We invite our members to submit their questions on anything that they would like our thoughts on. We’ll give you a Strong Towns answer or find an expert who can. I’m way behind on these (my apologies) so I’m going to try and blitz through a number of them here today.
Sean from Silver Spring, Maryland, asks:
My neighborhood is bounded on two sides by 6 lane arterial highways (the ultimate STROADs), with a major interstate (I-495, the Capital Beltway) on the other. Last year, one of these 6 lane arterial highways called University Boulevard was narrowed to 4 lanes for a bridge deck project over the Beltway, since the bridge was 55 years old and needed replacement.
The construction began last spring, and the road was narrowed from a 6 lane divided highway with 11 and 12 foot wide travel lanes, to a 4 lane undivided road with just 10-11 foot wide lanes. When the project was proposed a couple of years ago, many locals feared that the lane reduction would result in traffic gridlock. However, that hasn't been the case. Despite the construction, traffic congestion has not increased at all, and there have been no complaints about increased traffic in local newsletters (where people frequently write-in to complain about things).
I think this project has shown that the stretch of University Boulevard does not need to be 6 lanes wide, but any talk of permanently narrowing the road would bring about a passionate response and dire predictions about traffic. I know this because my county is considering installing bus lanes on this very road by repurposing two existing travel lanes for buses (leaving the road with 4 lanes for general traffic and 2 bus-only lanes), and many people in my community oppose the idea of bus lanes because they think it will cause a traffic nightmare.
My question is this: what would be the best way to go about using this construction project as a way to demonstrate that this STROAD does not need to be 6 lanes wide?
You’re really asking a psychology question, especially since the experiment being run on the one stroad would seem to (a) point to a method that could be used to test the theory on the other and (b) affirm your hypothesis that the extra pavement isn’t needed.
One of the many underlying problems with stroads is that there are quite often financed by “someone else,” most often the federal, state or regional government. That means that the decision about whether or not to pay for all of that excess capacity is disconnected from the neighbors you are trying to convince. If someone offered to pay for an addition on to my house that gave me three extra bedrooms – which I have no real use for but I guess could find something to do with them – it would be pretty hard to turn that down.
If for some reason the road is being locally funded, then you can at least make a case to your neighbors that the hundreds of thousands you are going to spend on bituminous could be put to a better use where it is more needed.
Eli from Easthampton, Massachusetts, asks:
Sometimes it seems like the only worthwhile thing that traffic engineers and urban planners do is compensate for the damage done by other traffic engineers and urban planners. What potential do you think there is for these two fields to make things better than what we would have if these fields had never existed?
When working as an engineer, I saw all kinds of problems with the way cities were planned, problems I was being asked to solve expensively as an engineer. I went to planning school to, in a sense, get out in front of the bad engineering by doing better planning. I became what I now call a “zoner”, someone who administers zoning regulations and occasionally writes a plan or an ordinance in the same mindset. It took me a few years of banging my head against the wall to realize that I was – again – more part of the problem than its solution.
These two professions – traffic engineers and zoners – are badly broken. I do think we would be better off without them, and I’ve written that before. That’s not likely to happen any time soon, unfortunately. Here in Minnesota, traffic engineers are written into transportation funding processes and zoners are written into sate shoreline regulations; neither will get written out of statutes in the foreseeable future.
As you suggest, however, there are traffic engineers and planners who are actually fixing the problems created by their peers. When those things happen, as Strong Towns advocates, we need to be really vocal and enthusiastic in our support. One of the projects on my todo list is to finish a code of ethics and practice for modern engineers. I think defining – from the outside – new expectations for these professions, aspirations that are more in line with the public’s expectations, will be a powerful way to separate the good ones from the destructive.
Jeff from Greenbelt, Maryland, asks:
“I'm starting a project that (if successful) will estimate changes in likely economic value of streets and neighborhoods affected by a roadway change. My question is one you may have answered prior, but how do you do those awesome 3-D maps of tax revenues on a street-by-street basis? My county has a look-up function, where I can see the assessments of businesses and houses by address, but it's very laborious to look up all those assessments one at a time. Are there databases?”
Yes, your county has a database with all the information you need. Securing it will be essential to doing this with any degree of efficiency and quality control. That should be a relatively straightforward process, but it likely won’t be. It took me 18 months to get the one here in my home town. I’ve seen it take longer and I’ve also seen it outright refused. Of course, that is absurd; this is public information and the only difference between a database and a web interface is the ease of use.
Local governments will often hide behind terrorism, homeland security and privacy concerns in resisting your request for public data. I have found that the thing bureaucracies fear the most is having unfiltered information in the hands of the public. The best local governments realize they are made better – that we all learn more together – by having open data, but that seems to be a minority opinion in bureaucracies.
More than almost any other organizational type, local government should be a collaborative process between elected officials, professional staff and the public. The more cities can work to make it that, the stronger they will be.
See if you can find a champion within the system and use them to try and expedite the process of securing that data.
Thank you so much to our members. Getting out on the road and meeting so many of you, seeing all the great work you are doing, is more than inspiring. I’m dedicated to spending the summer finding ways to support you even more, and our board of directors is dedicated to that too. We’re meeting here in a few weeks to finalize plans and I’ll share them with you when that happens. Until then, thank you, and keep doing what you can to build a strong town.