Streets for Walking, Part 2: Dan Burden on Building Support for Change

Calgary.Afternoon.night__11_.jpgBurden leads a workshop helping a hospital in Calgary design its pedestrian space. Photo: Dan Burden.

Last week Streetsblog spoke to walkability expert Dan Burden about how new design guidelines for urban streets can replace the suburban, car-oriented standards that have become the norm throughout America (read the interview here).

Burden has been advocating for walkable neighborhoods for more than 30 years, including 16 as the bike and pedestrian director for Florida's Department of Transportation. He's traveled to over 2,700 communities across the United States and Canada to help them figure out how to build safer, more sustainable transportation systems. So while we had him on the phone, we wanted to pick his brain a little more.

In the second part of our interview, we discussed why transportation reformers shouldn't recoil from public process, as long as that process is well-designed. Burden has faced more than his share of what he calls "the screaming meanies" over the years, and here he talks about some of his experience building a base of support for livable streets that can withstand the inevitable opposition.

Noah Kazis: A lot of your work focuses less on generating the content of planning, but on getting people to collaborate. What is the role of public process in designing walkable communities?

Dan Burden: In about 1978, after I’d been out trying to promote bicycling, I realized that there is a huge pressure just to keep doing the same thing that others did. When we got to a public meeting, we couldn’t get enough people to show up. I realized that everything that we want to do to change America had to revolve around good quality public process. The product, the technical side of things we did, was the easy side; it was the public process side that’s the real tough ingredient. 

So I went back to school, got my masters in interpersonal communications to learn how to work with the public, to talk through issues and take ownership of the change, whether the change was to build a park or design streets for walking. It’s a fairly radical departure from before, when we let the professionals do all the work for us. It’s really a matter of reinventing public process, using techniques that we refer to as informed consent. 

You get people to create the plan themselves -- as citizens, as advocates, as stakeholders of a community -- and then they’ll come to the public meeting when the screaming meanies show up, which they will. Now the planning staff and the elected leaders have somebody to support them.

NK: So what about those issues where it seems like the public is opposed to a livable streets reform? In New York, one example might be parking, where across the city you get these vocal calls for more and cheaper parking. 

DB: I think the process really has to include taking a good solid technical look at things, how things actually work. I was just in Vernon, British Columbia and they want to rebuild their city center. The business community wanted more on-street parking in front of their buildings and they wanted more off-street parking. They had these ugly parking lots spread throughout the entire downtown like a grey cancer. It was really affecting whether people would want to live downtown or walk downtown. We could do traffic calming by putting in more back-in angle parking on the street, and then removing more and more off-street parking, but we had to work our way through it by completely getting across that we were listening. 

But then we got to transportation demand management: the idea that over time we shouldn’t just look at building more parking to have more people come downtown to shop, but at eliminating the parking over time. We’re only able to do that, of course, if we get more people to walk, more people to bike, more people downtown, more transit service. The businesses got that. It’s really better to develop a master plan and do the things that make this a cooperative, collaborative process where everybody is going to change their practices and behaviors. Because everyone agreed that the new city center should be very different than the old city center, where we were all car dependent and speeds were high.

NK: As someone who’s been in government and outside of government, what are the ways that ordinary citizens can best influence policymaking?

DB: I think the average citizen should just study Obama himself. Becoming an advocate for change in a person’s own neighborhood is the right place to begin. As you learn how to work with people, how to really listen and understand what people need in the neighborhood and then start building some of these things, that’s really the right place to begin. Anyone who thinks that they can skip over that and just jump into a higher level is just missing the whole point, that all great leaders are coming out of the neighborhoods. 

One of the people whom I most admire, Congressman Earl Blumenauer, was sensitive enough that after getting his Harvard law degree, he got into the legislature in his own state around Portland and worked through a number of local issues, really got into the legislation. He held a county elected position, a city elected position, was the public works director. He really got that anyone who wanted to become an elected leader had to first become a community advocate. And that’s truly part of the greatness of Portland, that the advocacy got built so well. Over time their annual meetings grew so large, that they had to take over entire high schools in order to handle all the workshops that took place. 

NK: I know you've worked across the country, but do you have any New York-specific experience you’d like to share with our readers?

Goldman_Bike_Lane.jpegBurden helped ensure that the Hudson River Greenway's path by the new Goldman Sachs headquarters worked for cyclists and the firm's employees. Image: Business Insider.
DB: In Manhattan, I worked with the new Goldman Sachs world headquarters, where a bike trail runs right across their backyard. We had some fairly complex things that had to be negotiated with that. For example, being Goldman Sachs, you really had to pay attention to security. And so the trail had to take on a certain number of twists. Also there’s going to be something like 60,000 pedestrians going in and out of the building daily, so we had to focus on how the bicycle trail would interact with several significant crossing points with pedestrians. We put the onus on the bicyclist to watch out for the pedestrians and designed the trail so it will be very easy for the bicycles to clearly see the pedestrians and pause momentarily to let a cluster of pedestrians get across the street.

I did not get to participate in the recirculation of the Broadway area, but I’ve been watching it. It was just amazing. I got to work directly with Sam Schwartz, who was sharing with me that the early work that was done for Earth Day -- it’s got to be 40 years ago now, when he was deputy commissioner -- was only laying the groundwork for what was eventually worked out on Broadway. 

NK: Do you have any wish list for what would be next in New York?

DB: The big wish would be that we continue to take out lanes as appropriate. I also wish that we would get rid of some of the one-way systems that have moved traffic very well, but make the traffic horrendous. I am hopeful that some day we’ll eliminate 90 percent of the one-way streets. They create too much speed. 

So, yeah, I’m very hopeful. I do a lot of work on Long Island, and I know that parts of the boroughs are representative of the attempts made over the years to speed up cars. But I think we’re going to see over time that the lanes become so precious and the parking so rare that people are going to turn more and more towards walking and cycling and transit throughout the entire city.