– Dan Majewski
NOTE: Jefferson Middle School may soon fall to the bulldozers and a loop road will be constructed around the school. This proposal has been pushed through without any public process. If you have an interest in learning more about this issue or preventing it from happening, click the image above to visit HaltTheLoop.com.
On the evening of August 14, the renowned urbanist and author Jeff Speck lectured at the Hotel Parq Central. The attendees were a diverse mix of community members including city planners, developers and other interested citizens. Mr. Speck’s ability to speak candidly about the issues facing Americas urban communities was refreshing and helpful. His new book, Walkable City, outlines in detail many of the themes highlighted in his presentation. If you are interested in making Albuquerque or any city more economically sustainable and physically healthier, I strongly recommend this book. It is light on the jargon yet it clearly highlights the ingredients necessary to create cities for people.
Mr. Speck Goes to Jefferson
The next morning, I joined Jeff Speck and a couple of other community members on a tour of Jefferson Middle School. The discussion topic was a proposed loop road around the perimeter of the school. I previously wrote an article about this issue titled Why Don’t Children Walk to School Anymore? Crisis and Opportunity at Jefferson Middle School.
We arrived at the school around 8:10 AM during the peak of the morning parent drop-off rush. It was relatively tame on Girard: slow speeds, minor congestion and relatively fluid movement. Once we entered the adjacent neighborhood, the issues became more visible with high volumes of parent drop-off traffic observed. This created potentially dangerous situations for the many students and residents walking or biking on these streets.
We parked and entered the school grounds from one of the three walking paths which connect the neighborhood to the school. The loop road plan was briefly explained to Jeff and as we walked he began to draw.
Mr. Speck observed that there was very little traffic on Lomas considering it was the peak of morning rush hour. Sure enough, the traffic counts show that this segment of Lomas is overcapacity and does not need three lanes in each direction.
For comparison in the image above, observe that Central, highlighted on the bottom of the image with a black rectangle, handles almost twice the amount of traffic (31,200 cars/day) between Girard and University with only two lanes in each direction. I encourage you to play with the large full version of the traffic count map in the image above: 2011 Traffic Flows for the Greater Albuquerque Area.
In just 45 minutes, Mr. Speck quickly sketched out three alternatives to the loop road which were far superior to anything presented by APS. They are as follows, beginning with least expensive/physically easy and ending with most expensive/physically difficult:
OPTION A: Blub-Out on Lomas = Traffic Calming, Lower Speeds
This plan would be both incredibly cheap and physically easy to implement. Regarding physical infrastructure, it would only require a bulb-out (COST: ~$20,000; source) and pavement markings instructing vehicles where to stack, where to turn, etc. Compare this to the cost of the proposed loop road at $572,000. The graphic above explains Option A in detail. As written in the graphic, this segment of Lomas only averages 17,400 cars/day! This volume of traffic could easily be managed with only two lanes vs. the existing three lanes.
A major side benefit of this plan would be reduced speeds and traffic calming. One less traffic lane would give vehicles one less opportunity to pass aggressively, making it safer and easier for people to cross the street.
OPTION B: Extended Bus Drop-off Lane
According to neighborhood residents, Lomas is only serviced by four school buses. However, the bus lane is wide and if extended, could easily handle the existing four buses as well as a significant percentage of the parent pick-up/drop-off traffic. The graphic above explains this alternative in more detail. Since this option would involve extending something that already exists, the cost to build it would be much lower than the proposed loop road.
OPTION C: Tree Buffered Loop Road + Enhanced Crossings + Narrowed Pavement
This option, pictured above, would require the least amount of deviation to the existing plan. However, the enhancements discussed here would lead to a much higher quality project.
The image below was drawn by Mr. Speck. In his drawing, the proposed 24 ft. road has been transformed. Mr. Speck proposed:
12 ft driving lane +
8 ft. gravel parking lane +
6 ft. tree buffer +
6 ft. sidewalk +
6 ft. tree buffer
A 12 ft. driving lane plus an 8 ft. parking lane vs. the proposed 24 feet of pavement would mean lower speeds plus less storm water drainage issues.
The tree lined sidewalk would both reduce the heat island effect of the new road and provide a pleasant walking environment for the significant percentage of students who walk to school.
Another critical element of the Speck plan is raised crosswalks at all three of the neighborhood pedestrian cut throughs plus the two ends of the road. Below is an illustration of a raised crosswalk:
Creating Places for People
Jeff Speck saw the issues at Jefferson Middle School and quickly found cheap, easy and reasonable solutions to the current problem. Regarding Option A, Jeff Speck made this point:
If we think in isolated boxes, we are fixing a school drop off problem by creating a traffic problem. If we think synthetically, we are fixing two problems at once: school drop off and an unsafe sidewalk against speeding traffic.
This project is interesting because of the larger context. APS is one of the most influential organizations in the City of Albuquerque. If they do not have an interest in encouraging walkable environments around their schools, the whole city loses. Regarding walkability, schools and children are the lowest hanging fruit. By design, most student live in close proximity to their school, especially if it is a middle school or an elementary school. Encouraging walkability is simply good economics: parking lots and loop roads are a lot more expensive than crosswalks and bike lanes.
Jefferson Middle School has a history of students walking and biking to school. Though a significant percentage of students are now attending from outside the district, there is still plenty of opportunity to encourage walking and biking.
Since APS does not have to answer to any higher authority, they are acting in a disrespectful manner. They refuse to acknowledge all of the better options that could be used to solve the parent drop-off/pick-up problem. They want the project to be completed and for the neighbors to get out of the way.
The city has not yet granted the curb cut that Jefferson/APS needs in order to complete the road but the writing is on the wall. Within the past couple days, fences and other infrastructure have been placed, suggesting an imminent start to this project.
It is unfortunate that APS does not want to build a good relationship with its neighbors. It is a missed opportunity and it will leave behind bad blood in the neighborhood for years to come.
Come to the Albuquerque City Council meeting tonight (August 19) at 5 PM and speak up for progressive walkable urbanism in Albuquerque!