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Wednesday
Sep192012

Crazy Ideas

What exactly makes an idea crazy? Perhaps more importantly, are all crazy ideas automatically bad or not worth exploring? As the old adage goes, great ideas pass through three stages: first they are ridiculed, then violently opposed and finally accepted as being self-evident. Today I am going to try to move people from the mocking stage to violent opposition.

In my "highly inflammatory" and "overly critical" blog post on Kansas City's streets last week, I made the following statement that has drawn only ridicule from the masses:

Here are the immediate things I would do tomorrow if I were put in charge of renovating Kansas City's downtown:

4. Change all signalized intersections into a shared space area. As a temporary transition, shut off the traffic lights and paint the intersections to alert everyone that this is shared space.

The thought of a downtown without traffic signals was bizarre to many people. Don't traffic lights help with congestion? Wouldn't the downtown be more dangerous to everyone without signals? It seems like there would be anarchy and chaos. This is a crazy idea! Someone even asked me if I had heard of the MUTCD, as if it were a book in the Bible. (For non-engineers, the MUTCD, also called "the mutt", is the Manual for Uniform Traffic Control Devices).

I want people to take a step back and imagine life before the Suburban Experiment, before the development of the MUTCD and before the ubiquitous installation of traffic signals. This wasn't that long ago. Today we act as if our approach is some type of received wisdom -- the way things have always been -- but much of our population can remember the time before any traffic control at all. Traffic engineering is a young profession that is essentially making up the rules as they go along.

Traffic signals and traffic control devices are major components in a complex system. Like all complex systems where human decision-making impacts the outcomes, the relation between cause and effect is ambiguous at best. For people who reflexively argue that our current system is a wonderfully efficient and productive approach, I simply ask: as measured against what?

Where is the control group, the city without all of the signals and traffic control devices, that we can measure outcomes against? What beyond our own self assurance -- justified or otherwise -- gives us confidence that this is the best approach? Or even an approach that is one of the better alternatives? We apply the standards of the MUTCD and we've done our job. We assume it is the best approach because, if it were not, it would not be part of the MUTCD. This meme is destructively self-reinforcing.

Part of my overall argument has been that we place too much emphasis on improving the speed of the first and last minute of each trip. That approach costs us untold amounts of wealth to build, robs us of much of the productive capacity of our places and, paradoxically, actually increases the time it takes to get places.

It may be an efficient system, but it is dumb. Really, really dumb.

Let me give you one example. I stayed at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in downtown Kansas City. When I left, I flew out of the airport, which is on the edge of town. Google is telling me that this is a 19 mile trip that should take me 23 minutes. That sounds about right.

Image and distance calculation from Google Maps.

Of the 19 miles I traveled, the first 3,700 feet were in the grid of the downtown. That is 3.7% of the distance of my trip. If I travel 30 miles per hour during that first portion of the trip, I will be out of the grid and onto Highway 169 in 1 minute and 24 seconds.

My recommendation was that the signal lights be removed and all of the intersections become shared space. Along with that, I made other recommendations that were designed to dramatically slow the speed of automobiles moving through the downtown. Slower speeds would be necessary if cars are to share the streets with pedestrians, bikers and others that should be there. And if drivers are to merge their cars with others in a shared space environment, slow speeds decrease the gap necessary to make that happen.

So what if Kansas City adopted my recommendation and went for a design speed of 15 miles per hour; half of what is currently provided for and well below any equivalent street network in the country? Halve the speed and that 3,700 feet to travel to get to on the highway now takes 2 minutes and 48 seconds.

Pause here and note that we're talking about taking a trip that is 23 minutes and making it into a trip that is 24 minutes and 48 seconds. That is not a change that is going to alter anyone's reality in terms of travel time and distance. On the other hand, if KC did not have to spend so enormously much money on maintaining streets that (my apologies Kansas Citians but) proportionately few people are using, they would have immense savings. And I'm not even talking about the financial impact of having a far more desirable downtown that would attract people and investment as well as creating a place devoid of needless traffic fatalities.

Of course, looking at the travel time this way isn't an apples to apples comparison. At the 30 mph design speed, you have signalized intersections to deal with. You can talk about "timing" all you want in theory, we all know that of the 10 signalized intersections on the way out of town, the typical driver is going to have to wait for at least one to turn.

Photo from Google Earth. I have highlighted my route in blue and shown each signal along it with a red circle. This is the route that Google recommended, which seems quite logical.And once they do that -- once they have to stop to let just one light cycle through to green -- all of the theoretical time savings from the higher design speed disappear. In terms of getting to destinations quickly, the typical driver is far, far better off driving very slow through the grid, sharing the space without having to stop at any signals, than they are waiting to have priority given to them so they can drive at higher speeds to the next stop light.

We have spent untold amounts of wealth in an effort to squeeze seconds out of the first and last mile of each auto trip. In the process, we have turned our most productive asset -- our core cities -- into low return, despotic environments that do not sufficiently attract investment capital. This would all be crazy enough in and of itself, but when you add on the realization that the approach actually makes commutes and driving times longer, you then have the very definition of insanity.

That our minds can't grasp this is what is truly crazy. When our first reaction to an idea like shared space is ridicule and scorn, even from those predisposed to be sympathetic to the idea of improving our cities, it shows just how far we have yet to go in our conversation.

And I'm sorry, Kansas City, but a rail line through the downtown is an expensive distraction. It is not a magic bullet that will create the type of prosperity you imagine it will. I get the allure -- and I'm not opposed to it -- but the problems you and other similar cities face are far more basic. And simple to solve, quite frankly. Build a productive place and you won't need to lobby for a rail line; the need for it will be self evident. You want to convince suburban voters to support placemaking improvements in the downtown? Show them how a different approach will cost less and reduce their commute time and see how quickly their opposition fades.

That's the essence of a Strong Towns approach.

 

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 (17)

Damn, Chuck. You are paradigm destroying.

September 19, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRuben

What you describe is/was in Kansas City. If you look at the Country Club Plaza, just south of downtown, you will see that two-way, slower traffic / pedestrian friendly works. And until recently, it was done without many traffic lights. It seems there are more lights then there used to be - and more backups.

September 19, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDarrell

First of all, no Kansas Citian would have taken the route that you did through downtown on Broadway. They would have gone one block south and gotten on the south loop and taken it around to 169. Add an additional 2 minutes to the route and even Google wouldn't have routed you through downtown. So, your suggestion would have essentially eliminated anyone driving through the downtown area. Congratulations! If you were knowledgable about Kansas City you would be having the discussion that we are having, eliminating a portion of the downtown loop entirely. Some want it eliminated and some want it decked over to connect with the Crossroads district. This would stop downtown being an island surrounded by highways and connect it to more developing areas. It's like sending free American grain to Africa to feed people, you're trying to help but you just end up making things worse.

September 19, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterbfa

"It may be an efficient system, but it is dumb. Really, really dumb." This comment reminds me of something the NA chairman of a former employer once said during a contentious budget meeting. "Sometimes the most expensive way to go is to do the wrong thing efficiently."

September 19, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSophia Katt

@bfa - Doesn't that kind of prove his point? There's no need for high speed roads through downtown if there's no need for cars to drive through the core at speed. The calmer, more pleasant streets can then turn to more productive uses and places that *people* want to be, rather than *cars* want to speed past.

September 19, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterToast2042

Actually, it's perfectly possible that these roads are in fact congested and used to their design capacity. I personally live in an area that has a few roads like that: wide six-lane monstrosities that are almost always completely empty. One of them is actually filled with cars for exactly one hour during the day, split between the hours of 8:00 to 8:30 am and and 5:00 to 5:30 pm on weekdays, and is otherwise pretty empty. The other one is even worse, because it's full only for an hour or so after special events (hockey games and such) at the local special events arena, and that's only two or three days a week. And it should be noted that there's a somewhat counterintuitive effect here: most of the time the roads are empty, but most of the people who use them experience them as being congested.

September 19, 2012 | Unregistered Commenteranonymouse

Seeing as vibrant and successful downtowns are characterized by slow moving traffic and conditions that are generally not favorable to automobiles, it's a complete wonder that improving traffic has ever been any city's goal.

September 19, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterIan Rasmussen

Chuck, Please help me understand how cross traffic works in your scenario. How does a car cross a busy street?

September 19, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Hunt

@PaulHunt is a friend of mine and so I answered him offline. Now that I'm back from dinner, I'll share here what I sent him:

Paul,

Watch this video, especially at the 4:00 mark.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lBcz-Y8lqOg&feature=share&list=PL5F6239474400B42C

You would literally drive right through, mindful of others in that space. Think of what a parking lot is like -- people don't kill each other, they just drive slow.

This article may help explain things too:

http://www.salon.com/2004/05/20/traffic_design/

-Chuck

September 19, 2012 | Registered CommenterCharles Marohn

Obviously removing traffic control devices at intersections along a street like, say, Grand through downtown KC would have to be paired with some serious traffic calming engineering, an education campaign and major enforcement of a much slower speed limit. It would also have to include similar measures on cross streets. But there just is no density on this street or other cross streets to create a natural traffic calming effect. You can put all the paint you want in the middle of the intersections but drivers will rejoice at the lack of red lights and drive even faster through the intersections. They don't even currently stop for pedestrians entering the marked crosswalks.

Doesn't there have to be *some* density that precedes this type of intersection configuration? This would work in a place like Westport or Country Club Plaza, perhaps other areas of Midtown KC simply because there is density and traffic. But downtown is so desolate... even at rush hour.

Would roundabouts be a better alternative for an area like our downtown? It sure would be easier to sell to traffic engineers.

September 20, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterEric B.

The City of Portland uses traffic signals to manage speeds in our downtown. You might enjoy this video of me biking on SW 6th, in the center of the City and keeping up with traffic. See the following: https://vimeo.com/13931035

This is described in the Federal Highway Administration's Signal Timing Manual, the City uses quarter cycle offsets to make this happen in both directions in downtown Portland.

My point being that our speeds for traffic in downtown (all traffic) are at 12 to 16 mph depending on the time of day and traffic signals can be a significant positive influence for controlling speeds. Roundabouts will not do what traffic signals do in this case.

September 20, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPeter Koonce

Just to nitpick:
"Pause here and note that we're talking about taking a trip that is 19 minutes and making it into a trip that is 20 minutes and 48 seconds."
Earlier it was said to be a 19 mile trip of 23 minutes. So, really:
Pause here and note that we're talking about taking a trip that is 23 minutes and making it into a trip that is 24 minutes and 48 seconds.
It's only a 1.65% difference in less additional time.
But it is less of an increase in time in that scenario.

September 21, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDave

Greater presence of pedestrians and bikes in a downtown definitely does positively correlate with traffic speed reduction...The most successful downtowns in the country rarely see mean traffic speed greater than ~15 mph. In many of these, signalization on the highest-traffic routes is a useful tool to ensure that all the traffic, motorized or not, is able to go where they want to in a timely manner. Traffic engineers, who too often train and practice exclusively in and for suburban conditions, don't really realize this occurs--much less how it works. But it does, every day, in places like New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Portland, Frisco, etc.

What Google tells me about Kansas City is it's a total mess. Excessive traffic lanes, lacking pedestrian facilities, nonexistent bike facilities, overly signalized intersections, etc., all contribute to moving traffic at stroad speeds. It's clearly a "go in, go to work, get out" design, not at all a place people want to be.

Kansas Citians, this is a place where people want to be.

Chuck, I actually have to disagree with you about giving DT KC a shared-space treatment. Shared spaces, as it turns out, work best when mean traffic speed is 10 to 15 mph, if not less; DT KC is clearly engineered for far faster speeds. Ultimately, the lightness of traffic would (ironically) further induce speeding in a shared-space environment.

DT KC needs to become, once again, a place where people want to be before any shared-space scheme can work.

September 21, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSteve

Great catch, Dave. You win the editor award of the day. I made that change. Thank you very much.

@Steve, I can't argue with your conclusions. It would take a major shift.

September 21, 2012 | Registered CommenterCharles Marohn

@Steve

Nice picture of the place where people want to be. I'm not sure Charles would agree with your pick as it is a one-way street, which is very efficient at carrying vehicle traffic.

September 21, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJeff Morrow

One-way streets aren't too much of a problem from a pedestrian standpoint when they're 3 lanes or less. They still have the issues of excessive vehicle circulating to get to and from their destinations, poor retail visibility on certain corners, and all that. Nevertheless, when the street is pretty narrow to begin with, making it one-way doesn't hurt too much, especially if there's on-street parking on at least one side. Even 4 lanes that are only 9 or 10 feet wide with parking on both sides isn't too bad (that's what much of downtown Cincinnati is like, though parking is usually restricted at rush hour which does make it a lot less pleasant). When you start getting more than 3 travel lanes all going in one direction that's where it really gets unpleasant, especially if the lanes are fairly wide too.

September 21, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJeffrey Jakucyk

Just got back from a business trip to London. Was amazed to notice how many intersections are not controlled with a light or stop sign. Even the crosswalks on some major streets like Kings Road are marked only with a pair of black an white barber poles and paint ---- and it all works out.

September 23, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDamon
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