Cultivating a Non-Automobile Focus in Transportation

Guest Post by Max Moreland, PE, Director of Operations at Traffic Data Inc.

At the recent 2017 Minnesota’s Transportation Conference (MTC), the Toole Design Group presented “Equity in Transportation: Meeting the Multimodal Needs of People of All Ages and Abilities.” This was part of a session focused on complete streets. The complete streets concept is the redesign of a street to re-focus from primarily (or exclusively) accommodating motor vehicles to providing for multiple modes of transportation, whether that be motor vehicles, bicycles or pedestrians. This presentation made me re-think my own approach to projects.

Often in the traffic engineering world, non-motorized vehicle traffic is viewed as an accessory or supplement to driving. Alternatively, some may see it as increasing choices if someone chooses not to drive. Based on this, adding pedestrian, bicycle or transit access to a site or along a corridor can be near the end of a project checklist and put into the layout only if there is room. But for many, it is a need and not a choice.

In Minnesota, 62 percent of all residents have a driver’s license. Approximately ten to fifteen percent of driving age adults in Minnesota do not have a driver’s license. Of the people that do have a driver’s license, there is also a group without regular access to a personal motor vehicle. With a significant portion of the population not able to drive, viable options become transit, bicycling, or in many cases walking. As opposed to just enjoying the weather or trying to stay in shape, many people are forced to walk or bicycle long distances to commute.  “Invisible riders,” for example, make up a large part of the cycling population. (Check out this article on How Low-Income Riders Go Unnoticed.)

One of the major influencers in how we think about transportation is the language we use. Much of the language in traffic engineering is auto oriented and leaves other modes out of the picture. At the MTC presentation, several examples were given of how our language comes with some biases. A recent article by Ian Lockwood was published in the January 2017 ITE Journal also focused on this topic. From the presentation, several examples stand out:

  • Alternative Transportation. As previously mentioned, many people are unable to drive and the form of transportation they use is not necessarily an alternative but it is the only option. Being more specific with our language by saying “biking” or “walking” would help in not promoting the idea that driving a vehicle is the primary form of transportation above all others.
  • Traffic. This almost always refers to motor vehicle traffic, so it should be referenced as motor vehicle traffic. Bicycle traffic and pedestrian traffic also exist and by specifying the form of traffic being talked about we can begin to shift the focus away from solely motor vehicles.
  • Acceptable Level of Service. Level of Service (LOS) is typically assigned based on seconds of delay. While that can be a telling measure of the vehicle operations at an intersection or on a corridor, tipping from LOS D to LOS E might only be a few added seconds of delay. While adding lanes or other mitigation measures may allow for LOS D or better, there may be tradeoffs that are more important than improving the LOS grade. Reporting delays in seconds rather than letters can give a clearer picture of the operations. This is something we have recently begun doing in our studies at Spack Consulting. Rather than present a table of LOS results, we chart the applicable vehicle queues and delays to more clearly show the impacts of different scenarios.

Whether or not we are working on a specific complete streets project, all of our projects should keep equity for all users in mind. Recent updates to the Highway Capacity Manual give tools to analyze pedestrian and bicycle systems and software programs like Vistro have begun to incorporate those into their analysis packages. These tools are making it easier for all of us to increase our focus beyond cars and account for more modes of transportation during projects.

Interested in learning more? Check out the Toole Group’s presentation “Meeting the Multimodal Needs of People of All Ages and Abilities presented by Greta Alquist and Ciara Schlichting.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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One thought on “Cultivating a Non-Automobile Focus in Transportation

  1. This is a great article, thanks for sharing. I love the shift in how we talk about traffic. I’ll be sharing it with my fellow bike, pedestrian, transit, and motor vehicle traffic engineers!