Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Making urban highways more likeable

Just a quick pass-along this week from transportation expert Bob Poole at Reason, followed by a few comments of mine:
Making Urban Highways More Likeable
Last month I wrote about the Reason Mobility Project’s first major policy study, which makes the case that over the next 25 years, America’s urban areas need to add 104,000 lane-miles of expressway, arterials, and local roads in order to catch up with growth in vehicle miles traveled and eliminate the worst (Level of Service F) congestion. That’s all well and good, some of you responded, but where on earth could we put that new capacity? There’s no more room—and besides, roads are ugly bad neighbors.
Those are very legitimate concerns, and they are the subject of the second major policy paper from the Mobility Project, just now being released. It’s Peter Samuel’s “Innovative Roadway Design: Making Highways More Likeable.” Can we, it asks, figure out ways to make roadways better fit in, adding much-needed capacity without paving over our metro areas with unending concrete? I’m very impressed with what Peter has come up with, and I hope you will be, too.
The paper acknowledges many things that highway boosters don’t always like to admit: making freeways ever-wider can create real operational difficulties; there’s a case for reviving pretty, winding pre-World War II cars-only parkways; and there’s definitely a case for traffic-calming measures to preserve neighborhood streets from invasions of through traffic that threaten neighborhood tranquility and safety. And many of our freeways are just plain ugly, incapable of inspiring admiration like some of our iconic transportation landmarks such as the Golden Gate Bridge.
Acknowledging all that, what does the paper suggest as innovative design ideas? Much of it deals with limited-access expressways, since that is the most difficult challenge. For these kinds of lane-miles, the paper scours the world for innovative examples, both built and on-paper, of going up, going under, or creatively re-using existing freeway rights of way. Tunnels hold great promise, for example, for filling in much-needed but politically impossible missing links in existing freeway systems (illustrated by examples from Paris and Melbourne). Selected double-decking holds promise, too, with an elegant example being the just-opened elevated tolled express lanes in Tampa that I wrote about last issue.
Two other keys to squeezing in more urban expressway capacity are special-purpose lanes and use of non-traditional rights of way. Cars-only express lanes or truck-only toll lanes can make use of much narrower rights of way than a conventional freeway—and such rights of way exist in the form of abandoned rail lines, power transmission rights of way, flood control channels or flood plains alongside rivers, etc. Some very provocative examples are shown, for example of an express-lanes roadway from Los Angeles International airport to downtown LA and a trucks-only tollway in Brooklyn—both using abandoned rail right of way.
The paper devotes a whole chapter to arterial improvements, as well, suggesting selective use of overpasses to avoid delays at signalized intersections (as in Silicon Valley’s “expressways,” which are half-way between freeways and conventional arterials), innovative intersection designs, and both the benefits and limitations of traffic signal synchronization.
This is, of necessity, a highly visual policy study, and it will repay careful perusal. As the Mobility Project releases a series of city-specific case studies in coming months, you will see many of these ideas proposed for use in real-world settings.
An executive summary and the full report can be found here.  A lot of good ideas, although I'm not a fan of car or truck-only lanes, which seems like it would often be underutilized.  Better to allow all traffic and use congestion-priced tolling to match supply and demand exactly, perfectly maximizing the throughput of the road.  One of their more intriguing ideas for Houston might be using the power transmission rights of way, like along Westpark or the one that crosses 610S near Stella Link (which could finally connect the Ft. Bend Parkway to 610, providing relief to 288 and 59S).  I'm also a big fan of more small parkways like Allen Parkway or Memorial.  As far as cool tunnel ideas, check out the recent update to this post.

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At 4:04 PM, December 14, 2010, Blogger Jardinero1 said...

An advantage of separating cars and trucks is that the car only lanes can be built to a much lower construction standard. Tractor trailers produce several hundred times the wear and tear on the roadway of cars. Tractor trailers also cause a disproportionate number of accident and congestion problems.

Congestion pricing, I mean tolls, are still the only solution to get drivers to use a scarce resource - lane space, in anything like a rational way. I can think of no other finite resource on the planet which is just given away to the public. If the government is going to give lanes to the public why doesn't the government just give away the cars and gas as well?

At 7:03 PM, December 14, 2010, Blogger Peter Wang said...

"I can think of no other finite resource on the planet which is just given away to the public. If the government is going to give lanes to the public why doesn't the government just give away the cars and gas as well?"

That is a truly inspired statement. In a truly free, undistorted economy, users pay market costs.

At 7:18 PM, December 14, 2010, Blogger lockmat said...

We need to find ways to build better grids of highways—smaller highways but more of them.

Tory, how can this be done? If we were starting a city from scratch this would make perfect sense, but our cities are already built out. I don't think eminent domain will be a very popular idea in denser areas.

At 7:44 PM, December 14, 2010, Blogger lockmat said...

Sorry Tory, I read the answer in the next few sentences *blush*

But isn't this study flawed from the start? The title is Making Highways More Likable. Shouldn't the goal be to make them more efficient? I'm sure the paper addresses this but it seems their goal is mixed. Making them likable should be a secondary issue and addressed in an appendix or another study.

At 9:21 PM, December 14, 2010, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Yes, what they're really saying is, "We know we need this capacity, but people fear ever-wider mega-freeways, so what are other options that improve mobility and can attract more public support?"

At 9:16 AM, December 15, 2010, Anonymous palvar said...

Power transmission lines are specifically designed to have nothing on the ground underneath them. As the lines are used more, they heat up and expand and "sag" lower to the ground. The 2003 blackout was caused by a transmission line sagging into a tree along a poorly maintained ROW. This is not a safe area for vehicles to travel.

At 3:37 PM, December 15, 2010, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I appreciate the safety issue, but I'm sure safety could be engineered in at a relatively low cost compared to the cost of building the road - maybe with higher towers.

At 6:51 AM, December 16, 2010, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Also, couldn't the high voltage towers be built with a single mast design, instead of the wide base that most of them in Houston appear to have? I'm not an Electrical Engineer, but it seems like they could still have the same separation distance of the lines up top with a much smaller footprint on bottom. (Of course, there might be a major disruption while they make the switch, but I'm just brainstorming.)


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