Sunday, May 17, 2009

Shelby County Builds Its First Smart Road

Shelby County’s model “smart growth” road – Houston Levee between Wolf River and Macon Road – lives up to its advanced billing.

The $7 million experiment sparked by Shelby County Engineer Mike Oakes’ commitment to smarter road design stands in stark contrast to county government’s long-time tendency to build too many lanes to fuel too much sprawl at too much cost to the urban core.

Criticism by Conn Canale – owner of the four-decades-old and always enjoyable Canale Grocery – showed just how badly we have been brainwashed by the roadbuilding industry. In The Commercial Appeal, Mr. Canale said: “I think we need a couple of more lanes, because the traffic backs up.”

It’s this preoccupation of building roads on the basis of its busiest 10 hours each week – rush hour - that led to the six-lane monstrosities marring what used to be context sensitive roadways and enjoyable pastoral drives. In addition, as sprawl has pulled population and businesses eastward, these six lane roads often now divide quiet, vacant buildings in areas that the economy has abandoned.

Complete Streets

That’s why Mr. Oakes, in his wisdom, chose a road less traveled.

Instead of building lanes that would only be used in rush hour, he designed and constructed an almost four mile segment that is a tip of the hat to the “complete streets” movement. The two 35 miles per hour lanes can be expanded to four lanes later (if needed) and a landscaped median can be added, but now, the road’s gentle curves leave room for walkers, bicyclists, skaters and joggers.

The design of the roadway harkens back 40 years ago when the undulating roads outside Memphis cut through pastures and hamlets, making Sunday drives a popular pastime. When asked why he didn’t design the roads to cut straight across the county, the county engineer of the time said: “I think these softly curving roads are more attractive and fun to drive.”

He was right then, and Mr. Oakes is right now. He said that “context sensitive design and Mayor Wharton’s ‘smart growth’ initiatives opened doors that had been closed for decades in our community.” “I have found an appreciation for better design whenever it is tried. We began to realize the quality of life aspect to projects that we had been ignoring in the past.” As a result, he said that he began to look for opportunities to change the county’s traditional engineering on its roads, and that when he presented this new concept for Houston Levee Road, Mayor Wharton said yes.

It’s A Start

It’s a modest project, but it’s a start, especially to county to taxpayers who’ve been paying a premium for suburban sprawl.

Few subjects have been as endlessly discussed in this community as smart growth, and at times, we seemed at risk of co-opting the language while doing nothing to change our behavior. However, finally, we’re seeing the first signs of meaningful change in the way that the county engineer’s office designs roads. Now, if only this attitude could reach across Main Street to City Hall where the city engineer’s office often sends the message that it’s his way or the highway (excuse the pun) and that the public is nothing so much as a nuisance in the design process.

In fact, nothing symbolizes the difference in attitude and tone between the county engineer’s office and the city engineer’s office more than the difference between City of Memphis’ Walnut Grove Road into Shelby Farms Park and Shelby County’s Houston Levee Road between Wolf River and Macon Road.

At Shelby Farms Park, the city engineer’s office seemed determined to fight any suggestion that Walnut Grove Road should accommodate bicyclists and walkers. Incredibly, it essentially is a barrier to bicyclists interested in actually crossing from one side of the park to the other. As the city engineer’s office seems to be saying, its loyalty is to asphalt and cars, and sensitivity to the natural setting or other modes of transportation is someone else’s job.

Smart Planning

Houston Levee Road may be a modest first step, but Mr. Oakes suggests that county government is going to raise its aim beyond this 3.7 miles experiment, and hopefully, usher in a better way of building roads and highways in this community.

We know it is too early to get overly excited about the prospects. After all, there was a time when Germantown Parkway – now a concrete tribute to the county’s lack of commitment to sound planning – was heralded as an important opportunity to emphasize some of the same issues now being applied to Houston Levee Road.

Back then, before the ink on the Germantown Parkway Plan had dried, the Shelby County Board of Commissioners was making amendments that reversed the plan’s fundamental policies and produced the endless succession of strip malls across the landscape.

Mr. Oakes pointedly rejected the massive design used for Germantown Parkway in favor of his two-lane road, and to underscore that a new day may be dawning, his plan actually includes bike paths and the planting of trees. He promises that the road will be no wider than two lanes until about 2016 at the earliest and even afterwards, it will be widened to four lanes designed as a boulevard.

McMassive Roads

The county engineer’s thinking about this road corresponds with a growing belief that supersizing highways actually ends up making them more dangerous. The expansive roadways that exist throughout suburban Shelby County are bleak testament to the “bigger is better” attitude so often adopted by highway engineers.

Thankfully, a change is taking root around the country with a new breed of engineers who design roads that take into consideration once unheard of ideas – slowing down the traffic to move fewer cars and sharing the road with pedestrians and bike riders.

The Memphis city engineer’s office reminds us of how hard it will be for the profession to adapt to this new approach. Strangely, many traffic engineers in the public sector seem blind to the fact that this different philosophy can prevent the fault lines that so often open up between government, neighborhoods and environmentalists. That’s why flexibility and listening are two skills that are becoming as important to highway engineers as skills at the drafting table.

After all, transportation in Shelby County does much more than just move people from place to place. It also shapes the innate character of the community at its most basic. Recent studies show that people with access to sidewalks walk more, people with access to trails jog and walk more, and that walking increases with well-connected streets that are calm, appealing and narrow.

Getting Out Of Cars

Residents of walkable neighborhoods engage in about 70 more minutes a week of physical activity than people living in less walkable neighborhoods. Between 1977 and 1995, trips made by walking have declined by 40 percent for children and adults while driving trips have almost doubled. It’s no wonder that the percentage of young people who are overweight also doubled when compared to 20 years ago.

Some suggested changes to road design include adding more roadways with bike lanes and trails; damping speeds on arterials and collectors to about 35 miles per hour; offering networks for pedestrians and bike riders that are as accessible as those for cars; bulbing out curbs, improving crosswalks, and installing landscaped medians to slow down traffic and adding to the safety of pedestrians; adding landscaping, especially trees, and installing public art.

With the new thinking displayed by the county engineer’s office, it’s easier to imagine a community focused on highways that create higher quality of life and reduce the cost of construction as well as public health costs. Once, it was a pipe dream, but Houston Levee shows that it can become reality.


Anonymous said...

This is definitely a great start and a huge relief from the auto-centric approach to transportation planning that has infected our region for too long. Now we need to get the rest of government to step up and stop the development that creates the demand for these road projects in the first place.

Anonymous said...

Its really intresting things ,

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