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Gary Toth: Reinventing Transportation Planning as Community Development

Recently, we were very lucky to have Streetsblog's Editor-in-chief, Aaron Naparstek in the "Streetfilms Headquarters" to chat with Gary Toth the Senior Director of Transportation Initiatives with the Project for Public Spaces.

For thirty-four years, Mr. Toth worked for the New Jersey Department of Transportation (NJDOT), and become known for his collaboration and facilitation skills, and was one of the architects of the transformation of NJDOT to a stakeholder inclusive process helping the state become a national leader in Context Sensitive Solutions (CSS).

Mr. Toth has written, "A Citizen's Guide to Better Streets," which is designed to help the every person and advocacy community better understand the behind-the-scenes processes that occur when dealing with transportation departments and how to better prepare and speak their language. He shares some of his views and advice with Aaron in this very important interview.

Aaron Naparstek: [00:00] We’re here today at Streetfilms Headquarters with Gary Toth, who is the Senior Director for Transportation Initiatives at Project for Public Spaces, and he’s a 34 year veteran of the New Jersey Department of Transportation. He is widely credited for helping to transform that agency into one of the most community friendly transportation agencies in the United States. Gary’s got a new book coming out called “A Citizen’s Guide to Better Streets” and the book is designed to really help community activists and regular citizens do a better job of working with transportation agencies to get the results they want in their communities. I know that I’ve personally been on the other side of the table lots of times like, you know, trying to fight for, you know, a new bike lane or a pedestrian improvement. You know my first question is, what is wrong with you people? You at transport… you know, it’s like it just seems so often that the traffic engineers are just totally focused on, you know, pushing cars, pushing trucks, you know, widening roads, increasing throughput. What’s going on there?

Gary Toth: [01:07] I did some research on this and I think it goes back to the interstate system and how the nation back in the ‘50s fell in love with the automobile, we did as a country, and that was the time of the exodus of people from the cities wanting to move out to the suburbs. And so a mandate was given to the transportation profession to go out and build the biggest public works project in the history of the world. And the profession did it, it organised itself into professional organisations like Ashta or TOB, it produced a ton of design manuals, it had all kinds of training. But with that standardisation comes a price. You know, this started in the ‘50s and we’ve trained a couple of generations of traffic engineers into how to do business, how to be single-minded, how to focus simply on the transportation aspects and tune out everything else, and that sort of continued on. When I came to New Jersey DOT in 1973, I was sort of a starry-eyed kid out of college and I came in to an organisation that was still geared to build these major highways and make them safe and make them fast at all cost. I remember for the first ten years often times sitting in meetings and wondering whether or not we were doing the right thing, but I would look up to people who had been there 25 to 30 years and I would say to myself, you know, what do I know? These folks have been here much longer than me. So you start to get co-opted into this whole culture.

Aaron Naparstek: [02:32] Right. So what started to change things in New Jersey? I mean, how did New Jersey’s DOT begin to start to take more kind of community goals into account when doing their transportation planning?

Gary Toth: [02:46] Since we lost touch with the communities, they became increasingly unhappy what we were doing, and public dissent to our projects really increased in the ‘80s and ‘90s. But to make a long story short, they started shutting down a lot of projects and so we were sort of looking for new solutions. And in the middle ‘90s Marilyn was a national leader and started the Context Sensitive Solutions movement which said that the main reason why your projects, everybody’s unhappy with them and they’re getting shut down is that your solutions are not sensitive to the context. So, you know, it sort of started with that. We started getting involved with Context Sensitive Solutions, not only just to expedite our projects but also because a number of us had felt all along that, you know, we needed to… our projects needed to help build communities as opposed to just moving cars around. We decided that we needed a training programme. We brought in the Project for Public Spaces, the helped introduce the concept of streets as places, streets as a place into our system, they taught us about place-making. The interesting thing about the process was was it was transformative, when we used the place-making process and we brought our engineers out to some of the streets to do role playing, I was stunned how folks that had been pavement design engineers for 30 or 40 years in DOT were looking at the street and all of a sudden were saying things like, well, the street’s too wide, the cars are going too fast, the crosswalk’s not clearly demarcated, we need another crosswalk over there. So the point being that the instant we started getting the engineers to look at a different problem, they started coming up with different solutions.

Aaron Naparstek: [04:20] Many people in the community don’t really know what, you know, the potential options are so, you know, they see a… say for example they see a dangerous intersection and they start demanding, you know, we need a traffic signal at this intersection because, you know, traffic signals are the only things they know, but perhaps there’s five or six other solutions that would be better.

Gary Toth: [04:38] You have to empower them, which is one of the things I tried to do with the Citizen’s Guide is to sort of show them the lay of the land in terms of how the engineers think and what are the perimeters that they’re looking for. But also there’s a passage in the Citizen’s Guide that advises communities, don’t go in with a solution like a traffic signal, go in and tell them what your problem is. You don’t really want a traffic signal. Often times what you want to do is to better be able to more safely cross a particular location. Go say that and form a partnership with your DOT to find a solution.

Aaron Naparstek: [05:12] Right. So do you guys then… do you drop the whole, you know, level of service?

Gary Toth: [05:17] Still used it because there was a Federal requirement that we had to measure the level of service. But we started using it differently. And by the way, for anybody that doesn’t know what level of service is, it’s a scale which measures congestion at a particular location and it runs on a scale of A through F, and it’s like school, nobody wants to bring home an F, and same thing in transportation. And it was developed for the interstate system. So it made sense, if we’re building big wide new interstates, but it doesn’t make sense if you’re dealing with streets, main streets, and so on. And so we were using it for many years in New Jersey DOT and it sort of trapped us into this box of like well, you know, you’ve got level of service F and we’ve got to widen the street to go fix it.

Aaron Naparstek: [06:02] So a successful street was a street that was just moving as many cars as quickly as possible?

Gary Toth: [06:06] Many cars as quickly as possible, and that’s how we were all trained and that was the performance measure.

Aaron Naparstek: [06:09] Right.

Gary Toth: [06:10] The industry’s trying to get away from that. There was a lot of talk about in the next Highway Bill, which is Congress, hopefully will pass in 2009, is to mandating use of community based performance measures as opposed to level of service F. Any event, it’s still around, it’s still insidious, it’s still… the State’s that are successful say okay, it’s there, I’ve got this measurement but I don’t have a mandate to go from level of service F to a free-flowing level of service C. So I tell folks, and I’ve done this from the other side of the table at New Jersey DOT, that figure out what you need to make a great community first, and what’s the role of that street in there. And if it’s a local street and it’s not carrying people from Boston to Albany, then it should be up to the community to decide how much congestion they want. Now if the community decides that the congestion at a location is a problem, then they can ask the engineers to help them fix it. But if the community decides that having a great street and shops and high pedestrian activity are more important and they want to live with the congestion, then that should be the solution.

Aaron Naparstek: [07:14] In the book you put a lot of the responsibility for the creation of a lot of the suburban sprawl and traffic congestion on communities, on local communities, for not really doing the kind of planning that they would need to do. What is the responsibility of the community? I mean how should the community be functioning?

Gary Toth: [07:37] Well the reason why I put the responsibility on the community, I wasn’t trying to point the finger, but the truth of the matter is in America most… all of the land use decisions and how buildings are created and whether or not we have malls versus Downtowns, whether we have neighbourhoods versus subdivisions, I mean that’s all under the control of the local jurisdictions. And they got caught up in the same auto oriented mindset that the transportation engineers did, and so people started building malls 20 miles outside of town, which created a need for wider roadways to get people there. Also what began to happen in probably the ‘30s, but it really took off after the ‘50s, is that when people started moving out to the suburbs they wanted to live on a quiet street with no traffic, so they built lots of cul-de-sacs and disconnected streets which meant that where are the cars going to go? They all had to go out to the state highway. So now in addition to the commuting traffic and the trucks and the goods movement that the state highways were originally set up to do, now you had lots of local traffic, which increased the traffic, which then increased the congestion and called for cries to widen the roadway. Then the triple whammy was that people started saying, I don’t want corner stores in my neighbourhoods anymore, I don’t want the pharmacy in my neighbourhood anymore, and then even, I don’t want the schools in my neighbourhood anymore. And they start putting all of that stuff out on the state highway. Well guess what happens then if you take the pharmacy that you used to be able to walk to and you put it out on the state highway? Now you got even more cars on top of the roadway.

Aaron Naparstek: [09:15] And do you think this kind of suburban sprawl is fixable?

Gary Toth: [09:19] Well, I like to say that it took us 50 years to get ourselves into this fix, so it’s going to take us 50 years to get back out of this.

Aaron Naparstek: [09:30] I understand that AARP is publishing the book, how’d that come about?

Gary Toth: [09:36] Well it’s interesting, we were sort of writing it and hadn’t quite figured out how we were going to distribute the book. Someone from PPS ran into AARP who was saying that they had this campaign where they’re wanted… they’re starting to proactively engage in community reform and transportation reform. They were engaging their membership to volunteer and go out in all the 50 States and show up at town meetings and show up at DOT’s and start pressing for better outcomes. Now they’ve got 15% of their membership, which is somewhere between 20 and 40 million people, 15% of those folks don’t drive, and they increasingly find themselves trapped in suburbs where they have to get, you know, one of their children to come drive them somewhere and so on. So they started saying one of the best things we could do for our membership is to create not only better streets, but better neighbourhoods too.

Aaron Naparstek: [10:28] Well thanks a lot Gary, really appreciate your taking the time to talk with us and I’m sure this is useful to a lot of citizen activists out there who are working on these issues, so thanks for coming in.

Gary Toth: [10:38] Well thank you, thank you for the opportunity.

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Clarence Eckerson Jr. has been making fantastical transportation media in NYC since the late 1990s. He's never had a driver's license and never will.

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  • http://www.newmobility.org Eric Britton

    What a fine contribution that StreetFilms et al are once again making. Ten minutes with such a wise person with a deep understanding of this side of the dilemmas of our communities.

    The solutions, or rather the paths toward solutions, that Gary is speaking to strike this one adopted European as very familiar, since this is very much in line with the practices of the leading edge (which is not small) in our cities here. But what is so great about this message is that this is coming from the States, after so many years of educated and deliberate -- what do we have to call it if we look back at it through the rear view mirror? -- “malpractice”.

    But that’s the past. (Or so one hopes.) What’s so great about the 21st century is that we now have the tools available to help our key actors for deployment – the traffic engineers and transport planners – to come to grips with the much more complex environment that our cities now provide. We speak of this here as the necessary “technical virtuosity” that can now get us on the path of more sustainable cities and more sustainable lives.

    Thanks Gary, thanks Aaron, and thanks Partners for Public Spaces. Keep at it and stay in touch. We have a two way street across the Atlantic and ways for bridging the distance that don’t need to generate enormous clouds of CO2.

    Don’t stop!

    Eric Britton
    New Mobility Agenda, Paris

  • http://reinventingtransport.blogspot.com/ Paul Barter

    This video is incredibly useful, and not just for an American audience. Thanks. Project for Public Spaces is obviously making an important difference and 'placemaking' seems to provide a powerful idea to rally around.

    Your interview inspired me to write a post and link to the video here: http://reinventingtransport.blogspot.com/2008/10/places-worth-loving-and-protecting-from.html