Jeffrey Tumlin: Sex, Neuroscience and Walkable Urbanism

SFU’s Segal Building was packed for yesterday’s public lecture by Jeffrey Tumlin on “Sex, Neuroscience and Walkable Urbanism”. According to Mr Tumlin, we’ve redesigned human habitat to take walking out of our daily lives. Today, typical city policies cause suburban towns to be built, thereby creating absolutely miserable places, causing death (more sprawl meaning higher traffic fatality rates and shorter life expectancy) and resulting in accelerated climate change (transportation accounts for the highest share in CO2 emissions in many regions).

Instead, we have to design our communities to make it delightful not to drive for every trip and to make it more pleasurable to walk or take transit. If we take a look at the way we designed urbanism in the 1920s/30s, we know that more density means more walking and more walking means safer walking. Moreover, in streets with lower traffic volume, people usually know their neighbors better and there’s more trust, better social cohesion and higher participation in democracy.

In addition, short periods of outdoor exercise also result in more self esteem, better mood and a particular self esteem improvement in young and mentally ill people. According to recent research, the peptide Oxytocin – which is released with outdoor exercise (as well as breast feeding and orgasms) – lowers blood pressure and other stress-related responses, increases positive social behaviour (such as friendliness) and creates trust, generosity and empathy.

While driving makes us fat, sick, die early, poor, dumb, angry and mistrustful, walking makes us fitter, smarter, able to handle complex reasoning, sexier, more loving and more trustful. So, as asked by Mr Tumlin, what are tools that citizens can use to lead happier, healthier, more successful lives and how can we get government to invest its transportation resources in ways that have the highest return for the public good?

Here is a brief summary of the eight steps that were outlined yesterday:

1) Measure what actually matters: First of all, we need to understand that transportation is not an end to itself but is merely a means by which we support individual and collective goals and objectives. Transportation is about mobility and accessibility and we must find transportation metrics that reflect our goals, are quantifiable and should also consider aspects of economic development, quality of life, social justice or ecological sustainability.

For this, we could both adjust current metrics (such as eliminating vehicle delay and substituting person delay) and introduce new performance measures for transit, cars, bikes, freight and pedestrians. The measure that matters the most: Making walking delightful for everyone, of all ages, at all hours of the day. If you can make walking work, every other mode will fall into place.

2) Make traffic analysis smart: Typical transportation analysis has to be made smarter as it currently tries to mitigate negative transportation impacts by reducing density, widening roadways, adding parking and moving projects to more isolated locations. By doing so, it fosters sprawl and hinders transit-oriented development.

3) Fix the travel demand models: According to Tumlin, we have used our models inappropriately as we’ve responded to congestion with widened roadways, thereby promoting faster driving and more people driving and ultimately leading to even more congestion. If we were smarter and focused on human behaviour, we could come up with better results. As Larry Beasley stated: The best transportation plan is a good land use plan.

4) Adopt the right street design manual: It’s important to use the right street design manual for the different types of streets. In this regard, one should draw upon the widely available best-practice urban street guidelines.

5) Plant trees: Simply plant trees, there’s not much more to add. According to Mr Tumlin, the costs of tree planting and maintenance should accrue to those who benefit from it.

6) Price it right: When you don’t use price for balancing supply and demand, you end up with congestion. Yet we continue to insist driving and parking to be free although examples from Stockholm and other cities show us that congestion pricing is effective in reducing traffic and inner city emissions. Congestion pricing is not roadway tolling, it’s making sure that we can maximize our roadway investment, that traffic is free flowing and that free parking space is available. While there’s usually opposition against congestion pricing at first, people overwhelmingly favor it after it was imposed, congestion was eliminated and the raised money was used to improve transit, walking and cycling.

7) Manage Parking: According to statistics, as much as 30% of driving in Downtown environments is people searching for parking space. Simply by making parking better, we can eliminate congestion. To do so, the most important thing is to set the right price for parking and this price needs to vary by time of day and by geography (the reason is not to raise money but to manage parking). Moreover, it is recommended to invest the parking-meter revenue in something that has a purpose and to unbundle the cost of parking from the cost of commercial/residential leases (let people self select).

8) Creating a better vision for the future of our cities: As sex and power have been successfully used to sell cars and our vision of cities is still stuck in 1933 (Futurama exhibit, sponsored by General Motors), we have to come up with a different, compelling vision that can build on the following great ideas:

Walking is a pleasure everywhere for everyone
Cycling is comfortable for all ages
The needs of the daily life are a walk away (car needs to be optional)
Transit is fast, frequent, reliable and dignified
Everyone knows and loves their neighborhood
Food and energy are local and precious
Social networks are fostered (fostering public spaces)
Beauty is ubiquitous (“A place is not sustainable if it is not beautiful”)

Apart from my summary, you can also check out my Storify story on the #tumsex tweets of the event.¬†Please also check out the¬†great blogpost by Stephen Rees on yesterday’s lecture: Sex, Neuroscience and Walkable Urbanism.

Posted on January 11, 2013 in Urbanism

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About the Author

Andreas Lindinger is a Vienna-based business consultant, sustainability expert and urban thinker passionate about livable cities, sustainable transportation, renewable energy and civic engagement. Andreas offers a transdisciplinary business, finance and sustainability background, industry expertise in energy, mobility and environmental consulting and broad international experience gained in Vienna, Vancouver, Berlin and Dublin. Make sure to also check out and to follow @lindinger on Twitter.

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