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Increased traffic projections are the tail wagging the dog of DOTs

I took a few minutes to respond to two of the questions posed in the ‘share your ideas’ section of the US DOT “Beyond Traffic” website. The Beyond Traffic report begins with a letter, proclaiming that the document is all about opening “a national dialogue about what our country really needs and why we need it.” It then proceeds with the type of fear-mongering that is typically reserved for organizations like the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) and the other members of the asphalt lobby.


But our lead has slipped away. We are behind. Way behind.

The quality of our roads, for example, is no longer rated No. 1.

We’re No. 16.

And it is not just that our infrastructure is showing its age—our country, in many ways, has outgrown it. If you drive a car, you now spend, on average, the equivalent of five vacation days every year sitting in traffic. If you drive a truck, highway congestion has made you an expert at navigating bumpy side roads—and you are not alone. Every year, trucks are losing $27 billion on wasted time and fuel.

In this report, we not only analyzed the condition and performance of our transportation system today, but forecasted how it will look and perform 30 years from now if we fail to develop a new game plan.

Beyond Traffic reveals that, if we don’t change, in 2045, the transportation system that powered our rise as a nation will instead slow us down. Transit systems will be so backed up that riders will wonder not just when they will get to work, but if they will get there at all. At the airports, and on the highway, every day will be like Thanksgiving is today.

Interspersed throughout the report are reminders about the strain our highway system faces if we don’t do something (read: 2015-10-07 20_09_03-Draft_Beyond_Traffic_Framework.pdf - Adobe Acrobatmore money for more expansions), and prognosticating on the continued suburbanization of the United States. Far from an open dialogue, the rules of the game were set well in advance: You can talk about any transportation idea you want, as long as you talk about increasing the funds needed to keep doing more of the same.

https___www_transportation_gov_sites_dot_gov_files_docs_Draft_Beyond_Traffic_Framework_pdf

The FHWA projection becomes self-fulfilling prophecy. We project a large increase in vehicle miles traveled, therefore we need more lane miles to stop the congestion. This is the same losing battle we’ve been fighting the past 50+ years to no avail.

We’ve confused cause and effect. The new lane miles we’re building are themselves responsible for the increases in the quantity of vehicles miles traveled. When a good is provided as a common resource and not priced properly, it leads to a tragedy of the commons. In this case, the commons we are talking about is not pasture land, but roadway capacity, and the overgrazing is the congestion we’re experiencing.

Here were my answers to the Beyond Traffic survey. I didn’t spend much time on it because it’s obvious where the report is headed: Another plea for more money to do more of the same.

Question 1:  Are there any additional trends that will impact our nation’s transportation system over the next 30 years?

 I don’t know, and neither do you. That’s why we need market mechanisms to work their magic and allocate scarce resources by using user fees like VMT and congestion fees to price roadways, rather than pursuing engineering solutions such as never ending road expansions.

Question 3: What other ideas do you believe should be considered in the final “Beyond Traffic” framework that will advance our nation’s transportation system over the next 30 years?

 Give a copy of Chuck Marohn’s “A World Class Transportation System” to every staff person, policymaker, and public official involved in this process. Read it and implement its ideas.
http://www.amazon.com/World-Class-Transportation-System-Finance-ebook/dp/B00NDAB65W

The series of essays:
http://www.strongtowns.org/journal/2014/3/3/day-1-a-world-class-transportation-system.html

Here is a different set of questions for the DOT to ask, questions that get to the deeper causes of our problems, rather than continuing to steer the Titanic towards the iceberg.

Questions to consider.

  • If more is better, why is all the money we’ve poured into new construction not generating the financial return necessary for system maintenance?
  • Why do our congested roads typically fill up to capacity within several years of adding additional lane miles?
  • Why does so much of what we build end up declining within a 20 – 25 year life cycle? Why is its property tax yield orders of magnitude lower than that of traditionally designed neighborhoods?
  • Is car dependent sprawl really the result of market forces, expressing our desire for an “Anyplace, USA”  monotonous landscape of the same big boxes, chains, and hypersized roadways everywhere?
  • Why is the conventional development that is being delivered opposed so vehemently by anyone who lives near it?
  • The end result of all our spending is completely predictable and plays out everywhere in the same way. The video below is a short clip of such a disposable place; I’m sure you have a similar looking place in your town, likely built within the past 50 years. It’s “a place not worth caring about”, as James Howard Kunstler would put it. Why are we throwing more money at a system that is producing such junk that doesn’t produce enough wealth to sustain itself?

Until DOT (and by extension all highway organizations) comes to grips with its failed strategy, we’ll continue chasing our tail, pursuing more new lane miles in order to ‘cure’ ourselves of the congestion we are in fact creating. Our highway slush fund doesn’t match user demand with a pricing signal to allocate scarce resources, but it does provide instant gratification in the form of increased tax base in the short term from auto-oriented development.  That growth comes with huge financial obligations that are not considered in the election cycle obsessed, ribbon cutting oriented growth model we have been following.

We need an entirely new model, not more of the same.

[For a more in depth analysis of transportation reform, read the book “Transportation in the Next American City” ebook by Chuck Marohn. Lots of great content over at Strong Towns on transportation funding reform and building financially strong places.]

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FDOT Statewide Lane Elimination Guidance

This FDOT Lane Elimination Guidance is a resource for advocates across the state to reference.

Road diets work. West Palm Beach owes much of its downtown revitalization to successful road diets on Clematis Street and Dixie through downtown, and a successful rightsizing of Olive Avenue that stitched back together the campus of Palm Beach Atlantic University and the neighborhoods to its south. (Great video presentation on the history of these projects by Ian Lockwood, City Transportation Engineer at the time).

The FDOT process outlined in this document has been used successfully. Tequesta, a city to the north of West Palm Beach, recently gained approval for a six-to-four lane elimination using this process. Road diets are a proven safety tool to reduce frequency and severity of collisions and make streets more livable, endorsed by the Federal Highway Administration.

This guidance is quite good, and contains an appendix of lane elimination projects in Florida (Appendix A). Appendix C contains existing lane elimination request processes for various FDOT districts.


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Dutch to copy revolutionary American separated bike lane planning guide

Stating it would “totally revolutionize” bike facilities in the United States, John Forester of the Federal Highway Administration spoke to various bike and walk advocates on Monday to answer questions about the new FHWA separated bike lane planning guide.

“With this guide, we’ve unleashed American ingenuity and know-how to solve a problem that no one else has considered. Actually, we didn’t consider if anyone else had considered the problem, because from the outset this was about getting the best in good ‘ol American design, and we want our bike lane guide to become part of Americana lore. Our hope is that Don McLean writes a song about our manual some day.”

The creators of the manual noted that crashes at intersections made up 90 percent of the crashes that did occur — up from 70 percent before the facility was installed — indicating that intersections are where they need to put their focus. They did just that. Diagrams below from the manual show some of the intersection treatments. We rode with a Chevy Suburban driver, who answered our questions while fumbling with her cellphone. “This is great. I expect that next time I make this right turn going 25 mph, this green paint will stop me in my tracks. After all, someone’s kid could be riding in that lane”, said Kailyn Smith. “Knowing this is here would encourage me to get my 8 year old biking”, she stated as we drove to pick up her daughter from soccer practice a half mile from her house.

“Our new guidance will apply everywhere in the same way. Want to ride your bike on State Road 7? There’s an APP (Applied Principle for bicycle Parity) for that. Page 2,343 specifies how to make a safe bike lane in this intersection. Just add a mixing zone!” Photo below shows where this might apply: The bike lane is between the triple left turn lanes and 4 through lanes, and the double right turn lanes.

stateroad7now

State Road 7, Western Palm Beach County

Asked about the proven Dutch and Danish designs that have had 30 plus years of real world testing, Forester scoffed at the notion. “That might work in Europe, but this is America. Here, we expect ice in our iced tea, and a certain level of challenge in our bike lanes. It’s the American way.”


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Federal Highway Administration endorses NACTO Urban Street Design Guide, 10′ travel lanes

The tide is turning. The auto-only mobility model is being challenged as people are seeing the diminishing returns of ever-expanding subsidized roadways. The public return on investment just isn’t good enough. The sooner Palm Beach County and FDOT Southeast Florida get on board, the better off we will be as a region. The NACTO Urban Street Design Guide endorses 10′ travel lanes, as recommended by Jeff Speck in his forthcoming walkability report.

When FHWA gives the green light, there are no more excuses left.

From Streetsblog:
FHWA to Engineers: Go Ahead and Use City-Friendly Street Designs
by Tanya Snyder

NACTO’s Urban Street Design Guide includes engineering guidance for transit boulevards.
The heavyweights of American transportation engineering continue to warm up to design guides that prioritize walking, biking, and transit on city streets. On Friday, the Federal Highway Administration made clear that it endorses the National Association of City Transportation Officials’ Urban Street Design Guide, which features street treatments like protected bike lanes that you won’t find in the old engineering “bibles.”

FHWA “supports the use of the Urban Street Design Guide in conjunction with” standard engineering manuals such as AASHTO’s Green Book and the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD), the agency said in statement released on Friday. FHWA had already endorsed NACTO’s bikeway design guide last August. The new statement extends its approval to the more comprehensive Urban Street Design Guide, which also covers measures to improve pedestrian space and transit operations.

Federal approval of what were until recently considered “experimental” street designs means that more engineers and planners will feel comfortable implementing them without fear of liability.