Chattanooga Street Blog
Blythe Bailey - Administrator, Chattanooga Department of Transportation
"We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them." - Albert Einstein
I heard this recently at the Designing Cities Conference, in Seattle. Designing Cities is the yearly gathering of professionals associated with NACTO, an organization that has quickly gained international notoriety over the last decade. Einstein's words could be the tagline for this organization.
Like a lot of things in the transportation business, NACTO, at first appearance, is just another mysterious acronym. NACTO was established in some respects as an alternative to, perhaps appropriately, yet another acronym, AASHTO. One is the American Association of State Highway Transportation Officials; the other, the National Association of City Transportation Officials. (Bolded by me for emphasis.) AASHTO has been around awhile. The 102 year-old organization focuses its efforts on a national highway transportation system while playing the role of liaison between state departments of transportation and the federal government. AASHTO has largely been the respected entity in the profession of transportation for decades; their Green Book is considered the bible for many transportation engineering professionals. Their work, though, mostly by their own admission, is geared more towards high-speed and high volume highway systems rather than small surface streets that people may live or do business on, which is the more dominant feature of a city's transportation network.
NACTO entered the scene twenty years ago but only really gained prominence under the last ten years of leadership of visionaries Janette Sadik-Kahn, Gabe Klein, and others. As the name/acronym suggests, NACTO's focus is different. One thing that just about anyone - not just transportation wonks - can recognize is that state highway transportation is fundamentally about moving high volumes of vehicles, including trucks, over great areas. However, the boundaries of cities aren't at all great areas, at least compared to states, and the idea that transportation for cities is about moving huge volumes at high speeds, some could argue, is self-defeating for the nature of a city. A city is a place for people to be, first and foremost. Anyone wanting to travel through a city at a great speed or wanting to carry large volumes of freight through a city doesn't likely have the best interest of the city in mind.
That's not to say that cities aren't valid receivers of freight; but the prospect of an eighteen-wheeler cruising from Knoxville to Chattanooga on I-75 is fundamentally different than what the same truck should do once it gets on the surface streets of the city to service, for example, the neighborhood Ace Hardware. (Note, our very own Regional Planning Agency won a national planning award for this very recognition in its planning process. A trip for an American of less than a mile is fundamentally different than a trip for an American of a hundred miles; and our planning process absolutely must acknowledge and respect both trips and everything in between.)
All that said, NACTO was established based on the premise that the needs of transportation for a city are fundamentally different than those for a state; and the needs of a city are as much about vibrant and robust public space as they are about mobility. That's not to say that safe and efficient mobility isn't an important element in a city transportation network. It very much is; but it's balanced with the need for our streets in our village centers, in our neighborhoods, to be safe for our children and grandparents, to provide options for getting around, and to support local business.
Now that you have that context, let's get back to Einstein.
Transportation planners and engineers have for decades applied principles of highway design to just about every transportation challenge, regardless of the context. Granted, over the last ten or twenty years, depending on where you are, there has been a more deliberate approach to be more context-sensitive. Context-sensitivity is an approach for listening to the people of a community and acknowledging the importance of non-conventional transportation factors such as people's homes, schools, children moving around, transit-usage, and multi-modality. (Can I walk or bike or take transit, for example, is a common question that emerges from a more context-sensitive approach.)
Regardless of context-sensitivity, though, highway design standards until recently have been all that we have had. The design guides of NACTO, such as the Urban Street Design Guide, have provided a much-needed alternative for cities that accept the premise that streets are great places too. So, as if upon Einstein's urging, NACTO, through its design guides, is trying to solve problems with new thinking in mind. (Actually, I might argue, in a different post, that this thinking is fundamentally about people first, who are first and foremost pedestrians. As a result, this is not at all a new way of thinking; but rather thinking that revolves around the oldest, cheapest, and safest form of human transportation.)
But wait; before you conclude that NACTO is an organization for car-hating, tree-hugging, sandle-wearing, bike-riding hipsters, consider this - perhaps the most important realization at the NACTO conference.
NACTO is mainstream. This is how we are building our cities across the country; and beyond. There were over 800 attendees at the conference from places as varied as San Diego, Fort Worth, Boise, Atlanta, Nashville, Pittsburgh, Phoenix, and Boulder. And they represented companies, non-profits, city governments, advocacy organizations, product vendors, planners, urban designers, and in at least one instance, an architect.
You may notice I mentioned neither Portland nor New York. Certainly, representatives from these cities also attended the conference, and as they are everywhere, they were held up as leaders in transportation. Also, as they are everywhere - Chattanooga not excluded- there was a consistent, implied, "we're not Portland" and "we're not trying to be Portland".
City representatives, myself included, across the board, are proud of where they come from. I, for example, am a Chattanoogan; I love my city; and don't want it to be Portland. Nevertheless, we are all facing similar challenges, balancing growth, existing land use, moving tens of thousands of people, protecting safety, etc. And, like others, such as Pittsburgh and Nashville, we're not so insecure that we can't look at other places for examples of how they have managed these challenges. And therein lies another great benefit of an organization like NACTO.
Credit: Jamie Smialek, Our Ampersand Photo
Our highway system is one of the most valuable and defining characteristics of America; for commerce, the movement of freight, national self-defence, and emergency evacuation. NACTO, through its advocacy and design guides provides a much-needed alternative to help us create cities that, through a vibrant street system, are great places to be. It's not blind mimicry of places like Portland, nor is it about a replacement of the highway system. It's about an acknowledgment that cities are fundamentally great places; they are unique, they instill fond memories, and they are associated with real people, churches, and businesses.
For several generations, we looked past this essential aspect of cities - that they are our places that are fundamentally about and for us. Sure, we have to move around in them; but the best part of a city is what it's like to be in the city; so much more so than what it's like to move through the city.
So what's all this have to do with you? To name one thing that's been in the news recently, consider Martin Luther King Boulevard. In the 1950s, MLK Boulevard and McCallie Avenue were converted to one-way pairs. Put simply, they were redesigned as highways to facilitate the fastest commute through neighborhoods like UTC, Fort Wood, MLK, Orchard Knob, Ridgedale, Glenwood, and Highland Park. When I grew up in Chattanooga, I knew teen drivers who would race down these streets, never once considering that they were racing down a street that had many of the same characteristics of the streets that we lived on. These were streets that students once walked on, that music was made on, that businesses thrived on, and that families lived on.
Through design we created streets that were lonely, that no people were on; that parents wouldn't want their college-aged kids to live on, and that struggled for business. We created these problems; and we'll need new thinking to make MLK a great, diverse place to be; a place that nurtures local business and that embraces its African-American history and culture. Our work on Martin Luther King Boulevard makes that new thinking a reality.
Improving this one street will not solve the many, interconnected transportation issues facing Chattanooga. I will be posting regularly about those issues, solutions we are seeing in other cities, and solutions we are developing here in our great city.
The following standards guide and inform the design and construction of all transportation elements within Chattanooga:
- National Association of City Transportation Officials Urban Street Design Guide
- National Association of City Transportation Officials Urban Bikeway Design Guide
- Institute of Transportation EngineersDesigning Walkable Urban Thoroughfares: A Context Senstive Approach
- Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices
Transforming public places
Chattanooga's Transportation Department is accepting applications to transform public rights-of-way such as sidewalks, on-street parking spaces, travel lanes, and full street widths into active, inviting streets. Pedestrian-centered projects expand public spaces, calm traffic, and increase safety for people who walk, bike, and take transit. They also encourage walking and bicycling, build a sense of community, and increase foot traffic for local businesses. Organizations and business owners can use this form for a Transportation Department review of enhancement projects in the City right-of-way. Applicants will need to identify an appropriate site, show neighborhood support for the project, raise funds required for materials and installation, and provide long-term management, maintenance, and operations of the project. Transportation Department staff will work with the applicant to create a plan that can be presented to City Council for final approval.
Possible projects to bring your community to life:
Bicycle Corrals - repurposing an on-street parking space with bicycle racks—enough space for 10 bicycles to lock up in place of one car.
Parklets - small spaces that expand the sidewalk into parking spaces or travel lanes to provide amenities and green space.
Pedestrian Plaza - creates accessible pedestrian zone in a commercial area by closing a street to most automobile traffic. Emergency vehicles have access at all times and delivery vehicles are restricted.
Resources to empower citizens in reclaiming their public space:
NACTO Urban Street Design Guide: http://nacto.org/usdg/
Reclaiming Public Space: http://issuu.com/civicdesigncenter/docs/ncdc_reclaimingpublicspace/1
Other transportation related resources:
Chattanooga Transportation Department
Development Resource Center
1250 Market Street, Suite 3030 (map)
Chattanooga, TN 37402
Office Hours: 8 am to 4:30 pm
Phone: (423) 643-5950
Request new or report problems with existing traffic control devices by calling 311 (or (423) 643-6311 ) to access the City of Chattanooga's one-stop call center.