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Lessons from Planning Internationally

IMG_0979In June, I had the opportunity to travel to Belize to help the Belize City Council (BCC) think through ways to prioritize people walking and biking. The American Planning Association sent a Community Planning Assistance Team (CPAT) of five urban planners to help BCC prepare a short and long term plan for the Yarborough neighborhood in Belize City. The CPAT team spent a week meeting with the government staff, stakeholders, community members, and the youth.

Any time you are doing a planning project in a new environment, there is always a learning curve. What are the cultural norms of this community? Who has the power? Who has influence? However, planning in another country was a new challenge and a great learning experience for me.

Five things that I learned:

  1. Check your US-ness at the door: While each city in the US has it is own vibe and flow, there is still an overarching US culture. When planning in another country, one has to be very careful not to bring the values, cultural norms, and assumptions from the US. One example is one of my colleagues on the team noticed that there were not any bike facilities and people did not wear bike helmets. I was asked my thoughts on recommending bike lanes and helmets and my response was they have a shared street/chaos culture that appears to work. In addition, changing behavior such as wearing helmets takes a significant amount of effort and energy.
  2. What works in US, may not work in another country: Things like bike lanes and traffic signals work in the US because we have a cultural norm of order and process. In Belize City, all the streets are shared streets. While it appears chaotic to an outsider, there is a rhythm and movement to how people move on the streets.
  3. What may not work in the US, may work in another country: Hell hath no fury like a resident that just lost on-street parking or a travel lane. In communities in the US, loss of parking or a travel lane becomes a stalling point for prioritizing people biking, walking, or using public transportation. However, in Belize the elected leadership and community are excited about the possibility of testing out prioritizing people biking and walking. As part of our recommendations, we will be providing the City with different options to test.
  4. You may be part of the problem: In talking with the youth, one thing that came across loud and clear is their feeling like everything in their city caters to tourist and the cruise ships. As we sat there listening, we quickly realized that we are the “tourist” they are talking about (not us specifically, but people from the US). As we began developing recommendations we had to change the paradigm from creating a tourist atmosphere to placemaking for residents that tourist could experience.
  5. When in doubt listen and ask questions: I came into the situation with very little knowledge of Belize other than the planning documents that were provided to us before our trip. I tried to avoid making assumptions by spending time listening and asking questions.

Nspiregreen has a mission to facilitate the empowerment and transformation of every community on the planet. With these lessons learned, we hope to continue to work with communities like Belize City and others.

 

Veronica O. Davis, PE is a transportation guru who uses her knowledge to spark progressive social change. As Co-owner and Principal of Nspiregreen, she is also responsible for the management of the major urban planning functions such as transportation planning, policy development, master planning, sustainability analysis, and long range planning. In July 2012, Veronica was recognized as a Champion of Change by the White House for her professional accomplishments and community advocacy, which includes co-founding Black Women Bike.

Micro bus in Caracas, Venezuela

Safety and Public Transportation

Last week was the first time I felt the impact of Metro’s SafeTrack on my life. The large crowds and the tight space between people on the trains made me flash back to my experience using public transportation in my home city, Caracas, Venezuela.

My experience using public transportation in Caracas goes back to more than 8 years ago. Since then, the country has faced countless changes (some good, many not that good). Because it has been quite a few years since I’ve used public transportation in Caracas, much of my observations may be outdated; however, my experience growing up using public transportation in another major world city provides me with some perspective about public transportation in the nation’s capital.

Hold your bag tight!

In my experience, moving around Caracas using public transportation was often a dangerous adventure. For me, safety concerns and public transportation could not be separated. I felt completely exposed when I was surrounded by crowds in closed spaces which happened often on public transportation in Caracas. I felt exposed to all kinds of people, crowded in small and moving spaces (buses and Metro), and this often created uncomfortable situations.

Before leaving home and taking public transportation I used to prepare for it. I dressed accordingly, with low-profile clothes and comfortable shoes, no jewelry or fancy bags (not even fake just in case someone did not know the difference). In other words, nothing that called unwanted attention. Because of the massive crowds on public transportation, I always held my bag tight. Although I was never a victim of robbery, I heard many stories of people who had items removed from their bags without them noticing.

While the District’s transportation system isn’t the poster child for safety, the massive crowding during Safe Track reminded me that I do not take the same level of preparation and precaution when using the Metro system. Furthermore, the alternatives to Metro are often safer here than the alternatives in Caracas.

“Camionetas” – An informal transportation method

Unsafe micro bus loading

Passenger getting in a “camioneta”

Using “camionetas” was quite an experience. The space inside was tight and they were usually crowded.  To request a stop there was no cord or button, you had to yell loudly “LA SIGUIENTE PARADA POR FAVOR” (“The next stop please”), and hope that the driver heard you.Because of the rapid and exponential growth Caracas has experienced in the past few years, the public transportation has collapsed. To move around the city, I along with thousands of people, used “camionetas” as a main transportation mode. These micro buses were affordable and connected many areas of the city that were not covered by Metro and other public transportation modes. They were often overcrowded, dangerous to people and the environment.

Although they had established stops, they were not strictly enforced by their drivers or even police. Since they were smaller than regular buses, they moved faster in traffic and with more frequency; therefore, transporting more people to their destinations in less time. The amount of passengers they carried, as well as the uncontrolled and unregulated loading and unloading of passengers put many lives at risk. People used to jump to get on the micro buses while they were moving. Bus drivers also let people jump out in the middle of the street instead of waiting to get to the next stop.

Unsafe micro bus unloading

Passenger getting off a “camioneta” in the middle of the street in Caracas

Camionetas were also a significant source of pollution because the majority of the microbuses were old and produced large amounts of exhaust. In addition, the particularly loud honks contributed to the noise pollution on the streets.

Since I have been working at Nspiregreen in the District, I greatly rely on Metro to commute to work. Next week, my commute will be significantly impacted by SafeTrack; however, it gives me great relief and comfort knowing that there are safe alternatives for public transportation. While I still have to be vigilant, I am more comfortable here than in Caracas using my electronic devices to get me through what might be a frustrating commute to work.

 

Fabiana I. Paez has a background in Geography and Cartography. She is passionate about creating visual designs to communicate and engage people in social and environmental causes.

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Sometimes Public Transportation is the Best Option

What’s the best way to get from Washington, DC to Baltimore, MD during the height of rush hour?

That is the question I asked myself when leaving work in Downtown DC recently, to go to an event that was held in Baltimore, MD, thirty-nine miles away. As our firm focuses on transportation planning and knowing how notorious rush hour traffic is in this area, I sought alternative modes of transportation to traverse the Washington-Baltimore Metropolitan region along Interstate 95, without being stuck in what Texas Tech Transportation Institute called in 2015, “the worst traffic in the Country.” In assessing the situation, using the regional rail network seemed to be the most prudent course of action, and getting from Union Station in Washington to Penn Station in Baltimore would mean traveling aboard Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s Metrorail line and the Maryland Area Regional Commuter (MARC) train.

The MARC train has three different service lines that run close to 100 trains a day covering the Washington-Baltimore region. Historically connected to the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, the MARC systems runs on some of the oldest continuously operated passenger rail lines in the country.

Since most of our staff already commutes to our offices by WMATA Metrorail service, I was able to completely traverse the region without relying on automobiles. Taking the Orange Line from our offices at McPherson Square to the Metro Center WMATA Transit Hub, then transferring from the Orange Line to the Red Line, and then taking the Red Line to Washington’s Union Station, where staff was able to transfer to the MARC train system. Arriving at Union Station, I was able to purchase tickets on the MARC line to travel from Union Station to Baltimore’s Penn Station. After arriving at Baltimore’s Penn Station, I walked several blocks to the location of the event on East North Avenue at the Impact Hub. Not having to deal with traffic congestion on Interstate 95, as well as not having to pay for parking or gas, while also disembarking several blocks from the event’s location showed me that taking the MARC train was an accessible means of regional travel. But while the train trip was convenient for all the aforementioned reasons, it could have been faster in terms of travel time.

Currently, the United States falls behind many other developed nations, in terms of investment in a national and inter-regional High-Speed Rail network. Within the past 6 years, several states have rejected funding offers through the Federal Government’s High-Speed Intercity Passenger Rail Program to assist in the development and construction of a High-Speed Rail network in their respective states. Currently, Amtrak offers Acela, a High-Speed train that runs between Washington, DC and Boston, MA, that is so successful it accounts for close to 25% of Amtrak’s revenue as of Fiscal Year 2012. While there are currently plans underway throughout the country to invest more resources into High-Speed rail in the United States, we as a country as still playing catch up with other developed countries who have invested in their respective rail networks, in terms of offering alternative transportation modalities for those who live a car-free lifestyle or who do not have the personal finances to own a private vehicle. Having a faster, more reliable intercity rail transportation network option to traverse our region would lessen our reliance on cars, which in turn reduces congestion, reduces carbon emissions, and limits the frustration of sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic. This would be a positive impact on our region, as well as the country as a whole.

If the opportunity presents itself in your future travel plans, please don’t eschew mass transit for a personal vehicle. Sure, you get to select your own music and travel in privacy, but the benefits of trading your private mode of transportation for mass transit outweigh the perceived negatives of not being able to drive directly to your destination.

David Simon, MCP, is a Community Planner who has worked in diverse communities across the country ranging from the Rust Belt to Appalachia, and from communities metropolitan to rural. Returning to the DC Metro area where he grew up, after 15 years working and going to school in the Midwest, he is impressed at the growth and development that the Metro area has accomplished. As the newest team member of Nspiregreen, he seeks to make an impact in the communities that our team works with, through proactive community engagement, while utilizing his passion for urban environments and community development.





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