In an interview from Streetsblog, Congress for the New Urbanism President, John Norquist, discusses what's broken with national transportation policy and how to fix it. Here is some of the interview:
Ben Fried: During the stimulus debate you sent a letter to James Oberstar, chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, and among other things you said that discussion of national transportation policy often presents a "false dichotomy" between transit funding and road funding. What did you mean?
John Norquist: Well, maybe "false" is the wrong word for me to have used, but itâ€™s a dichotomy thatâ€™s very limited. If the debate is about transit versus roads -- and currently the battle lines are drawn at 20 percent funding for transit, 80 percent for roads -- itâ€™s a really limited debate. It leaves out the whole discussion of what kind of roads to build. So if you have a city with boulevards and avenues and no freeways, itâ€™s going to be a lot more valuable. You look at Vancouver, they have no freeways whatsoever, and they have a fabulously intense and valuable real estate and job market. And then you look at the places that have invested all the money in the giant road segments and they tend to be degraded. It's not roads versus transit -- it's good street networks-plus-transit versus mindless building of out-of-scale roads. I mean they're basically putting rural roads into urbanized areas and itâ€™s counterproductive, it reduces the value of the economy, it destroys jobs, destroys real estate value. For what, so you can drive fast at two in the morning when you're drunk?
Freeways donâ€™t work in rush hour; they're slower. Like in Washington, DC, Connecticut Avenue is faster at rush hour than the Potomac Freeway. The Potomac Freeway goes down to about two to six miles an hour during the peak hour, whereas Connecticut Avenue goes down to about eight to thirteen miles an hour. So you're really talking about the federal government investing billions and billions of dollars in stuff that reduces the value of the economy. How bad is that?
BF: So say they do implement some good metrics that get at street network connectivityâ€¦
JN: What would that be? Let me tell you. Right now the metrics are minimums -- you need at least 12 feet for a highway lane, whereas in Vancouver no lane can be bigger than three meters, which comes out to nine feet ten inches I think. Their biggest lane can be nine feet ten inchesâ€¦
BF: These are federal requirements?
JN: No, but they all feed into the same system. The feds donâ€™t even do the requirements directly -- in the federal highway program they reference the AASHTO Green Book. These are rules, they're just not stated as rulesâ€¦ On the interstate system you canâ€™t have a lane thatâ€™s less than 12 feet wide, so that actually is a rule there. You have all these metrics that make everything bigger -- turning radii and ramps, the length of ramps -- all these things designed to have the vehicles move faster without having to slow down when they get off the freeway, that sort of thing.
So then you need to look at what good metrics would be. If you look at communities that are really successful and have rich, complex street grids with transit -- or even without transit, but they have street grids -- thereâ€™s much more efficiency in the use of pavement. You can go the direction you want to go, you don't have to go out of the way and come back.
Look at the Embarcadero Freeway. When it was torn down, the trips actually got faster, because people were able to enter the street grid of northeastern San Francisco without having to overshoot the mark or undershoot where they want to go and then go in a direction they don't want to go. So by removing the freeway and re-enriching the street network, it actually made traffic distribute better. Then it was a better setting, obviously, for real estate and job development, because the views of the bay were restored and streets are better.
So what are the metrics? The metrics would be intersection density, block size -- you would reward intersection density. And the feds can do that, they can say that states could draw federal money and add to the density of a street network, creating more mobility that way.
And the metric we use is 150 intersections per square mile, which wouldnâ€™t just be like Manhattan or Philadelphia. In Wausau, Wisconsin, which is the home of the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, Dave Obey, we counted 158 intersections per square mile. Thatâ€™s counting alleys. You look at all these places that have high intersection density and they're very likely to be valuable settings for jobs and real estate, and they're also very good for distributing local traffic.
Now if you're talking about a transcontinental trip in a truck from California to New Jerseyâ€¦ weâ€™re not saying you canâ€™t do that kind of thing, but that right now the system is biased towards creating that -- trying to make everything like BrasÃlia, where all the arterial street intersections are grade-separated. Itâ€™s the most lifeless city in the world. Thereâ€™s actually no street life. In order to go to a cool neighborhood you have to leave Brasilia and go to the shantytowns on the outside. Thatâ€™s the only place that has any humanity to it. BF: It seems like there also has to be some sort of system of incentives in place, because thereâ€™s so many MPOs that are just going to be stuck in their old habitsâ€¦
JN: Are you talking about MPOs or DOTs?
BF: Letâ€™s say both.
JN: I would argue in the majority of cases the MPOs just function as an arm of the DOT. Thereâ€™s this myth that some of the regional planning commissions are out there trying to do what's right. And thatâ€™s true in some cases, but in the vast majority itâ€™s just this same mind frame that they have at the DOTs. Some DOTs are more progressive than others. My current favorite is New Jersey where they're really exploring these ideas of funding more urban streets, like replacing the freeway in front of Trenton, along the river, and putting in a boulevard instead.