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« Friday News Digest | Main | Name that speed »

Looking outside the lines

I was once at a city council meeting where a new road improvement was being considered. A resident raised a concern that the recommended wider, straighter and flatter road would encourage people to speed. The city engineer stood up and, sheepishly, said something to the effect of, "that is why we have law enforcement." I about fell off my chair, especially when the council members nodded in agreement.

In discussing Tuesday's blog post on the highway through Grand Marais with a group of engineers and planners, one of them relayed a story to me about a police officer at a similar meeting. That police officer, wise to what was going on, supposedly told the engineer that his department should not be expected to spend their resources correcting the engineer's lousy design. Touche.

Between the Strong Towns site and the New Urban Network site (where posts from Strong Towns also frequently appear), we had seven people try and estimate the speed of the highway section based only on the design. We had removed the adjacent land use from the photo leaving only the highway section itself. Of the eight photos, nobody got a majority correct. Only one person guessed four correctly. Six of the seven people guessing did not even get half of them correct.

Obviously this is not a scientific sampling, but I think the logic revealed in the exercise is powerful. The only criteria used for the design of this thoroughfare -- and others like it across the country -- are based on auto traffic. Primarily speed and volume. Any land use considerations, such as maximizing the adjacent land values, making efficienct use of existing public utilities or limiting demand for additional auto capacity by providing an environment compatible with walking, are non-existent.   

This is not acceptable. We invest billions of dollars annually in the United States using this one-dimensional thinking. That can't continue.

Here are the full photos for each section. Thanks to everyone who ventured a guess.

Photo 1 - 55 MPH

Photo 2 - 30 MPH

Photo 3 - 30 MPH

Photo 4 - 40 MPH

Photo 5 - 55 MPH

Photo 6 - 40 MPH

Photo 7 - 55 MPH

Photo 8 - 40 MPH


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Reader Comments (6)

This was an outstanding exercise, very illustrative. I only wish there was a more urban example, since even the most built-up area is very low density suburban strip development. To see this same road section plowing through an historic downtown with a 20 mph speed limit would make it that much more jaw-dropping. I do realize it would be difficult to find such an example, not because they aren't out there, but because such a downtown area would have a bunch more parked cars or building shadows over the street that would give it away.

What I do find very interesting otherwise is how there's no differentiation between the shoulder in more rural areas versus the parking lane in more built-up areas. Honestly, why does a road like this even need shoulders in the first place? I see this kind of thing in the south a lot. It does bring up a question about bike friendliness though. The worst roads for cycling (and yes I'm talking roads, not streets) are the narrow country-type roads that have suburban volumes of traffic. They're too narrow to allow cars to pass cyclists with so much oncoming traffic. That's where a few feet of shoulder or just wider lanes can be a benefit, at least until they put those damn rumble strips in.

September 1, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJeffrey Jakucyk

Though, I get your point I was expecting the reveal to show a "downtown" district in at least one of the photos. Like the pohoto of Mankato, MN that you posted in the entry "we just don't get it". I would consider all of the images to be from rural highways in sparsly populated areas. I agree that roads should be designed with context in mind but the examples seem like they should all be 40 or 55mph and rightfully so. Perhaps it's just my ignorance of the context but the only one that seems to need any sensitivity is the DQ image and that barely. I love the bolg, but fail to see how the examples prove anything other than rural highways may not need to be quite so wide.

September 1, 2011 | Unregistered Commentercolin

Good point, Colin. I think the small town example is a good one because this transition happens over just a mile, from highway speed to local speed and back up. It is a case study you can actually walk through. Also, with small towns it is important to understand that the area where the DQ is was the downtown. What has happened to it over the past 60 years is that it has become "suburbanized". Now there is little tax base per increment of public investment, a characteristic that did not exist decades ago. This is another feature of our development pattern that is more evident in a small town.

Highways do not need to be so wide through small towns, yes, but more importantly, we need to understand how these highways are failing to create value for the community proportionate to the liabilities it creates.

September 1, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCharles Marohn

Ahh, That makes more sense. This happens frequently through the small towns that abound in my region, upstate NY and New England, some make it happen better than others. I am also suportive of the idea you breach of using traffic circles to quell speed at the entrance to towns. A brief aside...I am an avid fan of the Tour de France and am always amazed at the way the peloton navigates through all of the small, and large, towns in the French countryside. Often they pass through an entry and an exit "roundabout" when approaching towns. This type of ceremonial arrival and exit treatment could make strides towards increasing in-town values and quelling excessive speed with little cost to our towns.

September 1, 2011 | Unregistered Commentercolin

You could clarify with an overhead view showing the speed limit bands.

Or try to get a ride along with a cop and show how easy it would be to go 60 MPH straight through town, lol.

September 1, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSeth

This was a fascinating exercise. Most of these roads have features that don't seem serve any real purpose. For example, the roads in photos 1, 4, 5, 7, and 8 all have two-way left turn lanes, but none of them are the kind of place where I would expect two-way left turn lanes, namely places with frequent commercial driveways.

You said, "...I think the logic revealed in the exercise is powerful. The only criteria used for the design of this thoroughfare -- and others like it across the country -- are based on auto traffic." That is the main point that I take from the exercise, especially considering your anecdotes about engineers. It seems like the engineers who designed these roads (streets?) did even consider the design speed, which is, unfortunately, the only thing we usually expect of road designers. If the government that commissions the project is setting speed limits that do not match the design of the road (which can't be done in Massachusetts, by the way), that suggests to me that the government had a design speed in mind from the beginning and the engineers ignored it. I am very surprised about the attitude of the engineers in your anecdotes because I thought that setting motor traffic speeds was considered the primary responsibility for someone designing a road. And I would expect them to know that speed limits have almost no influence on actual traffic speeds. They do nothing to influence actual traffic speeds. They only serve as a mechanism to hold speeders accountable.

In response to Jeffrey's comment: I find that, as a cyclist and cycling instructor, roads with wide shoulders are especially UNcomfortable to ride on, because many motorists assume that cyclists should be on the shoulder and feel compelled to harass and threaten cyclists who are traveling on the road. Shoulders are not designed, built, maintained, or regulated for vehicular travel, and with only rare exceptions there are many hazards to cycling on even a wide shoulder. In my experience, the narrower the shoulder, the more calm and cautious motorists tend to be when overtaking a cyclist. Many cyclists are afraid of motor traffic, and wide shoulders often gives them an unwarranted feeling of protection and leads them to expose themselves to greater danger.

September 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterEli Damon
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