Faculty Profile: For Jonathan Levine, travel of the future is all about maximizing access

Monday, November 16, 2015
Amy Wynn

The first North American roads were foot trails- trails that widened, with the centuries, to accommodate horses and then teams. A horse and wagon traveled at an average speed of four miles per hour. Our average travel speed has changed a bit since then, yet many of those same trails- made to offer the least resistance possible for animals two-legged and four- now carry millions of Americans to their destinations. Builders, policy experts, and others who plan and study transportation systems must literally build the future on top of the past.

Jonathan Levine is the Emil Lorch Professor of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Michigan’s Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning. He studies accessibility in modern transportation and the potential to shift the basis for transportation and land-use planning from mobility to accessibility.

In his 2006 book Zoned Out: Regulation, Markets, and Choices in Transportation and Metropolitan Land Use, Levine argues for transportation and land ­use policy reform on the basis of choice rather than modification of travel behavior. Accessibility is a big part of that choice.

“For a century, we’ve been planning transportation as if what matters is mobility,” says Levine, “So we figure out whether we’re succeeding by measuring how fast people can get from one place to another.”

“That sounds pretty logical,” Levine explains, “except when you think about the core purpose of transportation. The core purpose of transportation is access.”

Access is the ease of reaching destinations; that ability to reach destinations is what most people value about transportation.

Access, as an umbrella concept, is comprised of three things: proximity, mobility and remote connectivity (the ability to, say, retrieve information on the internet). One of those is inherently energy-intensive: mobility.

“When we define mobility as the purpose of transportation, ironically, what we are doing is picking the one that’s inherently energy-intensive,” says Levine.

“The natural assumption is that more mobility is better than less,” says Levine, a California native with a Ph.D. in City and Regional Planning, a Master of City Planning and Master of Science in Civil Engineering, all from UC Berkeley. “But this fails to take proximity into account.  We know how to make places where surface mobility is fast and destinations are far apart, and we know how to make places where destinations are close together but transportation tends to be slow. A pursuit of mobility can lead to increasing distances between origins and destinations, and even to a decrease in accessibility.”

He points to examples of mobility in low-density areas: in the intermountain west or rural Michigan, a person would have a lot of mobility, provided they had access to a car. Yet, they would have poor accessibility because of the amount of time and money spent reaching destinations.

Levine cites Metropolitan Atlanta as an area with poor accessibility.

“Metropolitan Atlanta has one of the highest VMT- or vehicle miles traveled- per capita in the US. It’s somewhere around 35 miles per day for every man, woman and child. That’s just huge,” he explains.

“So you would think that residents would reach a lot of destinations for all that travel, but that’s actually not the case. If you live in Atlanta, that’s what you need to travel in order to meet the needs of a very ordinary day.”

Accessibility in Atlanta is actually poorer than a more compact place with less automotive infrastructure, Levine asserts. Places with an intense auto infrastructure and sprawling metropolitan pattern end up being places where a person spends more time and money to meet transportation needs. This also means more energy is being spent.

Since joining the University of Michigan in 1991, Levine had applied the accessibility framework to developing areas of transportation, including automated transportation. The University opened the MCity test facility, a centerpiece of its Mobility Transformation Center, for connected and driverless vehicles in July.

“There are reasons to be hopeful and reasons to worry about a future with self-driving cars,” Levine says.

He mentions two potentially negative side effects of a technology that reduces the cost of travel per mile: rapid increase in the amount of travel and potential for land use issues and sprawl.

“The negative is every time we have a technology that reduces the cost of travel per mile we get two things: we get rapid increase in the amount of travel­- not surprising because when anything becomes cheaper you consume more of it,” Levine says. “And there’s a secondary and very important effect and that’s the land use and sprawl.”

Once a car drives itself, the passengers can reclaim much of their time spent in travel. Commutes could become longer because the commuter could live further away and use extra commute time for sleep or work. Instead of carpooling, commuters may send kids or elderly relatives in other directions, each traveling alone. All these changes, while more convenient, could end up burning more fuel in more vehicles.

Levine, who teaches courses in transportation, land use, economics of planning, and research design, is currently developing planning tools that would be implementable at the regional and local levels. When he interacts with practitioners in the public sector, he tries to sell them on the notion of access.

“We regulate land use to protect the single-family home. In other words, the recipe for urban sprawl is built right into our building codes, says Levine. “Land development market in US is about the most controlled market in the US economy. We zealously regulate land use.”

Ultimately, Levine would like to see the very way we look at transportation and land use change- away from mobility-based models and toward one with accessibility- and more choices- placed at the forefront of American transportation.


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