Friday, February 21, 2020

Engineers Week 2020: Moving Forward

Photo by JOHN TOWNER on Unsplash
I became an engineer because I had already made it past the hazing (Differential Equations). I remain a transportation engineer because for the first time in my life I see hope.
Traffic seems to be a universal complaint that guarantees job security for all of us. Roman soldiers were probably complaining about the rabble in front of their chariots thousands of years ago and it’s difficult to imagine a time when congestion of some kind will not be an issue, even if it’s digital. (Hey honey, why’s the internet so slow tonight? — Everyone’s watching the Superbowl. Come look at this cool commercial!).

The obvious solution was to move people out of their cars. Since I fell in love with transportation policy 25 years ago, the driving thrust has been mode shift: Can we get people into transit? What about walking or biking? One summer in Maine, I biked 5 miles in and out to work every day. Old Town is lovely in the summer and I didn’t have a car. I whined at first, but by the end of the summer I looked great and I felt even better. Back in Florida, I tried getting the same exercise, but a stationary bike is not the same. Biking from my apartment was (and still would be) a dance with death. Mode shift? Great idea, but probably wishful thinking.

I’ve seen painted buses, HOV lanes, slugging, critical mass, complete streets mandates, and literal gas station bans. Nope, nope, nope, nope, nope, and you’ve got to be kidding. None of these could compete with a baby in a carrier, a squirrelly ten year old boy (let’s call him Squirrelly Stevie), or the security of my safety accredited SUV parked right in front of the store’s door. I remember wishing that my post office had a drive through window (I still do).

So what has changed? Why the hope now?

I gave up on shifting the work trip about a decade ago. I worked from home most of the time anyway, and people work where they work. People choose where they live with their workplace in mind, but their choice is driven by the other 60% of their lives and trips. So what about that other 60%? Drop the school size and it will be close to home. Drop the store scale and it can be close to home (thank you, Amazon). Scatter parks everywhere and soccer is nearby. Take-out can be down the street. Distribute the mega-churches into local campuses. Even freight can be neighborhood scale at Christmas. Incorporate a complete streets analysis into every resurfacing project and bike lanes appear overnight — they’re not suitable for Squirrelly Stevie, but it’s a start. Incomplete networks won’t get used, but getting to a complete network is only a matter of time.

Then I saw an e-scooter. On its own (say in the 1990’s when Razor came out with the first kick scooter) it’s not that earth-shaking. By the time I saw my first e-scooter, I had spent nearly a decade with decreased mobility. Time, autoimmune illness, and a sedentary lifestyle had not been kind to my body. The 1/4 mile walk to my office was a struggle, but a scooter could make a huge difference, especially if I didn’t need to carry it inside with me. I liked biking before, but how was I going to store it or fit it in my car? It was a pain to get my leg up over the seat after all those years. Ugh. A scooter was lightweight, portable, and the shared scooters could be readily available when and where I needed them without getting in the way of the rest of my life. Babies could still be a problem for some people, but Squirrelly Stevie was better at it than I was. Suburbanites were beginning to flock to golf carts in the better designed areas, so a transition to a single-person conveyance was not as far-fetched as it had been. Coupled with all the other changes that have been happening, I was beginning to see that mode shift could really happen, for the first time in my life. Scooters could be the gateway drug that suburban people need to transition to a different lifestyle.

Unfortunately, we can’t solve traffic congestion with the same thinking that caused it. Many place the blame on suburban design patterns, but the first suburbs were still very walkable/bikable community clusters. We compounded the suburban spatial scatter with roadway designs that gave place to the car alone. Since John Forester wrote Effective Cycling in 1976, bike lane design has been geared toward serving cyclists that act, move, and think as motorists. In essence, we have placed the safety burden on the talent, training, and care of the cyclist and have paid a dear price for it: 857 bicycle fatalities in 2018 alone. It’s no wonder that mode shift has been a pipe dream for all but a daring few. Is it any surprise that where only cars exist, single use zones can span miles? In contrast, several auto-dominated European countries redesigned their systems so that kids could safely bike. To be sure, their land use was already pretty mixed in many areas, but any new development that ensued maintained the land use mix at a bikeable scale.

Pete Yauch chuckled at me two weeks ago for being a “plangineer” and giving up hope on operations. He’s right. I have. Operational refinements including signal systems, CAV’s, and the like can give me 20% increased capacity on a good day. I need 200% or more. Improved operations and connected vehicles that are aware of users around them will help with incidents, but they can’t fix the congestion. We need low speed mode systems that can serve squirrelly 10 year olds like Stevie across the entire community and we need to take land back from parking (gulp). The laws of physics have been a great ally in designing high speed roads, but they are no help in controlling the behavior of a driver in an urban setting. Urban designs in mixed mode areas need psychological design criteria that we are only beginning to understand.

Transportation engineers are a rare breed. We use science, human behavior, and politics to manage the movement of life around us. We will always need arterials and will likely always need cars to some degree, but the focus on only one mode has been problematic for years. Our bodes rely heavily on blood flow for survival, but also have internal transportation systems that work at smaller scales in the body to get what was in the blood into the brain and other tissues. A body with great blood circulation will die without spinal fluid and lymph systems to transport what the blood can’t. We’ve spent my entire lifetime creating the most dynamic, resilient roadway system the world has ever seen. It’s time to work on recreating and connecting those smaller scale transport systems in a more efficient, life-giving way.

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