Virginia’s Lee Highway Alliance experiments with State of Place’s walkability analysis tool

Today is the National Day on Writing, which asks people to share why they write using #WhyIWrite. I started this blog in 2014 and wrote the following post because I’m passionate about opening people’s eyes to transportation issues that I also used to be blind to. Since Greater Greater Washington‘s staff helped me write this post so it could be posted on their blog, the structure is different from what I usually write on my blog.

The Lee Highway Alliance (LHA) in Arlington, Virginia is working to make the Lee Highway corridor more economically vibrant, walkable, and attractive. State of Place is helping them achieve their walkability goals. Walkability is simply a measure of how friendly a given place is to walking. People who live in highly walkable places see a slew of health, environmental, and financial benefits.

The Lee Highway corridor is located in north Arlington just north of the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor. Unlike the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor, which helped Arlington win the Gold 2017 National Planning Achievement Award for Implementation, the Lee Highway corridor remains a primarily automobile-dependent, suburban-style place.

Rosslyn-Ballston Corridor Past-Present

Rosslyn-Ballston Corridor, past and present. Images by Arlington.

As is typical of most of the commercial corridors built throughout the country during the mid-to-late 20th century, the general development pattern of the Lee Highway corridor is low-rise commercial development with prominent surface parking lots and limited pedestrian, bicycle, and transit infrastructure.

It is a major automobile commuter corridor. In order to create the place that the LHA envisions, the Lee Highway corridor needs to become a place that prioritizes people and community over automobiles.

Since the LHA wants to provide people with healthy transportation choices and attract vibrant economic development, it hopes to improve the Lee Highway corridor through a new vision that includes distinct, walkable, mixed-use neighborhood centers.

Lee Highway Corridor Future Intensity

Proposed neighborhood centers showing a spectrum of density. Image by Arlington.

One of the proposed neighborhood centers, Lee Heights shopping center, is shown below:

Lee Heights Shopping Center Illustration

Illustrative concept for Lee Heights shopping center, existing and proposed. Image by Arlington.

There are many tools that cities or other planners use to determine how pedestrian-friendly an area is and how they can improve “walkability.”

So how do planners determine how walkable an area is?

You can see a walkability analysis in action in Virginia

Recently, LHA was one of six organizations across the US to win a five-block walkability analysis from State of Place, a software company that uses predictive analytics to quantify what people love about a given place.

State of Place uses ten urban design categories, such as density, connectivity, and traffic safety, to assess how walkable a block, a group of blocks, or an entire neighborhood is. During the past several months, they assessed the walkability of Lee Highway. Results will be presented to the public on Saturday, October 21 from 10am-12pm at the Lee Highway Alliance office, which is located at 4620 Lee Highway, Suite 208.

There are pros and cons to all walkability assessment tools

State of Place’s approach isn’t the only walkability assessment tool available. Another tool is called Walk Score, which provides a number on the 100-point scale that measures the walkability of any address.

Most cities use Walk Score, but State of Place walkability researcher Dr. Mariela Alfonzo says this tool tends to overestimate the walkability of high-access, low-income communities, among other problems.

Joe Cortright at City Observatory rebuked Alfonzo’s criticisms, saying State of Place’s metrics are highly complex, extremely labor intensive to gather, and consequently very expensive. Plus, they have not been implemented enough to let an objective third party assess their accuracy and utility.

While there is no perfect way to assess how walkable an area or city is, both tools are a great start to understanding how to improve the accessibility and livability of a given area.

Here’s how walkability scores are created

I’ve had the opportunity to personally use the State of Place tool to conduct a similar analysis in Tigard, Oregon last year. With help from three of my Master of Urban and Regional Planning classmates from Portland State University, we created neighborhood walkability assessments for the Tigard Triangle and Downtown Tigard.

Delta Planning Team with Client 2-10-16

Team of Master of Urban and Regional Planning students from Portland State University with client, Lloyd Purdy of Tigard, OR (left to right: Ray Atkinson, Curtis Fisher, Lloyd Purdy, Linn Davis, Wala Abuhejleh)

My team used the inventory tool to capture data on more than 280 built environment features, in ten urban design categories, that contribute to the walkability on every street segment in this area.

We underwent a rigorous training process where we practiced using the inventory tool in four different sample settings. Individual results from the four sample settings weren’t exact matches, so we understand our data collection in the Tigard Triangle and Downtown Triangle isn’t completely accurate. For example, one person could have felt safe walking on a street segment while another person didn’t feel safe walking on the same street segment.

We walked 74 street segments in the Tigard Triangle and 15 street segments in Downtown Tigard. The data was submitted to State of Place, who used their proprietary algorithm to generate an Index score for each segment on a 100-point scale. The results are shown below:

Downtown & Triangle SoP Index

State of Place Index for Tigard Triangle and Downtown Tigard

The index for the Tigard Triangle is 33 out of 100, a low walkability score meaning most trips require an automobile. For comparison, Downtown Tigard scored 66.

The profile breaks the index down into ten urban design categories that contribute to the walkability of the place, so cities can know where to prioritize walkability improvements. As the profile shows, the weakest category for the Tigard Triangle is lack of parks and public spaces.

State of Place Index & Profile Tigard Triangle

State of Place Index and Profile for Tigard Triangle

However, increasing parks and public spaces don’t do as much for walkability as adding density, pedestrian amenities, and traffic safety.

Since most cities have scarce resources, State of Place also provided the “Weighted by Impact and Feasibility (Walkability)” chart, shown below. Constructing a building is expensive and often depends on the private sector, so density isn’t the most feasible way to improve walkability.

Since the public sector has more control over adding pedestrian amenities and improving traffic safety, and the non-weighted profile shows these are weak in the Tigard Triangle, they are the most feasible ways to improve walkability in this place.

State of Place Prioritization Tigard Triangle

State of Place Prioritization Tigard Triangle2

State of Place charts for Tigard Triangle

The city used this data and my team’s recommendations to help create the Tigard Triangle Lean Code, which was adopted in August 2017. The lean code promotes building and site designs that improve walkability.

Tigard Triangle Lean Code

Tigard Triangle Lean Code. Image by Tigard.

If this analysis interests you, results from the Arlington walkability analysis will be presented to the public by State of Place on Saturday, October 21 from 10am-12pm at the Lee Highway Alliance office, which is located at 4620 Lee Highway, Suite 208. I plan to write a post with public reaction to the results.

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Feasibility of Approving Bicycle Infrastructure in Oregon, Idaho and North Carolina

I was planning to discuss the complicated bike connection between where the proposed buffered bike lanes on Loop Road end and the proposed bike lanes on Mooresville Road end. I will still write this post, but wanted to first discuss a more pressing matter that is impacting communities of all sizes across the United States. Anyone who follows the approval process of bicycle infrastructure in the United States knows how controversial this process often becomes, especially in the automobile-centric South. The below map, which I found through Bicycling Magazine, shows the cities in the United States with the most miles of bike lanes and paths in 2009 and cities in the United States with the most miles of protected lanes slated for 2013 and 2014. Depending on your definition of the South, which doesn’t always include Texas, the South is struggling to approve and install bicycle infrastructure. As I know from interning for Charlotte DOT during the summer of 2011, this doesn’t mean the South isn’t trying to install bicycle infrastructure. According to PeopleForBikes’ map, the South has installed protected bike lanes. When will North Carolina join all the states that have protected bike lanes?

US cities with the most miles of bike infrastructure

US cities with the most miles of bike infrastructure

Not surprising to me since I feel much safer biking with bike infrastructure, many of the cities that have the most miles of bike infrastructure also have the most trips made by bike. A few demographic concerns that many academic articles have pointed out are the high percentage of male cyclists and the lack of ethnic diversity among cyclists since a majority of cyclists are white. Due to what I saw while biking in Denmark and the Netherlands, I strongly believe that females are an indicator of how safe a city is for cycling. The higher percentage of females who are biking the safer a city is for cycling. This doesn’t mean that females are weak. The female cyclists that I know are some of the strongest people I know. Instead, I feel it means that females have a different sense of safety than males. This is especially true for females who are taking care of children because they probably don’t feel safe biking with their children on roads with high speed automobile traffic.

US cities with highest bike commute rates

US cities with highest bike commute rates

How do cities go about making their roads safe enough for females and children to bike on them? Providing a safe and convenient network of bicycle infrastructure would be a good starting point. One of the most controversial steps in this process is approving the bicycle infrastructure. Throughout the rest of this post, I will discuss four case studies on how controversial the bicycle infrastructure approval process was in each city. While I am confident there are several more case studies to discuss, my coverage will be on Foster Road in Portland, Oregon; Willamette Street in Eugene, Oregon; Capitol Boulevard, Idaho Street and Main Street in Boise, Idaho; and Newsome Road and Statesville Boulevard in Salisbury, North Carolina. Along with each case study, I will discuss the current debate in Kannapolis about whether to do a road diet and buffered bike lanes on Loop Road.

Portland, OR

Of all the case studies, Foster Road is the only case that resulted in a unanimous vote by city council to approve bicycle infrastructure. According to BikePortland.org, the approved and funded redesign of Foster Road involves the following: “Even though local media outlets like The Oregonian tried to frame it as a “loss” of lanes in order to promote clicks and critics, the new cross-section actually adds a lane. The plan is to re-design the four lanes that exist today and turn it into five lanes: two standard lanes, one center turn lane, and two bike lanes. ” The Mayor of Portland, Charlie Hales, supported the redesign by quoting famed urban planning philosopher Lewis Mumford. Do you think the Mayor of Kannapolis, Darrell Hinnant, will say something similar during the debate over whether to redesign Loop Road?

“We want people to slow down, get out of their car, and notice this is a great neighborhood… You don’t have to speed off to some distant chain store.”
— Charlie Hales, Portland Mayor

Even in bicycle friendly Portland, there was opposition to the redesign of Foster Road. One citizen “referencing a quote by Rex Burkholder in a recent story in the Portland Mercury where he said major commercial arterials need to have better bicycle access to make his trips to the pub and work faster, the woman said, “Don’t we [people who use cars] share that goal of getting to our destinations as efficiently as possible?” “Taking away driving lanes,” she said, “will affect too many drivers.” In fact she added, somewhat ominously, that the time increases would lead to drivers getting frustrated and that, “trying to make up for lost time causes traffic violations and hazards.””

Foster Road in Portland, OR (Photo J. Maus/BikePortland)

Foster Road in Portland, OR (Photo J. Maus/BikePortland)

Eugene, OR

During my visit to Eugene, I biked along Willamette Street so I could eat at Holy Cow, which is a “family-owned organic food enterprise”. Even though Willamette Street didn’t feel safe, having a place to lock my bike at Holy Cow made up for the poor design of Willamette Street. Holy Cow actually has three staple racks and they were all being used! Including my bike, there were four bikes locked to the three staple racks. Would cyclists still go to Holy Cow if there were no bike racks?

The redesign of Willamette Street involves the following. “The existing four lanes would be replaced by a design with one vehicle travel lane in each direction, a center turn lane and bicycle lanes on both sides of the street.” The below photo shows the current configuration of Willamette Street. Notice how the two cyclists are biking on the sidewalk and there are only automobiles traveling along the street. This is a rare scene in Eugene because I could almost always see another cyclist biking on the street when I was biking on other streets in Eugene. Since Eugene has an established bike culture, which includes residents that live car-free, I was dumbfounded when the Eugene City Council barely passed the redesign of Willamette Street. “With Eugene Mayor Kitty Piercy casting a tie-breaking vote, the City Council on Tuesday approved the test of a bike-friendly design for Willamette Street.” This news report provides an unbiased discussion of the controversy surrounding the redesign of Willamette Street. If it is this challenging to approve bicycle infrastructure in Eugene, how challenging will it be to approve the road diet and buffered bike lanes in Kannapolis, NC?

Willamette Street looking north from 32nd Avenue on Tuesday May 27, 2014. (Chris Pietsch/The Register-Guard)

Willamette Street looking north from 32nd Avenue on Tuesday May 27, 2014. (Chris Pietsch/The Register-Guard)

Boise, ID

Even though I have never been to Idaho, I did apply for two planning jobs in Idaho. One of these applications resulted in a phone interview. I am sharing this because I want readers to keep in mind that I do not have personal knowledge of Boise, Idaho. In addition, I want readers to recognize that bicycle friendly communities attract people, especially Millennials, to pursue employment in their communities.

Since Ada County Highway District, which manages Boise’s public roads, shared emails it has received and conducted an online survey on how people felt about buffered bike lanes on Capitol Boulevard, Idaho Street and Main Street, I wanted to include Boise. The below map, which I found here, shows where Capitol Boulevard, Idaho Street and Main Street are in Boise. The Ada County Highway District “began offering the online survey May 1, a couple of days after the buffered bike lanes – on Capitol Boulevard, Idaho Street and Main Street – and the new travel configuration showed up Downtown.” “About two-thirds of the roughly 500 emails Ada County Highway District received on the topic were opposed to the new bike lanes Downtown, district spokesman Craig Quintana said. The results of an online survey split almost evenly, with a slim majority showing preference for removing the bike lanes.” I need to ask City of Kannapolis staff to share the email response they have received about the road diet and buffered bike lanes on Loop Road. In addition, I need to ask if City of Kannapolis staff has conducted a survey on how people feel about this project. I feel these two items need to be done before Kannapolis City Council can responsibly vote on the Loop Road project.

After writing the above paragraphs, I recently learned that Ada County Highway District voted to “remove the lanes and “revisit” adding a bike-friendly infrastructure to Boise’s downtown, perhaps in August.” Could Kannapolis City Council decide to remove the buffered bike lanes on Loop Road after they are installed? Given the safety issues I have expressed to City of Kannnapolis staff about the buffered bike lanes, it is possible that this could occur if the safety issues are not resolved before the buffered bike lanes are installed.

Map of the new bike routes through downtown Boise - KELSEY HAWES

Map of the new bike routes through downtown Boise – KELSEY HAWES

Read more here: http://www.idahostatesman.com/2014/05/20/3192520/many-want-bike-lanes-gone.html#storylink=cpy

Salisbury, NC

Since most people in North Carolina would probably want a local case study that they can relate to, I have chosen to include Salisbury. I believe Foster Road in Portland, Willamette Street in Eugene, and Statesville Boulevard in Salisbury have the same configuration and proposed redesign. However, Foster Road and Willamette Street appear to have much more automobile traffic than Statesville Boulevard. The below photo, which was taken by the Salisbury Post, shows the current and potentially long-term future of Statesville Boulevard.

Statesville Boulevard in Salisbury, NC (Credit: Salisbury Post)

Statesville Boulevard in Salisbury, NC (Credit: Salisbury Post)

The following is what occurred in Salisbury. “In 2012, city officials considered putting bike lanes on Statesville Boulevard as part of a road diet that would have taken the four-lane thoroughfare down to two lanes, a turn lane and two bike lanes, as recommended in the bike plan. But after complaints from neighbors during a contentious public workshop, the city ditched the bike lanes and had the state repaint the boulevard with four lanes.” Mac Butner, who has lived in Salisbury since 1961, was opposed to the redesign and desired Statesville Boulevard to remain four lanes because he wants “a passing lane both ways.” “You just don’t give that up after all this time.” The below cartoon, which was drawn by Marina Bare, shows the overwhelming amount of complaints from Salisbury residents during a contentious public workshop.

Salisbury Says No to Statesville Blvd Bike Lane (Cartoon by Rowan Free Press)

Salisbury Says No to Statesville Blvd Bike Lane (Cartoon by Marina Bare)

On the other end of the spectrum, Jeff Jones favored the redesign because “fewer vehicle lanes would make the road safer.” “Visually, the way it is set up now, it just encourages speed,” he said. “It’s like a race track.” According to this article, Jeff Jones was in the minority. “A vocal minority of attendees supported turning the boulevard into a three-lane road, including a center turn lane and dedicated bike lanes on both sides.”

I have been attending the public workshops for the proposed road diet and buffered bike lanes on Loop Road. From what I have seen and heard, Kannapolis is not receiving the same amount of opposition Salisbury residents had towards bike lanes on Statesville Boulevard. This doesn’t mean there isn’t opposition to the proposed road diet and buffered bike lanes on Loop Road. Will the outcry that was experienced in Salisbury also occur in Kannapolis with the proposed road diet and buffered bike lanes on Loop Road or is North Carolina ready to accept that the automobile is not the only mode of transportation?

Even though it took widening (I can think of a few roads that could use a diet) of Newsome Road to approve Salisbury’s first bike lanes, Salisbury is proof that North Carolina is ready to accept that the automobile is not the only mode of transportation. “Three years after approving the bicycle master plan, City Council on Tuesday approved Salisbury’s first official bike lanes for a one-mile stretch of Newsome Road.” Kannapolis is looking to do a road diet and buffered bike lanes on Loop Road, which I feel is more challenging than widening Newsome Road to install bike lanes. Will Kannapolis approve the road diet and North Carolina’s first buffered bike lanes on Loop Road?