Thank you to everyone who joined us at our first ever Action Forum on Saturday, August 5th! We had many great conversations and if you missed them, or want to get a refresher on what we talked about, CLICK HERE to read all of the notes. Feel free to comment on them too!
Out of the collaborative conversations at our Action Forum emerged a concept for our Mayoral Forum – “Conversations with the Candidates: A Fast-Paced Forum with Albuquerque’s 2017 Mayoral Candidates”
Details on our mayoral candidate forum are as follows (skip to the bottom to see the flyer):
As we began to talk to each other about the mayoral forum, we realized that we were tired of the same old candidate forum format. The traditional format creates an “us vs them” environment. The candidates sit up on stage at a table, while everyone is in the audience. There is little engagement between the audience (the voters) and the candidates.
With our format, “Conversations with the Candidate”, every attendee will participate in a conversation with every candidate.
As a group, we identified 8 topic areas that typically come up at our meetings and that are important to us as a group (listed in no particular order):
1) Local Economy; 2) Housing/Zoning; 3) Community Engagement/ Connectivity/Communications/Information; 4) Active Transportation & Safety; 5) Vision for the Central Corridor; 6) Public Safety & Crime; 7) Environment, Sustainability & Resources; 8) Health.
Each table will have a moderator, an Urban ABQ representative, a rotating candidate and other key people who will help to facilitate focused conversations.
The moderator will be responsible for leading the conversation and asking each candidate the questions we are developing. Each candidate will only have 15 minutes at each table so the objective will be focused conversation around ideas the candidate has for making our city better on the given topic at each table.
Now, we’re asking YOU to help us fill the seats! We have a limited number of chairs at each table so we’re trying to identify exactly WHO should be at each table.
Join us at our first ever Urban Albuquerque Action Forum!
If you’re interested in topics including but not limited to street trees, rainwater harvesting, crime & safety, arts & culture, heritage, history & historic properties, development, parking, zoning and density in the Heart of the City this event is for you! Grow these or bring your own!
Help us create an Urban Albuquerque Agenda for the next mayor and decide what the policy priorities should be in the next four years!
The topic of the talk was “Healthy, Equitable Urbanism” and the audience was exposed to a variety of best practices from around the world on how to make cities more livable places using a variety of methods.
After the talk, everyone had a chance to ask questions. However, as people made their way home, we imagine other questions arose, namely: how to implement these ideas in Albuquerque?
Now it’s YOUR turn to ask US questions!
We want to know: what questions do you have on the topic of healthy, equitable urbanism?
Written and Edited By Members of the UrbanABQ Collective andBetter Burque
Check out BetterBurque.org for in-depth, Albuquerque-focused articles about bicycle and pedestrian safety, infrastructure and more!
A Series of Predictions
In late 2014, we wrote an article called “A Great 2014 + The 2015 Forecast,” which can be found HERE. That piece covered positive changes that happened over the previous year and investigated some things we wanted to see happen in 2015.
Much of what we wanted to see in 2015 didn’t happen … until this year, 2016. In fact, most of the items on that list have become a reality in the last couple of months! So, we decided it was time for an update on the update:
Recent Positive Happenings:
Grand Opening of the Silver Street Market in the Imperial Building
We could not be more excited about the grand opening of the Silver Street Market in the Imperial Building at Second and Silver. Though some have complained that the grocery store has not fulfilled their highest of hopes and dreams, it’s a game changer in terms of livability in the Downtown core. The ability to buy essentials such as eggs, lettuce, and a bottle of wine just a block from the Alvarado Transit Center has already impacted the daily lives of many Downtown residents. It makes a stronger case for anyone who has been thinking about moving to or developing residential units in the heart of the city.
A.R.T.—Albuquerque Rapid Transit Begins Construction
Unfortunately, much misinformation has been spread about the project, a problem that doesn’t appear to be going away anytime soon. For example, no matter how hard anyone works to communicate otherwise, many people think the money for the project could be used to fund other things such as APD, that the project will eliminate all left turns on Central, or that stations in the median will be more dangerous and harder to access than curbside stations—none of which is the least bit true.
Just as we have from the beginning of this project, we stand behind A.R.T. True, it’s a project with faults and we wrote about some of them in our 2015 forecast article. But overall, it’s an incredibly positive project that will forge major transit improvements—especially in some of the poorest, most transit-dependent parts of the city—and lead to major pedestrian safety improvements on the deadliest street in the city.
The Zuni Road Diet
The Zuni Road Diet is perhaps 2016’s most exciting and badly needed project from the perspective of road safety. It’s been in the works for years, yet continued to hit roadblocks, so to speak.
The original plans called for major physical changes to the corridor, including the addition of mid-block crossings, sidewalk widening, and other elements to calm traffic and dramatically improve safety. Unfortunately, the funding proposed for this project is tied up.
To make a long story short, recently elected City Councilor Pat Davis, using his discretionary funding, teamed up with Bernalillo County to get a low cost repave and restripe on Zuni. This was only possible due to the extensive groundwork laid by his predecessor, Councilor Rey Garduño. It’s an inspiring story of agencies and departments working together to make positive change happen, but the fact that this relatively cheap project was so hard-won says a lot about how local and national transportation infrastructure is financed and prioritized.
Fortunately, the results have been exceptional, despite being derived from only paint. Narrowed automobile lanes, based on Albuquerque’s recently-passed Complete Streets Ordinance (more on that below), allowed for wider bike lanes and (hopefully) lower automobile speeds. For the cost of paint and with political will, many lives will likely be saved this year and beyond on Zuni Road.
Implementation of the Albuquerque Complete Streets Ordinance
As predicted, this happened in early 2015, but only recently have we seen the physical results of the legislation, which was led by city councilor Issac Benton. Across the city, repaving projects like Zuni are leading to the creation of narrower traffic lanes, wider buffers for sidewalks, wider bike lanes and increased safety for cyclists. The Complete Streets Ordinance is a small but significant step in the direction of a safer more resilient Albuquerque.
Implementation of the Downtown Walkability Plan
This study has now become legally-binding policy, and we’ve seen recent implementation of some of these recommendations, including:
Painted buffers added to the Lead and Coal bike lanes between I-25 and Second Street
Addition of parking meters to previously arbitrarily marked yellow and red curbs “naked” curbs, covered in-depth on pages 20, 79, 99 of the walkability study and also covered in other pages in the study
Reconfiguration of First Street and Copper into a traditional four-way intersection
Painted buffers added to widened bike lanes on MLK Jr. Blvd.
Conversion of signals into stop signs at low traffic intersections in Downtown along Silver and Eighth Street (this is still under study and this may or may not become permanent)
Still, we’re a long way from finished regarding the implementation of the other recommendations. Some of these, such as removing portions of Tijeras, will require more money and time to implement. That said, it’s great to see some of the aforementioned light, quick, and cheap ideas being implemented where possible, contributing immediately to a better Downtown ABQ.
Groundbreaking at Innovate ABQ
Work has begun at the former First Baptist Church site with the inaugural development now under construction. Called “The Rainforest,” this mixed-use building will include dorm residences, a business incubation center, a Nusenda Credit Union branch, some food establishments, and more. The addition of these new residents and businesses will likely stimulate the growth of more restaurants and retail Downtown.
Uber and Lyft
In our 2015 Forecast, we mentioned that Uber and Lyft had recently begun operating in New Mexico. Shortly after this post, both firms experienced legal trouble with the State of New Mexico and began operating in a legal gray area. Lyft left the state shortly after it arrived due to these legal concerns
These legal issues have since been resolved and Lyft is back. Both Uber and Lyft are now operating legally in New Mexico so if you haven’t yet, give them a try!
Other Things We Would Like to See Happen:
The Bad News:After we crowdfunded the first parquito in Albuquerque, it was quickly built in front of the Zendo Coffee. The bad news is that on one late night in early 2016 someone driving a large vehicle destroyed it. This means that there are currently no parquitos in Albuquerque.
The Good News: However, the area around the first parquito has now become a vital node, with not only Zendo Coffee, but also Sidetrack Brewing Co., A Good Sign and SCA Contemporary at the Sanitary Tortilla Factory, a collaborative art space and gallery.
The Great News: A successful 2016 (Park)ing Day, on September 16th, was the kickoff of what will soon be a permanent parquito in front of Deep Space Coffee. We have heard that it will be constructed in Spring of 2017 so stay tuned!
A Comprehensive Approach to Homelessness, Poverty, and Mental Health…
This wasn’t mentioned in the 2015 forecast, and definitely needs to be said: The homelessness and poverty challenges in Downtown and across Albuquerque pose a huge threat to our city’s success. Though there have been efforts on the part of the City and other organizations, including a program employing panhandlers which has gained national attention, the massive needs here aren’t being adequately addressed.
Crime is on the rise in Albuquerque and in many other cities across the nation. It is especially obvious at the Alvarado Transit Center and Robinson Park, locations where petty crime and drug dealing can be observed happening in broad daylight.
…and a Better Way to Release Prisoners
Buried in the Downtown Walkability Study, there is a fantastic idea that most people seem to have missed:
Reportedly, when prisoners are released from jail, they are dropped off at the Regional Correctional Center and told that their wristband entitles them to a free ride from the Transportation Center to anywhere its buses go. This misinformation apparently contributes to the large number of homeless at that facility. Much better outcomes would result from these prisoners being dropped off instead at the transit facility at Central and Unser, with a bus ticket. It would seem well worth the limited cost of these tickets for the City to underwrite such a program.
Apparently, this program used to exist but somehow, the partnership between the City of Albuquerque and Bernalillo County dissolved over time. This would be an easy, common sense solution to two large problems: a Downtown filled with recently released prisoners with no means to go anywhere; and providing a way for them to return to their home, or at least get closer to a location with resources or support.
This is one of a thousand simple, small-scale solutions that could lead to large-scale change. As with many public policy problems, the first step is recognizing this is a huge problem that requires the collaboration of many different stakeholders.
On the Way Up With A Long Way To Go
Overall, there are many good things happening. On top of all the things mentioned above, some other positives include:
Buffered and green bike lanes on MLK, first green bike lanes in ABQ
We have been told that this could be the vote that makes or breaks the project. We have also been told that City Council has been receiving primarily negative feedback on the project.
This is our deciding moment.
Have you been sitting on the sidelines? Have you been unable to attend meetings or unable to articulate your support for the project?
Make your voice heard!
Below is a letter we have created that you can COPY + PASTE + SEND to your city councilor.
Below the letter, we have included a map of Albuquerque City Council districts and email addresses for each of the councilors. Don’t live in the City? That’s ok! Pick the district closest to where you live and send something to that councilor.
Please share this with your friends and thanks for your support!
I am writing to let you know that I strongly support the proposed Albuquerque Rapid Transit (A.R.T.) project.
Albuquerque is a growing metropolis on the verge of reaching a million people. While it may seem tolerable for now, if we do nothing, our sprawling growth and car-centered design will soon catch up to us, both environmentally and economically. A.R.T. can begin a shift in our city to a more flexible and equitable transportation system that brings more choices between modes and opportunities for getting around.
Bus Rapid Transit is a comparable, affordable, and proven alternative to light rail with added flexibility of buses. Lane and station infrastructure can even be adapted for light rail in the future.
Central Ave is the best street for this project because it has existing ridership, important destinations, housing, and jobs along it. This is not true of other roads suggested such as Lomas Blvd, which is not eligible for the federal funding. A.R.T. will provide better connections to these employment and activity centers and increase pedestrian activity.
Improving transit along Central will have a ripple effect creating a more consistent and efficient system. Increased frequency will shorten transfer times for 32 crossing routes, and by replacing the existing Rapid Ride, some buses may be utilized on other existing or new routes.
Putting the bus in the middle is the correct speed hierarchy. The fast-moving bus is ideal in the middle, with medium-paced traffic in the right lane and on-street parking protecting the sidewalk. Center median stations mean building one station instead of two, riders only have to cross one half of the street and pedestrians have a safe middle island to wait in when crossing.
Central Avenue is the most dangerous pedestrian corridor in a state with the second highest rate of pedestrian deaths in the U.S. Slower traffic from reduced lanes and wider sidewalks will be a major improvement to the pedestrian environment.
The projected increase in automobile traffic onto Lead, Coal, and Lomas will serve to slow speeds, resulting in safer pedestrian and bicycling environments on those streets as well.
Despite the vocal opposition to A.R.T., there are many of us who support this project. Investing in better transit and pedestrian friendly spaces will make Central Avenue more attractive for new businesses and residents. To be able to accomplish this with significant help from the Federal government is tremendous, and the opportunity to bring $4.30 back to Albuquerque for every dollar of local investment in this project is something we must not pass up.
I urge you to authorize the funding and construction of A.R.T.
Edited by Jessica Carr, Chad Gruber, Leila Salim, Michael Vos and other UrbanABQ team members
February 21, 2016
As of Tuesday, February 9, the Albuquerque Rapid Transit project, otherwise known as ART, was approved for $69 million in federal funding from President Obama’s annual budget. This budget has not yet been approved by Congress so the funding is not guaranteed. However, there is a very good chance this funding will be approved and allocated, based on similar projects being approved in the past.
Regarding opinions in the community around this project, attendees were surveyed at a recent public meeting. The results were split in three ways with “38 percent of [the] 134 citizens who were polled — out of 247 who packed the rehearsal hall for the meeting — [saying] they don’t support the project, compared to 30 percent who said they do ‘very much’ and 57 percent who said they desire improved mass transit in the corridor.”
An Open Letter from Concerned Citizens
At the end of January Save Route 66 Central, the foremost antagonist in the effort to bring bus rapid transit to Albuquerque, published a critique of the city’s newest plan for the project. The entire letter can be found at this link.
We would like to say, in short, that this letter is well-thought-out. It is filled with ideas that could be successful if implemented in conjunction with the ART project. Unfortunately, the letter is also filled with misinformation and other data taken out of context.
Albuquerque Rapid Transit (ART) will be a positive project for the City of Albuquerque. This project will feature widened sidewalks, which will create major improvements to the pedestrian environment. Central Avenue is notorious for being the most dangerous pedestrian corridor in a city that is dangerous for pedestriansand the ART project will go a long ways towards improving this. The reduced speeds which will result from this project will create a more nurturing environment for retail, specifically for small businesses. Of course, the greatest strength of this project will be the creation of an frequent, reliable and consistent transit spine for the City of Albuquerque. It will allow Albuquerque to develop a transit culture and set the stage for the creation of other high capacity transit corridors throughout the city.
The first objection to the ART proposal from the open letter is below, emphasis ours:
Overall, our analysis concludes that in the Build Condition (of A.R.T.), the operational performance at several intersections would be deteriorated [compared with No Build]. Several segments would have diminished operational performance, thereby increasing queuing and congestion along the Central Avenue corridor. This can clearly be attributed to the reduction in capacity of the general purpose lanes along the majority of the corridor.
This is the essence of automobile oriented language. This type of wording is used to create fear around projects that could, in any way, reduce the ability for people to drive fast. Increasing queuing and congestion should be the goal of any vibrant, urban retail corridor. If this sounds crazy, please bear with me.
Driving Slow Allows Retail to Grow
Let’s assume that once the ART project is complete, the same number of cars will be driving on Central. After all fewer, narrower lanes in each direction will actually be able to accommodate the same number of cars as the lanes today, just at slower, safer speeds. For most of the day, speeds will likely be close to what they are today. It is primarily during rush hour that average speeds may decrease.
Nob Hill Main Street recently hired Robert Gibbs Planning Groupto do a retail health analysis of the Nob Hill retail district and the Central corridor in that area. When discussing problems with the corridor, the first statement from the report, linked here, states that “Central Avenue needs to be slowed down. The noise, nuisance, and threat to safety are a major impediment.”
Other notable aspects of the report included the portion stating that “walk-ability, both as an index and as experienced by most shoppers, is poor; sidewalks are narrow and cluttered, street crossing is difficult and dangerous.”
Recommended strategies to fix these stated problems include “slow Central Avenue to 25 mph” and “replace parking kiosks with modern ‘smart’ parking meters at each space.”
Recommended structural changes from the report included “wider sidewalks, more pedestrian crossings, more traffic lights, and public spaces” and “reduce traffic to one lane each way.”
The ART project will accomplish all of these goals.
Overall, ART will greatly improve the retail environment on Central Avenue. If I were a Nob Hill merchant, I would be working closely with the city to improve the parking situation in Nob Hill. This doesn’t necessarily mean Nob Hill needs MORE parking. Nob Hill needs parking that is that is easier to find and priced appropriately.
Lessons from Houston
The letter includes a section which recommends creating a transit line that “connect[s] properly to the grid network of N/S arterials, following the example of what Houston is currently doing.”
On the contrary, careful analysis of transit infrastructure in Houston supports the construction of a high capacity, high frequency “spine.” For those who aren’t familiar, Houston recently redesigned its entire bus transit network to be more efficient and effective. The city did it without spending a single additional cent. So far it has been a huge success and ridership has already risen. Transit planner Jarrett Walker of Human Transit led the redesign. The premise of the redesign was to build a high frequency grid—generally, high frequency means at least every 15 minutes—with the grid allowing easy transfer between the routes.
Start Where You Are
There are many reasons why the Houston project was successful. The most important fact is that Houston is home to the busiest light rail line in the country, the Red Line. Houston has built a successful transit culture because it first invested over $300 million into a high frequency, high capacity spine similar to Central Avenue in Albuquerque. You have to start somewhere and Houston’s new high frequency transit grid is built around this and other high capacity light rail lines.
The ART on Central will serve the same purpose, setting the stage for transit improvements system wide. The fact that Houston used light rail and Albuquerque is using buses doesn’t matter. The ART project will have many of the same design elements as the Houston light rail line such as dedicated transit lanes, level boarding, pre-board fare payment, the ability to roll bikes onto the vehicle, frequent service and more.
Houston is the fourth largest city in America. It experiences soul-crushing traffic and major parking challenges. Albuquerque does not experience much of this but if we continue to grow without building better mass transit, we could easily end up like Houston. Building ART is a step in the right direction towards building a city where one does not have to drive to every destination.
Building Upon Our Strong Transit Grid
The open letter notes that the ART project “appears to ignore the potential to realign the multiple, existing bus routes (many of which also use Central Ave) into a ‘grid network’ that would greatly increase connections, serve more people, and enhance ridership without increasing fleet size.”
Below is a portion of the current ABQ Ride bus route system map with an emphasis on routes that interact with East Central:
As you can see, much of the ABQ transit network is already a grid. In fact, this is one of the greatest strengths of our existing transit network! The weakness of our current transit network is the low frequency of our buses, or the fact that they don’t drive by a given stop often enough. As Walker often says, “frequency is freedom.”
To amplify the strength of our grid network, we should increase the frequency of our buses to at least every 15 minutes. Currently, most ABQ Ride routes only run a bus every 30 minutes or less. However, there are no$80 million federal grants available to pay for more frequent buses. This is something we have to finance ourselves, and we should!
The Ripple Effect of ART
The letter also notes that ABQ Ride and the ART planning process “does not view the entire metro transit system comprehensively.” Since the planning process for this project began in 2011, the scope of the project was always Central Avenue. However, 32 ABQ Ride routes intersect with Central Avenue, many of which can be seen in the map above .
Regarding North / South Connections and Improvements
The ART project is about Central. That is the reality. However, there are plans in the works for a North / South BRT line, starting at the Airport and ending in Rio Rancho. Below is an image of the proposal and here is a link to the project website.
Regarding the “N/S grid network”, ABQ already has a great transit grid; it just needs to be more frequent.
When it comes to the ABQ Ride network, we should build upon our existing grid and strengthen it by making it more frequent.
Recognizing Special Interests
There is an odd statement in the letter if you read it carefully. It mentions that “a primary feature of the [proposed alternative] system described above is that the buses run in the outside lanes, adjacent to and serving an enhanced sidewalk … discharging directly onto the sidewalk, thereby INCREASING accessibility to businesses, rather than buses traveling in dedicated center lanes with ‘island stations’…”
The statement above is filled with language that reeks of special interests, especially the statement about “INCREASING accessibility to businesses”. Walker warns against this type of language in the transit planning process. He writes:
When our elected leaders make decisions about transit, they face a noisy mix of competing interests. A senior citizen had trouble walking to a bus stop, so wants the stops placed closer together. Others want the bus stops farther apart, so that the buses run faster. A merchant wants the bus to deviate into his shopping center, to bring customers. Another merchant wants the bus out of his shopping center, because it’s bringing ‘undesirable’ people.
The letter goes on to say that “this approach would allow buses to move nearly as quickly as with the dedicated lane system…”
This simply is not true.
Putting the bus in the middle is the correct speed hierarchy. The correct speed hierarchy means faster moving traffic should be in the middle and as you get closer to the edges of the street, the speeds should go down.
The right lane is always slower because drivers are turning right onto streets, into businesses and trying to parallel park. Transit on Central will be far more successful if you put it in middle of the street. Put the fast moving bus in the middle, the medium paced traffic in the right lane and allow the on-street parking to protect the sidewalk.
Remember that statement earlier about the project being “economically feasible”? Center running stations are the essence of economic feasibility because you only have to build one station instead of two stations. Instead of one station on either side of the street, there’s one station in the middle. It cuts the cost of building stations in half.
Knowing The Project
The open letter asks “what if Albuquerque developed a transit system that became a primary attraction for citizens and tourists alike due to its’ innovation and its attractiveness, in addition to being highly functional, safe, economically feasible, and just plain fun to ride?”
The ART project actually fills much of this criteria!
No one selects transportation based on the fact that it is “just plain fun”. Transportation should be functional, intuitive and safe and the ART is also designed to fill this criteria.
As Walker points out, transit quality and therefore usage is dictated by elements such as dedicated lanes, prepaid boarding, frequency of service and quantity of stops.
Regarding the project being innovative, Albuquerque resident and frequent transit rider Bob Tilley says it best:
I know plenty of people in Nob Hill … who are looking forward to the improved transit along the Central Corridor and beyond. If you think Albuquerque is 20 years behind, not building ART will do nothing to improve that. Perhaps you think Chicago is 20 years behind also – since they just opened their first BRT. Or maybe Boston is 20 years behind since starting their Silver Line BRT (2002), or Los Angeles’ Orange Line BRT (2005). BRT has become the 21st Century choice for many cities, big and small, to improve transit at a more affordable cost.
Learn More About Transit Planning
To conclude this defense of ART, we would like to recommend the book “Human Transit” by Jarrett Walker. It’s an easy to read image filled guide to transit planning theory and if it is something you are interested in, there is no better place to start. In the meantime, you can get a quick intro to Jarrett’s work on his blog, Human Transit.
“Paseo del Volcan plan hailed as future of the west”
“Full steam ahead on ‘active’ Paseo del Volcan project”
“DOT considers proposals to ease traffic on U.S. 550”
The headlines always sound so romantic, don’t they?
Though these are all real headlines from the Albuquerque Journal about real projects, they’re selling a myth. This is part of the discussion within the #NoNewRoads campaign by our friends over at Strong Towns—an education and advocacy nonprofit working to create resilient communities through better development models. #NoNewRoads strives to transform the national transportation conversation through a nontraditional campaign (emphasis ours):
This week at Strong Towns we are going to focus our attention on the embarrassing mess that is the American system of transportation finance. Our premise here at Strong Towns has been, for some time now, #NoNewRoads, a rejection of any proposal to spend more money on this system until we undertake dramatic reform.
That position puts us at odds with advocates on the left of our political spectrum as well as those on the right. So be it. The current political paradigm is bankrupting this country … . It’s time to create a new paradigm.
Everyone loves a ribbon cutting for a new road project, but maintaining the infrastructure once it has been built is not quite as fun or exciting. Our current financing system emphasizes new construction without accounting for long term maintenance costs.
New and widened roads are subject to an economic rule known as “induced demand.” It works like this:
Road is built
Road becomes congested with traffic
Road is expanded
Once expanded, road fills up and becomes congested again
The Sisyphean cycle continues
New road space encourages more drivers to drive more often. In the meantime, lanes are expanded by sacrificing bike lane width, sidewalk width and, ultimately, quality of life on or around the road.
America has been shaped by transportation. Canals, railroads and highways have all shaped the cities and towns we live in today. The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 allowed the government to begin paving new roads with the goal of creating a network of national highways. In 1992 the Interstate Highway System was declared complete. Since that prolific era of roadway development there has been little focus on the maintenance and care for these roads. We are now a nation of potholes. Almost 300 bridges in the state of New Mexico alone are rated “Structurally Deficient”and many more bridges do not meet current design standards. We have all experienced cracked pavement, potholes and unsafe roadway designs. However, we continue to develop new roads with the mentality that our transportation culture and travel preferences have not changed since 1956.
One important conclusion to all of this is that, contrary to popular belief, you can’t build your way out of traffic. Expanding a road will never “ease traffic,” at least not in the long run. It will only move the traffic down the road another few miles. It’s a system that leads to increasingly diminishing returns. Highway expansion isn’t fundamentally wrong but it is unethical to say that a highway expansion paid for with taxpayer dollars will ease traffic when the data says otherwise.
Where It’s Happening in ABQ
The best example of a massive new highway project in the Albuquerque metro area is Paseo del Volcan. This planned freeway is so notorious that it recently made a national list titled “12 of America’s Biggest Highway Boondoggles” (it’s #10).
“Paseo del Volcan is an essential long-range need for our region. Preparing for this road now will encourage good quality, well-planned development for the west side of the region in the future. This will open up the possibility of future employers and in turn address the jobs/housing imbalance and congestion. It’s time to move this project from the back burner to the front burner.”
What exactly is good quality development and how do you define that term? It depends on who you ask. For example, what does “good quality development” look like in terms of ROI, or return on investment?
Traditional Urbanism vs. Auto-Oriented Development
Strong Towns has studied this exact question in a piece titled “The Cost of Auto Orientation”. We strongly encourage you to read the whole article but, in short, Strong Towns found that:
“…the old and blighted traditional commercial block still outperforms the new, auto-oriented development by 41 percent.”
When the folks at Strong Towns say “auto oriented,” they are talking about places like big box stores and drive-thru restaurants, such as the abundance of new Starbucks or Chick-fil-A’s we’re seeing pop up all over Albuquerque. When they say “traditional commercial block,” they are talking about areas like Central Avenue from Downtown through Nob Hill. The word “outperforms” refers to tax revenue for the respective city or town where you find these developments.
An important point is that just because the local daily and the city use lofty language—e.g. “future,” “ease,” “essential,” “quality,” and “possibility”—to hype a project, that doesn’t necessarily mean the project in mind is the best possible solution to the given problems. All the studies about Paseo del Volcan are technically right: constructing and widening roads will always create temporary jobs and when the land around the road is developed, this creates tax revenue. However, it’s still a huge waste of resources.
Building new housing subdivisions around new roads in the desert is one way to develop a city but it is extremely inefficient. Beyond that, we never allocate enough resources to maintain all of our new roads. If we did, all that new sprawl out in the desert would never be “affordable.”
Across the country and the world, there is a growing understanding that building outward forever in a suburban, automobile dependent manner is eventually unworkable. At a certain point “drive till you qualify” is a three-hour commute in each direction.
Here in Albuquerque we continue to spread out across the desert. As we grow outwards our resources are spread thinner. Our ability to invest in maintaining infrastructure is diminished. Furthermore, our local economies are diluted. Instead of building vital, dense neighborhoods we have instead designed for suburban lifestyles. This is inherently unethical, as automobile dependency forces the young, the old, the poor and many others into a lifestyle of solitude or dependency.
Instead of feeding more growth, let’s improve what we have. Let’s build a high frequency transit network and fill the gaps in our bicycle network. That way, people from the ages of 8 to 80 can safely and easily move across the entire city.
Until this is the funding and financing priority, we advocate for building #NoNewRoads.
A diverse collective advocating for a better live/work/play, healthy and equitable city for everyone!