Back to the Grid: John Norquist on How to Fix National Transpo Policy
news coming out of Washington last week jacked up expectations for
national transportation policy to new heights. Cabinet members Ray
LaHood and Shaun Donovan announced a partnership to connect transportation and housing policy, branded as the "Sustainable Communities Initiative." The second-in-command at DOT, Vice Admiral Thomas Barrett, told a New York audience that "building communities" is a top priority at his agency.
the moment, however, the scene on the ground shows how far we have to
go before the reality catches up to the rhetoric: State DOTs flush with
federal stimulus cash are plowing ahead with wasteful, sprawl-inducing highway projects.
Ultimately, you can’t end car dependence or create livable places
without enlisting the people building those roads — the metropolitan
planning organizations (MPOs), state DOTs, and other entities that shape local policy. How can the feds affect their decisions?
The Congress for the New Urbanism has some intriguing answers. During the stimulus debate, CNU proposed a new type of federal road funding
that would help to build connected grids — the kind of streets that
livable communities are made of. The proposal didn’t make it into the
stimulus package before the bill got rushed out the door, but the
upcoming federal transportation bill will provide another chance. CNU
President John Norquist — a four-term mayor of Milwaukee who first got into politics as an anti-freeway advocate — was down in DC last Thursday to share his ideas with Congress.
Streetsblog spoke to him afterward about what’s broken with national
transportation policy and how to fix it. Here’s the first part of our
Ben Fried: During the
stimulus debate you sent a letter to James Oberstar, chair of the House
Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, and among other things you
said that discussion of national transportation policy often presents a
"false dichotomy" between transit funding and road funding. What did
They are taking this stimulus money and using it for roads that people really don’t even want.
Well, maybe "false" is the wrong word for me to have used, but it’s a
dichotomy that’s very limited. If the debate is about transit versus
roads — and currently the battle lines are drawn at 20 percent funding
for transit, 80 percent for roads — it’s a really limited debate. It
leaves out the whole discussion of what kind of roads to build. So if
you have a city with boulevards and avenues and no freeways, it’s going
to be a lot more valuable. You look at Vancouver, they have no freeways
whatsoever, and they have a fabulously intense and valuable real estate
and job market. And then you look at the places that have invested all
the money in the giant road segments and they tend to be degraded. It’s
not roads versus transit — it’s good street networks-plus-transit
versus mindless building of out-of-scale roads. I mean they’re
basically putting rural roads into urbanized areas and it’s
counterproductive, it reduces the value of the economy, it destroys
jobs, destroys real estate value. For what, so you can drive fast at
two in the morning when you’re drunk?
Freeways don’t work in rush hour; they’re slower. Like in
Washington, DC, Connecticut Avenue is faster at rush hour than the
Potomac Freeway. The Potomac Freeway goes down to about two to six
miles an hour during the peak hour, whereas Connecticut Avenue goes
down to about eight to thirteen miles an hour. So you’re really talking
about the federal government investing billions and billions of dollars
in stuff that reduces the value of the economy. How bad is that?
BF: So say they do implement some good metrics that get at street network connectivity…
What would that be? Let me tell you. Right now the metrics are minimums
— you need at least 12 feet for a highway lane, whereas in Vancouver
no lane can be bigger than three meters, which comes out to nine feet
ten inches I think. Their biggest lane can be nine feet ten inches…
BF: These are federal requirements?
No, but they all feed into the same system. The feds don’t even do the
requirements directly — in the federal highway program they reference
the AASHTO Green Book.
These are rules, they’re just not stated as rules… On the interstate
system you can’t have a lane that’s less than 12 feet wide, so that
actually is a rule there. You have all these metrics that make
everything bigger — turning radii and ramps, the length of ramps —
all these things designed to have the vehicles move faster without
having to slow down when they get off the freeway, that sort of thing.
now the system is biased towards trying to make everything like
Brasília, where all the arterial street intersections are
grade-separated. It’s the most lifeless city in the world.
then you need to look at what good metrics would be. If you look at
communities that are really successful and have rich, complex street
grids with transit — or even without transit, but they have street
grids — there’s much more efficiency in the use of pavement. You can
go the direction you want to go, you don’t have to go out of the way
and come back.
Look at the Embarcadero Freeway. When it was torn down, the
trips actually got faster, because people were able to enter the street
grid of northeastern San Francisco without having to overshoot the mark
or undershoot where they want to go and then go in a direction they
don’t want to go. So by removing the freeway and re-enriching the
street network, it actually made traffic distribute better. Then it was
a better setting, obviously, for real estate and job development,
because the views of the bay were restored and streets are better.
So what are the metrics? The metrics would be intersection density,
block size — you would reward intersection density. And the feds can
do that, they can say that states could draw federal money and add to
the density of a street network, creating more mobility that way.
And the metric we use is 150 intersections per square mile, which
wouldn’t just be like Manhattan or Philadelphia. In Wausau, Wisconsin,
which is the home of the chairman of the House Appropriations
Committee, Dave Obey, we counted 158 intersections per square mile.
That’s counting alleys. You look at all these places that have high
intersection density and they’re very likely to be valuable settings
for jobs and real estate, and they’re also very good for distributing
don’t work in rush hour; they’re slower. Like in Washington DC,
Connecticut Avenue is faster at rush hour than the Potomac Freeway.
Now if you’re talking about a transcontinental trip in a truck from
California to New Jersey… we’re not saying you can’t do that kind of
thing, but that right now the system is biased towards creating that —
trying to make everything like Brasília,
where all the arterial street intersections are grade-separated. It’s
the most lifeless city in the world. There’s actually no street life.
In order to go to a cool neighborhood you have to leave Brasilia and go
to the shantytowns on the outside. That’s the only place that has any
humanity to it.
BF: It seems like there also has to be some
sort of system of incentives in place, because there’s so many MPOs
that are just going to be stuck in their old habits…
JN: Are you talking about MPOs or DOTs?
BF: Let’s say both.
I would argue in the majority of cases the MPOs just function as an arm
of the DOT. There’s this myth that some of the regional planning
commissions are out there trying to do what’s right. And that’s true in
some cases, but in the vast majority it’s just this same mind frame
that they have at the DOTs. Some DOTs are more progressive than others.
My current favorite is New Jersey where they’re really exploring these
ideas of funding more urban streets, like replacing the freeway in
front of Trenton, along the river, and putting in a boulevard instead.
BF: So how do you get the state DOTs to embrace this?
Right now they’re encouraged not to even think about doing this stuff.
Like in Wisconsin, there’s really no projects in Milwaukee, because
Milwaukee is built out with streets and so forth, so all the money goes
to brand new roads. Or expanding existing roads like I-94 between
Milwaukee and the Illinois line, a total waste of money. They’re saying
it’s $250 million to widen it, it’s probably three or four times that.
Here they are, taking this stimulus money and using it all for roads
that are really the kinds of things that were considered good back in
the 1960s and 70s, but now are pretty much discredited. A lot of these
road projects are controversial — local groups that aren’t connected
to government contracts are resisting them — and all of a sudden the
feds come along and fund roads that people really don’t even want. It’s
pretty bad. In southeastern Wisconsin the MPO is the biggest supporter
of building all these giant roads. Sometimes the smart growth movement
says, "Well, we should give the MPOs more say." I’m not sure that’s a
If you need to have a stick, you have to know
what you’re going to hit, or if you have a carrot, you have to know
what you want to fund, that’s why you get right back to metrics. The
first step is to allow federal funds to be used to bring street
networks up to a standard of 150 intersections per square mile. So if
you have a suburban sprawl kind of situation where the intersection
density is like at 40 per square mile, if you have a project that’s
going to bring that intersection density up to 150, then the state
would be eligible for getting federal funding to go in and do that.
You need to have standards that engineers can respect and if you have standards that they respect, they’ll do wonderful stuff.
You would also support the maintenance and improvement —
reconstruction — of existing grids that are 150 intersections per
square mile. At first it would have to run parallel to the existing
system. You’re not going to knock out the AASHTO Green Book, but you
have this as an alternative. Just having it as an alternative, without
even having sticks, I think would open it up for a lot of places. I
think a lot of the midwestern and eastern states would start doing
projects… like right now in Syracuse, New York they’re contemplating
tearing down Highway 81. It runs right through the middle of Syracuse,
and the DOT is sort of grudgingly going along with a study to look at
it. But they’re probably thinking they’re not going to get federal
funding if they put in some low-scale roads, you know, streets and
boulevards. Well let’s get rid of that thought, let’s say if they put
in a street network and it helps distribute traffic and it handles the
needs of the community in the region, then they don’t have to build a
grade-separated road, they don’t have to build a giant arterial. They
can build a system of roads, enrich the street grid and allow Syracuse
to solve its problem that way.
If the feds say, "That’s okay, that’s good, that’s just as good
as the other method," that would be a big step forward. I don’t know
that we can get it to say, “You must do this the more urban way.” I
think that would be a little bit harder to do and I don’t even know
that it’s necessary. Especially young traffic engineers that are just
coming in to the field, I think they’re kind of eager to look at some
different models. And if you look at ITE now, which is a very
traditional group, the Institute of Transportation Engineers, they’re
really getting more and more excited about the idea of networks.
Even the ones that aren’t on the program yet, they’re still interested
and they kind of want to know what everything is about. So that’s where
the metrics come in, then they respect it. Look at the 1920s, if you
were a civil engineer and you’re going to Purdue, you’re going to learn
the two rod street — two rods from the center lane to the building
line, 50 feet of pavement with eight foot sidewalks. Add it up, it’s
two rods in each direction, four rods altogether. That’s what you find
all over America and particularly in the midwest. Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
Mattoon, Illinois. Frankfurt, Kentucky. You’re going to find these
exact same streets. And it’s a great street for retail, for a downtown
main street. It is
Main Street — and the engineers did that, they were trained to do it,
they obeyed orders and they did it. If they go to traffic engineering
school now they’re going to learn minimum 72-foot arterials, three
moving lanes in each direction with a turn lane, and then they blow out
the sides with 100-foot setbacks — you can widen the street later, you
know — and big parking lots.
That’s what they’re taught, that’s all they’re taught.
They’re not taught the other model, because the regulations don’t even
mention the other model for the most part. You need to have standards
that engineers can respect and if you have standards that they respect,
they’ll do wonderful stuff. They’ll create Market Street in San
Francisco – new! — if they had a standard that said it was okay to do
tuned for the second part of our interview with John Norquist, in which
we discuss the problem with "shovel-ready" projects, what it takes to
win a freeway teardown fight, and how to build your way out of