Let’s get right to the point: accessibility runs the world.


Sounds a bit over the top? Well, it isn’t. OK, well, it is a little over the top. But only a little. You wouldn’t believe how much of what we do as people and what we respond to as planners has its roots in accessibility, a concept that can be defined simply as “the ability to reach opportunities”.

You also wouldn’t believe how much of what we already know about accessibility can help planners be better stewards of economic growth, sustainability, and equity. And we’ve only just scratched the surface of what can be done. At Renaissance and other like-minded places, we’ve been able to use accessibility to do some amazing things: predict walk, transit, and auto mode splits at smaller scales than even sophisticated travel demand models can provide; compare the impact of transportation projects of different modes throughout entire states; evaluate the impacts of land use scenarios on regional VMT; and more insights appear every day, including some that promise to provide value to industries outside typical planning circles. This blog series will examine the profound role accessibility plays in how we live, and how our increasing understanding of accessibility can inform and guide better, more successful planning outcomes.

But it’s worth stepping back a bit to provide some context for why accessibility matters so much, and to show how we have come to understand the power of accessibility.


Current planning practice has seen a dramatic shift in the last 15 years towards more integrated planning. Whether through policies focused on things like transit oriented development, jobs-housing balance, and complete streets, or through multidisciplinary federal initiatives like Ladders of Opportunity and the Partnership for Sustainable Communities, integrated planning is more a part of best planning practice than ever before.

And yet, much of what planners do to address these integrated planning efforts is still mired in decades-old methods that silo planning into distinct, almost segregated fields. Transportation planners are stuck trying to determine local multimodal travel patterns using highway-oriented regional models and highway level of service (LOS) standards; land use planners make zoning decisions without a way to determine the full transportation or economic effects of their decisions; economic developers court millennials and knowledge sector jobs without knowing enough about what attracts and retains them.



This is where accessibility comes in. For some, accessibility is just another in a long line of planning buzzwords, possibly because it seems to have a different definition to everyone who defines it. Here at Renaissance, the definition “the ability to reach opportunities” is vital for understanding the power of accessibility. Each part of that definition embodies a critical piece of integrated planning. ‘Ability’ focuses on having the means to do something, whether those means be financial or institutional. As such, accessibility touches on both economic development and equity. ‘Reach’ focuses on movement and time – what can you connect to given a reasonable amount of time available to reach it – so accessibility is at the core of transportation behavior. ‘Opportunities’ can be looked at narrowly as just a set of things that have some value, but it’s reasonable to suggest that those things have to be somewhere physically, and thus opportunities are rooted in land use. And so, accessibility effectively is the intersection of transportation, land use, and economic development - the core of integrated planning.

Far from being merely a clever definition, part of what makes accessibility such a powerful tool is that it can be quantified, measured and compared. Accessibility is a metric, one that allows for easy analysis and comparison of land use, transportation, and economic development interventions (and much more!). The focus of the next blog will be on how accessibility is measured, so further discussion of measuring accessibility will be put on hold for now. But suffice it to say, being able to put a number to accessibility, and have that number allow for comparisons across planning disciplines is a huge step forward.


Still, here at Renaissance we believe that the real power of accessibility is in its ability to be a focusing lens, a lens for how to create cities that work. Accessibility is a way of seeing the world as a place that hinges on people’s abilities to reach their desired opportunities, which is at the heart of so much of what we as people strive to do. Accessibility facilitates opportunity, and accessibility fosters opportunity. When planning problems are put under the lens of accessibility, a clear purpose and road map emerges on even the toughest planning problems. Through this lens we see why accessibility matters so much, and in doing so we begin to truly see how many ways accessibility explains the world.

We hope you’ll begin to see this too.