Thursday, February 28, 2013


The following post reflects a Burlington (VT) Walk Bike Council (BWBC) response to member Phil Hammserslough's commending to the Council an interview with community planner Peter Calthorpe....

 Thanks to Phil Hammerslough get us to Peter Calthorpe’s discussion of community design.  This got me to thinking about these two elements: (1)  what is a “walkable” community and this second item from Calthorpe (2) if you want to have a workable transit system you have to “arrive at a place that’s walkable.”


Peter Calthorpe: My short and simple answer is that a well-designed city is walkable. It’s a place where your destinations are close enough to walk to and where you feel safe enough to walk. And it’s a place that is interesting enough socially to make you feel that walking is perhaps something more than just getting from point A to point B. I think that is the heart of it.

……. We have a myopic transportation system. The way we design our communities doesn’t allow walking, doesn’t provide decent transit systems and doesn’t provide alternatives to the car.
London: It brings us back to the idea of walkable communities.
Calthorpe: Exactly. That is the foundation, because if you want a transit system to function, you have to arrive at a place that’s walkable — otherwise you are going to want to take your car there. So you need walkable neighborhoods.

So Calthorpe says our built up areas need to walkable and without “walkability” then transit cannot function (well maybe “function well” might be better).  OK, so what’s “walkable?” How do we measure it?  For us in Vermont, walkable means making existing urban area, town and cities, etc.,“walkable.”  Our populations are generally not growing, there is plenty of opportunity to increase housing densities in our primarily older urban and town centers—we all agree on that.  So, how do we make things “walkable.”  How can we know when something is “walkable?”  And is there a method or way to measure walkability without hiring a consultant?

Interestingly we have, for example, a readily available a way to measure our scenic viewscapes from any vantage point using a simple method which anyone can use—the method not only determines if you have a valuable viewscape but also whether it is among the top few which require every reasonable effort to preserve. And, most important, anyone can do it. The methology, available from the Vermont Agency of Transportation was originally developed from a Massachusetts statewide landscape inventory taken when it appeared the entire state would be overrun by development in the 1950s.  Scenic experts hired by Vermont refined a state methodology using principals the Massachusetts experience and that citizen-usable evaluation tool is available today. Actually a rudimentary method which measures the likelihood a given node, area, corridor affords a workable walking environment.  The method is very simple, probably could use some updating today but gives anyone the ability to determine whether their street, neighborhood and community measure up on a scale of  “walkability”.  (Even Calthorpe abandoned adjusting the word “pedestrian” to “pedestrianability.”)

The walkability measurement method was developed about 1990 as part of the landmark land use/transportation study of the Portland, OR area, a study with the intent to determine how best to develop land and transportation investments to minimize car travel and maximize transit and the active modes of  bicycling and walking.  One of the reports from the 1000 Friends of Oregon sponsored project was a short paper with the bureaucratic title “Pedestrian Environmental Factor.”   A better title might be, “Measuring Community Walkability”—to be referenced here as the “Walkability Study.”  The study itself was not intended to be—nor was it represented—as a yardstick for walkability.  So this analysis takes some liberties with the original report.

The Walkability Study concludes that if you rate four factors on a scale of 0-3 and the total is 9 or better—the area possesses what usually is found in positive walking environments—based on evaluating a large number of locations with a lively walking mode. The four factors are quite easy to determine: (1) presence of a sidewalk; (2) presence of a connected sidewalk network; (3) degree of grades; and (4) ease of crossing intersections.  After using this in examples below, it becomes clear that one might like to rate a factor, for example, 1.5, rather than a whole number so one begins to measure a finer degree of walkability—but dealing with that can be left to another time.

Let’s take a couple of examples in Burlington and determine their “walkability” score using a 0, 1, 2, 3 approach from the Walkability Study.
Church Street Marketplace   Sidewalk:  3  Entire area a walker plaza.
Sidewalk Network:   3  All approaches and exits along the Marketplace involve sidewalks or mall areas
Grade:  3  Some variation exists here—there is a slight grade from Bank Street south to Main Street while Bank Street to Pearl Street is relatively flat.  Overall, given the context and slight grade on one portion of the area, a 3 score appears fair.
Intersection Crossing Ease:  1    OK this is the tough one.  When the Walkability Study was done all U.S. intersections were either signs or signalized—no roundabouts.  Before roundabouts any signalized two-lane roads intersection might get an automatic  score of “1”, a single lane signaled intersection a “2” (two-way stop control also) and 4-way stop intersections a gentleperson’s  “3.”  Purely low traffic residential areas might get a “2” and with a little traffic calming, a “3.”  But the advent of the roundabout and traffic calming techniques changed the equation—for the better for walkers.  Any roundabout reduces delay versus any signalized intersection and safety is improved for walkers at either one or two laners (Vermont at most may have one or two intersections statewide which might require a three-lane roundabout, so they are not a consideration.)

So here goes for a suggested scoring of intersections in the roundabout age.  Generally, from 0 to 3: (1) signalized intersection with one or more legs a four-lane roadway, 0 score; (2) two-lane intersection signalized or two-way stop control, score 1; (3) two-lane roundabout or four-way stop/yield, score 2; and (4) one-lane roundabout with or without traffic calming, score 3.
So, in the case of the Marketplace where there is a mix of two and four lane roadway intersections along north to south boarder streets (Winooski Avenue and Battery Street) , a score of “1” is marked.

College Street and Battery Street  Sidewalk: 3  
Sidewalk Network: 3
Grade: 1 This is a mixture of  a 2 rating south on Battery toward Main, 1 to 2 rating north on Battery and east on College and a 0 rating on College toward the waterfront (the stairway adjacent on the south side gives a concrete picture of the grade). 
Intersection Crossing Ease:  0    Here Battery Street is four lane with a signal—though traffic can be handled by a single lane roundabout which would give it a score of “2”.   This is not to conclude a single lane roundabout is feasible—but since a single lane roundabout ups the intersection score from 7 to 9—below to just into the margin of walkability the impact of the roundabout on walkability becomes clear.  Short of an escalator-like device steep inclines cannot be changed and therefore present a clear barrier to walkability scores.  Even granting the current intersection with  score of “1” leaves it below the desired total score of 9 sought for a  minimum walkability rating. 
North Street and North Champlain  Sidewalk: 3
Sidewalk Network: 3
Grade: 3
Intersection Crossing Ease:  2     This is an interesting intersection as it does have a signal which—based on he above discussion would be scored only a “1”.  But in this case North Champlain—a one-way north from Pearl Street—is traffic calmed so one can credit the intersection with an extra point.  The suggestion here is that a signaled intersection involving two-lane streets with full traffic calming could reach a score of  “3” equal to a single lane roundabout.  Most likely before that would occur one would simply convert the intersection to a roundabout and remove the signal.

This represents a first cut application.  The raw total scores do in fact point to where attention needs to be given. 

Sunday, February 10, 2013


Vermont Economist Art Wolf keeps Burlington Free Press readers up with financial and demographic statistics in an engaging column each week, but presenting data on commuting in Vermont (When it comes to commuting Vermonters are just like everyone else, Free Press, February 7) Economist Wolf apparently does not read this blog which on January 25 found in the same 2000-2010 data sets “Vermont dumps the car to get to work.”  

Wolf missed the home-to-work trends during a ten-year period of time when the number of employed Vermonters grew by over 9,000 and those traveling to work by car actually declined 17, not a lot, but a historic trend change.  Meanwhile, Vermont worker commuting by public transit grew 72% to 3,140, by bicycle by 107% to 2,022, and walking 12.7% to 19,778.   The percentage of solo and carshare commuters dropped from 87.1% to 84.6%.

The news from the 2000-2010 tabulation really stands out: the first trend away from carcentricity in commuting since the end of World War II when the last vestiges of trolley, passenger rail, and bicycling commuting headed toward permanent lows leading to the overwhelming 80-90% commuting by car which continued on an upward slope--until 2000 when the tide began to turn. 

Several factors play into this historic change—and my January 25 blog examines some of those factors.  As important, it is clear that the downtrend in car commuting is likely to continue, and so too will increases in modal share for the non-car modes likely get repeated for some decades to come.

Economist Wolf may well be correct that Vermont is much like the U.S. in commuting but that commuting increasingly, at least in Vermont, now moves away for the first time from car travel to other modes. 

Friday, February 8, 2013



During a meeting with a Burlington (VT) city official this week, I was asked to give a concise reasoning of how roundabouts increase safety for walkers.  In response quickly went into the studies, statistics, etc., but forgot entirely the basic element which reduces the frequency and severity of walker injuries: roundabouts by design reduce the speeds of vehicles.  Only by lowering speeds of vehicles can one begin to address walker safety—and the only way to reduce vehicle speeds is with concrete and steel impediments which roundabouts and other traffic calming devices provide.

The roundabout reduces speeds by forcing an approaching vehicle to divert from a straight line through placing a splitter island at the approach point with a curb as the enforcer.  After entry, the vehicle continues to face constraint by having to travel on a circular curbed travelway—the smaller the overall roundabout, the lower the circulating speed.  The entry and curved circular travelway constraints on speed are called “deflection.”  The one factor in all walker safety research which most impacts on walker injury frequency and injury severity is speed.  The small mini-roundabout (like the first one in Vermont built in Manchester Center last fall) features a humped area in the place of a curbed central island—but a mini generally can only be located at an intersection which has a fairly low speed environment.  And a mini only gets employed where a roundabout with a curbed central island is not practical.

Of course other features of a roundabout aid in the overall walker injury reduction—the splitter island providing a mid-crossing refuge so the walker deals with traffic from one direction at a time, the location of the crosswalk a car length from the actual intersection so there are not left hand turning traffic issues, and crosswalk width relatively narrow both reducing walker exposure and assisting in speed reduction of vehicles.

So with roundabouts you do get up to a 90% reduction in injury rates for walkers, and the U.S. and Canadian roundabouts record so far (no fatalities to date) approximates that of France where they yearly average about one walker fatality per 15,000 of their roundabouts yearly (well over 30,000 there today).

Hope this gets the forest and trees back into proper perspective.

Friday, February 1, 2013



CNN TV News decided to ridicule a $52 million investment completed last year in Vermont in a lengthy “feature” segment.  The money upgraded track and bridges to a national standard for freight and for passenger operations at 80 mph up from the past 60 mph.
Having just finished a commuter rail policy paper for Chittenden County-Washington County commuter rail which requires less financial operating support per passenger mile (nine cents) than the “free” parking space a typical solo commuter enjoys, I can attest the investment in the roughly 180 mile corridor St. Albans to the Massachusetts border represents an outstanding and timely investment.  The Census numbers show of over 7,000 added workers in Vermont 2000-2010 less than 100 more--that’s right less than one hundred more–workers in Vermont drove or rode to work in a car. The car age ended about 20 years ago and now by the hundreds Vermont workers abandon car commuting each year to go to work on--yes!--on buses, or by walking, bicycling or working at home.  Now the time has arrived to add commuter rail passengers to the mix and the federal rail investments facilitates that action.   

The Burlington Link buses for commuters to Montpelier, St. Albans and Middlebury which began a decade ago and cost $4 each way now carry almost 500 commuters on 50 buses each workday.  And 50 more commuters jump on the Link service each year while maybe another 10 statewide choose to ride to work in a car. We need commuter rail now (and intercity too).  Of course we need to extend the Ethan Allen Amtrak train from Rutland to Burlington and the Vermonter to its original destination in Montreal.  Those projects move forward, though far too slowly.  The Vermonter starting from Washington was part of the reason for the continued investment by the U.S. in four states at the north end of the route to upgrade in order to sharply reduce schedule times and increase market share.    Amtrak knows a lot about market share as it recently hit 72 percent of the rail-air share of travelers between New York and Washington and topped 50 percent for the same group between New York and Boston.

We should look at the rail line upgrade--dwarfed by Vermont’s billion dollar highway capital expenditures each decade--as a truly fortunate development for Vermont and a catalyst for rapid rail passenger and freight services expansion.
Maybe CNN should take another look at the trends in Vermont and national transportation.  The rate of the under 30 crowd with driver licenses drop of 20 percent and the national car travel miles for all age groups has declined in the last decade.  But one must admit, a nice shot of an Amtrak train or an empty track is a far more enticing visual than a young American without a driver license or someone walking to work rather rather than in a the fancy car of a sponsor.