Monday, January 26, 2009

National Journal Panel: What Can We Learn About Transportation From Beyond Our Borders?

Decidedly our international colleagues continue to come back to support the idea that if America is looking for great new ideas, including that America itself may not be a bad place to start. This latest in this morning from Michael Yeates of Brisbane Australia. I quote:

Thanks Eric and Peter ... excellent ( There seem to be several problematic issues here however so may I use some examples?

A. It seems that aside from the occasional occurrence of a real leader, and then somewhat contrary to ideas of democracy, innovation has first to get noticed and overcome objections and obstructions from those who enjoy and benefit from the status quo ... and then if it can do that, then it not only has to achieve majority support or appear to, it must appear to have far more than that to begin to gain attention. And then it has to overcome the problem of token and/or symbolic acceptance.

So here are three "easy" strategies both "big" and "small" (to use Eric's descriptive classifications below) which if the USA were to adopt them, major global change would certainly follow.

1. The first is adopting what "we" (i.e. "CUST") have called a "Safe Urban Speed Limit" i.e. a speed limit that is safe for the users who would be expected were they to have a "supportive environment". This concept equates well with the "Vision Zero" concepts. It has been shown to work in many places throughout Europe and in particular in the city of Graz in Austria where the (default) speed limit is 30km/h unless otherwise posted ... unlike any other city in the world ... or at least that was the case recently. Most countries and the OECD agree that pedestrians and cyclists are at unacceptable risk of fatality if involved in a crash involving another vehicle with speed in excess of 30km/h so why not adopt 30km/h or 20mph as the "Safe Urban Speed Limit" and ONLY allow design and/or management of the road system at higher speeds where it is safe for ALL expected users?

2. The second is designing and in particular retrofitting towns and cities so the priority is for pedestrians and cyclists and NOT for high speed motorised travel except where designed for those modes. Again this fits with "Vision Zero" concepts. The best known model is the "new" town of Houten in the Netherlands and for retrofit, Groningen also in the Netherlands. Both are well documented and the concepts involved are widely applicable. Why not adopt them as they reinforce use of trains for longer trips and walking and cycling for local trips and no doubt also encourage reduced trips thereby supporting the local economy.

3. The third is (guess what?) from the USA although it has been discovered in other places and here I need to confess to exporting the idea to Brisbane Australia after first seeing it at a conference in Basle in 1995 and while it has been adopted elsewhere as well as in Brisbane, it is still struggling against opposition from (you guessed?) the state road management and road "UNsafety" authorities ... and various elements purporting to advocate for cyclists and/or cycling ...! This is an idea originating from Denver Colorado which aimed to show motorists where to expect cyclists on the road. It is a simple concept because very few road authorities ban cycling on ordinary urban roads i.e. other than freeways. It has been subjected to some 15 or more years "debate" and finally in a much watered down version begun the adoption process in the USA. It has worked well here in Australia and can be found by searching for "BFZ", "BAZ" or "yellow BIKE". But still people don't really want to support it. But once asked "why?" it becomes clear ... they know the roads are too dangerous ... but won't change that. So why not ask for all urban roads to be made safe for pedestrians and cyclists but shared with motorists not segregated? This too fits in well with "Vision Zero" etc.

They work ... there is evidence.

So will the USA adopt them and if not, why not? Are there any examples of these in the USA ... if so please publicise them, and if not, ask "Why not ...?" ...!

B. It also seems that there is too much difficulty in gaining support i.e. everyone has their own ideas and thus populism flourishes ... especially where political decision makers are concerned. We know the issues involved and why we must change. If so, the question is why have we not changed and as above, why not? Also, if the problems are known, why are the "experts" not doing anything much to reduce or eliminate them?

Again the USA provides many good examples that are not then adopted more widely ... in some cases, apparently quite deliberately. So why not try contrasting for example the models of the Californian clean air requirements or Portland for walking, cycling and urban public transport as against other places in the USA? Or Denver with very high car ownership but also surprisingly high use of walking, cycling and/or transit? After all, it is the USA that successfully pioneered the use of front mounted racks for bicycles on buses yet that too has been resisted overseas with the only other international example adopting the concept being the Australian national capital Canberra. Why the resistance to good proven ideas?

C. And what do we do about somehow getting the recently regarded experts to recant or change? What does THAT do for their credibility? Given that they are in fact basing their decisions on sound knowledge and research not too blinkered by recent practices, there is every reason to expect them to acknowledge that change is now essential and to get on with ensuring it occurs and is not held back by old practices ... or practitioners. Those who can't or won't should depart ...! Surely there must be SOME exemplars in the USA ... of both people and places? Again please find them and publicise them.

It may be thought to be difficult to make these almost radical changes .... but the USA and many other places have shown it is not.

And as Groningen has shown, it can be incremental ... but it must be with intent and dedication to the "new" to the detriment if not almost exclusion of the "old".

Regards and best wishes to the USA, hopefully a global leader that can learn from others .. and from itself !

Michael Yeates Australia

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