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Levine: Shifting the Conversation Around Transportation

Wednesday, December 8, 2021

When Jonathan Levine was a child and living in a Bay Area suburb, he recalls having to take “very slow busses” to visit friends who lived in the cities of San Francisco and Berkeley. Then, when he was 14, Bay Area Rapid Transit arrived. 

“That was a life changing experience because suddenly I had access to all sorts of wonderful things that were very hard to get to,” he says. 

It planted a pro-public transportation seed that helped spawn his career.  

Levine, a professor of urban and regional planning at Taubman College, has been championing a transportation system that moves away from focusing on planning for the movement of cars. “The problem with that way of planning is that it misunderstands the purpose of transportation, which is not movement but rather access to our destinations,” he says.

He favors a system that prioritizes access through a range of means of transportation. “Instead of putting auto mobility at the pinnacle of transportation planning, the field needs to shift from a mobility to an accessibility basis,” Levine says. 

He discusses this concept extensively in a recent book, From Mobility to Accessibility: Transforming Urban Transportation and Land-Use Planning, written with fellow Taubman College faculty member Joe Grengs and Florida Atlantic University’s Louis Merlin. Accessibility, Levine explains, is a combination of mobility and proximity. If the purpose of transportation is to reach one’s destination, Levine argues that there should be a focus on gauging success in accessibility rather than mobility terms. Even a slow mode of travel can provide high accessibility if destinations are close by, he says.

This sometimes means accepting greater congestion as a tradeoff for high-density development where more people can live closer to their work and non-work destinations. Current planning structures tend to impede the development of more dense building because it might degrade auto mobility —even though it’s improving accessibility, Levine notes.

Levine is wary of a new development in mobility: self-driving cars. He’s worried that they could have negative impacts, such as causing people to live further from city centers to afford larger homes, since they could sleep or work in their car on their commute. That could “magnify and reinforce” the urban sprawl problem, which has negative impacts, including pollution, habitat depletion, and segregation he explains.

Instead, Levine favors accessibility-oriented policies that allow cities or neighborhoods to be built in a denser, more mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly fashion. As a side benefit, this could influence people to drive less and walk or take the bus more. He says that since current zoning regulations limit these types of developments, he believes changing zoning is instrumental in allowing for developments that provide greater accessibility and walkability, “the things that lots of people have shown that they want.” 

He points out that single family housing was originally developed for racial exclusion and that zoning “continues to exacerbate segregation.” He sees planners taking on an activist role in instituting positive changes. “They should seek to reform planning practice to bring about more of what they what we seek as a society and less of the negative consequences that we've seen in planning of the past decades,” he says.

Levine is encouraged by recent moves in Oregon, Minneapolis, and other locales that have eliminated single family zoning, making way for a broader range of housing choices: “These are changes that are happening on rather short order that I didn’t think that I would see.” Though Levine lives in a single-family home, he commutes by bike and chose to live in a house that was in biking distance from campus. 

He joined the faculty in 1991, making him the longest serving urban planning faculty member at Taubman College. While some academic units are more narrowly focused in their research, Levine appreciates the “wonderfully broad scope,” at Taubman College that ranges from design research to classically defined social science research. It’s “a very supportive environment for all kinds of research,” he says.

Levine teaches four classes a year and says he benefits significantly from the students: “I get ideas in classroom interactions with them, and a lot of what I talk about comes from experience from students.” Students also have contributed to his research. And some of his former students who are working in the field led to a chapter in his book when they asked how they could reform the current mobility-focused practice. Their questions helped him realize the need to develop more “on-the-ground approaches” to accessibility.  

Levine’s current work includes a joint project with a law professor from the University of Iowa, Gregory Shill, investigating the legal and institutional obstacles to the accessibility shift. Levine believes there are reasonable solutions to transportation and land use that don’t come with pushing people into long commutes or widening roads —and thus forcing them into a lower-accessibility location with a higher carbon footprint lifestyle. 

He notes, “What could be a more misguided environmental policy than that?”

—Julie Halpert

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