Asking Cars Questions

We all know how media outlets report people getting hit by cars (not drivers) and that city’s design their roads and planning documents about storing and transporting those cars. Since those things are such a big part of our city, I wanted to see what cars thought about their status in our society. This week’s question comes from John in Tempe:

Recent US Supreme Court rulings have determined that corporations are people. Given the prevelance [sic] and importance of automobiles, along with a multitude of published reports demonstrating your ability to act independently of any action from the human(s) you transport, do you believe the personhood designation should be applied to automobiles as well?”

What Would You Ask A Car?

The title of this post is probably a little confusing. “What would I ask a car? Don’t be silly, cars can’t talk.” Well of course not. But our cities are designed for cars, cars hit people, and cars hit buildings.

Since so much of our lives revolve around cars, since we design for cars instead of people, and in our media cars [not motorists] hit people and buildings, we’d like to ask cars instead of people about their thoughts on the built environment and our media coverage to see how we as a society are meeting the needs of cars everywhere.

So let us know, what would you like to ask a car?

Language Matters

I had originally typed up a huge long post on why language matters and what kind of neurotic complex I have in correcting grammar and verbiage other people and I use. I would like to be a little more concise in this post and use it as a reference point. Below are a list of words or phrases people use to describe transportation activities. First I’ll list the word or phrase, then why we shouldn’t use it, and offer a suggestion in its place. This list will most assuredly expand as time goes on, but let’s start with a few basic suggestions. I’ve been developing this behavior for a while now and last week was tuned in to a similar research paper filed in New Zealand 2007.

Accident – In most instances people do not mean to crash their car or bike with intent to injure or kill people, or destroy property. However, history has told us that more than 30,000 people will die each year in motor vehicle collisions and (whether the police report acknowledges it or not) most are due to some sort of inattention or negligence. A couple weeks ago a news agency reported about an “accident” at 43rd Avenue and Indian School where two people died. It was later revealed the driver who caused the “accident” was drunk out of his mind. This is not an accident and should never be reported as such. Neither is it an accident when a driver is paying attention to her GPS while she runs over three people riding their bikes, it’s a failure to take the responsibility and safely operate heavy machinery. We cannot continue to casually dismiss such violent acts as the inevitable consequence of commerce and convenience. – Suggested replacements: Collision, crash, wreck, struck, collided with

“Fill in the blank by a car” – No matter how it’s phrased, whether someone “walking across the street was hit by car”, or if “the car ran a red light”, or anything else a moving car may have done, the car did not do that. The motor vehicle in question was being actively driven by someone 99.9% of the time. Removing the person and identifying the car removes responsibility; and while we’re not seeking vengeance or hatred when people make mistakes, de-humanizing the assailant creates a disconnect that allows for complacency behind the wheel. – Suggested replacements: “A woman driving a Toyota Camry struck a man crossing the street.”, “The man, driving a Toyota Camry, ran a red light resulting in the collision.”

Cyclist – Unfortunately, our society has identified a cyclist as a middle-aged man wearing lycra and being a scofflaw all over the place. What this does to our collective consciousness is it creates a subset of people who do something abnormal. We would like to see a society where all people are encouraged to utilize a bicycle as a means of transportation and it becomes completely normal in everyday life. Words like cyclist and pedestrian remove the person from the act and create subsets of people: cyclists, pedestrians, motorists, all at odds with one another. Instead, we identify that all motorists and cyclists are also pedestrians, and many cyclists and pedestrians are also motorists. – Suggested replacements: “A man riding a bike”, “the woman was cycling”, “the man was crossing the street.”

Advocate (noun; I have no issues with the verb usage of advocate) – Many of us see ourselves as advocates for cycling. It’s become part of our identity and is an important part of our lives. But many of the people who show up to city council meetings or neighborhood planning meetings and ask for bicycle infrastructure have no historical or future plans to push strongly for greater investment, they are simply acknowledging that having infrastructure dedicated to cycling would be beneficial to them and would make their streets safer. This is, again, a term that allows people to conveniently place others in groups. Groups are easier to disregard or oppose when they differ from one another. If Mary from Encanto is a concerned citizen who feels the neighborhood would be better served by improved cycling conditions, I’d much rather a councilmember hear from her than me, a nutbag cyclist advocate. How weird does it sound to call someone supporting the construction of South Mountain Freeway a motoring advocate? Crazy. – Suggested replacements: Citizen, person, man, woman, child.

Vulnerable Road User – This is a new one to me as of last week when I read the paper linked at the beginning of this post. Also falling within this realm is “alternate mode user.” Vulnerable road user gives the impression of a dangerous behavior or situation. While the risk and reward of cycling on city streets is another topic entirely (hint: the reward FAR outweighs the risk), riding a bike is seen as a dangerous behavior in and of itself (vulnerable road user) or as a secondary/abnormal mode choice (alternate mode user). This language only reinforces the idea that one cannot nor should not ride a bike for transportation. – Suggested replacements: Active mode user, non-motorized mode user

These are not hard and fast rules to use. Reporting something on Twitter might require one to use “driver hit cyclist” or something similar due to character limitations. Above all else, we need to be able to influence the people we talk to and the mainstream media so these horrific statistics don’t remain just statistics. So many people’s lives are affected by the dangerous automobile-centric landscape that has been developed over the past 50 years. By changing the way we talk about transportation, we can ease tensions between mode users and highlight responsible motor vehicle use now and in the future.

Bike Counts are Coming

In 2011 the Tempe Bicycle Action Group began an annual bike count culminating in a report full of data collected each April from many different locations, 28 in 2012. To date, this is the only organization that has conducted regular bike volume counts in the Phoenix metro area.

If you’ve ever driven or ridden across those rubber strips lying across the road, those are pneumatic counters and they track motor vehicle volume traversing any given road each day. Almost every municipality and government agency from Avondale to ADOT use these counters to count the number of automobiles traveling on a section of roadway in a given time period. There are other methods and technologies used at intersections to determine if all traffic queued at a light makes it through each cycle, how many people are turning each direction, and the volume of traffic by hour of the day to determine peak demand. The data are used in models that produce future predictions on similar roadways and are also used for current day situations like timing lights and adding an extra left turn lane or determining if a street would benefit from right-sizing. It is extremely important information that determines the type of infrastructure to be built in new parts of town and contributes to decisions within the existing infrastructure.

It is because of the importance of these data in our forecast models that I am excited about the upcoming counts conducted by Maricopa Association of Governments (MAG). To date the models simply assume a percentage of trips will be taken by bicycle (or by foot or transit), but the effects are so negligible in new development because the Transportation Area Zones (TAZ) that are used show almost no demand for active transportation modes. It’s a vicious cycle that starts with poor infrastructure, resulting in auto-dependence, the data from which are used in the forecast model, which predicts auto-dependence in future development. With bike counts, the data may be analyzed to reflect the infrastructure preferences and resulting behavior as the surrounding environment changes.

Beginning September 30, MAG will be conducting four phases of automated bike counts in two-week increments across the Valley. For details on when and where the counts will be conducted, check out slides 13 and 14 here. The rest of the presentation shows where manual counting will take place as well as the methodology used to select the sites. The manual count schedule has not been released at this time. While these counting tubes are in place they will track 24-hour data from cyclists rolling across them. The tubes will be placed in a way that count people on bikes whether they are riding on the sidewalk or on the street.

While the first requirement stated in the site selection indicates the presence of bicycle facilities will be considered, it appears as though some sites on major arterials without a bike lane were selected. These include 19th Avenue and Northern Road (west), 19th Avenue and Glendale (west), 83rd Avenue and Thunderbird (south), and 44th Street and Thomas (north). If these locations have bike lanes or wide shoulders, I’m not aware of them because I’ve been able to successfully avoid riding on those streets. I bring this up because it is extremely important to collect data on all facility types. It may be tempting to place these counters on only high-volume areas to “prove” there is high demand for cycling infrastructure, but planners need to know first of all, what types of facilities are being used most frequently by people riding bikes. Do people prefer to ride on traffic separated pathways, are on-street bike lanes effective, and do streets designed solely for cars preclude bike use? Data from these major arterials can then be compared to similar roadways with different infrastructure to determine the role cycling infrastructure and land use play in whether people bike there or not.

In future model runs this data will be used to supplement the data we have on motor vehicle behavior. The implications are tremendous because it can show where motor vehicle traffic would be reduced with the implementation of facilities for bicycling. These models may also be used to determine which existing streets on which to focus re-design. Historically transportation models have been designed to project consistent and unlimited motor vehicle growth. New models with bike count data will have a greater ability to project appropriate facility design to improve the mode-share split to more favorably affect our air quality (which drives much of our federal funding) and will actually allow our models to produce results that may favor something other than a six-lane major arterial road through every neighborhood.

City of Phoenix Introduces New Map Tool

Phoenix has a shiny new toy where people can log on and essentially rate your own bike routes.
This week the city launched a “Wiki Maps” site that acts with a GIS interface to allow users the ability to draw their own bike routes and indicate them as “high-stress”, “low stress”, or a “Route I’d Like to Ride.” It also lets users put points on the map that you’d like to bike, places to bike (which could be a destination or a particularly well-designed feature), as well as let the city know of barriers to biking.

The feedback is somewhat limited in it uses radio buttons for some of the responses that limit you to only choosing one thing. For example, if you’d like to indicate a barrier to biking you may choose only one of: Intersection without signal, signal without bicycle detection, poor maintenance, highway interchange, no bicycle access/connection, high speed/busy traffic, dangerous intersection, narrow path/lane, bushes/tree branches blocking path, or other. It does give you 1,000 characters to expand on your thoughts in the Other/Comments box on all features.

Rather than littering the map with multiple lines or points overlapping routes, you may click on an item and agree, disagree, or abstain from a decision on that particular line or point, as well as add your own comments. This way we can keep the map clean and simultaneously let the city know a) how many people are or would like to use that route, and b) what level of rider agrees or disagrees with any particular designation. As of right now, Central Avenue north of Van Buren has a high-stress, low-stress, and places I’d like to ride line all together and multiple comments for each segment. I’m particularly impressed by the person who rides Thomas from 35th Avenue to 44th Street nearly daily, and has taken the opportunity to mark that segment as a high-stress route.

To add your comments, routes, and points, go to the following website and sign up. Make sure you share this with all your friends, especially if they would fall into the “interested but concerned” group of cyclists so they can let the city know there is strong latent demand for better bicycle infrastructure and considering what is in place, the traffic volume of people on bikes in Phoenix is way higher than it should be but not nearly as high as it can be. http://phoenix.gov/streets/safety/bicycle/102734

Want to do Something About Bike Funding?

Good news!  It’s not just a rhetorical question, but you can actually make suggestions and submit ideas for bike projects to your city.  What’s better is you can identify a source of funding for your favorite project!

MAG has about $4.4 million in Transportation Alternatives funding to give away this fall.  While Mesa has recently completed a bike master plan identifying priorities and estimated amounts, no such document exists for Phoenix and Tempe has 12 projects left to complete on its 2008 update.  The great and underappreciated thing about bicycle infrastructure is it’s crazy cheap to build compared to motor vehicle infrastructure.  $4.4 million can go a long way, and this is a great opportunity for you to share your next great idea with your city and ask them to apply for some of this funding to make your idea a reality.  After all, who knows the needs and wants of our cities cyclists better than those of us who ride our bikes every day?

Phoenix Complete Streets Policy

There is a scene in the Hollywood classic film, Spaceballs, where the main antagonist, Dark Helmet, is searching for our hero’s amongst the desert sand from a hovering vehicle. He declares it’s time to move on because the subjects of his search are nowhere in sight. Helmet’s number two, Colonel Sanders, orders the driver of their vehicle to prepare to move out. This causes Helmet a bit of frustration, upon which he exclaims “What are you preparing? You’re always preparing. Just go!” This is a problem because Helmet is standing in the vehicle, so when the driver accelerates he gets thrown to his seat violently. Government is like Colonel Sanders: always preparing.

Phoenix has drafted a Complete Streets Policy in an effort to move the city toward a more bicycle, pedestrian, and transit-friendly future. It is important to remember that this draft amounts to little more than a memo to guide future directives and decisions. It’s not a technical manual or planning document so there are very clearly important items missing from this document that will be needed to move from preparation to implementation. Many of us are much like Dark Helmet, we’re sick of preparing. But without the preparation, we’ll end up getting thrown onto our butts as one of the many unintended consequences from a lack of preparation.

The first three paragraphs of this document are the standard buzzword-laden vision, intent, and policy parts of most planning documents. It reads like the LinkedIn profile of a job-searcher where they jam as many keywords in so as to show up on as many searches as possible. Basically it doesn’t tell us anything; it just lets us know that they want us to know they’re interested in the things we’re interested in.

The What

The Complete Streets guide will have a positive effect on the street network and connectivity of the city. Paragraph D is something completely different from what we’ve experienced in the region over the past thirty years: “The City shall require large new developments and redevelopment projects to provide interconnected street networks with small blocks.” This will be a drastic departure from the cul-de-sac subdivisions we have become accustomed to seeing built and will, in theory, prevent the 2-mile walk to an elementary school three hundred yards away that is common in new development.

The document will apply to “every transportation improvement and project phase as an opportunity to create safer, more accessible streets for all users.” I read this to say that any re-surfacing, any new construction, any major utility work will result in a complete streets analysis to determine if an opportunity for improvement to bike/ped/transit is available. It doesn’t mean every street will go on a diet every time it’s re-surfaced, but if an opportunity is there to improve multi-modal access, the city will be guided to take action. It will apply to every department of the city and apply to the City Manager, Street Transportation, Planning and Development, Fire and Police, among others.

Exceptions

The City protects itself by identifying exceptions to the rule that a complete street design will be applied in all instances. Some of them make sense, such as to restrict pedestrian movement on interstate freeways or vehicular movement in pedestrian malls. In this case, the document directs a greater effort to be made to accommodate the excluded user elsewhere in the vicinity, such as at crossings or a parallel route. I would like to see better wording in Paragraph C. Paragraph C allows the Director of Street Transportation and Director of Planning and Development to jointly issue a documented exception if complete streets principles is unnecessary or unduly cost prohibitive in proportion to the need or probably use. It is important to remember that this would apply to both the use of motor vehicles as well as bike/ped infrastructure. The unfortunate part is traffic models that are typically used to determine future use can essentially spit out whatever information you want it to. Maricopa Association of Governments, the entity primarily responsible for modeling projected transportation growth, has historically used a traditional suburban traffic model to determine the need for infrastructure such as the Loop 303, primary arterial traffic volumes (which provide guidance to municipalities on how wide to build streets), and doesn’t take into account pedestrian or bicycle traffic. What this means is the models that were previously used to determine what kind of road to build always predicted a massive need for automobile throughput while bike/ped rights would need to be argued primarily anecdotally. MAG has recently published a Special Events Study that measures the rate in which people take transit, drive, or take non-motorized transportation to events based on location and type. It’s a step in the right direction, but I’m not sure that requiring the Director of Planning and Development to sign off on an exception will be enough of a safeguard against a “volume-first” engineer from arguing that there wouldn’t be enough bike/ped volume to justify removing or modifying motor vehicle lanes.

Paragraph D appears to be directed toward restricting motor vehicles. Road projects that might otherwise pass the standard EIS would now be required to give greater consideration to neighboring land uses, wetland, or waterways.

The Culture

The Complete Streets designs will be incorporated into all city operations, and provide well-designed pedestrian and bicycle accommodations along all streets. The goal is to permeate all things within the city so the designs that the Streets Department prescribes are compatible with what the Planning Department is doing, which is in concert with the Parks Department, and so on. This is key as appropriate planning from a land-use perspective will be required to reduce the need for automobile travel and increase the likelihood of non-motorized travel on newly complete streets. Continuing on with Euclidean zoning principles will only result in further perpetuating the automobile culture if daily trips to the grocery store are two miles and a 7-lane arterial street away.

The Goals

On the draft copy, specific numbers for things like boarding’s at a bus stop haven’t been declared. There are legitimate and attainable goals such as a 40% year-over-year increase in the percent of children using active transportation to get to school, 100% of bus stops with x number of boarding’s will have May-September shade from 2 to 7 PM, and a year-over-year decrease in bike/ped fatalities both city-wide and project-specific.

The How

Complete Streets Principles will be incorporated into all relevant departments and into all existing plans, manuals, regulations, and programs such as the Phoenix General Plan, Capital Improvement Plan, and the soon-to-be-a-reality Pedestrian and Bicycle Master Plans. The streets department in particular will be required to amend their design standards and even replace the existing Street Classification and Design Guidelines with a new Complete Streets Manual. There will be a comprehensive inventory of existing infrastructure so as to prioritize projects to eliminate gaps in the networks and support land use patterns and public demand. Funding and staffing will be actively managed to achieve the most desirable results.

Conclusion

The City of Phoenix has taken huge steps forward in creating a more bicycle and pedestrian friendly city. In 2011 and 2012 the city’s bicycle budget was a mere $50,000 which is, quite frankly, pathetic for a city of its size. Fortunately, 2013 saw a drastic move in the right direction allocating $1.5 million for bicycle funding. The size of the hole we have to dig out of is much, much bigger than $1.5 million per year will be able to fill, but the truth is throwing $50 million per year at the deficiencies we have will only do so much. Instead, investing in smart programs that will lead to a culture change like the Phoenix Bike Share and an inter-departmental Complete Streets Policy will have far-reaching effects to redistribute the priority of our public spaces from cars to people.