When Livability Projects Meet Eisenhower-Era Design Standards [Updated]

Tearing down highways, as New Haven, Connecticut is planning to do to a short section of Route 34, is a rare (though increasingly sought after) outcome in American transportation policy. Some highway removals are unintended consequences of neglect or disaster, like the collapse of New York’s Miller Highway and the damage caused to San Francisco’s Embarcadero Freeway by the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. Others are planned interventions, like Milwaukee’s removal of the Park East Freeway. But the New Haven project is the first planned highway teardown to receive funding from the federal government, which awarded the project a TIGER grant in 2010.

Rendering of New Haven's "Downtown Crossing," a highway teardown that street safety advocates say could be much better. Photo: ##http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/18/realestate/commercial/a-plan-in-new-haven-to-right-a-highways-wrong.html?_r=1&adxnnl=1&ref=commercial&adxnnlx=1343063216-7iAqWVYmBSz4s3v+SxmcMg##NYTimes##

In many ways, transportation planning in the United States — which for decades has focused on adding more lanes to squeeze in more cars — has yet to catch up to this kind of project. What’s interesting is how the feds have funded an effort to turn a piece of infrastructure designed to move cars into a multi-modal, urban place, while at the same time requiring the replacement to operate much like a highway.

As Streetsblog reported earlier this year, the New Haven project, while a significant step forward, isn’t replacing the highway with a very pedestrian-friendly street. In the latest development, city officials dumped hard-won safety features — two pedestrian refuges nicknamed Porkchop Island and Meatloaf Island, for their shape — citing concerns that they would create hazardous conditions, which prompted local advocates to say the city has prioritized traffic over pedestrians and cyclists. UPDATED 2:54 p.m.: City officials tell us that “meatloaf island,” the northern pedestrian island, has been reincorporated into the plans.

City officials responded that they have done everything they can to accommodate pedestrians within the framework provided by Connecticut DOT and the Federal Highway Administration. And in many ways the design does go beyond what is prescribed by the higher powers, namely the design manuals published by ConnDOT and the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. Because Route 34 is both part of the national highway system and a state highway, New Haven must get exemptions when departing from the standards in those guides.

To arrive at the current design, New Haven had to seek more than half a dozen waivers from ConnDOT and FHWA. They won approval from FHWA to narrow the travel lanes from 11 feet to 10 feet. They needed a waiver to eliminate 2-foot shoulders. They also won a waiver to reduce turning radii to make the road less highway-like and more pleasant for a stroll.

Then there were waivers from ConnDOT. The city needed waivers to do bike boxes, raised intersections, and pedestrian-only-phase signal timing, even though Connecticut has a state-wide complete streets policy.

New Haven officials said they received every waiver they applied for and that FHWA and ConnDOT had gone out of the way to accommodate them. But officials said there were regulatory and practical constraints in how far they could go for pedestrians and cyclists.

“The state has really worked with us,” said Donna Hall, a project manager with New Haven’s City Plan Department. “At the end of the day, a firetruck has to be able to make a corner. You do reach that point where you really can’t push the limits anymore.”

The Tri-State Transportation Campaign has been both a supporter and a constructive critic of New Haven’s plan. They think the city can do better than removing pedestrian islands.

“You’re making the assumption that you need five lanes of traffic,” said TSTC’s Steven Higashide, adding that he thought the city was under a fair amount of pressure from the state on that point. “We hope the improvements that have been outlined so far will make the area safer and more pleasant, but they don’t go as far as we’d hoped for.”

“The city and state need to step it up in further phases to make this project truly transformative,” he said.

Meanwhile, Mike Piscitelli, New Haven’s Deputy Economic Development Minister, says the city worked hard to justify reducing the road to even five lanes.

“We were really challenged with the forecast traffic volumes,” he said. The city fought against a standard that would have required they assume one percent annual growth in traffic volume out to 2035. (For more on the pseudoscience of traffic forecasting and its pernicious effects, these posts from Gary Toth and Charles Marohn are a good start.)

“More traditional traffic engineers would want six lanes here,” he said.

  • When in doubt, following the guidelines laid out by John LaPlante, PE, PTOE (T.Y. Lin) for urban arterials is good policy for engineers who may have “issues” listening to planners:http://www.urbanstreet.info/3rd_symp_proceedings/Retrofitting%20Urban%20Arterials%20into%20Complete%20Streets.pdf

  • Joe Schmoe

    The traffic volume forecasts are best guess estimates.  Lets not forget that.  When you look back and compare today’s traffic volumes to those from a decade ago, the difference is not always significant.  Regardless, if New Haven really wants to be progressive, they would fight to reduce/limit the number of through-lanes to a reasonable amount and the result would essentially influence some through-put motorists to re-route around the downtown.  There are numerous other way to get from one end of the city to the other end by going around downtown instead of through downtown on Route 34 without adding more than 5 minutes to the drive.  The destination for those motorists isn’t downtown, so let them go around it. A lot of that could be accomplished by changing direction highway signage directing motorists where to go.  Some initial peak hour delays would occur on the redesigned Route 34, but those motorists frustrated enough would then decide to use an alternate route.  This is the case any successful city.  

  • Ohan Karagozian

     It’s not really a tear-down but more of a build-up.  The existing RT34 lanes will be exclusively used by hospital employees on and off of I91 and I95 whilst all other traffic will be re-directed to side-streets.  The side-streets have been designed to slow down the speed of flowing traffic to accommodate pedestrians.  As traffic slows, exhaust pollution increases.  The air-quality index at the epicenter of this fiasco will rival Los Angeles, Athens or Mexico City not merely because of slower traffic but because of increased traffic as development is increasing office space, retail space, medical research space and residential space.  100 College Street, just one building, will have more than 400,000 square feet of office space.  The 350 buildings demolished in the 60’s to create the existing RT34 connector had about 500,000 square feet of livable space.  Just imagine how many other buildings will be built and how much extra space will be created and populated.  I can safely surmise that traffic flow in and out of New Haven will increase by at least another 1000 vehicles daily not to mention the increased size of the new Gateway Community College facility built downtown New Haven just 1000+ feet away from the New Haven Green and Yale University.  My suggestion is that air quality samples be taken now and compared to later after construction and repopulation.

ALSO ON STREETSBLOG

12 Freeways to Watch (‘Cause They Might Be Gone Soon)

|
If you make your home on the Louisiana coastline, upstate New York or the mountains of the Pacific Northwest, chances are you live near a highway that really has it coming. It’s big. It’s ugly. It goes right through city neighborhoods. And it just might be coming down soon. Last week the Congress for New […]

Goodbye Downtown New Haven Highway, Hello 1,300 Parking Spaces?

|
Advocates for livable streets in New Haven have high hopes for the Downtown Crossing/Route 34 West projects, made possible by a highway teardown that will open 16 acres of prime, center-city land. But the opportunity to create a better connected, more people-friendly place is off to a disappointing start. Last week, the New Haven Board […]

Wiki Wednesday: Better Stimulus Through Highway Removal

|
We know plenty of states want to use stimulus funds to expand highway capacity, but how many are looking to jolt their economies with a much-needed freeway teardown? So far as we can tell, the answer is none. Perhaps they should reconsider and take a page from this week’s StreetsWiki entry on highway removal: Streetfilms […]

America’s Least Wanted Highways

|
The Congress for New Urbanism released a highly entertaining top ten list today: the North American highways most in need of demolition. At the top is Seattle’s Alaskan Way Viaduct, a structurally damaged elevated highway that, if removed, would free up 335 acres of public land by Elliott Bay. New York’s Sheridan Expressway, which traverses […]