Professor Marlon Boarnet
Professor Marlon Boarnet, in front of a commuter train in Irvine, studies planning for the 21st century. Daniel A. Anderson / University Communications

For almost 20 years, Marlon Boarnet has studied the links between land use and transportation networks – research generally of interest only to policy wonks.

But the UC Irvine professor of planning, policy & design and economics noticed a change over the past year. “The nation is looking to planners for serious answers,” he says. “There’s a sense of urgency right now that I haven’t felt in my entire career.”

Boarnet relishes the current debate over how to use $787 billion in economic stimulus funds to improve U.S. roads and communities. In addition, efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions raise the prospect of rethinking the transportation system, he says.

To articulate some of the planning community’s ideas, Boarnet recently co-wrote and edited Transportation Infrastructure: The Challenges of Rebuilding America, published by the American Planning Association.

In the mid-20th century, transportation planning meant building an interstate highway system to move people and goods around the country. Today, environmental and quality-of-life issues dominate the field.

“Given the current economic situation, infrastructure investment is a sensible short-term stimulus tool,” says Boarnet, “but we need to be careful that programs are consistent with environmental sustainability.”

He believes investing in crowded metropolitan areas should be a priority. “We need to build cities differently so people drive less and walk more,” Boarnet says. Local incentives such as fixing sidewalks and offering rebates for electric vehicles can also affect mobility, he says.

Examples of smart land use and transportation planning, Boarnet says, include the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor of subway stations and mixed commercial/residential development in Arlington, Va., and the light-rail system and downtown redevelopment in Portland, Ore. Both projects have led to increases in pedestrian traffic and public transit use.

“The truth is that we don’t have a lot of good examples, and each one is context-specific,” Boarnet says. “We need to recognize the potential in areas like Irvine’s Great Park or the Platinum Triangle in Anaheim for mixed commercial/residential development, and we should encourage cities to experiment with such concepts as neighborhood electric vehicles and car sharing.”

Overhauling America’s infrastructure will require patience, he cautions: “It takes a minimum of 30 years for transportation and land use planning to have an impact in communities.”

But the time to start, Boarnet says, is now: “The current economic and environmental crises have focused people’s attention, and hopefully one outcome will be a transportation system that is greener and more efficient and that responds to the needs of the future.”