Federal Transportation Plans: Looking Ahead or in the Rearview Mirror?

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If you’ve ever participated in any kind of strategic planning exercise you’ve heard about having SMART goals: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Timely. By that standard the new US Department of Transportation’s draft strategic plan “Transportation for a New Generation” for 2014-2018 needs some serious improvement if it is truly to be the plan for a 21st-century, balanced, multimodal system of transportation for everyone.

USDOT logoThis plan will have real implications for how the Department of Transportation operates over the next five years. If people who bike and walk around the country come together to give constructive suggestions to the Department, we could end up guiding the work of some 57,000 federal employees and heavily influencing some $205 billion of annual spending on highways that in some cases serve as Main Street in a small rural town, and in every case connect with city streets and county roads and affect traffic flows and safety for all of us.

Washington Bikes has signed onto a letter from the Alliance for Biking and Walking to raise our voices for SMART transportation planning. Our letter:

  • Asks the Department to set a goal to reduce bicyclist and pedestrian roadway fatalities by 50% by 2020.
  • Suggests that the Department set a goal to increase bicycle mode share nationally to 5% by 2025 and pedestrian mode share nationally to 25% by 2025.
  • Urges regulators to implement a Complete Streets approach when designing safety measures.

The time is now to comment—by Sept. 10—to say that as a taxpayer you want a forward-looking plan, not one focused on the rearview mirror.

Two ways to participate:

The overriding priorities are ones we can all agree with: making the US transportation system the safest in the world, improving the efficiency and performance of the existing transportation system, and rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure “to meet the needs of the next generation of Americans.” But it will take a different plan to prepare for the next generation.

We’ve worked on a number of specific safety issues around the state that this plan addresses—or doesn’t address. In a number of places the draft plan includes safety strategies for motor vehicle safety but not for bicycle or pedestrian safety. Points you may want to include in your comments drawn from our joint letter with the Alliance:

Safety Performance Goal and Indicators

Suggested goal: Include measurable safety goals for biking and walking.

Suggested indicators: Use metrics based on non-motorized miles traveled in addition to vehicle miles traveled (VMT).

Suggested strategies:

  • Separate active transportation modes from older drivers when considering safety—each issue area deserves unique treatment.
  • Ensure intersection improvements benefit motorists, transit users, bicyclists, and pedestrians.
  • Implement rumble strip policies that improve driver safety but do not create safety hazards for bicyclists.
  • Focus on reducing speed as a crash factor, especially in metropolitan areas.
  • Study alternatives to the common practice of setting speed limits using the 85th percentile speed of free-flowing traffic.
  • Implement MAP-21 performance measures that address non-motorized safety under FHWA Highway Safety funding. (The current proposed strategic plan suggests this strategy for motor vehicle safety but not bicycle and pedestrian safety).
  • Actively encourage investment in bicycling and pedestrian infrastructure that addresses system-wide safety issues.
  • Improve data collection for bicycling and walking. Specifically:
    • Improve data collection and analysis of use and crash data at the municipal, metropolitan planning organization (MPO), and state levels. (In the current proposed strategic plan, this strategy is suggested for motor vehicle safety but not for bicycle and pedestrian safety.)
    • Improve NHTSA’s data collection and analysis system to enhance bicycle and pedestrian crash data. (The proposed plan suggests this strategy for motor vehicle safety but not bicycle and pedestrian safety.)
    • Conduct a bicycle and pedestrian crash causation study to identify contributing factors for bicycle and pedestrian crashes and identify effective countermeasures based on evaluation and analysis of the study data. (There is currently a study on motorcycle crashes underway, but there has not yet been a comparable study for bicycle and pedestrian crashes.)
  • Support, conduct and encourage research on innovative design of bicycle facilities.

Livable Communities Performance Goal and Indicators

The Department performance goal calls for increasing to 65 the number of states, MPOs, and/or plans that improve transportation choices for walking and bicycling by FY 2018. This goal is literally meaningless–there are already over 500 Complete Streets policies and even more bicycle and pedestrian plans already in states, metropolitan planning organizations and communities across the US, including many in Washington state. Having a plan in place is a first step but a more meaningful goal would address actual changes.

Suggested goal: Increase bicycle mode share nationally to 5% by 2025 and pedestrian mode share nationally to 25% by 2025. Mode share goals for urban, suburban and rural communities could vary to take into account the local context.

Suggested performance indicator: Set incremental bicycle and pedestrian mode share goals for the years 2015-2018.

Suggested strategies to ensure that states, regions, and localities around the country maximize livability:

  • Adopt a Complete Street policy to ensure that livability is integrated into every program and project.
  • Create a model system of accountability so that projects programmed with multimodal accommodations in the State Transportation Improvement Plan (STIP) are built with those components.
  • Research and disseminate best practices for retrofitting urban and suburban transportation facilities to consider all roadway users.

Environmental Sustainability Performance Goal and Indicator

No goals or indicators address bicycling or walking under any of the Environmental Sustainability Strategic Objectives, a glaring omission that we urge the Department to rectify.

Suggested performance goal for environmental sustainability: Institute a Complete Streets policy.

Suggested performance indicator for that goal: Mode share increases in biking, walking and transit.

Suggested strategies to ensure that states, regions, and localities utilize bicycling and walking improvements to mitigate transportation-related impacts to climate, ecosystems and communities:

  • Develop training programs for federal, state and local transportation engineers on Complete Streets policies and practices.
  • Create a clearinghouse of best practices and innovative design for Complete Streets policies and practices.

Organizational Excellence Performance Goal and Indicator

Suggested performance goal: Retrain the next generation of transportation professionals to be truly multimodal.

Suggested performance indicators:

  • Increase to X the percentage of new hires with experience or education in multimodal engineering, planning and so forth. (Each organization needs to set a reasonable percentage for its context.)
  • Increase to X the percentage of existing staff receiving continuing education on designing, planning, and building multimodal projects.

Suggested strategy: Develop and offer training programs in multimodal transportation for US DOT transportation headquarter and regional staff.

The US Department of Transportation’s Strategic Plan must look forward to improve our national transportation system for all users. To do otherwise just wouldn’t be SMART.

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