Tag Archives: street design

A Conversation with a Graduate Student Regarding Transportation Planning and Complete Streets

By Dom Nozzi

November 22, 2012

A graduate student in transportation planning at the University of Florida contacted me with questions regarding Complete Streets on November 21, 2012.

She wanted to answer the research question that asked, “Would implementation of Complete Streets policies be feasible and beneficial in the Gainesville region?”

The following are her questions and my responses.
How would you define a complete street?

A Complete Street is safe, comfortable and convenient for travel by car, by walking, by bicycle, and by transit. The design of a Complete Street varies, however, based on the context (or location) of the street. In a town center, for example, a Complete Street tends to have car travel lanes, sidewalks, and bus stops/seating. In a suburban context, a Complete Street tends to have car travel lanes, in-street bike lanes, sidewalks, and bus cspull-out lanes. In other words, Complete Streets is not a one-size-fits-all concept.

Do you support complete streets in general (not specific to Gainesville region)?

Complete Streets should be the default design, based on context, for all new and modified streets in the US. Doing so promotes travel choice, fairness, equity, sustainability, public health, affordability, civic pride, economic health, and public safety. Only when special studies determine that a Complete Street is not justified should an incomplete street be built. Note that the reverse is the case for nearly all American communities for the past century. That is, special studies are needed to determine that a Complete Street is justified and should be built.

What can you tell me about Gainesville’s transportation policies?

I was the lead planner and author of Gainesville’s long-range transportation plan that was adopted as part of the City’s Year 2000 Comprehensive Plan (the “Transportation Mobility” Element of the Plan). I am nearly certain that nearly all of the policies in the Year 2000 plan, as well as Gainesville’s overall traffic engineering, MTPO, City Commission, and other transportation-related goals, objectives and policies remain essentially the same today as they were in 2000 and when I left in October 2007. Those policies – many (most?) of which I was not personally or professionally supportive of – sought to promote free-flowing car traffic, convenience and low cost for traveling and parking by car, implicitly calls for the allocation of nearly all public transportation revenue to car-supportive infrastructure, promotes dispersal of development (i.e., suburban sprawl), calls for a level of service for cars that is too high, and calls for land use densities that were low enough to be conducive to convenient and free-flowing car travel.

For decades, the City has adopted Comprehensive Plan goals, objectives and policies that promote bicycling, walking, and transit use. However, these bicycling, walking, and transit policies have not been effective in promoting transportation choice (i.e., meaningfully higher levels of bicycling, walking, and transit) because the policies promoting car travel that I noted earlier have resulted in a significant suppression in bicycling, walking, and transit travel (due to inconvenience, high cost, and danger that the previously noted policies create for bicycling, walking, and transit). An important flaw in Gainesville’s transportation plans is that car mobility continues to be emphasized, rather than transportation accessibility, and car mobility is a zero-sum game. That is, the more the City promotes car mobility (via wider and wider free-flowing streets and abundant/free car parking), the less conducive the city becomes for bicycling, walking, and transit. Unfortunately, Gainesville continues to believe that transportation is a win-win situation, and I firmly disagree with that view.

Does the city council have complete streets goals in its comprehensive plan?

Gainesville did not have goals, objectives or policies in its comprehensive plan that explicitly called for Complete Streets as of October 2007 when I left the city. However, the year 2000 Comprehensive Plan implicitly called for Complete Streets in a great many goals, objectives and policies. I am sure this is also the case in the more recently adopted Comprehensive Plan. This is not to say that the existing goals, objectives and policies are adequately calling for Complete Streets. It is certain that the existing goals, objectives and policies can be revised to more clearly direct the City to create Complete Streets in the future.

Do you think that Gainesville’s current policies would accommodate complete streets or would there need to be extensive revisions?

As I noted above, Gainesville – like nearly all cities – has transportation policies that at least implicitly promote Complete Streets. But like most cities, those policies could benefit from substantial re-wording to make them more effective in achieving Complete Streets. Examples: (1) The policies could call for a substantial shift in public revenue allocation so that significantly more public transportation dollars are allocated to bicycling, walking, and transit. And substantially less allocation of dollars to car travel promotion (including revisions to the Capital Improvements Program Element); (2) The policies could call for a seamless integration of the Complete Streets policies with those found in the design manuals, implementation policies, bicycling and transit, construction/rehab/resurfacing checklists, and procedures used, for example, by the City and County Public Works/Traffic Engineering Departments, the MTPO policies, the FDOT, the City and County Offices of Management and Budgeting, the City and County Fire Departments, and the City and County Housing Departments; (3) The policies could include Complete Streets “performance measures” so that the City would know – quantitatively – whether it was making progress in achieving more complete streets over time; (4) The policies could call for opportunistically adding complete streets elements to streets which are undergoing modifications for such things as stormwater or restriping; and (5) Revising the scoring and prioritizing of City transportation projects so that walking, bicycling and transit score higher.

How could we implement complete streets into those streets which have already been developed without accounting for all users?

There are a number of tactics, depending on the street. For example, space for sidewalks or bike lanes can be created by narrowing travel or turn lanes (when restriping, for example), or removing turn lanes. Transit facilities can usually be retrofitted without any need for additional street right-of-way. Many streets have an excessive number of turn or travel lanes, and new space can be found on such streets by removing such excessive lanes. The “road diet” on Gainesville’s Main Street is an example of a tactic that can be used on a great many streets in Gainesville.

How do you think that Gainesville’s complete streets could be funded?

The point we often make at the Complete Streets workshops we conduct throughout the nation is that more complete streets can be achieved without any increase in revenue to the community. Many complete streets designs can be achieved in a cost-free manner (a restriping project could include bike lanes, for example). A community could also re-allocate its transportation dollars so that a higher percentage of such dollars are allocated to bicycling, walking or transit. Funding for a single purpose could be used for multiple purposes (stormwater funding might also be used to install a sidewalk, for example). If these approaches are not sufficient, there are many federal, state and local funding programs that can be tapped for complete streets design.

Do you think that investing in complete streets now would save transportation related costs in the future?

Absolutely. When done right, more durable methods and materials are used for street modification projects. When complete streets elements are included in the initial construction of the street modification project, both this and the more durable methods and materials reduce the need for – and cost of — retrofitting. There is a growing consensus that due to demographic, energy and other inevitable changes, Gainesville will see a shrinking number of motorists and a growing number of bicyclists, pedestrians, and transit users. By taking that into account with a Complete Streets program now, Gainesville will save substantial infrastructure costs that would otherwise be needed in the future to accommodate this new composition of travelers. Because it is inevitable that larger percentages of Gainesville travelers will be bicyclists, pedestrians and transit users, it is much less costly to acquire needed materials and right-of-way for such travelers now, rather than in the future, when such costs will be much higher.

How do you think that complete streets, if developed properly, would change the Gainesville community?

If Gainesville successfully creates a comprehensive set of policies, procedures, complete streets infrastructure, and the nine essential elements I list below, Gainesville would see a substantial increase in bicycling, walking and transit use. It would become more healthy, would see medical expenses go down, would see its taxes increase less rapidly, would see local government expenses drop substantially, would see more civic pride, would enjoy more “social capital,” would see less suburban sprawl, would see a more revitalized town center, would have cleaner air and water, would have healthier wildlife ecosystems, would have more affordable housing, would have less crime, would have less travel injuries and deaths, would have healthier locally-owned retail, would have better high-quality job growth, would have reduced noise pollution, would have less visual blight, and would have more stable property values.

Do you feel that Complete Streets policies would be beneficial and/or feasible to the Gainesville community? Why or why not?

Yes, for the reasons I list in a number of other answers I provide above and below. The most important obstacle to achieving the beneficial aspects of Complete Streets policy, as I point out below, is achieving sufficient will to do so. Political, citizen and staff will.

Summary

 In sum, while I believe that Gainesville would need (and benefit from) a substantial revision in its long-range plan goals, objectives and policies, its design manuals, its departmental procedures, and its funding formulas to better promote Complete Streets, doing so will also require substantial changes in other areas if Gainesville is to successfully create a successful Complete Streets program, as well as substantially shifting a large number of car trips to walking, bicycling and transit.

First and foremost, I do not believe that Gainesville has the political will, the staff will, or the citizen will to create complete streets and an overall environment rich in transportation choice. Like nearly all cities, Gainesville has had goals, objectives and policies that are quite supportive of complete streets. But such overwhelming support, on paper, is little more than paying lip service to complete streets and transportation choice – unless other essential elements are achieved. The main obstacles that will remain, even if Gainesville adopts high-quality Complete Streets policies, include:

  • An almost complete lack in political, citizen or staff will to create complete streets and transportation choice.
  • An excessive provision of free (and underpriced) car parking throughout the Gainesville urban area.
  • Excessively wide streets throughout the Gainesville urban area. In general, streets wider than three lanes in the Traditional City town center and five lanes in suburban areas is excessive. Overly wide roads in Gainesville lead to even larger intersections, which are deadly to people walking and bicycling.
  • A gas tax which is too low.
  • An extremely dispersed, sprawling city geographic spread. A city that is over fifty five square miles in size (as well as the unincorporated urban area) creates distances that are far too excessive for regular travel by walking, bicycling or transit.
  • A lack of tolling (pricing) of roads in Gainesville.
  • A lack of a mixing of homes with offices, retail, civic, cultural, and job land uses.
  • A lack of sufficiently high residential densities in appropriate locations.
  • A lack of a parking cash-out program that provides financial (or other) incentives for commuting to work without a car.

Without achieving the nine items I mention above, even adopting the best Complete Streets policies will do very little to achieve Complete Streets or transportation choice in Gainesville. Furthermore, even if the City did create a citywide street infrastructure that provided complete streets comprehensively (all streets had sidewalks, were bike-friendly, and were transit-friendly), only a small shift in car travel to walking, bicycling or transit would occur because of the above nine items. As a friend and colleague has pointed out, meaningfully increasing the number of pedestrians, bicyclists or transit users is not about creating new bike lanes, sidewalks or transit facilities.

It is about taking away space, speed and subsidies that motorists now enjoy.

 

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Making Cars Happy in Gainesville Florida

By Dom Nozzi

April 20, 2005

The following is a heads up I issued to a local elected official friend and another friend, the local transit director regarding some of my observations while serving on the Advisory Board for the Gainesville Metropolitan Area Planning Organization (MTPO) Gardening Club (oops! I meant to say the MTPO Design Team).

There was an item that came before our Board regarding a resurfacing of State Road 20. SR 20 runs from the intersection of North Main Street and 8th Avenue to the intersection of NW 8th Avenue and NW 6th Street. It then runs north on 6th Street to where it intersects with NW 13th Street.

The proposed FDOT resurfacing of SR 20 presents us with a golden opportunity. A nearly cost-free, no-brainer improvement to this route. It is painfully obvious that both of these few blocks of 8th Avenue and the 6th Street section should be re-striped, like the County proposes to do from NW 8th Avenue to NW 16th Avenue on Main Street, so that 8th goes from 5 lanes to 3 and 6th goes from 4 lanes to 3.road-diet (3)

Here are some reasons why it is a no-brainer to re-stripe in this manner:

  • It is essentially cost-free, since the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) needs to re-stripe after re-surfacing anyway.
  • Perhaps the most important, a highly effective way to promote bicycle commuting in Gainesville at the moment is to add in-street bike lanes to NW 6th Street (6th is currently a horrifying experience for even me to bike because of the narrow lanes and the high-speed cars). By taking 6th from 4 lanes to 3, we create sufficient space for bike lanes (and maybe even on-street parking, which I would prefer over bike lanes if we needed to choose one or the other). I’m confident that an enormous number of people would take advantage of bike lanes here.
  • As is now well-known, going from 4 lanes to 3 does not meaningfully reduce the traffic volume capacity of the street. This is because on a 4-laner, the inside lane very regularly serves as a left turn lane when a car needs to turn left, which blocks the traffic behind it. Thus, 4-lane streets are nearly identical to 3-lane streets in terms of volume capacity.
  • Recent studies show that a 3-lane is significantly safer than a 4-lane, partly because it reduces average car speeds and partly because entrance to and exit from a 3 is less complex than a 4 — not to mention improved safety for bicyclists, pedestrians and transit users.
  • It gives us a great opportunity to significantly beautify this route, because it enables us to install a lot of raised, landscaped medians (which, of course, add to pedestrian safety as well).
  • It allows us to correct the bizarre situation in which we have 3 or 4 blocks of 8th Avenue from Main to 6th Street as a 5-laner. 8th Avenue west of 6th Street and east of Main is 3 lanes. Why do we have a tiny section as 5 lanes? Particularly in a downtown location that is so intensively used by pedestrians?
  • It will surely result in a number of positive land use changes along SR 20, since it will become a more hospitable place for retail and residential.

Note that when I made one of my rare motions at the Garden Club on April 19th to re-stripe this route in this way, FDOT staff indicated, it goes without saying, that they would not support it. We were told that it would take 6th from LOS “C” to “E.” Of course, I’d welcome such a LOS change (since congestion is our friend), but I strongly question whether it is even true, since my understanding is that 3 lanes and 4 lanes have almost identical capacity.

FDOT also told us that if 6th went to 3 lanes, they would not be able to keep SR 20 there and would have to re-locate it to a parallel route. When I pointed out that a number of communities in Florida have been able to put state roads on a diet without having FDOT remove the state road designation, I was told that this is “District 2” policy. I bit my tongue and resisted the temptation to move that the Garden Club recommend Gainesville “cede” from District 2. Instead, I simply said that “I guess we are stuck with District 2.”

In any event, after just barely getting a second to my motion to re-stripe, the motion was shot down 7-2.

Cars, not people, will remain happy in Gainesville.

Postscript: While serving on this MTPO Design Team, I unsuccessfully proposed that South Main Street be taken from 5 lanes to 3 lanes for very similar reasons. The reaction from FDOT was similarly hostile, and the Design Team failed to even second my motion. In 2017, I learned that Gainesville went ahead and reduced South Main Street from 5 lanes to 3. I am confident the same thing will happen for the roads I describe in the above essay.

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My Comments Regarding Vision Zero in Boulder Colorado

By Dom Nozzi

October 8, 2017

I have served on the Boulder Transportation Advisory Board for 4.5 years. Because only a tiny number of people attend the Board meetings, the thoughts shared by us Board members are heard by almost no one. Therefore, since I consider a “Vision Zero” plan that Boulder is now pursuing so important, and that item is on our October 9th agenda, I would like to give my views more daylight by sharing them on Facebook and my blog site.Vision Zero4

Vision Zero, by the way, is a vitally important objective that many cities in the US have adopted in recent years. It seeks to create a transportation system where there are zero traffic deaths or serious injuries.

Over the past year or so, Boulder has tragically seen several deaths and serious injuries on our roads. I was therefore initially quite happy to see that the City is now proposing a Vision Zero plan.

But while I am extremely supportive of a Vision Zero objective, the strategies being proposed by staff are little more than timid tweaks to the same old, ineffective strategies that Boulder and most all other US cities have tried now for the past century: More warning paint. More (or revised) warning lighting. More warning signs. More warning education. More warning enforcement. After a century of doubling down on these strategies every few years, our roads are in many ways far more dangerous than they have ever been.

In part, this is because the strategies are suffering from a severe form of diminishing returns. After installing thousands of warning signs on our roads over the past century, for example, it becomes information overload and motorists largely tune them out.

But mostly, these conventional strategies are simply ineffective in creating a safer transportation system. For the past century, we have poured a huge amount of public dollars into single-mindedly building roads that have too many lanes (roads are too wide). For a century, we have built roads engineered to encourage or enable high-speed, inattentive driving. Warning paint or safety education can do almost nothing to make it safe to walk across or bicycle on a monster 8-lane urban highway filled with speeding, impatient, inattentive drivers.Arapahoe Ave Boulder CO

In general, the only effective strategy we have to create a safer transportation system that has any chance of achieving a Vision Zero objective (besides creating more compact land use patterns) is to design streets with dimensions and geometries that obligate motorists to drive more slowly and attentively.

This is not rocket science.

It saddens me to have learned in my 4.5 years as a Board member (and 8 years as a Boulder bicycle and pedestrian and transit commuter) that while Boulder transportation staff is well aware of (and often supportive of) these effective street design tactics, their hands are tied. They are not recommending these effective tactics in the Boulder Vision Zero strategy.

Why are staff’s hands tied? Why are they recommending the century-long same old song and dance for Vision Zero, instead of recommending effective street design strategies?

In part it is because Boulder cannot, by law, redesign state roads in Boulder (but this can be changed, however, as was done on Broadway).

But it is also because too many people in Boulder (and therefore its city government) are way behind the times regarding effective, beneficial transportation tactics. Or simply oppose such tactics. Here is one of several essays I wrote on this.

Staff and city government are not being given permission by citizens to be effective about traffic safety.

Even though I know I will not get a second on a motion I will make at the Monday Board meeting, I will make the motion because it is the only way to have my concerns be on the record and recorded in the meeting minutes.

I will move that the Board request staff suspend and withdraw the Vision Zero initiative because Boulder is not ready to use effective tactics to achieve Vision Zero.double left turn lane intersection boulder

To be fair, I should note that Boulder has re-started a traffic calming program (what Boulder formerly called “traffic mitigation” and now calls “speed management”). This is a very beneficial and effective traffic safety strategy for achieving Vision Zero (at least on smaller neighborhood roads).

However, this street redesign program is not clearly integrated into the Vision Zero plan, and because it will only apply to smaller neighborhood streets rather than the large, dangerous, high-speed roads in Boulder, it will do very little to move Boulder toward an overall Vision Zero objective.

 

 

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The Future for Transportation

By Dom Nozzi

October 16, 2017

Many people who read my views or hear my speeches believe I am a radical that wants to “get rid of all cars.” I think that is a sign that I need to be better in my messaging, but also a sign that our society is so very pro-car that even reasonable views like mine sound unrealistic.

My position on cars is that we must accept the fact that to move the needle in a positive direction, driving a space-hogging, subsidized, high-speed metal box should make the motorist feel inconvenienced – if we expect to create a quality community. It is a sign of health when a motorist feels burdened, as is the case in any great city in the world. In sum, we need to take away Space, Speed, and Subsidies from motorists, and Shorten distances to destinations so that a car is an option, not a requirement. In other words, it is not about providing more bike lanes, more sidewalks, and more buses, as so many believe…

An important thing that happens when we take away space, speed, and subsidies (and create shorter distances) is that we are able to reduce a very costly problem in our world: low-value car trips (to, for example, drive a car on a major road at rush hour to get a cup of coffee). When such trips are frequent (partly by being enabled by society), it is unsustainable and ruinous.

Healthy cities need to leverage agglomeration economies (clustering of people and activities) to be healthy. They are also characterized by having lower speed transportation (it is no coincidence that there is a growing worldwide movement for what are called Slow Cities). Furthermore, healthy cities are financially sound.

In each case, over-emphasis on car travel undermines a city. The large space needs and high speeds of a car create powerful, dispersing, centrifugal forces on city development patterns (which destroys agglomeration). Over-emphasis on car travel also requires large government subsidies. The dispersed land use patterns over-catering to car travel requires is inherently unable to come anywhere close to paying for itself (through such things as sales taxes and property taxes). That destroys financial health.

I have been told that it is important for my message to emphasize win-win tactics, rather than just pointing out the problems of excessive car dependence. While I agree that this tactic is an important way to be more persuasive, it is also extremely difficult when it comes to excessive car dependence. For decades, many in Boulder have wrongly concluded that car travel can be win-win with other forms of travel. I believe that in nearly all cases, it is zero-sum. When car travel is enhanced, almost all other forms of travel are made more difficult. Given that, it is very difficult to give win-win messages. And that is an important reason why our car-based society is facing an enormous dilemma. Excessive provision for car travel is self-reinforcing. It is nearly impossible to break out of the self-perpetuating downward cycle of car dependence once a society has gone a long way down that path, as ours has. This is because in zero-sum, there nearly always will be winners and losers. And when almost all of us are nearly entirely car dependent, asking almost all of us to lose on our form of travel is pretty much impossible, politically.

I therefore see major crisis, our inability to continue to afford to pay for extreme car dependence, or both, as our only way out of the mess we are in.

I don’t mean to make people feel guilty about driving a car. I acknowledge that some car travel is important and even acceptable in our society. But because the car, in my view, is the enemy of the city, it should not feel easy or low cost to do so. Driving needs to be more rare.

Road diets and converting stroads back into streets really are the future. It pains me to see Boulder falling behind on a transformation that a great many US cities are now involved in.

Here are a few brief videos by friends of mine on road diets and stroads:

Dan Burden

 

 

Another guy I love on this topic is Chuck Marohn, a traffic engineer who has coined the term “stroad.” Boulder has a lot of stroads. Besides 30th, 28th, East Arapahoe, Broadway, Colorado, and Canyon are Boulder examples of stroads.

 

 

 

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Redesigning North Broadway in Boulder, Colorado

By Dom Nozzi

July 17, 2017

My city of Boulder CO has plans to redesign a portion of a major north-south street in Boulder – Broadway Avenue. As a member of the Boulder Transportation Advisory Board, we periodically receive notes from Boulder citizens about such things as proposed street projects. In the summer of 2017, I responded to a member of Community Cycles – a community-operated bicycle shop who had sent my Board a note. The following is my response…

Dear “Tom” (not his real name),

Thank you for sending this to my Board. As you probably know, I am very supportive of much of what is called for by Community Cycles. In particular, I often call for low-speed street geometries in appropriate (compact, walkable, urban) settings. Smaller turning radii and more narrow street lanes are substantially more effective in inducing low-speed, attentive (ie, safe) car speeds than Warning paint, Warning signs, Warning education, Warning signal lights, and Warning enforcement. These five categories of warnings are the conventional tactics that all US cities – including Boulder – have used for the past century.

And continue to use.

Obviously, this section of Broadway is appropriate for low-speed geometries – and will be even more appropriate when we see more buildings pulled up to the sidewalk on the west side of Broadway.

I agree that the street design is too strongly tilted toward delivery (and other) trucks.

With regard to that issue, I believe that when more buildings are pulled up to the sidewalk on the west side of Broadway, there will be a substantial increase inmedian-octavia pedestrians crossing (or wanting to cross) mid-block, rather than at intersections. To design for that inevitability – and to support the low-speed design we need for this section of north Broadway – the design needs to include raised medians along the street. Raised medians reduce average car speeds, increase motorist attentiveness, substantially shorten pedestrian crossing distances, and promote street beautification. I therefore believe raised medians should be included in the Community Cycles recommendation.

When I proposed that raised medians be installed on North Broadway at the last Board meeting, staff responded by noting that it would be difficult or impossible to install raised medians because this stretch of north Broadway has a lot of delivery vehicles using the continuous left turn lane to make deliveries to businesses. However, I believe it is quite feasible to accommodate both pedestrian safety needs and delivery vehicle needs with raised medians.

For example, raised medians do not need to be continuous throughout the entire stretch of north Broadway. By having, for example, turn pockets interspersed with raised medians, delivery areas are largely maintained. Yes, this will sometimes require a delivery person to have to walk 20 or 30 feet further to make a delivery, but this tradeoff is a relatively minor inconvenience compared to the dramatic pedestrian safety (and other) benefits provided by the raised medians.

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Are Cell Phones the Main Cause of a Recent Increase in Traffic Fatalities?

 

By Dom Nozzi

April 1, 2017

It is surprisingly difficult to isolate causes of crash/fatality trends in driving. One source has made the persuasive case a while back that the only good correlation we can find is based on the health of the national economy, of all things.

In any event, pointing to something like cell phones is a “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain” method that distracts people from a major cause of crashes: our roads are shockingly dangerous in how they are designed. And this follows over 100 16598647019_2c1634cb89_zyears of annual campaigns to make roads safer. Talk about a failed track record. Talk about a need to change course on our efforts to improve safety…

The US has seen over 30,000 people die on the roads EACH YEAR since the 1940s. Cell phones did not arrive until the 80s or 90s. The number of annual deaths is a crazy high number and should be utterly unacceptable to any civilized society. Given the American love of the death penalty, our failure to adopt universal health care, our 240 years of being a Warrior Nation, and our abusive criminal justice system, a great case can be made that the good old USA is one of the most uncivilized nations in human history (probably at least partly due, ironically, to our high level of religious belief – which is infamous for inspiring hatred, violence, and intolerance).

I agree that cell phones (and many other distractors) are very dangerous for a driver to engage in while driving. But we need to keep our eye on the ball. We’ve had over 100 years of failed efforts to make driving safe.

In sum, if no driver ever used a cell phone again, we’d STILL be seeing over 30,000 traffic fatalities in the US each year.

In my view, successfully reducing the number of drivers distracted by cell phone use is unlikely to produce the safety benefits we expect. Efforts to point to cell phones as a silver bullet solution to making our roads significantly safer is quite likely to distract us from the much more important, pressing fact that our car-happy transportation system is inherently deadly (largely due to car-happy, “forgiving” road design and a dispersed land use pattern that requires us to drive everywhere — and at high speeds).

 

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Suggestions for Running a Smooth, Productive Public Workshop Centering on Street Redesign

By Dom Nozzi

March 31, 2017

A staff member from a college town transportation department learned that I would not be able to attend the first meeting of a citizen workshop pertaining to the redesign of a street on the eastern periphery of the urbanized portion of the town.

Because I was serving on the city transportation advisory board, the staff person thought it would be helpful for me to suggest ways the first meeting could run more smoothly and productively.

The following is my response.

In my 31 years of experience at public workshops as both a citizen and a professional, the two most important lessons I have learned in getting a group to operate smoothly and productively is that the process must start by having a skilled, non-threatening professional expert provide a summary of design principles.

That summary should describe what is known from research about the impacts and effectiveness of various design treatments, what might work locally, and lessons learned from other communities – in other words, the typical way to start a design charrette.

Without this upfront education, group members tend to be coming from vastly different perspectives and lack of knowledge that significantly increases the likelihood that differences of opinion cannot be resolved (and that there will be so much frustration about not being on the same page that hostility arises). A lack of knowledge on the part of some/all of the group members also amplifies an enormous problem in public meetings: The LESS someone knows about a topic, the MORE CERTAIN they are about the thought that they are right.

Two tools that are very helpful in providing quick, informed awareness, and meaningful input, for a non-professional group: (1) maximize the use of easy-to-understand graphics that visually show conditions, issues, and design principles (such graphics must be very June8workshop-1simple and minimize the amount of irrelevant engineering clutter that distracts from the important issues that need to be conveyed). (2) Use real-time visual preference (and other) surveys to assess group preferences during the meeting. The use of clickers to do real-time surveys of a group was extremely effective and useful at the traffic mitigation workshop the City sponsored a few weeks ago by the City.

I would also note, with regard to that traffic mitigation meeting, that I found it very useful to clearly point out at the beginning of the meeting that people need to LISTEN to others and be RESPECTFUL of others.

Overall, it is essential that the group start off with a clear understanding of the overall land use and transportation objectives for the corridor. If the objective is to, say, create another strip commercial corridor, the street to be redesigned at the workshop will need to have a higher speed design that makes free-flowing car traffic the imperative. If, on the other hand, the objective is to support safe, walkable, smaller scale retail, office and residential, the street under analysis will need to have a slower speed design that supports transportation choice and making the pedestrian the design imperative.

The staff person also asked me to imagine that, at the end of the day, I didn’t get everything I wanted for the street being analyzed, but I found myself really pleased with the process.  I was, in other words, able to say that it was both credible and meaningful.  What would have happened, this staff person asked?

I told her that given the high level of contentious hostility and ridiculing we were seeing at public meetings in this town, it would be essential that meetings are designed to make it safe for all viewpoints to be expressed – even those viewpoints that are relatively controversial – and that even those who are relatively timid in expressing their views feel comfortable in expressing their views. The use of the real-time clicker surveys is a good way to do that, as are a few other methods (such as allowing people to submit written ideas).

For me to feel as if the meeting was credible and meaningful, it is also essential that the group be provided with upfront education as I mentioned above. Without that, the group is likely to be little more than an uninformed, emotional mob with axes to grind. As a result, too many expressed citizen objectives end up being a random free-for-all of personal, parochial bias that ignores community objectives.

Another important way for me to feel that the meeting was meaningful comes from a feeling that the group has fully expressed their hopes and dreams (their visions). Too often in public workshops these days, I have a strong sense that attendees are either overly bashful about expressing their visions, or are not even aware that certain visions they may have are even feasible. This bashfulness or lack of awareness is another important reason why upfront education from a professional design expert is important, as doing so makes it much more likely that attendees will be less bashful or more aware of the full range of possible visions.

 

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