Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Livable Streets Talk @BostonStreets

        I flew to Boston en route to the National Committee Meeting for the Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices. The opportunity provided a chance to talk at the Livable Streets Alliance about the "Confessions of a Traffic Engineer: The Misuse of Level of Service and its Impact on Active Transportation". It was enjoyable to share some of the ideas we've developed in Portland about transportation policy with the group. The effort was a fundraiser for the programs that Livable Streets puts on which makes me happy that I can contribute to the work in the advocacy community.
The ideas of making safety the priority for transportation design resonated with the audience. One of the most challenging questions related to the ethics of designing unsafe conditions for pedestrians. The transportation engineering industry knows that a four lane cross section and 45 mph speed arterial is dangerous for pedestrians that are crossing at an unsignalized intersection, which is a legal crossing. The
 topic of whether our knowledge of the potential for unsafe conditions creates an ethical dilemma was something I haven't had a lot of conversations about. It's worth identifying this sort of relationship as part of a wider conversation. It would be difficult to make the link without clarity related to the conditions. There are some instances where the location of a nearby signal or enhanced treatment (rapid flash beacon, etc) would be sufficient. But how far is sufficient? What's the out of direction travel that is reasonable. State DOTs often require a significant distance between signals on state highways in the name of access management. Streetlighting may also be limited because the agency doesn't want to pay the long term costs of maintenance and operations of the electricity. What should we ask developers to do and should this be consistent with what we do on our projects? If not, how do we justify our actions? More discussion is needed, but this was a fun group to start the conversation with.
 Here's how my hosts marketed the talk:

What is the difference between congestion and "failure" in transportation? How does measuring vehicles instead of people at intersections affect the way our streets are designed? Are safety, economic development and livability taken into account in federal standard highway design manuals?
The transportation engineering community is advancing road design concepts that encourage active transportation, but new approaches and standards have not yet been widely adopted. Come hear Peter Koonce, from City of Portland Bureau of Transportation, speak to the challenges and identify design approaches that would allow the development of a balanced transportation system that better embodies local community policy and needs. Portland, Oregon will be used as a case study to show how the City was able to prioritize its own design policy over national "Level of Service" thresholds.
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