The US is quietly making walking and cycling central to urban transportation. America is the undisputed home of the automobile: the very fabric of the country is defined by the system of highways and street grids that have supported and required the world’s highest levels of vehicle ownership. The automobile industry is, however, changing quickly and radically in response to demographic and environment influences, and more recently to new competition. The future for the car is increasingly only one part of a spectrum of mobility options.
A signal of the changing times was the September 12th release of the USDOT FHWA (US Department of Transport Federal Highway Administration) Strategic Agenda for Bicycle and Pedestrian Transportation. The USDOT FHWA is responsible for maintaining and improving the National Highway System in the United States. This organization also provides design, research, and technical assistance to other federal agencies in transportation related matters such as safety and congestion. The new FHWA document sets out an extension of an increasing realization, understanding, and commitment to active transportation as a critical component of new urbanism in the US. This new urbanism contextualizes transportation choice as an indicator of health, environment, social connection, and the economy and with it, makes more walking and cycling a cross-cutting objective not a begrudging concession to advocates.
A significant concept in this new urbanism are ‘ladders of opportunity’ aiming to reposition transportation as a facilitator of productive lives rather than an end in itself. The three main steps in the ladder relate to connecting people to opportunity, repairing the damage of transportation projects that have separated communities and creating transportation projects that involve and respect the community. Walking and cycling projects have become critical to this concept due to their low relative cost, accessibility, community health benefits and human-scale. As a consequence of this policy support and resulting funding opportunities, US cities are changing rapidly so that protected bike lanes, public spaces and new mobility services are reducing the need to own a private vehicle.
One outcome of this is that transportation is growing as a defining factor in city character. Portland, Austin, and New York are amongst a host of cities where active transportation has become part of their identity. High profile projects and experiments have captured the imagination and are now becoming mainstream. The next obvious step, as outlined in the New FHWA Agenda is to put this momentum to work by creating seamless networks, addressing safety concerns and changing behaviour.
Applied’s city wayfinding projects are a microcosm of this transformation. The focus on the walking element in a consistent, multi-modal information system is the communication equivalent to the ladder of opportunity. Effective wayfinding must join up mobility needs in efficient journeys, stitch together disparate areas and services, and respond to the ‘folksonomy’ of short cuts and local place names only found by engaging the community. The goal of networks in the FHWA Agenda to ‘achieve safe, accessible, comfortable, and connected multimodal networks in communities’ could not describe wayfinding projects better.
Alongside the new Agenda the FHWA has also revised its helpful table of ‘Pedestrian and Bicycle Funding Opportunities’. In this wayfinding projects can select from maps, signs and signed routes amongst other themes, with up to fifteen separate Federal funding sources available to State DOTs. While each funding source has its own eligibility requirements, the intent of the Agenda is clearly to open up flexibility and innovation which provides a platform for wayfinding to play it’s true role in our smarter and more active cities.