How Livable Streets can Secure Clout
By Mike Brown, PE, AICP
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Freeway expansions and passenger rail have clout with politicians. For these, engineers are allowed to spend like drunken sailors, and all for dubious public benefit relative to their cost (cost may outweigh benefits when considering costs of sprawl and benefit-sapping induced demand). Livable Street efforts get stuck looking under couch cushions for lost coins. We need a way to help Livable Streets gain clout so they can compete effectively against mega-projects that exacerbate sprawl and far-flung lifestyles. This article explores why mega-projects have clout and presents ideas for how Livable Streets can secure similar funding clout.
Why Do Freeways Suck Up So Much Money?
Freeways are everyone’s problem: Nearly everyone has an ugly, congested, or greyfield Stroad nearby. But they only care about their Stroad – not yours! Freeways are regional, Stroads are local.
State DOT’s are geared for mega-projects: The state only has so many employees. They can pay attention to a few huge projects, but it’s harder to pay attention to public involvement and all else involved in a ton of small projects.
With freeways, the solution is “obvious”: Anyone can arm-chair quarterback freeway congestion – just “Build your way out!” It is the “obvious” solution. When so many agree, that is political momentum. Freeways have negatives like induced demand, sprawl, white-knuckle driving, and sucking public funds from other needs, but these are harder for the general public to recognize.
Congestion is painful; stroad hellscapes are tolerable: When the freeway was working last year, but this year you’re losing 30-minutes daily, that’s painful. It’s like a broken arm where the pain is immediate and the solution seems obvious (but in reality is not so obvious). Stroads are like obesity or early-stage cancer. It sucks, but you can live with it. The problems are harder to see and care about. When you do see, it's hard to know what to do.
With Stroads, the solution is perplexing: When you do visit “the doctor” and describe your troubles, it’s hard to explain. Planners and engineers misdiagnose what’s going on, and even when we understand correctly, our drug cocktails don’t always work very well.
“Our economy is dying!” Ok, but how do you fix that? To a cycling advocate, a cycle-track will do the trick. Transit aficionados are sure light rail is the answer. The teacher’s union thinks its lack of school funding. Developers say a new stadium will work. Some options are more cost-effective than others, but which?
“It’s too dangerous to walk!” True, but is a pedestrian overpass the right answer?
“There’s too much congestion!” Agreed, but is more hardscape, with property impacts, really the best answer?
What do we need more of? "Livable Streets"
In the figures below, the top is a typical Stroad. No wonder there’s a flight to the fringe, leaving struggling under-utilized corridors behind. The second is much nicer - Livable! I prefer "Livable Street" over “Complete Street." Why? "Complete" implies that without cycle tracks, street trees, and a dedicated lane for transit, it isn't good enough. I beg to differ. In the second picture, there isn’t a bike lane, nor transit, because there isn't room and maybe there isn't money. But the pedestrian experience is impressive, and maybe bikes can now share the road more easily or use nearby facilities. It's Livable, and has a far better chance of attracting 7D infill, which creates pedestrians, for the sidewalks. To me, the safety of reduced speed and the aesthetics to catalyze sustainable development is a bigger goal than checking the box for a specific mode, which will remain underutilized unless mixed-uses are catalyzed!
Create Simultaneous Clout for Dozens of Livable Streets
Unions were born when individuals realized their companies could ignore disorganized complaints but had to bend when workers acted in unison. A 10-mile freeway bottleneck gets a billion dollars because hundreds of thousands depend on it daily – a unified complaint from a great many. Millions can be unified around the idea that the collection of all Stroads are crappy, but any particular Stroad garners yawns from those not near it.
The solution? Unite! Gerrymander a collection of stroads together in a way that ensures conversion to a nice, livable boulevard will be near just about everyone. Then present the collection as a single large project. Make sure that each little project prioritizes bang-for-buck components first. To me, that means putting street trees far higher on the list than light rail or BRT. Why? Trees can catalyze market excitement for mixed-use living, similar to fixed-guideway transit, but at a fraction of the cost! When your “mega-project” is really a dozen small projects, all aimed at rehabilitating nasty Stroads, then the grass will be greener on the inside of the fence. When each Stroad project is careful to resist low-ROI components meant mainly for ribbon-cutting politicians, then you can truly put a big dent in the sprawl-machine, at an affordable price.
How do you organize? First, cities should stop randomly holding out their tin-cup to the DOT or the legislature, hoping in their mercy they’ll divert a few coins from a major freeway or long-distance transit project for your cause. Since you all have a Stroad problem, make unity against Stroads a top priority for discussion among MPO board members. Convince them to stop listing Livable Street projects as singular line-items on their plan. Instead bundle all of the Phase one Stroad-reclamation projects as a single project - worthy of say a billion dollars. Then Phase two as the next "billion-dollar project", etc.
Craft messaging around “the Regional Livable Streets Project” which everyone can care about, instead of “The Redwood Road Livable Project," which only a few care about. Don’t spell out specific treatments for any particular Stroad, but instead have a unified public message of the general benefits of Livable Streets, highlighting the most cost-effective elements as “to be included for all Stroads.” Where there are more expensive features, such as BRT, mention them as “on select Stroads” (those already on the plan, perhaps). Show examples of the kinds of things the program will implement, with specifics on which Stroads will get which treatments, later once funding is secured.
Construction Phasing, Bang for Buck (ROI)
A “billion-dollar package” doesn’t mean you need to tear up all Stroads in a single year. Much of the point is to catalyze walkable development, and the market can only construct so much of that in a single year anyway. Design it as a 5-10-year program. Ensure that those selected in any given year are far apart from each other, to minimize the “orange barrels” in a neighborhood.
Be careful – you can eat up a billion pretty quickly – you want components with high ROI. For Wall Street, ROI always means “show me the money.” For public ventures, it tends to mean “We’re ready to spend a billion dollars fighting climate change, congestion, inequity, etc., and we want a single project that best does that.” But "singular project” thinking is exactly the problem. Livable streets have components, so fund the components that best catalyze 7D land uses relative to their cost.
Instead of defaulting to single-solution break the bank rail transit projects, put it all components on the table – street connectivity, street trees, cycle tracks, bike-share programs, BRT, no-fare transit. Let stakeholders wrangle about the goals, performance metrics, and the weighting criteria for each goal, but then let each component compete for "bang for buck" high rank.
The NCHRP 917 Rightsizing Guidebook describes a “Stratified Return on Investment” process. In the Stratified ROI process, tiny projects, or project elements that don’t do a lot toward your goals can still be ranked high, if they also don’t cost much either.
Stroads are everyone’s problem, yet nobody’s problem. If we “unionize” to elevate the stature of these projects, there is a better chance of getting more funding per project than if every neighborhood goes hat-in-hand begging for scraps from the mega-project table. And what exactly would be built or implemented as part of a high-ROI multi-Stroad project? Our frameworks for the 7Ds of Place-Making, the 7Ds of Mobility Management, the 8Fs of High Transit Ridership, and a focus on Place-Making Alternative Intersections and other Rightsizing strategies, will help maximize ROI.