Turning Highway Space Back to People Space

This sounds like good news to me:

Half a century after cities put up freeways, many of those roads are reaching the end of their useful lives. But instead of replacing them, a growing number of cities are thinking it makes more sense just to tear them down.

The NPR story touches on many of the issues at play here.  This isn’t just an urban planning issue, but an economic one as well – that is, its cheaper to tear the underused infrastructure down and redevelop the land than continue to maintain the freeways.  In many cities, the construction of the freeways came at the cost of old neighborhoods – in Roanoke it was the Gainsboro neighborhood now replaced with 581 and the civic center.  It will be interesting to see how cities are able to rebuild/recreate these neighborhood characteristics once the freeways are down.

Not mentioned here is how the traffic demand will be handled.  Even underused freeways are still used.  I would assume that TDM plays a role in this – that routing the traffic onto existing street grids and mitigating congestion effects with transit, carpool, etc. has got to be part of the strategy of making the existing system more efficient.

Volunteers for Energy Seeking Energy Assessors

Volunteers for Energy, a program of the Roanoke Valley-Alleghany Regional Commission, is seeking part-time retired, volunteer engineers to perform energy and sustainability assessments at businesses, nonprofits, governments and industries in the greater Roanoke region.  These assessments provide specific strategies for organizations to cut their energy use, reduce waste, and implement other energy and environmental practices such as recycling programs, transportation demand management, and green energy, and are provided free of charge.

Volunteers should have industrial or facilities management experience with good communications and computer skills and an interest in sustainability and energy issues.  Experience in some technical, educational, or professional fields is also appropriate.  Volunteers for Energy staff provide training and assessment supplies, including all necessary tools.  A stipend is available and volunteers are eligible to be reimbursed for expenses incurred in the assessment process.

Interested volunteers should contact Jeremy Holmes, Coordinator of Sustainability Programs, at (540) 342-9393 or jholmes@rvarc.org.  More information and a volunteer interest form can be found at www.rvarc.org.  Just click the Volunteers for Energy logo.

Volunteers for Energy helps organizations improve environmental and energy management through efficiency techniques that save money.  The VfE team conducts on-site assessments and provides consulting services to businesses and public facilities throughout the greater Roanoke region.  Highly experiences volunteer engineers, scientists, and staff provide clients with innovative cost-saving strategies and resources to meet their goals.  Consulting services are confidential and are provided at no cost to the client, supported by a Department of Energy grant and the Roanoke Valley-Alleghany Regional Commission.

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.

Primacy and Alternatives

There is an exciting conversation happening in the comments section of this recent post defending World Carfree Day and sustainable transportation advocacy in general against criticism by the Competitive Enterprise Institute.  Over the course of the discussion, the term “alternative transportation” was used to describe what it is that RIDE Solutions promotes.  I want to take a moment to look at term and explore whether it really describes what we do.

RIDE Solutions is a Transportation Demand Management (TDM) program.  Our “product” has generally been called, internally and externally, “alternative transportation,” as has been done across the entire industry.  This is a term we have really struggled with and sought alternatives to, for two primary reasons.

First, it sets up driving alone as the primary mode, and everything else as an alternative.  It cedes primacy to the automobile.  This, I think, is undeserved.  There are trips for which the automobile should be considered the alternative.  For example, a three block trip to the neighborhood store should be a bike or walking trip, with the car an alternative for rainy weather or when one is in an extreme hurry.  Describing all non-automobile modes as “alternatives” implies a rank or value to each mode that doesn’t or shouldn’t exist.  Now, as a practical matter, it may very well be true that the automobile is, effectively, the primary mode and everything else secondary, but the language of advocates and enthusiasts, if used correctly, can go a long way to challenging this.

Second, in defense of car drivers, the term “alternative transportation” creates a binary:  there is driving, and there is everything else, and the implication is that RIDE Solutions is for everything else and against driving.  This isn’t at all true – we are not anti-car, I own a car and I like it – and I wonder if this isn’t the root cause of some of the contentious arguments that crop up around these discussions.  I can see that someone who, out of necessity or choice, has a long commute and drives by themselves might get defensive.  As “alternative transportation” can cede primacy to the automobile, so too can it imply the moral superiority of other modes.  You see this in the description of bicyclists as “smug” or “self righteous” (and, yes, sometimes they are, but no more so than some Hummer drivers, just for difference reasons).  The term itself, then, ignores the fact that most people will need access to a wide variety of modes to meet their needs.  The word “alternative,” being fraught with so much political connotations these days, might also make otherwise innocuous programs seem a bit more radical than they really are.

What we are arguing for is mode choice, of which driving by oneself is one perfectly valid option, but not necessarily the best option for every person or every situation.  We are also arguing for a transportation system that is sustainable; that is, one whose maintenance and related expenses are manageable, and which is based on an energy source or mix of energy sources that are consistent and affordable, and which improves the quality of a community.  I think it’s fair to say that the transportation system we’ve created to this point is neither of these things, particularly in the Roanoke region.  This is not an attack on drivers to point this out, but a recognition of the plight in which we currently find ourselves, and the basis of how we should plan the future of our transportation network.

However, the TDM industry has yet to find a descriptive term that rolls off the tongue as well as “alternative transortation” does.  I have played around with “sustainable transportation,” “commuter assitance,” “commute options, ” “transportation choice,” and related terms.  What do you think?  Does “alternative transportation” really have the baggage with which I’ve saddled it, or is my English Major background coming back to haunt me by analyzing the term a little too deeply?

In Defense of Ciclovia

A few weeks ago, the Friday after August 1st’s Ciclovia, a Letter to the Editor appeared in The Roanoke Times that took a critical look at the event (letter appears second from bottom, but is quoted below):

Since Roanoke spent a lot of money making bike lanes around parks, I do not see why they have to have a bike show downtown (“Taking to the streets” Aug. 2 photos). Streets are blocked, interfering with traffic. More important, children are riding their bikes in the street and could be hit by a car or bus.

If the city built bike lanes around parks and other areas, they should be used, not city streets made for cars and buses.

My response appeared in today’s paper, quoted below in full:

In response to Catherine Wydner’s Aug. 7 letter, “Use bike lanes, not the city streets,” I want to clarify a few misconceptions she seems to have about our recent Ciclovia event.

The Ciclovia, organized by the Roanoke chapter of BikeWalk Virginia, was an effort to show how much more vibrant our urban space could be when it is opened to people rather than dedicated to cars. Indeed, the 500-plus attendees of the event — including cyclists, artists, families, health professionals, rollerbladers and others — enjoyed the opportunity to “play in the streets” and experience Downtown Roanoke in an exciting, new way.

I take issue with her assertion that city streets are “made for cars and buses.” Streets are made for transportation, regardless of mode. Citizens should feel comfortable and safe choosing how to commute, do their shopping and visit friends, whether they do so in a car, on a bus, on a bike or on foot.

Smart cities concentrate on transportation designs that move people, not only cars, and Roanoke’s support of events like Ciclovia reveals its dedication to this principle. BikeWalk appreciates the city’s support and the support of all who attended the event.

This idea that “streets are for cars,” as if cars are creatures with rights, is one we have to get past if we’re ever going to make significant improvements in our transportation infratructure and energy use.  A century ago, people might have argued vehemently that “Streets are for horses!”  Before that, “Streets are for the market stalls!” and even “What the heck is a street?”  Now, as always, streets are a function of our cities and how we choose to move around within them and connect to others.  They should always be viewed with an eye toward moving people the fastest, safest, most efficient and, now, cleanest way possible.  In many cases that may be by car, which is fine.  But not always, and not for everyone, and the more we keep this top-of-mind the better off our cities will be.

Taking Up Space

First, a disclaimer:  I offer the following information because I think it’s a sign of the growing bicycle culture in the valley and the different kinds of events and spectacles that culture is generating.  Regardless of whether or not I agree with an event, it’s worth taking note that there are some pretty interesting things happening now.  In general, I don’t support efforts – from bicyclists or drivers – whose purpose is to create conflict between the two groups; there is a place for that sometimes, but I am wary of too much aggression on either side.  The event discussed in the post below has some potential to cause conflict and aggravation, but I am going to defer judgment here and assume that the Car Less Brit will approach this, as he has approached everything so far, with a sense of fun and adventure, and that all the other participants will do likewise.

There.  Got my official duty over with.  Now to the fun stuff.

The Car Less Brit has got something cooking – Manif Spaciale, a demonstration of sorts (not quite a protest) involving applying large, light rectangular frames to bicycles so that they take up the same footprint as a motor vehicle.  The event was started by a group from Montreal to illustrate the impact of motor vehicles simply from a size perspective.  From Car Less Brit blog post on the subject:

The immense space that each car uses – to transport an average of 1.3 people every working day – has led to the mass destruction of buildings, countryside, and green spaces into parking lots and roads throughout North American cities.

To graphically illustrate the huge waste of space of the car and the negligible space taken up by the bicycle, we used wood frames to convert our bicycles into the approximate size of cars and cycled in unison down the main street of Montreal.

The Car Less Brit will be bringing a little bit of that flavor to Roanoke.  If you’re interested in getting involved, you can get more information on his Facebook event page.

This demonstration really gets to one of the core principles of transportation demand management – efficient use of space and resources.  Once you see the bikes riding down the street with their bulky frames in place, you’ll get a sense of how much sheer space we use to move a single person around; consider how that drives decisions about road widths, where roads go, how much space is needed to move traffic, and what else we could do with that space, and you’ll get an idea of one of the major impacts of single-occupant vehicles and why agencies like RIDE Solutions work so hard to get people into high-occupant modes:  We could be doing something much more productive (like parks and more greenspace in our cities, for example) than just paving it.

The Clean Air Campaign in Atlanta has a fantastic illustration of the principle of concentrating on moving people, not cars.