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Learning From the Leaders

Other states find safety, affordability, traffic efficiency,and community preservation in citizen-led, context-sensitive design

January 27, 2004 | By Kelly Thayer
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Michigan’s roadways took a heavy toll in traffic crashes in 2002, according to the state police:
Crashes: 395,515 reported traffic crashes
Deaths: 1,279 people killed, including 173 pedestrians & about
127 bicyclists
Injuries: 112,484 people injured, crippled, or maimed, including 2,232 pedestrians
Children: Deaths from traffic accidents far outpaced those from the next two leading causes, fire and drowning
Total injuries: One out of every 89 residents was hurt in a traffic accident
Economic cost: The economic loss from traffic accidents amounted to $9.6 billion
How many times have you thought, “Well, I’m no traffic engineer, but…,” as you shook your head over a dangerous stretch of road or unsightly, traffic-clogging clutter?

Motorists don’t need transportation planning degrees to spot the places where traffic just doesn’t move — or where “accidents” always occur, pedestrians scurry for their lives to cross a busy street, or wind and wet weather batter unsheltered folks waiting for a bus. It’s as if planners sometimes utterly forget about people and places and focus only on pavement.

Putting People First
Now the federal government and a few states are putting people and places back into transportation planning. With context-sensitive design, the public takes charge and assures that community character and the natural environment count for more than cookie-cutter roads do. Such “thinking beyond the pavement,” as the process is frequently described, reflects a growing recognition that transportation projects should bend to fit the setting, not vice versa, and that good traffic flow is a means not unto itself but to other ends — improved social, job, business, cultural, and recreational opportunities. This marks a revolution for civil and traffic engineers, who sometimes are more comfortable with handbooks than humans.

Designing for Safety and Success

Innovative designs can make streets remarkably safer. Nationally, converting roads to boulevards, typically with landscaped medians, has:
• Lowered vehicle accidents by an
average of
45 percent.
• Reduced fatal accidents by up to
75 percent.
• Decreased pedestrian accidents by at least
50 percent.

In Michigan:
• Converting four-lane roads to
boulevards has lowered accident rates by 58 percent.
• Converting six-lane roads to
boulevards has lowered accident rates by 50 percent.

Inflexible is Dangerous

Studies show that extra-wide highways provide a false sense of driver security that promotes speeding, which results in more crashes and fatalities. More than 40,000 Americans die in traffic accidents every year. This is the leading cause of death for ages 4 to 33, far exceeding deaths from drugs and guns combined. According to the American Public Transportation Association, riding a bus is 91 times safer than driving; train travel is 15 times safer. Wider intersections are also dangerous. Improving traffic flow with right turn lanes and left turn lanes frequently makes them too wide to walk across before the traffic signal changes.

The flexible design process often saves money by investing in a
facility that increases the property value of homes and the commercial success of businesses. Across the nation public resistance to one-size-fits-all highway projects has spurred costly delays that could be avoided with a flexible, open-minded approach.

Transportation departments in five states — Connecticut, Maryland, Kentucky, Minnesota, and Utah — formally launched the flexible design revolution in 1998 by joining a national pilot program. Others, including New Jersey, Illinois, Florida, and Washington, also are developing transportation projects responsive to local scenic, aesthetic, historic, and environmental values and public transit, bicycling, and walking needs. In these places, citizen-led context-sensitive design provides affordable, effective, and safer methods of moving vehicles, bicycles, and people.

Michiganders sorely need the added safety. In 2002 traffic crashes killed nearly 1,300 people here, including about 300 bicyclists and pedestrians, and injured 112,000 others.
“Note that 10 percent of Michigan’s traffic fatalities are bicyclists. Now look at trip statistics to note that less than 1 percent of trips are by bike,” said Thom Peterson, a leader of the West Michigan Environmental Action Council and a long-time transportation choices activist. “It is not just the huge difference in vehicle weight between cars and bikes, but also, and perhaps primarily, the fact that the bicyclist is left completely out of consideration by designers, law enforcement officers, and the infamous ‘motoring public.’”

The Michigan State Police say the economic toll in 2002, including crash response and victim care, totaled nearly $10 billion. Better road design could reduce these staggering statistics. For instance, converting some four-lane roads into divided boulevards in Michigan has lowered accident rates by 58 percent while moving considerably more traffic. Designing adequate space for bicyclists also spares injuries and saves lives.

Seppo Sillan, senior engineer at the Federal Highway Administration, sums up the challenge this way: “The problem in the near term is trying to convince all the chief executives of the various state DOTs that the context-sensitive design approach to project development is the only way they can get projects through in the future and that, in the long run, it saves resources even though, on an individual project basis, they may have to spend more time on community involvement programs.”

Here are three success stories from other states that Michigan can learn from:

Courtesy of Kentucky Transportation Cabinet
  Lexington, Kentucky’s “road diet” for Euclid Avenue reduced it from four to three lanes, added bike lanes, made sidewalks safer and the street itself safer and more attractive.

Lexington, Kentucky: “Road diet” makes room for bicycles and pedestrians
Euclid Avenue in Lexington, Kentucky, serves local traffic and regional commuters and links the University of Kentucky campus with residential areas. To ease congestion mainly at intersections, the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet initially proposed adding another lane to the existing four-lane roadway. But the public objected, fearing that the higher speeds would endanger pedestrians. Fortunately, the state’s new context-sensitive design process called for public meetings to seek other solutions. Those sessions led not to an increase, but a reduction, in size to a three-lane roadway that offered safe places for bicyclists and pedestrians and enhanced life along the avenue. This “road diet,” as planners call it, has worked well in Lexington by reducing speeds and smoothing traffic flow. James Codell, secretary of the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet, tells his staff, “You should act as if the project is going through your own backyard.”

Mount Rainier, Maryland: Art, roundabout transform once-dangerous intersection
Maryland Highway Design Division
  A six-way intersection in Mount Rainier, Maryland, known locally as the “sea of asphalt,” stymied all attempts at commercial revitalization until it was replaced with a traffic roundabout.
Just outside of Washington D.C., Route 1 once broke up Mount Rainier’s downtown with four lanes of traffic and a six-way intersection. This “asphalt lake,” as local people called it, further marred the rundown commercial area. Residents and local officials wanted a more attractive-looking place with slower traffic, better bus access, and safer spaces for pedestrians and bicyclists. The city previously tried to revitalize the area, but nothing could work without addressing the fundamental barrier of Route 1. So the city asked the Maryland State Highway Administration to employ its context-sensitive design tools and lead a public visioning process. The solution was classic: Replacing the ugly, six-pronged intersection with an elegant traffic roundabout, which funnels one-way traffic around a central island to connecting streets and provides refuge for pedestrians trying to cross. Roundabouts slow down drivers, often without stopping them, and can add civic beauty. The project includes landscaped plazas, pedestrian-controlled crosswalk signals, bus shelters built in an early-20th-century design, and public art, including two illuminated blue glass sculptures and bas-relief sculptures celebrating Mount Rainier’s ethnic diversity.

Good Harbor Bay, Minnesota: Highway safety project preserves history, nature, and scenery

A Short (R)evolutionary History of Context-sensitive Design (CSD)

Pre-1991: States using federal funds must meet federal design standards for safety, high speeds, and room for the next 20 years of projected traffic

1991: Federal government allows flexible design for historic and scenic routes not on National Highway System (NHS)

1995: Government approves CSD for use on National Highway System

1998: Federal government launches CSD pilot program with Connecticut, Kentucky, Maryland, Minnesota, and Utah

2002: Federal Highway Administration says CSD deserves same vigor as 1956 founding of Interstate highway system

President George W. Bush endorses flexible design in his “SAFETEA” bill as part of 2004’s six-year renewal of federal transportation funding. The administration’s bill, however, fails to mandate flexible design for all federal projects and does not provide training funds or other financial incentives for states to adopt it


All around the world, context-sensitive streets are pleasing people. According to recent surveys:
• Mothers and children in the Netherlands consider their system of shared-use streets for driving and bicycling to be safer than car-only corridors.
• Residents of neighborhoods in Israel with multiple-use streets talk to each other more fre quently than those that live elsewhere.
• Friendlier street designs in Germany generate a 20-percent increase in children’s play
activity nearby.

One stretch of Minnesota Highway 61 runs along the rocky, heavily forested edge of Lake Superior’s Good Harbor Bay. The scenic route, a vital trade corridor for northeastern Minnesota, had safety and congestion problems that bothered tourists, businesses, and local residents, including bicyclists and pedestrians. Erosion and road runoff were polluting a nearby creek and the bay; a railroad crossing further complicated matters. Employing context-sensitive design, the Minnesota Department of Transportation held public visioning and problem-solving forums that rendered a safe and aesthetic highway that flattered the communities it connects. The agency heeded calls to lower the road’s design speed, which allowed it to tighten curves and reroute the road away from a state park, a rock cliff, a rest stop, and the Lake Superior shore while enhancing scenic views from the road. The agency says that flexibility saved considerable money by reducing additional right-of-way purchases and avoiding costly blasting of rock walls.

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