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Are Engineers Allowed to Speak Up for Reforming Their Profession?

In a case that has attracted the attention of the Union of Concerned Scientists, well-known and outspoken civil engineer Chuck Marohn of Strong Towns recently had his professional license challenged by a fellow engineer.

The challenge to Chuck Marohn’s professional license was dismissed, but the complaint is going on his permanent record. Image: Strong Towns

The charges were quickly dismissed by the Minnesota licensing board, but the incident has raised questions about engineers’ freedom to speak openly for reform and challenge institutional dogma.

Marohn’s message is often critical of the American Society of Civil Engineers, arguing that spending less on infrastructure would lead to smarter long-term decisions. The challenge was put forward by Jeffrey Peltola, a fellow engineer who is active in the MoveMN campaign to increase taxes for transportation spending in Minnesota. Marohn has been an outspoken critic of the group.

Dave Alden at Network blog Vibrant Bay Area is also an engineer and a smart growth advocate. While he’s never had his license challenged, he says he has at times felt pressure to conform to political and ideological positions at odds. Alden thinks it’s part of the culture of the profession:

Marohn, I, and thousands more have survived rigorous academic training and government licensing to become professional engineers. Those licenses give us the authority to decide how to bridge canyons or how to deliver potable water to millions of people. Those are worthy goals and I’m proud to have professional brethren solving those problems.

But some of us have taken the skill set gained through academia, licensing, and practice to tackle a different problem, how to create a world in which our fellow citizens can live safely, affordably, and with joy and how to bequeath that world to the next generation. It’s also a worthwhile goal and one that should be supported. But challenges to licenses and pigeonholing assumptions aren’t supportive. They’re the reverse.

Writing for the Union of Concerned Scientists, Gretchen Goldman notes that scientists and technical experts are often in a unique position to recognize the need for policy changes and that intimidation and threats can have a “chilling effect” on public policy debates. Marohn, for his part, says he won’t be deterred.

Elsewhere on the Network today: The Urbanist reports that a remarkable 90 percent of new residential buildings in Seattle are either mixed-use or multi-family David Levinson at The Transportationist shares a write-up of his research showing an important break from historical patterns: Americans are starting to spend less time traveling and more time at home. And Greater Greater Washington finds that young people are increasingly residing in the center of the D.C. region.

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How State DOTs Waste Money Bailing Out Local Planning Mistakes

Northfield, Minnesota, built a school in a disconnected pastoral setting, then found out it was a logistical nightmare to get kids there safely. Photo: Streets.mn

A few weeks ago, we featured a video of Tennessee Department of Transportation chief John Schroer describing the reforms he’s applying at his agency. One problem he pinpointed — and this happens to every state DOT — is when local governments ask his DOT to spend big sums of money fixing transportation problems that could have been easily avoided in the first place.

For example, schools get sited on cheap land that is totally disconnected from transportation, then the locals ask DOT to build a new $30 million road so students can get there safely. Schroer said TDOT has been asked to do that “countless” times.

Betsey Buckheit at Streets.mn went and dug up a great example of that problem in Northfield, Minnesota. Buckheit’s case study is important because this type of thing happens all over the country, and it adds up to an enormous waste of resources. Let’s look at what went wrong:

Northfield Middle School was built on 60.6 acres of farm fields at the southern edge of town in 2004, but the lack of “consideration into the transportation mode” went back decades. The fringe location was driven partly by Northfield’s planning; the 2001 Comprehensive Plan guided schools — because of their vehicle traffic impacts — to the edges of residential developments. But state school siting guidelines at the time called for 35-40 acres for a middle school of 1000+ students (these were rescinded in 2009) so the planning issue was not purely local.

Not only did the southern fringe location increase the distance to school for many students, but prior planning decisions make the Middle School hard to reach even for those living within sight of the school. The school sits on the west side of Minnesota Trunk Highway 246 which is the only continuous north-south route through Northfield except Minnesota Trunk Highway 3 (Northfield is not unique. Recent posts here on streets.mn tell a similar story in Mankato).

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Upending the Assumption That Transportation Policy Is All About “Mobility”

Chuck Marohn says Minnesota DOT needs to adopt a new paradigm focused on reducing car dependence. Photo: Strong Towns

Charles Marohn at Strong Towns has been giving some thought to what’s ailing the Minnesota Department of Transportation. And he traces the agency’s biggest problems back to its core assumptions.

The agency sees its mission as increasing people’s mobility — which it defines, more more or less, as “how far they can travel in a given period of time.” But Marohn says that approach is outdated and not serving the state well anymore:

When we started building highways, we were connecting places that were remote and distant from each other. The act of making these connections completely transformed our economy. It opening up employment opportunities, allowed us to exploit previously inaccessible land and made it easier for farm products, timber and extracted minerals to get to market. The transformative impact of these investments can hardly be overstated.

The system as originally envisioned has now been built and what we have been experiencing for decades are the diminishing returns of this same approach. It is one thing for my drive from Brainerd to St. Paul to go from ten hours (1950’s) to six hours (1960’s), to four hours (1980’s) and now to two hours (2000’s). It is another thing for my morning commute into town to go from twelve minutes to ten. Both represent a massive financial undertaking for the state, but only the former is transformative.

Our focus on increasing mobility is no longer improving the lives of Minnesotans. To the contrary, we force enormous financial burdens onto individuals and families when we require people to own a car in order to function in society. When most of Minnesota’s cities and neighborhoods have no options available for an individual who chooses to live without a car — not only to find employment but simply to get food, clothing or medicine — then our transportation system is causing more problems than it can possibly solve.

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How Do the “Best Cities for Families” Rankings Get it so Wrong?

City rankings that purport to reveal the best place to raise a family are ubiquitous. Where I live, in northeast Ohio, it’s the homogeneous, sprawling suburbs that tend to be very proud of their positions on these lists.

What makes a city family friendly? The conventional wisdom gets it wrong, says Bradley Calvert at Family Friendly Cities.

Bradley Calvert at Family Friendly Cities examined the key criteria used by Apartment List to develop its “best cities for young families” report and found a gaping blind spot when it comes to the effects of car dependence. From his breakdown:

Safety (35%):  Ranked by number of violent crimes and property crimes per 100,000 residents.

No one wants to live in an unsafe community and there is very little to dispute that.  But limiting safety to crimes ignores the real dangers our children face.  Most kidnappings occur by people that know the child and most of our large cities are now safer than they have been in decades.  What these rankings intends to do is play into the perceptions of crime as the only danger that threatens our children.  But in reality the biggest dangers are not factored in such as gun ownership rates and cars.  Whether they are victims as passengers in collisions or victims as pedestrians and cyclists, cars represent a far greater danger to children than violent or property crime.  This is something that most parents, who are auto dependent, are unwilling to admit or acknowledge.

Raising a child in an auto-dependent environment increases safety risks more than anything else.  And while many may dispute this based on their perceptions and observations of street crime, facts are facts. Putting your child in a car is far more dangerous than walking down a city sidewalk. We can advance technology all we want when it comes to car seats but it still does nothing to predict and mitigate the behavior of the drivers around you. Safety rankings can never be taken seriously until they actually account for the greatest dangers. In order to accurately rank safety issues such as collision rates, street speeds, sidewalk prevalence, and pedestrian and cyclist injury rates must be accounted for. What we are likely to find is that many of our beloved and highly ranked sprawl communities wouldn’t rank so highly with their frequent auto collisions, lack of sidewalks and unsafe speed limits. In the case of Apartment List’s rankings, if they are to consider safety as the most important attribute to their ranking (35%), then they need to consider the elements that truly impact child safety.

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U.S. DOT’s 30-Year Forecast for Transportation: Not Bold Enough

Last week, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx unveiled “Beyond Traffic,” U.S. DOT’s 30-year framework for transportation. There’s a lot to like inside, says Deron Lovaas at the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Switchboard blog. The report does a good job addressing the realities of climate change and discussing how to safeguard our transportation system to the extent possible. It discusses long-term changes in the transportation preferences. And it attempts to measure the success of major Obama-era programs like the 2009 stimulus bill and TIGER.

But Lovaas also says that in important ways, the report is not bold enough. For example:

The door is left enticingly open to alternative futures in transportation, starkly illustrated by a brief and dark scenario-building exercise toward the end of the report which sketches out a “status quo” policy future drifting into gridlock. But the future of land-development appears to be taken for granted: More suburban sprawl, similar to patterns that proliferated in previous decades. This assumption is especially clear in the chapter on “How We Move” complete with a graph projecting suburban dominance in a graph on page 26. This may be the case, and in fact I agree with the report that given the way we’ve hardwired the nation thus far there’s little escaping it. However, it glosses over a lot of variation in suburban development and understates the urban renaissance in many cities. I live on a suburban lot myself. However, it is blocks away from a rail stop on one side, retail on the other, and covers a modest fraction-of-an-acre. What kinds of suburbs will we see in the future? Compact, mixed use ones like mine? Large-lot, monoculture spread-out ones? The report glosses over such distinctions.

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Making the Case for a Transit-First Street By Recording a Bike Ride

Commuting in the Silicon Valley is a nightmare, writes Richard Masoner at Cyclelicious, and that’s by design. For the last 50 years, housing and employment growth have occurred in separate areas. And with streets that prioritize car traffic above all, the trip between home and work has gotten progressively more miserable.

Masoner decided to give folks a view of what it’s like from a camera mounted to the back of his bike:

Experience a taste of 50 years of planning that assumes a car in every driveway for long distance commutes in this rear view video I shot from my bike on southbound San Tomas Expressway approaching El Camino Real last night. I originally intended a box turn for that left onto eastbound El Camino Real, but after I saw a quarter mile of stopped traffic I just filtered my way over to the left turn lane.

About 30 seconds into the video, I split the lane past the VTA 22 bus. The 22 and its limited stop cousin the 522 carry 20,000 riders per day, but these high volume, efficient conveyances carrying 50 passengers are stuck in the same traffic as the single occupant schmucks taking up nearly the same road space.

Until recently, planners’ primary response to this problem has been to add lanes to the San Tomas Expressway. But Masoner says he’s encouraged by the proposal for a high-capacity surface transit route that could finally end the cycle of wider roads and crushing congestion:

VTA (our county transportation agency) plans to build a Bus Rapid Transit system on El Camino Real from San Jose, across this part of the city of Santa Clara, all the way to Palo Alto. The preferred alternative for those who think systematically is a dedicated busway.

Here’s a rendering of what that would look like:

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Scott Walker Wants to Eliminate Complete Streets in Wisconsin

There’s nothing conservative about what prospective GOP presidential candidate Scott Walker is proposing for transportation in Wisconsin.

Scott Walker, who has been busily campaigning across the country, has a big-spending transportation plan for highways but nothing for complete streets. Photo: Scott Walker via Instagram

Matt Logan at Network blog Forward Lookout reports that the governor is once again dipping into the general fund to support his seemingly insatiable appetite for highway building. He’s also proposing a big round of borrowing. And on top of all that, he’s attacking the tiny pool of money that goes to walking and biking — the most cost-effective form of transportation available. Walker’s proposal to cut active transportation programs would save just $7.4 million over 10 years, while expanding total transportation spending by a much larger degree:

Governor Walker’s budget address on February third is getting a lot of press for the $1.3 billion of borrowing for transportation, but there is also a rollback of the complete streets policy formalized in 2010.

It is important to note that current law provides many exceptions to this requirement in the event of disproportionate  cost, physical constraint, lack of need in semi-urban districts, or an unwillingness of a community to maintain the facilities.

Given that the Governor’s budget also calls for more than $200 million in additional transfers from the General Purpose fund to Transportation, the supposed savings of $7.4 million seems insignificant.

This type of penny-wise, pound-foolish approach to transportation budgeting has become standard among the GOP’s Tea Party wing. A coalition of Koch brothers-backed groups, many of which also have strong ties to Walker, is pushing the same ideas at the federal level.

Elsewhere on the Network today: The Overhead Wire ponders why big picture issues like poor transit and job sprawl don’t motivate people as much as individual stories like the Detroit bus rider who has to walk 21 miles a day to work. The Dallas Morning News’ Transportation Blog reports that the neighborhood of Oak Cliff is gearing up to welcome streetcars in April. And Transportation for America has the news about a proposal from two House Democrats to increase the gas tax to pay for infrastructure.

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In a First, Seattle’s Metro Transit Will Be Funded By Carbon Offsets

Here’s an interesting new type of revenue stream for transit. The King County Council, which encompasses the Seattle region, recently enacted legislation enabling Metro Transit to receive revenue from the sale of carbon offsets.

King County’s bid for carbon neutrality will boost Metro Transit. Photo: The Urbanist

Stephen Fesler at The Urbanist explains this noteworthy innovation:

The initiative, called the Transit Carbon Offset Program, is an incredibly unique strategy for the County. Credits that are sold under the program will be directly invested in transit. Yes, transit. Carbon offset programs aren’t new, there are plenty of them out there like clean energy, reforestation, land banking, and funding building rehabilitation. But King County’s new program would be the first of its kind.

Revenue derived from the sale of transit offset credits would be used by King County Metro Transit (Metro Transit). Metro Transit could spend the credits on new service hours or on investments that would provide even more emissions reductions beyond regular operations.

While transit can still be carbon intensive, the service that it provides can more than make up for the fuel burned by running buses. Transit takes cars off of the road, puts less stress on other services, and reduces inefficient land use patterns.

To administer the offset program transparently, Metro Transit will consult with a third-party organization to monitor the transit offset credits. The third-party organization will be responsible for verifying how Metro Transit will spend revenue from the offset program. Ultimately, Metro Transit must show that the offset credits go toward programs and service that reduce carbon emissions. This will also help provide a rating and establish the cost basis for each credit. These carbon offsets will be available for purchase by WTD, SWD, other governments, and private individuals and entities.

Elsewhere on the Network today: Systemic Failure reports that countries are taking advantage of low energy prices to slash fossil fuel-related subsidies, but not the U.S. And Wash Cycle shares the news about Baltimore’s planned 2.6-mile-long protected bike lane. 

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In Providence, Snow-Covered Sidewalks Put Lives at Risk

Karen McHugh, 51, was walking on Arcade Avenue in Seekonk outside of Providence Friday night after the snow storm.

Had the sidewalks been cleared along the thoroughfare she might still be alive. But McHugh was killed by a hit-and-run driver, and authorities said street conditions might have contributed to the crash.

An image of an unshoveled sidewalk in Providence. Local residents are collecting them at the hashtag #PVDsidewalks. Via WNPVD on Twitter

“Police say the snow may have played a factor,” reported local TV station WPRI. “Neighbors say the sidewalks were packed with snow and were only cleared after the hit and run.”

Jef Nickerson at Greater City Providence says this is not a new story, but one the region sees with some degree of regularity:

This is exactly what we feared would happen when we started documenting uncleared sidewalks through the #PVDsidewalks hashtag on Twitter.

Unfortunately this is not an isolated incident, in 2011 George Adams, IV was struck and killed by a driver who also fled the scene. Haley Mckee who killed Adams was eventually arrested by police. In 2013 a reader documented poor conditions on North Main Street and of course North Main Street features heavily in the #PVDsidewalks photos this year. And in 2009 we wrote about people dying.

Every year we deal with these sidewalk conditions, and every year, people die while people who drive their cars seem to become more and more entitled and unable to deal with the fact that we live in New England and it snows. Someone started a Twitter fight with me insisting that the real problem was that streets were not returned to dry pavement yet and how dare I waste time worrying about sidewalks. The road in Seekonk was returned to dry pavement, and motorist were moving 35-40 mph on it, and Karen McHugh is dead.

Elsewhere on the Network today: John Edwards at Streets.mn laments that he’s forced to pay for a parking space he doesn’t use at his apartment complex. Broken Sidewalk explains Louisville’s recent disappointing decision to drop all its development standards, and for a Walmart no less. And Greater Greater Washington reports that transit use in Maryland is much higher than Governor Larry Hogan says it is.

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Sometimes the Safer Street Design Option Is the Less Expensive One

If you look very closely, you can see the crosswalks at this Dallas intersection. Photo: Car Free Dallas

While there are certainly a lot of large-scale obstacles to making the Dallas region more walkable, Mark Brown at Car Free Dallas says there’s also no lack of quick fixes that could improve streets for a negligible cost.

In Los Angeles, these "continental," or zebra-striped crosswalks have made pedestrian crossings much more visible. Photo: Car Free Dallas

Zebra crosswalks: high visibility, low cost. Photo: Car Free Dallas

One idea is as simple as enhancing crosswalk visibility with paint, instead of the expensive, hard-to-see treatments at some Dallas intersections:

Upon my travels around town on foot, I’ve seen ornate crosswalks with intricate stamped asphalt patterns which are invisible to drivers and pedestrians [pictured above]. The brown/gray brick patterns on black asphalt just doesn’t cut it for pedestrian safety. A lot of money is spent on these crosswalks which do nothing to make intersection crossings more visible.

While many people lament that Dallas is not walkable because of sprawl and suburban style urban design, this is only part of the problem. We need to start valuing our neighborhoods which are already walkable by supporting pedestrian comfort and safety. While we’re figuring out the big problems like the DFW metro eventually crossing the Oklahoma border, we can do quick, cheap things like crosswalk upgrades. Luckily we have a good model. Los Angeles is quickly becoming the next go-to model for complete streets. They’ve installed continental crosswalks throughout their downtown, near transit stations and schools.

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