Parkway tree diversity in Naperville

The Naperville city logo prominently features a tree. And in replacing parkway trees lost to a tornado last month, the city is working with a number of species:

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Residents are being given the option of choosing the type of tree they’d like planted in their home’s parkway. The only stipulation is the choice needs to be approved from Public Works’ forestry division, and anyone who doesn’t make a selection will be assigned a tree…

The city’s spring list of authorized trees includes the shingle oak, Kentucky coffee tree, Hackberry, hybrid elm, tulip tree, plane-tree, Japanese tree lilac, silver linden, chinquapin oak, crabapple, American linden, red oak, swamp white oak and heritage oak.

There’s also a list of tree species that never will be authorized by the city’s forestry division. Among those are the ailanthus or Tree of Heaven; evergreen conifers such as a pine, spruce or fir; any variety of ash; Hawthorns, unless they’re thornless; Bradford pears; pin oaks; box elders; poplars; willows; cottonwoods; silver maples; and elms, unless they’re disease resistant.

I presume such a list of approved species exists for multiple reasons. Having a variety of species helps prevent issues with diseases or insects that wipe out trees, like elms or ash trees. The shape, size, and foliage of certain trees is better for a parkway setting. Some trees are simply not desirable generally; a few months, I heard a speaker give a short digression on why they hate bradford pear trees.

This is not a choice that should be taken lightly. There is a section in James Howard Kunstler’s TED Talk “The Ghastly Tragedy of the Suburbs” where he discusses the multiple benefits of trees along streets. This includes providing shade and a canopy for the street and sidewalks as well as separating the street and its vehicles from the sidewalks. If done well, trees along a road create an inviting environment. If done poorly, the trees are too few, they die or are scraggly, and the roadway and pathways just look barren.

Involving public comment in a revision of the Manual for Uniform Traffic Control Devices

There is a federal government manual that guides decisions for transportation engineers regarding roads. While it is notable that it is going to be revised for the first time in eleven years, there is also a process for public comment:

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The Federal Highway Administration released a draft of proposed changes late last year. The last time the manual got an update, a few thousand people, mostly transportation professionals, submitted comments. This year, 26,000 comments poured in from all over the country.

Some arrived from big companies, including the ride-hail and mobility company Lyft, the Ford-owned scooter-share company Spin, and the Alphabet company Sidewalk Labs. Each asked for a major rewrite that would, as Sidewalk Labs put it, “more closely align with the equity, safety, and sustainability goals of American cities, as well as those of the Biden administration.”

Others came from individuals. “There’s a broader set of people who see that these streets don’t work, that there are too many people getting killed, that they’re too unpleasant. It’s not consistent with what a place or a community should be,” says Mike McGinn, a former mayor of Seattle and executive director of the group America Walks. He credits those everyday activists with the new interest in the design document—and his own group, which urged thousands of people to submit comments to the federal agency…

The last time the manual got an update, the process took more than a year; with the volume of comments this year, it may take longer. A spokesperson for the Federal Highway Administration says the agency “needs to carefully consider all comments before determining next steps and the timetable for updating the manual.” Given the interest, that might take a while.

One of the reasons Americans like local government is that it is easier to interact with the officials who are making the decisions. For example, in a small town to a moderately sized suburb, a resident who has feedback on a municipal decision can probably even convey this face-to-face or in a public meeting. As the size of the municipality grows, it becomes harder to meet with local officials.

At the federal level, some might feel that decisions are made by an abstract group of people in a place far away. This idea has been expressed regularly in recent years: Washington D.C. is out of touch with the rest of the country.

However, this process of public comment described above offers an opportunity for people around the United States to comment on federal guidelines for roads. In the age of the Internet and social media, this is even easier to do: people can hear about it through email or social media feeds and submit comments online.

How exactly the federal agencies in charge here work through all of these public comments would be interesting to examine. Assuming they are all read or analyzed, do they look for the most common themes? Or, are some comments weighted more than others? This sounds like an important qualitative research process in order to find the patterns in all of the comments, discuss, and then incorporate (or not) into a revised manual.

Taxing cars by miles driven already going in two states with more moving forward

With larger numbers of new kinds of cars using roadways, states are moving ahead to shift away from a gas tax to fund roads:

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The Oregon task force put the state at the forefront of the new approach, known as a road-user charge or a vehicle miles-traveled (VMT) tax. The state launched a voluntary program in 2015. Legislators in Salem are considering a bill that would make the program mandatory for new vehicles with a fuel economy rating of 30 miles per gallon or higher starting in 2026…

Utah’s program was launched last year and has enrolled more drivers than Oregon’s. A dozen states are considering legislation this year to update, launch or study programs, including California — where the governor wants to end sales of gas-powered cars by 2035 — and Wyoming…

Officials in Oregon say objections can be overcome as the public becomes more familiar with the new systems and research debunks concerns that some drivers, especially those in rural areas, will be disproportionately affected…

Oregon’s tax rate of 1.8 cents per mile is equivalent to the 36-cent gas tax paid by a vehicle that gets 20 miles per gallon. Someone driving about 11,500 miles a year would pay about $207. That leaves owners of hybrids paying more than they otherwise would. It would be a good deal for drivers of large SUVs or pickup trucks, but in 2019, the legislature limited enrollment of new vehicles to those that get at least 20 miles per gallon.

This has been years in the making; see earlier posts here and here. The gas tax will generate less revenue as states and carmakers move away from gasoline engines. Something will need to change.

How drivers respond will be interesting. Will this discourage driving? Move people more quickly or less quickly to new technologies? Encourage fleets of electric cars rather than individual ownership?

And the ripple effects are hard to anticipate. What does this do with the trucking industry which is responsible for delivering many critical goods? Does this lead to better maintained roads? Will this encourage more interest and funding for mass transit?

Or, the funding could smoothly transition over time and Americans continue their love of and support for driving. And this and others changing aspects of driving could simply change the whole experience of driving without eliminating driving, ranging from commuting patterns to visiting gas stations and fast food places to road trips.

The beauty of and danger to California’s Highway One

Over a decade ago, we planned a vacation that involved driving Highway One from San Francisco down the California coast. I had visited California several times before but had never driven this famous road. While our drive was relatively quick as we spent more time in urban centers, we enjoyed the scenery and the contrast of the roadway to typical straight Midwest roads.

With the recent washout in Big Sur, the need for constant reconstruction – and why – is interesting:

Highway 1 is a California spectacle, a Depression-era monument to the state’s quixotic ambitions and stunning beauty. It runs from the Orange County surf haven of Dana Point in the south into cannabis-cultivating Mendocino County, carrying heavy traffic over the Golden Gate Bridge and under the bluffs of Santa Monica, where it is better known as the Pacific Coast Highway, on its 650-mile route…

The engineering folly of a road built on sheer cliffs has meant that closures are annual events — the “whens,” not “ifs” — for the people and the economy it supports.

But the wild card now is the increasing frequency of wildfire along a roughly 100-mile stretch from William Randolph Hearst’s hilltop castle at San Simeon to Carmel, which is stripping fragile hillsides of stabilizing vegetation and causing more slides and more serious washouts across a region known broadly as Big Sur…

An even larger stretch of Highway 1 reopened in 2018 after a 14-month closure at Mud Creek about 20 miles south of here. The road was buried — not washed away, as in Rat Creek’s case — when the rocky ground above it gave way in hard rains.

This is one of the few times in my life where the road itself was a destination – and it was worth it. Keeping this corridor open is important even as it is a difficult stretch to maintain.

Limited solutions to ensuring more long green light stretches of suburban driving

After occasionally finding stretches of hitting all green lights on major suburban roadways, I wanted to consider how these experiences might become more common. Is it possible? Here are some strategies alongside my sense of whether these would help.

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  1. Synchronizing traffic lights. Los Angeles did this a few years ago to help traffic flow. As a kid, I recall sitting in the car in Chicago and hearing tell of how Clark Street on Chicago’s North Side was set up this way: follow the speed limit and a driver should hit multiple greens in a row. This could be harder to accomplish across a range of municipalities and the various traffic volumes intersecting with the main road. Additionally, this might not help much if there is just too much traffic on the road.
  2. Providing more lanes, more driving options. Americans tend to like this strategy: more lanes, more roads equals more space for vehicles, right? Research suggests otherwise: if you add road capacity, drivers will tend to fill that up. Americans like driving in the suburbs and this is not a long-term solution. In fact, road diets may be more helpful: reduce capacity and it pushes drivers toward other options. Furthermore, expanding roads in an already developed suburban area can get quite expensive and may be controversial.
  3. Encouraging more mass transit use, more walking and bicycling, and less driving. If there are simply too many cars, limiting trips would help ensure smoother driving experiences. All of these options are tough sells in the suburbs. It is hard to provide mass transit in a decentralized landscape and wealthier residents are unlikely to use it. Residential neighborhoods might be set up for biking and walking but connecting to other uses – grocery stores, schools, businesses – is often not possible or is dangerous.
  4. Having more employees work from home. This may be temporary due to COVID-19 but could be a long-term solution for traffic and congestion issues. Of course, there may be more people living in the suburbs due to COVID-19.

This suggests that there may be some short-term solutions but the bigger issue would take more time and effort: American suburbs are built around driving.

The magic of 10+ minutes of green lights on a major suburban road

I occasionally drive on major local suburban roadways. Think four lanes, direct north/south or east/west routes, speed limits of 35-45 mph, and lined with strip malls, fast food restaurants, gas stations, big box stores, and various other uses. Because of all of the traffic that wants to get on and off the road and because there are regulations about how to do this safely, such roads have regular traffic lights.

In the suburban road logic, these motorways are necessary to move larger volumes of traffic. Off these major roads are endless residential streets lined with single-family homes or small multi-family housing units. Traffic could cut through some of these neighborhoods but they have lower speed limits, narrower streets, and plenty of stop signs.

Occasionally, by finding the right time of day or the right position within the flow of traffic or finding the communities that have timed their traffic lights well, you can drive down such roads for ten-plus minutes without hitting a red light. It is smooth sailing. It is a slower but local highway. You can improve your gas mileage.

But, this is rare. During busier times, there may be too much traffic to get through each light. Late at night, the side streets might have sensors that turn their direction to green when just one car arrives. The drive becomes a series of stops and starts. Up to 40 mph, stop again, back up to 35 mpg, stop again.

Thus, when in the middle of a magical moment without stoplights impeding your path, enjoy it. Hear a few songs in a row while moving. Look at the communities as you go by. Marvel at the ground that can be covered when moving at the speed limit for more than a few minutes. Soon you will be back at a traffic light, waiting to get started again.

Returning to a traffic-filled world – or moving to reduce traffic in the future

With activity picking back up, traffic and driving is trending up. Will people go back to accepting the typical commute at just over 27 minutes one way? Or, will people get behind options that might reduce traffic?

Here are a few alternatives:

  1. More working from home would reduce traffic. This seems popular and limits the need for commuting. (Bonus: no one is changing roadways like some of the below options.)
  2. Closing streets to allow more space in cities could extend further. Indeed, cities have already tried this in small doses before COVID-19.
  3. Road diets try to limit the lanes available to drivers. Fewer lanes means more congestion which could discourage driving.
  4. Continuing to close major highways in urban areas (like Seoul and Seattle) and instead devoting the land to pedestrians, bicyclists, and local users.
  5. Promoting more mass transit options and/or coverage throughout regions.
  6. Providing more opportunities for pedestrians and bicyclists – or at least trying to keep them safe.
  7. Providing more housing close to jobs so that commutes do not have to be so long.

Americans like driving yet COVID-19 does provide an opportunity to rethink how much driving Americans do on a daily basis. Is this the system people want or is it more of what happened given American interests in suburbs and single-family homes?

The relatively narrow sidewalks in both cities and suburbs

With fewer cars on the roads, Tom Vanderbilt considers the possible size and role of sidewalks:

Even in a place such as New York City, sidewalks, as the architect John Massengale documented, have been shrunk over the years to make more space for cars. In my own neighborhood, many stretches of sidewalk are the bare minimum of five feet wide. This, per long-standing research, accommodates two pedestrians at once, but begins to fall apart at anything beyond that: two pedestrians encountering one walking in the opposite direction; a kid on a scooter; people stopping to chat. Making matters worse are sidewalk-shrinking obstructions such as trees, light poles, or, most egregious, traffic signs. That same street meanwhile, will dedicate more than 10 feet to an active vehicle-travel lane, as well as two additional lanes of parked vehicles—each larger than the sidewalk itself.

The larger question that Vanderbilt and others address is this: are cities made for cars or people? Is the goal of urban planning to move as many cars as efficiently as possible or to encourage a vibrant streetlife and pedestrian activity?

This also applies to the many residential and suburban areas of the United States. In recent weeks, I have thought about this in my residential neighborhood. There is little room for multiple people. The difference is starker when comparing the sidewalk to the nearby roadway, which easily accommodates two cars passing at 30 mph. And with the size of the residential sidewalk, this forces walkers, runners, and bicyclists either into the grass or, more recently with COVID-19, into the street so that everyone has enough space.

SidewalkResidential

I am guessing various actors would throw up some roadblocks regarding wider sidewalks in residential neighborhoods: they would be more costly to put down, they would take away land from yards, a wider sidewalk is less necessary in normal times (and the rate of sidewalk use does seem up in my locale). But, the way to counter this might be to suggest the sidewalk could expand while the street could shrink. Do we really need such wide residential streets? Would we rather make our neighborhoods more pleasant for cars or people? The American suburbs are tied up with cars and driving but this does not have to always require sacrifice from those who want to walk, run, and bike.

Less traffic, faster driving

Reports suggest more drivers are going fast on emptier roads:

Despite there being far fewer vehicles on the road due to COVID-19 stay-at-home orders, state highway safety officials across the country are seeing a severe spike in speeding. Many states have reported alarming speed increases, with some noting a significant surge in vehicles clocked at 100 mph or more.

Being a safe driver should always be a priority, but during the coronavirus pandemic, traffic safety experts at the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA) say it is more important than ever. “While COVID-19 is clearly our national priority, our traffic safety laws cannot be ignored,” said GHSA Executive Director Jonathan Adkins. “Law enforcement officials have the same mission as health care providers — to save lives. If you must drive, buckle up, follow the posted speed limit and look out for pedestrians and bicyclists. Emergency rooms in many areas of the country are at capacity, and the last thing they need is additional strain from traffic crash victims.”

During the past month, pedestrian and bicycle traffic are reported to have increased exponentially, while motor vehicle traffic is down. Adkins noted that GHSA is encouraged to see so many communities across the country making roadways more accessible to pedestrians and bicyclists. To keep roads safe for everyone, traffic safety officials nationwide are pleading with motorists to slow down and respect traffic safety laws…

A 2019 report on speeding by GHSA, “Speeding Away from Zero: Rethinking a Forgotten Traffic Safety Challenge,” highlights excessive vehicle speed as a persistent factor in nearly one-third of all motor vehicle-related fatalities, while a 2020 GHSA report on pedestrian fatalities, published in February, finds that pedestrians now account for 17% of all traffic-related fatalities.

In many metropolitan regions, traffic is pretty constant throughout the day. COVID-19 has reduced the number of daily work trips plus some of the other reasons for cars and trucks on the road.

With more open road, perhaps it is “natural” for drivers to feel they can go faster. I am reminded of the argument by New Urbanists that narrower roads lined with parked cars and trees close to the street push drivers to slow down. The illusion is that with fewer potential obstacles on the road, a driver can be safe even while going faster. Of course, going faster reduces the time drivers have to correct and avoid things in their path.

It would be interesting to note how much local police forces are responding to speeders now. Is it worth stopping them if there is a risk of transmitting COVID-19? Are police resources needed more elsewhere? At this point, what other options do officials have in reducing speeds on less crowded roads?

Need bigger garages and parking spaces for bigger vehicles

Americans’ interest in bigger vehicles means more space needs to be devoted to their storage:

Across America, the drive for bigger vehicles is bumping into physical limitations. SUVs and pickups are getting so large that they’re struggling to fit into some home and parking garages and public parking spaces.

Homeowners may need to think twice about purchasing larger vehicles, while parking lot operators are starting to charge oversize fees to accommodate behemoth SUVs and trucks…

“Nowadays, there’s people buying Dodge Rams, Ford pickups that don’t fit, and they’ll park them outside,” he said. “The difference here is this is an electric vehicle and … you need to plug it in. I’m not gonna spend $50,000, $60,000, $70,000, $80,000 on a vehicle and then have to run an extension cord outside the garage or an outside outlet.”…

While larger vehicles may pose some inconveniences, Americans don’t seem too bothered by it overall, at least if the vehicles being introduced by automakers are any indication.

This goes along with the idea that Americans should buy bigger houses to help store their stuff!

I first noticed this last year on a trip to New York City. In looking ahead of time for a parking garage, I saw that garages charged more for oversized vehicles. The article notes that this is largely confined to New York City but from other recent experiences seeing large vehicles in parking garages in the Chicago area, I would not be surprised if this idea spreads.

Another casualty to these large vehicles: lanes on roads and highways. A bigger vehicle means it takes up more of a lane, particularly on roadways with narrower lanes and tighter conditions. There is also less room for drifting from going straight ahead.

There is a focus in some places of reducing the number of parking spots as communities have long had generous numbers of spots compared to the average number of parkers. It would be interesting to see how a reduction in the number of parking spots might clash with a need to create bigger spots (which would take up more space per spot).