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A Bumblebee for Walking

Dan Burden is changing how towns think about traffic

January 2, 2005 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Photo Courtesy Livable Streets Coalition

Dan Burden has trained groups in 1,700 American and Canadian towns on the finer points of road diets.

Dan Burden, who spent 18 months in the early 1970s riding a bicycle from Anchorage, Alaska to southern Mexico, is now, at age 60, into walking. He say he does a lot of walking, at least 10,000 steps a day. He also does a lot of talking about it.

As the founder and director of Walkable Communities, Mr. Burden earns his keep helping towns and cities across the United States and Canada become better places. How? By convincing residents and public officials to embrace walking as a central feature of their community’s design.

It’s not that Mr. Burden dislikes cars. It’s just that he is certain that the quality of life improves if people don’t spend so much time sitting in them. And, like everybody else, he can’t stand congestion. 

He’s come up with some unexpected solutions. The answer to traffic congestion in most towns isn’t making roads wider, says Mr. Burden. Just the opposite: Roads need to be put on a “diet.” Taking lanes away slows traffic but, surprisingly, the road then actually carries more vehicles more efficiently. Mr. Burden has other traffic remedies, such as shrinking intersections, constructing roundabouts, building boulevards with divided medians, and designing places where people can walk, bike, and ride public transit.

A lot of people now agree with him. Since 1996, when this native of Columbus, Ohio started his non-profit organization in High Springs, Fla., Mr. Burden has trained groups in 1,700 communities. He teaches people how to change their sprawling, congested towns into more attractive, greener, quieter places. Mr. Burden believes that bringing people closer together provides more social, economic, and health benefits than spreading them apart.

We caught up with him recently as he was leaving Flagstaff, Ariz.

Q. What do you call your job?

Dan Burden: I’m a specialist in converting towns that were over-designed for cars back into towns for people. It’s kind of like being a bumblebee, but having a vast field. I do a lot of photography. I analyze the towns I’ve been in. I read about how and why things work. I collect the pollen from one town and I disperse it as quickly as I can to people who want the information. 

Q. How do you help a community?

Mr. Burden: In Waterloo, Ont., we worked on converting a suburban-style shopping plaza in the center of downtown, a mistake that just happened, into a really great, true town center. We talked about how to redesign the roads and intersections, put in transit shelters and transit stations to make it a really great place.

Cambridge has a great, historic downtown with many landmark buildings but has a poorly designed and located transit shelter. It is way too big and makes walking a challenge. It’s so large that drivers drive too fast. We talked about how to scale everything down to a proper walking scale.

In Kitchener, Ont., we talked about how to redesign a suburban mall into a true village, with real plazas, an appropriate series of stores that are the right size, right scale. We talked about lots of density, lots of great housing, lots of new commercial office parks for work, and light rail. There will be a light rail station there.

Typically, we do a training session where I show images of similar projects. We then go out and talk about what we see. I call that a walking audit and it is a collection of 15, 25, 30 people. I ask them what it takes to make their community more walkable, to make their place human scale, to get the automobile to behave. We talk about how to reinvent the way the stores are placed so that we have real main streets, how to redesign a huge suburban intersection so that it works better for cars and for people on foot.

Q. You are showing that the conventional approach is counterproductive?

Mr. Burden: Exactly. By not moving vehicles as fast, by paying attention to intersections, by controlling access and turns, roads actually move more traffic, are safer, and are more attractive.

Here’s an example: The typical road has five lanes. By putting the fifth lane in and getting the driver making a left turn completely out of the picture, the thought was that you can greatly increase the capacity of the road and reduce the crashes. We do that all over our country.

It was a mistake. By making it possible to turn left into every single driveway, we created all this incredible friction in the street. It reduces a road’s carrying capacity 30 percent and increases the number of crashes.

A better idea is to build boulevards with divided medians. A typical boulevard has an opening every 660 feet, and a storage lane for people making left turns. This increases the carrying capacity of the road 30 percent. So, some of the roads that we jumped up to six and seven lanes could have stayed four lanes with a median. And when you have four lanes, you don’t end up with huge intersections to deal with the huge volumes of turning traffic.

Boulevards with medians are safer, more friendly to pedestrians and bicycles and public transit, and more attractive. We never should have gone to the fifth lane. Nine times out of ten it produces a mess.

Q. Are communities downsizing their roads?

Mr. Burden: Yes, all over the country. We call them road diets; we actually take away lanes. In Hartford, Conn., we made a list of 17 roads that will go on a road diet and lose lanes. They’ve done six so far and traffic has improved each time.

Typically before a road diet, speeds are 10 miles per hour too fast, which means it’s not as safe, it’s harder to get out of driveways, it’s harder to maneuver. The road diet brings speeds down. In Hartford, the average speed has come down six miles per hour in neighborhood streets. Safety goes up. It’s so much easier to get across a two-lane road instead of a four-lane road.

In West Palm Beach, where they decided to downsize virtually every road in town, it worked beautifully.

Q. What are other ways to solve traffic congestion?

Mr. Burden: Intersections are the first place that traffic breaks down. We build big roads that build up huge volumes of traffic at the intersections. Typically, we then widen the road. Intersections become so wide and the traffic signal cycle so long that we lose efficiency. We must be more surgical in our solution and design more compact intersections. The signal cycles are shorter and pedestrians feel comfortable crossing the street.

Another solution is a roundabout, which provides more volume per lane and therefore can keep the intersection much more compact. We can keep crossing distances down to 14 feet and, because there are no signals, the pedestrian isn’t holding back the motorist. And there is no signal to build up a long line of cars.

A good example is in Grand Junction, Colo. Six years ago they wanted to put a five-lane road in a historic district. A local engineer altered the design to be a two-lane road with crossing islands. There are beautiful homes, great sidewalks, and bike lanes there now. It is green, charming, arresting even.

Q. You say speeding traffic up exacerbates congestion?

Mr. Burden: We actually lose capacity on a road if we design it for high speed. If you are in an urban area with a lot of driveways and intersections, you get your best capacity at around 30 miles per hour. But we have designed a lot of places where the speed that most motorists travel is 40, 45, even 50 miles per hour. When you drive at a slower, more uniform rate, you need less space between cars; you can move more cars through than if the cars are traveling faster and further apart.

High speeds also create a lot of noise and danger and other problems that degrades the value of the neighborhood and make it challenging to walk. After a while people living on these street see their property values fall. 

Q. This makes such sense. Do you get a lot of resistance in communities?

Mr. Burden: Many people don’t understand how traffic works. They think if you have a street where people aren’t going to be driving as fast, and it won’t be as wide, that traffic will come into their local neighborhood street. But, actually, traffic wants to stay on the significant road and avoid neighborhoods unless it gets strangled at an intersection.

Business owners get nervous. A perfect example is in Missoula, Mont. On Broadway, a four-lane road, there were a couple of pedestrian fatalities. But Broadway’s traffic does not warrant four lanes. The city council in 1998 approved a road diet for Broadway, reducing it from four to two lanes, with a third lane with pedestrian islands so that people could cross the street.

Some business people worried it would reduce traffic volumes and hurt sales. But it wasn’t going to reduce traffic. It would just be handled in fewer lanes and would move slower, which would allow people to see stores better and stop when they might not have before because they were pushed along at higher speeds.

I’ve had lifelong friends tell me they didn’t like the idea because it would take them a minute longer to get home from work because I’m slowing down the traffic. So the resistance to these projects can come from many places. By the way, construction on this project is about to start.

Q. So your formula is more density, smaller scale, public transit, mixed use. What else?

Mr. Burden: We want to get rid of off-street parking. For years, engineers took parking off the street in downtowns. We are now learning that by putting parking back on the street we get lower speeds and more people using the sidewalks. And we free up all these vacant lots to put up buildings to fill out the fabric of a downtown.

Q. It sounds like communities are basically trying to re-establish what they had in 1920.

Mr. Burden: What we are finding is the original streets, the original cores of our cities, pre-auto, were dynamite. It was the right pattern. When you go to Europe, Mexico, Australia, New Zealand, that’s the way it is: A grid pattern, a village design, really is the wave of the future. People say increasing density adds more traffic. It doesn’t. It gives more people the ability to live without a car, by enabling services and stores to locate so close to them that most of the time they don’t need a car.

Q. Is that because the market is big enough for the services and stores to locate there?

Mr. Burden: Exactly. Everybody believes that if you add a lot of people to a place you add a lot of car trips. But there’s good and bad density. If you just build a bunch of tower buildings and you don’t build a village and you don’t have the services there, then sure, everybody in that tower is going to have to get in their car and drive somewhere else. That’s bad density.

If instead you build a true village and you get a really good, pleasant assembly of buildings at the street, you can walk down the block and have a choice of eight or ten restaurants. You go more than two or three block and you will bump into a grocery store. You’re going to bump into a druggist. In a really well laid-out town you’ll find the hardware store, beauticians. Whatever you need is within five or ten blocks.

Q. How did you get into this?

Mr. Burden: I kind of followed my heart. I had no background in engineering or planning or landscape architecture. Around 1981 I went to Australia. When I walked around their towns I realized that Australia was the country that I remembered when I was a kid growing up in Columbus, Ohio. Somehow my country had lost that scale, that sense of being in a place where people knew one another, where you could walk anywhere, where anything you needed you could get by walking or biking or public transit. At the time I was the state bicycle coordinator at the Florida Department of Transportation. I just basically went back to my job and changed my job title, didn’t even ask, to state bicycle and pedestrian coordinator.

Q. Where are the places that are doing it right?

Mr. Burden: One I like is Fairview Village, near Portland, Ore.  It’s perfect. It’s actually got a Target store, a department store, a school, lots of single-family residential housing, apartment housing, and vast amounts of open space. It’s all mixed together beautifully. It has six points of access into the village so that all the traffic gets distributed. None of the roads are big. It has links and trails. All the things I talk about, it has. It’s also close enough to Portland that transit works. It’s a great place to live.

Q. What surprises you about your work?

Mr. Burden: I go to work in a community and even if I’m there two or three days I don’t have a clue whether the leaders are Democrats or Republicans. That means this is an issue for everybody. 

Keith Schneider, a journalist and editor, is deputy director of the Michigan Land Use Institute. A shorter version of this interview was published in the October 27, 2004 edition of The New York Times. Reach him at keith@mlui.org.

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