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Sunday, 14 April 2013 22:00

Q&A: Jeffrey Tumlin

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Jeffrey Tumlin Jeffrey Tumlin COURTESY PHOTO

For someone who went into transportation planning against his will, Jeffrey Tumlin has made a name for himself in discussing multimodal transportation. After graduating from Stanford, he took over running the university’s parking system not long after the campus lost roughly one third of its endowment and nearly a third of its buildings following an earthquake. But the rise of Silicon Valley had the university replacing many of its parking lots with buildings. Instead of just throwing money at the situation, Tumlin started developing a holistic mobility plan to meet the university’s transportation goals. He lectures on transportation planning and spoke in Grand Rapids at a Downtown Development Authority event. Tumlin spoke with MiBiz to share some insight on the next generation of urban transportation.

What’s your initial impression of the mobility environment in Grand Rapids?

I’ve done a little reading on Grand Rapids and poked around in Google street view, which can actually make it a lot easier to see the patterns. From what I’ve seen, I’m really impressed. There are very few mid-sized American cities that continue to compete in the global economy as well as Grand Rapids has. 

What cities comparable to Grand Rapids are leading the way in multimodal transportation planning and investment?

You know the cities that feel like peers to you, and really there is not a lot Grand Rapids doesn’t seem to be tackling. There are some more successful cities and college towns that are Grand Rapids’ size that are prospering, but there is nothing unique about them. It does give a leg up about thinking holistically about problems, but you need to look at bigger cities like Cleveland. (The city) experienced a dire collapse and has come late to the game in realizing that in order to have relevancy, they need to focus on its urbanity, and part of that is transit. It’s fundamental to the geometry of how downtowns work.

Describe your vision of a good urban experience.

In a city like Boston, you can be in the downtown and you can walk for two hours and never feel like you’ve left the city. There is no end to it. The same is true of San Francisco. You never pass through a zone of abandonment or a place where you get scared because there is no one around.

Who in those communities is encouraging and leading the movement for a new transportation ethos?

It’s interesting. As a consultant, you would expect to see patterns where it’s coming from, but really it has no patterns. It crops up anywhere. If you have enough people in key positions to sustain change, it will happen. In cities where things are happening, people didn’t get in the way. Those involved in planning public works, the mayor and city council boards are all important, but it’s absolutely essential to have citizen activists.

What’s the role of business leaders in the transportation discussion?

The business community can split in many instances, but that is pretty typical. There can be a deep split in the business community that looks at future markets and others that are simply trying to hold on to their current market. Places that are successful protect future investment.

What is the motivation for communities to pursue a more multimodal transportation system?

The motivations for this are very complex, and it’s usually a confluence of factors that include predicting future markets and growing successfully. There is a growing primary concern for cities — and the business community is also aware — over the huge motivation to provide a high quality of life for residents. This can be more powerful than any financial interests.

How do communities and businesses come together to move forward on transportation?

It’s when interests collude and all players agree on the basics of walkability. Realistically, cities live or die based on the quality of walking. That is the first axiom of cities.

What advice do you have for a state and a region with such a devoted car culture so that it can start to grapple with the importance of a multimodal transportation system?

This just goes back to the fundamental points of focusing on economics and geometry, not ideology. As a motorist, it should make sense that when there are more people driving in front of me, there is more risk. Go ahead and celebrate the car but keep thinking about how we are spending money to achieve larger goals and are we spending the right amount of money on the car relative to other modes — and should the mix be adjusted to achieve those goals.

How can the social impact of more forward-thinking public transit goals be measured?

When you start looking at public health, children’s independence, equity for a growing senior population as well as equity for disabled people and basic return on investment, blind spending of resources on automobile independence isn’t getting anything in return.

Interview conducted and condensed by Elijah Brumback.


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