Brent Toderian: Don’t “Balance” Modes — Prioritize Walking, Biking, and Transit

Brent Toderian speaks at Bicycle Colorado' Moving People Forward conference Monday. Photo: David Budd
Brent Toderian speaks at Bicycle Colorado' Moving People Forward conference Monday. Photo: David Budd

“I’m capable of saying some pretty harsh things — I’m very un-Canadian that way,” says urban planning consultant and former Vancouver chief planner Brent Toderian. “But most of the time, I would say that if a city hires me, it’s because they know that the status quo isn’t working, so they’re not gonna be shocked when I tell them… but it’s also got to be constructive.”

Toderian was in Denver this week for Bicycle Colorado’s Moving People Forward conference, which he keynoted. One look at his body of work (or his Twitter account) and it’s obvious he’s passionate about building cities for people. That’s a task, he’ll tell you, that takes guts from elected officials and city planners and engineers.

I got to join Toderian for a bike ride around the city the day before his keynote. He likes what he sees with Denver’s evolving downtown and the city’s success with “gentle density.” He also spoke candidly about what the city is doing wrong and how it needs to get more ambitious when it comes to biking, walking, and transit. Here are excerpts from our conversation and his talk, edited and condensed for clarity.

If you want people to ride transit, stop widening roads

I first thought about this several years ago, after visiting Denver. In order to get the bond measure through for the light rail system, the powers that be decided to tie it to widening the freeway in order to get it politically passed [read: I-25 and T-REX]. That’s trying to have your cake and eat it too. Then everybody asks, “Why aren’t more people using transit?” Because you’re still inducing car traffic. You may make some progress, but more likely it will be one step forward, one step back.

Successful multimodal cities aren’t just about what your city starts doing — i.e., funding transit — it’s what you stop doing — i.e., widening roads. And starting to do something is a lot harder for cities than stopping something, because you get credit for investing in a bike lane. You get to do a ribbon cutting. Politically speaking, stopping the wrong thing is harder than starting the right thing. I’m here to tell you that if you try to have your cake and eat it too, you will not succeed.

“Balancing modes” is code for not prioritizing walking, biking, and transit

The 1997 Vancouver Transportation Plan didn’t use the word “balance.” It prioritized. Walking first, then biking, then transit, then goods movement, then the single occupancy vehicle or car share. In Vancouver we don’t ban the car. We don’t talk about “car-lite” or any of those kinds of things. We just prioritize them last. And in doing so, we make all ways of getting around better. If you design and build a multimodal city, it works better for everybody, including drivers.

Reconsider this word “balance.” Let’s say, for argument’s sake, your end goal is balance. Picture a 100-yard dash where you’ve given the car a 90-yard head start. That’s kind of where you are. Even if your goal is an outcome of balance, by definition you have to prioritize the other modes even to just catch up — let alone be where you should be in urban places.

On widening I-70

Whether or not it’s too late to stop that new freeway infrastructure… all of your narratives should be about making that look like the horrible decision that it is, so that it’s never done again. If you just focus on negotiating a bike lane next to it, or a park over it, then if I were a state or federal DOT, I would think it’s okay to keep doing freeways, as long as I put a park over-top or bike lanes on the side. You need to continue to fight to do the right thing.

If you want more people to ride bikes, don’t add bike lanes slowly

We have to get past all this narrative about which is the cooler object — the bike or the car — and make it a conversation about what works best for cities.

One of the mistakes we made with our infrastructure for bikes in Vancouver is how slowly we’ve done it, one bike lane at a time, pulling the Band-Aid off slowly. Every time we did one, I would have to go to the media and answer questions:

“Why aren’t there more cyclists?” Because there isn’t a complete network.

“Are you done yet?” Of course we’re not done yet — we don’t have a complete network.

Now Vancouver’s gotten to the point where there’s enough of a protected bike lane network that real biking gains are happening, but we went through about almost 10 years of unnecessary pain because we pulled the Band-Aid off too slowly.

If you want to get serious about mode share for cycling, you’re going to need a much faster and more robust approach to building separated, protected bike lanes. I’ve seen your built examples. It’s kind of like what Vancouver was doing, which was building them really slowly, and not in enough of a complete system to actually see the gains that you’re going to need to show in order to convince more people that this is a great idea.

Don’t fall for the temptation of tech

Technology is not going to save us. No offense to the automated buses, which are great, the automated cars, which I’m on the fence on, and other technological innovations. But increasingly the conversation has gone to a bad place, like it often does with new technology — where technology becomes an excuse to keep doing the fundamentals wrong.

You’ve heard this before, right? “Uber is the reason we don’t need to fund public transit.” I’m not anti-tech. I’m anti-laziness, and I’m against using it as an excuse to continue to do the wrong things in your city.

The problem with “excessive boosterism”

I work for some of the world’s most ambitious cities, and even there I hear these eight words, which I call the eight most unhelpful words in the English language: “We could never do that in our city.” Or, on the other end of the spectrum, “We already have a lot to be proud of, so we don’t necessarily need to take a hard look at how we compare to other global cities.” If they did, they might realize that they aren’t necessarily “world-class,” a word that usually makes me cringe, or even better than average. So excessive boosterism is the other side of the problem. That’s why I like to use the phrase “constructive candor,” because you need to be able to be honest about where you are and where you’re not.

I find what really differentiates cities that are doing remarkable things from cities that are doing average things or the wrong things is not your constitutional positioning, or what’s happening in the statehouse in that particular year, or other excuses — what really matters is the will, attitude, and mindset of the municipality.

Good development makes transportation work

Transportation infrastructure obviously plays its role, but without the right land use, significant mode shift is not possible. You have to get your land use right. So if you care about walking, biking, and transit, you should become land use advocates. If you’re just focusing on infrastructure, you’re looking at the tail, not the dog.

Advice on the Denveright plans for walking, transit, and land use

Every plan has to have an implementation strategy — a way to make it real. You have to hammer that part of the plan over and over when the plan is being approved. I even use language when I’m in front of Council like, “If you’re not prepared to change the way you fund and change your standards and change your rules to match what we’ve just done in this new plan, you might as well have not wasted everyone’s time.” You need to have that kind of pointed, powerful language, I find, as part of the discourse.

So if the new [Denveright] plans had clear direction for how this plan will be used in the budgeting process, and if the budgeting process had to show, transparently, how the decisions in the budget will facilitate and will not stand in the way of achieving these plans, then that would create a transparent rigor that, if nothing else, would open up bad decisions to criticism.

If we valued transit, we wouldn’t need ballot measures

Many progressive, smart people in metro Vancouver voted against a new sales tax that would’ve opened up the next generation of transit investment. I was championing the tax, and a lot of urbanists disagreed with me, and they weren’t wrong. They said, “We’re not playing this game.”

Why would we adopt a failed, American model? Why are roads funded automatically, but transit gets thrown under the bus by tying it to a new tax? Transit should be the first priority for the funding we already have. The unwillingness to properly fund transit in the first place leads to a system where you have to do things like ballot measures.