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People-oriented streets and the built environment: Lee Schipper Memorial Scholars present at Transforming Transportation 2015
2014 Lee Schipper Scholars present at Transforming Transportation

Erik Vergel-Tovar (left) of Colombia and Madeline Brozen (right) of the United States—recipients of the 2014 Lee Schipper Memorial Scholarship—presented their research findings at Transforming Transportation 2015. Photos by Zhou Jia/WRI.

Last week’s Transforming Transportation conference put forth multiple innovative ideas for how cities can transform mobility to become more socially, environmentally, and economically sustainable. Speakers included former heads of state like Mexico’s Felipe Calderón, road safety champions like former New York City DOT commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, and entrepreneurs like Zipcar founder Robin Chase. In addition to these heavy hitters, two names you may not have heard of (yet) also contributed their bright ideas for the future of sustainable urban mobility: Erik Vergel-Tovar and Madeline Brozen.

Vergel-Tovar and Brozen were selected last year as recipients of the 2014 Lee Schipper Memorial Scholarship for Sustainable Transport and Energy Efficiency. As scholars, they’ve spent the last six months conducting in-depth research on different aspects of sustainable transport, and shared their findings for the first time at Transforming Transportation 2015. Read on to learn about what their research revealed.

Bus rapid transit and the built environment: Findings from Latin America

Vergel-Tovar, a PhD candidate at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, presented first. He explored the implications of how built environment attributes beyond density – such as the mixture of land uses, proximity to transit hubs and facilities, presence of high-rise developments, and pedestrian infrastructure – influence the ridership levels of bus rapid transit (BRT) systems in Latin America. Notably for planners and policymakers, his analysis shows that associations between population density and BRT ridership in Curitiba, Brazil – the birthplace of BRT – are similar or even higher than those found on rail-based systems in North America and Asia. His analysis also shows that some built environment attributes commonly considered as part of transit-oriented development (TOD) features are positively associated with BRT ridership. To achieve this TOD ridership association, however, requires the right enablers:

“We need an appropriate combination of transit-oriented development features,” he said. “This includes high rise multifamily and commercial developments, an even distribution of commercial, residential and institutional land uses, land developments of five or more stories in close proximity to stations, presence of facilities facing the BRT right of way and a network of non-motorized transport infrastructure articulated and connected to BRT stations.”

What does this mean for urban planning? As Vergel-Tovar told TheCityFix earlier this year, it means we can’t rely on density alone to create viable, efficient transport systems. Rather, the relationship between transport and urban development is far more nuanced, and planners need to consider a broader range of built environment attributes when designing transport corridors.

View Vergel-Tovar’s presentation below, and stay tuned for the release of his research findings later this year.

Moving beyond streets for cars

Brozen, assistant director and complete streets initiative manager for the University of California, Los Angeles’ Institute of Transportation Studies, took a different approach. She examined how current methods of planning and designing urban streets contribute to car-centric urban development. She focused on the need to move away from complex equations that measure street performance and move towards meaningful, human-centered data that can better inform policy decisions. Drawing from the examples of people-friendly metropolises New York City and Copenhagen, she found that the first step towards creating people-oriented streets was using more comprehensive and holistic data points. This approach can help build neighborhoods more supportive of active transport modes like bicycling and walking.

Despite this focus on non-motorized transport, Brozen’s research isn’t about how to create the car-free city. As she stated in an earlier interview with TheCityFix:

“Too often we hear, ‘you bike people just want everyone to get out of their cars.’ Getting away from that us versus them mentality, we can start to think about what a holistic transportation system looks like. That’s what we mean when we talk about complete streets. On a complete street, it’s pleasant, safe, and attractive to get to your destination however you want to do so.”

View Brozen’s presentation below, and stay tuned for the release of her research findings later this year.

We hope you are as inspired as we are by the insight and vision of this year’s Lee Schipper Memorial Scholars! To learn more about the Lee Schipper Memorial Scholarship, visit the scholarship website. Applications for the 2015 scholarship period are now closed, but check back throughout the year for updates on 2016. Donations to the scholarship fund are welcome at leeschipper.embarq.org/contribute.

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