Transportation

Traffic Engineering Writ Sexy

by Michele Reeves on November 7, 2010

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Broach the subject of transportation planning and traffic engineering with nearly anyone and they, anticipating a barrage of boring facts and geeky analysis, will hastily prepare for a deep mental hibernation.

Well, I’m here to tell you that discussions about traffic can be quite engaging! See for yourself in this wonderful video of a presentation given by Ian Lockwood recently in Portland, posted by Metro.

One of the points Ian makes in his talk is illustrated by this drawing of Wall Street circa 1867: streets were not always places that we evaluated solely based on throughput of vehicles!!

The grid was a place of infinite exchanges, sights, smells, and sounds — business was conducted, kids played, you met your neighbor, you grabbed a coffee, food was cooked… . In modern times, many cities have ceded control of their streets, some of their most valuable real estate when it comes to making places compelling and interesting, and turned them over to traffic engineers. Complex computer modeling tools are then used to figure out how to move cars efficiently through town. These models tell us nothing about livability, or foot traffic, or retail viability, or downtown decay…

A good example of the impact that streets can have on a downtown is pictured below. Eugene, during the “urban renewal” heyday of the ’60s and ’70s, ripped out many of their older buildings and then installed wide one-way streets, creating a ring of pavement encircling their downtown, effectively routing people around the gem of a core that still exists near the intersection of their historic main streets.

Most small- to mid-size cities have no idea the impact that uni-directional traffic can have on their downtown cores. These streets are not designed to take you “to” a place, they are designed to route you “through” a place. For the 10% to 20% gain in throughput, a city gets a confusing downtown grid that is difficult to navigate for anyone who is not on an established route. Drivers are not encouraged to stop, experience, and look around, causing retail decline. Cars travel faster, creating an environment that doesn’t encourage pedestrianism, which causes retail decline. And, these one-way roads foster architectural form that does not contribute to effective placemaking, causing retail decline.

It is no surprise then, that the vast majority of Portland’s successful commercial corridors are on two-way streets in neighborhoods with architectural form and density that was constructed in the streetcar era.

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The Intangible Allure of the Streetcar

by Michele Reeves on October 1, 2010

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The closest mode of public transportation to my place of residence is the Portland Streetcar.

The city, happily, is expanding the streetcar line across the Willamette River to the east side of the city, and due to this expansion, the existing line was shut down for a few weeks as they laid new track.

In lieu of my beloved streetcar, they pressed a city bus into service that followed almost the same route. I ride the bus frequently, and thought nothing of it…musing, “Bus, streetcar, what’s the difference?”

Boy, was I wrong!

The same people. The same stops. Nearly the same route. But, on a bus, it was a completely different experience. And, in an informal survey of the three other members of my family, they all felt the same way. The question was, “Why?” Was it the smoother ride of the streetcar? Was it the romance of riding the rails? None of us could really put our finger on it, but the question remained in the back of my mind.

When the the electric trolley resumed its laps around the west side of our fair city, I was still asking myself, why is this more special? More enjoyable? Just more!!

As an answer, I began circling around the concept of street activation and the dialog that exists in functioning places between the denizens of the streets, the sidewalks, and the surrounding buildings. The exchanges that make a place sing. And, I realized, that the streetcar travels slowly and has large windows, and somehow is able to become a part of that dialog, a piece of the conversation. While riding, you feel that you are IN the city, participating in that exchange.

In contrast, a bus really puts you ABOVE the city. It is a paradigm of the automobile culture. You are traveling more quickly. There is no interaction. You are not a part of a dialog. You are traveling through, or moving toward somewhere else…you are not, in the moment, a member of the community through which you are progressing.

(For an interesting read on streetcars and their history, check out this excerpt from Patrick Condon’s new book “Seven Rules for Sustainable Communities: Design Strategies for the Post Carbon World.”)

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