Walkable West Palm Beach


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“Startup City” author Gabe Klein special guest at Palm Beach Tech this Thursday

Gabe Klein, former head of Chicago and DC departments of transportation, will be speaking tomorrow in downtown West Palm Beach at the Palm Beach Tech space on Datura Street. This Streetfilms interview is a good primer on his work, which runs the gamut from entrepreneur involved with Zipcar to revamping the D.C. parking system. If there’s a common thread, it’s  the iterative nature of project implementation. Gabe’s Streetsblog podcast made such an impression on me that I highlighted it on Walkable West Palm Beach when it ran. In his role at Chicago DOT and DC DOT, he had to solve challenges like “How do we build protected bike lanes when we have no budget?” He’s responsible for many of the advances in biking and walking in Chicago and DC in recent years that have led to a more attractive, safe, and livable city that is a platform for private investment.

This event is not to be missed and holds lots of lessons for how to realize the stronger, more livable city we’re all striving for.

Gabe Klein: Startup City Streetsblog interview

RSVP for the event

 


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Need your help! Vote for West Palm Beach

Strong Towns is holding its Strongest Town March Madness competition, and West Palm Beach was selected in the Sweet Sixteen round. Now, it’s up to you. We face off against Safety Harbor, FL (??) in the first round. Never heard of ’em, but these scrappy ankle biters are beating WPB by over 100 votes as of last count. We’re rallying. Please head to this link and vote, it takes 2 seconds. The poll is at the very bottom of the page.

To vote: Safety Harbor vs. West Palm Beach

Let’s rally around WPB!

#ilovewpb
#ThereIsNoSafeHarbor 

This past week, I attended a Small Scale Developer bootcamp in Seaside, Florida and had the chance to visit this new urbanist town in the Florida panhandle for the first time. More on the bootcamp later. For now, I’m writing about Seaside, the town, and its impression on me.

We stayed in the Seaside Academic Village, part of the Seaside Institute. We were awoken to the sounds of kids playing in this lawn next to the Academic Village, and it was buzzing with activity almost all day. These kids are lucky enough to be enrolled in a very selective charter school that is setup in the center of Seaside. Hard to imagine a more idyllic childhood. Here they are taking a class photo our first morning in the town.

 

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I was impressed with the way this school used the neighborhood itself as a learning environment. Since the weather was great, teachers were leading children around the town throughout the day, including visits to the town square, which has another lawn and amphitheater. It’s refreshing to see a place where kids can be kids, and a school that is unmistakably a school, unlike a lot of the ‘big box’ drive-through schools we’re building these days.

 

 

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In case there were any lingering questions about what this building is for, the signage removes any doubt. “Seaside Neighborhood School”.

 

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Seaside Neighborhood School community garden

 

 

This is a Seaside avenue. Look at that skinny width! We measured it imprecisely at about 8′ in width. Notice the gravel to the side of the paved driving lane. This is how parking is done in much of Seaside. Instead of trying to fight nature and grow the perfect chem-lawn, nature is largely left to its own devices and the plants that makes sense in this environment are what thrive – those that don’t require lots of irrigation and upkeep. From my observations, Seaside is basically all native landscaping.

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The road below is a county road. Eat your heart out, Palm Beach County traffic engineering. I still don’t fully understand how Seaside managed to tame a county road to this degree; maybe that’s just because I live in a county that never saw a road widening project it didn’t like. Our guides mentioned something about Walton County being really tiny and not paying attention, not having been poisoned by the sprawl building lobby, blissfully ignorant… I’m not sure which factor played the biggest role, but in any case, the outcome is a county road passes through Seaside that manages not to cut the town completely in two. Skinny lanes, more on-street parking (gravel again!), and people coming and going across the street keep speeds low and very humane.

 

 

There is a definite center and edge to this town. Just beyond the church is wilderness. Nature is never far and everything is within a five minute walk. Suburban living tried to bring town and country together, but failed to deliver on its promise. Building a real town allows for a real communal life, while still providing access to nature within walking distance.

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Nature beyond the couch

Nature beyond the church

 

Ruskin Place:  Beautiful square and commercial district in town

 

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The gang

 

Civic pride abounds in Seaside. You know which buildings are important by where they are sited. Here is the iconic image of the Seaside post office with American flag. This is the heart of the town and it’s obvious.

 

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Across the street on the beachside of 30A. This might be my favorite part of the town, with the open air market, straight vistas to the ocean, and pavilions that mark beach boardwalk access points.

 

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Seaside possesses quite a few architectural styles, and not all of them are traditional. There is some modern architecture as well. As for the public realm, “variation within a narrow range” is how it was described to me. These properties both have white picket fences. But notice how they aren’t exactly the same. The patterns of the fences vary to keep things more interesting.

 

 

Here are more photos of Seaside streets. Seaside contains passageways known as “Krier walks”. The original design for the town had easements across property lines for utility services, etc. Leon Krier, noted urban designer, suggested these become functional passageways between properties.

The streets do not have curbs. They function more like shared spaces and people have no trouble walking on them. This minimalist approach keeps street widths even narrower because a swale and sidewalk aren’t needed, keeping dimensions on the streets cozier than otherwise might have been. It also cuts down on infrastructure costs and reduces stormwater runoff. The stormwater that is generated runs into the amphitheater, which serves double duty as amphitheater and retention pond in times of heavy rainfall.

 

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Also another playground for the school kids

 

 

Property for sale: “Paradise ain’t cheap”

 

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If there’s a knock on Seaside, it’s that it is so expensive that it has ceased to function as a ‘normal’ town. Only 18 permanent residents live in the town, rendering it a resort destination rather than a place where people live permanently. That’s really not the fault of the founders, though. It illustrates the incredible demand for town living that Seaside embodies in form, if not entirely in function. The town did seem to roll up at about 10 pm each night, but I was told January is a very slow time of year here, to my surprise.

Even with the high priced real estate in Seaside, it still retains locally owned businesses and a row of Airstream food trucks. I didn’t count a single chain store in the town, which was refreshing. The roots of Seaside go back to the town founder, Robert Davis, selling boiled shrimp on the side of 30A, trying to gin up interest in the sleepy no man’s land.

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Inside Modica market. The Truman show is a source of town pride and humor

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“Seaside Transit Authority” – bike rental shop

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Our developer group bumped into none other than town founder Robert Davis on our walk. Totally spontaneous.

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You can’t visit Seaside without thinking about how badly we’ve screwed up the design of our towns and neighborhoods in the United States with our sprawl experiment. Instead of building communities where different activities, people, and building types are all part of a greater whole, our sprawl development pattern enforces separation and a sense of “placelessness” in which it doesn’t matter where you are, because everywhere is just the same as what came before and what is to come. This Leon Krier drawing illustrates town vs. sprawl well – a neighborhood or town is the pizza on the right.

 

Something that struck me was the reverence shown to the American flag. Flags are placed in prominent places and on important civic buildings. They are meaningful and their placement reflects this respect. Contrast this with “flag as advertisement” that is so common for used car lots and fast food restaurants in suburban sprawl. I suspect the over the top display of the flag is more about attracting eyes to the business while people are whizzing by at 50 mph in their car, than it is about pride and respect for a treasured American symbol. Meaning is lost when the flag is demoted to the same level as car dealer signage.

Seaside’s success has generated a pattern of similar neighborhoods and towns built along this stretch of 30A. The market demand has driven up prices in Seaside. Because so little town building has taken place over the past 50 or so years, there’s a lack of traditional towns along the Florida coast and prices are high. So much of our coastline takes the form of an endless parade of tacky strip malls and parking lots, fortresses of condominiums walling off the water, and the overly wide roads that make it all possible. What is needed are more towns and cities built on similar traditional principles like Seaside.

There is a better way.


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Message to Palm Beach MPO: Avoiding “Browardization”

The Palm Beach MPO took a field trip last week, riding Palm Beach County transit. Kudos to the board members for experiencing the transit system firsthand, even if the trip itself wasn’t really indicative of the day to day experiences of your average rider. I applaud County Commissioner Steven Abrams, as it is my understanding he rides Tri-Rail to work everyday, giving him a real perspective on transit.

Two ideas worth pursuing

The MPO discussed a technology that might allow buses to get signal prioritization at traffic lights, significantly speeding up headways. This sounds like a first step toward bus rapid transit and could have a big impact on convenience and, by extension, ridership on Palm Tran. From the Post:

Along with more bus shelters, Palm Tran wants to develop “smart card” technology — the same that allows drivers with a card on their windshield to zip through toll booths. Adding WiFi and technology to let bus drivers and county traffic engineers communicate to extend green lights at intersections when a bus is approaching is also being considered, said Palm Tran Executive Director Clinton Forbes.

BRT has proved transformational in a number of cities. BRT, if done right, can provide reliable and frequent county transit at a fraction of the price of rail. The cost of right of way acquisition for new rail is enormous and so better ways to use existing capacity and road networks should be the focus.

Secondly, it was good to hear about city and county success in putting in the humble bus shelter. No one likes to wait for a bus in the sweltering Florida heat (well, most of the year). Improved bus shelters help bus riders significantly and also advertise where bus routes exist.

Opportunities for improvement

Unfortunately, disconnects large and small remain in our county transportation policy. Here’s what my wish list would consist of.

  • A Houston-style reimagining of Palm Tran to create a useful bus system. Increase frequency, decrease headways, and make the time to travel between major points reasonable. A half hour car ride can take 2 hours on Palm Tran. This is unacceptable and no one will choose to ride the bus in this circumstance, even those trips where the two endpoints are in walkable neighborhoods.
  • Get the small stuff right. I tweeted this last week, the day before the MPO trip. It was the result of me trying to figure out how to get from FLL to downtown WPB. The Fort Lauderdale trolley doesn’t have a Google Feed, and the result is an inaccurate estimate of the time it takes to get home. Over an hour of time is added to my estimated trip because the trolley isn’t feeding into Google. This affects not only Google, but those apps that rely on Google data such as Transit App. I realize this is a Broward county example, but the same problems exist in Palm Beach County.

  • County transportation impact fees are required to fund new road capacity. This policy subsidizes the car trip and harms older downtowns like West Palm Beach, where what is needed is not new roads but more multimodal options. Downtown WPB has generated a tremendous amount of new urban infill over the past decade, but the impact fee money is not benefiting downtown; in fact, it is being used to fund road widenings in car dependent areas of the county. This is a really stupid policy that needs to change. As Urban3’s analysis demonstrates, the downtowns and traditional neighborhoods are the breadbasket of the county tax base, because they are far and away the most potent land areas in the county. Undermining their tax productivity is harms the cities and also the county at large, which relies on these downtown areas for a disproportionate part of the tax base. See Urban3 analysis video, below.
  • Last but certainly not least, better land use policy, countywide. Regardless of how much money we sink into our transit systems, if they don’t connect to walkable neighborhoods, the results will be underwhelming. As recent studies have shown, in transit oriented development, the most important part of the equation is not the transit, but the compact, walkable development. Building transit in sprawl surrounded by huge parking lots doesn’t reduce car trips and doesn’t provide the many benefits of walkable urbanism. Only building walkable urbanism does that. Transit is secondary to building neighborhoods with centers and with a reasonable pedestrian walking time from center to edge.

The MPO has done a good job elevating awareness of tools like Transit App as well as supporting complete streets and Tri-Rail Coastal Link efforts. A large chasm exists between best practices in land use and transportation at the county level, however. The inevitable outcome of the sprawling pattern of land use pursued at the county level is more congestion, more road spending, more unsafe stroads, more pollution, less community, more time spent commuting, and less fiscal productivity (see video below). Some of these issues must be addressed not by the MPO, but by Palm Beach County.

Avoiding the the “Browardization” moniker requires a more nuanced understanding of the interdepencies between land use and transportation than the “build, build, build” more roads approach. The preservation of Palm Beach County’s high quality of life depends on it.

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[edit, 9:30 am: This is a good opportunity to mention the Strong Towns #NoNewRoads campaign which is happening this week. Here is the description of the campaign:

This week at Strong Towns we are going to focus our attention on the embarrassing mess that is the American system system of transportation finance. Our premise here at Strong Towns has been, for some time now, #NoNewRoads, a rejection of any proposal to spend more money on this system until we undertake dramatic reform…

Here’s a common sense approach that a consensus of Americans seem willing to support:

  1. Let’s prioritize fixing what we have. We should not build anything new until we’ve figured out how to pay to maintain what we’ve already built.
  2. Anything new that is built must not be the result of paybacks in a system of pork-barrel politics but the result of a rigorous, independent financial analysis.
  3. The users of the system should pay for the system. That includes those hauling freight as well as those hauling kids to soccer practice.
  4. We can’t just keep building highways. Our approach to transportation has to acknowledge the limits of more road building and the benefits of alternative approaches.
  5. We cannot ignore the complex relationships — positive and negative — between the way we approach transportation and the impact that has on our cities, towns and neighborhoods. Allowing these to continue as separate undertakings — transportation and land use in different silos — is self-defeating and economically suicidal.

 

 

Cover photo: Bill DiPaolo, Palm Beach Post

http://www.mypalmbeachpost.com/news/news/local/county-urges-more-riders-to-try-trains-bicycles-an/np9H7/


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Traffic congestion is like downstream flooding, and we create the flood

Here’s an excerpt from an article written by Charles Marohn of Strong Towns:

If we were going to design a system to generate the maximum amount of congestion each day, this is exactly how it would be done. This is why all American cities — big, small and in between — experience some level of congestion during commutes. We take whatever cars we have and funnel them into the same place at the same time. We manufacture a flood.

..For automobile flooding (congestion), the only way to deal with it and still have a successful economy is to address it at the source. We need to absorb those trips locally before they become a flood. Instead of building lanes, we need to be building corner stores. We need local economic ecosystems that create jobs, opportunity and destinations for people as an alternative to those they can only get to by driving.

..For nearly seven decades, our national transportation obsession has been about maximizing the amount that you can drive. We now need to focus on minimizing the amount you are forced to drive. If we develop a system that responds to congestion by creating local options, we will not only waste less money on transportation projects that accomplish little, but we will be strengthening the finances of our cities. We can spend way less and get back way more.

As we debate Palm Beach County road widenings, everyone should read this article and forward it to their elected official.

Strong Towns: Dealing With Congestion


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Nine foot travel lanes in practice

When it comes to lane width, less is more.

This post explores a state highway section with 9 foot travel lanes, and will demonstrate that in spite of transportation agency misgivings about narrow lanes, Forest Hill Boulevard performs better on crash statistics than FDOT guidance for similar roadways, while offering advantages in the form of reduced construction costs, less negative impacts to adjacent properties, and decreased stormwater runoff, among other positive benefits.

Forest Hill Boulevard - West Palm Beach

Forest Hill Boulevard – West Palm Beach

Transportation agencies routinely make arguments against roadways such as Forest Hill Blvd. that are not based on studies or facts, but rather are based on conjecture of what might happen if narrower than standard lane widths were utilized. Since Forest Hill Boulevard is a real road in the real world it provides an opportunity to observe 9′ lanes in practice and not conjecture.

Livable streets advocates often recommend the use of 9′ to 10′ wide travel lanes instead of wider 11′ to 12′ lanes for several reasons, including:

  • Lower construction costs
  • Less right of way acquisition required
  • Decreased stormwater runoff
  • Lower maintenance costs
  • Lower travel speeds and less injurious crashes
  • Smaller footprint which can allow limited right of way to be reallocated to other uses such as on-street parking, bike lanes, or landscaping.

Even with all of the advantages of narrower travel lanes it is often impossible to have transportation agencies allow the implementation of narrower travel lanes. The FHWA summarizes the potential adverse impacts to safety and operations for a design exception for lane width as follows:

  • Sideswipe (same direction) crashes
  • Reduced free-flow speeds
  • Large vehicles off-tracking into adjacent lane or shoulder

Jeff Speck’s article, “Why 12-Foot Traffic Lanes are Disastrous for Safety and Must Be Replaced Now“, provides a strong case for why reduced free-flow speeds are desirous and how narrower lanes help to achieve lower speeds and safer streets:

Forest Hill Boulevard Details

Our case study is the section of Forest Hill Boulevard (SR 882) in West Palm Beach between I-95 and S. Dixie Highway. This section of road has five lanes and is classified as an urban minor arterial with an AADT that varies from 28,000 at the western end near the I-95 interchange to 17,000 at the eastern end near S. Dixie Highway.

In spite of the 17,000 to 28,000 vehicles passing by each day on the road the walk on the sidewalk is relatively pleasant. The trees provide much-needed shade on hot Florida days and also a feeling of safety from errant vehicles.

 

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The sidewalk and a wide tree-lined landscaped buffer frame 48′ of asphalt located between the curbs. As shown in the below section from FDOT, Forest Hill Blvd. was proposed to be resurfaced with 9′ wide lanes and a 9.5 wide center turn lane.

Forest Hill Blvd. - FDOT section

Forest Hill Blvd. – FDOT section

It seemed unbelievable that Forest Hill Blvd. had 9′ lanes so Walkable West Palm Beach field investigators measured the lane widths to verify.

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Walkable WPB confirmed the 48′ curb to curb dimension, but, as shown in the below section, there were a few minor variations in the lane and shoulder widths compared to the FDOT drawing. Forest Hill Blvd. has 9′ wide inside travel lanes located between narrow, by highway standards, adjacent lanes.

forest-hill-boulevard

How do roads such as Forest Hill Boulevard compare from a traffic flow and traffic safety standpoint to a similar 5 lane road with 11′ to 12′ lanes? There isn’t much information on the performance of 9′ lanes, but by reviewing the data on 10′ wide lanes we may be able to glean some insight. In Jeff Speck’s article he states that there are very few studies on the issue of 10′ wide lanes, but the few studies that do exist support the theory that 10′ lanes are as safe or safer than 12′ wide lanes and have the same vehicular capacity.

An analysis of crash data obtained by Walkable WPB from FDOT for Forest Hill Boulevard also supports the theory that narrow lanes are as safe as wider lanes. For the 0.787 mile portion of Forest Hill Boulevard just east of the I-95 interchange to S. Dixie Highway there were 60 crashes from January 1, 2011 to December 31, 2013. From this data a crash rate of 3.094 crashes per Million Vehicle Miles (MVM) is calculated by averaging the 17,000 and 28,000 AADT counts. 60/[(22,500 vehicles per day X 365 days a year X 3 years X 0.787 miles)/1,000,000]

This crash rate is less than the average crash rate provided by FDOT. FDOT provided the following information on average crash rates via email:

The average crash rate for 4-5 lane urban divided roadways with painted/paved median for the 2011-2013 period For FDOT Managing District number 4, which includes Palm Beach, Martin, Indian River, St Lucie and Broward Counties, is 3.719 crashes per MVM.

The FDOT crash data for Forest Hill Boulevard is available for download here.

Buses are cited as a reason to not utilize lanes narrower than 11′. Forest Hill Boulevard has bus service.

[10/12 4 pm edit –  We’ve been asked about the outer lane the bus is traveling in. The outer lane is actually 8.5 feet in width, with a 1.5 foot shoulder. So if you include the shoulder with the lane width, the bus is operating in a 10 foot lane. If you do not, the bus is operating in a 8.5 foot lane.]​

 

A few feet reduction in lane width can have a huge change in appearance of a road. Below is a photo of a five lane road in Palm Beach County that meets the standards.

Gun Club Road West Palm Beach Florida

Gun Club Road West Palm Beach Florida

…contrasted with our study section of Forest Hill Boulevard

Forest Hill Boulevard - West Palm Beach

Forest Hill Boulevard – West Palm Beach

The first photo of the standard five lane road provides a 3′ shoulder, 11′ lanes, and 12′ center turn lanes for a total of 62′ of asphalt. Note, the lack of trees because there isn’t room for them. Forest Hill Boulevard only requires 48′ of asphalt for the same five lanes of traffic. The difference between the two roads is dramatic.

On which of these would you rather take a walk or own a home?

The Forest Hill Boulevard section is more nuanced and contextually sensitive to the area where it is located. Designing a street section for an urban environment involves tradeoffs. We must avoid the tyranny of specialists who demand that we design roads to optimize only one outcome for one mode of transportation at the expense of other modes. The “standard” five lane road shown with 62′ of asphalt optimizes auto comfort at the expense of higher maintenance costs, greater stormwater runoff, less comfort for pedestrians, and lower property values. A question that engineers and the public should be asking is if the benefits that wider lanes provide for automobiles outweigh the costs. Does the design make sense for the context in which it is located?

Many of the improvements recommended in the Jeff Speck West Palm Beach Walkability study require that FDOT roads in West Palm Beach have their lanes reduced to a 10′ width. While FDOT has switched from 12′ to 11′ lanes in urban areas there is still significant resistance to adopting lanes narrower than 11′ in width. For those that are frustrated at the continued reluctance to utilize 10′ lanes a quote by the German philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer, may provide some comfort:

All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.

Given the Forest Hill precedent that 9′ lanes work in an urban environment then what logical argument is left to deny the use of 10′ lanes in low speed urban roads? Even the Federal Highway Administration is endorsing context sensitive design on streets designed for speeds less than 50 mph. From Streetsblog:

The one-size-fits-all approach to street design has been propagated, in part, by federal standards that apply to a surprisingly large number of urban streets. But not for much longer. In what appears to be a major breakthrough, yesterday the Federal Highway Administration proposed rule changes that will allow cities and towns to more easily design streets in a way that’s consistent with an urban setting.

Bill Schultheiss, an engineer with the Toole Design Group, said the changes are welcome news.

“We need to move away from cookie cutter, cut-and-paste designs and allow engineers to be the creative problem solvers that most of us naturally are,” he said. “This is a tremendous change of direction by FHWA that needs our support.”

It’s worth noting this is a relatively busy minor arterial, according to its FDOT classification. Of course, low volume neighborhood streets can be even skinnier still.

Big Asphalt and the Bigger Takeaway

The American transportation model operates under the belief that if some asphalt is good, more is even better. Wider roads drive positive economic indicators, so the theory goes: More asphalt = more growth, more jobs, more tax base.

Forest Hill Boulevard demonstrates there is a point of diminishing returns to this approach and at some point roadway expansions do not increase our prosperity, but rather decrease it (I highly recommend watching Urban3’s analysis of Palm Beach County property tax productivity for the evidence). Our national obsession with short term growth manifests itself in public malinvestment in highways; repeat this same scenario one million times over and you start to find some answers for why we’re having trouble paying for basic infrastructure maintenance despite decades of robust economic growth post WWII.

If you’re interested in changing things, Strong Towns is an organization working hard to get us back on a path of a fiscally sound development pattern and sustainable transportation funding. Here’s a great place to start the conversation.

Urban3 tax productivity analysis of Palm Beach County

 


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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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