Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Monday, December 28, 2009

departments of public works vs. departments of transportation

There is a belief that "highway departments" focus on roads and road construction, because they are focused on providing mobility, especially speedy trips, for cars and trucks.

It's mostly true. Because most of the people who come to power in these agencies are civil engineers and traffic engineers, and they have spent their lives working on making the road network at the local, state, regional, and national levels--which face it, is an amazing accomplishment--complete and robust.

Although the funny thing is that the Federal Highway Administration, where the pro-car and pro-truck attitude starts out--provides an amazing number of high quality resources relevant to pedestrian and cycling concerns. Just two of these resources are:

- FHWA Road Safety Audit Guidelines, which focuses on ensuring pedestrian safety in the context of road design, and
- FHWA University Course on Bicycle and Pedestrian Transportation.

But as Ted Levitt wrote in The Marketing Imagination about how organizations have to figure out their real business (mission) and plan and implement and execute accordingly, the reality is that it's not about "highways." The real issue is mobility and maximizing mobility efficiently, balancing supply and demand to acheive the most mobility at the lowest cost.

Strategies that agencies are employing to accomplish this are:

1. De-merging the Department of Public Works, and creating a separate and new Department of transportation. Mostly this is happening in big cities like NYC or Baltimore or DC. (See NACTO National Association of City Transportation Officials.) But Montgomery County, Maryland has done this too.

2. Theoretically, the demerger is accompanied by a focus on balanced transportation planning, including streetscape and placemaking, pedestrian, bicycling, and transit issues, not just on roads and road building for cars and trucks. (Some departments also deal with freight and water-based transportation, and taxi service.)

Although Arlington County has proven that you don't need to demerge public works (there it's called the Department of Environmental Services) and transportation to get top notch transportation and mobility planning at the local level.

And see the SFMTA website for how it deals with multiple transportation modes, not just cars or even transit. Even though we think of that agency as the transit agency, responsible for the MUNI streetcar, light rail, and bus system, walking, bicycling, "livable streets", parking and curbside management, and taxi services are prominently listed on the website and are made easily accessible.
SF Municipal Transportation Agency website
3. Creating robust "transportation" plans focused on optimizing mobility and on all the issues that are involved in transportation, ranging from streetscape ("complete streets") to transit, rather than just focusing on roads, road building, and vehicle throughput.

Arlington County, Virginia has one of the best transpo plans of any county in the U.S., and cities like Portland, Seattle, Boulder, Tempe, and others have comparably great plans.

4. State level agencies are developing a smart transportation focus.

For a long time, in part because of federal requirements, states have been developing robust bicycle and pedestrian promotion programs, including walk to school programs. But just as there are a handful of great transportation plans out of thousands of very average plans, some states are much better than others. (I have found Maryland's Sate Highway Administration under Gov. O'Malley to be far more open to walking and bicycling issues than I expected, despite the agency's overwhelming focus on road construction.)

But now the more progressive state departments of transportation are extending what they are doing into more progressive directions. For example, Missouri has instituted a "practical design" approach, where they design and build the road to its function, rather than construct every road to be able to accommodate traffic capable of speeding along at 70 mph (see "How We Can Save Our Roads" from Parade Magazine), and Pennsylvania and New Jersey have jointly published the Smart Transportation Guidebook, which extends the concepts of complete mobility rather than a focus on automobility, as exemplified by the Arlington County or Seattle transportation plans, to the state level.

So, Action Committee for Transit has published an article in their latest newsletter about how the Montgomery County Department of Transportation, despite being calved off the DPW into its own agency, is still more of a road building and automobile-focused agency than it is a "transportation agency." (See the reprinted press release below.)

I do feel ACT's pain. In my work situation, a good deal of my creative-advocacy-mental energy is spent thinking about how to engage the local Department of Public Works so that we can make transportation--which includes walking, bicycling, and transit, not just vehicles--rather than road building and maintenance, the foundation of a broader perspective on the part of the agency, its agenda and activities, and better serve the county's residents. (And note that the agency has far more power and energy and presence compared to one puny bicycle and pedestrian planner...)

The only thing on our side is that for the most part, the County's road network is just about fully built out, so that the monies going to the agency that have traditionally been spent on road building... well now some can be reprogrammed towards pedestrian, bicycling, and transit facilities, because of the fact that the road network has been constructed.

But the Montgomery County experience has also taught me something, that just because you create a separate local transportation department, it doesn't naturally mean that the agency becomes "progressive" in terms of its agenda, mission, and vision about what it does.

Montgomery's Department of Transportation is old school, with old attitudes, and they have been sliding for more than 30 years on the very progressive decision in 1975 to build its own bus transit system, to complement the coming Metrorail system.

Arlington County has proven that one decision in and of itself doesn't make for a robust transportation plan. For example, first Arlington County decided to move the orange subway line from I-66 to Wilson Boulevard. Second they decided to intensify and broaden the land uses along the subway corridor--which can't really be done when a transit line is constructed in the middle of a highway. Third, they put into place various protocols to bring about the land use intensification and to focus mobility away from the automobile and towards the transit network. And then they continued to make other decisions, to create a local bus service to improve north-south connections in the county, creating the Arlington County Commuter Services operation to better focus transportation demand towards optimality. Etc. (And all of this they've done in a context where the State of Virginia doesn't allow the county to require transportation demand management planning as a matter of course.)

Many many many decisions must be made, programs developed, implemented, and evaluated, and the bar for service and quality must be continually raised, to achieve constant improvement in the transportation system.

The next issue that I think Action Committee for Transit needs to take up is the creation of a County Transportation Commission, comparable to the Planning Board, focused on ensuring that Montgomery County, its elected officials (see "Floreen, Andrews upset over ICC toll rates" from the Gazette) and agencies are fully focused upon achieve a robust transportation system focused on achieving optimal mobility, rather than maximizing vehicle throughput. This can help to begin the paradigm shift that clearly the MCDOT needs. (It's a strategy I am promoting in the context of where I am working as well.)

ACT Slams Montgomery County DOT's Anti-Transit Policies

The Montgomery County Dept. of Transportation has become systematically hostile to transit riders and pedestrians, charges a front-page article in the January 2010 issue of the Action Committee for Transit's quarterly newsletter, Transit Times. "The county's traffic engineering philosophy," commented ACT president Ben Ross, "is to push pedestrians, bicycles, and buses out of the way so that there are more cars on the road.”

The 600-member advocacy group backed its charge with a five-point bill of particulars:

"That's not even the end of it," added ACT vice-president Hans Riemer. He pointed out that the county DOT has stalled completion of the Metropolitan Branch bicycle trail through Silver Spring and insists that local streets should be built with wide lanes that encourage cars to move at unsafe speeds.

Riemer observed that MCDOT's policies undermine the county's efforts to promote smart growth and non-automobile transportation. "Our Transportation Department is years behind the times," he said. "The kinds of places their policies create--like today's Rockville Pike--are often the most difficult and unpleasant places for people to live, to visit, to commute. These policies destroy community life, and they are less and less effective at promoting economic growth. The path we are on is unsustainable."

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