Walkable West Palm Beach


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Why I do not support a pedestrian bridge over Okeechobee Boulevard

Building a pedestrian bridge over Okeechobee Boulevard comes at a high price, trading pedestrian convenience for commuter convenience. In this post, I provide a number of reasons why I think the Okeechobee pedestrian bridge is the wrong solution to the challenge of crossing Okeechobee at Rosemary Avenue.

  • People will not use it. Pedestrian bridges can work when they get you from point A to point B without adding more time and distance to your walk (such as a third level parking garage connected to an office building’s third floor via a pedestrian bridge). In the case of the Okeechobee Boulevard crossing, pedestrians will have to ascend and descend a set of stairs just to cross the road. Most people will choose to cross at street level rather than take a significant detour up and down steps in order to cross. See: Pedestrian bridges, from Pedestrians.org

  • Wheelchair users and moms pushing strollers won’t be able to use it unless it has an elevator. Elevators that are exposed to the outside elements become unpleasant in short order (see: the Tri-Rail elevators or the Banyan Garage elevators) and have significant costs in ongoing maintenance. Elevators and escalators are expensive and prone to breakdown. They would have to operate 24/7, because there is a constant stream of people who need to cross at Rosemary and Okeechobee. Not just conventioneers; also the service workers from adjacent neighborhoods such as Grandview Heights who need to get to work at all hours.
  • A bridge at Rosemary/Okeechobee isn’t going to help people who aren’t crossing at this intersection. What about those who need to cross at Dixie, Quadrille, Sapodilla, and Alabama Avenue? To expect them to walk 500+ feet out of their way is not realistic.

Cheap short-term fix

A cheaper and more effective short-term treatment would be to reprogram the pedestrian signals to give an added 5-10 second headstart for pedestrians to make the crossing. Ten seconds would be nearly enough time to cross to the refuge median in the center of Okeechobee. This is a simple, cheap, and effective solution. This video from StreetFilms is a good overview of how LPIs work. If they can work for a very busy arterial in Manhattan, they can work here.

There are other very good suggestions made in the Jeff Speck Walkability Study (September 2014) that anticipated the challenges here and suggested ways to make the crossing better. Summary of these recommendations:

  1. Reduce driving lanes to 10 feet in width, using the extra space for curb extensions/protected bike lane. When is the next FDOT RRR resurfacing for Okeechobee scheduled? This should be expedited. This change could likely be done as part of routine resurfacing. For those wide lane lovers out there, we’re talking about perhaps a half mile stretch of Okeechobee that would have lane widths reduced: The urban context east of Tamarind. The rest of Okeechobee can remain as it is.
  2. Close the slip lane at Rosemary northbound onto east Okeechobee.
  3. Plant large street trees in the median to shelter and cool pedestrians. This will help make the crossing more pleasant and the perceived time to cross will decrease.
  4. Revised signal timing to prioritize pedestrian crossings. Note: Some changes have been made, but they are largely half-measures and LPIs have not been implemented. From my personal experience, it isn’t apparent what the pedestrian signals do, rendering them almost useless. We need automatic walk signals with LPIs.

 

Building a pedestrian bridge consigns a fast changing urban corridor to a conduit to solely move cars. A pedestrian bridge places auto throughput above all else and relegates pedestrians to second class status, putting the onus on them to climb stairs up and down to cross the street. If a minor change such as implementing LPIs at this crossing is not done, it will not have been due to budgetary constraints or an engineering quandary, but from a lack of prioritizing the safety and convenience of pedestrians in favor of car speed.

The Bigger Picture

Yes, Okeechobee carries a lot of traffic as one of its functions. But it is also much more than that in its urban (east of Tamarind) context: A concentration of walkable urban destinations, foremost among them the Convention Center, CityPlace, and the Kravis Center, along with densely populated condominium towers (with more coming). Note: each of those condo dwellers who doesn’t rely on a car to get to work is one less commuter to clog up the morning/evening rush hour. Substantial public money has been invested in this area (pitched largely under the auspices of “economic development”) in order to generate economic activity that results from arts, culture, and convention events within walking distance of one another and fueling retail sales at CityPlace/downtown West Palm Beach. Putting a mixture of uses in close proximity, where people can meet, socialize, and engage in business, is really the whole point of cities. Look no further than the positive impact the adjacent Hilton Hotel has had on the success of the Convention Center to see an example of why proximity matters. People book a stay there because it is walkable to the convention center, CityPlace, and downtown destinations. The urbanity of Downtown West Palm Beach results in a highly productive tax base (both property tax and retail tax), supporting the highest retail sales per acre in the entire county. Go to minute 33 of the video below for a visualization of retail sales in the county.

A pedestrian bridge takes us in the wrong direction.  It forecloses on the possibility of developing an even more productive urban fabric along this corridor, consigning Okeechobee to a car sewer instead. What we need is more placemaking and more destinations people can walk to, not less. The last thing tourists and conventioneers want is to visit a city that has lost its soul, as Arthur Frommer put so well. The soul of a city isn’t found behind the windshield of a car or walking across a traffic moat; it is found in the streets and public spaces that make great city neighborhoods.

The modest changes suggested in this blog post have been suggested for some time; they’ve only recently received more attention and urgency because the crossing situation has become more dire with the hotel opening. In the longer term, there are many ideas for maintaining Okeechobee’s ability to handle traffic while making it into a better place; some fanciful, some out of the box, some inspired by grand Parisian boulevards. But we don’t have to wait. Short term changes can be made now to make the crossing safer and more comfortable for pedestrians, and in a manner that doesn’t pay lip service to the needs of those crossing on foot.

 

 

 

 


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Can we spare five seconds to save a life?

In downtown West Palm Beach, condominium residents cross Lakeview Avenue, a large urban arterial, every day. So do students attending nearby Palm Beach Atlantic University. Here is what the intersection looks like at street level. The two lanes of traffic on Olive Avenue head northbound with the westernmost lane a left turn lane/straight through lane.

 

I recorded a short video to show what the crossing is like. Once the light turns green, the pedestrian gets a short walk signal. It’s hard to replicate the uneasy feeling you get crossing this road, knowing that just behind you are impatient drivers at the intersection, just waiting to gun it when the light turns green. Many of these drivers make a left turn, and when they do, they turn directly into your walking path from behind you, where you cannot see the car coming.

 

 

From the reports I’ve read, this was the situation at this intersection when a resident of One City Plaza suffered injuries while crossing northbound across Lakeview Avenue. Sadly, his dog was killed in the crash. WPEC covered the story.

Consider that the entire roadway is dominated by cars on Lakeview. That little strip of crosswalk where pedestrians are expected to cross amounts to a very, very small amount of the roadway area. Crosswalks are better than nothing in this environment, but there is no denying the car dominated nature of this roadway. It carries a lot of cars. But the most vulnerable users are those on foot, for whom a collision with a car would mean much more serious impacts than a bumper scratch.

 

 

tingvall

Typical road situation (Source: Greater Greater Washington)

 

Is it too much to ask that pedestrian safety is prioritized in the small space given to pedestrians for crossing the road?

What can be done?

Leading Pedestrian Intervals (LPIs) are a proven safety mechanism for giving people more time to “claim” the intersection before cars begin to make left turn movements. The added time can be anywhere from 3 seconds to 15 seconds or more, depending on the conditions. LPIs make the pedestrian visible to the turning motorist, making conditions far less dangerous, and giving pedestrians some sense of comfort and safety.

Here is a good overview of how LPIs work from StreetFilms.

Reshaping the curb radius to something much tighter would also help. This would have the effect of slowing the speed of cars through the turn and making pedestrians more visible. Below is an elaborate rendering of what this might look like.

 

801_S_Olive_Ave_-_Google_Maps v2.png

 

This intersection needs to be made safer for people on foot, now. Retiming lights to put in Leading Pedestrian Intervals (LPIs) is an easy, cheap, fast fix. It can be done on other arterials in downtown (the Convention Center/CityPlace comes to mind). Waiting will increase the chances of another crash happening, and the consequences may be even worse next time, especially as pedestrian traffic increases in our downtown. It’s good to see our local leaders at the Tourist Development Council getting rightly concerned about safety issues along Okeechobee Boulevard. Now it’s time to take action.

Can we spare five seconds?

If you’re interested in helping to make this change, please reply below. Thanks.


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Road improvements? No, road impairments

Mixing high speed traffic and people on foot or bikes is a recipe for disaster. The findings of a Palm Beach MPO study bear this out, showing the extraordinarily dangerous nature of the county’s arterial road network. Below is a map showing the hot spots identified. Thanks to Wes Blackman for reporting on this MPO meeting and recording it. [links to Wes’ blog and video recording of meeting here]

“Very similar intersections. Very similar land uses. Unfortunately, very similar outcomes.” –  consultant speaking  regarding Military Trail/Okeechobee intersection and Military Trail/Forest Hill intersection

 

The map is revealing, but it’s not surprising to readers of this blog. Discussions about road safety tend to focus on band-aid fixes but gloss over the more fundamental issue at hand. What’s not often discussed is the nature of these dangerous roadways and their adjacent land development pattern. The common denominator?

 

They’re all stroads.

What’s a stroad? It’s a word coined by Strong Towns founder Chuck Marohn to describe what he calls “The futon of transportation options”, in that it neither moves cars quickly and safely from point A to B (a road) nor does it provide an enjoyable human habitat for people to gather and enjoy life in public space (a street). When you put lots of people in a complex environment with cars moving fast, you get lots of crashes. Here is a video explaining what a stroad is. Stroads are low tax productivity yielding, high crash inducing, human meat grinders of junk infrastructure. No matter where you’re from, think of the ugliest, most generic road in town and it’s probably a stroad. With the exception of a couple blocks of urban Atlantic Avenue, where the sheer number of people walking are likely responsible for a spike in the numbers, every one of the segments identified is a stroad in varying degrees.

 

 

Palm Beach County is full of stroads and they’re difficult to deal with. These problems can’t all be put on the traffic engineers either because adjacent land uses have a lot to do with the stroadification of our county; it’s not just about the road’s geometry but what it is adjacent to. Look at Indiantown Road as a good example, a stroad-in-progress. It’s the result of many small decisions to diminish its efficacy as a road over time. Add a turn lane here, a traffic signal there. The new subdivision demands another light 500 feet away. Before you know it, cars are stopping, switching lanes, and turning so often that the road’s effectiveness as a high speed connection between two places is severely compromised. All these movements and differences in speeds make it a dangerous environment for everyone involved: drivers, bicyclists, people walking. And all these intensified land uses (yet low tax yielding) around it generate more traffic of various modes and more crashes. Since stroads aren’t streets and don’t operate at slow speed as streets do, crashes are very serious when they happen.

All this new car-oriented development along a stroad necessitates lots of turn pockets and traffic signals in order to access the strip malls and subdivisions that flourish in a car-only environment. With each new development, more degradation of the road takes places. Over time, it becomes more like Okeechobee Boulevard, with so much stop-and-go and traffic lights that it takes 15 minutes to drive 3 miles.

Changes to the roadway design are often said to be “improvements” or “upgrades”, but the question must be asked: Improvements for whom? A new traffic signal for Wal-Mart is a great advantage for Wal-Mart, but doesn’t serve people trying to get from point A to point B quickly; for those people, it is an impairment to the functioning of the road rather than an improvement.

At the next public meeting when the traffic engineer suggests a “road improvement”, ask that it be called a “road impairment” instead.

Many of these stroads were created over time in a process of degradation, from road to stroad. I’m reminded of an image posted on the Historic Boynton Beach Facebook page, depicting Congress Avenue in 1964. Notice the simple geometry and lack of signals, driveways, turn pockets, etc. It used to work as a road before it got ‘stroadified’ into the monstrosity that it is today, mucked up by all the subdivisions and forgettable strip malls that line it today. You can’t get anywhere fast driving on Congress Avenue, but nor can you walk along it without fearing for your life.

Congress and Hypoluxo, 1964

Congress and Hypoluxo as it looks today.

The best of the worst

stroad-diagramOver time, an environment is created that was never designed to safely accommodate pedestrians and bicyclists and never will.  The best that can be done now with many of these crash hot spots is to slap some special “countermeasures” in the road design to try and make matters a little less intolerable. It’s not an easy job, but it’s important to do what we can to make conditions a little safer for the vulnerable populations that tend to be victims of these poorly designed environments. All that can be done is to try to make it the best of the worst at this stage.

 

Let’s make these dangerous stroads a little less dangerous where we can. But most importantly, let’s stop building them in the first place. Rather than an inexorable decline, let’s build town centers and neighborhoods with great streets and keep our roads functioning as connections between these great places.

I survived the Okeechobee Boulevard closure

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The Palm Beach Post reports that a section of Okeechobee Boulevard will be closed for several days for BrightLine construction. Below is the T-shirt design in remembrance of this horrific day.

 

I SURVIVED


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Okeechobee Boulevard Road Safety Audit Completed

Reshape Okeechobee Boulevard medians, install Leading Pedestrian Intervals among top suggestions of FDOT Road Safety Audit (RSA)

The long-awaited Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) Road Safety Audit for the intersection of Okeechobee Boulevard and Rosemary Avenue has been completed. The report contains many suggestions, which cumulatively should make significant positive improvements to pedestrian safety and comfort crossing Okeechobee Boulevard.

Notably absent from the report is a recommendation on narrowing lane widths to 10 feet, as recommended in the Jeff Speck Walkability Study. Reduced lane width has been shown to reduce vehicle speeds and decrease the severity of crashes, thereby making roadways safer. Reduced lane width from 12 to 10 feet would also mean a reduction of nearly 17% in the amount of asphalt a person walking would need to cover to get from one side of the roadway to the central median. The additional space freed up from this narrowing could be used for a protected bike lane and provide another buffer between vehicles and people walking. Narrowing the travel lanes was the most emphasized recommendation in the Speck study, but it appears it was outside the scope of the FDOT RSA study and not considered.

In addition, the RSA study recommended against the suggestion of a pedestrian bridge, stating “it was determined that a pedestrian bridge was not an optimal solution to moving pedestrian traffic due to cost, anticipated lack of use, and constructability issues.”

Following is a summarized list of the RSA recommendations –

  • Adjust signal phasing and add pedestrian phase during eastbound left turn phase
  • Prohibit eastbound U‐turns
  • Install “TURNING VEHICLES YIELD TO PEDESTRIANS” sign for southbound right turns
  • Add Leading Pedestrian Interval (LPI)
  • Reduce the northwest and southeast crosswalk’s crossing distance
  • Add automatic pedestrian phases
  • Hire off‐duty police officers during events
  • Conduct a study to review lighting conditions
  • Lengthen the yellow and all‐red times for bicyclists crossing north / south
  • Improve pedestrian signage and add “feedback” to push buttons

Download the reports here –
Full report – FINAL RSA SR-704 (Okeechobee Boulevard)
City Place RSA – Findings Summary

Analysis of Recommendations

First up: The bad. Forty miles per hour is an unacceptable speed through this road section. At that speed, a pedestrian is virtually assured to be killed if hit by a car. Posting a 30 mph speed limit would be a good start, but it’s not enough by itself. The RSA study doesn’t even go that far; it merely recommends “conducting a speed study”.  The road design needs to be such that drivers feel uncomfortable driving faster than 30, uncomfortable as that approach may be to FDOT orthodoxy. It’s disappointing that vehicle speeds got such short shrift in the report.

This image from Streetsblog Chicago shows the devastating effect of higher motor vehicle speed

The RSA report calls for medians to be reconfigured. I’d still prefer to see the medians built out more robustly, as Speck recommends, by narrowing the space between the medians to two travel lanes (one in each direction). This could give stranded bicyclists a refuge if caught in the middle while attempting to cross Okeechobee at Rosemary. Nonetheless, the study does call for the turn radii to be reduced and this will certainly help lessen the feeling of discomfort one feels trying to walk across Okeechobee. The eastbound slip lane near CityPlace South Tower is not closed in the RSA report, contrary to what the Speck study recommends.

 

 

I find the Single Point Urban Interchange (SPUI) recommendation puzzling. I don’t understand how this belongs in a study focused on enhancements to pedestrian safety and comfort. Reallocating prime median space from pedestrians to cars seems to undermine the goals.

Single Point Urban Interchange (SPUI) concept

Single Point Urban Interchange (SPUI) concept

 

The Leading Pedestrian Indicator (LPI) is a very good recommendation. Jeff Speck describes LPIs as follows in the Walkability Study:

“…pedestrians receive a 3-second head start to enter (and “claim”) the intersection before cars receive a green light. There are a number of locations where these could be put to good use in the downtown” [including Okeechobee and Rosemary]

LPIs should help make pedestrians more visible in the crosswalk and help make crossings safer.

Restrictions on U-turns, changes to pedestrian signal timing, and changes to signage are modest improvements that will all add up to make conditions better for pedestrians. Many of these changes are controlled by Palm Beach County and are listed as short-term changes that can be accomplished in a matter of weeks. We look forward to seeing these changes carried out quickly.

City planners have told me that the median reshaping work should be completed in time for the new Hilton Hotel opening. Smaller changes like signage and signal timing should also be completed soon. Some items, such as lighting, are longer term. I am hopeful that more serious thought is given to creating a pedestrian shelter planted with large shade trees in the median in order to provide shade and a sense of refuge in the median.

While many recommendations are good, narrowing the travel lanes is certainly the most impactful change that could be made and it was unfortunately outside the scope of the RSA study. Most likely, such a change won’t be considered until Okeechobee Boulevard is scheduled to be restriped during a routine resurfacing project. This could mean a wait of many years before this change is considered – roads are typically resurfaced every 15 – 20 years.

With the amount of foot and bicycle traffic coming at the new Convention Center Hotel, it’s time Okeechobee Boulevard shed its reputation as a perilous crossing. More improvements to pedestrian safety and comfort are needed before Okeechobee can lay claim to being worthy of the second part of its name – Boulevard – a moniker that is used to describe some of the grandest thoroughfares in Europe such as the Champs-Élysées. No matter what we do, no one is going to mistake Okeechobee for the Champs. But we can strive to make Okeechobee a much better connector between the Convention Center, CityPlace South Tower, and Grandview Heights, rather than a divider. This study is a significant step in the right direction, but much work remains to be done – most importantly, the work of narrowing the travel lane widths on Okeechobee.

 


I want to acknowledge the efforts of the community in bringing the Okeechobee crossing issue to the forefront, especially the folks from Okeechobee Skywalk. Though we may have disagreed in our preferred solutions, this group has done more to generate attention on this issue than anyone. They have made excellent street level improvement recommendations, many of which have been incorporated into this report. I also want to thank Joe Roskowski for his tireless efforts in advocating for a safer Okeechobee at street level.

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Auto-oriented development is a huge experiment

I’m a member, enthusiast, and content contributor for Strong Towns, and Strong Towns has been producing a series of videos to distill the essentials of the organization’s message. In one of the recent videos, titled “Auto-Oriented Development”, Walkable West Palm Beach contributed B-roll footage of the lovable Okeechobee Boulevard, showcasing an example of a productive, safe transportation investment. If you didn’t catch the sarcasm there, you need to subscribe to the blog. Skip ahead to 2:00 to see the Okeechobee Stroad footage.

Please share the video, and if you want to help build more walkable neighborhoods and stronger towns, there is no better organization to contribute to than Strong Towns. I encourage you to head over to their website and become a member. [Thanks to aGuyonClematis for reminding me about these videos and sharing one of them on the Engage West Palm Beach forum.]

 


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Skydrive proposed for Okeechobee Boulevard

The Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) has unveiled a solution to the problems plaguing Okeechobee Boulevard: A ‘Skydrive’ that will serve to elevate drivers above the throngs of pedestrians who have overtaken the streets below.

“We looked at the pedestrian traffic counts and realized that the numbers were extraordinary, with all the crossing traffic to and from the Convention Center, Hilton Hotel, CityPlace, and the Grandview Heights neighborhood”, stated Jim Wolfgang, FDOT District 4 Secretary. “The County has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in developing a world-class convention center and hotel that is across the street from CityPlace, a premiere shopping and dining destination. The amount of pedestrian traffic is enormous and rising steadily. It’s like a “people sewer” down there, with all those… people… we need a bigger pipe to fit them all through. We considered the idea of a pedestrian bridge, but our cost-benefit analysis shows a vehicular Skydrive will be a better solution.”

Some have speculated the all-powerful “Bipedal Lobby” is behind FDOT’s decision, but it appears the relatively feeble “Road Building Lobby” may have had more influence. A local transportation official who wishes to remain anonymous admitted, “To solve our public opinion problem, we are planning to spend a lot of money on a wonderful new piece of expensive infrastructure to give the perception we have solved the problem. Otherwise the public will keep yelling at us.  If… well… when, it doesn’t solve the problem, it’s a great opportunity to up our budget and spend even more.”

autostadt01

The Skydrive F.U. would load cars for passage over Okeechobee Boulevard

 

Drivers: Simply press this button to cross

Drivers: Simply press this button to cross

Wolfgang expects the new Skydrive to be well-received by the currently besieged drivers. “To use it, simply queue at the intersection, wait for your turn in line, drive onto the lift, roll down your window, press a button, and our Funicular Unit (F.U.) will convey you expeditiously across the mass of pedestrians below. Very convenient.”

Champs-Elysees-with-Christmas-Lights

Champs Elysses

FDOT’s partner on the project, Palm Beach County Engineer Jorge Webb, had this to say regarding the design: “We attempted to arrive at an elegant solution for this highly trafficked pedestrian corridor. We considered making a multiway boulevard in the style of the Champs Elysses, but consideration of bizarre European ideas was a nonstarter. So we settled on an unproven technological solution that applies American know-how and ingenuity: The Skydrive was born.”

Some visitors wondered whether the Skydrive would relegate drivers to second-class citizens. “Sounds great, but why only one Skydrive? What about all the other intersections that need to be crossed? Isn’t this just an admission that the ‘Pedestrian is King?” stated Jimmy Leadfoot of Loxahatchee.

But something needs to be done, he said.  “You’re really taking your life into your own hands driving across this street. You never know when the errant pedestrian might jump into your path, and a 2,200 pound vehicle moving at 45 mph stands little chance against a hungry convention-goer on a short lunch break.”