Check out this webinar hosted on our sister site, Community Builders, with Jim Charlier and Vickie Jacobsen from Charlier Associates discussing “When Main Street is a State Highway.” Because so many people tuned in, we got lots of questions from the audience. Here are Jim & Vickie’s answers:
Q: What advice do you offer communities where the main highway that goes through town is NOT main street?
Jim Charlier: There are a lot of communities where this is the case, for example when the highway is at right angles with the main street. Although our discussion today focused narrowly on “Main Street,” much of this information would still apply. The state highway is often still a location where a lot of the commercial business occurs. For example, the idea of “process before design,” would still be applicable, in that it is important to reach solutions to transportation problems via careful consideration with input from the community as a whole, rather than by pre-ordained rules or regulations.
Q: In many towns, the downtown is on the decline. For example, in a downtown with urban decay, condemned buildings, historic buildings in disrepair, a main street that is uninviting to shoppers, with little pedestrian or bicycle access, what would you recommend to fix first for the largest impact?
Jim Charlier: It can be a slippery slope once a main street starts to go into decay. For older main streets that are starting to go into decay, there is a lot to be said for public investment into infrastructure. Private money follows public money. For example, improving the look of main street, fixing sidewalks, resurfacing streets, improving lighting–all of these fairly superficial improvements can be important and can lead to a private sector response.
Also, another factor can be about land use in the community–if land uses are not well-thought-out, worrying about infrastructure investments on Main Street can be secondary. In many of the examples in our presentation, the main street is losing business to commercial developments on strips on the outskirts of town, and that is having a huge effect on the function of main street. If it is easier and more profitable to invest in commercial developments outside of the city center, then that is where businesses are going to go.
Q: When are bike lanes appropriate on a Main Street? Can we make space for bike lanes on Main Street by creating a center turn lane?
Jim Charlier: This is one of those issues that is somewhat of a grey area. We generally would not advocate bike lanes in a true Main Street–where there is on-street parking and low-speed traffic. Typically, bikes can be in mixed traffic in that kind of situation, but there are all kinds of specific exceptions.
In considering bike lanes in your community, the first step is to have a bicycle system plan that incorporates thoughts on the regional network and prioritizes how the community connects into it. The plan should consider factors such as safe routes to schools, commercial districts, and what routes people need to take around town. That plan should be the basis for your decision about bike lanes on a main street.
If main street is a key route, and it’s the only key route, and it won’t make sense for bikes to be in mixed traffic–for example if the speeds are too high–and its possible to get a bike lane in there, maybe a bike lane is the right answer. Bike lanes don’t work at all well with diagonal parking, but if you have parallel parking it can work. We are working right now on a large project in Phoenix, proposing protected bike lanes between the parking and the curb, and they have wide enough streets in many areas where that is possible.
The National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) has published a new guide on bike facilities and it is very helpful and can help you to think about some of these design issues. There is not a single answer that works in every community.
Vickie Jacobsen: With respect to turn lanes, again, there is no hard-and-fast rule. But the impact of adding lanes in a main street area, which is a highly preserved pedestrian atmosphere, can be really detrimental, in terms of increasing the crossing distance at intersections and really changing the way pedestrians move across the street. Turn lanes may be appropriate in some situations, but we often try to create solutions in other ways than adding individual turn lanes in the main street core.
Jim Charlier: On University Avenue in Palo Alto, California, there is parallel parking on one side of the street, diagonal on the other, alternating from block-to-block. The space that is freed up is used for left turn lanes. By and large, you want main street to be as narrow as it can be, so right turn lanes often seem like a bad bargain in downtown settings. In many cases, left turn lanes may be necessary, however.
Q: How many linear feet of “Main Street” are appropriate to not over saturate the market of a Main Street? Per Capita or other unit?
Jim Charlier: Good question. We don’t have any hard and fast rules of thumb for this. Your point is important: there is a limit to how many block faces of true downtown storefront a population can support. Part of the problem is that while “downtown” character represents a specific urban form or place type, from an economic point of view it is a subset of the local market for commercial space. So if you have a lot of commercial sprawl along your area highways, that will subtract from the amount of commercial land use that can thrive in the downtown. If you have the resources, a market study to determine where you are relative to saturation in commercial space and what the trends are would help you address this. Another approach would be to base your planning on design considerations and then let the market respond. A form-based code or overlay for a downtown business district might be one way to do that. It might be a good idea to ask if local land use ordinances (zoning, etc.) are sufficient to contain sprawl, because that will empty a downtown as fast as anything.
Q: What are sources for funding for planning and engineering to resolve conflicts that arise when Main Street is a state highway?
Jim Charlier: We will be discussing funding at our January webinar, “Directions in Federal, State, and Local Transportation Funding.” (info on upcoming webinars HERE.) The general trend is that we are seeing a lot less state and federal funding available for new construction in the transportation sector. And that is a trend that is not going to turn around. In response, states are taking on more responsibility that the federal government used to cover, and local governments are having to take on responsibilities that were formerly covered by states. In any state, the state Department of Transportation is not going to be interested in doing alternatives analyses, environmental impact statements, or preliminary engineering activities for a project that is not a part of their Statewide Transportation Improvement Program (STIP). That can put a community in a corner, where you want to think about alternatives and address them early, but it is hard to find a funding source. In looking for assistance, communities can expand their thinking beyond just the government. For example, consider private sector charitable foundations. There are some larger non-profits, like Smart Growth America, that do excellent outreach technical assistance programs.
Q: Some states may have a good complete streets policy on paper, but the challenges continue in working with the Department of Transportation at the local level. What advice do you offer for these situations?
Jim Charlier: We supported complete streets policies, it was a brilliant branding, and a very important idea. But, in the end, many complete streets policies have not accomplished much. I don’t mean to speak against the concept of complete streets policies or against the people that got these policies adopted-getting the policies right is certainly important. Complete streets policies act as a very important policy backdrop.
But in most communities, it doesn’t work to go to the state and say, “this should be a bike and pedestrian street as well as a traffic street,” if you don’t have a good plan that shows what role the street plays in the bicycle network or why you think it’s important as a pedestrian street. It is very easy for states–and local public works departments as well–to get around a complete streets policy, we see this all the time. There are exceptions to the policies, and variations in interpretation.
Complete streets policies are most effective in working on projects that are already underway by state Departments of Transportation. For projects that are motivated at the local level, it is more important to be proactive. Communities should identify what they want to do and why, and lead with that. Then, if the state has a project, communities can try to tailor that state-level project to the local plan that is already in place.
Vickie Jacobsen: Again, it speaks to the idea of “process before design.” It doesn’t have to be a big, expensive process every time, but the idea is that you bring people together, so that the solutions come out of a discussion of community needs and not a pre-conceived design.
Q: In situations where the state Department of Transportation has policies that interfere with creating an attractive and vibrant main street, for example, not allowing cafe seating on sidewalks or limiting projecting signs or awnings–do you have any examples of communities that have overcome these types of regulations?
Jim Charlier: There are many examples, and in most cases these are not exactly regulations, but maybe design criteria, or just informal opinions. Way too often we are told that something is state policy, and in fact that is not the case.
But it can be the case that a state will have requirements, for example so that they can get their snowplows through in the winter without interference from awnings or signs. But there are also cases where communities have gotten around these types of criteria. In Longmont, Colorado, there is sidewalk seating along highway 287 in downtown. Often on-street parking will create a barrier that can keep a sidewalk atmosphere more appealing.
For years, people have said that AASHTO requires twelve-foot lanes, but it never has. In fact, what AASHTO’s “Green Book” has always said, and it still says today, is never build a lane wider than you have to. Now that is the opposite of what we often hear state Departments of Transportation saying, but a twelve-foot lane is the widest lane, it’s not the minimum lane. In many situations, eleven- or ten-foot lanes can work very well.
One useful reference is “Designing Walkable Urban Thoroughfares” from the Congress for the New Urbanism and the Institute of Transportation Engineers. This is a very carefully prepared engineering document that shows when and where you might be able to have narrower lanes. Some communities have found that narrower lanes allow them to get on-street parking back, or widen sidewalks, so that they can create an attractive downtown atmosphere, while still having a functional highway as a main street.
Q: Can states allow angled parking on state highways if traffic capcity is not reduced? What are your thoughts on converting parallel parking to back-in angled parking to create a safer environment for cyclists by increasing visibility to drivers?
Jim Charlier: There are a lot of main street state highways in North America that have diagonal parking on them. If somebody tells you that you can’t have diagonal parking on a state highway, it is not true.
But there are strong reasons why engineers would not want diagonal parking on a state highway. The accident rate is higher with diagonal parking than with parallel parking, and the accident severity is also a little bit higher–these things depend to some extent on whether it is a two-lane street or a four-lane street.
Again, this is something that benefits from careful analysis. The more parking you can get on main street–if it is a true store front main street–the healthier that main street is going to be. Diagonal parking is one way to do that. But we’ve also found, that in a lot of cases, the amount of parking you get from a parallel parking system is enough to keep the store front businesses healthy.
With respect to back-in parking, there are often problems with public acceptance, particularly early-on. But, back-in parking makes a lot of sense from an engineering perspective. It is much safer for people to be backing into a parking spot rather than backing into traffic. With back-in parking, the driver’s side window is towards the oncoming traffic, so there is better visibility when you pull out. There is also better ability for drivers to see cyclists.
Converting from parallel to back-in diagonal would be quite a leap, however. People are resistant to things they are not familiar with. If you have a situation where back-in parking is clearly much better–hillsides, for example–you will get better acceptance. Also in places where you have significant bicycle traffic, people are more receptive to back-in parking. But as a word of warning, in almost all cases in the interior West where communities have switched to back-in diagonal parking, public acceptance has been a long struggle. And there are a fair number of cases where the back-in diagonal has been reconverted to head-in diagonal parking.
Q: You discussed one-way couplets in Jena, Louisianna–how did converting these two-way streets to one-way streets increase evacuation capacity, and wouldn’t the conversion hurt main street businesses in the area?
Vickie Jacobsen: First of all, that was a project of compromise on many levels. This was originally a two-lane highway, one lane in each direction. By converting to two one-way streets, we added a lane in each direction, essentially doubling the capacity–the intended effect that the Department of Transportation needed for the statewide evacuation route.
Jim Charlier: The trade off for Jena was that if you completely relocated the state highway, then the Main Street businesses would really suffer. The traffic would not flow through the Main Street area at all, or have any reason to stop into town. With the one-way couplets, Main Street is losing half the traffic, but not all of it, so it is clearly a compromise. In this case, the couplets probably help keep the main street alive. Also, if, at some point in the future, somebody plows a freeway across the state somewhere, this can revert to two two-way streets.
Q: Is there evidence that downtown bypasses can increase shopper traffic by reducing the amount of truck traffic in the city center?
Jim Charlier: There are a lot of examples supporting both sides of this issue. This debate is going on in Glenwood Springs, Colorado right now. Generally, if the downtown is strong enough that it is a destination, and it is not overly reliant on pass-through highway traffic, then it can probably survive a bypass, and it may actually thrive.
But there are a lot of cases where that wouldn’t be true. For example, we didn’t think that would be the case in Jena, Louisianna, where we decided against a bypass that would take the highway out of the city center.
Usually, the business community has concerns that a bypass will hurt downtown revenues, and in a very small rural community, that can be a legitimate concern. But bypasses are also problematic because they have a tendency to affect land-use patterns dramatically. They tent to re-direct development to the new route. Bypasses also have environmental consequences, they are very expensive, and they affect the community in ways that are not anticipated. All of these concerns should be considered in addition to the economic concerns from main street businesses.
Q: In Bozeman, Montana, the Main Street is flanked by one-way streets on either side. Engineering reports show that a lot of traffic moves through those one-way streets, but downtown master plans recommend converting the one-way streets to two-way streets to promote economic development, to grow the downtown district beyond Main Street. One idea is to conduct a cost-benefit analysis comparing and contrasting in financial terms a one-way vs. a two-way street. Do you have any case studies that use economic cost-benefit analysis of one-way vs. two-way streets?
Jim Charlier: I am not a huge fan of cost-benefit analysis–it is an exercise in apparent precision, not actual precision. You get numbers and a ratio, but the data going into the analysis can actually be somewhat subjective. It is very difficult to precisely measure the difference in economic performance between businesses on one-way vs. two-way streets– other local factors are also important and may not be accounted for in the measurement.
Generally speaking, we have over-emphasized capacity in our street networks across the board. We are often too concerned about moving traffic through. In Bozeman, it appears that the idea was that the Main Street could be a two-way street as long as the one-way streets on either side could accommodate the flow of traffic. So the question at this point would be has that system worked the way that it was intended to work? The Main Street in Bozeman is pretty strong–has that success been helped by the one-way network or not?
In general, one-way streets tend to discourage shopping a little bit–maybe not dramatically, and maybe not in every case. One-way streets also tend to be less safe; the speeds are higher–in turn, accident rates and severity are higher. So, the theory would say that if you went back to a two-way network in Bozeman, you would likely have safer streets with slower moving traffic, and perhaps you would have more congestion on Main Street.
But it is important to do careful analysis. Another city with a one-way network in it’s downtown–actually the old town south of downtown–is Flagstaff, Arizona. Those streets are very narrow, and there was an advocacy in Flagstaff for converting those back to two-way operation, but when we actually studied it, we found that the conversion would work a real hardship on the bus network, which is very successful and well-patronized. Buses are able to navigate the two-lane, one-way streets in a way that would not be possible if those streets were converted to two-way streets. The conversion also looked less beneficial for bicyclists in Flagstaff. So with these types of questions, it is important to do thorough analysis, but cost-benefit analysis might not yield the best information.
Q: In Red Cloud, Nebraska, downtown is paved with brick from 1917. Downtown is a historic district and in the past 5 years, the town has had 45,000 visitors. What do you do to convince the Department of Transportation that bricks should be replaced with bricks during renovation OR to use concrete that looks like brick?
Jim Charlier: The primary argument to use to preserve the character of downtown and its brick streets would be “context sensitive design.” This issue has come up in a variety of places. Orlando Florida has a policy addressing brick neighborhood streets.
From the Google Maps images of Red Cloud on-line, it looks like the bricks are holding up fairly well and as you point out, they’ve been there a long time. It would be hard to say more about this without knowing what the Department of Transportation is trying to accomplish. There are some case studies similar to this on the Federal Highway Administration Context Sensitive website, including this one from Michigan.
Q: With respect to citizen engagement, between things like meetings, webpages, getting to service organizations, and social media, what do you recommend and what works the best?
Jim Charlier: That could be a day-long conversation. We are seeing a lot of better approaches to getting community engagement. Everything from flash events to where communities design small spaces where there used to be parking–little pockets on the street. In Rifle, Colorado, rather than holding community workshops, they have Friday afternoon or evening parties, where a project will be presented, but there is also food and it is a social event. These “First Friday” events have turned out to be a great way to expose the community to projects that are going on. It is important to get out of the box of formal public workshops and meetings as being your only way of interacting with people.
Q: Can you suggest examples of communities that have used visual preference tools to educate the community and build consensus about policies that might be needed to affect how city and county plans shape how transportation systems are developed?
Jim Charlier: This document provides some concepts and principles as well as some examples. Visual preference surveys can be used to help the public understand the role-function-form characteristics of streets, including main streets. However, this may be of only limited use in resolving the “main street as state highway” issue because people will almost always “prefer” the photos showing traditional main streets, but that doesn’t provide much help in deciding how to resolve the conflict.
Q: Are there examples where a Department of Transportation has given away rights to a city without needing an alternate route or criteria to keep it vehicle movement-centric?
Jim Charlier: Not that we have seen. In most states, “turnback” or “devolution” agreements are directed at facilities where there are redundancies in the state highway system (parallel routes providing equivalent route continuity). There might be exceptions in unique situations, but we have not seen one.
Q: Can you discuss ADA requirements for improvement projects – Federal Highway Administration Justice agreement, July 2013?
Jim Charlier: ADA (from Americans with Disabilities Act) is a catch-all phrase used to describe a range of design criteria to ensure accessibility for persons with disabilities. We prefer to use the term “Universal Design,” which broadens the ADA concept to include design provisions that ensure accessibility for all users, relying on ADA needs as minimum requirements. Assuming your question relates to an “Addressing Environmental Justice in the NEPA Process” publication from the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) in July 2013, it is not clear that FHWA was addressing “ADA” in that document, although it might be possible to read it as also applying to populations that are disadvantaged by disabilities. Here are a couple of general references on this topic as it relates to pedestrian infrastructure outside of buildings:
Thanks to Jim and Vickie for a great presentation and for answering everyone’s questions. If you are interested in watching the webinar, you can view it here.