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What To Do When Main Street Is Also a State Highway

Like thousands of small towns across America, Jena, Louisiana’s main street is also a federal highway: U.S. 84. That’s actually been a positive thing overall for this town of about 3,000, which relies on passers-by for business. Until recently, U.S. 84 was simply a two-lane road through Jena’s historic downtown, indistinguishable from any other road, design-wise.

Main street in Jena. Louisiana is also known as US 84. Image: ##http://jenalouisiana.net/historicdowntowntour.html## Jena, Louisiana##

The main street in Jena, Louisiana, is also known as U.S. 84. Photo: Town of Jena

But following Hurricane Katrina, U.S. 84 was to be widened; the road was among those targeted as an evacuation route from New Orleans. Little downtown Jena was right in the path.

Main streets that are also state or federal highways pose special challenges. The key to maintaining a functioning road for the community is to understand that main streets are places, in addition to thoroughfares, says Jim Charlier of transportation planning firm Charlier Associates. Charlier led a webinar on the topic this week with the Sonoran Institute.

“Why is it so hard when your main street is a state highway,” he said. “The state highway function starts to take precedent over the main street function.”

Charlier and his associate, Vickie Jacobsen, had some advice for communities in this position. It’s important to consider the unique conditions of every town in a road design, they said, but there are key hallmarks of successful main streets.

The most important ingredient in a main street, says Jacobsen, is on-street parking. “It is a critical aspect,” she said. “It has a role in how fast traffic moves through. The activity that happens in that lane slows traffic down.”

If there’s no street parking, businesses will start to supply it next to their buildings. Which leads to the second most important ingredient of a successful main street: few to no curb cuts. “Adding multiple driveways immediately erodes the ability for pedestrians and cyclists to negotiate the area,” Jacobsen said. “It makes it a much more car-oriented street.”

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Flint’s Ingenious Plan to “Right-Size” Its Streets With Road Diets

Flint, Michigan, is probably best known as the poster child for population loss and de-industrialization, as captured in the Michael Moore movie, “Roger and Me.”

The Saginaw Street road diet and walkability improvements have made downtown Flint increasingly attractive to business. Image: Detroit Free Press

Though this town of about 100,000 has never fully recovered from the loss of 30,000 General Motors jobs that was the subject of that film, Flint is becoming known for its innovative strategies dealing with population loss. Flint’s Genesee County Land Bank is a model for other post-industrial cities throughout the country.

Here’s one innovative new idea out of Flint that was a long-time coming and should be emulated in cities across the Rust Belt. Flint is planning to reduce excess vehicle capacity on its streets by implementing road diets that make room for walking and biking. Road diets “are central” to the city’s in-progress regional plan, known as Imagine Flint, according to a recent report by the Detroit Free Press. Imagine Flint is funded through a $1.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Sustainable Communities Program (a grant program which Congress has since de-funded).

Other “shrinking cities,” like Youngstown, Ohio, have tinkered with ideas for reducing the size of their built transportation infrastructure. Youngstown’s talked-about proposal was to actually tear out underused streets, a plan that has proved more viable on paper than in practice.

Flint Chief Planner Megan Hunter told Streetsblog that because the city has lost so much of its population, its overly wide streets are often empty. Some streets in Flint were designed just to speed workers from auto plants out to the suburbs.

“When you have kind of a free-of-traffic, very wide roadway, the tendency is to treat it like a dragway,” Hunter said. “Road diets tend to increase pedestrian safety and vehicular safety as well.”

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“Bikes vs Cars” Director Fredrik Gertten Sets Out to Expose the Car Lobby

Films like Fast Food Nation and Gasland introduced critiques of the food industry and fracking to a broad audience. But as of yet, the active transportation movement has lacked a full-length documentary feature that screens widely in theaters or goes viral on Netflix.

Fredrik Gertten, a Swedish filmmaker with multiple full-length documentaries under his belt, hopes his film Bikes vs Cars — trailer above — just could be that film. Gertten was the co-producer on the 2010 Oscar nominated documentary, Burma VJ, about protests against the military regime in Burma. In addition, Gertten directed Bananas!, which told the story of a class-action lawsuit by Banana workers from Nicaragua against the Dole Food Company. The film prompted Dole, one of the world’s largest food companies, to sue Gertten for defamation. The lawsuit is the subject of his more-recent film, Big Boys Gone Bananas! (Gertten ultimately won.)

Now, Gertten is trying to raise $50,000 before November 1 via Kickstarter to make a film focusing on the global bike movement. So far, it has brought in more than $24,000 in pledges. I caught up with him by Skype recently to learn more about the project:

Angie Schmitt: So I think the trailer sort of nails it. Can you tell us more about why you’re trying to raise this money?

Fredrik Gertten: My last film opened at Sundance and we’ve been playing at all the major festivals, so we have the ability to make a big splash if we do it well. At the same time we, as anybody else in this world, have to fight for survival. It’s complicated when you talk about arts. Both my last films have played in 80 countries and every single state in the U.S.

Documentaries now, is a very strong genre and so they really reach out. We are kind of stuck we have like 50 percent finances. We need a Kickstarter to get moving again.

AS: What’s going to be the gist of the film?

FG: I read a survey about young people, what their biggest worries were, and they were all about climate change. I mean so much that they had pains in their stomach every week. And at the same time the [auto] industry is rolling like nothing ever happened. I mean in Europe and the United States car sales aren’t going up anymore, but in the rest of the world … I’m kind of interested in the mechanisms that make us not change when we know that we should change.

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NACTO Urban Street Design Guide Sets Out to Change the DNA of Our Cities

Innovative street designs like this low-cost pedestrian plaza in lower Manhattan can provide more space for people and protect them from vehicle traffic. Photo: NACTO

In a direct challenge to the long-standing authority of state DOTs to determine how transportation infrastructure gets designed, the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) yesterday launched its Urban Street Design Guide.

NACTO’s Urban Bikeway Design Guide has already empowered cities around the country to embrace protected bike lanes and other innovative designs that the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials has shied away from in its engineering bible, known as the “green book.” The Federal Highway Administration has even endorsed NACTO’s guide, and the agency is currently drafting its own bicycle facilities guidance, which will likely fall somewhere in between.

The Street Design Guide goes much further, giving engineering guidance on everything from crosswalks (zebra-striped, please, for greater visibility) to parklets (go ahead, usurp a few parking spots!) and from contra-flow bus lanes (bicycles optional) to slow zones (speed humps, tables, and cushions). As NYC DOT Commissioner and NACTO President Janette Sadik-Khan said, it’s a new DNA for city streets.

Those are treatments you won’t find in AASHTO’s green book. “Most of the design guidance that we work with on the city side is really targeted toward suburban areas and rural areas and is not really designed to meet the challenges of our streets,” Sadik-Khan told a standing-room-only crowd last night at the Newseum in Washington, DC. “So many things have changed in 50 years, but our streets haven’t, and our design guidance certainly hasn’t.”

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FHWA Endorses Engineering Guide for Walkable Urban Streets

A new engineering guide gives transportation professionals design standards tailored for urban streets. Image: CNU.org

Urban streets serve a much different purpose than rural ones: They’re for walking, socializing, and local commerce, not just moving vehicles. Unfortunately, American engineering guides tend not to capture these nuances.

That can lead to a lot of problems for cities. Wide roads appropriate for rural areas are dangerous and bad for local businesses in an urban setting.

But there’s change on the horizon. The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Engineers’ “Green Book,” the so-called bible of transportation engineering, has some new competition specially designed for urban places.

Last month, the Federal Highway Administration gave its stamp of approval to two new engineering guides: the National Association of City Transportation Officials’ bikeway design guide, which features street treatments like protected bike lanes, and Designing Walkable Urban Thoroughfares: A Context Sensitive Approach, designed to help cities build streets that are walkable and safe for all users.

The urban thoroughfares guide, produced by the Institute of Transportation Engineers and the Congress for the New Urbanism, is based on the concept of “context sensitive solutions,” which seeks to balance the movement of vehicles with other objectives, like promoting active transportation and fostering retail businesses. Both guides are now recommended by FHWA as companions to AASHTO’s guide.

Jeffrey Tumlin, a consultant with Nelson\Nygaard and an adviser to the development of the urban thoroughfares guide, said the revolutionary thing about it is the engineering guidance about the important ways urban “arterials” differ from rural highways. Problems can arise when the Green Book is applied to cities because it is written by the organization of state DOTs, which are mainly concerned with highway building, not local streets.

“While AASHTO guidelines do accommodate a broad array of street designs, where they are weak is providing designers with information about the way in which local streets are very different,” said Tumlin. “Engineers need more thorough guidance on the ways in which urban arterials are distinct from rural highways and ways in which to design those arterials to prioritize a wide variety of objectives.”

The new ITE guide instructs engineers to “use performance measures that benefit all modes,” and to consider the surrounding area — the character of the community — when designing streets.

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Study: Too Many Drivers Fail to Look for Pedestrians When Turning Left

Oregon State University’s Driving Simulator, which provides 220 degrees of projection, was used to study drivers' attention to pedestrians while making left turns. Image: OTREC

Drivers turning left are a leading cause of pedestrian crashes in urban areas. Where drivers can only turn left with a green left-turn arrow, pedestrians are more protected. But when drivers are watching oncoming traffic for a chance to make their turn, they tend not to be as vigilant as they should to watch for pedestrians. In fact, 5 to 11 percent of drivers don’t look for pedestrians in the crosswalk at all.

Two Oregon researchers observed people’s behavior and eye movements as they operated a driving simulator to see if they noticed pedestrians. David Hurwitz from Oregon State University and Christopher Monsere from Portland State University found that danger increased with more cars and fewer people walking. There is safety in numbers: The more pedestrians there are, the more drivers pay attention. But if there are more cars, they take up more of the drivers’ attention.

It’s no surprise that drivers’ attention is compromised when they have to watch oncoming traffic for a chance to turn. One solution is to prohibit left turns except with a green arrow — a “protected” left — instead of letting drivers pick their own moment with a “permissive” left turn signal — a circular green or flashing yellow, for example.

Michael Ronkin, a former Oregon DOT bike/ped coordinator who now lives in Europe, said “permissive [non-dedicated] left-turns are extremely rare in urban environments” there, with far better pedestrian safety as a result. “[The] clear message in the U.S. [is that] moving cars is more important than protecting people not in cars,” he said.

Pedestrian advocates also favor a signal phase exclusively for people on foot, such as a Barnes dance, where pedestrians can cross in all directions, even diagonally, and all traffic is stopped.

But are dedicated signals the solution?

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The Votes Are In: Omaha Abomination Voted Worst Intersection in the U.S.

Well, it was a tough competition for America’s Worst Intersection, with a lot of worthy contenders — the kind of intersections that would make an Olympic sprinter nervous. But the people have spoken — 468 of them — and in the end it wasn’t even close. Our winner is Omaha, Nebraska’s intersection of 132nd Street, Industrial Road, Millard Avenue, and L Street.

#1. Omaha, Nebraska: 132nd Street, Industrial Road, Millard Avenue, and L Street

Take one final look at this sad excuse for a public space, featuring no crosswalks and only the faintest traces of a sidewalk. Special thanks again to John Amdor for the submission. Fully 29 percent of voters, or 136 people, voted for this intersection.

In Transportation for America’s 2011 “Dangerous by Design” report on pedestrian fatalities, Nebraska actually ranked 48th, making it one of the “safest.” But we suspect that’s mostly because walking is unusual in this state. Looking at this picture you can understand why.

#2. St. Louis, Missouri: 141 and Gravois Road

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Road Diets Are Changing American Cities for the Better

If it can work on Edgewater Drive in Orlando, it can work anywhere.

Orlando's Edgewater Drive after a road diet: safer and more active. Image: Project for Public Spaces

This road diet — or “street rightsizing” — removed one traffic lane on a four lane road through 1.5 miles of the city’s College Park neighborhood. Since then, traffic collisions are down 34 percent. Pedestrian activity increased 23 percent and cycling rose 30 percent.

Virtually none of the problems opponents predicted have materialized. Immediate property values have held steady with regional trends. Nearby streets haven’t seen a major increase in traffic. And because the project was a simple striping, the road diet cost the city only an additional $50,000 over a basic resurfacing.

So why doesn’t every city in America get busy “rightsizing”? A new guide from Project for Public Spaces seeks to make that possible. PPS’s Rightsizing Streets Guide highlights case studies and best practices from Philadelphia, Seattle, Tampa, Poughkeepsie, and elsewhere to show jurisdictions how they, too, can right-size their streets.

Philadelphia took a unique approach. “The Porch” project outside 30th Street Station removed only parking and replaced it with a wide sidewalk, seating, and public gathering space. This new destination, featured last year on Streetfilms, seats 250 people and is home to regular events like yoga and farmer’s markets, and it is a favorite spot for West Philadelphia workers to eat lunch on nice days.

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Study: Protected Bike Lanes Reduce Injury Risk Up to 90 Percent

This diagram shows that as bike infrastructure becomes progressively more separate from vehicular traffic, the risk of injury generally declines, while the appeal of the route to cyclists tends to increase. Image: I Bike TO

A study by researchers at the University of British Columbia provides compelling new evidence that bike infrastructure makes cyclists safer — a lot safer.

The study, published in the American Journal of Public Health, examined the circumstances around the injuries of 690 cyclists who wound up in emergency rooms in Vancouver and Toronto during a six month span in 2008 and 2009. Based on interviews with the cyclists, the authors plotted where the injuries occurred on each cyclist’s route. Then for each route, the injury site and a randomly-selected control site were categorized in one of 14 different street types. The authors used this method to measure the safety of each street type while controlling for other factors.

They found that wide streets with parked cars and no bike infrastructure were by far the most dangerous for cyclists. Compared to that type of road, streets with bike lanes had injury rates 50 percent lower, while the risk of injury on protected bike lanes was a whopping 90 percent lower. Interestingly, multi-use paths — or off-street trails where cyclists, pedestrians, skaters, and other non-motorized modes mix — were found to reduce injury by a comparatively modest 60 percent.

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NACTO Beats the Clock With Quick Update of Bike Guide

Once again, the National Association of City Transportation Officials has proven what an agile, modern coalition of transportation agencies is capable of. It was just a year and a half ago that NACTO released its first Urban Bikeway Design Guide and today, it’s released the first update to that guide.

A bicycle boulevard sign in Madison, Wisconsin. Image: NACTO

NACTO’s guide is far ahead of the industry standard, old-guard manuals: the Federal Highway Administration’s Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices and the American Association of State Highway Transportation Officials’ design guidelines.

NACTO’s Urban Bikeway Design Guide was the first to provide engineering guidance for protected bike lanes. It also laid out four different kinds of bike signals, four types of striped bike lanes and a variety of intersection treatments and signage recommendations. The update, released today, also includes bike boulevards, which NACTO defines as “enhanced, low-stress, low-speed streets parallel to major roads.” (Check out this Streetfilm to see bike boulevards in action.) All of the treatments NACTO highlights are in use internationally and around the U.S.

Meanwhile, AASHTO just published its first update in 13 years and is still not ready to embrace protected bike lanes. (Boulevards do get a mention.)

The speed with which updates are made and disseminated could be the biggest difference between the two guides. With just 18 months’ turnaround, NACTO is updating its guide with the newest ideas. Meanwhile, AASHTO is hoping to get around to an update within five years, but given their history, it could be two or three times that long. It’s not online, and it’s not free — you have to order a paper copy (how quaint!) for $144.

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