Monthly Archives: January 2012

The Melbourne Identity

What an awful attempt at putting a pun in a posting title. I’m like an elderly columnist trying to stay relevant, who doesn’t realize that they haven’t released one of those movies in like five years.

Anyway, check this out:

Two things stand out in this photo. Tram terminus, 50mph speed limit. Not bad eh?

I like pics like this because they’re a nice rejoinder to George Will-esque arguments that trains are just there to brainwash you into not driving, like a true individual. Nope. The two can, and should, exist side by side.

Melbourne has a crazy extensive tram network. That map shows lines as well as frequencies; note the preponderance of 9- and 12- minute headways throughout the system. And Melbourne seems to share a lot of the core values of most North American cities. Globally, a lot of places have extensive tram networks. Several exceed Melbourne. But to a certain extent there’s a feeling like “well, they’re Europeans, you expect them to have good trams.” The urban vibe is completely different.

But Melbourne is a sprawling, suburban city, with low-density suburbs and a downtown defined by large office towers. When the Wachowski brothers needed a “generic North American city” for The Matrix movies, they shot in Melbourne. Here’s a couple more spots on that same tram line:

As you get closer in, the tracks switch from LRT-style separated running to mixed traffic, and low-density single-family gives way to your basic “Goldilocks urbanism” with a mixture of detached houses and apartment blocks, walkable commercial streets and parkable strip centers.

Not bad at all.

And while the highway system doesn’t really come close to Florida-Texas-Californian levels of buildout, it is pretty new. 15 years ago Melbourne was following the eastern European model, where radial freeways all slow out into surface streets. But with CityLink they brought motorways into the core and created a proper crosstown expressway network. Check the 1960′s World’s Fair architecture on that “sound tube”, which supposedly reduces traffic noise for the benefit of some nearby housing projects. I’m not sure I buy the stated rationale, but then, I think it’s worth it to make freeways look cool for the sake of it. Like this column detailing on Moses’s BQE – straight outta Popular Mechanics – or this incredibly cool sign arch on Seattle’s Alaskan Way Viaduct.

Too Many Bike Lanes

“Too many f***ing bike lanes. Thanks, Janette Sadistic-Khan.” A throwaway statement, uttered as I was winding around Williamsburg in a giant Panther, attempting to find a parking spot, baffled by the “you must turn here even though the street continues on the other side” signs which grace every intersection along Kent Avenue.

But can there really be such thing as too many bike lanes? Probably not, but she’s going to test the theorem.

You may have heard of NYC’s crazy Dane traffic czar in reference to the Broadway closures. You can now sit down and enjoy a halal lamb sandwich smack dab in the middle of Times Square. (If you have not done this yet, please do – it is divine.) But more than these big-name projects, she’s been busy putting in some of the swankest bike infrastructure in North America. Like the Prospect Park West cycle track. Two lanes, two ways, well outside the door zone. It’s the same template used for the Kent Avenue setup which slightly annoyed my attempts at finding a parking spot to ring in 2012 with. And check out these left-side median lanes on Allen Street with a big ol’ striped buffer, plastic bollards (the same kind used to separate H-town’s Katy Tollway or Dallas’s Central Expressway HOV), green paint, and special stripes to guide you through the intersection. Not bad, not bad at all.

Actually, if there’s any criticism to be leveled here it’s that the lanes are (i) too narrow and (ii) not being built fast enough. After the Prospect Park West lanes went in, a few douchey rich people filed a lolsuit and lost. Not too long later, the original plans to install Prospect Park West-style cycle tracks around the outer ring of the Grand Army Plaza were shelved, and the project went forward with only new crosswalks and traffic islands.

And 8′ for two-way cycle tracks is narrow as hell. When I was in high school, a friend of mine and I set out to “field test” various cycle track lane widths by striping them out on a newly-constructed subdivision street using sidewalk chalk, then riding past each other at speed. I tested 5′, 6′ and 2m (about 6’7″) lanes – the idea of making them as narrow as 4′ wasn’t even a consideration. Prospect Park West is a 50′ section from curb to curb. You only need 36′ for two traffic lanes and two rows of parked cars. So the cross-section could be 36′ auto, 3′ striped buffer, 11′ cycle track.

Still, we’re in the very infancy of building proper bike infrastructure like this, stuff that recognizes bikes as a serious transportation medium and not just a fun way to get in shape! In terms of institutional knowledge we’re in basically the same predicament as Moses and his engineers were in the 1940′s when they built New York’s expressways from scratch. We can look back now and note “substandard” lane widths, geometry, merges, what have you, but those guys were writing the standards as they went. And so we are now. A whole ton of the research is 3, 4, 5 years old.

So here’s hoping Janette gets a whole crapton of bike stuff built before the haters eventually force her out. Let’s hope it’s built to last, it’s still there 50, 60, 70 years from now. And let’s hope the rest of the country eventually passes it, standards-wise, so that those accustomed to later facilities look back on the early NYC stuff and can’t help but marvel at how goddam well it functions given such substandard geometry. In other words, let’s hope Khan is the bike Robert Moses.

Speaking of the Master Builder himself, this Observer Article quotes one guy saying “Almost everything Janette has done is good for drivers,” and another saying Khan has “done more for drivers than anyone since Robert Moses.” Drivers, you ask? Yep. Turns out she’s just as skilled at getting potholes and bridges fixed. In fact, all the bike infrastructure combined has represented less than 1% of the NYC DOT’s budget over the past four years. Imagine what it would look like with two percent, or three.

And in the meantime, I really hope the Post or “Seniors for Safety” or some other haterz pick up my “Janette Sadistic-Khan” remark and run with it. I certainly have no productive use for it.

The Hillclimb

Check this out; I-84 in eastern Oregon.

I’ve driven this section a couple times. Beautiful views. One of the great things about mountainous areas like this is they’re like a time capsule of highway construction. Off to the east, you’ve got your original two-lane highway. Switchbacks everywhere. This is from an era where there was really no idea of “design speed,” it was more about just being able to get there in the first place. This meant (i) hard surfaces and (ii) managable grades – engines were tiny, and they overheated easily. I don’t have any history on this section of highway. The original Ridge Route (over California’s Tejon Pass) had a continuous 15mph speed limit in the 20′s; it wouldn’t surprise me if this highway was originally posted similarly. Extra credit goes out to the Streetview guys for capturing this run at sunset.

Off to the west, you’ve got your midcentury four-lane. Very clearly pre-interstate engineering, but good pre-interstate engineering. There are design standards, in this case the criteria appears to have been “no more than 10 degrees of curvature” (a 573′ radius corner). This leads to a fair number of cuts and fills, although the alignment still hugs the land.

It’s pretty curvy by modern freeway standards, but trucks labor up this hill, and they represent a big enough chunk of the traffic to justify repurposing the midcentury US-30 alignment as the uphill I-84 alignment. Four pre-interstate lanes give enough space for a three-lane section with standard-spec shoulders; the usual smattering of advisory signs tell leadfoot passenger cars to slow the F down.

Finally, threading through the middle is the downhill section – the last piece to be built, repping interstate-era engineering. Curvature is halved to 5 degrees (1146′ radius), which neccessitates extensive blasting and filling. In some places the highway just cuts straight through hills. Driving a road like this is like a free geology lesson.

This is also about the limit of what you can do with cuts and retained fill, at least in this type of topography. 5 degrees with moderate banking is good for about 55mph from trucks, 65mph from an average car driver. Maybe 80 in a Turbo Regal. If you need something considerably faster – like, say, tracks for high speed rail – at some point it becomes easier to just tunnel into the base of the hill and pop out a few miles later. You can get a head-start on your hillclimb tunnel with a viaduct that gets you 100-150′ above the valley floor before the portal entrance. This sort of viaduct-tunnel combo, by the way, is why the California high-speed rail is so expensive. Bullet trains in Texas would be considerably cheaper on account of the relatively low-lying topography of the Houston-DFW-Austin-SA isosceles. Other parts of Texas may have mountains and mesas that dwarf the Grapevine, but no one’s seriously proposing 220mph train service to Terlingua. Although it would be cool.

Induced Demand isn’t an argument against highways.

Watching the Coogs pwn Pedo State here, it’s a good feeling.

Anyway, Induced Demand (which I’ve also heard referred to as “Triple Convergence”) is the phenomenon whereby traffic rapidly expands to fill newly-created highway lanes.

From where I sit the arguments look a lot like those on global warming. There’s broad consensus across disciplines that it exists, though some claim otherwise. And it often gets used to justify really, really crappy policies. Like not building highways, or even tearing them down.

So here’s a few problems I see with the arguments.

1: You’re still carrying more people.

One of the more common arguments against widening goes like “such and such a highway averaged just 28mph at rush hour in [year]. Five years after they finished widening it, it was still clogged, averaging just 31mph in [later year]. Clearly, building more highways won’t fix congestion.”

The problem here lies in defining congestion as speed irrespective of capacity. If you have a four-lane highway moving at 30mph, you’re maybe carrying 80,000 cars a day. Going to a ten-lane highway while retaining the 30mph jam-up means you’re carrying north of 200,000 cars a day. That’s, at a minimum, 120,000 people who get to benefit from that capacity, even if it’s not moving super-fast. 120,000 people who got to move closer to where they want to live, got to take a different, better job, or just eat dinner somewhere on the far side of town.

2: You can narrow the rush hour

There’s a post over on Greater Greater Washington about “Myths about highways”, and under one of them the writer says “Neither Atlanta nor Houston’s multiple Beltways have erased congestion.” Right. Beltway 8 doesn’t have magical powers. But what Houston’s capacity increases have done is narrow the rush hour. Think about it.

Everywhere in the US (except, perhaps, Toledo) is jammed at 4:45 in the afternoon. But what’s it like at 6? 7? 8? In Portland you can leave downtown at 7:30, head north, and still hit a slowdown when you get to the Interstate Bridge. The Schuylkill Expressway in Philadelphia has one of the widest rush hours I’ve ever seen; that road jams up on Sundays. Everywhere, always. But in a city with massive capacity like Houston, the rush hour starts and ends quickly. I’m accustomed to doing 70+ on IH 10 into the mid-afternoon, and I’m likewise accustomed to free-flow on US 59 as early as 6:00, 6:30pm. Congestion shows up, and then it leaves. It doesn’t linger.

Looking at “rush hour” conditions creates a blinkered view. It’s almost impossible to build a non-toll highway system which will operate at LOS A at 4:30pm. But it’s quite possible to build one that will clear up within the hour. And it’s the difference between that highway and the one that stays clogged until 9pm that controls whether people eat dinner across town, how much they socialize with people in other places, whether a given metro area or region is truly connected.

3: You enabled the decisions which led to the induced demand

On that same “myths about highways” post, the author argues that, rather than take traffic off Lee Highway or Arlington Boulevard, a wider I-66 would have lead to “More people … living west of Manassas and working in downtown DC.” And what, exactly, is wrong with that? Given that some people want to live in the ‘burbs regardless, would you rather have a completely fragmented economy, where ‘burbians work in the ‘burbs and city people work in the city?

I recall reading in a book somewhere that San Jose’s West Valley Freeway, originally intended to provide a smooth bypass around downtown, instead attracted so much new housing development around it that it was congested within a year or two. But I don’t really see that as a negative.

Transportation networks enable long-term land use decisions. That’s why cities like Portland are so gung-ho on Streetcars, the permanance of the rails leads developers to build big mixed-use condoblocks. Freeways work the same way with lower-density uses, like single-family detached homes. 85 opened up the southwest flank of San Jose to development. Certainly if I was one of the developers building those neighborhoods, I’d be very happy that they filled up so fast that the freeway was jammed within a year.

Now, let’s say you don’t like the very idea of single-family housing, you think we should live in high-density apartment blocks, preserve open space, etc. OK, I’m receptive to that. I’ve read a bunch of stuff that says Dutch kids are happier than American kids, score lower on measures of dysfunction (teenage pregnancy, drug use, whathaveyou) and they certainly live denser than we do. But that’s not an argument against the freeway’s effectiveness. You’re not saying “The freeway doesn’t work,” you’re saying “the freeway isn’t conducive to the kind of development I prefer.”

Rhetorical Gimmicks

That list bit is, let’s be honest, a rhetorical gimmick. At the urban-suburban level, freeways promote low-density housing development. Most of the people arguing against freeways don’t really like low-density housing development. But if you make a facial argument that “low density development is bad,” you’ll get a lot of responses like “I like my backyard” or “what do you have against being able to find a parking space,” maybe even a backlash group or two.

On the other hand, if you can argue “freeways don’t work, they’re always jammed up,” you might very well get that same person who likes her yard, her two car garage, to say “well, I get stuck in traffic a lot, you might be right.” Might even get them to sign on to the idea that we shouldn’t build any more freeways, because traffic.

But it’s still a gimmick.