Thursday, April 13, 2017

New City Video for Crossing at Union and Commercial Sells it Short

The City's got a new video about the improved crosswalks and bike crossing at Union and Commercial.

They don't really show the problem the project seeks to solve
Making good video is hard and speaking on camera is hard. So there's a real question about what standard is appropriate for judging a City communication. It's not fair to expect the standards we would bring to Hollywood or national network news. There are also questions about audience and message framing. The City has to talk to multiple audiences, who don't always share the same values, hopes, and expectations. There's a balancing act involved. And crucially, the City is not staffed up with a full production team, on-camera talent, and studio. This is not, and should not be, a core business for the City!

Still, without necessarily saying these elements are "wrong" or "bad," as the City might have perfectly good reasons for the choices they made, here nonetheless are some observations about what the video says and the values it encodes.

First, here's a transcript:
INTRO: This summer we'll begin improving safety for bicycles and pedestrians at the busy intersection of Union street and Commercial street. This new signal was part of the community vision set out in the Bike and Walk Salem plan in October 2011 and the Central Salem Mobility Study in 2013. The new signal will provide a vital and safe way to cross the four lanes of Commercial Street in this congested area to access the Union Street rail road bridge....

AT THE BRIDGE: So this summer we are going to be constructing improvements at Union Street and Commercial Street and adding a traffic signal. And that is the first step in connecting the Union Street Pedestrian Bridge with 12th Street as part of the Family-friendly bikeway. That project was identified by a group of community members and city council persons and people from city staff and urban development in 2012. The results of those meetings were published in the Central Salem Mobility Study and adopted by City Council in 2013. As part of that study several things were identified to make traffic - pedestrian and bicycle - move more freely throughout the city. and this is one that was prioritized, and this intersection was set to happen first.

So this summer we'll be adding a signal that will allow safe travel for pedestrians across commercial street. Commercial Street is often backed up and bicycles and pedestrians can't cross there. So the signal will route vehicle traffic that is currently headed eastbound to the south and allow bicycle traffic to pass freely east and west. Also as part of that we are going to construct curb extensions that will shorten the crossing distance for pedestrians and on the west side we will put a traffic island in that will give a refuge spot for pedestrians traveling north and south at the intersection. With it we will increase the striping and the visibility for bicycles and pedestrians and overall make it a safe route to move from west Salem all the way to the capital mall and Willamette University and places downtown. Other phases of the project will make other improvements.
One big problem is that there are at least two audiences for this communication, those who walk and bike and would like to reach the Union Street Railroad Bridge more easily, and those who are driving down Commercial and might wish for free-flowing car traffic. The City is potentially "stuck" selling a project that may not contribute to free-flowing traffic on Commercial Street.

You see the image at top: That's Commercial and Union in a low-traffic state when there may not actually be so much difficulty crossing it. It's not congested, yet the script dwells on the problem of "congestion."

And in fact, when traffic on Commercial is not moving, it is not always so difficult to cross along Union Street. It's not comfortable, but there are often gaps between cars.

The biggest problem for people of foot and on bike comes when car traffic is zooming or there is a constant stream of moving cars.

And solving that for people on foot and on bike requires stopping free-flowing car traffic in order to create an intersection-wide gap and pause.

But the City may not feel quite free to describe the full nature of the problem and the solution, because it goes against our prevailing hydraulic expectations for free-flowing traffic. To describe the problem requires a critique of our autoism, and the City has rarely been willing to go there - even though there is clear support in the Comprehensive Plan for this critique:
System Efficiency
(12) The implementation of transportation system and demand management measures, enhanced transit service, and provision for bicycle and pedestrian facilities shall be pursued as a first choice for accommodating travel demand and relieving congestion in a travel corridor, before widening projects are constructed.
(13) The Salem Transportation System Plan shall identify methods that citizens can use to commute to work and decrease overall traffic demand on the transportation system. Such methods include transit ridership, telecommuting, carpooling, vanpooling, flexible work schedules, walking, and bicycling.
Projects like the intersection work here are not merely something generated by "community vision." They are called for in our highest level policy document!

(This is perhaps a place where the current Strategic Plan process could help draw closer and more explicit linkages between our high level policy and the ground-level instantiation of it. This video is partial evidence of a pervasive disconnect.)

Another problem is the enthusiasm gap. Rather than saying "we need this! it will be great!" the project gets framed up as something "the community" wanted. In tone, it seems like the City is sheepish, perhaps a little embarrassed about it, and wants to make sure that you know they are not behind it 100%. This cuts both ways of course. It can be read as a nod to a bottom-up process, and proof that the City is responsive. But the video, like the Police video from last year, lacks oxygen and shows little enthusiasm for the project. As a sales tool - and part of the job of the video is to sell the project and generate additional support for it - it may not be very effective. It would be nice to feel that there's more excitement for the project.

Not in the film!
Why don't they show the project in plan view as a slide inserted into the narrative? For someone who doesn't know what the project about, the film doesn't seem all that informative. To say
we are going to construct curb extensions that will shorten the crossing distance for pedestrians and on the west side we will put a traffic island in that will give a refuge spot for pedestrians traveling north and south at the intersection
is probably not very descriptive for most people. The script is a little trapped within the guild rhetoric of Engineering and Public Works. If you're not already attuned to "curb extensions" and "traffic islands" it may be difficult to grasp the changes here.

Finally, let's stop talking about "bicyclists and pedestrians." Let's instead talk about "people who walk and bike." Especially when making public-facing communications, our prevailing rhetoric, mostly taken from internal engineering jargon, doesn't help. "How Smart Language Helped End Seattle's Paralyzing Bikelash" and "8 Transportation Engineering Euphemisms That Should Be Tossed Out" talk more about the problem and give some solutions for better and more easily understood rhetoric.

Again, it's not fair to expect showbiz standards, and you might reasonably say this is all just nitpicking. Or maybe you disagree and have a completely different reading of the video. But from here it looks like the City remains uncomfortable with elements of a family-friendly bikeway and doesn't sell it as effectively as it could.


Susann Kaltwasser said...

I use this way to get on the bridge fairly often and for cars taking that route, it works well now. However, I can see where it is not easy for anyone trying to walk or bike in the area, so a light makes sense. However, as I look at the drawing, I wonder how really safe it is for bike users. They still have to cross several lanes of traffic. Unless there is a phase of the light for bikes alone, there could be a conflict between someone turning from Union to Commercial. Seems like just using the crosswalk would be safer.

I don't ride a bike myself, but I would feel very vulnerable if I were stuck out in that bike lane surrounded by cars just looking to make a break for it.

If I were a parent, I think I would just try to stick to using the sidewalk and risk being told not to by the police. I don't understand the no riding on the sidewalk rule in a lot of places where there are few pedestrians anyway.

I'm in favor of separation between cars and bikes. We do it for pedestrians (sidewalks), so shouldn't we look for similar protections for bikes?

Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

The plan for the intersection is a compromise and has been watered down some. You can see an intial concept from back in 2012 here. It was considerably more ambitious, and offered more separation.

What they are doing will be a great improvement, but it will be incremental rather than totally transformative. Still, I am very much looking forward to it!

Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

This is a little old now, but the City posted a video about the whole set of summer projects, and these include some locator maps and plan views.