The Joy of Transportation 

Getting down with getting around: an auto-erotic guide to Missoula at the crossroads

“City workers laid strips of paper the length of the mall. When the auto club arrived, they found dozens of children sitting in the former street painting pictures.” These words of Bill McKibben begin to describe the Brazilian city of Curitiba. While its population tripled in a flood of displaced peasants in just 25 years, Curitiba nearly eliminated homelessness, raised the amount of green-space per person from two square feet to 150, integrated effective public transport, and converted downtown streets to pedestrian malls. Now, Curitiba uses 25 percent less fuel per capita than the rest of Brazil. A municipal shepherd watches a flock of 30 sheep trim the city grass, while busses zoom by along dedicated corridors, surrounded by dense neighborhoods with some of the lowest crime rates in Brazil.

Cities are the proving-ground for our species’ ability to survive. Limitations on space, clean air and water dictate that we find ways to coexist without depleting our resources or drowning in our own refuse.

Missoula is not Curitiba—we have our own ways, issues, and resources. But the take-home lesson is that with bold thinking, communities can blossom in amazing ways. Any urban fantasy worth its road salt needs to address the issue of transportation, because how we move from place to place is at the heart of how Missoula will look, function, and feel.

Now is your chance to convert your personal transportation fantasy into reality. City planners are in the process of updating the Missoula 20-year Transportation Plan, which outlines our community vision of how the roads, sidewalks, bike-paths, intersections, rails and trails will look. More roads like North Reserve Street? What about Malfunction Junction? More bike paths?

Air quality looms over the debate like a cloud of smog. Shannon Therriault of Missoula Health Department observes “Because of our weather and topography, Missoula will always need to worry about air quality. We’ve improved in recent years, but we don’t want increased transportation to eat up all of these gains.”

So, given the importance of the topic, why would more people prefer to play paintball than attend a transportation meeting? Why would the masses rather read about Monica Lewinsky than the 20-year Transportation Plan update? Alas, somehow this topic is just not sexy enough.

Perhaps that’s because transportation dialog is laden with municipal-speak and acronyms. LOS, DEIS, VMT, ROD, TTAC, MUDT, MDOT, TPCC...people get hopelessly buried by jargon and disenfranchised from the process. Decisions are made without them. All of the sudden, bulldozers show up, and roads happen to us.

What follows will attempt to sketch an idea of what is currently being decided, by whom, what’s at stake, and what you can do about it. Moreover, this will be the sexiest story on transportation ever—guaranteed. Furthermore, as I dangle the carrot of sexiness before you like a ripe peach, I will simultaneously smack you with the stick of what happens when folks don’t get involved with their community’s transportation planning process.

If you build it, they will come. Quickly.
Of the 600 million automobiles in the world, half are in the USA. Thus, it should be no surprise that American transportation planning tends to serve the automobile first and foremost, with a relative blind-spot to the needs of pedestrians, cyclists, and neighborhoods. Blind spot being the opposite of G-spot.

“When bulldozers show up, people get excited and want to get involved—but then it’s too late. The public comment period is over” says Jennifer Salisbury, a consultant with URS Corp of Helena, hired by the Missoula Office of Planning and Grants to draft the 2002 Missoula Urban Transportation Plan update.

Without public input, transportation planners have little choice but to go by “the book,” which was written by and for the auto. This process starts with a forecast of traffic growth, in terms of vehicle miles traveled per day (VMT). Next, planners decide upon the level of service (LOS) that the roads in question should accommodate. LOS is ranked from A to F, with “LOS A” being fast and free-flowing, and “LOS F” meaning stops of over a minute. If auto is master, you can expect a LOS of A or B as the goal.

The chosen LOS is then crunched with the projected VMT, and the equation spits out the number of lanes necessary to support it. When left unadulterated by factors like community character or what it’s like for a pedestrian to try to cross eight lanes of traffic, this simple equation has resulted in the oppressively wide roads common to many sprawling sun-belt cities—including, perhaps not coincidentally, the 10 most dangerous American cities for pedestrians.

North Reserve Street is Missoula’s own pet testament to the self-fulfilling prophecy of “if you build it, they will come.” Six years after its completion, Reserve has already reached its 20-year traffic projections, festering in its own congestion during rush hour. Should we widen North Reserve even more? Should we do the same to Russell?

The naked truth

In the interest of maximizing reader comprehension, the rest of this article will contain a total of zero acronyms—guaranteed. Although some forays into the bowels of bureaucratic process are unavoidable, I’ll be there to hold your hand.

There are two basic levels of transportation planning: the 20-year plan level, and the project level. The 20-year plan is relatively general, dictating guidelines, goals and budget constraints, while identifying problem-areas and concerns that need to be addressed. Project-level decisions, on the other hand, are made by City Engineering, and they deal with specific details.

To illustrate how this works, let’s consider Malfunction Junction, known in planning circles as Brooks/South/Russell. Missoula’s legendary 6-way Gordian knot of an intersection has for years been a major reason why we have the worst air-quality in Montana. Lurking in a cloud of exhaust from hundreds of perpetually idling vehicles, Malfunction Junction qualified Missoula for $30 million in federal Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality funding.

Missoula’s 1996 transportation plan identified Malfunction Junction as a problem, mandated that something be done to lower carbon monoxide emissions, and allocated $7 million to do so. City Engineering then hired a consultant, solicited public input, and examined alternative scenarios—including over/under passes, additional lanes, a roundabout, and other possibilities designed to keep to keep traffic moving.

Ultimately, they chose to re-route South Avenue, reducing Malfunction Junction to a four-way between Brooks and Russell. Westbound South Avenue will head north and enter Sussex Street, then Brooks. Eastbound South Avenue will head south down Garfield, and then turn east at Fairview, meeting Brooks at the corner by Fantasy Adult Video. (Is that sexy enough for ya?) This plan is what’s going to happen—City Engineering is now entering the phase of acquiring rights-of-way. If you don’t like missed your chance.

But what you can do is point your newfound transpo-planning lust towards Russell Street, between Broadway and Mount. At stake here is whether or not to widen Russell, as well as several intersection projects, including at Broadway and at 3rd.

Current alternatives to the Russell Street projects are being held to level of service C—i.e., stable flow at moderate speeds. To accommodate this level of service at the estimated traffic levels, Russell would be widened to four or five lanes, with the possible removal of up to 60 homes. According to Bob Giordano, director of Missoula Institute for Sustainable Transportation, this is unacceptable. “We already have a connected motor vehicle system. Why keep widening it, when we don’t even have a connected bike system?”

Giordano advocates Context Sensitive Design, which takes into account the existing homes, trees, and community feel. This approach balances road construction with enhancement of all modes of transport, including emergency vehicles, while maintaining air and water quality standards.

“Some decisions can’t be made with a computer model” says Giordano. “You need to learn the street, the neighborhood, the town. What already exists on the ground? What do we want as a community? Rather than asking ‘how much traffic will there be?’ perhaps we need to think in terms of ‘how much traffic are we willing to accept?’ Maybe it means accepting heavy traffic for certain periods of the day. It doesn’t make sense to build super-size roads to accommodate heavy traffic for just a few minutes per day. There are other alternatives.”

The sentiment towards alternative transport is echoed by Steve King, city engineer. “We want to maximize the efficiency of all modes of transportation” he says, “especially alternative. Right now, 90 percent of commuting in Missoula is by car. We want as much mode-shift as possible, to walking, biking, bussing, car-pooling. This brings down capital and maintenance costs, and air quality and community character are enhanced.”

Giordano suggests his preferred alternative: a road diet. “Why not two lanes, with left turn pockets?” he says. “Smaller roads and smaller lanes encourage people to drive more slowly. This can actually increase capacity, because when you drive slower, trailing distances between cars are shorter. Two lanes leaves more room for bikes and pedestrians. Intersections limit traffic more than road width, and many studies have shown that two lanes with roundabout intersections move more traffic than four lanes with lights.”

Going ’round in circles
Roundabouts are common in Europe, and are gaining popularity in many U.S. states. Not to be confused with traffic circles, which are designed to calm traffic, roundabouts have been shown to reduce traffic congestion by 65 percent, injury-crashes to motorists by 95 percent, injuries to pedestrians by 89 percent, and to cyclists by 30 percent. By processing traffic quickly, roundabouts are better for air quality.

We’ve all sat at a red light when nobody is coming—maybe at 2 a.m., or during a lull in daytime traffic. You look to the left, to the right, and think “This is ridiculous.” With a roundabout, on the other hand, you can just go. And there is that intuitive, feng shui, and ever so sexy aspect of circular motion...Oh...Yes! Electrons do it. Planets do it. Shall we do it in the road?

Last month, a group of Missoula engineers and planners took a whirlwind tour of Colorado roundabouts, experiencing 18 in one day. They returned deeply impressed. Says King: “In Golden, they have four roundabouts in a row at major intersections. Not only do roundabouts process traffic, they are pedestrian-friendly as well...we’re still working on how to adequately accommodate blind pedestrians.”

Do you like the idea of roundabouts along Russell Street? How many lanes would you like to see? Steve King wants to know. Some folks write him letters along the lines of: “30,000 people per day can’t be wrong—build another Reserve Street on Russell!” If he doesn’t hear enough otherwise, what else is King supposed to build? The preliminary preferred alternative will be unveiled to the public this spring, and now is the time to input.

Another project-level decision currently in the works is the intersection of Higgins and Beckwith, in front of Grizzly Grocery. This intersection has a way of encouraging drivers to dash madly across Higgins through the unrelenting parade of cars. Something will be done here, but at this point we don’t know what: maybe a traffic light or a roundabout—or maybe something new that a creative citizen suggests.

Despite the fact that his office figures out the nuts and bolts of implementation, King nonetheless stresses the importance of the 20-year plan. “It’s the most powerful document in Missoula, the difference between Stephens Avenue and Reserve Street” he says, adding “It’s not that North Reserve is a failing road. It’s just an ugly road.”

Pumping the clutch

Mike Kress and Dave Prescott of the Missoula Office of Planning and Grants are responsible for coordinating the 20-year plan update, in conjunction with URS (the company name—not an acronym!) Consulting Corporation of Helena, which was hired to draft the plan. All parties agree that the largest bone of contention so far is the forecast in traffic growth.

URS originally estimated a 70 percent increase in vehicle miles traveled per day, which would bring Missoula up from the current 1.5 to 2.5 million miles per day by 2025. Says Kress, “Those projections were based on population growth assumptions that we believe are too high. We asked URS to adjust that, and their latest estimate is a 50 percent increase. This is still a lot, but remember: this prediction assumes we do nothing to curb it, such as taking measures to shift modes of transport. By encouraging mode-shift, we can help shape what happens.”

How can we encourage people to not drive? Kress and Prescott can name several ways, such as working with employers to encourage biking and car-pooling, as well as offering flexible hours for employees—aka “flex-time”—so they have the option to work longer and fewer days, thereby making fewer commutes. Along these lines, the Office of Planning and Grants houses a program called Missoula In Motion, which works at providing and popularizing alternatives to the standard commute. Their efforts include working with employers and commuters to develop ways to reduce automobile traffic, and paying cab fare for stranded car-poolers.

Another option is allocating more money to Mountain Line, expanding its range and frequency. Some claim that buses will follow the “if you build it, they will come” principle—better service will draw more riders. Kevin Moore is a Missoula-based freelance public transport planner, with recent work in Chicago and Vancouver B.C. He says “Within the city, you aren’t going to find significant bus-riding until you lose parking. Look at the University...they do get a lot of bus traffic because there’s no place to park.” On the other hand, Moore thinks the Bitterroot Valley down to Hamilton would be an ideal place for light rail—especially when connected to a better bus network here in town. “All those people on 93 are going to the same place.” he says “they might as well be on a train.”

Jennifer Salisbury of URS points out that traffic will always be a function of growth, and the Comprehensive Land Use Plan needs to address what kind of growth is acceptable. Kress agrees. “Eventually, managing traffic becomes a zoning issue” he says. “For example, by allowing increased population densities, you increase the feasibility of frequent bus service, making the bus more attractive. And by allowing businesses to open within neighborhoods, you can provide opportunities for employment, services, and shopping that are closer to home.” This boosts the number of people lucky enough to hoof it through their day. This is common knowledge in Europe, where they have real neighborhoods. By contrast, Prescott points to the South Hills, where “you are miles from everything, and you need a car to access employment and services.”

A draft of the 20-year plan will be released around the end of this year, to be finalized this spring. In the meantime, Kress is adamant that people contact him or Prescott with their comments. Folks can also contact Jennifer Salisbury of URS, who would be happy to add your email address to her bi-weekly transportation plan e-update. The transportation plan also incorporates feedback from the Stakeholder’s Committee, which includes the Air Quality Advisory Committee, the Bicycle-Pedestrian Advisory Board, Emergency Services, the Missoula Chamber of Commerce, Missoula Downtown Association, Missoula Institute for Sustainable Transport, and many more. If you have specific ideas or concerns that fit into the jurisdiction of a particular stakeholder, you should contact them (see sidebar) and let them be your voice at the next stakeholder’s meeting. This is democracy in action folks. It don’t get any sexier than that!

Currently, the draft plan includes recommendations for 20 road/intersection improvements and several mass transit improvements—including light rail. The draft plan also includes 70 pedestrian/bike improvements, including obtaining easements, adding connections, and trail building. “We call it a wish list” says Phil Smith, Missoula’s bike/pedestrian program manager. Smith suggests that many things can be done to increase the feasibility of bicycling—thereby easing automobile pressure on the roads—but they take money, and thus the political will to fund. “I would love to fund a program that maintains the bike lanes” he says, “dedicated to keeping them free of snow and glass. Another important goal is a connected system that allows uninterrupted bicycle access throughout Missoula. We asked URS to present plans for a connected system in their next open house, which they hopefully will. But ultimately, it will be up to the City Council to fund it.”

According to Mike Kress, the draft 20-year plan update proposes a level of service of D (approaches unstable flow for a few hours per day) for future projects. “Level of service D is much more bike and pedestrian-friendly than C” he says. This begs the question: why is level of service C is still the goal for the Russell Street project? This difference in level of service could be the difference between widening Russell or not, and the difference between a single- and double-lane roundabout. The U.S. Department of Transportation states that double lane roundabouts are more accident-prone than single lane roundabouts—although clearly much less accident-prone than stop light intersections.

Share the love— not the rage
Where I come from, they teach the middle finger in Driver’s Ed class—it means something like “Thanks, have a nice day” and “You’re welcome, friend.” When Mass-holes like me first arrive in Missoula, we might do things like arrive last and go first at a 4-way. What? Everybody else is just sitting there looking at each’s The Training. But after a few months of adapting to Missoula’s road culture, I became a total grandmother.

The point is, there are certain cultural aspects of this discussion that can’t be mandated in City Hall: interactions between cars, bicycles and pedestrians—such as Hellgate High School’s occupation of the crosswalk on Higgins. If Missoula goes with roundabouts, this will entail a cultural learning curve as well. Pedestrians have the right-of-way in a roundabout, but drivers will need to learn this. Meanwhile, irresponsible pedestrians can clog a roundabout by exercising their right-of-way in single file.

In the ideal culture, those with the right-of-way will exercise it responsibly. Drivers will check the bike lane before opening their doors, idiots won’t break glass on the streets, and cyclists will use hand signals to let drivers know what they are doing.

Sometimes there is overlap between culture and the law. Selective enforcement by public safety officers can exert a heavy influence on public attitudes and behavior, with direct bearing on safety. With winter coming, roads turn more dangerous and tempers burn especially short. As a biker, you’re not so happy to be out, because you’re freezing in the wind, skidding over a badland of frozen slush, and sucking the exhaust of those lazier than you. Drivers have less to complain about, but winter is tough on them too. One commuter, who prefers not to be named, was biking east on Broadway one winter evening. There was no bike lane at the time, and the road shoulder was a mess of frozen slush, so she rode, legally, in the right-hand travel lane of the road. Despite the fact that she wore a headlight and flashing tail light, a motorist didn’t like it. From the climate-controlled comfort of the car, this motorist called the police, who came and ordered the bike off the road. According to Smith, Missoula’s bike/pedestrian program manager, incidents like this represent a rare but completely unacceptable breakdown of the system.

If bikers don’t have a safe road shoulder or bike lane to ride on, they have the legal right to occupy a car lane. If motorists don’t like it, that means everyone shares the desire for a connected bicycle system. In places where cars, bikes and pedestrians must commingle, perhaps we need better signs to make the right-of-way laws more visible. And we need to nod, wave, and otherwise acknowledge, communicate and thank one another as we get around. It’s a team effort, and we are all on the same team. Some things are even sexier than sexy. Dig?

So, how about that pedestrian mall? In Curitiba, shopkeepers were fearful at first, but thankful afterward, dancing to the ring of their cash registers. “Businesses kick ass in pedestrian malls” says Kevin Moore, the public transport consultant, who affirms that pedestrian malls and walkable cities inevitably pay off. But both he and Giordano agree that pedestrian malls are kind of like the icing on the cake. “For ped malls to work best,” cautions Giordano, “there needs to be an integrated transportation system already in place. Maybe we’re not quite there yet, but it’s a great thing to shoot for.”

Perhaps the most important lesson from Curitiba is not what they did in particular, but simply the fact that they made the roads serve them, rather than the opposite. We too should be so ready to experiment with new ideas. Consider how easy would it be to construct a temporary one-lane roundabout, with all of the necessary characteristics of a permanent one, at 3rd and Russell. Just to see what happens. Make it out of bricks, re-stripe the pavement, erect articulate signage, and put bags over the traffic lights.

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