The Works

How Street Design That Embraces Failure Can Succeed

(Photo by Joe Mabel)

From New Haven’s Complete Streets 2.0 to the bike lane pilots and pocket parks popping up nationwide, officials are increasingly taking a screen page from the e-book of startup culture — designing projects that, as Eric Jaffe wrote in a CityLab account of New Haven last week, “go up quick and ‘fail fast.’”

It’s refreshing, certainly, to see planners experiment with the former domain of chair bombers and guerrilla crosswalk painters, especially considering the long, bureaucratic processes that often determine street design. But with public health and good planning in mind, pilots are — of course — not the end goal. Ultimately, you don’t want a park that can be easily torn out or a bus-only lane that can be quickly re-striped — you want long-lasting parks and dedicated rights-of-way for public transit. So how do planners take the next step? What strategies and tactics help make fixtures of quick (and often cheap) experiments?

A big one, according to Martha Roskowski with People for Bikes, is flexibility.

She gives an example from Seattle, which she says is “typical of West Coast cities” because, normally, numerous hearings and stacks of paperwork act as the gatekeepers of street change. But the protected bike lane on 2nd Avenue, which opened last year, “got designed very quickly,” she says.

After installing the lane, officials have watched and tweaked it as needed. They encountered safety issues with mid-block parking garages and realized that, in some cases, loading zones could be rearranged. And they observed traffic signal timing carefully. As issues with the lane have come up, the city has addressed them, Roskowski says.

“It was sort of a different mindset of ‘Let’s take our best shot upfront but be nimble,” she says. And it’s an attitude that she sees officials replicating all over the country.

“They’re using these installations as public processes instead of holding meetings and modifying designs and then, finally, putting them [on the street],” she says. “In Memphis they call it ‘Ready, Fire, Aim,’ and it’s a new, more nimble kind of engineering where you put down an initial design but don’t assume it’s fixed.”

And because works of public engineering tend to fall into two silos — operations and maintenance and capital projects — the fact that quick, cheap pilots “live in the space between,” as Roskowski puts it, is especially important. Because often they require little more than paint, they can be installed when a street gets repaved.

Seattle’s lane is new, but Roskowski says that pilots’ flexibility almost always leads to long-term installation. Though most are conceived under a heading of ‘let’s try it out and maybe we’ll fail,’ most don’t fail. Most streets stay restriped.

But exceptions exist. In Boise, Idaho, planners removed a protected lane pilot project after only six weeks last year.

Calling it a failure is perhaps too harsh. As I wrote last September, Boise Bicycle Project’s Jimmy Hallyburton believed the lanes were “built to fail,” but in an email response for this story, Ada County Highway District spokesperson Craig Quintana claims that the department actually learned quite a bit from the trial. For example, traffic didn’t bottleneck, as some had feared — but ridership didn’t pick up strongly either, though he notes that the pilot’s short lifespan could have been a factor. Mostly, Quintana says, the department received negative input from the public through online surveys and emails, with some of the strongest critiques being about the pilot’s $80,000 cost.

“I think it’s fair to say we experienced a mixed bag,” he writes, adding that a new stakeholder group is again exploring the potential of bike facilities downtown.

According to Daren Fluke, a comprehensive planning manager with the City of Boise, another ingredient of successful pilots is one last year’s lacked — time.

“A month really isn’t long enough,” he says. (Installation to removal, the project spanned the last week of April to the third week of June, according to Quintana). “You need to do it for longer than that, and you should define those parameters ahead of time. You want to watch the facility you’re building through a number of different cycles. In the case of the bike lanes, it would have been nice to run them for a year, during all four seasons and when the University was in session.”

The governing structure for Boise’s streets is uniqueACHD, a county transportation department set up in the ‘70s and overseen by a board of elected officials, has jurisdiction over the municipality’s infrastructure instead of the city. In the story I wrote last year, Hallyburton credited the pilot’s short lifespan to this odd set-up, stating that the commission’s internal goals — suburban vs. urban, multi-modal vs. car-centric — don’t always line up.

According to Roskowski, this is common with pilot projects that don’t turn into permanent infrastructure.

“Most of them do not get taken out, but I would say that the ones that do — it’s usually a matter of politics and divisiveness within the agencies and communities rather than an issue with the actual functioning of the lanes,” she says.

Fluke says that, going forward, the city would like to mimic more of the tactics common to Complete Streets 2.0-type planning, adding that experimental pilots often deliver better data.

“The models only get you so close to reality,” he says.

According to Roskowski, successful or not, the put-it-up-and-see mentality represents a huge shift in planning circles.

“I think this is the biggest change we’ve seen in traffic engineering since the Interstate,” she says.

The Works is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.

Rachel Dovey is an award-winning freelance writer and former USC Annenberg fellow living at the northern tip of California’s Bay Area. She writes about infrastructure, water and climate change and has been published by Bust, Wired, Paste, SF Weekly, the East Bay Express and the North Bay Bohemian.

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Tags: urban planningurban designcomplete streets