Uncovering JAPA

Learning from London’s Transition to Sustainable Modes

"At what scale should we plan transportation to shift to more sustainable modes?"

This is the fundamental question posed by Rosalie Singerman Ray in "Multiscalar Deliberative Transportation Planning" (Journal of the American Planning Association, Vol. 88, No. 3). Contrary to transportation planning orthodoxy, which prioritizes the regional over the local level, Ray argues for a multiscalar approach based on deliberation.

Ray analyzes the expansion of bus priority in London in the 1990s through the lens of empowerment without autonomy. Paraphrasing Iris Marion Young, Ray describes the concept of empowerment without autonomy as a deliberative structure "in which decisions are made by those as close to the affected group as possible but regulated by a larger structure."

Further, Ray notes, "Empowerment comes from both the authority to act and the capacity to understand and advocate for action." In her model, the exercise of autonomy is limited to those instances in which one's actions do not harm, inhibit, or otherwise restrict the actions of another.

With respect to London, Ray identifies the establishment of the traffic director position in 1991 as an instance of empowerment without autonomy in the realm of transportation planning. In the London model, the traffic director — representing the regional interest — controlled the Priority Route Network and held veto power over borough projects (although they never exercised it). Meanwhile, local boroughs like Wandsworth retained authority over local roads and parking enforcement.

To make this argument, Ray analyzed archival documents and newspaper articles, and conducted interviews with a wide range of stakeholders, from community activists to members of parliament.

In her analysis of bus lane installation over time, she identified a dramatic uptick during the era of empowerment without autonomy. Specifically, she credits the model — "in which the borough gave voice to a number of occasionally conflicting local concerns in a project that needed their consent politically but could not be stopped by their veto" — with the doubling of bus lanes in London, with 524 new lanes installed between 1991 and 2000.

Figure 1. Cumulative number of bus lanes in London.

Figure 1. Cumulative number of bus lanes in London.

Ultimately, Ray concludes that transportation planners must work at both the regional and the local levels to effect just transitions to sustainable modes. She offers empowerment without autonomy as a viable model with the important caveats that regional planners respect community concerns and local planners be empowered to present alternative proposals.

Ray identifies "the arterial owned by the state department of transportation that runs within a city" as the closest parallel to the empowered but not autonomous model in the U.S. context.

I find Ray's comparison apt, as my classmates and I are currently grappling with how to revive a dynamic but congested commercial corridor in Lowell, Massachusetts, that is also a state numbered highway and a key thoroughfare between Massachusetts and New Hampshire. While our ultimate deliverable is a neighborhood plan, I take her case study as a call to think at multiple scales to anticipate the reactions of city and state officials that might present barriers to implementation.

The Journal of the American Planning Association is the quarterly journal of record for the planning profession. For full access to the JAPA archive, APA members may purchase a discounted digital subscription for $36/year.

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About the author
Noah Levine is a master of urban planning candidate at Harvard University.

May 19, 2022

By Noah Levine