I recently came back from a study trip in Vancouver, Seattle, Portland and San Francisco. I visited these cities because they are all dealing with challenges that are top on the list in New Zealand as in many other places – accommodating growth through intensification, achieving desirable density, managing people’s and goods movements and implementing modal priorities, improving livability, future-proofing the system and its funding mechanisms, integrating efficiently land use and transport, or ensuring affordabilty.

Along the way, these cities scored successes that can be inspiring for any urban environment, such as:

  • accommodating 45,000 additional jobs downtown, with almost no increase of access by single occupancy vehicles (Seattle)
  • repeatedly ranking amongst most liveable cities (all 4)
  • developing bicycle use, from 1% trips in 2000 to 6% in 2009 (San Francisco)
  • achieving the modal target of 50% of trips made by public transport, walking or cycling, 4 years ahead of the planned time (Vancouver)
  • future proofing the transport funding, accounting for lesser gas use (and gas taxes), while unrolling a $54 billion public transport programme (Puget Sound region)
  • increasing the desirability of central locations for residents and businesses (new Amazon, Google or Twitter headquarters downtown, Seattle / San Francisco)
  • strongly limiting the greenfield development (all 4 cities)
  • improving the road safety and committing to Vision Zero (all 4 cities)

What interested me was to see what measures, and types of measures contributed to their wins. For this, I spent about a week in each city visiting, walking, taking the public transport or cycling. It allowed me to see so many interesting bits of mechanisms. But the decisive part was to meet with local transport planners, managers, coordinators, community workers or academics, who shared the local insights and their vision on dealing with the upcoming challenges such as affordability, gentrification, or demographic changes. I also spoke with residents, participated to a community engagement meeting around services to elderly and disabled people (San Francisco), took part to a bicycle field trip (SFSU), and read views from local papers.

Meeting with local practitioners was really key, and I couldn’t be more grateful for everyone’s time and shared insights. They made such a difference for my visits and my understanding of the mechanisms at play. The subtle interplay between increased livability and gentrification will definitely be of #1 importance in the next years/decades, impacting directly on affordability but also mobility patterns. Density and mixity management, road-space reallocation, prioritization, demand management, and funding will all be at play in achieving livable environments, each coming with specific challenges.

Download the full report here.