Cities Are Reinventing Transportation Planning for the Age of the Public Beta

A three-day test of a protected bike lane on SW 3rd Avenue in Portland, Oregon. Photo: Greg Raisman

pfb logo 100x22Michael Andersen blogs for The Green Lane Project, a PeopleForBikes program that helps U.S. cities build better bike lanes to create low-stress streets.

As protected bike lanes and other new-to-North-America designs have spread, they’ve created an exciting new era for American traffic engineers, who are once again getting the chance to solve new and interesting problems on our streets.

But they’re also creating a new golden age for another important but unsung civil servant: the public outreach specialist.

Here’s the latest evidence, from Delaware: Next week, a team of city workers in the university town of Newark are going to test a protected bike lane concept by installing it for exactly one hour and getting volunteers to try it out.

It’s a simple, practical idea. But if you’ve been watching closely, you’ll also recognize this as part of a big change that’s sweeping through the profession of transportation planning.

If you were into computer software, you might say we’re now in the age of the public beta.

Urban planning as we now know it emerged from a very different era, when renderings of our most important infrastructure projects looked more like this:

The never-built I-95/695 interchange in Roxbury, Massachusetts. Via Hyperreal Cartography

And less like this:

The soon-to-be-finished Hampline in Memphis. Via Alta Planning + Design

When you’re building freeways, adding turn lanes and bulldozing neighborhoods, all the planning has to happen first. You can’t beta-test a freeway.

In the modern age of bike and pedestrian infrastructure, that’s changed completely. On-street testing can be built right into the public process.

Here are a few other examples we’ve seen recently:

In an earlier era, it’d be unthinkable to plan a city by knocking down houses first and asking questions later. But when you’re doing biking and walking projects, doing work on the street early in your process isn’t a way to avoid public engagement. It’s a way to dramatically improve it.

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  • Ziggy Tomcich

    We need this approach in San Francisco. Our bicycle infrastructure planning takes place at a geologic pace. Piecemeal improvements are only made to areas after they’ve had enough accidents to warrant a fix. We have no systemic bicycle infrastructure being built in San Francisco. This approach of building and testing is much more productive.

  • joechoj

    This is a silver lining to having over-built roads for the automobile. Now that other modes require more space, there’s often room to be made by removing a lane or two of auto traffic.

  • Hear! Hear! How about we volunteer the labor for such trials — imagine having a protected bike lane put in on Columbus or Polk over the course of a weekend, having everyone try it out for a couple of weeks, and then taking it out and comparing the two experiences? Should be pretty easy to get some right-rollicking data and plenty of subjective input as well.

    All with no skin off anybody’s NIMBY nose!

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