The Future of Transportation – Myth 1: Bike Projects Make Traffic Worse

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Imagine having Aretha Franklin and Eartha Kitt together on stage talking with each other about music and how they make hits, hearing them speak honestly about their fans, and what they’ve learned about being musical superheroes.

I know, you’d lose your mind, right?

Well, that’s the equivalent of what happened when Seleta Reynolds, GM of Los Angeles’ Transit Department and Janette Sadik-Khan, the award winning former commissioner of the New York City Department of Transportation sat together and talked about making city streets safer, more effective, and easier to navigate now and in the future.

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Reynolds and Sadik-Khan organized their conversation about Top Traffic and Transportation Myths. You can watch the whole video here, but as a public service, I’ve distilled my favorite insights and will offer them in a series of posts around each of the myths they discussed.

Myth #1: All of these projects — e.g. bike lanes, rapid bus routes, plazas — make traffic worse.

[Note: What the public is really asking is, “What idiot came up with this plan?”]

People are terrified when the government says, “We’re going to make your streets better.” People like their streets, even if they’re ugly and dangerous. How do you respond when people are defending their crappy streets?

With data.

  • Key message: “Balance your streets and make them work better.”
  • Analytics in NYC showed that when you closed a plaza, traffic worked 14 percent better
  • After installing one protected bike lane on a major road, the street worked 50% better

Slater calls out her transit colleagues:

We have done a poor job of talking about anything other than “Does this street move traffic?” There’s a lot that we don’t know about traffic. And in the absence of data, anecdotes rule. We have to get better at pivoting from, “It’s about traffic,” to describing other performance metrics about our streets like their effect on business, public health, community happiness…

Sadik-Khan refers to this as a sea change.

Engineers used to apply “math magic” to determine how many lanes to add. And when you interview a cab driver about any of the road changes, they decry how terrible it is. In NYC, what tipped the street program was the data. [Mike Bloomberg’s motto is “Trust in God. Everyone else bring data.” Hmm, this is the same motto at Google.]

So Sadik-Khan’s team equipped 13,000 yellow cabs with GPS to demonstrate what really happens to traffic. They did the same thing with metrics for walkability, bikeability, etc. The data don’t lie…and it was the cabs that were telling the story.

The way you talk about the data matters, too. 

Stop using words like “road diet” and “multi-modal” and stop referring to people as “bicyclists,” “pedestrians,” and “drivers.” These are PEOPLE.

Finally, Slater advises how to talk about these projects in terms that resonate:

If you tell someone, you’ll save two minutes a day with this new bus route, they don’t care. But if you tell them, you’ll save forty hours a year with this new route, that matters more.

Coming next: Myth 2: Your road project is going to kill my small business.

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