Tag Archives: complete streets

VMT Isn’t the Problem

For several years, people interested in transportation and urban planning have been discussing the impacts of motor traffic (mainly private cars) on all sorts of things. Over the last several decades, planning in much of the world has trended toward catering to car traffic, often at the expense of other modes of transportation. A popular measure of how much traffic there is is vehicle miles traveled (VMT) which is as it sounds: a tally of how far vehicles are traveling. Here in America, that figure rose for several decades as more people drove more. All that driving has had a real impact on many different aspects of society.

In recent years, advocates are increasingly shining a light on the true effects of that impact, with many cities starting to take notice and advance (largely token) measures to address the imbalance. The advocates often point to VMT as part of the proof of the ills of the current transportation network in America and one state has even gone so far as to transition their traffic impact metrics to VMT instead of LOS that it is virtually everywhere else. But is VMT really the issue? Or perhaps a better way to ask the question is would the effects of cars on society be different if they weren’t going as far, particularly as it relates to the physical environment?

When approached from that point of view, the answer seems more clear: VMT is not the problem but merely a symptom. This will certainly come as a shock to many people who have argued that VMT is bad for several years. Certainly, there are several ills that increase as cars are driven more such as crashes, emissions, time spent away from family and home, and many other less-than-optimal outcomes. However, at the end of the day, VMT is just another metric that can be used to identify and describe the true problem: car-centric planning and design. But without acknowledging that the true problem is one of design priorities, not the metric, we risk taking the wrong approaches to addressing the issue because there are many car-centric solutions to the problem of high VMT which are ultimately detrimental to the goal of using VMT in the first place.

These solutions can take one of several forms. In some instances, new roads can shorten trip distances and there are even entire projects that shorten trip distances (i.e. grocery store in a community). Both of those types of projects can be completely car-centric and unusable by other forms of transportation, yet they can at least nominally, be recognized for reducing VMT because they technically do. However, few would say that such a project is actually beneficial to a community. New roads have the potential to induce driving while a project that brings shops closer but also plops a large parking lot in an otherwise quaint environment can degrade the quality of the neighborhood, including by ultimately injecting many more cars into a part of town that may have previously not been so heavily traveled.

At the other end of the spectrum, a people-centric environment can be detrimental to lower VMT by being designed to completely exclude cars or at least force through traffic to take a detour around the area that adds length to what would otherwise be a straight trip (see video below). Such a location sounds like it would be beneficial and desirable in many a community, but a focus on reducing VMT can lead to a project that would whittle away at the oasis in an attempt to provide a reduction in VMT. If that sounds familiar, that’s because it is the same issue that has long been a hallmark and the bane of the LOS metric and led to calls for its removal. Under LOS, car-centric projects were advanced, even at the expense of all other modes, because they were projected to “improve” vehicular flow to maintain certain levels-of-service. Similarly, absent astute guidance and engaged leadership, that status quo threatens to continue under the guise of reducing VMT.

Of course, the future is far from certain. Advances in autonomous and electric vehicle technology may well mitigate the more pressing issues of private car use by reducing crashes and emissions. However, the use of VMT as the metric to measure how car-centered society is may well prove to just be a stepping stone to a broader realization that cars and people just don’t mix and that places where the latter are living, working, and generally going about their lives are not places where cars should be unless they’re just visiting.

Is San Bernardino Ready to Modernize E Street?

Opportunities to completely change a street for the better for free (or close to it) don’t come along very often, but the City of San Bernardino currently has the option on their plate as a portion of E Street is reconstructed. Running north-south through the heart of the city and downtown, E St. is home to the bronze-rated sbX Green Line and connects the two of the most vibrant corridors in the city, Baseline St. and Highland Ave., with downtown, uptown, and CSUSB in the northern part of the city and is part of the historical business loop for the legendary Route 66. However, even though E St. previously won a Streetsie in 2014, some of the benefits of BRT seen in other cities have not yet reached the entire corridor, with this segment continuing to support a plethora of empty lots and boarded-up buildings.

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The current configuration of “E” Street is vastly overbuilt and encourages dangerous behavior among road users. Image via Streetmix.

At present, this portion of the street still looks very much like a Death Road, with four lanes for traffic and on-street parking. That has led to conditions that encourage unsafe driving and crash data SWITRS shows a string of incidents stretching through the entire project area to lend support to that idea, including some bike and pedestrian casualties. This is particularly troubling since the route is heavily used by children who attend San Bernardino High School and Arrowview Middle School, with the students themselves providing anecdotal reports of rampant disrespect from motorists. Additionally, E St. is unfortunately also at the epicenter of the resurging epidemic of violence that has wracked the city this year, with the owner of one of the small businesses in this stretch losing his life earlier this year during an armed robbery.

Currently, the overbuilt four-lane design moves less than 10k vehicles per day, a figure that despite being nearly 20 years old, is apparently still pretty valid as confirmed by looking at more recent counts obtained at the intersections of E St. with Baseline and Highland. These numbers are well within the bounds of the volume of traffic that just two lanes can handle quite well, which makes this an ideal road diet candidate. That means that this is the perfect opportunity to make sure the rebuild is a complete street that functions better for all users.

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Put “E” Street on a diet. Image/Streetmix.

But what would a road diet look like on E Street? Since they’re not moving curbs, two general travel lanes would be swapped for a center two-way left turn lane and a pair of bike lanes. While some might think it appears like a “loss” for the street because there are fewer general travel lanes, such a proposal is likely to improve operations for several reasons. First, the current configuration encourages speeding and there are several cross streets that have significant left turn traffic, particularly around San Bernardino High School during the morning/afternoon. These left turners frequently hold back the left-hand lanes as they wait for a gap in oncoming traffic, so a road diet allows them to wait out of the stream going straight, a stream that is often exceeding the 35 MPH speed limit. Meanwhile, the single lane of traffic reduces the ability for people to speed.

Jeff Speck explains road diets.

Also, despite the elements on the street that some might consider to be unsavory, quite a lot of people actually do already travel up and down E St. by foot and by bike, including as mentioned above, many students. This design moves the traffic a little farther from the sidewalks, making it a little calmer and more appealing for pedestrians. Additionally, the bike lanes provide a better designation of where bicyclists can be expected and possibly in conjunction with signage, could be an effective strategy to combat the frequent ‘salmon‘ riders in the area.

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This section of E Street is also home to the original McDonald’s. Image by author.

The effect of these changes will provide a vastly improved street environment that is likely the missing link in years of efforts to revitalize this area of the city. The slower, more even speed of the motorists allow them to notice businesses that they had never seen before when blasting by at 50 MPH while the bike lanes and improved pedestrian experience lead more people to walk or bike through the corridor, both of which are groups that can easily stop in stores along the way and in the process, end up spending more over the course a month than the typical motorist. As has been seen elsewhere around the country, road diets do not have negative impacts on business, but do the opposite and increase business. With a high number of vacant storefronts in the stretch, using this project as opportunity to right-size the street is a great way to get the boards to come down and breathe some new life into the area. It would also provide a good connection to the new park coming to the corner of 9th and E, which will include a new skatepark that BMX riders will certainly frequent.

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The location of E St. in relation to alternatives to reach downtown from this area, including a freway. Image/Google Maps, edited by author.

Undoubtedly, there will be some naysayers and people will be concerned that it would increase trip times. However, it’s worth looking at the area view. Since San Bernardino was built on a grid, there are numerous options for those who may feel hampered. Additionally, given the impressive level of decay and decline that currently permeates this segment of the street, the built environment cannot get exponentially worse. But given the existing traffic safety issues, repeating last century’s mistakes on a blank slate is a step backwards. We shouldn’t have to wait for someone to die before trying to address the issue. If it doesn’t work out or the capacity is eventually needed, it’s easy enough to go back and restripe it to the old setup. But with the opportunity to do for minimal cost what other cities around the country are paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to do, San Bernardino owes it to itself and to the residents to go ahead and join the 21st Century by giving it a go. The only question is if San Bernardino is ready to do what it takes to be an All-American City again.

 

Thinking Backwards

Earlier today, I sat down with city staff to discuss the finer points of a project. A project that is purported to improve access to a local high school, mind you. At one point, the conversation over one proposed piece went something like this:

City engineer: …the EIR [that was done when the school was built]  wasn’t adequate, so now we have to go back in and add more capacity so that traffic can keep moving.

Me: Right, but right now, a lot of kids walk to school. What is proposed will be bad for pedestrians because of the wider distance to cross and multiple threats.

CE: But we have to think about the motorists and do something to improve the LOS. [Not anymore!] We can use signals to control the multiple threat situations.

Me: Okay, well then at least put in pedestrian refuge islands.

CE: Hmmm, not sure if those will fit.

Me: Well, how wide are the lanes?

CE (looks at drawings): One is 12′, one is 11′.

Me: How about we just chop say a foot off of each of those, then?

CE: But then that make things tight and slows traffic down.

Me: Good!

CE: But then people won’t be able to get through there fast.

Me: Good! This is after all a school zone, they shouldn’t be driving fast anyway.

Is it really too much to ask that we think of the children first and the motorists second?