Friday, August 7, 2015

History of Traffic Signals in Portland

The Oregonian had a nice write up on the 100th birthday of traffic signals in Portland. The column concluded with an email I sent awhile back thinking to the future of transportation.

"Curious about what Portland's traffic and its growing signal system might look like 100 years from now, I recently asked Peter Koonce, the city's chief traffic signal engineer, to take us into the future. Here's how he responded in an email:"
I am not a futurist (yes, that's a title), but I played one when writing a Strategic Highway Research Program Project proposal back in my consulting days. There are so many scenarios, it is really hard to imagine and state what's actually possible. So, in order to talk around the question, it is best to describe various possible scenarios.
There's what I would call the pessimistic view that suggests that we'll have the same constraints in the future because the public sector will be financially constrained and afraid to innovate and adopt new technologies.
There's an optimistic perspective that offers that technology will change everything and what we have today will be obsolete. Driverless cars and "Connected Vehicle" concepts will be the new normal.  Technology could eliminate the need for much of the travel that we have to make today including the typical work commute.Amazon.com is a good example of the impact of technology on shopping trips, video conferencing for business should continue to evolve and become more useful, and the population will change albeit slowly as we age more gracefully (if that trend continues).  
At the end of the day, the cost of energy (think Peak Oil and climate change) will likely play a large role in this and that's hard to pin down since you're asking a transportation professional, so that will be an influence.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

A Vision Zero Community: Houten

I asked our host Andre Botermans in Houten about their safety record. He answered promptly "Safety is no issue in Houten".
Andre Botermans addressing the PSU-Northeastern University class

He went on to discuss the notion of traffic crashes and he said the following:
"If we're talking about fatalities, we had one (1) fatal of someone on a bicycle in 20 years. A car was involved of course.  There are car fatalities that have occurred on the ring road."

He went on to say that the safety on the bike paths has been increased by removing obstacles. They eliminated 150 bollards where cars were not wanted and it was possible for them to turn, but along the way they have found that the car drivers know not to be on the red asphalt, so these bollards and barriers were unnecessary and proved to be a problem for the youngest and oldest people on bikes.

There are low pedestrian crash rates and no fatalities in the last 20 years because the entire town is a maximum 30 km/hr speed limit (once you leave the ring road which is 70 km/hr). The City has no connector-distributor roads (collectors in the U.S.) other than the ring road because the street network offers a clear definition between that auto specific facility and the community residential streets.

People walking and cycling do not have to mix with freight trucks. The City planners put the working areas outside the ring road. All of the places where trucks may conflict there are separated bicycling facilities. Grade separation may be necessary at times to create the safer conditions (shown below).

The class discussion mentioned as much. One of the groups met with a woman at a park and she said that when her kids left Houten, she had to train them how to ride in a more complicated cycling environment. That sounds a bit extreme, but perhaps supported by Mark Wagenbuur's point that people take some of this as obvious in Holland, but it's very deliberate design that makes this happen.

Bicycle Oreinted Development: Case Study in Houten

Houten may be the best example of bicycle oriented development in the world. The land use was carefully prepared to insure that the system worked as intended. The other factors that make this such a successful Bicycle Oriented Development community includes the following:

  • Robust, safe bicycle network
  • Convenient Parking for bicycles
  • Support from the community

The layout of the city is focused first around the Houten train station, similar to what is considered with transit oriented development in the U.S. In my opinion, what makes Houten a bicycle oriented development is that the layout to the train station was designed to be accessed via bicycle first and foremost as opposed to providing efficient automobile access. The transportation system was laid out with bicycle highway perpendicular from the train station and rail alignment. Car access through the community was provided on the ring road and is less convenient than the bicycle network. It's not just about the bicycle network, it also has to include bicycle parking and of course a supportive community.

Details about the Bicycle Network

The bicycle highway is 2 km from the train station (east-west) before you reach the ring road. All of the homes in the community have a low stress route to the bicycle highway and it is only 8 minutes to the train station from the furthest house to access the bicycle parking garage. The schools were planned carefully so that they are all oriented towards the bicycle highway. There is a movement of design for 8 years old to 80 years old, Houten may be 6 years to 100 years old.
The south part of Houten decided not to connect the bicycle highway to the ring road to the east side of the community. In that case, the planners decided to

The red asphalt is a standard. The width is 3.5 meters wide. They have transformed many of their old routes to meet this new standard.

When cars are added to the bicycle network, they use the Fietstraat signs, auto te gast (cars are guests), that is used in many cases throughout the country.

Safety is a separate post next to this one. This is no issue in Houten.

Parking Layout and Bicycle Theft

Parking layout for bicycles is key for growing the use of people on bikes. Mark Wagenbuur mentioned the importance of bicycle parking in his presentation and this is clearly an emphasis of Houten's urban planning. As opposed to placing a large vehicle parking lot at the train station, they chose to construct a bicycle parking garage directly under the station.

The bicycle theft is very low in Houten. The parking garage reduced theft by nearly 40% overall, but it was still very low compared to larger cities.

Comments from the Community in Houten

The planners in Houten say that people are not that aware of what problems exist. When he talks to his friends they think that Houten is just normal. It's usual for them to see the City putting bicycles first in the plans. In Houten, there is a critical mass of people that cycle. When guests come to Houten to live, those people "have to adapt and when people explore cycling, they find it safe and more social". Essentially, the point being made was that the City's intent is to make people happy and they know from research that the more people cycle and walk, the happier they will be. He described an example in Austin, TX where there was a 8-lane street with a bike lane and they were trying to change it to include a cycletrack. The problem with a lot of cities in the world is that the streets are dominated by people that drive, so the modification of a street is resulting in a change to the most people.



Returning to Bicycle Heaven - Houten and South Houten

I visited Houten previously and wrote up a summary of the presentation from 2012.

There was a very nice write up by ITDP on Houten. A CityLab writeup provided a national audience for Houten in the last few months.

On this trip, I wanted to dig deeper into the south part of Houten. The south part of Houten was under construction when I was here in 2012. The construction is still active in some cases, but a lot has been completed since that time.

I also wanted to learn more about their safety performance, the past presentation reported their crash rate was 31% of a comparable Dutch town, which is already much better than a U.S. city.






Monday, July 13, 2015

Cycling in the Netherlands by Mark Wagenbuur @BicycleDutch

We had a presentation from Mark Wagenbuur, who is the blogger of Bicycle Dutch. he provided an interesting perspective on Dutch cycling starting from the 1950s, it was the same as it was today. Cars were there in the 1950s, there was money and people able to afford the cars after WWII. As the country prospered, congestion increased and the parking was also congested. In the 1970s, it was similar to the U.S. with traffic engineers planning the cities. An overview of his presentation is available here.
The presentation focused on how the Dutch got great cycling infrastructure starting back in the 1950s, where after WWII, there was a need to get back to moving freely after the Nazi occupation. Yet, there was also a growing automobile culture, that was partially halted by the oil embargo of 1973. This and the rise in fatalities of people and especially children were other motivating factors. This made way for protests in the streets of Amsterdam in 1975. Several examples were given of protests.

We want a SAFE Street - Wij Willen een Veilige straat.
Stop murdering children, safe footways and cycleways - Stop Kindermoord
Autorijden? Ga Nou Gauw Fietsen - Protest rides all over the country.
Cyclists Union was founded in 1975. The lonely cyclist struggles ahead, but no longer alone.

The community demanded genuine cycling policies and the resources to go with the change. The Cyclists Union wanted the government to give cycling a true role in the policies. There were two specific demands:
Separate slow and fast traffic (bike and motor)
Give cycling free routes through towns.

There was already a law on the Dutch government that says if you have more than 500 cyclists per day, you have to have separate cycling (rural conditions). So, in the 1970s this was a good place to start and he described the three strategies as:
Elimination of through traffic
Removal of parking
Prioritization of bus lanes

He then described the three simple requirements for mass cycling?
A bicycle
Parking on both sides of the trip
Good cycling infrastructure

In describing the standards for a bicycle, it has to be sturdy, upright, (could be heavy), chain case, fenders, wheel dynamo (no batteries), lock, etc. The parking has to be located well, the government mandates that the parking is indoor (ideal and now a requirement), with easy access to the street and where you don't have to carry it (remember it is a heavy bike).

Finally, Dutch design for good cycling infrastructure includes careful planning of the space in the City. Designing for people is key and auto traffic flow is secondary. There are planning policies that are used.

This is a particular example of those policies and how to move people in cities.

Bus stop and cycletrack design are great examples in The Netherlands. What they know is that bike lanes are not good enough. He wants protected intersections to be the main stream like it is in The Netherlands. The other important element of Dutch design is that the speed of the street is 50 km/hr speed limit for all streets with people cycling. Higher speed does not work without supporting infrastructure. In Houten, when there was a street design that was 100 km/hr and the police was asked to enforce a 50 km/hr speed limit, the police stepped in and decided to ask engineers to solve the problems. Engineers were set up a traffic calming function on the request of the City police. Police can't accomplish their job, if the design isn't supported.

The policies that have been used in the history of cycling include the following:
Dutch Bicycle Master Plan 1990-96 only time federal government has focused on the issue.
Sustainable Safety policy 1990-now
Design Manual for Bicycle Traffic (CROW) generally followed by municipalities.

The Dutch are very strict on their use of a road categorization that requires designation and there are three main classifications.
Through regional routes 130 to 80 km/hr - no cycling
Local distributing - collector roads - 50 km/hr - depending on traffic you would have physical or visible spearation (bike lane) - collector roads can not have parking or destinations.
Residential streets/places - Speed 30 km/hr (18 mph), no separation is needed.

Some municipalities have fought for a hybrid extra (destinations are the typical element that is added).
He used Houten as an example designed in the late 1960s as a cycling friendly city. Red lines can not be crossed by motor traffic. ring road all around the city, that provides circulation into the different parts of the City. Cyclists can not go anywhere. Cycling is almost always faster than the car.

He used Houten as an example of how to retrofit existing residential areas
1. Block off streets, narrow other streets with traffic calming.
2. 18 exit/entrance biking, 3 for cars (provide more options for bikes to avoid traffic)

He also cited that the Dutch closed down traffic on a Sunday as an experiment for placemaking in city centers

Where did the cars go? In the City Center of Utrecht, changes were made so it was impossible to go through the City. Now, the traffic stays out on the fringes. No through traffic in the main area. Simple fences were used and buses allowed through. Cameras are providing the enforcement.

Downgrading former arterials are key to the implementation
Traffic dispersion happens, but don't worry about chasing all of that traffic.

What can other countries learn? They should do the following as others are working on this issue too:
Placemaking is happening.
Complete streets, including cycling infrastructure
Protected intersections
Designing a network.

Placemaking - Prague, Paris, and NYC
Complete streets - Sydney, Chicago
Protected Intersetions - SLC, Davis, Austin, and Boston.




What do Advocates Do? Jeff Rosenblum, Livable Streets

As a trained engineer who became an advocate, then City bureaucrat, and now Ph.D. candidate, Jeff has a vast experience of what makes a city tick and how change happens. He has some great takeaways from his time creating Livable Streets, describing "What Advocates Actually Do?", he boils it down to three points:
  • Convince government to do it
  • Provide technical assistance
  • Build grass-roots support for projects
Also, I will add one more that he said: Thank bureaucrats when they do the right thing
Jeff has some great examples also of specifics.

What specifically do Advocates do?

They build relationships with magazine editors - Bicycling Magazine puts Boston on the worst cities for Cycling.
Build bike rides that start people thinking about riding bikes in the City - Boston Hub on Wheels Citywide ride & festival
Building constituency
Lawsuits when necessary - reconstruction projects must accomodate bikes and pedestrians to the best practicable. Only person doing the suing - Attorney general
When government is no longer the problem, organize a Bike Summit, pick a project to get started on. Make the engineers be the heroes by helping them get project designs correct. Make planning effective by prioritizing the connections that are most important.


5 Misconceptions in Transportation by Jeff Rosenblum - Livable Streets

I will start with the takeaways instead of the misconceptions, because not everyone will read the entire blogpost and the talk was really positive, but he used the misconceptions to drive the conversation for the students. He also described his role as an advocate which is a separate blogpost altogether.
  1. Streets are for people
  2. Cars need less space
  3. Traffic calming works
  4. Decisions are political
  5. Economic growth relies on livable streets not more highways.

1. Streets are for cars


  • Streets that are busy for 15 minutes a day
  • Place where no one wants to walk, no cafes
  • People used to use streets as part of their living environment - today 75% of place that children are free to roam has been compromised by automobile
  • Jeff used the example of a Dutch school drop off, paint being used in NYC, and Portland street paining at SE 34th & Yamhill.
  • European cities were not always the way they were. Amsterdam in the 1950s was moving toward car ownership, but they saw the way the U.S. was going and reoriented toward bicycle. Delft Center used to be a parking lot. NYC and Broadway is another example. Anytime you can take place in a city, you're making livable streets. Parking Day is a great example of this, founded in San Francisco.

2.  Cars need more space

  • Reducing congestion is not a goal for cities. Massachusetts Avenue road diet occurred in 1996. There is time and space. Don't let the number of lanes fool you! It isn't about just space, there's also the time component. Preventing left turns, retiming traffic signals, etc are all strategies that have to be part of the conversation.
  • Not enough parks, take space from parking or on-street traffic
  • Lafayette Square was rebuilt in 2008 as an example of remaking a crosswalk into a park. 
  • Western Avenue in Cambridge there was a cycletrack of 9 feet wide with a 7.5' parking, 10.5' travel lanes and another 7.5' parking. The speed limit is 30 MPH in Massachusetts, but 25 MPH is on Western Ave. Bus bulb outs are part of the cycletrack, eliminating parking.3

3. Traffic calming is the most important thing that engineers can do

  • Pasanen (1992) http://tinyurl.com/yuohsg - NHTSA study
  • Traffic engineers have the tools at our disposal and we need to use them

4. Decisions are technical

  •  USDOT Ray LaHood started the dialogue related to considering additional flexibility. The Green Book even provides the following: "the intent of this policy is to provide guidance to the designer by referencing a recommended range of values..., sufficient flexibility is permitted to encourage independent designs tailored to particular solutions."
  • NACTO 

5. Cars drive the economy

Jeff used the example of Interstate 95 coming into Charles River. One of the Livable Streets founding Board Member was going to have his home demolished and have a highway that comes through the Northeastern University campus. 
McGraff highway in Somerville is an example of an antiquated highway that is going away. It takes concentrated efforts to think differently about the

Kendall Square Example 
Parking TDM policy "pays off" - no more than 45% or people drive themselves. If they don't have less than 45%, the building gets shut down. Clean Air Act and parking freeze. Self reporting happens once a year and the City gets to check how it is going. The City provides an ala carte menu of things.
The success has resulted in  great model for the City to follow when large projects occur.