Transportation Planning Sets Future Roads, Urban Pattern

You're in the transportation planning business in some way, whether you're a rural community, urban neighborhood, or smaller city. My grandpa was on the township road board in a very rural place. They figured out and voted on who would get gravel for their road this year.

Later I was involved in long-range transportation planning for a fast-growing county that apparently thought they were never going to grow when they had laid out two-lane roads as arterial streets.

The really interesting thing is that when I went back there 20 years later, transportation was one aspect of planning that had been implemented pretty much as we conceived of it earlier.

Even if you live in a golf course community and only electric golf carts are allowed, someone figured out that original set of paths.

It seems as though even in fully built environments, there's always some argument about transportation planning. People drive too fast, so we need speed bumps. We need stop signs. We should close off the end of this street. We should build a bike path along the old rail line. There aren't any sidewalks, and we need some. We don't want sidewalks taking up part of our lawns.

If you've been around a neighborhood, town, or city, you've heard some transportation planning discussions.

How Transportation Planning and Funding for Major Roads Occurs

Starting with the big picture first, every urbanized area in the U.S. has a federally designated Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) that performs transportation planning and makes allocation decisions about federal transportation funding.

They are required to base their transportation planning on the 3C’s--continuing, cooperative, and comprehensive. The boards of these MPOs typically consist of elected officials and political appointments, with state highway departments participating in transportation planning deliberations as well.

MPOs prepare and update two main documents:

• The Long-Range Transportation Plan, which is required to cover a planning period (often called a "planning horizon") of at least 20 years.

• The Transportation Improvement Program (TIP), which is a list of projects that is fiscally constrained. This means that a budget estimate of federal and local dollars available must be prepared, and that the projects cannot exceed projected resources.

It's important to note that the MPO deals not only with highway transportation, but also with allocation of funding for transit, bridges, bicycle and pedestrian facilities, aviation, rail, and marine transportation planning. The federal government supposedly rewards intermodal cooperation.

So if you have any roadway in your area of concern that is a state or federal highway, it's important to get acquainted with your MPO and its transportation planning functions. You'll find that state road re-builds are usually largely federally funded, so don't skip over the word "state."

Periodically there are structured opportunities for public input. You might find you are already quite familiar with your MPO, because some of them also function as regional planning and technical assistance agencies, run various programs, and serve as local councils of governments.

If your area of concern has only local roads or streets, you can safely disregard the MPO and all of the federal transportation planning jargon.

Level of Service Concept

Another concept from federal and state highway transportation planning is the "level of service." Commonly referred to as LOS in jurisdictions where the term is in use, this idea can be applied to almost any aspect of public service delivery where measurement is possible.

Road LOS typically is expressed as a grade, as in elementary school, from A through F where F is failing. That's a clogged road that takes way too long to travel, you're congested all the way, turns are difficult, and so forth. So LOS is an effective transportation planning tool.

Integration with Land Use Planning and Decisions

As described on the land use planning page, projected future land uses and future transportation needs are inextricably tied together. So land use planning without transportation planning is folly.

The implication for a local government is that your public works department shouldn't be doing long-range transportation planning in a vacuum. Whoever is staffing your planning and zoning commission should be completely tied into whatever transportation planning is occurring.

Local Street Policies

If you're in an urban area and you have issues with your streets, they likely fall into four areas:

• Maintenance

• Sidewalks and bike or pedestrian policy

• Speeds

• Frequency and types of stops necessary

We're going to skip over maintenance, because that's a matter of political will and money. Sometimes it's also a matter of smart assessment of what needs to be done. So if your streets haven't been repaired in many years, it can be worth your while to hire a firm to evaluate what the least expensive and most durable fix might be.

I worked for a municipality that managed a very sophisticated program of repairing streets with different methods depending on identifying the underlying conditions, the solidity of the base, current and future traffic, and so forth.

So if you are maintenance-challenged, be smart, be selective, and possibly save money by avoiding the one-size-fits-all approach.

As usual, there are transportation planning concepts and terms to master before you can really be respected as knowing what you're talking about down at City Hall. So we're going to condense what you have to know to be politically effective.

City streets are classified in almost all transportation documents, and the classifications are some variations of these three ideas:

• Arterial streets. These function to move traffic through your city as arteries function to move blood through your body. They are a key network, and ideally it's an interconnected network both internally within the city and to the edge of town where the arteries connect well into the state or federal highway system.

Getting the arteries correct is key to good tranasportation planning. You may have major arterials and minor arterials, for instance, but you'll probably see some variant of this term if there's an official transportation plan, or transportation element (chapter) of the master/comprehensive/general plan.

• Collector streets. A collector street collects traffic from local streets. If you're a subdivision that has one or two access points to arterial streets or roads, the streets that intersect the arterials are the collectors. So a collector is intermediate between a strictly local street and an arterial street.

• Local streets. That's the level of a residential street that is not a "through" street, or commercial street that serves only a few businesses or industries and nothing else. A local street is followed to a collector street, which is followed to an arterial.

Or so the theory goes. Note that before the suburban building pattern became so prevalent, the street pattern of a city typically was a grid. In a grid, some streets may be designated as more prominent than others because they have fewer stops, a wider street with more lanes, or a higher speed limit.

The wider streets probably are the arterials, or the through streets. In a true grid it becomes somewhat irrelevant which intersecting streets are collectors and which are local streets, so the terminology and standards may diff

Signals, Signs, and Roundabouts

As we said in the previous section, the time spent at intersections is the main variable determining the length of time a trip along urban streets requires.

It goes without saying that timing on traffic signals needs to be optimized to the greatest extent possible to allow traffic in both or all directions to get through quickly. Program those boxes to the maximum extent possible to reflect varying conditions.

If you are active at the neighborhood level, think two or three times before you ask for a traffic signal. Besides being expensive, they go out at exactly the wrong time, the timing becomes goofy because traffic conditions change upstream or downstream, and you're guaranteed to hit a long red light at 7 a.m. on a Sunday morning.

So consider whether the all-way or four-way stop won't serve your purpose. In most situations people proceed in quite an orderly fashion, and they're appropriate when traffic in the several directions is not lopsided. If you have 90% of the traffic trying to process along one of the two roads, that's when you need a signal.

Traffic engineers work on the basis of what they call "traffic warrants." It means there is a written standard as to when a traffic signal or sign is "warranted." No, it doesn't have to do with warrants for anyone's arrest. Depending on the engineer, they may be rigid or somewhat flexible about applying those standards. But just like anything else at the neighborhood level, persist and insist.

Traffic circles have been common in some cities for years, but they are now very trendy in transportation planning. The theory is that it keeps more traffic moving faster because no one really has to stop; people entering the traffic circle, now commonly called a roundabout, yield the right-of-way gently to others as they merge. Then they leave the roundabout through perhaps a slight slow-down if necessary.

Proponents points out that since no one stops, there's no idling, which is good for energy savings and decreased air pollution. Also in theory, if it's a single-lane roundabout where there's no land switching necessary to enter and exit, it's reasonably safe for vehicles, pedestrians, and bicyclists.

The reality is that these are good for aggressive drivers and not good for anyone else. If you have a muscle car and excess testosterone, this is for you.

But if you have an ounce of sympathy for Grandma at all, don't even think about it.

If you want anyone to look at your storefront, forget about it. They won't; they're too busy looking at who's coming and who's going and what is on the other side of the circle. If you want to promote walking, forget it.

It's a really, really bad idea for most of the applications that I've seen built recently. There are, by the way, places for roundabouts, and those are extremely urban environments where more than four streets come together and where all are in the same range for traffic entrance and traffic redistribution. In those cases, Grandma has to just grit her teeth and go for it.

Traffic Calming and Complete Streets

Traffic calming is any artificial device or procedure introduced to try to make traffic go slower, but not stop. So from the speed bump in the trailer park to the sophisticated chicane, in which a jog in the street is created, that's traffic calming.

The term also may extend to installing permanent or temporary barriers on a portion of the street, forcing everyone to enter a more narrow lane or to dodge from one side of the original roadway to another.

If you decide to try traffic calming, which is discussed more extensively on another page, be prepared for tantrums from within your neighborhood. So have a good neighborhood dialogue about the possibilities before any firm decisions are made.

There are a number of ways to test traffic calming devices temporarily, by the way, so it could be that putting out barricades for a few weeks where permanent obstructions are being considered would be a good test run.

A more inclusive concept is complete streets. In contrast to many single-issue traffic calming programs, complete streets emphasizes all users and all transportation modes.

Getting Around:
tall building under construction by transit
Transit Oriented Development

mixed use development South Street Philadelphia
Mixed Use Development

A complete streets program is a long-range program in built-out areas, because implementation usually occurs as streets are rebuilt.

From a complete streets perspective, it's just as important to have a bikeable and walkable community as a driveable community.

Further, having a few blocks of bike lane that then disappear into multi-hazard territory for bicyclists just doesn't count under complete streets. Sidewalks that dead end into retaining walls don't meet the mark.

For either traffic calming or complete streets, making the treatment as aesthetic as you can will increase acceptance. Transit stops, bulb-outs, islands, short medians, chicanes, and street narrowing all offer substantial opportunities for landscaping and beautification. Or maybe a fountain.

Rural Roads Now, But What About Later?

And if you're in a small rural county government where no one is really planning land use, and where there's no zoning, you still need to consider future land use in your transportation planning.

In other words, do you think that each town will expand some in the future? If you do, it's more than likely that the expansion will follow the main road out of town. If you have a major attraction, such as a lake or a large employer, that could serve as a magnet for future building as well. Use your best intelligence as to what will likely happen, given the most optimistic scenario for growth.

Then, even though it seems inconceivable to you that you could need to widen that narrow little road, it you want building to happen there, do some transportation planning for the roadway.

I'm not saying you have to build a big wide boulevard now, and in fact it would be fiscally and environmentally irresponsible to do so. But leave the room for it.

As mentioned at the top of this article, when I returned to the scene of my first job as an urban planner, what was then a 20-foot-wide rural road has now turned into a five-lane wide boulevard. There's Olive Garden and Toys R Us and Best Buy and You-Name-It, but all of this is possible because of our transportation planning. We designated that road as a future arterial street in the Long-Range Transportation Plan, and in due time, the transportation plan was implemented.

Now, rural folk with no planning and no zoning, what if we hadn't set aside the 80 foot right-of-way that seemed ridiculous to ordinary folks (and the people who lived along the road) at the time? The first chain store coming in would have built right at the intersection with an existing major road, and chances are excellent they would have built their side entrance too close to Little Rural Road that is now a true boulevard.

This is where you need an Official Map to make sure your transportation planning is preserved, even if you don't have zoning. Most states allow local governments to create an official map to set aside land for future roads.

The official map doesn't carry any funding promises, and it surely doesn't have to do with zoning, but it does say that land owners can't build in an area proposed on the official map for future right-of-way. Check into your state law about this subject; I think all of them now are published on-line so you no longer need to go to your county courthouse or go see an attorney to look up a state law.

So set up an official map if your state law permits, even if you have no land use planning or zoning function in the county. It lets you keep your future road rights-of-way clear of buildings that would expensive (and pesky politically) to buy out later if you need that road widened.

> > Transportation Planning

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