It doesn’t happen very often. Thank goodness. But there are times, very rare times, when in our work, we experience a kind of mid-life crisis, when some external event sparks the realization that we have been traveling down a decision-path for so long, we’ve lost sight of something very important – when we stop and say, how did we get here?
It happened last month -- in Weihai, China’s Shandong Province, where we are working with the municipal government on the development of the city’s first Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) lines.
One of the objectives of our June mission was to narrow down the set of feasible design alternatives for the proposed BRT.
First, and this is important, I should mention that Weihai  is a very pleasant city – small by Chinese standards with a downtown population of about 500,000 – with a meticulously landscaped waterfront, hiking forests, walkable leafy streets, and mountain vistas of a beautiful sea, dotted with ancient fishing boats. In 2003, Weihai won a UN Habitat Award for its "outstanding contribution in improving living environment."
View of fishing boats from hiking path in Weihai
So, it may come as a surprise that last month, our team could be spotted surveying bustling tree-lined boulevards, making measurements and taking photographs, trying to determine the feasibility of tearing up the wide bicycle lanes and the landscaped sidewalks to make way for a new bus lane. And at one point in our survey, an accompanying local representative from the Traffic Bureau, Mr. Hang Feng, asked, “What do you people have against pedestrians and bicycles?”
I can’t tell you how long I have crusaded for more walkable cities  in developing countries, and how passionately I feel about right-of-ways for cyclists. And here I am, in a foreign city, and the locals are asking me why we are so eager to take away space from non-motorized transport. Good question – how we did get here?
You see, two sections of the proposed BRT routes traverse older streets that are too narrow to accommodate both dedicated bus and regular traffic lanes. The local engineering team we are working with had initially proposed building an elevated concrete structure – a kind of raised highway – down the commercial heart of the city and in front of town hall, which we immediately rejected. Too expensive! Too disruptive! And too crazy! Other proposals were made, other proposals were dropped. And at one point, after hours of debate and drawing and planning, we thought the best compromise would be to take a little (not all) space from the peds and cyclists (and private vehicle owners – we were proposing getting rid of some of the underutilized parking lots, too) so that we could give a little to transit. It made so much sense in the board room.
Hmmmm…maybe this part should stay…
But then, not every stretch under consideration is being optimally utilized for pedestrians and cyclists…
And then, after we returned from the site visit, I sat down with Mr. Hang Feng from the Traffic Bureau, and, catching me off guard, he proceeded to tell me his philosophy on life. Actually, since he only spoke Chinese, I can’t honestly say I really got the whole thing – something about crushing sparrows in the hands -- but what I did get was that Mr. Hang feels quite strongly about equal rights to the public space, whether those rights be allocated to a cyclist, driver, or bus passenger. Can I tell you how rarely we hear this in the field? Particularly from the traffic police? And he wondered why, rather than tear up infrastructure to ram in traffic lanes, we didn’t make some adjustments in the traffic patterns, designating one-way roads to accommodate traffic flow? Hmmm….good question. He believed his bureau could manage the scheme, and he was willing to collaborate with other departments to implement. Later, it turned out that this was an old proposal that, as is common in these planning marathons, had somehow been forgotten. Or at least tabled.
After our discussion, we raised the one-way traffic management scheme in the following steering committee meeting. And this time, unlike when the scheme was discussed long ago, the decision makers were more acutely aware of the expense and adverse impacts of the alternatives. I am guessing this is the case, because almost immediately, we were able to reach agreement with the municipal government that this option could work. We asked the engineering team to prepare an analysis of alternative one-way traffic management scenarios, and in one fell swoop, I felt as though we had potentially saved a couple small swaths of downtown – from ourselves.
(photographs – Holly Krambeck)