Three Street Design Pros on the New Golden Age of Traffic Engineering

The Indianapolis Cultural Trail creates the feeling of an off-street trail in the middle of a Midwestern downtown.

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.

James Bond needs a Q. Scooby-Doo needs a Velma. Katniss Everdeen needs a Beetee.

And today’s urban biking movement won’t get far without engineers, either.

As the country’s civil engineers converge for their profession’s annual pilgrimage to the Transportation Research Board conference, people of every discipline who are using protected bike lanes and other tools to make biking mainstream might take a moment to consider the potential of a group that too many modern bike advocates cast as villains: engineers.

For Linda Bailey, executive director of the National Association of City Transportation Officials, there’s no better monument to this potential than the country’s Interstate Highway System.

“They made these facilities where people — amateurs! — drive 80 miles an hour within inches of each other,” Bailey said. “And very rarely does anything go bad.”

NACTO Executive Director Linda Bailey, right, with Washington Department of Transportation Director (and civil engineer) Lynn Peterson.

When the concept of a freeway was handed to engineers almost 100 years ago, it must have seemed like a completely crazy assignment. But engineers were so good at the job they were given — moving vast quantities of private vehicles as fast as possible — that freeways came to define the entire traffic engineering profession.

“We spent the last 60 years really honing that,” Bailey said. “We did a great job. And we have not spent a lot of time on city streets… We need to bring all the powers of study, research, design, engineering knowhow to city streets.”

That’s exactly what’s happening, progressive engineers say.

A new age of creativity

Atlanta engineer Rodney Givens, right, on a study tour of Dutch bike infrastructure last summer.

In 21 years as an engineer in Texas and Georgia, Rodney Givens has built plenty of bike lanes. Though “built” might be putting it generously.

“It was just an extra four feet of asphalt, and then stripe it and you’re done,” Givens said. “Really no thought process behind that.”

Then, last summer, Givens joined a study tour to the Netherlands in preparation for the protected bike lane network that Atlanta is planning to build. It was a revelation, he said. It had never occurred to him that he almost never saw a person actually biking in the lanes he’d been taught to include.

“They have bike lanes off to the side, on a 45 mph road, but you never see bikes on it,” he said. “Why? because it doesn’t feel safe.”

Givens is now Atlanta’s point person on a $250 million bond issue that would include tens of millions for protected bike lanes and other infrastructure he never learned about in school.

“It’s got to get better,” Givens said. “It can only go one direction.”

Rock Miller of Stantec.

For Rock Miller, a California-based consulting engineer for Stantec who served as president of the Institute of Transportation Engineers in 2012, there’s never been a more exciting time to have his job.

When Miller graduated from the University of California at Davis in 1976, he would have liked to start his career building bike lanes like the ones he’d enjoyed in Davis. But cities, he learned, only wanted to hire him to build things for cars. So he spent 30 years doing exactly that, just as his professors had before him.

Then everything changed.

“Five to 10 years ago, all of a sudden people started asking me to start engineering things for bikes,” Miller said. Today protected bike lanes are a key part of his work.

Miller said he’s now living an engineer’s dream: working in a nationwide community of peers to address unsolved problems in street design.

“We’re designing things starting from zero. We exchange the best ideas that we can with each other,” Miller said. “There’s all kinds of things happening… I think we all feel that we’re laying the foundation for a lot of good things.”

Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly described the number of years in Givens’ career and the nature of the Atlanta bond issue.

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  • EC

    Thanks for this post. It is easy to see everything as bad, but in a lot of areas (YA fiction, for one, since you mention Katniss Everdeen) we are really in a golden age, and it must be great to be an engineer working on this stuff now.

  • Ken

    It had never occurred to him that he almost never saw a person actually biking in the lanes he’d been taught to include… “They have bike lanes off to the side, on a 45 mph road, but you never see bikes on it,” he said. “Why? because it doesn’t feel safe.”

    And this was surprising?

  • I do like the analogy to interstates, HOWEVER, regarding the third photo, there are few places in most Eastern states to build interurban sidepaths a la’ the Netherlands due to a lack of ROW and private properties that immediately abut roadways. They work great in the Netherlands but I see no practical application for such facilities on or next to 99% of the interurban roadways I’m familiar with.

  • BBnet3000

    There’s plenty of space, its just all been allocated to driving or parking.

  • Nathanael

    “They made these facilities where people — amateurs! — drive 80 miles
    an hour within inches of each other,” Bailey said. “And very rarely
    does anything go bad.””

    Very rarely?!?!

    Interstates are so dangerous I’ve stopped driving on them. 20-car pileups are pretty routine news in the winter.

  • Bob P

    Considering the incredible volume of motorists on the road today and the distances traveled, accidents really are a rarity. Rates are usually presented on the order of hundreds / thousands of crashes per HUNDRED MILLION vehicle miles.

  • Definitely a case of “compared to how you’d think it would turn out,” as described by the semi-famous Onion article linked above.

  • ahwr

    Dying from a car crash is something like a one percent lifetime risk. Depends how you define rarely I guess.

  • ahwr

    Actual interurban roads might be adjacent to private property but it’s property that isn’t going to be expensive to acquire. There you could end up with something really nice. A lot of ‘interurban’ roads, especially in the DC-Boston corridor, run through continuous sprawl, where acquiring property for an expanded ROW means acquiring strips of parking lots, backyards, or buildings. That’s generally not going to be feasible. Sure, as you suggest, you could take an existing traffic or parking lane and convert it to a buffered or barrier protected bike lane. But you won’t end up with something like this:

    https://bicycledutch.wordpress.com/2012/01/30/cycle-route-tilburg-oisterwijk/

    Because your ‘interurban’ road is running through continuous sprawl, not past farms or nature. That sprawl attracts a lot of motor vehicle traffic that is unpleasant to bike close to, and there just isn’t room to expand the ROW cheaply. You can have something for bikes, but it won’t be great.

  • BBnet3000

    Just narrowing the lanes from 12 (or wider) to 10 would often free up enough space for a protected lane or path (especially if it were shared with the little-used sidewalks where they exist in the short term). Sprawl is unpleasant, but the upside is that there are destinations along the way.

    To get to my parents in the suburbs by bike I have to ride through a huge portion of Brooklyn and Queens. The amount of destinations along the way (and the number of people probably making many trips under 4 miles) is mind boggling.

    I’m not saying we’re going to get Dutch interurban paths out of this anytime soon, but it would be a start. I still think that paths within cities should be the focus in the US for the next 50 years or so (by which point we may have caught up to 1970s-vintage Dutch designs).

  • ahwr

    Sharing space with sidewalks means lowering the design speed of the cycletrack. All the curb cuts along most roads in sprawly areas mean you won’t be able to relax the way you can on a railtrail or a path like the one in the video. You can sometimes narrow car lanes, but lowering the design speed of a road in areas where travel distances are high and the number of pedestrians or cyclists currently is low is a hard sell politically. Especially if it affects throughput. Even if you do, you don’t end up with a cycletrack with a large buffer from speeding cars and trucks. It’s not just a safety issue, but a comfort issue – biking just a few feet from cars and trucks going fifty+ mph isn’t that much fun for most (potential) cyclists. That reduces the number of people who would want to use it significantly.

    Rural construction is cheaper, easier politically, and can give you a better product for long distance cyclists. But too many interurban roads don’t run through rural for most of their length. You can have something, but it won’t be as nice as in the picture in the post.

  • Hell yes that property is gonna’ be expensive to acquire! I live in Jersey man! It’s expensive here! Not only do you have to actually buy it but then there are the lawyers. The Dutch and Europeans don’t need to bother with this between towns as its just farms and forests for the most part.

    This is where we are going to have to find our own solutions because for the most places the Dutch solution ain’t gonna work. Sorry.

  • andrelot

    Interstates (or controlled-access highways in general) are the safest form of road transportation, measured in terms of fatalities per hundred-million vehicle-mile driven. Much safer for vehicle occupants and extremely safer for other agents for the obvious reasons they are very rarely interacting with traffic.

    Fast city streets are the most dangerous type of road. Arterial roads are better, but don’t come close to controlled-access highways.

  • Filamino

    It’s good to see People on Bikes showing the true challenges of the transportation engineering field. I guess Streetsblog is reposting it to cover their ass when they post their next bigoted article claiming traffic engineers hate women, children, and pretty much everyone and everything in general.

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