On the Road with Julie: NACTO

Posted on November 6, 2017 · Posted in General

I’m 5 weeks into a 6 week stretch of crazy travel –  a stretch made even more hectic by the news of Nebraska’s bottom of the barrel spot on the Bicycle Friendly State rankings, as determined by the League of American Bicyclists.

My most recent trip was to Chicago for the NACTO Designing Cities 2017 conference.  (NACTO stands for National Association of City Transportation Officials.) I’ve spent almost no time in Chicago, and I was looking forward to seeing what the Windy City had to offer. I was not disappointed.  So, in honor of Oprah (long time Chicago resident), I thought I’d share some of the “AHA moments” of the trip.

AHA Moment #1: “You can’t build a 21st century economy on a 20th century transportation system” -Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanual

The morning plenary session on Tuesday featured Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanual.  He pointed out that “Chicago’s history is transportation. Chicago’s future is transportation.” He set out in 2011 to make Chicago the most bicycle friendly city in America, and he didn’t mess around: he set the goal of creating 100 miles of protected bike lanes and to bring large scale bike sharing to the city.  He bragged as only a Chicagoan can when talking about overtaking Seattle and Portland for bicycle friendliness:

His plenary statement included this quote that I immediately tweeted out: “You can’t build a 21st century economy on a 20th century transportation system.” This thought echoed frequently throughout the conference, as the topic of the Amazon HQ2 decision came up in nearly every session and walkshop I attended and many of the conversations I overheard.  Chicago is as prepared as any city right now to meet the tranpsortation criteria outlined in the proposal, and in fact, the city reportedly submitted 20 potential sites for review. The Mayor’s goals in Chicago’s Streets for Cycling Plan 2020 align quite well with what a company bringing 50,000 high paying jobs and $5 billion in construction spending would want for the future, too:

  1. Provide a bicycle accommodation within 1⁄2 mile of every Chicagoan.
  2. Provide a greater number of bikeways where more people live.
  3. Increase the amount of infrastructure where ridership is high, while establishing a
    strong backbone of infrastructure where ridership is currently lower.

As we’ve stated in various media interviews, Nebraska’s 50th place ranking in bicycle friendliness isn’t necessarily a reflection that we’re backsliding; it is more like Nebraska is getting left behind as every other state is working proactively to get better.  If Nebraska truly wants to become an economic leader, we are going to have to embrace the kind of changes to our transportation system (read: biking/walking/transit) that it will take to attract and retain great people and great businesses. 

A-HA Moment #2: 10 Foot Lanes Work Just Fine

I’m going to resist the urge to let my inner Transportation Nerd go crazy on this topic. Let’s make it easy by saying this: What is a major safety concern for people walking and biking? Speeding cars.  What is something that contributes to cars traveling at the appropriate speed in an urban environment? LANE WIDTH.  Nebraska’s current standard minimum lane width for the overwhelming majority of streets and roads is 11 feet.  Any discussion about allowing 10 foot lanes (as found in many states) is usually met with concerns about traffic congestion and the ability for trucks, snowplows and emergency vehicles to navigate easily.  It didn’t take long for me to start asking questions and snapping photos on the “Low Stress Cycling in the Loop” mobile tour workshop when I spied what appeared to be 10 foot lanes everywhere I looked:

(In most cases: 7 foot parking, 5 foot bike lane, 10 foot travel lane.)

What’s that, you say? Buses and fire trucks and cement trucks can’t drive in this environment?  Oh contraire:

Yes, I realize fire truck (it had lights and siren going here, by the way) is technically in the bike lane. The bus was approaching a stop. It is admittedly probmematic that both were driving in the bike lane, but it isn’t because they don’t fit.  The cement truck in the first photo is proof positive.

If Chicago can do this, certainly cities in Nebraska can. We have the same climate and the same hard working midwest culture. Nebraska, we’re running out of excuses, and it’s time to figure out how we can avoid being left behind.

Tune in tomorrow for A-HA moments #3 and 4!