Experts Needed for our $1-million NSF Grant Application
Converting Stroads to Walkable Streets in North Carolina, and eventually
Overview of Content
North Carolina State University (NCSU) and Urban Innovators (UI) have been shortlisted by the National Science Foundation as one of fifty teams who are now competing for twenty $1-million CIVIC implementation awards. Over the next few months, we are working with civic partners and non-profits to construct a 12-month plan for how we will use a million bucks to catapult our research toward implementation, with a goal of reducing climate change, and/or improving accessibility for those who need alternatives to driving (those who can't drive, can't afford to drive, or just don't want to drive).
The content below is a little long, so here is a synopsis:
Orange Titles: Brief description of current status, along with some of the holes in our team we're trying to fill.
Green Titles: Overview of our basic research ideas - new approaches for converting Stroads into Streets. We call these ideas "Placemaking Alternative Intersections," which include One-ways, Quadrants, and U-turns.
Red Titles: Applying One-ways, Quads, U-turns to Greenville and Smithfield
Blue Titles: Our current vision for how we'll spend 12-months and $1-million (to be modified in part by you, if you're interested and a good fit for our team).
Soliciting for Expert Advisors and Other Roles
In addition to NCSU and UI, our team presently consists of NCDOT, Greenville City, Smithfield City, and Strong Towns. Over the past 18-months, we have been (and still are) developing small area visions for Greenville and Smithfield through an NCDOT research award. NCDOT's goal is to demonstrate how "Alternative Intersections," along with other treatments, can help transform ugly and dangerous Stroads into walkable and safe "Complete Streets," capable of catalyzing walkable development. However, these site-specific strategies have NOT been vetted among stakeholders who must live with the result. Our commitment to NSF is to use their funds to help present area stakeholders with what we believe to be groundbreaking, game-changing ideas, and thereby modify our initial vision with their input. We hope to gain sufficient good will that NCDOT and the respective mayors and city councils will vote to modify their near-term and long-term plans at the end of 12-months. This should convince NSF there is a strong likelihood that our first-of-their-kind demonstration projects will be constructed as soon as is practical.
Strong Towns is on-board to help us organize workshops with staff and area stakeholders, aiming for hopefully hundreds of attendees in person and virtual. They will help us fine tune our work to fit better with the concept of "Strong Towns." In addition to workshops and advice, they will also "follow the story" and relay it to their national audience.
There are three co-PI's leading this effort: myself (Mike Brown, founder of Urban Innovators and a "plangineer"), Celen Pasalar (professor of Urban Design at NCSU), and Chris Cunningham (expert in Alternative Intersections and an engineer at NCSU's Institute for Transportation Research and Education - ITRE). We are "thinkers" more than "implementers," but our $1-million award will be contingent on a compelling case that "deep thoughts" will eventually be implemented. Our evidence of that will be adoption of at least some aspects of our work by city councils. Our cities are optimistic they'll be able to adopt at least some of our recommendations, but of course this is dependent on favorable reception by key stakeholders, so now we're trying to develop a good plan for how we'll secure such a favorable reception.
By March 1, we need to demonstrate how we will "win friends and influence" among these key stakeholders. We need answer key questions sufficient for city councils and NCDOT to back the vision. As the saying goes, "we don't know what we don't know." Do you know what we don't know? Below are a few talent sets that we don't presently have, but think we need:
Ball-park cost estimation: Ideally a "Complete Streets" design engineer, trusted by the Pro-Urb community.
Walkability oversite: We think we're doing a good job, but are we really? It would help to have someone with street cred to weigh in on where we can improve, and in the end offer a stamp of approval, boosting confidence among civic partners and stakeholders.
Real estate and value capture: We are "pretty sure" our ideas will catalyze walkable development. But how much can we expect? How much value can we catalyze, and how can we capture some of that value to help gap finance the infrastructure? People with insight here will be valuable.
Form-Based Code expertise: I don't think these cities necessarily need to create and adopt an official FBC by the end of 12-months, but I do think we'll at least need a competent FBC advisor who can help us bridge the gap between transportation and land use, and answer any questions these cities may have regarding what they need to do to help ensure the vision takes root.
Local Facilitators? We may need focus groups or other meetings beyond what Strong Towns helps with, and Strong Towns may also need a local coordinator. Maybe we can hunt down someone good in the Raleigh market, and NCSU students/staff might also fill that gap. But if you know anyone...
Plan refinement, along with graphics and videos: I'm a civil engineer-turned-planner, masquerading as an urban designer. We need a serious and accomplished urban designer who can not only refine our plan, but also help give it gravitas, staying power, and help secure follow-up funding for additional details and studies to ensure it will move forward. I hope to help with graphics directly through my staff at Urban Innovators, but I will need oversight and may need graphic production help.
While a million may seem like a lot, thanks to inflation it isn't what it used to be. We also have a lot to do and some of the money will go directly to our Civic partners. It helps if you're affordable! We're hoping to attract freelancers or semi-freelancers (founders or partners in their own businesses), on the theory they may be more affordable or value-add than talent at large, high-overhead consultancies. Above average billing rates may be ok, provided you have a good case for the value we'll get for the hours.
If it sounds interesting, read on for background regarding our ongoing research project and out plans for this NSF grant.
In North Carolina, communities want to convert NCDOT's worn-out "Stroads" into Walkable Boulevards. However, they don't trust NCDOT can help them achieve it. To address this, NCDOT hired our team (North Carolina State University and Urban Innovators) to conduct ground-breaking research with the aim of demonstrating how "Alternative Intersections" can be leveraged to manage high volumes of traffic, and at the same time reduce maximum speeds and catalyze walkable mixed-use development.
Alternative Intersections are brand new. Engineers love them because they reduce delay and offer higher capacity, so expect to see them soon at a theater near you! Sadly, because they are championed by auto-oriented engineers, so far ALL been auto-oriented. Why do engineers love them? Because it helps them eliminate left-turn phases from signals, which in turn creates more green time for vehicles.
Shown here is a "Continuous Flow Intersection," (CFI) also known as a "Displaced Left Turn" (DLT). It doesn't take an expert to see it's pretty nasty for a pedestrian environment, but it does work well when the goal is to move more cars. The CFI is "irredeemably hard" to adapt it to walkable environments. However, it has "cousins" that are far easier to adapt. And more than mere compatibility, we think the cousins can actually be "catalytic". If well done, they can be the bridge we've all been looking for between engineers and New Urbanists. With such bridges, we may be able to finally convert crappy suburban Stroads into mixed-use corridors with 3x, 5x, and eventually 10x the density that they have right now, and get traffic engineers on-board with that!
Overview of NCDOT Project and NSF Grant
We're calling these placemaking + traffic-management cousins "Placemaking Alternative Intersections." There are three major families: the Quadrant, U-Turn, and One-way families. We scoured all of North Carolina and landed in Greenville and Smithfield. Both are fairly close to Raleigh and experiencing rapid post-Covid growth from both Raleigh and New England. It seems to be driven by those who want to be close to, but not in, a large metro area. Both communities also have strong opportunities to demonstrate our novel strategies. For the past 18-months, we've been developing concept plans in these communities. It started out as "free ideas" for them, with no commitment to adjust their plans. NCDOT just wanted their blessing to generate analysis and graphics which they would then use all over the state as examples of what "could be."
However, early in 2022 we discovered that the National Science Foundation has a grant program they call the "CIVIC Challenge". CIVIC is less about new research, and more about delivering research-based demonstration products that can influence Climate Change (Track A) and improve multimodal accessibility (Track B). Our idea fits well in both tracks, but we submitted for the Phase 1 $50k in Track B and made the cut! Now we're in the beauty contest and spending our $50k to plan how we'll end up as one of twenty big winners. The Phase 2 application is due March 1, 2023. They will then select winners probably in July of 2023. After another month or two of contracting, we'll all have 12-months to spend the money after NTP.
How suburban value is created, lost, and can be created again.
The graphic below illustrates one of the basic ideas of our effort. In the beginning, rural highways are pretty fast. But as development moves from 0.2x to 1.0x (measured in density of the cash sum of all development), DOT's end up adding new lanes. Because the rural highway and its current dependents are accustomed to fast speeds, Stroads emerge with fast speed limits. But it doesn't take long for a proliferation of complex traffic signals to exacerbate congestion, rendering the average speed far less than the maximum speed (max is usually at mid-day, between signals, dropping from 45-50 mph max to below 25 mph as the average).
After Stroads are lined with development, they don't age well. With an increasingly ugly and congested environment, businesses and residents of means relocate to the fringes - to the next "new and shiny" Stroad. Meanwhile, Greyfields take over the original location and "activity" or "economic value" may drop to half of what it once was. Average speeds may actually increase! Engineers may not perceive a problem - congestion is down, after all! But the system is in economic failure and overall costs of infrastructure are rising. Now DOTs and communities are stuck trying to maintain the old Stroad with less taxable value, and at the same time building new Stroads for the people fleeing the old ones.
A major goal of our effort is to discover and reveal new ways to break this cycle - to get traffic engineers and walkability experts on the same page. Remember that engineers want fast speeds but always end up with slow average speeds. Our research is demonstrating how you can have slower maximum speeds (good for walkability), and at the same time help engineers get what they are not getting - faster average speeds by simplifying traffic signals and associated delay. With these tools, we can make many Greyfields attractive for walkable development - a Golden Opportunity for communities and developers alike, where 3-5x activity centers will offset sprawl, thereby aiding in Climate Change and multimodal accessibility.
In the graphic below, when new Stroads reach buildout (Phase 2), average peak period speeds may drop well below 25 mph despite "between signals" speeds reaching dangerous levels - 45 mph or higher. If our strategies work, the elusive "Phase 4" could become commonplace - where "between signal" speeds drop to say 35 mph via traffic calming, and yet the average peak period speed will be at least similar to what it was before, if not a little better. Win-Win all the way around!
Placemaking Alternative Intersection Examples
This is part of our early sketch of the site in Greenville. It has opportunity for three kinds of Placemaking Alternative Intersections: One-way split intersections, Quadrant intersections, and U-turn intersections.
Currently it has three 5-lane Stroads: Greenville Blvd, Arlington Blvd, and Red Banks Road. Near the mall, we wanted to show what could happen for both land use and traffic if we created two crossing one-way couplets with a new alignment for southwest traffic, and another for northwest traffic. Of necessity, the "New NW" would go through the existing Mall, but where malls are struggling anyway, that could be a catalyst for reinvention. All buildings in blue would likely be impacted by our proposal.
Aren't one-ways bad?
One-ways evoke a lot of knee-jerk negative sentiment in the New Urbanist community and generally among planners. This stems largely from numerous examples of high-speed one-way Stroads that helped decimate many historic downtowns. However, this mall site, and pretty much any mall or strip mall site, is NOT a historic downtown! It IS a suburban crap-show. If "perfect" equates to tight two-way grids with no hierarchy of "arterials, collectors, and locals," too bad because that ship sailed a long time ago. Instead, the only possibility is to improve what it is. There will always be high traffic on these corridors, and that is a problem even for engineers who WANT to make it walkable and catalyze sustainable development.
This is about a sad reality, and finding effective tools to make it better. In this case, one-ways will get us a long way to "better." Now there are 16 popular corners instead of just 4. One-ways will reduce pavement along today's Stroads, rather than increase it. They have less complex signals (i.e., less congestion.). That may seem auto-oriented at first glance, but it can also mean you now have a mechanism for traffic calming and reducing the speed limit, without also getting into a fight that you're making life harder for drivers. There is a lot to love for any Urbanist who has heretofore been skeptical of any value in one-ways.
Below is our concept for how Greenville Blvd could transition from two-way Stroad to one-way Complete Street, and at the same time:
Reduce the speed limit via traffic calming
Increase vehicular capacity with an extra through lane and more efficient traffic signals
Invert private parking into public parking
We have also built a "development scale calculator" to show how much new development the area can support without congesting the streets via a combination of vehicle capacity gains and vehicle demand reductions (via better internal capture, improved nearby connectivity, transit, and many other factors).
Quadrants? What are those?
"Quadrant Intersections" can have from 1-4 backway paths for diverting left turns away from the main intersection to a secondary location where they're easier to manage. This shows two "kitty-corner quads" where lefts redirected on the red paths have no out-of-direction travel, and lefts redirected to the blue paths would have some extra distance, but no extra time, because it is less congested.
The result is that the main intersection no longer needs left-turn lanes, and can thereby have pedestrian refuge in the median. You can also more easily eliminate driveways from the main thoroughfares given that vehicle access can be achieved with the backway. Higher visibility and accessibility for acreage along the backways also increases their value and helps the area emerge as a more significant "node" of walkability.
This StreetPlan.net cross-section shows the Stroad vs the Quadrant. And guess what? The Quadrant works BETTER for traffic, so engineers can more easily get behind it (though it may take them a while to reach this conclusion for themselves, and the is part of the purpose of our research).
Bowties? What are those?
I don't have a lot of good examples yet of Bowties, but at the right is the basic idea. Instead of a bunch of left turn arrows and uncontrolled lefts in and out of driveways, you use roundabouts, teardrops, or Loons, offset from the main intersection, to help facilitate U-turns. For the purple car, left becomes "Thru+U+Right". For the blue, instead of waiting for a gap in oncoming traffic, they too do T+U+R. For yellow at an unsignalized driveway, it can be impossible to get a safe gap in both directions. So they also do a quick R+U. It is called a bowtie because when turned sideways, it resembles a bowtie.
It is highly efficient from a traffic standpoint, and achieves a similar result as the Quadrant. I personally prefer the Quadrant, but this may be an option when no other option exists.
Concepts in Greenville: Quads and U-Turns
In Greenville, we see opportunity for one-ways, quadrants, and bowties (from the U-turn family). We haven't yet developed one-way graphics, but below is a combination Bowtie+Quadrant. This would offer pedestrian refuge that the current design does not. If would make it a lot easier to reduce lane widths and create the ambiance that is necessary for mixed-use areas to take root. The chicanes introduced by what we call "teardrops" (non-roundabout U-turns), have a natural traffic calming effect.
Can this funky stuff fit in with New Urbanism? I think so, but I worry that too many Urbanists see things through a "Back to the Future" lens - going back to what used to be as our model for what is best going forward. I hope purists will not gag before they can fully weigh the pros and cons, just because they can't find this in history. Instead, maybe this can be in the "future" part of "Back to the Future," where we take crappy Stroads, tweak them with some weird stuff, then watch as they grow impressive walkable development that could never have happened without the weird stuff.
I think of these U-turns and Quadrants a little like a stent in an artery. If we compare suburbs to the obesity epidemic, suburbs never should have "eaten" (developed) in a way that ruins their health, but now that they're in a terrible place and facing heart attacks, these ideas may be like stents and stomach stapling, followed by healthier living. Not as good as healthy living from the beginning, but a new lease on life - a way to get from bad to better.
Below are graphics from our Greenville, NC work, which are part of what we'll try to advance through this NSF grant.
Engineers install "raised medians" to force right-in / right-out, for safety, but this makes it hard to get back to where you came from. Frequent U-turns make it safe and easy, which in turn makes it easy to reclaim two-way turn lanes, or "suicide lanes," for street trees and more walkable uses.
Concepts in Smithfield: Crossing One-Ways
Consider the slider graphic below. Light blue segments are two-way Stroads today, and the red and orange represent opportunities where one-way couplets could be created with only minor impacts to existing development. In today's Stroad environment, Market Street currently has 4-lanes East-West through its historic downtown. It connects to I-95 on the east and is a rare crossing of Neuse River on the west. This means that as the city grows, there will be more traffic. It will be very hard to justify a “Road Diet” from 4 to 3-lanes. Instead, NCDOT will face pressure to remove on-street parking and have a 5 or 6-lane cross-section within the 78-ft ROW. Brightleaf is already a 5-lane Stroad. With traffic sure to grow, it will be very hard to manage the present system. Even if NCDOT widens these - makes them even bigger Stroads - they will not work very well for traffic, and any placemaking actions will amount to "lipstick on a pig".
These one-way couplets would create capacity for the future and reduce today’s congestion considerably. But "more traffic capacity" need not equate to less walkable. In fact we think the one-ways create a bridge to walkability that is impossible to get otherwise. The graphics below tell the story of how it is possible to create capacity for the future, and at the same time catalyze walkable development.
Both Greenville and Smithfield have a nearly an identical opportunity for replacing two 5-lane Stroads with four much friendlier one-ways. In the Greenville case, new one-way alignments must be developed through parking lots and by removing a significant building at the mall. In this Smithfield case, the needed parallel streets are already there, and would just need upgrading.
The graphics below focus on this area. Both Greenville and Smithfield have a nearly identical opportunity for replacing two 5-lane Stroads with four much friendlier one-ways. In the Greenville case, new one-way alignments must be developed through parking lots and by removing a significant building at the mall. In this Smithfield case, the needed parallel streets are already there, and would just need upgrading.
Concepts in Smithfield: Crossing One-Ways
Below is a slider showing today's 4-lane, 78-ft cross section. It has a lot of nice "Street" elements: many historic buildings adjacent to sidewalks, some street trees, on-street parking, and very narrow traffic lanes. But it is also incapable of supporting much traffic due to shared thru-right, thru-left, and side friction with parking. A "road diet" with just one lane each direction and a two-way left-turn lane would help walkability and might even help a little with today's traffic, but it cannot accommodate growing traffic associated with the fact that this street connects with a freeway interchange AND a rare river crossing. Something will give, and that something is almost always a "bigger stroad," - in this case a likely loss of on-street parking ad a minimum.
The one-way cross section shows how you can get a better pedestrian environment, with a "slow lane" of about 10-15 mph for bikes and vehicles turning left or accessing parking. It handles more traffic, creates a wider pedestrian "furniture zone," accommodates bikes and transit, has safer parking, and encourages mixed-use development not only here, but also on a similar eastbound street. Given that all things must be compared NOT to the ideal, but to the likely alternative, what is not to love about this?
Below is today vs what NCDOT may be likely to do as traffic continues to grow. Notice today's single left lanes become double lefts. Today's shared thru+right becomes a dedicated right. A few of the auto oriented buildings on the bottom and left give way to "slightly larger" auto-oriented buildings.
Below compares the NCDOT "double left" default (from above), to how it could be if some directions of flow are relocated to other corridors. The much more human-scale streets easily have room for premium street trees, "slow lanes" for bikes and other low-speed vehicles, and impressive on-street reverse angle parking. Combine this infrastructure with form-based zoning codes to allow mixed uses up to 3-5 stories, and developers will salivate to construct "missing middle" projects not only here, but in the nearby areas also.
Below is the same angle, but zoomed out to see what we envisioned for the rest of the area, along with all four one-way intersections. Peach colored buildings are new, while white/brown and white/cream buildings are existing.
This is a good view of the pedestrian environment made possible by these one-ways.
Our Vision for Phase 2, 12-month Project
Grant winners must make a strong case for how they will reduce Climate Change and/or improve non-auto accessibility
As noted earlier, the National Science Foundation "CIVIC Challenge" will award 20 of 50 teams $1-million each. The goal with CIVIC is less about new research, and more about delivering research-based demonstration products that promise to influence Climate Change (Track A) and improve multimodal accessibility (Track B) first with our Civic partners, and ultimately far wider than that since all 20 teams must show why their work will have broad national impact.
In our case, "implemented" will mean NCDOT and cities amend plans and budget for next steps
Our idea is to deliver innovative, transformative small-area visions to Smithfield and Greenville. The evidence of "implementation" will be sufficient buy-in from NCDOT and community stakeholders that the respective city councils and NCDOT itself will amend their plans at the end of 12-months to incorporate at least some of the innovative ideas (those that are financially feasible, and secure sufficient good will from stakeholders).
Vision for Strong Towns
We reached out to Chuck Marohn before we were selected for Phase 1 to see if he and his crew could help us organize some workshops - at least one in each city and also one or more in-person and/or webinars with NCDOT staff so that everyone can learn about what Strong Towns means, and how our efforts would help them become stronger. In addition to helping us build support for our vision locally, Strong Towns will also follow the effort and write occasional articles for their national audience to elaborate on unique aspects of our work. This should help us meet one of NSF's objectives that the project should have "broad national impact." But a few workshops and seminars will not be enough public and stakeholder involvement on its own. NCSU has staff that can help with this, but this arena is outside my expertise.
How can we secure stakeholder buy-in so that agencies will implement the vision?
This is where the rubber meets the road, and where we need the most help right now in nailing down the month-by-month of what we'll actually do. Some topics that seem critical for securing city and NCDOT support appear to include:
Cost Estimation: How much will our big ideas cost? Hoping for a Pro-Urb-recommended Civil firm that can weigh in on this. An NC-based engineer might be nice, but not sure localized differences will matter (i.e., a Pro-Urb civil can figure out those differences).
Real Estate, Value Capture: NCDOT and the communities themselves may invest into Complete Streets more than they have in the past. But in the event there is still a need for gap financing, we want to explore how to secure some funding for construction and maintenance from those who stand to profit from our vision. Our vision will result in valuable buildings and businesses. How can that value be captured to help pay for and maintain the investments? If we build it, how many will come? If someone authoritative can weigh in on this, it will help us scale our vision to what can be paid for.
Expert oversite for walkability: We'd love to have someone at the table with who can improve our ideas, display ideas graphicly, and importantly has a resume that will carry some water with our civic partners so they'll gain confidence they're on a good track.
Form-Based Code expert: I'm not sure our goal requires that the city develop and adopt an FBC at the end of 12-months, but the vision definitely requires that land use and transportation sync-up. It would be good to have someone who understands the world of land use codes, and can at least start these cities down that road even if there is more to be done later.
National Advisors: Dr. Reid Ewing is a friend of mine. We teach classes together sometimes. He's a world-renown researcher on land development patterns and their effects. He can also connect us to other advisors such as Arthur C. Nelson - another expert in land use. Are there other Pro-Urb folks we may want to include on an advisory panel?
Public Involvement: Need to learn what NCSU's resources are like. They may have worker-bees who are local and can help on the ground, but will we also need a leader in this space? Someone who can take the lead on organizing meetings, getting mayors to invite key influencers to participate, etc?
The Phase 2 application is due March 1, 2023. They will then select winners probably in July of 2023. After another month or two of contracting, we'll all have 12-months to spend the money after NTP.
Please reach out to Mike Brown at 801 - 860 - 2409 or at mike-at-urbaninnovators.com (don't dare put actual email due to bots that will spam me forever).