In college, I tossed a three sided coin--should I major in urban studies (oh, how I love to roam the cities), literature, (oh, how I love to read other people's renderings of their roamings) or education (oh, how I wish to inspire others to roam and read)? The coin landed on literature but THAT wasn't gonna get me a job so I went back to school to become a teacher. If I hadn't started riding in Critical Mass, I'd probably be working on my Stuart Little lesson plans right now (and ain't it typical that E. B. White sent Stuart on a road trip in a CAR instead of on a bike-at least his adventures involved the non-motorized modes of canoeing and sailing too).
CM helped me realize what a transportation nerd I really am. I take as much, if not more, pleasure in commutes than destinations. I write odes to the el and preach the good word of the bike to anyone who will listen or can't find a tactful way to excuse themselves. I can't resist glowering at the motorists lumbering their vehicles across downtown sidewalks as their garage beepbeepsbeebs me out of my walking reveries (why are there so many cars in the central business district?!) And, of course, I can't help but spin my wheels about the environmental, land use, equity, health and overall quality of life problems caused by our culture's over-reliance on the private automobile. So, last year, I decided to toss the coin again to see if I could land a job in transportation planning.
Miraculously, I got a job at the Chicago Area Transportation Study. I am an assistant transportation planning cadre focusing on bicycle and pedestrian issues. CATS, as the metropolitan planning organization for northeastern Illinois, puts together the long range transportation plan for the region. CATS staff does all sorts of data analysis (which I am only beginning to grasp) to assess the region's transportation needs and recommend ways to prioritize projects, such as road and public transit building and maintenance. Fortunately, people at all levels of government (though obviously not enough people as evidenced by the hue and cry over the "high" gas prices!) are recognizing the role biking and walking can play in increasing people's mobility without adding to our congestion and air quality problems, and so these modes have been incorporated into the language of long range regional transportation planning.
My job currently involves putting together a planning and resource guide for communities interested in accommodating and promoting biking and walking. Although there are those of us who don't balk at a 20 mile bike commute, most folks consider biking and walking to be most viable for trips under 5 miles, or as part of a transit trip. This means that bike/ped planning comes across as a very local issue, even though all those short trips are a major part of our region's transportation picture.
One of the reasons I wanted this job is to learn about how "the system" works. I'm learning that it's even more complicated than I thought. For example, if you build/expand a road or a highway, people will use it; automobiles have become the default mode for so many. However, it is not so clear that simply providing better biking and walking facilities dramatically increases the use of those modes for routine transportation-i.e., resulting in the coveted "automobile trip diversion." We need to help individuals see biking and walking as mobility options and help them develop the skills and habits they need to choose them. (And while we're at it, convince them of the benefits of a corner store!) Promotion and education have to be part of bike/ped planning-so maybe my leap from educator to transportation planner hasn't been so big after all.
In the next few weeks, CATS will be holding open houses to discuss elements of the three year update of the regional transportation plan. CATS also has a bicycle and pedestrian task force that meets every other month. For more information, visit www.catsmpo.com or call me at 312-793-0456.