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How advocates can overcome delay and obstruction (part one)

Activist holding a sign that says "Make streets safe for all"
Fickr photo by Ted Eytan

Local advocates fighting for safe streets and expanded transportation options will often struggle to make progress in places because transportation planners and engineers are entrenched in old ways of doing things. We’ve identified some patterns in the ways the establishment can block reforms and offer suggested ways to overcome those obstructions.

If you’re a local transportation advocate, you’ve probably tried to advocate for change with your local government only to find that you seem to be getting nowhere. Transportation policy is full of acronyms and layers of government that can make it hard to figure out who is responsible for what, and some local agency officials use their insider knowledge to stymie real debate and maintain the status quo. And overall, the world of transportation planning and engineering is like a massive, slow-moving ship with a tiny rudder. 

Changing deeply ingrained practices is an uphill battle, and this is why outdated standards and measures and models from decades ago continue to guide how we design and build our transportation networks. (For an incredible look behind the curtain on how transportation agencies operate with some suggestions for breaking through, do not miss Chuck Marohn’s terrific book Confessions of a Recovering Engineer.)

As an advocate, you may find yourself walking away empty handed multiple times from conversations you were sure would generate some progress, and many status quo purveyors have several ways to divert the conversation, each time setting back progress for months or more. This process can be so frustrating that some advocates have resorted to making necessary changes themselves, as Crosswalk Collective L.A. did when the city failed to add crosswalks, but we can’t always roll up our sleeves and paint our needs into reality.

Here are some things we have heard from local public agency staff about transportation reform proposals that have the potential to block progress, and some ways you can respond to push forward–and hopefully knock down multiple roadblocks at a time.

1) “Good news! We’re already doing that.”

The best way to respond to those who think they’re already doing the good stuff is to just point to the outcomes. For example, how many people have been hurt or killed in collisions on the agency’s dangerous streets? This is one reason why one of our leading messages on the last Dangerous by Design report about pedestrian safety was so simple—by every single measure that matters, our current strategy to improve safety is a total and complete failure.

Our current approach is addressing the rising number of people struck and killed while walking has been a total failure. It needs to be reconsidered or dropped altogether.

How many people are walking and biking? Rather than seeing low walking and biking rates as a vindication of ignoring these needs, consider what it says about the public’s view of the streets. Can we consider the status quo successful if few feel safe enough to use them despite polling showing that people want to walk and bike, while other communities that have much higher shares of people walking or biking? 

Are the outcomes in line with stated city goals? Often there may be a comprehensive or transportation master plan with goals for percentage of trips taken by walking, biking, transit, or other active modes. You can ask the practitioner to show how the project’s outcomes serve stated goals, but it may be helpful to have examples in your back pocket.

2) “The [local, state or federal] rules prevent us from doing that.”

Don’t take them at their word. Ask them to show you where in the rules and regulations it is written that what you are proposing is not allowed. Ask them to cite the specific text and provide links to its location. As one example, city and state traffic engineers (still!) routinely claim that they “have to” prioritize vehicle level of service on street projects (often at the expense of safety), but this is patently untrue. Back in 2016, FHWA took the significant step of sending a letter to make this abundantly clear, which we wrote about at the time:

FHWA just gave the green light to localities that want to implement a complete streets approach. By making clear that there is zero federal requirement to use level of service (and that there never has been), FHWA is implying that transportation agencies should consider more than just traffic speeds when planning street projects.

Both US Code and the Code of Federal Regulations are available online as are most state codes, so you can look at what they send and see if the code says what they say it says. However, the trick here is that they might not even know, and/or, when they look it up, they may find out the rules / data / best practices don’t say what they think they say. They may be basing their assumptions on rules or guidance that has since been updated. Or they are making claims that they know are hard for everyday citizens to refute. Put the burden on them to do the research and back up their claims.

(Sometimes state or federal rules really are an issue. Stay tuned for part two of this series on how you can help your local government overcome this barrier if it is real.)

3) “We don’t have the budget for that.”

Yes, but how was the budget created? What were the core assumptions? What was the stated purpose of the project from day one? Was the project “scoped” before the full range of needs were ever considered?

Often you will find that transportation project planners and engineers set the budget for a project based on a design for cars and trucks before they ever take into account non-driving modes. After they’ve set the budget, they hear from community members that they want changes, and act as if there is nothing they can do—changes would only add to the cost which would exceed the budget. 

Our colleagues at Smart Growth America wrote about the importance of getting project “scopes” right a few years ago in a longer series about how state DOTs so often are asking the wrong questions, and how they can do better:

One of the biggest barriers to practical solutions is the practice of defining the need for a project as a specific improvement (ex. add a turn lane) instead of a problem to be solved (i.e. northbound backups at Second and Main during the afternoon rush). And when a Purpose and Need statement goes so far as to include a specific approach (add the turn lane), then all other features—sidewalks, crosswalks, pedestrian refuge islands, or bicycle facilities—become “add-ons” or “amenities” which are first to get scrapped when confronted with funding constraints. Starting with a clear definition of the problem rather than a specific improvement can make such “amenities” central components of a future project and open the door to more inexpensive solutions (like retiming traffic lights).

You can point out this flaw in their phasing and indicate to them that they could have designed and budgeted the project for all modes in the first place. We find the budget for whatever our real priorities are. Safety and equity should not need a separate funding pot. Put the failure to budget for the whole project on them. This could be a good time to go above staff to local elected officials who are their bosses. Elected leaders determine budgets based on what they see, and can redirect the process and/or adjust the budget in future cycles.

4) “Yes, great idea! We’ll add it to the queue.”

A “yes” can sometimes just be a way for an agency to get you off their back while burying a task or project behind their own priorities and goals. Counter it by asking how the queue works. Where is the service level agreement? When will it be done? If it’s a priority list, how are projects prioritized? How and when is the list reconsidered? What projects have guaranteed funding and which projects are awaiting future funding?

Sometimes local government practitioners are highly motivated to invest in safer street designs but encounter barriers in their dealings with the state DOT. 

We’ll be back for part two of this series on how local governments can break through those barriers.

3 Comments

  1. Reply

    David Mcclees

    3 weeks ago

    This initiative is greatly needed. I recently retired after 10 years from my city’s public works department as their transportation analyst. I received recognitions from all levels of government. Engineers tend to lose common sense perspective because engineering tools are highly focused and not well suited to solving transportation problems, which involve many non-engineering causes. Unfortunately engineers do not communicate very well with non-engineers, to the point of hostility. Hence, transportation problems don’t have much of a chance of getting solved. This prerequisite is seldom understood.

  2. Reply

    Kimberly Sampson

    3 weeks ago

    I would like to see this created as an actual guide for the advocacy of Complete Streets. This is addressing all the barriers I have encountered since embarking on this project in 2019.

  3. Reply

    Stephen Lanset

    3 weeks ago

    NJ DOT just loves to divide and conquer. They divide each public meeting into multiple separate discussion groups. An engineer is assigned to each group to lecture about an exhibit and take comments on what they have already decided to do. No record is made of comments from the public and responses made by the engineers. Widen the turnpike for car traffic? Of course we will! Why would anybody object to it? Build high speed transit instead? That’s out of the question. Turns into a dialogue of the deaf.

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