Turning a busy road into a “smart corridor”

The Illinois Department of Transportation has plans to create two new “smart corridors” along major suburban roads:

Photo by Kaique Rocha on Pexels.com

The improvements include: traffic signal upgrades to modernize the corridors, synchronizing signals, dynamic message signs in strategic spots, and accommodations for pedestrians, officials said.

The Route 64 revamp stretches between Smith/Kautz Road and Route 50 (Cicero Avenue); the Route 56 redo runs from Route 59 to York Street.

For walkers and transit users, upgrades to sidewalks, crosswalks and pedestrian signals are coming, plus new, strategically located bus stops that expedite traffic flow.

“The long-range idea is to get those corridors working as efficiently as possible and to help support transit and buses,” IDOT District 1 Program Development Engineer John Baszek said.

These are busy roads – tens of thousands of vehicles each day – with high rates of speed. The project seems to have two goals: (1) improve traffic flow and (2) facilitate use beyond cars and trucks. Can both be done at the same time?

Not only have I driven these roads, I have biked along both roads. There is a lot that would have to be done to make this feel like a safe and pleasant experience for bicyclists and pedestrians. Having more cars flowing more efficiently does not seem like it necessarily fits with this.

As a driver, synchronized lights seem to make a lot of sense. On some of the regular routes I drive, I am pretty sure the lights are intentionally not in my favor; i.e., I turn left at the green arrow from one major road to the next and am immediately met with a red light. Keeping traffic flowing would seem to be good for congestion and the environment (through avoiding idling and stopping and starting).

From the “walking cities” of 1815 to the sprawling cities of today

In recently teaching about the development of the American suburbs, I was reminded of the description of “walking cities” in 1815 provided by historian Kenneth Jackson makes in Crabgrass Frontier:

Photo by Ryutaro Tsukata on Pexels.com

The first important characteristic of the walking city was congestion. When Queen Victoria was born in 1819, London had about 800,000 residents and was the largest city on earth. Yet an individual could easily walk the three miles from Paddington, Kensington, Hammersmith, and Fulham, then on the very edges of the city, to the center in only two hours. In Liverpool, Birmingham, Manchester, and Glasgow, the area of new building was not even two miles from city hall. (14)

While the focus here is on congestion, the time it takes to walk through such density in a major city is notable: in a few hours, one could traverse a significant portion of the city.

Introduce technology with more speed – trains, streetcars, cars, etc. – and cities could expand in space. People could live further from work (the proximity of home to work for many is a feature of the 1815 city that Jackson also notes). The city could go on for miles. The suburbs could extend even further. But, the ability to see a significant portion of the city in a single walk became much harder.

Putting together statistical data and experiences, Right Turn on Red edition

A discussion of Red Turn on Red (ROTR) pits statistical evidence and experiential data:

Photo by Jack Gittoes on Pexels.com

Critics of the D.C. bill have pointed out the lack of data showing the dangers of RTOR, but many people who don’t use cars know instinctively how dangerous turning vehicles can be. “Our current safety studies fail to capture the reality of the constant near misses and confrontations that result between these motorists and pedestrians, which can be observed daily just by observing a typical busy intersection with RTOR,” Schultheiss says.

When teaching a research methods class, I can often come back to this observation about how sociologists approach data and evidence: we want both “facts” and “interpretations” to get the complete story of what is going on. In this particular situation, here is what that might mean: even if the statistical data suggests ROTR is not very dangerous, it matters that people still fear cars turning right on red. The experiences of pedestrians, bicyclists, and others on sidewalks and streets is part of the larger picture of understanding turning right on red. This would go alongside the data and experiences of vehicles and drivers.

Once this full set of data is collected, making policy decisions is another matter. If leaders want to prioritize vehicles, that is one choice. Or, as the piece suggests, some cities want to rethink streets and transportation, and they can end ROTR. But, it would be advisable to have all of the evidence before acting.

The limited safety of pedestrians and bicyclists even in quiet residential neighborhoods

Street and intersections in quiet suburban subdivisions are not necessarily designed with the safety of pedestrians and bicyclists in mind:

Photo by Jeswin Thomas on Pexels.com

The station reached out to county officials and the local police precinct; everyone sure scratched their heads about that one. There was supposed to be a stop sign there, said the county, and they didn’t know why there wasn’t one installed. The police made sure to point out that it wasn’t their fault, either, because, they said, residents hadn’t complained. “Some residents have now reached out to us requesting additional signage,” said the precinct’s commissioner, James Mett. “In the coming days, we plan to examine and research the issue to determine the best course of action moving forward.” A few phone calls later, it was announced that a new stop sign would be installed Thursday.

So, that’s one thing that made this street unsafe. But there are plenty of other problems, not unique to this intersection but common to many, many American streets, that also made it unsafe. There’s no signage of any kind to alert drivers to the possibility that walkers or cyclists might want to cross. There are no traffic-calming design elements, like speed bumps, raised crosswalks (or any kind of crosswalk), or extended curbs. There’s no protected bike lane.

The speed limit on this road is 30 miles per hour, as it is on roads in all Texas cities. Last year a Texas lawmaker introduced a bill to lower the speed limit on such roads to 25 miles per hour. Cars traveling 30 miles per hour are 43 percent more likely to kill pedestrians they hit than cars traveling 25 miles per hour, according to the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. This is the lawmaker’s third attempt to pass this bill, and it seems to have been just as successful as the first two times, as nothing has happened to the bill in more than a year. (We don’t know how fast the driver of the Hyundai was traveling. Maybe she was going less than 30 miles per hour. Or maybe she was going faster; after all, Google Street View suggests you can drive the entire length of Kings Mill Road, a circuit of nearly a mile, and never see a single speed limit sign.)

And notably, the driver who struck and killed Chase Delarios was driving a midsize SUV. The heavier the car, the more likely it is to kill a person if it strikes them. At between 3,500 and 5,000 pounds (depending on specific model), a 2017 Hyundai Santa Fe is more than a match for an 8-year-old and his bike. (The post-crash local news coverage shows the bike, horribly, jammed under the Hyundai’s rear wheel.)

And the conclusion:

Like most American streets, Kings Mill Road is not a safe area for pedestrians or people riding bikes. It’s designed for drivers, and drivers use it that way. That’s the system we’re trapped in…

In the United States, cars and vehicles with engines rule the roads. We have built whole systems and ways of life to accommodate them and ease their travel. It is supported by public and private money, public sentiment, and an ongoing series of decisions.

If you are traveling via other means, you have to be aware and careful. Know where vehicles are at all times. Be cautious in crossing, even at clearly marked walkways. Be ready to move quickly if needed. Make yourself visible to vehicles.

To change this or seriously address this would require a long-term effort to redesign basic aspects of everyday American life. It can be done, but a sustained series of actions is difficult to organize and execute.

A more interactive and informational street sign

A new kind of street sign is in downtown Arlington Heights:

Photo by Jens Johnsson on Pexels.com

With three movable LED signs atop the 10-foot pole, the panels display real-time messages pertinent to their surroundings, from how many tables are available at a nearby restaurant, to Metra train timetables. Any governmental emergency alerts, like weather and Amber Alerts, get precedence.

“The sign would orient itself and say, at Salsa 17 starting at 6 o’clock, there’s $7 margaritas or something. And then later it would spin around and say there’s a band playing at Peggy Kinnane’s. There’s a lot of different inputs on this,” said Arlington Heights Village Manager Randy Recklaus. “It’s a thing that people would be drawn to, and it would be yet another thing that would kind of set our downtown experience apart because it’s not something that anyone’s seen before.”

The village would have control of the sign and approve all messages — done through a secure portal on a tablet, PC or Mac as part of a cloud-based system. And the cost of the sign would be recouped by selling advertisements to local business who want their messages on the street panels, under a lease-to-own arrangement that’s part of the Points Sign’s business model.

Pedestrians also will be able to search for things like local events and shopping and dining locales by turning and pushing a streetside dial.

The sign is customizable; some municipalities in talks with Optimal Design want to put a camera atop the pole for public safety purposes. And while the sign has sensors to know how many people are at a given intersection at one time, it doesn’t have facial recognition technology, Patel and Ottoman said.

The two keys to this sign seem to be that it is interactive and it pushes out information rather than standing passively. It does not necessarily replace static street signs, but it can help point people to opportunities. People can approach it and find something new. Such a sign could work well in locations with plenty of foot traffic and lots of local activity.

This reminds me of what I saw on my most recent trip to a shopping mall. The mall appeared to have fewer directory signs and instead I saw multiple recommendations to download the app for the mall. When I did use the interactive directory sign, I could search within certain categories and then it offered directions to the selected retailer.

Are we any closer to a more immersive sign experience that can provide an overlay of information on a 3D view of a landscape? Imagine going up to an interactive sign, searching for something or selecting something presented to you, and then seeing a 3D image of the landscape with paths and information.

Or, are we close to a time when signs are not necessary as everyone with a smartphone or smart glasses or similar devices interacts through the world through that?

Wrestling with the ongoing – and increasing – numbers of pedestrian deaths in the United States

After a pedestrian death in her neighborhood, one writer considers the issue in the United States:

Photo by Josh Hild on Pexels.com

My neighborhood isn’t unique. So far this year, 15 pedestrians have been killed by drivers in the nation’s capital, and total traffic fatalities are up to 37-the highest number since 2008. This is all despite Mayor Muriel Bowser’s goal to end traffic deaths by 2024 as part of the Vision Zero program signed on to by leaders of D.C. and other major U.S. cities. The District Department of Transportation has made some changes to protect walkers and cyclists, such as reducing speed limits and installing more bike lanes. Ironically, total traffic fatalities have increased steadily since the program began.

The same trend is reflected in cities across America. Part of the increase in pedestrian deaths is probably because our vehicles are bigger than ever. “Our pickup trucks and SUVs are gigantic compared to the sizes they used to be,” giving drivers less visibility and a greater sense of security, which makes them more aggressive on the road, says Rohit Aggarwala, a fellow at the urban Tech Hub at Cornell Tech and the former director of long-term planning and sustainability for New York City. During the pandemic’s early days, as fewer Americans drove to work or school, it seemed safe to assume that fewer pedestrians would die Instead, fatalities have jumped. Conclusive research isn’t out yet, but the increase is likely at least in part due to a drop in traffic congestion and an ensuing increase in speed: “People were still walking around their neighborhoods during lockdown, and you had a [small] number of people on the streets driving very, very fast,” Aggarwala told me. Older adults, people walking in low-income areas, and Black and Native Americans are all overrepresented in pedestrian-death statistics.

Most pedestrian deaths are preventable, and experts believe that the solutions are straightforward. Aggarwala and his team at Cornell Tech are pushing for three major changes to America’s driving infrastructure: more robust traffic-camera enforcement, to capture not just speeding but all kinds of moving violations; road redesign that would decrease lane size and add speed bumps to nudge drivers to slow down; and finally, upping the standards for vehicle safety. Car manufacturers in Europe are required to test cars for pedestrian impact; they design hoods to slope downward so that drivers can see anyone who might wander into the road. American automakers could do the same, or add pedestrian-detection systems or speed limiters to cars. Many of these changes would not only make roads safer for pedestrians but also could reduce police violence at the same time. “The U.S. hasn’t considered any of this,” Aggarwala said. “We have a tradition of focusing on vehicle safety as only being about the occupant.”

This is an ongoing issue as long as roads are primarily for cars and vehicles. The priority for decades in the United States has been to make roads optimal for vehicles. Pedestrians and other street level activity is, on the whole, not as important.

When I read this, I thought about the efforts to include equipment in all new cars that would test to see if the drivers was driving impaired. How did this come about? Drunk driving has been a recognized issue for years with organized groups making sure it was on the public’s radar screen. Is a social movement against pedestrian deaths and promoting pedestrian safety necessary to make significant changes? The solutions might be straightforward but the political and societal will is lacking.

Editorial calling for better maintained sidewalks

The Chicago Tribune on Monday asked residents and municipalities to pay attention to the condition of their sidewalks:

Photo by Aldiyar Seitkassymov on Pexels.com

Today we write instead about the humble sidewalk. It’s prosaic. Unromantic. Mundane.

But to patrons of two-footed transportation – and to wheelchair users, kids on scooters and people consigned to canes or crutches – the humdrum sidewalk is either a safe glide path or a menacing minefield .It’s as crucial to its users as vast roadways are to motor vehicles. The difference is that drivers and passengers in the vehicles are better protected than is the postal carrier who each day risks tumbling onto your concrete.

We’re thinking about cracked sidewalks in part because of Chicagoland’s snowstorms last winter. If you’re the beneficiary of a Snow Samaritan – one of those thoughtful neighbors who helpfully pushes her snowblower down the whole block – imagine how she feels when her machine trips on a sidewalk that’s broken, caved low or heaved up by freeze-thaw cycles. When that happens once too often, she has to cue the costly repair.

So on behalf of all those who encounter your sidewalk, step outside and inspect. And if it’s damaged, call or email whoever oversees public works in your neighborhood – the ward superintendent, the village manager, the city council member, the local street department foreman.

This is the practical argument to make for sidewalks: safety and costs. Cracks and other sidewalk problems make it more difficult to navigate. I know this from my own experience walking, running, and biking. I am able to effectively move around sidewalk issues but not everyone can. These negative sidewalk experiences can then add additional costs, whether from addressing injuries from falls or damaged bicycles and other vehicles.

But, the practical argument may not be convincing or elegant enough. It strikes me as a very Midwestern way to address the problem. An additional way to make this pitch might be to appeal to what sidewalks make possible. The most famous part of The Death and Life of American Cities by Jane Jacobs is the opening section which speaks to all the possibilities available because of thriving sidewalks. Repairing sidewalks is not just about safety or costs; it is about opening space for people to go back and forth and others to utilize. With the right mix of surrounding uses, the sidewalk then becomes a public space that enriches the neighborhood.

Put all of these arguments together and the humble sidewalk is pretty important. In communities dominated by cars, sidewalks offer an alternative path for transportation and sociability.

Addressing the many less-than-3-mile trips in suburban settings

One of the authors of a new book on retrofitting suburbs highlights the number of short trips in suburban settings:

Photo by Norma Mortenson on Pexels.com

Right now, 46 percent of trips from predominantly single-family-home suburban neighborhoods are three miles or less. Which would be perfectly fine for a bike ride, a scooter ride, or a walk in many of those trips, if there was adequate infrastructure to make that a safe choice. That would have enormous impact.

This is a problem that New Urbanist designs hope to solve by placing necessary goods and services within a fifteen minute walk from residences. This means that housing is within slightly less than a mile from important destinations.

Even at this shorter distance, how many Americans would rather drive? Factor in different circumstances – weather, the purpose of the trip (buying groceries?), who is involved in the walk (a solitary pedestrian versus a family with small kids), and the American preference for driving in the suburbs – and this may just seem to be too far.

Stretching the radius from just less than a mile to three miles then is a significant change. A bicycle or scooter would certainly help. Local mass transit would help. But, this would require a lot of infrastructure. Helping pedestrians feel safe instead of unwanted guests alongside busy roads. Safer options for bicyclists. Denser land use. Planning that helps strategically place needed services and buildings where non-drivers can access them. A commitment to a slower-paced life where getting somewhere is part of the fun rather than an impediment to consumption.

It is maybe that last piece that I think may be the hardest to address. Retrofitting will be attractive in some places due to particular needs and dissatisfaction with sprawl. Indeed, “surban” settings will help some suburbs stand out from others. But, if it only happens in pieces across suburbia, it will be hard to address the bigger question: do Americans object to having their lives are designed around cars? They may not be happy with it but this is different than explicitly making individual or collective choices to try a different way of life. As of now, the American Dream still typically involves cars and vehicles and it may take a long time before alternative modes of transportation are viewed as desirable.

Imagining self-driving car underground tunnels under major American cities

Elon Musk’s plan for self-driving cars to operate in tunnels under Las Vegas appears close to becoming reality:

Photo by Anthony Macajone on Pexels.com

On Tuesday, Musk announced on Twitter that, after a full year in the making, The Boring Company’s first operational “loop tunnel” in Las Vegas is “almost done.”…

The Boring Company built a test tunnel in 2018 near its headquarters in Hawthorne, California. A year later, it landed a commercial contract in Las Vegas to build a loop tunnel system for public use. According to The Boring Company’s proposal, the final system will be able to shuttle passengers in self-driving Tesla cars between any two destinations in Sin City within minutes.

Construction of the initial twin tunnels near the Las Vegas Convention Center (LVCC) was complete in May. The system is expected to be ready for public use for the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in January 2021. But the event has been moved online due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Last month, The Boring Company won a county approval to expand its LVCC transportation Loop to include an underground station at the new Resorts World hotel located at the north end of the Vegas Strip. Ultimately, the company aims to connect all major tourist destinations along the Strip, as well as two terminals of the nearby McCarran International Airport and downtown Vegas.

This location makes sense when tourism is in full swing in Las Vegas. While the airport is relatively close to the strip, it is not necessarily close time-wise and a quick, automated car ride could please a lot of visitors. It is also fun to imagine this in other cities. The tunnels bring to mind memories of playing the Lower Wacker track on Cruis’n USA. Chicago has some of this infrastructure already in place while other cities might be able to convert or expand existing tunnels.

How this could positively affect streetscapes is fascinating. Imagine major American cities with less traffic in their denser areas, more room for pedestrians, more space for properties to extend past the building. Cars would still be in use – just moved to a different plane – but the emphasis on vehicles would be reduced. More streets could be closed, the scale of social life could change (though the towering buildings in some districts would still loom), and the streets would be safer. (I imagine taxis and others might not be pleased to have the business moved underground.)

This is likely a long project to pursue in any city; making big changes underground in many locations is very difficult. It does keep cars around (just more out of sight) and both the money spent to put the system in place and the ongoing commitment to the system could continue to inhibit other options such as promoting mass transit.

Trying to make a better Walmart parking lot experience

I have driven through many Walmart parking lots and while doing this, I often wonder how a better parking lot experience could help avoid regular issues. Here are some of the big concerns:

  1. There are often a lot of vehicles, people, and carts moving around. It is hard to keep track of all the activity.
  2. Depending on the traffic flow of the location, some of the traffic can be routed right in front of the store as vehicles turn in from a street or adjoining parking lot.
  3. At least a few cars always seem to be lingering right at the front doors or nearby, waiting for people.
  4. Carts are strewn throughout the parking lot; most are in corrals but there are often other ones on medians, in parking spots, and even several parking lots over. (Imagine if the Walmart lot had Costco sized shopping carts!)

A few solutions come to mind:

  1. Everyone needs to be very attentive. Having to pay close attention is not necessarily bad for drivers or pedestrians.
  2. It is better to have the majority of drivers enter the parking lot area from the back rather than from the sides and drive directly in front of the store.

I started thinking about this recently after realizing that I have been in multiple parking garages at Target locations but never at a Walmart. In these locations, there are advantages to having the parking further away from the store and/or having the store on a different level from the traffic flows.

Figuring this out could have multiple benefits including: drivers and pedestrians would feel safer, the parking lot experience could be less fraught and more pleasant, and fewer work hours might need to be devoted to the parking lot.

Perhaps this is just the price Americans are willing to pay for their love of driving and sprawl: complicated parking lots. This is not an issue exclusive to Walmart as many big box stores demonstrate similar patterns. But, since Walmart has so many locations and so many customers, solving issues there could be a big deal.