Road construction can be fun
Road construction. Just the thought of it drives most of us a little batty. What route will I take? How much longer will it take me? Can I time it just right so I don’t get stuck? Sadly, for those of us in the field of urban planning, or its related disciplines, road construction is more of a fascination – a chance to examine how behavior patterns change when an unexpected variable is thrown into the mix. It’s a chance to see how traffic engineering and transportation planning is more social science than applied science. Traffic engineering a social science? How can that be? After all, engineers want to convince us that working with traffic is as simple as working with water in a pipe. Flows and volumes are predictable, and all we need to do is size the pipes and connections appropriately to make traffic “work.”
But here’s the rub – human beings are behind those steering wheels, and human beings are not as predictable as water flowing through a pipe. Well, let me correct that – sometimes we are very predictable. But we do possess an ability to modify our environment, react to it, and make choices depending on what is happening around us. And, that’s the problem with so much traffic modeling and engineering – it doesn’t take into account the human factor. There’s no reliable formula for that, no matter how sophisticated the software.
Road construction is an interesting example of this phenomenon. It often seems that in the world of traffic engineering, road construction never happens. Roads are sized based on formulas dealing with intersections, land uses, travel patterns, etc, and then assumed that they will always be fully available for use. Accidents, construction, or just bad driving doesn’t come into play. Water in a pipe.
But inevitably that pavement wears out, cracks, or is washed away by weather. And, it needs to be replaced. What then, is a transportation geek to do?
A few weeks ago I was back in Kansas City, and had a chance to see the road construction taking place on Wornall Road around 85th Street for several blocks north. Wornall is a fascinating street, in that it was developed in both the streetcar era and the early suburban era. The mix of businesses has always been unique, to say the least, even though it has gradually suburbanized and homogenized over the years.
The building mix is also interesting – a ramshackle combination of older and newer commercial buildings, some with quirky or quaint character, and others bland and forgettable. Most buildings are fairly small, owing to the smaller lots in this corridor (appraisers have another word for these – obsolete). Where larger parcels existed, they have been turned into suburban abominations, such as the southern half of the 75th Street intersection. Note to planners and landscape architects – a large, historic-looking monument sign does not create street life or character. It’s simply a reminder of what has been destroyed in the name of sprawl.
The road is being reconstructed now, with new pavement and new underground infrastructure. At the time I was there, traffic was restricted to one lane in each direction, instead of the usual two. Due to construction logistics, the middle portion is being constructed last, which allows one to easily walk in the middle of the road and get a sense for the improvements.
Construction projects such as this allow us to imagine how things might work differently, if the road was permanently altered. On Wornall, for example, it’s great to imagine how it could look and feel if it really was only one lane in each direction permanently. Perhaps there could be on-street parking to support the businesses, or perhaps a bike lane. Maybe the sidewalks could be wider and shaded with street trees. Just north of the intersection at 85th Street, it’s easy to see how buildings could spill out onto an attractive street with tables and chairs consistently. One nice benefit – with just one lane in each direction, it’s remarkably easy to cross as a pedestrian. The pavement width is obviously less, but also traffic speeds are noticeably slower than normal. It almost seems – pleasant.
But what would that do to road capacity and speed? How would we get anywhere? If this road suddenly went on a diet, and became half the capacity, how would it work?
And that’s the heart of the interesting thing about seeing construction as an experiment in behavior. Despite the slowdown, people still get to work, to shopping, to school. We might take alternate routes (which are copious in an area like this with a robust street grid), we might combine trips, we might even take alternate methods – walking, biking or transit.
If it can still function, and our lives go on, and if it’s potentially even more pleasant and economically successful as a smaller road, it begs the question – why does it need to be so big to begin with? What size pipe works the best?