Thursday, October 7, 2021

City Video on Sidewalks and Bike Lanes Seems Agreeable, but Swerves from Heart of Matter

Earlier this week the City published a 12 minute video on transportation planning for sidewalks and bike lanes.

A chat at City Hall - via FB

It's a chat between the Mayor and our Transportation Planner, Julie Warncke. Since it appears to be conducted with Covid-distancing still, it is not as fluid and graceful as it might have been under normal times, so it's important not to focus on that. Overall, it strikes a blandly agreeable tone, and there does not seem to be anything much factual to quibble with.

If walking and biking were "easy" more would do it
The recent Satisfaction survey

But in emphasis and shape, it seems too agreeable and even complacent, addressed mainly to those who think the City is already doing a good job. It seems to be aimed at that 62% of Salemites who think that it is "easy" to "walk or bike in Salem," and only minor, incremental improvements are really called for.

The City should instead give more public thought to ways we are not meeting our targets for walking and biking. The picture the Indicators developed in the Our Salem project gives a very different sense of things. If people really thought it was "easy" to walk and bike, we would have more trips by walking and biking.

We are failing badly on walking and biking
(June Our Salem 2019 indicators - here and here)

More than anything, in the chat, the City missed an opportunity to center climate and to cue up the Climate Action Plan. 53% of our emissions are from driving, and when we talk about walking and biking more, we should pair that messaging with talking about driving less.

Scenario 1 isn't enough, but is doable right now
(last week at Council)

A climate context and the need for strong action now should be at the center of talking about transportation planning for walking and biking. In the video and chat, climate was a really striking omission, particularly since a draft of the Climate Plan is going to be coming out here this fall.

This to me is another instance of evidence that the City is not taking climate very seriously and is not interested in thinking through it in a rigorous way. Here was another chance to coordinate and integrate the messaging, and they passed it up.

There are also some smaller matters of tone and emphasis. One instance in the video shows the two talking past each other about different places. Though the places are only separated by a couple of blocks on the same main street, they arose out of and responded to different problems, and by conflating them the video shows a little careless autoism.

While Warncke talks about the new enhanced crossing on Fairgrounds Road at Norway, arising out of the Winter-Maple Greenway, the Mayor is talking about work done several years before on Hood Street at Church, the elbow where it turns into Fairgrounds Road.

The reason for a project on Hood/Church/Fairgrounds was because drivers kept speeding and crashing into the church and school.

Killed Self Driving into Church (2012)

The video shows the Mayor's example at Hood and Church, not Warncke's on Norway and Fairgrounds.

The approach to Hood and Church on Fairgrounds

Drivers used to zoom here and fail to navigate the veer right, and instead smashed into the corner of the building (behind the yellow arrows), sometimes with fatal consequences.

Offset crosswalk at Church and Hood

This offset crosswalk in the median was fit in after the median was designed to curb driving speed. It serves multiple ends, and does help people on foot, but it's not super bike-friendly with the sharp turns, and it was not conceived primarily for people on foot and on bike. It was fit into the requirements of the median for speeding, not an afterthought exactly, but still a secondary consideration.

It is strange that the City's media team didn't notice the cross-talk or misunderstanding on the two crosswalks, and reshoot that part of the video. But it may be symptomatic of the lack of priority and interest - one crosswalk's the same as another, it seems.

A different project that was primarily conceived for people on foot does not get enough context in the video.

Enhanced crosswalk near Royvonne on Commercial
where a driver killed Shatamera Pruden

Commercial Street is signed for 40mph at Royvonne, a driver killed 14 year old Shatamera Pruden here a few years ago, and the crosswalk installed specifically to address crossing demand and safety and for the bus stop there. A driver killed a child with a name there, and the City should face that more squarely.

More generally, in tone City should stop talking about the special favors they are doing for people who might like to walk and bike, and instead talk about our habit, even epidemic, of dangerous driving. Driving is the problem. Driving is the problem for climate and driving is the problem for safety. Driving harms and kills us, and we need to take its harms more seriously. Walking and biking are not special interests.

Even the Police said "eye-opening" (2020)

There are some other instances of tone and emphasis that are a little autoist. While the conversation in the video does talk about gaps in the sidewalk network, showing a residential street where the sidewalk just ends, and also discussing the gap on Commercial Street between Vista and Ratcliff (though without showing that), it also dwells on the notion that we can meet biking needs with parallel alternative routes rather than good bike lanes on the busy streets that actually have destinations people want and need to travel to. We need both.

The Mayor also alluded to people who complain that bike lanes don't get used enough and might seem wasteful. That criticism of, "I don't see anyone using it. Why are we building them?"

But many of our roads are slack or empty on weekends or off-peak times, and we shape our road planning around rush hour volumes and to 20 year forecasts. The video also could draw attention to the way we currently build streets for future demand, and do much less of this for walking and biking.

We should be planning for the walking and biking we want to have (that climate thing again!), and not building to meet visible current demand.

Altogether, the video and conversation may seem a little anodyne, but in an ostensibly friendly way it actually expresses the systematic way we marginalize walking and biking and treat them as some special interest rather than as foundational mobility, essential for our 21st century needs.

No comments: