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  • New Way: Davenport’s Smart Transportation Plan and Its Roadblocks PDF Print E-mail
    News/Features - Local News
    Written by Jeff Ignatius   
    Thursday, 05 August 2010 05:18

    In an interview promoting his 2007 lecture at the Figge Art Museum, urban planner Jeff Speck promised that his ideas would be "controversial." He explained to me that "most cities, for better or for worse, are being designed by their public-works departments, who state as the highest objective the free flow of automobiles."

    Three years later, the City of Davenport is on the cusp of approving a 10-year comprehensive transportation plan called "Davenport in Motion" that draws from the philosophy Speck promotes. The shock is that it's barely controversial at all.

    Highlights include returning Third, Fourth, Brady, and Harrison streets to two-way automobile traffic, adding bike lanes and other pavement markings to create a citywide network of cyclist-friendly routes, altering roadways "to ensure safe vehicle travel speeds and mobility for all travel modes" (including foot traffic), and optimizing the downtown-parking situation. It also addresses two areas this article won't: restructuring CitiBus to achieve "significant improvements in efficiency and service quality (frequency and hours of service)," and a plan for northwest Davenport.

    Davenport in Motion is more than 900 pages long (costing the city $330,110), but its overarching goal can be boiled down to this bit from its introduction: "a transportation system that is multi-modal, interconnected, and supportive of a pedestrian-friendly urban community where residents can access daily needs and activities by foot, bike, or transit." (Download links for the plan can be found at RCReader.com/y/motion. To read an article previewing Speck's 2007 speech, go to RCReader.com/y/speck.)

    Davenport in Motion is no panacea, and there are roadblocks. The plan doesn't include an overall price tag, and it of course still needs to be implemented. The downtown-parking element remains problematic, as Davenport's surfeit of parking makes it difficult to encourage through scarcity modes of transportation beyond the automobile. Because Brady and Harrison are part of U.S. 61, changing them to two-way streets would require approval beyond the city council. And transportation is just one element of urban planning.

    But the plan is tangible evidence that Davenport has taken Speck's criticism to heart. The free flow of automobiles is no longer Davenport's primary transportation objective.

    In the Mainstream

    It's worth noting that the substance of Davenport in Motion isn't a surprise, given whom the city selected to write it: the transportation planners of Nelson\Nygaard Consulting Associates, which specializes in the sort of sustainable development that Speck preaches. (Speck's company also contributed to the plan.)

    But Dan McNeil, a member of the Quad Cities Transportation Alternatives Group, said he was "pleasantly surprised" that Nelson\Nygaard was chosen in the first place, and "that the [city] council has been so supportive."

    After Speck spoke in the Quad Cities, McNeil said, it was reasonable to ask what would come of it. McNeil credits Davenport City Designer Darrin Nordahl for advocating a modern approach to transportation planning. "They're very lucky to have a progressive thinker in that position," he said.

    "We really wanted a multi-modal plan -- so a plan that doesn't just address automobile traffic ... ," Nordahl said last week. "We really wanted an element that addressed our transit system, biking as transportation, as well as walking as transportation. And also parking. We know that you can't give people an abundance of free parking and expect them to ride the bus or walk or bike."

    Davenport in Motion doesn't make the city cutting-edge, but it certainly puts it ahead of the other Quad Cities. Thomas Brennan, a principal with Nelson\Nygaard and project manager for the Davenport in Motion consultant team, said that if the plan were implemented today, "you'd probably be on the leading edge in terms of cities your size. But given what we're seeing around the country, as the plan gets implemented over time, you're more likely to be in the mainstream."

    "We know that this is the way communities are going to be designed," McNeil said. "So cities have a choice: to be on the front end in planning -- Davenport is -- or be behind."

    Nordahl said he expects that the council will approve the plan as a whole, perhaps with some adjustments on the issues of downtown parking and converting one-way streets to two-ways. He said he's hoping for passage by the end of August, but that depends on how quickly Nelson\Nygaard can incorporate feedback from public meetings that were held through August 2.

    Just as McNeil was "pleasantly surprised" by the consultant choice and the council reception, Brennan said Nelson\Nygaard was "pleasantly surprised by the appetite of the city for change" -- including citizens, staff, and the city council. "It's often staff that does the hiring," Brennan said, and it's not terribly uncommon that once you start working with the community, there's a decent amount of resistance to a different model, or a different approach."

    Davenport in Motion Street-Project Plan. Click for a larger version.Adopting the transportation plan is just the first step. While Davenport in Motion outlines and prioritizes projects for 10 years, council action will still be required on individual projects. The city expects that some projects can be funded through grants, and others can be integrated into normal road maintenance. The remainder will likely be part of the city's capital-improvement budget.

    On the funding question, Brennan said Nelson\Nygaard "didn't even try to put together a total plan cost."

    There are several reasons for this. For one thing, material costs are changing rapidly.

    More importantly, he said, "a lot of the types of projects that we're recommending that promote mode shifts are actually long-term cost-saving measures. The most expensive thing the city could do is continue to grow its land development like it has the last 20 years." The suburban model is expensive in terms of infrastructure and services, he said, and its sprawl "essentially guarantees that you won't be able to utilize much more cost-effective means of transportation -- like transit, like cycling, like walking ... ."

    That speaks to a larger issue: Fundamentally, Davenport can't change itself without also addressing its development patterns. "You can't divorce land-use planning from transportation planning," Nordahl said. "They're inextricably linked. ... That is part of a much, much larger policy discussion. ...

    "The land-use patterns have to change. ... As long as we continue to develop greenfield sites at very, very low densities, far from where the jobs and the core of goods and services and our universities are, then it's going to be tough to see any measurable gain. That's not just for Davenport. That's city-building in general. We have to figure out how we can encourage developers to invest in the central city and along those streets where we tend to have high transit use. ...

    "That's going to be difficult," he said, and will require willpower from the public and the city council.