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History


Here's why Arlington's streets have the names they do

Did you know there's a rhyme and reason to how Arlington County's streets are named? Here's an explanation of Arlington's street-naming system.


Photo by Arlington County on Flickr.

While Arlington was originally part of the District of Columbia (until 1846), it was not incorporated in the plan of Pierre L'Enfant. Unlike its larger neighbor, Arlington's streets don't follow a strict grid, but development has still followed a somewhat rectilinear pattern. The street-naming system dates back to 1932, and was undertaken in order to convince the Postal Service to allow "Arlington" as the mailing address for the entire county.

The county is divided into northern and southern sections by Arlington Boulevard, a major east-west thoroughfare which bisects the county.

In contrast to Washington, east-west streets are numbered. Since Arlington does not have quadrants, but instead has halves, most streets are identified with "north" or "south" relative to Arlington Boulevard. The directional suffix follows numbered streets, but precedes named streets. Numbered streets increase with distance from Arlington Boulevard in both directions. Accordingly, it is flanked on the north by First Street North and on the opposite side by First Street South. Numbered streets are usually "streets," but when additional streets fill in blocks, "Road" and then "Place" is used.

Named streets run north-south. Like DC, the first letter of the street name and number of syllables indicates where in the grid a street is located. The origin for the named streets is the Potomac River. The first "alphabet" is made up of one-syllable words, the second of two-syllable words, the third of three-syllable words, and the fourth is just one street: North Arizona Street. As distance from the Potomac increases, letters increase successively.

Instead of using "Place" to indicate a second street of the same letter filling in the street grid as DC does, Arlington just uses another word of the same first letter and syllables. In that regard, Danville Street could be followed by Daniel Street. A look at a progression of successive letters shows the strata of the alphabets in Arlington's street grid.

None of Washington's state-named avenues continue into Virginia, so Arlington uses a different methodology for indicating major streets. Like the street bisecting the county, major east-west roads are typically called "boulevards". Examples include Wilson and Clarendon Boulevards.

Major north-south streets are often called "drives." Examples include Walter Reed and George Mason Drives.

Many roads pre-date the addressing system of 1932, and have kept their historical names. These include "roads," highways," Spout Run Parkway, and Columbia Pike.

This post first ran back in 2009. Since the history hasn't changed, we thought we'd share it with you again!

Transit


New bike lanes and dedicated bus lanes could connect Columbia Heights and Brookland

People want more ways to get around by foot and on bike in the corridor that runs from from Columbia Heights to Brookland, and they want them to be safer. After receiving that message, DDOT drafted potential plans for making it happen.


The study area. All image from DDOT.

DDOT's Crosstown Multimodal Transportation Study focuses on an area defined by Kenyon and Harvard Streets between 16th and Park Place; Irving Street and Michigan Avenue around the Washington Hospital Center; and Michigan Avenue from the hospital center to South Dakota Avenue. Cars in the area zip along Irving and Michigan, but for people on bikes and foot, there isn't a safe or easy way to get around (a fact compounded by the congestion once drivers get to either side of the hospital).

Also, the area's transit isn't great. Both the H2 and H4 bus routes connect the Columbia Heights Metro Station, the Washington Hospital Center, and the Brookland Metro Station along the Irving/Columbia Road-Michigan Avenue corridor. However, Medstar also provides shuttle service on the same route between the hospitals and the Columbia Heights Metro every 10 minutes during rush hour and 30 minutes during other times. This service largely duplicates WMATA's service and adds additional traffic to already congested streets.

After the first public workshop about the study, nearly 700 people commented on how to address all of these issues. Back in April, DDOT unveiled three concept plans for the corridor. Here's a summary:

A new street grid

Each of DDOT's proposals suggests removing the Michigan Avenue overpass and creating a street grid west of the hospitals. Doing so would go a long way in making the area safer for people on foot and bike, as it'd get rid of unnecessary high-speed ramps and car lanes; it'd also mean chances to add new green space. How many surface streets are in that grid depends largely on where bus and bike lanes need to be.


One of the options for a new street grid.

More options for bike riders

Those who gave DDOT input were clear that they'd like to see more bike connections, and that those connections be made made up of space that's only for bikes. The proposals include a few options for doing that, from protected bikeways that run in both directions to off-street lanes next to pedestrian walkways.

Around the hospitals and toward Columbia Heights, the stronger proposals would create bike lanes in one of the existing travel or parking lanes. With one exception in one proposal, bikes and buses would not share the same lanes, and west of the hospitals, bike lanes and bus lanes would not be on the same streets.


One option is to add a bike lane along Michigan Avenue.

Dedicated bus lanes

The plans aim to improve bus service (shorter trips, specifically) by creating dedicated lanes for buses. While the extent of dedicated lanes varies among the concepts, they all suggest dedicated lanes on either Irving Street, Columbia Road, and/or Harvard Street west of the hospitals. This would be accomplished by using one lane currently used during rush hour and parking during off peak hours.


The dark blue lines are dedicated transit lanes.

No more cloverleaf

None of DDOT's three options would do away with the North Capitol Street overpass. All of them, however, would replace the freeway-style, cloverleaf-shaped ramps that run between North Capitol and Irving with more direct connections. Doing so would make it much easier to keep car speeds down and control traffic flow.


The cloverleaf is on its way out.

DDOT has scheduled its third Crosstown Study workshop for June 9th at Trinity Washington University. You can give input on the potential plans there.

In addition to the third workshop, DDOT will have two Public Engagement Events on Saturday, June 11: one in Brookland, at the Monroe Street Farmers Market (716 Monroe Street NE), and one on the west side of the Columbia Heights Metro station (3030 14th Street NW).

Bicycling


Use this map to make Fairfax more bike-friendly

Little River Turnpike, a major road that runs across Fairfax, is difficult to bike along. The county is looking to change that, though, and a new interactive map lets you make suggestions for how it can.


Click this map for a version that you can comment on. Image from Fairfax County.

Stretching from Fairfax City to Alexandria, Little River Turnpike has been a major road since the 1800s and its interchanges with both 495 and 395 mean the road sees a lot of traffic today.

Right now, there are no bike lanes on Little River Turnpike, and sidewalks are hit and miss. Fairfax wants to make it easy to bike between the many neighborhoods and businesses up and down the road.


Riding a bike here could be a whole lot easier. Image from Google Maps.

While there is a master bike plan for Fairfax, some of its roads need a more detailed and focused approach. Little River Turnpike is one of them (the county has deemed it a "policy road"), so planners in Fairfax are conducting the Little River Turnpike Bicycle Study to determine the best way to improve bike riding options there. They're starting with the interactive map above.

One challenge for bike projects along the road is a narrow right of way, which means there isn't much space for bike lanes (and it'd be expensive for the county to buy the space). Also, there some places along the road do have ample space for a stretch, but then it ends abruptly.

The hope with the map is that planners will be able to identify quick fixes in some of the road's trouble spots. The entire study could lead to broader-sweeping changes, but those would be further down the line.

This isn't the only bicycle project coming to Annandale. A number of bike lanes will go in when Ravensworth Road, Guinea Road, John Marr Drive, and Heritage Drive get repaved this summer (all of these roads connect to or run near Little River Turnpike).

Fairfax did this last year as well, when it used an interactive map to crowdsource ideas for bike projects across the county.

Links


National links: Our cities are growing

The population in nearly all of the US' big cities is increasing, Seattle's mayor wants to reward streets that aren't just for cars, and a new kind of wood could change building design. Check out what's happening around the country in transportation, land use, and other related areas!


Photo by theirmind on Flickr.

Growing cities: New US Census numbers show cities continuing to grow, with 19 of the top 20 cities gaining population over the last year. Only Chicago showed a decrease. Smaller cities like Austin saw rapid growth, while Detroit continues to decline. (USA Today)

Seattle and the "war on cars": Seattle's mayor wants to rank streets based on how many single-occupant vehicles use them, and make development decisions based on the rankings. A Seattle Times opinion writer says there's no denying that the city is engaged in a war on cars, but a former mayor says designing places just for cars leads to an inability to walk places, struggling retail and housing, and more crime and blight. (Seattle Times, Crosscut)

Invisible wood: Scientists have created a clear wood that's stronger than normal. It could one day be used in place of plastic building materials or glass for windows, as it should help lower both heating costs and fuel consumption. (CNN)

Transit progress in LA: A new stretch of track, called the Expo Line, started running between Santa Monica and downtown Los Angeles last week. This isn't just a new line for LA's rail network (though the 7 new light rail stations are nice). It's an approach to reconnecting the region that's built on the original transit system. (Los Angeles Times)

Revamping transit advocacy: The American Public Transportation Association, which advocates for transit all over the US, has come under fire lately; it even lost by far its largest member, New York's MTA. One way the organization can move forward: focus less on supporting transit at all costs, and more on transit that riders want to use. (TransitCenter)

In simple terms: Urban sewer systems and watersheds are complex, so the Center for Urban Pedagogy (n. the method and practice of teaching) created a diorama to explain them. The teaching tool won a national design award from the Smithsonian's Cooper Hewitt Museum, and is just the latest project from an organization that helps people, especially those who may not be able to read or speak English, understand the world around them. (Smithsonian Magazine)

Quote of the Week

"When I was 13, I built a very intricate Lego city that suffered a huge tragedy when it was accidentally hit with a vacuum cleaner. As I rebuilt the buildings I created memorials with plaques that I printed out on my dot matrix printer commemorating The Great Vacuum Incident of 1988. Legos didn't make me love architecture, but they gave my love of architecture a place to develop." - Renowned architect Mark Kushner discussing how adult architects play with Legos. (Fast Company Design)

Pedestrians


To make streets walkable, empower pedestrians to cross anywhere

To make streets walkable, we need to re-think the basic principles of how people on foot and people in cars share the roadway. This is the fourth and final post in a multi-part opinion series.

To make streets truly walkable, we need to totally rethink how we run them. Crossing on foot should be legal anywhere and anyplace. Traffic lights should be red-yellow-green, with no walk signals.


Photo by Ian Sane on Flickr.

As the previous posts in this series have shown, these simpler streets would be far safer. They could operate with only limited changes in the rules of the road. Drivers would follow traffic signals as they do today—pedestrians would have the right of way when they cross on green, but yield to drivers when the light is against them.

The rule for crosswalks with no signal would not change at all; those on foot would still have the right of way at all times. Elsewhere, foot crossings would be allowed at any location, but pedestrians would have to yield. (This is the current rule in Maryland and DC on blocks that don't have traffic lights at both ends.)

How the rules went wrong

The evolution of roadways over the last century has progressively restricted movement on foot. Traffic engineers have had two goals: to speed automobile travel by getting pedestrians out of the way, and to prevent crashes by separating vehicles from pedestrians.

This approach has long since become obsolete. It's not just that roads designed for fast driving aren't good for city living. Even on its own terms, traditional traffic engineering fails. It doesn't make streets safe. And it's too complex and expensive to be fully implemented.

The poor suffer most from this failure. Declining suburbs, designed for travel by automobile alone, now house many who cannot afford a car. With sidewalks scarce and crosswalks rarely marked, travel on foot in full compliance with the law is a practical impossibility. This opens the way to police harassment of minority pedestrians—a practice whose most famous victim was Michael Brown of Ferguson, Missouri.

Pedestrians need clear guidance, not complex commands

Effective management of the roadway requires a different philosophy. Users of all types should be empowered to cooperate in sharing scarce street space. Rules must be simplified and decision-making decentralized.

Pedestrians, empowered to cross whenever no cars are in the way, get to share the road more fairly. Walking is no longer delayed by rules set up to move cars. And legalizing mid-block foot crossings, which are unavoidable in many low-income suburbs, eliminates a pretext for police misconduct.

Simpler signals—no walk signs, so that the same traffic lights guide drivers and pedestrians alike—make roads safer. Drivers see what pedestrians see, so everyone knows who goes first. Simplicity also reduces distraction and provides redundant information to those who, inevitably, take their eyes off the signals. When movement begins, on wheel or on foot, anyone not paying attention gets a cue that the light has changed.

With this approach, rules of the road must still govern movement on the streets. Pedestrians have the right of way when crossing with a green light, or at a crosswalk with no signal. Everywhere else, vehicles have the right of way, with pedestrians allowed to cross if no traffic is in the way.

These right-of-way rules are only slightly altered from those in effect now, but they have a different spirit. Rather than telling people what to do, the rules create a framework where individual decisions add up to a collective gain. It's like economics, where markets usually work better than central command. Yet the system can exist only because laws set out basic rules and prevent harmful behavior like monopoly and fraud.

There are, to be sure, traffic problems that pedestrian empowerment cannot remedy. Where heavy foot and vehicle traffic meet, for example—situations like South Capitol Street after a Nationals game, or Times Square and the World Trade Center in New York—full separation of road users is the only way to keep traffic moving. Humans would have to direct traffic, as indeed they often do now in such places.

But a new approach to governing our streets cannot be judged against perfection; it must be compared to today's hazardous mess. The benefits of flexibility and simplicity will far outweigh the dangers created by loss of control.

This non-traffic engineer can only sketch out the needed changes. Details need to be added. Crossing freeways on foot, for example, surely must remain illegal.

New rules by themselves will hardly create safe walking streets. Roadways must be redesigned, and public attitudes must change. But without fundamentally rethinking how we control movement, the streets will never be safe and easy to walk on.

Pedestrians


Timing signals to work for pedestrians is impossible

To make streets walkable, we need to re-think the basic principles of how people on foot and people in cars share the roadway. This is the third post in a multi-part opinion series.


At Arlington's "intersection of doom," the traffic signals are so complicated they're nearly impossible to follow. Photo by author.

Walk signals are not only unsafe and inconvenient, they're also incapable of making pedestrian travel efficient. Engineers simply don't have the time or resources to correctly configure every traffic light for pedestrians.

Traffic lights and signs are not police officers standing in the intersection. When engineers use them to direct traffic as if they were, they impose on themselves a task they cannot carry out. In real-world practice, it is simply not possible to program the lights and place the signs in a way that moves people efficiently. The engineers are short of information, time, and money.

Highway departments don't even have the resources to fully optimize traffic controls for drivers. They traditionally simplify their work by planning for the busiest time of day. But traffic, especially foot traffic, flows all day. Outside rush hour, both drivers and pedestrians find themselves standing and watching empty streets, waiting for slow lights timed to minimize rush-hour backups.

It is possible, as New York and a few other cities have shown, for complex signals to make walking easier. Pedestrians get a few seconds to enter a crosswalk before cars can turn. Or turns are banned while people are crossing.

But if you try to orchestrate movement on foot in this way at every streetcorner, the traffic engineers' job becomes entirely unmanageable. They cannot possibly find the time to adjust every walk signal for the proper balance between walking and driving.

And even when walk signals are properly adjusted, the engineer still knows less than the person walking on the street. Anyone standing on the corner can see whether cars are coming. The pedestrian knows best when it will be safer to cross immediately than to wait for the green light and dodge turning vehicles.

In any case, highway agencies rarely give foot travel much attention outside big-city downtowns. At best, they make a half-hearted effort to meet federal minimums. By-the-book engineering creates hazards in the form of disappearing sidewalks, badly timed lights, and inscrutable signage.

Walk signals are expensive

Not only are walk signals costly in staff time and information, they are a financial burden. Highway agencies say that the cost of installing a full-featured traffic signal is a quarter to half a million dollars, and sometimes more.

There are thought to be more than 300,000 signalized intersections in the United States. (No one really knows the exact number.) Retrofitting all of them with walk signals to current standards would run up a bill in the ballpark of $100 billion.

Incremental fixes just create new problems

The rules for crossing streets grow ever more complex, and they have come to resemble the Gordian knot that the ancient Greeks were unable to untie. Straightening one piece out only creates new tangles.

Rosslyn's "Intersection of Doom," where drivers turn right across a bike path, shows this dynamic at work. After much public agitation, the walk signal on the bike path was set to begin before the green light. But drivers still came through the busy crosswalk when turning right on red. So a flashing don't walk signal went in. Now drivers need eyes on three sides of their heads to comply with the signals.

Signals for the blind have undergone a similar evolution. When walking is controlled by a traffic light, those who can't see use traffic noise to tell whether it's green. But if there's a walk signal, they don't know whether it's lit. So crosswalks with walk signals need pushbutton-operated beepers for handicapped access. More expense, more confusion, and more obstruction of the sidewalk.

The complexity has gotten so bad that FHWA can't even keep its rulebook straight. It required beepers for the blind in 2009, but did not authorize a sign that says what the button is for. Rule-bound engineers are now blanketing streets with signs that comply with the rulebook but misinform their readers.

These miscues are not happenstance. According to the branch of mathematics known as control theory, they are the inevitable consequence of too much complexity. Beyond a certain point, increasing the number of signals sent by an automatic controller creates more error than it prevents.

Alexander the Great is said to have cut through the Gordian knot with his sword. We need similar boldness to make our streets walkable. My next post suggests how that might be possible.

Roads


A streetcar to Georgetown could add a loop ramp under K Street and a pedestrian walkway

DC is planning dedicates lanes for the streetcar almost entirely from Union Station to Georgetown. One tricky spot: from Washington Circle over Rock Creek and I-66 to Georgetown. Here's how it could work.


Image from the Georgetown BID.

The District Department of Transportation (DDOT) project team will present its latest options on Tuesday night, and we got a look ahead of the meeting.

The study is considering two options to build a streetcar from Union Station to Georgetown, one in mixed traffic and one (better) one with dedicated lanes, and no overhead wires except at stations and below underpasses.

New dedicated lane alternative from DDOT. Click for a larger version.

Along K Street downtown, a 2-lane transitway in the center of the road has been planned since 2010. Heading west, the streetcar would then go through the underpass below Washington Circle (leaving just one lane in each direction for cars). That's where it gets tough.

The turn to 27th Street

If you drive west on K now, you encounter a long left turn lane for cars turning onto 27th Street NW, a little street with almost no buildings but which leads right to a ramp to I-66 and to Virginia Avenue. That left turn lane would mix horribly with a dedicated streetcar lane.

DDOT planners have an idea. The bridge where K crosses two I-66 ramps has an extra span to the west, and there's a lot of open land which is technically highway right of way in between the various ramps.


The loop ramp would use the left side of this bridge. Image from Google Maps.

They therefore want to study adding a new loop ramp from K Street, turning right instead of left, looping around, and rejoining 27th Street where it connects to the current off-ramp from 66.


Image from DDOT.

This would allow the streetcar to have the middle of K Street to itself. It would also smooth traffic at that complicated intersection, where there has to be a whole phase for turns onto 27th.

According to the presentation, DDOT is looking at widening the bridge in that area, partly to add lanes and also to create a sidewalk on the north side of K, where there is none today.

Washington Circle

The streetcar will be down in a trench from about 21st Street to 25th. So how can people get from the streetcar line to places in between, like George Washington University?

The study team is looking at putting a station in the median between 24th and 25th Streets, where the center part of the road is still largely below ground. At 25th is a regular at-grade intersection where people could cross from the middle of K to go north or south, but the team wants to better connect it to 24th and Washington Circle as well.

Therefore, they are looking at building a pedestrian ramp from the below-ground streetcar level up to street level at 24th.


Image from DDOT.

Both of these pieces would cost money—exactly how much, project manager Jamie Henson said, they will study in the next phase of this process.

That will likely make the alternative with dedicated lanes more expensive than the one without, but if the price tag is reasonable, it's worth it. Encourage DDOT to move ahead with as much dedicated lane as possible below.

Read more from today's streetcar mega-feature:

Weigh in

Tell DDOT what you want for the Union Station to Georgetown streetcar study. (I suggest asking them to put as much dedicated lane into the study as possible.)

First name:    Last name:

Email address:

Where you live:    ZIP code:

Roads


Make space for bikes on the GW Parkway

The George Washington Parkway was originally just supposed to help tourists get to Mount Vernon, and its keepers' main mission is to preserve natural resources, not maintain roads. Could there be fewer driving lanes and more space for other modes of transportation?


Photo by Roger W on Flickr.

The southern section of the George Washington Memorial Parkway opened to traffic in 1932. Conceived as a means to ease tourist access to George Washington's home at Mount Vernon, it morphed throughout the latter part of the 20th century into a motorist commuter route for far-flung suburbanites heading to DC.

Both the road and the adjacent Mount Vernon Trail are maintained by the National Park Service (NPS), whose mission is to "preserve unimpaired the natural and cultural resources" of the United States. You will not find anywhere in its mission statement that it is to provide fast, convenient commuter routes for the suburbs of Washington, DC.

Average daily traffic (ADT) volumes on the parkway within the last few years have been approximately 16,000 vehicles, a number that isn't huge but certainly lessens the road's original scenic purpose. Birdsong is impossible to hear with the din of SUVs in the background.


Note how close the four lanes of traffic are to the trail on the right. Also, note that no crosswalks are present at this busy intersection. Nor are there any signals to stop traffic for people crossing on foot or by bike.

That ADT number is also well within the 20,000 ADT set as the maximum for the practical implementation of a road diet as decreed by the US Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). That FHWA maximum is, itself, arbitrarily low based on real-world observations. For example, no significant increase in regional congestion was caused by the 2015 closure of two lanes on the far more heavily used Memorial Bridge just to the north.

Parallel to the four-lane parkway is the Mount Vernon Trail, a winding, narrow multiuser trail. In recent years, this trail has become a major commuter route for people who bike to and from DC. Upwards of 2000 bikes per day hit the trail, despite the trail's narrowness.

People who walk and bike must share this trail, as signs along the road prohibit bicycles from the road. Interestingly, the federal code governing the road's usagedoesn't reference bicycles explicitly. Nor does the code prohibit changes to the amount of space on the roadway given over to motorists.


Bikes are not allowed on the lightly-traveled GW Parkway. Instead, they are forced onto the adjacent Mount Vernon Trail.

Recently, the National Park Service released its National Capital Region Draft Paved Trail Study for comment. The study is an update of the 1990 plan written in an era when bicycling in the US was less of an everyday transportation mode and more of a recreational activity. The plan tends to view the trails in isolation. There's no mention of what mode will get priority when there is conflict, such as when people on bikes or on foot must cross the road for access to trails. It also does not address the feasibility of road diets that would balance out mode space on routes like the southern section of the parkway.

Does it make sense that cars on the southern section (below Alexandria) of the parkway are given four lanes of space while bikes and pedestrians are crammed onto the narrow, winding MVT? Both are major commuter routes, but whereas the MVT is overcrowded at 2000 ADT, the parkway is half-empty at 16,000 ADT. In essence, the trail is under-built, while the road is over-built.


This is the George Washington Memorial Parkway today: four high-speed lanes, no traffic lights, controlled access, and a narrow multiuser trail parallel to the roadway. All of this is next to the Potomac River. All images from the Virginia Bicycling Federation.

If the draft paved trail plan truly acknowledged the modern and future needs of this particular route, discussion of a road diet on the GW Parkway would be on the table. The road could easily be shrunk to one vehicle lane in each direction with adjacent buffered bike lanes. The MVT could be given over entirely to people who walk, eliminating potentially hazardous bike-pedestrian conflicts.


A road diet on the parkway would leave two lanes for motorists, buffered bike lanes on the remaining space, and leave the Mount Vernon Trail exclusively for use by those on foot.

This is not without precedent. In 2001 the state of New York closed two out of four lanes on the Robert Moses Parkway in the Niagara Falls region. As with the GW Parkway, this highway was controlled access with an eye towards enhancing tourist traffic while providing access to scenic beauty. Instead, it proved to be such a failure in all regards that local advocates didn't stop with a road diet. They pushed through a plan to remove it entirely for at least a two mile stretch. If the state of New York can pull this off, despite actually having a mandate to provide speedy transportation options, why can't the National Park Service?


The Robert Moses Parkway in the Niagara River region was very similar to the George Washington Parkway, until a road diet was implemented. Now a two-mile portion will be removed to allow better river access.

NPS has an opportunity to shift its focus in the National Capital region away from an old-school, road-centric mindset to a more sustainable approach that also recognizes the changing commuter habits of younger generations. If you agree, send the National Park Service your comments via their comment page. You have until May 19th to do so. After that, you may have to wait another quarter-century to get your input to them.

This post originally ran on the Virginia Bicycling Federation's blog.

Roads


The feds just blew a chance to reform the city-killing, planet-broiling status quo

The Obama administration has released new rules governing transportation planning. Despite rumors the new rules would be a big step forward, for example requiring states to take things like greenhouse gas pollution into effect, instead they appear to be more of the same-old.


US DOT isn't taking steps to hold transportation agencies accountable for building ecological disasters like the Katy Freeway. Image from Top 10 Famous.

Reformers hoped the rules would get states to reconsider highway expansion as a method of dealing with congestion and emissions, since widening roads induces more traffic and pollution. By introducing better metrics and reporting requirements, the thinking goes, US DOT could compel states to document the failure of highway expansion, which would lead to pressure for a new approach.

But the rules released yesterday are a big disappointment, say analysts. While it will take a bit more time to fully assess the 423-page document [PDF], advocates are already going on the record panning US DOT's effort.

Greenhouse gas emissions

On the question of whether state transportation agencies should be required to at least report the emissions impact of their transportation plans, US DOT "whiffed," writes Joe Cortright at City Observatory:

There's nothing with any teeth here. Instead—in a 425 page proposed rule—there are just six pages (p. 101-106) addressing greenhouse gas emissions that read like a bad book report and a "dog-ate-my-homework" excuse for doing nothing now. Instead, DOT offers up a broad set of questions asking others for advice on how they might do something, in some future rulemaking, to address climate change.

This is hugely disappointing, considering that anonymous Obama administration officials were bragging about the impact of these reporting requirements to Politico earlier this week. At the rate things are going, half of Florida will be under water before American transportation officials acknowledge that spending billions to build enormous highways serving suburban sprawl is broiling the planet.

Traffic congestion

There was also some hope that US DOT would reform the way congestion is measured. Current measures of congestion emphasize vehicle delay, which leads to policies that actually promote more driving and more total time spent in cars, as agencies seek to temporarily reduce delay by widening roads. Policies that reduce traffic by improving transit or enabling people to live closer to work don't rate well under this measure of congestion.

Stephen Lee Davis at Transportation for America says the new rule "would still push local communities to waste time and money attempting to build their way out of congestion by using a measure of traffic congestion that's narrow, limited and woefully out of date."

Cortright says the metric could have been worse, but it's still measuring the wrong things:

The core measure of whether a metropolitan area is making progress in addressing its congestion problem is what USDOT calls "annual hours of excessive delay per capita." This congestion measure essentially sets a baseline of 35 mph for freeways and 15 mph for other roads. If cars are measured to be traveling more slowly than these speeds, the additional travel time is counted as delay. The measure calls for all delay hours to be summed and then divided by the number of persons living in the urbanized portion of a metropolitan area.

The proposed measure is, in some senses, an improvement over other measures (like the Texas Transportation Institute's Travel Time Index) that compute delay based on free flow traffic speeds (which in many cases exceed the posted speed limit)

This is all about vehicle delay, not personal delay. So a bus with 40 or 50 passengers has its vehicle delay weighted the same amount according to this metric as a single occupancy vehicle.

This ignores the value of shorter trips. As long as you are traveling faster than 15 miles per hour or 35 on freeways, no matter how long your trip is, the system is deemed to be performing well.

When you get down to it, US DOT's congestion metric belongs to the same line of thinking that led Houston to spend $2.8 billion widening the Katy Freeway to 23 lanes only to see traffic congestion return with a vengeance a few years later. Instead of managing demand for freeways, it will lead to more supply.

California has shifted away from an emphasis on vehicle delay and instead uses "Vehicle Miles Traveled" as a performance measure. VMT measures how much traffic a given project will add to streets and highways. US DOT is nowhere close to such an enlightened position.

Biking and walking

Caron Whitaker of the League of American Bicyclists also notes another big disappointment.

What you can do

Now for the good news. This process isn't over yet. The rule can be amended—and anyone can weigh in. The comment period will open Friday and will likely be open through the summer. US DOT needs to be inundated with comments that call for a modern approach to measuring transportation system performance.

It's worth noting that US DOT officials are touting this rule—which took three years to draft—as environmental progress. Gregory Nadeau wrote on the Fast Lane Blog:

This is a down payment on the administration's 21st Century Clean Transportation Plan, a budget proposal to reduce traffic and carbon intensity of the transportation sector.
Let's hold them to that.

Crossposted from Streetsblog.

Roads


Why widening highways doesn't work, in one simple gif

Decade after decade, American metropolitan areas continue to widen their highways in order to reduce congestion. And decade after decade, congestion just keeps getting worse. That may be counterintuitive, but it's because of a phenomenon called induced demand. This simple gif illustrates how it works:

Of course, it's a little more complicated than this gif. Congestion keeps increasing not only because more people drive, but also because more people drive farther. And because the more highways we build, the less walkable and transit-accessible our cities usually become. And because the more desperate our congestion situation becomes, the more some groups attack using money for anything other than more highway widenings.

Highway congestion is a negative feedback loop. The only way to really solve it, besides economic calamity, is to break out of the loop by attacking its root causes. Rather than applying highway-widening band-aids that only work for a few years, build urban communities with multimodal infrastructure, in which it's just as convenient (or more so!) for most residents to get around without a car than with one.

That doesn't mean no new roads are ever needed. New communities and densifying ones need streets, after all. But it does mean we should be skeptical of plans to make highways bigger. In the long term, that money is usually better spent elsewhere.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

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