For transportation planners eager to get people out of their cars and on their feet, one of the most effective strategies, says the National Center for Smart Growth’s (NCSG) Chester Harvey, is also one of the cheapest: more trees. Streetscapes—the tree canopies, architecture, public art and other urban attributes that make streets attractive, also makes them more walkable, as Harvey discovered during his dissertation research on active and micro-mobility and the built environment.
“The transportation field has historically focused on practical infrastructure, like sidewalks, to determine what makes a walkable place,” he said. “But urban designers are focused on the context. Is the place comfortable and interesting to look at? Is it a place you’d want to be? That people choose to walk more in these environments offers more of an empirical foundation for policy levers and signals that streetscapes could be part of the plan to get people walking.”
Harvey’s work to bridge the allied fields of transportation and urban design has promising implications for shaping more active, equitable cities, expertise he will apply as director of NCSG’s Transportation Policy Research Group. A Vermont native who earned undergraduate and master's degrees at Middlebury and University of Vermont, respectively, Harvey is completing his doctorate at the University of California, Berkeley, where he explored concepts in transportation decision making, accessibility, urban infrastructure and pedestrian psychology and behavior.
At NSCG, Harvey will take the reins of the center’s ongoing travel survey project with MDOT to understand commuting and congestion trends, particularly in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. This includes the impact of flexible work schedules on transit demand, whether working from home has resulted in more localized, literal foot traffic and the barriers that keep people from living close to where they work.
“We’re interested in how flexible employment might encourage an uptick in more active modes of travel and more localized interaction with infrastructure and main streets,” he said. “Part of that conversation is, who can do it, and who’s excluded from what seems like a widespread shift. At the same time, commuting patterns can have big implications for traffic congestion and real concerns around transit; if folks aren’t commuting reliably and we can’t sustain the same levels of transit, that will have a disproportionate impact on those populations that rely on it.”
NCSG’s work around the Purple Line and expertise in research areas like gentrification, housing affordability and community development processes, Harvey says, offers exciting opportunities for collaboration, and a place where he can dovetail his research around active mobility.
“The center’s expertise is what really drew me to Maryland,” he said. “It’s a great opportunity for me to keep working through these active transportation questions and build them into the work being done around equity issues and community development.”