Transportation planning is tough.  Roads have to serve a number of (sometimes competing) purposes.  Roads whose primary purpose is moving people and goods quickly through a community often have a detrimental effect on the communities they bisect (see: the history of freeways in Detroit).  Take state trunk lines for example, which you can recognize because they’re usually twice as wide to cross as the other roads in a neighborhood, and, of course, highways and interstates.  We’re currently running a series of posts featuring creative solutions from around the globe to make these roads – roads that must run through communities – also work to serve those communities.  Check out more about our inspiration here.

As our inspiration post notes, Michigan is currently in the midst of a major highway debate, and we are not alone.  In other towns and cities across the country and world, similar conversations are taking place about the future of our road systems and our neighborhoods.

Interstate Highway 35 was built directly through downtown Austin, Texas, and is the fourth most congested freeway in the United States.  It is currently due for infrastrucural repair, and drivers are calling for the congestion problem to be solved. The Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) is exploring possible concepts, including a depressed highway concept, in addition to a more traditional rebuild and widen option.

The “cut and cap” is a proposal developed by Austin architect Sinclair Black, who has formed a coalition called Reconnect Austin to give voice to the community.  The cut and cap plan includes moving the freeway below grade and covering it with a cap and boulevard. This would make 30 acres available for mixed-use redevelopment.  Congestion could be improved by removing the local traffic onto the restored street grid, above, while through-traffic travels below.  Reconnect Austin says the result would create a safe, civilized, walkable and bikeable urban space.

Proponents of the cut and cap believe it would remove the socioeconomic barrier seperating downtown from East Austin, efficiently reconnecting the urban fabric of the city’s core. Black’s planning and architecture firm’s analysis of the plan claims that the project would support housing for 7,000 residents, create 48,000 jobs, support 2 million square feet of retail and restaurants, yield $3.2 billion in new tax base, and generate an estimated $1 billion in property tax revenue.  Black says the potential economic growth could drastically offset the $500 million price tag of the plan.

This June, Austin City Council endorsed the cut and cap, meaning it supports the option’s inclusion in the TxDOT IH-35 National Environmeny Policy Act Study.  Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell, however, expressed concern over not solving the traffic congestion fast enough; others worry that the cut and cap simply doesn’t effectively address the congestion.  Councilman Mike Martinez voiced his thoughts that the surrounding areas’ – some home to low-income families – property values and taxes could increase greatly, potentially causing displacement issues.

Austin Business Journal’s online poll results show 70% of respondents in favor of TxDOT conducting studies on the feasibility on moving I-35 below grade.  While it is undisputably the more attractive option, we will have to wait to see the results of TxDOT’s findings, and where they go from there.  How will they increase mobility while balancing the needs of the whole city?

 

Photo from Reconnect Austin.

Transportation planning is tough.  Roads have to serve a number of (sometimes competing) purposes.  Roads whose primary purpose is moving people and goods quickly through a community often have a detrimental effect on the communities they bisect (see: the history of freeways in Detroit).  Take state trunk lines for example, which you can recognize because they’re usually twice as wide to cross as the other roads in a neighborhood, and, of course, highways and interstates.  We’re currently running a series of posts featuring creative solutions from around the globe to make these roads – roads that must run through communities – also work to serve those communities.  Check out more about our inspiration here.

As our inspiration post notes, Michigan is currently in the midst of a major highway debate, and we are not alone.  In other towns and cities across the country and world, similar conversations are taking place about the future of our road systems and our neighborhoods.

One such debate recently ended.  The Inner Loop is a freeway constructed between 1950 and 1965 as a continuous loop that surrounds downtown Rochester, New York’s Central Business District.  Since its completion traffic on the Inner Loop overall has declined.  After over two decades of debate, the fate of Inner Loop East has been decided.  With the award of a Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) Grant from the Federal Government in August, the Inner Loop East Reconstruction Project now has the construction funds it needs to move forward.  This is the third time the City of Rochester has applied for the grant, and the $17.7 million is secured at last.

The Inner Loop East, which is two-thirds of a mile of the Inner Loop from Monroe Avenue to Charlotte Street, will be filled in to create a “complete” boulevard.  The city’s goals are to foster sustainable economic growth in the area, and create a more livable downtown.  The plan will strengthen walkability and bikeability infrastructure, to encourage healthier, more active lifestyles.  Plans call for two-way cycle tracks in locations, and include roundabouts at some intersections – something many believe to be a safer and more efficient alternative to traditional traffic light intersections.

The city says support for the project has grown substantially over time.  Proponents say it will reconnect the city grid, bring the business district out of isolations, and strengthen the urban fabric by reconnecting once divided neighborhoods.  They believe it will improve traffic congestion, mobility and local access throughout the area.  It will bridge the gap between the city and one of its major attractions, the Strong Museum of Play, which lies just on the other side of the divide.  Advocates trust that the approximate nine acres of land that will be freed up will benefit the city economically, spurring mixed-use development and drawing residents to the more urban way of life and more livable downtown.

Additionally, Reconnect Rochester, a transportation advocacy group and major proponent, says the project will essentially pay for itself.  Lifecycle costs to maintain a state of good repair of the existing 1960s-era infrastructure are estimated between $19.1 and $26 million – approximately the same cost as the project itself.  Reconnect Rochester also sees real potential in the development of the reclaimed land to provide true connectivity for the city.

While we at Let’s Save Michigan are excited to see how this turns out, there are some Rochesterians out there who are not.  Inner Loop East opponents believe it is an expensive project the city doesn’t need and can’t afford, and that the money should be spent in wiser ways.  Some also believe that the economic development potential has been exaggerated.  Concerns have also surfaced that the project is a recipe for blight in a city with too many vacancies already.

The cost of the project is estimated to be $23.6 million, with the city responsible for $5.9 million. Work is expected to begin in the fall of 2014 and take two to three years to complete. As this project moves ahead, we hope it stays on the right track towards more sustainable and livable communities for all of Rochester.

 

Photo from the City of Rochester Preliminary Design Alignment document.

During our Twitter Town Hall, we explored the many facets of sustainable and balanced transportation planning.  First we identified the goals of transportation planning, in addition to transporting cars efficiently, from pedestrian safety to biking infrastructure to alternative transportation development.  Then we discussed the issues and obstacles that make effective transportation planning complicated and difficult, and some ideas behind resolving them.  In today’s post we recap the various solutions ways to get involved.

There are many different organizations and coalitions across the country working to make the transportation planning process easier to navigate for all street users.  For example, three of our panelists – Angie, Stefanie and Jess – were with us as experts on the subject, and they represent three organizations doing great work in the area.

Streetsblog is a daily news source connecting people to information about sustainable transportation and livable communities.

The mission of the ULI Rose Center is to encourage and support excellence in land use decision-making. By providing public officials with access to information, best practices, peer networks and other resources, the Rose Center seeks to foster creative, efficient, practical, and sustainable land use policies.

The National Complete Streets Coalition at Smart Growth America is based in the belief that the streets of our cities and towns are an important part of the livability of our communities.  Complete Streets policy ensures that transportation planners and engineers consistently design and operate the entire roadway with all users in mind – including bicyclists, public transit vehicles and riders, and pedestrians of all ages and abilities.

A key element to balanced street design is that local leaders and planners need to work with community stakeholders, and collect meaningful input that informs a vision.   Citizen engagement is vital to any project in the public realm, for everyone involved – road engineers, government officials, transportation agencies, and alternative transportation or complete streets advocates.  Placemaking principles remind us that the community is the expert – and when it comes to their neighborhood street, they are the ones that know best what it is they need.

In the same way, it is important for community members to get involved.  Finding ways to participate can seem daunting to people without planning or policy backgrounds, but there are many options.  Go to the stakeholder meetings your local leaders are hosting, and bring your neighbors.  Keep yourself up to date on conversation, and informed of the possibilities.  There are many resources, like “Designing Walkable Urban Thoroughfares: A Context Sensitive Approach,” which was created as a how-to which illustrates best practices for creating more complete streets.

This information is not just for planners – get informed and use it.

Other resources:

Also, groups like Transportation for Michigan and The Greenway Collaborative are testing out alternative ways to gather community input, like online editable maps and phone applications.  This helps widen the net since not everyone can attend meetings or audits.

The next step is to identify a location within your community that needs improvement.  Good planning data is important – but experience is extremely valuable.  Getting out and experiencing firsthand the road as a pedestrian and cyclist will bring insight and help identify problems.  One method is conducting a walking audit – an assessment of the walkability or pedestrian access of an external environment.  Walking audits are a great way to literally explore issues, and also to get your neighbors engaged.  It is an opportunity to bring together everyone involved in the process, and more so, for these groups to identify problem and opportunity areas together.  Request that your elected officials join you too, so that they get outside to walk, bike or take transit, and then they too will see where the problems are.

When considering the options for a road in your community, look at the various issues at play.  How do cars move through, and what are the traffic congestion factors?  How easy is it to cross the street at different times of day?  How much are those seconds your saving for car commuters worth compared to other goals in your community?  What are the sidewalk conditions?  These things can be explored through observing and also through engaging the people that work, live and play along the street.

If you deduce that a road could be downsized, ultimately, you have to have an engineer evaluate the situation to know if a road diet will work.  Road diets are defined by the Federal Highway Administration as narrowing or eliminating travel lanes on a roadway to make more room for pedestrians and bicyclists.

Generally, four lane roads that have 20,000 annual average daily traffic (AADT) or less are good candidates to become a road with one lane in each direction with a central turn lane; the leftover space can be used for a variety of things like bike lanes or parking.

While there are many reasons to want more complete streets, sometimes the issue lies with convincing others of the benefits.  People who do not walk or bike may not see a reason to care, but it is important to remind people that complete streets have many more benefits than just safe walking and biking.  Luke Forrest of the Michigan Municipal League participated in the conversation via twitter, and pointed out the strategy that many cities have used successfully: planning corridor redesign as part of an economic redevelopment strategy.  Healthy streets draw people – to walk around, socialize and shop – and strengthen the economic vitality of the area.  Additionally, this could be a way to bring business owners into the process, prioritize the project, and secure funding from non-transportation related sources.

Our panelists shared with us a few examples of places that have used transportation planning strategically.

  • Ferndale’s 9-Mile road diet: Ferndale has become one of hippest, coolest, most walkable areas in state, and has seen an increase in mixed use developments coming in.
  • Boulder, Colorado set a clear vision for its transportation future, and today is among the highest for rates of walking, biking, alternative transit.  See the City of Boulder Transportation Division’s “Transportation to Sustain a Community.”
  • New York City has had tremendous success with road diets, right of way improvements, and implementing bike lanes.  Overall congestion has dropped, retail activity has increased, and in general spaces have improved for everyone – even drivers.

The most important message we’d like to leave you with is to make your voices heard.  Reach out to your friends and contacts, and you can have a very powerful impact on the direction your transportation agencies take.  Utilize the resources available to you to stay informed: read StreetBlog, The Atlantic Cities, Complete Streets and others for inspiration and guidance.  Keep up with organizations like Mode Shift, which provide an important piece to the puzzle.  Get involved in organizations like the League of Michigan Bicyclists and the Urban Land Institute to keep informed and to find ways to advocate for healthy streets.

We all need to remember that transportation is about access to destinations for everyone – not just mobility, not just auto-mobility.  It is about supporting and providing for a shift away from auto-centric goals, and enhancing the benefits for everyone.

Additional Resources:

National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) “Urban Street Design Guide

NACTO “Urban Bikeway Design Guide

Model Street Design Manual

Active Transportation Policy “Complete Streets Complete Networks: A Manual for the Design of Active Transportation

Institute of Transportation Engineers Context Sensitive Solutions

Complete Streets Design from Smart Growth America National Complete Streets Coalition

Many tips on “Implementation” page of National Complete Streets Coalition page

 

Photo from Jeff Nickerson on flickr.com

Today we bring you the second part of our three-part recap of the twitter town hall we hosted September 17th.  After discussing why streets matter and what goals planners should be achieving with road design, we dove into why the status quo doesn’t usually encourage holistic, integrated transportation planning.

State Representative Jim Townsend identified one of the issues as some planners and legislators feeling their hands are tied – that they must invest the funds they have in road and highway construction, and cannot fund improvements or other infrastructure.  Sadly, sometimes this is true based on policy requirements.  State agencies often don’t have enough flexibility to address other issues, and we should be working to change that, defining an agenda that gives the agencies increased flexibility.  Rep. Townsend said he doesn’t think people understand the antiquated laws that prevent flexibility, and maybe this is one of the most important places for us, as citizens, to work for change.

All of our speakers also noted a needed culture shift if we are truly to make decisions differently.  An adjustment in the priorities of residents towards more healthy and sustainable lifestyles would have a strong impact.  If community members are all asking for the same types of spending and investments – in fixings roads and alternative transportation infrastructure and improvements – then ideally their legislators and local leaders will follow suit.  This could be the starting point for realigning funding priorities towards putting pedestrians first, and changing policies to reflect a more community driven, and sustainable, vision for our transportation futures.

On the other hand, sometimes planners and legislators hands are not tied – they just don’t know that they have options.  It is vital that we, as a community, convey to legislators (and agencies like MDOT) that there are other options, and that we prefer them.

Angie Schmitt noted that there are many places that have found ways to advance these types of improvements.  The state of Colorado already has better policies in place.  A coalition of transit and environmental advocates worked to change a law so that gas tax revenues went from funding only highway and bridge constructions to funding all forms of transit improvements, including streetscape, pedestrian, bike and public transit infrastructure.

Our nation’s capital is among the places where this shift has also made great strides. Washington D.C outlined its goal to become the ‘greenest, healthiest, and most livable city in the nation’ in their “Sustainable DC Plan.”  The plan outlines many initiatives with a foundation in alternative transportation, aiming for 75% of commuter trips to be done via alternative transportation within the next 20 years.  The district is looking to add 250,000 new residents in the same time frame, but believes that if all those people drive, the population and job growth would be unsustainable.

Rep. Townsend said we have seen change for the positive as communities in Michigan are embracing better road policies, but everything takes time.  Increasing awareness, correcting misinformation, and connecting the right message with peoples’ everyday lives will strengthen the functionality of the system.  As more and more people come to understand that more complete streets will increase their quality of life, the process for implementing such changes will become easier.  He adds that local agencies should participate in this process – discussing with residents the many roles streets play in our communities, from socialization to economic development.

Via Twitter, Mode Shift reminded us of a good example of misinformation: many times we hear the pro-highway argument, “But if we build highways, we will have to maintain them and that means job growth.”  Mode Shift maintains that the money would go farther when spent on much-needed road repairs, which Stefanie Seskin said actually creates more jobs than new highway construction, and even more so when invested in transit projects.  Rep. Townsend went further to say that “our monochromatic transportation policy strangles growth — it’s a job killer.”

RustWire tweeted in that biking and walking infrastructure construction creates more jobs per dollar spent, in part because less is spent on construction materials.  Ensuring that people are aware of the truth and of all the options is vital to creating streets that work for everyone.

Check out Smart Growth America’s reports examining how federal stimulus funds were spent and which methods created jobs and provided the best long-term return on investment.  You may be surprised.

 

Photo from Complete Streets on flickr.com

We have received a lot of questions about our Highways for Habitats Contest, and specifically what we are looking for.  We would like to emphasize that we looking for an idea which provides a more balanced solution than currently exists where a road runs.  We leave all other factors up to you.  You can include as much or as little information as you choose in whatever style you choose – as long as your idea is clear.  Submissions do not have to be professional quality renderings – crayon drawings, pencil sketches, paper cut-outs and the like are perfectly acceptable.  The idea is what’s important! 

Here is a sample entry our Let’s Save Michigan intern worked up as a representation of one of the many possible types of solutions.  We also asked her to describe her process:

“I chose a location familiar to me because I already understand the traffic and pedestrian patterns there, and I had already identified issues surrounding biking or walking in the area.  I took a photograph of the area with my phone, and then manipulated it on my computer to look like my proposed solution.  The image was doctored using a free downloadable program called Gimp, which functions similar to the graphics editing program Adobe Photoshop.”

Here is the written description of my proposal (350 words or less):

I find that in suburban-urban areas like the city I live in, the road network consists mostly of main thoroughfares and side/neighborhood streets.  When main roads are not well equipped for cyclists, we are forced to meander along winding neighborhood roads that are neither direct nor well known, and unless I’m traveling a familiar route it can be inefficient.  When I want to avoid main thoroughfares (I get nervous on busy roads lacking a clear and present bike lane) I frequently find myself backtracking or going out of my way on side streets.

Part of the problem in this location is that the bike sign, I’ve noticed, seems unclear, or ignored, to many drivers.  I’ve added the “Share the Road” sign to remove any confusion.

The next first step in my solution is a road diet.   The road diet would downsize the road from four lanes to two, one traveling in each direction, with a central turn lane. This would allow for bike lanes in both directions.  The Federal Highway Administration suggests that road diets are more feasible on roads with an Annual Average Daily Traffic (AADT) of less than 20,000, and I found on SEMCOG’s website that on this road it was estimated at under 11,000 in 2012.

The road diet would also prevent the “slaloming” that many cars do – switching lane to lane to move around turning or slow moving cars; it can be hazardous to pedestrians trying to cross as cars are alternating their pattern.

As a resident of this area, I have noticed that the cross street visible in the photograph is a very popular location for walkers, joggers, bikers, skate boarders and children playing; it also connects to the east with a city park.   Crossing the main road (which is fairly busy) can be very challenging, and frequently as I pass there are people waiting on the sidewalk to cross.  The addition of a pedestrian crosswalk would help alert drivers to the busy “pedestrian intersection.”

Original Photograph:

vinsetta

My Solution:

Good Luck!