Maybe a Little Congestion Isn't the Worst Thing That Can Happen

Sometimes it helps when the state department of transportation runs out of money.

That's what Allen Biehler, secretary of transportation for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, seemed to suggest Thursday morning. He was speaking as part of the panel "Putting Traffic in Its Place: Using the New CNU/ITE Manual," one of the NU 202 sessions.

"We've have trained our citizens to expect that if there's congestion, we're going to solve that congestion."

But maybe avoiding congestion isn't the most important thing. And maybe the price for keeping some local streets free of traffic is, in terms of livability for the whole community, too. Sometimes a slight degradation in level of service, on the other hand, may be offset by huge gains in livability and aesthetics.

Mr. Biehler told of his experience in 2003-2004: State transportation officials realized they had $5 billion worth of transportation projects in the works for which they had no way to pay.

On half of these projects “we put our pencil down,” Biehler said. The other half they scaled back to make them affordable somehow.

One of them was an eight-mile stretch of highway due for a bypass. Three years later, the project has been downsized. What started out to be a four-lane freeway with three interchanges is now to be a four-lane arterial with a lower speed limit and a parklike setting.

"Clearly it's not the same carrying capacity, but it's affordable. And also, much more important – is what it is going to mean for the future of that area."

"We’ve skewed the system so badly in favor of high levels of service and less livability," Walter Kulash of Glatting Jackson Kercher Anglin Lopez Rinehart observed later in the session. "The theme of what we’re dealing with is conflict with entrenched paradigms" – about what transportation systems are supposed to do and about what makes for safe streets.

Eric Dumbaugh, assistant professor of landscape architecture and urban planning at Texas A & M University, made a strong case that traffic engineers sometimes fail to understand the implications of their own accident data.

He presented some forceful statistics showing that while American rates of highway fatalities have fallen significantly over the past 30 years or so, they haven't fallen as fast as the rates in other advanced countries. "We’ve fallen behind our first-world design peers."

The problem is that American road builders' model for a safe road is an Interstate highway – with limited access, wide lanes, and few turning options. The result is that engineers try to turn every road into an Interstate, with serious effects on aesthetics, and on safety too.

Dumbaugh argued that there is another model for a safe road, and that is the local street that is "dangerous by design." Its hazards – curbside trees, for instance – are obvious. They force drivers to slow down, and that makes for greater safety.

He showed a slide of a stretch of road in Florida he had studied as part of a larger investigation of car crash sites. This particular stretch is lined by trees – the obstacle traffic engineers love to hate – on not just one but both sides. But it was clear from the picture that this is part of a real neighborhood – the kind of area where a driver instinctively slows down.

The road runs through the campus of Stetson University, an area with college students, dorms, and bars. And yet during the five year period his study covered, Dumbaugh said, there was not a single fatal crash there.

Norman Garrick of the University of Connecticut lamented that in most jurisdictions nowadays, "nobody is professionally charged with developing the grid of streets."

But streets are "paramount in shaping our sense of place," he added, giving three essential about good streets: They are built on a network, they need to accommodate all users, and they need to be understood and designed as places, not just conduits for traffic.


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