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Posts about Windshield Perspective


If students were cars, schools would have opened sooner

Many of the region's schools closed for a full week after the recent blizzard, leaving parents to scramble for childcare and students missing out on valuable classroom time. That's what happens when your storm recovery efforts prioritize making it easy to drive rather than giving everyone a safe way to move around.

Photo by Fionnuala Quinn on Twitter.

The historic storm hit the DC area on Friday, January 22nd. By the time the last flakes fell on Saturday night, just about everything was covered in over two feet of powdery, slippery, transportation-crippling snow.

It was soon pretty easy to drive, but not get around by any other means

As crews throughout the region got to work on their respective snow clearing plans (impressive work for which they deserve a lot of thanks), roads became passable and then completely clear. In contrast, sidewalks, curb cuts, and bus stops were often blocked not just by snow, but also frozen slush.

Some of the area's bike trails were cleared, but access points were plowed in, and the network as a whole was not rideable. Metro returned to service, but getting to stations was a dirty, icy, boulder-climbing adventure and plowed-in bus stops left people waiting often in very busy streets.

Without good options, the only choice left for most people was to drive, clogging our already strained roadways that the remaining snow had narrowed.

As the week wore on and roads became clear, adults returned to work. But faced with the conditions that would have left children walking and waiting for buses in the streets, school officials decided there were not enough safe routes to school, and kept most of the region's schools closed for the entire week.

DC's 5th and Sheridan NW, the Tuesday after the storm. To the right on 5th (the street going left to right) is Coolidge High School. To the left is Whittier Education Campus. Photo by Julie Lawson.

This didn't happen randomly. Arlington is an example of why.

These conditions were a result the fact that our systems for clearing snow focus first on getting cars moving again. People walking and biking are, at best, an afterthought in the region's snow clearing plans.

For example, Arlington posts a clearly thought-out snow operations plan on their snow operations web page:

  • Phase I: During the storm, county crews keep the arterial and collector roads as functional as possible to make sure that emergency access like EMS, fire, police, utility trucks etc. could still get through.
  • Phase 2: Immediately after the storm, they keep working those major corridors, widening lanes so everybody else could start driving again, too.
  • Phase 3: When those are under control they start working their way into residential streets.
Arlington has no unified public plan for clearing the rest of the transportation network - the sidewalks, trails, curb cuts and bus stops that are necessary for people walking, biking and taking transit.

Private individuals are responsible for clearing the majority of sidewalks, and various agencies of the County government are responsible for some routes. Apparently, there are designated "safe routes to schools" that are meant to get priority in snow clearing, but those routes are not made public and are not given priority if the schools are closed. However, many stretches are left without anyone to clear them, unless the County chooses to on an ad-hoc, complaint-based basis.

For example, the stretch of sidewalk along Lynn Street between the intersection of Lee Highway and the Key Bridge is along National Park Service Property. After this storm it took more than a week before the snow and ice were clear along this stretch, which cut off the main sidewalk access between Rosslyn and DC.

Arlington's "Intersection of Doom," at Lee Highway and N Lynn Street, just south of the Key Bridge. People walking and biking would need to climb over this snow/ice mound to get to the iced over sidewalk that leads to Key Bridge. Photo by the author.

When this snow plan was implemented, the streets were cleared, but the sidewalks and bus stops students would have needed to get to school were covered, often in mounds of snow deposited by snow plows. Instead of forcing kids to walk or wait for buses in the street, officials closed most of the region's schools for the entire week after the snow storm, forcing students to lose valuable instructional time at the end of the grading period.

Meanwhile, the region began to get back to work. By Wednesday, after three full days of being closed to allow the region to focus on digging out, most business were open and workers were working.

There are other ways to do this

During and immediately after the late winter blizzard of 1996 that dumped about the same amount of snow as last week's storm, New York City shut down all streets in Manhattan to private cars. The only vehicles on the roads were emergency equipment, garbage trucks, transit vehicles and of course snow plows.

NYC-DOT knew it could never get the city up and running again quickly if they decided that their first priority was to make it possible for everybody to drive their cars again. Roads were opened to traffic only after the sidewalks and bus stops were clear. In New York this took two days.

Arlington could do the same thing: Clear just enough of the roadway to accommodate emergency and service vehicles and eventually transit, but not more. With virtually no cars on the roads, people could at least get around on foot without putting their lives in danger.

And because transit and school bus stops would be cleared and almost no traffic on the road, these buses could actually get through and run on normal schedules. All kids, walkers and bus riders alike, would have a safe way to get to school.

Arlington does transportation well… when it doesn't snow

Fortunately, a good model exists right under our own noses. Arlington's transportation program looks at mobility as a public right, and sees all modes as legitimate. This includes mobility for people in cars, but doesn't leave out people on bikes, people on transit and people on foot.

Arlington's snow operations planners should try looking at mobility the same way when they plan for snow removal.

In this storm we saw a snow removal plan focused on getting cars back on the road. That happened by Wednesday. But cars don't occupy desks at schools.

After snow storms, it'd be smart to prioritize getting schools up and running. Photo by Arlington County on Flickr.

Our public schools closed for a week because there wasn't a safe way for kids to get to them. We need a transportation system that serves the students, whether they drive, ride the bus, walk or bike to school.

We didn't have that after the recent blizzard, so we didn't have school.


Making room for transit can make better streets for everyone

Many proposed transit projects in our region, from streetcars to bus rapid transit and the Purple Line, involve vehicles running in the street. Giving transit a place on our busy streets can be a hard sell, especially when it means displacing cars. But a recent trip to Minneapolis shows how it can create better places for everyone, including drivers.

The new Green Line runs through the University of Minnesota. Photo by Michael Hicks on Flickr.

Minneapolis finds a compromise on the Green Line

While presenting at Rail~Volution last month in Minneapolis, I had a chance to ride the Green Line, a new light-rail between downtown Minneapolis and downtown St. Paul. The 11-mile line bears a striking similarity to the proposed Purple Line here in Montgomery and Prince George's counties. Like the Purple Line, the Green Line faced resistance from a Republican governor and concerns about gentrification and neighborhood disruption from nearby large immigrant communities.

But it's how the Green Line interacts with the University of Minnesota, and how community leaders came together to make it a success, that might be the biggest lesson for our area. Like the Purple Line, which would pass through the University of Maryland, the Green Line travels on Washington Avenue, the main street at the University of Minnesota.

Washington Avenue before and after. Photos from Google Street View.

The University of Minnesota, also known as the U, opposed banning cars from Washington Avenue, a busy commuter route into downtown Minneapolis, and turning it into a transit mall. Scientists in the over 80 labs along the street worried that vibrations from light rail trains would disturb their research.

Officials preferred a more circuitous route that went north of the campus, which would inconvenience fewer drivers but also reduce transit access to campus. The U sued to block the project, but after negotiating with the regional Metropolitan Council, officials eventually came to an agreement. The council would pay to reduce vibrations and electromagnetic interference, while the U would move some labs away from the line.

A busy road becomes a place

Since then, the U has worked to make the Green Line as successful as possible. It distributed over 6,700 special passes to students, faculty, and staff that allow them to ride between the three on-campus stations for free, and rerouted campus buses to divert more traffic away from Washington Avenue.

A plaza runs down the middle of Washington Avenue, with light rail and bus/bike lanes on the sides. Photo by the author.

The U's cooperation with the Metropolitan Council meant that the Green Line could transform Washington Avenue from a traffic sewer to a gathering place. Today, the street feels like a natural extension of the campus. Trains run down the middle of the street, and there are shared bus and bike lanes on either side. The sidewalks are wider, and the crosswalks have special paving materials to make them more visible.

There's also more green space than there was before. Since the Green Line stations are in the center of the street, there's a space between the tracks. It would have been easy to just make it a grassy median, or find a way to squeeze in a car lane. Instead, it's a plaza with tables, chairs, and lush landscaping.

Bikes, buses, and transit share the reconfigured Washington Avenue at the University of Minnesota. Photo by the author.

A significant amount of development is happening around the Green Line as a result. Over 2,500 apartments have been built around the U's three Green Line stations, with another 2,000 in the pipeline. New shops and restaurants have opened along the tracks to cater to the influx of students.

When I visited, Washington Avenue was bustling with students walking to class, cyclists headed downtown, and light rail trains gliding down the street. It was a nice place to be, but it was still a transportation corridor. In fact, the transition was so seamless that it wasn't until I flew home and I looked at a map that I even realized cars were banned from part of the street.

Better streets make better transit

The development around the Green Line, coupled with the dramatically improved walking and bicycling environment, supports and reinforces the use of transit, making the Green Line more successful. Even before the line opened, 20% of faculty and staff and 40% of students used transit. But since the Green Line opened, it already has over 40,000 riders each day, higher than the projected ridership in 2030. The three University of Minnesota stations are the line's busiest.

Passengers wait for a train on Washington Avenue. Photo by Michael Hicks on Flickr.

And diverting drivers away from campus hasn't created the traffic congestion that some people feared. In 2011, there was an average of 18,800 cars on Washington Avenue through campus each day. According to the state's traffic counts, some of those cars have shifted over to nearby University Avenue, which had an increase over 8,000 cars since then.

But on other nearby streets, traffic increased by a very small amount, or even decreased. It's likely because some drivers chose to take the Green Line instead, opening up street space for others.

The Green Line required leaders to accept that, in order for transit to be successful on Washington Avenue, it had to be seen as a place for people, not just for cars. This is standard operating procedure in other countries, where transit usually gets top priority, but here it requires some persuasion. Hopefully, the success of projects like the Green Line can be a guide for leaders in the DC area as they try to build transit that not only moves people, but creates stronger places.


Montgomery DOT ignores promises to the community and sabotages the White Flint plan

When the White Flint Sector Plan was adopted in 2010 after years of collaboration between residents, property owners, county officials, and civic leaders, it was hailed as a triumph of responsible, sustainable development. Now, county engineers are poised to undo years of work by pushing through a road design that does not include any of the elements the plan promised the community.

MCDOT's proposed design for Old Georgetown Road would make it even more unfriendly for pedestrians than it is today. Image from Google Maps.

Transforming White Flint into a vibrant, walkable area requires balancing new development, which brings growth and amenities, with the pressure to move through traffic around the area. It does this with a multi-modal transportation network that diffuses traffic across a new street grid, known as the Western Workaround. That will relieve traffic on Rockville Pike while providing safe and attractive ways to get around on foot, bike or transit.

Because these elements are so important to the plan's success, it prescribes specific details including the number of lanes, speed limits, and the location and character of bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure. For Old Georgetown Road between Executive Boulevard and Rockville Pike the plan is unequivocal: it should have four lanes (two in each direction), on-street bike lanes in both directions, sidewalks and a broad shared-use path, which forms part of a sector-wide Recreation Loop.

Planned bike lanes and walking/cycling paths in White Flint. Map from the Montgomery County Planning Department.

The County Planning Board and County Council both passed this plan, with all its specifics, and the community overwhelmingly supported it. Despite all this, the Montgomery County Department of Transportation (MCDOT) designed a road that has no bike lanes, no shared-use path, and widens the road to one that is effectively eight lanes wide, and has nearly advanced that version of the project to the 70% design stage.

This will create an Old Georgetown Road that is even less safe for bikers and pedestrians than it is today. It also leaves a gaping hole in the Recreation Loop, one of the area's signature planned amenities.

MCDOT splits hairs to excuse a dangerous design

In trying to defend their plan, MCDOT officials argue that their design technically contains only two travel lanes in each direction. The additional lanes, which extend nearly the entire length of the roadway, are "merely turning lanes."

This obfuscation may hold water for traffic engineers, but for anyone unlucky enough to bike or walk along the road, that distinction provides little comfort. Under the MCDOT proposal, a pedestrian must traverse eight lanes of traffic to get across Old Georgetown Road. For cyclists, the lack of dedicated lanes means they must take their chances staying safe among four lanes of traffic.

Comparison of the two cross-sections. Rendering from of Friends of White Flint. Click for larger version showing more of the road.

In reality, the effect of this design will be even more pernicious. By prioritizing driving over everything else, MCDOT will fulfill its own skewed vision for mobility in the county: fewer people will walk, bike or take transit, even though they want to but won't feel safe. They'll, instead, choose to drive for every single trip, adding to congestion and undermining the entire premise of the White Flint Sector Plan redevelopment.

Even more galling, MCDOT has proposed redesigning Old Georgetown Road twice: once now to maximize auto traffic, and again, sometime in the future, to incorporate the elements in the sector plan only if conditions warrant and funding is available.

Drivers struck 454 pedestrians in the county last year. 13 were killed. Just this summer, a pedestrian was killed crossing the Pike down by North Bethesda Market. I frequently receive emails from residents concerned for their safety on and along Old Georgetown Road. These are the stark consequences of MCDOT's "windshield mentality."

With this action, the county government breaks the community's trust

Safe bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure and a Recreation Loop were key elements that helped the plan gain public support. Since the plan passed, White Flint residents have consistently voiced their support for safer bike/pedestrian accommodations.

The Western Workaround is the first of many planned transportation and infrastructure improvements in the White Flint area. If MCDOT is willing to push through a design for this project that so plainly violates the sector plan, how can the public trust the agency will implement any other pieces of the plan faithfully?

The residents and stakeholders of White Flint deserve better. Please join the Friends of White Flint and Coalition for Smarter Growth in calling on County Executive Ike Leggett to uphold the promises made to the community and hold MCDOT accountable.


WJLA shines a light on a scourge of the roadways

Last week, WJLA ran a story by Tom Roussey about drivers speeding, an illegal yet common behavior:

A cyclist waiting at a red light. Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.
Over several days of taking footage, ABC7's cameras captured hundreds of thousands of motorists in different parts of DC, ignoring speed limits.

DC Police say it's every bit as illegal for a motorist to do that as run a red light—but our video shows that it happens all the time.

The motorists we observed fell into three groups: one group always obeyed the law, another always obeyed limits unless there were no cops around, and the third simply sped through the city without slowing down.

When motorists ignore speed limits, it's frustrating for everyone. But it's also frustrating for many other motorists.

"In the end, people will just generalize and say there's nothing wrong with speeding, which is of course untrue," said driver Oliver Bleake.

A Metropolitan Police Department spokesperson says officers do give out tickets to motorists who speed. And although she couldn't specifically say how many tickets were given for speeding, the MPD spokesperson says in 2012 officers gave out 446 tickets for bicycle-related violations.

Last year, that number dropped by more than half to 203.

Oops, actually, no, this wasn't Roussey's story. Instead, Roussey was writing about cyclists passing red lights.

Roussey wrote,

Over several days of taking footage, ABC7's cameras captured dozens of cyclists in different parts of DC, blowing through red lights.

DC Police say it's every bit as illegal for a bicyclist to do that as a car—but our video shows that it happens all the time.

The cyclists we observed fell into three groups: one group always obeyed the law, another always stopped for red lights and crossed if there were no cars coming, and the third simply sped through red lights without slowing down.

This story didn't really say anything. Yes, some cyclists break the law. That's not breaking news. Yes, it's often unsafe.

But what percentage of cyclists on the videos fell into each group? How many crashes occurred because of the lawbreaking? We don't know because Roussey decided not to include that information.

It's also common knowledge that drivers often break the rules. Speeding is very commonplace throughout the region. People also drive drunk and run red lights.

When drivers break the rules, pedestrians and cyclists can pay the price with their lives. But drivers who are sober and who stay on the scene are rarely charged. WJLA doesn't seem outraged about that.

The New York Times has been getting outraged. Soon after New York Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a "vision zero" initiative to eliminate pedestrian deaths, the paper has run stories about how pedestrian deaths haven't dropped even as overall road deaths have; where crashes happen in the five boroughs; and harrowing personal stories from four Times staffers who were hit and injured by drivers (but survived).

Wouldn't it be great if WJLA did some analysis and reporting like that?

Instead, Roussey's story on bikes running lights does not add much to the discussion, except to demonize cyclists as scofflaws. This story just reinforces the idea of the anecdote: "I saw a cyclist run a red light the other day, so clearly, they're all law breakers." The WJLA story just gives heft to the (false) idea that all cyclists are law-breakers. It's a stereotype that even many MPD officers hold.

In a republic, good information and an open dialogue are fundamental to making good policy. The media are a key part of fostering that honest discussion, but when they resort to using stereotyping instead of reporting, they make public dialogue and decision-making harder. We should expect more from journalists than this.


Google self-driving car is polite to cyclists

Google released a video showing how its prototype self-driving car can deal with many situations on urban streets, such as construction zones bicyclists. The car politely waits for a cyclist who signals to move into the car's lane, and waits for a cyclist to pass from behind before turning.

Some people spotted the Google car driving around the streets of DC, where a bill a few years ago made it legal.

If the technology can work reliably, this certainly could make streets safer. The ever-present question is, if self-driving cars are so safe that they wait for cyclists, what happens when someone in such a car gets frustrated at the slow pace?

Will they press the "override" button and drive anyway? If that leads to a crash but the cyclist made a small mistake, would the driver still face no liability under "contributory negligence" laws, as in DC, Maryland, and Virginia (and North Carolina and Alabama)?

Or would people lobby for restrictions on cyclists who are now slowing them down quite a lot? Alternately, would people be so relaxed, just reading a book or playing mobile phone games, that they don't care?

Disclosure: I once worked for Google. I had nothing to do with the self-driving cars.


"Stay the course" or "pivot"? Gray and Evans disagree about the ill-fated Wisconsin Avenue median

In 2012, DC changed the traffic patterns on Wisconsin Avenue in Glover Park to make it more friendly to pedestrians, then reversed course following strong complaints from many Georgetown residents including Councilmember Jack Evans. The issue came up in my interviews with Evans and Mayor Vince Gray.

Photo by Abigail Zenner.

I asked every candidate about the way the government can spend a lot of time planning a project, build community support, and still then later run into a lot of people who say they never heard about it or want to block it. Gray brought up this project in his response. He said,

Vincent Gray. Image from the candidate website.
We've seen in some parts of the city when a lane was changed and it was done with the concurrence of the people who lived in that area, who then railed against it in the aftermath and now it's being put back like it was.
I think that you've got to stay the course. I happen to live on a street that was changed, where when people saw a change there was enormous negative reaction to it: Branch Avenue, which went from being two not sufficiently wide lanes on either side of the street, in my opinion—we saw lots of accidents there—to being one lane on either side. There were people that were up in arms. They wanted to put it back like it was. Now, people have adapted. It's taken a number of years, no question about that, but people have adapted.

We have to work with communities around what do these proposals mean for their lives. Make sure there's community input on how we get to the answer. And then once we do, we've got to stay the course if we believe, earnestly, these changes will make life better for folks.

People hate sitting in traffic. The answer is not to give more streets. The answer is to give other options to folks, other ways of traveling, other methods of traveling, and then you've got to swallow hard and stay with it.

Jack Evans disagrees. I asked him specifically about the Glover Park issue, and he said,

Jack Evans. Image from the candidate website.
It was a complete disaster ... Even the ANC chair, Brian Cohen who was the spearhead of it, and Jackie Blumenthal came to the position that it was a complete disaster. It wasn't just me, it was everyone who realized that narrowing Wisconsin Avenue to 1 lane going north in rush hour just wasn't working. You were backing traffic all the way past the Safeway all the way to R Street, and that wasn't working for anybody.

I think the lesson that we take from that is they try something that doesn't work, but can then pivot and maneuver rather than sticking to something that was just causing chaos. What you were doing, as you know, by having that center lane with stripes on it, people were starting to cut around, creating a very dangerous situation. I'm glad that people were starting to recognize that.

To be precise, the plan did not make Wisconsin Avenue 1 lane at rush hour; there was a part-time parking lane people could drive in during rush hour. However, it was 1 lane outside rush hour, and according to Glover Park resident and GGW contributor Abigail Zenner, times like school pick-up around 2-3 pm were worse for traffic than rush hour itself.

What if some of the details like these had worked better, I asked, but drivers still found themselves delayed by a minute or two? Evans said, "If we were talking about a minute or two. We were talking about a half hour."

At one ANC meeting last year, DDOT reported that driving times had increased by 2 minutes. But, Zenner said, "since then I have not been able to get my hands on any more data. My unscientific anecdotal experience also backed up the two minute claim. I have never experienced a half hour back-up, although I have heard a lot of people say things like that."

Evans doesn't buy it. "As you've heard me testify many times, if it was a minute or two we wouldn't be here. Don't take my word for it, take the word of the proponents of the project, Brian, Jackie and others, who came to the conclusion. 80-90% of people in the neighborhood hated it. It was a universally hated idea. "

But, I asked, any change to a roadway will engender significant opposition. How do you differentiate legitimate problems with a project from knee-jerk opposition to change? Evans said,

You have to deal with each individual situation. The 15th Street bike lanes would be an example where we got tons of complaints, but it worked and we kept it in place. We didn't respond to the complaints. It's quieted down, but we still get complaints about the bike lanes. Most people quieted down and now accept it for what it is. The important thing is you have to be able to respond and not take a rigid view.
Evans did complain about the 15th Street lane at first, also, but changed his tune. Part of that might have come from a bike ride I organized to take him around the ward to the various bike lanes (an experience he referenced in the interview). And, indeed, he has not fought the 15th Street lane, or the L and M Street lanes crosstown.


Putting pedestrians and cyclists first upsets the social order of the roads

Complete streets, or the idea that roads should be safe and effective for all users, aim to upend the social order, moving cars from first to last. Despite endless discussion of "safety" and "the law," many people seem to be upset by social, rather than legal violations of the rules.

Photo by EURIST e.V. on Flickr.

While the majority remains polite, a vocal minority is extremely attached to the status quo. In the current social order, roads are for cars, slow drivers are "bad drivers," and cyclists and pedestrians are expected to get out of the way.

The social order of the road is governed not by laws, but by socially-enforced rules. For example, one might voluntarily drive below the speed limit on the Beltway. That would be perfectly legal, but would also garner honking, headlight-flashing, and rude gestures. As everyone knows, appropriate driving speeds begin at the speed limit and extend upwards, not downwards. The power of these rules is such that police rarely issue a ticket, photographic or otherwise, for driving less than 10 mph over the speed limit.

Violating social norms

All this came to mind the other day, when I was bicycling in violation of the social order. I was riding in the center of a narrow lane and a driver started honking at me. Shortly thereafter, he pulled alongside and helpfully explained that cyclists are not allowed in the street unless they can "ride at the speed limit."

This struck me as quite the head-scratcher. After all, isn't the speed limit an upper limit? Those of us with Internet access have certainly read that cyclists should not be allowed on the road unless they "obey the law." Riding at a typical bicycle speed surely complies with the law. Nevertheless I've been told, even by friends, that cyclists must ride at the speed limit.

As it turns out, the speed limit is the single point of intersection between socially acceptable driving speeds and socially acceptable bicycling speeds. Cyclists who do not ride this tightrope, and that would be all of them, are in violation of at least one of these social conventions.

Despite endless discussion of "safety" and "the law" it is increasingly clear to me that many people are upset by social, rather than legal, violations of the rules. While the majority of drivers remain polite, a vocal minority is extremely attached to the status quo.

As old gives way to new, old ideas fall by the wayside. One of these is that automobile traffic is an unstoppable force. As a pedestrian, it is up to me to get out of the way or suffer the consequences. As a cyclist, there is no point in asking for bike lanes because they would simply put me in harm's way.

The complete streets concept recognizes that traffic is ruled by individual drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians, each of whom is able to slow down and even stop to avoid a crash. Complete streets are updated streets, often with narrower traffic lanes that have been demonstrated to slow motorized traffic. Pedestrians come first, followed by transit, cyclists, and cars.

Barbara McCann, author of Completing our Streets, describes supporters of complete streets as "a broad coalition of bicycle riders, transportation practitioners, public health leaders, older Americans, smart growth advocates, [and] real estate agents" who "came together to insist that we begin to build streets that are safe for everyone."

Because the automobile can't deliver the promises of speed and freedom to 100% of the population, people continue to take up walking and bicycling, often in the direction of the nearest Metro station. When these non-drivers get in the way of the cars, and they do so often in urban settings, they upset the social order. Transit planners participate in these changes as well by calling for dedicated bus lanes and new buses that give their drivers the power to change traffic signals. I myself joined AARP specifically because they are a champion of complete streets.

McCann cites a 2012 nationwide poll that found that "63% of Americans would like to address traffic congestion by improving public transportation and designing communities for easier walking and bicycling." While frustrating for some, a majority of citizens support these changes. The new social order, it seems, is here to stay.

A version of this post appeared in the Alexandria Times.


Don't expect green lights all the time

You're driving along in downtown DC. You get a green light and start moving, but just as you get to the next corner the light turns red. It's frustrating! But it's no conspiracy. There could be reasons this happens, even besides trying to help pedestrians and cyclists.

Photo by apium on Flickr.

Adam Tuss's latest NBC TV news segment brings the shocking revelation that drivers don't like to stop at red lights, and that at least one person thinks it's another part of the war... I mean, the nonexistent general pattern of DC deliberately pursuing policies that make things worse for drivers.

Tuss read an email on the Tenleytown listserv, by semi-anonymous poster "Paul," alleging that DC deliberately times lights to slow down drivers. Tuss makes this the core of his story, with a response from DC transportation officials who say that this is not true, though actually, they'd really like to install a more modern signal system that makes it easier to time lights.

In the TV news tradition, Tuss also interviews a few "people on the street," and does make sure to talk to people with multiple points of view. One driver thinks DC can probably figure out a better system, though he doesn't say anything inflammatory. Another says it's important to design signals to accommodate pedestrians, adding, "cities are for people, not for cars."

At the end, Tuss and his crew take a drive on Wisconsin Avenue. We can see them leaving one intersection with a green light and getting to another one. He concludes, "Clearly, from the driver's standpoint, some signals were not timed properly."

Actually, no, and this is the most dangerous part of this report because it reinforces the notion that if you hit a red light, there is something wrong with the timing.

Quite simply, lights are not going to be green for everyone all the time. Wisconsin Avenue, for instance, is a 2-way street. Any timing that gives successive green lights to people driving one direction will mean more red lights the other way.

Parts of 16th Street do have "platooning," where lights turn green in succession. This also encourages people to drive the speed limit, since if they go faster, they'll just hit red lights each time. Some people surely think 16th's lights are terrible because they keep hitting red lights. Others, driving the opposite way, have a legitimate beef that they timing makes things worse for them.

Downtown, there are many main streets intersecting at various angles in close proximity. There's no way to time all of the streets for continuous greens in every direction. Should the timing encourage people to drive north on 16th or west on streets like R and U in the evening? Both have a lot of commuters traveling in conflicting directions.

One way to combat that particular problem is to close segments of streets to car traffic. When New York closed the diagonal Broadway around Times and Herald Squares, it found that traffic flowed better because the diagonal confounded signal timings on the avenues. DC could probably help everyone better traverse a place like Dupont Circle if it reduced the number of roads coming in, but that would surely spark even more "war on cars" claims even if it actually helps cars and the people inside as well as pedestrians, cyclists, and bus riders.

There are many other reasons traffic engineers might time lights in a way that appears wrong to a driver traveling a particular direction. Contributor and engineer Andrew Bossi offered many examples, such as:

Gap Provision: Providing breaks in traffic, such as to allow nearby uncontrolled interactions to operate adequately. Without these breaks, some uncontrolled intersections may never be able to clear out, subsequently requiring some treatments such as an additional traffic signal—which would only increase motorists' delays. Breaks in traffic improve net mobility for the greatest amount of road users.
Still, many signals in DC aren't timed with a lot of forethought. DC doesn't have a state-of-the-art system to control all of the lights centrally. Many individual decisions get made based on local neighborhood pressure, the District Department of Transportation (DDOT)'s James Cheeks has told me and others. That can have its pros and cons; sometimes neighbors know well where the trouble spots are, but it also makes the overall system haphazard.

Many signal timings could be better. If DDOT changes them, however, it won't necessarily ensure that Adam Tuss always gets a green. What helps move on group of drivers could slow down another group. Also, as people say in Tuss's story, drivers aren't the only people on the roads.

In some places, DC could time signals to help buses get past a trouble spot when they cross a busy road. That might mean drivers on that main road more often get a red, but if the bus caries 20 people and 5 drivers have to wait a little longer, it's a net gain. Pedestrians need time to cross, especially wide roads like Wisconsin in places with a lot of seniors like upper Northwest.

Any fixes to signals have to take everyone's needs into account. That'll surely make someone frustrated, creating good fodder for another Adam Tuss transportation story.

Update: Doug Noble, DDOT's Chief Traffic Engineer from 2004-2007, notes in a comment:

DDOT's system is not state-of-the-art, but is at least state of the practice from the late-90's which is better than some major cities. Most traffic signals in DC are in communication with the central system software ... The issue with the signal systems in DC is that there is typically insufficient in-house resources to update signal timing on a recurrent regular basis and it has been done through an outside contract city-wide every 4-6 years. ...

That issue is not unique to DDOT, rather it is a problem nationwide, there is money available for capital projects, but less resources available to operate and maintain the existing signals system (or even the new stuff once installed).


Will driverless cars really slow for pedestrians?

Driverless cars will bring many changes to the way we see transportation. Some will be very good, some bad. But some commentators aren't convinced when I say a huge fight is brewing over how much the road system defers to pedestrians and cyclists or pushes them aside.

Photo by jurvetson on Flickr.

In Mother Jones, Kevin Drum wrote:

[E]ventually you won't even be allowed to drive a car. Every car on the road will be automated, and our grandchildren will be gobsmacked to learn that anything as unreliable as a human being was ever allowed to pilot a two-ton metal box traveling 60 miles an hour.

When that happens, it will be a golden age for pedestrians. Sure, cars won't need signals at intersections, but neither will people.

If you want to cross a road, you'll just cross. The cars will slow down and avoid you. You could cross blindfolded and be perfectly safe. You'll be able to cross freeways. You'll be able to walk diagonally across intersections. You'll be able to do anything you want, and the cars will be responsible for avoiding you. Your biggest danger will come from cyclists and other pedestrians, not cars.
It would be fantastic if this scenario came to pass, but is it realistic? It's certainly possible computers can get smart enough to handle it, but the sticking point here is the words "will slow down."

How much will they slow down? For how many pedestrians? Drum lives in Irvine, California, which has few pedestrians, so perhaps the cars can just avoid the occasional pedestrian. But in urban areas, there are a lot of pedestrians. If everyone crossed whenever they liked, the cars would slow down an awful lot.

In some places, cars would hardly ever get through. In almost any major city's downtown during a busy period, pedestrians are waiting in large numbers on street corners to cross. The only reason cars can get through is because signals govern pedestrian crossings. And when a light is green, often a car has to wait for a gap in the pedestrians or gently nose through to get past.

In Kevin Drum's future urban cores, constantly crossing pedestrians mean that car traffic will not flow at all except perhaps in the wee hours. Anyone who's been involved in a proposal to take away a lane of a road for bikes, or for a road diet, knows that drivers (or, in the future, car riders) will not stand for it.

Drivers are a powerful political force

Just look at, for example, the backlash against a bicycle lane on Prospect Park West in Brooklyn. In a very liberal jurisdiction, a modest and overwhelmingly successful bike lane nevertheless stirred up a few wealthy and well-connected individuals, including the wife of Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY), to create an organization and file lawsuits to block the project using any means necessary.

Tea Partiers certain that there is a vast UN conspiracy to force them to live in high rises are opposing even extremely modest state laws creating some incentives for development in dense areas. Do we really think people will let government mandate that nobody is allowed to drive a car by hand, and that pedestrians get absolute priority?

In the DC area, some bicyclists ride on MacArthur Boulevard in Potomac, a narrow and windy road in a low-density area. That's perfectly legal, but there's a constant stream of letters to local press outlets by drivers who are sure it must be illegal to bike there since it slows them down.

Forcing drivers to travel slower would be like telling seniors that we're cutting their Medicare. The political counter-pressure is intense, so much that most transportation planners always take great pains to reassure drivers of how any change won't really slow them down. Even for the pedestrian plaza in Times Square, one of the early promises from the mayor's office was that it would actually reduce car delays.

I can go on. But anyone who writes regularly about transportation has encountered the massive sense of entitlement from drivers. When I'm driving, I hate to be delayed, too, but I squelch this natural impulse because I write about the issues and have context.

It may well come to pass that driverless cars have to travel slower and pedestrians are able to act more freely. But this will create tremendous political pressure to change the social compact over roads to get traffic moving faster once again. And in this, we will see another, more intense variant of the same fight we have today.

Once, pedestrians did walk freely, and children played in the streets. As automobile use proliferated, rising deaths led to campaigns to segregate street space. Our society could have taken one of two approaches: it could have limited drivers, and added legal liability to force drivers to be more careful, or it could get people out of the street. Many places in Europe chose some elements of the former, but America decisively chose the latter: to redefine the street's role in society to move cars faster. I'm certain that in Drum's scenario, there would be intense pressure to do the same.

Who is liable?

One element determining whether driverless cars turn into the Kevin Drum reality or another one is how we treat liability. When a driverless car kills a person, whether due to a human overriding the technology or a failure in the computer system, there will be a lawsuit.

If courts hold that the manufacturer of the car is liable, this will stifle development of the cars. The technology might ultimately be perfect, but it won't be perfect from the start. Manufacturers will ask state legislatures to limit their liability. Already, a number of commentators have called for liability caps or other legal changes which shift the burden away from the manufacturer.

If the legislatures don't agree, then manufacturers will have to move very carefully until they can make the cars virtually incapable of killing anyone. That will likely hinder development in general, and make any self-driving cars travel slower than human-operated cars. Many drivers therefore will turn off computer mode a fair amount of the time, and political pressure will build to change the liability standard. This will be an early skirmish in the battle over the cars' speed.

If states do limit liability, then we'll end up with a different situation. Buyers will want driverless cars that use algorithms like the one the University of Texas team devised that let them move faster. Sometimes those cars will travel close to pedestrians or bicyclists. Most of the time they'll still avoid killing anyone, but mishaps will happen. And like in today's legal world, prosecutors, judges and juries will be very reluctant to impose heavy punishments on someone operating a car who unintentionally kills another.

Then we'll be back to a situation like the early 1900s roads. For people's own safety, officials will start imposing restrictions on pedestrians. It'll start in places like Irvine. If laws won't stop people from walking on highways or crossing diagonally, then they'll build fences, or skybridges, or both.

Today, one argument against restricting pedestrians too much is that not everyone can drive. Seniors and people with disabilities can't operate a car, and many can't afford them. When driverless cars become commonplace, there will also be cheap taxi service, and so it'll be easier just to tell people to call up a car.

Already, many suburban areas are essentially an archipelago of human-accessible islands in a sea of almost-cars-only space. Little will stand in the way of making this other space absolutely cars-only. And why not? After all, without people, cars can use fancy algorithms to interweave with each other and zoom around far faster than they could in 2012.

Driverless cars aren't bad

A number of the responses seem to be reacting to an imaginary variant of my thesis, in which I said that self-driving cars were going to be a unmitigated bad thing. There's a natural tendency to simplify all arguments into "x is great!" or "x is terrible!"

The fact is that autonomous cars are coming whether we like it or not, and like any technological advance, will bring both terrific improvements to people's lives as well as drawbacks.

Driverless cars are sure to lead to big fights. Will they shift the balance farther toward pedestrians, as Kevin Drum believes, or away? I hope the former, but the technology won't magically solve this problem. Instead, we'll have to fight it out through the democratic process, as we do most other issues affecting the public sphere.

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