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“What do you people have against pedestrians and bicycles?”

Holly Krambeck's picture

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?”

Woah.

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)

 

Comments

Submitted by Winnie on
I always think the traffic police or local taxi/bus drivers are one of the best resources to get to know the traffic situation of a city. Seriously, like London, Beijing, if a foerigner wants to know the real world of that city, the best way is to talk to a taxi driver or a traffic police. They will tell you everything about that city, food, clothes, travel, hotel, site seeing... And you can feel their love and passion to the city and to their job. I am glad you like Weihai and I am deeply moved by your talk with Mr. Hang Feng. Great job, Holly!

Submitted by Yabei Zhang on
great post! I also feel that sometimes we pursue something for so long, then we actually forget where we started and what's our ultimate goal.

Submitted by Amir Rizavi on
Very interesting post, Holly. I am a traffic/transportation engineer working for a consulting firm in New York City. We are often face with the conundrum of how, as professionals, we can play a balancing role and be fair to all roadway users. It is tough to strike the right balance and traffic management (like you suggest in your post) is often the perfect solution. We have implemented simple but practical solutions in NYC (prohibiting left turns, street direction changes, better signal coordination, better lane channelizations, etc.) that are able to satisfy all parties and improve vehicular and pedestrian traffic flow. I am also impressed that Mr. Feng wanted all road users to be treated alike. Originally, hailing from Mumbai, I know that, unfortunately, there is little or no provision for non-motorized roadway users in India and other developing nations but hopefully, this thinking will change with the efforts and push from the FIA Foundation to make safety a key aspect of the MDG. Thanks, Amir Rizavi

Submitted by Bob Dolan on
Mr. Amir Rizavi, the true traffic/transportation engineer should/will always find balance between all road users. The measures that you are alluding to -- left turn prohibitions, reversing the street directions, signal optimizations, etc. -- are not always pedestrian safety improvement measures. Often, these measures are done to improve vehicular flow not pedestrian safety. Although there are too many factors to list, I would like to say that we as planners and engineers can make all the difference in the world to reduce the number of fatalities or increase safety with our knowledge, leadership, and dedication. Bob Dolan Safety Group, Inc

Submitted by Garland on
It's really a good question to ask ourselves- How did we get here? in the work, in our life, in the rush to a goal ahead. But just a few people can stop when they think they are crusading, or just working hard with passion. Proud of you, Holly!

Submitted by JenniK on
What a wonderful article! Thanks for your insight, Holly. We could all use a little "how did we get here?" moment!!

As an advocate for pedestrians and bicycles myself, I think this project had a perfect outcome. If only transportation projects in every country could be analyzed in such a deep and honest way. One of the most valuable lessons I learned while in grad school was that politics would have a huge impact on transportation projects (planning, design, and construction stages). At the time I did not understand very well what my professor was actually telling me, but after working for so many years as a consultant, that remark keeps playing over and over in my head. At times the most beautiful and beneficial projects do not make it simple because the real decision-makers (top government officials) do not have an interest for them, they personally do not have an interest for them. How awful is that? I believe in change, thus I keep advocating for pedestrians and bicycles in addition to other transportation issues that at times are not as attractive to decision-makers, but are very important for citizens. Thank you for the wonderful bog. Vanessa Amado, PhD, PE

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