Since meeting Chuck Marohn, I’ve advocated for his rational Strong Towns approach to reforming our inefficient auto-oriented infrastructure system. Chuck’s message to focus infrastructure decisions on their long-term return on investment is radical because he is a Traffic Engineer. Honestly, the most frustrating and irrational meetings I have held are not with any citizen group or elected officials, but with local Traffic Engineers. Over the years, smarter growth traffic specialist like DeWayne Carver, Rick Hall, Rick Chellman, and Peter Swift have protected me from having too many direct encounters, but all are located east of the Rockies.
Last year, I fortunately encountered two California Traffic Engineers — Kirk Ammerman of Chula Vista and Bryan Jones of Carlsbad — who are expertly bringing their profession into the 21st century. Chula Vista recently created an urban plaza in the heart of their historic Main Street and Carlsbad humanized a major intersection in their downtown with a pedestrian scramble. These folks engineer complete, compact, and connected places that accommodate cars, transit, bikes and pedestrians. Their streets are prioritized by place rather than mathematical equations multiplying Average Daily Trips by Levels of Service measurements equating to street classifications despite context.
Bryan recently shared the first in a series of White Papers he is writing in an effort to encourage those in his profession to rethink their conventional auto-focused approach to transportation. Then last week, the San Diego Union Tribune newspaper published Bryan’s opinion piece, and later this week he will be a guest on Chuck’s Strong Towns podcast. To ensure I am firmly seated in his growing bandwagon and support his efforts, I asked Bryan a few questions to learn more about his motivation for transportation reform.
Question: How did you arrive at your new perspective? Was there a moment or instance of clarity? Was there a project that convinced you?
There wasn’t a moment but a sum of a lot of different observations and conversations. Two of the biggest complaints I receive from any community I have worked in as a transportation professional is that the roadways do not feel safe and motorists are travelling too fast. Throughout my transportation career in both the private and public sectors, I often observe the interactions, conversations and debate between transportation professionals and the community members that they serve about what is the right priority between speed, volume, cost, and safety and the adherence to the automobile accommodating system that keeps us narrowly focused on potential solutions. So after reading Simon Sinek’s book “Start with Why,” the word “why” became my favorite three letter word.
I like to look at things as a case study so I can detach my emotions, pride, and ego, and really discover where the breakdown is occurring so that we can simplify the problem. So rather than debate how we define all the “whats” of our profession, I took a step back and asked why not change the debate that will hopefully allow us to hit the mark and become in better alignment with the communities that we serve and want to create or revitalize. And that is where the new vision — “creating active and thriving communities for all people to foster healthy lifestyles by maximizing connections and options in the way people live, work, play, and move” — came from. This isn’t the only vision but a vision. Each community and neighborhood might have a different version of this vision and that is okay. We need to be asking and engaging our community on the vision issue which includes the tough questions of priorities and tradeoffs. Right now most subdivisions look almost the same no matter what city you are in because we all utilize similar “whats” to design and regulate them. When we focus on the “whats” like speed, volume, cost, and safety (of the motorists primarily) we often end up with places where people do not want to be. Designing streets with only cars in mind leaves the connection between how we move and how we live unrealized.”
Question: What is inspiring you to write this paper, stepping into the fray and exhorting your colleagues to rethink their approach?
The worst thing we can do as a transportation professionals is assume that everything that can be invented has been invented. The second worst thing we can do is make the process by which new inventions can grow legs too cumbersome and regulated with control, as that stifles creativity and innovation. And the third thing we cannot do is over-analyze and, as a result, under achieve; perfection is the enemy of progress. So now that we have my least favorite four letter word out of the way — “can’t” — we now need to start focusing on what we “can” do!
As a transportation profession, about forty to sixty years ago we created defined standards, programs, policies, procedures, and analysis techniques on a basic assumption centered around moving a vehicle at a certain design speed. And we have not evolved much since. Most modern day transportation professionals, their tools and projects within local communities evolved from state highway departments and their manuals. And we wonder why we have speeding issues within our local communities. That is not meant to be offensive to my colleagues in state highway departments. The state highway design standards are a solution for a different identified problem. They move innate objects and design for the largest innate object. It is not that it is wrong. It is just different and might not be the best solution for local jurisdictions where people live, work, play, interact, and connect. Some state DOT’s have taken a hard look where their roadways interact with communities like on main streets through communities or at interchanges. Interchanges are often the most sterile environment for human life and also often the only way to get across the barrier created from the freeway that runs through our communities. Some DOT’s have adopted Complete Streets directives or policies. The mindset for designing a freeway that moves vehicles between and through cities is different than the mindset needed to create and connect quality communities for people via a street network. I know when I was in college my civil engineering courses first taught me how to design interchanges and freeways rather than how to design great communities where people wanted to be. Many of us are just doing what we have been taught rather than stepping back and evaluating what we are creating and how that impacts or facilitates our built environment from a number of factors, whether it is economics, the environment, or public health.
In working with some University of California San Diego students who were empowering active transportation at one of our larger active senior communities in Carlsbad, I visited with some very wise individuals and learned a lot about how their values and needs changed a lot from when they were driving a 1955 Chevy in the 50’s to how they do not drive but rather walk or take transit everywhere because they do not have a driver’s license anymore. They were having difficulty getting across streets at a traffic signal because of their mobility, hearing or eye sight. And after working with high school students that were not getting a driver’s license until they were 18 or older because they either could not afford the behind the wheel training, as it is no longer offered in school, or the laws changed where their friends could not ride with them for the first year, or they could not afford gas, insurance, and maintenance of a vehicle, it really hit home to me that there are changes not only in generational needs but throughout our lives. Yet we design our streets with a one-size-fits-all approach created from a manual of standards and then we draft projects like they are on an assembly line without questioning what we are building.
With all the changes in the trends and what communities are asking for, we cannot afford to settle with solving today’s and tomorrow’s problems with yesterday’s solutions. We have to continue to innovate and solve new challenges and problems. Where challenges exist so do opportunities. Yesterday’s solution might have been a solution for a different defined problem. So if we change the problem what solutions will we create?
So hopefully this paper will help transportation professionals authentically and genuinely ask the question “why” and allow them to foster their creative and innovative spirit from within.”
Question: How risky is what you are doing, both for the profession and for you, politically, within your profession?
It is only a risk to those unwilling to consider new thoughts or who are not proactive in coming to grips that the world is ever changing and so must our profession. How many of us can say that our communities and neighborhoods are “creating active and thriving communities for all people to foster healthy lifestyles by maximizing connections and options in the way people live, work, play, and move”? Can we afford to maintain what we are building? We can blame federal and state elected officials for not creating funding streams or we can acknowledge that we must change what we are building so that we can live within our maintenance means. There is a real disconnect between what the people we serve are asking for and what we have previously developed or are delivering as the solution. Now we can stand behind our standards, policies, and warrants or we can get out in front of them and figure out new solutions. If we are not growing as a profession then we are decaying. The world is changing and so is transportation. We need more leaders in transportation that are willing to have the courage to change the conversation.
We are seeing trends that vehicle miles travelled per capita are reducing, parklets and curb cafes are popping up in our right-of-ways, car-sharing rather than car ownership is on the rise, as is bike-sharing. The new generation may not want the suburb as much as their parents did. That is not to say we should stop building suburbs but the next generation might not be able to afford them and they are wanting a diversity of choices. The new generation is waiting longer to get driver’s licenses due to laws and cost of driving. The vehicle does not have the same meaning of “freedom” as it once did. There is a preference for a more urban lifestyle where public transit, walking and biking offer transportation options, flexibility and connectedness. There is a significant body of public research that has associated a transportation system that encourages driving and discourages active transportation with the rise in obesity and respiratory ailments leading to chronic diseases that account for over half the deaths in this country. Transportation professionals need to see how this desire for greater connection and improved public health in this the next generation will change our current physical landscape and decide what they can do to help. Otherwise our communities will ask another profession to solve the problems or another profession will be invented.”
Question: How are you framing part 2 and what is your process to continue beating this drum of Traffic Reform?
Albert Einstein once said, “We cannot solve a problem using the same kind of thinking we used when we created it.” As a profession we have moved cars from point A to point B for a long time and now we have to figure out a way to move or shift our profession so that we can focus on people, communities, connectedness, and a sense of place that people can experience and feel. With a well-defined “why” from Part 1 we can now start to focus on the “how” do we change our thinking so that innovation and creativity can thrive within our organizations. Changing a culture requires leadership, innovation, and strategic risk taking. Stay tuned for Part 2 for my suggestions on how.”
Question: Any ideas or thoughts about how to change our Traffic Study priorities from ADTs, LOS and wider lanes as mitigation for mixed-use, walkable neighborhoods to a more balanced mobility measurements/metrics?
Carlsbad’s new Mobility Element for the General Plan is going to be a fairly progressive policy document that allows flexibility to achieve an active and thriving community for all people and businesses. It will help bridge the gap between the transportation services, programs, and projects that we provide with our well defined community values and needs. We are changing from highway road classifications to street typologies with a hierarchy of roadway users. For example our collector street classification will change to a connector street typology focused on connecting people rather than just collecting cars to an arterial or freeway. We are also changing our policies to fully integrate livable streets. It is not the quantity of policies but rather the quality of policies and we started with a blank canvas rather than adding on and having new conflicting policies with the old ones. We are developing a custom multi-modal analysis policy and tool focused on the priority mode for the roadway while accommodating the secondary modes. So some roadways will be analyzed for people and others for vehicles and all will be accommodated and integrated into each roadway. This will allow us to facilitate in-fill development, revitalization, and walkable and bikeable communities and a more balanced mobility measurement. We are even creating an app for our analysis multi-modal methodology software so it can be done in the field while the data is being collected and observed. This is definitely a new approach to putting data (vehicle volumes and travel lanes) into a black box and getting a letter grade that does not make sense to many in the community that have always been striving for an A in school, yet we know that results in an overbuilt and underutilized roadway that is expensive to build and maintain and serves as a barrier to people. Many jurisdictions are still utilizing level of service analysis assumptions and equations developed almost four decades ago for planning purposes rather than operational analysis. And if we start enhancing our transportation system centered on people and creating quality, active, thriving communities “ADT” and “LOS” will just become acronyms that we tell our grandkids about, similar to the stories I once heard about walking up hill both ways to school in the snow. After all, they are just self-imposed definitions, rules, and regulations that our profession created to address a different challenge and we now have new opportunities.
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