Messages from NACTO “Designing Cities” 2014 Conference
The third annual NACTO (National Association of City Transportation Officials) “Designing Cities” conference, held this past October in San Francisco, was inspiring, energetic, and engaging from start to finish. Our interdisciplinary group of urban and transportation planning and design staff had the opportunity to hear from notable experts, such as former NYC DOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, former Chicago and Washington D.C. DOT Commissioner Gabe Klein, founder and Executive Director of Code for America Jennifer Pahlka, and U.S. DOT Under Secretary for Policy Peter Rogoff. Per the group’s mission, we also had the opportunity to discuss trends and exchange ideas in street design, transportation policy, implementation, and more with leaders and practitioners in the field. Here are some of the thoughts we came away with.
Streets and the public realm are reaching new levels of importance and prioritization across the nation. New transportation services, biking, and walking are becoming the norm and car dependence more of a burden. Cities from New York to San Francisco have launched “Vision Zero” efforts to completely eliminate traffic fatalities and serious injuries on our streets for pedestrians, cyclists, and motorists through better planning, engineering, targeted enforcement, and public education. In committing to Vision Zero, cities are asked to designate funding to assess the most critical areas, develop world-class solutions, and fast-track implementation. In part, this effort includes a proactive and comprehensive design approach—including traffic signals, on-street parking, bike lanes, narrow lane widths, trees and landscaping, medians, curb extensions, speed humps, and small curb radii—to slow traffic speeds and establish a safer street environment.
Redefine what “balanced user needs” means today
A fundamental shift in how users are prioritized in the planning process is underway, shifting the automobile-dominant hierarchy to increase the prevalence of “complete streets” policies that require projects to consider the needs of non-auto modes (i.e., bicyclists, pedestrians, and transit) first. Inclusive streets should also address the needs of the young, elderly, disabled, and lower-income populations. “Streets are only as good as our most vulnerable user,” said Gabe Klein. By including median islands, buffer zones, parklets, and other treatments rather than more pavement, roadways can be integrated into the urban environment and connect neighborhoods rather than dividing them. Streets can also become “smart” through the use of digital tags, information panels and GPS. They can become “green” with elements such as rain gardens, bioswales, and permeable paving that help manage stormwater in addition to improving the street environment.
Embrace the sharing economy
The collaborative or “sharing economy” has been expanding rapidly as people increasingly choose to share and crowdsource goods, services, funding, transportation, and more. Shared mobility options include public transit, car sharing, ride sharing, bike sharing, taxis, and shuttles. In terms of revenue, the mobility sector may be one of the fastest-growing segments of the sharing economy. The shared mobility sector is attracting more established companies and innovative start-ups using diverse business models, including fleet management (business-to-business), traditional car rental (business-to-customer), and peer-to-peer rental. How can the growing shared economy integrate with official city transportation policies? Is there a divide between public/private that stops or slows cities from integrating strategies? What types of land use policies and/or physical facilities does a city need to allow and support shared mobility activities? This question is especially relevant in the context of serving the ‘last mile’ between transit stops to final destinations—often a determinant of a transit choice.
Incorporate and learn from technology
Combined with the growth of the shared economy comes the increased use of ever-smarter technologies that can offer faster, more reliable, safer, and more equitable levels of service that combine different platforms (i.e., RideScout) to help customers find the transportation services they need. Smart phone apps are enabling increasing numbers of “mobivores” (users of whatever mode is most convenient), as opposed to “CARnivores” (those who remain dependent on single-occupant vehicles). How can cities accommodate dynamic ride sharing companies like Uber and Lyft, operate and market their public transit systems, make the best use of real-time transit information displays, and ensure that users without smart phones have equal access? The technology industry teaches us to not over-commit to solutions, leave space to learn while doing, and adjust as we go. Infrastructure investments need to be designed with future technologies and needs in mind, but avoid being over-planned. Per Code for America, smart cities should combine traditional mobility planning and design with the iterative, scalable, and playful nature of technology development.
Enhance public communication
Go to the public instead of expecting the public to come to you. Community outreach can be made more effective and inclusive by using virtual meetings (web-based connectivity for people who are unable to attend traditional public meetings) or field meetings (held at project sites, in close proximity to the majority of people most likely to be affected). Boston used a “question campaign” as part of its long-range transportation plan update—people were encouraged to “donate” questions, which then became the focus of a marketing campaign. Simply changing semantics helped engage participation. Quality graphics also speak volumes. The state-of-the-art publications and materials for NYC DOT and NACTO offer these guiding principles: strive for simplicity and consistency; illustrations should speak for themselves; and instead of “flat” figures and graphics, bring some items to the forefront to emphasize, allowing others to play a supportive role in the background.
In 1956, the Federal Aid Highway Act authorized the Interstate Highway System and began the neglect of public transit systems in our cities. The conference demonstrated that while much progress has been made to retrofit this legacy, there is much to be done to re-purpose public space to achieve safer, attractive, livable, equitable, and economically vibrant streets. Rather than relying on existing codes and guidelines, it’s important to ask “what problem are we trying to solve” at the beginning of each project. Cities are at different stages in this development process and there are no one-size-fits-all approaches. “Find hidden opportunities on every street and make change,” said Janette Sadik-Khan. Transportation decisions shape neighborhoods and therefore engage communities; this energy can be channeled into innovative solutions. Cities are increasingly focused on their public spaces and people as assets, branding opportunities, and good business. High-quality infrastructure (bike lanes, signaling, etc.) inspires and organizes multi-modal cooperation and better experiences for all users. Mobility dysfunction is finally being proactively rejected.
AECOM was a major sponsor of the 2014 conference under the leadership of Kathy Mayo, Northern California transit/rail market segment leader. AECOM’s Alex Clifford and Lisa Fisher co-led San Francisco walking/biking tours of the Central Subway project area and the Central Waterfront. More information about the conference and NACTO’s Urban Street Design and Bikeways Design guides can be found on their website. To date, the guides have been adopted by seven states and more than 40 cities, and NACTO plans to launch a Global Guidebook in 2015.