Today is a day of celebration for housing and transportation in California, with the possibility of more to come in the next two days. Yay!
But I want to caution about the alignment of housing with transit. It seems like a no-brainer, right? As I’ve long said, you can’t have affordable housing without effective transit, and you can’t have effective transit without widely available affordable and other housing. The problem I’m concerned about is that most of our transit system is oriented to arterial roadways (the semi-high speed, many-lane roads that are also called stroads because they don’t function well as streets or roads, and also called traffic sewers). Or in the case of rail transit, often uses old railroad corridors or freeway medians that make housing development difficult and probably unwise.
Research indicates that people, particularly kids, who live near freeways and arterials have much higher rates of asthma, and many other health problems, and shorter lifespans. Is that where we want low income families and kids living?
Apart from freeways, most traffic crashes happen on arterial roadways, and particularly at intersections of arterial roadways, and freeway on-ramps an off-ramps. Is this the hazard we want for low income families and kids?
I don’t have an answer for this challenge, but I often think it would be better to upzone everywhere (the next increment of development), so that additional housing can be built in places with better air quality and lower traffic violence. Maybe we should be fixing the arterials first, before we build housing along them. Yes, that delays the benefit of easy transit access to housing, but good transit in a poor living environment is just not what I want to see.
I have been a follower of the Strong Towns blog since 2008, and founding member when it became a formal organization. It has strongly influenced my thinking about transportation, land use, and housing. I recommend to everyone that you check Strong Towns out.
What really got Strong Towns off the ground is the concept of stroad, a roadway which is neither a street nor a road, but something in between. As is said, it is the futon of roadways, something that is neither a comfortable bed nor a comfortable couch. Strong Towns defines streets and roads as follows:
Streets: The function of a street is to serve as a platform for building wealth. On a street, we’re attempting to grow the complex ecosystem of businesses and homes that produces community wealth. In these environments, people (outside of their automobiles) are the indicator species of success. Successful streets are environments where humans and human interaction flourish.
Roads: In contrast, the function of a road is to connect productive places to one another. You can think of a road as a refinement of the railroad — a road on rails — where people board in one place, depart in another and there is a high speed connection between the two.
In the Sacramento region, and really almost everywhere, streets designated as arterials and most collectors (in the Functional Classification System) are stroads. They have speeds too high for people to be safe and comfortable. They are often called traffic sewers, that flush traffic in and out of central cities every day. But they are also populated by businesses and public amenities such as schools, with so many driveways and turning movements that they can’t possibly function as high speed roads.
The reason this concept is so important right now is that transportation agencies try to make stroads better by turning them into ‘complete streets’ but do so with a poor understanding of the difference between a street and a road, leaving roadways that accommodate all modes (walking, bicycling, motor vehicles) but still don’t really work. Most complete streets are still stroads. And much of the proposed Measure 2022 sales tax measure for Sacramento County is invested in this flawed concept. So the next two posts will address those issues.
I believe that stroads should be turned back into Streets, and roads preserved for their transportation function. I’m a Strong Towns member, and fully support the argument that the best solution to stroads is to reconstruct them into streets. #SlowTheCars is the right approach. Key to that approach is that changing speed limits doesn’t do much to slow cars, and that ticketing people for going the design speed instead of the posted speed is often just a pretext for profiling and oppression.
BUT. It will be a long while and trillions of dollars to accomplish that. Undoing the damage of the past is not easy, because the money it would take to fix everything has long since gone into the pockets of those who profited from unsustainable (socially, economically, environmentally) development. We will have to triage, changing the most dangerous places first, and those places with the best chance of becoming walkable, livable, and vibrant second. We may never, and perhaps should never, get to those places that are the model of the suburban experiment. Many suburban places will fail and go back to agriculture. Others will not. But spending a lot of money to fix a suburban stroad, adding sidewalks and bike lanes and street furniture, will be good money after bad because these places won’t ever be dense enough or successful enough to pay back the investment.
Back to speed. It will be a long while before we can lower the design speed of stroads and streets back to the correct speed. In most cases, that design speed should be 20 mph. Occasionally higher or lower, but mostly 20. In the interim, I think that we should reduce the speed of all urban streets, that are not arterials and collectors, to 20 mph. I am not suggested that this limit be tightly enforced, as the point is not enforcement but education and commitment. A community willing to lower the speed limit to 20 is a community willing to think about safety and livability, and to accept that the way we have done thing in the past is absolutely not what we need in the present or future. Setting speed limits to 20 is a message to pay attention and think about consequences. Portland and Seattle have recently reduced some speed limits to 20.
The Safe Routes to School National Partnership, along with a number of coalition partners, has offered a petition to increase the amount of funding for California’s Active Transportation Program (ATP). Information on the petition is at Safe Routes to School California and California Walks. What follows is not intended to discourage you from signing the petition. Rather, I’m suggesting that it doesn’t go far enough.
The petition asks for an increase of $100 million per year in funding. With the existing funding of about $120M, this would be just less than double the current funding, a not insignificant increase.
However, the amount is a tiny fraction the roughly $28 billion spent yearly on transportation in California. The majority of this expenditure is through Caltrans, and the majority of that is to expand the highway and road network. Those expenditures work directly against the goal of walkable, livable communities. Yes, expansions often now include some sidewalks and some bicycle facilities, but the preponderance of the project is not on these afterthoughts, but on increasing lane miles by extending and widening highways and roadways. Of the money expended on the road transportation system, about half comes from cities, counties and regions, about one-quarter from the federal government, and about one-quarter from the state. But because the state controls the federal and state portion, and state standards determine or strongly influence how the rest is spent, things must change at the state level.
Marketing for the petition includes: “Nearly $800 million in shovel-ready walking, bicycling and Safe Routes to School projects and programs were left unfunded in the first ATP awards cycle.” I imagine now that many agencies have started to figure out how ATP works, there will be even more applications this cycle, with an even bigger gap between applications and available funding. So would the addition of $100 million really make much of a difference? We have a long term deficit in active transportation of trillions of dollars. $100 million is not that significant.
The graphic below shows the portion of the state transportation budget (in red) going to the ATP program (in green) and which would be added (blue) if the petition resulted in supportive legislation. You may need to squint.
Streets should be designed to induce traffic speeds that are appropriate to that street, consistent with surrounding uses. In my mind, that means 20 mph in residential areas and up to 30 mph in commercial areas. What about all those other roadways? They are mis-designed stroads. Properly designed streets:
have a grid pattern so that use is spread out rather than concentrated on a few streets, so that intersections may functions without stop sign or signal control
have good visibility at intersections
have both physical constraints and visual clues to ensure that they are used at the intended speed
have a minimum of signs
Of course that is largely not what we have now. What to do?
Spread out traffic by installing traffic calming equally on parallel streets, rather than focusing traffic on select streets by installing traffic calming on other streets.
Change intersections to increase visibility, by modification or removal or vegetation, fences, and parking.
Replace four-way stops with two-way stops where there are sufficient gaps in traffic on the busier street.
Replace both four-way and two-way stops with two-way yields, with the yield signs being on the lower traffic street.
Remove all signs from low traffic streets, and allow vehicles normal yielding behavior at the intersection.
Analyze all intersections over time to assess whether signing is really necessary, with the default assumption being that it is not.
I suspect that after analyzing intersections for the purpose of the stop sign, and alternate solutions, the number of stop signs would be reduced by at least 60%. Safety would not be reduced. Speeds would not increase. Both motor vehicle drivers and bicycle drivers would be happier.