The DNA of Streets 

The makeup, bones and 'green wave' of Boise

He has been described as Q, James Bond's go-to gadget guy, and Peter Koonce laughs at the comparison.

"Yeah, right," Koonce told Boise Weekly. "Certainly, there's always a better way to do what we're doing—whether it's hyper technology or just doing things with a triple bottom line: cheaper, better and greener."

Koonce, one of the nation's premier civil engineers, spends his days using gadgets and technology to watch people move. As manager of the Portland, Ore., Bureau of Transportation Signals and Street Lights Division, he may use Bluetooth readers to scan digital signatures of drivers' devices as they zoom past or GPS technology to grab second-by-second bike trip data.

"We're always looking to putting our engineering minds in the right place," said Koonce. "And we use technology to do that, to help us anticipate change with credible data."

It is the so-called DNA of streets that fascinates him most.

"And every street's DNA is different; to a degree there are different bones in the streets: different uses, buildings, speeds. You start to think about a city street like the DNA of a human and how a street needs to be put together."

Koonce's Dec. 10 visit, urging Boise to explore the DNA of its own streets, couldn't come at a more critical time: perhaps not since Boise was first platted has there been so much conversation—sometimes heated—about the city's streets and how people move through them. Bike lanes, lane widths, roundabouts, smart meters, one-ways vs. two-ways, ACHD vs. City Hall, you name it—transportation has made more than its share of headlines in 2014.

"This event is pretty exciting because we're expecting a pretty great cross-section to participate: the cycling community, neighborhood associations, public officials, planners, engineers, students, faculty and a lot of engaged citizens," said Dr. Susan Mason, associate professor and founder of Boise State's Department of Community and Regional Planning.

"This event" is the aptly named presentation "The DNA of City Streets: Rethinking the Use of Street Right of Way," set for Boise State's Student Union the evening of Wednesday, Dec. 10, featuring Koonce's insights.

"We'll be looking at where our cities are heading, with more people coming back into urban areas," said Mason, who is organizing the gathering. "This all came about because I was listening to a local radio broadcast of the City Club of Boise, featuring the Treasure Valley Cycling Alliance and the Downtown Boise Association. It came on the heels of this past summer's trial run of having a dedicated bike lane on Capitol Boulevard and there was so much talk about public perceptions about our infrastructure. Over and over, I kept hearing we needed more education, and I thought: We can do that."

Mason spends her days teaching quantitative research and land-use and transportation planning to Boise State Masters candidates

"We have some students straight out of undergrad programs, plus professional designer and planners and planning directors in the school," she said. "So, yes, these are our planners of tomorrow."

A department colleague, assistant professor Dr. Pengyu Zhu, enthused that a good number of the Community and Regional Planning scholars have "a stronger sense of place. They look at cities in a different way," he said.

Too many lanes?

For example, once upon a time in America it was not uncommon to match growing populations with wider streets, by adding more and more lanes. In April 2011, Boise Weekly reported that the early drafts of the State Street Transit and Traffic Operational Plan (aka SSTTOP) could grow precipitously in just a couple of decades (BW, News, "SSTTOP Waits for Green Light," April 13, 2011).

"All of our figures indicate that we would need nine lanes on State Street just to accommodate our growth," said Boise senior planner Kathleen Lacey at the time. "If we don't go with expanded bus rapid transit, and if we don't get a HOV [high-occupancy lane], we would fill up nine lanes of traffic by 2035. It's unsustainable. In terms of traffic flow, we simply can't keep pace with the increase in population."

Simply put, planners were asking us to envision dropping 26,590 more cars into current State Street traffic.

A different set of logic is emerging from the planners of tomorrow.

"Transportation 101 teaches you that no matter how many lanes you add to the highway, the same amount of people will keep using the highway," said Zhu. "The elasticity of demand for street lanes is a wrong way to look at things."

Community and Regional Planning Department head Dr. Jaap Vos told Boise Weekly that he particularly loves to challenge his students to look at city thoroughfares "in a slightly different way."

"The issue to me is that we continue to purely think about streets as transportation corridors," said Vos. "The problem is that most solutions are just modifications to how we can make the street perform its transportation function better, meaning safer, more efficient. I think that all these modifications are just fine but what we really need is to rethink our streets and think about them as public spaces that have a variety of functions."

Vos says citizens and planners alike occasionally "ignore that the street is just one part of a much more complex system. The trick is to make all the pieces work together."

And Boise is learning (some might say a little too slowly) that bicycles are just as important a piece to its "complex system" as automobiles.

"Scholars are finding that those who are commuting via bicycle are under 20, but the next big group of cyclists are 40-64 years old," said Mason. "We're seeing a shift in people's willingness."

When asked what came to their minds when the term "DNA of streets" was proposed, Mason and Zhu agreed that the DNA was changing over time, from thoroughfares considered only for cars to streets that integrate more shopping, dining and public space.

"But I see it somewhat differently," said Vos. "Honestly, before I came to the U.S. [he's a native of the Netherlands], I never looked at a street as a transportation corridor. In Europe, it was a living, breathing thing. But here, it's still a corridor."

'They're tunnels'

The best (or possibly the worst) examples to consider might be Front and Myrtle streets, the five-lane corridors pushing tens of thousands of cars in and out of Boise each day.

"Those aren't streets. They're tunnels," said Vos. "When I first came to Boise, I thought Front and Myrtle were the most ridiculous thing I had ever seen. But I started realizing that they have also provided opportunities. I'm convinced that Winco and Whole Foods would never be where they are without two major transportation corridors on either side. Those are not downtown versions of Winco or Whole Foods. They're suburban models and Front and Myrtle allowed that and they played a role in getting that development."

Zhu added that it would be a huge mistake to turn either Front or Myrtle, or both, into two-way streets.

"It's critical for people to get in and out of the downtown area, to Boise State, St. Luke's or Parkcenter. Currently, it's designed in a perfect way," said Zhu. "For people in West Boise, it's their major connection between local streets and the highway."

Then Zhu mentioned something that most Boise drivers know but may not be familiar with its terminology.

"It's the 'green wave,'" he said. "It's getting all of those green traffic lights to keep moving on Front and Myrtle. It's much easier to engineer that way, especially if those streets remain one-way."

Whether those roads should be five lanes is a different debate.

"Yes, that's right. But this doesn't mean that those streets have to be that wide. I bicycle everywhere except on those streets. There has to be some room there for bicycles," said Vos. "People driving on Front and Myrtle aren't expecting a bike. They're not paying attention. They're only focused on that green wave."

All that said, Vos said he's still stunned and impressed at how engaged Treasure Valley stakeholders are on all matters transportation.

"This community is as engaged as any community I've ever seen," said Vos. "People here actually seem to care."

All the more reason to engage with Koonce as he comes to inspect Boise's DNA.

"Boise has so many assets, beginning with its trail network," said Koonce. "It's that small-town feel with big city elements, a relatively low cost of living. There are a lot of factors that make Boise even more attractive than Portland in some ways."

But Koonce is also first to acknowledge that too many Western U.S. cities, like Boise, have a love affair with their automobiles.

"We do love our cars, and Boise is not alone in this," he said. "But if any city wants to accommodate a return to its downtown, we have to rethink things, things like our DNA of our city streets."

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