Evan’s Spring Plan an Example of Land Use Supporting Smart Transportation

via Virginia Department of Transportation

The upcoming improvements to the Valley View interchange on 581 holds the potential for a whole slew of changes in the vicinity.  The Roanoke Times points out that one of the most important changes is how the new traffic pattern will impact the nearby Evan’s Spring area:

But the project’s greater impact will be in years to come as the full interchange primes for development 150 untouched acres on the opposite side of I-581.

Without a plan, that fallow land could turn into Valley View: The Sequel — ring roads looping together acres upon acres of parking lots and linking chain stores to restaurants and hotels. This, thankfully, is not the vision held by city planners, nearby neighborhood leaders or the land’s current property owners.

In urban areas like the City of Roanoke, providing facilities for bicycles, pedestrians, and even buses – pull-offs at bus stops, for example – is mainly a matter of retrofitting existing roads, or eking out three feet of bike late or striped shoulder here and there.  It’s also a matter of getting people to rethink the use of their streets and the connectivity of a neighborhood – a commuter driving a certain way to work who is interested in biking may need some help reconsidering their route, as they may not be aware that streets they never drive down and are unfamiliar with are actually more suitable for a bike trip.

What can happen in the Evan’s Spring area is a good example of how smart land use decisions can set the right foundation for sustainable transportation choices, making it easier and more obvious that there are multiple ways to move within a neighborhood, or traveling between the neighborhood and the rest of the city.  In particular, the plan’s apparent focus on creating a village center is an important part of building a sustainable transportation infrastructure – all the bike lanes and sidewalks in the world aren’t helpful if you have to travel significantly out of the neighborhood to access basic services.

We applaud the City and the neighbors in the area for their vision, and hope that it is developed as planned.  Meanwhile, if you are a neighbor of Evan’s Spring, we encourage you to get involved.  Talk to city planners regularly and attend public meetings.  We also encourage you to call on RIDE Solutions staff if there’s anything we can do to help!


Bicycle Infrastructure Better for Jobs and Economic Development

Early construction at the Murray Run Bridge at Fishburn Park

Dave Harrison, chair of the City of Roanoke’s Bicycle Advisory Committee shared this study with me yesterday.  The study shows that bike and ped infrastructure projects create 46% more jobs per dollar spent than highway projects.  From the abstract:

Overall we find that bicycling infrastructure creates the most jobs for a given level of spending: For each $1 million, the cycling projects in this study create a total of 11.4 jobs within the state where the project is located. Pedestrian-only projects create an average of about 10 jobs per $1 million and multi-use trails create nearly as many, at 9.6 jobs per $1 million. Infrastructure that combines road construction with pedestrian and bicycle facilities creates slightly fewer jobs for the same amount of spending, and road-only projects create the least, with a total of 7.8 jobs per $1 million. On average, the 58 projects we studied create about 9 jobs per $1 million within their own states. If we add the spill-over employment that is created in other states through the supply chain, the employment impact rises by an average of 3 additional jobs per $1 million.

This is great news, and further supports the idea that investing in bike/ped infrastructure makes smart economic development sense.  In fact, I’d even quibble with an assertion the study abstract makes in its introduction:

Some of these benefits are economic, such as increased revenues and jobs for local businesses, and some are non-economic benefits such as reduced congestion, better air quality, safer travel routes, and improved health outcomes.

I’d argue that all of these benefits have economic dimensions.  Congestion, poor air quality, unsafe travel routes, and poor public health all have economic impacts that are felt in various areas – lost productivity, healthcare costs to treat lung diseases or the victims of traffic accidents, and lost development opportunity as companies choose to expand or relocate to areas that offer better quality of life to their employees.  The costs may be born indirectly, but they are born by someone.

Speaking of quality of life, it turns out we have an excellent example of how investing in bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure spurs economic development right here in Roanoke.  Today’s Roanoke Times has an article about the Wasena neighborhood, which has just undergone a rezoning to allow for mixed use development in an effort to revitalize the area.

Among the reasons cited for the neighborhood’s potential, developer Ed Walker said, “the neighborhood holds a lot of promise because of its location near the greenway and river.”

I can easily see the Wasena neighborhood being very greenway-centric.  It’s one of the few places the greenway really connects directly into a neighborhood – the small section between the new low water bridge and Wasena park is on the same grade as the main street and really only a block away from the Ice House building and the likely center of the neighborhood’s redevelopment.  This is a place where the greenway interacts directly with the neighborhood, and I think we’ll be able to credit a lot (though certainly not all) of what’s going to happen there to the foot- and bike-traffic the greenway will bring to the businesses there.

Bicycle and Pedestrian Training for Planners and Engineers

Bike Rack at Wasena Park

The UVA Center for Transportation Studies has an upcoming workshop in Salem on May 4:.

Many communities in the United States were not designed for pedestrian and bicycle travel. However, today walkability and bikeability are viewed as signs of a livable community and encourage physical activity. The goal is to create an environment that encourages people to walk and bike for transportation, recreation and exercise. This workshop provides current information on the design, operation and maintenance of successful pedestrian and bicycle facilities. Emphasis is placed on making participants aware of the characteristics and needs of pedestrians and bicyclists and on the importance of an interdisciplinary approach to planning and implementing pedestrian and bicycle programs.

You can learn  more about and register for the class here.  Mark Jamison, Manager for Transportation for the City of Roanoke and a winner of last year’s Extraordinary Bicycle Professional award, has taken the course and highly recommends it.

Don’t be Nice, Be Predictable

Talk to any cyclist or cycling advocate about safety and you’re bound to hear the word predictable, as in, “Cyclists are safest when they are predictable and behave like any other vehicle on the road.”  This is true, but so is the reverse:  the road in general is safest when drivers behave predictably as well.

In my case, this is particularly true as a pedestrian.  Specifically:  in the mornings, I walk my daughter the block or so down to her elementary school.  The streets around that block are crowded with a combination of morning commuters, parents dropping their kids off at school, and (a satisfying number of) parents walking their kids to school.  I cross one of the main thoroughfares that cut through the neighborhood – still a two-lane road, but just wide enough with few enough stop signs that cars tend to zip down the street pretty fast as they head to, from, or past the school.

Increasingly, while my daughter and I have waited to cross the street at the end of my block, I’ve had cars stop at the intersection (which does not have a crosswalk or a stop sign) to kindly wave me across.  Most of the time, I can’t actually see the driver doing this past the glare on the windshield.  Since it’s a school zone, I’m also not sure if I’m being waved across or if a kid is about to jump out a side door.  In the meantime, cars coming from the other direction aren’t necessarily stopping, nor are the vehicles turning onto the street from side streets, none of whom may even have seen the first driver pause to let me cross, or have even noticed me yet.  In the meantime, other cars start to back up behind the first.  I’m not sure if these even have a view of me, and I have seen many occasions where impatient drivers decide to whip around vehicles that are stopped for no apparent reason, which makes me hesitant to take the invitation to step into the street.  Since there’s no crosswalk on the street or pedestrian signs along the side of the road, it’s not clear how many of the cars at the intersection might be looking out for me if I make a run to the other side.

The effect is a few heartbeats of complete confusion on the part of almost everyone at the intersection as we’re all waiting to figure out what to do next.  Add into the mix that the majority of these cars are giant SUVs (a topic for another time and, probably, another blog), and there are multiple visibility and predictability issues at play all working to make the situation completely unsafe.

I understand the driver is trying to be polite.  I appreciate it.  But because they’re behaving unpredictably, there is confusion, and therefore danger.  Do I take advantage of the moment to cross, risking that other drivers – who are only following the rules – may not be looking for me?  Do I wait while cars back up and the polite driver gets increasingly annoyed at my inaction?  Do I wave the driver on with a smile?  Or do I start talking to my daughter and pretend I didn’t notice any of this happening until the next break in traffic?

In this case, behaving predictably is a lot more appreciated, and a lot safer, than being nice.  As long as we’re all following the rules, we know what to expect.

Language of Change

I have previously touched on the issue of language and transportation in the context of describing what it is that RIDE Solutions does.  There, I challenged the use of the phrase “alternative transportation” to describe what it is that Transportation Demand Management programs promote, arguing that the formation defaults to granting the automobile as the primary mode and relegates everything else to alternatives.

The issue of language and transportation has cropped up again in a big way the last week or so, with Streetsblog.net and some folks on Facebook capturing three separate discussions where language, advocacy, and planning overlap.  They are interesting examples of efforts to persuade by changing the words we use in the discussion, rather than (or, in addition to) the arguments we make.  I think some of these explorations have more value than others.

First is this post from Steve Magas, an Ohio lawyer.  He offers an interesting criticism of “Share the Road” signage, like the kind you can see running alongside the Peters Creek Road extension in Roanoke:

The whole point of the “SHARED lane” marking is to indicate to motorists that they ought to “share THEIR lane” with cyclists. This entire line of thought has always baffled me, frankly, because it implies that motorists OWN the lane and must be told, or just asked, to “share” a bit of it with cyclists….No law says that the motorist owns the road and the cyclist may borrow it sometimes, IF the motorist feels like sharing.

Mr. Magas offers a remarkably sophisticated analysis of the problem of “sharing” from a legal perspective.  It’s not unlike my original issue with the phrase “alternative transportation.”  In both formulations, the default mode is assumed to be the automobile, and drivers are warned to make accommodations for other kinds of vehicles.  Magas then reframes the argument as the “right to travel,” which belongs to a person and not a vehicle, making the special exhortation to “share” with cyclists a bit silly – after all, if we concentrate on the person rather than vehicle, there’s an underlying assumption that travelers are already making allowances for other kinds of vehicles – just as, I suppose, the driver of a sedan makes allowances for larger trucks, and those trucks make allowances for larger delivery vans, and those delivery vans take into account Mini Coopers, and so on.

The next is this short piece challenging the categories of “cyclist,” “pedestrian” and others in describing modal choice.  Instead, the author argues, we should use a formation of “people who….”  “People who bicycle,” “people who walk,” “people who carpool,” and so forth, concentrating our attention on the category of people and modifying it by the mode.  This, he says, will avoid breaking people out into categories that sometimes conflict, since the reality is that a person’s modal choice can often be fluid and change from trip to trip.

And finally we have this highlighting of a document from 1996, a directive from the Mayor of West Palm Beach, Florida to alter the language used in transportation planning and engineering:

Much of the current transportation language was developed in the 1950’s and 1960’s. This was the golden age of automobiles and accommodating them was a major priority in society. Times have changed, especially in urban areas where creating a balanced, equitable, and sustainable transportation system is the new priority. The transportation language has not evolved at the same pace as the changing priorities; much of it still carries a pro-automobile bias. Continued use of biased language is not in keeping with the goal of addressing transportation issues in an objective way in the City.

It’s really a fascinating document from a time that was really in the early stages of New Urbanist planning throughout most of the country.  Working, as I do, for a regional planning agency and being surrounded by planners (though not being one myself), I can see the inherent bias of the default language – referring, as the document highlights, to lane widenings, higher speed limits, and other road work as an enhancements or upgrades. In reality, these descriptions are only true for the automobile traffic on the road; for a pedestrian or cyclist, a widening that results in less shoulder or a loss of a bike lane, or vehicle speeds that make pedestrian travel more dangerous, are clearly downgrades.  The West Palm Beach document directs the use of more neutral language such as, simply, widening.

So, what to we make of these arguments?

Of the three, the first two are interesting on an academic and, perhaps, legal level, but in general I don’t see them as being very helpful in communicating with the public in general.  Steve Magas’ argument against “Share the Road,” for example, is an interesting one with some validity, but the main problem I see with the argument is that the Share the Road sign isn’t making a political statement.  The reality is that the road was probably engineered and built specifically to the size and speed of a motor vehicle, and therefore contains all kinds of assumptions about driver behavior and the physics of the objects traveling along the thoroughfare.  In addition, most drivers receive an education that involves learning how to react around other vehicles largely the same size and generally traveling at the same speed (one can argue that this is a failure of driver’s education, and I would agree, but that’s a different story).  In these cases, the Share the Road sign is, I believe, a perfectly valid warning to a driver that a vehicle of a radically different size and speed is going to be on the road, and to be aware of its presence.  I’m not convinced that an automobile driver sees the same implication in the word that Magas does.

Maybe there’s a different word or phrase that could be used, but I’m not sure what it would be – the sign’s function, like any road sign, is to offer a split second of education/information for a motor vehicle driver traveling at a certain speed.  At this point in time, I think the cause of encouraging more cycling and making drivers aware of the growing presence of cyclists on the road is better served by working within the scope of the language that drivers are already familiar with rather than challenging the language.

That said, I would be interested to see this argument made within a court of law and see how it plays out in a purely legal sense (and this is clearly Magas’ realm of expertise, not mine).  Streetsblog.net has been following the recent Texas case of a bicyclist who was struck by an automobile, and was then himself charged with reckless driving because he didn’t get out of the car’s way.  The judge’s assumption here is exactly what Magas is getting out with his anti-“Share” argument:  clearly, the road belonged to the automobile, and it was the cyclist’s fault for being somewhere he didn’t belong.

The argument against categorizing people by mode is also valid, but here I think the other is fighting against the common usage of language, and that is almost never a winning battle.  It is not uncommon for individuals or interest groups to try to influence the debate by changing its language or modifying the definition of words already being used, but I fear this runs the risk of some of the ridiculous “political correctness” we have seen in the past.  The fact is that language does what it wants to, and change is slow but inevitable.  Artificial attempts to change its course almost always appear just that – artificial.  Worse, I think you run the risk of “jargonizing” the debate – that is, redefining words or phrases in such a way that those on the inside of the debate understand and use them, but those outside the discussion are kept away by their artifice.  Further, I think the argument still runs the risk of categorizing people rather than choice.  I tend to carpool or take the trolley to work, and walk or ride my bike for social and shopping trips.  Am I a person who carpools, a person who bicycles, or a person who rides transit?  None, of course – I take transit trips, carpool trips, bike trips, and drive alone trips.

In general, I don’t see that much is gained by challenging the way people think about a subject by trying to transform they way they talk about it.  Language does what it wants to do and its best to work within its strictures.  Let’s concentrate, then, on using the language to our advantage.  For example, people like to talk about the “freedom” of automobile ownership.  Go ahead and use that word – describe bicycle commuting as freedom from high has prices, the freedom to choose commute routes where cars can’t go (like the Greenways), the freedom from congestion, and so forth.  Describe the freedom of cyclists, and pedestrians, and transit riders, who are free to use their time doing other things and free to spend more money on things they want.  Challenge the freedom of automobile ownership by highlighting the shackles of insurance payments and massive depreciation, the prison of congestion, the free time wasted stuck behind the wheel when you could be reading a book, playing catch with your kids, whatever emotional response you want to go after.

The exception, I think, is the third post.  This one has the most value and chance of success.  For one, its audience – planners and engineers, primarily, though civil staff in general – is a relatively small one, and one used to being continuously educated on new technologies and methods of planning, design, and communication.  Changing the vocabulary of the trade, while not exactly easy, is something that can certainly be accomplished with time, particularly if the themes of this directive are applied to planning and engineering at the classroom level, and newly minted graduates come out using language that treated all modes with parity.

Second, these are largely technical – rather than popular or vernacular – terms, and have very specific meanings aside from their emotional connotations.  If the trade decides that the language change more accurately describes the activity, then adoption is less a matter of persuasion and more a matter of education.  In this regard, I think the language change is both a function of and contributor to an overall shift in thinking about urban planning and city design.  In other words, it simply reinforces a change in attitude that’s already happening and, I hope, accelerates it.

An Ode to a Good Walk

Laura Clawson at the DailyKos has an interesting diary on the virtues of walking.  It’s good, and a lot of the material she links to is also good as a review of the challenges of making walkable communities.

One of the points she makes is of walking as a cultural rather than structural issue (structural here meaning the presence of sidewalks, crosswalks, and other pedestrian amenities).  She relates the following:

But nothing illustrated how far outside the norm attempting to walk someplace was in that culture like the first time I tried to walk anywhere the summer I lived on the country road. There was a gas station half a mile away and enough grass at the edge of the road that I didn’t think I’d get run over, so I set out. Halfway there, I was stopped by the police, who ran my license. The ostensible reason I was stopped was that there had been a break-in reported about a mile away just minutes before. But there was no way I could have been at the break-in and where I was on foot; really, I was stopped because I was doing something suspicious simply by walking along the road.

I had a similar experience upon moving here from California.  Where I lived in El Cajon, I had – for years – walked and ridden my bike the two or so miles to my junior high.  In fact, I had never ridden a bus to school or had been driven to school in my life.  When I moved here and  ended up at Cave Spring High School, about the same distance from home to school as where I grew up, everyone rode the bus or was driven by their parents (or drove themselves).  Even though I wasn’t really environmentally aware at the time, and didn’t see walking vs. driving as an environmental issue, it still seemed very strange to me that no one was walking that relatively short distance, a distance I had walked my entire life.   There were many mornings when I missed the bus on purpose just so I’d have an excuse to have to walk, and recapture some of that experience of moving under my own power.

For doing that, I got a lot of strange looks.  Often, I would arrive at school before or at the same time my bus did, even when I hoofed it, and as it drove by some of my classmates would stare, perplexed.  Besides this cultural issues, there were – and are – structural issues:  no sidewalks between home and school, and little consideration for pedestrians along Electric Road and Chapparal (point of note – Electric Road may be due for a renaissance according to recent planning work the Commission completed).

That said, things have improved a lot, I think; at least, many of the cultural issues to walking (and other alternative modes) seems to have waned a bit if the structural issues haven’t.   Of course, I’m surrounded with this stuff everyday and might be suffering a bit of an echo-chamber effect.  I’d be interested if some of those cultural objections to walking, biking, and bus riding are still in full effect.

Share the Love with Those on the Road

bike-ped-awareness-week-458x343This week is Virginia’s first Cyclist and Pedestrian Awareness week, a good opportunity for everyone on the road to pay a little extra attention to everyone else on the road.  In recognition of the event, Car Less Brit, MyScoper, and RIDE Solutions encourage you to share the love on Friday afternoon, September 18th, in downtown Roanoke, as we pass out balloons and host an impromptu love-fest-parade for cyclists, pedestrians, and drivers alike (check out the Intermodal Love Facebook event page for more).

The number of bicyclists on the road in the Roanoke area has grown dramatically over the last 18 – 24 months, which makes safety of an utmost concern.  For example, I rode my bicycle down to the Veer showing at the Taubman with my daughter in tow in a trailer last Friday evening.  At a stop light, the car behind me was a bit impatient to turn right while I was waiting for the light to change to continue on ahead, so she decided to squeeze past the trailer and gun it down the road, coming within inches of my daughter.  The light changed almost immediately, making her impatience and dangerous action all the more infuriating.  If I had been a car, would she had taken the chance?  Maybe, but if so and she misjudged the distance, what would have been the worst of it – some scratched paint and angry words exchanged?  Instead, she took a chance with my daughter.

Cyclists on the road deserve the same respect as any other vehicle; car drivers need to keep that in mind, and be more aware that we’re a bit more vulnerable than other vehicles.  So have a little patience.

On the other hand, if cyclists want to be respected as vehicles on the road, they need to act like it.  Too often on my commute home (in a carpool), I have seen cyclists blow through a stop sign on a certain well-traveled Tuesday night riding route, even as they approach the intersection three or four abreast.  At Roanoke Memorial Hospital one morning, I saw a cyclist squeeze between two rows of cars, one waiting to go straight up Belleview and another waiting to turn left onto Hamilton Terrace.  He rode to the front of the line and didn’t bother to signal, so none of the drivers knew if he intended to turn or go straight, and when the light changed there was some confusion as folks waiting for him to start moving.  In each of these cases, the cyclists decided not to act like vehicles and injected unpredictability and confusion onto the road.  Behaving like a vehicle is not just a right, it’s a responsibility, a way to signal to all the other vehicles on the road that you know the rules, you’ll obey them, and they can trust you.

If an automobile had tried either of these stunts, they’d be ticketed, and if someone got hurt they’d be cited for reckless driving.  So should the cyclists, frankly.  It’s not just the automobile drivers who need to pay attention to safety.

This week, take a moment to show your fellow road-users some love, no matter what kind of vehicle they’re on or in.  But you don’t really have to hold hands if you don’t want to.