Monday, November 29, 2010

Just a Little Observation About Street Planning

I was thinking the other day, (seldom a good omen). As I rode east out of town on my ride to what is known locally as "Thunder Road", I noticed some significant improvements to some of the streets between Wichita and Andover, a "burb" about 10 miles east of Wichita. I remembered that 13th Street was a dirt road for part of the way. It is now paved, and not only that, it's 4 lanes wide with new trees and a bicycle path on the side. A very nice road it is. But the radical in me is thinking, "Do we really need all of this?". Yeah, it's nice, but did we really need a 45mph tree lined thoroughfare? It did need to be paved, but I find it hard to imagine that the traffic on this road is all that significant. It sure wasn't on a Sunday morning as I rode through here. Andover is a growing community with many sort of typical suburban housing developments with catchy names like "Quail Ridge" or "Sienna" or some other name that makes you want to live there. And a lot of people that live in Andover work in Wichita and need a good road to get back and forth in their, mostly huge, urban assault vehicles. But just a mile to the north is an excellent road going the same direction. There's another good road just a mile to the south, and 2 miles south, still another even faster road. So now the residents in Andover have 4 possible and comfortable routes to Wichita for their 15 mile commutes to work. I suppose I shouldn't pick on Andover residents. The same thing occurs in other places around the city of Wichita in other similar bedroom communities. This process is likely repeated all over the country. Hell, what is happening here in Wichita is peanuts compared to cities in California and many other places where commuting can be a much worse nightmare than it is around here. As I rode, in my mind, I was wondering if we really had our priorities where they needed to be. Roads are expensive. Our taxes help pay for them. We seem to try and make it easy for longer distance commuters. Is this right? If you consider our dependence as a nation on foreign oil, does this make any sense? Everyone says we use too much of that "black gold" from the Middle East, and have said that for a long time. But I am thinking that we are not doing much, if anything, to help ourselves out. We live near a major 4 lane street here in Wichita. A few years ago the city had a proposal to "improve" the street by widening it to 5 lanes (the 5th lane for a turn lane) and widen the lanes themselves. Their theory for all of this is that they were predicting that daily traffic on the street would increase from approximately 12,000 cars per day to over 20,000 cars per day in the next couple of decades. We attended a planning meeting along with a few neighbors so we could find out more. We had trouble believing that the traffic could ever really increase that drastically. To make the improvements they would have to suck up a lot of additional ground on either side of the existing street. Fully mature trees would have to be cut down. Some residents would lose a significant part of their already short driveways. There were some very concerned residents, some even a bit angry. Long story short, the proposal was defeated at a subsequent city commission meeting, but the process was a bit revealing in some ways. What bothered many of us was the attitude that the city planners "knew all about what was best for us". Our concerns were heard, but sort of shrugged off and almost ignored in some cases. The cancellation was, in my opinion, largely because one of the nearby residents was a state legislator and maybe "had some power" to influence the city planners decision. The planning process for that road to Andover may have been very similar. Andover is a growing community and is growing faster than Wichita. I am sure that over time the traffic on that road will increase, but Andover is not a big town. The traffic between here and there is not overwhelming and I can't imagine that it will be anytime soon. I bet the traffic planners aimed pretty high on their estimates of future traffic. It seems like the planners think that road budgets should have a very high priority and we have to spend a bunch of money whether the needs are really there or not. As a taxpayer, it seems a grossly inefficient way to spend money. I think that the millions of dollars they spent on that road and others could be spent a little more wisely. It's a really nice road, but Jeez! What if they spent a little of that money on more efficient forms of transportation, or used some of it to educate and encourage people to find more efficient ways to get to and from work. What if they made it easier and safer for people to commute on 2 wheels (of any kind). I am all for having nice roads to ride and drive on but I'm thinking that we could be a lot more efficient and conservative with our planning and tax dollars. I am reminded of a John Mellencamp song: Oh but ain't that America, for you and me Ain't that America, we're something to see baby Ain't that America, home of the free Little pink houses for you and me Those little pink houses are sure getting more and more spread out, requiring more planning, more pavement, more taxes and more oil. And I am just getting more and more cynical.


  1. Our problem, here, is that the roads we have, aren't being maintained. Most haven't been resurfaced in many years and there is still very little money being budgeted for street maintenance and repair.

    Tucson has only one freeway around the outskirts of town. The fact that we have only surface streets makes this a good town for scooters, but hitting a pot hole on 10 inch wheels can be quite dangerous.


  2. cpa3485: Nothing is logical in whatever Governments decide to do. Don't get me started on bicycle lanes. They have taken over many roads and bridges to make these segregated lanes. During the last snow storm, they have started to clear snow from these deicated lanes too, even though no one rides bicycles in the snow.

    Wet Coast Scootin

  3. Howard,
    Our streets around here are usually in pretty good shape. Extreme weather can cause problems sometimes, but eventually they get things fixed pretty well. It's just that it seems sometimes that they can do with a little less. We have one highway through town that has all sorts of decorations on some of the concrete side walls. Oh, they look cool, but totally unnecessary.


  4. Bobskoot,
    Your comment about bike lanes stirkes another chord. Wichita is not particularly bike friendly compared to other places, but lately they have been trying to do more and have re-painted some stripes on some roads to show bike lanes. In spots, what they have done is just plain wierd.


  5. I am not sure about building new roads in the US, but from what you had said Jim, that new road isn’t needed or wanted. I can say that in my travels across the US, I very rarely experienced traffic congestion like I see in Europe almost every day. Sure, I saw it in big cities in the US, but apart from that, there was almost none. You road system is very good compared to the rest of the world.

    I am in a position to comment about the general condition of roads in the US, having just ridden quite a few of them. In some states, interstates are just downright dangerous for bikes and I found that the nearer I was to large cities, the worse the interstate road surfaces are. I didn’t ride much on interstates, but I did see some horrors that could easily catch bikes out – mainly huge cracks that were sometimes wider than narrow bike wheels, but the worse thing was sudden changes on the surface level between lanes, making lane changing especially dangerous. New York and California were the states with the worse interstates that I noticed.

    Generally, due in part to the Re-Investment Act, the surfaces of most other roads was generally good, with some notable exceptions. I saw some horrible road surfaces in Maine and of course the further north you ride in the US, you are likely to see more tar snakes as the roads are affected by frost, ice and snow.

    Overall, I would say the quality of US roads is pretty good. Certainly better than in Europe and I think I know why that is. In Europe, most utilities (gas, water, electricity, cable, telephones, sewers) are all underground and that generally means under the roads. That means any work to them means digging up the roads and we suffer from road-works far worse than in the US. Additionally, when they have finished and relay the road surface, the utility companies generally do a poor job of patching the road and it often fails, causing many potholes, which we all know are very dangerous for bikes. In the US, where many utilities are on poles above ground, the extent of potholes is much less, although US citizens have to look at very ugly poles and wires everywhere.

    I found many roads in the US being re-surfaced. Far more than I expected. Talking to people about this during my tour, they were generally happy that the roads were being improved, but I found many people that were very bitter about the cost of this and the impact on their taxes.

    Overall, I would say US roads are excellent, with a few notable exceptions. With such a huge country where owning a car is an absolute must, this is not surprising. I do wish that the cars were not as big as they are, as a huge amount of gas is being wasted feeding vehicles with such high consumption rates. Cars got smaller in the US after the previous oil crisis, but then grew in size again as memories of that crisis diminished. I do worry however what the US will do when the oil begins to run out....

  6. Dear CPA3485 (Jimbo):

    First of all, many states and cities represented by reptiles in Washington, D.C. screamed their lungs out for stimulus money to be used on local projects with the thought of putting local guys to work. That opens the door...

    Next, follow the money trail. Repaving, "improving," or widening roads may enhance the value of certain real estate. Find out who on the city council has a vested interest in the improvement of roads adjacent to various properties and you may find some of your answers.

    Finally, city managers and council people are often miles off on their projections. I can assure you there is nothing more aggravating than to find yourself choked by roads and highways built in the '30's now handling traffic for which they were never designed. This is case all over in New Jersey.

    I cordially invite you and Gary Frances (who seems like a great guy) to take a leisurely spin through the traffic circle in Flemmington, NJ (at 4:30pm on a Friday afternoon) for a real eye-opener. Leslie (Stiffie) is from Nebraska, and she froze like a deer on an artillery range going into the buzz-saw at Flemmington.

    So it is a delicate balance to see which highway-improvement stretches are motivated by forward-thinking civic leaders, and which are directed by money-grubbing self-serving political hacks. I think you did the right thing to contest the widening of that road at the town meeting, especially if it entailed the seizure of private proprty (with reimbursement at far less than market value).

    Fonderst regards,
    Jack • reep • Toad
    Twisted Roads

  7. Gary,
    I appreciate your observations about the roads in the USA. You certainly have seen a lot of them. We Kansans are pretty proud of our roads and the state legislature and the Highway lobby seem fairly tight with each other. But recently with state budget issues looming big, the highway fund got raided a bit last year and may again next year. I just wish that they would build things a little more sensibly and economically. Building something like a road at an efficient price seems to have become a thing of the past.


  8. Jack,
    Our roads here are really pretty good and I like them. It is just that they seem to be a little too pretty at times. Some day I'll tell the tale of Kellogg Avenue, here in Wichita. A highway through the center of town (east west) that has been receiving inprovements over the past 2 decades, but was much needed well before that time.
    I cannot pretend to be able to predict future traffic patterns, but in some cases I think I may have much more ability in that area than some of the "planners" we now employ.