18 August 2009

Exiting the “Forgiving Highway” for the “Self Explaining Road”

Posted by Gary Roth at http://tiny.cc/AhqVY

One of America's easily forgetable "Forgiving Highways".

On America's "Forgiving Highways" it may be too easy to forget oneself.

The first in a series of groundbreaking reflections from the travels of a 34-year veteran of New Jersey Department of Transportation. Gary Toth, who had previously never been to Europe, spent a week touring the Netherlands with fellow PPSers Fred Kent and Kathy Madden. Their mission was to learn more about the Dutch approach to Sustainable Safety, bikeped accommodations and community-based transportation.

30 years ago, the Netherlands, a country about twice in size and in population as New Jersey, was despondent over the high fatality rate on its roads. In the 1970s, 3,200 Dutch died each year in crashes, about ¼ of them pedestrians. This rate was about 15% higher than it was in the US at the same time. Around the same time, like most countries around the world, the US also decided to do something about highway safety.

Both the US and the Netherlands endorsed improved technology in cars, driver education and the 1960s “Forgiving Highway.” The major difference rests in how engineers approached safety in built up areas — cities, villages and suburbs. More on this in a moment.

Forgiving Highways is a concept that designs roads to “forgive” mistakes made on the road. It seeks to smoothly redirect the vehicles that leave roads, and allow wide enough clear zones to bring vehicles to controlled stops if and when they leave the roads. Breakaway supports, burying the end of guardrail, clearing the roadside of unneeded obstacles, and flattening and rounding slopes and ditch sections became standard design as part of the concept.

The idea that Forgiving Highways (wider and straighter) would reduce crashes on non-freeways took root during the 1966 National Highway Safety hearings. Leading the way was a nationally revered expert on safety: Kenneth Stonex, who during his career at General Motors, oversaw much of the research that created the basis for the Interstate Highway safety standards. Justifiably marveling in the remarkable safety record of the Interstates, Stonex and others sought to apply the Interstate principles to the rest of our roads. “What we must do is to operate the 90% or more of our surface streets just as we do our freeways… [converting] the surface highway and street network to freeway road and roadside conditions,” Stonex testified. It sounded logical at the time… and a great political solution, because the responsibility for fixing the problem once again fell on government, not the individual. We dove deep into the Forgiving Highway philosophy and still have not come up for air.

The Dutch also believed in technology and Forgiving Highways. However, they began to notice that while this worked on the high speed freeways and the low speed residential areas, they still had a problem in their “built up” areas. Recognizing that it is in these areas that they have the biggest conflicts between the purpose of roads for moving people and the value of roads in providing for exchange and access, they began to commit themselves to a different approach. They began designing roads in built up areas that induced motorists to operate their vehicles in ways and at speeds that were appropriate for passage through urbanized areas. The Dutch came to understand that the post-World War II world wide approach to making roads wider, straighter and faster simply doesn’t work on local and commercial roads in urbanized areas.

In the US, application of the Forgiving Highways approach in urban areas did accomplish its mission when vehicles did leave the road. However, as an unintended consequence, vehicular speeds go up. Drivers responded to their environment. Put them on a stretch of road that is wider, flatter, and straighter and they drove faster. While okay on controlled access freeways where there are no adjacent land uses or pedestrians, and where sight distances are near infinite, curves are flat and opposing roadways are separated by wide medians or center barriers, higher speeds caused problems in built up areas. Yet we were so caught up in the paradigm that we never stopped to check to see if we were getting the desired result.

Even today, groups with credible sounding names such as the Transportation Construction Coalition continue to advocate for bigger roads. This philosophy makes sense for the coalition, since its membership is made up almost entirely of contractors’ associations. But does it make sense for the rest of America?

Apparently not, according to research conducted by Eric Dumbaugh of the Texas Transportation Institute at Texas A&M. Wider shoulders and larger fixed object offsets – i.e. forgiving roadway design – has a statistically insignificant effect on roadside crashes. Yet widening shoulders actually increases midblock crashes. Why? The premise is higher speeds negate the effect of moving fixed objects further out, and cause more car to car crashes. Dumbaugh’s research further shows that a Livable Street concept — bringing life back to the street via trees, streetscaping, building setbacks, etc – leads to 40% fewer midblock crashes and 67% fewer roadside crashes than roadway averages (click here for more information). More importantly, injuries and fatalities from crashes almost disappear. Some American engineers are starting to accept this, but widespread adoption of this philosophy is still distant.

The Dutch have accomodated bicycling so well that a woman feels comfortable toting her three kids to school.

The Dutch have accommodated bicycling so well that a woman feels comfortable toting her three children to school.

Back to the Dutch. There are three significant differences between their approach to safety and ours.

1. They rejected that wider, straighter and faster is better for non-freeways in urban areas.

2. They adopted a multi-modal approach to safety. Travel by bicycle or on foot is valued equally and bikeped accommodations are universal.

3. They are managing access to their “arterials” to a degree that many American access engineers would envy. The helps eliminate conflicts between mobility and local access, which destroys the capacity of our through roads and leads to substantial deterioration of safety.

Cumulatively these three differences represent a disciplined approach to standardizing street design that the Dutch call “self explaining streets.”

Any American traffic engineer would instantly agree that one of the biggest sources of crashes in the US is lack of driver expectancy and confusion from road to road, sometimes within a segment of road. In fact, there have been some efforts in the US to foster self explaining streets, such as the Proactive Roadway Design philosophy described in the Pennsylvania DOT/ New Jersey DOT Smart Transportation Guide. Cities and metropolitan areas such as Charlotte, San Franciso, Denver, Savannah and Portland have all moved to create transportation policies that move away from wider, straighter and faster. But none have consistently or comprehensively taken root across the American transportation industry.

The American emphasis on safety has led to a reduction in annual fatalities from 44,000 a year in 1975 to 37,000 a year in 2008. This is an accomplishment to be proud of under any circumstance but particularly impressive in light of our population growth over that period. This is a tribute to the engineering and planning profession in our country.

During the same period, the Dutch have reduced their fatalities from 3200 to 800. If we calculate out the rate per 1000 people, the Dutch fatality rate is 40% of the American rate. This is remarkable, particularly when one considers that in 1975, their fatality rate was 20% higher than the US rate!

If we in American had achieved a similar reduction in fatality rates, our annual fatalities would drop to just under 15,000 a year – 22,000 less deaths than we currently experience.

An New Agenda to Save Lives in the United States

This dramatic savings of lives should be a focus of the next federal transportation bill. Congress, transportation advocacy and our communities all agree that the American transportation system has lost its way, and has no overarching message that excites our citizenry in the way that Interstate system did in the 1950s

To foster the infusion of the applicable Dutch transportation ideas into the US, PPS is forging a partnership with the Dutch National Information and Technology Platform for infrastructure, traffic, transport and public space – C.R.O.W.

07 August 2009

Technology, Political Ideology, the Environment and our Cities

Published as Technology, Ideology & Cities in The News on 7 August 2009

In 1947, when the Electronic Number Integrator and Computer, one of the first-ever computers, began its operations as a calculator of artillery firing tables for the US Army’s Ballistics Research Laboratory, few knew the changes it would herald. ENIAC, as it was commonly known, measured roughly 8.5 by 3 by 80 feet, took up 680 square feet and consumed 150kW of power. No one seriously considered that the “computer” would serve any other purpose but as a calculator for the military or the business world.

In little over two generations, advances in technology have changed computers. In today’s world, the computer is thought of as “personal” or as a “communicator.” It has seeped into every facet of human activity and what we can get done today on our phones, let alone laptops, would have been unthinkable sixty years ago. But what accounted for the huge change in perceptions about the role of computers in society? For example, to demonstrate just how pervasive the notion that computers would remain large, clunky metal boxes, Thomas J Watson, the president of IBM, is famously misquoted as having predicted in 1943 that the world market for computers would be less than the fingers of two hands.

Manuel Castells, the “philosopher of the Internet” and professor of sociology and city and regional planning at the University of California, has suggested that the remarkable changes in the shape, form and function of the computer have been driven by politics, as much as by technological breakthrough. He illustrates by saying that a “personal” computer would have been a political and, hence, technical impossibility in Cold War Russia. The state itself would have been forced to oppose technological advances that promoted private property. Western politics, by way of generalised distinction, has focused more on the individual. No wonder, then, that iPods are icons of individualism as well a particular political ideology.

The environmental and development challenges facing the people, economy and ultimately politics of this country are of epic proportion. Our population is underestimated at 160 million and we have a poverty rate, depending on whether you believe the figures approved by the World Bank or put forward by the Planning Commission, of anywhere from 17.2 to 37.5 percent. At the same time, the scandalous failure of every one of our populations stabilisation policies means that, in as little as the next thirty to forty years, our population is set to double. Rural-to-urban population shifts, motivated by a desire to engage in the cash economy of an urban area, will mean that, by such time, over half of the population of Pakistan will be crammed into its cities.

Our politicians are busy investing in infrastructure in their larger cities. It is their belief that it is infrastructure like roads and underpasses that will provide people the mobility they need to exploit their potential, that it is things like road infrastructure, five-star hotels, fast-food chains and airports that convinces foreign investment that Pakistan is a viable home for their money. But our politicians they have not considered any of the environmental and development challenges facing us. For example, last week, the Government of Punjab announced it was going to be “e-governed” by next year. I’m all for the efficiency of e-government and I’m sure e-government initiatives will bring transparency and speed to bureaucratic inefficiency, but clearly no one has given thought to the energy crisis. How is anything going to be e-governed when there’s no electricity?

Our politicians appear to be concentrating on investing in the infrastructure of large urban areas. Smaller urban areas are ignored, and the lack of investment in infrastructure there often adds to the population migration to larger urban areas. The government, meanwhile, in order to find the energy to run the current model, has been forced to turn to rental power. The recent exhortations of the Minister of Water and Power pleading for people to “conserve more energy” and directing government offices not to use air-conditioners are platitudes at best. The energy conservation we need in Pakistan is beyond the scope of individual actions. What is needed is institutional change. But if we really listen to what people like Manuel Castells are saying, we also desperately need a change of the current political ideology that reinforces environmentally-unfriendly and unsustainable urban growth.

Pakistan’s energy infrastructure relies on sources of electricity large enough to cater to the energy demands of its large urban areas. It’s because our cities are so large and so full of people that we need things as large as dams or massive gas- or furnace-oil based IPPs to provide them electricity. It’s because our cities are so large and energy-inefficient that alternatives like solar, wind and run-of-the-water power will never be able to provide for them. For example, both the cost and the amount of land required to accommodate a solar power station large enough to provide a city like Lahore or Faislabad makes the entire project unfeasible. But the cost and amount of land required for a solar or wind or run-of-the-water power station to provide energy to a city of 200,000 to 300,000 people is totally manageable. Also, the sewage and sanitation requirements of a small city are much more manageable than the hundreds of tons of raw sewage and solid waste a city like Lahore produces every day.

Smaller cities? Cities of 200,000 to 300,000 people! Impossible, some will say. Well, that’s exactly what people said to anyone who suggested, only 60 years ago, that computers could have a “personal” use. In little over half a century – in fact, since the time this Islamic Republic was founded – the ENIAC has shrunk to the size of a Blackberry or iPhone.

And according to Castells, this remarkable change in technology has as much to do with innovation as it does with political ideology. In order to have environmentally-friendly and sustainable cities, we need to have a political ideology that recognises that small is good. It’s an ideology that recognises that public good trumps personal interest. It’s one that respects the person and does not treat one only as an economic entity. It’s one that believes that energy conservation is more important than energy generation.

(You can watch the Manuel Castells interview that motivated this column here)

06 August 2009

City Visions: Past and Future

An excellent (and long) lecture on the importance of cities in history and in literature.