mobility management was, at its core, a new and better way to think about transportation; really, it’s a way to think about communities- people, things, their relationship to place.  And it’s also about values.  What does a person value and what do people collectively value?

Solving mobility problems is not easy, especially when the problems relate to something as fundamental as value systems. The work raises a lot of questions, questions I find myself asking repeatedly over a given seven-year stretch.  I still don’t have many answers to these questions, just some thoughts: 

1. People don’t pay enough attention to land-use decisions.  Simply put, these are the rules that regulate where things go in a given place.  Land-use is especially critical in rural areas, where greater distances generally separate people and things from other people and things. Complicating the matter is that in these rural areas, greater distances are not simply a matter of lax land-use decisions but also of individual preferences; this seems well and good, but can lead to real problems.  By not requiring essential goods and services to be sited in specified, accessible, and yes, reasonably localized clusters, the obstacles of rural geography are exacerbated, not mitigated.  Making services (including transportation) available to the public, particularly the vulnerable and disadvantaged, becomes inefficient and in many cases, wholly infeasible. The USDA Economic Research Service notes that of the 353 counties in the United States afflicted by persistent poverty, 301 are classified as non-metro1. Could there be a relationship between insufficient land-use planning and persistent poverty in rural communities? I suspect so.

2. Personal transportation is rarely guaranteed, yet it is almost always assumed.  And to be fair, it used to make sense to assume transportation.  When many communities were created, most people could see the places they were going out their living room window.  Thanks to the automobile, inexpensive gasoline, and the government’s obsession with pavement (not the band Pavement, which we should all be obsessed with2), the long standing principles of community organization that made this possible (human-scaled, walkable, inviting) were done away with in favor of something much less sustainable3.  Think large retailers, expansive parking lots, out parcels, center turning lanes.  And actually, the new way made sense too, kind of; nowhere was out of reach, so long as you had a car.  But the world is changing once again, and our values along with it.  We believe in aging in place, integrated living, reduced emissions, and smaller footprints.  In the new paradigm, the car can no longer be assumed, and if investment in community transportation isn’t adjusted accordingly, personal transportation can’t be assumed either.

Seven years makes me a relative old-timer in mobility management circles, a real lifer.  Think Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven4.  Looking back and reflecting makes me wonder what I’ll think about mobility management seven years from now.  My hope is that I’ll have better insights and maybe even some real answers by then.  But then, even if I don’t, I’ll be happy so long as I’ve solved some problems on the way.

 2. See Cut Your Hair, Summer Babe (Winter Version), Embassy Row, etc.
 3. This article by Sarah Kobos at Strong Towns effectively illustrates some of the differences between traditional walkable places and         what she calls the “suburban model”. 
 4. Think Milton in Office Space.