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Transportist: The Conflict between Livability vs. Sustainability
The battle between the here and now and the there and then
Sustainability: “a means of configuring civilization and human activity so that society, its members and its economies are able to meet their needs and express their greatest potential in the present, while preserving biodiversity and natural ecosystems, planning and acting for the ability to maintain these ideals for future generations” - Wiktionary
Livability, (Livable development): “meets the needs of members of the local community, without compromising the ability of non-members to meet their own needs” — Transportist
alt: “meets the needs of members of the wider community, without compromising the ability of local residents to meet their own needs”
[Editors Note: This is being published on Valentine’s Day. For those who celebrate you may read Livability as Lovability, without any loss in meaning.]
There are lots of definitions of livability, but meeting the needs of local residents is certainly among the top.
I mirrored Brundtland’s famous Sustainability definition because in transport there is always a potential conflict between local and non-local needs that needs to be managed. Even within transit, putting in more stops helps local residents at the expense of longer distance travelers. It’s in the nature of the beast, and while there are better and worse solutions, no chants of kumbaya, calls for world harmony, or business school talk of win-win solutions can completely overcome these geometric facts.
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So now is in conflict with then, and here is in conflict with there. Is here in conflict with then: or in other words, is the spatial idea of livability in conflict with the temporal notion of sustainability?
Making my neighbourhood more livable for me might mean blocking new development to reduce local crowding and the negative externalities they produce, which would have been beneficial for future residents, allow more people to live in denser areas that are more easily served by infrastructure (potentially and to a point), and improve sustainability as a whole. This applies at the metropolitan level, but also global level, as rich nations limit immigration from poorer nations.
Consider the case of Job-Housing Balance. We know that reducing severe imbalances allows additional jobs in housing-rich areas and additional housing in job-rich areas without increasing the total amount of travel (and in fact lowering it). Sure more people mean the neighbourhood is more crowded, but the city as a whole is less crowded, as there is less cross-commuting. [The same is true of mixing shops into residential neighbourhoods, or residences at shopping centers, and so on — this is the most salient part of the “Diversity” “D” in the Cervero and Kockelman 3Ds formulation]. Mixing land uses with the appropriate balance (ideally (for us Transportists) from a minimising travel distance perspective, each small area gets the same share of each type of land use as the metropolitan area average) logically reduces the amount of travel, as people at least have the option of choosing a closer destination for a particular type of activity.1 Certainly it might add local traffic as non-residents can now also choose to engage in this activity in the neighbourhood in question. So we are potentially trading off local livability for improved global sustainability while this rebalancing is going on.
Acknowledging the trade-off honestly is necessary to gain the trust of the community, and identifying how to compensate the losers as society as a whole gets better.2 NIMBYs may not be acting sustainably, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t being rational.
As Upton Sinclair might have said if he were speaking today:
“It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his house value depends on his not understanding it.” 3
Balancing one neighbourhood in the absence of balancing adjacent suburbs might make things worse, depending on conditions.
I would argue the the failure to be honest with the public in the early stages of the pandemic cost the public health community tons of trust later on. Claiming masks weren’t needed (when they really just wanted to keep masks for health workers) and then doing an about-face is an example. (The Australian messaging example is a bit more honest than the US one.) Unwillingness to consider the “lab leak” hypothesis seriously is another example … which we will never know with certainty. Lying may work in the short run, but it will bite you eventually.