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Thursday, December 31, 2009

Planning to Fail While Not Failing to Plan

Billboard of an Ostrich with it's Head in the ...The guiding image of Salem's transportation planning. Image by sameold2008 via Flickr

There's a saying popular in the self-help press that "Failure to plan is planning to fail." Of course, sometimes planning is used to chart a course towards failure anyway --- as with Salem's fetishistic attachment to the bizarre notion of a third auto bridge across the Willamette, a fantastically expensive and wasteful idea that completely ignores the reality of our energy future and the need to radically reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Someone in Seattle puts it best, speaking of their latest carhead boondoggle, a huge tunnel right next to the soupy soils abutting Puget Sound. The point is that the technocratic planning bureaucracy is fundamentally unable to respond to an existential challenge like the climate crisis because the technocrats working in the trenches use the analysis tools designed for business as usual to estimate the effects of all the proposals. And none of those tools are programmed to offer a "survival of civilization despite ourselves" pathway.
Seattle's viaduct replacement debate has generated an untold volume of analysis, opinion, and argument. It's also generated at least one PhD dissertation.

Kevin Ramsey, a geography student at the University of Washington, takes a look at the way that concerns about climate change have been deployed in the debate over the replacement. (Abstract; summary; full text.) I'll confess that I haven't made my way through the entire 250 pages, but it strikes me as providing some fascinating analysis of the politics:

. . . agency planners incorporated concerns about climate change through an extension of their own established logics of transportation planning rather than through a fundamental reconsideration of Seattle’s automobile-centric transportation system.

More surprisingly, I found that stakeholders themselves helped make this happen. They did so by supporting (and even advocating) the use of travel demand models to predict the quantity of future greenhouse gas emissions from alternative viaduct replacement scenarios. Isolating the consideration of climate change to this single evaluation measure essentially enabled the issue to be treated as an afterthought in the planning process, rather than a motivator for reformulating the planning process altogether. It also ensured that the calculation of future greenhouse gas emissions was subject to the same kinds of assumptions regarding demand for automobile travel that activists had already contested for years. These assumptions were reflected in the agencies’ findings: all proposed viaduct replacement scenarios (including three that do not include a highway) were predicted to increase greenhouse gas emissions in the Seattle region to 14-15% above current levels by the year 2015.

The upshot, according to Ramsey, is that highway planners were able to essentially co-opt concerns about climate emissions into a business-as-usual approach to road building. The antidote, he says, is for advocates to level more fundamental challenges to the large systems that provide for automobile-dominated infrastructure.
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