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Don't traffic engineers love complete streets, too?

Marc Lefkowitz  |  04/17/15 @ 11:00am

Let me tell you a story—a true story—about a community that wants to make its main street more bike, pedestrian and transit friendly but was fought every step of the way by the state department of transportation.

<br />A traffic circle has become a popular gathering spot in Normal, Illinois which has a complete streets policy. Image from: Landscape Architecture Foundation.

The name of the community and the street will remain anonymous. But, I’ll tell the story nonetheless because it sheds light on why there aren’t more complete streets even when a community expresses interest, finds money to pay for it, and does all the right things—like has a professional planner and roadway engineers follow best practices.

This suburb, call it Everytown, U.S.A., is in the process of getting final approval for a major streetscape project on a four-lane, Minor Arterial that serves as their downtown. It’s an older suburb, and the street has dense, mixed-use buildings, parking in the back and nice, wide sidewalks in the front.

Everytown likes the older character of its main street, but wants to make some improvements for bike and pedestrian comfort and safety. For example, the new design calls for making crossing distances shorter at intersections, adding pedestrian refuge islands and safety features like Rapid Flashing Beacons to help people cross the street. Sounds simple, but the project sponsor, the DOT, made life so difficult—citing rules that would make those safety improvements impossible—that most suburbs without the technical expertise to refute the claims 9 out of 10 times would give up and not make the improvements.

It didn’t happen this time—although it did to this very community in the recent past. This time, with a very serious discussion of complete streets occurring in the community— raising expectations for improving all “modes” of transportation—and a large Transportation Alternatives grant, the planning department felt they had to...well...fight for every change. They spent countless hours arguing the case for the complete streets elements. Through an exhausting process and some compromise, they managed to win the right to keep the project intact.

An example of what they had to go through: Everytown wanted to shorten an intersection. The DOT told them to make it wider. The DOT wanted it designed for a single-axle truck (the biggest vehicle possible, in other words, the worst case scenario of a huge truck turning into oncoming traffic). The DOT engineer fought the change even when the city told them there was nothing but a residential area off of the main street, no possible situation where a delivery truck would make that turn. Finally, the DOT agreed to a half-way compromise.

Why do I tell this story? It’s important to bring to light the roadblocks that this state department of transportation are throwing up. Are they trying to thwart the will of the local community who wants to improve the safety, attractiveness and economic vitality of its main street? I don’t want to draw this conclusion, but when traffic engineers who don’t know the local conditions like the community planner get all of the decision making authority, we risk losing something important.

Worst case, government bureaucrats are able to decide with impunity the look and ultimately, the success of local communities.

Here’s another example from Everytown’s case: They want to put bike corrals, which are large bike racks, into an on-street parking spot in front of a few buildings. The DOT said they couldn’t because a 6 inch curb would be needed. This ruling feels arbitrary and misinformed when you see bike corrals in parking spots in a nearby suburb.

The story, I think, underscores the importance of establishing a complete streets policy that expresses in clear and firm language what 600 jurisdictions like Everytown U.S.A. are learning from best practices over the last decade of designing for all modes of travel. A recent report from the National Complete Streets Coalition, for example, looked at the performance of 30 complete streets projects and found they improved safety and got the cash registers ringing.

Is the heart of the matter how engineers are taught to operate? Or are they simply responding to a dangerous situation with distracted drivers? I was watching a NOVA special this week about science and math. Engineers were interviewed and said their profession is one of approximation; it’s about finding the shortest path to fixing a problem. If drivers are texting, talking on the phone and otherwise driving impaired at greater speeds, engineers are probably being told to make rules that lead to wider roads and intersections in an attempt to head the problem off at the pass. It’s time to have a conversation about this—about how we’ve let a few bad drivers change the American landscape.

What would happen if we introduced a conversation about the type of places we value. We need places in our cities that satisfy our innate need as social animals to gather, preen, strut, talk, and be heard. The mall is no longer interesting. We want the real world. So we need traffic engineers in Northeast Ohio to engage in the community conversation, too. We need to know how they see their profession. Some engineers might live in older suburbs and cities in Northeast Ohio, too. They might see the emerging practice of designing streets for all users and want that for their practice. We don’t want to get rid of engineers. People still like to follow rules. We’re saying, when we design spaces for people again the problem of dangerous cars is solved by and for us.

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