Before Dash to Invest Billions in Transport Systems, Experts Meet to Redesign Them So They Work Better

CNU Summit shifts focus from simply moving cars to getting people efficiently where they need to go

Tags for this image:

As Democratic President-Elect Barack Obama and conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks add their support to calls from across the political spectrum for a fast-acting economic stimulus built around reinvestment in roads, bridges and other parts of our country’s underperforming infrastructure, the timeline is tight for making sure that investment meets the changing needs of American households and employers.

Fortunately, a group of 150 leading transportation design innovators are meeting this week in Charlotte, NC to develop standards and models for reworking our inefficient 20th-Century transportation systems for the current century, where the urgent challenge is building an efficient clean-energy economy and renewing the American Dream.

The event that brings these reformers together, the Congress for the New Urbanism’s annual Transportation Summit, which will run from today through Saturday in downtown Charlotte. The summit is becoming one of nation’s leading forums for rethinking prevailing transportation models and their single-minded focus on moving cars and trucks. Instead the focus shifts to moving people comfortably where they want to go, whether the best choice is walking, biking, riding transit or driving. Find details at the event’s website — cnu.org/transportation2008 — and follow the action in the summit section of CNU’s group blog.

“When you begin designing transportation networks around people instead of cars, a whole set of good things happen,” says John Norquist, President and CEO of the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU), a leading non-profit group promoting walkable neighborhood-based development as an alternative to sprawl. “Throughout history, streets were expected to be vibrant public spaces and the setting for diverse and valuable economic activity, as well as movers of people and goods. We’re learning how to do that again, but when you design simply around vehicular movement as typically happens, you limit the results to a familiar landscape that includes big-box and strip retail. And perversely enough, you get a lot of traffic congestion and outrageous carbon emissions. It shouldn’t be a surprise — when people need a car or truck to get anywhere, that creates a lot of long car trips.”

The summit builds on an impressive base of work by CNU and its 3200 members. In addition to designing and implementing development where homes, townhouses and apartments are found within walking distance of shops, schools, and other of life’s necessities, CNU works to remove barriers to such development and establish standards and best-practices that lead to better results. In one example, CNU has partnered with the United States Green Building Council and the Natural Resources Defense Council to extend the LEED green building rating system into the certification of green neighborhoods, where walkable, well-connected transportation systems lead to less driving and work to dramatically reduce carbon emissions.

The work on “sustainable transportation networks” at the summit grows in part from a successful effort in which CNU and the Institute for Transportation Engineers (ITE) jointly created a manual that provides design guidelines for major urban boulevards and avenues . It represents the first time a civil engineering stalwart like the ITE has developed and promoted urban alternatives to the wide, high-volume roads found in the influential "Green Book" from the Association of State Highway Transportation Officials.

In addition to touring examples of innovative transportation design in Charlotte and discussing strategies for the upcoming Federal transportation funding reauthorization, CNU’s team of reformers will spend the next few days refining the work they’ve been doing to create standards for whole sustainable networks, not just the boulevards and avenues that serve as important components of them. These networks are based on intricately connected grids of streets that support a rich array of options whatever mode is chosen. The group includes leading urbanists such as University of Connecticut transportation engineering professor Norman Garrick, Center for Neighborhood Technology transportation director Jacky Grimshaw and CNU co-founder Andres Duany, one of the most recognized planners in the world.

“With existing conventional suburban design, a cul de sac leads to a local street that leads to a collector and an arterial. Since there’s only one way to get from one place to another, engineers count the resulting traffic and decide how many lanes to add,” explains Duany. “When you you open the network, you download the decison making to the individuals every time they hit the intersection. You say, ‘This morning, traffic looks a little rough here or I have to pick up the laundry, so I take a left or a right.’ It’s like decentralized computing. It’s much more intelligent than the old mainframe computer.”

The opportunity for this brand of change is recognized by none other than President-elect Barack Obama. "Over the longer term, we know that the amount of fuel we will use is directly related to our land use decisions and development patterns, much of which have been organized around the principle of cheap gasoline,” says Obama’s platform on energy. “Barack Obama believes that we must move beyond our simple fixation of investing so many of our transportation dollars in serving drivers and that we must make more investments that make it easier for us to walk, bicycle and access transportation alternatives."

Participants in the 2008 Transportation Summit will spend the next few days making progress on that very challenge. Consult the agenda for information on the various work teams and their goals. And for more information contact, Stephen Filmanowicz at 312-927-0979 or sfilmanowicz@cnu.org.

Photo: Crews add rails to Elizabeth Street in Charlotte, NC to accommodate a future expansion of the city's streetcar system. Like other areas in Charlotte served by rail, Elizabeth Street is seeing intense reinvestment in high-value, low-carbon mixed-use development, most of which continues despite the national downturn in real estate activity. In the bottom photo, a project manager explains the interaction between the rail project and a $265 million adaptive re-use and mixed-use infill project on Elizabeth Street.