IMCL keynote speaker meets with US Vice President Harris to discuss public space as infrastructure

Professor Vikas Mehta points out the importance of public space and its social infrastructure, finding strong agreement from the Vice President

Professor Vikas Mehta (left) discusses public space as a critical element of infrastructure with Vice President Kamala Harris (right). Also present are Jill Meyer, CEO, Greater Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce, and Senator Sherrod Brown, Chair of the US Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs. (Photo courtesy WLWT News. )

CINCINNATI, APRIL 30 - Vice President Kamala Harris met with a group of experts on public transit and public space as a key component of an infrastructure package currently proposed by the Biden administration. One of them was Professor Vikas Mehta, a keynote speaker at the 57th International Making Cities Livable in Carmel, Indiana, June 8-12. Professor Mehta is Fruth/Gemini Chair and Ohio Eminent Scholar of Urban/Environmental Design at the University of Cincinnati.

“Good transit equals vibrant communities,” Harris told the roundtable assembled at the University of Cincinnati. “So if we think about it in terms of an investment in public transit, it is an investment in job creation, it is an investment in improving communities, it is an investment increasing access to opportunity.”

Professor Mehta emphasized that the transportation network needs to be seen as including public spaces, including streets and sidewalks. Below are remarks from the round table.

Senator Sherrod Brown: Professor Mehta, you've looked at, probably more than anybody in the room, sort of the big picture of what this [transportation infrastructure] does for the community. How does this... transform the city's economy, and more importantly, really, its quality of life?

Vikas Mehta: Thank you Chairman Brown and Madame Vice President, this is a great opportunity, and we really appreciate that you’re bringing the discussion to not just about transportation but about transit. And I think that's really very critical.

So when we think about transit, we think about engineering technologies, logistics - the hard infrastructure. But there's another side to it, which is really the soft infrastructure of transit. And that goes to the point about livability. There is the element of all of the public space that's right outside our private property, to the transit - that's really very critical. What is the condition of those sidewalks? What is the condition of those crosswalks? Are those lit? Can a single mother with a stroller and a child in tow get to the transit stop safely? What about somebody who is vision impaired? These things are equally important. I just call it the soft infrastructure of transit, to be able to make this thing work in which we invest billions of dollars.

As an urbanist, transit is for me not just technological, it is social, it is psychological and experiential. And we need to think about the full total experience, both technologically and from a community perspective, from door to door. And from that door to door, one piece of it is the hardware, the hard infrastructure of transit - buses, trains and all that. But the other part is the soft infrastructure of community -- of the neighborhood we live in. And we cannot separate these things.

The best part about it is that if we invest in the soft infrastructure, we are automatically investing in our neighborhoods. We're automatically investing in thinking about a complete mobility strategy.

So we often think about transit as a product. And transit is not a product - it is a system, and it is an ecology. Which means that transit is a piece of all of the mobility. How do we get anything that, Madame Vice President, you talked about -- how do we get to do anything, whether it's shopping, going to work, getting a child to a soccer game. All of that can be linked in to our experience of transit and urban living.

So integrating transit into urban development is really key -- into our neighborhoods. That's different than just thinking about transit itself.

This has also become very critical in the time of the pandemic, as you mentioned. Thinking about the public space immediately in our neighborhoods is a public health need. What is the condition of our sidewalks and streets? We need those to walk, to exercise, to socialize. But they are also part of the transit network.

And another context which is really very critical to us in the US -- and I really appreciate that you're bringing this to the table -- we have to modernize our transit. We cannot think about transit as a service, something we need to provide for the poorest workforce. That is one approach, but it's not going to get us to compete in this world. We have to think about transit that is a public good for everybody. It has to be cool! It has to be sexy. Everybody should want it. It shouldn't be about, well, we're serving the poor and the workforce that is outside the city to get to it, and reduce the time. That is not going to be our strategy. And we really appreciate the ambitious plans that are coming from the Biden-Harris administration -- and we need to capitalize on them. We need to really think about that, and think about it really very holistically.

My final point - certainly, public transit has a huge component and big ramifications for the environment. But I want to make a different point. Public transit runs in public space -- on our streets, above, below. Public transit in fact IS public space. And if you think about, in today's polarizing society, the value of that -- the input of that into a place of dialogue. And this might seem extremely academic, but it's real. This is where you must be able to see people who are different from you, people who dress differently, who live differently. That this is critical for a democratic society. And it's critical for a society that is empathetic.

Senator Brown: Well said.

Vide President Harris: ...What this can do in an investment in public transit, that is about job creation, building up the economy, building up productivity, building on the cultural institutions of a community, which always have an impact on the well-being and the quality of life of any community. Access to arts, access to sports, access to those things, and hopefully that our public spaces, Professor, create a quality of life that every person should be entitled to receive.

The point that you have made, Professor, about public spaces -- I think is so important. And I really appreciate also the point that you're making about thinking about the realities of sidewalks, street lights, as being part of the transit ecosystem...

So I think this has been an incredible group to really highlight all of the facets and all of the relevancy of an investment in public transportation -- which again, is infrastructure... And of course the president thanks you for the work you're doing -- it's a great model for what our country will and can do. Thank you.

A video of the full roundtable can be seen here.

Vice President Harris discussing public space and its importance with Professor Vikas Mehta, a keynote speaker at the 57th IMCL conference in Carmel, Indiana, June 8-12. (Photo courtesy WLWT News. )

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