Dan Burden, San Pedro Road & the Paradigm Shift: Rebuilding the Local Economy in ABQ Through Better Design

– Dan Majewski

Dan Burden leading one of his famous "walking audits" on Constitution Road, ABQ, NM.
Dan Burden leading one of his famous “walking audits” on Constitution Road, ABQ, NM.

The recession has not been kind to Albuquerque.  Since 2008, a massive shift in consumer preferences and economic activity has left the traditional economy in shambles.  As other cities and states “recover,” Albuquerque continues to hemorrhage jobs and young, educated millennials.

Desperation Leads to Collaboration

Some would see the above statement as negative and currently, in the short term, it is.  However, it’s also an incredible opportunity.  The longer we go without a “recovery,” the more we are forced to collaborate on local sustainable solutions.  The city, UNM and CNM are finally beginning to understand this.  An example is the Innovation Central project, a collaboration between several agencies in the region.  This can been seen on the micro level as well with children moving back in with their parents.  Again, this is a potential positive: multigenerational families can share labor, ideas and collaborate more effectively.  Grandma can watch the kids while mom works.  On the flip side, mom can show grandma how to use the computer.  Most cultures operate this way and it’s a healthy way to exist.

An image from a NAIOP presentation about the mayors proposal for the Innovation Center in Downtown ABQ.
An image from a NAIOP presentation about the mayors proposal for the Innovation Center in Downtown ABQ.

Drive ’till You Qualify… For Food Stamps

I could go on, but I want to jump to a larger problem: infrastructure, specifically transportation infrastructure.  We have built a civilization that is impossible to navigate without an automobile.  This is inherently discriminatory: over 1/3 of our society cannot / does not own an automobile.  As our society ages, this problem will only accelerate.  Young, elderly, poor… a huge percentage of our society, stranded in the suburbs.

This brings me to the lessons of Dan Burden, people street specialist.  Thanks to the generous contributions from AARP, UNM, the Mid-Region Council of Governments and other partners, the Complete Streets in New Mexico Leadership Team hosted Dan Burden in Albuquerque on May 16-17.  His analysis focused on San Pedro Road and Constitution Avenue in the Fair Heights and Mark Twain neighborhoods.

Who is Dan Burden?

Dan is famous for several reasons.

  • Walking audits

The field of planning, or any field for the matter, is dominated by meetings behind closed doors in badly designed windowless buildings.  This environment leads to equally closed minds.  Dan throws all of that out the window, gathers everyone together and takes them on a walk.

On these walks, Dan uses the crowd to teach lessons.  For example, during our walking audit in the Mark Twain neighborhood, Dan used the audience to create a human traffic circle.  A car approached and drove around us, carefully and safely.  Lesson learned.  No long, complex jargon filled explanation was required.

A custom Dan Burden Human Traffic Circle, here in ABQ.  - Photo: Valerie Hermanson
A custom Dan Burden Human Traffic Circle, here in ABQ. – Photo: Valerie Hermanson

A Dan Burden walking audit is a form of street theater.  He is famous for throwing a tape measure into the street, disregarding oncoming traffic.  Dan does this to make a point, to teach a lesson and to draw attention.  He takes measurements in real time and explains why the design leads to bad behavior and points at actual observed examples.

What does this have to do with our local economy?

Let’s start with automobiles.

According to the Victoria Transport Policy Institute, regions with high level of automobile dependency experience economic detriments compared to regions with a more balanced transportation system (Source: page 6)

This is a point I have discussed in previous posts, especially in my article about Indian School: high speed traffic not only kills people, but it also destroys our local economy.

Regarding San Pedro, it is an economically depressed corridor in large part due to the ineffective and inefficient transportation infrastructure.  Mr. Burden proposed a solution.

  • Road diets
The blue line on this map highlights the segment of San Pedro which requires change.
The blue line on this map highlights the segment of San Pedro which requires change.

This is also a Dan Burden innovation.  It’s powerful because it only requires paint.  For the modest investment of $40,000 (~$15,000/mile, 2.5 miles, source: scroll to bottom of page), San Pedro can be redesigned with people in mind.

A road diet on San Pedro would take the current 4 high speed traffic lanes and convert them to 3 lanes + bikes lanes on each side.  One of the three lanes would be a center turn lane with opportunity to build medians and concrete crosswalk islands.

In addition, a road diet allows for safer and more efficient movement of automobiles.

This is a diagram of San Pedro today.  No bike lanes, narrow sidewalks and no easy way to make a left turn.
This is a diagram of San Pedro today. No bike lanes, narrow sidewalks and no easy way to make a left turn.

Here’s an example: Today, if a vehicle wants to make a left turn from San Pedro onto another street, they have to stop in the middle of traffic.  People behind them have to stop.  Sometimes, they aggressively switch to the right lane instead.  This leads to dangerous, high speed crashes.

Because of this bad design, it is difficult and dangerous to access businesses on San Pedro.

The most important thing to understand about a road diet: the stakeholders who stand to benefit the most are the business owners!  Some of the businesses owners on San Pedro are resistant towards road diets because they perceive them to be a “reduction in capacity”.  A road diet actually leads to an “increase in efficiency”.  Providing a center turn lane makes it far easier to both access businesses and move vehicles through the corridor.

Another benefit is a large reduction in speed.

Why is this so beneficial?

For Bicycles and people on foot: slower speeds = safer crossings and corridors.  A collision at a speed below 20 MPH is almost never fatal.  At 40 MPH, it’s almost always fatal.  A slower corridor is a safer corridor and a safer corridor leads to an increase in people walking and biking.

Notice how far people are walking from the curb in fear.  Vehicles frequently move at 50 MPH+ on this street, San Pedro. - Photo: Valerie Hermanson
Notice how far people are walking from the curb in fear. Vehicles frequently move at 50 MPH+ on this street, San Pedro. – Photo: Valerie Hermanson

For businesses: Dan Burden says that the ideal speed for a businesses district is 19 MPH.  At this speed, motorists have enough time to see a businesses, slow down and park.  This leads to local commerce and a more vibrant corridor.

This image shows how with the same amount of space, you can effectively move traffic and improve access for everyone.  Added benefit: the bike lane buffers the sidewalk from vehicle traffic.
This image shows how with the same amount of space, you can effectively move traffic and improve access for everyone. Added benefit: the bike lane buffers the sidewalk from vehicle traffic.

How can we, as a community, make the San Pedro Road Diet happen?

There are a few barriers to this project.  However, there is huge support for it as well.

SUPPORT: The Mark Twain and the Fair Heights neighborhoods are organized together in support of this project.  The Dan Burden event took place at Mark Twain Elementary School.  The principal of the school attended much of the workshop and he was very supportive of everything discussed.  The recently elected City Councilor for the area, Diane Gibson, attended as well.  She also stayed after the presentation to speak one-on-one to some of the louder voices of resistance in the room.

RESISTANCE: There a two primary voices of resistance against this project.  One of the voices is a collection of businesses owners along the corridor.  They feel that reducing vehicle lanes = reduction in traffic = reduction in businesses.  As we’ve read above, this simply isn’t true.  Luckily, this is a problem that can be solved through education.  It will not be easy but it’s certainly doable.

The other much louder voice comes from the City of Albuquerque Department of Municipal Development (DMD) – Traffic Engineering.  During this conference, we heard from the traffic engineers that a road diet on San Pedro was essentially impossible because of traffic counts.  They used the word “failure,” implying that changing the road in any way would cause the sky to fall.  In engineering language, the “failure” of a road means that traffic will come to a standstill.  The question I wish I had asked:

For what percentage of the day would San Pedro be in “failure”?  2 hours?  30 minutes?  5 minutes?

For most of the day, San Pedro is empty.  Based on what was said, the engineers intend to design a road that functions well for a small percentage of the day and badly for the majority of the day.  On top of this, vehicle miles driven (VMT) locally have been dropping steadily since the early 2000s and transit ridership locally has doubled in the past decade.  This trend will continue as our population ages and mass transit improvements are made.  San Pedro also has redundancy.  There are several parallel roads with space to absorb a few extra cars per day. This voice of resistance will be more difficult to defeat.  We as a community must work together to patiently educate and explain to these engineers that the decision to prioritize motor vehicles is destroying our community.  Adding safe bicycling facilities and reducing traffic speeds should be the top priorities for traffic engineers working on our local streets.  Luckily, according to Dan Burden, once a single road diet happens, the barriers crumble and they become common place across the community.

THE VISION: Below, is an idealized image of the Mile Hi District.  This is the historic name of the business cluster on San Pedro between Lomas and Constitution.  The name is the result of the elevation of this area being exactly a mile above sea level.  Restoring this historic brand will be an important part of reinventing this potential filled corridor.  Linked here are more redesign proposals for San Pedro.

The image below has it all: buffered bike lanes, nice buildings, wide sidewalks, on-street parking, etc.  The final product might not have all of these elements but we need to work as a community to include as many of these elements as we can.

THE CHANGE: It’s time to change how we think about transportation in our community.  We all gripe about how Albuquerque is a “car town” and this is the opportunity to turn things around.  If data is collected properly, this project could set the stage for a major transition in our community.  In a place with such temperate weather and 300+ days of sunshine, it is unacceptable that we are unable to walk or bike safely to most destinations.

What do you want to see on San Pedro?  This may look impossible or unrealistic but plenty of communities have accomplished projects like this.
What do you want to see on San Pedro? This may look impossible or unrealistic but plenty of communities have accomplished projects like this.

TAKE ACTION!  

Contact Councilor Gibson and tell her you support this action.  The squeaky wheel gets the grease.  If the support is more vocal than the resistant business owners, this project WILL happen.

Councilor Diane G. Gibson: dgibson@cabq.gov
Policy Analyst Chris Sylvan: csylvan@cabq.gov
Phone: (505) 768-3136

When an issue receives just 10+ emails or phone calls, it becomes a high priority one.  Send out links to this post to anyone who you feel could influence policy on this issue.

Thanks for reading and keep on pushing for positive change in your community.

8 thoughts on “Dan Burden, San Pedro Road & the Paradigm Shift: Rebuilding the Local Economy in ABQ Through Better Design”

  1. Dan—Excellent article! It represents the kind of 21st Century thinking about urban living that will have a huge impact on the quality of life in Albuquerque in the future. Thanks much for your articulate representation of Dan Burden’s work.

  2. This proposal for San Pedro is fantastic, something that the Greater Albuquerque Bicycle Advisory Committee and Duke City Wheelmen have also backed. It is also part of the 2000 City of Albuquerque Final Albuquerque Comprehensive On-Street Bicycle Plan.

    The Department of Municipal Development has many issues however that may work against implementation.

    If you want to see a bit more of what this, or any progressive movement that involves traffic in the Duke City is up against, read the open letter to Michael Riordan, DMD director. http://www.nmcycling.org/

    Bicycles are legally defined as vehicles on the road by both City and State law. If this law actually had meaning to our planners, at all levels, designing and incorporating bicycle lanes of adequate width, with adequate, safe treatment at intersections would be something done automatically, across the City and throughout New Mexico, instead of something done only after intense pressure over individual projects. Bicycle lanes are at the opposite end of the spectrum compared to an HOV lane on a freeway, but both have the characteristics in common: they are implemented to improve traffic, the environment, the livibility and the pleasure of being in a particular city.

    Jennifer Buntz
    President, Duke City Wheelmen

  3. I highly encourage the addition of buffered bike lanes, not just bike lanes alone, for future road designs. The proposed design is is a huge benefit to all parties, considering the low cost. See Rio Rancho for some good examples where this has been done (e.g. Broadmoor)

    There have been numerous studies, of late, that show the increase in both usage and safety when a fully buffered or separated facilicity is used. I follow the cycling and transportation blogs from San Francisco, L.A. , Portland, and Chicago. By comparison, the ABQ metro area lags far behind in modern transportation thinking. The Engineers here seem stuck in a time warp. Rio Rancho has done a better job but still has much to learn from these other areas.

    Is there an intial cost? Of course there is. But there’s also many examples, from the other cities, that can be drawn on to educate local business owners and Engineers as to the benefits of these designs.

    ABQ is currently at the bottom of the list in terms of attracting new businesses. Not only is there a direct benefit to the local businesses, projects like these would go a long way towards making ABQ a desired location for companies looking for new places to locate their business. These companies don’t want just cheap, but are looking for areas with good education, modern infrastructure, diverse transportation, cultural attraction, and an overall high quality of life.

  4. Great ideas! I’m contacting the Councilor and the Policy Analyst right now with emails in support of these changes.

  5. Yeah – this would be a great development for biking to Kirtland. The city “graciously” allocated Alvarado as the bike route in the area, but the road is a series of two-way stops which all work against the bicyclist, plus no light to cross Lomas safely. Turning San Pedro into a bike route would be far safer and quicker to boot (no stop signs to deal with). All that would be needed would be a better connection with the bike path along I-40. And turn arrows at Constitution and Indian School.

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