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Friday
Nov302012

Friday News Digest 

This week I had the opportunity to travel to Colorado to share the Strong Towns message with a Curbside Chat in the city of Rocky Ford. I've put in a lot of air miles this year, but Denver to Pueblo was my first time in a really small plane (see photo below). This type of aircraft is not exactly accessed from the terminal, so as we're walking across the tarmac, I'm looking around for what I'm thinking will be the plane....we're flying in that? It was like the pilot had to spin the propeller to get it going. Seriously, when the door was closed the flight attendant had to beat on it with a flashlight to get it to lock shut. Luckily I'm a relaxed flyer and it was a short trip. And Rocky Ford made it a worthwhile time.

A picture I took from my phone as we're leaving Denver. I was instructed to power down my electronic devices prior to takeoff, but that seemed like the least of our worries.

Enjoy the week's news.

  • I've been working on some 2013 planning stuff for Strong Towns recently following our retreat in the middle of November. I can't wait to share that with everyone here and get your feedback and thoughts. In the meantime, one of the key strategies is to find away to support what we have started to call an "Army of George". That is George as in George Matthew Linkert IV of Mound, MN. His actions to take the Strong Towns message and make it his own within his community is an inspiration to all of us here. Here is a copy of the presentation he made to his city council this week. If we could unleash and empower a nation of GML4's working at the local level, we would have a nation of Strong Towns.
  • Cap'n Transit, the Official Super Hero of Strong Towns, gave a very simple solution to a vexing engineering problem (or, more correctly, problem with engineering) this week. By turning the little understood 85th percentile approach around he points the way to a far more logical -- and financially productive -- way of building our places.

The other insight is that some drivers follow the speed limit, while others drive as fast as feels safe. The bigger the difference between those two groups, the more destructive it will be when a member of the feeling group hits a member of the limit group. By increasing the speed limit to the 85th percentile, they encourage the limit group to travel at the same speed as the feeling group, minimizing that difference.

We don't want to throw out that insight. But we do want to be less crazy about it. The key is to change the order of the steps:

1. Decide on a speed limit based on the pedestrian, cyclist and built environment you want to see along this road. That's what you put on your signs.

2. Design the road so that 85% of drivers will feel comfortable traveling under that speed.

By reversing those two steps, we make safety and comfort for all a priority over speed, and we acknowledge the value of a safe pedestrian environment in maintaining a livable city.

  • I understand what they are doing and I thank them for sharing our message -- there are many ramifications for their constituency -- but the AARP website is not the place I was anticipating a writeup about Strong Towns. A Strong Town requires age diversity in order to sustain itself. (Strong Towns Principle #7) We're glad to be a resource for AARP.

The Strong Towns website emphasizes the need for a different community growth approach to foster development that will help communities be financially stable. The website offers resources for planners and community leaders looking for information on a growth approach that seeks to improve their community’s financial well-being.

Planners, government officials and community leaders can use the website to further research the Strong Towns initiative and determine if the Smart Growth approach would work well in their community. Local officials and community leaders looking for ways to improve local growth can use the case studies and the Strong Towns Blog provided through the website to begin their research on the Strong Towns approach.

  • It was about a year ago that we released our Diverging Diamond video critique of Missouri's DDI interchange. Since then, we've had people send us updates on dozens of such projects in operation and development across the country. I have to say that, through all of this, I never dreamed a diverging diamond interchange would ever be considered in my little hometown, despite their delusional aspiration to never have a car be inconvenienced in any way. A DDI would be another checkbox; a true milestone if they can get it. All they want for Christmas is a DDI.

But one of the looming questions is how a new intersection will affect the traffic flow at Highland Scenic Drive’s intersection with Highway 371. One possibility includes building a diamond interchange at Highway 371.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) is currently building a divering diamond interchange at Highway 15 and Stearns County Road 120 in St. Cloud. It is slated for completion by the fall of 2013. That new interchange will have traffic crisscrossing at either end of the bridge. Instead of making hard left turns, drivers will veer to the left for access, MnDOT reported.

  • The Auklund Transport Blog had a post this week by Kent Lundberg about flush medians, the New Zealand name for what I've heard called the center turn lane, the third lane or the suicide lane. Whatever you call it, they are a colossal waste of space and resources, even if you are obsessed with moving traffic. I've often looked at these as the engineering equivalent of squatting, essentially claiming the space for cars to keep all others out while the theoretical "network" develops and expands to utilize the space. All of this pavement is really expensive to build, has the effect of degrading the corridor and the value of the adjacent land and only provides for nominal increases in traffic flow (and I suspect, a worse safety record than a tight, slow two lane). Keep pushing, Kent. I love the fact that you are proposing alternatives for people to consider.

The “flush median” is a pernicious road design that lingers in many places around Auckland and is still being utilised in many new road designs. I can only guess that its genesis originated in the late 60’s as a way to separate cars from the most severe of collisions, the head-on. It remains today, as that pesky give-way rule did, as a sort of monument to a particular era of traffic planning.

Besides providing a buffer distance between moving vehicles the flush median’s main purpose is to let cars turn left or right whenever they want, as infrequently as it may happen, while not obstructing the almighty flow of traffic. The flush median by design reduces the friction between vehicles moving in opposite directions and raises driving comfort and ultimately speed. Other such safety-minded designs such as the introduction of wide lanes, the removal of hazardous objects (aka trees), and over-scaled intersection geometry all are a form of “passive” design, an effort to physically design safety features into the environment. With the benefit of hindsight we know that this well-intended design philosophy combined with the desire for unimpeded flow often makes streets more unsafe, since it leads to speeding and driver inattention.

  • The same hometown (Baxter -- Brainerd's suburban twin) that is pining for the DDI is also considering a Safe Routes to School report that is calling on them to spend around a million dollars on a trail. I wrote about this program in more depth last week (What is the federal role?). It is just astounding that we spend millions and millions closing neighborhood schools and relocating them in places you cannot walk to, then commission an expensive report that recommends spending yet more money to make these schools marginally accessible to the handful of students whose parents would allow them to walk there. I'm Minnesotan, so I'm not reflexively anti-government, but you've got to be kidding me. I get the concept, but in the triage of urban repair, wasting another million on a trail along a frontage road adjacent to a four lane divided highway is a low priority, especially while three neighborhood schools sit empty in places where there are lots of kids (all being bused, by the way, at further expense). The fact that every step of the way has involved recommendations from engineers for more work to be performed by engineers only to fix the deficiencies of prior engineering work only makes me more bitter. $%&!

At issue in Baxter is Fairview Road, the frontage road just off Highway 210 that goes by Baxter Elementary School. The feasibility study noted Fairview, a road without shoulders or a sidewalk, has relatively high vehicle traffic and frequent use by walkers and bikers going to and from the school.

The city of Baxter worked with MnDOT and received an additional $10,000 from the Safe Routes to School Program to study the options of a pedestrian trail along Fairview. The study came up with multiple options ranging from an estimated $322,608 to $730,258. An additional $150,000 to $595,000 is expected in private utility costs. Challenges include stormwater and the close proximity of houses, which include ones in the Fairview Road right of way.

  • Many thanks to our friend, Eli Damon, for sharing this video. She hooked me right at the beginning and it just kept getting better.

  • A must read new blog: Building Safety Awareness. Finally someone is bringing to the world's attention to mistreatment and abuse suffered by automobiles in our society. Cars are people too.

Jacksonville, FL—Florida, who leads the country in buildings crashing into cars, added another tally mark on Monday when a McDonald’s drive-thru was located in the wrong place, causing a truck to drive through the dining room and park in front of the counter. Despite being open 24 hours, no customers were inside at the time of the crash and no employees were injured. The car opted not to press charges against McDonald’s, saying “I just wanted my damn Big Mac.” Investigators are following leads to determine why the built environment is causing so many accidents in the sunshine state.

  • The Aukland Transport Blog gets a second shout out this week -- amazing work there, mate (do you say "mate" in new Zealand?) -- with a great analysis of the revenue generated in downtown core and surrounding neighborhoods compared to the periphery. No mystery -- if you've heard from the Great Joe Minicozzi, the brains behind this approach, you know how productive the traditional development pattern is.

  • Last summer I wrote about San Bernardino and their bankruptcy. I took some criticism from those that wanted to say this was a special case, a creature of bizarre pension obligations and not indicative of a broader trend. A Reuters piece this week also focused primarily on pensions and potential corruption but also slipped in one paragraph that acknowledged my central thesis: We have used the Ponzi scheme benefits of hyper growth through cheap horizontal expansion of our cities to paper over the fundamental insolvencies of our places wrought by the first life cycle of the Suburban Experiment. What you are seeing now is the weakest of the weak succumbing to the inevitable.

Last decade's housing boom had papered over the deep economic problems stemming from the shutdowns of a huge steel mill in the 1980s and the Norton Air Force Base in the 1990s. Now the boom was over. Tax revenues were poised for a big fall: Between 2007 and 2011, they dropped 30 percent, according to Husing, the regional economist.

  • This has little to nothing to do with Strong Towns, but I still found it shocking, especially the way we in advanced, so-called "civilized" societies still treat some people. I'm not trying to make a broader point, but I found the following offensive (more so coming from a male bureaucrat whom, I'm sure, has no concept of "business models" or boxes for that matter).

Mr Herzig said the attractions of the sex boxes for prostitutes will outweigh their rather dour industrial location, which lies just a stone's throw from a major rail depot.

"The women will be better protected from attack, and it will also mean better business for them," he explained. "With the women right by the sex boxes there is no 'travel time' so they can deal with more customers. It's a better business model than standing on the street."

  • And for all of those aspiring politicians looking for a place they can start the long climb up the ladder of elected office, Taopi, Minnesota, may be your perfect starting point.

Jim Kiefer was mayor of Taopi from 1984 to 2008. Mary Huntley was city clerk from 1976 to 2008. That year, the Post-Bulletin reports they decided to switch jobs and were both elected in the town of 40 registered voters near the Iowa border.

This year Kiefer and Huntley decided to step down. But no one else signed up, so voters reelected both by write-in. Newcomer Eric Boe was also elected to the city council by write-in votes.

  • Finally, I had this video shared with me this week and wanted to pass it on here. It is a powerful message for smokers -- yes -- but for everyone else, it is a brilliant example of framing an issue to get people to think. For those of you that too easily give up on humanity and doubt the human capacity to make good decisions, take a minute to watch this and then think about how we need to frame the big issues of our society. Change is always possible.

 

Christmas baking at the Marohn household starts this weekend and I'm so very excited. See you all back here next week.

 

If you would like more from Chuck Marohn, check out his new book, Thoughts on Building Strong Towns (Volume 1)

 You can also chat with Chuck and many others about implementing a Strong Towns approach in your community by joining the Strong Towns Network. The Strong Towns Network is a social platform for those working to make their community a strong town.

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Reader Comments (2)

Interesting thoughts on the center turn lane. Those seem to be so popular on lower-volume stroads, both in new suburbs and in older suburbs with an abundance of old four-narrow-lane undivided stroads. Either way, they invite excessive curb cuts for businesses which of course greatly increase conflict points.

In general, I actually really like four to three conversions. First, other than the oncoming conflict with turn lanes, they seem to reduce conflict points (less head-on potential, less potential for rear-ending cars waiting to turn). The better benefit is that they enhance predictability of drivers, one of the main factors that increases safety. People can be reasonably assured that the primary travel lane won't be blocked by turning traffic, and they don't have to swerve around left-turning cars which is dangerous for oncoming left-turners that need to cross the lane and also for people in the near-side crosswalk.

At times, though, these are done to create a buffer between cars while reserving the space for car-only uses. I've seen center turn lanes out in the suburb where I grew up that stretch for blocks without a single cross street or curb cut. As an interim step, how much harder is it to simply spend a little more effort painting actual turn lanes?

The best approach, and one I've been advocating for in my own South Minneapolis neighborhood, is to take advantage of four to three conversions for increased non-car space. Best of all, it doesn't come at the expense of vehicle space and it can increase the efficiency and predictability of existing vehicular movement.

When not being used to store vehicles for left turns, the median space can be an ACTUAL median! With plantings and other features that soften the streetscape. I also think they serve a HUGE benefit for walkers, as they can provide pedestrian refuges to make it easier for people to cross busy streets at uncontrolled intersections. The extra space on the shoulders afford an opportunity for bumpouts, or creating vegetated boulevards in areas where the curb has been widened right up to the sidewalk.

Unfortunately, a lot of our Minneapolis arterial streets are ambiguous two-lane streets that many drivers treat as four lane stroads, passing on the right. Many are under county jurisdiction, and the county treats them as roads. There are also concerns about snow plowing and snow storage, yet I think that's really overblown... Tactical bumpouts and medians actually provide for MORE snow storage space during the winter.

What do other people think?

November 30, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMatt MSP

Turning conflicts always cause more accidents than predictable design. Passive design is supposed to make things safer by making the environment more predictable for drivers, and indeed would have seemed a logical approach in the 1950s (when a greater percentage of accidents were caused by things like turning vehicles blocking the driving lane). The problem is this model doesn't work: first, because more predictable design leads to more inattentive driving, and second, because environments where center turn lanes are implemented have more turning conflicts than more urban designs (due to all the curb cuts). Accident data has made it abundantly clear for some time that stroads are by far the least safe road design that can be implemented...yet engineers continue to implement them in the name of safety. Something is wrong with this picture.

About medians (flush and otherwise): Most traffic engineers, including Nate Hood, would generally say a divided median always increases traffic speed. I have my doubts: this street and this stroad both have divided medians, yet one is considerably lower-speed and safer than the other. I think that, if we were to take a look the different ways medians are actually used, we would discover that where they are used in the service of keeping the traffic lane extremely narrow, they can and will work as a speed retardant.

December 1, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSteve
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