"Imagineering" Main Street

Mackenzie’s civil and transportation engineering staff recently attended a webinar highlighting several US implementations of the principles advocated in a relatively new publication, the Urban Street Design Guide (USDG) by the National Association of City Transportation Offficials (NACTO). The group, which includes the cities of Portland and Seattle on its board of directors, is raising a voice for urban-oriented design of transportation facilities, reflecting a broadening sense within the transportation engineering industry that highway-based, cookie-cutter principles may not be appropriate or even adequate in all applications. Now that the interstate highway system is well established and highway design is receiving thorough study, the nation’s large cities are recognizing highway principles may not mesh with the goals of urban place-making.

Last decade, the catchphrase was "context-sensitive design"; now, the USDG offers municipalities a toolbox for implementing scalable improvements intended to create inviting, safe, and functional corridors for all roadway users and all their fronting properties.

While most of us welcome the openness in thinking, we engineers still struggle to adopt the principles whole-heartedly for the simple reason that it’s often challenging to obtain quantifiable results — sometimes the methodology isn’t established or sometimes it’s simply data-intensive to measure reliably. Other times, it’s just difficult to strike the right balance between vehicle amenities and active transportation amenities that will generate a business-friendly or neighborhood-appropriate environment.

This all points toward a truly fundamental question for our profession: When it comes to transportation within the urban setting, what’s the bottom line? It used to be a strict number, such as average delay, throughput, travel time, or volume-to-capacity ratio, but contemporary examples could include safety, comfort, reliability, efficiency, or even the carbon footprint. The answers will differ for each person and for each location. The opportunity inherent in responding to the question is collaboration, for just as the urban roadway corridors will see all sorts of users, the answers will come from all design disciplines. Fortunately for us transportation engineers at Mackenzie, our other six in-house design disciplines are all within 20 paces, and spontaneous creative meetings happen every day, regularly challenging us to greater creativity.