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A city street with cyclists riding in bike lanes painted in green, pedestrians walking on a wide sidewalk, and a light rail line.
The transportation consultants Toole Design created this multi-modal street in Portland, Oregon.
Courtesy Toole Design

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Why we need to reframe the rules of transportation design

Centering ethics, equity, and empathy is a “moral imperative,” say designers at Toole Design

Headlines about traffic fatalities are consistently grim: “Nation Roused Against Motor Fatalities,” reads one from the New York Times; another says: “Pedestrian Deaths in U.S. Approach Highest Number in 30 Years.” These stories could have been written weeks apart, but the former is from 1924 and the latter from 2019.

In 100 years, we haven’t been able to solve the safe streets problem. If we’re going to move the needle, the team at the transportation consulting firm Toole Design argues that we need to rethink the strategy behind street safety.

Since 1925, the transportation industry has been using a concept called the Three E’s—engineering, education, and enforcement—to guide decisions. Last week, Toole Design released a manifesto called “The New E’s of Transportation,” arguing that, instead, ethics, equity, and empathy should be the driving factors for all transportation decision making.

The conventional Three E’s approach, Toole’s manifesto states, “doesn’t provide the guidance or moral compass we need to plan, design, and build a transportation system for the 21st century.”

“Our job as transportation experts is to minimize travel, reduce the impact of travel, and improve the safety and efficiency of transportation infrastructure,” says Andrew Clarke, Toole Design’s director of strategy. “But the experts in engineering, education, and enforcement have lost track of that... When police see crashes as enforcement issues, when engineers see crashes as engineering issues, when planners see them as human behavior issues, they miss the bigger picture.”

Under the conventional approach, the Three E’s might look like redesigning intersections for the engineering component; “stop, look, and listen” public awareness campaigns for education; and ticketing drivers who speed (and pedestrians who jaywalk) for enforcement.

The problem with approaching safe streets from this siloed perspective is it doesn’t offer opportunities to think beyond prescribed solutions from each area of expertise. This leaves gaps in policy, conflicting priorities, and overlooked opportunities. For example, while many cities have policies for complete streets—streets that accommodate people of all abilities and modes of transportation—they often don’t build many of them. And many cities are widening highways and building new roads without investing as much in public transportation, perpetuating the cycle of congestion, car dependency, and traffic fatalities.

For the past three years, traffic fatalities have surpassed 40,000 annually. Vision Zero—a policy framework with the goal of zero deaths from crashes—challenged the conventional Three E’s by thinking about safety more systemically. But without examining all of the policies that affect transportation, Vision Zero can’t reach its full potential.

Take New York City, for example. Despite adopting a Vision Zero plan in 2014, fatal crashes are on the rise. While there isn’t a single reason for the increase, safety advocates are pointing to more congestion from deliveries and for-hire vehicles and a lack of adequate infrastructure, like protected bike lanes. Houston is spending $7 billion on new highways and also has a new Vision Zero plan; the two are at odds since one will add cars to the road and the other requires fewer cars to be successful. Washington, D.C.’s traffic fatalities from car crashes are rising too, despite the city’s Vision Zero initiative. Meanwhile, safe streets enforcement is calling for more police presence during a time when many communities are experiencing racial profiling and excessive violence from law enforcement.

Toole Design’s team believes it’s not enough to follow conventional best practices of street design or enforcement or education. There ought to be a north star that’s guiding everything.

“Ethics, empathy, and equity are values-driven and they prompt you to really ask why you’re doing something,” Clarke tells Curbed. “We hope [the New E’s] will allow us to bring into the conversation questions that have only been answered in terms of models, formulas, and design standards that present fait accompli when there are values-based decisions we should be making.”

A woman walks alongside a wide, busy street with no sidewalks.
When transportation isn’t designed with equity, empathy, and ethics in mind, you get multilane streets with no sidewalks.
Courtesy Toole Design

Oakland, California, adopted an equitable strategic plan for transportation in 2016. The repaving plan is data- and equity-driven. Before the plan, some city council members would set aside funding for road repairs and direct money to the roads their constituents complained about. The city audited all of its roads and found that the three lowest-income areas, where two-thirds of the city’s population lives, have the largest share of streets in poor condition. The city is now prioritizing low-income neighborhoods for $100 million in street repairs, dubbed “the Great Pave.” Oakland is also basing public transit service improvements on access to jobs and education has and a complete streets corridor program.

“Our city cannot thrive when expanses of unwelcoming asphalt divide our communities instead of connecting them, and when roads threaten lives instead of breathing life into our diverse neighborhoods,” wrote Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf in the strategic plan’s opening letter.

Taking an empathetic approach to transportation design is also a matter of public safety beyond the conversation about traffic fatalities, as Kristen Lohse, a senior urban designer at Toole explains. In Seattle’s Central District, one intersection was the site of more than five recent shootings. The city’s response was to increase police surveillance. Meanwhile, people who lived in the area were pleading with the city to install speed bumps. Insufficient infrastructure made it an ideal place to commit crimes.

“It turns out 21st Street is pretty much the only street in the area that doesn’t have any traffic calming,” Lohse writes. “Everyone who lives nearby knows it’s a perfect getaway street.”

A woman with a baby in a stroller waits at a crosswalk while a man on a bike rides in a protected bike lane.
Jackson Street, in St. Paul, Minnesota, is an example of transportation infrastructure designed with equity, empathy, and ethics in mind. It offers protected bike lanes. safe sidewalks, and accessible features for people with disabilities.
Bruce Buckley Photography for Toole Design

Asking the right questions could lead to better outcomes for everyone. So many decisions about transportation are rooted in ethics, a truth that’s rarely acknowledged, argues Bill Schultheiss, director of sustainable safety at Toole. On his website, he writes:

Many engineers like to believe science and math can be used to make objective decisions, but the truth is we have a lot of flexibility and engineering judgment to exercise and the answers are not always going to come from a math equation. We are making values-based choices all the time.

Ethics, equity, and empathy are all elastic ideas—and since policymakers and residents don’t always see eye to eye on priorities, that elasticity can be a stumbling block for a values-based approach to design. But to Clarke, there’s no other workable option.

“To me, approaching transportation through equity, ethics, and empathy means there’s a moral imperative to go out there and serve communities and make transportation better,” he says. “These conversations will help us ask better questions about the work we do and what outcomes we want.”

If we don’t start to view transportation design through the lens of equity, ethics, and empathy, the outcome is 100 percent predictable, Clarke says.

“40,000 people a year will continue to die in crashes, greenhouse gases go up, sprawl continues, we get unhealthier, more people become impacted by poor air, inequality expands,” he says. “And we don’t think that’s a good outcome.”

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