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Taking On Your Local DOT

Oregon DOT's radical vision of progress: a few flex posts and most of the ROW still dedicated to convenient driving.

Anyone who has ever been involved with or given comment on any sort of road expansion project knows that departments of transportation (DOT) are often the biggest obstacle to most progress for any human-centered, non-automobile focused future . They control massive amounts of land in rights-of-way and adjacent properties, and the funding they receive for more driving infrastructure dwarfs the amount budgeted for just about anything else (Bloomberg just wrote about this in the article The Unstoppable Appeal of Highway Expansion). Although some DOTs in places like Oregon, Washington, or maybe Massachusetts might have started putting in roundabouts or some other vaguely progressive-looking improvement, their fundamentals don't change. They are, and they will continue to be, one of the main reasons why most of our built environments still look exactly the same.

I was recently an observer on a project and spoke at length with one hapless DOT planner who was able to speak frankly only because we weren't in public. Over a series of meetings he was able to convey some of the realities of the problem (all the while insisting/begging that I never let anyone know we had talked). My main takeaway from the discussions were that most DOTs operate on three fundamental ideas:

  1. Moving vehicles quickly and without stopping is the absolute highest priority. Stop signs, crossings, narrower lanes, and other implementations (all the things that make built environments more attractive for people) are antithetical to this value.

  2. Land uses, not people, "generate" motor vehicle trips. Under this assumption, any new development means more driving.

  3. Future travel behavior will primarily be driving.

As I see it, the issue with these is as follows:

So from the beginning anyone seeking a human-centered, less car-dependent environment is at a huge disadvantage. But there are a few strategies to bring them down from their pedestal and try for some better outcomes:

  1. From the beginning, have them clarify what their primary objective is--in most cases it will be something like "mobility", "vehicle flow", "reducing congestion" or something else that basically means moving vehicles fast at the cost of everything else. Once this is established, you can propose a counter value that may be more politically attractive in your community: pedestrian safety, lower GHG emissions, less traffic noise, whatever.

  2. Mobilize your community, especially anyone with local political power, and have them maintain the framing of vehicle flow vs. [competing value]. DOTs don't really respond individuals in the public, but they may respond to concerted pressure from lobby groups, neighborhood groups, and local councils/boards. As always, unified language is helpful.

  3. Press the engineers, project managers, and modelers to explain the assumptions behind their models. Many of them have never had to do this or deal with this. But every model is based assumptions, and all assumptions are based on values.

  4. Keep pushing, and make it as political as you have to. As in #2 above, the game isn't won by being right, but by becoming more of an irritant than the trucking/freight lobby, the NIMBY association, or whoever else.

At the end of it all, it's most important to remember that rights-of-way, even the ones owned by DOT, are public space. The primary purpose of a road, street, or stroad is whatever the community wants it to be--a space for people, a space for cars, a space for freight, whatever.

Regardless of what the engineers or planners tell you, everything about our rights-of-way is negotiable.

yorro is a planner working in municipal planning

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